Outreach

Nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.

Sandra pulled the car over to the curb. The sunset reddened the treetops but left the dilapidated row housing of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side in shadow. Women emerged from doorways, stumbled down steps, converged on the car, hands outstretched. They jostled to get close, peered into my half-opened window and cut off the light of the July evening. Voices clamored over each other, raucous as crows.

“I want …”

“Peanut butter, not tuna.”

“You got chocolate? Coke?”

The car was hot. I was wedged into the corner of the back seat by the boxes of sandwiches, drinks and “treats”. My chest tightened with fear. My first night out with DAMS. I didn’t know what the acronym stood for, something to do with drug and alcohol addicted women, but I knew I was no good at this. A middle-aged, middle-class woman handing out food and drinks to prostitutes and drug addicts?  I had dressed down for the night, jeans, a T-shirt, no jewelry, but it must have been obvious I didn’t belong. A part of me hoped it was obvious.

“Wait, wait, one at a time, give me your names first,” Mary said from the front seat. Miraculously the faces retreated. I took a breath.

A native woman with long black hair, jeans and a tight red T-shirt leaned in toward Mary. “Sammy.”

“You want any …” Mary began.

“Yeah. Condoms and a ten-pack, please.”

“Lube or non-lube?”

“Lube and some of those flavored ones, yeah, strawberry. Thanks.”

“Here, take a Bad Date Sheet.”

“No, I don’t want to know.”

Someone behind Sammy said, “I want one, I’ll take it. Shit, look at this. July 14, last weekend, just two blocks from here. Five foot ten, dark hair, two hundred pounds, driving a blue Honda Civic, beat up worker when she asked for money.”

“Yeah, that was me,” said a gravelly voice. The woman had two black eyes and a lump on the side of her jaw. She was moving as if her ribs hurt and her face shone with sweat. “Real bastard that one.”

“Jesus, Randi, did you go to the hospital?”

“Yeah. They kept me overnight but I’m okay.”

Sammy had moved to my window, her hand tapping impatiently on the door. I fumbled with a paper bag.

“Peanut butter. Yeah, juice. Can I have two?”

“Only one,” Mary said over her shoulder. “We’re just starting out and we don’t have a lot of juice.”

I glanced up apologetically, put a single juice in the bag with the sandwich, a half-frozen Starbucks muffin and a handful of individually wrapped candies, and passed it out the window to Sammy.

“Thanks.”

Randi took tuna, pop, poppy seed cake, candies.

The next woman clutched the ten-pack of needles Mary had given her. Josie – ancient and toothless with dead eyes. She didn’t speak, just pointed to what she wanted and nodded when I picked up the right thing. She took a tuna sandwich, shook her head at the candy, pointed to a can of pop.

Sandra kept up a stream of greeting and commentary as women leaned into Mary’s right hand window. Both Sandra and Mary knew many of the women by name. They worked regularly at DAMS, an organization that helped women on the Downtown East Side. I’d met them for the first time an hour ago. Sandra, the driver, was in her mid-twenties, cheerful, unruffled and apparently completely at home. Mary was a First Nations woman with long black hair and a lined face. I had the feeling that she looked older than she was, like many of the women around us. Her job was to fill in the logistics sheet and hand out the serious supplies. I got the back seat and the food and drink. I didn’t fit.

I was all thumbs with the paper bags, kept mixing the tuna sandwich box with the peanut butter, “Careful; I got allergies!” dropped candy everywhere and got more and more flustered. Finally the crowd dissipated, clutching bags, moving off. I wiped sweat from my forehead. Sandra put the car into gear.

“Did you see how banged up Randi was?” Mary said to Sandra.

“Yeah. I bet she’s not a hundred pounds. What a scumbag!”

As they chatted my breathing slowed. It hadn’t seemed so bad when we were loading up the car at the start of the night. Then before we began the regular route we drove Amy, a grim, thirty-something bottle blonde, to an out-of-the-way drug store to collect her medications. I tried not to stare at her neck, at the long, blood-encrusted cut where her boyfriend had tried to slit her throat five days ago. She was afraid to travel the streets alone because he was out on bail and looking for her. “He’s only like this when he drinks,” she said. “He hasn’t been sober since his residential school hearing three weeks ago.” She still called him her boyfriend. Mary had nodded sympathetically. But I was appalled.

Sandra guided the car slowly along Pender, her eyes scanning traffic, sidewalks, and alley entrances.

“Over there,” Mary said, jerking her head at a woman standing in the shadows. Sandra pulled up and Mary leaned out.

“Hey my girl, you need anything?”

The girl teetered out on platform shoes, her eyes unfocused. She looked about sixteen. Candy. Tiny skirt, skin tight halter top. She took some flavored condoms and a bottled water, shook her head no to food, needles, Bad Date Sheet.

“Just use the flavored ones for head, they’re not strong enough for anything else,” Mary called but Candy wasn’t listening. She pirouetted on her platform soles, head tilted back, nearly spun into the car, righted herself at the last second and lurched back into the shadows.

“She’s new,” muttered Mary as Sandra pulled into an alley. Four men huddled together in the lee of an overflowing dumpster. I looked away.

“Rat, rat,” Mary yelled. “First rat.”

I squeaked, tried to pull my feet in their open-toed sandals up underneath me.

Sandra laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s our weekly game, who can spot the most rats.”

I suppressed a groan. I didn’t belong here, couldn’t help anyone, couldn’t even keep boxes of sandwiches straight. Afraid of everything and everyone in this grimy, drug-riddled part of Vancouver. This was to be the summer I volunteered, got to know my adopted city better. I’d tried to sign on at Bard on the Beach, the Shakespearean Festival overlooking English Bay, but I was too late; all the jobs had been taken. Two days later the minister of my church had passed on a message saying DAMS wanted volunteers to help on Wednesday nights and I’d shrugged and left my name. She had hoped I’d volunteer for a minimum of six months. She was going to be disappointed.

Same alley, a block further down, a pregnant woman came silently to Mary’s door. She looked about six months along, eyes sunken in her face. Mary checked her name off, patted her hand, said “Double tuna sandwiches and double juice” over her shoulder to me. The woman took the bag and muttered her thanks.

Sandra glanced at me in the mirror. “It’s tough, the first time you see a pregnant woman down here.”

I nodded, looked out the window without seeing anything. You handed out double juice and two tuna sandwiches to a pregnant woman who worked in the sex trade because it was her best – maybe her only – way to survive. Probably an addict. What chance did that baby have? You couldn’t refuse but how was that dribble of food help?

A beautiful girl whose breasts spilled out of a low-cut turquoise T-shirt waved when we approached her corner. Tears brimmed in her eyes.

“What is it, Suzi? What’s wrong?” Mary passed her a tissue. Suzi choked back her tears and said she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two more nights on the street before she was due to go into the hospital for surgery. Mary was silent. My hands crept protectively toward my own chest, just as they did a year ago when my aunt had a mastectomy.

“We’ll pray for you,” Mary said at last. First mention of prayer. It wasn’t a religious organization.

“Can I have some water?” Suzi said to me. I groped for the bottled water. “I’m so glad I saw you tonight,” she added to Mary, who nodded but didn’t speak.

A block later Mary found her voice. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You try so hard just to survive and then you get clubbed by something you can’t see coming. She’s not even thirty.”

My breath seized up without warning. My husband had died unexpectedly of cancer six months after we married. I’d been thirty-nine. I hadn’t had a drink for three years after that. Just instinct, not logic, but it served me. The Downtown East Side people must have had a lot more pain. Maybe they ignored their instincts; maybe they couldn’t go on without pain-killers.

On Clark Street, we stopped when a woman waved from a doubled over position. She was taking off her running shoes and jamming brutally high heels on her feet. The arthritic joint in my big toe throbbed. I had to give up high heels at forty.  A moment later she tottered over to the car and accepted a peanut butter sandwich and juice along with a ten-pack of needles. She shook her head when I offered her a power bar.

“Got anything soft? That’s too hard on my teeth.” Several were missing. She looked tired. I offered a couple of caramels.

“These would be alright if you suck them,” I said. There was a muffled sneeze in the front seat. When Sandra drove on, Mary turned round to face me, wheezing with laughter.

“Never say ‘suck’ to a hooker. That word’s only got one meaning here on the street and it sure as hell ain’t about caramels. Jeeze.” She laughed so hard Sandra turned into a service station for an unscheduled pee and cigarette break.

“What brought you out tonight?” Mary asked, when she came back from the washroom and lit a cigarette. I couldn’t hear any sarcasm.

“Church minister wanted volunteers. I’ve lived in Vancouver for five years but I’ve never got down here. I thought it was time.” Time to step out of my protected little nook. Bleeding heart liberal, me. But what’s the alternative? Go shopping? Pretend it’s not happening?

“You got any connection at all to this kind of life?” She leaned against the outside of the car door and blew cigarette smoke into the night without looking at me.

“No, not really. My sister is a foster child. She came to live with us when she was fourteen. I was eighteen but I was away at – I wasn’t living at home. I got interested in the Children’s Aid then, worked there for a couple of summers.” I’d caught just a glimpse of what could happen to children who weren’t loved, weren’t protected.

“I was fifteen when my kid got taken away by the Children’s Aid. My boyfriend dumped me at Hastings and Main and went back to Saskatchewan. It took me twenty years to get clean and off the street. I haven’t seen my kid though. She knows where I am but …” Her voice was level but I imagined the accusation in it. And the pain. There can’t be anything worse than losing a child, unless it’s a child being abandoned. Mary had experienced both. Where had she found the strength to get clean?

Sandra came back from the washroom and we headed out again.

We drove past a billboard with a black and white photo of a woman who stared out with expressionless eyes. Have you seen this woman, the caption read. Reported missing in April. There was a number to call. I stared up at the blank gaze until the billboard was out of sight, but the face haunted me. No hope, no anticipation, just endurance.

“When did we last see her?” Mary asked Sandra.

“She was at the Christmas dinner. I think we saw her a couple of times in the winter.”

“Still some Robert Picktons around,” Mary said. Sandra nodded. I shivered though the car was warm.

By ten thirty only a few “treats” were left in one box. Sandra had spotted nine rats to Mary’s five when an angry voice at the end of the alley silenced them.  A security guard in a car hurled abuse at two teenage girls who stood still and watchful.

“Nickel sluts, take your drugs and die, I’ll even buy them for you.” His voice was raw with hatred. I recoiled in the back seat as Sandra stopped, making it obvious there were witnesses. He kept screaming, so she wrote down his license plate, and the name and phone number of the security company, from the side of his car. Mary got out of the station wagon. Despite her age and her skinny legs, she looked menacing.

“Don’t you speak to these women like that,” she growled. “They aren’t doing anything.”

“They won’t move,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want them killed, get them out of here.”

Sandra leaned out of her window. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure they find another spot. You go.”

But it took Sandra, Mary and a male passerby on the street ten minutes to persuade him to drive off, while I cowered amid the empty cardboard boxes in the back seat. We could still hear him yelling as his car disappeared. Only then did the girls turn and move down the alley.

“That man’s got no right to treat people like that. I’m gonna report him.” Sandra turned the station wagon into the parking place as my heart rate slowed.

“Seventy-six women.” Mary handed Sandra the logistics sheet. “Kind of a slow night.”

We unloaded the empty boxes, cleaned the car, put the supplies away and secured the office. I felt exhausted.

 

At midnight, knowing I wouldn’t sleep, I took a beer out to the patio of my apartment. Depression, like a dead weight, dragged down my shoulders. The night was pleasantly warm, nothing like the suffocating July heat I remembered in Toronto. I heard a siren a long way off. Downtown East Side or some wealthy suburb? I couldn’t tell. Thought of my sister, now a successful lawyer in Toronto. Sometimes when she first came to live with us, I’d seen contempt in her eyes for my naïveté, but she never said anything out loud. At eighteen, I’d had this straight, supportive, middle-class upbringing, never even seen my parents fight, let alone drink too much. I believed in love and peace, democracy and equality, all the values of the decade. In the inherent goodness of people. Did I still? I wasn’t sure. I knew now that pain could warp the strongest person. At eighteen I wasn’t prepared for child care work in Toronto. And at sixty I wasn’t ready for the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.

I survived that first summer job with the CAS by reminding myself that the money was good and the experience would add serious depth to my resume. But as sweat dripped from my forehead and trickled down between my breasts every day on my way to work, I yearned for the cool gray lake in Algonquin Park where I’d spent the summer before. It had been more than forty years since that Toronto summer but I could remember the stifling heat, the damp patches darkening my clothes, the misery of the Receiving Centre, the two-story, two building residence that housed the displaced children of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society.

I worked with the younger girls, five to eleven-year-olds but I knew the others because everyone shared the fenced yard out behind the two buildings. I wouldn’t have coped in the other units. The boys were so full of energy they whizzed around like deflating balloons and I was scared stiff of the teenage girls, only four or five years younger than me, but tougher than anyone I’d ever met. They were blatantly sexual, verbally violent and never backed down from a physical fight. I’d hear them yelling at passersby from the upstairs window, knew they sometimes flashed the street if the staff were busy somewhere else. I felt like a middle-aged virgin around them.

If I’d ever imagined my fourteen-year-old foster sister might have been like them I’d have said a flat no when my mother called me at university to say she and Dad were considering taking in a foster child and what did I think. What I said was the first thing that came into my head. “Is she going to have my room?”

“No, no, of course not,” my mother said. So I was on the hook. How do you say no when your parents propose helping out someone who is disadvantaged? I’d had everything given to me and now I was away at university nine months a year. Fortunately Marg turned out to be bright, civil enough and watchful. She kept her knowledge of the violent, alcohol-fueled family she’d come from to herself.

I remembered only the occasional face from the Receiving Centre now. Susan, a silent fourteen-year old, who always wore long-sleeved T-shirts, regardless of the temperature. She was due to testify to her father’s sexual abuse. Under her sleeves she was pushing straight pins into her veins. The staff only found out when someone glimpsed the long red streaks of blood poisoning as she was dressing.

I remembered a small boy with dull eyes and vivid carrot-colored hair, and the day that all the other little boys pissed on his head in a corner of the yard. “His hair’s on fire and we had to put it out,” they said.

I remembered Cheryl, an exquisite six-year-old, long charcoal lashes, blue eyes, sun-streaked brown hair; Cheryl would pull down the fly of any male staff within her reach. She’d been sexually abused too. I remembered Debbie, beseeching brown eyes, a hopeful expression and scars all over her legs and buttocks. Her mother had tortured her on the stove top. I was the first staff member she met the day she arrived at the Receiving Centre from the hospital and she’d imprinted on me like a duckling, followed my every move, watched me with agonizing hopefulness every shift I worked. I could hardly bear to look at her.

When I returned to work there the next summer they’d all moved on. Susan had been sent back home after refusing, finally, to testify against her abuser in court. Debbie had been murdered. I knew nothing about the others.

Maybe they were happy, married and successful like my sister but it seemed unlikely. Probably they were out on streets like the Downtown East Side, or in jail. Or dead, like Debbie. The women I’d seen tonight would have had similar stories. And I – I had pushed Debbie, Susan, Cheryl and the little red-haired boy out of my mind for forty years. I was retired, still healthy, with my own apartment and good food in my fridge. I tilted my aching head and let the rest of the beer trickle down my throat.

I’d have to go back.

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Canadian Politics

Neil Young is my new best friend.

I would love to believe that I can make a difference by myself but I’ve been writing letters on environmental issues ever since hearing Andrew Nikiforuk speak about the Tar Sands development at the Sunshine Coast Writers Festival several years ago. Listening to him I realized that I was retired, literate and had time to write letters to politicians so I should. I’ve been writing letters ever since, mostly about the environment, and I have yet to see any evidence at all that anyone is listening.

But let the singer of A Heart of Gold stand up and say what I’ve believed for years and Canada pays attention. Yes! I’m a happy Canadian this week.

Plus, Neil Young is not just speaking. He’s raising money so the people living downstream from the Tar Sands can challenge the government in the courts. Perhaps the high rate of bile duct cancer in these communities will actually register on the Canadian radar. Perhaps doctors and scientists will be able to testify in court. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the Canadian and Albertan governments had to take some responsibility for the situation they have actively been encouraging all these years?

 

Neil Young continued –

It is interesting to see and hear how many people are outraged at Neil Young’s comments on the Alberta Tar Sands and the plight of the Athabasca Chipewyan Indians living downstream. He may have visited the area, talked to natives but he might have got a fact wrong! Worse, some people might listen to him. Come to think of it, it is outrageous that one aging rock star has more credibility than our federal government and its best friends, the Oil Magnates.

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B.C. Election May 14, 2013

 

Sometimes democracy fills me with despair. How can a party like the B.C. Liberals (who are not, in any sense of the word, liberal) come from twenty points behind based on a campaign that struck a single note many times a day for a month: the economy.

Christie Clark attacked the NDP based on its performance more than ten years ago. She blithely ignored her own party’s performance: its dismal failure to create jobs, its lack of concern about the environment, her own wavering on oil pipelines and tankers (in which she has more or less agreed to countenance their presence if she gets enough money), the scandals, the flip-flopping on the HST. (Unfortunately the NDP ignored it too. They were trying to run a positive campaign based on issues.) Clark ran around the province in her hard hat, posed with bewildered children, grinned manically into every camera and sowed fear around the NDP.

And the province bought it.

We’ll never see a positive campaign based on issues again.

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The Met: Live in HD: Rigoletto

“Maestro to the pit, please. Maestro to the pit.”

The house lights go down. The audience quiets and then applauds as conductor Michele Mariotti moves through the orchestra and bows. A brief word and handshake with the head violinist and the orchestra bursts into the opening of Rigoletto.

It’s Saturday afternoon at the Met in New York. The original production was broadcast via satellite to movie theatres in sixty-four countries in six continents around the world. This is a repeat. In Vancouver, it’s 9 a.m. and I’m clutching a coffee and hoping I can stay awake for the first act. I have yet to remain 100% alert early Saturday mornings in the darkness of the theatre, where people sing passionately in a foreign tongue about absurd and improbable events that overtake them.

I’m not the most obvious person to show up at the opera. My experience is extremely limited; my aunt dragged me to my first one in 2008, after learning to her horror that I’d never attended one. “I’ll pay,” she said firmly.

“But the expense!” I said. Operas are for the ridiculously wealthy, the snobs, the privileged elite; everyone knows that. Never mind that my aunt is none of those. You should love the music before you pay those prices and I don’t listen to opera music. But it turned out she was offering a ticket to The Met: Live in HD in Canada. Only $22.00. So I submitted and accompanied Aunt Jane, her daughter and granddaughter to Madama Butterfly by Puccini. Twelve-year-old Emma is a senior in terms of opera knowledge. Apparently she had an opera-mad teacher in Grade 4. She’d seen almost as many operas as she had years. I felt like a Cretin.

Before it all began, I scanned the plot summary in the dimly lit theatre and scoffed.

“You can’t be serious! This is ridiculous.”

But then the music started. By the midway point in Act 2 I was convulsed with grief. Butterfly had fallen in love with an American, Pinkerton, who had gone through a form of marriage and left. She had given birth to a son, (a wooden puppet that turned out to be incredibly moving. Why? I had no idea). She was sure Pinkerton would come back, her singing filled with yearning and hope as she defied her ancestors and the people who tried to suggest she might be disappointed. Faith and trust were clearly going to be destroyed. All through the theatre the audience wept. Then Butterfly had to give her son up to the American father who had deserted them both and married another woman, one from his own country. She killed herself. I cried so much it took me three days to recover.

For my aunt it’s the music that’s important. She rarely bothers much about the plot. Even the subtitles aren’t important to her. She listened to opera endlessly in her childhood and the voices take her back in time and speak to her soul. Traditional opera buffs claim the subtitles detract from the music and shouldn’t be necessary but that’s not my experience. I need the story line, the acting and the costumes to engage me. But the music does draw me into the most unlikely plot lines. When I find myself in floods of tears on a Saturday morning at the opera, it’s the music that’s done it.

What is it about the music? Somehow it seduces us; we suspend our disbelief and enter into a world of huge passion, violent action and archetypal characters. Situations that we would normally dismiss with a contemptuous sniff leave us charged and vibrating with feeling by the mid-way point. If daily life leaves us numb and barricaded against the constant flood of information, opera breaks down the dikes and submerges us in sound, passion and colour. When the nuances of a voice convey so much emotion that the listeners feel that same emotion surging in their own cells, something extraordinary is happening.

Madama Butterfly was my first opera. Since then I’ve seen Carmen, Aida, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot and Tosca. Sometimes I hear a tune I recognize, like Nessun Dorma in Turandot or the Overture to Carmen and then the hairs on my neck rise and I disappear in the music. Otherwise it may take until the second or third act before I’m overwhelmed.

Today Verdi’s Rigoletto is set in 1960 in Las Vegas. The producer, Michael Mayer is a young, Broadway musical producer but this is his first run at the Met. It was his brainwave to update this production to 60s Las Vegas. It’s been nicknamed “The Ratpack Rigoletto” because it brings to mind Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. complete with mob connections, showgirls and glitzy casinos. Some opera fans are going to be dubious about the modernization, but this is my first Rigoletto so I’m captured. Bright lights, cards, dice, a blackjack table, slot machines, an erotic looking neon wine bottle pumping froth into a champagne glass, chorus girls preening and prancing in exotic bird costumes, slick men in tight pants, the Duke, gorgeous in a white dinner jacket singing alongside nearly naked dancers with ostrich fans and the translations in 60’s slang: “My sights are set on a swinging girl/So hop on baby, let’s take that whirl.” The married Duke makes a pass at a Marilyn Monroe look-alike in front of her husband, who is mocked by Rigoletto, the Duke’s cynical funnyman. Piotr Beczola sings the part of the womanizing Duke with enough sexual energy to wake up and heat up a 9 a.m. crowd in a dark theatre. I don’t fall asleep. I’m riveted.

Zeliko Lucic plays Rigoletto, traditionally a hunch-backed court jester, now the Duke’s comic sidekick. His heavy shoulders are more rigid than hunched. He’s the one man not wearing a glitzy dinner jacket; he’s lumbered with an argyle cardigan to suggest that he’s an outsider, separate from the rest of the Duke’s entourage, and we learn that the others don’t like him because of his waspish tongue. Lucic’s voice is incredible, as he makes cruel fun of the husbands whose wives and daughters the Duke has seduced. It’s only later when you see Rigoletto with his own daughter Gilda, sung by Diana Damrau, that a more sympathetic side of him emerges. She’s his treasure, the only family he has, and he’s determined to protect her from the evils of Las Vegas. She is in fact the only innocent in the whole opera. She loves her father, even though she feels smothered by his protectiveness. Their father-daughter duet is tender and loving and believable. Damrau may not look as young as Gilda should be but her acting is terrific. When she’s singing of the man she saw in church, the only place she’s allowed to go, she flutters like the eighteen year old she is supposed to be. She giggles through the high notes (how is that even possible?), unlocks her diary to write the name of the “poor student” who has caught her heart. In fact, it’s the Duke who is her church-going seducer.

The governess, who fails to protect Gilda when the Duke drops cold hard cash into her outstretched hand, is a hoot; big hair, gum, a cigarette and a bored expression as Rigoletto sings to Gilda about the mother she can’t remember.

The plot may be as improbable as most operas seem to be, but it moves inevitably toward tragedy. Innocence is going to be corrupted and love destroyed. Rigoletto jeers at other men whose daughters have been dishonoured, until his daughter is first abducted by the Duke’s entourage who think she’s Rigoletto’s mistress, and then seduced and shamed by the Duke. Rigoletto swears vengeance, despite Gilda’s pleas for forgiveness for the Duke, regardless of his perfidy. It’s clear even to the uninitiated (me) that this isn’t going to end well.

Rigoletto buys the services of the utterly convincing hit man, Sparafucile, played by Stefan Kocan, who is dark, menacing and as thin and dangerous as his switchblade. Sparafucile cracks his knuckles louder than the orchestra plays and when he sings his voice plummets to cavernous depths. Whether lounging on a bar stool or stabbing his victim in the back, he very nearly steals the show. Sparafucile owns a seedy club and pimps out his pole-dancing sister Maddelena to lure the Duke into his lair. However Maddelena, like other women, takes a fancy to the over-sexed duke. She wants Sparafucile to spare him. After a brief argument, Sparafucile agrees to knife an alternate if one shows up on this stormy night. Cue blue and white neon lights, thunder and a loud knock at the door. It’s Gilda, disguised in a raincoat and fedora to leave the city but determined to save the life of the man she loves, even at the cost of her own. Sparafucile stabs her and bundles her body into the trunk of a vintage Cadillac. When Rigoletto returns with the last payment, he hears the Duke singing after bedding Maddelena, and discovers his daughter has been knifed instead. Gilda isn’t quite dead and the final father daughter duet is heartbreaking.

The capacity crowd at the Met goes wild and all the principals get the standing ovation they deserve. Rigoletto is a triumph.

The professional reviews are mixed; most agree the singing is spectacular but a few dislike the young orchestra conductor, Michele Mariotti, who is making his debut with Rigoletto; they claim he gives the singers too much leeway. Some of the sour critics are clearly traditionalists, who question the modern setting and mutter about the 60s slang. However the audiences have been hugely enthusiastic.

The Met: Live in HD doesn’t have the cachet of live opera. But for a cash-strapped person, or one new to opera, it does provide a wonderful opportunity to learn about the art at a low cost. The acting is sometimes as good as the singing, and the singing is incredible. The Met attracts the best in the world. The audience has the opportunity to see the singers in close up; they’re not the tiny singing puppets they would be in the unlikely event I ever got to the opera house in person. As a bonus, you see backstage at the Met with the astonishing set changes in between the acts and mezzo soprano Renee Fleming interviews the director and the principal singers. The cost of the tickets can run as high as $350, but that no longer seems outrageous to me. The work, the musicians, both singers and orchestra, the amazing costumes and sets, the huge number of men and women who work behind the scenes, must put opera costs into the stratosphere. Ticket prices pay less than half those costs.

How does opera justify itself in this day and age? Extraordinary voices, phenomenal cost, an old art form, usually in Italian, German or French, not terribly accessible for most people, although The Met: Live in HD breaks down that barrier to some extent. My experience from seeing a scant handful of productions via film is that the sweep of orchestra, voice, acting and spectacle evokes a depth of emotion that nothing else does. There’s a wild gorgeousness to opera that takes the breath away and becomes its own justification.

Compared to hockey or movies, opera is elitist in that it attracts a much smaller audience, depends on people who have wealth, prestige and power to support it, as well as government subsidies. But cities that have sports, libraries, independent book stores, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, theatres and an opera company are cities that lift us up above our ordinary lives. They are cities rich in culture and opportunity for youngsters growing up. Cities to live in, or to be applauded and visited if you live elsewhere. If they can send some of their culture out, as the New York Met does via satellite, it’s terrific.

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A String of Pearls

 

Last night I saw a short television spot on the animals in the local Humane Society. Within seconds I was in tears. The program lasted all of ten minutes. I cried for half an hour. Am I incurably sentimental? Hormonally challenged? I don’t think so. I think I’m experiencing old grief.

No one tells you about the gritty underside of grief. They think they do, in the achy breaky, hurting songs of failed relationships, that transcend the pain with rhythm or humour or beauty, but nothing can describe the daily damage of living with grief.

Sometimes people don’t know what they’re feeling at the time because they don’t have permission. My parents were really invested in happy children. When pets died or we moved, I saw that my parents couldn’t cope with my feelings of loss. I tried not to make it harder for them; I cried in secret and swallowed my tears as much as I could. They thought and I imagined, that I was dealing with sadness well. But years later when I see lost or abandoned animals on TV, I weep for Fluffy, Goldie, Frisky, Robin and a host of other childhood losses. Grief doesn’t go away because we repress it. It’s in our bones.

The good news is that grief diminishes with time, although it diminishes with agonizing slowness. The bad news is you have to go through it. It can’t be boxed up permanently. The other news is, the world will never be the same. With the first loss we lose our innocence. Eventually it becomes clear that everything goes, pets and people, parents, friends, lovers and children. That’s life’s guarantee: we’ll lose everything. They die, we die.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross points out that loss can take us into adulthood. Perfectly true, only I didn’t want to be adult. I wanted to stay young, happy and safe. I was twenty-eight when my mother died at fifty-two. She’d been in a coma caused by a brain tumour for nearly two weeks; her death was a release, not a surprise. What was a surprise, though, was the change in our family dynamic once she’d gone. I hadn’t realized until then that my mother was the heart of the family, the sun at the centre of its universe. Without her strong gravitational pull, the rest of us were mere planets, spinning further and further away from each other. By the time my father remarried, nine months after her death, we seemed more like polite acquaintances than the close-knit family I had known. So in losing my mother I lost my sense of place, the feeling of coming home, of belonging, of family. I inherited guilt with the grief too, because I’d never known how important my mother was to the whole until after she died.

There was no family dynamic to lose when my husband died. We had no children, only each other. But I learned, in the months and years following his death, that everything that had once been important to me, the shreds of my birth family, my friends and my work, no longer mattered. I couldn’t “live” for any of them and I wasn’t interested in living for myself. I tried, until every day was more exhausting than the day before and I could barely get out of bed. I found a therapist and assumed that I must be getting better as the months passed, even though I still walked through my days like a robot.

Four years later I decided it was past time to scatter his ashes, which had been sitting in a box on a bookshelf ever since the week after the funeral. On a sunny summer day I drove north and hiked along the Bruce Trail until I found a high place overlooking Georgian Bay, where we had spent wonderful days hiking, camping, swimming and sailing in our eight years together. I sat down on the rocks with the container of ashes in my lap. A warm wind blew through a forest of green pines, cedars and poplars below me. The water shone blue and restless beyond the trees. I opened the black plastic box. Then I froze.

What I wanted to do was to strip off my clothes, lie naked on the rocks in the sunshine and upend the box of gritty gray granules over me, inhaling the dust, absorbing the grit. I wanted him, on top of me, inside me, in my hair and eyes and in every sweaty crease in my body. I wanted to roll in what was left of him so thoroughly that his essence could never be washed away. I wept as I hadn’t wept in months, convulsed with grief.

After an hour or so I calmed down enough to tip the ashes into the trees below me. But the moment wasn’t the completion I had imagined. It was a marker of how little I had moved on. The ashes were scattered but the grief remained just under the skin of my life.

Eventually I left my life in Canada and moved to the Findhorn Foundation, a New Age spiritual community in northern Scotland. It’s a place where people are open, accepting and compassionate. I lived there for nearly six years, confronting all the feelings that I’d denied most of my life. By the time my visa had ended and I returned to Canada I could feel that the bits of grit from the past that I’d imagined clinging to me forever, had become pearls. The natural kind, lumpy and irregular, but my own. Grief and denial have become acceptance, understanding and maturity. I wear those “pearls”, like a necklace, without regret. I value my life. Grief does change, and we change with it. Now I’m aware of the winter to come and every day feels like autumn, full of colour and light and beauty.

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B.C. Election May 14, 2013

 

Sometimes democracy fills me with despair. How can a party like the B.C. Liberals (who are not, in any sense of the word, liberal) come from twenty points behind based on a campaign that struck a single note many times a day for a month: the economy.

Christie Clark attacked the NDP based on its performance more than ten years ago. She blithely ignored her own party’s performance: its dismal failure to create jobs, its lack of concern about the environment, her own wavering on oil pipelines and tankers (in which she has more or less agreed to countenance their presence if she gets enough money), the scandals, the flip-flopping on the HST. (Unfortunately the NDP ignored it too. They were trying to run a positive campaign based on issues.) Clark ran around the province in her hard hat, posed with bewildered children, grinned manically into every camera and sowed fear around the NDP.

And the province bought it.

We’ll never see a positive campaign based on issues again.

The Rocky Road To Compassion

 

On Wednesday night this week I went with a friend to hear Karen Armstrong talk about her latest book, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life. I was inspired, not only because she spoke well and I believe compassion is essential, but because she was like me in some ways: impatient, judgmental, a perfectionist and sometimes overwhelmed by the stupidity and sadness and stuckness of the people and politicians of the world. Nonetheless she works daily to become more compassionate. I bought the book as I left, read the preface on the bus on the way home and decided I, too, would work to become a compassionate person.

On Thursday the Federal Government brought down its budget. Less draconian than the pre-budget whispers predicted, it nonetheless, in the words of Judy Rebick, “throws young people and the environment under the bus, with the CBC not far behind.” My resolution to be compassionate person hit the wall with an almighty bang.

In speeches, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has compared environmentalists to terrorists, particularly those environmentalists who oppose his planned pipeline to bring oil from the Tar Sands in Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., where it can be shipped by tanker through some of the most dangerous waters and pristine environment in the world, to China. In the budget, he arranged to short-circuit the environmental review process for all such projects.

(Self-disclosure: I oppose the planned pipeline from the Tar Sands to Kitimat.)

Despite his government’s pledge to maintain funding for the CBC, Stephen Harper has been systematically eroding their budget ever since he came to be Prime Minister. In this budget, the funds have been cut by 10% and no one believes or even pretends to believe that this is the last cut. Stephen Harper has always made it clear he despises the press in general and CBC in particular. After all, their reports examine his policies critically (although not nearly enough, in my opinion).

(I listen to CBC Radio daily.)

By delaying the Old Age Security payments by two years, to begin down the road, Stephen Harper encourages the elderly to continue to work. If you live longer, you need to work longer. It sounds reasonable, except for the high number of graduates from universities who cannot get jobs because older people are postponing retirement. It is simply wrong, as well as far more costly, to penalize the young in order to delay giving OAS payments to the elderly.

(I am sixty-two now, so my OAS will begin at sixty-five.)

I think this budget, like our Prime Minister, is mean-minded, small-souled and vindictive.

So I really have to dig to find some compassion. All I’ve managed so far, is an attempt to feel grateful that the Prime Minister makes no attempt to be hypocritical.

I’ll read Chapter One of Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life today, remembering that Karen Armstrong did say it was a lifetime project.

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Experience Week

Experience Week – Day One

On a cool Saturday in July I got out of the taxi at Cluny Hill College, the Forres campus of the Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland. I stood still for a moment, looking about. Cluny was a large, dignified gray building set into a tree lined hill, facing south. Gardens stretched down the hill to a hedge. Beyond that lay a narrow lane and a golf course.

I’d visited the Findhorn Foundation once before, a year ago, when I came to see my cousin and her new husband. That had been at the original location in The Park, five miles away. But the workshop I’d signed up to take on this visit, Experience Week, was held here at Cluny Hill.

I’d booked this week because I’d felt a flicker of interest a year ago in a program called ‘The Game of Transformation’ and hoped to reconnect with my cousin and her husband. But Kate and Evan had left the Foundation to return to Canada a month before I got there, so I was on my own. Experience Week seemed to be a pre-requisite for everything else, so I’d reluctantly postponed The Game of Transformation workshop.

People were coming and going from the front door, singly and in groups, many hugging each other. I felt myself contract. The truth was I was still struggling with the grief and despair of widowhood. Paul had been dead four years and I felt completely disconnected from life. Work, friends and family meant almost nothing now. At the same time, widowhood had turned me into an emotional minefield. I longed to return to the logical, intelligent, pragmatic person I’d once been. It was harder, when I was face to face with people who were emotionally open and demonstrative.

I had researched the Findhorn Foundation before booking this workshop and learned that one of the three founders, Dorothy Maclean, was Canadian, that she, along with Eileen and Peter Caddy had ended up out of work and living in a trailer park near Findhorn Village with the Caddys’ three young sons in the early 1960s. They established a vegetable garden to supplement their diet and used ‘guidance’, obtained through daily meditation, to grow unusually large vegetables in spite of the sandy soil. They called it ‘co-creation with Nature’. Skeptics and scientists tried and failed to find a logical explanation for the success of the vegetables. Over time, a small, diverse community developed. In the mid-seventies, an American, David Spangler, created Experience Week, a program to introduce guests to the community and its principles. By 1992, the Findhorn Foundation, as it was called, had become one of the oldest and most respected New Age communities in the world, and hosted thousands of visitors a year.

Big vegetables. This seemed utterly bizarre to me but less and less in my life was making sense at this point anyway. Kate had said the Findhorn Foundation was a place of transformation. God knows, my life needed transforming. I picked up my suitcase and walked to the front door.

Two people greeted me in the Registration area, a forty-something auburn-haired woman named Janette and Tony, a beautiful man with black hair and golden hazel eyes, young enough to be one of my students.

“So you’re doing Experience Week?” he said, smiling.

“Well, what I really wanted was the Game of Transformation, but I understand Experience Week has to come first.”

“No, the Game stands on its own. There’s no prerequisite.”

I stared. “Really? Well, I guess – I’ve made a mistake. Can I do the Game instead?”

“Sorry, no. It doesn’t run every week. The next one is in August.”

How could I have misread the brochure? Been so stupid? Frustration flared inside me. Other people were waiting to register. I bit my lip. “Okay, Experience Week. Give me the form.”

After I’d finished the paperwork, Janette gave me a quick tour. I saw the lounge, the dining room, the shop and the sanctuary before she showed me the room I’d been assigned. My two roommates hadn’t arrived yet.

“We meet in the Beechtree Room at two this afternoon,” she said.

I dropped my suitcase on a bed and moved to the six foot high bay window that overlooked the garden and the golf course. Clouds dotted the sky and the sun shone.

 

At five minutes to two, I came into the Beechtree Room. It, too, had a massive bay window looking south. A circle of chairs stood in the middle of the room, with a pillar candle in a dish of lavender and sweet peas in the centre. There were flowers everywhere at Cluny, obviously from the garden. I sat close to the window. By this time I’d met my roommates, Katherine from France and Edith from Germany. Lunch in the large, sunlit dining room had been soup and salads, depressingly healthy.

Slowly other people filed in and sat, mostly in silence. Janette and Tony looked around the group and smiled in welcome.

“Turn your right palm up and your left down,” said Janette, demonstrating, “and extend them to the people on either side. That way you receive the group energy with your right and pass it on with the left. Hold hands and close your eyes while we attune to the group.”

This was so New Age that I bit my lip to keep from growling.

“Experience Week is meant to introduce you to the Foundation and its principles, show you how community develops within the group and give you a chance to explore your own spirituality,” Tony said.

 I stared down at the floor. I hadn’t liked God since my mother’s death. I hadn’t crossed the threshold of the church since Paul’s funeral and I didn’t want to explore my spirituality. I shifted in my chair, trying to relax my shoulders.

“You’ll have opportunities most evenings to share in the group. That’s a part of developing community. We encourage openness and transparency. Whatever you feel is fine, as long as you own it, take responsibility for yourself and don’t take your moods out on others. We work on unconditional love. That’s a path, a discipline, and it’s hard, but it’s a goal.”

Share. Christ. What did I have to share? I couldn’t talk about Paul or my loneliness as a widow without crying, which I was not going to do. What else was there? This was a nightmare.

The group was big, twenty-four with Janette and Tony, and varied. We ranged in age from eighteen to mid-fifties. There were five men and nineteen women, from a huge range of countries, Japan, Brazil, the United States, South Africa and nearly every European country. I was the only Canadian. Janette was Scottish and Tony Italian.

It was a long afternoon. After we’d heard a lot of general information about the place, we introduced ourselves.

“I came to meet my cousin and her husband, who were living here, but they’ve gone. I wanted to do the Game of Transformation but made a mistake and I can’t. So I’m here, in this group.” I looked around the circle. “But I’m sure it will be an interesting week.”

There was no program that night so I joined Katherine and Edith for a sauna. Tony had told us that bathing suits weren’t needed and we’d find sauna towels in the changing room. Clad in orange towels, we stepped into the small, dim, wood lined sauna. A woman was just leaving as we entered. A stark naked woman. Three men sat on the higher bench, not wrapped discreetly in their towels, but sprawled carelessly, nakedly, on top of them. I felt my jaw drop. Katherine and Edith scrambled up, sat down cross-legged on their towels and greeted the men cheerfully. For a moment I clutched my towel to me, paralyzed with shock. Then I crept into the shadowy corner of the lower bench, where the temperature was only moderate, drew my knees up to my chin and closed my eyes.

Was this what they meant by transparency?

After fifteen, lukewarm moments alone on my lower shelf, I was considering a hot shower, when one of the men dropped down to my level. He was gleaming with sweat and he was circumcised. I knew just how little Miss Muffet must have felt.

“You are also in Experience Week, ja?” he said. “I am Klaus.”

“Umm – Leslie,” I said weakly. He smiled.

“I think it will be a goot workshop.”

“Umm humm.” Nakedness in the context of relationship was one thing; nakedness among strangers was something completely different. I went for the shower.

 

Day Two

On Sunday morning we assembled in the Sanctuary for an “Angel Meditation.”

Tony laid a circle of small cards face down around the candle in the centre of the sanctuary.

“The angel cards represent qualities we all have,” he said. “The one you choose will be one to focus on this week.”

After a short meditation, I drew one of the cards. Purification. The tiny picture on the card showed an angel either sweating profusely or standing under a waterfall, I wasn’t sure which. It reminded me of the sauna except the Angel was clothed. What on earth was I supposed to purify?

Later we took a bus over to the Park, the original location of the Foundation. This was where my cousin and her husband had lived. We had a tour and assembled in the Park Sanctuary for what Janette said would be a Work Department attunement.

“We ask all Experience Week guests to work in a department for four shifts during the week, as a way of contributing while they are here but also to understand how we connect with Spirit on an everyday basis. Peter Caddy, one of our founders, said that work is love in action, and that’s the philosophy we follow.”

She looked around the circle. No one spoke.

“We choose our department by ‘attunement’, that is by closing our eyes, going into a meditative space, listening to what is available and allowing a yes to form in our hearts or minds. What department do you feel called to join? It may not be what you want or expect; you may be guided into one for the work but it may also be in order to meet a particular person or have a very specific experience. You can’t really know in advance. So feel into the choices and let the answer emerge.”

Feel into the choices? I clenched my jaw. Janette listed the departments, with the number of people needed in each one. The number of work spaces equaled the number of people in the program. The departments included garden, kitchen, dining room, homecare in both the Park and Cluny. I knew what I wanted. Cluny Garden. I didn’t want to have to commute to and from the Park every day and I wanted to be outside. Easy.

We were supposed to keep our eyes shut and raise our hands for the department we felt “called to join”. Even before we were told to open our eyes at the end, I knew that more people had been called to Cluny Garden than there were spaces. Many more, as it turned out. Janette reminded us to keep an open mind as she took us back into meditation. Ten minutes later, nothing had changed. Perhaps we would like to talk about it? We looked at each other but no one seemed inclined to speak. I felt a growing impatience to be out of the sanctuary but Janette behaved as if there were all the time in the world. Yet another meditation. Fuck it; what does it matter, I thought. I put my hand up for Homecare. I didn’t like housework; who does? But I wanted this ‘attunement’ to end. And I did have the Angel of Purification. By the end of this meditation there had been some change but not enough. Janette invited the garden ‘callees’ to share what they’d experienced in their meditation. I relaxed and stopped listening. A couple of minutes later the problem was resolved. Other people must have been impatient too. No one looked particularly happy, except Janette and Tony.

At dinner that night, the people who’d got into the gardens glanced up when I said I’d make sure the bathroom sinks were good and clean when they came in to wash after their work shifts.

“Pity the bathrooms here aren’t quite as famous as the Findhorn Garden,” I added.

One woman shifted uncomfortably on her chair and sighed. “You know, I have a garden at home. I thought gardening here might teach me how to improve it but maybe I’m being selfish. I could switch with you if you really want to garden.”

I wasn’t used to having someone call my bluff.

“Ignore me. I’m being bloody minded. You go to the garden and enjoy it.”

She laughed.

 

The sauna had only been the first shock. That night a member of the community visited our group for an “Inner Life Sharing”. She told us that Eileen Caddy, one of the founders, had heard God talking to her. I stared. When she added that she, too, had heard God’s voice, I nearly put my head into my hands. Psychotic. The woman looked sane but she must be delusional. I glanced around at the rest of my group. Everyone appeared to be taking her seriously except for one man who was nodding off. I stayed silent, didn’t join in the question session. Only five more days.

 

Day Three

It was raining when I woke up Monday morning so I felt quite pleased to be working inside after all. At 9 a.m. I sat in the Homecare office along with Mark and Greta from my Experience Week group and three Homecare members. Mark looked as if he disliked housework as much as I did. Greta, on the other hand, apparently lived to clean. She was Dutch, blond and twenty-six. Maybe this enthusiasm for cleaning was cultural?

“Work is love in action and an opportunity to serve God,” said the woman in charge. Greta beamed. Mark snorted. He taught computer studies in a college in the English midlands and had been dragged to the Foundation by his girlfriend. I wondered if he, too, was counting the days. When he set off to vacuum the east and west stairs, he slapped headphones over his ears. Hard rock throbbed as he walked away. The focaliser looked after him thoughtfully. I smiled.

I could have chosen to clean the lounge but the bathrooms loomed large and I gave in, figuring if I did them Monday morning I could dodge them with a clear conscience for the rest of the week. Someone gave me a blue box of cleaning materials and pointed me to the second floor. I stood in the middle of a large bathroom, staring at the toilet. One floor below me, Greta was also cleaning bathrooms, probably with love. I picked up the toilet brush.

By the end of the morning I had cleaned five bathrooms on the second floor, feeling more like a martyr than anything else. Cluny seemed to be nothing but bathrooms. God required a lot of service.

That afternoon we met in the ballroom for ‘Community Building Games’. I arrived early and sat in one of the window seats to wait for the others. Like the dining room, the ballroom had massive windows on three sides and a high ceiling. The rain from the morning had stopped and sunshine poured through the stained glass panels at the top of the windows, leaving splotches of green, rose and lilac on the wooden floor. A grand piano and a sound system stood in the corner but otherwise the huge room was empty of furniture. The group drifted in, in twos and threes, talking about their work departments. Two Findhorn members, Niels and Heather, called us into the familiar, hand-holding circle to “attune” to the new activity.

I was tired and I’m not really a games player. Cautiously neutral at best. But it started with learning names, twenty-six now, which was okay. After that there was a series of games that ranged from the simple to the silly. We danced until the music stopped, formed groups of three and gave one word or one sentence answers to personal questions such as, what do you most like about yourself, or, what’s something no one here knows about you. We played ‘hug tag’, in which the safe place was in a hug with another person.

“No more than five seconds per hug to be fair to the person who is It,” Heather said. “The purpose is to hug as many different people as you can.”

I might have balked at that, I’m not one for promiscuous hugging, but it’s hard when the whole group starts running and hugging. I got caught up in it before I could help myself.

There were a couple of trust games. My favourite was one in which everyone was blindfolded and assigned an animal. We had to move around making the sound of that animal until we’d found our ‘family’. I was a cow. The ballroom rang with the sounds of mooing, barking, baaing, and oinking as we fumbled about blindly with our hands outstretched. I giggled so much that my moos were inaudible. It was a miracle the other cows found me.

After tea break the games became non-verbal and more serious. We were blindfolded again to explore the hands of a silent, blindfolded, anonymous other, following Niels’ directions. In the final game we moved around the room to music, our eyes shut, imagining we were planets circling through a vast universe. Slowly we began to connect with each other until we ended up close together in one big group, swaying like a large, pulsating jellyfish.

By the end of the afternoon, I had had physical contact with every other person in the group. The organizers pulled us into a circle on the floor and gave us a chance to “share”. Back to the New Age. I cringed. But the youngest one in the group beamed around the circle.

“That was fun, I feel much closer to everyone now.”

“It is good to know the names,” said Klaus, the circumcised man from the sauna.

Edith’s eyes were liquid. “I am divorced for three years now. No physical contact. This hug tag game is so good. I like it.”

“The afternoon was fun but I had trouble with the blindfolds in the hand exploration game,” said Helen, an older American. “I was sexually abused as a child and, well, I was really glad I was put with a woman for that game. I could tell it was a woman because Katherine’s hands are so small.”

There was an extended silence, broken at last by Rick, a gorgeous, blue-eyed blond in his twenties. “Yeah, thanks for saying that, Helen. I’m bi-sexual. I always wonder if it’s safe to tell people but in this group, it feels okay.”

I sat like a stone, shocked silent. How could people speak so intimately about themselves?

 

My modus operandi usually involves watching a group until I feel I’ve got the measure of it before I speak. But this was way out of my usual league. I couldn’t get the measure of anyone. That night after dinner, another community member joined the group for a Nature Sharing. I’d read about the Foundation principle of “co-creation with Nature”, in which Dorothy Maclean meditated and got advice on growing large vegetables. But somehow that hadn’t prepared me for this man saying he’d seen a Nature Spirit in the garden. Hearing voices and seeing things! If I hadn’t been so tired after Homecare and the Community Building Games, I might have felt panicky. As it was, I looked around the circle searching for skepticism that matched my own and didn’t see it. Did no one but me have a grasp of consensus reality?

I didn’t share that night either.

 

Day Four

As I worked in Homecare Tuesday morning, scrubbing the sauna bench with hot water and soap, I thought about the week so far. It was nearly half way through and I hadn’t spoken much at all. Janette and Tony didn’t pressure anyone but I could feel the eyes of the others in the group, wondering what was wrong with me.

 

Somewhere between cleaning the first and second sauna bench, I remembered the Pine River Multicultural Leadership week when I’d met Paul. Paul and I had led one of the student groups during this five day residential workshop. On Day One, I realized I couldn’t hide behind my role of teacher. Out of role I was nervous and vulnerable. But that week changed my life, and not just because I met Paul. I had to stand my ground in a group as a real person. Only the courage of the students had enabled me to get through it.

The program involved speaking from the heart, not a lesson plan. There were no experts. The students were nearly all immigrants and knew a lot more about survival than I did. I had no desk between me and them. I’d been in tears frequently – me, logical, analytical, unemotional and pragmatic me. I remembered Jackie, the student who’d stayed most vividly in my mind.

“I’m fat,” she’d said, looking around the group. “I know that’s not a strength but in my school, if you’re fat you’ve only got two choices: go under, give up and drop out, or get stronger and survive. I’m a survivor. All the women in my family are like me: big, fat and strong. I’m strong because I’m fat. I was scared starting high school but my mom said straight out – you gotta face it. You’re bright, you’ve got terrific ideas and you work hard. If those kids can’t see that – and they may not, it’s a weird age – you have to keep going forward until people around you do see it. Your body is big, okay – but your mind and your soul are way bigger.

“I was scared coming here. My teacher recommended me because I am a leader, even though she knows and I know, no one in my class wants a fat leader. They’d rather have somebody skinny and pretty whether she’s got brains or not. But I’m here and you’ve all made me feel like I’m worth it.”

I’d never admired anyone as much as Jackie that day.

 

I scrubbed the second wooden bench, soaking my jeans in the process. Had I learned nothing from that Leadership Week? From Jackie? I had committed to Experience Week; I had to get something out of it. If sharing was what it took, I’d share. Time to test the waters of openness and transparency. I filled the bucket again and flung clean hot water over the benches, washing away the soap.

That night in the group I cleared my throat after someone else had finished a rhapsody about the garden.

“This -” I waved my hand around to indicate the group and all of Cluny – “isn’t what I’m used to. It’s a big learning curve. Janette told me earlier today that the British love eccentrics. Canadians aren’t so comfortable with them. I think we’re more inhibited. Well, I am. The first shock was the sauna, Saturday night. In Canada, we – well, I’ve never been in a sauna naked with strangers of both sexes. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else so I guess my assumptions about men and nakedness are maybe – just my assumptions. Not necessarily true.” I glanced around the group. The Americans smiled understandingly at me, the British looked poker-faced and everyone else seemed puzzled.

“Anyway, today in Homecare I volunteered to clean the sauna. I attuned to my angel of Purification and imagined all of you in there with me. Naked. I think it helped.”

Startled laughter bubbled up in the circle.

“The next sauna night is tomorrow and it’s our free evening. I’ll be there about 7:30, naked, and I hope you’ll all come and join me. The sauna is beautifully clean.”

About half of them did come. I climbed up to the second level, having practised several times on Tuesday, sat nude and cross-legged on my towel in the heat and beamed. I could see their teeth gleam as they grinned back. My first step into the New Age at last.


Day Five

Mark, one of my group in Home Care, had not joined us in the sauna the night before. Like me, he was struggling with the place. During the Wednesday afternoon sharing, he exploded.

“This place is fucking unreal. Nobody is this accepting all the time. I don’t believe it.” His face was red and the veins in his neck bulged. No one spoke. Janette and Tony looked interested but neither alarmed nor upset. For a few minutes Mark glared around the circle. People looked steadily back at him. I noticed a few grins. Only his girlfriend, Bel, seemed angry. Mark deflated like a burst balloon.

“Sorry, I’m bringing you all down, I know I’m too negative, I just… I can’t…”

“Don’t bleat, Mark,” said one of the women. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve said if it’s what you feel.”

“Be cool, man,” said an American. “I’ve struggled with that too. Maybe some people are trying too hard but I actually think there is a lot of acceptance here. Maybe we’re just not used to it.”

We broke for tea then. To my own surprise, I hugged Mark on my way out of the room. He leaned into me gratefully. I felt so much better after listening to him, though I couldn’t think why.

 

 

The End of the Week

During the Friday morning Homecare shift I felt the unmistakable symptoms of migraine. Awful timing. I couldn’t miss the Completion session Friday afternoon. At lunch I took double the usual medication. But when we met at two p.m., I had to sit with my back to the bay window and the others looked blurred around the edges.

Tony pulled out a stone he’d picked up during our trip to the beach last Sunday to use as a ‘talking stone’ for the completion sharing.

“This is your opportunity to say whatever you need to say before we complete our time together as a group. During the meditation, I’ll remind us what we’ve done this week. Afterwards I’ll open the space for sharing. Use the stone and then pass it on to someone else when you’re done.”  He glanced around, then invited us to close our eyes.

I sent up a silent prayer for the bloody headache to let go. By the time the meditation had finished, however, I felt the familiar queasiness and knew that I had better speak now. I picked up the stone, cool and heavy in my hand.

“I want to go first because I have a bad headache and might not last the afternoon.” I drew a deep breath. “When Mark said that not everyone was as accepting as we seemed to be, he could have been talking about me. I’ve found this week hard, because of the level of honesty… no, it’s really intimacy – that seems to be a norm here. Intimacy in a relationship I can cope with; intimacy with a bunch of strangers is – has not been what I’m used to or comfortable with. I’m grateful you said what you did, Mark; it helped me to know someone else questioned it here. It’s easier for me to – well, to take my clothes off than to show how vulnerable I am. I have this need to be seen as strong and in control but I’m not a lot of the time and it’s hard for me to accept that, never mind let it show.

“Thank you all for being so patient with my silence, while I found my voice. It helped. I hope I can take some of the acceptance home with me.”

I forced myself to focus as I looked around at them. They were smiling. I handed the stone to Mark, then closed my eyes and listened as the others shared. After a few minutes, I found, to my astonishment, that the headache was receding.

“This week was nothing like I thought it would be. I don’t feel as sure about home now or myself. I think I might have changed. I didn’t expect that.”

“The place is great and you all were a good time too. I loved being in the Park Kitchen. I’ve never seen a group of guys ‘cooking with love’ before.”

“I’ll take more of a Findhorn approach to my children now, I think, after having the Angel of Love for the week. More accepting, less critical. Maybe I’ll even send them for an Experience Week.”

“I take home Eileen Caddy book on guidance. Use. Thank you for patient with my bad English. You all beautiful peoples.”

You all beautiful peoples. My eyes were wet.

I still wasn’t sure about sharing or the Foundation, but I said goodbye with real affection to my roommates and to Mark and Greta and the focalisers before I left for a retreat on the island of Iona on the west coast. The Foundation had a house there, called Traigh Bhan.

It was a small one and a half story building set in a sloping, east-facing field in the middle of a farm. A stone wall separated the house and its wild, luxuriant garden from the sheep and cows. The glassed-in front porch faced the Iona Strait and the island of Mull. The sea was blue, or gray or silver, depending on the weather. The clouds changed from moment to moment, the tides shifted and seals and sea birds appeared and disappeared, as did the rainbows. A host and five other guests stayed there as well. Because it was a retreat, we were mostly on our own. I wrote about Experience Week in my journal, meditated in the sanctuary with its views in three directions, walked the hills, fascinated by the ever changing light, and every night I climbed Dun I, the highest point of the island, to watch the sun set far out in the Atlantic. I felt peaceful and centered, almost happy.

By the end of the week, I thought I might return to the Foundation next year after all, and play the Game of Transformation.

Posted in Dressed for Dancing - Excerpts | 440 Comments

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day? Bah, humbug.

I just wish I could say that with more conviction. The truth is, every Valentine’s Day as long as I can remember, I’ve longed to have a classic romantic evening with the man of my dreams. I’ve never succeeded. I’m 62.

I don’t know why the Valentine energy has its claws sunk so deeply in me. My father had trouble remembering birthdays; February 14 had no significance for him at all. My mother didn’t mind.
“I know a lot of men who make their wives miserable for 364 days of the year and expect to make up for that by giving them roses, chocolate and a fancy dinner. I want someone who treats me well all the time,” she said robustly. “Your father does. That’s far more important.”

In theory I agree with her. I’m sure Valentine’s Day benefits florists and candy makers, restaurants and jewelry shops. It’s a ridiculous custom for many other people.

So why can’t I overcome my longing for romantic fulfillment with the perfect man on that one day? I suppose it must just be pop culture, the same fairy tale notion that envelopes wedding days.

When I was in university, living in residence, Valentine’s Day meant that the Porter’s Office was so crowded with bouquets of flowers, usually roses, that the Porter often got squeezed out. My roommate was Frosh Sweetheart, a kind of first year beauty queen. Her side of our room spilled over with flowers. She chose the man she liked best and went out for the evening, leaving me in a room that smelled like a funeral parlour. My boyfriend lived a two hour drive away, was poor and had no car. He phoned me. I was pleased, but it wasn’t the classic romantic evening I craved.

I have dated men who made a fuss about the day. The problem is, either they were men I just didn’t fancy or my mother was right; they were moody, controlling and manipulative. Valentine’s Day celebrations came with a price tag: stay in the relationship, be grateful, ignore everyone and everything but him. I could never pay up.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky.

Men I’ve loved didn’t notice Valentine’s Day. My husband, the man I loved most, didn’t believe in spending money on cut flowers, or chocolate or expensive jewelry. He’d give me a flowering plant in the depth of January to remind us both that spring would come eventually, but he did not give special gifts on Valentine’s Day. In those years I used to make a gorgeous dinner, pour wine and make it clear I wanted to make love on February 14. He would lead me to the bedroom with a sly grin and make me breakfast the next morning. Those were the years I didn’t feel I missed anything on the day. But he died young. By the time I was ready to consider my romantic options seriously again, there weren’t many left.

My last lover was in Scotland and one of the blank faced kind when it came to romantic celebrations on February 14. I think we went out to the pub for a beer and a game of dominoes the last Valentine’s Day I spent with him. He probably won, too. When my visa ended and I had to return to Canada, aged 54, I came to Vancouver, a new city for me, knowing that romance was unlikely. I’ve had eight years of celibacy so I suppose I was right. It’s not so much that men aren’t romantic; they just don’t see me. I’ve become invisible with age.

So to compensate for the longing I have never quite overcome, I’ve decided to pass on ‘romance’ and focus on love. I buy a bunch of spring flowers for my aunt and some cinnamon buns for my cousin and her family and remind myself how lucky I am to have people I love in my life. It doesn’t quite take the bah! out of Valentine’s Day, but it helps.

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Alien Invaders

“Imagine we were invaded by a race of aliens, who destroyed our oceans, fouled our air, contaminated our rivers and lakes, killed our wildlife, poisoned our people. Would we just lie there and take it? Or would we unify, mobilize, rise up, fight them with all our strength and all our resources?

I sat listening, mesmerized, last Sunday (January 15) in the dining room of Captain Whidbey Inn, in Washington, to Kathleen Dean Moore, American philosopher, environmentalist and writer.

“Then why are we allowing government and big business to do this?”

Why indeed?

Moore was not speaking about Canada, but that’s where my mind went.

“It’s not just stupid, it’s wrong to wreck the world. To take what we need for our comfortable lives and leave a ransacked and dangerously unstable world for the future is not worthy of us as moral beings.”

Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect politicians to look beyond the next election. Stephen Harper is from Alberta. It’s probably not in him to rein in the greed and exploitation of the oil producers in the tar sands. It would make any politician pause, with the potential loss of so much money and so many jobs. It needs to be Canadian people who look up, who register their anger and distress over the poisoning of the land and water, the rise in cancer rates in nearby communities, the wasteland that is the tar sands. To destroy land, water, people, animals for money and jobs is wrong. Moore has it right. We’d never stand for aliens doing this. Why are we doing it to ourselves?

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Creative Writing 101

Creative Writing 101

Creative Writing 101

 

I sit bolt upright on the hard plastic chair, pen and paper at the ready. It’s my first evening class in a creative writing course for very short fiction. The instructor, a chunky man in his sixties with a mop of grey hair, glares around the room at the ten of us.

“One sentence. Include who, what, when and where. Active verbs! Punch! Drama! The action is all you need. Five minutes. Start now.”

I drop my eyes to the blank page, clench my pen, and breathe heavily for a few minutes. Then I write: “On Christmas Eve, Sadie flung the burnt turkey off the balcony of the apartment, hurled the Brussels sprouts and turnip after it and swore off family Christmases for good.”

He likes it! Sam, the instructor, praises it. He shoots down every other sentence in the class and the other students look disgruntled but I ignore them and caress my paper. Sam is a teddy bear I want to hug.

He tells us to email him a three-to-five hundred word piece of fiction for the next class. I take Sadie home with me and sit, staring at my brilliant sentence.

The truth is, I’m good for one dramatic moment but basically I’m not a particularly dramatic type. I tend to think about things, or feel, or wonder, or question. I can imagine Sadie flinging, hurling and swearing for thirty seconds, but surely after that she’d pause a bit. Explain to her partner why she was pitching food off the balcony of their apartment. I mean, they must have paid money for it. And what about the mess on the street below? So when I continue the Sadie story that’s what she does. Explain. For three hundred and eighty-seven words

“Where’s the action?” Sam snarls at me a week later.

The only other action thing I can imagine is Sadie throwing herself off the balcony onto the burnt turkey. If the balcony is high enough, I suppose she might end up looking like cranberry sauce. A seasonal holiday pastiche on the sidewalk.

I’m not used to failure. Sam’s no teddy-bear. What was I thinking? He’s a grizzly bear in early spring, half-starved and bad-tempered. He chews up and spits out my classmates’ homework stories too, growling throughout.

The possibility of Sadie’s violent death, along with Sam’s demand for constant action, reminds me of the stories my high school students handed in after I taught a unit on creative writing, years ago. Almost every action-packed story the boys wrote ended in death and catastrophic destruction. The girls opted for marriage or suicide. I laughed long and heartlessly over them. Obviously I should never have tried to teach creative writing since Sam’s making it clear that I can’t write myself, but at least I enjoyed it. I laughed in private and always found something good to say in public. I hope I never made any of those kids feel the way I do as I leave Sam’s second class. He doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour and I’m rapidly losing mine.

I abandon Sadie and try other stories for my weekly homework. Every time I email one to Sam I think I’ve cracked it, but nothing succeeds. The harder I try, the more dismissive he is. I delete my next homework assignment after he’s trashed it. Four three-hour classes begin to feel like fourteen.

The others in the class do not look as discouraged as I feel. Two of the men seem cheerful and the other seven are inscrutable. By the third week I’m too weighed down by failure to ask others what they think of the course. We’re not invited to comment on each other’s work, although we usually see it. I said once I liked someone else’s piece. Sam gave me the kind of icy stare you’d reserve for a stranger who’d sneezed on you and continued as if I hadn’t spoken.

On the last night of the course, I wait to see if he can find anything good in my final piece of homework. I’ve written about being stopped in my car at a traffic light while a woman who’s been stalking me, stares at me from the sidewalk. I want to jerk the wheel, hit the gas and mash her body like a potato against the light standard. Instead I grip the wheel, white-knuckled, ease forward in my lane and cling to sanity. Although I don’t tell Sam, this is actually nonfiction, not fiction. I suppose that’s why it’s more dramatic in my memory than it turns out to be on paper. Sam sneers. All the tension is internal; he wants real action. The kind that would have landed me in prison for twenty years.

That’s when I realize that I don’t like the kind of testosterone-driven narrative Sam wants. I never read non-stop action. I don’t even watch action movies. I like relationships, feelings, personal growth and happy endings.

In the last fifteen minutes of class Sam tries to be gracious, praises our improvement. I nearly choke. Maybe the others improved; I didn’t. According to him I hit my peak in the first fifteen minutes of the twelve hour course and I haven’t written one good sentence since. I walk out depressed. What a waste of time and money.

 

When I browse through my computer files six months later, to see what to save and what to delete, I come across Sadie and the turkey again. I like Sadie, did from the start, which is why I never erased her along with the other pieces from that class. I tinker with the story, cut a few sentences, crank up the action verbs.

 *****

Christmas Dinner

 

On Christmas Eve, Sadie flung the burnt turkey off the balcony of the apartment, hurled the Brussels sprouts and turnip after it and swore off family Christmases for good.

“I can not make the Christmas dinner for you and your mother,” she hissed at Joe. Her dark eyes shone with frustration, her black hair spiraled in all directions and her face flushed in the hot smoky kitchen. “For three years I try. Every year worse than the one before. This year burnt, last year undercooked. The first year wrong stuffing and no Brussels sprouts. Bah! Who can like Brussels sprouts? And now she is late. Even if I make it perfect your mother will criticize. It is not the dinner that is wrong, it is me. She hates me. She wants you to marry that pale English woman next door to her, not live with me. You say to try; Peace on Earth; it is Christmas. Well, I try; three times. No more. She does not want peace with me.”

Joe’s young face creased in worry lines. “You’re right. Never mind my mother,” he said at last. “I’m starving. What can we have for dinner now that you’ve pitched the turkey? Should we order in?”

“Pasta,” Sadie said. “It is quick. With my special sauce, the garlic break and the salad. I am hungry too. And I wait half an hour, no more. If she is not here then, we eat without her. Tomorrow I make you the lamb with garlic, tomatoes and rosemary, eggplant and roast potatoes.”

Joe smiled at her. “That sounds wonderful. Damn all turkeys. The pale English woman is boring and my mother is rude. I want to marry you. Let’s open the wine and celebrate our engagement. We’ll elope.”

“Yes!” Sadie laughed and hugged him.

When Joe’s mother arrived, twenty-five minutes later, her blue eyes frosty, she found Joe and Sadie cuddled together on the couch, half a loaf of garlic bread gone and most of the bottle of wine. They smiled up at her. Through the open window a chorus of shrieks shattered the night as the alley cats fought over the remains of the turkey.

*****

 

Action verbs for Sam. Relationships, feelings, personal growth and a happy ending for me. I see that like my female high school students I’ve chosen to end with marriage but at least I threw in the alley cats to add a bit of bite. Could they be seen as a Sadie vs mother-in-law metaphor? No; I don’t want to suggest that Joe’s dead meat any more than I want Sadie to leap off the balcony. I want a happy-ever-after-ending and I don’t care if it’s unfashionable.

Sam’s class wasn’t a total waste. In retrospect I can see that my failure was more a case of wrong place, wrong teacher, than an inability to write. Sam wanted one narrow and specific kind of writing and I wasn’t producing it so he got cranky. But I do pay more attention to verbs now, even if my characters still think and feel more than Sam thinks they should. And I’ve decided to write non-fiction, a genre that makes room for thought, feelings and questions. For wonder.

When I produce my magnum opus, Sam won’t be lining up to buy it. And that’s okay. Damn Sam. I’m writing for me.

 

Posted in Classroom Lessons, Uncategorized | 409 Comments