Feast of the Three Kings

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Yes, I’m a day late. The kings were late too, right. This image is taken from the stunning collection of nativity scenes from all over the world that is housed in St. Joseph’s Oratory here in Montreal. I know, the picture is not stunning but – be proud of me – it’s the first picture I have ever transferred from my phone to WordPress.  Marvel at this modern miracle. The nativity scenes at the Oratory show how people from all over depicted their idea of the Nativity mirrored by their own culture. The good news is that the whole collection is on permanent display, year-round. There is even an activity room for the kids where they can make their own Nativity figures and drawings.

In fact, I went to the Oratory yesterday, close to a site of an errand, to do my outdoor cardio. There is a formidable set of outside steps where summer pilgrims sometimes ascend on their knees. To be honest, one used to see a lot more of that in years gone by. Having huffed and puffed up to the top I decided to explore one of the staple tourist attractions in our city. This huge building houses a vast church with a formidable organ, a smaller chapel, a mysterious and candle-lit foyer with various relief sculptures of St. Joseph and even the crypt of Frere Andre. Even though he has now been made a saint, no one calls him anything but Frere Andre. He was the humble doorkeeper at the college across the street for many years. It is through his force of will and mobilization that this complex was built. Of course, that was in the old Catholic Quebec of the early 1900’s.

I always thought St. Joseph got a bit of a raw deal and I love his trade, his devotion to family and work. Frere Andre was like that too. Just an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things.

I love the feast of the Kings. I love this idea of traveling far just on hope, on faith that something wonderful will happen. I bet St. Joseph was surprised to find them knocking on the door. At home, my Nativity scene only has two kings. About fifty years a dog whose only devotion was to my mother, grabbed one of the kings and hid away to gnaw him into pieces. To our shame, we were much more worried that the dog had poisoned himself than about the fate of the third king. Anyone who ever asked was told, “the third king is still on his way.” These days I try to act as stand-in – traveling around full of hope and faith. Time to dismantle the Christmas tree!.

End of a drought

Nothing has escaped the pen, the keyboard, the soft yielding lead of the pencil for a long time. It has been about three months since I was able to write anything. No sitting at the table before a blank paper, no jotting things down, no type and backspace – just a horror of writing anything at all. In desperation I went to a poetry workshop led by a wonderful teacher. Larissa Andrusyshyn is a very talented teacher, prodder, encourager, with many a trick up her sleeve. Did you know, for instance, that the little paint color cards you pick up in hardware stores when you are agonizing over whether your living room wall should be black or morning cloud are blessed with the most wonderful names? ” Barely banana” ” shy meadow” ” storm cloud” ” trumpet voluntary” How could you not slip one of these wonderful phrases into a poem? I’m off to Canadian Tire to get my own pack this morning.

It is such a relief to feel the first little trickle of life come back to an activity I love, one I love to share with readers. I’m not going to church today. I’m going to work on two pieces Larissa evoked, coaxed, simply expected me to write yesterday. The long sheets of white embraced my lists, my sentences, my rhymes, my crossing out, my arrows. Something emerged, something a little rough, a little flowing, opening up just at the end.

They say when you fall off a horse you should get right back on. I had to chase my poney over hill and dale for many sad weeks but, oh, how good that warm steady movement feels now.I’ll post the poem when  I think it’s ready.

Dem Bones, dem bones…Osteopathy

 

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I’ve been wanting to write about my visits to the College of Osteopathy Studies here in Montreal for some time. Some family members urged me to go and have someone look at my knee about two years ago. To my surprise, some gentle manipulations made me feel a lot better. Since then I have sporadically gone back for help from the friendly students of this college.

I had a hip replacement about eight years ago which was a great success, thanks to my wonderful surgeon, Dr. Paul Stephenson. He did a brilliant job and I’ve been dancing a jig ever since. So, you can see I literally have one foot in the camp of strictly conventional medicine.

Well, not quite, obviously, or I wouldn’t be visiting the osteopaths. When I first went, I was a bit skeptical and researched what exactly osteopathy is. The whole field of “alternative medicine” is rather mysterious for someone who worked in a conventional hospital for years. I came to some understanding of the term “Naturopathy” through an explanation that defined it as a branch of medicine that added nothing – like drugs and took nothing away – as does surgery.

What intrigued me very much was the history of the founder of osteopathy. He was an American doctor, son of a Protestant minister, who practiced during the Civil War. Dr. Andrew Taylor Still lost his wife and all his children to an epidemic and, grief-stricken, he decided to develop a different kind of medicine that would improve on the methods he had seen employed during the war. Of course, amputations, use of heavy sedatives, radical surgery and his own family experience with illness were powerful motivators.

Drawing on his medical skills and his personal religious convictions, he put forward a method of treatment that saw the patient as a whole being made up of body, mind, and spirit. There is a strong tradition of “laying on of hands” to heal, clearly set out in the New Testament and in the Book of Acts which certainly was part of Dr. Still’s philosophy. I was fascinated by this aspect. I had a vivid memory of being taken as a child to the gentleman who treated the rugby players in our gritty Welsh town. Jack Lyshun was a natural healer and manipulator, skilled at “fixing up” formidable players of the toughest brand of football. Following a mysterious infection, I was unable to walk properly. After a few sessions with “Jack”, I was as right as the implacable rain of my hometown and the whole episode was forgotten.

These thoughts and memories ran through my head last week as two students of the College, under the watchful eye of their instructor, observed how I stood, walked, shifted from foot to foot. They did more than observe and diagnose. They “laid hands” on me, gently, firmly, surprisingly at some moments. One of them manipulated the elegant scar of my hip replacement surgery. He explained that the scar was rather like the seam in a piece of cloth. It tended to draw the tissue, to bunch it up. Of course, hip replacement is a profound business. I am always shocked to see how far down the pin that holds the replacement in place reaches – almost to my knee. In X-Rays it leaps out, solid and white among the shadowy images. Skin, muscles, tendons, the socket, all this and others, of which I am mercifully unaware, are sundered, manipulated, replaced, repaired by the surgeon. Such a surgery is a controlled assault. Osteopathy’s approach of touch, pressure, manipulation is quite different.

My whole body was under scrutiny – and was treated. The other leg, the “good” leg has had years of compensating, adapting, relating. And why? So that I can go up and down stairs, run for the bus, swim, drive the car, make love, dance, climb a ladder – all this and more. Poor good leg that never complained and yet spoiled her gait because of the “bad” leg.

The two young people pulled my toes (a terrible point of shyness as I think my feet are not beautiful) rotated my ankles, took hold of my leg and applied pressure. They made me turn on my stomach and pressed my back. From time to time, one of them would exclaim about “feeling” something. He could notice some sort of current of energy.  They seemed to know what they were doing. Good thing, since I did not. There was something satisfying about simply surrendering to their attention, their manipulations, their instructions.

And now, at home, what is the result of all this? My toes do not hurt anymore. I always ascribe the pain in my feet to arthritis, but one student said, no, it was all part of the alignment of the right leg. My knee is better but I still have some pain higher up. I will go to see them again next week.

Osteopaths have a difficult time being accepted in this province. The College des Medicins traditionally fights against any other profession encroaching on what they think is remotely related to conventional medicine. Midwives, for instance, had a terrible time getting recognized and encouraged to practice. There still remains something mysterious about osteopathy. But then, one could hardly say conventional medicine is free of mystery, even that it is transparent. The bottom line is ….does it work? Mercifully, it does for me.

 

Mummies come to Montreal

 

Mummies come to Montreal

What is the fascination with mummies? Ancient Egypt is right up there with dinosaurs in kids’ obsessions. The difference is that almost all adults retain that awe-struck wonder about this beautiful and mysterious civilization. Our imaginations have been captured by countless books and movies on the lives and death rituals of these people.

The British Museum exhibition of six mummies and over 240 objects related to the lives of each of them opened last week at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Besides the superb staging and curatorship of the exhibit, what makes it unique is the inclusion of modern medical scanning technology.

I had seen a sarcophagus before. There is a beautiful one in the permanent collection of our museum. A sarcophagus is simply the coffin that contained a mummy. I had often included ours in tours I gave as a volunteer guide. The gods painted on the wooden case, the still brilliant colours and the story of the woman who had been entombed in our sarcophagus were a high point of a tour.

So why did it feel so different to stand before what would have been the contents of a sarcophagus? A sober form, wrapped simply in linen, the shape of the body clearly outlined lay before me. What was touching to me was the irresistible tug of the imagination to connect with the person lying just a foot away. A deep feeling of compassion flooded over me.

Archaeology has been described as controlled destruction. To remove the bindings of these mummies would inflict irreparable damage. The code of ethics of the British Museum does not permit the removal of the wrappings. Fortunately we now have the technical tools to virtually strip away the bindings and “see” the person within. The CT scans our doctors order to diagnose our health problems have been used here to penetrate the mysterious lives of these six individuals. CT scanners use a combination of x-rays and a computer to create the images that are projected onto the walls behind the mummies.

Visitors now know that these people were buried with amulets, with nail covers, with colored beads. We know the ages, the ailments and the causes of death as revealed to us by state of the art equipment. The priests and embalmers who carefully prepared these six people for the afterlife could never have imagined that the immortality they hoped for would be, in a strange way, played out in a museum thousands of miles from the Nile.

Of course, I looked on, intrigued as the three-D images were projected on the walls. My eyes kept coming back to the white forms, however, and something in me was glad that there was no image of the child mummy. He was safe inside his touchingly small sarcophagus. In glass cases lining the walls of his room the toys our children still play with lay still. A ball, a top, little clothes that a child might wear today.

In spite of our technological advances, there is still so much that is universal.  What is the meaning of our lives and our deaths? What is the meaning of the death of a child, of our grief? We share many mysteries with our ancient Egyptian brothers and sisters and not all of them can be revealed by state of the art equipment.

The exhibition – Six Mummies – Six Lives will continue until February 2, 2020.

 

Modesty

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A friend and I were shaking our heads over the antics of “president” Trump the other day and he made an unusual request. He said, “write about modesty”. Right away I knew he didn’t mean anything to do with bikinis… or burkinis. The idea simmered in my mind for quite a while. After all, even writing for public consumption is hardly an act of modesty. Do I believe I have something interesting, enlightening, amusing to say? Surely that rules out the modest approach. Modesty is not much appreciated these days.  All the advice columns tell us how to “sell” ourselves, how to “boost” readership, how to “be best” – oops, can’t keep that family out of anything!

How long ago was I taught in what seems now like a medieval Catholic….and British…ethic, not to boast, not to draw attention to one’s own accomplishment, not to be “vain”, “proud”, “a show-off”. Those reproaches were among the worst that could be levelled against anyone.

Then I thought about nature. The way the seasons repeat, the way plants follow a natural progression of what looks like death, rebirth, blooming, seeding and retreat into a mysterious slumber is inexplicable. Animals, that look at us with a certain understanding, an understanding that we, who boast of being the highest form of life, cannot fathom. The sea, wind, stones, planets and stars, simply go about their business without drawing attention to themselves, in their modest way. Even in its most spectacular moments such as volcanic eruptions, tornados or blizzards, nature just is. There is no heralding that “This is the greatest eruption, folks, trust me!” There is, in these great demonstrations of nature’s power, an inherent modesty.

So I must be vigilant. A little less, “fantastic, amazing, incredible” in my writing, and in my thoughts. Let’s have a big round of applause for modesty, folks. After all, it’s the greatest quality!

 

 

 

 

At Last

Today in my garden.

HARD SPRING

Spring in Montreal

is a breech birth.

We can feel it coming.

We can feel the earth groaning,

absorbing the ice and snow

of months of frigid darkness.

The sun, it’s warmth

no longer faint, fickle, theoretical,

coaxes, wheedles the first snowdrops, crocuses.

These are never picked.

Now come the shoots of daffodils and tulips

and grass, that universal miracle

appears.

The sound of hardy birds, but still not a leaf.

A few closed buds along a twig

and heavy rain – the waters breaking

cold and painful.

The brave yellow blooms

stand against a meager unkind frost one night

and then, sap drips from a vine

and the whole city knows

a long warm day

with magnolias, pink or white like waxy cups or earth

stars opening on the leafless branches.

The moon rises soft and silvery

over the city blessed by newborn Spring.

 

poem from ” Northern Compass” available on Amazon