Social Isolation

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Here are a couple of pictures from around my neighborhood. I took my solitary walk today and noticed in the window of an upper duplex, children’s drawings telling me to take care of myself. I don’t really want to take care of myself. I want someone else to take care of me. Now that is a blatant bit of self-pity. It doesn’t matter. The lonely feeling of wandering around for the sake of “getting some fresh air” or “keeping active” has that effect on me.

There were a few couples walking in that fast purposeful way that tells you they have made up their minds to keep in shape. There were a few mothers out pushing baby carriages, There were a few oldies, like me, warily stepping aside when we passed on the sidewalk. I was surprised at the number of closed businesses, at the neighborhood church with a notice cancelling weekly services but still inviting me in with the big “Church Open” sign. I went in, gingerly grasping the door handle and reminding myself not to touch my face until I had washed my hands at home. I sat in an absolutely silent church. There were two other people there. I sat for a while in a sort of trance and then I walked the few blocks to my home and washed my hands with hot water and soap before I even took off my coat. The streets are quiet. People I expect to call me don’t. People I haven’t heard from for years do. It is very disorienting.

I feel like a spacewoman floating out in the black abyss of the universe. I can hear my mother’s voice when I write that. “Don’t be so fancifull, Isobel.” There is something fantastic, something other-worldly in this, though.

Corona isolation

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On the last day before I self-isolated I took this picture. It seemed to me a metaphor of what was happening to me. Even the phrase “happening to me” is one that is a little unfamiliar. I have been privileged to live in circumstances where a lot of the time I “”happend “to life. I was free to make my own decisions, to chose, rightly or wrongly what I would do. Of course, like everyone else, I made mistakes, acted on impulse, showed poor judgement. Then, life taught me hard lessons and I paid the price for these errors. However, they were my errors and I learned from them – usually.

This image that presented itself to me on Sherbrooke Street as I walked away from the Museum where I guide struck me as embodying my situation. Soon I would be behind a virtual fence. There is no wishing away or arguing with a fence. On that day I didn’t even know I would be confined to my home, as an “oldie” as an “elderly person” at risk of catching a virus that might threaten my life. I saw the fence as an obstacle to achieving a goal that had become a near obsession over the long winter months. I want to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Many of you will know what that is. I won’t go into a definition or exploration of it here. That’s what Wikipedia is for, right?  The fact that I would train for and book for a walk of 800 km spread out over about 40 days tells you that I am not in such poor health and that is what makes considering myself “frail” and old so painful. So, the fence means – you’re out of your project and also you’re stuck inside for an indefinite period. An arbitrary fence controls me It keeps me in – and out.

Then the snow – cold, and reflective of the winter trunk and branches of a bare tree. Symbol of a dead love affair. Enough hot tears to melt the whole snowbank. And yet it is not melted, it remains. Is it grotesque, ludicrous to think that an old person can suffer new heartbreak? Consider it so if you wish. It is a reality as hard and immovable as the fence.

At the border of the snow, green ground cover already bursting out of the earth with that irresistible vigor and hope that intoxicates us in the spring.  Pernicious hope that makes me go and wash my hands, cook vegetables and take my zinc tablets because I might be able to re-book the trip, work in the garden with green plants , and  – oh, well two out of three is not so bad.

Snow Sculpture 2020

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The town is full of snow sculptures. This one is mine. What caprice of wind and snow crystals, driven into my sheltered garden made this form? Layered and swirled, like thick cream or icing, fine and sugary, it sits transforming my old yard furniture into an untouchable beauty. There’s such a variety of line and texture that I could look at it for a long time. Is it just that ordinary spot where I sit and have a drink or entertain friends when it’s too hot or humid or dark to eat indoors?

In Spring I sit outside alone, in my warm jacket that shields me from the cool breeze. When the crocuses are just up or when the daffodils are still sheathed in that sap-scented green that means life, life again I sit out there alone. How many winters, how many summers?

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!.

Happy New Year 2020

 

   

  

We enjoyed a green Christmas. A little snow had fallen in November but much of it had been washed away by rain. Yesterday heavy snow fell over Montreal. Such a snowfall always makes me look more closely at my surroundings. The neighbor’s black cat sitting on a snowy step, the intricate lacing of tree branches highlighted by a heavy white burden or my bird-bath wearing a solid heavy cap are all new and interesting to see. It is so easy to walk through the neighborhood, not even noticing my surroundings. The still white and clean etching of snow turns every street corner into a novel sight. Young children are no longer stumbling along, clinging to the hands of their parents. Today many were pulled along in traditional wooden sleds. Today, to my surprise, I saw a black labrador harnessed to one such sled, pulling away with so much enthusiasm that the baby was bumped along to his obvious delight. The snow was perfect for snowballs and snowmen so, of course, heavy for shoveling. My neighbors fall into two categories: those who are out cleaning their driveways and walks while the snow is still falling and those (like me) who make sure the steps are safe for the mailman and consider my duty done.

Our winter is very long and the early darkness is hard to bear. I think of my garden sleeping now but ready to burst into color at the first faint warmth of Spring. It never fails me with the early snowdrops and crocus. It’s not even New Years’ Day yet and I am longing for Spring! I wish all of you happiness and good health in 2020. This will be the year of seeing clearly.

Thank you Mr. Van Horne

steam-train-1442795In the train, the first train

to run over the brand new tracks

sat Sonya.

The clank, the hiss, the slamming of doors

as the huge weight of steel, wood, coal, luggage, passengers,

moved slowly out of Windsor Station.

The jolts, sudden lurches, settled into

a steady rocking flow out over the St. Lawrence plain,

into the barely lemon sky of late afternoon,

over new bridges, immobile under this first test,

proud and nonchalant.

Sonya sat upright, her new hat

pinned on

for fear the sweating effort of shoveling coal

the blaze,

the terrible power of steam,

would blow it off her head.

Blow her little jacket off, her dress, her petticoats,

Leaving only her black lace-up boots,

protected by the foot-board of the plush seat.

She would sit, young and naked, a figurehead

for the mighty train, delivering its power,

its majesty, its unraveling of the future.

If the young porter invited her to the dining car, she would murmur,

“Oh, no, look what has happened to me.”

A glance down at her white body

seated like the wife of Pharaoh.

And he, in his new uniform,

the collar a little stiff around his Adam’s apple,

fallen already in love with her at that instant,

would pull down the window sash, take her in his arms,

and together they would float out into the just-evening sky

decorated with a few pale stars.

Up over Lake Ontario while the new train

plunged fearlessly on over the Canadian Sheild.

 

 

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.

 

Hope on the table

  

 Do you know what this? It’s hope in the form of a shell.

Yeah, I’ve missed you too. It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here, since I wrote anything at all, in fact. Some stuff happened that I’m not ready to write about but out of a deep well I dragged up the bucket and, surprise, there was something silvery and magical at the bottom of the bucket. It was the idea of a trip.

I’m going on a journey in May of 2020. There, I’ve said it, I’ve written it and it’s not just a vague “wish” a half-baked “plan”. It’s a real project that I have publicly put out there in the real and the cyber world.

I have decided to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Some of you know what that is and I won’t bore you to tears by explaining it all over again. Some of you don’t know what it is and for you – there is always Wikipedia.

It’s a hell of a long way to walk and I have already started to train at the YMCA. I detest gyms but this goal seems to have motivated me. On many many days, I break the 10K step mark. One of my daughters referred me to Spotify and now Linda Ronstadt sings me away on the treadmill. I can’t run on a treadmill but I can walk pretty fast and seem to manage quite a slope. I walk around the streets for miles and miles too.

In all the YouTube features, in all the books and films about the Camino, people talk about why they do it. A reasonable question, especially for an oldie, like me. My right knee is a little fragile and it is the only real worry I have about this project.

So, yes, why? Why? To walk is a sacred thing, after all. As I get older, I don’t want to be whisked around in cars and buses and metros. I don’t like the noise of it. I want to have time to observe the sky. What a wonder it is that every day, every hour, the sky is totally different from any other moment in the history of the world.

Walk away from fear

Walk away from age, breathing cold on the back of my neck.

Walk away from disappointment.

Walk away from the material world that steals my time, my attention, my life

Walk to wonder, to marveling at the beautiful, astonishing world.

Walk to patience, with myself and with others

Walk to solitude for I must get used to that.

Walk to goodwill to others met along the way and to those waiting for my return.

Walk as a last effort before the dear body betrays me.

Walk as a forgiveness, as a love song to all the hurts that taught me so much.

Walk as a work of art, as a sacrament, as a gift.

Walk as a key to understanding all the rest.

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Well, that is the plan. Let’s see how things develop. Certainly, I will do my part with my whole heart but…..for example, it’s very icy outside today. One never knows the outcome of plans.