Traffic Bridge Saskatoon

Traffic Bridge Saskatoon

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why I’m not a Poet

I have written a few poems in my life, and I love reading poetry that moves me. The latter gives me an emotional kick or a prickling at the back of my neck, or rarely a feeling as if the top of my head is going to come off. I also write fiction and non fiction and feel that I have a certain grasp and talent with both of those, and do call myself a writer. But a poet? No.
When I read lines like the following, I know myself in the presence of someone who has talent, is a master (or mistress) of the art.

“All of a sudden came the pelicans:
crazy old men in baseball caps who flew
like jackknives and collapsed like fans.” (John Malcom Brinnin)

This fragment is by a poet now dead, who was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but moved to the States with his parents as a child. What appealed to me in the poem was the image – we in Saskatoon know pelicans, after all, and I’ve often stood and watched them, thought about what they make me think of – punk rockers with their tuft of upstanding feathers at the back of their heads.

“All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.” (e.e. cummings)

E.E. Cummings has long been a favourite of mine, particularly this poem. It feels like magic, the images piling one on top of another, beautiful language, hints of mystery creating the story.

“I may feel guilty after a poem
for what is revealed, for what
stands bare when the speaking stops,
for what utters itself with full wings spread
of angel or bat
but I am healed to the saying.
I think it must be.” (Marge Piercy)

Piercy is an American writer, of both poetry and prose (fiction and non fiction). I loved her novel Vida, though don’t like everything she’s written. Still, I am bowled over by her talent, and glad to know she’s still alive.

“Wind turns back the sheets of the field.
What needs to sleep, sleeps there.
What needs to rest.

The door has fallen from the moon.
It floats in the slough, all knob and hinges.” (Lorna Crozier)

Years ago, I took a writing class from Lorna Crozier, and I have always admired her talent, both in writing and teaching. She captures the land and emotions of the prairie like few others.


I don’t know how these poets do it, find the images, put them together in ways that open and illuminate the world. I have difficulty with that. Maybe it’s a matter of practice? If I wrote as much poetry as I do prose, would I get better at it?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Letting Go

Human beings have to let go of many things, places, and people through their lives. At times that’s easy, mostly it’s hard. As we grow older there is even more to relinquish before that final good-bye – youth, energy, sleeping through nights, vision and hearing, sometimes health. Dylan Thomas wrote, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” I can empathize with those sentiments, but I prefer to think of aging with grace rather than with rage. Perhaps all the smaller instances of letting go are preparation, helping us learn how to let go for the big one.

I’ve written before about dealing with aging parents. I’ve been trying to find ways to cope, trying to achieve understanding that might make me look more kindly on the way some people live in their latter years. Those who have lost their parents earlier may think me lucky to have mine around for so long. I think of my mother telling me, “Don’t get old.” To me that statement reflects her unhappiness, but happiness is subjective and perhaps I’m making a judgement that isn’t so for her.

Not all women get along with their mothers. I’ve been one of the ones who didn’t. I know that in some ways we are alike – our stubbornness, and our criticalness, for example. I have a lot of bad memories from throughout my life of my mother. My mother was not the sort of woman to think before she spoke and she still isn’t. Hurtful words can’t be taken back. I think I learned from her the kind of mother I didn’t want to be. Which is not to say that things were all bad. She walked me to school in the first days of elementary school. Sang to me when I was young. Sewed clothes for me in high school.

I’m the eldest daughter, which made me the most likely to care for my parents as they grew older, stopped driving, and needed more help. For most of that time, I’ve also been the one who lived closest to them. My brothers did and do help, but they live farther away. My mother got in the habit of phoning me if she needed something, or if she wanted to talk about her problems. I still didn’t like many of her behaviours, wouldn’t have spent time with her if she wasn’t my mother, but I felt a duty to help an aging woman who didn’t seem very happy. When the time came to sell their house my brothers and I helped them move into seniors’ housing, and then I helped them sell the house. Later, in their new place, I arranged for homecare cleaning once a week and a nurse to come once a month. When my mother talked about wanting to go back to a church she’d been away from for years, I contacted the minister and arranged for a home visit. I drove my parents to medical appointments. Often spent a few days near Christmas with them, though I found that extremely trying as my mother was often nagging and cantankerous. During all this time my mother rarely showed much appreciation or understanding for the time I took from my own life to help her and my father. She seemed to take me for granted. Mostly I swallowed my resentment, though recently I’d told her a couple of times about things she’d said or done that hurt me. She didn’t respond very satisfactorily; told me once that she thanked God every night for what I did for them.

Things came to a head recently with some financial issues. I did a lot of work making contacts and doing research, planned to meet with my parents and their accountant. Subsequently, my mother phoned me several times questioning why I was coming to this meeting and asking what I could possibly do? She said that she could handle things. When I told her about taxes owing, she became confused about the process for paying and no matter how I tried to explain, insisted that she knew what to do, though it was obvious she didn’t. I said that if she wasn’t happy with me, maybe she should get someone else to handle things. Finally, I asked myself why I was putting myself through this – sleepless nights, digestive disturbances, stress. So the next phone call from my mother, I said that if she really didn’t want me to come to the meeting with the accountant, I wouldn’t. Subsequently, I told my brothers that I could no longer deal with my mother and was turning things over to them.

I’ve been looking for a long time for books about this stage of life, trying to understand what might be happening to my mother. She is still independent in many ways, but stubborn as she’s been most of her life, and insisting that she can do things it’s obvious she can’t handle. In my estimation her judgement is faulty. She has also lied, and often twisted events, recalling them in ways that didn’t happen.

I think my mother didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, and it seems she didn’t learn good parenting or social skills. I’ve also learned that people into their eighties and nineties often want to retain independence, and deny that they need help even if it’s obvious that they do.

I found a couple of articles about letting go of aging parents when they are still alive:

I realized that although my circumstances and my parents’ are somewhat different than the above, I had to let go also. I had too many years of doing things to help (in my opinion) make life better for my parents, and not getting recognition or appreciation for it, while I was really not enjoying spending time with my mother. Perhaps it was time I let my mother have complete charge of her own life and let her find others in the family or community to meet her needs. So far the issues I’d been trying to help with had not been about safety, after all, but quality of life.

Subsequently, I found an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family (August 1999) that further illuminated the dynamics between me and my mother. It’s called, “The Micropolitics of Care in Relationships Between Aging Parents and Adult Children: Individualism, Collectivism, and Power.” An abstract of the article is available at:

Essentially, the researchers found that Exchange Theory applied in most situations between aging parents and adult children. If both were able to get enough of what they needed (e.g. recognition, appreciation, deference on the one hand; and independence and a measure of control on the other) things would go relatively smoothly. If one or both sides did not get what they needed, the system of care taking and help broke down.

In thinking about this, it seems to me that my mother wants her independence though realizing at times that she needs help. She both needs help and resents having to have it. I’m sure I haven’t been as diplomatic as I could be at times in letting her know that she is capable, and yet needs help with some things. For me, there have been too many years of this. I feel sad at times, but also angry about all this. Some guilt, some relief. 

For now, I need to keep distance between my mother and me. I need time to let go of anger, and sort through other feelings, figure out what kind of relationship if any, I can have with my mother. She’s not going to change – can I find a way to relate to her despite that?


I will continue to search for articles and books, try to understand this thing called aging, because I want to find a way for myself to age with grace and diplomacy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Rain of Dragonflies – Excerpt

His Daughter’s Eyes

He skis along the crest of a ridge through drifts of crusted snow and it’s hard going because no one has broken a trail. An unzipped jacked lets some of the heat of his exertion escape. His wife and daughter had been with him, but he and they have become separated. He is not really worried yet, although he came up here in hopes of spotting them more easily, and now it’s beginning to cloud over. Pale grey sky blends into white ground, isolating him, a dark speck in a huge washed out canvas.
He wears no watch, has no idea of the time and begins to wonder how long he has been skiing by himself, whether his wife and daughter are worried, searching for him. The only sounds are the hiss of his skis as they slice through snow, the in and out of his breath and the beating of his heart. He has thought about shouting their names, stopping and waving his arms, but has not done it. Perhaps it’s because he is afraid to give up hope and what if there is no answer to his calls?
A dark shape breaks the whiteness ahead, an outcrop of rock that has not been covered with snow. Though he doesn’t know when he last stopped, he thinks it’s important to rest, to eat. He leans his skis against the rock, crouches against its hardness. His small backpack contains a chocolate bar, a hardboiled egg, a chunk of cheese, a thermos of coffee, waxes, an extra ski tip, a screwdriver, a length of leather thong, and a jack knife. He has always prided himself on being prepared for any emergency.
As he sits chewing, a slight wind rises and he watches snow sift over the marks he has made. His parka is down filled and he is warm enough in the lee of the rock. They didn’t want to come skiing. His daughter wailed about plans with her friends and his wife supported her.
“Why today?” she asked. “You’ve gone skiing by yourself before, why not this time?”
A necessity he thought, some kind of last chance, but didn’t say it for fear of embarrassing himself. They wouldn’t understand, probably laugh, his fifteen-year-old daughter regarding him with blue-lashed eyes rimmed in black. He could not talk to those eyes, saw a stranger looking out of them, under the stiff, spiky hair.
“Leave her alone,” his wife often said.  “She’ll grow out of it.”
But he remembered his own adolescence, how his parents never seemed to understand anything. When he finally went away to university it was a relief and he made his visits home as short as possible. There had never been closeness between them again. Of course he got along with them all right, but they talked about inconsequential things. They didn’t know anything about his real life, the things he wanted, what he worried about, what was important to him. How could the same thing have happened with his own daughter when he had decided he would not let it?
He watches snow swirl, making patterns that he can’t read, like the twitch of his daughter’s dark dress at the dance. Not the kind of thing he remembered girls wearing to dances. He’d volunteered to be a chaperone because he wanted to be part of his daughter’s life, but all evening she and her friends ignored him and he felt like a stranger in a foreign country, unable to speak the language. A peacock among crows, in his red shirt and faded blue jeans. So many of his daughter’s friends wore baggy black, and to him unattractive, clothes. Recently his daughter has even taken to wearing heavy chains around her neck and wrists.
“Maybe one of us should quit working,” he said to his wife. “Stay home more, be here after school.”
“I’m not staying home,” his wife answered. “For God’s sake, she’s not a child anymore!”
That’s what worried him, though he’d not been able to say it. His little girl growing into an alien, perhaps dangerous creature.
It’s time to get moving again. Slowly he rises, puts on his pack, cleans his boots and connects the skis. He continues in the same direction, along the top of the ridge.  After a while he realizes that he is going down, the slope so gradual that he didn’t notice at first. He stops and debates the best way to go. There is really no way of knowing for sure and so he continues on, letting his skis take him where they will. The ravine offers shelter from the wind, but it’s beginning to get dark and colder.
He worries about his wife and daughter, hopes they have sense enough to go back to the car. His wife has her own keys, so they will be able to get in, to keep warm. They are probably impatient and angry that he went off without them after insisting that they come on this trip.
Bushes slip away on either side as he weaves his way along, skirting the edge of a frozen slough. Now that he has convinced himself of his wife’s and daughter’s whereabouts, he digs in his poles, skis shooting through drifts, cutting tracks, leaving puffs of snow behind. A big hill and he herringbones up, then stops at the top, breath rasping in his throat, to rest and gather a bit of energy for the last leg. He’s not exactly sure where he is, but the parking lot can’t be far. He skis along the top of the hill in the deepening dusk, watching for headlights that will guide him toward the highway.
A dark shape stands out slightly in the snow ahead – an outcrop of rock. He stops beside it, sees in the hollow on one side the marks of someone who crouched there earlier. It is the place he stopped before. Panic rises in his chest, but he pushes it down. Darkness won’t be total for a while. He’ll just have to be more careful this time. He hopes they’ve waited for him, or maybe worried by his long absence they’ve driven to the nearest town to notify the RCMP. Right now he doesn’t mind the thought of that at all, even if it discredits his outdoor skills. A gulp of coffee from the thermos to warm his insides and then he’s off.

For a while he follows his own tracks backward, but this time he watches for landmarks and finds the place where he thinks he went wrong earlier. He should be more certain now, but he is not, his confidence in himself, shaken. Surely he has been this way before, knows these trails and yet there’s a nagging doubt. Maybe his whole life has been like that, his self-confidence all a con, a sham, and someday people will find him out. It’s why he’s gone in for things like skiing that involve technique and specific knowledge that can be learned. He’s needed to prove his competence to himself as well as to other people. In the past he’s always pushed such thoughts back into the dark parts of his mind, but suddenly they have broken loose.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Aging Brain

For a long time now I’ve been dealing with aging parents.  Watching and experiencing their lives makes we wonder what is in store for me as I continue to get older.

My mother likes to say, “Don’t get old.” I’ve tried responding to that in different ways, though I think what she really means is she’s not enjoying getting old. Not every older person I meet has that attitude. I’ve been wondering what makes some people more negative than others as they age, what leads to odd characteristic, like increased lying or talking almost constantly? Why do some people age more gracefully than others? What is the psychology of aging?
One theory of aging says that people have a tendency to withdraw from society as they get older. I do know people who are like this, but others I know stay actively connected. In fact nowadays we are encouraged to stay engaged and active as long as possible for healthier lives. Another theory states that as we get older there is a certain amount of introspection in regards to evaluating our lives. If we think we’ve lived well and contributed, we feel better about ourselves than if we think we’ve not done as we wanted or not lived up to our potential or hopes and dreams. The latter may lead to despair and withdrawal.

Contemporary theories talk about life-long character traits rather than stages of life. Particularly important are such traits as openness to new experiences, levels of anxiety, impulsiveness, and consciousness of self. Also are important are assertiveness and openness to positive emotional experiences. If you are stubborn and cantankerous in youth, you will likely remain that way as you age. However, some researchers have found that personality traits might change as we age.
I have some thoughts of my own. It seems to me that some people, when they realize that they are not able to physically do some of the things they used to do, feel unhappy and manifest that by complaining. Others, in this increasingly complex world, find themselves unable to cope with things such as technology, (e.g. telephone voice mail systems etc.) and feel less competent. At times these feelings can lead older people to tell direct lies about something that happened or modify the facts in order not to make themselves look bad or incompetent. Some people do not seem able to say, “I just don’t understand that,” or “I can’t do that.” And then of course, there are the changes in the brain. Have you noticed yourself getting more forgetful? Or do certain things just not stick in your mind anymore? Perhaps it’s more difficult to maintain focus, especially if there are a lot of things going on. Hearing and sight may deteriorate. Some of us are able to compensate through various strategies such as making lists or maintaining a detailed calendar of events, using hearing aids or magnifying glasses. Others don’t seem able to cope.

I’ve been able to find books that talk about how to make the aging process better (e.g exercise, eating well, being active), how to deal with the legal issues (making wills, etc.), possible physical health issues (e.g. osteoarthritis), financial issues (e.g. how to save for retirement), living options (e.g. assisted living, long term care, etc.), and how to be a caretaker. But so far I haven’t found any books that talk about the characteristics that older people may manifest (some of which I’ve mentioned above), whether these are part of the aging of the brain, and how to try to understand and cope with these things when you are a caretaker. Is there anything we can do, or should we just accept the negatives and try not to let them bother us? Are there things we can say and do to make things easier both for ourselves as caretakers and for those we are caring for?
I continue to search for good books and articles on the subject. And I’m working on a book of my own.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whiteoaks of Jalna – Early Soap Opera?

Many years ago I found out about Mazo de la Roche, a Canadian writer who lived from 1879 to 1961 and may have been one of the first Canadian writers of soap opera, although they weren’t called that at the time and weren’t broadcast. According to Wikipedia, the first soap opera (called so because sponsored by soap manufacturers) premiered on radio in Chicago in 1930. At any rate, Mazo’s first book, Jalna, was published in 1927 and won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly book award. This made 48 year old Mazo internationally famous and a bestselling author.

The series grew to 16 volumes and covered 100 years of the Whiteoaks family. Robertson Davies said in 1961, “"The creation of the Jalna books is the most single feat of literary invention in the brief history of Canada's literature." The series has sold more than nine million copies in 193 English and 92 foreign language editions (Canadian Encyclopedia). The film “Jalna” was made in 1935 and a CBC television series based on the books was produced in 1972.

The story of the Whiteoaks family begins in 1854 with The Building of Jalna (the books were not written in chronological order). It is the story of Adelaide and Captain Whiteoak settling at Lake Ontario and beginning to build their estate. I read the whole series a long time ago and found them as addictive as any good soap opera (Downton Abbey anyone?). Toward the end, though I also found myself thinking, I am sick of this family, though I couldn’t stop reading until it was over. The books are still available.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the Whiteoaks book series, is the life of Mazo Louise Roche, who was born in Newmarket Ontario, January 15. She added the “de la” herself, later.  When she was seven, her parents adopted Mazo’s cousin Caroline. The two girls became lifelong companions and lived together as adults. In 1931 they adopted two orphan children about whom they told various stories. The two women kept their lives very private and when Mazo died, Caroline burned her diaries. The National Film Board of Canada made a film in 2011 called “The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche” which explores this writer’s unusual life through documentary and dramatic techniques. It’s available for download.

Canadian writer Joan Givner published in 1989, a biography called Mazo de la Roche, The Hidden Life. It’s available from the Saskatoon Public Library. From what I can see, the library also has many of Mazo’s Jalna books. If you want to read the series in order, check out Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

“Dream No Little Dreams”

On June 15, 1944 the people of Saskatchewan made history by electing the first socialist government in North America – the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). The CCF won 47 of the 52 seats in the legislature. Winds of change had begun to blow.

The day before the election the Regina Leader Post newspaper stated: “It is just plain stupid to say it does not matter who wins this election where the answer to the question will affect vitally the way of living of every individual, will affect the right to own and use property, will enthrone a stultifying dictatorial system; and may start Canada on the road to strife and devastation that has been followed by European countries which faced the same issue and failed to settle it decisively on the first vote.”

The above quote and most of the information in this blog comes from the book “Dream No Little Dreams:  A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan, 1944 - 1961” by A.W. Johnson. He wrote it as his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard in 1963 and it was later rewritten and published as a book. And by the way, the world did not end after that election, Saskatchewan did not become a dictatorship, and we didn't lose the right to own property.

George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many now, I think, have forgotten the past, forgotten some of the roots of this province, the cooperation that took it out of the dark ages of poverty and difficulty and began to bring it to brighter days.

The Regina Manifesto (1933) of the CCF stated in part, “The present order is marked by glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity, by chaotic waste and instability; and in an age of plenty it condemns the great mass of people to poverty and insecurity. Power has become more and more concentrated into the hands of a small irresponsible minority of financiers and industrialists.” Sound familiar? Sound current?

Johnson was uniquely qualified to write this book because he spent many years in Saskatchewan government working in various capacities. He was able to provide an insider’s view of how government can work.

“Dream No Little Dreams” gives us the roots of the CCF, the social issues that led to its founding, its values and policies, and the people who made it successful. Johnson takes us into the first months of the new government and beyond. The average age of cabinet ministers was forty-six. Of Tommy Douglas, Premier, Johnson writes, “My sense of him – formed from the time I first met him in the late 1930’s as an annual guest preacher in my father’s church, through my sixteen years as an official in his government – was that the essence of Douglas lay in his idealism and in his capacity to inspire others with his sense of mission.”


I've barely started this book and I highly recommend it. It’s not a quick or an easy read, but it’s full of fascinating details of this province’s history. The book is in the public library system, and also available on Amazon if you want to buy it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Walls

A little over 25 years ago the Berlin wall opened to free travel. My father spent his childhood and youth in Berlin, though he left long before the wall went up. Anyway, I felt more than slightly interested in this event, and the spring after the opening of the borders, my son, my parents and I spent some time in Berlin. There were portions of the wall still standing, though people were chipping away at it.

When my father lived there, Berlin was the capital of Germany. and the country and the city were still whole. At the end of World War II (1945), Germany and Berlin were divided, originally into 4 occupation zones (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union).  Eventually these were amalgamated into East and West Germany and East and West Berlin. It should be noted that Berlin was located in East Germany. The Soviet Union opposed the other allies’ plans to create a West German republic so on the 26 of June, 1948, they blockaded all ground travel into Berlin. This began the Berlin Air Lift, which brought needed supplies (food, coal, etc.) to West Berlin. My father's mother was living in East Berlin at the time. We were living in West Germany and I'd been born earlier that year. My grandmother had wanted my father to move the family to Berlin; instead, he and my mother started talking about emigrating to Canada. The airlift lasted until May 11, 1949 when the Soviet Union again allowed ground traffic.

The wall wasn’t built until 1961, overnight with no warning. It was a response by the Soviet Union to massive numbers of East Germans fleeing to the west, though they called it protection against western fascists.

Walls can keep people out or in. They are necessary to build houses that protect and shelter us from weather. Walls may enclose gardens or fields. They can be beautiful or ugly. People may build psychological or other walls to protect themselves or to keep out others.

The Berlin wall became a symbol of a divided people, of oppression, of the Cold War. For many Berliners it was a constant stark reminder of tyranny. I heard of a writer in West Germany who deliberately chose an apartment where he saw the wall every day from his windows. We've all heard the stories of those who died trying and those who succeeded in crossing the wall and the “death strip.”

There are many different kinds of walls – walls of prejudice and hate, “glass ceilings” preventing promotions, walls of poverty, lack of education, walls of ignorance and a refusal to see the issues before us.

It’s early to be making new year’s wishes, but it seems appropriate: I wish we’d all spend as much time and money tearing down walls as we spend on armament and war.