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


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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living Alone

Recently someone said, “Living alone is hard.” I don’t find that at all. In fact, for me living alone is peaceful, satisfying, renewing.

I’m at a time in my life when I’m dealing with very elderly parents. Ellis Peters in Dead Man’s Ransom writes, “And sometimes it went the opposite way, kept the good and let all the malice and spite be washed away. And why one old man should be visited by such grace, and another by so heavy a curse, Cadfael could not fathom.” She’s talking about old monks, one of whom remembers only the bad that everyone has done to him. It’s exhausting when my mother phones me nearly every day to complain about something, or to get me to explain once again what I’ve already explained several times before. Is she truly losing her memory, or is she just not paying attention, or does she just want attention? I could go on and on, but my point in this piece is that when things get too much with my parents (or in other areas of my life), my refuge is my house, my peaceful life and my own routine.

I live in a city that is wonderful for walking, which I do as much as I can. My home is in a neighbourhood close to many amenities – shops, the library, restaurants, and the riverbank. My yard is small, but I've planted it with perennials, a few annuals, and I also have a small vegetable garden. At this time of year, the yard and garden are mostly done, though with the wonderful weather we've had this year, there are still sweet peas blooming, the odd rose and a few other things.

There are books in my house, music CD’s, and movie and TV DVD’s, so I have quiet entertainment if I want it. I’m part of a book club that meets regularly, wonderful women who read widely and we have many fascinating discussions. Often some of us will go to a movie or a play together as well.  I’m also part of a writing group, and of course I need solitude to work on my own writing. I have other friends that I meet for coffee or walking.My parents don’t seem to have that kind of network, and I’m not sure they ever did, though they did take part in church and community affairs for many years. Perhaps, since they've always had each other, they didn't feel the need to reach out as much. Anyway, I enjoy spending time with friends and at the same time, I like my own company.

Of course, it’s not easy sometimes when things need to be done to my house. I’m the one who has to take care of everything; there’s no one else to delegate to if something goes wrong or when the eaves troughs need to be cleaned (though I could pay someone to do that). But I've lived alone for so many years (I believe in making ithe best of whatever situation I find myself in.) that I've grown used to coping with things. There’s a sense of accomplishment about sorting out my own problems.

I guess for me it’s partly about balance. I need solitude and I also need people. Finding the right combination is wonderful.

Here’s a quote from a little book I love, Words on Solitude and Silence: “Loneliness is the poverty of the self, solitude is the richness of the self.” – May Sarton.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Old Man Coming Home from the Forest

Gordon Lightfoot has a song called “Home from the Forest.” Some of the lines in that song seem apropos at this time in my life. My father, who is 92, is probably going to go into long term care. It’s a long time for someone to live, particularly to live independently.

I’ve gone through various stages with my parents in their aging process. These last couple of weeks have taken me to a whole new level. I keep thinking of a quote from Kalil Gibran’s The Prophet – “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” It’s not exactly sorrow that’s carving deep into me now, but understanding, empathy and perhaps a kind of acceptance of this mysterious thing we call life (particularly the old age part) that takes us on so many different paths.
I’ve seen one or the other of my parents grapple with the aging process for many years. The body doesn’t work as well as it used to, there are more aches and pains, hearing goes, perhaps sight. How do you find quality of life or joy when this happens? For some years my mother used to say to me, “Don’t get old.” It always bothered me. I thought that she wasn’t really thinking about what she was saying, and I believed that if she had a better attitude she would have a better aging. Finally, one day I got so annoyed that I responded, “So you want me to die young?” After that she didn’t say those words as often and for a few years now I’ve rarely heard her say it.

I don’t recall my father saying much about what he couldn’t do. Even after he lost a lot of his hearing, had to have an artificial eye and lost most of the sight in the other, he still walked nearly every day – to get the mail or around the town where he lives. People said to me that they saw him walking. Sometimes someone would ask him if he wanted a ride, but he’d always refuse, though he liked to stop and chat with people. That’s the kind of attitude I want to have.
In the last few years I’ve seen my father become more crotchety at times, particularly with my mother. This however, didn’t surprise me because I find her constant talking, and at times nagging, annoying myself. She doesn’t realize that since he can’t hear very well, even with his hearing aids, long rambling monologues are pretty much incomprehensible. He doesn’t know when she’s saying something that he has to pay attention to or when she’s just rambling.

I’ve always had a more difficult relationship with my mother and aging has made it even harder. However, these last couple of weeks with my father first being in hospital for a week and a half, and then going into temporary respite to get assessed, have made me at least try to see my mother differently, and to try to have more patience with her. I can see her as an elderly woman who needs my help through a difficult time. Her behaviours may annoy me, but I can put that annoyance aside most of the time and just do what needs to be done. I can sometimes smile at habits that drove me up a wall in the past. This is not to say that I still don’t get weary or annoyed. Silence (mine) is a key coping mechanism.
My parents chose to keep living in the small town where we moved when I was in grade eight. I and at least one of my siblings suggested they move to the city when they retired, but they resisted. As they grew older and needed more medical attention – doctor, dentist, optometrist, ophthalmologist – I thought that they had definitely made the wrong decision to stay there. They had stopped being able to drive and had about a two hour bus ride into the city for many of their medical appointments. Of course, I ended up picking them up at the bus station and driving them to their appointments. One of my brothers was able to do this for a time, but he didn’t always live in the city. Though I could have let them look after their own affairs in this respect, because after all they had made this choice to live where they did, and the difficulties were logical consequences of that choice, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. No matter what issues I had with them, they were and are still my parents and I feel a duty or a responsibility to help make things a little easier.

I think I’ve at least begun to move beyond resentment and my own negative feelings. I do what I do for them out of choice. And I do what I can; I won’t go to the point of exhausting myself. It’s a balance. I also have seen how much that small town takes care of its seniors. Someone will bring my mother her mail once a week. People have given her rides to visit my father when I couldn’t be there. The grocery store delivers. The pharmacy will, too. It’s not the sort of situation I would choose to live in now or in older age, but it seems to have worked and still works for my parents.
Through all this, as I’m attempting to do what I can for them, I’m also conscious that I must take care of myself (get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, do things I love). And I’m learning about the aging process, seeing different attitudes toward it, different ways of behaving. I’m hoping that will stand me in good stead as I move through my sixth decade, into my seventh and beyond.