Sunday, February 22, 2009


John Updike's publisher received his newest collection only a few weeks before he died this January. In it was a poem titled 'Requiem' and it seems to say so much about how he sees himself. I don't know his history or background but I sense some extreme melancholia.

I guess it takes one to know one because it struck a real chord with me too. It reminded me - as a contrast - of a wonderful monument in the shape of a Celtic cross that I saw at St. Conan's Kirk in Scotland. The inscription at the base of this huge monument indicated that it had been erected in memory of Caroline Agnes Campbell by 34 of her friends. At the time I was struck by the number. Thirty four friends! For me that is a titanic number and I was, I am, quite envious of Caroline Agnes and what must have been a wonderful personality to have had 34 people work together and build a lasting monument after her untimely demise.

Sadly I tend to identify more with Updike's vision of himself than with Caroline's legacy. Who knows, perhaps Caroline might have had a similar opinion of herself. We'll never know.

John Updike's 'Requiem' .....

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
'Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise - depths unplumbable!

Instead a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
'I thought he died a while ago.'
For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Always look on the bright side of life !

The weather on Sunday afternoon, September 12, 2004 was hot and the wind was still. It seemed the perfect day for my sister and I to take care of Mom’s ashes.

When Mom died, Dad didn’t know what to do with the ashes. In his view the moment that Mom died we were left with, in the words of St. Paul, ‘the clay jar’. He didn’t want a burial, and he sure didn't want an urn in his apartment, so when the Funeral Director suggested that we might sponsor a tree in the local arboretum where we could sprinkle her ashes, it seemed the perfect solution.

Unfortunately Dad fell and broke his back shortly after Mom died and so the disposition of the ashes had been delayed. And it became obvious that, even as his health improved his emotional state was very vulnerable. We all knew that this next task (clay jar or not!) would be too difficult for him to face, but he was anxious for it to be done. So, about two months following Mom’s death my sister and I went to the arboretum. We had already selected a young Thomas Black Walnut set well back from the road. In our mind we thought it would be better for Dad not to have to see the tree every time he passed the arboretum.

I had agreed to pick up the ashes from the Funeral Home and when they handed me the cloth bag that held a small cardboard box my first thought was – wow, this weighs almost as much as Mom (she always was tiny and when she died she was down to less than 50 lbs). But my second thought, surprisingly to me, was ‘this box contains my mom’. I say ‘surprisingly’ because I know that box didn’t contain ‘Mom’. My heart knows that what it contained was the remains of her ‘clay jar’ but still…… it was a very strange feeling and I was surprised at the intensity of my emotions.

My sister and I drove to the arboretum the next day with hoe, camera, wind chimes and ashes in hand. She carefully raked back the mulch around the base of the tree and then made a furrow in the soil. She said it was like the circle of life and that it would allow us to distribute Mom’s ashes in a continuous flow. A lovely thought.

But first we had to open the box. Not an easy feat! The cardboard was taped tightly shut so we had to struggle a bit with that. Not only that, but prominently placed on the top of the box was a typed label with Mom’s name on it. The two of us looked at each other for a moment then moved on. We finally got the box opened, expecting to find a bag of ashes. However, what was inside the cardboard box was a green plastic box marked ‘temporary container’ and again labeled with Mom’s name. There was no easy way to open the green box and so we had to use my car keys to pry open the top before finally reaching the plastic bag. It was kind of like opening a gift when someone has packaged a small box into a bigger box and then again into another bigger box and on and on ….. a bit bizarre actually.

We looked at the plastic bag filled with gray dust but also containing bits and pieces, some small and others a few inches long. It was surreal. This has been our Mom. Silently we poured the ashes ‘round and ‘round the tree until the plastic bag was emptied. We then sat down on opposite sides of the tree and, with tears flowing down our faces, pushed the mulch and soil to cover what remained of our mother’s ‘clay jar’. After sitting quietly together for a while we hung the tiny wind chime, took a few photo’s for Dad, and left.

Dad died this past summer, at 95 years old, four years to the day after Mom. Following his wishes, which had been clearly and frequently articulated during the previous four years, we arranged the cremation and took the ashes, ready to be scattered around the same tree.

However, it wasn’t exactly the same tree. The spring after Mom’s death we received a call that all of the Black Walnut trees had some kind of disease. We were offered the option of either planting a new, different, tree in the same location or simply choosing a tree in another location. This time Dad was able to participate and he selected a young maple tree that was very close to the road. Funny, six months earlier my sister and I had selected a tree far from view thinking that it would be better for Dad. Yet when Dad had his choice he wanted one he could see as he went by. Appropriate really I suppose, after 63 years of marriage if must have offered some comfort. Disconcerting too though when, on my visits he’d often ask – as we drove by the arboretum – “would you like to say hello to your Mom?”

My brother-in-law, knowing how upset my sister had been when the Black Walnut died, had gone over one afternoon with a shovel and a bucket and removed everything from around its base and placed it around the new tree. Mom had moved!

So, we were now in the position of having to dispose of Dad’s ashes around Mom’s tree. We had learned however from our experience with Mom and so, before we left the house we opened all the containers. We also remarked on how much heavier ‘Dad’ was compared to ‘Mom’.

And then the rain started. So we waited. And we waited. And at about 9pm we set out. In the dark and the wet. Surrounded by mosquitos.

Did I mention it was dark? Did I mention that this tree was right at the corner of the main intersection?

So, there we are, flashlight, trowel, hand rake and a box full of ‘Dad’. My sister was being eaten alive by the mosquito’s as she held the flashlight and I hacked away with trowel and rake around the base of tree.

This had been MUCH easier on a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon far off from the busy roadway!

All we could imagine was that one of the dozens of cars that seemed to have chosen that particular moment to drive by would report “strange activity” and the police would come to investigate. And so we started to laugh. Each time a car went by we’d turn off the flashlight – leaving me digging away in the total darkness while she slapped at the swarms of insects that surrounded her. Then the car would pass, the flashlight would come on – who knows, we may have been giving off some bizarre morse code messages - and I’d begin to empty the bag of ‘Dad’ around the tree. Each time we turned off the flashlight we laughed harder. By the time we had finally finished our task we were laughing so hard we could hardly stumble back to the car and get off home again.

No ‘circle of life’ or hanging the symbolic wind-chime for Dad. No sitting quietly together in contemplation. No, more like a Monty Python or Fawlty Towers skit. And in reality, because of their personalities, it really was much more appropriate. We imagine that Dad heartily enjoyed every minute of the farce.

But still, after Mom’s ‘circle of life’ ceremony and Dad’s ‘Monty Python Meaning of Life’ ceremony, they’re side by side again. Just as they always were in life. And now always will be. Both in heaven and on earth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart

Last summer a friend gave me a book to read. "I know you'll think this is crazy" she said 'but just read it". "Don't ask me why I'm giving it to you, don't think about what kind of book it is, just read it and then we'll talk."

Her sister had given it to her with the same instructions. She was, as was I, initially perplexed. Why would she have given me THIS book. But then she read it and understood. Luckily she shared it with all of her friends including me. I read her copy and then bought one of my own along with several copies for other friends. If I could, I'd insist that every person would be REQUIRED to read the book.

So why did my friend, and her sister before her, loan a book which they felt needed to come with a cautionary message?

Because it was a children's book. And I'm long past being a child ... at least chronologically.

When I say it's a children's book I suppose what I mean is that it was written as a children's book but the story, and the message, are ageless and timeless.

That book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, with beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, won my heart.

For those of you without children - or whose children are long grown up like my own - you might recognize the name Kate DiCamillo as the author of the book on which a recent childrens' movie has been based, The Tale of Despereaux. People with young children will likely be familiar with DiCamillo's 'Mercy Watson' series of books as well as Because of Winn-Dixie.

There's lots of stuff in the entertainment news about Edward from The Twilight book series but it's a porcelain rabbit named Edward that won my heart.

Read it. No matter how old or young you are this is the book to read. "Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit ...."

And while you're at it check out Edward's website (yes, the porcelain rabbit has his own website) and Kate's website . Kate's journal section on her website is more than worth the read.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Young Lady

Someone asked me why I refer to myself as 'Young Lady' on these musings. Actually, it's not 'Young Lady' it really should be THE Young Lady.

That was what my parents both called me for as long as I can remember. When I'd call them whoever answered the phone would call out to the other 'it's the young lady'. When the phone was handed off inevitably the first words would be 'hello young lady'.

Whenever I met any friends of my parents they'd always say "oh so YOU'RE the young lady'. As a really young lady it used to embarass me. As I grew up I came to appreciate and value it.

It likely began because I have an older sister (although by no means does me being the 'young' lady make her the 'old' lady!!) but it just became what they called me. Dad was a great one for using 'doll', 'honey', 'sweetie' for Mom, my sister and I but I was the only 'young lady'.

Mom died in 2004 and Dad just this past summer. One of the most poignant things that struck me after they were both gone was that I was no longer anyone's 'young lady'.

And so, writing under this pseudonym is both honouring their memory and giving me a little something like a security blanket.

Hi ... it's the young lady.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

2 minutes ... get your shit together ....

I watched the "Mark Twain prize for American humour" ceremony tonight which honoured George Carlin. Apart from laughing like hell over some of the bits they showed ... '2 minutes, get your shit together' .... 'where am I going to put my STUFF?' ..... what struck me most was his personal transformation.

In his album AM/FM he did the 'AM' side (as Bill Maher said "remember when albums had sides?") in his 'crew cut/business suit persona'. The 'FM' side was the 'long haired t-shirt wearing hippy' who Carlin said was the real thing - not a persona at all. He said that HE had become lost in his act. There was no more 'George' in 'George Carlin' and so he transformed. references the Jungian view of 'persona' as the mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual; the public personality' and it all got me thinking about the masks that I wear "to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment".

I have a work persona and a home persona. I have a friend persona and a family persona. I swear comfortably (like a truck driver some might say) with some people but just knowing that would seriously shock some others. I can hold my own when it comes to single malt or a good red wine and yet comfortably spend weeks drinking Perrier. I don't think I'm much different from most people. Honestly anyone who tells you they're the same person in every situation is, in my humble opinion, delusional.

Anyway, for me these masks are protection. As one who suffers from a major social anxiety disorder (some times more debilitating than others) the real me is masked by whatever persona will "satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment".

I used to tell my anam chara that he is the only one who knows the real me. What everyone else sees is what I present to them. I have, over the past year or so, gotten better at showing the real me to more people and luckily haven't been rejected (a key worry of a social anxiety sufferer). But it's the 'old' relationships that I have the most trouble with.

In new relationships, or those that have changed due to other circumstances, I'm more comfortable presenting the real me. In the 'old' ones ... the ones where the persona has a stronghold ... it's much more difficult.

Because in those relationships the persona has become the person. What I mean by that is this ..... when my social anxiety peaks (and for those of you who share this disorder you'll know what I mean) the persona takes over. And if you have long periods where the anxiety is prime then all people see are the persona. And then the persona becomes you. They believe - and why wouldn't they - that the persona is the person. They don't see the person behind the persona. And so they continue to treat you the same way even though you - inside - feel able to drop the persona. They simply aren't able to see you differently and you (or me in this instance .... and after all, it's MY blog so it IS all about ME!) struggle with the person/persona conflict. After all, I've been judged and labelled as the persona. The challenge to show the real you to the people who before then have only known the 'other' can seem insurmountable. Does seem insurmountable.

So what I have to work out is this ..... can I be as brave as George Carlin and flip to the 'B' side - show that 'long haired t-shirt wearing me' to those who only know the other or will the other prevail? Time will tell.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

There's probably no God .....

"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

These words, or something quite similar, are likely to be coming soon to the side of a TTC vehicle near you. This advertising campaign began in the UK and the ad's are already prominently displayed on the sides of London buses. Advertising coming soon to Italy will proclaim "The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him".

As you can imagine, this has created a flurry of responses, primarily from two extremes. One are the strident atheists (whose own 'god' might be Richard Dawkins) and another the hell-fire and damnation religious right [many of whom claim their own ownership to God]). I wonder if either group recognize the similarities between each other.

Both cling passionately to their own dogma ... whether God/god does/doesn't exist. Both will argue opposite sides of the same point using science or faith depending upon their viewpoint without listening to the opinions of the other. Just like a kid who sticks their fingers in their ears to drown out the things they don't want to hear. [or the 'Vancome Lady' from MADTV]. la la la la la la

The young university student who is promoting the Toronto campaign received, in one week, over $21,000 in donations towards the cost of the ad's. In the UK the campaign raised almost $250,000. Many of the comments that I've heard are about how much good that money might have done had the donors contributed to other [non-religious if that is more palatable] organizations.

The basis for the campaign resulted from a young woman in the UK whose attention was grabbed by an advertisement quoting a particular Old Testament passage that basically said 'if you don't believe in God you're going to hell' (I'm paraphrasing but there are numerous Old Testament passages that can be interpreted in this way). This woman created the campaign to 'provide a balance' and 'the other point of view'.

Both campaigns are, in my opinion, offensive. I wonder if the old adage 'two wrongs don't make a right' is applicable here. It's interesting that these folks seem to think that there is only one religious type (aka the hell fire and brimstone) and paint us all with that same brush. I'll be damned if I'd worship a God who condemned me to hell. ;)

One person who commented on this uproar said that - contrary to the ad's -she does believe in God yet isn't worried about anything and is enjoying here life very much.

If there's one one positive result from this advertising it might be that it will stimulate discussion. Sadly the groups who would benefit the most from an open dialogue are those most unlikely to participate.

As Dylan (a fellow with many of his own followers) reminds us ....

you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.