I know nothing about the art and skill required to ascend the heights of stone. I don’t fit the picture of daredevil wannabes scaling vertical precipices, but I discovered there is a rock climbing role given expression in the word: ‘belayer’. The verb is ‘belay’ – the noun; ‘belayer’.
At my age, there is no desire or will sufficiently strong enough to compel me to rappel. Most of us do not climb literal mountains, but we scale daily figurative mountains; obstacles that hinder what we believe should be our way forward. Whether managing the same set of stairs for 20 years until the day you slip and fall and really hurt yourself, or struggle to change the habits of a lifetime, they are just hills, to me they are like the stone upon stone my thoughts construct and I imagine that is partly why this new-found word, belayer brings such appeal.
With it there comes the awareness my best self lives today and not tomorrow or yesterday and that my best self climbs mountains safeguarded by the belayer who holds the rope at the base of every climb. Between us a sacred trust is growing because I never climb alone. Each toe hold I discover and lean in to for support, is guided by a slow release of rope, fed to encourage advance and secured by the belayer who threads my way as I lead the pitch. It is less and less possible to remain in the same place; advance or perish. We are a team. I can only go higher when I let go of fearful ideals and under a watchful eye, reach for the vision of the summit. As I learn to trust the skill of the one who holds the rope and who will carry my weight when I fall, my reach exceeds my grasp and I discover what a heaven is for.
She’s off – into the world of work and I’m torn between despair it would never happen and sadness that it has. “You’re not supposed to wear yoga pants, but everybody does. I’m the rookie, so I can’t” She had just given me a sideways glance, now she stared straight ahead as she talked in the car. “I don’t want to go” she said flatly. “I haven’t been paid yet so it seems like I’m working for nothing. Maybe it’ll be better once I get paid”. “What is it?” I asked. “Is it you don’t want to work, or you don’t want to be a rookie at work?” Even though she thought it was rookie anxiety, I could sense it was more than that.
She had just graduated but school hadn’t prepared her for work. Her loyal girl circle had acquainted her with the idea of work, but at the age of 18, she had never really experienced it first hand. Cleaning one’s room and doing one’s own laundry were paltry facsimiles offering up no pay and little reward even if your mother insisted on the minimum of standards. Years of advice on how to dress modestly, how to express your own opinion and be kind, how to follow something through to the end had not given any motivation for finding employment. In fact, from the eyes of a teenager, it was far more logical to ask your father to cover extracurricular expenses, knowing he would always come through.
I was instructed to pull the car up to the back parking lot, behind the building, facing the staff entrance. We were early. Like the guitar lesson that began on the hour, a ten minute margin of punctuality was deemed ill-timed as one cannot arrive that early. I instructed her on the laws that govern parents driving children to jobs. “Joe says not to put my backpack in the lockers ’cause all the geeks do that. She says I should put mine in the bathroom cubby. But when I opened one of the cubbies, it was filled with all this junk and what happens if someone’s in the bathroom and you need your backpack?” Advice from a trusted source didn’t make it trustworthy advice. I told her to use her own common sense and to trust she could make choices based on her sense of right and wrong.
She was smart enough to realize that university wasn’t what she wanted right now. I wanted her to take a leap and leave home, trying out life in another city. I tried to convince her that an arts degree could help her find her way. No, it would not necessarily assure her of employment, but life is about more than employment. So I guess that makes me to blame for her sitting in the car on the drive to her first official employment trying to convince her that her attitude was all she had. With the face she made, standing there in her new black dress pants that she claimed were too big, she did her best to promise she wouldn’t be hard to get along with. I knew she wouldn’t be. But it was more than just that. She knew she needed to get going. Get her life going; step out, find out what working was about. It was time. As she held the car door, I leaned over from the driver’s seat, squinting up at her. “You can’t control what comes to you. All you have is your attitude, how you respond.” I hoped it was enough. I watched from the car as she approached the staff entrance. Backpack complete with lunch – amazing in its own right.
For a moment I was transported to the airport where she met up with the other members of the gymnastics team for a cross country competition. I was the interloper then, watching as if it would confirm she would be safe. Now I sit in the car, making sure they open the door for her before I leave as if she needed me to wait. She had pronounced her shift ended at 4:30 as if to impress upon me the importance of punctuality. I think my heart went in that door with her. I know it will be waiting for her in the parking lot after work.
I think if anyone ever doubted or chaffed against the designation of females in the Bible, one only needs to look at the prostitute Rahab and then perhaps to Esther. I’m sure there are many other women in the Bible who have made significant contributions, but really, the purpose here for me is to marvel at the position of Esther and the position of Mordecai, her cousin.
My father always said that when you show someone a photograph you have taken, they will not marvel at the technical ability of the photographer. Instead, their level of interest is determined by whether they themselves are in the photograph. This is what I see in Esther for of late.
In chapter four Mordecai is answering a question asked by Esther. She is afraid for her life. She has uncovered information – a plot, that would see her people wiped out – killed. Esther is a queen and she is reminding Mordecai that even queens are subjects of the king, governed as it were, by the rules of the court that forbid them from coming to the King without first being summoned. But she has this information. Of course, it would be a very different scenario if she was completely unaware of the plot and it would be highly unlikely anything would be requested of her if she were the gardener for the king and not his queen. So it is by happy or unhappy circumstance that she is the queen and she knows her people are at risk. The question then becomes; What will she do? Does she chance coming to the king unannounced? If you read the first few chapters of Esther and discover how Esther became the queen in the first place, you will understand why she is hesitant to come before a king who has not asked her to make an appearance. Add to this dilemma the fact that the King is not Jewish and Esther is, only he does not know she is.
So Mordecai in a sense, is acting as Esther’s conscience. He’s telling her that she can step up to the plate – or not. If she doesn’t take the risk, he is sure her people will be saved even without her help but it will look real bad for her when it’s discovered she knew about the plot all along. There is an alternative. She can trust God. This too is her choice. The thing is, if she chooses to trust God, it is not merely trusting God to save her people, she is trusting God to spare her life. She knows that saving her people might mean forfeiting her life. Before she accepts the risk of stepping forward, she must accept the fact she could die. As I read this, Paul’s words echo in my head; “For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”
I really want to believe that in the moments Esther takes to make this decision the tipping point comes when Mordecai tells her; “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” There it is. That’s the turning point we all face – every day. The next verses outline the how. Esther doesn’t just flip a coin, she does her homework. She gets everybody on board or as it were, on their knees. All the Jews pray. All the Jews fast. She and her attendants pray and fast and then she steps out in faith. She plans to pray and then makes a plan.
It’s a fascinating story – you should read how it turns out. As Esther was positioned in the royal court, Mordecai was positioned at the front gates; great wealth on one hand and abject poverty on the other. Mordecai was abused, ridiculed, hated and threatened, but I believe he knew this was where he was supposed to be so that he could be there when Esther needed to hear; “… for such a time as this.”
The Bus The Bus
Listen to ole wives’ tales while wearing mother’s blood red gloves.
Patch up dreams with hope from ages past.
The stars they will not fall today though their light may briefly dim.
I’ve got my heart on my sleeve…
The bus, the bus, I’m riding this Bus
and my pen gets to the page.
Coffee hot and shiny, sipped between radio calls
The driver more plump than the last time.
Tis cold, tis cold and my toes protest.
I alone sit across from “Flight” and “Vivamus mea Claudia”
- Poetry on the Way; I could do that I think and
scratch and scratch without glasses.
The sun beams and warms my face
How brilliant it peeks through highway trees
I am warmed, my card punched, my thoughts my own.
The Lamb of God the scripture read
This morning John proclaimed His right to praise and worship, adoration.
Fear not, for I am with thee – even to the ends of the earth.
I know, I know – not because the Bible tells me.
I know because the sun warms my face and the bus ride is short
and I write.
She was leaving today, but not so much unlike other trips; vacations, school, or to hang out with friends. She had her bags packed and any attempt to persuade her not to sandwich her laptop between her beach towel and her clothes went unheeded. I had to let her decide. However much I tried to influence, there was that point I had to let her decide. Plenty of help got her bags to the car and she settled in beside me for the drive to the airport.
The moments in life that present themselves while we are attending to the business of living, can be as quick as speed bumps, designed in a way to slow us down, stop our hurry, force us to pause and it is in those moments our hearts can fill with thanks or dread or something caught between the two thatt defies explanation. Maybe it’s the sadness of time that will not wait for you.
Her passion had turned toward rugby in high school and she struggled only briefly with inadequacy. She was impatient to become an expert. All of her ran down that field clutching that ball, not just her head filled with passing advice, not just her legs conditioned from years of gymnastics, not only her heart and lungs, protesting her lack of capacity, but all of her. Every fibre, every nerve, every sinew grabbed that opposing player to tackle, hovered in the wings to assess the play, ran when her time arrived and despaired when performance fell short of some inner expectation that pushed her for better. And she played. If the photo captured what it was, it was the same essence the coaches saw, because she played in every game in most of the minutes in every game and she only wore the scrum cap because her mother warned her the next concussion she suffered would be in the last rugby game she ever played.
I looked at her in the passenger seat and realized how much I wished I could have been like her when I was sixteen. But assessing the past with a measure of what might have been only deepens that sadness and at this moment, I only wanted her to share a sense of what I was feeling so I launched into the story of my father driving me to the airport not all that long ago. I was going to Italy. A dream. So much in life had eclipsed for me by then, the trip became pivotal to my personal liberation. It wasn’t an accident then that my husband had gone to work, my children had gone to school and my father came to drive me to the airport. He had lugged all four suitcases to the trunk of his car and I sat where my daughter was sitting now. I had no way of knowing he had but a couple of years to live. When all was arranged and my time to enter the passengers lounge approached, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, the one it seemed he never took off and the look on his face was a mixture of hope and pride, love and dreams and I hugged him goodbye, wishing he would just go already. Typically, I was impatient to begin the adventure and now I realize I missed what might have been the most important moment.
I had never known my father to spend money frivolously. He recorded every nickel ever spent; fearful to the end there would not be enough to see him off. But he gave me a thousand dollars to spend on my trip. An astronomical amount even then. He presented me with a National Geographic coffee table edition book “The Vatican” and had slipped inside the cover a neatly typed, one page epistle capturing his sentiments about Roman history and the Popes and how the auspicious occasion of my trip to the seat of the Roman Catholic church demanded a certain reverence. “Love Dad” he had written in pen at the bottom.
My daughter sat patiently while I wove the story to the point where I mentioned one thousand dollars and wide eyed with amazement she repeated the amount, just to be certain she understood. “Did he give you a thousand dollars to help pay for your trip?” she asked. “No. He gave me a thousand dollars just to spend as I wanted.” I tried to get past the money part and express the sadness I felt at my impatience with my father. I needn’t have bothered. We parked the car and from my change purse, I began to extract the change I would need for the meter when it occurred to me. I walked back from the meter to the car. She was heaving the suitcase from the trunk, collecting her sports bag from the back seat. “Should I put all my change in the meter?” I asked her. The flight didn’t leave until eleven o’clock and it was now quarter to ten. She understood. “If we go in there and all of your friends are there, will you want me to wait with you?” She didn’t have to reply. I understood. I wonder what my father had done. I never bothered to ask, it never occurred to him to ask me. I put all my money in the meter.
We walked together to the entrance. I carried her sports bag, she dragged her suitcase. Once inside it was obvious from the row of rugby hoodies that we would hug our goodbyes then and I would not blurt out all the hope and pride, love and dreams but quietly whisper in her ear; “I love you, be safe, I will pray for you.” I did not anticipate the tears – mine. How very strange it was to leave and drive home alone. How my father must have felt from a lifetime of seeing me off, tending to my wounds, making sure I was safe. I can’t be sure he knows how it has made me. My daughter will know, because I’ll continue to tell her his stories. Somehow they have become our story.
The Owl and the Pussy Cat
Edward Lear (1812–1888)
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
A throw back to the Baby Boomer generation would name it the Unemployment office, but in the political correctness of the day, it is now the Employment office. Makes a certain sense I think. You go there looking for work not unemployment, although you wouldn’t go there is you were employed. Life’s ambiguities always catch my attention. I approached the receptionist and advised her of my purpose and was instructed to take a seat. The waiting room wasn’t filled, there was no real flurry of activity, yet she met every person who approached her counter with a mouthful of food, gingerly fingering the morsels that attempted escape, pushing and shoving them between the muffle of words she would try to voice at the same time she chewed. How very odd I thought. The spectacle drew my focus downward for it was hardly possible to ignore the cut of her dress. I love the phrase “ample bosom” all by itself that phrase creates a visual. You can imagine, without encouragement, what an ample bosom would do if inadequately restrained by a neckline meant for an after hours soiree. It might have been in the moment she checked herself in the mirror that morning; it might have been in the car, when she pressed her lipstick to her lips in the rear view mirror, the neckline might have passed muster, for it only allowed an inch or two of cleavage to peek atop the straight cutaway of her dress. It all might have worked if not for the fact her job description required her to bend over, straighten up again, turn around, lean back, you get the picture. Little imagination needed. She simultaneously pushed the food back, checked appropriate repetitive responses, and kept “the girls” at bay, oblivious to the show, a talent that could rival a circus clown juggling as if his life depended on it.
I would have dismissed the whole affair as a “one off”. You know, those occasions where training facilitators convince you the customer service received by their company was an exception to the prescribed exemplary behavior; very close to not really ever having happened at all. On this occasion it made me think about being the one there for employment help, while clearly this woman needed help. It could have been a one off, if it were not for having occasion to be in the same office the following week.
By ten o’clock in the morning that day, it was already hot. Stepping inside the double set of heavy doors, anyone having to wait was grateful for the air conditioning. I had slipped into a permit parking spot rationalizing that if ticketed I could plead necessity, for the visitors’ parking lot was already full. A police cruiser was pulling up as I entered, joining another already parked outside the main doors. The reason became evident the moment I stepped inside. To my right, in my peripheral view two officers were snugged up alongside a young, heavy set man with short dark hair. I vaguely recall his offsetting, straight ahead focus. In crisp sharp black uniforms, they crowded him and he bolted. Striking out like a wild horse in the desperate last moments of freedom. I made a wide circle around the melee where the officers had his face to the cool of the stone floor, hands behind his back. A flash of shiny chrome as the handcuffs were employed. I had reached the receptionist counter where at least a dozen people were standing in awe of the proceedings, not really sure how to respond. Many backed away. A few expletives betrayed the surprise, most were on their feet or standing at a safe distance.
At this moment the receptionist stands behind the safety of her counter and having been oblivious up to this point, turns her attention to whatever the commotion might be. Realizing at last this is not something that happens every day she cries out; “Someone call the police!” and does so with a great deal of sound and authority. “They are the police.” came the meek reply from a young girl protecting her coffee cup.
I wasted no time in finding the room where I was to join the seminar. I lingered no longer than it took to confirm the young man was in custody. The remainder of his day would not go as he may have planned when he got out of bed that morning. Miss Blissfully unaware receptionist sat back down, satisfied she had done all she could.
I’m one of the lucky ones I thought as I found a chair close to the front of the room. I wasn’t taken away in a police cruiser that morning. I wasn’t a government clerk trying to explain some convoluted policy of reimbursement for re-training. I wasn’t the angry young man.
And more grateful I was than any of those in attendance that morning, I was not the gainfully employed, fully benefited, duly trained and utterly unaware receptionist.
The lesson was not taught in her grade ten class, it was learned in my grandmother’s grade nine class sixty years ago. You might think it odd to have such a memorable lesson skip a generation, rather the lesson was learned through a generation and will probably continue to be told.
“Barbara you laugh like a horse.” Her teacher had declared one day over the classroom din. If you were Barbara in that moment I imagine you’d cling to a faint hope the sting would be lost in the clamour that is a grade nine class. More than likely Barbara should have been crafting English lettering rather than her lesson. Otherwise it is hard to imagine why any adult given charge over children would compare a young girl or more precisely, the laughter of a young girl to that of a horse. Big stain topped teeth, enormous lips, sloppy saliva, horses don’t actually laugh, but neigh and whinny; who knows why, certainly not because they have found humor in the oats. Barbara expressed her boredom with education by practicing the art of English typeface, the anatomy of which required painstaking attention to craft the ascenders, descenders, serifs and stems. Fluid and flowing bowls and bars measured up to invisible lines that kept them straight and for Barbara, was demonstrated in copying one of her favorite poems; “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone”; page after page, much like her hands’ ability to fly over piano keys for she could already translate what she heard as music, it was just a matter of getting the keys to repeat what she felt, or lend her own harmony to the songs she knew.
He was right you know – really, for she did laugh. Not the measured restraint of polite society, but the stuff of deep bellies, head thrown back, mouth wide open - laugh. I suppose it was not very lady-like back then. I’m sure her very proper mother disapproved. Barbara spoke bluntly, loved fiercely and more often than not, her humor bordered on the bawdy. She was not a submissive, quiet type. She had no need to find her voice, it had pretty much found her and once settled in, spoke with frequent passion and as she aged. She was never afraid to laugh, whether at embarrassment she herself had caused, or at the foibles of others who were often at her mercy. Grade nine marked the end of her scholastic career.
That story was often repeated as I grew up. Or maybe not – maybe it was only told once and the memory of it stuck. Children can manufacture absolutes, believing in a moment a thing accomplished only once is a thing that was always done so the story might have been always or only once but it’s too late to say. I’ve lived the story for a lifetime. My own had no horses but brief quiet lapses of time where silence hung before it was snatched away by the jerk who exclaimed; “Ya think you could say that louder?” Recollection saves my ego for I’ve lost count of the number of chances I was given as stories were told, jokes repeated, sympathy was shared. A combination of clues recognized too late; the hand at shoulder height, elbow bent, brushing the air up and down alternatively bringing forefinger to lips in a plea to keep it down and a shushing motion to just be quiet. I would sense rather than know it was coming, always after the punch line or the story’s finish. I couldn’t take the words back and try again but I’d vow the next time, the next time I would know or stop or be somebody else before it went too far, before the eyes darted away from my face to the faces of others looking for a place to escape. There was always the unseen hovering authority like a trip wire that if ignored, would bring a ton of bricks down on your head. The authority had those unspoken (yes they were always unspoken) set of rules that meant you were not to talk a lot, preferably not at all; in the schoolroom, in the workplace, in the choir practice, over drinks. I tried so hard for so long to be that somebody who politely shook my head in acknowledgement of a conversation going on around me instead of jumping in with both feet – yes, I must say it – usually in my mouth.
After years of practice one day she came home and said; “My teacher asked me today if I had to talk that loud.” My heart sank. Progressive grades had seen a jigsaw puzzle of desk displacements, always to temper the chatter, reorganize classroom dynamics, shift focus – still the tongue. Out of the class. In the hallway. In the principal’s office. Stop talking. Other parents shared the back seats of their cars for their little girls to chatter, but mine would be asked to lower her voice.
“I hate art. Art doesn’t matter. Who cares if I do the assignment on perspective? What difference does it make if I pass in the shading homework?“ Two weeks for vacation and missed art assignments and no attempt to catch up. “Who had asked you if you had to talk that loud?” The art teacher. And then I hear from the art teacher.
“Up until yesterday your daughter has done no work or made any effort to catch up on the work she missed when she went away. She’s now making an effort to do the currently assigned work. She is welcome to come in at noon or after school to get caught up with her pen and ink drawing and the “wall paper” assignment. I’m here all lunch hour except for Tuesday and Friday when I do 20 minutes of duty. I’m here most days after school until 5 pm. She should have an “A” in this class. She’s more than capable but needs to put in the effort to complete assignments.“
I thought about Barbara, my mother. I thought about her a lot and then I wrote to the art teacher;
“Thank you for letting me know how my daughter is doing in your art class. I think it’s obvious you care about how she is doing or you would not have taken the time to write. I think it’s safe to say you probably care about all your students, or you would not be teaching art. Because you care about her, I’d like to share a bit of background with you so I’ll ask for your indulgence for just a moment.
When my mother was in grade nine, she became more preoccupied forming intricate old English lettering and practicing the art of calligraphy than her school work and it wasn’t long before that became a problem for her teachers. The story that resounded throughout my adolescence was the one where she was in class one day and in front of all the other students the teacher turned to her and in exasperation declared; “Barbara! You laugh like a horse!” You can imagine how that must have made her feel. The fact that 60 years later, I can still recount that story tells you of its impact. Fast forward to my own school years and I, as I was often told, was very much like my mother. Outgoing, friendly, enthusiastic, moody, animated, talkative (sound familiar?) and I remember vividly the number of occasions I gave people the opportunity to similarly declare how very loud my voice was. It left such an impression on me I have told both of those stories to my daughter many times.
Many years practice have allowed me to distance myself from the resulting inferiority and dismay those comments brought to me. I have learned to love the person God made me to be and when I am now given the chance, I make that love affair what I share with others – and that includes my loudness.
My daughter loves art Ms. Art Teacher. She is an artistic, gifted, sensitive young woman, who loves to express herself, give of herself to others and cares very deeply about how people think of her. I have been adamant and consistent in my attempts to help her be glad for who she is – loudness and all. In time, age and maturity will factor out the loudness and give her the discernment necessary to use that voice of hers when it is most effective.
I am sorry Ms. Art Teacher, but I cannot advise you on how best to coerce my daughter into doing as you instruct in class. I cannot even advise you on how to get her to pass your class, that is up to her. If you love art Ms. Art Teacher, I am sure you will find a way to share that love affair with my daughter.”
I never heard what Ms. Art Teacher thought about my words because she chose not to respond. I know my daughter was mortified that I should write to a teacher of hers. That I would express confidence in an ability she herself did not believe she possessed. “I think you think I’m better than I really am.“ she told me. Frankly I was a little offended. I had ridden in on my valiant steed and rescued the fair maiden – all be it a mix up of fairy tales, I did think I had behaved appropriately – for once. A few weeks later when my daughter came home from school she casually mentioned Ms. Art Teacher’s mother had died. I sent her a note of condolence and it too was accepted without recognition.
So be it. Another story filed in the annals of memory, if that were the end it would have been enough. But it was not the end for you see in the weeks before school finished something quite marvelous happened in art class. I only know because amidst guitar lessons and rugby practice my daughter happened to mention that Ms. Art Teacher had given us a different type of assignment. We get to decide what to create; there are only a few guidelines. She said it was more like the art we’ll take in grade eleven. We can use our vision to come up with whatever we imagine. As if that was enough, no wait – there’s more. A week later Ms. Art Teacher caught herself saying; “My! But aren’t you becoming artistic.“ I’m not sure how or why my daughter passed grade ten art. I’m not at all sure whether her art appreciation has been expanded or narrowed, but I am sure Barbara taught me more than how to laugh.
It was an amazing story really, I watched the video before he made it to MSN or Good Morning America. He had a wild look about him and a mouth full of teeth, but when he opened that mouth, there was this voice. I want to call it the K-TEL voice, the Casey Kasem voice. Perpetually vibrant, always young, this voice could launch ships, sway nations and smooth the troubled countenances of a thousand children!
The only encouragement required was a rolled down window and a microphone pointed in his direction. And he seemed so humble, thanking the microphone for taking the time to stop. Excessively so. There was the video on WIMP.COM, then MSN ran a feature, Good Morning America picked it up and then we watch as he reunites with his wheel chair bound mother, pleading “Mommie, Mommie” twenty feet before he reaches her, cameras rolling. It seemed like a too good to be true story. The hints were there, just a few fleeting moments where you wonder if you heard correctly. He strides toward her, arms outstretched, she reaches up from the wheelchair to glasp her arms around his neck and pull him toward her. He continues to mumble gratitude, she says “Don’t disappoint me”. Well, she has other words but the words that resound like a beacon in a dark night are the ones that leave him obligated, on the hook. You may have a chance here son, but whatever you do, don’t screw it up, and more than that – Don’t disappoint me.
Some reports say it was 20 years, others say 10 years since he last saw her. And then he meets Dr. Phil. Instant celebrity. One day you’re holding the lid from a cardboard box at a busy intersection, hoping beyond hope that some poor smuck will see your sign and take pity on you. Your crayon says Golden Voice, and a journalist recognizes an opportunity. Taking photographs at the very same corner for years has primed him to know a story when he sees one. The next day, or the next week, maybe even within the month – off camera, Dr. Phil is telling you to enter rehab.
Nine children, one ex wife, one former life. 11 Million people: “I have a God given gift of voice”. Two years clean. Second chance. Maybe it’s all in the numbers.
“You’re not paying attention!”
He had jumped from the piano bench accentuating the not with a pounding of the final chord and pointed his finger directly toward me. I had sung through a rest. The jolly good fortune of being five foot two and singing alto had placed me in the front row and with cameras and tape rolling, mine had been the lone voice carrying a single tone while fifty other voices had remained silent. I thought myself wonderfully gifted to be in the church choir.
A simple feeling of immense pride and we all know what comes as a direct result of pride. My face radiated immediate warmth, my ears rung and my adolescent ego struggled to hold back the tears. We were spending another Saturday afternoon at the television studio, taping the musical numbers that would accompany our church program. In my memory, it was very much a striving for perfection, a pristine line up of shiny satin robes edged in gold, smartly stopping at the edge of dutifully lined up feet. There was little room for error. In fact, there seemed little room for joy. The older women brought bags of cosmetics and cans of hair spray, changes of clothing and were more than happy to donate their weekend to the endeavor that began early in the morning and lasted late into the afternoon. That one rest changed the way I participated from that point on and it was only for a short time that I dutifully lined up for much of anything. Perhaps not the pivotal drama I remember, but singing for me was all about prescription and following and being like everybody else. The notes on the page were only a guideline.
But there IS joy in music. We humans do not put the joy IN music. It is there whether we participate or not. The irony being, we can take a lot of joy out of music, whether it be by order or prescription, or by the sheer pleasure of bending and blending tones with rhythm, words and phrases, stops and starts. Or even a little rain.
Irene Rutherford Mcleod (1891 – 1968)
I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone;
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own.
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly sheep.
I love to sit and bay the moon to keep fat souls from sleep.
I’ll never be a lap dog, licking dirty feet.
A sleek dog, a meek dog, cringing for my meat.
Not for me the fireside, a well filled plate.
But shut door and sharp stone and cuff and kick and hate.
Not for me the other dogs, running by my side.
Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide;
O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best.
Wide wind and wild stars and the hunger of the quest.
James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou, “Nay, not so.”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said “I pray thee, then,
write me as one who loves his fellow-men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!
It was something I knew nothing about. That’s a beginning. I have had the good fortune to be placed in circumstance where status means little and privilege is a shared experience of a community of women in a transformational environment. This would describe the mask making workshop I attended at the local multicultural center.
The tables had been placed in the center of the large workroom and around the periphery of the room there were craft stations that included glue guns, extension cords, feathers, beads, paint and brushes, an assortment of buttons and shiny things, colored wire, brightly fashioned yarns, and a myriad of other crafty things that would satisfy even the most critical of crows. There was somewhere between fifteen and twenty women seated watching as our fearless leader introduced herself and asked us to think about our own definition of a mask. What is the mask’s purpose? When do we choose to wear a mask and why? What does our mask say about us? Are we able to take our mask off?
I knew none of the other women, for quite a few English was not their first language. I met Lois when I offered to her the seat beside me. Lois had the physique I remember my grandmother having, an ample bosom without a clear distinction between chest and waist. Her hair gray at the roots, her glasses frequently pushed up from the end of her nose. She fretted to me about her current predicament, one in which she had been laid off from a job she had held for twenty nine years and as a result had joined a local empowerment program for women. She had only attended the program for two weeks when her former employer had offered her work. She was fearful to leave the program; fearful to refuse the work. She was simply fearful. Our instructor demonstrated the mask technique, calling for a volunteer she seated her in a chair and proceeded to apply Vaseline to her face, outlining her hair, protecting her lips and eyebrows from the adhesive quality of the plaster that would form the shape of her face. Lois was worried; this might be more than she could endure. “I’m rather claustrophobic” she confessed. “When I have an MRI, the space is so close, they talk to me and that helps, but I might not be very good with having my face covered.” I attempted to assure her. It was all right, I would go first and she could apply the mask on me. She needn’t have one applied to her own face it if made her uncomfortable. I continued to watch as the instructor applied the plaster strips to the face of the volunteer. She had placed cotton gauze over the mouth and the eyes, pressing to outline the lips as she continued to work the plaster and smooth its surface. The volunteer had chosen to close her mouth. As I watched I became aware of the obvious personal symbolism, life had been bidding me silent for a very long time. I had so many stories and the storytelling always became animated with volume and gesture. For quite some time I had tried to be more subdued and submissive - silent. Just realizing this brought tears to my eyes and I struggled to suppress the lump in my throat.
I helped Lois get prepared to apply the plaster to my face. I knew she was anxious, her hands were hesitant and I sensed she was not confident about her ability to do this “right”. The process took but a few minutes and Lois was relieved when a volunteer came to speed the process along and help with the application. The plaster sufficiently hardened to remove the form of my face and we placed it on the table as Lois took the chair. I admired her bravery for it was obvious this wasn’t something easy for her.
In turn, each woman shared in the creation and we proceeded to the blow dryers to speed along the drying process. Many women chose to reinforce their masks with additional strips of plaster to strengthen the shape, sanding down rough edges, polishing the surfaces to perfection. Many applied Gesso so that the form could be painted, as others lingered over the craft stations to choose just the right accessories for adornment. Silver hair, tiny shells, golden faces, and sparkling hues, all speaking of women whose hands shaped their story, silently their messages were created.
Time is always a consideration and for the women in the class, other obligations hurried them to complete their masks. As we sat together in a circle with our gifts in our laps, there remained only six women, a testament to busy lives. Lois was one of the six. Her mask was painted green, “Mother Earth” she said. There were diagonal lines of vibrant blue, and brilliant yellow. “The sky and the sun.” she explained. Haltingly she interpreted her mask as representing her place in the universe, she was a part of it all. “I’ve always put the needs of others before my own needs. I’m learning that I don’t have to do that.” As the others shared, a quiet spirituality was expressed through tears. Individual stories captured hearts as we realized how much we had in common.
When my turn came, I gently held the face toward the women. It was not painted on its exterior, no gesso, no color, and the edges were rough and unpolished. The lips were outlined in red and where the paint had escaped my inexperienced hands, a red mole held prominence to the right of the lips. I quietly offered that this was who I am; part diva, yet unfinished, rough around the edges, not very polished. I had gathered fanciful yarn in hues of azure and sapphire, tacked on tiny sparkling leaves of aqua and draped this from the back toward the front of my mask. This, I explained was a hint of what was on the inside. I turned the face toward the women so that the inside was visible. There, the eyes were beaded bright, turquoise gemstones and buttons, wiry teal glitter and ceramic bobbles surrounded the eyes. I had found these treasures would not adhere to the outside, that discovery had confirmed what I already knew. The mouth was surrounded with crimson reds and small scarlet spikes of wood peeked out from the edges of fire engine red feathers. Here is where my words could be expressed from the open mouth, here is how I would speak my truth, see the world, and find my voice.
This is the face I woke up with this morning. It met me in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth. I replaced the light bulb in the overhead bathroom fixture and now I can almost see my face without my glasses. I don’t know whether to trust this face any more. I’m beginning to doubt I ever did. Where did that saying come from anyway; “Bags under my eyes”; who called them bags? Samsonite? Sobeys? Are they figurative luggage, or grocery bags? And if I can’t come to work without my purse, my lunch bag, my shoe bag and my running bag, am I a bag lady? Can I be considered a bag lady if I just carry my bags under my eyes? Don’t get me started on that thing that connects my chin to my chest – I seemed to recall a character from Ally McBeal who adored what he referred to as a “wattle”. What an ugly word – “a wattle!” The only time I realize I am wearing one is in photographs. Considering I spent the first part of my life avoiding the camera, I despair that I may spend the second half keeping my wattle out of profile.
Over the last few days I’ve pondered much the aging process. A snapshot of the Italian beauty Sophia Loren convinced me there comes a time in every woman’s life when age is something she should make friends with. If not the best of friends, then perhaps companions; on speaking terms at least, or the beauty aids and fashion statements take on a clownish appeal, with the ability to mock and distort what was once natural and unaffected.
When I was sixteen I fell in love with a boy. No surprise there, it happens every day. But at sixteen, my world was very small, my circle of acquaintances limited to the church where I socialized. That boy broke my heart when he moved away and I still remember burning his letters and pictures in the fireplace. I would not be consoled, for up to that point, I was not accustomed to change and thought the best option to resist it with all my efforts. It didn’t prevent the boy from moving.
That boy is frozen in time, or rather frozen in my mind’s memory of him. I can no longer actually see him; there is just a vague physical recollection of him. But he remains there and has for close to thirty five years. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I dream of him and in those dreams the memory is reinforced like the refresh button on the computer, coming back stronger, more vivid. The phenomenon of social networking allows reminiscing across years to condense all those memories into moments and before the brain can accept the existing reality, there is proof that what you remember no longer exists. In fact, it was gone long ago. His face stares back at me. His aged and mellowed face. The boy is gone. In his place there is a loyal husband, a doting father, a tender grandfather.
I’ve been ruminating for the last few days. I guess that’s why I’ve looked up the word “wattle” and wondered whether my bags are Samsonite or grocery. I haven’t been watching the progression of age. There wasn’t a time when I noticed I was no longer a teenager, that this day or this week, this year, I will change, I will look different and then I will be older. The teenage memory of love at sixteen got stuck in my heart, it stayed there with my youth and they played awhile. They played together long enough, that I went on without them, getting married, having babies, adjusting to change, creating a life; and then my face stared back at me from the mirror one day and I had arrived.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to look again, at the photo of the boy. This time I noticed his hand tightly hugging the shoulder of the sweet blond girl he married. I noticed too that all that hair is gone and what remains is almost white. It’s no good really. To remain stuck. The memory hasn’t changed, I have. Time has changed me. The only power I have over time is my ability to remember. I still have that. I have the wattle and the bags too so there will be a place – for a while yet – to put my marbles. I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost them.
She discovered The Alchemist on her own and took from it her favorite philosophy; “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” I ignore her but she does not stop loving, I become impatient and she keeps giving. When I am frustrated with her distractions, she charges ahead anyway and wrestles her dreams into submission. She’s braver than I will ever be, more courageous in her deepest fears and a loyal and true friend of whom there will never be an equal. She’s amazed to see herself grow; I’m amazed it has happened so fast. Her laptop is aggravatingly slow and she dismisses the inconvenience as a chance for her to learn patience. She questions the insecurities of her friends, marveling they have such qualities – while believing she lacks their talent, their looks, their grace, ability, poise. In fact she has all of these wrapped in her heart, her brave and valiant heart that cries when touched by words, sings when lifted high and can remain defiant in the face of the most obstinate opposition.
I thought her an air head. The one who would not be still to read for if the book had no pictures, words could not entertain – an attention span that would quickly flit from subject to statement to question and answer. I viewed this distracted spontaneity as a lack of something; a lack of will, determination, persistence. But there has never been a simple piano ditty, that when once demonstrated, has been played as repeatedly, nor the lyrics to a popular song – used only in the construction of the chords on her guitar (for it is her guitar, it was never really mine) sung over and over and over again. I can’t understand the words; she knows them and their author. I can’t remember her many extracurricular activities, neither does she, but it doesn’t bother or cause her any grief. She laughs when caught in the middle of an event’s arrangements and realizes she knows where she is supposed to be but doesn’t have a clue on how to get there. A butterfly, she lights only briefly in the moments required to suck all the sweetness there is, all the satisfaction to be gained and then she flutters off.
She’ll move she said, to Italy – maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps someday. Was it me who showed her how to dream, can I be the one to take the credit? Or am I just the lucky one, who stands on the sidelines of her show, watching her sputter on the stage of life, trying on the different costumes, launching forward in her greatest role, singing at the top of her lungs.
There were numerous calls from the school when he was young; not playing well with the other children covered most of the complaints. This call from his teacher came as a result of teaching the history unit covering the Holocaust. Seeking empathy from her grade eleven students, she made a point about the German people being burdened with the stigma of the Holocaust, somehow feeling responsibility generations later. At this, my son pipes up to add; “Yeah, it’s probably because they lost.” The telephone call actually arrived before he did that day and when I questioned him about what had happened in History class the main point of the story was there was only fifteen minutes remaining in the class and it was no big deal, he didn’t miss much. He’d been asked to leave the class. It was not the first time, this teacher just reacted the way most of us would.
This is the same kid that will carry his book through the mall so that at any given moment he can sit down to read, living in mortal fear he may be asked to try on clothing or be associated with any other family member. When the car accelerates down the road in herky-jerky fashion, he declines the invitation his permit gives him to drive for fear someone – anyone will see him driving a car that doesn’t function properly. I have had to stand up and threaten him to slow down during the supper meal, yet he has honed the thirty minute shower to a fine art. He takes great pride in staying in bed the entire day, emerging like a bear from hibernation, only to eat. After a year of part-time work, I have discovered he cancelled the automatic payment set for each payday to go to his savings account. From what I can gather, there was no other reason than he wanted to. His long term goal of buying a car gets mixed up with the new laptop he must have or the cell phone that allows constant texting. The cost of one semester of university has no meaning for him, he has learned to stare blankly ahead, waiting for the speech to end, adding “ah huh” when he thinks you have finished.
A younger boy refused (much to my chagrin) to be right handed and any attempt I made to press the crayon into his chubby little right hand fingers was followed with a resolute pause, while he switched hands and went merrily along his lefty way. A younger boy could not be convinced participating in a sport would give him something in which he could excel – something to call his own. He would stand, arms folded, practicing his blank stare. A younger boy cared little for my futile attempts at artistic collection, when I tried valiantly to peak his interest in kaleidoscopes. His was the story of books. How very odd it is that I don’t remember trying to make him love books. I loved to own them, run my hands over their covers and devour them in redemptive solitude. As he busied himself gobbling up his supper before rushing out the door to work, he plunked his tremendous hardcover on the kitchen table and it is then I realized he loved books.
There exists an infinitesimally small glimmer of hope concealed very deep in my heart. I cannot be assured my mother held this same hope, for when the teacher’s call beat me home she met me at the door screaming. It was not the first time. I had made it to grade ten before the principal met me in the hallway to advise that by now I should have been expelled. “You get out of this classroom and don’t come back until you are ready to apologize”, the teacher had pronounced. To which I had replied; “I guess I won’t be back then, eh?” I flouted authority at every opportunity and in my recollection, for no other reason than it was something I needed to do. My first part-time job ended, despite my father’s rescue attempt and every effort my mother made to fashion me into a lady, failed miserably.
School had never appealed to me much; too busy honing my wit, using the foibles of others as my whetstone. At forty, I went back to school and managed to obtain an undergraduate degree. As a chubby kid, I remember the sting of verbal barbs slung my way. “You’re a nice kid, but your mother dresses you funny.” My son looks to my father and despairs over his five foot whatever stature, sure that he will not measure up, in more ways than one. I got to be with him for the driver’s test. As he stood silently by I chatted with the examiner making small talk. I gave him my best advice; back into the parking space so pulling out would be one less reason to panic. I tried to read my book in the waiting room while I waited for him to return. He pushed through the door biting his nail, showing me his nervousness while he triumphed at his passing. “Thanks Mom”, he says “For chatting up the examiner, she gave me a fourth try at parallel parking when normally you only get three.” I was just joyful it got to be me that took this ride with him.
He’s decided he needs to live with his father now. “I love you Mom, I just don’t like your rules.” My heart breaks, but I know he has to go. Just as there is a line that I cannot move, there is a line that he must cross. It’s the way of the world, the law of nature that the bird is pushed out of the nest before he thinks he’s ready to fly; and fly he will.
They had warned me not to talk. So sure were they that I would push the air with my finger, or disturb the delicate boardroom balance, they had warned me not to talk. They were much more experienced in these things than I. They had witnessed verbal outbursts and assertive behavior and wished to shield me from any bias that may result if I talked. So I wrote out my words and I practiced reading them, straining to keep my face neutral, my demeanor calm. I answered all of their charges skipping over any judgment. I had decided I could be content in this job that had lasted the longest of any I had ever had. I heaved a heavy sigh as I realized I could stay if I did not talk. As long as I did my job, I thought no one could complain. I had practiced the ritual of being employed for a life time. Desperation could not force me to reconsider now. Work, filled with tedium and monotonous repetition, was a worthy pursuit. One could pay the bills. I had compromised; passion for pay check. Along with my coffee I gulped down doubts every morning and got in line behind hundreds of other women masterful in the art of subterfuge. And it almost worked. For awhile.
There are often very crooked paths that get us to any given destination. The way is not always perfectly straight. So much so, that even when we turn back and run, the way from which we came is blocked – permanently and we have no choice, but to push forward. Like the day they said we are deleting your job and here is a list of all the others you can choose to occupy instead. You have a month to decide. Let us know. I thought I had chosen wisely with my little yellow highlighter marking out the ones I qualified for, crossing off the ones too tedious, circling the remaining possibilities and finally identifying the winner. Terribly complicated it all seemed initially; “We don’t know who we’ll choose to train you for this” they said, when presented with my choice. “It’d be best if you sat out for a week while we think about it.” In hindsight, that should have been a clue. But I was new and eager and scared someone might think me stupid so I sat out for a week. The first two weeks on the job I met my boss three times; once to be introduced, and twice in the office of human resources to identify the myriad ways I had failed to measure up; all within the first two weeks – quite a record, even for me. “Go home.” They advised. They had presented me with a list. All typewritten and neat, there on the table, complete with bulleted form and its own envelope. They made it official with the help of the rather tired and vacant looking personnel officer who only echoed the supervisor’s regrets. I had not just failed, but I had failed in so many ways and this with only four days on the job.
I’m not sure where it comes from but in circumstances that have every appearance of smelling badly, I am filled with a righteous indignation; a genuine compulsion to set things straight. I wasn’t sure just what the record was, who had been keeping score or exactly why it mattered, but I decided to take advantage of all those union dues I had paid over the years and request their attendance at a grievance hearing, where I promised not to push the air with my finger. I would sincerely love to report they saw the error of their ways and expressed regret for the anxiety and inconvenience to me they had caused. How different my world would be if they had admitted the error, and welcomed me back. It was not until much later I could reflect upon the futility of the stammering union rep as he pointed to the lack of training, the only misdemeanor he could prove. Maybe it was the point during questioning where her cell phone went off and she left to answer the call that I realized something. No, that’s not really true. I didn’t just realize something. I had an epiphany. Like a heavenly choir filled with angels singing from on high. I walked into this meeting today all ready with my defenses and my explanations and none of them were necessary because I came with the same dignity and integrity and a life-long quest for authenticity that I will leave the room with; unless I let them take it away from me. I understood that what was playing out before me was outside of my control. Some initiative, some edict, somebody’s assurance that the favored girl whose job I took would get it back and I would be asked to go home. The situation would be fixed.
So I went home. I could be there still in that place where one tucks away dreams with your keys in your purse in the morning. I would be kind to those same women, two of whom sat across the table from me that day and by all appearances had achieved the success and associated status that eludes so many. They had tried to convince me that I had no value and this was why they had to meet me because I had failed. When all was said and done the union rep came to me and said, “They want to know what you want.” I told him there wasn’t enough time to tell him, I had to get to the rest of my life.