BY MADONNA HAMEL
I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the town where I graduated from high school forty-two years ago. My dad just turned eighty-six. Last night my sister and I dined with him at the retirement home we affectionately refer to as ‘the cruise ship’. We ate fashionably early, four in the afternoon , to be precise, and then took the elevator upstairs to his room to watch Wheel-of-Fortune and Jeopardy. The routine reminded me of my days living with dad after mom died. After all the casserole dishes were returned, and the world rushed back in, leaving dad alone in a big house with no idea how to wash his clothes or use the oven, I returned home.
Losing my mother was the single most staggering psychic experience of my life, the kind of loss no one truly understands until it happens to them. Suddenly, you are standing on the other side of a fence, in a field where ‘the bereft’ live, and we can never climb back over that fence again. Suddenly, I am standing in front of my mother’s grave staring, stunned and awkward, with my dad and he says: “ Bet you wish it was me instead of her”. The raw honesty that sudden loss evokes is a hard gift to accept, but my reply came quickly: “No dad. That’s not it. It’s just that I knew her better than I know you. And I don’t know how to proceed. But we’ll muddle through, somehow.”
Muddle. Sometimes that’s all we can expect from others and ourselves: that we grope and stumble and crawl and muddle until sunrise. We are inelegant, fuzzy, disheveled and blubbering- and that’s on a good day. If we are lucky we have friends who assure us that “this is the season of massive learning and deep processing and inexplicable maturation”. And, luckily, because we are exhausted, we do not slug them for their chirpiness. Because, they are right. Nobody changes or grows or reaches or evolves out of complacency; the ‘dark gift of desperation’ carries the seed of buoyant and luminous change. But, as they sing in the original version of the ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ classic, “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
As I write this my old pal from radio days, JC, pops in. She is home taking care of mom the way I once cared for dad. We talk about our new relationships with family, as well as the emergence of old forgotten selves that seem to be embedded in the family home, waiting in the woodwork. Because she is a career journalist, a consummate researcher, I know she’ll find a way to create a whole new niche for herself that will probably pioneer a new form of reporting. But for now, she’s in ‘gathering mode’. I know she understands that ‘gathering mode’ can go on for a long time, and it can feel like walking into a deep, dark wood late in the day. But I also know that when you’re ‘in it’ you need others to remind you that it’s just a phase; that it’s all just a series of phases. And, for some strange reason the people who are really good at what they do are the same ones for whom the task at hand is humbling.
Humility is a great place from which to start. Defined as ‘being right-sized’ and ‘teachable’, it necessitates openness, honesty and willingness to ask for help. To engage life on life’s terms. But wasn’t humility one of those feminine qualities that kept us in the shadows of the bold and brilliant men we loved? Wasn’t it asking us not to shine too brightly, nor take up too much space? Only until I lost some large chunks of my identity (daughter of a singer-mom, riding shot-gun with my lover, radio ‘personality’, guerrilla performer, lead singer in a band) did I admit my fears, compulsions, and dreams to a community of fellow travelers humbled by life’s blows.
I spent a couple of hours on the phone to my brother the other night. He is a wordsmith whose source of inspiration often comes from his life as a tradesman. But is also plowing through Carl Jung’s collected works a little bit every day. We talk often about language, about how every few years we seem to need new words to “eff” the “ineffable”. Sometimes, because of the nature of the Mystery to which we journey closer, words can only suffice rather than “nail it”. But it behooves us dig around for the best ones, nonetheless. In sitting with our chosen expression we get closer to what we “really mean to say” and jettison labels we have been carrying for generations, that never fit, or no longer function. “Here’s to finding new words to describe where we are right now!”, said my brother, at the end of the call. Here’s to making the effort to articulate ourselves to others and ourselves.
I wonder why we don’t make the effort to be clear, to describe with finer precision, to articulate ourselves to others? Why are we lazy in our comments and criticisms? Who are we not to choose to be self-aware? Not to observe the effect we have on others? And why don’t we tell each other the effect they have on us, in clear, non-shaming language? And, while I’m at it, why are grown men defaulting to f-bombing every third word when they sit down to bitch and gossip at coffee row in the hotel? Have they always cussed so broadly about everything and everyone whether they love or hate or couldn’t care less about them?
As adults we really can’t blame anyone but ourselves for our lazy language which results in alienation from others. Perhaps we really don’t want the kind of conscience that comes with a conscious awareness of ourselves. Despite how we’d like to think we are special in the eyes of others, we don’t want to deal with how our harshness and heartlessness can wound. But we all have blind spots, and if our loved ones don’t gently and humorously point them out, who will? We need a few good people to be real with us; we need strong people who aren’t easily crumpled by what comes out of our blind spots.
On a walk after supper with dad my sister admits she’s relieved to see me laughing again. “For awhile back there we were worried. You lost your sense of humour.”
“Yeah, too bad we can’t just go to the lost and found and ask if anyone has seen it. ‘Are you sure it’s not there? I’m Canadian, so it’s subtle and sardonic and slightly self-deprecating. Maybe it’s under something. I know it’s been awhile but I doubt anyone else claimed it. It’s a weird shape and it’s got my name all over it. Could you look again?’ ”
If this past week is any measure, I expect sixty will be a year full of laughs and losses. My favourite spiritual writers are the desert mothers and fathers, the mystics who epitomized the mystic Christ, an Essene himself, before the more recent literalist-fundamentalists shoved them into back into the desert. They all remind me that the “spiritual life is one of subtraction, not addition”.
Loss is inevitable as we age. Loss hits, over and over. Eventually, the sharp sudden, melodramatic losses get smoothed down by the sheer quotidianess of them: we go to bed, we sleep, we toss, we turn, we wake, we rise, we walk, we talk, we work, we go to bed again. Over and over, and the sheer accumulation of the habits of moving through the days brings a wisdom that not even the brightest mind can embody, can only theorize. Wisdom is bred in the bone by bedding and rising and bedding again.
I’m heading back to my ‘sanctuary’ ( or ‘Santa’s workshop’, as Ervin calls it) on the prairie Despite how The Road has always served as a healing trajectory, a zone for sorting my life’s detritus, collecting and dropping as I go: I just want to sit still. It has been a hard Spring. The most difficult news at the moment hits close to home: as friends deal with the tragic loss of a cousin in the Humbolt accident.
Three men in yellow jerseys, honouring the hockey players, walk past the cafe window. I feel thankful for what I found this week: deeper connections with my dad, my sisters, my brother, my brothers-in-law, old work cohorts, a favourite yoga teacher (who at sixty-one still arrives at classes on his skateboard) my high school English teacher who urges me to “go deeply in your journey with language; meet the soul at that level”. I muddle through, all the way home, two steps forward, one step back and, hopefully, not the other way around.