Running and reflecting on Remembrance Day

 

Today was a Saturday morning so I ran, as usual, with the Phoenix Running Club in Mundy Park.

The ambience of the park was fitting for Remembrance Day. It was gray and calm, fairly mild, with a few drops of rain that became more regular near the end of our workout. The park was more peaceful than it usually is on a Saturday morning, when the crowds of dog walkers and their dogs are out in full force during the off-leash hours.

The dogs have become increasingly difficult for runners to negotiate around on the park trails, so I’ve been picking workout loops that aren’t as crowded. Today we were starting at Mundy Lake and running a 1500m course that includes the challenging 1K stair loop plus the Mundy Lake loop, where dogs are not allowed.

My reflections while running were a bittersweet mixture of sadness and gratefulness. Just like the weather, my thoughts seemed appropriate for this holiday that is still meaningful for Canadians a hundred years after World War I.

One reason for disappointment was that I had to do most of the workout alone because very few Phoenix members showed up. This has been an ongoing problem for our club for the past year. I couldn’t help but think of the “glory days” of Phoenix when we’d have six or eight fast people searing their lungs on the demanding steep uphill section of the loop. We’d be at our limits as we crested the hill at the top, after completing many stairs, and we tried not to slow down too much as we turned left and headed for the downhill trail back to the lake. Then it took all the agility we could muster to gallop down the trail at top speed, finishing with a sprint to the edge of the lake. We rested a minute or two, then were ready to tackle the stairs again—and again—five or six times.

Today I was the fastest Phoenix member there. Yet I was aware of my clumsiness on the stairs and the slight pain in my bad knee. I pushed hard to the top, but running downhill I could no longer fast; not only did I have to save my knee from the pounding, but dogs were constantly blocking my path. I couldn’t risk being tripped. I had to slow down and weave my way carefully. Then, once I got back to the lake, I did the 500m lake loop as fast as I could before taking a rest.

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Running Mundy Lake loops with Larry Lorette in September 2017. Photo by Tina-Louise Harris of Originelle Designs Photography.

It was on my third (and last) circuit of the lake that I thought about how Remembrance Day is a time for celebration as well as for remembering the tragedies of the two World Wars and other conflicts. For me, the celebration comes from acknowledging the health and peace I have in my life. Here I was, still striding out at a pretty decent pace, running freely in this beautiful forest. I was exhilarated to be outside, breathing hard, even though it was gray and raining lightly. How could I even begin to imagine what people suffered in war, living in trenches, always cold and wet, with poor food and rats all over the place? Seeing their friends’ lives extinguished in a moment or after hours of hideous suffering, knowing that each day could be their last?

The Phoenix club is in danger of folding, after twenty-six years. But today, though we were a small band, I appreciated seeing my long-time running friend Alex, and being able to do part of the workout with him and Wendy, a newer but regular participant. Some of our members are older and can only walk now. But a few of us are determined to find new members and keep the club going.

I think about the immense support I’ve had from my Phoenix teammates over the years, and the enduring friendships I’ve made. Ever since I first starting running in high school, I’ve found that racing with teammates produces a camaraderie and shared memories that bond people together, sometimes for life. After all, racing is a test of so many things: physical strength and courage, mental toughness, strategy, and good sportsmanship. The emotions of fear, nervousness, and excitement—plus the exhilaration of victory or even finishing a tough race—are powerful.

The Hershey Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K Cross Country Race

One of the races that the Phoenix team often participated in was the Remembrance Day 8K in Stanley Park, put on by the Hershey Harriers club. Every year I think about this cross country race, which the Hersheys had to discontinue a few years ago. Competing in this event, which was always held on Remembrance Day regardless of the day of the week, was a fitting way to acknowledge Canada’s veterans.

For most of its existence, the race was for masters (35+) only. One or two of the oldest competitors had served in World War II. For many masters runners, this was the only race they competed in; it was their way of showing respect and for reconnecting with the running community each year. The race always started at 11:02, after the Last Post was played and a moment of silence was observed by the nervous and solemn runners on the starting line. Long-time Hershey Harriers coach Jerry Tighe fired the starting gun. I’ll always have a picture in my mind of Jerry standing on the muddy field by Brockton Oval, wearing warm clothes and high rubber boots.

The race was always hard; the field was often soaked and muddy, and after the “easy” flat tour around Beaver Lake, competitors had to climb up and down two brutal hills. The results were age-graded, so that the efforts of men and women of all ages could be acknowledged.

***

I do feel sad that the Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K is no more, and that I will never again test myself on that challenging course. The last time I did the race, in 2012, I had gone through two knee surgeries (to repair an ACL and to remove cartilage from my knee), and I knew I’d pay a price for running that tough, hilly course. But I was running because I still could—and also in remembrance of my coach George Gluppe, who passed away in April 2012. I don’t know how many times George stood out in the rain at that Remembrance Day race, cheering for me and all the other Phoenix competitors.

Today, Remembrance Day 2017, I ran once again in celebration: of my health, my legs, my running friends, and the beautiful trails of Mundy Park.

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Posted in Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Javier Marías with Eleanor Wachtel: how imagination enriches our life stories

book-cover-thus-bad-begins-by-javier-mariasEleanor Wachtel’s interview with Spanish writer Javier Marías, which aired on CBC Radio One on October 15, 2017, was another Writers & Company interview that connected perfectly with my own current preoccupations.

Marías is billed as “Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writer,” and is the author of over a dozen novels. The interview focused on Marías’s most recent book, Thus Bad Begins, and included much discussion of Spain’s current and past (Fascist) political environment. However, the part of the interview that hit me hardest came in the last few minutes, when Marías talked about the role of imagination.

He started by saying that fiction set against a backdrop of significant historical events  can be “stronger” than any history book because it allows us to witness events through our imagination.

But it’s not only historical events that are enriched by the imagination. He explained: “Even what we live, we have to imagine it, too, in order to live it thoroughly.” As I understand him, when you pass on the events of your daily life to your imagination, you can see your life as a story, or as part of a story. By viewing your life through the prism of imagination, you gain a “richer understanding of your life, and your own self, probably.”

I inwardly said “Yes!” when Marías said the word “richer” to explain how imagination adds to life. We can use our imagination to embellish the facts, but we can also use our imagination to make something happen for real in the future.

Continuing to speak in the language of stories, Marías said, “Some people don’t feel the protagonist in anything, not even their own life—which is terrible! . . . But I know these people” [meaning “people like this”]. He added that when people see themselves as only a secondary or supporting character, even in their own life (emphasis mine), this is wrong!

Marías and Wachtel shared a laugh as they agreed that making a story out of your life can be depressing sometimes. Wachtel joked, “What a dull novel! Nothing happens!” But the point was that no one’s life story need be dull when it is examined with the help of the imagination.

As I listened, I understood the truth of what Marías was saying. I have recognized for a long time that I’m driven to think of my life as a narrative, and to create chapters and short stories within that narrative. I also need to create stories about the important “others” in my life and to explore their backstories—this can help explain how they behave, both generally and within the context of our relationship.

Using the imagination to create stories about our lives is a way of making sense of life’s chaos and randomness, the dazzling multitude of choices we make, the ways others influence us, plus all the happenings of sheer luck or forces we can’t understand.

Multiple personas

Another role that imagination plays is in the creation of our persona, the “self” that we present to the world. This persona or “self” includes physical aspects—some unchangeable, but some that can be to a large extent constructed, first with the visionary tool of imagination and then with tangible tools like makeup and clothes. We also reveal our persona through our behaviour and through the stories we tell about ourselves: the things we choose to reveal, hide, or invent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of “persona” because of a blog I came across recently called The Used Life. The author of this blog considers the shaping of her life and her persona as a daily act of creativity. She is aware of the role of imagination and how it guides us in creating our own persona (or personas).

In one post, she explains her admiration for two famous women, Anaïs Nin and Coco Chanel. The first is most famous for her writing of erotica and memoir; the second for her business success in the world of fashion; but both were geniuses in the art of creating irresistible personas that allowed them to be independent, free, and powerful women at a time when most women were followers defined exclusively by their roles as wives and mothers.

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In reading the works of Nin or a biography of Chanel, the writer of The Used Life experiences “an almost euphoric moment of recognition: I can’t believe it! She’s just like me!” The quality she is recognizing in them, which is vitally important to her, is

. . . a desire and an ability to adopt personas, to experiment with different ways of being, a vast and all-consuming curiosity that drives one to constantly become without losing the core of oneself entirely.

AnaisNinJournalCoverI, too, have long been fascinated by Nin’s erotic stories and, especially, her journal. The latter, a lifelong body of writing, has been edited and published in multiple volumes. (See my post on Nin’s journal here.) Nin lived the erotic life she wrote about in her fiction; for her, the creation of many personas, each suitable to her mood and her current experience and partner, was essential.

The author of The Used Life, like Nin, feels that having one persona is not enough; she must continue to fashion herself, “to experiment with different ways of being.”

I, too, recognize the desire to be more than one person, to have fun and be liberated by trying on different personas. This is achieved partly by how you fashion yourself on the outside: the “persona” you present to the world.

But the outside is a manifestation of a reality about yourself that you feel on the inside. It is a recognition of the complexity of competing parts of the self and the variability of moods (including intellectual abilities, sexual appetites and fantasies, the urge to be someone different, travel somewhere different, interact with people outside your “normal” everyday tribe).

There is also the fun of playacting. What can you get away with? How can you make a figment of your imagination (including your presentation of yourself) real? What interactions will happen when you meet those who want to “play” with this “alternate” version of you?

The compulsion to create multiple personas comes from a deeper need than “fun,” though. It comes from the awareness that I contain so many potentialities, and perhaps there is sadness and regret that only a small percentage of them gets realized and manifested. Ultimately, the desire to create multiple personas is a rebellion against the constraint of having only one body and one life to live.

 

 

Posted in Commentary, Psychology, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

An anti-inspirational running post

 

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I save my hard efforts for workouts with my Phoenix teammates. Photo by Keith Dunn.

So much of what we see online is an unrelenting positivity. I like to focus on the positive, too, but sometimes all that cheerleading can be intimidating in the face of life’s more mundane or difficult days.

People know me as an athlete who used to be fast. Sometimes I post here or on Facebook about runs and workouts that are still pretty good given my age and limitations imposed by my bad knee.

But I feel it’s important to be real—to tell you about the days when it’s hard to believe I ran 20:10 for 5K earlier this year.

A few days ago it was raining lightly when I started my run in Mundy Park. I didn’t mind that—it wasn’t cold, and after a summer of countless sunny days, I was ready to welcome a new season and the freshness of the forest when it rains.

But I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be a great run. No, it would be one of those days when I felt like an old lady. I had to start tentatively, with small, cautious steps. I was aware of my wonky knee, worried about my lower back (which had become very sore after my previous run, when I skipped my usual post-run stretching routine). As my hesitant steps slowly took me past Lost Lake, I was somewhat reassured—nothing seemed to be hurting. Yet I felt sluggish and tired. I could only conclude that I still hadn’t recovered from the all-out workout I’d done with Doug and Suzanne four days ago and a couple of subsequent bike rides.

I decided that I wouldn’t push myself on this run. I would simply let my legs take me on a new route through Mundy Park, not worrying about my Garmin numbers too much, until I had covered 6K or so.

As I warmed up, my pace increased but more gradually than usual. When I was circling the flat, easy trail around Mundy Lake, I was able to lose the awkwardness of my body’s fatigue and settle into a relaxed rhythm. Once again, as I do on every run, I repeated my mantra of thankfulness for still being able to do this. I enjoyed all the sensations of running in Mundy Park; the aromas of the moist forest, the sounds of rain and dripping trees and my own deep breaths, the far-in-the-background hum of highway traffic reminding me of the chaotic, busy world outside this oasis.

I ran 6.5K. I won’t tell you my time.

***

According to my Garmin, that was a mediocre run, a run that reflected the limitations of my 58-year-old body—a body that has gone through Achilles surgery, two knee surgeries, and femoral bypass surgery on both sides—a body that has been running, with some short or long injury breaks, for 42 years.

But I’ve grown more accepting of mediocrity, both physical and mental. That might sound bad, but it’s not. As people age, they have no choice but to accept some declines and limitations. I’ve found that both mental and physical slowness can be overcome by some degree of acceptance. You work with whatever you have (as I did on that run). Usually, very gradually, improvement happens. Brilliance is replaced by doggedness and simple endurance—by not allowing oneself to sink completely.

I’m fascinated by the psychology of aging. What is it in people’s makeup that allows them not merely to endure, but to find and cherish real joy, at any age?

I think it’s the capacity to enjoy whatever you have; to pay attention to and be appreciative of the smallest things. It involves a change in both perspective and the measurement system. After all, what is the alternative to slowing down? People my age are dying, or suffering from terrible chronic diseases. Others are overweight or unfit and probably can’t even imagine feeling good in their bodies.

As for changing the measurement system, that means accepting that most runs won’t be fast. I pay a price for the hard days, and I need longer to recover.

***

Oh, I love the times when I get high from running. Part of my gratefulness comes from knowing I still have those times.

Last week, near the end of my grueling workout with Doug and Suzanne, I stuttered-stepped down the last steep hill because of my knee. But after that, I knew only a minute or two of running remained before my “finish line.” I lengthened my stride and pumped my arms, using all the strength of my body, and as I accelerated to near-sprinting speed I automatically started running on my toes. It felt fantastic to be running so fast! —and I thought to myself, “I’m a real runner again!”

Those brief moments of speed had brought back my body-memory of so many victorious sprints to a finish line, all those moments of physical glory and triumph.

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Tufts 10K for Women, 1987. The only time I ever beat Lynn Jennings. Photo clipping from the Boston Globe.

 

 

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Moore’s February: a perfect grip on the emotional truths of love, risk, and tragedy

 

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Sometimes I’m astounded by a writer’s talent and finesse, and that’s how I feel about Lisa Moore’s writing. She writes like no one else I’ve encountered. In particular, I noticed how she gets inside the minds of her characters; she follows the way their thoughts move: back-and-forth in time, jumping from one subject to another, with fragments, without censorship, fixating on key memories that can’t ever be erased. After finishing February, I found myself flabbergasted the same way I was after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with the same thought: How did this all come together, how did it work? Now I have to reread this book!

Moore’s protagonist, Helen, is a 56-year-old grandmother whose husband Cal died when the oil rig he was working on capsized off the coast of Newfoundland. Helen and Cal were only thirty and thirty-one. They were in love; they had three children; there was another baby on the way that Cal didn’t even know about. So this novel is mostly about tragedy and how it happens in ordinary life and to ordinary people. How does Helen go on? Why does she go on?

In February, Moore gets inside Helen’s mind, but at many different points of time that are not presented chronologically. Somehow, Moore is able to create an utterly compelling narrative out of all these fragments: thought-fragments that ring so true the reader can’t help but think, This is fiction but it captures reality better than anything else I’ve ever read. We recognize the emotional truth of the way Helen is tormented by the “accident”; her fixation on imagined scenarios, questions, and if-onlys. It’s a loop of thoughts that replays in her mind from the first moment she hears about the rig going down, to the days following, the months following, the birth of the baby girl who would never know her father, and the years that turn into decades.

February is about luck. And risk. And risk management. The first time Helen and Cal have sex, the condom breaks. Is that bad luck? Helen gets pregnant, yes, but they are in love; they get married, twenty and twenty-one years old.

Cal considers himself lucky to get a job on the rig. He and Helen know the risks, but they need the money for their growing family.

What about the oil company, the people at the top who didn’t even phone the families of their employees after the sinking? The families heard “no survivors” on the morning news at the same time as their friends and neighbours. There is an inquiry, of course. Moore’s powerful, scathing words cut through all the obfuscating language and evasions of the company’s “risk management policies.” Here are some of the things Helen learns, forever imprinted on her mind:

Inside the control room there’s also a panel with brass rods that allows the ballast control operators to control ballast manually, and here’s the thing. . . . Nobody knew how to use the brass rods. If they’d known, the rig wouldn’t have sunk.

. . . the water from the broken portal hits the electrical panel and short-circuits it . . . The man in the control room . . . he’s reading the manual, but here’s the thing: the manual didn’t say how to control the ballast if there was an electrical malfunction.

So he can read the manual all he wants.

He can read it backwards if he wants. Or he can read it in Japanese. It’s never going to tell him what to do. (p. 152)

Even more unbearable to Helen are the things she can never know. Did Cal, about to die, know that she loved him? Did he want to tell her the things she so needed to hear?

She would have liked him to tell her certain things, and she knows exactly what they are:

I’m not afraid.

Tell Helen thank you.

Tell the children I love them.

Tell Helen; tell Helen. (pp. 291–292)

Moore is fearless in confronting life’s ultimate, awful mystery—death—and Helen’s pain at being unable to share any part of Cal’s journey.

What Helen cannot fathom or forgive: We are alone in death. Of course we are alone. . . . Cal was alone in that cold. . . . Helen wants to jump into the ocean in the middle of the night when it’s snowing just to see what it feels like. (p. 292)

Helen is tormented by imagining Cal’s being alone during his last moments on the oil rig, but she too faces solitude—a solitude that extends to decades. She must go on living as a single mother who has had the love, help, and companionship of her husband wrenched away. When her children are grown up they encourage her to try online dating; on this subject, Moore manages to be both funny and pitiless as she describes Helen’s being stood up in a bar by a man who seemed exciting online.

Yet a few years after the bar incident, Helen realizes she might not have to give up on love and sex. She finds herself attracted to Barry, the carpenter who is renovating her house. I almost gasped with recognition when I read the line, “. . . she thinks again the thing every adult woman thinks of herself—that she is still her sixteen-year-old self.” (p. 242)

Helen knows:

How deeply she craves to be touched. Because what follows not being touched, Helen has discovered, is more of the same—not being touched. . . .

The only cure is to chant: I want, I want. (p. 242)

Still, Helen can’t stop thinking, “They are too old for love. It is laughable. For an instant she sees them fucking: grey pubic hair, puckered skin, creaking joints. It is a grotesque comedy . . . ” But Moore shows this isn’t true. With the story of Helen and Barry, February becomes a novel whose warmth and hope shines against tragedy and corruption.

This review has been mostly about Helen; I’m not doing justice to the complexity of the characters in this book, and the richness of their interwoven stories. The most disturbing and fascinating character is Helen’s oldest child, her son John, who is nine when his father is lost. Precocious, charming, sharply intelligent despite a learning disability, John causes Helen no end of grief yet takes on the role of helping his family from an early age. Moore forces us to confront the irony and moral ambiguity of a person who accepts a job with a company whose function is to “modify” and “trim” “redundant safety procedures” on oil rigs. By taking this job, with its obscenely high salary, John secures his own escape from the risky, physically horrible jobs he has done on oil rigs. He also gains financial security, and he supports his family generously. And when a casual, week-long vacation fling with a woman results in an unexpected pregnancy, John decides, with his mother’s help, to do what she would call “the right thing.”

February was the winner of Canada Reads in 2013. Risky in style and structure, it is yet a captivating, perfect novel, devastating in its emotional truth. I still don’t know how Lisa Moore did it—I can’t do justice to February here—just read it.

***

Quotes from:

Moore, Lisa. 2009. February. Toronto: House of Anansi Press

 

 

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Loving our bodies: imperfect, good enough, wonderful!

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2013 Photo by Keith Dunn

Our bodies, ourselves

One of the mysteries of consciousness is the way we perceive ourselves to be the “same” person throughout our lives, despite all the changes that age and experience bring. There is a core “sense of self” that remains immutable.

I’ve felt myself to be the same person since I was about 15 years old. That was when I first attained my adult sense of self, which is different than my childhood memories and perception of myself.

It’s similar with my body. Most people’s bodies change far more visibly with age than their personalities and mental abilities (except in the case of dementia). I’m unusual in that my body has changed little since I was 15. That’s partly because I’ve worked out almost every day since I started running at 16, but it’s also genetics; my grandmother was even smaller and thinner than I am!

But less important than appearance, I think, is the attitude that women have towards their bodies, because that can have such a powerful effect on their self-image as a whole.

My career as a long-distance runner affected my life in every way, but one of the most significant effects of becoming an athlete, for me, was that it completely changed the way I thought about my body.

At 15, I was a typical teenaged girl, despairing over my body’s “defects.” I hated my skinny legs. I looked nothing like the curvy models in Playboy magazines, even the thinner ones.

What I discovered after becoming a runner is that I can feel tremendous satisfaction about what my body can do, and how wonderful my body can feel, rather than thinking only about how its appearance fails to match some cultural ideal of perfection and beauty.

That core insight remains with me today. As a 58-year-old woman I have to accept the loss of attractiveness and a decline in athletic performance, but I can still celebrate what my body is capable of experiencing, both in athletic endeavors and sensual enjoyment.

***

Almost a month ago I had one of those “peak” moments of physical well-being and thankfulness (for me, these moments happen most often in summertime). I was walking up the stairs from the beach at Sasamat Lake to get back to my car, which was in one of the upper parking lots. The sun was out; its warmth was welcome since I was wearing a still-wet bathing suit under my shorts and t-shirt. How I love mornings at the lake! It’s still peaceful before the crowds arrive. On this morning, there was a good breeze; in the background I could hear some shouts from school hiking groups and the odd trill of a bird’s song.

As I walked briskly up the stairs, I was filled with a simple thankfulness for the way my body is still “working.” Before the lake, I’d done a 7K run in Mundy Park. It was a perfect temperature; I initially felt cool in the breeze and shade of the trees, but after ten minutes of running I was starting to sweat. Warm temperatures help the body move more smoothly and easily, it seems. I was able to run pretty fast, and timed myself on a couple of familiar loops in the park.

After my 7K, I drove to the lake. I continued sweating as I was driving in my non air-conditioned car. That meant my plunge into the cool lake was very welcome!

But back to my thoughts on the stairs at the lake . . . I looked down at my skinny legs and my knobbly knees, and I was glad I’ve lost my teenaged hatred for them. I knew, as I climbed those stairs, that I looked like neither an elite athlete nor an attractive middle-aged woman. My size small shorts were supposed to be body-hugging, to show off a typical woman’s butt and upper thighs. On me the shorts were baggy, and below them emerged my toothpick-like legs, the legs of a kid.

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This photo shows my running philosophy as summarized by the Brooks motto.  It also shows my favourite running shorts–they’re supposed to be skin-tight, but on me–baggy. Photo by Simrin Purhar (2017).

But I thought about how far those legs have taken me—all over the world!—as I competed in track, road, and cross-country races. Those legs, along with my powerhouse lungs, shaped my life’s path: my career (as well as the roads not raced!), my marriage, and many of my friendships. I’m grateful for the body that can still run after two knee operations, bypass surgeries on both my femoral arteries, and Achilles tendon surgery. I’ve accepted my limitations and learned to be joyful for what still remains.

As for what I look like—I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who is an ace photographer. Keith has taught me that I can be plain, cute, or sexy—a lot depends on the angle of the camera. Even more depends on the ability of the photographer, not just his or her technical skills but the capacity to perceive and capture the inner spirit of a person.

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Timing my personal mini-triathlon. Photo by Keith Dunn (2013).

Keith has this gift, and it’s enhanced by his love of photography as a creative art. Moreover, he cares for me deeply, and is able to bring out the best in me.

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Photo by Keith Dunn (2016).

As women, we are fortunate when we gain confidence from the men who love us and love our bodies. And I maintain that what matters more than a woman’s appearance is her confidence and happiness about her body.  In French I could say, “Je me sens bien dans la peau,” which translates literally to “I feel good in my own skin” but really means, “I feel good about myself.”

 

For me, this attitude is one of the greatest benefits of a lifetime of fitness. The ability to accept my imperfect body—and more, to celebrate it with joy.

 

 

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Why dress age-appropriately on my own balcony? Photo by Keith Dunn (2015).

 

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Book review of Essbaum’s Hausfrau: NOT a modern Anna Karenina story

A couple of weeks ago I found two books at my local library using one of my common techniques for choosing books—browsing randomly. These books were in a corner of the library set aside for a summer reading club. This summer’s theme is “Walk on the Wild Side.” Two books piqued my curiosity and I checked them out.

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I first read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. The back cover blurbs suggested that the novel could be compared to a modern Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. High praise, indeed, and all the blurbs gushed about Essbaum’s masterful writing.

 

As I started reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Hausfrau is the story of an expatriate American wife, Anna, living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children. Anna is not happy; after nine years in Switzerland she still feels herself to be an outsider and has no close friends. She is bored, without personal ambition or direction, and feels distant from her husband. At first I found her story compelling, mainly because it includes a lot of well-written sex scenes. Anna starts an affair with a fellow student in her German class. Only weeks later she gets drawn into another affair, this time with a family friend.

But Hausfrau is not a steamy romance or an erotic novel—it is neither of these. Essbaum is asking serious questions about how a woman creates her identity and becomes fulfilled. What roles can marriage and extramarital sex play in that process? What is love? Why does Anna feel so isolated? Why is she so troubled by the question of what comes after death? She has regular psychotherapy sessions with a Doktor Messerli, and their conversations make up many scenes in the book. Yet the psychotherapist seems unable to draw Anna into a state of greater self-awareness, or penetrate her depression.

Hausfrau engaged me completely and in that way it is a successful novel. It made me think not only about the questions above, but about how my reactions to the book changed as I continued reading it. I’m fascinated by the fact that different readers analyze and respond to the same book in different ways. For example, the jacket cover calls Anna an “electrifying heroine,” and a blurb on the back compares her story to the nineteenth-century heroines of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I, instead, found myself puzzled and frustrated by Essbaum’s Anna. In my view she was unbelievably passive, and strangely indifferent towards her husband, lovers, and friends.

What I didn’t understand about Anna is that she has tremendous sexual energy, but seems unable to transfer any energy or joyfulness to other areas of her life. The sex scenes are powerful and erotic—yet the overriding message seems to be that sex is, for Anna, her only form of escapism and self-affirmation. At one point Doktor Messerli asks Anna what she is good at. Anna thinks, but doesn’t say, that the only thing she is good at is fucking.

She feels no emotion for her sexual partners; in fact she knows little about them and has no interest in getting to know more. Also, there seems to be no adequate explanation of what has gone wrong with Anna’s marriage to Bruno. Why are they so distant? There is one scene in the book where they have wild, rough sex after a party, and it’s clear that Anna still finds him very attractive, physically. Yes, they have their cultural differences, but Anna knew that going into the marriage.

Why do Bruno and Anna seem to have no interest in strengthening their marriage? There is one scene where Anna’s pseudo-friend Edith (a thoroughly unlikeable character) says she doesn’t have a clue what her husband does at work; Anna admits that she knows nothing about Bruno’s work, either. Anna says, “We should care enough about our husbands to know what they do.”

Edith replies, “The only thing we need to know is this: they bring home a paycheck.” So Anna, passive though she is, feels more compunction than Edith; Anna at least recognizes that this level of disinterest about one’s life partner is callous and strange.

One clue about Anna’s distance from Bruno is a backstory about an affair she had with a man named Stephen a couple of years before the present-day events of the novel. Of all the men mentioned from Anna’s life, Stephen was, apparently, the one she loved passionately. In fact, we learn that Anna’s third child is actually Stephen’s daughter, not Bruno’s, but Anna has never told anyone this. Stephen left Anna for a job in the States. He never wanted Anna to be a permanent partner. She wasn’t realistic about what she meant to him.

Yet Anna doesn’t tell Doktor Messerli about Stephen.

As I progressed through the book, I continued to be drawn in by Anna’s predicament but I was increasingly frustrated by her apathy. To me, comparisons with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are not apt. Tolstoy’s Anna is passionately in love with Vronsky. She is the victim of the rules and conventions of her time. By choosing to live with Vronsky, she not only becomes an outcast from Russian society, but her petty bureaucrat of a husband bans her from seeing her beloved son. For Anna Karenina, every choice leads to heartbreak.

Emma Bovary is more similar to Anna in Hausfrau, in that both are unhappy and bored by their social environment. Both Emma’s and Anna’s first lovers (Rudolf and Stephen) don’t love them. But Emma is trapped in ways that the contemporary Anna need not be. Modern women aren’t severely limited in their choices the way women were in the nineteenth century. Emma’s provincial town has nothing to offer her in terms of personal development or stimulation. Also, Emma doesn’t love her husband or even feel any physical attraction to him.

Eventually Anna’s affairs can no longer be hidden, and can no longer shield her from some awful real-life events. Her son Charles dies in a freak accident. After that, Bruno finds out he’s not the father of their third child. He beats Anna up and then tells her she has to leave their home for a while so no one sees the marks he’s put on her. Now Anna has genuine causes for grief and desperation. Yet I still found her actions in the last part of the book inexplicable. How could she be so unhinged as to leave her purse and suitcase on the train? Why does she throw her cellphone—her last link to getting help—into the water? Is Essbaum implying that the only way out for Anna is suicide, as it was for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary?

After reading most of Hausfrau eagerly, the ending left me dissatisfied and depressed. What was Essbaum’s purpose in writing it? In the end, the book seemed to convey messages only about failure: Anna’s failure to develop herself; her failure to find intimacy with others, including her husband, her lovers, or her friends; and the failure of the people surrounding her, including Doktor Messerli, to help her.

Despite the fact that Hausfrau disturbed me, the fact that it left me asking questions and postulating answers speaks to its success in engaging me. The novel seems real and honest, in part because it doesn’t shy away from exposing people’s darkest, weakest thoughts and actions.

It left me wondering how other people will react to Hausfrau and its “heroine.” How will they interpret the book’s conclusion? To me it gives a warning about the dangers of being passive—going with “the flow” of accidents and others’ choices without adequate self-awareness and reflection. Perhaps Anna should not have married Bruno. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps she should have terminated her affair with Stephen early on, by admitting to herself that he didn’t love her the way she loved him.

***

When I was almost finished reading Hausfrau, I came across a quote from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website. She quoted the prolific writer Robert Penn Warren (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men) on the subject of “finding oneself” through taking time off from work or school to do extensive travelling. Warren’s words were:

. . . the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.*

Anna doesn’t make choices about her own work, productive leisure activities, or friendships. She only accepts, passively, the choices that others impose upon her. She never “finds” herself. Instead, she loses everything by leaving her suitcase on the train and willfully discarding her cellphone. It seems the only choice Anna is capable of making is that of self-destruction.

* From Democracy and Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975)

Posted in Book Reviews, Psychology, Relationships, Writing Criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The middle-aged athlete on the Buntzen Lake loop

On Victoria Day I met with some of my Phoenix Running Club teammates to run the loop around Buntzen Lake. We gathered in the parking lot at 8:30 on a perfect morning. It was still cool but  the sun promised heat to come.

It was more special for me than for any of the other five runners in our group. I hadn’t run the Buntzen loop for nine years—since before I tore my ACL. Subsequent surgeries and worsening arthritis have severely curtailed the amount of running I can do.

In our group we had two seasoned trail ultra runners as well as three very fit middle-aged guys. This was to be a social run, so our loose plan was to run together. Actually, my plan was to run with the group for about half the distance, and then hike the second half.

NancysBackBuntzenTrail

All of the original six starters still together at 2K. Photo by Larry Lorette (#6 in file!)

We stayed together for about 3K; then four of us went ahead. Matt chose to stay back with Kathryn, who was the oldest and slowest runner in our group.

It wasn’t long before I lost contact with my three companions. The terrain had become very rough as we proceeded along the western side of the lake. I could handle the steep vertical climbs, but I had to move cautiously on the downhills. I expected Matt and Kathryn to pass me again.

I reached 5K alone, but now I was on the most difficult section of the trail. My young Phoenix teammate Simrin passed me easily, running like a mountain goat as she explained that she and her mother Neelam (another experienced trail runner) had arrived late. Although I am still faster than Simrin on a road course,  I couldn’t run with her here and she was soon out of sight.

The views as the trail came out in the open at the highest point above the lake were stunning. It was peaceful here too—so far I had encountered only the occasional runner or hiker moving in the opposite direction. Going downhill, I had to walk often because the footing was bad, with many loose rocks. Kathryn passed me, showing her agility and technical skill. She is over 60, but has the body of a twenty-something. We ended up running together quite a bit before the swinging bridge.

After a washroom break at the north beach, I told Kathryn I would go ahead since I’d heard that the trail was in good condition on the east side of the lake. I would run the whole distance after all. Maybe it wasn’t a sensible decision, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. Besides, I reasoned, my knee had already gone through so much after all those steep climbs and descents; it was too late to save it if it was going to react badly to this run, and it seemed to be OK.

I was astonished how hard the last 4K turned out to be. My quads had turned to Jell-O. I was beginning to get very thirsty, and my water was waiting for me in my car. Another problem was that the trail was becoming crowded with all the holiday hikers. I was constantly having to slow down and run around groups of people and dogs. Plus, even though the surface was quite good on this part of the trail, the punishing climbs continued.

When I heard the barking of dogs getting louder, I realized I was near the off-leash section of the beach; almost done! I ran up the trail beside the fence enclosing the off-leash area. As I reached the path above the beach, I stopped. My Garmin read 10.7K. With relief, thinking about my water bottle in the car, I started walking back to the parking lot. I was soon overtaken by Kathryn. She stopped running to chat with me. I told her that I’d found the run very tough. It demonstrated to me, once again, the mantra of “specificity of training.” Right now, I would say I’m quite fit and fast (for my age), but I lack the agility and leg strength of a regular trail runner, as well as the endurance of someone used to running long distances.

In the parking lot, the four speediest runners in our group were already gathered around Dale’s impressive “triathlon van,” along with Cathy and Dave, who had been hiking the trail. Everyone was eagerly eating the bran muffins Cathy had brought. I needed water first!

Soon Matt and Neelam appeared. The run around Buntzen was nothing for these two veterans of ultra trail running. Both, I noted, were wearing lightweight vests with water bottles.

The ten of us stood around eating and chatting in the parking lot while Larry and Simrin snapped photos.

SixPosingBuntzen.jpg

Left to right: Alex, Dave, Dale, Nancy, Cathy, Simrin, Matt. Missing: Larry (photographer), Kathryn, Neelam

As I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, I was overcome by a sense of gratefulness. I was grateful for being able to complete this run in spite of my knee’s fragility. Also, I had slept little the night before because of jet lag after my Toronto trip.

As always, I was thankful to be part of this group. I’ve run with some of these people for decades. We started the Phoenix Running Club in 1991, running mainly in Mundy Park. Over the years, we’ve often had a special summer event at Buntzen Lake, with a run followed by a barbecue and swimming. I liked the way the Buntzen run on Monday gave me this memory connection to something I used to do.

My long-time running friend Alex reminded me how fast he, Dave Reed and I used to be able to do the Buntzen Lake loop. Our times from “the old days” seem unbelievable now. My decline, in fitness but especially in agility, is huge. It’s humbling but it’s not very important. My expectations about my running performance have changed. I’ve accepted that I’ve changed physically, and I don’t have to prove anything about my running ability.

Before we left the park, Dale asked me if I wanted to join him for an “easy” bike ride of the 25K PoCo Trail that afternoon. Dale is fifteen years younger than me, a sub-elite triathlete who devotes a high percentage of his non-work hours to training. He has the body of a whippet.

I told him that the Buntzen loop had been a big run for me; that my legs were exhausted and I’d had enough for the day. He was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm! Dale remembers how fast I used to be before my knee arthritis. I know he can’t fully understand the huge impacts that age and my knee injury have had on me.

***

When we left the park at 10:20, cars were circling the full parking lot like buzzards, and the entrance gates were closed. Cars were lined up as far as the eye could see along Sunnyside Road, waiting for the chance to be let in. This is one way the Tri-Cities’ exploding population has become obvious. I felt sorry for all the people who had planned a special holiday excursion to this beautiful forested park; now they were sitting in hot cars waiting to join the crowds that had already converged on the beach and trails.

I’m thankful that I’m an earlybird. It’s painless for me to get up early to avoid the crowds; there is nothing better than the peacefulness and freshness of summer mornings at 5 or 6 a.m.

***

After the elation and accomplishment of the run, I soon plunged into a paralyzing exhaustion. The run itself was only one cause of this, though I certainly felt the tiredness of my legs and a general stiffness in many muscles following that unaccustomed effort.

I was paying the inevitable price for getting only a broken 2–3 hours of sleep the night before, following a whole week of poor sleep.

Usually my afternoon slump after nights like this is so extreme that I feel paralyzed. Any kind of intellectual or physical work seems impossible.

In this blog, I usually write with optimism and enthusiasm about my running and cycling adventures. This reflects what I think of as the “real me.” Yet when I’m in one of my frequent lethargic states, I’m often overwhelmed by negative thoughts and a sense of hopelessness. I hope that by acknowledging this, I can reassure others that it’s all right to have these ups and downs. It seems to me that middle age is a time of bittersweet extremes, both physical and mental. The highs are wonderful, and the awareness of time’s sands running on makes middle age cherish them more than youth ever could. But the lows can also be exacerbated by the knowledge of that diminishing time and the inevitable downhill slope.

I’ve learned that I always have the capacity to bounce back from exhaustion and depression. The morning after the Buntzen run, I woke up early, rejuvenated after a good sleep. It was a perfect sunny morning. I had regained my usual energy and eagerness, and looked forward to an easy bike ride; that would be taxing enough for my sore muscles.

I was riding back along my usual route home from the lake when I was passed by a male cyclist on a road bike. He appeared to be riding easily, and quickly opened a large gap on me. Then my competitive spirit kicked in. I decided to see if I could catch him and draft for a bit. I got a big kick of adrenaline and put my quad muscles to the test. In about a minute I caught him; I only hung on for a minute or two, but it gave me my fastest kilometre ever on that part of the route!

RunHappy

The Brooks slogan gets it right.

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.

***

DerekWalcottProdigal

You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.

 

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Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017: from her daughter

My mother passed away on Sunday, April 9, 2017, after years of struggling with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

I’ve included the paragraph below as something of an introduction to my mother. My father and brothers chose not to include this paragraph in the obituary we wrote for publication in the newspapers. They felt a shorter, simpler notice was what my mother would have preferred.

Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017

(published paragraphs of obituary omitted here)

Eleanor was a brilliant high school student, one of 50 young women chosen from across Canada to participate in the Weston Tour of England in 1951, where she met the Queen Mother. Eleanor graduated from McGill University with a B.Sc. in 1955, and married Frank shortly thereafter. She chose to devote her considerable energy and talents to her family. She volunteered her time generously at her church and the library at her children’s junior high school. Always sociable, Eleanor kept her many friendships alive with dinner parties, bridge evenings, and daily coffee klatches with her neighbours. She also managed to run home businesses (including bridge lessons) and play tennis with Frank. Once her children “left the nest,” Eleanor gained employment at neighbourhood schools as a librarian and then as an office secretary. She and Frank played duplicate bridge regularly, and won awards for their excellence in bridge competitions.

Thank you

Oh, the mystery and wonder of heredity! To my mother and my father I owe the gift of life.

1955-b MomDadPeppy

My parents in 1955, around the time they were married.

My mother gave me her tremendous energy and joie de vivre. I inherited some of her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her musical ability. I have only a small part of her nurturing qualities and her domestic skills.

My temperament is quite different from my mother’s—I’m not sociable and outgoing, as she was. My mother and I never had the intimate friendship that some mothers and daughters share. This was mostly due to my reticence.

Yet I have my mother’s feminine emotionality and warmth. Through her example, I was later able to become a good mother.

My mother loved all her children wholly and unconditionally. Like most women of her generation, she put her family first and abandoned the career paths that her brilliant scholastic performance would have opened up for her—if she had remained unmarried. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rare for women to have both a high-level career and a family.

1964-a MikeAlanNanceMom.png

1964: There was a time when I was a “big” sister!

***

It’s not my intention to write a detailed biography of my mother here.

Instead, I’m grappling with my thoughts and emotions of the past month, especially the last days of my mother’s life. Our family knew the end was coming. She was given a maximum of a year to live three years ago. But my mother confounded the odds and made almost miraculous recoveries several times over the past three years. She received excellent care from the palliative care team who visited her regularly at my parents’ apartment. And my father’s devoted caregiving never faltered, even though his tasks expanded at the same time as his arthritic knees made his own mobility increasingly difficult and painful.

Journal of a week: April 3­–April 9

Monday April 3

I felt great in the morning after a good sleep. It was cloudy and cold when I rode to Sasamat Lake in the morning, but by 11:00 the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day.

After my ride I realized I should phone Mom and Dad. I had been reluctant to call during the past two weeks. When I visited them early in March my mother was much weaker than she had been before. I knew when I said goodbye to her on March 9th that I might not see her again.

I could have planned another visit during a five-day gap in my work schedule, from April 3 to April 7. But I didn’t. I felt incapable of facing my mother’s suffering again.

But now, feeling strong after my bike ride, I could call.

Mom answered. When I asked how she was, she broke down, and said, “The doctor says I have to be moved to a hospital.”

Then Dad took over the conversation. He said Mom had seemed pretty good at his birthday gathering the day before. It had been a warm sunny day and my brothers had gone with Dad for his first bike ride of the season. I blabbed on about my own bike ride and the lousy Vancouver weather. But really, I was stunned by the meaning of the doctor’s decision. Yet I had known my life was about to change—that had been my intuition for the past few weeks—and it wasn’t just a change of season.

After all the topics that didn’t mean anything anymore, I blurted out something like, “Mom—if you want me to come—I will.” But she didn’t answer, and I ended the call soon after that.

Deep inside, I knew that I would go to Toronto to be with my mother—even though up until I heard her voice on the phone, I had resisted that idea. I started looking at flight availability and prices. When I talked to Keith, he offered to let me use his Air Miles points if flights were available.

My mind was still swirling, though, and a confusion of emotions was washing over me. I couldn’t make a decision immediately. My bike ride hadn’t been hard—I decided I would go to the gym and do some upper body weights. I might not be able to work out much for the rest of the week.

Walking to the rec centre, I was astonished by how much it had warmed up since my bike ride. Finally, it felt like spring!

When I got back from the gym my mind was calm and resolved. I found flights, phoned my brother to confirm he could drive me to the airport early Saturday morning for my return flight, and booked my flights.

The bad news about my mother contrasted so sharply with the beauty of the day. I couldn’t help but feel the joy of spring, and my own physical and mental strength. At the end of the day, I wrote:

But it is a solemn thing, my mother’s last days, and I’m thinking a lot about her, who she was, what a good mother she was, what love means, the cruelty of time and how it reduces a person. I am feeling the glimmer of grief through my joy in life that can’t be squelched.

Tuesday April 4

My father picked me up at Terminal 1 in Toronto about 9 p.m. and we drove immediately to Baycrest hospital, where my mother had been taken by ambulance about noon that day. Dad had already visited her during the afternoon.

I realized my father needed me as well as my mother. On that first visit to Baycrest together, we arrived at about 9:30 p.m. The pay parking machines were confusing. We stood outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out how to pay. Inside the vast hospital, the halls were empty and we couldn’t find an information desk. My father couldn’t remember how to get to the palliative care wing; nor could we find a map of the hospital. We wandered around for a while, but every step was hurting my father’s knees—he had already walked too much that day. Finally we were saved by a nurse who led us to the correct elevators and gave us clear instructions for getting to the palliative care area on the sixth floor.

As soon as my mother greeted me, I knew I had done the right thing to be with her. We got all emotional. I had worried about what to say and how to act, but when it came right down to it, my instincts took over—that night, and during my visits in subsequent days. There is a kind of adrenaline that surfaces in a crisis like this, a crisis of grief, and it enables “peak performance” though in a different way than happens from the adrenaline surge before a race.

I could see and hear the change in my mother even from my last visit less than a month earlier. All she could do now was fight to breathe. She had to remain in an almost-upright position at all times, even during the night, to be able to breathe at all. Talking was difficult and she was frequently racked by painful coughs as her body tried to expel the fluid choking her wasted lungs. She was being given morphine, not only for pain relief but to suppress the coughing somewhat so she could sleep. The morphine dosage was tricky; my mother was still intellectually sharp, and she didn’t like the “dopey” feeling the morphine gave her, but she needed to take it.

From my journal:

It strikes me now, with a clarity I haven’t had before, that when Mom dies the person who has loved me longest and most unconditionally will be gone.

I became much closer to my mother after I became a mother myself; it wasn’t until then that I understood what unconditional love meant. It’s a pure kind of love, not complicated by lust or any other way of having one’s own needs fulfilled. Even though mothers feel intense negative feelings about being trapped by motherhood, too, that love is always there. It is partly instinct, and partly a love that grows with the miracle of the child’s development and emerging personality.

1961-d AlanNanceMom.png

1961: Mom with me and baby Alan.

Wednesday, April 5

I had noticed on Tuesday night that my mother had taken almost nothing with her to the hospital. She had asked us to bring her reading glasses. I had suggested to Dad that he leave his cell phone with her the night before; she had no phone in her room. She had no TV, either, and no books. I decided to take her the book she was halfway through reading, as well as her current crossword puzzle book.

Mom had complained that the dinner they brought her on Tuesday was “horrible,” so we packed fresh strawberries cut up into small pieces, her favourite yogourt, and homemade vichysoisse that my brother Alan had put into their freezer the weekend before.

Dad and I visited Mom around noon. I helped her eat a few pieces of strawberries, but she clearly wasn’t much interested in food; she ignored the lunch the hospital provided. She didn’t want to read or do crosswords either.

After this visit I realized the full extent of my mother’s exhaustion. She no longer needed entertainment.

My brother Mike arrived at my parents’ apartment in the afternoon. He and Dad visited Mom again while I went for a ride on the bike Mike had brought for me.

Later, while we ate dinner together in the apartment, the three of us wrestled with some of the questions Dad and I had already talked about. We were worried about food; Mom didn’t have the energy to cut up food or chew much food. Apparently she had shown some interest in the chicken leg the hospital gave her for dinner, but if Mike hadn’t cut it up into small pieces for her she wouldn’t have eaten it.

Dad’s voice was broken when he said, “I feel so terrible thinking of her there all alone.” Should they have made a different choice; could they have kept Mom at home? They would have had to get 24-hour care for her; how much would that cost? She would have needed a proper hospital bed, too. And how hard it would be for Dad to have to witness her suffering, day and night!

After dinner Mike and I went back to the hospital to see Mom. We told her how bad we all felt that she had to be alone in the hospital, and asked if she thought it would be better if she was at home with a nurse helping out. Mom said something that Mike and I hadn’t thought of. She said, “I thought it was better for Dad if he got used to me not being at the apartment, while he could still visit me.”

Thursday, April 6

My father and I visited my mother around lunchtime. She was less responsive than the day before, showing little interest in food and no interest in the books we had left for her. My father brought her up to date on the latest soccer results and they talked about the teams’ prospects. We stayed for a while, and were able to talk to Mom’s doctor and social worker, but they could say nothing to reassure us.

My brother Alan and his wife Sarah, both busy with stressful jobs, planned to drive in from Waterloo to visit Mom on Thursday night. They had seen her on Dad’s birthday the previous Sunday, but I wanted a chance to see them before I went back to Vancouver. Mike was also going to bring his son Dan, just finished his second-year classes at McMaster University, to visit his Grandma that night.

My father and I were sad as we ate dinner in the dining room of the Donway (the senior’s home attached to the independent living apartments where my parents lived). Many people asked how my mother was doing. My father introduced me, and everyone said what a wonderful person my mother was and how they missed her.

My father replied politely to everyone’s inquiries and good wishes for my mother. Yet it’s so hard to respond when there is no good news!

I felt so bad for my father; maybe that’s why I broke down unexpectedly in the middle of dinner. The tears were good. They allowed me to open up to my father and show him how much I cared.  I told him how thankful I was that he and Mom had decided to have three children, and had been such good parents to all of us. Now, because of their dedication, we felt the strength of being a united, loving family. My brothers and I have always been good friends. Now I knew they would help my father in practical ways, as well as ease his loneliness somewhat after my mother was gone.

1969-a FamilyCamping.png

Our family in about 1970.

My father was too tired to consider going back to the hospital, and his car is too big for me to drive, so I took four TTC buses to get to Baycrest on my own. It was a truly horrendous night; close to zero, and pouring rain. I wore five layers of clothing, and carried an umbrella and a dry pair of shoes and socks to change into if necessary. It was dark when I finally reached the warmth of Baycrest at 8:30.

I walked into my mother’s room to see her surrounded by Alan, Sarah, Mike, and Dan. I said hi to my mother and hugged her, then gave big hugs to Alan and Sarah, then Dan and Mike. Quickly pulling off layers of clothing and piling them on the window sill, I kept chatting with everyone as I pulled a chair up to my mother’s bed and put my hand on her fragile shoulder, apologizing for how cold it was. Then I announced that I had a funny story to tell about my dinner with Dad. No, I wouldn’t say anything about the deep sadness of that dinner, when I sat in my mother’s place at their usual table in the dining room.

I did have a funny story to tell though, one I knew my mother would enjoy. They had served a Chinese dinner that night, and everyone in the family knew how much my father loved fried rice. He had carefully ordered no vegetables (another instruction typical of him) and extra fried rice. When the server brought our plates to the table, we didn’t notice anything wrong until she had already sped away. But then my father looked at his plate. There were four chicken balls, an egg roll—good—plus a huge helping of beans and carrots and no fried rice!

My plate was normal—and I wouldn’t trade, because I liked fried rice too. You can imagine how I spun out this story. In the end I took my father’s heap of vegetables, and he got a new plate that contained lots of rice and so many chicken balls and egg rolls that he had to give some of them to me. We were both completely stuffed. My mother also smiled when I mentioned the lemon tarts I had enjoyed for dessert—my appetite and sweet tooth are pretty legendary in the family.

My mother didn’t have to talk much during that visit, because there were five of us there, all catching up on our news. I knew Mom was happy just to see us there, to feel the love we have for each other and for her. She was included just by listening as I gently touched her.

I admired Alan’s business shirt—it had unusual colours and looked great on him. He admitted it was a gift from Sarah, and said he liked it so much he had bought another one. Alan and Sarah have been married for less than four years—my brother found the love of his life at age 50! As Alan put his arm around Sarah, I exclaimed, “What a good-looking couple you are—we have to get a photo!”

My mother added, “They look good because they are so happy together.” Mike snapped a photo.

Mike and Dan left, and Alan, Sarah, and I stayed with Mom a little longer. After we all hugged her and said goodnight, I suggested that we chat for a few minutes at a comfortable place in the lobby before they made the long drive back to Waterloo in the rain (and snow, as it turned out!).

Sarah was shocked by how much Mom’s condition had worsened since Sunday. “Was she better when you visited in the morning?” she asked.

“No, she was worse this morning. Tonight I could see she was very happy to be surrounded by all of us, and I think she was making an effort to put on a brave face.”

“I was worried we stayed too long, that we were tiring her out,” said Sarah.

“It didn’t matter. Even breathing tires her out. She enjoyed listening to us—that’s the only thing that can help her now,” I replied.

Sarah made me feel good by saying, “That was a great story you told! When you came in the room and started telling that story it changed the whole atmosphere in the room!”

That was one of the times I felt the power and love of being part of my family.

Friday, April 7

When Dad and I visited Mom at noon on Friday, there was an obvious and ominous change in her condition—she could only whisper.

I sat down very close to her, and touched her, as always. I could hear her whispered words well, but it was difficult for Dad. Mom kept her eyes closed most of the time; because of this, Dad thought she wasn’t aware of what we were saying, and was probably in a drugged, semi-conscious state. However, I could tell she was aware of everything, because she responded appropriately to what I was saying with whispers or nods of her head.

Dad was very worried, but unfortunately, though we stayed for about 90 minutes, the doctor didn’t come at the usual time and we couldn’t ask any questions about Mom’s voice loss. Dad was getting hungry. He said some loving words to my mother, and she responded in kind, as best she could; he kissed her goodbye. I told Mom I would be back to see her that evening, and hugged her too.

Friday had turned into a beautiful sunny day, but it was still so cold I didn’t want to go for a bike ride during my free afternoon hours. Instead, I went to The Shops at Don Mills across the street from my parents’ apartment. I was in a strange emotional state: I was filled with foreboding. My flight home was early the next morning. I knew that tonight’s visit with my mother would be the last time I would see her. My mind was filled with sadness, but also busy reminiscing and mulling over what I wanted to say to my mother.

Sometimes in an emotional state like that some odd contrasts in behaviour come out. I went into one of my favourite stores, a place that has fashionable clothes in very small sizes. There, I was easy prey for a seasoned saleswoman. I was gay and enthusiastic with her. Between her choices and mine, I ended up in a changeroom with about 15 articles of clothing.

To make a long story short, in about 20 minutes I was leaving the store with over $200 worth of clothes. However, since I had come close to spending about $700, I considered myself lucky.

Dad’s form of escapism was his decision to play his usual Friday night duplicate bridge game at his club. After a Swiss Chalet dinner with him, I was once again taking my multiple-bus trip to the hospital. This time I was travelling earlier and it was a beautiful evening, though cold. When I arrived in Mom’s room, her window shades were still up, and I exclaimed over the colours of sunset that still lingered in the sky.

We were both crying when I chose to leave. Mom held my hand tightly for a while, longer than I expected. We kissed goodbye. I hate prolonged goodbyes. I walked out, walked numbly through the hospital corridors, sensing the fatefulness of this night. I would not take the Bathurst bus to Wilson; no, I would walk that stretch, letting the bitterly cold night air assault my sadness.

When I walked into the apartment (my father was still out at his bridge game), I looked at the couch, at my mother’s spot where she was always to be found unless she was in bed. I had a strange reaction: anger. She wasn’t there! She would never be there again!

I wrote in my journal:

Tonight I spent about 90 minutes with Mom. We both knew it was my goodbye. We had some reminiscing, some quiet times, and I told her all the most important things. We know we love each other.

I combed her soft hair a couple of times today. I guess I’ve never done that before. I never knew how soft her hair was, soft and fine like mine. I guess a lot of the time she had “hairdos” with lots of hairspray to hold everything in place; and a long time ago she used to get perms.

She gave me some beautiful smiles… beautiful although her mouth and lips are always dry. There is no adornment now. She cared right up until the end: lipstick, powder, hairdo, jewellery to match her outfits. Now that is all gone. All she can do is struggle to breathe.

Saturday, April 8

My father took me to Toronto Pearson airport early in the morning. Keith met me at the baggage area in Vancouver.

Shortly after we got home, I received a text from my brother Mike. He wrote that Mom had been unconscious all that day. Afterwards, Alan told me that when he and Sarah saw Mom later that afternoon, she opened her eyes briefly, tried to speak to them, and then fell back into that deepening sleep.

Sunday, April 9

Mike called to tell me Mom had passed away early in the morning. I told him it was better she didn’t have to be in pain any longer. All of us had been able to say our goodbyes to her with loving words on Thursday or Friday.

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1992. Mom with her first grandchild–my son Abebe.

 

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Vancouver’s collective depression and another hypothermic bike ride

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Soaked

I woke up this morning a little before 6:00, and registered some good things about the day. First, it was already starting to get light out. Secondly, it was a holiday—that meant no traffic noise. Instead, all I could hear through my open window was the sweet trilling of birds—and no sounds of rain!

Sundays and holidays are my favourite times to go cycling early. It’s so peaceful, and there are almost no cars on the road. So I decided this would be a bike ride morning.

Getting up, I saw the sky was ominously streaked with dark bands of gray. Rain would be coming soon.

I should have started my ride immediately. But no, I wanted to walk to Starbucks for coffee and wake up a little more. My walk was pleasant, cool but dry. By the time I had had some coffee, breakfast, and dressed warmly with several layers of clothing, including my waterproof jacket, it was almost 7:30.

Emerging on my bike from the underground parking, I felt the first drops of rain. With that came anger. Vancouver’s awful weather has been hanging on too long this year! First we had three months of snow. Mundy Park was covered for all that time, and I couldn’t run there. Now it’s mid-April, and although we’ve had a few sunny days, we haven’t had a single day that is both sunny and warm.

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The cherry blossoms are out (a month late), but Vancouver is still cold, gray, and rainy.

Vancouverites are suffering from a kind of collective depression. I’m not the only one; many of us are influenced by the continuous grayness, cold, and rain.

Yes, I felt angry. It’s a holiday! Why can’t I have an enjoyable extended ride; push myself without interference from cars (or many pedestrians, this early), stop to take photos, bask in the loveliness of spring sensations? Because spring is still not really here!

Nevertheless, today I was determined to go riding. My legs felt good—if I pushed hard, I would be able to keep warm. The best ride for that was my usual 8K up to Sasamat Lake—the climb is hard enough to get my heart and leg muscles working to their max.

However, in only a couple of minutes the few drops of rain turned into a steady, cold downpour. I should have turned back and gone later. But no—I stubbornly continued. I pushed hard; my core stayed warm for a while, but the icy water assaulted me from every direction. It was raining down on me, it was blowing uncomfortably in my eyes (and contact lenses), it was splashing up from the ever-deepening puddles until my butt, legs, and feet were completely soaked and my “waterproof” jacket was not functioning as it was supposed to.

I stopped briefly under the shelter of one of the buildings at the lake. I wanted to take a couple of photos, and transfer my phone to a safer inner pocket of my clothing. But I realized my fingers were already too frozen to be able to do these things. This ride had turned into a sufferfest, and I just had to get back home as quickly as possible.

As I rode along the road to exit the park, I noticed it had stopped raining. The sky had brightened and the lake looked eerily beautiful through the trees. But it was too late for me, and too late to take photos. Now I was riding mostly downhill. I couldn’t enjoy the wild speed I usually did; it was dangerous on the wet roads. Also, with frozen feet and fingers, I didn’t have good control of my bike.

I was getting colder and colder, and counting off the minutes as I rode back as fast as I could. Luckily, the bike path was clear—until I reached the steep little downhill to the bridge near the rec centre. There was a group of runners all across the path in front of me. My fingers were too frozen to even move my bell switch, so I yelled out, “Passing on your right!”

The runners couldn’t decide where to move, and still blocked my way, so I came to a full stop; then I struggled to gear down; my fingers had lost all their strength.

Even once I reached the warmth of my underground bike locker, I had difficulty turning the key in the lock. Back in my apartment, I struggled to remove all my layers of clothing so I could get in a hot shower.

What an idiot! Hypothermic again! Why don’t I ever learn?

Haruki Murakami on his writing process—and creative work in general

Last night I was reading a book by a writer whose style and imagination I admire—Haruki Murakami. I’ve enjoyed both his fiction (1Q84 and others) and his non-fiction (What I Talk about When I Talk About Running: A Memoir). The book of his I’m currently reading, Absolutely on Music, is about his conversations with renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.

What does this have to do with my bike ride? Well, it’s that my bike rides and runs are for me a both a source of joy and a form of escapism, whereas Murakami writes that both he and Ozawa “are happiest when absorbed in our work . . . our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward.” (p. xi)

I was awed by Murakami’s description of his daily work routine, which he has followed for over twenty-five years. He gets up at 4:00 a.m. and writes continuously for five to six hours, sipping hot coffee all the while. This is not merely one of the factors that makes him an internationally successful writer—it is what he most enjoys doing.

His ability to focus so completely on his writing reminds me that work can also be a kind of escapism. The best kind of work, creative work, is deeply satisfying and joyful. It makes external circumstances like bad weather irrelevant. It can also provide an anodyne to anxiety, depression, and nagging existential questions like “Why am I here?” Creative work, in itself, is the answer to this question.

AbsolutelyOnMusicMurakami

 

 

 

 

 

 

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