January 30, 2021: The Long Wait

There were towns
that knew about the flu before
it arrived; they had time to imagine the germs
on a stranger’s skirts, to see how death
could be sealed in an envelope,
how a fever could bloom in the evening,
and take a life overnight…

For awhile, the outside world
existed in imagination, in memory,
in books or suitcases, deep in closets.

(From “Quarantine, 1918,”by Faith Shearin, in Orpheus Turning, 2015)

It’s been nearly a year since the word “Covid-19” became a common word in our lives, since every day has been punctuated by another report on daily increases—or decreases– in new cases of the virus and deaths caused by it.  We’ve spent much of the past year in various stages of lockdown, social distancing and isolation.  As reports of the new vaccines being developed appeared, we began hoping our lives might return to some semblance of normality by 2021.  Yet as February begins, reports of the vaccine’s availability in Canada are not encouraging—not yet.  Meanwhile, I, like many of you, have friends living in the United States who have happily posted of Facebook, “We’ve been shot!” or written to say, “We’re getting our vaccinations next week…” The effect of their news is little more than  a trigger to increased anxiety and impatience.  Yet  I can do nothing but wait…which is what we’ve all been doing for many months.

We waited through the past months as a second wave progressed, celebrating the holidays alone and missing the annual Christmas fun we normally share with our eldest daughter and family, who live only 15 minutes away.  We’ve restricted our movements even more as the reports of a more infectious variety of the virus are even more troubling.   We try not to read the routine COVID-19 updates too often nor the reports of countries squabbling over vaccine supplies.  Yet it’s difficult to avoid them.   Our questions are the same as everyone else’s:  how much longer will this pandemic persist?  When will we have access to the vaccinations?  Will it be effective?  What long-term impact will it have on life as we once knew it?  The longer the virus persists, the less likely a return to what we took for granted was “normal” life.  Still, we wait, and we hope…

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting…

(From “Wait” by Galway Kinnell, in: Mortal Acts; Mortal Words, 1980)

How much of your lives are spent waiting?    Like you, I  have waited—often less than patiently — on many times—too numerous to remember them all.  I waited on the overdue birth of my eldest daughter, and as both daughters became teenagers, I waited more than a few times for them to arrive home well past curfew.   I’ve waited in lines for tickets and performances, for doctor’s appointments and medical tests, for surgical procedures, and for packages delayed in transit.  But this protracted period of waiting, the memory of  “normal” life fading, I feel a little like Bill Murray’s character in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day.

Murray played the part of a TV weatherman who was reporting on the annual celebration of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose appearance (or lack of)  originated in a Celtic and Germanic celebration.  As the legend goes,  If Phil appears and casts a shadow on February 2nd, our cold winter is doomed to continue another six weeks; if he sees no shadow, we’ll have an early spring.

In the film,  Murray’s character keeps waking up and reliving the same day over and over. Sound familiar?  It reminds me of the “sameness” of daily life during COVID-19 , only the boredom is coupled with the tension of waiting for the “all clear” signal, a return to a normal life, and yet uncertain of what “normal” might look like.  And all the while,  we’re waiting, and waiting, for a vaccine to be available to all of us.

Daily,  I feel my own niggling anxiety rise along with a sense of spiritual malaise and boredom as our protracted isolation continues.  I try—and not always successfully– to accept and find new ways to master this unnatural  state of waiting and to learn from it, just as Murray’s character had to do.   I’ve read and reread T. S. Eliot’s words  like a mantra:

 I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

(The Four Quartets, 1943)

His words remind me to reconsider why life seems to make us wait.  I am still trying to learn to accept what I cannot control, or at least to live gracefully with it, and to let things unfold as they will…but sometimes?  It’s just not easy.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Think about what it means to wait…and wait.
  • When you’re living with a heart or other chronic condition and classified as “higher risk” for Covid-19 complications, how has waiting for a vaccination, an end to the pandemic, affected you?   Write about how this long period of waiting has affected you.  How have you coped?
  • We wait many times over in our lives—some of the waits are every stressful; others are, unfortunately, part of daily living.  Write about other times in your life when waiting was stressful for you.   What was the situation?  How did you feel?  What happened when the wait was over?  What did you learn—if anything—from the experience?
  • Borrow a line from any of the poem fragments in this post—or from a poem or other writing that has been helpful or meaningful to you in this time of Covid-19.  Use it to begin your writing.  See where it takes you.

November 16,2020: A Sense of Place and Belonging

In the past weeks my mind and heart have been dominated by the drama of the US presidential elections, just as many of my American friends.  It wasn’t until after Biden was declared the winner that  I realized how on edge I’d been for the days before the final outcome.  Yet whatever relief and hope I may have felt, it’s been clouded by the machinations of the incumbent who fails to concede and instead, ignites only  more conflict and upheaval.  All this in the country where I grew up and once believed  the principles of its democracy were inviolate.

The ongoing effects of the drama and the occurrence of a second wave of COVID-19 and necessity for social isolation have left me struggling to write.  My mood has been as grey as the sky outside my window this overcast morning.  Frustrated,  I began searching through old files of writing—my stories, essays and poetry—in hopes of finding something—anything–that might spark some ideas for this blog post.  Buried among the many odds and ends of prose, I discovered an essay of several pages, written in  attempt  to understand what defines “home,” and a sense of place and belonging.

               It began in 2004.  I was living in Menlo Park California, just a mile from the Stanford campus.  A few months earlier, my mother had died of Alzheimer’s.  A friend, wife of one of my high school friends,  was visiting from Washington State.  Her husband and I had grown up together in the small town of  Yreka, in Siskiyou County, just south of the Oregon border.   Siskiyou County was also the home to my father and the land his father and grandfathers also settled and made their homes.   I grew up with a strong sense of history, belonging and identity with the area and its people.   For anyone who was “from” there, we shared a deep and abiding love of its  mountains, streams, lakes and  wildness.  Above all else, Mt. Shasta, an ancient volcano and long  sacred to the native peoples who once occupied the area, ignited a sense of awe and  belonging to all who lived with its constant and breath-taking presence. 

That autumn afternoon, the sun was setting behind the western foothills beyond the Stanford campus as I drove around the area with my friend.    “You know,” I said abruptly, “We’ve lived here since we returned from Canada, but I’ve never felt an affinity for this area.”

 “Is it because there are no mountains?” She asked, gesturing toward the rolling expanse of the foothills.  I certainly thought they were beautiful, although gradually, the foothills were being overtaken with more and more expensive new homes. 

“No,” I said, trying to find the words for my feelings.  “It’s not the mountains I miss so much just the one mountain, Mt. Shasta.  When you grow up looking out the window everyday and see it dominating the horizon, it gets in your blood.

She told me she understood, because that her husband felt the same way.  “You both have those feelings about that mountain,” she said. 

I have filled more than a few pages of my notebooks with stories from  the  landscape of my childhood.  My identity was forged, in part,  from the presence of the mountain,  its volcanic soil, wide vistas, and the wild escape of madrone, ponderosa, juniper and sagebrush.  The landscape remains, but the place I once called “home” seems to have grown smaller, and the people I once knew have mostly disappeared, just as I disappeared  many years ago.  Then, it was the idealism of youth, a sense of adventure, a political war we protested, and together with my new husband, we immigrated to Canada and lived in its capital, Ottawa.   I never imagined we wouldn’t return after he finished his PhD, but by the time I came back to California, my first husband was dead, and I had lived in Nova Scotia and Ontario nearly 25 years.  Home, as I’d once known it, no longer existed.  Only the mountain, ever-present and breath-taking against the horizon, still had my heart.

Despite the many years I lived in Canada, I’d missed being part of a larger family, and I was eager to reclaim all I’d missed.  It was only in the act of “homecoming,” that  I slowly began to understand how my 25 years in Canada had left their mark.  There, I had grown into womanhood, become a mother, and then, a widow.  I’d reclaimed my maiden name and become a Canadian citizen after my husband’s death.  I found  the courage to move my daughters and myself from Nova Scotia to Toronto to go back to graduate school.   There, I completed a doctoral degree and  also met and married the man who has been my husband for the past thirty-one years.  Were it not for my dear Nova Scotia friends during those painful and turbulent years, I might have easily been swallowed up by grief.  Their support and kindness were critical to my healing—something, I discovered, that my own family was unable to give. 

Still,  I had missed my parents and siblings,  and we came back to California with high hopes of rediscovering “home.”    In hindsight, I was naïve, unprepared for the experiences of  the losses  that would upend my life in the first few years of our return.  My father died of lung cancer barely a year and a half later—and after his death, my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s began in earnest.  It was, I suppose, after her death in the summer of 2004 that I experienced the final loss of all that remained of my childhood home and family.  My siblings had become strangers to me, and I was an outsider to them.  For years afterward, I felt a dull and constant heartache over the loss of what was once my family and the sense of isolation from it.

I began writing in earnest during those years, which is hardly a surprise.  Writing was a way of making sense of all that had happened, a way of coming to terms with my history, and a way of healing.  My journeys into the exploration of place, memories and story grew from my lingering grief, just as I learned many writers had begun writing from “a port of pain.” as Henry James once described

I now write at my desk surrounded by images of Mt. Shasta.  A photograph of it hangs on the wall in front of me and on the opposite walls are two larger framed  lithographs of the mountain.  I still feel something of that long-ago reverence when I look at the images of the mountain.   Most importantly,  it helps me remember “who I was then,” as Joan Didion once described an important aspect of  writing.  It also reminds me that  who I have become is a blended mixture of that Californian past and my Canadian past and present. 

Attachment to our homeland, as Author Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, is a common human emotion  (Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, 1977).  I now realize how, in the years I lived in Nova Scotia, I had begun establishing strong ties to the places and people who were part of my life there, but I doubt I realized it fully until I returned to California to again live.  “Only by slow accrual, like a coral reef,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “can we create a sense of place and belonging, a feeling of home”(The Sound of Mountain Water, 1980).  I had lived half my life in Canada  by the time I returned to California, and those experiences had resulted in a sense of place and belonging in it that I didn’t fully understand until after my parents’ deaths. 

What had my writing helped to clarify?  As Terry Tempest Williams described in her book exploration of family and place, “perhaps I am telling this story in an attempt to heal myself, to confront what I do not know, to create a path for myself with the idea that memory is the only way home”( Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Just as I discovered the power of the sense of  belonging I’d once had for Northern California in leaving it, I also discovered how that “belonging” can change and shift, depending on one’s experiences in other places, other geographies.  When, after much deliberation, my husband and I chose to exercise our Canadian citizenship and return to Toronto in 2017 after the losses we experienced in California, it was as though I had finally come home. 

During my teenage years, I’d experienced a sense of the larger world when when I first traveled far from Yreka as an American Field Service exchange student to The Netherlands, discovering, after I returned,  a piece of my heart was forever in Friesland with the family who embraced me so generously and lovingly.   Those months in Holland also left a mark:  afterward, I was restless to leave my hometown and experience other places and people.  Yet I have come to believe it is always in the leaving that we come to understand how deeply and in what ways we were shaped by a place and the people in it.   I now live, again, in  Toronto, and  I am grateful to be in Canada—something my husband and I both acknowledged as we have watched, with concern and sadness, the upheaval in our birth country.  I am far from finished exploring the landscape of my life, I know that.  I am still making sense out of it all by writing and unraveling the depth and breath of the life story that is mine.  But those places:  California, Siskiyou County, The Netherlands, and Canada—they all have left their imprint on who I have become; who I am. 

And I carry them all in my heart.

Memories of the Heart

The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(“What the Heart Cannot Forget” by Joyce Sutphen, from Coming Back to the Body. © Holy Cow! Press, 2000.)

Several years ago, I attended a women’s memoir writing workshop in Texas as one of the featured  presenters.  My workshop was scheduled early in the day, which gave me opportunity to sit in on other workshops.  I had been hoping to meet Nan Phifer, author of Memoirs of the Soul , one I’d used it as a resource in my memoir writing classes.  As  luck would have it, I was able to attend her afternoon workshop.

Nan  began by addressing the question common to anyone who wants to begin writing a memoir. “How do I get started?   Do I really have anything interesting to write about ?” I’ve always believed that everyone has many things to write about, even though occasional bouts of “I have nothing to write” are common to most writers from time to time.   That belief has been validated constantly in my workshops.  All inspiration needs is a little nudge, exactly the purpose of a writing prompt.  Yet faced with aa blank page, whether a new or experienced writer, doubts can overtake us and confound the writing process.  But what Nan Phifer offered that afternoon was one of the most fruitful and enduring of all the writing prompts, I’ve ever experienced or used—one I’ve continued to use with all  my writing groups. 

She introduced the exercise as a way of exploring what we hold in our hearts—the memories that are the raw material for writing.  The first step was to take a blank page and draw the outline of a valentine-shaped heart, filling the page.  Then the group was instructed to write inside the heart, filling it with the names of people, activities, things and places important to us in our lifetimes.  Our pens moved rapidly, the hearts filling up with words  from every category.  Each word or name, she explained, was the entry to a specific memory, one that now could be written. People were surprised at how much “material” for writing they had actually generated.  For the prospective memoir writer, those single names were the doors “in” to the larger life story.  “Choose one,” Nan said, “and begin writing.” 

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)—e,e, cummings

Perhaps it was simply the task of  drawing a heart shape that brought a long-forgotten memory to the surface, because one in particular was one from my childhood—a memory  that had to do with hearts:  a first Valentines’ Day celebration and especially,  my very first “best” friend.

I was five years old and in Mrs. Newton’s afternoon kindergarten class.  I’d never experienced a Valentine’s Day party nor given a valentine to anyone before, just like most of my classmates.  But as  February 14th grew near, we all began to feel the excitement.   Mrs. Newton guided our preparations.   We sat at tables and carefully used our blunt-nosed scissors cut out heart shapes from red construction paper.  These were pasted around the exterior of a large white hat box.  Our teacher had already cut a wide slit in the top of the box, and it was transformed into our Valentines’ mailbox.  The Room Mothers visited to talk with us about our party, giving us lists of the kind of refreshments needed to take home to our mothers along with the list of students’ names provided by our teacher so that everyone in the class would receive valentines from one another. 

A day before the party, my mother and I went to our local dime store to buy a packet of valentine cards, one for each child in the class and one for our teacher.   She placed the packet on a small table in the living room, ready to be addressed.    That night, I could hardly contain my excitement and begged my mother to help me address my valentines, but it was getting late.  She promised we’d have plenty of time to address them all in the morning, and I was sent to bed.      

It’s hardly surprising that I awakened very early the next morning, well before my parents.  Too excited to stay in bed, I tiptoed into the living room and went to work.  I knew how to spell just one name, Sharon, which was also the name of my very first best friend.  I found an ink pen, and in my very best printing, began addressing the cards, one another, all with “To Sharon H., Form Sharon B.” (the word “from” only slightly misspelled).  By the time my mother was awake, she walked into the living room and discovered I’d single-handedly addressed over two-thirds of the packet, and every single card for my very best friend.

 “Sharon Ann, what have you done?”.  Only then did I realize I’d done something wrong.  She sighed, “it’s too late to buy more valentines now,” took the remaining cards and addressed them to an equally few number of my classmates.  But the embarrassment didn’t settle in until that afternoon, when she led me by the hand to apologize to my teacher that afternoon, which I did in a small voice with downcast eyes.  Mrs. Newton was understanding, only nodding her head and gently taking me by the hand to my table before escorting my mother to the classroom door. 

But my excitement was somewhat dampened by the knowledge I had no valentines for most of the rest of the class, and I sat very still, still feeling the flush of embarrassment as we gathered in a semi-circle around our teacher and waited for all the valentines to be distributed.  I do remember that my best friend, Sharon H., was seated next to me.  One by one, names were called and valentines distributed yet, what still makes me smile when I think of it is how, when another of the valentines I’d addressed was drawn from the box, Mrs. Newton would say, with mock surprise, “Why, here’s another valentine for Sharon H.; I wonder who it’s from…”, then smile knowingly at me.    

 I like to think that Mrs. Newton knew how important and special those first “best” friendships are that formed between children when they leave the familiarity of home and begin the school, how reassuring it was to have that one special friend there beside me each day that first year.   I believe our friendship made the transition to kindergarten and my beginning of my “growing up” years all the more special. 

The following year, Sharon H. was in a different class than mine, and we both made other “special” friends.  We grew farther apart in high school as our life trajectories began to solidify, but our lockers were next to one another all four years, and daily, we exchanged smiles and greetings.  She married soon after high school, but died just a few years later—perhaps from cancer, but that was before people “talked” about it. I learned of her death years after I’d left my hometown for university.  But I cherish her memory, one I carry in my heart.

 “The companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft

If You Want to Write:

Try the “heart” exercise to generate ideas for writing. This is a slightly modified version of Nan Phifer’s memoir writing exercise.  Whether memoir, personal essay, turning life into fiction, or poetry, this exercise will help you discover that you have lots of material for writing.  Here are the steps:   

  • You’ll need to a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper.  Draw the outline of a heart on the page (a large one, filling the page). 
  • For each category, people, events or place) use a timer, giving  yourself no more than 3 minutes to write the names or title of 1) people you carry in your heart, then2) events, and 3)  places.
  •  Once done, take another couple of minutes to study your heart and what names you’ve written on it.
  •  Choose just one, from any of the three categories; then set your timer for 15 minutes and begin writing, telling the story of what one thing you’ve chosen. 
  • When you’re finished, put it aside—re-read it later.
  • After you’ve re-read, reflect on what you’ve written.   What stands out?  Ask yourself, why was that (person, event or place) so important to you? 
  • You may want to continue writing about it, fleshing out more detail in your narrative, turning it into a story, a poem, or even material for a much longer memoir.