December 01, 2012

Look at them, at their best...

Photos of my Dad and Mum sit on my dresser: I spend more time looking at them these days. Years since I've seen them alive. Hard to remember what it felt like to be their little boy. Easier to remember just visiting them in hospitals. Reading that sentence helps me see how narrow and skewed my memories can get. It sucked to be a kid or a teen or in your twenties and to know that they were never going to get better or be happier, and that at least you could focus your hope on your own survival. Maybe one day, even a little joy. I've found my bliss and a satisfying arc to my life since then.

So here's to who they were, or might have been, in sweeter days:

Angela, maybe 25 or more, wearing a mink coat and elegant in white gloves, standing like a model, on the airport runway before boarding a plane. A woman leaving Victoria, going somewhere - maybe flying off to a music conservatory back east to sing opera and play the piano. She could make music for herself or someone else...

Jim, the toughest man I knew, sitting shirtless at 40, sunburned after a day of driving tractor. Sometimes, as a technician, he worked way up in the high-tension radio transmission towers in Saskatchewan, free and above it all, damn-near in the clouds. He lived for hard work and a strong role to fill. Happy in the sun...

I'll make of them what I will to honour who they might have been.

November 05, 2012

They were articulate, especially.

Tonight, I was briefly remembering a scene from my first novel, Owe Nothing. It was a little girl, perhaps five or six, and her even younger brother. They had come to the front door of my main character's home, and were motioning for someone to come and help them. Each of them were capable of sign language. They'd had to learn early, because their mother was deaf, and it was the only way they could communicate with her.

The brief flash of this scene which I wrote years ago, reminded me of the real people who's inspired it. When my sister and I first came to Vancouver, we were living in a Motel on Kingsway, called the Mountain View. Not long after we moved in, we became familiar with a woman named Mrs. Johnston who had two little children, Roxanne and Jonathon. I don't remember the woman's first name, but my mother briefly befriended her, and through Mrs. Johnston's handwritten notes and her children's interpretation, we learned that she had had German Measles as a little girl, and that is how she lost her hearing.

Mum, bless her, wanted to communicate with Mrs. Johnston. The lady could speak a little, but it sounded all like vowels and no consonants. "Butter" came out as "Buh-errr". I recall Mum saying "Butter" over and over again, patiently, and hearing Mrs. Johnston's malformed replies. Mum had been a singer, musician and actress in her younger years, and I now think that she was fascinated by the sounds her new friend made. Mrs. Johnston didn't seem to mind having my Mum as her unofficial elocution coach for the afternoon either. It was all about communication that day. A healthy and friendly, supportive exchange built on curiosity and a desire to help, or at least meet somewhere in the middle.

I have written a lot of sad, sorry and unfortunate stories about my parents (all of it true), but I don't think I have given each of them enough credit for their displays of genuine intelligence and sensitivity, or their abilities to each be articulate and kind.

It's too easy to remember the drunken fights, and recall people at their worst, but it's fair to also show that the evidence that each of us also has a good side that will speak kindly to a puppy, or spend an hour trying to learn how to talk to a deaf woman.

October 14, 2012

Looking back, and moving forward...

On a grey, rainy day, I'm reminded of people and times from my past, and I wonder how I have let my past affect my choices about my future.

My parents each struggled with alcohol, and in varying degrees, with depression and anxiety. More than thirty years after going through the last of their fights, after "graduating" from a youth of stress and uncertainty, I still wonder how it's affected my ability to live and choose my life freely.

I think that the number one pattern in my approach to living now lies in freedom from guilt and debilitating psychological attachments. I still love things, and have sentimental attachments to my keepsakes, but little habitual behaviours like self-isolation, stubbornness, doing-it-myself, and not trusting other people's opinions have been harder to transform.

That's the big work of my life: knowing myself, and knowing how to improve myself.

In my past, I often felt awash in other people's pain, guilt or drama. As a pre-teen and a teen, I had little control over the fallout from my parents life decisions, and I had no clear idea of where I could go in my own life, or even if I would ever have my own life.

There was always a conflict of loyalties at hand for me. I could try to care for my family in my own way but it was an inherently selfless exercise. I wanted to be good, loyal and dutiful, but rarely did I feel acknowledged or recognized. Where was my reward in life? As a kid, I often thought in basic terms like that. Sacrifice and reward. Cause and effect.

I worried about things a lot when I was in my late teens. Worry was a major word in my vocabulary. One day, an instructor told me that I seemed to be worried about a lot of things. It just hit me, his words. I thought about how much I worried about my sister, my father, and my mother, and how helpless their situations made me feel. Over the years, as I got older and wiser, I became more confident in my role and my opinions, and less responsible for some of the things over which I had no control.

A little strategic detachment can be a good thing.

June 09, 2012

"Grieve not..." Part 2: The Life of Tiger...

In a previous post, I described the pain and sorrow of losing our little cat, Sylvester. Sylvester had a long life of over 19 years - for which my wife and I are grateful and proud, but all the same, little "Sly" was the first of our two cats to pass on. After Sly's passing, we took some comfort that his brother Tiger was still with us, and still relatively robust in his 20th year.

Well, the cycle has completed, and recently, our dear old Tiger reached the end of his days too. Thankfully, his final serious decline happened quickly, and his exit was painless and peaceful.

We'd had Tiger even longer than Sylvester. Tiger came to us as a tiny kitten of only six weeks. Just like after losing Sylvester, it has been the multitude of little changes caused by his absence which surprise us into tears. My body and senses had become so very acclimatized to the spaces he used, the sounds he made, the patterns of his behaviour, and the feel of his presence.

The difference with losing the second and last kitty, is that now there are simply no kitties left. When we lost the first one, a lot of our grief could be redirected into positive energy for the remaining one, who'd lost his brother and best friend. So, we lavished love and attention on Tiger, and he seemed to rebound and come back into his own during his last 6 months.

Now, life in our apartment is full of a thousand missing pieces. Emotionally, we need to tie those loose ends up into some new patterns, to turn loss into new forms and rituals. No more semi-senile meowing at three in the morning from Tiger, no more feeling of Sylvester's whiskers against my eyelids as he tries to gently wake me up, no more morning getting up, eating and insulin needles, no more sharing a moment cooling off by the living-room window sniffing the breeze, no more carrying Sylvester on my back so he can be the tallest guy, no more taking Tiger out into the garden to let him sit under his favourite bush and sniff the leaves.These were the sounds, sights, and feelings caused by two good little lives.

"Existence is suffering," as the Tibetan Buddhists say. Their physical work and suffering is now over, and I suppose that what I believe is that their energy is now released back into the world, to be recycled somewhere else, into something new.

Those small voices may be silent in the real world, but they will come alive for us even more in our inner, emotional worlds.

February 22, 2012

The Man and The Reptile...

There's a fragile edge between safety and sorrow...

This blog post was spurred by recent stories in the media about alleged child abuse on young boys by their scout leader, and the subsequent organizational denial and coverups that are now coming to light.

We want to believe that our parents, our caregivers, and the adults and guardians who look after us can each be trusted; that our young children, who are among the most vulnerable and impressionable members of our society, will be safe in their care.

When reflecting on news of a murderer, a rapist, or a child molester, people often remark that the person must be some sort of monster - inhuman. Perhaps (and I do want to believe this), most people are good, caring beings who are rightly shocked by such inconceivable acts of violence - acts which they themselves are certain they could never take. The perpetrator of those shocking acts becomes seen as or cast in the role of "the other" - someone who is alien and socially cast out from the majority of society.

Our reptilian brain core, that oldest part of our brains that drives us, below reason and morality, below concepts of compassion, empathy or duty. Perhaps it is what drives us to strike for self-preservation before thinking of the other, to attack first for the sake of survival, to fight or to flee, or to kill or be killed.

The reptilian brain is supported by the old mammalian brain, which is the ancient seat of our parenting and herding instincts - the need to live in a social group, for mutual protection, nurturing, and support. Reptiles don't stick around to care for their young, we might say to ourselves with pride or satisfaction. Mammals do.

Yet in cases where human beings do violence to their children, or commit psychological or physical or sexual abuse, the so-called highest, most-evolved aspects of the mind are brought into play to serve the abuser: complex rationale, imagination, pride, logical argument or denial are all brought into service to deflect or minimize personal responsibility, to try to justify a bad act, or to control or subjugate others.

This is where self-denial, lies, deceit, and delusions are built: family politics, internal group power structures, and misplaced loyalties and shame are formed here.

Internal family roles are defined through repetitive role play. The notion of "father" lives here as the authority figure: strong, stable, benevolent, or threatening, violent, and physical. The notion of "mother" as protector, confidant, or passive, depressed, non-communicative or non-existent. Young children learn what kinds of people parents are supposed to be from what they see in the world around them. They learn what their parents actually are from everything that happens at home. Those are just my personal archetypes...

The person who protects his daughter from danger and takes care of her when she is sick, who takes her to dance or music lessons and encourages her - that person is a man, a father and a caregiver.

The person who sexually abuses his daughter and makes her keep it their little secret, even after he's long dead, that person is subhuman - a reptile.

What does the daughter do when the man and the reptile are the same person?