I am an Ivan Coyote fan. A devotee after 2010, the year I spent in The Writer`s Studio (TWS) Program at Simon Fraser University. I had been accepted into the non-fiction group with Ivan as my mentor. There was something that drew me to Ivan`s open demeanour, quick wit, and the stories about daily life that were shared freely. That down home Yukon personality has stuck with Ivan and as far as I’m concerned, Ivan is just plain good people. It has also likely kept her safe as she navigates an often hostile world that doesn’t accept Ivan for being Ivan. Gender pronouns are complicated and I have done my best to respect the artists’ preferred pronouns. While working with Ivan at TWS, she expressed that she preferred she for her public image.

When I heard that she was performing with long time collaborator Rae Spoon on March 1 at 7:30pm, I found a way to get two tickets to the sold out performance. The show was presented by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, and the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. It was held in the Telus Studio Theatre, a black box theatre with the ambience of a cafe. The evening opened with Dr. Mary K. Bryson, Institute Director and Professor along with UBC student Susan Rice Tele. Mary and Susan each spoke to their own gender alienation at UBC and the importance of opening up the question—what is your gender?

Throughout this multi-media animated performance was a backdrop of videos created by Clyde Peterson representing Ivan and Rae at first in black silhouette and then other images including an oil rig and pickup truck when they talked of growing up in the Yukon and the Prairies or a city street from the perspective of a moving vehicle. In the end, Ivan and Rae were flying in the sky, free as birds, dressed in blue and white plaid capes with their first initials on the back, propelling them over tall buildings, getting their fuel from little flames flickering from the soles of their shoes. Real gender superheroes! Sounds bizarre, but it worked to make the stage performance personal, quirky, and humourous in between life as gender failures.

Ivan and Rae, who were kicking off their world tour, began by talking about being gender failures, that is, people who were never able fit into their bodies and therefore failed being slotted into the “appropriate gender.” The stories they chose to tell were carefully picked with just enough punch for the audience to understand how they have been perceived in the world, but not enough to deter people from not wanting to be themselves.

“I was never a good woman,” Ivan says. She has bound her breasts for seventeen years and is now experiencing numbness in her fingers due to the tight binding done daily, meaning the surgery is time-sensitive.

Rae, dressed in a black blazer, red tie with a gold clip, a white and black checked shirt, and glasses that complement their Buddy Holly haircut tells the audience that “gender became a comedy not a fact,” and “I decided to retire from the gender binary altogether and change my pronoun to they.” Rae’s singing was sweet and melodic. Their obviously trained voice was easy to hear as they told their personal stories through singing and playing the electric acoustic guitar. Ivan used her own surprisingly sweet voice to sing backup vocals.

Ivan and Rae tell their own stories of being gender failures side by side to an audience of mostly UBC students who are here not only for the first class entertainment, but to hear stories that will help them through their own gender struggles. Rae and Ivan`s stories weren’t horrific accounts of violence or their own anger, but of inner struggles within everyday life in a world that only sees male and female roles. They were able to speak about the violence they had sometimes endured in a way that still offered their audience humour, relief, and the possibility of survival and maybe even celebration.

One of Ivan’s strongest stories was about Rosie, the first transgender person she met when she moved to the West End. Rose dressed in women`s clothing despite a chest full of manly hair. “Don’t ever call me he,” Rosie told Ivan. They had a special relationship, punching arms instead of hugging. Rosie herself automatically called Ivan he and never questioned it. Ivan held back tears as she recalled Rosie’s terminal stomach cancer and eventual disappearance, which left Ivan wondering if maybe Rosie was still out there somewhere, but knowing that she’s not.

Ivan’s timing was impeccable. She was brilliant at changing the speed of her voice to suit the topic. Always finishing off her words, she sped up to emphasize humour and slowed down during poignant times. All of Ivan’s stories are carefully crafted and it showed regardless of whether you are reading or hearing them. Judging by the performances that Ivan does all over the world, people still crave a live performance perhaps for its intimate qualities and relatable narratives.

Ivan taught us well in our mentor group how to write for performance, to pick out the best phrases so the audience can clearly visualize our stories. I have read several of my own stories before an audience and know how hard it is to develop proper timing, a strong voice, and tailoring that writing for whatever audience to which you are reading.

Ivan always spoke from heart using vivid images that were personal to tell tales everyone could relate to whether it’s the “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine,” 1980’s era or the transgender community today. No matter what the subject matter was, Ivan’s metaphors always fit the scene perfectly, for example, when a policeman asked if she had a gender, Ivan wrote, “his words are clipped; severe, like a brush cut.”

The year I spent with Ivan I was in awe at what tolerance she had for the world that had often been met with alienation and violence. I tried to take a page from her book and attempt to apply it to my own life, which is devoid of being called names or being looked at with disdain (to the best of my knowledge anyway), when my own anger in every day issues erupted. Seriously, what do I have to be angry about? Ivan’s stories have the power to make those of us who function in the world comfortably in our normative gender, consider this privilege and how we can work against gender oppression.

When Ivan talks about gendered bathrooms as being a source of danger, I was taken back to one of her stories about going into a gas station somewhere on the highway that she was driving at night to Whitehorse. At each station, with usually a lone male cashier sometimes with a group of men outside smoking, Ivan had to decide what was safer that particular evening – to identify as a man or as a woman, knowing that the decision would dictate whether or not the outcome would be uneventful or violent. That was when I changed my mind about gender-neutral bathrooms and not wanting to share a bathroom with men who tend to urinate on the floor and on toilet seats in favour of keeping people like Ivan safe.

After a 20 minute intermission – Ivan believes that live shows need to also have lots of time to mingle and meet with people with similar struggles – the show turned to decisions around gender reassignment.

Ivan, dressed in a brown tweed blazer, her signature hanky in the front pocket, stripped tie, jeans, and one of her several pairs of black Fluevogs, spoke of the old days of “packing” by using condoms, hair gel, and nylons. Not like the kids do now who only have to “go to the dick store,” to buy an artificial penis to put in their pants to give the appearance of male genitals. The crowd laughed, especially the young ones who had never heard of dicks made of hair gel.

After talking to her doctor about wanting gender reassignment surgery, Ivan was sent to a psychologist who questioned whether Ivan was transgender enough to have the breast surgery funded. It came down to whether she “packed” or not.

Next, it was off to a psychiatrist, who had a tendency to laugh and slap his hand down on the desk. It’s these little gestures that Ivan observes in everyone that made the storytelling so rich, deep, and relatable.

Ivan eventually asked the audience “am I Trans enough or do I still belong in the sisterhood?” In the end, gender re-assignment surgery without hormones was recommended – exactly what Ivan wanted.

Rae told their own story about an airplane ride and being called a lady by the flight attendants while a man sitting beside them was absolutely shocked that the pilot flying the plane was a woman and then singing the song “Who do you think you’re fooling?” a folkie-rock tune that made you want to tap your foot along to the music.

In the end, Ivan read out a list of questions from the gender reassignment questionnaire while Rae sung “I will be your failure,” a toe-tapping ditty about not measuring up to society`s standards of gender normativity.

Of course, being an Ivan devotee, I was unaware of the flaws in her performance. My friend Kiran, who got my extra ticket, has a strong interest in gender and race identification, and felt that both Ivan and Rae are coming from a white, Canadian, working class view. She spoke with frustration about how they seemed to centre their experiences as the ultimate gender failure—one of growing up in Alberta and the Yukon without speaking about the complexities of the land they were on. As Kiran says, “a solidarity with indigenous struggles was not expressed, and even hidden in the context of Rae’s discussions about wanting to be a ‘cowboy’ just like their uncles who worked on the oil rigs. This brought to questions of how the centering of a white gender failure was now acceptable to UBC and worth patronage by the Chan Centre, why were transwomen like Rosie’s stories having to be written by someone else, and why were racialized and indigenous trans, genderqueer, and two-spirit people not of equal artistic patronage?”

Rae’s last song was the debut of “Danger” with the lyrics “not obligated to be a woman or a man, we are stronger together, we won’t hide when we’re hunted, let’s walk home holding hands.”

However, you look at it, I think and hope that the young people that made up 90% of the audience felt that they had allies out there in a harsh world that is slow to change. The feeling throughout the evening was one of acceptance, camaraderie, and optimism for a future where people can embrace their gender failures and are included in a society that stretches beyond its narrow and suffocating rules and possibly breaking them.

 

Excess: An amount or quantity beyond what is normal or sufficient.

This word best sums up 2012 for me.

Now, I am happy that I’ve accomplished many things this year including having this web site created (thanks Pat) and taking my first crack at blogging. My first non-fiction short story was published last summer. I co-hosted The Writer’s Studio Reading Series with Esmeralda Cabral for the first seven months of this year. Completed four courses at University while working full time. Traveled down the Oregon coast in August. I even managed to make new friends along the way and kept the ones I already know and love.

A well-informed purchase

I’ve also spent a lot of money. Not the things that we all need such as food, household supplies, pet food, even dinners out and the occasional movie, book, or magazine. Or those well thought out items, such as the red 2012 VM Beetle I bought in May– the first car that I’ve ever owned whose age is in the same decade that we’re living in. It’s also the second car I’ve ever bought.

What I’m talking about are the many times, I unintentionally walk out of a store with yet another sweater from Jacob, another pair of shoes from Gravity Pope, another book from the Book Warehouse, or another bag from Whole Foods with yuppie cookies in the shape of flips flops, beach balls, and palm trees, the latest vitamins, and brown rice sushi that I don’t need.

I can consume too many sweets such as bags of sour chews, scoops of vanilla ice cream (okay, sometimes the whole bucket), and  Triple berry muffins to satiate my appetite in between breakfast and lunch. It’s this unthinking reaction to consume something as soon as the thought pops into my head.

Have I been consuming more than my share of the pie?

It’s as if I took over from my sister Wendy. She was the one who bought in excess, not me. But when she died in 2005, I thought “so what?” to another pair of black shoes, another duvet cover from Daniadown, or another set of towels. Another hit of feeling excited, euphoric, in the moment.

None of these purchases have made me any happier.

I am not in debt. I will still eat, pay my bills on time, and I am lucky enough to be able to live my life as I basically choose. I am also within my normal weight range. But what I want in my life is to not be beholden to an internal force that has taken choice away from me.

My wish for us all in 2013 is to receive what we need, but not necessarily what we want at the precise moment we want it.

Happy New Year everyone,

 

I decided that my 14 year old cat Phoebe needed a friend once Camille, my 21 year old, died. Whoever he or she was, they needed to meet Camille so she would know who the next generation was. I adopted a two year old cat from the SPCA in late September. I named her Ella and she is a black and white Manx, that is, she has no tail.

The Wees at five weeks

The SPCA told me that she had been spayed. Two days later I took her to my own Vet, who told me she was “really fat.” Two months later her water broke when she was sitting beside me on my bed. She gave birth

Wee Russell at four weeks

to nine kittens on November 17th. Unfortunately, two of them died at birth, but seven are doing well. It takes me about 40 minutes to get everyone ready before I go to work. The SPCA will help me adopt them. However, I will keep the smallest one. I’ve named him Russell.

I should also mention that Phoebe doesn’t like Ella and is horrified that she has multiplied herself.

Phoebe's version of helping to wrap Christmas presents

My family has had 15 cats (not including this latest brood) and four dogs over a 45 year period. I loved them all, but Camille is the one that sticks out for me. Everyone is drawn to her as she is beautiful and knows how to make an entrance, sometimes five in a half hour period. She greets everyone at the door, and sachets around so people can get a good look at her and tell her yet again how

Queen Camille in her prime

wonderful she is. She is known for her partying and loves a large crowd of people. Her last soiree was a 40th birthday party in March where she wound her way around the many feet at the standing room only bash and allowed everyone in the kitchen to pass her around.

She is a natural mother and that is how I met her. She was dropped off pregnant one September evening and gave birth to six kittens herself on October 9, 1993. She tends to whoever needs love and attention, including my boyfriend Mack’s cat Jake, who found himself hiding under the drapes at our place having been dispatched out for a week long sleepover he didn’t agree to. It was Camille who walked over to the protruding bulk under the thick curtain to greet him, a little aghast at his spitting at her in response.

She has a slight arrogance about her as she knows how beautiful she is, how loved she is by everyone who meets her, and forever confident that she will be take care of no matter what.

Ella and Camille. Unexpected companions

The last six weeks, Camille has been fading, growing very thin, and unable to care for her long Technicolor coat. She has taken to sitting outside the spare room where the kittens are and often Ella sits next to her in the upstairs hallway. Once, Camille started yelling, for what reason I have no idea. Ella, attending to her kids, perked her long black ears up, gave a short yell and jumped over the barrier to sit with her. Camille settled almost immediately.

Camille happy that she is not the mother of these kids

Last week, I looked in on the kittens and couldn’t place what was different about the scene. Ella was in the corner with a few kittens nursing. A few others were playing on the scratching post resting on its side as a makeshift jungle gym. When I focused in a little more, I saw Camille eating the kitten food, oblivious to the little one hanging off her. She then went over to observe a pile of them sleeping, and then sat down to be a part of the group.

Camille died yesterday morning, just outside the kitten’s room. I was with her when she gave her last breath and as we heard the soft-pedaled thunder of kitten feet breaking into a new day behind us.

I have one wish for the new life in my spare room and as I brace myself to have them adopted out in three week’s time. That is to have the life that Camille had from birth to death as I know no better way to have lived.

I have been away from my blog for far too long.  Below is a review I wrote for a poetry reading I attended in October. I apologize for the out-of-date post, however, I think Daniela is worth hearing about and listening to whenever she is reading.

Poet Daniela Elza read from her latest work The Weight of Dew at The Writers Studio (TWS) Reading Series on Thursday, October 4, 2012 at the Cottage Bistro in Vancouver. With graceful and effortless composure, and making sure that everyone in the pub/restaurant could hear her before she began, she took us through a colourful garden of passages of her life from living in Maple Ridge to moving to Vancouver and finally leaving the city for a trip through the Kootenays.

Daniela knows how to engage her audience. Her unassuming blonde wavy hair, lovely smile, and open presence makes you want to get to know her immediately. She keeps the tone relaxed and informal by first connecting her own experiences to what other readers have read aloud that evening. She related Esmeralda Cabral’s travel piece on Lisbon with her own awkward experience on an air plane, having a glass of milk in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, not knowing which one to drink first. The explanations of her readings were layered throughout to give the audience just enough information, but not so much that you began to shift at your table, wondering when the poetry is about to begin. Daniela has an amiable smile and a personality that makes you feel as if she is talking only to you.

I find her poetry clear and easy to understand while still finding myself wrapped in those lines of beauty sprinkled throughout the seven poems she read. “Serving Time in the Burbs”  told us about life in Maple Ridge where “saying is too much to explain.” The poem “Dying for answer” took us back to Vancouver and explained that “they say it is mist rolling in from the sea that turns this City into silhouettes and shadows.”

Half way through her reading, she posed the question, “What do you do when you lose your first line?” to the poets in the audience.

“Get some sleep,” “write down the third line,” “cry,” and “hit something,” were a few of the responses shouted out from the crowd of 30 or so supporters, writers, and readers.

“Well, this poem is about that,” Daniela says and reads the first line of her poem which is “the first line of the poem is missing.”

She reads with just enough “poet voice,” that is, emphasizing the end of a succession of words, that it gives meaning to her images without overpowering the delicate pieces. She knows her writing well enough to look up without having to read every word, which is something I try to do, but am often too concerned with losing my place.

My two favourite poems of the evening were “In the Arms of Kootenay Lake” where “the hands wander over grain of remembered surfaces,” and being “displaced by a purple thistle by a poppy by the sounds of a bee,” and Crumbling through Harmony” where “the quiet will steal your ears.” Daniela’s use of language shows me that good poetry doesn’t have to be filled with overblown imagery. It’s her descriptions to which an audience can relate that I am drawn to. It’s her skill at infusing these subtle gems sewn into her work that make her writing so special.

The Cottage Bistro is a brand new venue for this reading series. With lighting that was easy on the eyes and the temperature inside just warm enough, everyone settled into a night of listening to poetry, fiction, and non-fiction work from TWS current students, Alumni, and the writing community. Co-hosts Ivan Antoniw and Jocelyn Pitsch kept the evening relaxed and comfortable. I felt as if I was in a friend’s living room. I have been both an audience member and co-host of The Writer’s Studio Reading Series, and I always hear something special in each reader’s work.

I already have a copy of The Weight of Dew (and a signed one, I might add) and look forward to Daniela’s next collection Milk, Tooth, Bane Bone that will be published in April 2013. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to Daniela whenever she reads next as well as buying a copy of one of her books.

Most of my friends love yard sales. They tell me of pulling their car over to sift through other people’s junk lying on a sidewalk, front yard, or garage, elated to find that one spatula, book, or mug for a quarter. I even have one friend who would forage in the lane ways, looking for old lamps, living room side tables, or book shelves. I likely don’t need to add that all of these friends are perfectly capable of buying almost anything they want at any price within reason. I, however, can’t stand these sales.

So why did I just have my sixth one last weekend?

I've had them all.

It has taken me four years to begin clearing out my family home yet again. In 2008, I rented a bin that sat outside the front of the house and loaded old furniture such as two full bedroom sets that were in rough shape, a couch, two love seats, three chairs, several beds (yes, plural), two old desks, boxes upon boxes in the crawl space and things that never should have come into the house in the first place. I took five car loads of linen to the SPCA. A friend of mine estimated that I had 300 mugs and glasses spread out on the living room floor before my first sale. I sat at the shredder for weeks to dispose of bank statements, tax returns, old bills, and various documents – some that went back to 1959. Even now my mind goes blank when I try to think of everything that my sister, father, mother, and grandparents owned. Afterwards, I called Big Brothers to pick up a room full of stuff left over from the sale.

I’ve asked several people why I was the one left to look over every last family possession and decide what to do with it. It appears I am the only one who didn’t inherit a hoarding gene, although I do have one uncle that I likely take after. The mere thought of clutter makes my skin crawl.

“Because no one else would have done it, Jenny.” Has been the general response.

At first I felt that I was leaving my family behind each time I got rid of their possessions. I had this feeling that if they came back they’d sure be mad at me for getting rid of their clothes and precious knick-knacks. I’d have to replace them. Eventually, I got over that, when enough time had passed that internally knew that they will never be coming back.

I felt as if stuffed animals and cute ornaments including horses, unicorns, racoons, cats, and dogs were real and would have feelings of abandonment when I ditched them. Even today every sale is draining for me, my life oozing out on the floor around me. I have made a bit of money, but in the end, it likely amounted to maybe $600-700 for all six sales. I get angry, irritated, and wonder why I’m doing this until I realize that this is my process. Let the feelings pass. Acceptance.

There have been good times at my sales. Most people that come are friendly and love to talk. Everyone collects something different – old watches, cameras, classical music, children’s toys from certain periods, tea cups in a particular colour. They’ll haggle over anything and walk away if when they think 50 cents is too much money. I thoroughly enjoyed egging one customer on by up selling him whenever he gave me a price on a lamp.

“$2.50” he’d say.

I’d counter with “$4.00”. Then watch him squish up his face, close his eyes, and whistle lightly through the space between his front teeth while shaking his head as if to say ‘You’re killing me.” I did that three times before giving him the lamp for $2.50.

There are a crew of people that come early every time, arriving in different vehicles, but running into each other as they make their rounds on a Sunday morning. They’re all of different ages, cultures, and gender. One guy sticks a yellow flier through my mail slot the day before the sale just in case I’d let him take a look before everyone else. The group stands around while I set up, asking me if I have certain items that I never do.

Perhaps I’m making up for when I sold something I never should have. It was before the sale, and a man asked if I had any books. My Grandfather had many old books from working as the curator of the Nanaimo Museum. I said, “sure come on inside.” He went through many of books I hadn’t even gone through myself. He ended up taking an old Lord of the Rings collection, the Hobbit that we use to read aloud as a family, and worst of all two first edition Pauline Johnson books bound in leather. I am sick today about those books, and even though he paid me what I agreed to, I wish I never let him in the house. That incident is part of the reason I never touched anymore stuff until this year.

Will I have any more? Ah, probably…


After a year of co-hosting Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio Reading Series with Esmeralda Cabral, we have handed over our duties to Karen J. Lee and Ivan Antoniw, who start in September.

I began to attend this series as an audience member in late 2009. Back then, I felt as if I was standing on a sidewalk, up on my toes, leaning against a large glass window with my hands cupped around my eyes, looking into a warm, bright, energetic room, watching a group of creative people doing their thing inside. My heart sank as I left that first evening, but I was also exhilarated as I began to work on a plan to find a way in.  I applied to The Writer’s Studio with my 20 page portfolio and writing resume – a daunting task in itself. I gathered up the stories that I had written over the last couple of years and tried to make something of them. I was lucky to have a friend who had attended The Writer’s Studio a few years back to both encourage and help me polish these stories. There was something about being a part of the community I had seen at the reading series though, that was what attracted me most.

I told myself not to get discouraged if I wasn’t accepted, and that I would apply two or three more time if need be. It was hard to remain positive yet realistic, however, a month later I received an email that I had been accepted into the poetry group. My heart almost came out of my chest and I literally jumped up and down screaming, then finally dropped to my knees as if I had found water after a long drought. A bit too dramatic for you? After the death of my sister, my father, and putting my mother into a care facility all in a three year period, this was the first thing that was all mine in this new life without my family.

I did find it odd that I had been chosen for poetry, having only produced two poems in my life, but no matter, I would learn. A am a poet! Once the euphoria wore off I realized that I was in fact attending a writing program and would be surrounded with people much more experienced than I, many of them published. I started to panic and borrowed six poetry books to study. About a week later though, I got another email saying I had been accepted into the non fiction group (which made more sense to me). Confused, I inquired about the group change, and was told that non fiction was what I had been chosen for and poetry had been a mistake. “No matter” I thought, and switched gears immediately by writing a series of short non-fiction stories, just to get warmed up.

The year 2010 proved to be a life changing time for me, making the transition from sporadic writer at best to producing many short stories about not only my life, but my family’s.  I wrote stories as a child and here I was again in my forties pursuing something that had remained dormant for most of my life. I continued to attend the reading series, sometimes to read myself, but mostly to blend into the writing community I was getting to know. When Fiona and Marnie, the 2011 co-hosts, asked me if I wanted to succeed them, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Not only was I now in that warm, bright, energetic room with creative people doing their thing, I was going to help to keep that atmosphere alive. My non fiction cohort Esmeralda joined immediately after me, and we began to work on this new project together.

Me at the microphone at the Take 5 Cafe

The writers I have met and listened to have been so inspiring to me that I now prefer to read local authors instead of the big names I had read exclusively. Talent in a community is a powerful thing, and to hear people from all walks of life, education, gender, race, sexuality, and focus is, well, the way the world should be. I have collected many signed copies of books (one of my drugs of choice), and admire them regularly, not just because of the entertaining and enlightening stories, but because I’ve met and chatted to these authors. Working with Esmeralda was what made the experience such a fun and happy one. By doing it together, we have become good friends through all our emailing, talking on the phone, having lunch, and just plain chatting whenever we could. I have learned how to give back to a community I want to be around for many years to come, and I hope that the new people who join us feel just as welcome as I did.

For our final duty, Esmeralda and I will be at the Summer Dreams Festival representing and promoting The Writer’s Studio Reading Series on Saturday, August 25 from 11am to 7 pm at Trout Lake. We will also be reading on stage from 4:45pm to 5:00pm so don’t blink if you’re there or you’ll miss us.

 

 


My local bookstore has been saved.

The Book Warehouse on West Broadway has been saved

In an earlier blog I wrote that the all the Book Warehouse locations were closing, however, as of June 1st, the Book Warehouse is now operating under Black Bond Books http://www.blackbondbooks.com/events.php. Same great staff, and except for a few layout changes (the Fiction section is now where the New Arrivals use to be) it’s the same store I’ve been frequenting for the last 20 years.

Just to make sure, I went in last week and bought an Oxford dictionary and while at the front counter I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I’m so happy you’re still here!” to replies from both store clerks, “We know! We’re really happy too.” Just when I thought the the hard copy reading material around my work hood had been unsurped by the ereader.

Will I ever get an ereader? Definitely, but this news has certainly postponed it for me for a year or two. I see owning an ereader as an extra to hard copy books, likely using the digital form for traveling, although I’m told that the ereaders are fragile and can break, for example, when one’s bags are checked onto an airplane.  I can just imagine asking my travel companion, “do you have a book I can borrow? Mine broke.” I hope that both digital and hard copy books can find a way to coincide together in our constantly progressing electronic world. After all, I didn’t get an iphone until last year, but now that I have one, I don’t know what I did without it.

Now onto replacing my desktop!

 


When I was seven years old, my Mum placed a piece of Kleenex and a quarter into the soft satin lining of my white sequined purse.

“It’s always a good idea to have a bit of money and something to blow your nose with,” she said as she helped me snap the gold and crystal clasp shut.

I ran my hand over the clear sequins and the pearl-like beads woven into the shape of a tree with little flowers on each branch. I rarely used this small purse, but tonight was special. My Dad and I were going to The Magic Flute at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre – my first Opera.

“You’re not going too?” I asked Mum.

“No, Mummy has to stay with the baby. She’s too young to go to the Opera.” It reminded me that my new sister Wendy would cry and that would be embarrassing.

Dad and I on March 26, 1967. An Opera buff in the making.

I had already seen a few performances at the theatre, but not Opera – Dad’s favourite. As we took our seats, he pulled out the playbill and read the synopsis to me so I knew what was about to happen. Throughout the performance, he fed me coloured mints we bought in the lobby, the kind that melted in my mouth, likely to distract me enough from kicking my legs into the seat in front. Every so often, he’d whisper in my ear, reminding me of what scene was playing out in front of us. Sometimes I’d ask him to pass me the opera glasses so I could gaze at the lead as if they were under a microscope, watching them bellow out their solo always dressed in long and colourful garb.

Today I still go to the Opera and sit in the same seats that my father had for many years. Last week, I went to a performance of Verdi’s Aida. A large production with up to 75 people on stage at times (I counted). Blue monochrome costumes and the men dressed as slaves with gold lame loin cloths that looked more like quilted pot holders, but nevertheless worked for the scenes. The king dressed in a white caftan and dripping with gold in front. The women in browns, purples, and blues flowing in the light stage breeze. The Arias sweet and heartfelt, the ending tragic and finite. I had never seen Aida, not making it to the performance at BC Place Stadium in 1989, before Vancouver had gone viral. I heard – it seemed back then that everyone living in Vancouver was an extra – that there was a large pyramid towed in on a barge and real elephants parading around the huge arena. This time, instead of live animals, the addition of ballet intertwined with traditional Opera was a nice surprise and worked well, for me anyway. Apparently the production had wanted to bring in Falcons, but animal rights groups forbade them to because the birds were not use to such a large audience in front of them, clapping. Something I certainly agree with.

I had briefly thought of giving up my seats this year, but I’m not ready. I couldn’t imagine not being able to sit in the same theatre gazing at the same stage I had so many times with my Dad. Now, I often close my eyes, feeling safe and secure as the strong voices echo throughout the sharp acoustics of the theatre. Over the years, I have taken many people with me, enjoying a thoroughly entertaining evening each time. I know it’s not for everyone, so I have a few mainstays – my partner Mack, my step mother, and a friend of mine who has give me numerous tickets over the years herself – people that love the opera and that don’t think it’s just a bunch of “fat ladies screeching” as one lovely online reviewer recently noted.

My love for the Opera is what pushed me to ask the executor when Dad died if I could take over Dad’s two opera seats. I was very happy the day they were put into my name. I’ve made it my own experience now, but a small piece of me still loves to hold onto the feeling of warmth and peace of my early childhood.

 

 

 

 

 


I called Mum’s care facility as I hadn’t seen her in a week and thought I’d at least check in.

One of my favourite nurses answers. “You know, you’re Mum is doing well. She’s enjoying her food, she smiles a lot, seems really content. She’s going through a good phase.”

I’m always relieved to hear that Mum is okay. She no longer speaks coherently, and can’t walk anymore but I still consider this a reprieve before the next layer of decline sets in. Once a routine is established and I’ve adjusted to her being able to do even less than she had a few months previously, it all changes.

“The only thing is she’s still getting sick every two weeks or so.” I focus in on this bit of information and search through my mind whether I’ve heard this before.

“Really?” I wait for more.

“Yeah, we still haven’t figured out why it happens. There’s another patient that does the same thing.”

Now I recall that Mum did throw up after I took her to the dentist but I thought it was because she had swallowed too much saliva and filling matter during the procedure.

“She doesn’t have the flu or anything?” I ask, knowing that Mum’s immune system is so sturdy she never even gets a cold when it’s going around.

“Not at all. One possibility is that she’s taking too much in at meal time. She’s a small person and since she can’t feed herself very well anymore we don’t know when she’s had enough.”

I decide to just ask what I already know is inevitable. “Do you think it has something to do with not being able to swallow as well?”

“Oh yeah, it certainly could be a bit of Alzheimer’s aspiration.” I’m relieved that she hasn’t tried to gloss over her answer to me.

My Mum Phyllis and I in February 2009, six months after she went to live in a care facility.

I knew one day that my otherwise completely healthy mother, not yet 80 years old, would start having problems with swallowing, breathing, and then eventually be bedridden. That her death certificate may actually have Alzheimer’s written as the cause of death due to the breakdown of the cerebellum – the control centre to every function within the human body. When I learned that if you die by pure Alzheimer’s the body curls up into the foetal position I felt the energy drain out of me, the image placed right in front. I had to process this one for a while just in case it was going to happen. It made me sick to think about it, but I made peace long ago that I can’t stop what is happening, only try to deal with it as it comes.

When I visit Mum the next day, she’s bright and relatively focused.

“Hi Mum! Hey Mum! How are you?” I walk towards her, bending down slightly so I’m in line with her vision. I give her a big smile and wait for her to return it.

“Oh, mmae hemm ooonm! E yddoe do skool skak vow. I know.” The inflections are still the same even though the words have gone. I translate it as “Oh, there you are! It’s so nice to see you!” I rub her arm and today she takes my hand.

“You look good Mum.” She hasn’t lost the ability to smile or at least mimic me. “You know it’s spring now and I got your garden pruned and weeded.” She looks away and I wait for her to make eye contact again.

A small piece of the garden Mum created over the 41 years she lived in her house.

“Your garden looks great Mum. It’s got nothing to do with me though. I have this person who comes in to do the pruning and clean up – she’s an Arborist. And your flowers are blooming, especially the Rhododendrons in the front yard and the crocuses you planted under the Japanese maple. I did manage to plant a few daffodils and tulips, you know, in the planter along the window and they look really good. You did such a great job Mum.” She’s been fiddling with the hem of her pant leg. When I stop talking she turns to me and smiles.

I want her to know what’s happening outside in the world that use to be her’s. I don’t hesitate to tell her tough stuff too like when her oldest brother died last year. We were outside in the care facility’s courtyard, sitting in the shade enjoying their garden.

“I have some news Mum. Your brother John died. I’m so sorry.” As I explain in more detail that he died quickly and wasn’t in pain, she looked at the ground for several minutes. At one point I was going to launch in and start blithering away to fill the gape, but I decided to wait and let her process what she could. Her mouth turned down slightly and she stopped fiddling. Eventually, she looked up at me and jerked her head back while saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize fomma wooz teesom.” And laughed.

The English hasn’t been bred out of us so when I was growing up hugging and kissing were done primarily when we said goodbye or when I was sick or cried, not nearly as spontaneously as we do it now. I am forever rubbing Mum’s knee, touching her arm, and I always kiss her forehead or cheek while telling her I love her every time I leave, only looking back to make sure she isn’t upset that I’m walking towards the elevator. When I look back today, she’s taking her right shoe off and letting it fall to the floor.

 

 

 

 

April 4, 2012

When I was invited to Denise’s birthday party we were given an address and told to bring a thin pair of socks. Okay, I did Google the location, but I didn’t know anything beyond that.

So as I walked up the steep stairs of the Dance Studio located at 7757 Edmonds Street in Burnaby, I reflected that I had never taken dance lessons as a kid, but I must admit, I am addicted to a certain ballroom dancing show on TV (don’t tell anyone). I was the first to arrive and the receptionist told me that I’d be fitted for a pair of tap shoes. Wow. I’m going be break out in song and flick my taps like the Broadway stars! I was excited only because I knew I’d be with a group of women I’d feel comfortable doing this with.

Once our party arrived and with our tap shoes on we clomped into one of the studio rooms and lined up in front of the mirrored wall. Barb, Denise’s friend since her childhood dance days, was our instructor. Even after a full day of teaching she still had the energy and exuberance to take us through a series of moves, broken down step by step.Everyone had their own technique as we swung our hips and hit the floor with our shoes as we watched Barb through the mirror as well as the line of rhinestones on the back of her right tap shoe – obviously there for newbies to know to follow the correct foot. With the odd grunt, gasp, and laugh we seemed to be in sync because if your not the sound of a solo tap will hang in the air.

Just putting the finishing touches on the final number and then taking it on the road

At one point Barb turns around to face us. “Someone actually hit their tap to get that sound. Did you hear it?” We all began to recreate the sound by slamming down the metal part of our shoes. There was obviously something wrong with my taps because it wasn’t working.

As I worked my way through each piece, my jeans clung more and more to my thighs.

“How long is the whole song?” Denise asked.

Barb checks the CD. “Two minutes.” She says.

“Hey maybe we can dance the whole number.” Someone shouts out from the back as everyone agrees.

“Do you want to know how much of the song we’ve worked through?” We all yell out a resounding yes and wait as Barb checks the sound system.

“Okay, we’ve choreographed 25 seconds.” Screams of laughter all around. We did the full hour though likely making it through at least 30 seconds.

Some people wanted to remain anonymous for this blog; others didn’t mind going global, so I thought I’d pass out a few awards to each dancer:
  • Clelie for the best skirt twirl.
  • Denise for the best resurrection of dance skills.
  • Teresa for the best effort.
  • Hailia for best tap (and most experienced with three years of tap lessons).
  • Anonymous for most graceful (you know who you are!).
  • Our lovely dance teacher Barb for best instruction and most patience.
  • Me? I laughed and had fun and felt for a moment as if I was putting the finishing touches on a few moves before being filmed for a cameo in Smash.
A few of us had so much fun that we are going to do it again. Watch out Anna, Maxim, and Karina, I’ll soon be competing with you for that coveted pro position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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