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Category Archives: grief

Love and Accordions — variations on a theme

Oh, it’s been AGES since I’ve posted anything. Not because nothing is happening, or I’m not thinking and doing and feeling all kinds of things. Indeed, it’s been an ongoing saga – teaching, learning, loving, raging, hoping, despairing, writing, playing, working – life life goes on as it does. I’m really busy with all kinds of things, and even though I have many friends, and work and interests, still – I am lonely. Can’t shake it. There’s nowhere that is home now. No one who is my home. But that’s okay. It’s an ongoing fear of mine, to be alone. And when I’m afraid of something, it’s a sign that I ought to go toward it, do what’s required to understand the source of the fear. Hang out in the discomfort and learn something.

I’ve been more focused on another kind of keyboard entirely lately. My accordion. Well, accordions. And a concertina. People keep giving me accordions. In 2001, my brother Carl gave me a beat up old Hohner, missing the front grill, some keys sticking, others that were silent. But there were no holes in the bellows and it had a beautiful rich tone, and it was in tune, too. I started noodling around on it and remembered one song from when I was a little kid taking lessons in Red Deer. One song. My fingering was all awkward and messy, and I couldn’t find the right chords for the longest time, but by and by, I put it together, and then I could play that one song. Then I saw a young woman on the street, busking with her accordion. As I remember now, her squeezebox was nearly as big as she was, and she wore long stripy socks that almost looked like a keyboard. Her hair all messy in a couple of ponytails sticking at odd angles from her head. The music she played made me want to dance and cry at the same time. I waited until she was done her song, put five bucks into her open case and asked her if she would teach me how to play. She said okay, and then for about a month or so, she rode her bike to my house, carrying her accordion on her back, and taught me how to play Greensleeves. Then she moved away to Seattle to get famous and I never heard of her again. She was lovely, though, and patient with my fumbling stiff fingers and off-kilter rhythm.

I have a good ear, a really good ear. But when it comes to keeping time, I am the rhythmic equivalent of tone-deaf. I’m from the prairies, from farm people, people who love to dance, and I can’t even two-step. I had to move away from there.

Then when I was in university again, my professor told me about the moveable music school. That term they were offering accordion lessons! Six weeks. There were twelve students and we met in the common room of one of the students’ housing coop. and we learned a few more songs, beautiful sad waltzes and a jig and some scales too. I still know some of those. One of the women in that group had just bought herself a brand new accordion, and she gave me her old one. Another Hohner, in much better shape than mine, though with quirks of her own, too. She just gave it to me. But I barely knew her and I know that accordions are pretty dear so I offered her some money. She understood my need to formalize the exchange, and agreed to the sum I offered her – “were I to sell it to you,” she said, “that was what I thought would be a fair price”. So now, a better accordion, more songs, and the music started to live with me.

Some of us continued to learn from that teacher once the moveable music school term was over, but then summer came, she moved away, and I got too busy with school to chase down another teacher.

My accordion sat there for a while, then my apartment burned up (my ‘fridge caught fire. Imagine that!), and everything was all in a turmoil for a while. I moved myself and my accordion to my lover’s place for six months while mine was rebuilt. And didn’t play her much. At the time I was hosting a storytelling circle once a month, and that was a lot of fun – I brought my accordion – The Accordion of Love – with me to those, and I often brought her with me, too, when I went on marches or demonstrations – take Back the Night, or housing for all, or protest the pipelines or whathaveyou. The Accordion of Love was there. But I didn’t practice in between those things, and I never got any better. Well, maybe I did a little bit but not much.

My lover and I broke up, I moved my accordion back to my rebuilt apartment, she sat in a corner while I nursed my wounds and found my single footing again. By and by I got some traction in life again, and started to pick up the Accordion of Love a bit more. I remembered the songs from the moveable music school, and I was teaching some, so I’d bring the accordion to school to play for my students. They always applauded, the dear things, and laughed with either a bit of hysteria or delight. Some people loved it, some hated it. Ah well. The accordion, you can’t be neutral about it.

Then I fell in love again, oh my. This was it, this woman was home, I was sure of it. We moved from a sweet friendship to lovers. We are both feminists, both activists, both strong smart, powerful women – together we would be unstoppable.

Well. Turns out I was wrong. I had a little niggling fear that by and by she would not love me, eventually. That she would tire of me by and by. She said then, “no, baby, I know you – I have always loved you, that won’t change”.  Well. So much for that. Our love affair and our break up was/is a bit complicated and the patriarchy interfered. Even as it brought us together, it drove us apart. We were doomed from the start. I didn’t want to know that then. I don’t want to know it now. But what I want doesn’t matter, not in this regard.

In the summer of 2014, a few months after my lover broke up with me, and a couple of weeks after I defended my PhD thesis, I drove home to Alberta to visit Mom and to roam around my past on the way there and the way back too. I will always be grateful I made that trip. Mom wasn’t at my defense, (I think she wanted to come, but that’s another story, another time), and I wanted to get out of town for a while. I was very happy about my defense, it went really well. But I was still heart-broken about the end of my love affair. I did not want to give up on us. Anyway, I was happy and sad, and worried about the future, and yearning for home. So I drove across the mountains to the prairies and my mom. I’m so grateful I had that time with her then. I wish I had stayed longer. But there you go. I didn’t, and there’s nothing for it now.

On my way back, I went south to Lethbridge, where I went to university for my BA. I looked up an old roommate, and another friend who’s a poet and storyteller and postal worker. He’s also, turns out, a bit of a hoarder (more than I am, for sure!). I went to his house with him, and he has all kinds of stuff in there – a slide trombone hanging from the ceiling, and guitars, mandolins and big string basses on his walls and propped against boxes stacked against the wall. He’s got shirts half-embroidered on dress forms (he makes his own costumes for his stories, embroiders stuff on cowboy shirts he finds in thrift stores), and stacks of sheet music, books, vinyl records, stuffed animals, oh, I don’t know what all. He had two accordions. He wanted me to take both of them, but I only took one. A little 12-bass kid’s accordion. Another Hohner, but made in Italy. It has such a great sound, bigger than its size, and I could noodle around on it when I stopped for a rest from driving. This is, rather than the big, serious Accordion of Love – The Accordion of Light Flirtation.

That fall, I brought the accordion of light flirtation to the class I was teaching, the day before they were to go to their short practicum placements. It was our last day together for three weeks. We had a great time. Serious learning, to be sure, but we can still enjoy ourselves, n’est pa? The next day I was working at the rape crisis centre, and it was slow morning.

My cell phone rang, and it was a call from my brother. My brother NEVER calls me. It wasn’t Shawn, though, it was my sister-in-law Wendy. “Hi Shawn, what’s up?” I answered, knowing it must be a very big deal for him to call. “it’s not Shawn, Erin. It’s Wendy.” “What’s goin’ on?” I asked. Dread was creeping up my neck. “Your mom is dead” she’s not one for euphemisms, is Wendy. The dread rushed to my throat and poured out my mouth in a great wail. “Oh no, oh no oh no…” I couldn’t stop, “Mommommom” Even now, thinking of it, a low keening comes from deep within.

Even though there is no one who was my home, there are many. My ex-lover called me and told me to go to her house. She gave me soup and helped me book a flight and stayed with me until I went to the plane. I called other friends and they all stepped up – one drove me to the airport, another took care of hosting a meeting that I was supposed to host that week, others picked up some other of my commitments.

My dearest friend, another ex-lover, who lives in Victoria now, made arrangements to come home to be with me and my brother. She didn’t skip a beat. When I called her to tell her she said, “Do you want me to come?” I hadn’t even considered that, but when she offered it was like a parachute opening. Women called me all that week, the radical feminists sent flowers, my ex-lover and my high school friend who lives in Montreal called me almost every day. Surrounded. I was (am) surrounded by a web of relationships. I felt wide-open and cold all the time, like a prairie winter wind was tearing through me. But I was held together, no matter what. These women, from everywhere and every time hold me as I hold them—we are not always intimate but we are always linked.

I went home. I wrote reams. I wept, and went through Mom’s stuff, I held onto my brother, he held onto me. We are still holding on. I miss her so much. She used to holler at me to practice, when I was taking accordion lessons before, when I was a kid. I was supposed to practice a half hour a day, and for most of that half hour, I would just stare at the sheet music. I don’t know why I was so resistant. I did not know that I would return to it after so many years. But that’s often how I am – I never really let go.

It’s been now a year and a half since Mom died. We’ve lived through all the “firsts” – birthdays, graduation, Christmas, New Year, anniversaries, summer vacations… This year a couple of friends bought me an accordion lesson with a young man who’s been playing since he was a child, and he’s a virtuoso musician. My former professor gave me her accordion, a “ladies” size Guerrini. She’s beautiful and more ergonomic than my Accordion of Love. Now I play every day. Sometimes only for ten or 15 minutes, sometimes only a few songs, or maybe just finger exercises and no songs at all. But every day. And I’m getting better. And I do so wish I could play for Mom.

And for Grandma. My Grandma was married to a man who played accordion before she married my Grandpa. James MacDonald was “a jolly fellow” according to Grandma, but he died of an infection he got in the hospital after a routine operation, leaving Grandma widowed at 20 with two small boys and an accordion. “I should never have sold that accordion” she told me once. And she had great hopes for me when I took it up.

The title of this piece is “Accordions and Love” because I wanted to explore the metaphor. I’m not so good at intimate partnerships, apparently.  I’ve not been with anyone longer than 6 years. Mostly they end after 2-4 years, and it’s never me pulling the plug. I’m like that in the rest of my life, too. I don’t think, “I want to do this” and then go about finding out how to do it. Instead someone will say, “try this” or “go apply for that job”, or “you, I want you,” and I will go, “okay. Guess I’ll do that then.” That way, if I don’t initiate, it’s not really my responsibility.

A friend of mine said recently, “Erin, that’s what we all do.” Which may be true. Sounds about right, in fact. And once in it, once I accept the opportunity or the invitation or the challenge, then I have to take initiative. In love, politics, work, friendship, and in music, I have to practice. People have given me accordions, they have helped me find teachers, but I’m the one who has to commit. And I do. Once I say “yes”, I will stick to it (sometimes to my own detriment, I gotta say).

Every day I play my accordion. I make the same mistakes over and over again. I begin again and again. The accordion is patient. I learn to listen. When I strike the right notes, I continue. When I press the wrong key, I stop and go back. Try again. By and by I do get it right. Learning a language – the language of love, the language of music – is a process. And it’s a process that requires you to both lead and to follow. To commit and to take risks. If you’re to grow, you’re going to fail from time to time, and there will be plateaus to endure and times when you think it will never work out or become clear. Stick with it. Go back to the beginning, ask for guidance, don’t give up. Take a break, do some research, listen to other musicians, try again. Remember why this is important (remember why you love her) and imagine a future together that is beauty and freedom (imagine what you deserve—think big) and act now to put the two together.

I’m sticking with the accordion. Practicing every day is helping with my other commitments, too.  Listening to the music, learning how to read and then speak it helps me to listen to others, as well. I’m a committed feminist. Radical.  I yearn to be part of something bigger than myself, and until recently, I thought that could be a gang, or even a partnership, a lover a family – we could be each other’s support, encouragement and solace. From a home base together we could go change the world. But maybe ‘within’ or ‘part of’ is not where I belong – within. Maybe where I belong is the margin, the outside. Maybe from here, not part of a gang, not part of a family, not half of an intimate partnership – I can see more. I can hear different stuff. I can be here on the edge of numbers of groups and hold together threads between us. Sometimes I’ll be on the margin, sometimes I’ll be a hub. Sometimes I’ll play the score, sometimes I’ll improvise.

Right now, I think of myself as lonely. I feel lonely. And it’s kind of frightening. But it’s also an opportunity. To nurture other connections, to serve a bigger purpose, to lead (often from behind) – to make my own spot from which to share my voice. Maybe what I think is loneliness is only what this kind of fear feels like right now. And I should dive into it.  I am lonely. But I am not alone. It’s okay to be afraid and sad. I will feel it and walk toward it, leading and listening with all my heart and mind.

Journey

School starts on Tuesday. Tomorrow! yikes. I’m still getting the syllabus together for the class I’m teaching this semester. I’ve taught it about half a dozen times already, I could just use the same plan as last year — But every year, I do the same thing. I have read more stuff, talked to more people, thought of new things, and made different mistakes in previous classes. So I want to change things around. But I get bogged down in the details of looking for more current articles about this and that and didn’t i see a meme on facebook that makes a point so elegantly, and should I use the article i used for my summer class in my fall class instead? and… I get tangled up in all the loose threads and sometimes i never get ’em pulled together and tied up.

I took off for a little road trip a while back. Drove to my hometown. My agenda was to help my brother sort out our mom’s stuff, give some away, sell some, clear some space in his basement. I wanted, too, to go to Regina where there is a burial plot waiting for her next to our dad and their first son, our unmet big brother who died in 1961. But Shawn isn’t ready — he didn’t have the time to travel, and doesn’t have the heart to go through Mom’s stuff yet. That’s okay. I tell myself that. I wanted to do something, though. He has done so much–before she died he would take her to appointments and get her groceries and check in on her all the time. After, he was executor of her will and went all over town for banking and lawyer signatures and all that stuff — he’s done so much work, and I haven’t done anything. But I have to wait. I have to do what he thinks will be helpful, if I am to be helpful at all. I am not very good at patience, though. sigh.

The summer has been very difficult. My mom is dead. I went home every summer (as much as I could) for the last ten years or so to see her–especially since Dad died. Now home is, well, not home anymore. Not in the same way, anyway. We’re settlers, right, I grew up there, but my ancestors were from somewhere else. Our roots are shallow.

And, too, a significant relationship with a woman I love very much is in shreds. I don’t know if we will find a way to repair it. In July I asked for six months no contact, though I yearn.  For her and for my Mom, in different ways, but deep — I don’t have words for it. I have beautiful friends and allies, mind you, and strong women in my corner, helping to hold me up. But still — I am so lonely. These are difficult times — loss and endings. Grief.

Before I left, i felt a bit crazy. Every time I was alone, I wept. I couldn’t contain my sorrow — even in public. walking to the grocery store. driving to work. riding my bike to the gym. IN the gym, in the grocery store, at work — all of it, the tears came, there was nothing I could do to stop it. An abyss of grief–and sorrow like a giant hair ball made of twine and wire knotted in my gut. I was afraid that on the road, all alone for days at a time, that I would come completely undone.

“great love and great loss will break you open like no other experience”.  I’m seeing a counselor, a spiritual director, (atheist me, too. Go figure)– to help me sort out how to get my feet under me. That’s what she said, “great love and great loss will break you wide open”. Note the distinction, though, eh–she said “Open”. Not “Apart”. I’m whole, still whole — not yet anchored, not yet at peace, not yet. but all the bits are still there. here.

On August 23, I was seven years clean and sober. I did come relatively close to drinking when I was on my way home. I thought, briefly, that drinking would buffer that ball of wire and teeth in my gut– drinking will take that feeling away. and hell, I’m on the road all alone, no one needs to know. But then I played the tape forward, and felt the remorse and the grief return ten-fold. Lonely as I am now, a drink will lock the door and throw away the key. Alcohol will keep me from ever finding my place. I don’t need to wake the dragon, not that dragon anyway, I have to much to do. I am already so far behind where i think I ought to be.

I didn’t drink. I sought out people who have known and loved me my whole life. My brother, beautiful quiet loyal grieving brother Shawn. My old tree-planting brother Carl — who’s just like a big black Lab. “what are we eating now? wanna play? oh. time for a nap!” he’s grieving too, the end of his marriage to Carmen — whom I also love. We went to the Edmonton Folk Festival on the first night together, Carl and some of his huge family. Their all kinda like puppies, and we were all crammed onto a tarp together, loving the music and the people we were with.

My brother Shawn, at the track in Rimbey. IMG_1399

My best friend from Jr. High, and her husband, who helped me so much when Mom died and after. I played my accordion on their front porch and we had dinner together in their 100 year old farm house. Inside, she’s painted a mural on the cupboards, and painted a rug on the floor. She painted pictures of their cows and dogs and pigs along the staircase to the second floor.

IMG_1361

I met two of their sons, one I’d met once before when he was just an infant. It’s easy with us.

My mom’s friend from High School, my godmother Auntie Lorna. Our neighbours Colleen and Ron, Auntie Lorna’s husband Joe, “anything you need, you just help yourself”, and her son Lane who took me kayaking on Lacombe Lake one evening.

Lane had been to the funeral of a friend of his, turns out the man who died was the husband of one of the women with whom Mom taught kindergarten. I so much wanted to tell her about his death, and how his wife was, and how many people were at the funeral and how well the family was caring for each other. Auntie Lorna said she had a dream about Mom one night.

I went to Colleen and Ron’s for lunch one day, too. On my way I picked some Saskatoons from the bushes along the road. saskatoons 2015

They were nearly done, but two weeks early. It was a bit unnerving, all that ripeness so much earlier than harvest season ought to be.

It all smelled of home. Cottonwoods by the river, dust, faint whiff of manure out on Highway 2A. There’s a sweetness in the air. Marigolds and gladiolas, caragana and wolf willow.  I never realize how much I miss that smell until I’m there again.

Everyone prays there. Before every meal, we held hands and someone gave thanks on our behalf. They all thanked god for my visit, and asked his (God is a “he” there, no question) protection and care for me, and their other loved ones. Usually “in Jesus’ name” they offered their prayers. I’d forgotten that we used to say grace before meals. We didn’t, our family, by the time we were in high school, I think. But I don’t know when we stopped. I found it comforting. I liked that mostly no one asked for direct interventions, and offered thanks for the gifts of our friendship and the food we were to share.

On my way home, i went to visit Bob. He lives a bit out of the way of my route home, but his wife, Darleen, had been one of Mom’s best best friends since we moved to Red Deer.  She was so much fun. She smoked cigarettes and cursed. she laughed easily and she was generous and full of life. She and Mom passed the same birthday card back and forth for 45 years. It was one of those cards that congratulated the recipient on being 29 — AGAIN. Darleen gave it to Mom for her 35th birthday, and Mom sent it back to Darleen a few months later when Dar turned 30. Darleen called Mom up and called her a cheap so-and-so, and sent it back the next year again. It crossed the Canada-US border several times, each year a little note added. Dar always wrote something like “Roses r red/violets r blue/we’re in the States now/I sure do miss you!”

Anyway, I called him up my last morning on the road, and he answered on the first ring. He gave me careful directions (I just used my smug phone GPS, but I didn’t interrupt him), and asked me to call if I got lost. When I arrived in his town, it was a bit later than we had estimated I’d be. He called again, “are you lost?”

“Nope, I’m nearly there, Bob”, and he again gave me detailed directions to their place, which helped this time. When i got to his door, through the frosted glass I saw him run toward it, as if to open it before I changed my mind and slipped away.

We spent a couple of hours together. He told me about the renovations they had made when they moved in, the new appliances, the landscaping. He is a man. His whole life he learned to not display his feelings, to talk about stuff and business and plans; not love and people and relationships. So there he was, deep in grief, (how could he not be? They had been high school sweethearts, she was a force of nature), disappointed and lonely, showing me the original architect’s drawings for the house he lived in now.  His sadness felt like a sheet of lead under his skin. Neither of us cried. This is not like me, by the way. Particularly these days.

Everywhere I went, I went to a meeting, too. I was with strangers who could see me; strangers who felt like family too. One hour at a time, sharing our stories, our struggles our loneliness or our delight. At some of these meetings I made coffee or helped to set up or to clean up. Most of the time people greeted me and made me welcome. Every time i heard something true that unravelled that knot of grief and regret a little bit more.

I am not the only one. My mother is gone, my love is unrequited, my future uncertain. I am lonely and afraid, but I am not the only one. Everywhere I went, from home to home and stops along the way, there were moments of beauty and peace. A bit of breath, some colour and warmth. I’m treading water, but i’m not sinking.

It’s days after i began this post, here you go, here you go — class starts in two hours.