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Category Archives: love. simple.

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.

circle of life

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Hello, my handful of readers. it’s been a hell of a week over here in easilyriled’s world. My head is full of dreams and self-doubt, my heart is in tatters. again.
this past weekend, though, was devoted to BIG THINGS in the lives of other people. Friday I went to two twelve-step meetings, and spent the afternoon in between in the hospital with a friend. She’s pretty sick, but she’ll be going home this week. She had a seizure, which is related to other stuff going on for her. We’ve been friends for more than 30 years, she was my first love, and first big heartbreak. We re-connected about three years ago after a ten-year break. She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. We don’t agree anymore about everything, politics-wise — but she was instrumental in my journey to feminism. And we’re bonded, you know…
Saturday was the wedding. You remember i was all tortured about it last week, or week before last, right? yea. But it went really well. Stephanie and I were MCs for the evening. I did get in a few digs about the institution of marriage, I played my accordion, sang with some beautiful people, carried around some babies, and ate a lot of pakoras and lamb curry. there were a couple of gay men at the party, they though Steph and I were partners. “is she your wife?” one of them asked me.
“have you not been paying attention?” i wanted to say, “what, just because i’m a dyke, you think i should be all married and shit? even though i have just finished ranting (just a little rant, the day, after all, was not about me) about the institution of marriage and ownership papers and patriarchy and shit?”
I didn’t, though. i just said, “Um. no.” They’re GAY, fer cryin’ out loud, there is a reason we call homosexuals that. bless them.
So I went away to play a sad Ukrainian waltz on my accordion. I only know three songs. But i play them different every time, so it’s like having a repertoire. Music does mend broken hearts, that’s a true fact.
the newly institutionalized couple were very happy, their families were very happy. It looked like people had a good time. And everyone there, you know, we took care of each other. In our presence our friends made their commitment to each other, and in so doing, invited us to hold them accountable. They brought people from all parts of their lives together, added music, flowers, food and speeches–the signing of the ownership papers (for the approval of the gubbmint battery farm) was the least of it, really. There were a few of us broken-hearted, kinda cynical dykes there — i am not the only one — and we just felt the love in the room and did our best for our friends. Plus, you know, i had my accordion and an audience, so that made me pretty happy, too.
Then yesterday I went to a celebration of the life of a young man I knew for a while. Ten years ago, when he was 17, he and his mom joined up with our friend Sharon as she was heading to her death. She had cancer, and it moved slow then fast from her breast to her brain. For ten days in April of 2005, we stayed with her — her husband, her neighbours, her friends, her relations — and she let us carry her to the doorway. It was a beautiful gift she gave us, to let us in like that. there was lots of laughter, many many tears, all the songs, and stories galore. As he was dying he told his mom that he wanted to do it the way Sharon had done. With grace and humour, surrounded by love and music, engaging with everyone who came as he could. I didn’t know that he was ill, nor that he had died until his mom posted on facebook that the memorial would be July 12. He was a beautiful young man, sensitive, smart, kind and quirky. the celebration of his life was excruciating. His mother was so poised and shattered. All that care and love in the room for her and for her son held her up. But there is no making sense of such a death. “Why him? Why one of the good men?” people will ask. But the question might just as well be “Why not?”
It is not true that everything happens for a reason. Not true at all. the true thing is that everything happens. That’s all.
This afternoon I will go see my friend in the hospital. Then i’ll drive my ex-lover’s mom (whom I adore) to the airport. And it will be some time yet that i will be in mourning.
I am glad for the wedding. And I am glad I spent the weekend in service and celebration. it’s been a year of loss and endings. That wedding was someone’s beginning, and that’s kind of encouraging, even though…

Grief

I feel wide open and cold all the time. A north wind sweeps through me. It’s bracing, kind of, and my frequent tears are warming.

She was very cold. I asked to see her. My brother didn’t want to, nor did my uncle. But I did. I wanted to see if she looked like herself. I wanted to see if I could sense her there. She did, but I could not. Well, there was one brief moment, when I touched her forehead, laid my palm across her forehead like I used to do when we were little. She would have headaches and ask us, my brother and me, to rub her forehead with our soft cool palms. I couldn’t bring myself to kiss her, but I touched her face, and stroked her hair and said “goodbye” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry”.

I’m sorry I was impatient, I’m sorry I wasn’t with you when you died, i’m sorry i didn’t write down all the stories, i’m sorry your life wasn’t all you wanted. But I love you, i love you, I love you Mom. I know you were proud of us, and you loved us more than I can fathom. You gave me my sense of humour, my terrible feet, my capacity to love, my asthma, my ability to keep friendships —

She was found fully clothed on her bed in the mid-morning. Probably she had been dead for an hour — two at most. Lately, the effort of getting ready for her day had tired her out. She probably got ready to go to her physio appointment, then had a little rest before heading out to meet the bus. She had some card-making stuff on her table, her purse there, too. Her door was unlocked. She NEVER left her door unlocked when she was home. A copy of her will was on the table too. And a birthday card for a friend who lived a few doors down the hall.

That was like her, you know. It would have killed her to have been found in her nightie.

I hate goodbyes. I always have. I didn’t know the last time I visited when I said goodbye to her that it would be the last time, but I had a feeling. A feeling I pushed away, because I had a feeling like that last Christmas, really strong and sharp, when I woke up in that narrow bed in her spare room, the first thing I thought was, “this is the last time”.  It wasn’t the last time, though, because I returned this summer, just for a few days. So I put that very strong feeling of ending into a box and shoved it into the corner where it sat, glowing a bit and every once in a while giving a little rumble. And it would rumble a little louder each time I talked to her on the phone. the Monday, that week that she died, I talked to her on the Monday, and she sounded tired.

“Did I wake you up Mom?”

“No. I just got dressed” she said. And at the end of the call, she said, “Well, I should let you go.”

I didn’t know she meant the BIG “let go” — I was going to call her on Thursday afternoon, and have a good long talk. I always called her when i had a million things to do, and i would walk around with my phone tucked between my shoulder and my ear — washing dishes, picking up trash, idon’tknowwhatall — while she told stories about people I didn’t know — But Thursday I was going to sit in one place, and listen to all those stories for as long as she wanted to tell them.

I went to visit this past summer after I finally finished my PhD. We had a good time, and lots of long talks, and we went for drives and out for meals and I took her to the mall to get some clothes. My brother Shawn was great about groceries and appointments and helping around the house, but not so good about blouses and knickers. Not that I’m such a good choice when it comes to sartorial matters, either, but one takes what one can get.  I tell you what, glaciers melted in the time it took Mom to try one a couple of t-shirts. But I wasn’t impatient at all. didn’t act it, didn’t feel it — which is most unusual for me. She said to me near the end of our adventures in retail, “Erin, you have so much patience!” — she was surprised.

“I know!” I exclaimed, “what’s happened to your daughter?” and we laughed. Then I said, in the fine tradition of the Morgan women, “I think it’s on account of I’m a doctor now, doctors need patients”.

She herself was a relentless and unrepentant punster — she appreciated the joke. After she died, as I was ticking through my memories of recent visits, looking for clues, maybe something I could have done, I realized that Mom hadn’t been so quick with the puns lately. Not for a long time, in fact. She just wasn’t as sharp. She forgot appointments, she fell asleep in her chair, she misplaced things more often–not entirely, you know, she was still tracking most things, but the puns stopped.  She wasn’t firing on all cylinders, you know? But i didn’t want to see that.

I made Welsh cakes a couple of nights before her funeral. When Dad died, we put out a bowl of licorice allsorts for people to take. They were his favourite candy. Mom used to make Welsh cakes. They’re easy, and one batch makes A LOT of cakes. But they’re time consuming, and lately Mom made them when I was home, (’cause I could make ’em and she could boss me around from her chair) but not really any other time.  So I made a double batch late Sunday night. I used both of her electric frying pans, (one that I’m sure is over 50 years old, the other only about 40), her rolling pin, her pastry cloth, the cookie cutter she’s had since the farm (older than the frying pans). I wore my shoes and my hat in the house, and I wept as I mixed up the dough, rolled it out, cut it and fried it. tears mixing with the currants and eggs, “Mom am I rolling them thin enough? Will you please watch so they don’t burn? Is one of these frying pans hotter than the other? When was the first time you made Welsh cakes?” She didn’t answer, of course. I didn’t feel her near, even if I was using all her stuff.

She was going to come to Vancouver for the graduation ceremony. NOW i know that she was too frail to make the trip. Even though I would meet her at the door of the plane with a wheelchair, even though I would have carried her everywhere if I had to, even though…”Do you think I should take my cane?” she had asked me, just a couple of weeks ago [no. not a couple. she’s now been dead for two weeks and three days. tick. tick. tick.]

“yes, bring it along, Mom. It’ll be good to have a three-foot extension to your arm anyway.”

When I was making the Welsh cakes, I said, “Jesus, Mom–if you didn’t want to come to Vancouver, you could’ve just said so, I wouldn’t be mad at you — you didn’t have to be so drastic“. I swore a lot more this trip than I usually do, too. But not around my Auntie Lorna, or the Langs, or at the funeral home or…

One day, the Saturday before the funeral, my brother came to Mom’s house. We were going to go through all the pictures and music and pick some for the slide show at the funeral. Shawn said, “We’re going to go through the pictures, then we’re going to clean this place up, make it like Mom … ” he sounded angry and then he started sobbing. Place didn’t look bad to me, but then again, Shawn is like Mom, fastidious like a cat. I am like Dad. Fastidious like…well, like not at all. I just opened my arms and folded him into me as he bent and sobbed into the top of my head.

There was a lot of that going on. Shawn and I holding onto each other. When he drove me back to Calgary to fly home, he said, “you’ve changed. You’re way more patient now than you’ve ever been.” He was relieved, I think. that I wasn’t as volatile as I used to be. That I was much more steady and patient. It’s because i’ve been working on that stuff, me and my sister travellers “on the road of happy destiny”. It’s because I know we’re not alone.

Louise came to be with us. I called her the day Mom died. She said, “Do you want me to come?” I said yes, but I didn’t know yet — When I got home to Red Deer, I talked to her again and Shawn was with me. “Will i be in the way if I come?” she asked, and Shawn said, “No! Come”. We have been friends for 24 years, were lovers for six of those years, and I played my accordion at her wedding to Diane. She helped me stop drinking, she’s helped mend my broken heart many times, and we hold each other up.

She met Shawn 20 years ago, and they sparked together from the beginning. Every time I go visit, Louise says to me, “Give Shawn a bone-crushing hug from me” and I do and Shawn giggles. I don’t know what we would have done without her. We would have done okay, but she was balm and glue when we were depleted and raw.

While I was making the Welsh cakes that night before she came, I was digging around in Mom’s pantry and i found a box of whisky. There were several opened bottles of rye, blended scotch, drambuie — and some little airplane bottles of johnny walker red, all of which had a tiny sip or two missing from them. I found that very odd. Who would take a sip out of each of those little bottles? weird. When Louise came, she noticed that these bottles were all sealed — the alcohol had evaporated. That would NEVER happen in my house….

Anyway, I was baking and weeping and feeling all of my feelings all at once and it was so painful and awful and i thought, “I could just shut this hurricane of emotion down right now–just go over there and get that bottle of scotch–“. I didn’t do it, and I knew I wouldn’t, but there was the thought, and there was the whisky, and the pain that it would most certainly ease…The next day I called a woman who had worked with Mom to tell her about Mom’s death, and she said, “I want to help, can I do anything?” and I asked her to take me to a meeting. She was happy to do that, and at the meeting i remembered again that all this is normal. This pain, this sorrow, this big grief — it’s human and it’s loving and it’s fine. When Louise came, she said that I knew way too much about what was in that box, and we should pour it out. I didn’t want to, so she didn’t say anything, but when I left to do something and Shawn was with her, they poured it all out. I didn’t know I was uptight about it until I came home (the place smelled like a field of lilies AND a distillery…) and felt such relief.

Even though Mom is gone, she didn’t leave us alone. We have each other. All these beautiful people. Our family, our friends, her friends–We are all family. I will always miss her, and right now it’s almost unbearable. But we are all connected, and this grief is a gift, really, it means the love she gave is every bit as big and powerful as this sorrow. as deep and wide as the prairie sky.

damn amsterdam

April 14, in the evening, I went to a screening of Buying Sex, a recent Canadian documentary by Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nashon that describes the recent Bedford case, wherein Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down after a challenge brought by Alan Young and appeals through Ontario and Canada Supreme Court. Anyway, the filmmakers follow the case as it ambles through the courts from the original Ontario court decision to the first appeal, leading to the final appeal of Canada to the Supreme court. They interviewed lawyers, women who have left prostitution, academics, policy makers and men who rape women for money buy sex. There were disturbing bits, especially the footage from a German brothel, you could hear a woman moaning in pain and saying, “that hurts…”, there was a bit in there featuring a woman who ran a brothel in New Zealand, where she pimped out young women–“I just said two days ago, ‘i need a blonde, younger than 20, size 6′, and then you came!” she said, crowing about her newest acquisition– and the interviews with the johns was uniformly awful “men need sex, if we don’t get it at home, we’ll pay for it. it’s human nature”  which is ridiculous of course–they were so … entitled yet shut down and cynical. ugh. But there was a lot of hopeful footage, too–Swedish men talking about how they reject that, and one guy (the guy who made the movie about the German brothel) talking about how important it is for men to care for their children, and to see women as their peers — and the women, the women who were lawyers and the women who were once prostituted and the women who were front-line workers (though we didn’t see much of them, and heard very little–I know they were interviewed, though–I know they are front and centre in this fight–but marginalized in the media. sigh).

Then we heard from a panel of women, all of them part of women’s groups, active feminists — and all of them affected by the prostitution and pornography industry, as are we all. Each of them talked about prostitution as a particularly vicious form of male violence against women, a practice of colonial rule, and each of them talked about their hopes for a future that has no prostitution in it — where women and men will be equal to each other, politically, economically, socially. It will take a revolution, this equality, and it will take a long time, too. But we’ve been a long time with men’s boot on our neck, these things take a while to correct. Don’t know when it all went sideways, but we can straighten things out if we want to. And enough of us want to, seems to me. Look at the crowd there for the film screening–the room was pretty full. nearly two hundred people, i think. There was one guy there who was one of the johns in the movie. he went to the mic to ask a question. He has a disability, travels in a wheelchair, and introduced himself by saying, “I am a client of sex workers” — that was kind of brave in a fucked-up way. And then he asked a question about how to prevent people from entering prostitution — that was weird. He didn’t seem at all apologetic or self-reflective, couldn’t see the contradiction, it seemed. One of the panel members said, “stop buying women, stop using pornography”. Everyone said that at one time or another. The guy wasn’t defensive, anyway, seemed to me. Then again, even if he was, he wouldn’t get a lot of sympathy about the whole buying sex thing. People asked thoughtful interesting questions. Of course mostly men came to the mic, it’s always mostly men.

Then i went to a late night twelve-step meeting. and sitting right across from me was a young man with a t-shirt from Amsterdam’s red light district. silhouette of a naked woman right there, in the shape of a capital A, the second one in the name of the city. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and frowning at him. of course he didn’t notice me. I didn’t go up to him after the meeting to tell him he’s an asshole for wearing that shirt, and he has some amends to make to ALL the women in his life for promoting pimping and prostituting women like that, and … but i didn’t. because i was tired, and angry and disappointed — just ’cause you get into recovery doesn’t mean you don’t stop lovin’ the bullshit patriarchy feeds ya. And i was second-guessing myself, too, there’s that whole singleness of purpose thing going on — but really, sexism DOES interfere with women’s recovery — a few weeks ago, i was at that same meeting, and another young man, when he shared, he said, “I want to tell all the men here to not hit on the women in the rooms. I heard that about 1/3rd of our membership is female, and when i was out there, it looked a lot like 50/50 to me–maybe women aren’t coming here because men put the moves on them, and that’s wrong–women are dying out there, we have to really look at our behaviour and stop preying on them” — he did speak in terms that strong. I was grateful to him, and other men said after, “thank you for saying that”. None of the women speaking after thanked him, but that’s fine, he did the right thing, and that should be thanks enough, and the acknowledgment from other men that he spoke a true thing they needed to hear. We don’t owe him any cookies. But still. I am grateful to him. I hope he keeps that up. i hope he meets buddy with the porny t-shirt and takes some care of him.

 

Holy smokes, it’s 2014 now! I began this post in the spring of 2013, I think. Just noodling away while my right foot healed from bunion surgery. Now I’m still a lesbian, but my right big toe is straight! I’ll just let this post stand as I’ve written it, but by bit over the past number of months, a sentence here, a paragraph there, write, delete, write, save draft, move on…here ya go:
In part, I’m not posting on account of I have this dissertation to finish. Most of my cohort has graduated now. Two others, like me, are not yet done, but both of them lost their mothers early in our program, and took a leave to help with their care and after. They have also added children to their families, as have most of the rest of my cohort. I don’t know how they do it — babies and jobs and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and teaching classes and presenting at conferences and ‘networking’ and then they all got academic jobs before or when they finished.
Then there’s me. Not getting a hair cut ’till i’m finished at least a full draft. hair’s pretty long. tangled and wild, just like the inside of my head. I am now working on my THIRD draft, but I didn’t get my hair cut because Mom wanted to brush it when I went home for Christmas. Plus, to tell the truth, now I kinda like it…and as I said, it is a fairly true representation of the knots and split ends and tangles my thinking often is — Harm reduction, women’s liberation, prostitution, front-line work, activism, law enforcement, legislation, compassion, education, learning and thinking and practice and theory — whose voice counts and for what? I have it, i have it all right here, but it’s still in piles or shards, and the finish line is shimmering in the distance like a mirage on the broad desert of libertarian individualism– choice, agency, consent, voice, sexwork, oppression, justice — what the hell do the proponents of legitimating prostitution mean by “justice” or “choice” when they argue for legal brothels? What do the women on the front-lines of feminist anti-violence work, or street-based health care, or social service advocacy mean when they talk about the application or meaning or uses or harms of harm reduction? How do we meet each other where we are, how do we see through the fog and cacophony of “best practices” and “evidence-based” and “respect for their choices–constrained though they may be” and hang on to each other as we look together for a way out?
It’s so easy to go off in several directions, and then i get kinda stuck and end up–well, here, fiddling with yet another draft of yet another blog post that I may not even post at all.  fits and starts, fits and starts. story of my life…
There are always reasons that i’m not done yet. Death, birthdays, grieving, celebration, work, love, fighting, worrying, fretting over this and that–but not delving, you know? not flinging myself wholly into one thing or another– just falling into the messiness of everything and thrashing about. There’s a difference. Falling in, you just get all covered in mess, and it takes a long time of kicking and flailing and sinking to make sense of it. Sometimes you only get covered in ick.
Purposefully leaping in, on the other hand, means you have to look where you’re leaping–even if you don’t see IT exactly, you know the spot to aim for. It’s good, too, to know to dive–close your eyes, tuck your head, raise your arms above your head, palms together, your body a spring–you’ve been training for this, you know what to do–once you’re in the air you have to have faith– and never lose your focus or your nerve.
One of my mentors (I have a few, most have come to me from surprising places) said to me, “Well, you have been dealing with a deadly disease, after all, don’t underestimate how hard that is”. I had, of course. Underestimated, that is, — how hard it is to figure out how to live as fully human after twenty years of hiding inside a case of beer (I preferred good single-malt scotch, of course, but it’s more expensive. And in truth it’s wasted on me. I would just chug it anyway).  There is NO WAY I would be where I am now were I still drinking. No way. Even though I think I’ve had a pretty smooth road, I have indeed worked pretty hard over the last nearly six years just on living sober. I go to these meetings, and I write about my resentments and anxiety and my part in it all, and talk to other women who “go to my church” so to speak, and I ask for help and I help others and I do things that I don’t want to do like pray and meditate (I’m an atheist, but I know I’m not alone. I don’t understand a whole bunch of stuff, so if I talk about it to my grandma, or to my dad or to ancestors who’ve gone before me, and then just shut up and sit still for a bit, an answer will come). So, you know, that’s a lot of talking and listening and writing and doing that just gets me to zero, right? It just gets me to where most people who aren’t addicted begin.
Of course I am still critical. I always chicken out at the last minute. I start, I train, i write, I read, i take my pen and my paper, my books right there, the notes from discussions there, the timer set and — “oh, one game of solitaire won’t hurt” — then before you know it, it’s gone from solitaire to email to that video about [‘well, it’s kind of related to my research…]  to Angry Birds (dear god, what have I become?) — and by the time i pick up my pen again, or open the file on my computer, I’ve lost my nerve. I have to prepare again, breathe deep, review my notes, set the timer — On bad days, I’m covered with ick, have cleared two levels or won three out of umpteen games of solitaire, read two or three articles about whatever, answered the phone, written three emails, checked my email 235.3 times, and —
on good days, all that, plus written one five-sentence paragraph. it’s exhausting. The self-trashing alone–i tell you…
It’s time i learned, though. There are three things in my life that I have to dive into with my whole self–One is living sober. I can’t do jack about anything else if i’m hammered or obsessing about altering my consciousness. I can do anything if i’m staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. Anything.
One is my dissertation, and what the hell to do with it after — i must not let it gather dust on a shelf–or whatever the digital equivalent of that is—i’m sure it has something to offer, and sixteen women told me the truth about their lives and work–The PhD, jesus. it’s so intimidating.
And one is my, um, primary intimate relationship. I’m not sure what exactly to call it–‘partner ship’ sounds kinda too much like business, ‘love affair’ doesn’t sound committed or serious enough, and ‘relationship’ isn’t specific enough. We’re friends, lovers, political allies, family, home — and in all that sometimes comfort, sometimes discomfort — it’s a journey and a place–a project and a lifework–it’s play and solace and sometimes it’s not — and she has children, too, two happy, healthy, confident and beautiful boys. I think they will grow up to be good men, even with all the pressure to become gendered (and they are that too, of course), but because of their mother and her friends, and their father’s devotion to them, they will always know who they are—and what they can achieve.
We had a deal for the first two years that we would not, during disagreements or fights, go to the “let’s just break up” option. We could revisit the agreement to be together around our anniversary date, make a new deal or keep the same one. Of course some painful stuff has come up, we have had hard moments so far. So it was comforting to have that agreement– it meant that we wouldn’t go to that in haste, we’d evaluate other options first. We don’t have that deal anymore, it was important when we made it, but we have to come up with something different now, more nuanced—something that accounts for what we’ve learned about how we are together and what we understand now about each other. It’s hard work this. I don’t mind (mostly). It’s sometimes a bit, well, anxiety-provoking and difficult — but so are most worthwhile commitments and adventures. She is brilliant and funny, impatient and demanding, she has really good politics (that’s hot), she’s uncompromising and generous, disciplined and impulsive, fiercely loyal and tenacious – she won’t give up on me IF I never give up. I love being with her. She is absolutely worth the work I have to do to be open, compassionate, thoughtful, generous and gracious.
Sometimes, even knowing that, I fail. I’m impetuous and petulant, sometimes lazy, defensive, liberal, self-seeking, thoughtless. I am learning, though, however slowly. All three of those big important things are all about learning and putting what i’ve learned to practice. Trying and failing and learning and trying again and succeeding and asking for help and…

non-sequiter coming right up–
I had a meeting with my committee recently, and when we started up, the first thing i did was cry. It wasn’t because i was afraid of what they would say about the six chapters i’d sent them. I worried they would say that I am not worthy, it’s not good, it doesn’t make sense, the arguments don’t hold together–but they didn’t say that. They said it needs a lot of work yet, but also that it’s substantial, remarkable, inspiring (!). Which is also frightening, but in a way different way.
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On December 20, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to strike down most of Canada’s prostitution laws.

The decision is suspended, however, and the VERY Conservative government has one year to draft new legislation that will not infringe on the human rights of “sex workers”, as did the previous laws. Those laws were meant to criminalize such activities as, establishing and profiting from escort agencies or brothels, procuring women for the satisfaction of men’s sexual appetites and communicating for the purposes of prostitution–all laws which could have been (but were not) used to interfere with and constrain men’s demand for sexual access to women.

We went to an open house January 1st, my lover and I–a small New Year celebration of friends who live around the corner from me. We enjoy our friends–they are smart, interesting and generous. It was good to spend the first day of the Gregorian calendar with fine women and good food. There were lucky black-eyed peas and lentils, boiled cabbage and corned beef, cornbread and pecan tarts, and few other women at first. A couple who play bridge with one of our hosts, another neighbor who is a doctor of Chinese medicine, and a co-worker of one of the hosts — then more came.  Including a woman I used to know when we were on a steering committee together, and some other shared projects of the feminist variety.  Now she’s a local politician, or she was. We were never friends, really, though we were at one time allies. Not now, though, and not for a long time.

She’s a little older than I am, and as a young woman was part of the Abortion Caravan in 1970 — women from all over Canada, beginning in Vancouver, traveled together to Ottawa to demand legal, free abortion on demand. Wonderful, brave action, and part of a world-wide movement of women that was rising strong in those days. She was an organizer, and she was interested in women’s liberation from male domination. She would say she is still.

Anyway, she came to the party and sat next to me. She asked what i was doing now, and I told her that i am finishing my PhD. She asked what I was working on, and I told her, “front-line anti-violence workers, their engagement with harm reduction in relation to their work with women in prostitution”. She said that sounded interesting, and I said, “yea, timely too, now.” Then she said, referring to the Bedford decision, “What a great day that was”.

Sigh. People do not pay attention. I don’t know how she could NOT know my position on this.  Anyway, she does now. I said, “oh, Ellen, you and I are not on the same side on this issue at all. Of course women in prostitution, those selling sex must be decriminalized –“

“yes, of course” she said.

“But the pimps, the procurers, the men who buy sex–they’re the problem–the demand must be stopped. It is a big mistake to decriminalize them.” I looked at her, “Big mistake.”

She looked uncomfortable (I think), and then my girlfriend tapped me on the shoulder, “We should make room now for the new people coming,” and I was happy to do so.  Ellen nodded hello to her and we all smiled stiffly at each other. Then we kissed our hosts good bye, wished everyone a happy new year and walked into the grey rainforest afternoon.

We should be allies with ALL of the women who were there that afternoon, and more, besides. Especially women who organized in the 70s, who took such brave risks to ensure my freedom. But the best I can hope for from her now is that she will get out of the way. I don’t think she will–we are equally committed to our positions, it would appear. Perhaps she thinks I am in her way, as well.

Never mind. I just have to finish this damn thing, and then find out how to put it to use. It’s almost there, so close now, the culmination of many years of work. Yet still only a small part to add to the work of so many women before me, beside me and the women who will lead in the future. It is a hopeful beginning.

It’s 2014. Time to grow up.

An unruly mob

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That’s what cancer is. it just gets in, and starts marauding all over the place.  Giving cellular reproduction and fission a bad bad name. It’s like when the cops send moles into peaceful demonstrations, or when undisciplined politicos go to organizing meetings. They start yelling and fomenting revolution and calling for direct action and mass organizing and “subvert the dominant paradigm!” and all this with Molotov cocktails and chairs smashing windows and it looks like a revolution, but it’s more of the same corruption of power and plays into the hands of the neo liberals. Cancer has no vision. It just lands somewhere and starts tearing shit down and putting up crappy slum housing. Cancer doesn’t care. it reproduces and becomes a mass here and a mass there, and starts taking yacht cruises through the blood stream and just ends up colonizing everything in the body. Cancer is the European of the disease world.  Walking right over all the cells that were already there, just going about their business.

Way, WAY more bad-ass than a virus or bacteria. It’s like rabbits in New Zealand.  Except not nearly as cute.

Jackie died May 30th. she was a big woman,  a humble genius– kinda misanthropic–with an eye for beauty, a soft spot for troublemakers and a devilish sense of humour.  She left a box of play scripts and stories, some paintings and collages, art cards, puppets, watercolour series’ of boiled eggs and strawberries; collages with lilies and sparkles; photographs from her life–

and she left a lot of love too. Nora and Polly, the love of her life and her oldest dearest friend — the beautiful people who were lifted by her talent and her eye for beauty. There’s no need to settle for less than bread and roses. She met death the way she lived her life — with curiosity, grace and humour. Surrounded by the people who loved her.

Her memorial is Sunday. She’s gone from us. But she’s still here in her art and her words.

damn, though.