She can’t believe that right now, because she’s a teenage girl. Also, because I’m relatively emotionally disciplined and I don’t make a showcase of either my primary or secondary suffering, she tends to—as do others—think I have no feelings. I tell you, people, teenagers—the most terrifying funhouse mirror of your soul.
Flora: Well, I’m so sorry my illness is causing you so much…
Jane: Um, I wasn’t even talking about you. Why are we in this spiral again?
Because children, rightly, think they are the centre of their parents’ universe and teenagers, wrongly, think they are the centre of the universe.
Enough of that though. Back to this:
I love you. And because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
Especially when there is nothing I can do to alleviate your suffering. And there isn’t. All I can do is be here.
Helplessness is awful.
Intentional presence—without interference, without unwanted acts of helpfulness, without making my suffering an additional burden on you… not awful.
But really, really hard.
I love you. Because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
I am here for you.
When Flora was so sick, I had to draw borders around the secondary suffering experienced by others—as well as myself.
“Yes. I know you love her. I know you love me. I know you’re suffering. I am not interested in hearing about your suffering or dealing with your feelings. I need to save my child’s life, now fuck the fuck off and let me do what I need to do.”
You: Can I bring you soup?
Jane: Yes. But better yet, don’t ask me what you can do for me. See a need and fill it without adding to my plate.
You: You know I’m here for you. Anything you need.
Jane: Can we talk about this later? I have shit to do.
We have this myth in Western culture—not just Western culture, actually—that suffering ennobles. I don’t know about that. Maybe, afterwards. If you survive. While you’re suffering, you’re mostly an asshole.
It’s okay. You kind of have to be to survive.
You’re suffering and I’m helpless. There’s nothing I can do. You are a lot like me and I don’t want you to feel that, on top of everything else, you have to manage my feelings. I text you kisses and links to songs. Tell you I’m thinking of you, ask for nothing.
It’s not enough, but maybe it’s too much.
I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. That’s just the way it is.
The last year has made us intolerant of the suffering of others.
We’ve all been acting like assholes—not because we’re evil or selfish or anything like that. But because we’re all suffering. And it’s hard to feel compassion for others in the middle of our own pain. It’s especially hard to feel it for strangers.
I start here. With you. Start here. With me.
I love you. I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. I’m going to bring you something delicious to eat tomorrow, and see if I can take you for a walk, even though we’re both sick of walking and it won’t help anything.
You’re beautiful even on a grey and drizzly November morning.
But your government is fascist.
Your religion is medieval.
Your customer service sucks.
And your people are rude and pushy.
We bury my grandfather on Tuesday, on a grey but dry November afternoon. I stand in the cold chapel looking at his embalmed corpse, waiting for feelings.
There don’t seem to be any—just a clinical curiosity.
An awareness that the suit his body is wearing is the suit he wore to my wedding, 17 years ago.
Then, an awareness of the awareness (how’s that for meta thoughts?) that I was thinking of the corpse very comfortably as a corpse—my grandfather’s body, but certainly not my grandfather. Not at all.
Which, of course, is at it should be.
A corpse is not a person.
I don’t like coming back “home.”
I never feel more alien—or more Canadian—than when I visit the place where I was born.
My grandfather’s sister, 14 years his junior, is already in the chapel when I enter. Not alone—her husband and daughter are with her.
I’m not alone either. I’m accompanying my grandfather’s youngest daughter, caretaker—chief mourner—who’s my father’s youngest sister. Therefore, my aunt, but closer in age to me than to my father, so really, my sister.
My grandfather’s sister is crying.
His daughter (my aunt-but-more-sister)–eyes dry this time—they have been wet a lot—suggests they pray together.
For his soul?
They start a pattern of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, the three women of the family—my grandfather’s sister, his daughter, his niece. The only man in the chapel—my great uncle, I suppose—mouths the words, but makes no sound.
When my mother walks into the chapel a few minutes later, she joins the chorus of the praying women.
It is very strange for me to hear my mother pray.
When I come “home” to visit—and I come, it seems, only for weddings and funerals (and not all of them), and once, a baptism—it generally takes me two or three days to start hating Poland.
This time, my dislike for the people I come from hits me in Amsterdam as I board the plan for Warsaw, as they seem to go out of their way to push and jostle me as they rush for the plane.
They’re so loud.
Their voices grate on my ears, and their bodies invade my personal space.
And their casual racism and sexism, with the thinnest veneer of European worldliness, disgusts me.
“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says.
I don’t want to.
Four young men with shaved heads—one has a neo-Mohawk—who probably aren’t skinheads, but well, look more like skinheads than pall bearers despite the white cotton gloves on their hands—carry the coffin with my grandfather’s body from the chapel to a Mercedes hatchback, which rolls slowly towards the front doors of the church, a few dozen meters away.
We follow, first the car, then the pall bearers—always, the coffin—into the church.
My aunts—my grandfather’s sister, my grandfather’s daughter—walk arm-in-arm with their husbands and children; I walk with my mother, conscious that I am my father’s stand-in. Conscious too of my red coat, its brightness imperfectly hidden by my black scarf.
Everyone else is wearing black.
The funeral home taking care of my grandfather’s body, by the way, is called Anubis.
I recently attended a German Catholic mass for a friend’s father. This one is almost identical, except for the language in which it’s delivered. Well, and the priest is younger and seems to have committed at least some of the words of the liturgy to his memory. But not all. He does a lot of reading.
I am struggling to stay respectful. But I feel more like a spectator at a dated theatre play than a celebrant of a holy rite.
I start counting the number of times the word “sin” occurs; lose count and interest at 21.
It had been my intention to observe the outer forms. The sign of the cross; the responses to the prayers. It’s been almost 30 years, but I probably remember—I remembered enough of the patterns at the German Catholic mass to stand up, sit down and kneel down at the appropriate places.
But I can’t.
The words aren’t just empty, they are distasteful.
I stand in silence.
My inner (bad) Buddhist counsels understanding and suggests I take the opportunity to do a metta meditation.
The outer atheist says, “Fuck that shit. Don’t still your mind: scratch at all the scabs and take notes.”
The writer agrees. So I look around with the cold, unforgiving eyes of the documentarian. Collect source materials.
Listen to the whispers of the mourners, hissed under the cover of music and prayers… but almost always audible.
Analyze the appearances and manifestations of grief.
Halfway around the world—fine, less than a quarter, 7,778 kilometres away—my father, the eldest son, is spending a sleepless night alone.
I try to shift into watching with his eyes, not mine. But it’s hard; self obtrudes.
The night after the funeral, I spend my sleepless hours—still jet-lagged, tired but unable to give in to sleep—texting with Internet strangers as unrooted in time zones as I am. One’s a Moroccan born in France (but not French), now based in Dubai, who was just in Warsaw on business. The other’s a UK-educated Tamil now working in Geneva.
All three of us have a poor sense of which time zone and country we’re in currently; I feel a stronger kinship with them than with my Polish family.
After a short discussion of my peculiar childhood in Libya and his European-North African shuffling, we end up talking about sheesha, and the Moroccan tells me where I can find a sheesha lounge in Warsaw.
The best part of my grandfather’s funeral mass for me is the entrance of my younger cousins with their very young children: a girl four years of age and a seven month old baby in a sling.
The girl is all smiles. She loves the flowers—the coffin and path leading up to it are adorned with bouquets and wreaths—and she beams at her grandparents with perfect happiness.
She and her brother affirm the beauty of life for me much more eloquently than the priest’s canonized readings and out-of-the-can sermon on eternal life.
I do think, though, that life would sometimes be easier if one were not an atheist and a pathological scab-scratcher and curtain ripper and could just accept something, anything on face value. You know?
The church, by the way, is beautiful. About 200 years old, but built in the Gothic style, designed to make man (not in the gender neutral sense; woman was simultaneously irrelevant and unreal—this, after all, is the religion that venerates a mother in the form of a virgin)—feel small and God grand.
God, I have the irreverent thought, must have a very fragile ego to require all these giant buildings to feel good about himself…
We follow the coffin—carried by the probably-not-skinheads-(but after that Nov 11 March of Shame, I don’t know, I think they might be–I look at every Pole I pass with suspicion and fear)-pallbearers out of the church and to the Mercedes again, and then we follow the slowly rolling car to the cemetery.
The priest, clad in an odd ceremonial black cap that looks like a cupcake with a pompom, leads the way.
In the recently restored family grave rests the body of my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her parents.
She died at age 53, when I was seven or eight, and living in Libya. I didn’t attend her funeral, nor did my father.
My mother was there, though.
My great-grandmother on my father’s side died in 2003, age 93.
I remember her.
I loved her.
I’m not sure that I loved my grandfather, and frankly, until his death, I have no real evidence that my father loved him. The night after the funeral, when I talk with my father, he is crying. Grieving, mourning. He sends me a copy of the letter he wrote to my grandfather the week before my grandfather died—at his sister’s request.
The letter is full of good memories and warm feelings.
It ends with, “I love you very much, Dad.”
It’s the first time I hear those stories.
I know my grandfather’s youngest daughter, who took care of him through to his death, loved him (loves him still if one loves the dead themselves and not their memory? I am not sure who the object of love is once life is gone…).
This, I always knew and had evidence of. I saw them together, loving and supporting each other. And she has talked to me of him, with love.
I probably know him best through her stories.
At the sheesha place the day after the funeral, I’m served by a Polish woman and then by two Turkish men, who both speak fluent Polish—they understand my Polish better than they do my English, which makes me laugh.
I’m one of three customers when I come in. One is a silent Pole–and despite his shorn hair, I’m pretty sure he’s not a skinhead; the other, an Arab who makes several business phone calls in beautiful German.
Citizens of the world.
The last time I saw my grandfather was at my brother’s wedding. In Poland, in 2009, because my brother’s wife is a Polish woman—whom he met in Korea.
At the wedding, a 70-something widow who spent the weekend making an ardent play for my then-80-year-old grandfather asked us when we last saw each other.
We looked at each other, my grandfather and I, and we both did the math with some effort.
“Ten… no, nine years ago,” I said.
“In 2000, at her wedding,” he said.
The hunting widow gasped, and put her hands on the hand my grandfather had on top of mine–squeezed it. He smiled.
(My twice-married grandfather—he remarried very quickly after my grandmother’s death–and I never really knew my step-grandmother, although she too was at my wedding—was a player until he died, and the joke among my cousins and my brother’s single friends that weekend was that Grandfather was the only one who scored. Possibly more than once.)
“It must be so hard,” my grandfather’s would-be lover said. “To have your granddaughter so far away. To see her so rarely. You must miss her.”
“Well, you know,” my grandfather said. “It’s been like that for a long time. You get used to it.”
My mother, who overhead the conversation, was appalled.
“How can anyone not miss their grandchildren?” she demanded of me, holding my children on her lap in a covetous embrace
She didn’t understand, at all.
But I did.
Time spent matters.
If my grandfather didn’t miss me–well, I didn’t miss him either.
My children will also miss only one set of grandparents.
At the cemetery, an octogenarian woman—who probably also wished to share my grandfather’s bed at some point (like, when I mention that player thing… it’s not even a slight exaggeration…)—reads a letter, a eulogy of sorts—of behalf of my grandfather’s (legion of girl)friends, from the Warsaw branch of the University of the Third Age.
It’s a beautiful letter that describes, lauds, and mourns a man I did not know, at all.
But apparently, I’m not the only to have that reaction.
“Wow, those people did not know Grandfather at all,” my cousin—the daughter of my grandfather’s youngest daughter, and the mother of the children who save the funeral mass for me—says. She’s known my–our–grandfather intimately all of her life. She loves him, knows him.
That’s not him, she says.
Fog and mirrors, I think. That was him, I suppose, to them…
The University of the Third Age woman also reads a poem written by my grandfather’s last paramour, the woman with whom he sorta-kinda-but-not-really-almost lived since the death of his second wife up to the final two years of his life.
The final two years of his life, he spent living with his youngest daughter, fighting to maintain the semblance of independence at a huge price, paid almost in full by his daughter.
It was, I think, too high a price to pay.
But you see… she loved him so much.
(I love my father very much… but I would not do that for him. We talk about it at length, my parents and I. “A nursing home, please, as soon as I can’t care for myself, and you don’t even have to come visit if I lose my mind,” my mother says. “Just, um, make sure it’s a nice nursing home.” My father shudders. “Kill me first,” he says.)
My grandfather’s last paramour—should I call her his lover? partner?—does not comprehend this price, and resents that my grandfather–unable to walk or sit up without help, among other things–spent the last few weeks of his life in a full-care nursing home.
Her poem is as full of the anger and resentment as it is of love.
It contains the phrase “contemptuous people,” which is a blatant slap in the face of my aunt—the woman who changed my grandfather’s diapers, took him to endless doctors’ appointments, bathed and fed him, almost to the end of his life.
I find it interesting that my aunt and my father give the status-less paramour the compassion and understanding that she can’t give them.
Isn’t wisdom, perspective something that comes with age?
Apparently not; the paramour avoids my aunt in the church and at the cemetery, and refuses to come to the post-funeral dinner with us.
Family is complicated.
My mother and my grandfather—her father-in-law—also had a fraught, complicated relationship.
I understand the specifics of it imperfectly, and yet the thrust of it very well, because I don’t love my father-in-law either.
We resent the slights and harm done to people we love more than we resent slights against ourselves.
My father-in-law has never harmed me. (I didn’t love him, so how could he, really, even if he tried?)
But what he did to the man I love, I find difficult to forgive.
Love is also very simple.
My aunt asks me and my father to prepare the eulogy for the funeral. It’s really something that she’s the best suited person to do, but she frames it as my father’s job as the eldest son—she also defers to my skills as the family writer.
I don’t even have to tell my father “But I didn’t know him!” He sits down to work on the eulogy and spends a week writing, revising, crafting—creating a goodbye that compromises between justice, truth, and love… liberally tempered with compassion.
It’s beautiful, and I find out that my storytelling talent has come to me in equal parts from both parents.
(Never ask anyone in my family for a clear, concise accounting of the facts. We can’t do it. Ask us for a good story, on the other hand…)
The priest refuses to read the eulogy in the church. Or at the graveside.
“It’s inappropriate,” he tells my aunt.
“Fuck that shit,” the daughter in me doesn’t even give my bad Buddhist a chance to breathe.
As the mini-drama unfolds beside the grave, I wonder how big a scene I’m going to have to make to carry out my father’s wishes.
My lack of ability to compromise, and disdain for conventional social mores—I smooth my red coat with pride now—that comes from my mother’s side of the family.
My father comes from a devout family. The oldest child and only son, he was nonetheless in his early childhood intended for the priesthood—or at least holiness. He does occasionally tell me that story.
I’m not sure if his eventual atheism—he calls himself an agnostic, but I think it runs deeper than that—is innate or rebellion.
My grandfather, his tomcatting notwithstanding (as is the case, frankly, with most of the Poles I know) would describe himself, throughout his life, as a devout and practicing Catholic.
Both his daughters remain religious and devout.
The elder one and her family are not at the funeral.
Family, as I’ve said, is complicated.
The younger daughter is effectively running the funeral, and I decide it’s, ultimately, her place to figure out how balancing the priest’s dogma and my father’s wishes should play out.
But I realize my hands are balled into fists and my heart rate is elevated.
My father’s youngest sister is 12 years younger than he and only ten years older than I am. She is my aunt, but more my sister and friend than aunt. Her children—my cousins—are now in their early thirties and late twenties—in other words, at an age where we are all effectively peers.
Her daughter is the mother of the two children who return meaning to the funeral mass for me, and her son has an actor’s beautiful voice.
As the priest leaves the gravesite, not in a huff, exactly, but… ungraciously, I would say—my cousin liberates the microphone from his assistant.
(His assistant, by the way, is a 60+ year old altar boy. Deacon, perhaps. He’s wearing jeans and this pisses me off—“Show some respect for my grandfather, you peon!” My reaction amuses me.)
My cousin reads my father’s eulogy in his beautiful actor’s voice and I relax.
He also pulls out a portable speaker that he had hidden somewhere in his winter coat and plays the song with which my father wanted to end the funeral mass, with which he wanted to say goodbye to his father.
In the sheesha bar, the Polish waitress speaks with the two owners in Turkish. Then switches to English to serve another customer.
Citizens of the world, all of us.
She’s a lovely person, I’m sure. But she seems put out every time I ask her for something. She does it… but just with a tinge of resentment.
I don’t say, “It’s your fucking job. Boil the water for my tea, goddammit.”
But I think it.
I think about the priest, too. What is his fucking job, exactly?
Did he do the right thing by his job, by his God, in refusing to accede to my father’s request?
I doubt it.
But he did the typically Polish customer service thing—leaving the customer served… but unsatisfied.
From the cemetery, we trail, in couples and clumps, to a nearby “locale” that celebrants of funerals, weddings, baptisms and possibly other events, hire for post-mass dinners and revelries.
“You have to eat a warm dinner after a funeral,” my aunt-sister-friend tells me earlier when she’s explaining the day’s agenda to me.
(Poles are very serious about their warm dinners—our lunches.)
The dinner is for about 30 people, family and close friends.
I’m introduced to an assortment of family I know not at all or not very well, including my father’s outrageously beautiful goddaughter, who is also his niece—and the mother of three fully adult children.
Her mother is my grandfather’s youngest sister, and the last remaining of his siblings. She was the first in the chapel to stand vigil with his body. She shed tears there; she sheds tears still.
Introduces herself to me twice. The first time, she doesn’t know who I am—the second time, she does.
Conversation, memories, stories.
The children play hide and seek, ask for seconds and thirds of dessert—are responsible for most of the laughter in the room.
The near-five decade Communist occupation of Poland leaves all sorts of lingering legacies, and I suppose Poland’s current fascist religious turn is one of them.
Shitty customer service is another.
The locale’s serving wenches are efficient and… see, impolite is the wrong word. Impolite, rude—implies malice, intent. There is no malice in the way they grab plates before people finish eating or remove still-full dishes. They just want to get their job done as quickly and with as little inconvenience to themselves as possible… and they don’t give a fuck about the customer.
The natives are inured. The Canadian at the table is a little appalled.
After the funeral, back at my aunt-sister-friend’s house, we talk about all sorts of things. The funeral, yes. My grandfather.
The proper way to make and serve schabowe.
We take turns talking to my dad when he calls. I can still hear the tears in his voice.
I send him the photographs I surreptitiously took at the funeral, with some caustic/loving commentary.
I don’t know if I understand my grandfather—or his relationship with my father—any more than I did before.
But maybe, I understand myself more. Just a little.
I tell my dad, “I’m glad I came.”
“I’m happy you like Poland,” he says.
Um. That’s not what I said.
I think I don’t love you and I probably never will.
It’s not your fault.
I mean, this current fascist incarnation is certainly not helping.
But it wouldn’t be much different under a more progressive, enlightened regime. I would be less ashamed. But I still wouldn’t love you. I don’t really love my adopted Motherland either, although it fits me better. I feel less alien there than I do here.
“We are now citizens of the world, right?” the Internet stranger keeping me company in the middle of the night after my grandfather’s funeral texts again. “We are not just the future. We are the present.”
In the heart of the place where I was born, I find solace in a Turkish owned sheesha lounge, a Tower of Babel cacophony of languages around me.
You are where I was born and where my parents were born. Where my grandparents—all of them now—are buried.
But I am not yours and you are not mine.
I wonder if my children’s relationship with their motherland will be different. Tighter.
I guess… I hope not. People like me—we don’t start wars.
But that’s their future to navigate and write.
I’m writing my present now.
I’m really glad I came,
PS This is the song with which my dad said goodbye to his father:
Well, I’m supposed to be crisping a tortilla—Ender asked for a plain tortilla (we’re out of “his” cheese—i.e. the fake cheese-like substitute), and he asked for it crispy—and then more crispy… and then I got distracted.
This is take three, but I got this idea for a post and I started writing, so I’ll probably burn this one too.
Saved it. “It’s perfect,” Ender says.
Well, except for the lack of fake cheese. But he’s coping.
I am feeling simultaneously tranquil and poetic. Calm and fiery. It’s a really interesting feeling—I wrote “cool feeling” first, then deleted it, because it’s not cool; if anything, it’s hot… but not so hot that it burns. Like still-warm bread, not scalding hot coffee.
Yesterday, Flora and Cinder had an epic fight that ended up with him having cheese (real) in his hair and her being thrown to the floor, and me having to leave a community meeting to come and arbitrate.
Cinder called me on the phone. “She was greedy. I overreacted. She’s crying.”
The few minutes’ walk in the cold November air cooled my anger and my desire to declare that they were never ever EVER going to eat frozen pizza again.
(That’s what the fight was about. Aren’t epic fights so often about non-epic things?)
When I walked into the house, I was able to hear things. And to say things calmly and with love.
They didn’t like hearing them.
It was interesting. I won’t take you into the details of the situation—suffice it to say, there were two of them in it, and each one made the wrongest of the wrong choices along the way.
Cinder really didn’t like hearing that, because he was bigger, stronger, and older—it was on him.
This has been one of my parenting mantras since he’s been two.
“Big people take care of little people.”
“Flora’s not little.”
“She’s younger and smaller than you. More to the point, in this situation—she’s weaker than you.”
When big people take care of little people, everything is right with the world. When they don’t—everything goes to hell. Pretty much completely.
At this precise point, I get a text from my Dad telling me he found out his Dad died.
Not unexpected news.
I am not at all sure how it makes me feel.
Sad for my dad, and sad for my grandfather’s immediate family back in Poland. My aunts and my cousins will mourn him fervently.
I hardly knew him.
The text, however, changes—if not precisely my mood, I am still tranquil and poetic, warm like bread from the oven, bubbling with something that needs to come out—the direction of my thoughts.
Sean’s grandmother died the day Cinder was born. She was critically important to Sean’s life, and her loss—then, physical, before that, slowly to dementia—caused him immense pain. She loved him, so much—I witnessed this first-hand when we visited her, even when she was losing her thoughts. And he loved her.
Being loved and loving is very important.
That, really, is what I try to tell Flora and Cinder—instead of punishing him, punishing them both, yelling.
Loving is important. Feeling loved is important. Feeling safe in your house, in your family is SO IMPORTANT.
I think they understand.
Ender comes home from a friend’s house after the crisis is over.
…which, 15 years into my parenthood journey, is one of the two parenting books I still keep on my bookshelf and in my heart, and which I am so grateful to have encountered when Cinder was fresh. (The other is Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn)
When he gets back, he debriefs me on the conference…
“And I just kept on finding myself in these situations where people would say, ‘I’m just checking out what this is all about, I guess it’s sort of interesting,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, we’ve been running a 15-year experiment in attachment-based development of empathy and self-regulation, and I’d say this stuff isn’t just interesting, it’s THE thing that’s the foundation of EVERYTHING!’”
I ask the kids if they want to debrief him on the fight.
Cinder: We had a stupid fight. Flora was greedy. I over-reacted and I hurt her. I feel really bad.
Sean particularly wants to talk to me about food. One of the ways that Ender frustrates me is…
Ender: I’m hungry!
Jane: I just fed you!
Sean’s full of fresh insight about food and attachment and security and love. I listen carefully; reflect.
When I myself am full, and Ender says, “I’m hungry,” I hear it for what it is.
“Love me. Pay attention to me.”
When I myself am hungry… well.
My mother calls and asks me if I want to go to Poland for my grandfather’s funeral.
I’m shocked to find out… that I do.
Sean calls me as soon as he gets my text. He was about to ream out Gordon Neufeld for his antiquated position on video games (let’s save that story for another time). I ask him about going to the funeral. Should I? Is it strange that I want to?
He doesn’t hesitate.
I am in the kitchen, a cup of cold coffee dregs at my left hand, my wedding album at my right (my laptop in-between them). I have the album open to photographs of me and my grandfather, now more than 17 years old. I’m 26. He’s already old. He’s already a stranger. I’ve seen him twice since my wedding day—no more than a handful of times in the 20 years between ages six and 26.
In one of the photographs, he’s reading a Christian gospel, in Polish, at my Canadian-atheistic-pagan wedding.
I’m looking out the window—the air is thick with snow.
I am still feeling… tranquil. Poetic.
Sad. But in a… in a really good way.
And suddenly, so fucking full, if Ender walked into the kitchen right now and said, “I’m hungry,” I’d bake him a cake and a find a way to cover it with delicious dairy-free icing (surely, there must be such a thing).
Monday was my father’s birthday, and he was very far away and I could not hug him and love him and thank him. I have loved him with a particular vehemence this week, for all sorts of complicated reasons. Among them, this: I was, I am the center of his universe. Completely. The most important thing ever. And he taught me to expect to be… the most important thing in everyone’s universe.
OK, this has occasionally made me a challenging lover-wife-friend (uhm, employee).
But on the whole, you know what? I’ll take it over the alternatives.
Jane: Cindeeeer! Can you give me my little purse? The pink one? I left it on the table and I don’t want to come into the kitchen in my muddy boots.
Cinder: What’s in it for me?
Jane: My eternal gratitude.
Cinder: I’m sending it by express dog.
Jane: Do. Not. Fucking. Tie. My. Purse. Around… Christ. Why? Why? Why did you tie my purse around the dog?
Cinder: Because it was funny?
Jane: Because you like to antagonize me?
Cinder: That too. Also, with all this yoga and meditation you’ve been doing lately, I believe you need more daily challenges. And that’s MY job.
[insert bad word here]
[delete it, because it’s wrong to call your eldest son an asshole]
[even when he sorta is]
[a loveable, amazing asshole]
[god, i love him… i love him so much]
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert—YES! And yes, you should read it too. All of you, any of you. Even if you hated Eat Pray Love—me, I couldn’t make it though that book… first chapter, I wanted to slap Liz upside the face and say, “Stop your fucking whining, privileged white woman. Jeezus, even I’ve suffered more than you.” Um… digression. Point: I did not like Eat Pray Love. I LOVED Big Magic. I ripped through it in a day and a half despite a hundred and one other projects and obligations.
My favourite part:
“Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trusts knows that the outcome does not matter.
The outcome CANNOT matter.”
The outcome cannot matter.
Fuck. That. Is. So. Hard.
But so necessary.
The most important lesson:
“When I finished that novel, it was not a perfect novel, but I still felt it was the best work I’d ever done, and I believed I was a far better writer than I’d been before I began it. I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.
But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new—something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.
Because that is the anthem of my people.
That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.”
My song, too. More or less.
Am also reading:
Yoga For Real Life by Maya Fiennes, Kundalini Meditation: The Path to Personal Transformation and Creativity by Kathryn McCusker, and A Woman’s Book of Meditation: Discovering the Power of a Peaceful Mind by Hari Kaur Khalsa
Am re-reading: A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judith Reeves, which is quite fun and useful and playfully inspiring… and also, unintentionally (and it’s clearly me and not the author) depressing (I’m not going to tell you why) (yet).
I am not writing.
This is mostly on purpose…
You: And this blog post is what?
Me: Have we not covered this before? A blog post I can shoot off in 15 minutes while simul-texting with three people is not writing. It’s therapy.
…mostly on purpose. I am trying to reflect, regroup, refocus. Try to listen to that screaming inner child.
BTW, if you think it’s easy to listen to a screaming inner child, you are clearly childless. Those of you who have survived colic, toddler tantrums, and teenage angst know exactly what I mean.
She’s so fucking loud, she’s splitting my eardrums, and I know I’m supposed to love her, but right now? I hate her and I wish she’d move out.
Have tried to read:
Prince Hafiz’s Only Vice by Susanne Carr. I read page one. Then skipped to the last chapter. Spoiler: they got together. True Thing: I really, really, really WISH I had been able to read through the damn thing. How hard could it be? I asked myself. Fucking read it. Enjoy. Relax. Chill.
But I just can’t. Prince Hafiz and his one true vice do NOTHING for me.
On my kitchen table:
Gap Of Time: the Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson. I’m not going to read it. I have opened it and flipped through it half-heartedly. I love Jeanette… I love Shakespeare… but if you’re going to try to one-up Shakespeare, you’ve got to be fucking brilliant. And Jeanette is often brilliant. But this time, she is just… good.
Just not good enough for me to sink into right now. I’m sorry. Jeanette, I’m so sorry. I’m going to try to get Sean to read it, and tell me about it, ok?
Also on my kitchen table:
G.K. Chesterton’s Complete Father Brown. Which I’m re-reading in bits and pieces intermittently to distract myself from the screaming.
(In my head.)
(Because listening is hard work.)
I’m having a staring contest with something that’s either an idea or a deep-seated neurosis and…
Ender: Mom, can you peel this orange for me?
Jane: I’m busy right now, love, in a bit.
Ender: You’re sitting there staring at the wall!
Jane: I’m thinking!
Ender: Can’t you think while peeling my orange?
It seems like a fair request, right?
It makes me livid.
I peel the orange anyway.
Sometimes, words—shy words, trite words, words so true they sound clichéd because they have been said in that precise way so often because they are so true (I know exactly I did there, so give your high school English grammar textbook some Fentanyl and don’t resuscitate it until I’m finished)—sometimes, words like to come out only when it’s very dark and very quiet.
Like these words:
My smallest son, tucked
into my right arm pit, a whisper,
“You will never know.”
“Never know what?”
“Never know how much I love you.”
“No. You will never know.”
A kiss. My whisper,
“I love you more.”
“No. I love you more.”
A dark night.
A heartbeat, rapid,
rhythm of a hummingbird,
breath steady, gentler than a whisper.
Asleep, my smallest son,
In my right arm pit,
“You will never know,”
with a hummingbird’s snore.
I capture them with my iPhone, left-thumb typing (the right thumb imprisoned under the body of my son).
For Lazaro, Nidia and Melissa, with all the loves there be.
I think this is probably the most important of the postcards that I’m going to send you. I hope you enjoy it. I’m thrilled to be sending it to you on Sean and mine’s 16th wedding anniversary, because—well, you will see—and I’m thrilled to welcome Kris and Tamara of Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm as its sponsors. Blue Mountain is an amazing farm near Calgary, which operates as a CSA (community supported agriculture) and which has been providing “hen crafted” eggs to my little piece of urban paradise for years. Check them out–because growing food sustainably? It’s super important. Just ask my friend Lazaro…
… and read:
I fall in love with Lazaro in about three, maybe four minutes, even though in those first three, four minutes he calls my boys girls and then, while explaining the reason for his assumption—usually boys have short hair and girls have long hair, that’s the Cuban way—assures me, “You’re beautiful even though you have short hair.” He also tells me I act like a child, not like a lady and a mother—but that’s at the end of our first day’s acquaintance, a full 15-minute cab ride later.
It doesn’t matter. I love him, I trust him, I am happy. My self relaxes and drops all her defences.
My children notice immediately.
Cinder: “Look, Mom finally made a friend here.”
Flora: “Thank god. Maybe she’ll stop giving me lectures on Communism now.”
In a rather bizarre book of pop psychology-self help-quasi history called How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Every Day Life, Australian-British lifestyle philosopher Roman Krznaric attempts to introduce his modern day Western reading public to the six types of love practiced by the ancient Greeks:
eros, the passionate love that drives you mad and makes you wanna get naked with the other
philia, the love between family members, venture partners, battlefield comrades, friends
ludus, the playful affection between children, casual lovers (dance partners? serial flirters, maybe?)
pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that evolves between people (married couples, others) over time, characterized by support, patience, tolerance, compromise and reciprocity
agape, a selfless love “extended altruistically to all human beings… offered without obligation or expectation of return—a transcendent love based on human solidarity”; and,
philautia—essentially, self-love… both in its good, self-affirming and in its negative, Narcissistic forms.
Got that? There might a quiz at the end…
How We Should Live is not a great book, by the way. Krznaric is an inconsistent writer, and he’s pretty conventional, really. He tries to be provocative, but he stays pretty firmly inside the box in which most of the Western middle class is trapped. Still. Every once in a while, he says something insightful.
Which, I think, is all we can hope for when we write…
An extended quote:
One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.
Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live
But myths have their uses, do they not? Love at first sight. It’s a thing.
You know I don’t believe in love at first sight any more than I believe in the Easter Bunny or Zeus’s throne on Mount Olympus, and yet, with each of my enduring loves, I fell in love in that first moment, during that first gaze. Don’t contradict, my love, it is true for you too—I loved you the first time I saw you. I know you had seen me, known me, wanted to connect with me before—but I was not able to lift up my eyes from my navel just then. The first time they rose and met yours—yes. There it was. That is how we begun.
I am too tired to really talk, and after reassuring him that two of my girls are boys, I sink back into the car seat—the car is a 1950s something or other—this matters a great deal to Lazaro, the something or other that the car is, but so little to me that the name—and it can only be one of two, three names, right? Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet?—slides in one ear and out the other—doesn’t even slide into one ear, but floats over it—but I do hear, “It could have been my grandfather’s car,” Lazaro says with pride, and that “could have been”—not “was”—is so intriguing, it captures my attention, wakes me up. “My mother in law just hated it, hates it,” Lazaro is saying. “When I bought it, she just wouldn’t stop saying, I hate that car, why did you buy that car? And I kept on saying, “Mama, why do you keep on saying that? I don’t care if you hate this car, I bought it for me, and I like it.”
“She is difficult person,” he confides, “my mother-in-law.”
“Are they not always,” I laugh. But his father-in-law, his father-in-law is more a father to him than his own has been.
By the time Lazaro tells me about the farm, I have in the periphery of my imagination outlines of the people who live on it, work it—his wife, her parents. The fourteen year-old-daughter who, on the days her father cannot drive her, hitchhikes eight kilometres to get to school. “Transportation is a challenge in Cuba,” he tells me very seriously as we pass three buses bursting at the seams with people—and stopping to pick up more. “But my daughter, she is very diligent, devoted. She is never late. She always finds a way to do it.”
I see these people in my head, and so I need to see them in life. So I ask to see the farm.
“Why?” Lazaro asks. “There is nothing interesting to see there. It’s just an old house. And some land.”
“Everything here is very interesting to me,” I say. And I can’t quite explain—he has painted a picture with words that now exists in my head, and I don’t want the picture in my head to be fake. I want to see what it really looks like.
That’s when he tells me I’m a child. I shrug. He looks at me, perplexed.
“Are you sure?”
I’m sure. And so the next day, at ten minutes to 10, he is waiting outside the gate to my castle—and is relieved when I run down the stairs, children behind me.
“Are you sure?” he asks again. “I told my wife you wanted to come and see it, and she thought maybe I misunderstood you. There is nothing interesting there. It is just where we live.”
By the way—do you do this too?—one of my most frequent typos is to write “love” instead of “live.” As in, “It is just where we love.” I love that.
Before we get in the car and take off, Lazaro goes to check out the local supermarket and bodega. He is hunting for spaghetti—which has been plentiful in this neighbourhood the whole time I’ve been here—but which makes its way to his village shop very inconsistently.
“My wife needs it to make the lunches,” he explains. His wife, Nidia, is—was—a nurse. The former regional head of a rather important health program—I’m fudging some details here, love, because I’m not sure how identifiable I want to make these beautiful people, because, well, totalitarian regimes make me paranoid—as they should, because that is, after all, their intention. That government job paid her the equivalent of about $30 American dollars a month.
Lazaro is—was—a doctor. His state salary was about the same. I promise not to digress into another math lesson here, only consider this: the day that he drove me home from Old Havana for $10CUC, in that 15 minutes, he made one third of his monthly salary as a fucking life saving physician.
After the revolution, Cuba abolished private enterprise and private property on a scale unrivalled in the European Communist world. Poland, for example, always retained some private enterprise. Taxed and regulated to death, thankless, arduous it was—but there were slivers of it here and there. Cuba killed it all. Not, by the way, for ideological reasons, not really. This is really, really important to understand: Fidel Castro was not a socialist. He was—I will not deny this—a patriot. He was also a power-hungry psychopath, and state control of the means of production—the ownership of property—was not so much about giving power to the people as it was about giving power to Fidel.
In 2008, Raoul Castro loosened the restrictions and allowed small-scale ownership of property. People could buy land—and cultivate it.
Dr. Lazaro, the near-famine of the Special Period still vivid in his memory, jumped at the chance.
“The best way to ensure you will have food is to grow your food,” he tells me. There is a pause and a tension in his voice. His grandfather died during the Special Period. He was 95—a good full life. But he died hungry.
“He died hungry.”
So now, the doctor and the nurse own a farm.
When we get to the farm, Nidia is cleaning up the outdoor kitchen, with the help of her mother and a hired maid, after preparing the midday meal for several dozen farm labourers. These lunches are one of the family’s critical income streams—as critical as the tourist taxi dollars Lazaro gathers on weekends.
Another consists in renting a refrigeration unit to a nearby rose farmer.
“We are very lucky here—we have good water and we have reliable electricity,” Lazaro explains. The rose farmer doesn’t—he stores his harvested flowers here until it is time to deliver them to vendors.
I have to tell you—every time I see someone selling, buying, carrying flowers in Havana—and I see it a lot—my heart lifts, and I think—this is good. When people have the capacity to love and have something as frivolous, non-utilitarian as flowers—this is good.
(Yes, that means you should buy me flowers more often. I’ll do the same for you.)
Shortly after we arrive, the rose farmers arrive to do a pick up. Ender helps them peel the bloom protectors off. The little mesh things—I call them flower condoms, but there is probably a technically proper name for them—are slipped over the rose buds as soon as they appear on the plants, and keep the blooms tight, extending their lives. In Canada, they would be a disposable item. In Cuba, imported from Brazil—a cause of hassle each time they come across the border—they are precious, and the rose farmers, Lazaro, and Ender carefully remove each one before the roses are ready to be taken away—naked—to the resellers.
After the rose farmers leave, a neighbour and her children arrive, and Lazaro’s father-in-law gets all the children coconuts.
The coconuts are one of the farm’s weed crops, as are the banana palms, always producing, near indestructible. The avocado and mango trees are more seasonal and require more care. Lazaro also grows squash and pumpkin, beans, peppers. This year’s late and intense rains cost him a pepper crop.
“It is frustrating,” he understates. Shows me a shriveled up pepper.
The land on which he farms used to be part of a government-owned orange plantation, destroyed by a foul blight more than a decade ago. The first thing he had to do when he got the land was uproot and destroy the dead orange trees.
The land he farms surrounds the 100-year-old house where he lives with his wife, their daughter—and his wife’s parents. It used to belong to his wife’s grandparents.
So did some of the land Lazaro has been buying back from the government.
Viva la revolucion.
I love the house. Lazaro is a little worried about managing my expectations, because he sees where I’m living in Havana—and it’s a palace by Cuban standards, and, frankly, by mine. “It’s, like, three times as big as my house in Calgary,” I tell him. “I am not a princess.”
“We like our house,” he assures me. He does not want to look insecure. “It is a good house. But it is just an ordinary, old house.”
Ordinary, simple—efficient. Cement blocks forming thick walls. Glassless windows covered with thick shutters. Designed as perfectly, for the climate, as a Spanish villa. The day is hot, but the temperature inside is perfect.
Outside, two of the house’s four walls are covered with a creeping plant.
“It’s a living wall!” I exclaim.
“It’s my air-conditioning,” Lazaro says with pride.
Inside is a large comfortable living room, a well-organized kitchen, three bedrooms, a bathroom. Outside—a huge outdoor kitchen. A verandah filled with bird cages.
The farmyard. The kids go crazy over the poultry. Chickens, of course, but also ducks, geese and a young turkey. A dog to guard them all—and, three young pigs.
“They’re so cute!” Flora exclaims.
“They’re for eating,” Lazaro whispers to me. “But maybe don’t tell her.”
I laugh. Do you see why I love him? He already knows her.
The children explore, and we eat coconut, guava, and talk. Nidia makes me coffee cut with chicory—Cubans like it like that, Lazaro says, a hint of irony in his voice, which is fortunate, because most of the coffee produced in the country is intended for export, and every time the government decides it wants more coffee for export, there’s more chicory in the coffee left available for Cubans.
Nidia tells me her nursing work was a vocation. She misses it. “But….” I nod. I understand.
Lazaro talks about things I don’t understand—irrigation, quality of the soil. Things he is learning about as systematically as he once learned medicine—from books, from more experienced neighbours. He is dreaming of an irrigation system that delivers controlled quantities of water to individual plants. Also a greenhouse. He met a German woman a few months ago who was interested in investing in the farm, providing him with the funds to get a greenhouse. (After I leave, he writes me, elated, he has met with her again: the plan is a go, he will get his greenhouse, and he is closer to his irrigation system—he is happy, and I am so happy for him. If I am ever not destitute, I will buy him a tractor, I tell him. He laughs. The one man in the neighbourhood who owns a tractor makes a good living lending its power from farm to farm. “It might be a complicated gift,” he says. “That tractor breaks all the time. At least it is not my problem to fix it!”)
The kids get bored. It’s time to head back… Before we go, do I want to drive around the area, Lazaro asks.
Of course, of course.
And, we go… and…
Fuck, I wish I hadn’t.
It’s not true, of course. I’m glad I have. It’s important to know. To see.
Right. You don’t know what I saw.
I can’t show you. I didn’t take pictures.
I’m afraid to draw them for you with my words.
I don’t know where to start. Because you need to know about the palestinos and L’Oriente first.
L’Oriente means the East—and L’Oriente used to be the name of the Easternmost province of Cuba. In 1976, it was split into five administrative provinces. But this is not important. This is: L’Oriente was importing slaves into the late 1800s—slavery wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1886. When Cuba finally gained independence from Spain in 1899, L’Oriente was a mess and continued to be a mess into the 20th century. And the 21st. It should be rich, producing agricultural land—it used to be coveted for its sugar and coffee crops. It is now one of Cuba’s poorest regions. After the revolution, tens of thousands of impoverished people from L’Oriente flocked into Havana. They did so again during the Special Period. And again, now.
They are mostly Afro-Cubans. Habaneros call them palestinos. It is not a term of endearment.
“This is where, how they live,” Lazaro says. The houses are cobbled together from whatever. Boards, palm trunks, leaves. Tarps. Sheet metal.
Not that far away—brand new apartment buildings. Erected for the army.
In the middle of it all—a very beautiful, freshly painted house.
His voice is interesting. A twinge of contempt. Also, jealousy. Also, understanding.
Another house barely fit for human habitation.
“It is difficult,” Lazaro says. “And I look at it, and I think, how can you live like this, are you animals? And then I think—what must they be leaving behind, running from, if they are willing to live like this?”
I can’t talk for the rest of the ride home; I kind of lay curled up in the front seat of the car, my head pounding. We pass, on the way, a couple of beautiful houses surrounded by lush trees—and very tall fences.
They belong to the Castros.
It’s cute how Fidel wore that green army uniform all the time, and not Armani suits.
But in the end, I think he had more in common with Battista than with Che Guavara.
“Are you okay?” Lazaro asks me. I shake my head.
“Tell me a beautiful story,” I ask. “I need something beautiful.”
So he tells me how, twenty three years ago, he fell in love with his wife. She came in with an injured leg, to the hospital in which he was doing his residency. “And she wore this incredible tight dress,” he says, “I was with another patient, and my head just snapped, like this!” I laugh. “And I left my patient and followed her. I took the clipboard with her chart and information on it, and I looked at it, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘I’m going to be keeping an eye on you.’ And she said, ‘And who are you?’ And I said, ‘Your future husband.’”
“Love at first sight?” I ask.
“And love twenty three years later,” he says. “She is such a good person, my wife. Her face—she has such a sweet face. And her heart—she reminds me of her grandmother. A good, good person. You know, in Cuba these days, people don’t stay together very long. They get together for a few years, maybe have a child, maybe not—split up. Me, I’m going to stay with my wife.”
I smile at him and reach out to put my hand on his. The capacity to love. That is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Jane: Cinder? Could you take out the recycling when your game’s over?
Cinder: Is it urgent?
Jane: Well… it’s not urgent right now, but the cupboard’s stuffed full and barely closing, and so next time someone opens it, all the recycling will flow out, screaming, “Freedom! Freedom!” and make a mess on the floor and…
Cinder: So how about, as soon as I hear it screaming, I take it out?
Jane: Ok. Works for me.
Cinder: Just so we understand each other—you’ll scream “Freedom! Freedom!” if you’re the one who opens the cupboard?
Cinder: But you won’t do it on purpose. Only if you actually have to try to stuff something else in there.
Cinder: Ok. Works for me.
How I know she’s mine:
Flora: I can’t believe this. I! Can’t! Believe! This! The only likeable character in the book, and they kill him off—and there’s like a third of the book to go! What the hell? Who does that? What’s wrong with this writer? I am never, ever, EVER reading anything by this jerk again!
Jane: Where are you going?
Flora: I’m going to rewrite this chapter the way it should have been written!
“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
… Once she was born I was never not afraid.”
“A question: if we and our children could in fact see the other clear would the fear go away? Would the fear go away for both of us, or would the fear go away only for me?”
““You have your wonderful memories,” people would say later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. … Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
“I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.
In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment.
In fact they serve only make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Standford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoed law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words, most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies.”
“I tell you this true story just to prove that I can.”
I am changed.
They are loved.
They know they are loved.
Ender: Mooom! Hug! Kiss!
Cinder: Don’t do it, Mom! He was eating boogers!
Ender: I was not! I was only pretending. I was feeding them to Maggie.
Flora: Well, at least it wasn’t me.
Ender: Next time, I will share… My! Boogers! With! Yooooooooouuuuuuu!
Cinder: That’s my little bro! High-five, man!
Flora: Groooooosss! Moooooom!
Love. Disgusting, innit? 😉
PS Of course he took out the recycling. Of course.