Saturday, October 31, 2015

The eve of All Hallows, when the veil is thin

Hallowe'en is an eve: the Eve of All Hallows Day, observed on November 1st. All Hallows is, traditionally, the celebration of the saints, those spiritual role models who have gone before. November 2 is All Souls Day, a day of remembrance of all our brethren who have passed from this world. These are two related, celebratory and very hopeful memorial days, days in which we mark the memories of those who have lived lives of purpose or sacrifice, of example and education. We think on them and their actions and consider how blessed we are to have known them, either personally or by virtue of our narrative tradition. 

All Hallows Eve, on the other hand, is an altogether different day, or night, traditionally. Today it is a time of make-believe, where everyone may try on an identity for an evening. But it is also a night of enjoying - seeking out, embracing - frights. A night in which we turn our gaze toward death and the gruesome - indeed, looking upon our own mortality - instead of shying away. It is, in essence, a night on which we look our mortality in the face and declare "You're not so scary."

Long ago it was believed that on the feast of All Hallows the veil between worlds was thin. It was a liminal time and space, wherein the division between the living and the dead became mutable and interplay between worlds was possible. On this day several cultures would entreat visits from the beloved dead with offerings and candlelit shrines. On the eve of All Hallows, however, it was protection from ill-spirits that several cultures sought, and it was for this purpose that jack o'lanterns were carved of squash and gourds, or more historically, turnips. The firelit faces would frighten and repel evil spirits from the homes of those awaiting the feast of All Hallows.

Autumn is a time to face death. The days turn colder, the plants are dying and we know that winter is coming. Not so long ago, it was a time of scarcity and difficulty for everyone; today, largely only for the ill-fortuned. Whether your spiritual beliefs hold with the idea of spirits and spiritual worlds, souls and the afterlife, and the intersection of worlds, we can all appreciate the challenge of acknowledging mortality and choosing to mock that inevitability rather than fear it, especially in the face of the pathetic irony of the seasonal change. As the weather turns colder and less sustaining of life our confidence in our own longevity may falter. Hallowe'en spurs us to stand boldly in the face of mortality, to live without fear of our fragile nature.

In this liminal space, this time of contradiction with the trees arrayed in beautiful foliage in defiance of the pending dormancy and death that comes with winter's cold, we look on our mortality and our fate and challenge ourselves to cast off our fear. And if the veil truly is thin, if the worlds do indeed collide tonight, perhaps we will find ourselves offered assurance from the other side.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Carrying On

Last Monday was my birthday.

And it was good. And it was...complicated.

And it was hard.

Naturally, I tell myself. How could it not be? She's not here. The person who bore me, who knew my birth, who brought me into this world wasn't here for this day. This was an anniversary I shared with her and today I celebrated it without her. And now I always will.

down by the bay
by the bay on a June afternoon

The day before she died, the day the surgeon overseeing her care in the ICU delivered the astonishing news that she was suffering not one but two cancers – in addition to the pneumonia that had landed her in the ICU – I went to the dentist. My dentist of about 15 years had a daughter who was a sunny, glorious, incarnate smile of a dancer at the studio and company where I danced, until she was taken from us in a car crash in 2006. Nine years after her death – to the day – I was sitting in her mother's office getting my teeth cleaned when my phone chimed, my stepfather texting me to tell me the surgeon really wanted to meet with the family after lunch. And I knew: nothing good would come from that meeting. Nothing.Visits to the dentist will forever be emotionally conflicted for me, now, a source of remembrance of these untimely losses, but also a point of connection.

gifts from across the sea
connecting over the sea: a received envelope of little gifts

Leaving we passed Laura's photo, her story hung on the wall so incongruously in a dentist's clinic and I touched the wall beneath, brushing it with my fingertips in my passing, her smile shining out of greyscale newsprint. And my eyes filled. Because the loss is great and the voids left behind cannot be filled. That is the wound and the beauty of their legacy.

It is a legacy that endures. It lives on in the people left behind, in the people who remember, who carry on bearing within them a piece of the shining star that was that soul. The power – the value – of memory, of remembrance – cannot be overstated. It is why I record, the genesis of the drive to write and memorialize for posterity: to externalize that memory so that it will not die with me, as so much of my mother's memory died with her.

But I remember her.

birthday pointe shoes
birthday pointe shoes

She never described to me how she felt when she danced, only that she stopped when the pain became too great to be suffered. I do know that she danced in pain for a long time before retiring, so much was her joy in that movement. And I cherish her humble pride in recounting that her Nutcracker, with her classmates, received an acclaiming review. “Our fight scene was livelier than the professionals'.”

Art is my therapy. Finding my voice – truly – in my 20th year pulled me through depression and self-injury. Some fifteen years later, standing – often with tears streaming down my face – in the organ loft on Sunday mornings singing out anthems and hymns (oh, how the hymns destroy and heal me) has kept me on my feet through these shifting sands of loss and grief, mourning and existential confusion. And so, after a solid year of encouragement from the woman who runs the studio where my daughters dance – a dancer, teacher, friend and sage – I put the shoes back on. And last week, three months after I returned to the floor, my little family took me to the west end and I bought my first pair of pointe shoes. It seemed a ludicrous dream, that I could ever get on pointe at my age. I had abandoned the thought, until, in one of my earliest classes this spring, my teacher looked at me and said “I'm back on pointe: if you want...?” And so I have them. My shiny pink satin dreams. They'll hurt, and they'll blister, and my feet will be tortured, but no longer will I think “If only...” Because I will have.

I wish I could share this with her, wish I could tell her. Instead, it is a touchstone, a point of connection I have to carry me through, to keep her with me. I dance, and in some moments I am distracted and in others I can think of nothing but her. I don't dance so well, then, but I stumble on, losing my balance and losing my way until I recall myself and pull in, stretch out, take right steps. It's like living. Looking ever backward I lose my way but looking ahead, pushing myself through those motions I move onward, ever onward. As she would have me do.

I am learning that life after is emotionally fraught. There is an inordinate amount of inner conflict. I have learned that to embrace the bittersweet is both healthy and helpful. Every reminder of loss, every moment of sorrow represents an instant in which she who is lost is again foremost in my mind. It hurts. It crushes. But there is joy in it as she is never gone entirely if she can be so easily recalled in a sight or sound, in a movement, in a visit. She is gone, but also present, hovering just outside my peripheral view.

By late afternoon there was a strawberry cake in my kitchen – awaiting dinner and the dear and thoughtful gifts from Jon and the girls – as well as a preoccupying feeling that I had neglected to do something important before I realized it was the phone call that never came. And as gutting as that was, there was something reassuringly familiar in it, as well. I have felt that hollow thud of realization innumerable times since January 10th, and I will feel it innumerable times more. This is a sensation I know. It is not a comfortable companion, but is a familiar one, it's presence a reminder.

That I remember her. I carry her within me.

Thursday, April 02, 2015


Here's the thing: I don't know what I'm doing. Parenting, educating, all of it: I really don't know what I'm doing.

Here's the other thing: no one else does either. That is not to say that we're all utterly clueless, but we are all of us, to some extent or another, making it up as we go along. We're guessing.

This is what I keep coming back to when I think about choosing homeschooling and selecting curriculae and what I will and will not do with our children. We're all guessing and none of us have flawless foresight. I am making my best, most informed guesses, but guesses they most assuredly are. And that's fine. That's just normal.

It's comforting to think we "know". I know that Ontario public schools are, generally speaking, pretty great places to be. I know that there are scores of devoted, enthusiastic teachers out there in those schools. I also know that many are hampered and restricted by ministerial guidelines and that staffing cuts for budgetary reasons have left many schools with insufficient staff to supervise kids closely enough to deal with bullying and social issues. Maybe my kids would get fabulous teachers and have no social issues, or maybe they'd get a burnt out teacher and be tortured by bullying classmates. Maybe I'll be a fantastic home educator and my children will blossom in ways they wouldn't in a school environment, or maybe I, too, will end up burnt out and we'll all be miserable. 

Who knows. I sure don't.

We're guessing. Making deeply, painfully thought-out choices with as much information as possible, but we're guessing. I take my comfort in knowing that whatever we choose from one day or year to the next is still guessing.

So when it comes to computer and IT literacy, I'm merely making informed guesses. I recently read a blog post written by an unschooling mother who argues in favour of immersing children in technology, lest they resemble the uncomfortable octogenarians she references at the beginning of the post who cannot parse the phrase "Just Google it."

I can't say I agree (and I'm intentionally not linking to her post since I have no interest in beginning some sort of blogging flame war).

Her argument that this is the necessary language of the future is absolutely correct. Social media skills, technological literacy and an ability to learn and adapt to new interfaces will be invaluable as we and our children move through the coming years. With that in mind, I should definitely be handing my three year old a tablet, shouldn't I?

Arguable. But it is likewise arguable that there other skills my children also need to learn. Emotional literacy and empathy, the joy and appreciation of physical movement, mental math (she argues everyone carries a calculator on their phone all the time: true enough, but I've been known to forget my phone at home or forget to charge it; at least I can still add up my purchases without it). And then there's the importance of narrative, not only for telling a story but for grasping timeline and cause-and-effect, as well as the arts and cooking, not to mention the value of physical activity for health and wellness purposes. While all these skills and technology are by no means mutually exclusive, I also know that there are only so many hours in the day. And I know that shiny, new, exciting devices are extremely alluring. Maintaining variety in the spirit of moderation in all things is vital and a skill I - quite reasonably - do not expect my children to have fully developed at the tender ages of three and six years old.

So no, my children don't have much exposure to using technology themselves. They don't have a tablet, the closest to a computer game they've ever gotten is our six year old typing on a word processor, my phone has no child-friendly apps. They are almost entirely media-free, with movies largely limited to very rare occasions or when we are all down with a virus. And it isn't fear - which is the argument often made opposing our choice - that motivates us: it's priorities. There are, quite simply, other things that I want my children to learn first. Because if I am able to engender in my children a love of discovery and learning, a joy in new challenges and problem-solving without defeatism or fear, then I am confident they will embrace technology in all its avatars with aplomb.

But of course I don't know. After all, we're all just guessing.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Every morning I drink my coffee from a hand thrown mug made to look like a scotch thistle. My mother gave me the mug for Christmas several years ago. It's My Mug. Around Christmas, I sometimes use a mug painted with a reindeer, with the name “Dancer” near the foot. My mother gave me that mug for Christmas back in high school. When I'm thirsty, I get a glass from the cupboard, either one of my glasses that came with Pom iced tea in it, or a glass with a picture of a pig on it. My mother brought me the two Pom teas when I was sick and Jon and I were living in Orleans. She gave me the pig glass for Christmas about twenty years ago.

My favourite socks are the warm and woolly socks she would gift me every Christmas. I have this silver bangle that she bought herself in Quebec City in her teens and gave to me for my thirteenth birthday: I've been wearing it essentially constantly ever since.

She is in every room of my home. From the Beatrix Potter posters she gave us when Glynis was born to the koala with a music box in its belly for my first Christmas, she is everywhere. She is always. That dance, music, literature, craftiness are a part of my being is her doing. She sketched the outline of the shape my life has taken.

Before she was ill, I spoke to my mother almost daily, calling her, interrupting her work – yes, I'm sorry, Sir Wil, but I was constantly calling her at the office – just to chat. To tell her things I was doing or things my girls had said or done that I thought would amuse her. To vent frustrations, knowing she'd have something good to say: not that she'd always agree but that she'd always have an understanding ear. Earlier this week I felt the impulse to call her, to tell her how hard all this is. But I couldn't.


Her delight in her grandchildren was so undeniable, so immeasurable it was inspiring. That she won't see Glynis's front teeth grow in, or hear Scarlet lose her toddler lisp, or watch them dance, or hear any more of their songs crushes me. She loved them so much, and I loved sharing our life with her. I loved seeing them through her eyes, through her adoration, knowing how proud she was of everything they are and do.

scarlet and gran
She is woven into every space, every day, every moment. She was the first thing, the first truth I ever knew. I never, ever doubted her love for me, no matter how hard things got. She taught me what it is to be a mother, not in her perfection because no one is ever perfect and God, she would hate for us to say she was perfect, but in her loving, her struggle, her persistence, her open ear. As I grew up and our lives changed, I watched and learned from her what it is to make a fresh start, the balance of the selflessness of motherhood and needful, healthy self-interest, the value of self-reliance, not because she didn't lean on others but because some things we must do for ourselves.

glynis and gran

Her fight, her determination, her willingness to put herself through any amount of struggle in an effort to have more time with us all was amazing and inspiring. She wore a bracelet engraved with the word "survivor". Given to her by her sister: she died wearing that bracelet. And she was a survivor. Because while her body was too broken to carry on, the example she set in her living will indeed live on with we who have been so privileged to have known her.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday morning

Mom slipped away gently, softly, slowly at 11:15pm last night, January 10. Just after 4 we met with her doctors and decided it was best to allow her to go in her time.
Her last hours were so peaceful. So calm and still. There was laughter at her bedside. There was music. I lay my head on her shoulder, taking my last comfort from her simply being. Just being there. Just being. And it was good, so good.
There was no struggle. After all those months of working so hard, it was a heartrending relief to see her peaceful. We told her it was her time to go.
And as she started across I smiled at her. I gazed into her face and smiled and told her it was ok, she had worked so hard and now her work was done. That we'll be alright. That we love her, we love her so much, and that it was time to go.
Even in her very last moments of her living she was a source of such joy. We joyed in her.
I was smiling at my glorious mother as she died.

Saturday morning

So here it is. We've been rather private about this for the past year because we knew Mom didn't want to be a spectacle or worry anyone, nor have any fuss, but the scenery has changed dramatically.
A year ago, almost exactly, Ruth MacLeod was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. Her tumour was discovered on Christmas day of 2013 after she suffered for several hours with intolerable head pain. Surgery followed on the 27th, and the cancer diagnosis in early January. She was treated with radiation and chemo therapies, several rounds, until this summer when her body could no longer tolerate the chemo. We hoped for the best.
A few weeks later, her headaches returned. CT and MRI scans showed that the cancer had regrown, now in two sites. But Mom was determined: she was going to eke every last possible day out of this life she'd been given, and so when surgery with chemo to follow was offered she didn't hesitate to agree in the hopes that she'd get one more Christmas, more time with her husband, maybe more visits with her grandchildren.
While waiting for her surgical date, she developed shingles. The pain she experienced from the shingles was unimaginable: she suffered greatly. But still she was full of fight, full of determination. She had her second surgery on November 25th while still burdened by the shingles, and came through the surgery well.
Her recovery was stymied by the continued shingles pain. She spent several hours on Christmas day at my home, with Jon and our kids, her mother and sister, and of course her dear husband and his son. She got to see her grandchildren. She got to have Christmas dinner, with a piece of pecan pie.
Just before New Years she was admitted to the Elizabeth Bruyere hospital in the hopes that they would be able to find the right balance of narcotics to manage her pain but allow her to be lucid and functional for as long as possible. She had been fighting a cold for several weeks, but nothing seemed concerning until late Tuesday/very early Wednesday, when she began to have respiratory distress and was rushed to the Ottawa General where she was placed on life support due to a critical case of pneumonia.
As doctors at the General investigated the type of infection she was suffering, they discovered an e.coli infection in her blood. Following an abdominal CT scan to determine the source of the e.coli, it was discovered that my mother is also suffering colon cancer. It is stage 4 cancer, having metastisised. There is no possible treatment.
We have these last days with her. Her fight, her determination, her willingness to put herself through any amount of struggle in an effort to have more time with us all is amazing and inspiring. She wears a bracelet engraved with the word "survivor". And she is. Because while her body is too broken to carry on much longer, the example she has set in her living will indeed live on with we who have been so privileged to know her.
We love you, Mom.


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