Thou Shalt Not…

Picture by Allan Lloyd, near Saanichton, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Published with Permission.

 

One Thanksgiving about 20 years ago, after our little family devoured turkey with all the trimmings and then slices of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, my kids disappeared to watch TV or talk on the phone, my mother-in-law snoozed on the couch, and my husband and I took our dog, Annie, for a long walk.

As we marched along the street, I commented on the number of cars parked at the house next door and people coming and going with boxes and bags. I suddenly felt lonely and nostalgic for my mom and siblings. The word nostalgia still conjures up my yearnings for home. It’s not surprising that this word, which comes from the Greek, means homesick.

I’d spent many years away from the noise and busyness of my first family back on Vancouver Island, and every holiday for years, I felt sad rather than joyful. Even advertisements for long distance phone calling cards, especially the ones with grandparents and parents, children and teens laughing together under winking lights and festive candles, made me ache for the family gatherings of my childhood. I envied those who were connected and belonged. I felt that I did not.

Each time I rewrote and edited these Thou Shalt Nots, I wondered what lesson I was supposed to learn. Over time, I realized that the thoughts in these vignettes were what made me nostalgic. By writing about the loss of people and communities I had left behind so many times in my childhood, I was forgetting about the gifts of my transient childhood. I was choosing to be sad about things that were long past, things I couldn’t change.

The following Thou Shalt Nots came to me after our walk that day.

Thou shalt not covet holiday gatherings. Evening shadows cast by the setting sun creep across the yard and the prairie sky looks like a slice of peach pie topped by purple whipped cream. The spruce trees to the west are etched black against the fading light. Straggly vees of late-leaving geese warble overhead. The light from living room windows stitches a patchwork of yellow light on brown lawns. I peer into the living rooms of other people’s lives where families gather at festive tables or huddle in the flickering blue of TV football. I am like a little lost girl with her face pressed against the candy store window, the one who wishes for a taste of childhood Thanksgiving long since passed away.

Thou shalt not covet a place in the tribe. Leaves rattle across the pavement and autumn dust crunches under foot.  A crust of ice covers the puddles and the grass is coated with frost. I shiver. Some days, my heart seems frozen too, I feel restless and tossed about, rootless and ungrounded. I feel like an outsider in our community, even though I have lived here for more than 20 years. I envy the tribal roots others have.

Cinnamon coloured poplar hearts with jagged edges make a carpet under the trees as they have for hundreds of years. This leaf rot create food for next year’s growth and insulates roots from the winter cold. I love the wild woods close to our neighbourhood where aspen groves provide shelter for the young saplings, and as each one grows old, it feeds the life of the ones that come after. Deer, coyotes, porcupines and birds make their homes here. I wish I too could be a tree because they represent wisdom, growth and acceptance.

Along with yellowing pictures of my grandparents and little black and white photos of my parents on their wedding day, one of my favourites is of an old green cottage on Lake Mississippi in Ontario. I remember the few times we stayed at “The Elms” and what a delightful summer place it was. In particular, I remember my 8 year old self fishing for sunfish off the dock, wet footprints on gray weathered wood, the sound of loons and the reedy smell of lake shore. Inside, at night I felt comfortable and at peace under the handmade quilts my aunt made. My grandmother’s ashes are planted there among the elms. Those trees whisper to me now, telling me I do have a tribal place, a natural place where I do belong.

Thou shalt not covet history of place. On weekends, our daughter plays ringette. The local arena is filled with the sound of catcalls punctuated by whistle shrieks, voices floating in icy puffs, the swish of skate blades on artificial ice, and the slap of a rubber ring on the boards. I’m aware of the teenage boys at the snack bar, the ones in baggy pants, bleached hair spiked; tittering girls with glossed mouths and glittered hair; clutches of moms with coiffed grey hair, wearing leather jackets, carrying designer handbags, their wide buttocks in tight B.U.M. jeans. Ringette players like my daughter among them are groomed to curl and swoop, snowplow, deke, dart, wind up and let fly. I’m watching her easy manner with her team mates.

I wonder what it would be like to hang out with junior high school friends, see your grade 7 crush grow up and marry your best girlfriend from Brownies. What is it like to graduate from a local high school, get married at the church you were christened in, by the pastor who remembers you as the littlest angel from one Christmas long ago? What would you give to attend your own 25 year high school reunion and really understand the woven network of relationships in a small community?

My name was once scratched on a desk in a school. This was an act of disobedience and disrespect for property but it was also a lonely testament to classmates and community that I was there once, that I existed, evidence of my being aside from faded yearbook photos.

Thou shalt not covet a resting place. Along the bike path through the park are benches dedicated to community leaders. Across the river, I can see an old white church, its spire poking upward to the sky. I’ve been there, and marveled at the variety of people who are buried in the cemetery next to it. Memorial gravestones remember little children who died in an influenza outbreak in 1917, young men who give their lives in World War II and old couples married for 65 years, still together even in death.

I don’t remember cemeteries at the Army posts where I grew up. I don’t remember gravestones and resting places for weary foot soldiers heading to a final home. I once told my children to fling my ashes to the wind. This seems fitting for a woman who compares her soul to drifting mountain snow and seabirds floating on foamy whitecap waves. But now, I think my ashes could be planted beneath a tree so I can nurture it and feel the wind in my branches as it grows.

Thou shalt not covet writing by local authors. Writing is a time machine that allows me to accept and honour my past and see its relevance in my life now. The story of my family history, traditions, beliefs about community, and the emotions they stimulate, needs to be acknowledged and released. My story, both past and present, is unique to me and I will honour it.

I used to be afraid that Little Kathie would be lost without this childhood story of loss. I wanted to protect her so I continued to believe the myth of the separate Military Brat. It seemed so real at the time but after I wrote my Thou Shalt Nots, I felt less isolated, less alone, less crippled by my backward view.

Now I see that Little Kathie is intact and whole in the here and now. Her memories are in my writing and they are safe inside my adult heart.

 

Playing with Perspective

My first memory is of a tiny speckled bird shell. I remember wind blowing and dark earth. I cannot say where it was except that when I was three, we lived near Penhold, Alberta. I wrote a short story based on this momentary glimpse of innocence and wonder, and it brought back feelings about my parents, siblings, and summer picnics. Somewhere inside me, that curious child still lives.

I loved the outdoors back then. I was fascinated by caterpillars and feathers, dandelion seeds and ants. I loved to touch, smell, taste and observe the world around me. I noticed that round rocks roll and leaves fall down not up. In those days, at the playground, I tested my ability to climb, jump, swing and twirl. I developed physical strength, coordination and balance, as well as social skills, creative game playing, problem solving, confidence building, and a connection to people and place. At the time, I didn’t realize I was learning. It was all play to me.

What is your first memory?  Is it a small snippet without context? Writing about this memory in the present tense may bring up feelings about the experience. Feelings do not know the date and are just as powerful to your Child as they were when the feelings first arose.The gift of this approach to stories from childhood is described by Alice Miller in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child…”the experience of one’s own truth make it possible to return to one’s own world of feeling at an adult level – without paradise but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does give us back our vitality… awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.”

Your story is unique because it is your perspective on events, a viewpoint that may be far from the factual truth but very accurate in terms of emotional and intellectual insight. Memory is unreliable because it comes to you as a reaction to a present event and manifests as a fleeting glimpse of a scene from childhood, an emotion such as fear or fun, an impression of a person, even a reaction to a smell. I recall tears welling up in my eyes once when I smelled pipe smoke. I turned toward the smell expecting to see my father smoking his corncob pipe even though he had passed away 30 years before. This is the power of memory.

Now, as I near “senior status” I’ve been visiting a new playground – the one in my imagination – where I can grow by playing with perspective. I’ve learned a great deal about my inner world by writing from my senses, feelings and especially, from my imagination. I can creatively capture a moment in a poem, a sentence, a story or vignette. I do not want to miss the miracles that occur every moment of every day, the way a Child perceives the world, free to explore and experience with the joyfulness of an open heart and mind.

I experienced this today when I stepped outside into cold winter air. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Chickadees hopped about in the spruce tree beside the deck. Snow glittered. As I write this now several hours later, I remember the feeling of cool air on my skin and the aliveness of the moment. I set aside my complaints about icy highways and wind chill factors and instead, choose to see the world with new eyes. This is the gift of your Inner Child.

 

Camping Revisited

 

I can revisit places and experiences from the past when I write stories, essays and poems. Now that I am older and wiser, I see things in a different way. On our last camping trip of the season one year, I discovered that storytelling also contributes to my growth.

Early in the summer, we took our RV to Long Lake Provincial Park, a well-kept, family-oriented getaway spot. Most campers abide by the late-night quiet rules, and aside from busy weekend afternoons when the jet skis and power boats roar up and down the lake, we take the most pleasure in nature at the sites with a view of the lake, some tall trees, and a reedy beach for the dog to have a swim.

Now, on our last outing of the summer, the cool October wind blows across the lake and makes us shiver as we step out of the truck to set up our trailer. Golden aspen leaves shush above us and a lone gull cries as it skims the whitecaps. After lunch, we hike up the trail and sit at the picnic table we used in early September. The breeze funnels down the road and whisks the leaves into mini-tornadoes. The grey ash in the fire pit is cold and lifeless with no hint of the snapping, fluttering and huffing warmth of our previous visit. No campfire smoke hangs in layers in the treetops either, and only the smell of leaf rot rides on the wind.

The sun is a white disk hidden behind a thin layer of cloud. The watery light intensifies as clouds thicken, and then, without warning, sunshine comes up like theatre lights. It sharpens the angles of the wooden posts, and defines the shadows of picnic tables on the grass. There are no lawn chairs in the sunny spots and no awnings for shade.

Down on the beach, the playground swings are pushed by ghosts, and the squeals and shouts of kids are silenced at the water’s edge. The only creatures on the sand are three gulls sleeping with their heads beneath their wings. I miss the sounds of summer the most: the laughter, the weekend neighbour tentatively playing Puff the Magic Dragon on a guitar, wind chimes plinking at the trailer down the way, and the faraway murmur of people in boats out on the evening water.

I take the best from each campsite: the view of the lake with boaters buzzing by, seadoos bucking and kids on tubes screaming with excitement; the one close to the boat launch where the dog has the best spot to dive into the cool lake and fetch her sticks, then return to shake water all over me. At that one, I could lie on the dock at night and see starlight reflected on the water. A third one has a picture window view onto the wilderness, spruce trees towering above dead poplar trunks full of sapsucker holes, the setting for a moose dripping marsh grass from its muzzle.

I have memories of childhood camping beside a stream somewhere in Ontario where raccoons ate the marshmallows right out of the picnic box; my sister’s pet turtle got away into the forest; we slept in a canvas tent big enough to fit all eight people in our family; my mother mending a rip in the roof with a curved surgical needle, dental floss and paraffin wax. I remember the taste of hot chocolate at the campfire and the evening warbling of loons.

I know I can never go back to these special moments from childhood or to the adult camping trips at Long Lake but I can recreate the emotions they engender. I can take details from a movie, pictures from a magazine or a story I read, and mix them together. Then I can recall the sound of the wind in the trees, the way ducks fly in formation at the edge of the lake, and how the stars pop out at night just when the light is nearly gone from the sky, and write to record.

The truth is, I can revisit my whole life this way. I can retell a story in a poem or a short vignette to re-experience pleasure or fun. I can also bring to mind a painful story and give it a new ending from the lessons I’ve learned. I can rewrite my life to heal.

The past is gone. All I have is the present moment when the Storyteller in me connects to you, the Reader, through our shared human experience. Our stories can unleash powerful emotions, allow us to explore difficult topics, bring new self-understanding and awareness of what is important. This is the gift of writing as legacy.

 

 

When Will YOU Begin…?

 

Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning. – Joseph Campbell

 

Life will tell you when it is time. Life will call you to look for meaning. Many events can trigger this call. The best place to seek meaning is in your life story. You have been living your story for your whole life and your lived experience in the present moment will tell you when its time.

What sort of lived experience am I talking about?

  1. Look for meaning when chaos arrives in your life.

In 1998 when my daughter was in Grade 11, she began dating a boy. He was older, charming and exciting. One day, she announced she was leaving home. She quit school and moved into a small apartment with him. Life turned upside down! I had hopes and dreams for her, but they were not meant to be. Everyone in the family grieved the loss of her from our lives. Eventually, she got pregnant, they married in our back yard and my grandson was born shortly after.

  1. Look for meaning when your heart aches.

After my daughter left, my heart felt broken. Months later, it still hurt and I wanted to understand why. I needed a new perspective.

I began writing with other women: first about my parents, then my childhood, teenagehood, adulthood and present situation. I began to see how my story, my husband’s story, and our family sagas had converged in a perfect storm.

For the heart ache to heal, I needed to go back to the beginning to rediscover who I was then and now.

  1. Look for meaning when life feels pointless.

For a long time I ached to do something with the hurt of this loss.The story I told myself about my past as a transient military child made sense when I understood that my grieving of small and large losses was undeveloped. I learned that loss compounds if it is not released.But that was not the end of it. I learned that to be resilient, I had to open my heart and be present to my emotions right now. I needed to embrace what needed to be healed in me.

When I look back at this story with eyes of kindness, I realize how difficult this situation was for my daughter; perhaps even more than it was for me. She was so young and innocent. I remembered how difficult my life was when I left home too. I see the confidence and growth which has come from this struggle to be her own person. After all she has been through, I appreciate her strength. I, myself, grew in compassion, as I watched her break out of her cocoon and become a beautiful butterfly.

When you begin your journey into story, you too will see how events have meaning when viewed as a big picture.

Here’s how:

  • *Write the story of your life using stepping stones (events in which your life changed direction abruptly) as a guide. Simply listing these events is helpful. Stories can be as short as one page or as long as a book. Remember every event has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • *Write a memoir beginning with a small slice of your life; focus on one time period, or even one event.  Use the prompt, “This period of my life is like…” Then try another slice. And another.
  • *Create a fairy tale, a fantastic but universal, symbolic tale that embodies what you’ve learned from your life. Resonate with others through the common lessons in our human story.
  • *Write a poem or a series of poems using imagery, metaphor and rhythm. Let it express your story idea in a metaphoric way.
  • *Write a letter to a grandchild sharing what you have learned about life so far.

Look beneath the facts and discover the deeper meaning of things. Look for patterns. Question everything. Ask what touches you? Who do you love? What movies make you cry? What books do you devour? How do you deal with anger and other strong emotions? What is your body telling you about what works and what doesn’t? Follow the clues. You are a whole being. Search your body, your mind, your heart, your soul.

I ask you again. When will you begin the search for meaning in your story? Is now the time?

Koffee with Kathie

“It is story that saves us. –

Sandra Benitez in A Place Where the Sea Remembers

 

The older I get, the more I wonder about my life legacy and the values I will leave behind one day. In recent months, when I am with older people, especially my old friends at the lodge, I am aware of time passing, how hours and days disappear. I notice the weeks and years flying by, and I feel my mortality.

I visit the Lodge once a month as a volunteer. In my Koffee with Kathie Reminiscence Group, the elderly residents bring me face-to-face with the fragility of life. I am privy to the joys and difficulties of growing old. Brain function diminishes, eyesight dims, thoughts lose clarity; bodies fail; friends die. Some of them are complainers who are dissatisfied with the food, the company at dinner, or simply with the weather. And then there are those who appreciate bread pudding with whipped cream for dessert, apartments with walk in tubs and housekeeping staff who make their beds each day. This group laughs and their eyes crinkle and their smiles reveal gaps where teeth should be. Moments of delight at the small things makes it all bearable. The twinkle in their eyes brings me happiness.

I’m convinced delight is the precursor to a long life. At my sessions, whether they are telling stories about women’s work like sewing or cooking, clothing fashions in 1935, gardening on the farm or favourite Christmas traditions, the conversation turns to childlike pleasure at memories from long ago.

I’m beginning to do this myself when I recollect events from my own past.

In a speech for my local Toastmasters group, I re-enacted an event from my life when I was a naive 12-year-old enamoured of a biology lesson on reproduction in fish! When I spoke about my coming of age, I could appreciate a childlike innocence so unlike the worldly view of life children now.

When I am with elderly people who are bitter and resentful, I wonder if it is because all their lives they have felt invisible and unheard. There are those who, at this late stage in life, still harbour ill feelings for their mothers or grieve brothers killed in World War II. How sad they are unable to savour the pleasure of bright flowers that decorate the tables, the dance music on Friday afternoons, and the entertainment the recreation staff bring them every day.

I believe we all desire a life in which we feel loved and at peace. If there a gift in memory loss, perhaps it is living in a facility where other residents become like family. Perhaps, it is the gift of story told in the moment that creates healing. Perhaps it really is story that saves us.

The Word Lover’s Tale

 

Once upon a time an aging Word Lover presented a workshop at a Seniors’ Conference. She had never attempted a Personalize Your Greeting Cards talk but she thought seniors would enjoy creating messages for handwritten cards. So she gathered together a wealth of card writing advice, reviewed and edited, reduced and tightened pages of material.

After a Welcome address from dignitaries, the Keynote Speaker encouraged the assembled audience to smile and laugh, and skillfully related amusing stories from her life. The Word Lover chuckled at the presenter’s clever jokes, word plays and tales of embarrassing moments to poke fun at herself.

At the breakout session following the fun, eight elderly ladies gathered around a conference table looking toward the Word Lover expectantly. She had set out two blank notecards at each place, all with stunning nature photographs on the front and plenty of room inside for writing from the heart. She also provided a one-page list of Personal Values, and a second list with names and descriptions of positive emotions. She had carefully prepared a handout with wording for use in greeting cards for all occasions, including: Thank You and Gratitude cards; Birthday, Anniversary and Wedding celebrations; expressions of Sympathy; and Encouragement to brighten someone’s day.

The Word Lover began with an introduction explaining the purpose of the workshop, and asked the participants to bring to mind a person to whom they could send a card. No one responded. Too early for contributions the Word Lover thought, feeling unsettled and unsure how move to forward.

She said to herself, “I should have been prepared for this.” And she looked around the table at their blank faces and smiled to encourage them. The quiet in the room seemed very loud.

“Onward,” she said to herself, “don’t panic. Next, she shared her “communication recipe.” When I…(see, touch, hear, taste, smell), I feel (happy, proud, sad) because…(values important to the writer).”

The Word Lover noticed a nod or two, and became aware of rustling papers and shifting in chairs. “I haven’t engaged with them.” She admonished herself. “I’ve given them too much information. Haven’t given them a chance to speak. Too much talk. Arrgh!”

Just then, she remembered the greeting cards and decided to use them as a prompt. “What images touch you in the cards you have been given?”

It was as if someone had yelled, “Bingo!”

She began to listen to the chatting between the participants. “I don’t like tumultuous waves because I can’t swim. I would rather see calm reflections in the water. This image is too dark. Oh, what’s that in the background? Pussy willows? I love the pink in the flowers. Oh, look a buffalo!

The Word Lover’s mood perked up. Great! They’re participating. She then asked, “What do the images mean to you?” And chattering began. Tales from the farm. A holiday to the west coast. A story about the mountains on horseback. She acknowledged descriptive events: tamed wild creatures and their return to nature; losing a friend when she moved; maintaining independence; illness; grieving.

The Word Lover brought the conversation back to the cards. “What would you say to some who is ill if you compared their experience to the scene on the cards? To a friend who is misunderstood? To a grieving family member for encouragement? How are they like mountains, rivers, calm lakes?”

Then she mentioned memory gifts from the body: the smell new babies; the softness of fur, the taste of raspberries. The urgency of story engenders more and more conversation until it becomes difficult to interrupt. She has noticed this tendency of hers to hesitate, to allow the participants to talk even when time is running short.

The end of the session catches the Word Lover by surprise. Time has disappeared. The ladies gather up their papers and cards, and trickle out of the room. One woman has already completed an encouragement message inside a card with a photo of a winding road on the front. When she insists the Word Lover read the tiny cramped script, the Word Lover pats her arm and tells her the sentiment is beautiful. This woman understands the symbolism of the road as a life journey. The image stimulates sentiment and provides the word connection to another.

The last lady leaving the room pauses at the door for a moment and says, “I really enjoyed this session. It gives me something to think about.” The Word Lover smiles with her lips and in her heart.