You find yourself in the lower level of an old ship. A calendar on the wall says 1682. There is a small window, and the view is nothing but open sea and a setting sun. There is a staircase and you can see daylight at the top…
Seems to me I’ve been lodged down here a long time.
I don’t care to look through windows. The sea means nothing to me.
And the setting sun? I’ve endured two summers below deck. I labour where it is always dark. When have I seen the sun set? What is a setting sun?
The light at the top of the stairs blinds, so I don’t look up. I am not permitted up the stairs anyway, so why bother torturing myself?
And the calendar? My lot don’t read.
I am used to the dark places now; used to dwelling in the shadows. Used to the filth. Used to scavenging. So, I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want the people upstairs to find me. I just want to be left alone among my kind. And, frankly, those others don’t bother me as long as I stay out of sight.
On the off chance the other lot see me by mistake I will make a desperate attempt at escape. If cornered I will fight back but am, as likely, as good as dead.
For some reason the people upstairs just don’t like rats.
I was 10 years old at the time and my form teacher at school had issued a challenge during an English lesson to write a poem for spring. It would have been this time of year, in fact.
I wrote it. Handed it in.
A few days later the teacher was distributing the marks and asking some of us to read our poems to the class.
On my paper he’d written “Very Good!” but in front of the class he asked me, “Are you sure you didn’t copy this from somewhere?”
I was a tender and insecure child being raised in a broken home and in the shadow of my mother’s operatic glory. To have the light shone on me at all was difficult enough but to be accused, perhaps even in jest, that the work I’d handed in was not my own totally mortified me. I defended myself, of course, and he seemed to accept it, but I have never forgotten how ill it made me feel to have someone question my integrity as a writer.
I know this poem by memory. To me it is one of my greatest early writing achievements. If I ever publish a proper book of my best poems this will have pride of place on the first page.
All other writing has sprung from this creative moment. It was the first time I saw myself as a writer and, ironically, the first time (and hopefully the last time) I was accused of plagiarism.
There was a huge gap of time before I was able to see myself as a writer in adulthood. Though I kept journals and occasionally wrote poetry I had disassociated when I was growing up so pursuing dreams and cultivating my talents was beyond my comprehension or ability.
It wasn’t until a kindly woman, my boss at the time, gave me a good, swift kick in the proverbial derriere (I was in my late 20s) that I began to awaken from my deep creative malaise and see myself as a writer, perhaps for the first time. I was working as her administrative assistant in the corporate relations department of a real estate association, and she saw something in me she thought needed cultivating. However, she had to threaten to fire me before I was able to wake up enough to see it myself.
This incredible woman waded through the muck of my unconsciousness to find something long hidden and almost lost, and gave me the opportunity to reclaim it. She taught me how to build an employee newsletter ~ research, write, edit, produce. It started at four pages and, as I got the hang of it, quickly grew to eight pages. Circulation about 150. I learned quickly and loved doing it. In time I was promoted to Editor of the association newsletter ~ a weekly publication circulated to more than 25,000 realtors in the Greater Toronto Area.
I suppose I share this to demonstrate the difference people can make in our lives, and to demonstrate that if we can only get out of our own way we might resurrect an important piece of our life puzzle.
Had my school teacher been more supportive and understood me and my life situation better he might not have been so free with his accusation and I might have had more confidence to pursue this obvious talent. There was no one at home to do this, so left to my own devices, confused and with nowhere to turn, my only alternative was to let it go. Even as a child it hurt too much to have my integrity questioned.
But, as I’ve learned, it takes just one person to see potential and show you what’s possible for you to start believing in yourself. And, as I am learning again in these middle years while pursuing a long-lost equestrian dream with a new coach, this can happen at any time in your life.
Music has always been a part of our family fabric.
From the ancestors who played in the brass bands of northern Michigan in the 1800s to my grandfather who played a multitude of instruments in his living room, to my grandmother who warbled like a bird while painting portraits of her beloved mountains, there was never any lack of music in my family.
It was only logical then, that at some point a generation would cultivate the gift of music and do something with it.
One side of the family inhabited the rock genre for many decades, touring the west coast of Canada and the U.S.
On our side of the family my mother Lois McDonall, in the early 1970s, burst onto the international operatic stage as a dramatic soprano specializing in the Bel Canto repertoire.
It was her career and a vital part of our formative lives. Divorced and raising two kids on her own in a land far from everything she knew, mom was the sole breadwinner and worked long hours to provide for my brother and I. We enjoyed a comfortable, but not extravagant life.
Given her humble beginnings in the middle-of-nowhere, Alberta, and the difficult upbringing she had as an only child in a deeply troubled home, her success in her chosen field of music was nothing less than miraculous. (Some day, when I feel so inclined, I may write about it.)
As you might imagine, then, our home was filled to the brim with classical music.
All through my formative years my mother’s career base was the English National Opera in London’s West End. My brother and I went to the opera a lot, so our memories of music revolve heavily around this experience.
To bring balance, I guess, my personal tastes leaned toward the country rock of the Eagles and other contemporary bands of the 1970s and 80s.
Both my brother and I learned to play the piano. He eventually moved on to the clarinet.
My musical training finely tuned my ear and to this day if an artist in any genre is the least bit sharp or flat, I cringe ~ turn down the sound, change the channel, turn the dial, walk out of the bar. My ears are spoiled for true sound. I suppose that’s why I’m not a big fan of auto-tuning.
Does this make me a music snob?
Perhaps. But I know what I like and I don’t like my ears assaulted. I’d rather listen to no music than be offended by something I don’t like.
Of course, I sing. Both my brother and I do.
Our small family enjoyed sing songs around the piano of a Sunday evening. Mom took the soprano part, I sang alto and my brother switched between tenor and bass. He’s always been clever that way.
In my late 20s I had the privilege of joining the 180-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as a soprano and relished 12 seasons of pure music joy.
I’d always loved choral music and it was on my bucket list from a young age to sing in a large choir. This particular choir is one of the world’s great symphonic choral organizations, and one of the oldest. It’s noted for its pureness of tone and versatility. Singing with this amazing institution is one of the great music highlights of my life. Handel’s Messiah, Mozart Requiem, Brahm’s Requiem and so, so many more amazing choral standards and contemporary works resonate so deeply it’s like soul food to me.
Following my tenure with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir I spent almost 10 years in a vocal trio ~ ChoirGirlz ~ so called because we met in the choir and decided we wanted to try our vocal chops on something new. Bluegrass and country was our first experiment, which went so well we expanded our repertoire to include a little bit of R&B, vocal jazz, as well as a lot of original material written specifically for our finely tuned voices.
We performed in bars, at fundraising concerts, at festivals, and recorded three CDs. We had a blast.
In 2010, we disbanded. We’d all had enough and it was time to move on.
I haven’t performed in public since, except for a hair-brained attempt at rock music in a temporary band a couple of years ago. Not my vocal genre at all, but fun. Through it I met a great voice coach with a jazz background and thought I might nurture myself into jazz. I enjoyed workshopping that for a while and have a great voice for it, but sadly adrenal fatigue put a wrench in the works. I just don’t have the extra vitality it takes (at this point, anyway) to sustain a performance to the standard I like and an audience deserves.
On one level this makes me sad. Still, if I was focusing on singing I wouldn’t be writing and that, to me, is where the thrust of my creative energy lies at this point in my life.
I have many fond memories of singing and the good fortune to have had it all start in a home filled with love and glorious music.
Once music is woven into our hearts it’s part of the fabric of our lives forever.
I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now …
“I didn’t understand because I couldn’t understand, I wasn’t ready, Joe.” So said Magnolia as she gazed absently out the window trying to explain her life to me.
“For a time in our lives are eyes are not open wide enough to see what really matters. Our vision is narrowed by the prejudices and the illusions with which others, chiefly our family because they are the ones who first influence us, endow us. We learn to see the world their way, and for most of us the view is disconnected. They have a need to be validated through our eyes” She pauses. ” Still, if their ways are harmful, should we then perpetuate their dysfunctional view just to seek their approval?”
It’s a good question, purely rhetorical, but I answer anyway.
“What’s this got to do with me?” I respond, my ignorance laid bare. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“You are in danger of remaining a slave to the beliefs of those who have come before; of those who have patterned your life,” she says, convinced of her truth. “You are angry all the time, as displayed by your need to curse at the slightest provocation. You criticize where none is warranted. You are defensive to the point of being hostile. You hurt the people who matter most, including yourself, but don’t see it. You do not see it because you are not ready to understand there is another way.”
I suppose I could get defensive as I stand here in Magnolia’s glow. But I can’t, because that’s just it. She is glowing. She is so serene I feel something I don’t know I’ve ever felt before … a sense of peace.
Could she be right?
Could it be that my hostile way of dealing with life is due to an inability to see my Self beyond the programming of my forebears?
“It can be undone … to a degree,” she says, as if reading my mind. “But you must be willing to become self-aware; to explore the rooms of your soul that are darkest and frighten you the most. You must shed light in them, rummage through the crowded closets of negative thought and empty them of everything that clouds your ability to see your own truth. Everything that makes you unhappy.”
“But how will I know what I am looking for?” I ask, somewhat bewildered.
“You will know it when you feel it.” She says, again with a confidence that creates a longing in me for my own. “It’s really quite simple when you consider the thoughts, ideas, experiences, people, places and anything else that makes you unhappy, miserable, sad, angry, devalued, diminished, distraught and all other manner of negative emotion. These are the things that need to be explored; that need to be made peace with so you can release them and make room for something new and more life affirming.”
“Like what?” I ask.
She turns to me and smiles.
“Make peace with yourself and you make peace with the world. You promote peace around you, Joe. Everything that makes you truly happy; that brings you such joy you can’t wait to share it with everyone; that causes your heart to heal and overflow with love. When you no longer feel the desire to express yourself through expletives or defend yourself all the time; when there is no need for attention at any price. The price of your dignity; your self-worth; your Self.”
She ponders for a moment.
“Where there is hatred, Joe, there can never be peace. If it is not peace you feel inside, what is it? You must decide your fate ~ to deteriorate in the face of hatred or grow in the heart of peace.”
Perhaps it’s just where I am in my life right now but for some reason this is making sense. I am middle-aged and exhausted in the wake of my reactionary existence.
I see how my life has been misguided, and possibly sabotaged, by the belief systems of people who knew no better than to influence me with their own dysfunction.
I’m beginning to see that what there is, what I have experienced, is not all.
I did not understand this before, but I understand it now.
And when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Hmmmm … interesting where the free writing process will take us.
I wondered if it would be a mistake to come back; to revisit a memory that is long since buried yet yearns to be resurrected.
Yet, here I am.
I am not surprised the “Love Nest,” as my gramps used to call it, is in such a state of disrepair, although it wouldn’t be had it stayed in my family. When gramps died about 10 years ago uncle Morris inherited it. He was the oldest son (not the oldest child) and whether he deserved it or not, he got the beautiful white clapboard house where he and my mother and five other siblings had been born and raised, and where I and my brother spent all our youthful summers.
It was such a romantic place then.
Nestled in a collection of elegant trees that shimmied and shimmered in the summer breeze, keeping us, my brother and I, cool while we played at hide and seek and other childish games. Grampa would call us in for dinner from his rocking chair on the upstairs porch. He was the great overseer.
We always felt loved here.
Wow, the memories are thick as cob webs now.
The porch at the front there, its door opens into a small hallway that leads upstairs to three tiny bedrooms. The only bathroom in the house is downstairs by the kitchen. Oh, the arguments we had about who would use it first in the morning. Sometimes I won, but not always. You had to be up bright and early to beat gramps to the punch.
To the right of the door way is the parlour. It used to have an upright piano by the window which gramma played on a daily basis, usually in the evenings before we would retire to bed. For as along as I can remember we’d all (gramps, Joe and I) gather around her as she tinkled those old ivories with a conservatory flourish, and sing the old gospel hymns.
Gramma had a twinkling soprano voice so I always sang the harmony ~ usually the alto line, but sometimes I’d lapse into tenor, just to test my sight reading. And when I did that Joe would instantly switch to my part. He was always up for a challenge. Yes, we all had our own hymnals. I wonder where they are now?
Gramps had a resounding bass-baritone and when he got going the rest of us would just stop and give him the floor. And then we’d all collapse in giggles when he finish and realize he’d been singing all by himself while gramma played.
Thank goodness he had a sense of humour.
Gramma was a wizard cook. She loved that kitchen and because gramps loved to eat he made sure gramma had the best of everything she needed to whip up a culinary delight.
I swear the house oozed with the scent of fresh bread, even when it wasn’t baking. Sometimes she’d make cinnamon rolls, which were my favourite, and on Sunday’s she’d always bake a pie of some description to go with dinner. She’d go with whatever fruit was in season, and in the winter would use her own canned peaches, or whatever else was in store, to create a sweet delicacy.
My mouth waters just thinking of it.
Often, in fact most Sundays, she’d invite lonely old Mr. Humphrey from down the road to join us. He lost his wife during the birth of their only child, Marty (if I remember correctly), and never remarried. Raised that boy on his own. He left home after school and moved thousands of miles away to chase history in the Middle East.
Gramma hated to see anyone as nice as Mr. Humphrey spend Sunday alone. So, unless he had somewhere else to be, he’d always come by after church and in the evenings after dinner share his frontier stories (he was a historian in his own right.) Once he gave me a signed copy of a book about the early pioneers and the Gold Rush that he’d had published. He fancied himself the Kenneth Roberts of the West. He was a talented writer, to be sure.
Of course, not all the memories of this house are good.
Family reunions were held every summer up until the year gramps died, and while they were fun for the most part, I hated bumping into uncle Morris. He was a creep. Upon gramps death, 10 years ago, Morris inherited the house and its 25 acre property. Let’s see, ol’ miser Morris would have been in his mid-fifties, I guess. He’d had no children. Never been married, in fact, so had no incentive to keep the place going. He was the black sheep of the family with the energy of a sloth and consequently let the place run down. He lived like a hermit.
I never liked him. He was mean to my mother, his sister, and gave me the willies. I never wanted to be left alone with him when I was young, and discovered all kinds of excuses to lock myself in my bedroom to write in my journal when he came to visit. He was the one person who stood between me and care-free summers with gramps and gramma.
So, I haven’t been back here since gramps died and I’m not surprised to stand here and see the once beautiful house in such decrepit condition.
It’s for sale. Uncle Morris died last month without a will and the property must be sold to cover his heavy debt load, though what he spent his (gramps’) money on I can’t begin to guess.
My husband and I have talked about buying the property to keep it in the family. This old house is too far gone now to be saved, so we’d have to raze it and build another. That wouldn’t be so bad.
All topics that hover at a rather deep, and uncomfortable, level for me.
In my blog Eyes to Heart I tackled the subject of “abandoned” as far as I dare take it.
A couple of days ago in this blog I started writing about the “Twilight Zone” but couldn’t finish. Maybe I will as the week (or year) progresses and I can find a way to reconcile the many heavy themes that popped out of the ether and onto the page.
With this free writing challenge it appears the bewilderment of being abandoned and standing in that twilight zone have come to the fore.