Hugging Meditation

For those who live alone, with nary a human about, can you remember the last five people you touched? On March 12th, I went to see Hamilton in Toronto at Mirvish with my daughter. Things had not yet shut down; in fact, this turned out to be the second last performance of Hamilton in Toronto. We knew the virus was coming, but I wasn’t carrying hand-sanitizer yet.

We ran into hometown friends while we were there. Did I hug them? Or was my caution level high enough not to – we saw them in the evening after a long day of hanging out on the York campus watching news reports roll in. If I did hug them, it was so casual and automatic that I don’t even remember if it happened. How could I be so complacent about this now rare commodity – hugs?

I hugged my daughter, certainly. I don’t recall that hug specifically but I can’t see spending all day with my daughter and not hugging her. Surely I did.

A friend of mine had stayed at my house to take care of my new puppy while I was in the city. I got home at 1AM so he stayed over on the couch. Seeing as how isolation was in place overnight, and given that I had a cough so if I was sick, he was already exposed – I suggested he stay for a few days. He left on March 17th and I haven’t touched a human since.

Who are the last five people I hugged? My dog-sitting friend. My daughter. Maybe a couple from our hometown? A friend who visited the Saturday before this prolonged intermission?

I don’t remember when I last hugged my son. That hurts.

There are a lot of motivational posters and greeting cards extolling the advice “Live Each Day As If It Is Your Last.” Many of us are more keenly aware of the fragility and impermanence of life now. For over three thousand Canadians that last day was written by COVID-19. How many of their loved ones are sitting in their isolation, pained because in addition to their grief, they cannot remember when they last hugged the departed?

My motivational poster for the After will be “Give each hug as if it is your last.” I want to be present for the hugs of the After. I want to remember them. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, teaches a practice called “Hugging Meditation“. Though it’s going to be awkward for my friends and family, these hugs include being “aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.”

Who are the last five people you remember hugging?

Who will be the next five people you hug?

When I Said

Ashes to ashes

I intended to go from Summer Solstice 2019 to Autumn Equinox 2020 without consuming alcohol. I believed I could do this on will alone. Perhaps will is sufficient for quitting a habit – but will is not inexhaustible. I wake up and enter the morning and each day is different when it comes to how much available will I seem to have. Each day holds its surprises for how you will be taxed. I cunningly plan out my will allotment across the day’s known challenges and then the day sneaks in unexpected curveballs and suddenly it’s 4PM, I’ve already borrowed into tomorrow’s will supply and a friend is saying “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a drink?” and I am no longer sure at all.

My reasons for trying to not drink keep changing. I always know it causes cancer. That is reason enough on the days when I want to live long and prosper and keep this body as healthy as I can for as long as I can. True too though are the days when I might prefer to not live too overly long, and think years of living later for days of pleasure now is a fine trade. I’m keenly aware of my mortality and limited number of days, moments, experiences remaining to me and I don’t want to miss out on anything because I was drunk or hungover. Neither though do I want to be alive but essentially bored for however many moments I have left.

I’m wary of the times I say -to myself or right outloud – “Oh god I need a drink.” Those are the moments when we need to remember our breathing and our lessons from mindfulness and welcome the feeling and acknowledge it and sit with it, and then move past it. Those are the times when we process the feeling, and the underlying feelings and beliefs and perceptions and yearnings and come to a place where we are OK in ourselves just as we are. That is how those moments are best handled. This is not always how the script plays out.

Occasionally a social vignette presents itself where it’s not even a case where “a drink would augment this moment” but more “not having a drink would take away from this moment.” I suspect this is not actually true as I know people who are loving life and enjoying those moments but not drinking, even though they used to drink. I kind of have to surmise that I’m just not there yet.

There is such a dichotomy in drinking socially! It can bring people together when done in moderation, and drive them apart when taken to excess. When people partake in marijuana or harder drugs, there is usually a point in time where they cross an unseen threshold into a world that the not-stoned cannot access. It can make me sad; it’s like they’ve left the room without saying goodbye. But in these weeks of relative sobriety, I’ve learned that the same is true for alcohol. I didn’t notice before because I slid into the tipsy reality with the others, instead of watching them go and being left behind.

In the six weeks there have been 14 social occasions that prominently featured alcohol, as well as a music festival. I’d say that summer is the wrong time to have tried this but each season brings its own temptations. Of the 15 events, I elected to have a drink at 4 despite wanting to drink at all 15. I’d say that’s gotta count for something, but what would that even mean? None of it really matters, either way, in the longest of long runs.

I think it’s an experiment. I’m learning about why and how I drink or don’t. To be honest, I don’t like everything about what I’ve learned about myself. But there’s learning there, too. If I’m going to be a therapist (and I am), there’s no cringing away from this stuff.
I wrote a poem in Kingston recently about wanting a drink after opening the box of my Mother’s ashes. The box had been mailed to me by the crematorium 11 months prior and had sat, unopened, in my storage closet.

When I Said

When I said I wouldn’t drink from Solstice to Equinox (so dramatic)
I meant I wouldn’t apart from when I did.
“So Libra,” laughs Polly, taking a sip from her lipsticked glass.
But it takes me a couple of shots of lilac gin before I can
invite Polly to my bed.
And there are times when cracking a beer
is akin to breaking bread.

And also! And also and also –
I just finally opened the box from the crematorium and in the box was another box with a certificate bearing my mother’s name and in that box was a plastic box and in that there was a plastic bag tied with a twist tie and in that there was my mother.
I tucked the end of the bag back into the box
and out puffed a very small cloud and I thought:
ohmygodthatismymother.
And then I drank some scotch.
I am sorry I didn’t ask first Greg. You know, it was delicious.

Memory Book

Tonight we are gathering in Midland in memory of my Mother. It occurred to me recently that I would need photos of her, as well as a Memory Book for people to write in.

She didn’t want a service and insisted that if we do anything, it was to be small. She didn’t want people to make a fuss about her. But she also did not like to be overlooked or ignored. It’s a fine line to walk.

So we’re seeing a play in her honour at our community theatre home, Huronia Players. We’ll toast her with red wine – truly her poison, as it killed her in the end.

It’ll be nice to see people and to hear stories but it’s also bittersweet, fraught, too tangled to be parsed in a short blog post.

In any case, two days ago I went through all my photos to find ones she would deem acceptable to put on display. I could hear her denigrating herself “I’m too fat in that one, too old, too stern” and her pride “Yes, that one, it shows off my ankles.” When illness made her ankles swell, she mourned them.

So many photos – up until digital cameras and Facebook. Photos of friends from two decades ago, and some of those friends we will see tonight. Some people in the photos are dead, some have moved out of our lives, some I can’t recall who they are. Photos of my mom with her ex-lovers, and photos of me with mine. I can hear my kids on some unknown future day “Oh, nice shot of mom, too bad he’s in it,” when they look for images to put on display for my memorial.

The older you get, the more every experience loops back to past experiences until every present moment has echoes and somehow the process loops forwards as well and every death forecasts our own.

Nesting Dolls

Tonight I got to make art with my daughter. I did spoken word and she did a juggling routine, the two interwoven and set to music. Only I was too moved by the experience and by watching her juggle and I forgot my last lines. Luckily we were performing for our beautiful theatre community in a room of support and love. And now she has a new routine and I have a new poem

Once upon a time as a young aspiring poet learning to rhyme I’d hold my pen so serious hitting the flow young and making myself delirious writing poems about snowdrops in the spring or the voices of the dead joining to sing to the living – I wrote everything I felt in haiku and rhyming couplets – dropping everything to snatch poems from the air – catch them and pen them to the page to keep them there.

Irving Layton once told me not to BE a poet but to leave poetry to fun and make some more sensible plan. Long after his death my banker-self cursed that man – but the poet child lives inside me still and always will see poems dancing in sunlight on autumn leaves and swipe their stories off a passing breeze.

One summer in my childhood when we were out all day and home by the time the street lights came on I tossed around the idea of playing the bully – just to feel how that felt in my bones and my body.

 One day, I threw a boy – not pushed or shoved – but threw him into a bush. And I knew it was wrong but I loved the rush of power and control – of course it was just a role and I quickly dropped the act. It’s good to know though that if I ask, that alpha kid will step out from inside me and stand beside me to assert boundaries and make me free to stand tall and strong when that’s the only way I see to get along. 

And maybe I wanted to play bully a while because like most other childhoods mine was manipulated by the false promises and uneasy patterns of adults and the best way to survive was to smile and be quiet and pleasantly small – because a kid doesn’t understand alcoholism or mental illness at all.

You only know that to stay safe when they’re looking for someone to blame, you stay small and smile – and as a grown up it’s often the same. So I thank that young freckled self for learning how to smile just sweetly enough because my friends, sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough are just the ones still smiling in the end. 

These past versions of me live still right inside of me – holding their lessons and skills for me to use and I can willfully pick and choose who best to augment my current self with.

I call on each for different reasons but on occasion and in some seasons they call on me knock knocking at my door asking – can I come out and play? Like now it’s spring and the bird are singing mating songs as dawn is breaking and bulbs are thrusting stalks through damp earth making all the natural world ache to give birth.

And inside my middle-aged reasonable self, a much younger self stirs, sniffs the air and laughs. Flirting with flowers and sighing with sunbeams, she stretches her youthful limbs and – thinking thoughts of love – takes centre stage.

(this is when my daughter enters and starts her juggling routine. Part way through I finish the poem)

Poet child, erstwhile bully, sweet survivor, would be lover – everything and everyone you’ve ever been – you still are. Each inside you and inside each other like nesting dolls of former selves, standing ready to give you help. Inside this beautiful mess of your complicated parts is you, capitol Y O U, your truest you, your “to thine own self be true” you.

With all embellishments swept away, the unbedazzled and honest face behind every social mask. Every gut reaction, every “I feel it in my bones” is your truest self whispering stories of your soul and we best hone our listening skills because your innermost self speaks truth, and always will. 

Piri Piri Tourtiere Debate

I’m sitting in my car watching the snow fall in Victoria Park. When I was in Portugal I regarded Christmas displays depicting pine trees and snow-covered hills. It’s strange to be in a foreign country and realise that their images of Christmas are your home country’s reality. We live in a Christmas card; why is this the dominant Christmas picture?

I’m drinking coffee and eating a nata tart. I don’t think I liked nata before I went to Portugal and now I find myself daydreaming about them. At  Farm Boy there were four tarts in the bakery. The smiling staff member put them in a box for me – it seemed a lucky omen; four tarts, four kids coming for Christmas! But as I took a couple of steps away and sampled a chocolate croissant, it occurred to me that I hadn’t purchased myself a tart.  There were no more in the display but luckily two steps further there packages of six. One extra tart is a much more easily solved problem.

I had been to Fairview Mall, Kitchener to set up WiFi for my apartment now that I’m moving back there. The staff member who sold me my cell phone plan at Virgin Mobile had offered to let me know when WiFi deals came up, which she did a few days ago. I ran it by my son just to make sure, and then told her I’d be there Christmas Eve in the morning to set it up. It went smoothly and it’s a great deal – if you’re looking for a cell phone package or wireless plan I totally recommend Lisa at the Fairview Mall Virgin Mobile kiosk. Now I’ve got to think of a witty name for my WiFi network. Previously it was called folkiekitten, but things have changed. Things have shifted. I just don’t identify with that network name anymore. If you have any suggestions let me know.

So I found myself down by Fairview Mall which is kitty-corner to Farm Boy. Last night I had looked unsuccessfully for two different food items in three different stores: brussel sprouts and a cottage roll. There’s a good chance that cottage roll just doesn’t exist in Southern Ontario. I picked up a piri-piri chicken last night though, thinking it might be a nice Christmas Eve dinner tie in to my time in Portugal. So anyway after signing for the WiFi, I drove my sleigh over to the Farm Boy to see if they had either cottage roll or brussel sprouts. This was overall a Christmas spending tactical error. I really like Farm Boy and want everything they sell (apart from the seafood, gross, sea-bugs). I didn’t need that hot chocolate. I definitely don’t need eggnog fudge for dessert. I’m just not very good at resisting things that please me. The brussel sprouts were terribly expensive. I stood there in the bright light of Farm Boy googling “brussel sprouts shortage 2018”, and sure enough it’s the reality. I quickly posted about this telling the kids that they’ll be having kale. It’s okay. They like kale. Wandering along to the deli area I was transfixed by their homemade tourtiere. Tourtieres are Christmas food. I picked one up to ascertain the heft of it, and then stood there amongst all the happy Farm Boy customers just pondering tourtiere. It would be delicious; you could tell because they also had half-pies sealed in plastic where you could see the meaty insides. Maybe we should have tourtiere for Christmas Eve dinner. But I already have piri-piri chicken. On the other hand, sweet potato casserole would go much better with tourtiere, though kale could go with either. And if we’re going to have tourtiere and go with a Canadian Christmas, why do I have nata tarts for dessert? Will we just have eggnog fudge for dessert without the tarts? Why do I even have tarts, fudge, a tourtiere AND a chicken? That’s a lot of food, I already spent over $100 last night and now I’m going to spend another $50? It’s a luxury to even consider the possibility of having two Christmas dinners available. It’s a luxury to be indecisive as to what to eat this evening. Trying to decide between two expensive proteins for a whimsical dinner on the holidays it’s definitely a sign of privilege. I’m really lucky that I can afford this. On second thought, CAN I afford this? I have no income at the moment – I can’t really afford anything. My sense of abundance, my sense of being able to afford tourtiere or piri-piri chicken or tarts or fudge – it’s all an illusion. Mind you, when I felt I could afford nothing and so I tried to do without anything – that was also an illusion. Scarcity is an illusion. Abundance is an illusion. All things are allusion but arguably  also very, very real. Is our reality an illusion? These are heavy thoughts, heavier even than the tourtiere I was still holding standing motionless in the deli section.

I watched a happy couple experience a Christmas miracle. The Farm Boy employee (all the Farm Boy employees are always smiling what is with this place) was presenting to them their Christmas dinner in a box. I cannot begin to describe the pure joy and delight on the faces of this man and this woman as the box containing turkey dinner complete with every trimming including directions for assembly was revealed. I decided right then and there that regardless of what this year’s Christmas dinner was going to be, next year I was giving myself the gift of a Christmas dinner box from Farm Boy – providing I’ve worked out the conundrum of abundance and scarcity, or maybe just found a job.

I was going to write about the gloves…

Two days ago I was leaving the hostel and I could see my breath! I hadn’t thought it was that cold: I went back up for my gloves. Putting them on I thought, “Oh! These are the gloves Mom gave me two Christmases ago! I’ll have to call her and… oh. Right.” And it’s a good thing it was raining because I started crying. Which is good, I haven’t cried yet much. I cried when I was clearing out her room after her death, and one other time. Otherwise, I’ve been so burned out by the five years of her illness that her death was more like a break. Now that I’m recharged I can actually grieve.

But I can’t grieve with those gloves because they were stolen today. I was at a wonderful event, Mitote Dia de Muertos. Artisans and musicians and an altar to pay respects for your dead and tacos and it was in this tobacco factory building that’s been taken over by artists. And there was a swing band and the local Lindy community was there. When I was going to have a dance, the lead said I could put my things with theirs, in this big pile of coats and bags. So I did, and I kept my eye on it most of the time. And I danced so much. The dancing was so much fun and chatting with the dancers – it was just like being at a Spanish Hepcats dance might be. When things were wrapping up I went to get a drink of water from my bag and of course, my bag was gone. But just mine. Everyone else’s stuff was safe.

We looked all over but it was no use. Luckily, my phone and cash and one credit card were in my coat. The Lindy fella who said I could put my stuff there, Jorge, walked me to the police station and translated so I could fill in a report. They won’t do anything but he said I might need it if I file any insurance claims.

The worst loss is my journal was in the bag. If I’ve had reason to write about you since the end of August, I’m sorry but some criminal in Madrid has those thoughts. They might not be able to read them mind you because it’s English and I’ve got awful handwriting. If they can read it they can read two months of poems and stories and story ideas and play ideas and travel experiences and thoughts on my mom’s death. They can try to figure out the character sheet Morgan recreated in the journal for me. They can try to decipher my ongoing budget and wonder if I ever finished the to do list of what to do in Europe. If they read it, I hope they’re rooting for me to get into the MA program.

They also have my iPad which they can sell but not access as I used the lost ipad locking feature, thank you Apple.

They have my credit cards and debit cards and drivers license and health card. That sucks. But, it just sucks, it’s not the biggest deal in the world.

They have all the things I carry (and I was going to be out for 12 hours so I was carrying a bunch) to be less crappy to the Earth – water flask, cutlery, reusable food bag, beeswax wrap, handkerchief.

They have my glasses. I have these dollar store cheaters but I don’t have benefits anymore and those were prescription. They have a collection of pharmaceuticals like Advil and paracetamol and allergy pills. I have more of each I think. There was probably some Ativan in there too but given how generally chill I feel about this, I think possibly my Ativan days are mostly gone.

They have some cheap bluetooth earphones that I liked because they match my phone case but I do have better earphones here in the room. They have the power storage I borrowed off Cat. I think they might have the second one too because I can’t find it here though I never carry both so maybe I need to look harder. But if they do, they do.

They have the cardigan I’ve been wearing everywhere and that works really well with this jacket. And the gloves that were the last gift from my Mother, and of course the bag itself. That I need to replace because I need the carry on capacity.

I’m working on getting over the loss of the journal. I started writing down just every thought. But they were my thoughts, they came from me, I’ll have more thoughts. They were some pretty fodder for future writing that will now never happen. Who knows, maybe they’ll mail it to me.

When I got the police report, Jorge joked, “Your souvenir from Madrid!” He felt awful – this never usually happens. That’s why I think I was targeted as a tourist. It’s unnerving to think though that someone was watching me, watching me, watching me. Waiting for an opportunity to steal from me. That’s going to be the hardest part to get over. And I’ll carry less, so much less, almost nothing from now on. Though – I’ve been incredibly careful. This could have played out exactly the same way dancing at Bluesfest.

When we were leaving the police station, Jorge noticed four officers speaking to two young men and the young men were trying to reply in French. So Jorge stopped and translated for them, too. They claimed to be 16 and 17 years old, and to be refugees from Guinea. They looked a bit older. Jorge and his friend who had accompanied us said refugees claim to be minors because they are treated better and cannot be required to leave. They turn themselves in with no ID and the state takes care of them.

Kind of puts an itemized list of lost belongings into perspective.