Category Archives: Mindfulness

Mother’s Day

Marilyn shooting pool
Marilyn shooting pool

For all of you out there who are happily feting the woman who raised you, I have nothing but warm feelings. I love the sight of mothers and daughters laughing together, or huddled close, or even just smiling. Days like Mother’s Day bring the best and the worst out in relationships. The shiny perfection meets the reality.

For all of us, our relationship with our mother is fundamental and affecting. The ripples reach every beach in our being. That relationship forms us.

I love my mother. She had difficulties. She could never overcome them. She needed to be loved, unconditionally, more than your average. She was like fire, enticing and dangerous. Many people never saw the raw Marilyn, or Lyn, as she came to prefer. Like an acolyte on a pyre, I grew up experiencing the agony and the ecstasy of her attention.

Mother was the youngest of seven. She was born when it was clear that the Great Depression was a fact of life. The family was fortunate that relatives had a nearby farm. Summers were for working the land and producing food. By the time my mother was old enough to help she was also old enough to know she had no interest in helping. I bet her family howled with laughter at her antics.

Marilyn on a pony
Marilyn on a pony

I never met her father, except through stories and there weren’t many on offer; he died when she was 16 and that was a traumatic experience for her. She told me many times that she had snuck out to be with friends the night he died, she wasn’t home when he died and she regretted that. Or she regretted the additional suffering her family went through because not only was the man dead but the youngest child was missing. No, she didn’t want to relieve her family of suffering, but, more likely, she wanted to be there for the event. As if having snuck out didn’t make as good a story now.

Sneaking out was my mother’s favourite activity. She snuck out on my father. She snuck out on us. She had a lot of fun. When she couldn’t sneak away, she’d drag us along. This is probably why I’ve never wanted to get involved in local theatre. Mother was a ham. She loved theatre. She didn’t seem to get many roles. She loved the experience. I don’t recall her complaining about rehearsals, just fretting that she’d be late. My father was busy with other activities, so other men came to get my mother. Other members of the theatre community. She had a lot of fun.

I did get to watch her, once, in a small production. She was a vine. What a ham! We kids, in the audience, were laughing and screaming for the prince to “Watch Out!” My mother kept writhing, wiggling, and wandering closer and closer to the rapt prince.

Socially, there were few who could keep up with the woman my mother became when she stepped out of our home and into the wider world. I saw her on both sides of the door. I was in awe. And terrified. I couldn’t figure out who my mother was. Now I know. I have enough life experience, and adult experience of my mother, to be able to appreciate her more fully.

When I was maybe 10 I liked to playact scenes out. Some required makeup. In one series of self-scripted scenes, I was from Mars and covered with green swirling lines produced using my mother’s eyeliner pencils. One day, I forgot to lock the bathroom door and, when I was mid-monologue, my mother walked into the bathroom. I froze. She looked at me, naked but for swirls of eyeliner, for the longest couple of seconds in the history of time. She smiled. She smiled, nodded, and said, “So, this is where my eyeliner has been going.” She locked the handle, stepped out, and quietly closed the bathroom door behind her. The lock snicked. I had been given permission to have imagination. What greater gift can a powerful parent bequeath?

Our relationship was full of contradictions. Black and white types of contradictions. The truth/the way things are was defined moment by moment. You could not trust a single story my mother told. She was such an inveterate liar that I find it ironic and hilarious that I was the designated family liar. The story about imagination? The flip side was that the creativity was also considered lying, somehow. It got twisted up. My stories became those kinds of stories where everyone grimaces, shakes their head, and roll their eyes.

My writing was encouraged. Small stories and poetry. Mostly poetry. Poetry was compact. Poetry could be memorized and brought out for demonstrations of my mother’s children’s supremacy. My sister and I were artists. I don’t recall my brother getting as well-defined a future as my sister and I received. He got her sloppy, hungry love. She felt reflected in my sister and me. Different kinds of attention and need.

When I was 11, mother introduced me to bartending. I was taught using the “splash and taste” school of bartending. After successfully getting my mother hammered I would be offered my reward: a drink of my own. Now, I was to make it a lightweight. Less booze than mother’s drink. I never got caught. I mixed my drinks just as strong as hers. Stood me in good stead later when I spent nights passed out in dangerous places.

When I was a teenager, my mother was going through her own crisis. At the cusp of my teen years, my mother left dad. She moved out when he was out of town. She was now a single mother with three children. Luckily, we were all old enough to run our own days. I learned more about sex with men. My mother had already trained me as her bartender and I got a lot of practice. My sister introduced me to pot. Saved my life.

The hardest part for my mother was her loss of a social life. All the men who had courted and had sex with her when she was safely married, started avoiding her. Her girlfriends, all safely married, did not want to be haunted by the spectre of divorce. She became a fifth wheel and spent quality time, instead, at home with her children. Her violent behaviour, which had faded as we’d all grown taller than her, reappeared. All that passion misdirected.

Being lonely, being unfettered by a husband who protested expenses, Marilyn signed up for several credit cards and got them. Easily, far too easily. There weren’t any problems, at first. But, for the rest of her life, my mother stubbornly resisted every effort I made to explain how credit cards actually work. No.

She would cry, howl, yell, growl, whatever her mood, in response to the dunning letters she’d received. “It’s MY money!” Yes. She thought it was her money. If she didn’t make a payment, it was okay. The worst were the dunning letters that declared they would seize property. “I didn’t use THAT card to buy my TV! They can’t take my TV!”

Marilyn and Aunt Reta
Marilyn and Aunt Reta

In later years, when she’s run into these credit card fiascos, the situation was bandaged with a donation from me to her. Happily, we never ever got around to opening a joint account (to make the transfer of funds easier). I am glad I never got my credit associated with hers.

During the early years of the separation, the entire family heaved with tension and confusion. For a while, my mother simply ran her life as if my father simply lived somewhere else and still provided any and all needs. He bought us a chest freezer and a half a cow; this has always struck me as odd. Why, during all the years previous, had she not thought of this? It wasn’t our practice and the freezer didn’t survive our first move.

In her dotage, a term I use loosely, my mother resumed the chest freezer gig but filled it, instead, with large batches of food she’d prepare. The woman barely ate. In her last couple of years, we tried several ways to ensure she had food. We knew that most of the money we sent her went towards alcohol and cigarettes. She bought her cigarettes on the black market to save the taxes. My mother! She never stopped surprising me.

My sister was the first to escape my mother’s den. She headed first to my father but found that, in spite of the motorcycle, she just couldn’t live with him. She moved in with her boyfriend and his family. This was her Pleasantville.

My brother was sent off, next. He bounced back, not long after.

When I left, I did it the best. I didn’t go to our father. I left town. I used my thumb to find someplace to put down roots. I disappeared for a couple of years. When I returned, I wandered to my mother’s office; it was familiar territory. I arrived as my mother was putting on her coat. Good timing, I thought. But mother’s face when she saw me told me that something larger was going on. I had no idea what good timing I had. My mother had received a call. There was a body and would she come and take a peek? It seems that my previous job, at a federal department, had a dangling paycheque for me. When I didn’t pick it up after several months, they notified the police. Weird, but true, if my mother can be believed.

I was a burden to my mother. Even as I propped her up and cared for her. I had learned, at some point, how to live and love without judgment. Her mercurial ways were no longer a rip tide in my life; I had learned how to get out of her way and protect both her and my boundaries. She appreciated this. Deeply affected, she took to a modified version of her interfering. As long as my boundaries remained in place, she didn’t have access to her superpower and could no longer goad me into revealing secrets. Boundaries were her kryptonite.

My mother had a charming technique that she used to get information from people. When you were a stranger or someone she depended on, she could make statements that prompted you to respond. Now, these statements could be outrageous, but largely they were her opinions of the moment. And, I think, she was genuinely curious about other people but her curiosity had a strange hankering to it. A hunger ached in her.

When I would spend time alone with her, my mother would pester me using a technique I called “sharking.” During the day, before she’d settled into her TV chair, she would circle her apartment and I’d find myself a key point of the circuit. The other key point was the wine bottle in the kitchen. Each time she passed me, she’d pause and make a statement or ask a question. Each one was a probe, and I’d long since learned how to cope with these probes. Some I’d simply ignore, she had a short attention span. Some I’d give a non-committal “huh.” Then I’d get nailed. She was relentless. During one visit, while I was trying to figure out what she’d done to her computer, she circled until she got me. I think it was a combination of trying to untangle her files and stay off her baited hook; I lost it when she arrived behind me (another much-used tactic) and said, “I don’t know why Doris played that drug song at your father’s funeral.” Doris is my father’s widow. The song in question is “Candy Man.” It was my father’s favourite song. We had an argument about the song and, surprisingly, I may have “won.” She relented in my steadiness. My argument was that it didn’t matter what the subject matter was or wasn’t, it was Dad’s favourite song.

For most of my working life, I sent money to my mother each month. I occasionally made extraordinary donations to help when her credit card debts were generating new demands. It frightened her that lawyers were writing letters to her. We set up meal deliveries. We ordered groceries online and had them delivered to her.

Her response? STOP! First reason: “The meals are too salty.” When she was assured we could change that with diet choices. Oh, uh, no.

Second reason: “It ruins my plans to have to wait for them.” Oh, do you go out every day? No. Do you usually go out on the spur of the moment? No, have to arrange the disabled bus. Oh, so knowing that a meal is coming on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday interferes with your life so much that you can’t function. No.

The author looking rumpled
The author looking rumpled.

Next reason: “I don’t like having to get ready for them.” Now this I get. For my mother to leave her apartment for any reason (think check the mail and do the laundry), she needs to shower, do her hair, do her makeup, and dress. No sleep pants and t-shirt with sleep rumpled hair.

I didn’t even demure at this since I understood. But, out of the blue, the truth came flying from her mouth with the final reason, “I’d rather have the money.”

I remember when I, as an adult, semi-resided with my mother. She needed help with rent and I needed a landing spot for when I was in town working. My dog feared her. I had to bring the dog, but I made it as painless as possible for him. My mother resented the dog coming along; she wanted me to visit her. Walking the dog became my period of freedom and her period of worse loneliness.

My mother would chat at me the entire time we were in the apartment together. Sometimes, in the middle of the night I’d hear her in the hall and when she could hear me, she’d stop in my doorway and chat with me. She always stood the same way. Hipshot, ankles crossed, one hand with a cigarette near her mouth, one arm across her chest, her head slightly thrown back. She smoked with dedication. Each draw was a commitment. Deep, even intake followed by a variety of expressions of smoke: through the nose as a trickle, a gust through the nose, out the side of her mouth, with her head turned aside and a stream of smoked from pursed lips, and, finally, fogging out of her mouth as she talked.

I can’t think of my mother without also thinking of cigarettes and alcohol. Moments after she finished her morning coffee, she would have a glass in her hand. As she got older, she started her day with watered wine. She claimed she drank less. One evening I watched her switch to beer as she dressed to go out. She kept up with the beers until her ride arrived, late. I waved her off, have fun! The next morning she told me that she just couldn’t hold her liquor like she used to. I must have looked either confused, skeptical, or otherwise disbelieving. “Yes, I’m serious! I only had two drinks last night and I was on my ass!” Right, I thought, you don’t count the bottle of wine and several beers that preceded the drinks at the bar. “Wow,” I replied. What else was I going to say?

Oh, I could have told her she was daft, but it’s unlikely you have seen the rage monster that lived inside her. It consumed her at times. It rampaged like wildfire, tearing through her mind, leaving nothing but ash behind. Sometimes the burning contained entire histories of truth and fabrication; in the moment of the pyre, there is no difference between fact and fiction. What mother says in that voice, with that rage, that is the truth right now, and you better believe it, buster, or you’re out on your ass. Never mind that it’s my income making things easier. Decades of training kick in. I believe.

I love my mother, still. I have few good memories of her. Some funny, like when she insisted I loved her more than I love my wife. The proof, according to my mother, is the connection we made when she first looked into my deep, brown eyes. My eyes aren’t brown. Never mind that we white babies aren’t often born with deep, brown eyes. She’s thinking of someone else’s baby. Nevertheless, there was no convincing my mother, and my wife, wisely, did not try. What my wife did try was to keep from laughing or storming off. I, on the other hand, kept finding odd reasons for leaving the room, and in one case, the building.

Marilyn visiting BC
Marilyn visiting BC

One year, my aunt paid for Marilyn to fly to BC. I was in Washington State. Apparently, there were plans for me in there somewhere but I didn’t hear of the trip until my mother was practically leaving for the airport. My aunt ended up hospitalized during my mother’s visit, leaving my uncle and mother together to yank mercilessly on each other’s nerves. My wife and I decided to take my mother over to Vancouver Island so she could spend a few minutes with her grandson. We drove up to Vancouver. We picked up mother. From the back seat, she would pipe up with wondrous lines: “The way you drive it’s no wonder you have no friends.”

All that theatre training must have been helpful because my mother could pitch her voice and project without yelling. In fact, some of her mutterings were more audible than other people’s normal conversation. It didn’t change anything to turn up the music. I can never thank my wife enough for that weekend. While we were settling into the hotel, which did not have a bar, my mother revealed that she’d not had any alcohol for the three days she’d been along with my uncle. He was, naturally, quite distraught about his wife in hospital and he didn’t like how much my mother drank and smoked. So, he decided to not drive her to the liquor store. This is Canada, folks, you buy your booze from the government in most provinces.

There was one liquor store open, for the next half an hour. We didn’t know our way in Victoria, but we rolled down our windows and queried pedestrians wherever we could find them. We got the liquor store in time. Agog at the offerings, quickly as we could, we made several selections and headed back to the hotel. At the door to her room, my mother snatched the bag away from me and turned away.

We were relieved. The idea of my mother going through DTs down the hall was frightening.

For the last 7 years of her life, I lived far from my mother and spent time with her through phone calls. It was odd to hear my voice on the message machine at her apartment while I sorted through the debris of a life. She died one night, nobody is sure which night and was found when the neighbours complained of a smell. Not the way you want to have a loved one go. The message on the phone had, initially, played out in an apartment occupied by a dead woman.

Losar and Renewal

Tomorrow is Losar, the Tibetan New Year. I’ve just learned that the word losar is composed of two words, lo means “year ago” and sar means “new fresh.” I like this idea of refreshing the year. Also, this is a Fire Rooster year (it’s all over the place as the Firebird year).

I also like the idea of taking Fire Rooster and regurgitating Firebird, the year of the Phoenix. A year of renewal, burn the old to give birth to the new. A year of reincarnation for us all, some of us without even dying.

What I don’t like about it is the whole burn it down part of the Phoenix story. That might be my entitlement talking. Though I don’t think I’m entitled, I know I am. I’m white and middle-class. I’m so middle-class that even in poverty I act like I’m still middle-class; my clothes are well-made, if worn. I actually had to buy new pants after I lost weight when my Fibromyalgia morphed into IBS.

I eat organic, locally grown food. I buy heavily during the summer and I preserve food for the winter. That’s both madly old-fashioned and radically new-fashioned (or recently enabled and re-fashioned, I can’t decide). I let go of other things: television, movies, concerts, restaurants, live music, vacations, and more. My priorities dictate my choices.

I mostly feel invisible in the larger culture. In spite of some amazing steps forward in our society, I’m still lost from the crowd. I’m the gazelle sacrificed to the hunters by lot; my lot is that I’m not a member of the herd.

May we have a year in which we come to our senses, may we learn this lesson: “politically correct” is a phrase used to demean people who exhibit kindness, empathy, and curiosity about others. That dangerous other.

Let us rise from the ashes of our horror and dismay, let us be renewed, let us be politically correct where that means: be considerate, treat others as you think they want to be treated, and think about more than yourself. The idea of self-sacrifice shouldn’t be applied to mean that those who disagree need to sacrifice themselves on the altar of rage.

All the same, I’m nervous. I feel like I did the day I headed home from school knowing there was a crowd waiting for me. When I came around the hill in the middle of our complex and I saw nearly every member of my grade seven class standing there, with Kelly Dewar standing in front, pissed as pissed can get. My feet started dragging but I walked straight up to her. I had lots of practice at this. I carefully removed my precious glasses and put them on the curb of the parking lot we’d gathered ourselves in, everyone moved to encircle me, and Kelly beat the crap out of me while I stood there, arms limp and useless at my sides. That’s what I feel like these days, that I’ve come around the hill and I see disaster standing firmly in my way. I don’t run, I don’t fight, I don’t even hide.

Just as an aside, as a kid I hadn’t heard the word phoenix and had sounded it out to end up with something that sounded more like phonics.

Pain Management

I’ve been working on a project to do with pain management and mindfulness. It’s an arts & crafts sort of thing and it was presented as the final exercise in my pain management programme.

The pain management programme was a mindfulness, an awareness-based system of guided meditations and tools for self-examination. The idea was to look at your relationship with your pain and fine-tune the push-and-pull elements. What the ? That means that you look at a variety of places in our lives where pain, when you have chronic pain, comes to reside and get triggered. I should have just said this but I’m going to leave this as is to show you that it’s difficult to name stuff honestly, For example, eating; one week we had the exercise to eat consciously once and come back to class to share notes. It’s not compare notes, it’s to share notes. The class specifically requested we not “advise” each other but, rather, simply share our experiences.

That’s difficult to do, as well. Honesty is difficult for most of us. We’re not a particularly self-interrogatory species. We have gradually built up the ability to look at our own experiences without condemnation or other judgements. We have pictures in our heads, started before we had language, that describe our perceptions of the world and our place in it.

The project I’m working on is a maze. It came to me in the last days before the end of the course. I’d already dug out an old poem that echoed my relationship with my pain but this came to me with a doodle and an ‘x’. I turned it into a maze and now I’m turning the maze into a game. The pain maze has life hurdles in the dead ends; the game will have more decision points and I wish there was a way to make the board game such that you couldn’t tell you are heading for a dead-end. How many people play board games these days and how many of them would like one about making your way through life’s little dramas.

That’s what chronic pain can feel like: a drama that just keeps going without resolution or end. There are days I simply want it to stop, even if it means death; it’s exhausting. There are days I’m so frustrated that I can’t manage more than 4 hours of half-assed thinking and doing. The half-assed thinking is clearing up as my drug regimen becomes more tailored to my chemical soup factory (AKA my body). So, that straightens that out, clearly my body affects my mind and I might not be crazy to think that my mind is inside my body (but I still don’t believe that is 100% true).

Chronic pain keeps me in my body to a degree I’ve never experienced before. An unpleasant degree, as it would happen. I think ecstasy would become painful if maintained full on at all times. Our bodies are not built for ‘all out’ all the time. We’re over-burdened with fast, constant stressors, we city-dwelling, global-villager people. Becoming broken has given me an opportunity to step out of the rip tide and back onto the beach. Striving is becoming a thing of my past.

That puts me at odds with the dominate society where I live, but I’m happy in my eddy and growing more confident day by day.