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Tricia McCallum is a Toronto freelance writer and also publishes fiction and poetry.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Advice from a Poet Now Gone.

Advice to me on writing from a friend and poet, now gone.

Write poems, no matter whether they're read, no matter what anyone says.

Forget about being judged, who is right, or wrong. Forget all of it. Will they think I am smart? Worthy? Put it all aside.

Close your eyes, stand at the edge of the board, shivering. Dive in to the deep, the cold. It's down there, waiting, and the harder, the more painful it is to find, the more important it is to find it. 

By the Wayside.

Actually, this short story came long before my poem of the same name.

By the Wayside

I live in Seaside Jew Jersey. Our claim to fame is that we're only an hour from Atlantic City. I run a motel right across the street from the ocean. "By the Wayside Motel," the brochure reads: "42 Suites, All with Ocean View. C'mon. Get Happy."

I didn't write the copy. The brochures were left by the previous manager. "Suite" is pushing it. The rooms are standard-issue coastal motel, but it sounds good. The graphics exaggerate too. The wide-angle photograph on the cover makes the swimming pool look gigantic, when actually more than three people in it at once can create a tide.

I don't know where the name "By the Wayside" came from. The man I bought the place from wasn't the original owner. Hard by the water like it is, the name doesn't exactly fit. All the other hotels and motels up and down the beach have predictable names like Coral Rest, Ocean Spray, and Neptune's Inn.

I spotted it right away when I first came here. It stood out because of a life-size statue of Peter Pan on the front lawn. Apparently the owner was a diehard fan of the character and had commissioned a sculpture so he could look at him every day. Although I had barely enough money for the down payment on the place and had to mortgage it to the hilt, Peter Pan was what sold me: I desperately needed some whimsy in my life, a reminder of fairy tales and stories with happy endings.

The rooms are full right through the summer, families from New York and Philadelphia mostly, who come for two week holidays with their kids. When I took it on, five years ago now, I had no idea how much work it would mean. I've learned that people who have only two weeks a year of complete freedom expect a lot. June to September, I barely have time to breathe. I'm called on to be a concierge, tour director, chamber maid, and confidante, name it. I get asked for the weirdest things, like the mother who wanted baby aspirin at three in the morning, or the couple in Room 34 last year wondering where they could rent a video with a title I wouldn't repeat out loud. Days run into one another with a constant stream of people in the front office, checking in or out, looking for beach towels, asking where they serve the best steamers.

Come fall, the mass exodus begins and we have Seaside to ourselves again. About half the rooms are closed during the winter to save on heat. Business dribbles in though, salespeople traveling up and down the coast who check in late and leave early, and the odd straggler on his way home from Atlantic City, hung over and broke from a gambling spree. Josh was the only permanent resident here when I arrived: Hazel, Max and Seymour have all come since, my "year-rounds" as I call them. The reason they all ended up here was because I have the cheapest off-season rates in town. It certainly isn't because of the decor, which is vintage 1950, complete with lime green leatherette couches in the lounge and arborite headboards on all the beds. The balconies are flanked with sheet metal cut out in diamond shapes of orange, red and blue, trying desperately to look like stained glass. My first day on the job was in the middle of a bitter January, with the wind coming straight off the ocean. The motel was almost empty. I was in the front office behind the desk trying to figure out a disorganized set of books and losing patience, wondering why a housewife from Minneapolis ever imagined she could manage a motel. Josh appeared at my desk and handed me a large bottle of gift-wrapped perfume. "Welcome. I'm Josh," he said, extending his hand gallantly. "I hope you don't think me too presumptuous. But from afar with that wild hair of yours and those Nordic features, you just screamed “White Shoulders.” I told him it was a fragrance I'd always loved, that its smell reminded me of things that happened long ago. When I told him my name was Moira, he rolled his eyes dramatically. "Of course. It's perfect."

We sat behind the desk for the next two hours drinking hot chocolate. Josh couldn't have been more than 40 but he was completely bald. I learned he envied anyone who had more hair than he had. Before coming to Seaside, he'd been a successful actor in New York until his hair started to fall out mysteriously and he lost what he called "the edge to his performance." He said he'd find clumps of blond hair on his pillow in the morning and his shower drain finally stopped up altogether. He'd made the rounds of specialists and clinics but no one could come up with any answers. "When a playwright wants to portray a loser, she makes him bald," he tells me wistfully.

Josh bartends nights at the "Fork N'Cork," a restaurant down the beach where he says he'd never be caught dead under normal circumstances. But desperate times call for desperate measures, Josh says. Fish nets, dyed red, festoon the walls. Hanging from the netting are giant plastic lobster claws and clam shells painted with maniacally happy faces.

Josh lives in hope of hair. Packages are always arriving in the mail for him, potions and ointments he's ordered from tv ads which promise hair regrowth. He comes down to the office in the mornings, fresh from the shower, his head in a turban, awaiting each new miracle. I'd seen his scrapbooks of theatre flyers and newspaper clippings and in one photo there is Josh with a full head of platinum blond hair, on the stage of the Bleaker Street Theatre, playing the part of the gentleman caller in a production of "The Glass Menagerie." Max asked him once why didn't he try a toupee. Max was a Czech, with a dense, wavy mop of black hair. Josh glared at him.

"This from a man whose hairline starts just slightly above his eyebrows," he sniffed. "Anyway, toupees always look like fresh road kill pasted on the scalp."

"What thees mean, thees road keel?" Max asked him, perplexed. Max lives in 4B, the only two-bedroom I have. He sleeps in one: the other is filled with his equipment -- plastic bowling pins, stilts, card tables, clown costumes. In summers, he's a roving entertainer on the boardwalk. Nights, he performs in a revue in Seaside's bandshell. He came to the States in 1968 as a refugee, striking out alone from Bratislava following his people's revolt. Max does magic tricks and acrobatics but is most famous for his juggling, which he learned as a small boy from his grandfather, a celebrated performer with the Prague Circus. He can juggle just about anything -- cocktail shakers, seashells, rubber boots -- and he's always practicing. I see him from my office window walking back and forth along his balcony, his neck craned upwards, tossing objects into the air as he moves. He has an act where he juggles three apples and takes a bite out of one as it flies past his mouth until only its core is left. Before beginning, Max brandishes an apple in front of his audience, announcing that he will leave only the "meedle." He's been here for 20 years but still struggles with English. We tried correcting him for a while but eventually gave up. We all manage to get Max's drift anyway. He's teaching me how to juggle and I'm up to three oranges. According to Max, I'm a natural. "Honkie dory," is how he rates my progress. Next, he says we'll move on to things that are braidable. He means breakable but I let it go.


"Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic..." It's Hazel's voice coming from the laundry room. She's wearing headphones and singing along with Jimmy Buffett. She loves country and western, claiming it's the only music that speaks to her. Hazel moved here from Memphis after her divorce. She told me she left her husband flat the day she found one of his notes on the kitchen table signed with both his first and last name. They'd been married 22 years at the time. She swears that one thing tore it.

"He was altogether too tight-assed," she said. "That kind of thing can rub off." She works at "Sunshine's," the fruit market at the Seaside Mall. Its slogan, written on the side of its trucks and on the clerks' aprons, is: "If it's fresher, it's still growing."

Even though a large sign in the front office reads: "No Pets in Rooms," I make an exception for Hazel. Her little Scottish terrier Angus was the only thing she'd asked for in the divorce settlement so I let her keep him. It causes a lot of complaints from summer guests who call up the front office when they hear Angus barking. "If I had known you took dogs,” they'd whine, “I'd have brought my Scruffy, or Mr. Jingles.” Since her divorce she's heavily into self-improvement and is enrolled in a six-week workshop for divorced women at the local college called "Taking Back Your Life." She says she's in better shape than most of her classmates.

"One woman told us most afternoons she sits in her car outside the apartment building where her ex lives. Hour after hour she just sits."

"Did she tell you why, Hazel?" I ask.

"She says she can't let go."

Hazel and her husband were together 40 years. He left her for a woman who is three years older than their daughter. Sometimes late at night Hazel appears at my desk with her basket of nail polishes and cosmetics. "How 'bout a facial, sweets?" she asks brightly. She thinks I should spruce up my look, get with the times, and leaves pictures from fashion magazines where I'll see them, with handwritten notes attached. "This would be darling on you," or "Just think about it," they read. I'd rather stick with what I know, I tell her. There is little enough about me I still recognize, I tell myself.


It's the second week in November. Freezing rain lashes the deserted boardwalk. We're all in the lounge chatting and drinking, bundled up in sweats and wool socks. We're comfortable together, the five of us. There seems to be a bond created among those who stay when everyone else has moved on. Seymour is holding court, a book on his lap as always. This one is called "The Inner Child Workbook: What To Do With Your Past When It Just Won't Go Away." Seymour is a retired psychotherapist who came here to work on a book after closing his practice in Pittsburgh. He specialized in treating phobias but his fascination with human behavior is far reaching. Most of his days are spent reading psychiatric journals and one of the walls in his bedroom is stacked knee-deep with textbooks and magazines detailing personality disorders none of us has ever heard of. Last week he told us about a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder he'd just read about. We'd all heard of cases of OCD from Seymour, about people who washed their hands fifty times a day or couldn't stop themselves from checking over and over again to see if their front door was locked.

"This, ladies and gents, is a particularly unusual example," he says solemnly. "The patient was a Japanese man from San Francisco who had a compulsion to check envelopes before sealing them to make sure his daughter wasn't inside." Seymour pauses for dramatic effect, removing his glasses. "He lived in constant terror that he would mail her away forever." We all think about this for a minute.

"The poor soul," says Hazel, who has taken off her headphones to listen to Seymour's latest discovery. We all make time to listen to Seymour.

"Can't anything be done for him?" asks Josh, who has turned the sound down on "One Life to Live."

"Is a doggie dog world," says Max, looking slightly bewildered. We contemplate this in silence. Max is known for adding things to a conversation no one else can.

"The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven," says Seymour, quoting Milton, his favourite author. Seymour is one of those rare individuals able to see the bigger picture and he is at work on a book which as he describes "details how the work of 19th century scientists advanced human thought. I'd walk on the beach with Seymour and seemingly we'd be looking at the same things - the waves, or boats on the horizon. Suddenly Seymour would crouch down on his knees, grab a handful of pebbles and scrutinize their formations and colors. Then he'd come out with a treatise on the last ice age or something equally baffling.

Josh turns back to the tv and flicks the channel to "The Price is Right." The contestants are lined up behind a console. One woman who's just been picked from the audience is weeping hysterically. In a patronizing tone, the emcee asks her to get hold of herself. Josh moans like he is in pain. He'd done a stint hosting the gameshow "Tic Tac Dough" in the seventies and feels the business has gone downhill in the days since.

"I used to treat guests on my show like they were friends in my living room," he announces indignantly. "These jerks practically use cattle prods."

In his prime Josh had appeared in several shows on and off-Broadway, and landed bit parts in a few Movies-of-the-Week. Hazel tells him she remembers seeing him in a role as a handyman in some ABC film about a house possessed with demons.

Josh groans, taking a deep drag on his cigarillo. "Why do people always remember your least distinguished effort?" He says he knew he was destined to be a performer from the first time he drew breath and is forever quoting lines from productions he had appeared in. On summer afternoons he does recitations on the upper deck for anyone who cares to listen, wearing a Yankees cap to protect his bald pate from the sun. My favourite is a speech he does from Hamlet, which he'd performed in summer stock in Maine years before.

"A painfully under-budgeted production, ladies and gents, but stirring nonetheless," he tells listeners.

"... For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so... ," Josh would bellow above the roar of the ocean, his audience looking up at him warily from poolside, slathered in coconut oil, dazed by the sun.


It is a brilliant Tuesday morning in March. I am sending out notes to my past customers on motel stationery, reminding them of what a great time they had here last summer. The paper is imprinted with an unfortunate looking logo, another legacy of the owner. He put it on anything he could find: matchbooks, ashtrays, even the bathtub mats in all the rooms. It's a line drawing of a crazed-looking sailor with bad teeth standing astride a dinghy, hands on his hips. For starters, the scale is all wrong: he practically dwarfs the boat. And as Max says, "Never to be standing up in a roadboat!"

The tv is on, tuned to the Today show as usual. Elton John is on raving about his recent hair weave. I buzz Josh' room but I know he won't answer. It's before noon so there is no chance he's up. Josh hates mornings: it's almost a religion with him. I throw a sweater on and run up to his room. "Elton John's got hair, Josh!" I shout through the door. "He had it done in France. God, it looks good. I would never have known."

I hear him snort as he moves to the door. He opens it slowly and winces at the daylight. His head is wrapped in cellophane, held in place with the blue metal hair clips Hazel gave him for Christmas. I can smell the Hair Now ointment he's been slathering on his head nightly for two weeks. The smell reminds me of the licorice pipes they used to sell in candy stores with the pink speckles on the ends.

"Did he say how much it cost?" he asks groggily. I was afraid he'd ask that.

"Oh, 10,000 bucks or so," I say lightly. "But, Josh, I'm sure he had the uber-weave."

"Yeh, like either are an option, Moira," he says, shivering from the breeze off the ocean. "The way they tip on the Shore, I might be able to afford one by the next millennium."

Late that night Hazel appears at my desk in her nightgown. I'm still working on my mailing. She sets down two glasses and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. "Never get married, Moira," she says out of the blue. If I'd been ready, at that particular moment, I might have told her that once, in what now seemed like someone else's life, I had been married, had even been a mother once.

"Hazel," I'd have said, measuring my delivery, "your advice has come to late." I'd have told her it is why I never look into the faces of small children. I stand above them, noticing their outfits and the colour of their shoes but never kneel down and look into their little faces.

"No chance, Hazel," I say, looking up at her casually from my stack of envelopes. "I prefer to travel light." Although I know Hazel would be solicitous - after all, she is a mother herself - I am not ready to tell my story out loud. She pats my hand and pours us each a scotch. "In last week's class, our teacher told us divorce was like the death of someone close to us, that we had to go through all the same stages of grieving. And did you know tears of grief have a different chemical composition from all others? Scientists have discovered that," Hazel says. She looks mystified. I didn't know that. I only know that grief has its way with you, Hazel, propelling you on a journey all its own.

I had taken Emma shopping that morning. I lifted her out of her car seat and put her down on the pavement beside me. I noticed one of her shoelaces was undone and bent down to tie it. She was wearing her favourites: black patent with red ties, her tap shoes I called them. I tightened both laces and patted each shoe in turn. "All set," I said, pressing my nose up against hers. She kept glancing down at her feet, conscious of herself the way all toddlers are when wearing something they're proud of.

"Tap thoose," she said beaming, pointing down at them. The time on the parking meter had expired and I began rummaging through my purse for the correct change. Frustrated, I ended up dumping the contents of my bag upside down on the hood of my car.

"I need quarters, Emm, got any on you?" I joked, turning toward her.

That's when I heard the noise, a noise that won't let go of me. Her scream. And then the silence. Something must have drawn her to the road, a dog in a car window maybe or the laughter of other children. I will never know. I'd replayed the scene countless times since, asking myself all the what if's but the feeling I cannot escape is that I wasn't careful enough: I did not take proper care. John my husband never consciously blamed me, never spoke the words, but he didn't have to. He said it in the set of his shoulders at the table and in the detached way he spoke my name. He said it every time he refused to talk with me about Emma. I finally realized it could never, simply, be the same. So I walked away from that life to this, where summers are a blur and where in winter it is easy to disappear.


Hazel is thinking of moving on. Her son has been asking her to move down to Miami with him and last winter I heard her complaining of the cold for the first time. I tell her she should go, to think of it as her next adventure. "You could set up a little business: Think of all those blue-haired ladies needing their faces exfoliated." "I'll go if you come too," Hazel protests. But she knows I won't. Seaside fits me for now. Come spring, there are rooms to be aired out, repairs to be tended to following winter's damage, and always someone needing something. * The pain is in the details, the small things. It's in the smell of baby aspirin and in watching a mother stoop down to painstakingly wipe her child's dirty face. It's remembering the sound of Emma's voice thick with sleep, calling for me after a bad dream, and in seeing a line of tiny baby clothes hanging out to dry. Things I cannot always avoid.

For a long time after the accident, my dreams were of things uncompleted, being stuck somewhere with no clothes on, or rushing to board a plane and the gate closing in my face. The only dream I've ever had of Emma was one which began this way: I am waking from sleep in my canopied bed back in Minneapolis. From the quality of light in room, it seems to be close to daybreak. I turn on my side and find Emma in a deep slumber beside me. She's kicked her covers off and is curled in a ball halfway down the bed. I reach down, gently pull her up beside me, and cover us both with the quilt. She stirs, wraps one little arm around my neck and snuggles in.

This winter I've taken to bundling up and heading out for long strolls along the boardwalk. Lately I go alone: Seymour is off to Boston for six weeks, taking part in a study on agoraphobia. Max has gone home to Hungary to be with his mother who is ill, and Josh practically lives at the restaurant these days, working double shifts and saving for some radical new hair transplant that Seymour heard about from a dermatologist. I just got a postcard from Hazel. She says Miami is a dream and that she's just signed up for a course in conversational Russian. "If you get to missing me too much there is a room here waiting for you," she writes. It's signed, "Forever, Hazel."

The midway is closed down until spring, the fronts of all the game booths covered tight with tarpaulin. Seats on the ferris wheel creek as they rock in the wind overhead. In the arcade "Madame Fortunato the Mystic" sits frozen behind a pane of glass, patiently awaiting a coin that will bring her back to life. A few hardy vendors sell snacks and hot drinks from their carts, but business is scarce. By this time I know them all by name, where they came from and how old their children are. They know me simply as Moira, the motel lady.

Shivering, we stand together sipping coffee, looking out to sea, silently counting the days until spring.

Monday, June 24, 2013

An Act of Hope.

Here's a short story I wrote called "An Act of Hope" based on my vivid memory of a gifted high school teacher I was lucky to have. She was a nun in the order, Sisters of St. Joseph. Her name was Sister Clara. It's never been published, one of those pieces I just wrote and forgot about. I've dusted it off and here it is.

Sister Clara gave me my love of English even though I could have nearly died that day in ninth grade when she announced to the class that I had turned in a perfect exam on Shakespeare's Henry IV. She stood behind her desk clapping gleefully while I skulked up to receive my paper, my classmate's groans and jeers resounding at my back.

"Never be ashamed of excellence, Anne," she whispered to me as she handed me my paper. I felt there was something in what she said even though I viewed everything the nuns told us as suspect. What did they know of real life, sealed up in their house on the hill, window shades drawn day and night. I used to walk by the convent at night looking for signs of life, hoping to catch a peek of them in thick flannel nightgowns skirting the floor, waltzing with each other, or sipping sherry. I never did though. It seemed nothing moved inside, as if once behind those doors the nuns evaporated, only to magically reappear in a flock each morning on their way down the hill to mass, their voluminous habits flapping wildly in the wind like great shrouds.

All of us at St. Joe’s, especially the girls, revelled in the nuns' mystery. They weren't like our lay teachers who kept pictures of their families on their desks and shared with us little details of their lives, like what they did on weekends and their favourite TV programs. Because the nuns were unconnected to life as we knew it they remained unapproachable, even ominous.

Sister Clara was the exception. The rumor was that she had been a businesswoman in Toronto before entering the convent and her worldly style convinced me it was true. She was taller and leaner than the rest. Devoid of makeup and creams she had a face of impossible beauty with razor-sharp cheekbones. The other nuns smelled of chalk and starch but Sister Clara gave off the scent of jasmine, which I assumed was bar soap, an affectation from her previous life. The other sisters generally kept their hands modestly tucked inside the folds of their habits, but Sister Clara had soulful hands with long delicate fingers that she used freely to punctuate her speech.

Her classes were like a reprieve. She often strayed from the curriculum, considered iron-clad by the other sisters, and passed around books on painting and sculpture. She brought in an ancient phonograph and we listened to the music of Tchaikovsky, Benny Goodman, and Nelson Riddle. We learned about the personal lives of authors, how F. Scott Fitzgerald died a broken man, and of Emily Dickinson's years as a hermit. "You must understand, class," she'd announce dramatically, "great artistry exacts a certain price." Once she spent an entire class talking about the Bronte sisters like she'd known them personally. "All three of them sought to hide their feminine identity from editors by using pseudonyms," she explained, walking up and down the aisles. "Charlotte, of course, was Emily's greatest fan ..."

Every Monday morning we'd come in to find another of her observations written on the corner of the blackboard in her delicate script. I can still remember many of them. One was: "A reader finds little in a book save what he puts there. But in a great book he finds space to put many things." Another read: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Under this one was written the author's name, Emily Dickinson. I figured loneliness was something Sister Clara knew about since she was so unlike the other sisters. She had witnessed their unpredictable behavior as we all had, like the morning when Sister Rosalind, our principal, bounded in to our classroom unannounced and sailed over to where Dennis Gray was sitting. Our class was divided into two groups, 10A and 10B, according to academic performance, a witless setup that struck me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. My friend Dennis was slouched over his desk, as usual. He hated school and didn't try to hide the fact. Sister Rosalind shoved his hands out of the way, threw open the lid of his desk and began tossing his books out onto the floor. "We've decided it would be best for everybody if you were to move in to the 10B class. Collect your things and come with me." Everyone knew about Rosalind's manic whims - Rosie the Riveter we called her. Dennis reluctantly followed her but not before making a hilarious face to the rest of us behind her back. As he walked past her desk, Sister Redempta called out to him, "You show remarkable grace under pressure, Mr. Gray." Rosalind pretended she didn't hear her.

Sister Clara taught me English Lit all through high school. After my mother died when I was five my father kept us in Catholic school even though he was protestant. He told us sternly it was what she had wanted. Every Sunday morning without fail he dropped me and my four brothers off at mass and waited smoking in the car until we came out. I guess that's why Sister Redempta took a personal interest in me. We never discussed it but she obviously knew: it was a very small town. She loaned me one book after another to read, by authors I had never heard of. I devoured them as quickly as she produced them. "It's important to get different points of view," she'd explain. "Invaluable to a writer, Anne." I stood in the freezing cold on Saturday mornings waiting for her to join me at school. I lived for those private sessions, for her singular attention when we'd discuss what I'd read the previous week. When I asked her why she chose a particular book for me, she'd say simply, "We learn the most from what is good." There wasn't much reading at my house, only my brother's comics and my father's Reader's Digests, but they seemed insultingly simple and bland. In Sister Clara's stories, endings were not tidy, things didn't always come out right. If I prodded her, she'd occasionally read passages aloud to me. That was my favourite part. I sat transfixed in a front row desk of the empty classroom, learning of independent thinkers and dreamers, and of a wider world I couldn't wait to enter. I showed her my own poems and stories from time to time and they'd come back to me with her comments neatly penciled in the margins, things like: "Get to the point here," "Too flowery," or "Beautifully said, Anne." My father worried I was taking too much of her free time but when I told her so, she said firmly, "Nonsense, Anne. It is my absolute pleasure." One of the poems I showed her was about my mother. In it I described my favourite photograph of her, which was stuck in the corner of my bedroom mirror. The picture is taken in summer at a party in our backyard. A group of women are posing for the camera. They are all laughing, their arms linked, wearing small hats, flowered dresses and gloves. My mother is standing off to the side in a lovely white sheath, her hair hanging loosely over her shoulders. There is a tiny baby girl in her arms, also dressed in white. "I try to piece my memories of her together but memories are not enough," my poem read in part. I called it "Alone Together." Sister Clara wrote only one comment in the margin. It said: "Be proud of this one, Anne."

I was desperate to know about Sister Clara's life before she entered the convent but knew it was futile. Once I asked her what colour her hair was under her veil and she admonished me to get back to work. Had she ever loved a man, I wondered? Hadn't she wanted children of her own? I yearned to know her secrets but the gulf between us seemed impassable. One Saturday morning as I was packing up my books to leave, I asked her if she'd ever written anything herself, half hoping she'd reach within the depths of her habit and hand me a brilliant novel in progress. With her command of the language, I felt sure she'd be a marvellous writer. "Not for many years, Anne," she said quietly. "My efforts are toward God's work now."

One night I stayed late to study in the library and heard music coming faintly from her classroom. I crept up to the door and through the glass window saw Sister Clara dancing with herself around the room. The song, Beautiful Dreamer, was playing on the phonograph. She'd played it for us once in class and said it had always been one of her favourites. Her eyes were closed, her arms wrapped around her body as she swayed to the music. Then she picked up the skirts of her habit and turned in one circle after another in perfect time with the music. She looked deliriously happy.

I lost touch with her after high school but had heard she'd left the convent and was working with a food bank in the city. The occasional letters and Christmas cards I'd written to her care of the mother house had never been answered. It was nearly 20 years before I saw her again. I was travelling up Bathurst on the streetcar and at first didn't recognize her in her street clothes. She was wearing a simple beige suit and sturdy-looking laced oxfords. Her features had sharpened, but she still had a patrician look all her own. Her hair was deep brown, shot with strands of grey, and tied in a knot at the back. So it was dark after all, I thought. I made my way to where she had sat down and sat down in the seat across from her. After a few minutes I gathered my courage and slid into the empty seat beside her. She was staring intently out the window in a world of her own. I leaned close to her. "Never be ashamed of excellence," I whispered in her ear.

She turned warily toward me and I reached for her hand. I knew by her expression she had no idea who I was. The scrawny girl with cat's eye glasses was now a grown woman with a different face. I introduced myself. "You taught me at St. Anthony's. I'm so delighted to see you again." The words seemed wooden, impoverished.

She looked into my face and smiled. "An absolute pleasure to see you again. You're thriving, I see." I mentioned my work as a freelance writer and she nodded, saying she'd read one of my poems in a magazine once. I asked about her work with the food bank, hoping she'd share with me her decision to leave the convent. She talked briefly about her job as administrator and how she pitched in at the food bank wherever she was needed. I pictured her lugging cartons of food around warehouses, even driving the delivery trucks when she had to. "It seems this is where I can do the most good now," she said matter-of-factly. The crisp way she answered, I realized further questions would have seemed like prying. I groped for something brilliant to say. "They're very lucky to have you, Sister."

She announced her stop was coming up and gathered up her parcels. "Keep up your writing. Remember - writing is an act of hope." I recognized it as one of the maxims she'd written on the blackboard years before.

The streetcar lurched off. I turned and watched her walk away, a woman no longer shrouded in black and larger than life. At that moment Sister Clara seemed just like all the other middle-aged women on the street that day, rushing home from work, steeped in their own thoughts. But of course she wasn't.

She wasn't like anyone else.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


We all know those moments of clarity with someone we love, that tell us more than perhaps we are ready to know.

This poem “Company” is based on a story a cousin once shared with me, of a long-ago evening when she lost not just one person, but two people once so very dear to her.


She asked him to do one thing
In all those years.

One thing she asked of him,
To sit up with her all the night long
As she waited word of her mother,
Sick, suddenly, and so very far away.

The call came in the small secret hours of morning
and she crept to the phone
To hear the worst she could imagine,
Her mother was gone from her, forever,
In a place she would never know,
Worlds away.

Narrow light seeped in at the window.
She felt the chill of the new morning.
And she felt it alone.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Predict Nothing.

Contradictions abound in people. It’s always been at the core of why I find them so fascinating.

Take me, for instance. When it comes to food I turn contradiction into an art form.

I will not drink a cup of coffee unless I have a pack of Splenda on hand yet at 10:30 last evening I consumed a microwaved mélange of mini-marshmallows, chocolate chips, a box of Duncan Hines uncooked fudge brownie mix and a soupcon of Dalton’s sweetened shredded coconut. (That counted as my fruit for the day.)

I am not alone in my curious juxtapositions.

Consider Clint Eastwood. He detests violence, criticizes its use in movies and politically supports gun control. To further confound people’s perceptions Eastwood writes haunting love songs, this beautiful one sung by Diana Krall called “Why Should I Care.”

And this, the theme of the movie Bridges of Madison County:

On to John Wayne, who hated horses. Wayne had learned to ride when he was young, so by the time he started making cowboy pictures, he was already fed up with it. In the book John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Wayne is quoted as saying, "I still hate riding horses. I go by truck everywhere I can."

Dr. Seuss (his real name was Theodor Geisel; the "doctor" was just a joke), was in reality “terrified” of children, for what he called their “unpredictability.” Never had any, never married.

Here’s to contradiction and the unexpected, knowing that none of us are so easily categorized. And here’s my (somewhat related)poem

Be quiet: You’re talking.

Tell me something I don’t know.
That there are insects that can fly through the rain
without getting wet,
That wild optimism usually masks deep despair,
Bing Crosby owned the first tape recorder in America,
Einstein failed math
And Esther Williams hated the water.

That astronauts have the highest divorce rate,
Redheads need more anaesthetic than others,
Left handed people die younger,
That tears of grief have a chemical composition
different from all others,
Emily Dickinson didn’t leave her room for 12 years,
And Chinese doctors examine a patient’s tongue

Enlighten me.
Fill me with awe.
Share things incandescent.
Or stop talking.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Abandoned Places.

There is a powerful lure for me in places that are past their heyday, when the world is finished with them and they stand alone, unfrequented, undisturbed. After they’ve served their usefulness and been unceremoniously left behind.

A few years ago I rented a house in County Kerry in Ireland, on a small rise near the ocean. In a visit to the local town a shopkeeper asked if I’d discovered the derelict hotel just down the shore from where I was staying. Naturally, I sought it out that very day. There it stood, a monolith, perhaps 300 yards from the beach. It was an incongruous sight, and not a soul anywhere to be seen. Calla lilies, native to Ireland, with decadent blooms the size of cornets, grew everywhere. Most of the roof had given way and the concrete walls wore deep cracks and scars from the salt of the sea. Across the entire frontage of the property a flying buttress stood cracked neatly down the middle as if by a stupendous lightning bolt. Or was it a rogue wave, I wondered later?

It was down at heel now but was easy to see this place had been one of grandeur. In my mind’s eye I pictured the well-heeled patrons sipping tea on that wide sweeping deck facing the sea, and a host of fashionably dressed ladies leaning over the balustrade trying to pick up what was being said at the tables below.

I carefully picked my way across the front deck, through the minefield of debris and chunks of mortar, to the main door, lying unhinged across the opening. There was ample space for me to enter; many had been here before me.

Here was the lobby, once obviously grand, now graffiti-bombed and piled with debris. It had seen its share of squatters over the years, as judged by the sodden mattresses and cigarette butts and styrofoam cups lying about. Even a hot plate. (It didn’t work; I tried.) To the side of the room stood the remnants of a grand staircase that now ended abruptly after the fifth step as if someone had taken a gigantic power saw to it.

Anything of value was long gone. If it was movable, or removable, it had been pilfered. One standing wall housed several rows of wooden pigeonholes, strangely still intact, where once the room keys had been safely stored.

In a public washroom off the lobby the ornate porcelain sinks stood in a row along one wall coated thickly in bright green algae. Weeds grew belligerently out of each sink drain. Out of one drain sprouted a daisy-like flower in full bloom.

I wandered back through the lobby and stood out front. I pictured the coming and goings of the patrons so many years before across this battered entryway, the women with their parasols, their courtly companions asking deferentially, on a late summer afternoon by the sea:

“Shall we have a spot of tea, my dear?’

(Photo courtesy of Jill Enfield.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

He had us at Sundown.

I wrote this after seeing Gordon Lightfoot live at Massey Hall in Toronto, November 2012.

Textbook weather for Gordon’s concert this evening: rain-slicked streets, brisk winds, typical moody November’s eve.

His band was minimalist, as is his wont. To wit, lead guitar, bass, drummer, keyboards, and himself. All in their 60’s, minimum. I’ve seen a couple of them before.

Gord struts out – on the stroke of 8, of course -- to thunderous applause, seeming still a little shy and embarrassed by it all, amazingly. (He even joked about the night before how, because of the city’s subway breakdown he’d had to start eight minutes later. Eight whole minutes. Oh the horror, he said. And we all knew he was only half kidding.

Opened with Did She Mention My Name? Closed with Blackberry Wine. In between, everything from If You Could Read My Mind to A Painter Passing Through.

The crowd was quiet (save for the one requisite (by now) shout of “We love you, Gord!”), very attentive (dare I say, Canadian?), reflective, appreciative, almost conspiratorial, you know that feeling Gord (and Gord alone) inspires in hometown crowds? It was so obvious everyone there was delighted to see him back onstage for another go.

Yes, he is frail, ravaged, bone thin, and easily looks his age (71). Actually, he looks like any of a dozen down on their luck guys who used to hang around (seemingly in rotation) outside the Wellington Hotel when I was a child living downtown above Robinson’s Hardware store. His voice wavers and falters from time to time and he whispers when he should shout, but no matter. His spirit is fully intact. His delivery is so evocative, so exquisite, he reminds you with each outing that he is the one who wrote the stuff – that no one gets it like he does -- and no one, of any age or stage, will ever do it better. Michael Buble, take a seat. And be quiet.

Yes, we did hear a few pins drop, especially during Song for a Winter’s Night. (He never does that and it was transcendent.) His rendition of Step Back (one of my top five of his) was rollicking, what a great tune that is, (but watch the southern Ontario males not move to it!) and then he headed into Early Morning Rain. Ahhhh.

"Let it go/ Let it happen like it happened once before…" from the song Shadows. Another special moment. This one in particular brought to mind Bob Dylan’s comment about him: “Whenever I hear a Gordon Lightfoot song, I hope it never ends.”

His banter with the crowd was so relaxed, so unscripted, he charmed the boots off all of us. (Maybe even those males?) Riffed about writing songs on airplanes, the perfect place he says, the juxtaposition of stars above, cities below... getting his “shoulders lowered” as a boy at the town barber shop in Orillia, and his joy at being “home,” and playing for us again.

A gentleman, pure and simple. And a poet non pareil. By the end, he even makes you believe those lustrous words:

“Everything will be fine by and by.”

"The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.”

Small Kindnesses.

Small Kindnesses

How will we be remembered? By our grand strokes? Perhaps. But what will surely commemorate us are the little unexpected kindnesses we bestow on others.

I remember as a child of eight going camping with the White family. Mr. and Mrs. White were friends of my parents and I had come to know their two children. I had never experienced the outdoor life before: this was truly an adventure. We sat around a bonfire that first night, and I was bewitched. I lived in an apartment above a hardware store: The only fires I’d seen were in incinerators. After a singsong and marshmallow roast we headed inside the cavernous tent, crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off.

I awoke in the early hours to discover the worst had happened, the singular thing I lived in abject fear of throughout my childhood. I had, quite simply, wet my sleeping bag. Not only wet it: soaked it through and through. Think garden hose. Think Victoria Falls.

There are few things more desolate to a little girl than lying fully awake in the dark, in the tent of relative strangers, her sleeping bag sodden, scared to move a muscle in case someone might suspect.

An inveterate bed-wetter as a child, I can still remember how torn I was when asked by friends for sleepovers. Should I, shouldn’t I? Would this be the night the floodgates let loose on a friend’s unsuspecting 900-count bed linens? How could I face them afterwards? And what if they talked?

Come to think of it I don’t quite know why I ended up on this camping trip, except that I decided to laugh at danger and simply let the chips fall.

It will never be a cake walk but I'm happy to see it's a trifle easier for bed wetters now: Kids today can rely on trusty “pull-ups,” with saturation levels akin to the Hoover Dam. This is a product I would have gladly sold my next of kin down the river for. TV commercials for these thirsty little catcher’s mitts show children falling asleep with huge vacant grins, and no wonder. They’re free of the enormous burden of shame and fear that I and so many other kids had to live with.

As I waited for dawn to arrive, I listened to the forest sounds about me, trying to figure a way out of my dilemma with some shred of dignity intact. Everyone would know, I thought. And I had worked so hard at seeming grown up around the two older children. When my tent-mates finally began to stir I feigned sleep, feeling foolish and overwhelmingly homesick, wishing I could be transported to a parallel universe. I considered several options, a couple even within the realm of possibility. I thought about rolling the bag up and running with it headlong into the forest behind the campsite, shrieking, claiming that a large unidentifiable rodent had crawled inside the bag overnight. I considered disposing of the evidence in the nearby incinerator and setting it alight. Alas, these were problematic solutions at best. Resigned, I wearily awaited my doom.

It seemed like forever as I waited for the family to fire up the frying pans and eat their breakfast. At this point the temperature inside my sodden enclosure had dropped to sub-zero temperatures, and along with it the appeal of camping forever more.

Mrs. White’s daughter poked her head in the tent suddenly and asked if I wanted to go for a bike ride with her, her brother and her dad. From the confines of my cocoon I begged off, claiming a tummy upset. “Maybe I’ll be okay later,” I said, trying to sound buoyant.

Once they’d left I unzipped myself from the crime scene, got dressed, stashed the bedding, and went out to meet my fate. Mrs. White was clearing the breakfast table. I approached her cautiously: I had no idea what to expect. She turned toward me, obviously happy to see that I had finally surfaced.

“Good morning dear,” she chirped, warmly. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ve had an accident,” I blurted out, trying not to cry.

“What is it?” she said, gathering me in her arms. “What’s wrong?”

“My sleeping bag: I’m sure I’ve ruined it,” I squeaked, finally unable to hold back my tears.

“Not to worry, lassie,” she said, without missing a beat, squeezing me tighter. “It’s past time they all had a good cleaning anyway. Let’s bring them all out and give them a good scrub.”

I was only too happy to help. I broke a land speed record in the next few minutes, gathering up all the bedding, including my own slightly weightier bag, and piling them out of doors. By the time the others had returned from their outing all five of our sleeping bags were blowing in a stiff breeze on a wash line behind the tent. Mine looked no different than the others: I was exultant. That night when I crawled into the now-pristine sleeping bag I discovered that inside was a thick plastic sheet atop a cotton one. The next morning and for the three following it I was dry as a bone upon waking. Mrs. White never mentioned the incident again.

As I write this I can’t recall exactly what Mrs. White looked like or whether I ever saw her again, but I will never forget her compassion that sun-drenched summer morning.

By one small exquisite act of kindness that summer morning, she made it possible for me to go on.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Gordon and His Triumphant Return.

Gordon and His Triumphant Return.

We thought he was but a memory.

For two years now we have searched in vain in the rock face at the front of our cottage for a trace of our pal, our faithful mascot, the groundhog we christened Gordon. Truth be told we first named him Georgina, until a biology major in residence made the startling announcement that this was in fact a male of the species we had befriended. So Gordon it was.

Gordon had a favourite crevice out front between two outsized boulders. The generously carved niche fit his rotundness perfectly. From this chosen perch he was able to survey all of our comings and goings, which he did religiously, but it offered more -- a fallback position in that he could scoot backwards into his tunnel in a micro-second if he felt the need for safety. Or some alone time. Or a nap.

On sunny days he would stick his snout out to catch some rays and doze. When feeling emboldened he would lay his corpulent self on the upper level of rock, often belly up. He looked so comfortable I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him tuck his little arms behind his head as he lay, and a cocktail at his side with an umbrella as garnish.

During more mellow times he withdrew into the opening out of the glare and the spotlight. Only a glimpse deep inside would reveal to us his two bright eyes shining back out of the dark.

On a visit two years ago I noticed after a few hours that Gordon had not favoured us with a visit. No sign of our furry friend anywhere, throughout our stay. We locked up and left, feeling puzzled and bereft.

Alas, Gordon was nowhere to be seen that year or the next. Everyone had a different opinion of Gordon’s whereabouts but it was all just guesswork.

I hoped it was simply that he had moved to greener rock faces, but I had good reason to expect the worst. None of us were unaware that gophers are creatures reviled by many. (We all saw Caddy Shack!). They are infamous for tunneling their way through rock gardens and across manicured lawns, eroding all landscaping as they go. But Gordon had lived on our property for two years and we noticed no such damage.

The next trip up I went looking for Gordon and discovered a thick plastic tarp stuffed deeply into his crevice. I pulled the sizable contraption out with considerable effort, wedged tightly as it was, drawing with it a cavalcade of soil and small stones.

It seemed someone in the area was taking no chances on gopher tomfoolery and had taken the matter into their own hands. But what to do? Do you go to a neighbour’s door and ask calmly if they smoked out your pet gopher? We decided to assume the best possible scenario for Gordon, that he had chosen to grace another cottager’s rock formation. But we missed his holding court out front through weekends and vacations, how he appeared like clockwork at the mouth of his crevice at our every arrival, our little wordless welcome home.

Indeed, a visit here never officially began until we had communed with Gordon. I felt sad about the whole business and somehow responsible. Every time I looked at his little spot out front my heart sank.

That was two years ago.

Today we returned to the cottage for a few days. While I was unpacking I glanced out my bedroom window to the rock wall that lies behind the cottage. There sat contentedly a portly brown gopher, and although I have no proof this is indeed our Gordon, I choose to believe that it is.

I mean, he tilts his head at the sound of his name, for starters, and even noise at the window and the flash of my camera when I took the above photo didn’t send him scurrying.

I hope that means he’ll learn to trust us again and decide to stay.

After all, he’s chosen a better view this time. Now he can watch us swimming in the lake while he suns himself.

Welcome home, wee Gordon.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Poetry is my church.

Poetry is my church. I go to it for redemption, for answers and for comfort. Sister Leo Patrick, my imperious high school principal, would not be thrilled with this, nor would she be particularly surprised. I was always a thorn in her side.

In a poem of mine called "Subject Matters," I look at what prompts poetry in me. Here’s part of it…

Damn the torpedoes,
the world-famous poet pronounced from the podium.
Write poems you want to read
And I do.
Not of the sunset
and whether it’s pink
or slightly more mauve than pink,
but of the young man who watches it distractedly,
the light fading from his boarding house window,
Not quite sure of how to go on.

My poetry is not really simple, I don’t think, but it is about ordinary things. I’m not an abstract thinker. I’m interested in ordinary life. I don’t ask a poem to carry a lot of baggage. I just try being an observer and letting the experience move from me through my trusty Ultra fine Sharpie Pen onto the pages of my wide-ruled notebook -- without distortion.
I write poems to help me make sense of the world, to connect, just connect. I find the smallest moment can teach me things.
I feel passionately that a poem, any poem, should earn its keep. And what does that entail? What do I want from a poem? What do I think we should all want – and get?
First, I want to be moved by a poem. To be reading it and feel there is nowhere else I want to be, nothing else I’d rather be doing.
I want to be reminded of something I’ve forgotten. That I’ve heightened my awareness somehow.
I want to stir inside a little. To have that deliriously happy moment when after I’ve read the poem I put down the book or magazine and am lost in a realization, a heightened awareness. Do you know that moment? It is delicious. You feel smarter, more connected, more human after reading the piece. it’s that moment of magical understanding . Oh, yes I see, you think. I am the better for having read this …Wiser somehow.
I want to be told something by a poem.. Something, almost anything. It may be precisely the way sunlight seeps through the pores of a wooden floor, or the way the poet see the belly of the moon at night before she falls asleep. It might be about love, even if it is bad love. Or especially because it is bad love--such a common heartbreaking thing.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It has been far too long since I wrote here. My tendency it seems is to post my thoughts in other venues, FB primarily, but I am resolving to begin posting here again, and frequently.

Let me start with a recent poem entitled "Sitting Duck," part of my new manuscript entitled "The Music of Leaving,"
which is in the hands of a few publishers as I write this.

Following the poem is the back story. And what a story it was.

Sitting Duck.

Everybody loves a train at a distance.
Explains you and me perfectly.
The champion of the dine and dash,
Calling for the cheque too soon.
Methodically, diabolically, keeping me
off balance.
Plans were vague coming from you, up for sudden
inexplicable change.
There was always someone on hold,
someone in your lobby, waiting,
drumming their fingers.
Even when alone
we were never
Off kilter, off guard,
I grew expert in the art of rationalization,
the game of catch-up.
It seemed you were always rounding a corner
in the distance
the moment I glimpsed sight of you,
the belt of your flawlessly tailored trench coat
flapping behind you.
as you ran.

Picture me, in my early 20’s, dewy-eyed, home after two years living in England, visiting my parents mid-summer up north and out for a drink with friends.

Shank of the evening, me with too many of those coolers we know too well under my belt, and it was literally…. eyes across a crowded room. Never happened to me before or since. (Ever happen to you?) He was tall, rangy, super confident (of course), absolutely frickin gorgeous. (Think Anthony Perkins but not gay, decidedly NOT gay, unfortunately for me as it turned out.)

And as it also turned out I was about to launch into the most confusing, bewildering, ecstatic, tempestuous liaison of my life. Paul was his name, and he swept me off my feet and out of my mind. (Ever had a Paul in your life? They shave your IQ in half, and the top of your head off.) Spent the entire next six months trying to figure out whether I was good enough, were we actually together, was he seeing someone else, all the shit that comes down in those ridiculously crazy couplings.

But you know what? Wouldn’t change a thing. It fuelled a lot of my writing, that eventual heartbreak. How he broke up with me? Well, he never did. (They never do.) He stopped calling and it was me calling him ,with the new girl answering his phone proprietarily. I know, such a tired cliché, but it stopped my heart. And the thing didn’t start beating again in regular rhythm for about a year.

I saw the two of them at a bar downtown a few months after and she joined me at the mirror to do her lipstick. Think Heidi Montag. With a soupcon of Paris Hilton. (Paul, really? Your taste, I remember thinking.) Of course, even at that tender age I knew it wasn’t her (she?) who was the culprit. She had fallen prey as I had. Neither of us spoke. And off she went in a cloud of Charlie cologne and boobs.(Again, Paul, really?)

I thank Paul now for the early glorious moments of that summer when my feet didn’t touch the ground. Everyone should know that feeling once; no one should know the other part though, when tears don’t seem to even touch the grief you feel when he leaves you behind. On your ass. Wondering who you are, what month it is, and whether you'll ever learn to breathe right again.