Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dead Letters

"Bartleby, the Scrivener", that oh so famous work by Herman Melville, of the White Whale fame (that book is a good read; the fame is deserved, I suppose) ends will a rumination on letters that will never get read.  I have always liked this idea, of writing words no one will read.  Google suggests to me that these words, here at least, will get read, however (Hello, Denmark!). And so, today, this morning, I wrote words elsewhere, in the snow. At least, I wrote letters, standing in for words, perhaps with a shape or two.
I was tantalized by the idea of the impermanence of it all. Writing in snow, doomed to melt.  It's a public place, really, so someone might read my msg. No matter, it isn't addressed to the public.  This is not all, however. Sometime later, on the squash court (with a small lead, and looking to win), I was momentarily overtaken by the enormity of a moment in history, on that self same squash court, where I had failed to secure untold future happiness for myself. In my defence, I had no idea at the time that my decisions would come back and haunt me. I simply made the choice, a small one at the time, according to what I though was right. An innocent (seemingly so) question asked, and an innocent (really innocent, I had no idea) answer given. I was doomed, it would appear, at a later date, to magnify this mistake by maintaining what I thought was a proper silence, at a time when I was also distracted by affairs of my own. Again, I had no idea my future happiness (my god what happiness it could have been! I quake to think of it, nerves a-jangle, heart racing),  hung in the balance, else I would have spoke. Alas, clarity in hindsight is a difficult burden to bear.
So, there I was, on the squash court, with my small lead, looking to win, when the full extent of what I had done (by failing to do) hit me.  I reeled. I felt faint, nauseous, and I lost all sense of focus or drive.  Soon, I sat at a 5 point deficit, my opponent serving for game point.
How did I fare, gentle reader? I gathered my wits, and I accepted the the sheer stupidity of my innocent answers, and my innocent silences. I decided to fight, not to lose. I gathered my wits and my resolve, and I came back, flawlessly, to win, 5 points straight, no errors, for a 15-14 game, to me. A glorious victory, and the best thing to happen to me in days (It has been a decidedly long week).
What, we might inquire, has this to do with writing in the snow? Easy. I realized that innocent answers and silences have served me no good (ruined me, truth be told), and I questioned the wisdom of impermanent writing. A sharpie, purchased hastily, fixed that.  Permanence, for msgs., for me, thank you.  It is there, my msg., in black ink. Someday, it might fade, or some well meaning city employee will remove it with a harsh chemical bath, I suppose. But it is not large, and they might miss it.  The weather will have at it, true. After, everything is impermanent. But sharpie ink has staying power, so I've cast my lot in with it, for the time being. And a good thing, too, as the sun (glorious sun, shining to celebrate the smashing of my opponent on the court, I presume) had begun to melt my original msg. in the snow.
I have realized another thing, thanks to my stunning victory and humbled opponent.  That the grey world of loss and death that has recently been mine is also impermanent. I could stay in it, but to be honest, I would prefer not to.  There is a very interesting life ahead of me (some might claim it to be an awfully big adventure indeed), and I suppose I ought to do my best to live it.
My return to children's lit., begun with The Hobbit, bolstered by Peter and Wendy, some 100 years old next year (I cannot thank you enough for that, really; it is wonderful, and I mean to cherish it all the years of my life), and continued today in what can only be describe as an Odyssey of book buying (a copy of Peter Pan for myself, The complete Narnia stories, and a book of science fiction strangely, but somehow fittingly, titled Her Pilgrim Soul) has taught me that innocence cannot be maintained, but that life, after all, goes on.
Perhaps, like Max, it is time to realize that the make believe world (for him the Wild Things, for me the past and memories) is less important than the real (for him, his family, for me, the present moment, and forward). Still, I would appreciate the company, should someone care to join me in the upcoming big adventure.  I no longer fear the abyss, and you are more than welcome to come along.
Still, all things considered, I may, upon returning home, allow myself a moment to grieve on the shores of the sea, and remember those I have lost. I said to someone I might, and I owe them that. And more. But I can give them that, at least.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Beast With the Wide Mouth...

It snowed today, this morning. Snow marks, for me, the true beginning of winter. The end, at last, of autumn, that liminal season of dying (although I was taken to task today, for suggesting the liminality of autumn). With the year finally dead, with winter here, I feel relieved. I am one step closer to that joy of joys, spring. I was told by someone today that they would not miss 2010, and I concur. It is a year that has past its prime, a year that deserves the long cold sleep of death, of winter.
Drawn this afternoon, as always, to my dear Ville-Marie, I thought it fitting, as my heart was overwhelmed, to seek a place of comfort, even if that comfort would be cold. I went, as I do in these moments, to that greystone wall that figures so prominently in my mind these days, that cold monument to memory constructed largely in my own mind.  When I visit that wall, I usually sit, occasionally with a slice of pizza, and I think, of all that has past, and sometimes of what may yet come. Of late, I think of one thing more than others. I think of loss, sitting on that wall, and I remember. But I could not sit today, on my wall.  There was a layer of snow atop the wall, even and perfect, and I could not find the heart to disturb it.
Autumn this year has been marked heavily by loss. I have spent long hours, thinking, obsessed with death, obsessed with loss and the nature of memories. Even the need to write, best expressed here (and least well expressed in my academic life) is founded in large measure on my obsession with the memories of the dead, and of those no longer part of my life; my memories of losses, new and old.
Death has been very much present, stalking me in the streets of Ville-Marie.  I hear the lonely call of crows, looking up to see them grimly silhouetted against the morning sun, flying away to some terrible, imagined destination.
I recognize now, after long contemplation, the role of memory in my own approach to death, to loss. It is the memory of the dead, the gone, that constitutes their continued presence in my life. It is the memories of the dead that make them meaningful, that allow me access to them. It is because I can remember my father that I do not have to mourn so heavily his passing. I can uphold a relationship with him, in my memories, and in the shared memories of others. I can tell stories of him, and the pain of his loss is lessened.  And there are others whom have died or whom I have lost for whom I can do the same.
Luckily, the past is mutable, as are memories. Some losses are more painful than others, some more fresh. Remembering is not enough, it is too soon, and simply reminds me that I will share no new memories with those now missing. But, I can weave a narrative of memories, I can remake the past. A narrative that is less painful, one that tells a story of sharing meaningful words, of books, perhaps, and of nights and mornings. Happy memories. And even though the pain of loss is fresh, I can round off the sharpest corners.
I visit that greystone wall, alone with the snow and the crows, and the ghosts of Ville-Marie, and in my mind, I piece together little bits of story, snippets of narrative, true or not, to lay softly over the pain of my losses, until I can accept the story I weave. Until that pain becomes bearable. Until I can remember those I have lost without wanting to forget.

Friday, November 19, 2010

To every thing there is a season...

Winter is upon us, and the wind bites.  Gone is the liminal Autumn. Ogilvy's Christmas window is up, and soon there will be snow. The death of the year has arrived.
I had a chance, recently, in the early hours of the morning, to revisit McGill College, and see, from the same vantage, the vista of my favourite Ville-Marie moment.  Like the revisititation of all memory, it was marred by reality.  The trees of the street were lit in red, not the stately white of my younger days, and it was not snowing.
Memory is an interesting thing these days.  I am ever reminded of memory's malleability.  Even now, as I sit, I craft memory into narrative, shaping, changing, moulding. I create memory.  I can look back at memories, reimagine the import, or the meaning hidden there.  On this, the cusp of a new winter, I remember...
I have been thinking lately, about the intersection of memory, place and time. What is the memory of time? or of place?  I remember places that no longer are.  I remember a city that has changed. Things have happened here, but they are not now here, and are not now.  When and where were they?  We spent several hours discussing this in a course I took last semester, in the context of history, but I'm pretty certain we didn't answer it then, either.
Downtown geography, for me, is haunted by the ghosts of the past.  The empty lot at Cathcart and University, once The Dublin, site of monumental debauchery. The corner of Ste Cat's at Phillip Square, where a girl saved me from being struck by a car, crying at the closeness of my mortality in that moment, herself killed some years later by a car.
Alone at the front of the Eaton Center, or asleep in the Palace Theatre. DeMaisonneuve, with a girl on my arm, looking over my shoulder. Standing in the afternoon sun in the early, glorious days of spring.  The terrace on Crescent, Cafe Republique, and the Raspberry spitting. All memories.
Memories have layers. There is a greystone wall in Ville-Marie, guarding the edge of a parking lot.  A sad patch of grass grows there, and weeds.  I have memories of it for two reasons, largely unconnected.  I deliberately placed one layer there, to keep it safe. The second layer accrued more normally, but the wall keeps that layer safe, as well.  I like it on that wall, and I go there often.
But memories are shared too.  And I can't tell you much about that wall, because it belongs to someone else too.  I don't know they would want me to share those memories.
There is a time for every purpose.  I will, for a time, sit on that greystone wall, and remember...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

7 Swords

I have been spending a substancial amount of time down town this autumn season.  Truth be told, I have always spent a substancial amount of time in the city's core, but it seem to me to be more pertinent now, somehow.  As the weather turns, and the crisp turns to cold, and the sun hangs low in the gaps between the buildings, I know that winter is upon us all.  Walking along Ste. Catherine's, it is hard, this time of year, not to feel like a thief, slipping in and out of the crowds, alone despite the masses, waiting with the crows for the death of the year...
Some of my fondest memories of of downtown, my dearly beloved Ville-Marie, are of Christmas, with the mad energy of the commercial hum, the lights in the streets, and the vast Christmas tree in PVM, like a beacon at the end of McGill College, itself all lit up against the darkest part of the year...
I saw it once, during one of those winter snowfalls that drives everyone into safer, warmer places than the street, and the sound dies in the softness of the fallen snow.  Looking down McGill College, seemingly alone in the world aside from her, in the silence, it was beautiful, in that sublime, ineffable way I imagine mystical experiences to be.  I don't suppose I'll ever forget that.
The tree is up now, in the pre-advent advent of mid-November.  Last I checked, McGill College does not yet have her lights, but I am sure they will come.  Christmas, and it's lights and pagan traditions of yearly rebirth, will replace the Autumn mortuary edge that has predominated my downtown for weeks now.
I've revived, in my own attempt to light up the dark, a scarf that my sister knit for me many years ago.  It is bright, and long, colourful, and whimsical.  It is unique, hand made from a made up pattern, and even now, many years later, seems to radiate some of the warmth and kindness I know my sister felt as she knit it.  In it, I feel a tiny bit safer against the fall of the year, against the cold, and the dark.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Having the key to the Abyss...

I stood, quite recently, staring entranced into the inky, seemingly endless abyss that is the bottom of my cast iron frying pan.  The pan is a family heirloom, having belonged at one time to my mother's mother, Granny Adams (may she rest in peace).  To stare into its bottom, as the oil heats, is to stare into a blackness that seems complete, total, and final.  All the light in the world seems to die in the bottom of that pan, and the soul of the cook (in this case played convincingly by my own poor soul, such as it is) is faced, like the soul of the stargazer staring into the cosmos, or the mystic staring into the face of God, with the seeming infinitude of existence.  Faced with the endless, soul consuming blackness at the bottom of my grandmother's pan, I, like others before me, begin to think...
Is cooking a creative act?  I spoke recently (over lunch, a a very nice little Vietnamese place) about the creative process, with a friend, I claiming that while she has her various arts, I have only cooking (as writing academically does not seem to fulfil the same needs, although it could, I suppose, if I framed it properly).  In the hierarchy of the arts, I placed cooking below her music and drawing.
In the early fall of the year, another friend spent a rather long time, and a not insignificant amount of energy, to convince me (she preached, I fear, to the choir) of the creative-ness of her cooking, and how, in her life, it was the sole source of creative outlet.  She, of course, was right, and I wholeheartedly agreed with her at the time.  Why then, today, did I denigrate cooking?
Who can say.  To cook is to intimately interact with the very elements of life.  To make, and to consume (or, height of all heights, to feed another; be still my heart) food is a fundamentally human moment.  One connects not only with the ingredients (which through some process of magic change from the one thing to the other in the process; could be physics and chemistry, but magic too, I suppose), but one connects with one's self as well.  And the other!  Well, it is a powerful thing indeed to feed the other.  To nourish one's self is one thing, to nourish the other is something else altogether.
I am blessed in that a good number of people see fit to feed me, unsolicited. These people, whether they know it or not, share something with me, something profound.
I've stopped using soap to clean my cast iron pan, in part because I know (rationally) that it is bad for the finish, and I will lose flavour.  But, and this is an important but, it is also in part because I am afraid to wash away the blackness, the window into emptiness that reminds me, as I lose my cook's soul in it, what it is I am about to do when I add the onions to the hot fat.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

When I was a child...

In his first letter to the Corinthians (exciting city, Corinth, or so I hear. Vegas of the ancient world), Paul writes "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things".
Try as I might, I have not put away childish things.
More specifically, I am full on engaged in an attempt to relive my younger days, in what must be a 1/3 life crisis (my quarter life crisis involved a studded belt.  Those were good days).
In addition to pretending not to need to sleep (a favorite these days; I nodded off earlier drafting the first part of this post) and downloading 15 year old videogames that I played when I was younger (and playing the again, I might add) I've taken to mixing tapes.
Not that I was a great tape mixer when I was a boy. No. Nor do I currently actually use tapes.  Lucille and iTunes do a more than adequate job.
When I was younger, much younger, in high school (final year, valedictorian, yearbook editor, all around playboy), my friend Jeffrey mixed the ultimate mix tape.  I say with no word of a lie that this mix tape was simply the BEST MIXED TAPE EVER!
Did I need all caps there? Maybe not. Exclamation point? Totally unnecessary (It almost always is, ladies. Remember that next time you txt someone, ok?).  But I do stand behind the awe inspiring (and I mean Rudolf Otto kinda awe here, fear and all) greatness of this mixed tape.
Mix tapes are more that just the music on them, greater than the sum of their parts. The playlists I put together this summer weren't really mix tapes til they were burned unto cd, the music etch for all time into the physical medium of plastic.
So to with Jeff mother of all mixes.  He made me a copy, hoping, I am sure, to save my very soul by exposing it to the divine power of the mix tape.  I don't remember the original, but my copy was on a Lazer audiocassette, 75 mins.  Don't recognize the brand? No one does, except a few chinese kids who work in a tape factory in the '90s.  10 for a dollar at the dollar store (which was new at the time, and cause for very great excitement indeed).  By the time he got it to me, 3 of the 4 corners were already gone, and most of the magnetic strip was unrolled.
Sound quality? On the dollar store cassette? Maybe the hiss and the buzz of cheap tapes made the experience better. Maybe the flatness of it all made it more real, more authentic, more mixed.  I don't know.
We lost those tapes.  Jeff tried again, a year or so later, but he changed the mix. He'd grown, learned new things, wanted different music.  It was good, but it wasn't the same.  I was younger than he, not ready for the change, for the new.
Maybe he and I can remember the playlist. Maybe he and I can reconstruct the order, the songs.  I'll burn it on the cheapest cd I can find, and God willing, I will not put away childish things.  Not yet, anyway.