Poetic Gladiators

My mother is deciding whether to sleep upstairs or down. 16 stairs up or 16 stairs down. It doesn’t really matter, as both are hard on her knees. She discovers the ‘T-Zone Vibration Technology ‘ 16 stairs down and that decides it. Stepping gingerly onto the footpads, she sets the display to ‘Fat Burn’ and hits ‘Start’. It rocks, low and slow, not what she expected but that’s why she stepped up. For the unexpected.

…“THIS FADED AIR, TORPID WIND, GENERATIONS OF BONES IN THE DIM LIGHT…” From another room at the front of the house, I can hear her… “THIS FADED MIRROR, PATTERNING THE EMBERS OF MY FACE…” As she rehearses for a spoken word performance, I’m reminded of the first time she cracked her soul open with the power of language…“I WILL DESCEND TO THE RIVER, TO THE BED OF STONES, THE SADNESS OF LEAVES, FLOATING…” There’s no one in the house but she and I and yet—I feel as if the whole world is watching.  My 80-year-old mother is flaying herself in the middle of my friend’s living room and all I can think is, “What if someone hears?”

“Don’t think too much, don’t second-guess, go with your gut.” We’re writing together in a cafe in Inglewood and she notices I’m uneasy. I make poems in the solitude of my own home, where there are no persons raising judgey eyebrows over their coffee cups. “Okay, I’ll start,” she offers. Her prose is intense, dark, frightening—as if daring me to be her counterpoint. Dipping my words into a well of honey, I parry her with an optimism honed from years of practice. We spar like poetic gladiators, she with the spear, I with the shield; I with the spear, she with the shield, and the metaphor of our relationship is not lost on me.


A Too Short Story

When we are young, friendships come easily. We collect them like seashells or fallen flowers—precious in the moment yet when the moment is gone, another comes to take it’s place. To love unconditionally and forgive quickly is something we often lose with our childhood; life makes us less trusting and more careful about who we let in. But life can surprise us.

When we moved to another country, another city, another culture, I became like a child again, surrounded by strangers who each carried the possibility of the gift of friendship. Friendships that hung in the balance of both wanting to give, and wanting to receive.

One night I met a woman at a party and we got to talking – about life, love, art. She gave me her time and I accepted it like the treasure it was.

A ceramicist, she invited me to come visit her studio. Inside, the air was close with dust from the clay and heat from the kiln. She introduced me to all her children—some lay naked and waiting for her painters brush while others stood like soldiers in all their finery.

Her life partner was also an artist so she took me across the road to his workshop. The massive doors opened easily despite their imposing facade, and inside lay a fantasy world. Surrounded by the smell of wood and steel, I made my way through found objects that would one day become works of art. The raw beauty of the space was like nothing I’d seen, and even though I had yet to meet this man, his energy emanated from every nail, every stone, every piece of wood.

In infinite jest
the sun rose again today
the wind stirred
the water rippled
the shadows danced.

In infinite jest
each breath came
in and out
in and out
as if it were just another day.

In infinite jest
the clouds moved across the sky
a living canvas
its semiotic indicator
a waning moon.

The sky
becomes the sea
the sea becomes
the sky
death becomes life

In infinite jest.

Thank you for your fallen flower George Samuelson.


Ten years ago this month, I walked out the door of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, Alberta, my ‘good-to-go’ papers in hand and a newly minted batch of peach fuzz on my head. I remember it being a typical fall day in Alberta – bright, crisp, and full of promise.

It took me a while to embrace the promise of that day because cancer remained in my psychological self long after eradication from my physical one. Eventually I did, taking my second chance and running with it – all the way to Mexico. Some people thought it was kind of crazy, and some days my own untarnished optimism was pummelled into submission by the ever present Fear of the Unknown. However, after being released from treatment and falling right back into the status quo with frightening ease, I came to realize something. If my life was going to have more meaning for me, I had to become responsible for making it so. For me, that meant creating fundamental changes which would challenge me in new ways, creatively and emotionally. Finding fulfilment beyond my own normal meant following through on an oft imagined dream to live in another culture, where living with less didn’t have to mean living a less rewarding life.

Cancer was not a gift, but it was an opportunity to look at things differently. Moving to Mexico to embrace a culture as foreign to me as the language, became the catalyst for the change I’d hoped for. After five years, I’m still adjusting to this new life, but for the most part, the struggle is with an adversary more daunting than cancer – myself.

“Sorry”, Melva said, “that shouldn’t have hurt, but you’ve got the tiniest veins in your hands I’ve ever seen, and they’re not cooperating.”

I don’t know what Melva is talking about because I have my mother’s hands – large, sturdy and highly cooperative. My grandmother had English teacher hands – delicate, pale, and somewhat secretive. My hands are doing battle for me now, fighting back in a way I can’t, making it difficult for Melva to do her job. I’m not angry with Melva, I don’t have the energy. But I’m annoyed she seems so flippant, like she’s getting ready to jumpstart a car battery instead of a human body. My human body. Melva seems an okay person, but she’d be better suited to nursing animals than people. A dog on chemo wouldn’t care if Melva said, “The first time I rolled a chemotherapy bag down the hall to a patient, there was a leak in the bag and damned if it didn’t eat a trail right through the linoleum.”

Tossing the third ruined needle into the hazardous waste bin and snapping her gloves off with frightening efficiency, Melva strides off in search of a small vein expert, and I find myself alone. Melva has been a distraction. Her absence leaves me nothing to focus on except my surroundings, something I’ve been avoiding. I scan ‘the others’ with slightly downcast eyes and realize just how much I’ve been trying to make myself, and them, invisible. They reflect what I choose not to see – fear, weakness, resignation – and I prefer not to look in that particular mirror. I’d rather look at my hands; they haven’t lost their self-esteem. I squeeze them in tight fists, willing the veins to cooperate.

This story came to mind as I was writing. I send it out to all who have endured the Melva’s of the world, to those who have thrived and those who are still waging war with their bodies. And to my remaining Hope Sisters—Leslie, Sherry and Susan.

A Good Death

How do you want to die? It’s a question that inspires some to grab a sand shovel, dig a hole and stick their heads in it — which, less metaphorically, is a possible answer to the question. But the more we ask this simple yet deeply complicated and personal question, the more its answer will probably determine the difference between a life that ends peacefully or regretfully.  –David G. Allan, The Wisdom Project, CNN

Death and the meaning of life are two subjects we can obsess over at 18 or 80, but that seem to move to the forefront of our thoughts at mid age. We expect to face the death of our parents and steel ourselves for that shattering call. We expect some of our friends, lovers, ex-lovers, may go gently, or not, into that good night. But if you’re like me, you don’t expect the grim reaper will come knocking at your own door any time soon. Instead, it’s the meaning of life, the meaning of MY life and how I hope to live it, that occupy my thoughts.
In his insightful writing for The Wisdom Project, David G. Allan shares books and films on the subject, as well as his own ‘good death’ checklist, because after all, “Our ultimate goal,” he quotes Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, “is not a good death, but a good life to the very end.” Here’s to that.

Alas My Own Thighs

She filled her bowl with borscht
for the second time,
added sour cream,
and pondered the heat in her years-old body.
The problem was space,
having had to do with space all of her life,
None of it hers.
Orange fruit in a black bowl
is one thing,
aging female bodies, another.
No single way.
No knife.

Going on sentimental forays at 4 a.m.
demons catching a ride
is no way to find it.
She wouldn’t mind being six again,
not sixteen or even thirty-six,
when she was still fulfilling the dreams of others,
her own dreams featuring buses
lost in public places.
She forges ahead, fictions revised,
and with gender intact
as her mother would have wanted.
— Joyce Luna
Yes, my fascination with the language of poetry continues unabated. This guest post is from Joyce Luna—artist, musician, and poetic wanderer. She currently lives in Victoria Canada with her dog Mickey. She’s also my mom.

More Duck Than Swan

I always wanted to be a ballerina. Somehow I thought it would make me more swan than duck, more girl than boy. “I want to take ballet lessons”, I announced to my mother one day. In the kitchen preparing dinner, she stopped to consider my fervent request. “Are you sure?”, she asked, as if a seven-year-old can ever be sure about anything. But I was sure. And for the next eight weeks I walked toe heel toe heel to a small community centre bursting with equally fervent seven-year-olds who had the same ideals of grace and beauty as I did.Ali Bath Master_small

My best friend thinks there was some mystery coding in almost every little girl between the ages of five and 10 who grew up in the 1960s — they HAD to go to ballet school. Chubby, clumsy, it didn’t matter. “I was no different”, she shared. “When I was ten I asked my mother if I could go to the ballet school a couple blocks from our house. She was classically supportive as usual. In a sing songy voice she said, ‘You’ll be soooorrrryyy’…she was correct, again.”

The outcome of all those classes didn’t seem to matter to our underdeveloped egos—we just wanted to dress in tutus and dance. As a seven-year-old, my body acceptance was still firmly intact and I launched myself across the floor like a duck to its first pond. Two months later, it became rather apparent that I was more Forest Gump than Karen Kain, and even at that tender age I was self aware enough to know my Swan Lake days were over before they had begun. For years after, according to my mother, I walked around the house on my tippy toes, as if the less I touched the ground, the more I could touch the sky.

I no longer aspire to be a dancer, having made peace with my limitations, but I still aspire to…

Photograph inspired by Chrissie Hynde; thanks Ric Kokotovich

Sleepless in San Sebastián

What torture lurks within a single thought…”

I could have stopped reading then, so emotionally charged was the first line of Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘A Fixed Idea’. With those seven words I felt exposed, and had to read on; I had to discover where her torment lay, what lay heavy upon her life.

When my own body stills at the end of a day, my mind does the opposite, refusing to give in to the night and its requisite expectation of sleep. Has it always been this way? I remember being very young and afraid of the dark for a time, a nightlight in the corner of my bedroom glowing like a monster with one eye. Then later, much later, a year of insomnia took root from a cloven heart; I would lie awake and look out my apartment window, at all the other darkened or empty apartment windows, and whisper to myself, “There is no one out there for me”.

You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life…”

Years later, it was the thought of death that kept me from sleep. My own death of course, because it seemed the most pressing. My doctors told me I wasn’t going to die, but my mind chose an alternate reality, convincing me I surely would, because others had. To combat my own internal Godzilla vs Mothra, I’d imagine a ball of light entering the top of my head and moving through my body, banishing sinister cells through the sheer power of its illumination.

You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy, lift your drooping wings and go.”

And now? What are my tortured thoughts when my lover sleeps but my mind does not? The world is a bountiful place, the world is a bountiful place, the world is a bountiful place. Should I wake him? Would he calm me with his voice and his touch? A red painting, a green towel, a pair of shoes, a lone streetlamp. The methodical identification of objects is meant to make the dissonance cognitive, but instead it simply leaves me glancing at the clock. The clock. The clock. Is anyone else in this dark night awake?

Inspired by the poem A Fixed Idea by Amy Lowell