Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A week-long birthday

When you come to be sixty-three, birthdays change.  I'm not, like any other 39-year-old woman, pretending that they're not happening, and I'm not a prima donna who wants everyone else to recognize then.  Rather, they're occasions for reflection and celebration, and sometimes they take a whole week.  After all, there's a lot to celebrate.  Until September of 2012, I'd have told you I have the best job in the world.  I have admitted unabashedly on Facebook that Bill is a partner whom I never could have imagined:  funny, compassionate, reflective, committed to equality--and not simply in our relationship.  My daughter Veronica and I are close enough to be working on a book together; I'm writing poems inspired by her photographs and they are taking me adventurously and gloriously outside my comfort zone.  We have what we call "quality time" (yes, we put it in ironic quotation marks) once a week and chat like a couple of old friends.  And that, of course, brings up friends, who are the rich soil of any life.  I am a lucky woman, and though there are disappointments and wounds, I'm going to celebrate my luck.

The reflection came through a sequence of gifts that started arriving last Saturday.  Outside Artesian, after Noah Richler's talk on non-fiction, I stopped to chat with former student Kris Brandhagen, who had gone out for a cigarette.  She shared her wonderful news with me:  that she will be studying art in Toronto next fall.  And then came the gift:  she remembers when, years ago, I sat down with my green pen and taught her how a sentence worked.  Saturday she confessed that she was something she'd struggled with that no one had quite addressed.  "You don't remember all your students, but they remember you and your green pens," she assured me.  Maybe I do have the best job in the world.  This was an unexpected gift on a reluctant spring afternoon.

Then Tuesday I decided it was time to wash the car, and so went to the new Co-Op out beyond Grasslands:  I had a couple of other errands there.  (I'm addicted to dried apples and can only get them at Bulk Barn.)  It's one of those car washes where you steer your left tire into a conveyor belt.  Except that from that position, short little old ladies like me can't reach the machine where you punch in your code.  So I had to open the car door.  Back inside, I got D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love out of the bag on the seat next to me and settled in for a little reading.  Until, that is, I noticed that the inside of my car was getting washed.  Every time the water let up a little, I tried closing my door, but the problem was that my seat belt had fallen out and was also getting nicely cleaned, as was my black cashmere coat and Lawrence's novel.  This could have ruined my day, along with everything else in Regina these days that simply makes life harder than it really needs to be.  (Yes, I'm thinking of those mounds of snow that make it very difficult to get out of my garage, and that make it hard to navigate everywhere.)  Except I'm living on a street with its built-in reality check, which shifted my mood by the time I drove up the back lane and struggled, this time, to get into the garage.

On Wednesday, I went to visit my wonderful neighbour, Angela Oxman, who is living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  From my bedroom, I can see the light on in the room where she takes her visitors and her meals and sleeps her troubled nights.  She is, as you might now guess, my reality check.  The moment I got in the door of her room, she burst out "There are some things I need to say to you," and I took her hand and settled in for wonderful conversation.  The hour and a half was essentially spent by two women celebrating what they've liked about one another for the last twenty-three years.  One of the things I've admired most about her was the way she retired.  She took some history classes.  She worked with the Stephen Ministry.  She spent time with her grandchildren and with the children at St. Theresa School.  Of children she simply says "Arouse their curiosity, and everything else will take care of itself."  On nights when she has difficulty sleeping, she gets out all her happy memories and pores over them like a fond, familiar book.  My time with her was one of the treasures of my week.

One of my former students, Scott McLean, was our waiter when Veronica, Bill and I had a birthday dinner at Fireside Bistro.   Scott's gift was birthday drinks.  In another corner of the room was another student, Elaine (her last name escapes me, though I know she went on to library science).  A lovely dinner there was followed by deadly lemon curd cheesecake made by Veronica.  Veronica bought me a book about knitting Estonian lace with some patterns that are going to stretch all my skills, and a lovely jar of papaya body butter which smells like summer--something we all need right now.  Bill gave me tickets to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance of "Sleeping Beauty" last night--which was magical.  Sometimes I forget how much I love classical ballet until I see it again.  The composers, choreographers, dancers, scene designers, makers of stiff tutus, all work toward a single goal: to make a vivid, timeless world that envelopes  the stories that speak to us. 

I gave myself a day to play, banishing all thoughts of time by appliquing the basket blocks you see above.  There's a wonderful line in Don McKay's poem "Winter Solstice Moon:  An Eclogue," about the fact that we sometimes want time to be pregnant:  full of possibilities.  At this point in the term, I'm working six days a week, so needed a day when attention to craftsmanship means I didn't worry about time passing, but about spending time well.

Then there were conversations with my sister, Karen, with Gloria, my sister-in-law, and with Jeanne Shami; then a Government House concert with Katherine Arbuthnott.  Their horn player, Richard Burdick, has long been trying to convince the RSO administration to just loosen the purse strings to pay enough for a second horn player so that a whole new repertoire is possible.  I heard an early Beethoven septet and a piece Josef Miroslav Weber, a composer I've never heard of who brought the audience to its feet with "From My Life," a musical biography with  a lovely reflective playfulness.

Here are all the good things:  friendship, loving family, reminders of mortality leavened with care and generosity and wisdom, memories of the privilege it has been to touch students' lives, to watch them grow and evolve, music and literature.  Women in Love has dried out, and over the weekend I turned my attention to Dianne Warren's Cool Water, which I'm teaching in my Literature and the Environment class.

The last gift came yesterday morning, in a conversation  with a colleague who is far more affected by the budget crunch--and hence by all the decisions we make--than I am.  He is understandably grieving, and bitter because his time with us may be suddenly brought to an arbitrary end.  It's a terrible position to be in:  to have your life on hold while administrators try to figure out what's important, and to have little faith that they will get it right.  I nevertheless set him a difficult task.  Do not let administrators shape your last days here.  If you love what you do, keep loving what you do.  Like Angela, spend your time with the good memories and the good experiences.

Which, of course, is good advice for me, too.  Yup.  I do have one of the best jobs in the world.  If only someone would come up with a vaccine for two epidemics:  comma splices and the unwillingness to think for oneself.  Guess that's my job.


  1. I love the way you think. Thanks for this post. And for sharing all that you do.

    1. And thank you for reading. I think we have something in common: a belief in beauty to soothe. I try to find it in my life and experiences, and my conversation with Angela had that kind of beauty.

  2. If I had your phone # I'd call and sing Happy Birthday to you!
    You'll just have to imagine it:

    Warble ... warble warble ... to you ...

    "Oh thank you! I — "

    Warble ... warble ... to you ...

    "Ha ha. Thanks. How are —?"

    "Warble warble ... warble warble ..."

    Sigh of resignation.

    "Warble warble ... to you ..."

    Intake of breath —

    "... and many more-ore-ore-ore-ore-ore-ore-ore-orrrrrrrrr........"

    1. Oh, Kate, I'd love to have you sing to me. And I wouldn't interrupt!

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