Tuesday, October 31, 2006


It is 7:30 AM and I am puffing my way up the last of 43 ßsteep concrete steps.  But a thick, heavy rope now bars my way to the plaza just beyond.  And there
I stand, confused, a voice inside me saying: “Go back down and take the escalator.”
But there is another voice, the voice of a young man.  “Duck under,” he says, as he raises the rope as high as he can, an inch ABOVE WHERE IT WAS, maybe. 

And as I STRAIGHTEN UP MY CRACKING BONES, continuing on my journey to work, I am smiling.  Maybe later I will be angry at the idiots who put the rope at
the top of the steps and not the bottom.  But for now I am tickled that a man sounding as young as him could look at a woman as old as I feel, and imagine
ducking under as a possibility. 



It is 7:30 AM and I am puffing my way up the last of 43 ßsteep concrete steps.  But a thick, heavy rope now bars my way to the plaza just beyond.  And there I stand, confused, a voice inside me saying: “Go back down and take the escalator.”



But there is another voice, the voice of a young man.  “Duck under,” he says, as he raises the rope as high as he can, an inch ABOVE WHERE IT WAS, maybe. 



And as I STRAIGHTEN UP MY CRACKING BONES, continuing on my journey to work, I am smiling.  Maybe later I will be angry at the idiots who put the rope at the top of the steps and not the bottom.  But for now I am tickled that a man sounding as young as him could look at a woman as old as I feel, and imagine ducking under as a possibility. 

Monday, October 30, 2006


Good morning Lady Pheasant!  It was cameras at the ready on that first mid-October day when you first appeared under the bird feeder, scooping up the seeds the magpies had unceremoniously dumped.  And now it’s every morning for breakfast, coming down from YOUR pnight time perch in the trees.  You prevail in the presence of the smoker on the veranda, and the snow shoveller on the sidewalk, and the truck passing by you in the alley. 


Have you noticed that the keeper of the feeder, since the first fall of snow, has been sprinkling the ground so you will not have to wait for the magpies?  But be careful, Lady Pheasant.  The humans are friendly, but the coyotes sometimes walk these same urban pathways, howling in the river valley dark.  And the moon will soon be full again. 

Sunday, October 29, 2006


A grand salute to knitted slippers

Colours different every time,

Striped forest green and winter white

Ruby red with midnight black

Checker-boarded two-tone brown

Harvest gold with navy blue,

Variegated strands of purple.


Snugly just below the ankles

Double thickness, soft as cushions

Not on sale at Bay or Zeller’s

Nor at shoe emporiums

Made for self by expert knitters

Or to the knitting impaired like me,

Given by the knitters who love us.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Carter House, in Franklin Tennessee. 

Just another historic site listed in the tourist information. 

Just a place to spend a few hours on a holiday Friday afternoon.


The American Civil War is of little interest to me. 

So why do I hang on, unable to rush away?

Why am I asking questions of a tour guide who is clearly trying to leave?

The sun has bade me shed my sweater.   

So why does my blood run chilled in my veins?


Can it be because I stand in a farmyard where more than 8,500 soldiers died on Nov. 30 1864?

Or because their young Todd carter, away for more than three years, died only a few yards away from his home?

Or because a family cowered in their basement while the battle raged above?

Or because the buildings on this site are riddled with holes from thousands of bullets fired 142 years ago?

Or because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to leave that basement when the bullets had ceased to fly and walk upon the bodies of the dead and dying?

Or because the carters’ 288-acre cotton farm operated using the labour of 28 slaves, People bought and sold, people without a choice, people who had no future unless something happened to change things?


How audacious it must have been to hope that things could change!

How utterly devastating it must have been to pay the price of the coming change!

One hundred and forty-two years later there is evidence that enormous changes do happen.


If we can divert flood waters,

If we can go to the moon,

If we can transplant hearts,

If we can talk to people on the other side of the world,

Then maybe--just maybe—we can figure out how to conquer human oppression without fighting bloody wars. 



Friday, October 27, 2006


From the teller’s stage at the Jonesborough Festival, 88-year-old Kathryn Windham tells us about the Sunday afternoon comb concerts on the lawn in front of the Selma Alabama Public Library.  Selma Alabama—that town sounds familiar.  What do I know about it?


It was March 7, 1965 when a group of marchers formed in Selma under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King.  They were protesting the literacy rules that prevented many of Alabama’s black citizens from voting.  Police attacked and killed one of the marchers.  They attacked again at a protest held March 16.  Still the vioence would not end.  People involved in a march from Selma to Montgomery between March 21 and 25 were killed.  These far-away events made the news here in Alberta.  As a child, I could not help but hear about them, and I listened in wonder, having never met a Negro, not being able to understand why they couldn’t read, why they couldn’t vote.  


And here, in 2006, stands Kathryn saying: “There are still a lot of wounds to heal.”  She tells us about the remarkable act of forgiveness shown by a black man named Ernest Dawson.  Though the Selma library denied him access as a child, he later donated $10,000 to purchase children’s books for its collection. 


And the comb concerts?  Well, according to Kathryn, everyone is invited to play in the comb orchestra that practices on the lawn in front of the Selma Public Library.  Using waxed paper over comb teeth, you vibrate your lips and make music under the direction of a local choir leader.  The vibration tickles your lips.  The tickling makes you laugh.  The person next to you is laughing also.  According to Kathryn, it is impossible to laugh with people and hate them at the same time. 

Thursday, October 26, 2006




We were walking toward to Saturday morning farmer’s market in Nashville Tennessee when a loud booming voice drew our attention.  It’s Abraham Lincoln,” said my husband.  And sure enough, there was Abe, addressing an audience seated on folding chairs in the sun. 


What a man he is!  Dead a hundred and fifty years and still riveting audiences, still making people stop their journey and sit down to listen! 


And what was he doing there?  Well, defending himself I would say.  After all, he was speaking to a Tennessee audience.  Tennessee was not on his side of the American Civil war.  And he was also spreading hope, inspiring it in the adults, enacting it with the children. 


He told us how firmly he believed that the slaves must be freed, how painful it was to have so many of his wife’s relatives fighting for the south.  He got out his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, and delivered it with such trembling passion that I had to search for a tissue because tears came to the eyes of this previously disinterested Canadian tourist.


Suddenly he changed pace and began to enact a message of hope to the children in the audience.  First, he encouraged them to stay in school so that they might benefit from the best America has to offer.  Then he drew them from the audience.  To Emily he said: Ï hope that, in your lifetime, we will have the first female president.” To Jim he said: Ï hope that in your lifetime we will elect the first African-American president.”  He also wants an American-Indian president, but he thinks that might take one more generation.


When he had finished, we left our chairs and resumed our stroll among the vegetables.  But his message stayed with us, grounded in the past, delivered in the present, showing a hopeful way for the future. 


Tuesday, October 24, 2006


The cat on my piano crouches humbly,

Purring softly,

Never worries that he purches on a platform six times taller than himself.


For he knows that he can rise

Step nimbly the the edge,

Spring off and hit the ground with a perfect casual grace.


I imagine what would happen

If I jumped from a platform thirty-five feet from the ground.

But the cat is unconcerned about my musing.

He will choose the moment of his landing

Taking it all for granted.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Some people get their adventure thrills from bunji jumping, or climbing Mount Everest, or swimming Lake Ontario.  I got mine during the thirty seconds when I sat on the bench and played Last Date on Floyd Cramer’s piano. 


We were visiting Nashville, touring Studio b at the time, shepherded by a guide who could not possibly have been older than twenty-five.  Reaching back into history for stories that happened twenty years before her birth, she showed us the cabinet Elvis damaged during a recording session temper tantrum.  She showed us the exterior bricks that had to be replaced when dolly Parton, on her way to make a record, hit the building because she failed to apply the car brakes soon enough.  She showed us pictures of the Everly brothers and Eddie Arnold.  We stood on the spot where Roy Orbeson stood to hit the high notes of Only The Lonely.  She showed us a film clip of Jim reeves recording blue Canadian Rockies.  Forty-five years of living peeled away and the music of my youth filled my heart to overflowing.  Then she showed us the piano Floyd Cramer played when he recorded Last date.  Anyone who wanted to was invited to sit on the bench and play. 


If I had been myself at the time, if I had not been bewitched by the falling away of the years, if I had paused to remember how long it had been since I last played Last date, I would never have sat on that bench.  But I was not myself.


For as long as I can remember, I have wondered about Floyd Cramer’s piano.  Was it different from mine?  If I played it, would I sound like Floyd?  I had a piano when I was a kid, and it just didn’t sound like Floyd Cramer’s piano.  Floyd’s piano sang in my radio.  It danced.  Last Date was one of my favourite songs.  I loved the “bent” notes, the “slip” notes that gave the phrases their little lilt.  I could play Last Date when I was a kid but it didn’t sound like it did when Floyd played it.  Somebody told me it was the pianist that made the difference, not the piano. 


Then, when I was in my late forties I got the chance to play a piano that sounded a little bit like Floyd’s.  I was taking piano lessons in the living room of Linda Borty.  Every Saturday I stumbled through my scales on her grand piano.  She gave me some Bach, a little Beethoven.  She liked to keep a balance between classical and popular.  One day she got out Last Date by Floyd Cramer.  She opened up the music and played it for me.  Linda could have played any piano and sounded like a pro.  But she was a grand musician when she played her grand piano.  She could bend the bent notes, slip the slip notes.  Her piano sang.  It danced.  


Linda lived music.  She carried it to people, took it with her.  Just as she had chosen music for students and choirs, she chose the music for her funeral.  Two different versions of Last Date were played.    The first was a tape recording of Linda playing it on her piano.  The second, slightly slower, a quarter tone higher, was Floyd’s own recording.  The two songs were different, and each was beautiful. 


If I had been myself, I would not have sat down, dry-mouthed and terrified, on the bench in front of Floyd Cramer’s piano.  I would have worried about the dozen strangers who were listening.  I would not have touched even one of my trembling fingers to the C above Middle C.  But alas, I was not myself.  I must have been remembering the piano recitals in Linda’s living room.  I must have been remembering how good her piano sounded, even when you played it poorly.  I must have been remembering how it never mattered if you messed up at a recital.  Because there I sat, in front of Floyd Cramer’s piano, playing for a crowd of strangers, forgetting the left hand and playing wrong notes with the right. 


For all I felt, I might just as well have climbed Mount Everest.  I was brimming with a wild anticipation, drawn by that irresistible urge to try, breathless with lips brittle as paper when I had finished, exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. 


 No recording was made, so we shall never know how much I sounded like Floyd.  But the piano sounded just like his, and I feel certain I heard Linda cheering above the polite applause. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I grew up in two places.  I was raised on the Alberta prairies, but it seems that part of me was rooted in Tennessee, even though I never set a foot on Tennessee soil until I was 53.  It’s the country music that made Tennessee feel so much like home.  Without being really aware, I knew as much about the front porch swing of Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home as I knew about the Blue Canadian Rockies.  When I got to Knoxville, my head filled with the story of a man who loved and murdered a Knoxville girl because she would not marry him.  In Gatlinburg I could hardly restrain myself from asking directions to the saloon where the Boy Named Sue found his errant father. 


The stories I know of Alberta towns have come from my visits, and also from the daily news.  My stories of the Tennessee towns are more poignant, more detailed, more eloquently situated in my imagination.  They are told in the words of others in the country songs I heard on my mother’s lap.  I was a tourist in Tennessee.  But now I know what they mean when they say music can take you home.


Monday, October 16, 2006


If you invite yourself to dinner at Don’s, and your invitation is accepted, you may be served sweet buttered corn so fresh it snuggles the memory of the garden’s afternoon sun, and carrots scrubbed glossy and turned in butter, and slices of fried ham, or roast of beef from the crockpot.  And did I mention potatoes?  Well, no matter what else, there will always be potatoes, for the garden has performed its usual wonders.  And you may find it difficult to believe that up until a year ago Don’s meals had all been cooked by his mother, or his wife, or an unseen cook behind a swinging door. 


So is this then the final proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, or is it simply Don’s indisputable declaration that eighty is not old at all for some dogs? 



Wednesday, October 04, 2006


The Hope Foundation is a centre for hope studies.  We have an international database of hope research literature, a visiting scholar from Australia, a multiple=year study of the process of hope in counselling, a library, a counselling program, programs for kids and—a herd of hope-opotamuses on the mantel.  Big and small, rubber and plush, piggybanks and cd holders, the herd is an accidental collection.  It has assembled slowly, without intention, the result of good will, of human generosity.  . 


Conference agendas are a little like our herd.  They begin with good intentions, with a vague idea about education.  Committees gather, they look for money, they invite experts.  And occasionally, very occasionally, one of the committee members successfully makes the case for having a session on hope. 


There is plenty to say about hope to doctors, to nurses, to patients, to family members.  But when you get them together in a large room, with their stomachs overflowing with a more-than-ample lunch, and their heads brimming with the graphs and charts from the morning Powerpoints, you wonder how best to proceed.  So you collect your lecture notes for the academics, a few books about hope for the readers, and you throw in three purple hope-opotamuses, a large, a medium and a small.  Hope-opotamuses do their own work.  You never quite know what they will accomplish.


The large one offers to sit with a conference participants during the lecture.  Nobody claims him at first, but a group of nurses pick him up and sit him with a doctor.  At the end of the hour, the doctor does what I want him to do.  He trades him in for a hope book. 


The medium is snapped up without hesitation.  The lady who holds him is sad to trade him in for a book.  It is my prerogative to take him back, but I cannot do it, so I leave him with her and offer the book for the taking.  The book is snapped up like a treasure. 


And then there is the small one, teenie, really, a Teenie Beanie Baby, 1993.  He travels with the herd, but he’s not really a member.  His name is Hopey, and he belongs to me.  He was a gift, a gift of hope from someone who had known in his deepest soul the meaning of hopelessness.  For a while he sat on my counselling table, a happy little reminder that sometimes my work makes a difference.  Then one day he snuggled in my purse and went to a hospital.  Retrieving him from the clutter of lip-gloss, Aspirin tissues and combs, I gave him to my mother. 


I could forgive her for her initial lack of enthusiasm.  After all, she was sick, and her pain was overwhelming, and the drugs were stupefying, and the predictions were dire, and she could not get out of bed.  And I was willing to take him back, to place him temporarily among the flowers on the windowsill.  But she was still coherent enough to want to please me, so she cradled him in the palm of her hand and said she would keep him for a while.  Neither of us had any idea how powerful he would become.


It was truly amazing how quickly he took charge.  He had one rule which she took it upon herself to enforce, he must not be placed beyond her reach.  To the porter who left him in the lab when he returned her to her room she said: “Hopey is back in the lab.  He needs to be here with me.” To the busy cancer doctor who removed him from her hand in order to take her pulse she told the story of the unfortunate porter who had been forced to return to the lab.  And soon Hopey was running the hospital more or less, governing the actions of the nurses, the housekeeping staff.  She could not say to them “respect me!  Understand my needs!  Treat me like a human being, like you’d want your mother to be treated.” But Hopey could say it for her.  He could make them all stop and listen.  He did make them listen.


And when he finally lost her, he came back to me.  Sometimes we go to conferences, to make them listen.



Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Some time around her seventieth birthday, when the children were fully launched into adulthood and she was no longer caring for grandchildren, Hazel began to speak of completing the circle.  By this she meant returning to die in her place of birth.  The very idea of it baffled the family, for Hazel had never been the philosophical sort.  In fact, she was a practical woman, never had enough money to live in luxury, never seemed to pursue her personal interests, never spoke of her own passions.  She was not nostalgic, did not summon the past.  Storyteller she was not. 


Nobody maliciously block the path of Hazel’s happiness.  The problem with her completing the circle, as the family saw it, was that none of them lived near enough for an easy visit.  She did not drive, and there would be nobody to care for her. 


Nevertheless, she had all but completed the purchase of a tiny old house in a strategically located old village and was preparing to move when her plan was sidelined by the people whose help she needed.  Unable to carry it through without assistance, she grudgingly took up residence in a sparkling new seniors complex’, a short walk from the home of her eldest daughter, twenty miles away. 


But Hazel was not finished yet.  Next door in the seniors’ complex lived a man who could both drive a car and happily anticipate the notion of a second marriage.  One day a granddaughter, peeking in a window, noticed that Hazel was rubbing his back.  Soon enough the newlyweds announced their purchase of an old house near the place where the circle began, leaving two sparkling almost-new apartments in need of tenants.


There it might have ended peacefully had Hazel not been so tough, tougher than the man she married.  Both of them struggled with failing health, him with physical, her with physical and mental as well.  When he was no longer able to care for them, Hazel’s family sold the house and relocated a furious Hazel to a nursing home.  There, locked inside for her own safety, she boldly told anyone who would listen about her plan to leave and buy a house where she could complete the circle.  


Hazel was ninety-five years old when she died.  She outlived eight of her eleven children.  On a sunny September afternoon, with a warm breeze drying the ground for harvest, her family gathered to complete the circle.  They took her coffin to a place where most of them had never been, an historic church that stopped having Sunday services twenty-five years earlier.  Alone on the prairie landscape it stands, several miles from the old houses in the tiny village.  Next to the church is an old-fashioned church yard where Hazel’s parents, first husband and two infant daughters are buried.   It is a peaceful place, a place where history has settled among the modern farms.  Hawks perch on fence posts.  Grasshoppers dart in the ditches.  Here it is possible to forget the final years when Hazel ranted and cursed the villains she saw in those who loved her.  Here it is possible to lower her coffin and know that she is satisfied.  

Monday, October 02, 2006


 Andrew is in grade 3 now, sitting in the front row, bursting with excitement when a special guest reader drops by.  Andrew knows the guest reader.  She
has read twice to him, last year and the year before.  “
 When Andrew met the reader he was in a class with no number, a smaller class with tougher teachers, teachers who take on kids coded Behavior Disorder. 
He brought to the classroom his memories of past tragedies, his uncontrollable self.  The reader loved to watch his teachers, loving Andrew, nurturing
his eccentricities, shaping him with kindness, imagining a better future than Andrew himself could plan. 
 But now Andrew is in Grade 3, bursting with excitement to say: ”I know that reader!”