Saturday, August 30, 2014

Limitations and Vulnerabilities: The Contours of Life

I listened as she spoke of her recovery. The stroke was three months prior but she, a friend of my father, had reached a plateau in her healing. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve worked hard, did everything the doctors and physios told me to. I have gained much but the gains have stopped. There is a large possibility, I am told, I can expect no more.”

It was difficult listening in silence to this strong and independent woman speak of her unwanted and unexpected limitations. They are not yours, I wanted to shout, do not accept them. But, in fact, they were hers. Although she stated she would not stop trying—that she would keep working through the loss of balance and the neuropasy; keep trying to regain her calm and strength; her focus—I could see the reality setting in: this may be it. And, with that knowledge, there was deep sadness.

I’ve seen this sadness before and have even experienced it myself. Whether it is from the loss of mobility, of innocence or some other aspect of self—it is that point of no return: I will never be the same again.

I recounted this story to a close relative. Through similar conversations I knew with almost certain prescience what her response would be but, unlike the woman above, I continued in my ways: I am unable to accept reality, the limitations, one could say, of our relationship. I want and continue to want a shared response or, at minimum, a sign that my perspective has validity. It was not to be so.

This relative, “Mary”, is, as she has always been, a measure of stoic perseverance. “You cannot stop,” she says, “you must never give up”. In between the lines the message is clear: to even ponder one’s limitations is to die. She could not hear me even as I agreed that one must keep trying but that there is a point when one must assess the situation with open eyes. And that point, I suggested, is one of poignancy.

Mary’s teeth bit down on her lips and her head shook in disbelieving wonder. She couldn’t see the tender moment, only the surrender of the good fight— the loss of life as she knew it to be. I felt sad for myself in that I wasn’t heard and that we didn’t connect. Later, I just felt sad for her.

This heart-felt moment I was privileged to witness with my father’s friend is, for me, a time of coming out of denial. It is a clarity of thought that can bring relief, a letting go of tension; a giving, one could say, to the gods of fate rather than those of the will. For others, however, it can be prefaced with depression.

I saw what looked to be the beginnings of depression in this friend of my father’s. I saw she was low and felt she would probably go much lower. And, although I had no doubt she will climb out—it is not only in her nature but in her ability to ask for help—I also saw the necessity in her going into the depths, of exploring its slippery walls, its non-existent handholds and darkened paths.

I remember exploring my own hole, deep down near the bottom. With my fingers I transversed the contours of walls that ever threatened to close in. At times, they felt soft and warm like a comforting blanket; I yearned for their dark solace. Other times these walls exuded pain—sharp and jagged—or felt hot and weighted, burning me in their persistent pressure. I knew this hole quite well before I finally found the handholds and climbed out. I am glad I did but I am also appreciative of my experience. In the exploration of the shadows, my life is richer.

Mary and I come from the same family tree where toughness and strength were the trademarks of successful living. Somewhere along the line, however, the branches separated. Oh, I still like to play the role of iron woman, but I know it is far from the truth. More and more I accept my limitations and vulnerabilities. It’s never easy but what I have found is that there is magic in that. The more I accept who I am and what I cannot do the more my world opens up.

I hold a light for my father’s friend that the world will open up in ways she cannot yet imagine; that her strength and determination will pull her through. I also pray for Mary. I hope that one day she will read between her own lines and come to see that life is not always so black and white.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Frozen Logger ... Not so Silly a Ditty

As I sat down one evening,
was in a small café
A forty year old waitress to me
these words did say

A friend recently told a story of her mother. She was in a long term care facility unable to go home and, at times, unable to remember it. One day her aged friends burst through the door in song. It was music from their shared years in Girl Guides: campfire melodies, funny ditties and solemn rounds. They stayed several hours; got everyone singing. The whole place, my friend said, including her mother, was kindled by the heart-held memories of better times, youthful laughter and silly tunes.

I see you that you are a logger
and not just a common bum
'Cause nobody but a logger
stirs his coffee with his thumb

It reminded me of a solo trip I once took around BC as a young woman. With radio transmission dubious at best I felt I needed company through the long highway miles. More than that, and quite unconscious at the time, I needed courage. I was scared. Although I had travelled before, it was the biggest thing I had ever done alone and I needed something to keep me going, but also something to remind me of home, what I loved and made me happy. My audio memento, I decided, was to be folk music, most notably, The Weavers.

My lover he was a logger,
there's none like him today
Well if you'd pour whiskey on it
well he'd eat a bale of hay

The Weavers were an American folk music quartet formed in 1948. I got turned on to them when an old boyfriend took me to a Washington pub just south of the Sumas Crossing. Regulars would gather around a piano and sing old favorites made popular by the group. I fell in love—not with the guy but the music. Later when I kissed the boy goodbye I bought the Weaver’s “Best of” album and the songs, carefully recorded on two cassette tapes, went with me on my trip. They were my talisman: I knew that whatever might befall me on this grand adventure, I would be okay.

Funny how music can do that—provide joy and laughter but also a sense of belonging … even safety.

He never used a razor
to shave his horny hide
He'd just drive them in with a hammer
then he'd bite them off inside

My trip led me to friends and family who were living and working in various regions. I went through Enderby, then over to the Rockies, on up to Peace River country, back down to Prince Rupert and over to the Island. The whole way through I sang along with The Weavers—The Sloop John B; Follow the Drinking Gourd; Goodnight Irene and The Frozen Logger—their rhythmic verses keeping pace with the fading kilometres. I fell in love a couple times, hiked the Skyline Trail with Utta, and experienced hippie life on Cortez with Angie but I never felt lonely during the long hours on the road. The only time it wasn’t there to immediately give me solace was in north-east BC when visiting my father up in camp.

My lover he came to see me
was on a freezing day
He held me in a fond embrace
that broke three vertebraes

Dad was a rock and tunnel worker, otherwise known as a driller and blaster. He worked mostly underground but was also involved in road and dam building. A point of pride: he helped blow up Ripple Rock. When I visited him that day he was working many metres under Table Mountain burrowing a tunnel through to the coal mines just south of Tumbler Ridge. I drove three hours south from Chetwynd on a long and narrow, winding logging road into his camp and stayed overnight.

Well he kissed me when we parted
so hard that he broke my jaw
And I could not speak to tell him
he forgot his mackinaw

The following morning I followed my dad into the hole. At the entrance of the tunnel we got on an open train car and drove what seemed like hours into the abyss. It was August 1983, three months before the rail line would open to its full 9km length. It was cold and damp; claustrophobic in the eerie light reflecting off the dark limestone walls. The air seemed foul and the sounds, unnatural: machines, voices, and the subtle but constant drip of water reverberating in discordant unison. I yearned for the bright sunshine we left not long before but we stayed on course, further and further into the darkness. We rode straight through to the face where my dad, in his working hours, drilled holes in the rock and prepared them for blasting. It was there I met the “magic carpet”, the immense machine that not only housed the jumbo drill and the cars that took out the muck but the tracks that lay our passage forward. It was like this fantastical conveyor belt where detritus went one way and men the other. And all deep below in the bowels of a mountain that teased us with subtle insinuations that it might decide never let us go.

I vowed upon coming back out into the sun, the light, the blessed harmony of life, to never go back in. I was more than glad to wave goodbye and be back on the road with my extended musical family.

I saw my lover leaving
sauntering through the snow
Well going grimly homeward
at forty eight below

These thoughts of music, being away from home and of the longing that can come with it, worked their way in my consciousness again while reading Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. It’s a lovely story, albeit tragic, at times—a poetic reflection of life, family and work, as seen through the eyes of a Cape Bretoner with Celtic roots. Throughout the book one hears the echo of music: how it kept alive the feeling of family and place regardless of where one travelled or plied one’s trade. As MacLeod writes: When we were not working [in the mines] or sleeping we played the records of the Cape Breton violin which accompanied my brothers everywhere. Sometimes my brothers played their battered violin themselves. And sometimes we hummed or sang the old Gaelic songs. And when we talked, often in Gaelic, it was mostly of the past and of the distant landscape which was our home. 

Well the weather tried to freeze him
it tried its level best
At a hundred degrees below zero
why, he buttoned up his vest

I imagine that music was, at times, the only thing that got workers—the miner, the logger, the fisher; the farmer, the factory worker; the slave and the free—through the long days, whether it was the rhythmic chorus that kept pace with repetitive toil; traditional songs that provided strength and meaning; creative outlets for frustration and anger; or coded communication for those forbidden to talk. Despite music’s utilitarian ways, however, there seems always the refrain, sometimes so subtle you can barely hear it, of the longing, the coming home, and the hardship of being away.

It froze clean through to China
and it froze to the stars above
And at a thousand degrees below zero
it froze my logger love

At the camp in my father’s workplace, so many years ago, I have no memory of song. Perhaps it was done quietly or in private moments but when I asked my father, he, too, remembers none. Where did the music go? Today, of course, we have iPods and mp3 players. Back then it was probably tinny radios, 8-tracks and cassettes players with tiny earplugs. Music remains a popular medium. That has not changed. But I wonder what was lost when we stopped singing together at work or in our journeys far from home. When we did we stop sharing joy and hardship within the strains of a violin; or thoughts of long-lost loves and hopes for the future in an echoing chorus? When did music become a solo sojourn into the hearts of no one but our self?

And so I lost my lover
and to this café I come
And here I wait till someone
stirs his coffee with his thumb.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tales from the Past

Stories are true...names have been changed.

Sandy was a petite woman with wavy red hair and curves, generously outlined by snug jeans and tees.  She tended towards cowboys and Harleys and managed the mental health drop-in with steel-laced eyes... eyes that pinned you against the wall letting you know she knew every lie and scam there was so-don’t-you-even-think-about-it. It was those eyes that once trapped me in her office. I had refused an on-call shift and although it was totally within my rights to do so, she wouldn’t let me leave until she found a replacement. I gamely stared back with false bravado but inside I was praying for rescue. It was clear that if it came down to the line I’d have to choose between working the shift or quitting my job. Either way, it felt like a losing proposition.  

I knew from the initial interview—three hours of relentless interrogation—that I didn’t want the job, but something made me say yes. Sure there was an empty bank account but Sandy had the charisma of your more popular despots, the kind you want to share a laugh with over beer. She was queen over a fairly wild membership of mostly dual-diagnosed men and women and a motley crew of employees that felt playing Euchre was the highest form of social work. In theory, the staff’s role was multifaceted: we dispensed meds, arranged shelter for those who found themselves homeless, listened to stories, and gave out food, pastries and such, from local restaurants but mostly, due to an unlocked door in a rough part of town, we were the bouncers—our job was about keeping a tenuous peace.

One day, not long after I got hired, one of the members got into a fight with an old timer. The latter was part of a group of men who had been grandfathered in, years before when the drop-in was for anyone who lived on the street. None of these guys were interested in activities, volunteer jobs or social niceties. When they were in residence our job was solely to monitor the general mood, keep things calm and provide safety for everyone else. The sound of chairs hitting the floor brought it all into focus. It was Stephanos and Jack.

Stephanos was a six-foot-five good looking man with a solid boxer’s frame and a belly gone soft. He had dark brown curls that teased big droopy eyes, a square jaw and dinner plate hands—scarred hands with over-sized knuckles that once performed hard, manual labour before psychosis took it all away. Heavy medication kept him quiet and docile but Crack, among other things, had a way to alter that rather fragile temperament.

Jack was the old timer. An excitable Italian scrapper, he was five foot 5 with a bulging paunch. Squint, and you could almost imagine him as one of Jimmy Hoffa’s retired henchmen. His nose was bent with bulging mercurial eyes, ruddy cheeks and expressive eyebrows that filled in the lines left vacant by brain damaged speech. You always knew what Jack was thinking and it was never something you’d pass on to your grandma. Alcohol was his main drug of choice but, sober or not, he was volatile and foul in both actions and garbled rhetoric.

We ran over to the commotion and found Jack doing a bit of jig on the floor—skirting around the table with false jabs and half-hearted kicks. His body already knew he was no match for Stephanos and his brain was fast catching up.  Stephanos, on the other hand, had no compunction and went in for the kill. We cleared the other members away. Someone called the cops and Sandy barged out of her office like a rodeo bull. She surmised the situation and, in her ever so cautious way, jumped on the back of Stephanos in an attempt to make him stop.

And, just as cautiously, he threw her off.

She crumbled into the corner while Jack used the distraction to make his escape. Stephanos' eyes bore into us, searching for his nemesis. Not finding him, he slammed a chair into the table and stormed out.

I walked over to Sandy who was dusting herself off with broad slaps. As I was new to the job I was curious of her methods. My gut told me it was stupid but a part of me, however scared, was marveling at her machismo. She pushed aside questions of care and so I asked, somewhat hesitantly, if that was policy: are we to get involved in fights? She looked at me a long time. It was if she was measuring me up, debating my worth to hear her response. Finally she said: I’ve never backed down from a fight yet.  

Most times, however, the drop-in was fairly quiet. As long as food came out at the scheduled times and we kept the drunk and wired folk out, the members played cards, drank coffee and chatted about the mundane activities of street life. Some just sat and stared off into never-never land. They were the hardest to engage but that was the most important (or should have been) part of our job: to encourage, support and enliven people; help them feel a part of their community.

I was sitting there one afternoon trying to engage a seemingly lost woman when a couple of older men started conversing across adjacent tables. It was cheque day so the drop-in was almost empty.  Just a few hung out, those who especially wanted to stay away from the mardi gras outside. Dan was a rough looking sixty-year-old with khaki green pants and jacket and a matching soldier’s cap. Never said much but never caused trouble or concern either. He had a sparse, crinkly smile that crackled against his unshaved chin and an almost genteel politeness that was only witnessed by those he felt deserving.

Bill was seated two tables over, enjoying a smoke in the unusual quiet. More heavyset than Dan, he wore ill fitting polyester pants and jacket—the usual findings in free bins—old sneakers and a smudged blue dress shirt. His jaundiced fingers trembled as he rolled a cigarette and his head betrayed a mild Parkinson-like movement, as if forever denying life. He spoke like a truck rolling over gravel at midnight: Just don’t like him, he said.  

Dan nodded, slowly, considering. Time rolled by. Yep.

Ever see him lift a finger to pull his weight?


Bill’s shake gained indignant momentum: Relies totally on his woman. She’s out there working the streets, every night. Him? Ha! Won’t even steal something. Fuckin’ loser.


I refocused on the woman next to me. She was mouthing something in her usual way, no sound but definite words. I paid more attention, the lip movements repeating over and over again. She began to rock to the same rhythm. I mimicked her actions trying to make sense of them and, soon enough, both of us were rocking back and forth, mouthing two words over and over again.  The meaning came clear: fuckin’ loser, fuckin’ loser. She looked up at me and let go a dry, somewhat irritated noise. I stopped rocking. The noise got louder and harsher. I got up to call for help when I suddenly realized she was laughing. 
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Copper and Gold: Mount Polley (and our) Folly

Once again we have a natural disaster. This time in our own backyard. When are we going to learn?

And with “we” I don’t mean the provincial government nor the mining association experts who tell us that BC has the most stringent mining regulations in Canada. Nor do I mean the Mount Polley mine owners who add insult to injury by stating, “the water is near drinkable”. No, when I say we, I mean you and me: citizens, voters; tax payers and, most importantly, consumers. When are we going to learn?

I must admit my ignorance when I heard about the dam failing at Mount Polley. I had no knowledge of what was mined there (copper and gold) nor even what, exactly, was a tailing pond. A quick google search found that tailings are a mixture of water, sand, silt, or clay and left over residue (usually toxic) from the extraction process. The pond is where this sludge-like mixture is stored. For a more detailed explanation click here.

Tailing ponds are BC’s most common way of dealing with the detritus of mining. It is also one fraught with risk. As Bill Donahue, director of policy and science with the Alberta-based environmental non-profit Water Matters states: "Tailings ponds are not considered a stopgap; they're considered a solution…. And not really reasonably so." Besides dam failures, the ponds can leak: In February, Environment Canada “found that mining waste water from oilsands tailing ponds was leaking into the Athabasca River. The study estimated that one dam was leaking 6.5 million litres of polluted water a day into groundwater.”

Once mining has ceased, BC companies must carry out a rehabilitation program in which the tailing pond and the mine itself are reclaimed by nature. Ponds, which are lined with a supposedly impermeable substance, are first dewatered. This process siphons off much of the water (to use in other mine processes) and turns the tailings into a thick paste. The pond is then capped with, once again, a supposedly impermeable substance. Soil is placed on top and vegetation planted—the land is “reclaimed”. The problem with this solution is two-fold: how do you monitor this "impermeable" container when its buried under tons of dirt and what happens to this sludge if it does stay contained? Does it just sit there for eternity? (Note: Suncor is experimenting with transforming these ponds into a safe environment for fish and wildlife.)

There are better or, at least, more environmentally sound ways to take care of tailings. For example: A Phoenix-based copper mining firm has developed a patent for packing residual tailings into building bricks. The only purported issue, is that it is overly expensive to process.

And therein lies the key. Are we, you and I, willing to pay the cost, the real cost of living the life to which we have become accustomed?

I looked up how copper and gold enrich our lives. Among other things copper is a vital component in transformers, power cables, plumbing, internet networks, mobile phones, and computers. Gold is not only pretty but is used in telecommunications, circuit boards, medicine, and dentistry. Are we willing to pay more for these products to protect our environment?

As a retail clerk, my experience would have me say no: the majority of us do not want to pay more. Most people, or at least those I come into contact with at the building supply store where I work, want the cheap goods of Walmart,  Home Depot, and Costco.  The general attitude is one of being owed ("I work hard for my money!") or that higher prices always mean the proprietor or corporation is profiteering off the innocent consumer.

And yes, wages are not keeping up with the cost of living and some CEOs are making outlandish profits but I also believe we have to be more discriminate  on how and where we spend our money if we want a liveable environment for generations to come.

The true cost of anything, whether it be clothes, gas, medicine, or computers, must include the environmental and human toll: fair wages make for expensive clothes; environmental safeguards increase the price of oil; organic farming processes are time consuming and costly. Are we willing to pay the price?

If we stop buying the cheapest and start looking for the most environmentally sound and humane products, corporations will listen. They have to: corporations follow the money. Look how organics have invaded the market… even Walmart sells them. And if corporations listen, so will governments.

We need to stop blaming governments and corporations and start looking within. We hold the power and it’s in our wallets. 

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