Tag Archives: memory

Bowie and the Changes

It was 1982 and I was fourteen years old. I was a shy and awkward teen who liked horses and reading and not much else. I’d never had a date and, while I could write an A+ essay, I couldn’t talk to people.

At a time when I thought I might be an alien, or at least my hair was surely from outer space, into my life strode David Bowie. An ethereal figure made of white bones and stardust. His haunting voice sounded like the wind through the trees on a snowy moonlit night. Up to then, I’d heard nothing quite like it, and seen no one quite like him. In his mellifluous tones, I found solace and a kind of acceptance.

Somewhere between feather earrings and headbands, leg warmers and shoulder pads, I discovered it was okay to be different. I could turn and face the strange, embrace my weird self and it was good.

But I could also change. Bowie had been at least eight different incarnations of himself in the 1970s alone. If he could do that, I could become at least one other self. I could leave my high school and my hometown where I’d been the shy, skinny geek with odd hair. The idea of reinvention felt not so far-fetched and Bowie’s music became the anthem that gave me the strength to brave one more day of school hallways full of indifference and classrooms full of judgement.

I left home and it actually worked. My clipped wings grew back to the dimensions they’d been when I was still a child full of wonder and reckless abandon. University life allowed me to become who I had always wanted to be. I was still myself, but somehow better. Stronger and freer, I approached relationships with openness and confidence. I consciously tried not to judge others and found, in that way, I was less likely to be judged by them.



The T-shirt I bought at the Sound+Vision concert, 1990

The year was 1990. The concert was Sound+Vision. The city was Toronto; the CNE was the venue.

My university friend, Tamara, and I had somehow scored stadium-seating tickets to David Bowie. I was apoplectic with excitement. When we found our seats, back and to the left, we discovered, to our dismay, we were sitting behind a large pole that obscured our vision. We could hear him, but whether we could see anything depended on where he decided to stand on the distant stage.

The concert was luminous, like Bowie himself, and we enjoyed it despite our poor vantage point. He completed the last song, waved and left. We whistled and clapped and shredded our vocal chords with screaming. The stadium devolved into chaos and Tamara turned to me.

“Let’s rush the stage,” she said. “No one’s watching. We can at least see him for the encore.”

So we did. We left our crappy seats and rushed out onto the floor, pushing our way to the stage, hand in hand. When he re-emerged on the stage, I thought I’d surely be deaf and mute for the rest of my life, given the noise and my own screeching.

The closer we got to him, the more mythical and larger he loomed, yet also the more human he seemed. The perfect paradox for the man he was. I remember standing at the corner edge of a stage piece that jutted out into the surging general admission audience. He glided to the end and stood right above me, shook his head, and a bead of Bowie sweat flew from the end of his hair onto my cheek. I grabbed Tamara by the shoulders and screamed, “He sweated on me! David Bowie sweated on me!”

The transformation was complete. I had grown and matured and was no longer the sad, lonely teenager I’d once been, although my hair took many more years to find its groove. (Some might argue it still hasn’t.) But you never forget those difficult years and those experiences that help to form you.

Thank you, Mr. Bowie, for being there for me, for being there for all of us who needed your voice, your strength, your weirdness.

And Rest in Peace.

Food, Travel, Memory

When was the last time you ate out? Where was it and what did you eat?

If you don’t remember, you clearly do not have a foodographic™ memory.

The other evening I was out at a restaurant with some friends, stuffing some kick-ass fish tacos into my gaping maw, and the conversation turned to the concept of food and memory. My friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter apparently remembers the places where she’s travelled based on the food she’s eaten there.

And it occurred to me that my father had been the same way. From the veal Marsala he enjoyed at a Paris bistro in 1987, to the turkey sandwich he ordered at the golf club where he was a member in 2001. He had a foodographic memory.

Even my husband — who regularly purges his memory banks of non-essentials, like the name of the actor who played Jason in the Bourne Identity — has at least one strong food memory: he claims that the best clam chowder he ever ate was with his parents on the ferry to Prince Edward Island in 1984.

What is it about food that triggers such a strong association that we can carry this memory for a lifetime? I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger for recollection. For better or worse, a certain smell can instantly transport us to an earlier time and place. Memory is the yeasty scent of warm pizza dough rising in a ceramic bowl covered in a tea towel atop my mother’s harvest gold refrigerator. It’s also Christmases of baking chestnuts, cranberries bubbling in an open saucepan, the aroma of a roasting turkey.gourmetfood

Obviously the taste has something to do with it. The complexity of the flavours in a rich mole sauce, or the way a squirt of lemon juice cuts through the richness of the melted butter that coats a chunk of perfectly cooked fresh lobster.

Perhaps it’s also the atmosphere of a particular restaurant — the sound of clinking cutlery, the pop of a cork, how the smoky, gilt-edged mirror makes the dining room look larger than it really is.

When I was nine years old, my parents travelled from the suburbs of Peterborough to the big city of Toronto for at least one weekend every other month. Sometimes we’d stay for a day, sometimes overnight. We would shop at the Eaton’s Centre, gaze at the architectural marvel that is Nathan Phillips Square, and have lunch in a wondrous restaurant. The dining room had high ceilings and enormous, pendulous chandeliers that had hundreds of light bulbs that formed warm, glowing orbs miles above our heads. I was a picky eater and the glorious children’s menu served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with fresh white bread. For dessert I was served a single scoop of vanilla ice cream with a face made of candy and an edible cone for a hat. Basically, it was kid heaven. I can still feel the soft bread and peanut butter coating the roof of my mouth.

Several years ago, my husband and I took the children on a trip to Italy. We drank cappuccinos in Rome, ate pizza in Sorrento and, in a small hole-in-the-wall we found on a Venice side street, I had the best ravioli I’ve ever eaten. I recall that at the time I dubbed these ravioli: Golden Pillows of Joy.

In my time here on earth, I’ve travelled a modest amount. The memories of meals I’ve enjoyed at both restaurants and the houses of friends and relations are firm reminders of the comfort and power of both food and memory. As my children move onward and my nest begins to empty, I look forward to having more time, and I hope enough money, to take my foodographic memory on a tour of places I haven’t yet explored, both mundane and exotic.

Bon appétit, my friends, and bon voyage!

The Heart Grows Not Old

When I was online the other day, I came across a piece of artwork that resonated so deeply within me, it briefly took my breath away. It was so evocative that I instantly felt the sting of tears.

Not everyone would feel the same way I felt upon viewing the image. Just like I haven’t yet been emotionally touched by some of the modern artwork I’ve viewed and moved past without truly understanding its message.

Art can be deeply personal but it also serves to remind us we are not alone. The human experience, as communicated through media such as a photograph, painting, film, song or novel, is universal. I am made up of all I have seen and done, all the people who have come and gone in my life, every joy and sorrow, every harsh and tender word. I bring all this to bear when experiencing a piece of art; my reaction is mine and your reaction is yours. But even though our sensibilities might differ, great art can show us how much we are the same, our common truth.

When I saw this image, my heart both broke and soared at the same time.


Image found here: https://twitter.com/Ou_Prg/status/579004166204465152

I am completely undone by the truth and beauty of the image, a sweet whisper that let me know someone has felt as I now feel.

My mother is eighteen. She is going to a dance with her sister after she finishes her workday as a secretary at a law firm. She loves to dance. Maybe she will meet a handsome gentleman who will open the door for her, light her cigarette, take her elbow gently as they walk into a clear, cool night.

My mother is eighty-one. She speaks very little as she sits in her chair watching television, hands clasped together. Her joints grow stiffer each day and she uses walls, counters, the back of a chair to navigate the house so she does not lose her balance and fall.

My mother is both eighteen and eighty-one.

When I grow old, I will feel young. My spirit will skip on a schoolyard, ride a golden horse through a thick forest, and hold the smooth hand of the one I love on a midnight walk under the moonlight.

Even if my body fails me and I can no longer do the things I enjoy, when I no longer remember yesterday, I hope I at least have someone I love nearby.

A piece of Veronica, by Elvis Costello:

Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?

What goes on in that place in the dark?

Well I used to know a girl and I would have

sworn that her name was Veronica

Well she used to have a carefree mind of her

own and a delicate look in her eye

These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure if her

name is Veronica

How Life is Like Sudoku, But Not Really

SudokuI recently took a month off from caring for my 81-year-old mother. Granted, the month was February, the shortest month of the year, but it was the longest respite period I’d taken since she moved in with us two years ago. My brother and sister-in-law have always been available to look after her during our short and sporadic family vacations, but that has never left me alone in my own house for more than a day or two at a stretch.

A month felt dream-like and I could barely visualize it. A month. When I told a friend about Mum’s vacation, she said, “Only a month?” My friend is in a rotation with her siblings for caring for her own elderly mother. And she’s a good friend.

One of the reasons I requested my brother’s help was because it’s ski season. When a child competes in a competitive sport, in this case downhill ski racing, it consumes a parent’s life. It’s about getting up before the crack of dawn, commuting, volunteering, preparing equipment, paying fees and drinking a lot of wine. There are races at hills that are two hours away by car, and spending a few nights in a nearby hotel makes sense when the team is skiing there several days in a row.

With my mother at home, however, I don’t have the flexibility to spend the night away or not be at home to prepare dinner. Mum can manage alone during the day or evening, but is unable to prepare meals for herself (aside from breakfast). In fact, this photo shows how I make sure she gets lunch when I have to make the twice-weekly trek into the office.Mum_Lunch

What would I do for a whole month (aside from the ski obligations, my full-time job, and looking after the rest of the family whom I couldn’t farm out to relatives)? I would write, read, exercise, go for long walks, snowshoe, eat ramen noodles for dinner in front of the TV, learn a foreign language. What did I do? Not nearly enough of the things I’d hoped to do. Instead, I played a lot of Sudoku.

Sudoku is a simple distraction when your mind is otherwise occupied. Reading and writing are difficult with only half of your brain because you really need to concentrate. Solving a Sudoku puzzle takes just enough brain power to challenge your intellect but leaves just enough brain power to let you still think about other things, like where my seventeen-year-old is with my car, the deadline I have at work, or how to find time in an evening to bake a banana loaf for the volunteer lunch and watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead on the DVR.

But all this Sudoku playing taught me something. Solving the puzzle grid, with its nine little boxes that each contain nine little boxes, depends on recognizing patterns. If you can see the pattern, you can solve the puzzle. I began to notice that when I got stuck, when I just couldn’t see what the solution might be, I could take a break from it, look away, clean a bathroom, bake a loaf. When I returned to the puzzle with fresh eyes, the solution magically presented itself.

Taking a break = Fresh eyes + Magical solution.

Now, math is not my strong suit, but given this rudimentary equation for solving Sudoku puzzles, could life be like that as well?

My conclusion is: sort of. We all know what they say about absence and what grows within in one’s heart. A month without my mother gave me enough moments of solitude to reflect on my life and hers. She has spent 81 years living on this earth, and even though I know plenty of seniors who are still spry and full of wit and conversation, she is not one of them. But, however frail, Mum’s still here with us. She’s still able to give a hug, hold a hand, offer a kind word.

The other day, my father-in-law, who I love with all my heart, asked, “When do you think you’d need to move your mother into a home?” He recently lost his wife after years of caring for her while she slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s. Less than a year since my mother-in-law’s death, I can still hear the grief in his words and sense the sadness in his gestures. I thought for a moment and considered.

“When she’s no longer able to look after her personal needs,” I said, suddenly sad at the prospect of this horrible loss, should it ever happen. And I realized that some problems don’t need to be solved. Making the best of a bad situation is more about acceptance and tolerance, and then being ready to face the next challenge. Because you know there’ll be one, it’s inevitable.

One day, this phase of my life will be over and I will be devastated when my mother is gone. I will be heartbroken. I will be an orphan.

Life can be a puzzle but sometimes it’s one that you simply cannot solve. And all you can hope to do is approach it with fresh eyes and a new perspective, and accept the vagaries of its changing landscape.

Sandwich Life: Kaleidoscopes and the New Normal

Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the next crisis.

In my experience, just when you get accustomed to a situation, an unexpected emergency comes along to derail you and you’re thrust into a new reality you’re sure you can’t cope with. But amazingly you do and eventually it becomes the new normal.

I am constantly struck by the resiliency of the human animal. Our capacity to endure, to survive and even thrive after a traumatic event is astounding. A parent dies, a child is injured or falls ill, a teen gets into trouble, a spouse betrays the marital trust. And still we go on.

When I was six years old I got my tonsils removed. Some of the memories of my hospital stay are vivid, like waking each morning to my roommate’s bare butt in the bed next to mine, and throwing up on my brother’s shoes when he and my mother visited me after the surgery.

Memory from that age is not continuous. It doesn’t feel like this happened and then that, but more like flashes of lightning. A strobe image or episode here and then there.

My mother gave me several gifts while I was in hospital, most of which were designed to relieve the boredom. There were magazines, puzzle books and coloured pencils. And then she handed me a cardboard tube with a spyhole at one end. Attached to the other end was a round rotating container of colourful plastic beads. When I shook the contraption, the plastic pieces rattled within it.

This was my first kaleidoscope. I held the eyepiece up to the light and saw a fractured world of shape and colour. A starburst of glittering reds and blues. My mother reached out and turned the end piece and the entire scene changed. A whole new set of colours and shapes fell into place, this time predominantly green and yellow. It was different but equally beautiful.Kaleidoscope

When my father died and my ailing mother came to live with us, I thought the beads would never fall back into place, that life would never be beautiful again and I would live it perpetually suspended, everything slightly skewed.

In a way, I was right. Nothing would ever be the same. But, like a kaleidoscope, while you can’t get back that first pattern of reds and blues that you loved so much, you can find a new life pattern, and in it there is always beauty.