Sunday, November 28, 2010

The stupidest thing I ever did for love

The stupidest thing I ever did for love was to stay in a marriage way beyond its life.

I married my first husband when I was 21. He was 25, tall, lanky, funny -- and cold. On our honeymoon in England, I discovered to my dismay that he was not all that interested in sex. He liked to burrow in a cocoon when he slept, carefully tucking blankets close around him as if to ward off any intruding hands. Hands that wanted to touch and be touched. Hands that wanted to light fires and not put them out. Hands that were mine.

We returned from our honeymoon and took up domestic life. We had sex once a month - or so. I pushed down my desires and resigned myself to the reality of what my mother had told me one afternoon before I got married. She and I were sitting in green webbed lawn chairs underneath the chestnut tree in my family's back yard, The remains of tea and cookies lay on a tray on top of a rickety brown, metal folding table.

"Marriage isn't always pleasant," said my mother. "It's mostly hard work."

That made sense to me. Hard work: everyone in our large family of nine worked hard. We rarely spoke of pleasure. Instead the conversations revolved around the chores. Doing dishes, making dinner of boiled potatoes and burnt steak, picking green and yellow beans from the garden, hoeing the broccoli, cutting the grass, setting out the daily bowl of applesauce for my father, cleaning our one bathroom and tidying the small living room which twenty minutes later dissolved into an unbelievable mess yet again.

Hard work. We knew what that was. Perhaps another family could create a perfectly clean house, a perfectly hoed garden, a perfectly cooked meal. For us, that perfection was never realized, and the only reality was endless, wearisome, dusty hard work.

So when my mother equated marriage with hard work, I swallowed it, even though the idea had a taste as bitter as the green kale she used to boil to death and feed us.

I spent 10 years in my marriage. Ten long years of working hard at it. I moped and glummed, as did my husband. A few times, I gathered my courage and raised the issue of our sporadic sex life. We went to a sex therapist. She advised us to broaden our definition of sex.

Most of the time, I simply muffled my desires. Yet I was a passionate person, and the desires leapt out anyway, like a fire I couldn't put out even if I wanted to. I fell in love with other men. More precisely I developed crushes. I held hands with Sidney Morris after our Edmund Spenser literature class; I stood far too close to Peter Ferguson who worked in the same bookstore as me; I kissed George Riley at a communications conference. Each forbidden look, touch and kiss brought guilt and a Catholic determination to stop. After all, I had made my bed. I would lie in it, lonely and untouched, beside the man who was my lawful wedded husband.

Then one day, as I bemoaned my fate to my sister-in-law, she said, "Maybe he isn't the right man for you." At that moment, her words unlocked a door. I pushed it open and caught a glimpse of another life, a happier life, another me, a happier me. At that moment, I knew my marriage was over.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Carrots, potatoes and timing

The other day we were planning a pot roast dinner to share with our next door neighbours. One of them is highly allergic to our cats. When we invite them for dinner, we make it at our place and truck it over to their place in a wheelbarrow.

John was in charge of the pot roast, and began cooking it in the early afternoon. By 4 o'clock the simmering meat was dressing the air with tantalizing smells. Meanwhile, I had made beet salad, and peeled and cubed carrots for the roast. John said he would peel potatoes and cook both vegetables. Our friends were taking care of dessert. We were due at their place at 6. Luckily, they live two minutes away.

The clock ticked away. It was 5 p.m. Was John planning on cooking the veggies in the pot with the meat? If so, he had better get a move on. Such was my thinking.

Meanwhile, John sat in his office upstairs, immersed in some mysterious alchemy as he programmed his new toy, a tiny 5”x7” laptop computer. As usual, he had fallen prey to the trance of geekdom. Hours could go by without him realizing it.

On the other hand, I'm hard-wired to a clock. I'm forever slicing my day into 15-minute periods, checking the time, figuring out what has to be done by when – and then doing it. Here was a classic set-up: John oblivious to the time, and me clanging around like one of those kid's alarm clocks with the smiley face and the oversize metal bell on top.

At least three times it was on the tip of my tongue to remind John of the time and what he still had to do. Mentally, I crafted these reminders carefully: “John, would you like me to peel the potatoes?” Hint Hint. Or, “Honey, what were your plans for the potatoes and carrots?” Hint Hint HINT. Or, taking a page from Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication, which I had recently read, “Sweetie, would you be willing to....” To what? “To get your ass down here and finish cooking?!”

I bit my tongue, heeding an inner voice that calmly told me that it was none of my business, that John always kept his promises around cooking, that in the worst case, we could finish cooking the stuff at our friends' place. Meanwhile, my emotions felt hot and simmering, just like the roast. I could barely keep a lid on them. The cool inner voice invited me to stay with the emotional heat, observe it, feel it.

At 5:15 I fled to the bathroom to take a shower, closing the door just a little more sharply than normal. It wasn't quite a slam, but inclined towards an exclamation mark. “Observe the irritation,” said the voice. “Notice its edgy sharpness. Feel it boiling in the chest.” At 5:20 I briskly toweled myself off, slapped my old terry robe around me, and stalked to the bedroom to dress. I purposely avoided looking at John as I passed his office. “Notice your hot and flushed face. Feel the heat behind your tongue.” As I was pulling on my jeans, I heard John's chair creak and his footsteps patter down the stairs. It was 5:30.

I found him in the kitchen peeling potatoes, water on the stove nearing a boil, the cooking carrots immersed in the thick tasty gravy enveloping tender chunks of meat. He greeted me with a warm smile. I was grateful that I had kept my inner frenzy to myself – although, what would have happened if I had told John what was going on inside me? That too would have been worth observing.

The potatoes went into the pot, and were done in 15 minutes. Everything was ready to go by 5:55. Perfect timing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A date with my father

In November of 1988, the year before my father died, before any of us knew that the cause of his troubling fatigue was inoperable liver cancer, I invited him to a piano concert. The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel was playing Beethoven at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. My father and I shared a love for classical music. Yet we rarely went to concerts together. In fact, I could count on one hand the times we'd been alone without my mother. And so, with me in my late '30s and he in his mid-'60s, I considered this concert a special date.

My father made the hour-long drive from Guelph to Toronto, and met me at a downtown bistro for supper. We sat at a small round table covered with a yellow cloth that matched the ochre-painted walls. I had dressed up for the occasion. I wore a chic black wool suit, set off by a brilliant white silk blouse with a ruffled neck and cuffs, sheer black stockings and classic pumps. My father wore an old pair of brown suit pants, a faded white shirt and brown striped tie. He had replaced the brown suit jacket with a tan acrylic cardigan. His left hand was wrapped in a gauze bandage; I think he had cut his hand. A former farmer, he had recently retired as the chief gardener for the mental hospital in Guelph. Even though he no longer officially worked, he was always tinkering with some equipment, and his large hands were constantly beat up.

He appeared out of place, tilting the bentwood chair backwards, a country hick in the trendy city bistro. I felt embarrassed by his shabby clothes. His looks redeemed him to me. My father was still handsome as ever, blessed with classic proportions of eyes, nose and chin. His thick dark brown hair had turned salt and pepper, with more space on top. His dark brown eyes were steady. He was thinner, however, and his frame seemed to have shrunk. He no longer towered over me; in fact, we were now almost the same height.

I ordered a glass of red wine, my father took a ginger ale. The waiter placed our dinners of salmon and steak on the table. My father ate clumsily with his one good hand. We made polite conversation, not knowing quite what to say to each other, sensing the absence of the social oil my mother would have provided. But somehow we made it through the meal, determined to enjoy this rare evening together.

The time for the concert arrived. We walked east on King Street to the hall, the wind tearing at our faces in the damp November evening. Our seats were in the first balcony, not too close and not too far away from the stage. People threaded past our knees.The long black Steinway stood regally in the centre of the stage, surrounded by musicians warming up. Short passages of discordant sounds jockeyed with the murmuring buzz of people talking and whispering to one another.

Finally the house lights dimmed. The first violinist walked on stage and the orchestra tuned up. Everyone fell silent. In that hush, Alfred Brendel emerged from the wings. His famous bulging eyes looked out at the audience from behind his trademark thick black-rimmed glasses. Brendel shook the hand of the concertmaster, bowed to the audience, and calmly sat down on the piano bench, flipping his formal black tails over the back edge. He paused for a long moment, then placed his stubby fingers on the piano keys. The opening chords of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 reached our ears. The sound was full, but somewhat faint.

My father and I glanced at each other. Simultaneously, we slid our hands into our pockets and pulled out our hearing aids. My father swivelled his into his left ear, I put mine in my right. We looked at one another again, grinning, and settled back, ears primed, hearts connecting through the music.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lost and Found

It's said that the Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) has one of the loveliest songs in the entire bird kingdom. I believe it. Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to the Gatineau Hills, we rented a house high on a hill. A Hermit thrush nested on the property. It was the first bird to break into song before the sun rose and the last to be heard after the sun set. I opened my bedroom window wide, totally enchanted.

The Hermit thrush's song consists of a soulful melody, four or five clear, flute-like notes spiraling upward in a minor key. The melody is then repeated at a higher pitch. Each phrase is sung slowly and leisurely with a long pause in between. I can't speak for others, but for me, the song induces a state of deep, serene calm.

A few summers after first hearing the Hermit thrush, we moved again, this time 15 kilometres north to the home we had built in the intervening years. The back of our house hugs a steep hillside, massed with tall white pines, maples, oaks and birches. At the front, it faces rolling fields where horses graze. From time to time, a deer or even a black bear ventures into sight.

To my delight, I discovered that our new home was also home to a Hermit thrush who sang from somewhere up the hill behind the house. This particular bird had a slightly different voice from the one I was used to, but there was no mistaking the haunting lyrical melody. I was happy. Many evenings, I would sit outside, listening to the bird, silently begging it to sing forever.

In the spring, the Hermit thrush's arrival completes the migratory roll-call, following the red-winged blackbirds, Eastern phoebes, winter wrens, ovenbirds, song sparrows and robins. Each spring, I wrote down the date when the Hermit thrush first appeared, typically the third week in April.

This year, from mid-April on I cocked my ear towards the hillside. No Hermit thrush. Day after day, I walked to the back of the house and looked up through the trees. I held my hands on either side of my ears, elephant-like, to amplify any bird song. No Hermit thrush.

After a while, I stopped expecting to hear my beloved thrush, resigned to the fact that for some unknown reason, it had not nested in its usual spot this year.

The days and then weeks passed. Early summer unfolded peacefully, lush with green beauty. Song sparrows cheerily whistled their accented triads as they skipped from bush to bush along the roadside, peepers trilled happily in the nearby swamp. Yet without the Hermit thrush, something essential seemed to have disappeared. In a small, quiet way, my heart ached.

Then, one morning, I found myself hearing, really hearing, other birds that I had never heard before. A Baltimore oriole cockily announced that the sun had risen. I rushed outside, binoculars in hand. After a few moments, I caught sight of its orange and black magnificence. The identity of other birds remained a mystery. Often I woke to the high tinny zeep zeep zeep of some type of warbler. Another sang a burbly run – was that a yellow-rump, or a Nashville? I never did find out.

These new bird songs intrigued me. Had these birds actually been there all along? What else had I closed off by magnetizing my love on only one thing?

My sadness melted. The woods were ricocheting with song, inviting me in.