Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Death of a Childhood Friend

I learned today that a dear childhood friend of mine died suddenly on the first day of this bright, hopeful new year.  She had just turned 36 years old two days before she died.  Her Facebook page was brimming first with cheerful happy birthday messages and then filled with somber messages of grief and heartbreak.

We were friends during grade school but had had no contact aside from an occasional like or comment here and there on Facebook in the intervening years.

Having had no close contact with her for so many years now, I don't want to try to claim a share in a grief that doesn't rightfully belong to me, a grief reserved for her heartbroken family and for those strong, cherished friendships she has built at this stage of her life.

Yet learning of her death shocked me.  I am deeply sorry to hear of it.

It sends my mind tumbling backward to long summer days and long evening phone calls.  To being a girl with a best friend.  To sleep overs and laughter and whispered secrets.  To notes left in lockers and giggling in class.  To posing for grainy photos on the porch in homemade Halloween costumes, grinning at the camera with pillowcases full of candy in our hands.  To comparing our puffy sleeved taffeta Christmas dresses and the magic of school Christmas concerts each year.  To skating at the community hall rink on New Year's Eve.  To childhood and young adolescence and small town innocence.

As it happens I don't remember the last time I saw her.  I don't have a clear memory of ever saying good bye.  We had several years of good friendship and then naturally drifted apart.  Such is life, but the friends of our childhoods rarely leave us entirely.  They stay in our hearts and heads.  They live on in the memories we speak of to our own children.

People die at all ages.  There is no guarantee that just because we are young, we will have many more years to do all we hope to do.  That we will have the great gift of time.  That we will be given the time to grow into the selves we wish to become.

I always imagine myself growing quite old.  Wrinkled and wise, after a full complete life.  I imagine I will have had the time to make things right, make amends, grow past my mistakes.  I see myself in the future easily.  I see being forgiven for the things I have done wrong because I will have a whole life ahead of me to make up for these things.

I see myself now and all the things I worry about.  All the things that drive my actions and thoughts. The petty competitions and jealousies.  The unkind words I can make up for tomorrow.  The impatience for the future, for the next adventure, the next big thing when what do I have before me now if not my life's "big thing"?  Two little boys looking up to me with love shining in their eyes.  A husband who loves me, a safe home, good health, numerous possibilities and freedoms.

I see the way I try to define myself.  The care I give to my clothing.  The way I get discouraged that I have gained weight.  The small things I focus on.  The books I have read, the shows I watch, the places I have traveled to that maybe give me this slight edge over you.

I see how it doesn't matter.

I do not think of my childhood friend this evening and think about the way she dressed or if she got to travel more than me.  I think of her face in the obituary notice.  I think of her face in the photos I have of us as young girls.  Her happy eyes.  Her cheerful smile.  Her kind heart.

I think now of what matters.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Haiku and the Fragmented Heart

I was always a girl in love with words.

I began a love affair with poetry in a second hand bookshop in the city near our small prairie town when I was around twelve.

After passing stacks of comic books, piles and piles of regency romance and popular mystery novels, I found several dusty shelves at the very back of the shop heavy with once well-loved and well read collections of poetry.  Thin volumes and thick, often in rich burgundy binding.  Visually beautiful.  I felt like a girl in a novel when I would reach up almost cautiously, hoping my fingers would land on just the right volume and lift it reverently off the shelf, gently wipe the dust from its cover.  Magic.

I had long had an affinity for old, forgotten things.  A legacy from my Icelandic grandfather who owned three antique\ junk shops in the Chatham area before he up and sold it all and moved to Haiti, where he remained for the rest of his life, building houses, writing letters, working with those who had nothing material to call their own.  He became known down on that ravaged island as their beloved "grand-père".  He wrote that the children would hold hands and dance after him wherever he walked or near wherever he worked singing about the kindness of their white grand-père.

My own memories of him begin with hot sunlight, dust billowing up behind his old rusty car as we drove down the dirt lanes of the prairies in search of dusty treasures for sale in someone's barn.  Some colorful beads, some unusual glassware, something strange and unexpected.  I was a very little girl but I remember clearly the thrill of possibility.

That thrill never quite left me.  The possibility of finding treasure in old bookshops is one that still makes my heart beat faster.

I spent a lot of my time reading poetry.  I began with what was easiest and most available to me, the flowery poems of the Romantic period.  I spent a long time reading them but the words never quite spoke to the deepest and purest part of my soul.  They never quite reached me.  I was simply reading the wrong sort of poetry for the person I am.

Many years later, I am discovering the poets that do.  I recognize them as though they were my dearest friends.  Soulmates of sorts. Their thoughts resonate deeply in my heart.  They make me set down my book, shut my eyes and repeat their words again and again until I feel my soul lift and heal.  The words aren't pretty or flowery but they are deeply, authentically beautiful.

We need this sort of thoughtful, painful beauty in our lives.  There is too much rushing, too much fragmentation of the soul, too much distraction and devoting our time to things that don't matter.  There is little time for art, for lingering, for simply being.

I also feel that along with poetry,  the art of the haiku, especially those of Japanese poet Basho, bring us back to the core of ourselves.  Their simplicity is staggering and profound.  Alluring.  The focus on nature puts our hearts where they are comfortable residing.  Through haiku we are able to focus on one thing at a time.  We are able to feel deeply.  This is peaceful and healing.

Basho's words in the following verse are hauntingly beautiful.

Deep autumn,
How does my neighbor live I wonder?

This verse was the first of Basho's I stumbled upon while reading the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" and like it touched the author of that book, it also touched me deeply.  As a girl in love with words, as a woman who feels we are often live disconnected from all life and from others although the desire for connection is at the heart of all we undertake, it spoke to me.

I began with this haiku and I sought out books of Basho's other work and it was like quenching a thirst.  I felt the world begin to whisper in my ears again.  In the same way it when I was a child.  In the same way it did before smart phones and technology conspired to keep our eyes glued to the screens in front of us and safely off the souls around us.  Keep us from the risk of feeling deeply.  Of loving even when it hurts and challenges us.  The hard work of living.

Haiku show us that the magic is still there.  In a leaping frog.  In a quiet village.  In a still pond.  In every bird that breaks our heart with its song.


(I connect these words to my memories of my grandfather because he lived a life of deep commitment and connection to those he served through his work.  He saw how his neighbor (in his case, the people of Haiti) lived and set about meeting them where they were.  Loving them through the work he did, through the humor and simple acceptance he showed them, through his life of giving up in order than others could have.  It might seem odd for me to draw a connection between a wandering Buddhist monk\ poet with a deep love of nature and my workaholic, chain smoking Catholic Icelandic grandfather but it really isn't.  They share this.  Profound love, be it of nature or of others.  A disdain for material items.  A desire to do better than the minimum society tells us we should do.  They were both perhaps, unconventional.

Two men of deep thought and profound intelligence.  Men of both words and action.)