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Monday, October 07, 2019

My Achy-Breaky Heart

"What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others." ~Pericles, Greek statesman, orator and General, 495-429 BCE

     It has been ten months since I stepped off the bow of NB Valerie for the final time. It has been nine months since I returned to the Washington State, USA. There are some things that make attempting to forge a new life easier in my birth country. I know the systems here and how they work. I have an innate grasp of American English and I can wield it well. Yet this homecoming is bittersweet for so many reasons not the least of which I didn't want to come back; I felt I had run out of options in England and this was my final choice. In the eight years I was gone over the Pond, I am not the only thing that changed. As my life was spooling out with Les on the canals of Britain, the lives of my friends and family in America have as well, with some coming to their inevitable end.
     It is typical at age sixty-one that those around me are beginning to die. We know intellectually this is the case, but it is another thing all together to experience those losses one upon another with one's heart. Upon my return in late January I was facing the memorial service of Jim Barron, the husband of my dear friend Karen--she whom I met at Hospice volunteer training and who introduced me to Kamiak Butte where Les and I were married and where I scattered his ashes. We would have had a very different wedding without Karen kicking me in the butt metaphorically. I was swanning about all "moons and Junes," my head away across the world with Les on the boat and my heart there too. Karen brought me back to earth to face the necessary details required to plan a wedding. Jim was like Les--solid, kind, smart, funny, and he too knew how to love. In better times Karen and Jim were involved in square dancing with all the accouterments: the fluffy skirts and petticoats for her and bolo ties for Jim. He had many, many dozens of them, most made by Karen. At his service Karen displayed all Jim's ties and invited everyone to choose one to take in remembrance of him. It was a brilliant idea.
     I was notified two weeks later that a former coworker of mine also died suddenly. While we worked together every day for six years we were not close. The former receptionist was her best mate and no one would ever fill her shoes--not that I tried. I had my own way of doing things and I was quite successful in that position. Nevertheless I had to endure my co-worker's daily tirades, mean digs, impatient rants, and deliberate nastiness while letting it flow off my shoulders like water off a duck's back. The only thing that offered me any small comfort at all was the knowledge that she was an equal opportunity abuser, treating volunteers and staff with comparable disdain. Whenever she would approach my desk with her shark tooth smile I would smile back while picturing her head exploding all over the lobby. Nevertheless I didn't wish her any ill will and I would certainly never have wished her the death sentence of advanced metastasized cancer that was a part of her demise. I could have gone to her memorial service as a mark of respect but opted out. There was precious little respect between us in life and I have never been able to put lipstick on a pig and call it Marilyn Monroe. Still her death marked another milestone for me, the passing of an era as I remembered some of the better memories surrounded by creative, articulate, and very funny people who seem to be drawn to public radio.
     On February 19th I was notified that our dear Canadian friend Bryce Lee had died of complications from the cancer and Lupus he fought valiantly for a decade. Many of you who follow this blog will remember seeing Bryce's comments. He adored steam trains, canals and locks, boats of all kinds, photography, ham radio, motorcycles and men in leather. A giant bear of a man at six feet eight inches tall and 300 plus pounds, Bryce had fingers in all kinds of pies. He was a living example of Dorothy Parker's maxim, "Curiosity is the cure for boredom. There is no cure for curiosity." He was a major supporter of the Tallylyn Welsh steam train line among many other groups and individuals he underwrote with his time, talent, and finances. A gentle giant, I called Bryce Cousin Kindheart once I knew he was gay. As someone with roots deep in the LGBTQ  community over the last thirty years, I always consider someone who self identifies in this way as family because so often their own families disown them for being who they are. Les felt this way as well, and Bryce was on his short list to receive regular packets of Towpath Talk newspapers, Canal Boat and Waterways World magazines. Bryce offered and paid for three months in Cow Roast marina when Les was recovering from liver surgery in 2014. When my Best Beloved was in the last six months of life, Bryce called us frequently to chat about this and that, keeping us linked to him across the miles. After Les died, Bryce called me often, his rich Canadian baritone filling my ear with kindness, compassion, humor, and  satisfying some primal need of mine to hear a North American accent. Over the six years of our growing friendship he consulted me frequently about herbal supplements that might help him deal with the ravages of years of chemotherapy and radiotherapy which laid waste to his immune system and his body. He claimed I helped him endure and exceed the limits his doctors gave him and for that I am grateful. We talked on the phone earlier the week he died,  but Bryce hid from me how truly ill he was and I was not aware of the severity of Bryce's condition. We made plans to meet up in May of 2020 in Vancouver, Canada so I was shocked and grief stricken to learn of his death. I tried to arrange attending his memorial service but it was not to be. There was no chance of me arriving in time. It would mean an expensive commercial flight from Spokane to Vancouver BC. A connecting flight from Vancouver BC to Ontario and then a train ride to Burlington and still I would not have made it on time.
     In June the first of the Wednesday Women died. For those of you who followed my blog So This is Love, you may remember the talented group of women of which I am fortunate to belong, who vetted Les at a dinner and grilled him thoroughly in February of 2011.
     Marian Moos, Spokane's feminist fairy-goddess mother was in her 90's and dementia had developed. Marian spent her final year of life living with her daughter Ginnie. Marian contracted an illness which put her in hospital where she died. Ginnie went to visit her mom four days before she passed, and true to Marian's indomitable feminist spirit, she found her mom propped in bed with a magnifying glass in hand, reading Michelle Obama's latest book. I will miss her independent spirit and the excitement with which Marian always approached life.
   On the 3rd of August Rosemarie Duffy, Major, retired USAF died after a many years of dementia. Rosemarie was a firecracker. She called things as she saw them. She loved life, cats, her garden, and men. She created a studio space in one half of her basement to provide women artists with safe, free space to hone their craft, and she had a small apartment built into the other half of her basement which she rented out for a very low sum to struggling single mothers trying to get on their feet. Rosemarie was a nurse anesthetist with many connections to the Spokane medical community. She worked with local doctors, traveling to poverty stricken areas of the world to set up mobile hospitals and assist with eye surgeries to help other less fortunate people have the gift of good sight. She volunteered her time with Crosswalk--a youth shelter where many GLBTQ runaways and those tossed out of their homes ended up. Rosemarie also took in litters of kittens from pregnant cats at the animal shelter, caring for the babies until homes could be found for them. She wrote poetry for me, and it was her idea of forming intentional community that created the Wednesday Women. The gradual loss of her memory over eight years took its toll on her and weighed on the hearts of those who loved her. Rosemarie was aware of all she was losing, until it was gone, and essentially so was she. Her spirit trapped in a failing mind and body was simply waiting for death to tap her on the shoulder.
     The bigger picture of life in the USA these days is sobering and ugly. Those of us who do not espouse Trump's divisive MAGA rhetoric do what we can to counteract his tyrannical meanness whenever possible; we are bone weary from fighting decades for things such as clean air and water, the endangered species act, protection of our national parks, safe, affordable access to women's reproductive health including abortion, freedom of and from religion, equal rights for women and GLBTQ folks, assistance for migrants and refugees, and recognition of the diversity that made the USA the most successful immigrant country on earth. Watching all we have fought long and hard for disappear under looser regulations or a roll back to none at all; rallying to fight court appeal after appeal which keep us mired in the mud of contention as we valiantly fight to protect past legislation is exhausting and demoralizing as Trump's minions dismantle program after program. His nasty tirades draw out the worst of those who live in the corners and shadow of this country, welcoming racists, bigots, Christian religious fanatics, and ignorant bullies to walk down the middle of the street in defiant glory, wrapped in America's flag while they abuse and kill others, smiling defiantly, backed by the Republican Senate.
     In my other country across the Pond, I stare at the news in mute dismay and sorrow as Britain too appears to rise to bait of the worst in human nature, imploding while politicians drag their feet on the majority vote to leave the EU, thinking their delaying tactics will derail Brexit. Meanwhile no solid plans have been made to prepare for exit from the EU, leaving Brits everywhere feeling overwhelmed and under-protected, worried for want of basics such as food and medicine because the MP's in Parliament would rather fight each other like bully boys in the Lord of the Flies, throwing the entire populace they are elected to represent under the oncoming train, instead of facing forward and making the very best of the situation. Every time I see televised footage of British Parliament I am ashamed of how they behave and I am worried for all those across the Pond that I love.
     Unlike so many people I know on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, I continue to follow the news every day. I have never been a looky-loo, slowing down to stare at automobile accidents, but I cannot tear myself away from the politics of this age playing out in both of my beloved countries. Too many of my compatriots no longer watch or listen to the news. Their hearts simply cannot take any more. It seems I now live in heartbroken times personally, politically, locally, nationally, and internationally. 

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Bye Bye Miss American Pie

"A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die..." ~ Don McClean, American singer/songwriter
   Some folks will read the lyrics above and wonder what on earth it has to do with me or this blog. Others may grasp the hidden meaning in the lyrics that fit my life so well. When Don McClean was asked recently what the lyrics really meant he divulged the following: She was as American as apple pie; it was about a time in America when our innocent ideology about the world and our place in it was giving way to cynicism. Society was heading in the wrong direction...Let me make this quick disclaimer: I will do the next blog about America with just as jaundiced and critical an eye about my dislikes so please Brits, don't think I am being an ugly American and unduly criticizing your wonderful homeland. 
     While living in England for over eight years has changed me and made me a person whose heart and soul is bifurcated between Britain and the USA, I am at my very DNA, as American as apple pie. Still, life with a foot in two countries makes me even more complex than I was before ever I fell in love with my Best Beloved Les and chose to follow him back to the cut.
    Both of my countries are suffering through existential political and social crises which cause me additional grief. When I lived in Britain there were things about the country that drove me mad, like the mindless petty bureaucracy that could quickly F*** up one's day, and the mindless shrugs of Brits who simply take each days bureaucratic bungles as part and parcel of life in general and do not question why such crap occurs each day as they queue up quietly and wait with the patience of saints for life to move ahead one more step. 
   The general lack of customer service for the average Joe or Jane was another thing that could drive me to a homicidal rant. Six months and seven visits to the bank to have my name added to Les' bank account is a prime example along with the requirement that I make an appointment with a "bereavement counselor" at Halifax bank in order to have Les' name removed from our account after he died, and the need to wait three months for said appointment, only to show up, be kept waiting twenty minutes and then be told said counselor"was unable to make it in today and you will need to reschedule your appointment..." aaaarrrrrghhhh!!!!! 
   The British and possibly European desire to have everyone jump countless hoops and spend many hundreds of pounds and a third of one's life getting NVQ's (National Vocational Qualifications) level 1, 2, 3, 5, 57, 116, etc. etc, etc. which do not prove one is actually the best person for the job but does prove one can waste innumerable hours "learning" pendantic facts and common sense  behavior such as "When working in a classroom with a teacher and pupils one must always bear in mind the safety of all students." Really???? I thought I was going to be there to inject a little edgy excitement into their day with knife throwing followed by teaching them how to eat fire.
   The British penchant for parking along the side of the road facing in either direction, playing chicken with each other on narrow lanes, including with double decker buses, is something from which I will never quite recover several lives, 'nor will I ever recoup the years I lost to traveling left around Roundabouts in order to go right. And Let me not forget plastic money; not as in a debit card but actual five and ten pound notes made out of plastic. 
     I won't go into details about the sacred cow that is the British NHS. When the NHS gets it right it does so beautifully...when it gets things wrong--which happens too often for a small island under one national government--people die, often from simple neglect. 
   And then there is the bloody British dog thing; their over-the-top love affair with canines and one is hardly ever never enough. But that is just me; 'nuff said! 
    There is the dissatisfying lack of ways in which one's breakfast eggs might be prepared when eating out and the sad little mini-buffet dish of three green leaves, a couple of celery and red pepper sticks accompanied by one small tomato which passes for a salad too often on British plates. And don't get me started about the lack of salad dressing choices or indeed dressing itself other than the occasional vinegar and oil or the ubiquitous packets of salad cream (Miracle Whip for you Americans ). Top this off with chips (fries) with everything and I do mean bloody everything, and the British need not to make a spectacle of one's self by complaining about crap food served with even crappier service many times, and I begin to lose the will to live, as Les used to say when something got him down. 
     On the plus side of the British equation is first and foremost for me, the canals and the amazing community living on and alongside them. I know of no other community like it. 2000 miles of canals and navigable rivers, and a community of mostly lovely folk who choose to live a counter-culture life and which I was immensely privileged to share in for eight years. The cut is a place to lose yourself and find yourself anew.
   Number two on my list of British sublime is the countryside. Much of it is breathtaking and Brits know this and support their countryside. Unlike most Americans, Brits actually get out in their countryside on a daily and weekly basis for a short five mile hike just to get their blood moving and make use of the public footpaths which criss-cross the countryside.      This leads me to number three: the smallness of everything and I do mean everything, from bottles of shampoo, face cream, medicines and sauces, to gardens, automobiles, the average home, and parking spaces. Brits are adept at fitting a car into the space an American would only consider applicable to a bicycle, and then managing to squeeze out of the doors like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. I still find it a marvel that I never tire of watching. Parking in Britain is a highly refined art and one ridiculously under-appreciated.
   Next up is the British ability to not only appreciate history and preserve it but also to live amidst over 1000 years of history as though it were yesterday or last week. 
    My favorite awesome British thing is their way of playing with their language and not taking themselves too seriously. We Americans could and should take lessons on this point. I dearly miss hearing the mish-mash of dialects, British slang, and the easy way they take the mick out of total strangers and everyone knows what is going on and laughs along. The Brits know how to have a great, good larff. 
     I totally miss a British behavior that used to drive me doolally and that is their inability to say a simple goodbye and ring off the phone. I remember the first time Les ever called me, back in October of 2010. When our conversation came to a conclusion he seemed to have difficulties hanging up, repeating in a soft and slightly melancholy voice: "Goodbye goodbye; good-bye...goodbye... goodbye." I remember thinking to myself that he must be really keen to meet me if he had that much difficulty saying goodbye! I had no idea ALL Brits do this. Five goodbyes are about the average for a phone call and it makes me feel like a rude, abrupt, and manner-less American when I say, "Okay. Goodbye"/click! And I hang up while whomever on the other end is still gathering their goodbye momentum. 
     I miss the incredible vistas across furrowed fields and millenniums, strolling along a country lane in Stoke Golding at Twilight, holding hands with my husband, our laughter warming the slight evening chill as we made our way down and around from the White Swan pub, to the warm haven of our bloat, moored and sitting silently in the gathered dusk, one golden light shining through the curtain announcing, "You are home." 
     I--a self avowed introvert--actually miss the way Brits will approach anyone and have a moment of their time. How they will pitch in at a moment's notice when someone is in need of real aid be it small or large. I miss the generosity of Brits, in heart, mind and spirit; and the many good British men especially who are comfortable with showing genuine affection to those they love in public or private.
   I miss the quaint, the amazing, the surreal experience of weaving through small villages with a thousand years of history and knocking around London with Les who knew it like the back of his hand, sleuthing out the strange, the incredible, the awe inspiring blend of ancient and modern as we excavated layers and layers of history to find just a tiny fraction of Britain's stories.
     Crikey I even miss the British total preoccupation with the weather and how this very necessary skill keeps folks tied to nature in an immediate way that does not exist in many other places around the world and certainly in large swathes across North America where weather is often moderated by the large landmass on which we live, as opposed to the near continual atmospheric vagaries churning along, across and over the small islands of Britannia. 
     I miss the blessed green land of my ancestors. I miss driving through Wales with dear loved ones eager to show me "their" Wales in Pembrokeshire and the magnificent coast. I loved the bilingual road signs with Welsh first. The signs make excellent Welsh/English flashcards as one travels along very modern roadways from England and the Border towns. I miss the very fact that driving without a GPS of some kind in Britain is simply not on--in fact it is bloody stupid. I loved the unit in our rented van which mispronounced the Welsh so badly that it mangled the name of a bridge--bridge-over-some town, into Glnylldydllidll! I am so grateful for seeing the magnificent Welsh Atlantic coast in a Halcyon moment and witnessing the sun setting in the Western ocean for Les. It was one of the last things he wanted to do with me before he died. 
     Oh how I miss the steel skin of NB Valerie holding me within--my safe haven floating somewhere in the heart of Britain, the land of my heart's favorite soul. 

Les' sunset over the western ocean in Wales. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”  Cheryl Strayed, American memoirist, novelist, essayist and podcast host.

   Life right now for me consists of large sections of time filled with uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and trepidation, punctuated by lovely floating moments of grace, laughter and good conversation while spending time with loved ones. It is about taking one's own measure repeatedly and realizing the internal voice we each have is chirping like a cricket inside me repeating "Time is short, time is short, time is short." Life is still not sleeping well and feeling that two years, five months and nine days after Les' heart stopped beating, I am more weary and threadbare around my edges than I have ever been and that is okay. Life is accepting that for me, there no real home on this beautiful planet I love because my home here ceased to exist with the death of  Les. So I've become expert at parsing segments of time.
   Life at present is about catching up with friends and family near and far, some of whom I have not seen in twenty five or thirty years. It is video calling my British loved ones and seeing their lovely faces, hearing their voices, catching up with their lives and crying when I say goodbye. 
It's about making sense of my life and this screwed up country, desecrated environment and uncertain world. It is also about honoring the process of grief and self discovery, continuing to excavate through the ruins in my life with a therapist to keep me from stalling out of the process. 
   I remember my paternal grandfather after my grandmother Helen Russell, his wife of 53 years, died. He used to tell me that he had lived too long and seen too much. He was ready to go. I have reached that point in life when I feel the same. Papa lived another twenty five years into the very midnight of his life at age ninety nine, making the best of it for as long as he could while marking time until he was reunited with Gran. 
   I am looking for work, attending interviews and considering future possibilities because I continue to wake up each morning and needs must. I'm dealing with Crohns flare-ups and making myself indulge in self care, and And I am ready to write again. So, this is really just to let those who follow the blog know where I am at and to say hi. I'm back now. Thank you for your patience.

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs