You need to know that I want
Unabashedly sentimental songs.
Think Van Morrison
In his earlier, less angry days and
Dylan, in his later, gentler ones.
An instrumental of Annie Laurie is a must,
As too Mark Knopfler,
Who so magically supplied the soundtrack
For my days here.
You’ll need really good food for after.
Excellent, piping hot coffee and brewed Orange Pekoe in china pots,
Kentucky Fried Chicken,
Pizzas made to order,
And a Build Your Own ice cream sundae station
To add the requisite whimsy.
Display a very few pictures of me,
Not huge Bristol boards packed full of them,
So popular these days.
Black and white predominating, if you will,
My unwavering preference.
Yes, my nod to tradition,
Scads of calla lilies, but white only,
The yellow look fake somehow,
Oh, a few off white roses, would you,
Champagne they call them now.
And in the middle of everything
Position one commanding vase of
Fat white peonies,
Because their fragrance, their sheer deliciousness
Outdistances all the others combined.
Everyone there ought to tell
One story about me that stands out for them,
And not just of sweetness and light.
The dark, too.
You all know
I was more than one shade.
A piper would be wonderful at the close,
Just one, as there was for my father,
A whole band of them he felt excessive
And I must agree.
Then let me go.
Knowing that most days
I cherished this life of mine
And that while briefly here,
Laughed probably more than most,
Loved a few of you beyond measure,
And with providence in my corner
Was able to write a few poems
I would not change one word of
If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.
Always the smell of tiger balm
takes me back to Kuala Lumpur in 1980,
the sweltering airstrips,
the sea of expectant upturned faces
of the refugees waiting en masse
at the bottom of the airplane stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second unimaginable lives.
Plane load after plane load,
week after week, three years running,
we ferried them across oceans.
After days and sometimes weeks
in crowded buses
they waited to be next in line,
these survivors of Pol Pot and
his merciless Khmer Rouge,
these witnesses of unimaginable horror.
We delivered them to Gander, to Montreal
and to Toronto,
away from all they had known,
everything they owned in small tidy bundles
at their feet.
We chose our words carefully
for the interpreter,
Trying to prepare them in some small way
for what lay ahead.
Where do you begin?
How do you tell someone how cold feels?
We played them music
we wanted them to hear,
hits of the day, Blondie, REO Speedwagon,
handed out sandwiches and Pampers
and wet naps.
They in turn watched our every move,
accepted anything given to them,
suspiciously at first,
then with vigorously nodding heads,
pouring forth their thanks,
holding up their solemn, silent babies proudly
for us to hold.
When we dimmed the cabin lights,
hearing their guarded whispers
to one another,
sharing late night confessions in the dark
high above the ocean,
these people for whom
no sadness had gone unknown.
It was boarding them I remember most.
Even when I urged them
up the aircraft stairs, off the blistering tarmac,
beckoned them toward me,
they held back, tentative,
and only when I descended the stairs
took the first of them by the hand,
would they dare take the first step
toward this wild and inconceivable freedom.
I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.
Ask Me How I Know
The Mass in Latin.
The alphabet backwards
What the Beaufort Scale measures
All the words to Unforgettable
Whether a baby’s cry is hunger or loneliness
The perfect recipe for chocolate fudge.
How to get ink out of silk
When a goodbye is final
How to assemble hair in a topknot in under three seconds.
With no bobby pins. None.
The real names of Lady Gaga and Iggy Pop and Gopher on Love Boat
The chemical symbol for strontium
How to make a Brandy Alexander
Stop the bleeding
Paint a 50-foot high aluminum billboard.
How to draw a person’s profile using the numbers 1, 2, 3.
Make a slipknot, a bowline, an overhand knot.
A lariat loop.
Say “Your lifejacket is under your seat” in Arabic.
“Come this way” in Vietnamese.
How to let you go
And survive to write another word.
This would be a time capsule of me,
I’m talking me.
Not of the Western world circa 21st century
or even this particular zeitgeist extraordinaire.
To be unearthed in some distant space and time,
to disclose a definitive self-portrait
for the ones who follow.
I’d have to start with the coffee mug I drank from every morning for years
that reads Do No Harm But Take No Shit.
A box of Cheerios because I basically lived on them for 20 years.
My books of poetry, I know, predictable, but come on.
That is, if they still speak poetry.
Oh, and my drafts file on disk
if they still speak disk
because drafts sometimes speak louder than finished versions.
A vinyl 45 of I Want to be Bobby’s Girl protected by its original sturdy cardboard sleeve
to resurrect perfectly my teenaged longing skating on Saturday nights
inside freezing cold arenas praying underneath my breath
for someone to take my hand so we could go round together.
They’ll need my vintage Crossley Record Player too and can consider it my donation
to whatever brave new world they are in,
the inestimable value of which may, alas,
be entirely lost on them.
A black and white photo of me at six standing at the edge of a diving board
high above a crowded community swimming pool
because I felt the world was waiting for me then.
And it shows I wasn’t scared;
I wasn’t scared at all.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
I thank you, Leonard Cohen, for sharing your gift with us, shining light in life’s darkest corners, so we could see. He labored with severe depression through various periods of his life, the price he paid for his gift, a price he paid on behalf of all of us.
I am one of three people in the GTA who still send Christmas cards by post. The other two are 97 year old female twins who never married and live on the Danforth in the house they were born in.
I am an anachronism. And happy to be. In fact, it remains a favourite ritual of mine, despite the ridiculous amount of time and effort it takes, ranking right up there with baking my mother’s recipe for shortbread and preparing festive packages full of carefully chosen goodies for shipping overseas to friends two months in advance.
But my card-writing ritual doesn’t feel absolutely right unless I follow carefully prescribed motions: chalk it up to a heightened sense of occasion.
First, I prepare hot chocolate. I cannot address the first envelope without a mug of this at my side. And not from a package. I am talking real hot chocolate with whole milk and cocoa, boiled on the stove using a timer.
Then I put on six of my beloved mixed holiday CD’s featuring tunes no one admits to owning. Top of my list? Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas,” with corny, wonderful tunes like “A Hard Candy Christmas.”
Second comes Andre Gagnon’s Christmas Album. (They actually used to call them “albums.”) It’s simply not Christmas season until I hear Gagnon and his sublime piano playing.
Next I clear my desk in order to begin arranging my supplies in an assembly line. Out first come my Sharpie Ultra-fine markers, lined up in red, blue and green, followed by Christmas stamps, sparkle glue, address labels and stickers. Yes, I said stickers. And no, I am not an elementary school teacher.
Over the years I’ve bought cards, ordered them online, and made my own from scratch, using just the right knife to create a classic ragged edge on thick cream-colored vellum.
I set out to make each card an event unto itself, a distinctly personal missive for everyone on my list. I include my favourite seasonal quotes and jokes and the occasional New Yorker cartoon, Christmas-themed of course.
One of the funniest ever: Two little girls are pictured chatting in the park. One says to the other: “I like the Easter Bunny: I find him less judgmental than Santa.”
And this one: Santa is stretched out on a psychiatrist’s couch and says to the doctor: “Sometimes I don’t read my mail.”
The piece de resistance: my sealing wax kit with my brass monogram tool, a treasured gift from a dear friend. Sealing letters this way is a 600-year old tradition, one that secured the confidentiality of important missives. Long ago, betrothals were pre-arranged. Therefore true words of love were covertly written and sealed so the recipient could be assured their passion was kept secret. Private political documents held an impression pressed over a strip of velvet. A broken seal implied broken trust … and no one of integrity would dream of tampering with the wax emblem.
It’s decadent and fun stamping the letter M in gold wax on the back of each envelope. It adds the final touch of elegance and tradition to my greeting.
There’s no one who doesn’t adore getting a big red envelope in the mail the week before Christmas, hand-addressed to them and embellished within an inch of its life.
And I love doing it.
Like Kenny and Dolly, it is the perfect pairing.