Mosquitoes. In Glacier. In January

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The drive to Polebridge with its acres of burnt trees

On January 24th at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park, I killed a mosquito. At night as I fell asleep, I listened to the rain, and in the morning I woke to the drip-dripping sound of melting icicles hanging from our cabin roof. A sound I associate — from deeply ingrained childhood memories — with Spring. In Ontario roads would turn into small creeks as the snow melted from March to May. Fields became mud and everywhere was the sound of gushing and dripping. Water everywhere while crocuses and trilliums began to push their way up towards the light.

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The trees looked like oscilloscopes

Sadly, this is no longer the case.

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A post box in Polebridge

I was in Polebridge for the weekend to celebrate J’s birthday. We took E out of school on Friday to give ourselves more time together. Friends had loaned us snow shoes, we packed some food and off we went. Polebridge and its population of 24 did not let us down. The famous Mercantile Bakery was open for business, our cabin was empty but for a pile of freshly chopped logs and we made ourselves at home cooking on the wood stove and playing cards with occasional trips to our porch to look at the stars.

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The library in Polebridge

It rained on our first night and flies were buzzing in the cabin. In January. In Northern Montana. J and I didn’t say anything to each other about it until we got back to Missoula as I think we both felt if we acknowledged the clear fact of just how screwed the climate is we would have been too depressed to enjoy a rare weekend together.

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Ours was the cabin on the right. No one else was staying that weekend. The only noise was the dripping from our roof and the flies.

The following day there was just enough snow to stick on the snow shoes and head into Glacier, which is exactly what we did. The snow was too wet and sticky for sledding and it was so warm we stripped down to our t-shirts.

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The famous Polebridge Mercantile (the darkened ‘snow’ on the ground is actually sheet ice)

That night. More rain. The next day the ground was like an ice rink. And it was warm. That was when I killed the mosquito. I could feel waves of depression flood through me. Bears have been spotted coming out of hibernation in Washington State and Nevada. In Juneau, Alaska this week, temperatures are above freezing — even at night. Meanwhile the East coast is being buried in snow. I feel it’s too late to regain anything resembling a balanced ecological system.

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Inside the ‘Merc’

The drive from Missoula to Polebridge takes one past the sharp jagged teeth of the Mission Mountains, along Flathead Lake. North of Kalispell when you reach the northern tip of Flathead Lake you become sandwiched between the Lewis and Clark range of Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains. The landscape, being Montana, is vast and imposing and somewhat terrifying.

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Inside the ‘Merc’ — an oasis of normality

But what made this terrain all the more remarkable was the burnt stumps of trees left over from two massive forest fires: one in 1988 and an even larger one in 2003. The later one devastated the West side of Glacier National Park and the damage is still there to see. The word that kept creeping into my mind was: blasted. It was a blasted, barren landscape of blackened trees like the ones you see in paintings and photographs of World War I battlefields. I thought of Paul Nash who after witnessing the Great War said: “I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever … and may it burn their lousy souls.”

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Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’

The devastation we saw on the way up to Glacier is the result of summers too hot and dry not to burn. The 2003 fire lasted for three months and burned 310,000 acres, including 133,000 acres in Glacier — more than 10 percent of the Park. No human lives were lost but old-growth forests and habitats for a variety of animals are lost forever.

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The old ‘Keep Calm’ franchise gets everywhere…

With all this in mind, it was difficult to really enjoy the weekend with the carefreeness I wanted to. I recently reread the introduction to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She wrote this book with the words of W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ in mind. ‘The widening gyre, the falcon which which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,’ were her ‘points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.’ Much of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem deal with atomisation, with things falling apart. It had been a struggle she tells us to write the book because she ‘had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ She goes on to say that in order for her to work at all she would have to ‘come to terms with disorder.’ Maybe in these words lies an answer to the conundrum of how to live with the constant reminder of a dying planet, of an earth no longer being something one knows and understands. Perhaps in order to move forward and not be stuck in this train of thought one has to simply ‘come to terms with disorder’. Forget about the patterns we are programmed to find in nature.

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Sunrise behind our cabin in Polebridge

But I have another question, which I have not seen addressed anywhere or read about. This is the question of how much of this knowledge of disorder and of things falling apart does one pass on to one’s child. I don’t want E to be fearful and anxious about her future and the future of the planet, yet she and her contemporaries will be the ones on the front line of extreme weather conditions as the planet heats up. How much should a seven-year-old know about this.

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The sheer joy of being alive

Despite the gloom inside me, the power of the huge sky and the land and the mountains calling us on walks was too strong to ignore. The three of us played outside, rolling down banks of wet, sticky snow for hours at a time and then headed to the Mercantile Bakery where we ate as many huckleberry bear claws as we could. IN the mornings we watched the sun burn its way through the early morning mist to reveal jagged mountain tops the colour and shape of freshly dug quartz. In the moment all was extremely good. It’s tomorrow and the day after that worry me to death. Disorder. Come to terms with it.

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The beauty of early morning in Polebridge. Is it just me or is the new growth forest growing way too close together?

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Moving Around Montana

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A Gymnasium in the middle of nowhere en route to Hot Springs

Like all cities — even small ones — Missoula has a way of sucking you in. You get complacent and start getting into slightly lazy habits. London is the worst for this kind of thing, and now Missoula is doing it. So J and I decided to take E and a friend of hers on a day trip. We had heard about a small town called Hot Springs (pop: 544) and had been told it was ‘alternative’. There is virtually nothing about it online so we couldn’t answer the girls’ questions about whether there would be ice cream and swimming and whether the hot springs would be suitable for kids or even open. I did learn that its motto is ‘Limp in, Leap Out’. With that as our jumping off point (so to speak) we packed some bottles of water, a few snacks and headed north to the Flathead Reservation.

This is what we saw:

Heading away from Arlee, north to Hot Springs

Heading away from Arlee, north to Hot Springs

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An Outsider environment between Arlee and Hot Springs. The figures had buffalo skull heads and the artist had written 'Take Us Home'. I feel I know what he was saying with these and it made me sad.

An Outsider environment between Arlee and Hot Springs. The figures had buffalo skull heads and the artist had written ‘Help Us Home’. I feel I know what he was saying with these and it made me sad.

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The Bar in Hot Springs

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A house in Hot Springs

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The town mural in Hot Springs

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The town mural in ‘downtown’ Hot Springs

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The main street in Hot Springs

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The main street in Hot Springs

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The main street in Hot Springs

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A shop selling vintage movie posters. The guy used to trade in vintage guns but now sells beads, jewellery and posters from old Westerns.

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A shop selling vintage movie posters. The guy used to trade in vintage guns but now sells beads, jewellery and posters from old Westerns.

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The town of Hot Springs

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E and her friend J in Hot Springs

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Symes Hotel where we did some outdoor soaking in the sunshine in January. Gorgeous.

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The antique store at the Symes Hotel, Hot Springs

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The drive south to Missoula with the sun setting and two sleeping kids in the back seat.

My First Christmas Without my Mother, 2014

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A photo taken a few years ago at 3:00 a.m. by my brother P. My mother was in her mid-eighties here.

At 1:08 a.m. on December 22, 2014, my mother died. She was eighty-nine years old and had been in pain with arthritis in her knee, varicose veins in her legs and was about to spend much of her time in a wheelchair (not that she knew this but perhaps she sensed it). On top of this she was being seized by dementia which over the last few years had been slowly stealing two of her most prized possessions: her razor-sharp intellect and her uncanny ability with words. She had a good death. The day before she left this earthly realm, she had been admitted to hospital and had two of her daughters by her side, holding her hand. She had been unresponsive but was just able to make a gesture towards the sign of the cross during the Last Rites. When one of my sisters found Ave Maria on her iPhone and began playing it, my mother simply stopped breathing, very quietly, very peacefully. No death rattle, no pain, no long drawn out suffering. Just as in life, she was decisive in death. It was her time and she did it in style without fanfare. Very mum.

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My mother at the age of two with her brother Benton and her big sister April.

Over the twenty-four hours that she was in the hospital and seemed to be fading, I was madly Skyping with one of my sisters in Turkey and phoning another in New York. There were emails flying around between other siblings in Berlin, Toronto and Ottawa. Should we go? Would we make it? I was also scrambling to find air tickets that would get me from Missoula, Montana to Ottawa, Canada in time to be with her and say my final goodbye. The only flights available required three connections, took around fourteen hours and cost a bomb. I was not able to get there in time. But I made it for her funeral on December 29th.

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My mother in her World War II uniform. She was incredibly proud of her work as a wireless operator.

How do I feel about not being there the moment she died? I have been trying to work this one out. In a perfect world I would have been there stroking her hair and wiping her brow and telling her I loved her. I would like to have given her a final kiss and squeezed her hand while it was still warm. But I do feel that having two of your seven children by your side is a pretty good innings. Maybe one more would have made it confusing for her. Maybe the choreography of her two eldest surviving children with her as she died was simply perfect. One for each hand.

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My mother (second from the left) in 1958 with some of the other Citizen’s Committee on Children members. She fought for higher safety standards in children’s toys.

And there is another thing: My mother was not the sort of mother you got very close to. I loved her and I know she loved me. As a very young child I worshipped her. But when I became a self-righteous, obnoxious teenager she didn’t seem to like me much. I don’t blame her. In my adult years we developed what you might call an acceptance of each other. But she didn’t really know me, nor did I feel she particularly wanted to. We shared one thing and it did run deep: a love of books and a love of Victorian women writers. When we weren’t talking about books, our conversations were somewhat perfunctory: polite and civil but she didn’t pry. She was, to my relief, not a clingy mother, which is perhaps why so many of my siblings ended up scattered across the globe. She liked us to be independent which was probably her greatest gift to us all. She was that rare thing: a mother who could let go. My overriding feelings about her death are, firstly, relief that she isn’t suffering and, secondly, joy that she had two of her ‘babies’ with her in the final moments.

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My mother as a young woman. My father took this photo and it captures her spirit well.

The grief I feel for her is real. It exists. But it is not a patch on the debilitating grief I felt when my sister Mary died ten years ago. Mary had been part of my daily life. She is responsible for me going to art school, for following my heart, for meeting my husband and by extension for having my daughter E. I shared apartments with her on and off for several years in Toronto. Although eventually we lived on separate continents, our lives were profoundly intermeshed. My mourning for her was extreme and lasted a very long time. I felt with her that I had lost a part of myself. Clawing my way back to sanity after she died was a difficult journey.

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My mother kissing Mary.

It feels distasteful, disrespectful even, to compare deaths, but I can’t seem to help it. The feelings that are washing through me at the moment are like a steady trickle of water running through the deep crevice that was carved out of my insides by the death of my sister. Back then, the grief washed through me in waves the size of tsunamis. It is the nature of things for one’s parents to die before one. I grew up expecting this. But for a child to die before her parents makes one question the actual order of the universe.

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My father with my sister S in his home watching Joan Crawford.

At my mother’s funeral, every one of my siblings got up and spoke, except for my sister V who read a poem she had written at a smaller gathering after the funeral. Some of my nieces and nephews also got up and said a few words about their grandmother. I am not good at speaking in public. In fact the last time I did it was at my sister Mary’s funeral with my mother in the front row mouthing at me impatiently that she couldn’t understand a word I was saying and why couldn’t I speak up a bit. So, for my mother’s funeral, I did what I do in difficult situations: I turned to a ‘real’ writer to express what I felt I couldn’t. In this case it was Marilynne Robinson whose novel Gilead I happened to begin the night I arrived in Ottawa. The opening words were so uncannily like my mother speaking to me, it felt spooky. And the fact that they were coming at me from a writer whom I knew my mother would have loved, had she lived long enough for me to send her Housekeeping or Home or Lila, seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.

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My mum having a break with me sleeping on her shoulder.

This is what I read:
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.”

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I am the chubby one kissing my mum. The others are my wonderful siblings.

The “I” could so easily be my mother and the “you” could so easily be me. She was forty when she had me and most of my friends at primary school thought she was my grandmother. I remember once she asked me how it felt to have an older mother and I can’t remember what I answered, but it was probably something like, “You aren’t old.” And I find myself also thinking of this with regards to my daughter who came into the world when I was 42. Cycles of life. From mother to daughter. It’s my turn next. I cannot stop these thoughts.

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My mother with my daughter E in 2007 when my mother was 82. She loved having a baby on her lap.

The day after my mother’s funeral, I went with my sister S to clear out her room in the retirement home where she had been living for the past two years. She hated the home, but towards the end she agreed that in fact she could no longer look after herself. I don’t think she hated the home as much as she hated knowing that her faculties were declining. She could no longer figure out money. And telling the time was becoming terribly confusing. She had started hallucinating and her mind was taking her to strange places. She announced to my sister K that Usain Bolt had spoken to her from the TV and told her to stop smoking. He had apparently held up his finger after a race and wagged it at her. She must have been around 86 at the time.

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My mother in her apartment in the retirement home. She was 87 here.

Much of the three days I spent in my hometown consisted of clearing out my mother’s drawers and packing her knickknacks. I had told my sister S that I wanted to help her do this as all our other siblings had to get back to their various jobs and families and commitments straight after the funeral. I felt that in some way by handling my mother’s most intimate belongings that I would get closer to her. Here I was sorting her clothes into piles of ones to throw away and ones to give to charity and ones to keep for people who might want them, just like I do with my own daughters’ clothes and just as she no doubt did with mine. While my sister and I took the pictures off the walls of her room, threw out her toiletries, bagged her bedding to be recycled, and her clothes to be sent to the centre where my father lives with his advanced Alzheimer’s, we talked. There was something so universal and so grounding about two grown women sorting through their dead mother’s clothes, an act that has no doubt been repeated through the centuries. The strange loss of meaning in objects whose owner has died was undermined by their physicality. The objects were not ghosts exactly, but close to it.

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Photo taken by my sister K of my mother in her customary kilt, book in hand, just before she moved into her retirement residence. She would have been in her mid-eighties here.

Back in Missoula, I can’t say my trip to Canada for my mother’s funeral was like a dream, but it was not like any other waking trip I have taken. I went there feeling like my mother’s child and came back half orphaned. Now that she is gone, the feelings I have for my mother have not changed so much as become fixed. There is no more space in which they can grow or change. But that is OK. We arrived at a place where we felt comfortable. I allowed her to be the mother she was and she allowed me to be the only daughter I knew how to be. Maybe this is all there is. Maybe the ultimate love between a parent and child is more of a sense of acceptance rather than anything else. As an adult and as a mother myself I have had to shed the impossible expectations placed on women and mothers. I have had to accept my mother as much as she has had to accept me. I think we got quite good at that towards the end of her life. And her somewhat aloof style of parenting perhaps allowed this acceptance to flourish. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my mother. To thank her for giving me freedom and letting me find out who I am rather than telling me. Like all artists, and in so many ways, she was an artist, she was better at ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Her ultimate act of creation was making seven of us children and showing us that indeed ‘there are many ways to live a good life’.

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The final exit.

My mother’s obituary from the Ottawa Citizen can be found at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ottawacitizen/obituary.aspx?n=jasmine-pocock&pid=173605149

Life is a Trip Where are You Going

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“Every Day Do One Thing That Will Take Your Breath Away”, Hamilton, Montana.

I am no longer moving, so the ‘bound’ of my blog title is more about being bound ‘to’ something rather than bound ‘for’ something.

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Cowgirl’s Corner, Corvallis, Montana

I am no longer thinking about having moved to Missoula, but am starting to think about leaving. Why is it so hard to just be here now? This is the flaw in the plan to live somewhere for a year. It takes a few months to get used to your new surroundings and a few months to prepare to leave it, which means you only have a small window of time in which to simply ‘be’. As a result of this, we may stay for two years.

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A leaf-strewn front lawn around the corner from our house in Missoula.

Missoula has a lot to offer me right now. For one, the writers in this town are so good, and so open. Missoula, and Montana in general, seems to attract a certain type of very honest writer. There are readings every week in one of the two independent bookshops or at the university. There is no sense at these readings that the author you have come to hear has more important people to talk to than the people who buy and love their books (i.e. those of us in the audience), although I am sure they do. The after parties here in Missoula are inclusive events. They are invariably at another writer’s house and you will often find yourself sitting around a campfire talking books and smoking cigars.

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A window in Ford’s Department Store, Hamilton, Montana

Simply being somewhere new opens up the parts of one’s mind and soul that allow newness in. Last night I went to see Gary Ferguson read from his recently published book “The Carry Home”. He talked about love, loss and wilderness in such a way that I actually cried. Yup. Sitting there in my folding chair with a Kleenex held to my face. I have also seen Pete Fromm, Walter Kirn, Chris Dombrowski, Malcolm Brooks, Gwen Florio, David Allen Cates, Bernard Cooper, Rick Bass, Bruce Holbert, Carrie LaSeur … these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Google any of them and read their books. They are all true and honest writers, doing interesting and wonderful things with words. So Missoula is good for writers (I can see the bumper sticker) and for me now, that is important. Being surrounded by writers is a huge shove towards finishing what I have set out to do here: write. Despite this, I still find myself missing London and I cannot really understand why.

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The view from my window after a snowfall in Missoula.

I recently came across the word “Hiraeth”, which is a Welsh word with no English equivalent. The closest word to it is the Portuguese “Saudade” which is the wellspring for Fado music. Hiraeth means a longing or a homesickness for a place one has lived which no longer exists or which one can no longer return to. Sometimes people compare it to nostalgia but it is much deeper than that. I don’t know if I have ever had this longing. I certainly haven’t had it for my home town or my home country. I have never felt a longing for Ottawa or Canada. But I have had it for a place I am not from.

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A wedding shop in Missoula, Montana.

Since first stepping foot in London in 1990, I have left it twice with the thought of perhaps living somewhere else. The first time was to return to a boyfriend in Toronto. When I got to Toronto a friend said to me “I feel your London chapter isn’t over”. He was right and ten months after signing a lease in the Annex, I was heading back to Heathrow. My boyfriend followed and took up a scholarship to Oxford. Unlike me, he didn’t click with the British. So he accepted another scholarship to Harvard. I followed. But Cambridge, Massachusetts was not for me. I had tried New York too, and although I loved it, the pull of London was too strong to resist. I have lived in London pretty solidly from 1992 to 2014 (with one more short New York stint in 2002) and it feels like home. Even when I knew not one soul there, it felt like home. The reasons for this are not things I can wrap up neatly in a list. My love of the city is irrational. There is much I don’t like about it, and yet, there is an ingredient x, like a lover’s smell, that keeps me wanting it.

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The road to Missoula from Hamilton, Montana.

In October of 1990 I got a room at the top of a huge house owned by Sir Arthur and Lady Rachel Drew across the road from Kew Gardens. They were as improbable as they sound. Sir Arthur was happy to share his wine cellar with me and nights in his club on the Mall (the Athenaeum) where he went to eat steak out of sight of the vegetarian Lady Rachel. My room cost an improbably 20 quid a week but had no heating and hot water came on for an hour in the morning only in the shower, not in the sink. I got chilblains. Even those seemed romantic. I was free and searching. London accepted me as I was.

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A neighbour’s bird house in Missoula.

Is there room in one’s life for more than one ‘home’? Maybe one’s heart can only be in one place at a time, much like one can only really give oneself to one lover at a time. Perhaps one can be unfaithful to a city as much as to a person.

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Valley Bible in the Bitteroot Valley, near Lolo, Montana

For me being ‘home’ is simply a state in which I don’t question whether I am home or not. When I am in London, I no longer question whether it is my home. The same way I no longer question whether I will spend my life with J. Of course, things change, people move on, J could fall in love with the proverbial ‘younger model’ and I could be brutally mugged in London and find myself longing to live somewhere less violent. Life is fluid.

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God’s Healing Hands Ministry, near Lolo, Montana.

Home. I have always felt guilty for not loving where I am from. Maybe this is why I have taken to my surrogate home with such fervor. Like an orphan, I am terribly defensive about my adoptive city. I have been living under London’s grey skies for two decades now. I have seen my neighbourhood go from a cheap, gritty part of town to a hipster parody of itself. I have seen rents soar and people shoved out. I have seen the country go from the Tories, to Labour and back again. And I have put up with the class system and despise it for being the invisible boa constrictor in the room, squeezing out any equality with its scaly muscular body. There is much to dislike about London. And yet. And yet. I cannot dislike it.

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Hamilton, Montana.

Maybe part of why I am withholding my love for Missoula is because I know I am leaving. In Russian there is a separate verb for ‘to go, with the intention of returning’. I feel perhaps this is where I am getting stuck in allowing an unbridled acceptance of Missoula. Maybe, simply because I have one metaphorical foot still in London, I can’t fully embrace being here. Which brings me back to just ‘being’. If I could only be in the moment more and not compare Missoula to Ottawa or to London and not think about returning ‘home’ to my adoptive city, I think I would find myself living a much richer experience. I will try and live one moment at a time and see if that erodes some of my paralyzing analysis of place. Life is good here, now at this moment. And the moment is all there is.