Thursday, March 7, 2019

my sister 1960-1982

I was talking with a friend about a relative who had tried to harm herself. My friend was doing as much research as possible to try to understand how to help the young woman. I'm impressed by the variety of resources that are available now--and saddened by how few there were as recently as forty years ago.  

My sister tried to kill herself in 1980 and again in 1982. The police found her the first time and took her to the hospital--McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ont--where her stomach was pumped. She was released a couple of days later with no follow up, no discussion.  It was recommended she be seen by “someone“ but arrangements were left up to us.

My sister and I weren’t close but I decided she should be taken away from our parents’ home where she was living when she tried to kill herself. I brought her to live with me and my boyfriend in Toronto. It was all I could think of to do. 

I made her a bed on the sofa of our small apartment. I was afraid to talk with her about why she'd tried to kill herself but a few times I tried. She calmly told me it was easy. You have problems? You kill yourself. In the morning the problems are gone.  But your life too, I said. She didn't care. 

I didn’t know how to get past her indifference. I had no tools. I found a psychiatrist and made an appointment for her but she didn’t go. I made a second appointment and she didn’t go. I couldn’t convince her that she needed help. The psychiatrist would not make a third appointment unless she called to make it herself. If the patient wasn’t motivated to seek help, then nothing could be done. I understand that but... But what? Should she have been hospitalized against her will?

She was spending the days rocking herself on our sofa, listening to the same David Bowie LP over and over and over again. Eyes glassy, staring before. She only roused herself to put the needle back on. 

It frightened me how adrift she seemed. All I could think to do was hook her back into some kind of routine, to give her life a shape and semblance of normalcy--to give her something to do. Was that too unfeeling and practical? I was doing my best. I was 24.

We went to the library and looked at college programs she could take. I kept asking her what she wanted to do. Nothing. I read out course descriptions. I was looking for any kind of spark.  I reminded her that once upon a time she wanted to be a nurse and take care of people. Yeah… She remembered that. So we made applications for her to study nursing. She wasn’t enthusiastic but I still believed that having something to do would help her feel she had a role to play and fit somewhere.  

 My boyfriend got her a job working at a Cole’s bookstore.  I was a grad student at York University but I also had a part-time job working in a restaurant. The cook at the restaurant lived in a large house and had several roommates. He said maybe my sister could live there too. (There were reasons why I shouldn't have listened to him but I didn't know that at the time. He actually imagined himself a spiritual guru who could read people's minds, especially when women wanted to have sex with him--he said--but I didn't know that then.) I told my sister that they wanted to meet her the next evening. I don’t know how she felt about that. She didn’t react. But she didn’t only go to meet them, she packed her bag and showed up on their doorstep. They let her stay. 

In retrospect, that was shitty of me. I should have kept her close by me and watched out for her, but we didn't have that kind of closeness and I thought I was helping her start her life. 

 And she did seem to be getting herself on track. She started classes, she continued working at the bookstore, she got a boyfriend, she found her own apartment. (She was sensible enough to get away from that spiritual guru before he started reading her mind.) She learned to play pool. My boyfriend told me she was good. 

That year at Christmas we all got expensive coffee table books that I knew she’d stolen. She’d changed boyfriends which I was glad of because she’d been going out with a biker. She got angry with him one night and slashed all his leather clothing while he was asleep, then fled to our apartment to hide. She’d done things like this all through childhood—provoked danger with no sense of consequences. Or maybe she didn’t slash his leather as she claimed  because he never came after her. Her being able to describe a scene in detail and with great conviction didn’t mean that it actually happened. I can do it too. Mind you, I think I know that it hasn't *truly* happened. She didn't.  

Her new boyfriend‘s Portuguese mother kept giving her litre bottles of olive oil, but my sister didn't cook. She had the bottles lined up along the back of her kitchen counter. She preferred to eat hamburgers and fries. I don't know how she ate so much and stayed petite. She was not bulimic. She and her boyfriend's sister became best friends which I thought was a good sign. They stayed friends even after she broke up with him because he was too boring. 

That too: she didn't like nice guys. She liked being roughed up during sex. I saw the bruises on her upper arms. I asked her about it and she said she liked it. I knew some people did and I didn’t want to be judgmental. Now I ask myself if she wanted to be physically hurt because that was the only way she could feel something. 

People ask me if she was bipolar, schizophrenic, manic depressive, BPD. That vocabulary wasn't current lingo then. In any case, the hospital didn't bother diagnosing her. She was another fucked-up, unhappy kid. If she didn't have the wherewithal to know she needed help, too bad. 

I thought/hoped she was okay because she was still studying to become a nurse and I think by then had even done some practicum.  Every now and then the two of us went for lunch or to see a movie. I've blocked on the name of the last one we saw together, though I still remember the final scene where a woman kills the man she loves rather than lose him. Afterward, talking about it, I said the ending was crazy. My sister said it was the only thing the woman could’ve done. All I could think was that her most recent boyfriend—an ex-army guy who also gave her bruises—had better watch out. I was so used to the kinds of things she said that I didn't even think about it.   

You are reading this and seeing problems and triggers all over the place.  Her patterns of behaviour, her disconnect, the risks she took, her wish to be hurt... There’s more I haven’t told you. I saw some of this too at the time but I was used to her and I didn't know what to do and had no one to ask. And as I said, she seemed to be functioning. Sometimes we even had fun together.   

She killed herself a week after that movie. After she was dead, I found out that she'd broken up with her boyfriend a couple of months earlier, but she'd asked him to come see her that night.  

Thirty years after her death, in my novel Five Roses, I tried to describe the long, ongoing emotional fallout when a sibling kills herself. I tried to be as honest as I could but I'm aware of how little I understood of what was going through my sister's mind and what she was feeling. 

I can't shake the conviction that we failed her--because we didn't know how to help her.  

So... for my friend--and for so many others--I'm glad that society is more aware now. 


Tuesday, March 5, 2019


From my kitchen window I see the sun rising past an urban horizon of roofs--flat and with cornices. This morning it was so bright and orange that it turned the starling in a tree into a robin.

Though that could have been me too--wondering when the ice and snow would end. Seeing a springtime robin.

Monday, February 25, 2019

aiming the camera / dogs in Mexico

 I took pics of dogs in Mexico. Dogs don't mind when you aim the camera at them. 

They look right back at you. Or they ignore you. They stay asleep. 

Sometimes they pose for you.  

People don't want to have their pic taken, especially by a foreigner. I could see they didn't like it, so I didn't. 

But then I bought a hat from a woman who was sitting on a doorstep crocheting with her wares spread on a blanket around her. R clowned for her, pretending to be on a skateboard in his new funky hat, and she laughed, maybe, maybe not understanding. When I asked if I could take her picture, she lifted a hand before her face, got up and turned around, not even trusting that I wouldn't take the picture after she said no. I told her I wasn't going to but she wouldn't turn around again. I'd ruined the moment. 

Who cares? I care. 

Mind you, I couldn't help when I took pics of dogs and parts of humans ended up in the frame. 

While in Mexico City, we went to an astounding photography exhibit by Graciela Iturbide who spent fifty years travelling around Mexico, taking pictures of people. That's fifty years of bearing witness to how people lived, who they were, their customs, their culture, their lives. Invaluable documentation.
If you're curious, here's a link:

My inclination (compulsion?) as a writer is to "bear witness" but we lose that when instead we choose to respect people's privacy by not taking their pictures. 

Of course, I'm no Graciela Iturbide. I've only got a little snap camera. 

So I took pics of dogs who weren't so fussy about their privacy--and you know what? Dogs show you a lot about the world they live in. The rag rug to wipe your feet before you step inside a store. The cheerfully painted railing and quilted jacket. The dog sprawled asleep in the market, trusting that no one would step on him, as no one did. I have dozens of pics of dogs sleeping on sidewalks and in the streets. That alone tells me VOLUMES about Mexican society,

Less obliging were the roof dogs who did not appreciate having their picture taken. They let me know to get lost fast.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Chilaquiles / visiting the graveyard / Guanajuato

I wanted to visit the cemetery in Guanajuato in Mexico. It wasn’t on the tourist map the hotel gave us, but I looked up el panteón on Google Maps. It was behind the mummy museum, which was well-signed throughout the city, though far enough outside the centre that directions were for people who were driving. Not the nicest roads for walking.

We headed up roads that seemed to angle in the same direction. I stopped to ask a man if it was the right way. He’d been to the  market and bought a bag of poblano peppers and a dozen avocados. He’d arranged the vegetables in two neat rows across the bag he’d spread before him on the sidewalk where he sat. That would be his income for the day: whatever profit he could make. In retrospect, I should have bought a hot pepper. When I asked about the cemetery, he nodded up the steep hill at the row of cypress trees along the top. Los arboles, he said. Look for the trees and you’ll find the cemetery.

The road climbed, twisted away from the trees, toward them again. Whenever it forked, R guessed which side would head us the right way. I was of no use because I’m directionally challenged. Turn me around twice on the street where I’ve lived for the last eighteen years and I might not be able to find my way home.

When I say we were following roads, I don’t mean asphalt. The surface was concrete bricks, stones and cobbles. Wide enough for cars, though, which was not the case on the other side of the city where the roads were steeper. For foot traffic only. That included the gas man who pushed a dolly of canisters along the cobbles at 6 am, calling out Gas! Gas! Residents had to lug their groceries up, carry their bags of garbage down. 
Our hotel was on that side of town.

What also happens on that side of town are corridos in the evening. This is not to be confused with a corrida which is the running of the bulls. A corrido is a narrative ballad led by singers and musicians dressed in black velvet jackets and breeches. They walk up and down the streets, singing and strumming. People sing and shout the responses. The word amor is repeated often. Long stories are told. There are laments, there is laughter. Some buffoonery. To join the group, you need to buy a ticket. Bring your own tequila.

The first night that R and I heard the singers we were charmed. We heard them well since one of their gathering points was in the square next to our hotel. Their route when they set off was past our balcony. Guanajuato hosts a large Cervantes festival every fall, but the corridos happen every day, all year long. Don Quixote T-shirts too. Since we stayed in Guanajuato for two weeks, the singing began to seem less charming. On weekends there could be as many as three corridos in an evening, the last one well past midnight. I think it’s great that they honour Cervantes, though it also seemed like another excuse for more noisiness and tequila.

R and I were still walking up the hill, aiming for the cypress trees when we could see them past the buildings. Stucco blocks in every colour are crammed up against each other, stacked on an incline. Guanajuato climbs the slopes that surround the historical centre of the city. The vista is onto hills/low mountains. They don’t seem high because Guanajuato is already at 2000 m/6,600 ft. (For comparison, the village in the Tirolean Alps where my father was born is at 1,100 m/3000 ft.)

One afternoon R and I set out to hike up one of the hills but I wasn’t wearing the right shoes for the scree once we got off the path and I didn’t want to risk sliding, falling, and getting a scrape. I take a blood thinner. A scrape would be dumb. I was happy to get as high as we had, to breathe mountain air.  

The cypress trees were close now, we were hungry, we could smell frying. Up a set of stairs was an eatery called Rosa. Four tables against the white-painted railing had a view onto the town. Rosa was cooking on one side of the small room behind a counter. She had a grill, a flame, several cast-iron saucepans. It was busy and she’d called her two teenage daughters who must have been home from school on their lunch break—still wearing their blue skirts—to come help carry dishes because the waitress had to step behind the counter to help her. There was a menu on the wall. Mostly she was frying meat she served on large plates with red rice—rice cooked in tomato juice. We sat at the only empty table against the counter and ordered chilaquiles:  tortillas cut into strips, dropped into a pan, doused in red or green mole sauce, shaken up over the flame, slid onto a plate. I’d asked for no meat or eggs. Rosa was making several meals at a time but gave me a questioning look before adding ingredients to our plates. White cheese crumbled on top? A drizzle of cream? Sí, sí, está bien. Another couple came in and sat at the corner of our table because it was the only place left. They were Mexican-American, joking in Mexican with her, talking American between themselves.

There were more people in the street now because it joined up with the main road to the mummy museum. El Museo de las Momias. The day before we left Guanajuato we met a Canadian whose mother and grandmother had lived there and who was now retired there himself. He said that when he was a child he’d gone with an aunt to visit the mummies. At that time they weren’t kept behind glass as they are now—to stop people from plucking off bits of skin and hair. Pubic hair was especially prized. His aunt had swung her shawl around her shoulders. They didn’t notice she’d caught a mummy until she started walking again and dragged it along behind her. They and everyone around them shrieked.

The entrance to the cemetery was a grand stone wall with an arch and a frieze of skulls. The layout of plots was peaceful, relaxed, jumbled.

Here and there lay large, empty cans of jalapeño peppers and I wondered if that signified wishes for mucho piquante in the afterlife until I saw flowers jammed into a can. They were cheap and handy, good-sized vases. A skinny cat flitted through the stones, following and avoiding us.

The walls of the crypts where urns were stored were… 10 m/30 ft high? I’m not much better with height than direction. Not everyone could afford to have names engraved.

The administrative office was a small dim room with only one desk where a man sat before a computer. (I recalled the character in Cora Sire’s fine novel, Behold Things Beautiful, who works in a cemetery in a fictionalized South American country.)  I asked the man how I would find a particular tombstone. I wasn’t looking for one but I wanted to know how to proceed if I were. He said he would need the date of birth—nacimiento. Interesting. I asked if he had all this information in his computer. No, he pointed at the wall where thick binders sagged on shelves.

Later, when I told the Canadian with the shawl-flinging aunt that we’d been to the cemetery, he asked if we’d met the man who worked in the office. Yes, he said, everything is stored in those fat binders—and the shelves they’re on are made from old coffins.

Now, back home again, I’m wondering if they were used coffins or coffins that had been made but never used or…

Except for the cemetery, the pics were taken on the other side of Guanajuato.

Monday, February 11, 2019


We got on a bus in Mexico City and the driver said we couldn't pay cash. We needed a card that was charged with trips.


We turned to get off and a man hallooed from a few seats back, lifting his card.

The driver said, There you go.

I paid the man for our two trips plus a bit extra for his trouble. He tried to hand back the extra coin. No, no, I said, not a mistake. Gracias.

Would that have happened in Montreal? In Toronto? In Vancouver? I'm naming big cities because Mexico City is big--over 20 million. Maybe someone might have helped two strangers with different coloured skin, but would that person have handed over their transit card for the strangers to use? Hey, what if we'd jumped off the bus and run away with it? Maybe it was a scam?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

shrink-wrap struggle

It's not an ethical/ecological struggle. I have a cupboard full of tubs with lids, parchment paper, waxed cheese cloth, jars, old yogurt containers. Lots of reusable or recyclable options. But I wasn't at home.

Yesterday was my first stint at the non-profit, community coop grocery store in my hood.

In order to be a member of the coop and benefit from the lower prices, one has to work in the store for three hours a month. I opted not to tackle cash because I don't like handling money. I would have liked to work in the kitchen where about-to-expire vegetables are turned into soups, stews and pickles, but those slots are filled well in advance. I decided to work "on the floor". That meant keeping the shelves stocked, the apples and oranges and grapefruits heaped, bagging carrots, spinach, arugula, cutting and packaging pieces of cheese.

There are many things I can do but yesterday I discovered that I can't make air-filled plastic balloons to keep greenery loose and fresh. I got the spinach and arugula into the bags no problem. I got the twist ties on. I punched the correct code into the scale, weighed, and tore free the sticker for the bag. But my bags all sagged. I watched the person training me, but he simply seemed to have the knack. Bingo, he closed a bag and there was air trapped inside. How did he do it? Comme ça, he said. No matter how many tries, my bags looked lousy.

Okay, then, let's try this. Cutting cheese off a slab and wrapping the pieces in shrink wrap.

Oh no! Not shrink wrap! Small boxes, big boxes, the teeth never work for me. The large boxes with the little plastic button that's supposed to force the film onto the teeth are the worst because I only end up with more possible film to ruin beyond use. And this box had lost its button! I tried every sleight of hand I could think of to tear the wrap across the teeth. I even considered putting the box on the floor and straddling it. I grabbed a knife to stab the wrap. I pulled every which way, gave up trying to make nice squares of plastic wrap, settled for jagged towels of it, bundled pieces of cheese inside, smushed the leftover edges around the back. Cheese on a cling film cushion.

The fellow stopped by to see how I was doing. Okay, I said. He picked up a piece of cheese to see why it didn't lie flat. I told him I was shrink-wrap handicapped. Joke? Ha-ha? I got a weak smile. He showed me his technique for getting the buttonless teeth to make nice, neat squares of shrink wrap. It looked easy, it looked good, but I knew the teeth wouldn't oblige for me. Then he showed me how to fold the film across the cheese. He explained the film had elasticity so that if I pulled it just so, it would stretch smoothly. I said I would try.

I packaged nuts, no problem. Tamari almonds don't have to be in balloons like spinach. I kept the oranges and lemons and apples and grapefruits heaped. I cut some day-old baguettes into cubes for croutons. Why there are baguettes left at the end of the day, I don't understand. The bread at this store is fabulous!

Shrink-wrap challenges aside, I'm happy to play a small (very small) part in the coop which is part of the Bâtiment 7 project in Pointe St. Charles in Montreal. A repurposed CN train workshop, Bâtiment 7 is now a community centre with art space upstairs (painting, pottery, metal, wood), and so far a grocery and tavern downstairs.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

my most necessary writing exercises

Whether or not you celebrate the upcoming holidays, this is the time of year when the North Pole begins to tilt toward the sun again. Those minutes of daylight we lost incrementally from October through November and December--until we were waking in darkness and eating supper in darkness--will slowly seep back again. That's worth celebrating.

I'm looking forward to staying home this year, hanging out with my favourite guy, going for walks, cooking, having wine, eating.

Our tree is decorated with ornaments from my childhood--small, rusty-around-the-edges, crusty-with-glitter, 1960s gewgaws. Also a few ornaments that might or might not belong on a tree but friends have given them to us over the years. A broom, an angel, a heart, a wooden boat...

While home, I won't be working as hard but I'll be revising a manuscript, since I'm at that stage when taking a complete break would mean having to go back to the beginning to pick up the momentum again. So it's better to keep working, if only a few pages of revision a day.

And when I write, I do my writing exercises. They're not the kind that need a computer, paper or a pen. In fact, anything but.

One is a sideways stretch a FB friend recommended. My neighbour in the Gaspé got me doing forward bends, arms hanging to the floor. I have a routine of neck stretches, including the all-important chin tuck because writers suffer from "writer's head"--that peering-at-the-page/screen posture. I have a yoga mat beside my desk and lie there and knot my legs. Since I don't notice how quickly time goes by--I'm STILL working on same fucking paragraph!--I set the alarm to go off every hour. That was on the advice of a physiotherapist. I don't always stop every hour but mostly I do. I have a standing as well as a sitting desk and divvy my workday between them. It could be age, it could be the cold climate, it could be a propensity to creakiness, but in my experience writing is *not* the best activity for the body, and so I do what I can to compensate.

Another exercise is the long walk I do mid to late afternoon when I go see what's happening in the city, maybe meet a friend, sometimes take a few pics. In the one of the Lachine Canal above--can you see?--someone got onto the slushy ice to scrape letters. To spell what, I don't know but it must have felt worth risking breaking through. ??

I like walking at sunset, in dusk and darkness, so I don't mind that the days are short in winter. I especially like when it's snowed and the snow reflects light into the air. But I equally look forward to the days getting longer and walking in daylight again.

There's the writerly wisdom I have to share at the end of 2018: it's not all about words. Take care of your body.

Here's a mulberry tree in holiday dress. Joyeuses fêtes et bonne année!