After the storm, thick spindles of ice sparkle on the shore. Some compose the jagged teeth of a driftwood comb and others fill the arch of another forsaken branch, stalactites with the sky for a cave.
Lodged in a firm stance between jutting shards of construction rubble, the wooden frame remains unshaken by thousands of gale-driven waves. Spells of freezing temperatures have collaborated with repeated lashings of water to construct this organic sculpture’s texture.
Like a silent harp resting on its side, its strings increasingly shellacked and bound, the sculpture contains a haunted a rib cage benumbed by cycles of fear, rejection, shame, pain, and grief. As storms of emotion intensify, the ice adheres more strongly: a freeze frame of memory rendered visible with bulk.
Come the melts of spring, the bare driftwood’s surface testifies to winter hardship after the shedding of its icy coat: a rough patch sanded down, an extremity sheared from its host.
However, despite bitter injuries to its heart-chords, the instrument still connects to the beyond. She still stands and bathes in sparkles. She still sings.
At the freezing point,
wild west wind and lake spray
mantle the trunk like marzipan on a rich cake.
Thickened ice highlights the outer margins of the mass
and then darkens to charcoal-purple,
legacy of the long drift from forest
to midnight bonfires on the beach.
As it salves driftwood burns,
ice defines the border of a helmet
whose irregular edges soften the dark wedge,
trace translucent deltas of inflection,
ocean to river evolution
from eye of shark’s prow
to clinging mammal below.
As I nestle between lakeside boulders, drifted ice drapes me in a veil. Successive layers of frozen water etch a daguerreotype portrait of arrested lava, once-fluid anger trapped by a season so heavy and cold.
Behind my nape, the thickness of the ice is greater, and swirls of gray-blue shadows entwine in smoky tendrils with hints of ash. From my chin, crystal shards have grown into a beard that flows from the seam where my edges meet the lake’s beach below.
The ghostly poncho that almost completely glazes me has left only an egg-shaped tonsure melted by the sun. In a few weeks, spring’s solar ascent will fully dissolve my obscuring cloak, but for now I am content with the small oval that lies exposed to the elements.
One day soon, an exhausted bird will warm its feet on my crown. Resting after miles of migration, my guest will sit for a spell all hunkered down into its feathers. As it turns its beak towards the water, it will flex its wings to the humming thwack of high winds that scour my quiet skin into forgiving sand.
My grandmother Mary Raine gave me this Christmas tree when she was 93 years old. She no longer felt like putting it up every year, especially after the deaths of my father Ron and his younger brother Bob, so she passed the tradition to me in 2004, the year my uncle died. At the end of a Christmas haunted by Uncle Bob’s absence, I carefully wrapped the treasured tree in my suitcase for the potential rigors of its air journey from Missouri to Ontario.
I hadn’t decorated a Christmas tree since I was a teenager, but Grandma Raine’s gift inspired me to start again. My mother also gave me some decorations that had been in the family since the 1960’s, including cookie dough ornaments I remember from my childhood.
Artifacts like the dignified Wise Man connect me to home, family, and Christmas traditions, for when I rest him against the tree in 2020, memory returns me to a much earlier era. Once upon a time, my father, mother, and brother used to decorate a full-sized tree together while Birthday the cat lay in wait to attack the glass balls on the lower branches. Christmas carols bathed the tree-trimming task in familiar melodies such as the “pa rum pum pum pum” of Dad’s favorite, The Little Drummer Boy.
I’m especially fond of the cracks in these circular faces that once inhabited the tree of my childhood home. The cracks testify to the survival of countless Christmas seasons, each with its own cat paw hazards, breakages, and transfers to new storage locales.
The small red wagon has a story, too. Mom bought it for me one December in the 1970’s when we visited Kansas City’s Wornall House Museum to see it decked out in nineteenth-century Christmas décor.
To blend new memories with the old, I supplemented the original ornaments from Kansas City with ones I bought from Ten Thousand Villages, a shop that specializes in handcrafted items ethically traded from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and many other countries.
Angels, elephants, lions, and moons mingle on the branches with a reindeer, a yak, and a yeti. Together, they honor Toronto’s multiculturalism and integrate the Christian traditions of my childhood with the religious and cultural pluralism that energize today.
In addition to a tree rooted in the present and the past, festive details like colorful textiles that Grandma Raine crafted — place mats and Christmas tree skirts — brighten the living room.
Also, two books that I received as presents in the 1970’s surface with the arrival of Christmastide. The first one is Christmas Stories Round the World, kindly given by my cousin Denise.
The second book, The Night Before Christmas, evokes happy memories of my parents reading the poem on Christmas Eve, just as their parents read it to them as children. The rhymes and folksy illustrations contained in Grandma Raine’s 1974 gift are enjoyed to this day.
Finally, giant postcards that my mother purchased in the 1960’s serve as Christmassy accessories for staircase spindles. I love how they jazz up the stairs and suffuse the atmosphere with mildly psychedelic cheer.
All in all, sharing stories of Grandma Raine’s tree and other yuletide trappings has heightened my gratitude for gifts that gather layers of meaning as time passes. Thank you, dear reader, for indulging this narrative sleigh-ride through topographies of memory and family history. May your celebrations be merry, healthy, and bright!
Unexplained on the wide sidewalk, the door stands upright with the aid of two wooden stands that grip its bottom rail a few scrapes above the absent threshold.
Though the door no longer opens or shuts, the stout pin of one hinge remains, partly encircled by a barrel of the same rusty vintage. Cracked layers of thick white paint on the panels accent the unhinged condition.
Without a hinge to hitch portal to solid frame, access to an interior is lost. For a hinge is the servant to movement. It facilitates welcomes and good-byes. It swings the dancers, defines transitions, provides an exit.
This displaced door reveals the crucial role of hinges, for entrance to beloved places relies on a connecting part so humble that its anatomy is rarely learned: leaf, knuckle, pin, sleeve. Visitors take the obedient swivel of doors for granted, assuming they can handle endless openings, hesitations, closings, and slams.
No longer a barrier between public street and private property, the door’s new context gives passersby the chance to pause and notice its value as an object divorced from human passage. Free from the press of admission and the drama of expulsion, it serves in a different way now.
With its superfluous locks and bolts on display, the unhinged door invites visions of access without traditional keys. For how might humanity evolve if restrictive concepts of ownership become unfastened from their jambs? How might we open ourselves without fear?
At nine o’clock in the morning, serrated leaves resting against the fence receive the signature of dark steel lines. With emboldened chains eclipsing the more delicate rows of veins, diamond shapes define the screen of the leaf-surface, imposing fence patterns on what should grow free.
But the fence’s shadow, looping and stamping itself at nine, will be gone by noon, leaving the victorious leaf unchained. After all, it never asked to be cast in a shadow play. Nor did the plant sign a lease with the barricade that straddles its roots. It only desires to rise from the soil in peace.
The tattoo of links is impermanent, for a seemingly solid fence in the morning becomes a shadow of itself as the day wanes. By psychological extension, shifting solar movements can suggest a hopeful metaphor: harmful habits that create barriers to happiness have the capacity to dissolve like so many shadow-chains. For example, the bruising self-criticism that overshadows confidence and disturbs inner peace may not be the iron-gray shackle of truth we assume.
If distorted thoughts are building a cage one steel rod of anxiety at a time, consider the power of one question, “Are these thoughts true?” Then take a deep breath and call chimeras out from their hiding places — behind benches of judgement, beneath shaming silences, under tongues that tsk-tsk on the regular — and watch them melt into phantoms with the passage of the sun. Challenge the cruelty that crushes self-love and reject the quelling projections of others. Above all, hold fast to what illuminates, such as visions of leaves that transform fences into natural trellises, limitless shelters that dapple and shine.
Not long before Pat died, he sent a card thanking me for a Christmas gift. The medication that he was taking caused his hands to shake, and it touched me that he still made time to write despite the difficulty. When composing Cousin Pat’s Letter, it seemed right that the piece should include an example of his handwriting, symbol of both his uniqueness and his suffering.
Many years ago, Pat collected antique glass bottles, so I fashioned a bottle shape from some handmade paper to provide a stem for his collage’s flower. Fragments of the thank-you letter became the petals.
In addition to glass-collecting, Pat enjoyed writing haiku. From 2002 to 2003, he composed almost two hundred three-line poems about cars, artists, coins, baseball, rock bands, and the antics of animals he observed from his window.
In the months after his death, I read all of the poems, and a number of words and phrases struck me as characteristic of Pat. Eventually, the gleaned words suggested themselves as a new poem, and I hope Pat would approve of how I arranged his lines to make this collaborative text. Like the memorial collage pictured above, Born in Missouri is devoted to remembering my cousin’s interests, creativity, and sense of humor. He died much too soon.
Aging milkweed pods
suggestive of arching spines
crack open their seams,
give Fall those mad fluffy seeds
that hope no longer constrains.
Hovering at the height of the telephone wires,
the man in a cherry bucket sheers a section of tall maple,
an aerial chef dispatching vertical stalks for the chipper.
The chunk of trunk falls to the sidewalk,
splintering the moment into a thousand perceived realities.
The sky-worker, one section down,
four more cuts to go before the break.
His co-worker below who feels the thud of dead wood
buzzing through his boots and grey hiking socks
all the way to his toes, soles, heels.
The startled squirrel that leaps with instinctive flair
from a truck to the trunk of an intact tree.
The papa two doors down from the amputated maple,
his baby fascinated by the moving shape
silhouetted against the morning sun
that makes the roaring beast chew the air.
A frail witness across the street
pausing in the task of sweeping her walk
to remember playing in the neighbour’s treehouse
that once rested on today’s fallen branches fifty years ago.
And in the house newly bereft of a steady shelter
a solitary woman stands sentinel,
long flowy curtains to one side,
nothing to hold back the rush of memories.
Like the day her father nailed the last plank
against the trunk, the ladder’s base
low enough for her, the youngest, to reach.
The crinkle of waxed paper that preserved sandwiches
packed for the children living out entire summer days
way up high in the branches with their comics, jacks, and fairy tales.
They would descend when the fathers returned from the munitions plant
and the mothers called them to gather for dinner.
She turns away from the window,
wanting a reprieve from the present,
switches the kettle on, and cradles her favorite mug
against the inner curve of her shoulder.
The cabinet opens, shortbread biscuits inside.
The curtains fall back and summer subsides.
This serious night that knows only waiting
wearies the line of us bound for Fort Wayne.
It slumps the postures,
turns luggage to chairs,
and makes a bed of the floor,
where a man dressed in scrubs
has stretched his length against a wall.
Head resting on the hard-ribbed shell of a suitcase,
the man’s casual waistband has fallen low
and prompts a woman to mutter,
A lot of people these days
are comfortable with their ass.
But the ass is forgotten
when headlights flash the gate open,
and we jolt alert, tense as night lynxes
as our backs arch then straighten,
the smallest of muscles poised to hunt for a seat.
Within seconds of boarding,
we survey our chances,
calculate the odds of rejection,
and pounce on the first empty chair we see.
Claims staked and bags settled,
sixty-four strangers commit their souls
for passage through Midwestern expanses beyond,
vast curved platter that once cupped an ancient sea
now gathering and immersing us in anonymous intimacy.
Soon the last of the dark folds itself into our dreaming minds
as we slumber upright past town after town,
and the sweet cadence of a Spanish lullaby
gently counters insistent beats
that leak from pulsing headphones near the back.
Individual snores rasp out here and there,
like the first kernels to punch the popcorn bag bigger.
And far ahead in the first row,
a small rectangle burns in the gloom,
action film inflaming an insomniac screen.
Drifting in and out of wakefulness,
we nod to the rows of tall highway lamps
that follow the loose curving lines of the highway,
hypnotizing us as we hurtle past.
The lamps unfurl, curl, whip left, sway right,
creating patterns like feathers being shuffled,
the tremble of tall prairie grasses before the storm,
bluestems tossed and sown by spinning wheels of chance.
Come seven o’clock, a deep veer in the bus shakes us awake,
signaling an exit that breaks the spell of endless highway.
Soon the chiming incantations of awakened phones
ring out like singing bowls
that circle and magnify an Indiana dawn.