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.
Dad, I’m giving your military sleeping bag to the Anglican Church of Canada. The last time you unrolled this large pocket for sleepy cadets and folded your tall frame into it, Eisenhower was president and your younger brother was still in high school.You were serving in the US Navy and training to become an air traffic controller. From Midway Island, you witnessed atomic testing in the Pacific, received a gooseberry pie in a package from home, and wrote long letters to your sweetheart.
After you returned to civilian life, you kept this olive-green souvenir of your time at Midway’s Naval Air Facility, and after you died in 1995 the bedroll that once padded your barrack’s bunk remained unclaimed. It was stored away in a perpetually coiled state in my Missouri childhood home.
Not long after the 20th century spiraled into the current one, the sleeping bag was unearthed from the depths of storage and given to me. Upon completion of its passage from Missouri to Ontario, it continued its quiet, unfurled existence. Out of active service for 61 years, it didn’t seem likely to ever be called up again, and if the pandemic had not struck, it might have lain in limbo for another decade or two.
But today your Navy sleeping gear is needed again, recommissioned by the Community Director of a downtown Toronto church. He recently requested emergency donations of sleeping bags, water, and hygiene items for people who have pitched their tents against the sheltering bricks of the Church of the Holy Trinity.
So I plucked your bedroll from its dusty cupboard and ran it through the washer and dryer. Then I carefully spun it around itself — a ritual winding prior to resurrection into practical relevance — before bundling it into a large Foody World bag for transport.
On a designated donation day, I arrived fifteen minutes before the doors of Trinity opened. To pass the time, I walked the nearby labyrinth with the loaded dolly — containing your sleeping sack, a case of water bottles, and a friend’s gift of soap, deodorant, hand sanitizer, and a blanket — that trailed behind like an awkward pilgrim on wheels.
As I twisted and turned according to the guidelines of an ancient pattern, I meditated on the evolving, looping journey of the sleeping bag — from Midway Island to the Midwest, United States to Canada, Cold War to global pandemic, Navy to non-military encampment, father to daughter, car trunk to dolly, labyrinth to arched door.
In the gentle maze of my mind’s centre, images related to the transfer of ownership appear: my father is in the sleeping bag, 21 years old and having just seen the ocean for the first time. And now it’s 2020 and a new person is snuggling into the bedding, someone who needs it.
Dad, I see your spirit in the sleeping bag gift. I remember how you volunteered as a job counselor at a local shelter and as a listener for a cancer hotline. I still see you in acts of service and care, the unrolling of a temporary bed, its careful placement in a tent, a shelter during a time of pain. If you could send a message to your brother or sister in sleep, I believe it might go like this:
Take this donation with my blessing and heartfelt prayers for your well-being. May it provide a protective layer between you and the hard ground as well as the cold without.
Like you, I have known struggle. I fought a cold war, lived with epilepsy, and battled for my very life, surviving two bouts of cancer before the third one got me. I was vulnerable. I was scared. I often felt alone. But suffering passes. You keep smiling. You keep making jokes.
May this old but sturdy bedroll of mine help you sleep through the night, giving you strength to face the morning. May it contain some of my optimism, fight, and love to match yours. May it not let you down.
Sleep well, dear comrade, and may sanctuary enfold you always.
Be warm. Be well. Be safe.
Be at peace.
Putting bath-bomb enjoyment on hold for six months does not rate highly as an example of noteworthy sacrifice during a pandemic. However, from March to August of this year, it made me sad every time I saw the lovely non-violent bombs (a Christmas present from my sister-in-law) languishing in the bathroom cabinet.
Without access to a spacious lounging bath at home, I usually count on hotel rooms with tubs to provide ideal conditions for foamy immersion in swirls of moisturizing colour. During this unreliable year of ordinary expectations dashed, travel restrictions grounded my bath bombs on the shelf, turning them into symbols of the luxurious freedoms that I had previously indulged in without a thought.
On July 31st, Ontario entered Stage 3 of re-opening from lockdown, and I celebrated by planning a trip within the province, vowing, “I must not take this privilege for granted ever again!” The chosen destination was Bancroft, and I booked a motel for five days near the end of August.
When the day of the road trip arrived, I carefully packed the four bath bombs that had remained inactive for so long. Upon settling into the motel, excursions to Silent Lake Provincial Park, Papineau Lake, Egan Chutes, and downtown Bancroft took place in the days that followed, and evenings were devoted to long soaking sessions in playful combinations of fizzing blues, purples, yellows, and pinks.
On the last day of the holiday, bittersweet satisfaction accompanied the ceremonial dropping of the fourth unexploded bathing-device in the tub (indigo with gold stars) before fully packing up for departure. Never had I appreciated with such fervour the deferred pleasure of travel, motel life, and a return to decadent bathing.
Neither smooth nor automatic,
the mechanics of forgiveness
clank fist-first into the soil
broken by a rusty plow
that moves so slowly
it strains to finish the first row.
Forgiveness is not a miracle.
It is work to be done
and redone as the seasons cycle.
It requires the engagement of gears,
calls for the mallet, the shovel, the hoe
to smash resistant brick
and stony clods of dirt
with the energy locked
into coils of resentment.
Muscular labour turns the wheel,
pulls up the choking nettles,
and digs a clearing for rain,
for tenderness to grow.
Say yes to this employment.
Grab the tools from the shed.
A single fluffy nipple detaches itself
from the bed of its closely-nestled siblings
and rises free to ride a forest updraft,
sail the length of three trees,
and land in the crook of a sister thistle.
This flight so miraculous, so matter of fact,
is the work of gossamer gliders
that carry their freight of weighty seeds,
trusting the wind to lift and distribute them.
Ghost stars that surrender to be drifted,
flung into the future,
they commit to move beyond limits,
beyond expected life-spans,
and beyond the hope of praise or reward.
Without guarantee of fulfillment,
the feathery travelers are like wishes
blown from hushed candles to the ears of gods,
cotton lyres tuned to spiritual chords
that call for exquisite listeners.
So also, when the smallest compassionate action
leaves the nest of our minds
and vaults into the loom of the world,
connective strands weave a furrow
for the sowing of kinship and love.
Like the time the guest met a grieving daughter
at her cousin’s wedding and said,
“My older brother was your dad’s friend forty years ago,
and I used to tag along with this teenage crowd.
Your dad showed me how to dribble and shoot a basketball,
taking the time to coach me when the others didn’t bother.
I never forgot that.”
No matter how worn from the telling,
threads spun from memories of empathy
go home smiling into the unknown,
illuminated pilgrims with the power
to comfort a yet unborn daughter
whose father lives again in the story
of a kindness that defies death
and returns to bless the living.
For a legacy can be borne lightly through the air —
almost weightless —
but land with the density of possibilities,
such as the seeding of fiercely-protected blossoms
by aerial beings with no ability to steer,
zen pilots who abandon all control.
As for the daughter at the wedding,
she is too old to conceive a child,
but her heart still connects to the open fields
where compassionate deeds
land silently with the sweet rain today
but echo with glad harvest for generations.
May the beloved descendants
one day trumpet the creation of heaven on Earth.
May they transform narrow conceptions of family
to cultivate wide communities whose deep bonds testify,
“We are all of love-bearing age.“
The slick gray humps —
shadows of glorious glacial whales of old —
have ebbed from cycles of freeze and thaw and rain
to create islands of receding winter.
From January to March,
these masses have shrunk,
slunk much lower to the edges
of the sidewalk by the cinema.
Saturated with soot and exhaust,
the sullen ice-beasts resist the warmer air
and clutch at soggy remnants of broken
plastic spoons, cigarettes, and coffee cup lids.
The time to release caution
and rejoice in change
has not yet arrived,
for the evidence of a harsh season
still lies in gritty drifts on the ground.
Spring is not to be fully trusted
because she has not unlocked herself from this long winter.
Nevertheless, let us witness
how this reticent mistress has lifted
the curled edges of sidewalk ice
so that currents of rippling melt-water lift the floes,
stirring hopes we guard like hungry seeds.
What’s left of me is ragged lace,
more absence than presence,
gnawed upon but not consumed.
I forbid you to pity me.
If you impose sympathy
with those I’m sorry for you eyes,
wholesale disdain will meet your gaze.
Instead, reach below O poor leaf!
to ask yourself ‘Where am I torn?’
‘Who would recognize me if they knew
how fragile the web is that holds my flesh together?’
Once you have opened the gate
that isolates my suffering from yours,
I will accept empathy from you.
But only then, mind.
I might even tell you about the time
I believed romance meant total surrender.
And you can describe the trusted beloved
who professed support but undermined from within.
As we share stories side by side on the forest floor,
let’s strengthen our arteries together,
arching them upward without apology,
neither holding the heartstrings hostage
nor concealing our corporate wounds.
Meet me at Farlinger Ravine,
Ravine west of Kennedy Road by the Dollarama,
Dollarama that conceals the lost banks of Taylor Massey Creek,
Creek that is witnessed from this rusty bridge.
This bridge where I loll at the rail and examine,
examine the sticky burrs on my mittens,
mittens that spell “Love” on my knuckles,
knuckles that soften with warmth as the sun rises,
rises to lavish its image on the stream.
Stream of Farlinger where youths from the shelter,
they shelter under maples, entwine limbs on fallen logs,
logs that block the narrow path to the culvert.
This culvert that thunders in storms, eases the stink of sewage,
sewage that swirls over submerged shopping carts,
carts from Giant Tiger, condoms, and Tim Hortons cups,
cups whose rims did not win.
Win next spring, maybe, but today ice curls at the edges of flow,
flow of water that plays with the sun’s colours,
colours of frozen glass in red, purple, and silver,
silver that polishes the depths of Farlinger Ravine.
A screen of ice has pinned my body to a puddle.
Caught between the surface and the depths,
my fluted edges have been numbed and blurred,
robbing me of external definition.
The blessed sun has melted my face to visibility,
fooling casual viewers with its tawny cheer.
In fact, the roots of my smile do not reach the deepest veins,
which await the entire body’s liberation
from constraining clutches of fear.
Testifying to repressed power,
iced etchings echo the shapes of submerged wings,
wavy carvings that design their whims
as they skate on the very surface they groove.
The stem lives in contradiction;
part of it captured in ice
but the tail released from confinement.
Not gripped by the dark blue crystals,
nor defined by white scratches,
this licensed grace heartens me,
strengthens my desire for freedom
to be lifted whole from this chill bed.
Hopeful of return to movement,
the blood irrigates polar and temperate veins alike
whether I believe in restoration or not.
If I desire to be more fully alive,
I must warm and be warmed –
reviving faith in winter’s promised end.