Category Archives: General

Jenny’s Purple Meadow

During a memorial service for my childhood friend, Jenny Smith Carr (1969-2010), I gave a short eulogy with this meadow picture projected on a screen behind me. I found the Swiss meadow image in the Picture Collection of the Toronto Public Library, but there wasn’t any reference to the photographer who took this calendar photograph.

 Jenny’s Purple Meadow

A few months ago Jenny asked me if the news of her cancer diagnosis had made me think about my own mortality. I said, “Sure it does. You’re a part of me.” She’ll always be a part of me, a precious patch of Jenny-ness that inspires and sustains me.

When I visualize the color and texture of this Jenny-patch in my soul, I see a set of translucent paddles in primary colors. Jenny is the red paddle. I’m the blue paddle. And the purple place where we overlap is the part of Jenny I get to keep, a purple meadow of shared memories, experiences, values, and giggles. Jenny’s meadow is a clearing in my mind, a sunny expanse of wildflowers surrounded by an ancient forest.

My hope for all of us who were blessed to love our Jenny is to frequently visit our clearings, for they are sacred sites of Jenny’s spirit that death cannot destroy. This afternoon, I’m taking you with me to Jenny’s purple meadow, where stories flower beside a purple stream, among clumps of irises and daisies, and in the hollows of warm stones.

Take this wildflower over here. It’s a story set in the late nineteen seventies. Jenny and I are trick-or-treating along Mill Street in Liberty. As radical young questioners of gender roles, we have disguised ourselves as housewives. We have put pink curlers in our hair and wrapped ourselves in padded polyester bathrobes. Fuzzy slippers pull the satirical outfit together. At one fateful house on Mill Street, the woman who answers our knock is dressed exactly like us, down to the last curler. She gives us a few pieces of candy but no compliments on our cute costumes.

Many of my Jenny memories come from Camp Oakledge in Warsaw, Missouri. I was very lucky to spend two summers sharing a canvas tent on a wooden platform with Jenny and other fellow Girl Scouts. One afternoon, Jenny and I canoed about three miles across the Lake of the Ozarks to a hamburger shack perched on a dock. I still remember how good that burger tasted because we had powered ourselves across the waters, earning our lunch with our oars.

In February of 1982, Jenny and I attended a winter campout in Dearborn, Missouri. We shivered together in a tent that we had placed on the slope of a hill. When the leaders of the campout organized a midnight hike, Jenny opted to stay in the tent, but I went out. We walked to the edge of a clearing in the woods and drank in a breathtaking bowl-shaped meadow all blanketed with deep snow. The dark ring of trees circling all that open space was a visual prayer. When I think of Jenny, I remember this winter meadow. Like her, it is spiritually refreshing and elegant.

The intense starry sky of the night hike also reminds me of a more recent night. A couple of Thursdays ago, a group of Jenny’s close friends made a plan to look at the sky together at 10 pm (eastern time) and send out beams of love to our dying friend. Wind chimes, lightning, singing locusts, clear skies and cloudy ones greeted us from Arizona, Missouri, Ohio, Connecticut, and Ontario. I thought of how much I love Jenny and cried when I remembered her blog entry about the pain of the biopsy needles.

She’s beyond the needles now, beyond pain, beyond fear. She’s a gorgeous bird of paradise. She’s the drops of rain that bless us. And she’s in every compassionate thing we do. Her purple meadow is alive with sensitivity, laughter, and thousands of kind words. We protect it when we share stories of our beautiful Jenny.

Jenny’s Purple Iris, Catherine Raine 2010

 

Elliot Lake Library: An Ontario Treasure in Algo Centre Mall

On a recent weekend visit to remote Elliot Lake, Stewart and a friend who was living there indulged me in a visit to Elliot Lake Library when we could have gone directly to a lake. My friend took us inside the town’s quiet 1980’s mall, where we found a wonderful Bibliothèque/Library. It was much larger than the Toronto mall libraries I’ve visited, such as Woodside Square, Eglinton Square, Maryvale, Steeles, Bridlewood, Black Creek, and Bayview.

With large glass windows facing a wide mall corridor, this library contained spacious east and west wings. The entrance was on the west side, which housed non-fiction, reference, and a collection of computers. A giant quilt tapestry showed off Canadian-themed appliqués, and across the room was a giant dream catcher. Around the corner from the visionary piece stood a display of fishing rods, tackle, and thick booklets in English and French about fishing regulations. Stewart also noticed a large section devoted to Mining Environmental Assessment Reports.

Crossing over to the east wing, I discovered an entire wall devoted to French books. I’m not sure why this surprised me; maybe I thought small towns and monolingualism went together. To my knowledge, the only Toronto Public Library branch with a comparable French collection would be North York Central.

Opposite the French-materials wall was a fairy-tale mural painted by L. Finn in 1992. Springing from the pages of a children’s book were a host of classic characters: Ali Baba, Alice in Wonderland, Puss-n-Boots (who was struggling to remove his famous footwear), Little Red Riding Hood, and Babe the Blue Ox. Not far from the lively mural, the family reading area had all the necessary elements for library entertainment: a plastic globe with a talking airplane, two rocking chairs (one large and one small with painted jungle animals), and kid-size mats with triangular wedges for upper-body support. Although this section was mostly empty, it was easy to imagine how cozy it would be with more families present.

Walking over to the check-out to pay for some old National Geographics, I handed over a dollar and marvelled at my purchasing power (four magazines at a quarter each). It felt odd not being able to check anything out, but then again I wouldn’t want to drive for seven hours to return a book. At any rate, why complain about lack of borrowing privileges when I just got to visit my most northern branch to date!

high school reunion

A few weeks ago I attended my twentieth high school reunion at The Elm’s hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Out of a class of almost 350, only about 50 of us turned up. Our small numbers gave the atmosphere something of a Survivor flavor, as if we were all looking around to see who else had made it through their thirties.
Blue and white balloons (Liberty Blue Jays’ colors) decorated the dining room, and two tables held a small collection of photographs, yearbooks, and newspaper articles from 1987. The table with the yearbooks had a nifty inflatable number 20 in blue and silver, but one of these balloons seemed to be enough. I don’t think we were searching for lots of reminders of just how long it’s been since we were 18. I suppose that’s why the event had a slightly sombre edge to it, as if we were mourning our youth and anxiously checking each other out for signs of aging.

I don’t want to imply that the reunion was all about sadness or that it was a mistake to go. I actually had a wonderful time because the music and dancing were so much fun. My friend Michelle and I were the first ones out on the dance floor, jumping around, acting silly. Dancing to “What I Like About You”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, and “Let’s Go Crazy” with my oldest friends was a joyful act of self-integration, connecting the 15-year-old me who found the confidence to dance in public for the first time (a radical shedding of shyness) to my 38-year-old self who dances on the streets of Toronto with the “I Want Rhythm” group. I believe our dancing at The Elms showed us that it’s too soon to bury our youth; it will always be with us.

The reunion was a true homecoming for me. It was a blessing to feel at home with myself, at home with a community of friends, geographically home, and at home in the moment.

Sicko review

Sicko was a hard movie to watch in many places, but I found it thought-provoking. The suffering which so many Americans have endured at the hands of HMO’s is outrageous. I believe health care is a human right, not a business in which the most vulnerable are refused the care they need in order to save money. Moore captured the utter heartlessness of the American system when he showed patients in hospital gowns being dumped on the street near a shelter because they couldn’t afford to pay their hospital bills.

dusk dances

Attending Dusk Dances with friends a few nights ago was magical — with a man impersonating a fish, a grass dance, dancers leaping from a picnic bench and sashaying around trees. The cool weather with just the right amount of wind in the trees completed the experience. Of the five dances, I think my favorite was “Tenterhooks.” There were three dancers who made hilarious use of a tent, a canoe paddle, a sun shower, a fishing pole, flippers, and plastic spiders.

Downtown rhythm

Yesterday a friend and I joined Nicole Stoffman‘s “I Want Rhythm” project, which features dancing on the street to storefront music. We met at Wellesley and Yonge and walked south to Dundas Square, stopping when we heard music that called to us. We did the twist in front of a Quiznos, were Scottish country backup dancers next to an accepting bagpipe player, and tried some salsa next to a T-shirt shop opposite the Eaton Centre. We received some quizzical looks, smiles, a few comments, but alas nobody spontaneously joined us this time. Thank you Nicole for putting this street theatre idea into action!

Soweto Gospel Choir high

I smiled throughout the whole concert several nights ago. The power and reach of the choir’s voices, as well as the sheer joyous energy pouring forth into the audience really floored me. We heard songs in Zulu, Sotho, and English, and I felt a connection with my Baptist Vacation Bible School days when they sang “Amazing Grace” and “Khumbaya.” The dancing was also glorious.

multi-purpose escalator

As I was riding up the escalator at York Mills Station last night, I noticed some unusual foot movements on the part of the passenger five steps above me. First he stood on the right and held the side of his shoe against the broom-like bristles that line the steps. Then he did the same on the left side with his left shoe. It took me a few moments to realize that he was cleaning and polishing his shoes.

basketball night

Last night I got to see the Toronto Raptors play the Boston Celtics at the Air Canada Centre. I don’t know why a Darwinian struggle over control of a big orange ball is so entertaining, but it really is. The Raptors won, earning the excited hoots of Torontonians. Then we descended lots of steps to lower ground, searched for a way out, and received half-a-dozen free bags of Doritos as we exited.

Gothic fun

My friend Dan recommended The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon to me some time back. I hadn’t had a chance to get it from the Toronto library, which ended up working out. This was because I found myself in the bookstore on the Liberty, Missouri square over Thanksgiving, casting about for reading material. When I saw Zafon’s book on the bestseller rack, I knew that it was the one to take on the plane. I finished reading it last night and was wholly entertained by its complicated plot and series of back stories.