Niagara Falls, you deliver glory and awe this winter! Heaped with white, long cracks scar your river-ice, a survivor of mythic battles: water versus freezing air, movement versus paralysis, and the struggle to break free, break through, break open.
I love the edges of your ice banks, the borders of upheaval against which green swirling cauldrons steam, pool, and hiss. I love the seams of blue ice and the irregular holes in the ice-lid, especially the one beside the north bank and the other in the center of the river.
Niagara Falls, I love your giant ice sculptures, their humps, swoops and Matisse shapes. These small glaciers settle me into the soul of winter, birth echoes of the Great Lakes, great pools of ancient melted ice cupped by basins. This water, this ice so old and yet so fresh, sluices clean through me and gives me peace, ice peace.
I am a ruined barn, empty but smelling of ancient hay. I sit in a lost valley, no longer a shelter nor part of a living farm. I used to be warmer, to glow orange from lanterns on February mornings, to retain animal heat. Now my shadows fill in their outlines, brief flashes from the highway my only relief.
I am tired of being a relic, a rural ghost that attracts photographers from the city. Their insulting attention reminds me that I am just a skeleton of economies past, a symbol of romantic decay.
All my sounds are whispers and echoes now, where once I heard grunts, shouts, whinnies, cries of pain and hunger. It’s so quiet now. Ruin is quiet. My unsteady walls feel dry, brittle, so straw-like that one warm hand on my door would set me ablaze. I welcome this fire, this sweet extinction into ashes.
When it rains, I feel the blessed water soaking my beams, splashing through broken panes, swelling the hayloft floor so that I forget my ladder is broken and my stalls now shells that once held a family’s wealth and sustenance. I miss being whole. I miss being real. I miss the animals I used to protect.
(The audio recording below is from my reading of the poem at The Urban Gallery on Saturday October 25th, 2014)
On a washing day, I place the white basket on the patio table, move the line into position, and grab some single socks. As I administer the stability of clothespins, I relish the sun on my face and the breeze that moves the tall thistles and Queen Anne’s lace.
My hands attach the socks, shirts, towels, and pajama bottoms to the line, connecting me to a pre-electric time when the power of the sun was not considered an eccentric alternative to the dryer.
Full of solar gratitude, the pulley and I send the clothing further down the line, deeper into the garden, unfurling my sails for the wind to catch them. I scootch the entire set of washing as far as I can, until the first sock is almost touching the top of the plants. Each time a new garment is pinned, it makes a great sideways launch into the unknown, pennants of the sky meeting green messengers of the earth.
Task finished, I stand on the deck to admire the animated line, smiling at the dance of billowing cloth that the wind creates as it plays with pant legs and flowing hems. As I observe the moving shadows cast on the grass below, I breathe the scent of summer warmth that the laundry will later hold in memory, releasing sunshine on thankful skin.
A pink sink appeared on a neighbour’s lawn two weeks ago, and I took a picture of it.
The rejected basin was still there yesterday, but some changes in its appearance had occurred.
Pink Sink Reflection
The weight of the pink sink basin is no match for the power of grass. It only takes two weeks for hundreds of green blades to hoist their pastel burden and tilt it to one side. Even the dandelions triumph over the sink and find outlets through the three holes, the ghosts of faucets past.
Where hot and cold water once rushed through pipes, new stems flourish wild, breathing spring into the openings that people once controlled. Fluffy weed seeds unfurl with defiance, flaunting the natural disobedience of plant life. It seizes every opportunity to grow, not caring if it’s welcome.
What humans see as trash and ruin, the dandelions respond to with grace and grit. They teach us what really matters: survival, finding a purchase, and overcoming obstacles. They create ingenious beauty in the unlikeliest of places.
Even though it has been a century since Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) danced in his prime, his artistic energy continues to flow forward in time, crashing on the Four Season Centre’s stage in a wild wave of visionary brilliance. The stage held but could not fully contain John Neumeier’s ballet, Nijinksy. Two days after I saw the performance, I still carry it with me.
When I think about the ballet, I am most haunted by a performance set in a Swiss hotel’s ballroom in 1919. There, the title character improvised a solo that turned out to be his final public appearance before schizophrenia made it impossible for him to work (“John Neumeier’s Nijinsky,” by Michael Crabb, Performance Program, page 8).
In the hotel scene, Nijinsky stands holding one hand outstretched overhead, fingers spread wide, his body tense. Slowly, the hand turns into a fist. He drives the fist into his mouth, and as his arm continues to push down, the force of this movement pushes him all the way to the floor. He lies there with his fist still in his mouth, stunned by this primal act of self-inflicted violence.
When my eyes followed that cruel driving fist, I witnessed a moment of pain so raw and private that I felt I shouldn’t be watching it. The dancer’s anguish and despair felt real. The fist’s repression hinted at a buried scream it was desperate to silence. I saw how the character’s struggle within himself literally brought him low, a dancer known for his spellbinding leaps now slapping the floor with his hands.
The second scene that I cannot forget arrived in the second act. Asylum inmates in dove-gray ballet costumes raise up from among them a Broken Boy. While he stands on the shoulders of two male inmates, the group that encircles him raise one arm each straight up in the air, their palms the face of prayer.
When soldiers dressed in green jackets and underwear storm the asylum, the Broken Boy gets crushed as they stomp around him in unison, their aggressive dance not softened by the presence of a woman with long hair in a body stocking. The Broken Boy tries to run but gets stuck. He is bent over, a hand steadying him on the floor while the other flies up. His jacket flops over his head as his legs spin in useless circles, going nowhere.
Looming over the intense turmoil are two large illuminated circles that tilt oppressively. The choreography mirrors the circles in a pattern that Nijinsky follows as he twirls with his arms overhead in a perfect circle. At one point, a dancer circles the still figure of Nijinsky as if he is a Maypole. And during the Scheherezade dance, lines of dancers break off into circles like beads of earth magnets as Nijinsky swoops lyrically, his body and arms creating symmetrical half-circles of constant movement.
The heartbreaking beauty of Nijinsky communicated what human disconnection feels like (hands and arms that undulate in proximity but rarely touch) and the suffering of a person crashing on the rocks of isolation and pain. Nijinsky’s psychological struggle revealed itself in unforgettable images: the fist in the mouth, the Harlequin kicking the stage wall, the Golden Slave with his arms crossed overhead as if bound by a rope, the man in the straightjacket rolling across the floor, and the long lengths of red and black velvet that twine around Nijinsky’s limbs in the final scene.
As a grateful viewer of this powerful ballet, I’d like to thank John Neumeier and the National Ballet of Canada for expanding my understanding of Nijinsky and teaching me through dance what no psychology or history textbook could ever express.
I’m fresh home from an afternoon devoted to poetry! Facilitated by spoken word artist, Andrea Thompson, the workshop combined a writing exercise, performance, and discussion. Ms. Thompson had a warm, engaging presence that put me at ease, and I appreciated her genuine passion for poetry.
To give us the flavor of her work, Andrea performed three of her pieces, transforming our group of twelve into a fascinated audience. I especially loved the way she sang some of the words when she felt called to sing. She brought a melodic and dramatic quality to her poems that made a big impact on me.
After we introduced ourselves, Andrea invited us to write a four-line poem based on a simple exercise. Each line was to start with the line “I am from” and then fill in the lyrical blanks with the name of a food (line one), a family or cultural tradition (line two), a snapshot of a location (line three), and something about the climate (line four).
I enjoyed listening to the poems that my fellow participants created, and many of their words have stayed with me: sandalwood, honey, dinner at five a.m., stars, land of Buddha, sound of flowers, and the promised land. To our amazement, the writer of a beautiful poem about grief said, “This is the first poem I have ever written.”
When my turn came, I noticed some constriction in my breathing, but I was able to read the following lines to the group:
I am from pecan pie, treacle sweet, tasting of Midwestern corn syrup and warm Southern trees.
I am from total immersion baptism by the old pastor in his Brooks Brothers suit.
I am from Liberty, Missouri, the buckled up Bible belt, green and friendly, with undercurrents of despair.
I am from tornadoes, sirens that shoo us to the cellar, staring at the cold rust on the freezer.
As I write on a slightly rickety table beside the snack cart, I’m enjoying the shade and moving shadows of a tall tree. The same waving branches that are making patterns on these pages recently hosted a rock pigeon, but it has flown away.
I’m taking a rest after almost two hours of desert trail-walking. Funny how the landscape didn’t really reach me at first, but before long I lost my heart to its wildflowers, lizards, hummingbirds, and flowering cathedral cacti.
As I made my way along the Desert Wildflower trail, the Desert Discovery Loop, and the Steele Herb Garden, fragments of lectures and conversations shimmered briefly, the fluttering of unseen wings in the leaves.
“Would you like a picture of this cactus for your power point presentation?” (Father to his young son)
In the Desert Garden, I saw a multitude of memorials on benches, chairs, fountains, trees, and walls. There were even memorial drinking fountains (a lovely idea). However, I was looking for a special one, a plaque in memory of a Toronto friend’s beloved parents. And when I finally found it, I felt connected to my friend’s family and their shared memories of the Garden. It didn’t seem to matter that I never met them. They had walked these paths before and enjoyed the beauty that I was seeing.
I studied the plaque for a long time, growing sad and thoughtful. But the more I reflected on the inevitability of loss, the more I felt strangely comforted at the thought of all the people who will visit this gorgeous sanctuary long after I have had my mortal turn. The Desert Garden is an embodiment of faith, for in this place, love, memories, and the creative earth continue to flower and flower, tapping deep roots of Beauty that do not die.
During my grandmother’s lifetime (1911-2008), she never owned a yoga mat or experienced a guided visualization led by a shaman at an Ontario spa. Nevertheless, Grandma was with me last May when the shaman asked me to close my eyes and descend deep into the earth, deep within deep, down to the cave of the grandmothers.
“Shine” Collage by Catherine Raine, 2012
Drawn by the firelight and the chance to see Grandma Raine again, I went into the cave. Grandma gave me a heavy object wrapped in a gray cloth. Resting inside the cloth was a stained glass ornament that used to hang from her apartment window. When it caught the bright Missouri sunlight, it released streams of green, lavender, red, and blue. I used to love looking at those ribbons of light, and when my niece Emma saw them as a baby, she loved them too.
I took the gift reverently and gave thanks for its rainbow message, the loving command to let myself shine. It called me to allow the light to both pass through me and beam from within me. It called from a cave as deep as the grandmothers’ mythical one, but just as real and powerful.
The gift was a verb. Shine. Be the stained glass. Transform clear light into personal pigment. Manifest the light into words, art, kindnesses, movement, and love. Don’t be opaque. Be clearly colorful, openly bright, unabashedly shiny, embody the light.
The gift and its invocation have come at the perfect time to help me fight the dark grief shadows that cover, shield, withdraw, and dim. Grandmother Raine’s present encourages me to flood my being with light, to surrender to radiance, to shine, shine, shine, and shine.
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.
Not long ago I read a passage from a 1989 journal which covered the summer before I went to Durham, England for a year. I was working in a local potato chip factory, an experience which inspired the following poem dated August 11: