Sunday, 10 July 2022

In which I'm back, to write again about death

 Is death the only thing that can pull me back to blogging? Eh, maybe. I write more on Facebook these days, if I write at all. Three children don't leave much time for typing or holding a pen. Anyway, I didn't want to think this out on social media because it will seem too linked to whatever specific events are going on at the moment, rather than an accumulation of thoughts. 

Basically I'm just tired of the appropriate public-facing grief language of Christians while at the same time using it myself and seeing its use. I think it's a social media problem, because we're all our own little news agencies and there are people who do not deserve to be let in to our inner sanctums waiting for a comment or an update or whatever. So of course we fall back on the tried & true language of faith, and we do of course find comfort in these ideas, but it also just seems so incredibly shallow. 

We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. 

So true. So very, very true. But death, even a good death, even a waited for at the end of a long life death, still has pain and sorrow because it is still a loss. And I wish that we had a lot more openness around that, because honestly death is pretty shitty. Or if not death itself, being left alive without that person in this world anymore. 

I guess it's impolite to say that. It's not comforting. It's not meaningful. 

I like that part in the Bible where, before he raises Lazarus from the dead, Jesus weeps. I think that's the honesty I'm looking for. This isn't an honesty that should be shared publicly, at least not for people like me. So by all means, let's keep posting the comforting Christian phrases about death when we have to be public. The public doesn't need our deepest emotions. But hopefully as we mourn the losses that time will be sure we experience, we are allowing ourselves to feel that pain as well. It is part of our humanity. We are not less than Christian to feel pierced by the sword of loss. 

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Reflections on dad’s death, one year on.

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of the last year just trying to dodge well meaning people who want to have conversations that I don’t feel like having. I’m sure this is more my paranoia than actual reality, but I’ve found well-meaning words with little understanding of me or my situation do more harm than good. In fact I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid people’s input, after discovering at an early enough age that most people just don’t “get” me. Dad always did, tho, and Mum is the first to admit that he could figure out what was going on when she couldn’t. My way of grieving isn’t to sit around just feeling sad or regretting my loss. Feelings are feelings, and facts are facts, and so it’s not like those times aren’t present but I’d rather focus on the good memories and the ‘hope of the world to come’ than lamenting all that might have been.

I spent most of the 14th-16th bracing for a potential “onslaught” of messages. At first I thought this was sort of vain, but then when absently scrolling through Facebook to distract myself and noticing that someone, not in my immediate family, was using dad’s face as their profile pic I realized that I wasn’t completely off base. Nothing like trying to kill a few moments of boredom and having your dead father’s face stalk you around social media because no matter how many times you try to block or hide the posts they’re everywhere – newsfeed! FB messenger! stories! It was rather ghastly, until it became so incredibly pervasive that I had to see the humour at the level of awfulness this was. Well, thank God I’ve always been able to find something funny in most situations.

My actual plan for the “memorial” worked. As I remarked to David, people like us, who take big risks and have to push regularly beyond our comfort zones don’t get the “luxury” of taking to our beds when things get hard. I’m not negating self-care, and I certainly have had plenty of that thanks to my loving family, but I’m not in a position where I can really just take a few days off work so I can sit in bed and be depressed. I wasn’t happy, but at least going to the office and focusing on the mountain of work I want to complete before my impending maternity leave was something to do, rather than giving my brain any more excuse to rewire itself to find certain days/times of year depressing.

So, one year survived. Natural drive for analysis makes me want to “score” it, but that seems ridiculous. It was a year of survival mode, for more reasons than just mere grief, but it also had its glorious times. Most of January – April was a blur but then once life for the next year sort of had a settled pattern I could crawl out of the fog and, in early May, we took off on our vacation to Hangzhou. Climbing through the hills there and praying for dad’s soul at a mountain temple were what I needed to complete that first stage, to connect once more with the world around me. After that it was a matter of slowly cutting back on the bad coping tactics. I’m sure it has not been an easy year for my family, but fortunately they haven’t made me feel it. And there is something wonderful to be said for a husband and children who quietly pick up your pieces and just get on with it, never making you feel badly for what you can’t do, and always supporting you for what you can.

On the way home last week a local woman struck up a conversation with Walter, and as he expressed his adoration for his father I realized that the torch has been carried. I love that my children have a dad they can adore just as much as I adored my dad—

Woman: Why are you in Shanghai?
W: Because my daddy has a way good job. My daddy is way smart and he works hard so he has a good job and soon he’s going to have an even better one because he is so smart!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Hangzhou: May 1 - 4, 2019

Working full time, raising a family, and trying to cut down on screen time to be with said family makes it really hard to keep up blogging. That's ok -- Instagram has proven a quick way to get out the little soundbites of life. One magical day, as my kids say, I'll hopefully have time to get everything down where it should be for the book everyone keeps telling me to write. But for now -- here are the very rough notes from our trip to Hangzhou in May.


Wednesday May 1st
  • Check out a night market: fortunately there was one across from our hotel, because we missed our train and didn't arrive until dark. 
  • We wandered around the neighbourhood until we found a restaurant serving up local cuisine. Beggar's chicken & longjing shrimp were the winners. 
Thursday May 2nd
  • Lingyin Temple & Feilai Peak: it took forever to get here thanks to the crowds. But it was totally worth it. We found a small restaurant selling beggar's chicken and cold noodles, so scarfed down some lunch before heading to the peak. There are all kinds of Buddhas carved into the mountainside. We reached the peak, climbed back down, and then went over to Lingyin Temple which is 1700 years old and climbed all around the premises. It was so beautifully peaceful up in the mountains. 
  • West Lake: To beat the crowding on the busses, we decided to walk back from Feilai to Hangzhou, via West Lake's shores. It was a long walk but so beautiful to watch the landscape change with the coming night. Everyone was ready to sit down to a hearty meal, and lots of cold beer, when we reached the city.
Friday May 3rd
  • Hangzhou National Tea Museum: This was the most relaxing experience. We got to climb up the tea terraces, eat an al fresco lunch, go to a tea tasting, and then take afternoon tea in a rock & water garden. 
  • Hefang Ancient Street: Not that dissimilar from Qibao Town in Shanghai, but it was worth a look. 
  • West Lake Dragon Boat Night Cruise: It was nice to see the lake all lit up at night. Lots of bugs & bats which Annie loved. 
Saturday May 4th
  • Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception: This was a very special experience -- parishioners were setting up for a wedding but were so welcoming to us. They let us wander all of the church, taking photos of the stained glass, and then brought us to the parish hall to have a drink of water and a rest. 
We really enjoyed the local food, which was a lot lighter than Shanghai fare (Shanghai food is typically oily & sweet). Beggar's chicken was a particular favourite and we managed to eat one every day. These were the dishes we made sure to hunt down:
  • Dongpo Pork (東坡肉, dōng pō ròu): stewed in an emulsion of vinegar and sugar together with scallions and ginger. Usually served in a ceramic clay pot.
  • Sweet and Sour West Lake Carp (西湖醋鱼, Xīhú cù yú)
  • Dragon Well Tea Shrimp (龙井虾仁, Lóngjǐng xiārén)
  • Beggar’s Chicken (叫花鸡)
  • Pian Er Chuan Noodles (片儿川面)
  • Deep Fried Tofu Skin Rolls (干炸响铃)
  • Stewed Bamboo Shoots (糟烩鞭笋)
  • Longjing Tea (locally grown)

Friday, 15 March 2019

Home and Away

Death has closed a chapter in my life. This was the first time I’d left from Canada without my father’s blessing. It was a noticeable absence, an irreparable change. 

Yet Shanghai has provided a strange comfort and familiarity. As I left the office today the air was heavy with pollution and humidity. The scent of sewage mixed lightly with that of fried noodles and Shanghai’s characteristic sweet & oily sauces. It sounds strange but it was redolent with the promise of adventure, of Friday nights spent wandering in the warm dusk, of weekend galleries & parks. 

I can’t recall dad ever telling me he’d wish I’d settle down. The first half of his life was spent in frequent moves, so maybe he understood this more than most. And he certainly liked to travel. 

When he died, it felt like there was this immense external pressure to move home, as if some people thought these past two years were a glorified vacation rather than a family’s life. I realize it was meant to be supportive, but I found it so isolating because it was a further reminder that one of the few people I never needed to explain myself to was gone. 

So here I am, back in Shanghai, trying to sort out another round of life’s tangles. Knowing the stress I’d be returning to made it so tempting to just give up and not return, but we both decided we couldn’t do that to the cat. And maybe that’s why there was such strange comfort in the heavy scents of an urban dusk, a breath of the familiar cutting across my distracted mind.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Love Came Down at Christmas

December is one of my high times of the year for feeling homesick, or perhaps heartsick is more accurate. This year it has really led me to question what I was searching for.

The best family Christmas I can remember as an adult was 2007. I flew home from Edmonton and it was so good to be back on the Island. It was one of the last Christmases we were all together and all healthy, or at least healthy enough to celebrate. It was a Christmas for bundling up all the good memories of childhood and experiencing them one last time. 

Christmas 2008 turned out to be my last “grown child” Christmas at home, although I didn’t know it at the time. Part of me wishes I had known it, although mostly I’m glad I didn’t because it let me experience the time without suffering too much from pre-emptive nostalgia, a condition I regularly suffer from! The travel was stressful because it would not stop snowing and I was incredibly stressed in general, because my time in Toronto was not going as well as I had hoped and I knew I had to go back and see things through to the end without any idea of what the end would be. But in between these moments of stress were so many good times, just the goodness of being at home and feeling secure no matter what storms, the real and the imaginary, were raging around. The New Year’s Eve engagement didn’t hurt either. 

I can stop my thoughts here and think yes, these are the things that I am homesick for, of course they are. I love the home I grew up in, and I don’t just mean the people in it. To have lived 17 years in the same spot, to know what every creak and groan of the house means, to know all the hidden treasures of the property & neighbourhood… these are the things that nourished my being. As someone who lives in a near constant state of panic it is incredibly important to have this safe space that helps ground me in reality. Yet time marches on, and I cannot return to those Christmases. We are all too different and disease has left a long-sorrowful mark among us. There are always now two people missing yet not gone, living in a shadow land, and no amount of wishing in the world will bring those days back of my aunt’s house smelling of turkey & gravy while four of us crammed into the entry way, trying to struggle out of boots & coats and get all the greetings out of the way, as if we hadn’t just seen each other the week before. I cannot share with my children the fun of my Gramma’s house, full of strange nooks & crannies, the platters of Ukrainian sausage & cheese & headcheese & cold roast beef & cookies & cherries served up as a “snack” while we played noisy family games and let our warmth shine out against the darkness. My children must make their own memories.

When we came back to Canada I was surprised to find that homesickness still returned at Christmastime, but in those years it was a yearning for the Christmases we’d had in England. I missed the Christmas feasts, the mince pies, the Clare carol service, and ghost stories at the Leper Chapel. I missed David’s yearly goose procurement, the carefully planned appetizers, the stockpiles of port & sherry, and the Boxing Day rambles in which we walked it all off. By some sort of Christmas magic our English years always involved a 4 day holiday, although often longer. Mostly, I think, I just missed the two of us being together and, at least for a season, having it all figured out.

I know very well from experience that the first year in a new place is the hardest. Everything is new and it is hard to figure out which traditions to cling to, which to let go, and which new ones to adopt. This year it felt like so much had to be let go due to circumstance. No appetizers, because we have no oven in which to cook them. Ditto for the Christmas bird. No snow. No extended family. No country-wide holiday. And while the lack of marketing made it easier to hit the Advent vibe, by Gaudete Sunday I was missing the total overwhelmingness of Christmas that we are used to.

Our church put on a Nativity Play. Walter was a shepherd, Annie an angel. Suddenly I was reliving something I was certain would be gone forever, the strangeness of putting on Christmas costumes and living out the nativity as a child. The dissatisfaction over not getting to be a member of the Holy Family (thank you, Walter) and the pride of being brave and standing up in front of all those people. After the play we went out as a family and just enjoyed the day together. When the sun set we enjoyed the spectacle of lights that is Xuhui, especially the added sparkle that came from some of the Christmas displays outside the malls. 

Christmas Eve Day is my big homesick day. I think this was always my favourite day of Christmas holidays as a child. There is still so much to look forward to – the candlelit church service, the one present I was allowed to open before bed, the time with friends & family, the hope of Christmas presents… It is a day for trying to stay warm, throwing on the Christmas music, and finishing the preparations for the next few days. This year, tho, it was the day after the day I had food poisoning. I doubted that it would be anything more than a day of frustration. Presents weren’t wrapped, weren’t even all purchased, and I didn’t know if I could make it to Mass, and the kids were squirrely from being kept in the day before, and there weren’t even eggnog & cookies to comfort myself with. Not even cheese!

David came to the rescue. He’s done this regularly over the past decade or so and probably much more than he gets credit for. Somehow he got us all into church clothes and out the door. He convinced me to do the grocery shop early, even tho’ it meant he had to carry two baguettes around for 8 hours. He got us to Xuhui with enough time to grab a small lunch before Mass and finish the Christmas shopping after. And more than anything else, he met every tentative negatively questioning comment of mine with a positive reminder. Neither of us thought that Christmas Eve Mass, at 5pm, would be crowded so when we were crammed to the sides of the narthex with no view of the church I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. It turned out that it was prime viewing space for the procession of choir children, all decked in red & white robes, followed by deacons bearing a litter of flowers and the Christ-child and, last of all, the priests in cloth-of-gold surrounded by a cloud of incense. My heart ache stopped right around then as we were swept with the crowd into the heart of the cathedral where O Holy Night was soaring above the bustle & confusion of thousands of people getting ready for Mass.

On Christmas Day as we sat around our table with our new friend, Ihri, I realized that it really did feel like Christmas. We were all laughing about something and the kids were coming and going with various Christmas presents in hand to show Ihri. We could have stayed closed off this Christmas, family only thank you, trying hard to capture some vague sense of what has already passed. But instead we pushed forward and I ended up discovering what it was that I was seeking – the sharing of Christmas joy with family and friends. Homes, people, traditions shall pass away but love? Love came down at Christmas.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Shanghai City Zoo

We’ve been in China for about eight months now. That is crazy. It doesn’t feel like eight months, but instead like forever and like no time at all. In other words, it feels relatively settled. I survived, barely, one of the hottest summers on record with almost no air conditioning. I managed to get my own phone number. I know and sort of pronounce the following words:

谢谢 (Xièxiè) – Thank you
你好 (Nǐ hǎo) – Hello
再见 (Zàijiàn) – Goodbye
美式 (Měishì) – Americano
奶茶(Nǎichá) – Milk Tea
煎饼 (Jiānbing) – the ultimate crepe, stuffed with crispy wonton, pickle, greens, hoisin, chilli sauce, and possibly meat. If you visit me I will make you try this. They are made fresh to order while you watch.
月饼 (Yuèbǐng) – mooncake, ie a small pie with a custard, dried fruit/nut, or meat filling.

It’s a pretty small list, I know, but the Chinese tones throw me for a loop every time. I can also recognize various characters that I only know the English meaning of so my reading comprehension is a little higher than my speaking ability. My dad used to tell me that by 6 months in a foreign country you can gain enough of the common tongue for basic fluency. He hadn’t reckoned with Chinese!

One of our favourite things to do in Shanghai is to go to the Shanghai City Zoo. We’ve already been three times. The admission price is very reasonable and the zoo is a giant green park with lots of space for the kids to run and play. There’s even an amusement park, although our attempts to go on a ride “up high” to celebrate Ascension Day were a bit of a bust due to panicking children.

It’s hard to say what the kids’ favourite part is. The usually like to run to the aquarium and reptile area, because they recognize some of the fish from Finding Nemo and enjoy the good creepy thrill of seeing crocodiles and deadly snakes up close. 

Emily really enjoys the monkeys but Walter views them as competition. Last time we took them he very pointedly ignored the monkeys and was heard to say “I can run and climb better than a monkey so I don’t understand why everyone is watching them”. He mostly stumped about, scowling fiercely & swinging a stick. Meanwhile Emily and one of the orangutans shared a special time of bonding of their shared sense of humour, laughing at Emily’s capers. 

The bear area is, of course, one family favourite. The zoo has pandas and both children adore them, although I prefer the smaller red pandas to the giant ones. When we feel homesick we cheer up with a peep at the Grizzly, brown, and black bears. The bears stay true to insolent form and we always get a laugh from seeing their blatant disregard for good public manners, although it does sadden me to see these great beasts penned up. Funny that I do not share the same sentiments for the lions and tigers…I suppose it is a reaction to what you’ve seen free and wild.

We always pack a picnic lunch as there are tonnes of nooks & crannies in which to sit down and eat, either by various animals or just overlooking some of the water features or meadows. There is even a bit of a goat farm where you can feed veggies to the goats or play on the playground – a great space to get the wiggles out prior to the long trip back home. And, of course, no visit to the zoo is considered successful unless the small ones get an ice cream.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Remembering the Dead & Dying

Death is on my mind a lot this November. A friend’s mom just died. An acquaintance’s mum just died. Each night we say a prayer for the dead as part of our November devotions. And aside from these more immediate reminders of mortality and loss there is the ever present background hum of my aunt and my Gramma, both in care homes and both ever so slowly slipping away. There is also the myriad of friends and relatives in varying stages of illness and disease.

To live abroad is to relinquish most claims of control over the lives of those we love. To live abroad is to grieve each goodbye. 

When the phone rings, which is almost always unexpectedly, there is that fateful pause of knowing it must be bad news, because no one pays long distance fees in this age of Skype just to say hi. My mum and I used to comfort ourselves with how quickly I could get home in an emergency. But now? From Europe or China – 24-48 hours if I’m lucky…and I have seen times where it has been unlucky and where friends have scrambled and schemed and despite their best efforts arrived home much too late.

When friends and family are grieving or in the midst of serious illness there is almost nothing that you can do. You cannot help in any tangible way. You cannot bring food or do laundry or watch children. You cannot even keep watch with them by day, because there is that pesky time difference. You can, of course, pray and send notes of encouragement and hope, but you know that no matter how much those are good things to do they do not really take away the grinding strain of trying to survive the present pain. No matter how much your heart yearns to be there, just to sit and be present, you cannot.

It is isolating to grieve alone, or mostly alone. We’ve lost aunts & uncles while living away from home and there is a strange emptiness with no real closure. You can only grieve so much with family over the phone or via email. Chances are you can’t go to the funeral. No one around you will know whom you’re grieving and as sympathetic as friends are it’s not quite the same as spending those hours with the people who shared your love.

This year as part of our liturgical exercises we started a Book of Remembrance. On nights when we can, we sit down and pick the name of someone who has died. We talk about the person, sharing stories and saying prayers, and I record the best of this in our book along with the person’s name and dates. This has been a beautiful way to keep memory alive and to bring the children into an understanding of the Communion of Saints and our belief that gone from this earth does not mean gone forever. While it has been difficult to focus so much on death this month, so long and dreary and so full of loss, it has been like a candle putting one small light into the darkness.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.