Signing Off

Connie Howard died peacefully at the Norwood Hospice in Edmonton on November 15, 2016, surrounded by her family. She was 60 years old.

Connie was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, on July 19, 1956 to Ann and John Naundorf. She is survived by her parents; her husband of 14 years, Jeff, and his mother Lois; Connie’s three adult children, Byron, Natalie and Geoff; her three step-children Jennifer, Joanna, David and two step-grandchildren Bijou and Edie; her sister Kathleen, and brothers Daniel, Andreas and Martin; sister-in-law Maureen; and many dear in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends.

Connie found joy in connecting with readers through her writing. She published this blog (Sorting it Out), served as assistant editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine, contributed pieces to Alberta Views and the Edmonton Journal, and wrote a popular alternative health column (Well, Well, Well) in Vue Weekly.

Throughout the course of her illness, Connie often found relief through acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. So in lieu of flowers, Memorial donations may be made to the Acupuncture Works! Community Fund, 201-10026 – 105 St NW, Edmonton, AB T5J 1C3, an outreach to those in the downtown core who lack the means to access these services.

Jacqui

Jacqui, dear Jacqui, I’ve been thinking about you all week, and I know others much closer to you have thought of you every minute of every day. We all miss you so much, and wished you could have been there last weekend at the church where we gathered and wept waterfalls of tears into tissues and baby blankets and onto our dresses and shirts.

Many of those gathered to say good-bye got up to talk about you, about how magnetic your laugh was, how quick your humour, how you lit up the room. They reminded us that just as you loved intensely, you felt many things intensely, not just the positive. They talked about the wisdom you embodied, wisdom that went beyond your years.

I felt honoured to be there with those who called you daughter, sister, cousin, niece, friend. I felt thankful for the conversations we’d had in recent months, conversations that mostly revolved around mutually understood pain, uncertainty, heartbreak, medication side effects, cancer, and sometimes crayons and colouring books. jacqui blog pic

When I confessed to you that I often referred to you simply as my niece rather than explaining to everyone I was actually a step-aunt, and asked if you minded, you energetically told me that of course you didn’t, silly me! So kind, always, that was you.

My heart broke on Saturday for those who held you in your first hours here on earth and resolved to protect you from this world, and who heart-brokenly admitted there is sometimes little protection to offer. My heart broke for everyone who loved you in a million ways, and managed, through their choking tears, to tell the rest of us more about you, about the many ways you inspired and enriched them.

Before you left, you told us, clearly and eloquently in that well-read blog post, that life isn’t too short, that our lives are exactly as long as they should be. You told one of your friends that you’d enjoyed more joy and love than many who live to be 90, and how could that be something to complain about? I want to live with that kind of gratitude.

Still my heart broke simply for the seeming senselessness of a life snuffed out at 28 years. The faces of my now-grown babies came into sharp focus, and I privately allowed myself honesty: I know that believing our lives aren’t too short is essential to making peace with our imminent death, but today I can’t fathom how any of us will ever feel that your life wasn’t too short.

How well you prepared those closest to you for this day though. How beautifully they talked about it. I’m positive you listened in, and that you were happy with the humour that came through the grief. I’m positive you enjoyed us walking through your favourite park the next day, stopping at all your favourite spots to say good-bye and let you go once again, into the sky, back to the earth, to a time and place outside of this one. I’m positive you enjoyed us eating those ice-cream cones you’d so brilliantly and generously thought ahead to buy for us because you wanted us to end our getting together this weekend with pleasure too, not only tears.

I left resolving anew to live as fully as you did, to honour body and soul, to embrace rest as well as productivity, pain as well as sorrow. I want to milk life, and by that I don’t mean I have a bucket list or that I need to travel or that every day is a party. By that I mean I want to live with gratitude, whether I’m energized or tired, happy or sad, whether I’m reading or streaming TV, doodling or cooking or cleaning, whether I’m alone or enjoying family and friends. Whether my husband is next to me or not, whether my beautiful children’s faces or voices are nearby or not. Whether I’m laughing or my heart is breaking.

Still, I felt grumpy yesterday, really grumpy, and felt shame around it, because it was trivial grumpiness: traffic, and medications, and sore muscles, and neuropathy, and other components of everyday life. I felt my irritability was a failure of my resolve to live with gratitude.

But this morning I see it more clearly again: gratitude and irritability aren’t mutually exclusive. Life is irritating and terrifying and heartbreaking as often as it is lovely, and often at the same time. And underneath the irritation, I found intense feelings around life and death, around my dear friend’s current pain, and my daughter’s, and around the uncertainty with my own cancer. And I remembered that though we often feel alone with our pain, we’re not, not really. It’s universal.

You dear Jacqui, showed us all this beautifully. And this, young as you were when you left us, makes you our teacher, our guru. Your life reminded us that life is a messy and wonderful gift, and though I’ve often said these words, I plan to know this ever more deeply.

Full Moons, Dirty Feet, Blunt Hammers

valley trailAugust is the most delicious month. I can taste it, despite the activity of gremlins in my genes and the giant tangles of disillusionment and uncertainty that have settled in my bones.

August is perfection, abundance, glorious maturity. I have no words for the magic of the canopy of leaves over the path I walk; all I know is that I see the miraculous more easily at this time of year than at any other. The rest—the early morning rush of trying to untangle yesterday’s problems, the late night flow of sorrow over the day’s events—it’s all there, but August, with its strong and hopeful song, has a way of expanding the moment to make room for all of it, with little effort on my part.

Dead centre in the glory of summer, hitting me like a large blunt hammer, I see in my friend
the crippling effects of her multiple sclerosis, and in another (and in the mirror) the fatigue
and fear that laces cancer treatment and oncology visits and statistics that scream defeat and recurrence. In my body, I feel the effects of confused and bruised mitochondria, hungry cells. But for now, there is August. August with its overgrown gardens and fresh greens in abundance. With its built-in gratitude. With its books. (The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, for those of you with a hungry, science-minded streak, curious about FF hill 2014why all your efforts of positive thinking and movement toward your goals still haven’t built a solid grate over the deep hole you sometimes fall into.) August with its muddy, sweaty feet, with its outdoor music powerful enough to get thousands of us dancing barefoot under the full moon on our river valley hill.

Dad

dad baby carriage

“I have to get my pacemaker replaced,” my father told me the other night on the phone, “the battery only lasts so long.” I, being strongly averse to needles and knives breaking my skin, immediately murmured an empathetic “oh no, I’m so sorry,” to which he responded with, “Oh it’s not a big deal, just a local anesthetic, and I can watch the whole thing on a TV screen. It’s more fun than going to the dentist or watching a football game.”

I laughed, and decided that his perspective may have a little something to do with things like having lived on potato scraps from the garbage cans of the elite when food was nearly impossible to come by in Germany all those years ago. Or with his beginnings here in Canada: a menial job, an utterly foreign language, dinner out of a can placed directly on the heat source.

He graduated to a better job, got married, and took out a loan to build his growing family a home, which he spent his evenings building, and which he paid off entirely in eleven years. He rode his bike to work in southern Alberta hurricane-strength winds and frigid temperatures. (Now, at almost 85, he still rides his bike around town.) He’d known deep, deep hunger, and, determined that none of his children ever would, he planted a garden big enough to feed an entire village. He taught us the joys of simple things: a sun-warmed fresh ripe tomato off the vine for a snack, sweet peas, crisp cucumber, corn-on-the cob.

On holiday Mondays, he and my mother took us all hiking at Waterton National Park, and, on hot summer weekends, on picnic suppers and to go swimming in the local pond to cool down. When I was ten, he bought me a bike, which I adored. In winter, he pulled us to church on a sled. Eventually he bought a Valiant, in which we went camping every summer after that, all seven of us piling in, alongside an orange canvas tent the size of a hotel and everything else we’d need for two weeks. We were sardines in the back seat, wedged in on top of sleeping bags that filled all available foot space, but we loved our time at the lake.

After he’d taught me how to drive that Valiant with its moody clutch, he once forgave me for parking it on a hill without putting it in gear or engaging the parking brake, landing it squarely in the branches of a tree while I was in City Hall taking care of something I now have no memory of.

He taught me to love pickled herring, dark heavy bread (which my mother baked weekly), potatoes drizzled with oil or butter, fresh garden vegetables. Together with my mother, he taught me the value of community and faith, of visiting the sick and the imprisoned. He taught me the value of hard work, of honesty and integrity. (For as far back as I can remember, he’d refuse a glass of wine based on principle: for his insurance rate or something of that nature, he’d said he didn’t drink, so he never did, the only exception being the tiniest sip of communion wine at church.) He taught me the beauty of books, classical music, hymns sung in glorious four-part harmony. He taught me that there is a story beyond our own, and showed me what it looks like for a man to love a woman unfailingly and deeply.

For this, and much more, thank-you Dad; I love you and happy Father’s Day.

It’s all Good, even the Dark Side

I discovered Miriam Greenspan only this afternoon, but am already very sure I’m going to like her. She takes on our fairly robust cultural aversion to “negative” emotions, preferring to call them dark emotions instead, because dark captures perfectly the image of dark, rich, fertile soil from which something unexpected can bloom. I like the optimism inherent in this. It’s positive thinking of the best sort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly this topic over the past year, and recently found myself sitting among a small circle of women with a shared intention to turn our faces toward the suffering of others—an intention to take it in, transform it, and return it to them as compassion.

We had a lovely guide, and it was a fitting meditation for Maundy Thursday. She had us visualize ourselves at a peaceful, safe, happy time in our lives. With each breath we then began to focus on the suffering of another, tapping into the alchemist within our souls to return it to them as something pure and strong and life-giving.

I’d arrived that night a little unaware of my vulnerability—I’d been coping quite well with some current turbulence after all. But between the intensity of the meditation and a tendency toward a somewhat porous psyche, it didn’t take long before I came undone. I was infinitely fortunate to have an empathetic other bear witness to my coming undone. She validated the dark emotions that broke over me with the force of Hawaii’s North Shore, and reminded me, when I insisted there was something pathological about my response, that intensity does not always indicate pathology.

Though we tend to see emotions such as fear, grief and despair as signs of weakness or failure, they are actually gifts when we become conscious of them and attend to them. I learned so much again that night and in the weeks since. Conscious suffering deepens our connection to others and to ourselves. It makes us less afraid and judgmental, and more compassionate with both others and ourselves.

Greenspan is honest about the chaos involved in attending to and befriending dark emotions. They can be intense, and staying with them rather than running from them is no easy task. It’s not a linear process either. I have been committed to it for some time now, but on that night fell into a very old and familiar hole whose walls scream guilt, shame, failure, weakness.

So, for myself, and for my beautiful friends also doing this work right now, a reminder–productive grief isn’t for the timid or easily fatigued. It is circuitous and demands we allow dark to exist alongside the light. But I think I’m beginning to understand that we can tap into grief’s full healing power only once we know deeply that there is no need for blame or shame, once we stop judging and abandoning ourselves, once we accept that what we feel, however difficult, is a goldmine.

I am such a Princess sometimes

I am such a princess sometimes. Yes, I’ve done more unpaid and underpaid work in my life than any man I know. Yes, much of it has been thankless, even when it’s been physically and mentally and rigorous, emotionally exhausting. Yes, my cancer and treatment has taken much from me and left me altered, unable to recover much of what I’d princessstill hoped to recover even at midlife. Yes, I have permitted others to steal from me, and I have regrets. Yes, midlife for me, as for most of us, is a lake of incompletely lived life and broken dreams. Yes. But.

All of this, I saw close-up yesterday when I met my new student, is nothing in light of what some people face.

“You live close?” she asked, at least I think that’s what she asked. “Yes,” I told her, to which she responded by saying she has no home.

To be homeless and injured and unemployed and alone in a country whose language you don’t speak, whose ways you don’t know… I can’t even imagine. To begin again at midlife with the most basic building blocks of language and literally everything, when you’ve been traumatized beyond anything most of us can even imagine, to have virtually no education, to be at the bottom of our society’s pecking order, to be disadvantaged and invisible… this I have difficulty processing. Here, hope and silver linings become elusive.

She is alive, and safe here now, in Canada, but still. My parents did this too, but they were young, they had each other, and they came from a culture that had, in many ways, equipped them to adapt. They also had a vibrant community of others in the same situation, and they worked hard, learned quickly, and made new lives for themselves. Meeting my new student overwhelmed me.

I know our lives—whatever shape they’ve taken—can be a grind, and I don’t want to take away from anyone’s pain in any way. I know that the disadvantage of others does little to mitigate our own frustrations and losses and loneliness. I know that we all lack in one way or another, we all hunger for strong minds and bodies, for intimacy, for respect and fulfillment in our work, a place in our communities.

But sometimes the best way for me to ward off my own despair–to make at least a temporary peace with my own struggles and defeats and to clear a little space for gratitude and empathy–is to spend a little time with those whose losses and challenges are infinitely greater than my own and share a little in their struggle and hope.

You are so Beautiful

The flame in our centre wobbles with our breath, but perseveres. The faces in the room begin to soften, skin and eyes seem clearer than when we began an hour ago—breath and focus and careful quiet words must be exfoliating and clarifying agents, I decide, capable of clearing away the detritus, permitting light to pass through, creating an environment in which buried pain and fear might surface, in which color and story might take shape.

Lying in bed afterwards, the memory of the tapestry we’ve begun to weave fresh in my mind, listening to January rain melt chunks of ice and snow off the roof, I felt strength and joy pulsing in my core. It’s a tapestry taking shape from thick rough scratchy charcoal and brown threads, thinner and brighter and smoother gold and purple and red ones, threads of grief and joy and love brought with us into that sacred space.

We had candles lit for each of us present, and for those powerfully on our minds. Your good friend, gone now, forever and far too soon from her babies, your own grief fresh on your face. The grand-baby that was supposed to arrive in this world this Christmas and didn’t. The baby lost at birth all those many years ago, and still somehow present now. The child struck down by a car, the parents and friends laying down their torch to illness or old age, the ordinary women living with the ghosts of common cancers. The fierce love and protection mothers feel for their babies, and the fear and denial it can give birth to. The strength it can also give birth to, strength and intuition that eventually puncture denial and know when enough suffering has been enough. The fear of knowing deeply there is much beyond our control, that we have little choice as to when we must say good-bye to a mother, a father, a friend or husband or wife, a son or a daughter.

So many threads of our souls added to the tapestry that evening. It’s a good gathering though when we can bring these with a mind to cover the walls and floors of our lives with colors and textures as rich as this. You are beautiful and unusual and brave, my fellow sojourners, and these threads have added so much.