change is good


It took an awful lot of work to get my apartment looking like this. And now it’s not mine anymore

My apartment is sold and I’m on the move. Lots of reasons for selling, some good, some maybe not. Good enough, and now anyway, it’s done. I’ve had this intention for a long time, a restlessness that wouldn’t go away. I’ve had to wait through interminable repairs to the building, too. Then finally, all that was done, and the building was painted, the time was right, and sell it I did.

But where am I moving to? people ask. Well, I don’t know. I was so focused on the first part I lost focus on the obvious second part. I just knew I needed a change. So I made the decision to put everything in storage, and do something else I’ve meant to do for a long time, which is drive across Canada. (Maybe not the whole way, but as far as Ottawa, for sure.)


Kind of how I’m feeling.
(A-maze-ing Laughter at English Bay.)

So that’s what I’ve done; packed everything away except for a carload of things, and I’m on my way. I’ve rented a furnished place in Ottawa, which is waiting for me, and I will stay there through July until the end of August. My daughter and her family are the draw for this part of my journey; haven’t seen them since February, which is far too long, especially with little children. I really don’t want them to forget who this Grandma is.

But I’m not in any particular hurry. I needed a break after the flurry of activity packing and moving, and the emotional (yes) fact of letting go of my place. Even though I wanted to, it’s anxiety-producing to change things up this much. And to become un-attached. I thought about it, and it’s been about 40 years since I last didn’t have my name on the title of some property or other. I have to say though, that what I feel now is a sense of relief that I am finally clear of the place.


The outskirts of Kelowna. Definitely not Vancouver.

So now, I’m in Kelowna, just a short hop from Vancouver, but a very different landscape. I’ve joined my brother and his sweetheart for a couple of days, and then my brother is going to join me for the first leg from here; what feels like the real start (as driving to the Okanagan Valley is not out-of-the-ordinary for either of us). We both inherited a love of road trips from our father, who used to take us rambling when we were kids (and that would be a lot more than 40 years ago!).

We’re going to meander through British Columbia, skip the Trans Canada for the time being. Spend a night in Creston, then follow the road through Kootenay National Park. Some of the route one or the other of us have been on before, but it’s hard to avoid all repetition. We’ll go see the dinosaur museum in Drumheller, Alberta, which is a place neither of us has been before. Somewhere along the way after that he’ll hop on a plane and come back for work, and I’ll point my car eastward, travel down more roads I’ve not followed before, joining up with the Trans-Canada highway at some point. And that’s enough plan for now.

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A person who begins to learn or study only late in life.

I came across this word some time ago, and then just now in a novella called The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. It’s about reading, and learning things late in life (don’t know whether I’m late in life, the story’s not over yet, but I’m certainly not early in life, turn 63 in three days); also that reading is a muscle that gets better with use. And in the end the book is about writing too (another muscle that needs constant exercise). And about the Queen. It’s a totally delightful book. I’ve kept this quote from it, it’s the Queen speaking, towards the end of the story:

“You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there.”

Ye gads, I thought. That’s what’s been wrong with me lately. I mean it’s not that I don’t read a lot of the time, as the Queen also does, as imagined in this book. I read all the time; it’s a survival technique. But I haven’t been writing, which might explain why I’m feeling kind of lost these days, about where I am, what my life’s about (does it have to be about something?) that sort of thing.

I apologize to anyone who cares about how long it’s been since I’ve posted in here. But I’ve been limping along through a series of projects that kept me away from writing. I’ve thought of myself lately as someone who binges, I binge on reading (novels read late into the night), TV series, now that I’ve been introduced to online streaming (helpful son-in-law) and indeed when I write, I need lots of free time to sink into it. I read the advice (and who wants unasked for advice?) that one should write a certain amount of time each day, and I think how do you do that, when some days I get so engrossed in things I forget to eat?

(Something I heard the other day that I think I’ll substitute as a term for how I operate: not a binge, which sounds negative, but immersion. That’s how I operate, I immerse!)

Anyway, the idea of writing for an hour or two a day, and then getting my other tasks done, a bit at a time, well, that’s crazy. PG Wodehouse on the subject:

” Just as, according to Shakespeare, snails creep unwillingly to school, so do writers of wholesome fiction slow up as they approach their desks.”

It takes forever to get going, so a lot of time gets wasted re-starting. And anyway, once started, well, I don’t like things left half done. Just makes things feel like a shambles, like my house all those years the kids were growing up. (Talk about immersion.) But that job necessarily took forever (well not quite, as they’re all nicely grown now, and they definitely don’t like advice from me anymore, if they ever did). I know that lots of women do other things beside raising kids, but usually they’ve got some other woman around taking up the slack. It’s not like the kids stop needing, while you do other things…

I know, I know, all kinds of people get stuff done while they’re doing other things. Multitasking is supposed to be what we all do nowadays, but what I think is we’re all multidistracting, and thus not getting much done at all. At least that’s me, when I let other things in, like making sure I eat at regular intervals. Seems important, but so distracting. And takes up so much time.

Anyway, what I’ve been immersed in, the last while, is a series of events. First I had a surgery (a hysterectomy, major, but not alarming, because for ‘benign’ reasons), which meant quite a bit of downtime, glad to have streaming TV. Overlapping with that, one daughter and her husband moved in for three months (which meant I was well-looked after while recuperating) as they were in transition between one apartment sold, and another bought but not-yet theirs. In the midst of that three months other daughter came to stay for a month with her two children, incredibly lovely 18-month-old and almost-3-year-old. Meant a lot of moving stuff out of reach, not to mention into storage to allow for all these people in my only-two-bedrooms apartment. And not much room to do anything else than admire small-people antics.

Then they all moved back or into their own homes, and I kicked into my own next project of getting my apartment ready for sale, because I have this wish to live somewhere else. Subsequently I was immersed in refreshing the place, painting walls, and packing up clutter (ie, personality) so as to present a blankish slate to buyers looking for their new place to live. It’s quite a process, and lots of labour, because I was hauling stuff off to a storage locker (something I began before the surgery, to make room for all these ‘children’ coming to stay with me) and my place doesn’t have an elevator. I’m on one level, but the building is on a slope, which means getting things up to the lane (least number of stairs) is, well, work. My back and it’s soreness could tell you that, if it could talk.

Now I’m waiting for the professionals to do their job of selling the place, and then I can decide where next I’m going to plug in my electronics.

But for now, maybe not late in life, but not early, I’m thinking it’s time to learn some new things. By getting myself back to writing of which this is a small start. No more five month gaps in posting. And I understand that this is all for my own purpose, trying to find out about myself by writing. A bit of self-absorption that I hope will in due course have some kind of meaning too. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I want to sell my townhouse, but I’m not worried just yet about selling my writing. Got to refresh the paint job first, before I call in the pros.

Posted in life, reading, writing | Comments Off on Opsimath

remembering a brother

Not sure how old in this picture, but in his teens. I have very few photos of Ken.

Not sure how old in this picture, but in his teens. I have very few photos of Ken. People tend to take pictures of happy times, and not many times with Ken were happy, not in his last ten years.

The day after Remembrance Day I always think of my older brother Ken, because on November 12, 1977, he took his own life. That’s thirty-seven years ago now.

Growing up he was an exceptional student. Far and away tops at our elementary school. It was beneficial to be his sister, as teachers would make assumptions about my own capabilities. I admired him, and would say it was basically friendly between us at that stage in our lives. I did indeed look up to him.

I remember he was always on the honour roll throughout high school, missing only once, getting ‘just’ an honourable mention (my usual standing). That was when he was getting up at 4 am to deliver the morning paper, so I think an excusable lapse. The summer of 1967, between his 11th and 12th grades, our mother let him have the car and he and a couple of friends drove to Montreal for Expo 67. Quite an adventure for a bunch of 17-year-olds. He had a brief moment of fame, being one of the team from our high school to play on Reach for the Top, a pretty big deal back then. I remember him getting called up for so many awards at an assembly, that they automatically called him for one he hadn’t actually won. The only one. Don’t know how he felt about that.

He wasn’t a very nice older brother though, not in high school. But I would pinpoint it as during Grade 12, that he started to show signs of mental illness, because that year the nature of his behaviour towards me changed in tone, from nasty to dangerous. And I believe that his friends started to fall away, because as one put it to me many years later, “he just wasn’t any fun anymore.” During the next few years, he began to hear voices, saw threats everywhere. I have some papers of his, a sad history of trying to get a job, and of strange and disturbing ramblings. Not a lot of sense coming out of a once-brilliant mind.

Neither of my parents ever named his illness, or even, I think, acknowledged that it was an illness at all. He was just difficult. He was certainly difficult for me, and I will admit that I didn’t realize he had a nameable illness either, and at that stage, I’m not sure I’d have cared. But he was a constant threat, mostly emotional. During my early teens (I was two years younger) I’d say his behaviour was ‘typical’ bullying: mockery and humiliation. He had me quite convinced of my worthlessness, to not state it too lightly.

But when he was in Grade 12, me in Grade 10, he became physically threatening towards me, and so I stayed out of the house unless our mother was home from work. Home did not feel safe until he moved over to our father’s house, to attend university, though that didn’t work out terribly well. But it was an immense relief to me, to have him live somewhere else. He lasted two years at our father’s and then came back, at which time I took a turn at our father’s. I’m not sure, but I imagine some of his hostility towards me might have gotten worse then, as Dad had tossed him out, and taken me instead. Guesswork, on my part.

During the next few years he regularly told my parents that he would kill me. The family’s response was to keep us apart, which was fine with me, because I would say my primary feeling towards him besides fear was hatred. Certainly not compassion. Although I will say that something eventually changed for me, because I remember feeling it was wrong to leave him off the guest list when I got married, though that’s what I did, on my parents’ advice.

He was not diagnosed until his last year (surely he was diagnosed, finally? though I don’t remember either parent telling us, his brother and sister, what the doctors said). He’d been living with our cousin, and they’d had a falling out. Ken had become immobilized, wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t get out of bed, and my father finally got him into the emergency ward. From there he was transferred to the psych ward at UBC’s hospital. And then he was filled up with anti-psychotic drugs. I believe it was the first time he understood that it was him that was sick, and not the rest of us, and it’s my belief that is why he chose suicide. (My father thought it had something to do with his having left our mother, that there was some link between their divorce and Ken’s suicide, and he never let that guilt go.) We all had our own theories. I think what had Ken was paranoid schizophrenia. Just saying. (I do think the disease had him, not the other way around.)

were it ever thus

were it ever thus

I remember visiting him in the hospital, and feeling that Ken was back, that he was benign, no threat to me. I remembered that we’d once liked each other. We talked. In September our cousin brought him out on a day-trip to our mother’s house in Agassiz, for the Fall Fair. I went for a long walk with him, and we talked more. I wasn’t afraid of him, and I didn’t hate him; it all went away. (Our mother was panicked, because she feared I would turn up dead in a farmer’s field somewhere, but really, we just went for a walk.) It was a beautiful day. He  talked slowly, as though through jello (powerful drugs). It looked as though the world were too bright, hard to see out. Like he was peering around something.

Ken spent about three months in hospital, and then they let him out, as a day patient. He moved into a dismal apartment on East Hastings Street. My memory is likely unreliable, but I have him visiting at my house, for the first time ever, at any of the places I had lived since leaving ‘home,’ this on his last weekend. My mother, who would stay with me when in town, was there too, as she must have brought him over. I also have a memory of going out for breakfast with him, our other brother, my then-husband and myself. There was a lot of laughter!

And then my memory says that the next day my mother left to pick him up, because he was going to go out to Agassiz and stay with her for awhile. My mother thought she could make him better, do it right, somehow. Fix things.

There was definitely (and still is) a stigma to admitting mental illness, and it seems there’s even less treatment available now than back then, considering how we’ve traded in the mental hospitals and now have police as the primary ‘caregivers.’ At the time it also played out that people wouldn’t talk about his death, didn’t pass on the news, because somehow suicide was shameful. Or something, I don’t know. Makes it hard though, everyone you bump into asks, “What’s new?” and you answer something like “Not much, except my brother killed himself,” and feel like a jerk somehow. No easy way to say it. I do remember my grandmother telling someone he’d “died on a heart attack.” Which is true-ish in a very black-humourish way, but I’ll spare you those details.

When our mother got to his apartment she reported, eventually, that he was hostile towards her, and told her he wasn’t coming with her. She got angry (terribly disappointed) and they argued. She told me she shouted to him that she hoped he’d rot in there, and slammed out the door, going home alone. She was so upset she didn’t tell anyone he hadn’t gone with her.

He killed himself that day, likely soon after she left, though he wasn’t found for about a week. (And yes, speaking of guilt, Mom’s last words to him haunted her for the rest of her life.)

He was twenty-seven.

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The building I live in is now, finally, finished (till  the next thing). All its work (on the outside anyway) is done. Freshly painted, new gutters, new lights, new roof, new courtyard, new plants. We even have a new owner in the complex, though she hasn’t moved in yet. Vancouver is gorgeous in the summertime. So of course I went traveling. You just can’t time these things.

Vancouver is gorgeous in the summer, so of course I went traveling.

A friend in Stratford got married in July (second time round) and I went to the wedding. We’ve been friends for a long time (44 years!) so I got the honour of being the ‘oldest’ friend, and gave a speech. This was something for me, a challenge I wouldn’t have risen to back when she got married the first time. I didn’t make it to her first wedding though. It hurt me not to, but when I was younger, doing what I thought was the right thing was very confused. Years of therapy later…

It was a good event, worth the trip all on it’s own. But once in Ontario, I of course had to carry on, and see my daughter and her family, so I flew up to Ottawa, and spent a week there. Babies, so sweet. And such a challenge too, spending time with tiny people. I can hardly believe I managed to bring up three of them myself. My daughter has little room, so I stayed in a B&B, and in what is a strangely guilty fashion, slipped off each evening to a peaceful room all to myself. There’s no good reason for me to feel guilty, but I do. More therapy, eh?

From Ottawa I took the train home. All the way, something I’ve had on my mind to do for years and years, and this year finally had the good sense to buy a ticket. It’s a coach ride to Toronto, then I boarded The Canadian for the journey to Vancouver. It’s a strange sort of travel. A mix of quite utilitarian with a semblance of luxury. The train itself dates back to the sixties, so it’s not what you’d call modern. It runs all day, all night, so big stretches of the country go by while you sleep.


Woke up the first morning to Canada. Rocks. Trees. Water. (Summertime, so no snow.)

I stayed in a sleeper car, one of those ones that the bed pulls down and fills up your space. Cozy, but noisy. I only woke up about fifteen times the first night, with all the screeching of rails, jolting and rattling, other trains passing us in the night as well. The first night goes northwest, to get up and around Lake Superior. I slept with the blind open, so that each time I woke I could see what was going by. Trees mostly. And rock.

Traveling alone can be lonely, depending. I went on a cruise once by myself, and that was kind of brutal, something about being lost in a large crowd, with nothing to do. The funny thing on the train, was it was the same thing, nothing to do really, but the time went really easily. The difference is in the numbers. Many fewer people, and much more cramped quarters, so we all really have to acknowledge each others existence. I suppose it’s the same sort of thing with large cities/small cities. People hardly ever speak to you in Vancouver, except maybe to ask for spare change, but go to Victoria, and people are always saying hello.

On the train it also helps that there are several seatings for meals, and no room for empty tables in the dining car, so you are dropped in with whoever is there when you come in. It makes for a nice randomness, and everyone is on the same slowed down pace, not going anywhere fast. I spent some time in my private little corner, but mostly rode in the dome car, just watching the country go by. Better view all around. Rocks. Trees. Water. (Lots of beaver lodges.) Talk in the dome car is desultory, sometimes animated. Peaceful. It’s very meditative. For all of Ontario anyway, there was no cell phone reception, which works very well to jolt you free. Never any wifi the whole way. It’s good to find yourself cut off. Nothing to answer to, just watch the unfolding landscape.

Manitoba: more water than there should be in the Assiniboine Valley.

Manitoba: more water than there should be in the Assiniboine Valley.

I got the feeling, as we rattled along, that Canada is kind of like a place stuck together by scotch tape. An awful lot of landscape with no people in it, but wires, and roads, and train tracks stretched out between each habitation, keeping us loosely connected. It’s a very different kind of country than most. Only a few large cities, population strung out along the border, and space. Acres/kilometers/miles. Extraordinary distances.

I made friends with two women from Switzerland, and when I commented to them that they didn’t live far from my friend in France, they said that was a matter of perception. Seems like a long way to them. Canada has just shy of ten million square kilometers, which is only slightly less than the area of all of Europe. It’s staggering, really. Not too many of us here, either.

Saskatchewan: Potash, not just wheat.

Saskatchewan: Potash, not just wheat.

I thought of my grandparents, on that route, arriving in Canada sometime around 1928, 29, with two small children and not much else. What they must have thought looking out at that even emptier landscape, I can only imagine. Fear in my grandmother’s heart, I know, but was my grandfather excited? (I can’t ask them.) They got out in Winnipeg, joined brothers who had come first. I have trouble deciding to move across town. It boggles to think about packing up from one country and going to another, where the language is different, the customs are different, and there isn’t much there, there. And this is the back story of most of the people here, or of their parents, or their grandparents.

Into the Rockies, a sight my grandparents didn't get to for a long time.

Into the Rockies, a sight my grandparents didn’t get to for a long time.

Coming out of the Fraser Canyon

Coming out of the Fraser Canyon

I set my alarm the last morning, so I would wake up with the light, and not miss all of the last bit of the journey. I especially wanted to be awake for the Fraser Canyon. Unfortunately we went through much of the province in the night time; there’s another train that goes through BC taking advantage of the scenery, but it is much more expensive, and includes a stop in a hotel. I liked the echo of a more utilitarian time, when train travel was common. Still, it was nice to be awake for the last of the Fraser Canyon, and then to watch the morning roll by through the Fraser Valley.

Fraser Valley, getting close to home.

Fraser Valley, getting close to home.

It’s a prettier route the train takes than the highway, or maybe just one that’s different. I’ve driven the highway so many times, I maybe don’t notice it anymore.

And then I was home, though not ready to be, it was such a lovely experience.

I did get a bit of a reprieve though, as I’d offered to be a tour guide to my friends from Switzerland, and when they rolled in a couple days later (after a layover in Jasper) I spent several days looking at Vancouver with the eyes of a visit0r.

It was fun, what can I say.

A tourist in my own town: rode up the windmill on the top of Grouse Mountain. (photo by Birgit)

A tourist in my own town: rode up the windmill on the top of Grouse Mountain. Just spectacular. (photo by Birgit)

Posted in life | Comments Off on wandering