Essays, Poetry

What My Grandmother Taught Me

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[Image: two abstract paintings with black borders hanging on a yellow wall with an info card between them. The left one has black, grey, purple, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas. The right one has black, purple, pink, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas]. Paintings by H. Jou Lee.

 

CW: discussion of death, grief, and hospitals.

I don’t really know what to write. My usual way with words has gotten away from me. I’ve been left with a chaotic swirl of thoughts, images, and feelings that are difficult to articulate.

Thinking about death. Thinking about grief. Thinking about meaning, about birth, about loss, about change.

Your life can change in a moment, with one voicemail, text message, or email. One moment.

I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. My mother was the primary person in charge of my education. For a few years, she would drop me off at her parent’s house once a week to learn from them. My Poppa taught me math. My Nan taught me french and poetry. She had me memorize and recite The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear to her, which I initially hated because it was hard, but eventually managed because she wouldn’t let me give up on it. She had it memorized herself and would correct me mid-recitation if needed. We went again, again, and again until I got it.

Everything changed with a voicemail. When I first heard the recording over the phone, I assumed it was for something else. I had last spoken to the caller a few years ago about arranging a surprise party for my Nan.

I heard her voice. She said her name. Confused, I thought, “Why is she calling about the party? The party already happened”. I was almost irritated. Who calls about a party that’s already happened?

Then she explained her reason for calling and it clicked. Ah, it’s one of these phone calls.

My partner was sitting in the room with me. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Heart racing, I told him what I had just heard. I called the person back. No answer. She hadn’t been able to reach my mom, she’d said. I called my mom. No answer. I left my own voicemail.

While I’d been trying to call my mom, the person had called me back. I called her. She picked up.

She was with her, there. She explained what was happening, what they had found, and where the paramedics were going. She mistook me for my mother. I explained who I was and said I would keep trying to call my mother. She said she would keep us updated. We said goodbye.

I tried calling my mom again. No answer.

Wait, had anyone told my brother?

I called him and he picked up on the first ring. Later, he told me he’d been looking at his phone while walking home from work, just about to change the song he was listening to, when he’d received one of those kinds of phone calls from me.

I told him. A few minutes later, he walked into the house and told my mom. A few minutes after that, she responded to my messages.

Now they knew.

As I got older, lessons with my Nan became less formal but just as formative. We moved away from memorization and practice and towards discussion. After the day’s chores were done, we would sit together in the evening with tea and snacks and talk for hours. I would tell her all about my life, my plans, and my questions. She would listen openly and curiously. She would ask me to elaborate sometimes and share stories from her own life. She didn’t pretend to have all of the answers or try to make me see things in any particular way. She would just share what she knew and had experienced. She would also tell me stories from the books she read or movies she watched in great detail. She was a wonderful storyteller, and often, just listening to her take on a story was more interesting than the books or movies themselves.

I had to get there. I haphazardly packed a bag, forgetting socks and underwear. I arranged a ride with a friend. The conversation on the way down was surprisingly normal. When we neared the hospital, I realized what was about to happen, what I was going to walk into. I felt scared.

We got there and it all happened very fast.

I was in the bathroom shortly after, looking at myself in the mirror, drying my eyes and blowing my nose. I was still scared. I didn’t know if I could handle this. I was buzzed back into emerg and told they were moving here into a private room in the stroke wing.

The damage was too severe. They couldn’t operate. This was the end.

She squeezed my hand when I first arrived but never woke up. There was a substantial bleed in her left hemisphere from the blood thinners she was on.

Two days went by. I won’t go into detail about them. They were awful, beautiful, powerful, painful, bizarre, long, exhausting. They are private. At some point during those two days, I stopped being scared.

Then she was gone. Just like that. Gone but not really gone. Gone but still here, gone but everywhere. She left that room in the hospital and went everywhere.

My Nan told her grandchildren she was a witch. She would cast spells sometimes to be dealt a better hand of cards or win a draw prize. She told me one of our ancestors had been a witch, a powerful healer who shared my name. I asked her about this when I got older and she maintained that it was true. That magic is real, everywhere, and accessible to all of us was one of her lessons.

Look for me
when my spirit leaves this earth
look for me above,
I wish to join the eagle’s flight
and soar with them at dawn’s
first light.
Think of me each time you see
a pair of wings,
close your eyes & in your mind
see hummingbirds + dragon flies,
the gorgeous wings of butterflies,
when they alight then look for me,
a flash of light in a twilight sky
just know I’ll be close by.

– Wendy Pantony

I went for a walk on a trail the day after I got back home. I looked for her in the birds that flew above me. I looked for her in the light and the clouds. I felt her presence everywhere.

I still do.

Your life can change in a moment, with a voicemail. One minute, you’re going through your Saturday routine, and the next, everything is different.

At some point during those two days, I wrote a poem about grief sitting next to her. My brain was fried and scrambled, so it wasn’t very good, but in essence, I was trying to describe grief as being like a ball of energy. When it first forms, the ball is huge and takes up every part of you, beginning in your core and seeping into every limb, into the tips of your fingers and toes. Gradually, it shrinks down to a more manageable size, until eventually it can be tucked away and stored. Once acquired, that ball of grief will always be with you. Even if you manage to tuck it neatly away, it’s still there. It will always be there.

My Nan will always be everywhere now, and nowhere. She has gone to that expansive place where individuality, separation, definition, and lineality are not factors. She exists differently now. She is here and not here. We miss her and she is with us. She has moved on, gone elsewhere, but the love she gave us is still here, within us alongside the grief.

I wish I could write about this more articulately, beautifully. I wish I could find all of the right words. I wish I could express the depth of everything I’m feeling, but this is where I am and what I have. Maybe better words will come with time. Maybe words themselves are too limited to capture death, loss, or grief. Maybe all of these things are too big for words.

I think my Nan is at least partially responsible for my being a poet, which I’d never thought about before now. It didn’t come from nowhere. She introduced me to poetry at a young age. She was a closeted poet herself, a private one. She wrote a collection of poetry throughout the course of her life that she never published, but she let me read some when I was a child. When I started writing poetry, she was always keen to read it. She encouraged me to get my work out there and was proud when I would occasionally get published. A few years ago, she asked me why I hadn’t published a book yet. “I thought you would be like J.K. Rowling by now,” she said. At the time, it irritated me to hear this because it felt like a lot of pressure. She had high expectations. J.K. Rowling wasn’t even J.K. Rowling at twenty-four, but maybe it wasn’t high expectations so much as highly complimentary. She just assumed I would become a famous writer and was wondering when, exactly, that was going to happen.

I cry a little bit every day. I write a little bit every day. I go back to work. I act normal. Sometimes, I feel normal. Usually, I feel surreal. I’m exhausted, in body and brain. I keep crashing with fatigue. I keep thinking I’m getting sick, but I’m just tired. It hits me in waves and the waves contain all kinds of things. I keep thinking about how I’ll never talk to her again: never share anything with her, never ask for her advice, and never hear her stories. Occasionally, I’m hit with feelings of elation and surges of energy. Is that her? I wonder. Is that her telling me she’s happy now?

I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I’m realizing I don’t really know anything.

Nothing matters and everything matters. We’re all going to the place she’s in now. I hope it’s a good place. I hope she’s happy there. I think, if she is, she’s trying to tell me that.

Before all of this, death had affected me, but I had never seen it, never touched it, never gotten that close. At first, I was scared. Terrified. I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much. And then, at some point, I just got comfortable there. I had to. It doesn’t scare me the way it did before. I was able to see the beauty in it. I was able to see it as natural, normal, just another part of life—the counterbalance.

She gave me so much all my life; so much love, so many lessons, so many adventures and questions. The last thing she ever gave to me was a close proximity to death. This was the last lesson she ever taught me.

Death is natural, normal. It is coming for me, for you, for all of us. Do not be afraid. Do not avoid it. Do not run away. Come into the room, sit down, get comfortable. Be with death. Hold space for death. Respect its power, its inevitability.

I watched my grandmother die and I learned about death. I also learned about life. She was fearless, dedicated, grounded, open, loving, generous, and always curious. She and my grandfather built a beautiful and enriching life for themselves and their family from very modest beginnings. I believe love was her guiding pillar, she pursued what she loved and centred the people she loved in her life. I can’t count all of the lessons she gave me. I am grateful she was in my life and I was in hers. I am grateful to have been with her at the end, to have held her hand during that final lesson. It was a hard one to learn, but it will be with me until my end, until the cycle repeats itself again.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

– Edward Lear

Essays

The Cat is Here

 

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[Image: ginger tabby curled up on a rock outside, sleeping]. Photo by lisaleo
CW: mentions of death, various social and environmental crises, and apocalypse.

The cat is here.

The cat next door came for a visit and is over here now. The cat without the hat. I’m always nervous that the cat will fall when she comes over. Now she is looking down at the world through the balcony’s bars to the left of me. Now she is sticking her head between the bars. Now she is walking to the other side of the balcony. Now she is looking through the screen door into my apartment. Now she is sniffing stuff. Now she is looking at where she came from like she plans to go back. Now she goes back. She sits back, looks up, pounces, and lands perfectly on the eight-inch platform, and then her body disappears behind the barrier.

You can have all the worries in the world and then there’s just a cat that will come over and investigate your space. Everything can be so chaotic. Everything can feel so broken. Your adrenal system can be completely shot and your mind can be a dark cloud of fear. And then it can get quiet again, even though the problems and chaos are still all around you. It can get quiet for a few minutes, quiet enough for a cat to slip over and curiously sniff around.

Every single moment has the potential to be quiet enough for a cat.

In every moment, you can focus on the chaotic swirl in your head or the cat curiously sniffing around, pausing to take in all the details of the balcony you’ve never given much thought to. The cat is unaware, it would seem, of the housing crisis, the opioid crisis, the government crisis, the climate crisis… She is just here to check things out, get the lay of the land, and then leap back over to her own balcony⁠—seemingly unafraid of whether she will make the landing on an eight-inch platform nine stories in the air.

Perhaps this is why we love cats so much⁠: they’re nothing like us.

They show us what we aspire to be with our writing, our mindfulness practice, or our meditation workshops. They do it effortlessly. They are simultaneously detached from and deeply involved with the world. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Cats are enlightened but they don’t really give a fuck.

The cat left fifteen minutes ago and here I am, still writing about her. She isn’t writing or thinking about me. She isn’t here, she’s over there, in a new moment, exploring different surroundings. She came, caught my attention, and then left me to dwell on her without looking back⁠—a little Buddha, a god, a teacher. They’re all around us in every moment, these Buddhas, these gods, these teachers. Whether or not we tune into them is up to us. I could have ignored the cat and kept on writing like she wasn’t here. I could also choose to ignore the sounds of cars driving by, the playfulness of the rain-filled air, the clink of dishes being moved around in my neighbour’s apartment, the light on the leaves of the trees, the white hairs on my knee, the damp plant smell, the machine-beast noise of a transport truck revving up the street, the itch on my neck, the quiet birdsong underneath everything, the beeping of a vehicle backing up, the dishes again, the quiet shuffle of leaves on a not-so-windy day, the utterly shocking silence of hundreds of humans piled on top of each other at this intersection of space, the sound of my neighbours opening their screen door, someone on the sidewalk saying good morning, or the squeaky wheels of a car that hits a bump and slams. I could choose to ignore all of this or I could choose to engage with it.

“Peaceful, isn’t it?” I heard my neighbour say to his wife when I first came out onto the balcony to write. Isn’t it? This is peace. All of this noise and bustling and activity.

Yes, this is peace, peace in the heart of a city.

An airplane flies overhead and a bird does too. The plane goes straight while the bird flies in circles. Have the birds ever laughed at how we copied them? Have the birds ever laughed?

A motorcycle chugs by and is gone. Most of these sounds last for just a few seconds. Can you feel it? No one is yelling at anyone, that I can hear, and some people may still be sleeping. There is so much going on and there are so many of us and no one is fighting right now. This is peace.

We’re nearing the apocalypse and the cats couldn’t care less.

Why should they? What can they do? Sniff around, hunt for mice, or perhaps jump nine stories in the air. What else?

You have to live in this world. You can try your best to fix it, to do something to make a difference, but the hardest thing about life is just finding a way to live it, to be with the chaos and the peace and the systems and their inevitable collapse and the change and the fear and the pain and the trauma. The hardest thing is to figure out how to live in a world that is constantly ending. You can’t ever get comfortable with that, only curious. You may or may not ever make a substantial difference. Regardless, the world you were born into will not be the one you die in.

The cat isn’t here anymore. I am. That will change. In fact, it already has, as I sit here editing this piece several days later in an entirely new moment.

Essays

The Spirit Slice

This post may not be for you. That’s okay. You don’t need to read it or like it or agree with me. Oftentimes, conversations about spirituality can feel divisive or cause people to roll their eyes. I suppose it is a contentious thing, and I understand why, though I think it’s a shame so many of us feel the need to keep quiet about our beliefs. Keeping quiet can feel like being hidden and be rather isolating, so I’ve decided to open up about this aspect of my life and see how that goes. If you’re going to stick around, I challenge you to keep an open mind but respect that we may not see eye to eye.

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[Image: wooden outdoor steps leading up, covered in dry leaves and a yellow evening light, with some trees and a light blue sky at the top].

 

In an increasingly secular world, I have found that spirituality is an often neglected slice of the pie. It’s usually included as a dimension that is essential to one’s overall health, and yet it’s a dimension we are often not taught to nurture.

I’ve struggled with maintaining spiritual health and believe this affects all the other dimensions of my health as well, such as the mental, physical, emotional, social, and environmental ones. Good spiritual health can be the key to maintaining all of the others because it has the potential to guide you in this. I think it’s pretty important but don’t feel like my culture taught me exactly how to nurture it because of how secular this culture is. However, I have had a few opportunities throughout my life to learn more about engaging with the spiritual.

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[Image: statue of a monk in robes, looking off to the left, with dark eyes]. Photo by jeltovski.

 

I grew up in a Buddhist home and was introduced to meditation, mindfulness, and the teachings from a young age. Though I do not identify as a Buddhist at this time, there are a lot of things I love about its approach to life and the world. Buddhism isn’t a religion and I’m not sure it can properly be described as a “spiritual” practice, but it does involve some spiritual elements and tools. I’m thankful that I was given these tools when I was growing up so that they don’t feel so foreign to me as I work on developing them now.

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[Unitarian flaming chalice with a circle of rainbow stones around it]. Image from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.

 

I was in a Unitarian youth group when I was a teenager and I loved the sense of community and social responsibility I found there. My youth group leader was also a Pagan, and often brought a mix of Unitarianism and Paganism to the activities we did together. I liked that Unitarians were spiritual people invested in social issues, and no strangers to activism, as so often spiritual communities seem to lack this.

Two other aspects of these Buddhist and Unitarian communities I have appreciated are that they are okay with you holding other beliefs. You are allowed to be a Pagan and a Unitarian, or a Pagan and a Buddhist, or a Unitarian Pagan Buddhist. That’s been my impression, anyway.

I’ve been fortunate to have had these opportunities over the years. I consider myself lucky because outside of these little pockets, spirituality in a colonial 21st-century Canadian context has been difficult to find.

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[Image: metal pendant with a tree and pentacle carved into it]. Photo by Dryad Design.

 

I’m trying to carve something of a spiritual path for myself. I’m trying to piece together what I like, what I don’t, and what I’ve learned from my journey so far to form a non-institutionalized “religion” of sorts that makes sense to me. I’m trying to be mindful of appropriation, something I think many new age spiritualists are guilty of. I’m also not sure I would describe myself as “new age” as most of what I’m interested in—Buddhism and Paganism in particular—are actually pretty old.

I’m starting small and I’m going slow. I’ve overloaded myself with research and activities in the past, and then felt overwhelmed by the whole endeavour and given up, thinking I just don’t have the time for a rich spiritual life. Right now I’m reading a book (feel free to laugh at the title) called, “Everyday Witchcraft: Making Time for Spirit in a Too-Busy World” by Deborah Blake. I’ve started with a morning ritual where I greet the day, say thank you, ask for what I need, protection for those I love, and for the world to get better. I like this because it is short and simple and it sets the tone for the rest of my day. Sometimes, I also light a candle and draw a tarot card. I got off to a rough start yesterday and realized that I’d forgotten to do this ritual, so I sat down and did it, which allowed me to reset myself and restart the day. There’s power in these kinds of things, in ritual—setting intentions, being quiet for a few moments, acknowledging you’re a part of the world, and then repeating the process. There is a quiet and subtle power in such things that I think is highly unrated in the modern Eurocentric context.

I’m also thinking about looking into the local chapter of the Unitarian Church in my town by attending a Sunday service. I can scope it out and see if I feel like diving back into this community.

“Making Time for Spirit in a Too-Busy World” is something many of us, myself included, neglect to do. It’s easy to dismiss spiritual work as trivial, silly, or unimportant when the mainstream cultural narrative tells us that it doesn’t matter. But so many cultures throughout history and the modern world tell us otherwise. People have always believed in things, told stories about existence, performed rituals, and participated in spiritual communities. I’m not here to argue that this matters because I know, deep down, that it matters to me. I’m just here to remind myself, and perhaps you, if you’re listening, to make time for what matters. Figure out what matters to you and allow yourself to let it matter without judgement, dismissal, denial, or shame.

Be a Unitarian Pagan Buddhist, if that’s what makes sense to you. Or be a witch. Or be something else. Or don’t bother with any labels.

Research and explore. Be mindful and respectful. Take an interest but don’t take what isn’t yours.

Figure out what you need. You likely know what that is even if it takes time to sort out the details.