gratitude

Last Friday, in Edmonton, we wandered over to La Boule for coffee and a pastry (the best hazelnut croissant ever) and then to Alhambra, a bookstore nearby. I chose a couple of books for my Edmonton grandchildren and then saw Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks. A year or so ago, I read The River of Consciousness and wrote about it here. I haven’t read all his books but many, perhaps more than half. Recently I went back to his Hallucinations to figure out some stuff about perception and brain function as a result of a retinal injury suffered in November when I fell on ice in Edmonton. I have curiosity and a little intelligence but Oliver Sacks had a truly fine mind. I bought Gratitude and on our second night in Edmonton, sleepless, I got up to read it. It’s not a long book but it’s full of wisdom and beauty. And the prose is so interesting, the way it takes the reader into the writer’s life, into his childhood, into his understanding of his own nature and sexuality, his devotion to, then reliance on, psychotropic drugs (for a time), and his acceptance of his own death.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

It’s a brief book but complete. You read it and you realize that you must do what you need to do. Not wait for the next week or two when you can get away to do your work, preferably in a remote cabin with meals brought to the door in a basket. Not after you’ve cleaned the house or finished reconciling your finances or dealt with the latest fiasco in your love life. Sure, those things take up a lot of space but I agree with Dr. Sacks that we don’t get these years back.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

And the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have a month left to live or a decade. Or three. These are the years. These are the days. If I had my younger self to talk to, to console (as I wish I had this older self to talk to in the years when I wondered if I’d ever have time to write), to advise and encourage, I’d tell her that the years pass so quickly that she shouldn’t wait for what she might think is adequate time. I am in that river of consciousness now, at this point in my life, deep in its waters, sometimes chilly and in danger of losing balance in the current, sometimes so utterly joyous that I have to pull myself back to the shore by force of will. Everything feels available to me, or worth pursuing if it’s not right at hand:

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past.

A few weeks ago, I woke with a novel (or maybe novella) in mind, a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, and I began to write it. I put it aside because I have some work to finish but I know it’s waiting. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Yes, she will. Or she will grow them.

tulips at home

Our daily bread

Every week she made bread. I remember the lard melting in a big saucepan of milk, then cooling. She mixed the dough in a huge aluminum pan, battered, with a hole on one edge for hanging it on a hook. It was never hung up in our place but sat on a shelf until required again. (It was also used for mixing the turkey stuffing at Christmas.) I don’t think I’m wrong in remembering that she made 12 or more loaves at a time. Mixed by hand, kneaded by hand. I liked returning home to the smell of fresh bread and sometimes there were even cinnamon buns, sticky with raisins and brown sugar. I would have liked slices of warm bread with lots of butter, but she was too thrifty and careful to allow the bread to be used for anything other than daily sandwiches or weekend toast. We didn’t have toast on weekday mornings but woke, instead, to porridge in the melmac bowls, a scant spoonful of brown sugar on top, and milk cooling the grey mush. I always said I hated it but in fact it wasn’t the taste I hated – there was something comforting about a bowl of porridge – but that we weren’t allowed to refuse it. And that she wouldn’t allow suggestions – flavour the oats with cinnamon, maybe, or add some raisins or walnuts? No. She was queen of the kitchen and so sensitive to anything resembling criticism that a suggestion produced anger. And tears.

But the bread, I see this now, was such an accomplishment. I make two loaves a week, enough for my husband’s morning toast, and to accompany the occasional meal of omelette or soup. When my children come home for a holiday, I make it more often – one son has been known to eat most of a loaf warm from the oven, with butter and cheddar cheese. And I use my Kitchenaid to mix the dough, removing it at the end to give it a few nostalgic turns with my hands. I didn’t always use the Kitchenaid (I’ve only had it for five or six years) and know something of the work of kneading larger quantities of dough but I never made 12 loaves at a time. But the point (or one of them) is, it’s no effort at all to make bread this way.

Once, when I was perhaps 11, a school friend invited me to spend a weekend boat camping with her and her parents. This was such luxury! We would head out from Sidney where they kept their cabin cruiser and meander up to Cowichan Bay and environs. My friend promised those tiny doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and lots of soda pop, things we seldom had at home. We moored off Tent Island, I remember, in a marine park, and my friend’s parents drank cocktails on deck. This seemed the height of sophistication to me, those drinks in tall plastic glasses jaunty with nautical flags, maraschino cherries impaled on toothpicks with cellophane streamers on the tips. Meanwhile we went ashore in a dinghy, exploring the island in sunshine. My mother sent a loaf of her bread and a jar of concord grape jelly, gifts I gave my hostess with some embarrassment. Who would want homemade bread, I thought. It turned out this family did. They went into rhapsodies over breakfast, buttering slices of my mother’s bread and spooning on jelly. Did I tell her how they’d loved her bread? Probably not, another small pleasure I kept from her.

I never heard her complain about the work of making bread. She didn’t often complain about any of the work associated with our household of 6. She was cheerful about laundry, for instance, even in the days when she had a wringer washer and no drier – and even when she did have a drier, she seldom used it, begrudging (her word) the expense. Instead she hung everything on outdoor clothes lines or else on twine strung across the basement. She ironed everything imaginable – pillow cases, shirts, our jeans, tea towels – and even the unimaginable: my father’s boxer shorts. She’d set up the ironing board in front of the television and watch her favourite shows while spraying clean cotton with water and running her hot iron across each item. Lawrence Welk, Jackie Gleason, Don Messer’s Jubilee or anything else with a maritime flavour to remind her of Nova Scotia where she was born.

I laughed at her, mocked her choice of programs, because that wasn’t what I wanted – a mother soft-eyed, even teary, as she watched Catherine McKinnon sing sad songs of the old country or Lawrence Welk manfully guide the latest champagne lady around the floor, the June Taylor Dancers grinning as they twirled in crinolines or bolo ties.

But what did I want of her? I couldn’t have known then, obviously, but I rebuke my younger self for treating her so casually – did I ever say, I think it’s amazing that you make bread? Or did I thank her for ironing my jeans with such care? I rebuke my older self for not taking her aside and hugging her with gratitude. It would have delighted her but I never did.

Every week she made bread.