Sunday, May 27, 2012

Comments Welcome: A Caregiver’s Journal

The beach is open

Yesterday. A day off the day job. Meaning a longer and more arduous day—its hours expanded from 14 to 18 (2 on the phone, 4 on the desk, 12 on the road), and all of them, not just half, devoted to the more exacting and more equivocally paid tasks of caregiving.

So many problems to tackle—and so few (and those provisional) solutions. The money vanishing into thin air—$120 yesterday, $140 the week before. The dead plant’s withered stalks watered and repotted. The fresh blooms and their soil overflowing the garbage. Lost keys, lost names, lost things. “Broken” appliances, their unplugged wires dangling. Frailty that draws company, some predatory; weird talk, vacancy, that repels companionship, tries even love. Disorder permeating everything, like mildew.

Strange problems, some would say. And the fact that they are not, and in memory never have been, strange to me, must be in part why, more and more, they fall to my keeping alone. Estrangement from mind’s failings brings insulation—a comfort bubble, though hardly, even in my weakest moments, one to envy.

Driving home in the familiar slump of absolute exhaustion. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—if the compound seems to include something extra, beyond all these, it is perhaps because their sum total is so seldom felt with ordinary tasks, of ordinary duration. Like a hollowing out from inside. Like accelerated aging, a waning I feel as it’s happening (some kind of sped-up film of myself slowing to a stop—except I’m in it, not watching it).

Burnout. It sounds like what it is: a charred pit. Not, though, as is usually implied, a terminal point; rather, for a time at least, a scorched place with roots still glowing under the black ground, red filaments which a few hours sleep, even an hour to myself in a coffee shop, can reignite into spurts of treacherous flame.

Home. Segbingway has had a visitor to her new website, asking how she may follow her on Facebook. I feel a splash of happiness at this, but feel also how happiness cannot quite show clearly through the mask tiredness has made of my face.

It is not until the next day, today, sitting over People and uncompleted Sudoku for several hours in Honda’s service department—brakes, seals, timing belt blown early from all the driving—that I think of this blog begun three and a half years ago.

. Because it was begun on the first day of that year. No author listed, though over time the links to my books and talks made it clear enough to anyone who cared to know.

The first thing I did, that New Year’s Day, was to disable the Comments function. I could not have begun otherwise. What I needed, then, was a place to put messages in bottles and release them to tides. Naming my own beach, much less marking a way back to it, would have stopped my hand. Would have stopped my mind before my hand.

My memoir of mental illness just published, a breakdown weathered in the wake of it, I felt skinless, my nerves raw and leaking. I wanted to edge back into writing in public without becoming quite, or easily, reachable.

Now, consumed by caregiving these past 15 months, with so much of what I called my private life abandoned—reading, writing, friendships, time at home with Segbingway—I feel all-public. But public in a flayed, off-kilter way. Turned inside-out by care for others, with nothing behind that outward striving but the burning hollow core that powers it.

Now, ironically, one of the few means available to me to reclaim a private life is to provide the long-missing coordinates to this beach I post from. It will be perfectly understandable to me if there is no one there to float a bottle back.

But for now, in this journal within a blog, I mean to write about the life of caregiving—and, who knows, of other matters that may surprise within it.

For now, the beach is open.

Mike Barnes

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Reasonable Ogre

Tales for the Sick and Well

The Reasonable Ogre

Biblioasis (Publisher)


author, launch at Type Books, Toronto, April 26 2012

illustrator, publisher


author, illustrator, publisher

Monday, May 14, 2012


(thoughts followed by the photo and poem that sparked them)

Many years ago—maybe as many as thirty; I think I was in my mid-20s—I made a miraculous find on a beach. A beaver skull, small (perhaps a young one who didn’t make it through the first winter, suggested a friend) and perfectly preserved, the skull ivory-white and the long curving teeth deep orange. I wrote a poem about it, “Beaver Skull,” which appeared on the last page of my first collection, Calm Jazz Sea (Brick Books, 1996).

Then, after sitting on my desk for years, it went missing. Things seemed to go missing unaccountably a lot in my twenties and thirties. “The hurricane years” might be a good word for one’s twenties, I’ve thought—and not just my twenties, but a lot of people’s. These big winds blowing things and people in and out of your life. Hurling you in one direction, then another.

Theft? I sometimes thought so. (Giving the hurricane a human face and motive.) A girlfriend I lived with for several years was my prime suspect. She had stolen my cassettes and gold pocketwatch as a parting shot. But not, it turned out, my beaver skull.

I found it, along with other precious items I’d thought long gone, in the dim and long-unvisited recesses of a cellar storage closet when I was cleaning out my parents’ house, over several months this year, after my dad died last summer and we moved my mom into a residence for the care she needs.

Under the beaver skull is my dad’s ashtray. He died of lung cancer, but had quit smoking twenty years before, he and my mom together, when they were 65. From first sneaked smokes in their teens, they’d been heavy smokers for nearly 50 years. Just cigarettes for Mom, but cigarettes, cigars (out fishing or with Sunday football on TV), and pipes for Dad. The pipe resting on the heavy ashtray was one of the most reassuring sights of my childhood, just as the sweet heavy smell of pipesmoke, or the more acrid tang of the cigar, were two of the most reassuring smells. Their ghost presence in my nostrils still brings solid, timeless comfort and security. And it’s not changed even slightly by knowing that my chronic shortness of breath, the slight constriction and gaspiness I feel always in my lungs, is most likely not unrelated to the dense white curtain of fog that closed around our dinner table right after, or just before, the last mouthful of dessert (so thick, that smoke, like gaseous milk, that we kids peeked under rather than through it to see each other), or to the closed-window capsule of even more concentrated fog of long car trips. Though present choices must, deep-set memories never adjust themselves in the light of medical know-better.

I had the bad timing to visit Mom and Dad the day after they’d quit cold turkey. They were in Florida for a couple of winter months, and I was visiting a week in their rented condo. They said they were doing it for their first grandchild, just born. They needed a better reason than “for ourselves.” Just twenty-four hours in, they were in hellish shape—not just cravings and bad tempers, but real physical distress on all fronts: sallow skins, bunged up bowels, aching joints, mouth cankers of alarming size and profusion. Every addicted cell in their body was letting them know what it thought of their going clean. Months, maybe a year, later, I asked Dad if he felt he’d regained health that made it worth it. He gave it a retired doctor’s due consideration, then answered that he was hard-pressed to think of a way in which he didn’t feel worse than before quitting. Many years after that, I asked him if he still felt cravings when someone else lit up. “Yes,” he said, “and every other time too.” I finally understood why he was so tolerant of others smoking around him: it couldn’t make worse an urge that had never subsided.

He was more vocal about it than Mom, but nicotine never seemed to let either of them forget that they had banished it. Like a stalker ex, it stayed in their face.

My ex-girlfriend, the one I thought might have stolen the skull, smoked like a chimney too. It didn’t bother me much. For a (mostly) non-smoker, I’ve been pretty blasĂ© about breathing other people’s secondhand. It’s not tolerance exactly. I don’t know what to call it. Low expectations will do for starters. I know it sounds absurd, but I never thought clean air was something I was entitled to. I still don’t—though I’m more apt to walk out of a room in search of it.

I’m not saying the fifty years of smoking gave Dad his final lung cancer. In fact, I’ve heard that the lungs have amazing regenerative powers and, after a few “clean” years, are as good as new, or almost. I don’t know either way.

Under the ashtray in the photo is his oak desk. Designed and built by hand by one of his early mentors (what a gift to a young protegĂ©!), Dad set it up in the den in each of his homes. In all but the last one, it was also Tobacco Central: its drawers and surrounding shelves stocked with cartons of Philip Morris, boxes of Antonio y Cleopatra cigars and soft packages of Captain Black Royal cavendish tobacco, pipes, pipe cleaners. He said all along the desk had to go to me. I worried that it would be too big for this apartment room—too big literally, but also in all the ways a father’s desk is bound to be, can’t help but be, too big. At times it does feel that way, but at other times, it feels surprisingly right-sized. Like something I’ve been sitting at all along.

The little pewter owl perched on the edge of the ashtray has nothing to do with the other objects, really. My sister-in-law Erica gave it to me one Christmas. It just seemed to find a natural perch on the ashtray on the desk, overlooking the beaver skull.

After a lifetime of living with people who lit up on any and all occasions—to celebrate, to consider, to console, to while away time—I often get the urge...very resistable, a kind of non-smoker’s phantom light up myself. Always my imaginary smoke is a thick, room-fumigating stogie. This is one of those times.

Beaver Skull

White bone. Yellowed a bit
like ivory on an old piano.
Two great eye-sockets,
and the slightly fragmented lower
mandibles I have placed on
either side, flanking the main skull,
storehouse of everything it was.

Below the large eye-holes where
everything flooded in, the optic nerve
passage through which a fibre now
gone tapered the world,
sawn into pictures.
The tiny teeth-rows like an empty
corncob. The nostrils with flap
of bone still seeming wary and
defensive, sniffing suspiciously,
ready for the great tail-slap.
Hole in back where it all filtered
out again, owl-roost and poplar
leaves toppled nerve to limb.

And I can’t forget: the two
superb orange-yellow
teeth, curved in a perfect
parenthesis. I once saw
maple chips three inches round
and an inch thick. The muscles
that must have supplied those tusks!

Ideally simple remnant of the
living beast, it sits to my left
on the window sill. But the goad
of its white serenity is complex:
I will one day be as perfect
as it is without even trying.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Penny For Your Thoughts

The last penny was cast at the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg on Friday, May 4, 2012.

Rest in peace, good and faithful copper pal. It will be a boring blare of steel, nickel and bronze without your homely tarnish.

Originally, the final million pennies were slated to be made available to Canadians as collector items. However, after pressing the lever to cast the final penny, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was struck by a better idea, perhaps by the sight of the final shiny disc tumbling into an empty (begging?) bowl.

As Flaherty announced later:

“We have decided to mint another 33 million or so of them. The exact number is still to be determined. But it will correspond precisely to the holders of the bottom 1% of the wealth in our great country. I would like to take credit for the idea, but I have to admit it was my son, an Occupy follower, who suggested it. After a brief family squabble, I saw the sense in it. It is only fitting. After all, those 99% of citizens have kept good and mostly silent faith with the penny left to them by the 1% who took the balance of each loonie. Plans are still being worked out, but one idea I like is to mail one of the commemorative coins to each of the identified 99%, along with a password that will enable them to comment on a national public blog, expressing their feelings about the Canadian economy and their place in it. will be the name of the site. Personal slur or profanity will not be allowed; otherwise, the site will not be censored.

A measure of free expression is the least we can offer on this historic occasion to the very many who are satisfied with so very little.

Potlatch Ontology

Only what you’re willing to give away reveals itself as worth selling. Though at a given moment your need to sell may be acute, even absolute, it is the strength of your desire to escape the calculus of gain that alone can redeem the artifact. That is the kiss from the maker’s lips that can breathe life into an otherwise soulless vessel. Not a corpse—which once gave freely of its energies—but something less. A doll, a mannequin, a simulacrum. However beautiful and malleable to the purchaser’s intent, the unwilled given can never be more than an effigy of value.

I sold it. Gladly. But if I hadn’t—hadn’t had to—I would have given it away. It needed to reach others.
          To this point the exchange is still tolerable.