Friday, July 3, 2009

Square 31: Canada

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This square is for Canada Day (July 1). I have slept in a tent on a beach by both oceans, driven a hairpin highway to the Rockies' alpine meadows, walked the streets of cosmopolitan cities and partaken of their delights, dived into the living fresh Ontario waters, watched black guillemots swimming the world's highest tides, wandered the deep forest, counted the songbirds, tilled the rich soil, and buried my heart deep in the Earth's greatest area of Archaean rock. I haven't travelled much beyond Canada's borders, so I cannot claim it is the most beautiful country, but it possesses enough beauty to keep me satisfied.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Square 30: Dommy's quilt

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When I was little I lived in the same neighbourhood as my mother's parents and her mother's parents. My great grandparents, Dommy and Poppy, lived in a bungalow he had built before World War I. Across the street was the elementary school attended by my grandmother, later my mother and brothers, and finally me until Grade 2.

Mom had a special bond with her grandmother. When I was born, Dommy made me a quilt. It consisted of dark blue and white rectangles cut from simple cotton prints, arranged in a zigzag pattern.

Once a week after school I would meet Mom at Dommy's house across the street. I wasn't allowed to run in their house, and Mom was constantly warning me to watch out for Dommy and Poppy's feet.

Poppy had been a draftsman, and walked every day of his working life across the border to a Detroit patent office. He spoke little but smiled a lot.

Dommy had two Pekinese that yapped constantly and scared me. She had sore legs but large, strong hands and a low, gentle voice. She was a Tigers fan.

My grandmother believed Dommy's father (Freddie Frederick) was an illegitimate son of Kaiser Frederick. There were many clues in hindsight, but Dommy would not speak about family history.

She served me cookies and ice-cold milk, but I had to sit at the kitchen table. The cookie jar was Humpty Dumpty.

I didn't realize where the blue and white quilt had come from until many years later. Usually it lived in the cupboard, but whenever I was sick Mom would get it out to cover me on the couch.

Poppy died when I was seven, but Dommy lived many years longer. Her legs grew more and more arthritic. When she could not get around anymore, Aunt Gayle took her home and cared for her. Dommy's legs became twisted but her hands remained strong. Her eyesight began to fail, but she listened to every Tigers game on the radio.

When Aunt Gayle got cancer, Dommy had to move to a nursing home. She celebrated her 100th birthday on March 1, 1993. I missed the party, but many of my cousins were there. The Detroit Tigers sent her a team photo with all their signatures.

The following Christmas Day I took my two little daughters to see her. Brenna was only six weeks old. Marian would not go near the withered lady with the deep voice and long hands. Dommy couldn't see us, but knew who I was and remembered that I hadn't been at her birthday party, so she told me all about it.

I brought Brenna close to her. Dommy took the baby in those big, strong sewing hands, pressed her dry lips on the velvet scalp and said, "Bless you."

Dommy died in February 1996, a few days short of her 103rd birthday. She spent the last 15 years confined to bed.

I have one very precious things of hers: a fine bone China tea set from Japan, hand-painted in generous pink roses against a pale azure sky. Poppy gave it to her on Valentine's Day 1915.

In much worse shape, but just as precious, is the blue and white quilt made in 1964. I used it to cover my daughters when they were sick. It's torn in places and the indigo is fading, but I'll never let it go. The herringbone zigzag pattern reminds me of how generations interlock, an effect also suggested by this mitred square.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Square 29: Gay pride

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1995 was a desperate year. I was deeply depressed and my doctor told me I would not recover unless I accepted being gay. He didn't realize that meant leaving my evangelical church—my life and security for the past 12 years. As I edged toward self-acceptance my Christian friends mostly reacted with disdain. My marriage collapsed.

I started attending a support group for sex addicts, but my new sponsor told me, "You're being too hard on yourself." He meant that wanting to have sex with other men did not amount to an addiction, but I still didn't get it.

A few days later I met a priest at one of the support group meetings. He said, "You are not an addict. Once you experience sex with other men, everything will start to make sense. You won't feel like your life is out of control."

I had recently moved into my own apartment. I went home that evening and sat crying at the window, watching snow fall under the streetlights. I realized I had to make more changes and could never look back. Upon leaving the church, I had sought belonging in the support group, but the place where I really belonged was utterly new, foreign and unknown.

Except for my marriage, I had been celibate since 1984. My doctor's advice was, "Don't get into another relationship right away. You need to experiment, figure out who you are."

The morning after the snowfall I woke up ready to put an end to shame. I decided, "I am going to make love to a man today." It was January 20, 1996, and I was 31 years old.

A handsome Honduran had previously flirted with me at the gym. I went there, saw him and invited him back to my place. His name was David. Our encounter was the most uninhibited and physically satisfying I had ever experienced.

Recently my teenage daughter Marian observed that my life has been one of extremes: gay and straight, conservative and liberal, Christian fundamentalist and atheist. Maybe from today's perspective the passages of my life look contrasted as the colours of the rainbow.

Even I recall that January morning as one of glowing hope and excitement against the backdrop of misery, however it was just one day in years of arduous progress. The transitions have been uncertain, the colours muddy. Still a pilgrim, I remember and celebrate the day my feet set upon a path of freedom.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Square 28: Amber Fox

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Memory stores events in different ways. Sometimes it is like a script—a thread of dialogue we replay and embellish. Other times it is infused with flavour, aroma and touch, a jumble of sense perceptions difficult to translate into words. Sometimes it looks like a series of snapshots. My memory is poor, and often the most vivid recollections are ones recorded with pen and paper, or keyboard.

Friday night I had all the squares of this blanket of stories out to show my daughter, Marian, on the carpet at Danny and Bill’s place in Toronto. I didn’t explain any tales completely, but used phrases to describe some squares possessing the most potent powers of recall: the day with my daughters on the glass-bottom boat, Bandit the cedar waxwing, Lake Fletcher ripples, and the wizard Ged and his shadow.

Then Bill mentioned an experience he and I shared almost six years ago: a walk on Thanksgiving weekend with friends in the Grove at Amber Fox, a place where queer men gather on the Land. The memory immediately evoked a snapshot series of fiery maple canopy and sky so radiant it made the eyes water. Accompanying the explosion of light and colour arose a more earthy erotic episode recorded in the language of touch, soft hair brushing skin, the keen lilac thread of pleasure.

Several yarns in my bag immediately suggested the vivid colours of that day, especially a favourite yarn scrap of autumn colours from Wellington Fibres. As I worked out this square, October maples kept spinning against the sky of my inward eye. Later I went online to excavate the memory more fully, and turned up Bill’s images from that afternoon as well as my own written journal of the weekend (parts one and two). It was an important weekend of introspection and discovery during a life passage when I established new, enduring friendships. These documents recorded many encounters, experiences and perceptions that have fallen into the background of memory, but that magical hour in the Grove remains easiest to recall.

Physicist Stephen Hawking asks in A Brief History of Time, “Why do we remember the past but not the future?” Equally intriguing to me is the question of how we remember, and how different people recall a shared memory. If I mention the beautiful afternoon in the Grove to my friends Bill, Shimmer and Claude who were there, the memory must recur to each of us uniquely. How much does that reveal about ourselves, and how much about the quality of time itself? When we die, where will the memory go, and what will happen to the vector into the future originating at that moment?

I recall something else happening that weekend. I woke in the middle of the night and heard a long-eared owl barking in a tree not far from the tent. I crawled outside to stand awash in the full moon, feel the frosty air on my bare skin and listen to that curious sound. I didn’t record the incident in my journal at the time, but the memory pierces me almost as sharply as the encounter in the maple grove. The fact that I didn’t write it down makes me wonder whether it really happened. I know it did, but why is the unrecorded, private midnight image as vivid as Bill’s photos I revisited ten minutes ago? Maybe the things we imagine are as important as the realities of our past. We make important choices about the memories we choose to cultivate. They can fill the inner landscape with as much beauty as we allow them.