Private Pain / Public Scrutiny

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and this November marks the same number of years since my mother’s death. I wrote this piece in 1998, pondering the connection between the two and my own journey a year into grieving. Looking at it after all this time, I ache for the person who wrote it. I’m well past active grief now, but I can hear the pain I felt coming through my writing voice. And yet, much of it is still the way I feel today.

What a difference a year makes. Last September I, like so many others, sat glued to my television set watching blow-by-blow coverage of Princess Diana’s death. I watched Diana’s funeral, not once, but many times. I listened to Charles Spencer’s eulogy over and over, and cried every time, as if repetition could somehow make it all true. Why did I do this? What was I waiting to see, to hear? What emotion locked deep inside was this spectacle tapping into? Flipping back and forth between channels for coverage and critical comment, I told myself that my interest was media deconstruction and trying to attach some meaning to the phenomenon of millions upon millions of mourners displaying emotions that they’d perhaps bottled up for months, even years. Feelings maybe not even their loved ones knew they possessed.

When I spoke to my mother about it all her attitude struck me as somewhat cynical and I was bothered by that. She was critical of Diana’s public persona, her courting and shunning of the media. And although she also watched, she seemed unaffected and unimpressed. But then my mom was no stranger to grief. As a young child she had lost her mother, then later, her oldest daughter before her youngest were grown, and two siblings far too early. All too often she’d been attending funeral after funeral as family members and friends succumbed to age or illness. Of course, she knew then what I know now – something that my multiple viewings of Diana’s funeral was in some strange way foreshadowing. Once you’ve lived through the real thing, you have little or no appetite for voyeuristic viewing of death via “breaking news” broadcast venues.

It never occurred to me last September as I watched and participated in the Diana display, that two short months later I’d be sitting panic-stricken at my own mother’s funeral mass. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for standing in a room full of caskets choosing one for my mother’s dead body. Or greeting every single family member and friend at her visitation – their presence creating a domino effect of memory of her life and my own. Nothing could ever be further from my mind than the few torturous minutes it took me, on rubbery legs, to walk up the church aisle behind her coffin. The fact that my private feelings would be publicly seen felt overwhelming and I remember trying to hide my face even from the familiar and also grieving gathering of people who knew and loved my mother.

Watching anniversary commentary and coverage of Diana now is excruciating to me. Suddenly my tolerance for anything funereal is drastically diminished. Reality, after all, is not at all entertaining. It’s painful in a way that only becomes obvious in the many months that follow – even almost a whole year later when I no longer expect to still remember the details so acutely. When what has forever changed my life is a faint memory to those around me. When nothing and no-one can relieve the emptiness of not hearing her voice for so many days in a row. After weeks and months of the processing and reprocessing that it takes to fully understand that the kind of comfort her voice provided is no longer available to me. The refuge of my mother’s love, custodian of my memories, champion of my successes, holder of my tears, my own personal spin-doctor, will sadly never be enough as a mere memory.

Remembering how much courage I had to muster for my brief walk behind my mother’s casket makes it impossible to think of what it took for Diana’s young sons to walk through the streets of London behind their dead mother. In order to purge a collective grief that probably had nothing whatever to do with the woman in that box, we forced two terribly impressionable boys to experience an extremely private moment right in front of far too many hungry eyes. Who can ever forget the picture of the word “Mummy” peeking out among the flowers atop Diana’s coffin? Not at all lost on me then, it has since taken on a much more poignant significance, and beauty.

For me, the death of my mother means the loss of my main relationship, my closest friend and my strongest connection to my personal history. But by this time, this is not outwardly noticeable. Inside me, however, everything has shifted so that even the tiniest occurrence takes much longer to process, leaving me with a block of confusion in my brain. I still need time and space to adjust to profound and unalterable loss. This fact is difficult to articulate in the real world of grief, where people need to see that you’re “coping” well. Sometimes I think we have more empathy for the loved ones of dead public figures because we can measure their loss without asking questions whose answers make us afraid for ourselves. It’s less messy with the protection of a television screen.

Ironically, I would have shared these observations with my mother first – a person whose point of view was both familiar and surprising, my daily breath of fresh air. Had I more experience with the extremely personal after-effects of losing her – or any such profound grief – I would have agreed with her about Diana. So, now when I reflect back on our differing opinions on the subject, I just know my mom is up there somewhere beyond the ether hearing me say: “Hey Mom – how come you’re always right?”

– August 1998 –

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New York – no place like it.

You can’t do everything you want to in New York in three days. I tried. Twice. I came back overwhelmed and exhausted. So, I’m still trying to figure out how to experience that crazy, beautiful, noisy, smelly, exciting city without knocking myself out.

The first time I went in 2011, I was part of a bus tour of women escaping families for a shopping/Broadway/sightseeing trip. I didn’t fit in, nor did I have money to spend on most of those activities. I broke free one day and experienced some moments that stayed with me and kept me hankering to go back. I was blown away by the architecture, the skyscrapers, the sheer number of people on the street at all times and fascinated that, in a city so engulfed by noise, it was still possible to experience quiet.

That solitary day, I started out at the 9/11 museum, where the only sound was muffled crying, me and every single other person. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral I stumbled into a all-black high school graduation ceremony and cried again at the sentiment the young valedictorian expressed while thanking the women in his life for keeping him in school. I lit a candle for my mother because I’d been walking around New York for two days thinking of how much she adored the city when she visited as a still single woman before my dad and five children complicated her life.

I then moved on to the Algonquin Hotel, a must-experience for a writer since it’s the birth-place of the New Yorker and the second home to most of its writers. (also figures prominently in Mad Men) I sat enjoying a beer (cheapest thing on the drinks menu) when the couple beside me, in town from Philadelphia celebrating their anniversary, invited me to join them and generously bought me a couple of drinks. It was magical and, I thought, could only happen in New York – or at least, it was the kind of thing you can experience when travelling alone and feeling free of the everyday stress of home and the shackles of at-home identity.

This trip was a bit different and for some reason I felt myself even more overwhelmed by the city. Perhaps, having been there once, I felt I was more prepared for its offer. Wrong. I doubt it’s a city you can judge in one or two experiences… or a million.

Here, a list of my impressions this time around:

  • I haven’t flown in 3 years and it’s not my fave thing to do. I’m edgy about it, but my excitement to be in NYC trumps the nerves. Plus, my pal is distracting me with chatter, at my request. I barely remember taking off or landing. It’s a short flight – less than an hour in the air. I’m curious about the islands we’re passing over just before landing. Must look them up.
  • We’re in NYC! Though my trip this time is more street level than bus level and less tourist, more traveller, every once in awhile you just have to say, “I’m in New York!”
  • The city is so mythical to me in so many ways – all those films, TV shows and books set in New York that live in the imagination – walking around feels out of this world, at first.
  • Chelsea is a cute area, the best part of which is Cafe Grumpy on 20th, in between 7th and 8th. A good independent shop, great coffee and just about the best almond croissant I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of them! Our hotel, not so much. Note to self for next time: stay out of the noise, you’ll need it as a nightly refuge.
  • Chelsea art galleries are delightful. We happened upon an art
    Hippies, 2013

    Hippies, 2013

    class while looking at the fascinating Lisa Yuskavage exhibit in the David Zwirner gallery. What luck! The instructor was a wealth of knowledge putting the pieces we were looking at in feminist and artistic context and good thing because I’m not hugely art articulate.

  • The Mad Men exhibit at the Museum of Moving Image is
    1960s secretary's desk

    1960s secretary’s desk

    fabulous – I appreciated the program before, but so much more after seeing the painstaking, intricate detail Matthew Weiner & Co. took to make sure it was as authentic to the time as possible. If you’re a fan of the show, go see it! (it’s on until June 14) I never saw this series as a period piece since all the props, costumes, etc were part of my childhood experience. Walking into Don and Betty’s Ossining, NY kitchen was like stepping into my mother’s kitchen. (No photos allowed, heavily guarded, but I snuck a pic of the secretary’s desk.)

  • Is there anything more NYC than the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, founded by Tony Bennett? It’s across from the Museum of Moving Image in Queens. A prof chatted to us about how students don’t know how to spell or write, but they can sing and play, I guess. Just when I was thinking this, a young man belted out a song on the sidewalk.
  • Getting around on the subway is a challenge for a person from a city with two defined routes and a poor sense of direction. I figure it would take me at least 3-5 years of living in New York before I understood how to get around by transit. Thankfully, New Yorkers are friendly and obliging to two lost souls.
  • The Rockwood Music Hall is a wonderful venue to see music. Small, comfortable and with great sound. A fellow called Andrew Ripp is a talented up and comer, originally from outside Chicago but lives in Nashville.
  • Greenpoint, Brooklyn – the Polish district – feels a lot like home in Roncesvalles. A young stylist named Stephanie gave me a great haircut and told me about  Ovenly – a cute bakery
    ovenly

    Ovenly: Sweet and Salty Recipes from New York’s Most Creative Bakery

    where I bought their recipe book because, unlike so many I have in my collection, this one has some unique baking tips, plus rare but welcome process photos. This only has to do with New York in the sense that the bakery is situated there and the baked goods were delicious – quality ingredients, expertly executed. And the joint was hoppin’.

  • Who knew you could take a NY Ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We did and it was great! (brought Vancouver to mind, a cross between Seabus and Granville Island Ferry). Why can’t Toronto transport some of its commuters by ferry? For that matter, why do we only have two (and a half) subway lines?
  • Central Park is always an oasis, even on a crowded Saturday.
    me and Zach Rance, from BB16

    me and Zach Rance, from BB16

    Down time in New York from our whirlwind New York mini-vacation. The perk for one Big Brother fan like myself is that my fave contestant from last year, Zach Rance, was in town from Florida and hanging out at Strawberry Fields talking to fans. In Toronto, I would never show up at such an event. In New York, why not?

  • My travel companion took me for an authentic Lower East Side experience at Katz’s Deli (which employs security people to make sure you don’t slip out without paying!) – then on to a comedy/music show at Fontana’s (a huge bar with a tiny performance space in the basement). My tiredness got the better of me on Night Two so I went home to the 8th St. hotel and attempted to drown out the relentless noise. (During a restless night before, I noted that people don’t stop partying at 8th and 30th – and probably everywhere else – until at least 4:30 am. Then, the city quiets down for at least a couple of hours, on the weekend at least.)
  • The outdoor 9/11 memorial  was not yet built on my last visit. My pal and I reminisce about the horrific event on the way there, but we know our impressions are nothing compared to what New Yorkers went through that day. The waterfall and pool, with names of those who lost their lives is a fitting and remarkable tribute. After my visit to the museum last time I knew I couldn’t do it again. Too unbearably sad.
  • The only reason to walk into Macy’s is to experience the wooden escalator, a relic from, if not the original store, one of the early incarnations. I put off going to New York for years because I mistakenly thought I had to have a boatload of money to even step one foot on a NYC sidewalk. I’m not much of a shopper anyway, but on both my trips I never felt the need to spend money in stores. There’s seriously too much else to do! Having said that, I did splurge on a pair of coral Birkenstocks – which saved my feet and legs on this trip.
  • Stopped into Grand Central to meet up with my friend and
    Grand Central Terminal, Information Booth and Clock

    Grand Central Terminal, Information Booth and Clock

    didn’t realize until I got home that I can never spend enough time in that great hall of antiquity, a feat of architecture and design (and didn’t that day). If ever there was a time to shout out, “I’m in New York!” it’s surely when standing at the information desk in the middle of the atrium, the scene of so many, many films.

  • Bryant Park is delightful, from it’s food kiosks to its Reading Room, and ping pong tables. Another (needed) respite from busy NYC – truly, I could’ve sat there all day long. But.. place to go, things to see…
  • The Highline – what a great idea that is! Take an unused elevated train track and turn it into a green space with
    The Highline, NYC

    The Highline, NYC

    spectacular city views and an excuse for a simply lovely stroll. Chelsea Market, a spot I wish I’d discovered on day one. A relaxing dinner with two good friends in New York, then off to see Lucy Wainwright Roche, one of myriad number of musical Wainwrights and Roches. First, the Highline Ballroom is a special venue with, again, great sound. Then, talent galore and even more when Loudon Wainwright III got up to sing. Only in New York, where the family hails from and lives.

  • How’s this for a crazy NY moment: walking home from the Highline Ballroom, I ran into an old colleague/friend from Vancouver (who now lives in Toronto) whom I haven’t seen since before I left that city in 2006. Crazy.

Now that I’ve been to New York twice, I’ll probably keep visiting, if only in an attempt to get it right – which for me means balancing all it has to offer with my need to take all things slow and savoury in life and in travel. Still, I think I can sum up the experiences I’ve had there like this:

One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years…  Tom Wolfe

Me & Frank McCourt

It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.

Bravo! Rehearsal Hall, 2000

Bravo! Rehearsal Hall, 2000

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.

It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.

Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.

When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.

I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.

And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.

He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.

TVO The Agenda guest blog / A Reckoning with Emotional Clutter

“On Thursday, The Agenda explored whether our modern obsession with collecting “stuff” — gadgets, toys, appliances, and other consumer goods — might be coming at too high a cost to our pocketbooks and our emotional well-being. (You can watch that program above.) 
Writer Carla Lucchetta, who has contributed many personal essays to The Agenda over the years, was inspired by the program to tell a story about a cherished object, emotion, and learning move forward.”

The Power and the Story

I’ve been telling 1st person stories for most of my writing life. I can’t help it, it’s my strongest voice. Which isn’t to say that by reading something I’ve written, that you will know everything about me. I get some criticism, but mostly praise and sometimes awe for having the so-called courage to put my life out there and myself on the line. The stories I choose to reveal my life through are the ones I think are the most relatable and the least told out loud. An example is my continual return to my feelings about being childless – I just think it’s a taboo topic that needs to be made a  little more visible in order to be understood. Another is my struggle with loneliness, a word and state still so feared. Yet, another is my interest in fatherless sons and the voids in their lives because of it. Not my story to tell, but the topic of my upcoming book because of the many men I know who have suffered in silence. When we reveal ourselves in the most vulnerable ways we show how connected we really are by the condition of life. It can only help.

lspThat’s why I’m so interested in a new show on OWN Canada (Oprah Winfrey’s network) called Life Story Project. My friend and colleague, the talented Dale Curd is a creator and co-host. Armed with deceptively easy to answer questions (“what was your most memorable 1st?” or, “what was your moment of truth?” and, “what does it feel like to fall in love?”) the two hosts – one a life-coach, the other a seasoned men’s counselor- invite random passers-by to  sit on a purple couch and chat. What ends up being revealed is often a surprise to them, even though they have so much experience listening to “truths” from their clients. The show is not over-produced or stylishly edited. Participants have not been cast, though I’m sure the footage has been picked over for the best, most moving or entertaining stories. That’s just TV.  The result is a fairly authentic representation of the powerful stories we all have living inside of us. People seem immediately to go to the crux of their pain or joy. One woman revealed how an accident she had caused resulted in her child’s eye disease which meant he couldn’t recognize her until he heard her voice. When asked if she had regrets her answer was a thoughtful and very raw, “I don’t know.”

Life’s just like that. It’s not always possible to wrap it up with a pretty bow and that elusive thing we love to say we’re seeking… closure.

While watching the debut show, I shared my experience of it with other viewers on twitter. Some of the comments surprised me. More than a few people said things like, “you never know what the person next to you is dealing with.” Really? Do we not know? Are we so caught up in our own private dramas that we can’t imagine others are having their own versions?

With all the soap boxing that’s available on television where people are continually revealing their issues to Oprah et al, how is it possible to still not realize we all have emotional confusion, pain, loss, doubt just as much as happiness, joy, contentment. You can’t have one without the other. Just because our minds return to the place of hurt when asked a simple question does not mean we haven’t processed it and moved on. Resilience is one of our finest qualities. But, why are we still so afraid of the dark side, even when we know experiencing it has certainly shaped our lives?

I think the beauty of this show is two- maybe even three-fold. 1) it’s local – the purple coach was placed on the Kew Beach boardwalk, in the middle of the Distillery district, and at Sunnyside Pavillion, so there’s always a chance someone familiar will show up. Not only that, but it’s much easier to relate to people nearer to us than on talk or reality show taped in some remote American city. 2) People seem to need a reminder that we all operate along the same thin emotional thread, though the manifestation may be different, and 3) Even the more empathetic of us who regularly tell the powerful stories of others, and our own, can be further moved by these ones, and also appreciate the skill of the hosts in drawing them out.

I recommend the show, especially if you need a reminder of the vulnerability of and the triumph over being human. Here’s the broadcast schedule.

Well done Dale & co!

A review of Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

American feminist writer Naomi Wolf

Veteran 3rd wave feminist Naomi Wolf‘s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, reveals some new science about female sexual response and the power that good, attentive sex can give women. It’s been receiving scathing reviews, but I think there’s valuable and interesting information contained within.

I went out on a feminist limb and liked the book, then reviewed it for  TVO The Agenda’s blog:

The sexual revolution has not been kind to women or men; our information about the intricate science of female sexual response is at least a half century out of date; history reveals that in many cultures the vagina was once revered but has also been continually under attack as a systemic way to suppress women’s power; the click-of-a-computer-key availability of porn is rewiring our brains and impeding our ability to be intimate; and a woman’s sexual history – especially if it is violent – is held in nerve memory, but can be healed.

Read the full review on The Agenda website.

The Vault: best of herkind.com / Non-Mom

 

(Summer is the time of year I really feel I’ve missed out by not becoming a mother. I think I said it best in this post introducing my TVO essay on the topic. Originally published on Jan. 6, 2011)

Last year I met the writer,  Molly Peacock and began, by chance, to talk to her about a piece I was trying to work out about being childless and how hard it was to a) reconcile that fact, in a world where motherhood is revered, and b) how silent the process is because there’s so little written on it, and it’s rarely discussed. What I didn’t know was that she had written an entire book on her choice to be child-free and how it had defined her life.

I devoured Paradise Piece by Piece and, though my childlessness has happened more from circumstance than choice – it would never be my choice – I still related to a great deal of what she wrote. That’s because to be a “non-mom” is still fairly undefined and misunderstood.

Here’s my TVO The Agenda essay on the topic. It’s Part 2, which began with an essay on how the advent of fertility technology makes us mistakenly believe we can delay motherhood. It struck quite a  nerve and this one is a response to a question posed to me :is it really all that emotionally difficult not to be a mother?

The Invisibility of the “non-moms”