Rita Hartley

/Rita Hartley

About Rita Hartley

Rita Hartley is an author living in London, Ontario Canada. Read the About page on her website for her full biography.

Love and Language

As a speaker of the English language, do you think your experience of love is limited by vocabulary? We employ just one sweet four-letter word to describe all forms of it: L-O-V-E.

The Greeks have many and I’ve written about them on the blog before:
*Eros: sexual passion
*Philia: deep friendship
*Ludus: playful love
*Agape: love for everyone
*Pragma: long-standing love
*Philautia: love of self
*Storge: familial love
*Mania: obsessive love

As a love-obsessed teenager (mania anyone?), I wrote a well-received [at the time, by my family (storge) and teacher (agape)]poem entitled “Love”. Here’s a small excerpt:

“It’s beautiful and strong
and you want it longer
but it goes”

I was thirteen. My cigarette-smoking bad-boy had left me, probably for a girl who had breasts. What on earth did I know about love?

I guess knew what I saw on TV, heard in songs, and read in books. The word made me blush; I thought love was romance. I thought love was something that went together with “marriage” and a “horse and carriage”. I thought love was something I lacked. Society was subliminally telling me I needed to get out there and find it! Stat!

Okay. Lest you think my parents withheld love, I’ll explain. They were, let’s say, from the British Isles’ stiffer-upper-lip society. My mom was heaps friendlier than my dad – and certainly way more hug-gy as she got older – but they didn’t go fawning over each other, or us. It wasn’t like, lovey-dovey all the time. It was more likey-likey. I felt safe and secure. I belonged.

Although I know it now as love, I wouldn’t have called my family experience “love” back then, which is a shame. I wish there was a special English word for it, something fun, like . . . “famjam” perhaps? That’s what my famjam calls our group text thread. I feel all warm and fuzzy just typing it. Famjam. Yeah. Those are my closest peeps, the ones I’d do anything for. We’ve got the strongest bond; don’t go trying to mess with it!

So, I obviously misspoke – or miswrote – in my “Love” poem, when I said “it goes”. Sure, “puppy love” comes and goes (don’t bother talking to a teenager about puppy love, they can’t hear you), but true love, of all the varieties the Greeks identified? True love is persistent, resistant, and abundant. To exist is to love, yes? In our chests beat small suns capable of radiating infinite warmth, joy and love to every other human being – and creation – we encounter.

I love (ludus) what Michael A. Singer writes in The Untethered Soul about the sun. He makes the observation that the sun doesn’t shine differently on this person or that, this tree or that. It shines equally on all. Surely we can, and should, too?

What stops us? Well, I wrote about that recently in Cruella and Me. That voice inside your head – call it Beast, Cruella, or say Judgy-McJudge (what a good friend says one of her kids calls her when she expresses a strong opinion) – is always chirping. I like this. I don’t like that. Why did he say this? Why did she do that? The more salacious the better. The human mind loves (mania? philautia?) drama, huh?

And there’s so much of it to be found out there right now. The divide. It grows, over so many issues. Climate. Pandemic response. Politics. To cancel or not to cancel? That is the question. Ha. Are there too many people of various backgrounds with too many needs and desires? Or did we just stop loving, preferring to just go with fear? Our negativity bias does prefer fear.

When I’m feeling fearful, these great lyrics from Van Morrison come to mind:

I forgot that love existed, trouble in my mind
Heartache after heartache, worried all the time
I forgot that love existed
Then I saw the light
Everyone around me made everything alright

What’s that you say? You’ve canceled Van the Man? Why? He’s an a-hole? My husband B says that’s how he comes across in biographies on him. Or was it because of his views on the pandemic, which some consider problematic, like those of Eric Clapton?

Michael Schur, (The Good Place, The Office, Parks and Recreation and author of How to Be Perfect) has a cool take on cancel culture. I think we’d all agree that Schur’s comedy in the above shows has made us laugh, lightened our moods on dark days, yet who was his greatest comedic influence? Woody Allen. I know. Yikes! But Schur argues, how does he throw everything Woody Allen away? You end up having to hold two things to be true. Allen’s comedy kicks butt. His bad behaviour kicks butt too, but in a most reprehensible way!

If you’ve followed my blog, you know there’s a certain former politician (name rhymes with rump) who’s bad behaviour I abhor. But if I dig deep, even I can see a positive in his political existence. He made so many people interested in and passionate about politics. Even me! I have a much better handle on my beliefs, and it’s a crucial time, globally, to be engaged. He made politics salacious, which, see above, the mind loves.

I struggle with extreme anger in politics, though. And disrespect. I know people are upset with a certain Canadian leader right now (name rhymes roughly with Cousteau) but do we have to wave flags with the “F” word on them? Do these flag-wavers really want to make love to him? Do they know there are young children out there who can read? Or has the time finally come, due to overuse, that the impact of the word has been diminished? (My first mother-in-law would make them destroy that flag, then wash their mouths out with soap!)

But politics was never, nor has it ever been, about love. It’s about power. Plato pointed out the quandary of leadership over 2,300 years ago in the Allegory of the Cave. Those who seek office do it to assuage the ego, so they tend to exploit power. Those who would be good leaders often fail to seek leadership due to the lack of ego driving them.

Positive change happens from the ground up. The people. Us, with all these bright and shining suns pulsing in our chests. Communities, pulling together. Agape. Love for all.

 

 

Love and Language 2022-02-09T13:12:09-05:00

Cruella and Me

Who is your roomie? And no. I don’t mean a person you happen to live with, someone like, outside of your actual body. I mean that awful b*tch who has lived rent-free inside your head since the day you were born.

My eight-year-old granddaughter calls hers “Beast”. One night a while back when she was having trouble sleeping she confessed to her mom: “There’s a voice inside my head and it’s saying bad things.” Then she hesitated, feeling guilty. “I think it’s saying the ‘h’ word.” Hate. The ‘h’ word is hate. How precious is that?

Her mom, my daughter, Jetanne – who’s very spiritual – laughed and explained to her how there is the you in there, which you could call your soul, and then there’s this other voice that pops up, which you could call your ego. Because it’s needy and over-protective, it tends to say unhelpful, negative things. She suggested giving it a name, telling it to take a hike. “Go away Beast!” they said.

Invaluable information to have as a child, yes? If I’d known this way back when, maybe I could have evicted my beast by now? Or had it partially tamed at least?

Cruella. My roomie’s Cruella. Because she’s cruel. Evil. And like my granddaughter’s Beast, she’s exceptionally chirpy at bedtime. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep:

Cruella: You can’t get to sleep because you’re hungry. Those salty, crunchy, wavy kettle chips are down there.

Me: I am not hungry.

Cruella: But you love those chips.

Me: I do love those chips. So salty, crunchy, satisfying.

Cruella: You had a long walk today. Go for it! You’ve earned them.

Me: No. They’re inflammatory. Fattening.

Cruella: YOLO!

Me: Shut up, Cruella!

Cruella (because she knows how hard I’m working on enlightenment): See. Look at you! Telling me to “shut up”. You expect to achieve enlightenment talking like that? You actually think that you, of all people, will be able to fully embrace this “pure consciousness inside a human form” thing from that book, The Untethered Soul? You’ll always be afraid of death and that you will have been nothing. Zwhipp! (a sound Cruella must have channeled from my mom) Gone!

Me: Let’s not talk about death right now. I’m trying to sleep.

Cruella: Sleep?! While death exists! It’s always going to be out there, you know, waiting for you.

Me (grasping for whatever morsel of enlightenment I can): Waiting for me? No. It’s waiting for you, Cruella. My soul? Will survive! And besides, I’m perfectly fine right now. I’ve got these soft cotton sheets. A warm home. Everything is ok.

Cruella: Everything is certainly NOT ok! Have you seen the news lately?! You think someone is going to just snap their fingers, end this pandemic? And what about climate change? Is anyone even doing anything about it? And racial injustice! What about that article you read on that Uyghur woman in China, who has a memoir coming out? How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp. How she was tortured, kept in horrifying conditions, lights on 24/7, made to confess to things that weren’t true?

Me (groaning softly, so as not to wake my husband B): Let’s face it, Cruella. There will always be evil in the world. I mean, look at you. Lol.

Cruella: Not funny.

We sleep, briefly, and the moment we wake up, she’s right back at it.

Cruella: Ok. So the author of this soul book, Singer, says, “No matter what it is, let it go. The bigger it is, the higher the reward of letting go and the worse the fall if you don’t.” What if something happens to one of your loved ones? You telling me you just gonna “let it go”? I mean, c’mon sista.

Oh man. She’s got a point there. As we embark on Year Friggin Three of this damn pandemic, IT’s no longer, for me and my loved ones, a distant threat, a thing out there. Both of my kids in BC had IT over the Xmas season and one of them is still suffering from some post-Covid symptoms: brain fog, trouble sleeping. And just because there’s Covid? Doesn’t mean other health issues have gone away. Jetanne called recently because she thought her nine-year-old daughter had appendicitis. Turned out to be a kidney infection, she’s on some powerful antibiotics and is doing great (“let it go”!). Then? Jetanne came down with a fever, body aches and, after a negative rapid Covid test? Got one that said, Bingo! Positive.

A positive in this case is truly a negative. The family is isolating and B and I are laying low too, as we were exposed. It’s weird, huh? Knowing you were exposed to IT? Your roomie is thrilled at the chance to crank it up. “Oh, what about that tightness in your chest? What about that feeling in your stomach? Oh, you’re so hot. Is that a fever setting in?”

I say, “No, Cruella. Just a hot flash.”

This is all a good reminder that life is constant change and sometimes there are challenging seasons. That’s why I picked up the soul book, to calm myself, get a different perspective, continue to work toward spiritual growth.

Sometimes Cruella’s voice does sound like Mom’s. This phrase has been on repeat: “Is there ever any good news?” But! Although Mom had a super-loud rambunctious extreme roomie prone to hyperbole? When Dad was struggling with alcoholism, the “Serenity Prayer” often helped her drown out the roar of the beast:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And Wisdom to know the difference.

Take that, Cruella!

 

 

Cruella and Me 2022-01-25T15:26:35-05:00

The Gold Inside

From the moment of birth we reach, arms wide, fingers opening, closing, for something out there: Mama’s smile, scent, breast, embrace.

We get older and continue to reach, for our phone, a chocolate, a drink, retail therapy perhaps. A hit. Some dopamine, please.

Another year passes, we reflect on our choices. Good? Bad? Indifferent?

The outside world is always indifferent. I read somewhere that the Universe is ambivalent and I believe it to be true. Does Omicron (throughout the holidays I called it Grinchicron) give one whit that we’re fed up with the pandemic? No.

Here I sit, another January, and if I wasn’t locked down by a pandemic, I’d be locked down by snow and ice. A flash freeze has sidewalks and trails slick and dangerous for walking on. I watch snow fall in great white chunks, hesitant, drifting sideways, up, then down, dancing and whirling, like teenagers flirting. I’m here, no here, no over here. Come catch me if you can. Multiple tales of young love. Gentle. Sweet. Coy. Silent.

If it could give voice to its feelings, the snow, what would it say? Nature is abundant. Resilient. Look at how many of us – each a unique and sparkling creation – exist? In unison. No complaints. We fall, like magic. We endure. We fall, only to melt at the next warming. Only to be trampled underfoot. To be shoveled, scraped off, tossed aside. To be scoffed at, complained about. Do we care? We fall anyway. Why? Why not?

The conditions were/are right for us snowflakes to come about. I heard this in a meditation. About patience. Acceptance. People are the way they are, certain conditions exist, there is no use fighting against such things. One may not be able to control people or events, out there, but one can exert “influence”. You change your attitude, your approach; you speak, act in certain ways, control yourself, you notice later, perhaps, that conditions around you are altered. Patience, my dear.

Instead of reaching out? Ah. What would the great golden Buddha say? “The way is not in the sky; the way is in the heart.”

And also this, from Indigenous knowledge keeper Chief Darrell Bob of the St’at’imic Nation: “The longest journey we will ever make as human beings is the journey from the mind to the heart.” It may be the “longest journey”, but it’s an important one, wouldn’t you say? For the heart is so much smarter than the mind, yes?

The incredible – and wise – singer/songwriter Jewel laments on this in her must-listen-to podcast with Joe Rogan from October, 2021. Okay. I know it’s a looong one at three hours and forty minutes, but you will be so much wiser, and I daresay more compassionate – at the very least a more grateful human – for having taken the time to listen.

Jewel talks about the “allegory of the golden statue” coming to mind while processing the fact that her mother, as her manager for the previous decade, stole more money from her than most will see in their lifetime. Not only was she deceived, her mother offered up no apologies, just vanished.

This “golden statue”, of which I’d never heard, gifted me with synchronicity, which is always cool. I heard about it from Jewel on the weekend then, just after writing about it? Author (Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness) and clinical psychologist Tara Brach brought it up on a Ten Percent Happier podcast I was listening to!

There are various versions of the tale, but basically it’s about a pure gold statue of the Buddha believed to have been built around 1403. In 1757 the Burmese Army was invading Thailand and, because they were known to steal gold artifacts and melt them down, monks covered the statue with plaster and inlaid it with bits of coloured glass. The golden statue remained thus concealed until 1957 (which also happened to coincide with the 2500thanniversary of Buddhism) when a monastery was being moved. Either a crack, or rains, revealed the golden light emanating from within the clay.

Comparing our origin to the golden Buddha, Jewel says, “What if it’s that a soul, or your nature, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t like a chair or a cup that can be broken? What if it exists perfectly at all times, like a quantum thing? You can’t break it. And so, what if I just have to do a really loving archaeological dig back to my true nature?”

What stops us from reaching in more than out? Pain? Fear? Shame? Does it feel safer out there than in here?

Sitting with hard things, “demons”, is challenging, scary, but it is the first step in that long journey from brain to heart. Ah, this is what that pain, fear, shame feel like in my body. Give them time and space to reveal themselves, then say, “See ya later, bye.”

And if, no when – perhaps you have already? – you uncover that golden soul the outside world buried, splattered with plaster, and you can finally let it shine? How free, joyous and real will you feel?

This is me! I was here all along. I’m eternally golden. The world, other people, can try to break me, but it’s impossible. I am everlasting, of more value than can be quantified. As recent Kennedy Center Honoree Joni Mitchell sang years ago in her song “Woodstock”, “We are golden.”

 

 

The Gold Inside 2022-01-11T12:06:13-05:00

The Beginning’s End

In a dream I heard a voice saying “fear not, come rejoice
It’s the end of the beginning, praise the new born king”
“Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band

This is one of my favourite Christmas songs and when I hear it? I drive my husband B crazy by singing, over and over, “How a little baby boy brought the people so much joy”! So much joy, in a baby boy, and in the Christmas season.

It’s interesting that Robbie Robertson chose the above words to describe this season of rebirth: “the end of the beginning”. A riddle, a play on words, perhaps? For what else can occur at the beginning’s end, but another beginning? As American novelist Louis L’Amour once wrote, “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.”

As a child, on Christmas Eve, did you not just plead for the dang night to be finished? The anticipation was unbearable; you did not know the anticipation was the point.

Remarkably, my favourite Santa gift came by rocketship not sleigh. It was 1965, I was 7. The space race was on and there’d been no snow so far for Santa’s sleigh to work properly. Adults in varying stages of drunkenness, some of them smelling exotically of cigarette smoke – my parents did not smoke and I did not know yet I was allergic to it – took turns coming into my room to settle me down, give my parents a break. Pulling aside my ballerina curtains, they’d peer out my window to spin fantastic stories of Santa’s rocketship being on the way: “Oh, there! I think I see it way off! Lights in the sky! Lay quiet. Listen.”

I was afraid to look myself; he’d see me, not come. Far too excited to do my normal kid-mind-trickery to get to sleep – picking a word, like say “bay”, then perusing the entire alphabet to see how many words rhymed with it – I lay there vibrating, eyes twitching, ears trying to drown out Hank Snow on the Hi-Fi: “I wonder where you are tonight.” I pictured the adults out there in the living room, all dressed up, spinning around – one, one-two – like the way my dad taught me to dance, standing on his shoes, one hand holding his hand, the other holding his pocket. Why can’t I stay up later? And where, exactly, is Santa tonight?

I slept, eventually, and, like every child on Christmas morning, at the first sign of daybreak – or perhaps the first sound of a sibling – I raced from my bed. Down the hall with my brother to see, shining, glowing under the tree: a golden piano?! For me? How on earth could Santa know I wanted a gold piano when I didn’t even know myself? It was truly magic of the highest order.

No natural musical talent here, though. I wasn’t like Springsteen in “Thunder Road”: “Well I got this guitar (gold piano), and I learned how to make it talk.” Squawk maybe? Or, to put it more succinctly: plink. Plink, plink, plink. But she was a beaut, that golden goddess, and she stayed around long after losing her legs, and I’d slouch over her, like Schroeder on Peanuts, pretending.

Pretending, like childhood, can end. Hormones turned me into a serious, sullen teenager, distantly observing Christmas through the eyes of my much younger sister. Tolerating family moments to get to the moments that mattered: time with friends, listening to hard rock, talking our talk.

My own early parental years were a frantic blur of activity and lists: decorations, gifts, groceries, Xmas cards, all while working full time. I wondered: Where is the time for wonder?

And now that I’m older, with less actual time ahead, ironically, I feel I have more time, for time, for wonder. Slowly hauling out decorations and placing them with care, painting a hairy beast and turning it into a Xmas card, spending an entire afternoon Xmas shopping with B even though there really aren’t that many on the list anymore.

The end of the beginning? The beginning of the end?

The omniscient eye of Santa is now the omniscient eye of the Creator. Year after year, laying a dying season to rest, making way for something new.

But, as time diminishes, who needs an entire year for renewal? Twenty-four hours could be enough?

Here’s my journal entry from December 1st: December is here, with all its madness, its hyper-active energy, its fun. There is a beautiful orange bruise on the eastern horizon this morning. Day! It’s happening again! Something to be joyful for, yes? Another day.

Another day. Another year. Savour the season, every sparkling moment of it.

 

 

The Beginning’s End 2021-12-09T12:47:53-05:00

Hello It’s Me

I’m sweating on the morning stage, flooded by brilliant November sunshine, teaching Jazzercise. At the 23-minute mark of a 60-minute set, I feel a vibration on my left wrist. It’s Fitbit, telling me a call is coming in. Since I’m doing the highest level cardio routine – and it’s a new one – I don’t bother to look at my watch, see the phone number. I’m glad I didn’t; I’d have messed up the routine more than I did.

Several minutes later I feel four more hits on Fitbit, little ones. Blip, blip, blip, blip. Texts. I hope everything’s ok, I think. I have an opportunity after a stretch, as class members gather weights, to peek at my phone. It’s my daughter texting, nothing major, just a typical mom thing. One of the kids is driving her nuts. She must have been the one calling; I’ll call her after I pack up.

I’m ready to go and four of the ladies are gathered in their socially distant yakking circle when I take a closer look at my phone. Time stops. Chills flood my spine. It wasn’t my daughter calling at all. It was her father. At the end of this month, he’ll have been dead for 17 years.

I show the ladies my phone. “It’s my husband’s number,” I declare. And then, of course, I must clarify, as I do have a living husband. “My dead husband.”

“Well, it would make sense,” one of them points out, “that someone else would have his number.”

“Yeah. Agreed. But why is that someone else calling my number?”

The ladies get requisite chills as well. I call “that someone else”, a message tells me it’s a man who isn’t my late husband, and I hang up.

Happenstance? Sheer coincidence? I prefer to think of it as synchronicity. Here’s a great definition by goop.com: “Synchronicities are incidents of spiritual significance that ask us to momentarily dampen our self-obsession and consider the possibility of the divine.”

For a brief moment, looking at my phone, I knew Hugh had managed to reach out to me from the great beyond. For a brief moment, I felt us reconnect, communicate. Our two cell phones – I still have the same number – together again!

Yeah, so if you’ve done the math, you’ll know that Hugh died in 2004, a year which was like two years for the price of one, really. Like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”.

Trips! Tahiti. Florida. The east coast of Canada. The Mayan Riviera. All exotic and fun.

Deaths! Mom! Preceded by a beloved family dog, followed by an old tomcat. All within the first two months. All sudden and unexpected.

What I want to get at, though, is the numerous synchronicities. The visits from the divine. The “woo-woo” stuff. Back home from the Tahiti/Florida trip in March of that year, I had this thought while driving to work: Well Universe, it’s Wednesday (“the worst of times” seemed to be happening on Wednesdays), I’m back in Canada. What have you got for me? A giant transformer – you know, one of those HUGE cans that perch atop electrical poles – promptly exploded before my eyes, raining sparks down on my car. Wow. Universe! You’ve got my attention.

The next month? Some foreshadowing. You must understand this about Hugh. He was extreme. He worked hard. He played hard. While playing hard one evening he vanished. I spoke to him on his cell briefly the next morning, which was a Wednesday darn it, perhaps that’s why my antennae were over-stimulated. He didn’t sound good. He did not materialize. That afternoon, I drove around the country corner to his parents’ house, sat in a chair in their office and sobbed, uncontrollably.

“He’s dead!” I cried. His parents looked at me like that was a tad dramatic. He came home, dazed, but quite alive, that evening.

My April wail became true November 29th, but still, I was unprepared. While Mom’s death was sudden and unexpected, it did have a cause, a bleeding stroke. Hugh’s however, the result of a sudden arrhythmia that an AED could not shock back into submission, would eventually be labeled by a coroner’s office “sudden and unexplained”. No cause of death leaves myriad unanswered questions, slashes gaping holes in hearts and psyches.

In late December 2004, I talked on the phone with a longtime business friend, sharing the story of Hugh’s passing. “I know how it feels to die that way,” was her surprising response. And you have to understand this about her. Her life’s work was in the computer business. And computers can be a source of frustration and mystery for many. Not this beautiful woman; regardless of computer glitches, she’d remain calm, matter-of-fact. Stoic even.

She’d been in the hospital having tests on her heart when it went into an arrhythmia. Because she was in the hospital, she did not die that day. She said, “That’s the way to go, boy. No pain.”

And yet? She was indeed dead before the year ended. At her visitation, her memorial card reminded me that she and Hugh shared the same birth date, same year. If that isn’t a clear message from beyond, I don’t know what is.

Because it was so sudden and unexpected, Hugh was quite unprepared for his own death. In the months that followed, he tended to communicate through electricity. Previously, in our Clarke Road home, I’d never observed lighting fluctuations, but they became commonplace. A brown-out one night was so extreme, that a visiting friend and I ran around the house, frantic, trying to determine a cause. Nothing.

The second Christmas after his passing, I decided to take our three young adult kids away from it all, try to start working on that new bond with them as a single mom. When we left the airport in London, Ontario? The electricity was out. When we arrived at our tropical destination? The electricity was out.

Make of it what you will. I know Hugh called to say, “Hello. It’s me. I miss you! And the kids! They’re doing great. We crammed a work ethic into them, huh?

“And grandkids?! Wow. Growing like bad weeds. Dad says, ‘We need to put a brick on their heads’. Don’t worry (he knows I will anyway, it’s my thing). I’m keepin’ an eye on them. But a different kind of eye, if you get what I’m layin’ down.

“Don’t forget what I told you in tough times: ‘Things always have a way of working themselves out.’ Oh and this: ‘It’s going to be a great day today!’

“Great days here are . . . well, they’re kinda woo-woo. Things are totally loosie-goosie. ‘Vertical time’. Heard of it? Ha. Kinda like how I used to do things. Wasn’t that great at telling time, was I? Late for this, late for that. Too much to do, too little . . .

“Time is . . . woo-woo. Come on. You felt it, right? When you looked at your phone and knew for certain I’d made contact after all this . . . time?”

 

 

 

 

Hello It’s Me 2021-11-24T14:37:18-05:00

Sticks and Stones

As a kid, I recall being with my dad while he registered my older brother Ray at the hospital. I don’t remember what he was in for, but he was the kind of kid who got into fights; the bridge of his thick glasses was perpetually held together with white tape.

Dad was a devout atheist, so answering this question they used to ask – Religion? – would irritate him. Then, when he told the receptionist Ray’s name and she asked, “Short for Raymond?” he answered back, “No, George.”

Dad had specifically helped Mom pick out names for us that could not easily be turned into nicknames: Ray, Rita, Jana. Which, when you think about it, is a bit hypocritical. Dad’s given name was Vincent and everyone called him Vince.

Ray tried to foist the nickname “Hub” on me. No idea where this came from. He’d pin me to the ground, as older brothers will do, slapping the sides of my face and saying, “Hubba-hubba-hubba”, over and over. Thankfully it didn’t stick.

At school, kids called me “Ritard” on occasion. And, of course, Hartley morphed into “Fartley” from time to time. Luckily I’d learned, from having an older brother, to just ignore it, as in “sticks and stones”, and it will go away.

When I met my future husband Hugh in high school he told me he did not like it when people called him Hughie. But Hugh is a hard name to say. Before our first few dates I went around talking about “Hugh” this and “Hugh” that to practice; he was the first Hugh I’d met. One of Hugh’s best friends at the time, a teenager you would not want to correct as he looked 24 at 17, called him “You” or “You-ie”. He could not physically say the “Ha” sound followed by the “Ya” sound.

Once Hugh and I got to know each other better I found out his football team had a successful play that went, “One-Spook-Fly”. The “Spook”? Him. Although he was white, his sandy brown hair was a frizzy Black texture that he’d grown out into a humongous afro, quite “in” in the late 70s. (That was one of my practice chats at home: “Mom! Not one word about Hugh’s hair.”)

As our school was predominantly white (I say predominantly, but there were zero Black students at that time), I was unaware of the racist history of the word “spook”. And I suppose Hugh could have been accused of cultural appropriation with the afro, but Black Lives Matter issues and cancel culture were decades off. Hugh was just capitalizing on radical natural hair, which made him a magnet for cops and drug purchasers.

That hair, and Hugh’s skinniness at 17, also produced the nickname “Q-tip”. It was several years into our relationship before I found out his grandma had called him “Hughie-Dewey-Dumplin’-Footer” when he was little.

By then, I realized that some nicknames are just downright adorable. And they’re a sign of unending love for the recipient, right? Unfortunately, the only one Hugh ever came up with for me was “Riter-big-eater”. (I have a friend who used this phrase – “highly motivated by food” – to describe one of her grandchildren. If the phrase fits, wear it and I do, along with the extra pounds.)

In adulthood, Hugh came up with one for himself while at an NFL game. Standing on the bleachers, swilling beer, the guy next to him asked his name. He slurred it: “I’m Huge!” I know. “Huge” is easier to say than “Hugh”, but I never called him that.

The nicknames for our kids came quick. Our first, Jetanne, became “Ta” because that’s all her eldest cousin, who was three at the time, could say. Consequently, most of us called her “Tan”. Then her sister Randelle came along and became “Randy” (I spelled it “Randi” or “Rande” for a time, trying to feminize it, but she eventually settled on the male spelling.)

There’s something special about fathers and daughters; Hugh naturally called Jetanne his “princess”. When Randy came along? She was a little shorter, a little rounder and became his “button”. It was so sweet, until the day Randy got old enough to ask, “Dad, how come she’s your princess and I’m just a button?”

Then Jay completed our family, but dang it. The name was too short; we had to lengthen it to “Jaybird”. In high school many of his friends just called him “Bird” or “Birdman”.

Now, that’s a decent collection of nicknames, but there was something about losing Hugh in 2004 that brought about a whole new era. Me? The nickname-less one? Friends and family started calling me “Reets”. Finally, a decent nickname that stuck. After years of calling Jetanne “Tan”? Well, now I often call her “Jet”. Randelle is still usually Randy, but sometimes she’s “Delle”. Jay? Still a bird. He’s just got this cool thing about him – people point this out all the time – and birds are cool, right?

But bananas? Not cool! At a bar, pre-pandemic, I tried to be helpful with name association when introducing myself and my sister to a woman we’d just met.

“Just think of us as the banana sisters,” I said. “Rita-Chicita and Jana-Banana.”

And she said, “Oh, like,” and she did this rude thing with right hand up to her mouth and her tongue prodding her cheek.

“NO!” I said.

Of course, we’ve carried on the nicknaming to the next generation. The first grandchild, Simone, became “Mone.” And she got to nickname me. We tried out “Grita” – a G, for grandma – in front of my name. (Perhaps in miniscule denial about aging, I did not want to be Grandma, Granny, Nana.) But it’s hard for little ones to get their mouths around a hard “G”, so it came out “Gia”. And I love it!

Now, Simone’s little sister’s name, Naomi, seems quite different at first glance, but when you shorten it to “Nomes”? It sounds a lot like Mone. When their little brother Beau – or “Beauie” – came along he was confused for a while. Did he have two sisters or one? Did they have the same name? Now, at five, he often pluralizes them: “Girls!”

My dad’s been gone a while now. I suppose I should apologize to him, in absentia, for being on this lifelong nicknaming binge. I certainly don’t think he loved me any less, because he never called me his precious little pearl, or anything. (I’ve looked it up. “Rita” is a derivative of “Margarita”, meaning “Pearl”.) Dad was an atheist, a realist. See it, taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it? It’s real. Anything else? Well, that’s all “woo-woo”. Fact: he and Mom named me Rita – after the actress Rita Hayworth – not George or Pearl or Reets.

 

Sticks and Stones 2021-11-02T13:14:44-04:00

Born To Ride

How do you spell freedom? Me? B-I-K-E.

Not only do I lose myself while pedaling, I’m also spending time in nature, so it’s a plus, plus.

My childhood memories of learning to ride are scant, but I do recall an idyllic fall day spent on my banana seat, tired legs spinning madly through a powerful wind. I was 8 or 9, a girlfriend was with me, probably Wendy, but I’ll be darned if I can picture her facial expressions that day, what she was wearing, what her bike looked like. I was wearing a favourite green long-sleeved shirt – Mom tended to pick green for me, I have green eyes – and I came home with hair tangled like the mane of a wild prairie horse (no helmets back then). And I realize, as I write this, that freedom, for me anyway, comes coupled with a lack of destination and time constraints. We turned this way and that, according to our hearts’ desire, in a day that stretched out before us like taffy, clouds scuttling overhead like a gaggle of geese.

My family moved shortly after that, to what is best described as a country subdivision, and I don’t recall riding my bike much there. Perhaps I outgrew it. Dad taught me how to ride two wheels of a different sort – motorcycles – first a red Honda 50 cc, then a blue Honda 70 cc. The dirt bikes continued to grow, but by then I was busy with school, gymnastics and babysitting; my older brother became the sole easy rider of the family.

Those motorcycle riding skills came in handy, though, after I was first married, living in the country and without a functional vehicle. It was summer. I dressed appropriately, hopped on my husband Hugh’s Honda 750 cc Super Sport, kicked it over, and cruised carefully on quiet country roads for 15 minutes to the family business, where I was working. After I drove his bike all summer, Hugh suggested I cruise my butt on down to the Ministry of Transportation (MOT) and take the motorcycle driving test. You know, make things legal. Which, to be honest, was an odd thing coming from Hugh, as he had little use for rules.

I could barely touch the ground when I’d stop with the Super Sport, so Hugh arranged for me to borrow a friend’s bike, which was smaller. I picked it up on the way into the city, thinking I’d be able to practice my stops and starts on Highbury Avenue, as I’d be taking it from one end to the other, but wouldn’t you know it? That was the one time every single traffic light was green.

I passed! Got that “M” on my license. To be clear, though, the motorcycle test was pretty basic in the early 80s: a short cruise around a few pylons in the MOT parking lot.

A couple of decades – and three kids and several mini-vans later – the topic of a Friday the 13th motorcycle ride to Pt. Dover came up. What started in 1981 with a guy meeting a few buddies at a bar in town on November 13th had turned into an event on every Friday the 13th with pre-pandemic numbers of around 100,000 people.

Although Hugh would be out of town on the date, October 13th, he reminded me of that “M” on my license. Hugh had a bike by then, a Honda with so many ccs I certainly couldn’t drive it. The suggestion was made that I could ride a friend’s smaller bike and the friend could ride Hugh’s. I tried it out in his subdivision and felt pretty confident I could handle it. Still, it’d been a long time since I’d ridden and we’d be on our bikes for a while, traveling over 100 km, with other riders too. I dressed in layers and leather and off we went under grey skies.

I would not call it a freedom ride. The heart was banging away, the hands sweating under the gloves. I kept an eye on all traffic and all other riders, being careful to control my own machine and not be sucked into others’ actions that might be dangerous. Shifting gears properly: down, up, up, up. Applying appropriate pressure to the brakes, while also remembering which was front, which back. Leaning on the curves, but not taking them too fast or leaning too much. It’s a lot to think about all at once.

Then? We entered this golden back road where the crisp nostalgic scent of fall was pervasive. Leaves glowing all around. Above, below. Falling. Yellow rain. Fractals of sunshine, like alchemy, transforming lead into molten gold. I’d grown comfortable with the bike, was shifting and leaning as one with the group. My pounding heart soared like an eagle.

That was before we stopped for fuel and I did not have a clue how to open the tank, fill it up. Hint: there’s a key.

Pt. Dover was loud, crowded and leather-scented, the cornucopia of bikes a feast for the eyes. We were cold and tired when we got home late that afternoon, before darkness set in.

Hugh helped me buy my own bike after that. He and I enjoyed many rides together; the last one I recall vividly was on his 46thbirthday. I’d given him a motorcycle rain suit and as luck would have it, there was rain in the forecast. One drop fell and he was over to the side of the road donning that suit. We meandered the countryside with no time constraints, visiting obscure furniture stores in a futile search for a coffee table, ending up at our cottage in Grand Bend for the night.

That was his last birthday, so that rain suit didn’t get much wear and tear. I rode for several years without him, which I got used to, but felt weird at first. He usually led – it made me feel safe – and he had this unique way of pointing, on the low diagonal, with the index finger of his left hand, to turn. I knew it was wrong, illegal. He should just use his blinker, right? Did I mention about Hugh and rules? It’s funny, the little things you miss when someone leaves you.

I gave up the motorcycle several years ago, after some horrific local motorcycle accidents, after a horrific one a girlfriend had. She survived, but was pretty banged up.

The other day, my husband B and I were doing an early morning bicycle ride on the Thames Valley Parkway. I was pedaling like mad to keep up to him, leg muscles straining, shifting gears, angling my body for the turns, when a single golden leaf came floating down, smacked me in the face. Ah. October. A fractal of sunshine piercing the morning gloom.

I caught up to B. He didn’t do it then – we were curving to the right after the tunnel – but I knew the next time we’d turn left? He’d point, in that familiar way, on the low diagonal, with the index finger of his left hand, to let me know.

Born To Ride 2021-10-22T12:26:36-04:00

Pink Noise

When I was eight years old and living in a wee bungalow in Chatham, Ontario, family life was routine to the point of boredom. Walk to school at 8:30 am, eat dinner at 5 pm, grocery shop with Mom on Thursday night, fight with my older brother in the back seat of the ’62 Olds on Sunday drives, hear Dad say, “If I have to pull this car over . . .”

Anything disrupting that steady drumbeat was a welcome diversion, even if it meant a few soggy toys in a basement flood. Winter rains had made the Tecumseh Creek, one street over, bulge then overflow, so much so that residents of that street, one street over, had to get around in row boats. How exciting!

Dad gave bail buckets to my brother and I and we got to work. Our work made us late for school. Mom gave us each a note, put the old plaid tin in my hands – it was full of her melt-in-your-mouth fudge, a class treat for our last day of school before Christmas break – and I splashed through puddles in my red galoshes on those deserted sidewalks thinking that, aside from Christmas day? This is the best day of my life.

As an adult, though, and a homeowner, I haven’t found basement floods to glow in that same way, you know? Like a Hallmark movie. They’re more like a Stephen King horror, minus the blood: great elements of surprise, scary dripping sounds, screaming (mostly mine).

Let’s face it: a catastrophic basement flood is never on your To-Do list.

By the time my late husband Hugh and I built our dream home on Clarke Road, we’d had enough floods in our wee bungalow in the country that I suggested foregoing a basement. “Can’t we just pour a lot of concrete?” I asked. “Build the house on top?”

But no. Hugh wanted a place to put the furnace, the hot water heater, the oil tank. (Yes, basement oil tanks were legal in the ‘80s.)

The years went by and the rains caused the floods that destroyed every last vestige of childhood memorabilia. But we became quite knowledgeable about sump pumps and their necessary maintenance. And also quite reactive to the sound of rain.

Now, I’ve recently learned that the sound of a steady rain, like the gentle sound of leaves in the breeze, is called “pink” noise. Quite apropos for October, breast cancer awareness month, and also, apparently, great for sleeping. According to webmd.com, it’s a deeper sound, with lower sound waves, “so it may be gentler and more soothing” than, say, “white” noise, which is like static, and “brown” noise, which is a bit rougher, like the roar of a river or a strong wind.

For me? During my thirty years of living on Clarke Road? The sound of a steady rain got my heart pounding. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. If I’d been sleeping? I’d bolt from bed, run down the main staircase. Thump-thump. Down the hall to the basement door. Pull it open, woosh, fully expecting that dead woman from the bath tub in The Shining to rise from the murky depths. No water? Well, then, it was only a matter of time . . .

I will point out that the land we built on was clay, so if excess water couldn’t find a proper exit through drainage tile or pumping, well, it just happily found a way in. The experts suggested a second sump pump would do the trick, so we added one and got really bold, finishing the basement with a bedroom, bathroom, rec room and even a sauna.

One time the second sump pump failed. One time water gushed down, Niagara Falls style, through an east-facing window-well. That had never happened before. One particular flood was so high up on the stairs that when a friend showed up to help me, her vehicle loaded down with fans and shop vacs, we took one look down there and she said, “Go big or go home, huh?” We sat on the front porch, pulled Coronas from her cooler and I called a property restoration company.

By then, Hugh had been gone for a while, having died suddenly on a business trip, causing way more insomnia than a steady rain. I’d curse him from time to time – as I discarded soggy things, ran the shop vac, restarted sump-pumps and set up high-powered fans – for leaving without solving this leaky-basement puzzle. When I replaced the back deck, after he’d passed, there was some extra excitement and expense when the construction crew, which included my son, discovered some broken tile at a back window. That was it! That was going to be the fix to stop all future floods, but that was prior to the east-facing window-well gusher.

I was out at Hugh’s sister’s place this past summer. She was my next-door neighbour, lives beside the dream home on Clarke Road. She told me that the new owner, a handy guy with a roofing business, has figured out the leaky-basement puzzle. I believe he thinks he has.

The rains came recently, for an entire day, easing from time to time, then thrusting down like an ark would soon be necessary. The nearby Thames River bulged, then overflowed its banks, drowning soccer fields, park benches and a few cars. When I crawled into bed that night with my second husband – we’ve been together for fifteen years now – I heard the pleasing sound of a steady rain on the flat roof of our wee home in the city. I knew our basement was as dry as the Sahara Desert and that, based on significant historical evidence, it would remain so. I slept like a baby.

Pink Noise 2021-10-06T10:45:35-04:00

Tall Buildings Shake

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around
                                                                                             Jesus, Etc. by Wilco – Jay Bennett, Jeff Tweedy

Catastrophic events – like tall buildings shaking on 9/11, like losing a loved one – turn your orbit around with their “bitter melodies”, don’t they? I mean, one moment you’re here, doing this, then BAM! You find yourself over there doing a much less enjoyable thing.

Critics of the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on which the song “Jesus, Etc.” is found, thought the reference here was to the attacks, but no. Although released on the band’s website just one week following 9/11, recording sessions were completed in early 2001. But Wilco’s label Reprise Records “refused to released the album as they felt unhappy about the end result” according to Wiki. The band eventually signed with Nonesuch Records and the album is “widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 2000s”, again according to Wiki.

Which goes to show. Not only were Bennett and Tweedy prophetic, they were also discerning with their art, confident they had created something worthy.

Try it. If you haven’t already, listen to this song once – Norah Jones has an excellent version too if you don’t care for Tweedy’s voice – and tell me you don’t go around the rest of the day with “Tall buildings shake” repeating sweetly in your head.

Of course, if you were alive and old enough to be aware on 9/11, you no doubt have powerful memories of exactly where you were, what you were doing, and what your mindset was at the time. I was working with my late husband Hugh that morning in the office of our roof truss manufacturing plant. Mom called.

“I’m watching Regis and Kelly,” she said. “A small plane just flew right into the World Trade Center. It’s just awful Rita. I’m scared.”

That’s what the world first thought. “A small plane.” A horrific accident. As my mom had a tendency toward hyperbole, I said reassuring words to her, hung up and went back to work. My mom did not tend to scare easily though, so I did bring up the news – I believe on MSN – on my giant old computer monitor. And there was the grainy image of one tower burning. It was not long before word came – I believe through news on an office radio – that a second plane had hit the other tower, eliminating all possibility of a “horrific accident”. And sure enough, when I refreshed my newsfeed, that grainy image showed both towers burning.

The crunching of numbers, the designing of roof structures, lost all urgency. Hugh notified the plant manager what was happening and they no doubt discussed what needed to be built that day, or not. The entire office (about eight of us) powered down our computers and headed to the Oar House to watch in stunned silence as the towers fell, the Pentagon was hit, and UA93 plunged into that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after heroes onboard overtook the hijackers.

I don’t know about you, but I still find myself gobsmacked by the calmness displayed by many of the flight attendants and some passengers. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, on American 11, the first plane to crash (into the North Tower), attendants Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney “calmly and professionally relayed information about the events taking place aboard the airplane to authorities on the ground.”

On UA175, which hit the other tower, Brian Sweeney (I believe no relation to Amy Sweeney), 38, called his wife Julie from the back of the plane and left this voice message: “I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, go have good times – same to my parents and everybody – and I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there. Bye babe. I hope I call you.”

The first time I heard the log of this call was when it was released on a news show on TV several years after 9/11 and after Hugh died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the fall of 2004. He’d had no opportunity to say good-bye.

I sat in our darkened living room alone that evening and let out a huge sigh of relief. Ahhh. I heard, “I just totally love you” and “I want you to do good, go have good times” and I thought, Yes! That’s what Hugh would have said! I love you. Go. Have good times. Give ‘er.

9/11 marked an end of a collective innocence. A time when we were all blissfully unaware that four planes could be simultaneously hijacked and cause such terror, such loss of life and material destruction in just over one hour.

And 2004 marked an end of a personal innocence. A time when I was blissfully unaware that a mother could die suddenly in January and a husband in November.

 

As the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan winds down, the Watson Institute at Brown University estimates that 801,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.

Recommendations:
9/11– amazing 2002 documentary Jules and Gedeon Naudet
Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror– five-part series streaming now on Netflix

Website photo: Chicago Board of Trade, one of my favourite tall buildings

Tall Buildings Shake 2021-09-20T15:59:58-04:00

Sometimes Groupthink Stinks

How much of human behaviour is shaped by the people we hang with? Our tribe. Recently, I’ve heard it referred to as “finding your five” – the five people you can go to, count on, divulge your deepest darkest fears to. In essence, be vulnerable with.

We need our tribe, our people. And sometimes groupthink is incredible and positive, but other times . . . groupthink stinks.

Case in point. I started reading Quit Like a Woman the other night, a book by Holly Whitaker, recommended – and sent to me – by my west coast daughter. Whitaker tries to pinpoint her descent into alcoholism, but as she writes about her college years she realizes, “drinking was still not something that I did but something that we did.”

I love a glass of Pinot Grigio, or a frosty rye and ginger ale with the right amount of cubes, but thinking, historically, about my drinking? It’s something that can dredge up tidal waves of shame. I drank too much. Blackouts are, thankfully, limited to the digits of one hand, but hangovers? A much higher number I’d rather not get into, because, well, I know not what it is.

All of this, and guess what? The one-time leader of my tribe, my father, suffered a long and painful drowning death by alcohol, setting a mighty fine example of what NOT to do.

My people, my five, were doing it and we had a blast! It was a simple equation:

tribe of five (or more) + copious amounts of alcohol = FUN

What started in high school carried on into work life, family life. Drinking would lead to hijinks which would lead to hilarity which would lead to lots to laugh about late the next morning over the “hair of the dog that bit you”. Ha ha.

And how dumb were we in the 60s, 70s, even into the 80s? Did anyone reflect on the effect of diet or noxious substances and fumes on health? Raised on processed foods, I ate Alpha-Bits for breakfast every day. (I do recall reading once that even cardboard with milk poured on it has some nutritional benefits.) Smoking? It’s cool, sure do it everywhere. While some of our rock stars were tragically dying, many survived hard drugs and booze in varying amounts and combinations, only to come-to in the late 80s, early 90s, going whoa. Lost a few brain cells there.

And now here we find ourselves: the processed food generation high on whatever life, health and brain cells remain passing the literal torch of a climate-changed planet blinking on red alert to a generation more connected than ever by the internet yet divided by extreme weather, pandemic, politics, racial inequities, economics, supremely high housing prices, origin-of-country shame and ultimately? What to do about all of it!

My husband B and my daughter’s fiancé, optimists both, say you gotta stay positive. And I add, sober. Find a sober, open-minded, positive tribe of five (or more) to hang with.

I saw just such a representative tribe a couple of weeks ago. The kids were different ages, shapes and sizes, but they shared a special bond: the sheer joy of running, jumping, and splashing down off of a pier into cool, clear lake water on a hot, summer evening. “1-2-3! GO!” Comradery at it’s finest.

I was strolling the Bayfield, Ontario pier, sated from a scrumptious pasta dinner, dressed in a favourite sundress. My daughter and her fiancé, both from BC, were with me. They’d surprised me on my birthday a couple of days prior by just showing up on my doorstep! Because of Covid-19, I hadn’t seen them in almost two years. The video my other daughter captured of the moment proves that a person can make a perfect round “O” with their mouth when genuinely surprised.

The shrieks from the pier-jumpers transported me to my childhood. My tribe then, some friends but mostly siblings and cousins, were swimmers, lovers of water in summer: hoses, pools, rivers, gravel pits, lakes, oceans. Ah. It was a simple equation:

tribe of five (or more) + copious amounts of water = FUN

Keep it clean, cool and positive my friends.

Website photo: My grandkids – tribe of three + copious amounts of water = FUN

Sometimes Groupthink Stinks 2021-08-16T12:31:53-04:00