Gratitude art

Gratitude Art.

I cannot draw to save my life.  Even my stick figures look rather strange.   It is so bad that in high school when it was discovered that Latin was a particular challenge I was encouraged to take art as an alternative.  I was happy.  How difficult could that be? Also I liked art from a spectator’s point of view.  Three weeks into the artistic experiment I was back to Latin with a note which indicated that I cannot be as bad at Latin as I am at art.

I am glad I conquered Latin.  However, I still loved art enough to do some art appreciation courses later on.  Also, I know without a doubt that I am vital to art and artists.  My reasoning is as follows:  If everyone was an artist who would appreciate the art?  I am definitely in the art appreciation camp. I revere those who can and am first in line to show appreciation.

Fast forward many years and as a result of Alzheimer’s my art has been hung in an art gallery. I can claim to be a curated and hung artist. Will wonders never cease?

I do know my limitations but when it comes to my Bert there are no limits so off I went gallantly with him to art therapy.  It was interesting to attend as it was held in a historical home and museum.  After the usual tour and tea the project was to create a work that illustrated gratitude, or something for which we were  grateful. I decided I would help Bert with his idea and interpretation rather than show my ineptitude.  That was not to be.  I was told everyone had to produce something.

Bert did not need my help.  In no time he had drawn something that looked like a house with a figure in it.  He told our wonderful art therapist that it was me at home. He told her that meeting me was the best thing that ever happened to him.  Awhh.  That’s my Bert.

However, remember I cannot draw period, so I could not return the compliment. I went the modernist route to create a ‘thought’.  Yes!

We had paints, canvas, dowels, string, shiny buttons, sequins.  My creation was a wall hanging using mixed media.  I used a pretty crystal studded button and if you look carefully the squiggly thingie in the middle is embellished with sequins.  Yes, even I have trouble with an adequate description of this masterpiece.

So here it is followed by the ‘artist’s note’.

My Gratitude Hanger.

This represents a positive attitude and sunny disposition.  The colours are bright, happy, and sunny with sparkly embellishments to represent certain intense moments of happiness.

Friends and family have spoken of my happy outlook.  Many have told me that when they are feeling down they call me and know that they will have a brighter outlook afterwards.

Look and you will and see the tears, but they are dominated even overwhelmed by HAPPY and reach upwards to become the streamer of a kite? A bird? Wings?

It was in middle age that I finally realized that this quality so obvious to the people I meet was a wonderful gift.  Now I recognize that as a fact and I am immensely GRATEFUL!

Come on stop laughing!  It’s not that awful.  Maybe it is. When I proudly presented it together with the catalogue, which also featured my work and photographs of the exhibit to our son, he looked at it made a noise that sounded like “Huh!” and said: “Mom, you are a better writer than artist”.

OK, I’ll take that! “Huh!” Everybody is a critic. “Huh!”

The Meander: Look at my big grin and the proud stance of my Bert. Priceless!

Elvis is alive and well…

Elvis is alive and well and living in Israel.  At least he was on Monday September 4, 1989.

We were excited to be going on this Mediterranean cruise as we were visiting both Egypt and Israel for the first time.  We met up with Elvis on the road to Jerusalem.  Our ship was docked in the Port of Ashdod and we had to get up very early as the tour we booked took in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  We were in for a long and full day.

Security was tight and each of the tour buses was accompanied by two Israeli soldiers carrying machine guns.  A few guests said they were AK 47 but since I have no interest whatsoever in guns they could have told me they were medieval slingshots and I would have just nodded. However, the serious demeanor of the guards and the easy handling of their weapons inspired either assurance that we were in good hands or increased  our trepidation. Take your pick.

Bert and I were on Bus #4.  We had a knowledgeable guide, a most convivial driver and the regulation two security guards on board.  We did not find the road to Jerusalem from the Port of Ashdod particularly scenic.  To pass the time we started a sing-a-long and everyone was shouting out their favourite song as we all joined in the singing.  About forty minutes into the trip our guide announced we would be stopping at a cafe for a washroom break, coffee or soft drink and to stretch our legs before we resumed the journey into Jerusalem.

Soon we were turning into a parking lot.  We got down from the bus. Elvis Presley greeted us at the cafe. No kidding.  There was a life sized cardboard cut out of Elvis at the entrance and the human version, the owner of the establishment, was right behind with a welcome complete with the voice, dress and mannerisms of Elvis.  He had a big smile, flicked an errant curl from his pompadour and in an uncanny imitation of Elvis said: “ Are you surprised?”  Talk about an understatement.

The walls, the roof, the salt and pepper shakers, the plates, the tables, the chairs, the counter, everything channeled Elvis.  There were Elvis glasses, place mats, coasters, souvenirs, recordings. None of us had ever seen so much Elvis paraphernalia in one place.  To enhance the Elvis ambiance, heaven help us, the juke-box played only Elvis hits.

Only two young and beautiful Israeli women in army fatigues seated near  us did not have an Elvis theme.  Bert, being Bert latched on to them to find some variety or distraction from the dominant motif, I supposed.  He began talking to them asking many questions, wondering where they lived to be in that cafe in the middle of the road in such a nondescript place.  He asked their names.  He was voluble and they answered not one word.  They just sat, looked at us, the bus and around the cafe.  Bert decided that they must not be able to speak English.  That did not deter him.  He told them they were beautiful in at least seven languages.  He told them he too had to do military service in The Netherlands.  No response.

Our guide was smiling as she called us back to the bus.  We stood, and so did the two women.  Bert’s mouth opened and it took a minute or two for his jaw to come back up from the floor. Now he was the mute one.  All of his seven languages had deserted him.  The two women had pushed aside the table and chairs and there,  ready for any contingency, were their weapons.  We gave a collective gasp.  One of them approached Bert, smiled at him and in perfect English said:”See, we are here to protect you.  We are on the job.  We hope you have a wonderful tour and a great time in our country, and by the way we love you too.”

The Meander:  We have been to Israel four more times and each time this  Elvis interlude with the two beautiful Sabras coupled with Bert’s loss of speech comes back to me.  A moment like this is one of the joys of travel.

Note: Elvis died on August 16, 1977

Be Careful What You Wish For

The day started out as usual.  It was a WWWW (Wonderful Wild and Wacky Wednesday) and Minds in Motion was not in session so that meant the Lifeline group (See previous post: My Lifeline) would be meeting at Artisano Bakery Cafe.  It is always a positive day.  Bert was happy when I told him where we were going. He does not remember the ‘friends’ from one week to the next though he recognizes them when he sees them and he knows they are ‘nice people’. He says he likes that I laugh and talk with the ‘girls’. I asked about his time and he says the ‘fellows’ are nice too and they like to tease each other.

Let me explain about the seating arrangements when we go to Artisano.  Caregivers sit together on one end of the table and our spouses sit together at the other end.  Just one slight aberration in that there are five couples four of whom comprise a female caregiver and male spouse. That means the male caregiver is sitting with the men while his wife sits with the women. We try to engage and involve the female patient in the conversation and most times it works but we do feel some sympathy for her husband who must stick handle through stories that are the same week after week. He has become most adept at doing that and succeeds in bringing a bit of variety to the proceedings.

This day we had finished our updates.  Everyone was upbeat. We had all had a few nights of uninterrupted sleep.  Always welcomed. One had a recommendation for a resource and, we reminded each other to register for the next Minds in Motion session as they get filled up fast. The conversation turned to things we wished could be.  We talked about plans that are now on hold, dreams that would remain unfulfilled.

Our male caregiver and I had just gone through a scheduled assessment with our spouses and the results turned out the same.  Our respective spouses were now 4-5 years old, mentally. I spontaneously and in frustration said: “Be careful what you wish for.  I have been wishing and hoping for years for a grandchild but I never expected it to be my husband”. There was a pregnant pause and then the laughter broke out.  I roared and all the others joined in.

We were all in tears as we laughed uncontrollably.  We could not look at each other.  Our female patient looked totally at a loss even as she laughed along.  Her husband, who had heard the remark, was shaking with laughter.  Then Bert looked over at us and said: “Well, they are having a good time”.  O, my aching stomach!  That set us off even more.  Then I wondered out loud if that would make him his own grandpa like that old ditty. More stitches. Stop.  Please stop.  That was the day we were certain the next day’s headline would read: ‘Noisy seniors evicted from coffee shop.’

The meander: We all know that laughter is the best medicine.  We prove it among ourselves and make sure we laugh at least once a day.  No, we were not booted out. Thank goodness.

Chinese to me or a good read.

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, the 2016 Giller Prize winner there is a paragraph about the Chinese dictionary explaining how words are formed and get their meanings.  It says that in Chinese there is a ‘root’ word or ‘radical’ that becomes the building block for other words. As example, a certain character means gate but it is also a building block. Place the character that is ‘sun’ or ‘light’ to shine through the gate and the new combined character becomes ‘space’.  If the character for horse is placed inside the gate, then it changes to ‘ambush’.  I paused as I looked at the drawn character and my mind immediately segued into the Trojan horse story perhaps the greatest ambush in literature.

The stream of thought did not stop there as I then remembered the great Canadian scholar Northrup Frye who taught English Literature at the University of Toronto. His classes in criticism were always full and his book The Educated Imagination was a standard text. I remembered listening to him and forgetting to take notes. He posits that literature encompasses or has its roots in the ancient myths and legends, the Bible and the hopes and dreams of all humanity.

Sitting in awe of erudition had happened before.  Professor Love, whose passion for English Literature was displayed in every class made me know I had been right in choosing to follow my own love of literature as my chosen field of study in preparation for my career in Librarianship.  When I took his class, there were another five more years yawning until I finished graduate school but with enthusiastic anticipation the light towards that end shone big, bold and bright.

Then there was Professor Allen who introduced Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in the first class of the semester. He began the lecture by analyzing the very first paragraph.  The entire class was spellbound as he laid out the whole story, including the historical context, the social impact, the record of an entire era by just analyzing that one paragraph.  When he said: “Now next week…” we all came out of a collective trance, looked at the clock and realized that the class was over.  Two hours had sped by.  My friend Kay looked at me and in unison we exclaimed: “My God”! It was both in awe and in the fervent hope that he would not expect such erudition from us come exam time. It was the beginning of what for us could be the best of times or the worst of times.

In Thien’s novel it was the worst of times and the best of times held together by what I consider a very important character: Music.  Music was the ultimate communicator, historian, reporter and refrain.  It raged, it soared and was the glue cementing lives and generations. It was both conqueror and the vanquished yet always providing solace within the chaos.

The Meander: I knew I would enjoy reading the book.  Reading literature brings all the world to you.  It not only entertains but will send you to places of stored memories, to the past, to joy, to sorrow, to now, to the future and to think.

Los Cararoles: The journey in pictures

During our winter stays in Chile we would invite friends to come and stay with us.  I am perhaps the world’s worst photographer but thanks to my friend, June, I can display a few photographs of the journey.

This does look like the trails of a snail – Los Caracoles!

Construction happens. Seems to be on-going and necessary too. The sign reads: Welcome to the Republic of Chile.

The lovely Mendoza River meandering beside the highway.

Snow capped mountain in the Andes.  Breathtaking scenery all the way.



Yes we go through tunnels and tunnel-like structures that are specially built to allow rain water and melting snow  to escape.  Thank goodness for that!

June reminded me of the scream I let out at the bus driver as he was attempting to overtake another vehicle on a switchback. In fact, it was not an attempt.  He did, but I did not see it as my eyes were tightly closed. You tell me.  Is this a good place to overtake another vehicle?

I remember writing after our first Andean crossing that going over the Andes was a great adventure that you do only once in a lifetime. Well I lied, because this journey with June was the fourth. On one prior crossing with our friend Mary Lou, there was some excitement as we headed towards Los  Caracoles, those switchbacks.  All of a sudden there was great hullabaloo as people on the right gesticulated and shouted ‘Esta Abierto’! ‘It’s open’ and we found out that as the bus took a turn, the compartment with the suitcases had opened and a suitcase had fallen out. We turned around and there was a battered and broken suitcase with contents spilling over the road.  The driver was relieved that it was one of theirs and not belonging to a passenger!

The scariest part?  Turning around on a postage stamp sized lay-by overlooking a fearsome gorge with a swift flowing river at the bottom.

The Meander: I have not crossed the Andes in Winter.  That will not happen. Yet travel allows you to dare.  To attempt the improbable. To face your fears.


My Lifeline

My lifeline

Why is my WWWW (wonderful wild and wacky Wednesday) group so important to me? Let me count the ways:

They are the people, a special group of friends with whom I can talk about anything  Alzheimer’s  and not start from the beginning each time.  The conversation is continuous.

They understand at the most profound level what the journey entails.

They make things seem normal, whatever that means for that moment.

No self-censorship is necessary; no massaging of the message or making things look pretty.  Instead we share to learn more.

When one says: “Last night we had a big flare up” a fire does not come to mind but we ask instead: “Did you have to go to the Emergency?”

If I say that a couple more cells died yesterday. No-one looks quizzical or thinks I am ill but will instead ask: “New behaviour?  What did you notice?”

If we ask another if he is the husband today and he answers that he thinks he was number four earlier but could be number two at the moment, we know exactly what he is saying and nod sagely.

We throw around words like, Fronto-temporal dementia or Pick’s disease, Lewy body, vascular dementia, plaques and tangles and many other convoluted and quasi-medical profundities that we are just beginning to decipher and that are specific to dementia. It has its own unique jargon and we are so adept at it.

We sigh at shadowing, anxiety attacks, hallucinations, sundowner syndrome.

We are multilingual or at the least bilingual. So proficient are we at Alzheimer Speak.

We hug and can feel the comfort pass from one to the other.  I believe in the magic of hugs.  It works.

We also live in two worlds. Not an imaginary world or a fantasy world. Those worlds you conjure up and are able to control.  No.  We live in two complete, separate worlds. The real world and that alternate reality which is Alzheimer’s world.  We are true geniuses.

The Meander:  The company of friends, of people in the same boat who can laugh with you and lighten the darkness, who walk the road with you, who care and share is the caregiver’s lifeline.

Los Caracoles here we come

Los Caracoles  here we come

The intrepid ones have crossed the Andes by bus!  What an adventure.  These are not hills. How to describe them?  Majestic? Absolutely! Stupendous?  Sure. Verdant?  Not on this Chilean side. They are so bare in places you can see the seams of minerals that abound in them, beautiful in their own way.

We watched the birth of rivers from the snow capped mountain peaks become rushing white waters that morph into dirt coloured roaring rivers carving their way through the crags and fissures of the mighty Andes. The views are magnificent with numerous waterfalls, huge craggy outcrops bereft of sediment, and snow capped vistas so close you think you can touch them.

We were on our way from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, a city in the Andes in Argentina.   This mountain pass called the Paso Los Libertadores climbs through the Andes to an elevation of approximately 10, 500 feet to a plateau where sits the Customs and Immigration centre at the Chilean/Argentinean border. We had left Santiago where the temperature was 28C nearly four hours prior and now it is 15C.  That is fine.  Food is scarce, snacks only.  That’s fine too.  The line at Passport Control is long as there are six buses ahead of ours and you must first officially exit Chile then join another line about twenty paces to the right for official entry into Argentina.  This is  frustrating but you remain calm as you can’t do anything about it in any case.  Also, it gives your stomach some time to settle as it is the getting to this point that is troublesome, which is the understatement of any year.

Before you can get to this border you would have travelled through a section of this main road called Los Caracoles, the snails.  This road has been designated one of the most winding roads in the world. If you should see it from an airplane it would resemble the coils of a refrigerator.  The hairpin turns turn on themselves.  It is a hair- raising journey.

I am not sure what the signs that indicate the number of the curve you are negotiating are supposed to do.  Will you need to tell a friend to meet you at curve number eight up the Andes Mountain?  Are they to tell you how far you have come?  That may be a possibility except I am convinced that the curve counters cannot count.  I was getting dizzy as we climbed and I was certain we had negotiated at least a few thousand curves when I looked out the window and saw a sign reading ‘curva 21’, curve 21.  Impossible!  Where did they begin their count?   “Those are just Los Caracoles”.  So they say.  Even more harrowing is the fact that there are no guardrails.  I found I was drawing myself up whenever another vehicle approached, as if that could help.  Bert, he who is afraid of heights, kept his eyes closed while I prayed.

After three days in Mendoza it was back on the bus.  I would like to tell you it was easier.  Not at all. The Argentinean side of the mountain is quite different from the Chilean side.  The road meanders beside the Mendoza River and there are grape arbours, farms and many sightings of old abandoned mines. It is a nice slow climb.  However, this is just the calm before the storm as you have to face the downward journey to Santiago.

If you are unfortunate enough to be sitting on the right side of the bus you are treated to seeing the front actually hanging over the edge of the mountain as you hope that the wheels  will remain on the road. Take a peak downward and you see a convoy of snails, trucks, that is, snaking down.  Their cabs are also over the cliffs as they make the turns.  Breathe, just breathe.

We have spent some winters in Chile and have dared to do this round trip journey five times.  It is still terrifying.

The Meander: At the border, I noticed many of us were looking at the seven meter high bronze statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes while others looked back towards Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres. It seemed as if we were suspended between heaven and earth but I did not know which was which.

WWWW means Wonderful, Wild and Wacky Wednesdays

WWWW means Wonderful, Wild and Wacky Wednesdays

Wednesday mornings are wonderful. We laugh. It is one big inside joke for ten people.

In 2014 my husband was diagnosed with Dementia. I was given a host of print resources, contact information for various support agencies and groups.  I contacted the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Society. I got more information and schedules for upcoming seminars that could prove useful. It all seemed overwhelming but I knew this disease was not to be taken lightly, so I just decided to take things slowly as I learned and raged against the unfairness of it all.

We were told of a new programme called Minds in Motion.  Funding had been secured for an eight week session every Wednesday morning from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.  The first hour would consist of gentle exercise, mostly while seated and the second hour was for socializing.  There would be games, puzzles, talking, telling our own stories.  Minds in Motion is a direct response to the proven scientific fact that social interaction and exercise is vital for dementia patients to help them to keep their brains and bodies functioning for as long as possible. In fact that is a requirement for everyone. Minds in Motion is a programme for both caregivers and patients. Perfect.

I signed on, and so did 12 other couples. Minds in Motion was such a success, the only negative feedback was that we needed more sessions.

Minds in Motion created a community.  As another series drew to a close we wanted some continuity.  We had found a common ground and wanted to stay in touch. One suggested we all go to lunch after the last session.  We did and at lunch we spoke about how valuable the sessions were and hoped they would continue.  Another wondered if we could meet for coffee on Wednesday mornings since we already had that time reserved for Alzheimer’s activities. There was general agreement.  It would be purely voluntary. Anyone who wanted to would meet at a nearby coffee shop on Wednesday mornings.

Five couples showed up.  Thus was born WWWW Wonderful, Wild and Wacky Wednesdays.  This day is sacrosanct. Wednesday is reserved for our couples activity, either Minds in Motion or coffee time and only missed for priorities such as illness, medical appointments and laboratory tests.  It is a lifeline in a world turned upside down, a bridge between our two worlds,  the real and the one known as Alzheimer’s world. It is my lifeline. Wednesday mornings make the insane, sane.

The Meander: Five couples showed up. Five couples, nearly strangers now best friends. Five couples connected by a dread disease. Five couples who together try to outwrestle dementia. Five couples who support each other and have magically found solace and laughter. Every caregiver needs a lifeline like this.

Bonding with elephants.

Bonding with elephants

“Can I touch her?”

The handler came alongside as I held my hand out to pat the baby elephant.  I marveled at the texture of the trunk and snout.  I petted it and then the handler tells me not to make any sudden movement. I turned my head and there was this huge elephant ambling up.

No need to tell me not to make sudden movements.  I froze.  Was this the mother?  What would happen if she was angry because I was touching her baby?  Where was Bert?  Still feeding a baby?  What could he do really except die with me?  My fellow tourists were calm, still wanting to touch the babies.  My open palms were suspended in air. I could not move.  The handler was softly speaking to the big mama and the baby gave me a little push with her snout. I prayed.

I turned fully and looked at mama elephant and my fear, the pent-up terror was released in a breath.  She looked at me.  Elephants are magical.  No one could be afraid looking at those eyes so full of kindness.  Eyes that spoke of knowledge beyond human ken. Instead of thinking about instant death I wondered instead if she knew I was a mama too.  She made a snuffling sound and elongated her trunk.  I opened my palm and she breathed gently on it.  I smiled.  Her baby snuffled too at my palm. I only had eyes for mama. Emotion welled.  Then she curled her trunk around her baby.  She had finished sharing.  I slowly backed away still looking into those wise eyes. Eyes that knew the futility of asking ‘why’?

The ship was docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the tour was Kandy by Motor Coach. It was a full day tour departing very early and returning late.  The tour talk on board ship made it sound very interesting and a ‘must do’ especially when we were told we may be able to feed baby elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  At Kandy the great attraction would be a visit to the Temple of the Tooth!

After a two hour drive we arrived at our first stop at Pinnawala.  Feeding time is around 9 a.m. and although I did not feed milk to a baby elephant it was so amusing to see them inhale a bottle of milk in a second.  We listened to the lecture, learned about the orphanage and the work being done and went to view the real feeding.  Leaves, fruit were already at the feeding station and we watched as the elephants came up from the river and went directly to eat.  We had just learned that most of their day is spent eating, bathing, playing and frolicking in the river.

The handlers had sticks but they seemed to be using them as guiding wands, not hurting the elephants in any way. We were told we could approach them.  The path was muddy but that did not matter.  We were all bonding with these magnificent creatures. Then came my moment.  Yes, I could touch them but I was the one touched.

The Meander:  This happened on my birthday in March 2004.  I will never forget it.  What I will also not forget is December 26, 2004 as I watched the Indian Ocean Tsunami that damaged countries from East Africa to Thailand engulf parts of Sri Lanka.  I immediately thought of ‘my’ elephants.  The news reports were unending and then I heard and saw the elephants at Pinnawala who had started to move upwards away from the low lying lands hours before the tsunami hit.  They were all safe.  Elephants are magical.