On Magic

I got very sick at Christmas and never finished writing this post at the time. But since I just took my tree down last week, perhaps it’s not too late for one last word about the moment when magically, a newborn baby is the most important being in the world!

I’ve always loved Christmas. As a child it seemed a truly magical time. And I mean literally magical. All the ordinary rules and routines of the world were, for that brief moment, completely suspended. My dad didn’t go to work or night school and just hung out with us, a rare treat, all cozily crowded into the living room. We didn’t have to get dressed out of our new flannel nighties all day, except in fancy clothes that I loved for dinner. Our access to food was always tightly controlled by my mother, but now we were allowed to eat all the normally forbidden foods –candies, cookies, chocolates– without even asking: they were just laid out for the taking. The division between indoors and outdoors was transgressed by bringing nature, an entire tree that reached the ceiling, into the house. Even the rules of night and day were broken when we were woken at midnight on Christmas Eve (a French-Canadian tradition) to open the gifts that Santa had left just moments before. And the presents: there was no other possible accounting for this abundance than Santa’s magic: these were years when my parents could never have afforded such a luxury as new toys and stocking stuffers for all four of us children—or so I believed. The only logical explanation was magic.

Even the stories and the music were all about magic. My favourite was (and still is) How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the original animated TV special true to the Dr. Seuss story (the later feature film with Jim Carrey is to me an abrasive monstrosity missing all the tender charm of the original). And we would gather near the beautifully lit and decorated tree, the other lights dimmed and special candles lit, to listen to A Paul Reid Christmas, a radio show of sentimental Christmas stories and music. How I loved those stories! The Littlest Angel, one of the first stories that made me confront mortality, made me cry most of all. What was especially clear in all the stories and songs was that what made them magical, as the Grinch demonstrated when his heart grew three sizes that day, was love.

I figured this Christmas tree was my last one, and since I missed a week of the holidays when I was in the hospital, I wasn’t in a rush to take it down. And then I made the mistake of asking Nathan if he wanted me to leave it up until his return from London in early February. (He had to miss Christmas at home with us again this year.) He said yes, so I was stuck with the tree until he got back last week. We spent our first visit happily undecorating the tree and sweeping up the now crispy branch tips that snapped off as we did so. But I so enjoyed having the tree up all those extra weeks, reminding me of the magic that is really always there.

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My Blog Title

WordPress asked me to write about my blog title, so here that is, along with a few other title stories! What’s the Story Behind your Site Title?

My decision for the site name was quite spontaneous: titles either come to me in a flash or not at all (that is, in an agony of prolonged indecision and dissatisfaction). I did, however, have many second thoughts about this one. I know The Death Project sounds harsh and even off-putting to many readers, which is certainly not what site owners want! But I really wanted to confront people with our cultural fear and denial of death. I wanted to say, this is what is happening to me, and I challenge you to not look away. I challenge you to look more deeply with me. Because while I’m the one dying at the moment, you too will die. We all have a death project, whether we want to engage with it or not. That death project is life.

So I think the name speaks well of that aspect of the blog. People might think it sounds negative, but my posts are gentle and focused on the positive in death and dying, exploring how embracing our mortality is what truly makes life meaningful and beautiful. Death is what makes love so crucial. The title doesn’t do much to articulate these other themes that I explore, but I hope it brings people in. Maybe I need a subtitle!

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I can’t imagine being happier or more excited about life. I’m one lucky woman! Even the city is beautiful under this fresh snow sparkling in the sunshine!

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On the Moment

Last week was a wonderful week. On Wednesday, as I cheerfully settled down to some writing, I commented to my son that few people would believe I am as happy as I am. I know on the one hand some imagine that the terminally ill must be making 100% of every moment of every day, celebrating all we can since there are so few days left. And on the other hand are those who imagine the dying must be crushed by an immense suffering and depression at the prospect of leaving the world.

It would be nice to be in that first, always-happy group, but that’s hard (probably impossible) to maintain, especially as life –with all its challenges– just keeps on happening in the meantime. Leaving aside the issues of illness, sometimes my days end up dull or misdirected for various reasons. Sometimes there are heavy things to process. Sometimes there are annoyances. But lately, those days are rare. Most of the time, I really am in that happy place!

For me, the key to getting there is being in the moment. When I am managing well, that’s what I’m doing. There’s not much magic to this “in the moment” thing. It’s just that well-popularized Buddhist teaching that’s everywhere from instagram memes to glossy yoga magazines. It would be easy to be cynical about it. But I have to say, it works!

Decades ago in a hard time of my life when I desperately needed help just to get through the day, I was directed to and read a little bit of Buddhist philosophy. It made sense to me intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. Most importantly, it made me feel better. Very likely, I got much of it wrong from a proper Buddhist perspective. But the “letting go” part especially worked for me, as part of my struggle then was anger at a situation that I had no control over (my younger’s son’s father’s abandonment of us). But I never took up a proper meditation practice: I just couldn’t manage it as a single mom at that chaotic time. Instead, I tried to bring some Buddhist principles into my daily life. This is probably not the ideal way to achieve serenity—let alone enlightenment—as it was easy to forget and end up off track—sometimes for years. But something was planted deep within me, and it took root enough to be bearing fruit now. Detachment and acceptance. Compassion and kindness. Being in the moment, present to all that is without judgement. These were the concepts that helped then and bring me true happiness now.

This moment! It’s all we ever have. And what delight there is in this moment! Most mornings, I awake so pleased to greet the day. I delight in the comfort of my bed, the purring of my cat, and I am grateful. These are the smallest, simplest things, but gratitude for anything brings happiness. And there are even more big things to be grateful for. That Wednesday as I sat down to write, the sunshine set the ice to sparkling on the trees. I was not suffering. My loved ones were for the most part well and healthy and happy. I was alive in this wondrous world. There was so much to be grateful for.

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On Changing the World (1)

A year ago, I attended the Women’s March here in Montreal in a rousing moment of sisterhood with women in so many other cities of the world. I wasn’t feeling very well that day, as my still undiagnosed disease was rapidly progressing. But I donned the pink pussyhat I had knit up, then took some painkillers and a lift downtown. Happily, I ran into many friends while there. Last weekend was another march. Because I had chemo two days before I wasn’t sure I’d be up to it, but those painkillers and another lift got me there again.

pussyhat photo

Me at the 2017 women’s march

As I’ve mentioned before, social justice issues have been a consuming passion of mine and a large part of my work in life. But when I got sick last year, I handed over all my work in anti-colonial issues to my amazing colleagues. For the next several months I just couldn’t stomach any news or discussion of the harm people were doing to each other in the world – and it seemed there was so much! I was especially traumatised by the US election. Any news story about things like racism or sexism triggered a mild PTSD; I literally felt ill and had to leave the room.

I recognise that being able to choose not to listen to some of these stories is yet another privilege that would not be available to me if I weren’t white. Those who are struggling more directly with racism don’t necessarily get to opt out of that because they’re sick—though there certainly are gender issues in illness! (In small things like the male nurse who took the opportunity to lift my surgical gown for a peek while I was incapacitated and voiceless in post-op recovery, and larger issues like under-funding for women’s health.) Nevertheless, my terminal diagnosis was pressing, and I turned my focus on dying and started writing about it for my blog.

The immediate and overwhelming feedback to my writing showed me that here was another area in need of profound social change. The more I read and thought and wrote, the more I saw how central our society’s fear of death is to so many other problems we create for ourselves both personally and politically. So that became the new focus of my social-change work: talking openly about dying to counteract our cultural denial of death. Fully and deeply acknowledging our mortality, I have come to see, leads to a much richer and more meaningful life. It assuages the fears that lead us down the wrong paths. It reveals the emptiness of the pursuit of status and the material, and the fullness of kindness and connection. I believe now that mortality is a gift. And it’s a gift we can share.

When I first graduated from university in the early 90s, I went to work in shelters for victims of domestic violence. I also received rape crisis counseling training and worked in a shelter for women who were not only victims of domestic violence, but all sorts of related historical violence, including child abuse, sexual abuse, rape, forced prostitution, homelessness, racism, substance abuse, and colonial violence. It was clear to me at the time that all of these forms of abuse and disempowerment were deeply intertwined. Today we use the term intersectional feminism to help us talk about this, and it’s crucial to see how these various forms of oppression are related. What so deeply discouraged me last year with the US election and other events was seeing how little progress we have made. The police were still killing Black people with impunity. Women still weren’t being believed when they reported sexual violence. Refugees were still being refused safe havens. Wars were being waged. Indigenous children were still being taken from their homes. The number of homeless people grew while the rich got even richer.

Despite my aversion to the news, since the #metoo movement began a few months ago I have been following it quite closely. At first I thought my need to protect myself from the trauma of news had abated. But then I realised that the reason I could follow this story was that there was something positive in it. It looked like something was finally changing. Slowly, of course, and with much resistance from the other side and an ever-growing backlash, but still: the public conversation is changing. It’s delving into new territories. It’s examining harder, more complicated, and more nuanced questions that are reaching more and more of us personally. I have read many amazingly thoughtful commentaries (see my facebook page for lots of links to these) and am so encouraged to see that women’s stories are finally being told, listened to, believed, and that these are leading to further sharing, further thinking, further examination of the social structures, practices, and beliefs that underpin them. Ultimately, it is only by deeply understanding and challenging the patriarchal and economic structures of our society and their effects on our most personal as well as public behaviour that anything will change. And I see that happening now. So I am hopeful. I am hopeful in a way I couldn’t be a year ago. Let’s see how far we can take this.

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Roy’s Blog: Courage

Where Roy explores what it takes to get through this, and it’s not quite Courage.

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2018 Update

I am very happy to report that 2018 has started a little better than 2017 ended. I got home from the hospital two days ago and am feeling fairly well and energetic so far. I know that won’t necessarily last very long, so I’m extremely grateful for every moment that I feel like myself and am able to enjoy the day.

I’m not much in the mood to be online, so please forgive me if I don’t respond promptly to your messages, or if I neglected to respond to your notes while I was so ill.

I was about to wish you all a year of beauty and love and grace, but that strikes me suddenly as too passive. It is within the power of each one of us to create that world of beauty, love, kindness, peace, and all the good things we want for ourselves and each other. So let us commit to that in 2018!

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