Pandemic Journal 9/1/2022: Excision

to excise: to cut out

1. New Year’s Day 2022

Kafka at latitude 53, January 9, 2022.

2021: Goodbye to all that….

I write this nine days into this new year. The weather here has been the coldest it has been since the winter of ‘69 with seemingly endless days and nights of temperatures dipping below -20.

And the new COVID variant omicron is a wildfire burning in almost every corner of the world. Here in Alberta, our incompetent government fans the flames.

I’ve been writing and writing and not posting in this blog. Others sense like me how this pandemic slows down the world with a blur of erasure. The disappearances are many: days and weeks. Gone are the friendly visits and caring touch of many of those you love. Familiar and welcome solitude develops sharp edges.

While unfinished, I’m posting these words come hell or high water or else I’ll simply abandon this regular writing practice that I grew to love. (Forgive any errors and let me know about them so I can correct.)

It is good to be in touch with you, dear Reader. I would bake you a cake if I could.

2. September 8, 2021: The Biopsy

Today the surgeon Dr. Mary Stephens dug with some determination into the sweet spot where the temple arteries run on the right side of my face directly in front of my ear. The arteries were delicate and elusive and it seems to have taken longer than usual to extract a piece of the artery to examine. A delicate specimen that indicated success in her handiwork.

During the hour I was wide awake on the pillow, I turned my head on its side. In my ear throughout the procedure I hear a clanging and squishing and the inaudible gestures of a surgeon’s blade. I resort to pranayama yoga breathing in my mind and in my mouth and in my lungs. The discipline calms me as a I think how this day surgery is definitely a very good strategy for torture movie scripts. Excruciating begins to encompass it.

Now that the freezing has worn off, fourteen hours of horror-show pain in my head unfold. I am watching the federal election CBC debate en francais and remain very concerned about what is happening though I do not want to go into any detail here. I feared the deadly CONs would win. That too has its excruciating qualities. Though happily they lost to Trudeau’s Liberals.

3. September 3, 2021: The Diagnosis — Temporal Arteritis or Giant Cell Arteritis (what ails me)

The diagnosis was correct. And quick.
It saved my life. And my sight.
A longer story I will write very soon.

4. The Situation: Alberta is COVID Central

A writer’s window

And then there is the general excruciating crisis of COVID and the healthcare system here in Alberta. The government opened up in the summer declaring COVID no longer an urgent issue. Then the hospitals swelled with patients and the health system exploded.

And the education system. Right-wing cuts and curriculum reviews foregrounded racist and homophobic and pro-Nazi changes.

At the end of this day longing for better pain killers, I have found the extra correlative of the effect of the UCP government on this province and on my psyche. My skin slashed open. A templar artery teased out with a scalpel and excised.

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein blew up a Calgary hospital. Jason Kenney’s cruel idiocy called the United Conservative Party has blown up the entire province.

Until recently one of the Canada’s top three distinguished research universities, my beloved University of Alberta where I “professed” for thirty-two years, has been especially hard hit. The new university president, a self-aggrandizing failure, and the UCP-appointed university board have taken up the UCP directive and are happily digging the grave. The President could have called for an all-province solidarity among post-secondary institutions – dug in and filled our inboxes with calls to resistance. The UCP provided the shovel – the budget of UofAlberta will have been cut by a a third. The party of bitter extremists likes to kill excellence. Invent an enemy and undermine doctors and nurses and teachers and professors. Expertise is the enemy. The Common Good is a threat and expendable.

The UCP government imagines the life force of this place – education from elementary to post-secondary, healthcare, the common good – can be removed like a specimen for examination. A sadistic torment. As in my surgery this morning, imagine this government as a surgical procedure: the excision of a small chord of templar artery – a piece of your body is pulled out of your head in real time.

5. Orgasm as Analgesic

“I paint myself because I am the one I know best” — Frida Kahlo

Pain unrecollected disappears. Fortunately my memory of the biopsy is honey dipped. A week or so earlier, I meet up with a man for a long afternoon coffee. Let’s call him the thoroughly splendid man. He is about to leave for a six-week trip across the prairies to visit family and ailing friends – travels of long goodbyes.

On the afternoon of my biopsy, he writes me from afar as I lay in bed writhing in post-surgery pain. He asks how he can help. Bludgeoned by pain, I can’t imagine relief. He offers to write me erotic prose. Eager to hear embodied pleasure beyond my corporeal pain, I tell him – please write.

And so it goes. This new lover at a distance writes with a pen of sexy desire touching every part of me. His words stroke my skin cooling the edges of searing pain. His fingers tap along my spine, sharp nails draw the flow of liquid longing into my clit and mind. The hot shimmer of his words talk me into the taut tremble of an orgasm beyond the fiery pain. What a beautiful man I’ve found. A glorious storyteller of libidinal longing sending erotic missives across a balmy autumnal prairie afternoon.

Serendipity plays a part here. After sixteen years of celibacy – beyond erotic self-care 😉 – I began dating on-line two weeks before my diagnosis with this autoimmune disease. This erotic adventure becomes part of my therapeutic self-care. Dating at seventy: but that’s a longer story peopled by this polyamorous man and others and better saved for another day.

6. Pandemic Self Care: Yoga as Therapy

Palm extended

A few week after my diagnosis, I enroll with 31 others in a brilliant four-month on-line teacher training at Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre in Toronto. The studio is very near I once lived. Over the course of October, November, December, January and February, I practice asanas and study yoga philosophy with new teachers and those I’ve been studying with since last January at PurResilience – another wonderful on-line yoga studio. (See below for my dedication to these wonderful teachers.)

The $3000 tuition for the teacher training includes a year-long membership in the studio to take as many yoga and other classes as you want to take on-line. It also involves eight weekend workshops of seventeen hours each and four months of 2.5 hour workshops on Tuesdays. There are a number of excellent instructors and I learn a good deal. I take one or two classes (and sometimes more if I’m very energetic) most days. Usually one yoga and another barre or HIIT or pilates class. And I listen to the video tapes of some other classes while I’m doing other things. The audio helps me learn about various approaches to teaching. I find the instructions helpful to keep my ear tuned to the excellent practices of these skilled teachers.

The steroid treatment for what ails me can cause glaucoma and cataracts, ulcers and diabetes, osteoporosis and any number of awful things. My hunch is that yoga may help with stress and my bones and whatever ailments are being created by my life-saving medicines.

Inevitably as I settle into a yoga class, I feel my mind cloud over with worries. By the time it ends, my body has been twisted and torqued into positions that wring out my brain and my muscles and skin. Anxiety drips onto the floor and skitters towards the doors and windows seeking a speedy exit. What’s left? A tender space under my skin for reflection. Shoulders falling away from my head shaking their edges to a morning song. Not to mention how a sexy ambulatory pelvis and thoracic spine renew me at seventy. My body grooves.

Over the past year, my body is becoming a memory of dancer’s childhood – from five to sixteen years. At sixteen when I quit dance, I fell into a deep depression. Ran away from home. Now I am home again in my body – not quite the supple child but an old(er) woman whose body can move in her mind’s eye like a river, like the wind.

I danced as a child…as much as possible. So many Saturdays and evenings in lessons, my devoted mother driving me from our home in rural Pickering, Ontario, to the Gladys Gayle School of Dance in Ajax where my father managed the Hudson’s Bay Store – a good settler motif.

I remember the this child’s body of taut muscles and limbs strained to a point at which they might break or simply stretch into something new. I remember the music and my inability to not respond. I remember accompanied my mother to the IGA in Pickering with Muzak that could have been Broadway as I secretly danced down the aisles hoping no one noticed me.

Yoga is like that – a pleasure in movement that is out of your control. a balancing act of flexion and extension, of abduction and adduction, of scapula sliding down the back and shoulders muscled with the energy of Sanskrit planks. Slow morning. Eccentric motion getting my brain into particulars.

Yoga is like this. The deep pleasure of a disciplined regime of silent meditation and movement. Of solitary postures, the mirror your companion. Or a computer screen conversation with a teacher whose directions are precise and caring.

When will I take up a place in a crowded room of practitioners again?

In my weekend teacher training workshop, one of seven or eight in the course, we are working on Prasarita Padottanasan (extended intense stretch of the feet). Our legs are wide on the mat. We fold forward from our hips. Our extended legs planted wide on the floor. Imagine our shins hugging in just as gravity grips our spine moving us downward. In opposition, our abdomen lifts up providing support and space for the spine to extend. The power of the legs moves upward.

We are not a rag doll, says Jen the teacher. Our legs are strong and stable like rocks in a waterfall as our spine pours out towards the floor.

(Gravity takes us wide. Gravity does not overwhelm us. We are in control…

…though I can’t stop moving.

We link up Uttanasana and Upavistha Konasana … in detail.

Our body’s shape moving to upright or seated or upside down. Our pelvis shifting in space to tilt and rock and roll into a place where the sitting bone and the pubic bone and the tail bone diamond shape are felt sensed.

In my mind’s eye I still hear Jen. (Did I transcribe her voice italicized in what follows or did I just reimagine it?):

Anterior tip the pelvis. Rock from side to side. Feel the posterior tilt (how we watch tv when we aren’t in yoga) and then roll forward on your sitting bones. Roll forward a little. Roll back A LOT. Feel the movement of your pelvis.

Once we are seated we have a new relation to gravity. We don’t really have the freedom to meet our range. Once we are seated and our legs are out in front of us we are sometimes already in our half-way lift. It makes it harder to feel and to move. [Ed. “from” “towards” are almost possible.] Gravity, if we don’t resist it, will often take us back into our posterior tilt. Two challenges are there.

We are moving into our lumbar spine. When we do our forward fold, we need to be moving towards sitting upright. We need to be upright through our neutral pelvis and spine. We need to find neutral before we find forward fold. We can sit up on something. We can bend the knees.

7. Ode to my yoga teachers. How I love them.

Above I write about Toronto’s Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga teacher Jen who trained as a dancer and as a yoga teacher offers yoga classes and excellent workshops in teacher training. But at Octopus I also adore Athena, the goddess of aerial flight and yoga – I worship at her advanced yoga class every Sunday morning. And I adore Scottie, the wry wit and kindly torturer, who teaches pilates and yoga. And I adore Pat who is a meditation teacher par excellence as well as running many of the workshops that explore yoga’s philosophy and history. And Phil, also a dancer, whose classes are so very thoughtful and energizing. And Victoria who is a wonder of a teacher early in the morning where she combines functional movement training, yoga, and pilates in a liberating melange. And Jay who spent productive time in India and reminds me of the sound of my body and the history of yoga in chants and meditations as well as yoga postures. And Darcie who keeps inventing connections and movements with asana classes and in the yoga teacher training workshops.

I also adore my Iyengar teacher Cindy Campbell who is my age and a devoted teacher. Once a nurse, she began yoga in her early fifties and combines her knowledge of the body with excellent training. She works out of her home and has students in Montreal and Toronto and elsewhere. She is witty and smart and precise in her demands. I learn much from her and remember my first yoga teacher, an Iyengar teacher, Esther Meyers. I began to study with her in 1978 and during my graduate school training she gave me much. In 2004 she died of breast cancer. Taken too soon.

And I adore Angela and Lana at Pur Resilience which is where I began my return to yoga last January thanks to my dear friend Kim Echlin who lives in the Beaches where the original Pur Resilience studio was located before it transformed to an online studio. I love the community of women who have coalesced around these classes. Sometimes we chat after class and it is always a comfort and interesting. Angela’s classes are flow with a few minutes of a reading or an idea so each practice leans into an intention. The other students in the class practiced together pre-pandemic and their insights and reflections after class are always welcome. Lana’s training in yoga is wide-ranging and includes philosophy and language and song. I listen to her harmonium playing on YouTube and sometimes she chants at the end of the classes – welcome music to my ears. An actress, director, university teacher, a woman of many talents. Her beautiful voice calling out one pose after another refines the movements in my head.

I’ve been taking so many wonderful classes over the last year. So very fortunate to have the time and until now the energy to do this work. As I taper off of the steroids, my energy dissipates and I hope that I will be able to keep up my vigorous practice into the future without fail. Yoga is keeping my body and my bones strong along with lots of pharmaceuticals that will maintain me until my body heals from this autoimmune disease.

8. Mothers and Daughters: Reciprocal Healing

Recuperating in a garden dinner with my darling daughter…

Coincidentally as my health crisis emerges, my daughter arrives for a week visit. My daughter’s visit is, as always, wonderful. The first day she canoes down the North Saskatchewan with her dearest friends. And all week she works on-line at her job during the day and then chats and cooks and helps me in the evenings and at lunch.

This is the first time I’ve been ill as an older mother. Not long ago before my diagnosis, my daughter spoke and wept about her anguish at the thought of my death… . How very abstract, I thought then, still in the mindset of perfectly health and invulnerable 70-year-old. Her anguish reminded me of my own sadness at my mother’s illness and Alzheimer’s decline. My daughter tells me she doesn’t know what she will do when she won’t have my couch to lie on and cry when she needs my care. We talk about all who love and care for her but I know the loss of a mother resonates with is its own grave mourning.

Fast forward a month to the moment I find myself with a diagnosis of Giant Cell Arteritis and illness. These past few days, in the midst of this strange encounter with my body’s disease, my daughter is very calm and measured. As though her camp counsellor would-be nurse rigour and precision clicked in. And I begin to see for the first time the dimensions of our life together as mortals now 70 and 24 easing our way through the next years.

I feel so fortunate for our visits. Twenty-two years after our adoption, a new time of caring for this new me, an ill mother, has arrived and I’m in the midst of a beautiful reversal of care – as temporary as this might be. Forever am I grateful for my daughter’s calm and kindness and love.

When Bao was very young – four or five – I took her to Chinese language lessons at the Chinese Cultural Centre near Jasper and 95th. At lunchtime, the centre hosted Chinese ribbon dancing classes for little girls. As I sat on a bench watching the children dip and turn and tiptoe around the gym, another child’s grandmother turns to me and says, “Lucky girl. And you will have someone to look after you when you are old.”

I found this comment both disturbing and fascinating. Fascinating because when I adopted most people would look at us and say, “Lucky girl….” – unwitting ignorance – as though adoption were a one-way street that simply saved a child’s life from institutionalisation. At the time, I was unsettled and taken aback at the thought that I had adopted my daughter simply as old age security – a caregiver in training. And I thought about how my research indicated that this in fact was the very reason my daughter and I found each other through international adoption. At a very young age, just a few years after she could talk, my daughter could explain to strangers how traditionally Chinese girls marry into their husband’s family. With no People’s Republic of China social security, the parents of girls are left without support during their elder years. Thus the preference for boy children and the surplus of girls in Chinese orphanages in 1999 when I adopted this then most remarkable seventeen-month-old child.

A loving spring 1999 portrait of my great good fortune. My daughter at seventeen months and my mother at 70. I took this photograph in our backyard a few days after we all returned from adoption travels to China, a two-week January trip that began with my mother in Toronto, Ontario, and me in Edmonton, Alberta. First we flew to Hong Kong and then to this marvel of a child in a Maoming orphanage in Guangdong Province located at the same south China latitude as nearby Hanoi and then north to the PRC adoption offices in Guangzhou and Beijing and home again. A voyage of trauma and tenderness and love.

I could never have imagined the profound love my mothering and my daughter’s daughtering could generate over these 22 years of single-parent family life in a northern prairie city under our big often blue sky. Tonight, spinning with every widening swirling circles of ice, the North Saskatchewan River – kisiskâciwanisîpiy or “swift current” in Cree – flows beside us teeming with a lifetime of dreams and longings. Of stories terrible cruelty and liberatory endurance. We settle here grateful for our home in treaty territory on others’ lands.

9. Eros at Seventy

Spring 2021: Solitary life during a pandemic refers you to yourself. You burn through several vibrators. This is Canada so you can smoke a puff of weed before your orgasm. True to form, the intensity rims your body with the thrill of pleasure’s surrender. Nothing about growing old makes bliss less blissful, joy less joyful. Bliss. Joy. At seventy. All the sweeter.

Sex is good. Eros is mighty. 

Pandemics focus the mind. I am on my mat to zoom yoga at 7:15 most mornings. And later in the morning as I walk, the wood’s fragrances surround me. This morning Mayday white floral cones. Pink apple blossoms through the pine. The larch trees leaf out in chartreuse fans in this light. As you make your way along the path, your thigh brushes up against a branch. Your shoulder pricks with the sharp crack of a fragile twig. Your hands hold onto air. Outstretched fingers touch something suspended. Your lips part to draw in the air wet with yesterday’s rain. The rim of your shoes soak into the creek’s bank. In your ear a renewed rush of spring runoff ripples over glistening heaps of riverbed stones. The swift intake of air on your tongue thrills the roof of your mouth. 

One breath follows any other in time.

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Journal 9/1/2022: Excision”

  1. Hi Janice,

    Just read your blog. It was so great to read your essays again after some silence. I believe that John and I had caught up with much of your news but it was such a treat to read it in written form. I agreed with you completely about what a thoroughly corrupt and lacking in any compassion our premier is. I really have such admiration for how you have taken on yoga and made it central to your life and healing. Also your renewed interest in sex with the new relationships you have found. Bravo!

    Lyndal PS that’s a really weird image -Kafka at Latitude.



    1. Thank you Lyndal. Yes, yoga and sex and intimacy have been healing these past months. I’m not accustomed to being ill. And negotiating the many bizarre symptoms of disease and medication has been deeply unsettling. So good to lunch with you at your beautiful house in the country during a lull in COVID not long ago. I was so moved by your weaving and the objects you have created. Look forward to meeting up again when whatever wave this is recedes for a time. Z

      And yes, the Kafka image is so very bizarre – a knitting project from decades ago that masks the body as pattern. I do feel this is a period of both intense embodiment as we are all so aware of our environment and the viral. And it is also a period of estrangement from the body as it is made strange for us in our many encounters with potential contagion. Z

      Till soon, Xox Janice


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