Nonfiction

The Xerophyte

~1~

Cottonwood Whispers

March, first buds of the cottonwood appear. Sandspit Beach at Kokanee Creek: iolite blue glacier-fed lake and sixty feet of sandy ribbon-like shores. I walk the line between icy liquid and tiny crystals. Two dogs, at first friendly, pick a fight. One of the men yells to break up the canines vying for status. Now, the bitch barks at him. “Bad dog!” The leash goes on. “Somebody’s going home early!”

The magic light of dusk fades. A figure with a tripod packs up his gear. Passing almost too close to me, an elderly couple walks in supportive unison.  As I look into them, one seems both ailing and determined to be here. In an instant, all—except the dogs, ducks and early midges—seem to stand still like sculptural Giacommetti groupings. Frozen, in life.

Away from the icy water’s edge, a woman stands with a plastic bucket, harvesting. From afar, I can see that something deep, dark, and old stains her fingers and nails: a thin, waxy, crumbling layer, the true colour of dried blood.

Diana the Huntress she is not. Rather, Didi is a petite massage therapist who specializes in palliative care. Only she is unfrozen. Her veined, muscular hands are tanned maroon from working the crushed buds of the cottonwood’s fresh shoots. Her blue eyes have that incandescence only some people can sustain, renewed only at nightfall by eyeballing the moon. The older more tolerant cottonwoods look on, 200 feet tall, with heart-shaped leaves that giggle in the wind. The freshly pinched leaves from younger bushes are bathed in almond and coconut oils and left to infuse in the sun. “Blessings and mantras, optional” says Didi, sounding French.  “The oil, like the parting sea of reeds, becomes a balm of deep red: something to soothe skin, liberate substance and even, perhaps, awaken Aphrodite with its balsamic scent.”

I discover that the fragrance is truly sweet. It’s like a mix of honey, patchouli and musk rose. In fact some call it Indian Patchouli. Ancients might have used it for embalming as much as contemporaries may use it for enlivening. And just like that, the lower part of my body turns away ready to depart, while my head is still nodding and smiling. Maintaining her communion with the plants, Didi makes me pause with her powerful gaze and passes over a handful of cottonwood pinchings. Once home, I prepare a trial batch. As the blend works me, I begin to see that people, things and compasses reveal themselves in degrees, the degree to which I am open to seeing them as they truly are.

After a difficult patch of life, long like a forsaken valley winter, both my skin and soul are parched and my tolerance low. I read this balm of Gilead—this redemptive revelation—as a hint to begin reading my own landscapes with more interested precision; to read my dreams as pending realities and perhaps, my reality as more symbolic.

~ 1.1 ~

For Mom: In other words, I go to the beach. There are some other folks there. I walk over to a lady with a bucket. She shares the cottonwood buds. I go home and make a salve that changes my perspective on my life and vocational choices. (Word count: 44!)

~ 2 ~

Xerophytes

I’m not a thirsty kind of person. Hungry? Yes. Thirsty? Not so much. And, though the lakeshore is my true home, some days, I really fancy myself a xerophyte from the Greek xeros for dry and phuton, meaning plant. Drought-tolerant plant: succulents, aloes, cacti, sansevierias, jades, me.

The plants I choose, much like my love relationships, die. Is it overwatering, under fertilizing, conflicting plant hardiness zones? Maybe. Like my kin the xerophytes, I have adapted to the terrain. My landscape happens to be that of a single-co-parenting-cis-urban-refugee-rural-mountain-town settler, which can be rather barren at times. Along these lines, I have a chronic planticide situation at the apartment. My post-mortem solution is to buy GMO clones. I like my life long and predictable, my risks low, and my shortcuts plentiful. As I see it, replacement is the vegetable-kingdom equivalent of serial online dating or mystified family relations: available in bulk, ever hopeful, with lots of artificial fertilizer thrown in for marketing purposes. When that top dressing runs out though, plant and relationship death is ensured. The wise and lispy florist next door advises, “Be a brown thumb rather then a green one. Be fear-less, stick your fingers in the good brown earth and learn from your roots what is actually there or truly absent.”

~ 2.1 ~

For Mom: She who feels I am long-winded.
My houseplants die often and in large numbers,
especially the legacy cacti collection from you.

~ 3 ~

The Death Velvet Band

Digging deeper then, with balm of Gilead anointing me, I boldly quit the Death Doula business—more later. What I did next was to create a band with my two best buds. Band credits are as follows: Anne, the quiet one (unless red wine is involved) is a divorcing lapsed biochemist vegan painter with two sons who could no longer reconcile working for big agri. Violin. Aya (formerly another species of Anne) is a happily married therapist, proud wearer of a single mastectomy, who now leads ayahuasca ceremonies in humid, green, leafy places like the Amazon. Classical guitar and vocalist. And then there’s lil’ ol’ me, a 49 year old, freelancer, co-parent-on-disability, death doula dropout (no certificate to speak of), but Conservatory trained, meaning I hold on to supposedly immaterial things and have trouble letting go. This explains the over representation of death in my life. Transverse flute (maybe true, maybe not).

Philosophically, it turns out we’re all really big fans of the brothers Gibb, Abba, medicine songs and Gabor Maté. Anne, Aya and I are stuck in the seventies, but we can make some pretty inspiring music to grieve by. Having different musical specialities and complementary vices— drinking, smoking, procrastinating and hidden obsessive habits along with compulsive self-improvement—we constantly disagree on the details. Nevertheless, we appreciate Gabor’s compelling views on plants as medicine allies and how to translate when our bodies say “no.”

Along these lines, on a rotating basis, usually 28 days, one of us feels as though we have accessed special knowledge about the universe either through ayahuasca, another workshop, or PMS. The job of the other two bookends in that case is: to listen patiently to the nonsense until the “supposed enlightenment” fades back into the idiosyncratic neurosis we all know and love.

Our job as musicians, however, is to comfort, soothe and raise spirits with music. It is a way of fulfilling the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. The band is composed of one Jew and two goyim. The Yehudi Menuhins we can’t be, so we call ourselves The-Not-So-Sedate Bereavement Betties Extraordinary String Quartet. There are only three of us, but Quartet sounds better. It’s like getting more for your money. And, it’s our way of digging into our Koot roots and taking one wobbly stand for when we play three sets and are only paid for two. Insert cheap Kootenay excuse here. The only things I’m looking forward to today are some of those chicken kebabs that the caterers are handing out like glow sticks at a grave.

~ 3.1 ~

For Mom: In other words, I quit being a death doula (accompanying the dying) and started a death velvet band: The Bereavement Betties (accompanying the living). You can stop reading. Stop reading, seriously.

~ 4 ~

The Death Doula’s Coda

Here’s the deal on the Doula gig. I floated around this profession for over twelve years. The genesis being I accidentally slid into “holding space” for the dying as a result of early habituation to the living, who happen to be toxic for me.

What is holding space?  Well, it is “the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own.” This means the person holding space has double duty. Um, that’s not what I had been doing, at all. I think I just flunked death, and maybe a big chunk of life too.

~ 4.1 ~

For Mom: Just in case you’re reading this. I may have confused sunshine teatime with dark-matter cocktails. So, though my career is a sham, it allowed me to see my pattern of mindless trying, hoping and over-giving.

~ 5 ~

Joe, the Alchemist

ICU, the last visitors scatter like flies in a souk. Bad descendent of Kohanim that I am, I enter and sit alone beside Joe’s emaciated casually cubist body. The remains of his bio suit, as he liked to call it, disappear imperceptibly beneath the blue herringbone hospital issue blanket. My luck: all female nurses, and not one cute doc anywhere on that vinyl hospital flooring. I can hear Joe barking: “Back on task!” So, I sing him an icaro, which is Quechua for medicine song. I sing it twice: once for Joe, and once for me. I cry both times for different reasons.

The cause of death for Joe, like Kafka, is severe dehydration and starvation. A broken xerophyte, Joe opted out. Matsuo Basho’s last poem recorded by his disciple seems fitting for both these men:

ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields

Ninety-four years earlier, Kafka was editing “A Hunger Artist” on his deathbed, a story whose composition he had begun before his throat closed. Joe too was just working on his last book, As The Spotted Crow Flies: A Kabbalistic Shaman’s Tale and putting the last touches on a single painting, which he’d been tweaking for thirty-two years. Without them, these men’s unwritten dreams will indeed go a-wandering over withered fields. Right now, I feel mixed emotions, an acrid dehydrated taste in my mouth and an inner pressure that feels like pain. Time to inhale some helping vapors.

~ 5.1 ~

For Mom: Another Artist dies and a library with him.
And while I honour and grieve through song,
I soon distract myself from pain by vaping and indulging in some unfocussed thoughts.

~ 6 ~

Greening Out

I look out the 3rd floor window of the Trail Hospital, near the Daly Pavilion. March snow falls and melts, relentless and seemingly pointless, yet the plain snow’s return is like the crystalline Tachrichim(1) arriving on cue with sacred timeliness: frozen, liquefied, evanescent.

Joe, a bearded bushy-haired alchemist and a kabbalist-maker of fine elixirs, made it to Vogue’s spread on the modern street-styles of New York City men. Perhaps most importantly, he sported a well-practiced look of disdain while wearing the vestments of Peace & Love in the photograph. I have sung my song, now I need air and a friendly face. I walk out of the room. No one is at the nurses’ station. Soon I feel alone and over-vaped. I ring the little bell for assistance and when I look again, the ICU is aglow in pulsating shades of emerald green. I blink twice accompanied by vigorous eye rubbing, but the channel does not change, nor does the filter. Is nurse Tara, Mother of Compassion, mindfully roaming the halls?

Anxious and expecting to faint and fall, I sit down. A vine—green, veiny and throbbing with life—sprouts and wraps itself around me. Whether the life pulsating through it is incoming or outgoing I can’t tell. Here I am attached to it like an overripe exotic fruit. Everywhere: metallic, reverberating laughter and yellow jesters on chessboards in flight. As if nursed on nitrous oxide for millennia, a second voice, strangled by hysterical laughter, bursts out from the sonic mist.  The laughter is mine and I am quite fit to be tied. 

~ 6.1 ~

For Mom: Saying my goodbyes yet again,
I get triggered, too high, too fast and, basically hallucinate a healing riddle.

~7 ~

Ruth, the Scholar

Joe was still alive when I received the call to complete a proper Tahara(2) for Ruth. Those who perform this Chesed Shel Emet(3) recite prayers, beseech G-d, and cleanse, ritually wash, and dress the deceased’s body. Instead, I access false privilege to justify my “no.” My mother’s father is descended from Kohanim(4). Therefore I, who am neither priest, male, nor practicing Jew (cases where I imagine this privilege actually applies), cannot be in proximity to the dead. Period. My issue with this cleansing ritual is “prismatic,” says my mermaid-haired friend Anat. I can hear her erudite Polish-Russian-German diaspora accent: “You are still too binary, Carinka. It is not black and white. It is not Life or Death. It’s not even Life and Death. Rather, it’s Life in Death and Death in Life”. In short: rebirth, in both directions.

I had long buried grief about Papa dying. As a twenty-one year old, it was just too soon for me to say goodbye. He used to sing, “Oh, my papa, to me you are so wonderful, Oh! My papa, to me you are so good…You’ll miss me when I gone, kiddo.” I did. I still do. All the farewells I helped others say and feel—maybe effectively holding space after all—were partly my own goodbyes too. Each departure drawing from me the toxic residues of earthly grief never fully tilled and aerated.

~ 7.1 ~

For Mom: Jews. Proper goodbyes. Avoidance. Death. Life. More dying and death. Conflict. Denial. Abuse. Trauma. Excuses. Grief. Guilt. Shame. Blame. Stuckness. Release. Healing. Rebirth. Oy!

~ 8 ~

We are star dots

After quitting the death-doula role and the Bereavement Betties, the death thing really turned a corner.

One day, on a desperately needed little vacay from my Life, I entered the sensory journey of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms at the Hirshhorn. Imagine G-d’s waiting room for those about to return to earth. Take a moment. No angels, no clouds and definitely no clarions. Pumpkins? Maybe. Polka dots. Definitely. Don’t let the Polka mess with your groove though. This lady is deep and has been doing it for 66 years. Dots, for her, are about the obliteration of personality. They are about our essential connection, devoid of the details.

Did I mention she happens to live in a psychiatric facility? Rumour has it that she checked herself in, but Kusama flatly denies it. Maybe I should join her? She gets to work on her art daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in her 4-story studio across the street from the “facility” in Tokyo.

Dots. What a dress rehearsal for death of personality. She designs her own textiles and cloths, not shrouds but kind of if you think about it. Lots of personality-obliterating polka dots there too. Kusama is nothing if not a thorough and persistent visionary. Another Xerophyte, Kusama, when working on her art is known to go for days without food or sleep and has referred to this as a type of “self-obliteration”(5). 

Who are these plant-people? Inspired creatives nourished by Source? Failed breatharians? Giacometti silhouettes come alive? Ghostbusters impossibly filling the black hole of self-doubt? Perhaps, without personality or mission we are just glowing points of non-local existence?

Back in Nelson, Toro Nagashi is upon us. The glowing water stars are out on the lake at dusk, so near that the fine cottonwoods could rightly extend their delicate arms, reach out to the lanterns and push them away from shore, encouraging them to soar. The belief here is that these floating offerings will help to guide the souls of the departed back to the spirit world. Kusama’s rooms are now echoed on a grander scale, in a natural theatre, mirrored all the way to the starry night sky above, radiating into outer and inner space.

***

~ 8.1 ~

For Mom: September, the last of the blushing leaves re-join the earth as she draws all gently toward her. In contrast, I can see shard-like deflections piercing and distorting my root system. Trauma and misguided loves aside, there are many ways to shape hearts and homes. The forms can look like sad eyes, generous tables and thresholds made of unattended grief, or conversely, crystalline cathedrals made of opalescent overtones. Home can look like a paint-by-number colouring book or free-flow doodles that turn into stilt-house communities with glass peek-a-boo floors that look deeply into an ocean so rich, so filled with colourful fishes, that my heart swells with joy every time I realize how lucky I am to be alive!

I’m just sweeping up the shattered lenses before I close up my family’s little shop of sorrow. I’m well, Ma. I’m not sick or tired anymore. The news is that the MRI results came back “negative” for anything other than harmless lesions, scar tissue, fatty deposits and benign tumours, Ma. All hail incidentalomas! That’s what I’d been trying not to tell you all week. I was afraid you wouldn’t hear me, so I beat around the burning bush a bit. Here’s the other thing, Ma. I’m ready to let go of being a xerophyte. Sure I still love the succulents, aloe, cacti, sansevierias, jades and me. Sure it’s the height of global warming, so the deck is stacked against me, but I don’t care. I’m ready for something completely different. Something lush. No more venom-laced needles, Ma. The dawn is breaking open for the kid and me and…Ma. Ma?

***

In an instant, all seemed to stand still like sculptural Giacometti groupings. Frozen, ambivalent, waiting to be released. Life—and identity—is anything but static. As for my true name, the sea knows it and I think—no I’m sure—I hear the call.

(1) Traditional white shrouds of Jewish Tradition
(2) In the Jewish tradition, the washing and purifying of a dead body, is considered one of the greatest of all good deeds – mitzvot. Those who perform taharas are volunteer members of the burial society, chevra kadisha.
(3) True act of kindness.
(4) kohanim is the Hebrew word for “priest”, used in reference to the Aaronic priesthood. Levitical priests or kohanim are traditionally believed and halakhically required to be of direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron (also Aharon), brother of Moses.
(5) Self-obliteration is the notion of reducing everything to polka dots or atoms. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/aft.13.20711605?journalCode=aft)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carina Costom grew up in Montreal and has a degree from McGill University. She has been published in The Black Bear Review and the Nelson Star. She is working on her first collection of short stories. http://www.carinacostom.com