Moving through fear

Lit from within is the sole secure way
to traverse dark matter. Some life forms —
certain mushrooms, snails, jellyfish, worms —
glow bioluminescent, and people as well; we
emit infrared light from our most lucent selves.
Our tragedy is we can’t see it.

From Robin Morgan’s “The Ghost Light”

As I get older, I am scared to do new things. Sometimes fear sucks the life and juice out of my plans and ideas, drying them in my solar plexus where they rattle around for months, even years. I can feel one or two in there now.  Those husks are like the bone-and-fur pellets—all that remains of their prey—that owls disgorge in the night. But the good news is that when I walk through fear, my plans and ideas can be reconstituted.

For over a year, I contemplated the bike racks on Victoria’s BC Transit buses.  I’d watch a nimble cyclist enter the space in front of a bus, pull down the rack, and lift her bicycle up and into the metal grooves. Her quick hand motion somehow moved a slender, rubber-clad arm up and over the front wheel. There seemed to be some mysterious communication pass between the driver and the cyclist both when the cyclist secured the bike and again when she removed it at her destination. How could I ever hope to know what was going on there? And with such weak arms, how could I possibly lift my bike onto the rack, place the wheels precisely into the grooves? Hopeless.

But I wanted to. Dusk begins before 5 p.m. these days, and I don’t want to ride home in the dark. But the mornings—well the sunrises are spectacular on the commute to work, streets frost-rimed and crisp as my wheels spin down the pavement. Smoky red-violet light blooms in the sky, heralding the sun’s bright burst of glory.  And it’s good exercise, my 45 minute commute, exercise I need. Another selling point: The Galloping Goose and Lochside trails have few riders this time of year.  Wouldn’t it be nice to ride to work in the morning and at the end of the day, pop the bike onto the rack and relax on the bus ride home, watching colourful Christmas lights slide by?

Feeling scared, I procrastinated. I didn’t know how to do it, wasn’t part of the bike rack club, one of the initiated. The bus driver would get annoyed with me. Other riders would feel irritated by my clumsiness. What if I did it wrong and my bike flew off the bus and caused an accident? Oh and the rack would probably already be taken up by other bicycles. Then what?  The list of fears and reasons not to act went on and on, dehydrating my plan until it was just a dry pellet.

One day I’d had just enough of myself, of the dry fear pellet knocking around my middle. I watched the video on BC Transit’s website on how to use the bike racks, then walked my bike over to the bus stop after work. I was lucky that an acquaintance of mine happened to be in the line-up, a philosophy student I’d coached. So I told her about my fear, and she admitted to also feeling paralyzed at the thought of doing new things. I felt less alone.  We chatted and I forgot to be scared.

When the bus arrived, I stepped in front of it and pulled the bike rack down. Just as I had imagined, I found it hard to hold my bike up and away from my body, then navigate its wheels into the grooves. I faltered a couple of times, almost dropping it. A young woman waiting for another bus saw what was happening and came quickly to my side. She helped me manoeuvre the wheels into the spaces, then showed me how to pull the locking bar out and over the wheel, how to test that it was secure.  When I got on the bus, the driver instructed me to give him some notice before my stop. I felt relieved.

I chatted with my philosophy acquaintance about C.S. Lewis and the four loves, about religion and being brought up as atheists—an experience we shared, about Iris Murdoch, and about marking papers. Such a delightful opportunity to discuss ideas and feelings.  Occasionally, I’d look up and see my handlebars through the front window and feel a ping of pleasure. I did it!  When I got off the bus and removed the bike, I flipped the rack up, made eye contact with the driver and gave him a thumb’s up as I moved out of the way. He nodded at me.  I was initiated.

The second time was a little easier—again, someone came to my aid when I faltered. (Oh, the kindness of strangers!) Third time was smooth; I needed no assistance, felt confident. Fourth time, I felt like an old hand, like I’d been doing this forever, what was ever the problem?

Fifth time I had to take the bus both to and from work because my tire deflated 10 minutes into my ride. The tires on this new bike of mine have Presta valves, and I was used to Schrader. I hadn’t paid full attention when Michael showed me how to use the pump on my tires. So when I inflated the back tire because it was feeling soft, I forgot to screw the little nut clockwise on the valve, and the air slowly leaked out as I rode.  When I noticed I was riding on a flat, I said to myself, no problem—I’ll take the bus.

After the workday, I put my bike on the bus home, and the friendly driver commented, “nice bike.”  I agreed it was a great bicycle. Then I mentioned my problem that morning with the deflated tire.  I took a seat near the front and fell into a reverie. After a while, the driver pulled to a stop to let some passengers on, and a big truck swiped the bus, cracking the side mirror. The driver was shaken up, and he announced to us that he’d do his best to fix the mirror with a rubber band, but he wasn’t sure it would hold and we may have to get off and wait for the next bus.

The rubber band held for about seven stops, keeping the glass fragments in their frame.  But then the driver, a kind and patient guy in his fifties, stopped again and announced that the rubber band had snapped, and he’d have to find some kind of replacement. He was pretty upbeat about it—not defeated yet.

“What do you need?” I asked. “Maybe I have something in my purse.”  “Well as a matter of fact,” he smiled, “I’ve been eyeing that bungee cord you’ve got on your bike basket. That would be perfect.” “Oh, that’s a great solution. Take it—it’s yours!” He removed the cord that I keep strapped onto my bike’s wire basket and wrapped it around the mirror until the glass shards, like puzzle pieces, were secure again in their frame.  “Perfect,” he said as he came in from the cold and closed the doors. “We’re legal.”

As I got ready to get off the bus, he thanked me for the bungee cord.  “Hey, if you hadn’t had the problem with your tire deflating this morning, you wouldn’t be here now giving me the bungee cord. You saved the day!” I smiled at him and waved at the passengers. They waved back and a few called out their thanks.  My bungee cord had helped them avoid a long delay in their travels home.

These days, fear seems to loom large over small things, things like putting a bike on a bus rack. But when I go forward and just do those things I fear doing, in the

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“where fear lives/lit from within”

words of Robin Morgan, I feel lit from within. I come forward, out of my safe cocoon. I engage with people—kind strangers, grateful passengers, and a gentle bus driver.  I engage with life.

Note on the illustration:  Credit to Nathaniel Churchill (thanks, Nat). I used one of his paintings behind the cutout in my sketch.  It occurred to me that this piece illustrates not only fear-pellets in the solar plexus, but it can also be interpreted as the experience of feeling “lit from within.”  Life is full of paradoxes.

 

 

No candy here, but you are loved

On Hallowe’en, after eating Michael’s amazing lamb curry, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Dusk, and the veil between the worlds was growing thin. We saw some spectacular sights: skeletons rattling from tree branches, dozens of glowing jack-o-lanterns, front-lawn cemeteries, and even fog machines blowing eerie mists over cardboard gravestones. We saw a few costumed kids, as well, and were reminded that we had no candy in our house.

On our return home, we closed the living room blinds and turned out the porch light. My husband printed a sign and taped it to the front door so there would be no confusion: “Sorry, there is  no candy available here. Please be safe and enjoy your Hallowe’en.” We are out of the habit of distributing candy to trick-or-treaters not only because our children have grown to be men, but because we rarely eat white sugar anymore.  My body suffers when I eat sweets—I experience an immediate high then a crash with aching joints and deep fatigue. So doling out mini Snickers bars or bags of M&M’s seems cruel. (Apologies to my own children for feeding them so much sugar over the years.)

We settled down to watch a movie, a documentary about Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”  Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood made its debut on national public television in February 1968. I didn’t watch the show as a child, but it aired until 2001 so my children watched it sometimes, and I always had a fondness for the show’s slow and gentle pace and the kindness reflected in the content.

As we watched, I found tears streaming down my face.

I cried when Fred Rogers, sitting on a low stool, angled his tall, lean body toward a small boy and listened carefully to what the child had to say. I cried when children thronged around him during his public appearances, and one little girl came right up to him and said “Mr. Rogers, I want to tell you something. I like you,” and he said “I like you too, dear. Thank you for telling me that,” and touched her arm. I wept some more when I heard him say, “I like you just the way you are” to the thousands of unseen children at home and again when I heard that the simple, scruffy Daniel the Tiger puppet spoke from Fred Roger’s own childhood fears and vulnerabilities. More tears came as I witnessed the kindness Rogers showed when he spoke to children about how confused, sad, or scared they felt about divorce, death, or war.  I cried out of sadness about my own childhood when I heard him say “Children have very deep feelings, just as everyone does.” And I cried the most when I heard him say that “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

It was my birthday present to myself, I realized, to release my sadness and joy through tears as I watched this movie. I feel happy that Fred Rogers created the show and made a difference in so many children’s lives. I suppose it was ironic that we hadn’t been neighbourly ourselves when we posted our “no candy” sign and shut out our young neighbours on Hallowe’en.

A few days later, I went to a craft fair with friends and found a man who carved wands out of wood.  A wand with a chisel design and a heart at one end caught my attention. After buying it for $10, I moved the wand through the air, imagining that as I waved it, love flowed from the tiny wooden heart and spread warmth and philia over those around me. I tested it on my two friends and a few of the craftspeople sitting at nearby tables. Feeling the immediate effects of the love wand, their smiles grew wide and shiny.  I was onto something.  So when I brought my wand and other purchases home, I thought back on Hallowe’en and imagined what might have transpired if I had in my possession that evening my magic wand. I would have cast a small yet convincing spell over all the children in the neighbourhood as they trudged house to house for treats. To the witches and zombies and superheroes—to all of them—I would have delivered a powerful message: You are loved just the way you are.IMG_3403

Michael’s Lamb Curry (the secret is in the onions)

serve with rice; 8 portions

2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
6 large cloves garlic and 1.5 inch knob of ginger – both minced
7 Roma tomatoes
3-3.5 lbs. lamb shoulder (boneless) cut into small cubes
14 oz. can chick peas, rinsed and drained
3 c. green beans, washed, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1/3 jar Patek’s Vindaloo paste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
approx. 1/2 tsp. cayenne (to taste)
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
olive oil as needed

Sauté onions, garlic, and ginger in olive oil over medium heat until you swear they are going to burn. Just keep turning them as they turn dark brown and you have to scrape them off the bottom of the pan. This takes a while. Meanwhile, pat the lamb cubes dry and fry in another pan in olive oil until brown, then deglaze the pan with a little water to get all the brown bits off.

Blanch and peel the tomatoes.

When onions are completely brown, add curry paste and fry into the onions, blending well.  Crush the tomatoes with your hands into the onion mixture. Stir. Add the lamb, the cut beans, and the chick peas, then mix in vinegar and honey. Add the cayenne to as hot as you like. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook 40 minutes or until the lamb is tender.

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Magic love wand: $10

 

 

 

 

We have to be honest with ourselves

I usually have several things percolating. Right now it’s Inktober, so I’m doing a sketch every day inspired by the prompts, keeping my drawing loose and free and generative. Jake Parker started Inktober in 2009. He wanted to improve his inking skills so he set out to make 31 ink drawings during the 31 days of October, and the idea blossomed.  Here are drawings prompted by 1) cruel and 2) weak. All of them are on Instagram: @maddyruthwalker 

 

Next, there’s Loren’s butterfly quilt, and I feel a bit stalled, though I have booked a solitary quilting weekend in November to finish it. I had tried to “cut corners,” even when I know that is always a mistake. Trying to skimp on time, materials, money, or love. . . this strategy always backfires on me. I have all of these old batting scraps and thought, well rather than buying a new big whole piece, I will just sew them together loosely by hand and it will be fine. I hate to waste them, after all. I am frugal. And then I realized I didn’t have basting spray to put the layers together, so I figured, well I bet if I put a few pins in the quilt it will all stay together enough for me to quilt it. So I did that, always hopeful, but in the back of my mind remembering other times that I’d donned my rose-coloured spectacles and done  something not very sensible, yet still unreasonably hoping for the best.

Sure enough, after machine quilting about one-quarter of the quilt I noticed the puckering and unevenness: The lack of basting spray combined with cobbled-together-batting created shifting fabric and resulted in a lumpy mess.  Furious with myself, I decided to rip the whole thing out, buy the spray, buy the batting and stop trying to cheap out on stuff.  But when I ripped out the stitching, being mad instead of patient, I ripped too hard and tore holes into the quilt top. So then I had three little rips that I had to patch.

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Hiding my mistakes in plain sight

Deep breath, accept what just happened, I told myself. I created three little patches, not in matching cloth, but in contrasting cloth. Hiding my mistakes openly. The patches are obvious cues that something went wrong, but the mistake itself, the ugly rip, is covered. Hiding in plain sight. Whenever I quilt, I am reminded that things take time. What’s the rush?

My illustrated memoir, Sow’s Ear Purse is coming along (about 150 pages so far).  I am including the first five pages, below.  Sometimes I grab bits from other pieces I’ve written and incorporate them into the memoir. After all, I am making a sow’s ear purse, not a silk one. Please let me know what you think.

My storytelling flow class with Tom Hart at Sequential Artists Workshopis almost over; we are all scripting and putting together the final iteration of our stories.  Mine is about Niobe, a woman who grew up in Dogland and became King Ambrose’s seamstress, only to hear the distressing news that he is a sexual predator, so she plans an escape to Cat Island, a loving and benign kingdom. But some urgent news interrupts her flight.   Maybe I’ll post the full comic here once it’s finished. . . . Stay tuned.

I hope you are engaged in your own creative processes this month.

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We have to be honest with ourselves

“We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that. That is the foundation of warriorship and the basis for conquering fear.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,  Smile at Fear, p. 6

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I’m losing my memory, and with it, all of my memories.  I’m frightened that I won’t know my sons, my husband. That I’ll forget who I am and what I was. When I’ve lost that, I won’t be anybody. My thoughts, memories, and ideas will float away, like helium balloons, lighter than air, and what’s left will be a husk of me, the functioning yet deteriorating body, the spark of intellect extinguished. Arthritic hands will fumble over the TV remote, an ugly knitted afghan pulled over my plump aching knees.  I’ll ask my caregiver, “what’s for lunch?” only to be told, “you’ve just had lunch, dear. It’s time for your nap.” Well, you might think, that can happen to anybody.

The thing is, my brain is different from other people’s; it’s not just the inevitable memory loss associated with aging that terrifies me. The memory lapses ageing brings are now meeting the earlier damage my brain suffered from blackout drinking as a teenager. I imagine my mind right now as a slim sandbar with a black tide rising on either side. The lapping Lethe-like waves surround me and it’s only a matter of time until one touches the other, the foamy lip of old brain damage kissing the lacy dribble from age’s drooping mouth. Over the course of my life I have known that my hippocampus is different from other people’s.  There is something missing, some capacity for cementing details that others seem to have, the train into long-term memory is stuck at the station. I’ll read a novel, see a film and two weeks later it’s gone—as if erased. This was happening even in my thirties and forties. It’s a miracle I was able to remember enough of what I read and learned to complete a Ph.D. in my late forties. Now that I am turning sixty, it’s only grown worse. If I don’t write things down, they are lost.

In “Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf describes with sensuous detail her first memories—the “red and purple flowers on a black ground” of her mother’s dress, and then lying half asleep in a nursery bed at St. Ives, the Woolf’s seaside house in Cornwall, hearing the waves breaking behind the yellow blind, “the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.  [My earliest memories are] of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” (p. 65). Later in the sketch are captures of scenes and places wrought with photographic intimacy, a closeness that made me start to weep when I realized I have only a few dry kernels of remembrance rattling around my mind. Woolf was a little younger than I am when she wrote this essay. The precision of detail amazes me. What do I remember from early years? A veil obscures that time from consciousness. Any memories I have seem to be memories created from my cache of small square photographs with their warped, jagged edges: Serving my stuffed animals “tea” at Little Bear’s tea party, blowing enormous soap bubbles with my adopted Grandmother in Berkeley, feeding the llamas at the children’s zoo at Tilden park. My mind fools me into thinking that I remember those events, but I don’t—there’s only the faded capture on Kodak paper. No sensuous details arise; no feelings live on in my cells.  There’s just a dumb grey screen.

Yet there is a memory from age 11—my sisters sitting with me on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, both dabbing at my new kilt with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know that we’d gotten drunk. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked down Spadina Avenue, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. Liquid gold, ecstasy, painting my insides. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, sour-tongued, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch. Give it to me again and again!

There was no turning back. For the next fifteen years, I drank to get drunk. With my friends and family, I had to elaborately hide the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch. Not all the time, and I don’t think I drank steadily until I was around 16, but the hungry ghost had always been inside me. The ghost is inextinguishable.

Scientists have found that binge drinking in the teen years leads to irreversible brain damage. When researchers gave 10 doses of alcohol to adolescent rats over 16 days, mimicking binge drinking, they discovered that nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory and learning, communicated abnormally and looked abnormal. According to the scientific report, “Branches coming off of nerve cells should look like short mushrooms. Instead, here they looked long and thin.”

In addition to damage to the hippocampus, heavy drinking leads to the loss of white matter in the brain. Like a shuttle bus, white matter quickly delivers messages to grey matter, so when you lose white matter the efficacy of your thinking is disrupted.  Alcohol also affects the prefrontal cortex and, thus, executive function. As drinking adolescents start to lose executive function, they find it more and more difficult to stop their self-damaging behavior, triggering a vicious circle.

It all started to make sense. I imagined long thin mushrooms branching off my botched nerve cells. As a typical teenager, the long-range planning or executive planning part of my brain was developing more slowly than other parts. The effects of alcohol abuse confounded this slow development by dissolving my white matter, prompting me—when I started to feel tipsy—to abandon thoughts of consequences and take many risks. Early in my life, my brain was irreversibly rewired. My memory just doesn’t work like other peoples.         

But I have my journals—erratic records of my life—that connect me to my past. Traces of my forgotten life live on in those notebooks that overflow a blue 60-litre Rubbermaid tub. Some date back to the mid-1970s when I first started to write.  Sometimes, this tub holding my past feels like a burden. Like Pandora’s box, it harbours snakes that might slither out and asphyxiate me. Ghosts might be unleashed, giving rise to nightmares, regret, self-recriminations. But could there be hidden treasures in there as well, I wonder? I contemplate the tub with ambivalence: The emancipatory urge to clear space battles with the fear of losing everything. Are the old journals a scourge holding me back from the future? Or do the journals anchor me to an identity, a reminder of who I am, the only record of Madeline as I slowly lose my mind?

As my 60thbirthday approached and my fear of losing my ability to remember grew, I decided I needed to make something out of those journals, but the thought of reading all of them was overwhelming.  How can I choose which ones to read? I wondered.

Always intrigued by chance, I wondered what it would be like if I pulled only 13 out of the pile of perhaps 50 or 60 journals and worked with just them. What if I eschew choosing the “best” or most interesting ones, the most dramatic ones, and rather, work with whatever I get? That would alleviate the huge responsibility of poring over all of them, and it would also force me to make something out of “slim pickings,” perhaps. I remember my mother telling me you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. True, you can’t make silk from pigskin, but you can make an even more bewitching purse from that sow’s ear than you could ever fashion from mere silk. Work with what you’ve got, with what you find, with what you pick out of the air, out of the dump, off street signs, from snatches of conversation.

 

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I am the sow

 

 

 

Northern lights in my palm

The first two stones were too flashy for me, I realize now, as I cradle the third stone in my palm.  This piece of Labradorite feels like a mineral replacement for “blankie,” a faded green blanket I depended on as a small child. When I felt sad or lonely, I would rub its sateen border against my cheek as I sucked my thumb.  I find the same kind of comfort in my stone as I wrap it tightly in one hand in times of anxiety, or examine its blue and green gleams as I turn it in the light.  It was such an unpromising piece of feldspar, I thought, when I first saw it among others in a small basket at the Rockhound Shop.

I had been missing my second piece—a much bigger specimen, shot through with showy Labradorescence. I know exactly where I left it – beside the computer monitor in a room at the University of Saskatchewan where I was presenting with colleagues at a conference. I had been holding the stone for confidence—my usual practice. But once the presentation was underway and I was clicking through the PowerPoint slides and gesticulating, I had laid it down, only to forget all about it as I packed up, chatting with audience members.

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I found my practice of holding my stone during public speaking so effective, I incorporated it into a workshop on effective workplace presentations, even though I knew some people would find it corny.

I really missed it. Missed the cool warmth in my hand, the feel of it, the revelatory colours of it.  Every time I examined it, I was reminded of the Northern Lights. That stone played its Labradorescence fast and loose, so it took no work at all to find the lights—they gave themselves away quickly. But my third stone was introverted, I suppose like me, and it looked unprepossessing with a dull grey finish, quite a bit smaller than one and two, roundish, just a mineral lump. But as I held it and shifted it slightly, I detected a shimmer at one end—as if its interior light would only be revealed with time and patience.

I discovered these stones by chance in the Southwest. Michael and I were driving one of those long stretches on a road trip somewhere in Utah, heading to Flagstaff, Arizona where we planned to spend my Hallowe’en birthday. We’d been to Arches National Park, seen the red sandstone interrupt the blue sky, felt young and small next to the old and otherworldly shapes. Somewhere, perhaps in the café where we’d eaten breakfast, I had picked up a free magazine with articles about healing modalities, vegetarianism, and crystals, ads for herbal remedies and craniosacral treatments. As M. drove, I happened upon an article about Labradorite. Apparently the Inuit people believe this stone fell from the frozen fire of the Aurora Borealis. Ordinary dull grey stone is transformed into an extraordinary container of mystical light.  Its name stemmed from the place it was first reported found—Paul’s Island near the town of Nain, Labrador.  Labradorescence is the optical phenomenon produced when light entering the stone is reflected back.

We arrived in Flagstaff and found a restaurant. Sitting near the windows and doors open to the street and eating dinner, we could see all of the neighbourhood children in their fine costumes, trick or treating from business to business. The hostess gave them candy, oohing and aahhhing at their lovely get-ups. As the sky grew dark and starry, as ghosts, witches, princesses, and pirates passed in front of us and we raised our glasses in a toast to my day of birth, I felt exquisitely happy.  After dinner we located the store, Crystal Magic, on North San Francisco Street. Many glass shelves displayed stones from all over the world, sparkling under bright lights, but I headed straight for Labradorite, and held my chosen piece comfortably in my hand for the rest of the evening.

The crystal and gem websites and books provide many possible meanings for Labradorite: a crystal of shamans, a stone of awakening, symbolizing inner spirit and intuition, fostering self-esteem, etc. etc. But for me, it’s about confidence. Even though it’s an optical illusion—there is of course no light emanating from inside the stone, it’s merely reflected—Labradorite with its inner gleam is my constant reminder that I have all that I need within me. I have all that I need here and now to be contented, happy, whole, well. I don’t need anybody’s approval. I am enough.

I don’t know how I lost my first stone or how I obtained my second one, but some years have passed since that magical birthday in Arizona, and I have become more practised at losing things. These days I often think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem, “One Art,” pulsing with irony:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

[to read the whole poem go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art]

Loss is inevitable—memories, things, loved ones, life. We all get to have lots of practice. While treasuring my third stone, I already anticipate losing it. I’ve already misplaced it several times in one week, so its loss feels inevitable. I hope the person who finds this stone appreciates its oblique flicker, its slant of fire.

Here’s to the ripe berry and the rat-grey fungus

Late August, and I feel a sense of impermanence. As my 60thbirthday nears, this sense becomes more sharp, an aching joy to be alive as I and everything around me changes, transforms, slips away. Riding my bicycle along Lochside Trail to work I note the rusty tinge of autumn on the leaves and grasses and the mist hovering over Swan Lake in the mornings. Sweet fruity smell of ripe blackberries blows at me in waves, and I stop sometimes to pick a few. Many fall to the ground, uneaten, wasted.  Seamus Heaney wrote about picking blackberries as a child, the hunger for these ripe jewels:

“You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. . . .”

 

But then, that lust turns to disappointment:

 

“We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,

A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.

The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

These last few weeks I feel the passing of time, nothing is fixed or stable, nothing keeps. At the University where I work, I sat at a table in the Student Union Building, slowly sipping my coffee, and a man, his white hair tied back in a scraggly ponytail, approached. He was looking at the bulletin board beside me.  His eyes homed in on a notice for a missing person—Gladys Barman, in her 80s, had disappeared some weeks before. The photo showed a healthy-looking old woman with short white hair and glasses, her clear face smiling broadly. The man reached out and carefully removed the notice, pulling out each pushpin and folding the paper, placing it gently in his pocket.  Just a couple of days before, the remains of a body, not yet identified, but suspected to be Barman, had been found 11 km. from her car.  Although his eyes never contacted mine, I felt I shared something with him when he removed the copy of her joyful face from the board: someone you love is no longer in the world.

And then there was the yard sale. I was riding my bike to Fabricland, and what should I happen upon—but a huge fabric sale laid out in the front yard of a house in the neighbourhood. What synchronicity! Six long tables spilled over with fabric. Several women bustled around, tidying stacks of cotton and flannel.  Plastic bins overflowed with scraps, a pile of unfinished quilting projects towered, bags of quilt batting were tucked under the long tables. Signs everywhere: “$5 a metre – no cutting – fill a bag of scraps for $5.” A gaunt woman in a wheelchair was parked in the middle of it all, directing the bustling women: “I don’t want a scrap of fabric coming back into the house!” Behind her, a run-down rancher mirrored her looks, bedraggled and tired, its shrouded windows like sad, downcast eyes. I took advantage of the “bag of scraps” offer, grazing over the bits of colourful cottons, listening to the talk swirling around me.  These plump bustling women were her sisters; she had had heart trouble, could no longer sew, and was confined to the wheelchair. As I examined a half-finished Hallowe’en quilt, dug into mounds of coloured scraps, looking for treasures, I thought of all the hope embedded here, sewn into every seam, every purchase. She thought she had ample time—all the time in the world—to finish all of these projects and more.  But all we have is  borrowed time.

Knowing my time here is only borrowed wakes me up. Yeats’s poem, “Vacillation,” contains a stanza that has been my favourite for the last 15 years because it celebrates the simple bliss of reaching middle age, of just being here:

“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

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Like Yeats, I have sat in a café, nursing a coffee, reading a book. I, too, have looked up at the world and felt the searing joy of being present, alive, blessed, even capable of blessing.

The disappointment comes in believing any of it will last—the freshness of the berry, my health, energy to sew or write, my memory, my ability to read, to walk briskly, to get to Gorgeous Coffee on my own—all of it will go. Unless, of course, I go first. So here’s to now. here’s to impermanence.  Here’s to the ripe berry and to the rat-grey fungus. Here’s to aging and to great happiness. Here’s to the bitter and to the sweet.

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50981/blackberry-picking

http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/yeatspoems/Vacillation

 

 

 

The wild joy of being nobody

IMG_1905My favourite Arbutus tree was doing her usual backbend into the Colquitz River, her waxy leaves dipping into the brown flow. On my visit yesterday, I leaned into her, as I always do, feeling the cool papery bark under my bare arms and thighs.  It’s dry, high summer, and the river is low and sludgy.  I walk a little way down the path toward the water and crouch in a sunny spot surrounded by white umbrellas of Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the slight breeze. The drone of bees.  As I gaze at the river, a movement on the opposite bank catches my eye. A mother raccoon with four kits emerges from the undergrowth. The kits follow her lead and stand in the shallows, “washing” their paws in the brown liquid. A sound between a cat’s purr and bird-song chirrups from the large female as she guides the kits along the bank, batting one occasionally when it pauses too long in the water. The creatures disappear quickly back into the hedges and I am left watching the treacly river wend its lazy way.

I walk along the trail 20 metres or so and as I come into a clearing, watch a substantial bird—perhaps the size of a big robin—feeding on the ground. Noticing me, he flies rapidly into a tree and I approach softly, cautiously, to get a better look. He looks like a male Northern Flicker, a scarlet slash on his throat. I am so close I can see the handsome beige plumage on his breast, speckled with dark brown, like flax seeds in bread.

Today, during my walk around the horticulture gardens, I rounded a corner and came upon a California quail, several chicks scuttling behind her. I admire their developing “topknots,” still tiny compared to their mother’s larger plume of dark feathers atop her head.  A few minutes later, I happen upon a hare, still as a statue, on the meadow path. I freeze along with him and study his handsome tweed coat, his tall, swanky ears.

When I saw these animals, I was spacious awareness, a nobody. It felt like a gift I’d been given, to quietly witness their everyday existence on the river, in the tree, in the meadow. I started to think about how I’ve been seeing things, observing, letting my “self” recede so I am a container of consciousness, a watcher.  It hasn’t always been so. Reading my old journals as I attempt to write my memoir has made me see a pattern in my life: My yearning to be seen shows up over and over again.  Engulfed by that obsession to be validated, I was often oblivious to seeing what was happening around me.  Analogous to the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy, I had to be seen before I could see.

Why does being seen by another feel so primordial, so necessary, so life giving?  Ralph Ellison, in his masterpiece, Invisible Man, was able to convey that sense of not being seen—of the eyes of the interlocutor passing over you as if glazing off the skin’s surface without taking in the who-ness of the other.   He is invisible to everyone he meets because they see only the stereotype of black man; he is a carapace, a skin without substance. Nobody sees who he really is. That is an awkward identification—who am I to compare myself to the oppressed African American man? But the idea holds. It was about not been recognized, not being looked at deeply with understanding and recognition. About the hungry, emerging identity, looking for a reflection to hook into. Who am I? The other, the mother, does not mirror back who I am—and my own recognition that I might have missed something crucial in childhood: the mixed comfort and power derived from the mother’s mirroring eyes.

When I come across girls in novels and autobiographies who were not seen by their mothers, I realize that I am looking at a kind of fundamental misrecognition. Didn’t John Bowlby—king of attachment theory—tell us that babies need their own reflections gazing back at them from their mothers’ loving eyes to build identity? And doesn’t this ring true in so many ways?

Judith Duerk tells us that the mother is the “first representative of the Self to the infant, [and] constellates in the infant what will become the sense of Self within as the child grows.”  She goes on to paint that image of loving reflection that almost makes me salivate, it sounds so delicious and so unattainable: “As the baby sees itself mirrored in the face of the mother, sees its own image lovingly reflected in the mother’s eyes, a fledgling sense of a true and worthy self is born within the infant. With the birth of that sense of self is born a sense of being seen, recognized, and valued as who one really is” (10).

Kathryn Harrison’s shocking 1997 memoir The Kiss, in which she describes her “love affair” with her father—paints a portrait of the other kind of mother – the opposite to Duerk’s ideal mirroring mother. This mother demands a certain kind of image from the child; rather than reflecting back what is, she reflects back what ought to be. Harrison gets 100% on a French test at age seven: “My mother’s excitement over my perfect score is devastating. She hugs me, she kisses me, she buys me gifts; and even at the age of seven I understand how damning is my success—that my mother’s love for me (like her mother’s for her) depends on my capitulation. She will accept, acknowledge, seeme only in as much as I will make myself the child who pleases her” (20). But the test was won by cheating, and when the child admits this, her infuriated mother drives her to her grandparents’ house and abandons her there. Harrison next comes down with a sudden, mysterious illness. She loses weight and becomes very pale. When she returns to school, everyone says “She’s a different child!” (21). And she is never quite the same; she has learned the lesson so many children of self-absorbed mothers must learn—I am only seen when I conform to what you want to see; I am only loved when I do what you want me to do. Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) explicated this truth in its brutality, from the point of view of the child.

The crux of Harrison’s true tale is that, as a young woman, she is seduced by her father  and engages in a relationship with him over several years. Not being properly seen by her mother embedded a ravenous hunger for recognition deep into the fibers of her being. He told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world, the smartest, the best.  She felt seen. Her hunger was temporarily fed.

I am not suggesting that that hunger to be seen will drive all “invisible” men and women into destructive embraces. But Duerk articulates not being seen as an identity crisis: “Loss of the personal mother may leave the child without sense of self or self-worth, without hope that one will ever be seen as oneself. There is fear of being unable to become one’s true self, of never being truly known – never knowing who one truly is” (10).

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear . . . does it make a sound?  I need you to confirm my existence, or else I am invisible. I am persuaded by Alain de Botton’s description of love as “I”-Confirmation: “Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved” (108).  While Botton was describing this coming alive in the context of romantic love, it goes back, again, to the birthing of consciousness, to the baby’s awareness of the other, to the mother’s mirroring, loving eyes conferring “you-ness,” unique identity, to her child.

My journals record most of a lifetime searching for recognition in the eyes of others. I have prioritized been seen over seeing. But in the last decade or so there has been a shift. I feel seen now.  I feel loved. And this frees me to see the world around me. Daily meditation has trained my mind so the flow of discursiveness is interrupted for longer periods, holding a space for seeing.  Finally, growing older means a gradual receding of the noisy self. The ego occasionally takes a nap. I gain the ability to listen more than talk. I start to treasure invisibility because it allows me to witness the wild animals and to feel the wild joy of being nobody.

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References

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss.New York: Basic Books, 1969.

De Botton, Alain. Essays in Love.London: Picador, 1993.

Duerk, Judith. Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself.  San Diego CA: LuraMedia, 1989.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Harris, Kathryn. The Kiss. New York: Random House, 1997.

Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

 

 

 

Walking it back

Madeline: “I’d like to go that big yard sale tomorrow,”

Two heartbeats occur.

Madeline: “But maybe you’d rather not. I guess we have something else planned?”

Michael: “Don’t walk it back! If you want to go the sale, you should go to the sale.”

Michael has noted that I have a habit of “walking it back.” I put forward an idea, a desire, a need. Then I rapidly withdraw it, sometimes not completely, but I often pull it back at least partially in a sentence laden with doubt. I offer qualifications for the original ask, or I might revise it entirely, deciding I don’t want it after all if it 1) inconveniences another person or persons or 2) makes me appear to take up too much space in the world (literally andmetaphorically).

I’m glad he brought this to my attention—I often don’t see my practices and habits; they are so embedded in my “personality,” I don’t recognize them for what they are. I believe the “walking back” behaviour is linked to a primal fear of claiming my place in the world, filling up space—taking up room physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically.

Looking back over old journals as I write my memoir has been painful and illuminating.  I started to think that perhaps “walking it back” is the trace of primal wounds that manifested in a different way in my teens and twenties. I saw my references in journals to bingeing and purging, and I could see my bulimia as the prototypical instance of “walking it back.”  According to the New Oxford American dictionary, bulimia is an “emotional disorder involving distortion of body image and obsessive desire to lose weight, in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by self-induced vomiting, purging and fasting.”  One root of the word is from the Greek “ox hunger” (bous + limos).

That fits because there was a “black hole” inside me as big as the hunger of an ox, representing the need to be loved, accepted, to be seen, to be enough.  To fill it I would secretly eat and eat.  I remember secreting away a whole tin of homemade orange-flavoured cookies my grandmother sent one Christmas, hoping nobody would notice that most of them were gone when I replaced the tin in the morning.  The taste of my stomach acid laced with orange kept coming back up my burning throat and into my mouth for weeks.  The shame I felt every time I entered the bulimia triangle was debilitating, yet whenever I succumbed to this pattern, it felt inevitable, the only way to temporarily fill the unfillable hole.

Eating is a way of claiming something—Hey world, I am trying to fill up my cavernous need even though I know this won’t work for long, it never does. Almost immediately, I would feel terrible guilt and shame about claiming that space, the actual physical space of the fat person I might turn into. The fear of my fat body taking up space in the world, more space than was acceptable, sent me into the purging phase, trying to bring up as much food as I’d shoved down.  That is a way of walking it back. . . I regret claiming space, I need to undo that expression of desire. Maybe if I bring it all back up we can pretend it never happened.  Not only did the bingeing never happen, but I never had a need to be loved, there is no black hole. I am fine. Just fine. The performance of pretending I am okay, I am self-sufficient, I don’t need you: A hard role to play all day, every day.

Susan Bordo sees bulimia as a result of the double bind that modern society puts women in—we must perform as if we are always confident, self-sufficient, self-disciplined, and the price we pay is an inexorable letting go: “Many of us may find our lives vacillating between a daytime rigidly ruled by the “performance principle” while our nights and weekends capitulate to unconscious “letting go” . . . In this way the central contradiction of the system inscribes itself on our bodies, and bulimia emerges as a characteristic of modern personality construction” (477).

As I read Bordo and think about bulimia as a systemic problem, I wonder if thousands of other young women were doing what I was doing, are doing now what I was doing for over a decade.  The secrecy of it makes me so sad. Perhaps I left traces of my disorder, a smell of puke in the bathroom, missing cake, chocolate bar wrappers. . . but mostly I think it was hidden from everybody who loved me.  How sad I am now to think that I “performed” my life so much of the time.

Bingeing and purging are part of my distant past, but Michael’s urging me to not “walk it back” is a loving reminder that I still sometimes fear being a woman on the earth who has needs, desires, and preferences. A reminder that I can and should take up room in every way. I claim my right to be here. I speak my truth. Two of the ways I do that is by writing and drawing.BulimiaTriangle

(Thank you, M.)

Reference

Bordo, Susan. 1995. “Reading the Slender Body.” In Nancy Tuana and Rosemarie Tong   (eds.), Feminism and Philosophy: Essential Readings in Theory, Reinterpretation and Application. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 467-88.

Remembering Hanna

IMG_1739When Hanna came to visit, she brought candy. Not dark chocolate for the adults, but Twizzlers, sour worms, stuff kids devour. She sent birthday money and cards to my children. One summer she came to visit from Ontario and listened to my teenage son play clips from the music he was loving that season. She leaned in attentively when he described to her why he liked it. She was interested.

You were welcome at her house. John would make a beautiful latte for me while Hanna and I caught up on news.  Even if it had been over a year since our last visit, our talk felt seamless. It was that kind of friendship.

When I visited her in Toronto or Bradford, she would often drive me and whatever kids I brought with me up to my father’s farm and stay for lunch. She loved the green fields and the trees, the pond fringed by weeping willows and graced with swans. She loved to help others, and she thought nothing of going out of her way, driving three hours just to get you somewhere.

A few years ago, I visited Toronto with my new husband, and when I called to ask if we could see her, she invited me to the hospital where she was staying at the time. I was surprised and worried, but she treated the whole thing as natural, greeting us from the metal bed as if she were sitting on the couch in her living room.

Although self contained, sometimes she opened like a peony. We sat cross-legged on her bed once, and she lifted up her shirt to show me her mastectomy scars, raw ridges across her breastbone. She knew about impermanence, about the art of losing.

And she was loyal.  Though we didn’t see each other much, we remained friends for over 30 years. She always asked how my kids were doing, my parents, my sisters. And it was genuine, never pasted-on.  When my book of poetry was published a few years ago and a small launch was held in a Queen Street bar, she made sure she was there to quietly support me, even though she wasn’t well, and I could see it took prodigious effort to get there.

She threw the spotlight on others by drawing attention to their achievements whiledownplaying her own considerable ones. She saw mistakes and problems in the kindest light—her gentle brown eyes and wide smile encouraged you to just be yourself, it was okay.  She accepted you. “Oh Mad,” she would say, with a sing-song lilt—starting high on the “Oh” and down a perfect fifth on the “Mad.” Empathetic affection. We’re in this crazy world together.

She was proud of her kids and her husband, and she worried about them.  She knew she was going to leave us too soon, and she worried about that too, because she wanted her family to be okay without her.

The last time I saw Hanna was around a year ago. She was pretty sick, yet still going to work, her job another focus of her loyalty. She had always exuded a spritely energy, a kind of no-nonsense way of moving around her environment. But in the last couple of visits, she had slowed down and was finding her body unwieldy.

She had taken up knitting in a big way—following Arne and Carlos, the Scandinavian knitting duo. She wrote their names and blog address in her neat script on a post-it note for me to take home. We sat together on her living room couch, admiring her colourful hand-knit socks. “Maybe,” I told her, “I’ll take up knitting too.” Knitting keeps your mind off things, off the future, she told me. “You have to pay attention,” she told me, “or you’ll drop a stitch.”

I miss you, Han.

 

 

Deep in pink snow

pinksnowLike walking on pink snow, I thought, as my feet padded over a bed of petals under a cluster of Kwanzan Flowering Cherry trees. Here in Victoria, we get more pink snow than white; from February until May these blossoms drift in eddies from their fruit tree homes and fall gently to the ground.  And then I remembered an old book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Sally and her brother were clearing snow outside when the Cat in the Hat ambled by. Even though they remembered the havoc he created in the first book (The Cat in the Hat), they unwisely let him in the house to get out of the cold, where he ate cake in the bathtub, leaving a pink ring. When he tried to clean the bathtub ring, he made things worse: he transferred the pink stain to the mother’s white dress, the father’s shoes, the rug, and the bed. The big Cat asked for help from little cats A, B, and C (who live under his tall hat), but they spread the stain further, onto the white snow outside. You may have read this book, which culminates in “Voom,” an amazing magical cleaning agent under the hat of microscopic cat Z that wiped the snow pure white. But only after all the other 25 alphabet cats plus their leader had transformed the snow into a bubblegum-pink blanket across the yard.

I recalled the book and the image of pink snow not with pleasure, but with disquiet.  I realized that when I read that picture book, published the year of my birth, I used to feel not delight but worry. That huge anarchist cat was threatening, not fun or jolly: he initiated chaos. His swirl of pink filth grew unbidden, and I had no control over it. How scary to watch the malevolent pink stain spread like bacteria over everything inside and outside.  What a revelation to have bodily sensations—a clenched stomach and light fluttery heart—when I remembered the growing pink stain and my helplessness in the face of it. And then when the problem was solved—voila!—by Voom, again I had no control over that; it was simply something that happened out there in the world. It didn’t matter that order was restored as if the stain had never happened. What I remembered was feeling not relieved, but disturbed and powerless.

As children, we have no control over the big Cats out there—they do crazy stuff and all we can do is feel our fear and anxiety as we watch events unfold. I am reading a book, Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth, that perfectly captures a child’s experience of being swung around like a leaf in a windstorm. As an immigrant Austrian Jew in the Lower East Side of New York City, David is manipulated by other children, criticized and beaten by his father, and abused and chastised by his rabbi, leaving him terrified and untrusting of the world. Only his mother Genya provides solace. Roth’s skill is in bringing us into David’s life so we feel the terror of events and his despairing existence. Once he wanders away from home and gets lost, ending up in the police station among Irish cops:

“He understood it now, understood it all, irrevocably, indelibly. Desolation had fused into a touchstone, a crystalline, bitter, burred reagent that would never be blunted, never dissolved. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Wherever you look, never believe. Whatever anything was or did or said, it pretended. Never believe. If you played hide’n’-go-seek, it wasn’t hide’n’-go-seek, it was something else, something sinister. If you played follow the leader, the world turned upside down and an evil face passed through it. Don’t play; never believe.”

Part 2

Recently I rediscovered How to be an Explorer of the World (2008) by Keri Smith on my bookshelf. Smith writes, “at any given moment, no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting.”  I decided to do experiment #33, arrangements, with pink snow. I was interested in pink snow as a thing. There was the idea of pink snow from a children’s book, then there were the pink petals under my feet.

The next day I took my cloth bag to work and gathered handfuls of petals from the ground. They were soft, buttery, and damp. The petals were attached to bits of brown detritus and mixed with long pine needles from a nearby coniferous trees, so I scooped them up all up together. Smith suggests explorers do lots of things with the materials they gather: stretch them out in a long chain, use them to cover a book, freeze them in ice.  I did different things with my petals. I shaped them into a circle, a heart, and face. I placed some in a plastic zip-lock bag with purple ink and smooshed the mess onto paper. I placed a handful in a mason jar full of water and kept it for a couple of days.  I suspended a round crystal over the mound of petals on my floor. I’m not sure why. . . I was just playing.  I realize I have a strong belief in the goodness of play and creativity.  And I have a need to play creatively. I used to think that play had to be for something; now I know it doesn’t have to be purposeful. Just play. Just believe.

Now to clean up all the old petals.

 

 

 

 

 

A play date with poetry

Sometimes I like to plan whimsical dates with my husband, to plant an hour or two with small surprises. You never know what you’ll find, what tiny miracle may blossom before your eyes.

One weekend in March, I arranged such a date.  We headed downtown, and as we started to walk Victoria’s chilly streets, I pressed a five-dollar bill into Michael’s hand.

“We’re looking for street musicians and we’re going to give them money. If they’re good. Maybe even if they’re not.”

We found neither good nor bad musicians. Instead, we found a lone artist in front of Munro’s Books replicating famous paintings in jewel-coloured pastels, brightening up Government Street. That day he was drawing what looked like an Alphonse Mucha head of a woman juiced with lots of reds and oranges.

We admired his skill, and my husband placed his $5 bill in the hat. Next we headed up to Russell’s Books, second floor, poetry section.

“You have $10 to buy a book of poetry,” I told Michael.  We stood side by side, pulling out slim volumes, one after the other, reading lines, testing their merit. Did we feel something, see something? Was there language that lifted us out of ourselves?

We finally settled on our books and headed to Chapters, second floor, Starbucks. I bought us coffee and we sat perched on stools overlooking Douglas Street. We sliced apples and cheese and shared a little picnic there.

“Now,” I told him, “I’ll read my poem into your ear, and you’ll read yours into mine.” I can be very bossy. When I was 11, I used to corral the neighbourhood children into our basement and set up “school” where I could be the teacher, telling them what to do.  I am lucky that Michael is very tolerant and accommodating of my “play dates.”

Michael placed his mouth close to my ear and read Marilyn Bowering’s “Three Swans and an Owl”: “I remember three swans,/with black ribbons in their beaks,/that flew from the loch by the crags…” My favourite lines were “I remember the swans in the ache of winter,/ their crystal bones primed with light/ as they fly, black-mouthed with signs.”

I then leaned into Michael’s side, standing beside his stool as the cars zipped below us and all around us people jostled and chatted. I read to him a remarkable glosa by P.K. Page, from her book Hologram, and I was hooked. When we got home, I sat on the couch and read all 14 poems.

Published in 1994, Hologram comprises 14 glosas, a complex form dating back to the late 14th, early 15th century used in the Spanish court. First you take an opening quatrain written by another poet. You write four ten-line stanzas, the concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain. Each stanza’s sixth and ninth lines must rhyme with the borrowed tenth. Page explains in the foreword how she struggled to master this form. First the choice of lines from another poet is difficult. Lines cannot be enjambed; they must be or appear to be end-stopped. And then you must make everything run smoothly; the borrowed lines have to somehow match your own sensibility or run parallel to it in some way you can work with. She makes the distinction of doing this as an exercise—which anyone can do—and actually catching some light or brilliance in the borrowing and crafting anew.  She uses wonderful quatrains from Bishop, Rilke, Lawrence, Eliot, Serafis, and others as the basis of her glosas.  Here is a sample poem “Autumn,”her borrowing for this one from Rilke.

I was fascinated: I had to try this form. I finally found four lines, quite plain and domestic, from Denise Levertov, whom I love. Her poem “Invocation” is for a house that the speaker is leaving, but hopefully will return to. Using an old house and Levertov’s lines as the foundation, I wrote a poem ostensibly about an old man leaving his farm, but really about the “the art of losing,” as Elizabeth Bishop describes it in “One Art.”  All that we must lose as we grow old: homes, memories, strength, possessions, people…

“His life, a house” definitely falls into the category of exercise (quite a tortured exercise in trying to rhyme with serapes and thus an ignominious ending), but I’ve enjoyed heralding the beginning of poetry month with this attempt at a glosa.

 

First, here is the foundation of my “house”:

from Denise Levertov’s “Invocation”

Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

And here is my glosa:

His life, a house

Dusk breaks the glowering sky with
light as he ambles up the steps
now stooped and slow. One last check to see
the floors all swept, swallows looping
by the naked windows. Oh! phantom
shape in the pasture, lone sheep that roused
him late one night, his gentle hand tugged
at tiny hooves descending, a breech that Easter.
No more a farmer? His mind bargains like Faust.
Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.

Upstairs he climbed to fathom forty years
of sleeping here. The bedroom’s quiet now,
silent but for sighs, his own, yet echoing her
pleasure. Sharply angled ceiling stained
from rain, but smoke and jazz used to fill
this space. This is what we meant
when we spoke of love: the low vibrating
line of deep contentment thrumming
underground, through a marriage spent.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.

Placing pulsing hands upon the sill,
Looking past the sedgy pond to where
two horses graze, but only in his mind.
He strides along the edge and checks electric
fences, smells the turf, feels such a well
of joy throb here, welcome, automatic,
his response to being outdoors, to being
of use, to being a man. His palsied
hands fall to his side. The house is static.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.

His life a house shorn of all goods.
Drapes once protected him from night, from
fears, from cold. Now curtains gone, the winter
sun burns in through gelid panes of glass
and touches wooden floors. No carpets here
to soak up all remembered laughs and happies,
his life an unprotected, wind-lashed house.
No cloth, no coverings but only he, Lear-like
upon the hearth, exposed from head to naked knees.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

oldman