My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

In February, the Waters of March

My father’s 92ndbirthday arrives next week. A fond memory keeps cycling around my mind, a memory of music and love. Once my father and I sat on a couch in a rented cottage in Parksville, a place where a ribbon of warm sand meets the calm water of the Strait of Georgia. It was a family reunion we held a few years ago: two of my sons came with their girlfriends; two sisters,  one niece, my father and stepmother rounded out the group. For two days we cooked and ate, talked, played Scrabble and Frisbee, and talked some more.

My father and I sat on the couch together, close, holding hands. We like doing that, holding hands when we sit. After an absence, it’s how we reconnect. He used to say to me on those occasions, all those times I came from Victoria to his Ontario farm, “Is there anything we need to talk about?” That was his invitation for me to tell him what was happening in my life: my troubles, my joys.

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While we sat and talked, I liked to press my thumb down on the prominent veins that embellish the backs of his work-worn hands. His lean body has no fat those veins can sink into, so like swelling blue rivers, they crisscross his skin.

Again that day we sat together, holding hands, but this time we talked about music. I asked him, what song brings joy? Not unadulterated joy, but the kind that tastes bittersweet? What song wakes you up, yet makes you wistful? Makes you feel simultaneously fiercely alive and hip to life’s fleetingness, death’s certainty? Well I’m sure I didn’t use all of those words, but whatever I said, he knew right away what I meant because he answered without hesitation: “Águas de Março.”

I was familiar with Waters of March, the Brazilian song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, because my father had often played the version by Getz and Gilberto from the album, The Best of Two Worlds, recorded in 1976. I found a YouTube version on my laptop and we sat and listened to it together, my smaller hand finding his big warm one.

getz gilberto

Gilberto strums his guitar, then his voice starts to climb up and down those whittled Portuguese lines, like climbing up and down ladders in the rain.  Next comes the voice of his wife Miúcha, singing the English words.

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone

It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun

The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
A knot in the wood
The song of a thrush

Her light coppery voice lilts and lists, catalogue of strange poetry, then his voice comes in again with the round custardy Portuguese vowels. The words swirl around, eddying like the rain coming down in a Brazilian town, descending, rippling, flowing into the vortex of 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows.

A stick, a stone
The end of the road
The rest of a stump
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass
A life, the sun
A knife, a death
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of all strain
It’s the joy in your heart

What is it about that song? Husband and wife singing in two languages, listing and chanting, the dance of two voices, two worlds. That bossa nova rhythm, Getz’s swooping saxophone, the swishing percussion. Flotsam and jetsam of words caught in a whirlpool like little coloured scraps of our lives, moments in time, swirling, twirling. What is it about rain in March swelling rivers in a faraway country that made us both feel a catch in our throats, made us start to cry as we listened together?

After a time, my father asked me what my song was, and I told him June Hymn by the Decembrists. So we listened to that next. And then it was time for dinner.

aguas de marco

https://youtu.be/b9yc_bbp99c

June hymn

https://youtu.be/KusWM9AKfZg

 

The River

 

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Judy and Madeline, 1992

So many people around me have stories to tell. This time, I’ve asked my sister Judy to contribute something to the blog, so here is her guest post. She writes, “in the winter of 1980/81, I spent six months backpacking through Sri Lanka, India and Nepal with two friends. Everyday was an adventure.This piece describes laundry day near Kandy, nestled among the hills in central Sri Lanka.”

By Judy Walker

The sun is hot. It beats down with all its force on the flat white rocks and reflects off the surface of the slow moving river creating a shimmering haze which envelopes the surrounding countryside. The couple squat on a slab of rock, their toes in the water, the sun heavy on their necks and backs, like an added weight, making it difficult to move. They go slowly, slowly working their way through the pile of clothes between them. Piece by piece the soiled clothes are dunked in the murky water, rubbed with soap then thwack, thwack, slapped against the rock, sending drops of water flying through the humid air. They work to the tunes of Hank Williams “Yer cheatin’ heart.” Hank wails while they work, getting into the rhythm, the sound, the feel of sweat pouring down their bodies.

She is brown and thin, wearing only a piece of black material wrapped around her body and gold around her wrists, ankles and throat. He is darker and fatter, black bushy hair wrapped in a knot at the back of his head, wearing a white lungi around his loins and a pair of sunglasses. Occasionally one or the other stop work to glance around, not wanting to miss any of the action. As the day gets hotter people and animals wander down to the river to submerge themselves in the cool water. An elephant is led down the jungle path moving slowly and labouriously. His keeper, a small black man, releases the animal at the edge of the water and he wades in. He slowly lowers his huge body into river, first down on his front knees, oomph, then on all fours, oomph, then he rolls over sending ripples across the river. His body is covered save for one eye and his trunk snaking out of the murky water.  He lies still and once again the surface of the river is like glass.

Not for long. A couple of boys just liberated from a morning at school run shrieking from the bushes, fly through the air and cannon ball into the deeper waters upstream, splash…splash. Then they’re out of the water and in again, splash… splash.

A long horned cow taking a break from working the rice paddies is led to the water by a young boy. She needs a little coaxing and pushing but is finally standing in water up to her chest. Her keeper pours water over her head and back.

Occasionally a woman appears from one of the many hidden paths leading to the river carrying a bundle of clothes to wash. She takes up her position at the edge of the water and begins the ritual. Thwack, thwack, each woman working to her own rhythm, the sound echoes through the river valley. Soon the surrounding rocks are covered with bright coloured saris drying in the sun.

The couple have finished the washing and are now moving slowly, spreading the wet clothes over the warm rocks and dried grass. This task finished, they retreat back from the river’s edge a bit, taking refuge from the midday sun under a coconut palm. The man removes a small pouch from the folds of his lungi and takes out a piece of sticky black hash, some tobacco and papers and proceeds to make a joint. The woman looks on lazily. Down river labourers are hard at work collecting mud from the river bed. They carry it into the forest in baskets balanced expertly on their heads. Everyone else, beast and human, have quit working for a few hours to avoid the punishing heat.

The clothes dry quickly but the man and woman under the tree are too stoned, too lazy to retrieve them just yet. Hank is singing a sad song and it is just so hot.

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Drawing by Madeline Walker

 

 

Midwinter: bleak or bright?

I could hardly believe that for the third time this week, I was looking at the four of cups. On Monday, I pulled the upright card, then on Tuesday, the same card reversed.  Now on Friday, I’d somehow picked the upright four of cups again from Michael’s Smith-Waite deck.  How is that even possible? Some will say it’s pure coincidence. Jung would call it synchronicity, “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” The universe delivers her message.

The first two picks were from my lusciously illustrated “cosmic” Norbert Losche deck. A young man looking into himself—the apex of introversion—ignores the four chalices among white lotuses placed before him. I read Anthony Louis’ explanation of this card, headed by the keyword “Discontent.” This card indicates withdrawal into oneself because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of life. I love my life right now, but I feel annoyed by my relationship to social media and electronic communication.

Promises of fulfilment via Facebook and Instagram are facades draped over a void. My addict self is speaking here—I use these applications like drugs rather than the tools they are meant to be. That’s why I feel the abyss. I long ago gave up the thrill of drinking that first glass of wine in the evening, but as I discovered in social media a similar addictive excitement. The anticipation of putting a new picture on Instagram and checking for likes, the little pop-up notification on my phone, feeling the sweet pinging pleasure each red heart sends. That was early days. Then after months, the shabbiness of the whole enterprise slowly shows through the popping hearts. I read about how employees at Instagram manipulate our dopamine release. They make us wait—release a bunch of likes all at once to hook us, keep us checking and checking. I feel cynical, cheap, and used.  There are never enough of those little digital hearts: they are insubstantial; they don’t satisfy. I am a hungry ghost with a tiny mouth and a huge stomach. Never enough, never enough. I built a tolerance for the dopamine high and pretty soon it feels flat and I start to wonder, why am I doing this, wasting my time? Why does it matter? Why did we even take pictures before Facebook and Instagram and why are we taking them now? What has happened to me?  As I despair over my addictive tendencies (over-checking email, grazing constantly on FB and instagram), I long for some pre-email, pre-social media era when my mind wasn’t tormented so. When I had a telephone that stayed anchored at home. When I got paper letters in the mailbox.

On Tuesday, I pulled the reversed card announcing the end of discontent (Anthony Louis’ reading of reversals) and felt relieved even though nothing had happened. Other tarot experts look at reversed cards as simply softer or slightly blocked versions of the upright, so perhaps nothing had changed. When I miraculously pulled the four of cups at the end of the week, upright this time, from Michael’s deck, I was astounded. He read to me about the card, and I realized what I’d missed the first and second time around was the dangerof discontent:  When you feel dissatisfied, you fail to see the good that’s right in front of you. Although Losche’s deck has all four chalices in a group, Smith-Waite’s pictures three goblets before the young man while a hand borne by a small cloud offers a fourth goblet, which is ignored. You focus on the three things lacking in your life while oblivious to the overflowing goodness right in front of you.

Since Friday, I’ve been awaking to everyday riches. For example, on Friday morning I enjoyed the fun of driving to work listening to songs starting with “You” on the sound system:  the wonderful bluesy, “You’ve got to be ready for love if you wanna be mine,” by Bonnie Raitt, then Keith Jarrett’s “You took advantage of me,” live at Montreux. I appreciated the agility of my wandering mind as I remembered the wonderful Ian McEwan novel The Children’s Act that I’d just finished, in which the memory of a Keith Jarrett concert cements a troubled marriage.  Then I time travelled back to a concert I attended decades ago and remembered one of Jarrett’s famous outbursts when the audience cheered for an encore. He called us ungrateful, never satisfied, and I remember feeling shocked and ashamed. He was rude, but he wasn’t wrong. Why do we always want more and more? Soon my mind swung back to the present with the heart-thumping percussive strums opening “You turn me on,” by Joni Mitchell. I swung the car into the parking lot, feeling thankful for Mitchell’s life-long artistry.

Later that day I wrapped Christmas presents and thought of how my mother taught me how to wrap gifts.  How to crease the paper neatly at either end, but especially how to curl long strips of ribbon by tautly pulling the sharp blade of a pair of scissors against their length. It was like magic, a zipping sound as the blade made its trip from end to end transforming something flat into bright bouncy curlicues. She’d ask me to put my little finger there, in the middle of the package, holding the crossed ribbons firm so she could make a knot around them. We’d laugh as I quickly pulled my finger from the tightening strands. She started me on the tradition of homemade cards as well. At Christmas and birthdays, we’d receive her thickly drawn pastel abstracts and inside, sweet messages in slanted cursive.  I felt another wave of gratitude for those memories and gifts from her.

Oh, and discontent about social media—well that too is about perceiving the good that technology yields. For example, this morning I was able to see my eldest son playing the synthesizer at his concert in Portland and my youngest son’s latest paintings—both on Instagram. Gifts.Finally, I feel blessed to have a small audience for these personal essays through the wonders of WordPress and Facebook. I write, technology delivers.  I am grateful for you, my reader.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may you too appreciate the full chalice brimming before you.

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.