I am entitled to claim my experience

Lately, I’ve been scared to write a post. The story I’ve been telling myself: Anything written now during the pandemic should be extra meaningful. People are suffering terribly, so anything I write must contain a kernel of wisdom that provides relief and sustenance. Readers need wise words to help them through this. Then today I remembered that perfectionism doesn’t cure insecurity, a gem my therapist shared with me last year, a very pithy teaching just for me. Or perhaps it’s useful to you, too. Repeat after me: perfectionism does not cure insecurity. I have harboured the false belief that if I do it right all the time (impossible!), I won’t have to feel the insecurity. I now know that insecurity is mine for life: there is no cure. But I can choose to wear it lightly. It doesn’t have to hobble me.

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patchwork purses to give away

For me, creativity in the time of Covid-19 has meant sewing patchwork purses to give away. But I also started a “novel,” which is in scare quotes because it is a hypothetical entity. We paid for a one-year subscription to Masterclass so I could listen to Margaret Atwood teach me how to write. I have found it more intimidating than inspiring. Lesson number one: keep your reader reading. But the question is, how? How to craft a page-turner? Don’t get me wrong—there is a great deal of useful teaching in the short videos comprising her master class. I have learned so much.

Nonetheless, after struggling with time and place and plot and characters and writing 4000 words, I was stymied. Setting my novel in the 1940s meant that I needed to do a lot of research, which I expected. I love doing research. But then all the libraries closed. And the internet can only tell you so much. How do home cigarette rolling machines work? One of my characters sits at the kitchen table and rolls her cigarettes for the week. Fiction needs sensory detail. All I could find was vintage rolling machines sold on Etsy, but that doesn’t show me how the contraption works, how the filters are placed, the papers, the shredded tobacco. Is there a lever that clacks? How does the lid close?  Every time I wrote a sentence, I came up against a new problem. I thought at one point, perhaps I should give myself a break and write about something familiar, for example, use the time frame of my own life, familiar places and feelings. In any case, writing the “novel” is on pause. For now I keep the writing going with morning pages and responses to writing prompts.

I love the prompts from Poets and Writers.  Today I tapped into one of the non-fiction prompts:

“This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.”

Great, right? Those women on the covers are remarkable. But then insecurity clouded my mind again. I couldn’t think of one woman who played an important role in my life. Not a famous one or anybody I knew. Does that mean my life is less rich than other people’s? Am I androcentric? Do I lead an impoverished life? I imagined other writers overwhelmed by abundance, choosing from dozens of important women in their lives. Click. I caught it again. My mind doing that trick of comparing (remember, comparison is the thief of joy) and perfectionizing (not a verb, but now it is). This tendency to tell a story that other people are much better than I am—smarter, more creative, more articulate. This story I tell is rooted in perfectionism and, ultimately, it kills creativity. Why bother  to write when everybody else has it sewn up? So I take a deep breath and think again.

Oh, my therapist, N! I can write about her. Last year she was a god-send.  I looked forward to our meetings at 4 p.m. every other Monday, for which I arranged to leave work early. I sit in the waiting room paging through magazines, waiting. She comes out—tall and elegant, and stands before the door, beckoning me, waving me in, then closes it softly behind her. Her movements are graceful as she lowers her willowy frame gently into the chair across from me. She has her glass of water, a discreetly placed, tiny gold clock that will beep once after 50 minutes have elapsed. Folded on the side table is the receipt for $120.00 that she will hand me after I give her a cheque at the end of our session. A box of Kleenex.

I admire her lavender blouse, made from a soft crêpe de Chine, her slim eggplant wool skirt, her big smooth hands folded before her. N’s short frosted blonde hair frames an open Nordic face, a face radiating good health and interest. Lip gloss her only make up. Until then, grey eyes appeared only in fiction, the stuff of fantasy. Her unadorned slate grey eyes pierce through me, a tender piercing. Her shoes are lavender suede Mary Janes with satin bows in dark purple. She always looks so finished, so lovely. She leans forward, curious, engaged, her elbows propped on her thighs, hands clasped together. Clean buffed nails, nicely rounded. “So, what have you been thinking about lately, Madeline?”

I started seeing N. after my mother died in February 2019. When dark feelings crushed me, choked me, weighed me down. Yes, I was sad, I was horrified. But also I was angry and sad, flinty and yearning. I needed someone to help me unpack the complexity of feelings coursing through me. Someone at work recommended N, and I started to see her a year ago. I saw N every two weeks for six months, so a scant dozen meetings. I ripped through the $1,000 that Pacific Blue Cross insurance allowed for counselling and then started to spend our money.

My dreams were frequent and bizarre during those months, and we spent time unfurling them in our sessions. There was always something to talk about, cry about, laugh about. More than enough. And over the six months, many insights arose from my childhood and teen years. I realized those early experiences had painted my relationship with my mother with a thick impasto of purple and black—a tangle of love and hate, fear and yearning, resentment and tenderness.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was the realization that I am entitled to claim my experience. N noticed how I often I downplayed my responses and feelings. I’d say they weren’t important or I would cast doubt on their truth or make light of them. When she told me one day, “Madeline, you know you are entitled to claim your own experience,” tears started coursing down my face. How did I not know that before?  It was as if she had given me permission, after 60 years, to take up space, to make a claim, to speak my truth.

There were other big insights arising from those sessions: I was intruded on and felt unsafe in early life, so as a result have permeable boundaries and difficulty setting boundaries. I withdraw. I use precious energy to keep the lid on my feelings of hurt and anger. I am a pretzel, accommodating others, and in the process I lose sight of what I need or want. I am afraid that if I speak my truth, I won’t be loved. I learned to diminish myself in the big omni-presence of my mother. I learned how not to be different. My internal validation is underdeveloped. When I feel I cannot be different from others, I comply and erase a part of myself. And of course, my perfectionism will not cure my insecurity.

These are only some of the Bold Beautiful Truths I learned and have been working with since I met N. When I told her I was going to stop coming because I would have no income for a year, she said in her kind, firm voice, “but Madeline, I thought we were really getting somewhere; maybe you want to stop because you’re scared of uncovering something really big.” She might be right. Maybe I’ll come back after my unpaid leave, once I have a paycheque again, I told her. “I’ll be here,” she replied.

My woman of the year is Nanette, the midwife to my emotional awakening. I love her for that.

 

Pause for poetry

Last week I finished my Four Seasons quilt and turned back to the project I had left half done: the eight worldly winds pennants. I had completed four (gain, loss, fame, and disrepute) and so started on Thursday to work on happiness: a small dime store deer standing on a woodsy platform amidst butterflies and a tree. And then at the happiest moment, sewing red curlicues around the happiness label, my machine stopped working. The bobbin started to jam. I cleaned and rethreaded the machine many times, patiently, methodically, but it kept jamming. Way overdue for a tune-up, I thought, so I packed it up and took it to Sawyer’s Sewing Centre. The chatty woman at the counter (who, we discovered during our lively exchange, lives right around the corner from me) said it would likely be two weeks before my machine was ready.

Without my sewing machine, what will I do? Sit around worrying about Covid 19 and the economic and climate crises?

Then, like a soaring bird, poetry ascended, landing in the space that sewing had occupied.

Yesterday I sat Sunday Morning Meditation at our Shambhala Centre for a while, then took off to walk around Fernwood. I headed down Belmont, straight for the Poetree to see what was new.  Some kind, creative person nailed a box to a tall tree right next to the sidewalk and posts poems there for passing people to enjoy.

IMG_0631I stood before the tree in the fragile March sun, reading e.e. cummings’s [love is more thicker than forget].  When I read e.e. cummings or Dylan Thomas, and sometimes T.S. Eliot, my mind tells me I don’t understand, and yet deep in my toes, my heart, my fingertips, my tongue, my soft palate, I get it. I sense the truth of it. I hear the rightness of it. cummings knew that love is certainly mad and moonly, yet at other times sane and sunly. Contradictory, puzzling, complex, maddening, glorious, fleeting, perseverant, inexplicable: love is all of that and more. The double negatives and oppositions in the poem read like wise nonsense spouted by a savant.

This morning, I was preparing a bag of tricks to visit a girl I play with sometimes. Today, I thought to myself, I will take supplies to make paper dolls and some books to read. I have saved a few books from my own childhood, and one of them is We like Bugs, a simple sweet primer wherein two children describe all of the bugs they encounter. Before slipping the old book into my bag, I flipped it open and found an inscription from my adopted grandmother, Phyllis Davidson, who had given me the book when I was five. The poem was a haiku involving a beetle and Michelle, our black female cat. Unearthing this treasure, so long hidden, made me feel happy, a little communion with my long-dead Grandma. Phyllis was a true cat-lover. After we moved to Toronto, she would send multi-page typed letters to us describing the antics of her many cats. Here, she seizes on Michelle’s alertness to sound and movement. Haven’t we all seen a cat’s attention glued forensically to an empty spot, as if ghost-watching? And then you realize a microscopic bug is passing there.

Grandma’s haiku reminded me of the hundreds of short poems Michael and I have written to each other over the years on our little kitchen whiteboard. Transitory as the clouds, the words are there today, gone tomorrow, arising imperfectly from our foggy minds as the coffee grinder buzzes in the early morning kitchen. It all started with Robin Skelton’s book, Islands, that we bought—I think—at a yard sale (Ekstasis Editions, 1993). The water-warped paperback lives in our kitchen drawer, handy for reference. The book’s subtitle is “poems in the traditional forms and metres of Japan,” and in his introduction, Skelton does a brilliant summary of many of those forms, including Sedoka, Dodoitsu, Choka, Mondo, and Somonka. Then in the body of the book, he richly demonstrates  his mastery of these forms, for example, this sharply humorous Dodoitsu (one stanza poem of 7-7-7-5 syllables) that describes a situation familiar to many of us over 60:

islandsIn Age

In age we find memory,
a sly old friend, removing
his coat, accepting a chair,
and lying, lying.

(p. 58)

 

 

IMG_0701Although most of our poems have disappeared under the quick daily rub of a tea towel, Michael snapped photos of a few of his over the years. He prefers the Choka, a form that Skelton describes as “a poem of any length” that “alternates a five syllable with a seven syllable line and concludes with an additional seven syllable line” (p. 10)­­. This one takes me back to the days when we both worked M-F, 9-5 and all week we ripened for the week-end and its leisurely joys.

Here’s to poetry of all kinds–I love the flawed, fresh jewels in the light; the old burnished friends; the wounded lines so raw and open; also those dense verses like green kernels, hard to crack. When I read a poem–sudden lift of my heart, dark sadness in my inner thighs, tingle in my ears. The way it makes me feel. The sweet heft of writing poetry, the tart cherry scour of sharp words, the high loft of vocabulary, precise yet untethered, vulnerable yet powerful. Poetry is for everybody. Write something now!

 

 

 

Enough

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?” Emily Dickinson

When I bought a birdhouse from our neighbour Bryan, a retired engineer who makes and sells them, I knew that attaching it to our shed might be distracting. I guess part of me wanted to be distracted by movement, by life. The wooden shed in our backyard that we use for storage is right in my sightline when Michael and I meditate each morning. If I sit facing west I can see the branches of the tall conifers dancing in the wind, the burnt orange of the dying cedar hedge, and the shed with its mossy roof where squirrels scramble to and fro. I can see the marvelous sky beyond, lately grey but today pearly with a swath of violet in the far distance and blue beyond that.

Bryan said the small house was perfect for chickadees, and since we mounted it above the door of the shed about a month ago, I have been waiting. Then today, about 15 minutes into our 30 minute sit, movement pulled my eyes. Two birds had landed, one on the roof of the birdhouse and one on the tiny bamboo twig Bryan had so carefully attached in front of the circular entrance. My heart leapt in joy! The birds were curious. Perhaps they were a couple, looking for a good spot to nest. One peeped into the hole and then examined the sides of the house. The first bird hopped away and the second one hopped down to the twig and made the same examination. Alas, they weren’t interested in the real estate, and my heart sank in disappointment as they flitted off. Note to self—look at my bird book for a picture of a chickadee and make sure those guys were chickadees. Perhaps they were another variety of bird (how can I have gotten to be my age and know so little about birds?) too big to fit through that little hole….

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“Madeline! you are supposed to be meditating!” and I was back to Shamatha, one-pointed meditation, this time with my gaze brought close, fixed on the orange and purple cloth spread across the shrine. Breathe in and breathe out.

I see advertisements for all kinds of events happening around town, but we go to only a few of them. I have some friends, and there are so many people I know, yet days go by when I see nobody but Michael. However, I don’t feel the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) that you hear about. No, I feel dreamily satisfied most days to walk and talk with my husband, marvel at the hummingbirds that visit the front feeder, look at the buds that are already showing up on so many of the trees and bushes after the long rains. The pussy willows appeared suddenly on our neighbour’s willow—a sweet indicator that spring is close.  My neighbour Don has told me February after February to help myself, take some cuttings of the furry silver catkins that stud the elegant stalks like tiny gifts. And each year, I have said “oh thank you, I will,” but I don’t because I am working and by the time I get home in the evenings it’s dark and I’m tired and week-ends go by in a crush of chores and exhaustion and I can’t imagine getting out the long cutters and the ladder.

But this year, I am not working. This, I think, is like living in a beautiful dream, to sleep until I wake up, to tune into the rhythms of my body and the dark winter earth. To have time to look at the birds and cut the pussy willows for our table. To write and to sew and pore over recipe books. To spend so much time in my room, surrounded by fabric scraps, my son’s paintings, Captain Happy the pink monkey, books and arts supplies. To choose to write for a while, make coffee, then work on a scrappy quilt—enjoying laying out colours and patterns next to each other—then to take a walk through the woods to the mall to renew my annual membership to Fabricland.  To have time to read long books—currently Mervyn Bragg’s Cumbrian trilogy—to caress the cat, to sit and do nothing.

And then a thread of anxiety starts to weave itself into my consciousness. What have I accomplished?  What do I have to show for all these months? Really? I have twelve months off work with all of this free time and all I’ve done is sewn some little scraps together? Really?

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It’s interesting how relentlessly the old tapes about achievement and success play in my mind. The endless loop of “not good enough” fades into the background for long periods now, but then when I get too comfortable with myself, just being a nobody, just being, just content, well then the hiss of angry snakes intensifies: “You should be making something substantial, something meaningful, something important—write a novel or do some important research or get GOOD at something, take a class, or do some volunteer work and if you’re not going to do any of that get back to employment, make some money, be useful, stop being lazy. You are turning into a nobody—you need to fight, be somebody, resist the fade into nothingness, get out there and push yourself or you’ll shrivel up and disappear.”

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Not Good Enough

I tune out the irritating hiss and start to spread the colours for the next series of two inch fabric squares on my cutting mat. The snakes start to recede, to slither off to their lair. I look out the window above my work table at the morning sun glinting over the fresh green of February lawns, the long shadows thrown by the boulders in our front yard, the iridescent puddles from last night’s rain.  And I glance at Captain Happy, pinkly presiding over the room that I inhabit so joyfully. Remember, all of this is impermanent. So I will rest in this great pleasure while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Do animals experience samsara?

“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”  Piet Hein

Today during a visit to the Art Gallery of Victoria, I was captivated by Nicholas Vandergugten’s work “What Comes First,” a series of four monitors showing nine looping films of artists’ hands as they worked. The film focuses on process, not product, calling attention to the practice of creation—the incomplete, the unpolished, the fits and starts. We see artists’ hands doing and pausing and making. Hands turn the pages of an art bullet journal, hands etch and paint, hands turn over found objects: bones and feathers. Hands rest on the paint-flecked table as if considering their next move. Here, I document the process/progress of making eight pennants in a similar spirit.

In the last several days, I finished “loss,” then “fame.” Three pennants are complete. I enjoyed creating “fame.” The steps leading up to it included an hour wandering through Fabricland, searching for deer-themed fabric. To my surprise, there was a lot to choose from.

Yet soon discomfort seeped in. Not about the materials themselves, but about the concept. When I created the first pennant, “gain,” I arbitrarily used a tiny deer puppet that I had hanging around my studio. It was part of a set of knitted finger puppets I gave IMG_0546to a little girl, but somehow the deer got away from the set and I ended up with it. It seemed a perfect way to make the abstract concrete: to have someone or something experiencing gain. So my deer was soon cosseted by silks and feathers, zipped into a cocoon of wealth. A narrative emerged: Rainer the reindeer enjoys his gains, not realizing he’ll soon experience loss.

Unwittingly, I had committed myself to a story about a deer, a narrative that  would need to continue through all of the eight worldly winds to maintain coherence. For loss, I represented the biggest loss—death—inside of an empty purse. Fame was fun and whimsical—deer of the year.

But a problem emerged. Animals do not experience the eight worldly winds in the same way humans do. Perhaps they feel pleasure and pain, but can they be famous amongst themselves? Or can a deer be disreputable according to other deer? What about praise and blame—do animals feel these? I doubt it. (Buddhist texts depict those in the animal realm as driven by impulse and instinct, and thus living a life of mostly suffering.)

In using an animal to represent how humans experience samsara, I unintentionally introduced irony. Now I had the problem of how to show Rainer experiencing the eight worldly winds without being too cute in my anthropomorphism (for example, replicating a Disney version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer). Could Rainer stand in for human experience and at the same time retain his essential deerness?

I seemed to be throwing the heaviness of human subjectivity over the antlers of a proud autonomous deer. Oh dear… there I go again. “Proud” is the inevitable human perspective—I cannot escape it.  When I think of disrepute I conjure up Rudolph’s red nose. When I think of a famous deer, the mythical white stag comes to mind. As soon as I, human subject, try to imagine deer subjectivity, I colour deer as object.

I remembered a poem I wrote about meeting a stag.* Inevitably self-referential, the speaker soon slips from confrontation with an alien creature into being Susan in Narnia. The stag becomes C.S. Lewis’s literary creation. How to stay in a space that respects difference?

But then again, I am not sure it really matters. Ultimately, continuing to work on a series is to have faith that everything will hang together eventually and that there is some kind of value–if not in the product, then in the process. As I work on the next five pennants, I will continually reshape the question of how to show a deer stuck in samsara and probably wish I’d never started it.

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

I faced a stag
in the darkening light,
felt his animal breath
warm, familiar
looked into his glassy
dispassionate eye
felt  a whoosh of joy
to share the earth.

There was a moment of
recognition. How did
you raise forty points
on urban marigolds?
I wanted to ask, and wanted
him to answer, plunging us from
Oak Bay to Narnia.

I could be Susan,
Archeress,
Surefooted older sister,
gentle, strong,
doubtful at first, but
then devoted to Aslan.

Stag, turn white and take me there,
let me blow danger with my
magic horn before I get
beguiled by the material world.

But suddenly
mind flings back to body,
yours— pivot of bone branches,
smooth quivering hide,
and mine—sagging on two legs
in this sad outlandish standoff.

*This is a modified version of the original poem published in my book Birth of the Uncool

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Suffering?

 

 

 

Fan the embers

Yesterday I woke, and the world felt flattened out. The white pancake sky dropped beautiful snowflakes, but they were not for me. I felt the cool sheet beside me, the patch of bed our cat Andy used to warm with his furry bulk, kneading magnificently, then laying close beside me purring like a motor.

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Andy Carpenter, June 10, 2008-January 2, 2019

Andy died on January 2nd, and we feel his absence. This morning, everything seemed dark and pointless. The fire inside me was out, just cold ashes. I missed Andy, but it was more than that. It was Australia, Iran, death, war, suffering, the climate crisis.

So, I did what needs to be done. Made coffee. Meditated. Got dressed. Breakfast. I forced myself to walk to the store for some groceries. On the trail through the woods, I didn’t stop to visit my tree, though I waved. I didn’t feel interested in life, didn’t feel my usual excitement about art, nature, friends, poetry.

I should be happy, I thought to myself: I have all of this time, and I don’t have to work until July.  What a gift! But I couldn’t conjure up any energy, even though I had slept well. The art/sewing project was a stupid waste of time, and nothing seemed meaningful. I walked briskly, passing dogs cavorting in the snow while their owners chatted. I followed the flowing brown river.

At the store, I chose my items and lined up. The cashier was kind and friendly. She told me she was thinking of making grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch, perfect comfort food for the cold day. I smiled. I drank a cup of Christmas blend from the in-store Starbucks, gazing out of the window at the white sky.

IMG_0555Two men–store employees–sat across from me at separate tables. Each ate his lunch with his cell phone in front of him, scrolling busily as he wolfed down his food. Michael and I share a silly fantasy: we imagine that all of the folks who study their phones in public places are actually receiving instructions from their Masters about what to do next. Or perhaps from one Master. I laughed to myself about this and wished the two guys would put away their phones and have lunch together. Resist the Master!

And all of a sudden, I started to get interested in life again. I had a couple of ideas for “loss,” the next pennant in the series. I left the store and walked quickly home, my backpack bouncing as I strode along the snowy trail.

Was it the brisk walk in the cold, the exercise? Or the friendly interchange with the clerk? Was it caffeine? Humour? Or perhaps the combination of getting out for a walk, being among people, and consuming a psychoactive drug? In any case, I came home, cleaned house, then worked on my project. There is always a spark deep down inside. Sometimes I need to fan the embers.

I finished the “Gain” pennant. Rainer Reindeer has made many gains in his life. He smiles smugly, proud of those gains. He lives surrounded by his wealth, cossetted by silk and sequins, beads and feathers. He keeps himself and his gains tightly zippered away from the world, trying to secure them against loss, but all is transitory, Rainer. Loss, you will see, is inevitable. . .

 

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Eight Worldly Winds Project

 “We take what is transitory – money, fame, power, relationship – to be real and base our lives on achieving what cannot last – happiness, wealth, fame, and respect. When we base life on what can be taken from us, we give power over our lives to anyone who can take it away. We become dependent on others and on society for a sense of well-being.”

Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life, 92

The first time I came across Buddhism’s concept of the eight worldly winds (also called worldly concerns or dharmas), I was startled by its simple truth. The eight worldly winds come in four opposing pairs: gain vs. loss; happiness vs. suffering; praise vs. blame; and good reputation vs. bad reputation.[1] Buddhism teaches that our endless oscillation between these coupled states keeps us tossing in the storm of samsara. I immediately recognized myself: I live my life hoping for and clinging to the “positive” states of gain, happiness, praise, and good reputation while fearing and avoiding their “negative” counterparts: loss, suffering, blame, and bad reputation. The eight worldly winds give us a bird’s eye view of human suffering—we are flags tossed helplessly by those winds, whipping from elation to despair, trying desperately to stay on the left side of the flagpole (gain/happiness/praise/good reputation). Trying to make those impermanent states last.

The antidote to the eight winds is not to rise above the weather like the bird that has the view, but rather to identify with the still center, the flagpole. Remain equanimous. Feel and accept sadness, pain, and loss—don’t rush it or try to flee from under its dark shadow. Sit there until the shadow passes. And when delight and happiness come, embrace those too, revel in them, but know they are impermanent. Gain feels good, but loss is inevitable, so why expect continuous gain? You may pride yourself on your good reputation, but you have no control over what people say about you. Good can turn to bad as quickly as the wind changes direction. Praise and approval feed you, but again, praise will evaporate and you’ll feel blamed and shamed for something soon. These teachings make visceral sense to me; I feel the truth of them in my bones. The pivot point of hope/fear drives our responses. When we live in hope for the “good” stuff and in fear for the “bad” stuff, we are caught blindly in samsara, and we do not experience life as it is.

I have come back to this teaching so often that I decided a few months ago to start a sewing project based on the eight worldly winds. By sewing the concept I might drive it even more deeply into my consciousness; by exploring what these states would look and feel like if they were fabric flags, I might find out more about myself while sharing this profound teaching with others.

I also decided I would document the project as it progresses, which feels risky to me. But another teaching (this one specifically from Shambhala—Chögyam Trungpa’s Sacred Path of the Warrior), is that is we really want to experience all the rawness and intensity of life, we must emerge from our cocoons, the thick ego-wrappings of habituated behaviour that keep us muffled and safe. To document a project-in-progress feels vulnerable—what if I fail? (loss/suffering). What if nobody is interested? (insignificance/bad reputation). What if people think it’s stupid? (blame/bad rep). And then there is the other concern—what if revealing artistic ideas before they are fully hatched drains them of their energy? (suffering/loss). Those questions don’t need answers. Let me simply begin.

In brief, I decided to sew eight pennants or vertical flags representing the eight winds. First, I thought I’d do four with front and back representing the pairs. That seemed to truly show their oppositional nature, but if I ever want to display the pennants, viewers would have to walk around them and may not be practical, depending on the exhibit space. I struggled a bit over the size of the pennants and the design. I did a mock-up of good reputation, but decided it was too small and I’d like the words to be consistently displayed horizontally across the top of each pennant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the eight finished pennants strung up on a clothesline with wooden clothes pegs, four pairs tossing in the breeze from an electric fan nearby.

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Prototype

I had to choose the translations of the word pairs that worked for me—particularly happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain. Happiness and suffering seem more capacious than pleasure/pain, so I’ll go with those. And as for good reputation/ bad reputation, translators seem to prefer words like fame/disgrace or fame/insignificance, but while insignificance is ubiquitous, fame is not widely applicable. How many of us experience fame? Good and bad rep are states we all struggle with.

I made a lot of sketches and a plan. We’ll see how it goes. I am going to begin with gain because I have so many ideas about it. I’ll post along the way. Mostly my inner critic keeps poking me saying, but is this meaningful work? Does this matter? Well, it matters to me. So, I choose to ignore her.

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Doodling and planning

If you are interested in knowing more about the eight worldly winds, I’ve provided links to three good sources: the first is a brief description of the concerns by Judy Lief; the second is a series of videos by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo; and the third is a compilation of quotations on the worldly concerns by Pema Chodron (go to page 40-41):

https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-eight-worldly-concerns/

https://tricycle.org/dharmatalks/eight-worldly-concerns/

https://pemachodronfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Essential-Pema-Study-Guide.pdf   (pages 40-41)

[1] The source is verse 29 of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.  There are various translations of the pairs from their original: a variation of happiness/suffering is pleasure/pain and variations on good reputation/ bad reputation are fame/insignificance, ill-repute, censure, or disgrace.

Open channel to the soul: A year of creative expression

“In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves…”

Saul Bellow, foreword to Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

As I look back over the year, I see that my ongoing mission has been to keep play and creativity alive in my everyday life. I like to think this everyday work/play as a way to keep the channel to my soul open, tender, and raw.  I do this mostly through writing and sewing.

Writing

This year I wrote quite a bit—I wrote everyday gratitudes, and sometimes I wrote “morning pages” (see Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to know more about morning pages). I wrote blogposts, a short story, and a personal essay.  Every year I aspire to what I idealize as “a regular writing practice,” some idealistic daily routine where I put writing first, a priority in my life, and set writing goals. But so far, I haven’t achieved this. I wonder whether this year it’s time to lay the dream to rest and just write when I can for the sheer joy of it, to express myself, to explore my ideas.

After my mother died in February, I wrote an essay, “Holding Space for Death,” which I shared with my writing group and with Michael. In this personal essay, I try to articulate my complex response to my mother’s death. I describe how the Heart Sutra helped me make sense of the experience of grieving. I submitted the piece twice to literary journals. It was rejected twice. I continue to feel tension and yearning around the idea of publishing. In academic circles, publishing a piece in a respected journal or publishing a book is the be-all and end-all—it is the intended outcome of most writing.  It’s been hard for me to let go of that idea, as it was drummed into me throughout my graduate degrees.

Holding space

My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

So in rejection of the idea that I should gain approval by being published in traditional venues, I continue to write this blog: 21 posts in 2019 including this one. I wrote poems and travelogues, mused on stuckness, and visited my little girl self. There were a few shared/ guest posts in there—one from my sister (thank you Judith), and Michael and I shared the blog during our summer road trip–such fun! I appreciate all of my reader comments this year—thank you so much for reading and being interested and responding to my ideas, poetry, and drawings.

Another way I’ve taken a detour around the publishing game is by printing a short story I wrote. I had a local company make copies and staple it as a small booklet with a few of my sketches as illustrations. My talented son provided the cover art.  I gave the little story to family and some friends as a Christmas gift. I gave the inexpensive gift of creative expression.

How To Love Things Into Being

Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

Although I am pretty sure I completed my memoir in 2018, I got feedback from four readers in 2019: some very good feedback. Mostly, I learned that my analytical writing doesn’t mix well with storytelling, but that I can tell stories that hold interest. I don’t see any reason to pursue publication for the memoir; writing it was a wild and beautiful process.  But I do think there are some good chapters that may be reincarnated elsewhere. For example, the strong chapter on my Fez experience (living in Fez, Morocco for a month in the early 1980s) could be the beginning of a book of linked short stories.  Watch for it.

Sewing

I love to sew. It is only in sewing and writing that I achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” losing sense of time and place as one becomes immersed in an activity.

My sewing projects were various: pillow cases, napkins, mesh produce bags, a zippered laptop case and small zippered purses for coins, make-up, or iPod cords. Drawstring and buttoned purses for tarot cards. I created one cloth bag in rich reds and pinks as a container for a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit, a gift to Michael for his birthday this year (in this, one of his favourite books, we learn that the wonder of a lifetime of being loved transcends the telltale signs of ageing). A pair of little bags on long straps—one green/blue and one purple—went to an adorable pair of young sisters, daughters of a friend.

The biggest project was a quilt in memory of my stepson, who died in 2016. I used some of his shirts to create a pattern of triangles.  I worked on the quilt in fits and starts for 10 months, an emotional journey. I felt closer to Alex through the design and slow sewing of this piece.

 

Working with old family fabric became very special to me when I recently used some household linens that my dear friend had found when going through her parents’ house after their deaths.  When she gave them to me, I incorporated the delicate aged napkins into 2 pillow cases, one pink and one green. I see more of this kind of sewing in my future–using old cloth to fashion new objects.

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And more

Although sewing and writing are my creative mainstays, I continued to draw and paint as well.  I make birthday and other cards for friends and family using watercolours, collage, and ink. I illustrated the blog (for example, far left, far right), the memoir (fire picture), and the Christmas present story (flying chair).

And then there is whiteboard “art”: Michael and I take turns making coffee in the morning, and as we wait for the coffee to steep in the French press, we draw images and write poems on the little whiteboard in the kitchen. That before-caffeine freestyle drawing produces some kooky stuff, sometimes based on the dreams either one of us has woken from.

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

I bought a ukulele this year and Michael and I start beginner lessons next week at our local Silver Threads Centre. I aspire to learn enough chords and songs to accompany myself in singing some favourite Bonnie Raitt tunes. It was an old dream of mine to be a blues singer. . . .  And I almost forget. In 2020 I want to overcome the fear of a lifetime: Get up and DANCE in  public.

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According to Nina Wise, creativity is all about “having the courage to invent our lives—concoct lovemaking games, cook up a new recipe, paint a kitchen cabinet, build sculptures on the beach, and sing in the shower.”   She encourages us to by-pass the censoring voice that says “Stop!”  To cultivate the one that says “Yes! Go!”

For me, what has helped to achieve this creative freedom is to stop comparing myself to others so much, to stop worrying what others will think. My aim is not to become or be an artist. I am a maker. A creative. These are better nouns–less pressure.

I am never completely successful in banishing the people pleasing aspect of making–after all I really do care what people think. But external audience is not my first thought anymore. I am my first audience: I have to love what I make.

I express myself  because creative expression is my lifeblood. Seriously, being a maker keeps me alive. And I do it because the process and the product please me, the creating and the creation wake me up to life and to myself. And then I hope what I make pleases a few other people. That’s it. Creative expression is whispering to you. Creative expression is your birthright. Listen and say Yes! Say Go!

Recommended: Nina Wise, A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life: Self-expression and Spiritual Practice for Those who Have Time for Neither. Broadway Books 2002.

 

 

Hear my whispers

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near

excerpted from Nikki Giovanni’s “Quilts”

I wish I knew more about the dresses that were cut up and sewn into still-bright stars and pleated petals that make up the quilt on our bed. I can imagine young girls in the 1970s in their cotton frocks, blue and brown paisley, flowered yellow and orange peplum, pretty prints swinging from slender waists. Probably those dresses were home-made to begin with, with smocked bodices and full skirts. Or perhaps they were simple jumpers. I wish I knew. Once a dress had been handed down a few times from sister to cousin, and the littlest girl in the family outgrew it, the dress was cut into pieces for a quilt.

But it’s too late now to hear more stories because Frankie (Frances), the quilter, died last month at 90.  She was Michael’s sister-in-law, and when we visited her two months before her death, she gave us the quilt she sewed with her grandmother-in-law, Michael’s Grandma, whom everyone called Granny Dobie. Frankie described how Granny had travelled from her farm near Mission B.C. to Prince George with the unfinished quilt and a quilting frame that she set up in the living room. Granny then patiently instructed her granddaughter-in-law how to hand quilt so they could finish the quilt that would cover Frankie and Mac’s marriage bed.

When I lie under the quilt every night, I like to examine the stiches and think of the four hands that made them. In my mind, I see the two women—one young, one old—sitting together in companionable silence over the frame, stitching small, even dashes in white thread, tracking every seam, curved and straight, and securing the three layers of the quilt together.

We were so touched when Frankie wanted us to have the quilt—perhaps it was because she and I talked sewing when we visited, and she knew we’d both appreciate the work that went into it. When she gave us the quilt in September, she told us that Granny had used old dresses to sew all the stars and petals into blocks, placing yellows and oranges against their blue complements. I am no pink fan, so I wasn’t sure about the quilt at first, but now I treasure it. This old quilt will always remind me of vivacious, elegant Frankie.

 

Version 2For Frankie

Slender and strong as bamboo,
Frankie was fierce with reality.
She wore lipstick even on bad days,
or perhaps especially on bad days.
As she spoke in smart, tart
soprano, her long graceful hands wove the air.

Those hands
were hands that sewed and weaved,
that worked and loved,
a life time.

Waste not, want not

I’d like to use up all spare bits
before I die.
The pencil stub in a series of final drawings,
the small squares of coloured cloth
in motley quilts,
the words in long poems, chapbooks, wallpaper.

I could use up the watercolour paints:
the last daub of vermilion
in a birthday card for a friend.
Then I’d wash and dry the plastic tray,
and—with economy of movement—
place it in the recycling bin.

I’d leave no trace of food in the fridge.
I’d blend the beet heel, the last cup of
soy milk, and the softening apple into a
smoothie to nourish me on my death bed.

Could I use up every drop of my love?
I’d squeeze it out like honey from
a bear-shaped bottle, wasting nothing.
I’d squeeze the last drop
onto your waiting tongue,
Leaving my heart clean, empty.

After all of this using up, I’d wipe
down the ashy counters
with a steady hand.
I’d rinse and wring the
faded blue dishrag.
Then I would drape that rag
neatly, deliberately, over the
kitchen faucet.

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Poem and photograph by Madeline Walker on Black Friday 2019

A mother lode of feelings

 

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My mother loved this card I made for her birthday in 2016. “How did you get me so perfectly?” she asked.

Motherlode

Corns crunch as I turn the wooden grinder
over a tiny heap of grey-black grains for
pfeffernüsse, the recipe you passed to me from your
German mother.

In a clan of ginger, your dark crown pulled the eye.
Beautiful ungainly schwartz
learned to pick peaches at 6,
to drive a car at 12.
You were a barefoot child,
smoldering into life.

Your seed sprang from
hard dry loins of dustbowl farms,
you blossomed dark to light,
turned burlap sacks to rickracked frocks,
pushed hard against poverty,
ate books, ached for knowledge,
opened your scarred scared heart to love.

Passionate proud creature, you live
inside me, your pepper cutting
through my honey, brave unexpected heat
sears the surprised and happy tongue.

“Motherlode” was one of the poems in my first and perhaps last book of published poetry,  birth of the uncool  (2014, Demeter Press). Unfortunately, the first four lines of this poem are missing in the book. When the manuscript was sent to me for a final examination and approval, I didn’t notice the flaw. Without those lines, the poem doesn’t make much sense, which bothers me. I wanted to be mad at the copy editor, but truly it was my fault.

So I offer it here today in its wholeness because I have been thinking of my mother.

When a person we love dies, we measure the next year’s turning as a series of firsts.  First my mother’s birthday rolled around in April, and she wasn’t here to call, to wish happy birthday, to send a card to. Then it was the first time I visited the house where she lived, but she was no longer there, calling from the top of the stairs, “Madeline? Is that you?” Then I celebrated my first birthday without my mother in the world, and coming up is my first Christmas without her.

I spent only one Christmas with her in the thirty years since I moved with my family from Ontario to the West coast. But still, we would talk on the phone every December 25th. I sent gifts, and for a long time, so did she. I’d ask if she had bought a Christmas tree and often she had bought two tiny ones: one for the front room and another for the back room, where they would sit in front of the fire burning in the fireplace, watching the snow fall outside. Sometimes we’d talk about Handel’s Messiah, a piece we both adored and listened to over and over again that time of year. After a while, I stopped asking if she’d made pfeffernüsse because I knew she hadn’t.

She was eating very little in the years and months before she died, cooking only occasionally, and baking hardly at all. But for so many years—all my childhood years—there was the joy of making pfeffernüsse with Mama.

I remember best the warm doughy mounds sliding out of the oven on blackened cookie sheets. A happy human conveyer belt, we dipped them still warm into the bowl of milk flavoured with vanilla extract, then popped them head first onto the plate of powdered sugar, then onto a rack to cool. The powdery tops hit my tongue with a blast of melting sweetness, then my teeth sank into the chewy milk-moistened dough, meeting honey, liquorice, and pepper. We’d line tin canisters with waxed paper, packing them with layers of pfeffernüsse.

I would eat those pepper nuts until I felt sick.  And then when I had my own family, Mama sent me the recipe for “Xmas Cookies,” written in her energetic cursive.  I made them for my boys, even when they weren’t particularly interested in eating them. Eating dozens of them myself, I plumped up like a pfeffernüsse every December.

It’s early November now. Christmas is still many weeks away. But I am thinking of my mother, thinking of our complicated relationship. Acknowledging that while I followed her path in so many ways, I fiercely resisted and resented her too.  After she died in February, I spent the next seven months in therapy, trying to deconstruct the pain and grief I felt, pain and grief spiced by anger, softened by affection. Honey and pepper, pepper and honey. Mama and Madeline, Madeline and her mama.

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