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.

IMG_3112

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Walking it back

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

Two heartbeats occur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thank you, M.)

Reference

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

Remembering Hanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you, Han.

 

 

Deep in pink snow

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

Now to clean up all the old petals.

 

 

 

 

 

A play date with poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

from Denise Levertov’s “Invocation”

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

And here is my glosa:

His life, a house

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

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

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

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

oldman

 

Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart

We know that music can evoke powerful memories. A song not only takes your mind back, but takes your body back to another time. You feel the same sensations and emotions, the same twinges and secretions. Pure chemical magic.  In the past few weeks with the I-pod on shuffle during my commute to work, I’ve relived moments of my youth. My first experience taking LSD with Santana’s “Singing winds, crying beasts.” A prickly nerve shiver spreads out into my limbs as cymbals and chimes sing and hiss behind the piano and piercing guitar.  Driving, oppressive energy limned with sadness from an early sexual experience creeps over me with the Beatle’s drone: “I want you. . . I want you so bad it’s driving me mad.” Another time, a piano riff announcing Aretha Franklin’s edgy command “you better think” blasts out of the speakers, followed by “think about what you’re trying to do to me.” I sit straight up in the driver’s seat and start to move to the rhythm.  This one took me back to 1968, I mean right back into our living room graced with a faded Persian carpet and upholstered teak chairs. That winter, the radiators whistle as wet snow falls over Toronto. I dance whimsically while belting into a pretend microphone. Beside me, my father plays air drums and my sisters wail on imaginary horns.

I turned 10 the year “Aretha Now” came out.  It arrived at our house on Christmas day 1968 – perhaps my mother bought it for my father or my father bought it for my mother. But all I know is that that record album lit me up, moved me, and taught me about men and women, sex and love, power and desire. You could say it was formative.

Our record player was on a low chest in the living room. I’d lean the cardboard album cover against it, slide the LP out of its sleeve, and place the album carefully on the turntable. My father had taught me how to start the machine and use the little lever to gently drop the needle onto the first track, “Think.”  That piano groove followed by the drums, and then Aretha’s full, strong voice would set me moving around the room.

“You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to mearetha Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free”

I didn’t know what she meant–what exactly was he trying to do to her?  But whenever she boldly told him to “Think,” I’d feel the impossible power of speaking up. At the end of the song, she sang “freedom, freedom.” Her back-up singers, the Sweet Inspirations, laced with horns, pushed each iteration to the next level like leapfrog on a steep hill.

I fell in love with Aretha’s smiling—almost mischievous—dimpled face. She looked off to one side, as if she might be looking at her sweetheart, her green turtleneck mirroring the lime green letters spreading over her high coiffed hairdo. My body woke up to the beat of this delicious music, her big buttery voice, and all of those fascinating lyrics that stirred an inchoate longing in my pelvis, even if I wasn’t sure what it was.

If “Think” made me feel the power of female authority, “Say a little prayer for me” made me swoon with dreams of romantic love transformed into a religion.  I could imagine Aretha waking up in her shaded boudoir, sitting at her make-up table. Before she puts on her eyeliner she whispers a quiet prayer to the man she loves.   I liked thinking of her in her own space, choosing her dress, combing her hair, praying for his love. . . hoping he’ll answer her prayers and love her back. The passionate crescendos rose with the Inspirations crooning like taffeta petticoats under the full-satin dress of her voice: “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, forever, we never will part.” Listening to the song now, I hear the urgency and desperation in the ending “answer my prayer now, say you’ll love me too,” something lost on me fifty years ago.

Every song had a different flavour. I loved to sing along about the man whose love was “like a seesaw, going up, down, and all around.” Now the lyrics sound like they’re about an abusive relationship, but at the time, it was just another piece of the mysterious puzzle that was male-female relationships. Aretha sang Ray Charles’s tune, “The night time is the right time to be with the one you love.” Seductive horns like exclamation marks after Franklin’s lines were joined by a mix of other voices, all to that slow blues rhythm that intoxicated me.  I didn’t know much about sex at the time, but apparently it happened at night with someone you love. “Won’t you please tease me, but don’t leave me,” came out in big swoopy yells and I could just feel in my bones the aching-ness of desire, sex, and love. Somehow it felt really good but it was sad and complicated and caused great suffering. Women had to keep praying and begging their men to love them, but then those men might treat them badly, ignore them, or put them down.

“Darling you send me, darling you send me. Darling you send me, honest you do honest you do.“ After “say a little prayer” this one was my next favourite. Aretha actually sang “I want you to marry me” Wow! Little did I know that this was Sam Cooke’s song and she’d changed it from his “I want to marry you.”  It didn’t matter, it was revolutionary, a woman brazenly saying she wanted a man to marry her.  This one was a sweet mix of love and sex, being thrilled and being sent, but I wasn’t sure where one was being sent to.  It sounded very sensual but also spiritual, and I loved how Aretha pronounced it “shend” in the opening refrain. When I listen to the song now I keep expecting that little skip in the album just after the second verse, a skip tattooed in my memory, but of course it never comes.

In 1970, a year or so after I was first grooving to “Aretha Now,” my parents separated, surprising everybody and further complicating my labyrinth of male-female relationships. It was a labyrinth that I soon—too soon—entered, trying to figure out how to be alluring, how to be loveable, and yet how to appear “cool” and not too needy or emotional. The sweet, sexy, indelible music of “Aretha Now” had me saying little prayers, looking for thrills, and aching to be loved as I grew into womanhood.

 

Everything is waiting for you

On the plane home from Toronto, I read The New Yorker. First, I tackled the long story about Henry Worsley’s emulation of his hero, Shackleton. David Grann describes Worsley’s scorching ambition and his treks across frozen Antarctica in details that chilled me, shrunk me, made me feel as if I were breathing ice particles.  The battering cold, the “white darkness,” the push to physical and mental limits. It seemed such a lonely life.  What exactly was Worsley striving for? There was something in him that could never be satisfied. He ended up dying of bacterial peritonitis after he cut short his solo trek across Antarctica by foot. He was only 55 and left a loving wife and young adult children.

Next I moved on to Jill Lepore’s piece on Frankenstein at 200. Lepore’s chronology of Mary Shelley’s life and the history and interpretation of the novel were fascinating. But after finishing the article, all I could think of was the end of Frankenstein when the monster flees to the North Pole and drifts away on a raft of ice, never to be seen again. The loneliness of that frozen scene seared me inside, just as when I’d first read it, deep in the gut. South Pole/ North Pole. Real life/ fiction: both readings numbed my mood and my solar plexus.

Finally, as if I hadn’t read enough depressing material, Anthony Lane’s review of the recent Russian film, “Loveless,” conjured an emotional and cultural wasteland so bereft of kindness, love, and affection that my core temperature must have dropped several degrees. Why does everything look so bleak? I pulled my down jacket around me.

I was already sad from seeing my aging parents for four snowy days in Toronto. My 90 year old father would slowly put on his boots, coat, gloves, and toque and we would venture out into what felt like blowing ice chips to gaze across Lake Ontario, a sheet of white.  Leaning into his Nordic walking sticks, he slowly advanced across the tundra as the wind raged against our bodies, flattening our cheeks and rendering us silent.  Back in the apartment, we went through old papers, photos, and letters, some from when my father was a teenager. At my mother’s house across the city, we drank coffee and ate tiramisu. We spoke of death, art, and the indignities of old age. She felt imprisoned in the house by the icy sidewalks and fear of falling.  The blinds were drawn. The reason I practice meditation, I realized, is to prepare for aging, sickness, and death. It does not look easy.

I came home to a mild Valentine’s day in Victoria and the incipient blush of cherry and plum blossoms. But I felt exhausted and sad. I kept thinking of Worsley and his wish to conquer and succeed, a wish that seemed to have come from a deep sense of wanting. Wanting what? He wanted to impress his emotionally distant father in the military, but never managed to. But it was more than that. Some deeper ache. And Victor Frankenstein’s hybrid creature wanted love, wanted simply to belong but was rejected as an outcast and a freak.  In the movie Loveless, a 12-year-old boy feels abandoned by his divorcing parents.  We spend our lives wanting to belong, to be loved, to be seen.

I am turning 60 this year, the right time for reckoning. I am working on a graphic memoir, and it seems that the trajectory of my life has been one of wanting to be loved, to be seen, to belong. Those stories are recorded in dozens of stained and dog-eared journals dating back to the 1970s.  It’s finally time to get rid of them, to clear psychic space, to unblock energy. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them all, as re-reading them usually sets me awash in some kind of negative emotion—shame, fear, self-loathing, anger. I can feel disturbed for days after reading one. So I decided to read just 13 (an important number in my life—two of my sons were born on the 13th, and my stepson died on the 13th).  I chose those 13 with the help of the Tarot, and now my task is to create 13 chapters based on those chosen journals. I’m only on number two, and already I feel as if a large truck has flattened me several times. And yet these days I also feel joyful. I feel alive, I frequently feel happy, and I feel engaged with life and with art and with people and with myself in a way I have never felt before.  Bleak winter is followed by the blush of spring.

(Title is from David Whyte’s wonderful poem and book of the same name.)

References are to The New Yorker, Feb 12 & 19 2018 issue

 

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Week of Solitude (sort of)

 

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From December 27 to January 2, my husband M. was on a non-residential meditation retreat or “Weekthun” at our local Shambhala Centre from seven in the morning until six at night. I joined him for just one day. But for the remaining six days, I have conducted my own retreat, mostly at home, but really a retreat into myself, which is something I often crave.  I haven’t been entirely alone; I visited with two friends and I talked on the phone with people occasionally. I also went out into the world to do things. But there has been a lot of solitude.

Today is the last day of that week, and I discovered some things.  I am reminded that I mostly like being in my mind and my body. I am pretty friendly to myself these days. I am able to watch my mind get anxious or self-sabotaging and stop it before it goes roaring down into the slough of despond. So that’s good. More awareness means more equanimity.

I love being alone, but as each day comes to an end I am so happy to greet my husband coming in the door.

I like the mornings, when I have the most energy.  M. went off to his retreat at around 7 a.m. because he was assigned breakfast duty. Sometimes I stayed in bed for a little while and read a novel, which felt like a treat. I would get up and saunter around the house, which I had all to myself. Even our tenants have been away for the holidays. I liked the whoosh of the hot air coming up the registers in an otherwise quiet house. I liked watching the sunrise from my art/sewing room as I had a second cup of coffee.  Sometimes I switched locations and sat in the living room watching the traffic of hummingbirds at the feeder, needle-nosed flits of purple and turquoise.  What a beautiful thing, to have all of this time. To not have to rush or talk. I am so privileged.

My plan was to work on my memoir. I have been taking online courses at Sequential Art Workshop and now feel embedded in a friendly and supportive community of people from all over the world working on their graphic memoirs. The trick is to keep the conversation going without getting overwhelmed by the volume of sharing, recommendations, and seemingly endless threads in our Google Group. I have had to juggle all this social activity and responding to others (albeit online) with creating momentum to draw and write my own memoir.  I got some work done this week. I was about to add, “but not enough.” Hey, I did what I did, and it was enough.

IMG_2508Sometimes I felt discouraged.  But I just found something to motivate me and moved ahead. One step in front of the other. I like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way where she’s collected so many encouraging quotations in the margins. Today I opened the book to Jackson Pollock’s “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” I wrote it on a post-it note then crossed out “painting” and replaced it with “graphic memoir.”  I remember all of the times I wanted to quit writing my dissertation. But I kept talking myself out of quitting and into writing. I love what Lisa Hanawelt says: “Don’t worry about how good it’ll be. Just make it and do your best.”

After a couple of hours of working—drawing, writing, drawing—it was time to go out and do things. Sometimes I went for a hike or a run. Other times, shopping. We needed groceries and I was the one at home this week. And cooking—I made soup and Socca (a savoury pan bread made from chickpea flour and originating in Nice), black bean and tofu hash, Greek salad.  I did chores: the laundry, the garbage and recycling, changing sheets, cleaning, organizing.

Other kinds of outings.  I walked to the library and got out several graphic memoirs. I can usually read one in a couple of hours. Just soaking it all up—fascinating stories and all great reference material. I like to see how others draw, compose the page, handle text and lettering, build a story.  John Porcellino, Jennifer Hayden, Lucy Knisley, and Nicole Georges.

I took myself out to breakfast today on my way to buy more drawing supplies for the memoir. I was curious what it would be like as I haven’t been out to eat alone for a long time.  I went to a popular place that usually has line-ups.  But I got in right away, sitting at the bar.  I noticed the young guy next to me with a cell phone welded into his hand. He hardly took his eyes away from the phone display as he shovelled food into his mouth.

I looked around. The place was loud with noise and things.  Tons of old stuff hanging off the walls: books and mirrors, an ancient cash register, antique junque.  Waitresses carried plates with towers of food; the servings were enormous, so I just ordered eggs and toast off the “sides” menu.  I haven’t eaten toast since July when we started a new way of eating with few fast carbs.  I have lost 12 pounds and I feel really good. But I was curious to see if I could tolerate the occasional toast and jam experience, which in my opinion, when done well with excellent products, is akin to manna from heaven. I even devoted a section of my mandala IMG_2506to toast and jam, my desert island food. This “toast,” however, was really more like big fat slices of hot bread. I like thin slices of well-done crunchy toast.  Too bad. But the “jam” was delicious apple butter infused with cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg.  The waiter behind the bar asked other diners solicitously how they liked their food, but he never asked me. He called me “ma’am.” It’s interesting how lone older women are treated differently from other people. We are mostly invisible. But funnily, I don’t really mind. There are powers in being invisible, as sorcerers know.

When time and space expands, as it did this week, I can take up things I dropped before, for example the fleece hat pattern that didn’t work for me. I went back to it yesterday and figured out that there is nothing wrong with the pattern: I had cut and sewn the hat opposite the selvedge. It was too small because it didn’t stretch.  So I made another hat the right way, and it stretched and fit. I learn from making mistakes. I learn by slowing down.  Similarly, I got lots of good feedback from my teacher this morning about where I went wrong with my text and drawing on my comic panels. Time to redo them. Start over. Learn from mistakes. What’s the hurry? It takes time to learn a craft.

What a gift to have had this week in retreat, in solitude, with few obligations. To have had the time to do what I like, to think, to read, to not think. To rest, to do and redo, to not do. I feel grateful and ready to go back to work tomorrow. Happy new year everybody. May you find time to do what you love in 2018.

Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

I am not going to say anything about this latest comic except that I submitted it as the final assignment for our “Going in for the Snakes” course.  Anything I say will cloud your reception of the work, so I’ll just let it stand.

I start an intensive course in graphic memoir in mid-November.

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More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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