On unprized poems and why we write

Five years ago I got interested in corn.  I found out about maize, its history, breeding, and physiology, about Barbara McClintock’s work on maize genetics, leading to her Nobel Prize. I looked into corn’s many creation myths told by Indigenous tribes and cultures. I read about how genetically modified maize under the product name StarLink was sold in hundreds of different food products (for example, Taco Bell tacos) before it was recalled, not approved for human consumption by the FDA.

I was also interested at that time in giving objects voice in my poems, making objects subjects.

I spent some time reading, researching, and then writing a poem in which I envisioned a cob of corn speaking to a little girl at a Fourth of July picnic.  I wanted to express how food is sacred, it has its own history of being used, abused, loved, and narrated by humans. With a 7,000 year history, corn is an especially rich source of stories.

I entered the resulting poem in CBC’s poetry contest that year.  Of course I didn’t win.  David Martin deserved the prize for his ambitious poem, “Tar Swan.”

But not winning meant that I buried the poem deep in my computer’s archives and banished the thought of it.  It was, after all, “unprized.” But does that mean it’s not worth sharing?

I’ve been using Caroline Sharp’s A Writer’s Workbook to get my daily writing practice back on track. Today, I came across her inspiring words of encouragement:

 “Practice, practice, practice. Stretch your voice. Assert your talent and speak loudly because this is a short time we have here, to be alive, here and now, with this pen and this piece of paper.  This day matters and this word matters and your story matters.” (p. 34)

So take heart, writers.  Keep writing. Don’t permit not getting the prize stop you from setting words down and then sharing them. We write to communicate, and if we keep waiting for prizes and praise, we may never connect to readers.

 

Corn speaks

I

Alicia, before you eat me,
listen, child,
listen:

Teosinte is my wild cousin five genes distant,
her leafy bush concealed a few hard nuggets,
hardy ancestors to my lush abundant bumps.

Before your big white American teeth
crunch me, think of my long history.
How centuries ago, early farmers in what
we now call Mexico worked to breed,
selectively, the very best parts of me.

Native Americans mythed me into being.
I am sister to squash and beans, I am
Mother corn. I shake my thighs in secret to
birth my maize.  Sons and grandsons,
voyeurs, are dismayed, disgusted.

Are you amazed?  When you see an ear of corn
looks like a baby wrapped in silk blankets
you might pause.  But eventually you’ll see we are always
already cannibals, my dear.

I am Mondawmin, the sky-boy. I came
down to earth, surrendered my fight with Wunzh, was
buried bare and bronze in the earth, sprouted green with
silk-bright hair so hunters could stop
wandering and become farmers.

You eat pure history in my sweet starch.
Butter slides like sweat across the brown ribs
of the tiller of primordial fields.
Time throbs your tooth against the cob.
Alicia, stop girl and bless me!

You eat the creamy flesh of time,
you are connected to the calloused thumb of a
brown woman who seven centuries ago
culled the best and plumpest kernel from the plant
and bred me into being.

Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.

II

Okay Alicia, your corn is done,
spent cob lays on your plate,
dull remnant of a summer feast
beside the stub of a stale hotdog bun.

Has any other food been used, abused, so vigorously?
Kellogg’s, Karo, your will be done,
but those sly modifiers, those slick scientists
crept into my buttery insides and played with
my genes; those white coats took my soul when they called
their stuff Starlink and hid it in a taco shell.
Fool’s gold it was, fool’s gold.

I love to serve, to submit to your extractions of
sweet, of starch, of ethanol to run your
cars, but don’t mess with my soul.

Alicia, warn your people that I am not
just vegetable. I am woman, mother, sister, boy, god, goddess,
baby. The history of the Americas rests deep,
deep in my kernel.
Get back to basics, girl. Get back to sacred.
Third week of August, ancient tribes
worshipped me, my yellow more precious than gold.

Bless me girl,
Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.
Bless me.

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Inspired by “Corn Maiden” by Marti Fenton

 

 

 

Heavy bear

“That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.”

From “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” Delmore Schwartz, 1938

As much as I want to be one with it and to befriend it (as I wrote about here), most days I feel at war with my body. My mind is agile, quick. My body is a heavy bear. I know I should exercise, yet as I make another cup of coffee and settle into my writing chair, I convince myself that it’s not really that important. In August, I hired a personal trainer, thinking she would somehow fire me up, inspire make me to get fit. I had a few sessions with her, and she was lovely and encouraging. She set up a practical plan of cardio, weights, abs, and stretches for me. And then I found dozens of excuses not to go to the gym.  Well, getting motivated to exercise is an inside job. (I knew this but was in denial.)

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***

Clambering around a playground yesterday with the four-year-old girl I sometimes hang out with, I felt old, tired, heavy, and sore. I stumbled and floundered like a shaggy she-grizzly, a version of Schwartz’s inescapable animal. Then I realized on the bus home that I need to treat exercise like I treat water or food. A need. A requirement for living well.

***

Today I accompanied Michael to the rec centre where he goes for his daily run. I took my iPhone and headphones and tuned into Apple Music’s app, looked under “Music by Mood’s” Fitness category, and found it is crammed with playlists of every kind—“R&B Workout,” “Alternative Workout,” “Latin Urban Workout.” I went straight to the “’80s Workout” because there’s nothing like the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited” to get your heartrate up to its maximum. The record’s needle drops down into the disco groove and before I know it, my past self, my young body, is moving fast, moving sexily.

***

A year or two ago, I was leery of paying monthly for Apple Music, and I loathed the idea of the playlists, prepackaged music pabulum. I didn’t want to be just another baby boomer nostalgic for the sounds of her youth. I should select my own favourite music, make my own mix tapes. But I surrendered. Apple Music’s fitness playlists make me happy.  I warmed up on the rowing machine to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Rick James’ “Super Freak.” I had memories of going to aerobics classes with my sister in the big gym at the University of Toronto. After we sweated it out, we’d go out for a beer at a bar on Harbord Street (and for me—multiple cigarettes).

***

Moving to the treadmill, my heart beat faster with the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and Wham!’s hit, “Wake Me UP Before You Go Go.”  Peak heart rate with the Pointer Sisters, sweat pouring down my face. Following that, I did weights to the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams,” remembering a summer in my twenties when I was obsessed with that song, playing it over and over as I lay on the floor in a melancholic haze. Finally, my housemates started to complain about hearing the same song 50 times a day.  I forwarded through some songs, and came “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “Let’s Dance” by Bowie. Wonderful.  As I stretched post-workout, I shifted over to Botswana’s hit songs, another Apple Music feature (Daily top 100 in dozens of countries).

***

Sometimes my body is a heavy bear, fumbling like “a stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” My mind is electric and agile, my body a “caricature, a swollen shadow.”  As I age, my body can feel like a slow prison for a quick mind.  Her “mouthing care,” her “scrimmage of appetite” always playing out—wanting this, wanting that, buttered toast with jam, too many coffees, lounging for hours on the couch.  How good to feel, at least today, energized, young, strong, and compatible with my animal. How can we become one?

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Pantoum for the girl within

I’ve been spending some time around little girls. A friend of mine and his wife adopted two sisters, ages two and five, and I visited them yesterday.  I’ve also been taking a four-year-old girl to the park every week for a while to help her mother, who has a broken arm. I witness the joy they experience of being in their strong flexible bodies. They leap, climb, cycle, run, and whirl through the world. I started to feel the seeds of that old green life inside of me, memories of cartwheels and craziness, of no shame and feeling free and saucy, the time before self-consciousness descends like a constraining shroud. My body’s talking again, reminding me of the green fuse inside.

I’ve been experimenting a bit with poetic form. The Pantoum has captured my attention, an ancient Malay verse form with repeating lines, like the villanelle and the glosa (you can see my attempt at that verse form here).  The quatrains are arranged like this:

Stanza 1
A
B
C
D

Stanza 2
B
E
D
F

Stanza 3
E
G
F
H

Stanza 4
G
I (or A or C)
H
J (or A or C)

Many famous poets have used this form to wonderful effect. I love, for example, this heartbreaking pantoum by Natalie Diaz

My inspiration comes from those little girls I have been seeing on the playground and in my dreams, the little girl buried among my tangled wires of memory. I suspect you have a young version of yourself, too, deep inside, who sends green sparks up your spine.

Pantoum for the girl within

Stuck out tongue and tangled hair
Within me lives a little girl
Turns cartwheels in the falling dark
Laughing, Gleaming, Spinning World

Within me lives a little girl
Yells “I don’t care, just like Pierre!”
Laughing, Gleaming, Spinning World
Turns cartwheels with no underwear

Yells “I don’t care, just like Pierre!”
Legs scissor through the fading light
Turns cartwheels with no underwear
Strong body spinning in the air

Legs scissor through the fading light
Turns cartwheels in the falling dark
Strong body spinning in the air
Stuck out tongue and tangled hair

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Madeline, 4 and half years old

 

I hope that you have had the opportunity to read Maurice Sendak’s “Nutshell Library,”  a series of four tiny books sold together in a little cardboard holder. My favourite was Pierre, a cautionary tale about a boy who didn’t care and was eaten by a lion because of his bad attitude. I always found it slightly shocking, but I hungered for the story and wished I could be as defiant as Pierre, even at risk of death.

Let me hear your body talk

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A curse and a gift of ageing is a growing awareness of the ways I have been inauthentic in my life. Lately, I have become profoundly aware of the disconnection between my body and my mind.  I have ignored my body for so long, shut it up into submission, taken it for granted. These pronouncements presume a Cartesian dualism, an assumption that mind and body are separate, and though I realize they are not, that is how I have felt in my life—my body and mind feel separate.

Two years ago I started a graphic memoir, Let me hear your body talk. It was my attempt to illustrate the life of my body from infancy to the present day. After a dozen or so pages, I stopped and let the project languish. My reason was that I was too clumsy an artist to render my ideas. But another reason I stopped was that as I worked through my childhood and teenage years, drawing and writing, I felt acutely uncomfortable with how I had regularly ignored my body’s signals. From emotional eating to having sex with somebody who repulsed me, to neglecting pain, to resisting the gut’s intuition. I had abused my body through various compulsions: I was addicted early on to the approval of others, and later to food, cigarettes, and booze. Never having learned how to honour my body as precious, I considered it as merely an appendage to my brain/mind, which I believed was more valuable.

Although I can’t speak for others, my memory is that as a family, we weren’t grounded in our bodies. Moving the body, appreciating the body, enjoying the body, listening to the body: these were not on the agenda when I was a child.  Sports, exercise, or creative body expression were not encouraged or modelled by my parents. Sex was rarely discussed or mentioned, though it might have been alluded to. When I took up running in my late thirties, my mother commented, “You’re not overweight, so why? It can’t be good for you, jiggling around like that.” I suppose when I was very young, I lived shamelessly and happily in my skin, but I cannot remember. In our family, intellect was prized above all.

Of course, this is not to suggest my body has not been a source of bliss.  Sex can be rapturous. . . the ruminating mind dissolves as every nerve ending sparkles and shimmers. Being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding: all gave me tremendous pleasure/transcendent pain and left me with gratitude, love, and respect for my body and its capacity. But as the excerpt from my memoir shows, as a young woman I tuned out my body’s sensations and needs.  My people-pleasing antennae were turned way up; I wanted not to be a problem to others, so I suffered, often silently. I wanted to please the man I was with; my pleasure was secondary.

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These days, I meditate daily. Although my thoughts quiet for minutes at a time, I still haven’t felt fully connected to my body. Looking to change this, I bought Reggie Ray’s book, The Awakening Body on somatic meditation. Ray provides instructions on six somatic meditations. One resonated more than the others: yin breathing. “The place of yin is in the lower belly, approximately a couple of inches below the navel and in about the middle of the body. . . In Taoist meditation, this place in the lower belly is known as the lower dan t’ien” (p. 67).  Ray goes on to write that the lower dan t’ien’s role in the body “is the inner expression of the fundamental space of the cosmos, the original womb out of which all energy and life arise. It is the microcosmic expression of the same limitless reality we meet ‘outside’ in the earth at its infinite depth.” The concept of the “original womb” may sound inflated or unbelievable, and yet I immediately understood this concept because I had experienced the yin space before.

A few years ago, I had felt this space, an oval the size of a duck’s egg located about three inches below the navel, as a mysterious source of deep pleasure. At that time, I welcomed it, but I didn’t understand it. It would come to me late at night as I was drifting off to sleep, a pulsing sense of well-being in my whole body, but originating there at the body’s root—tingling pleasure that was not exactly sexual. A radiating pleasure-consciousness that felt rooted, centred, yet expansive. It’s hard to explain. As I said, it’s mysterious.

Lately, I have been doing yin breathing, breathing in and out through the lower dan t’ien and thereby, “roaming on the boundary between consciousness (the ego domain) and the unconscious (the deep Soma).  As a result, my body consciousness may be shifting. Recently, we  went to hear live jazz, the Amina Figarova Sextet, and I enjoyed music more than ever before. Instead of listening in my head, my whole body heard and felt. I enter the piano’s thrum, the saxophone’s sugarplum melodies, the drum’s silvery beats; I swallow the flute’s shivers and I become the tall brown bass, plucked.  My body is a repository for sound and I can’t help but move to the rhythms. I fill with jazz colours, jazz feelings. Body and mind are one. Feels so good.

 

 

Not getting there

What I wanted
was the walking, not the walking-to but
the not-getting-there, the every moment
starting out, the every moment
being lifted in an arc against the moment of arrival: the anticipation
is terrific, yet always nothing
happens when I’m there

From Cashion Bridge by Jan Zwicky

Last week I set myself a task—to write six “columns” over six weeks, each prompted by a line or lines from a poem I picked at random from a book of poems I picked at random from our bookshelves . . . .

It sounded so fun and inspirational at the time.

All week I struggled with you might call writer’s block, though the term seems inaccurate. It was more like writer’s doubt. I doubted everything I wrote and thought. First, I worried I might misrepresent the lines from Zwicky’s brilliant poem, even though I told myself the line I chose (“What I wanted/was the walking, not the walking-to but/ the not-getting-there”) was merely a diving board into other waters, my own waters.  Then I worried about the substance of what I was writing—it seemed superficial. An old question that regularly haunts me returned, “why does it even matter?”

I also had second thoughts about the idea of a column. What is a “column” anyway? How could I differentiate my regular personal essay blogposts from a series of columns? It turns out I couldn’t really find a distinction, so I wondered at my original purpose.  Perhaps I just wanted the discipline of writing a post a week for six weeks, and the poem prompts were a fun and beautiful way to provide a way to get going.  Well that just started to freak me out: How could I sustain this weekly posting? I am used to posting every once in a while, when the spirit moves me.

Michael’s meditation teacher has told him over and over again, “Don’t make a project out of it.” It can be anything—watching a TV series, taking up a cause, daily meditation, making art. Don’t make a project out of it.  And I was making a project out of the columns. I even called it “The Six Column Project.” When I make a project out something, it becomes difficult. It’s not fun anymore because it’s loaded with expectations and hidden pressures. Ultimately undoable.  As soon as I release the idea of a “project” and the timeline (why produce a post weekly when I am not actually a weekly columnist?), I am released into to the creative ether. I grow wings. So I will continue to write blogposts, probably not weekly, but when the spirit moves me. And I like the idea of using those lines from random poems as prompts—I may continue with that for awhile.

In the meantime, I squeezed out a couple of paragraphs this week inspired by Zwicky’s “not-getting-there.”

Walking meditation is all about not-getting-there. There is nowhere to get to.  When I was first taught this practice, our teacher told us to imagine the snow lion padding joyfully through the highland meadows.  He used his hand to show us the wavy motion of a soft heel/paw strike followed by the rest of the foot coming down on earth as if caressing the ground. We attend to our feet making contact with the floor as we circle the big bright shrine room, light tumbling through the tall windows. My foot slowly arches, each deliberate step on the wooden floors sending a flood of warm energy up my legs.  Measured paces around and around, like the snow lion treading lightly in the high mountain meadow, surrounded by wildflowers.

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Joy and Andy

The snow lion image puts me in mind of our two cats, who wander aimlessly around our house.  Sometimes they have purpose—food bowl or litter box—but mostly it’s a long ramble through the rooms, not getting anywhere in particular, stopping here, sleeping there. Joy, the smaller one, will occasionally stop and extend one of her front legs in an arabesque. She is a feline ballerina.  

*  *  *

It occurs to me that I did quite well at writing a column about not getting there because this post has been all about how I didn’t get there (“there” being the column project). So in failure I have succeeded.

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I wanted to master the column, but the column mastered me.

The six column project

By Madeline

As I get older I think of paths not taken. For example, in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a weekly column for a big paper. In the 1980s, I devoured film critic Liam Lacey’s articles in the Globe and Mail, loving his clever analysis and enormous vocabulary. Now I look forward to reading columns by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti in the same paper. To be a columnist means that not only do you write for eager readers, but also you are constrained—beautifully constrained because the deadline makes you work hard and generate ideas and heat up with fecund energy (at least this is my fantasy). None of the passive doodling that writing becomes when there is no real audience, no real deadline. Too much of that kind of writing and my creative spirit retreats and shrivels.

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My creative spirit when she goes into hiding…(image by Ugo Fontana)

So, I thought, why can’t I pretend I have my own column? You are reading this right now: Will you be my audience? I will set myself some constraints: six “columns” in six weeks. Then, lying in bed unable to sleep the other night, I wrestled with content. What will the columns be about? After mulling over this for some time and writing scraps of ideas on bits of paper in the pitch black so as not to wake Michael, I thought of poetry. I will take ten books of poetry off our shelves—no thinking, just the first ten I come across.  Shut my eyes and open each book and place a book mark in that page. Then I have a bit of choice; from each of those ten open pages, I will choose a lines or series of lines or a stanza (whatever makes sense).  Those lines then will become the pool I will choose from for the six columns. Those lines will be the titles that suggest ideas or themes for writing. I won’t necessarily write about the poem or poet or even poetry. . . the line or line will be a springboard for ideas, generating who knows what? That is the exciting part. Anything might come up!

Other constraints:  each column must be 500 to 750 words and accompanied by a sketch or image  created by me. My hope is that weekly deadlines will banish preciousness and perfectionism.

Playfulness comes in the midst of what feels like gruelling work: I am preparing to teach technical writing again in September. And I have taken on an editing contract. In the midst of preparing and planning, creativity bursts forth, a project is born. Something wants to be written, but it doesn’t know yet what it is.   Inspire me, poets.

Expect the first column in one week, based on these lines from Jan Zwicky’s “Cashion Bridge”:

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Pamela gave me this precious book for my 60th birthday

 

“What I wanted
was the walking, not the walking-to but
the not-getting-there, the every moment
starting out, the every moment
being lifted in an arc against the moment of arrival: the anticipation
is terrific, yet always nothing
happens when I’m there”

 

 

P.S. Yesterday, when I heard that Toni Morrison had died, I felt both sadness and gratitude. Sadness that we have lost such a star and gratitude for her immeasurable contribution to American life and letters. She was a great artist, thinker, humanitarian, and activist. I had the privilege of teaching her novel Beloved more than once to undergraduate students (and it took me several reads to understand it—it is so rich). I can’t believe that at first I rejected it, saying “I don’t like ghost stories.” Whew–how ridiculously rigid I was! Thank goodness inspiring teachers helped open my mind.

I also chose to teach The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, both amazing in very different ways.  Paradise is another gem, and her literary theory book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993) is insightful and startling, even today. Through her evocative, deeply-felt stories, I learned about endemic racism, the horror of slavery, and the African-American experience better than I ever could via history and non-fiction books.  Some lines from Beloved will always stay with me. At the end of the novel, Paul D. tries to explain to Sethe his feelings about her, so he recalls what Sixo said about the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” I just found out there is a documentary about Morrison titled “The Pieces I Am.” That line from Beloved, then, has clearly touched many hearts.  Good-bye beloved Toni Morrison (Chloe Wofford).

P.P.S. Thank you so much for all of your encouragement and comments on the travel blogposts that Michael and I wrote.  We loved hearing from you, and Michael enjoyed the experience so much, he is thinking of starting his own blog. I’ll let you know when he does. xoxox

Beauty way: the road home

 

 

The Navajo do not look for beauty; they normally find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it.

-Erik Painter, 2017

By Michael

Leaving Winnipeg, I feel pulled towards home with increasing intensity. At the same time, I want to be open to the rest of the journey that we have before us.  I doubt that we will do any camping on this trip—it has just seemed like too much after driving for 7 hours or more to search for a campsite and set up our tent, so we continue to move from motel to motel, icing our cooler and trying to keep the cream fresh for our morning coffee, lovingly made in our French press in whatever room we happen to have found ourselves in. Sniff and stir has become the morning ritual.

We are both tired of driving and hungry for home, but in the meantime the road beckons and unfurls before us, and I find myself thinking of the Navajo concept of beauty, that it is everywhere and we are immersed in it and part of it.  I reflect on the range of landscapes and people we’ve met on this trip, and on how beauty takes many forms…and there is more to come!

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Regina is dry, hot and exhausting and we get our signals crossed trying to find a parking spot at what looks like a good coffee shop.  By the time we get the car and our butts parked we are cranky and the fact that this is another “we don’t do dark roast” (featuring winy coffee) place, doesn’t help. We talk about how glad we are that even when we are cranky, we don’t blame each other, and then decide to push on to Swift Current so that tomorrow can be a shorter day.  A few miles outside of Regina on the vast prairie we realize that the yellow low fuel warning light is on—we need gas.

After 22 anxious miles we make our way into Pense, a town of 500 or so residents.  Canadian sculptor Joe Fafard lived here—I’m thinking there will be delightful sculptures of people and cows around the town.  Apparently not—there is no one to be seen.  There is a gas station that appears to be closed, the pumps barricaded with lawn furniture and plastic fencing to prevent cars driving around them. I wander into the Meat Up pub to ask for help…a vast, dark, totally empty room.  Calling out, a sleepy looking man emerges from the shadowy depths and informs me that the gas station is next door.  “Is it open?” I ask.  He peers at me quizzically: “I have no idea”.

Back we go.  I get out of the car and open the front door of the convenience store located behind the pumps.  A small (Canadian Chinese?) woman with a big smile is sitting behind the counter.  The place is crammed to the rafters with every kind of food stuff, hardware and household item you can imagine.  I ask if she is open and she nods and smiles. I ask her which pump to use. She nods and smiles. “Pump one?” I ask—she stands up, nods and gestures towards the pumps and her smile widens.  I go outside and Madeline parks the car beside the pumps while avoiding the lawn furniture and plastic fencing, negotiating the space with a new arrival, a man in a Winnipeg shirt, Ontario license plates and a huge truck. While I pump our gas, he goes into the store and comes out and asks me if the woman is crazy.  I tell him she is just trying to manage the situation in her way, and a few minutes later she emerges and starts waving and directing him to get his truck to the pumps without kinking the hose.

Driving towards Swift Current, I tell Madeline that I wish she could have seen the inside of the store.  It strikes me that this may have been the most excitement that the store owner had seen in a while—and far from being crazy she seemed enthused with her new customers, and besides, that huge, friendly smile never dimmed for a second.

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We spend two days in Calgary.  The first night we visit with our friends John and Jane with whom we are now family through marriage.  We laugh and feast have a great break from driving and the following day we visit with Floyd, a long-time friend that I hadn’t seen for 25 years. More feasting, more laughter, more heart connections.  As we ready for the final drive through the mountains, I feel warmed by these visits with friends old and new, and just grateful for the people in my life.

The beauty of northern Ontario is glorious, imperfect, substantial, with the Canadian Shield visible everywhere, and straggly corkscrew trees adorning mirrored lakes.  The beauty of the prairies is gentle, rolling and welcoming (at least in summer) with skies that open before me like the hands of generosity.

The Rockies are another matter completely. Here nature struts her stuff like a runway model—the trees are perfect cones, the mountains are rock music, with sweeping curves and sawtooth edges that carve into the sky.  The lakes are sapphire blue, fed by glaciers. This landscape is in your face, drop dead gorgeous, but I have to admit that part of me misses the wide prairie skies, and soon enough we are driving through the rolling sagebrush-adorned hills of Kamloops, and I am able to just be present with whatever is before me.

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On the ferry, weaving through the Gulf Islands, I think, so many Beauties on this trip.  The landscapes for sure, but just as much the people that we have met touch my heart. Everywhere, people have been friendly, kind and welcoming, and I realize that through this entire trip I have had the strongest sense of home, of belonging, of being immersed in beauty.

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By Madeline

 

I added Halcyon the kingfisher to our shelf of RARE mascots beside the donkey, Falstaff the pig, and the sand dollar picture.  I am so glad to be home with the kitties.  Memories of the trip will continue to simmer in my mind and give birth to more stories and posts, I am certain.  Thank you, Michael, for collaborating with me on the blog during our trip and for being a superb travel and life companion.  And thank you dear readers for reading.

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Sticky and Sponty

By Madeline and Michael

Madeline: We could be driving anywhere—in a way, it doesn’t matter because it is all about the internal journey. One of the things we’ve been balancing and talking about is spontaneity and discipline or restraint (near antonyms of spontaneity).  Michael calls the force opposing spontaneity (and one he associates with his own character) as “stick in the mudness,” though I don’t see him this way at all. He has a tonne of carefree magic in his soul balanced by “Great East Discipline” (one of his Buddhist names, which is very fitting).

We have tried to balance these two energies between us on this trip while we balance them in ourselves.  Perhaps Michael has more discipline than I, and he has taught me that we need to spend the longer days in the car to cover the kilometres (Canada is enormous).  Perhaps I have more appetite for being impulsive (“let’s stop at this lake and swim!”), but we need both of these energies to make the trip go. If Sponty runs the show, we follow every whim, popping into thrift stores and following hiking trails for an elusive kingfisher, and we never actually get to Toronto. If Sticky runs the show, we get there in record time, but exhausted, never loosening up and letting bursts of impulse reveal the magic in the everyday.

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We have had some longer days, like July 16. We left the Soo at 8:20 a.m. and arrived in Kenora at 5:20 (well, 6:20, but we slipped into the Central Time Zone at some point). Pacing ourselves with frequent breaks and seat switches, we made it to Kenora feeling pretty good.

The long day (Soo to Kenora) made Winnipeg on July 17thpossible! Thunderstorms were predicted, so rather than camping (which we still haven’t gotten around to), we decided to do a short day, arriving in Winnipeg in the early afternoon and exploring.  What treasures we beheld…

We wandered into Á la Page, a comfortable, homey business selling second-hand books at 200 Provencher Blvd. in St. Boniface, and found that all books were 50% off!  The green corduroy couch near the front of the store beckoned—so comfy. I sat down and started paging through a book on intuitive healing while Michael looked at a book of Buddhist art. The catalogue had a definite leaning toward the metaphysical, and more than half the titles are in French.  I asked the young man at the cash desk if the place was going out of business because the half-price sale seemed to me a sign. “Not yet,” he laughed. We chatted about how you have to be passionate about books to run an independent bookstore. I feel recommitted to supporting Victoria’s independent bookstores.

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I loved St. Boniface not only for its charm and beauty, but also because I felt so comfortable speaking Anglais, whereas in Québec not so much. I had a thought I’d love to spend a summer in St. Boniface learning French and getting to know the neighbourhoods.

In the evening, we discovered a textile show by three Franco-Manitoban (is this a proper descriptor?) women—what a find! I fell in love with Rosemarie Péloquin’s felt faces and heads that depict old age in a truthful and tender way.

On our Winnipeg afternoon, we wandered. We embraced what we came upon in our wanderings.  Discipline builds the dance floor for the jazz-dance of spontaneity.

Michael: One of the things I am learning on this trip is that Sponty helps me to open to the world with a child’s heart, and when I do that I find unforeseen jewels, such as Medicine Hat which I wrote about in an earlier post. Today I am reflecting on the magic of Manitoba.

Waking up in our little Jackfish Cabin and seeing a weather forecast of thunder storms, we decide to drive to Winnipeg, enjoy a shorter day, and see what we might find.  What follows is completely magical.

We meet Barry S. Shore, owner and proprietor of Fat Cat Records.  As Barry said, he “used to shoot for Warner Brothers”, and his walls were adorned with black and white photos of rock stars, clearly shot from the close to the action vantage point of a press photog— exquisitely, dramatically, and lovingly framed, faces wearing many masks: passion, sadness, feral snarls. Fat Cat specializes in West Coast Blues, which Barry explains to us is a sub genre of the blues with elements of jazz and bop built in.  He has only been open three weeks, but this is his third record store, and this way he only has to sell the stuff he likes.  He says the store gives him something to do  in his retirement—hmmm, is there a theme here? We buy a music-themed print, a Fat Cat Records tee shirt and a Lynwood Slim CD.  I am often struck by synchronicity, and as we leave it strikes me that we’ve been listening to Stuart McLean’s stories about Dave, owner of the Vinyl Café, Canada’s smallest record store. Wow, I think, we just met an aging Dave and visited the Vinyl Café!

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Winnipeg Fringe is on, and after attending a stand up performance in St Boniface, we venture out for a walk on the boulevard. I wear hearing aids, and at times the internal combustion engine is the plague of my existence–cars without mufflers and motorcycles assault my senses in the most shocking and violent way.  Today is one of those days, so I want, need respite. Across the street we see green grass beside railroad tracks and walk towards it, expecting tracks, grass, little more.

Instead we find a path that leads to a footbridge over the Assiniboine River, and a forested glen with a winding path.  The reflections of the forest in the river, the sweetness of birdsong, Madeline’s hand in mine and our shared silence are entrancing and nourishing in a way that I really need.  Another unexpected jewel.

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As we return across the bridge, we find remnants of paper fastened to the bridge deck, printed but no longer legible.  A placard explains that this is an art installation, Pages and Passages by Eric Plamondon. The pages are pulled from the stories of 30 Manitobans-poems by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, but also more modern folk. Each pedestrian and cyclist can read the stories, but their passing obscures them a little more each day, thus with the passage of time we affect each other’s stories.

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I have been thinking a lot about privilege on this trip, about how my privilege manifests in blind spots, which by definition I can’t see. This is another jewel-an opportunity to see how in just living my life, in just passing through, I affect the stories of others.  I return to the road with a deep sense of gratitude and magic.

 

We are family

By Michael

The forests of northern Ontario are very different from those on the coast—the shapes and the colours of the trees are all intermixed and different—round deciduous balls of olive green, almost fluffy, and dark, perfectly conical fir trees with attractively mangled and misshapen tops poking up above the forest.  The lakes are like mirrors, punctuated by lovely little islands, often with a single cheeky tree stylishly placed at one end.  Group of Seven, I keep thinking—nature imitating art.  Thus the world unfurls as we drive from Sault Ste Marie to Toronto, seven hours, magical and ultimately exhausting.

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Driving into Toronto put me in mind of the vacuum tubes that were once used to transfer rolled-up messages around a huge warehouse. Everything was speeding up, and there were two, then four, then six lanes, filled with vehicles whose drivers switched from lane to lane with a ferocious regularity.  I felt like we were being sucked into the city, but it was oddly exhilarating—my caffeine-fuelled exhaustion somehow making me hyper vigilant. Soon I was switching lanes, eagerly agreeing with and following our GPS’s changing instructions.  “Save 7 minutes using alternate route—ok?” It was great fun until everything slowed down and the potholes multiplied, jarring me (and keeping me awake).

We were staying at Madeline’s mother and stepfather’s house in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto, and the garage we were to park in was tiny, and already filled with her stepfather’s large SUV.  It took three of us directing, worrying, and tucking side mirrors in to get our little red hatchback safely inside, at which point we decided it was Uber or public transit for the duration.

So for the next three days we stayed with Madeline’s dad in Etobicoke during the day, and had evenings with her stepfather, alternating between the two locations via Uber.

Madeline’s father lives in a condominium on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Mimico neighbourhood, and the whole area feels very spacious—there are people around, but nothing resembling a crowd.  He is 92 and while he uses a walker, he loves to go outside frequently.  While he moves slowly, he has a gritty determination and the heart of a hero. Their building is huge—the walk from the elevator to the cavernous lobby is the length of a football field, so often a rest break is needed between the journeys from elevator to lobby and from lobby to lake shore.

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The Annex is jammed with people, and the sidewalks along Bloor are being fenced off and torn up due to major construction.  Going walking was a process of navigating between the bodies, turning this way, then that, watching to make sure you don’t get run over by a frustrated driver, and swimming through a cacophony of horns as the cars jockeyed for position and tried desperately to beat the yellow light.

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These are the two cities we visited during our four nights in Toronto, and how different they were!  Etobicoke was slow, measured and meditative.  It was at first frustrating, but soon nourishing to slow down and experience time with this aging but determined man.  Once as we sat in the courtyard, he pointed out a beautiful butterfly sitting on the ground, and I thought what a gift it is to slow down and notice, and how he was helping me to do that. Toronto was hot, urgent, frenetic.  Madeline’s stepfather is a youthful 80, so we walked for blocks, talking about restaurants, politics, travel and remembering Madeline’s mom who passed away on Valentine’s day this year. It was busy, stressful, and at times over stimulating.

I am a west coast boy, and I have never really enjoyed Toronto.  My experience this visit was very different.  The evenings were warm and pleasantly humid, perfect for walking around and exploring. The old houses are grand, red brick singing against the green of the surrounding foliage.  One night we walked to a local high school where a beautiful all-weather track has been built. Runners and walkers were enjoying the warm summer evening, and after marvelling at the luminous sky, we walked a couple of circuits of the track.  I even ran for a hundred yards or so, grateful to be free of the darned driver’s seat for an extended period. One morning we found a combination coffee shop and cannabis dispensary.  On the main floor, a conventional coffee barista station, and a stairway leading up to the dispensary on the second floor. The coffee was extremely good, and it may have been my imagination but the atmosphere seemed a lot more chill than in most coffee places I have frequented.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. While the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit we went to see was wonderful, I came away touched by two other elements. Brian Jungen is an indigenous artist from B.C. who uses commercial products such as leather sofas, Nike running shoes and baseball gloves to construct a giant tipi, a cigar store Indian, and traditional indigenous headdresses. Daphne Odjig’s painting, Family, reminded me of the purpose of our visit.

We are now heading home, driving, listening to Stuart Mclean’s wonderful stories, alternately laughing and crying as he describes the memories that make up a life and the kindnesses that human beings show each other when we live from our hearts.  It strikes me that for me this trip is all about family.  First there is the privilege of spending time with parents and loved ones and realizing how precious and fleeting this time can be. Secondly there is the realization that all of us who live in Canada are family, and that my job is to open my eyes, my ears, my heart to all of my family members, and to try to recognize the blind spots that my privilege creates.

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Sober is sexy in the Soo

As we drove, we talked about how we decided on names for our children all those years ago.  Michael mused that his first wife may have wanted to name their son Willie, partly inspired by Joni Mitchell’s love lyric to Graham Nash.  “Oh, let’s play it,” I said, and pretty soon Michael was politely commanding Siri to play Ladies of the Canyon, which we enjoyed for the next 80 kilometres. Early Joni Mitchell is smart and luminous, filled with gleaming surprises. I am constantly amazed by how privileged we are to have this kind of technology at our fingertips. To think of a song, to hear a song.

That was our hardest day, driving over 700 kilometers from Thunder Bay to Sault Sainte Marie (The Soo) while exhausted, as I hadn’t slept much in the cheap hotel in TB. We had a lovely short visit with an old friend in the morning at her place on Loon Lake outside of TB. I hadn’t seen her for 30 years, and yet when we hugged, the love felt fresh and our connection seemed unbroken. Unbelievable.  And then we booted it around Lake Superior, the lake known as gitchi-gami by the Ojibway.  We stopped at Old Woman Bay, a sandy beach on the Lake where I dipped my toes into the cool water.

Early evening, we arrived in the Soo and found an Indian restaurant where they gave us way too much food. So, after dinner we wandered around the historic streets dangling a carton of leftover lamb vindaloo and channa masala in a plastic bag, admiring the old Post Office and the many funky shops. As we passed under some scaffolding, we looked through the window of Winnie B’s Vintage Emporium, and I saw a lanky man wearing a black t-shirt that said “Sober is Sexy.”

“Hey, I love your shirt,” I called through the open door. “Thanks,” he called back, and he and Michael and I had a brief conversation about the joys of sobriety. Winnie’s owner, Patricia Bowles, had hired him and another guy to rearrange the stuff in her store. She came out on the sidewalk and introduced herself, then looked down at our bag. “Oh, your food is leaking!”  I had tipped the carton in my excitement, and reddish-brown Vindaloo sauce dripped from the corners, so she gave us a second bag to secure the mess.  The store wasn’t open, but Patricia invited us in nonetheless, and we stood among the treasures (a huge wooden bread bowl, beaded necklaces, old paintings, mid-century furniture) and chatted about the loveliness of the Soo, her mother Winnie, whom she named the store after, all of the different places she’d lived across Canada, and our trip so far. When I mentioned that the Soo was a pleasant surprise, we hadn’t expected such charm, she asked to interview us for her Facebook page (she is collecting testimonials about the little city), so we agreed and the result is here: https://www.facebook.com/WinnieBsVintage/videos/2080685375569309/

In the morning after a much needed sleep-in at the Sleep Inn, we got take-out coffee, excellent Sumatran pour-overs by Paul of Queen’s East Coffee and Clothes: https://www.facebook.com/queenseastcoffeeandclothes/

I wandered about the small shop, browsing the racks of women’s clothes while Paul worked his magic. He had only a small space behind the counter, and he told me that at the height of business, he can manage six pour-overs at once. Paul asked if he could rinse Michael’s travel mug.

“Sure.”

“I always ask because once, I just went ahead a rinsed this guy’s cup, and he said, ‘Hey, I had a shot of Bailey’s in there!”

“Hope he wasn’t driving,” rejoined Michael.

“Nope, just out walking his dog.”

As we settled into highway driving and a wonderful story by Stuart McLean (Emil), a call came through from the Sleep Inn. “Oh no,” I said to the front desk clerk, “What did we leave?”

“A phone charger.” Michael and I exchanged looks.

“It’s okay, thanks for the call, but we aren’t coming back for it.”

We were already well into our miles for the day. I started to freak out a bit inside my head, as this was the second phone charger I’d left in a hotel room in a week.

“It’s okay, honey,” Michael reassured me.  “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a gnat’s fart. It doesn’t matter. We’ll buy another. We’ll buy a case of phone chargers.”

We finished McLean’s Emil and then listened to The Fig Tree. Tears poured down my face, partly because I was so touched by the stories about tenderness and caring that McLean tells with drollery and understated love, but largely because I was so happy to be with a man who didn’t try to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, when I do dumb things, he makes me feel wonderful and any guilt or shame I might have feel evaporates into pink fairy dust.  So much love and abundance. I am blessed.

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Toronto is next. Michael’s turn.