Hot pink at the centre

On my bulletin board is a photo from almost 20 years ago. I took the photo down today to examine it, and the more I look at it, the more I wonder why it deserves a place among the special mementos there. 

Arms folded, face glowing, radiant smile, I stand in front of City Lights, the iconic San Francisco bookstore started by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953. I remember we had fun that trip, and I look happy. Yet it’s the portrait of a faker. The fakery is that I am wearing a hot pink button-down shirt under a black jacket. The hot pink cover on a book of love poems in the window display matches the uncharacteristic hot pink of my blouse. 

It’s late May 2004, and my then-husband and I are in San Francisco. We are staying at the Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero for the 15th Annual American Literature Association conference. I’ve just started my PhD program, and this is my first real conference presentation. What a heady feeling to stay in a fancy hotel, to rub shoulders with people like Maxine Hong Kingston, Charles Johnson, and Arnold Rampersad. To see my name in the printed program: “From the Cultural Margin: Sinclair Lewis’s Quest for Symbolic Goods,” Madeline Walker, University of Victoria, British Columbia.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Sinclair Lewis, writer of early 20th century novels like Main Street and It Can’t Happen Here. But I’d gotten an A on an essay about him and the “literary field” (Pierre Bourdieu)  in one of my PhD seminars, and my professor mentioned there was a Sinclair Lewis Society. Perhaps they were accepting papers for the upcoming conference. At that time in my life, my energy was almost wholly other-directed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but if somebody else wanted something for me, or thought I should do something, I would do it. Dear professor: You think I’m capable of presenting my ideas at an international conference, even though I’m only one year into my PhD? Okay!  I’ll go for it. I took it as a challenge. 

When I got in touch with the society, the president told me they hadn’t had a Sinclair Lewis panel at the ALA for a while—it seemed interest in Lewis was waning in the aughts. But I pressed on, bothering him with several more emails. And finally, they were able to find one other presenter to join me, and a small panel of two represented the Sinclair Lewis Society at the ALA that year. 

I look back now from the distance of years and see my hunger for attention and approval. An A-hound since grade school, I had continued my quest for excellence, for pats on the head, for being seen as “special.”  When I look back at grad school, sometimes it seems like I dreamed a long dream. Disconnected from my inner self, I was like a robot scanning for other people’s opinions about what I should be and do. 

I don’t remember much about the conference except attending my professor’s presentation on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton. I sat behind his two young children and observed how they stayed very still, hands folded on their laps, watching their father orate in dense language, his glasses glinting under the overhead lights, his fresh young face like a rosy, earnest teenager’s. 

How were those children even possible? I wondered at their unnatural stillness. And I remember my own presentation, scheduled late on the last day of the conference. Only a few diehards were in the audience, and two of them were my husband and my professor. I got through it by riding that ambition, that force that through the green fuse drives the flower. As Dylan Thomas writes, that same force “blasts the roots of trees/ [and] Is my destroyer.”

While my ambition seemed admirable, it was actually self-destructive. A drive for approval propelled me through graduate school.  I chose topics not with my heart (answering the question, What truly matters to me?) but from my head—looking for subjects and trends that interested my (mostly male) professors and supervisors. I was mildly interested in the topic for the conference paper, but in a purely intellectual way, an arms-length kind of way. I pretended Lewis and symbolic capital captivated me, but it was my teacher’s interest rather than mine. My argument—that Sinclair Lewis accrued more symbolic capital by refusing a literary award than by accepting it—seems wholly irrelevant to me now. 

I went on to present at many more conferences on the way to completing the PhD. But I consistently calibrated my ideas to please others—how could I get the most praise from my all-male committee?  The hot pink shirt I wore in that photograph taken near the beginning of my journey was a metaphor for the charade I was acting in, the pretense that this was the real me. 

During a break in the conference, I wandered into a women’s clothing store on the ground floor concourse of the Hyatt Regency. A two-for-one sale was on: I bought two oversized shirts made of silky synthetic fabric, one white and one hot pink. I felt daring, as if I were dressing this new PhD student-version of myself. Perhaps I would stand out in a crowd—stop wearing black so much, start showing off a little. Speak in public, garner attention, express bold ideas. But I rarely wore either shirt, especially the hot pink number. When I put it on, I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t feel comfortable. So, I would take it off again. 

The pink shirt is like my pilgrimage in academia. Trying to be pink shirt when I am really black shirt. Searching for the holy out there, but never finding it. Not realizing that it’s in here

The weird part is that academia was never the problem. The problem was not trusting and pursuing my own interests. Not pursuing the study of women’s poetry and the body or motherhood or the multiple other threads that pulled me. Not holding my own fascinations with reverence, but instead, trailing after other people’s fascinations, thinking that if I aligned my interests with them, I might get the attention I craved. 

I’m tacking the photo back in its place. I need it to remind me not to wear hot pink, but instead to touch into the hot pink centre of myself, for that’s where my truth lives.

Thomas, Dylan. https://poets.org/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flowe

Summer reading | Summer music

I’ve devoured most of Anne Tyler’s novels in the last two years. It was one of those felicitous discoveries—a wonderful, prolific novelist I hadn’t read yet. Yes, I’d heard the title The Accidental Tourist, but it wasn’t until I found Breathing Lessons in a little free library on Brunswick Avenue, Toronto, a couple of summers ago, that I became engaged, in love with her characters, the messy lives, flawed people and relationships, random and serendipitous comings-together, the tenderness, the realness, the love. I was hooked. I read all of the novels available from the library and bought a couple that weren’t, and then, just a few weeks ago, I found Ladder of Years in a box of free books across the street. What a find! Read this:

“When my first wife was dying, . . . I used to sit by her bed and I thought, This is her true face. It was all hollowed and sharpened. In her youth she’d been very pretty, but now I saw that her younger face had been just a kind of rough draft. Old age was the completed form, the final, finished version she’d been aiming at from the start. The real thing at last! I thought, and I can’t tell you how that notion colored things for me from then on. Attractive young people saw on the street looked so. . . temporary. I asked myself why they bothered dolling up. Didn’t they understand where they were headed? But nobody ever does, it seems.” 

From Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

I was disarmed by that paragraph. My perspective about my aging face swiveled to a fresh view: the temporary beauty of my youth was just a rough draft. This idea appeals to me not just because it helps me consider my face as closing in on the finished version, the real thing. It’s also because I work with writers, and I see lots of rough drafts, and I found the metaphor very appealing. Not only are our lives works-in-progress—our faces are also works-in-progress. The changes I see in mine are not to be read as signs of deterioration; they are signs of me becoming more me

I am also reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Years ago, when Michael first used the verb “grok,” I asked him what it meant, and he told me about Heinlein’s science fiction classic. I’m finally reading it, discovering a new world, new words: grok (to fully understand, become one with), discorporate (to die), and water brother (someone you shared a drink of water with, which binds you together).

Valentine Michael Smith (the Martian in the novel) would have loved Vancouver Island Musicfest, teeming with water brothers. We were there last week-end, and still, I am digesting the banquet that it was. On Saturday morning, we found seats in the barn, one of the small stage venues. The place smelled of horses, and the was air thick with hay particles. On the stage, the musicians settled with their instruments—soundchecks, noodling. This was our first time hearing live music for a while—and I sat upright with anticipation. The workshop was well-titled “Great Guitars,” and soon I was swept into the greatness of a bunch of highly skilled and talented guitarists playing, singing, and sometimes jamming. 

Meredith Axelrod, who blushed beet red when she got a name wrong, sang an old Carter Family song called “Hello Stranger”: “Hello, stranger, put your loving hand in mine/ Hello, stranger, put your loving hand in mine/ You are a stranger and you’re a pal of mine.” Her charming manner and amber voice were a tonic to start the show. Her second song featured the line, “I’m gon’ wash my face in the Gulf of Mexico.” She rose, raised her jean-clad leg, and set one foot on her chair, cradling her glowing Wyatt Wilkie guitar. I liked her old-timey manner and voice. I imagined her scooping salt-warm water from the Gulf and splashing it over her face between blonde wings of hair.

I liked everyone on the stage. Jeff Plankenhorn, wearing his special “Plank” cross between a lap steel guitar and an electric guitar, sang that even a blind man can tell if he’s walking in the sun. Jack Semple was there, showing off with his masterful classical gas. Dave Kelly reminded me of Clapton with his British accent and easy elegance. He played a Son House blues tune as a pigeon flew up into the rafters. Then there were the old guys at the back of the stage who—not needing to be seen or noticed—had tucked their egos into the back pockets of their jeans. They picked away, nodding and tapping, studying their instruments, heads down. Music has its own rewards. 

The star of the show was Melody Angel, guitarist and singer from the south side of Chicago. When she sang “Hey Joe,” Michael leaned over and said, “I think she’s channelling Jimi.” Her muscular voice growled up over the crowd, and we pulsed along with her guitar. She pushed notes up the ladder of sound, climbing, climbing, raising our energy. Michael’s lit-up face was plastered with a beautiful smile, and he wiped a tear from his eye. My throat was thick with emotion as I looked around at the performers and the audience, all of us gathering to grok this powerful medium of music, the great connector, the universal love potion. As we clapped and clapped some more, I was filled with sound, in love with the world

In the summer of 2011, Michael and I bought tickets to the Edmonton Folk Festival. We knew we were taking a chance—we’d met only two months earlier, and to spend so much time together was a quick, risky test of our compatibility. We drove through the mountains, stopping at cheap hotels and laughing a lot.

On the way, I got schooled in the songs of Stephen Fearing, and then we listened to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy—the whole album—loud. I’d never really heard Elton John until that day. At the festival, we swooned over Matt Anderson and Taj Mahal and got closer and closer to each other. Our love was just a rough draft then, and the music we shared on the way to Edmonton and at the festival was like the first version you write—filled with exploration. The discovery draft, we call it at the Writing Centre. More than a decade passed. And last week-end, at another music festival, we added some nice touches to the current draft. We shared music, and that’s like co-writing a paragraph. We move slowly, inexorably toward the final, finished version, becoming more ourselves each day. 

Daily sojourn

I often despair of my monkey mind, the jumble of thoughts that keep me from noticing what’s present. At the same time, I appreciate my tangential mind. I love following its pathways through shadowy tunnels of white-flowering hawthorns. I seem to always turn a corner to find myself in an unexpected field of light. 

Today as I ate breakfast sitting at the kitchen table, I started to examine the ceramic trivet my father gave me years ago after a trip to Granada. The trivet is decorated with an Arabic design: a mandala in teal, navy, red, and cream. I love the waving flower petals that seem to be in motion, dancing in the wind. The Arabian design on the Spanish trivet took my mind to the poem I’d just been reading by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic living in Spain after 700 years of Arab culture. St. Teresa was intimate with her God; you can feel it in her language. I re-read the lines,

A woman’s body, like the earth, has seasons;

when the mountain stream flows,

when the holy thaws,

when I am most fragile and in need,

it was then, it seems,

God came

closest.

God, like a medic on a field, is tending our souls

And then, a few lines down,

Why this great war between the countries—the countries—inside of us?

From “When the holy thaws” by St. Teresa of avila

My counsellor tells me that I aggress against myself—a pattern in my life. An ongoing war rages between the countries inside of me. I like to think of God as a medic tending to my wounds, lifting me off the battlefield, holding me close, bringing my countries to peace. I remembered the stage six mandala I drew recently, with a little girl and a dragon (my warring countries). I wrote tenderly to myself, “lay down your sword, little one.” Perhaps the holy is thawing. 

I’d snagged that wonderful book, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, from a cardboard box of free stuff. I love our neighbourhood. There is a little clearing across the street near the mail box where all of us take things we don’t want anymore. Neighbours and visitors from other parts of town come to adopt old things and bring them to their new homes—a brilliant system! 

This book caught my eye. What a great find. But boxes of free stuff and friendly dogs are not all that’s on offer here. The neighbourhood has other delights. Yesterday, I started work early in my home office in the basement, checking copy edits for a book. At 10, I took a break from the highly focused work. Michael, Marvin, and I walked down to the Gorge where a pop-up concert was in full swing. A local musician, Danielle Lebeau-Peterson, was playing her guitar and singing under a white tent. Danielle is the daughter of my eldest son’s first music teachers—Connie and Niels, and I marvelled at the “small world” (we’re all connected) feel of Victoria. Her mouth is like her mother’s.

The clouds in the sky threatened rain, but so far it was dry, and children and their parents gathered around Danielle as she sang and played, smiled and bantered. She knew songs from Disney movies, which delighted the younger crowd. The Tillicum-Gorge Association folks had set up a table with a big urn of Tim Horton’s coffee, cartons of donuts, and boxes of Timbits. There was a clipboard with paper and the question, “What do you love about our neighbourhood?” The cheerful woman behind the table filled my cup with coffee, and I took up the pen and wrote, “Everything.”

We sat on the grass listening, and when Danielle asked for requests, I called out “Blackbird,” that gem of a song written by Paul McCartney. It was one of my father’s favourites, and she played and sang it perfectly—her clear ringing voice floating up and over the Gorge: “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” I smiled while my tears fell on the grass, and Marvin tugged at his leash, tried to smell the woman sitting next to us. This is the first Father’s Day I’ve lived without a father. But he was there in the high, truthful notes of the song. He is still with us. 

And now, I am still sitting here with the book of poems on one side of me and the trivet on the other, back from that pleasurable sojourn, ready to fill the hummingbird feeder with sugar water and play with the dog.  I love my mind and my heart. I love the rich stuff of daily life that produces all of these memories, feelings, and thoughts. The tangents take me unexpected places, but they always lead me back home to love and beauty.  

Sewing/sowing history

The lavender bias tape is sewn in small, even stitches along the inner edge of the richly patterned cloth. My grandmother once sat quietly, sewing this binding to finish the apron she was making for me. After wearing the apron for decades, I have been cutting it apart, incorporating squares of the purple, cream, and brown fabric into coasters for a friend, a shoulder bag for my niece, and now a quilt. These little squares and rectangles sew/sow history into new textiles. 

Grandma Marguerite Walker (nee Potter) was born in 1896 in Fort Scott, Kansas. Although I didn’t know her well, I have fond memories of her. She was gentle and genteel, soft-spoken, and poised.  When my parents when to Europe for several weeks when I was 8 or 9, she came to stay with us in Toronto. She taught me how to set a table during that visit because, apparently, my mother had never taught me the correct way to place napkin, fork, knife, and spoon. I once visited her in Los Gatos, California, where she lived for many years. One day, we wandered about, looking at the shops. “What a lovely colour your blouse is,” grandma said to a woman we approached on the street. That stranger lit up from the compliment, and I never forgot that simple, kind exchange. Another time we heard ambulance sirens in the distance, and my grandmother prayed aloud that nobody was hurt. This was something new for me. “Prayer” was not in my parents’ lexicon. And in her letters, grandma wrote “thot” for thought, not because she didn’t know how to spell—she was an excellent speller—but because she had her own shorthand. 

In my twenties, I underwent surgery to correct infertility. I was told after the surgery that I still had only a 15-20% chance of having children. Grandma Marguerite started sending me her copies of Unity magazine and told me her church congregation was praying for me. Ultimately, I gave birth to three healthy sons. I don’t know about cause–effect, but I was forever grateful to her for the energetic and spiritual work she undertook on my behalf. All of these warm memories float through me as I sew squares of Grandma’s apron into the mix of this new quilt, which I think I’ll call “windows to a purple world.” 

Windows to a purple world (quilt in progress)

This type of sewing I’m describing is upcycling, but with a difference. Take fabric that’s been in your family or is otherwise meaningful and make it into something new. If you do this, you incorporate stories into your sewing. A couple of years ago my friend Nancy gave me a large basket of textiles from her family—old linen tablecloths and napkins in pastel green, pink and salmon that her mother and grandmother had used over many years. I cut these precious pieces apart, mixed in other contemporary fabrics, and fashioned pillowcases. I gave Nancy the pillows for her birthday. She can remember her mother and grandmother and meals at the family table whenever she looks at them.  

I incorporated cloth from pink and green tablecloths and napkins from Nancy’s family into pillowcases.

Scattering scraps of one fabric over countless projects feels like I’m sowing seeds of connection far and wide. When Michael and drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon in the summer of 2017, we visited Sew Creative, a beautiful fabric store on the main drag. I fell in love with designs by Australian Aboriginal designers: swirly organic patterns that looked like amoebas and rhizomes done in purples, reds, browns, and oranges. And there was a binder there with each designer’s photograph and profile so I could learn about them–their processes and inspiration. I bought two one-yard pieces of fabric. During the last five years, I have cut and sewn those fabrics into countless things: purses, pouches, quilts, coasters. I love the dispersal of one thing into many. Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth and up rose an army: the fierce Sparti (which means “sown”). I sow scraps of fabric and up rises. . .  delight! 

Scraps of the same fabric show up over and over again. The cloth Nat and Sam chose for their aprons (animals on the Serengeti; a bright turquoise broadcloth) show up in the bookmarks I recently made and distributed to friends and family. The blue tablecloth I bought at Value Village became the lining for my blue patchwork apron. It feels, at times, as if I—and not just the fabric—am being dispersed across time and space. It is too easy these days to disconnect and withdraw. I am trying to stay connected through writing and sewing, sewing and writing. Sowing myself far and wide through words and fabric.

Legacy of Loss/ Swords

Legacy of Loss

“The American experience, the focus on individual achievement, the acquisition of goods and money to prove one’s social value, is built on this sense of loss, this alienation from the warmth of the home culture, isolation from genetic bonds. This separation from one’s tribe creates an inner loneliness that increases as one ages.”

Annie Proulx, “A Yard of Cloth” (p. 20) from Bird Cloud.

I read this passage last night, and I had to get out of bed to copy those sentences. They struck a chord in me. I too feel that “inner loneliness that increases as one ages.” My mother, who died on February 14, 2019, distanced herself from her family as a teenager. When she coloured her hair blonde, her father was furious. Either he told her to leave, or she left voluntarily to flee the strictness of their farm in Lodi, California, I’m not sure which. She ended up in Los Angeles, working the switchboard at Kaiser Hospital. She would later meet an older woman, Phyllis, who became a kind of mother to her, paying for her therapy. My mother would go on to complete a BA and MA at University of California, Berkeley. 

Not only did my mother reject her parents, she spurned most of her seven siblings as well. However, she had a special bond with Fran, a gentle older sister who worked as a nurse. My mother claimed Fran saved her life by preventing their parents from treating my mother’s Bell’s Palsy with some kind of horse medicine. Most of these stories are so garbled in my memory. They seem half-fantasy and half-truth. I’m sure I have most of the stories slightly wrong. 

But the feeling is real—of striking out, fleeing family, rejecting those who engendered you, separating from tribe. That was an element in my mother: brutal independence. I don’t need you. I depend on nobody but myself. I remember the last time I visited her in Toronto, her brother, an Evangelical preacher living somewhere in the States, called her, and I picked up the phone. Apparently, he called regularly, wanting to reconnect, and she always hung up on him. When I tried to hand the phone to her, she wouldn’t take the call. I was shocked. You won’t talk to your brother? He’ll just proselytize, she said. 

My parents migrated from California to Toronto in 1965, another “alienation from the warmth of the home culture” that Proulx writes about. My mother left her adopted mother, Phyllis, which must have been heartbreaking for her, and my father left his mother. We three daughters were already used to being without a large tribe—we didn’t know most of our cousins or aunts and uncles. We were a nuclear family with no extended family to fall back on. I look back on how we grew up without the cushion of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and how hard it is to survive that way. But we didn’t know anything different. 

Then, repeating the pattern of migration and loss, my first husband and I left our home in Toronto with our first child. We left our parents and siblings—it felt exciting and freeing. We started a new life in Victoria in 1988. My kids grew up without getting to really know their Ontario grandparents. 

I am thinking of my mother this weekend. It will be three years since she died. She was fierce and proud and insisted on individual achievement as the sine qua non. In her actions, she was a feminist. In elementary school, we were sent home for lunch every day for a 90 minute break, which necessitated mothers stay home to serve their kids lunch. She fought to get the school to allow us to stay there to eat a packed lunch so she could go out and work. Later, she pressed back when the bank wanted her ex-husband’s signature to get a mortgage. But she wouldn’t be called a feminist because she didn’t want to be seen as part of group of women who supported and uplifted each other, challenging the system together. All of her achievements in life, she thought, were due to her own hard work and merit plus a little help from individual friends. And it’s interesting how I’ve inherited some of this thinking, especially an unwillingness to ask for help. 

My mother and her father

As humans, we work so hard to connect. It is our default—we need each other. I treasure my sisters now, and I create my own chosen family in my friends. However, that profound sense of loss lingers at the edges of life. It’s the legacy of leaving family behind and striking out on one’s one. 

Swords

Swords are weapons of destruction and tools of discernment. 

Swords are on my mind.

About a year ago, I created a website for my new editing business and wanted a brand identity.  The Queen of swords from tarot seemed a perfect symbol for a female editor—the independent, unbiased woman, a seeker of truth, with clear boundaries and a direct style of communication. She sees problems and figures out how to solve them; she knows where to cut the extraneous to reveal the truth. Queens are about heart and swords are about mind—so she brings heart and mind into harmony.

I didn’t use a Queen of swords image from a tarot deck due to copyright laws. Instead, I planned to use an excerpt from a painting in the public domain, John Gilbert’s (1817-1897) Joan of Arc. I sent a mock-up of the website, including a sword image, to a few friends for their opinions. One of them noted that the image of Joan of Arc’s armour and sword was martial and scary and didn’t really reflect who I am. I agreed. I decided to let go of the sword as a metaphor for editing because of its primary associations with violence. 

And yet, swords keep coming up. On December 31, 2021, Michael and I each drew a tarot card to guide us during 2022. He drew two of swords; I drew Queen of swords. Evidently, the sword has much to teach both of us this year, so I am listening. As Michael has been studying the tarot for several years now, I asked him about swords. His words are a synthesis of all he has read and studied from various sources (but his main influences are Mary Greer, Rachel Pollock, and Anthony Louis). 

 “The suit of swords is aligned with the element of air, which is the suit of mental processes and thoughts. Swords are aligned with thinking, intellect, reason, yang energy, severing unhealthy connections, and the courage of the warrior. They’re about logos, problem solving, things we have to work through before we can find serenity. 

Swords are aligned with prajna, deciding what to accept and what to reject or cut; it’s the suit of discernment and decisiveness. Also, because swords are about mental things, they can also be about willful blindness, about illusion. Swords is where we discover the obscurations of mind that trap us. 

Two of swords shows a woman blindfolded, and the eight shows a blindfolded, bound woman surrounded by swords. However, these are mental obscurations – imagined entrapments rather than actual physical imprisonment. The four of swords has a person lying on their back with three swords above – this is contemplation. Swords is about how you use your mind. Some sword cards are about meditation: training, calming, and taming the mind. 

Swords are not just about cutting, but they’re also about piercing – which is penetrating insight.”

I asked Michael about his tattoo of the three of swords. “Well, threes are energy, vitality, motion – they arise from loss or partnership or conflict. Three of swords is heartbreak, alienation, and sorrow—mental alienation and loss. The three of swords invites us to find the sweetness and wisdom beneath our sorrow –that’s my take on it. Go underneath the sorrow – penetrate and pierce it.”

Cutting and piercing are the work of the sword. And underneath the pain is sweetness.

Recently, a client asked me to cut 40% from several of her book chapters—truly an exercise in figuring out what’s most important. Same thing in life. Look at what you most value and treasure it. Let go of what you no longer value.

As the Queen of swords accompanies me throughout this year, I would like to continue to examine the mental obscurations that trap me and prevent me from experiencing serenity. For example, much anxiety arises from worrying about the future, but I know there is no future. There is only today.

Acquainted with grief–and joy

The other night, we watched the Bach Consort ensemble perform Handel’s Messiah (Knowledge Network). I’ve heard the Messiah hundreds of times, but this time one line resonated especially—Gaia Petrone, mezzosoprano singing, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) Yes, Jesus was acquainted with grief. And as we traverse our later years, don’t we all become well acquainted with grief? In the last six years the losses just keep on coming, so grief has become an intimate familiar to me. 

And yet, there’s joy! The chorus sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). My whole body is engulfed with joy tempered by grief; tears stream down my face. My intellect has no chance to do its fancy override of emotions, has no opportunity to ridicule me: You’re not Christian, Madeline, why so moved by this, you silly? The analytical brain successfully bypassed, I am immersed in the bittersweet joy­sadness of the words, bathed by a sense of the sacred: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and flowing frescoes of a Viennese cathedral. The possibility of God. The swell of triumphant sound fills both church and body. 

The past rolls in. I go way back and find myself sitting beside my mother who gifted me with her love for classical music. We sink into the wine-red velvet seats of a hushed concert hall.  It was 1983, and I had my first job after graduating with a BA in English: I was secretary to the head engineer at the newly built Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. There was one marvelous perk that kept me showing up at the gloomy subterranean office: free concert tickets. When I got tickets for the Toronto Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth and invited my mother, she was thrilled. During the final movement, as the four soloists and choir sang the “Ode to Joy,” I turned to her and saw her cheek wet with tears, her dark eye sparkling with complicated joy. Just as my father retreated into jazz to feel his feelings, classical music was the vehicle for my mother’s deepest emotions. Many times, I caught a glimpse of her crying as she sat on the living room couch, listening to a moving passage from a symphony or quartet or aria. As I wept last night over the Messiah, I felt our tears intermix. We are connected. 

I noticed another sweet outcome from watching the Messiah: the opportunity to hug an old friend no longer with us. One of the second violinists resembled Hanna, who died in 2018. I went to sleep with that image of the violinist merging with the face of my dear friend: wide grin, glasses, brown bob laced with grey. When I met her in the dream, she felt real as anything, and I stayed for a while in her warm, familiar embrace. I love that I can still access my lost ones in the dream world. 

So, in a few weeks the year rolls to a close. Last December I wrote about all the things I had accomplished during the year—sewing and writing projects, starting my business. What did I accomplish this year? I put one foot in front of the other every day. This December it feels like more than enough to just write a few paragraphs and give thanks for the good things in my life. 

The Walker Sisters, circa 1963, Berkeley California

In August my eldest sister and niece moved from Yellowknife to Nanaimo. The three Walker sisters haven’t lived in such proximity since the 1980s in Toronto. Our closeness brings me comfort and happiness. 

Walking the dog day in, day out, has given order to our lives. Sky and earth, weather, sun, moon, trees, and birds break through my orbit of self-absorption, and I am grateful for them all. To stand in rain puddles and watch the fast scud of grey clouds, cormorants flying low over the steel-gray Gorge—is to feel alive. 

Although my writing group only met a few times this year, I appreciate each member. Late one recent afternoon, we sat in a beautiful room as the winter light slanted through the tall windows, Japanese oranges in a brown bowl, our faces rapt as we listened to one another read our work. We need stories now, more than ever. 

This was a year for intake rather than output. I didn’t sew or write much. I read voraciously and watched a lot of television. Grateful to the authors whose words I enjoyed this year, too many to list. But three memoirs stand out for me. I loved poet Elizabeth Alexander’s narrative The Light of the World about her marriage to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, his sudden death and her grief. She writes with the poet’s delicacy and attention to detail, and her grief/joy is palpable on each page. 

Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, about her fraught relationship with her depressed mother, Bess Gornick, resonated with me. Vivian struggles for independence from Bess while loving her with the potent mix of passion/compassion limned with hatred and resentment that seems particular to some mother-daughter bonds. 

Perhaps you have to be a Margaret Drabble lover or a lover of puzzles to appreciate this one (I am the former). In The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Drabble leads us through her lifelong fascination with puzzles, mixing in portraits of family members, tidbits of the history of puzzles, and asides about memory, writing, and life. A circuitous maze-like quality to the writing brings form and content into alignment.

And so many good stories streaming on television. I was grateful for a daily escape from reality through hours and hours of Grey’s Anatomy, No Offence, Pretty Hard Cases, Succession, Shetland, The Chair, Shtisel, Lupin, and many more. . .

I look forward to the shortest day of the year and the return of the light. Thank you for reading, dear people. One foot in front of the other.

Late blooming no

I sat in a coffee shop with a latte and a pumpkin scone, my journal from summer of 1977 before me. Pages and pages of my fat cursive filled the college notebook. At one time, I’d felt burdened by the huge tub of journals—a sporadic record of my life dating back to my early teen years. But lately, I am grateful that I saved these ragged books; they give me insight into who I was and am and the forces that shaped me. I laugh out loud when I come to a passage about my strange encounter on a Greyhound bus from Gravenhurst to Toronto. I describe the encounter as “euphoric.” A handsome man sat next to me: 

Every time his arm brushed against me, shivers went up my spine. For a while we slept, and our bodies were quite separate. While he was awake, I was always worried that he might know exactly what I was thinking. At some point, when the bus turned, my arm was nestled next to his. . . . And then he began to gently stroke my arm. I kept telling myself I was imagining it, but I wasn’t. The rest of the ride was seventh heaven. He continued to ever so lightly caress my arm. Neither of us looked at the other, yet I felt an infinite closeness, a bond with this gorgeous man. As we approached Toronto, I was surprised, the ride seemed so short. . . . When he got off the bus and it pulled away, I saw him standing on the sidewalk looking at me. I looked back. He was so beautiful. That was a most incredible experience.

I love that 18-year-old me: naïve, open to life, hungry for it. Trusting, fearless, sensual, absurdly passionate, saying yes to everything. Wait a minute, though. I take a pause. Yes, there’s something juicy about her eagerness to embrace the strange. But let me think past the wild beauty. This young woman’s lack of boundaries sometimes led her into the dark: dangerous situations and unhealthy relationships. It’s a little easier on my heart to squint from both the distance of time and third person point of view.

The romance of saying yes to life masks an inability to say no, to discern what you truly want, what’s good for you. I see with clarity and growing acceptance how my early childhood experiences of boundary-less-ness have engendered a lifetime of struggling to set limits. I learned early on that to say no, to set a limit, meant to risk being rejected, unloved, or abandoned. Thus, I said yes even when I felt no. I accommodated others at all costs, a human pretzel, ignoring the internal cries that grew fainter: 

“I can’t do this, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t want to, I don’t like this, no, I can’t, no…no…no….” Whispers fading away.

Author James Joyce apparently described “yes” as “the female word” that showed “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance” (see Hugh Kenner’s [1987] Ulysses. Johns Hopkins University Press). At the end of Ulysses, Joyce puts “yes” into his character Molly Bloom’s mouth many times during her pages-long monologue that ends the book.

“yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” 

I was enamoured by Joyce when I studied Ulysses during my PhD program, and his idea that “yes” was a female word aligned with my view of myself as a nice, easy-going, accommodating female. But now his gendered claim about “yes” disturbs me. Sure, I see the value in saying yes: the self-abandon and relaxation Joyce cites. And female energy has long been associated with yielding, opening, giving birth (the ultimate yes), just as male energy is associated with law and logos. But—as with most things—context is everything. 

I am learning to say no. No thank you, I don’t want to teach a course next semester. No, I’m busy with other clients—I cannot edit your dissertation. No, I’d rather not. No, that doesn’t work for me. Kindly, but firmly: no no no no no no no. Like the terrible or terrific two-year-old, I am the terrible terrific 62-year-old: No, no, no, no. Because saying no makes space for a-flesh-and-blood-I-mean-it-down-to-my-toes, yes.

Hard Work of No

To push the muslin down 
into the vat of boiling blue, 
I used my broomstick
pounding, nonono and nonono

It took a month to wring 
it out. My shoulders ached,
my hands turned blue, 
each drop a no no no no no

Ten yards of billowing 
indigo—a sister to the sky—
I hung it out to dry, to crackle
in the wind: no no no no, nononono

With bundled sheet across 
my breasts, I headed back 
to childhood, and there I found a
cache of suffocated noes 

reduced to infant bones,
all petrified, but still faint 
echoes of the negative. From
those timbers, I built a scaffold

and as I worked, I sighed  
reminders to my infant bones
of the pleasures of autonomy:
a no and a no and a nonono 

Birds helped by lifting corners 
of the sheet, then draped it 
on the bony frame. A blue-domed 
tent appeared before my eyes then

Spent, I crept inside, where bluish light
bathed me to sleep and children’s bones 
sang me a lullaby of no no no and no no no
of no and no and no and no

It took the hardest work 
to get here. Know my tool 
of choice: Nicely, firmly, thank
you, thank you, no and no and no 

A month went by. I woke 
refreshed and listened to a
sound, a curlicue of pink 
that whistled through my core 

And there again the whistle,
delicious worm of want 
winds up my empty throat, 
and from my tongue

slides out the baby of 
a thousand noes, the 
pretty word all plump 
with meaning: yes





Madeline Walker, October 2021

You can’t eat your cake and keep it too

Sometimes I get a couple of  hours, sometimes a whole morning when luminous joy bubbles into life, oxygenating a flat week.  Savour the perfection—then *pop* it’s gone. Lately, when I experience these rapturous periods, I am intensely aware of time fleeting, of the unreliability of “happiness,” of my inability to “keep” the moments, of my impotence in the face of life.

September 28 is a good day for birthdays. Two of my friends and our puppy were born on that day. Leading up to Tuesday, I was thinking about cake, how I love making, giving, and eating cake for birthdays and other occasions. But there is always the problem of excess. Do other cake bakers and eaters have the same problem? If there’s a big (9-inch) cake in the house—do you eat a slice every day for a week and gain five pounds? Or do you obsess over it, polishing it off in two or three days and feel sick? Or does it go into the compost because you can’t eat it all? Whichever scenario fits, the solution is the same: bake a small cake. Because small is practical and beautiful.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I headed to a kitchenware store, and I bought two sturdy 4.5-inch springform pans. I found a good recipe for carrot cake in Canada’s Favourite Recipes by Murray & Baird and halved the recipe. I wasn’t sure what it would yield; it turned out the batter filled the two small cake pans and three cupcake liners. 

I sliced the two cakes horizontally to fill them, then frosted both cakes and cupcakes with maple butter frosting. I put the better-looking cake and the cupcakes aside for my friends, and Michael and I “tested” the other cake, eating one slice each for three nights. I know, I should have given both cakes as gifts, but I had to test cake production. Six tiny, perfect slices of carrot cake, sweet and moist. Who needs more than a few bites of something delicious? 

Then I assembled the birthday packages. I save good boxes, so I had two shoe boxes at hand made of strong cardboard. I lined each with purple tissue paper, then went out to the garden to pick posies. Fragrant thyme, rosemary, and lavender mixed with pink, red, and purple blooms, tied with a ribbon. I put the cupcakes in a plastic container and the cake on a round of cardboard cut from an old box and covered with foil. Cakes nestled in their boxes, I added the bouquets, a small box of Eddy matches, a candle on the cake, and loose candles for the cupcakes. I closed the lids, then taped birthday cards on the box tops. 

On Tuesday morning, we fussed over birthday puppy Marvin with a new toy and some treats. Then, enjoying one of the perks of self-employment, I took off for an hour. After placing the birthday boxes in the front seat of the car, I drove along Craigflower to Vic West, listening to NPR’s jazz and blues station, window open to the breeze. The splendid fall day sparkled. Coppery leaves fell slowly from the trees, and the clear, cool, blue sky made me feel lighthearted. I parked and walked box #1 up to my friend’s townhouse door and placed it there. Then Google maps told me my other friend lived only 150 meters away. I knew they shared a neighbourhood, but I had no idea they were so close.

So rather than drive, I walked the other box through a children’s playground to my friend’s house, feeling so happy I could burst. And yet, the day before I was swimming in sadness about every little thing. I placed box #2 on the doorstep and walked back to my car, humming a song, alive to the crackling beauty of early autumn, favourite season. 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d been thinking about that proverb and how it didn’t make any sense. Turns out Ursula Le Guin agrees with me. In 2010, 81-year-old Le Guin (1929–2018) started a blog and wrote delightful posts for seven years. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the collected blogposts as No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017), which I recently finished. Many of the posts are about her cat, Pard, good reading for cat lovers: 

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/blog.

One thing that mattered to Le Guin was figuring out weird language puzzles, including the annoying cake proverb. Of course if you have a cake you’re going to eat it! Le Guin wonders in her post about the logic of this proverb, but then it dawns on her that the verb “to have” has several meanings—a less common one is “to keep.” The order of the proverb also seems awry, so, she revises it, reversing the order and using “keep” instead of “have.” And suddenly it makes sense:

You can’t eat your cake and keep it too. You can’t have it both ways—eating and keeping.

When I got thank-you texts and emails later in the day from my friends, one of them ended her message saying she hoped we could get together more often in the coming year. I had acknowledged in my card that we had hardly seen each other lately, what with the pandemic and both of us being introverts. Her final line was, “nothing is forever.” I paused. Of course.

I can’t count on that fickle flicker that moves me to make cakes, write, sew, create. It comes, it goes, I can’t keep it, I can’t summon it. The work wants to be made, and the work—not you—chooses when and how. As I head for 63, I am keenly aware of energy slowly flagging, of a narrowing in my interests and available time, of the limits to life. All the more reason to relish eating the cake when it appears on a plate in front of you. Don’t even try to keep it.

Grief’s flat feet

My dad, 1927-2021, looking over his land soon after they bought the farm.

We walked slowly Thursday morning because overnight, recycling boxes and bags heaped with cans, bottles, cardboard, and newspaper had appeared at the curb. Blue splashes up and down the street that Marvin had to investigate, and so our walk slowed to a shuffle. He snuffled like a pig rooting for truffles, straining at the leash to lick the pizza box, to reach the Friskies can with a smidgen of catfood left on the rim. The night before, during his last walk of the day, he’d let out a volley of piercing barks at a pile of recycling across the street. Perhaps to his eyes, in the dark, the mound of stuff piled high above the blue box was a threatening mammal.

Early September’s morning chill, high scudding clouds above, and a Northern Flicker playing hide and seek in a hawthorn tree, his red head popping in and out of sight. The street is quiet—just the distant thunder of the McKenzie interchange as a blur of cars crosses into town. I am grateful to work at home, no need to commute. Instead, I love these 7 a.m. walks. Something in a recycling box caught my eye. Neatly folded on top of a pile of newspapers was a section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, folded to the crossword puzzle. Every clue solved; every box filled with a neatly penciled block letter. Perfection. Did my puzzle-solving compatriot struggle over it as much as I had? 

I felt connected to that person—their careful block letters different from my scribbled slanty ones, but we both finished the thing. Did they do it quickly, or did they stretch out the experience into Sunday or even farther down the week, relishing it? Did they approach the task methodically or fill in random clues? Did they ask for help or go it alone? Dictionary or no dictionary? Google or purely old school?  

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

Think of all of us across the nation who turn to the crossword first thing on Saturday. Sharp number 2 pencil. Or maybe a mechanical one. Do some confident people use pens? Fresh white eraser by Mars. Or a pink Dixon, perhaps? We sit in armchairs, on couches, sprawled on deck chairs, scrunched on buses and subways, drinking lattes in coffee shops. All of us, together in the challenge.

My mother did crosswords daily for the last 22 years of her life. They helped fill blocks of morning time after her mandatory retirement from her job as a lecturer in art history at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. I found a letter from her dated February 1997. She had just received a package I’d sent intended to cheer her up: 

“I didn’t realize my depression was so obvious. It isn’t a deep depression. It is simply that I no longer have an audience and no longer get paid for doing something I enjoy. The awful thing is that as soon as a person retires, he/she loses status. I notice it when I talk to people at Ryerson . . . They seem extra kind and sort of smile at me and ask me what I’m doing, etc. I smile back and try to talk glowingly of having time to read, etc. pretending that it’s absolutely great. And I know, as I’m doing it, that they know I’m putting on an act. . . So, I’m trying to develop a new lifestyle as a person with time to do those things I really enjoy. The difficulty is to distinguish what it is that I enjoy doing! Meanwhile, I do crossword puzzles, which is new for me and I’m getting pretty good at it (usually at breakfast), and it’s very nice to have the leisure not to have to rush.”

I started doing the Saturday crossword soon after my mother died in 2019. I thought they were too hard at first, and so I’d abandon them quickly. I have a healthy vocabulary, and I love language, but the crosswords seemed like something else. They’re filled with puns and tricks, and it seemed you had to be part of the in-crowd to get them: both hip to idiomatic English across the decades and savvy about current cultural trends. I’m just too literal, I thought, and what I know fills such a narrow groove. But then the challenge started to intrigue me. Now I look forward to the Saturday paper. After reading the headlines and the obituaries, I find the crossword, fold it into a nice rectangle, and begin.

All of this is a preface to say, I’ve had no will to write. Nothing seems worth writing about, these days. Life has a flat, fallow quality. Nothing’s important enough. Although there’s plenty of big bad news—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change—I don’t feel equipped to talk about any of it. 

So, I push myself to finish this rather silly piece, a blog post about something as quotidian as the crossword puzzle. I stop and pause often to ask, “Why bother?” Why bother indeed. But it’s just that writing something, anything, seems as if it might be the antidote to the flat way I feel. 

My thoughts return to my mother, sitting on the loveseat in her high-ceilinged living room, wrapped in a thick robe, blinds down, doing the crossword. Filling the hours. Her sleek black cat, Cicero, is curled up beside her. She is deep into it, puzzle dictionary next to her on the small rococo marble-topped table, Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing softly on the CD player. Missing the old nicotine rush, the sweet suck of smoke into her lungs, she holds the pencil like a cigarette for a moment. I miss her. In that old letter from ’97, she wrote, 

“I’m probably exaggerating, but I have been in their situation [those Ryerson people who acted extra kind toward her] when a colleague retired and made her appearance at the annual fashion show. She smiled too much and talked of having time to sew and do the things she enjoyed. I remember trying to avoid her because I think I was embarrassed and felt sorry for her because she was no longer part of those of us who were still doing important things—not just passing time.” 

Mama and me, back in the day.

Doing important things v. Just passing time. . . I flinch at my mother’s binary of “important” paid work and “just passing time.” But something in what she wrote resonates with me. I work part time as a self-employed editor, but lately, I often feel as if I’m just “passing time.”

Maybe this is just the flatness of grief. Flat-footed grief walks over me. After many losses, I am a fallow field—nothing growing here.  

I have been reading memoirs about aging parents. . . Elizabeth Berg writes in hers, “I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young.” After my father died at the end of June, I’ve felt old, flat, fat, tired, sad. Nothing feels important. Especially not the weekly crossword. And yet, musing over the word problems gets my brain churning slowly, raking over clues like a pitchfork turning organic matter in the compost heap. I feel connected to crossword puzzlers across Canada. I imagine, for example, an old guy in Mahone Bay—let’s say he’s 82, goes by Ernest Nickerson and sits in the kitchen nook with morning coffee, chewing the end of the pencil as he tries to remember what a 10-sided shape is (79 across, 7 letters). 

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

Remember geometry class in tenth grade? That’s where Ernest first noticed the girl who would be his wife, in geometry class at Mahone Bay School. As he digs deep for the name of a ten-sided shape, another thought is unearthed from that compost heap: Darlene’s thick red hair, held back with tortoiseshell barrettes. He couldn’t take his eyes off those red wings in front of him during class, couldn’t stop imagine pulling his fingers through that rough, dark crimson hair. He unclicks the delicate barrettes to let those wings loose to fly. If Darlene were alive now, Ernest thinks, she’d lean into my ear, her coarse grey hair tickling my nose, skinny shank up against mine, and whisper, “Decagon, Ernest. You knew that, honey.” 

I write to get momentum, to feel connected to people, to create worlds. To feel connected to you, and Ernest, and Darlene. So, if you are a maker, a creative person, (we all are, each in our own way) remember: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you. Even if it doesn’t seem important. Believe me, it’s important. It connects you to life. The fallow field regenerates.

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

  • Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
  • Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story
  • Elizabeth Hay, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
  • Elizabeth Berg, I’ll Be Seeing You.
From a later trip to NYC, March 2019, after my mother died. Sugar skulls in a restaurant display.

My last phone call with my father

In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.

That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before. 

So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.

So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet. 

I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow? 

But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here. 

A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign. 

Father

In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
a whisper:
hush, little baby, don’t you cry

From long ago
from far away
a thread
of red travels along
my bloodline

when that shark bites with his teeth, 
babe
scarlet billows start to spread

and meets a tributary.
I know your voice. 
You are mine.

I want you close
daughter,
but this trip
is made alone.

The woods in here
are dark and deep

I want to sleep, 
dear, but
a worry burns:

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

No, I hear you say, 
no more promises to keep.

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

Take to the sky papa,
Take to the 
red-blood sky.