Do animals experience samsara?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suffering?

 

 

 

Fan the embers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Eight Worldly Winds Project

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

Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life, 92

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

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

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

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

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

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Prototype

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

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

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Doodling and planning

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

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

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

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

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

Open channel to the soul: A year of creative expression

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

Holding space

My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

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

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

How To Love Things Into Being

Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

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

Sewing

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

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

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

 

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

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And more

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

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

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Hear my whispers

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

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

And cuddle
near

excerpted from Nikki Giovanni’s “Quilts”

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

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

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

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

 

Version 2For Frankie

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

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

Waste not, want not

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

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

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

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

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

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Poem and photograph by Madeline Walker on Black Friday 2019

A mother lode of feelings

 

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

Motherlode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.