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.

A sense of belonging

“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.” 

David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

Ever since I was small, I have felt I don’t belong. As I grow older, I see how this sense of not belonging is linked to black and white thinking: I am excluded either because I am not good enough or because I am superior (“arrogant worm,” as they say in AA). This strain of thought is endemic for alcoholics. To break the spell, it’s crucial to look for similarities not differences when you attend twelve step meetings or, indeed, whenever you feel the sharp edges of polarity creating a sense of distance. 

For me and perhaps for you, the isolation resulting from the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and a sense of exile. Last month I was feeling particularly alone in the sadness that can arise from being a parent. Only in recognizing that many other parents across the world share in this pain did I not feel so alone. Facebook groups and other modes of connecting across space and time are wonderful to bring a sense of “I’m not the only one.” But also useful has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing in the thick suffering of others in your predicament and breathing out coolness and healing. This practice connects me with others, but more than that, it dissolves the sense of specialness and exclusion I am prone to. We’re all in this together.   

There is another simple practice I have started. I review small events from the perspective of community. This week, for example, I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. She is a gentle young woman named Demi with a river of brown curls running down her back. She made me feel so comfortable and safe as she stuck a dozen needles into my legs, hands, and back. As I laid face down on the warm table in a quiet room, I felt joined with all of the other people suffering sciatica or other pain in their bodies, and I also felt part of a group of people who get acupuncture. I could picture hundreds of us lying on surfaces—floors, grassy fields, dusty streets, tables, beds—and kind practitioners breathing slowly and rhythmically, putting us at ease, as they insert the slim sharp points. I imagine a collective release of endorphins through bodies old and young, fat and slim, smooth and rough. I imagine our relief. 

The next day, I suffered from self-doubt about my new editing business—will I get clients? Will people I’ve done work for get back in touch with me? And imposter syndrome: Am I really an editor or just pretending? Perhaps I don’t belong.

Drawing a tarot card, I asked, “What do I need to know right now?” I pulled the Six of Wands, then consulted Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. She writes that “the Six of Wands appears when you have been working hard toward a goal, and success is finally within reach. . . . If you do not feel close to victory now, know that it is on its way provided you are doing all you can to make it happen.” I felt encouraged. 

Amazingly, later that day, I received two emails from former clients who wanted me to do work for them. The next day, a new client gave me an update on work that is planned for this summer. And a referral from a colleague I thought would come to nothing yielded another email today asking for my services.

I feel not only encouraged by all of this positive activity, but connected to a community of editors. Yes, I belong. Amazed by the rightness of the card, I feel connected to all those people everywhere who use tarot to help them make sense of life.  I can see the decks being shuffled and cut by hands everywhere—brown hands, gnarled hands, arthritic hands, young hands, a hand with a missing finger. . . . We shuffle and cut and draw and learn about ourselves and others, about our Fool’s journey on this Earth.

On Friday, I felt down again, and as I sat in the backyard with my next-door neighbour and we watched the puppies play, I shared a little of my current grief. She popped out of her lawn chair, “I’m going to get my Animal Spirit cards. They’ll help you to feel better.” She came back with the deck and I shuffled and drew. I tried to pull just one, but two cards were stuck together—Elephant and Otter. She read aloud the description of each animal, and a tear rolled down my cheek. 

The descriptions felt resonant—the qualities of the unstoppable, gentle, noble elephant and the giddy and joyful otter were combined inside of me. I felt connected to my neighbour then, linked to her through her kindness to me and her willingness to explore beyond the rational self. I feel connected to everybody everywhere who is suffering and uses tools to understand themselves and bring solace: tarot, mandala-making, building sand-castles, creating songs and singing them, writing novels and poems, reading palms, tea-leaf interpretation, or casting the I Ching. 

Then on Saturday, I was washing dishes and noticed movement in our back neighbour’s yard. Raccoons? I fetched my binoculars and trained them on a raccoon couple mating—the male straddling the female and biting her neck. Their black bandit masks and long striated fur were crystal clear through the binocs. I was awed. I am part of a community of animals—our bodies are drawn to one another, we mate. I am connected not only to a world of animal lovers, but to a world of lovers of animals. We train our binoculars on birds and lovely beasts of all kinds; we are curious about the natural life we are part of. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that has been my experience. An (invisible) sense of community is essential to me now more than ever. This week I call forth community in many ways. I call it forth through my pain and suffering. I call it through being a patient of acupuncture. I call it through using tarot and other mystical tools. I call it through imagining myself as a member of overlapping groups: editors, parents, and neighbours. And I call it through membership in a society of homo sapiens and other animals. An invisible sense of belonging keeps me going. I may not be able to touch you but I feel you.

Look back, look ahead

I know it was a horrible year, and yet it was somehow a good year for creativity. The work wanted to be made.

Writing

I finished the first draft of my first novel—as yet untitled. I have been living my own dictum. You only learn to write by writing, I tell the students I teach and tutor in academic writing. The more you write, the more you experiment, the more you learn how to write.

James Hillman said that “truth is revealed. It cannot ever be told. It has to appear inside the telling or through the telling.” Never have I found this more resonant than in writing fiction. I started out with a vague idea for a story, but it has only been inside the telling that truth has been revealed, an exciting and serendipitous—perhaps even magical—process.

I was privileged to have the first six months of the year off work and the second half working at home. This flexibility allowed me to establish a regular writing time in the mornings, so most days I wrote at least a paragraph and sometimes several pages. The novel is about 300 pages long. I will leave it to rest for a few weeks before I go back with an eye to editing. My small but loyal writing group helped me stay motivated, and I am grateful to them. I loved hearing other writers in the group read their work.

I published 18 blogposts in 2020. Long ago Michael helped me to be content with “3 plus me” (it’s written with a wineglass writer on my mirror). That just means if I like it and three other people like it (Michael is inevitably one of the three), then I am happy.

One of the posts this year was a beautiful guest blog by my sister.  And we collaborated on a second one. I love collaborating on blog posts and I welcome any of you to get in touch with  me if you want to write together.

Editing

This year I was accepted into Simon Fraser University’s Editing Certificate program and I have completed 3 of the 12 courses. I aim to finish in 2021, and intend to start my own freelance editing and writing coach business. I have done this kind of work as a side gig for years, but now I am ready to formalize my training and freelance in a serious way. Editing is a profoundly creative act. All of those decisions to be made about word choices and paragraphs, sytnax, architecture, punctuation. . . .

In my reading about editing, I came across Susan Bell’s, The artful edit, an interesting book about how to edit your own prose and hone your understanding of other people’s. I loved the way she takes the reader through the masterful editing of The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. She has provided me with so many ideas both in editing my own work and as I apply my skills to my clients’ writing.

Sewing

I sewed in fits and starts this year, but as I look back I realize I was productive, though it often didn’t feel that way. I finished the textile art piece Eight Worldy Winds early in the year. The piece now hangs on my office wall to remind me of the transitoriness of feelings, fortunes, and life itself. Then the pandemic shifted me into giving mode—I wanted to make small gifts for people. So I started with potholders I had promised to friends a long time ago, then I delved deep in my scrap supply to make one-of-a-kind bags for other friends. After that, I sewed masks. I have to admit, that was a duty more than a joy. Then I started making aprons for people I love. By the final apron, I felt I’d perfected the pattern. I almost forgot about the blue cape I made (my courage cape) out of an old wool blanket. So much fun!

I went back to a bigger project with the Rhapsody in Blue quilt. It’s one of those weird quilts that actually look awful close up, with the mishmash of colours and patterns. But the total effect is pleasing. I started machine quilting of the top today, after pinning the whole quilt with safety pins. It’s the first time I’ve tried using curved safety pins to sandwich a quilt, and I like it. In the past, I’ve used the spray adhesive between layers, but I find it is not secure over time, and sometimes it takes me a while to finish a quilt top (now, especially, with a puppy).

There is something incredibly liberating in free motion quilting. And it’s a physical act; my whole torso sways and moves as I push the material under the needle, forming loop de loops. 

Puppy raising

Raising a puppy is a creative act. Just as raising children calls for creativity every day, so does having a puppy in the house. I used to make up games and stories, craft activities, and innovative ways to distract and delight my children. Now I am doing the same kind of thing with Marvin.

Going forward

I put sewing and writing on hold during our first few weeks with Marvin because it was an immersive experience—all of my energy was need to do my paid job and engage with and train the puppy. Those few weeks taught me an important lesson. I felt drained and bereft without my creative outlets. It is not just a luxury to take time to write and sew. Creativity is my lifeblood; creativity gives me momentum to keep on going; creativity feeds me. Especially in this year of the pandemic, I have leaned heavily on creativity, and I am so grateful to have the time to pursue my creative acts.

This year I let go of some things—drawing and my aspiration to learn to play the ukulele to accompany my singing. I just can’t do everything. So I focused on writing and sewing. I’m not sure what I’ll focus on in 2021. Some contemplation is in order.

Remember, creativity is your birthright. It’s not granted to just some people—we are all born with innate creativity. As children it seems more accessible and we rarely question it, but then its force seems to fade for some people. I encourage you to spark your creativity if it’s dormant. Write a poem, cook something new, learn a song, write a song, draw a comic, sew something. Make a birthday card for a friend. You never know. . . . 

All my best to all of you. Thank you for reading. 

 

The magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted and inspired way

We’ve been drawing and writing and sewing around here. Michael ordered a drawing bench from Nicole Sleeth and arranged to pick it up on Saturday. Sleeth is a painter, but as a sideline she sells handmade benches that are great for life drawing, as they comfortably accommodate the shape of your body when you are facing a model. I asked Michael if I could come along for the ride, expecting to simply pick up the bench and head home again. But when we knocked on the door, Sleeth welcomed us in, beckoning down a long narrow passageway, past her two little sausage-shaped dogs, into the studio, a long, light-filled room. I was excited to visit a working painter’s studio and see the canvases in progress; new finished work hanging on the walls; shelves of paints, supplies, and curious objects; huge windows facing Fisgard Street; a couch where, once they were tired of barking, the two dogs curled up and observed their owner chatting with us.

 

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Last September, we visited Sleeth’s show “All Eyes on You” at Fortune Gallery. Her work “centers on the female figure as an exploration of power, connection, and lived experience.” Standing before each monumental painting, I felt the personality of the woman before me. The unashamed, unadorned nakedness of women looking comfortable in their bodies startled me at first, but I was soon drinking in the honesty of these representations. I enjoyed that exhibit so much, I saved the postcard. It made me realize I am more at home in my own ageing, sagging body now than I ever was in my twenties or thirties. Later that day, I revisited the studio in my mind and appreciated Sleeth’s gracious unexpected welcome, another one of many small adventures we’ve been having this year, my year off work.

The second half of my year’s leave hasn’t gone as planned—Covid-19 cancelled our trip to Haida Gwaii, where we would have been this week, exploring the parks and learning more about the Haida Nation. So instead of travelling afar, we focus on home, neighbourhood, and our creative journeys,  all of which bring contentment. Now that I’ve finished the Eight Worldly Winds project (more on that next time), I will start working on a Courage Cape. The cape is my idea in response to a life coach who asked what I could do to grow my courage as I set out to start my own editing business.

Earlier this month, I had a free life coaching session on Zoom with Lori-anne Demers, who helped me to figure out what I need in order to be/see myself as an entrepreneur. When I go back to work in July, I will concurrently develop a plan for eventual self-employment as a writing coach and editor. Having skills and experience is one thing—I have a PhD and many years of experience in writing, editing, and teaching. In June, I start the first course in Simon Fraser University’s editing certificate program to consolidate some of those skills. But it’s the chutzpah of charging what I’m worth and facing the world with confidence that scare the shit out of me. So Lori-anne asked what I might do to feel into my courage—what symbolic creative act will give me fortitude as I launch this new enterprise? “I’ll sew a Courage Cape,” I said.

 

The Courage Cape idea just came out my mouth–no premeditation. I love sewing quilts, pillows, bags, and potholders. Lately, I’ve been eager to graduate to sewing garments. I recently ordered Stylish Wraps Sewing Book, by Yoshiko Tsukiori, from Bolen’s Books and picked it up on Saturday before we visited Nicole Sleeth’s studio. The hooded cape—one of the easier patterns—looked like just the ticket, I thought yesterday as I browsed through the different styles. I love capes; wearing them requires the kind of panache that I aspire to. But Tsukiori’s recommendation to use boiled wool to construct the cape had me worried. Boiled wool is about $30 a metre, and I know I make mistakes when I sew something for the first time. I didn’t want to waste money.

So today I got on my bike. It’s a glorious day—sunny and warm. I cycled the E & N trail to Store Street, admiring all of the graffiti along the way. I locked my bike in front of Value Village. They’ve reopened with new safety protocols. A vivacious young woman with purple hair, a plexiglass face shield, and a ready smile was stationed at the entrance, spraying each shopper’s hands with sanitizer. I headed straight to the back.  I found a big royal blue wool blanket with understated green criss-crosses for $5.99. It’s in the washing machine right now. I’ll use this wool for the first rendition of the cape. We’ll see how that goes. When I finally make a Courage Cape I am satisfied with (who knows, it may be the first iteration), I see myself wearing it with confidence as I edit a mystery novel, my feet crossed casually on my desk.

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Forty-five days left until I return to work. I counted this morning. May I treasure each adventure. May you treasure each of your adventures.

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“Being satisfied with what we already have is a magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted and inspired way.” Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape. I keep this little piece of paper on my desk to remind me that I have all I need to be content with  life. It’s all here.

 

 

 

Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Good Enough

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

 

 

 

 

Do animals experience samsara?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suffering?

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Sticky and Sponty

By Madeline and Michael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Week of Solitude (sort of)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

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

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

 

The Facelift

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