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.

 

 

 

Heavy bear

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

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

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

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***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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Pantoum for the girl within

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

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

Stanza 1
A
B
C
D

Stanza 2
B
E
D
F

Stanza 3
E
G
F
H

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

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

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

Pantoum for the girl within

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

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

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

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

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Madeline, 4 and half years old

 

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

Let me hear your body talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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