Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

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. 

 

I want to write a poem about aprons

Aprons are on my mind. I sewed four of them, starting with a free pattern online (https://suzyquilts.com/free-modern-patchwork-apron-tutorial/), and soon started to modify the pattern to make it my own, changing this and that, adding pockets. Then I went to Fabricland with my youngest son and he chose fabric for an apron—animals of the African Savannah—sepia on beige. He chose a bold white on brown polka dot fabric for the lining. When I finish the apron, he thinks he might wear it while tattooing (it will get covered in ink). I bought some lovely tablecloths and placemats at Value Village, piled up now on my sewing table, which I’ll cut and shape into another apron for a friend who loves purples, pinks, and blues. 

What is the appeal of aprons? I love their practicality, their long history worn not just as a cover by women to protect their good clothes when they cooked and cleaned, but worn also by craftspeople, tradespeople, waiters, workers of all kinds throughout the ages. The cobbler at his bench, the candlestick maker pouring wax, the man with tongs at the forge, the woman throwing pots, the child sloshing poster paints over a piece of newsprint. 

I want to write a poem about aprons.  During my year off, I signed up for “Masterclass,” an online offering of video classes by “masters.” For us, this expense has been mostly a waste of money. We paid $240 for a one-year subscription because I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to write a novel from Margaret Atwood. I soon discovered that although she is  a wonderful writer, she does not inspire me. She seems truculent in her mini-lectures, and she says things like, “the garbage can is your best friend.” I feel discouraged. So I watch a few videos of David Sedaris talking about how to write humour. He says we should write in a journal. Of course. Don’t we all already? But I’ll never be very funny. So I abort that class. 

I don’t want to learn percussion from Sheila E. or Skateboarding from Tony Hawk. Nor am I interested in cooking with Wolfgang Puck or building a fashion brand with Diane von Furstenberg. But Billy Collins, the poet, seems promising. So I start to listen to his videos, to read his poems, and I feel encouraged. “Poems are the expression of thoughts and feelings, but they are no longer embarrassing, sort of like a diary without a lock.” I like that. He invites us to write a sentence, the first sentence, and then shape it into four lines for the first quatrain of the poem. So I do that. And then I write another, and another. And the poem, like the apron, grows.

I want to write a poem about aprons

The boy who wore my first apron—a 
simple Home-Ec project in denim—was  
jeered at by the other kids in the mall
where we hung out to smoke and flirt.

He pranced around the spewing fountain 
in the badly sewn thing, making lewd 
gestures, cupping his groin. Everybody  
mocked, so I joined in their laughter.

Uneven seams, unravelling, only an hour
old and the pocket falling off already: a 
garment of mistakes. Sewing is for old women,
home economics a massive bore.

In those years, a pattern coalesced: 
over and over, I betrayed myself.
The second arrow, finding my raw 
heart, buried his head in the pulp. 

Perhaps I want to sew aprons 
now to atone for my crimes against 
myself, self-betrayal just another 
stab at finding love when I was young. 

I dump drawers of fabric on my 
sewing room floor, mounds of blue
and green crash like gelid waves 
off the coast, a tossed bed for the sunset.

Colours and patterns converse
as I move the hot iron over their 
grateful hides. Next, the rotary cutter
slices straight lines to invent a silhouette.

The machine hums with ambition,
the brown paper, resisting my pins,
crinkles and bends, and I cut with the
grand yellow-handled scissors—a shape.

The thing comes together by itself—I, only 
a hand maiden, am guided to choose, to match, 
to press, and slice, and pin, to cut and shape
and press again, deferring to a greater power.

National Public Radio plays jazz 24 hours a day, 
the jazz gem of the Palouse. I love to hear the DJ say,
“the jazz gem of the Palouse,” sweet assonance.
So, breezy drums, sax, trombone, a plucky bass,

they blow the score for a blockbuster movie, a
dramady called Madeline Makes Aprons, 
the story of a girl who slowly learns the art 
of loving the shadow, the mistake, the first creation.

Madeline makes aprons

Threads connect us

I have been sitting in discomfort, searching for  how to begin. Fear of making a mistake keeps me from acting, from speaking. Perhaps some of you reading this feel the same way. Are you a privileged white person, trying to figure out how best to speak up, how to be part of the solution? Are you getting a crash course in systemic racism and wondering what to do with all the emotion and information? We can give money to Black Lives Matter causes if we’re financially able. But something more is being asked from us right now. 

White silence is complicit, white silence is oppression. If you are white and you have a social media following, you have a responsibility to use that influence to draw attention to Black voices. I don’t have much of a following (but huge gratitude to those who DO follow me) and I am certainly no influencer. Nonetheless, I want to use some of my space today to draw attention to two incredible Black women textile artists: Sarah Bond and Bisa Butler.

From Modern Quilt Guild’s website

I’ve been following Philadelphian Sarah Bond on Instagram for a while, appreciating not only her beautiful quilts, but her frequent mention of herstory. A descendant of slaves, Bond is inspired by the quilts of her ForeMothers and by modern quilts, combining ideas from both into her bright geometric creations. I especially admire her scrappy diamonds.

Follow Sarah Bond on Instagram at @slbphilly Here is an image from her IG feed of one of those scrappy diamond quilts in delicious blues.

One of her recent projects is quilting together blocks created by young people at the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA), an amazing organization that  “empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.” Their hands-on workshops are held across the United States. Check them out.

Fibre artist Bisa Butler’s vibrant portraiture needs no introduction to people in the textile arts scene, but until recently, I was oblivious to her work. Her bright Kool-Aid colours and realistic fabric portraits are legendary. As an art student at Howard University, Butler was influenced by Romare Bearden’s collage and the AfriCOBRA collective (one of the inspirations for the Black Arts Movement). As a young mother, she learned how to quilt and developed, through these combined influences, her unique fibre art style. Her work celebrates African American identity, history, and culture through intense fibre portraits. Sometimes she uses pieces of clothing from her family history in her work. This short film, Quilting for the Culture, will introduce you to the woman, her work, and her aesthetic: 

on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bisa.butler

I’m in awe of the skill and talent of these two women. I aim to continue learning more about Black artists, especially Black women artists and Black textile artists. 

My creative space

As I prepare to return to work in two weeks, I’ve been cleaning up my creative space and reviewing the last six months of sewing. It’s been a productive time as the pandemic kept me close to home, close to my sewing machine. I find sewing brings joy and soothes grief—and I need that right now as our world is shaken by Covid-19, police brutality, and racism.

In January, I finished Four Seasons, a scrap quilt. After that, I sewed purses, potholders, and face masks galore and gave them all away. I also sewed my first garment, the “Courage Cape,” out of a $5 thrift store blanket. I made a couple of banners: “Thank You” to our health care workers, which hangs in our front window and “Black Lives Matter,” which hangs on our front door. 

I finally completed Eight Worldly Winds, the first piece I’ve made that I dare to call “fibre art.” A series of eight triangular pennants arranged in a mandala feature a stag as protagonist and illustrate the eight worldly winds from Buddhist teachings. These consist of four opposing pairs of pleasures vs. discomforts: happiness/ suffering; praise/ blame; fame/ disrepute; and gain/ loss. Pema Chodron has a gift of making this teaching relevant to our lives:  

“We try to hold on to fleeting pleasures and avoid discomfort in a world where everything is always changing. Our attachment to them is very strong, very visceral at either extreme. But at some point it might hit us that there’s more to liberation than trying to avoid discomfort, more to lasting happiness than pursuing temporary pleasures, temporary relief.” 

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, 54-55

I am offering Four Seasons (approximately 38″ X 45″ quilt) and Eight Worldly Winds (35″ circular wall hanging) for a suggested donation of $250 each.  All money raised will be donated to Black Lives Matter Vancouver (and I’ll post the receipt for funds donated here on the blog). Free shipping (my donation) in North America. If you are interested, please send me an email: maddyruthwalker@gmail.com

Love, Madeline

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.

 

 

 

I am entitled to claim my experience

Lately, I’ve been scared to write a post. The story I’ve been telling myself: Anything written now during the pandemic should be extra meaningful. People are suffering terribly, so anything I write must contain a kernel of wisdom that provides relief and sustenance. Readers need wise words to help them through this. Then today I remembered that perfectionism doesn’t cure insecurity, a gem my therapist shared with me last year, a very pithy teaching just for me. Or perhaps it’s useful to you, too. Repeat after me: perfectionism does not cure insecurity. I have harboured the false belief that if I do it right all the time (impossible!), I won’t have to feel the insecurity. I now know that insecurity is mine for life: there is no cure. But I can choose to wear it lightly. It doesn’t have to hobble me.

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patchwork purses to give away

For me, creativity in the time of Covid-19 has meant sewing patchwork purses to give away. But I also started a “novel,” which is in scare quotes because it is a hypothetical entity. We paid for a one-year subscription to Masterclass so I could listen to Margaret Atwood teach me how to write. I have found it more intimidating than inspiring. Lesson number one: keep your reader reading. But the question is, how? How to craft a page-turner? Don’t get me wrong—there is a great deal of useful teaching in the short videos comprising her master class. I have learned so much.

Nonetheless, after struggling with time and place and plot and characters and writing 4000 words, I was stymied. Setting my novel in the 1940s meant that I needed to do a lot of research, which I expected. I love doing research. But then all the libraries closed. And the internet can only tell you so much. How do home cigarette rolling machines work? One of my characters sits at the kitchen table and rolls her cigarettes for the week. Fiction needs sensory detail. All I could find was vintage rolling machines sold on Etsy, but that doesn’t show me how the contraption works, how the filters are placed, the papers, the shredded tobacco. Is there a lever that clacks? How does the lid close?  Every time I wrote a sentence, I came up against a new problem. I thought at one point, perhaps I should give myself a break and write about something familiar, for example, use the time frame of my own life, familiar places and feelings. In any case, writing the “novel” is on pause. For now I keep the writing going with morning pages and responses to writing prompts.

I love the prompts from Poets and Writers.  Today I tapped into one of the non-fiction prompts:

“This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.”

Great, right? Those women on the covers are remarkable. But then insecurity clouded my mind again. I couldn’t think of one woman who played an important role in my life. Not a famous one or anybody I knew. Does that mean my life is less rich than other people’s? Am I androcentric? Do I lead an impoverished life? I imagined other writers overwhelmed by abundance, choosing from dozens of important women in their lives. Click. I caught it again. My mind doing that trick of comparing (remember, comparison is the thief of joy) and perfectionizing (not a verb, but now it is). This tendency to tell a story that other people are much better than I am—smarter, more creative, more articulate. This story I tell is rooted in perfectionism and, ultimately, it kills creativity. Why bother  to write when everybody else has it sewn up? So I take a deep breath and think again.

Oh, my therapist, N! I can write about her. Last year she was a god-send.  I looked forward to our meetings at 4 p.m. every other Monday, for which I arranged to leave work early. I sit in the waiting room paging through magazines, waiting. She comes out—tall and elegant, and stands before the door, beckoning me, waving me in, then closes it softly behind her. Her movements are graceful as she lowers her willowy frame gently into the chair across from me. She has her glass of water, a discreetly placed, tiny gold clock that will beep once after 50 minutes have elapsed. Folded on the side table is the receipt for $120.00 that she will hand me after I give her a cheque at the end of our session. A box of Kleenex.

I admire her lavender blouse, made from a soft crêpe de Chine, her slim eggplant wool skirt, her big smooth hands folded before her. N’s short frosted blonde hair frames an open Nordic face, a face radiating good health and interest. Lip gloss her only make up. Until then, grey eyes appeared only in fiction, the stuff of fantasy. Her unadorned slate grey eyes pierce through me, a tender piercing. Her shoes are lavender suede Mary Janes with satin bows in dark purple. She always looks so finished, so lovely. She leans forward, curious, engaged, her elbows propped on her thighs, hands clasped together. Clean buffed nails, nicely rounded. “So, what have you been thinking about lately, Madeline?”

I started seeing N. after my mother died in February 2019. When dark feelings crushed me, choked me, weighed me down. Yes, I was sad, I was horrified. But also I was angry and sad, flinty and yearning. I needed someone to help me unpack the complexity of feelings coursing through me. Someone at work recommended N, and I started to see her a year ago. I saw N every two weeks for six months, so a scant dozen meetings. I ripped through the $1,000 that Pacific Blue Cross insurance allowed for counselling and then started to spend our money.

My dreams were frequent and bizarre during those months, and we spent time unfurling them in our sessions. There was always something to talk about, cry about, laugh about. More than enough. And over the six months, many insights arose from my childhood and teen years. I realized those early experiences had painted my relationship with my mother with a thick impasto of purple and black—a tangle of love and hate, fear and yearning, resentment and tenderness.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was the realization that I am entitled to claim my experience. N noticed how I often I downplayed my responses and feelings. I’d say they weren’t important or I would cast doubt on their truth or make light of them. When she told me one day, “Madeline, you know you are entitled to claim your own experience,” tears started coursing down my face. How did I not know that before?  It was as if she had given me permission, after 60 years, to take up space, to make a claim, to speak my truth.

There were other big insights arising from those sessions: I was intruded on and felt unsafe in early life, so as a result have permeable boundaries and difficulty setting boundaries. I withdraw. I use precious energy to keep the lid on my feelings of hurt and anger. I am a pretzel, accommodating others, and in the process I lose sight of what I need or want. I am afraid that if I speak my truth, I won’t be loved. I learned to diminish myself in the big omni-presence of my mother. I learned how not to be different. My internal validation is underdeveloped. When I feel I cannot be different from others, I comply and erase a part of myself. And of course, my perfectionism will not cure my insecurity.

These are only some of the Bold Beautiful Truths I learned and have been working with since I met N. When I told her I was going to stop coming because I would have no income for a year, she said in her kind, firm voice, “but Madeline, I thought we were really getting somewhere; maybe you want to stop because you’re scared of uncovering something really big.” She might be right. Maybe I’ll come back after my unpaid leave, once I have a paycheque again, I told her. “I’ll be here,” she replied.

My woman of the year is Nanette, the midwife to my emotional awakening. I love her for that.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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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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.