Daily sojourn

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

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

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

when the mountain stream flows,

when the holy thaws,

when I am most fragile and in need,

it was then, it seems,

God came

closest.

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

And then, a few lines down,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy of Loss/ Swords

Legacy of Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother and her father

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

Swords

Swords are weapons of destruction and tools of discernment. 

Swords are on my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acquainted with grief–and joy

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

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

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

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

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

The Walker Sisters, circa 1963, Berkeley California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief’s flat feet

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

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

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

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

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mama and me, back in the day.

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

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

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

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

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

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

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

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

My last phone call with my father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father

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

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

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

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

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

The woods in here
are dark and deep

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

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

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

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

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


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!!

Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

A mother lode of feelings

 

IMG_0268

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

Motherlode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0269

 

 

My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

The wild joy of being nobody

IMG_1905My favourite Arbutus tree was doing her usual backbend into the Colquitz River, her waxy leaves dipping into the brown flow. On my visit yesterday, I leaned into her, as I always do, feeling the cool papery bark under my bare arms and thighs.  It’s dry, high summer, and the river is low and sludgy.  I walk a little way down the path toward the water and crouch in a sunny spot surrounded by white umbrellas of Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the slight breeze. The drone of bees.  As I gaze at the river, a movement on the opposite bank catches my eye. A mother raccoon with four kits emerges from the undergrowth. The kits follow her lead and stand in the shallows, “washing” their paws in the brown liquid. A sound between a cat’s purr and bird-song chirrups from the large female as she guides the kits along the bank, batting one occasionally when it pauses too long in the water. The creatures disappear quickly back into the hedges and I am left watching the treacly river wend its lazy way.

I walk along the trail 20 metres or so and as I come into a clearing, watch a substantial bird—perhaps the size of a big robin—feeding on the ground. Noticing me, he flies rapidly into a tree and I approach softly, cautiously, to get a better look. He looks like a male Northern Flicker, a scarlet slash on his throat. I am so close I can see the handsome beige plumage on his breast, speckled with dark brown, like flax seeds in bread.

Today, during my walk around the horticulture gardens, I rounded a corner and came upon a California quail, several chicks scuttling behind her. I admire their developing “topknots,” still tiny compared to their mother’s larger plume of dark feathers atop her head.  A few minutes later, I happen upon a hare, still as a statue, on the meadow path. I freeze along with him and study his handsome tweed coat, his tall, swanky ears.

When I saw these animals, I was spacious awareness, a nobody. It felt like a gift I’d been given, to quietly witness their everyday existence on the river, in the tree, in the meadow. I started to think about how I’ve been seeing things, observing, letting my “self” recede so I am a container of consciousness, a watcher.  It hasn’t always been so. Reading my old journals as I attempt to write my memoir has made me see a pattern in my life: My yearning to be seen shows up over and over again.  Engulfed by that obsession to be validated, I was often oblivious to seeing what was happening around me.  Analogous to the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy, I had to be seen before I could see.

Why does being seen by another feel so primordial, so necessary, so life giving?  Ralph Ellison, in his masterpiece, Invisible Man, was able to convey that sense of not being seen—of the eyes of the interlocutor passing over you as if glazing off the skin’s surface without taking in the who-ness of the other.   He is invisible to everyone he meets because they see only the stereotype of black man; he is a carapace, a skin without substance. Nobody sees who he really is. That is an awkward identification—who am I to compare myself to the oppressed African American man? But the idea holds. It was about not been recognized, not being looked at deeply with understanding and recognition. About the hungry, emerging identity, looking for a reflection to hook into. Who am I? The other, the mother, does not mirror back who I am—and my own recognition that I might have missed something crucial in childhood: the mixed comfort and power derived from the mother’s mirroring eyes.

When I come across girls in novels and autobiographies who were not seen by their mothers, I realize that I am looking at a kind of fundamental misrecognition. Didn’t John Bowlby—king of attachment theory—tell us that babies need their own reflections gazing back at them from their mothers’ loving eyes to build identity? And doesn’t this ring true in so many ways?

Judith Duerk tells us that the mother is the “first representative of the Self to the infant, [and] constellates in the infant what will become the sense of Self within as the child grows.”  She goes on to paint that image of loving reflection that almost makes me salivate, it sounds so delicious and so unattainable: “As the baby sees itself mirrored in the face of the mother, sees its own image lovingly reflected in the mother’s eyes, a fledgling sense of a true and worthy self is born within the infant. With the birth of that sense of self is born a sense of being seen, recognized, and valued as who one really is” (10).

Kathryn Harrison’s shocking 1997 memoir The Kiss, in which she describes her “love affair” with her father—paints a portrait of the other kind of mother – the opposite to Duerk’s ideal mirroring mother. This mother demands a certain kind of image from the child; rather than reflecting back what is, she reflects back what ought to be. Harrison gets 100% on a French test at age seven: “My mother’s excitement over my perfect score is devastating. She hugs me, she kisses me, she buys me gifts; and even at the age of seven I understand how damning is my success—that my mother’s love for me (like her mother’s for her) depends on my capitulation. She will accept, acknowledge, seeme only in as much as I will make myself the child who pleases her” (20). But the test was won by cheating, and when the child admits this, her infuriated mother drives her to her grandparents’ house and abandons her there. Harrison next comes down with a sudden, mysterious illness. She loses weight and becomes very pale. When she returns to school, everyone says “She’s a different child!” (21). And she is never quite the same; she has learned the lesson so many children of self-absorbed mothers must learn—I am only seen when I conform to what you want to see; I am only loved when I do what you want me to do. Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) explicated this truth in its brutality, from the point of view of the child.

The crux of Harrison’s true tale is that, as a young woman, she is seduced by her father  and engages in a relationship with him over several years. Not being properly seen by her mother embedded a ravenous hunger for recognition deep into the fibers of her being. He told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world, the smartest, the best.  She felt seen. Her hunger was temporarily fed.

I am not suggesting that that hunger to be seen will drive all “invisible” men and women into destructive embraces. But Duerk articulates not being seen as an identity crisis: “Loss of the personal mother may leave the child without sense of self or self-worth, without hope that one will ever be seen as oneself. There is fear of being unable to become one’s true self, of never being truly known – never knowing who one truly is” (10).

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear . . . does it make a sound?  I need you to confirm my existence, or else I am invisible. I am persuaded by Alain de Botton’s description of love as “I”-Confirmation: “Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved” (108).  While Botton was describing this coming alive in the context of romantic love, it goes back, again, to the birthing of consciousness, to the baby’s awareness of the other, to the mother’s mirroring, loving eyes conferring “you-ness,” unique identity, to her child.

My journals record most of a lifetime searching for recognition in the eyes of others. I have prioritized been seen over seeing. But in the last decade or so there has been a shift. I feel seen now.  I feel loved. And this frees me to see the world around me. Daily meditation has trained my mind so the flow of discursiveness is interrupted for longer periods, holding a space for seeing.  Finally, growing older means a gradual receding of the noisy self. The ego occasionally takes a nap. I gain the ability to listen more than talk. I start to treasure invisibility because it allows me to witness the wild animals and to feel the wild joy of being nobody.

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References

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss.New York: Basic Books, 1969.

De Botton, Alain. Essays in Love.London: Picador, 1993.

Duerk, Judith. Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself.  San Diego CA: LuraMedia, 1989.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Harris, Kathryn. The Kiss. New York: Random House, 1997.

Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books, 1997.