Remembering Hanna

IMG_1739When Hanna came to visit, she brought candy. Not dark chocolate for the adults, but Twizzlers, sour worms, stuff kids devour. She sent birthday money and cards to my children. One summer she came to visit from Ontario and listened to my teenage son play clips from the music he was loving that season. She leaned in attentively when he described to her why he liked it. She was interested.

You were welcome at her house. John would make a beautiful latte for me while Hanna and I caught up on news.  Even if it had been over a year since our last visit, our talk felt seamless. It was that kind of friendship.

When I visited her in Toronto or Bradford, she would often drive me and whatever kids I brought with me up to my father’s farm and stay for lunch. She loved the green fields and the trees, the pond fringed by weeping willows and graced with swans. She loved to help others, and she thought nothing of going out of her way, driving three hours just to get you somewhere.

A few years ago, I visited Toronto with my new husband, and when I called to ask if we could see her, she invited me to the hospital where she was staying at the time. I was surprised and worried, but she treated the whole thing as natural, greeting us from the metal bed as if she were sitting on the couch in her living room.

Although self contained, sometimes she opened like a peony. We sat cross-legged on her bed once, and she lifted up her shirt to show me her mastectomy scars, raw ridges across her breastbone. She knew about impermanence, about the art of losing.

And she was loyal.  Though we didn’t see each other much, we remained friends for over 30 years. She always asked how my kids were doing, my parents, my sisters. And it was genuine, never pasted-on.  When my book of poetry was published a few years ago and a small launch was held in a Queen Street bar, she made sure she was there to quietly support me, even though she wasn’t well, and I could see it took prodigious effort to get there.

She threw the spotlight on others by drawing attention to their achievements whiledownplaying her own considerable ones. She saw mistakes and problems in the kindest light—her gentle brown eyes and wide smile encouraged you to just be yourself, it was okay.  She accepted you. “Oh Mad,” she would say, with a sing-song lilt—starting high on the “Oh” and down a perfect fifth on the “Mad.” Empathetic affection. We’re in this crazy world together.

She was proud of her kids and her husband, and she worried about them.  She knew she was going to leave us too soon, and she worried about that too, because she wanted her family to be okay without her.

The last time I saw Hanna was around a year ago. She was pretty sick, yet still going to work, her job another focus of her loyalty. She had always exuded a spritely energy, a kind of no-nonsense way of moving around her environment. But in the last couple of visits, she had slowed down and was finding her body unwieldy.

She had taken up knitting in a big way—following Arne and Carlos, the Scandinavian knitting duo. She wrote their names and blog address in her neat script on a post-it note for me to take home. We sat together on her living room couch, admiring her colourful hand-knit socks. “Maybe,” I told her, “I’ll take up knitting too.” Knitting keeps your mind off things, off the future, she told me. “You have to pay attention,” she told me, “or you’ll drop a stitch.”

I miss you, Han.

 

 

Everything is waiting for you

On the plane home from Toronto, I read The New Yorker. First, I tackled the long story about Henry Worsley’s emulation of his hero, Shackleton. David Grann describes Worsley’s scorching ambition and his treks across frozen Antarctica in details that chilled me, shrunk me, made me feel as if I were breathing ice particles.  The battering cold, the “white darkness,” the push to physical and mental limits. It seemed such a lonely life.  What exactly was Worsley striving for? There was something in him that could never be satisfied. He ended up dying of bacterial peritonitis after he cut short his solo trek across Antarctica by foot. He was only 55 and left a loving wife and young adult children.

Next I moved on to Jill Lepore’s piece on Frankenstein at 200. Lepore’s chronology of Mary Shelley’s life and the history and interpretation of the novel were fascinating. But after finishing the article, all I could think of was the end of Frankenstein when the monster flees to the North Pole and drifts away on a raft of ice, never to be seen again. The loneliness of that frozen scene seared me inside, just as when I’d first read it, deep in the gut. South Pole/ North Pole. Real life/ fiction: both readings numbed my mood and my solar plexus.

Finally, as if I hadn’t read enough depressing material, Anthony Lane’s review of the recent Russian film, “Loveless,” conjured an emotional and cultural wasteland so bereft of kindness, love, and affection that my core temperature must have dropped several degrees. Why does everything look so bleak? I pulled my down jacket around me.

I was already sad from seeing my aging parents for four snowy days in Toronto. My 90 year old father would slowly put on his boots, coat, gloves, and toque and we would venture out into what felt like blowing ice chips to gaze across Lake Ontario, a sheet of white.  Leaning into his Nordic walking sticks, he slowly advanced across the tundra as the wind raged against our bodies, flattening our cheeks and rendering us silent.  Back in the apartment, we went through old papers, photos, and letters, some from when my father was a teenager. At my mother’s house across the city, we drank coffee and ate tiramisu. We spoke of death, art, and the indignities of old age. She felt imprisoned in the house by the icy sidewalks and fear of falling.  The blinds were drawn. The reason I practice meditation, I realized, is to prepare for aging, sickness, and death. It does not look easy.

I came home to a mild Valentine’s day in Victoria and the incipient blush of cherry and plum blossoms. But I felt exhausted and sad. I kept thinking of Worsley and his wish to conquer and succeed, a wish that seemed to have come from a deep sense of wanting. Wanting what? He wanted to impress his emotionally distant father in the military, but never managed to. But it was more than that. Some deeper ache. And Victor Frankenstein’s hybrid creature wanted love, wanted simply to belong but was rejected as an outcast and a freak.  In the movie Loveless, a 12-year-old boy feels abandoned by his divorcing parents.  We spend our lives wanting to belong, to be loved, to be seen.

I am turning 60 this year, the right time for reckoning. I am working on a graphic memoir, and it seems that the trajectory of my life has been one of wanting to be loved, to be seen, to belong. Those stories are recorded in dozens of stained and dog-eared journals dating back to the 1970s.  It’s finally time to get rid of them, to clear psychic space, to unblock energy. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them all, as re-reading them usually sets me awash in some kind of negative emotion—shame, fear, self-loathing, anger. I can feel disturbed for days after reading one. So I decided to read just 13 (an important number in my life—two of my sons were born on the 13th, and my stepson died on the 13th).  I chose those 13 with the help of the Tarot, and now my task is to create 13 chapters based on those chosen journals. I’m only on number two, and already I feel as if a large truck has flattened me several times. And yet these days I also feel joyful. I feel alive, I frequently feel happy, and I feel engaged with life and with art and with people and with myself in a way I have never felt before.  Bleak winter is followed by the blush of spring.

(Title is from David Whyte’s wonderful poem and book of the same name.)

References are to The New Yorker, Feb 12 & 19 2018 issue

 

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The road not taken

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A few times a week, I ride my bicycle to the University where I work as a writing tutor. The end of the commute takes me along the west side of the Clearihue building, a three story, squat cement slab constructed in the 1960s that houses the English and French Departments. Every time I pass that way, like clockwork, an image floats into my mind.  I travel back 16 years. A spring day and I am walking to the University library wearing leather sandals, my skirt swishing around my legs, a pile of books comfortingly heavy in my arms. As I traverse the path behind Clearihue, I hear the click of an upper story window opening, capturing my attention. I look up and an arm appears—a wide open gesture—a kind of wave. Soon following, a youthful bronze head pops out: close cropped hair, glasses, rosy cheeks. “Madeline!”  It’s my professor, ten years my junior, the one who has just hired me as his research assistant, waving at me with joyful recognition.  “Hello!”

For some reason that chance encounter, my prof seeing me from his office window, opening it, flinging out his arm in a wave, then calling my name, always reminds me of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston dreams of the Golden Country, a “rabbit-bitten pasture” where “the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair.”  For some reason, this scene has always haunted me in a peculiar way. The passage is thus:

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.

Our minds are very odd. Why should my professor’s wave have anything at all to do with Winston’s dream girl who flings off her clothes in a graceful, careless gesture symbolizing the annihilation of a whole culture?  I have thought about that over the years. I was a grad school ingénue, enjoying the exploration of my intellect after many years at home raising children.  I was 42, and I was waking up.  Noting that I was the one student in his graduate class who actually did all of the readings and came to class prepared, my professor offered me an RA position. He wasn’t naked as he leaned out of the window of course; nor was there a sexual frisson. It was an intellectual tremor we both felt—he had found a fresh RA who was dazzled with his intellectual prowess. A “single splendid movement of the arm” seemed to signal the sweeping away of what I had known so far, and to welcome me into the life of the university—A Golden Country of words and ideas, books and conversation, writing and learning. I was waking up to a new way of seeing the world.

Yet I actually first started graduate school at the University of Toronto when I was 27, a false start. I sat among other young people in a wood panelled seminar room, struggling with and ashamed by my incoherence. I tried to keep up with the others, but everything that came out of my mouth seemed sluggish and obvious. I was an outsider in this alien world. The theoretical readings were incomprehensible. After about five weeks, I quit the program.  And went on to have three children etc.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been life “if.” This line of thinking has been stimulated by reading Paul Auster’s 4321—a magnificent weaving of four stories—four possible lives of one man. If this had happened slightly differently, the outcome might be this. A chance meeting with a young man at a movie theatre changes everything. A car accident and maimed hand shifts life completely. A parents’ divorce creates another path. As I read the novel, I start to think about how my life might have been different if I had stayed in graduate school the first time.  I come back to intense gratitude for the way things happened.

So what if I stuck with it and completed my MA the first time?  I tell myself a story about that alternate life. . . what might have happened. I finish the Masters, then get accepted at a PhD program at McGill. My husband leaves me because I drink too much.  In Montreal, I learn French, continue to drink and smoke cigarettes “to handle the stress,” and produce an award winning dissertation about French theorists’ influence on twentieth-century American women’s poetry and “jouissance.” After a brilliant defense of my thesis, I am offered a job at Princeton in New Jersey, and at the age of 36, I am an alcoholic assistant professor, preparing lecture notes in haze of smoke with a litre of white wine at my elbow. Continuing my research on female orgasm and American female poets, I live the life of an academic, focused on reading, research, writing, teaching, with occasional trips to conferences worldwide.  I live in a small book-lined apartment with a tortoiseshell cat named Denise (after Levertov), my only companion. My first book comes out. A series of flame-like affairs with married men and one lesbian professor leave me wary of love. When I get pregnant by accident, I quickly have an abortion. No babies for me—my primary relationship with alcohol means I won’t even consider it.

My career peaks at 40 when I become associate professor and my second book is published—about Kathy Acker and sexuality. The following year, I am invited to give a series of talks at Columbia University about gender and 20c poetry, but I am in trouble. My addiction to alcohol has become unforgiving.  Drinking during the day is the new normal.  After downing several shots of vodka in my hotel room, I stumble onto the stage for a public presentation on Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems. My body—lumpy from lack of exercise and bouts of hangover eating—is sheathed in a tight black dress covered with cat hair and ash, the hem sagging, my chignon unravelling. My ramblings are incoherent. What was the point I was trying to make? Audience members shift and whisper, looking at each other with embarrassment and pity. I am escorted off the stage. I wake up in a pit of shame the next day, head clanging, gluey lips stuck together. I don’t remember how I got back to the Roosevelt last night, but I am fully clothed, sprawled across the bed and surrounded by cigarette butts and striations of ash on the once-white sheets. I must have tipped the ashtray. The vodka bottle is empty.

Forty-one and childless, hopelessly addicted to booze, thirty pounds overweight, stinking of cigarettes, alone and hopeless, I take 100 sleeping pills that I’ve been hoarding. They were in my make-up kit—I was planning this opportunity. Before I take them, I write a brief note instructing whomever discovers my corpse to call my cat sitter at 609-543-6890 and to tell her to find another home for Denise. Poor sweet Denise, who has a trilling miaow and a deep purr. She loves to curl up next to me when I drink and read and smoke. My last memory as I slip into unconsciousness is of the thrilling vibration of her purr next to me. It’s early December 1999 and I am gone—a nice clean finish—gone before the turn of the century.

***

Of course this is all storytelling. And yet, the exercise makes me grateful I quit drinking at 27 and had three sons. I am glad I waited those 15 years to return to school, clean and sober. Grateful for family, friends, marriage, faith, a spiritual path. It’s a good one, this life.

The bird-light bones of change

Last year I bought my first Tarot deck with the intention to learn about this ancient tool. My purpose was to use the cards to understand myself and my life better, rather than as a way to divine the future.  So when I drew the Death card reversed last week, I was not alarmed. I did not read the card as a warning that somebody would die soon. Somebody is always going to die.

Anthony Louis says that death reversed is about resisting necessary change (death upright is about transformation).  He writes, “you are clinging to an outmoded situation, relationship, or attitude that really should be discarded.” I had asked the question before I drew: what will help me most going forward to heal myself, my whole self? And the answer I get is that I am clinging to the past because I fear change. It is time to discard a mode of living. By clinging to it, I am hindering my growth. My sense is that the outmoded ways I resist changing are, one, depending on my “rational” way of making decisions and two, living impulsively. I picture these modes as living from the top part of my body, neck up, rather than centering in on the heart. I have been slowly transforming into a fully intuitive being who follows deep inner knowing: not impulse, but intuition. I can trust my inner process, my discernment, my inner guide.  That feels very right at the moment. And it doesn’t mean eschewing intellect or reason. Of course there is a place for those!  It just means that when I feel scattered, my thoughts whipping around my head, and confusion reigning, I need to settle back into my body, put my hand on my heart, and sit with what’s happening at the moment, asking myself, what do I need right now?  Answers do come, sometimes slowly, other times quickly. Deep knowing has its own timetable.  The knowledge that comes is sometimes mysterious, yet pretty much unassailable.

I had a recurring dream as a child that I was clawing my way through a dark underground tunnel. The physical feelings accompanying the dream were pain, suffocation, fear, and claustrophobia.  And then, after a long time, bloody-knuckled and exhausted, I saw light. I came out into the air, greeted by a daisy growing at the mouth of the tunnel. And the lightness I felt then was like the lightness you feel after setting down your pack at the top of the mountain. I can still recreate those sensations of the childhood dream, though I haven’t had it for decades. For a long time I thought it was about birth, then I thought perhaps it was about death. It’s probably about both, but it’s also about the journey from living in the head to living from the heart.

In my mandala, I painted that  underground journey.

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In my book of poems, I wrote about it in a poem called “Daisy”: “But finally I came up into the day and/ a big daisy—such a cartoonish flower—/was handed to me./ I sat on green grass at the mouth of the hole,/ crosslegged, light, my bones like a bird’s, holding a large/ white-petalled, yolk-centred flower that seems now like the repository of all happiness!”

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Reference

Louis, Anthony.  (2001). Tarot: Plain and simple.  St. Paul, MO: Llewellyn Publications.

 

Already dead

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The day Alex was killed
a beautiful Vietnamese woman,
her mouth concealed by a
paper mask, crouched at my feet
to paint blood on nails.

I felt ridiculous on the throne,
all this attention paid to
my calloused feet.
So I asked her, “what is the loveliest
place in your country?”

In the cheap notebook I keep in my purse,
I recorded her answer, Hoi An.
A few hours later, Alex was gone.

Three months ago to the day
a pedicure, a death.
Still there are curves of mock blood
on the halluces.

Every time I wake, a red wall
of fear rushes at me
I pray for our four surviving sons.

The youngest just laughs,
“Mom,” he says hugging me,
“Just live like I’m already dead.”

 

November 13, 2016 by Madeline Walker
Watercolour by Madeline Walker