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.

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My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

So in rejection of the idea that I should gain approval by being published in traditional venues, I continue to write this blog: 21 posts in 2019 including this one. I wrote poems and travelogues, mused on stuckness, and visited my little girl self. There were a few shared/ guest posts in there—one from my sister (thank you Judith), and Michael and I shared the blog during our summer road trip–such fun! I appreciate all of my reader comments this year—thank you so much for reading and being interested and responding to my ideas, poetry, and drawings.

Another way I’ve taken a detour around the publishing game is by printing a short story I wrote. I had a local company make copies and staple it as a small booklet with a few of my sketches as illustrations. My talented son provided the cover art.  I gave the little story to family and some friends as a Christmas gift. I gave the inexpensive gift of creative expression.

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Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

Although I am pretty sure I completed my memoir in 2018, I got feedback from four readers in 2019: some very good feedback. Mostly, I learned that my analytical writing doesn’t mix well with storytelling, but that I can tell stories that hold interest. I don’t see any reason to pursue publication for the memoir; writing it was a wild and beautiful process.  But I do think there are some good chapters that may be reincarnated elsewhere. For example, the strong chapter on my Fez experience (living in Fez, Morocco for a month in the early 1980s) could be the beginning of a book of linked short stories.  Watch for it.

Sewing

I love to sew. It is only in sewing and writing that I achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” losing sense of time and place as one becomes immersed in an activity.

My sewing projects were various: pillow cases, napkins, mesh produce bags, a zippered laptop case and small zippered purses for coins, make-up, or iPod cords. Drawstring and buttoned purses for tarot cards. I created one cloth bag in rich reds and pinks as a container for a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit, a gift to Michael for his birthday this year (in this, one of his favourite books, we learn that the wonder of a lifetime of being loved transcends the telltale signs of ageing). A pair of little bags on long straps—one green/blue and one purple—went to an adorable pair of young sisters, daughters of a friend.

The biggest project was a quilt in memory of my stepson, who died in 2016. I used some of his shirts to create a pattern of triangles.  I worked on the quilt in fits and starts for 10 months, an emotional journey. I felt closer to Alex through the design and slow sewing of this piece.

 

Working with old family fabric became very special to me when I recently used some household linens that my dear friend had found when going through her parents’ house after their deaths.  When she gave them to me, I incorporated the delicate aged napkins into 2 pillow cases, one pink and one green. I see more of this kind of sewing in my future–using old cloth to fashion new objects.

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And more

Although sewing and writing are my creative mainstays, I continued to draw and paint as well.  I make birthday and other cards for friends and family using watercolours, collage, and ink. I illustrated the blog (for example, far left, far right), the memoir (fire picture), and the Christmas present story (flying chair).

And then there is whiteboard “art”: Michael and I take turns making coffee in the morning, and as we wait for the coffee to steep in the French press, we draw images and write poems on the little whiteboard in the kitchen. That before-caffeine freestyle drawing produces some kooky stuff, sometimes based on the dreams either one of us has woken from.

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

I bought a ukulele this year and Michael and I start beginner lessons next week at our local Silver Threads Centre. I aspire to learn enough chords and songs to accompany myself in singing some favourite Bonnie Raitt tunes. It was an old dream of mine to be a blues singer. . . .  And I almost forget. In 2020 I want to overcome the fear of a lifetime: Get up and DANCE in  public.

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According to Nina Wise, creativity is all about “having the courage to invent our lives—concoct lovemaking games, cook up a new recipe, paint a kitchen cabinet, build sculptures on the beach, and sing in the shower.”   She encourages us to by-pass the censoring voice that says “Stop!”  To cultivate the one that says “Yes! Go!”

For me, what has helped to achieve this creative freedom is to stop comparing myself to others so much, to stop worrying what others will think. My aim is not to become or be an artist. I am a maker. A creative. These are better nouns–less pressure.

I am never completely successful in banishing the people pleasing aspect of making–after all I really do care what people think. But external audience is not my first thought anymore. I am my first audience: I have to love what I make.

I express myself  because creative expression is my lifeblood. Seriously, being a maker keeps me alive. And I do it because the process and the product please me, the creating and the creation wake me up to life and to myself. And then I hope what I make pleases a few other people. That’s it. Creative expression is whispering to you. Creative expression is your birthright. Listen and say Yes! Say Go!

Recommended: Nina Wise, A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life: Self-expression and Spiritual Practice for Those who Have Time for Neither. Broadway Books 2002.

 

 

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.

A mother lode of feelings

 

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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.

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To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

After the big report on climate change and biodiversity was made public in May, I feel paralyzed, stunned, crushed, blank, undone, guilty, sad, depressed, grieving, grey, blue, flat.  It’s not that we didn’t know it was coming, but the news still hit hard. Given the state of the world—one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, with humans at fault—writing anything that doesn’t contribute to solving the problem seems frivolous. Blogs, poetry, fiction: all of it seemed trivial, narcissistic, diversionary. And yet the fire to read and to write continues to burn, regardless of the state of the world.

Sadness upon sadness: a couple of weeks after the climate report I learned of a young man dying of a drug overdose. Sure, it happens every day, but when you know the family, the sadness hits your solar plexus. My raw and open heart told me to sew. Working with cloth, with objects, feels healing. Even in the midst of sadness and paralysis—perhaps because of the sadness–the work wants to be made. So I sew, and plant, and draw, and write.

Sewing

I have slowly been making a quilt using pieces of my stepson Alex’s t-shirts. He died at age 27 in the summer of 2016 when the car he was a passenger in plunged into a deep ravine. This slow craft is my way of memorializing him. When I heard the news that Logan, who had gone to school with my sons, died two weeks ago at age 25 from a drug overdose, I was again plunged into sadness. I paused in my quilt-making to sew death’s pennant.

Pennants typically celebrate the accomplishments of sports teams, but here the “accomplishment” is early death and wasted life, symbolized by the useless buttons that fasten nothing.  I used scraps of Alex’s t-shirts, reminding me of his death but also reverberating with the deaths of all those who die young. Birth leads to death and then back to birth: I chose blood red cloth, the ruddy triangle representing the fertile womb from which we all came.

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Planting, writing

I decided to look closely at a very small part of the natural world and pour my love into that. I won’t be saving any species, but perhaps focusing my energy on a little mound of dirt and a flowering plant will be healing at this time of grief.

When we had our perimeter drains replaced in the winter, the contractor told me he would have to dig up the garden. Did I want him to save any of the plants? I dug up some of the small ones myself, storing them in the shed. “Can you save just four? I’ve tagged them with red ribbon.” The white peony, the two lavender plants, and my favourite, the big blue hydrangea.  During all of the chaos that erupted in front and back yards, the mounds of dirt, the rain and mud, planks of wood bridging the mucky walkways, I lost track of my hydrangea. Eventually, they put her back in the earth, but as March turned to April and April to May, nothing happened. The dry brown sticks remained barren. I could see no life at all.

I was unhappy. I loved that plant. So many times I had sat on the living room couch and gazed out our big picture window at the full-blown blue globes. Marvelled as they changed hue from soft Egyptian blue to darker indigo, then became edged in violet, and finally took on a full, deep purple as late summer turned to fall.

The loss felt deeper than simply a favourite plant dying. I felt stirrings of an old feeling I hadn’t felt for ages. When I was in my 30’s I was part of a Deep Ecology circle. The five members met over several weeks, taking turns hosting, and during each session we’d discuss material we’d read by some of the greats of the movement: Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, for example.  I don’t remember much from the experience except that we visited a local Wiccan gathering and learned how to do the grapevine step as part of the spiral dance. More than any event or book, however, I remembered a feeling from that time, and the feeling was coming back to me like pinpricks of sensation return to a numb limb. We have been desensitized, have learned to turn away from Earth, to tune out her sufferings, because to really feel them, to empathize with her would be too much for us to to stand. Overwhelming. But when we allow ourselves to connect with her, we start to feel the deep grief and outrage appropriate to the situation we are all in.

My dead hydrangea had come to symbolize all of the destruction of the earth, and I grieved over her death for weeks.

Finally, last weekend I bought some potted hydrangeas from a garden center and placed them on the front steps.  I put on my orange gardening gloves and got the pointed shovel. “I’ll dig her out and replace it with another,” I thought to myself. I knew it couldn’t be the same; I had loved that particular hydrangea. She had generously given her bunches of lapis lazuli every summer and fall. One of those bunches I had dried and the lovely antiqued florets graced the bathroom cabinet in a delft vase. She was even a character in one of my short comics. Hydrangea was cherished.

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But I couldn’t stand to look at the dry sticks any longer. As I started to push the shovel into the ground to pull out the roots, I noticed a few green leaves at the centre of the plant. What? How had I missed that? Had it happened overnight? Although the main part of the plant appeared lifeless, there was life—tender new shoots and rich green leaves at the heart.  So I went back to the shed, excited, to grab the long clippers and instead of pulling out the plant at her roots, I clipped back all of the dead sticks to expose her new child. Beside this little green girl, I dug a hole and introduced a friend—one of the new hydrangea plants just out of a plastic pot.  I’ll watch the two loves grow together this summer, probably not producing any flowers just yet, but hopefully thriving as they reach for the sky under my gaze from the living room window.

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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

 

 

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.