Shake your wet weathers in the warm wind

Bouts of anxiety come and go these days: chest tightens, stomach burns, heart flutters. Tears come at any time, unbidden. My hands and face feel raw. My heart even more so. I  am finding comfort in small things. When I saw #StayHomeWriMo’s mental health prompt, “starting re-reading one of your favourite kids’ books,” I took Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie off the shelf, the first two books of a series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood, specifically pioneer and settler life in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa in the late 1800s. I have the first four books, and I’ve kept them since childhood, moving them from house to house dozens of times. Faded covers, deckled edge pages, and canary yellow flyleaves. Garth Williams’s droll pen and ink illustrations make the stories and the characters come alive. Rereading them more than fifty years later, they produce the same warm feelings of comfort and safety they did back then.

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As I snuggle in bed, I enter a fictional world governed by capable, predictable adults. Wolves howl outside, bears roam the woods, storms erupt and cold winds thrash against the house, malaria descends upon the family, and Indians living down in the creek beds want to kill and scalp all white people. Yet Ma and Pa are there, keeping Laura, Mary, and baby Carrie safe.

Nestling into words and images describing snug, clean, safe indoor environments, I enter the log house in the big Wisconsin woods (Book 1). In the deep of winter, fire shines on the hearth, bulldog Jack and Black Susan the cat stretch out on the warm wood floor. Comfy in her red flannel nightgown, tucked into the trundle bed she shares with her sister, Laura “looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown  fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’”

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Like a swarm of bees, I can feel the critical arguments seething through my mind as I continue reading: I am trained to call out patriarchal culture, gender construction, racism, oppression, and colonialism, and it’s all there in these books. But I switch off those arguments, sinking into our collective unconscious where an archetypal protector tucks us into cozy trundle beds, watching over us, every one, during this difficult time.

I remembered my 60th birthday party, a year and a half ago. Despite drawing a tarot card that spelled disaster, I experienced the snug feeling of being safe, loved, and watched over. Those were happier times when we were able to gather—when physical distancing was unthinkable.  I invited a friend to the party who reads the tarot, specifically the Motherpeace deck. Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble created Motherpeace tarot in the late 1970s in Berkeley, California, where they worked together as academics, feminists, and sacred healers. This big round deck draws on ancient Goddess wisdom, the occult, magic, myth, and feminine energies. Although when I first saw the deck, I felt disappointed by what I perceived to be crude artwork, I became more and more interested in how these two women had translated the 78 cards from more traditional decks into sacred feminine images.

At my party, I felt honoured by Pamela’s willingness to read for my friends, and one by one, I asked people if they would like a reading. Several of my women friends did, and so by turns, they sat in my low bamboo writing chair that I had dragged into the living room from my sewing room. Pamela, having spread her blue velvet cloth over a low footstool, handed each querent the deck to shuffle. It takes a bit of time to get used to working those big circular cards into a shuffling sequence, and I noticed each of my friends handled the task slightly differently. Pamela asked each woman for her question: What do you want to know? Not a yes/no binary question, but a how or why or what question. Next, Pamela asked them to cut the cards three times, choose three cards, and lay them down. The three-card sequence represents the past, present, and future.

Sometimes, through the buzz of conversations, soft lamplight, music, balanced plates of food, and milling bodies, I glanced at the rapt look on the querent’s face as Pamela leaned in toward her, long blonde hair falling around her beautiful serious face. Sometimes I heard laughter from that corner. And I kept getting little warm flutters in my heart—thinking of how happy it made me for each of my female friends to have this loving attention paid to her for a few moments. To consider her life as this rich, mysterious path. To feel the soundings of old wisdom, submerged, but like a vein of molten lava, spreading warmth and understanding into her body, from the seat of her pants into her torso. But of course these are my feelings about tarot—not theirs. Yet it made me happy. It was as much a gift to me as a gift to each of them.

It was enough for me to know the gift Pamela had given my friends, but then, as I stood in the doorway saying good-bye to a guest, she patted the pillow on the wicker chair. “Your turn.” I sat down, and when she asked me for my question, it came without hesitation, from where, I don’t know: “How do I connect with my power?” The first card, my past, I didn’t take too seriously—six of cups with three women in the water and three riding a wave of orgasm. Perhaps it signified all of the good love I had been experiencing since I met Michael. Perhaps I had started to take it for granted, this bath of love I swim in.

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But the present card was the Tower, a powerful card of transformation. “This is the card of big change,” said Pamela. “The card that signals big change in a person’s life, like when your husband leaves you—not like this is actually going to happen,” she laughed. And we both looked across the room and smiled at Michael, who was oblivious to our reading, deep in conversation with one of my sons. “I’ve been getting messages that I need to surrender to something,” I hold her. “Well now you have no choice. It could just be turning 60, the big change.”

tower motherpeaceAt the time, I thought the big change the Tower signified was the crumbling of ego. I was being called to surrender to the slow incremental losses of old age. But the Tower signifies sudden change, and today I believe it foretold the capital c Change the pandemic has brought: change that shakes the very foundations of our lives, change that brings our beliefs and systems under scrutiny and asks us what is most important in life.

My future card, the ace of wands, depicts a small brown body breaking free from a blue eggshell, surrounded by flames. Rebirth, creativity, and victory follow sudden loss. All of my life, I have swum against the river trying to locate firm ground. But wait a second, could surrendering to the flow, to the changes, be a way of accessing my power—connecting with it? Letting go, like surrendering to the body’s irresistable contractions during birth, could be the opening to rapture. Ego dissolves into the deep thrum, the slow heartbeat of the Earth that we finally hear when our struggles to get ahead, to get somewhere cease. All my fighting is just thrashing around on the water. Let go and get swept into the current. That seems about right.

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Later that evening, we lit sparklers and ate a cake, resplendent with glossy chocolate ganache and “Happy Birthday Madeline” in piped white sugar lettering. People hung around for a while, then started to leave—much hugging and laughing in the small entranceway. In the now quiet house, Michael and I cleaned the kitchen and put away the leftovers. Something about hearing the dishwasher clicking into its cycle, wiping down the counters, folding damp dishtowels over the oven door, turning off the porch light, rearranging the chairs felt so simple, safe, and sweet. I had a memory of early childhood, when my father used to go around the house and secure everything. Lights off, things put away, daughters in bed, kissed goodnight. Only the whistle of the radiators and murmur of mother and father talking in their bedroom. Nobody, nothing can hurt me now. Did this ever really happen? I don’t know, but the sensation of being safe and warm was real, just as these last few nights I’ve channelled Laura in bed in the little house in the Big Woods to help calm my anxiety.

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As I lay in bed that night beside my husband, I felt safe, warm, and contented. Now that I had been given permission by the Tower, I could let go. Everything was coming apart anyway, we were all falling, so I didn’t need to hang on so fiercely after all. I fell asleep and dreamt of blue bits of eggshell scattered over the ground, the detritus from rebirth. They crunched under my bare feet as I shook my wet feathers in the warm wind.

The meaning of that dream feels clearer now, many months later. Now that the big Change is here, we get to choose our rebirth. I like to think of all of us as little birds shaking our wet feathers in the warm wind, bits of shell still clinging. We will fly again.

 

Resources for anxiety

https://bouncebackbc.ca/what-is-bounceback/

https://www.anxietycanada.com/

Resources for writers

NaNoWriMo https://nanowrimo.org/ Sign up with the organization that puts on National Novel Writing Month (November) to get their Covid 19 prompts

How to write when life is sad and wretched: https://discover.submittable.com/blog/how-to-write-when-life-is-sad-and-wretched/

Helen Sword (there is a free online writing retreat coming up later this month): https://www.helensword.com/

 

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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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Let me hear your body talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

We are family

By Michael

The forests of northern Ontario are very different from those on the coast—the shapes and the colours of the trees are all intermixed and different—round deciduous balls of olive green, almost fluffy, and dark, perfectly conical fir trees with attractively mangled and misshapen tops poking up above the forest.  The lakes are like mirrors, punctuated by lovely little islands, often with a single cheeky tree stylishly placed at one end.  Group of Seven, I keep thinking—nature imitating art.  Thus the world unfurls as we drive from Sault Ste Marie to Toronto, seven hours, magical and ultimately exhausting.

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Driving into Toronto put me in mind of the vacuum tubes that were once used to transfer rolled-up messages around a huge warehouse. Everything was speeding up, and there were two, then four, then six lanes, filled with vehicles whose drivers switched from lane to lane with a ferocious regularity.  I felt like we were being sucked into the city, but it was oddly exhilarating—my caffeine-fuelled exhaustion somehow making me hyper vigilant. Soon I was switching lanes, eagerly agreeing with and following our GPS’s changing instructions.  “Save 7 minutes using alternate route—ok?” It was great fun until everything slowed down and the potholes multiplied, jarring me (and keeping me awake).

We were staying at Madeline’s mother and stepfather’s house in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto, and the garage we were to park in was tiny, and already filled with her stepfather’s large SUV.  It took three of us directing, worrying, and tucking side mirrors in to get our little red hatchback safely inside, at which point we decided it was Uber or public transit for the duration.

So for the next three days we stayed with Madeline’s dad in Etobicoke during the day, and had evenings with her stepfather, alternating between the two locations via Uber.

Madeline’s father lives in a condominium on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Mimico neighbourhood, and the whole area feels very spacious—there are people around, but nothing resembling a crowd.  He is 92 and while he uses a walker, he loves to go outside frequently.  While he moves slowly, he has a gritty determination and the heart of a hero. Their building is huge—the walk from the elevator to the cavernous lobby is the length of a football field, so often a rest break is needed between the journeys from elevator to lobby and from lobby to lake shore.

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The Annex is jammed with people, and the sidewalks along Bloor are being fenced off and torn up due to major construction.  Going walking was a process of navigating between the bodies, turning this way, then that, watching to make sure you don’t get run over by a frustrated driver, and swimming through a cacophony of horns as the cars jockeyed for position and tried desperately to beat the yellow light.

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These are the two cities we visited during our four nights in Toronto, and how different they were!  Etobicoke was slow, measured and meditative.  It was at first frustrating, but soon nourishing to slow down and experience time with this aging but determined man.  Once as we sat in the courtyard, he pointed out a beautiful butterfly sitting on the ground, and I thought what a gift it is to slow down and notice, and how he was helping me to do that. Toronto was hot, urgent, frenetic.  Madeline’s stepfather is a youthful 80, so we walked for blocks, talking about restaurants, politics, travel and remembering Madeline’s mom who passed away on Valentine’s day this year. It was busy, stressful, and at times over stimulating.

I am a west coast boy, and I have never really enjoyed Toronto.  My experience this visit was very different.  The evenings were warm and pleasantly humid, perfect for walking around and exploring. The old houses are grand, red brick singing against the green of the surrounding foliage.  One night we walked to a local high school where a beautiful all-weather track has been built. Runners and walkers were enjoying the warm summer evening, and after marvelling at the luminous sky, we walked a couple of circuits of the track.  I even ran for a hundred yards or so, grateful to be free of the darned driver’s seat for an extended period. One morning we found a combination coffee shop and cannabis dispensary.  On the main floor, a conventional coffee barista station, and a stairway leading up to the dispensary on the second floor. The coffee was extremely good, and it may have been my imagination but the atmosphere seemed a lot more chill than in most coffee places I have frequented.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. While the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit we went to see was wonderful, I came away touched by two other elements. Brian Jungen is an indigenous artist from B.C. who uses commercial products such as leather sofas, Nike running shoes and baseball gloves to construct a giant tipi, a cigar store Indian, and traditional indigenous headdresses. Daphne Odjig’s painting, Family, reminded me of the purpose of our visit.

We are now heading home, driving, listening to Stuart Mclean’s wonderful stories, alternately laughing and crying as he describes the memories that make up a life and the kindnesses that human beings show each other when we live from our hearts.  It strikes me that for me this trip is all about family.  First there is the privilege of spending time with parents and loved ones and realizing how precious and fleeting this time can be. Secondly there is the realization that all of us who live in Canada are family, and that my job is to open my eyes, my ears, my heart to all of my family members, and to try to recognize the blind spots that my privilege creates.

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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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

I am not going to say anything about this latest comic except that I submitted it as the final assignment for our “Going in for the Snakes” course.  Anything I say will cloud your reception of the work, so I’ll just let it stand.

I start an intensive course in graphic memoir in mid-November.

IMG_2222IMG_2223IMG_2224IMG_2225IMG_2226IMG_2227IMG_2228IMG_2229IMG_2230IMG_2231IMG_2232IMG_2233IMG_2234Thanks for reading.

More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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