For the love of books

Five days ago, I woke with an exquisite feeling of all-body all-soul nourishment. A rare feeling. My vivid dream was that I was wandering through a used bookstore—a warren of small book-filled rooms bathed in soft amber light. Lots of burnished wood, small upholstered chairs at the end of each row of bookshelves to sit and pore over the pages of an illustrated Alice in Wonderland or Daumier’s lithographs. The dark orange spines of  Penguin editions beckon me, I walk dreamlike down corridors of books, taking volumes from shelves, paging through them, enjoying the quiet warmth of this place, just a clock ticking somewhere. It reminded me a bit of Bastion Books, one of the few remaining independent used bookstores in Victoria, with its welcoming nooks and crannies. In my dream, I wander to the far end of this bookstore to a small doorway then enter a compact room where my three sons sit on straight-backed chairs as if expecting me, all smiling as I approach. They rise to hug me. We embrace without words, and I feel their height and strength flow into me. And then I am awake, full to the brim.

The dream was significant to me now because I miss both hugging my sons and access to books (I haven’t explored the relationship between those two things…). Although I can talk to my sons on the phone, through text, or video-chat, their physical hugs are off limits. The libraries are shut, and the bookstores are too—they allow for online ordering, but the brick and mortar stores are locked, and I cannot materially browse, an activity that sustains me. In a synchronous turn of events, I came across The Booksellers, a documentary available online via Cinecenta, the movie theatre at the University where I work. Cinecenta is another small business suffering financially during this pandemic. Their theatre is dark and shuttered, the snack bar where I got so many coffees is now deserted. So they partnered with Kinosmith to offer this documentary. After clicking a link provided on their website and paying by credit card, I was able to watch a fascinating exploration of booksellers in New York City. This history of the rare and antiquarian book trade in that diverse city was peppered with interviews with some of the unusual and eccentric people that devote their lives to books as precious objects.

After watching the doc, I started to think about how my constrained access to books lately due to Covid-19 has actually enriched my life in an unforeseeable way. Because I didn’t have my usual broad choice of reading material, I started to forage a little more intently in the free little libraries in the neighbourhood. Some cautious neighbours had removed all of the books from the shelves of their little libraries and posted signs explaining that they would re-stock after the risk of virus contamination had decreased. Thankfully, others had kept their books on the shelves, and I found myself returning to these spots over and over and taking books I wouldn’t normally be interested in.

IMG_1608A few weeks ago, I picked up Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower from the cute little library on the front yard of a house around the corner. “Take a Book, Leave a Book” was painted in curlicued white letters across the blue cupboard doors. When I was a teenager, I decided I wasn’t interested in science fiction. Somehow, I only wanted to read things that were “real.” So I turned to 19th century British novels and early-mid 20th century American writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Of course I have cast my reading net much wider since then, but I still don’t tend to be drawn to science fiction or its sister genres, fantasy and horror.  Yet, as I dug into Butler’s novel, I became engrossed by the young female narrator/ protagonist Lauren who is bent on survival in a dystopian America of the future. Her warrior spirit drives her to escape from the murder of her family and razing of her home in a gated community in Southern California and form a motley tribe of people all searching for safety. Due to her mother’s drug abuse, Lauren was born with hyperempathy, a disability that has her feeling other people’s pain to a debilitating degree. She develops a religion called Earthseed, whose God is Change because the only thing we can be certain of is that everything changes. What felt eerie about this novel, written in 1993, was that Butler’s portrayal of a dystopian nation read as strongly resembling Trump’s America.

After finishing The Parable of the Sower, I felt I must read the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998); however, only in a world of magic would I find that book in a free little library. So I borrowed Michael’s Kindle and splurged on the e-book, and I am devouring it now. I’m still in the early chapters, and I am curious what will happen to the tyrannical megalomaniac president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.” I am not kidding—this president really is a character in a novel published in 1998.

IMG_0812I always prefer books as objects over digitized texts. I love the feel and look of books. I love to explore marginalia and marks, run my hands over bindings, examine tatters and pages folded over, text that has been underlined. The other day I picked up a well worn novel (The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli) from a free library that had written in the inside cover in elegant cursive, “Property of” followed by a rectangular stamp: The Cavern Hotel and Café, El Nido, Palawan. I Googled this mysterious place and discovered it is a hotel offering pod accommodations in the Philippines. So interesting. (The next day, Trip Advisor wondered if I would like to see the current rates for staying the Cavern.)

Even though I recycle books through free libraries and friends, I do keep a library at home of books that I love: poetry and feminism, how to write and teach writing, graphic novels and memoirs, and twentieth-century American novels I had the privilege of studying and teaching for a short while.  But lately I have appreciated how the e-book allows me to read while Michael sleeps. With the slim Kindle propped up under the covers as I curl around it in IMG_0788 2the dark, I enter into the world of Butler’s novel, where kindness is the last good thing, where people band together in tribes because love and human relationships are all that we have, and where impermanence is the only truth. Wait a minute, all of that is sounding familiar. Is it really the future, or is it now?

I wake up every morning in this dream-like world, and I say to myself, “I wonder what will happen today?”

 

 

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.

ace of wands motherpeace

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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I am entitled to claim my experience

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

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patchwork purses to give away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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