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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Memories and Mad Hatters

By Michael Carpenter

IMG_0371Bidding adieu to Cranbrook Ed, we crossed the border into Alberta and our sojourn to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  This world heritage site tells the story of the Blackfoot nation and their skilful and meticulously planned hunting process which drove herds of stampeding buffalo to their death over a carefully chosen cliff. Accessing the site from the west required us to drive over 30 km of gravel roads (we will come back to this shortly).  We arrived in time to watch the dancing demonstrations, which were truly amazing, and were well explained by the emcee.  The nobility, grace and skill of the dancers, combined with the dazzling ceremonial garb made for one continuous photo opportunity, and Madeline joined in a circle dance at the end.

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IMG_0395The exhibit spans five archeological levels and was beautifully illustrated.  I found myself deeply humbled and moved by realizing that these peoples first used this buffalo jump site 6000 years ago.  We are newcomers indeed!  Everywhere like an echo or a refrain is the message that the sacred earth provides—and the realization that we are abusing her bounty.

Lethbridge was the gateway to a couple of magical and fairly emotional days for me-rich with memories.  I lived in Lethbridge from 1987 to 1990, with my sons Aaron and Alex and with Alex’s mom Donna.  Alex, tragically killed in a backwoods motor vehicle accident in 2016,  was born in Lethbridge in 1989.  I was awash with emotion and memory, triggered in part by the vivid and happy memories of the time we spent there, so while our visit was enjoyable, I was grateful to hit the road for Medicine Hat.

Just before we left Lethbridge I noticed a stone chip on faithful Rudy’s windshield (Rudy is the name we gave our little red Hyundai Elantra GT).  As is often my wont, I decided to ‘wait and see’ about getting  it repaired.

“He who hesitates is lost” was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and by the time we got to Medicine Hat we were looking at “Windshield Smashed In Buffalo Jump”, as the stone chip had become a nine inch crack.

I must admit, I was upset.  And hungry.  With Madeline’s great equanimity holding me down, I managed to phone our insurance company while feverishly gnawing on cold chicken legs, and swearing when my grease-laden fingers failed to make my touch screen respond.  Turned out that Speedy Glass could do a replacement the following morning, so we decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Medicine Hat Museum and Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The art gallery featured an exhibit called Terrestrial Beings.  From the curator:

At once sublimely elegant and ruthlessly daunting, the lush intricacies of the natural world have delighted, nourished, intrigued and wrought havoc upon the human race since time immemorial. Occupying a place between reality, dream, memory and myth, Terrestrial Beings presents strange and wonderful works in which representations of the body and the land intersect physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Through sculpture, painting, drawing, and cut-paper, twelve contemporary artists from across the country embrace their connection to the earth as fertile ground for deeper spiritual and intellectual exploration.

 I’ve included a couple of examples.  One that I found particularly moving was This Creeping Feeling, a polymer clay sculpture of two figures laying a third to rest. It was created while a family member was dying, and the gallery note says it is about human entanglement and the unstoppable passage of time.  The figures are covered with coral, organisms which both war and co-operate, and leave the record of their lives on the earth and on each other. The other is of a shape-shifter, which I chose to be photographed with on my shape-shifting mad-hatter day.

The Medicine Hat Museum contained many fascinating artefacts-an anachronistic reference to settling the Indians, paired with honestly stated welcoming to diversity and the many stories that different people bring to the region.

I found myself wandering around laughing one moment and crying the next.  As Madeline and I strolled down to the river and then out for coffee, we talked about how lovely the afternoon had been, and how it never would have happened but for a broken windshield.  Then, in a little coffee shop, we found the Pour It Forward board.  People could buy an extra coffee and then write on a cup sleeve who it was for, and put it on the board.  Sometimes a person was named, sometimes not.  One said, “For someone who has had a bad day, and needs a hug in a mug.”  I am realizing that the world is simply filled with magic, so often missed by my busy or cantankerous mind.

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We began the trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I love the vastness of the prairies-endless plains in quilts of emerald and dusty tan, ochre and acid yellow—with fluffy clouds hanging silently in the aquamarine sky.  I found myself feeling simultaneously tiny and expansive-open to and not separate from the world.

By Madeline

Sunday. Kenora. We wake to the bleak sun muffled by smoke and cloud. Many fires burn north of here. Three more days of driving until we arrive in Toronto.  I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on Friday, and then started Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water last night.  How is it that I randomly chose, one from a yard sale, one from a thrift store, two novels that are linked by drowning? Coincidence? Oe’s title is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I re-read the shortest section of that poem, Death by Water, and remembered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowning: “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.”

I think sometimes this road trip, RARE 5, with its spaciousness, time to think and ruminate–without projects, to-do lists, a home to clean, people to see, objects to fixate on–has allowed us to pass the stages of our age and youth, allowed us to enter the whirlpool of a heightened awareness. We can think in big-picture ways about our lives, about the past.  We are silent, then we talk. We listen to Stuart McLean, Pema Chodron, Allison Krauss, the Decembrists. In between music and voices we enjoy long spaces and quiet times, the varied landscapes of Canada outside the window. Then we converse and share our own thoughts and stories, and most of all our feelings. A journey of the mind and heart.

On to Thunder Bay today, through green wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Northern lights in my palm

The first two stones were too flashy for me, I realize now, as I cradle the third stone in my palm.  This piece of Labradorite feels like a mineral replacement for “blankie,” a faded green blanket I depended on as a small child. When I felt sad or lonely, I would rub its sateen border against my cheek as I sucked my thumb.  I find the same kind of comfort in my stone as I wrap it tightly in one hand in times of anxiety, or examine its blue and green gleams as I turn it in the light.  It was such an unpromising piece of feldspar, I thought, when I first saw it among others in a small basket at the Rockhound Shop.

I had been missing my second piece—a much bigger specimen, shot through with showy Labradorescence. I know exactly where I left it – beside the computer monitor in a room at the University of Saskatchewan where I was presenting with colleagues at a conference. I had been holding the stone for confidence—my usual practice. But once the presentation was underway and I was clicking through the PowerPoint slides and gesticulating, I had laid it down, only to forget all about it as I packed up, chatting with audience members.

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I found my practice of holding my stone during public speaking so effective, I incorporated it into a workshop on effective workplace presentations, even though I knew some people would find it corny.

I really missed it. Missed the cool warmth in my hand, the feel of it, the revelatory colours of it.  Every time I examined it, I was reminded of the Northern Lights. That stone played its Labradorescence fast and loose, so it took no work at all to find the lights—they gave themselves away quickly. But my third stone was introverted, I suppose like me, and it looked unprepossessing with a dull grey finish, quite a bit smaller than one and two, roundish, just a mineral lump. But as I held it and shifted it slightly, I detected a shimmer at one end—as if its interior light would only be revealed with time and patience.

I discovered these stones by chance in the Southwest. Michael and I were driving one of those long stretches on a road trip somewhere in Utah, heading to Flagstaff, Arizona where we planned to spend my Hallowe’en birthday. We’d been to Arches National Park, seen the red sandstone interrupt the blue sky, felt young and small next to the old and otherworldly shapes. Somewhere, perhaps in the café where we’d eaten breakfast, I had picked up a free magazine with articles about healing modalities, vegetarianism, and crystals, ads for herbal remedies and craniosacral treatments. As M. drove, I happened upon an article about Labradorite. Apparently the Inuit people believe this stone fell from the frozen fire of the Aurora Borealis. Ordinary dull grey stone is transformed into an extraordinary container of mystical light.  Its name stemmed from the place it was first reported found—Paul’s Island near the town of Nain, Labrador.  Labradorescence is the optical phenomenon produced when light entering the stone is reflected back.

We arrived in Flagstaff and found a restaurant. Sitting near the windows and doors open to the street and eating dinner, we could see all of the neighbourhood children in their fine costumes, trick or treating from business to business. The hostess gave them candy, oohing and aahhhing at their lovely get-ups. As the sky grew dark and starry, as ghosts, witches, princesses, and pirates passed in front of us and we raised our glasses in a toast to my day of birth, I felt exquisitely happy.  After dinner we located the store, Crystal Magic, on North San Francisco Street. Many glass shelves displayed stones from all over the world, sparkling under bright lights, but I headed straight for Labradorite, and held my chosen piece comfortably in my hand for the rest of the evening.

The crystal and gem websites and books provide many possible meanings for Labradorite: a crystal of shamans, a stone of awakening, symbolizing inner spirit and intuition, fostering self-esteem, etc. etc. But for me, it’s about confidence. Even though it’s an optical illusion—there is of course no light emanating from inside the stone, it’s merely reflected—Labradorite with its inner gleam is my constant reminder that I have all that I need within me. I have all that I need here and now to be contented, happy, whole, well. I don’t need anybody’s approval. I am enough.

I don’t know how I lost my first stone or how I obtained my second one, but some years have passed since that magical birthday in Arizona, and I have become more practised at losing things. These days I often think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem, “One Art,” pulsing with irony:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

[to read the whole poem go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art]

Loss is inevitable—memories, things, loved ones, life. We all get to have lots of practice. While treasuring my third stone, I already anticipate losing it. I’ve already misplaced it several times in one week, so its loss feels inevitable. I hope the person who finds this stone appreciates its oblique flicker, its slant of fire.