Everything becomes something else

Everything becomes something else. For example, my husband, Michael, has become a man who likes Christmas. He wasn’t a big fan of December 25, but he’s supported my love for celebrations surrounding the holiday: the tree, gifts, music, cards, and baking. This year, something shifted for him. He decided to see what it feels like to open to positive Christmas energy. 

He enjoyed the pferffernüsse I baked, German Christmas cookies from my mother’s recipe. He bought some gifts and wrapped them. He admired the fat little tree I bought and helped me get it into the stand. When I suggested we join forces and design solstice cards then send them to friends and family, he was game. And when I had a yearning for the angel chimes from my childhood, we went together to buy them at a charming little shop at Mattick’s Farm. But best of all, he asked me if he could buy tickets to the sing-along Messiah for us. I lit up. Yes! We’ve gone to hear the Messiah before, and Michael—a good sport—had suffered through the fifty-three separate movements because he knows of my deep love for this piece of music. 

But this was our first sing-along. We crowded into the pews at Alix Goolden Performance Hall, sitting in the soprano section in deference to my voice, and Michael went to the side table to borrow a score. I thought that I knew the soprano section so well, having heard it a million times before. I expected to keep up with just a printout of the lyrics. I was wrong. 

The cold church filled with people in their various sections, many dressed in Christmas finery. Two sisters sitting next to me joked with us and rolled their eyes at the difficulty of some of those soprano runs—I mean, really? We faked it valiantly and giggled during the pauses. When at one point, I dropped my papers under the pew in front of us, the sister closest to me used her long strong leg and athletic foot to rescue them, pulling the damp papers back to me. We grinned at each other as I mouthed my thanks. 

When Michael or close sister got lost in the score, one would notice the fluster of the other, and they would lean in front of me to whisper the page number. When it was time to sing our parts, we all stood, and it felt glorious to belt out the lines, “For unto us a child is born.” We cheered the amazing trumpet player during “The trumpet shall sound,” near the end of the concert. His cheeks ballooned red as pomegranates from the effort. Michael pounded his feet in high praise, earning a scowl from the sour woman in front of us and laughs from the sisters. Later, he said he had a wonderful time, even though he doesn’t sing soprano. He appreciated the experience of following the score all the way through.

Everything becomes something else. A resistance to Christmas becomes an embrace of the holiday. And then the storms hit, and we cancelled family Christmas. When I pulled the three of cups on the morning of the 22nd, I felt sure the tarot card augured well for me and my two sisters (and niece and son and husband) celebrating together the next day. But alas, the treacherous weather made travelling impossible, and instead of being together in person, we had a beautiful three-way telephone conversation filled with warmth, encouragement, and love. So that was what the tarot was telling me—find a way to celebrate, even if it’s not what you imagine it will be. Everything becomes something else, if you can just see it. 

I craved Christmas this year. The year felt difficult, and Christmas seemed like a salve, a hygge solution to my discomfort. So, in my hunger for the lights, sights, and smells, I rushed to the Boy Scouts tree stand on December 1st—too early—and picked the chubbiest one I could find. Every morning I plugged in the coloured lights and enjoyed the sight of the branches decked with many home-made ornaments from over the decades. I especially treasure those old stars my children made in pre-school with their sweet faces in the middle of gold macaroni-studded frames. 

But then a few days ago, Michael said, “is that tree turning colour?” “Yes,” I had to admit. It was dry and yellowish green. So, on the solstice, we undecked the tree, unwound the lights, and tossed it at the side of the house to go into the chipper come January. Where the tree used to be, I placed a small round table holding a tall blue vase of red gerbera daisies—a gift from a friend. I mixed in some evergreen boughs and hung a few ornaments from the lip of the vase. I circled the coloured lights around the table’s base and the vase. Voila! Everything becomes something else: A Christmas tree becomes a festive bouquet. 

Free yourself from fixed mind and you will see this—all things are in the process of continuously becoming something else. Witness the impermanence, get up close to it, get curious about it. It happens anyway, so allow it to happen with a loving, joyous, open heart. That’s the trick. And a micro dose of psilocybin doesn’t hurt, either. 

I wish love, warmth, and all good things to you this season.

The Time to Write is Now

On Fridays I work a half-day at home, and every other Friday afternoon, I see my therapist. That Friday seemed like any other. I sat at my desk, sipped coffee, read student assignments, and provided written feedback using Word’s “comment” feature. I gazed intermittently at the grey skey outside the window. Taking a break between students, I checked “The Time is Now” for a writing prompt. Part of the Poets & Writers website, “The Time is Now” offers free weekly prompts for poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. I felt like writing something other than “you have a modifier problem in this sentence” or “a transition between these paragraphs will create a sense of flow.” That morning, the poetry prompt I read was this:

I clicked the hyperlink to read Kien Lam’s poem (I invite you to read it here). Then without thinking too much, I opened a fresh Word document and started to type couplets. The apocryphal story of your birth incorporating a fantastical tone. This is what I wrote:

Hallowe’en Baby

Like everyone, I come from a mother.
I curled in a womb until the time of my

birth, when the veil between worlds,
like a fully ripened cervix, was thinnest.

A beldam from the other side
invaded the plexiglass cage where I

lay on my belly, helpless, hours old.
That witch, she pulled me from my

crib into the stars, shrieking with
laughter as my limbs contracted in fear. 

She claimed to be my true 
Mother, but her touch was icy 

and her tits were cold and milkless. 
I hung from her broom until

November first, when a meteor 
carried me, feverish, back to my crib. 

I recovered there, alone, sucking my 
thumb for comfort. Nobody knew.

From that time, grief has grown thick 
as a callous to shield me from assailants:

For example, my Mother might try to 
pierce me again from the other side.

I didn’t toy with the poem too much—this is pretty much as it first flowed. At 1:00 p.m., my half-day of work over, I gathered my things, including the poem, which I’d printed out, and drove to my therapist’s office. I read the poem to her. I realized as I read it that it wasn’t just the prompt and Lam’s poem that had pushed the words out—it was remembering the story my mother had told me: I’d spent my first days of life separated from my parents, lying tummy down in a crib in the hospital nursery. My mother had a fever, and they put me in isolation to “protect me.” My father was at home caring for my two older sisters. I wasn’t held in my parents’ arms for days; I didn’t hear their familiar voices that I’d heard daily in utero. I lay there alone, not knowing when somebody would come to me. A connection was broken. That was 1958; I hope this separation between baby and parent wouldn’t happen today.

Writing the poem and reading it to Nancy felt like rupturing the dam holding back feeling and understanding. A river of sadness and comprehension washed over me. Pieces fell into place. My therapist’s contribution was to help me see the link between the absence of my parents’ touch and their voices in early infancy and my difficulty trusting connection in relationships. 

For a day or two, I felt high with the transformative knowledge. It explained so much. Writing that poem had planted a seed, so I decided to change my writing practice in 2023. My memoir (Sow’s Ear), novel (Geraldine), and book of linked short stories (Deedee and Stan: Domestic Stories) languish in folders on my desktop. I don’t want to continue to stew about “getting published” in 2023, to desultorily send my work out to indie publishers. I want to write. The time is now. So, I signed up to receive weekly writing prompts, and my aspiration is to use the prompts to write, if not weekly, then often, sometimes writing poems and other times fiction and non-fiction. 

I want to focus on the practice of writing: an embodied practice, a way of touching into deep feelings, into life’s mystery. My experience of writing “Hallowe’en Baby” was profoundly moving. I don’t expect all of my writing next year to be equally therapeutic, of course. However, I believe many revelations will emerge from writing this way. 

I’ve started on this week’s poetry prompt, following the Seamus Heaney poem, “Postscript”: “think back to a natural landscape that has made a lasting impression on you and write a poem addressed to a loved one that describes this unique terrain’s lasting beauty.” I realized, with sadness, that I’ve spent most of my life indoors. I can’t remember many natural landscapes that have made a “lasting impression.” Perhaps two or three. So, that’s quite a discovery! And it makes me want to get outside to observe the trees and the ocean, to feel the wind and sun, to watch the sky. It makes me want to go different places, to travel, to soak up the transient beauty of this world.

Saxe Point, Esquimalt, British Columbia

Take a chance

I’m not a gambler. I’ve never been one to buy scratch & win or lottery tickets, with the exception of raffle tickets for a good cause. But I have a weakness for the random—for letting books fall open, for reaching into my closet with my eyes closed. I wrote about random acts of reading in one of my early posts

Lately, my hunger for the random has become ravenous. Perhaps it helps me cope with the relentlessness of karma, of knowing that everything arises as a result of a complex web of causes and conditions. If I just grab something, I cheat the chain of causality for one moment. An illusion of course, but it briefly satisfies something in me. 

When I was at Women in Need thrift store a week ago, I bought a $5 jewelry “grab bag” and felt the thrill of not knowing what I would find inside. And then, at the Juan de Fuca 55+  Activity Centre Craft Fair last weekend, I picked up three “toonie bags,” again feeling excitement at the potential. I know the chances of getting things I neither want nor need are extremely high. But a pesky “what if?” tugs at me. What if there’s magic inside those bags?

I tell myself it’s not such an expensive gambling habit: $11.00 spent over the past ten days. As you have probably already predicted, the $11.00 yielded mostly junk. Costume jewelry I would never wear. Small glass bowls, silver candles, a MALIBU beaded bracelet: all of these go right into the Goodwill donation bag. But there were a couple of things I liked. A cheesy “love” ring that nestles nicely next to my wedding ring for the time being. Three hand-crocheted dish rags in a shade of grey-green that I love and will use daily. And the priceless frisson of possibility …   If I do this too often though—spend too much money on “grab bags”—I get disgusted with myself, like a gambler must feel about their addiction. 

Today, Mandala Monday, I asked Michael to continue with the buffet of randomness. Last time, we each chose a tarot card to inspire us. This time for our mandala-making prompt, I suggested that I would take a book of poems by Mary Oliver and open it anywhere, read the poem, and we would create mandalas in response. Being game to participate in most of my creative ideas, he agreed. I opened to the poem, “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field.” Do you know this poem?  The huge white owl, wingspan five feet, picks up a rodent from the snowy field and flies off to the frozen marshes to devour it. Oliver imagines the animal’s death in the jaws of the owl as something incandescent, perhaps even pleasurable. Death, she muses, may be entirely unlike the darkness we tend to imagine:

maybe death 
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —

Michael and I sat across from each other at the dining room table, he with his IPad and I with old watercolours and a piece of heavy paper I’d traced a plate on. The songs from Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas album surrounded us. We worked for a time. I sloshed paint and Michael used his magic wand. I persist in thinking of making digital art on an iPad as something otherworldly, technology out of my reach, which isn’t at all true. However, more and more, I recognize the ways I deceive myself, all of the little lies I tell to keep my life comfortable.

I like to mop up watery colour with an old rag, feel the wet paper under my palm, scrape at the bottom of the indigo blue with my brush, feel that I am using up every last bit of paint. The embodied experience of artmaking. 

I got stuck on a phrase near the end of the poem, “aortal light.” Adjective + noun. Aortal – from aorta, the great arterial trunk that carries blood from the heart to be distributed by branch arteries through the body. I imagined aortal light as a lantern that pulses like a heart, sees all with a glowing eye. Warmth and insight at the end of life. 

I fell in love with Michael’s “Arrival.” After creating hundreds of mandalas, he has developed a quick entry into the thriving, visceral archive of his subconscious. His images are evocative, and today both the image and the act of creation visibly disturbed him. I was riveted by the words he read to me after we’ve finished painting and writing. His honest expression of troubled feelings about the mandala—his fear of death—they scalded me. Would that I could be so honest! I like to think I won’t be scared when I am dying. I may be deceiving myself again. 

Oliver writes, we “let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river 
that is without the least dapple or shadow —
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.”

Choosing the random means taking a chance. Please, big “S” Self, let me take more chances in this life. Not just by grabbing toonie bags and reading random poems—please let me take a chance in being honest, vulnerable. 

Daily sojourn

I often despair of my monkey mind, the jumble of thoughts that keep me from noticing what’s present. At the same time, I appreciate my tangential mind. I love following its pathways through shadowy tunnels of white-flowering hawthorns. I seem to always turn a corner to find myself in an unexpected field of light. 

Today as I ate breakfast sitting at the kitchen table, I started to examine the ceramic trivet my father gave me years ago after a trip to Granada. The trivet is decorated with an Arabic design: a mandala in teal, navy, red, and cream. I love the waving flower petals that seem to be in motion, dancing in the wind. The Arabian design on the Spanish trivet took my mind to the poem I’d just been reading by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic living in Spain after 700 years of Arab culture. St. Teresa was intimate with her God; you can feel it in her language. I re-read the lines,

A woman’s body, like the earth, has seasons;

when the mountain stream flows,

when the holy thaws,

when I am most fragile and in need,

it was then, it seems,

God came

closest.

God, like a medic on a field, is tending our souls

And then, a few lines down,

Why this great war between the countries—the countries—inside of us?

From “When the holy thaws” by St. Teresa of avila

My counsellor tells me that I aggress against myself—a pattern in my life. An ongoing war rages between the countries inside of me. I like to think of God as a medic tending to my wounds, lifting me off the battlefield, holding me close, bringing my countries to peace. I remembered the stage six mandala I drew recently, with a little girl and a dragon (my warring countries). I wrote tenderly to myself, “lay down your sword, little one.” Perhaps the holy is thawing. 

I’d snagged that wonderful book, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, from a cardboard box of free stuff. I love our neighbourhood. There is a little clearing across the street near the mail box where all of us take things we don’t want anymore. Neighbours and visitors from other parts of town come to adopt old things and bring them to their new homes—a brilliant system! 

This book caught my eye. What a great find. But boxes of free stuff and friendly dogs are not all that’s on offer here. The neighbourhood has other delights. Yesterday, I started work early in my home office in the basement, checking copy edits for a book. At 10, I took a break from the highly focused work. Michael, Marvin, and I walked down to the Gorge where a pop-up concert was in full swing. A local musician, Danielle Lebeau-Peterson, was playing her guitar and singing under a white tent. Danielle is the daughter of my eldest son’s first music teachers—Connie and Niels, and I marvelled at the “small world” (we’re all connected) feel of Victoria. Her mouth is like her mother’s.

The clouds in the sky threatened rain, but so far it was dry, and children and their parents gathered around Danielle as she sang and played, smiled and bantered. She knew songs from Disney movies, which delighted the younger crowd. The Tillicum-Gorge Association folks had set up a table with a big urn of Tim Horton’s coffee, cartons of donuts, and boxes of Timbits. There was a clipboard with paper and the question, “What do you love about our neighbourhood?” The cheerful woman behind the table filled my cup with coffee, and I took up the pen and wrote, “Everything.”

We sat on the grass listening, and when Danielle asked for requests, I called out “Blackbird,” that gem of a song written by Paul McCartney. It was one of my father’s favourites, and she played and sang it perfectly—her clear ringing voice floating up and over the Gorge: “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” I smiled while my tears fell on the grass, and Marvin tugged at his leash, tried to smell the woman sitting next to us. This is the first Father’s Day I’ve lived without a father. But he was there in the high, truthful notes of the song. He is still with us. 

And now, I am still sitting here with the book of poems on one side of me and the trivet on the other, back from that pleasurable sojourn, ready to fill the hummingbird feeder with sugar water and play with the dog.  I love my mind and my heart. I love the rich stuff of daily life that produces all of these memories, feelings, and thoughts. The tangents take me unexpected places, but they always lead me back home to love and beauty.  

Acquainted with grief–and joy

The other night, we watched the Bach Consort ensemble perform Handel’s Messiah (Knowledge Network). I’ve heard the Messiah hundreds of times, but this time one line resonated especially—Gaia Petrone, mezzosoprano singing, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) Yes, Jesus was acquainted with grief. And as we traverse our later years, don’t we all become well acquainted with grief? In the last six years the losses just keep on coming, so grief has become an intimate familiar to me. 

And yet, there’s joy! The chorus sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). My whole body is engulfed with joy tempered by grief; tears stream down my face. My intellect has no chance to do its fancy override of emotions, has no opportunity to ridicule me: You’re not Christian, Madeline, why so moved by this, you silly? The analytical brain successfully bypassed, I am immersed in the bittersweet joy­sadness of the words, bathed by a sense of the sacred: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and flowing frescoes of a Viennese cathedral. The possibility of God. The swell of triumphant sound fills both church and body. 

The past rolls in. I go way back and find myself sitting beside my mother who gifted me with her love for classical music. We sink into the wine-red velvet seats of a hushed concert hall.  It was 1983, and I had my first job after graduating with a BA in English: I was secretary to the head engineer at the newly built Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. There was one marvelous perk that kept me showing up at the gloomy subterranean office: free concert tickets. When I got tickets for the Toronto Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth and invited my mother, she was thrilled. During the final movement, as the four soloists and choir sang the “Ode to Joy,” I turned to her and saw her cheek wet with tears, her dark eye sparkling with complicated joy. Just as my father retreated into jazz to feel his feelings, classical music was the vehicle for my mother’s deepest emotions. Many times, I caught a glimpse of her crying as she sat on the living room couch, listening to a moving passage from a symphony or quartet or aria. As I wept last night over the Messiah, I felt our tears intermix. We are connected. 

I noticed another sweet outcome from watching the Messiah: the opportunity to hug an old friend no longer with us. One of the second violinists resembled Hanna, who died in 2018. I went to sleep with that image of the violinist merging with the face of my dear friend: wide grin, glasses, brown bob laced with grey. When I met her in the dream, she felt real as anything, and I stayed for a while in her warm, familiar embrace. I love that I can still access my lost ones in the dream world. 

So, in a few weeks the year rolls to a close. Last December I wrote about all the things I had accomplished during the year—sewing and writing projects, starting my business. What did I accomplish this year? I put one foot in front of the other every day. This December it feels like more than enough to just write a few paragraphs and give thanks for the good things in my life. 

The Walker Sisters, circa 1963, Berkeley California

In August my eldest sister and niece moved from Yellowknife to Nanaimo. The three Walker sisters haven’t lived in such proximity since the 1980s in Toronto. Our closeness brings me comfort and happiness. 

Walking the dog day in, day out, has given order to our lives. Sky and earth, weather, sun, moon, trees, and birds break through my orbit of self-absorption, and I am grateful for them all. To stand in rain puddles and watch the fast scud of grey clouds, cormorants flying low over the steel-gray Gorge—is to feel alive. 

Although my writing group only met a few times this year, I appreciate each member. Late one recent afternoon, we sat in a beautiful room as the winter light slanted through the tall windows, Japanese oranges in a brown bowl, our faces rapt as we listened to one another read our work. We need stories now, more than ever. 

This was a year for intake rather than output. I didn’t sew or write much. I read voraciously and watched a lot of television. Grateful to the authors whose words I enjoyed this year, too many to list. But three memoirs stand out for me. I loved poet Elizabeth Alexander’s narrative The Light of the World about her marriage to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, his sudden death and her grief. She writes with the poet’s delicacy and attention to detail, and her grief/joy is palpable on each page. 

Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, about her fraught relationship with her depressed mother, Bess Gornick, resonated with me. Vivian struggles for independence from Bess while loving her with the potent mix of passion/compassion limned with hatred and resentment that seems particular to some mother-daughter bonds. 

Perhaps you have to be a Margaret Drabble lover or a lover of puzzles to appreciate this one (I am the former). In The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Drabble leads us through her lifelong fascination with puzzles, mixing in portraits of family members, tidbits of the history of puzzles, and asides about memory, writing, and life. A circuitous maze-like quality to the writing brings form and content into alignment.

And so many good stories streaming on television. I was grateful for a daily escape from reality through hours and hours of Grey’s Anatomy, No Offence, Pretty Hard Cases, Succession, Shetland, The Chair, Shtisel, Lupin, and many more. . .

I look forward to the shortest day of the year and the return of the light. Thank you for reading, dear people. One foot in front of the other.

Grief’s flat feet

My dad, 1927-2021, looking over his land soon after they bought the farm.

We walked slowly Thursday morning because overnight, recycling boxes and bags heaped with cans, bottles, cardboard, and newspaper had appeared at the curb. Blue splashes up and down the street that Marvin had to investigate, and so our walk slowed to a shuffle. He snuffled like a pig rooting for truffles, straining at the leash to lick the pizza box, to reach the Friskies can with a smidgen of catfood left on the rim. The night before, during his last walk of the day, he’d let out a volley of piercing barks at a pile of recycling across the street. Perhaps to his eyes, in the dark, the mound of stuff piled high above the blue box was a threatening mammal.

Early September’s morning chill, high scudding clouds above, and a Northern Flicker playing hide and seek in a hawthorn tree, his red head popping in and out of sight. The street is quiet—just the distant thunder of the McKenzie interchange as a blur of cars crosses into town. I am grateful to work at home, no need to commute. Instead, I love these 7 a.m. walks. Something in a recycling box caught my eye. Neatly folded on top of a pile of newspapers was a section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, folded to the crossword puzzle. Every clue solved; every box filled with a neatly penciled block letter. Perfection. Did my puzzle-solving compatriot struggle over it as much as I had? 

I felt connected to that person—their careful block letters different from my scribbled slanty ones, but we both finished the thing. Did they do it quickly, or did they stretch out the experience into Sunday or even farther down the week, relishing it? Did they approach the task methodically or fill in random clues? Did they ask for help or go it alone? Dictionary or no dictionary? Google or purely old school?  

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

Think of all of us across the nation who turn to the crossword first thing on Saturday. Sharp number 2 pencil. Or maybe a mechanical one. Do some confident people use pens? Fresh white eraser by Mars. Or a pink Dixon, perhaps? We sit in armchairs, on couches, sprawled on deck chairs, scrunched on buses and subways, drinking lattes in coffee shops. All of us, together in the challenge.

My mother did crosswords daily for the last 22 years of her life. They helped fill blocks of morning time after her mandatory retirement from her job as a lecturer in art history at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. I found a letter from her dated February 1997. She had just received a package I’d sent intended to cheer her up: 

“I didn’t realize my depression was so obvious. It isn’t a deep depression. It is simply that I no longer have an audience and no longer get paid for doing something I enjoy. The awful thing is that as soon as a person retires, he/she loses status. I notice it when I talk to people at Ryerson . . . They seem extra kind and sort of smile at me and ask me what I’m doing, etc. I smile back and try to talk glowingly of having time to read, etc. pretending that it’s absolutely great. And I know, as I’m doing it, that they know I’m putting on an act. . . So, I’m trying to develop a new lifestyle as a person with time to do those things I really enjoy. The difficulty is to distinguish what it is that I enjoy doing! Meanwhile, I do crossword puzzles, which is new for me and I’m getting pretty good at it (usually at breakfast), and it’s very nice to have the leisure not to have to rush.”

I started doing the Saturday crossword soon after my mother died in 2019. I thought they were too hard at first, and so I’d abandon them quickly. I have a healthy vocabulary, and I love language, but the crosswords seemed like something else. They’re filled with puns and tricks, and it seemed you had to be part of the in-crowd to get them: both hip to idiomatic English across the decades and savvy about current cultural trends. I’m just too literal, I thought, and what I know fills such a narrow groove. But then the challenge started to intrigue me. Now I look forward to the Saturday paper. After reading the headlines and the obituaries, I find the crossword, fold it into a nice rectangle, and begin.

All of this is a preface to say, I’ve had no will to write. Nothing seems worth writing about, these days. Life has a flat, fallow quality. Nothing’s important enough. Although there’s plenty of big bad news—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change—I don’t feel equipped to talk about any of it. 

So, I push myself to finish this rather silly piece, a blog post about something as quotidian as the crossword puzzle. I stop and pause often to ask, “Why bother?” Why bother indeed. But it’s just that writing something, anything, seems as if it might be the antidote to the flat way I feel. 

My thoughts return to my mother, sitting on the loveseat in her high-ceilinged living room, wrapped in a thick robe, blinds down, doing the crossword. Filling the hours. Her sleek black cat, Cicero, is curled up beside her. She is deep into it, puzzle dictionary next to her on the small rococo marble-topped table, Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing softly on the CD player. Missing the old nicotine rush, the sweet suck of smoke into her lungs, she holds the pencil like a cigarette for a moment. I miss her. In that old letter from ’97, she wrote, 

“I’m probably exaggerating, but I have been in their situation [those Ryerson people who acted extra kind toward her] when a colleague retired and made her appearance at the annual fashion show. She smiled too much and talked of having time to sew and do the things she enjoyed. I remember trying to avoid her because I think I was embarrassed and felt sorry for her because she was no longer part of those of us who were still doing important things—not just passing time.” 

Mama and me, back in the day.

Doing important things v. Just passing time. . . I flinch at my mother’s binary of “important” paid work and “just passing time.” But something in what she wrote resonates with me. I work part time as a self-employed editor, but lately, I often feel as if I’m just “passing time.”

Maybe this is just the flatness of grief. Flat-footed grief walks over me. After many losses, I am a fallow field—nothing growing here.  

I have been reading memoirs about aging parents. . . Elizabeth Berg writes in hers, “I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young.” After my father died at the end of June, I’ve felt old, flat, fat, tired, sad. Nothing feels important. Especially not the weekly crossword. And yet, musing over the word problems gets my brain churning slowly, raking over clues like a pitchfork turning organic matter in the compost heap. I feel connected to crossword puzzlers across Canada. I imagine, for example, an old guy in Mahone Bay—let’s say he’s 82, goes by Ernest Nickerson and sits in the kitchen nook with morning coffee, chewing the end of the pencil as he tries to remember what a 10-sided shape is (79 across, 7 letters). 

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

Remember geometry class in tenth grade? That’s where Ernest first noticed the girl who would be his wife, in geometry class at Mahone Bay School. As he digs deep for the name of a ten-sided shape, another thought is unearthed from that compost heap: Darlene’s thick red hair, held back with tortoiseshell barrettes. He couldn’t take his eyes off those red wings in front of him during class, couldn’t stop imagine pulling his fingers through that rough, dark crimson hair. He unclicks the delicate barrettes to let those wings loose to fly. If Darlene were alive now, Ernest thinks, she’d lean into my ear, her coarse grey hair tickling my nose, skinny shank up against mine, and whisper, “Decagon, Ernest. You knew that, honey.” 

I write to get momentum, to feel connected to people, to create worlds. To feel connected to you, and Ernest, and Darlene. So, if you are a maker, a creative person, (we all are, each in our own way) remember: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you. Even if it doesn’t seem important. Believe me, it’s important. It connects you to life. The fallow field regenerates.

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

  • Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
  • Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story
  • Elizabeth Hay, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
  • Elizabeth Berg, I’ll Be Seeing You.
From a later trip to NYC, March 2019, after my mother died. Sugar skulls in a restaurant display.

My last phone call with my father

In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.

That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before. 

So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.

So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet. 

I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow? 

But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here. 

A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign. 

Father

In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
a whisper:
hush, little baby, don’t you cry

From long ago
from far away
a thread
of red travels along
my bloodline

when that shark bites with his teeth, 
babe
scarlet billows start to spread

and meets a tributary.
I know your voice. 
You are mine.

I want you close
daughter,
but this trip
is made alone.

The woods in here
are dark and deep

I want to sleep, 
dear, but
a worry burns:

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

No, I hear you say, 
no more promises to keep.

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

Take to the sky papa,
Take to the 
red-blood sky.


A sense of belonging

“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.” 

David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

Ever since I was small, I have felt I don’t belong. As I grow older, I see how this sense of not belonging is linked to black and white thinking: I am excluded either because I am not good enough or because I am superior (“arrogant worm,” as they say in AA). This strain of thought is endemic for alcoholics. To break the spell, it’s crucial to look for similarities not differences when you attend twelve step meetings or, indeed, whenever you feel the sharp edges of polarity creating a sense of distance. 

For me and perhaps for you, the isolation resulting from the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and a sense of exile. Last month I was feeling particularly alone in the sadness that can arise from being a parent. Only in recognizing that many other parents across the world share in this pain did I not feel so alone. Facebook groups and other modes of connecting across space and time are wonderful to bring a sense of “I’m not the only one.” But also useful has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing in the thick suffering of others in your predicament and breathing out coolness and healing. This practice connects me with others, but more than that, it dissolves the sense of specialness and exclusion I am prone to. We’re all in this together.   

There is another simple practice I have started. I review small events from the perspective of community. This week, for example, I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. She is a gentle young woman named Demi with a river of brown curls running down her back. She made me feel so comfortable and safe as she stuck a dozen needles into my legs, hands, and back. As I laid face down on the warm table in a quiet room, I felt joined with all of the other people suffering sciatica or other pain in their bodies, and I also felt part of a group of people who get acupuncture. I could picture hundreds of us lying on surfaces—floors, grassy fields, dusty streets, tables, beds—and kind practitioners breathing slowly and rhythmically, putting us at ease, as they insert the slim sharp points. I imagine a collective release of endorphins through bodies old and young, fat and slim, smooth and rough. I imagine our relief. 

The next day, I suffered from self-doubt about my new editing business—will I get clients? Will people I’ve done work for get back in touch with me? And imposter syndrome: Am I really an editor or just pretending? Perhaps I don’t belong.

Drawing a tarot card, I asked, “What do I need to know right now?” I pulled the Six of Wands, then consulted Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. She writes that “the Six of Wands appears when you have been working hard toward a goal, and success is finally within reach. . . . If you do not feel close to victory now, know that it is on its way provided you are doing all you can to make it happen.” I felt encouraged. 

Amazingly, later that day, I received two emails from former clients who wanted me to do work for them. The next day, a new client gave me an update on work that is planned for this summer. And a referral from a colleague I thought would come to nothing yielded another email today asking for my services.

I feel not only encouraged by all of this positive activity, but connected to a community of editors. Yes, I belong. Amazed by the rightness of the card, I feel connected to all those people everywhere who use tarot to help them make sense of life.  I can see the decks being shuffled and cut by hands everywhere—brown hands, gnarled hands, arthritic hands, young hands, a hand with a missing finger. . . . We shuffle and cut and draw and learn about ourselves and others, about our Fool’s journey on this Earth.

On Friday, I felt down again, and as I sat in the backyard with my next-door neighbour and we watched the puppies play, I shared a little of my current grief. She popped out of her lawn chair, “I’m going to get my Animal Spirit cards. They’ll help you to feel better.” She came back with the deck and I shuffled and drew. I tried to pull just one, but two cards were stuck together—Elephant and Otter. She read aloud the description of each animal, and a tear rolled down my cheek. 

The descriptions felt resonant—the qualities of the unstoppable, gentle, noble elephant and the giddy and joyful otter were combined inside of me. I felt connected to my neighbour then, linked to her through her kindness to me and her willingness to explore beyond the rational self. I feel connected to everybody everywhere who is suffering and uses tools to understand themselves and bring solace: tarot, mandala-making, building sand-castles, creating songs and singing them, writing novels and poems, reading palms, tea-leaf interpretation, or casting the I Ching. 

Then on Saturday, I was washing dishes and noticed movement in our back neighbour’s yard. Raccoons? I fetched my binoculars and trained them on a raccoon couple mating—the male straddling the female and biting her neck. Their black bandit masks and long striated fur were crystal clear through the binocs. I was awed. I am part of a community of animals—our bodies are drawn to one another, we mate. I am connected not only to a world of animal lovers, but to a world of lovers of animals. We train our binoculars on birds and lovely beasts of all kinds; we are curious about the natural life we are part of. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that has been my experience. An (invisible) sense of community is essential to me now more than ever. This week I call forth community in many ways. I call it forth through my pain and suffering. I call it through being a patient of acupuncture. I call it through using tarot and other mystical tools. I call it through imagining myself as a member of overlapping groups: editors, parents, and neighbours. And I call it through membership in a society of homo sapiens and other animals. An invisible sense of belonging keeps me going. I may not be able to touch you but I feel you.

Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

Open channel to the soul: A year of creative expression

“In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves…”

Saul Bellow, foreword to Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

As I look back over the year, I see that my ongoing mission has been to keep play and creativity alive in my everyday life. I like to think this everyday work/play as a way to keep the channel to my soul open, tender, and raw.  I do this mostly through writing and sewing.

Writing

This year I wrote quite a bit—I wrote everyday gratitudes, and sometimes I wrote “morning pages” (see Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to know more about morning pages). I wrote blogposts, a short story, and a personal essay.  Every year I aspire to what I idealize as “a regular writing practice,” some idealistic daily routine where I put writing first, a priority in my life, and set writing goals. But so far, I haven’t achieved this. I wonder whether this year it’s time to lay the dream to rest and just write when I can for the sheer joy of it, to express myself, to explore my ideas.

After my mother died in February, I wrote an essay, “Holding Space for Death,” which I shared with my writing group and with Michael. In this personal essay, I try to articulate my complex response to my mother’s death. I describe how the Heart Sutra helped me make sense of the experience of grieving. I submitted the piece twice to literary journals. It was rejected twice. I continue to feel tension and yearning around the idea of publishing. In academic circles, publishing a piece in a respected journal or publishing a book is the be-all and end-all—it is the intended outcome of most writing.  It’s been hard for me to let go of that idea, as it was drummed into me throughout my graduate degrees.

Holding space

My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

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

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

How To Love Things Into Being

Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

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

Sewing

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

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

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

 

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

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And more

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

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

IMG_3712

M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

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

IMG_0231

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

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

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

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

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