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.

Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

A mother lode of feelings

 

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My mother loved this card I made for her birthday in 2016. “How did you get me so perfectly?” she asked.

Motherlode

Corns crunch as I turn the wooden grinder
over a tiny heap of grey-black grains for
pfeffernüsse, the recipe you passed to me from your
German mother.

In a clan of ginger, your dark crown pulled the eye.
Beautiful ungainly schwartz
learned to pick peaches at 6,
to drive a car at 12.
You were a barefoot child,
smoldering into life.

Your seed sprang from
hard dry loins of dustbowl farms,
you blossomed dark to light,
turned burlap sacks to rickracked frocks,
pushed hard against poverty,
ate books, ached for knowledge,
opened your scarred scared heart to love.

Passionate proud creature, you live
inside me, your pepper cutting
through my honey, brave unexpected heat
sears the surprised and happy tongue.

“Motherlode” was one of the poems in my first and perhaps last book of published poetry,  birth of the uncool  (2014, Demeter Press). Unfortunately, the first four lines of this poem are missing in the book. When the manuscript was sent to me for a final examination and approval, I didn’t notice the flaw. Without those lines, the poem doesn’t make much sense, which bothers me. I wanted to be mad at the copy editor, but truly it was my fault.

So I offer it here today in its wholeness because I have been thinking of my mother.

When a person we love dies, we measure the next year’s turning as a series of firsts.  First my mother’s birthday rolled around in April, and she wasn’t here to call, to wish happy birthday, to send a card to. Then it was the first time I visited the house where she lived, but she was no longer there, calling from the top of the stairs, “Madeline? Is that you?” Then I celebrated my first birthday without my mother in the world, and coming up is my first Christmas without her.

I spent only one Christmas with her in the thirty years since I moved with my family from Ontario to the West coast. But still, we would talk on the phone every December 25th. I sent gifts, and for a long time, so did she. I’d ask if she had bought a Christmas tree and often she had bought two tiny ones: one for the front room and another for the back room, where they would sit in front of the fire burning in the fireplace, watching the snow fall outside. Sometimes we’d talk about Handel’s Messiah, a piece we both adored and listened to over and over again that time of year. After a while, I stopped asking if she’d made pfeffernüsse because I knew she hadn’t.

She was eating very little in the years and months before she died, cooking only occasionally, and baking hardly at all. But for so many years—all my childhood years—there was the joy of making pfeffernüsse with Mama.

I remember best the warm doughy mounds sliding out of the oven on blackened cookie sheets. A happy human conveyer belt, we dipped them still warm into the bowl of milk flavoured with vanilla extract, then popped them head first onto the plate of powdered sugar, then onto a rack to cool. The powdery tops hit my tongue with a blast of melting sweetness, then my teeth sank into the chewy milk-moistened dough, meeting honey, liquorice, and pepper. We’d line tin canisters with waxed paper, packing them with layers of pfeffernüsse.

I would eat those pepper nuts until I felt sick.  And then when I had my own family, Mama sent me the recipe for “Xmas Cookies,” written in her energetic cursive.  I made them for my boys, even when they weren’t particularly interested in eating them. Eating dozens of them myself, I plumped up like a pfeffernüsse every December.

It’s early November now. Christmas is still many weeks away. But I am thinking of my mother, thinking of our complicated relationship. Acknowledging that while I followed her path in so many ways, I fiercely resisted and resented her too.  After she died in February, I spent the next seven months in therapy, trying to deconstruct the pain and grief I felt, pain and grief spiced by anger, softened by affection. Honey and pepper, pepper and honey. Mama and Madeline, Madeline and her mama.

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Let me hear your body talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beauty way: the road home

 

 

The Navajo do not look for beauty; they normally find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it.

-Erik Painter, 2017

By Michael

Leaving Winnipeg, I feel pulled towards home with increasing intensity. At the same time, I want to be open to the rest of the journey that we have before us.  I doubt that we will do any camping on this trip—it has just seemed like too much after driving for 7 hours or more to search for a campsite and set up our tent, so we continue to move from motel to motel, icing our cooler and trying to keep the cream fresh for our morning coffee, lovingly made in our French press in whatever room we happen to have found ourselves in. Sniff and stir has become the morning ritual.

We are both tired of driving and hungry for home, but in the meantime the road beckons and unfurls before us, and I find myself thinking of the Navajo concept of beauty, that it is everywhere and we are immersed in it and part of it.  I reflect on the range of landscapes and people we’ve met on this trip, and on how beauty takes many forms…and there is more to come!

sask sky

Regina is dry, hot and exhausting and we get our signals crossed trying to find a parking spot at what looks like a good coffee shop.  By the time we get the car and our butts parked we are cranky and the fact that this is another “we don’t do dark roast” (featuring winy coffee) place, doesn’t help. We talk about how glad we are that even when we are cranky, we don’t blame each other, and then decide to push on to Swift Current so that tomorrow can be a shorter day.  A few miles outside of Regina on the vast prairie we realize that the yellow low fuel warning light is on—we need gas.

After 22 anxious miles we make our way into Pense, a town of 500 or so residents.  Canadian sculptor Joe Fafard lived here—I’m thinking there will be delightful sculptures of people and cows around the town.  Apparently not—there is no one to be seen.  There is a gas station that appears to be closed, the pumps barricaded with lawn furniture and plastic fencing to prevent cars driving around them. I wander into the Meat Up pub to ask for help…a vast, dark, totally empty room.  Calling out, a sleepy looking man emerges from the shadowy depths and informs me that the gas station is next door.  “Is it open?” I ask.  He peers at me quizzically: “I have no idea”.

Back we go.  I get out of the car and open the front door of the convenience store located behind the pumps.  A small (Canadian Chinese?) woman with a big smile is sitting behind the counter.  The place is crammed to the rafters with every kind of food stuff, hardware and household item you can imagine.  I ask if she is open and she nods and smiles. I ask her which pump to use. She nods and smiles. “Pump one?” I ask—she stands up, nods and gestures towards the pumps and her smile widens.  I go outside and Madeline parks the car beside the pumps while avoiding the lawn furniture and plastic fencing, negotiating the space with a new arrival, a man in a Winnipeg shirt, Ontario license plates and a huge truck. While I pump our gas, he goes into the store and comes out and asks me if the woman is crazy.  I tell him she is just trying to manage the situation in her way, and a few minutes later she emerges and starts waving and directing him to get his truck to the pumps without kinking the hose.

Driving towards Swift Current, I tell Madeline that I wish she could have seen the inside of the store.  It strikes me that this may have been the most excitement that the store owner had seen in a while—and far from being crazy she seemed enthused with her new customers, and besides, that huge, friendly smile never dimmed for a second.

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We spend two days in Calgary.  The first night we visit with our friends John and Jane with whom we are now family through marriage.  We laugh and feast have a great break from driving and the following day we visit with Floyd, a long-time friend that I hadn’t seen for 25 years. More feasting, more laughter, more heart connections.  As we ready for the final drive through the mountains, I feel warmed by these visits with friends old and new, and just grateful for the people in my life.

The beauty of northern Ontario is glorious, imperfect, substantial, with the Canadian Shield visible everywhere, and straggly corkscrew trees adorning mirrored lakes.  The beauty of the prairies is gentle, rolling and welcoming (at least in summer) with skies that open before me like the hands of generosity.

The Rockies are another matter completely. Here nature struts her stuff like a runway model—the trees are perfect cones, the mountains are rock music, with sweeping curves and sawtooth edges that carve into the sky.  The lakes are sapphire blue, fed by glaciers. This landscape is in your face, drop dead gorgeous, but I have to admit that part of me misses the wide prairie skies, and soon enough we are driving through the rolling sagebrush-adorned hills of Kamloops, and I am able to just be present with whatever is before me.

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On the ferry, weaving through the Gulf Islands, I think, so many Beauties on this trip.  The landscapes for sure, but just as much the people that we have met touch my heart. Everywhere, people have been friendly, kind and welcoming, and I realize that through this entire trip I have had the strongest sense of home, of belonging, of being immersed in beauty.

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By Madeline

 

I added Halcyon the kingfisher to our shelf of RARE mascots beside the donkey, Falstaff the pig, and the sand dollar picture.  I am so glad to be home with the kitties.  Memories of the trip will continue to simmer in my mind and give birth to more stories and posts, I am certain.  Thank you, Michael, for collaborating with me on the blog during our trip and for being a superb travel and life companion.  And thank you dear readers for reading.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

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

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

Sewing

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

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

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Planting, writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

Midwinter: bleak or bright?

I could hardly believe that for the third time this week, I was looking at the four of cups. On Monday, I pulled the upright card, then on Tuesday, the same card reversed.  Now on Friday, I’d somehow picked the upright four of cups again from Michael’s Smith-Waite deck.  How is that even possible? Some will say it’s pure coincidence. Jung would call it synchronicity, “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” The universe delivers her message.

The first two picks were from my lusciously illustrated “cosmic” Norbert Losche deck. A young man looking into himself—the apex of introversion—ignores the four chalices among white lotuses placed before him. I read Anthony Louis’ explanation of this card, headed by the keyword “Discontent.” This card indicates withdrawal into oneself because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of life. I love my life right now, but I feel annoyed by my relationship to social media and electronic communication.

Promises of fulfilment via Facebook and Instagram are facades draped over a void. My addict self is speaking here—I use these applications like drugs rather than the tools they are meant to be. That’s why I feel the abyss. I long ago gave up the thrill of drinking that first glass of wine in the evening, but as I discovered in social media a similar addictive excitement. The anticipation of putting a new picture on Instagram and checking for likes, the little pop-up notification on my phone, feeling the sweet pinging pleasure each red heart sends. That was early days. Then after months, the shabbiness of the whole enterprise slowly shows through the popping hearts. I read about how employees at Instagram manipulate our dopamine release. They make us wait—release a bunch of likes all at once to hook us, keep us checking and checking. I feel cynical, cheap, and used.  There are never enough of those little digital hearts: they are insubstantial; they don’t satisfy. I am a hungry ghost with a tiny mouth and a huge stomach. Never enough, never enough. I built a tolerance for the dopamine high and pretty soon it feels flat and I start to wonder, why am I doing this, wasting my time? Why does it matter? Why did we even take pictures before Facebook and Instagram and why are we taking them now? What has happened to me?  As I despair over my addictive tendencies (over-checking email, grazing constantly on FB and instagram), I long for some pre-email, pre-social media era when my mind wasn’t tormented so. When I had a telephone that stayed anchored at home. When I got paper letters in the mailbox.

On Tuesday, I pulled the reversed card announcing the end of discontent (Anthony Louis’ reading of reversals) and felt relieved even though nothing had happened. Other tarot experts look at reversed cards as simply softer or slightly blocked versions of the upright, so perhaps nothing had changed. When I miraculously pulled the four of cups at the end of the week, upright this time, from Michael’s deck, I was astounded. He read to me about the card, and I realized what I’d missed the first and second time around was the dangerof discontent:  When you feel dissatisfied, you fail to see the good that’s right in front of you. Although Losche’s deck has all four chalices in a group, Smith-Waite’s pictures three goblets before the young man while a hand borne by a small cloud offers a fourth goblet, which is ignored. You focus on the three things lacking in your life while oblivious to the overflowing goodness right in front of you.

Since Friday, I’ve been awaking to everyday riches. For example, on Friday morning I enjoyed the fun of driving to work listening to songs starting with “You” on the sound system:  the wonderful bluesy, “You’ve got to be ready for love if you wanna be mine,” by Bonnie Raitt, then Keith Jarrett’s “You took advantage of me,” live at Montreux. I appreciated the agility of my wandering mind as I remembered the wonderful Ian McEwan novel The Children’s Act that I’d just finished, in which the memory of a Keith Jarrett concert cements a troubled marriage.  Then I time travelled back to a concert I attended decades ago and remembered one of Jarrett’s famous outbursts when the audience cheered for an encore. He called us ungrateful, never satisfied, and I remember feeling shocked and ashamed. He was rude, but he wasn’t wrong. Why do we always want more and more? Soon my mind swung back to the present with the heart-thumping percussive strums opening “You turn me on,” by Joni Mitchell. I swung the car into the parking lot, feeling thankful for Mitchell’s life-long artistry.

Later that day I wrapped Christmas presents and thought of how my mother taught me how to wrap gifts.  How to crease the paper neatly at either end, but especially how to curl long strips of ribbon by tautly pulling the sharp blade of a pair of scissors against their length. It was like magic, a zipping sound as the blade made its trip from end to end transforming something flat into bright bouncy curlicues. She’d ask me to put my little finger there, in the middle of the package, holding the crossed ribbons firm so she could make a knot around them. We’d laugh as I quickly pulled my finger from the tightening strands. She started me on the tradition of homemade cards as well. At Christmas and birthdays, we’d receive her thickly drawn pastel abstracts and inside, sweet messages in slanted cursive.  I felt another wave of gratitude for those memories and gifts from her.

Oh, and discontent about social media—well that too is about perceiving the good that technology yields. For example, this morning I was able to see my eldest son playing the synthesizer at his concert in Portland and my youngest son’s latest paintings—both on Instagram. Gifts.Finally, I feel blessed to have a small audience for these personal essays through the wonders of WordPress and Facebook. I write, technology delivers.  I am grateful for you, my reader.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may you too appreciate the full chalice brimming before you.

We have to be honest with ourselves

I usually have several things percolating. Right now it’s Inktober, so I’m doing a sketch every day inspired by the prompts, keeping my drawing loose and free and generative. Jake Parker started Inktober in 2009. He wanted to improve his inking skills so he set out to make 31 ink drawings during the 31 days of October, and the idea blossomed.  Here are drawings prompted by 1) cruel and 2) weak. All of them are on Instagram: @maddyruthwalker 

 

Next, there’s Loren’s butterfly quilt, and I feel a bit stalled, though I have booked a solitary quilting weekend in November to finish it. I had tried to “cut corners,” even when I know that is always a mistake. Trying to skimp on time, materials, money, or love. . . this strategy always backfires on me. I have all of these old batting scraps and thought, well rather than buying a new big whole piece, I will just sew them together loosely by hand and it will be fine. I hate to waste them, after all. I am frugal. And then I realized I didn’t have basting spray to put the layers together, so I figured, well I bet if I put a few pins in the quilt it will all stay together enough for me to quilt it. So I did that, always hopeful, but in the back of my mind remembering other times that I’d donned my rose-coloured spectacles and done  something not very sensible, yet still unreasonably hoping for the best.

Sure enough, after machine quilting about one-quarter of the quilt I noticed the puckering and unevenness: The lack of basting spray combined with cobbled-together-batting created shifting fabric and resulted in a lumpy mess.  Furious with myself, I decided to rip the whole thing out, buy the spray, buy the batting and stop trying to cheap out on stuff.  But when I ripped out the stitching, being mad instead of patient, I ripped too hard and tore holes into the quilt top. So then I had three little rips that I had to patch.

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Hiding my mistakes in plain sight

Deep breath, accept what just happened, I told myself. I created three little patches, not in matching cloth, but in contrasting cloth. Hiding my mistakes openly. The patches are obvious cues that something went wrong, but the mistake itself, the ugly rip, is covered. Hiding in plain sight. Whenever I quilt, I am reminded that things take time. What’s the rush?

My illustrated memoir, Sow’s Ear Purse is coming along (about 150 pages so far).  I am including the first five pages, below.  Sometimes I grab bits from other pieces I’ve written and incorporate them into the memoir. After all, I am making a sow’s ear purse, not a silk one. Please let me know what you think.

My storytelling flow class with Tom Hart at Sequential Artists Workshopis almost over; we are all scripting and putting together the final iteration of our stories.  Mine is about Niobe, a woman who grew up in Dogland and became King Ambrose’s seamstress, only to hear the distressing news that he is a sexual predator, so she plans an escape to Cat Island, a loving and benign kingdom. But some urgent news interrupts her flight.   Maybe I’ll post the full comic here once it’s finished. . . . Stay tuned.

I hope you are engaged in your own creative processes this month.

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We have to be honest with ourselves

“We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that. That is the foundation of warriorship and the basis for conquering fear.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,  Smile at Fear, p. 6

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I’m losing my memory, and with it, all of my memories.  I’m frightened that I won’t know my sons, my husband. That I’ll forget who I am and what I was. When I’ve lost that, I won’t be anybody. My thoughts, memories, and ideas will float away, like helium balloons, lighter than air, and what’s left will be a husk of me, the functioning yet deteriorating body, the spark of intellect extinguished. Arthritic hands will fumble over the TV remote, an ugly knitted afghan pulled over my plump aching knees.  I’ll ask my caregiver, “what’s for lunch?” only to be told, “you’ve just had lunch, dear. It’s time for your nap.” Well, you might think, that can happen to anybody.

The thing is, my brain is different from other people’s; it’s not just the inevitable memory loss associated with aging that terrifies me. The memory lapses ageing brings are now meeting the earlier damage my brain suffered from blackout drinking as a teenager. I imagine my mind right now as a slim sandbar with a black tide rising on either side. The lapping Lethe-like waves surround me and it’s only a matter of time until one touches the other, the foamy lip of old brain damage kissing the lacy dribble from age’s drooping mouth. Over the course of my life I have known that my hippocampus is different from other people’s.  There is something missing, some capacity for cementing details that others seem to have, the train into long-term memory is stuck at the station. I’ll read a novel, see a film and two weeks later it’s gone—as if erased. This was happening even in my thirties and forties. It’s a miracle I was able to remember enough of what I read and learned to complete a Ph.D. in my late forties. Now that I am turning sixty, it’s only grown worse. If I don’t write things down, they are lost.

In “Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf describes with sensuous detail her first memories—the “red and purple flowers on a black ground” of her mother’s dress, and then lying half asleep in a nursery bed at St. Ives, the Woolf’s seaside house in Cornwall, hearing the waves breaking behind the yellow blind, “the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.  [My earliest memories are] of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” (p. 65). Later in the sketch are captures of scenes and places wrought with photographic intimacy, a closeness that made me start to weep when I realized I have only a few dry kernels of remembrance rattling around my mind. Woolf was a little younger than I am when she wrote this essay. The precision of detail amazes me. What do I remember from early years? A veil obscures that time from consciousness. Any memories I have seem to be memories created from my cache of small square photographs with their warped, jagged edges: Serving my stuffed animals “tea” at Little Bear’s tea party, blowing enormous soap bubbles with my adopted Grandmother in Berkeley, feeding the llamas at the children’s zoo at Tilden park. My mind fools me into thinking that I remember those events, but I don’t—there’s only the faded capture on Kodak paper. No sensuous details arise; no feelings live on in my cells.  There’s just a dumb grey screen.

Yet there is a memory from age 11—my sisters sitting with me on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, both dabbing at my new kilt with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know that we’d gotten drunk. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked down Spadina Avenue, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. Liquid gold, ecstasy, painting my insides. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, sour-tongued, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch. Give it to me again and again!

There was no turning back. For the next fifteen years, I drank to get drunk. With my friends and family, I had to elaborately hide the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch. Not all the time, and I don’t think I drank steadily until I was around 16, but the hungry ghost had always been inside me. The ghost is inextinguishable.

Scientists have found that binge drinking in the teen years leads to irreversible brain damage. When researchers gave 10 doses of alcohol to adolescent rats over 16 days, mimicking binge drinking, they discovered that nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory and learning, communicated abnormally and looked abnormal. According to the scientific report, “Branches coming off of nerve cells should look like short mushrooms. Instead, here they looked long and thin.”

In addition to damage to the hippocampus, heavy drinking leads to the loss of white matter in the brain. Like a shuttle bus, white matter quickly delivers messages to grey matter, so when you lose white matter the efficacy of your thinking is disrupted.  Alcohol also affects the prefrontal cortex and, thus, executive function. As drinking adolescents start to lose executive function, they find it more and more difficult to stop their self-damaging behavior, triggering a vicious circle.

It all started to make sense. I imagined long thin mushrooms branching off my botched nerve cells. As a typical teenager, the long-range planning or executive planning part of my brain was developing more slowly than other parts. The effects of alcohol abuse confounded this slow development by dissolving my white matter, prompting me—when I started to feel tipsy—to abandon thoughts of consequences and take many risks. Early in my life, my brain was irreversibly rewired. My memory just doesn’t work like other peoples.         

But I have my journals—erratic records of my life—that connect me to my past. Traces of my forgotten life live on in those notebooks that overflow a blue 60-litre Rubbermaid tub. Some date back to the mid-1970s when I first started to write.  Sometimes, this tub holding my past feels like a burden. Like Pandora’s box, it harbours snakes that might slither out and asphyxiate me. Ghosts might be unleashed, giving rise to nightmares, regret, self-recriminations. But could there be hidden treasures in there as well, I wonder? I contemplate the tub with ambivalence: The emancipatory urge to clear space battles with the fear of losing everything. Are the old journals a scourge holding me back from the future? Or do the journals anchor me to an identity, a reminder of who I am, the only record of Madeline as I slowly lose my mind?

As my 60thbirthday approached and my fear of losing my ability to remember grew, I decided I needed to make something out of those journals, but the thought of reading all of them was overwhelming.  How can I choose which ones to read? I wondered.

Always intrigued by chance, I wondered what it would be like if I pulled only 13 out of the pile of perhaps 50 or 60 journals and worked with just them. What if I eschew choosing the “best” or most interesting ones, the most dramatic ones, and rather, work with whatever I get? That would alleviate the huge responsibility of poring over all of them, and it would also force me to make something out of “slim pickings,” perhaps. I remember my mother telling me you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. True, you can’t make silk from pigskin, but you can make an even more bewitching purse from that sow’s ear than you could ever fashion from mere silk. Work with what you’ve got, with what you find, with what you pick out of the air, out of the dump, off street signs, from snatches of conversation.

 

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I am the sow