Legacy of Loss/ Swords

Legacy of Loss

“The American experience, the focus on individual achievement, the acquisition of goods and money to prove one’s social value, is built on this sense of loss, this alienation from the warmth of the home culture, isolation from genetic bonds. This separation from one’s tribe creates an inner loneliness that increases as one ages.”

Annie Proulx, “A Yard of Cloth” (p. 20) from Bird Cloud.

I read this passage last night, and I had to get out of bed to copy those sentences. They struck a chord in me. I too feel that “inner loneliness that increases as one ages.” My mother, who died on February 14, 2019, distanced herself from her family as a teenager. When she coloured her hair blonde, her father was furious. Either he told her to leave, or she left voluntarily to flee the strictness of their farm in Lodi, California, I’m not sure which. She ended up in Los Angeles, working the switchboard at Kaiser Hospital. She would later meet an older woman, Phyllis, who became a kind of mother to her, paying for her therapy. My mother would go on to complete a BA and MA at University of California, Berkeley. 

Not only did my mother reject her parents, she spurned most of her seven siblings as well. However, she had a special bond with Fran, a gentle older sister who worked as a nurse. My mother claimed Fran saved her life by preventing their parents from treating my mother’s Bell’s Palsy with some kind of horse medicine. Most of these stories are so garbled in my memory. They seem half-fantasy and half-truth. I’m sure I have most of the stories slightly wrong. 

But the feeling is real—of striking out, fleeing family, rejecting those who engendered you, separating from tribe. That was an element in my mother: brutal independence. I don’t need you. I depend on nobody but myself. I remember the last time I visited her in Toronto, her brother, an Evangelical preacher living somewhere in the States, called her, and I picked up the phone. Apparently, he called regularly, wanting to reconnect, and she always hung up on him. When I tried to hand the phone to her, she wouldn’t take the call. I was shocked. You won’t talk to your brother? He’ll just proselytize, she said. 

My parents migrated from California to Toronto in 1965, another “alienation from the warmth of the home culture” that Proulx writes about. My mother left her adopted mother, Phyllis, which must have been heartbreaking for her, and my father left his mother. We three daughters were already used to being without a large tribe—we didn’t know most of our cousins or aunts and uncles. We were a nuclear family with no extended family to fall back on. I look back on how we grew up without the cushion of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and how hard it is to survive that way. But we didn’t know anything different. 

Then, repeating the pattern of migration and loss, my first husband and I left our home in Toronto with our first child. We left our parents and siblings—it felt exciting and freeing. We started a new life in Victoria in 1988. My kids grew up without getting to really know their Ontario grandparents. 

I am thinking of my mother this weekend. It will be three years since she died. She was fierce and proud and insisted on individual achievement as the sine qua non. In her actions, she was a feminist. In elementary school, we were sent home for lunch every day for a 90 minute break, which necessitated mothers stay home to serve their kids lunch. She fought to get the school to allow us to stay there to eat a packed lunch so she could go out and work. Later, she pressed back when the bank wanted her ex-husband’s signature to get a mortgage. But she wouldn’t be called a feminist because she didn’t want to be seen as part of group of women who supported and uplifted each other, challenging the system together. All of her achievements in life, she thought, were due to her own hard work and merit plus a little help from individual friends. And it’s interesting how I’ve inherited some of this thinking, especially an unwillingness to ask for help. 

My mother and her father

As humans, we work so hard to connect. It is our default—we need each other. I treasure my sisters now, and I create my own chosen family in my friends. However, that profound sense of loss lingers at the edges of life. It’s the legacy of leaving family behind and striking out on one’s one. 

Swords

Swords are weapons of destruction and tools of discernment. 

Swords are on my mind.

About a year ago, I created a website for my new editing business and wanted a brand identity.  The Queen of swords from tarot seemed a perfect symbol for a female editor—the independent, unbiased woman, a seeker of truth, with clear boundaries and a direct style of communication. She sees problems and figures out how to solve them; she knows where to cut the extraneous to reveal the truth. Queens are about heart and swords are about mind—so she brings heart and mind into harmony.

I didn’t use a Queen of swords image from a tarot deck due to copyright laws. Instead, I planned to use an excerpt from a painting in the public domain, John Gilbert’s (1817-1897) Joan of Arc. I sent a mock-up of the website, including a sword image, to a few friends for their opinions. One of them noted that the image of Joan of Arc’s armour and sword was martial and scary and didn’t really reflect who I am. I agreed. I decided to let go of the sword as a metaphor for editing because of its primary associations with violence. 

And yet, swords keep coming up. On December 31, 2021, Michael and I each drew a tarot card to guide us during 2022. He drew two of swords; I drew Queen of swords. Evidently, the sword has much to teach both of us this year, so I am listening. As Michael has been studying the tarot for several years now, I asked him about swords. His words are a synthesis of all he has read and studied from various sources (but his main influences are Mary Greer, Rachel Pollock, and Anthony Louis). 

 “The suit of swords is aligned with the element of air, which is the suit of mental processes and thoughts. Swords are aligned with thinking, intellect, reason, yang energy, severing unhealthy connections, and the courage of the warrior. They’re about logos, problem solving, things we have to work through before we can find serenity. 

Swords are aligned with prajna, deciding what to accept and what to reject or cut; it’s the suit of discernment and decisiveness. Also, because swords are about mental things, they can also be about willful blindness, about illusion. Swords is where we discover the obscurations of mind that trap us. 

Two of swords shows a woman blindfolded, and the eight shows a blindfolded, bound woman surrounded by swords. However, these are mental obscurations – imagined entrapments rather than actual physical imprisonment. The four of swords has a person lying on their back with three swords above – this is contemplation. Swords is about how you use your mind. Some sword cards are about meditation: training, calming, and taming the mind. 

Swords are not just about cutting, but they’re also about piercing – which is penetrating insight.”

I asked Michael about his tattoo of the three of swords. “Well, threes are energy, vitality, motion – they arise from loss or partnership or conflict. Three of swords is heartbreak, alienation, and sorrow—mental alienation and loss. The three of swords invites us to find the sweetness and wisdom beneath our sorrow –that’s my take on it. Go underneath the sorrow – penetrate and pierce it.”

Cutting and piercing are the work of the sword. And underneath the pain is sweetness.

Recently, a client asked me to cut 40% from several of her book chapters—truly an exercise in figuring out what’s most important. Same thing in life. Look at what you most value and treasure it. Let go of what you no longer value.

As the Queen of swords accompanies me throughout this year, I would like to continue to examine the mental obscurations that trap me and prevent me from experiencing serenity. For example, much anxiety arises from worrying about the future, but I know there is no future. There is only today.

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. 

I am entitled to claim my experience

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

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patchwork purses to give away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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My mother’s closet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbows and Basic Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your closet to me

 

 

The wild joy of being nobody

IMG_1905My favourite Arbutus tree was doing her usual backbend into the Colquitz River, her waxy leaves dipping into the brown flow. On my visit yesterday, I leaned into her, as I always do, feeling the cool papery bark under my bare arms and thighs.  It’s dry, high summer, and the river is low and sludgy.  I walk a little way down the path toward the water and crouch in a sunny spot surrounded by white umbrellas of Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the slight breeze. The drone of bees.  As I gaze at the river, a movement on the opposite bank catches my eye. A mother raccoon with four kits emerges from the undergrowth. The kits follow her lead and stand in the shallows, “washing” their paws in the brown liquid. A sound between a cat’s purr and bird-song chirrups from the large female as she guides the kits along the bank, batting one occasionally when it pauses too long in the water. The creatures disappear quickly back into the hedges and I am left watching the treacly river wend its lazy way.

I walk along the trail 20 metres or so and as I come into a clearing, watch a substantial bird—perhaps the size of a big robin—feeding on the ground. Noticing me, he flies rapidly into a tree and I approach softly, cautiously, to get a better look. He looks like a male Northern Flicker, a scarlet slash on his throat. I am so close I can see the handsome beige plumage on his breast, speckled with dark brown, like flax seeds in bread.

Today, during my walk around the horticulture gardens, I rounded a corner and came upon a California quail, several chicks scuttling behind her. I admire their developing “topknots,” still tiny compared to their mother’s larger plume of dark feathers atop her head.  A few minutes later, I happen upon a hare, still as a statue, on the meadow path. I freeze along with him and study his handsome tweed coat, his tall, swanky ears.

When I saw these animals, I was spacious awareness, a nobody. It felt like a gift I’d been given, to quietly witness their everyday existence on the river, in the tree, in the meadow. I started to think about how I’ve been seeing things, observing, letting my “self” recede so I am a container of consciousness, a watcher.  It hasn’t always been so. Reading my old journals as I attempt to write my memoir has made me see a pattern in my life: My yearning to be seen shows up over and over again.  Engulfed by that obsession to be validated, I was often oblivious to seeing what was happening around me.  Analogous to the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy, I had to be seen before I could see.

Why does being seen by another feel so primordial, so necessary, so life giving?  Ralph Ellison, in his masterpiece, Invisible Man, was able to convey that sense of not being seen—of the eyes of the interlocutor passing over you as if glazing off the skin’s surface without taking in the who-ness of the other.   He is invisible to everyone he meets because they see only the stereotype of black man; he is a carapace, a skin without substance. Nobody sees who he really is. That is an awkward identification—who am I to compare myself to the oppressed African American man? But the idea holds. It was about not been recognized, not being looked at deeply with understanding and recognition. About the hungry, emerging identity, looking for a reflection to hook into. Who am I? The other, the mother, does not mirror back who I am—and my own recognition that I might have missed something crucial in childhood: the mixed comfort and power derived from the mother’s mirroring eyes.

When I come across girls in novels and autobiographies who were not seen by their mothers, I realize that I am looking at a kind of fundamental misrecognition. Didn’t John Bowlby—king of attachment theory—tell us that babies need their own reflections gazing back at them from their mothers’ loving eyes to build identity? And doesn’t this ring true in so many ways?

Judith Duerk tells us that the mother is the “first representative of the Self to the infant, [and] constellates in the infant what will become the sense of Self within as the child grows.”  She goes on to paint that image of loving reflection that almost makes me salivate, it sounds so delicious and so unattainable: “As the baby sees itself mirrored in the face of the mother, sees its own image lovingly reflected in the mother’s eyes, a fledgling sense of a true and worthy self is born within the infant. With the birth of that sense of self is born a sense of being seen, recognized, and valued as who one really is” (10).

Kathryn Harrison’s shocking 1997 memoir The Kiss, in which she describes her “love affair” with her father—paints a portrait of the other kind of mother – the opposite to Duerk’s ideal mirroring mother. This mother demands a certain kind of image from the child; rather than reflecting back what is, she reflects back what ought to be. Harrison gets 100% on a French test at age seven: “My mother’s excitement over my perfect score is devastating. She hugs me, she kisses me, she buys me gifts; and even at the age of seven I understand how damning is my success—that my mother’s love for me (like her mother’s for her) depends on my capitulation. She will accept, acknowledge, seeme only in as much as I will make myself the child who pleases her” (20). But the test was won by cheating, and when the child admits this, her infuriated mother drives her to her grandparents’ house and abandons her there. Harrison next comes down with a sudden, mysterious illness. She loses weight and becomes very pale. When she returns to school, everyone says “She’s a different child!” (21). And she is never quite the same; she has learned the lesson so many children of self-absorbed mothers must learn—I am only seen when I conform to what you want to see; I am only loved when I do what you want me to do. Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) explicated this truth in its brutality, from the point of view of the child.

The crux of Harrison’s true tale is that, as a young woman, she is seduced by her father  and engages in a relationship with him over several years. Not being properly seen by her mother embedded a ravenous hunger for recognition deep into the fibers of her being. He told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world, the smartest, the best.  She felt seen. Her hunger was temporarily fed.

I am not suggesting that that hunger to be seen will drive all “invisible” men and women into destructive embraces. But Duerk articulates not being seen as an identity crisis: “Loss of the personal mother may leave the child without sense of self or self-worth, without hope that one will ever be seen as oneself. There is fear of being unable to become one’s true self, of never being truly known – never knowing who one truly is” (10).

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear . . . does it make a sound?  I need you to confirm my existence, or else I am invisible. I am persuaded by Alain de Botton’s description of love as “I”-Confirmation: “Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved” (108).  While Botton was describing this coming alive in the context of romantic love, it goes back, again, to the birthing of consciousness, to the baby’s awareness of the other, to the mother’s mirroring, loving eyes conferring “you-ness,” unique identity, to her child.

My journals record most of a lifetime searching for recognition in the eyes of others. I have prioritized been seen over seeing. But in the last decade or so there has been a shift. I feel seen now.  I feel loved. And this frees me to see the world around me. Daily meditation has trained my mind so the flow of discursiveness is interrupted for longer periods, holding a space for seeing.  Finally, growing older means a gradual receding of the noisy self. The ego occasionally takes a nap. I gain the ability to listen more than talk. I start to treasure invisibility because it allows me to witness the wild animals and to feel the wild joy of being nobody.

IMG_3112

 

References

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss.New York: Basic Books, 1969.

De Botton, Alain. Essays in Love.London: Picador, 1993.

Duerk, Judith. Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself.  San Diego CA: LuraMedia, 1989.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Harris, Kathryn. The Kiss. New York: Random House, 1997.

Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

 

 

 

Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

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

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

IMG_2222IMG_2223IMG_2224IMG_2225IMG_2226IMG_2227IMG_2228IMG_2229IMG_2230IMG_2231IMG_2232IMG_2233IMG_2234Thanks for reading.

More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

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

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

 

The Facelift

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Mother’s Day

A redhead named Janelle
is cleaning my teeth.
I feel the warmth of her
body through a blue glove
as she leans her tiny hand
against my chin to scale

She wields the Cavitron with
what might be called love
sonic pulse of water down
my deep pockets, she takes such
care. I count breaths, my jaw a
canyon for her small fingers

She intuits the tender spots,
knows where to swab
my gums with local,
knows when to suction, when
to spray, gently wipes spit from
my face like a mother cleans her child

She reads my body and
my pain, seeks to comfort me
Unspoken trust is here,
the intimacy of strangers
Yet is she so strange to me?

I’ve heard that Buddhists believe
every being has been our
mother innumerable times.

Suddenly, Janelle seems
beautiful, radiant.
I notice her kind responsive
hands, her bright crooked smile,
the way she studied a dark bloom on
my X-ray and broke
the news in a low solicitous voice

Imagine every person was once your
mother. Let affection blur the
critical gaze, meet every pair
of eyes with tenderness and
compassion

Imagine!

Notes on writing poetry

When my book of poems was published in 2014, I had mixed feelings. I knew they were rushed and rough, many more prosaic than poetic. I adopted the view that the process not the product was most important. I had gotten a surprise contract on the strength of a few poems, and a short deadline. I enjoyed waking up every day for most of that year with the challenge to write a new poem, 80 pages of poems in 8 months. But I knew they weren’t polished; they did not reflect long craftsmanship.

The book got scant attention when it came out. My mother-in-law, then 95 (RIP, Barbara), loved it and told me it was “so clever.” I thought, well I’m happy it pleased her. That’s enough. I have a few fans, mostly family members. There were two reviews. One was mostly positive, the other mostly negative. The negative review included the following: “Its text…makes shameless use of exclamation marks and ellipses—punctuation that I abhor.” Strong words—”shameless” and “abhor,” words that seem more appropriate collocations for rape and genocide than for punctuation. I felt the reviewer had missed the point that free use of “!” was part of the “birth of the uncool,” the shift from cool, critical academic to open, mushy, middle-aged explorer of the self.

The review said lots more, but I’ll stop there. I think I suffered from that review more than I let on. Ouch! It seemed so mean and tight and shaming. Though I actually agreed with many observations the reviewer made about my poems, her tone stung deeply. What I found curious to observe was how reading that review seemed to paralyze me. I didn’t want to write much poetry for almost two years.

I want to reclaim poetry again. It felt (defiantly) good to put that exclamation mark at the end of the poem. As Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.  img_1690.jpg

Thanks for reading, and happy mother’s day to all sentient beings.