You can’t eat your cake and keep it too

Sometimes I get a couple of  hours, sometimes a whole morning when luminous joy bubbles into life, oxygenating a flat week.  Savour the perfection—then *pop* it’s gone. Lately, when I experience these rapturous periods, I am intensely aware of time fleeting, of the unreliability of “happiness,” of my inability to “keep” the moments, of my impotence in the face of life.

September 28 is a good day for birthdays. Two of my friends and our puppy were born on that day. Leading up to Tuesday, I was thinking about cake, how I love making, giving, and eating cake for birthdays and other occasions. But there is always the problem of excess. Do other cake bakers and eaters have the same problem? If there’s a big (9-inch) cake in the house—do you eat a slice every day for a week and gain five pounds? Or do you obsess over it, polishing it off in two or three days and feel sick? Or does it go into the compost because you can’t eat it all? Whichever scenario fits, the solution is the same: bake a small cake. Because small is practical and beautiful.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I headed to a kitchenware store, and I bought two sturdy 4.5-inch springform pans. I found a good recipe for carrot cake in Canada’s Favourite Recipes by Murray & Baird and halved the recipe. I wasn’t sure what it would yield; it turned out the batter filled the two small cake pans and three cupcake liners. 

I sliced the two cakes horizontally to fill them, then frosted both cakes and cupcakes with maple butter frosting. I put the better-looking cake and the cupcakes aside for my friends, and Michael and I “tested” the other cake, eating one slice each for three nights. I know, I should have given both cakes as gifts, but I had to test cake production. Six tiny, perfect slices of carrot cake, sweet and moist. Who needs more than a few bites of something delicious? 

Then I assembled the birthday packages. I save good boxes, so I had two shoe boxes at hand made of strong cardboard. I lined each with purple tissue paper, then went out to the garden to pick posies. Fragrant thyme, rosemary, and lavender mixed with pink, red, and purple blooms, tied with a ribbon. I put the cupcakes in a plastic container and the cake on a round of cardboard cut from an old box and covered with foil. Cakes nestled in their boxes, I added the bouquets, a small box of Eddy matches, a candle on the cake, and loose candles for the cupcakes. I closed the lids, then taped birthday cards on the box tops. 

On Tuesday morning, we fussed over birthday puppy Marvin with a new toy and some treats. Then, enjoying one of the perks of self-employment, I took off for an hour. After placing the birthday boxes in the front seat of the car, I drove along Craigflower to Vic West, listening to NPR’s jazz and blues station, window open to the breeze. The splendid fall day sparkled. Coppery leaves fell slowly from the trees, and the clear, cool, blue sky made me feel lighthearted. I parked and walked box #1 up to my friend’s townhouse door and placed it there. Then Google maps told me my other friend lived only 150 meters away. I knew they shared a neighbourhood, but I had no idea they were so close.

So rather than drive, I walked the other box through a children’s playground to my friend’s house, feeling so happy I could burst. And yet, the day before I was swimming in sadness about every little thing. I placed box #2 on the doorstep and walked back to my car, humming a song, alive to the crackling beauty of early autumn, favourite season. 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d been thinking about that proverb and how it didn’t make any sense. Turns out Ursula Le Guin agrees with me. In 2010, 81-year-old Le Guin (1929–2018) started a blog and wrote delightful posts for seven years. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the collected blogposts as No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017), which I recently finished. Many of the posts are about her cat, Pard, good reading for cat lovers: 

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/blog.

One thing that mattered to Le Guin was figuring out weird language puzzles, including the annoying cake proverb. Of course if you have a cake you’re going to eat it! Le Guin wonders in her post about the logic of this proverb, but then it dawns on her that the verb “to have” has several meanings—a less common one is “to keep.” The order of the proverb also seems awry, so, she revises it, reversing the order and using “keep” instead of “have.” And suddenly it makes sense:

You can’t eat your cake and keep it too. You can’t have it both ways—eating and keeping.

When I got thank-you texts and emails later in the day from my friends, one of them ended her message saying she hoped we could get together more often in the coming year. I had acknowledged in my card that we had hardly seen each other lately, what with the pandemic and both of us being introverts. Her final line was, “nothing is forever.” I paused. Of course.

I can’t count on that fickle flicker that moves me to make cakes, write, sew, create. It comes, it goes, I can’t keep it, I can’t summon it. The work wants to be made, and the work—not you—chooses when and how. As I head for 63, I am keenly aware of energy slowly flagging, of a narrowing in my interests and available time, of the limits to life. All the more reason to relish eating the cake when it appears on a plate in front of you. Don’t even try to keep it.

Grief’s flat feet

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

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

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

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

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mama and me, back in the day.

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

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

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

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

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

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

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

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

My last phone call with my father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father

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

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

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

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

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

The woods in here
are dark and deep

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

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

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

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

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


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. 

Shake your wet weathers in the warm wind

Bouts of anxiety come and go these days: chest tightens, stomach burns, heart flutters. Tears come at any time, unbidden. My hands and face feel raw. My heart even more so. I  am finding comfort in small things. When I saw #StayHomeWriMo’s mental health prompt, “starting re-reading one of your favourite kids’ books,” I took Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie off the shelf, the first two books of a series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood, specifically pioneer and settler life in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa in the late 1800s. I have the first four books, and I’ve kept them since childhood, moving them from house to house dozens of times. Faded covers, deckled edge pages, and canary yellow flyleaves. Garth Williams’s droll pen and ink illustrations make the stories and the characters come alive. Rereading them more than fifty years later, they produce the same warm feelings of comfort and safety they did back then.

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 12.56.29 PM

As I snuggle in bed, I enter a fictional world governed by capable, predictable adults. Wolves howl outside, bears roam the woods, storms erupt and cold winds thrash against the house, malaria descends upon the family, and Indians living down in the creek beds want to kill and scalp all white people. Yet Ma and Pa are there, keeping Laura, Mary, and baby Carrie safe.

Nestling into words and images describing snug, clean, safe indoor environments, I enter the log house in the big Wisconsin woods (Book 1). In the deep of winter, fire shines on the hearth, bulldog Jack and Black Susan the cat stretch out on the warm wood floor. Comfy in her red flannel nightgown, tucked into the trundle bed she shares with her sister, Laura “looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown  fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’”

IMG_0738

Like a swarm of bees, I can feel the critical arguments seething through my mind as I continue reading: I am trained to call out patriarchal culture, gender construction, racism, oppression, and colonialism, and it’s all there in these books. But I switch off those arguments, sinking into our collective unconscious where an archetypal protector tucks us into cozy trundle beds, watching over us, every one, during this difficult time.

I remembered my 60th birthday party, a year and a half ago. Despite drawing a tarot card that spelled disaster, I experienced the snug feeling of being safe, loved, and watched over. Those were happier times when we were able to gather—when physical distancing was unthinkable.  I invited a friend to the party who reads the tarot, specifically the Motherpeace deck. Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble created Motherpeace tarot in the late 1970s in Berkeley, California, where they worked together as academics, feminists, and sacred healers. This big round deck draws on ancient Goddess wisdom, the occult, magic, myth, and feminine energies. Although when I first saw the deck, I felt disappointed by what I perceived to be crude artwork, I became more and more interested in how these two women had translated the 78 cards from more traditional decks into sacred feminine images.

At my party, I felt honoured by Pamela’s willingness to read for my friends, and one by one, I asked people if they would like a reading. Several of my women friends did, and so by turns, they sat in my low bamboo writing chair that I had dragged into the living room from my sewing room. Pamela, having spread her blue velvet cloth over a low footstool, handed each querent the deck to shuffle. It takes a bit of time to get used to working those big circular cards into a shuffling sequence, and I noticed each of my friends handled the task slightly differently. Pamela asked each woman for her question: What do you want to know? Not a yes/no binary question, but a how or why or what question. Next, Pamela asked them to cut the cards three times, choose three cards, and lay them down. The three-card sequence represents the past, present, and future.

Sometimes, through the buzz of conversations, soft lamplight, music, balanced plates of food, and milling bodies, I glanced at the rapt look on the querent’s face as Pamela leaned in toward her, long blonde hair falling around her beautiful serious face. Sometimes I heard laughter from that corner. And I kept getting little warm flutters in my heart—thinking of how happy it made me for each of my female friends to have this loving attention paid to her for a few moments. To consider her life as this rich, mysterious path. To feel the soundings of old wisdom, submerged, but like a vein of molten lava, spreading warmth and understanding into her body, from the seat of her pants into her torso. But of course these are my feelings about tarot—not theirs. Yet it made me happy. It was as much a gift to me as a gift to each of them.

It was enough for me to know the gift Pamela had given my friends, but then, as I stood in the doorway saying good-bye to a guest, she patted the pillow on the wicker chair. “Your turn.” I sat down, and when she asked me for my question, it came without hesitation, from where, I don’t know: “How do I connect with my power?” The first card, my past, I didn’t take too seriously—six of cups with three women in the water and three riding a wave of orgasm. Perhaps it signified all of the good love I had been experiencing since I met Michael. Perhaps I had started to take it for granted, this bath of love I swim in.

six of cups

But the present card was the Tower, a powerful card of transformation. “This is the card of big change,” said Pamela. “The card that signals big change in a person’s life, like when your husband leaves you—not like this is actually going to happen,” she laughed. And we both looked across the room and smiled at Michael, who was oblivious to our reading, deep in conversation with one of my sons. “I’ve been getting messages that I need to surrender to something,” I hold her. “Well now you have no choice. It could just be turning 60, the big change.”

tower motherpeaceAt the time, I thought the big change the Tower signified was the crumbling of ego. I was being called to surrender to the slow incremental losses of old age. But the Tower signifies sudden change, and today I believe it foretold the capital c Change the pandemic has brought: change that shakes the very foundations of our lives, change that brings our beliefs and systems under scrutiny and asks us what is most important in life.

My future card, the ace of wands, depicts a small brown body breaking free from a blue eggshell, surrounded by flames. Rebirth, creativity, and victory follow sudden loss. All of my life, I have swum against the river trying to locate firm ground. But wait a second, could surrendering to the flow, to the changes, be a way of accessing my power—connecting with it? Letting go, like surrendering to the body’s irresistable contractions during birth, could be the opening to rapture. Ego dissolves into the deep thrum, the slow heartbeat of the Earth that we finally hear when our struggles to get ahead, to get somewhere cease. All my fighting is just thrashing around on the water. Let go and get swept into the current. That seems about right.

ace of wands motherpeace

Later that evening, we lit sparklers and ate a cake, resplendent with glossy chocolate ganache and “Happy Birthday Madeline” in piped white sugar lettering. People hung around for a while, then started to leave—much hugging and laughing in the small entranceway. In the now quiet house, Michael and I cleaned the kitchen and put away the leftovers. Something about hearing the dishwasher clicking into its cycle, wiping down the counters, folding damp dishtowels over the oven door, turning off the porch light, rearranging the chairs felt so simple, safe, and sweet. I had a memory of early childhood, when my father used to go around the house and secure everything. Lights off, things put away, daughters in bed, kissed goodnight. Only the whistle of the radiators and murmur of mother and father talking in their bedroom. Nobody, nothing can hurt me now. Did this ever really happen? I don’t know, but the sensation of being safe and warm was real, just as these last few nights I’ve channelled Laura in bed in the little house in the Big Woods to help calm my anxiety.

Version 2

As I lay in bed that night beside my husband, I felt safe, warm, and contented. Now that I had been given permission by the Tower, I could let go. Everything was coming apart anyway, we were all falling, so I didn’t need to hang on so fiercely after all. I fell asleep and dreamt of blue bits of eggshell scattered over the ground, the detritus from rebirth. They crunched under my bare feet as I shook my wet feathers in the warm wind.

The meaning of that dream feels clearer now, many months later. Now that the big Change is here, we get to choose our rebirth. I like to think of all of us as little birds shaking our wet feathers in the warm wind, bits of shell still clinging. We will fly again.

 

Resources for anxiety

https://bouncebackbc.ca/what-is-bounceback/

https://www.anxietycanada.com/

Resources for writers

NaNoWriMo https://nanowrimo.org/ Sign up with the organization that puts on National Novel Writing Month (November) to get their Covid 19 prompts

How to write when life is sad and wretched: https://discover.submittable.com/blog/how-to-write-when-life-is-sad-and-wretched/

Helen Sword (there is a free online writing retreat coming up later this month): https://www.helensword.com/

 

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Pause for poetry

Last week I finished my Four Seasons quilt and turned back to the project I had left half done: the eight worldly winds pennants. I had completed four (gain, loss, fame, and disrepute) and so started on Thursday to work on happiness: a small dime store deer standing on a woodsy platform amidst butterflies and a tree. And then at the happiest moment, sewing red curlicues around the happiness label, my machine stopped working. The bobbin started to jam. I cleaned and rethreaded the machine many times, patiently, methodically, but it kept jamming. Way overdue for a tune-up, I thought, so I packed it up and took it to Sawyer’s Sewing Centre. The chatty woman at the counter (who, we discovered during our lively exchange, lives right around the corner from me) said it would likely be two weeks before my machine was ready.

Without my sewing machine, what will I do? Sit around worrying about Covid 19 and the economic and climate crises?

Then, like a soaring bird, poetry ascended, landing in the space that sewing had occupied.

Yesterday I sat Sunday Morning Meditation at our Shambhala Centre for a while, then took off to walk around Fernwood. I headed down Belmont, straight for the Poetree to see what was new.  Some kind, creative person nailed a box to a tall tree right next to the sidewalk and posts poems there for passing people to enjoy.

IMG_0631I stood before the tree in the fragile March sun, reading e.e. cummings’s [love is more thicker than forget].  When I read e.e. cummings or Dylan Thomas, and sometimes T.S. Eliot, my mind tells me I don’t understand, and yet deep in my toes, my heart, my fingertips, my tongue, my soft palate, I get it. I sense the truth of it. I hear the rightness of it. cummings knew that love is certainly mad and moonly, yet at other times sane and sunly. Contradictory, puzzling, complex, maddening, glorious, fleeting, perseverant, inexplicable: love is all of that and more. The double negatives and oppositions in the poem read like wise nonsense spouted by a savant.

This morning, I was preparing a bag of tricks to visit a girl I play with sometimes. Today, I thought to myself, I will take supplies to make paper dolls and some books to read. I have saved a few books from my own childhood, and one of them is We like Bugs, a simple sweet primer wherein two children describe all of the bugs they encounter. Before slipping the old book into my bag, I flipped it open and found an inscription from my adopted grandmother, Phyllis Davidson, who had given me the book when I was five. The poem was a haiku involving a beetle and Michelle, our black female cat. Unearthing this treasure, so long hidden, made me feel happy, a little communion with my long-dead Grandma. Phyllis was a true cat-lover. After we moved to Toronto, she would send multi-page typed letters to us describing the antics of her many cats. Here, she seizes on Michelle’s alertness to sound and movement. Haven’t we all seen a cat’s attention glued forensically to an empty spot, as if ghost-watching? And then you realize a microscopic bug is passing there.

Grandma’s haiku reminded me of the hundreds of short poems Michael and I have written to each other over the years on our little kitchen whiteboard. Transitory as the clouds, the words are there today, gone tomorrow, arising imperfectly from our foggy minds as the coffee grinder buzzes in the early morning kitchen. It all started with Robin Skelton’s book, Islands, that we bought—I think—at a yard sale (Ekstasis Editions, 1993). The water-warped paperback lives in our kitchen drawer, handy for reference. The book’s subtitle is “poems in the traditional forms and metres of Japan,” and in his introduction, Skelton does a brilliant summary of many of those forms, including Sedoka, Dodoitsu, Choka, Mondo, and Somonka. Then in the body of the book, he richly demonstrates  his mastery of these forms, for example, this sharply humorous Dodoitsu (one stanza poem of 7-7-7-5 syllables) that describes a situation familiar to many of us over 60:

islandsIn Age

In age we find memory,
a sly old friend, removing
his coat, accepting a chair,
and lying, lying.

(p. 58)

 

 

IMG_0701Although most of our poems have disappeared under the quick daily rub of a tea towel, Michael snapped photos of a few of his over the years. He prefers the Choka, a form that Skelton describes as “a poem of any length” that “alternates a five syllable with a seven syllable line and concludes with an additional seven syllable line” (p. 10)­­. This one takes me back to the days when we both worked M-F, 9-5 and all week we ripened for the week-end and its leisurely joys.

Here’s to poetry of all kinds–I love the flawed, fresh jewels in the light; the old burnished friends; the wounded lines so raw and open; also those dense verses like green kernels, hard to crack. When I read a poem–sudden lift of my heart, dark sadness in my inner thighs, tingle in my ears. The way it makes me feel. The sweet heft of writing poetry, the tart cherry scour of sharp words, the high loft of vocabulary, precise yet untethered, vulnerable yet powerful. Poetry is for everybody. Write something now!

 

 

 

Enough

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?” Emily Dickinson

When I bought a birdhouse from our neighbour Bryan, a retired engineer who makes and sells them, I knew that attaching it to our shed might be distracting. I guess part of me wanted to be distracted by movement, by life. The wooden shed in our backyard that we use for storage is right in my sightline when Michael and I meditate each morning. If I sit facing west I can see the branches of the tall conifers dancing in the wind, the burnt orange of the dying cedar hedge, and the shed with its mossy roof where squirrels scramble to and fro. I can see the marvelous sky beyond, lately grey but today pearly with a swath of violet in the far distance and blue beyond that.

Bryan said the small house was perfect for chickadees, and since we mounted it above the door of the shed about a month ago, I have been waiting. Then today, about 15 minutes into our 30 minute sit, movement pulled my eyes. Two birds had landed, one on the roof of the birdhouse and one on the tiny bamboo twig Bryan had so carefully attached in front of the circular entrance. My heart leapt in joy! The birds were curious. Perhaps they were a couple, looking for a good spot to nest. One peeped into the hole and then examined the sides of the house. The first bird hopped away and the second one hopped down to the twig and made the same examination. Alas, they weren’t interested in the real estate, and my heart sank in disappointment as they flitted off. Note to self—look at my bird book for a picture of a chickadee and make sure those guys were chickadees. Perhaps they were another variety of bird (how can I have gotten to be my age and know so little about birds?) too big to fit through that little hole….

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“Madeline! you are supposed to be meditating!” and I was back to Shamatha, one-pointed meditation, this time with my gaze brought close, fixed on the orange and purple cloth spread across the shrine. Breathe in and breathe out.

I see advertisements for all kinds of events happening around town, but we go to only a few of them. I have some friends, and there are so many people I know, yet days go by when I see nobody but Michael. However, I don’t feel the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) that you hear about. No, I feel dreamily satisfied most days to walk and talk with my husband, marvel at the hummingbirds that visit the front feeder, look at the buds that are already showing up on so many of the trees and bushes after the long rains. The pussy willows appeared suddenly on our neighbour’s willow—a sweet indicator that spring is close.  My neighbour Don has told me February after February to help myself, take some cuttings of the furry silver catkins that stud the elegant stalks like tiny gifts. And each year, I have said “oh thank you, I will,” but I don’t because I am working and by the time I get home in the evenings it’s dark and I’m tired and week-ends go by in a crush of chores and exhaustion and I can’t imagine getting out the long cutters and the ladder.

But this year, I am not working. This, I think, is like living in a beautiful dream, to sleep until I wake up, to tune into the rhythms of my body and the dark winter earth. To have time to look at the birds and cut the pussy willows for our table. To write and to sew and pore over recipe books. To spend so much time in my room, surrounded by fabric scraps, my son’s paintings, Captain Happy the pink monkey, books and arts supplies. To choose to write for a while, make coffee, then work on a scrappy quilt—enjoying laying out colours and patterns next to each other—then to take a walk through the woods to the mall to renew my annual membership to Fabricland.  To have time to read long books—currently Mervyn Bragg’s Cumbrian trilogy—to caress the cat, to sit and do nothing.

And then a thread of anxiety starts to weave itself into my consciousness. What have I accomplished?  What do I have to show for all these months? Really? I have twelve months off work with all of this free time and all I’ve done is sewn some little scraps together? Really?

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It’s interesting how relentlessly the old tapes about achievement and success play in my mind. The endless loop of “not good enough” fades into the background for long periods now, but then when I get too comfortable with myself, just being a nobody, just being, just content, well then the hiss of angry snakes intensifies: “You should be making something substantial, something meaningful, something important—write a novel or do some important research or get GOOD at something, take a class, or do some volunteer work and if you’re not going to do any of that get back to employment, make some money, be useful, stop being lazy. You are turning into a nobody—you need to fight, be somebody, resist the fade into nothingness, get out there and push yourself or you’ll shrivel up and disappear.”

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Not Good Enough

I tune out the irritating hiss and start to spread the colours for the next series of two inch fabric squares on my cutting mat. The snakes start to recede, to slither off to their lair. I look out the window above my work table at the morning sun glinting over the fresh green of February lawns, the long shadows thrown by the boulders in our front yard, the iridescent puddles from last night’s rain.  And I glance at Captain Happy, pinkly presiding over the room that I inhabit so joyfully. Remember, all of this is impermanent. So I will rest in this great pleasure while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Open channel to the soul: A year of creative expression

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

Holding space

My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

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

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

How To Love Things Into Being

Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

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

Sewing

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

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

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

 

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

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And more

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

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

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Hear my whispers

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near

excerpted from Nikki Giovanni’s “Quilts”

I wish I knew more about the dresses that were cut up and sewn into still-bright stars and pleated petals that make up the quilt on our bed. I can imagine young girls in the 1970s in their cotton frocks, blue and brown paisley, flowered yellow and orange peplum, pretty prints swinging from slender waists. Probably those dresses were home-made to begin with, with smocked bodices and full skirts. Or perhaps they were simple jumpers. I wish I knew. Once a dress had been handed down a few times from sister to cousin, and the littlest girl in the family outgrew it, the dress was cut into pieces for a quilt.

But it’s too late now to hear more stories because Frankie (Frances), the quilter, died last month at 90.  She was Michael’s sister-in-law, and when we visited her two months before her death, she gave us the quilt she sewed with her grandmother-in-law, Michael’s Grandma, whom everyone called Granny Dobie. Frankie described how Granny had travelled from her farm near Mission B.C. to Prince George with the unfinished quilt and a quilting frame that she set up in the living room. Granny then patiently instructed her granddaughter-in-law how to hand quilt so they could finish the quilt that would cover Frankie and Mac’s marriage bed.

When I lie under the quilt every night, I like to examine the stiches and think of the four hands that made them. In my mind, I see the two women—one young, one old—sitting together in companionable silence over the frame, stitching small, even dashes in white thread, tracking every seam, curved and straight, and securing the three layers of the quilt together.

We were so touched when Frankie wanted us to have the quilt—perhaps it was because she and I talked sewing when we visited, and she knew we’d both appreciate the work that went into it. When she gave us the quilt in September, she told us that Granny had used old dresses to sew all the stars and petals into blocks, placing yellows and oranges against their blue complements. I am no pink fan, so I wasn’t sure about the quilt at first, but now I treasure it. This old quilt will always remind me of vivacious, elegant Frankie.

 

Version 2For Frankie

Slender and strong as bamboo,
Frankie was fierce with reality.
She wore lipstick even on bad days,
or perhaps especially on bad days.
As she spoke in smart, tart
soprano, her long graceful hands wove the air.

Those hands
were hands that sewed and weaved,
that worked and loved,
a life time.

Sticky and Sponty

By Madeline and Michael

Madeline: We could be driving anywhere—in a way, it doesn’t matter because it is all about the internal journey. One of the things we’ve been balancing and talking about is spontaneity and discipline or restraint (near antonyms of spontaneity).  Michael calls the force opposing spontaneity (and one he associates with his own character) as “stick in the mudness,” though I don’t see him this way at all. He has a tonne of carefree magic in his soul balanced by “Great East Discipline” (one of his Buddhist names, which is very fitting).

We have tried to balance these two energies between us on this trip while we balance them in ourselves.  Perhaps Michael has more discipline than I, and he has taught me that we need to spend the longer days in the car to cover the kilometres (Canada is enormous).  Perhaps I have more appetite for being impulsive (“let’s stop at this lake and swim!”), but we need both of these energies to make the trip go. If Sponty runs the show, we follow every whim, popping into thrift stores and following hiking trails for an elusive kingfisher, and we never actually get to Toronto. If Sticky runs the show, we get there in record time, but exhausted, never loosening up and letting bursts of impulse reveal the magic in the everyday.

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We have had some longer days, like July 16. We left the Soo at 8:20 a.m. and arrived in Kenora at 5:20 (well, 6:20, but we slipped into the Central Time Zone at some point). Pacing ourselves with frequent breaks and seat switches, we made it to Kenora feeling pretty good.

The long day (Soo to Kenora) made Winnipeg on July 17thpossible! Thunderstorms were predicted, so rather than camping (which we still haven’t gotten around to), we decided to do a short day, arriving in Winnipeg in the early afternoon and exploring.  What treasures we beheld…

We wandered into Á la Page, a comfortable, homey business selling second-hand books at 200 Provencher Blvd. in St. Boniface, and found that all books were 50% off!  The green corduroy couch near the front of the store beckoned—so comfy. I sat down and started paging through a book on intuitive healing while Michael looked at a book of Buddhist art. The catalogue had a definite leaning toward the metaphysical, and more than half the titles are in French.  I asked the young man at the cash desk if the place was going out of business because the half-price sale seemed to me a sign. “Not yet,” he laughed. We chatted about how you have to be passionate about books to run an independent bookstore. I feel recommitted to supporting Victoria’s independent bookstores.

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I loved St. Boniface not only for its charm and beauty, but also because I felt so comfortable speaking Anglais, whereas in Québec not so much. I had a thought I’d love to spend a summer in St. Boniface learning French and getting to know the neighbourhoods.

In the evening, we discovered a textile show by three Franco-Manitoban (is this a proper descriptor?) women—what a find! I fell in love with Rosemarie Péloquin’s felt faces and heads that depict old age in a truthful and tender way.

On our Winnipeg afternoon, we wandered. We embraced what we came upon in our wanderings.  Discipline builds the dance floor for the jazz-dance of spontaneity.

Michael: One of the things I am learning on this trip is that Sponty helps me to open to the world with a child’s heart, and when I do that I find unforeseen jewels, such as Medicine Hat which I wrote about in an earlier post. Today I am reflecting on the magic of Manitoba.

Waking up in our little Jackfish Cabin and seeing a weather forecast of thunder storms, we decide to drive to Winnipeg, enjoy a shorter day, and see what we might find.  What follows is completely magical.

We meet Barry S. Shore, owner and proprietor of Fat Cat Records.  As Barry said, he “used to shoot for Warner Brothers”, and his walls were adorned with black and white photos of rock stars, clearly shot from the close to the action vantage point of a press photog— exquisitely, dramatically, and lovingly framed, faces wearing many masks: passion, sadness, feral snarls. Fat Cat specializes in West Coast Blues, which Barry explains to us is a sub genre of the blues with elements of jazz and bop built in.  He has only been open three weeks, but this is his third record store, and this way he only has to sell the stuff he likes.  He says the store gives him something to do  in his retirement—hmmm, is there a theme here? We buy a music-themed print, a Fat Cat Records tee shirt and a Lynwood Slim CD.  I am often struck by synchronicity, and as we leave it strikes me that we’ve been listening to Stuart McLean’s stories about Dave, owner of the Vinyl Café, Canada’s smallest record store. Wow, I think, we just met an aging Dave and visited the Vinyl Café!

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Winnipeg Fringe is on, and after attending a stand up performance in St Boniface, we venture out for a walk on the boulevard. I wear hearing aids, and at times the internal combustion engine is the plague of my existence–cars without mufflers and motorcycles assault my senses in the most shocking and violent way.  Today is one of those days, so I want, need respite. Across the street we see green grass beside railroad tracks and walk towards it, expecting tracks, grass, little more.

Instead we find a path that leads to a footbridge over the Assiniboine River, and a forested glen with a winding path.  The reflections of the forest in the river, the sweetness of birdsong, Madeline’s hand in mine and our shared silence are entrancing and nourishing in a way that I really need.  Another unexpected jewel.

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As we return across the bridge, we find remnants of paper fastened to the bridge deck, printed but no longer legible.  A placard explains that this is an art installation, Pages and Passages by Eric Plamondon. The pages are pulled from the stories of 30 Manitobans-poems by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, but also more modern folk. Each pedestrian and cyclist can read the stories, but their passing obscures them a little more each day, thus with the passage of time we affect each other’s stories.

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I have been thinking a lot about privilege on this trip, about how my privilege manifests in blind spots, which by definition I can’t see. This is another jewel-an opportunity to see how in just living my life, in just passing through, I affect the stories of others.  I return to the road with a deep sense of gratitude and magic.