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.

 

We are family

By Michael

The forests of northern Ontario are very different from those on the coast—the shapes and the colours of the trees are all intermixed and different—round deciduous balls of olive green, almost fluffy, and dark, perfectly conical fir trees with attractively mangled and misshapen tops poking up above the forest.  The lakes are like mirrors, punctuated by lovely little islands, often with a single cheeky tree stylishly placed at one end.  Group of Seven, I keep thinking—nature imitating art.  Thus the world unfurls as we drive from Sault Ste Marie to Toronto, seven hours, magical and ultimately exhausting.

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Driving into Toronto put me in mind of the vacuum tubes that were once used to transfer rolled-up messages around a huge warehouse. Everything was speeding up, and there were two, then four, then six lanes, filled with vehicles whose drivers switched from lane to lane with a ferocious regularity.  I felt like we were being sucked into the city, but it was oddly exhilarating—my caffeine-fuelled exhaustion somehow making me hyper vigilant. Soon I was switching lanes, eagerly agreeing with and following our GPS’s changing instructions.  “Save 7 minutes using alternate route—ok?” It was great fun until everything slowed down and the potholes multiplied, jarring me (and keeping me awake).

We were staying at Madeline’s mother and stepfather’s house in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto, and the garage we were to park in was tiny, and already filled with her stepfather’s large SUV.  It took three of us directing, worrying, and tucking side mirrors in to get our little red hatchback safely inside, at which point we decided it was Uber or public transit for the duration.

So for the next three days we stayed with Madeline’s dad in Etobicoke during the day, and had evenings with her stepfather, alternating between the two locations via Uber.

Madeline’s father lives in a condominium on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Mimico neighbourhood, and the whole area feels very spacious—there are people around, but nothing resembling a crowd.  He is 92 and while he uses a walker, he loves to go outside frequently.  While he moves slowly, he has a gritty determination and the heart of a hero. Their building is huge—the walk from the elevator to the cavernous lobby is the length of a football field, so often a rest break is needed between the journeys from elevator to lobby and from lobby to lake shore.

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The Annex is jammed with people, and the sidewalks along Bloor are being fenced off and torn up due to major construction.  Going walking was a process of navigating between the bodies, turning this way, then that, watching to make sure you don’t get run over by a frustrated driver, and swimming through a cacophony of horns as the cars jockeyed for position and tried desperately to beat the yellow light.

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These are the two cities we visited during our four nights in Toronto, and how different they were!  Etobicoke was slow, measured and meditative.  It was at first frustrating, but soon nourishing to slow down and experience time with this aging but determined man.  Once as we sat in the courtyard, he pointed out a beautiful butterfly sitting on the ground, and I thought what a gift it is to slow down and notice, and how he was helping me to do that. Toronto was hot, urgent, frenetic.  Madeline’s stepfather is a youthful 80, so we walked for blocks, talking about restaurants, politics, travel and remembering Madeline’s mom who passed away on Valentine’s day this year. It was busy, stressful, and at times over stimulating.

I am a west coast boy, and I have never really enjoyed Toronto.  My experience this visit was very different.  The evenings were warm and pleasantly humid, perfect for walking around and exploring. The old houses are grand, red brick singing against the green of the surrounding foliage.  One night we walked to a local high school where a beautiful all-weather track has been built. Runners and walkers were enjoying the warm summer evening, and after marvelling at the luminous sky, we walked a couple of circuits of the track.  I even ran for a hundred yards or so, grateful to be free of the darned driver’s seat for an extended period. One morning we found a combination coffee shop and cannabis dispensary.  On the main floor, a conventional coffee barista station, and a stairway leading up to the dispensary on the second floor. The coffee was extremely good, and it may have been my imagination but the atmosphere seemed a lot more chill than in most coffee places I have frequented.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. While the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit we went to see was wonderful, I came away touched by two other elements. Brian Jungen is an indigenous artist from B.C. who uses commercial products such as leather sofas, Nike running shoes and baseball gloves to construct a giant tipi, a cigar store Indian, and traditional indigenous headdresses. Daphne Odjig’s painting, Family, reminded me of the purpose of our visit.

We are now heading home, driving, listening to Stuart Mclean’s wonderful stories, alternately laughing and crying as he describes the memories that make up a life and the kindnesses that human beings show each other when we live from our hearts.  It strikes me that for me this trip is all about family.  First there is the privilege of spending time with parents and loved ones and realizing how precious and fleeting this time can be. Secondly there is the realization that all of us who live in Canada are family, and that my job is to open my eyes, my ears, my heart to all of my family members, and to try to recognize the blind spots that my privilege creates.

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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

 

 

We have to be honest with ourselves

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

 

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

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

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Hiding my mistakes in plain sight

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

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

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

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

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We have to be honest with ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I am the sow

 

 

 

Here’s to the ripe berry and the rat-grey fungus

Late August, and I feel a sense of impermanence. As my 60thbirthday nears, this sense becomes more sharp, an aching joy to be alive as I and everything around me changes, transforms, slips away. Riding my bicycle along Lochside Trail to work I note the rusty tinge of autumn on the leaves and grasses and the mist hovering over Swan Lake in the mornings. Sweet fruity smell of ripe blackberries blows at me in waves, and I stop sometimes to pick a few. Many fall to the ground, uneaten, wasted.  Seamus Heaney wrote about picking blackberries as a child, the hunger for these ripe jewels:

“You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. . . .”

 

But then, that lust turns to disappointment:

 

“We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,

A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.

The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

These last few weeks I feel the passing of time, nothing is fixed or stable, nothing keeps. At the University where I work, I sat at a table in the Student Union Building, slowly sipping my coffee, and a man, his white hair tied back in a scraggly ponytail, approached. He was looking at the bulletin board beside me.  His eyes homed in on a notice for a missing person—Gladys Barman, in her 80s, had disappeared some weeks before. The photo showed a healthy-looking old woman with short white hair and glasses, her clear face smiling broadly. The man reached out and carefully removed the notice, pulling out each pushpin and folding the paper, placing it gently in his pocket.  Just a couple of days before, the remains of a body, not yet identified, but suspected to be Barman, had been found 11 km. from her car.  Although his eyes never contacted mine, I felt I shared something with him when he removed the copy of her joyful face from the board: someone you love is no longer in the world.

And then there was the yard sale. I was riding my bike to Fabricland, and what should I happen upon—but a huge fabric sale laid out in the front yard of a house in the neighbourhood. What synchronicity! Six long tables spilled over with fabric. Several women bustled around, tidying stacks of cotton and flannel.  Plastic bins overflowed with scraps, a pile of unfinished quilting projects towered, bags of quilt batting were tucked under the long tables. Signs everywhere: “$5 a metre – no cutting – fill a bag of scraps for $5.” A gaunt woman in a wheelchair was parked in the middle of it all, directing the bustling women: “I don’t want a scrap of fabric coming back into the house!” Behind her, a run-down rancher mirrored her looks, bedraggled and tired, its shrouded windows like sad, downcast eyes. I took advantage of the “bag of scraps” offer, grazing over the bits of colourful cottons, listening to the talk swirling around me.  These plump bustling women were her sisters; she had had heart trouble, could no longer sew, and was confined to the wheelchair. As I examined a half-finished Hallowe’en quilt, dug into mounds of coloured scraps, looking for treasures, I thought of all the hope embedded here, sewn into every seam, every purchase. She thought she had ample time—all the time in the world—to finish all of these projects and more.  But all we have is  borrowed time.

Knowing my time here is only borrowed wakes me up. Yeats’s poem, “Vacillation,” contains a stanza that has been my favourite for the last 15 years because it celebrates the simple bliss of reaching middle age, of just being here:

“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

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Like Yeats, I have sat in a café, nursing a coffee, reading a book. I, too, have looked up at the world and felt the searing joy of being present, alive, blessed, even capable of blessing.

The disappointment comes in believing any of it will last—the freshness of the berry, my health, energy to sew or write, my memory, my ability to read, to walk briskly, to get to Gorgeous Coffee on my own—all of it will go. Unless, of course, I go first. So here’s to now. here’s to impermanence.  Here’s to the ripe berry and to the rat-grey fungus. Here’s to aging and to great happiness. Here’s to the bitter and to the sweet.

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50981/blackberry-picking

http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/yeatspoems/Vacillation

 

 

 

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.

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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.