Not getting there

What I wanted
was the walking, not the walking-to but
the not-getting-there, the every moment
starting out, the every moment
being lifted in an arc against the moment of arrival: the anticipation
is terrific, yet always nothing
happens when I’m there

From Cashion Bridge by Jan Zwicky

Last week I set myself a task—to write six “columns” over six weeks, each prompted by a line or lines from a poem I picked at random from a book of poems I picked at random from our bookshelves . . . .

It sounded so fun and inspirational at the time.

All week I struggled with you might call writer’s block, though the term seems inaccurate. It was more like writer’s doubt. I doubted everything I wrote and thought. First, I worried I might misrepresent the lines from Zwicky’s brilliant poem, even though I told myself the line I chose (“What I wanted/was the walking, not the walking-to but/ the not-getting-there”) was merely a diving board into other waters, my own waters.  Then I worried about the substance of what I was writing—it seemed superficial. An old question that regularly haunts me returned, “why does it even matter?”

I also had second thoughts about the idea of a column. What is a “column” anyway? How could I differentiate my regular personal essay blogposts from a series of columns? It turns out I couldn’t really find a distinction, so I wondered at my original purpose.  Perhaps I just wanted the discipline of writing a post a week for six weeks, and the poem prompts were a fun and beautiful way to provide a way to get going.  Well that just started to freak me out: How could I sustain this weekly posting? I am used to posting every once in a while, when the spirit moves me.

Michael’s meditation teacher has told him over and over again, “Don’t make a project out of it.” It can be anything—watching a TV series, taking up a cause, daily meditation, making art. Don’t make a project out of it.  And I was making a project out of the columns. I even called it “The Six Column Project.” When I make a project out something, it becomes difficult. It’s not fun anymore because it’s loaded with expectations and hidden pressures. Ultimately undoable.  As soon as I release the idea of a “project” and the timeline (why produce a post weekly when I am not actually a weekly columnist?), I am released into to the creative ether. I grow wings. So I will continue to write blogposts, probably not weekly, but when the spirit moves me. And I like the idea of using those lines from random poems as prompts—I may continue with that for awhile.

In the meantime, I squeezed out a couple of paragraphs this week inspired by Zwicky’s “not-getting-there.”

Walking meditation is all about not-getting-there. There is nowhere to get to.  When I was first taught this practice, our teacher told us to imagine the snow lion padding joyfully through the highland meadows.  He used his hand to show us the wavy motion of a soft heel/paw strike followed by the rest of the foot coming down on earth as if caressing the ground. We attend to our feet making contact with the floor as we circle the big bright shrine room, light tumbling through the tall windows. My foot slowly arches, each deliberate step on the wooden floors sending a flood of warm energy up my legs.  Measured paces around and around, like the snow lion treading lightly in the high mountain meadow, surrounded by wildflowers.

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Joy and Andy

The snow lion image puts me in mind of our two cats, who wander aimlessly around our house.  Sometimes they have purpose—food bowl or litter box—but mostly it’s a long ramble through the rooms, not getting anywhere in particular, stopping here, sleeping there. Joy, the smaller one, will occasionally stop and extend one of her front legs in an arabesque. She is a feline ballerina.  

*  *  *

It occurs to me that I did quite well at writing a column about not getting there because this post has been all about how I didn’t get there (“there” being the column project). So in failure I have succeeded.

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I wanted to master the column, but the column mastered me.

To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

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

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

Sewing

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

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

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Planting, writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My mother’s closet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbows and Basic Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your closet to me

 

 

In February, the Waters of March

My father’s 92ndbirthday arrives next week. A fond memory keeps cycling around my mind, a memory of music and love. Once my father and I sat on a couch in a rented cottage in Parksville, a place where a ribbon of warm sand meets the calm water of the Strait of Georgia. It was a family reunion we held a few years ago: two of my sons came with their girlfriends; two sisters,  one niece, my father and stepmother rounded out the group. For two days we cooked and ate, talked, played Scrabble and Frisbee, and talked some more.

My father and I sat on the couch together, close, holding hands. We like doing that, holding hands when we sit. After an absence, it’s how we reconnect. He used to say to me on those occasions, all those times I came from Victoria to his Ontario farm, “Is there anything we need to talk about?” That was his invitation for me to tell him what was happening in my life: my troubles, my joys.

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While we sat and talked, I liked to press my thumb down on the prominent veins that embellish the backs of his work-worn hands. His lean body has no fat those veins can sink into, so like swelling blue rivers, they crisscross his skin.

Again that day we sat together, holding hands, but this time we talked about music. I asked him, what song brings joy? Not unadulterated joy, but the kind that tastes bittersweet? What song wakes you up, yet makes you wistful? Makes you feel simultaneously fiercely alive and hip to life’s fleetingness, death’s certainty? Well I’m sure I didn’t use all of those words, but whatever I said, he knew right away what I meant because he answered without hesitation: “Águas de Março.”

I was familiar with Waters of March, the Brazilian song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, because my father had often played the version by Getz and Gilberto from the album, The Best of Two Worlds, recorded in 1976. I found a YouTube version on my laptop and we sat and listened to it together, my smaller hand finding his big warm one.

getz gilberto

Gilberto strums his guitar, then his voice starts to climb up and down those whittled Portuguese lines, like climbing up and down ladders in the rain.  Next comes the voice of his wife Miúcha, singing the English words.

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone

It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun

The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
A knot in the wood
The song of a thrush

Her light coppery voice lilts and lists, catalogue of strange poetry, then his voice comes in again with the round custardy Portuguese vowels. The words swirl around, eddying like the rain coming down in a Brazilian town, descending, rippling, flowing into the vortex of 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows.

A stick, a stone
The end of the road
The rest of a stump
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass
A life, the sun
A knife, a death
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of all strain
It’s the joy in your heart

What is it about that song? Husband and wife singing in two languages, listing and chanting, the dance of two voices, two worlds. That bossa nova rhythm, Getz’s swooping saxophone, the swishing percussion. Flotsam and jetsam of words caught in a whirlpool like little coloured scraps of our lives, moments in time, swirling, twirling. What is it about rain in March swelling rivers in a faraway country that made us both feel a catch in our throats, made us start to cry as we listened together?

After a time, my father asked me what my song was, and I told him June Hymn by the Decembrists. So we listened to that next. And then it was time for dinner.

aguas de marco

https://youtu.be/b9yc_bbp99c

June hymn

https://youtu.be/KusWM9AKfZg

 

The River

 

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Judy and Madeline, 1992

So many people around me have stories to tell. This time, I’ve asked my sister Judy to contribute something to the blog, so here is her guest post. She writes, “in the winter of 1980/81, I spent six months backpacking through Sri Lanka, India and Nepal with two friends. Everyday was an adventure.This piece describes laundry day near Kandy, nestled among the hills in central Sri Lanka.”

By Judy Walker

The sun is hot. It beats down with all its force on the flat white rocks and reflects off the surface of the slow moving river creating a shimmering haze which envelopes the surrounding countryside. The couple squat on a slab of rock, their toes in the water, the sun heavy on their necks and backs, like an added weight, making it difficult to move. They go slowly, slowly working their way through the pile of clothes between them. Piece by piece the soiled clothes are dunked in the murky water, rubbed with soap then thwack, thwack, slapped against the rock, sending drops of water flying through the humid air. They work to the tunes of Hank Williams “Yer cheatin’ heart.” Hank wails while they work, getting into the rhythm, the sound, the feel of sweat pouring down their bodies.

She is brown and thin, wearing only a piece of black material wrapped around her body and gold around her wrists, ankles and throat. He is darker and fatter, black bushy hair wrapped in a knot at the back of his head, wearing a white lungi around his loins and a pair of sunglasses. Occasionally one or the other stop work to glance around, not wanting to miss any of the action. As the day gets hotter people and animals wander down to the river to submerge themselves in the cool water. An elephant is led down the jungle path moving slowly and labouriously. His keeper, a small black man, releases the animal at the edge of the water and he wades in. He slowly lowers his huge body into river, first down on his front knees, oomph, then on all fours, oomph, then he rolls over sending ripples across the river. His body is covered save for one eye and his trunk snaking out of the murky water.  He lies still and once again the surface of the river is like glass.

Not for long. A couple of boys just liberated from a morning at school run shrieking from the bushes, fly through the air and cannon ball into the deeper waters upstream, splash…splash. Then they’re out of the water and in again, splash… splash.

A long horned cow taking a break from working the rice paddies is led to the water by a young boy. She needs a little coaxing and pushing but is finally standing in water up to her chest. Her keeper pours water over her head and back.

Occasionally a woman appears from one of the many hidden paths leading to the river carrying a bundle of clothes to wash. She takes up her position at the edge of the water and begins the ritual. Thwack, thwack, each woman working to her own rhythm, the sound echoes through the river valley. Soon the surrounding rocks are covered with bright coloured saris drying in the sun.

The couple have finished the washing and are now moving slowly, spreading the wet clothes over the warm rocks and dried grass. This task finished, they retreat back from the river’s edge a bit, taking refuge from the midday sun under a coconut palm. The man removes a small pouch from the folds of his lungi and takes out a piece of sticky black hash, some tobacco and papers and proceeds to make a joint. The woman looks on lazily. Down river labourers are hard at work collecting mud from the river bed. They carry it into the forest in baskets balanced expertly on their heads. Everyone else, beast and human, have quit working for a few hours to avoid the punishing heat.

The clothes dry quickly but the man and woman under the tree are too stoned, too lazy to retrieve them just yet. Hank is singing a sad song and it is just so hot.

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Drawing by Madeline Walker

 

 

Midwinter: bleak or bright?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart

We know that music can evoke powerful memories. A song not only takes your mind back, but takes your body back to another time. You feel the same sensations and emotions, the same twinges and secretions. Pure chemical magic.  In the past few weeks with the I-pod on shuffle during my commute to work, I’ve relived moments of my youth. My first experience taking LSD with Santana’s “Singing winds, crying beasts.” A prickly nerve shiver spreads out into my limbs as cymbals and chimes sing and hiss behind the piano and piercing guitar.  Driving, oppressive energy limned with sadness from an early sexual experience creeps over me with the Beatle’s drone: “I want you. . . I want you so bad it’s driving me mad.” Another time, a piano riff announcing Aretha Franklin’s edgy command “you better think” blasts out of the speakers, followed by “think about what you’re trying to do to me.” I sit straight up in the driver’s seat and start to move to the rhythm.  This one took me back to 1968, I mean right back into our living room graced with a faded Persian carpet and upholstered teak chairs. That winter, the radiators whistle as wet snow falls over Toronto. I dance whimsically while belting into a pretend microphone. Beside me, my father plays air drums and my sisters wail on imaginary horns.

I turned 10 the year “Aretha Now” came out.  It arrived at our house on Christmas day 1968 – perhaps my mother bought it for my father or my father bought it for my mother. But all I know is that that record album lit me up, moved me, and taught me about men and women, sex and love, power and desire. You could say it was formative.

Our record player was on a low chest in the living room. I’d lean the cardboard album cover against it, slide the LP out of its sleeve, and place the album carefully on the turntable. My father had taught me how to start the machine and use the little lever to gently drop the needle onto the first track, “Think.”  That piano groove followed by the drums, and then Aretha’s full, strong voice would set me moving around the room.

“You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to mearetha Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free”

I didn’t know what she meant–what exactly was he trying to do to her?  But whenever she boldly told him to “Think,” I’d feel the impossible power of speaking up. At the end of the song, she sang “freedom, freedom.” Her back-up singers, the Sweet Inspirations, laced with horns, pushed each iteration to the next level like leapfrog on a steep hill.

I fell in love with Aretha’s smiling—almost mischievous—dimpled face. She looked off to one side, as if she might be looking at her sweetheart, her green turtleneck mirroring the lime green letters spreading over her high coiffed hairdo. My body woke up to the beat of this delicious music, her big buttery voice, and all of those fascinating lyrics that stirred an inchoate longing in my pelvis, even if I wasn’t sure what it was.

If “Think” made me feel the power of female authority, “Say a little prayer for me” made me swoon with dreams of romantic love transformed into a religion.  I could imagine Aretha waking up in her shaded boudoir, sitting at her make-up table. Before she puts on her eyeliner she whispers a quiet prayer to the man she loves.   I liked thinking of her in her own space, choosing her dress, combing her hair, praying for his love. . . hoping he’ll answer her prayers and love her back. The passionate crescendos rose with the Inspirations crooning like taffeta petticoats under the full-satin dress of her voice: “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, forever, we never will part.” Listening to the song now, I hear the urgency and desperation in the ending “answer my prayer now, say you’ll love me too,” something lost on me fifty years ago.

Every song had a different flavour. I loved to sing along about the man whose love was “like a seesaw, going up, down, and all around.” Now the lyrics sound like they’re about an abusive relationship, but at the time, it was just another piece of the mysterious puzzle that was male-female relationships. Aretha sang Ray Charles’s tune, “The night time is the right time to be with the one you love.” Seductive horns like exclamation marks after Franklin’s lines were joined by a mix of other voices, all to that slow blues rhythm that intoxicated me.  I didn’t know much about sex at the time, but apparently it happened at night with someone you love. “Won’t you please tease me, but don’t leave me,” came out in big swoopy yells and I could just feel in my bones the aching-ness of desire, sex, and love. Somehow it felt really good but it was sad and complicated and caused great suffering. Women had to keep praying and begging their men to love them, but then those men might treat them badly, ignore them, or put them down.

“Darling you send me, darling you send me. Darling you send me, honest you do honest you do.“ After “say a little prayer” this one was my next favourite. Aretha actually sang “I want you to marry me” Wow! Little did I know that this was Sam Cooke’s song and she’d changed it from his “I want to marry you.”  It didn’t matter, it was revolutionary, a woman brazenly saying she wanted a man to marry her.  This one was a sweet mix of love and sex, being thrilled and being sent, but I wasn’t sure where one was being sent to.  It sounded very sensual but also spiritual, and I loved how Aretha pronounced it “shend” in the opening refrain. When I listen to the song now I keep expecting that little skip in the album just after the second verse, a skip tattooed in my memory, but of course it never comes.

In 1970, a year or so after I was first grooving to “Aretha Now,” my parents separated, surprising everybody and further complicating my labyrinth of male-female relationships. It was a labyrinth that I soon—too soon—entered, trying to figure out how to be alluring, how to be loveable, and yet how to appear “cool” and not too needy or emotional. The sweet, sexy, indelible music of “Aretha Now” had me saying little prayers, looking for thrills, and aching to be loved as I grew into womanhood.

 

The road not taken

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A few times a week, I ride my bicycle to the University where I work as a writing tutor. The end of the commute takes me along the west side of the Clearihue building, a three story, squat cement slab constructed in the 1960s that houses the English and French Departments. Every time I pass that way, like clockwork, an image floats into my mind.  I travel back 16 years. A spring day and I am walking to the University library wearing leather sandals, my skirt swishing around my legs, a pile of books comfortingly heavy in my arms. As I traverse the path behind Clearihue, I hear the click of an upper story window opening, capturing my attention. I look up and an arm appears—a wide open gesture—a kind of wave. Soon following, a youthful bronze head pops out: close cropped hair, glasses, rosy cheeks. “Madeline!”  It’s my professor, ten years my junior, the one who has just hired me as his research assistant, waving at me with joyful recognition.  “Hello!”

For some reason that chance encounter, my prof seeing me from his office window, opening it, flinging out his arm in a wave, then calling my name, always reminds me of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston dreams of the Golden Country, a “rabbit-bitten pasture” where “the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair.”  For some reason, this scene has always haunted me in a peculiar way. The passage is thus:

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.

Our minds are very odd. Why should my professor’s wave have anything at all to do with Winston’s dream girl who flings off her clothes in a graceful, careless gesture symbolizing the annihilation of a whole culture?  I have thought about that over the years. I was a grad school ingénue, enjoying the exploration of my intellect after many years at home raising children.  I was 42, and I was waking up.  Noting that I was the one student in his graduate class who actually did all of the readings and came to class prepared, my professor offered me an RA position. He wasn’t naked as he leaned out of the window of course; nor was there a sexual frisson. It was an intellectual tremor we both felt—he had found a fresh RA who was dazzled with his intellectual prowess. A “single splendid movement of the arm” seemed to signal the sweeping away of what I had known so far, and to welcome me into the life of the university—A Golden Country of words and ideas, books and conversation, writing and learning. I was waking up to a new way of seeing the world.

Yet I actually first started graduate school at the University of Toronto when I was 27, a false start. I sat among other young people in a wood panelled seminar room, struggling with and ashamed by my incoherence. I tried to keep up with the others, but everything that came out of my mouth seemed sluggish and obvious. I was an outsider in this alien world. The theoretical readings were incomprehensible. After about five weeks, I quit the program.  And went on to have three children etc.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been life “if.” This line of thinking has been stimulated by reading Paul Auster’s 4321—a magnificent weaving of four stories—four possible lives of one man. If this had happened slightly differently, the outcome might be this. A chance meeting with a young man at a movie theatre changes everything. A car accident and maimed hand shifts life completely. A parents’ divorce creates another path. As I read the novel, I start to think about how my life might have been different if I had stayed in graduate school the first time.  I come back to intense gratitude for the way things happened.

So what if I stuck with it and completed my MA the first time?  I tell myself a story about that alternate life. . . what might have happened. I finish the Masters, then get accepted at a PhD program at McGill. My husband leaves me because I drink too much.  In Montreal, I learn French, continue to drink and smoke cigarettes “to handle the stress,” and produce an award winning dissertation about French theorists’ influence on twentieth-century American women’s poetry and “jouissance.” After a brilliant defense of my thesis, I am offered a job at Princeton in New Jersey, and at the age of 36, I am an alcoholic assistant professor, preparing lecture notes in haze of smoke with a litre of white wine at my elbow. Continuing my research on female orgasm and American female poets, I live the life of an academic, focused on reading, research, writing, teaching, with occasional trips to conferences worldwide.  I live in a small book-lined apartment with a tortoiseshell cat named Denise (after Levertov), my only companion. My first book comes out. A series of flame-like affairs with married men and one lesbian professor leave me wary of love. When I get pregnant by accident, I quickly have an abortion. No babies for me—my primary relationship with alcohol means I won’t even consider it.

My career peaks at 40 when I become associate professor and my second book is published—about Kathy Acker and sexuality. The following year, I am invited to give a series of talks at Columbia University about gender and 20c poetry, but I am in trouble. My addiction to alcohol has become unforgiving.  Drinking during the day is the new normal.  After downing several shots of vodka in my hotel room, I stumble onto the stage for a public presentation on Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems. My body—lumpy from lack of exercise and bouts of hangover eating—is sheathed in a tight black dress covered with cat hair and ash, the hem sagging, my chignon unravelling. My ramblings are incoherent. What was the point I was trying to make? Audience members shift and whisper, looking at each other with embarrassment and pity. I am escorted off the stage. I wake up in a pit of shame the next day, head clanging, gluey lips stuck together. I don’t remember how I got back to the Roosevelt last night, but I am fully clothed, sprawled across the bed and surrounded by cigarette butts and striations of ash on the once-white sheets. I must have tipped the ashtray. The vodka bottle is empty.

Forty-one and childless, hopelessly addicted to booze, thirty pounds overweight, stinking of cigarettes, alone and hopeless, I take 100 sleeping pills that I’ve been hoarding. They were in my make-up kit—I was planning this opportunity. Before I take them, I write a brief note instructing whomever discovers my corpse to call my cat sitter at 609-543-6890 and to tell her to find another home for Denise. Poor sweet Denise, who has a trilling miaow and a deep purr. She loves to curl up next to me when I drink and read and smoke. My last memory as I slip into unconsciousness is of the thrilling vibration of her purr next to me. It’s early December 1999 and I am gone—a nice clean finish—gone before the turn of the century.

***

Of course this is all storytelling. And yet, the exercise makes me grateful I quit drinking at 27 and had three sons. I am glad I waited those 15 years to return to school, clean and sober. Grateful for family, friends, marriage, faith, a spiritual path. It’s a good one, this life.

The bird-light bones of change

Last year I bought my first Tarot deck with the intention to learn about this ancient tool. My purpose was to use the cards to understand myself and my life better, rather than as a way to divine the future.  So when I drew the Death card reversed last week, I was not alarmed. I did not read the card as a warning that somebody would die soon. Somebody is always going to die.

Anthony Louis says that death reversed is about resisting necessary change (death upright is about transformation).  He writes, “you are clinging to an outmoded situation, relationship, or attitude that really should be discarded.” I had asked the question before I drew: what will help me most going forward to heal myself, my whole self? And the answer I get is that I am clinging to the past because I fear change. It is time to discard a mode of living. By clinging to it, I am hindering my growth. My sense is that the outmoded ways I resist changing are, one, depending on my “rational” way of making decisions and two, living impulsively. I picture these modes as living from the top part of my body, neck up, rather than centering in on the heart. I have been slowly transforming into a fully intuitive being who follows deep inner knowing: not impulse, but intuition. I can trust my inner process, my discernment, my inner guide.  That feels very right at the moment. And it doesn’t mean eschewing intellect or reason. Of course there is a place for those!  It just means that when I feel scattered, my thoughts whipping around my head, and confusion reigning, I need to settle back into my body, put my hand on my heart, and sit with what’s happening at the moment, asking myself, what do I need right now?  Answers do come, sometimes slowly, other times quickly. Deep knowing has its own timetable.  The knowledge that comes is sometimes mysterious, yet pretty much unassailable.

I had a recurring dream as a child that I was clawing my way through a dark underground tunnel. The physical feelings accompanying the dream were pain, suffocation, fear, and claustrophobia.  And then, after a long time, bloody-knuckled and exhausted, I saw light. I came out into the air, greeted by a daisy growing at the mouth of the tunnel. And the lightness I felt then was like the lightness you feel after setting down your pack at the top of the mountain. I can still recreate those sensations of the childhood dream, though I haven’t had it for decades. For a long time I thought it was about birth, then I thought perhaps it was about death. It’s probably about both, but it’s also about the journey from living in the head to living from the heart.

In my mandala, I painted that  underground journey.

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In my book of poems, I wrote about it in a poem called “Daisy”: “But finally I came up into the day and/ a big daisy—such a cartoonish flower—/was handed to me./ I sat on green grass at the mouth of the hole,/ crosslegged, light, my bones like a bird’s, holding a large/ white-petalled, yolk-centred flower that seems now like the repository of all happiness!”

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Reference

Louis, Anthony.  (2001). Tarot: Plain and simple.  St. Paul, MO: Llewellyn Publications.

 

What are you wearing today?

 

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More than twenty years ago my boys were babies, and I was a La Leche League leader, helping other women to breastfeed.  LLL is an organization with good intentions, but some of their values I couldn’t align with, for example, their insistence on the heterosexual couple as the sine qua non. My tenure as a leader was very short.

I remember leader meetings, lots of women gathering at somebody’s messy house with babies at their breasts, toddlers underfoot, herbal tea steeping in the kitchen alongside the plate of carob brownies.  Before we started the business portion of our meeting, one of the leaders would pose an ice-breaker question, for example, when did you last have sex?  I have to admit I blushed hotly at that question and probably evaded answering.  And then another question that was more interesting to me, tell us a bit about an item of clothing you are wearing: What’s the backstory?

I used that question as a writing prompt when I taught English, and it’s still a question that I enjoy asking myself and others. I might be walking down the street and notice my shoes. . . where did I get them?  Sometimes the story is flat and uninteresting, but other times the tale has tasty layers.

Today I am wearing the grey hoodie I bought at the Gap in Manhattan on my honeymoon.  I found it on the boys’ rack, 50% off, so I snapped it up.  I didn’t really want to take much time for clothes shopping—we had only four days and we packed them full, going to the Metropolitan museum; listening to jazz in Washington Square; basking on park benches; eating pastries at Italian bakeries; going to plays; wandering through SoHo, Harlem, Central Park, and Greenwich Village; finding cool little galleries and stores; taking photographs; and eating wonderful food. And lots of loving, of course.

I needed warmth at a bargain during that chilly spring vacation because when we arrived at La Guardia I had no luggage—just the clothes on my back. We had booked an early morning flight, and my youngest son had kindly offered to stay over at our apartment and drive us to the airport.  Groggy in the blue dawn, we hugged him good-bye and went into Departures as he drove off in our car.  As we started to check in, I looked down and realized that the black duffle bag I had packed for our week’s vacation—NYC honeymoon followed by a few days in Toronto—was nowhere to be seen. And then I remembered it was still in the trunk of our car, now speeding down the Patricia Bay Highway to my son’s house.

I had a small burst of tears, and then I cheered right up. “It will be an adventure,” I offered my concerned husband.  “I don’t need much, just a couple of things. It will be a minimalist honeymoon.”  We kissed and then I just let go of the idea I needed my favourite jeans, certain socks, that lovely sweater, my contact lenses. I just wanted to adapt to what was happening because what was happening was wonderful. Honeymoon! Clothes are not so important in the large scheme of things, anyway.

I picked up the cheap hoodie that still serves me well. I think it was twelve bucks. We took the bus to Hell’s Kitchen and visited the Salvation Army to find a pair of pants and a shirt.  As I moved slowly down the aisles of musty clothes, I met an old woman with a voluminous skirt, pulling pants up under them.  “The change rooms are such a hassle, so I finally learned to just wear a skirt so I can try on stuff right in the store,” she chuckled with the wisdom of the serious lifetime thrifter.  I liked her.

I washed out my one pair of panties every night in the hotel sink and blew the last bit of damp out of them with the hair dryer in the morning.

My goodness, we had fun those four days. I felt so very light and loved, free and happy.

That’s the story of the grey hoodie. Look at something you are wearing. What’s its history? Please write your sartorial story in comments. I am looking forward to it.

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