Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

I want to write a poem about aprons

Aprons are on my mind. I sewed four of them, starting with a free pattern online (https://suzyquilts.com/free-modern-patchwork-apron-tutorial/), and soon started to modify the pattern to make it my own, changing this and that, adding pockets. Then I went to Fabricland with my youngest son and he chose fabric for an apron—animals of the African Savannah—sepia on beige. He chose a bold white on brown polka dot fabric for the lining. When I finish the apron, he thinks he might wear it while tattooing (it will get covered in ink). I bought some lovely tablecloths and placemats at Value Village, piled up now on my sewing table, which I’ll cut and shape into another apron for a friend who loves purples, pinks, and blues. 

What is the appeal of aprons? I love their practicality, their long history worn not just as a cover by women to protect their good clothes when they cooked and cleaned, but worn also by craftspeople, tradespeople, waiters, workers of all kinds throughout the ages. The cobbler at his bench, the candlestick maker pouring wax, the man with tongs at the forge, the woman throwing pots, the child sloshing poster paints over a piece of newsprint. 

I want to write a poem about aprons.  During my year off, I signed up for “Masterclass,” an online offering of video classes by “masters.” For us, this expense has been mostly a waste of money. We paid $240 for a one-year subscription because I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to write a novel from Margaret Atwood. I soon discovered that although she is  a wonderful writer, she does not inspire me. She seems truculent in her mini-lectures, and she says things like, “the garbage can is your best friend.” I feel discouraged. So I watch a few videos of David Sedaris talking about how to write humour. He says we should write in a journal. Of course. Don’t we all already? But I’ll never be very funny. So I abort that class. 

I don’t want to learn percussion from Sheila E. or Skateboarding from Tony Hawk. Nor am I interested in cooking with Wolfgang Puck or building a fashion brand with Diane von Furstenberg. But Billy Collins, the poet, seems promising. So I start to listen to his videos, to read his poems, and I feel encouraged. “Poems are the expression of thoughts and feelings, but they are no longer embarrassing, sort of like a diary without a lock.” I like that. He invites us to write a sentence, the first sentence, and then shape it into four lines for the first quatrain of the poem. So I do that. And then I write another, and another. And the poem, like the apron, grows.

I want to write a poem about aprons

The boy who wore my first apron—a 
simple Home-Ec project in denim—was  
jeered at by the other kids in the mall
where we hung out to smoke and flirt.

He pranced around the spewing fountain 
in the badly sewn thing, making lewd 
gestures, cupping his groin. Everybody  
mocked, so I joined in their laughter.

Uneven seams, unravelling, only an hour
old and the pocket falling off already: a 
garment of mistakes. Sewing is for old women,
home economics a massive bore.

In those years, a pattern coalesced: 
over and over, I betrayed myself.
The second arrow, finding my raw 
heart, buried his head in the pulp. 

Perhaps I want to sew aprons 
now to atone for my crimes against 
myself, self-betrayal just another 
stab at finding love when I was young. 

I dump drawers of fabric on my 
sewing room floor, mounds of blue
and green crash like gelid waves 
off the coast, a tossed bed for the sunset.

Colours and patterns converse
as I move the hot iron over their 
grateful hides. Next, the rotary cutter
slices straight lines to invent a silhouette.

The machine hums with ambition,
the brown paper, resisting my pins,
crinkles and bends, and I cut with the
grand yellow-handled scissors—a shape.

The thing comes together by itself—I, only 
a hand maiden, am guided to choose, to match, 
to press, and slice, and pin, to cut and shape
and press again, deferring to a greater power.

National Public Radio plays jazz 24 hours a day, 
the jazz gem of the Palouse. I love to hear the DJ say,
“the jazz gem of the Palouse,” sweet assonance.
So, breezy drums, sax, trombone, a plucky bass,

they blow the score for a blockbuster movie, a
dramady called Madeline Makes Aprons, 
the story of a girl who slowly learns the art 
of loving the shadow, the mistake, the first creation.

Madeline makes aprons

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_3712

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.

IMG_0231

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.

 

 

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.

IMG_3473

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.

IMG_0039

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.

IMG_3985

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.

IMG_1954.jpeg

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.

IMG_2133.jpeg

 

 

 

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.

IMG_3598

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

 

img_2219

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.

img_3550 2

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.