Daily sojourn

I often despair of my monkey mind, the jumble of thoughts that keep me from noticing what’s present. At the same time, I appreciate my tangential mind. I love following its pathways through shadowy tunnels of white-flowering hawthorns. I seem to always turn a corner to find myself in an unexpected field of light. 

Today as I ate breakfast sitting at the kitchen table, I started to examine the ceramic trivet my father gave me years ago after a trip to Granada. The trivet is decorated with an Arabic design: a mandala in teal, navy, red, and cream. I love the waving flower petals that seem to be in motion, dancing in the wind. The Arabian design on the Spanish trivet took my mind to the poem I’d just been reading by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic living in Spain after 700 years of Arab culture. St. Teresa was intimate with her God; you can feel it in her language. I re-read the lines,

A woman’s body, like the earth, has seasons;

when the mountain stream flows,

when the holy thaws,

when I am most fragile and in need,

it was then, it seems,

God came

closest.

God, like a medic on a field, is tending our souls

And then, a few lines down,

Why this great war between the countries—the countries—inside of us?

From “When the holy thaws” by St. Teresa of avila

My counsellor tells me that I aggress against myself—a pattern in my life. An ongoing war rages between the countries inside of me. I like to think of God as a medic tending to my wounds, lifting me off the battlefield, holding me close, bringing my countries to peace. I remembered the stage six mandala I drew recently, with a little girl and a dragon (my warring countries). I wrote tenderly to myself, “lay down your sword, little one.” Perhaps the holy is thawing. 

I’d snagged that wonderful book, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, from a cardboard box of free stuff. I love our neighbourhood. There is a little clearing across the street near the mail box where all of us take things we don’t want anymore. Neighbours and visitors from other parts of town come to adopt old things and bring them to their new homes—a brilliant system! 

This book caught my eye. What a great find. But boxes of free stuff and friendly dogs are not all that’s on offer here. The neighbourhood has other delights. Yesterday, I started work early in my home office in the basement, checking copy edits for a book. At 10, I took a break from the highly focused work. Michael, Marvin, and I walked down to the Gorge where a pop-up concert was in full swing. A local musician, Danielle Lebeau-Peterson, was playing her guitar and singing under a white tent. Danielle is the daughter of my eldest son’s first music teachers—Connie and Niels, and I marvelled at the “small world” (we’re all connected) feel of Victoria. Her mouth is like her mother’s.

The clouds in the sky threatened rain, but so far it was dry, and children and their parents gathered around Danielle as she sang and played, smiled and bantered. She knew songs from Disney movies, which delighted the younger crowd. The Tillicum-Gorge Association folks had set up a table with a big urn of Tim Horton’s coffee, cartons of donuts, and boxes of Timbits. There was a clipboard with paper and the question, “What do you love about our neighbourhood?” The cheerful woman behind the table filled my cup with coffee, and I took up the pen and wrote, “Everything.”

We sat on the grass listening, and when Danielle asked for requests, I called out “Blackbird,” that gem of a song written by Paul McCartney. It was one of my father’s favourites, and she played and sang it perfectly—her clear ringing voice floating up and over the Gorge: “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” I smiled while my tears fell on the grass, and Marvin tugged at his leash, tried to smell the woman sitting next to us. This is the first Father’s Day I’ve lived without a father. But he was there in the high, truthful notes of the song. He is still with us. 

And now, I am still sitting here with the book of poems on one side of me and the trivet on the other, back from that pleasurable sojourn, ready to fill the hummingbird feeder with sugar water and play with the dog.  I love my mind and my heart. I love the rich stuff of daily life that produces all of these memories, feelings, and thoughts. The tangents take me unexpected places, but they always lead me back home to love and beauty.  

Acquainted with grief–and joy

The other night, we watched the Bach Consort ensemble perform Handel’s Messiah (Knowledge Network). I’ve heard the Messiah hundreds of times, but this time one line resonated especially—Gaia Petrone, mezzosoprano singing, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) Yes, Jesus was acquainted with grief. And as we traverse our later years, don’t we all become well acquainted with grief? In the last six years the losses just keep on coming, so grief has become an intimate familiar to me. 

And yet, there’s joy! The chorus sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). My whole body is engulfed with joy tempered by grief; tears stream down my face. My intellect has no chance to do its fancy override of emotions, has no opportunity to ridicule me: You’re not Christian, Madeline, why so moved by this, you silly? The analytical brain successfully bypassed, I am immersed in the bittersweet joy­sadness of the words, bathed by a sense of the sacred: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and flowing frescoes of a Viennese cathedral. The possibility of God. The swell of triumphant sound fills both church and body. 

The past rolls in. I go way back and find myself sitting beside my mother who gifted me with her love for classical music. We sink into the wine-red velvet seats of a hushed concert hall.  It was 1983, and I had my first job after graduating with a BA in English: I was secretary to the head engineer at the newly built Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. There was one marvelous perk that kept me showing up at the gloomy subterranean office: free concert tickets. When I got tickets for the Toronto Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth and invited my mother, she was thrilled. During the final movement, as the four soloists and choir sang the “Ode to Joy,” I turned to her and saw her cheek wet with tears, her dark eye sparkling with complicated joy. Just as my father retreated into jazz to feel his feelings, classical music was the vehicle for my mother’s deepest emotions. Many times, I caught a glimpse of her crying as she sat on the living room couch, listening to a moving passage from a symphony or quartet or aria. As I wept last night over the Messiah, I felt our tears intermix. We are connected. 

I noticed another sweet outcome from watching the Messiah: the opportunity to hug an old friend no longer with us. One of the second violinists resembled Hanna, who died in 2018. I went to sleep with that image of the violinist merging with the face of my dear friend: wide grin, glasses, brown bob laced with grey. When I met her in the dream, she felt real as anything, and I stayed for a while in her warm, familiar embrace. I love that I can still access my lost ones in the dream world. 

So, in a few weeks the year rolls to a close. Last December I wrote about all the things I had accomplished during the year—sewing and writing projects, starting my business. What did I accomplish this year? I put one foot in front of the other every day. This December it feels like more than enough to just write a few paragraphs and give thanks for the good things in my life. 

The Walker Sisters, circa 1963, Berkeley California

In August my eldest sister and niece moved from Yellowknife to Nanaimo. The three Walker sisters haven’t lived in such proximity since the 1980s in Toronto. Our closeness brings me comfort and happiness. 

Walking the dog day in, day out, has given order to our lives. Sky and earth, weather, sun, moon, trees, and birds break through my orbit of self-absorption, and I am grateful for them all. To stand in rain puddles and watch the fast scud of grey clouds, cormorants flying low over the steel-gray Gorge—is to feel alive. 

Although my writing group only met a few times this year, I appreciate each member. Late one recent afternoon, we sat in a beautiful room as the winter light slanted through the tall windows, Japanese oranges in a brown bowl, our faces rapt as we listened to one another read our work. We need stories now, more than ever. 

This was a year for intake rather than output. I didn’t sew or write much. I read voraciously and watched a lot of television. Grateful to the authors whose words I enjoyed this year, too many to list. But three memoirs stand out for me. I loved poet Elizabeth Alexander’s narrative The Light of the World about her marriage to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, his sudden death and her grief. She writes with the poet’s delicacy and attention to detail, and her grief/joy is palpable on each page. 

Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, about her fraught relationship with her depressed mother, Bess Gornick, resonated with me. Vivian struggles for independence from Bess while loving her with the potent mix of passion/compassion limned with hatred and resentment that seems particular to some mother-daughter bonds. 

Perhaps you have to be a Margaret Drabble lover or a lover of puzzles to appreciate this one (I am the former). In The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Drabble leads us through her lifelong fascination with puzzles, mixing in portraits of family members, tidbits of the history of puzzles, and asides about memory, writing, and life. A circuitous maze-like quality to the writing brings form and content into alignment.

And so many good stories streaming on television. I was grateful for a daily escape from reality through hours and hours of Grey’s Anatomy, No Offence, Pretty Hard Cases, Succession, Shetland, The Chair, Shtisel, Lupin, and many more. . .

I look forward to the shortest day of the year and the return of the light. Thank you for reading, dear people. One foot in front of the other.

Grief’s flat feet

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

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

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

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

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mama and me, back in the day.

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

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

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

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

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

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

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

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

For the love of books

Five days ago, I woke with an exquisite feeling of all-body all-soul nourishment. A rare feeling. My vivid dream was that I was wandering through a used bookstore—a warren of small book-filled rooms bathed in soft amber light. Lots of burnished wood, small upholstered chairs at the end of each row of bookshelves to sit and pore over the pages of an illustrated Alice in Wonderland or Daumier’s lithographs. The dark orange spines of  Penguin editions beckon me, I walk dreamlike down corridors of books, taking volumes from shelves, paging through them, enjoying the quiet warmth of this place, just a clock ticking somewhere. It reminded me a bit of Bastion Books, one of the few remaining independent used bookstores in Victoria, with its welcoming nooks and crannies. In my dream, I wander to the far end of this bookstore to a small doorway then enter a compact room where my three sons sit on straight-backed chairs as if expecting me, all smiling as I approach. They rise to hug me. We embrace without words, and I feel their height and strength flow into me. And then I am awake, full to the brim.

The dream was significant to me now because I miss both hugging my sons and access to books (I haven’t explored the relationship between those two things…). Although I can talk to my sons on the phone, through text, or video-chat, their physical hugs are off limits. The libraries are shut, and the bookstores are too—they allow for online ordering, but the brick and mortar stores are locked, and I cannot materially browse, an activity that sustains me. In a synchronous turn of events, I came across The Booksellers, a documentary available online via Cinecenta, the movie theatre at the University where I work. Cinecenta is another small business suffering financially during this pandemic. Their theatre is dark and shuttered, the snack bar where I got so many coffees is now deserted. So they partnered with Kinosmith to offer this documentary. After clicking a link provided on their website and paying by credit card, I was able to watch a fascinating exploration of booksellers in New York City. This history of the rare and antiquarian book trade in that diverse city was peppered with interviews with some of the unusual and eccentric people that devote their lives to books as precious objects.

After watching the doc, I started to think about how my constrained access to books lately due to Covid-19 has actually enriched my life in an unforeseeable way. Because I didn’t have my usual broad choice of reading material, I started to forage a little more intently in the free little libraries in the neighbourhood. Some cautious neighbours had removed all of the books from the shelves of their little libraries and posted signs explaining that they would re-stock after the risk of virus contamination had decreased. Thankfully, others had kept their books on the shelves, and I found myself returning to these spots over and over and taking books I wouldn’t normally be interested in.

IMG_1608A few weeks ago, I picked up Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower from the cute little library on the front yard of a house around the corner. “Take a Book, Leave a Book” was painted in curlicued white letters across the blue cupboard doors. When I was a teenager, I decided I wasn’t interested in science fiction. Somehow, I only wanted to read things that were “real.” So I turned to 19th century British novels and early-mid 20th century American writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Of course I have cast my reading net much wider since then, but I still don’t tend to be drawn to science fiction or its sister genres, fantasy and horror.  Yet, as I dug into Butler’s novel, I became engrossed by the young female narrator/ protagonist Lauren who is bent on survival in a dystopian America of the future. Her warrior spirit drives her to escape from the murder of her family and razing of her home in a gated community in Southern California and form a motley tribe of people all searching for safety. Due to her mother’s drug abuse, Lauren was born with hyperempathy, a disability that has her feeling other people’s pain to a debilitating degree. She develops a religion called Earthseed, whose God is Change because the only thing we can be certain of is that everything changes. What felt eerie about this novel, written in 1993, was that Butler’s portrayal of a dystopian nation read as strongly resembling Trump’s America.

After finishing The Parable of the Sower, I felt I must read the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998); however, only in a world of magic would I find that book in a free little library. So I borrowed Michael’s Kindle and splurged on the e-book, and I am devouring it now. I’m still in the early chapters, and I am curious what will happen to the tyrannical megalomaniac president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.” I am not kidding—this president really is a character in a novel published in 1998.

IMG_0812I always prefer books as objects over digitized texts. I love the feel and look of books. I love to explore marginalia and marks, run my hands over bindings, examine tatters and pages folded over, text that has been underlined. The other day I picked up a well worn novel (The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli) from a free library that had written in the inside cover in elegant cursive, “Property of” followed by a rectangular stamp: The Cavern Hotel and Café, El Nido, Palawan. I Googled this mysterious place and discovered it is a hotel offering pod accommodations in the Philippines. So interesting. (The next day, Trip Advisor wondered if I would like to see the current rates for staying the Cavern.)

Even though I recycle books through free libraries and friends, I do keep a library at home of books that I love: poetry and feminism, how to write and teach writing, graphic novels and memoirs, and twentieth-century American novels I had the privilege of studying and teaching for a short while.  But lately I have appreciated how the e-book allows me to read while Michael sleeps. With the slim Kindle propped up under the covers as I curl around it in IMG_0788 2the dark, I enter into the world of Butler’s novel, where kindness is the last good thing, where people band together in tribes because love and human relationships are all that we have, and where impermanence is the only truth. Wait a minute, all of that is sounding familiar. Is it really the future, or is it now?

I wake up every morning in this dream-like world, and I say to myself, “I wonder what will happen today?”

 

 

Pause for poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

islandsIn Age

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

(p. 58)

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

Open channel to the soul: A year of creative expression

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

Holding space

My illustration for “Holding Space for Death”

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

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

How To Love Things Into Being

Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

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

Sewing

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

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

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

 

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

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And more

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

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

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On unprized poems and why we write

Five years ago I got interested in corn.  I found out about maize, its history, breeding, and physiology, about Barbara McClintock’s work on maize genetics, leading to her Nobel Prize. I looked into corn’s many creation myths told by Indigenous tribes and cultures. I read about how genetically modified maize under the product name StarLink was sold in hundreds of different food products (for example, Taco Bell tacos) before it was recalled, not approved for human consumption by the FDA.

I was also interested at that time in giving objects voice in my poems, making objects subjects.

I spent some time reading, researching, and then writing a poem in which I envisioned a cob of corn speaking to a little girl at a Fourth of July picnic.  I wanted to express how food is sacred, it has its own history of being used, abused, loved, and narrated by humans. With a 7,000 year history, corn is an especially rich source of stories.

I entered the resulting poem in CBC’s poetry contest that year.  Of course I didn’t win.  David Martin deserved the prize for his ambitious poem, “Tar Swan.”

But not winning meant that I buried the poem deep in my computer’s archives and banished the thought of it.  It was, after all, “unprized.” But does that mean it’s not worth sharing?

I’ve been using Caroline Sharp’s A Writer’s Workbook to get my daily writing practice back on track. Today, I came across her inspiring words of encouragement:

 “Practice, practice, practice. Stretch your voice. Assert your talent and speak loudly because this is a short time we have here, to be alive, here and now, with this pen and this piece of paper.  This day matters and this word matters and your story matters.” (p. 34)

So take heart, writers.  Keep writing. Don’t permit not getting the prize stop you from setting words down and then sharing them. We write to communicate, and if we keep waiting for prizes and praise, we may never connect to readers.

 

Corn speaks

I

Alicia, before you eat me,
listen, child,
listen:

Teosinte is my wild cousin five genes distant,
her leafy bush concealed a few hard nuggets,
hardy ancestors to my lush abundant bumps.

Before your big white American teeth
crunch me, think of my long history.
How centuries ago, early farmers in what
we now call Mexico worked to breed,
selectively, the very best parts of me.

Native Americans mythed me into being.
I am sister to squash and beans, I am
Mother corn. I shake my thighs in secret to
birth my maize.  Sons and grandsons,
voyeurs, are dismayed, disgusted.

Are you amazed?  When you see an ear of corn
looks like a baby wrapped in silk blankets
you might pause.  But eventually you’ll see we are always
already cannibals, my dear.

I am Mondawmin, the sky-boy. I came
down to earth, surrendered my fight with Wunzh, was
buried bare and bronze in the earth, sprouted green with
silk-bright hair so hunters could stop
wandering and become farmers.

You eat pure history in my sweet starch.
Butter slides like sweat across the brown ribs
of the tiller of primordial fields.
Time throbs your tooth against the cob.
Alicia, stop girl and bless me!

You eat the creamy flesh of time,
you are connected to the calloused thumb of a
brown woman who seven centuries ago
culled the best and plumpest kernel from the plant
and bred me into being.

Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.

II

Okay Alicia, your corn is done,
spent cob lays on your plate,
dull remnant of a summer feast
beside the stub of a stale hotdog bun.

Has any other food been used, abused, so vigorously?
Kellogg’s, Karo, your will be done,
but those sly modifiers, those slick scientists
crept into my buttery insides and played with
my genes; those white coats took my soul when they called
their stuff Starlink and hid it in a taco shell.
Fool’s gold it was, fool’s gold.

I love to serve, to submit to your extractions of
sweet, of starch, of ethanol to run your
cars, but don’t mess with my soul.

Alicia, warn your people that I am not
just vegetable. I am woman, mother, sister, boy, god, goddess,
baby. The history of the Americas rests deep,
deep in my kernel.
Get back to basics, girl. Get back to sacred.
Third week of August, ancient tribes
worshipped me, my yellow more precious than gold.

Bless me girl,
Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.
Bless me.

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Inspired by “Corn Maiden” by Marti Fenton

 

 

 

The six column project

By Madeline

As I get older I think of paths not taken. For example, in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a weekly column for a big paper. In the 1980s, I devoured film critic Liam Lacey’s articles in the Globe and Mail, loving his clever analysis and enormous vocabulary. Now I look forward to reading columns by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti in the same paper. To be a columnist means that not only do you write for eager readers, but also you are constrained—beautifully constrained because the deadline makes you work hard and generate ideas and heat up with fecund energy (at least this is my fantasy). None of the passive doodling that writing becomes when there is no real audience, no real deadline. Too much of that kind of writing and my creative spirit retreats and shrivels.

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My creative spirit when she goes into hiding…(image by Ugo Fontana)

So, I thought, why can’t I pretend I have my own column? You are reading this right now: Will you be my audience? I will set myself some constraints: six “columns” in six weeks. Then, lying in bed unable to sleep the other night, I wrestled with content. What will the columns be about? After mulling over this for some time and writing scraps of ideas on bits of paper in the pitch black so as not to wake Michael, I thought of poetry. I will take ten books of poetry off our shelves—no thinking, just the first ten I come across.  Shut my eyes and open each book and place a book mark in that page. Then I have a bit of choice; from each of those ten open pages, I will choose a lines or series of lines or a stanza (whatever makes sense).  Those lines then will become the pool I will choose from for the six columns. Those lines will be the titles that suggest ideas or themes for writing. I won’t necessarily write about the poem or poet or even poetry. . . the line or line will be a springboard for ideas, generating who knows what? That is the exciting part. Anything might come up!

Other constraints:  each column must be 500 to 750 words and accompanied by a sketch or image  created by me. My hope is that weekly deadlines will banish preciousness and perfectionism.

Playfulness comes in the midst of what feels like gruelling work: I am preparing to teach technical writing again in September. And I have taken on an editing contract. In the midst of preparing and planning, creativity bursts forth, a project is born. Something wants to be written, but it doesn’t know yet what it is.   Inspire me, poets.

Expect the first column in one week, based on these lines from Jan Zwicky’s “Cashion Bridge”:

janzwicky

Pamela gave me this precious book for my 60th birthday

 

“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”

 

 

P.S. Yesterday, when I heard that Toni Morrison had died, I felt both sadness and gratitude. Sadness that we have lost such a star and gratitude for her immeasurable contribution to American life and letters. She was a great artist, thinker, humanitarian, and activist. I had the privilege of teaching her novel Beloved more than once to undergraduate students (and it took me several reads to understand it—it is so rich). I can’t believe that at first I rejected it, saying “I don’t like ghost stories.” Whew–how ridiculously rigid I was! Thank goodness inspiring teachers helped open my mind.

I also chose to teach The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, both amazing in very different ways.  Paradise is another gem, and her literary theory book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993) is insightful and startling, even today. Through her evocative, deeply-felt stories, I learned about endemic racism, the horror of slavery, and the African-American experience better than I ever could via history and non-fiction books.  Some lines from Beloved will always stay with me. At the end of the novel, Paul D. tries to explain to Sethe his feelings about her, so he recalls what Sixo said about the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” I just found out there is a documentary about Morrison titled “The Pieces I Am.” That line from Beloved, then, has clearly touched many hearts.  Good-bye beloved Toni Morrison (Chloe Wofford).

P.P.S. Thank you so much for all of your encouragement and comments on the travel blogposts that Michael and I wrote.  We loved hearing from you, and Michael enjoyed the experience so much, he is thinking of starting his own blog. I’ll let you know when he does. xoxox

Memories and Mad Hatters

By Michael Carpenter

IMG_0371Bidding adieu to Cranbrook Ed, we crossed the border into Alberta and our sojourn to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  This world heritage site tells the story of the Blackfoot nation and their skilful and meticulously planned hunting process which drove herds of stampeding buffalo to their death over a carefully chosen cliff. Accessing the site from the west required us to drive over 30 km of gravel roads (we will come back to this shortly).  We arrived in time to watch the dancing demonstrations, which were truly amazing, and were well explained by the emcee.  The nobility, grace and skill of the dancers, combined with the dazzling ceremonial garb made for one continuous photo opportunity, and Madeline joined in a circle dance at the end.

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IMG_0395The exhibit spans five archeological levels and was beautifully illustrated.  I found myself deeply humbled and moved by realizing that these peoples first used this buffalo jump site 6000 years ago.  We are newcomers indeed!  Everywhere like an echo or a refrain is the message that the sacred earth provides—and the realization that we are abusing her bounty.

Lethbridge was the gateway to a couple of magical and fairly emotional days for me-rich with memories.  I lived in Lethbridge from 1987 to 1990, with my sons Aaron and Alex and with Alex’s mom Donna.  Alex, tragically killed in a backwoods motor vehicle accident in 2016,  was born in Lethbridge in 1989.  I was awash with emotion and memory, triggered in part by the vivid and happy memories of the time we spent there, so while our visit was enjoyable, I was grateful to hit the road for Medicine Hat.

Just before we left Lethbridge I noticed a stone chip on faithful Rudy’s windshield (Rudy is the name we gave our little red Hyundai Elantra GT).  As is often my wont, I decided to ‘wait and see’ about getting  it repaired.

“He who hesitates is lost” was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and by the time we got to Medicine Hat we were looking at “Windshield Smashed In Buffalo Jump”, as the stone chip had become a nine inch crack.

I must admit, I was upset.  And hungry.  With Madeline’s great equanimity holding me down, I managed to phone our insurance company while feverishly gnawing on cold chicken legs, and swearing when my grease-laden fingers failed to make my touch screen respond.  Turned out that Speedy Glass could do a replacement the following morning, so we decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Medicine Hat Museum and Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The art gallery featured an exhibit called Terrestrial Beings.  From the curator:

At once sublimely elegant and ruthlessly daunting, the lush intricacies of the natural world have delighted, nourished, intrigued and wrought havoc upon the human race since time immemorial. Occupying a place between reality, dream, memory and myth, Terrestrial Beings presents strange and wonderful works in which representations of the body and the land intersect physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Through sculpture, painting, drawing, and cut-paper, twelve contemporary artists from across the country embrace their connection to the earth as fertile ground for deeper spiritual and intellectual exploration.

 I’ve included a couple of examples.  One that I found particularly moving was This Creeping Feeling, a polymer clay sculpture of two figures laying a third to rest. It was created while a family member was dying, and the gallery note says it is about human entanglement and the unstoppable passage of time.  The figures are covered with coral, organisms which both war and co-operate, and leave the record of their lives on the earth and on each other. The other is of a shape-shifter, which I chose to be photographed with on my shape-shifting mad-hatter day.

The Medicine Hat Museum contained many fascinating artefacts-an anachronistic reference to settling the Indians, paired with honestly stated welcoming to diversity and the many stories that different people bring to the region.

I found myself wandering around laughing one moment and crying the next.  As Madeline and I strolled down to the river and then out for coffee, we talked about how lovely the afternoon had been, and how it never would have happened but for a broken windshield.  Then, in a little coffee shop, we found the Pour It Forward board.  People could buy an extra coffee and then write on a cup sleeve who it was for, and put it on the board.  Sometimes a person was named, sometimes not.  One said, “For someone who has had a bad day, and needs a hug in a mug.”  I am realizing that the world is simply filled with magic, so often missed by my busy or cantankerous mind.

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We began the trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I love the vastness of the prairies-endless plains in quilts of emerald and dusty tan, ochre and acid yellow—with fluffy clouds hanging silently in the aquamarine sky.  I found myself feeling simultaneously tiny and expansive-open to and not separate from the world.

By Madeline

Sunday. Kenora. We wake to the bleak sun muffled by smoke and cloud. Many fires burn north of here. Three more days of driving until we arrive in Toronto.  I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on Friday, and then started Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water last night.  How is it that I randomly chose, one from a yard sale, one from a thrift store, two novels that are linked by drowning? Coincidence? Oe’s title is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I re-read the shortest section of that poem, Death by Water, and remembered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowning: “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.”

I think sometimes this road trip, RARE 5, with its spaciousness, time to think and ruminate–without projects, to-do lists, a home to clean, people to see, objects to fixate on–has allowed us to pass the stages of our age and youth, allowed us to enter the whirlpool of a heightened awareness. We can think in big-picture ways about our lives, about the past.  We are silent, then we talk. We listen to Stuart McLean, Pema Chodron, Allison Krauss, the Decembrists. In between music and voices we enjoy long spaces and quiet times, the varied landscapes of Canada outside the window. Then we converse and share our own thoughts and stories, and most of all our feelings. A journey of the mind and heart.

On to Thunder Bay today, through green wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

Deep in pink snow

pinksnowLike walking on pink snow, I thought, as my feet padded over a bed of petals under a cluster of Kwanzan Flowering Cherry trees. Here in Victoria, we get more pink snow than white; from February until May these blossoms drift in eddies from their fruit tree homes and fall gently to the ground.  And then I remembered an old book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Sally and her brother were clearing snow outside when the Cat in the Hat ambled by. Even though they remembered the havoc he created in the first book (The Cat in the Hat), they unwisely let him in the house to get out of the cold, where he ate cake in the bathtub, leaving a pink ring. When he tried to clean the bathtub ring, he made things worse: he transferred the pink stain to the mother’s white dress, the father’s shoes, the rug, and the bed. The big Cat asked for help from little cats A, B, and C (who live under his tall hat), but they spread the stain further, onto the white snow outside. You may have read this book, which culminates in “Voom,” an amazing magical cleaning agent under the hat of microscopic cat Z that wiped the snow pure white. But only after all the other 25 alphabet cats plus their leader had transformed the snow into a bubblegum-pink blanket across the yard.

I recalled the book and the image of pink snow not with pleasure, but with disquiet.  I realized that when I read that picture book, published the year of my birth, I used to feel not delight but worry. That huge anarchist cat was threatening, not fun or jolly: he initiated chaos. His swirl of pink filth grew unbidden, and I had no control over it. How scary to watch the malevolent pink stain spread like bacteria over everything inside and outside.  What a revelation to have bodily sensations—a clenched stomach and light fluttery heart—when I remembered the growing pink stain and my helplessness in the face of it. And then when the problem was solved—voila!—by Voom, again I had no control over that; it was simply something that happened out there in the world. It didn’t matter that order was restored as if the stain had never happened. What I remembered was feeling not relieved, but disturbed and powerless.

As children, we have no control over the big Cats out there—they do crazy stuff and all we can do is feel our fear and anxiety as we watch events unfold. I am reading a book, Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth, that perfectly captures a child’s experience of being swung around like a leaf in a windstorm. As an immigrant Austrian Jew in the Lower East Side of New York City, David is manipulated by other children, criticized and beaten by his father, and abused and chastised by his rabbi, leaving him terrified and untrusting of the world. Only his mother Genya provides solace. Roth’s skill is in bringing us into David’s life so we feel the terror of events and his despairing existence. Once he wanders away from home and gets lost, ending up in the police station among Irish cops:

“He understood it now, understood it all, irrevocably, indelibly. Desolation had fused into a touchstone, a crystalline, bitter, burred reagent that would never be blunted, never dissolved. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Wherever you look, never believe. Whatever anything was or did or said, it pretended. Never believe. If you played hide’n’-go-seek, it wasn’t hide’n’-go-seek, it was something else, something sinister. If you played follow the leader, the world turned upside down and an evil face passed through it. Don’t play; never believe.”

Part 2

Recently I rediscovered How to be an Explorer of the World (2008) by Keri Smith on my bookshelf. Smith writes, “at any given moment, no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting.”  I decided to do experiment #33, arrangements, with pink snow. I was interested in pink snow as a thing. There was the idea of pink snow from a children’s book, then there were the pink petals under my feet.

The next day I took my cloth bag to work and gathered handfuls of petals from the ground. They were soft, buttery, and damp. The petals were attached to bits of brown detritus and mixed with long pine needles from a nearby coniferous trees, so I scooped them up all up together. Smith suggests explorers do lots of things with the materials they gather: stretch them out in a long chain, use them to cover a book, freeze them in ice.  I did different things with my petals. I shaped them into a circle, a heart, and face. I placed some in a plastic zip-lock bag with purple ink and smooshed the mess onto paper. I placed a handful in a mason jar full of water and kept it for a couple of days.  I suspended a round crystal over the mound of petals on my floor. I’m not sure why. . . I was just playing.  I realize I have a strong belief in the goodness of play and creativity.  And I have a need to play creatively. I used to think that play had to be for something; now I know it doesn’t have to be purposeful. Just play. Just believe.

Now to clean up all the old petals.