Fan the embers

Yesterday I woke, and the world felt flattened out. The white pancake sky dropped beautiful snowflakes, but they were not for me. I felt the cool sheet beside me, the patch of bed our cat Andy used to warm with his furry bulk, kneading magnificently, then laying close beside me purring like a motor.

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Andy Carpenter, June 10, 2008-January 2, 2019

Andy died on January 2nd, and we feel his absence. This morning, everything seemed dark and pointless. The fire inside me was out, just cold ashes. I missed Andy, but it was more than that. It was Australia, Iran, death, war, suffering, the climate crisis.

So, I did what needs to be done. Made coffee. Meditated. Got dressed. Breakfast. I forced myself to walk to the store for some groceries. On the trail through the woods, I didn’t stop to visit my tree, though I waved. I didn’t feel interested in life, didn’t feel my usual excitement about art, nature, friends, poetry.

I should be happy, I thought to myself: I have all of this time, and I don’t have to work until July.  What a gift! But I couldn’t conjure up any energy, even though I had slept well. The art/sewing project was a stupid waste of time, and nothing seemed meaningful. I walked briskly, passing dogs cavorting in the snow while their owners chatted. I followed the flowing brown river.

At the store, I chose my items and lined up. The cashier was kind and friendly. She told me she was thinking of making grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch, perfect comfort food for the cold day. I smiled. I drank a cup of Christmas blend from the in-store Starbucks, gazing out of the window at the white sky.

IMG_0555Two men–store employees–sat across from me at separate tables. Each ate his lunch with his cell phone in front of him, scrolling busily as he wolfed down his food. Michael and I share a silly fantasy: we imagine that all of the folks who study their phones in public places are actually receiving instructions from their Masters about what to do next. Or perhaps from one Master. I laughed to myself about this and wished the two guys would put away their phones and have lunch together. Resist the Master!

And all of a sudden, I started to get interested in life again. I had a couple of ideas for “loss,” the next pennant in the series. I left the store and walked quickly home, my backpack bouncing as I strode along the snowy trail.

Was it the brisk walk in the cold, the exercise? Or the friendly interchange with the clerk? Was it caffeine? Humour? Or perhaps the combination of getting out for a walk, being among people, and consuming a psychoactive drug? In any case, I came home, cleaned house, then worked on my project. There is always a spark deep down inside. Sometimes I need to fan the embers.

I finished the “Gain” pennant. Rainer Reindeer has made many gains in his life. He smiles smugly, proud of those gains. He lives surrounded by his wealth, cossetted by silk and sequins, beads and feathers. He keeps himself and his gains tightly zippered away from the world, trying to secure them against loss, but all is transitory, Rainer. Loss, you will see, is inevitable. . .

 

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Eight Worldly Winds Project

 “We take what is transitory – money, fame, power, relationship – to be real and base our lives on achieving what cannot last – happiness, wealth, fame, and respect. When we base life on what can be taken from us, we give power over our lives to anyone who can take it away. We become dependent on others and on society for a sense of well-being.”

Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life, 92

The first time I came across Buddhism’s concept of the eight worldly winds (also called worldly concerns or dharmas), I was startled by its simple truth. The eight worldly winds come in four opposing pairs: gain vs. loss; happiness vs. suffering; praise vs. blame; and good reputation vs. bad reputation.[1] Buddhism teaches that our endless oscillation between these coupled states keeps us tossing in the storm of samsara. I immediately recognized myself: I live my life hoping for and clinging to the “positive” states of gain, happiness, praise, and good reputation while fearing and avoiding their “negative” counterparts: loss, suffering, blame, and bad reputation. The eight worldly winds give us a bird’s eye view of human suffering—we are flags tossed helplessly by those winds, whipping from elation to despair, trying desperately to stay on the left side of the flagpole (gain/happiness/praise/good reputation). Trying to make those impermanent states last.

The antidote to the eight winds is not to rise above the weather like the bird that has the view, but rather to identify with the still center, the flagpole. Remain equanimous. Feel and accept sadness, pain, and loss—don’t rush it or try to flee from under its dark shadow. Sit there until the shadow passes. And when delight and happiness come, embrace those too, revel in them, but know they are impermanent. Gain feels good, but loss is inevitable, so why expect continuous gain? You may pride yourself on your good reputation, but you have no control over what people say about you. Good can turn to bad as quickly as the wind changes direction. Praise and approval feed you, but again, praise will evaporate and you’ll feel blamed and shamed for something soon. These teachings make visceral sense to me; I feel the truth of them in my bones. The pivot point of hope/fear drives our responses. When we live in hope for the “good” stuff and in fear for the “bad” stuff, we are caught blindly in samsara, and we do not experience life as it is.

I have come back to this teaching so often that I decided a few months ago to start a sewing project based on the eight worldly winds. By sewing the concept I might drive it even more deeply into my consciousness; by exploring what these states would look and feel like if they were fabric flags, I might find out more about myself while sharing this profound teaching with others.

I also decided I would document the project as it progresses, which feels risky to me. But another teaching (this one specifically from Shambhala—Chögyam Trungpa’s Sacred Path of the Warrior), is that is we really want to experience all the rawness and intensity of life, we must emerge from our cocoons, the thick ego-wrappings of habituated behaviour that keep us muffled and safe. To document a project-in-progress feels vulnerable—what if I fail? (loss/suffering). What if nobody is interested? (insignificance/bad reputation). What if people think it’s stupid? (blame/bad rep). And then there is the other concern—what if revealing artistic ideas before they are fully hatched drains them of their energy? (suffering/loss). Those questions don’t need answers. Let me simply begin.

In brief, I decided to sew eight pennants or vertical flags representing the eight winds. First, I thought I’d do four with front and back representing the pairs. That seemed to truly show their oppositional nature, but if I ever want to display the pennants, viewers would have to walk around them and may not be practical, depending on the exhibit space. I struggled a bit over the size of the pennants and the design. I did a mock-up of good reputation, but decided it was too small and I’d like the words to be consistently displayed horizontally across the top of each pennant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the eight finished pennants strung up on a clothesline with wooden clothes pegs, four pairs tossing in the breeze from an electric fan nearby.

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Prototype

I had to choose the translations of the word pairs that worked for me—particularly happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain. Happiness and suffering seem more capacious than pleasure/pain, so I’ll go with those. And as for good reputation/ bad reputation, translators seem to prefer words like fame/disgrace or fame/insignificance, but while insignificance is ubiquitous, fame is not widely applicable. How many of us experience fame? Good and bad rep are states we all struggle with.

I made a lot of sketches and a plan. We’ll see how it goes. I am going to begin with gain because I have so many ideas about it. I’ll post along the way. Mostly my inner critic keeps poking me saying, but is this meaningful work? Does this matter? Well, it matters to me. So, I choose to ignore her.

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Doodling and planning

If you are interested in knowing more about the eight worldly winds, I’ve provided links to three good sources: the first is a brief description of the concerns by Judy Lief; the second is a series of videos by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo; and the third is a compilation of quotations on the worldly concerns by Pema Chodron (go to page 40-41):

https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-eight-worldly-concerns/

https://tricycle.org/dharmatalks/eight-worldly-concerns/

https://pemachodronfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Essential-Pema-Study-Guide.pdf   (pages 40-41)

[1] The source is verse 29 of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.  There are various translations of the pairs from their original: a variation of happiness/suffering is pleasure/pain and variations on good reputation/ bad reputation are fame/insignificance, ill-repute, censure, or disgrace.

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.

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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.

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Nat’s beautiful cover for my short story

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

Sewing

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

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

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

 

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

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And more

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

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

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M & M Blend Coffee: A white board drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Hear my whispers

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

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

And cuddle
near

excerpted from Nikki Giovanni’s “Quilts”

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

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

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

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

 

Version 2For Frankie

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

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

Folgers in a French Press

By Madeline

After a long stretch of driving, we arrived in Grand Forks longing for some good coffee. I thought maybe Jitters Espresso? But we agreed that the name bothered us; as Michael said, “they have a branding problem.” So we went for coffee at Marvelous Munchie’s bakery. It looked okay, and often bakeries have good coffee. We waited at the small counter while two locals got coffee and pie.  We were next, but the coffee was all gone, so the bakery assistant offered to make another pot in one of the automatic drip coffee pots on a small counter behind her. She was being coached by the baker, a friendly woman in a white coat and hat who kept peeping out from the high rolling trays of donuts.

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I went to the washroom, using a key that dangled off the end of a pastry brush. When I came back Michael was waiting at an imitation woodgrain table, with Bert, Ernie, the Cookie Monster, and Elmo climbing the window next to him.  Later he told me what had gone down with the bakery assistant.

M: “Do you have any dark coffee?”
She looks at him quizzically. “Dark?”
M: “Yes, you know, a dark roast?”
She: “Well, we have Folgers.” The little hand lettered sign beside the cash register advertised coffee in a French press.
M: “What if I ordered the French press coffee, what kind do you use for that?”
She: “Folgers.”

IMG_0386So we waited 20 minutes for the regular Folgers (not French press), admiring the huge almost empty room that, as Michael said, could house both a daycare centre and a bakery. In fact, there were toys and a drawing easel and other children’s stuff at the back.  There were houseplants everywhere and inspirational sayings taped to one wall.  The locals were engaged in a lively conversation and seemed to be enjoying their pie and coffee.

The bakery assistant looked apologetic as the minutes ticked by. “This machine takes forever.” But it seemed she wasn’t really familiar with where the fill line was, and it finished dripping a while ago. The baker showed her gently.  She was so apologetic.  “I’m SOOO sorry,” she kept saying to us, bringing coffee and a little pitcher of cream. She was a big woman, perhaps in her early 40s, dark hair in a single long braid and wearing a blue tunic and sensible shoes. I saw the edge of a tattoo on her strong brown calf, just visible from under her dungarees.

We drank our Folgers and it didn’t really taste like anything except hot creamy water.  But we didn’t want either the baker or her assistant to feel bad or like they had anything to apologize for, so we drank it up to the last drop.

Later that day in Nelson, I was set on shopping at the I.O.D.E. (mperial Order Daughters of the Empire) thrift shop on Baker Street. It had good reviews, as thrift shops go. Rain had been pouring down for hours. The green forests were dripping wet as we snaked through the Kooteneys.  But now the sun came out as we walked down Baker Street, and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to shop at the I.O.D.E. Instead, I happened upon a very narrow fabric shop where I bought a half-metre of bird fabric that reminded me of Dr. Dolittle.  I’m not sure what I will sew with this fabric, but I do have birds on the brain. Halcyon, the kingfisher, the birds on the fabric, the hummingbirds at our feeder in Victoria.  The woman who ran the fabric shop had old treadle Singer sewing machines on display that we admired. (I like it how Michael happily goes to fabric and thrift stores with me and just finds a seat and reads while I browse.) I chatted to her about scraps. “I make scrappy quilts to use up the scraps, but it seems that no matter how many I use, I don’t make a dent in the scrap pile!” she exclaimed. I agreed that I had the same problem. I am pretty sure it’s because we keep buying new fabric. So even as we assiduously take from the scrap pile, we keep adding to it too because fabric is just so wonderful. Oh well. We could have worse problems. IMG_4043

Cranbrook Ed, by Michael

Our plan was to drive to Nelson and camp there, arriving early and having at least half a day and an evening to revel in the spiritually rich, friendly hippy vibe of this beautiful Kootenay town.

Best laid plans, as they say—after spending an hour waiting for coffee in Grand Forks we fought our way through a torrential downpour most of the way to Nelson.  We loved the array of funky shops, but really wanted to get to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in time for indigenous dancing the next day and had forgotten that we were about to lose an hour to the time zone change.  Besides, the pouring rain made camping somewhat unappealing. So we decided to press on and stay at Cranbrook.

But first we shopped. We found a gong/singing bowl for our meditation shrine at home, and had the most wonderful conversation with the proprietor of Gaia Rising, who moved to Nelson from the lower east side of Vancouver, decades ago. We talked about community, addiction and consciousness raising-and I found myself thinking that I was really loving all the little connections we’ve been making along the way.  People are so friendly-and then it occurred to me that we’re probably helping that along. I also bought a Peaceful Poppy shirt that seemed somehow to fit with the whole trip so far.

The late Stuart McLean loved “Small Town Canada”, and over the past three days I have thought about this frequently.  The towns we have stopped in have been quirky, warm and welcoming, which seems quintessentially Canadian to me.

Cranbrook was pretty interesting. Madeline and I took pictures of a couple of signs: The Nails Christian Book Store, and very well-weathered Welcome to Downtown Cranbrook.  These have to be seen to be appreciated, so we’re included the images with this post.

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On the way back to our hotel I noticed a statue of a baby elephant—apropos, it seemed, of nothing. On reading the accompanying sign it turns out that in 1926 the Sells-Floto Circus visited Cranbrook and somehow lost fourteen elephants into the surrounding forest  (my mind reels imagining how that happened). Most of them were recovered fairly quickly, but one—Charlie Ed—remained at large for 6 weeks. The post-capture celebration breakfast and parade in Cranbrook was memorable, and Mayor T.M. Roberts declared Charlie Ed to be an honourable citizen, upended a bottle of champagne over his head, and re-christened him Cranbrook Ed.

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Next up, Alberta.

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To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

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

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

Sewing

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

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

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Planting, writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week of Solitude (sort of)

 

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From December 27 to January 2, my husband M. was on a non-residential meditation retreat or “Weekthun” at our local Shambhala Centre from seven in the morning until six at night. I joined him for just one day. But for the remaining six days, I have conducted my own retreat, mostly at home, but really a retreat into myself, which is something I often crave.  I haven’t been entirely alone; I visited with two friends and I talked on the phone with people occasionally. I also went out into the world to do things. But there has been a lot of solitude.

Today is the last day of that week, and I discovered some things.  I am reminded that I mostly like being in my mind and my body. I am pretty friendly to myself these days. I am able to watch my mind get anxious or self-sabotaging and stop it before it goes roaring down into the slough of despond. So that’s good. More awareness means more equanimity.

I love being alone, but as each day comes to an end I am so happy to greet my husband coming in the door.

I like the mornings, when I have the most energy.  M. went off to his retreat at around 7 a.m. because he was assigned breakfast duty. Sometimes I stayed in bed for a little while and read a novel, which felt like a treat. I would get up and saunter around the house, which I had all to myself. Even our tenants have been away for the holidays. I liked the whoosh of the hot air coming up the registers in an otherwise quiet house. I liked watching the sunrise from my art/sewing room as I had a second cup of coffee.  Sometimes I switched locations and sat in the living room watching the traffic of hummingbirds at the feeder, needle-nosed flits of purple and turquoise.  What a beautiful thing, to have all of this time. To not have to rush or talk. I am so privileged.

My plan was to work on my memoir. I have been taking online courses at Sequential Art Workshop and now feel embedded in a friendly and supportive community of people from all over the world working on their graphic memoirs. The trick is to keep the conversation going without getting overwhelmed by the volume of sharing, recommendations, and seemingly endless threads in our Google Group. I have had to juggle all this social activity and responding to others (albeit online) with creating momentum to draw and write my own memoir.  I got some work done this week. I was about to add, “but not enough.” Hey, I did what I did, and it was enough.

IMG_2508Sometimes I felt discouraged.  But I just found something to motivate me and moved ahead. One step in front of the other. I like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way where she’s collected so many encouraging quotations in the margins. Today I opened the book to Jackson Pollock’s “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” I wrote it on a post-it note then crossed out “painting” and replaced it with “graphic memoir.”  I remember all of the times I wanted to quit writing my dissertation. But I kept talking myself out of quitting and into writing. I love what Lisa Hanawelt says: “Don’t worry about how good it’ll be. Just make it and do your best.”

After a couple of hours of working—drawing, writing, drawing—it was time to go out and do things. Sometimes I went for a hike or a run. Other times, shopping. We needed groceries and I was the one at home this week. And cooking—I made soup and Socca (a savoury pan bread made from chickpea flour and originating in Nice), black bean and tofu hash, Greek salad.  I did chores: the laundry, the garbage and recycling, changing sheets, cleaning, organizing.

Other kinds of outings.  I walked to the library and got out several graphic memoirs. I can usually read one in a couple of hours. Just soaking it all up—fascinating stories and all great reference material. I like to see how others draw, compose the page, handle text and lettering, build a story.  John Porcellino, Jennifer Hayden, Lucy Knisley, and Nicole Georges.

I took myself out to breakfast today on my way to buy more drawing supplies for the memoir. I was curious what it would be like as I haven’t been out to eat alone for a long time.  I went to a popular place that usually has line-ups.  But I got in right away, sitting at the bar.  I noticed the young guy next to me with a cell phone welded into his hand. He hardly took his eyes away from the phone display as he shovelled food into his mouth.

I looked around. The place was loud with noise and things.  Tons of old stuff hanging off the walls: books and mirrors, an ancient cash register, antique junque.  Waitresses carried plates with towers of food; the servings were enormous, so I just ordered eggs and toast off the “sides” menu.  I haven’t eaten toast since July when we started a new way of eating with few fast carbs.  I have lost 12 pounds and I feel really good. But I was curious to see if I could tolerate the occasional toast and jam experience, which in my opinion, when done well with excellent products, is akin to manna from heaven. I even devoted a section of my mandala IMG_2506to toast and jam, my desert island food. This “toast,” however, was really more like big fat slices of hot bread. I like thin slices of well-done crunchy toast.  Too bad. But the “jam” was delicious apple butter infused with cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg.  The waiter behind the bar asked other diners solicitously how they liked their food, but he never asked me. He called me “ma’am.” It’s interesting how lone older women are treated differently from other people. We are mostly invisible. But funnily, I don’t really mind. There are powers in being invisible, as sorcerers know.

When time and space expands, as it did this week, I can take up things I dropped before, for example the fleece hat pattern that didn’t work for me. I went back to it yesterday and figured out that there is nothing wrong with the pattern: I had cut and sewn the hat opposite the selvedge. It was too small because it didn’t stretch.  So I made another hat the right way, and it stretched and fit. I learn from making mistakes. I learn by slowing down.  Similarly, I got lots of good feedback from my teacher this morning about where I went wrong with my text and drawing on my comic panels. Time to redo them. Start over. Learn from mistakes. What’s the hurry? It takes time to learn a craft.

What a gift to have had this week in retreat, in solitude, with few obligations. To have had the time to do what I like, to think, to read, to not think. To rest, to do and redo, to not do. I feel grateful and ready to go back to work tomorrow. Happy new year everybody. May you find time to do what you love in 2018.

Tribe

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This is the story of how I became a drunk and found a tribe. My memory often fails me, so I have quilted over gaps with scrappy fictions, not completely accurate, but not without truth, either.

I was a sweet, reckless 11-year-old, still taking ballet lessons on Saturday mornings. Our instructor—upright, proper, wearing a pencil wool skirt—told us in her English accent not to hold our fingers “like the bunches of bananahs in Lob-ee-laws.”  I wore the garb of the innocent—pink tights, black leotard, hair in a bun. I was perfect, chaste. I had hankerings then for certain clothes, just like 11-year-old girls do today, but my coveting now seems odd and historical. For example, I yearned for a floor length nightgown sewn from a particular Butterick pattern in lavender viyella. And I wanted a kilt, a real kilt.

I often passed the store on Yonge Street and stood in front of the window, pining for one of the kilts worn by the chalky mannequins. You could order a kilt from one of the many tartans on huge bolts at the back of the store—cut to your measurements. How did they make the pleats, I wondered?  The idea that I should have my own kilt became an obsession.  Did that desire pull me precisely because I did not belong to a tribe? Strangely, my family didn’t feel like my tribe; there was a sense of “every man for himself” with us.  But here I could choose my own tartan, my own clan. . . I could pretend to be Scottish.  I could belong.

My mother was agreeable. Perhaps she thought it quaint that I wanted a kilt.  It must have been very expensive to have a kilt custom made in 1969. We didn’t have much money, but my mother tried to give us what we wanted, within reason. “We’ll find the money,” she would say, and she did.  I chose a small red plaid, the MacAulay modern red, and the Scottish lady measured me up with her long yellow tape, marking numbers on a scrap of brown paper.  I waited impatiently for several weeks, imagining how the quilt would look and feel.  I had a tendency then to fetishize objects. If only I had that thing, my life would be perfect.

One Saturday morning we went to fetch it. That lady’s broad freckled hands wrapped the skirt around my neat, trim body, expertly fastened the kilt pin onto the outer apron, checked the waist, stood me back from her appraising eye, and commented in her brogue that I looked “bonnie.”  I loved the way the skirt swung around my thighs just slightly, the mechanical whirl of the crisp pleats—the big silver pin that I could put in myself—higher if I wanted some of my leg to show. There is something lovely and innocent about a slender 12-year old girl wearing a kilt, bare leg in the fall, black tights in the winter.  You might expect her to raise her arms in a highland fling.  She looks as if she belongs.

* * *

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

I come up from the abyss of memory with a wry smile. It’s no wonder you can’t remember, can’t put the details together, you killed your brain cells, you pickled them with alcohol. I once asked a chemist acquaintance if he thought my memory loss was from frequent LSD trips while my mind was tender, still developing. “No, LSD is likely not the culprit. That’s the cleanest drug around—more likely it was the alcohol.”

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

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

There was a problem with empty bottles, which makes me think we had somehow gotten our own booze, not purloined small amounts of our mother’s. Come alive for a dollar five . . . indeed!

* * *

The kilt smelled of my vomit after that, and so I wore it less than you would think a girl would wear a new kilt she was so excited to get. “Why don’t you wear your new kilt?” my mom would ask. “Don’t want to,” I mumbled.

But really what I wanted to say, I imagine, was that it smells vile now, the smell reminds me of my first drunk, which was horrifying because it felt wretched to get sick but it felt wonderful to get drunk. So wonderful that I am going to find a way to do it again, soon. I stuffed the kilt into a plastic bag at the back of my closet.

* * *

Latvia is a smallish Balkan country, the home of Michael P’s mother. I wanted to ask Michael about the Latvian quilt I puked over in his basement all those years ago—what were the colours, what was the fabric? Who made it? But then I remember Michael died of AIDS in 1989. Michael’s tribe is now the tribe of the dead—all those beautiful young men who died that decade and beyond. The faded quilt I wasn’t sure about, but we always joked about it, calling it the “family heirloom.” We would cuddle under it—teenage boys and girls in Michael’s basement room, our hub. We nestled together, legs sprawled over legs, arms around each other, drinking, laughing, feeling the incipient sexual thrill for one another, the thrill of being so close with hormones bubbling. One night we were all gathered there, my first time drinking tequila. Lime wedges, salt shaker, the iconic worm in the bottle. Michael lined up the shots, the shaker, the slices of lime on the edge of his candle table, a slab of wood holding dozens of candles in wine bottles. The dripping wax formed stalactite formations we loved to pick at, rolling warm wax in our hands and creating new shapes.

The candle glow lit our young pimply faces as Michael prepped the shots and passed them round. The taste was medicinal burn, but the feeling was flooding gorgeous warmth, an invitation to the couch of glory.  After several shots, I felt my gut roiling, and it all came up again on the quilt.   I suffered shame and guilt from ruining that heirloom, staining it and souring it so Michael would never use it again.  Michael is dead now. But he was Latvian, he was gay, he had two loving tribes. I like to think he basked in their tribal warmth when he was alive.

My contemporaries were not my tribe. Sure, they partied, they drank, but I started to see I approached drinking differently from them. I had to hide, elaborately, the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch.

* * *

Memory, please help me excavate the first AA meeting I attended.  Likely it was held in a church basement somewhere in Toronto. A large room with scarred tables on metal legs laid with 12-step literature on one end and a huge coffee urn and cookies at the other. A tower of Styrofoam cups and those leaf-shaped maple-creme sandwiches in plastic trays, straight from the package. A cloud of cigarette smoke striating the room. Chairs set in front of a podium. All old men but perhaps two faded washed-up ancient women with bad lipstick. This is not for me. Not my tribe. I am so different. I am young and smart.

* * *

We’d had some wine for dinner but the bottle was empty, and we lay in bed, my husband and I, talking, arguing. I was agitated—I needed more booze. This was becoming a grating need. Not so bad when I hadn’t had a drink for a few days. But when I started, the pull was tremendous, and I couldn’t fight it.  I went up to the kitchen on some excuse and poured a coffee mug half full of cooking sherry I found in the cupboard. But before I took it back down to bed, I took several big slugs. I drank more than my share of wine at dinner, and now I was increasingly slurry in my words and actions. As I got into bed, and he smelled the sherry in my cup, I could see the disgust in his face. He took the cup and flung it against our bedroom wall. I remember the drip, drip of it down the wall, and the stain it left there, even after scrubbing.  You were not of my tribe, husband, you who could nurse a Guinness for hours. You could not understand the addict’s yearning beyond reason.  But who, then, was my tribe? Not other drunks, they were old and washed up.  But not non-drunks either. Not the Scottish or the Latvians. Not the gays, not ballet girls—I had quit dance after being told I didn’t really have the body to make it as a ballerina.

* * *

I remember starting a hand quilting class in my early twenties. Quilting was another yearning—I longed to create those perfect squares and sew them all together. To make something great out of small goods. I only completed one square when alcohol—my then lover—got in the way of my relationship to quilting.  Alcohol was my primary relationship in those days; none other stood a chance.

I have been sober 30 years now, but some days I still feel like an emotional drunk careening through life.  Recently I took up my love affair with quilting. This time, with focus and forgiveness and a Pfaff Ambition sewing machine. This time, I started slow, piecing fabric, watching YouTube videos over and over. Pause and sew, play and sew. The plump woman with infinite patience on the video, sewing, showing. Laughing at herself, sewing, showing. Talking us through the techniques, the tricks.  Always a beautiful finished quilt hanging behind her. And then the women in the sewing machine store, the fabric stores, the quilting stores. Patient, full of information, encouragement, tales of experience, wry compassion for the mistakes. So I would try again, laughing at myself for cutting wrong, sewing wrong, taking out stitches, not once, but three times. Patience growing like a little bud inside me.  Oh you quilters, all you women out there—are you my tribe? Is this how I finally learn patience?

These are women I once would have scorned—too podgy, domestic, uninteresting, unintellectual. They care about fabric, for God’s sake, and quarter inch seams! I cared about building skillful arguments, refuting claims, excelling in academia. But now that stuff seems arid.

Free motion quilting got into my soul when I first tried it. After struggling for an hour to put the new foot on my machine, I took off with the freedom of it. Flying around the fabric in huge loop-de-loops, great flowers, words, lines, circles, hearts grew out of me like thread songs. My whole body moved with the shapes and the orange thread spun out, making my mark. It was like the poetry that sometimes runs through me. I am just the container now, for the great spinning quilt goddess who speaks through me.  Oh, is this my tribe, then? This is my tribe. I can’t wait to tell another quilter about it, to share that feeling of stepping off a cliff into free motion quilting.  Sometimes I worry it feels a bit too much like being drunk, that crazy whoop-de-whoo feeling. Like lolling, once again, on the velvet couch of glory. But I reassure myself: There is no hangover, no shame. Just a beautiful imperfect quilt at the end that I will give to somebody I love. Perhaps to you.

Memoir and sketches by Madeline Walker.

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Dilettante blues

dilettante |ˌdiləˈtäntdiləˈtäntē| noun (pl. dilettantanti |-ˈtäntē| or dilettantantes): a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge: [ as modifier ] : a dilettante approach to science.

I have long thought of myself as having a dilettante approach to intellectual and artistic projects. In our loving household, we put a slightly kinder label on it: “Dabblers unite” is one of our mottos. Yet on my more self-critical days, I wonder why I cannot commit to a path and get really good at one thing, whether it’s fiction, sewing, poetry, drawing, painting or making comics. I come into my room on weekend mornings, loving the light pooling on blond wood floors; the palm tree outside the window; my son’s, my husband’s, and my own paintings decorating white walls. The drawing table and swivel chair in front of the window beckon, “pick me! Draw comics today!” The sewing machine and cutting table are spread with a quilt I am in the middle of making, also calling out to me: “Play with us! Free motion quilting is so fun!” And my low wicker chair, lined with plump blue pillows, looks seductive, laptop not far away. “Write! write! you know you want to, you know you want to get better at this short story thing. . . . “ The tall cupboard might be open, with its treasure trove: glue gun, watercolours, scissors, charcoal, India ink, felt-tip pens and pencils in every hue. Whose birthday is next? Shall I make a card?

Yes, I want to create, but when I never commit to one path, I never get really good any one thing. Even when I committed five years of my life to getting a PhD, I don’t think I went really deep, and I didn’t continue my research in that area. I never got to really know my subject. I used to joke that I was getting a “PhD lite” because I would rather go horizontal, exploring many tangents, than go vertical, deep into the material. I’ve always read this way too: skimming and popping in and out of several different books, writing down the title of a new one, pursuing first this lead and then that one, rarely settling down for any length of time and achieving depth. Picking books off shelves, reading a line. This and that, this and that. I’ve celebrated my dilettantism too–deciding to write about film and gender and just doing it, making the plunge. It often feels liberating to follow my variegated passions.

And yet, deep down I know that if I put on blinders and really work at something, eschewing all the persuasive pulls at my attention, a jewel may be uncovered. So, my intuition tells me not to just accept my dilettantism. To choose one path and stick to it, to put aside the other things, simply breaks my heart. However, I sense that that is the way I need to go eventually. I won’t force it, but at some point, “big magic” (Elizabeth Gilbert) will  lead me to the vertical plunge. I can feel it coming.

For now, I will enjoy dabbling.  A little moon quilt, a little cartooning, a little short story writing.  A little of this, a little of that.

 

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Have a creative week.

 

The work wants to be made

 

I usually write about reading and writing, but today I want to expand and talk about other stuff as well—all the sources that have been sustaining me through this horrible summer. Summer of accidents, death, sadness, and grief.

Reading. I am reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I don’t remember meeting a more wonderful narrator—orphan-boy detective Lionel with Tourette’s syndrome.   His verbal and physical tics lift this detective story out of the ordinary. Lethem gives a master class in first person narration. I am less interested in the story than in the brill narration.

Writing. I finished my seventh story. My goal is still 10. I like this one, though I don’t know if any of them are any good. Sometimes ideas emerge from a deep well I didn’t know I had access too. Sometimes the process feels like automatic writing. . . “where is this coming from?” As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” I am not even thinking as I write. The words just come out.

The latest, “Cones and Bottles” is about a woman Angela with a shitty childhood encountering a girl named Apeshit who is in the midst of her own shitty childhood. Angela confronts some of her demons around addiction and control. Ice cream cones and chocolate milk bottles figure in the story. Angela’s new neighbours invite her over for a barbecue.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y. “Her real name is Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase of a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic. “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling from this description. She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind – the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

* * *

Art making. I found the wooden end of an electrical spool by the side of the road, around 22 inches in diameter. I brought it home and created “Shimmer” a mixed media piece with paper, glue, watercolour, acrylic, spraypaint, coloured pencil, straws, duct tape, wire, found objects. Shimmer has two women who spin for you (well four women, but only two can spin). One expands into dance, the other has contracted into solitude. Jewels sparkle here and there from found objects. There is a little glittery holder for my own version of angel cards at the bottom. This may not be finished.

Spin the girl, pick a card. Shimmer away/ Contract/ Expand/ Change/Everything changes all the time/ pick a card any card/ you never know what life holds for you.

Sewing: Working on “full moon rising quilt.” I love the batiks. I am learning to sew curves, sometimes tricky. This quilt is for a friend that I love.

Painting and writing, sewing and drawing, reading and thinking, dreaming and loving, crying and hugging. These all sustain me during the summer of pain.

P.S. would you like me to pick a card for you? Reply below. I’ll pick it and tell you what it says. IMG_1052