Pottery conversation part two: “It felt spiritual, that moment of centering”

IMG_1929

Last week my sister told her story about being a potter. This week, my husband Michael Carpenter talks about his experience.

Michael’s story

I had no frame of reference in my family to help me become an artist.  I had some kind of urge to do creative stuff, but I couldn’t draw or paint ‘cause I thought you either had talent or you didn’t so I learned to do beadwork when I was still in my teens on a little weaving loom and make strip things, and I could take graph paper and map out what I wanted it to look like.

When I was married to Linda, she took a graphic design course then went to work at the newspaper doing graphic design. She’s a very good, very talented artist, she could draw so well. Anyway, I just felt like I wanted to do something creative so I started doing pottery, and we did it together, we took some classes. I wanted to throw on the wheel, that was my thing, so I started learning how to do that. And then I worked for this place that made trailers, I was a welder, and I used to weld the trailers together, and they all hated me because I was a hippie-poet, and they gave me all the crappy jobs, like climbing under the trailers and welding the leaf springs, which made the cattle shit ignite and run down onto my head.

So the boss asked me one day, do you really want to do this? And I said no fucking way. So he laid me off and I got Unemployment Insurance and I took about nine months taking all kinds of pottery stuff. I took classes from this guy Mel Bolen, who is still making amazing pottery and classes from Stan Tanawa, who is famous and did a big mural at Chemainus, and is still one of Canada’s foremost potters. And I learned how to throw. I sat in my backyard at the potter’s wheel and every time a pot would fall apart, which was every time, I’d throw it at the wall of the house.  And by the end of the day I’d be swearing and cursing and there’d be clay stuck all over the house and I’d hose it all off and put it back together again, and eventually, I got to the point where I could throw and do some hand building, but I really wanted to throw pots.

Throwing pots: It felt spiritual, that moment of centering when the bub-bub-bub-bub became a hmmmmmmm. It’s a hum, it’s a hum when it centres and it’s all wet under your hands. It’s amazing.

Kathryn: For me it’s not a hum, first there’s a noise, then it’s silent. It’s magical.

Linda and I did a lot of work together, we did a lot of collaborative stuff; she’s very talented, then I went and made raku. I discovered raku firing which was totally cool. And I really liked how direct it was. You build your kiln out of bricks in the woods, and go get an old propane torch that makes it work and stick it in a hole in the side, and put the pots in it and fire them up and it happens fast. You pull them out before they’re even finished. And they’re still glowing and you take them, and ignite them, and put them in a big bucket of sawdust and it creates this reduction atmosphere and makes metal and stuff grow on the surface. But what I really wanted to do was be an artist. I really wanted to make pictures. I didn’t really want to work three- dimensionally.

When did you realize that?

Well I kept saying to Linda, I can’t fucking draw, and I am looking at these pots, and I’m going, I wanna decorate them, and she said anybody can draw, and I said no you have to be an artist to draw, and she said, no, it’s all practice.  She said you just start to make lines. It’s not talent. She said figuring out what you want to do and having a vision for your work, and thinking of original things, that’s the talent part. the rest of it is hand-eye coordination and anyone can learn those skills. So I got a sketchbook and I started drawing designs and tried to figure out what I’d do to make on pots, so then I started decorating. things with wax resist, this one, and the tree, and this one.

IMG_1922

This one, and the tree. Quite lovely, Nice flowy lines. I went wow, well that’s all cool, and then I just wanted to make pictures, I wanted to draw, I didn’t really want to work three-dimensionally, so I started drawing and painting and doing more of that stuff. And the pottery kind of just went away.

I was trying to figure out if I should go to University. I’d been doing the burning shit-welding, which was not on, and I’d been spending the last nine months making pots because I thought “oh, I’ll be a famous potter and I’ll make money,” and I was trying to figure that out and then I realized I was making pieces that were lovely, some of them, and having people admire some of the art pieces I was making, but nobody wanted to buy those – the only things anybody wanted to buy were coffee mugs. And I said to myself one day, what’s the difference between welding trailers or any other manufacturing job and making coffee mugs? And I thought, nothing—this is manufacturing. Thirty years from now I’ll hate my life. I’ll be pulling coffee mugs off the hump, because that’s how you make them, you make a big hump of clay, you make a lump, you make a mug, you cut if off, just keep pulling them off but that’s not what I wanted to do.  So I went to University.

Pottery conversations part one: The value of a negative teacher

 

By Madeline Walker with Kathryn Walker and Michael Carpenter

IMG_1911

“Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me.”

We sat in the cool dim dining room around the teak table, my sister, my husband, and I.  The conversation was about their pottery connection. In his early twenties, my partner Michael was a potter. Many of his creations sit on the shelves beside us, blue-green raku pots, a roughly built bowl, an elegant grey vase.  My sister was a potter in her early twenties. I have only a few of her things—a blue-glazed jug that would be at home on a French peasant’s table.  A candle holder, a built pencil holder with diagonal lines scored on the side. Most of the other things she had given me were broken over the years.

Thick foliage from the backyard threw green coolness into the room. We felt rather than saw the July light flickering on the deck.

“I’m kind of amused. I’ve never really thought of Michael as a potter” my sister Kathryn said, “I knew he made pots, but we’ve never really talked about it.” Michael and I have only been together six years, so it wasn’t surprising.

“No,” said Michael, “we’ve never had a conversation about glaze, about what makes things crackle, about what cone we fired our kilns to.”

“Yeah, or about bisques,” Kathryn murmured. “About whether this is a good mug or not.”  She lifted her coffee cup from the table, a slim green-glazed mug we’d bought from a couple of production potters at an Artisan’s Fair three years ago.

It’s so strange, really, that these two—born only a few years apart—had each chosen that same path at around the same time, in the 1970s, one in Manitoba, and one in Ontario.

A twist in Kathryn’s case is that the occupational surname, “Potter,” is our paternal grandmother’s maiden name—she was Marguerite Potter. And my youngest son now bears Potter as a middle name.  So I wondered about those ancestors of ours, the Potters, making vessels in England before they came across the ocean to finally settle in Oklahoma.

Kathryn’s story

“Why did you want to be a potter?” I asked my sister.

“When I was about seven, I wrote in a book that I wanted to be a famous artist.  I didn’t work in clay, but I drew a lot, and I had some talent. I took an art class at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Do you remember that? We sketched statues.”

“I do remember that. The classes were in the basement of the old Art Gallery of Ontario.”

“So Mom recognized that I had some talent, but her message was that you can’t be a week-end artist, you have to do it all the time or you won’t be successful. So I stopped doing art, but I was still drawn to it. Later, I took a sculpture course at Central Tech, but I was bored silly trying to reproduce an exact copy of someone else’s figure in clay.

So I went to pottery class instead. All he did was – he gives me this ball of clay. ‘here, make something.’ So I started playing with it, and I had an epiphany. The sense of touch is one of your most primal senses. I just totally got into the zone.  Which was great when you’re that age because I was so self-conscious. I totally forgot where I was.  I made a squat little curvaceous pot, just a pinch pot. And I thought ‘Wow, I love this, I can do this.’ An awesome feeling. Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me. The wire of the judgemental part didn’t go down there. I reconnected with my creativity. In that class I made a piece called ‘The Scream,’ which was very powerful. It’s a person’s head, cast in plaster, screaming.”

Our mother has “The Scream” in her living room. Whenever I visit her in Toronto, I look at the wide, silent mouth, the suffering eyes, a sculptural version of Munch’s painting.  And I think, ah, to have created this, my sister knew suffering.

Kathryn continued: “I decided I wanted to learn pottery, so a friend knew someone named Yanya, South African. This tiny lady, a crazy chain smoker. She lived in High Park and was a potter. She sold her stuff all over the place. Her stuff was all functional, really it wasn’t very good, I realized the longer I was there. But the thing about her was she had a will of steel. And we were raised with nobody saying no to us. I don’t know why she appealed to me. The first class I went to, it turns out I was the only student. She was such a bitch, she couldn’t attract students. She said ‘I guess you thought you were going to make a pot tonight. Well you’re not. You’re going to learn how to do this, spiral wedge.’”

I looked quizzically at my sister. What’s spiral wedge? “So you get the air out of the clay. You work the clay on the diagonal—more efficient. She taught that to me, and I am grateful.  Yanya thought she was Bernard Leach, a famous British studio potter, and I was her devotee. At the end of the class, in her low ceilinged basement, she said ‘well, I guess you won’t be coming back.’” Kathryn laughed.  “And you know what, if she had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have come back. But I was challenged. I thought ‘fuck you’ I am coming back. Yeah – that’s what you think.”

“I’m like that too,” I said. “In my first graduate class, in African American literature, the prof was complaining about how students never read everything on the syllabus, how lazy they are. And I thought – well I’ll show you: I’m going to read everything. And I did, and he eventually hired me as his research assistant.  So we’re kind of alike in that attitude; when we are challenged, we think ‘I’ll show you I can do it.’”

“Yeah, so I went back and she never had any other students. She lived in this big house. I rarely went upstairs, but the whole house stunk of cat pee, cat spray, and cigarettes. She had hairless cats, the most bizarre looking things—have you ever seen one?”

“I think so.”

“Yanya was so opinionated, you could not argue with her. She was very critical of what I did—‘you did it wrong, do it again.’ I hated her, but I realized I was learning. I learned how to mix glazes. And she was so rigid, it gave me boundaries. Instead of the guy saying ‘here, make something.’ It was a system, she taught me a system. I learned how to be a functional potter, and I learned I didn’t want to be a functional potter. I also learned I have a very good aesthetic for clay, but that I’m not fast. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t like it enough to do it.”

“Did you ever make any money at it?”

“No. But I was Yanya’s assistant, so I got to use the studio for free.”

“But I remember you selling some of your pieces.”

“Well, I stayed there for a few years then I decided to start my own studio. That was when I was living on Beverley Street. I bought a kiln and put it in the basement. And Yanya, she never wanted to see me again, she was so pissed off. She thought I would stay there forever, putting handles on mugs, trimming stuff, putting her stamp on everything.

I never did very creative stuff there because she thought it was weird. And her stuff was heavy. She created her own glazes; every potter has her own glazes. But she was a good teacher for me, a negative teacher, and she taught me how to wedge.

In my own business, I could never figure out how to how to charge for stuff. I’d charge too much or too little and it was anxiety producing. But I realized I liked making things that you could use, but you didn’t have to. I liked making sculptural things. I made some interesting stuff, but I would let people interrupt me. People were constantly coming down to the basement, to my studio.”

“I had a lot of your stuff you gave me, but I broke most of it.”

“That’s the thing about pottery.”

“I decided I needed to be in a social context. Working alone in the studio didn’t work for me. So I sold everything and I dropped it.  But, I still feel like that’s my medium, I could plug right back into it.”

“Right –feeling the flow the positive psychologists talk about. I feel that when I am writing.”

“I was hoping Michael might collaborate on something to do with pottery, but he says he’s done with it.  But for me, I don’t feel like I’m done with it. It’s something I can explore more. The fact that you do need all this equipment and it is so physical, that’s attractive to me. It’s a full time job. I don’t know that I would have the energy.”

“There’s pottery collectives.”

“Yes, just to be part of that. It would give me a social context.”

“What’s your favorite piece that you ever made?”

“There’s a pot in my friend Ken’s garden that I built up with slabs. It’s a sleeping face, carved. When the clay is leather hard, you carve it, dry it, bisque it, then paint it with manganese. Brownish black, with a bit of sheen. It’s big –so it could be used as a vessel.  I think it’s still there, in his yard.”

I turned to face my husband, who was sitting quietly, listening.  “And you,” I said, “how did you start making pots?”

Michael told me his story, but that’s for next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day

A redhead named Janelle
is cleaning my teeth.
I feel the warmth of her
body through a blue glove
as she leans her tiny hand
against my chin to scale

She wields the Cavitron with
what might be called love
sonic pulse of water down
my deep pockets, she takes such
care. I count breaths, my jaw a
canyon for her small fingers

She intuits the tender spots,
knows where to swab
my gums with local,
knows when to suction, when
to spray, gently wipes spit from
my face like a mother cleans her child

She reads my body and
my pain, seeks to comfort me
Unspoken trust is here,
the intimacy of strangers
Yet is she so strange to me?

I’ve heard that Buddhists believe
every being has been our
mother innumerable times.

Suddenly, Janelle seems
beautiful, radiant.
I notice her kind responsive
hands, her bright crooked smile,
the way she studied a dark bloom on
my X-ray and broke
the news in a low solicitous voice

Imagine every person was once your
mother. Let affection blur the
critical gaze, meet every pair
of eyes with tenderness and
compassion

Imagine!

Notes on writing poetry

When my book of poems was published in 2014, I had mixed feelings. I knew they were rushed and rough, many more prosaic than poetic. I adopted the view that the process not the product was most important. I had gotten a surprise contract on the strength of a few poems, and a short deadline. I enjoyed waking up every day for most of that year with the challenge to write a new poem, 80 pages of poems in 8 months. But I knew they weren’t polished; they did not reflect long craftsmanship.

The book got scant attention when it came out. My mother-in-law, then 95 (RIP, Barbara), loved it and told me it was “so clever.” I thought, well I’m happy it pleased her. That’s enough. I have a few fans, mostly family members. There were two reviews. One was mostly positive, the other mostly negative. The negative review included the following: “Its text…makes shameless use of exclamation marks and ellipses—punctuation that I abhor.” Strong words—”shameless” and “abhor,” words that seem more appropriate collocations for rape and genocide than for punctuation. I felt the reviewer had missed the point that free use of “!” was part of the “birth of the uncool,” the shift from cool, critical academic to open, mushy, middle-aged explorer of the self.

The review said lots more, but I’ll stop there. I think I suffered from that review more than I let on. Ouch! It seemed so mean and tight and shaming. Though I actually agreed with many observations the reviewer made about my poems, her tone stung deeply. What I found curious to observe was how reading that review seemed to paralyze me. I didn’t want to write much poetry for almost two years.

I want to reclaim poetry again. It felt (defiantly) good to put that exclamation mark at the end of the poem. As Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.  img_1690.jpg

Thanks for reading, and happy mother’s day to all sentient beings.

The road not taken

IMG_1624

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The bird-light bones of change

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

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

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

In my mandala, I painted that  underground journey.

img_1572

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

img_1577

Reference

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

 

What are you wearing today?

 

img_0710

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0669

 

 

Purple velvet

img_1521

When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion.  Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.

I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners.  I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it.  It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.

I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?

Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out.  His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.

His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature.  He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view.  Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive.  Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago.  But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.

My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study.  We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well.  My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen.  At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.

There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room.  The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams.  As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes.  And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.

A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.

To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper.  Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student.  The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.

The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”

“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.

“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.

“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.

“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”

I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.

After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study.  Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out.  And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore.  One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me.  I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.

Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it.  I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight.   A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently.  I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt.  I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.

I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in.  Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.

After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader.  I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.

Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me.  I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty.  God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.

In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor.  Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.

“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”

She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face.  She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess.  Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.

“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.”  I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.

I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.

“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, Professor Blummer.”

“Come on up to my study.”

Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later.  I looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.

“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.

“What high school?”

I opened the hall closet.  “Malvern.”

“Teacher?”

“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.

“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed.  “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway.  I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”

She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.

“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”

“Yeah, Cynthia.”

She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.

“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”

“He’s a scream.  I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”

“When did you grad?”

“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation.  “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”

We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad.  I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.

The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season.  God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.

I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.”  The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few.  If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.

My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow.  She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.

“Good sleep?”

“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”

“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles.  I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.

“When will he be home?”

“Oh probably not for hours.”

My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing.  For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?”  But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW.  Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay.  After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.

I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye.  I bent over to look at it more closely.  It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow.  This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it.  The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.

What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching.  When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.

I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.

The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time.  It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin.  We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic.  We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party.  Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.

“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”

“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate.  In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh.  He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies.  Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.

Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”

“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.

I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.

“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”

I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA.  My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.

I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the  couch caught my eye.  The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”

Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?”  I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.

The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.

 

 

The Mothers of Rinaldo

A short story by Madeline Walker

img_1486

Ainslie Birchoff had a son, and then she had another one two years later. A week before the second birth, the bigger boy, Rinaldo, was moved into his own bedroom, with his own bed.  The chocolate brown curtains had pink embroidered pigs on them, by Ainslie’s own small talented hands, and there was a sturdy box of wooden blocks in the corner. Ainslie’s husband Tom had tried to get Rinaldo used to the room for a few nights before the birth—lying down with him and singing the boy to sleep on the cosy little toddler-sized bed made up with soft flannel sheets and topped with a bright yellow duvet.

The first night at home from the hospital, Ainslie nursed her new son to sleep in the big bed. They had named him Colin after her grandfather, and after an easy birth he was an easy baby.  Rinaldo had fallen asleep finally, after fussing and crying with his father for what had seemed like hours.  The little family was finally at rest. Ainslie, Colin, and Tom lay together in one room, while Rinaldo slept in the room next to them. The big clock on the wall in the kitchen tick-tocked, and their German shepherd Portia twitched her flanks in sleep.

Come 3 a.m. and Ainslie roused herself to nurse Colin. There were the usual lip smackings and slurpings of the sucking newborn, but then something else. An uneven patter in the hall.  Ainslie carefully slid Colin off of her breast and sidled out of bed, moving very slowly so as not to wake her partner and her infant.  In the hallway, lit only by the golden glow of the night-light, Rinaldo was walking up and down—more like staggering—dressed in only his pajama top. The white cotton nightshirt covered his protruding taut belly and just skimmed his tiny wagging penis.

“Rinaldo, darling, back to bed. Come with me lovey,” She leaned over to scoop up the little boy, when he turned and looked at her, startled.

His face began to crumble into the beginnings of a wail.  “I want my real mommy,” he screamed, then with a long trembling intake of breath he began to sob.   Ainslie felt scared. “But darling boy, I am your real mommy,” she tried again to gather him up, but he backed off.  His face contorted in distress and he continued to cry piteously.  Ainslie was unable to catch him—he fled and hid under the couch, flattening his little body onto the floor. Colin heard the fuss and started to cry from the bedroom, and then so did Ainslie. Finally, Tom was able to extract his son. He rocked the quivering sobbing boy to sleep.

Tom and Ainslie were shaken. They took Rinaldo to their pediatrician the next day, and he examined the boy. “Strong as a pony. Nothing wrong with this kid,” he pronounced, giving the two-year old a high five.  “My professional opinion is that is was an isolated case of night terrors or sleep walking. Ignore it.” And he sent them off to his receptionist to collect a “prize” for Rinaldo from a plastic tub of dollar store items such as kazoos and small stuffed toys.

There weren’t any more instances like the night waking terror, but starting at around age four, Rinaldo started to say a very precocious and oddly hurtful thing: “I was born into the wrong family.”  You may think it impossible that a four year old could say something like that as it seems to presuppose a level of self-awareness that a child that age simply does not have. But that’s because you’re thinking that the statement is metaphorical. Four-year old (and five-year old, and six-year old) Rinaldo was not speaking metaphorically. He was stating a fact, it seemed, when he pronounced this. And pronounce it he did. Not terribly often, but at interesting moments, with a kind of faraway look in his eyes. The statement and the look, together, made Ainslie’s gut drop, made her feel like she was on a broken elevator, shooting down, down.

Rinaldo’s parents weren’t Italian—the Burchoff name was originally from Tom’s paternal grandfather who was German. So Rinaldo was christened Rinaldo because his father liked the name. He had come across it in a novel he was reading, turned it around in his mouth a few times, and asked his wife, Ainslie, “what do you think of Rinaldo for a boy?”

“It’s different, I like it!” she shouted from the kitchen where she attempted to chop vegetables with her arms extended, as her enormous girth kept her well back from the counter. Later on, she had done some research and found that Rinaldo, an Italian form of Reynold, meant “wise power.” Nice, she thought.

Portia the dog died when the kids were in their teens—it was surprising she lasted so many years.  At the end, they had to carry her from one part of the house to the other because she slid on the hardwood floors. Tom got killed in a car accident when the boys were 29 and 27, and precisely one year later, Ainslie was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of inflammatory breast cancer. Colin was married with a new baby, and Rinaldo was single, living on his own in a cramped bachelor apartment across town. He was barely making ends meet with his blog “Outersphere,” about metaphysics and people and places that operated on different, higher energy levels than other folk.  The advertising revenue from the blog kept him just solvent. Soon after his mother’s diagnosis, he gave his notice at the apartment and moved back into the family home, back into his boyhood bedroom.  At a point late in his mother’s cancer, after every treatment had failed and she was back at home to live her last days, Rinaldo taped a sign to the front door of the 1920’s character house, carefully lettered with a black sharpie on lined paper:  “My mother is dying in this house.  Please respect this sacred space. Remove your shoes. Speak softly. Don’t bring negativity here, only love. Let us make her passage to the other side one of peace.”

One day he sat beside her bed, holding her hand, rhythmically pressing down the raised blue veins with his huge thumb, crying quietly.  She looked at him—so different from staid Colin, his wild brown curls tucked behind big ears, his beard scraggly and rough. His hazel eyes were red-rimmed from so much crying.

“Do you remember, Rinaldo, the night you had the bad dream, just after Colin was born?”

“No, tell me.”

“Well you were wandering around the house in just a nightshirt, and when I tried to take you back to your bed, you looked up at me so scared, and said ‘I want my real mommy!’ Oh my, that hurt me so much.  I still feel a stab in my heart, even now” she said with a grimace.

“You know, I finally found my real Mother,” he said to her, looking into her eyes.

She looked confused. She was expecting some reassurance from her son. She was dying here, a youngish widow, the tragedy was compound, the air was thick with the sadness of it all. And here he was saying she was actually not his mother?

“I’m your real mother,” she said sharply. I should know, I spend nine months with you in utero. I birthed you. I should know.”

“Oh, I know all that. But that’s not what’s important. Of course you are my biological mother, but my spirit Mother is somebody who has been right under my nose, all along, and I only found out last year.”

Ainslie, though very weak, pulled her thin body up in the bed. Her sharpness continued. “What the hell are you talking about?” This tone was uncharacteristic for her. She had been such a soft, giving soul all of her life.  Those uncanny times when Rinaldo had said he was born in the wrong family, those tore her heart to shreds, but she had suffered silently. And now, this? She had thought when he moved back home after her diagnosis that there would be only closeness, only intimacy, only mother-son love.  Now this?

Rinaldo did not draw back, nor did he release her hand. His big hand was very warm, enclosing hers, and though he had tears streaming down his face, he was very composed, very calm. “Mom, it’s okay, it’s okay. I know it’s upsetting. But my spirit Mother is no rival to you. You have been a wonderful mum—always there for me, always loving.  But my spirit Mother—well She is the one who guides me, who has been guiding me, in spirit matters all my life. The story about my night wandering at two is very telling. I have been looking for Her, and She is right here.”

“Right where?” murmured Ainslie. Her eyes were closed now, as she felt a sharp pain in her chest, where her breasts had once been.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich.  He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed.  Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in.  Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

“In there, my Mother is in there.” He paused.  “And your own spirit Mother is in here.” He slowly moved her hand out of his shirt and placed it on her own flat chest, where two radical mastectomies had razed her body.  His hand, warm and firm, held her own fluttery one down flat on that scarred place, separated from her skin by only a thin layer of violet cotton.  They both felt her heart beating rapidly, a bird’s beat in comparison to his.  A thought flashed through Ainslie’s mind. I’m not embarrassed. I wonder why? But then her attention was back on the hands, her son’s and her own. The place under those hands grew warm as her rapid heart began to slow down. Now it sounded like a little pony going from a canter to a trot. A palomino pony trotting across a green meadow, wild yet serene.  Free.

 

The pleasures of writing memoir

In my job I tutor all kinds of students, but most of the writing they show me is academic writing and their questions are about how to do it, improve it, and understand it.  Last week I was surprised by two students who were working in a border genre of academic writing meets creative non-fiction. It was such a pleasure to listen to them and read bits of their work. I was motivated to open up a document I wrote in 2014, a short memoir. I was guided in my writing by a book on women’s memoir. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or author, but I do remember that her suggestion was to write using topics, not chronology as a guide. One chapter, for example, is on “birth and beginnings” in your life. Another one is on “body language.” And so on.  I liked this approach, and I produced around 80 pages in a few weeks. I tucked it away and forgot about it until recently. Here are the first few pages. img_1451-1

Prologue

A sunny protected courtyard with high whitewashed walls. The courtyard is scattered with easels, and small children wearing paint-splashed smocks stand before the easels, brushes in their hands, intent on making marks in bright colours on the cheap newsprint. Dave Brubeck’s jazz is floating over the scene. Branches of a mountain ash tree, resplendent with clusters of orange jewel-berries, hang over the edge of the courtyard wall. The feeling is one of serenity and innocence, yet zinging with the subtle undertone of jazzy, creative energy.  This memory is lodged deep inside my bones, and I don’t even know if it is a memory of something that really happened in my life, perhaps at nursery school, or a dream, or a scene I imagined in waking life. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. It stands for the best of life to me—childlike open curiosity and freedom to create, the improvisation and airiness of jazz, sun on white walls, signalling the unlimited joy we can feel, the beckon of the blank slate that we mark with our spirit. I want this scene at the beginning of my life story, and I hope it passes before me as I die.

Chapter 1 – Births and beginnings

Birth—my story goes like this. My parents and two older sisters lived in Berkeley, but my mother arranged specially for me to be born at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek because they had “rooming in,” a fresh new concept in 1958. Your baby could room in with you instead of being relegated to the big nursery of Plexiglas cribs filled with pink and blue swaddled bundles.  Rooming in would make it easier for mother and baby to breastfeed and bond.  But the plan was upended. My father took my two older sisters, 18 months and three years, trick or treating on a rainy evening, October 31, 1958, while my mother, lonely, I imagine, and feeling unwell, laboured and gave birth to me. I was whisked away from her and she didn’t see me for 24 hours as she recovered from some virus they didn’t want me—the newborn—exposed to.  So best laid plans of women often go awry (with apologies to Robbie Burns).

Perhaps I should take that as important information about my life—don’t make elaborate plans, as they are sure to fall apart at the last minute?  I look at that blurry old photo of me, tummy down, in that nursery crib of acrylic glass, my face squashed, and I imagine the suffering there. No skin to skin contact, no bonding or gazing into my mother’s eyes. No breast at all, not even one suck. I was bottle fed from birth. I would like to call my mother and ask for some details, but there is a bruised quality to our relationship right now. I imagine her getting very defensive, touchy about those details I would probe for: What illness did you have?  Were you terribly sad when you couldn’t see me, hold me?  Did you feel the loss?

So I imagine a lonely beginning to my life and loneliness for her as well…no soft breast to suckle me, only the discomfort of rock hard engorgement. A new birth marked by loss. But there were two other children to see to, and not much time or money. So not a time of abundance. Rather, of scarcity. I have never thought of my birth this way before, as a time of loss, but perhaps this inured me to getting less than expected, to ask for less, to settle for less, and to pretend it doesn’t matter.

Many people remark with curiosity that I was born on Halloween. “What was that like?”  Perhaps my propensity to feel bereft and envious grew from that first night of my birth. My sisters were out getting candy, trick or treating, other babies getting the breast…I was getting nothing. No candy, no colostrum. Poor me. The night in the Wiccan calendar when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest…perhaps I feel closer to that mystery now, although my affinity for the metaphysical was well closeted for almost 50 years.

I had a turn toward the melancholy as a youngster. Photos show me looking sad or scowling, and perhaps I cultivated that persona. But why? When my smile was so brilliant and beautiful, and I could have plucked joy like plucking a low hanging fruit?  But it took me awhile to paste on that frown. It was not always so.

I love a photograph of me at the kitchen table in student housing in Berkeley, my first home.  I am sitting in one of those 1950s chrome and plastic high chairs—the simple kind you pull up to the table: no trays or gadgets or even straps.  The profile shot has me turning in the chair to face the camera, one hand grasping the side of my chair and my plump little leg and bare foot tucked under me. The other hand clenches the end of a piece of toast and brandishes it in the air, and the plate in front of me has a few crumbs of scrambled egg left. I have this big lovely open grin on my face. I look to be around one year old, my dark happy eyes gaze at the picture taker with love, my tongue is just at my lips which are slightly open and upturned. I have a thatch of glossy hair atop my square-ish head and my demeanor says I am joyful and ready for the day! I love to check out this picture of me to remind me that my sad-sack self that persisted through childhood and adolescence (and beyond) was a construction—that I am and was equally able to be joyful, present, happily alive in the moment, ready for anything, loving, accepting, energetic.

Neptune brings an ache

 

In October 2016, I gave myself a birth chart reading as a birthday present. After receiving my chart by email, I talked for one hour with Corina Dross, a talented, poetic astrologer with a highly responsive and intelligent heart-mind.  There were many revelations during that hour, but one that stays with me and has affected me the most is the recognition of Neptune’s influence over me in the last five years and the knowledge that it will hang around in my tenth house for many years to come. This is how Corina described Neptune to me:

“Neptune’s goal is to transcend your sense of being limited by your unique individual ego and to feel a sense of communion with the infinite. Neptune is the spiritual drive, it is the drive to make transcendent art of some kind, to have transcendent experiences in love. Neptune drives our sense of seeking something beyond this world. So having Neptune very close to Venus [which I have in my chart] is often an indicator that this person has a strongly poetic nature, strong receptivity, strong ability to bring in from the imaginal realms from the non-physical world insight, inspiration, imagination, longing, all of this into the material world.” img_1410

She told me that I had experienced an extended Neptunian initiation during the last few years [since 2011]. It is finishing making its harmonious aspects to the planets in my fifth house, but is next to my mid heaven [MC, sense of career] now and will stay in my tenth house for a dozen years.

Corina went on to say that as “Neptune moves across [mid heaven] it brings with it a heightened sense of sensitivity, a deep sense of longing and a sort of cloudiness about the details of reality—the shadow side (the other side is the connection to the spiritual). The shadow side is like a drug experience: You are not sure what the consequences are, where are my keys, what is truth, what is fiction? When you are caught up in a Neptunian experience you can suspend your sense of reality and come back to it later.” I have certainly felt both the shadow and the spirit side of Neptune.

And then Corina told me that “Neptune brings with it an awareness that there are things we long for that we will never have in this life.  It brings that ache for the perfect world, for the ideal, and touches us with that. As Neptune moves through your tenth house there may be ways you’ll have to let go of dreams or create new dreams for your career. There might be ways you feel called to sacrifice for the greater good or the good of someone else’s career. Neptune asks us to develop the qualities of our soul more than the qualities of our personality. I cannot give you any details because the chart does not tell us that, but it does tell the themes that might come up for you. Which doesn’t mean that you won’t have any worldly success, it might mean you get worldly success and decide you don’t want it.” (I have emphasized with italics those words that really sounded true for me.)

When Corina said that to me, it was if binocular lenses came into focus with a click, and I could see with clarity the barnacles on the humpback as she breached the cobalt sea. I have been feeling this influence of Neptune and thinking there is something wrong with me— but to know this is part of my path is a great relief. I feel a recurring ache for the beyond. Not the death drive, but some sense of reaching beyond the here and now. While in a part of my life I seek contentment, being okay with the way things are, accepting what is (part of both Buddhist and twelve step practice)—working on acceptance is in tension with the deep heartache of longing for things I will never get in this life.

The understanding of Neptune’s influence on career has been important. And when Corina talked about career, she meant not just jobs we are paid for, but the work we are meant to do in our lives. When I sent out a short story a few months ago and got a quick rejection, it set me wondering, “is this the path I want to take?” Sure, it’s a respectable path that many writers follow, writing and sending out work, feeling the routine heartache until it happens: you get published.  Or maybe it doesn’t happen. But I had to ask myself, is getting my fiction published important to me? Do I need that validation? I have had two books published and several articles appear in academic journals. Did it bring me happiness? Did it bring me satisfaction? No. Each time it happened, my ego flared briefly, like the bonfire flames leap when you add a splash of gas. But it also brought disappointment and self-doubt. So why would I want to step onto that path again, this time with fiction? That is the moment I decided to start putting my stories on the blog. When I asked myself why I was writing them, this is what I discovered: I am merely a conduit for creativity. Like Dylan Thomas’s “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” this force is somehow beyond volition. It is the life force itself. And the natural outcome of creating for me is to share. Just as I like to give my finished quilts to friends, to cook food for people I love,  I want to share my essays, fiction, art, and poems with readers. (Thank you for reading. Thank you so much.) This is what I take to be the “new dream[s] for my career” that Corina talked about. Neptune calls me to honour the creative without getting caught up in the “game.”

Now that I am attuned to Neptune’s influence in my life, the sweet, sad ache of yearning does not worry me.

But I think Neptune’s influence can create anxiety. I am reading Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence, and in that book, Tremain describes what sounds like Neptune’s force. There is an “anti-knitting edict” in Denmark in the late sixteenth century: “This activity had been proscribed throughout the land as tending to induce in women an idle trance of mind, in which their proper thoughts would fly away and be replaced by fancy.  Men called this state ‘wool gathering.’  . . . They believed that any knitted night bonnet might contain among its millions stitches the longings of their wives that they could never satisfy and which in consequence would give them nightmares of their own enfeeblement.” (pp. 10-11).  This of course may be more about the general oppression of women in the sixteenth century than Neptune, but the “wool gathering” that Neptune cultivates in me made the passage resonate.

Today I am using my son’s painting to accompany my post (with his permission) because, for me, it illustrates Neptune’s influence. She is out there beyond the gas giants, beyond the asteroid belt, unseen but felt intensely as a pleasurable bittersweet ache.


Notes:

You can see more of Nathaniel Churchill’s art on Instagram at oz.gonzales

If you are interested in buying Nathaniel’s art, message him on Instagram or let me know at maddyruthwalker@gmail.com

You can learn more about Corina Dross and her work at her website http://www.flaxandgold.com

(I slightly edited Corina’s spoken words from my transcription of our conversation.)

I quoted from the following book:

Tremain, Rose. Music & Silence. (1999). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.