Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

I am not going to say anything about this latest comic except that I submitted it as the final assignment for our “Going in for the Snakes” course.  Anything I say will cloud your reception of the work, so I’ll just let it stand.

I start an intensive course in graphic memoir in mid-November.

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More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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Four years of quilts

I started quilting in October 2013, learning from all those wonderful quilters who are kind enough to share their skill through YouTube videos and blog posts. I have made 16 quilts over these last four years, from the humble beginnings of a purple rag quilt (still on our bed) to the patchwork for my friend Olga this past summer.  I’ve made quilts for people I love, and this gives me the greatest pleasure–to plan each quilt thinking of that person, his colours, her design.  Quilting has brought frustration and joy, has made me more patient, has allowed me to learn through mistakes, to take risks, to be creative with colour and pattern.  I’ve found photos of 14 of the 16 quilts, shown here.  Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

“For it is in giving that we receive.” Saint Francis of Assisi

Sequential Art: the Snake Pit

I changed the tagline of my blog from “Reader, Writer” to “The work wants to be made,” an Elizabeth Gilbert quotation. The rest of that line is “and it wants to be made by you.” I feel like a vehicle for expression–sometimes I don’t even know where stuff is coming from–but the work wants to be made.

I will use the blog to feature not only my writing, but also my other forms of creative expression.

I am taking an amazing online course: “Going in for the Snakes” at the Sequential Art Workshop (Gainesville, Florida).

Our teacher, Tom, is getting us to dig deep to tell stories with pictures and words. This week, I got immersed in telling this crazy story that I thought I would share.  IMG_2166IMG_2167IMG_2168IMG_2169IMG_2170

And here’s another sequence from the previous week. . .

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La Passeggiata

IMG_2057A passeggiata is the Italian tradition of a gentle stroll taken around the neighbourhood after dinner.   It’s also a vital part of the “Always Hungry?” (AH) diet developed by Dr. David Ludwig. He writes that “the passeggiata is a moment of joyful movement that helps support healthy digestion and insulin action, while simultaneously relieving stress and helping you sleep better.” (p. 123). That’s true, but I have also experienced intense pleasure in observing the phenomena in our neighbourhood during our evening passeggiata.

Michael and I have been following the AH diet for almost 8 weeks.  At first I resisted the passeggiata. We work hard all day, often biking to and from work (16-18 km round trip), and after preparing and eating dinner, I want to relax.  So we decided to keep it short. We walk around the block, just over a kilometre, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise. Now I look forward to it, as we walk slowly, encountering people, houses, trees, animals, and cars.

Head across the street passing the maple tree with the variegated leaves. Stop to admire those green speckles. We curve around the corner, down broad Colquitz, past front lawns, the van with “HOP GUY” license plate (he runs a small brewing company).  The houses become more familiar each time we stroll past, noticing details.  As we rounded the corner onto Middleton one evening, we saw a mother and her three kids getting out of their car. A dark-haired woman  helped her young daughter attach a grass skirt around her hips. The boys, perhaps 10 and 12, wore Hawaiian shirts. “Hawaii theme party?” I asked. Somehow the passeggiata leads to these chance meetings. We talked to her about the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands and fare prices while walking with them. In front of the party house many people with colourful leis around their necks  congregated, holding potluck dishes.

Another evening, as we walked by another house on Middleton, upbeat music blasted from the backyard and a catering truck, Food for Thought painted on the side, was parked in the driveway. A young man in a crisp white shirt and black pants approached the truck. “Is that your company?” I asked. “No, but I’m the manager.” “What’s going on?” He explained it was a wedding and in 20 minutes they would be eating dinner. He recommended the catering company as “good food and reasonable,” and went off to do the job.  Music, laughter, and cheers were heard all evening from the wedding house. Mazel tov!

Then there are the animals.  A flock of ducks frequent the neighbourhood. I think they live on Colquitz creek nearby, and travel over to the Gorge. We see them flying overhead almost every night, doing great loopy circles over the neighbourhood, an aerial version of the passeggiata. I can hear their wings creak as they plow the air over our heads.  Then they land on a front yard on Austin St., where the owner has put out plastic tubs of seeds for them to eat and bowls of water to drink.  A brown flurry of moving bodies with flashes of purple and teal as they peck at their food, jostling one another. Sometimes they walk out on the street. Last night a guy in his truck with his daughters had to wait as they slowly made their way to the side of the road so he could proceed. I remembered Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Two mourning doves also live in our neighbourhood. I noticed them appear several months ago when the construction up at Admirals Road and the highway got intense and we lost part of Cuthbert Holmes park to the bulldozers.  They have found a new home in the tall trees on our streets. I see them on every passeggiata now, usually together, on branches and telephone wires, cooing. Their mournful cries wash over me, making me feel an old yearning for some other world.

There is another special bird that has perched on the same wire two nights in a row, and trilled out the most complicated melody. We stopped to listen.  A guy pulled into the driveway in his yellow Alfa Romeo. He saw us, necks craned, looking up at the bird on the wire. I explained, “That bird sings such a lovely complex tune—I am just wondering what kind of bird it is.” “Songbird,” he laughed and opened his front door. (I have since searched through my copy of Birds of Victoria and identified the bird as a starling, perhaps mimicking the songs of other birds.)

We saw a cat yesterday, a white cat resting on a moist emerald lawn. Most of the lawns are straw brown, in these late baked summer days. But there she was, looking at us coolly in her stark white elegance against the green, one paw thrust forward.

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Then there are the flowers. Perfect white dahlias the size of a baby’s head. A huge hydrangea bush, the purplish blossoms weighted with summer, bleached by the daily heat.   Sunflowers. At one house, they tower twelve feet, their heavy bronze heads hung as if shy about their size.  Tonight as we stopped to admire those beauties, their owner drove into driveway and got out of her car. She told us this was the first time they had grown to this height. “I think it was the chicken manure from North Saanich.” When my husband congratulated her, she said it wasn’t her, it was the manure.  “Life is like that,” Michael responded. “Equal parts magic and chicken shit.”

Each day I notice something new or talk to another neighbour. All because of the passeggiata.

 

 

Documenting human detritus: The shopping list

Last summer, I wanted to test a theory I had and blog about it: Female servers in ice-cream places are more likely than male servers to give that extra little bit when you order a single scoop (that is, a scoop and a half).  It seemed plausible, as it had happened to me a few times.  It was also a delicious summer diversion, although it could lead to weight gain. I thought I’d take pictures of the cones and construct a chart or graph to display my findings.  Quickly, the theory was discovered to be faulty as we encountered several women who gave parsimonious ONE scoop servings and a guy who gave two for one.  Not long after that, the summer went to shit and the project seemed frivolous indeed.

This summer I am onto another project. I am not offering any theories, only the prospect of documentation to satisfy a growing curiosity.  I see shopping lists all the time.  I find them discarded in grocery carts and on the floors of stores. I find my own shopping lists tucked here and there in the house and in various notebooks. I am curious about shopping lists, so I thought I would start to document the ones I find to see what they tell me about people.

I have three to start. I found the first list at the back of a notebook I was keeping in 1985. I have recently been going through old folders from storage, and one folder titled “Alcoholism” had notes from when I quit drinking 32 years ago as well as some photocopied research articles about the “alcoholism as a disease” debate.  In a green steno notebook, I wrote about how things went each day for the first three months of sobriety.  In one note, I said I’d gone to my doctor and told her about my drinking problem. She said “Well, you don’t look like an alcoholic.” I recorded my fury at her comment.

At the back of the steno book, there was a shopping list, and along with food items (and kitty litter) in my handwriting, there are notes penned by my (then) husband—names of baseball players that I surmise he was considering for his fantasy baseball league. Beside them are numbers—it’s a mystery to me what they mean. I wonder if that’s the bidding price.

The second list I found in the couch when I was vacuuming under the sofa cushions today. This one is in my husband’s printing.

The final one, also found today, was on the floor of Thrifty’s grocery store written on half of a torn envelope.  I picked it up. I am going to be picking up every grocery list I see for awhile, until this project seems frivolous.

What do shopping lists reveal about people? Their diets, I suppose, and their habits of consumption.  These three tell little tales. I bet I was making chilli when I wrote that old list (from 32 years ago). Why else kidney beans and tomato sauce? And I am trying to remember the cat we had then for whom I bought the litter.  Maybe it was Dashiell, named after Dashiell Hammett, a grey and white striped female.  The more recent list is sweet because it shows that we eat quite a healthy diet, which makes me happy.  I like the “veg X 2.” However, something mysterious is that we never eat fish steaks because I prefer filets. Perhaps it means salmon AND steak?  I think so. That’s what that little symbol is–an ampersand in shorthand.

The found list is interesting. I don’t think it needs much commentary. I am glad the person is eating fruit.

 

 

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

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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.

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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

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“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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