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.

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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.

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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!”

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Reference

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

 

What are you wearing today?

 

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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.

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