October 3, 2013
Day one of extended writing and all I can think of is whether my ass shows through my leggings too much.
I’m wearing one of those impulse buys—a rayon shirt cut on the bias with long tails hanging on either side. It’s a deep olive green, one of my favorite colors, and looked amazing on the rack at the street festival where I got it. I should have tried it on but the booth was closing, I was late to meet my family, and the vendor assured me I would rock that shirt. Besides, that color, the color of my 11th grade prom dress, the color of clothes I’ve loved in my life—how could I go wrong with that color?
The color still works for me. The style, I believe is more appropriate for a boyish 12 -year-old than a 60-year-old woman.
I’ve tried to wear it several times, over different pants, pulling it up in places to create folds and gathers that might camouflage my slightly poochy belly. Of course, when I do I have to reveal either more of my bum in the back or girl parts in the front. With leggings neither is a look I want to sport.
Maybe the problem is the leggings. Maybe I need leggings that conceal more or have more spandex. Or maybe I’ll end up with a whole fucking new wardrobe in an attempt to make a $35 blouse from a street vendor look good.
I brought the top with me to Peru where I’m writing for three months. Did I think I’d feel better about being a slightly saggy middle-age woman in a foreign country? Did I feel people here would be less judgmental or dammit, I’d find a way to wear this shirt and look good in it? Or, did I think if I was going to have to give up on the idea of wearing this shirt it would be easier to hide the shame of my sartorial blunder far from home? I have to say that’s probably more likely.
Let’s face it, Peru (well, at least the Sacred Valley) is not the fashion capital of South America. There are high-end stores that cater to rich tourists but most of what you see on the street is functional clothing that protects you from the blazing sun, chilly winds, construction mud, field dirt, baby vomit or any other environmental hazards encountered in your line of work. Even most professional people dress fairly inexpensively. The sight of a half-dozen men in expensive suites in Cusco last week made my friend and I wonder who the hell these guys were. They seemed completely out of place.
Kind of like the blouse I’m wearing. I’m sure there are places and bodies where this shirt would be completely at home, part of the in-crowd, swinging. My friend says on me it looks more like a costume; Peter Pan gone to seed.
Why did I drag it all the way to Peru from Canada? What did I think would change here to allow me to feel comfortable?
I’m in the midst of quite a few life changes. I brought several articles of clothing I don’t love so I can let them go when it’s time to depart. I’ll leave what no longer suits me and, hopefully, have acquired a few things more in line with the person I am now, the person I am becoming.
This shirt is not long for this world. Either it has to transform to suit me (scissors, anyone?) or it’s out of here.
I may be saying the same thing to large chunks of my former life. Change or Die, Evolution or Extinction—I sound like a bumper sticker.
What I know is, I can’t keep putting my body, mind, emotions and spirit in the same old clothes (no matter how appealing certain aspects) and expect different results. To change you must release what’s not working, even if it’s your favorite color, even if you paid for it, even if you wanted it with all your heart, even if you once loved it very, very much.
Release the old, let the new come in.
And don’t think you have to travel to a foreign country to do it.
October 2, 2013
In October 2008, I went on a vision quest. I spent four days in a local provincial park fasting and meditating. I was completely alone and kept silent for three of the four days. On the fourth day, I was hungry, cold and tired. I asked to use a cell phone and seriously considered conning small children out of their bananas but thought better of it. Unseemly behavior after questing, I mused.
What did I learn on these days of deprivation and deep meditation?
Always carry a nail file. It’s damn near impossible to connect with a vision when you’ve got a raggedy old nail catching on your wool sweater or pants every 15 seconds.
You may think I’m being frivolous or flip here, but let me tell you, there’s a lot of nuts and bolts kind of stuff that comes up when you’re out in the woods for four days, no matter how saintly your motives for being there.
Like, where will you pee?
If, like me, you are in a rustic campground of some sort, you will be instructed to use the smelly, spider-ridden outhouse under threat of single-handedly destroying the ecosystem through urine pollution. As I was fasting and drinking copious amounts of water to facilitate the fast I was faced with a moral dilemma quite often— personal comfort or environment, smelly outhouse or lovely open patch of woods. I want you to know I made the right choice—at least a couple of times.
Also think about batteries.
If you build a fire that you’re able to keep going in the pouring rain and you know how to wrap a torch to carry through the woods, you might not need those batteries but my suggestion is you bow to the Gods of technology and tuck a few extra in your backpack.
I came to the woods with a small but mighty flashlight I bought specifically for my stay. “The most powerful beam of any flashlight its size,” the package told me. I felt good about that—I’m small, the flashlight’s small; we’re both powerful. The package failed to mention this flashlight would suck up energy like a sham wow on a car hood. Its demise was quick and dramatic.
I had chosen four relatively moonless nights for my quest because I wanted to see stars. We’re fairly star deprived in Gibsons there being quite a lot of light pollution in the evenings.
The campsite at Smuggler Cove is nestled in the woods although there’s a small clearing a few feet away next to the end of the cove. But I was longing for a vast expanse of open sky, say the edge of the bay about 15 minutes down the path. It was a rainy weekend, so when a clear night arrived I seized the opportunity. I had no watch or clock with me (nor anything else for that matter besides clothes and water) so I slept when tired and woke when I pleased. I had a vague recall of the tide table which gave me a bit of help determining time but mostly I worked with sun up and sun down. This particular night I woke to pitch black.
I felt scared and exhilarated. A walk through the woods in the dark past God only knew what creatures to see the stars—now there was a quest worth following. I put on my boots, coat and hat, grabbed my powerful flashlight and headed toward the water.
For some unknown reason, I was chanting “Onward Christian Soldiers,” maybe because it has such a good marching beat. I had a sense of purpose, I was going somewhere. By the time I got to the chorus, I was singing out loud, “Grant us wisdom, grant us purpose, for the facing of this hour. For the facing of this….” And the flashlight died. Abruptly. Out dead. That’s the thing about amazingly powerful flashlights; they don’t flicker and dim giving you a chance to turn tail and race back to camp. They suck that last bit of juice out of the batteries, burp and die.
I was standing in the middle of the woods at least 7 minutes from anything in inky blackness.
Did I mention I have terrible night vision?
I had to make a choice, forward or back. Which way did I have less chance of injuring myself? I was sure I was at least half way to the water’s edge and I still really wanted to see those stars, so I decided to move forward. I crept along, hands outstretched like a blind person, toes testing every inch of earth before me.
I have no way of knowing how long it took me to navigate to the little beach where I knew a large log was waiting to serve as my chair for the light show, but it seemed interminable. When I finally arrived, relieved, and sat down I was able to enjoy the stars for only a short time before the clouds which had hung around all weekend rolled back in to cover most of the sky. Judging from the water line I reckoned the time to be about 2:00 a.m. with dawn arriving around 5:30 or 6:00. That meant sitting somewhere damp and chilly in the dark for several hours before I could make my way safely back to camp.
At this point, all I knew to do was pray. As I was on a spiritual quest one might have assumed I would resort to prayer a bit earlier but it hadn’t occurred to me. However, as I got colder and damper, it seemed like a very good idea. I prayed that little flashlight would turn back on and get me back to my campsite safely. I took a deep breath, I turned the switch and a powerful beam shot forth with me directly behind moving as fast as I could back to the tent. “Oh, please, just last until I get back,” I repeated over and over.
And that’s just what happened. About twenty feet from the door of my tent, the flashlight died never to be resuscitated.
Any disappointment about not seeing stars was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for being back in the tent, my only remaining annoyance the broken fingernail that had plagued me from the beginning of my journey.
Though I was tired, dirty and very hungry when I left my camp, I came to some important realizations on that trip.
I realized Barry should buy that sailboat he wanted. He did.
I realized I should keep writing exactly what I write. I am.
I learned to trust… God, not my flashlight.
I learned to always, always carry a nail file.
November 25, 2012
This morning I awoke to my husband’s honking iPhone alarm. Barry continued to sleep as I jumped up to check whether our son was texting for an early morning ride home from last night’s sleepover. Sliding the lock to the right, I saw it was a reminder, not a text, that read:
Max flu and poem shot
It took a moment before I realized he meant flu and pneumonia shot.
I really liked poem shot, though. I’m uncertain if it’s a vaccination against or a dose of, but I like it either way. To think you could be inoculated for poetry, hit with just enough to keep it in your system forever, steeling you from it’s intoxicating effects was rather profound. You’d be immune to its power, aware but unafraid to go places it exists. That could be useful.
But for me, give me a shot of poem straight up, no chaser. Let it burn my throat going down, heat up my toes and make my head spin.Whether I like the taste or not I will experience the flavor concocted by another human and, if I’m lucky, be transported by the draught to unknown lands, learning a new topography and language.
Besides, hanging out with poetry drunkards is bound to be more fun than meeting with the theorists, critics and editors.
Oh, the joys of misspellings and malapropisms. I love that man.
November 14, 2012
Families, especially large families, tend to have legends, lore and stories about their histories. This is one of those stories.
Until I was four, I lived in a very small house on a very large lot, both constantly filled with children. In our 3-bedroom, 1-bath home there were two adults and five kids. One bedroom (downstairs across from the bathroom) was for the parents, one-bedroom (upstairs under the peaked roof and to the right) was the childrens’ room, and one bedroom (upstairs under the peaked roof to the left) was for my father’s model railroad set.
Downstairs was a small eat-in kitchen, a small living room and a big pantry closet under the stairs. The washer and dryer were out back behind the house in a side room of a large shed and garage building. Our freezer was in a room on the other side of that same shed. In the room with the washer and dryer were an old pump organ, lots of moldy old steamer trunks from the relatives, cans of paint, old appliances and tools, and hundreds of other treasures children couldn’t keep their hands off.
We played outside and in that shed a lot to stay out of the way of Mary Elizabeth Baker Williams, the black woman who took care of us, the current baby, and the house. We played cowboys, army, kick-the-can, tag, and of course, hide-n-seek.
I had only just turned four and was not that good at coming up with hiding places. At three you’ve only recently left the stage of believing if you close your eyes, no one can see you. My sister, Pat, age six, on the other hand was brilliant at hiding. I attribute this partly to her naturally sneaky personality which became highly troublesome in her teen years but that’s another story.
This particular sunny summer afternoon, my brother Warren, age five was IT and Pat and I were the hiders. Chubby little Robin, who had just turned three was toddling around somewhere and Mary Elizabeth was in the house with Robert, not yet two and the baby, Cheryl, only five months old. Pat and I were in the shed as Warren counted down and the pressure was on. Behind the organ was out—overused, wedging between the trunks was possible but fairly easy to find. Further back in the shed was not for me—too many spider webs and I was a rather timid child.
In desperation I asked for guidance from my older sister. Pat never really liked me except for a few years in my 30s and 40s when I was a good place to escape from her own six children. I’m fairly certain at age four I already had a scar on the back of my head where she hit me with a conch shell (stitches) and a scar on my little finger (stitches) where she slammed my hand in the door.
Still when she opened the round glass door of the dryer and said, “Hide in here,” it was not my instinct for self preservation that kicked in but rather my desire to win the game. It was an excellent hiding place. Who would think to look there?
I’m a little shaky on the details after that. From the way the story’s been told, Warren ran into the shed, yelled, “I see Wendy,” and hit the button.
I’m not sure how long I bounced around inside before someone ran to get Mary Elizabeth. If only I had been able to brace myself like in some amusement park ride it would have been way cool, but those protrusions inside the cylinder meant to keep your clothes tumbling nicely whacked me mercilessly as I tried to figure out what was going on.
Mary Elizabeth rescued me and shooed us all into the house frantically telephoning my father the doctor at his clinic in the middle of our small town. He, of course was shocked and appalled. “Mary Elizabeth,” he admonished, “all those cameras around and you didn’t get a picture?”
Later when he came home, he spanked us all. Pat for telling me to get in, Warren for turning it on (and for blaming it on Robin) and me, for being foolish enough to get in.
To this day my family believes my hair is curlier than my siblings from being fluff dried at an early age.
April 3, 2012
An article in the New York Times today seems to have finally settled a debate in our house—whether clothes are important to how we feel and behave. If you see my son Max, you’ll know on which side of the question he stands; the same is true of my husband Barry. It may not be immediately obvious what my feelings are on the matter (I’m a middle-aged self-employed Mom—I love my fuzzy sweatpants) but the truth is I’ve known for a long time what you wear can make a great difference in your feelings and performance.
Certainly, there were hints of this in high school when a Villager skirt and sweater with Pappagallo ballet flats could make me feel I ruled the world. However, the most striking instance to this day of the magic an outfit can create was the summer of 1977.
I was doing an outdoor drama, Wings of the Morning, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland and for our Second Stage production, director Andy Weisnet chose Jean Anouil’s The Lark. I had hoped to land the lead role, Joan of Arc, but as these things go I was cast as Joan’s Mother. This was a small role yet I was onstage the whole time as was the rest of the cast. We performed by candlelight in a restoration of Maryland’s first statehouse in sweltering humidity on our day off. When not “onstage” cast members sat motionless on benches in tableau awaiting cues to stand and perform. I committed to doing the play though I was less than thrilled with my part, that is, until I put on the costume.
Designed by Andrea Sachs out of bits and pieces left over from the costuming of the main show, my dress was plain and coarse, a sort of burlap and rag creation. I put on my heavy peasant dress with wimple each night and slipped into another era. I became another person; I moved differently, spoke differently, felt I was Joan’s mother. The effect was so profound even my colleagues treated me as if I were someone they had only just met. There was a reverence in that costume and a stoicism accompanied it. I sat immobile each night of the play enduring heat, dripping sweat and flies just as Joan’s mother had endured what happened to her daughter.
I’ve had outfits since then that made me feel wonderful or powerful or pretty but those feelings pale by comparison to being transported through time into a new identity via the power of clothing.
November 27, 2011
In the late 1950s I loved going with my older brother, Warren, to the barber shop. It was an old-fashioned place, large, dark, and manly; three hydraulic chairs in front of a long bank of mirrors with exotic bottles lined up along the shelf below. The unvarnished wooden floor was black with years of footprints and the cavernous green walls were heavily stained from cigarette smoke.
This was the domain of men, men both big and small. I was an outsider and knew it, so the barber shop held a compelling fascination for me, like some exotic foreign island I could visit from time to time but never inhabit.
In the front section of the building was the barber shop itself. The side with the barber chairs brightly lit, the opposite wall where I sat on a deacons bench, dark and shadowy like the rest of the building. Midway through the room, separating the front from the back, ran a low open railing with a sort of gate at the gloomy side of the room. Beyond that barrier lay the pool hall.
If the barber shop were an exotic island, the pool hall was the 9th circle of Hell. You simply didn’t go there. It was too dangerous, tinged with sin, full of riffraff. And, as such, was just about the most alluring place a 5-year old girl could ever hope to see. The smoke, the dim lights, the crack of balls smacking against each other, blue chalk and mysterious red cubes shaken from oddly shaped containers kept me fascinated while my brother was on the chair. Some part of me knew I should be paying attention to my brother and Mr. Bill Upchurch, the barber, but my eyes and ears were constantly drawn to the dark smoky richness behind the barricade.
As children we were not allowed to pass the gate except to go to the Coke machine. Mr. Bill must have felt the strength of that pull to wickedness because invariably he would open the cash register and give me two nickels, one for me, one for Warren, and I would open that gate and step into that other world gingerly and breathlessly. Sometimes, though not often, an older boy with slicked back hair and a pack of cigarettes tucked into a rolled up shirt sleeve would look up past pool cue and bulging bicep to grunt some word of acknowledgment before returning to the concentration of the game. I was insignificant to him, but that moment of being seen was heady stuff for me. I was thrilled.
I’d go back to my seat on the other side occasionally climbing up to the red leather banquette where businessmen came to read the newspaper while a tiny old black man rubbed paste wax on the their shoes, buffing and polishing like a machine, which is how he was often treated by his customers. From time to time he would be present during Warren’s haircut. He would smile and help me up to the leather bench that floated high above my head and once treated my tiny brown oxfords to a professional shine.
Like as not, once I got my coke, Mr. Bill would hand me a pack of salted peanuts to go with my drink. A coke was good, but a coke with peanuts was pure heavenly delight. I’d open the package with my teeth and pour part of the nuts into the cocola as we all called it. Then I’d take a big swig of liquid, filling my mouth with peanuts as well. What a taste sensation; sweet and salty, liquid and crunchy, rich and mouth filling.
By this time Warren would be finished with his haircut, dusted off with talc and doused with cheap perfume. He’d come over to my perch, climb up and enjoy refreshment and entertainment with me. We were both loath to leave, knowing it would be weeks before we got to reenter this wonderland. And so, to pass more time, we began to pull coke bottles.
The coke machine was big and red; retro versions have popped up all over the place in the past decade or so, but this was the real thing. You put in your nickel, you pressed the button (there was only one) and an ice cold drink clanked through the metal flap at the bottom into a trough awaiting pick up. A wall-mounted bottle opener was attached to the railing between barber shop and pool hall, and to the left of the machine itself was a tall (at least for a 5-year old) rack with angled slots where people would place their empty bottles. Beside that were wooden crates where the bottles would eventually be organized for return to the bottling plant, our nearest being Goldsboro, North Carolina, a mere 20 minutes up the road.
It was the angled metal rack that was important. The bottles went in base-side down. This way any unconsumed liquid stayed in the bottle rather than spill on the floor. Only the bottle necks were visible and accessible. Now, the bottom of each bottle was embossed with the name of the town where the bottle originated. Because we were so close to a bottling plant, most of the bottles in our rack came from Goldsboro—most, but not all. Coke bottles were surprisingly mobile in those days. You might pull a bottle from Oxford, Mississippi or Little Rock, Arkansas. It was custom of the pool players when not betting on their own games to bet on the bottles from the rack. Greatest distance from Mt. Olive won the bet.
I started pulling bottles before I could even read. Warren and I would each choose carefully, draw a bottle from its resting place then take them over to Mr. Bill who would read out the names for us. Exotic locations blossomed before us as those names were read out. Greensboro, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Tupelo, MS; and my personal favorite, Tuscaloosa, AL.
Oh, those names, musical and magical. I knew one day I would see those places. I felt it deep in my tissue and bones; I would see the world.
I have gone much farther than Tuscaloosa in the ensuing years. The wanderlust imprinted on my soul is just as palpable as the embossing on those bottles. The excitement I feel seeing each new place is the same sense of wonder I had at five hearing their names read aloud. Travel has never disappointed me. Perhaps I owe it all to the Coca Cola bottlers of the South, and if that’s the case, I humbly thank them.
September 21, 2011
Last spring I did something I’d wanted to do for a long time; I modeled for a life drawing class. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to do such a thing? Anyone other than a total exhibitionist, which I am not… really, I’m not.
I was intrigued with the notion of sitting still for long periods of time with people watching. I have meditated at different times in my life and it seemed to me, sitting for artists would be a sort of meditation. Of course, the harried working mom part of me was grateful for three hours to just sit anywhere without people needing me to shuttle, pick-up, clean-up or fix anything. I don’t believe I’m the only mother who looks forward to going to the dentist for a little peace and quiet.
So, that explains the sitting part. But the other part, you know, the part where you take off all your clothes and let people see every bump and ripple, why would I do that?
As it turns out, that too is a sort of meditation. By meditation I mean a stripping away of all that is non-essential; knowing the self through experience and presence. Taking off my clothes and sitting in front of a group of non-judgmental people allowed me to be with my physical self in a very different way, to simply sit and be. My attitudes about my body were meaningless in that situation; I was a body, no more, no less. To maintain stillness it was necessary to clear my mind, release my thoughts and feelings about how I looked. Release everything and become one with everything. Isn’t that what meditation allows us to do? I felt a great sense of freedom and a wonderful peacefulness at the end of the 3-hour session. I had done my job to the best of my ability and that was all I or anyone else expected of me. Afterwards, I was fascinated by the drawings from the different artists. I loved them, I loved the person they had drawn, I loved that body with all it’s bumps and bulges, dimples and ripples. I saw myself for the first time.
As I approach 60 I long to take off all the trappings and wrappings of family, society, expectations and guilt to see what exists of me. What is essentially, undeniably me? As I shed the layers, I feel that same sense of wonder, fear and excitement I felt as I disrobed in class. And I feel that same sense of inevitability and determination. This is something I want so I will do it. I’m not sure of what I will find at that deep level but my hope is to love that soul with all its faults and all its beauty the way I learned to love my body, by seeing it as it is rather than how I want it to be.
August 16, 2011
At Davis Bay on a beautiful end-of-summer morning, I sit watching fishermen in waders. Up to their waists in water, they cast their lines into the Strait of Georgia angling for Pinks.
They’re out there. From time to time a fish jumps, breaking the surface, a tease, a promise.
There is a delicacy to the actions of these fishermen, a poetry of motion as they cast their lines, pull back, release, pull back, release—a song of racheting spinners clicking as lines are reeled back in.
A flash on the water and heads turn. Did he hook it? Are there others?
Not a single fish is basketed while I sit but the fishermen persist, some moving from spot to spot, some stubbornly rooted in position; all sharing a love of their silent sport and a wish for fish.
August 14, 2011
My friend, Jude the Puppy Nanny, told me about Hidden Grove in Sechelt and I’ve taken my dog, Millie there a couple of times. I really haven’t hiked that much since I came the the Sunshine Coast, but lately it’s been very soothing to be among the big trees. They have so much stable energy; it’s very powerful but never frenetic. In fact, I take my frenzy there to let it seep into the earth, sometimes placing my palms or forehead against the tree to assist me. When my husband asked me what that feels like to me I told him it’s like a vortex inside the tree and when I put my hands there I plug in, releasing my unstable energy into the bark, the wood, the sap. It is magic—something the Druids had that I’m rediscovering, remembering. I feel emotionally clean when I come out of the woods and I’m grateful.
August 9, 2011
Yesterday, Barry and I heard Grant Lawrence at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. My third time at the festival, Barry’s first. Lawrence was hilarious, a born story-teller. From there we bustled back down to Gibsons to see a fabulous accordian duo, TOEAC, at Music in the Landing. We only caught the last half of the program but it was wonderful.
Today, I picked raspberries and dug potatoes, walked in the deep woods with my dog listening to the whup, whup of a raven’s wings, and drove past a mama bear and two cubs waiting to cross the highway to Cliff Gilker Park.
This is an incredible place we live. How shall we treat it?