Before it’s too late…

DSCF0672I’ve been transformed. There I’ve said it—it may feel like I’ve just dumped an overblown heap of pseudo wellness speak or new age bullshit on you but this isn’t like that. It is the actual thing of transformation, before the word started being used in mission statements, yoga studio bathrooms or political ads.

What I’m talking about is the sense of slipping out of  your life and into another, only you are in the same body, driving the same car, with mail addressed to where you still live. But suddenly the old gimmick you used for so long to enter into the world is no longer needed, that half-truth you were telling yourself and others, about your life, about moment after moment when your heart’s subliminal, traitorous subtext was screaming at you: I don’t care. I don’t care. 

Gone. All those discouraging voices have disappeared like magic, and what is left is the actual thing you trying to discover, so easily seen now in the outline of buildings , textured and contrasted against the sky; people’s intentions appear undiluted and transparent, like veins you never noticed before. Their agenda so obviously void of you. Agree to disagree? Yes, probably a good idea at this point.

My former life, the one before the transformation, is like a nice but slow patient I must put my arm around and through the crook of its arm and walk to a bench, any old bench in a park say, at dusk. I put my hands on its shoulders and shift it onto the wood, see it firmly seated then say adieu in as cheerful a manner as I can muster.

Walking away, I remind myself change doesn’t come without something—someone— making room for its fruition, and that real transformation is a long haul, only fully complete after it is considered in reflection, a death having occurred of some kind or another.

But I’m talking around the facts. The truth is I went to an intense writing residency for ten days and it changed my life. Or rather, it reminded me of life, the one I used to live, when I wrote and performed my writing all the time. Something so important to my happiness yet year by year I let it go; sometimes on purpose, to prove I could what? Sacrifice? Not be selfish? Be a good mother. Oh, maybe it was to survive. That was it. A lot of it. For years. Like a fog bank that moves in, I could see no other way. And then I spent 10 days with poets and Susan Musgrave. Yeah, if you know of Susan then you’re nodding right now. You get it.

In the book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about just showing up at the blank page to write, chipping away at it, she urges writers to just keep staying in motion, moving towards the moment when you give your attention completely to the doing, even if it feels like you can’t wrap your arms around all you have to, the immensity of the task, its blinding and potentially life threatening call to truth, insurmountable. You write anyway.

You write anyway.

I want the habit, of writing anyway. I want to live a life that calls me to the page each day. That’s what I know now that I didn’t know then. As in a month ago.

The latin roots of transformation are trans meaning “across” and  formare meaning “to form” so I take this to mean that it affects every part of your life, the very nature of your chemical makeup is somehow altered, and a new form comes into being.

I am so grateful for the wakening to go across and to form. To have the just-in-time love affair with my own life again, my poems, before it was too late.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Poetry

The Unwanted House Guest

I was talking about my constant waking up in the middle of the night with a friend the other day and he said, “Mags, we’re getting old.” I laughed but inside I winced just a little. I don’t like being included in that club.

It seems suddenly—though let’s be honest, it isn’t sudden, not really, you just don’t notice the incremental changes—I am noticing my age.

Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with genes that belie my age. Up until a few years ago I used my son’s age as a kind of party trick to gasps of ‘surely you don’t have a son that old! Did you have him when you were 14?’ which I took as affirmation I was beating the age game.

But lately I have noticed it, particularly in my yoga class as I look over longingly at the taut young girls in  their power poses, their lean long abs with muscle highways running up and down and their dewy skin plump and glowing. I used to look at shoes this way. What is happening to me?

I am aging. It’s a fact. Let’s not be coy about it. What to do about this unwanted house guest? I’m figuring it out. I’m getting into gear. I’m a factory of ideas. I’m all over it. Life, I hear you okay? I won’t fool around. I get it, the time is now. My time. Is mine.  What will I do with it?

Get binary. This or that. This is the gift of age. Suddenly, you’ve built your own personal emotional garbage sorting bin. This is out. This is in. Simple really. Why haven’t I done it before? Lots of reasons. Low self-esteem. Relationship issues. Family issues. Child issues. Financial issues. Yada yada yada.

Forget all of it.

Get binary. Simplify. Yes or no? Want to have in my life or no? The chatter gets quiet, and the age question seems irrelevant.  Just the way it should be.

The Unwanted House Guest

It’s catching up to me

like a slow seeping morning fog

some mornings it catches me

and I wake with sore hips and

eyes so dry they gasp for air

like a dying fish.

 

Am I dying?

 

Suddenly, age is a house guest

worse than any one night stand.

She gives me cruel reasons to wake up—

3, 4, 5 am nudging me awake to

my sleeping bag of worry

where I am zipped up in a tight bind of middle age

as though I were camping in my own night

my own bed my own life my own pajamas

my sleeve of anxiety good till 40 below

or in menopausal flashes of heat.

 

I look askance at my guest in the mirror

she’s fooling around with my face leaving

a pattern of lines and furrows and constellations

of spots that are no longer adorable

When did I stop being adorable? 

Never.

Never!

Fuck aging.

I tell her to stay in

the guest room and not come out

‘till the funeral.

 

 

 

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On mothers, imperfection and love

It is Mother’s Day and I’ve been very blessed with a son who not only took me to lunch but to an art gallery then dinner! Can you imagine doing all that for your mom? I know. But it isn’t all bliss on the parenting front. In fact, being a mother means your worst self will be scrutinized and commented on for as long as you are alive. Your children, in all their innocent and not so innocent honesty, will bring you face to face with your shortcomings like no one else.

Recently my son said he felt like I didn’t teach him enough tasks and that I was annoyingly positive. Well, there you are. But as I ruminated on my failings at 3 am, I thought of my own mother and her imperfections and how they now endear me to her even more. Where once I was a critical 20 something I am not a not-so-smug 40 something who can, with empathy and love, look back on some of situations I was in with my mom and hold them close as cherished memories instead of damning her for being, well, human. To that end, I wrote a poem about a time when, in today’s politically correct world, my mom would have been seen as lax or worse, negligent. But I see it very differently. I my son will too some day.

Imperfect Mother

It is the imperfections of my mother

I hold dearest—

The time for instance when turning off of

West 16th near UBC in her red Beetle the

door beside me swung open and since it was the seventies

I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt

and I went with the door, grasping the handle to

avoid the road rushing below me.

I looked back at my mother who

while still turning with her left hand lunged across to snatch my

flimsy t-shirt with her right and pulled me back into the car.

It was a one shot deal but she managed it. The door banged shut as

she completed the sharp turn and we kept on driving as though

I hadn’t just about fell out of the car and onto the road.

 

A block later a small eruption of laughter burst

From my mother. It made me clap my hands together

In gleeful loopy agreement of what I wasn’t sure but

The sun was streaming through oak leaves as we drove

Creating a beautiful pattern on my mother and I kicked my legs

Out from the edge of the sticky car seat to the radio played

 

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

 

I could say my mother was negligent

I could get maudlin, drink myself silly

Recount her imperfections that had caused

My life to zig zag like a silverfish on the run

 

But then I remember how she didn’t pull over

And fuss and fawn and make a big deal of

My near death fall and how years later this

Would give me courage when real death

And real heartbreak would pull me pull me down

 

And I would swim up to the surface, clapping my hands

Ecstatic for life’s small moments of survival.

 

*Song lyric from Summer in the City by Lovin Spoonful, 1966.

 

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Your Life: Sit Up and Take Notice

When I was five, my mother took me for a test at the school near our house. I remember it was a sunny day and I wore a dress, hoping to add to the impression that I was capable of going into grade one instead of kindergarten. Why I was taking the test in the first place remains a mystery but I suspect my mother wanted me to start grade one early because after eleven children she simply needed her days alone and silent. I remember walking across the black asphalt of the playground afterwards and my mother beaming as she told me I had passed with ‘flying colours’.

Scan 1

So, at the age of five I entered grade one. Unfortunately, the night before my father cut off all my hair and I was crestfallen when I walked to school with a boy’s hairstyle. I’d had high hopes for my debut in grade one. Instead, I slinked along the back wall, furtively searching for my name on a desk and secretly hoping there’d been a mistake and that I hadn’t gained entry into this new and bewildering world and could go home and help my mom with washing the floor or laundry or sorting socks. And yet, there was my name, second row in, two desks from the end. MARGARET spelled neatly on an index card.

Behind me sat a boisterous girl with shiny thick black hair and luminous brown skin and mischievous eyes. She didn’t hesitate to speak up and raise her hand, unlike me who prayed I wasn’t singled out by the teacher for anything and hung my head low behind the student ahead of me. She quickly surmised I could be teased and with tremendous entertaining results. Her name was Sharon. She spoke fast and had a sharp wit and wielded it confidently like an adult; she noticed everything including my crappy shoes and the fact I’d forgotten the belt on my uniform. I longed to be her friend, mostly to avoid any deeper insights into my character becoming known to the rest of the class. Thankfully, she seemed to sense my desperation and let me into her safe zone as an ally despite my shortcomings.

Forty-three years later: we are sitting and drinking in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day beside the ocean. I find myself once again admiring her way with words, just as I had at age five, the sure and confident manner as she speaks to the waitress, her still beautiful brown eyes that are full of life, intelligence and humour. I notice they have more ‘life’ behind them now though, one that I am hearing as we, at first cautiously then with abandon, pull threads out of the stories of our lives and stitch together our past into a new shared story.

We had gone to school together until grade nine, during which time we’d shared dozens of sleepless sleepovers, elementary school dramas, walkathons, endless hours of Catholic prayers and the uncertainty of hormones and fears of growing from little girls into young women. Our friendship had started to wane just before we both left to go to the all-girl private school our mothers sent us to for grade eight. But I got caught up with ‘public school kids’, which was seen by my mother as the surest way to hell and, looking back, in some ways it was true.

My childhood seemed to have suddenly vanished and I was lost in a world without boys and the seemingly endless unspoken politics of daughters from the wealthy elite of Vancouver where my non-working-widow-mom and less-than clothes and accessories were wincingly noticed and graded as a fail. Eventually the wagons circled with me on the outside. By the second term of grade eight, I was defiantly taking off my uniform and dressing into jeans and a jean jacket in the bushes after school so I wouldn’t have to be ‘seen’ by my public school friends in the telltale uniform of Little Flower Academy. The fact was, I never could quite fit in and didn’t know how to but Sharon managed to find community and a place at the academy and made a success of her high school years there.

As we sat across from one another in the busy restaurant and slowly unravelled our lives I felt like almost no time had passed while simultaneously trying to take in the enormity of all that had happened to us over the many decades.

With more scar tissue than either one of us would liked to have acquired, we shared one story after another after another with ease and a frankness that was unexpected. The afternoon light changed, food plates were stacked and taken and replaced by drinks. A one-hour lunch stretched into three as our lives and the people in them were introduced or re-visited. Deaths, break-ups, love, children, parents—all got covered off in a matter-of-fact way but it was the small details, the understanding between us of the hopes and dreams we had as young children set against the tableaux of where we were now, sitting across from one another as women in the middle of our lives that kept me thinking for days after about the past.

In fact, the past had been calling me to pay attention all week, nudging me to listen, just as I was trying to let it go. Only the day before my lunch with Sharon, I had re-connected with my boyfriend I had been madly in love with in university. We met for lunch and appraised one another with smiles and delight, me noticing more crows feet and gray hair and the gestures I used to be so smitten with, he well, hopefully not noticing the crows feet so much. There’s a sweetness to seeing an old love, a tinge of melancholy mixed with joy and remembrance accentuated by oh fuck’s and awww’s and sighs and long looks of remembering what was and a quiet listening for what is.

My sister-in-law is always telling me to stop living in the past and I’ve come to see that not dwelling in the past makes the present so much more lived and full of potential. To be present is to edit your life with ferocity. Staying present is like working on the ab muscles of the soul. You have to practice it daily to have any strength in resisting maudlin moments.

Yet this week the past found me in my present and the movie of my life suddenly enlarged, went wide-screen, became richer with more characters and synapses and discoveries that didn’t pull me back into sadness or regret but instead, opened up like a new canvas. After all, I was alive wasn’t I? And my old friends were too. How lucky are we to get to share a meal with one another! This is the sweet grace of the past coming to revisit you. Life itself winks and you finally get it. Oh right, time is passing—forty five years just went by like that—so I’d better get on with it and do the absolute best I can with what remains.

I’d better sit up and take notice. What story do I want to tell forty years from now? This is the work at hand. Now.

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Why We Should All Celebrate National Poetry Day

As soon as you hear National Poetry Day, some of you may flinch a little, thinking  ‘oh for Pete’s sake, a poetry day? Do we really need a national day to celebrate poetry?’

I would say yes, more so now than ever. The fact is, poetry is not for the faint-hearted or wishy-washy. Poetry is not a woman in a patchwork sewn cape staring at daffodils wearing colourful cheap jewelry who you imagine might make a good zucchini loaf.

No, my friend, poetry is the synthesis of our deepest life, the hidden sorrows that quietly rip through you while you eat a sandwich at work and try to keep your life together.

Poetry is the moment—the only moment—captured as if the poet held your own heart, like a spear of lightning in his or her hand, not minding that it’s shredding open their skin, caving in their hearts or keeping them up at 3 am. It’s not a magic trick or a reading at a local library to small children or red roses tucked into a Hallmark card—it’s an act of courage, defiance even, to snatch the electric emotion out of thin air and transcribe it, with all its burning or tender or dying life and deliver it like a pure child to the universe.

Poetry is our defence against a shallow world spinning itself towards a crash landing. Poetry is our respite, a quite breath, a gentle tug into the sacred, into a kind of wisdom we had all along, that longed to look to a sparse page with black letters and be saved.

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A Solo Architectural Adventure

I’ve been shivering like a hairless dog for the past few weeks. Why? Because I was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week. And it was miraculous weather. Well, miraculous in that it wasn’t winter in Vancouver—cold, wet and gray for as long as the eye dared to look out from under an umbrella. It was luxuriously sunny with a high of sandals all day and a low of thin sundress at night. For those darling loyal readers, you may remember I went to Palm Spring last year and fell in love. With the topography and architecture—there is a dearth of mature-ish heterosexual available men, so nevermind, I wasn’t there for that.

Palm Springs 2015-29

During that trip I went on an incredible architectural tour of Palm Springs that was helmed by a masterful storyteller who had an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century architecture and I was transfixed by his telling and obvious love of the design ethos the early visionaries had when they descended in Palm Springs in the 30’s and 40’s.  It was during that tour I heard a few architects talking about Modernism Week and decided there and then I’d go back and so I did.

Once again I stayed at the Movie Colony hotel which is an architectural gem itself. Initially built by Albert Frey, an architect whose designs saturate the landscape of Palm Springs with over 200 buildings, the small boutique hotel has a certain faded glamour about it that I really adore. For a solo traveler, Frey’s design suits me quite well as there is an intimate courtyard area where everyone gathers for a continental breakfast outdoors, reads their paper, pours coffee, talks about the horrible weather they just came from and likewise at 5:30 pm on the dot everyone comes back and gathers for free martinis and California wine and yaks about their day. It just so happened there were very interesting people there including a group of friends who’d known one another since college and were having a hooray-to-the-west trip together. An invitation ensued and David and Dan, Mike and Mark and I all went out one night to a restaurant that had a lot of buzz but we were all kind of disappointed. I was impressed with the copywriting of the menu however, as it really upsold the food in a creative way. Gravy was described as ‘huntsman’s jus’. I thought that was very clever. Another night I went out with Deb and Tim from Michigan, perhaps the nicest people I’ve ever met, to a night market that seemed to stretch the entire length of the San Jacinto mountains. Truly remarkable and entertaining experience I highly recommend if you are in Palm Springs on a Thursday night. There is nothing not being sold at this market, trust me.

The fact is, Palm Springs is the warmest city I’ve every visited and I’m not talking desert climate. For the first few days I was shocked when people warmly greeted me on the street and said hello. I looked over my shoulder, sure they were speaking to a friend that happened to be walking behind me but no, it was me and I responded, a beat too late, appearing suspicious and well, probably like a Vancouverite. Vancouver is well-known as a cold city, a city that doesn’t say ‘hello’ to strangers on the street, a city that has increasingly become about development—sadly, at the cost of its heritage and many neighbourhoods that were once bustling communities of unique personality and spirit.

Palm Springs 2015-4

I tried to balance the week with a mix of sun, walking, swimming, tours, reading and lectures. I wanted a true holiday and not one where I was running around trying to find the next tour bus. This is the blessing of solo travel—you have only yourself and your own agenda to live by and if you can be confident enough to sit with five or six couples all talking about their adventures and happily talk about your own then you are likely a good candidate for solo travel. There’s no room for self-pity in solo travel—you have to live each day how you want and not give a whit what anyone thinks.

Palm Springs 2015-36

One of the highlights of the week was visiting Albert Frey’s house high up the mountain overlooking the city and surrounding San Jacinto mountains. It’s said he liked to hang about nude and put a cow bell at the entrance so folks could alert him should they make their way up to his aerie in the mountains. The house just makes you weep with the elemental design of it, the ideal of desert life distilled down into this architectural gem and it whetted an appetite in me to one day build my own writing retreat in the desert region of Osoyoos.

Lectures on architects and design were held daily at the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is a gem in and of itself. I was very impressed with the collection for a city this size. I really loved learning about designer cum architect Walter S. White who designed affordable small concrete houses throughout the Coachella Valley for ‘real people’. His use of soaring curved roofs with floor to ceiling glass windows in his Alexander House are stunning.

The entire aesthetic of mid-century architecture inspires me in a way that makes me want to build. The low horizontal profiles, the exterior designed for intense privacy, happy breeze ways, patterned concrete, gobs of light, interior transparency, with a respectful relationship to the environment, in particular, the desert sun—all this design thinking continually delights me and I hope I can one day replicate some of it for myself.

 

Palm Springs 2015-15

Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate

 

At the beginning of the week, as I sat in the airport fussing about whether my son would remember to feed the cat, another voice interrupted me and said, in a calm and adult-like voice: Just live the hell out of this week. Forget work. Forget the sore knee, dry eyes and achy neck. Forget about dishes and cat hair on the pillows and the weird niggling sound when the car is in reverse. Just live.

Palm Springs 2015-39 Palm Springs 2015-37 Palm Springs 2015-19

And I did. I really lived the hell out of Modernism Week and I’ll do it again next year.

Palm Springs 2015-18

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Three stories that might change your life or at least cause you to read through the night

I have just finished reading All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. In fact, I did so at around 3:34 am, just after my new 3 am waking time, give or take 6 or 7 minutes because apparently something is very important that I need to wake up for at that time. Every night. But nevermind me, let’s focus on the brilliant Miriam. I cried several times reading this novel, not out of sadness as in a linear kind of translation (this happened oh how sad) but rather from Miriam’s ability to tell the truth. The truth of life just exactly as it is in all its absurdity, its terrible exactitude and inestimable love and attachment. The fumbling kind of truth, the kind we never read much about or see in television shows or in news media, the vulnerable truth we don’t show anyone, the hidden layer of our foiled, failed selves—this is what Miriam gently teases out in every scene.

She reveals elemental truths about love, death, family in such a nuanced way that you are in no way convinced it is fiction and yet entirely desperate to stay in her fictional world, if that makes any sense.

I don’t like novels or movies or plays that dress up life, that dramatize it to get a reaction or manipulate an audience with an obvious eye to who is sitting in the front row. The protagonist, in fact all the characters in All My Puny Sorrows, are so genuine that you find yourself often putting down the book and weeping as they remind you of someone you once knew and a scene you had with them in a hallway or in a grocery store lineup or when you last spoke with them before they died and you were meaning to tell them how they’d always been in your heart all along and were sorry it didn’t work out. Death bobs along on a resilient wave of hope that nearly drowns continually through this precious novel but is fished out of swampy humanness by the main character—Yolanda— and her various family members throughout the story so that one is left with a real desire to go and shake one’s child up at 3:34 am and tell them they love them and how special they are and how there’s no one else like them in the universe and how lucky I am that I get to have you as a son.

Speaking of my son, he and I have overly sensitive bullshit meters and can be hard on media we consume. There’s a fair amount of poking holes in storylines at dinnertime. While I likely can’t get him to read All My Puny Sorrows (he’s obsessed with Ghengis Khan at the moment) he did watch Broadchurch which is an English series on NetFlix about the murder of a young boy in a small, tightly-knit rural community. We both agreed it was uncharacteristically like real life and particularly with regards to grief and how grief really behaves and shows up in people when something wretched happens like losing their child or brother. Grief is not an aria sung once with feeling, it winds itself around you and through you like smoke, sometimes thickening so you can’t breathe other times clearing and thin like a vapour gently enveloping you but it is always there. Broadchurch delicately weaves its tale with immense attention to the subtleties of sorrow and human dependence and love. Trigger warning on this one of all kinds including sexual abuse.

And then there’s Eve Ensler. Oh Eve. I said to myself after I finished her harrowing book In the Body of the World, non-fiction will never be the same for me. It likely won’t until she writes another book. Saying Eve is a ‘force’ is like saying the wind sometimes erodes things or the ocean has been known to get angry. In this book she tells the story of getting stage IV cancer and surviving it but it is so much more than that. It tells the stories of women all over the world that she has met through her activism, stories of unspeakable horrors of rape, incest, violence, degradation and emotional bludgeoning masked in marriages or families. She doesn’t lay out suffering like a buffet for the reader, instead she pulls you into her own, private discourse on what it means to question our worth, our physical identity as a woman, to unpack the lies we tell ourselves as women to be accepted, loved and cherished and the cost of those lies in our day-to-day relationships. It makes you wonder who will show up for you if you are ill? It causes you to dig down into your own moral set of rules and chuck out those that don’t serve you anymore, ones that might be leftovers from a family that never really loved you, or a marriage or friendship that subjugated you, squashed your voice, killed your creativity. Eve pulls no punches—she’s on the mountain speaking names, she’s fearless, she’s a warrior, on fire, alive—she is truth. And yet so human and fragile and imperfect, just like life. May she live forever.

These are stories that have changed me. I know something is percolating from all three, something to do with my own truth, my own voice and finding fearlessness to express it. I hope I have nearly enough courage as these creators have.

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