Many thanks to the eds! A poem of mine is up at The Puritan!
“…The next section of the collection following the one focused on artists is “Our Terrible Good Luck,” an apt oxymoron that encompasses the devastation that populates these poems on topics not often associated that kind of horror: motherhood and children. Oh boy, was this part of the collection hard for me. They’re just shattering to read: domestic abuse, the death of children, gun violence, mass murderers, the dark sides of motherhood, the physicality and sometimes grotesqueness of child birth. For me, they were painful and difficult to read, despite their being beautifully written. When I say devastating, this is what I mean:
In the month before they find your son’s body
downstream, you wake imagining
his fist clutching the spent elastic
of his pyjama bottoms, the pair with sailboats riding them
He’s swimming past your room toward milk and Cheerios
his cowlick alive on his small head, swimming
toward cartoons and baseballs, toward his skateboard
paddling his feet like flippers. You’re surprised
by how light he is, how his lips shimmer like water
how his eyes glow green as algae
He amazes you again and again, how he breathes
through water. Every morning you almost drown
fighting the undertow, the wild summer runoff
coughing into air exhausted, but your son is happy
He’s learning the language of gills and fins
of minnows and fry. That’s what he says
when you try to pull him to safety; he says he’s a stuntman
riding the waterfall down its awful lengths
to the log jam at the bottom pool
He’s cool to the touch; his beauty has you by the throat
He’s translucent, you can see his heart under
his young boy’s ribs, beating
as it once beat under the stretched skin of your belly
blue as airlessness, primed for vertical dive
HOLY FUCK, Jane Eaton Hamilton. I don’t remember the last time I read a poem so fucking sad and heartbreaking.” -Casey Stepaniuk
If Mandy Len Catron recommended my novel “Weekend” and Khloé Kardashian recommended Mandy’s “How To Fall In Love With Anyone,” does that mean I should figure out who Kholé Kardashian is? Or does that just mean you should read Mandy’s book?
This week How To Fall In Love With Anyone” has been released. Mandy is the author who set the NY Times’ Modern Love column on fire with her essay about “36 Questions” to make a couple fall in love with each other, a column viewed millions of times. And now there’s a whole book of her writing!
CBC wanted to know what revs Mandy’s romance engine, and “Weekend” made the cut, with a nod to its dealing with disability issues.
Hopefully Mandy will be here on the blog with a Q+A soon!
‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.’ -Judith Butler’s essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics” from Precarious Life
The cabbie called to say he was in the alley and 10 minutes later he dropped my bag outside Pacific Central Station before I had even unlocked my seat belt, which in Vancouver’s theft-frenzied city was crazy, and while I sat in front of the train station getting myself together I thought about how I had seen F- for the last time when I dropped her off exactly here, and I thought about the monument to the women massacred at École Polytechnique, the commemorative benches I could see across in the park where geese had shat into their bowls of tears, and how somewhere my name was etched into one of the stones, linked to a woman who had long been violent with me. I wondered what the engineers who had been killed would be facing now in their lives if they had lived through that day’s hell of misogyny. As I write this, it is almost an anniversary … this year, the 27th. My life, already strangled my disability then, has had its twists and turns. As those women were being slaughtered, I happened to be in Victoria shopping for my kids’ holiday gifts, and when I got back to Salt Spring Island, where I lived, I found the TV on in the living room blaring the shattering news. No woman alive was unaffected. We had all been harrassed, or raped, or battered, or bullied, or denied opportunities in our lives. There was at most three degrees of separation between us and the victims. They were living the dreams my generation had fought for, and they had been killed for them. We knew. We felt the truth move through us like scurrying rats.
I call October Hell Month because a friend was slaughtered in cold blood in October, shot to death during a custody dispute with an ex. I call November the month of twelve months. 2016 has been scarcely anyone’s friend.
There is always pushback when fighting for civil rights. We got same-sex marriage then Harper. The US got same-sex marriage then Trump.
There is always pushback, but we already know how to fight. We’ve done it before. We’ve won before. We will rise steadily to our feet and fight again. Every day we see the truth of this. We see harshness and harm. We see damage and death. We see our friends attacked. We see women losing abortion rights. We see people harmed by police. We wail and mourn. We kick back. We pull our hair. We long for bigger arms, more resources, a longer life to fight. We long for greater and greater capacities. But we also see desegregation, pipelines defeated, inquiries called, universal medicare, HIV drugs developed, poverty dealt blows, women elected, misogyny challenged, constitutions changed, glass ceilings blown to smithereens.
It takes a village, yes, but we are a village, a global village. And we are mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore. We are mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore.
I went indoors and waited on a hard bench for the train to Seattle, and then in a long lineup. In my ankles, blood was pooling, compliments of heart failure. I proferred my passport and the customs officer questioned why I was returning on Sunday. I didn’t know how to answer. Because two days is enough time with someone I’m just starting to date? He was suspicious. He looked at me for a long time before making his decision about me. I’m queer and not a snappy dresser; I was sending up his alarms. But he let me go forward when the press of people behind me got longer. I had brought editorial work for the ride, but when I started it, I got motion sick, and this made me close my computer. I thought about a dawn train to Seattle with my friend L-, how the frost had filligreed the grass down the coastline. I remembered how dawn had cracked on the eastern horizon so heavily it stained even the sky on our western side of the train pink. I thought about how, that earlier time, I’d just had a big surgery and how all day she’d pushed me around in a wheelchair looking at art. I hungered after art; I particularly recalled the work of Yayoi Kusami and Romaine Brooks, neither of which I’d seen in person before. The Elles exhibit was my first time with many artists whose work I had admired in reproduction. I loved Suzanne Valadon, whose work I would later search out in Paris to much frustration (she wasn’t represented with a painting even in the house she once owned, now a Montmartre gallery, or at the Pompidou, which owned the one piece in the Elles show).
When the train pulled in to Seattle, F- was there in her snazzy car and my heart lit up just a little and I wondered what kind of time we would have together. On Friday night we gazed at the Space Needle from her apartment; behind us was a desk so huge it took up nearly half her living room, a family heirloom or maybe lodestone. In the morning, F- went out for croissants and we sat in her dining room with thick coffee and the NY Times Book Review.
After our weekend ended, another weekend began, and during this one I had four readings, two of them up-coast. F- and I didn’t know each other well. I was suddenly sicker than I could remember having been before, and indeed I then had a mini-stroke while performing in Fanny Bay (as pictured). The next day, when I should have been in hospital getting cardioverted, instead we took ferries to Hornby Island for another reading, me hanging on to F-‘s elbow like the cripple I’d become. I remember the time there only in flashes: my host’s beautiful garden, my difficulty breathing, my cardiac asthma, my horrible A-fib, lines from my co-reader’s poetry, being convinced I would die, trying to sleep sitting up, imagining/yearning for MediVacs. I just couldn’t see over the mountain of my illness into love. I would get back to Vancouver and go to the ER, while F- would drive back to Seattle and consider becoming part of Hillary’s administration. I wouldn’t end up with a cardioversion, but I would get a far more daunting cardiac ablation from which I’d recover, more or less. I’d publish that quickie novel I’d been finagling, and take up with a couple cute kids who called me “Nana” and landed me right back on Salt Spring Island after all those twenty-seven years.
Time threads you through the tiniest needle hole into your own vein, loops you around to your own past, to your own youth, to your own remembrances of women past. If there is one thing I’ve learned in this life it is that love is not enough. To make change, love has to be paired with action.
A Muslim youngster in Hamilton was brutally assaulted. The east and west have been postered with neo-Nazi fliers. Friends report queer attacks. POC friends report slurs, break-ins, attacks. The disabled are more frightened every day as their basic right to exist is challenged. Women report more public harrassment, a new level of anger in the attacks.
Time is a village we occupy. Rise, friends. Rise with me in power and patience and fortitude and intent. Together we are stronger.
Here is a story I wrote more than 5 years ago, called “Bird Nights.” It came out first in Numéro Cinq and then was picked up by poet Marilyn Hacker for translation into French for Siécle 21, Paris, translated by Cécile Oumhani. I would be most honoured if you read it and left me your thoughts. It remains one of my favourite pieces of my writing. The news of my marital separation was still new when I wrote it, yet the story is as much travelogue as it is a raw cry from my heart. It also appeals to the side of me that likes subversive, fractured and braided narratives.
Here is a story. It is true, but it is also full of lies. And small axes, the kind that make tiny cross-hatchings on hearts.
A surgeon flayed open my wife’s chest and removed her breast: stiches and staples. This was several years ago. While she sleeps her scar unzips (top tape extension, top stop, slider, pull tab), her flesh unfolding like a sleeping bag. Some nights I only see the corset bones that girdle her lungs, gleaming moon slivers in murky red sky, and I say a prayer for them, those pale canoe ribs, those pickup sticks that are all that cinch her in. I wish I could do that: I wish I could hold her together. Some nights I think she may fly away in all directions, north, east, south, west, a huge splatter. She will go so far so fast I will only be able to watch with my mouth fallen open. She’ll be gone, and all I’ll have is a big red mess to clean up and a sliver of rib sticking out of my eye.
Quiver trees are weird enough anyhow, but add a Sociable Weaver nest and you’ve got a real visual pickle. Warty, sponge toffee boils, these bird condos of dry grasses have upwards of 100 different holes for individual families; the nests can house 400 birds. Interestingly, Sociable Weavers are polyamorous, even, apparently, with barbets and finches.
In Namaqualand, Cape Weavers go it individually. The males court females by weaving testicular-like sacs, and if a female remains unimpressed, the male builds a second sac under the first, and etcetera, until a wind knocks the whole shebang down.
Bird-land, human-land—it’s all pretty much just jostling to get and keep the girl.
Some nights when my wife’s incision unzips, a rib extends and on it sits a yellow bird, swaying as if in a great wind, feathers ruffling to lemon combs. I love birds. It makes me happy to hear her song, the same way it makes me happy when my wife sings. (Once when we were fresh, my wife danced naked through our kitchen belting out girl group songs from the 60s.) The little bird warbles and trills, then launches off the rib to fly around our bedroom. She grabs a mosquito near my ear. She flits into the corners, around the light fixtures, and carries back bits of yarn pulled from sweaters, spiderwebs, plastic pricetag spears, dust bunnies. She constructs a nest, shivers down into it, and lays little gelatinous eggs, eggs that I trust, with a simple, guileless trust, will grow up to be lymph nodes for my wife. These bird nights, I am happy, so happy. On some inchoate level, I know the little yellow bird has our backs, and I drift off to trills of sugary bird song.
I hang out on bird-lover websites, where questions abound: Why are my lovebirds changing colour? Aphids–my bird is okay with them, but I’m not? Lovebird feather plucking?
Feather loss, says Avian Web, is a difficult problem to cure when the picking behaviour is already established. Birds should be presented to Dr Marshall at the first signs of picking. My wife and I are feather-plucking. We didn’t go to Dr Marshall and maybe that’s our problem. Our relationship has thrush, bacteria, poor nutrition. My wife and I were once lovebirds. Once, for a nanosecond, We Two Were One. Then, for years, We Two Were One and A Half. Eventually, We Two Were Two. Now, the evidence suggests We Might Be Three.
Birds enchant me. Once we took our daughter to a free flight aviary, the Lory Loft in Jurong Bird Park, Singapore. Having a 20-hectare hillside park entirely devoted to birds is guaranteed to make someone like me giddy. Lories are small parrots, and in the aviaries, as you whoop and wriggle and scream over suspension bridges high in the treetops, they land on you, they cover you. It’s as if the keepers are up on the rooftop squeezing tubes of oil paint, cadmium orange and cobalt blue and carmine and viridian, screechy territorial colours with a lot of wing flap and pecking.
Ornithologists at the park answer such questions as: Will an ostrich egg support the weight of an adult human? I grapple with this one: Will my human heart support the shifting weight of my wife’s loyalties?
Foraging: The Way to Keep Your [Wife] Mentally Stimulated and Happy
It’s me that forages. Watch me some nights, thumbing through theatre tickets (Wicked! The Vagina Monologues! Avenue Q! My Year of Magical Thinking!) and museum exhibitions (Dali: Painting and Film; Picasso and Britain; Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own) and the detritus that falls from her scar, stirring through wind-up rabbits and plastic zombies and voodoo dolls that tumble free, all the secrets and suffering that she hoards deep inside.
What am I looking for? Something to eat, maybe. Bird seed. A steak.
We met a woman in Namibia who lost most of one breast to a crocodile attack. She was a member of a polygamous tribe, the Himba, whose women wear only loincloths. She bent down at the river with her water gourd, breasts hanging as breasts will do after a bunch of kids, and a croc’s teeth snapped closed on the right one.
Who knows what this woman’s husband thinks when he takes her shriveled, croc-mangled right breast into his hand? Does he trace her history with reverence? Does he spit in disgust and choose another wife?
There are local stories of wives who change in the bathroom, wear bras and prosthetics to bed, and husbands who shun them. There are stories of marital disintegration, and by that I mean what you probably assume: straight marriage. I don’t know the stats for queer marriage breakups after breast cancer. I do know that even after twelve years, when my wife or I drive past the Cancer Agency, not even thinking about what happened, on our way to other appointments and sometimes in the midst of great happiness, one or other of us will burst into tears.
Vancouver has murders of crows, and our house is on their flight path. If you go outside in the dawn gloaming, such as when you are going for chemo, they fill a Hitchcockian sky with black shrieks, and if you could count them, you would run out of numbers before you’d run out of birds. Crows are not protected in BC, and their forest roost was recently ripped down to build a Costco; now tens of thousands roost in a tangle of electric wires and pallets of home building supplies. Their noise is deafening.
Magic realism aside, my wife’s scar is really just a scar, plain, unremarkable, faded with time. (Plain, unremarkable. I tell you. Plain and unremarkable.) Here is the pedestrian truth: she is sort of concave there where her breast once was, a hollowed-out nest. She opted not to have a reconstruction. Her one breast is very small and she goes braless without a prosthetic, which is a loud story, actually, the only blaring part of the reality-struck, pedestrian story: she is obviously one-breasted, especially in t-shirts, and manly anyway, so people stare. Last week at an art opening, a little boy about seven stopped from a dead run and ran his eyes up and down her, up and down her, up and down her, trying to make her make sense.
(These days, I do the same thing, rake my eyes across her. The little boy is right: she no longer makes sense. She is always saying goodbye with her actions while she smiles hello with her lips.)
My heart is a big old blood pump with places engorged like a balloon (I’ve got a big old cardiomyopathy for you, I tell my wife sometimes, but it’s actually heart failure.) My heart is giving up, and has necrotic spots like measles, dead bits which have been dead now for 25 years, what an anniversary: let’s have a cake and candles, happy necrosis to me!). Referring to my circulatory system, a cardiologist once said to me: The tree of you is dying. No doubt too many polygamous weavers? How does this feel for you? my therapist asked about our lives (relationship) going—yes—tits up, three tits up I guess, instead of four, and here is the answer, my letter to my pain: It feels exactly like my heart is failing. Right now it’s stuttering along arrhythmically, but it can’t pump through all these emotions and old, ruptured scars, so it may just keep engorging till I pop like a-
Once I co-owned a grey cockatiel named Hemingway. Hemingway would hop around my scapula and peck food from my teeth while molting grey feathers onto my breasts. He was a happy bird with a yellow comb, but he never, as far as I know, wrote a great story.
At the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, my wife ran at ostriches while the wild Benguela current tossed waves on the beach. Ostriches have a nail on each of their feet that is capable of slicing a person open as efficiently as any surgeon’s blade. I was up on my toes with alarm, but the ostriches didn’t fight, they only ran, their stunted wings extended. Then the male turned and knocked my wife flat. He danced on her chest until his pea-sized brain got bored.
Just a game, just a game, she assured me afterwards, brushing off, none the worse for wear. I wasn’t really dead.
(This is a lie.)
At Okonjima for cheetahs, I was fascinated instead by the hornbills—those bills and casques! Female hornbills use their droppings to seal themselves into their nests. I did this too, when my wife was diagnosed, but I used an alarm system instead of poop. I’m doing it again, now, but I’m using perimeter lighting, as if shining sunbeams into my wife’s shadows will keep my marriage intact.
My wife’s skin is numb, did I mention that? That’s how her spirit must have healed from all that trauma (PTSD), don’t you think, with a big old numb spot? On the outside of her, cut nerves sometimes go crazy, like a pain orchestra, a violin screech, a flute shrill. Yowey. When I lay beside her and trail my finger across her chest, through her armpit, across the skin near her arm on her back, she can’t feel a thing. Here? I say and she shakes her head. Nothing. Here? Still nothing. Here? Nope. Here? Kinda, sorta, not really.
Does anyone ever really heal after being pushed out of the nest? Things repair, things scar, we go on, but eventually, we find ourselves in free fall anew. Our beaks impale the ground so we’re stuck flapping upside down like cat-lollipops. All the old wounds break open, the old puncture holes (insect bites, that time we fell off our bikes, the tendonitis, the hernia) ooze. We’re all leaking pain. We’re all bloody oozers, in the end, aren’t we?
One night as I lie beside my wife, her chest opens and I watch Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. The acrobats use my wife’s ribs as tightropes; the contortionists bend double through her ribs and poke their heads back out, like Gumbies. The acrobat stacks chairs one atop another atop another atop another, and then climbs atop himself, fearless, while the chairs shake. I laugh aloud in pure childish glee, and my wife awakens, coughs, and resettles as the performer tumbles.
When he’s scurried away, I rest my cheek in my wife’s loss, my sudden weight causing her to panic and sit bolt upright. She rubs her eyes and peers at me. You have the imprint of a zipper on your cheek, she mumbles.
I reach up and touch the corrugations.
I am at the “my this hurts” age, where “this” is really any body part you want to interject at random: ear, elbow, knuckle, knee, uterus. What relationship do I have to my pain? I find it hot like a combustion engine. I find it has very droopy eyes, and shoulders that slope. It sees me as prey, mostly, I’d guess, and comes at my heart with its little axe, cross-hatch, cross-hatch, like a Kite in the Serengeti dive-bombing to steal a sandwich from an unsuspecting tourist’s hands, talons gashing a cheek. What relationship do I want to have in the future with my pain? I want to be its gay divorcée.
My wife drummed for a PSA a few weeks ago with a group of breast cancer survivors. A murder of breast cancer survivors, they freaked me out with their black feathers and cawing. I can’t handle what’s coming for them (for my wife). The prognosis for my wife’s breast cancer is good, but the last months she has had pain on swallowing, and the chant arrives in the rhythm of the children’s song: Eyes, ears, mouth and nose! Except for breast cancer mets it’s: Liver, lungs, breast and bone! I’m not sure what the song for infidelity is….okay, I am, but I can’t sing it here.
Some nights my wife’s scar opens like Monet’s water lilies at L’Orangerie, a long wide strip of art that is all blue meditation and green silence.
Intending… to… heal, intones a monk in a saffron robe.
I must sit through my pain and gird my back. I must go into my pain and through and beyond my pain.
And come out into art.
My own rendition of my wife’s lost breast is sliced into sections and presented like upright pieces of toast, the tumour glowing in phosphorescence across five slides. Anatomical, direct, confrontational, weeping blood tears.
My Wife’s Breast, by Georgia O’Keefe: a striated red flower full of motion, a rib protruding at the nipple line. My Wife’s Breast, by Pablo Picasso: a spiral breast sprouting hair, a breast with an eye instead of a nipple, a tumour instead of his model’s head. My Wife’s Breast, by Emily Carr: breast as swirling dark tree, tumour as bird’s nest. My Wife’s Breast, by Savadore Dali: a breast sitting on a rib, melting, a clock face ticking down her remaining days. My Wife’s Breast, by Frieda Kahlo: my wife and I completely clothed, hand in hand, a large shadow to my wife’s left, our injuries showing through our t-shirts, a long red, swollen gash on my wife’s right side that pumps blood across a thick vein to my over-huge, engorged, arrhythmic heart while it pumps it back–a perfect silver tea service and a yellow bird in a cage of ribs to one side.
Being with her was like dipping my brain in spun sugar. She was anything delicious along the red bumpy taste buds of my tongue, melting savory, melting sweet, explosions of colour along the neural pathways of my waxy brain. Think of penny candies from childhood: Wagon Wheels, BB Bats, Jelly Babies, Lick ‘Em Aid, Jujubes, Red Hots, Jawbreakers. She was my candy shop, and I stood before her with dirty fingernails, sweating palms, scabbed knees, clenched pennies, short, the top of my scruffy head barely even with the counter, vibrating with excitement.
Chemical soup, hormonal stew, a body that was hungry for her beautiful world.
I couldn’t just eat my fill, feel sated and then not go back for more because I didn’t have a bad tummy ache, I didn’t regret it, I didn’t gain weight, I didn’t have sugar shock or brain freeze.
The melting, sticky, goo-gawing emotion that causes dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin to jig-jag into your body, warm, wet and frothing, is supposed to be temporary, and then the relationship devolves or evolves into more reasonable, adult, companionable territory. But they weren’t temporary.
All those years, her arms were open. I ran into them like a dancer from across a wide stage, launching myself spread-hearted into the air, believing she would catch me.
by Jane Eaton Hamilton
If it starts to eye you
like a cinnamon heart
stand very still
blend into the background
of your dull life, into
laundry, dishes, stacks of paperwork
do all you can do
to avoid notice
become the yellow wallpaper
become the water in the trap of the sink
Whatever you do
don’t imagine the gaping
the lips, the teeth of love
don’t imagine butterflies
Whatever you do
Don’t think of dulcet dinners out
classical by candlelight
Don’t imagine love’s long eyes
her laugh, chocolate
or the slip of talented fingers
across your cheek
soft up your thigh
Turn away, turn away
from your need
Run swiftly through your town
cover your head with your arms
cry Help me!
If love still lifts you to its fleshy tongue
like a cinnamon heart
holds you to its palette melting
don’t go under its teeth as if you won’t shred
don’t slide down its esophagus like you won’t dissolve
don’t leak into its intestines as if love
were enough (even for this)
A woman with a perpetual smile said, “What is your name?”
“Tiara,” said a second woman. She had red hair and a large jaw.
“So you’re a princess?”
“Yes,” said the second woman. “I wear myself out.”
Later, under the Cambie Street bridge at Spyglass Place, there was an old piano sitting on the seawall with blue and orange polka-dots, and a piano bench, and a man with a flat cap and three friends was playing, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. ‘The Keys to the Street’ was a project between the city and post-secondary institutions; there were more polka-dotted pianos elsewhere in Vancouver, and the public was welcome to play them. There was no moon. It was dark with broody grey clouds sweeping over a sky lit almost blue, and a breeze was coming off the water, cooling things down. There weren’t stars, but sometimes a plane flew noisily overhead. It was 1:30 in the morning. The view from the seawall was sweeping downtown, the highrises speckled with lights, the casino bathed in pink, the Monk’s sign reflecting red on the furrowed water of False Creek, but the four people around the piano, just here, under the murky glow of the streetlamp and the heavy cement buttresses of the bridge, and the small rainbow ferry-slip, and their laughter, and the tunes the one man was playing, was somehow enough. I wanted to take Liz’s hand; I wanted to stop time right there.
I had been walking with Liz with my mother’s red blanket over my arm, and though it had been washed many times, I liked to remember when it smelled of a blend of my mother’s perfume and her cigarettes. Liz smelled of cigarettes, so when I was with her and my mother’s red blanket, it was simple to think about my mother sleeping under that blanket, how she had shape, then, and substance, before she died, how she had shoulders and breasts and elbows and a tummy and knees. She had bunions. I thought about how much fun I had with my mother when I was little, how great she was to play with, and how she let us put clown makeup on her, and how she loved to limbo to Harry Belafonte, and then about swimming every afternoon in my grandparents’ swimming pool and how she would only haul us out when our lips turned blue and chattered together. I thought about my mother’s love for animals. I thought about how she let me sleep with pet raccoons, three of them, in my bed, and how I had a lot of snakes and preying mantises in jars. I’d punch holes in blue Miracle Whip lids, and put in twigs and bits of grass. Once I watched the mantises have sex, and while his green penis was up inside her, she ate his head off, and then she ate the rest of him. There are theories about this sexual cannabalism: The adaptive foraging,aggressive spilloverand mistaken identity hypotheses, but who knows? I certainly took notice as I shook the mantis back out to freedom come morning (the household rule). I had mice in a shoebox. I had a robin’s egg incubating under a hot light. I had a pet owl, Spooky, and a pet hawk, Hawkeye. We had a cat Mom named Pardon Me.
As we walked towards the piano, I draped myself in my mother’s blanket, and I walked on the lip of the seawall, and I pretended it was very thin, two inches across, something to balance on, and I told Liz about how we kids would do that across the top rails of our paddock, and how one set of rails was removable, set loosely into brackets so farm vehicles could pass, and how it was hard, almost impossibly wobbly, to get across, and then I acted it out, swaying, almost falling, my mother’s red blanket a cape whipping in the night wind.
My heart was very arrhythmic. I wanted to press myself against another human to settle it. I thought about Jules in California and how for a while after I spent time with her, my heartbeat was nearly normal.
Liz and I had been lying beside the pond where I often, at dusk, saw blue herons fishing, Charleson Park. The clouds looked like scumbling. I liked the sound of Liz’s voice. I let it spill over me in washes, like a glaze I’d put on a painting. It was low and made me think of Scotch, and sometimes she laughed and sounded exactly like an ex-lover, a smoky jazz-club rumbly laugh. I touched the grass; I ran my hands over it as if it was someone’s green brush cut. I told Liz that scientists were discovering that the smell of cut grass was actually the smell of trauma; my friend Sonnet L’Abbé, a good poet and teacher, was exploring plant communication. I was feeling the grass and remembering how I used to see as a child, intently, each blade, how when I looked closely enough I’d see each blade creased in its middle like a tiny folded book. I was thinking about lilacs, and rhubarb, those fat red/green stalks, the sap that leaked from them, and climbing, and jumping out of our hayloft, that airborne feeling where I wiggled my toes and felt it in my stomach. I turned on my right side to see Liz’s profile and I saw the city lights through sweeping curtains of willows, and I thought about Annie Dillard’s tree with the lights in it, and really how excellent Annie Dillard’s writing is, especially that book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which might be the book I’d take to a desert island, really, if I had to choose just one. I wished I had the skills as a painter to capture what it looked like right then, that willow, as Annie had the skills to capture it with writing, and I felt the sting of my limitations.
I listened to Liz talk about the Tar Sands, and how the 14 kilometre Healing Walk she’d undertaken the previous days had made her cry about how much we had destroyed. Environmentalists weren’t sure there was the possibility of reclamation, and the current plans for Syncrude were to triple, not miniaturize. Liz and her compadres walked past Syncrude’s open pit mines, and Liz said it reminded her most like a desert. “A desert with sluey ponds.” She said it stunk of sulphur. At the tailings ponds, there were huge sculptural scarecrows meant to warn away actual birds, mechanical hawks that flashed and rotated. While she was talking, I looked out at the pond in front of us, upon which a little catchment of light was shimmering. I couldn’t see much of it, or hear birds, but I believed it to be healthy and replete with ducks and red-winged blackbirds in the reeds, bugs and water snakes on the water, and herons at dusk fishing frogs.
I turned over onto my back and I watched Liz smoke, her toque, the shape of her nose and lips which I had already wanted to paint, the red ember of the cigarette. Because I am a nasty ex-smoker, I told her she was doing in micro to her lungs what corporations were doing to Alberta. I didn’t tell her I would have given the world to have never wrecked my heart with cigarettes, but it probably went without saying that I worried for her future since once you’ve done the damage, it’s too late.
I could smell flowers, milky with lust. Above us, the leaves were rustling in the breeze, and they made a sound that filled me with delight and childhood. I tried to imagine what it was like for Van Gogh with his paintbox out in the fields at night, how what he saw in the skies translated to what he drew on his canvases. I wondered what he would paint if he were standing beside us now with his butchered ear, and whether his ear would have been butchered if he could only have come out, the way we can now, as whatever he would have come out as, bisexual or gay, either.
I felt but didn’t say that life was pulling me up by my heartstraps and telling me to listen, to put my bare feet against earth, to note the lumps of the tree roots under me, to listen to the wind, to take the indigo perfumes deep into my lungs, all the flowers’ mad sexual hurried displays.
Liz talked about my short story, “Hunger,” and how it had moved her when she read it in Edmonton, or maybe at the Tar Sands, camping, I don’t know, somewhere, and I told her about its etiology and about character-driven stories and how they were my favourites to write, and I thought about, but didn’t say, how much I miss writing stories, how all the stillborn stories ache inside me, discrete painful throbs like stubbed toes. She said “Hunger” had made her think a lot about power and how power plays out between couples, between mothers and children, and I said that it had made me think about that, too, but also I wondered if the girl in the story ever called her mom to let her know she was okay, and how I also wondered if she got enrolled in school. Maybe it was stupid to wonder how things turned out for a person I made up. I thought about love, then, and characters struggling to stay in love, and how hard that was in real life and in fictional life, too, and because the night was growing colder and Mom’s blanket was wrapped around me, and all the love in my life was sweet but also broken, I thought about Cole Porter’s songs, and Jules singing them along the southern coast of California, with her pure toned voice I could listen to for hours, and about the Percy Adlon video of kd lang singing “So In Love,” which I hoped someone would play at my funeral, and that women in attendance, or not in attendance, those I had slept with, would know that that was how I had tried to love them (excluding the “So taunt me, and hurt me/ Deceive me, desert me” part), full-throatedly, completely. It is a video about a partner dying of AIDS, but it is universal in speaking to loss, and I would want the women to know that it hurt me to lose them; it hurt me to lose them in just that kd lang way.
And then it was too cold to stay, Liz was chilled and I was starting to shake, and we walked and wobbled our way to the surprising delectation of the polka-dotted piano, and I looked at Liz with true joy, and I met her eyes and we stopped there, for a second, just looking at each other, realizing that sometimes despite the Tar Sands, despite the cruelty that can go on between humans, and by humans towards everything else, a moment can leap towards you perfectly pear-shaped and soft in all the right places, and muscled in all the right places, like a beloved woman’s body, perfectly exquisite, perfectly perfect, out of the indigo night, and we looked until we were done registering this, and then we walked to my car.