family, life, philosophy

a secret garden & a weedy patch

Mom's weeds

Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.
So it’s like a stone

Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep

the ash*

mom's weeds

I’ve had Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, in my mind all day. Amazingly, one of the things that I liked most about the book—last read over 8 years ago, so my memory is hazy—is never mentioned in any of the current online reviews of the work. After the protagonist has “gone mad”, and purges herself of humanity’s psychosis by reverting to an animal state, she searches her childhood home—a log cabin on a remote island in Quebec—for “clues” (really guidelines on how to live, how to return from a modern life that has gone awry, how to regain one’s self) that she believes her dead parents have left for her. Whether the clues she “finds” were actually left for her, or she is merely projecting the messages she needs to hear onto random objects in her parents’ home, is beside the point. The discovered oracles function in much the same way that tarot cards do: they are keys that provide her with a means of gaining access or understanding things about her past, her psychological wounds, and what she must do to heal herself. I concede that it really isn’t the focus of the story, though I found it the most wonderfully surreal part.

Mom's weeds

Today I went looking for my mother in this deteriorating house. Not because my own life has gone terribly wrong, but in the hopes of establishing a connection with the individual that she was (and maybe understanding why she had seemed so disappointed, toward the end, by her life?) She was a secretive and somewhat distant person. She spilled a little of herself, here and there, with different people, but no single child, friend, or relative really knew who she was, deep down, nor understood her completely. I remember her as someone who had locks installed on her desk drawers and never let the keys out of her sight; sometimes she used cryptograms to write in her diaries, and locked herself, for hours on end, inside a little room (formerly the housemaid’s) that had been converted into a library and study. I still remember the advice she gave me on relationships when I started living with Kris: She was adamant that “a woman should not tell her husband everything”, that it was “not good for him to know too much”, that “there are some things you should keep just for yourself”, and that it was good to “maintain the ‘feminine mystique’,” —a statement that had me sputtering in disbelief, given that Friedan’s 1963 book of the same name described the feminine mystique as “the widespread unhappiness of women…despite living in material comfort and being married with children.”

Mom's weeds

These days my mother’s drawers are unlocked, her private room lies open, and her many notebooks and journals (mostly made by me) line two shelves in my father’s room. But I wasn’t looking for anything so blatant as her diary entries…I do not trust the written word. I know only too well how journal entries can be inaccurate, fanciful, censored, or composed for an audience (and therefore a performance). The author/narrator/protagonist is far too unreliable. It would be just like my mom to write things with a posthumous readership in mind.

Mom's weeds

Instead, I looked for her actions among the debris of her little room, and found her in 7 or 8 rectangular biscuit tins, each one packed with pressed leaves, flowers, and common weeds, organised by kind, each layer carefully spread upon card and wrapped in a plastic sleeve, or interleaved with sheets of parchment. I recognise my own love of humble weeds in  her patient gathering, pressing and sorting. I remember how she would stop the car along a busy expressway to harvest the weeds growing on the verge, and explore a hill or empty lot in the hopes of finding something different.

On her bookshelf, the pressed weeds were echoed by the silhouette of a fern on the cover of a leather journal. I made this book for her, maybe 10 years ago.

weeds on a journal cover

On the title page she had written: “Things my family should know. January 2012″ I turned the page with some trepidation…what sort of secrets did she have, that she felt the need, two years before her death, to set it down in a journal like this?

The next page was blank. And so were all the other pages in the journal. Even at the end, she could not unclench that secret fist. Mysterious till the last. And that is just so typical of her. I laugh. That old devil, the Feminine Mystique.

And so I have found her, in her unwillingness to be found.

It will have to do…it doesn’t actually bother me all that much. She was an individual, I am an individual; blood is the common thing we shared, there is no need to load that simple connection—a fluke product of two humans meeting, mating—with melodramatic emotional baggage. I do not feel the need to know more than this: that her family was not meant to know more.

I tore the page out of what is now a perfectly good, unused journal. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “I do not have much use for the past.”

My family should know

I, on the other hand, have always been a gabby talker, a blurter of intimate things, a spiller of beans, a revealer of my innermost secrets. I found a box in mom’s drawer, filled to the brim with letters and postcards that I wrote to her, from the different places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve always told her about everything…from dope and crystal meth experiments, to who I was going out with that evening and whether I intended to sleep with him or not. Sometimes she would respond with outrage, but would simmer down again when I asked her whether she’d rather I concealed things from her. Poor mom, what a daughter!

I like the sunny spot in which my rampant, weedy life grows—open to wind and rain, knowing nothing of closets,  skeletons, nor locks on doors (within or without). Anyway, I hate the deadweight of a bunch of keys.

letters to my mother


*excerpted from the very long poem Intimate Letters, by Rosanna Warren

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Darwin, Australia, life, philosophy

Notes from inside a pressure cooker…

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

—Frank O’Hara, “To the Harbormaster” from Meditations in an Emergency

I have until late October to disentangle myself from this life I am living, and hie myself off to South Africa in time to sail with my beloved round the Cape of Good Hope, Brazil-bound. I wake into each new day with a sense of urgency, now. I have known for at least a year that this was coming, but recently caught myself sabotaging my own plans…living in complete denial, procrastinating, snuggling even deeper into my burrow, willing myself blind and senseless to the looming deadlines. Even after Kris sailed on ahead, and his absence brought our plans into sharp focus, I have managed to push them out of my mind for days, weeks, whole months at a time. I continued to make plans that contradicted The Big Plan. Instead of sloughing my life off, I took on more commitments, more projects, invested even more in my Darwin life. I signed up for craft markets, for exhibitions, agreed to a few commissioned bookbinding projects, bought more art materials, ordered prints of my work, on paper and fabric (that I will now have to try and sell). In a completely unrealistic fog I have managed to convince myself that I can get everything done before departure, orchestrate some kind of ‘closure’ to my Darwin life, and slip away cleanly, all my if-onlies fulfilled.

I will be gone for some years and, whatever I could, I packed and loaded onto the sailboat that left two months ago. What remains here, with me, will have to stay here: packed away, to age and rot or somehow survive until our return. This thought sends me into a panic of greed and attachment. Suddenly, my stuff has become this heady drug that I am convinced I will perish without…never mind that I have had most of this stuff around me for years and years, and never did anything with it; now I want to use it all, pursue all those projects, make all those ideas come to life! Some days I feel like I am drunk…flailing, grabbing mindlessly at the things around me, desperate to somehow consume, absorb, take it all into me. My ego has associated itself with The Things I Own and The Things I Do for such a long time, that leaving all this behind is threatening it with annihilation. Without my arsenal of art and craft materials, without the labels ‘bookbinder’, ‘artist’, ‘crafter’, do I continue to exist?

It feels a lot like dying. When my best friend was diagnosed with cancer at 21, and given 6 months, at most, to live, her family and friends flew into action: suddenly she was getting guitar lessons and art lessons, lavished with new experiences, surrounded by doting relatives and friends. She, and everyone that loved her, was trying to make up for lost time, and cram as much of a rich, colourful, idyllic life into her last days. Not the grey, dreary stuff that she—like the rest of us—had been caught up with for 20 years: university, the struggle to stay afloat in the world, the little projects to generate some spending money, the daily stresses of rent, family troubles, relationships. In the end the Self reached out, at last, for those untouched dreams that had been locked down, kept in storage, awaiting a better, more opportune time, and brought them all out into the light. Desperately, greedily, fearfully—with death no longer just an abstract idea, but something close and palpable and very, very real—we finally find the courage, the focus, the desire to drop everything but the few things that our hearts, kept on a metaphorical diet of bread and water, have hungered for all their sad lives. Perhaps a little too late…and yet, not really too late. Even those things: the beloved, longed-for, dreamed-of things—even the joys of a Perfect Life spent only doing the Things That You Love—fall away, reveal themselves as unimportant, as inessential, as mere add-ons to a person’s true essence. “No regrets,” she said, over and over, the last time we could be alone together (and she not drugged up to the eyeballs nor in debilitating pain). “Today. I have today..”

When I say that packing up and leaving my home for I-know-not-what-lies-ahead is like dying, I am not trying to trivialise dying, but point out that there are lessons for living that can be learned from dying. There are lessons I come back to, over and over, from the way G. lived, and the way she died. I lose track of them often, dazzled by the color and variety of the world of form. I become attached to things, to situations, to ideas about myself or about anything else, that I then fight to preserve and hang on to, even when they are doing more damage than good to my life as a whole.
But sometimes, by grace, I am granted a moment of lucidity, and catch sight of myself scrabbling to hold on to shadows like a madwoman, hoarding and coveting imaginary treasures, fully caught up in the illusions. Sometimes the illusions are like Russian matryoshka dolls…one nesting within the other, so that I think I have popped a bubble of unreality and all is well, only to find out later that I and the first bubble were simply inside a bigger bubble.

Two weeks ago I was so sure that I had finally broken out of all bubbles when my job went back to just three days a week, and I had four whole days every week to throw myself into art-making and bookbinding and self-expression and all those things that I love and enjoy and associate with Who I Am. I could finally get down to tackling all those projects: each one hugely vital to my life, each one an absolute Must-Do on the list of Things To Do before I leave Darwin. I was going to use up all my Spoonflower fabric as well as paper and make 40+ hand-bound journals, that I would then sell at craft markets and in my ETSY shop over the next two months…along with some 500 postcards of various designs that I still have, and 50-60 giclée fine art prints of my work. I was going to try and produce another 6 paintings or so for the group exhibition “The Magic Garden” that is opening at the end of this month, as well as stitch half a dozen art dolls for another group exhibition happening in September. On top of that I was going to squeeze in some brilliant little earthenware and porcelain sculptures (to use up 45 kilos of clay, along with jars of underglazes and glazes, that I bought over the year…before it all dries out and goes hard as rock) that I have been dreaming up, plus make some one-off artist books…with lino printing, pop-ups, painting, embroidery, and mixed-media covers in high relief. I hadn’t even started to think about the time I would need to clean the houseboat and move my stuff into storag,e to make it liveable for the friend who will be moving aboard and looking after the place for us while we’re away!

Completely in denial, as I said, of what is possible, what is coming, and how much time I have left. Convinced that I don’t have to give up anything, that I can have it all, get it all done, use it all, somehow incorporate it all into my sense of Self, into a monument in honour of my talents, my aspirations, my ideas. Hubris, in other words. Not just any inflated ego…Egozilla.

This morning I got up and, filled with energy and ambition, primed new canvases to paint. While they were drying I folded and punched enough paper to make a dozen books. I started to stitch, calculating that it would take me a mere 8 hours to stitch up all 40 small book blocks. Then the thread snapped. It snapped again. And again. I spent half an hour splicing threads on just one book block. I looked for more thread and found that I have enough linen, here on the boat, to make just four books. Add to the To Do List: go ashore, cycle to Spotlight, buy 5 spools of linen thread for $70. I make a pot of coffee, discover that my stove gas is out. “Get LPG,” I add to the list. Lunchtime comes around, I only have 4 books stitched, I am out of thread, I’m starving but don’t have gas to cook lunch on. I have a headache. A guy who wanted me to make a huge 9 x 12 inch full-leather guest book for $70 dollars has told me he’d like to double the number of pages (from 100 leaves to 200 leaves) and wants me to throw in embroidering the title “just in some pretty, curly lettering” in gold thread on the leather covers…like this is just a little extra eye-candy that I should be able to manage without dramas. I send him a message saying I want $120 for the book, now, because it is heavier, will need to be made stronger, will prove difficult to fit all on one little piece of kidskin leather, adding that I have to embroider fancy letters through the rubbery skin of a dead animal with a needle and get it all positioned and centered perfectly for when the covers are made…all-in-all, a job that wouldn’t attract a sane person if she was charging even $350 for it, bearing in mind that this is starting to look like a 12-hour job, and I can earn $140 in 8 hours at Jacksons, putting tubes of paint in paper bags, smiling, and ringing them up on the register for customers. I’ve had no reply. Yet. The day gets old, the sun is on its way down the sky, now. I needed THAT commission like a hole in the head!

Like the linen bookbinding thread, something in me snaps. What am I doing this…ANY OF THIS…for? My beloved is in Africa, “living for a living”, while I try to plough my way through all my art materials and bookbinding stock so that I can maybe sell some at a craft market and be, at the most optimistic, a thousand dollars richer before I leave this place? In the meantime things run out and more spending is required simply to keep going, to keep getting up on free days in order to paint more things that may or may not sell at exhibitions? I’d have more money if I just stopped trying to make money and sat here, watching the dolphins hunt in the shallows for shadowy barramundi…

How could I have deceived myself like this for so long? What did I think lay in these last few months in Darwin that was so damn precious that I had to stay behind for it? Was it just the ego-fest of being included in a couple of group exhibitions (where you make 8 paintings in the hopes of selling two)? Was it fear of the unknown, and of going into it with very little material possessions? Was it the smug satisfaction of loading table, chair, boxes  into the dinghy and then paying a taxi $40 to get it all to the craft fair, where you stand on your tired feet as idle shoppers drift by, touch everything you make with hands that were, moments before, engaged in the eating of ice-cream or cupcakes, then toss you the ego-stroking (but otherwise worthless coin) of a compliment before moving on to the next stall (because they are just bored and have come—with their prams and their rugrats and their grumpy husbands—to be entertained, but don’t actually want to pay the money that someone—who punches and sews sheets of paper together by hand—is asking?

 

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This is EXCELLENT. Adam keeps a blog, Man vs. Debt.

aboard the M/V sonofagun, Darwin, Australia, life, philosophy

Working with a thief

home

That which stands in the way IS the way.

Marcus Aurelius

After my manager returned from her 6 weeks of annual leave, one of the other staff members at work resigned, and so I am still working 6 days a week and, believe me, this blog isn’t the only thing that’s suffered from it…I have had no time to make anything new or do anything creative; with just Sunday free, I barely have time to keep the houseboat from looking like a pigsty, get the laundry and groceries done, run all those little errands that hold the framework of my life together.

Last Sunday, my one day off, I worked some more: I took all my craft market gear ashore, and a friend kindly loaded the stuff into her ute (that’s Aussie for a pickup truck…from ‘utility vehicle’) and took me to the Museum Grounds for the Dragonfly Craft Fair. It was a good day for me, and I came back to the Dinah Beach Yacht Club cashed-up and feeling triumphant. My friend was curious to see what living on a boat is like, so I invited her to come home with me. We unloaded my tables, chair, boxes of craft market goods, and I went to get the dinghy. But it wasn’t where I’d left it, and more looking revealed that it had not simply been moved nor ‘borrowed’ by a fellow club member. It had been stolen.

When I used to row my dinghy, I could leave it tied to the pontoon for days on end; nobody touched it for all these 5 years. Thanks to the new outboard engine, it disappeared just 6 weeks after the engine had been attached.

I apologised to my friend, reported the theft to a few friends, the marine police, and some people at the club. At first I was a bit upset…with myself, for not locking my dinghy the way everyone else at the club does; but mainly over the loss of the aluminum dinghy, itself, as well as the small but super-heavy anchor that was in it, my custom-made oars (extra long, tropical hardwood, with oversized blades), and the two 15-liter water containers that I carry water home in.

I ordered a vodka-lime-and-soda, rolled a cigarette, and found myself strangely at peace with what had happened. What do you do when something like this happens? Cuss? Start shouting? Cry? Round up a posse of murderous, bearded waterfront characters and comb the harbour in a flotilla of dinghies for signs of the dinghy and/or thief? (Nobody saw who took it, though there are suspicions that a homeless heroin addict that’s been hanging around the waterfront lately did it. Who knows?) Rush off and spend all of the day’s earnings on another outboard engine? Someone told me “That’s why you should always have TWO outboards…so if one gets stolen, you have a spare!” Buy outboard engines for thieves?

Strangely enough (maybe it was the vodka?) in a very short time I accepted what had happened, felt a kind of relief and peace wash over me, and pushed the lost engine out of my mind completely. The truth is that I never did like that outboard…’fast’ was the only good thing that could be said of it. Otherwise it was noisy, smelly, it vibrated the dinghy so violently that parts of it had started to fall off, it was moody on cold mornings, it was vulnerable on rough days at the pontoon, with all the dinghies lurching and leaping and crashing against each other. It was a hassle to buy fuel and oil for regularly. The worry that I would run out of fuel midway through the week, or during a trip home, was a constant faint anxiety at the back of my head. I couldn’t listen to music on my way to work. It scared all the birds in the mangroves away, so that I never saw them. A couple of times I went over rocks in the shallows with it, and the propeller made the most terrifying grinding and screeching sound…it required deeper water than a rowing dinghy and so I found myself stranded by tide levels that I would normally scull right over. But my beloved had bought it for me, and I couldn’t refuse to use it without seeming ungrateful and recalcitrant.

My peace blossomed into joy: I had an excuse to go back to rowing! I laughed out loud at the bar, delighted. Thank heavens for Josh, who is one of just five men (Kris included) at Dinah Beach who have actually done some serious rowing: while everyone else was giving me their two cents on where I should start looking for my lost dinghy, or asking me to demonstrate my knot-tying skills (implying that because I am a woman, I probably don’t know how to tie a decent knot, and the thing worked itself loose and drifted off! To which I found the quick reply “Sure, I’ll show you my bowline knot…can I use your dick as a bollard?”) or offering me the loan of their spare outboard (so the thief can have another one, and I have to buy them a replacement?), Josh simply, matter-of-factly, handed me his oars and told me where to find his own little sculling dinghy (his own boat is out of the water, for now, so he doesn’t need them soon). He knows I like to row. And as someone who’s done it for years, he knows it not as hard or unpleasant as it may seem to onlookers.


I’ve been to and from the boat a few times, now. Josh’s oars were just 6 feet long, awkward and much too short to scull properly, so I bought myself a pair of 8-foot oars at the ship chandlers after the first trip. The blades are still too small for my liking, but at least I’m comfortable rowing now. I’m like a huge water bug, skidding over the surface of the harbour on long legs. I pop my earbuds in and listen to music or an audio book as I row. I skirt the mangroves and the birds fidget when I come near, but they don’t take off in a scatter of panicked wings. I look around me as I row, drinking in the cloudless sky, the sunlight embroidering the edges of the leaves in fil d’or. I’ve been listening to the audio book Vis and Ramin, an 11th century love story. I catch myself grinning as I row. I LOVE this…I feel so alive, so much a part of this world. My body loves the honest work of rowing, my heart beating time to the rhythm of my strokes, and the world isn’t flying by in a rattling metallic cacophony of fuel-scented exhaust. It’s good for the heart, for the body, for the mind, for the soul, for the environment. Why would anyone want to do anything else? I’d like to thank the dude who stole my outboard for giving me back my self-reliance, and so much joy.

Fabulous Water

*And for those who are always concerned about Time and argue that rowing takes too much time (though they don’t complain about sitting in front of a television for a couple of hours every night), I have timed each of my recent rowing trips, and it has consistently taken me 35 minutes to row from the boat to the yacht club or the other way around. That’s 15 minutes longer than it took by outboard.

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art journal tricks, journaling + mail art, philosophy

Out with the old…

planting broken and bent needles in a bed of soft tofu

“All the things have their own soul.”

From a combination of aspects of Buddhism and Japan’s traditional Shinto religion comes the belief that both living and inanimate objects have a spirit and soul.

The idea is that objects that have had a hard life can, having reached their 100th birthday, awaken to life and acquire souls. These monsters or “artefact spirits” are called tsukumogami, and are largely considered harmless, though many of them can band together and turn into a dangerous mob when they reflect upon how badly they have been treated after so much hard work and loyal service. They then set out to punish people who are wasteful, ungrateful, or who throw their tools away thoughtlessly. Wikipedia has a list of “known tsukumogami” that includes a “possessed tea kettle”, an angry-looking “animated umbrella”, and “A furry creature formed from the stirrup of a mounted military commander that works for Yama Orochi.”

tsukumogami

To prevent any of this from happening, Jinja ceremonies, such as the hari-kuyou, are performed in Shinto shrines of Japan. Kuyou are usually held for the spirits of dead people, but have also been held for things such as toys, weapons, and tools that were used for a long time and have been broken or rendered useless.

The hari-kuyou is a memorial service specifically for old sewing needles (hari) and pins. Prayers are offered to console the bent and broken needles. Each year, on February 8th, broken or damaged sewing needles are stuck into slabs of soft tofu or jelly—sort of as a reward after years of being pushed through tougher material—and these are offered to a Shinto shrine (or taken home and buried, with salt, in the garden). No needlework is done on this day, to give one’s needles a holiday of sorts. This ceremony still brings needleworkers and women together, today; in addition to the original purpose of consoling and thanking their tools, women are urged to take some time to console themselves, as well, and bury secrets too personal to reveal.

An old journal is a somewhat different matter…

Unlike broken needles and tattered umbrellas that have become useless, I think a journal becomes more valued and important with time. It is, after all, time and the act of writing in it regularly that transforms an empty book into a treasured record of life, and an heirloom for future generations. Not so much a useless corpse, your journal is more like your amazing hundred-year-old great-grandmother. She’s been a force of nature for over a century, and what she could really use right now is a cozy, everything-taken-care-of, bells-and-whistles retirement.

A home.

With this in mind, I think that a nice way to retire your used-up journal is by making it a special container of its own to live in…buy a decorative box that fits the book well, or try your hand at making a clamshell (or any of the other boxes bookbinders use to house precious volumes). If you can use archival, acid-free materials, so much the better…preserve your journal for your descendants, if you’re at all into that sort of thing.

A book box too bulky for you? If you’re one of those people that goes through 6 journals a year, perhaps a wooden chest or trunk to store them all in would be better. Or how about wrapping it in a knotted silk scarf, or stitching a simple calico bag with drawstring closure? Just something to keep the bugs from eating the paint off the pages, to confer some dignity on it, and keep it clean.

Any last words?

There’s not much point doing lots more writing in this journal—you probably don’t have any space left to write in, or (like me) your heart is already set on starting the next journal—but if writing a good closure makes you feel better, here are a few things you can use those last pages for:

  • An index…this doesn’t have to be a tedious page-by-page account of what’s in the journal, but you could write down major events and other things you’re likely to need someday (Ex. “Trip to Penang, p. 56-97”, “Peter’s death, pp.48”, or “Sabi’s roti paratha recipe, p.11”) My own journals only feature a practical list of schematic diagrams or design plans for book binding, so I can find them quickly without having to read through all the pages of blah-blah-blah. Which is why I still can’t remember the exact date of Peter’s death…

“Don’t talk about the things you care deeply, or feel intensely, about to every friendly stranger or fair-weather acquaintance. 1) Their insensitive questions or frivolous reactions may hurt, 2) your attempt to put the intangible into mere words will cheapen it, and 3) exchanging confidences in order to “win friends and influence people” is despicable.”

  • Finally, it might be nice to write a short paragraph at the very end, thanking the journal for the time it has served you and the ways it has helped you.
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amazing people, books + poetry, Inspirations, philosophy

Walt Whitman + James Earl Jones : glorious.

Walt Whitman

the reading was posted on brainpickings…and I found it via Project Gutenberg’s facebook page.

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I can’t wait to see this. I love Noam Chomsky, and Gondry’s animated film/documentary of a conversation with him is the sort of thing that I can watch once, and will feed off of its inspiration for the next 5 years. There are too few films that do this for me, these days.

found via Booooooom!