pondering stuff

Dave at Davestock by o&poecormier
Dave at Davestock, a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

the beach is in front of him, sunset pink over the mountains of the opposite shore. the water is glass, the beach, pebbles. old tree stumps gnarl and twist in the bonfire.

his parents’ fishing shed is visible behind him. the cottage, replete with antlers, looms on stilts across the lawn. there is an octagonal gazebo for latenight singalongs without black flies. the smokestack from the power plant looms just out of frame. there is a full moon.

from the deck of the cottage, they look out, easy and laughing, clustered, catching up.

nine years since we gathered here. the bodies shift, some of us stoutened with babies and beer. the beards grow grizzled and flecked with silver.

most of them – the guys, and a few of the women – have known each other since childhood. most moved away from here years ago: all return, though, in regular pilgrimages to parents and grandparents still rooted in this small town.

they called it Davestock, that first summer party sixteen or seventeen years ago, when most of them were twenty-ish or not much more. guitars and cases of Alpine that ensured Dave’s mother’s place as a saint in the annals of history: most of them saw beer bottle toss as a blood sport, then.

they are different, now.

or not. the lawn at the cottage Sunday morning was oddly pristine. not a trace of vomit in the pansies; even the few rogue cans and sixpacks looked anemic in the wholesome expanse of green. somebody finally wrote out all the verses to Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall. not one soul braved shrinking flesh and the misnamed Bay of Heat to skinnydip at midnight. but there were still guitars until nearly dawn. gestures, familiar. signature laughs that do not change, only deepen a squeak or two.

there is no such thing as catching up, of course. it is impossible to tell your life to me, or mine to you, not really: we none of us have ears to hear the tide that is somebody else’s reality. we parse and allude and it washes over us, and then we smile and nod and pretend we are made clean to each other. we have no business claiming to know each other over time.

your friend, the one you loved when you were a green, lost kid: that friend has shed all his cells and his eyes are crinkled now. they’ve seen a hundred things you never will. that other friend, ripped wide open by a fork in the road that was not yours to take? she is no more that girl you knew than she is a phoenix. we are each of us only aging humans who remember each other fondly: whose stories intersected once, and again.

yet we end up woven together, each making the other a little more real. shared history. i stand at the edge of the fire and watch them all and smile at Dave, who is more Dave at Davestock, suddenly, than anywhere.

i hear The Cure in my head – you make me feel like i am home again – and i warm my hands at the fire and hope they can come again next summer.

who are your oldest friends? do you know them, still? how?

when my grandmother was not quite nineteen years old, she married a boy from the farm down the road. she was a country girl, a second daughter of four.

she did not get a honeymoon. she got a passport, expedited. a few weeks after the wedding she got on a train and went from Charlottetown, PEI, to New York City.

it was October 1942. my grandfather met her train, took her to a brownstone apartment on West 76th Street. he left the next morning, his mission and destination entirely classified. he was a spy, a communications agent for British Security Coordination. he was gone six weeks.

she had never, so my grandfather said, been off of PEI before in her life.

i found her passport yesterday afternoon, going through files in my grandfather’s basement.

i traced my fingers over her face: familiar and strange. or rather, i remember it well, but forty years older, lined, turned down at the mouth. in it. i peered in and a dozen family faces danced back at me at odd angles: my aunts, my half-sister, a cousin.

i cocked my head to one side and squinted and could see myself, for a second, diffracted. i smiled, surprised and wry and bewildered, all at once. because the girl in that photo is less than half my age, and yet my grandmother, undeniably. try holding both those things as equally true, at once. you turn into a country song.

i looked at her blouse, her jacket: probably her very best, if not the only ones she owned. i wondered what her shoes looked like, tucked away under the stool of the photography shop where that passport photo was taken. the grandmother i knew wore sensible shoes, always. but the grandmother i knew never quite had that look on her face, either. i wondered where that eagerness got to. it left no stamps in the passport to tell its story.

i kinda hope she was wearing those sexy strappy wedge sandals of the forties, the ones Shelly Winters called her Come Fuck Me shoes.

what is a passport photo for, really, if not grand shoes and grand hopes?


i use my own passport so little now i can barely remember where i keep it. i found it tonight, breathed a sigh of relief, realized i am six months from expiry. Dave found his. he has an extra year before he needs a renewal, because i put his last passport through the washing machine.

when we were first together, we had our passports on us nearly all the time. both of us stared out from the pages long-haired and wide-eyed: Dave held his shoulders like a rugby player and looked absolutely not at all like anyone you’d want to let into your country. still, he had twenty-some stamps. i did too. the little books were like condensed maps of the worlds we’d walked, tiny resumes, stories unto themselves.

now my passport has a single stamp in it: Heathrow, 2007. the U.S. does not stamp Canadians. when i flew to DC in April, i considered asking for a stamp, just to mark that i was there. but what can you say to a customs agent? someday, when i’ve been dead twenty-three years, i’d like someone to find this in a basement and know i was here?

we leave tomorrow, to take the kids to Dave’s parents, then on to BlogHer. i am reading. Dave is coming. both these things seem marvellously unreal to me, as does California in general.

after San Diego, we have three days in San Francisco.

in my grandfather’s basement yesterday, i found a souvenir book: Views of San Francisco. April 1945 is written on the front cover, in his handwriting: he was a member of the delegation at the first United Nations conference there. he must have brought the book home to my grandmother. she never saw the city, except through its splendidly titled black-and-white pages.

i will bring it with us.

and i am tempted, when we land, to ask the customs agent to stamp our passports.

what’s on your passport?
…and who wants to take me & Dave to all the cool parties in San Diego? he’s bringing his best heels.

gaze by o&poecormier

from the minute they were born, they looked exactly like him.

all of them. even Finn, smallest of doppelgangers, his dark eyebrows and his tiny big toe carbon copies of his father’s.

when Oscar was a newborn in the NICU, the nurses used to joke that they couldn’t tell him apart from Dave except for size. every time Josephine smiles, her father gazes out at me, shrunken and in pigtails.

high school science class taught me that what i see when i gaze upon the faces of my children is genetics in action.

i accept that i lost that bargain, in terms of passing on anything visibly recognizable as my own. it’s not a bad thing: i have a fondness for Dave’s visage, particularly as it’s manifested in the faces of small cute people. plus they missed out on the crossed eyes and colourblindness that ought by rights have landed somewhere in their paths, legacy of my glorious gene pool. i’ll take that luck of the draw.

i need a tshirt that relieves commenters of the obligation to note the kids’ lack of resemblance to me. YES, THEY LOOK THEIR FATHER, it would proclaim. underneath, with a nice vintage salvation show wagon, See Bonnie, the Circus Geek, the Scientific Marvel: a Seething Mass of Recessive Genes!

i never believed that genes mattered much. i grew up on Anne of Green Gables, on stories of orphans and foundlings. i was raised in part by a woman whose blood relationship to me was distant, who passed on not one of her genes in this world. but she and i were kin at the heart. she loved me and taught me.

and yet sometimes i wonder about blood.

the thing Dave likes least about me, i think, is my capacity for wounded outrage. deep inside me a she-donkey lurks, eyes turned out to the world. the donkey is not suspicious; it looks for friends. it is not needy, particularly; it can live with being ignored, can live even – though not best – with hurt and conflict. it is earnest; will always seek engagement, a happy ending from all encounters. what it cannot endure is dismissal, smugness, perceived cruelty, any authoritarian refusal to engage its warm human donkey-ness. it is not jealous, and it can be equivocal about being cheated. but it is outraged by being slighted. and being subject to the indifferent whims of dehumanizing power? makes it wild and destructive and rather silly, a tempest of hooves in what looks from the outside to be a teapot.

the donkey is not especially easy to live with, i will admit. with renewed humility, as it is becoming painfully – and loudly – clear that Oscar has his own rather potent little donkey. or a herd. though he has never once – okay once, ONCE, people – seen my donkey go off, and even then in restrained-ish form.

i DO see myself in my children. not in their looks, but in their senses of themselves, their relationships to the world. their alignments, for lack of a better word, to power, to limits, to what they perceive as unfair. and i puzzle.

perhaps they learned these things from me, i intone to myself gravely. nurture. my job is nurture. and i try to tie my donkey tighter, because it is indubitably part albatross.

but i visited my grandfather last week at the hospital. he’s home again now, recovering from a mild heart attack, his much younger homecare nurse happily ensconced in the house with him in an arrangement that is neither romantic nor conventional but seems to work for them. none of my business, is my opinion. we should all have someone good to us at 91.

but last week he’d been three nights in the hospital, and there had been a night nurse on duty, an older nurse who had upset him. he alluded. i asked, pressed a little. his hands shook in punctuation and he would not meet my eyes. he knew the story was not dramatic; he tried to play it down. she put up all the rails in my bed, he said, shrugging at first. i told her i have the same bed at home, that four was dangerous. any two would be okay with me. i asked her if she’d ever seen pictures of a fire in a nursing home. he spit the words. that’s how old people die.

he is not wrong: he was a fire chief for years. she had dismissed him, threatened to tie him down. he won, and slept with only two rails up. she’d told him not to blame her if he fell and killed himself. she left.

she was not NICE, he said. that’s not right. there were tears in his eyes, and they were tears of outrage. they did not fall. his donkey is more experienced than mine.

i did not spend a lot of my childhood with my grandfather. i have never, in almost forty years of knowing him, seen him express that kind of wounded anger. but there it was, and it was like looking in a mirror.

i put my hand on his cheek and looked into his eyes, and said you’re right. that wasn’t kind. that wasn’t her place. that was MEAN.

you just need to look the hooves in the eye and accord them their dignity.

i got the head nurse’s number before i left, but he was released the next day. he squeezed my hand and i walked away, stunned at seeing what i’ve always considered this ridiculous secret part of myself on display in him. as i’d seen it in Oscar, only a day or two before. perhaps it is in all of us? or perhaps a strain that runs somewhere through my invisible, unassertive genes. i don’t know. i shook my head as i walked through the hospital, marvelling at the mysteries of us humans, of biology and nurture and blood, the unanswerable puzzle.

i think the idea of blood as thicker than water is a learned thing, one that runs through culture and often causes more hurt than good. i do not believe genes make families, not at all.

and yet i see Dave’s face on those two little creatures we shepherd through the world for a few years yet, and wonder what it is of us that our genes carry, what of ourselves runs between the generations, written in blood and bone.

i am not still.

i cannot quiet the hamster mind that spins on its wheel. i do not know how. i never knew how. at some point there stops being anyone to blame for that but me.

neither am i in motion.

i used to walk and that counted for something, the body engaged enough to suspend the hamster, swing him around like a partner in a square dance. but it has been cold, nasty, slippery. where would i go? i think i am too busy.

i do not sweat but i pine for it a little, like i pine for the meditative stillness. my imagination oversells me and then i will not try, because my body is only a shell and i find everything physical disappointing the first twenty times. dualism. i do not believe the wall i crash into. at least the crash never disappoints.

i have developed carpal tunnel syndrome. no wonder. i forget myself, shoulders hunched up around my ears, arms akimbo on the laptop like a little troll. i notice only when the cat inserts herself between me and my screen and when i raise a hand to bat her away i realize i cannot feel her indignant nip of protest. my body is that which is demanded of. i ward it all off by disappearing into the opposite of mindfulness, even if i think i live in my mind. even if i don’t believe the mind/body divide.

unravel that, Zen masters.

i do not like driving anymore. in the turn on the roundabout when the truck pulls up in your blind spot and you realize your hand has slipped on the wheel and everything lurches and you cannot feel for a second too long whether your fingers have hold of the goddam thing or no? i do not like that.

but i like the acupuncture that comes with the carpal tunnel. the little pulse of energy, the quiet waiting. i inhabit myself, because i am afraid to move.

acupuncture i liked the first time. i was nervous: i’d been in Asia less than two weeks. i understood little. i was afraid of taking too much clothing off and appearing a flagrant exhibitionist. not that i don’t like the idea of being a flagrant exhibitionist, but i prefer most of my fantasies unenacted. the doctor – in Korea, the acupuncturists were all called doctor – had warm hands and his fingers on my spine were firm and probing, little pads of heat. i found it strangely sensual. nothing was required of me.

when we played doctor as kids, i always wanted to be the patient.

the needles slid in that first time and he left me curled over myself, fetal, in a clean white room with a clean white sheet draped over me. i waited, with no sense of anticipated time. he returned, asked me questions i didn’t understand. i smiled blankly. he smiled too. he removed the needles, then showed me a hypodermic. he injected something into my back. my legs went queasy and it occurred to me that i was thousands of miles from home in a city of 4 million people very few of whom knew i existed. it occurred to me that possibly this had all been a very bad idea.

it occurred me that since i couldn’t walk away at the moment, i might as well keep breathing. so i was still. and maybe my mind unfolded like a flower: i do not remember. i remember just that i lay there immobile and amused enough to be mostly unafraid and i drifted and i felt present and mindful to the fact of my vulnerable being, a speck on the vast white cotton sheet of the world.

he came back again and i was gratified to discover i could move my legs and then i tried to pay the receptionists ten times the amount they charged because i hadn’t quite mastered numbers yet and i didn’t want to appear cheap.

i never went back. had sex been so good the first time perhaps i’d have become a nun.

but now it is me cramped up over my umbilical screen, me lugging children across ice-covered parking lots, me plucking my shirt from the slurping mouth of the needy, kneading cat.

and my body protests. or finally i hear it. but i do not speak its language, never have. i have spent almost forty years inside a body i ignore, and it will not be ignored anymore. i suspect i could do better. i suspect there is another way to live with myself. i will take a kettlebell clinic tomorrow, just to try. but i do not get it. i do not understand what i am grasping towards. not understanding is the thing that scares me most, and so i hesitate.

i want to be still. i want to be in motion. i want to be a speck on a vast white sheet.

how? i ask you. how?

have any of you dealt with carpal tunnel? or kicked it to the curb? how? i have this fear that suddenly this window of connection on the world will close, because my hands will not cooperate.

have any of you figured out a way to float like a tiny speck and be still and be engaged without actually liking the idea of oh, say, exercise? or activity? i have a block here, and i own it. but i do not know how to shove it off my disembodied back.

teach me, sensei. halp.


we nearly bought land yesterday.

late Saturday night and we play the what-if game of MLS, of possible worlds. our dreams are tame, these days.

he wants land, insurance against a food supply falsely propped up. i want water, the tracks of sandy feet on summer grass.

seventy-three acres, near a picturesque harbour. twenty-five minutes from our house, just off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. old trees. in the photos, the cottage takes my breath away. a loft, panelled in wood. tongue-in-groove. a wood stove.

we send a midnight message to the real estate agent. too good to be true, i whisper as we fall asleep.

the agent writes back Sunday morning. you can walk in, he explains. it’s been abandoned, vandalized. the owners live far away. they don’t want to fix it.

for that cottage, on that much land, in that location, the only way we’ll ever lay our hands on it.

snow to our waists as we hike in. there is an apple tree off the wraparound deck. abandoned three years, maybe four, it is no more than ten years old.

it was somebody’s dream cottage. left unboarded, the door has blown in and snow sweeps across the hardwood floor. the bay window is green with mold, its wood frame sagging. insulation is scattered across the floor. someone has tagged a wall in periwinkle paint. an animal – perhaps a human animal – has taken a dump on the floor of the upstairs bathroom.

i stand in the loft, under a ceiling of perfect pine planks, watching warily for raccoons, and i realize. MY dream cottage.

but not to beggar ourselves for. too much pig in a poke. the land a strip too hard to parcel and sell, under restrictions for eleven years. it does not make sense, and i know it.

too good to be true. but i am tongue-tied to explain what it is that makes me so terribly sad.
we go home and he builds a snow fort in the yard, with tunnels for the kids. we have supper outside. he makes stew, roasts the coffee beans himself. in the fading winter light, with a mouth full of turnip, he is sweaty and laughing, as happy as i have seen him in years.

this is not how we live, not really. he takes tiny steps towards self-sufficiency. i watch, appreciative but disbelieving. because tomorrow we will wake up and grind our way out the door leaving dishes for the dishwasher. we will be low on butter and catfood. the parking violation will need to be paid. these will be my jobs, and they swallow all the hope i have of a truly different life.

i complain about the STUFF, all the goddam stuff we accumulate in spite of ourselves. if we had a summer cottage, it would be more grass to mow, another fridge to clean.
late Sunday night and we watch the old Fahrenheit 451 – the one from the 60s, with Julie Christie – and the end comes and i am in tears.

not for the books, not because either world portrayed is the one i want to live in. not even because the story seems so prescient in these crazy, angry times and i wonder where our satirists are and if there is hope yet for this fractured culture that seems to have dissolved into a shouting match.

i cry because at the end of the movie the Book People – the ones who have fled – huddle in railcars on the fringes of society, and i realize i have no vision anymore of that kind of escape from the rules of property and propriety that govern us.

i cry for the waste of the little cottage, hand-built, all that wood left to rot.

we could not fix it ourselves. we would be fools, by the rules of the game as it is played. it is not a Good Investment.

but it sits there abandoned when twenty hands together could make it livable. a different kind of life. that gap between me and imagination of real difference is where the tears come from.

we live in a world where property is sacred. where dreams are bourgeois and tame. i have grown tame. i no longer know my way out of the lab rat maze that is my culture, my role as mother, daughter.

we were far more suited to be hippies together, he and i, than domesticated middle-class partners. i rail at him to shut the cupboards while he dreams of planting vegetables, building with his hands.

he might survive, in a squat in the woods, in a snowfort, in some different vision of our lives. i am the one who split from the program.

but when i sit there late at night staring into the void between my choices and my sense of what makes sense, he takes my hand.

and i am less lonely, and a little less tamed.

we were rushing our way through the half-abandoned mall to Oscar’s speech appointment upstairs. he was fifty feet away at the coffee shop table, his white shock of hair sticking straight up.

everyone has a visual imprint, a way of walking or sitting, the cock of a head, the way a hand punctuates speech.

my grandfather, even at ninety-one and shrunken and far less mobile than he’d like to be, still lords over his lunchtime newspaper, shaking a paw at the ridiculousness of the world.

the boy and i ran up and greeted him. hail fellow well met and smiles, gentle hugs.

my grandfather manages lunch on his own these days, mostly at this coffee shop at the old mall. it is just down the hill from his house. his hands are shaky, the driving worries me, but he manages.

i seized the moment. do you have any dinner plans?

i do not see him enough. he has a nurse – a crew of nurses, really, headlined by a stunner whom he adores – and my father and stepmother drop in nearly daily. but not me.

well, now, he began, and this is an old deliberate routine between us, dating back to the years after my grandmother died when i’d come home from college and call him up. were you looking to ask me out, young lady?

he and Oscar and i made plans for all of us to meet at one of his usual dinner haunts that evening. lately his short-term memory’s been poor, and phone calls to make dinner plans haven’t worked out so well. but i figured that evening? was only a few hours away. i hugged him, and Oscar and i dashed away to our appointment.

love you, Grandpa! i threw over my shoulder.

from the open stairs leading up to the speech therapy clinic, i watched him rise and fumble for his cane, sunlight glinting off the white crew cut grown shaggier than he’d once have tolerated.

my grandfather’s ancestors down the Stewart line sailed here two hundred years ago or so, when their Highland glens were cleared for sheep and politics.

they came with the Selkirk settlers, three boatloads in the summer of 1803. hardy and self-reliant, destitute but proud and canny, the lot of them are said to have landed in the virgin forests of PEI barely knowing how to wield an axe. today, this island is as green and bare as their Isle of Skye, and far more tamed. waste not, want not, ran the strain of steel through their mantra. they wasted not an inch or a branch of the place, the lot of them.

apparently the stewardship my clan were named for did not necessarily extend to environmentalism. rather, they expanded, prospered; became respectable, if still a wee bit fey.

my grandfather had an Uncle Dan who was apparently legendary in local horse-trading circles for two things: his fits of temper, and his punctuality. you could set your watch, legend has it, by when he’d start shouting.

and my grandfather’s Great Aunt Mae, at the end of her days, was given a room of her own in the nursing home for throwing her cane at her roommate. her roommate happened to be Great Aunt Maud, my grandmother’s equally cantankerous relation. the fact that Mae & Maud’s young family members had married apparently did little to assuage a lifelong bloodfeud.

the cane my grandfather uses these days? is Mae’s.

my whole life, my grandfather has been five minutes early for everything. he can be touchy, yes, if his particular code of propriety is breached. yet with his dirty jokes and his upright resilience and his fierce loyalty, he has been, for me, a sort of rock, a stability in a family tree long cleaved by separations and silences.

my mother came from a different line of Scots from a different island in the Hebrides, who landed here on this small isle within twenty years of the Stewarts, give or take. McNevins who somewhere became MacNevins, to hide their Jacobite roots and grow more staunchly, dourly, acceptably Protestant, i assume. my mother was the last of that line to carry the name. we gave it to Finn, his second middle name. it died again, with him, and i did not have the heart to try again.

and so Oscar is Oscar Charles Stewart Cormier, with the nod to Bonnie Prince Charlie hidden there in between his Acadian-sounding proper name. on one side and the other, his heritage falls almost entirely on the losing side of England’s burgeoning eighteenth-century imperialism. Culloden and clearances and expulsion, with a stray Irish Catholic thrown in now and then in the line for good measure.

and his mother tongue is English. och aye, o ye winners of history.

but last night, as i drove him home sleepy from his first Robbie Burns night concert, i told him the Stewarts were once kings.  i told him of the Charles Stewart who lost his head to Cromwell, and of Bonnie Prince Charlie the hapless, and i sang speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing, like i have since he was a baby.

if you are going to identify with people who have lost, then you’d better know how to make beauty out of sorrow. waiting for the once-and-future king only sounds romantic in songs.

he stood us up the other night.

i bundled the kids from school and we picked up Dave and rushed to the restaurant because it is not right to keep a 91-year-old man waiting. and there was a bit of a line and so we bounced the kids and sent Oscar on a scouting mission and even before we got a seat i had a sinking feeling and i called. i got his message machine.

and so the four of us sat at our table for six and ate, all the while keeping an eye on the door for a white head and an heirloom cane.

we drove up the hill after, just to make sure he was okay. and i was relieved. his nurse’s car was there and the lights on, and i assume they went elsewhere for supper, as they do sometimes.

we didn’t go in. there is no need to remind a person of failings he can no longer control.

it isn’t the first time, but the fourth or the fifth in these months or so since he came home from the heart attack and his long hospitalization. that he is home at all is a victory.  that i keep making this mistake is my own damn fault: my failure, not his.

i need to change my strategies, start calling immediately before, or making our dinner dates through his nurse and not through him.

i know this. i accept it, and i will do it.  because then there will be dinners with all of us present, and that is what i want.

but every time i see him, and his eyes light up, and he says were you looking to ask me out? i am sure, entirely sure, that he will be sitting there at the table five minutes before our agreed-upon time.

and i wish there were a song that i could sing to Oscar, to explain.

i am lying on the couch, nestled up against my laptop, as usual.

the almost-white light of a January morning spills in and floods the room and i stop and turn to it. i shift onto my back and stretch my spine. if i could purr, i would.

i seldom see this room, though my waking hours in the house – especially when the children aren’t home – are mostly spent here. the walls are a yellow i can’t quite describe…somewhere between butter and the Provence kitchens rendered by Impressionists.

i’ve never seen a Provence kitchen. i barely see this living room. but it is pretty, in the light: white wood trim and patches of colour from the stained glass. old things and cherished things and cheap blond-wood Ikea chairs. pictures of the children. Dave’s childhood Encyclopaedias. plants, clinging hardily to life in reproach of my perpetual neglect.

i look towards the window and a black and white painting – mostly gray, really, a painting of a black and white photograph i never saw – nods at me from its silver frame. it has sat there for more than five years, now. i have owned it for at least thirteen.

i am startled by it. by its constancy, its reassuring presence. this painting had a history once, a vaguely unpleasant taste in my mouth. i kept it as a trophy, i think. a talisman, though i cannot say of what.

it is a scene of two men at a roadside, by a ditch rich with black and white blobs that i assume, romantically, to be flowers. one man crouches over the wheel well of a rounded, 1930s-style pickup truck, straight out of Grapes of Wrath. the other man stands behind, bent over, presumably dispensing advice. a discarded wheel lies forlorn in the foreground, and a telephone pole rises from the field behind the men.

the painter, in mid-life, had decided to be an author. i, an aching quarter century, wanted to be an editor. or anything, really. just something discernible that i could set my self to.

a first novel, only my second as an editor. long conversations, structural shifts. recompense, and a dinner with both our spouses.

i chose this painting from his basement gallery of hundreds, many bigger and flashier. but the scene reminded me of the Farm Security Administration photos of the Great Depression, and a palette knife had drawn texture through the paint, and it called me.

the man in the back, it’s X’s grandfather, you know, he said, referring to a mutual acquaintance my own age, a friend of my husband’s who’d never liked me much. business vs. art, X and i; oil and water, silly children.

i nodded. has he seen it? i asked. the painter shook his head no.

like a raven with its shiny thing, i edged closer to the painting. yours, he said.

there was wine, too much of it, and this middle-aged man grew proclamative and then belligerent. his theme? how to be a man. and by extension, a proper woman.

i watched his wife grimace, my husband politely try to extricate us. the politeness made him suspect.

sealing that deal, i waded in, as subtle as a twenty-five-year old who was studying Master’s-level feminist theory could be.

you’re not a real man, he bellowed at the boy i’d married. i felt violated, as if we’d been taken apart and misconstrued by a worldview that lines up the world in black and white and misses all the humanity in between.

and i felt ashamed, because i wondered if he was right.

the painter who fancied himself Hemingway bashed us all soundly while we sat, pinned like butterflies to our dining chairs. i belched at one point, loud and gutteral, a red wine symphony. it was all i knew how to say in the face of his breach, his betrayal of the social contract.

do unto others, they taught me in Sunday school. be good, be kind, be polite. be on good terms with all persons. and i do, i do, i try. i know no other code, for all i find this one lacking, sometimes. but when the contract is broken, i am righteous.

it is mostly a stupid way to be, this reactive defensiveness. if i perceive unkindness to me and mine – unkindness i cannot speak to, the kind of unkindness and dismissal that comes from a clash of worldviews – i will up that unkindness, sometimes loudly. it is not a particularly effective strategy, i admit. i am a bird, squawking and pecking over trampled eggs, or trampled feelings. the display does nothing to resolve either wound. it creates its own.

and yet i do not know how else to speak when i feel small and powerless.

except that one time.

we left the painter’s house, my husband and i. his wife stood sheepishly at the door while the painter sat in his socks in the room we’d vacated.

i put on my coat, put the envelope with my editing pay in the pocket. and then i picked up the painting. mine, i said. i thanked his wife, and left.

and i hung the damn thing. even if it should have been X’s. even if the night had gone to hell. even if he was right about my marriage. it has hung until i no longer see it.

when i look, i notice it still calls to me. but all that it says, i only wish i could explain.

do you have a concept of the social contract? how do you react when yours is breached?

the rumours are true: David Bowie and i celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary this past week.

for Christmas 1985, i requested and received the ChangesOneBowie album on tape. in the week that followed, i played that poor, beleaguered tape over and over and over. and i fell deeply, incontrovertibly in love.

i’d already liked him, in my limited knowledge of Let’s Dance and China Girl and Space Odyssey when it came across the late night airwaves. but i liked him like i liked twenty other fleeting passions of the moment, all of them embodying some kernel of cool that i didn’t really understand but clasped to my bosom in hopes of enhancing it.

at that age, i was wide open, looking for someone to be, desperate for visions of adulthood that made sense to me. i wanted a life of art and ideas, and had no clue where to begin.

there’s a quote from Changes that opens The Breakfast Club, about children being spit on as they try to change their worlds. its presence in the film twigged for me that Bowie might know more than i’d given him credit for. and so, sans internet or mentorship, i searched through record stores and old issues of Creem trying to figure out which album would magically hold the key. ChangesOneBowie threw me head over heels into the world of Ziggy Stardust and the plastic soul of Young Americans and the queer ironic rebellion of Rebel Rebel and John, I’m Only Dancing. and i had come home.

after that week between Christmas and New Year’s of 1985, i was a one-man woman. or a one-man thirteen year old, rather. if i’d had a passport and any money and a sense of where David Bowie had actually lived, i’d have shown up on his doorstep and offered myself as concubine and songwriter, innocent of the ridiculousness of either offer.

what i wanted, really, was just to be his shadow, his partner in adventure, his doppelganger.

and for twenty-five faithful years, i kind of have, even if he’s never once called.

ten years ago this week i ended a marriage.

it was hot and there were cockroaches, and trails of ants drowned in the sticky stream of Southern Comfort we’d left on the night table. we sat across a Formica table in a cheap hotel in Bangkok over triangles of white toast and fake whipping cream. it was him who made the final move, spoke the decisive words. but it was me, really, who made the decision. i’d driven us to the cliff and handed him the keys, thus orchestrating joint ownership of the implosion. he played his part, because that was how the part had been written.

i think. maybe i’m misremembering.

i thought it was an amicable and sad ending. i thought it made perfect sense.

what he really thought, i’ll never know. because what i lost in the end of that marriage was the relationship that it grew from. i hadn’t expected that, which seems achingly naive and yet was the foundation of my position. i thought the relationship was forever, a central part of who i was: i thought just the marriage had been a mistake.

he won out.

ten years seems like an impossibly long time, when you look back and realize you made a life decision that big that long ago.

i bought Dave two books for Christmas. the other day, i read one of them, cover to cover.

it was Just Kids, by Patti Smith. rock-n-roll and a young Robert Mapplethorpe and the Chelsea Hotel in its seedy bohemian squalour and glamour. from the hide-a-bed in Dave’s parents’ rural New Brunswick basement, i lived out the NYC part of the fantasy of my adolescent dreams. i read the book half-breathless, as if it were a sacred guide and i once again an initiate, looking for someone to be.

and then i laughed at myself. i turn thirty-nine next month. and still, some small part of me is wide open, hopeful about the magic around the next corner.

mixed in with Just Kids, in the orgy of quietude that i squeezed in while the children slept and everyone else watched football and hockey, i also read from next term’s reading list, a stack of books on human identity and narrative.

according to that purdy pile of Christmas presents, different personalities and circumstances and experiences lead people to gravitate to particular imagoes (and ten bucks to the first person who can tell me how to pronounce imagoes so i don’t mortify myself in fancy company) or character types.

the maker, the lover, the sage, the caregiver, the escapist, the friend: these here are your stock characters, people. these are the stuff we mortals are made of. we come to understand ourselves through the stories and roles we cast ourselves in.

now you know. you’re welcome. drop your nickel in the “The Doctor is IN” bucket at the door.

sometimes our imagoes don’t transcend all life stages, so we get stuck, need to expand our internal narratives to include new stock characters we can incorporate into ourselves. or incorporate ourselves into. tomato tomahto, imago a go-go.

it occurs to me that some part of me has been stuck since thirteen in a rock n roll fantasy imago. that the consummated and bonded but still ephemeral Smith-Mapplethorpe friendship that Just Kids describes guided most of my life decisions up until the point i had kids myself. but i’ve never seen it overtly described before, and the recognition resonated like a shock.

if Patti Smith had been thoughtful enough to write her retrospective a couple of decades earlier, i’d have had a much clearer map to my early adulthood. i’d have understood that the boy i married and i were simply working from two different scripts: mine one where marriage was a contingent experiment aimed at giving each other safe harbour while we struggled to learn to be grown-ups; his, the cultural norm, the one in which endings are betrayals, the worst thing that can happen.

it has taken me a decade to completely understand. it has taken me twenty-five years to realize that what i’ve been looking for in my devotion to Bowie is not Bowie himself but me, a version of me.

luckily i have other imagoes or stock character guides that have carried me and my relationship with the real-life Dave through the last five or six years of our entry into parenthood. the mother and the storyteller and the teacher have sustained me as the rock-n-roll fantasy has withered in the domestic hothouse.

but this is the last day of the year, the last day of a decade that has been rich and strange and full of growth and changes.

i want more. i still want rock-n-roll, even in the midst of parenting and studying and bills and laundry. i want a life of art and ideas.

and perhaps the biggest difference between me at thirteen and me at nearly thirty-nine is i can almost see my way there. i’ve lived enough to be my own guide.

i don’t really want to be Mrs. Bonnie Bowie, even if that pesky Iman does drop outta the picture.

i want to be Bon, partner to Dave. i want to be mother and writer and thinker and witness and friend…and maybe middle-aged rebel rebel, whatever imprint that makes in the warm, impermanent sand.

bring it, 2011.

happiest of New Years, my friends.

who are your models, your imagoes, your mentors? what do you hope for from the coming year, and the coming decade of your life?

first day.

there are only six of us in the class, four new Ph.D students and two M.Ed students finishing up their final course requirements. we are there to study quantitative research methods. the words are unfamiliar, dust in my mouth.

i am early, all nerves and butterflies and shiny eagerness, momentarily eight instead of thirty-eight. i laugh at my fool self.

i have worked on this campus on and off for five years, in this building for most of that time. it should all be familiar. but normally i stride in all gussied up, in heels and grown-up clothes, a professional with the class list clutched in one paw and a coffee in the other, the next hour or two mostly choreographed in my head.

this time, i have marked the shift as best i can…on my body. i know nothing of the dance to come the next three hours except the barest structure: syllabus, introductions, vague visions of formulas. i am afraid of formulas. and so, stripped of my status as the knower, the director of the dance, i have girded my loins in comfort food’s apparel equivalent: a faded denim shirt. with tights. and new boots, flat and comfy. big socks. identity as performance; my philosophy made flesh. or at least cloth and leather.

thank you, o fickly revolving vagaries of fashion, for bringing me straight on back to my undergrad days. yes, the army boots have been exchanged for Blundstones, because if one is going to spend hundreds of dollars on a single book written in bizarre statistical formulas, one might as well splurge on boots, too. ahem. but i know myself in these clothes. this is my student uniform.

and yet, i am lying to myself. i cannot go back to that old skin.

it’s not that i was all passive and receptive, the mythic blank slate waiting for wisdom.

sure, i played that part sometimes, even to myself. i was a good student in the early days, a little shit through most of junior high, then a high-achieving if somewhat poorly-attending high school and undergraduate student.

but the passivity was conditional; the only mark by which i knew how to signal my acceptance and acquiescence to the system that ordered my days and my existence. School was deeply and profoundly a player in how i valued and understood myself, all through my formative years.

When i was a kid, i watched closely in classes, reading both the textbooks and the relationships unfolding in front of me. i was curious and eager to belong, and tried desperately to think of interesting things to say in class. but if ever the classroom or program circumstances in which i found myself smelled like power and structure for their own sakes, my sense of well-being and belonging would shrivel and i’d recoil as if a door had closed. no place for me here, i would whisper, and my middle-finger would rise, of its own ornery accord. i’d be outed.

oppositional. saucy. not working to her full potential.

those report cards were stark contrasts to my Lisa Simpson status quo. i realize now they should have read, “This student is challenging my power position in the classroom. This is uncomfortable for us both.

ask my middle school math teacher. ask my classmates the year i stayed on in my little college town for a one year post-B.A. Bachelor of Education program.

one of them confessed to me that spring, just before graduation, that they called me The Bad Ass of the Class. i think i grinned, all bravado. but it was the loneliest year of my life, those bewildering days when i discovered i did love teaching, but might hate teachers. or at least Teachers’ College, with its smug and cheery conviviality, its simplifying presentation of a world i was sure was complicated. we never once talked about power.

i did not know how to name the absence. i just knew i had never before so singularly failed to fit in. and somewhere early on i had understood that on a gut level, and closed myself off, unreachable. i was protecting myself from the person that system existed to create; from becoming a teacher on terms that alienated and troubled me, that left out all that i thought was important.

but i did not know how to say any of that. and so i went through the motions at the back of the class, appeared passive and contemptuous, a rebel without a cause.

i thought i was there to belong. i thought the problem was me.

the incredible thing about going back to school when you are 107 older than twenty-two is that you simultaneously morph into two people at once. the opinionated adult with a confident voice, who understands that belonging is a far broader thing than any one classroom experience could possibly shape, and the younger version of yourself, miraculously resurrected the moment you fold yourself into a desk and open a binder.

you can see it, actually, your entire hard-won sense of self and authority wilts like a pansy and slithers down your leg. it pools wetly on the floor. you wonder if others can see it. you wonder if they will judge you. you wonder if you will look stupid. you wonder if you will belong.

you wonder why the professor is staring at you and then you realize she has asked your name.

you go to use the voice that you were so sure would carry you proudly through insightful explorations of meaning, and you discover that you sound like Minnie Mouse. you feel painfully exposed. you also feel stupid for feeling painfully exposed. you are an adult, dammit. ouch.

the quantitative professor then asks about your background with statistics.

you consider simply diving into the pool of your own ego on the floor and hoping to drown, then and there.

you try humour, instead. i can’t count, you quip. you notice the professor looks unsurprised but vaguely depressed by your confession. you find this strangely heartening. perhaps there will be others like you.

you give your head a shake. you swallow, straighten your shoulders. you will not play the simple role of insider OR outsider, not this time around.

it’s true that you can’t go back to the old skin of your once-upon-a-student self, the one who gave over most of her power to the teacher and then sulked at the back of the class if it was misused. but not because that skin EVER goes away. it will be there until you are, literally, 107, always a tidy fit, ever making you look and feel smaller and almost-comfortably invisible and pleasing.

you can’t go back because it doesn’t feel good enough anymore, just to feel safe. to belong.

you chose to be here, this time round. you want something, for yourself, beyond whatever the person at the front of the class may want. you are an adult. even if you sound like Minnie Mouse and you can’t count and you’re dressed like an aging undergraduate.

the difference is everything.

end of summer and the days grow cool and the air opens up like a vast canvas, all possibility, whispering at me like a siren.

where do you want to go? i swear it hollers, cool breath on my neck. goosebumps rise in response. it does not bother to arch its eyebrows or its back to court me; it is too busy, too full with its own ripeness, rushing on ahead of the inevitable decay of November that we both know looms. i gasp and watch it race the horizon.

it is travelling season. i wave, limply, as it speeds by.

my travels will only be in the books and papers of my studies, this fall, and in the French worksheets my kids bring home from the new school which is only daycare but in my maternal mind probably feels more like school than real school will when they get there because they have now entered The System and this is the school building they will attend right through into kindergarten and beyond and straight on til morning and my addled Anglo mind can’t even comprend the damn “Information de votre Enfant” sheet i had to fill out so, it’s school.

the backpacks we grab in the morning are the kind with clean diapers and changes of underpants, the kind intended to come home at the end of the day with handprints and paintings. they are not the kind you have to bend to heft onto your person, the kind that you stuff until the straps bulge and beg for mercy and that you lug with you through unfamiliar streets almost as companion, your worldly goods and your tickle trunk both.

my real backpack – bright yellow, like autumn leaves – has lain unused for years now, stuffed under the suitcases that see occasional service for family trips or conferences.

in truth, it only ever made one autumn trip. my first, the virgin voyage, though i was old for a first-time traveller and virgin only in the provincialism i was as eager to shed as i had been the real deal ten years before.

a decade ago now, that first trip. i did not know then that autumn was the perfect time to travel. i know that only now, because i cannot go.

it was Ireland, the summer after, that brought the lesson home. heed my words: if you are travelling alone and you are a sociable sort by nature, keen to mix with locals and taste the culture in its less sanitized forms, do not choose high season for your wanderings.

Ireland is a tourist destination, a place that turns itself inside out come summer to present a smiling face to a world that lines its pockets in return. i do not say this with cynicism; it is simply a fact.

i should have known better because i am from one of these places too. we are all friendliness in July, here in PEI. but if you visit, you will only see our “parlour face,” our best self, all genuine friendliness and clannish closed-ness, a paradox. it is simply that we have only so much energy and there are so many crowding in to see whatever spectacle they have in mind of who we are. in high season, you will not really get to know us.

and so it was with me in most of Ireland.

i wandered streets and cobblestones, ducked into pubs, hitchhiked on the wrong side of the road. i struck up conversations with old men who lay half-prone on bus station benches, red-flowered noses far less poetic in person than in the storied romance of a nation’s manhood, self-sabotaged. mostly, i was alone. hostels in small Irish towns are not necessarily hotbeds of wild conversational nightlife. in Sligo, i had the run of the place but for one elderly gentleman in town for the night for a job interview. i settled into my chair with my tea, keen to chatter. he stared at me, took his teeth literally out of his mouth, and gummed “goo’nighd.”

chastened, i went to bed.

and so it went. all around the friendly, busy coast, i danced on the periphery of a culture i could not break into. then i got to Belfast.

if you ever need a straight dose of reality after a month of feeling like a bloody tourist no matter where you turn, head to Belfast. don’t mind the pipe bomb warnings or the grim, Dickensian buildings with their squat red-brick tops and their razor wire. go. walk. skip the Black Cab tour and take yourself up the Falls Road and down the Shankill. open your eyes to the human hands that painted the sectarian murals that decorate the brick. understand, this has been a paramilitary war zone for generations. know too, these are neighbourhoods, homes. the gap-toothed kids i met didn’t mind at all that i was taking pictures. but one wanted to know why i only saw the murals? why not take a picture of him in front of the fish shop?

there was only Kodachrome, then. the boy turned out blurry, and i felt i had lost something, forever.

Belfast, at least the summer i landed there, doesn’t have much of a tourist season.

i bellied up to the oak bar of a pub, watching the barman pour Guinness, noting the flick of the wrist, the art of the proper pour. i like watching people do what they do well.

a young man – not much more than a kid, really, smooth-cheeked – came up to me. we chatted. his namer was Conor. he had a Belfast accent to beat the band, all flattened vowels and dropped gerunds and i told him, laughing, that i was homesick for Irish music because where i am from the pubs are full of ta-deedly tunes and the long, sad ballads of the Olde Country. i had been in Asia for a year, nearly. this was as close as i could get to home.

and so he took me across the city that night, through alleys and down wide thoroughfares that were strangely empty, past the glorious Hotel Europa – the most bombed hotel in Europe, he informed me, and i asked if he’d ever been in it. he said no. and i marvelled at how we end up inside our skins. i was as seamless a visual fit here – a foot in each world, my Scottish-Irish mongrel genes marked all over my freckled, fair face – as i’d been anywhere in my life. and yet i could, with the impunity and innocence of a tourist, go places that he could not dream of setting foot.

i realized in that moment that even if i tried, i’d never see the city as anything but an outsider.

he took me to a den of a bar, nestled down low in the ground, dank and warm and strangely welcoming. there was an upright piano in the corner, and a man with that most Irish of instruments, the bouzouki. he sang, and then my friend and another man got up and sang too, an old ballad called My Bonny Highwayman, and the liquor made me brave and i regaled them with all the verses of Farewell to Nova Scotia and they were remarkably kind.

there were perhaps six people in the place.

while i was singing, a man came in, older than the rest of us twenty-somethings by perhaps fifteen years. he stood watching, and i saw Conor nod and go over and shake his hand.

he was a bear of a man, in a long, black trenchcoat. the night was humid. his hair was longish, and wild, and the beard to match and his sharp blue eyes made me think at first of Rasputin. i bowed. they clapped. and then i walked up at the very moment Conor asked the bear how he was, and the man’s face crumpled. it was no time to introduce myself; instead, tipsy and far from home, i took his arm, his giant arm.

sit, i commanded.

we sat, the three of us, in a round corner booth under a single incandescent bulb. the big man talked.

his love had died. his wife – or not really his wife, he conceded, but his partner of twenty years, older than him, his trooo luf – had died of cancer perhaps a month before. i have never seen a man so big seem so small. words and sorrow and shame spilled from him like music, about how her body wasted, and he was so afraid, and he had not known what to say and in the end it was her who lay beside him and told him it would be alright.

i did not know what to say. i asked her name. it was Diane. i no longer remember his.

we sat, and the drinks kept coming, and then as suddenly as he had come, he was off, paying the tab as he went. he enclosed me in his arms, in that greatcoat, for a moment before he left, and i think i touched his face because he had touched me, raw and deep. he shook Conor’s hand again, and he was gone.

the music was over. we sat, suddenly in silence, and i realized i had no idea how to get back to the hostel. i looked at my host, curious.

who was he? i asked. how do you know him?

everybody knows him, Conor answered. he’s a legend. he’s one of the big boys; he’s been around here since the old days. my brothers knew him.

then, with a half-grin, because my blank face must’ve given me away, he said he’s a knee-capper, girl, an enforcer. he’s IRA. IRA? you know?

i must’ve blinked. IRA. right. i knew. i’d known the whole time i was in the city that a fissure ran beneath it, one i couldn’t see. i’d walked the streets, shot my photo essay, humming Protestant hymns from my childhood when i’d noticed my raincoat was bright Republican green. but i hadn’t understood. i had been a tourist, nothing more.

and then i had sat down with a broken man, and for a minute, i’d seen the city as more than an outsider.

Conor walked me home. i never saw him again, or the bear of a man who did terrible things, and grieved Diane, his woman.

my life is settled now, and simpler. but when the wind comes up cool and brisk in fall, it is those messiest, rawest, most human moments of travel and dislocation that i long for, that take me outside my skin and give me wanderlust again.

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