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I’ve been back at my Monday morning drawing class for the past couple of weeks following the mid-term break. Today we were invited to bring in an object “constrained by form” which speaks to us as an ‘antidote to the fear of death’.
I brought my mother’s wristwatch, one of the very few items I have that belonged to her. It’s a Timex watch she bought from Long’s Drugstore when I was about 10. Sometimes I wind it up and wear it. It keeps more or less accurate time.
One of the gifts I claimed from the death of my mother, when I was 16, is the awareness of mortality. When I got a little bit older, I was able to reflect on her life and I realised that she had waited until too late to start making positive decisions and choices based on her interests, well-being and desires. Besides going to college at age 50 and leaving an unhealthy relationship with my father, I wondered what else she had left too late. My mother died from cancer when she was 55. At a very young age I decided that I did not want to follow in her footsteps and wait until it was too late for me to live my own life.
In a way, she gave me the gift of time which is symbolised by her wristwatch.
Anyhow, here is my drawing, followed by a poem which my drawing teacher read to us.
Antidotes to Fear of Death
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
But unconstrained by form.
And sometimes it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
- Rebecca Elson, 2001
From my father came
the pain and the shame and the rage.
The huge silhouette,
hulking over, scary.
A shadow of a doubt . . . .
Was he ever there at all?
Beyond the shadow
the brokenness, the not belonging.
The longing to fit in,
the never quite fitting in.
The deep toll of grief,
the awful aching emptiness,
the pushing away, the going away,
the never having been there.
Boxing with his shadows,
he never saw us;
but the blows still landed,
struck in blindness
they always found their mark.
-Melinda Schwakhofer, 2013
It’s interesting how the second time around, a book or a film can have a different impact on me depending on what season of my life I’m in at the time. Steve and I recently watched Smoke Signals, an excellent indie film written, directed, starring and produced by Native Americans*. I first saw this film in 1998 and simply remembered it as a very good movie. Part road trip, part coming of age tale and with a skillful interweaving of the past into the present, Smoke Signals tells the story of a young man going to claim his absent father’s ashes. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I refer you to a very good film review written by Robin at Rusty Ring.
Lately my book and film lists include works by and about Native American people. They’re helping me to understand and put some the broken pieces of my life together. I belong to the Muscogee (Creek) from my father’s side. Native American men carry such a burden and there are differences and similarities depending on whether he is a ‘reservation Indian’ or, like my father, one who walked away from his Indian roots and tried to assimilate into White society. This film showed some of all of that.
My father died in 2002, when I was 39. In nearly 40 years, he had been more absent from my life than he was present in it. As I become more mature and compassionate, I am coming to realise where he came from and the unbearable fury and brokenness that he brought to our family. I can’t honestly say that I am ready to forgive my father, but I am coming to understand him.
Smoke Signals is a great movie, but what knocked me out about it this time around was the final scene. Here, one of the main characters recites a poem Forgiving Our Fathers.
Forgiving Our Fathers
(edited by Sherman Alexie from an original text by Dick Lourie)
How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream.
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or forever when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage,
or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?
For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning?
For shutting doors?
For speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs?
Or in their deaths?
Saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?
*Native American – A member of any of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. (The Native American name controversy is an ongoing dispute about the changing terminology used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and broad subsets of these peoples) I acknowledge this and for now, and in this post, use the term Native American.
Many Americans have come to prefer Native American over Indian both as a term of respect and as a corrective to the famous misnomer bestowed on the peoples of the Americas by a geographically befuddled Columbus. There are solid arguments for this preference. Native American eliminates any confusion between indigenous American peoples and the inhabitants of India, making it the clear choice in many official contexts. It is also historically accurate, despite the insistence by some that Indians are no more native to America than anyone else since their ancestors are assumed to have migrated here from Asia. But one sense of native is “being a member of the original inhabitants of a particular place,” and Native Americans’ claim to being the original inhabitants of the Americas is unchallenged. Accuracy and precision aside, however, the choice between these two terms is often made as a matter of principle.
NB: I’ll come back to this topic at some future point in a post, probably titled ‘What’s in a name?’
Enter the Forest of Dreams is the bed I made over a 13 year period. More than a practical piece of furniture, it is a multi-dimensional creation containing a fairy tale and a story of the imagination, fruition and eternity of love. The bed frame is crafted by my hands and the quilts and bedding are stitched together with the story of my life. My husband Steve and I each wrote a poem which is incorporated into the fabric of the piece. The hidden part of the bed contains a symbol of eternal love.
A woman enters the forest to sleep and dream of her True Love. The trees gather round to mind her through the night. A new moon, fireflies and the first primrose of springtime light her way. Over the span of many years, her dreams and her desire coalesce in the river of dreams. She and her True Love find one another and together, they discover the secret of Eternal Love deep beneath the forest floor.
Bonnie McCaffery filmed and edited this beautiful video of me telling the story of my bed last summer.
Imagine a Woman
Imagine a woman who believes it is right and good she is a woman.
A woman who honors her experience and tells her stories.
Who refuses to carry the sins of others within her body and life.
Imagine a woman who trusts and respects herself.
A woman who listens to her needs and desires.
Who meets them with tenderness and grace.
Imagine a woman who acknowledges the past’s influence on the present.
A woman who has walked through her past.
Who has healed into the present.
Imagine a woman who authors her own life.
A woman who exerts, initiates, and moves on her own behalf.
Who refuses to surrender except to her truest self and wisest voice.
Imagine a woman who names her own gods.
A woman who imagines the divine in her image and likeness.
Who designs a personal spirituality to inform her daily life.
Imagine a woman in love with her own body.
A woman who believes her body is enough, just as it is.
Who celebrates its rhythms and cycles as an exquisite resource.
Imagine a woman who honors the body of the Goddess in her changing body.
A woman who celebrates the accumulation of her years and her wisdom.
Who refuses to use her life-energy disguising the changes in her body and life.
Imagine a woman who values the women in her life.
A woman who sits in circles of women.
Who is reminded of the truth about herself when she forgets.
Imagine yourself as this woman.
© Patricia Lynn Reilly, 1995