Our anniversary this year: my husband and I woke to a bedroom full of light, our twin aspens filling the third floor window with incandescent autumn, with happy and seemingly nonsensical babbling on the baby monitor, and the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature.
We were not expecting this, this small gift from a Colorado morning that makes two faces on pillows look at one another in wonder. And turn together to another wonder, the greatest wonder, perhaps, of our love, and lives: a child, named first and middle, for songs written by our new Laureate.
And then the news, night before last, Leonard Cohen’s passing. A sadness so much easier to name, to put words to (his own, more than likely) than the other sadnesses of the world right now, so great and miasmic. But here, and then no longer here, a person, a man who is often thought of along with Bob Dylan as one of the greatest lyricists, writers of melody, a craftsman beyond measure in touch with the celestial spheres.
And yet, does that sound sentimental? He eschewed sentimentality, his humour was sharp and dark and dry. He plumbed the depths of melancholy and rose up beyond hallelujahs- but there was a lot of amusement in between.
Where Dylan writes in free verse and brilliant flashes of association that open new lands, Cohen detailed and pinned down this universe, our universe and its secrets (chords) with precision, labour and perception that transcend each of its corners; transcending, yes, and permeating, changing, moving but not breaking the boundaries of the universe he names. David, even in pleasing the lord, is right there on the kitchen chair, lines away from the moonlight and beauty of a woman bathing on the roof. The sacred and profane harmonizing, first person, third person, then second. You.
Cohen has passed, and passed with more grace than this world has witnessed in any public person in months, his “house put in order”, his muse holding her hand out to him, his heart at peace. And who else’s heart is at peace now? A sad year, so very sad, with the passing of Bowie, Prince and others. Political and global decisions were made that are tragic and tragically inspire fear, or worse: they spread hatred. And on the personal, cellular level, a small life fluttered back into the ether.
And yet: Laughter. Kindness. A Nobel laureate who writes songs that I can curl up inside, or that I can shout out from, that I can use to articulate a challenge to the hatred and oppression and racism and misogyny I see and fear. Here are words I can use to question the right of bigotry someone believes they are now entitled to, and there are songs whose mysteries and beauty can keep me curious, guessing, imagining, living in worlds populated by holy medallions, artists who don’t look back, waterfront docks, Dante, Verlaine, Rambeau, Tangier, Spanish manners, Spanish boots of Spanish leather, mother’s drugs, a bridge at midnight, Arabian drums.
And this is our landscape. This is our country. Carl Sandburg wrote the Rootabaga stories for his girls so they could have American fairytales, the right and ritual of children learning to define themselves and the world around them. Dylan writes them, Cohen (though Canadian) wrote them, baseball players write them, our politicians write them, and our immigrants write them, artists do, and our native Americans write them; I would argue our mountains write fairy tales and the plains and the lemon groves and Great lakes. But you and I do too, in the stories we choose to read to our children, in the woods we walk through and the seashores we follow, in the food we feed them. In the people and ideas and cultures we introduce them to, in the display of in whom we place our trust. In the volume and cadence and sounds we choose to speak around the table, in the words we choose to speak of other colors, other genders, other languages, other races, in how narrowly we choose to illustrate them – even in how we talk of other animals and species and the kindness that we can afford them. What can we afford, then, with the currency of language and all of its fairy tales and cruelties and imaginings, all of its goodness and nurturing and cadence and beauty? What words do you choose to use if you want to describe a dragon or a bully, a prince or a magician, a friend, a disagreement, melancholy or joy? If fairy tales are rituals, and we as Americans are still writing ours, whose pen do we want to watch, whose voice do we want to listen to?
I said our baby’s words were nonsensical. But isn’t that where joy resides, and brilliance before articulation? Where the liminal understanding of words lies, and isn’t that where free verse is born? Isn’t that what so many of Bob Dylan’s songs sound like? Nonsensical, mischievous, musical, breathing – a poem by e.e. cummings or even Emily Dickinson – nonsensical until you gently (and it must be ever so gently and ever so UN-precisely, like opening a pomegranate) ease it apart – and see what lies within the beauty of those sounds, what lyrics lie beneath (and above) a Cohen melody, what the words in the images come together to form? Isn’t that where understanding accumulates and gathers itself up, rather than slinging itself around, calling itself something like truth or another abstraction that has no meaning at all? It is in the tangible, the visual, the auditory – melody, rhyme, non-rhyme – it is in her laughter, cooing, triumphant shouts, wails, in Dylan’s cabarets, brothels, churches that we can finally see – hear – what? Yes. What? That is the question I don’t want to stop asking, that none of us can afford to stop asking.
If harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain, why, and for what purpose, and what locks are opened?
We were in Aspen the day of our anniversary and walked by a beautiful old theatre, built in 1915, the kind of place where I can imagine Cohen and Dylan drinking coffee and discussing one thing or another, perhaps putting infinity up on trial as the heat pipes cough. But the theatre’s name is Isis. The day that Dylan was awarded the Nobel peace prize, and the anniversary of two people who fell in love and gave their daughter two Dylan names, was a day when a word – a name I had considered for my own daughter because it is the name of the goddess of nature and sky in Egyptian mythology, and because it is the title of a Dylan song – was taken away from me.
I don’t want this to happen anymore. I don’t want to casually say, “well that trumps all,” and then think, lord how could I even speak his name? (I’ll make an exception for Voldemort, that word can be as bad as it gets forever.) I want our words to stay fresh and used and resonant. So, Yes! the theatre kept its name as an act of defiance and because it is its own, and I love that, and love the word and will do everything to put the thieves of it out of my mind, but of course would never give the name to a child. I want to keep our words ours, be they English, or Spanish or Arabic or German, French, Chinese, Wolof, the words of all Americans- and write our fairy tales and songs in this language. I want to shout out and repeat and lullaby my baby with the words that our poets and songwriters use, listen to them as a bridge, a refrain, a hallelujah or a blessing.
I have been floating for a few weeks now. Hovering just above the ground, only inches, perhaps less, so little that nobody notices. In fact, when people look at me (which they do all the time these days) they observe, among other things, a pair of feet flattened and spread, legs slightly bowed and swollen, a tremendous weight around my middle appearing to hold me down, a back unnaturally arched, an appearance of heaviness that is, I think, a disguise for this sense of suspension that fills me now- suspension of time, suspension of rationality, suspension of anger and fear, and even anxiety, a suspension of the world around me that lets me float between two worlds of imagination. It feels almost as if I, too, am encased in an amniotic world that is much like hers, my body turned inside out, amniotic fluid in my eyes, my ears, my heart, between my fingers and arms waiting to hold her, an underwater sea full of magic where thoughts are uniformed by the world outside, untouched – a dolphin, a whale, a human child. She can dream, now, and open and close her eyes. She can hear voices, and form thoughts and feel emotions. And she is within me, still, only slowly planning to swim out. If I eat, she does, and if I breathe deeply, she receives that oxygen. If I turn on the light, she, too can sense a glow through my skin. She does not yet know gravity, and I, my mind and body still one with hers, have lost all sense of it in these past weeks, waiting, weighting, weightless, for her arrival. I cannot escape the huge pressures on my body, from within and without, only the sense that this pressure lifts more than weighs.
And it is only this: this liminal space: a fog, a journey, a mist, a doorway, an ocean, a mountain, the curve of a tree, a cave, a bedroom, a bear, a carpet, a nightlight. A cup of tea, a spring snow, a summer storm, a sweater, a song, the wishes of a family, the smell of dog curls, the vibration of the voice of her father, the shadows moving across the wall of her nursery, the blossoms that formed and fell from our tree, the leaves that replace them, the lull and hush of the fan, the sleep that is dreamless, the sleep of strange dreams – it is this liminal space that forms our intention. And this intention – it is hers and ours, it is what we form slowly, quietly, for her. Because this time, when we have expected her arrival at any moment, has been a space to create intention. It is the intention that is weightless, that glows, that fills our moments with something that is not time, that is not even thought, exactly, nor quite as ephemeral as a wish. It is the words we murmur, the space between the two of us (my mountain boy and myself, a belly, a space for her, as wonderful as any filled space in the world) the words and silences we exchange, the knowing that when we see something beautiful, our first thought is one thought: the thought of her, this world she will enter. We have finished her nursery, kept the house clean for her, made everything ready over and over and over again, and it is here that we pause, that we float, that we continue to meditate and sit quietly with and lift up our intention. Nothing about it even vaguely suggests dictation – part of our intention is that she be a free spirit, that she follow her own heart, and that it be a good heart.
We don’t have much more time for this – her imminent arrival, moment by moment, approaches the inevitable – I am finishing this post between contractions. And of course I am aware of the weight, the pain, anxiety, fear, frustration, gravity – but only peripherally, as if watching from, yes, a few inches above the earth. They are very real, the discomfort of a baby past due cannot simply be floated away from her mother, but there is still a kind of peace that infiltrates, that informs, that, yes, with intention, mindfulness, hope, can be a gift as well, a reminder that physicality is part of reality.
Soon, I will re-enter my body, fully and solely, bring it back to the earth, grounded, solid, a place to comfort and shape, feed and hold hers, her independent, strong and lovely and separate body. We will have floating, drifting, liminal moments together again but they will be different, held together by hands instead of an umbilical cord, communicated through air instead of water, shared with her father and communicated with the joy of her own legs running through the forest, skiing down the mountain, the physical space within his arms when he reads to her at night and she falls asleep. She is coming into a world so blessed by her family, so many family members that love her already, and it is a real world, a solid world, a grounded space below the mountain, between the arms of her family, within the space that we have all created. A physical space, a space of intention, a place for a child to drift and dream and grow.
Though I sometimes call myself Violette the Bearess, “she” is, in fact, the same person as “I” am, just slightly more adventurous and adroit than the quiet self behind her. (You see, I started the sentence saying “I call myself” rather than “I call her.”) I am not, in fact, a bearess but a young lady who might pretend to be a bear sometimes, and I can assure you that pretending is not the same thing as actually believing oneself to be a bear, no matter how vivid one’s imagination may be, no matter how deep into the forest I may wander. Though I was born gemini (and on the cusp to further complicate matters) and may, sometimes blame a phantom twin for my transgressions and fickleness, those are are metaphors rather than physical renderings. (Even if I do look over my shoulder sometimes – I wasn’t nicknamed “Angel-Dickens” for nothin’!) I may not have had the most steadfast of careers, though however many hats I have haberdashed, this head (hairless though it was at first) is the same that pushed itself through my mother’s womb (and what a topsy-turvy that journey was), and these arms, these legs are the same that pushed and kicked and patted and parted her body. And this belly is the same I always had.
Except it isn’t. I have two hearts, but I am not The Doctor (nor a Time Lord, alas). I have two stomachs, but I am not half-bovine (though I certainly feel that way at times). I have four arms, and four legs but am not an octopus, nor a horse nor a bear. But if you were to tell me that there was an octopus or a bear or a horse inside of me, I would believe you because she, “she” that the world insists on calling “baby,” swims fluidly and ponderously, then rides a circus bicycle in circles around my belly, then gallops with extravagant flexing of flank and foreleg . I am myself, living inside of this body, with a new small tenant: ferocious, floating, fragile, fierce and fiercely loved (and imagined!). She has a personality completely independent of mine. She will have (indeed, has – however tiny!) different eyes, hair, differently shaped elbows and toes, a heart that beats quicker than mine. She will adore different animals and trees, different books, different horizons, but many of the same people though in her own, independent way.
Already she will turn over or push up again her father’s hand on my belly (if I can call it mine) or when he talks to her. From the way she moves (“kicking” really can’t be the proper term – she somersaults, she swims, she does yoga, then patters upside down on my belly button) I can almost imagine her playing peek-a-boo, or, in other moments, studiously re-arranging my organs like books in a library for a more comfortable spot to languish (though she never languishes for long).
One thing I cannot, however, imagine is her as a kumquat. Or an ear of corn. Or a cabbage. (Really? a cabbage?) When I first found out that there was a baby inside of me, I learned that she was, at the time (no longer!) the size of a poppy seed. Happy happy imagination: amazing! And then she was a pea. And then an almond, then a peach, etc. and it just seemed all wrong. When I went from having a navel orange one week to an avocado the next I was befuddled and bemused. Aren’t navel oranges bigger than avocados? (I eat both nearly every day!) And why fruits? Why not furry animals, or birds (a chickadee, a sparrow, an oriole)? Or why not something that (I can’t help it!) is going into the building of this child? like… pastries?
( I do crave oranges (is it the “navel”?) – oh but clementines, too! and Cara Cara oranges and satsumas and, Oh, California, I miss you!) but the orange was only one week’s worth of size! She is NOT a cabbage! No way no how will I allow my little girl to be a cabbage.) So I decided to make a chart of my own that I could, well, relate to a little bit better. What happened, in fact, was that I related to the chart so well that I found myself crossing the street to our lovely french bakery for, um, reference materials… And it is a little bit silly, and a little bit whimsical and not very scientific, but this is what I came up with.
Now I can be a mama bear and a petit four, or an angel food cake and a mama haberdasher, or a tiny little circus bear and a proper circus tent (at least, thats how I feel!) Either way, this is a double life I will gladly lead until she decides to become her own, independent little person who can choose her own cakes and breads and she can show us who, exactly, she will be.
This year, I thought I might make my own costume. I decided to make an oven, because I have been very particular about my food selections lately, and my oven, you see, is quite particular, too. I feel a certain affinity for my oven, because it, like me at the moment, will reject any food it doesn’t care for. Sometimes it will burn it, sometimes it will mush it, and sometimes it will simply refuse to cook it in the center. We try to find foods that the oven likes, according to her whims. So, I think, like me, she is fickle, and so I decided to be her this year.
Right now my handsome husband is half-costumed: he is wearing his apron and his green shoes and making risotto while I am busy being the choosy oven. But it isn’t exactly a costume for him because he wears this same ensemble quite often. (He is a genius in the kitchen.)
So, have you caught on yet? I’m not actually making an oven costume. Because, like my husband I am already in costume. Guess what is inside of me this Halloween?
This recipe will take six more months.
As a child, I never had an imaginary friend. I longed for one, was envious of the leagues, and mysteries into which I was not an initiate. I did not have that someone to encourage shenanigans, and in turn, to blame mistakes, missteps, and misguidance upon. There were times I might have liked an ally, someone invested only in me, as their creator, protector, inspiration, confidante and of course, as my scapegoat. I tried to conjure one, but I think intention is sort of counter-productive to the process – the more I tried to create her in my mind, the further away she’d slip. Maybe it was because I had so many books to read – I found friends between the pages, worlds to fall into, societies to which I most certainly belonged.
Or maybe it was because I had my stuffed animals. It is not unusual, I should think, to believe fully in our stuffed animals’ world as children. Anthropomorphized, each of them had a personality: Phoebe, Jenny, Puppy, Unicorn, Tiger. I absolutely believed they breathed, spoke, dreamed and interacted with each other, though rarely did they deign to include me. They had parties on my bed at night, went into the kitchen for snacks when nobody was looking, played in the backyard, argued, fell in love, fought, frolicked and bantered. I was witness to – and sometimes a part of – a world that was huge and wonderful and private and very secret – a world that was only theirs and mine, did not belong even to a book.
I don’t know when exactly this started, but I do know when it ended. I may have been a bit old to believe in such things, but there was nothing to dictate the ebb and flow of endings until we moved – I was twelve and suddenly in a new place across the country. Though their stuffed bodies moved with me, their world had vanished, and they lay limp in my arms. I suddenly had no friends, real or otherwise, within a thousand mile radius. Those cypress trees, those alligators, those huge herons with wings dripping with Spanish moss terrified me. The frenzied afternoon thunderstorms that hissed while drying were unfamiliar – a good thunderstorm should unfold itself and leave the air just a little bit cooler than when it began, a hush in its wake.
We moved again, to the other side of the country where I made some of the best friends I have in this world. And of course, I always had my sister, mother, father, a dog and my dear, sweet old cat, and more dogs to come. I didn’t have to conjure worlds or animals or friends, but it seems I couldn’t stop.
Even now, when I look at toy animals I think, “would you like to come home with me? would you like to meet your new friends?” and “who are you? what are you really like?”
There are some people that can write and draw simply by remembering observations they have made and combining them with imagination. On an entirely blank page, with only a pen or a keyboard, they create a universe, visual or literary. I’m not that talented. I like to have something to work from – I’ll listen to Bob Dylan before I sit down to write, or I’ll leaf through “Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino. When I draw, I pull up images on the internet (“chipmunk,” “chipmunk running” “chipmunk hiding.”) Yet I have seen hundreds of chipmunks in my life. If I were to go to the window of the cabin (or look under the couch? see here…) I could probably see five in one glance. I ought to know how to draw one… but looking at a still picture is helpful. I can always change him into the chipmunk that I want to draw.
I was thinking about this, and about the wooden hand model I have, and the little wooden jointed person that can become whoever I want when I draw, and so got online to find some animal models. (Some things are easier to draw than others. I spend hours looking at my dog. Petting him. Feeling how his bones work together, the little ligaments and tendons and muscles, how his expressions change with such small movements. I can draw him – looking at him or not looking at him. I know a little bit more about drawing other animals because of him.) I chose some very inexpensive animals online – they arrived and were so static, unfeeling, cold – so plastic – but when I look at them more closely to draw them, they seem to change, have personalities, things they want me to pull out of them, put onto the page. I begin to imagine their lives. I begin to think of their personalities. What their life was like when they all lived together in a tiny box, and what must have transpired there. And then I am eight years old again bearing witness to a world in which I am a part, in which I am more than just just an observer, a place that manifests with intentions rather than slips away.
When I first moved to Ohio I took no furniture. I was living in an old Queen Anne home, a beautiful victorian sweetly restored and maintained and furnished: a pretty white iron bed, a vanity with a mirror in the bedroom, wall paper in the bathroom, an old dining room table, an ancient roll-top desk. There was even a butler’s pantry between the living room and the dining room, all wood and glass cabinets with some scrolled filigree bordering the top: a magical little place where I am certain the characters in the old fairy tales I housed in those cabinets came to life at night and dueled with icicles outside and trekked the snowy garden in winter, shook the lilac trees on spring mornings before the sun rose.
Space I had, but there were a few small things I still needed : a bedside lamp, a stool to reach the high kitchen cabinets and to water the geraniums over the high leaded windows. My mother was there to help settle me in and came back with the prettiest lamp one ever did see: cream colored porcelain, fleur-de-lis, a bit of gold tracery and a brass stand: delicate and a bit stately, elegant and oddly baroque, a mix between the bedroom of a young French princess and the parlour of an aging spinster. The hours we spent together! Reading books, reading manuscripts, reading books that would-be, have been and will-be published! Reading the magical tales of my classmates through long winter nights with the fields of corn, soybean and wheat flowing east, west, south beyond the ancient trees of the old town in the old doll-house of a mansion, a huge haunted lake to the north, and beyond that, another country. Tightly bundled beneath my flowered white duvet in my white iron bed I read and wrote and drew by the light of my pretty old lamp.
Then I moved to the mountains. I took this lamp with me: I could never leave her behind. A few days after this move, I met my mountain boy. I found myself living among bears in an oddly furnished cabin-in-the-woods. I had an animal skin lampshade over an old black iron lamp there and so sent my old beauty home with him: a brand new loft in an century-old brick building with tall tall windows and hardwood floors – a much more fitting place for her than a log cabin with saltillo tiles and hand-loomed southwest rugs. She was not used to roughing it, did not particularly like mice scampering across her delicate feet. A place where electricity could be assured should please her, I thought.
And now we are reunited, living in the city with the tall windows all lit up with the colors of candles, in a bedroom with a huge wooden bed, piles of books and mounds of pillows. But something has happened to her: she remembers her old homes, the beautiful houses and bedrooms she has lived in before. When she remembers, she dreams, and when she dreams, she blinks and drifts and sighs. A sleepy lamp, she will flutter on and off and on and off and sometimes, she simply falls asleep while I am reading, mid sentence, or mid footfall to the bed, mid dressing, mid brushing, mid pillow adjusting or mid sigh as I give up trying to rouse the sleeping beauty. She does not like to be awoken and will only flutter on for a few moments before resuming her repose. I cannot bear the thought of replacing her though she haunts us, waking and sleeping with flickers and shadows and dramatic darkness.
What does a lamp dream of? Does she share my dreams, of bears and rivers and foxes? Does she dream of mansions and grandmothers and knitting, of French princesses with pink shoes waking in the night and turning her on for a midnight tryst? Does she dream of oil and wicks? Does she dream of the magical stories she has read over my shoulder before blinking, blinking, blinking off and illuminating those dreamed worlds instead? And she does sometime wake with a start, flooding the room with her amber musk of dreamed worlds…
A haunting that time-travels and space-traverses liminality, she is the place between waking and sleeping.