Friday, June 12, 2009

Square 19: Sisyrinchium

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Change is in the air. These are fortuitous changes, but the reptile brain doesn't know that. The brain stem derives security from stasis. When upheaval threatens the environment, lizard mind skitters through the shadows. During the day I can tell it to go away. I exercise deep breathing or listen to music to calm my nerves, and contemplate the positive aspects of what is coming.

Yesterday I continued my knitting meditation with a square devoted to Sisyrinchium, a favourite wildflower. The first time I saw it was in the meadow at Elmbrae, the country property I owned when my daughters were little. Commonly called blue-eyed grass, it is actually a diminutive member of the iris family with slender, grass-like leaves and tiny, exquisite flowers hugging the stems. More precisely, they have golden eyes with violet-blue mascara. I broke into a stashed skein of lilac Briggs and Little, the closest way I could find to express the shade of the petals. And I learned a new technique from Vivian Hoxbro's book, Domino Knitting, to imitate the bead-like quality of a flower's centre.

When I left Elmbrae I came unrooted from many things, particularly the Earth. Every move disturbs the roots, even the one I'm approaching, but sometimes a plant benefits from moving to richer soil.

A wildflower, a lizard: I'm mixing metaphors again. But plants, reptiles and humans all exhibit parallel responses to disturbance. A plant stops growing and perhaps withers. Lizard runs away. People panic. We believe the rational mind can outreason fear, but buried reptile mind sometimes still emerges.

When I go to sleep, if I sleep at all, well, reptile mind controls the sleep cycle. Lizard emerges from his rock pile and raises hell.

Last night, halfway through knitting Sisyrinchium, I went to bed. During the night I visited a woman therapist, handsome with long blonde hair. She laid me on a couch, gave me an article to read and, while I wasn't looking, took off her pants and sexually assaulted me. I pushed her away, escaped the room and fled through an indescribable hypnopompic city. Even when I realized I had been dreaming, I believed the abuse really happened. I wanted to make a formal complaint. Finally waking around 4:30, I realized with relief the therapist was no one I really knew. But lizard king had succeeded in banishing me from sleep. After tossing and turning a while, I got out of bed.

Waging a war of peace, I finished Sisyrinchium this morning.

After leaving Elmbrae, I didn't see blue-eyed grass for 13 years, but this spring I found a potted cultivar at a garden centre on Eglinton Avenue, and transplanted it to my rock garden. For the past month it has opened numerous unblinking eyes like a mirror of heaven, suns unfolding from deep blue petals.

Two weeks ago when Sylvie and I went bird-watching beyond Lilac Way in the meadow where Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks nest, I found this flower growing wild again, along the path. When I move I must leave another garden with this cultivated beauty behind, but come 2010 I will know where to find her in her native state on a sunny May morning.

Today the last Sisyrinchium flower is dropping her petals in the rock garden. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep. She does not have a reptile brain to provoke nightmares, but I wonder what a leaf dreams after the flower falls.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Square 18: Home

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My friends Jaye and Christine are moving out of their apartment and I have the opportunity to take it over. My current living situation is tolerable, but at various times the place has been a source of anxiety, frustration, grief and even outright terror. I have survived neighbours from hell, sleepless nights when they were screaming at each other outside my door, harrassment, police visits in the middle of the night, and a suicidal visitor who left bloodstains on the hall carpet. They finally vacated the upstairs apartment 18 months ago, so I've had some peace and quiet. After they moved, workmen left the windows open (in winter) to air the place out and pipes burst, flooding my apartment and destroying furniture, photographs and books. It happened again, twice within a month of Mom's death. Add to the mix a passive landlord who turns off the smoke alarm instead of fixing it, says repeatedly that he is going to replace the broken front door but two years later nothing has happened, and so on. The place is a fire trap, with no alternate escape from my flat. There are many good reasons for moving out.

But few decisions are that simple. It is home after all. I have lived there since June 1998. Eleven years is the longest I've stayed any place in my life. On Tuesday evening when I heard about Jaye and Christine's apartment and told them I would like to look at it, the first thing I did was have a panic attack. The timing is bad. Work has been slow for the past year and the long-anticipated contract has not been finalized. I have no money in reserve.

But on the occasions I've been ready and looked for a place to move, this was what I looked for: a two-bedroom apartment with comparable rent (cheap), within walking distance of all my favourite downtown hangouts. Guelph Farmers' Market is right across the street—how cool is that? The living room and kitchen are similar size to what I have now, but the bedrooms are larger. There is a communal backyard where Jaye and Christine have established a good-sized vegetable garden. Best of all, the property manager responds promptly to maintenance requests. When they asked if they could paint and showed him the colours, he brought paint to their door within 24 hours. The place is almost as bright as the old apartment, with windows on three sides. The only things I will miss are my sunny, south-facing office, and the rock garden I planted last spring.

I would move August 1. Despite all the positives, I woke up yesterday morning thinking, "There's no way I can do it just now." But I met Christine to look at the place and said I wanted 24 hours to think it over. I went home and picked yarn for a square, an act of meditation on the decision.

Peace and light: those are the most important things in a home. I thought about them while I worked. Out of peace and light comes room for creativity, represented by the bright streak of Manos del Uruguay yarn.

I had to do laundry and go grocery shopping. I talked to Danny, Sylvie and Dad about it; they all encouraged me to go for it (Sylvie knows Jaye and Christine's place). There wasn't much time for quiet meditation, but I took the square to the laundromat, and as I knitted the path became clear. I completed the last few rows this morning, then called Christine to express my intentions. I can't afford to pass this opportunity. It's what I used to call a leap of faith.

Peace and light to you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Square 17: High school

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Yesterday a high school friend dropped over while visiting from Provincetown. Scott was part of a small circle I hung out with during grades 12 and 13. The group overlapped with another circle, but with Scott, Sarah, Jennie and Maggie I shared an interest in Classical music. Sarah and I dated for a year. The five of us would go to concerts together. At my house we held Schubertiads where we performed for one another on the piano or other instruments. We worked on the school newspaper together.

I lost contact with most of the group after Maggie's wedding about 23 years ago, but over this past year we got back in touch thanks largely to Sarah. Yesterday was my first reunion with Scott. We both turned out gay, though he accepted it much sooner than I did. Over lunch at Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine we reminisced.

When Scott tells something that amuses him he was a way of lifting one eyebrow and twisting his mouth. The mannerism never struck me before, but when he did yesterday, it brought a flood of fond recollections, times we all laughed together.

One incident we all remember vividly. Sarah and I edited the school newspaper, with Jennie, Scott and several others on staff. The nights when we had to get the paper ready to go to the printer were hard work but fun. Once Sarah and I were scheduled to go on a school trip to see a play at Stratford the same night as newspaper production. We did as much work beforehand as possible. Scott and the others assured us they could put most of the paper together while we were gone.

Arriving back from the play, Sarah and I went to the production room and found most most of the galley pages lying empty. Our friends weren't even working, they were chatting at the end of the room. We were furious, and I threw a temper tantrum. Then Scott and Jennie produced the real galleys from under the table. They had in fact done some work though not as much as we expected. They had hoped the practical joke would put things in a better light, but Sarah and I still were not amused. We all ended up working late into the night.

High school was a miserable, lonely time for me. I was aware of my attraction to other boys, and rejected those feelings as unnatural. Growing up in a farm community I didn't know any better. I also didn't know about practical career paths for writers and artists, but writing and making art were the things I loved to do.

These friends have told me they had no idea, back then, how unhappy I was. To them I seemed to be the one who had it all together. I was a good student, and good at putting up a front, and perhaps still am. Yesterday Scott put it this way: we all had private stories underlying the school lives we shared with our friends. I did not know Scott's family, and back then I gave no thought to it. It did not occur to us as adolescents to tell our friends these struggles.

I knitted this square to illustrate Scott's image. Behind the solid stripes of white and blue, our school colours, lies a subtler pattern in variegated yarn. I picked something with a long colour repeat, Berroco Jasper, because while the pattern of school environment didn't change, we each gradually matured and went into the world as adults.

Even if I kept my friendships superficial, Scott and the others made school more bearable. In grade 12 I went from being a loner to having friends who shared some interests, and who I liked spending time with in and out of school. I was too serious, but they brought humour. Life can be a challenge, but with friends we will survive.

I had a reunion with Sarah and Maggie on Dec. 26. I'm glad these people are back in my life.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Square 16: Sewing seeds

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This weekend we took part in Sewing Seeds, an art event at Studio 490 facilitated by my friends Louisa and Anne and two other creative people from the community. It involved seminars about paper making and paper embroidery. We incorporated seeds of native prairie wildflowers and grasses into the papers, and later embroidered plant images on the sheets.

I made paper using seeds of two species I was curious about. Clematis virginiana is a native vine with small but attractive white flowers and appealing seed heads that grows alongside the road near my cottage. Penstemon digitalis is not familiar to me, but belongs to one of my favourite genera of native herbs.

Danny had never made paper before and became fully absorbed in that part of the process. As he said, it is an easy craft to do, hard to do well.

We both went back on Sunday for the second part, embroidery. I attempted to depict a clematis seed head with limited success. Danny sewed a spectacular Aster novae-angliae. He had expressed reservations about attending the second workshop; when I inquired later he explained that he feels clumsy with needle and thread. To see this flower, you would think he had been sewing for years.

Afterward the artists planned to literally plant their embroidered squares on the grounds outside the studio, so the stratified seed could germinate and establish a garden quilt. This seemed to be an exploration of ephemeral art, though the artists didn't explain it that way. The workshops placed more emphasis on the plants themselves, using art as a way to communicate about native species and guerrilla gardening.

I felt strong resistance to taking something I had created, which involved an investment of time and would normally be permanent, and subjecting it to conditions that would quickly return it to the elements. I need to think about that reaction, because it resembles the fear of death. I admire artists like Andy Goldsworthy who create ephemeral works, and have even tried my hand at it. Playing with driftwood on a beach is different, because you live your whole life expecting wood to float away. But composting embroidery?

Feminist artist Judy Chicago currently has a show at the Textile Museum of Canada. She expresses criticism of the habit of other feminists who historically created ephemeral art. Her textiles, by contrast, make a permanent statement. Amazing show, but that particular argument is questionable. It's like telling a dancer she should write poetry instead. People express themselves the best way they know. Sometimes ephemeral art communicates better. It can provoke powerful thoughts and emotions, different from the reaction to a work hanging on a wall separated from artist by time and space.

In the end I didn't have the heart to sacrifice my badly-stitched clematis to the earth. I brought it home along with one sheet of Penstemon paper.

Some of the paper came out an attractive pale green similar to the shade of this yarn. I used other fibres to describe the seed pods, plant parts and bits of recycled paper that added appeal to the paper. This blanket is permanent—my choice.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Square 15: Baroque evening

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Friday evening we attended a free concert given by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir as part of Luminato, Toronto's Festival of Arts and Creativity. I went with a skeptical attitude, because I'm choosy about Baroque music and the program was intimidating. The first two composers, Veracini and Locatelli, were unknown to me; the next two barely familiar, Lully and Purcell; and Handel I usually leave alone. Arriving half an hour early, we had to take our place in line halfway down the block, and wondered whether we would get reasonable seats at all. Trinity St. Paul's Centre is a renovated and functioning church, and many pews do not provide a good view of the entire stage.

Fortunately, once the doors opened and the crowded flocked inward, we knew immediately where to go: some parts high in the balcony offer a better overall view than seats nearer the front. We found an excellent vantage. Evening sun shone through one of the church's large rose windows directly in our faces, but the effect was glorious. The glass panels formed an abstract pattern of soft lilac, purple and green. During the first half of the concert, a layer of heavenly fire burned slowly across the crowns of the audience.

This square recalls the evening through an impression of a stained glass window. The pale violet yarn imitates the glass itself, yellow Lopi is the setting sunlight, and the variegated brown and green yarn from Fleece Artist represents rich tones of the Baroque orchestra rising in the church.

As soon as the music started we realized we were in for a treat. Francesco Maria Veracini's Orchestral Suite no. 6 in G Minor begins with a ravishing Allegro; overall the suite is a brilliant example of Baroque charm, richly embellished without sacrificing lyrical loveliness. Veracini was a contemporary of Bach and Handel. So far I can't find any online reference to a recording of this composition.

The latter part of the concert consisted of a pastiche of choral night music, assembled by Tafelmusik. It included selections from Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen and several works by Handel. The music harmonized with the slow drain of dusk to magical effect. Here are some words from Purcell's libretto, an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Hush, no more, be silent all,
Sweet Repose has clos'd her Eyes.
Soft as feather'd Snow does fall!
Softly, softly steal from hence.
No noise disturb her sleeping sense.

Shadows gradually enchanted the upper gallery. During Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, soprano Ann Monoyios and flutist Claire Guimond performed a lyrical duet evoking the song of a nightingale in the woods. I was vanquished, carried into musical dreams.