Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Tag: essay

The Pleasure Scale, Gay Magazine

illustration: Jessica Poundstone

“The Pleasure Scale,” my contemplation on disability, pleasure and pain, is up today at Gay Magazine. Be forewarned that it is sexually explicit.

I realize there’s so much more to be said about pleasure, mine, and, of course, that found by others.

“I want to feel my body opening in the way it can open, like it is split, and is yawning in two pieces like a knifed watermelon, when it can take not only a fist but a globe, it can take every war, every famine, every mining disaster, every broken child behind bars, every river of tainted water into itself and it can turn water clear and take the broken children onto its lap and cause weapons to be laid down and corpses to rise and people to laugh again.”

Autostraddle, and Room

Imagine my good luck to appear in the Bad Behaviour series at Autrostraddle, and in Canada’s oldest feminist journal, Room, in their queer issue, all in one month, alongside the grooviest writers (people I’ve admired far and near for years), and, might I add, the most amazing visual artist, Ness Lee. (Their cover is above.) The former magazine is online, and the latter is available at your favorite independent bookstore or from Room, link below.

My essay about being non-binary, ‘The Nothing Between Your Legs,’ appears here, but check out the awesomeness of the entire series at Autostraddle here.

And a link to my short story, ‘Phosphorescence,’ in Room.

Notable essay, Best American Essays

I’m thrilled to say that one of my personal essays, “Skinning the Rabbit,” which appeared in The Sun, is a notable in Best American Essays 2018 ed Hilton Als. To see the included essays, and the notables, go to “look inside” here: Best American Essays

This is my third time appearing as a notable in a Best American collection, and second time for an essay.

Thanks to my editor at The Sun, Andrew Snee, and to the team there. Congrats to everyone on the notable list, and of course to the authors of the included essays!

Skinning the Rabbit

Whale Party

Whale Party

Tonight, my visiting daughter pulls me from my recliner to go explore bio-luminescence. At the first beach, there are some sparkles in the water, but a lot of ambient light too, so we decide to go north. At our second beach we need to use a flashlight to creep down over roots and rocks. We can’t see phosphorescence from shore, but the view is stunning: calm water, humpbacks of rocks, a wild-star sky.

Slowly, we wade out.

We begin to laugh like kids because every step stirs up sparkles. Underwater fireworks, or the fairy dust that falls from Tinkerbell’s wand. It really does look like stars. Unable to stop giggling, we stir, we splash, we kick. “I have superpowers!” Meghann says and tosses phosphorescence in an arc of blue.

“We’ve got to go get your sister and the kids,” I say. It’s way after bedtime in their house, but a holiday weekend—no work tomorrow. I call, Sarah wakes the 2 and 3-year-olds and we pick our way with them half asleep back to the beach, and hold them tight. They can’t figure out what’s going on. They’ve never even seen stars before, and now we want them to dunk their sandals. They’re very impressed, though, with the lighthouse in the distance. Naiya spies a falling star. “With no tail!” The dog swims through the bio luminescence, and it looks like she’s swimming in the Milky Way. “She looks magic,” I say. Sarah says, “She’s always been magic; you can just see how it sparkles tonight.”

Naiya says, “How did the stars fall into the water, Mom?”

How did the stars fall into the water? Do blue butterflies eat parts of the sky?[1]

Finally the kids, chilled and sleepy, think it’s time to go back to bed. They don’t realize that there isn’t year-round phosphorescence.

I hear loud breathing sounds as we negotiate for a minute more. Huffs. Not very far from us at all, and close—perhaps 30 feet out?–I realize I’ve been hearing it a while, and I wonder if it’s a sea lion coming in to heave herself atop the rocks.

Sarah says, “Whales.”

“Shh, shh,” we all say, and even the chatterboxes quieten. The baby is nervous and cuddles her mom close.

We talk about Tahlequah, J35, the orca mom who that night still carries her dead baby on her snout, and wonder if the close whale or whales breathing at the surface might be Tahlequah and her close family, lagging behind, resting their bellies on the rocks a few minutes.

As we listen, at least two of us hope the whales don’t mistake us for seals, but even so we’re reluctant to get out of the magic water connecting us to the whales in the bio-chain of life. I’ve never been in the water with whales before. I think about how many orcas are in the resident population: 75. I think about how many people are in the world who aren’t hearing whales tonight: I wish there were a way to whisper this beauty into every person’s ear. I wish people could wake up restored, a little braver for the tasks at hand, as I will.

As we muddle to leave, off in the distance, in between where we stand and the nearby island, we hear slapping sounds.

“Tail slaps!” I cry.

They’re loud—surely they could be heard on land by the people who live here on the edge of land and water–and Sarah explains to the children that the whales can’t play during the day with all the boats around, but they can at night under the moon. Maybe the orcas are hunting, but whatever they’re doing lasts a long time, and is noisy, and I like imagining they are playing, making a fine night racket, breaching, slapping for joy, loving the perfection of the bay and the beautiful clear sky. Who knows, maybe they’re enjoying stirring up bio-luminescence. Maybe they’re playing just to ignite it, so they can swim in sparkling orca soup. Meantime, the pod, or members of a pod, who are closer to us swim off and return, rising and diving–and breathing.

We stand until the whales, both groups, dive, before making our charmed and stunned ways back up to the car. The experience beats in a chamber of our hearts devoted only to magic.

#orcas # whales #Tahlequah #eatonhamilton #bioluminescence #phosphorescence

 

 

[1] How Does Life Live, Kelly O’Brien, NY Times

Rumpus addictions: Spontaneous Combustion

 

I have a new essay up at The Rumpus, called “Spontaneous Combustion,” joining my other essay there called “Infarct, I Did.” This essay is about my mother’s addiction to prescription drugs and its challenges to the family. Why my mother never overdosed, considering the great number of pills she ingested, is a mystery.

 

Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Once again, spring, with the kanzen cherry blossom

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photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton kanzen cherry 2015

Labyrinth

I go outdoors into the corridors of plum and cherry blossoms, the florid wisterias with their dangling racemes, their whips you must cut back three times a season or they will eat your cat, your car, your house. Here on the street the magnolias lift their cups waiting for spring to pour itself down. I know what’s in there. I know they have crowns, Kinder egg treats, their surprises, their jesters’ hats with dangling gold bells. The air is tinted with scent of hyacinths: Carnegie, City of Harlem, China Pink, Woodstock. They grow ceraceous, stiff along their water-filled stalks, blossoms further apart or closer together depending on light conditions—in my garden with its parsimonious sunshine, they can only try hard, but they give off their kick of perfume, they string it out, they let me have it anyway. Spring is soft as cotton batten, and some moments it goes gaudy as a circus. Watch the chestnut leaf unfurl. Watch the Clematis coil around the stem. Watch the talented beak of the finch as it cracks a sunflower seed. Watch the spotted towhee peck, the variegated thrush as it hurries to hide itself. The sempiternitous sky carves its bowl of the possibilities up beyond the clouds where rockets shoot, where astronauts imagine, where Sally Ride rode her lesbianism into blue space, where Christa McAuliffe exploded when I still lived in the house with the climbing tree.

I kick off my shoes, pull at my socks. The crust of the earth is chilled under my feet, dark, but the wet flock of grass stalks, the brush-cut of green against my toes is a party, takes me into the scrum of childhood when lawns were made for kick-the-can and there was no Round-Up and the measure of a good summer was whether you got enough callouses that you could walk across sharp pebbles and how big a cannonball splash you could make. I spill my hand over a Kanzan cherry trunk, bark rigid and broken. I unwrap the perianth, the floral envelope. A whole bough is Kyoto in April, the Philosopher’s Path, the wandering maiko in their wooden shoes, pink kimonos and white faces, elaborate combs. The individual petals in my hands weigh less than air; weigh less than the eyelashes I brushed last weekend from my lover’s rose-pink cheek. The petals are translucent, pink, silky. I don’t lift my arms, but lifting my arms is what I mean, into the symphonic air.

One year, when I had greatly suffered, when my body was giving itself up, when I had lost all in the world there was to lose, except my life, and was losing that as surely as if I had a hole in my toe through which it drained, I heard a woman playing, on violin, Bach’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, and I was drawn by the threads of music like a rat behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and I sank to a bench to listen, and was contrapuntally struck. Terror, relief. Pain, pleasure. Hatred, love. Sour, sweet. The labyrinth we all unwittingly walk, where everything horrible is eventually overwritten by beauty. Everything beautiful is eventually overwritten by horror.  And repeat.  I know this as a simple truth. This is ever reliable.

I was for the first time in a year of fear not trembling.

Instead of writing the composition, the way as a writer I was prone to do, or capturing the composition the way as a photographer and painter I was prone to do, somehow I became the composition indivisibly and then, just as mysteriously, I melded with air and breeze. I was still me, old and challenged and broken, and not me, too. I was as much the musician as I was her audience. The violinist drew her bow under an ornamental plum tree, white-blossomed, through which sunlight dappled and sky showed cerulean, and all of these things merged—Bach, the poise of her wrist, how hard she had worked to stand under this blossoming Vancouver tree on this too-cold spring day, the sunshine, my own sorrow and grief and sour-hearted blood mechanics—and I was saved. I had not been able to live, and now, via this merging of talent and music and blossom and chill, I could, again. Happiness filled me as if the hole in my foot had healed and instead had become a hole in my head, and the filling was as complete as the emptying. Where I had been but a shell, I plumped. My corpuscles danced. My mitochondria laughed.

A couple weeks ago, a friend hurt herself badly. Yesterday, there was a terrible home invasion, a harsh injury, on a street where I love people. Yesterday a friend wrote to say that even so people save themselves with minute beauty. I knew she was right. I have done this over and over and over again through my life, redemption (if you like, though I might call it retrieval, or restitution) through the communion wafer of nature, through the holy drink that is nature. People save themselves on buttercups under chins to say if they like butter. People save themselves with raccoon kits, bees’ wings, and bird babies in the eaves. These accidental evolutionary goodnesses. People save themselves with kittens, and lambs pronging in fields, and the slap of a horse’s mane on their hands as they ride barebacked through meadows. People save themselves with good cups of coffee or food.  People save themselves with tickles, with hand holding, just by meeting someone’s eyes. People save themselves with hikes or bicyling or long runs.  These spices of experience.  Fragments of mercy.

I am as dunderheaded as a person could be, but, yet, even so, even despite my flaws and weaknesses and losses, this reliable lift I feel because of the intricacy of a poppy unfolding crumpled petals, is there, is real, is find-able, is replicable, is mine for the looking. You won’t find it where I find it, because we are not the same person, but someday when the intricacy of terror and ruination lift, you will find it all the same–in a child’s giggle, a moon shadow, or in the way birch bark curls.

It is yours.

I think it might be spring

The Garden Getting Going

Cutworms have decimated the sprouts of the daylilies; slugs have been rolling out placemats on my ligularia, forks and knives in hand. Yesterday, I tucked some last-leg plants that have been crying out for root-room into my new garden. I don’t even know if the delphinium, given to me by garden-witch Tekla Deverell on Pender Island, now deceased, can possibly make it. I’ll baby it along, thinking mauve/blue thoughts at it, but what if, as the sun rises higher in the sky, the garden still gets no sun?

All over town the cherry blossoms are out and it’s hard not to believe they are hollering celebration. Is there anything else as beautiful as a magnolia in bloom? I chase blossoms like candy, up and down the good streets in Vancouver, the streets where I know there are canopies, because I have to feast on the beauty, storing it up and hiding it the way chipmunks do stashes. All the hyacinths, the muscari, the daffs, the tulips play their parts. Come winter, I’ll be pulling blossoms into a memory quilt.

A flicker came to sit on my fence a couple of days ago, but it didn’t talk to me, just sat there, orange and grey, eyeing the suet feeder which is surrounded by a cage much deeper than the flicker’s beak. I used to get them at my house, drumming on the metal hat of my garden heater.

My feeder last year was clustered with baby goldfinches for weeks running.

This year I’ve got juncos, sparrows, chickadees, finches, bushtits and even (finally, finally) hummingbirds. I’m going to try that thing where you pour syrup into your palm and see if they’ll eat out of it. Plus I’ll do sunflower seeds to see if I can entice chickadees.

Suffused with well-being that never seem to let go.

The Hail of Fire, Maple Tree: On Friendship

image: Jane Eaton Hamilton, The hail of fire: maple tree, 2018

This was woodpeckers! Probably trying to eat the gloomy scale!

So, this thing. I was at a holiday party for a bunch of Vancouver publishers recently, and told a new writer that I had really enjoyed her book. The blood drained from her face. I am clumsy sometimes, and very shy. I thought I’d hurt her somehow until she said that not one other writer had ever mentioned her book, published, I think, a year earlier. That broke my heart. My god, Canadians, for all we say we’re friendly and welcoming, we are a shallow and parsimonious bunch.

Please, let’s support each other. Let’s be fulsome and giving in our praise.

How is it possible that this really good writer with her first really good book with good reviews had never heard from a single one of us? I’m sure many many of us read her. What is wrong with us? If that was you, it would break your fucking heart, wouldn’t it? If that was you, you’d be crushed. You might even be suicidal. Is that actually the point, that we crush each other?

I increasingly believe as I get older that the act of creating a book is akin to a secular miracle. Even when the seams show in yours (and they will), I will still consider it a remarkable achievement. It is. I mean, how do we do it, continue to do it, against the forces arrayed and pressing for our failure? I’m not talking to cis white men, here, where everything lines up to favour them (altho of course I understand there can still be considerable obstacles), because I choose not to read cis white men, for the most part, wanting to put my energy into writers I find more intriguing, but to the marginalized: POC, WOC esp, the disabled, the queer, the trans, the penurious, the traumatized. We all make breakfast. We look after kids. We go to work. We vacuum. We change beds. We deal with email and social media feeds. We pay or wish we could pay bills. We fret. We love. We worry. We grieve for our lost loved ones. We deal with addiction, or mental health issues, or cancer, or death. We take our kids and pets and selves to the doctor. Our bones ache. Our jaws ache. Our hips ache. That knee? It hurts. But still, we put words on the page. Sometimes, we hate the words we put on the page. Sometimes we love the words we put on the page. We put the words we put on the page into the world that really doesn’t care very much for 99% of us as people or authors. We speak and we say, Hey! We matter. I am here. Count me in.

What a brave and foolhardy occupation.

What older writers know is this: You will probably “fail” according to whatever your standard of that is. But failure is actually not that bad, and, in its way, is even liberating. Remember when you wrote your first book without any pressure? It’s like that again. That sophomore book production thing really sucks eggs. When you’re older, and you are already a proven mediocrity, you’re free … and you rise to surpass your own expectations.

Older writers really understand that we’re all in this together.

Sometimes young or new writers think that CanLit is a fierce competition, that they have to knock someone down a peg or two, or off their pedestal, to make room for their own work. Believe me, we published writers with multiple books don’t really need you to tell us our literary flaws; we’ve had decades to flaunt them. Guess what? You have just as many. They may be different ones, but you have them. Listen up. I’m telling you what I’ve learned, kids: I am not a perfect writer. You are not a perfect writer. But even so, there is a big enough pie if we support each other. We can remake Canlit in our image/s so that this will always be true.

And until it is, we can at least promise each other to do what’s free: and that is to offer up a compliment or three here and there, or some stars on Goodreads or Amazon. You know how long that takes? Stars with no review? Like, once you’re logged in, maybe three seconds? Or to say, “I really admired this book?” Fifteen seconds.

Here’s what I ask: Lift a writer today. I don’t care who you choose. You choose the writer you want to lift. But make it somebody who isn’t already being lifted by the system, okay? Lift Indigenous writers in 2018, or trans writers, or disabled writers. Lift only womxn authors. You choose. The fine writer Marnie Woodrow and I talked about this once for queer writers, and it never really got off the ground because of busy-ness. But maybe it still can. Maybe we could do it on the first of every month, every time we pay our rent or mortgage. Make kindness to other writers a habit.

To quote Jen Pastiloff, “don’t be an asshole” to other writers. Don’t be a literary asshole, all right?

I tell you sincerely: I love your book for being its perfectly imperfect self. I love the wild life and the heartbeat and the longing you poured into it. I wish with all my heart that it could bring you the relief  you want and crave and need … the admiration of your peers, money to pay your rent and put food on the table, the way clear to another book, prizes and awards. I wish this for you, because this is what you deserve after your efforts. I’m sorry when it doesn’t happen, when your career seems to coast even though you’ve worked like a dog.

But even if it didn’t go that well when you published, or you were a one-book wonder and Canlit’s attention wandered after that first book, we still need your talent and your skill and your vitality and your yearning and your vulnerability and your trauma and your stories and your fierce fucking fighting power.

At the same time, I wish we would stop with the cult of awards. We’ve gotten narrow and lazy, only responding to the same five or ten books in a season when there are delights galore if we look a little more widely. And a season is only a breath. Those good books are still there the next season when publishing churns out more.

 

 

“The Man in the Mirror”

If I have a favourite kind of personal essay, this sharp, beautifully composed, heartfelt piece exemplifies it. Thanks to Rene Denfeld for the rec. “The Man in the Mirror” by Alison Kinney comes highly recommended. So glad I read it.

The Man in the Mirror

Ohhhh, pharting around

sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton, March, 2018, mixed media, 9×12, paper

Pharting around at sketching today, late today because I had an ultrasound at the hospital–yay! stand down on cancer scare! When I arrive at the atelier (which, here, is upstairs at the Lion’s Club), the model is usually doing one and two-minute poses, and my hand warms up, drops its daily concerns, finding its lines, remembering how to draw into the body, remembering how to make lines occupy space. Today I was only there for two long poses (long poses are usually 20 minutes). Since I started with this group in Jan, I’ve done something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now–I’ve let myself play.

A long time ago, I started sketching in Bali. I was a photographer and couldn’t (from overseas) find a model, and so I signed up in Ubud for a day-long sketching session. I was really pleasantly surprised at what came out of my pencil, and I kept drawing. I’d drawn as a kid, a lot, and had been put into art classes which bored me to tears (perspective! it still bores me! I would fall down dead if I had to draw architecture!), but then I was told to do a self-portrait, which I did in front of my mother’s makeup mirror, above the mascara cake she always spit in, its little brush, her foundation and rouge, her pair of yellow earrings. I contorted my expression, and finally settled on horrified. I drew myself like The Scream, and I was really proud. I’d only ever been proud of horse drawings before that. But people were uniformly horrified. My mother, aghast. My teacher revolted.

So I quit. I must have been in grade six, so eleven, and I quit drawing for forty years. I was terrified of it, in fact. Any time someone said, “Pictionary?” I froze.

Until Ubud. From Ubud, I started taking night classes, some with James Picard. I started going to the Vancouver atelier which had just then moved to Main Street–what was cool about it was that it had sessions every day. What was uncool was that I was too disabled to park far from it and walk carrying a portfolio (not really a portfolio, just drawing supplies, which are heavy), so I had to stop. I kept taking classes, classes with Emily Carr, classes with artists I met through the atelier, and a shit-ton of classes with Justin Ogilvie. I liked Justin; I loved his work. One day, though, he said something very unkind–something like Well, you’ll produce something worth looking at in six years. On the spot, I quit for six years.

When I got over myself again, I started a certificate program at Emily Carr. But I kept having heart surgeries and not getting to class. And then I kept coming up against the fact that Emily Carr wanted me to have a broad education–which is to say, take that perspectives class again and a class on running a business, and these I had and have utterly no interest again. I want to draw figures, and I want those figures to be women or non-binary or trans. I have no interest in drawing cis men. When you are as sick and disabled as I am, you get particular. I started teaching myself at home instead, which made sense because I was mostly relegated, then, to a chair with my feet up against heart failure, and I could hold small drawing paper on my lap. I spent some time living in a friend’s apartment in Paris, and I found I was too disabled to use the transit system, so I was house-bound, and I gesso’d paper and painted on that, nothing too large to carry home in a suitcase (I was too disabled to get to the PO). I found some double sided tape and taped these (bright) paintings to the walls of the apartment, ceiling to floor. I only went out for two reasons: food, with a little cart/bag that I pulled, or art galleries, where I could borrow wheelchairs. I spent that time intensely engaged in writing and art/art history.

I’ve been seeking something in my fingers. It’s been inchoate–I guessed it was a “breakthrough,” but I don’t actually draw or paint often enough to have one of those. Still, suddenly, it seems far closer to me.

I’ve always previously been preoccupied with an accuracy I could never obtain, which kept my style stiff, and I have thrown that concern the hell out the window now. For a few years, mostly outside ateliers, classes and degrees, I’ve taught myself to draw lines. Over and over again, drawing without looking at the page, drawing without lifting the pen, drawing without lifting the pen while not looking at the page. Over and over, practicing lines, which is to say, rather than doing a figure with chicken-scratch, a thousand teeny tiny lines to get from armpit to waist, as is my natural wont, I’ve forsaken that for long lines in ink or paint and no chance to re-do. Committed, as you will. I’ve also tried to take poses to the fewest lines I could manage (a la Picasso’s animals). This was a very useful home-study. Now I’m just sitting in the atelier each week with my body screaming in pain (from the setup, from my auto immune disorder, from carrying in supplies), having fun. Not second-guessing my impulses, not thinking–in paper, in media, in line–just scribbling like a kid, making happy and occasionally felicitous mistakes. I don’t care what mediums I’m combining–I’ve put acrylic with charcoal with conte with pastels with watercolour blocks and back again. I just want my representation of a person to breathe on the page–and care nothing at all if the model is represented. (Partly I just don’t see well enough to do that sort of drawing any longer.)

All the while, I’m working beside actual artists who are honing their considerable skills. I watch with awe. And awe again at my luck in being able to be near people so talented. When I get over my shyness, I’ll ask if I can sit beside them to learn.

So, here is Marianne from today, hot off the presses, and some other sketches from other weeks from the 1-5 min bunches:

 

 

Maggie May Ethridge: Atmospheric Disturbances

 

The atmospheric disturbances that are part of a coupled union … most of us know them.  In Atmospheric Disturbances, Maggie May Ethridge, a talented US essayist and memoirist, takes our hand and walks us into the abyss of her long, abiding relationship to a man with bipolar illness. Because of Ethridge’s soaring talent, this portrait of a disorder becomes a searing, raw chronicle at the closing shutters of marriage, and their re-opening and re-opening and re-opening.

 

Skinning the Rabbit, The Sun Magazine

I got home from a trip, picked up my mail and found my contributor copies of the July 2017 issue of The Sun Magazine (along with the welcome cheque). A couple of weeks ago, I went to add The Sun to my list of places I’ve published, and it was already there. I was puzzled; I didn’t remember having already added it. But then I explored a little further, realized I’d published there a long time ago, and sought out the issue, the cover of which is above. I was bemused to find that the subject matter was quite similar to the recent essay since I haven’t written about my childhood in ages.

Here’s that original and second-person story, which was still on my desktop: Hearts

My piece this time around is called Skinning the Rabbit. I explored my relationship with my father through our collision about animal welfare, and through the bullying I experienced when I got alopecia totalis at six. I hope you like it. Tell me if you do, k? It’s not online, but you can find The Sun almost anywhere that carries literate magazines, even in Canada.

I am proud to have had essays in the NY Times and The Sun this year.

The Sun November 1993

 

 

 

 

“Never Call Yourself a Writer, and Other Rules for Writing”

 

Really, this is all you need to know to get started and keep going, by Shawna Kenney, from Brevity:

Never Call Yourself a Writer

 

 

“Alice began to undress the past.”

Here, then, from 2011, Jeanette Winterson peeking in at the cows between Gertrude and Alice. How, precisely, did Gertrude bring Alice to her bovine pleasures? Did Gertrude, too, have cows, whether self-administered or Alice-administered? From what acts did cows materialize? How often did they find each other? Did sex wane over the years as Gertrude took lovers?

I traveled to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and after I had run my palm over the red kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave I strolled around the corner to Gertrude’s grave, which seemed immense. I thought about fat corpses needing fat coffins needing wide graves, and I thought about how small the eventual skeleton would be underneath. I thought that when Alice, years later, was interred and recognized on the back of Gertrude’s gravestone, she could easily have fit, by then, into Gertrude’s box, with Gertrude, there to produce bubbles of heavenly cows for the rest of eternity.

Granta

“George Saunders: What writers really do when they write.”

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If George Saunders is a word, I am a letter. Here, he waxes enthused about Lincoln in the Bardo, his new and first novel.

What Writers Really Do

Am I Too Embarrassed to Save My Life? My essay in the NY Times

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Am I Too Embarrassed to Save My Life?

NY Times

I’m told it had over a hundred thousand hits. I hope to have a few things to say here that answer some people’s questions. If you would like to leave additional questions or remarks here, I will try to include them.

Summer

buckJEH2016

Photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2016

It’s a warm day on Salt Spring Island with my ailing, aged cat, where, for the most part, summer never came. These days, I stay in a ’68 school bus under a double roof that ensures it stays dark and no sun reaches it (both a loss and a gain, depending). The bus is both sanctuary and trial–come dark, rodent armies are let loose, and, alas, the cat dispatched a baby shrew. At first, I banged the walls for deterrence but lately I’ve noticed that human voices are more effective–leaving a TV running might convince them, if I had one. The cat seems to really love it here, though she’s alone a lot–she doesn’t have this kind of exterior access at home. Here, I see Puppy flopped in the sun having a dust bath; she sprawls across the steps; she curls up under a shrub or in the shade of the bamboo. I see her stalk dragonflies. Though there are no beasts to speak of, but something treed her on top of the metal outhouse roof last week on a day I was gone ten hours.

It was a fairly intense June. I did a writer’s residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House and ran near daily Shut Up and Write sessions. My novel WEEKEND came out to some hoopla. I co-hosted a launch at Kogawa House, had dental surgery, and befriended some crows in a particularly meaningful way.

102 Latinx and black people were shot in Orlando, 49 of them fatally, and I, like most queers, was crushed. Every one of us had to some degree cut our teeth in nightclubs like Pulse, and some of us had personal ties to the victims, to Pulse, to Orlando, to Florida. We grieved and still grieve.

I could not work out how to hold this brutality next to my personal joys.

At the end of June, I travelled to Ontario to blitz through a book tour in Toronto, Cobourg, Peterborough and Ottawa, meeting a lot of writers whose work has been important to me, and convivial, welcoming audience members, and taking in Toronto Pride. There was a lot of scooting from town to town (on trains, on which I get quite ill) and loads of bad eating. Meeting Facebook friends IRL was a great thrill–and seeing old friends likewise.

I’m here to help my child with her children. I spend long hours at her cabin pitching in. The big girl is a year and a half; the little one will be four months soon. They are what babies and children are–all-consuming, loud, messy, demanding, adorable, persnickety, touching, sweet. I don’t have any stamina. Ever since I had open heart surgery I fatigue in all the usual, draining ways, but also suddenly, in a second, with the kind of overwhelming fatigue that greets a post-surgical patient up walking for the first time.

But everything people say about grandparenting is true–one can’t get enough.

My older granddaughter has acute hearing. Out-of-doors, she says, “Wazat wazat wazat?” She’s made me understand I regularly tune most of the world’s noises out. And jiminy, there are a lot! Now I hear planes, dragonflies, bees, hummingbirds, sawing, trucks, cars, the croak of a great blue heron, tree frogs, thrushes, robins, chickadees. Sometimes, a pileated woodpecker chortles. Along the driveway, fledgling flickers try out their calls. In the trees, crows and ravens tell their stories. Crickets chirrup and tree frogs complain.

What do I hear now? The wooden bus door slapped shut, knocking, the little metal latch jangling. The slurp of my coffee. The cat’s purr. The riffle of the breeze through the maple leaves. The hum of electricity. My spoon against my ceramic bowl of yogurt and Granny Smith apple. The computer keys. The fan.

Just now, from bed, I heard a loud buzz and looked up to a hummingbird in front of me. She flitted around a bit, hovered near a window, then turned tail and flew back outside.

Cherish Us: black, brown, white

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sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

When I say that our community has known the sting of homophobia, I mean all our community, every single one of us who identifies somewhere in the LGBTQIQ2 label, has experienced transgressions against us dozens or hundreds or thousands of times (dependent on locale/our age/our circumstances/whether we are POC and other variables). There have been the community ones–the massacre in Orlando, arson in New Orleans in 1973, bombings at Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver, and countless murders, lately especially of trans people. These events end up in the news, are discussed and analyzed and mourned. But there have been indivdual encounters with hates, too: street harrassment, times we have lost our housing, our jobs, our dignity, been disowned and disinherited, beaten, spit at, been followed and stalked, lost our kids, been harrassed online, had our weddings boycotted by loved ones, been scared, horrified, appalled, nervous, anxious, terrified, paid more taxes. We’ve been told we should be lowered in cages until we drown; we have been told we should all be dead; we have been told that we’re immoral, illegal, unethical, disgusting. We have been shunned. Religions and politicians have called for our deaths time and time again. Called from the fringe, calls from the zealots, sure, but the same policies and ideas exist in a watered down version in our offices, our schools, our policy makes, our homes. Being queer has cost us so much, cost our children so much: our families, so much income, our mental health, our courage, our resilience, our tears. As I write this, our lives and loves are still unbelievably illegal in 77 countries. Not counties. Countries. We have been hung, we have been decapitated, we have been stoned, we have been imprisoned, we have been thrown from cliffs, we have been flogged, we have had to hide for our lives. We have been slaughtered.

All of these things that have happened to us as queers for the years I’ve been out (since 1982), and before, all of those things are cumulative. Did you know that? Sometimes they are the microaggressions that we’ve been hearing of from the intelligent Black Lives Matter fight, and sometimes they are bigger, more florid, and tragic. But it is always death from a thousand paper cuts for the LGBT+ community. It is always a rolling, increasing snowball.

There are as many ways for queers to cope with harm as there are for straights, and we find them all. But we also learned to celebrate our survival. The blows have made us strong, very strong. Our knitted back together bodies and minds and spirits are resilient. Our spines are concrete, most of them.

These dead children were our babies. These were the babies for whose rights we fought–those of us who were activists. We fought so they could forget their world used to be dangerous. We fought because we were mothers, and we could not bear the idea that our own children, and our children’s children, would have to know even a smidgeon of the pain we had known.

You’re so upset, people say. It’s like you knew someone there.

We did know someone there, whether we had met them or not. We knew everyone. We counted the dead, the animated, dancing, celebrating dead, as family because we know so much of their experience–that experience of living in a world animate with homophobia–intimately. Yes, there is less hostility now. Yes, we won some battles. Yes, those battles made real differences in our visibility, our access to safety, our babies’ access to safety. But it is not over. It is so far from over. That the kids were slaughtered in one of our havens–one of the places we seeks out when we’re in Orlando, just as we go to similar places in Paris, in Cartagena, in San Francisco, in London, in Montreal, in Nashville–only makes us feel the agony the more acutely. We go to bars to find our people so we don’t feel so alone in the world. We go to bars to be visible. We go to bars to forget. We go to bars to dance the hate out. We go to bars to celebrate sound and life and gaiety and company.

But although we have been schooled by prior losses to be vigilant, we still didn’t expect this. I can guarantee that every one of the people mowed down this weekend had recently been thinking about America’s gun rage. Every one of them. Every one of them had recently been considering the epidemic of hate in America and its body count, because it is impossible to miss the news with a mass murder there every day of every year, with every murderer trying to up the number of slaughtered. Every one of those dancers with time to react figured out that a man with an assault rifle was targeting them.

And they knew why.

And they told their moms that they loved them. They told their moms they loved them before they were gunned down.

It gets better, we say, hoping to help suicidal teens make it to the adulthood these 100 mostly young adults were enjoying the beginnings of on Saturday night.

Over the years since Stonewall, we’ve forced heterosexual policing units to stop raiding our spaces. We’ve forced hetersexuals to change some laws in some countries around the world. We’ve forced you to leave your prejudices at the door and actually see us all fully human.

And you have, a lot of you. Thank you for every time you open your arms, every time you stand up for us. Pass it on and ask your friends to pass it along, too.

But if you still hear It’s so gay used as a slur and you don’t act to stop it, you’ll know we have a whole lot further still to go. If you hear about the death of yet another transwoman, especially of colour, you’ll know we have continents still to go. If you care who uses your bathrooms instead of that a man is pointing an assault rifle over the stall to kill our babies, you’ll know we are, still, nowhere.

Mourn, we are. We are heaving and weeping and screaming and holding candles aloft and considering action plans to increased safety.

Let me ask you–will you stand up for us?

Let me ask again–will you stand up for us?

When you hear a joke, a comment, a slur against us, will you act to stop it? A slur against brown or black people? Will you act to stop it?

Will you help us, please, feel safe? Will you nurture us, hug us, feed us, give us back rubs? Will you help us change unprogessive laws? Will you fight for our community’s right to immigrate from unsafe countries to yours?

Is it any wonder that we leave your community and make our own? We’ve had to count on each other because you weren’t there for us.

Remember that what happens to one of us happens to us all, and until we are all safe, none of us is safe.

We haven’t heard about ourselves from birth, or kindergarten, the way you have. So talk about our wonderful lives–single and married and parents and children–to every youngster. Find an age-appropriate queer book and read it to your kids. Tell them, “There are many kinds of families. They are all great. Some of your friends at school will turn out to be gay and they need to feel just as welcome as you do.” Say, “Gay is good. Gay is very, very good.” Ask for curriculum changes to include us. Ask for anti-homophobia training for teachers, for textbooks, for kids. Make sure you don’t have a hierarchy of gays–good queers and bad queers. Make sure you include us all. Make sure you tell your kids about the massacre and our mourning in the same light you would talk to them about other massacres. Make sure you talk to their teachers so they know it’s important to you that an assembly is held, that the classrooms do projects. Make sure you make a point of saying how critical it is that bathrooms are inclusive (the heartbreaking stories of little kids forced to pee themselves at school after being kicked out of both genders of washrooms are dunning).

There are pragmatic ways you can help. Volunteer for us on crisis lines. Join PFLAG. Dismantle systems of oppression wherever you discover them. Fundraise for our causes.

We have hated ourselves and hurt ourselves because we grew up bathed in your aversion. We have swallowed homophobia until our guts were swollen with it. We have shit it. We have burped it. We have vomited it. We have bled it. We have fucked it and fucked it and fucked it out of us. We have turned a million incidents into literature, into art, into film, into theatre, into the frocks you wear, into science, into medicine, into law, into jokes and a million other wonderful, generative, productive things that straight people consume, count on and cherish.

So cherish us, too, will you?

 

Writing About Trauma While Female…

…is slipping on banana peels.

Kelly Sundberg: Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?

Bird Nights, a short story

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Here is a story I wrote more than 5 years ago, called “Bird Nights.” It came out first in Numéro Cinq and then was picked up by poet Marilyn Hacker for translation into French for Siécle 21, Paris, translated by Cécile Oumhani. I would be most honoured if you read it and left me your thoughts. It remains one of my favourite pieces of my writing. The news of my marital separation was still new when I wrote it, yet the story is as much travelogue as it is a raw cry from my heart. It also appeals to the side of me that likes subversive, fractured and braided narratives.

Bird Nights

Here is a story. It is true, but it is also full of lies. And small axes, the kind that make tiny cross-hatchings on hearts.

1)

A surgeon flayed open my wife’s chest and removed her breast: stiches and staples. This was several years ago. While she sleeps her scar unzips (top tape extension, top stop, slider, pull tab), her flesh unfolding like a sleeping bag. Some nights I only see the corset bones that girdle her lungs, gleaming moon slivers in murky red sky, and I say a prayer for them, those pale canoe ribs, those pickup sticks that are all that cinch her in. I wish I could do that: I wish I could hold her together. Some nights I think she may fly away in all directions, north, east, south, west, a huge splatter. She will go so far so fast I will only be able to watch with my mouth fallen open. She’ll be gone, and all I’ll have is a big red mess to clean up and a sliver of rib sticking out of my eye.

2)

Quiver trees are weird enough anyhow, but add a Sociable Weaver nest and you’ve got a real visual pickle. Warty, sponge toffee boils, these bird condos of dry grasses have upwards of 100 different holes for individual families; the nests can house 400 birds. Interestingly, Sociable Weavers are polyamorous, even, apparently, with barbets and finches.

In Namaqualand, Cape Weavers go it individually. The males court females by weaving testicular-like sacs, and if a female remains unimpressed, the male builds a second sac under the first, and etcetera, until a wind knocks the whole shebang down.

Bird-land, human-land—it’s all pretty much just jostling to get and keep the girl.

3)

Some nights when my wife’s incision unzips, a rib extends and on it sits a yellow bird, swaying as if in a great wind, feathers ruffling to lemon combs. I love birds. It makes me happy to hear her song, the same way it makes me happy when my wife sings. (Once when we were fresh, my wife danced naked through our kitchen belting out girl group songs from the 60s.) The little bird warbles and trills, then launches off the rib to fly around our bedroom. She grabs a mosquito near my ear. She flits into the corners, around the light fixtures, and carries back bits of yarn pulled from sweaters, spiderwebs, plastic pricetag spears, dust bunnies. She constructs a nest, shivers down into it, and lays little gelatinous eggs, eggs that I trust, with a simple, guileless trust, will grow up to be lymph nodes for my wife. These bird nights, I am happy, so happy. On some inchoate level, I know the little yellow bird has our backs, and I drift off to trills of sugary bird song.

4)

I hang out on bird-lover websites, where questions abound: Why are my lovebirds changing colour? Aphids–my bird is okay with them, but I’m not? Lovebird feather plucking?

Feather loss, says Avian Web, is a difficult problem to cure when the picking behaviour is already established. Birds should be presented to Dr Marshall at the first signs of picking. My wife and I are feather-plucking. We didn’t go to Dr Marshall and maybe that’s our problem. Our relationship has thrush, bacteria, poor nutrition. My wife and I were once lovebirds. Once, for a nanosecond, We Two Were One. Then, for years, We Two Were One and A Half. Eventually, We Two Were Two. Now, the evidence suggests We Might Be Three.

5)

Birds enchant me. Once we took our daughter to a free flight aviary, the Lory Loft in Jurong Bird Park, Singapore. Having a 20-hectare hillside park entirely devoted to birds is guaranteed to make someone like me giddy. Lories are small parrots, and in the aviaries, as you whoop and wriggle and scream over suspension bridges high in the treetops, they land on you, they cover you. It’s as if the keepers are up on the rooftop squeezing tubes of oil paint, cadmium orange and cobalt blue and carmine and viridian, screechy territorial colours with a lot of wing flap and pecking.

Ornithologists at the park answer such questions as: Will an ostrich egg support the weight of an adult human? I grapple with this one: Will my human heart support the shifting weight of my wife’s loyalties?

6)

Foraging: The Way to Keep Your [Wife] Mentally Stimulated and Happy

It’s me that forages. Watch me some nights, thumbing through theatre tickets (Wicked! The Vagina Monologues! Avenue Q! My Year of Magical Thinking!) and museum exhibitions (Dali: Painting and Film; Picasso and Britain; Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own) and the detritus that falls from her scar, stirring through wind-up rabbits and plastic zombies and voodoo dolls that tumble free, all the secrets and suffering that she hoards deep inside.

What am I looking for? Something to eat, maybe. Bird seed. A steak.

7)

We met a woman in Namibia who lost most of one breast to a crocodile attack. She was a member of a polygamous tribe, the Himba, whose women wear only loincloths. She bent down at the river with her water gourd, breasts hanging as breasts will do after a bunch of kids, and a croc’s teeth snapped closed on the right one.

Who knows what this woman’s husband thinks when he takes her shriveled, croc-mangled right breast into his hand? Does he trace her history with reverence? Does he spit in disgust and choose another wife?

8)

There are local stories of wives who change in the bathroom, wear bras and prosthetics to bed, and husbands who shun them. There are stories of marital disintegration, and by that I mean what you probably assume: straight marriage. I don’t know the stats for queer marriage breakups after breast cancer. I do know that even after twelve years, when my wife or I drive past the Cancer Agency, not even thinking about what happened, on our way to other appointments and sometimes in the midst of great happiness, one or other of us will burst into tears.

9)

Vancouver has murders of crows, and our house is on their flight path. If you go outside in the dawn gloaming, such as when you are going for chemo, they fill a Hitchcockian sky with black shrieks, and if you could count them, you would run out of numbers before you’d run out of birds. Crows are not protected in BC, and their forest roost was recently ripped down to build a Costco; now tens of thousands roost in a tangle of electric wires and pallets of home building supplies. Their noise is deafening.

10)

Magic realism aside, my wife’s scar is really just a scar, plain, unremarkable, faded with time. (Plain, unremarkable. I tell you. Plain and unremarkable.) Here is the pedestrian truth: she is sort of concave there where her breast once was, a hollowed-out nest. She opted not to have a reconstruction. Her one breast is very small and she goes braless without a prosthetic, which is a loud story, actually, the only blaring part of the reality-struck, pedestrian story: she is obviously one-breasted, especially in t-shirts, and manly anyway, so people stare. Last week at an art opening, a little boy about seven stopped from a dead run and ran his eyes up and down her, up and down her, up and down her, trying to make her make sense.

(These days, I do the same thing, rake my eyes across her. The little boy is right: she no longer makes sense. She is always saying goodbye with her actions while she smiles hello with her lips.)

11)

My heart is a big old blood pump with places engorged like a balloon (I’ve got a big old cardiomyopathy for you, I tell my wife sometimes, but it’s actually heart failure.) My heart is giving up, and has necrotic spots like measles, dead bits which have been dead now for 25 years, what an anniversary: let’s have a cake and candles, happy necrosis to me!). Referring to my circulatory system, a cardiologist once said to me: The tree of you is dying. No doubt too many polygamous weavers? How does this feel for you? my therapist asked about our lives (relationship) going—yes—tits up, three tits up I guess, instead of four, and here is the answer, my letter to my pain: It feels exactly like my heart is failing. Right now it’s stuttering along arrhythmically, but it can’t pump through all these emotions and old, ruptured scars, so it may just keep engorging till I pop like a-

12)

Tumour?

13)

Once I co-owned a grey cockatiel named Hemingway. Hemingway would hop around my scapula and peck food from my teeth while molting grey feathers onto my breasts. He was a happy bird with a yellow comb, but he never, as far as I know, wrote a great story.

14)

At the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, my wife ran at ostriches while the wild Benguela current tossed waves on the beach. Ostriches have a nail on each of their feet that is capable of slicing a person open as efficiently as any surgeon’s blade. I was up on my toes with alarm, but the ostriches didn’t fight, they only ran, their stunted wings extended. Then the male turned and knocked my wife flat. He danced on her chest until his pea-sized brain got bored.

Just a game, just a game, she assured me afterwards, brushing off, none the worse for wear. I wasn’t really dead.

(This is a lie.)

15)

At Okonjima for cheetahs, I was fascinated instead by the hornbills—those bills and casques! Female hornbills use their droppings to seal themselves into their nests. I did this too, when my wife was diagnosed, but I used an alarm system instead of poop. I’m doing it again, now, but I’m using perimeter lighting, as if shining sunbeams into my wife’s shadows will keep my marriage intact.

16)

My wife’s skin is numb, did I mention that? That’s how her spirit must have healed from all that trauma (PTSD), don’t you think, with a big old numb spot? On the outside of her, cut nerves sometimes go crazy, like a pain orchestra, a violin screech, a flute shrill. Yowey. When I lay beside her and trail my finger across her chest, through her armpit, across the skin near her arm on her back, she can’t feel a thing. Here? I say and she shakes her head. Nothing. Here? Still nothing. Here? Nope. Here? Kinda, sorta, not really.

Does anyone ever really heal after being pushed out of the nest? Things repair, things scar, we go on, but eventually, we find ourselves in free fall anew. Our beaks impale the ground so we’re stuck flapping upside down like cat-lollipops. All the old wounds break open, the old puncture holes (insect bites, that time we fell off our bikes, the tendonitis, the hernia) ooze. We’re all leaking pain. We’re all bloody oozers, in the end, aren’t we?

17)

One night as I lie beside my wife, her chest opens and I watch Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. The acrobats use my wife’s ribs as tightropes; the contortionists bend double through her ribs and poke their heads back out, like Gumbies. The acrobat stacks chairs one atop another atop another atop another, and then climbs atop himself, fearless, while the chairs shake. I laugh aloud in pure childish glee, and my wife awakens, coughs, and resettles as the performer tumbles.

When he’s scurried away, I rest my cheek in my wife’s loss, my sudden weight causing her to panic and sit bolt upright. She rubs her eyes and peers at me. You have the imprint of a zipper on your cheek, she mumbles.

I reach up and touch the corrugations.

18)

I am at the “my this hurts” age, where “this” is really any body part you want to interject at random: ear, elbow, knuckle, knee, uterus. What relationship do I have to my pain? I find it hot like a combustion engine. I find it has very droopy eyes, and shoulders that slope. It sees me as prey, mostly, I’d guess, and comes at my heart with its little axe, cross-hatch, cross-hatch, like a Kite in the Serengeti dive-bombing to steal a sandwich from an unsuspecting tourist’s hands, talons gashing a cheek. What relationship do I want to have in the future with my pain? I want to be its gay divorcée.

19)

My wife drummed for a PSA a few weeks ago with a group of breast cancer survivors. A murder of breast cancer survivors, they freaked me out with their black feathers and cawing. I can’t handle what’s coming for them (for my wife). The prognosis for my wife’s breast cancer is good, but the last months she has had pain on swallowing, and the chant arrives in the rhythm of the children’s song: Eyes, ears, mouth and nose! Except for breast cancer mets it’s: Liver, lungs, breast and bone! I’m not sure what the song for infidelity is….okay, I am, but I can’t sing it here.

20)

Some nights my wife’s scar opens like Monet’s water lilies at L’Orangerie, a long wide strip of art that is all blue meditation and green silence.

Intending… to… heal, intones a monk in a saffron robe.

I must sit through my pain and gird my back. I must go into my pain and through and beyond my pain.

And come out into art.

My own rendition of my wife’s lost breast is sliced into sections and presented like upright pieces of toast, the tumour glowing in phosphorescence across five slides. Anatomical, direct, confrontational, weeping blood tears.

My Wife’s Breast, by Georgia O’Keefe: a striated red flower full of motion, a rib protruding at the nipple line. My Wife’s Breast, by Pablo Picasso: a spiral breast sprouting hair, a breast with an eye instead of a nipple, a tumour instead of his model’s head. My Wife’s Breast, by Emily Carr: breast as swirling dark tree, tumour as bird’s nest. My Wife’s Breast, by Savadore Dali: a breast sitting on a rib, melting, a clock face ticking down her remaining days. My Wife’s Breast, by Frieda Kahlo: my wife and I completely clothed, hand in hand, a large shadow to my wife’s left, our injuries showing through our t-shirts, a long red, swollen gash on my wife’s right side that pumps blood across a thick vein to my over-huge, engorged, arrhythmic heart while it pumps it back–a perfect silver tea service and a yellow bird in a cage of ribs to one side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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