Jane Eaton Hamilton

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

Tag: marriage

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.

 

Edie and Thea–marriage and disability

Edie and Thea, a movie still

A lot of you know I was one of the litigants who sued Canada’s federal government in 2000 for the right to marry my queer, long-term partner. I’m not a big booster of marriage in general, given its roots in female ownership, and some of its current reflections of same, but I found it offensive that a group of people had been systematically excluded from a civic right available to the rest of the population. I worked with lawyers barb findlay and Kathleen Lahey toward our ultimate success June 8, 2003 and was fortunate to be sitting in the Supreme Court of Canada when Beverly McLaughlin’s court changed our constitution to reflect the new, inclusive law.

Until 2003, you didn’t have the right in Canada, if you were queer, to decide whether or not to marry. We’ve had the right to make up our own minds about marriage for 14 years less a week now.

Heterosexuals changed their minds about us, recognizing our humanity because they recognized the similarity of our vows. Hets spoke marriage and so we began to have a dialogue toward reconciliation and safety.

Why that matters, still, is that we can’t be entirely safe without allies. We can’t fight the battles ahead, which I fear may start grim and devolve, without having each other’s strength and courage to lean on. There are a lot of incidents mentioned in the news now where a straight person stopped an attack we couldn’t stop.

While recognizing that marriage is a flawed institution that evolves in contemporary but still flawed ways, I believe that, all in all, marriage has nevertheless been a great plus for my community. Yes, we got corporatized and gawd knows our Pride marches got taken over by big business and the various arms of the military. But we can stop participating in where that’s gone. We can make our own community Pride again, particularly in support of BLM. We can wrest Pride away from the forces which overtook it and say, again goddammit, This is ours.

People in the community still diss the litigants for ruining queer culture (many of the people who lobbed this charge at us then took advantage of equality to get married themselves). But I watched the magic of visibility unfold as I attended a rash of friends’ weddings, then witnessed for couples from Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, the US, New Zealand, the UK, France, countries in Africa and more.

One of the couples who availed themselves of Canada’s changing marriage laws was Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, a longterm couple from the US, memorialized in an eponymous movie. I wanted to mention them not because their love was long, or solemnized at its end by marriage, but actually because Thea, one of the two, was from her forties disabled, using various canes and then a wheelchair, and the movie was filmed entirely from this later vantage point, making it a study of love and disability, valuable for people with disabilities and the people who love/care for them.

People may know that I am in and out of wheelchairs, and utilize scooters and walkers. I have thought a lot about whether my disability is a burden (my wife left our marriage declaring that life with disabled me was “1/4 of a life”) and I have decided that no, it isn’t. That the part of me that believes it is is the shamed part that the able-bodied seek to disempower, who finds different to be lesser. I am not lesser. I am not less intelligent. I am not less kick-ass. I am not less talented and skilled as a writer.

I am just not always able to get to the podium, is all, because you able-bodied people insist on repeatedly making that a hard thing for we disabled people. Even today this happened again, for readers and audience in Toronto, though replacing the inaccessible venue only took two hours in the end. (But does the new choice have a safe enough ramp? “Nothing without us,” is part of CripCanLit’s pledge. Please invite us into the discussion before you choose your venues.) Read Nine Phrases Allies Can Say When Called Out Instead of Getting Defensive.

But not to get distracted. My point here is that the person who gave my ex-wife 1/4 of a marriage–if indeed that’s what I had–was not me, but in fact the woman who perceived it as such. Witness how Edie handled it instead.

The movie Edie and Thea shows how to love completely and endearingly while loving someone seriously disabled. And I admired it, and the two of them and the filmmakers, for giving all of us a template on how to do this.

 

Bird Nights, a short story

 Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 1.42.23 AM

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph

 Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 3.15.37 PM

fragment: Vincent Van Gogh; photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2015 Norton Simon Museum

 

Photograph

My wife painted a fresco on one wall of our living room and now my wife needs surgery on her hands. Those two things are not related. Her nerves were not damaged by plaster and pigment work; her problem, the doctor says, is intrinsic, a degenerative disorder that robs her of tactile sense and causes her pain.

My wife’s name is Mary. You have probably seen her signature on canvasses but if you haven’t it doesn’t matter. I wish no one did; I wish my wife had never sold a painting, not one painting.

There are words I wish I had never heard, too: chartreuse, I wish I had never heard the word chartreuse. Turquoise is another one. That word turquoise goes right inside me; that world turquoise is a bad word. Vermilion. Is there any other word in the English language that goes to work on a man the way vermilion does?

The world is filled with unpredictability. Things wait around corners; words lie in wait around corners. Once I was a boy and I lived with a mother and a father and all that waited around corners for me was love; I wasn’t surprised for the first time until I was eleven and came around one corner too many and there was my mother and there was a stranger and kissing.

I am a man who appreciates a good kiss. I like a good kiss as well as the next man. What man wouldn’t appreciate a kiss? An excellent kiss can make a man overlook corners and words like chartreuse. This is just the way of things. In this world a wife and a kiss and a sunset make a fellow stop. They make a fellow stop in his tracks just outside some doorway and they make his eyelids widen.

Let us say the sunset seen through the window was chartreuse.

Let us say my wife Mary was kissing someone else.

Let us say her damaged hands were against the breasts of an artist named Diane.

This is the truth.

The truth is two women were kissing and Diane’s shirt was undone and her breasts were bare. My wife’s hands fit Diane’s breasts perfectly; I saw how well they fit. They fit so well an artist could have drawn the four as parts of one body.

One of Diane’s paintings is of a vermilion figure poised on the edge of a globe, bending over. My wife Mary’s fresco is turquoise.

This is just how it happens, a man turns one corner too many in his life and then it happens, that kiss, and he doesn’t know how to act or what to say or how to impart one color, the one he saw, black. He hits his chest with the flat of his hand over and over, he does that.

Here is a photograph: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a sculpture: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a story: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a sunset and a fresco. Here is a painting by a woman named Diane. Here I am. Here is my wife, Diane.

In the photograph I age and age. Soon I am fifty. Soon I am eighty-four. Soon I am a hundred and two. I am lucky to be so old, such a very old man with a thin windpipe.

Full Grown Batterers

JEHnudeD

Jane Eaton Hamilton sketch 2014

Of all the topics I’ve had at my fingertips, perhaps none has been as difficult for me to write personally about as being battered over 18 years.  I remain highly embarrassed that I went through this; I ought to hand in my feminist credentials and have them retroactively scrubbed.  I ought to hand in my lezzie activisit credentials while I’m at it.

Yes, I’m a feminist.  Yes, I’m an activist.  Yes, I was battered.  Yes, I stayed.

Yes, I accepted a certain base-line of violence into my marriage and would have gone on staying the rest of my life.  That’s the dumb truth of it.  I adored her; I would have stayed with her forever.

Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers

 

 

Oh, bloody hell…

Trying like stink to write a mini essay for the CBC contest today and instead I get fiction.  Here is the first paragraph of what may well go nowhere, and what in any case does not further the cause:

“The starlings have landed, hustling their backyard suet.  Go murmur, birds, he thinks, go roil in the sky like magnetic shavings, go sweep the clouds, because in a lick, a gobble, an ingurgitate, the beastlings have devoured the two new cakes of sunflower seeds, millet and cranberries.  Bastards, he thinks, and listens to them chatter.  They sound smooth and watery, calm and reassuring, which they are certainly not, not starlings, not the assholes of the avian world, anymore than he, anymore, is the husband he once promised he’d be.”

UPDATE:  I did get a non-fiction piece, finally, called “Battery” about the factory farming of chickens, and no further on the story, above.

Poems–it’s a good feeling

Today I found an old file with numerous unfinished poems in it, and I was able to rescue three of them.  One about the water crisis in Walkerton, ON, and the other two about sex in long term marriages.  It is really satisfying to come across something salvageable like that.  Playing around with them made me think both about contaminated water and contaminated marriages, and realize how dependent we are on maintaining the health of both.

I don’t have a history of rescuing old works, so this feels good.

 

%d bloggers like this: