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Archive for March, 2018

I am forever looking up art galleries and museums when I’m traveling to new cities. I was in Calgary for a poetry reading with the Flywheel Reading Series (established by Filling Station Magazine) this past weekend, so I knew I wanted to visit the Glenbow Museum. It’s a fabulous place, but add in the lure of an exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s home photos and, well, I was bound to find it.

Kahlo’s father was a professional photographer, so she grew up around cameras. I’m assuming, too, that as a visual artist, other artistic mediums would appeal to her. As a writer who is inspired by visual art and photography, by images, I can see how this connection would also appeal to a visual artist.  The Glenbow exhibit includes 241 photos of the 6500 images that were revealed to the public in 2007 by the Frida Kahlo Museum. These 241 photos are fascinating, but I left the museum wanting more, mindful of how much I am drawn to Kahlo’s life story. (Her work intrigues me, but I can imagine that such brilliant work would have been the result of a unique woman who would’ve been interesting to talk to over a cup of tea. I’d say the same of other creative women who inspire me as a writer. They would include women like Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Emily Carr, and Leonora Carrington….and then I’d probably throw Maud Gonne into the mix because I find her to be a Yeatsian paradox of the highest order! Now, that would be some dinner party…)

What struck me most about this exhibit, and there were plenty of photos to look at on Saturday morning, were the photos that documented Kahlo’s life after her tram accident.  Her love of theatre, and costuming, too, intrigues me. She became an artistic subject, the ‘leading lady,’ really, in her own life, and in a life which she created as a sort of living mythos. I don’t know how many artists do this, take (and paint) their self-portraits to such an prolific extent. I think, somehow, of Emily Carr, and of how there are plenty of iconic historical photos of her, some of my favourites being the ones with Woo, her pet monkey.  Still, she really didn’t paint herself into those beautiful, raw British Columbia forests she so loved to capture in colour.

The thing about Frida is that her accident changed the way she viewed (and lived in) her physical body. If you think of how complex women’s relationships are with their bodies, and then you add something like chronic pain and amputation to the mix, I can imagine the story a woman would tell herself would be a source of creative material. This sounds rather sadistic, but as a writer, I think it wouldn’t be too far fetched for a woman to feel out new ways of being and experiencing the world through her physical body, even if it’s so badly wounded. It is, after all, still her body.

Kahlo’s tram accident, when she was just eighteen, broke her body.  As Mauricio Ortiz writes in an essay titled “The Broken Body,” the effects of the tram accident included: an abdomen “pierced by an iron bar…” and “her elbows, spine, pelvis, right foot and right leg were fractured in various places.” Ortiz goes on to say that her life was complex, indeed. She had a miscarriage and two surgical abortions, as well as suffering from alcoholism, nicotine addiction, and anorexia. Kahlo died in 1954, at 47 years of age, under suspicious circumstances that point to suicide. One can only imagine the body and breadth of art work that would have been created after such a young age, if she had only lived longer. But one can also imagine the intense and constant pain she must have suffered from after her accident.

There are a number of Kahlo paintings that speak to her physical agony. They are well known. The photographs are so raw, though.  There are the ones where she is draped over herself in a hospital bed in New York City, in 1946, her long hair obscuring her face, but her hands are clasped together in a pose that evokes a keen sense of despair and defeat. The photo of her head in traction, taken in 1940 in Mexico City, depicts a woman who stares directly and defiantly into the camera lens. She wants to make you feel her discomfort, so that you can imagine and feel how trapped she was in that body of hers.

And then there are the photos of her painting in bed, a canvas rigged up above her head, her right arm raised and her head still in traction. It looks painful, definitely, but you can see from her face that she delighted in creating paintings. It was a way to escape from the physical pain, her creation of art. In 1953, she dealt with the onset of gangrene in her right foot. This was the year she lost her right leg and foot to an amputation just below the knee.

I had known of Kahlo’s amputation before seeing “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” at the Glenbow Museum last weekend. For me, amputation has a strong personal connection. My mother suffered from vascular issues and gangrene in the year before she died, and had a trans-metatarsal amputation of her right foot. She was bedridden for the rest of her life, directly as a result of that amputation. In my experience, physical amputation is unlike any other pain, but I can only say this from close observation. The psychological effect for a woman, of having part of a foot or leg taken off, is damning. The importance of the human foot, which we often won’t spend time thinking about, is key to all ambulation. We balance on the balls of our feet, we wiggle our toes, we swirl our ankles in circle when they are stiff. We walk. We dance. We shuffle. We don’t think about our feet, really, until we lose them.

In Frida’s case, she wore beautiful long skirts to hide her damaged legs and feet. In the case of modern amputation, people will bandage up body parts in gauze and try to hide the carnage. When you see the state of an amputated foot, with toe bones emerging from an unhealed forefoot, well, you can imagine that being bedridden is often par for the course. In a diary entry dated March 11, 1954, Kahlo wrote: “My leg was amputated six months ago. It feels like years of torture, and I have almost lost my mind at times. I still feel like killing myself…I’ve never suffered more in my life. I’ll wait a little longer.” The despair is there. How could it not be? This does not, either, take into account the surreal experience of phantom limb pain, and of how the amputee must deal with pain in a part of the body which no longer exists. The mind plays cruel tricks…

Before the amputation, though, Kahlo’s photos in hospitals are interesting because she juxtaposes images of chronic pain with images that are highly seductive. There is one photo, taken in New York City in 1946, where Kahlo is on her belly. Her face is tilted towards the camera, her hair cascading around her shoulders, one hand on the pillow next to her, and her back is partially bared. What changes this photograph from being one of pain to being one that is almost sensually charged is that she looks directly at the camera. This, in itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. She seemed to like looking directly into camera lenses. There is, though, a sense of something secret in her gaze, a sparkle, a bit of seduction, as if she is owning her sexuality despite her brokenness. There’s a great sense of spirit and rebellion in this pose and photo. She is not “done” in this photo. She is still fighting. It comes eight years before the pain became too much and before the morphine became the better lover.

And then I will come to Susan Sontag’s fabulous book, On Photography, which I’m reading right now. (It’s funny how books come to me when I most need them to…all divine timing and serendipity of the highest order.) Fiddling with notions of Kahlo’s broken body in my mind, and of how women view their physical bodies, and of how men view women’s bodies through the infamous ‘male gaze,’ and jotting down lines for some ekphrastic poems that will investigate these notions, I was sitting in Pages Bookstore in Calgary on Saturday night, right up next to a shelf of books. My friend, Calgary writer and editor, Sandra McIntyre, ran her fingers along a shelf, found one, pulled it out, passed it to me, and said, “Oh, Kim! Have you read this? By Sontag? Not just a book about photography, but a piece about art. You’d love it.” So, this is the way I have come to spend time with Susan Sontag this week: during a delay in the Calgary Airport, sitting with a cup of cinnamon tea on a Wednesday night after listening to a poetry reading in Windsor, and reading next to a snoring shih tzu who is pretty much totally blind now.

First released in the early 1970s, a lot of what Sontag writes about is now even more timely, especially given how even the most inept among us can ‘point and click’ our iPhone camera and seem to be Instagram-worthy world renowned photographers. As she wrote in the 70s, “To photograph is to confer importance.” This works for me, as I am forever taking and posting photos of trees on my Instagram account. Well, trees, dogs, skies, bodies of water, and also abandoned houses. These are the things that seem to draw me in, as a viewer, a human, and as a poet. I gather images when I photograph things. I pull my car over on back roads, or I have my friend, Jen, stop the canoe when I see the sun hitting a high ridge of rock near Killarney in a soul-stirring way. (I can be an annoying hiking or canoeing partner…gathering images….always exclaiming “Oh, my God! So beautiful!”) So. All that is to say that I confer importance on the natural landscapes into which I choose to enter. I don’t really like cities, but give me the woods, or a lake, a brilliant sunrise or sunset, or just a general preponderance of trees…and I’m lost. As Sontag writes, the compulsion to photograph something is a way “to turn experience itself into a way of seeing.” Yes. I get that. A lot. I also see my love of photography as a way to remember things I’ve experienced, a log of my life’s moments. Maybe some will transform themselves into lines of poetry, or find themselves in a short story or novel or on stage in a play, but I mostly just want to see where I’ve been, to capture that essence in memory. Social media just serves as a way to archive or catalogue, I guess…and if a few friends stop by along the way, that’s okay, too.

So, when I think of Frida Kahlo’s collection of old family photos, and then of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I think about how images work, how we notice things that begin to gain our attention, our “poignant longings for beauty” as she says in her essay, “In Plato’s Cave.”  (This is probably why I like William Morris and his views of art and beauty, and of aesthetics, but that’s another blog.) When Kahlo pressed a lipsticked kiss to the back of a photo or two, or cut out the faces of someone who hurt her heart, I can imagine she was a woman who lived her life fully, despite the physical limitations she dealt with after that fateful tram accident.

I’m drawn to Kahlo’s notion of the female body as broken (due to injury, or maybe even to the rhythms of life itself), whether that is visible or (in)visible. I’m also drawn to the way in which she speaks to a woman’s sense of her own sensuality and how it never really leaves you, even when you think it might have. It’s always there, just under the surface of things, waiting to emerge. Sometimes, too, when you think you’re whole, you really aren’t….and when you’re broken, well, that “brokenness” might be the best teacher you’ve ever encountered. And maybe, just maybe, we become whole by working through our brokenness. I kind of like that idea. It works for me.

peace,

k.

 

 

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I’ve written before about my battle with depression, anxiety, and weight. If you’ve known me for a while, it’s not a secret; the person I was in 2008 is (thankfully!) not the person I am ten years later. There are three reasons for this, I think. One is Zumba, one is writing, and one is yoga. All three led me to step into myself with a passionate abandon. (Sometimes, I think I’m too intense now, so full of wonder and a bit scary that I lose people along the way…but, then, I think, maybe they weren’t meant to be on the journey with me for the long term. We all have our paths. I learned that in yoga class.) When I lost weight through Zumba and hiking, or walking, then yoga got easier. I had less fat to bend over. I felt stronger. I felt graceful and beautiful. I felt centred.

Here’s the tale of Zumba…with thanks to Zumba Vibe Sudbury. Owned by Christina Chicoine, this group of dynamic instructors has somehow woven themselves into my life in varying degrees, and a few are dear friends now. So, to Christina, Danielle, Brigitte, Mary, Martha, Julie, and Tor, I owe so many expressions of thanks. And this is why:

I came to Zumba in January 2012. My father had died just a week prior to this, and my friend, Pat, dragged me to a school gym in Coniston. I still remember it. I was overmedicated with anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sleeping pills, and Ativan on the side. I had gained a lot of weight on Remeron, the only anti-depressant that seemed to pick up my mood. (I remember a very intense affair with trail mix in the middle of nights…while my mum was bedridden in 2008 and then again when my dad was dying through 2011-12. Not a good scene. I still can’t look at trail mix. I can eat the bits separately, but not together.) So, that night in January 2012, I weighed 230 lbs. I was a Size 18. Yup. I wasn’t dedicated to dancing, then. I did, though, start Weight Watchers and, over a year or two, went from a Size 18 to a 14. The last time I weighed myself, I was somewhere around 182lbs. That was in February 2016.

That year was my first “Year of No Fear.” It was monumental. I took a semester off from teaching and focused on my writing. I went to Banff to work on my historical novel. I went to Pelee Island to write and fell in love with the beauty that is Lake Erie. (I still feel like I’m cheating on Manitoulin Island when I’m there…but I’m hoping Manitoulin doesn’t mind!) I became the poet laureate of Sudbury. I stepped into dancing and yoga with a new kind of commitment.

During my time as laureate, I worked part-time, teaching two English classes instead of three each semester. This allowed me to get out into schools to hang out with kids and teachers, and to talk about poetry.  I thought working part-time would give me more time to write, but I actually ended up doing a lot more planning and marking than I thought I would. My evenings, though, became freer, so I was able to dance at night more often. On average, I was dancing about four to five hours a week, and then I added Pound to the mix, with at least one class a week.

From 2016-18, then, I went from a Size 14 to what I am now, an unfathomable Size 8. I don’t weigh myself. I don’t care. What I do care about is my health. I’ve been off anti-depressants and other such drugs since about April 2016. That was the tail end of being medicated. That was also the tail end of me listening to my broken mind. I believed the stories that it told me twenty-four hours a day: that I was not worthy of happiness or love, that I was ugly, that I was obese and so should be quiet and invisible, and that I should just be ‘accepting’ of what my life was like after caring for my parents for a decade. My thirties, I thought, should have been mine…but I lost them. Now, though, I can see that everything does happen for a reason. My caring for my parents, and my being very ill with major depression at the same time, served as a catalyst for my own evolution.

Ten years ago, I was suicidal. I was obese. I was caring for a bedridden mother with gangrene and a transmetatarsal amputation who didn’t want to speak to me (even though I fed and nursed her) and was angry that she was dying. I was managing a dad who was in failing health. Ten years ago, I was very very close to erasing myself. I remember taking the dogs for a walk, the only way out of the house I shared with my parents, and thinking, “If I didn’t have the dogs, I could just walk in front of that car. It would be fast.” So…I knew enough to take the dogs for walks. I kept at it. I tried to save my mum. It didn’t work. I tried to save my dad when he fell on a fishing trip in 2009 and became a quadriplegic. It didn’t work. Now, in 2012, after he died, I knew the only person I could ever really save would be me. It would be hard work, but I would do it. This would be about weight, on the surface, but it would also be about living with passion and mindfulness, with great compassion for others, with poetry, and with a really keen  awareness of how there could be light after darkness.

Now, please know I am not advocating that people who are struggling with mental health issues just go off their meds. I was on and off meds for a number of years, for most of my adult life, but especially between 2007 and 2016. I always worked with my psychiatrist (when I had one) and my family doctor. It was a delicate dance. A painful one, too. There was an episode of massive anxiety due a work issue between 2014-2016 that caused me to have chest pains. That time, no depression, but anxiety, and a visit to an emergency ward thinking that I was having a heart attack. Nope. But that then led to a thrice daily timed dose of Ativan, while I was teaching, with me trying to stand up straight, fight vertigo, migraines, and nausea, and make my lips form the right words. I didn’t fool anyone. I was too broken.

The leave to write, in Feb 2016, released me from the stress of that oppressive work issue, removing me from the source of the pressure. (When people say that bullying doesn’t happen in adult workplaces, they would be wrong. It does. And it’s insidious, secretive, manipulative, and can make you feel broken, especially if you’ve dealt with stigma. People who know you’ve struggled and gotten better can then use your past history to make you feel crazy again…and it’s like a re-victimization of a sort. It can break you.) Or you can break it. I chose that last one…

I’ve often heard that people’s health journeys begin with a wake up call of sorts. For me, it was having lost my thirties to caring for two very ill parents. Both of them didn’t exercise, drank too much alcohol, ate badly, were obese, and just weren’t connected with people. My mother, in particular, pulled in. She pushed people away. When she was dying, it was worse. My father was social, but deferred to my mother, so the house in which we lived while I was their main caregiver was made smaller and smaller. It was like living inside a box, with no way to open the lid. Suffocating.

My mother died in December 2008, just before Christmas. My dad died in 2012, just after Christmas. (December is a bad month for me. I turtle. My friends know I surface in mid-January.) So, my catalyst was the notion that I had lost ten years of my life. I had confused love with duty. Now, well, it was time to stop hiding behind layers of fat and eating emotionally to fill voids that I didn’t want to address. Therapy and healing is hard work. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. It would have been easier to have committed suicide, if I’m honest about it. But that wasn’t my path. Instead, I wanted to sculpt my life. Zumba did it.

Zumba did it…but there were some amazing women who helped me believe that I could do it. I didn’t do it alone. They led me. Now, I’m less afraid. I don’t know if they know it or not, but they should, so I’m writing it here. They helped me be fearless. I’m brave now. I remember the time Mary saw me having a panic attack, a few years ago in the back of one of the school gyms, because I didn’t have enough space. I was about to leave, but she came back there, her arms open, and pulled me next to her in a row where there was space. She didn’t know, and I hope she does now, but she was the one who made me stay on when I was about to give up. There’s Martha, who yelled out, “Squeeze! Core tight! Blue dress!” (knowing that I was now in love with dresses because I could wear them without looking pudgy…but more sleek and confident). Then there’s Julie and Victoria. These two, oh well, they are like magic. Last month, knowing I was readying to leave for my writing retreat and that I was still wearing clothes that were too big for me, Tor said, at the end of one class: “Look. You and I can fit inside your coat! There’s something wrong about this! You need to buy new clothes. You need to give the old ones away.” And so, she and Julie came for supper one night and then I had a great deal of rum and pineapple juice, and watched as they vetted my closet. It came down to this. I felt a bit naked, vulnerable, afraid. Tor knew. “Why are you hiding now? You need to come out and stop hiding. These clothes hide you. No more.” And so, I sat on my bed, a little bit drunk, while they went through and ruthlessly pulled out anything higher than a Size 10 or a Medium. Julie was the one who was most ruthless, and Tor was the one who tossed the big clothes onto the floor at the end of the bed. I just sat there, a bit frantic inside. Tor knew. “You okay?” I nodded. “Yup. It’s just a bit like leaving behind part of yourself, though…”

I’ve taken this semester off to write, but this time, I’m going down to the Windsor-Essex area, so I can sit on my favourite beach on Point Pelee National Park, and touch some of the most beautiful trees that I’ve ever seen on the planet, and walk down those lovely trails by myself, and figure out how my next novel will evolve. I know, in my heart, where it’s heading. The characters have been nudging me for months now, waiting for this retreat to come to the front of my head and heart. They’ve been patient. I’ve been nervous. Stepping into yourself takes more courage than I imagined. It means that you now value yourself enough to give yourself the time to write, to trust that you can do that hard creative work, and that you will need the time away from your home to get centred and focused.

All this is to say that dancing, especially Zumba, has changed my life. I’ve already figured out where to take classes when I’m away…but it won’t be the same. My friends won’t be there. I’ll miss them horribly. These women have become part of my family. (I don’t really have much of a family, so they are a large part of it, if I’m honest…) I’m coming back home in late April for a couple of weeks, to attend literary things, and to do a bit of yard work, and to hike The Crack in Killarney with my friends Jen and Brad. I’m also going on my first three-day canoe trip with some kids from school. I’ve fallen in love with canoeing and swimming in lakes…all because I have a strong body now. I can see trees. I can hear birds. I’ve fallen in love with landscape that I could never enter into before, all because I was too fat and not fit enough to carry a canoe over my head, or jump off a Killarney island and go swimming in the North Channel. Dancing has done all of this, too…given me a new way of being in the world.

I’ll find a ceili dance in Windsor if it kills me, too, so that I can feel the music that I most love, that true traditional Irish stuff, move through me. Sometimes, I teach myself what I try to teach my girls at school: you need to go beyond your comfort zone, and you need to stretch out and then also go inside yourself to find out what you’re made of. For me, it’s about trusting that I am valuable enough to take time to write this novel, on my own, and on the edge of a lake that I love more than any other I’ve ever encountered in this lifetime. (Who knew…you could fall in love with a lake and a sky and a murmuration of birds?)

So…to anyone who says that you can’t refashion yourself, that you can’t –with a bit of very hard work and focus — sculpt a new life…ignore them. It’s up to you, really, to pick up your own life and make it vibrant and beautiful. If people don’t want to come along, well, it’s their loss. You’ll find those who resonate with you more truly as you journey. You’ll know them because they will smile when you come to Zumba class, hug you as you leave, and smack your ass after a particularly feisty salsa or meringue, proud to share your progress and success with you.

I’m going to miss my Zumba family for the next six months…but I’m thankful for FaceTime and my phone. I love them…more than they know. They really did save me…I hope they know that. I do.  Because of them, well,  I’m strong. I’m graceful. I’m beautiful. I’m here. Fully present (Maybe now…they will…) I love you people…in case I get hit by an ore truck.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

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