Dancing Bear

An achingly beautiful dancing polar bear sculpted from a piece of light green serpentine. It is a sight to behold. The white specks in the stone have a slight bluish tint and the entire piece gleams in the sunlight coming through the window. The sculpture  simply radiates joy.

I am sitting quietly in the living room, aware of the beauty that surrounds me. Art of various kinds, ceramics, African and Indian wall hangings, sculpture and paintings. We are fortunate to have such splendour in our midst. The bear keeps me company and lifts my spirits.

It was carved by Joanie Ragee, a young man born in 1986 in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

He began carving in his early teens, watching his grandfather and uncles at work, all skilled craftspeople. He works in the traditional way; his favourite subject matter are animals – walrus, seals, birds and, most of all, polar bears. His work is now well-known and he is famous for his large polar bear pieces, made out of serpentine.

I try to teach my young grandchildren to appreciate the art in our home. Partly, this is a defensive move, as in, “don’t throw that ball in here, you could break something!” But it’s also to help them attune to what is beautiful in the world and to what might draw them to particular pieces.

Thank you Joanie Ragee for adorning our home with this wonderful, joyful work.

Book deal signed

I have signed a contract to have my collection of essays, “The Swirl in my Burl”, published by Adelaide Books in New York. Feels pretty exciting. What is a burl?

A burl originates from a tree that is stressed. It may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus. The burl is formed coming out of the side of the tree when the grain of the tree has grown in a distorted or unusual manner. It is a round knotty growth that when polished is full of swirls and beauty. There is an entangled splendour underneath the bark and craftspeople say that it can take thirty years for the burl’s full beauty to emerge.

The swirl of my burl is my life stories, my children, my joy and pain. Through my writing I shine a light on that jumble of memory, fact and emotion, searching for truth. Like my stories and myself, the burl wood grain is twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting. I look upon it with wonder as it teaches me to find strength in its misshapenness.

A dilemma

I’ve had two offers to publish my book “The Swirl in my Burl: Essays”. One is from a Canadian publisher and one is in New York. The deals they are offering are essentially the same. I am trying to figure out if a U.S. publisher will likely sell more copies than a Canadian one. If anyone has any experience in this, please let me know. Certainly it’s a nice dilemma to have but I need to resolve it quickly.

Discovering sex and pot at age 60

I am normally a somewhat shy individual, not in the habit of discussing my private life with the world. But who would have thought that at age 60 I would have an orgasm that shook my world? Not me. I had experienced a drought in that department for over thirty years. And then I smoked some pot, got together with my life partner of twenty years, and Bob’s your uncle. Enhanced libido and a lovely sexual response. What a great discovery!

It happened while we were on a canoe trip in the remote and beautiful Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. One’s senses are already piqued when canoeing and camping, the wilderness providing a delicious edge to everything. A little bit of pot thrown into the mix added a keener sensuality: the clear water felt silkier on my skin and the trees appeared greener, their canopy more majestic.

This was before pot became legal in Canada, but at that point I certainly wasn’t going to let a small legal matter stand in the way of a good orgasm. We returned home and got high from time to time, put on some sensual Latin music and went to bed. I began to enjoy sex more than I had in a long, long time. 

I remember talking to my older sister at some point during the demise of my first marriage. I must have complained about the lack of romance I was feeling then after ten years at it.  She pointed out to me that it was hard to feel romantic when you were busily cleaning hair from the bathtub drain and otherwise keeping everything going smoothly. I just figured sex would continue to simmer on a permanent back burner.

It didn’t help that I’d been on a variety of anti-depressants for over thirty years. They are known to dampen libido and sexual response and though I’d tried various remedies, nothing until marijuana had upped the ante for me. It was only now that I was rediscovering myself as a sexual being, with greater interest in pursuing an active sex life with my partner. It goes without saying, perhaps, that he was pleased by this surprising turn of events.

Then pot was legalized and I was able to get a prescription for CBD oil both for anxiety and one laced with a small amount of THC as a sleep aid. I tried them, very tentatively. Both seemed to help the respective issues for which they were sought.  My psychiatrist suggested that I only use very small amounts of the THC product, as there isn’t full research yet on its impact on the other drugs I must take.

I heed his caution and continue to use small amounts of pot from time to time. I now enjoy sex with my partner a great deal. I’m a bit like the lyric in Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Mama just wants to barrelhouse all night long.” Well, perhaps that an exaggeration. But you get the point.

So that’s my happy story. I tell it partly to suggest to people who must take antidepressants and other psychotropic medications that marijuana may be worth discussing with your care provider. It’s no replacement for a patient and generous lover, but can certainly add some spice. I can’t believe now that I waited thirty years for another orgasm to shake my world

Resources

I wanted to pass on some resources that I have been making use of in my pursuit of finding an agent and getting published. There’s a book called “The Ultimate Query Letter Tool Kit” that I found very useful. Also, in the same series, is “The Writer’s Relief Field Guide to Literary Agents: Find, Attract, Keep, and Manage Your Dream Agent.” I found both on Amazon and got them for about five dollars each as a Kindle book. Each one took about an hour or so to read through and provided lots of useful tips.

I continue to receive negative replies to my query/book proposal, although some of them have called the project “important” and “very interesting”. So maybe eventually I’ll hit upon someone whose interest is sparked enough to want to proceed with me. I’m not holding my breath!

The journey begins

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been sending out a book proposal to a variety of agents and publishers this week. So far I’ve received several rejections, some nice and others not so much. One agent wrote, “Not for me” and signed her name. A couple of others have said my writing is poignant or that it seemed like a compelling project but they’re not the right person to represent me. One helpful point made was that unless the essays had been published in highly visible magazines/journals, it will be difficult to break out a collection of them. I suppose they mean places like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Oh well. I’ll keep on truckin’ and hope someone is interested along the way. One needs a thick skin in this business!

My literary bio

Miriam Edelson is a neurodivergent social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, various literary journals including Dreamers Magazine, Collective Unrest, Writing Disorder, Palabras, Wilderness House Literary Review and on CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs” appeared in late 2005. She completed a doctorate in 2016 at University of Toronto focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace and is currently at work on a collection of essays. She lives with and manages the mental health challenges related to bipolar disorder.

Getting published

This month I have started upon the process of trying to find a publisher for a collection of essays. Some of those essays, previously published by various literary journals, are on this blog.

I’ve prepared a book proposal with all the relevant information and have sent it out to a few publishers and to several agents. Apparently if one wants to be picked up by one of the larger publishers, an agent is required. I’m given to understand that this is less true in Canada than in the United States.

So, we’ll see. I’ll document here on this blog any interesting twists and turns on this journey. Thanks for your interest.

Driving Miss Emma

My daughter Emma is straining to craft an identity separate from me. At 27, she is achieving this as she forges her life’s path. I admire that she is creating, designing with raw materials, making objects with her hands that are functional as well as beautiful. So different than my own, with its emphasis on the written word.

My girl is a woodworker, making her way in a world of craftsmanship. I trail behind her in the exotic wood emporium we visit occasionally to pick up her supplies. Proud as a peacock I watch her assessing the wood that she needs, measuring and sawing boards on forbidding, noisy machines. Cutting quite the figure in her tool belt and blue overalls, she tells me about the wood she has selected, the maple and softwoods and, of course, the burled wood on display.

She is now launched, mostly independent. There is some feeling of loss for me, but moreover, a feeling of pleasure and accomplishment that she has reached this moment. At home my kitchen, I touch a piece of jute cord that appeals to me in its sturdiness and heft. At one time, the link between Emma and me was strong and unbreakable like the rough, jute cord. Time passes and she matures, and she needs a less robust link with me to develop into herself. A soft yarn then serves to connect us. She thrives as the connection is lessened, until eventually, only a fine diaphanous thread dangles between us. Still enduring but not nearly so hefty or fragile.

Suddenly I recall that when she was a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, she was like my little sidekick. That changed over time, as her friends became more important to her. But I adored that closeness, “Oh Mommy, I have so much to tell you” she would say. I was her first confidante.

Now, I am not. And so, I strive to let go and to find my own place in this reconstituted order. I cradle a piece of burled wood in my city girl hands. Originating from a tree that was stressed, it is a round knotty growth that when polished will be full of swirls and beauty. I peel away the bark to investigate and marvel at the entangled splendour underneath. Craftspeople say that it can take thirty years for its full beauty to emerge.

The swirl of my burl is my life stories, my children, my joy and pain. Through my writing I shine a light on that jumble of memory, fact and emotion, searching for truth. Like my stories and myself, the burl wood grain is twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting. I look upon it with wonder as it teaches me to find strength in its misshapenness.

I need that strength. In my interactions with my Emma I am constantly trying not to overstep, to respect the boundaries that she erects. It can be painful. Sometimes the edges feel like barriers but they can also melt away, as malleable as the situation commands. 

***

I pick Emma up at the subway near my home. She is waiting there, slim, light brown hair tossed by the wind. It’s a late September day as we set off for Ithaca, New York in the Finger Lakes District, about four hours from Toronto. Anticipating almost two weeks together for adventure, family and travel, we are both in good humour and easy with one another. 

This has not always been the case. Earlier this year she pulled sharply away from me, not wanting any contact over a period of a few months. She was angry about something I’d done. It was a very painful interval, for both of us. By the time our road trip began we had healed somewhat, taken to seeing one another again and sharing aspects of our lives. The trip, I hope, will be a chance to cultivate and deepen our ease with one another.

The chair Emma designed and crafted, the primary reason for our trip, is braced safely in the back of the car. She conceived and built it at Sheridan College where she studied furniture craft and design. It is a unique piece, with an almost Scandinavian air, a fully wooden seat with no weaving or thatch. A beautiful, original rendering, it is now covered with care by an old grey baffled blanket. It awaits delivery to an exhibit space in Philadelphia. We wonder what we’ll be asked at the border, but they say nothing about the chair when I tell them we are on our way to visit my brother’s family there.

We meet my niece Sarah in Ithaca, where she is doing a doctorate in psychology at Cornell. First, we stop at the little air bnb I’d reserved and drop off our things. Then we walk along a few tree-lined streets to the famed Moosewood Restaurant. Sarah is gracious. Seven months pregnant, red-haired and still generously freckled, she seems quite radiant over dinner. As imagined, the vegetarian food is tasty and wholesome, a Seventies throwback for sure. I have most of their cookbooks and cherish fond memories of cooking from them in a co-op house with friends while at university. 

We talk about Sarah’s program of study and how she expects they will manage the baby’s first year, with her husband Peter still in Philadelphia. She is upbeat and looking forward to the challenges ahead. Emma tells her about the chair and also the woodworking course she will be doing in Maine in another week’s time. I am pleased to see Emma and Sarah kibitz and bond together during our dinner. We haven’t always had close relations with their family and I hoped Emma would feel closer to them. When we’re saying goodbye, Emma buys a pale green baseball cap that sports the Moosewood logo, and Sarah wishes us good luck for our upcoming visit with her parents in Philly.

We blow in to Philadelphia the next day about four in the afternoon, just as Speaker Nancy Pelosi is declaring publicly for the first time that the U.S. House of Representatives will engage in impeachment hearings of the president. My brother is glued to the television, citing the historic moment, only moving slightly to snarl at me that I shouldn’t have parked where I did. Lynne, his wife, makes soothing noises and the exchange does not boil over, as it often does. I move the car.

Emma and Lynne ferry the chair to the garage where it can continue to off-gas from its finishing products. We offer to help with dinner but are shooed away to our respective rooms to rest. Emma looks up a climbing gym nearby on Google maps and catches an Uber to work out for a couple of hours. Later, Lynne and I go for a much-needed invigorating walk in the community before dinner. Lots of old leafy trees and wide lawns are welcome indeed after two days of stressful highway driving. We work up a little sweat and the exercise helps bring me back down to earth. We talk about our kids, their lives and a little bit about the challenges of relationships with our respective partners.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of coffee, fresh berries and yogurt, we head into Philadelphia to deliver the chair. Lynne offers to drive, and so I do not need to navigate the city’s busy streets. We drive to the Center for Art in Wood in downtown Philadelphia. The Center interprets, nurtures, and champions creative engagement and expansion of art, craft, and design in wood. It is a beautiful, bright venue. Emma does a little dance on the sidewalk with the chair held up in her arms and we follow her in, Lynne and I snapping photos all the way. We joke that we are her “paparazzi” and the Center staff laugh as we enter. Mission accomplished. The chair is delivered safely to the show “Making a Seat at the Table: Women Transform Woodworking” and we can continue on our journey.  

We spend another relaxing night at my brother’s having a barbecue dinner out on the patio, and then set off the next day toward upstate New York where we will visit Storm King Art Center. It is a 500-acre outdoor museum located in the Hudson Valley, where you can experience large-scale sculpture under open sky. Since 1960, Storm King has been dedicated to stewarding the hills, meadows, and forests of its site and surrounding landscape. We walk through the countryside looking at the huge sculptures and learn how the facility nurtures a vibrant bond between art, nature, and people, creating a place where discovery is limitless. It is a fabulous afternoon in the open air.

The next day we venture to the gallery known as the Dia Beacon, also in upstate New York. Located in a former Nabisco box-printing factory, Dia Beacon presents Dia’s collection of art from the 1960’s to the present. It is a spacious gallery with very high ceilings and many impressive installations. We are playful, both enjoying this, as we snap photos of one another as we walk about the gallery. We’re having fun.

Emma is most taken by the work of American artist Richard Serra. Serra is one of the preeminent American artists and sculptors of the post-Abstract Expressionist period. His large-scale steel panel welded sculptures are remarkable and he suggests that art should be something “participatory” in modern society, that is, a gesture, or physical insertion into everyday life, not something confined to a cloistered museum space. “I love how you have to interact with his pieces and how sound, vision and space changes your mood depending on the undulations of each piece,” Emma wrote to me in answer to my questions about Serra. “Once when I was in Portugal where one of his large pieces is found, people were singing within the centre of the sculpture and it totally changed the experience.”

The following morning, we make our way to visit the Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. It is a former Shaker commune that was established by 1790 and active until 1960. It was the third of nineteen major Shaker villages established between 1774 and 1836 in New York, New England and other states. It is a nice day and we explore the different buildings and also walk on a path into the woods at the side of the village. The buildings represent all the trades that would have contributed to the village’s commerce, including a hardware shop and blacksmith. Emma looks carefully at the tools in the woodworking shop.

Then we head off to Boston to see another of my nieces, Kaitlyn and her family. She is Sarah’s older sister. It is not an easy drive into the core of the city where they live. Some of the time, Emma is irritated by my weaknesses. We’re in a busy parking lot. It’s early evening and I’m having trouble seeing the parking signs. I have to rely on her to point them out. “I practically have to drive the damned car,” she charges. So, I’m not perfect, I think to myself. I wish she was more generous in her attitude toward me. Besides, she could learn to drive!

We park on their street and meet Kaitlyn and Paul at home and have drinks and snacks together on the balcony. It is a pleasure to play with Maya, who is coming up to two years old. Kaitlyn, an obstetrician herself, is pregnant with their second child, and that makes for some interesting conversation as they wonder how they will fit everyone into their modest apartment. It was great to see Emma connect with Kaitlyn and I feel that one of my goals for the trip has been met. Adult friendships have been rekindled with her cousins. I hope they will keep in touch in future. Later we walk to a family restaurant and have a nice meal, before saying goodnight and returning to our air bnb.        

We then have a two days’ drive to Maine. I think a lot about my relationship with Emma and the tensions between us. We talk a little, but nothing earthshattering. That night we stay at a non-descript motel just off the highway. Emma goes to a climbing gym, leaving me to get settled and do some writing. 

When she gets back she looks at me and says suspiciously, “Did you take something? Your pupils are so dilated.” I feel hurt and say, “No, of course I haven’t”. I’m just feeling exhausted from all the driving and I suppose it shows in my face.  I wonder if she thinks I’ve taken my medications incorrectly. We amble over to the little store next to the gas station to pick up a few items. I am still smarting from her accusation. She seems to settle down after that, but we don’t talk about her hurtful remarks. I cannot cross the boundary line she has erected without fear that I might lose her again. The lack of power I assign myself in the situation saddens me.

The reason Emma chose to be so distant from me last year stems from a first-person piece that I broadcast on public radio about my battles with depression. I had disclosed a suicide attempt that I made when Emma was just a few months old. Unfortunately, I did not prepare her adequately for the broadcast and so it was the first time she heard of it. She was both hurt and angry at me and wanted to know why I had not told her this before. I felt awful about it, not quite believing myself that I’d been so negligent not to tell her in person about that dismal period, before it was broadcast to the world. But I was trying to protect her at some level, and it backfired. Big time. I did not know, during those awful months of separation, if I would ever get her back.

The next day we careen along miles of highways, stopping on the way for a delicious lobster tail sandwich, to reach Rockport Maine and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship by dark. It offers courses in furniture making and related skills such as carving, turning, and finishing and also houses the Messler Gallery whose mission is to advance design and craftsmanship in wood as a vibrant medium of expression. We arrive minutes to dusk and Emma gets her camping equipment out of the car and organized so she can spend the night here. I admire her gumption. She is excited to start her course the next morning. 

Once she has unpacked her gear, I continue on to Camden, the next town over, to locate my air bnb in the woods. I am looking forward to a restful few days as I am feeing quite anxious after so much highway driving and the underlying tension. I arrive at my much-needed pied à terre, park the car and unload. It is peaceful and still. My plan is to stay put, settle myself by walking every day, eating regularly and trying to write something.

I spend four quiet days in a lovely setting, warm against the elements. I listen to classical music on the local NPR station. I walk in the dense forest. The leaves are turning as Autumn arrives in Maine. The woman who runs the air bnb tells me that her late husband had been a woodworker, and was associated with the Center where Emma is taking her class. We marvel at how small the world is. 

I drive there one afternoon to drop off some rice for Emma and to see what she is working on. It is one of those funny moments in parenting where you realize that the kid who so wants so badly to be grown up and separate calls upon you for help with their day-to-day affairs. Not unlike that wonderful book for the parents of teenagers called something like, “Now leave me alone. But first will you drive me to the mall?” 

Emma shows me the pieces she has been working on, examples of multi-axis turning. I also take the opportunity to visit the Messler Gallery at the Center. It boasts several very accomplished pieces of work in wood and clay. 

Five days later, I’ve scribbled many pages of notes. I’m a bit frustrated that I haven’t yet completed a more coherent piece. Emma comes and stays with me the last night so we can get up early for the long trip to Montreal the next day. At one point, we stop to relieve ourselves in a forest alongside the road. When it’s my turn, a woman yells from behind the trees, “Hey! It’s not a rest room.” I call back to her “It’s an emergency,” and then we scurry away down the highway. When we cross the border into Quebec in the mid-afternoon, the customs agent wants to make sure we don’t have any marijuana. This strikes us as kind of funny and we share a chuckle. We continue to downtown Montreal so that Emma can visit her haunts and perhaps see a friend. A while back she had lived there for a year while studying dance. I elect to stay in the hotel room and read. 

In the morning we walk to a nearby café for a coffee and croissant before leaving the city. We talk about our respective evenings the night before. It is another six-hour drive before we’ll be home safely in Toronto. The ride is unremarkable, along the familiar 401 route. We are mostly quiet, listening to podcasts. When I drop Emma off at her house late that afternoon she does not hug me goodbye. I feel very sad about that, hurt and a bit irritated. I’ve just driven her thousands of miles at not inconsiderable expense and I barely get a thank you. 

It seems now with my adult daughter that I am always seeking to achieve a balance with her — between closeness and separation. It’s a tango of sorts, a passionate dance, and I don’t know the steps in advance. I am trying to let her go and I feel she is also seeking an equilibrium with me. It’s a dynamic process, sometimes hurtful, sometimes rewarding.

She is the swirl in my burl. Tapping a creative thread nurtured in her since always, she is becoming proficient in her chosen craft. A sphere so different from her parents’ vocation. In awe of her trajectory, I feel enormous pride as she launches away from me and moves through the world. Worry from our road trip slips away now. Unlike the tree when its burl is hacked away, she’s going to be all right.