Bernice Friesen: News
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READING: MAE WEST
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Finally off to the printer, here comes my fourth book and second novel with Freehand Books, Calgary, thanks to so many, including Stephanie Sinclair, my agent at Transatlantic, The Saskatchewan Arts Board, and The Canada Council. I’ll be launching somehow, on-line or otherwise in the fall, however I can in this new viral world–and thank goodness books are still safe entertainment!
The colour, the texture, even the shape–as if it had plopped out of the can to be sliced–I knew I’d seen it somewhere before.
And then it came to me.
That head is Spam all the way through.
Sewing leather wrecks your hands. But what are you supposed to do when you find yet another second hand leather coat that fits you perfectly, except of course for the perpetual problem of the sleeves being too short?
You try to put on cuffs using just rivets, and some left-over black leather from a pair of mangled pants.
And no pins either. Once a hole is in leather, it’s there forever.
Many of my clothing revisions have been made as one would make a collage – no pattern or measurements, just a lot of eye-balling and hands-on-material. This worked more or less with the rivet challenge, though the pieces aren’t perfectly lined up and one added triangle of leather buckles out a bit too much.
But no need for physiotherapy afterward.
More and more, I’m beginning to think there is a strong similarity between making something “work” aesthetically, and making something work materially – and I mean making matter – stuff – work. I think visual artists would probably do very well at motor vehicle mechanics.
Around the neck, I added the rose wreath that I made for my first Revisionary leather dress that I’ve only won once because I feel upholstered in it — more like a bucket seat than a human being.
I like that line, and it’s mine, so I’m using it again.
I’ve been on blog strike, attempting to actually get my Exhibition blog form published in a real (paying) literary magazine. Success at last, and here it is, as published in Prairie Fire out of Manitoba:
My ex-boyfriends rise up out of the Saskatchewan dustbowl like ghosts behind me. I painted them like this in 1988 at the age of twenty-one, and now this painting haunts me from the wall: an intense red and ochre self-portrait, the men swirling and indistinct.
I was living in Brownlee Saskatchewan, taking care of Mrs. Nellie P., who was ninety. She came to Canada to visit her WWI war-bride friend and wound up marrying one of the local boys — one of the ones who were waiting at the train station to get a look at her the moment she arrived. She lived the rest of her life in the dustbowl, where I found myself seventy years later, at about the same age.
I had just finished my final year of art school, working as the printmaking studio lab assistant, mounting my BFA show in the middle of a professor’s strike, and getting drugged at a party during my final exams and ending up in the emergency ward. The perk of my summer job was being able to paint in the old Brownlee bank building, which belonged to Nellie’s grand-daughter.
Nellie was suffering the first effects of Alzheimer’s disease. She kept searching for her purse, unplugging all the appliances — fires in the walls, you know – and was always worrying about something, maybe everything, that she had lost or was about to lose. Away from my friends and family, away from my boyfriend who was travelling in Europe, Nellie became my only mirror, one woman to another, one who was still schooling herself in the art of life, and one whose life was slowly ending.
Adding to the intensity, was that absent boyfriend of mine, who was travelling Europe. He was sending me letters I couldn’t reply to, because this was long before the advent of the internet café. The one-sided conversation, in which he got to do all the talking, was like a hand coving my mouth.
Speechless in the dustbowl, as I walked through the hot sand-stinging dust-devil that crossed the gravel road under the endless blue sky, as it sucked the breath from my lungs and threw stones against my ankles, and twisted and flamed my hair above my head, I had to repress a passionate rage.
How badly I wanted to dump him.
That spring was one of the hottest of all time. There was a plough wind one day that created its own dust-blown dusk. I sat in the kitchen doorway and watched the glowing streetlights whip back and forth in the wind. Huge hailstones hit the neighbor’s garden, sent up explosions of shredded pink and white peonies, and bounced two metres in the air. I had forgotten to shut my bedroom window and there were drifts of sand in the sheets.
The painting of myself and my ghostly boyfriends is one of several I took away from my experience in Brownlee. It’s called “Drought: What Now, Eve?” because, in a sense, we are all first women, coming into existence without experience, and the experiences of those who have come before us are not necessarily relevant or accessible to us.
And when I was young, the old seemed almost like a different species.
The first time I helped Nelly step into the bath, I had never seen an old woman naked before, and her similarity to myself shocked me. Her skin was wrinkled of course, but the wrinkles were only a few scrawled lines, and were nothing compared to her substance: her body, her limbs, her head, her breasts; she was as solid and female and human as I was — my gentle mirror who was so afraid of losing things.
She didn’t have the rest of her life to look forward to, and, after living with her for two months, it seemed like I didn’t either.
I left Brownlee with my paintings, but also carrying an apprehension of my own, too soon, death.
* * *
In 2013, the young man that I had waited for that hot summer, and eventually cut from my line, took his own life at the age of forty-five.
The first time he raged at me about wanting to kill himself, he was only nineteen. We were in the University of Saskatchewan printmaking studio and I remember tears blurring my vision behind my goggles and respirator, tears that obscured my view of the baths of acetic and nitric acid, the shelves around me stacked with carcinogens: asphaltum, rosin, talc, kerosene and acetone.
Good Christian girl that I was at the time, I thought I needed to save him.
And I did save him for a little while, by that narrow fundamentalist definition, and I opened my arms and became his first girlfriend; in our naivety, this surprised both of us. Once that spring, we sat on a stone wall in dappled shade, the trees dizzy with wind. He peeled and shared an apple with me. The first poem I wrote that was published was about this moment of intimacy; one of the first stories I’d believed in, Adam and Eve, was reenacted and re-interpreted: he with the apple, she accepting the portion, the apple skin coiled at their feet.
He had been impossible to completely leave behind because he’d stalked me in various ways over the years. He’d stated his intention to be like the main character of Gabrielle Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, watching me all his life until we would finally be together, perhaps in our old age.
Suddenly, he wasn’t watching; he wasn’t forcing me to play to his malevolent audience anymore. He no longer existed.
I was disoriented. For years I’d been afraid he’d knock on my door and then shoot himself in the head, to make sure I would have to watch. The feeling of mourning him was turmoil; there was sadness and relief, pity and anger, as well as selfish bitterness: stupid idiot.
He had married late, and had recently had a child. I had hoped he’d found happiness and a cure for whatever it was that ailed him, or at least some kind of equilibrium.
And then, a few months later, to satisfy my father’s curiosity, I did the modern thing, and Googled a different ex-boyfriend.
I found his obituary.
I’d left him because he wanted children, and at the time, I didn’t. I’d left him because, according to him, my commitment to bear at least two of his children had to come before his commitment to me. I’d left him because, if I didn’t want to bear his children, he said would find someone who would. I’d left him because he certainly didn’t love me — didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with me – though he’d said the word love often enough. It’s no crime to be determined to have children, to have a desire that is non-negotiable, but to me, the woman who was faced with either leaving or accepting his plan for my life (he would not be giving birth, after all), he was only searching for a womb to use.
So I sent him off to continue his hunt.
We stayed ‘friends’ even after I married. The last time I saw him, I was helping edit one of his books. He came to visit while I was breast-feeding my second child, a daughter, and it must have been hate I saw in his eyes. Years later, he phoned me, drunk, and years later still, phoned me while he was trying to quit drinking and had the DTs. More years passed, and my husband pointed out an article in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: this man who had so wanted children had re-offended, broken parole, and was incarcerated again. The obituary I’d found on-line was dated a few months after his second time in prison.
Suicide or alcohol poisoning or both? Obituaries never say.
I had two of them, then, ex-lovers who’d exed themselves — XXs — just like Ted Hughes.
And I used to blame Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s suicide, especially after I found out there had been another self-slaughtered woman in his past.
So. Was this my questionable taste in men? Were these my narrow escapes?
Angry again – grief is so selfish — I wondered whether I would have to sand off those particular notches on my bedpost.
And should I be checking up on the others?
There was no question of me leaving some sort of terrible wreckage in my wake and contributing somehow to their suicides; I’m not that spectacular.
Both of these men were more than 20 years in my past. Both were intelligent and creative, found themselves abandoned in different ways in their forties, and both had their demon. The first had a mental disorder, and the second… his demon will have me shuddering for the rest of my life.
In that newspaper article, I’d read that the man who wanted children had been squatting in the furnace room of an apartment building the first time he was arrested. The second time, he was passed out on the floor of the Salvation Army soup kitchen. The man who wanted children was put in prison again for the possession of child pornography: little girls, ages four through eight.
Some would say, good riddance; I have moments like this myself.
What does a man like that have to live for?
Is it a shame that he is gone?
Is it a shame that both men are gone?
On average, do women live longer than men partly because they don’t kill themselves as readily? Are we more connected to others? Do we have more to live for? Are our demons less incinerating? Is age harder on men during their forties, when the mid-life crisis happens, when all the plans of youth are either on track, or derailed?
Last year wasn’t the beginning of the end for those of my generation. It started when I had cancer, nine years ago. That experience introduced me to a small group of women around forty who had the same odds as I did: fifty-fifty.
And now, as the odds suggest, half of us are dead.
And we were all kicking and clawing to hold on to life — to the world that held our children – in spite of any carcinogenic demons or dust-devils.
But I could see then, how one could decide to leave: because there was too much pain.
During chemotherapy, I hadn’t been able to place my hands on certain parts of my body – the parts that were mutant and foreign and devouring, and maybe getting smaller, getting killed off, but maybe not. My whole world at that time was cancer, and I refused to deliberately touch it.
After my last chemotherapy, between the emergency removal of my chemo-shocked gall bladder and my five weeks of radiation, I finally started to touch myself again; I tenderly tried to get to know my damaged body, so I could protect myself, as I was supposed to, from recurrence.
There was a lump in my armpit, near where the first lump had been.
I thought the lumps were coming back and I was going to die. Slowly.
Lump is the wrong word.
The word should be bombclot-landmine-gangrene-stonedtodeath-fuckfamily childannihilator.
I lived in terror until my oncology appointment. The doctor pressed his hands into my body and told me the cancer wasn’t coming back. What I had felt was scar tissue from my first surgery.
I no longer knew the flesh I once called home.
During the previous days of terror, I’d paced my house in the city of bridges, only a block away from the wide Saskatchewan River. I thought of the river: black and steaming in the winter with its round, grey ice-pans floating slowly toward the weir, where logs and branches and bodies and other detritus churn in an endless underwater loop. I didn’t know how much more suffering I could stand, after nine months of surgery and chemotherapy, and with radiation still to look forward to. Was I one of the doomed, who wouldn’t be able to get rid of the damned mutation, and who would spend years in inner death-battle, getting out of bed to walk that road to that destruction, every day?
For few days, I thought I was.
After I was diagnosed, waking up from the forgetfulness of sleep was like opening my eyes and getting shot in the face by a stranger every morning. The physical pain was nothing compared to the mental anguish.
I didn’t know how much longer I was capable of knowing I might die and abandon my babies to a motherless world. Some people, when faced with death, cling to religion, to the illusion of an after-life so they can deny death and dying itself, so they can diminish the importance of this life, their only life… so they can go about their days without a constant inner scream. This was not for me. When I thought cancer was come back to kill me, I wanted nothing to do with a supposed heaven in which I would still have to know I’d abandoned my children — a hell of knowing.
To me, death meant not knowing this anymore.
I wanted it.
During those days of terror, I said nothing to my husband. He was barely hanging on as it was.
Our children were 4 years and eighteen months old.
And the river was out there.
But I decided I was not allowed.
I did not have the option of suicide because I didn’t belong only to myself, but to my children and husband as well. What had I been living for, every day of my treatment? To exist as long as I possibly could, not merely to watch my children grow up, but to exist to give them my love, day after day, for as many days as I could, to feed them love even if I could barely get out of bed.
My children: I tell them that when I was still a baby in my mother’s womb, I was already carrying the seeds that they would become; I tell them that we have always been together.
But after you think of the river, it will always be there, too.
I can imagine worse suffering than my own — the suffering of mental illness that makes life not worth the pain, or a suffering so long and pointless, when death is certain, that suicide might be the last good thing one can do for oneself.
Those who deny this can’t imagine it.
And they are blessed.
This is supposed to be a blog, and blogs are supposed to be like diaries, and “bloggers,” (ugly word) are supposed to blog once or twice a day or something ridiculous like that, with the plan of selling an actual book to our “followers” some day.
Whoever invented this definition, did not have children. Though I have not been blogging, I have been writing, finishing a novel for the second time, in spite of the broken legs, dental disasters, and stomach parasites that have been out to get my family in the last eleven months.
And I’ve been sewing very little, just enough to finish something. It’s so nice to think of only the next stitch, instead of thinking about how to make all the words in a novel roar and grumble perfectly to each other. So much of the writing of the past can be accused of being light and merely entertaining because life was pretty dark before the invention of antibiotics and anesthesia. So nice to think of something merely nice.
I’m having difficulty coming up with a better name for this fur and velvet stole. It was the damndest thing to photograph, with the glare off the gold brocade and the furry blacknes
It looks like the kind of dark and elaborate thing that would be getting fusty in great Aunt Maud’s trunk. Its genesis was in the Red Velvet Waterfall or Vagina Scarf, which didn’t keep me warm enough at one particular writers conference. But what could keep you warm enough in a hotel basement that was itself wrapped in a thousand miles of Saskatchewan winter?
Not even Aunt Maud would know.
This stole was made from leftovers. I had to do something with all the black and purple roses that didn’t fit on my Poem Coat (not digitally revealed yet). I had to do something with the scraps from my Ukrainian Baba’s Persian lamb. Excuses, I know, from a compulsive maker of stuff.
And hoarder of stuff, too. I bought the fuchsia brocade East Indian camise and blue-green velvet dress just for the material. When you work in collage, you have to first have material at hand. I save crazy things like the buckles and straps off of sandals I’ve revised, later to rivet them to some other article of clothing.
But what exactly am I going to do with the white mink pillbox hat I got for five dollars?
I’ll wear Aunt Maud to the choir Christmas party after we sing Halleluiah.
I am working on grant applications, oh joy, which must be why “Making Faces For Beauty,” a work from my digital magazine project, WöM appeals to me. The main part is from a 1938 magazine, and claims these facial stretches and exercises will make women more beautiful.
And waste their time when they could be thinking about politics and feminism.
Sure. Let’s everybody make a face.
As the years have gone by, grant applications become more and more complicated, more and more paperwork is requested, and more seems to be required of you to be a “real” writer rather than an “emerging,” beginner writer.
As I was compiling my list of publications – which one never used to need, and then, suddenly was needed, and now, suddenly requires not only the note of what magazine, when, and number of pages, but also the title and genre of the piece – I learned a few things about myself and my writing career;
I’m getting older; my chrysalis has dried up and blown away long ago. I emerged at the age of seventeen with a cartoon I drew and wrote and was published in the prairie’s classic farmers’ newspaper, the Western Producer. It had won a contest, and I got paid.
I’m getting older; I don’t actually even remember writing some of the poems I’ve written and published and gotten paid for – my rule was to never submit to anything that didn’t acknowledge my work and pay me, as if it really was work.
As I get older, my writing tools have changed enormously, from type, to word-process, to key-board, and now a magazine seems old fashioned if it still demands submissions by snail-mail.
I’m 47, and have actually had enough time to write a lot of stuff, and been very lucky to have most of it published.
And paid for.
But then, there’s my blog.
The literary world tends not to recognize combinations of the visual and the word. Magazines and publishers almost always say “We won’t do that,” if you ask to publish your art and words together, though I’ve been lucky, and my book publishers (except the French translation) have consented to my visual input.
My blog is nothing but the visual and the word arranged together. I call it an exhibition blog, because it’s more than just ekphrastic descriptions of the art of others. I’ve done all the work, and the work should be taken together. At the moment, I’m still engaged in hammering on the doors of literary magazines to break down the only visual or only words rules; even though they claim they want something original and surprising, most fail to make original or surprising editorial decisions with this particular form, and it makes me feel like they are willing to look at only half my face. Some of the work I’ve done for my blog has taken me and my thoughts in directions impossible without the combination of visual and literary, and the fact I’ve ben the author of both.
Am I going to have to invent my own magazine that publishes only visual-artist-writer’s exhibitions? I suppose it would have to be on-line from the financial colour-ink perspective.
And I would have to name it The Tyger, of course.
Back to the list of publications. Literary magazines have declared blogs self-published on line to be real publication, a use of “first North American serial rights” and won’t consider paying to publish them again, but what about the granting agencies? Are blogs real writing? Are they real writing if combined with a visual form? Real or not, the granting agencies have asked for a list of publications, and I’m giving it to them, blogs included.
But how many of the jury members will actually read the six page list — title, page numbers, and all?
I think I might just sit here and make a few horrible faces.
I must confess, I liked my last blog so much (the one I didn’t post, which you know nothing about so far) I decided to see if anyone would misguidedly pay me to publish it, so I’ve fallen behind on my prodding of the electronic air-space.
And, not to whine or anything, my husband still has a broken leg, the inside rabbit was discovered to be male (or the horror!) and the outside rabbit made it’s escape, only not far enough away, and our neighbor Henry kick-knocked the door late one night with the squirming thing in his arms and an enormous smile on his face after he tempted it to its incarcerated doom with lettuce and kale.
And my daughter got her hair-ends dyed blue at a friend’s house, and thus we got the bathtub dyed the next bath day, and I have a slow-burning cold, and my husband’s leg is still broken, and the price of the genital modification of the never-was-a-female rabbit is about $250 dollars.
So why did it seem like the best thing to hang on the internet wall this month was one of my first digital images, in which the goldfish’s for-sale bag is re-hung upside down and it looks like a hot-air balloon floating off with the televised breast-implant from a show in which some white-robed flunky gleefully squashed the mammaries of a compliant surgery victim?
Because that’s what my life is like.
As I was working on the editing of The Book of Beasts, I was also working on some small wood and lino-cuts, wanting to continue my tradition of publishing visual art in my books. The book designer found a real medieval tile for the book cover, and this little dragon went between the pages.
We were also on sabbatical. My husband thought it would be great to live in an 8x29ft travel trailer through a Rainy British Columbia winter with our two children, then five and two.
The only thing he was worried about was turning the thing off the road, through the narrow entrance to our bit of old-growth forest.
What I worried about was living in an 8x29ft travel trailer through a rainy British Columbia winter with two children.
We spent a month getting there, travelling through Saskatchewan and Alberta, but in September, we got a rental house.
This was the winter of the pineapple express, storms whipped up from Hawaii, high on global warming.
During the first storm, I had run inside after hearing the crack and impact of trees falling in the forest. I watched one tree that seemed to keep falling over, but kept snapping back up again. I backed away from the window when I saw the top of another tree appear above me, having fallen on our house from the other side. The next morning, after the winds had calmed, we went out to see power lines down between every pole in the area, old growth trees down, and one woman’s shed jacked 6 feet in the air on the root-ball of a fallen tree. The tree on our rental house was a relatively small one, but was attached to the root-ball of an old growth of about 4 feet in diameter that had fallen right beside the house.
It looked like some sort of angry monster had smashed through the neighborhood – why not a dragon? When something bad happens, people naturally search for someone to blame rather than a disembodied force.
During that storm, tornadoes had been sighted by many, including our Kansas neighbor, who knew what she was talking about. I began to wonder if my feeling of unease among the trees and the mountains had something to do with not being able to see the weather coming, like in Saskatchewan – also a place where people have basements to hide in.
The second storm was forecast to follow the same path. Without power or running water, with a 2 ½ year-old who had just decided to stop wearing diapers, but hadn’t yet decided that making her way to the potty was always a good idea, we decided to become refugees and fled to a friends house two islands away.
The storm turned south instead, and smashed down Stanley Park, but it was a week before our electricity returned.
Winter ended eventually. We were thrown out of the rental house at the beginning of June to make room for tourists, and went back into the trailer.
The whole thing rocked and shook when the kids jumped up and down. There was a permanent bruise on my thigh where I kept bashing into the edge of the banquette, and every time I raised my arm to dress or undress, I hit my knuckles on the ceiling.
At first I thought it was like being attacked, but it was more like after being attacked — like being digested in the hard splinter-cornered, hollow-core, plywood gullet of a wrong-side-of-the-tracks, trailer-park of a nightmare, its gas stove reeking and belching flames.
After six weeks, with a feeling of great joy, we sold it.
Now, every time we see a big trailer rolling down the highway, we yell in disgust and make the sign of the cross that’s supposed to ward off vampires and other evils, so much do we still hate the grey and black water-guts of our once-upon-a-time beast.
The Encyclopedia of Mummies, Bob Brier.
A-Z. I must be a real nerd.
Payback, Margaret Atwood.
City of Darkness, City of Light, Marge Piercy.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë.
The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
The Wisdom of Psychopaths – Kevin Dutton
Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi-Occupied Hungary, Tivadar Soros
The Rose Café, John Hanson Mitchell
Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, A. C. Grayling
The Evolution of God, Robert Wright.
An almost 500 page book, and nowhere does the author address the evolution of the Western idea of God from anything other than a male perspective.
The God Effect: Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon, Brian Clegg
You don’t have to be hippy or new age or religious-minded to be at one with the universe. It’s not only photons that behave like waves, as proven in the double slit experiment. They’ve been shooting large molecules (Buckminster Fullerine) at those slits, too, and getting waves of probability. This means matter is also a wave, and everything has a presence everywhere in the probability cloud of existence.
Next, scientists are going to start firing life forms at the double slits: viruses.
The probability of us is everywhere.
And coming soon, I’m sure, the common cold, which everyone already knew was everywhere.
My daughter does not like to be complimented on her looks – exactly like me when I was her age. She, like I used to, replies with a growl or a scream, and a swift retreat. It took me until adulthood to know how to get out of these situations without embarrassment or hostility.
A few weeks ago I tried to teach her my “out”; a quick “thank you” that should end the matter. I told her she could talk Shakespearian if she wanted and say, “Why thank you, sir – or madam,” but she rejected it – blech.
And then I started to think about how it felt to be complimented at that age. Many of these compliments were comments on my wearing properly feminine clothing – following the rules. It would feel as if the person had stopped me and handed me something odd that I didn’t know what to do with. It felt more like they’d stuck something sticky and unfamiliar on me – their own pleasure — and their smiles expected something of me – I had no idea what – to take pleasure in their pleasure?
And so I’d growl and get away, and try to wipe their pleasure off, as if it was a piece of snot. They would be unhappy. They would be unhappy that I was unhappy with their pleasure, and then I would be unhappy I made them unhappy, but… I didn’t start the whole mess.
A compliment is supposed to be a gift and we are supposed to be grateful. Why aren’t we? Why am I not grateful?
There is the expression learn to take a compliment. Why do we have to? Why do we have to learn it? Because it isn’t natural or nice? Is it something nasty disguised as something nice? Why are we supposed to take it? Is it just us girls? There’s also the expression don’t take it lying down. Knowing how to take it implies hardening yourself to some kind of nastiness or violence.
What is it? This “compliment” thing?
My daughter is beautiful. I find almost all children beautiful – their youth, their skin, the economy of their form, their energy, their bloomingness. It gives me great pleasure to look at them, to watch them run, scream, shout, and be.
Of course, this has nothing to do with them, with who they are as human beings, with what they love to do, and with the lives they lead. I get pleasure from my perception of them – and probably my aging mommy hormones — and that’s what it is: my perception and my pleasure.
In a traditional compliment, the speaker (often a he) expresses his pleasure in your appearance, and you are expected to take part in his or her pleasure of looking at you. You are expected to be pleased, and grateful for the attention. Do boys get complimented like this? My son does by me now and then, and he is embarrassed by it also.
Why are we supposed to give a shit about other people’s pleasure?
The speaker claims a relationship of giving and receiving pleasure. The object of his pleasure cannot beforehand decide whose pleasure she is exciting or supposed to share. Sharing pleasure should be voluntary, and this is not, which is why compliments are extra creepy if they comes cold from a total stranger, or someone you aren’t close to. Sharing pleasure oriented around our physical beings is usually something we do with people we love and trust.
Perhaps much of the discomfort comes from the idea our self-concepts are based on what is reflected back to us in the eyes of others. Perhaps we don’t want this to be true. We are being told who we are and what we’re like, and we’re supposed to take it, be grateful, and illuminated as to ourselves?
And often, compliments aren’t very complimentary. How often is a girl told she is admired because she is strong or smart or quick? How often does the comment piece her apart? Does anyone consider “nice ass” a compliment? Compliments are often just comments, and run the spectrum from nice to abusive.
When I was in high school I got more abuse. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the school I went to was regarded as a “rough” one. I’m always surprised when I hear that not all girls went through the pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment that seemed to be common currency at my school. From about the age of twelve I could expect, every day, to be called a range of expletives, from “fat slut” to “fucking cunt” to “cock-sucking whore.”
Did the wealth of harassment mar my ability to “take” comments? Did I regard being noticed by others as a danger signal? How could I even attempt to believe anything that was complimentary when I was barraged with much more that was not? Did I need to push all of it as far away as I could because the evil words had such a strong effect?
Somehow, I don’t think so, because I can see my daughter reacting to compliments in the same way I did, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t gone through that kind of harassment. But this is another story I have to tell her: that the speaker hates women, just as some people hate Jews or blacks or gays. These words are a form of violence that illuminates who the speaker is, not who their victim is.
Perhaps it’s also hard for me to take pleasure in my physical being because I was raised with all that Christian shame and misogyny. I thought it was better to be a spirit without a body.
And why do people, myself included, compliment others? What are we getting by sharing our pleasure? Are we trying to communicate love? Are we trying to tell others who they are? Boost their self-esteem?
And of course, a compliment is often just part of the male sexual strategy. Once in a deserted tunnel in part of the London Underground, a strange man told me what he thought of my waistline. I got away from him as quickly as possible. He made an additional comment, annoyed that I didn’t know how to take a compliment – and annoyed I was repelled rather than attracted.
I could retrospectively take pleasure in the compliment because I wasn’t worried about being alone with a strange man the deserted subway tunnel. Nothing bad was going to happen next, but I didn’t know it then.
This was, of course, a direct confrontation between subject and object, the observer and the observed, the see-er and the seen.
In times and places of purdah, for a woman to “appear” was (is) culturally regarded as a sexual tease, was her making the first move… so whatever happened after that was her fault. In the 17th century trial of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist, (at which she was tortured) she was accused by the rapist’s defenders of being seen at a window in her father’s house. So she must have been a whore, there at the window to advertise her wares… so the rapist was innocent, because women who sell themselves are common property, and don’t belong to their fathers anymore. That was the form of the trial: Gentileschi’s father suing the rapist for damage to his property. She was an object indeed.
Once, again in the London Underground, a man stared at me so blatantly, I got fed up. Women are not supposed to notice — supposed to pretend they don’t see — but I’d started staring back sometimes – as a kid, I was always good at staring contests — and this time I started making weird faces.
He looked away, of course, and pretended not to notice.
Now that was a pleasure I enjoyed.
Learn to take a compliment?
Perhaps my daughter, as a young female of the species, is rebelling against her first encounters with being ‘the observed’ rather than ‘the observer’ in our culture: the object rather than the human being.
This must be quite a shock when you are nine and you are the center of your universe – the one who watches, feels, and acts.
But a few days ago, I observed my daughter overhearing her teacher and I discuss her progress and the work she was doing. She was listening to words like creative, working very hard, and smart.
What I saw on her face then was a wonderful secret smile – not a big smile, you understand: nothing anyone else was supposed to see or appreciate — but a smile that only happened to show because it was glowing within, and radiating all the way through her, building on what she knows about herself.
And that was the most beautiful thing.
As a Canadian writer, I find it appropriate that my mother’s name was Margaret, as in Atwood, Avison, and Laurence. Though she had some talent in drawing and became a school-teacher, she made a last contribution to the cultural world: the preservation of what librarians call ‘women’s ephemerae.’
When I was a girl in the 1980s, my mother would sometimes show me women’s magazines from the 1950s or 60s. As a 14-year-old, I was familiar enough with the more modern ones and I poured over the older pages of the old-fashioned or frankly crazy fashions, and the familiar sections: crafts, recipes, Dear Lois, and Can this Marriage be Saved? I often had scissors in my hands then, and I used these images again after art school, when I no longer had to earn marks from my abstract expressionist professors, and could make art that had more personal meaning for me.
These magazines showed me what women – my mother, and eventually, me — were supposed to be. Often my silent response was “you’ve got to be kidding,” but I have no way of knowing how much this constant barrage of information lodged in my subconscious. My mother seemed to accept it uncritically, but then, she was born in 1925, and had been formed before the feminism of the later 20th century.
She bought new magazines all the time, looked them over and filed them away in boxes in the basement, boxes that mounted over the years, that filled the space until there were only passageways to the furnace, and the washer and the dryer, the deep freezes, and the potato bin. It seemed she couldn’t let anything go – any words that might explain her life or her world, or allow her to get along in it better.
After she died, my father slowly emptied the basement box by box, to the recycler and to the charity shop. It took him two years. After he was finished he found more magazines, this time on the high shelf in the bedroom closet.
These were very old — from 1909 to 1941, messages from my grandmothers’ world. They were magazines that were no longer in print: The Modern Priscilla, and Home Arts. My father said he would take them to the recycler unless I wanted them.
Some of them were in the boxes they’d been mailed in, postmarked about the time my brother and I were born. It seemed to be some kind of trading system among women. Many of the magazines had holes where they had been bound and held as back issues in libraries. My mother had never shown me any of these.
Inside the covers I found scholarly articles about traditional women’s arts in far off countries, embroidery and crochet patterns, June Bride issues from the 1920s, and an interview with Amelia Earhart on aircraft – and needlecraft. There were ads for Campbell’s Soup, Pepsodent, weight-loss, and creams for bleaching away freckles.
Some things never change, but some things do; I found a recipe for “halibut palmettes” that involved cutting the fillets into hearts, squashing all the juice out, frying them stiff as a board, and then covering them with a kind of fish mousse icing. Modern foodies would run screaming, and I don’t think the fish cookies would fool the kids.
I brought the magazines home and sorted them. There were over five hundred: about 350 different copies, plus duplicates and a few triplicates.
My family and I donated most of them to Special Collections at the University of Saskatchewan Library. The librarian we worked with told us it was the biggest collection of its kind in Canada, and would benefit the Art Department and Women’s Studies. And then the library threw us a party.
We set up a display of photos of my mother, her own needlework, and her high school graduation gown, and of course, we named the collection after her.
My mother was shy and didn’t want people to know much about her, so she wouldn’t be comfortable with the name of the collection. I do know she would be glad that what she saved and valued is now be saved and valued by many in perpetuity.
You can see the covers of the Margaret Friesen-Labach Collection of Early 20th Century Women’s Magazines on line at http://library2.usask.ca/earlywomensmags/
The library plans to scan every page to make the collection available to researchers around the world.
I kept the third copies — the rattiest ones – about ten of them bound up in a large envelope I made out of acid-free rag paper.
I look at them with my children, both the boy and the girl, and we talk about how things have changed, and how these sorts of magazines still tell women what the culture wants them to be, a much narrower definition of who they really are.