She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final instalment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”


A REMEMBERING OF MARY MEIGS

by Betsy Warland

(based on a talk given at the Memorial Service for Mary Meigs, December 7th, 2002, Montreal)

The night Mary died she “visited” me. As we have been hearing here today at this memorial service, Mary has been visiting a number of us since she died. And, happily, she seems to be fine indeed.

The evening she died, I was utterly preoccupied with preparations for a dinner party celebrating my partner Susan’s birthday. I had been working all day on the meal and had just begun to set the table when a voice spoke to me: “Put Mary’s bird on the table.” It seemed a bit strange but I have learned to listen to such voices over the years.

I went to my writing study where the bird sits on my writing table. Mary had sent it to me almost two years ago when I was in the midst of a life-threatening illness. She had carved it. It has a natural wood finish and an early American, Brancusi look and feel. I picked it up. Held it to my chest as I always do. Mary felt very close and I smiled. Then I realized it didn’t make sense to put it on an already crowded dinner party table and that my holding it was likely what was really meant to happen. I placed it back on my writing table and continued on with the evening’s preparations.

A day and a half later, my friend Lise Weil phoned to tell me that Mary had died. As we spoke it dawned on me that it was just around the time of Mary’s death that I had heard the voice telling me to go to her wooden bird. It was of deep comfort to know that the feeling I had had when holding her bird that night was so very gentle and calm.

Mary has been an inspiration and a precious writing companion to me. She has also been a very dear friend—a friend who fully engaged with me and who was remarkably loyal. I will always be grateful for our friendship. It is through Mary’s devotion to friendship that I am beginning to understand that it is friendship that is at the core of every kind of vibrant relationship: lover, parent and child, professional relationships, relatives, care givers and those who need their help, animals and those who love them. The forms of relationship vary but what comprises the core does not. It is the quality of friendship that makes it a nourishing or disappointing relationship.

I would like to read the final poem from a suite entitled “sight unseen” [from What Holds Us Here, 1998, BuschekBooks, Ottawa]. This suite interacts with a number of Vincent van Gogh paintings. I had “sketched” these poems out while staying in Amsterdam prior to the International Feminist Book Fair held in Amsterdam in 1992. During the Book Fair, Mary and I spent an elating afternoon encountering the major collection of van Gogh paintings in the Vincent van Gogh museum. Afterwards, Mary continued to follow the poems in this suite through my endless revisions and then later in a review she wrote of the book in which they were published.

I had trained as a visual artist in my early writing years but then shifted my focus to writing: Mary and I had this wonderfully charged and sometimes perplexing relationship between writing and visual art in common. No doubt you will recognize this well-known van Gogh painting. Vincent van Gogh and Mary Meigs both understood the power of friendship: van Gogh suffered from a lack of friends; Mary thrived in an array of them.

Boats on the Beach

Colour    memory
Memory    colour

The simple happiness
Of those four boats

No human figures; no destinations,
Just their boatness

While the four off-shore recede
Into a wave into a cloud

Foreground, center,
A yellow box
Washed up on shore
Robin’s-egg-sky arching land and sea
There are two words,

Is this your note?

On one boat, “Amitié”
On the box, “Vincent”

– Betsy Warland

 


MARY’S DREAM and extract from “THE GOOD WITCH SYCORAX”

by Suniti Namjoshi

(To be read at Mary’s Memorial Service 7 Dec. 2002 for her friends)

Mary’s Dream

From a fax from Mary dated 14 Feb. 2002: I dreamt last night that an elephant running freely with a group of young people up from a beach started angrily pursuing me. I said, “O mighty elephant!” and he stopped with a funny little drawing up of his lip.

You were one step ahead or two or three,
like an older sister, who being born first,
is first – that’s how it is. And as though
we were children on a grand adventure
you would whisper to me, “Shhh, I’ll go first
and tell you what happens; then you’ll know
and needn’t be worried.”
That always made me smile.
I never was worried. What you talked about
was being alive. Your blue sky
was an accurate blue. And when a leaf fell,
it turned and turned even while falling
in just the way you said it did.
You spoke sometimes
of what you had dreamed:
that elephant on the beach
who played with the young.
When he charged at you,
you knew who he was and had sense enough
to be polite.
“O mighty elephant!”
The elephant stopped – sneered? sniggered? – turned
away and strolled down the beach.
That’s the one thing
you’ve told me about, that elephant’s expression,
that I’ve never been able to see clearly.

– Suniti Namjoshi

 

from “The Good Witch Sycorax”

Like anyone else old women metamorphose
at night. They drift like owls not knowing what
dreams they might light upon, nor whom they might
meet. Sometimes they sleep like kingfishers
on the charmèd wave and wake so refreshed
that when they look about them, they truly believe
that they have the power to control themselves
and the sea. Or they slip like seals through black
water from island to island and choose their dreams:
they’re rich and powerful, or, sometimes, merely happy.
Old Women do not desire desire. Behind
their eyes the sky burns a ferocious blue
and their skulls are lit by the sun’s energy.

– Suniti Namjoshi

note from Suniti: “The Good Witch Sycorax” is a work in progress. I had wanted to finish this section of the long poem in time to show Mary, but couldn’t.


À BIENTÔT, MARY

Claire Saint Aubin

La bourrasque est passée, l’humidité est tombée sur les arbres. La jungle fourmille d’insectes très affairés, les girafes, les hyènes, les zèbres, les lions, les papillons.

Une éléphante enroule sa trompe autour d’une branche et en arrache les feuilles. Ses soeurs vont partager le repas qu’elles ne pouvaient atteindre. Plus tôt, au lever du jour, elles ont recouvert de branches et de terre le corps de l’une des leur qui est morte dans la nuit. A l’étang, tout le monde s’amusera d’un frôlement de trompe sur la peau. Après avoir aspiré de l’eau, elles la font gicler de leurs bouches, se couchent dans la boue et en mettent partout. En plein soleil.

Un peu plus loin dans la grande plaine découverte où l’herbe est plus courte, de nombreuses gazelles paissent ensemble. Il y a aussi les autriches, les babouins, les zèbres et les rhinocéros.

Soudain plane une girafe comme au ralenti. C’est une illusion, elle est si grande et elle court sans toucher le sol.

La plaine est brûlante. En fin de journée, toute la bande se mettra en route vers des collines inconnues, lointaines, chercher de nouveaux territoires pour se nourrir. Hyènes, lions, léopards et antilopes.

La bourrasque est passée et nous sommes là, perdues tout à coup. J’aime imaginer que tu joues dan la boue Mary, que tu planes comme une girafe au dessus de la terre aride.

Rejoins mes déesses Mary. Un jour, je ferai le voyage aussi. Et tu la reconnaîtras, elle qui vociférait dans la nuit des villes comme une louve assoiffée. Celle qui souffrait encore de lucidité aigüe et qui pourtant était toujours la première à entamer la danse.

Au bal des animales, ta voix la calmera. Elle saura vivre autrement. Elle s’y applique déjà. Très fort. Très doucement. A superposer ses images sur le réel.

A bientôt Mary …

16 décembre 02


ELLE EST APPARUE DANS MA VIE

Sylvie Sainte-Marie

Elle est apparue dans ma vie. Regard bleu, halo de cheveux blancs, sourire inespéré. Nous avons parlé. D’art, de jardins, de livres, d’animaux, de relations amoureuses, de musique, de solitude. Et de ce monde à moitié détruit qui l’attristait tant. Nous avons ri aussi. Parfois timidement, parfois aux éclats. Son rire m’enchantait, m’enveloppait d’une joie qui m’étonnait. J’oubliais le temps, tout ce temps qui nous séparait. Un lien étincelant m’attachait à elle. Je posais ma main sur son épaule, je ne voulais plus jamais la quitter. J’étais un petit être atterri par hasard sur la fin de sa vie, un petit être amoureux et entêté qui avait décidé que la vie n’avait pas de fin.

Maintenant je marche dans la campagne avec acharnement, implorant les montagnes, le ciel, les nuages de m’arracher cette douleur. Mary, chère, chère, querida Mary, mon ange si fatiguée, je vous aime et je sais que vous me voyez pleurer.

Je voulais lui offrir un oiseau, une pierre, un arbre, quelque chose d’essentiel et de radieux qu’elle aurait contemplé avec une tendresse attentive.

Tout est devenu obscur, hostile brusquement. L’absence vertigineuse. Les gestes, les paroles, les pensées en suspens. La joie emportée. Loin. N’importe où. Nulle part.

Je ferme les yeux.

Je la vois s’avancer doucement vers moi. Je la vois penchée sur un livre. Je la vois écrire, calme, concentrée. Je la vois parler, manger, rire. Je la vois regarder par la fenêtre, pensive, redoutant l’hiver, espérant déjà le printemps, le jardin qui revit, les nouvelles fleurs que nous allons planter. Tout ce qui n’aura pas lieu. Matières fragiles et précieuses qui tournoient dans ma tête, ne savent où se poser.

Chère, chère Mary.

 

Soledad
“Soledad,” artwork by Sylvie Sainte-Marie, photograph by Maric Boudreau

 


AGITATION ON A BRICK WALL
(in memory of Mary Meigs)

by Verena Stefan

It is such a relief, she confesses when I visit her the first time after the stroke. It finally happened. Her face looks relaxed, different from the previous weeks when she was haunted by pre-stroke symptoms which she observed adamantly: high blood pressure, extreme pallor, shattered vision with fragmented patterns all of a sudden moving through the room.

She had been waiting for it, preparing for it, anxious and tense for weeks during that summer. How would the stroke hit her? As it had her mother and one of her brothers? From them she knew how a person looks after a left-brain stroke, how speech and language skills might be affected as well as the right hand, walking, balance. She was prepared for all of it, and she was lucky. Hers was a right-brain stroke that didn’t touch the language centre nor her writing and drawing hand. …

II

She would be sitting at the far end of her dining room table when the helper of the day arrived at eleven o’clock in the morning, inevitably interrupting her writing hours—her precious alone time for which she fought ferociously after each of her numerous falls and the hip replacement surgery and the pacemaker surgery. At times we would all hover over her, driving her mad with worries about her next fall and even more with the threat to shrink her alone time, expanding the helper’s presence instead.

I heard her raise her voice only once: So what if I fall! she exclaimed. If I fall, I fall. Either I’ll fall on a seat or on the floor. Either I’ll break something or I won’t. It is just there, worst-case scenarios included.

She fought for writing hours like a wild animal who has to go back into the cage for the rest of the day.

All day long now there would be somebody working in her rooms, crossing to and fro in front of her table, talking, maybe laughing loudly, singing loudly, turning the radio on, destroying the arrangement of her kitchen, removing items from places they had kept for decades and establishing an order of her own. She could do nothing but watch.

How is it? I asked once. It was very hard at the beginning, she said. I always thought I knew the perfect way of housekeeping and felt the urge to teach everybody. She looked at me. I got used to it, she said. After all, I depend on helpers now.

My mind is seeping out, she said. I dream of prisons and confinement. I am confined, that’s a fact.

The helpers walked in the door, each one of us, always hoping that everything would be fine, that Mary would sit near the window and write. And there she was. She was always there. She had to be there. This was her bitter pill, to be confined to the house, to observe her mobility shrink to smaller and smaller loops, even indoors.

Not to go out anymore to concerts, art shows, book launches, to the movies. Not to drive. And shopping. How I miss shopping! she said. And birds. She always wanted to know what birds there were, when I came back from a trip to the country. Mary, I saw a cardinal, I would say. A cardinal! she would exclaim, clutching her heart. Doesn’t it have the loveliest song in the whole world!

What other birds were there? She fixed me with her eyes, and I squirmed, trapped between unfamiliar French and English names for birds and a scarce bird-knowledge to begin with.

Cut off from her studio in the country from one day to the next, from whole summers in the country. Cut off from her luminous writing office upstairs in her Westmount home too, and from her small drawing room. The inspiration is in the upstairs rooms, she said.

She lived downstairs now, in the semi-light behind milky curtains. …

During the last year of her life, she was in the company of artists and friends who would stay with her eight hours a day. Intense ephemeral states of co-habitation. The helpers were witnesses of her changing states of being, high soaring moments and what she called her collapsed state of mind. Since she could not go out anymore, the world and cultural life had to come to her house. Colleagues, friends, writers, artists, editors, with their buzzing lives and busy daybooks, kept streaming in, all of them with little time, though some of them would stay beyond Mary’s point of exhaustion.

We are not used to somebody staying at home all the time. To find a friend at the same place at every hour of the day, day after day, month after month, even in July and August. To be guaranteed that she will be there whenever we show up at the doorstep. It is a feeling we may know from our childhood if there was a mother, a father or a grandparent who stayed home. Other than that, it is an odd thing that is related to temporary or chronic illness, or to very old age. …

III

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” writes Susan Sontag at the beginning of her essay “Illness as Metaphor,” and she continues: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Mary adds another aspect to the image: “In old age we are forced to speak another language,” she has written in her last notebook. “We are people who are forbidden to speak our mother tongue. The process of deterioration is made easy for us by memory loss, the accidental breaking of bones, the dimming eyes; each body selects its own way of inflicting damage willy-nilly … ”

The mother tongue of colour remained the salient one in her life. Whenever I came to visit her in yet another hospital room I found depressingly ugly, she would make a comment on the play of light and shadow on a wall outside the window, sunlight that hit a tin decoration on a roof, the hourly changes in the leaves of a tree, the setup of a therapy room. “The whole place a visual joy,” she writes. “Yesterday saw something purple and yellow juxtaposed.”

There was a brick wall behind the neighbour’s garden at Grosvenor Avenue that served her as a screen until the end of her life. “The shadows of branches and a few blowing maple leaves on the brick wall today,” says one of her notebook entries, or “Agitation of shadows on the wall—a squirrel has run along a thin branch.” Those sentences are scattered on the pages of her notebooks like the small agitations she caught from the angle of her eye behind the window where she would write. She perceived life entirely with a painter’s eye, and being an avid searcher for colour and shape she found them everywhere.


SEEING MARY

by Cynthia Rich

I met Mary Meigs just once, last August, and I knew then it was the only time. For many years my partner—Barbara Macdonald—and I hoped to meet her, and we corresponded from time to time. As she said in one letter, writers feel we know each other from our writing. The Time Being showed the possible hazards of that presumption; still, in short order, sitting on her balcony, we were exploring illness and shame and aging. (Barbara had died of Alzheimer’s two years earlier.)

Mary’s writing amazes me by the ease with which it moves between lush, romantic, voracious love of beauty and uncompromising, unsentimental honesty. On that day in August I could feast for the first time on exactly such dazzling movement in the rich variety of paintings on her walls and the sketchbook of watercolors she shared with me.

I fell in love with three of the watercolors. One was a huge bouquet of spring flowers, exuberant in its joyous sensuality. Another—a series really—was her painting of her cats, profoundly loving yet entirely unsentimental, because the kind of love that does not project its own needs but can truly see the spirit within.

Mary told me I could choose one painting. The one I decided on was very different from the other two I loved—a self-portrait of Mary painting.

At first she disapproved my choice, she thought it ugly, until Marie Claire said, “But that’s just how you look when you’re working!”

In the painting, she holds her brush down, in a kind of firm discipline, not indulging that hand until she sees what is really there. Her eyes are fiercely determined to find out that truth, whether or not it is what she hoped for.

I feel lucky to see Mary every day, draw energy from her. Those eyes, looking down at my desk unsparingly, make demands on me. They insist that, if I can’t recreate the world’s beauty as Mary did, I can at least—or at most—celebrate her by working to tell the truth.

December 2002


FREEWRITING WITH MARY

by Lise Weil (with freewritings by Mary Meigs)

About two years ago, I talked Mary into freewriting with me. The cardinal rule of freewriting is that you keep your pen moving–you don’t stop to edit or correct. Mary had never tried writing this way before–which considering she’d written five books and tried her hand at every other kind of writing was mind-boggling to me–but once she got started she was hooked. We freewrote regularly together after that. We’d start with a line from a book of poetry and then just go . . . for five minutes.

If the samples of Mary’s freewriting that follow seem brief for five-minute exercises, it’s not because I’ve edited them down. Mary—anyone who knew her knew this about her—was not one to go on. Mary was dry, she was pithy, she was minimalist. In this respect her freewriting was like Mary herself. Indeed, it must be confessed that sometimes in the middle of a freewrite I would look over and see that Mary’s pen had stopped moving, that she’d lifted it from the page. Looking up I would find her deep in thought, evidently contemplating her next line. I scolded her for cheating but it never made any difference. What issued from Mary’s pen when it did contact the page was always so fresh and bracing that I finally stopped calling her on it at all.

March 21, 2002 (prompts drawn from M.S. Merwin’s The Lice):

Encouragement meant nothing. How I’ve struggled to feel joy but lo and behold I’m in a joyless state. Warm encouragement strikes like a dead pancake. This is called a negative state, it is called ingratitude or tepid indifference. It’s another form of hopelessness which is the eleventh deadly sin, for I know people who are saving the world. They have signed a peace pact with salmon, they have set them all free.

Do not come down. I’m living an incoherent day because I came down, obeyed gravity and hit my head. Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.”

The following samples were written two days before Mary’s death. She’d just gotten back from the hospital and was not getting around very well. I came over to visit, expecting to find her in bed. But as soon as I entered the house I heard her calling from the dining room–“Leeza”?– and walked in to see her sitting up and waiting for me at her very cluttered writing table. “Mary!” I said “There you are!” “Here I am,” she said, with that irony, that pithiness, that never deserted her. With that slightly open “a” that betrayed her mainline origins. “Mary, do you think you’re well enough to write today?” “Well my brain feels a little foggy, but I want to try,” she said. And write we did. Since I hadn’t brought any poems to write to we chose lines from the book I happened to have in my bag, Helen Cixous’ Book of Promethea (in translation).

November 13, 2002:

I realize that this is an impure desire of mine. The question is what makes it impure. Is there an alchemy in each of us that works at refining desire or do dreams alter desires by changing their images? Last night I dreamt that twelve pairs of coal-black horses passed me, drawing a small carriage (black) along a railroad track.

Our history has a bumpy geography. We are reduced to translating time into landscape. But perhaps rocks are more eloquent than cries of pain. In a hospital sound speaks volumes but I would rather be on a beach, a dictionary of pain. Today I found a polished grey pebble that said ouch.


FEATHERS

Excerpts from correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger

28 July 2002

Dear Mary,

Suzanne Boisvert and Verena Stefan have given me news of you, so I feel as if I am a little bit in touch still. And then, a few months ago I started rereading back issues of Trivia and found the piece you wrote for issue #13, “Memories of Age.” I loved that essay when it was first printed, and it feels even more resonant now than it did then. I would like to ask your permission to reprint it in the Internet magazine I publish, She Is Still Burning.

Last nite we watched again a public-library video copy of “The Company of Strangers.” It was astonishing to see you on the small television screen, moving and speaking exactly as I’d remembered you. That film is like nothing else …

I remember that years ago you gave me the excellent advice to join the Canadian Writers’ Union, which I still haven’t done. But it’s on my list of things I ought to do. I keep on writing and not publishing; this is a weird form of writer’s block. But at least She Is Still Burning forces me to put something of my own out on the cyberwaves, and it gives me pleasure to publish and republish friends’ writings too.

Bert, my partner who spent 30 years in the Canadian military and is a big fan of “The Company of Strangers,” says to tell you that the old flyboy sends you his greetings.

And I send mine!

Most affectionately,
Harriet

****

02 August 2002

Dear Harriet,

It was wonderful to get your letter today and of course I give my permission to reprint “Memories of Age” and it makes me happy. I’m probably one of the few people in North America who doesn’t have a computer or failed to learn how to use one. By the way, there’s a lovely French translation of In the Company of Strangers by Marie-Josée Thériault. She’s the daughter of my first translator, Michelle Thériault, who did Lily Briscoe, which is a nice coincidence. The French editor is Anne-Marie Alonzo, whom I’m sure you know … The French title is Femmes dans un Paysage.

Thank you for the exquisite feather. Do you know what it is? I used to collect feathers, I had a wild turkey feather or a great black backed gull and lots of partridge striped like the one you sent but not so yellowish or soft. Then I realized that they were being devoured by moths, the scourge of this house, so had to throw them away. I’ve been thinking with piercing nostalgia about the birds in Wellfleet …

Give my greetings, too, to “the old flyboy” —

and love and thanks to you,
Mary

***

02 October 2002

Dear Mary,

I think the feather I sent you before was a breast feather from a wild turkey. In 1986, I was living on Ann Stokes’ land in New Hampshire & she came to tell me one morning that a fox had caught a wild turkey — I’ve been carrying the feathers around with me ever since.

In this letter is a wing feather and breast feathers from the yellow-shafted flicker. (They have little hearts on their breast feathers & Native Americans say they bring joyfulness.)
Also enclosed a printed copy of SISB 15, which will go up on the website this week. …

Sending love to you along with the feathers,
Harriet

***

10 October 2002

Dear Harriet,

Thanks so much for sending me a copy of your website paper, with mine. SISB is like a voice in the wilderness and I’m so proud of being in it (or on it) and having some relevance now.

The flicker feathers are in front of me all the time. The little hearts are beautifully visible on the breast feathers; I’m sending you a very inaccurate watercolor I did of a dead bird I found — the little hearts aren’t there and the wings are much too short — but at least I give some idea of the astounding gold that blazes from it. I was glad to read that the sexes are identical. I think that little thing sticking out of its mouth turned out to be a tongue. I miss terribly seeing birds in this quartier; we’re going to do some serious luring next spring. Too many cats!

I get news of SISB from Lise Weil and it sounds as if there’s lots of interest in it —

Love,
Mary

***

note: An hour after I put the following letter in the mailbox, I received an e-mail from Lise Weil, saying that Mary Meigs had died three days earlier. The unopened envelope was returned to me a week later with a sticker placed over the address that read “moved / unknown / démenagé / inconnu.” Mary may have moved, but she is definitely not unknown. Therefore, I re-post the letter in cyberspace, in the hope that somehow she’ll receive it. Or that somehow I’ll feel less forlorn.

19 November 2002

Dear Mary,

Going to start calling myself “Turtle Girl” because it takes me so long to carry out my intentions. Ann Stokes once told me that I’d slow down after 50, but I had no idea she meant “slow down to a crawl.”

I was so excited to receive the watercolour of the flicker that you made, and I don’t think it’s inaccurate because it looks just like the flicker whose feathers I sent you. This was a bird who’d been hit by a car on the highway, and Ann brought me its body because she knew I was collecting feathers for some mysterious purpose. I plucked the bird and buried its body beneath a pine tree and sang a made-up song to console its spirit (this last inspired by guilt and by having read an account of a woman shaman in Manitoba, who always sang to the spirit of a deer that she had hunted for food). Anyway, maybe their wings sort of contract when they die. For sure, I know that you can only see that the black splotches on the breast feathers are heart-shaped if you hold a feather in your hand. On the bird, the splotches just look like splotches.

I seem to be going into too much detail here, but it truly did seem a magical event to me, that you sent that watercolour. It brought back a whole afternoon to me, sitting in sun-dappled woods with the flicker …

Last week, I finished rereading your first book — it was new all over again to me. This writing lasts; it is always relevant. I don’t know why exactly — but it feels as if you’re completely present in your voice. To me, it is like the voice of birds, and always makes me glad, no matter what you’re writing about at the moment.

Received very enthusiastic response to reprinting your piece on the website — Michèle Causse, among others, wrote an e-mail saying it was beautiful and timely.

The flicker is in a frame and under glass now, in the hallway. It looks quite wonderful, I think.

The enclosed feather this time is an “urban feather” — I found it on a sidestreet running parallel to St-Denis, in the early 90s sometime. I liked it, but can’t figure out its source. It looks like something that fell off a lady’s hat, circa 1930. Maybe it time-travelled.

Love from Harriet


Dead Flicker 1985
Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

Betsy Warland was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1946, and immigrated to Canada in 1973. A writer, editor and teacher, she has published nine books of poetry and prose, the most recent being Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (Sumach/Second Story Press, 2000).

Suniti Namjoshi was born in Bombay in 1941, later taught in Canada and now lives in England. Among her many books of poetry and prose are The Bedside Book of Nightmares, Feminist Fables, Flesh and Paper (with Gillian Hanscombe), Conversations with Cow, and Goja: An Autobiographical Myth. Building Babel, her most recent book published by Spinifex, is a novel with an electronic chapter to which readers can add.

Claire Saint Aubin is one of the group of women who took care of Mary Meigs in the last year of her life. Thanks to Lise Weil for persuading Claire to send in this tribute to Mary.

Sylvie Sainte-Marie is a visual artist. She was taking care of Mary Meigs the day that Mary died.

Verena Stefan, poet and prose writer, translator and creative-writing teacher, was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1947. Her first book, Haütungen (Shedding), was published in Germany in 1975, and later translated into eight languages. Since the year 2000, she has lived in Montreal, and now writes in both German and English. Her most recent publication, “Learning Winter,” appears in Geist (Winter 2002).

Cynthia Rich is an activist and writer living in California. Her book Desert Years: Undreaming the American Dream was published in 1989 by Spinsters Ink. With Barbara Macdonald, she co-authored Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism (reprinted by Spinsters Ink in 1991).

Lise Weil lives in Montreal and teaches at Goddard College in Vermont. From 1982 through 1991, she edited the radical feminist journal Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. Her essays and reviews, as well as her translations of French and German writers, have appeared in several feminist journals.

 

 

 

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She Is Still Burning 10 (November 2001)

By October 18th, 2001, according to my hand-written journals, I was already doubting that the 9-11 attacks had been the sole work of the people we were being told were responsible. But that doubt didn’t carry over from my private writing to the “She Is Still Burning” instalment below; what did carry over into my “Dear Friends” letter was my new journal-concocted self-identification as “earthling: being who lives on the earth.”

Sixteen years later, I still identify primarily as an earthling. Earthling is my “we,” and I must say it’s a “we” I’m forever thrilled to belong with.


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 10
6 November 2001

“Both day and night are good,” Agnes said. “Both speak a language. The language of the night is different from the language of the day. The language of the night is within you. Most two-leggeds have forgotten the language of night, but it would be good if they remembered, for a long night is coming before the break of dawn.”

– Lynn V. Andrews, Flight of the Seventh Moon

Dear Friends,

Since the last installment of She Is Still Burning (six weeks ago), we’ve passed into the madness-and-mayhem stage: the US and the UK drop their fabulously expensive and high-tech ordnance onto an already devastated Afghanistan, while the people starve; anthrax shows up in Kansas City, Kenya, Pakistan, Russia; American and allied governments begin operating under de facto martial law; the “Bush doctrine” enunciates policies that amount to a permanent state of war. From the point of view of your ordinary earthling (earthling = being who lives on the earth), bin Laden and Bush are pursuing the same chimera—”holy war”—and with the same probable result. The earth can’t take much more of this nonsense, and, as earthlings, neither can we.

Meanwhile, life in Saint John has become, if not peaceful, eerily quiet. The truck traffic that thundered day and night through the neighbourhood has slowed to a tractor-trailer every few hours. The Toronto-to-Europe jets that used to fly high over the city, one after the other after the other in the evenings, seem to have disappeared. Instead, a surveillance plane circles over the docks and oil refinery while a surveillance boat moves in and out of the harbour. On the tracks by Courtney Bay, two hundred railroad cars have been sitting for a month, their wheels rusting in the salt air. With the exception of the almighty Irving industrial empire, businesses have been falling like the autumn leaves. And the “Toronto fever” that had begun to grip this small city’s uptown vanished overnight: no one rushes around anymore with a cell phone glued to their ear.

In the midst of all this, I think about the fundamentalist forces that struck down the women of Afghanistan (who used to comprise 50 percent of Afghanistan’s government workers, 40 percent of its doctors, 75 percent of its teachers) then striking New York, and the worldwide economic and political fallout from that. I remember the saying of Native American tribes, “When the women lose heart, the people die.” And I think of the simple principle reinforced over and over by personal experience: everything is interconnected.

Under the omnipresent shadow of war, what to do, what to do? The only practical guideline I’ve come up with goes like this: whatever you love doing, do it now. I notice in the past few weeks that many of my friends and family seem to be following a similar self-directive—speaking their mind, forthrightly, and in public; beginning a new book manuscript; travelling overseas to a Zen peace camp; painting new watercolours; successfully agitating for the opening, on schedule, of the long-planned exhibition by Arab-Canadian artists at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, “Ces pays qui m’habitent / The Lands Within Me”; taking steps to realize a long-deferred dream. Living as boldly as they can, as fearlessly as they can, as creatively as they can, they become my “role models.” And they have my gratitude for being there, and for continuing to be themselves.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Verena Stefan: Excerpts from keynote address to conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature” (Ottawa, October 18, 2001)
•Ann Stokes: letter in response to SISB #9
•Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien: “On the New Normal”
•Camille Norton: “After Reading Plato” (poem)


EXCERPTS FROM “THE ROARING INSIDE HER”
keynote address for the conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature,” University of Ottawa, October 18, 2001
by Verena Stefan

Editor’s note: The essay/speech that Verena Stefan delivered on October 18, 2001, is a complex interweaving of literary and political analysis, poetry, mythology and story. I’m grateful for her permission to publish parts of it, but want to caution readers that the following two excerpts—one a story from literature and the other a story from life—do not give a fair representation of the essay as a whole. I selected the first story to honour Suzanne Boisvert’s fortieth birthday, because she has always loved the work of Carson McCullers. The second story I selected because it is a true story, and reflects both Verena’s life and her mother’s life. When the essay is published in its entirety and its final form, I’ll let readers know where to find it.

From the section “To whom does history belong?”

Do you remember Frankie Addams? Carson McCullers created her during WW II. She is the heroine of The Member of the Wedding.

Frankie is preoccupied with soldiers for specific reasons. In her twelfth summer, in 1944, the world seems shattered and torn, and it turns around way too fast, at a thousand miles an hour. The war in Europe is also happening so fast that Frankie Addams can’t keep up. War images and world images swirl in her head, overlapping each other, getting all mixed up together.

The only people who regularly come into the town from the outside and then leave it again are soldiers from the nearby barracks. For Frankie, they embody the big world, the whole world. Soldiers can be sent into any country on earth; they have entry everywhere. But how can she go out into the world, produce a connection? She dreams of going into the Marines and being honoured with gold insignia, but doesn’t know how this dream might be realized. Finally, it occurs to her how she might participate in the Second World War: she will give blood. She won’t bleed on the battlefield, although she is full of bloodthirsty ideas and attacks of rage and possesses a considerable arsenal of weapons. She will give her blood to those who go to battle, to the soldiers. In her mind she hears the doctors say that her blood, the blood of Frankie Addams, is the richest, reddest blood they have ever seen, and she dreams of it flowing on in the veins of all the possible soldiers in the whole world. And after the war the soldiers will thank her and address her, not as “Frankie,” but in soldierly style as “Addams.” But she is not allowed to give her blood; she is still too young. For everything, it seems, she is either too old or too young.

Frankie owns a stolen knife with three blades and a file she uses to sharpen the knife and also to file her fingernails, when they’re long enough. Once she shot bullets on the playing field with her father’s revolver. But when she commits a sin in the garage with the boy next door, she is unarmed, unsure, and doesn’t know what’s happening to her, what it is they’re doing. Something that makes her feel sick to her stomach. Before falling asleep, when the scene appears to her again, she imagines that she sticks a knife between the boy’s eyes.

She packs her suitcase. Where should she go? Everyone else knows where they belong: her father in his jewellery business, the soldiers in the army, Bernice, the housekeeper, with her family and the church. Frankie’s brother wants to marry, and only Frankie is completely alone. There seem to be but two options for her in order to enter public space and travel the world: war or love. Her rite of passage begins when she decides to join her brother and his fiancée on their honeymoon trip.

She walks through town like a queen, no longer separated from the world, although everything seems distorted to her: the unexpected doesn’t surprise her and the familiar seems strange. For the first time she looks a soldier on the street calmly in the eye, without envy and bitter jealousy in her heart. Instead she feels a kind of recognition in his look; in her opinion this is how free travellers look at each other. She interprets all encounters now out of this feeling, and when a drunken soldier takes up with her and asks whether they should go to her place or his, she is proud to be treated as an equal, as a traveller in a foreign country. She goes for a beer with him to the Blue Moon, a flophouse for soldiers and other adults who do as they please.

Here, Carson McCullers has the twelve-year-old girl speaking in sentences she has picked up from adults—”They say Paris has been liberated. In my opinion, the war will be over next month”—an eager, grotesque-sounding attempt to talk politics with the soldier without being able to give the sentences she speaks her own meaning. Finally, the author’s voice filters out the babble and names the girl’s situation on the threshold of the world: Nor would he talk about the war, nor foreign countries and the world. To his joking remarks she could never find replies that fitted, although she tried. “Like a nightmare pupil in a recital who has to play a duet to a piece she does not know … [she] did her best to catch the tune and follow, but soon she broke down and grinned until her mouth felt wooden.”

One can hardly imagine a more fitting description for the situation of the female stranger in the world. Like Lily Everit [the young heroine of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 story “The Invitation”], Frankie wants to participate in worldly affairs with her own knowledge. She simply wants to have a decent conversation with an equal. But the scenario McCullers describes is crazy-making, a game of confusion in which only one thing is certain: it’s a nightmare, and there’s no telling if one will wake up from it.

Many of the girls I have found in literature are lonely hunters, solitary runners—like Frankie Addams, seeking and creating a ritual of transition without the company or support of adult women or other girls. With their experience of ten, twelve years, they preserve an archaic female wisdom. They know what female freedom is; unlike adult feminists, they don’t have to reclaim it. The stress of becoming a woman, a REAL woman, doesn’t eat them up yet. Rather, they determine their own vagabond freedom, their own rhythm, their own life-preserving aggressivity. Theirs is a wild, unruly, primitive response, comprising day and night, the woods, every road of the world and of the mind, magic power, the stars and the aspiration to fulfil one’s dreams, to use one’s potential as a human being. Neither fish nor fowl … they defy the expectation that they unlearn their liberty. Then they discover that these are not the right traits for the true women they are meant to become, that only boys can inherit the world.

Still in the altered state of her lonely initiation, Frankie accompanies the soldier to his room. This time she recognizes the danger in the sudden silence, which reminds her of the silence in the garage. Immediately she turns to go, he prevents her, and without thinking, she bites his tongue with all her strength. When he goes after her again, she reaches for the nearest object and hits him over the head with a glass pitcher. With one blow, with her blow, she has broken the silence, averted danger. The soldier’s head sounds hollow like a coconut.

That night, distraught, she asks her father if one can kill a person by hitting them over the head with a glass jug. As usual, the father isn’t listening. She persists, and he takes the reality out of her question when he says he’s never done such a thing and consequently she hasn’t either. In his friendly way he confirms the adult principle: children are not to be believed. Beyond that his distracted answer says: you could not do anything that lies outside of my ability to imagine.

Frankie’s vision is that humans could and would meet as free travellers, not as women, not as men, throughout their lives, throughout the world. That she should be put into the category of the Other is beyond her imagination. I like to look at her as somebody talking to us about fundamental aspects of the human condition. Like other young heroines, she conveys messages to us from a time when the girl is still a human being, before she mutates into a woman.

From the section “What do I know about war?”

A friend whom I haven’t seen for thirteen years comes for breakfast. Our conversation sparks through the kitchen and weaves into a brilliant mellow September morning. The phone rings. My lover, who knows I don’t listen to the news in the morning, leaves a message about the attack in New York City. At noon, by myself again, I turn on the TV, stare at a plane that enters into a tower and leaves it on the opposite side. Though I have never lived with a TV before, never witnessed a war “live” on the screen, and don’t watch horror movies either, the image bears an eerie familiarity. Has this been the last conversation before World War III? I ask myself. Then I feel the ocean, the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe. It eludes the conceptual mind. How did anybody ever manage to cross it? It is vast, infinite, cold. The void. I am cut off from Europe. The mind jumps again. The towers keep crumbling like sandcastles. Berlin … Berne … there are invitations to teach and to read. But I don’t want to get stuck over there either, is the third flash in my mind. I want to come back to Montreal.

In moments of shock the body’s memory speaks out. The reptilian brain shoots its “fight or flight” reaction through my system. War has been close to me since I have been conceived. One of my deepest emotions before falling asleep is Nicht auf der Flucht. Not fleeing. Then I sigh. Tonight I am safe. The emotion is linked with physical delight: I am in a dry place, it is not humid, I am not freezing. But always have the bags ready. Better to be prepared.

Some things about war I learned from my mother: losing a house, fleeing, being bombed, being on a trainful of refugees, fear of rape, hope for protection by state authorities, being turned down, being trapped on a train, becoming a prisoner of war, defying the enemy with her mother tongue, empowering herself by her mother tongue to a degree that defied rape. It comes to my mind now that it was she, in our family, who had a heroic war story—not Father.

She wants to leave Prague with her two little boys to head for Switzerland. She has already left behind their Berlin home of six years. My father was drafted with the pitchfork troops only for the last shabby battle. The Prague railway station is overcrowded with scurrying people. Were the gilded spheres on the roof, the magnificent glass dome, still shining? May 1945, and the Russian Army arrives. Everybody German or speaking a Germanic language instantly becomes a prisoner. She is arrested with hundreds of people in a cinema. The rapes start immediately. The first time she refuses in French, one of her boys who is in the grip of dysentery in her arms as they leave the bathroom. After two weeks they are transported to a camp in the countryside where they have to work in the fields for Czech farmers.

The rapists, both Russian and Czech men, come every night to pick some of the women and girls. I got so furious, she would tell us. You can’t imagine how indignant I suddenly felt when a soldier tapped my foot one night, ordering me to follow him. It was out of the question. Night after night we would lie there, our hearts hammering. But now I heard myself yelling at him in Bernese German with all my strength. The words just broke out of me. Never before in my life had I told anybody to go to hell, let alone called them a bastard.

The soldier, baffled by a vernacular he didn’t know and that wasn’t the enemy’s language, let her be.

Her story of the power of language belongs to my life like a recurring tune of which one doesn’t remember the beginning. It transmits the secret of gut language, of being outraged to the point of not giving permission to let rape happen, of language use that is hysterical in the true sense of the word.

Note: Verena Stefan’s first book, a memoir published in 1975 by Frauenoffensive, became known as “the touchstone of the German women’s movement.” Translated into eight European languages, it was first published in English by Daughters in 1978, then later republished along with short stories and essays as Shedding and Literally Dreaming (Feminist Press, 1994). Rauh, wild & frei (Fischer, 1997), her most recently published book in German, is an exploration of girls as literary heroines. A landed immigrant in Canada, and living in Montreal since 2000, she now writes in both German and English, and offers creative writing workshops.


LETTER IN RESPONSE TO SISB #9

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Dear Harriet,

This day seems more in tune with the demise of the world—drizzling damp unpleasant: a pall of hopelessness, i.e. stupidity.

It does feel like the world cannot piece back together, what is happening now. I have never felt this dread before. Your She Is Still Burning has the heaviness—it sinks into me. Susan Wood-Thompson’s excerpt from her poem is really something which knocked me out. Your words, your re-dedication, superb. God, you can feel the depth and desire in this issue. (I thought Lynn’s poem the best I had ever seen of her work.) The desire to live, with intelligence and utter necessity. They are within the Petition, also.

A heightened sense of life: I looked at a spider with its legs separated on a tree trunk in the sun, the other day. It was, each leg, soaking up the last warmth of summer. I found her beautiful. Walking in the woods, sort of peering for a deer—instead, an almost-black goodsize garter snake, sunning. It didn’t move away; instead, it glared at me and was ready to attack, should I come nearer. I liked that. I loved seeing a snake. It made my day. The black and dark grey New Yorker cover I found stunning and excruciatingly sad: someone commented on it “how cool” in this flip knowitall voice. I roared to its defense and chopped her head off verbally. She shrunk away.

It’s all or nothing now. Can’t deal with grey, “cool,” nothing.

Your writing is succinct clear determined tender. You are burning brighter—

Love,
Ann (Stokes)


ON THE “NEW NORMAL”
by Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien

There’s nothing really new about what’s happening this time around — only the weaponry, the protagonists and the reason(s) for killing have changed.

The challenging questions we now have to face are: (1) are we in the West willing to  accept and therefore legitimize the “New Order” which is now in the making? And (2) what consequences will this war on terrorism have for the future of humankind? No one in our respective governments seems to know and, I dare say, no one therein even wants to think about it at this point because it is imperative that the infamy committed in New York be avenged, that bin Laden be punished, that certain regimes be held accountable for the harbouring of terrorists—and then and only then will they worry about the consequences of their actions! Typically human, isn’t it?

We in the West have ignored history for too long and have also failed to see that the world which surrounds our comfortable societies has evolved during the past forty years or so into a festering pit of misery, despair and anger. Tenuous coalitions, air-dropped ration packs, blankets, never-ending rhetoric and offers to rebuild a country after bombing it to smithereens will only serve to worsen what has already proven to be historically unattainable for humankind: there will always be war, there will always be poverty and hunger, there will always be a new “bin Laden” and there will always be a need for the eradication of “Evil.” Such is our destiny or so it appears.

Let’s keep religion and religiosity out of this please! Let’s also remember that “we of the human species” are programmed at birth with the ability to kill indiscriminately and we feel completely legitimized in doing so when given the right reason(s). History has confirmed this time and again: all one has to do is to look up the history of ancient Rome, Egypt, Peru; and more recently, that of Germany, the Balkans, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Ireland, just to name a few.

The bottom line: no one really wins in war. Only the military-industrial complexes of this world, and the new groups of “terrorists/militants” spawned by war, will benefit—as they always do—but at what cost to the rest of us?

My UN Peacekeeping experience during a Middle-East war in the 1970s tells me that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, on both sides.

I also hasten to say that we in the West will not be able, this time around, to gracefully exit from war nor will we be able to conveniently walk away from the suffering that we will have so liberally dispensed during this, our “Jihad” against terrorism.


AFTER READING PLATO

I’m thinking about the hummingbirds in the tree behind you.

What do you think about when you see hummingbirds?

I think about their shadows whirring against the acacias.
And I think about the first hummingbird.

Where is the first hummingbird?

In Maine, on a logging road near Mount Katahdin.

It has a ruby throat.
It startles me now like the shape of bliss.

Like something unimagined that is suddenly there?

Like something unimagined.

I’m six, I’m wearing a red coat.
My mother walks ahead of me on the road and she is sad.

And for a moment I look away from my mother
and see the hummingbird

a slashing green jewel of a bird cutting between
my body and my mother’s body

like an arrow from the bow
like the knife of happiness.

– Camille Norton