Friday, 18 December 2015

Words for midwife

Words for midwife collected in my travels this year:

English:   Midwife           
mid – wife, means being with – woman

French:    Sagefemme            
sage – femme, means wise-woman

Italian:    Levatrice:             
leva, means to grow, from alevare / lavare,
trice – is the feminine ending in Italian,
thus, “the growing one” 
or “the one who supports growth (in the feminine)”

German:   Hebamme            
heban, to hold
Amme – the “wet nurse,” woman who nurses the babies (not her own),
thus, “the holding and nursing woman” 
or “the woman who holds and nurses others (mother and baby)”

Japanese:   Jo-san-pu       
pu – means woman, signified by the character for a “broom,” used to purify the space for worship of ancestors,
thus, “woman carrying out noble activities”
or "woman preparing space for new life from the ancestors"

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The kiss

The effort of travel, of moving around so much, despite the adventure (or because of it), I was more then glad to come home this time. Relieved, happy, exhausted – how to integrate it all? Looking back at this year of travel, a year of bounty and saturation of experiences. No wonder this last trip pushed me. But I relaxed more too, seeing all this, realizing why I felt a lot of physical and mental resistance this time. It’s like I can only absorb so much, how to digest and get a good view? And as much as I wanted to get home again, I am now (of course) going to miss Paris. A feel for the place has got under my skin.

I spent my last days in Paris mostly ill, and unable to visit people I would have liked to meet with. I mostly sat at one of those wonderful, ubiquitous Paris cafés. In a yellow and red stripped wicker chair, sitting outside in the October rain, bundled in my coat and hat, an awning sheltering me from the rain. I loved at least to do this, writing in my journal outside, drinking my déca / noisette, watching all the Paris peoples go by. Just sitting in a café, nowhere else to go for now, waiting/wanting to go home, getting a friendly nod from the waitress as I returned each day. It took all these trips until I got t/here, to this café. The Café des Dames – perfect, at la Place Coloniel Fabien. Not very far from the attacks would take place only a few days later. I think of that now, my proximity, and distance, to those sad and terrible events.

“We will understand nothing from this trembling, troubled archive, without recollecting the history of war in the century scarcely past, and especially the history of the one we have called the second world war, the war that remembered the First and announces the Third, the hinge between the two pages of the century.”

                          Hélène Cixous, Poetry in Painting, 2012, p. 84

I often feel how Paris is a kind of archive—archive of the West, its art and its wars—the city itself, the streets, museums, cathedrals, cemeteries. The many people, descendants of another time, out in the streets and cafes, or hidden inside apartment homes, alive and working in this city of art and love. I took a picture of the grave of Marguerite Duras in the Montparnassse cemetery (Sartre & De Beauvoir, Beckett, Baudelaire, & Mavis Gallant, are also there). Her grave is decorated with fresh pots of flowers. Small, colourful heart beads are attached to the largest potted plant, a small tree, whose perimeter holds offerings of pens stuck into its potted earth. Duras’ writing storied the French resistance and Paris at the end of WWII, in transition. I read her work with great, captivating interest. She went on to write many more works, often on the topic of forbidden love affairs and their effects (Hiroshima, mon amour). Her writing is like a clear bell into hearts and minds of that time, now spilling over into the living city, an echo.

Sitting in the Café des Dames, I write very quickly of something I just witnessed in the Metro. Twice in the days before, I got onto the Metro with the intention of going to various places (probably la Madeline & the Musée d’Orsay—one last time). Both times I would ride for a bit in the usually over-crowed Metro car, and realize quite quickly that there was no way I would be able to keep standing, let alone walk around upon arriving at my destination. I just felt too ill and dizzy. So I’d get off, walk over to other side, and go back to my original stop (and this café, where I could find myself writing). Story is, while standing on a crowded, rush-hour Metro platform, waiting to go back to my original stop, I found myself watching a young couple who were talking to each other casually, with their sweet small child standing between them. They were lovely to look at. I was just enjoying seeing them there in easy communication, the little family, when it happened. They leaned into to each other, very closely, and took the most sensual, loving kiss I have ever seen in public (or in a movie for that matter!). Their eyes closed, as lips reached towards and met the other, in a slow, tender, loving kiss. They took all the time in the world, in absolute devotion, as if no one else where there, only their small child cuddled between them. And so, sealed with such a kiss, the world went onwards, and into the arriving Metro car.


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The grotto

This morning I hiked up the mountain of St. Baume, through the beautiful, ancient Druid forest, to Mary Magdalene’s cave where she spent the last 30 years of her life as a contemplative. The hike was wonderful, good for my soul to be in such an old forest. The view from the cave was sublime. As was the sheer rock face that rises from where forest meets ancient stone stairs, winding up to the cave entrance.

The Magdalene was vegetarian! Makes sense living in the forest all those years, she was likely 'gathering,' rather then 'hunting.' They can tell about her diet from analysis of her bones. She was very small, maybe 5 feet tall, with dark hair and skin of North African/Mediterranean origins.

I thought they just made all that stuff up before coming here! Now being here and seeing it all, the historical side of the folklore comes alive. Her bones, the burial in the first century, re-burial of 700 AD, then re-finding her in 1279, with modern DNA analysis showing her origins. Immersed in living oral history, through the people, art, and monuments—as lived and held in place, called "la tradition Provencale." The story is written into the land and the artwork of its people over centuries. The cave has been a monastery since 400 AD.

I spent some time with a lovely woman historian from the Magdalene society today. She relayed to me the ancient history of the site were the cave is located. It is on a ‘massif,’ a kind of mountain that is a very huge, long cliff, many kilometers long. It was sacred the Celtic peoples who lived here in times past. It is shaped like a dragon, and was revered as a feminine force. People worshipped the mother goddess here, and the sacred source of the waters. Mary Magdalene found her way to this place, by following the route of the waters to their source, seeking the solitude and protection of the forest cover (after brother Lazarus was killed by the Romans in Marseilles). She was not far from the old Roman route, but hidden and safe in this place, where other hermits of the time are said to have lived.

Sacred waters, trees, caves, and mother goddesses go well together. Forces of life, nourishment, shelter and earth. 

In the meditative cave, dripping with water from its damp ceiling of rolling rocks, I lit two candles. One for a friend facing a life threatening illness, the other for care for myself, family and all my relations. I pray and hope for a world of peace, for the gifts of the mother goddess, of the feminine, of the Magdalene who knew great love, loss, and love regained. Who dwelt in the heart of the earth.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Becoming the earth

“Despite the difficulty and challenge of writing, I write to find the pleasure of its making, to put body and senses to text, in what Hélène Cixous calls “the earth of writing” where “we must work to the point of becoming the earth” (p. 156, School of roots).”  
                                   (Nané, Daughter of writing, 2015)

During this past summer, between these research/work trips, between, and yet at home and in life with those I love, I hit a new (or old?) wall of frustration. When this frustration first appeared, I welcomed it. As if to notice that I can feel "frustrated," what a luxury of energy! But what does it mean? It was distinct and continual, as I approached the production stage of my research, in work on publications, etc.

At first, I was amused by it. Frustrated, now? After all this, you can feel frustration again? My illness of 3 years has curbed many of my edges, by dint of survival. I am learning to walk more carefully, mindfully, gently with myself, to not burn fast and hard in my work, and in relation to myself. In fact, I can’t burn much at all.

Since the return of some energy, I don’t always manage this. But I pretty much always notice how I am. I can give a nod to myself, “Oh this again.” I noticed this past week in the LEGS workshops, I had so much excited energy to talk and be with all the women and gender scholars, to hear their work and share my own. It’s one of my favorite things, the exchange of ideas and life in groups, to move projects forward, and nourish good ideas and actions. Especially in this French academic context, I am learning about the work of scholars in France, and other parts of Europe. I had a hard time falling asleep, my energy revving ‘high.’ How to calm down and still interact, giving and receiving what I can with others.

A lot is going on. A lot is manifesting. In the early summer, lying in the MA pose of "birth" with the Gestare art collective, I realized I still carry a sense of burnout. I don’t want to work myself too hard. There has to be rest and enjoyment. There has been much recovery, and happiness is being able to be well with my loved ones, and travel/work with new opportunities. Gratitude. But a continued need for regeneration, to regenerate lying on the earth, from the earth.

Sitting in meditation in the Magdalene Basilica this morning, I felt this pull into the earth. It was her call back to me:

No need to push production, let it come, it comes. This is the direction, beyond frustration. No words, mind empties, sensation of matter, deep internal release, movement downwards, spine rolling forward and head/skull hanging between knees, space opens between each vertebrae, mouth is loose, form shifts into its collection of matter, elements of themselves. The dark open space between particles arises. Hummmm of the earth.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Noli me tangere

Amazing, I am holed up (as in: a refuge, a cave) for three days in St. Maximin, an ancient little village holding the gothic basilica of Mary Magdalene. Her relics, especially her skull, are on display in the crypt, sheathed in gold, and held by golden angels. The small stone entrance to this crypt is inviting, a quiet place to dwell underground with her mysteries. Horseshoe carvings, all over the walls that go down into the crypt, are inscribed into the stone by pilgrims past. 

This cathedral housing her mortal remains is run down, in need of repair. It is like a relic itself, with its crumbling stone facade. But there is the beauty of what is falling down, the ancient feeling of such a place.

I was drawn to visit here. An opportunity, a pilgrimage, knowing this place was relatively close to where we just had our university women’s and gender studies meeting in Nice. I’ve had a years long process with the Christian figure of Mary, as a divine Mother figure. In France, it’s hard to study these things overtly, as the Catholic religion is understood by progressive, secular people and academics to be aligned with the extreme right. But I am also versed in a Mary Magdalene “revival” of sorts, from feminist folks back home, those looking at biblical stories and history in new ways. I thus wait-with, witness, and follow my own sense of/with the Magdalene, the ‘something’ that radiates. A story missed, or not yet told, a mystery unfolding.

A great mysterious facet of French spirituality is this worship and honouring of “la Madeline,” or Mary Magdalene. When I was in Paris this past spring, my friend Barbara and I happened upon an extraordinary place, totally previously missed by me in my Paris wanderings. It is a huge neo-classical temple, taking up an entire huge city block. I had the pleasure of walking into it, without realizing its purpose as being the Paris house of Mary Magdalene. Completely and only devoted to her. Her figure is carved in stone on the altar. The sculpture depicts her being held by gorgeous angels, as she submits to their heavenly transport. Her arms are extended at her sides in a gesture of easy surrender. Her chest and hips sway sensuously, in a yielding pelvic thrust. Her gaze is composed within herself. She knows. Noli me tangere.

She was the “Apostle of the Apostles,” being the first person to bear the teachings of Jesus. The Magdalene waited in anguish at the foot of the cross until his death, stayed at the door of his tomb (an endurance of grief, longing, love), and was there when he appeared at the tomb, arisen from his deathbed. She was the one to which he delivered his final message.

Noli me tangere. Mary rushed to touch him, but he asked that she stop. He had not yet arisen to heaven, and could not be touched in this state of transition. He asked her to “teach” what she had come to know of his message, and to tell the others she had seen him.

There are very long and intricate stories to tell, in several book length forms, which I am learning from (biblical, feminist, historical, Gnostic), and as I go, rooted here in this place. Suffice it say, Mary Magdalene has been labeled as a prostitute, and conversely, as the bride/lover of Jesus. She famously washed the feet of Jesus with expensive, perfumed oil from an alabaster jar. She accompanied Jesus everywhere, the thirteenth apostle, with his entourage of 12 men. Here, in the south of France, she is revered as a gifted teacher and a contemplative, who lived in meditation for 30 years in a cave, at the end of her life.

She is said to have escaped the Middle East by boat, landing with others in the South of France. She spent the rest of her life, living like a yogini in a cave near Aix, at the place of St. Maximin de la St. Baume, where I am now. Of course the Christian tradition wouldn’t make this connection to yoginis in caves (as in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), but I do. Here is the hard-won work of the contemplative, enlightened woman.

“Oh! I am the army of love—to love, alas, one must first embody the fight; this was my first knowledge; that life is fragile and death holds the power. That life, occupied as it is with loving, hatching, watching, caressing, singing, is threatened by hatred and death, and must defend itself.”

(Hélène Cixous, Coming to writing, p. 24)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Birds. Tonight, walking to the dining hall at the Cité, a flock of bright green, parakeet-like birds with long tails flew in overhead, settling into the trees! What birds! What sounds they made as they flew! What birds are these, in Paris?

I leave for Nice, early tomorrow morning. Meeting fellow Paris 8 faculty and students to take the train south, a five hour journey! We are gathering with women’s and gender studies faculty from a university in the south of France. This is the first meeting “Atelier” of “LEGS” as it is affectionately know. The trip has taken on the name, “Nice LEGS” (yes, to the English pun, and the French humour!).

LEGS is short for “Laboratoire d’études des genres et de séxualité,”, which was established in partnership with and funding from Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (of France). It’s a needed opportunity for the advancement of French women’s and gender studies, to have backing from the French National Institute for Scientific Research. The faculty and doctoral students of Paris 8 women’s and gender studies are all members of LEGS, as am I, a postdoctoral fellow. They say women’s and gender studies has a long way to go in France, but that may be true in Canada too. Though we think of this as an almost ‘established’ discipline, it is still a sideline field of studies.

Like the Aokian (a.k.a. Ted Aoki) curriculum and arts-based folk I studied with, there is a relational stream of professors here, who were taught or mentored by Hélène Cixous. These women are now leading and teaching in the women’s and gender studies program at Paris 8 (which Cixous initiated in 1974). So the Cixousian gift is passed down the line. It shows, I feel this gift, the way people attend and lean into ideas and creative ways, the way I was welcomed here, which despite my not-fluent French, has been the thread that carries me along during each of my visits. The creative, careful work of thinking and being through "d'études feminine et de genre" is held and valued.

Info on LEGS (French):
Première UMR interdisciplinaire dédiée aux études de genre et de sexualité, le Laboratoire d'études de genre et de sexualité (LEGS - UMR 8238) a été créé en 2014 à l’initiative de l’INSHS, sur proposition de l’université Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis, et avec l’université Paris Ouest Nanterre. L’unité a entamé sa carrière institutionnelle au 1er janvier 2015.

Program info, and themes to be explored for Nice LEGS includes:
Seront privilégiés les formats ouverts : tables rondes, discussions suite à brèves présentations de recherches. Ces journées donneront l’occasion de faire émerger des projets communs et de susciter des travaux, qui pourraient par la suite donner lieu à d’autres rencontres, projets de recherche collectifs, publications, etc.

Axe thématique :
Stéréotypes et représentations des corps
Poétique/Poïétique des corps
Esthétique des corps
Politique des corps

I appreciate this focus on and of bodies - des corps. 
The politics of the body. And especially notions of "esthetics" and "poetics" of bodies. Cixousian I think, and mirroring my upcoming talk on the "Poetics of the Placenta."

I am doing okay with French. I realize I’m not going to be fluent this year, and have relaxed around that. In fact, I am re-appreciating how much French I do have, and can work with when speaking with people. This is from years of previous immersions, including my undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa (université bilingue), with Québecois professors and fellow students ; many weeks spent over a period of 5-years in the Gaspésie ; and previous travel to France, including coming here for a summer 'work-camp' with a friend when when I was only 16. I have had an ear out for French language and culture for many years really. Being t/here, and reading Cixous, is another leg of this journey, one that deepens.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Here and there – t/here Paris !

I’m here (there)!
Or “t/here” 

In Paris again. Now it’s the fall season, but sunny and warmish still. The leaves are just starting to change. Yesterday, I walked and walked my way into being here. Around Notre Dame, hello to the Seine, then to the top of the Centre Pompidou, paying vigil to the surrealist artists this time, and taking in big views of Paris rooftops, Sacré Coeur in the distance. Arriving comes more quickly now, with an accumulation of familiarity. But it’s always a treasure to be here.

Travelling between Vancouver and Paris this year, I navigate two worlds—my home life and its knowing-ness with those I love, and then, boom, being in France on my own. Another language, place, time. Suddenly having time, and more time, with focus on work, pacing myself, walking in the city, being alone, or meeting with people at the University. 

This gap of experiences is challenging, as is the work of so much travel on my body/mind. There is a need for integration of my new experiences that takes its own time. And I keep wanting my family to be here, as if I’m not fully experiencing this place without them. A sense of something missed can be very strong. I head that, what loss can mean. I am so used to living in relation to them. But then, I am here, and I fall into ‘Nané-ish-ness.’ It’s a self-space I had in travels past. I let another sense come forward, and wander alone as best I can. 

I write “t/here” – to include my sense of here and there, as my here/there gets mixed up, moving across the two lands. Each is distinct. Getting onto the Paris Metro always lets me know where I am (here). The Metro has a whole poetry of its own. Broadly, it’s familiar to me, like any subway system across the world. There is the comfort of this, maybe I’m taking a ride across Toronto, or San Francisco. But then, this train is full of French people, so I hear the language, over-hearing conversations and cell phone talk. And French men and women wear such good shoes and those scarves, so I know I am in Paris. The Gallic look and presence is felt, as well as the growing cosmopolitan ethnicity of Paris. The Metro stops have names of famous places along the way, St. Michel / Notre Dame, Luxembourg, then onto my stop, the Cité Universitaire. 

The Cité is a wonderful place. It is an international university campus, linked to the Paris universities, and what was once the “College of Nations.” Students have come to study in Paris universities since the Middle Ages. Created in 1925, under a hopeful mandate of peaceful international relations after World War I, the Cité houses young people from around the world, who live together in what has become the globalization of higher education. The hope for a peaceful world remains on this campus of nations. The Cité houses international students and researchers on a massive scale, though networks of buildings, some very old, and some more modern. The site occupies dozens of hectors, spanning several enormous city blocks. The wonder of it is also the parkland setting that spreads around the various buildings (which are called houses/maisons). Such abundance of greenery is unusual in Paris, and lovely to walk within, easing our weary study-minds.

Hélène Cixous gives her monthly seminar right here in the Cité, in the Maison Heinrich Heine (German House). The seminar room has huge glass windows on all side, overlooking the tree-infused, park setting. Cixous' seminars are sponsored by Collège International de Philosophie, et Université Paris 8. But I will miss her seminar on this visit, as she starts teaching in mid-November.

I stay in the Maison d’Étudiants Canadienne. One of the oldest and first houses of the Cité, built in the 1920s for Canadian students. There is a large beaver tile mosaic on the main level hallway floor, as well as two inlaid patterns of green maple leafs in large circles, all of this in an art deco form. 

And so, I am t/here!

Friday, 18 September 2015

The woman with the book – la vie contemplative

Two postcards - I brought them home from Chartres Cathedral in France, from my springtime visit there. They are taped above my altar. Images to dwell upon, portraying “the contemplative life.” The message of these images is heightened for me right now, as this fall season begins, with its return for my family and I (and many others) to our occupations of teaching and learning.

I love the simplicity of these images.

The contemplative life is portrayed in female form, as a woman with a book!

Titles of sculptural reliefs - Le portal nord (XIII siècle):

La vie contemplative: elle lit (she reads)

La vie contemplative: elle enseigne (she teaches)

Elle lit – the book is held open in her hands, she gazes into it.

Elle enseigne – the book is closed, held upwards in her lap. Her hand is also held up, her palm opened towards us, a sign of benediction. Thus, her teaching goes forth from the wisdom of her reading.

These two images depict the heart of contemplation at work in the process of study, through reading and teaching. Each infuses the other. The woman with the book.


Saturday, 8 August 2015

A mother's love

“Love heals. We recover ourselves in the art and act of loving."
                           (bell books, Sisters of the Yam, 2005, p. 97)

“Care can take place in a familial context where there is also abuse. But this does not mean that love is present.”
                                                 (hooks, Sisters, p. 97)

Scholar, activist, and feminist, bell hooks, has written extensively in her academic career on the topic of “love.” In her chapter entitled, “Living to love,” in her book, “Sisters of the Yam: Black woman and self-recovery” (2005), hooks demarcates grounds for insightful understanding on the function of love in healing. She especially writes for black American women’s self-recovery through trauma, after generational conditions of slavery and deprivation. She writes for those who experienced home places and spaces where love was not available to them as children, including from their mothers. Feeding and putting a roof over children’s heads can be mistaken for love. When there is violence present, which can be verbal, emotional, and psychic (not only physical), material care for the body of the child can be confused with the meaning and practice of love. hooks writes elsewhere of the “practice of love.” Love is a practice to engage with, enter, and commit to. 

This chapter (and book) is written for black women’s self-recovery. But I easily read hooks’ stories into my own white Irish mother-line, and the confusion I held for many years about my mother’s treatment of me. Caring effort was clearly there, and I clung to that. But continuing events of emotional/verbal battering went alongside this. My mother struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues, something those around her (especially me) could not easily remedy. I was often the target of her uninhibited frustrations. It took me years to realize that I can both love my mother, while not condoning how she treated me. Into adulthood, the mix of care and abuse kept me in the relationship, despite how unsafe and hurt I felt, over and over again.

Love is not abuse, “understanding love as a life-force against death enables us to see clearly that, where love is, there can be no disenabling, disempowering, or life-destroying abuse."
(hooks, Sisters, p. 97)

I write this after picking up hook’s book from my bookshelf in a random way, thinking I’d take it as holiday reading. It has, of course, become an oracle for my present theme. I’m tracking the idea of mothering as a re-couperative practice. Re-couperative for both the mother herself, and society at large. That is, mothering can be both personally and socially transformative. hook’s notion of “self-recovery” is right-on in this regard, where personal healing has social and political impacts. These themes come out of my current research, and my now 17+ years experience of being a mother. I also have many more years experience under my belt, as the daughter of a challenging mother. What I write here would be greatly expanded in further life writing, with stories and details of life lived. Also, I’d note all the ways other adults in my life cared for me, while demonstrating and practicing love in relation to me. I knew what loved looked and felt like, and what it didn’t.

The other book I ‘happened’ to read this week is titled “Maternal thinking: Philosophy, politics, practice,” an anthology edited by Andrea O’Reilly (2009). These essays reflect on the work of philosopher Sara Ruddick, now years after her original ideas were first published. To put it way-to-briefly, Ruddick philosophizes the “protective love” (and more) of mothers and mother-work, into a theory of “maternal thinking,” in ways that link mother-work to the capacity for world peace.

At this juncture of my own life, healing, and scholarship, I have a new, soul-felt, and hard-earned “view” of my mothering practice. I can now recognize both the long-term work I’ve done in healing (basically, getting in-touch-with-myself, and something-larger-then-myself, over and over again), and the ways in which I have very consciously raised and loved my daughters into their now teenage years. I truly love being with my children and family. Though I work in various capacities outside the home, my work is often creatively linked to “home.” Family and home-making are central to my life. I can say that for me, mothering is challenging, AND it is also a source of great pleasure. Is it so radical to create and live towards a happy and loving family? 

Early on in mothering, I knew I was resisting the idea that children are a “burden.” My mother-line bore and struggled with this. I recognize that my own mother-work was/is informed by the times and place I live in. I am a product of women’s liberation, in relation to work and children, having power (theoretically at least) over our bodies, who we love and when, and when we will bear children. This astronomical social shift surely means something, even as motherhood is a still complicated (and underwritten) matter in current social and economic reality. I recognize the ongoing struggles and hardships of many mothers, to care for and love their children.

There is nothing like motherhood to show you your own weaknesses, soft spots, and to unearth any hidden habits and gremlins of your family line. Your children will get at these in you, through the happenstance of their innate vulnerability, their daily need for your material care, attention, AND affection. This mix of giving your attention and affection is more then just “care” in the moment of a child’s need. Paying attention so that our own negative reactions do not override the needs of the child, we can learn to limit any internal tendencies towards anger or violence, control or neglect.

“Recognizing her children’s vulnerability, a mother may (or may not) commit herself to non-violence. If she does, she will see her child as someone not to be violated, not to be made ashamed. She will become unwilling to cling to righteous rage, to continue assault past its moment of anger. She will restore dignity to her child and to herself when she lashes out and then will extend habits of protection to include protecting her child from her own anger and cruelty.”
(Sara Ruddick, Epilogue, Maternal Thinking, 2009, p. 255)

We can cultivate and practice non-violence and love towards not only our children, but ourselves. As we do this, we heal. In giving this love, the quality of our lives expands exponentially. As protective love enfolds the family, those within it know they are safe and loved. Love becomes the cushion for all beings in its circle. It holds us. We sense and feel more, enjoy more. A field of compassion opens out to the world around us. 

I know mothers can and do heal the world, even as the practice of mothering operates without direct access to political and economic power. As mothers, we hold the keys to love, loving, and being loved, in so many ways for ourselves and for so many other people. Love generates itself as we practice its giving and receiving. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

rue Saint Jacques - and the school of birth

I loved long walks through Toronto, even as a child. Later, as a teenager I walked the whole length of Queen Street with my friend, from my mom’s at Ossington Ave, to my dad’s in the Beaches. An hours-long journey. I also made this cross-Toronto walk along the length of Bloor Street, which turns into the Danforth as it heads east. Many of Toronto’s streets afford great cross-city pilgrimages, passing through various neighbourhoods and their sites/sights, Toronto being a cosmopolitan city of mixing ethnicities. Journeys on foot, of a familiarity to me that I miss. To walk the length of Queen or Bloor Street again.

Paris streets can be very long, but not at all like Toronto’s youthful city-grids. One walks and wanders along Paris’ ancient interconnected weavings. Of course, Paris streets are famous for walking. In recent years, I haven’t been as able to make long journeys by foot. But I have more strength recently, and am testing it day-by-day. During one of my last Paris days in May, I decided walk the length of rue Saint Jacques, all the way from Notre Dame Cathedral to my abode at the Cité U. This 2-hour walking route to or from the Seine was suggested by my visiting friend. She had taken it all the way back after visiting Notre Dame. I had become a denizen (a kind of underground citizen) of the Metro to get where I’m going in Paris. I knew it was time for me to try a long-walk, and to take in some above-ground views along the way. I told myself I could stop and sit for coffee along the way if I needed to, of course also a way of life in Paris.

I walked and walked, steady and slow, and did not end up stopping. One begins la rue Saint Jacques on the left bank, from Notre Dame. A favorite spot by the Seine. Rue St. Jacques (and Notre Dame itself) is apparently the start of the Camino pilgrimage way, a walking route through France and Spain, currently highlighted in many films. I may be making this up (the rue St. Jacques being the start of the Camino part), but I feel like I read this somewhere? This made my walk more momentous. To take a road of pilgrims, from its start. I was starting a pilgrimage.

Not long after leaving the vicinity of Notre Dame, I passed the looming, continuously immense buildings of the Sorbonne University. These buildings tower the whole length of one enormous city block. As only a Paris city block can be. The Sorbonne, that hallowed Paris institution of higher learning, of which, in 1968, I gather Paris 8 was providing alternative education to. Onwards from the great Sorbonne, and to the right, one passes the street leading to the Panthéon. Built for the patron Saint of Paris, Genevieve, and once holding Foucault's pendulum, and Rodin's "thinker," it is a mausoleum of distinguished French citizens (e.g. mostly male inhabitants: Zola, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Marie Curie). A huge plaza (“place” in French) surrounds this even huger building. Another amazing Paris monument, there are so many to behold. 

Walking further along, things calm in a neighbourly way, and the street narrows. There are many ‘restaus’ and small shops. Especially, at one point I see two or three Tibetan places. I ponder the Tibetan Buddhist refugees, their diaspora who have made a home here in Paris. To make a home, from afar, as did la famille Cixous.

After some time, there is a small church, with the name of Saint-Jacques, which I am surprised and happy to see. This confirms even more so the Camino link. I enter the church, as is my habit in travelling, and recognize Camino shaped shells holding the holy water. To one side is a very old statue of St. Jacques himself. I stop to spend some time, contemplating my own work/study as pilgrimage, thinking of (longing for) my family at home. Being with my unsettled feelings, and the tensions of being between here and there, without them (t/here). Holding thoughts of all, sending silent love to my-self and others, taking this time to contemplate, having gratitude for the journey. This walk as one small step of many. The kinds of steps I want to take/make in Paris, and elsewhere, all along 'the way.' Being in the walking, in the writing, in the walking/writing.

Further down the road I pass a hospital building, the 1880’s inscription of which reads, “Administration de l’assistance publique MATERNITÉ – Maison et École d’Accouchment.” Perfect, a sign. A perfect sign. This house and school “of birth.” The house of birth-giving. Something for the women of Paris (who are not so well represented in the Panthéon, except for the male progeny). The school of birth. Yes, I have gone to the school of birth. May we all live well in its wonderous house. 

Next, a few blocks way, is a small accordion storefront. A little “école accordeon,” très mignon! I think of my older daughter, who is learning to play. If she can visit one time with me here, which I hope for, I imagine returning to this little shop. She can take a lesson or two. Then, not long after, I am back on Allée Samuel Beckett (oh, yes, the great Irish writer is inscribed into the Paris streets), into the lovely green Parc Montsouris, and ‘home’ again in Paris. 

I now own a small booklet called, “Plan de Paris par Arrondissement” de Gilbert Jaune. Gilbert Jaune (a left bank bookstore) is of my haunts for French reading, and postcards near the Seine. The whole being-in-Paris thing is a thing. Being-in-Paris wasn’t the exact point that drew me to work here, but it’s a good one. I was following arts-based threads with the writing of Cixous. Who happens to live in Paris. Who happens to have started a university t/here. Paris is certainly a feature of Cixous’ writing, though even more so is the French language itself. She conjures its views. When I first imagined doing this postdoc, I had wished that my whole family and I would move to Paris for a year. We would have this adventure together. But then, the funding landed on me in an unexpected (but happy) way. I quickly contrived to travel back and forth. My family being not easily mobile, I mobilized myself.

Maybe I still wish for that year in Paris, to more fully immerse oneself and speak French. Reading a recent essay about Mavis Gallant, the Canadian author who lived most of her life in Paris, one is reminded about the whole-Paris-thing:

Gallant loved Paris, and lived t/here for over 50 years (dying "penniless" but housed). She had her favorite cafés, was fluent in French (though she wrote only in English), had her literary friends and visitors. She had her Paris apartment in which she kept her writing going. She had long walks to take, and loved to visit the art galleries. The many blogs about Paris (written by expats) very much call to, and can bank on, this Paris-thing. I may be calling to this Paris-thing here now.

Paris-people I meet may be enamoured with their city. But they seem to take it more with a grain (or two, or three) of French salt, and the day-to day realities of living lives in this big-old-city, beyond its tourist veneers. I have the job of working to situate myself in the French milieu of the Women’s and Gender Studies centre at Paris 8, its work, seminars, research, and people. And the pressing job of studying Cixous’s writing on this life writing pathway. But there is the being-in-Paris thing to grapple with, learn from and enjoy, seeing what-is-it-about-being-here, for me, and why here now? I certainly very much FEEL it when I’m t/here. When I’m home in Canada again, an almost communal longing comes up around all Paris evokes. Oh, Paris. Yes, there is a Paris-thing. A thing-place of history, art, literature, French culture, language, food, the sensuality and imaginings of LOVE. The river, the architecture, plazas (carefully cared for by the city), the long walks, the cafés, the galleries, always a place to stop and rest-visit. This is rooted in some truth of the place, and its moment as beloved-of-the-world.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Les revenants

“Words are gifts of the gifts of the motherworld and of aspects of the collective linguistic and conceptual or cultural commons, created by those before us in their life processes…The speaking/writing subject is thus a giver…while the listener/reader is a creative receiver”
(G. Vaughan, The Gift in the Heart of Language: The Maternal Source of Meaning, 2015, p. 382)

While reading her fictions, I have creative receptive attention for particular words given by Cixous. One of these is “revenant.” This translates into English as ‘ghost.’ But in French, the noun ‘revenant’ is derived from the verb ‘revenir,’ meaning ‘to come back.’ So that to be a ghost in French is actually to be a 'returner,' or to be one who comes back. How poetic, in-sight-full words! In her book Hemlock (2011), Cixous calls ‘les revenants’ her “visitors,” naming the “motif of…revenants” (p. 107) going on in the book. Her visitors meet with her in dreams, returning to her, as well as each other. From dream to dream (or book to book) the visitors travel back to her, her father, Freud, Derrida and Socrates (p. 103).

A dream of my own last night. I am back in my grandma’s house (paternal grandma) who died 5-years ago. It’s a house I re-visit in dreams. I want to be there, the feeling of being with my beloved grandmother. But she is never there in these dreams. She does not return with me to her house. Still, it is a familiar space each time. A place I go to be with her, without her. A very small house, I easily float through these memory rooms, seeing and feeling each space and corner. Last night, the walls are off-white in tone, with new creamy-beige, stripped wallpaper. Sometimes others visit or stay in grandma's house with me, my dad and step-mom, sister and brother. We visit together, without grandma. The house is still ours, to live in these dreams.

In last night’s dream, I am alone there. I go through the side door, explore the garage, and out to the little backyard on the ravine. I look across the street at the familiar view of other homes on this cul-de-sac. It is a safe nest of a house, a little bungalow of grandma-love. All the years of my life she lived there, and I would stay with her. But over and over in these dreams, as in life, she has departed. She is no longer there, even though I visit. In waking life, as soon as she died, she truly left the Earth, without a trace, without haunting. What a feat, a passage beyond. I could not sense one bit of her in that house after her death. She was finished (is not a returner).

In last night’s dream, I feel happy that I am able to visit the house. I am thinking how good it is that I can live there again in my adult years, after she has gone. On waking, a panic sets in. I realize that of course the house is sold. Five years ago, right after her death.

Now, this word, revenant—I am the ghost, the returner, haunting grandma’s house where others now live. I can't really live there again, but I visit anyway. Do they feel me there sometimes? If so, I am benign. A gentle visitor, drawn back by longing. I look around once in a while, looking for what’s left of grandma, taking some comfort in this space.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

“The milky taste of ink!”

Even in its effervescent qualities, writing begins in and with the body. Yet writing brings attention to the metaphysic recesses of body, soul, and experience we may not otherwise “see.”

“Maybe I have written to see…from the tips of fingers that transcribe by the sweet dictates of vision. From the point of view of the soul’s eye: the eye of a womansoul.”
(HC, Coming to, p. 4)

To trace “birth” and writing, in and with Hélène Cixous, I begin with the body. Also, the female body and Cixous’ contemplations of how she-body-writes.

One of Cixous' early tracts dates to 1970s feminism. Her essay, Laugh of the Medusa, was/is well know to North American audiences. This is likely due to its speedy translation at the time, and its absorbing qualities, being a writing-manifesto towards women-of-the-time. All those who voices had been silenced, or not given to the page:

“By writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more then confiscated from her….Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.”
(HC, Medusa, p. 880)

“To become at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process” (p. 880)

SYMBOLIC systems. A pressing idea for me. The importance of symbols and symbolism we live by. Linguistic signing, also coming from my current gift economy reading. The notion that there is a “symbolic order of the mother” (L. Muraro, in Vaughan, 2015), a maternal symbolic order, that is either hidden and/or repressed by the phallocentric. Where the “symbolic order” is usually associated with psychoanalytic theory (Lacan) and the absence of the mother (who is "the real"), and a lot of theory I have to work at more to represent herein. In Lacan, language is the domain of the father, and the "law" (Freud). 

The “symbolic” has to do with language, and our need of symbols for communication in community and culture. In other words, to re-claim a “symbolic order of the mother,” is to say that mothers direct a symbolic order, through introduction of language, symbol, and communication.

I'm coming back to "mothers" over and over in this blog. As the organic inquiry of my research, mothers are arising as a locus of this work. I get it. I am "paying" attention!

In seeking symbolic female/feminine systems, what could be more obvious then birth and birth giving? “Birth” is that ever present and completely under-theorized, under-represented topic of inquiry, from female/feminine philosophical perspectives of its ACTUAL experience, and mothers’ self-described stories of such.

The immediacy with which Cixous recognizes and writes birth (and what I mean by this is female/feminine, woman-centred birth, not the pain-glorified, fear-full, biblically-induced, popular culture version of such), suggests her close and investigative relationship with the topic. Early on in Cixous' life, this was via Eve, her mother. Her mother-the-midwife, who for many years of Cixous’ youth and young adulthood (after the death of the father), ran a birth-clinic serving an Arab, not-French population, in Algeria. Cixous may have attended and witnessed many birth-givings with her mother.

She notes this midwifery in her writing:

“I give birth. I enjoy giving births. I enjoyed birthings—my mother is a midwife—I’ve always taken pleasure in watching a woman give birth. Giving birth “well.” Leading her act, her passion, letting herself be led by it, pushing as one thinks, half carried away, half commanding the contraction, she merges herself with the uncontrollable, which she makes her own. Then, her glorious strength!”
(HC, Coming to, p. 30)

This paragraph goes gloriously on and on in its birthing:

“Giving birth as one swims, exploiting the resistance of flesh, of the sea, the work of breath in which the notion of “mastery” is annulled, body after her own body, the woman follows herself, meets herself, marries herself. She is there. Entirely, mobilized, and this is matter of her own body, of the flesh of her flesh. At last! This time, of all times, she is hers, and if she wishes, she is not absent, she is not fleeing, she can take and give of herself to herself.”
(HC, Coming to, p. 30-31)

This description reaches for the internal experience of birth. What midwives and experienced birth-givers can tell other women of its territory. To surrender to the experience, to be completely present as it demands of us. Yet the feeling of pure focused intensity which birth brings us, which we can both surrender to and direct. The truth of meeting one-self. Doing away with (annulling) the notion of "mastery," which Cixous also goes beyond in her writing. 

Cixous writes MORE, more of birth, and I love it all. Go, go, Cixous!

“It was in watching them giving birth (to themselves) that I learned to love women, to sense and desire the power and resources of femininity; to feel astonishment that such immensity can be reabsorbed, covered up, in the ordinary.”
(HC, Coming to, p. 31)

And so her mother’s midwifery-based birthing brings Cixous to women, and a feminine understanding of life/power that is "hidden" in the everyday fact of birth. This factor of “loving women” (and babies) is common to midwives who attend birth after birth. The connection, inter-connection, and availability of birthing energies to instill a common grace among women. We welcome the new child earth-side through the incredible efforts of the birthing mother, running the line of life and death. Does the midwife-woman recognizes the female effort of the m/other as sacred, as blessed and fierce in its vulnerability, seeing a mirror of her-self, her own potential?

“Loving women” is not a central factor of medical practice, which tends to exploit the vulnerability of women giving birth in power-over relations. Perhaps based in the exchange economy of medical work, where the medical officer must give something that the woman herself does not have (i.e. machine-based assistance, meant to alleviate female experience of itself). There is something in midwifery of being mother to women, of which medical practitioners cannot, do not, or will not “give” in their practices (is it a missing gift economy, that only that midwife can practice?). There are exceptions of course. Some doctors may practice the gift, and view women lovingly. I would like to add Cixous’ paragraphs into midwifery and medical school curricula.

What do you think? Who does birth belong to, in our human condition? Cixous also asks, who does writing belong to? Writing being akin to birth. The creation of other beings—our relationship to creation in its effort, anguish, and ecstasy.

“—just like the desire to write: a desire to live from within, a desire for the swollen belly, for language, for blood…the unsurpassed pleasures of pregnancy which have actually been always exaggerated or conjured away—or cursed—in the classic texts. For of there’s one thing that’s been repressed here’s the place to find it: in the taboo of the pregnant woman.”
(HC, Medusa, p. 891)

And so Cixous conjures the pregnant, birthing text, source of life, and new (old) ways of writing body/soul. I suppose, without in my own life making the jump from art to midwifery, and back to art again (adding the craft of writing), would I so admire these passages. The declaration of female creativity they evoke from within the female birthing body. To claim and fall into writing is both an anguish and divine pleasure. The pregnant, birthing pleasure of women and goddesses.

“She gives birth….She has her source. She draws deeply.  She releases. Laughing. And in the wake of a child, a squall of Breath! A longing for text!....A child! Paper! Intoxications! I’m brimming over! My breasts are overflowing! Milk. Ink. Nursing time. And me? I’m hungry too. The milky taste of ink!”
                                               (HC, Coming to, p. 31)

Breath / Text
Child / Paper
Milk / Ink

Ahhhhhhhh……The milky taste of ink!