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!

Friday, 3 July 2015

White ink: Gifted with/in the presence of women

Spending two days on retreat with Gestare last week, a women’s art collective I co-founded 5 years ago. Gestare is an artful and nourishing part of my life. Though it has been an at times challenging over-commitment for me, amidst my time-pressured life of work and mothering young family. But I have hung onto and in our artistic collaborations, knowing I want to be there. And wow, have we been busy, in a steady-progress-kinda-way, when you see what we have been up to over these years.

From labyrinth walking, ancestral journeys, tree-work, to “nap-ins” and dream scrolls, our collective artwork grows and is sourced from a process-based, Earth-centred, divine and sacred feminine honouring, women’s circle way of working together. “Process” means we engage sounding, ritual, labyrinth walking, movement, journal writing, and that we take time in circle to hear and share in each other’s life stories, sometimes at the expense of what might look like ‘working.’ This can be a source of tension in our processes, the line between processing our lives and ‘doing’ the work! Yet at heart, this is a deepening aspect of our artworkings, to know and support one another, to go between the personal and transpersonal, moving along together through shared art projects. Echoes of the feminist consciousness raising groups of times past, mixed with our shared experiences as ritualists, and women’s spirituality circle makers.

This woman-to-woman way, is a way of being fully seen, mirrored with/in each other, yielding to the creation of our collective art practices. The art is a creative life-based practice, growing from our skills and our lives, our commitment to trying things out in shared trust/vulnerability with various practices. Art is produced in both tangible and intangible forms. Sometimes, as in our initial vision of the “nap-ins,” an odd-ball-seeming idea (yes, we DO laugh at ourselves!!) becomes a profound art practice, to be shared with groups around the world.

The gift and re-mothering
Related to all this, I am just now re-immersed in thinking about the “gift” and “gift economy,” while reading a review copy of Genvieve Vaughan’s new publication (lucky me!) “The Gift in the Heart of Language” (2015). I am reading on the heels of the MIRCI /Gift Economy conference in Rome. And as they (Nané via Einstein) say, “coincidence” is goddess’ anonymity:

Vaughan’s book is groundbreaking in its complex simplicity. Understanding the gift, what it is and isn’t, puts so much into perspective. Once you see how the capitalist exchange economy functions, as a parasite of the maternal gift economy, various other critiques of the too-many human/Earth exploitations fall into clearer alignment. We have an already-made answer in the maternal gift. The "push" of my own work in birth-philosophy is rooted in the primacy of maternal relations, as lived by mothers-themselves, and midwives-at-work.

Gestare is truly engaged with the gift economy. As artists, our work comes from and is shared by us, without payment or necessary economic reward within our collective. Through writing essays we may further our careers, in needed publications for academic ‘advancement’ and such. Yet the work is unfunded, and comes from the gift of time and presence that we give to each other and ourselves, and then share with others. We advance transformative and restorative living ideals, and woman-centred /honouring ways of being with others on the Earth. Being artist-scholars, and experimental artists, we work with/in processes that benefit our lives, which can have beneficial impacts with the people and communities who also experience this work.

The gifted/gifting part makes me think more about practices of “re-mothering.” This theme arose on my recent California trip, watching the last WSMA graduates present their thesis projects. Almost every one of those women had in one way or another been on a profound journey of re-mothering herself in community with others and the sacred feminine/goddess, through her WSMA studies. This aspect of woman-centred, transformative education seems to have been more explicitly guided by the WSMA faculty in the last few years. We are women healing wounds/lineages from mothers and traumatic experiences of mothering in our families and communities. This is a difficult topic to surface and admit in patriarchal society, let alone in an educational context. Yet the experiences and wounds can be very real. Beyond mother-blaming, there are layers of daughter-healing that many of us have had to face to become the empowered mothers, parents, and people we are in our lives. To work from nourishment of the “gift,” through life-based ways of being in the world, valuing unconditional love, nurturing relationships, and doing the “work” of healing with each other. It takes community, and is not an easy path, working through the struggles/anguish of self-location.

I think this is an aspect of our Gestare practices, the re-mothering we share in with each other. This could also be framed as “sister-ing” each other, being compassionate sisters to one another. A way of women-being-with-women in our lives. To hear each other's challenges, not in any sentimental kind of way, and not as therapy per say, but to witness each other, and move on and forward with more insight, more love. This is the mirroring aspect of women caring with and for other women. In understanding the gift economy, it’s the giving of language, words-in-communications, care, time, (and food, housing) that a mother does with her child. In Genevieve Vaughan’s view we are “motherers” to babies, children, and to each other and the world in this sense (not having to be a physical mother). This is one-way gift to the receiver (not an exchange). We don’t expect a reward or payment, if done in terms of direct nourishment, rather then through violence, or conditional giving. We give simply because the child requires it to live and thrive. You might also call this gift “love.”  

On this theme of “re-mothering” and the “gift” (which I draw a line between, visa vi Vaughan’s groundbreaking gift analysis based in the maternal), Cixous catches my eye with two paragraphs, one in Coming to Writing, and one in Laugh of the Medusa:

“Woman, for me, is she who kills no one for herself, she who gives (herself) her own lives: woman is always in a certain way “mother” for herself and the other. There is something of the mother in every woman…In woman, mother and daughter rediscover herself.” (Coming to, p. 50-51)

“a woman is never far from “mother”…There is always within her a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink.” (Medusa, p. 881)

Woman for woman—There always remains in woman that force which produces/is produced by the other—in particular the other woman....There is hidden and always ready in woman the source; the locus for the other. The mother too, is a metaphor.” (Medusa, p. 881)

When a nurturing-centred way of maternal mirroring was missing in some way (or given through physical or verbal violence), as it was for some of us daughters, re-mothering can come through other women and communities later in life. This is true for me, in my healing studies of grassroots midwifery and women’s spirituality, in which I engaged close friendships, studies, and circles with other women. But it also true in my relationship with my husband as a companion. I think Cixous’ readers can feel this way about her generous texts, which give the gift of self-formation and mirroring in the reader, through a text that makes space for you.

“What moves me to write—is analogous to what moves the mother to write the universe so that the child will grasp and name it.” (Coming to, p. 51)

The gift—written in white ink of mother’s milk.