Mercury Regretade

I don’t believe in astrology except when it comes to mercury retrograde. Three times a year, for three weeks on end, communications go awry. Mail gets lost, appointments get missed, misunderstandings abound. As a Gemini with a Virgo rising, I am to all intents and purposes made of mercury. The confusion hits me hard.

It brings unexpected benefits though. You can revive old friendships, for instance, or find stuff you thought was lost. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a classmate from high school. In Indigo, of all places, in the Manulife Centre. Where I only go when I’m in the neighbourhood and have half an hour to kill. Which is almost never. Seeing her face reminded me that this exponentially growing city is, still and always, my hometown.

It’s also been a time to revisit old writing. At the launch for Terri Favro’s Bella and the Loyalist Heroine (kicking off with a video trailer about her hometown), I read a monologue I premiered in (ulp!) 1996. It’s part of a series of performance pieces I created, satirizing new-age philosophy. In 1996, energy anatomy, visualization, and finding your bliss were all the rage. My position (then and now) is that this is pure narcissism, at best a prop to an individual’s confidence, at worst, a form of social Darwinism.

In the monologue, I talked about my long-standing phobia of singing in public, springing, so I claimed, from a general lack of assertiveness. I declared my intention to change all that, culminating with a solo rendition of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” in the loudest voice I could muster.

That piece took me a long way, the high point being a performance at the Festival of Women in the Arts at the National Arts Centre in March of 2000. They had a real actress performing it, and it was praised as a show-stopper. There was a video made. I took a copy to my mother and watched it with her in her nursing home. Seeing me called up to the stage to receive a round of applause, she declared, “What a big nose you have!”

I cycled immediately through the round of anger and depression she could set off in me with what I realize, in retrospect, was just her dry sense of humour. (Easy to say, ten years after her death. Easy to say when there are times I would give anything to be able to laugh with her again.)

Things have changed. To the point where I wished I had someone to perform the monologue for me, at Terri’s launch. I am no longer shy and retiring, and don’t have the acting chops to convey that personality.

I stated an intention back in 1996 (just like the new-agers say) and gradually fulfilled it. I changed my whole life, my habits of thinking and behaving, my work, my educational and marital status, my name, the people I consider “family,” and yes, my voice. Maybe that’s why it was so gratifying to have a high-school friend recognize me. There are times when I feel like a stranger in my own life.

But I didn’t just “attract” this change. I worked at it. I took a voice workshop with Richard Armstrong who got me past my fear by inviting me to sing the worst note I could imagine, as loudly as I could. This has been followed by twenty years of studying voice with Fides Krucker, which still continues. And there was Feldenkrais technique, a slow and astoundingly methodical method of addressing long-term habits. Habits of moving, thinking, feeling. And habits of choice.

But sometimes, friends are the greatest teachers. At that same launch, Diana Kiesners performed a hilarious monologue based on her blog, The Accordion Diaries. Her monologue is about pleasure and music, and letting go of control. It’s also about the healing power of a good teacher, and about remaining forever a beginner.

Diana and I met in the mid-eighties, at a writing workshop. Unsatisfied in both our work and personal lives, we hatched a plan to go to Mexico together. There we explored ruins and restaurants, museums and markets, got followed by love (or dollar) sick young men, puked together out the windows of an all-night bus. And laughed.

As late boomers, we had hit recession after recession in our careers, and launched our romantic lives in the midst of a feminist backlash. We had to find a way to take control. And on our return, we did. With the help of Diana’s computer and the “half price after midnight” special at Kinko’s Copies, we formed a small press called The Writing Space, which carried on, in one form or another, for two decades. As late bloomers, I like to think we are still finding ways steer each other through the latest thicket of challenges and the ones that lie ahead.

The launch was held at Q Space, at the corner of Borden and College streets. That used to be “my” corner, in the years leading up to writing the monologue. Back then, I lived in a room recently vacated by Diana’s and my friend, Jacqueline McClintock. In a dubious bid for flexible work hours, we all did transcriptions at an office that created editing scripts for TV and radio. We sat in a room at the back of a downtown house with earphones in our ears, feet pedaling and fingers pounding the keys as fast as they could to squeeze out every dollar before the next inevitable mechanical glitch. We were paid by the tape minute, and lost money when the company’s machines broke down.

At exactly three every afternoon, the boss would saunter into the staff washroom for an elaborate and protracted bowel movement. If she found us talking when she emerged, she would call out, “Back to the machines girls!” and leave us sitting in her laxative fug while she returned to her game of solitaire. Diana wrote about it. I made cartoons. Jackie moved to New York to study with Sanford Meisner.

Last September, I got an email from my friend Noreen Shanahan, attaching the obituary she had written of Jackie for the Globe and Mail. She had no idea Jackie and I had known each other. I had no idea Jackie was sick.

Time telescoped in the way that it can after a sudden loss. I thought about how friends hold memory for each other. Jackie and I had slipped out of touch in the past few years, yet I felt like part of myself had died. The only comfort was to see that her work had been recognized. She had gone on to teach Meisner technique throughout the world, influencing the face of film and theatre and establishing loyal followers everywhere she went.

Noreen points out in her first paragraph that a good teacher is immortal. Jacqueline was very much my teacher. I first met her at Bishop’s University (where we fought). Later, I shared a house with her in Montreal. I was looking for relationship models, back then, and Jackie and her partner, David, were like no couple I’d ever seen. She was the first to point out to me that the sexual revolution had not necessarily done women any favours. The sweetheart she met in her teens was her mate for life. Yet she was far from oppressed. At a time when I was using most of my imaginative resources finding ways of bending myself out of shape to please others, she provided living proof that a woman could be adored for being powerfully and unabashedly herself. With her dedication to her aunt Irene, Jackie demonstrated that it’s possible to be incredibly cool, and adhere to good old-fashioned values of caring for your elders.

My friend’s early death inspired many reflections, for it was during the years in Quebec that I made many of the decisions (or non-decisions) that have shaped my life since. I decided not to become a journalist or go to teacher’s college (the two most obvious options for supporting writing), but to throw myself out into the world and just see what happened. I didn’t have the chutzpah for journalism, but if I’d taken a teaching certificate, I’d be getting ready to retire, now.

I’ve always taught something, and yet for some reason, I decided to become one of those people who teach outside the system; my only certification is as a Feldenkrais practitioner and I teach creative writing, too. From a financial point of view, it was the worst decision you could imagine. Time and again in my working life I have ended up going “back to the machines.” I can’t say I’ve completely finished beating myself up over it, but this month I did eventually get bored with all this self questioning. If I don’t believe in myself no one will do it for me. Besides, I have classes to teach.


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5 Responses to Mercury Regretade

  1. Todd Yeates says:

    Wonderful post. You touch on so many profound and personal issues, yet do so with such precision and grace.

  2. Terri Favro says:

    Only you could have channeled Ethel Merman so beautifully. In fact, I’d like to see you do this again! And so would quite a few others who caught you at “Bella”‘s launch.

  3. A great window into your process!

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