Thursday, October 26, 2017

Where there is glitter

Andrew ("Glamdrew") Henderson was a cherished friend and colleague of mine. It was an absolute honour to have worked with him on his last artistic project. He died October 26, 2016.


It’s early September and I’m meeting Andrew and Eroca at an art studio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. We’re beginning rehearsal for their show, Taking it to the Grave. Except it’s not quite a rehearsal, and it’s not quite a show.

Andrew is dying. He’s had lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare and deadly cancer, for just over two years, and been terminal for one. Now he’s selling tickets for a chance at some truly unique real-estate: his expiring flesh.

“I’m dying anyway—I should charge to take people’s secrets with me to the grave,” he cracked once to his friend Eroca. “Ok, let’s actually do that. Why the fuck not?” And now it’s happening and no one knows what it will be except spectacular.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to exorcise your deepest secrets and regrets onto the skin of someone who can get rid of them for good. Whispered to only Andrew, they will be interpreted into a symbol and tattooed, in real time, on his arms. Released from those they burden, these secrets will soon be rotting into oblivion along with Andrew’s body. Eternal impermanence.

The project might sound dark. But here’s the thing about Andrew: he is levity. He is Champagne bubbles straight up your nose. He’s embracing the hilarity and absurdity and beauty and opportunity of his death. He will comfort you about his impending doom. He has magic.

Eroca is a force of her own. She is red lipstick and piercing eyes. She is a dancer, choreographer, healer, witch. She studies cross-cultural funeral practices and the queering of death and mourning. She reads tarot cards and she and Andrew talk about the spirits who are present, some of whom are beckoning Andrew to the next plane (he’s on borrowed time now, she says).

This creaky old room, white walls, hardwood floor, not yet filled with objects, is bouncing with magic.

I am quiet, open, hungry: an eager sponge.


***

A few days later and the studio has been doused in the material expression of Andrew and Eroca’s energy. Tables are piled with the pair’s makeup, Andrew’s bottles of pills and eye drops. Gold and glittering talismans perch on every surface. Andrew is at work at the sewing machine decked out in his pig ears hat.

Andrew is cheerful, ebullient—the Andrew I’ve always known. He leads us in a set-crafting adventure involving a Rubbermaid of Elmer’s liquid glue. It’s easy to forget the battle raging inside him. He only rarely sits and rests, closes his dry, stinging eyes, nurses a migraine he’s been fighting all day. He brushes off our worry, hates to be preened over—for his illness, at least. He is fine. He is fabulous.

Andrew has something for me, stage manager to stage manager. It’s a toy sheriff’s badge, its silver-gold paint worn off at the tips.

“I would wear it when I was working on a new show, and had to walk into a room of strangers and boss them around,” he explains. “I wore it and I was in charge.”

I gratefully accept this powerful object. Thank you, darling.


***

It’s Andrew’s 28th funeral-themed birthday party, billed as his last. (So was last year’s, I remind him. He cackles gleefully.) I hang out at the studio with him and his visiting Toronto friends as they get ready. I don’t know them so I’m quiet. Andrew presides over the room as he is adorned with colour, glitter and gold-leaf. He is radiant and knows it. I bask in his light and feed him compliments and feel socially at ease.

I notice a woman applying gold glitter to her friends. I ask her for some and she delicately dabs it around my eyes, along my cheekbones. Glitter gets on my lashes and when I open my eyes I’m looking at her smiling face through a kaleidoscope of gold and the world is blurred, bright and beautiful, a bottle of gold-flecked Champagne.

The evening is a delicious swirl of low lights, custom cocktails, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and the celebration of Andrew’s life and impending death. In the morning, I wake, face unwashed. There is glitter all over my pillow.


***

It’s five days before the show and Eroca, Andrew, his Auntie and I are hanging the gold curtains Andrew’s corpse will later be wrapped in. Eroca brought them from India and they will be the backdrop to the show. They are the most beautiful things you could imagine.

“Do you want to try them on?” Auntie asks Andrew.

“No,” he says, with a deep breath. “I don’t want to… until I absolutely have to.”

This is the night Eroca and Andrew cry. Andrew’s cry is tearless, because his eyes are so dry and sore.

“I wish I had some fucking tears!” he sob-laugh-shrieks. He has such a beautiful shriek.


***

It’s Friday, the first performance. Andrew has been dangerously ill since the day before. We weren’t sure he could be here, but he rallies. He’s doing this, at any cost.

This room is thick with strangers, friends, family, nervous energy, uncertainty and love. Eroca guides us into magical, uncharted territory.

I am weightless, joyous, when the glitter falls. We dance to Madonna, Katy Perry, in a storm of shimmering gold foil rectangles. We take turns lying on the floor as others fling the foil above our bodies, watch as it tumbles down toward us. Some of it clumps into huge perfect golden spheres that barrel toward our faces like comets, exploding as they make contact. It is the most divine experience of my life and I gasp and laugh and glitter falls into my mouth and I laugh more.

When the evening closes, as Andrew walks the room to greet his audience, he sees me at the curtains, says my name and we clasp hands for just a moment.

Later, when I undress, there is glitter in my bra.


***

On Sunday, the second and final show, like Friday, things for Andrew and his body are brutal. It’s difficult to witness. But he is present to preside over another packed room. He could never disappoint his fans.

Before the show, I approach Andrew on his chaise. We hold hands, say few words— it’s hard for him to speak, he is so sick. He fusses with my collar, helps me attach my sheriff’s badge as best he can with his long and beautiful manicured talons. Thank you, darling.

Today, in this same sacred and surreal space adorned with glittering gold drapes, soft pink lights, bubbles, a forest of green hanging ghosts and a tulle Champagne bottle centrepiece under which a spectacular dying person inks the secrets of others onto his fading body, I am heavy. Like on Friday we ceremoniously sweep piles of gold glitter to the centre of the floor. Once it’s gathered, it’s my job to make a mess, dropping more glitter over Eroca and the other dancing bodies, all to start the sweeping again.

Today I don’t dance. I don’t grin. Today, the moment I throw the first handful of glitter I am sobbing—for the first time. I let tears spill down my face for hours.

Today the line to tattoo secrets is longer. There is so much people need to release. We go an hour overtime because Andrew understands the importance of his work. At the end, like Friday, Eroca walks with Andrew to greet his guests. She anoints him with Champagne, and we all follow, blessing him with water, as Superstar blasts. But it’s not like Friday, because this is really the end.


***

When the show is over, we smoke at an open window in the back with Andrew. I am still shaking.

Andrew, quiet and serene, thanks us for our labour, our support, our love. We express our gratitude for him and he says, “I didn’t do anything, I just lay there.”

Does he really not know what he has done?

I rest my hand gently on the back of Andrew’s neck. I realize later I have no idea if he wanted to be touched— I just wanted to touch him. It’s the last time I do.

Andrew asks for a moment alone to finish his cigarette. We retreat.


***

A half hour later Andrew is leaving with his family. He had wanted to get drinks with us but we know he needs rest. He is near the door hugging people goodbye. I’m on a ladder across the room, taking down lights. I wonder, suddenly, if this is the last time I will see him. I want to hug him, but he’s walking out, there’s no time, so I yell “goodbye!” and hope he turns. Because every time he sees you, smiles at you, touches you, it’s warm sun on your skin, it’s a torrent of gold glitter barreling at you with ferocious power. We still need it from him, even now when he’s so sick, so tired, when he’s already given so much. And he is still so willing to give.

That night, at home, I find glitter in my shoes.


***

Three days later I get a text from Andrew’s phone. It isn’t him. It never will be again.

On the morning of October 26, 2016, Andrew fulfills his promise and disposes of 22 secrets, etched onto his arms in ink, in the physical oblivion of his death.

He had been in hospital. We knew the past few days had been very bad. But no one expected him to leave so soon.

The timing, just days after his final show, is artistically impeccable. Despite everything, the dramatic side of Andrew would delight in the perfection, the poetry of it, his final act the completion of a flawless narrative arc.

At the time of his leaving, as always, he is surrounded by love, so many circles of love, ripples widening to encompass so much geography, so many hearts.

I speak to people from across the country, the continent—reporters who had just met him, and people who had never known him but only heard his story. They are grieving, they cry. I do too. I hold my sheriff’s badge and I play Kesha.


***

Where there is glitter:


in the shards and bubbles of a shattered glass of Champagne

in dust dancing in the yellow shaft of a stage light

in the late-night glow of a beckoning city

in the reflections off an espresso machine’s shiny gold finish

in the watery mirage ahead on a summer Manitoba highway

stuck in the rafters of an Exchange District art gallery

on the stucco ceiling of a funeral home in Selkirk

scattered across a roadside grave in the tiny town of Clandeboye

in my pockets, my purse, my hair


Thank you, darling.



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

This flower was alive 100 years ago

This month marked the 100th anniversary of my great grandparents' wedding.

My mother's grandparents, Kate Ballard and William Turner were married at Dawes Road Congregational Church in Fulham, London on June 17, 1916.

I am lucky enough to possess the actual boutonniere worn at that wedding.

The fact that I own a flower corpse a century old makes me very very happy.


I was also honoured to wear the wedding brooch worn by my great grandma Kate at her wedding, at my own wedding in February, just months shy of 100 years later.

I love that my family has taken such care to keep these precious heirlooms, and that I was able to incorporate them into my own wedding.






Sunday, September 6, 2015

Heritage houseplants and other ancient greenery

"What is that strange tall one?" I ask my Baba about a particularly odd and towering plant in her vegetable garden.

"It's greens, and I grow one to seed every year to keep planting, because those were my mother's seeds, and they came from Poland."

How had I, so keen to gobble any scrap of family history, not known about this fantastic edible heirloom in the garden all these years? I'm glad I finally asked.

My Baba's mother traveled to Canada (from a region of Austria which had formerly been Poland and is now western Ukraine) as a toddler circa 1908, dating those seeds' ancestors to over a hundred years old-- at least. How cool, to know my salad holds a connection to that of my ancestors across an ocean a century ago. And that my grandmother, who turned 89 this week, has taken such care to keep this tie to her heritage.

And that's not the only plant with history in my Baba's garden. Her geraniums herald from a family a quarter of a century old. These direct descendants of plants she inherited from a friend more than 25 years ago benefit from a very rigorous regimen of care. Every fall she digs up, pots and brings the younger generation of slips inside to winter. There are maybe two dozen plants that enjoy this royal treatment in our cottage-turned-greenhouse each year. And the TLC has paid off. These guys are hearty.

Obviously these impressive offerings got me all excited about real live photosynthesizing keys to the past. Ancient trees are amazing in their own right, but there's something especially fascinating about ancient houseplants-- their intricate connection with human history is unique. Imagine how many gossip sessions they've overheard in various parlours across the ages.

While not a "house plant" per se, this hulking specimen is the oldest known potted plant, dating back to 1775 (!!).

Back to my personal collection of botanical treasures: my dad's side of the family clearly boasts a couple of pretty neat contenders. And my mum's side doesn't fail to deliver either.

While it's a couple centuries younger than its tropical cousin mentioned above, this umbrella tree was given to my mum when she was 22 in 1977 by an old boyfriend. It's stood in the corner of her living room my entire life-- an old friend I recently inherited as she renovates her house.

And while it certainly is no longer alive, one of my most prized family heirlooms is a delicate and crispy boutineer worn by my great grandpa on his wedding day in England in 1916. (More on that, with photos, to come on their 100th wedding anniversary this June.)

As a history nerd I've always been enthralled by historic artifacts-- especially the day-to-day items that offer a tangible connection to the ordinary lives of people from the past. (My favourite so far is a jar of actual cold cream found on the Titanic.) But an "artifact" that is actually alive and has been providing a lush background of foliage to these passing ages? That brings us to a whole new level of amazing.

Friday, June 27, 2014

House burns, humanity loses

I wrote an article for the Spectator Tribune on the destruction of the Criddle/Vane Homestead and why disrespecting our history is bad news for humanity.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Polarized debate over rape prevention misses the point

Check out my editorial in the Spectator Tribune, where I weigh in on the binge drinking/victim blaming/personal safety debate spurred by Emily Yoffe's controversial piece and its subsequent backlash.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Goodbye to Enoch



The frantic knock comes as I’m on hold with the airline, trying to change a mistake on my ticket—something I’m worried sick over, something my anxiety-brain considers a worst-case scenario. Now the doorbell's ringing.

It’s our neighbour from across the street, the one with the cat that looks like ours – she had once dragged hers, terrified, out of the house to show us, grinning with pride—that’s how she knows it’s Enoch in the puddle, bloody and gasping.

There’s a crowd around him—six, maybe eight, people—the neighbour, a woman and some kids from the school, the man who hit him with his car (he is so sorry), the family who drives up and says they will take me to the vet. They are all yelling and trying to help and it makes me feel really good, later, that they are all here with us.

Adrenaline, panic mode, shoes, oh my God, keys, blanket, purse, oh my God. I carry his writhing body in my arms.

There is nothing to be done, we have to let him go. Joe gets there in time to say goodbye. He doesn’t stay for the needle. I always do.

***

It’s the fourth cat I’ve seen put down, but the first one that left so violently. That was the deal though, we all knew it. Enoch knew it, he must have—the price of freedom.  Six years, nine lives. It wasn’t my choice anyway—it was something he and Joe had worked out long before I came. I hated living with the uncertainty, but even I had started to take for granted that every time he’d flit out into the night he’d dart back in again when called.

The just after reminders cut the deepest, make you wince. His bowl with the kibble he’d left behind that last time. The indent of his body on the bed from this morning. The water glass from last night we knew he’d dipped his paw into, as always—he couldn’t resist. The faint smell of cat piss on the living room chair (because let’s be real, he was a jerk sometimes and used urination as a manipulation tool). His nose marks on the window. His blood on the street.

Then there are the things you don’t want to forget but you know you will, because time’s an asshole that way. So you write them down:

How he loved to play under the sheets as you made the bed.

The sound of his paws scratching at our door when he wanted in.

How he would so eagerly let Joe carry him up to bed at the end of the day.

The way we slept each night with our limbs askew around him, because he’d never ever budge.

How he always found a way to cram himself onto Joe's lap, no matter where he was sitting.

His silhouette on the red fence at dusk, leaning into inky night, just before it pulled him away.