Missing mothers

Any student of fairytales will tell you
Almost nothing is as essential as
A missing mother.

The journeys and adventures belong
To the orphaned and abandoned;
Not to those tucked safely in bed,
Left with a warm kiss on their brow.

For the longest time I thought
This must be a plot imperative.
Of course there must be an absence
To trigger the journey. And critically,
No parents to stand in adventure’s way.

As I grew older, I began to suspect that
This was instead a form of misogyny
The women are deleted, made invisible
Killed by the hands of an unseen author,
That of our own collective unconscious,
Erasing the women who create and raise us

(Can you imagine the self-proclaimed stars of
The Hero’s Journey putting up with the same?)


But now that I am a mother, reading stories
To my own daughter, I have encountered this as
A more complex puzzle. If women are the ones
Originating and perpetuating these fairytales
Why do we leave ourselves out of them…?
I know now that it is because we are desperate –

(Not thinking that we don’t matter,
But knowing how much we do – )


– Desperate to believe
That our children will survive without us
And to give them the tools and imagination to do it.
Even though we may not appear in the narrative
It is our voices that carry the stories forward
Through generation after generation, bedtime
After bedtime, with a love so profound it can only
Be made clear by enacting its own absence.

Note: This started as something I was puzzling over during the nightly bedtime routine. Wondering about the mothers – and the meaning, at least for me, hit like a ton of bricks with the line ‘we tell fairytales with missing mothers / to believe they will survive without us.’

I jotted this down as soon as I left the room, and returned to it today.

The absent mothers in fairytales are not a result of who don’t see themselves or don’t realise their value and importance – it is women who feel it almost too deeply, wondering what to do with that alongside the fragility of life.

These stories have existed since a time when motherhood was a risky endeavour, childbearing always carried a risk of death, and we knew that while our love sustained our children both physically and emotionally, it could be stolen away by circumstance at any moment.

Sometimes we tell fairytales simply because it is traditional. But for me, it feels like something deeper is at play. I think we tell stories with missing mothers not necessarily for our children, but for ourselves – believing that children on their own can successfully navigate their way through life to the happy ending.

For me, there is a poignant fear underlying this, but also a powerful belief that it can be done – and it is our belief in our children’s own resourcefulness and goodness that will ultimately help light the way.

Note 2: I ended up revising this poem after recording it. I found that it was too easy to lose the sense of the sentence unless ‘desperate’ was repeated. And when I added this in again, the line started to feel too long to fit the style, so it added another line break. I think there’s something to be said for it in both ways, but I think for now I’m choosing consistency between the performed and written version as the best choice.

Photo by David Gonzales from Pexels

Questions

We commiserate so often
About all the questions
Our children ask
The constant chorus
Of WHY, WHY, WHY?

But maybe we should
Think more about the
Questions they don’t ask.

The things they know
Already are too secret
Or too shameful
To be spoken aloud,

The places they pick up
On our uneasy shifting,
The averted gaze,
The quick distraction;

Or worse – the pregnant
Pause before we answer
In too-bright tones, saying
Words we only half believe.

The questions they never ask
Point us in the direction
Of our own fears, our
Unseen hypocrisies,

And our own childhoods
At the cusp of the moment
When we ourselves first
Learned to stop asking why.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


How I am honouring this Thanksgiving

Every year as I honour Thanksgiving, I’m mindful of the complicated history that accompanies it – and in particular the legacy of pain for indigenous folks in America.

I find myself sitting square in the middle of this contradiction. I want to hold space for this holiday’s tangled past – and it seems to me, with each passing year, that more and more when we scratch the surface imbued with the golden glow of nostalgia, there are darker things lurking beneath.

Still in my own personal history, Thanksgiving holds a precious place. I always think of it as my mother’s favourite holiday – one that is about family and gratitude.

Remembering her talking about it, what stands out to me is the feeling of inclusion.

This is not a religious holiday – one that by definition excludes nonbelievers even as it honours tradition. It does not rely on specific objects or actions. Yes – the turkey feast is emblematic, but I always think one of the great treats is seeing how different generations of immigrants have made this meal their own. It is mutable – evolving and full of potential.

In my mother’s Thanksgiving, all that is really required is an open heart full of gratitude for life and for each other. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m aware that this is the view through a child’s eyes. Now that I am an adult, different realities and histories are layered. But that sense of love and connection is still precious to me, and I’m loath to write it off, even though I now see through wiser eyes.

As we talk to our own daughter, I find myself wondering how to on one hand share the values I think make up the best of what America is as a nation – while at the same time making space for old harms to be acknowledged and addressed.

Many of these are issues that will take a lifetime to reckon with – and certainly go beyond the attention span of a three-year-old.

So I find myself asking: how do I model honouring this holiday?

It is a truth and a tragedy that many so-called ‘minority’ groups must grapple with being externally defined by their legacies of pain – ignoring the full reality of these cultures and all the bits that deserve to be embraced and celebrated.

When I wanted to reflect on the incredible richness of Indian/Native American culture, and the perfect thing came to mind:

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.

This is – in a perfect bit of parallelism – another legacy of my mother’s within my life.

Always passionate about music, she has opened my eyes to so many artists and traditions. She is the one who introduced me to this documentary charting the influence of Native Americans on American music, and particularly rock and roll.

Watching this film – and the incredible performers it depicts – is an incredible celebration of the way these cultures have enriched and shaped the soundtrack of American music in ways that have gone unseen and unacknowledged.

It’s a fascinating and well-deserved tribute. And somehow, it feels like the perfect way of honouring indigenous culture on this day.

I feel like traditions often creep up on us – happening over and over again until we suddenly realise they have become essential components of our lives. And who knows what next year will bring, but I love the idea of consciously trying to make this an ongoing tradition.

And on that note – if you’re thinking about what you’d like to do after the turkey has been eaten and the dishes are washed – I would really recommend thinking about supporting indigenous filmmakers by buying/streaming this film. It’s really an incredible piece of work, and full of warmth and appreciation for these Native artists.

While a small gesture, I think every effort we take to rebalance the scales of life and history within our own hearts is a step towards a better and kinder future. That is something I would be truly thankful for.

A Thanksgiving

There are some acts of kindness
So profound that they go beyond
Our ability to ever return the favour.
All we can do is pay it forward
In a spirit of blessed gratitude,
Marvelling that the world can be
Full of such kindness and grace.
And at the very darkest of times
That spirit of generosity will shine
Warming our hands and our hearts
As we reach, yet again, for each other.

Photo by MUILLU on Unsplash

Note: I found this photo over two years ago. Today was the perfect moment.

Rosebud

Yes, I see you there
Back arched with
Luxurious grace
Your thick and feral
Tail swaying like
A hypnotist’s trick

Leading the eye
Exactly to where
You want it:
That perfect little
Pink puckering
A delicate terminus

I envy your shining fur
Your effortless athleticism
And your all-seeing eyes
But most of all
That parading bottom
On proud display

I hold my milk-stained
Child in my arms
And think the sacrifice
Was worth it
Yet I can’t stop staring
As you flaunt past

The baby follows you
With her eyes, reaches
Out for the silken limbs
That dance just out of reach
As you keep your target
Square in the line of sight

Oh to have an uncompromised
Ending – a luxury
Of the very young
Or creatures whose
Bodies have kept
Their animal wisdom

I was made, unmade
Repaired, sewn back
Together again
And in a miracle I am
Somehow whole
(I suppose?)

Still I long
For the innocence of
That perfect rosebud
A gift only realised
With cheeky regret
Once the bloom is lost

Note: I have yet to meet a cancer patient whose experience has not forced them to think in great detail about poop. The side effects were in full force today. I made an off-hand joke by text to a friend about being jealous of a cat’s perfect bottom, and realised actually there was the root of a poem in it.

Photo by Mike Stillwater on Unsplash


Introducing: Where The Roses Bloom – the Newsletter

The time has come!

I’m creating an email list / newsletter.

Basically, it means you can sign up to get updates by email, to your inbox, instead of coming to this site or checking social media.

Important stuff first…

Why you might want to sign up:

  • Find out when there are new posts on Where The Roses Bloom
  • Stay updated on my cancer journey
  • Hear about what I’m creating / my artistic work
  • It’s free

Join at: https://acsmith.substack.com/

The backstory: And suddenly, there was a Newsletter!

One of the things I’ve loved most about creating within the digital space of this blog is having the flexibility to play with things on my own schedule.

That’s been amplified by the fact that, up to this point, no one has known it exists.

Having the ability to place posts where they fit into my personal chronology means that it’s the truest reflection of my experience. But it also means that it’s almost impossible to find new posts, since they are often buried deep in the archive.

There is really something to be said for the immediacy of blogs – the fact that writing is created and pushed out so quickly.

There’s a reason that on blogs, the newest posts are always on the top. They are about what is happening now.

I’ve embraced that spirit in my own writing – trying to capture the moment rather than a longer period of experience.

But the truth is, sometimes I like to take a bit more time to reflect on those stream-of-consciousness musings.

Some of the things I write on this blog are quite personal, and sometimes I need a some space to decide whether it actually feels right to share them.

I also appreciate having a chance to reflect to make sure the words I’ve written reflect how I truly feel – an articulacy that can get lost when working in haste.

Over time, it became clear to me that when I reached the point of sharing this work, I would need a newsletter or mailing list to share new musings.

And so, here it is.

Why Substack?

I’ve decided to go with Substack for a number of reasons.

The first, and most important one for me, is that most mailing list software options aren’t really designed for writers. They’re set up for marketers.

The Substack interface puts the writing front and centre. There’s no requirement to add things like marketing buttons or get bogged down in technicalities.

Also, it stands out from the crowd by being free – both for creators and users. Most other softwares start charging at a certain point. There is zero obligation to monetise on Substack. Win for everyone!

I’m intrigued by the fact that the Substack platform is still relatively new. I think there are some interesting creative possibilities to explore, and I’m interesting to see how things develop.

What will be in the newsletter?

I’m going to be playing around with the format a little bit until I figure out what feels right. But you can expect to find:

  • Notification about new posts on this blog
  • Information about my health and how I’m doing with my current cancer treatment
  • Ideas on how you can help if you want to (Example: I’m currently looking for hot tips on good pillows) – I’m calling this ‘Hivemind Fun’ for now
  • Links to cool art that other people are making

And I suppose we’ll see how it goes from there!

Thanks for reading. If this work speaks to you it would be lovely to have you along for the ride.

Link again (and yep, it’s free): https://acsmith.substack.com/

Photo: A.C. Smith

Seeing stories

For Mat Hale

A camera
Is a machine, but
Behind that machine is the
Eye of an artist
Watching

Or seeing
That’s a better word
For eyes that look deeper
And find truths that
Need light

But is it
Powerful enough
For the alchemy that goes
Into capturing life
Via a lens

I need
New words for
Turning vision to language –
Maybe silence
Is best

A life
Seeing stories
Is a life dedicated to magic
Of the purest
Kind

What a gift
To see so much beauty
In the world, and to share it
With others, a marvel
Of gratitude

Note: I’ve been lucky to work with some truly extraordinary collaborators, but Mat Hale is among the most generous and hardworking of the bunch. I’ve learned so much through our work together, and I’m so grateful to have gotten to see the world through the unique perspective of his filmmaking eyes. Here’s to hopefully many more in the future.

Update: I originally wrote this poem on the 11th of June. He had learned that he had Stage 4 cancer, and was trying to get to grips with this news and what it meant for him. I was able to share it with Mat before he got really ill. I am grateful I got to articulate a small amount of what he meant to me.

I’m still trying to take in the news that Mat died yesterday. I just got off the phone, and the tears are still clinging to my eyelashes.

I feel stunned with grief, and the only thing I can think to do is to reach for his memory by publishing this poem.

This wasn’t the ending I would have wanted for him – it was far too fast, and cruelly painful. But over the past few months, as we exchanged emails about our shared cancer diagnoses, offering each other support and strength.

I will miss Mat as an artist, but most especially, I will miss him as a friend.

Godspeed, Mat – may you know peace, rest, and infinite beauty on the other side.

Photo by Gidon Wessner on Unsplash

“More fun this time” – a cancer motto

It would be an understatement to say that my cancer treatment the first time around was not a whole lot of fun.

I was so traumatised, both from the birth and the cancer experience, that I felt like I was living in a state of continuous PTSD for much of my treatment.

The level of exhaustion that accompanies having a baby who doesn’t sleep and the intensity of my medical demands also really took it out of my husband.

There were moments of joy. But on the whole, the experience was not a particularly happy one.

When I received my new diagnosis, one of the things that went through my head was ‘I can’t go through this again.’

What I meant by that wasn’t even the treatment – it was how I felt about having the treatment.

It was the perpetual slog of low-level irritation.

It was the overwhelming sensation of feeling I was falling behind in everything.

It was the isolation of feeling guilty for being so ill, that could not be alleviated no matter how many visitors I had.

Yes, I might be heading back to the chemo suite. But there was no way I was heading back into that emotional maelstrom. My heart just can’t take it.

And that’s how I stumbled across my treatment motto: “More fun this time.”

I can’t change that parts of this are going to suck. But I don’t want my life to be awful. With a new sense of uncertainty hanging in the balance, I simply can’t afford to waste time being miserable.

After this popped into my head, I turned to Zach and said, ‘Hey, I know what our motto should be…’

He loved it.

So at each turn, each decision point, and each bump in the road, I’m trying to pause to ask myself ‘how can this be more fun than last time?’

The good news is, there is almost always a way.

Note: This image was created for me by a very kind stranger named Rachel Tripp. I will be forever grateful.

These Hands

For Lia

These hands have held babies,
Soothed fevered brows,
Held tightly to others in excitement
And in love.

These hands have created beauty,
Shaping art from life,
Finding the line, the gesture
At the essence.

These hands have tied themselves
In imagined knots,
Working over worries and problems –
Then releasing them.

These hands have crafted feasts,
Made a thousand sandwiches,
Fed hungry mouths with
More than food

These hands have wielded flame
To transform life’s delicate materials,
Forging their own language in
The future’s kiln.

These hands have wiped bottoms,
Changed sheets, captured spiders
In acts of fearless engagement with
The necessities of life.

These hands have snapped shutters,
Preserved memories that hold
Together the souls of families,
Including her own.

These hands have wiped tears
From trickling paths down cheeks,
Sharing times of sorrow
And finding solace.

These hands have linked generations,
Providing safety, care and love,
Unbreakable links made 
By clasping fingers.

These hands have written letters
In looping, graceful script,
Giving equal beauty to words of wisdom
And grocery lists

These hands have travelled widely
On wild youthful adventures
And they adventure still: tasting, looking, feeling the
Wonder of life.

These hands have sat quietly
In folded contemplation
Holding a cup of tea, or watching the pattern
Of the rain.

These hands have knotted rugs
Built blanket forts, pressed flowers
Seeking novelty, creating magic
In constant evolution.

These hands have given gifts,
Both solid and insubstantial,
Unrepeatable, and unmatched 
In this world.

They say our lives can be read
In the careful lines of our palms. 
In these hands, the stories are infinite.
What beauty. 
What joy.

Note: This is a poem for a special woman on a special birthday. The image of the hands came quickly, but the last stanza came as a surprise – though it needed a bit of crating to turn it into the shape of an open palm that felt so right.

14 July 2021

A waterfall of tears.
A river of tears.
An ocean of tears.
Which tributaries must I follow
To come to dry land?
The water pours, pounds
Down in violent sheets
And still it is not enough
To wash away
My sadness or
This reality.
All I see is
Blue blue blue
And the mist rising
From the water wound
Where each drop lands:
A resurrected end.

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash