sensuous seas, or wading through deep histories

In a dream, I ride out of a cove with my family in an aging, fiberglass speedboat. The sky is dark and cloudy, and there are cold, black lops on lops all around us. The boat and waves crash against each other, spraying me with salty ocean water. We hit a large wave that ruptures over our heads, leaving all of us drenched. The salty fluid stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

As I woke up, I remembered the first time I got saltwater in my eyes. I was eleven years old, and my friends and I were playing on a wharf in a part of my hometown called Deep Tickle. In Newfoundland, ‘tickle’ is a vernacular term for a short, narrow strait. That day was extremely hot, and my pals Jamie and Brandon decided to swim out in the water just off the wharf. I loved swimming, but had never been immersed in saltwater before. I was hesitant and decided I wasn’t going to join them, until an older kid picked me up and threw me over the wharf.

In my hometown, this is the way many children learn how to swim. In fact, when my sister was five, she was thrown over our family wharf by an older cousin. As I revisit both of our experiences being submerged in our familiar yet unknown salty, smelly and slimy oceanic other, I form a new illustration of the way we both expressed corporeal instincts and reflexes to ‘stay afloat’ in an unknown environment. Unbeknownst to me as a child, being tossed into saltwater for the first time would help me understand more clearly historical forms of struggle and stamina needed to survive in rural Newfoundland.

Using the embodied fluid knowledge I discovered in the water beyond the wharf, this post grapples with the tickling “wet ontologies” (Steinberg and Peters 2015) of saltwater swimming. Thinking of the ‘tickle’ as a significant spatio-temporal environment in my life and familial history on an island, as well as a sensuous stimulation of the body, I ask after modes of skin and saltwater encounters to form tingly and murky intimate notions of ‘staying afloat’ in rural Newfoundland.

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Leaving Night Island. August 2015. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

As I was deciding whether I would join my friends in the water or stay on the wharf, I carefully examined the wet substance from which Jamie and Brandon were shouting at me to ‘stop being such a wimp’. The refracting sunlight made me see a bright green pool with seaweed, kelp and other forms of aquatic plantlife with strange textures and colours. We used to hang out on this wharf all the time, but had never thought of swimming in the water. All of us had seen minks crawling and swimming around the wharf. I was afraid one of them might attack or bite me if I were in the water. And before I knew it, I was touching the surface.

And then I was submerged and my fear became more fluid. I opened my eyes underwater: the environment below was a brighter green than the one I had observed from above. The water was thick and made my body tingle. When I lifted my head above the surface, my eyes were irritated and my vision blurry, as if I were peering through a viscous film back into the familiar world from which I was just dislodged. This fluid encounter, the saltwater on my skin and in my eyes, illustrated what Eva Hayward might call “a visual-hapticity that relies on proximity rather than distance” (2011: 265).

There was no denying that my body and the water had created a sensuous splash. My submersion was not graceful or playful, it was quite literally a slap in the face, with my head slipping under the waves and my vision becoming altered. This visual-haptic encounter was one of seeing and touching forces creating their own splash, drawing connections between the boy who had picked me up and thrown me into the water, the burning in my eyes, the salt in my mouth, the goosebumps on my skin from the cold water, and the rippling and distribution of waves I had influenced with my body. Hayward says that “sensations are produced through relationships…sensing is a distributed process” (274). Indeed, sensating the sea because of its closeness, its encircling of my body, can be read as an acknowledgement between bodies and rural environments.

The sea salt tickling my body in the Tickle might constitute both an irritating itch and a titillating and vibrant example of confronting and facing the abject – in this case the dirty, murky water of the cove that was no doubt filled with human disposals. The dream of traveling by boat triggered these reflections, once again allowing me to reconsider my own relations to water and the “churnings, driftings, and reborderings” (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 257) that living and existing in close proximity to the ocean can re/teach me about sensuous seas and rural subjectivities.

Remembering how rural Newfoundlanders have developed relationships with the sea over time – resettlement travels where houses were floated across the water to a new destination, or my grandfather walking across miles of thin ice in February 1962 to bring my grandmother and newborn mother home by sled, as well as sealing and fishing and exploring wet worlds – has taught me, above all, that when the life of a community revolves around water, there’s no point in being afraid of it. Looking back, there were no minks in the water that day, and there was no reason to be scared. I learned how to stay afloat, and how to be just a little more tough.

References

Hayward, Eva. 2011. “Ciliated Sense,” In Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations, eds. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal, 255-80. Netherlands: Brill.

Steinberg, Philip & Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking,” In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33: 247-64. DOI: 10.1068/d14148p

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with these hands we touch across ages

Victoria Day 2017 has been a research day spent in bed. I took two breaks to watch the new episodes of Twin Peaks and to do laundry. The latter is the inspiration for this blog post.

Studying folklore has taken me on all kinds of journeys. Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to http://www.folkstreams.net, an archive of documentary films exploring informal/expressive/material cultures as well as performance (and) traditions.

My favourite film from this archive is Clotheslines by Roberta Cantow (1981) which explores women’s relationships to laundry and ‘domestic’ labour, or body work at home. Among other things, the women in the film grapple with family dynamics, laundry and technological change, and the work of washing clothes by hand. Intimately, this documentary shows women reeling in a clothesline to collect and fold socks, shirts and dresses into a basket. Yet, I experience these women attach and reel emotions back out on that line, letting them get air for the first time. In doing so, they allow themselves to breathe, centered. Until this point, these women had never been asked to share their experiences and memories of doing body work at home. Like washing and drying, their emotions spin in patterns of two, frustration and pleasure.

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Still of women washing clothes in a stream, ‘Clotheslines’. 1981.

I enjoy doing laundry, although I’ve never washed clothes by hand. At the same time, I have shared many intimate moments with clothing through touch.

My first experience with fieldwork took place in my second semester of my undergrad when I did a study of thrift store cultures. While a significant portion of my analysis focused on economic relationships to used clothing, what fascinated me most were the stories that clothing can tell. As an avid thrifter since I was 15, I had never considered clothes as objects of memory and history. I had overlooked their ability to narrate their wornness.

After I had collected and analyzed the data from that study, I started to wonder where and who my clothes came from: who had touched them, had worn them, had made memories in them, and had grown out of them enough to give them away.

Somewhere amidst bins and racks and piles of used clothes, I realized that the stories told by the objects we wear are touchable. Over time, and with a giant and always shifting (archive?) closet, I have learned to pay attention to all the things said by every hitch, snag, hole, stain, smell, repair, and customization.

Smell is particularly capable of evoking significant and imaginative meanings/memories. While some thrift stores in St. John’s hang their donated goods for sale just the way they were donated – smelling like perfume, or cigarettes, or a complex blend of scents that cannot be described using words – other stores give them a good wash, and by the time they are touched by someone combing through a bin or rack, they smell only of detergent.

It isn’t always a bad thing. Certain detergents remind me of my childhood home: laundry washed, dried and folded by my mom, the special step perched on the patio so that she could reach the clothesline hanging way above her, the bright orange laundry basket she has had since before I was born.

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Still of drying garments, ‘Clotheslines’. 1981.

This evening I called home and asked her to share her own feelings about laundry. “It was a part of my daily routine,” she noted. “And it never bothered me because I just thought it was something I had to do as a mother.”

I asked if laundry ever frustrated her. She laughed and told me, “the only thing that frustrated me was when I folded it all up and put it on your bed, told you to pack it away, and you didn’t do it.”

Would the clothes on my bed have told me stories? Would I listen?

My own experience of laundry, or body work at home, is a pleasurable mix of touches, smells, and memories. With each encounter, I can never think about clothes the same. I am aware of their voices and histories.

Thank you, mom, for doing the critical work of cleaning.

Thank you for teaching me how to do that work myself.

Reference

Cantow, Roberta. Clotheslines. 16mm. Directed by Roberta Cantow. San Diego: Buffalo Rose Productions, 1981.

© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017.

push and pull of memories: the st. john’s premiere of rozalind macphail’s ‘from the river to the ocean’

On May 12, the St. John’s premiere of Rozalind MacPhail’s latest audio-visual project From the River to the Ocean took place at Suncor Energy Hall, MUN School of Music.

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When I arrive at the theatre I am prepared for an evening of savoury sights and sounds. Then I notice that on each chair lay a tiny surprise, a salt water taffy, courtesy of MacPhail’s husband, filmmaker Josh Caine, who flew to St. John’s from North Carolina for the premiere.

In From the River to the Ocean, Rozalind MacPhail takes the audience along with her on an “inspiring ride” through Wilmington, North Carolina while waves of sound and silent film wash against each other. At times, I can feel the waves brushing against my feet as percussion, guitar basslines, and flute trills boomerang around the theatre.

Like MacPhail’s previous audio-visual projects that are centered around particular places, From the River to the Ocean began as an effort to document, archive, and share her memories of traveling, living, and growing in Wilmington. MacPhail’s three-month-long artist residency at the Cucalorus Film Festival shaped the entire project, where she met the filmmakers whose works radiate beside her, including her husband.

Just before she begins to play her opening track ‘Overture for Pinkhouse’ she has one request of the audience: “Listen for the sounds of Wilmington.”

At just under three minutes long, Pinkhouse captivates me with its soundscape. Since it is the one song on From the River to the Ocean that isn’t complemented by visuals, I am free to imagine sights and sounds and colours as MacPhail’s flute melodies intermingle, rise and fall, twist and turn.

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Rozalind MacPhail performing ‘Overture for Pinkhouse’. May 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

As her setlist progresses, this process of blending and weaving becomes more playful as MacPhail builds layers of sweet and flavourful “flute loops” that sing with each other and tell their own stories of Wilmington.

MacPhail’s work grapples with the stories that places tell us as well as the ones we tell about them as we move/shift/travel throughout the world. An undulating narrative, the notion of traveling is integral to the flow of messages told in From the River to the Ocean. In a way, MacPhail’s complex blend of visuals, vocals, electronics, and flute loops encourage the audience to travel (back) to Wilmington with her. ‘Greenfield’ in particular has the power to momentarily transport an audience from St. John’s, with its stories and footage of turtles, white cranes and alligators.

greenfield

MacPhail performing ‘Greenfield’ along with footage by Josh Caine. May 2017. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

With each song and film, new ideas about Wilmington are formed, and meanings are made as experimental VHS footage, photography, and hand-processed Super 8 film dance betwixt the music.

When the performance is finished, MacPhail answers questions from the audience. Dr. Ellen Waterman, Professor of Music, asks about the significance of time in this project. MacPhail notes the significance of memory in all of her work, sharing that as she looks to the future and continues to age, From the River to the Ocean will allow her to revisit and remember. She captures this idea most exquisitely on ‘The Gaze’:

You’re looking back
at me from the screen

So deep,
so close,
so heroic

Separated by
half a century

Separated by
an ocean…

I gaze back…

From the River to the Ocean is a beautiful representation of documenting pleasures, pressing social issues, and personal experiences. It also represents the work we do for Saltwater Stories: weaving together creativity and critical interrogation.

Amidst the artisty of Rozalind MacPhail and filmmakers Josh Caine, Shona Thomson, Mariah Kramer, Mandi Edwards, Matt Molloy, and Matt Gossett, I am transported to a “time out of time” where the wondrous intermingling plays on between people and place, past and present, and the push and pull of memories.

leave a note: place and memory in the music of rozalind macphail

Near the beginning of April, I had the chance to interview singer-songwriter Rozalind MacPhail about her most recent audio-visual project, From the River to the Ocean, which has its St. John’s premiere on May 12 at Suncor Hall, MUN School of Music.

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Rozalind MacPhail and flute. Photo: Paddy Barry. October 2016.

When I arrive at her studio in downtown St. John’s, I am immediately taken aback by the breathtaking view of the harbour through her giant living room window. We share personal details, have some good laughs and drink chamomile tea. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Rozalind brings me through her musical past and into her present. In this post, I would like to share with you three important themes that emerge from her narration: autobiography, memory, and place.

It is 3:30 PM. Her living room is filled with plants, art, instruments, and lovely furniture. It is the perfect environment for talking about a musical life history.

I’m from Toronto Island which is a small island nestled in the harbour of Toronto, and it’s 7 km long, there’s about 900 people that live there, and the only way you can get there is by ferry, or if you’re lucky enough, plane. It’s a really neat place to grow up because there’s no stores, no cars. A very small community of people, and when I was growing up there a very artistic community. My parents were both hippies and I was definitely a wild flower child, and would basically stand on the table and would perform for anybody who would listen to me sing. That’s where I grew up, and I lived there right up until my first year of university. I went to U of T for classical flute, and I also went to the Etobicoke School of the Arts for high school, and that was a really great place to develop into finding my own voice. 

At 13, she had developed very bad asthma. She started playing the flute after her grandmother had read an article about how wind instruments help asthmatics control their breathing. At first, she was grossed out by the instrument, turned off by the thought of moisture and spit inside. But as soon as she started playing, she fell in love with it. Now in her 40s, Rozalind’s musical journey has been one of constant evolution and change, from musical theatre, classical flute, and choir, to studying flute at the graduate level.

I was in a Master’s program for classical flute, and I was having these experiences of playing in the orchestra and feeling closed off, and feeling like my own voice wasn’t being heard, and I just didn’t feel right about that. Circumstance had it that I just decided to leave that program, and I never finished my Master’s degree. Someday maybe I will, but I felt like that time was just not the right time. I needed to get on the stage, tap into my voice, and feel good about who I was. So what I did is I left that program, and the whole time I had gone through those transitions in my life, I always taught. I love teaching, it’s been one of my major passions in life. I taught privately after I left the music program, and at the same time would go and improvise on flute with different singer-songwriters around town at the open mic nights, and discovered that I had a real passion for improvisation and a real passion for taking the written page away from the equation and just using my own voice, my own sensibilities to express whatever was inspiring me in that present moment.

Like Peter Knight, Rozalind’s musical history reveals “a narrative about spontaneity and freespiritedness and improvisation” (2009: 78). As a method, improvisation is the thinking-out-loud of the self who speaks through sound. Improvising is a building of layers. For a few years, Rozalind had been doing improv work with various musicians and bands like Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow and the Great Lake Swimmers, but she didn’t feel fulfilled, she knew that her music practice was lacking something important.

Here I have all of this classical training, I’ve practiced for years and years and years. And funny enough, one of my friends from Toronto in one of my favourite bands just gave me his classical guitar and sent me home to Ottawa with it. I just started practicing in the middle of the night, and tried to see what it was like to write my own songs, because as a flutist who had always played the melodic line or playing in the upper range and all of these tendencies of the classical flute world, I had never really thought in a harmonic way. I had never thought about how to write a song. Like, what does that mean? How do I write lyrics? And so many friends in bands over the years said to me, ‘Rozalind, you’ve gotta start your own band, you’ve gotta start doing your own stuff.’ And I was always very resistant to that. And it’s funny, I’m turning 43 this year and I’m amazed at how there are times in our lives where we’re just so resistant to things. I’m learning as I get older that the more resistant we are, we tend to attract more of that into our lives. But not only that, they’re usually the moments that can teach us the most. And that’s one of those moments – I was so resistant to writing my own songs, I had convinced myself over the years that as a flutist I wasn’t capable of doing that. Meanwhile, I had all the foundation I needed. I had done musical theatre, I had done vocal training. But in my own heart, I didn’t feel capable of doing it. But here I was with an instrument, the guitar, where I was determined not to take lessons for it. To completely teach myself the instrument, and to start with a complete beginner’s mind. And that’s what I did, I taught myself, I wrote my lyrics on my own and I just did a completely different approach.

As David Carless and Kitrina Douglas suggest, “the songwriting process entails some kind of movement away from conscious, controlled thought processes towards a more open sense of discovering alternative stories” (2009: 31). For Rozalind, starting with a beginner’s mind was an attempt at moving toward a music practice that is aleatory and without restraint. One that is about change, one that comes through bursts in time, one that warbles from the heart, from memories, from experiences.

I’ve documented every aspect of my journey, and it’s unbelievable how much it has changed over the years, and it’s all through where I’ve been, because I’ve moved a lot and I’ve been inspired by different people and different places. I’ve changed mediums, so that’s the other thing, going from classical flute to guitar and to a simple looping pedal and developing my voice, and then changing software from a PC to an Apple computer, and the transition about learning MIDI, and then learning Ableton Live, and then recording, and producing, and film-making, and it just keeps going! When we’re artists, that’s the thing, our life will just constantly change over the years. It’s never going to be the same. And people always ask me, ‘why do you think you look so young?’ When I compare myself to all my friends who are the same age, especially the ones who are in full-time families, we just don’t look the same age. People ask me that all time, ‘how do you look so young?’ And I think it’s through being an artist, being able to mold into whatever we need to, or adapt, we’re really amazing adapters. I think that keeps us young, at heart, and it keeps our bodies young. And traveling keeps us young, keeps us fresh. I love it, I’m excited to see what’s gonna happen 20 years from now because I really have no idea how it’s gonna look like as an artist and what type of music I’ll be creating, or if I will be creating music. Maybe I won’t even be playing the flute anymore!

All these thoughts about dynamic change in music made me want to learn more about her process of working through this project, From the River to the Ocean. Rozalind told me that all of her audio-visual projects are very place-based and rooted in a desire to capture her memories. For her, audio-visual projects give life to memories of people, places, and periods of time. Sara Cohen writes, “music also creates its own time, space, and motion, taking people out of ‘ordinary time” (1995: 444). By performing her memories on stage, Rozalind also takes anyone listening out of ordinary time and into her past.

This is my third audio-visual project that I’ve worked on. And my thing for the past two projects before that was to focus on the places I was inspired by, and to work with the musicians I’ve connected with along the way. My first project was ‘Painted Houses’ which was a silent film project with live music that I did in St. John’s, and it was inspired by the winter. And then I took it further, I decided to do a DVD project where I focused on the films being all inspired by different parts of Canada, and invited a wider range of musicians to contribute, so it was filmmakers and musicians from all across Canada, and some outside of Canada as well. That one was really just my love song for Canada. There’s so many beautiful places that I’ve toured through, that I’ve fallen in love with and I wanted to have a personal keepsake of those memories in my life. That project took me about seven years to create. That one really burnt me out and it cost a huge fortune to finish, so I decided if I was gonna do another audio-visual project, it would have to be a very different approach.

Funny enough, this resistance to change sometimes, I kept getting this message in different areas of my life about this wonderful artistic residency through the Cucalorus Film Festival. And it just kept coming to me, in different circles I’d be hearing about this artist residency, and the Cucalorus Film Festival is in Wilmington, North Carolina, so it’s kind of bizarre to be hearing about this festival that I had never been to. One of my biggest mentors in the film world, Ingrid Veninger, had posted about it a few times on Facebook, and I had even written to the director of the festival to ask him about the residency, and everyone just kept saying ‘apply, apply, apply!’ For some reason, I just kept procrastinating or not getting it together to apply. I was at the Banff Centre and while I was there I wrote again, and I said ‘I know I’m passed the deadline, would you still consider me for an application?’ They wrote back and said yes. It just seemed like the stars were aligned to go and travel to North Carolina. And I had some really good memories from my childhood there because my grandparents used to take me there every couple years for a couple of weeks and stay on the beach, and it was just such a neat experience. So I had fond memories of North Carolina and I was ready for a change. And I got in! All of a sudden I had to pack up all my stuff and sublet my apartment and just take a great risk, jump off the bridge and see where it took me. And I went to North Carolina for three months, and I think I started writing the first song in this project the first day I got there. I just was immediately inspired by that town and by the festival experience. It’s a really special place. It reminds me a lot of St. John’s in the sense that it has a lot of history and you can feel ghosts everywhere. It’s almost like they’re wanting visitors to tell their stories.

This project offers visual and sonic glimpses into a collection of stories from Wilmington, stories that Rozalind came face to face with, feeling the desire to write them using sound. Carless and Douglas question: “How might the process of writing a song provide access to the kinds of understanding or knowledge that can act as a template for a ‘new’ story that better fits personal experience” (2009: 31)? Further, how does telling a story about Wilmington through song or video also tell an autobiographical story about her life there?

At the time that I was there, I had a super 8 camera, and I decided that I was going to try dabbling in filmmaking. And the director happened to have three rolls of film that I could use, and the university in town happened to have a professor that knew how to do hand-processing so he taught me how to process my film. So there was just this constant creative collaboration that was going on. It took a long time though, it’s like the seeds were planted during my residency, and some of the songs had started to take shape. But the real magic happened after I had finished my first two films in the project and had experienced the festival for the first time, which was at the end of my residency. Then I went home to St. John’s with all of this wealth of experience and knowledge and inspiration and I did what I do best, I brought people together to create a project. All of the footage that’s part of this project is created by different people who either live in Wilmington, were visiting Wilmington, and were inspired by Wilmington. So the projects have a lot of autobiographical content, but they also have a lot of other things.

At the time, the tax incentives for the film community were cut, and it was devastating for the film industry in Wilmington. And everywhere I was walking throughout the town I would see these stickers that would say ‘film = jobs’ and I wondered about what these stickers were for, and the more I heard about what was going on, I was like, ‘ wow, we really need to do a short film about this horrible situation that’s going on.’ Then there was a park that I absolutely loved, Greenfield Park, that I spent a lot of time in with gorgeous white cranes and Spanish moss everywhere. Just such a neat spot that had to be in one of the films. There was also a beach I went to all the time called Wrightsville Beach, and there happened to be this neat mailbox that sat on the beach and I loved it because people would leave little notes and journals and write messages to each other. One of the films that I created is called ‘Leave a Note’ and it’s a little story about my last day in Wilmington before I had to fly back to St. John’s, and trying to make a decision between two very heart-wrenching things.

As Cohen suggests, “music is not only bound up with the production of place through collective interpretation, it is also interpreted in idiosyncratic ways by individual listeners, with songs, sounds and musical phrases evoking personal memories and feelings associated with particular places” (1995: 445). Rozalind’s words illustrate how the Wilmington that is visible and audible in this project is one created by the experiences and memories of many individuals at the Cucalorus Film Festival, each affected by their time spent living, producing, and becoming in place.

It really is a magical spot, and the river and the ocean around Wilmington connect the whole thing. I think we can all relate to that, wherever we live. ‘From the River to the Ocean’ just seemed like the perfect name for this project because it’s what brought us all together. There’s a real sense of nostalgia in the project too because it was a special time and place for all of us in our lives and Wilmington brought us all together, so it’s interesting because I wondered how this project would fit together because all the films are so unique, but there’s a connection of a special place and special time in all our lives where we can’t repeat that. Already, looking at some of the films, times have changed.

Above all, Rozalind’s music practice helps elucidate the notion of “music and place not as fixed and bounded texts or entities but as social practice involving relations between people, sounds, images, artifacts and the material environment” (Cohen 1995: 438). Certainly, as time and change are pertinent components of her music practice, I wanted to know how her everyday life is affected by her experiences and memories, and if performing the songs from this project produces affects in her.

It definitely brings me right back there. Especially certain pieces, some more than others. ‘Wilmington Tide’ really gets me every time I play it because it brings me back to those hot summer nights. Funny enough, I wrote it because I was homesick for Newfoundland. Now when I play it I’m homesick for North Carolina. It has a double meaning for me. All of the songs in the project typically bring me right back to that moment in time, and that’s part of the reason why I love performing them.

You can read more about Rozalind and this project, and listen to her work, by visiting these links:

http://www.rozalindmacphail.com
https://www.facebook.com/events/433218607024470
https://rozalindmacphail.bandcamp.com

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References

Carless, David., and Kitrina Douglas. 2009. “Songwriting and the Creation of Knowledge,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 23-38. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.

Cohen, Sara. 1995. “Sounding out the City: Music and the Sensuous Production of Place,” In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (4): 434-446. DOI: 10.2307/622974.

Knight, Peter. 2009. “Creativty and Improvisation: A Journey into Music,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 73-84. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.

archival bonding and colliding

As a researcher working through trans histories and pasts, as well as presents/presence and belonging, I am faced with a critical and necessary task: to not apply the concept of transgender to the lives of (gender-shifting) individuals whose narratives, writings, photos and other smudges on the historical record, predate the term itself. This is one of the messy realities of observing/analyzing the past and its affective collisions through a current and rapidly-evolving transgender presence.

When my heart races and I don’t notice it immediately, when my reactions to pieces/fractions/shreds of a queer or trans archive are dispersed across my body, is it because a presence in the past has found its way across an ocean of time to find me, or is it the complete opposite? Is it because part of me gets tired of wishing I had a temporal connection to someone of an earlier time? Michelle Caswell et al. ask, “how can we think about the impact of community archives on members of communities that have been marginalized by mainstream archives” (2016: 57)? Last night while browsing the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), I answered this question with my body.

Alison Laing Photo Album 1963_001

Alison Laing Looks Onto Lake. 1963. Photo: Unknown. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/0v838057g

First, my strong connection to water. Second, an elder. Third, togetherness. My response reads this glimpse into history as one of visibility, authenticity, fluidity. I could have it all wrong. Still, I am touched. I want to know more about her. I search for anything on Google and discover the work she has done as an educator for trans individuals. I form a bond with another through an artifact.

Caswell et al. put forth the idea of representational belonging: “the ways in which community archives give those left out of mainstream repositories the power and authority to establish and enact their presence in archives in complex, meaningful, and substantive ways” (74).

I feel it.

Reference

Caswell, Michelle., Marika Cifor and Mario H. Ramirez. 2016. “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing’: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives,” In The American Archivist, 79 (1): 56-81. DOI: 10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.56.

help me to name it: self-mythologizing as experiential inquiry

myth:
ic
ology
ologize

I think myth is an overused and misunderstood word. A message that cannot be fully explained. A belief, a story, a legend, a folktale, a poem. A door that blows open, the leaves that fly in. A mess. Something untrue, something to roll your eyes at.

We talk about them all the time.

Through my academic training and prodding away at various texts, I have come to realize this: scholars of symbolic culture have a hard time agreeing about things. Ask a folklorist or cultural anthropologist what exactly it is that they do – what their discipline is about – and you might confuse yourself more than you intend to. But you want to, and you will, absorb something potent about humans studying humans. There is no single nature. We are all doing our own thing the best way we know how – making up definitions, forming arguments – all abandoned, all scattered (Brand 2001: 211).

For my own learning and interactions with Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, for my wayfaring and desire to locate the self in the story, I propose that mythologizing can be concerned with narratives of origin.

Something we see ourselves in.

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My dad on a beach, years before I was born. July 1985. Photo: Roseann Jefferies.

On a visit home at the end of the summer, my dad and I are able to share a few hours together alone at sea. It is a chance to bond, to show each other that there are sparks, a deep love that exists between us. Most of all, this is an opportunity for the both of us to showcase how many exclusive facts about history, culture, and the environment we can throw out in the open. We have always played these games of knowing.

That evening we see whales, drink cans of Coors Light. I visit the place where my ancestors settled after departing England. They settled on the islands because the best fishing grounds were located there. That’s how they survived.

As far as I know, the story of my place-based patrilineality, and my affinity to this island, begins here:

Thomas Jefferies moved to Exploits/Burnt Island from Crewkerne in Somerset, England in the late 1870s. I wonder what his daughters Jemima and Anna-Bella looked like, how they created meaning on a tiny sheltered enclave surrounded by water.

My dad shows me the house they grew up in – now renovated since the island has become a place for doctors and others to keep summer cabins.

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The Jefferies family lived in the house in the middle. I imagine it was built shortly after arrival, circa 1870. August 2016. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

My self-mythologizing involves this place. I travel here before I know anything about it. Maybe it wasn’t travel at all, I just ended up here. “Ghosts try to step into life,” writes Brand (111). They wanted to show me something. I wanted my dad to take me here. And then after hearing about them I wanted photos of the houses – I didn’t realize the history revealed to me would poke me like a tattoo that I wasn’t ready for.

I am marked, now carrying symbolic history of my family on my skin. “Then there’s the ones we don’t know about. It’s better if we just leave them alone,” my dad says. If I don’t dig down into that forgotten oldness, how will I know what’s waiting for me there? I want to tell my dad that he can’t just bring me to a place and tell me to not search for too much. In this corporeal form, experience is the earth of my autobiographical development. The quest to come into contact with/touch/notice parts of my lineal lore – my inside story – induces me and sets me up to come up short eventually. A game of knowing is never just a game, it is an obligation, and “I can feel a never-going-to-be-sated hunger there” (108).

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When we tell a myth about ourselves, we have the flexibility to play with it. A Map to the Door of No Return is a work of self-mythologizing in various ways. Blurring the lines of autoethnography, personal experience narrative, fiction, and theory, Brand takes on the challenge of writing and representing her life through carefully corrugated memories and meditations. However, she argues that “myth is of course seductive, but it needs material power to enforce it” (129). Can’t material power be the human voice? What about something written? If I narrate it, chances are I mean it. Is that not powerful enough?

As much as I learn about maps, I feel like I am traveling through the text with no direction in sight. Can I read it backwards? What about in fragments? Playing with the headings. What am I supposed to know now that I have turned the pages in strange patterns and chapters inside out, now that I have seen where October ends and Finding a Compass begins. My thoughts are supposed to be scattered. Pain of pasts written into present. In the Diaspora, memories of blackness and home disperse across geography and temporality. Brand’s traveling across distance and time incites my own symbolic movement through the text. As she travels, she tells a story about herself. One of great change and searching, of flight. She is constantly moving places.

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View from above. August 2013. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

I choose window seats when I am in air, in transit from place to place. Between bursts of white, I see where the land meets the ocean. Somehow I scrounge up the money to travel or I am offered a vacation. Mythology is also about evolvement – how I got up here from down there. One must think about this horizontally. In my life, the origin of opportunity is intricately connected to grounds of orientation, isopleths of privilege. It’s about ability, access, the site at which I am located. My learning, understanding that “we accumulate information over our lives which bring various things into solidity, into view” (141). It’s about Burnt Island and that white house.

I wish to know more about movement:

The dispersal of my ancestors like capelin in the water. Nobody caught us in a net or picked us up off the beach rocks in the spring, cooked us, ripped our heads off with their teeth. We were able to lay our eggs and get away – the lucky ones – making something of ourselves. Of course almost all capelin die after spawning on the beaches – I am just playing around. In my self-mythologizing, I very well could be a fish. Why can’t it be true? To imagine parts of myself in another, to imagine myself as another.

Transmogrification and transmutability can be principal portions of the way we narrate place, identity, and experience in our lives. Brand’s writing transmogrifies time and place – channeling me through her imagination, memory, and longing of/for oldness and mis/direction. She theorizes a map as “a set of impossibilities, a set of changing locations” (224). As my bearings shift, so do I. My stories too – we have no choice. Self-mythologizing is a game of knowing how well one can narrate the underpinnings of personal experience – how well one is equipped to and for change.

Did my ancestors know where they were going when they ended up here? What tensions did they have about journeying on to new terrain? Did they understand how 146 years of transmutation would make a good story? How far would their spawn swim into the future?

Reference

Brand, Dionne. 2001. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Vintage Canada.

 

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When I find one of Shanawdithit’s archived drawings I experience a necessary discomfort.

I go back to my childhood.

All my young life I hear the mythologizing, how she was the last of the Beothuk people. Ten minutes outside my hometown, the provincial Beothuk Interpretation Centre is a place I visit quite frequently as a child. There’s a walking trail, on which I come across a statue of Shanawdithit and the remnants of an ancient settlement. There are crosses that mark graves. My parents teach me that history shouldn’t have been written “this way.”

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“Killing of a Beothuk woman at the Exploits River,” by Shanawdithit, 1829. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Newfoundland Images. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_images/id/71/rec/26

From this drawing I read memories, encounters, connections to place. I read loss and resistance. I do not read silence.

I know that mythology is also about evolvement – how we get to here from there.

As she “transferred her talent for constructing detailed patterns on bone and bark to the European medium of paper,” (Polack 2013: para 9) Shanawdithit’s drawings opened up a past that cannot be erased, and none of us can overlook or forget colonial encounters and mediations in Newfoundland and Labrador because of them.

Reference

Polack, Fiona. 2013. “Reading Shanawdithit’s Drawings: Transcultural Texts in the North American Colonial World,” In Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14 (3). DOI: 10.1353/cch.2013.0035.