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Archive for the ‘Patricia Louise Williams’ Category

Marriage is viewed uncomfortably by many feminists. For years, women placed themselves at a significant disadvantage when they married, and, even now, marrying means a constant battle against traditional assumptions. In fact, many would question if a feminist marriage – a marriage that attempts to practice gender equality, legal or common law – is even a possibility between a man and a woman.

I happen to be in a position to say that it is possible. One of the proudest boasts is that I practiced feminist marriage for thirty years, and with considerable success.

In fact, if my partner Trish had not died unexpectedly young, I would still be married today.

Much of my pride in the accomplishment I shared with Trish is that feminist marriage was hard work. No sooner had we married than people started treating us differently. Suddenly, we were much more acceptable to each other’s families. Friends who had known us for years assumed we would immediately settle down to having a family, and filling traditional roles.

Fortunately, neither of us was conventional enough to be heavily influenced by such expectations, but, all the same, resisting them often took more energy than we expected – although we did enjoy confounding those expectations whenever possibly. At times, we even took a gleeful satisfaction in educating people by going against those stereotypes.

For many couples who want to practice feminist marriage, division of domestic labor is the largest problem. Notoriously, many men cannot get in the habit of doing their share. For us, however, this was never much of a problem.

For one thing, my mother returned to work when I was late elementary school, so I was more prepared to take on my share of responsibilities than most men.

More importantly, by consulting our preferences and the patterns of our lives, we soon talked out any difference. I was a student when we married, and for much of our life together I worked freelance. Usually, I was home long before Trish, and, since I like cooking, having me in charge of meals was only sensible, especially if we were going to eat before eight or nine o’clock. Similarly, Trish did the driving, so maintaining the car fell largely to her. The tasks neither of us cared to do, we compromised on – for instance, Trish turned out to dislike doing the dishes less than I did, while I tolerated vacuuming better than she did. A few tasks, like doing the laundry, fell to whoever happened to need it done at a given moment.

We never found such decisions difficult, because both of us from the start had a commitment to living up to our ideals of a partnership. Part of that ideal was to talk about everything as frankly as possible, even what seemed obvious, just in case what seemed obvious to one of us was not obvious to the other. Early on, we each agreed as well that displays of temper were inappropriate toward the major person in our lives. As a result, we rarely argued – not because we never disagreed, but because we were committed to finding a civilized solution. Also, by the time we reached the point where we might have argued, we generally had long ago agreed how we would handle it.

Still, others’ assumptions were always there. When someone would note that our division of labor was non-traditional, we took to paraphrasing Lloyd Alexander, noting that while some work was called women’s and some was called men’s, the work itself never cared who did it. What mattered was that the work got done. Most of the time, the comment ended the discussion.

Of course, the expectations annoyed us. However, unlike modern feminists, who are fond of saying that their role is not to educate, we did take it upon ourselves to teach – or at least confound – whenever possible. When we were at a restaurant and the waiter handed me a sample of the wine, I would pass it to Trish to taste as well, and we would both discuss it before we both nodded acceptance. At the end of the meal, Trish would pay (not that it mattered, since the money came from the same credit union account). Sometimes, we would make a great Three Musketeers-like display of Trish holding the door for me, or presenting me with flowers on my birthday. These lessons might have been spoiled by the fact that both of us would end up giggling, but, we would quote Utah Phillips and say that people had to learn these things somewhere, and giggle more.

Once, we were sitting in the university pub, and I expressed the opinion that children probably benefited from having a parent at home. A woman who had come late to the conversation immediately accused me of sexism – then, with what I can only call a smile of vicious delight, instead of siding with her, Trish pointed out that I had stated earlier than I was expecting to arrange my life so that half the time I was the parent at home. As things happened, we never brought a pregnancy to term, but I did arrange my working life so that I could have been a hands-on parent.

Breaking these expectations was a way to get some of our own back on those who wanted us to act traditionally. Instead of exploding in anger or exasperation, we gave them a teachable moment (and ourselves a moment of amusement).

Our marriage was not a matter of us against the world. However, it had something of that flavor. You might say more accurately that it was our beliefs against the world’s, and that we were allies in a shared cause.

Yet, however our marriage is described, its success was undeniable. People meeting us after we had been together for twenty five years thought we were a new couple after seeing us together in public. At Trish’s memorial service, several speakers mentioned the strength of our marriage, and I took some comfort in hearing that several nieces considered us an example for them to live up to. So if you accuse me of filtering memories through nostalgia and grief, you are wrong.

What I have described was real enough, if rare, and we both realized how lucky we were to have it. Except we knew that luck had little to do with it. It was hard work and ideals that was responsible. To me, there is no question whatsoever: marriage in defiance of convention made me a better feminist, and what we built is one of the accomplishments of my life.

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I knew that marrying Trish was a good idea when we both chose the same moment to propose. Better yet, we both had the same condition: she wouldn’t change her name.

This condition was more complicated that it would have been for most people. Trish had been recently widowed when we met, and she had changed her name because her first husband wanted to. However, she had changed her views since then, and didn’t want to go through updating her identity a second time, whether she took my name or returned to her original surname. Besides, she considered her first marriage an important moment in her maturation. The choice seemed completely personal, and we imagined that nobody would think it anybody’s business except ours.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody felt entitled to advise us – and most wasted no time in telling us that we were wrong. One of Trish’s co-workers, for example, proclaimed in the middle of the office that it was a woman’s “honor and privilege to change her name.” Others insisted that having separate names would be confusing for any children, and they would be stigmatized, or assumed to be her first husband’s – even though, at the time, a couple’s children automatically took their father’s name.

Strangest of all were those who chose to be insulted on my behalf. Although I had made my agreement very clear, some friends and relatives insisted that I was simply putting on a brave front. The choice showed a mental reservation about our marriage, they claimed; Trish was showing a commitment to her first husband that she was refusing to make to me. I should be jealous, even though he was dead.

I did my best to explain. Whenever the matter came up, I said that Trish’s first marriage was part of who she was – that, without it, she might not even be the person I loved. I suggested that I would be selfish to ask her to hide the fact of her first marriage – and that, although I might expect a preference, the choice was really hers.

But nothing I said made any difference. As late as the wedding rehearsal, people were telling us how wrong the decision was, and why it should concern me. I spent the night before the ceremony writing a letter for the priest to read to family members who objected, but whether he ever did, I have no idea. I suspect he may have thought inaction the best course, to let the issue peter out, since we obviously weren’t going to change our minds.

And, in fact, that was what happened. Every once and a while, a family member or two would disinter the issue as another grievance in the middle of another argument, but mostly it didn’t matter. It was even mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although Trish has been dead four years now.

My view now is unchanged from what it was at the time. I marvel at how free people feel to interfere with a personal choice, and I’m left in no doubt that Trish and I made the right choice. The custom of changing a woman’s name when she marries has always seemed dehumanizing to me, and I am proud that we resisted it, and maybe helped in our own small way to make it less of an issue.

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We never told our families, but Trish and I had three weddings. After proposing to each other, we jumped a broom. Then there was the civic wedding and our medieval wedding – or, rather, the marriage of Ullr Eriksunu and Morag Nic Fingon, to use our medieval names. Of the three, the medieval wedding is the one we enjoyed the most and spent the most money on.

The festivities were at Coyote Creek Campground in Surrey, in the height of the summer heat. We had worked for weeks beforehand to prepare, sewing new costumes for ourselves and planning bits of theater to enliven the proceedings.

Shortly after sunset, we started the event with the bride barter. As a Hebridean widow, Morag claimed the right to barter for herself. She sat in her high seat by the fire, surrounded by female attendants, while I marched up with my attendants to announce my attentions and my gifts.

I had gone to some effort to keep the gifts secrets while I was making some of them. But, on presenting them, I downplayed them in a mimicry of modesty designed to draw laughs. For her part, Morag examined the goblets and rabbit skin purse, checking their construction and passing them to her attendants, many of whom made risque remarks. The final gift was what swayed her: phials of saffron, a luxury spice of fabulous price in our medieval period.  After consulting with her attendants, Morag rose and formally handsealed the agreement, making it a formal contract.

Surrounded by torches (and more remarks), we moved in procession to where the local bard, Daffyd ap Moran (aka Gary Wadham) was waiting in his green Druidical robes. Although not a practicing pagan, Daffyd took his role seriously, fasting for a day before the ceremony. We had a literal handfasting, with our hands tied loosely together by a leather chord, and a ceremony that included us grasping a wooden ring while exchanging vows and copper bracelets made by our friend Jaqueline and drinking at the same time from a marble cup full of mead.

After the mead came the gifts from friends, and singing late into the night. Finally, we retired, with our attendants guarding the tent to prevent the otherwise inevitable chivaree.

Then, just as everyone was falling asleep, a muttering cry of, “Grendel, grendel, grendel,.grendel!” went through the camp. It was Bolverk of Momchilavich, the foremost women fighter of the local medievalists, playing the monster from Beowulf.

Our attendants refused to let us stir from the tent, but we were told that she had wrapped some old furs around her, and had trundled through the camp bent nearly double. She was met at the pavilion by her husband Sir Seamus, who was playing the role of hero. I suspect that the actual Beowulf never greeted his victory with, “I got the mother!” but the next morning there was a giant arm pinned to the pavilion to mark his victory.

The next day, we slept late, and oversaw the final cleanup of the site.. At home, we seemed to require endless trips from the parking garage to our apartment. Most of the boxes we left in the spare room for later storage.

“So that’s marrying done with,” I said as we collapsed on our bed.

“It had better be,” Trish said, and before we fell asleep, I remember thinking that the last twenty four hours were a good memory to have.

And they still are, although the pictures are grainy and damaged, and  we haven’t seen most of the people who  were there for years.

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My partner Trish loved miniature roses. At one point, she had over forty plants on the balcony of our townhouse and on the courtyard outside. On weekends, she would spend several hours in the morning caring for them. Then, when we did errands in the afternoon, she would take the flowers, wrap them in moist paper towels if it happened to be a hot day, and distribute them to the staff of the stores and services we visited. If any were left over, we put them on display in vases about as high as my thumb, mostly around the computer.

They were very much her concern. I appreciated them as little points of symmetry and color, as well as for their names – Pinstripe, Pandemonium, Cartwheel, Carousel, and Black Jade – but had little to do with them except when buying one occasionally for her.

At one point, Trish had over forty plants. However, by the time she died, the numbers had dwindled to half a dozen, partly through normal attrition, but largely because her final illness kept us busy with more basic concerns.

By the time I had steeled myself to clean out the remains, they were down to four, two of which were not looking overly healthy. Never having been a gardener, I didn’t mind too much. I had more basic things on my mind, and I gave them minimal care only because I associated them with Trish.

But about a month ago, I bought some basil, which I use in spanakopita and lasagna. Somehow, the splash of green made the living room more home-like.

Inspired by that realization, I decided to bring the surviving Black Jade inside. Far from its former glory, it is now a sprig barely twelve centimeters long, clinging to the original root structure, and I thought it needed some shelter in order to survive the winter. Like the basil, it seemed to make my surroundings more comfortable.

Then, last week, I was walking through New Westminster when I saw a half dozen miniature roses on a rack outside a dollar store. One, I was sure, was a Black Jade. On impulse, I picked it up as well as two more.

At home, I put the white and peach flowered plants on the television cabinet, and the Black Jade on the tea tray that I use for a coffee table. They seemed to crowd the living room a bit, but, considering their effect, I decided they belonged there.

They’re not a shrine to Trish. Thirty months after her death, that would be desperate, and more than a little pathetic. But they are a memory of happy times, and they relax my eye as much as the art on the walls.

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A year ago, at 2:55PM, I was widowed. About an hour later, my sister-in-law and I stumbled out of Royal Columbian Hospital into a summer day that was strangely normal, and I began the process of figuring out how I was going to live the rest of my life.

Fifty-two weeks later, I can’t say that I’ve got very far in the process. A happy relationship that lasts for decades becomes a filter for everything you do, and, in part of my mind, I’m still married.

Nor is a year long enough to shake off fifteen years of nursing an invalid. I still don’t fully realize that my time is now my own, or that I can travel. I’ve spent much of the year just coping, making no great plans. I’m camping out in the ruins of my life, just getting by day by fragile day.

Ever sat in a movie theater until the credits rolled, and the lights came up? That’s where I am now, the story ended and what comes next uncertain.

Still, I’ve changed in numerous small ways in the last year, and learned more about myself. I’ve learned that I’m a tidy person, but, while personally clean, not too reliable about dusting or vacuuming. Perhaps that’s because of too many years when caring for Trish was more important than housework.

I’ve learned to endure washing dishes, which was never my task in our division of labor. I did the cooking, which I’ve also had to relearn, since portions for one always seem too small.

I’ve learned that it’s easier to do a chore when I notice it needs doing. Now that most of the townhouse is in ordered to a degree that it hasn’t been since before Trish took ill, attending to things immediately is the easiest way of keeping the place uncluttered.
I run more errands, because there’s nobody to split them with. The same goes for paying bills on time.

I wander more, and stay out longer and later. When there’s no one to come home to except your pets, regular hours don’t seem so important. I stay up later and wake later for the same reason.

I’m still learning now to have a social life by myself, although I had occasional practice in the last few years as Trish became more house-bound. But I can’t say that I’m easy yet, socializing when I’m no longer part of a well-established team. I’ve joined the board of a couple of non-profits, and organized a couple of meetups about art, just to counter any tendency to become a hermit.

As for being a single man, mostly I don’t go there. Although sometimes not being in a relationship hits me like a kick in the ribs, I’m not sure I’m ready for another one. Maybe I’ll never be; the social games of men and women seem more mutually degrading than anything else.

Probably, I’ve grown more eccentric, talking more to my parrots, recording my remarks in my journal or on Facebook and Twitter, because nobody’s around to share them. I grin more at my own jokes. I work harder and longer, but at more irregular hours. I tend to work out too much at a gym. I talk more to neighbors, and to people on the bus. I wonder if I’ll end up as one of those garrulous old men who pour out their life story to polite but secretly embarrassed strangers.

I worry that I might get sick or be crippled and no one will know. I wonder if one day I’ll be found weeks dead on the living room floor, and whether the birds might starve to death if a car hits me. I’ve made my will, but life appears capricious and arbitrary.
But what I’m going to do with myself for the next few decades? Frankly, I don’t have a clue. The wounds may have scabbed over, but they have a tendency to open again if I move the wrong way (or hear the wrong song, or pass the wrong place, or have the wrong memory come bubbling up out of the unconscious).

One year later, I’m still waiting to see what happens. The most I can say is that, if a new career comes along, or a new cause or a woman to share some time with, I’ll respond like one of King Arthur’s knights, thanking the God in whom I don’t believe for the adventure. But deliberately seeking a particular direction is still more than I can manage.

Meanwhile, so much of the texture of my life has changed that I sometimes look back at episodes in my married life and wonder if I really am the man who said or did those things. Often, that time seems to be sinking into the past much faster than the calendar would indicate.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that I still feel like an amputee, learning to walk on one leg or to dress myself with one hand. And I suspect that phantom pain will be with me the rest of my life.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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Bentwood boxes have always fascinated me. The intricacy of their making, which requires steaming the wood until it can be coaxed into shape, has always seemed an indication of just how technologically advanced the First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest were. In the same way, the fact that they are both decorated and utilitarian indicates the sophistication of these cultures. I have wanted a bentwood box for years, looking longingly at the works of Richard Sumner, the leading specialist in making them, but somehow never quite finding the right one.

Then last summer, after my partner Patricia Louise Williams died, Mitch Adams and John Wilson, two Terrace-based carvers and friends, said they would make a box as a memorial for me. Adams was experimenting with making the boxes (using a giant plastic bag, apparently, to trap the steam needed to shape the wood). He had already made one for his wife Diana after one or two tries, and, after another attempt had snapped, he produced a second one, passing it to Wilson to carve and paint.

For me, an agony of waiting followed, punctuated by jokes online how it was going to be the first see-through bentwood box, or would be painted pink and lime green, or some other non-traditional color, such as purple. But John had a living to make, and was nervous about wrecking the box. He also suffered a repetitive stress injury that kept him from carving for weeks, and slowed his notoriously fast carving. All too quickly, the days of waiting turned from days into weeks and from weeks into months.

I hope I didn’t nag him too often or too insistently. And I’m reasonably sure I didn’t actually utter the death-threats that impatience sent flitting through my brain, because, the last I checked, John was still talking to me.

Still, with one thing or the other, it was only when Mitch and Diana came down to Vancouver for the Chinese New Year in February that I finally held the box in my hands. I had spent the morning while we ate dim sum, wanting to ask if the box had been carried down on the plane as promised, and not wanting to ask in case it hadn’t. So, as soon as I had removed enough bubble wrap to smell the Varathane, a big sloppy grin was slapped across my face.

If possible, my first sight of the box made my grin wider still. According to John, the red side represents Trish, and the black side me. Considering that black is the primary color in formline designs and red the secondary, these seem the appropriate colors for the living and the dead, and I’ve taken to turning the box on my dresser according to my mood, turning to the red side when I’m thinking of Trish, and to the black when my grief weighs on me less than usual. So far, it tends to have the red side outwards four days out of five.

I didn’t quite hunch over my sports bag as I took the box home on the Skytrain, but it was a near thing altogether. Had anyone tried to snatch the bag from me, they would have seen my wolverine imitation, but the trip passed uneventfully.

I have no plans to sell any of the art I’ve bought. However, if I ever did, the box would be among the last. It’s become a symbol of more things than I can quickly describe, and often it’s the last thing I look at before turning off the light at night.

Thanks, guys, for the right gift at the right time. I know that Trish would have appreciated it as much as I do.

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