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Floating Home

November 26, 2013

SDC 332 039

This poem was written for my father and is posted in honor of his oldest and truest friend, Michael Power, who passed away this week.

Floating Home

Such strange work
for hands come from away
my father lashes another saltbox friend
to his stern,
dragging him through a bay gone wild
hoping he’ll float.

Resettling his landscape
is spine-breaking work.
Against his precise hands
each salted soul has leaned
as they were scoured out, made hollow,
hoping they’ll float.

When this work is done,
my father will motor home
to his rearranged outport
and walk the outlines of houses,
leveled, dark squares
where once he raised a glass,
settled into his best story,
looking through lace curtains,
lucky to count
such a man as friend.
In these air-soaked walls,
yarns were spun,
hoping they’d float.

“Community” he thinks
“is a winter-shifted house -
a little left of where
you last lived it.
Salt-eaten stories don’t sink.
They just shift
a little left
each time they are told.
My heart,” he tells the ocean,
“has shifted.”
and he moves it a little left
lace-curtains it away
from the spray,
hoping it will float.

Somewhere across the night-struck bay
a kitchen full of re-settled men
shake the salt off their boots
and raise hands gone-thin
to the top of a round-bellied stove.
They speak of oceans crossed,
shortcuts they’ve learned.
My father’s oldest, truest friend
newest to the fire,
throws a teabag in his cup,
hoping it will float.

My father rolls home and dreams
of tea-soaked bread
gone sweet with molasses,
boiled dinner
salted with beef;
strange dream for a hand
come from away.

On the underside of the world,
I spin my salted, lace-curtained stories
of home,
shifting a little left of myself each time,
my heart resettled,
my hands gone lunar.

Around a fire,
I roll moon-shaped dumplings:
strange work for hands come from away.
They are my father’s hands.
Our hearts are knitted of salt and strength.
I hold a tiny, pale moon in my fingers
and make a wish:

I hope he floats.

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Dangling

January 3, 2013

The leap

I’ve been a bad little girl. I’ve been behaving like a drunk, obnoxious tourist on the pristine beach of my own life.
I can’t tell you what delicious naughtiness I’ve indulged in, except to say it is probably not near as shocking as what you have going through your brain. It is closer to the truth to say that I’ve fallen out of character.

The truest version of me is the one that is always polite and kind, always follows the rules and does what is right. How, though, do you maintain that in a world gone crazy? Atrocity is nowhere near my doorstep, but it is all around every one of us in that moment where our breath is caught reading the CNN headlines at night. That intake of breath holds within it a moment of wondering of how people can be pushed so far and every headline holds a little bit of permission to move the line of what you will accept a little further away from your heart. The end of 2012 was brutal in its onslaught of horror-packed news. I too, developed a taste for the dark and thrilled and shuddered at how I could splash a headline across my life, watch it come spinning up to my consciousness like a scene from a 60’s B movie.

The new year finds me calmer, and wondering why. Why have I been playing with the moral code which I have carved out for myself? Don’t misunderstand. My moral code would probably never stand up to any set of church or government rules. It comes closest to the Wiccan rede, “Harm none, and do what ye will.” Love. Be loved. Tell the truth. Don’t judge. Always ask a question before you make a statement. Play within the rules when it is important. Break them when it is essential. Empathize, even when it hurts. Above all, keep the peace. Even When It Hurts.

I haven’t been following my own rules, though. The end of the year saw me fighting, lying and judging, swinging my hard-earned peace around me head like a spiked club, doing damage.I suppose it is easy to blame disillusionment with society, or perhaps just being middle-aged. We are all supposed to rage a bit at this age, aren’t we? No leather pants or motorcycle for me, I’ll stick to my snaked tongue and two faces, thank you. Oh, and pass the tequila.

No, I can’t blame any of these things. I have, however, settled on an excuse…a very special, unique excuse for why I’ve been less of my true self. I’m displaced, dislocated. That is to say, my identity is out of socket.

Being an expat can be glorious in its freedom. You float above both your worlds, and no one ever really gets to own you or define you. You play both cultures when you want or need to and can tune out either when convenient. This has consequences. There is a day when you come to feel like you don’t belong anywhere. When you don’t belong, the rules go spinning away from you, like yesterday’s headlines. A little too free, we expats sometimes find ourselves dropping beneath moments, doing things we would never do at home. Except, we are supposed to be at home, aren’t we?

Maybe, also, this spreads to all of us. Yes, I am a Canadian, a Newfoundlander, an only daughter who built a life on the other side of the world. And you? You may be living in Alberta when your TV starts flashing scenes of war, mass shootings, gang rape into your living room. Are you not then, too, an expatriate…living far away from the landscape you knew growing up? Are you not also dislocated, displaced? Does your heart not move a little left of where you last saw it? Do you not turn off the TV and go lie down in your bed and rearrange what you thought you knew and your rules for living?

I don’t have the answers. But, I’m back to asking questions first. And that begins the process of repatriation that maybe we all need to do. We are all far from home, right now, if you trust the headlines. Here’s hoping the New Year brings us all a train ticket back to the centers of ourselves, the ones that were built before the world got in the way. Here’s hoping you have a window seat and a chatty, interesting companion. And maybe, a shot of tequila.

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2012 in review

December 31, 2012

Guess what my number 1 resolution for 2013 is ? I’ve got to write a few more posts so that “Itaewon Prosititutes” is no longer the search term that brings me the most visitors. :-)

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Scent Of You

October 14, 2012

If I’ve loved you, I probably know exactly how you smell….or more correctly, I know exactly how I smelled when I loved you.

1987, St. Pierre and Miquelon…. I was 18 years old, and used Finesse hairspray to tame my crazy head of curls. I was in love, heart-splayed-open, can’t-catch-my-breath love, for the first time in my life, with a French boy. The affair lasted the 3 months I was in St. Pierre to study French, but has become iconic to me, a touchstone of romance I can call up whenever I want….if I am able to find a bottle of Finesse shampoo.

Signature fragrances are not for me. I’ve tried them. Love’s Baby Soft when I was a teenager….somehow ending up in my stocking every Christmas post age 14, a curiously strong scent that came to represent Christmas for me, but wasn’t how I wanted to represent my true self. I tried on scents of women that were special to me… Chanel No.5, White Shoulders, Giorgio, Anais Anais.  I loved these scents and the women that wore them, but none of them smelled like me.

 The first perfume I ever bought for myself was LouLou by Cacharel. I was drawn by the bottle, a blue, jewel-shaped flask with a red  stopper. It made me feel how I wanted to feel at 20- exotic, special and devastatingly feminine. There are a handful of boyfriends whose  memories lie wrapped in that scent, but above them all, there is an image of me, so very young, stupid and beautiful, more in love with herself than any of them, a girl whose dreams deserved a really arresting bottle and a scent that suggested opium dens and velvet, an exotica far beyond her small-town roads and college routines. It was the closest I came to having a signature, and I’ve often thought about ordering the odd vintage bottle on ebay, just to remember.

In my artist days, I took to wearing Sandalwood and Patchouli. When I came to Korea, the Koreans kept asking me if I were sick, mistaking the scent for herbal medicine. One night, at Macondo, a salsa bar in Hongdae, an older American man stood next to me at the bar, and said ” Oh my god.  You smell like my rec room, circa 1979. Can I smell you?” I took a shot, let him smell my neck, and put my perfumes away, for many years.

About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to start wearing perfume again. I discovered Demeter and Black Pheonix Alchemy Labs. I ordered vial upon vial of dark, true scent with names like Asphodel and De Sade. Everytime I travelled, I bought a sample pack of big-name perfumes. I threw all my little bottles in a basket, and picked one at random each day, letting the name, the mood of the scent define me, for a few hours. I still do.

You never know which Shelley will show up, nor do I. I have a floral, hyper-femine persona who will offer to help you with the copier and make the coffee- if I pick my bottle of Belle De Nuit by Fragonard that morning. I might cast long eyelashes at you and make little restless sighs over the computer if I’ve come to work wearing Blood Kiss ( BPAL) . God help your heart if I’ve pulled All Night Long ( BPAL) from my cupboard of tricks.Oh and the scent of Birthday Cake( Demeter ) in the corridor? That was me, smiling all the way to class.

I don’t act anymore. Still, I love dressing up, becoming someone else. Yes, I know scent-free is the thing now, and I respect that. Usually, you have to get really, really close to me to know how I smell. Instead, I project the attitude of the scent I’m wearing.  You’ll know I’m wearing Clinique Happy because my smile comes the moment I see you. The moments that I am withdrawn, moody and deep inside myself…Clinique Aromatic Elixir is my scent and you’ll know it before you ever smell it.

And there are moments…. where the experience I have with a particular person becomes intensely fused with the scent of what I am wearing. These moments don’t even have to be romantic or intense; they just come seeping under my base notes and infusing themselves into the shade of Shelley I am that day.

If I can name the scent that makes me think of you, I’ve really loved you. And I will think of you everytime I wear that scent, which I will pick at random, you filling my day and my thoughts like an accident, no matter what age I am, where I live or what I’m thinking about, what I’m writing.

And for a day, a couple of hours, you become my signature.

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Jaded

October 12, 2012

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O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 – Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.

 

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Getting Clean

July 13, 2012

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The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows.  I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”

Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.”  – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool.  I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.

When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the  message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth.  I had made peace with my body, I thought.

My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar.   A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation.  At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.

“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.

“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”

“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”

“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.

“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”

“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.

“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.

“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.

First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.

Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure.  I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.

 I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight.  There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?

Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.

“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.

I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub.  Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was.  Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.

But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.

Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs.  I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.

After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.

Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.

I felt clean.

Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.

and here.

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Running In The Family

June 29, 2012

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If you are a fan of the photography on this blog, my father’s work is now being shown and  represented at the The Aleksandrs Gallery of Fine Art  in Bonavista, Newfoundland.

All these years, I thought I was confounding my conservative, straight-arrow father with my wild, artistic ways. Now I know it was him I have to thank for my creative way of framing the world. Funny how everything makes sense in time.

Bonavista is beautiful. So are the photographs. Go.:-)

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