The night Leonard Cohen died, I surprised myself by not feeling sad at all. I just put on the album I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, The Future. There was no threat of tears or melancholy; no emotion. I just let the nihilistic sensuality seduce me under and out of sight the way I did as far back as 2nd grade.
That night I thought of how artists like Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger… men with such intense, unapologetic libidos and harrowing visions of the world… FASCINATED me as a child. The Future was the only Cohen album my parents had when I was a kid, and it went missing all the time… into my room.
Under my headphones, alone in the dark, I loved the delicious feeling that his overpoweringly masculine voice was corrupting me, telling me secrets I wasn’t supposed to know yet. I didn’t understand what the searing desire in his voice was for; I didn’t know what had made him so contemptuously hopeless, but it excited me like a glint of light down an obscured tunnel. I loved the feeling of being lured away from the walled gardens of my childhood into tall hedges filled with mysteries.
He would reference things like women hanging upside down, Stalin, apocalypses, repentance… hopeless sex on the edge of destruction. My 8-year-old brain didn’t know WHAT he was talking about but Leonard Cohen was the only adult who seemed likely to let me in on the secrets adults hide haphazardly from children. In the same way I would interrogate my uncomfortable French teacher about what blowjobs were, I would listen obsessively to Leonard Cohen’s music for clues that could fill out the dark edges of the shrouded adult world.
There’s even a line in “Closing Time” where he says “I lick my glass to the awful truth / Which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth / Except to say it isn’t worth a dime.” And I would think “That’s ME you can’t reveal it to! But goddamit I’m going to figure it out from this album whether you like it or not, Leonard!”
As a child I believed, but couldn’t confirm, that the secrets he was close to sharing were hidden somewhere in the music. And listening to these same songs as an adult, I realize that they ABSOLUTELY were. But I had to grow up and go through my own adult shit before I could decipher his meanings.
I would listen to “Waiting for the Miracle”, just as stirred by the too-intimate rumble of desire in his voice as with his thrilling, despairing lyrics. My skin still tingles like it did in fourth grade when he begins with that hungry “Baby, I’ve been waiting…”. I knew though, even in my innocence, that I was listening to something illicit and secret. My parents would play the album openly after dinner, probably thinking I was too young to understand anyways. But it was exactly my inability to understand him that would make me sneak the album into my room to listen to privately.
I discovered H.R. Giger a few years later when I was thirteen… a small book we had of his work disappeared just as quickly into my room. He was another artist who wore his boner on his sleeve, entirely unashamed of his nightmarish mind and perverted obsessions. I think both he and Leonard realized as young men that their internal landscapes were much too intense to repress, disguise, or water down.
Sex and arousal seemed like such a shameful secret to me as a child, and Cohen and Giger made me feel okay about it. They fully embraced their inner depravity, but not in the way that now alienates me from men who come on WAY too strong. Both of them had a deep, sexy appreciation for women’s beauty whether or not they were fucking her. Instead of feeling objectified and threatened, their vision of women seemed to reveal the exultant power I felt inside. Instead of leering at me, I felt like they were looking right through me to the magnificence their work sparked in my blood. I felt beautiful, seductive, powerful, and important through the way they focused on women.
It can be a fine line between objectification and celebration, one I still struggle to define. But I grew up with a father who looked contemptuously upon women who were in control of themselves, who slept with who they wanted and lived without shame. He would sneer the word “slut” with pure venom and looked down on single mothers as trash. Once we were watching a German film where a woman started masturbating while bored at home, and he spat “She’s selfish“. He told me when my grades were slipping in high school that “an uneducated woman was just a baby-making machine.”
In contrast to my fathers’ disgust for women’s sexual freedom and power, Giger and Cohen seemed to say “Go for it, baby. This is your show. You’re hottest when you’re doing what you want.” I would feel the spark of something like divinity when I connected to my internal self. Sometimes it was sexual, sometimes it musical, poetic, or just imaginative, but always a blinding, superhuman intoxication. Where I felt devastatingly beautiful, lethal, playful, ravenous, irreverent… when Cohen or Giger gazed at me, they were seeing that demon-goddess I felt like while the song lasted.
I had my own well of horror to contend with from a young age. Seeing how they let theirs flow freely into their work made me less afraid of being consumed by mine. Sexuality is only one of the secrets adulthood keeps, and not even the most interesting half the time. I had labyrinths opening up in me as I got older, down which I delighted to stray. During my high school years, I didn’t know anyone who could follow me to those places, but Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger were foremost amongst the artists who could go there with me.
When Giger died suddenly from an injury two years ago, I felt ripped open down the front of my body. It was like he’d been torn out of those secret passages we’d travelled together as spelunkers through my arteries and synapses. Male desire in my teens had seemed so funny to me; teen boys with their frantic erections had failed to rouse my desire even once during high school. Their transparent, panting need was right there on the surface; no lure, no mystery, no seduction. I’d had vibrantly adult men as immaculate lovers since I was a child in the form of Cohen and Giger, and teenage boys didn’t stand a chance.
So I felt as though my first lover had died. Though we’d never met, Giger had been one of the only men I’d ever allowed past my defences. His luscious, nightmarish desire had thrilled me in ways no fumbling boy had ever been able to. He’d given me, and all his fans, unlimited access to his every dark fantasy and vision, and so I felt as though he had access to mine. Even though it was one-sided, I was crushed by his death.
I’ve been wondering this last week why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t crush me the same way. Perhaps because he was frail and aging even when I went to a concert almost ten years ago. I’m pretty sure I was the only 17-year-old in that whole building, lusting for him from my balcony seat. I asked the middle-aged couple in front of me if they minded me clinging to the railing next to them, and they replied “Whatever you like, dear.” It’s only now that I can decipher their bewildered side-looks as I gasped, trilled, and moaned during his husky songs! At the time I just thought “Why isn’t everyone this turned on?”
I think… here’s my first thought as to why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t hurt like Giger’s did. Two years ago, I was in a very insecure but innocent place. I was so uncomfortable with my desires, so hungry for intimacy and intellectual companionship, and I was looking for that in the wrong people. I wasn’t a fraction as emotionally/sexually comfortable as I am now. I was fragile then with little self-sufficiency. So when Giger died, I felt abandoned on an alien planet with no resources or intimacy. But two years later, I’ve spent so much time developing my inner strength and ability to validate/celebrate myself from within. This time when one of those first lovers died, I don’t feel incomplete and vulnerable without him.
This time, my immediate response to learning of his death was to turn off all the lights except for my glowing pink ones, put on a négligée, and revel in the voice that had felt like a worshipping paramour for the last twenty years. This time his spirt had already been interred within me for so long that he felt alive in my every nerve and breath. It was as if his death had only reminded me how vibrantly present he would always be in my body and mind whenever I listened to his music. Years of seducing his way past my defences, getting in before they were even formed, meant that a part of Leonard Cohen was always going to be alive as long as I was.
I think he’d like that: the idea that a weird teenage girl was unashamedly getting off to him in a theatre balcony. I think he’d like knowing that a little girl rebelled from her father’s contempt for women by listening to his albums, that she got her first flushes of personal power from his lyrics. I think he’d like knowing that my response to his passing was to put on something sexy and indulge in his voice like a warm bath.
My models for what constitute an attractive man are based on Leonard Cohen and Jean-Luc Picard. Intelligent men who appreciated women’s beauty without trying to control it, who saw the divinity in women without erasing their humanity. I’m turned off instantly by men who just want to project their pre-exsiting fantasy onto me. I’m drawn instead to men who want to see me at my freest, whatever that may be. Unfortunately, I’ve never found one my age or single! It would be amazing to meet a man who’s curious about who a woman is, rather than trying to make her be what he wants.
I didn’t know Cohen or Giger personally, or whether they indeed fit this description. Rather, their depiction of women in their art instilled a feeling of power and beauty in me from a young age. I think that helped me grow into a woman with zero tolerance for being controlled/defined/expected to be anything but who she is naturally. And the feeling of intimacy I had with these artists made me crave the kind of man who wanted to get to know me instead of telling me who I am (something FAR too many men rush to do when they meet me).
Now as an adult beginning to write and create from a place of unashamed openness about all the things I felt ashamed of as a child, I can see exactly why their frank perversity appealed so strongly to me. Both so in touch and luxuriant in their sense of horror, in their strange lusts and apocalyptic visions… I spent years trying to water those things down in myself, fearing I’d come off as too intense or disturbed. I can see now that my sense of horror is such as lush and exciting as my sense of optimistic wonder; neither are disturbed or unhealthy. They are siblings of the same root structure.
Sometimes I miss the feeling of intense curiosity these secret-keepers aroused in me. That was real innocence: sensing there was SOMETHING Cohen and Giger could confide in me but not knowing what. Knowing that it was against the rules for them to share it with me. Loving the feeling that they were trespassing in my mind like a boy who’d climbed through my window; it was a secret, against the rules, I had the power to permit.They were the first ones I shared my secret self with, the first to be AS twisted, perverse, and transgressive as my excitements felt inside.
Now that they’re both gone, I feel them under my skin like internal tattoos, secret friends who got in early and stayed with me until I could function independently. They’re there with David Bowie, Jean-Luc Picard, Seven of Nine, Lestat… every artist or character I adored when I was young and bored by the real people around me who had no secrets I was curious to learn. Some taught me nobility, strength, independence, but Cohen and Giger were the two lovers who brought me tales of the dark, exciting, erotic world outside my tower, a world I’d get to explore for myself someday.
Thank you to my two inaugural lovers. Because of you, I know the intricacies of my own erotic imagination and have confidence in my self-knowledge, enough that I’ll be able to curate men intelligently into my adult life when I want them. Your work was the literal definition of “empowering”: I have so much personal power now because of how you trusted me with glimpses of secrets when the big world was so shrouded in frustrating mystery. In some form, you’ll live as long as I do.
I’ve been waiting four days to feel even slightly more centred or stable since David Bowie died, but it’s not coming naturally. My sense of disorientation, of having a core DNA base missing, only increases as I examine the feeling further.
I’ve been trying to push myself through to the stage where I accept it. I see the beauty in how he lived long enough to watch the seeds of gender-freedom and celebration of strangeness finally bloom in the mainstream. I say corny things to myself like “His spaceship knows which way to go.” I know he planned his last album release and was surrounded by loved ones. But it doesn’t alleviate this ragged, gasping sense of wrongness that his absence has left.
I still feel like my heart is eating itself when I listen to his music; like there’s a vacuum in the centre of the zeitgeist that could swallow and crush us. Our culture wouldn’t look anything like it does without him, and so it feels like we lost a primordial creator: one we’re completely lopsided without.
Maybe people who’ve known their grandparents are more acquainted with the feeling of losing a beloved, integral presence you’ve never been without. But this is my first time grieving and I’m doing it all wrong. I snap into controlled spells of numbness, choosing to feel nothing for a few hours before letting myself go back to grief. And when I can’t sustain the numbness anymore, I’m pulled by my sternum towards the black hole that was created when he left. I keep thinking “How are we going to do this without you? There is simply no other off-worlder here to carry out your duties.”
The first time I saw the liner notes for Ziggy Stardust, it was like the alien messiah I’d been waiting for since first grade, the one I’d daydreamed about then, had finally appeared.”You’re not alone; give me your hands.” My teenage self needed him and I don’t know what I would have done without him. So now I feel lopsided because I haven’t yet become enough of what I want to be to carry on without him.
To this effect, something very strange happened on Monday. I think when that black hole appeared, in spite of the enveloping pain, a self-preservation instinct must have taken over my mind. It’s the only thing that explains how David Bowie’s death transformed my life in under four days.
I first saw the news on my phone in my black, cold room at 7am when I got up for work, and didn’t turn on the heat or light for an hour while I cried. I realized almost immediately that there was no way I was going into my stupid job today, no way I could pretend I wasn’t a fucking disaster, not for a job where I was irrelevant and disrespected. I couldn’t properly mourn the death of this person without making a sudden, decisive change to my life. So I texted my boss that my first boyfriend from high school had died and couldn’t come in. I also resigned.
Here’s the strange thing: if I had not stayed home that day grieving, I wouldn’t have seen, during my first numb spell, that a friend was looking for someone to take over her amazing job as a Production Assistant at a gorgeous theatrical costume house. I had a trial shift today and I’m not sure if they’ll keep me. It’s okay if they don’t because I know now how a workplace can feed the soul, and I’ll pursue that with slavering energy until I find it again. I became light-headed and short of breath with the beauty and splendour of “the cage”, where over 50,000 sumptuous costumes live two stories high. I almost passed out seeing coat trains of fur hanging ten feet long from the ceiling, at the velvet, lacing, and luxurious folds of brocade pressing in on either side.
Whether they hire me or not, I wouldn’t have been there trying out for this amazing position if David Bowie’s death hadn’t prompted me to immediately quit my soul-sucking uncreative job. It disturbs me that the death of such a beloved, important person was what it took to get me to snap out of a state of numb inertia. Whatever happens, I never want to waste my time and energy in a place that drains me the way that restaurant did; the coldness, meaninglessness, the sexist attitudes, seriously inappropriate touching and comments, the utter lack of interest I have towards food I can’t eat — never again. Life’s too short for us Earthlings; there’s too much opulence and bizarre beauty to drown in. I want my lungs to fill up with imagination and creation. How did I forget that this is the only way that living feels like being alive?
Anyways, I didn’t want anyone else’s grief to touch me this week. I didn’t want to see any RIP posts and feel like it had become just another hashtag. I couldn’t see “David Bowie trending” when I had to scream into my pillow to cope with an unprecedented sense of loss and emptiness. I knew there had to be lots of other people just as ripped apart by this, but I didn’t know who they were.
The only person in the world I knew for sure would be just as fucked up as me was Sharon Needles (aka Aaron Coady). What David Bowie did for me in my teens, Sharon Needles did for me in my twenties. Both have other-wordly stage personas that dazzle but do not obscure the tender hearts inside. Angie told David that “the messiah thing” worked for him and encouraged him to scream “give me your hands” in Rock n’ Roll Suicide. Sharon’s the last person to identify with a messiah figure, but she’s functioned as one nonetheless for a lot of isolated weird kids out there. Both performers wield strangeness and otherness to make outsiders feel like they’re not alone. Sharon has performed Bowie songs with a radiating, vibrant energy that shows how much respect and affection she has for the man himself. Perhaps because it’s my first time grieving, I could only share the experience with someone who’s already proven their sincerity and depth of feeling many times over to the world.
Aaron shared a picture of himself without make-up, without a pose, without even a bandage on his cut browbone– his normally handsome face twisted in the same mutilated sense of horror that I was feeling. I only let his grief touch me for the first 48 hours; no one else came into my apartment and my mourning but Sharon Needles. I normally regard Sharon as a kind of pagan goddess: beautiful, fearless, razor-smart… but for the first two days I didn’t talk to anyone or leave the house, he felt more like a sister. I realized we were probably both teenagers at one point who got swallowed up in David Bowie’s music, film, or performances. We probably both fantasized about his unearthly androgynous beauty. And we probably both needed him at vulnerable times in our lives. I’d never dare compare myself to anyone so talented and fearless except in this one case: I felt closer to “Sharon”, to Aaron the artist, in our shared grief than I had in four years of reverently adoring his work.
Remember that clip of David Bowie performing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, strange, sexy, totally comfortable having chemistry with Mick Ronson in front of the entire world? The first time I saw that, I was at the AGO exhibit and ended up sobbing in public, trying to pretend I was just having a nose bleed. It sounds crazy, but I was crying because I was grateful that I hadn’t been young in the 70s, and that I was born now after this part of his career was long over. I thankfully didn’t have to be alive when he first appeared in our culture: languid, alien, caring, a force of youth and acceptance. I was grateful I never had a chance to fall in love with him then, because I would have spent my life broken-hearted. I counted my blessings that he was already a legend, a distant god woven into the stars by the time I was an emotionally vulnerable teenager. It doesn’t make his death any easier, but at least I didn’t have the pain of being young when he was young. I can’t imagine that level of attachment and loss.
That clip from Top of the Pops kept coming back to me, not just from the memory of crying helplessly in front of strangers, trying to hiccup to my mom that I was “just so happy he’s old now.” I kept thinking of how no one had ever gone on a national broadcast and been this weird, this homoerotic, never been front and centre while challenging so many norms of beauty and behaviour. It makes me beam to think of how he must have made so many straight guys adjust themselves uncomfortably while they watched TV with their wives/girlfriends! And this on top of being a devoted husband, loving father, outspoken advocate for social justice and endless fount of creativity. I listen to “Kooks” and wonder what it must have been like to be that adored and accepted by your parents. That’s the type of parent I would want to be: “We believe in you.”
I loved to buy into his ‘alien’ thing. I still do. I feel like an alien all the time, and it’s fun to imagine that maybe David Bowie and I are from neighbouring planets in the same star system. But the part of me that’s showing no signs of healing yet is grieving for the marvellous human being who deserved twenty more years on this planet, his planet. I’m not mourning the god, the alien, the messiah, because those will live on as powerfully as they always did. The truth is, I’ve only known about ten men in my whole life that I would say are good men. Probably less, considering I didn’t know David Bowie. It frightens me that one of the only truly gentle souls I ever knew of, visionary or not, is gone. That’s why I think, “What are we going to do without you?” I know that grief can’t help but be the mourning of the self, and it’s probably closer to “What am I going to do without you?” Who will be as gentle, smart, creative, and inspiring? I only know a few who come close.
The first song I heard in my head while I was still in my dark room that morning wasn’t the one I expected. I was in pain from sobbing so violently, and I couldn’t begin to imagine actually listening with my ears to any music yet. But I heard “Lady Stardust” over and over in my head while I cried. I remember being 15 and enchanted by the male pronouns coupled with the feminine title. I especially lingered over the line “Femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair.”
Not that I’m a femme fatale or anything, but I frequently feel like some night-crawler that lives in darkness until a glowing personage makes me want to poke my head out of my cool, dry hiding places. And it’s the phrasing “a creature fair” that made my heart keep breaking. I’ve known those fair creatures before; even as a murky ink smudge on the shaded edges of their orbit, I know what fair creatures are like. Delicate, watchful, sometimes quiet and absorbent before springing suddenly into song, blazing, warm, and with a finite existence. They have the presence of a sylph, magnetic and elusive at the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to be kissed by some, adored in return; I’ve had their warm hands hold my face. They make intense, joyful eye contact without a shadow of a doubt that I’m as worthy of love and friendship as they are.
The idea of one of these fair creatures being infected by cancer, knowing he was going to die, and ending his life with the prescient grace of a falling flower that knows it will forever scatter… it still feels like a blunt set of talons rake my face every time I think of him being attacked by a cancer virus until it killed him. I thought I might actually be sick when I finally made myself look up how he died. I wish I could have held him until all that sickness absorbed into my body. I irrationally hate myself for not being able to do anything to give back to someone whose music and myth were so important to getting through high school. He guided me through a lot of frightening epochs and I never gave anything back. I never will.
I wish I could wrap all this up to a poignantly fulfilling conclusion, but the truth is that I am, for now, incomplete. My queen has died in battle and I don’t know if I’m supposed to keep fighting or just wander away. Frankly, death doesn’t actually seem that natural to me. It doesn’t seem like a part of life. It seems like DEATH, uncontrollable, menacing, occasionally glorious, but not worth the attention it gets.
I can only think of one way to eventually feel okay about this, and that’s to design a full life and future the way that a very young David Jones did. He told Nina Simone that he didn’t think he had a great voice, but he knew what he wanted his life to be. To this day, he’s the only person I’ve heard say that, because who the hell else would even notice? I think the only way to fill this void is to focus on what I can control, and nurture as much creativity and curiosity as I possibly can in myself. There are things that are probably never going to come naturally to me, including being so accepting of strangers and so understanding of human frailty as he was. I don’t care if it never comes naturally to me; it’s still something I want to be even if it’s a struggle my whole life to lower that guard.
I’ve plastered over this void so that I can interact normally with people, but now I’m challenged to make my spirit full and rich enough that his absence doesn’t become an abscess. I’ve got this handful of stardust I’m gripping so tight it hurts, because it slips through mortal fingers just that easily. I’m going to have to swallow it all at once to keep it.
I wish I could be more certain of how natural it is to live on your own through your twenties. I’m an unusually solitary person anyways, but the uninterrupted lengths of time I go without being near my family, or without making meaningful contact with friends, makes me wonder if this striving to be independent isn’t a little unsettling to some natural instinct for family and community.
I got a sumptuous massage from a friend today, and realized that I go untouched for weeks most of the time. It’s not a sexual thing at all, but maybe just an intimacy thing. I wonder if I’d be as sensitive to all the things that cause me anxiety if I gave myself more regular opportunities to feel close to others.
I love my apartment to death; I’ve nicknamed it Antares after a beloved star, and for how far away from the world it can make me feel on a good day. But sometimes I wonder how strange it would look to someone from a different country, time, or culture, to see me living in it alone every night, reading, writing, Netflixing, and then waking up alone again in the morning. That itself doesn’t bother me; what bothers me is the possible effect it might be having on my temperament that I’m not even consciously aware of.
I mean, if this was natural, then why would a girl raised in an atheist, culturally blank home, a girl who’s a serial shiksa (or would be if I had the guts and no conscience), why else would I find so much peace in listening to the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof? On repeat. I lie in bed and listen to this track again and again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZZj-Od7Ot0
Now, I had a desperate hunger for ethnicity and a cultural identity long before I lived on my own; even in sixth grade I would latch onto ethnicities and learn about them, finding comfort in pretending I had an identifiable background. But Sabbath Prayer hits me deeper than that familiar longing for culture. This track hits me in the family bone, in the part of me that wants to be cared about. It’s a part I keep rigidly under control, and gratify on my walks, pretending that the stars and wind care about me, that they want to protect me. I rely on being independent, yet within that I know there’s a delight in the feeling of existing under a mighty aegis.
I’ve never been blessed; I’m not really sure what that word means, but I see parents blessing their children in other cultures, rabbis blessing babies. I like the idea of someone well-wishing me in some small ritual. it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t need to believe that this blessing confers the protection of the gods upon me. But I feel sort of achey and empty when I think of the simple act of one human openly wishing another well, in some way just slightly more ceremonious than “have a good night!”
The idea of someone touching my head, closing their eyes, and immersing momentarily in care and affection in the hopes that their feelings will follow me as a little charm of luck; I probably wouldn’t be able to handle that, actually. I’d love it so much I’d plunk down and sob, and their charm wouldn’t be following me anywhere until I stopped hiccuping. Their baffled blessing would float awkwardly above my head, going “Ummm… I think I just made things worse.”
I very, very rarely think about things like family or emotional support. My thoughts are much more frequently caught up in the ecstasy of revenge and redemption, in blazing wild, fiery paths through ice, in the strength of a black hole wrenching a galaxy in motion. It takes one massage from one friend to remind me how necessary closeness and caring is. I never, ever think of myself as a person who needs to be cared for. I think I actively define myself in opposition to that. But I really wish I could experiment with this; I wonder… if I was in a position to receive regular tokens of love and concern from family and friends, to get a small hug from my mother before I went off to read by myself for a few ours, I wonder how I would be different.
I wonder if the sound of someone’s loud TV in the next apartment over would still make me nauseous with anxiety. I wonder if my heart would still shrink in slick, withered worry about whether the noise will ever stop. Will I be able to write? Sleep? Think? I wonder if I lived close to an emotional support system rather than isolating myself the way a properly independent twenty-four year old does in our culture, would I get so defensive in public on the streets? I turn into a little motoring fortress in public, whipping around slow walkers, glaring at smokers– to be honest, I was like that when I lived with my family, but then, my family was not a support system in high school, not at all.
I’m jealous of the friends I know who have a strong cultural, familial, even religious background that gives them the opportunity and framework to feel close to their parents and siblings. But it’s probably not that simple at all. Maybe culture and religion themselves do nothing to hold people together, but the way they’re practiced does. Can’t get into that, because I have practically no experience, and also, it’s 5:30 a.m. and my analytic skills are diminishing along with my rhetorical dexterity.
Living and working in the Toronto arts scene, I hear a lot about the emotional vacancy of materialism—of how the fetishization of objects is a capitalistic construct created by corporations to compel consumerism (and encourage alliterative critiques). As a fellow young, liberal arts worker, I am often called upon to intermittently nod in agreement and shake my head in moral dismay. A disdainful attitude towards the sad pursuit of material gratification is a prerequisite to first-year courses in Enlightened 21st Century Self-Righteousness.
That will be the most bitter-sounding thing I allow myself to say in this post—proceed knowing that I have great affection for my enlightened friends, but can’t help teasing them when I see an anti-capitalism post tweeted right after we just got Starbucks the other day. This is not a bitter post; I’d like to celebrate something instead—the marvellous, reflective, and often transformative power that material objects can have on our interior selves.
We all know that when my enlightened friends blame corporate greed for our materialist culture, they’re not wrong. Anyone with Google can easily research the empirical truth behind this claim. We all know corporations fuel advertisers to make people feel dissatisfied with what they have and to keep spending money—to them I can only say “Do your worst.” I’ll take responsibility for my own spending habits. Advertisers sometimes seduce me, but it’s up to me to remain aloof.
Living in a world saturated with advertising is A LOT like online dating. Dumb guys will approach me with a “heyyy babe like 2 chat?” and I ignore it as easily a I ignore an ineffective ad on the subway. Middle-of-the-road nice guys will compliment a picture, make a shallow observation about my profile, and ask if I’d like to get tea. If I’m in a good mood, I might smile, look in the window for a split second, but keep walking, knowing this garment won’t look actually suit me if I tried it on. Pseudo-intellectuals try to imitate my style of writing in order to make it seem like we have something in common, much like how some commercials try to “keep it real” in appeal to me on a relatable, no-bullshit level. This, however, is a tactic in advertising and online dating that has minimal effectiveness on a critical mind.
But every now and then, I get a beautiful message from someone who put time, effort, and talent into what they wanted to say to me. And whether he’s selling me a line or not, I enjoy buying it. Similarly, I sometimes see an ad or an object being advertised that is so beautiful and artistic I have no shame in admitting, “You got me. I’m sold. I happily concede defeat as long as I can have you.”
Frankly, I think whoever can sell to me, a jaded customer in both love AND shopping, deserves something for their ingenuity in surmounting my reflexive suspicion. No, I don’t put out just for a beautifully constructed paragraph—but I will possibly meet for coffee. And I don’t always buy something immediately if it’s beautifully, thoughtfully made—but it will stay in my mind, continue to seduce, and sometimes grow into a purchase.
I know that many advertisers have been flagrantly irresponsible with how they warp young women’s self-image and young men’s standards of masculinity—I’ve seen the Dolce and Gabana gang-rape ads and wanted to throw a brick through a shop window in Yorkville. I don’t contest the allegation that advertising frequently equates sex to violence and beauty to sickness. I’m tired of it and something should be done (though a Dove commercial passive-aggressively bullying skinny women is not the answer).
My point is that when I see an advertiser trying to sell to me, I take responsibility for whether I allow myself to be sold to or not. I’ve taken this same tactic with men, and thus have relatively few experiences that I regret. I can’t say the same for shopping– I’ve definitely been more free with my wallet than my heart. I know my enlightened friends would say if I was more free with the latter, I might not need to be so with the former. They have a point; and yet, I can’t completely agree.
You see, I have marvellous relationships with my objects. Relationships of respect, pleasure, self-reflection, and delight. Must we only derive these experiences from other people? I’ve had wonderful rewards emerge in friendships, but I see nothing wrong with finding them also in my relationship with a gorgeous sweater, a corset showing up 50% off, or the perfect pair of heels (see Fluevogs—which I sadly did not end up getting). Some readers are going to reluctantly understand what I’m saying, and others are going to find me utterly perverse.
But you can call me perverse if you like; my objects can still imbue day-to-day routine with grace, beauty, positive thinking, and productive reflection.
I recently found an American Apparel dance shirt 70% off at Winners. I jumped at the opportunity of owning a high-quality item without giving my money to their grease-ball CEO. But also—this was a deep violet scoop-back leotard. When I put it on, I had never seen my own scapula look so graceful, or my own back look so erotic and yet so tasteful. I felt as though I was accessing a side of myself that had always been there, but had never been framed right so that I could see it. Even in the infamously wretched lighting of a Winners dressing room, my heart started racing at the sight of myself in the mirror.
This was beyond ego, beyond vanity—it was like I at the top of a skyscraper, looking through one of those expensive little telescopes they have at tourist locations, and looking down onto the crowded street below to see myself walking by thirty stories below… but a beautiful, confident version of myself. I wanted to rush to elevator and chase after her, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the lenses—I had seen something at a distance that’s taken me most of my life to realize was always there: an effortlessly self-assured young woman who can handle any hardship that comes her way. All because of a shirt…?
What I realized, as I contorted for the cashier to scan the tag of a garment I was STILL wearing, was that this revelation had been forming for a long time. Little things in my life had contributed to a long journey towards being the self-assured person I want to be—and it took one great shirt to tip all of this internal development out into the open. The shirt is not the cause of my recent renewal in self-esteem; it is only the lens that helped me realize it had been building subliminally for a long time.
I wore the shirt to a pole-dancing class later that day, to meet a friend for coffee, then to an outdoor movie with another friend. I pouted the entire time it was in the washing machine and rejoiced when we were together again. The shirt is not a replacement for self-esteem, or a temporary source of happiness. It’s not a band-aid for a deeper problem. It’s only a reminder, a helper—when I felt like crap the other day, I put the shirt on and like a good friend, it nudged me back towards a more positive perspective. Even after a renewal in self-esteem, I had a day where I felt ugly, untalented, forced to put mindless hours into a job that left me with no time for creativity. Putting on the shirt was like inviting over my oldest friend, who said “This is only for now; this is just one bad hair day. Tomorrow will be better, and next month will rock! This is just one day, so never forget who you are.”
My shirt is not a magical talking shirt; you can’t find those for 16.99. The shirt is instead an object that encourages me to talk myself out of a slump. It’s something to shift my perspective, remind me of a time when I felt beautiful and confident, to get me out of my room. Even though it’s just an object, it interrupts a negative mental track in my mind and steers me towards a positive one. In this way, the shirt is a transcendent object, one that exists externally in the material world but has a profound effect on my internal dialogue.
There’s an antique blue fan that I take with me to clubs, because I find myself feeling very lumpish and self-conscious dancing in public unless I make a kitschy joke out of the experience with a Japanese dancing fan. Posing and turning with the fan loosens me up until I’m comfortable with myself, and then it’s handy in keeping myself cool.
I have a metal ring made to look like two pieces of armour connected by little chains; one half sits below my nail, and the other above my knuckle. I wear this when I know I’m not feeling particularly strong or resolute. There have been times when I have to talk to someone I don’t like, and I secretly run my thumb along the grooved texture of the armour and am reminded of Joan of Arc, of warrior queens and political children throughout history who were probably terrified when they faced a bloodthirsty mob. I feel the texture of this ring and remind myself who I am and what I can deal with. This ring gives me a dynamite poker face.
And I have a coat. I have a red coat. From the first moment I put it on, I felt more myself than I had before. This coat doesn’t make me feel like a better version of myself, an idealized version—it gives a physical representation to something intangible inside of me. It embodies carnality, power, and grace—it synthesized my black and white swans into a cohesive, crimson reality. The first winter I wore it, I got more in touch with myself than I ever had before. Every winter since, the day comes where the wind is cold enough to demand a coat—and I know that this is the day. This is the day I get to go back to feeling vibrantly and unambiguously like my deepest self while in public.
I slide my arms through the black embroidered lining of the sleeves and nerves light up and explode as they feel the familiar fabric enclose them. Wild, preening, salivating parts of my psyche, frequently buried for the sake of decency and decorum, roar up from their deep summer cages and click into position. They know that we are no longer hindered by the heat; they know that they now have a voice in parliament. There is someone new in the Imperial court with their interests at heart, representing their needs, and telling the power on the throne that things need to change. This red coat is not just what I wear in the winter. It is my sensuality’s attorney. It is the ambassador for my pride. It crosses the Atlantic to represent the interests of parts of myself that have become foreign countries to me, and within a week of wearing it regularly, the coat has championed and won.
Winter is a season where my deepest secrets cease to be shameful and my desires don’t seem so unattainable—all because this coat came along when my self-esteem needed a good lawyer. Nothing makes me look as good as this coat, and nothing reminds me, every second that I’m in it, that I can be much more than I usually allow myself to be. This coat refuses to let me think I’m ugly; it won’t let me lapse even for a second into self-deprecating sulking. I couple winters ago I tried to tell myself I was never going to be a writer—and the coat responded with a resounding “Ex-CUUUUSE ME?!”
I’m sure I’m supposed to see the toxicity in this; I’m supposed to see the ways in which my material objects are helpful to me and say “No, that should come from friends and family, from connection with people. If you’re getting that from a coat, something is WRONG.” To that self-righteous false logic, I say “Thank you for the platitude, you pompous extrovert.” I could just as easily argue a similarly condescending point; what if I was to be a correspondingly narrow-minded dick and reply,
“Well, I think self-esteem should be self-initiated. If you need friends or a boyfriend/girlfriend to feel good about yourself, then that’s just sad. You’re relying on other people to feel good about yourself.”
To clarify, I have not, nor ever will, say or believe this ignorant statement. But I find the same argument frequently used against objects. Against my objects.
“If you need that coat to feel good about yourself, then you’re not really loving yourself.”
I do love myself; there was a time when I didn’t, and the coat witnessed it. The coat didn’t always work, but it always tried to help. Slinking through slushy streets, wondering why I could never make myself understood to the people I cared about, sometimes I forgot the coat was on me. But the coat came to represent something, and so when I sunk into pits of self-loathing and hopelessness, I might catch a glimpse of myself in a dark window in this coat and be reminded of something that could combat the abyssal thoughts.
The coat came to represent the iron core inside of me, and all the principles outside myself that I aspired to; it began to stand for strength, courage, nobility, and compassion—all at once. When I wore that coat, I believed I could practice all these qualities at once. The coat made me feel connected to an ancient tradition of women who were found to be perverse by society, wilful, smart, frustrated women who could be just as hypocritical as the world they rejected. Women like Antigone who died locked in caves because they wouldn’t submit; women who were found to be unmarriageable because of their strange personalities, their unfeminine features, or their wayward inclinations. I’m not saying I’m as strong as them, or as smart; but the coat reminded me that I was not the first person to feel alienated from society, abandoned by her friends; I was not the first person who didn’t want to choose between being themselves or being a part of the world. The coat itself was just fabric, but what it generated in my mind was truly valuable.
All the emotional content aside, I truly appreciate the pure tactility of a well-made object. I respect craftsmanship, uniqueness, inspiration in design. I relish the little elements of a shoe that make it thrilling, the carvings on an antique box that signify its age, the thought and care put into the design of a beautiful notebook. Someone cared enough to pay for good materials; they had enough confidence in their idea to work with the best resources. I feel sometimes as though objects are transmitted to me from their creators like children who need to be cherished.
Odd words coming from someone who grew up in the post-Fight Club era; I loved that book and film as much as anyone else, but remember, Fight Club was Generation X’s statement of rebellion. It was their rejection of consumerism. I was eleven when I saw that movie; as a teenager, I rebelled from their rebellion. I embraced the beauty of objects that made me feel more myself than I had before, objects that allowed me to try on different identities. A black lace choker and Manson shirt helped me feel goth; a Doors t-shirt helped me feel connected to an era I mourned the passing of and longed to be a part of. A parasol made me feel delicate in ways my awkward body had never allowed. These objects had a transforming effect on my identity during this transitive phase… to anyone who’s been a teenager, this is so obvious it barely needs to be stated.
But as we get into our twenties, settle into one identity or another, we’re supposed to reject the use of objects as a way to convey identity. My generation in particular has a lot of pressure to pretend they hate capitalism, and by extension, materialism. I think there should be critique of capitalism, and I am all for a healthy dose of socialism in every government. I’m Canadian; the idea of paying for basic medical care is barbaric to me. But I will not let this temporal attitude make me feel ashamed for finding refuge, reflection, and renewal in my lovely objects.
Don’t mistake this for just a superficial, visual love affair. Material things possess a sensuality beyond appearance that we crave; we like to touch, smell, rub velvet on our cheeks. The creaking of a broken-in leather jacket is a very arousing sound. In fact, the smell, feel, and sound of leather are good for that. If I liked a guy enough, I’d probably even open my mouth against his leather jacket and try to bite it. Why pretend that we aren’t creatures of the senses, or that our senses are divided from our higher reason? What feeds my senses also feeds my mind; the Cartesian notion of division between the brain and body makes me want to PUKE. That animal-abuser must have been insane to think that the brain and body are distant cousins that send letters to one another, rather than lovers constantly interlocked as close as possible in a gasping, grasping grind that rises and falls in intensity depending on what your senses are experiencing.
The sound of my fan clicking open has a satisfyingly flirty sense of introduction to me; it’s the sound of a flirtatious dance about to begin. The click of my heels on pavement creates a rhythm that excites me for wherever I’m going. The feel of my hair under my own fingertips is exciting at times. We’re all creatures locked into our sensuality, and dismissing it as base or inferior, is just applying the same dualistic mentality that keeps women oppressed in many parts of the world, or other races. Our different aspects do NOT need a caste system; that are meant to work with each other, not in spite of each other.
I respect the power of the material as much as I respect the nerves and synapses in my own body that make the material experience so luxurious, and often profoundly redemptive. I couldn’t separate them any more than I could lobotomize myself. If I were to make myself abhor the material world of sensual research, lead an ascetic existence, I would cut myself off from one of my best sources of inspiration, transcendence, and communion.
So don’t blame yourself if that pair of shoes makes you feel like the person you want to be; they’re only suggesting what’s already there inside, and what’s possible.
Spent the whole day listening to Yamashirogumi Geinoh’s albums. The earth cannot tilt away from the sun fast enough. I’m aching for winter, for the understanding, compassionate cold to drive everyone inside and leave me my empty streets and music.
Winter is my boyfriend. Not just any boyfriend; a GOOD one. He does everything for me I imagine boyfriends are supposed to do, but none of the things my friends complain about.
Winter makes me feel sexy; he makes me feel more beautiful than any living person has ever managed to. He gets me into my favourite clothes, the ones that make me feel most myself. When I pass a dark window in winter, I see myself in my natural habitat.
Winter knows how to light me; in the summer, my impenetrable North-Sea pallor looks sickly and unfed. But in winter, my skin becomes marble. My cheeks flush at the slightest provocation. My lips always wants to be slightly parted in winter so I can feel the moisture inside them freeze for an instant.
Winter excites me the way a boyfriend presumably would. When I hear wind shaking my bedroom window, I feel butterflies in my stomach. I never pay more attention to applying lipstick than after I’ve heard a cold wind scratching at my window. I emerge into frozen nights in knee socks and skirts so that as I pass by human men, solid and interchangeable as boulders, I think of how with all their blood and nerve and muscle, they will never brush a cold finger between my knees as I race down the sidewalk.
No human man could caress me this intimately unless I stopped and held still for him. Winter does not need me to hold still. Winter does not ask me to slow down. Winter has never once asked me if we can “just stroll”. The faster I walk, the sharper his touch becomes; he slides an ice-palm up my thigh as I charge across an intersection. In eight sets of headlights, it’s like being given oral sex on a professionally lit stage– except the audience doesn’t know what they’re seeing. I pass by too quickly for anyone to notice me; if they did, would they wonder why I have a mid-fuck look on my face walking through the financial district at night? Winter is my secret. He’s the lover who can arouse me from across a crowded room and never raise suspicion. He is the minotaur who picks up my scent and follows me, herds me, to the centre of the maze. Winter knows what I like.
Who could ever mistake coldness for indifference? In the cold I have found the sharpness of touch, the thrill of a glance. The tactile sensation of being in love is almost identical to the sensation of being in the deep, wild winter. The chills, the shivers, the rushes of blood to cheeks and loins that love incites– winter draws an identical biological response from us all, but so few people recognize the similarity. What can a summer sun do but pacify and bake a body into indolent lethargy? Languidity can be sensual, but heat itself does not excite my body unless it’s coming from another body– the cold makes me alert, focused, driven to find satisfaction. Winter makes me hungry; rather, winter freezes away the illusion that I’ve ever been fully satisfied and demands I plough ravenous through gusts of snow to sate myself.
I hear boyfriends are supposed to make you feel warm and safe, but I have a bed for that. I have flannel pyjamas that can do that. I’m all too adept at making a cup of tea that can do that in one sip. I’ve never craved a boyfriend for security; the notion perplexes me. Aren’t boyfriends the opposite of security? I suppose if I think about it, men have a traditional role in history as the means for a woman’s security. You get yourself a man, and you get a house, money, and the right to reserve your body for just one guy.
But I’ve never looked at a man and seen security. If I notice them at all (interchangeable boulders need not apply) I either see danger, desire, or indifference. I have, in several instances, encountered the three all in one body. This is a wretched combination. And when these dangerous, desirous, indifferent boys begin to frustrate me, winter is there, simple yet mysterious, ready to make me feel like a woman the way I won’t permit a man to. Winter will simulate the exact physical experience of seeing one of those boys look at me, touch my hands, smile knowingly. The shivers winter sends through me are neurologically and physiologically identical to the shivers that a few dangerous, desirous, indifferent words can create. But winter ultimate poses a very different, more exciting, and yet more manageable threat to me than these dangerous, desirous, indifferent boys: winter can kill me if I stay out in it too long.
Winter can kill me; literally kill me. There’s something extremely satisfying in the literalism of that threat after one has spent too many nights contemplating the figurative injuries these dangerous boys have inflicted. A human man (one in 100,000, perhaps) can make me feel like I’m dying. A poison word, a sneering shrug, a month of silence– these won’t kill me outright, which makes them terribly annoying. They’re like cramps; I know I won’t die from them. I know in a day they won’t hurt anymore. But while they’re happening, I feel like they’re killing me.
And so when I’ve been out in -25 degree weather for an hour too long and my fingers are on the border between red and blue, and I’m starting to get that I’m-not-even-that-cold-I’m-just-sleepy feeling and I know this is the early sign of an icy death, THEN I’m satisfied. There’s nothing like the threat of literal danger to snap you out of the illusion of figurative ones.
And this is how winter is the best boyfriend I could have: he gives me the perspective that returns me to my best self. He won’t let me wallow in self-pity; he has no patience for it. No one gets lost on Everest and starts wondering if they shouldn’t have said that one bitter thing last year. They’re focused on survival. Winter can kill me; he has that power. But instead, he uses this power to remind me of how how much I love to be alive.
As I get to that liminal point, on the threshold between safety and hypothermia, I have no time to think about foolish things I’ve said and done, or callous words that seemed to hurt. When winter makes my toes hurt, I realize how petty these figurative hurts are. My bruised emotions heal very quickly when the threat of actual frostbite is around the corner. And with all this perspective and renewal comes the the physiological sensation of love. As he reminds me of how strong I am and how exciting life is, he creates romantic thrills across my skin. What else could I ask for in a boyfriend? What human man would have the time or incentive to do the same?
As I realized earlier in the body of this text, boyfriends and husbands have historically represented security to a woman. I suppose this is why I find the notion of one so unappealing. How could I ever be satisfied with security when a mighty lover like winter has allowed me to be as fast, as wild, as ravenous as I want and been able to excite me as I run? How could I ever be satisfied with that cloying mundanity women seem to find so appealing when I know what it is to jump and scream in gusts of snow and feel like in doing so I’m copulating with the most powerful lover on the planet?
I have met human men who could make me as excited as winter– but they always ask me to slow down. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Look them in the eye. And the momentum slows; the suspense ebbs. Give me the man who will know I like him without demanding I say it out loud. The one who won’t try to civilize or normalize me. Who won’t mistake my waywardness for inconstancy; if I want you, I will want only you while we’re together. But when I need time to think, read, write, walk and flirt with winter, don’t take it to mean you aren’t as important to me as all those things.
Such a man likely does not exist; this thought can make me feel morose, but then I remember I’ll always have winter. Men will come and go, misunderstand me, confuse me, ignore me, demand the truth from me, but winter asks nothing in return but what I want to give him naturally: the flush of blood, the thrill of the icy challenge, and a solitary, renewing communion.