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When I was in my early 20s, I felt the call of an artistic vocation. Even earlier, as a boy of 12, I knew that I was destined to be a Great Writer, with capital letters. I would be Shakespeare. I would win the Nobel Prize. But rightly or wrongly, I said “no” to that call back then.
And then I turned 66.
I was sitting with my little schnauzer on the couch one night in my loft, thinking about how I have failed in all the things that matter in my life – as a spouse, as a father, as an artist. I’m alone, and, let’s face it, I’m an old man now and it’s all too late.
Dante had nothing on me that night, as I recalled the famous opening lines of Inferno: Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost.
I was thinking these dire thoughts while trying to concentrate on reading when an inner voice told me: make puppets.
What a dumb idea.
Sure, as a hippie dropout back in the sixties, I did a couple of coffee house shows with them. And they tugged at my imagination every so often in later life, beckoning me, drawing me toward a riskier, less conventional, insurrectionary world. Puppets allow for a compelling kind of anarchy, what Freud would call the “Id.” They stink of the street in a teasing, potentially intoxicating way. And on a deeper level (perhaps the deepest of all), they spoke to me, drawing me back to places that I was unwilling to revisit, which I’d long since put aside and rejected as taboo: Back to our old house when, at the age of 5, I demanded dolls for Christmas and dressed up in my mother’s wedding dress, and, to my father’s shame, played with little girls rather than boys and was a sissy.
Can we, in old age, retrace our steps and find the Road Not Taken, the path that we refused when we were young?
Heraclitus answered that question more than 2,000 years ago. He taught that you can’t go into the same river twice, since both you and the flowing waters have changed.
But would I want the exact same road? Wouldn’t I want something new, and maybe better?
Yet, as the days passed, the idea kept coming back. Was it too late now, after a twisty career in a left-brain world, to hear again the faint seductive voice of that never-quite-forgotten Muse? To go through the gate that I once rejected, and find, perhaps, the hidden garden that I failed to discover when I was young? To take the risks and, perhaps, experience the joys of a very different life?
Maybe, I thought, just maybe, if I tried something completely new; if I let my right brain live a little, the side that I had suppressed and abused in all my dutiful left brain years – maybe strange new creatures would emerge from some unknown region of fertile darkness. Maybe it wasn’t too late to find the door in the tumbled wall, push it open and enter the garden, like a kid in a fairy tale.
And that’s how my great adventure began. I experimented on my own, creating some papier-mâché faces; I bought a sewing machine and learned to sew costumes; and then I took fall and winter courses in sculpture at the Ottawa School of Art. I was making weird new semi-abstract creatures, part human, part animal, which I loved.
There’s a wonderful moment when you’re making a puppet. I’d painted big eyes with heavy lashes, high cheekbones and a lovely little rosebud mouth. I broke with all the prescriptions of naturalism and painted the flesh a mellow shade of yellow and I gave this Golden Boy yellow hair, with a careful part on the right hand side. It took a couple of tries to make a body in muslin before I got it right. I slid the bright, yellow dress and red kimono over my hand and arm like a sleeve, with two fingers where his neck would go, a thumb in one arm, and the remaining two fingers in the other. Then I placed Golden Boy’s head on this new, tailored body.
And suddenly, he changed.
I moved my fingers and my thumb, and he clapped his hands. I manipulated the two fingers in his neck, and he nodded. I bent my wrist, and he performed a deep bow. Overcome with shyness, he covered his face with his hands and hid against my sheltering chest. Then he opened both arms wide and swooped through the air: he flew.
I wasn’t trying to perform with my puppets, not yet. That would come later. But I was writing short scraps of dialogue and sketches that were wayward, absurd, often obscene.
The more creative I became, I noticed other things change, too.
I was driving home one day and the sky was blue-black and deep, the way it is in winter. There was a full moon, with shadows that are bitingly sharp, a few wisps of thin cloud, no visible stars. The world was frozen. There are coloured lights on the trees in the public gardens along Wellington Street. They stab the surrounding dark with their sharp colours: indigo, emerald, ruby.
There’s a kind of warm lightness in my chest, I notice. And I remember the last time I felt it.
Once, in Grade 9, walking alone to the bus stop for school. It was something I’d never truly experienced before.
And then I remembered something I’d read somewhere in a book: This was what people meant when they referred to “happiness.” Why happiness visited me like some unseen fairy godmother, or the brush of an angel’s wing, I don’t know; and if she ever returned to that lonely boy, I don’t recall.
But now as an old man who’s taken back his life, I feel it often – especially on that snowbound night, driving home after art class, making puppets.
Jeremiah Bartram lives in Ottawa.