Mother of In­ven­tion

To find the role model of my dreams, I had to make her up

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Heidi Sopinka

To find the role model of my dreams, I had to make her up

In the sum­mer of 2009, in what could be de­scribed as a mo­ment of wild dar­ing or a post­par­tum psy­chotic break, I left my small baby and tod­dler with their fa­ther and flew to Mex­ico City to hunt down the last liv­ing Sur­re­al­ist. I had hap­pened on a copy of Leonora Car­ring­ton’s The Hear­ing Trum­pet, which has a ninety-two-year- old hero­ine, while I was also writ­ing a novel with a ninety-two-year-old hero­ine. When I found out the au­thor was still alive, I felt I had to meet her.

I think I was half-crazy. I packed a floor­length Vic­to­rian dress, a sil­ver belt, fla­menco boots, a dig­i­tal sound recorder, and an army jacket. Joined by two artist friends, one from Mon­treal, the other from New York, I felt scared but se­ri­ous.

We stayed with a French film­maker in the leafy neigh­bour­hood of Con­desa. At night, I sat in the hot bath­room and pumped breast milk and then dumped it down the sink. I climbed onto the roof and drank tequila. We’d been se­rial di­al­ing a phone num­ber we’d copied from the pági­nas blan­cas of the Mex­ico City tele­phone di­rec­tory, and fi­nally, some­one an­swered. It was a hair sa­lon.

Dur­ing the day, we staged pic­nics around the city in­spired by Leonora’s iconog­ra­phy, as if in an at­tempt to con­jure her. We laid out a piece of black vel­vet in an empty foun­tain or on a dirt square in a park. We pow­dered our faces white, smoked clove cig­a­rettes, and ar­ranged flu­o­res­cent-pink Mex­i­can desserts on a wooden boat that smelled like sex and floor cleaner. My friend Natalie took pho­tos of us with an ex­pen­sive cam­era she’d rented back in New York.

I found my­self sit­ting slumped in a weird out­fit un­der hot sun with my other friend, Alisha. I started to con­sider that my method for find­ing a men­tor might be a bit in­di­rect. I had thought that be­ing around adults would feel free­ing, and it did, but af­ter in­tense moth­er­ing, that free­dom is a trick. It’s noth­ing like the lux­u­ri­ous pri­vacy and in­de­pen­dence you imag­ine when in cap­tiv­ity with young chil­dren. Free­dom doesn’t work that way — you use up what­ever you have.

On the fourth day, by some mir­a­cle, we found the ad­dress. The fol­low­ing day, Leonora came to her door fine boned and piled with sweaters. She had in­tense black eyes. We’d dressed for her in long skirts and had braided our hair. She led us into her house, which had a tree grow­ing through it. She talked of Pi­casso, her af­fair with Max Ernst, her re­bel­lion from her wealthy fam­ily, her art, her writ­ing. We smoked cig­a­rettes sur­rounded by totems, Lee Miller pho­to­graphs, and orig­i­nal paint­ings by Reme­dios Varo and Ernst.

She chain-smoked. “What do you want to know?” She wanted to get to the point. At ninety-two, her mind looped a lit­tle, and just like Bill Mur­ray in Ground­hog Day, we cor­rected our pre­vi­ous mis­takes. For the next visit, we brought bet­ter of­fer­ings — her brand of cig­a­rettes, pointed ques­tions.

All my life, I had wanted a men­tor. I had be­come ob­sessed with old women. They were bound to have the an­swers af­ter all that liv­ing. That en­ergy that comes from liv­ing up close to death but not yet dy­ing. I asked Leonora about mor­tal­ity, art, love. All of which she de­flected with her la­conic, dry English wit. She had stud­ied Bud­dhism for years and sim­ply said, “I would never have the pre­ten­sion of know­ing.”

We’d been keep­ing up, cig­a­rette for cig­a­rette, and I felt a bit sick when we left. The sun was lethal, though it glit­tered where it hit her door. I wanted to take a photo but didn’t. That night, my friends and I danced to mari­achi-klezmer-hip hop at a club near the Cen­tro Histórico. We didn’t talk much.

Af­ter I landed home, the baby re­fused to feed with me. He fell asleep, and Icar­ried him, heavy as a sand­bag, to his crib. My other son was face­down on his bed wear­ing a di­a­per and an empty gun hol­ster. The garbage pail in the bath­room was full of my hus­band’s hair that he’d cut him­self. The house smelled like pee and some­thing else, but re­ally, they’d got­ten on just fine with­out me. I stood there feel­ing such ten­der­ness to­ward their help­less, ir­re­sistible beauty.

Even­tu­ally, when I sat down at my desk to write, the voice be­came spare, un­sen­ti­men­tal — like Leonora’s. I’d found, at a sen­tence level, the tone I’d been strug­gling with. In Mex­ico, away from my life, I felt I’d been able to re­ally see my­self. Now I see that no one else can give you an­swers to the big ques­tions in life. It’s like look­ing upon some­thing you have al­ways found ter­ri­fy­ing only to re­al­ize that it is ac­tu­ally mag­nif­i­cent.

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