See the Cripple Dance: To be crazy as a loon

Returning to my hometown is always complicated. After being housebound for most of this Winter, with the exception of a few rides to medical appointments and small, crooked strolls in and out of the post office, any breath of fresh air anywhere feels meaningful, but/and there are always encounters with ghosts in Lindsay, Ontario.

I draw a single card every morning, but this time I drew two: Two of Swords and Two of Pentacles.

Self-protection is always my first thought when I draw the Two of Swords. Self-preservation, too. And hyper-vigilance, of course. Last year in a collaboration with my friend Cee Lavery, they drew a picture of me as the Two of Swords, holding onto my canes instead, sitting on the edge of Toronto Island, one of my nearby and semi-accessible little escapes from the city. I wrote about my first cane being made of tourmaline, and my second being made of amethyst. I wrote about holding onto my cane with rage. I remember this image every time I draw this card.

Lindsay is the kind of town where people throw garbage at you from their car if they don?t like the way you look. I hadn’t spent much time in that town while using my cane, nor had I been there at all with my little beard. I’ve been able to grow a beard – or the ghost of one – for a few years, but I’ve plucked it out hair-by-hair with the same pair of tweezers I’ve had since I was a teenager. Partly because of self-consciousness, partly because I’m not sure what to label that feeling yet. The last time I grew it out was on a psych ward in my mid-20s, because I was curious about how it would look, and because I didn’t wanna request tweezers from the nurse’s station every morning.

I grew it out again this Winter. It’s longer and thicker now. The pattern of letting it grow seems to be that I do it when I know very few people will see me. I do it when I’m locked up or isolated in some way.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to grow a beard. I remember imagining drawing one on with eyeliner or getting a tattoo on my chin . I didn’t know growing a beard would become a possibility as I grew up, nor that I would pluck strands of it out nearly every day, nor that those pieces would become ingrown hairs and leave scars on my chin as I picked and picked and picked.

On this day the Two of Pentacles represented different forms of time, various conversations with myself/s, & memories and thoughts prompted or triggered by physical places and objects. As I’m working on my next novel and recovering with the trauma of teenage violence and incarceration, interacting with this card has been part of my process of hanging out with my teenage self/s & carrying and embodying evidence of what I’ve survived. It’s the balance between allowing myself to both send and receive messages through dissociation, without losing myself or hurting myself. I brought my copy of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, because it felt like a good affirmation to keep with me.

I took a Tylenol 3 in the morning. It was the first day where I wore a pinstripe blazer instead of my Winter coat, ordinary tights instead of fleece-lined. I wore the brightest shade of purple lipstick, and neon orange nails grown out longer than they’d ever been. And my lavender cane, of course. If you’re younger than elderly and you use a mobility aid (actually, I recently coined the term ‘crip contraptions’ for this stuff, and I’m really into it), you know so many ways in which so many people do not believe that these items are real. People think they’re cute accessories, part of a costume, a ridiculous affectation. Lindsay could not possibly be a friendly place to a 30-something visibly queer and disabled femme with a cane and a tiny beard, I thought.

I had my guard up, my swords up.

After sending a bunch of zines, books, and letters at the post office, the first place I went was The Corner. It’s not exactly a place as it doesn’t have a name, but I write it with capitals because it is a place to me. To anybody else, it’s just a corner. Concrete. Benches. A crumbling building.

When I was thirteen, the crumbling building was the kind of café I only dream of now. Exposed brick walls, thrift store couches, shelves filled with used books, a single wall with a bunch of permanent markers where we were encouraged to write, and owners who made compilation zines about being weirdos in a small town. I didn’t have the guts to contribute back then. And I drank pop, not coffee. But I spent a lot of time there, hidden in the darkest corner, furthest from the door.

The Corner was where I gravitated. I went there after school and on weekends, and then increasingly earlier in the day the more I skipped school. Cops always knew where they could find me. I sat on the back of a bench with my feet on the seat. I wrote Green Day lyrics on the thighs of my worn out jeans: SHE SCREAMS IN SILENCE / A SULLEN RIOT PENETRATING THROUGH HER MIND / WAITING FOR A SIGN TO SMASH THE SILENCE WITH THE BRICK OF SELF-CONTROL.

Sometimes I think of the Two of Pentacles as the (im)balance between clock-time and memory-time. It’s who I want to be vs. who people see me as. It’s incongruity and indecisiveness. It’s the violence of nostalgia.

With my amethyst cane, my little beard, and my bright purple lipstick, I went back to The Corner. The bricks were still crumbling. The benches are metal now, not wood, and the concrete planters, once filled with pansies and greenery, have been removed. The building has held at least a dozen small businesses since I was a teenager. Right now it’s a hair salon.

After collecting small chunks of broken bricks in my pockets – one for me, one for my twin – I walked to a different café (the first of its kind to offer non-dairy options in that damned town) and then to the bookstore. Named after a street it no longer resides on, the local independent bookstore is a small place which now sells more used books than new, and has a shelf of local, mostly self-published literature in the middle. Like many of my favourite bookstores, it’s a quiet place with creaky hardwood floors.

Once upon a time, I took a picture of my own first book on their shelves, hanging out in the memoir section between Cheryl Strayed and Neil Young.

Among the racks of notebooks, bookmarks, and other small bookish paraphernalia, are Lindsay-themed postcards, stickers, and trinkets. Dorky little souvenirs with flags, loons, and trillium flowers printed on them. When I asked the clerk how much they cost, she said, “I don’t know, nobody ever buys them.”

Everything was not only cheap, but also marked down to 50% off. So I gathered the enamel lapel pins with little loons on them, and bought them along with a couple of used books – the gathering of evidence of survival, an almost literal badge-of-honour for escaping this small town with my life (barely) intact.

As a crazy person, I’ve always had a soft spot for the loon and find it quite appropriate that it’s been used as a symbol for the town where I grew up. But it wasn’t until recently that I really wondered where the phrase ‘crazy as a loon’ originated. It does, of course, rhyme-ish with lunacy, thus carrying connotations of madness, hysteria, and witchcraft. And it is a strange bird, a rare sight for many.

But after I gathered the pins (one for me, and gifts for my twin and other friends who’ve managed to survive), I happened to see my first loon of the season, dunking its head and then its full body under water. I’ve always found/created meaning in small moments, but as I’m emerging from another season of house-boundedness, these kinds of moments tend to take on even more significance. Most times I’ve seen or heard loons, it’s been at dusk, and it’s been a single loon on its own.

This time, it was daylight, and six or seven others swam along behind it, wiggling their black feathers.

If you haven’t heard a loon sing, I can tell you that it sounds somehow haunted and ghostly, unlike the cheerful chirps of smaller birds, or the awkward quacks of ducks. As a bird that mostly stays in the water, can stay underwater for longer periods of time than many others, and has underwater vision, I think of it as connected to dreams and emotions. It’s true that ‘crazy like a loon’ is a reference to lunacy / moon madness, and loons have also been described as sounding like the howls and laughter of crazy people, like the echoes of voices far away in the darkness.

I imagined the figure on the Two of Pentacles juggling with loonies instead, golden coins with loons under a Full Moon, or The Moon card itself with a loon approaching the shore.

After my adventures at the bookstore, I decided to go thrifting. The first shop I visited had disappeared and become a boarded up abandoned building inhabited by noisy squirrels and pigeons. At the next one, I had better luck – a rack full of $5 cardigans, an unworn purple bathrobe, a shiny poofy skirt that makes me feel like a cartoon gourmet dessert with legs.

I approached the counter with trepidation because I’m used to the old Christian ladies at Salvation Army looking at me if not with askance, then with outright disdain. But I was medicated and smiling – my small town shenanigans totally impossible without the Tylenol 3 I took in the morning and the Oxy-Codone I took in the afternoon. Shuffling through racks of clothes with a cane in one hand is difficult, but I had managed not to drop too many items on my way to the checkout, nor to trip on anything, or collapse altogether.

In the glass display case below the cash register there was a collection of handmade doilies, and I spotted one surrounded with various shades of violet thread. I asked the clerk, and it was only $1. She took the doily out of the display and added it to my pile of stuff. And then she commented on all the purple.

“Wow! All this purple looks so good on you! Not only is it royal, but it’s such an excellent gender-neutral colour, too, don’t you think?”

One good day doesn’t undo the damage of a lifetime of trauma, but it did give me one new way of coping, of communicating with ghosts, and of continuing onward.

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  1. THIS! “Sometimes I think of the Two of Pentacles as the (im)balance between clock-time and memory-time. It’s who I want to be vs. who people see me as. It’s incongruity and indecisiveness. It’s the violence of nostalgia.” So darn brilliant, Maranda! I really loved your post and thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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