Books are a Girl’s Best Friend

The headline for Kerry Clare’s blog post said it all. The Morning After: What Do We Do Now?

News of the imminent closing of the Annex branch of BookCity hit hard. There’s a terrible finality to it. We’ll probably never see an independent book store on that strip of Bloor Street again. Bookstores are intimate place which weave into our personal stories. When they disappear, they carry a lot of memories with them.

I lived south of Bathurst and Bloor through many tough times in my twenties and thirties. There were nights when I’d go to Book City just to get out. Well into the evening, the doors were open, the lights were on, and I knew there would be other people there, people who shared something with me, even if I didn’t talk to them. When I was broke, I knew I wouldn’t be pressured to spend money. I could just be there among books and magazines, dipping into worlds created by people I knew were probably as lonely as me but had somehow turned it to their advantage. (By the way, whenever times were better I did spend money there as I continue to do.)

All these thoughts came at a time when I was gobbling up Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky, which evokes the neighbourhood where I lived during those years, the area just to the west and south of Bathurst and Dundas. The descriptions of the neighbourhood are richly detailed, as are the accounts of what it was like to be a kid in Toronto in the seventies. The book is set in the Portuguese community, following the murder of a shoe-shine-boy, Emanuel Jaques, on Yonge Street. This is, in my memory and that of many others, the year when Toronto lost its innocence. For the Portuguese community, the experience was devastating.

Kicking the Sky is a dark book, in which we see a group of adolescent boys exposed to the seamiest and most corrupt aspects of adult life. Redemption comes through family and friendship, but there’s also an escape presented … through books. In the midst of the violence of their everyday lives, the group of boyhood friends talk about Lord of the Flies, which they’re reading in school. The intelligence and sensitivity of that conversation tells us that they’re going to be okay, that they’re building a capacity to create meaning from whatever happens to them.

Introducing himself at the beginning of the book, the narrator, Antonio, throws in a few remarks about his love of learning and of language. He has found a way of hiving off and protecting this part of himself, and we know it’s developing and maturing, even as he experiences a violent coming-of-age. Reading allows this part of him to grow, and so does public school. We know that new possibilities await him beyond the story’s end. To me, the most subtle aspect of this brutal book is its greatest strength.

It’s yet another argument for the importance of books and reading in children’s lives.  What about book stores? So many discussions, since the news of Book City’s closure, have hinged on whether we will live to see the end of bricks-and-mortar bookshop in our lifetimes, always with the question of whether the next generation will ever know the magic of being introduced to books this way.

Kerry’s post is accompanied by a photo of her daughter, giving rise to the chilling thought that Harriet may some day look at the photo just as I look at the picture of myself  on the deck of a ship in 1960, back when the most reasonably priced way for a family to cross the Atlantic was by ocean liner. As a middle-aged woman, will Harriet look back on this photo as evidence that she was part of a vanished way of life?

It’s scary to imagine a generation who feel that way about bookstores. They are places where the value of valuing books is transmitted from one generation to the next. Libraries are, too, of course, but in a bookstore, money changes hands. It’s good for kids to read, and see their parents reading, no matter how the books get into the house. But an online purchase is abstract. In a bookstore, the parent (or in the case or yours truly, the aunt) takes out her wallet and pays. When you leave, there may have to be some calculation to see if there’s enough left for ice cream. Maybe there’s discussion about where the money came from to allow this splurge in the book store.

My most cherished bookstore memory is one of largesse. Whenever there was a windfall in our house, my father, an artist, would take me to what we called “Britnells” at Yonge and Bloor. Officially, it is was The Albert Britnell Book Shop, and The Starbucks which took it over has, fortunately, preserved the woodwork and lighting, the tiles on the floor. It was a plush, classy place, and had a hallowed quality. Our household income fluctuated, but in the big picture, we didn’t have much. A visit to the bookstore would happen when my father got a grant, sold a drawing, or got some other one-time infusion of cash. In Britnells, we were rich.

My father would buy me whatever I wanted, as many books as I wanted. I remember a particular visit, when I was about eleven years old. I left the store laden with a pile of so many Anne of Green Gables books that I had to balance them with my chin. These were hardcovers, with dust-jackets. I still have them.

Afterwards, we went to the Coffee Mill for a treat, and talked enthusiastically, both of us on a kind of high. I told him my ideas and plans, and he listened very earnestly. My father’s way of taking me seriously nourished me in the most profound way. In these discussions, I could feel my self growing and strengthening, just as I could feel my nightly glass of milk feeding my bones.

I knew I was being initiated into something, prepared for something. Books were the currency of love in our household. At Christmas and birthdays, and sometimes “just because,” my father would buy my mother books in the anticipation of sharing them. He loved my mother,  his mother, had loved his father in the same way. I looked forward to a friendship with the generation before, that would be built through books.

The value being conveyed to me in Britnells was that you can, and should, gorge yourself on books and stories – on culture, whether or not you really have the money for it. You should always have more books than you can carry. To this day I don’t feel like I’ve really got anything to read unless there’s a pile of five books on the arm of the chair. Years later, I watched the film Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, on late-night-TV. There’s a scene where Jane Russell, selects jewelry. “I’ll have that and that, and that and that,” she says, in the most delightfully nonchalant fashion. It made me think of that day in the bookstore.

It was a kind of largesse my father got to display only in this setting, only at times like this. Maybe he was being the father he most wanted to be. All I know is that I felt utterly loved, utterly taken care of. That feeling was just the first part of that scene to disappear, but the memory is beautiful.  And so are the books.

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Just do it.
Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.
If you wait for perfect conditions, nothing will ever get done.
If you want something done, ask a busy person.        

For years I have fueled myself with some version of these sayings, and I know I’m not alone. Without them, almost nothing would get written in this world where time and attention are in ever shorter supply. I’m not alone, either, in the truckload of perfectionism, self-doubt and just plain guilt I haul to my desk every time I sit down to write. Sometimes the only way to get past all this is to blast violently through it, or distract myself with a full schedule. We all do what we have to do. Lately, though, I’ve begun to think all this relentless doing may be costing us all more than we care to admit.

I recently finished a contract which stuffed twenty-five to thirty extra hours of work into an already-full schedule. Throughout the year I continued to organize the Draft reading series and carry on my Feldenkrais practice. I also completed a draft of my novel. And I was oh-so aware, during this time, that among the writers in my community, I am a real lightweight. Some have forty to sixty-hour a week jobs, and/or children, and/or elderly parents, and/or health problems, themselves. Some of these responsibilities have come by choice, some, not so much, but they keep on writing. Every day during this busy year I admired them, and counted my blessings that I had so few demands to juggle.

And then the contract finished, and I went from being insanely busy to moderately busy, from responding to someone else’s expectations, working in someone else’s office, to establishing my own framework again. I felt my whole system slow down. The alarm which had never failed to wake me at five a.m. all year, now feels like a joke. Where this time last year I’d whip through each day’s agenda, I now require half an hour of pacing up and down the hall, staring out the window, and researching the most recent outfit of the Duchess of Cambridge, between every item on my “to-do” list. Chores which I’ve been stashing in stray pockets of time have expanded to fill whole weekends. How did laundry get to take that long?

Decision-making has slowed down, too. The tiny implications of each course of action weigh on me, my naturally detail-oriented mind ruminating for days over how to word a three-sentence email. My body has become a veritable symptom factory, each rash, each sore throat, each bout of dizziness providing fuel for the epic sessions of worry that precede sleep each night. And I’m sensitive. I – who inured myself so brilliantly to office politics in the interest of getting through the day – now find myself bursting into tears if someone looks at me wrong.

I am, in short, going crazy.
I should just get busy again, right?
That’s what I’m starting to question.

In Feldenkrais lessons, there’s an instruction that often accompanies repeated movements. If you are raising your leg a number of times, you’re asked to lay it down and pause between the movements, starting each one from the very beginning rather than being carried along on momentum. It’s easy, verging on automatic, for most of us to let a mechanical rhythm take over, and if the goal is the raise a leg in the air twenty-five times, then we achieve the goal. But it’s not about the goal.

I’ve always been fascinated with how much of every movement is present from the beginning – and by ‘beginning’ I mean even the intention to move, even the way the system mobilizes to do it. If I tend to clench my jaw when I lift my leg, the seeds of that action are there at the very, very start. It’s only in being really quiet, taking time for the transition, that I become aware of it. To me, this moment of awareness is the wellspring of creativity, the moment when something truly new can happen. On the other hand, if I don’t pause, the habits and preconceptions that were there at movement one, are likely to be there at movement twenty-five.

I know this on a kinaesthetic level, from the quiet and introverted context of doing Feldenkrais work. I also believe that everything I write is infused with my whole world view, my whole way of being in the world. If the very tiniest part of that world view is picked up by only one reader, it becomes part of a much, much bigger conversation. And most of this never reaches the level of conscious discussion or even thought. That’s where I think just do it exacts its price.

We need to hear what parents, care-givers, busy working people have to say, and usually the only way they can say anything is in fits and starts and late night fifteen- minute scribbles.  Just do it. Of course. Whatever it takes. Yet there’s a fine line between making the best of a tough situation, and normalizing an unjust one.

Here’s where I start feeling really tired. Do I make a plea for more arts funding at this point, or maybe a total reorganization of society?  I truly despise the stereotype of the artist as special, and exempt from the responsibilities and attachments of adult life. Yet I’m starting think we need the space to get a little bit crazy, to receive credit for just how hard it is to get up every day and make something from nothing. Sure, we can just do it, but really, we should have time to stop and worry about which word to use, even if it also means worrying whether having trouble finding it might be a sign of dementia.

It’s not just about the words, but about the thoughts behind them. And there needs to be space to question habits of thought before the words spread too far to take back.

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A Woman Looks on War: three poems by Mona Gould

Peace! Peace!

Lay down your lances in the dust
Though they may be bright and sharp and clean;
They would not so remain; and flecked
With blood they bear a bitter sheen.

Where once your head was eager turned
To meet the bugle’s martial cry
Take to yourself the wind instead
The sound of waves on rock; the high
Thin song of trees, of soughing boughs,
Of wagon wheels that patient turn
Creaking and slow, as homeward bound
They pass the woods, where pine and fern

Make sweet green scent, and clover lies
Like heavenly grass beneath the skies.

Lie down against the good brown earth
Kin to your dust; and know that here
Is rest from strife, and holy peace
And dark still healing for your fear.

Winner of the Canadian Authors’ Association Peace Prize for Poetry, 1936, and published in Poetry Yearbook, 1936. Poetry Group, Canadian Authors’ Association Montreal Branch.

Spring Sunday … In a Small Town

To-day they’re having Church Parade;
The Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides,
The Cubs and the Brownies,
Are all out, full force.
The uncertain, fumbling band begins a staggering march
And off they go, curling in a snaky line
Round the corner from the Market Square,
Under the old town clock.
All the people in town
Seem to have hurried down to one spot
To see their “young hopefuls” swinging past.
They don’t march any too well, either,
But that isn’t noticed.
There they go up the steps of the old gray church
And in at the door.

There isn’t any need for tears pushing up to the surface
But they do!
The peace of it!
The ironic, terrible sense of security,
The threat under the dream!
Let the band play,
Let the children march,
Let the parents weep!

From Tasting the Earth, MacMillan of Canada, 1943

Prayer at Queen and Yonge

What was he thinking,
The young soldier with the empty sleeve
And one foot off,
Watching the long, noisy Conga line
That snaked down Yonge Street?

You couldn’t tell by his eyes.
They were neither interested
Nor excited
A little tired, maybe,
And sad, surely,
But not interested.

He stood in a safe doorway
And seemed more alone
Than anyone ought to be
On a day of celebration.
And yet, no one ventured to say to him,
“How is it with you …?
What’s the good word, Buddy?”

What he carried in his heart
Was his own quiet business.
If the shell that took his arm and foot
Also took his best friend
Well… your guess was as good as mine.
There were no cheers left in his heart
That much was apparent.

If by any chance he was toting up
What HE had paid for This Day
With his own body
I pray God, that for all the years of his life
He will find it a fair exchange.

Unpublished poem from the late 1940s.

A note on copyright: This work is covered by a Creative Commons Canada Attribution No-Derivatives License. Please feel free to enjoy and share the poetry of Mona Gould. It may be used without cost, providing you acknowledge the author and reproduce the work correctly. Mona Gould’s three books of poetry are available for free download on Project Gutenberg.

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Process of Elimination … How Paper Remembers, by John Ide

How does paper remember?

As randomly as we do.

This exchange might seem a little rigorous for a Saturday morning chat, but it’s typical of the conversations I have with my friend John Ide. We go back a long way; before he was friends with me, he was friends with my grandmother. For both of us, that meant listening to different versions of the same memory, coloured by the current mood, feud or opinion. My grandmother riffed on memory. Now, John and I spend a lot of time interrogating it.

What’s true? What’s a story? What’s a story about a story? Does memory change in the telling? Does it change the teller, or the person who hears? And what about stories that are not told – our own, or those of our elders?

I went to visit him last month during an unexpected heat wave, rushing out the door in a coat on a day when only a tee shirt was needed, tossing a digital recorder in my bag. John will be exhibiting some new drawings at the Loop Gallery, June 22 to July 14. I am excited to see them, to talk about them, and write about them.

John’s apartment is in one of those quiet and green pockets that you can still find in downtown Toronto, with ceramics and artworks carefully arranged within a small space. The desk is the focus of the room, a desk where he spends between five and ten hours a day, drawing.

The current work is part of a series he’s been creating for the past three years, work requiring little space, few materials – only pencils (HB and 2B), Stonehenge paper (often used for printmaking), chalk pastel and erasers – and lots … and lots … of solitary time.

His latest method is to lay down areas of colour in pastel, then crosshatch over the whole surface first in HB, then in 2B pencil. Then he uses a kneaded eraser to lighten precisely delineated shapes. The eraser sometimes picks up the graphite; sometimes smudges it or rubs it in deeper.

The drawings are striking for a gentle but uncompromising quality, their rich texture lost in reproduction, especially online. You have to see the works in person, spend time with them and look at them from various angles to appreciate what these surfaces have to offer. You see not just fields of dark and light, but the impressions of all the layers of cross hatching that went before. Particularly compelling are the rough edges of the paper, which stand out like lace against the white mat.

I want people to know about these drawings not just because I like them, but because they’re all about retreat from the marketplace, from goal-driven pushing, and chatter. They’re about someone being true to his process. I want to believe in a world where that kind of work wins out; for John, it’s just relaxing.

“Everything I do to the paper, changes the paper … The marks themselves: some of them hold bits of the graphite, some release it. I’ll find as the drawing is being built over time, white lines begin appearing, as if the paper has remembered where a line was before, but it’s been erased, the graphite was removed from the line, but now that the paper’s surface has received graphite, that indentation, like in an etching, has stayed light. And so I have white lines appearing across the drawing here and there, and that’s a random memory that’s appearing in the drawing.”

I wonder how others will see these drawings, without knowing their story. And that brings me to another frequent topic of conversation: What can be said about art?

The almighty Artist’s Statement can exert a kind of tyranny over both artist and viewer. As Tom Wolfe once wrote in The Painted Word, “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” Where myths and stories might once have inspired paintings, now the prevailing narratives are imposed by literary critics.

But for John, it’s not just about getting away from story or even image, it’s about getting away from thought.

“More often than not it’s the random aspects of the drawing that are working for me.  Any time when I begin to apply my thought to the drawing or I begin to put a preconceived dictate to what I think is working, that’s when the drawings begin to flounder.”

At the exhibition, there’ll be a tape loop playing of the sound of the pencil scratching on the paper, a sound that, he says, draws him forward, keeps him involved with the materials, with the surface and with the present moment. Certainly this is a meditative process, one in which the materials themselves become collaborators.

“The aesthetic control — those subtleties of dark and light — they just happen, and the more I’m there in the drawing, the more I’m there with the sound, not thinking of anything, the more I’m there to notice, ‘Oh, these little lights have shown up, I’m going to enhance them.’ I didn’t plan them to be there, I only recognized that they were there and I could bring them out a bit more.”

Yet narrative has always been a big element in John’s work. In the 1980s he explored history and memory in various installations. Family, or I Was Born in a Funeral Parlour, Forever Seduced by Glamour and A Funny Kind of Kid drew on his own memories. In 1989 he became the first archivist for my grandmother, Mona Gould. For Moments (1989), he assembled and curated not only images and texts, but many hours of tape of Mona telling stories of the past.

John has also been writing a memoir about his mother, who got polio in 1953 and lived out the rest of her years as a quadriplegic, depending on mechanical assistance to breathe. Inevitably, this has meant tangling with the thorny issues of memory’s reliability. When discussing the past with family members and friends of the family he found that they all remembered things differently. The writing and re-writing process continues …

But, knowing John and his work for so long, I know that the process of creating narrative has also been essential to this recent, non-objective work. Writing is all about revision, laying down layer after layer, and sometimes, strategically taking away.

In earlier drawings, there were faces, hands, figures, and gradually he covered them over. By looking sidelong at the paper you could imagine you saw the echo of one of these images, but could never really be sure. Now, John is working just with areas of colour, but the effect is the same. The areas of light and dark in these drawings resemble clouds in their ability to receive projections, give rise to stories. They are the suggestions of images, but in the end they are nothing more than mirrors of our own minds.

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Happy Birthday

little innocent mariarivers

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Weighing in on literary prizes

Last week, twice, I asked Rolf the same question, twice in a row, with no recollection that I’d done so. I hate this. What could be worse than a partner who’s “there but not there”?  These days, I’m that partner.

I joked about senility. Really, I’m tired and preoccupied. I’m up at five every day, revising my novel before work and teaching and organizing readings.

Whenever there’s a pause in this routine I park myself beside the cache of literary treasures I’ve gathered. This has been an amazing spring for fiction. In order of when I bought them: The Blue Guitar, by Ann Ireland, Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, Matadora by Elizabeth Ruth, and Ania Szado’s Studio Saint Ex sit waiting in a blessedly quiet spot where there’s a view of the park gradually coming into bloom. I’m fortunate enough to be inspired, not intimidated, by other people’s fiction. Over the last six months I’ve stubbornly pushed my way through another draft of my novel, and reading has spurred me on.

I printed the manuscript up in its entirety last week, read through it, and came to the conclusion it’s not good enough. It’s going to take more investment of time, (aka money) and creativity, not to mention the part of myself that should be listening to conversations with people I love, before I can get to the next stage … of self-investment.

I’ve been through a crisis in the last six months, though I was kind-of too tired to notice. The thinking went something like this: a healthy person, an effective person would not do this. She’d write books that would sell so that writing could become her job. And if that didn’t happen, she’d give up, in the same way a healthy person would give up on a love affair that’s gone on for thirty years, costing a lot and yielding little, a healthy person in my situation would give up writing.

Not that I’ve never had any of these thoughts before, it’s just that I’m in my mid-fifties and I’m tired, and I’m still at the beginning of my writing career, while my need to feel – I’m looking for a real word and can find only pop psych clichés – empowered? Self actualized?

Spare me.

My need to feel like a functioning adult has become an emergency.

And it’s increasingly clear that writing is not going to get me there. The crisis is not about the terrible state of publishing but about me, that I keep going anyway. And chime a meaningless, “How was your day?” to the person who believes in me more than I believe in myself.

So there are the books.

Last night I set out to read a few pages of a book I missed last year, Linda Spalding’s The Purchase. Before I knew it I had used up two of the precious six hours I’d carved out for sleep. I was so tired that some of the content slipped into the same hole as conversations with my husband, yet I didn’t care. I was carried along by the integrity of the book. This author had created a seamless world of character and time and place and history and prose, that I could trust. These days, sinking into a created world feels more restorative than sleep. The possibility that I might give someone else the same healing balm of art is one of the few things keeping me going.

The Purchase is good. I think it’s a classic. And it makes me feel good that I believe it deserved the Governor General’s Award. For there to be justice in the world of prizes has become really, really important.

Which of the newer books will win prizes? A literary prize or even placement on a shortlist can confer – not simply recognition – but the feeling of being a functioning adult that hardworking writers deserve. In a perfect world, they’d each get one. It’s not a perfect world.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the prizes act as gatekeepers, that they’re taking over the promotional work that a publisher should do. We have enough of them in this country that winners and shortlisted candidates can fill up reviews pages, interview shows, creative writing faculties, festival programmes. But few enough that the majority of perfectly worthy books go unnoticed.  Disappointment at not winning a prize is not just a matter of being a sore loser. The stakes in this day and age are very high. Yes, we can take promotion into our own hands and are encouraged to do so. We’re told that we have power in the situation. Still, all the effort in the world is overshadowed by forces we can’t control. Elizabeth’s Ruth’s Matadora comes to mind.

My book, Outside the Box came out in the fall of 2011. It is a work of literary merit and historical significance, one that helps Canadians understand our identity, encourages artists in our struggles, helps women articulate the issues underlying our situation in the world. When it came to the stories of the living and the dead I went through the work of determining what felt to me like an appropriate balance of truth and respect. I made it beautiful. This took twelve years. It won a history prize but did not receive so much as a nod on any short or long list for any of the literary prizes that might have put me on the map.

I’m okay with this.

My grandmother, the subject of the book, was censored from publishing poetry about the impact of the Second World War on her as a woman and as a mother. Later, her career was squashed by the post-war backlash against women. Males returned to dominant positions in newspapers and publishing, pushing out the women who had been flourishing. Reviews vilified “lady writers”. Lacking public discourse on the issues at stake, my grandmother took it all personally, and several generations of the family suffered the consequences.

Sure, it feels like a lottery, but as long as I can publish this new book, I know it stands a chance of falling into the hands of a jury of fair, honest and hardworking writers like myself, who will carefully weigh the decision, understanding exactly what it’s like to be on the other end of it. 

I know my history. I’d rather have my fate determined by an ever-shifting jury of more-or-less peers, than by a couple of despotic reviewers or editors who might dominate literary fashion for years on end.

Of course, the whole context is messed up: the way books are sold and marketed, the way the arts are funded, the way the press covers the arts. We need more of everything, not to mention a shift in public thinking. On the other hand, the internet puts us more in control than we’ve ever been, as long as we ourselves don’t become its slaves. Thanks to people like Kerry Clare, who believe in the book, it has more ongoing presence that a print review could offer. There are still people discovering and – yes – buying it.

And best of all, people are talking about these issues.  The censorship of silence has been fought on the internet by organizations like CWLA.

It’s hard to be working on something as thankless as this novel, and knowing that it will come into a world with very few resources. But given a historical perspective, I’m still proud to know that Canadians have found a way to be as fair as possible.

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Deus ex Mercury

I’ve been trying to tighten the plot of my novel in the saggy spot between pages 200 and 300. More dialogue, I tell myself! More sex! Better sex! Worse sex! Okay, no sex! Cut! Cut! Cut!

Nothing is working and I’m worn out from the effort of trying to tighten a novel while juggling various other activities. Writing fiction these days feels like bailing out a floundering love affair, and I’m all the more desperate because it used to be so much fun.

Furthermore, it’s Mercury retrograde which I’m told is to be followed by a Monster Moon. And my computer has died so I’m working on a notebook whose keyboard sometimes rearranges itself as if the machine has had it’s own little version of a stroke.

And I should feel lucky to have such minor problems, etc.

By 9 p.m. I’m good for little other than watching DVDs, so have been happy to have Season Two of Game of Thrones to make me forget my troubles. And forget them I did, the other night. I found the actress who will would be ideal for Rebecca, my statuesque protagonist, in the movie version of my novel!  She is the majestic Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth in the series.

It was, I thought, a sign that my novel would not only lose its sag, it would get published and eventually made into a film.

And while Brienne fought off some invaders, I fell into a debate with myself. Well I shouldn’t dignify it with the term ‘debate’. It was more like the kind of waffling I used to do in my head when I was single and lonely and met someone I knew was completely unsuitable but convinced myself I should get involved anyway just because it wasn’t good to make a habit of expecting the worst.

Brienne presented a kind of flickering hope that was interesting mostly because it demonstrated how discouraged I have been feeling about the whole Quixotic enterprise of writing. This poor, sagging novel has so many life threatening dangers to go through. Finding a publisher, having the publisher stay in business long enough for it to get out, struggling for whatever scraps of attention I’m able to garner for it. To name a few.

Imagine what would happen if all the barriers just disappeared and the resources just materialized. What if the appearance of  Gwendoline Christie on our living room wall meant that this quest to complete my work must inevitably succeed. Disappointments in both love and art have put me on guard against that kind of thinking. Brutal realism has served me better in both areas of my life.

But I sure would like Brienne to travel beside me for a while.

In case you haven’t met her:


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False polarity …real pain

The first of many times I read Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, this section jumped out at me:

“… the gulf between ‘mothers’ and ‘nonmothers’ (even the term is pure negation, like “widow,” meaning without) will be closed only as we come to understand how both childbearing and childlessness have been manipulated to make women into negative quantities, or bearers of evil.”

She goes on to write,

“The ‘childless woman’ and the ‘mother’ are a false polarity, which has served the institutions both of motherhood and heterosexuality. There are no such simple categories.”

It was an important moment, discovering that passage. I went on to explore this territory in many conversations and journal entries, and recently in writing, thanks to the brave and brilliant Kerry Clare, who turned one of her conversations into an anthology and invited me to participate.

Here’s her blog entry about the book, Truth, Dare, Double Dare: Stories of Motherhood, which is schedule for publication in spring, 2014. I’m delighted that my story, “Junior” will be included.

I have whinged — and will continue to whinge; it’s fun — about the pain and peril of writing non-fiction. I keep writing it because of the profound effect that works of non-fiction have had on me over the years. I like to imagine I can bring to others a new way of seeing or perhaps articulating their own experiences. A way to start a conversation or take it to a new level. And perhaps, in this case, bridge a gulf.

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Mercury Regretade

I don’t believe in astrology except when it comes to mercury retrograde. Three times a year, for three weeks on end, communications go awry. Mail gets lost, appointments get missed, misunderstandings abound. As a Gemini with a Virgo rising, I am to all intents and purposes made of mercury. The confusion hits me hard.

It brings unexpected benefits though. You can revive old friendships, for instance, or find stuff you thought was lost. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a classmate from high school. In Indigo, of all places, in the Manulife Centre. Where I only go when I’m in the neighbourhood and have half an hour to kill. Which is almost never. Seeing her face reminded me that this exponentially growing city is, still and always, my hometown.

It’s also been a time to revisit old writing. At the launch for Terri Favro’s Bella and the Loyalist Heroine (kicking off with a video trailer about her hometown), I read a monologue I premiered in (ulp!) 1996. It’s part of a series of performance pieces I created, satirizing new-age philosophy. In 1996, energy anatomy, visualization, and finding your bliss were all the rage. My position (then and now) is that this is pure narcissism, at best a prop to an individual’s confidence, at worst, a form of social Darwinism.

In the monologue, I talked about my long-standing phobia of singing in public, springing, so I claimed, from a general lack of assertiveness. I declared my intention to change all that, culminating with a solo rendition of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” in the loudest voice I could muster.

That piece took me a long way, the high point being a performance at the Festival of Women in the Arts at the National Arts Centre in March of 2000. They had a real actress performing it, and it was praised as a show-stopper. There was a video made. I took a copy to my mother and watched it with her in her nursing home. Seeing me called up to the stage to receive a round of applause, she declared, “What a big nose you have!”

I cycled immediately through the round of anger and depression she could set off in me with what I realize, in retrospect, was just her dry sense of humour. (Easy to say, ten years after her death. Easy to say when there are times I would give anything to be able to laugh with her again.)

Things have changed. To the point where I wished I had someone to perform the monologue for me, at Terri’s launch. I am no longer shy and retiring, and don’t have the acting chops to convey that personality.

I stated an intention back in 1996 (just like the new-agers say) and gradually fulfilled it. I changed my whole life, my habits of thinking and behaving, my work, my educational and marital status, my name, the people I consider “family,” and yes, my voice. Maybe that’s why it was so gratifying to have a high-school friend recognize me. There are times when I feel like a stranger in my own life.

But I didn’t just “attract” this change. I worked at it. I took a voice workshop with Richard Armstrong who got me past my fear by inviting me to sing the worst note I could imagine, as loudly as I could. This has been followed by twenty years of studying voice with Fides Krucker, which still continues. And there was Feldenkrais technique, a slow and astoundingly methodical method of addressing long-term habits. Habits of moving, thinking, feeling. And habits of choice.

But sometimes, friends are the greatest teachers. At that same launch, Diana Kiesners performed a hilarious monologue based on her blog, The Accordion Diaries. Her monologue is about pleasure and music, and letting go of control. It’s also about the healing power of a good teacher, and about remaining forever a beginner.

Diana and I met in the mid-eighties, at a writing workshop. Unsatisfied in both our work and personal lives, we hatched a plan to go to Mexico together. There we explored ruins and restaurants, museums and markets, got followed by love (or dollar) sick young men, puked together out the windows of an all-night bus. And laughed.

As late boomers, we had hit recession after recession in our careers, and launched our romantic lives in the midst of a feminist backlash. We had to find a way to take control. And on our return, we did. With the help of Diana’s computer and the “half price after midnight” special at Kinko’s Copies, we formed a small press called The Writing Space, which carried on, in one form or another, for two decades. As late bloomers, I like to think we are still finding ways steer each other through the latest thicket of challenges and the ones that lie ahead.

The launch was held at Q Space, at the corner of Borden and College streets. That used to be “my” corner, in the years leading up to writing the monologue. Back then, I lived in a room recently vacated by Diana’s and my friend, Jacqueline McClintock. In a dubious bid for flexible work hours, we all did transcriptions at an office that created editing scripts for TV and radio. We sat in a room at the back of a downtown house with earphones in our ears, feet pedaling and fingers pounding the keys as fast as they could to squeeze out every dollar before the next inevitable mechanical glitch. We were paid by the tape minute, and lost money when the company’s machines broke down.

At exactly three every afternoon, the boss would saunter into the staff washroom for an elaborate and protracted bowel movement. If she found us talking when she emerged, she would call out, “Back to the machines girls!” and leave us sitting in her laxative fug while she returned to her game of solitaire. Diana wrote about it. I made cartoons. Jackie moved to New York to study with Sanford Meisner.

Last September, I got an email from my friend Noreen Shanahan, attaching the obituary she had written of Jackie for the Globe and Mail. She had no idea Jackie and I had known each other. I had no idea Jackie was sick.

Time telescoped in the way that it can after a sudden loss. I thought about how friends hold memory for each other. Jackie and I had slipped out of touch in the past few years, yet I felt like part of myself had died. The only comfort was to see that her work had been recognized. She had gone on to teach Meisner technique throughout the world, influencing the face of film and theatre and establishing loyal followers everywhere she went.

Noreen points out in her first paragraph that a good teacher is immortal. Jacqueline was very much my teacher. I first met her at Bishop’s University (where we fought). Later, I shared a house with her in Montreal. I was looking for relationship models, back then, and Jackie and her partner, David, were like no couple I’d ever seen. She was the first to point out to me that the sexual revolution had not necessarily done women any favours. The sweetheart she met in her teens was her mate for life. Yet she was far from oppressed. At a time when I was using most of my imaginative resources finding ways of bending myself out of shape to please others, she provided living proof that a woman could be adored for being powerfully and unabashedly herself. With her dedication to her aunt Irene, Jackie demonstrated that it’s possible to be incredibly cool, and adhere to good old-fashioned values of caring for your elders.

My friend’s early death inspired many reflections, for it was during the years in Quebec that I made many of the decisions (or non-decisions) that have shaped my life since. I decided not to become a journalist or go to teacher’s college (the two most obvious options for supporting writing), but to throw myself out into the world and just see what happened. I didn’t have the chutzpah for journalism, but if I’d taken a teaching certificate, I’d be getting ready to retire, now.

I’ve always taught something, and yet for some reason, I decided to become one of those people who teach outside the system; my only certification is as a Feldenkrais practitioner and I teach creative writing, too. From a financial point of view, it was the worst decision you could imagine. Time and again in my working life I have ended up going “back to the machines.” I can’t say I’ve completely finished beating myself up over it, but this month I did eventually get bored with all this self questioning. If I don’t believe in myself no one will do it for me. Besides, I have classes to teach.


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A few things

I look forward to the launch of a comic book called Bella and the Loyalist Heroine by Terri Favro and Ron Edding on Sunday November 4 at 3 p.m. It’s a Q Space, 382 College St. At Borden.

A few other people will be reading as well, including yours truly and the lovely and talented Diana Kiesners, who, it is rumored, will be accompanying herself on the accordion for a hilarious and smart, not-to-be-missed monologue. Other readers include Jordan Fry, Terry Trowbrige and Jade Alyssa and Koom Kankesan.

Thing two: some time ago, I did an interview about a story in an anthology called Twelve Breaths a Minute, published by Creative Non Fiction.  It just appeared on their blog.

And finally, I’d like to recommend this wonderful essay by Heidi Reimer.

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