Waiting for a Chinook

Recently I came across the Charlie Russell painting in which a starving steer caught in the snow is surrounded  by wolves. Head drooping, Waiting for a chinookknees about to cave in, the animal is without resources. In a moment, the wolves will be upon it, ripping it apart, feasting on the entrails. Blood on the snow.  Or maybe they won’t wait for it to collapse. Maybe they’ll bring it down… same result.  Obviously, the chinook didn’t arrive in time for that steer.

The painting is about survival, and while Russell didn’t survive as a cowhand (the firm he was working for lost the entire herd that winter), he changed careers and became a noted successful western artist who, as such, documented the old American West.

One of the things that strikes me about this painting is the way it captures the inevitable conclusion to the story. Those wolves are programmed to survive. They have been through a hard winter (the one of 1886-87 is legendary) and are likely as starved as the steer. But they are better at survival. They have tactics bred into them by centuries of brutal conditions. They instinctively know how to confront a diminished food source and intense cold. And, unlike the steer who stands defenceless and alone, they are a pack. They have each other.

To relate this to the human condition in our part of the world: by this time of year, late winter, many of us, like that steer in the snow, are depleted, if not physically, spiritually. Our energy is at a low ebb and what little we have left we can feel leaking on a daily basis. We can’t get motivated to act in any way to save ourselves. The thought process is frozen. Not one idea is worth preserving. Nothing makes its way to enactment on the page. Writers have run out of words.

Have all the words and ideas been used up? What happened to that inexhaustible supply we were able to count on. That huge vat bubbling inside seems to have turned into turgid goo. Is silence all that is left?

The irony is that we’ve come through the worst. The dark days of January are behind us. We are on the verge of leaping into spring*. We are so near and yet it seems so far. Today’s forecast warns of 10 cm of blowing snow.

We must wait. But not without a strategy. With this intent, I’ve come up with a list of suggestions:

  1. Don’t read books about Nazi death camps. Ditto your daily newspaper with its litany of disasters.
  2. Do order another glass of wine, even if you find yourself talking nonsense after the first one.
  3. Believe that chocolate is one of the elemental food groups.
  4. Immerse yourself in spring garden catalogues.
  5. You might even buy seeds. I saw a rack of them today at Safeway.
  6. Get out and talk to people. Be part of a pack.
  7. Hit the steam room and share in the gossip.
  8. Or the hot tub. The idea here is to get warm.
  9. Start writing that novel you’ve been promising yourself. But that’s the problem, you say. I don’t FEEL like writing a novel, or anything else for that matter. That’s where number ten comes in.
  10. Take a trip to a friendlier clime.

Which is why I’m writing this from Victoria, where things, including the protesters hanging out at the legislative buildings are more friendly. Where the grass is green, the flowers blooming, the cherry trees in blossom. The coffee houses and wine bars have set out tables and chairs on their patios, happy hour starts at two in the afternoon. Where, believe it, people on the street have conversations about poetry. Where I feel that, yes, maybe I do have another novel in me.

*Don’t forget to turn your clocks ahead tonight.

*Don’t forget to turn your clocks ahead tonight.

Love as a Fine Mischief

“Ron married Denise. Everybody knew it was wrong. AmoreTen years later, she went to England and became a Lesbian, leaving him with three children. So then he married Judy, a home economist many years his junior who, he thought, would be good with the children, but she wanted to have her own cooking show on TV and went to Toronto. So he employed a nanny, very attractive, and when the inevitable happened, Judy returned and read the riot act, and after that divorce he married Inga, an aerial gymnast, who, it turned out, had a bad heart, which they found out about when she went plonk down into her bowl of breakfast cereal Christmas morning, an unusual  death at such a young age but, apparently, it was because of the drugs. At least Ron was a successful lawyer so he could manage his own legal proceedings and didn’t have to go bankrupt like so many of his clients.”

The contemporary love story. No more red roses, blue violets, white lace hearts, the I love you forever vows. Does anybody love anybody any more? Even for a month let alone forever? Did they ever?

A brief glance at the classics reveals that, while some pretty deep love, or obsession, is possible, it is fraught with difficulties mounting to the insurmountable. Take Heathcliffe and Catherine. In Wuthering Heights, high on the list of great romantic novels, love is a ghost wailing at the window and piggy-hearted Heathclife, out of a sense of pique, refuses her entry. Oh sure, we’re supposed to believe this love goes beyond the grave, but who cares? Most of us are looking for something this side of the turf. Then there’s Jane Eyre (those Bronte girls did have active imaginations), who endures one catastrophe after another before finally getting together with the love of her life, Mr. Rochester, who by then has been through the fire, has lost the use of one of his hands, and is blind.

While Jane Austen’s romantic love is somewhat more optimistic, what an amount of scheming is required before the unwitting subject succumbs to the genius manipulation of the female. And would the contemporary woman bother? Whatever… Austen’s novels, steeped in the dark brew of irony, give comfort and delight as the lovers arrive safely in harbour and live, one presumes, happily ever after.

Fairly recent films on the subject of love are not exactly cheerful. The Fault in Our Stars is about terminal illness; The English Patient features a woman who dies in the desert abandoned by her lover (true, he doesn’t intentionally abandon her); Notebook presents us with a Romeo and Juliet situation (and there’s another one about love gone wrong) in which the lovers do finally manage to get together, but the writer throws in an ending around Alzheimer’s disease and death. Does that make it more romantic?

At the very least, love seems to mean having to go through an ordeal, amounting in some cases to hell, as in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice. Then there are the many stories in both fiction and real life in which someone doesn’t recognize love until it’s too late (Gone With the Wind).

And yet in the above examples, and anyone is free to compile a personal list, however things turn out, these characters are able to love. As we move into the second quarter of the new millennium, as we are more and more controlled by robots, the question we ask is, are human beings still capable of deep emotional love? Is the best we can do Fifty Shades of Grey?

A source suggests that we love where we find identity in the world. We find some element of ourselves in the other. We may not be conscious of this, most times we are not, but it is what draws us to another. Of course, then there are cases where we choose an opposite of that element. But, the point is that we instigate love and instigate these impossible situations where we find ourselves. In the case of unrequited love, we invest another with our feelings and then are disappointed if that person doesn’t reciprocate those feelings. In other words, we blame the other person for something we ourselves have dreamed up. What sort of craziness is that?

My personal favourite,  Love in the Time of Cholera, asks the question – is love helped or hindered by extreme passion. In this novel, Marquez presents love as an emotional and physical disease (lovesickness). Florentino Ariza, passionate self-declared poet and extreme romantic, waits for Ferina for 51 years, 9 months and 4 days, although during these years, by his own account and admission, he has succumbed to 622 liaisons, while Ferina, practical, pragmatic, opportunistic, with very different ideas about love, has married a well placed doctor of the town. It is only as septuagenarians that they finally are together and live happily ever after on a ship travelling back and forth between ports but, significantly, never arriving.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Get Your Hygge (hoo-guh) On

Sitting before the cook stove in winter, fiftyTime to Hygge Vector illustration. Cozy home below according to the thermometer outside the kitchen window and only a wooden shell between us and a northern Alberta January. Outside, the wind might howl, the snow might drift up to the windowsills, but I was warm and safe in what the Danish call my hygge place. I wonder now if my parents were frantic with worry, three small children, one a babe in arms. If so, I felt none of it, wrapped in a blanket, flooded by a sense of well-being because hair washing day was over and would not happen again in what to me was a foreseeable future. Granny was there, too, with home made bread clipped into a wire toaster held over the stove until one side started burning and, so, for me the sense of familiar coziness will forever include the smell of burning toast.

In Danish, hygge (hoo-guh) is a word for a mood of comfortable contentment. The noun refers to something pleasant and familiar, a psychological condition no doubt brought on by a physical state. It is speculated that hygge might originate from the word hug, which comes from the 1560s word hugge, which means “to embrace.” The word hugge is of unknown origin but is associated with an old Norse term, hygga, which means “to comfort”, which comes from the word hugr meaning “mood”. The word first appears in Danish writing in the 19th Century and has evolved into a cultural trend, appearing in home decorating articles (candles are a big part of it) and wellness references such as, “Hygge — a soothing balm for the traumas of 2016.” Notedly, hygge was one of  “Top 10 Collins Word of the Year 2016.”

I encountered the word in a recent writing workshop coordinated by the great Danish poet, Vivian Hansen, where, after some discussion of the term, we were invited to write about what we perceived to be our perfect hygge place, either in reality or fantasy.

Going around the circle, sharing our writing, some with childhood anecdotes or images, some with expressions along the tea and comfort idea, it occurred to me that many writers write from a hygge place, from a place of comfort and acceptance that goes back to childhood, the wellspring of the creative impulse. One workshop member, however, suggested that one person’s place of comfort might might be another’s place of discomfort or distress. This made me wonder. Perhaps we can not have a hygge place unless there also exists a non-hygge place.

My hygge place was cozy and safe because of the threat outside the walls of the house. In other words, I need the outside threat of cold and dark, the enemy at the gates, to supply me with the hygge feeling of being warm and safe inside the enclosure. How Canadian! living in the dark as we do for half of the year. Maybe the people who come through successfully are able to embrace the dark rather than trying to fight it. Maybe some people find the dark to be their safe, cozy place or, at any rate, the place of the childhood spring of creativity.

Maybe some writers start from this place and work their way into a feeling of well-being,

In sharing our writing during this workshop, whether we start from a place of comfort or discomfort, all of us, in contemplating our hygge place, were encouraged to turn inward and explore our inner selves. It was this turning inward that inspired us into creative expression. Whatever the place, it seems we write to get out of it, to rid ourselves of it. For me, the cold is always waiting outside the brown shack, and if  I don’t write something the cold will enter. All will be frozen, still, and silent.


The Girl at the End of the Garden(a love story)

She stood silent, still, head raised, listening, smoking. In the cool, crisp after rain, at the end of the lane, at the bottom of her garden.

All that summer I saw her, with the sun coming up low in the east. That would be early, my morning constitutional, her morning smoke, mist or rain or long shadows to the west. She never looked my way, not once, not even when I deliberately scuffled my feet, kicking up the gravel.

I had a feeling that she was from away. Out of place, out of time. She wore wide- bottomed slacks from the fifties, shirt tucked in, sleeves rolled up.

At first I thought she was an image imprinted on my retina like you sometimes have after staring too long into a bright light. I thought I might be remembering my cousin tripping down the garden path all those years ago. Because of the smoking. My cousin used to smoke in just that manner, holding the cigarette up close to her face, wrist acting as a hinge. My older sophisticated cousin. Ever since, to me there is something mysterious about a woman in a garden at an early hour smoking. Like Proust’s madeleine, the image brings forth a raft of remembrances.

But who is this woman who seems to be waiting, waiting and listening? Who is she waiting for? What is she listening for? The song of robins? The thrum of traffic on the street below? Rather, she seems to be turned inward, listening to her waiting, listening to her story.

She is alone. Now that he is gone. Now that she has foolishly told him to go. They were  of different races or religions, or his or her family did not approve. Or did they quarrel? Was it some foolish quarrel over nothing that resulted in her having to get through all her future nights alone?

Or with the husband she chose instead of him. There’s that one, too. The woman who has married the wrong man.

Right hand raised holding the cigarette, left hand holding a tin container for ashes, I could never see her left hand to look for a ring. I didn’t want to stare.

She can not be an ordinary woman, with kids in the house eating Cheerios, a husband looking into the bathroom mirror shaving. Maybe she has a career downtown in one of those tall oil buildings. No, I don’t like that at all. Unless she’s having an affair with a co-worker. But there’s no romance in that.

She must be waiting and listening for a lover. As someone once said: for a woman, love is the only subject. A man is a novel eager as a puppy to read himself to her. A woman is silent waiting for someone who will find her and stick around long enough to read her.

But perhaps she is waiting for someone in her future, waiting for a voice, a footstep, an embrace. No. Past is better, there’s more melancholy there. More bonjour tristesse.

Although, future could be that she is waiting for a lover who does not come because he has no idea she wants him to come. But that’s irony. This is not an ironic story.

This is a sad story. She waited for him for so long, waited for him to come and rescue her from her aloneness, but he never came. She became engaged to another. Of what now does she dream? What now are the strivings of her heart?

In the early morning after rain, her smoke mixes with the damp and spirals upward,   acrid and sweet. As I pass and make my turn down onto the paved street I recall that Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. Is it possible that a girl at the end of the garden having a smoke is simply a girl at the end of the garden having a smoke?




My Dostoevsky Period

D2I once had a job in the Edmonton Public Library where a rickety old elevator took me down to the archives in the cellar, a sort of sub-basement. That was the year I spent the entire winter in the dark.

From my late afternoon class at the university it was already becoming dark when I boarded the bus for downtown. By the time I disembarked on Jasper, the eyelid on the western edge of the city had closed leaving only a bluish pinkish afterglow, giving my walk down a narrow passageway between tall buildings a surreal dystopian atmosphere. Four hours later, when I left my place of employment, the sky was pitch black, too early for moon or stars.

The book I was writing at the time is a dark book. In it the snow keeps falling. It falls in layers, up to the front step, up to the windowsills, up to the roofs. There is a lot of snow. It turned out to be a book of short stories. The first line is, “Kate went into her father’s room. It was dark there, and cold.” The last words are, “”Maybe she doesn’t notice the darkness because for her it is always dark.” In between is gloom and doom. No wonder. The book never saw the light of day. It could not visualize light.

Every day I would step onto that doubtful elevator, push a button, hold my breath as the door closed on the real world of light and people, as the pulleys creaked, as the box swayed and lurched to a stop. At the bottom I said a prayer that the door would open, which it invariably did. I would step out into a small dim room lined with old books and yellowing paper where I would sit in silence for the next four hours sorting and labeling.

It crossed my mind: no one would hear me if I screamed. No one would notice if I passed out from lack of oxygen, suffocated, if I died down there. I could lie on the floor for several days before someone would stumble down to the archives. No one would think to look for me, no one would miss me until I didn’t pick up my pay envelope at the end of the month. Even then, they might think I had quit and left town in a hurry. No one at home would miss me. They would think I had stayed at the university to work late, that perhaps I had fallen asleep, head on books, in one of the carrels.

Some time during my four hours I was owed a fifteen minute break. Rather than chance that elevator any more than I had to, often I would stay down there, open a thermos of coffee from my knapsack and read. Likely, Mary Poppins would have been a better choice for my mental health but, as it turned out, the book I was reading at the time was Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. That’s the way things go. Being a writer and so wired to apply an underlay of meaning to the most trivial of happenings, I ask myself why? Why did that particular book beckon and seduce me? Those are the details one should pay attention to in this life.

Working the evening or graveyard shift is lonely, an emotional experience in itself. You are going to work when everyone else is going home to dinner, to friends, family,  companionship. During those off hours, most work places are on a skeleton staff, there are few patrons or customers, there is little chance for socializing. Check out department stores in the evenings. You could roll a bowling ball through the aisles and not graze a soul.

When you work that shift underground the emotional content  magnifies. Solitary confinement. You turn to yourself for strength. You draw it out of yourself like a spider does its web. It becomes a habit.

I think of Stephen King. There’s a man who has spent a lot of time underground. With his extended metaphor of “writing as excavation” and his idea that “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,” sounds like he’s a frequent traveler on that rickety old elevator.




Separation Anxiety

You finally type The End. You can now take that shower you’ve been promising yourself. You can have a leisurely coffee and start on that pile of saved newspapers. You stumble to the kitchen and trip over something. You discover that you’re sharing the premises with another person. You may even take time to talk to him or her. You find this encounter to be surprisingly pleasant.

Then it hits you. The consequences. You must send your precious child out into the cold, cruel world where it will not be loved as you have loved it, where it will be met with either indifference on the one hand or will undergo severe scrutiny on the other, where it is sure to be misunderstood. You are thrown into a state of emotional chaos.

Until now your novel has been a masterpiece in your own mind, another War and Peace or Catcher in the Rye or I, Robot, whatever your genre. But will others know that it’s a work of genius? Strangers, likely recent graduates of university English departments, who know nothing about real literature.

Yet, if you want to share your work or are curious about how an editor might view it or simply just want to get the damn thing off your desk, you must send it off.

The solution is obvious. In art as in life, you have to distance yourself from your creation. But, as with so much else, this is easier said than done.

You lecture yourself – you’ve done all you can do, now it is up to the work, sink or swim. You question yourself – what’s to go wrong? You have produced an intelligent, smart, insightful, entertaining piece of writing. You’ve given it the basic tools of survival – impeccable grammar, spelling, sentence structure. You’ve controlled what you can control.

Your novel is ready to go but are you ready to let it go? Alice Munroe in one of her short stories talks about bearing the humiliation of being a writer. Bearing the pain of letting go is also a prerequisite.

Some writers solve the problem by never finishing. Every day they go to their writing place and cozily settle down into a warm bath of words, where the familiar beckons like the sirens of Odysseus to distract them from their journey.

Some dare to type ‘the end’ then put it away in a box under the bed to await posthumous fame like a Kafka. But are they being fair to their novel? Maybe it wants to take its chances. Maybe it wants to measure itself against the world. Maybe it wants to be the novel it was meant to be.

You talk to yourself and try to figure out your anxiety. You decide that this separation of you and your work is like a death, your death. Your life is written into the work, certainly your mental life, your life of the imagination, but also your ordinary existence. While you were writing your novel, for years maybe, your real life was happening. You may have birthed or fathered a child, got married, got divorced, got a promotion at your day job, experienced the death of loved ones. All the events that took place while you were involved with your novel, all the people you knew and loved, your moods, your thoughts, the state of your health, your energy on a particular day, all this is in the work in one form or another. This is what you are letting go.

It is asking a lot, to say good-bye to a part of your life that will not happen again. To say good-bye to a part of yourself that will not happen again.

In the end you let your novel go because you know you must. You can only go forward not backward, and to stay in one place is a backward move. You know you have to let go of the past in order to have a future. You want a future because you sense that another adventure, another part of yourself, maybe even a better part, is waiting for you there.


End of the Affair

The end of the novel. You’ve lived with the Tristan & Isoldething for years. Eaten, slept, cavorted, contrived with it. You have put everything of yourself into it – your energy, emotions, intellect. You have a closer relationship with these characters of your imagination than you do with your real-life friends and family. And then it’s over. You are caught in a great yawning silence. What to do?

Talk. Fill the vacuum with words. And so, this blog.

Every writer has an opinion about which part of writing a novel, or a poem or short story or any piece of writing for that matter, is fraught with the greatest danger. To begin, to begin, some say. Putting that first incredible word down on paper. The key that will open your trunk of wonders. It’s scary. But the saving grace here is that it doesn’t have to be the right word. At the beginning you can say anything because you can and will go back and change it. In fact, it is only when you write the end that you can go back and write the beginning that your novel demands.

But at this point you don’t have to worry about it. You can let yourself be lifted by the excitement of a beginning, full of  hope and promise, open to all possibilities.

As you continue, in art as in love, the enthusiasm fades. Uncertainty enters the scene. The possibilities dwindle. You encounter a failure of energy for the project. Certain things happen that make change, and thus freedom, difficult. You get fenced in. You might feel entirely blocked. Of course, there’s always divorce. You might decide to scrap the project. But then you’ve wasted your time. Besides, you still want to write this novel.

The middle is crucial. If your novel is going to get bogged down, this is likely where it will happen. In other people’s work, you can pinpoint the place where the writer either became bored or confused, because this is the point where you, the reader, become bored or confused.  The writer might try to keep it going by repetition, having another murder, escalating the body and blood count, introducing a startling turn – the heroine turns out to be an alien or the hero turns out to be the heroine’s brother. The whole thing can get quite silly. This is the place where a novel can become unbelievable.

What to do? Call it mid-life crisis and go out and buy a motorcycle? i.e., abandon the mess and take up with a new lover? Create chaos? Keep plodding doggedly ahead? Start a new unrelated chapter, which you will eventually have to connect, but not now? Your choice, only know that this is the place where, rather than keeping the same pace, the intensity has to be elevated. You must come up with something that will give you and your book the burst of energy to plow through.

If you can manage all this, your reward is that you have to face the end.

The first word that comes to mind for the end is Stop! Like a seasoned professional, bring the project in on time. Remember what you’re writing, maybe a contemporary human drama, maybe a thriller, probably not an epic, and follow the rules. After the plot climax, you are allowed a short denouement, then take a bow. Think of Hitchcock who, if anything, cut his endings a little too short, but better to leave the party while people are still laughing at your jokes.

In the end, there is really only one ending for your novel. The right one, the one that comes out of the book. Even writers of thrillers who spring a surprise on the last page have to follow this rule. Otherwise, the word ‘contrived’ comes into play. You might resist. No, no, you say. I can’t let that person die, he’s my favourite character. No matter, kill him off if your novel demands it. Let the bad guy win. Whatever. Be ruthless in these matters. Demonstrate the sliver  of ice that has to be at the heart of a writer.

Speaking of icy slivers, next comes publishing. But we’ll leave that for next time.