the getaway

“But how… do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?” (Annie Dillard)

Once, in order to start a book, I had to move into a small room. A house was too large. My book and I could not find each other in a house. In a house I could not prepare a space inside myself for my book to enter. Too many distractions were available, distractions which led to the belief that I would rather live than write. I was too full of life. I had to get rid of life.

I had to get to a place where, when I heard my husband in the kitchen, I could not say to myself, ‘I think I’ll go to the kitchen and talk with John.’

The room was near a lake. I took only one suitcase and left no forwarding address. In the room was one bed, one chair. Lake in WinterI bought an electric kettle and a jar of instant, with caffeine. There was one window, before which I sat at a table to write. The window looked out on an inner courtyard that was covered with snow. It was January. In such a place, under such conditions, my book and I would have to make friends with each other in order to survive. We were all we had. At the very least we could not help but bump into each other. So I thought.

Most of the time it crouched in a corner and sulked. When we met by accident at the electric kettle it averted its eyes.

The woman at the front desk was elderly and spoke little. To her I said, ‘looks like more snow.’ ‘Yep,’ she said. I spoke to no one else except the woman in the bakery. To her I said, ‘I’ll take one of those please.’ She placed a bagel in a plain brown wrapper.

Once, a shadowy presence passed my door. Like a cool breeze it wafted down the corridor. Once, sighs and whispers drifted through my wall. Once, there was only a sigh and the creak of bedsprings.

I went out and walked around a pond. I went back to my room and stared at the blank page. I went out and stared at the lake. I listened to the cry of gulls. I watched the boats come in.

The lake was wintry grey, the sky was low, everything was colourless. I was like a mental patient who for her own good has to be deprived of sensory stimulation. The conditions were perfect to create a space inside myself for my book to enter.

After a week or a year, the lake appeared in my dreams. When I sat at my table and closed my eyes I could see it on the screen of my mind. That was when I knew that the lake had moved inside me. It had found a place there where it settled into a comfortable position. ‘I want to express myself,’ it said to me. So I let it.

When it was safe to do so I called up a friend. He said, ‘come for the weekend,’ so I did.

He lived on a hill and my car wouldn’t make it up because, of course, it was winter in Canada. My friend came out in his woolly jacket and toque and threw a spoonful of gravel under each front tire. I revved the motor. I moved an inch. He threw two more spoonfuls of gravel. I moved two inches. In this manner I made it to the top of the hill and his house. Once inside the house, he poured me a stiff drink. That’s what I call a true friend.

He gave me the subject for my book. Writing a novel is throwing a spoonful of gravel under your front wheels an inch at a time. I made a few notes.

When I returned to my room, for a few days my book pouted at my leaving it alone. ‘It was only overnight for god’s sake,’ I said. It didn’t answer, but when we bumped into each other at the kettle and instant coffee it did not avoid me. When I dared to turn on the television one evening, it sat on the bed beside me. We watched Seinfeld. I had never before watched Seinfeld. I found myself laughing and turned guiltily to my book. It didn’t seem to mind. It crawled into bed beside me. We slept curled into each other.

I thought maybe I could go home. I would have to be careful that nothing jostled the space inside me where my book had taken up residence. I would have to be constantly on guard to defend it but, truth to tell, I was longing for a good cup of coffee.

Death and the Writer

I’m trying to write about death when my sister phones and then Nancy drops in for coffee and I’m sitting here trying to write about death when another neighbour drops in with a theatre subscription form and then someone else phones and then stops by to chat and I’m trying to write about death.

 

I must go with my mother to the edge, I write. I must take a journey to a dark place. I must return to tell the story. This is my responsibility so the story will not be lost. It is a frightening jour… The doorbell rings.

 

Two gap-toothed little people with round faces in Girl Guide uniforms stare up at me. Do you want to buy our cookies, the one who wears glasses says. Well, no, not really, not since they’ve replaced those old-fashioned oatmeal cookies with slabs of baked paste sandwiched with white sweet goo. But I’m looking into two faces, so bright, expectant, full of belief. I buy three boxes and return to writing about death.

 

How can something so world shattering be voiced so simply? How can a person just open her mouth and change the world forever with a few words. My mother’s cancer slipped between ‘do you want some broccoli’ and ‘Kimmy sit up and behave’.

 

I am dancing at the edge of a precipice, I write, when Danica dances into my mind. Danica, age three, comes to visit, is super-excited about her toes, ten little pink pearls all in a perfect row. We go to McDonald’s where she chomps down a kid pack burger and fries with such obvious pleasure, totally focussed on the act of eating that burger. Then the playground slide, first on her bottom, then tummy, then feet first, then standing up. Walking home, she is so busy looking at things she walks into a lamp post.

 

Hey, I remind myself. You’re supposed to be writing about death.

 

Death erases magic. Death reminds us that we are caught in sequential time. We cannot travel backward or forward in time. We cannot dream life into death. Yet I held her in my arms. The dream was real.

 

I’m really getting into it now. Death is always with us, at the periphery of life. Death is simply another dimension which we enter, like a dream we slip into. Maybe we can travel back and forth across the dimensions. I raise my head. Maybe dreams, in fact, are the reality. Maybe life is a dream in which we do not feel at home…

 

I phone my sister with the news. Get real, she says. Lighten up. Why do you want to write about that stuff for anyways? Leave all that bullshit suffering behind. You just want to suffer. I have my own heart, I think. Nobody can take that away from me.

 

I go back to writing about death and my mind fills with mold. Tomato sauce covered with furry little  pockets, french fries with fuzzy grey patches. How can french fries get moldy? They’re not even real food. I have to clean out the fridge. I know this with certainty. I have to clean the fridge RIGHT NOW. I calm myself down. You can do that later. Your task at the moment is to write about death.

 

We sat together hand in hand. I had made a list of things I wanted to say, questions I wanted to ask, then couldn’t say or ask them. They were too far removed from what she was thinking. We were already in two different worlds each with her own thoughts.

 

The helplessness of us all in the grip of death. Death simply happens whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not.

 

I am suddenly ravenously hungry, obsessed with thoughts of food. The smell of newly baked  buttery crusted bread, the taste of freshly churned butter, the taste of cream so thick you had to eat it with it a spoon. The summer it hailed and we made ice cream in the hand cranked churn using hailstones for ice…

 

I get the urge to phone my cousin Elna. Her mother baked the best bread. Maybe I can get some ideas from my cousin on writing about death. We talk about her mother, her baking, her cooking, the farm, the things we did together when I visited her on the farm. After an hour of such pleasant chat, I have to get back to my writing, I say.

 

Life is a race against time. Time is always the winner, I write, but my words are getting smaller. I am getting smaller. Diminishing. I am disappearing…

 

I think I’ll go to the kitchen and start a batch of bread.

I think I’ll go to the kitchen and start a batch of bread.

the story of two dolls

The Christmas I was a child of three, so the family chronicle goes, by some strange occurrence, two dolls awaited under the tree. “But Santa, I can’t hold two dolls,” I said, so I am told. Thus, was my fate delivered and declared.blog balance To carry two obsessions. Poetry and prose.  To be accountable to two, to always feel the wrench of each disjointing me, to be a worried child who became a worried adult feeling the obligation of nurturing both forms.

Currently engaged in the task of launching a new book of poetry while, at the same time, trying to make progress in writing my current novel, I think of the two and how they operate in me for better and for worse.

After the bureaucratic tyranny of the novel, its demands of structure, coherency, syntax (not merely a sentence but a perfect sentence and a series of perfect sentences for 300 pages), after exhausting myself in responding to the needs and dictates of my pitiful wretched characters, caught as they are in their own foolish devising, their sadness, gladness, and despair as they attempt their destinies, after being embroiled in the pit of passion that is inevitably the result of human interaction, I feel the need to get back to poetry. The purity, the sheer coolness of it.

Writing novels is a prison sentence, solitary confinement, the long, lonely hours alone in your room, of course, but there’s another kind of loneliness, too – the loneliness of responsibility, to your characters, to your story, to the commitment of your vocation. An Antarctic explorer lost  on top a glacier, a space traveler zipping through an uninhabited galaxy, those comparisons come close, I suppose.

Poetry is the return to life, to freedom from the chains of prose. Poetry is to stretch into the word, into the self, the word of the self, such a joyous return.

Why then do I go back to prose? Why imprison myself again? What kind of craziness is that? But I cannot resist the calling of the second party: the demand of story to be born. And so it begins again, the cycle away from the self and the return. Once more into the breech, always with a great deal of excitement, to begin the long journey into unfamiliar territory where I will meet with what adventures and characters I do not know at the moment of starting. What I do know is that I am going to explore another country where they do things differently. I am going to be introduced to characters who will be interesting companions along the way. I will fall in love with some of them, I always do. Then at the end of the adventure to find a way back. That is where poetry enters. Poetry helps me chart a way back, retrace my steps to myself, to origin. My hope is that I have left enough crumbs along the way and that they have not all been eaten by hungry birds or washed away by the rain.

The return: I think of a return flight from the U.K. After a slow start, sleeping the night in Gatwick and then a failed engine, finally air borne and then no way out, no stopping until we get there, and where is there? I’m not sure. Trussed in place on the people’s airline, plumped like a Christmas goose, craw bulging, stomach seething, among seven hundred other digesting machines, drugged and somnolent, I am powerless. There is no escape. I eye the fat man sleeping in the aisle seat. Will it be worth it after all, to heave myself across my fellow passengers, to stand in the galley surrounded by a snowstorm of styrofoam, to enclose myself in that airless space? My anxiety escalates.

At some point, elevation 30,000 feet, I feel myself give up. I abandon myself to a greater power, and poetry kicks in: Sound your waves off my skin, find me and scoop me to your chest, carry me up against the night sky, curve your flight around me, mold your umbrella bat wings to my shape, I think. And I hate bats.

I’m not sure I have another book of poetry in me. North may be my last. And then I find Neruda’s: Sadness, scarab/with seven crippled feet,/spiderweb egg,/scramble-brained rat,/bitch’s skeleton:/No entry here./Don’t come in./Go away./Go back/south with your umbrella,/go back/north with your serpent’s teeth./A poet lives here./No sadness may/cross this threshold. …

and I think, maybe…

How Does Your Garden Grow

To that person walking down our lane last week it may have appeared that I was lallygagging when, in fact, I was in the throes of creation. Standing in my back yard, staring for long minutes at a pile of dirt, garden 1apparently without a thought in my head, conscious or unconscious, at some deeper level I was envisioning a paradise of verdant green with splashes of brilliant coordinated colour. I need to get busy, so went my thought, need to get digging, add manure and potting soil, plant seeds. In short, I need to get gardening.

Then, HOLD IT, so went another thought. This is gardening. This staring, seemingly mindlessly but, in fact, the mind teeming with activity, this envisioning. I was creating, transforming the valley of dry bones into a living breathing entity.

When John and I arrived in Calgary many years ago to settle down, build a house, raise a family,  we stood on top of an enormous hill of clay. In this bare, desolate, windswept piece of ground which we had recently purchased, not one living thing poked up its head. To paraphrase Ezekiel’s plight… the hand of the Lord was upon us… and set us down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones… and he said unto us… can these bones live? And we answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Or as my forebears would have put it… God only knows.

In the bible story, God caused breath to enter the bones so that they could live. In our story we rolled up our sleeves and started digging. But before the action it was necessary to visualize. Unlike our ancestors, some of whom had a quarter section at Oyen near the Saskatchewan border (and you know what that’s like), we also were able to order a ton of black topsoil.

The insistence of human beings to grow a garden must be related to the act of transforming death into life. We grow grain, of course, for food. Vegetables, too, fall into the category of necessity. But my aunts on the farm insisted on flowers. They grew wonderful flowers in the most adverse conditions, and they took great pride in their successes. One aunt carried scarce water by the pailful and dipped out a cupful for each plant in her half acre of garden. When I have success in my garden, I more or less think it happened with god’s help (or nature’s if you prefer). Not so that aunt, I am sure. She was the more the type to raise her fist at a god she wasn’t sure existed. But however she viewed god, she was the embodiment of the creative force transforming nothing into something.

The valley of dry bones has become a metaphor for a landscape or a mindscape that does not include the energetic or creative force. This is what people refer to when they call a place god-forsaken, a term I first heard used by parents and grandparents as they railed against the land, especially in winter or after a hail storm had just wiped out the crop. But they always tried again, planned another year, another garden. True, they had little choice, but they also had a vision.

garden 2The other metaphor at work here is the garden. Candide in Voltaire’s classic text, after his journey of many adventures and seemingly endless calamity – earthquakes, disease, war, thievery and murder, to name a few – decides to go home and plant and cultivate a garden of his own making.

You can see them in the garden centres every day but especially weekend afternoons from early April to late September when you can hardly move through the crowds of happy gardeners pushing overladen carts, people, like Candide, who have discovered that the solution to the insanity of the world is to plant a garden.

 

NORTH: the place of place

NORTH. My new book of poetry has just landed on my desk. What to make of it?owl 2

That it appears in spring might be a good omen. On the other hand, of the nasturtium seeds I planted three weeks ago only about half came up. Is it the seeds, the soil, or me?

In view of the title, a few words that address geography and the writer might be appropriate for this month’s blog. I think we can agree that place of birth and childhood does  influence the writer, it seems obvious, but the how of it might be up for debate. Content, of course. From Wallace Stegner to James Baldwin to Thomas Hardy to Sharon Butala (you can substitute any name you wish), so many writers mine the mother lode of their roots for material. But how about voice, style, language, the essence of what any person is, writer or not.

Two things. 1) a writer depends on words, basic tool of the trade, and 2) the north is a silent place. The child watches, saying nothing, from the floor where she is playing with the dog. For a long time, I thought I was the dog. Lady was her name.

The first task of the writer coming out of the north is to free yourself of silence, in so doing to free yourself of Ellen & Cecelia at Padstowfeelings of isolation and aloneness. It’s not easy because, like bre’er rabbit in the brier patch, that’s where you feel at home. To speak is to betray yourself, a painful process. My sisters and I had to unlearn not to speak. When we went to school they asked questions. The answers were in logically placed words, which were strange to us.

Our words did not come easily or glibly. They did not dance so much as plod. They were nonlyrical, simple, straightforward, unadorned, prosaic. Our language was not fancy or clever.  The romantic or melodramatic voice was not acceptable. People made fun of it, made fun of city relatives who visited from time to time with, it seemed to us, pretentious or supercilious speech.

And so it goes. In my writing I avoid adornments of adjectives, and certainly adverbs. When I first started writing I got into metaphor and symbolism because I didn’t know better. I was copying other writers I admired. Those other writers were not of the north. They were of places like England or New York, where the clever use of words and word tricks was admired.

No longer do I try to be clever verbally. It’s hopeless anyway because I’m not. Or tricky. What you see is what you get. That’s the north in me.

Living in your mind rather than the real world becomes a habit. You feel a disjunction between your thoughts and what comes out of your mouth. Speaking is a betrayal of yourself. All in all, you are in an uncomfortable position. You get through by learning to live with your discomfort. You also become obsessed with writing. What you write is closer than speech to your thoughts.

There is mental attitude to consider. To this day, I think of starting a writing project as ‘going in’. Going in to the bush, going in to isolation, solitude, darkness. And yet it is what I seek, the place where I am my own centre, where I am all I have. The trick, then, is to find my way out.

Think Eli Mandel’s Houdini who chained himself time and time again so he could escape. It is dangerous. You can lose direction, become confused, turn in circles, get lost. You may wander into the wilderness and be gone forever. Control your panic. Drive that stake in, stay close to it. Dream of freedom, plan escape.

Robert Kroetsch escaped through magic realism, a form he thought particularly suitable for western Canadian writers.

The north may be a mental construct, a myth, to paraphrase Eli Mandel, but it doesn’t matter. What matters and what is a writer’s strength is how absolutely he/she can incorporate the myth. I may have constructed a north of my own making, but the north forms the base for the construction.

Writing is a Penance for not being Lucky

Anita Brookner, British novelist and art historian, died exactly a year ago, depending on when I get this blog posted, her dates 16 July 1928-10 March 2016. One of my favourite writers, author of some two dozen novels and several volumes of art history, which she taught at both Reading College and the Courtauld Institute, winner of the 1984 Booker prize for her fourth novel Hotel du Lac, Brookner had definite ideas about the writing life. In her 1983 novel, Look at Me (she polished off one a year during her summer teaching breaks), she states clearly and definitely, “It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you.”

Sorry, writing friends, but you are not, according Blog 6 Computerto Brookner, one of the lucky, who has, without effort, been able to attract love. If you had, you would be out in the real world having fun, not stuck in your room having an affair with your computer.

In her long list of novels, the plots juxtapose lucky and unlucky people. The characters who are lucky have happier lives in spite of, or more likely because of, the fact that they are careless, thoughtless, and lack moral integrity and a capacity for self-awareness or self-doubt. The unlucky, whom, one assumes, have opposite characteristics, are not exactly unhappy but must accept their fate. One commentator on Brookner’s novels equates these opposites to the moral tale of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise, of course, is the artist, and the hare (ordinary lucky people) beats the tortoise every time.

It seems, then, that if you’re lucky you are engaged in life. If you’re unlucky you are exiled to your room, much like a child being sent to her room as a form of punishment, in this case for not being lucky. The question imposes itself, why cannot you simply step out of that room into life? It seems a simple enough action. But no. You are tied to that room because it is the only place you can make sense of life and if you can’t make sense of life the world is a fearful meaningless place. Writing becomes your regular act of comfort.

You do take excursions to the outside world when you must. When real life intervenes you drive the kids to school, cook up some food, attend to your day job, etc. You even go to occasional dinners and parties and events. You may even attempt a more permanent escape but, in a Brookner novel at least, this rarely, if ever, turns out well. So you bravely embrace the constant balancing act between gregariousness and isolation, between involvement and non-involvement. You emerge and stumble about in a state of confusion, wondering which place you are in at any given moment. You live in a constant state of discomfort.

This is what one of Brookner’s characters says on the subject: “I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world…” It would be lovely to be part of the world of church and community, of PTA and committee meetings, of coffee and happy hours with friends, of bridge nights, bible study nights, bowling nights, but you can either manage the ordinary world or you can’t.

In spite of what may seem a bleak outlook, Brookner’s novels are a pleasure to read because of her command of the language rendered in astoundingly lucid prose. She is a master of wit and irony, providing the reader with altogether satisfying insights into the machinations of social intercourse.

At times Brookner’s characters view the ordinary life rather wistfully like a train leaving the station without them, but overall they do not protest their fate. They reject all forms of pity, including self-pity. They do not become embittered. They are stoic in their choices. A typical Brookner ending is the main character’s acceptance with quiet resignation her or his allotted place in life. Because the ordinary world is presented as unattractive, it is not an unhappy ending.

 

 

 

 

To Beef or not to Beef

As we wait out winter like hostages in a snow cave, it’s time to get back to serious stuff about the writing life.

Like the time I got a notion to pickleidea
some beef. Light bulb moment: a steaming platter of succulent corned beef and cabbage from scratch; a pile of tender juicy pastrami on a bun (with dill pickles on the side). I googled a recipe.

In the garden shed I found an old ceramic crock, encrusted with soil, littered with dead insects, garnished with spider webs. I didn’t want to eat anything that had come into contact with that crock, even after a good scrub down, so I invested in a brand new one (pricey), a beef brisket (thank heavens the recipe called sandwichfor a cheaper cut of beef), multi pickling salts and spices, vinegar, bay leaves, peppercorn, garlic, lots of it, and onion. I put it all in the crock and got my husband to carry it down to the cool basement laundry room where it sat, impassive, indifferent, building a personality distinctly its own. Every time I went down to the laundry room we gave each other the eye, mine increasingly apprehensive, its, smug and secretive.

The third week it started to smell. ‘Not exactly unpleasant,’ I said to my husband. ‘No…,’ he sounded sceptical. ‘That’s how pickled meat is supposed to smell,’ I added for good measure. A few days later, ‘What’s that smell,’ older son inquired coming in from school. ‘Phew,’ said second son. I persevered. What could go wrong? I had followed directions religiously.

A few days later, ‘You’re not going to feed that to me,’ said my husband. ‘I’m not gonna eat that,’ said first son. ‘Yuck,’ said second son. ‘I’ll eat it myself,’ I said, in my best little red hen manner. ‘You can’t eat that,’ said my husband, ‘you’ll kill yourself.’

I opened the lid of the crock. I skimmed a foul-smelling curd from the brine’s surface. A  lump of something dull grey with a bluish greenish aura sat still and unmoving. I thought of the  excitement with which I had approached the project. I hated to let that go. I hated letting go of the time and effort and expense invested. I had a crisis of self-confidence. If the pioneers of yore without any formal education could pickle beef why, with a master’s degree, couldn’t I?

To paraphrase the famous words of Tom Hanks… we had a problem.

What to do with rotten pickled beef?

We couldn’t keep it in the house and we couldn’t throw it out. ‘You don’t want to leave something like that hanging around,’ said my husband. ‘There must be a law against throwing  anything that smells like that in the garbage.’ I agreed. The garbage men might think we were throwing out a dead body, they might report us. To complicate things, the garbage had been picked up the day before. I thought about what it would smell like by the end of another week. The neighbours would be complaining. Also, we didn’t want  dogs and cats getting into it and killing themselves. We might even get sued.

We could bury it in a very deep hole at the end of the garden but I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it. Ever.

‘That’s easy,’ one of the sons said. ‘Put it in someone else’s garbage.’

And so it was that we wrapped that sorry looking hunk of putrid flesh first in plastic wrap, then in several sheets of newspaper and tied it neatly with a string. We drove around looking for the two prerequisites – a trash can that could not be traced to us and one that got picked up daily. We found one in front of an out-of-our-neighbourhood Safeway where a group of students were demonstrating against buying California grapes. We pretended to join the protest while my husband nonchalantly sidled close to the garbage container then quickly, without looking to either side or backwards, tossed in the thing. We scuttled back to our car.

That’s where the real story ends. My folly discarded. But on the way home, my imagination took over. Of course, it did. The ‘what if’ tool of the novelist. What if a demonstrator had thrown a bomb into that trash can? What if the bomb exploded? What if a bystander saw us throw in our package and got the license plate of our car as we drove away?

shakespeareThus, my effort at pickled beef wasn’t a total failure after all. I got a story out of it, which appeared in my second collection of short stories. So what’s the moral of this little anecdote? Nothing is ever wasted. You’ll find a place in your writing for even the most mundane, most embarrassing, incidents in your life. Or, deciding to throw something out can open up a whole lot of new possibilities.

Take your pick. Make up your own. There must be a message there some place.