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.

 

5 Things to do New Year’s Eve

hny

1  Get Married. That way you have a date for New Year’s Eve. And it’s a great tax deal – you can claim your partner for the whole year. If a big bash seems daunting (churches and party rooms booked months in advance), try a civil ceremony. Dress up in ordinary clothes and, along with witnesses, take a bus down to city hall. It may prove to be an uproarious and memorable ride. Then throw a reception for family and friends in your apartment. The downside is, it may be cold – 30 below when we did it, and that was on the old thermometer which didn’t include wind chill. Another negative, you miss all the great parties that your friends toddle off to after leaving yours.

2  Have a Baby. Again it is 30 below with a nonfactored-in wind chill (this is Edmonton before climate change). Also, this is before the days when you scarcely crawled off the delivery room table before being shown the door. You got to stay in a nice warm bed in a nice warm building and get a good nights sleep, the last irresponsible moments of your life before heading home to face a lifetime of sleep deprivation. Another positive: you don’t have time for mid-winter blues or seasonal disorder or whatever. In your sleepless fog you don’t know what season it is.

3  Go to a movie. Join all the other singles who don’t have a date. Some theatres have special activities, whistles and party hats. And there’s the chance that your soul mate will be sitting in the seat next to you. No violence please. This is the night for romance. Something like the recent La La Land will get you in the right frame of mind for a new year.

4  Keep your friends up past midnight. It’s your responsibility. One year we were invited to friends for dinner and they tried to hustle us off home at about ten. We had to dig in our heels. Offer to play board games, whist, crazy 8’s. Scrabble is a good one if you’re up to a mental challenge. Even if you yourself are flagging keep at it. It’s only an hour or so of your life in a good cause. I recall lying flat out on the carpet with my feet up on the couch leading a round robin of story telling. You may get hustled out rather quickly after popping the champagne cork, but next morning, you can give yourself a pat on the back. You saved your friends from a boring New Year’s Eve.

5  Attend a big ticket corporate or nepprivate social club party. You owe it to yourself to go to one of these in your lifetime so you know you never want to do it again. Treat yourself to an evening of lineups – coat check, drink tickets, drinks, food, washrooms. Treat yourself to a mad rush at the buffet table with polite elbowing and malevolent eyeing from the person behind because you’re not moving along fast enough. Some companies try to impose order by calling table numbers. Yours will inevitably be the last. It’s a competition with an inflated entrance fee and entertainment by other guests. Once, toward the end of the evening, a woman at the next table threw her drink into another woman’s face. Ah Calgary, I thought at the time, only a thin veneer between what we like to think of as our high society and our rough and ready frontier roots.

6 (bonus). Get Away from it all, preferably to an exotic destination. In Costa Rica take a New Year’s day-trip ferry to a sandy beach with the scanadded questionable bonus of an indefatigable mariachi band. You may never ever want to hear a mariachi band again in your lifetime, but you are warm and sandy. Then there is always Hawaii. One memorable New Year’s Eve we had a table on an ocean front terrace with the sound of the surf gently lapping against the sea wall while we danced under the stars to, what else? the Hawaiian Wedding Song.

And I can’t resist one more.

7  Wait for the world to end. Or at least for all the computers to crash, which would be the same thing. What were you doing at midnight at the end of the millennium when it was predicted that computers would not know how to turn over their clocks? From our balcony, we watched for the airport lights to go out. When they didn’t, we were only slightly disappointed and opened another bottle of champagne.

Well, folks, wherever you were, whatever you did, I sincerely wish you all the best of health, peace, and success, whichever way you personally translate that word.

we are of the earth but we are also of the stars (working title)

This month I was going to say something about the meaning of life but I lost my notes.

So, instead, here’s an ode to wine. After all, Christmas comes but once a year.

grape4

I think of nights we harvested the grapes.

Under a copper moon we go forth with our baskets.

Our feet are planted on the earth

the earth is in the wine

the moon is in the wine

we reach up strip down the vines

the grapes fall heavy into our baskets

we taste the earth we taste the moon

grape3

in reaching for the grapes we are reaching for the

moon

why not the moon?

why not the stars?

why not the galaxies?

why not somewhere a hundred million light years

away

a parallel universe and someone in that parallel

universe

one hundred million light years away

intoxicated as I on the night and the nose of

new grapes

also moon tripping

 

someone like me or more likely

not like me

someone with a head the size of a pea

a green pea

someone with a brain a speck on a head the size of

a pea

and that brain which may be quite different

from what we think of as a brain

and would almost certainly be

that brain a speck on a head the size of a pea

throbs with condensed energy

throbs faster and faster until it explodes

explodes its energy into space

and a million more planets and suns and moons

and shooting stars

find me

a hundred million light years away

for an instant

not even an instant

a time so minuscule it cannot be measured

me

grapes1

small me

hanging by my toes

from this planet earth

 

thank you wine

for allowing me this trip, this journey to the stars

I was so tired of being trapped in my neural network

 

 

Getting a breakaway on Lake Superior

or Why isn’t  writing fun any more?

Didja hear the one about the hockey player who got a breakaway on Lake Superior and hasn’t been heard of since?

canstockphoto4795259

The informing image of my first novel and I’m still amused by it, the idea of this crazy  Canuck hockey player, full of his own resolve, his own belief, chasing his dream, oblivious of reality.

Oh, those heady days of optimism, believing we’re in control of the puck. Such fun!

But what happened to the fun? The question comes from a colleague on Facebook and forces my thought on the subject.

At the beginning, our dreams are so far ahead of us they don’t get in our way. We’re following where the writing takes us, into unknown territory, exploring and experiencing every moment. We’re full of energy and ideas. Letting it all hang out, getting it off our chest. At the end of the day we feel cleansed, purged, purified. We have a sense of wonder at the words that surface, the revelations, the epiphanies. We are experiencing the joy of creation, the feeling of freedom that is inherent in the creative process.

It’s like Dylan says, “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands…”

Then one fatal day we emerge from our euphoric state and find we’ve lost the puck. We’re stranded in the middle of a large frozen lake with no land in sight. We’ve lost direction. We must get ourselves back to civilization and sanity. We decide to do something constructive, like write a story, which isn’t too bad an idea in itself, except that it demands a dose of reality.

We learn that there are rules and regulations. We pay attention to our grammar, dot i’s and cross t’s. In content, we remove impossibilities and allow in only what makes sense. We let our inner censor take over and remove our foolishness. One part of us must impose discipline on the other part. Our wild free self must go undercover. Some writers actually like this part best. Now they have something to get their teeth into, something to direct and control. To shape and structure . It’s hard work but it’s still fun, mostly. At this point, no one else is reading it and that  means no critics.

Then we make the mistake of getting something published. At first, we are ecstatic, but again reality bites. If we’re like most writers in Canada, not only does our book not become an overnight  best seller, it doesn’t get reviewed, it doesn’t make it onto long lists let alone short lists. Our beautiful child on whom we lavished so much time and loving effort, is ignored, even rejected, by the big cold ignorant world out there.

Or our book is successful, which has its own problems. We are required to produce another  success. Only problem is, we can’t remember how we did the last one. Or maybe we want to try something new. But we can’t. We must keep spinning straw into someone else’s definition of gold. In short, we’ve lost our freedom.

Not getting published is equally disturbing. What’s wrong with us? All our writer friends are getting books published (it seems). We do a little self-analysis and bravely face our limitations. We study/work/study/work. We learn what’s in and what is definitely not in. We sign up for workshops and courses. We get a graduate degree. Now we can write like everyone else.

At last we’re happy. No? Well, why not?

How you handle your writing career is your affair. But if it isn’t fun any more, likely it means that someone other than you is in control of your work, which means your voice, which means you. Note, sometimes that other is you (that inner censor, remember?).

What ever you decide, just for fun, treat yourself to the wonderful release of skating wildly, madly, stupidly, blindly on that borderless frozen lake heading into the unknown, thinking you’ve got a breakaway, believing you’re in the game. Be happy in your stupid optimism.