Off the Map

July 12, 2017

“From now on, we’re off the map.”

Our guide — Gui — stands with arm extended, ushering us over what seems to be a precipice. One by one, eight travelers descend a stone staircase. Down, down, down. Behind us: a stone wall dripping with morning glories and thorny blackberry canes in bloom; ahead of us: well, we’ll find out.

Down, down, down again, past a few young people playing instruments and some others just hanging out. Pardon. Enschuldigung. Excuse me. Sorry mate. Down some more, to a path overlooking the Douro river and the city of Porto, built up along its banks.

Gui stops to point out the potential of this path as a bicycle and walking trail, states her hope that city planners will have enough vision to install one, then takes off at the blistering pace we’ve come to recognize, her floppy hat-brim and mop of dark curls billowing behind her. We follow in single file, getting a chance to admire a series of increasingly lovely views when she stops to redirect the vines which are creeping over the path. We admire the Dom Luis I bridge, designed by a colleague of Gustav Eiffel, and Gui points out the elegant way each post bears the weight of the structure above.

It’s been over two hours since we met Gui in a park outside the tourist area of Porto. She’s one of a group of three architects who started the Worst Tours of Porto a not-for-profit association which gives travelers a view outside (or beneath), what she calls the Zoom box: the harbor, and the warren of steep streets lined with fish restaurants, wine cellars and souvenir shops that normally fill a two-day visit before most travelers move on.

She’s an expert, sharing her voluminous knowledge as a gift. And she brooks no mansplaining. “Whoever thinks that, knows nothing,” she interrupts one non-question, before setting off up a hill that leaves her would-be instructor gasping for breath and me chuckling with glee. 

I love, not only her fierce intelligence but also her energy, her commitment to her project. And her rigor. She takes us through streets we might have bypassed, past buildings we might have overlooked. My cartographer husband whispers in admiration, “I have no idea where I am.”

I found the Worst Tours when I googled “why are there so many derelict buildings in Porto?” On every street, including the most touristy ones, the 18th century buildings are stained and crumbling, terracotta roofs playing host to their own, bushy ecosystems — that is, when they haven’t caved in entirely. The exquisitely colored tiles are falling off; windows are cemented over or simply gone, leaving only iron grill-work in elaborate mandala patterns. 

Is this austerity?

The economic crisis at work?

Or is it the numberless short-term rentals that we ourselves are taking advantage of, in order to stay here?

Short-term rentals are booming in Porto. Displays in real estate company windows make no secret that buildings are derelict, seemingly inviting investors to gut, subdivide, renovate — and quite possibly, flip. They’re exquisite three- and four-story houses with delicate balconies, arched windows and formidable front doors. Their foundations are stone, their ceilings so lofty they could accommodate a whole other floor. Our building has a yard long enough to keep a family for a year if they farmed it. A neighbor keeps chickens and has planted fruit trees, but ours is overgrown with weeds, and the one on the other side is being dug up, excavating decades worth of tree roots and weeds.

Surrounded by this wealth of real estate, local residents are suffering. The cost of housing is drawing perilously close to the average income. Though many line up for meals in the Plaza de la Republica near where we’re staying, and many sleep in the shelter of a nearby social housing building, there is seemingly no effort to squat in these abandoned buildings. They’re left ominously empty.

Speaking at a pace no slower than her walk, Gui makes clear there’s no easy answer to my questions. Referring to a well-thumbed binder full of plans and maps, she recounts a story reaching back to the construction of this city’s original houses, factoring in the availability of construction materials, the laws and precedents that afford some owners title to the long lots behind their houses, to the culture which values property ownership and which makes squatting tantamount to murder, to the effect of the Unesco World Heritage Site designation which forbids any changes to the facades.

Yet Gui fleshes out the story not of a city which is victim to market forces, poverty or corruption, but a city full of potential.

What could all these spaces become?

The houses are being refurbished, Gui says, and as an architect, how can she complain? There are buildings literally caving in right now. Something has to be done to preserve them. Gentrification of houses is a done deal as far as she’s concerned– for better or for worse. She’s elected to speak today about what’s not so certain: the fate of the unused factory and farm spaces the city has in abundance. 

We see a former factory turned over to artists’ studios and an exhibition spaces, including a collection of street art and a community show of young people’s casettas, the colorful dioramas created in honor of the forthcoming festival of Sao Joao.

Because of this festival, we get to visit the inside of an island, a form of local housing which has been constructed in the city’s long back lots. A narrow path along the edge of a lot gives way to a series of small units, scrupulously maintained, with plants decorating the front stoops. City services are available in the islands, and some have added floors on top of the houses. Children play safely in these corridors, which can be gated out front, and elders are never far from help. Normally, they’re not open to passers-by, but we get in to see that Island’s casetta, giving a donation and making a wish.

This series of diminutive houses might be attractive as tourist accommodation. If sold, the tenants could be turfed out, with the exception of people over 75, who enjoy a bit of protection.

And we go on walking, and walking, and walking. Altogether, we walk for no fewer than six hours, seeing the best and the worst of what can happen in underused urban space.

What happens when a hotel, supported by EU funding, takes over a city block in a market already glutted with hotels? 

What happens when a former shopping mall is turned over to garage bands, becoming a spotlessly maintained rehearsal and recording space, complete with two cafes. Now, an otherwise derelict building is being maintained in good condition, generating income for its owner and the cafe owners, feeding the local music scene and the area as a whole.

Travelling with a cartographer, I’m ever-aware of how little aptitude and skill I have for orienting myself. So I think a lot about what it means to live “off the map.” And I think about the relationship of mapping to story.

Operating without a map means living without clear connections, not simply spatially but in time. Rolf remembers much more than I do — “remember, that’s where we saw the colony of cats” — “cats?” “Yes cats. We saw them right here, three years ago.” It’s not just that he has a better memory than me. He knows where to place his memories so they don’t get lost. Without a map, buildings rear up — seemingly out of nowhere — yet I find myself covering the same ground again and again.  

What is there when there’s no map?  There’s always something. There are always connections in place, always some story being told.

Gui and her colleagues Pedro and Isabel have dedicated themselves to making sure that their city is mapped in detailed, critical and historically informed ways.  In the kiosk which they have lovingly renovated, they distribute zines, pamphlets about local building projects, and maps created by Use-It-Travel, an organization which distributes non-commercial maps generated by locals. The advantage of the kiosk, says Gui, is that people from Porto are attending the tours, wanting to look beyond their habitual paths through their own city. Wanting to see what is unmapped, wanting a say in who gets to map it and how.

 

 

 

These are a few of my favourite things

June 3, 2017

It’s been a busy winter and spring, but thanks to a feast of books by friends and acquaintances there has always been a good book by the bedside to make me reluctant to drop off to sleep. Here’s what I like best about all of them (starting with last read).

Mark Sampson: The Slip

Well I haven’t read it yet. But my favorite thing about it so far is the way he cracked himself up at the launch, reading from the first few pages. Also, the way he likened going down the basement stairs to descending into an “unfinished gizzard.”

Patti Flaher:  Paradise

The play interweaves the narratives of a young Canadian man of Afghani descent who goes to volunteer in Afghanistan and gets arrested, and that of his childhood friend, who is also traumatized while travelling. But the greatest dangers to these young people are seeded and cultivated close to home, even when they happen on other shores.

Terri Favro: Sputnik’s Children

I’m torn between saying “the ending” — which is a real ending, but is also open-ended — and the blurred line between the character’s imaginal life and the real moment in history she is experiencing. Actually, the two things are so intimately related I don’t have to choose (see great ending, above).

Catriona Wright: Table Manners

Peter Greenaway should direct the movie of this book.

Karen Mulhallen: Seasons in an Unknown Key

These are luscious poems of love and loss, and they’re set in Toronto. I know I should get over this, but Toronto to me is still Murray’s restaurant and no drinking on Sundays. In this book, the city wears passion well.

Rebecca Rosenblum: So Much Love

It’s all in the title. It’s a book about brutality but it somehow revolves around love. By finding the love in even the most violent scenes Rosenblum makes them tolerable but also somehow compulsory to read, as a kind of bearing witness.

Kerry Clare: Mitzi Bytes

Two words: domestic scenes. From sex between two tired people who are deeply in love, to the “acrobatics” of household management to the savageness and tenderness of siblings, to the way parents collaborate in keeping a home on an even keel, even as they fight. Clare captures the way a household both reflects the outside world and shields the family from it.

Eva Stachniak The Chosen Maiden

This is a book about endurance. Bronia Nijinska is a brilliant artist, but she’s got too many people depending on her to flame out. She’s forced to adapt, to produce under different conditions, to keep her vision alive in the face of competing needs, impossible decisions and enormous egos. She’s an artist in a way many women are artists: as mothers, daughters, administrators and wives, and she keeps getting better all the time.

 

Writing Prompts for Settlers

May 28, 2017

Okay so we shut up and listen.

Except that over the past couple of weeks I’ve been hearing indigenous authors like Alicia Elliott explaining why the recent shit-storm is a problem. In an article on CBC arts, she has some important things to say about context:  “… forgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t.

It’s a great article. But an author who’s that good shouldn’t have to spend her energy on people who have treated her with such profound disrespect.

In a Toronto Star article titled “The Emotional Exhaustion of Debating Indigenous Views” Lenny Carpenter pointed out: “Indigenous people are in fact playing the role of educators to counter the failure of Canada to educate its citizens on accurate Indigenous history, cultures and perspectives.”

Kateri Aikwenzie-Damm wrote in The Globe and Mail, “I am a writer, poet and publisher. I have put my own writing career on hold many times to fight for respect and space for Indigenous writers and our books.” And later ” The world is shifting. Here’s a hard truth that may move us closer to reconciliation: We do not need them. We do not need to debate them because they demand it and we do not need them to tell our stories.”

These writers have other stories to tell.

And now there’s an Emerging Indigenous Author prize. As much as there was a groundswell of hatred over the so-called free speech issue, there’s a groundswell of support. That’s great! Except that one crowdfunding campaign is not going to address the undercurrent of aggression that was just exposed through this so-called “debate” on appropriation — a debate which, as Keteri Aikwenzie-Damm notes, has been going on for decades.

This means settlers do have to take a stand – not just about cultural appropriation – but about our relationship with Indigenous people. We need to talk — at least to each other. But how?

Maybe we need some writing prompts:

How did this happen?

Hal Niedzviecki had a lot of opportunities to answer that question in the press.

But how did the people around him let it happen?

Nikki Reimer, tendering her resignation from the board of directors at TWUC, wrote a soul-searching entry on her blog.

It shows the welter of deadlines that most people involved in all aspects of publishing juggle daily, the strata and substrata of tasks that bury those of us who work in the arts these days. I thought of Walkerton and SARS. When resources are gutted, people may rise to the occasion and produce an illusion of normalcy. Until something goes wrong.

How did this happen?

There was an Indigenous Writers’ Panel at the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit at Harbourfront, where Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams provided the audience with copious suggestions for Indigenous authors to read and explore. Someone stood up immediately afterwards and asked which authors she should be reading. Lee Maracle didn’t miss a beat in calling this member out about doing homework. She did it with alacrity and wit; still, was it really her job?

I was among those who mumbled to our neighbours, but didn’t raise our voices. I went home feeling like there was something wrong beyond that one member’s putting her foot in it. There is so much more to do than just be careful with our words.

How did this happen?

After the resignation of Niedzviecki, the Equity Task Force of the Writers Union a group of respected and hardworking writers: consisting of Farzana Doctor, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Ava Homa, Larissa Lai, Carrianne Leung, Judy Rebick, Heather Wood and Waubgeshig Rice put together a set of recommendations. These included Anti-racist education for all staff, National Council and editorial committee members, and a paid equity officer position housed in the main TWUC offices. Their considerable efforts were mocked by Jonathan Kaye as “something out of an undergraduate protest group …”

To me, such measures seem perfectly appropriate, given what has just happened. And it makes sense to take a hard look at my own role in obscuring context.

How did this happen?

It’s 2012. For the first time, I visit Prince Albert Saskatchewan, on whatever semblance of a book tour I’m able to construct with Canada Council funding administered by the Writers’ Union. My grandmother, Mona Gould, was born there, in 1908, and she’s the subject of my first book. We have been to the town of Melfort, seen the map on the wall of the historical society showing the homestead which the family “proved” in the early part of the twentieth century. McTavish: it was a thrill to see my family name on such an old document. My grandmother’s stories of her rugged childhood echoed in my mind. “When I was born they put me in the oven to keep me warm.” We took photographs in front of the canola field that is on the present site of the homestead.

At a gathering at the Historical Society, my eyes filled with tears as I read the poem Mona wrote commemorating the death of her brother at Dieppe. I imagined, as she had so often said, that Howard, the great-uncle I never met, walked into the back of the room and stood listening to the words: “He gave his life like a gift, withholding nothing …”

Prince Albert was the last stop on my little book tour and it was also my grandmother’s birthplace. The family had paused its migration so that my grandmother could be born in safety. Walking around the town the day before the reading I saw the dates over the doorways of many of the buildings. They were built during the settler boom, just when the McTavish clan arrived. Looking at those red brick facades felt like visiting old relatives. I imagined the surge of joy my ancestors felt as they walked around these streets, a new baby just born, a new adventure ahead of them. I, too, was marking the start of a new phase of life, as an author.

The buildings reflected my family history, but the faces I saw didn’t look like any McTavish I knew. Prince Albert is home to a campus of First Nations University and a thriving Indigenous arts community. A sick feeling took up residence in my stomach alongside the pride.

It grew even stronger as I read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and Half Breed by Maria Campbell.

I had written about the family’s journey to the land, the half-built house they came upon, the rigours and joys of life in the outdoors that gave my grandmother the hardiness, zest for life and unbowed will that were so uncommon for a woman of her time.

One person’s safe place was another’s …
One person’s beginning was another’s …
One person’s frontier was another’s …

Maria Campbell:

“Gradually the homesteads were reclaimed by the authorities and offered to the immigrants. The Half-breeds then became squatters on their own land … So began a miserable life of poverty which held no hope for the future. That generation of my people was completely beaten. Their fathers had failed during the Rebellion to make a dream come true; they failed as farmers; now there was nothing left. Their way of life was part of Canada’s past and they saw no place in the world around them, for they believed they had nothing to offer. They felt shame, and with shame the loss of pride and the strength to live each day. I hurt inside when I think of those people … I hurt because in my childhood I saw glimpses of a proud and happy people. I heard their laughter, saw them dance, and felt their love.” (8)

There was a story fitting snugly around my story, outside its margins. It wasn’t my job to tell it, but leaving it unmentioned should not have been an option, either.

I don’t need to co-opt anyone’s else’s tradition to know it’s important to be responsible in speech and writing. There’s a Hasidic story about a man who spreads gossip in his town. He realizes he is doing harm and wants to make amends. He visits the Rabbi, who tells him to split open a pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind. When he’s collected all the feathers, he’ll be forgiven. It’s an impossible task.

How did this happen?

I was raised in an era when Indigenous people were footnotes to history. We read, not Half-Breed, but Animal Farm. The story pre-settlement came before the real history, the main history, our history. Indigenous people were plaster figures in the ROM. They were the savages who attacked the Jesuit fathers in Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. They were the people who lived in Pikangikum, where my father took a tiny plane during my childhood, returning with drawings as he did from Peru and Mexico and Japan.

I didn’t know, in other words. How could I write what I didn’t know?

I knew something. I knew that real history, our history, the only history that mattered was inside.

Okay, so things have changed. I’m learning. I’ve taken a course on Indigenous Dramaturgies with Jill Carter at the University of Toronto. She presented us with a worldview-shaking collection of plays and stories and theory and discussion. I was blessed to have her curate my first in-depth experience of Indigenous culture. All this has been supplemented by Indigenous Canada, an online course University of Alberta and walking organized by First Story Toronto.

All this would make it easy to talk about before and after, about the bad old days when I didn’t know and the good, new days of being an ally. But knowing facts is just part of the story. There’s knowing that and there’s knowing how.

I knew how to see my own people and people like me at the centre of history. Knew how not to question, question, and question again the first layers of information when it came to “who got here first.”

Knowing how takes a whole lot longer to change. Sometimes I think about the metric system. We were told, when we switched to it, that some of us would always think in pounds and inches. Not that we can’t use the metric system; its just that a certain framework is always there underneath. And it comes out in times of stress and fatigue, when we don’t have the chance to think.

Or when we don’t think we have to.

Here’s another prompt:

I feel …

Not good.

Goodness is all mixed up with a sense of self worth and confidence. I’m so attached to the illusion of Canada the Good that I get to movies early so I can watch the Canada 150 Chevrolet and Roots commercials. (The Roots commercial is all about how polite we Canadians are.)

I’m so attached to that illusion that I sometimes can’t tell whether my mission to become a good ally is really about restoring it, rather than any attempt to create a healthy relationship.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on Canada:

If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing. He doesn’t want to stop the abuse.” Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (21)

Bernard Schlink, on the Holocaust:

There is no entitlement to having the victims and their descendants lay aside the past once the Germans have shown exemplary efforts in coming to terms with it. How and what they remember and forget, to what lengths they go in attempting to free themselves from the traumatic past through mourning the victims or accusing the perpetrators or claiming restitution from the perpetrators’ descendants is their business. Whatever course of action they follow – it is not for us Germans to raise objections or feel indignation. Instead we owe respect to the other side’s difficult struggle with a past that we made traumatic for them.” Guilt About the Past (37)

I feel …

Frightened.

There was an outburst of horrendous aggression in the media in the past couple of weeks, a clumsy misuse of the term “free speech,” the repercussions of which will be felt for a long time to come. But more than any of the words, it was the way a group of people muscled their way into an important, relationship-building conversation and somehow took centre stage. Made it all about them.

What if …

What if the late-night tweeters had used some of their 140 characters on the words: I feel …

If you feel that you have to censor your speech and lie about your feelings based on some top-down dictate it makes sense to be resentful. If you feel like you only have a tiny bit and someone’s going to take it, it makes sense to close ranks.

But what if you felt a gratitude so profound that you were moved to respect, to reciprocate, to do what it took to deepen this relationship and keep it healthy?

We need to view the tougher aspects of the process in that light.

If we get another chance at it, that is.

What if …

Shifting frames is hard. It can seem — to quote the redoubtable Thomas King – inconvenient to contemplate.

The big surprise for me, in making time and space for forgotten and repressed histories and voices is that my strongest emotion has been gratitude.

I know empathy is important, but I don’t get where it belongs in this conversation. I’d rather talk about gratitude. This whole process has felt like being showered with gifts. The Indigenous culture that I’ve been exposed to has enriched my own life and my art, not in the sense of providing me with material to plunder, but in the sense that it dispels the feeling of scarcity that has corseted my artistic life for as long as I can remember. Really great art opens pathways; it doesn’t draw attention to itself at the expense of someone else, and this is really great art. In the Indigenous work I have read, feeling is at one with cogent thought, poetry and science inform each other, stark reality mingles with imagination. Most of all, it means something. It’s not just about verbally jerking off. This holism is nourishing. It provides for its readers.

One of our assignments in Jill Carter’s class was to go and sit “on the land” whatever that meant to us, four times a week for the whole term. Who has time for that? But Jill taught every class with heart and mind and kindness. And respect. I wanted to show respect for that respect. I chose a spot at Riverdale park, a bench in front of a linden tree. I didn’t go as often as I should, but I did visit in cold winds and unseasonable thaws, watched the squirrels leap through branches and flatten themselves against the ground, (marveling at their ability to change their shape), watched people playing with their dogs and sliding down the hill on the meager snow, listened long enough for the highway’s roar to subside and the birdsong and sounds of blowing grasses to emerge. I examined the bark of the tree and the traces of leaves and pods left on the branches.

I started feeling better, thinking better, sleeping better, dreaming more clearly. Teaching better. And yes, writing better. My own stories. I felt grateful to the tree and to the place.

I also started to feel an immense sense of vulnerability. What if I really, really let myself care about this tree?

 

 

Let’s show some respect to the authors in Write

May 17, 2017

I have been trying to compose a blog entry that addresses the most recent issue of Write magazine and the editorial that led to so much … I can’t call it discussion. I am trying to weigh my words, not just contribute to the ill-considered posturing.

The best way I can find is to quote from the authors who contributed to the magazine. They’ve got everything to say about freedom of speech and responsibility to community. About constraints accepted and silence imposed. About tradition and innovation. About the impacts of colonialism, the dubious activity of “space-making.” About pain. About how very, very far we still have to go. About resurgence and making space for themselves and each other. About what that space-making does and can mean. They’re saying it with intelligence, grace and above all, respect.

But these pieces were written in a context of trust, for members of The Writers’ Union, who receive Write magazine. And that trust was betrayed. I don’t feel I have have any right to quote from these pieces. Would any of these writers have written so candidly and openly if they’d seen the editorial? Would they have agreed to participate at all?

The intimacy of this writing could have been a way of creating new relationships and enriching old ones. Every one of the stories is an act of profound generosity. The worst thing about the latest issue of Write is that it failed to respect these gifts.

What these writers have to say is important, and not just in the context of the ignorant and facile talk that has been swirling around since the issue came out.

I’ll take my cue from Jesse Wente and name the writers and publishers whose work went into the issue. We settler-folks need to shut up and listen to these people. If they choose to talk to us again.

Fortunately, Alicia Elliott has. Here’s her fine article. Also, this is piece that she should never have had to write.

Here are the other authors and publishers.

Kateri Akiwensie-Damm and Kegedonce Press
Alicia Elliott
Gord Grisenthwaite
Louise Bernice Halfe
Helen Knott
Gloria Mehlmann
Tanya Roach
Richard Van Camp
Elaine J. Wagner
Shannon Webb-Campbell and Theytus Books
Joshua Whitehead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If things were so perfect in the writing world and in our society, would we need a writers’ Union?

Leanne Simpson:

If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing. He doesn’t want to stop the abuse.

 

A Woman Looks on War

November 11, 2016

Mona Gould received a rejection for this poem when she submitted it to The Montrealer in 1939. Alvah Beattie wrote: “It is with a great deal of regret that I return A WOMAN LOOKS ON WAR. It is so true that I would have liked to publish it. Unfortunately, we are banded together in a common cause and the newspapers and the magazines of Canada must do everything they can to “sell” the war to Canadians; this notwithstanding the fact that we know what it is all about, and have to set aside any humanitarian viewpoint until the war is over.”

It was published in Gossip magazine in 1969.

A Woman Looks on War

She said:
“I am a woman,
And I am being perfectly honest about this calamitous war,
I resent it!
I know that’s taking the small view,
Not the wide … or as it is sometimes called, the long view,
But that is because I was born a woman
The very fact that I was born a woman
Makes me naturally a possessive person.
The fruit of my womb, for instance,
Is pretty much mine.
And I’m not altogether anxious
To have it become cannon fodder.
I know that doesn’t sound very patriotic
And I hope it won’t offend anyone in the War Office.
But I said I was being honest
And if I said anything else it would be a lie!

“It wasn’t that I had any plans laid out for him;
He would have been free to choose for himself his life work;
It’s just that I don’t feel it’s cricket, somehow,
For him to miss out on all the normal activities
The thousand and one mad and merry activities
That young men know in time of peace.
When people say they word “peace”, now,
They do so in hushed tones.
It’s suitable that they should do this
When the Dove lies dead!

“War, to a woman, takes on something the same aspect as child-birth
That is a strange and terrible battle, also,
But the blood let, is in a living cause,
And the hostage is a living thing,
And there is triumph even in the anguish.
War goes forward with the same implacable vigour.
The march is started … and there’s no stopping it
Til the thing is accomplished,
And the first … or last cry!”

She said:
“I am a woman.
And I am naturally a possessive person.
And I don’t give up my son to any cause
Even though it be noble and glorious and worthy of all sacrifice.
I know that’s taking the small view,
And I know there must be mothers made of sterner stuff than I am;
But I have said that I would be honest,
And I would like to have had something more for him
Than a few short years set to martial music
And the first … or last … cry!”

Better late than never: Salt Water Moon

March 15, 2016

I only got to see Salt Water Moon at the Factory Theatre on the last weekend of the run. This makes me late to the party in rhapsodizing about it; still, better late than never.

It was nothing short of exquisite. This stripped-down version of David French’s 1984 play (under the direction of Ravi Jain) was part of the Factory’s Canadian Classics Re-Imagined season. With no props, no costumes, nothing on stage but a series of candles placed in the pattern of the firmament, a young couple, Jacob (played by Kawa Ada) and Mary (Mayko Nguyen) grapple with tough decisions about their future. Ania Soul enfolds the action in guitar music and singing, as well as reading stage directions.

Salt Water Moon is a story utterly particular to its time and place. The setting is Newfoundland, 1926, with the slaughter of World War One still fresh in memory, and tough economic realities rendering the couple’s future precarious. Mary experiences any young lover’s trepidations, jealousies and disappointments, but when it comes to choosing a mate, her stakes are astronomically high. Jacob is endearingly cocky, but his bluster comes off as bravery, knowing the rigid class system that he will confront in providing for a family. Their conversation evokes a close-knit – at times claustrophobic – community, the thousand details of daily life from pipes to stockings to cars, to sinister revelations of the fate of children whose parents cannot care for them.

Stripped of all visible signs of context, the production constantly acknowledged the original script, reminding us that we were one step removed from it. Not only was there no set; the stage directions did not correspond to what was going on. Costumes were described, which were different from what the actors wore, props were mentioned in the stage directions, their use only mimed on stage. The characters walked among candles meant to represent stars; Jacob laid his head on the ground to indicate listening at a door. Most spectacularly: the final stage directions have Mary howling out her pain while Nguyen stood poised in silent grief.

Why and how did this work? I don’t want to analyze it; all I know is that it was spellbinding. I felt as if I were having a miraculously enhanced experience of reading, in which I could conjure the scenes for myself, with a powerful and intimate performance playing out at one and the same time.

Salt Water Moon is all about trusting the imagination. This simple and elegant production did not so much seek universality as celebrate the power of the imagination to evoke the invisible and confront the unknown.

A shred of fiction

March 7, 2016

Words words words. I generate hundreds of them a week. Surely there must be a few I could put on my blog. I looked on m bookshelf for inspiration and found The Essential McLuhan, did a search on the word “essential” in my novel manuscript and came up with this scene (trimmed not to give too much away.) Enjoy!

From You’ll Know Even Then

Deverell drains his espresso and stands up. “Something to eat?”

“No.” She takes a gulp of her coffee, which burns her jumpy stomach. She dumps in two packs of sugar.

“Be right back.” Deverell goes to the display case and asks the waiter for a description of each of the pastries. Rebecca is glad for a few moments to herself. Not that she’d give Deverell credit for planning it this way. She thinks of the last Circle, where they talked about Marlin’s absence, the unknown future. A few of them sat cross-legged in the middle of the cavernous theatre, alone in a spot of light as if sitting around a fire. Their gathering together is primal, essential. SenseInSound cannot stop.

I don’t pick people up and drop them. This is true. Marlin has given her permanence over the years. Nor would he ever walk out on his company. This trip to Berlin can only be about SenseInSound. She doesn’t know what he’s planning, but she’s going to have to bluff.

Deverell sits down again, breaking a large cookie into sections, pushing the plate toward her. “Macadamia and white chocolate. Try it.”

The Best Part

February 29, 2016

Everything’s due, and everyone’s sick. What better time for a grant deadline? In this case, it’s the Toronto Arts Council’s Project grants for literary events, which we hope to continue to access to pay the authors who appear at the Draft Reading Series.

Last Sunday was the first edition of Draft for 2016, and we held it at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, a long, narrow black box in Leslieville which plays host to so much creativity that spending an hour there acts like a shot of good espresso.

Grant-writing for Draft is not onerous. It’s a matter of copying and pasting “Mandate” and “Artistic Goals” from our previous forms. Nothing has really changed. I started Draft because I love all things rough and imperfect, love sketches more than finished paintings, scales and scraps of melody more than virtuoso performances, workshops more than polished productions. I like to encounter people in moments of grappling, fumbling, engaging dynamically with craft, more than I like to see them selling their finished product. Draft is a way of lingering in with what — for me — is the best part.

Back to last week: Red Sandcastle was a new venue for us, and I was half-hoping we didn’t get too many people so we could iron out the wrinkles of setting up there. But when I arrived — slightly late — the place was already filling up with what became a standing-room-only crowd. After a few months’ break, I had forgotten about the raw excitement of hearing new and unpublished work read out loud. (April L. Ford, Sharon Kirsch, Sheila Murray and Jason Paradiso read this month.)

As usual, we commemmorated the event in a publication, also rough and ready, deliberately created at the last minute with all its irregularities that implies. Our designer, Ron Edding, consistently comes up with a new concept every month. To get the publication you have to be at the reading. It’s the only documentation we do, and it’s not a video or audio recording. It’s a compilation of what each participant — at this moment in time — means by “work-in-progress.” We don’t forbid recording; occasionally someone wants to take pictures or make a video, but a mostly our audiences wholeheartedly enter the spirit of Draft: being there. Lending attention.

Some people read polished manuscripts, and that’s also good, but I’m most excited to be there the first time an author has her work received by a live audience, the moment when the piece tips over from being something private to something shared. This can be more informative than hours of discussion, and it’s a privilege to be part of it. Sometimes, the work is rough, sometimes bad, sometimes boring; what’s exciting is to be part of the process of learning that. Last week, we actually had house lights to turn down, and — once we figured out how to do it — I thought, as I have many times: this is the best part.

And this is the best part, too. Setting the alarm early, imbibing some caffeine finding the words for something I still care about after all these years. Knowing that with everything that’s going on, there is still space for process.

The Great Beyond

February 20, 2016

What better way to spend Family Day than to stand before a wall of plastic kitchen gadgets, trying to select the spoons, spatulas and mixing bowls that will finally replace the cracked Melmac relics that we brought — separately — to our late marriage and kept all these years because they were PERFECTLY GOOD and we were NOT THAT KIND OF CONSUMERS.

And still aren’t.

We want long-lasting gadgets, but you can’t really tell, when they’re boxed up or tethered to their cardboard backings or charmingly displayed — as a set — in onion bags, whether they’re going to be any good. In the long run, I mean. The really long run. And there is so much choice. Should those mixing bowls be stone-wear, Pyrex, metal or … oh, they don’t have Melmac. Do they make that any more? Okay metal. Should they have rubber bases or no?

We stand earnestly, miming frying and stirring actions as if that would give us a preview of the next fifteen years of the various gadgets’ lives.

Well at least we’re not “trying” do to anything else. At least not in Bed, Bath and Beyond.

You know what “trying” means, these days, don’t you? Let’s just say it’s today’s young couples’ expression for something that should be fun.

Shopping should fun. Especially if you don’t have to try anything on. But there is something earnest about all the shoppers who surround us this Family Day. It is, after all, the place where you can start a registry not just for your wedding or child, but for going away to university. Where you try to predict, through the purchase of vessels and appliances, every mess that could potentially come your way. And contain it.

It is, after all, the place that offers lunch boxes so intricate and uncompromising they seem to demand their own variety of as-yet-undiscovered food. Maybe there’s a corresponding salad or sandwich you can buy in the neighbouring supermarket that fits in just such a lunch box. Despair haunts these bright green interlocking cubes. I can’t predict which one I’m going to need. And suspect I can’t possibly do it justice. It will languish in the cupboard, while leaky margerine containers continue to stain the pages of my notebooks with salad dressing and tomato sauce.

On to pillows. Old gadgets may be cumbersome and ugly, but old pillows are … scandalous. One should not sleep on old pillows.

On our way to look at pillows, we encounter a station displaying the Squatty Potty. It fits in front of your toilet and aids you to get into the proper position for colon health. Oh, and speed. So you can get back to work. It’s called “squatty” but really it simulates the position of squatting without the need to strengthen your thigh muscles. Bedecking the top of this display are bottles of Poo-Pourri, which you spray in the toilet in advance of a bowel movement to prevent smell. Gender norms have found their way to this, most equalizing function. Men’s scents have names like: “Trap a Crap” and women’s: “Poo la la.”

There are pillows which don’t mention it but must be menopause pillows, because they offer special cooling action. Poo, they’ll advertise; menopause is apparently still taboo.

There are firm pillows, soft pillows, down pillows, silk pillows, pillows that conceal a hideously fleshy-feeling core. This is the vaunted Memory Foam which you can now buy to line your shoes. Memory with an E, mind. There are mattresses topped with Memory Foam. You sink in and keep on sinking.

Let’s get out of here.

Dazed, we gather our plastic kitchen gadgets into plastic bags, lay down some plastic and get the stuff home. Where it still sits in a pile in the living-room, in the liminal zone between the bright possibilities of Bed, Bath and Beyond and the cracks, dents and scorches of everyday life.

 

 

18% clueless

February 12, 2016

It’s 1973. Six girls inhabit the front rows of a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, undertaking what some educators have called a Drill and Kill exercise. With a stentorian clickety-clack, the teacher activates a reel-to-real tape recorder. “Mutti, wo ist mein Mittagessen?” inquires a woman’s voice, imitating that of a child.

And we repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Und oder aber sondern denn. Aus asser bei mit nach seit von zu. Bringen bringt brachte gebracht. Brechen, bricht, brach, gebrochen. Ich weiss nicht was sol es bedeuten. No “Space Oddity” for me. Rather, snippets of German grammar and poetry formed the sound-track of my teens.

I was ausgezeichnet. I was erstclassig. I was fabulhaft. But my status was hard-won. Our teacher was subject to violent bouts of rage. I memorized until late at night, copying out declensions, prepositions and conjugations, and after our weekly quiz, would awake with pounding heart, fearing that I had fallen short of my goal of 99 percent (allowing as I did for one inevitable careless mistake). It was not learning, it was sickness.

The precision of those days is gone. As I write this, my computer underlines many words in tell-tale red. Sometimes it changes the words for me. Reel to real, for instance. And Ich weiss nicht was soulless bedeuten.

But it’s not soulless at all; it’s calming, learning a language. I’d forgotten that. Despite the anxiety at falling short of fabulhaft, there was a meditative quality in copying out charts of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Studying grammar made me feel I could dip down to some essential level of thought which was – lo and behold – manageable. Utterly unlike the terrifying unpredictability of life.

Indeed it’s even more calming now my brain is ageing. Folks, in case you don’t know, brains get old just like joints get old. But deficiency of the brain doesn’t feel like less of anything. It’s like constant noise. Being in school again, I pride myself on being able to tolerate the long hours, the rigours of vast amounts of reading. (Please grant my feeble little body this one smidgen of machismo before osteoporosis sets in!) But language is another story.

Language learning is calming because there’s a right and a wrong answer, but it’s also implacable. I simply … can’t … learn … as … fast. My brain feels awash, the general mush of thoughts forever threatening to obscure the latest batch of case endings. And I’ve become sloppy, willing to let autocorrect take care of the details. Yet this exercise of copying out endings in my still-fair handwriting is so much sweeter now that it’s really, really hard.

Studying makes me feel old in another way. Flashbacks to high school bedamned, in our weekly classes I set aside books and computer and GET IT WRONG, knowing this is an essential step toward getting it right. My younger classmates sit behind their computers, clicking away at Google Translate and flipping back and forth to Facebook. And I want to tell them – Kids! Get it wrong til you get it right! Copy those verb charts! Your memory will never be this good again!

High-tech solutions are not all bad. I’ve been using the Duo Lingo program, which claims to allow me to learn like a native speaker. Where once I sat with an open grammar book, supplemented by the cast of characters on the Sprich Mal Deutsch! tapes — Herr and Frau Topolski and their son, Peter (or in Grade 13, Paul Brightman, voiced by a man trying to make himself sound like an adolescent but succeeding only in sounding like he was weeping) — now I get daily emails headed “GERMAN REMINDER.”  In five-minute increments I translate sentences like: “The ducks eat oranges.” “She has cows.” Gone is the threat of the airborne dictionary, the cascade of invective. Instead I am met either with the green “ca-ching!” of success or the red “blap” of failure. But you always get another chance. Yet another proof that language-learning is so much better than real life.

After each lesson, there’s kind of flourish, and a cute little owl announces what percentage of fluency I’ve achieved. So far, I’m 18 percent fluent, which autocorrect just changed to “clueless.” Can fabulhaft be far behind?

 

 

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