Precious Cargo in Preggoland

May 13, 2015

Warning: I’m about to say how much I liked the movie Preggoland, and why. To save yourself a number of spoilers you could just go and see it yourself. At the early show on Saturday night, there were only six people in the audience, three of whom I knew. This should not happen in the spring, to a sweet, smart comedy in the discerning city of Toronto. Oh and by the way, it’s Canadian film. See it!

Here’s why.

Preggoland is about a quirky, screwed-up thirty-something woman who’s living in her Dad’s basement. She can’t seem to get her life together. She engages in some dishonest behaviour, digs herself in too deep, and before you know it she’s almost lost the really, really nice guy.

The plot is not uncommon. A couple of other movies spring to mind immediately. Enough Said, for instance (where the character is old enough to know better) and Take this Waltz, where the subterfuge involves an extramarital affair, and Michelle Williams loses the really really nice guy for good.

Preggoland is also about how badly women can treat teach other in the context of the quintessentially feminine rites of passage. We saw this in Bridesmaids, as well, where Kristen Wiig’s character goes gaga under peer pressure, putting the relationship with the really, really nice guy at stake.

These films all culminate in scenes of pitiful grovelling, where the really, really nice guy has to be placated and life as a single woman is portrayed as the worst possible fate.

Excuse my rant – but seeing these vapid female characters in movies while the real world is offering up such young heroines as Malala Yousafzai, where law schools and medical schools alike are teeming with women endowed with self-discipline and a sense of purpose feels like an insidious new wave of the backlash we have been enduring since the eighties.

(And while I’m at it, let me say a word or two about another common plot, which we see in the Sex in the City Movies and in many episodes of the series. In this variation, a young woman who actually does have her life together ends up almost getting free of a guy who was not good enough for her to begin with, but somehow the blame gets shifted on to her for not forgiving him. Cue the grovelling.)

But Preggoland is different and here’s how. It shows – very affectingly – the forces that motivate the unconsidered behaviour in the first place.

In Preggoland Ruth – played by Sonja Bennett, who also wrote the movie — fakes a pregnancy. The concept seems far fetched, until you see her climbing, hung-over on to a city bus pushing a stroller which she’s taking to a friend. The bags under her eyes, her pale complexion are assumed to have been acquired in the worthy cause of motherhood. We watch her begin — ever so gently — to jiggle the empty carriage.

The film has plenty of laugh-out-loud slapstick, but never departs from the true basis of good comedy, and that’s genuine pain, and in this case, pain that a lot of women share. We are chronically undervalued, period. And women in their reproductive years are assailed with expectations and assumptions – most of them fueled by consumerism – which undermine relationships and obscure anything that might have resembled choice.

Preggoland reminds us that these expectations are not good for anyone – even those who appear to “succeed” in obtaining the perfect family. The film is studded with moments of genuine compassion and connection across the whole spectrum of mothering and these stand in contrast to the emotional violence that happens when people slavishly conform.

There’s smart, hard-hitting irony here, too, as Ruth’s perceived value rises in proportion to the increasingly elaborate prostheses she manages to stow under her shirt. We watch her behaviour change when she’s treated with the respect and kindness she deserved to begin with.

When her ruse inevitably goes south — sure — she almost loses the guy. But she doesn’t grovel. When he doesn’t accept her straight-ahead apology, she reminds him how over-invested he was in her lie to begin with. The film ends, not with a happily-ever-after baby carriage, but with the erstwhile control-freak of a boyfriend literally head-over-heels in love with this complex woman who’s ambivalent about becoming a mother.

Preggoland reminded me of In A World, another coming-out-of-Dad’s basement film written, directed and co-produced by Lake Bell (who also plays the protagonist, vocal coach Carol Solomon). Sure, Carol’s having some trouble growing up, but behind it all is the truly infantile behaviour of her father, who undermines her at every turn. In the end, she wins: the great gig, the nice guy, fair treatment from her father — and some invaluable perspective on what success really means.

Let’s have more of these stories that show respect for the real struggles that women face, and let’s see more from the brilliant and lovely Sonja Bennett.

Jet Girls Soar

April 21, 2015

Monday mornings are tumultuous in their own, quiet way. I set out on my walk early, and before heading home to start work, I buy groceries at the Foodland at Pape and Danforth. Pushing my cart around the aisles, deciding between organic and conventional products, I am immersed in an inner stew of gratitude/anxiety/guilt about being able to work at home and buy good food and have it delivered, and resentment/anxiety/guilt about the way household tasks can chip away at writing time.

Imagine my dismay last week when I found a line-up of nonplussed, not-quite-awake patrons snaking through the aisles of a newly renovated Foodland. It became clear my posterior would most definitely not be in the seat by 9:30, as planned.

The trouble was coming from the cash desk. Instead of the women – all middle aged, like yours truly – who manage to commiserate about everyone’s aches and pains as they speed items along their conveyor belts, there was a twenty-something guy on duty. And for some reason, he’d been left alone to check out the groceries of a whole store-full of people, all marinating in their own particular Monday-morning anxieties.

Did this bother him? Not that I could tell. He sang at his work, occasionally stopping altogether to discuss recipes with his customers. He was enjoying himself, looking after himself. In other words, he was a terrible cashier.

And when it finally came my turn, he went over to the stack of new red bins that have been giving my regular cashier-friends tennis elbow, picked one up like it weighed nothing, and danced – literally – back to the till, singing along with the PA system.

Hold the line!
Love isn’t always on time!

I decided I had to love this kid (happily, “not in that way”) and use the delay as an opportunity for speculation. Is this a guy thing? A millennial thing? Or is there just one boy out there who should never be a cashier?

Maria. Paging Maria. Maria to the cash desk please. Of course, it was all my fault the Foodland was going south! I’d better get going … I’d better …

And just then one of the older cashiers came upstairs and opened a second cash desk. Oh, right. There are a lot of Marias in this world. I went home, cobbled together my best approximation of an honest day’s work, and forgot about the whole episode.

Until I had the chance to witness another role reversal on Friday night, in the Jet Girls’ all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. It got me thinking, all over again, about privilege and entitlement, and taking up time and space.

In Mamet’s classic exploration of power and greed, a group of men in a shady and very cutthroat real estate firm jockey for position, sometimes confronting each other, sometimes, stabbing each other in the back and sometimes both. They posture, they insult, they gossip, they brag, they bargain hard and make inflated demands. Oh, and they swear.

In the Jet Girls’ version, the characters wear women’s business outfits, but retain their male names. Under the direction of Anita LaSelva, they’re every bit as rude and pushy as the script demands. All the expected ways women have of relating to each other and to the world are banished. The program notes remind us that women are just as capable of aggression as men. I couldn’t agree more. But we’re very, very effectively conditioned not to show it. I like to think we’ve seen the wisdom of collaboration, too. It makes sense that everyone in the play comes to grief.

But oh! It was utterly satisfying to see these women fly in the face of stereotypes, to see them express forbidden drives in forbidden ways.

Satisfying, too, to see a group of actors of such depth and brilliance pour themselves into great roles. Francoise Balthazar made me jump out of my skin in her role as the bully, Dave Moss, Marianne Sawchuk as Richard Roma could very easily have charmed me into signing on the dotted line, and Elizabeth Saunders gave a stunningly detailed performance as Shelly (The Machine) Levine. Robinne Fanfair was brutal as the detective, Julia Brar, an unyielding John Williamson. Somehow, there was nuance beneath the bombast. They were amazing.

The Red Sandcastle is a long, narrow space, and production values were simple. In the first row, we sat so close to the action we had to pull our feet under our chairs to avoid tripping the actors on their entrances and exits.

I’d only ever seen one version of Glengarry Glen Ross – the movie – and I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. Now I know why. The film was just too naturalistic. I was spending all my energy trying to decipher the plot through the rapid-fire dialogue. In the hands of the Jet Girls, the play took flight. The role reversal provided a constant invitation to interrogate both the strangeness – and familiarity – of the behaviour that makes the corporate world go round. I relaxed about the complicated text and just enjoyed the rhythms of the language: the poetry of invective!

To me, the most fascinating and complex moments in this production were those in which the characters express vulnerability. Laurel Paetz’s George Aaronow spends a lot of the play being afraid, Rosemary Doyle’s James Link pleads: “I have no power!” Shelly makes a virtuosic last stand but loses everything in the end. These are very different moments coming from women than from men and the actors have to play them as men whose sense of entitlement is being undermined.

But to describe what really made this show so wonderful, I need to back up (not to my shopping, I promise) but to arriving at the theatre in the first place. Rosemary Doyle, the founder of the Red Sandcastle Theatre, was doing box office and front of house, a task which included grabbing stools from the washroom of the 50-odd seat theatre, and pushing aside some curtains to make more space. Like Mary Poppins with her carpet bag, she kept on producing more seats. It was a packed house! The line-up spilled out in front of the adjacent Value Village Store, and she gamely announced that we were welcome to bring in ice cream from Eds Real Scoop or drinks from the neighbouring bar after intermission. When intermission was over, she poked her head into these establishments to call the patrons back to the theatre. All the while playing her part in the show.

The Red Sandcastle is her brainchild, which she started three years ago in a Leslieville Storefront. When I asked about her motivation, she replied, “I started the theatre because I wanted people to be able to do work they were excited about, when they were still excited about it, without losing their shirts. I also wanted to make it possible for an audience to attend a show, as easily as deciding to go to dinner. Ideally I want theatre to be a part of everyone’s regular life.” Her motto is “everything is possible.” She hosts everything from groups like the Jet Girls to one-night readings, to a “play in a week” camp on March break.

The Jet Girls were created to give opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. As they point out on their web site, “The Hollywood ideal of size zero, male, Caucasian and twenty is very limiting and damaging.  … Rather than becoming discouraged we decided to take action!”

To me, this is the real treasure embedded in this production. The women involved are claiming power not by posturing or backstabbing, but by having a great time, doing what they love.

Active-ist Imagination

March 3, 2015

On a frigid day in February, I had lunch with Sandra Campbell at Aviv, a favourite Annex restaurant. We talked about one of her current projects, A Magical Mystery Tour to the Pickering Lands. A bit of history: in 1972, the federal government expropriated 18,000 hectares of class-one agricultural land north east of Toronto, to build a second Toronto airport. A resident of the area back then, Sandra wrote a book called The Moveable Airport, part of the Case Studies in Community Action series. The airport plan was shelved after a great deal of protest; now it’s back on the table again. This time, though, Sandra is taking a different approach in making her views known.

MM: Why a Magical Mystery Tour? Why not just write your MP?

SC: Many are now turning away from the practices of industrial food production because it is more of a short-term, extractive industry as opposed to a stewardship industry. We’re seeing that our growing lands are rare, a vital resource that we must care for. The arguments for the necessity for land stewardship are all there; but many are blind to its potential not only to feed us well but also to provide good, meaningful jobs over the long term. Too many are still stuck in the mindset that the only source of jobs is to build huge infrastructure projects like roads, buildings, airplanes.

So the rational arguments for changing our practices of food production are everywhere and now we need to energize people for the heavy slogging of making changes in their lives and communities. We get into rutted ways of thinking—that there’s only one way. But making change is not just about saying NO. It’s about saying YES. Our imaginations can spin us out of the ruts, connect us in a heartened way to what really matters.

We’ve — all of us — witnessed the power of heartened imaginations in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. What drove people and inspired their courage was not so much the intellectual constructs– but intellectual constructs attached to incredibly deep feeling and a vision of difference.

One of the poets I’ve read over the years is Wendell Berry, a grand old man of eighty-five who won a huge award last year and gave an inspiring speech in which he said that the health of our lands depends on our caring for them and that all caring hinges on affection. So I’ve taken the idea that we need to help urban folks become familiar with these lands and in that familiarity build an affection that will enable them to discover their own stories in that land and its potential to guide their own actions to care for it.

The experience of The Magical Mystery Bus Tour is intended to spark people’s heartened imaginations. The trip would begin in downtown Toronto and be animated by poets reading their poetry to awaken people’s memories of their resonant moments in nature. By the time participants arrive at the site they’ve connected to memories of a texture, a sound, a feeling in nature. Then once at the site they will be guided by dancers who will lead them on an exploration of different aspects of the site.

When we go to poetry readings we’re often sitting still, but you’re combining travel with a poetry reading. Have you had experiences of this before?

I went on a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh — me and 1,000 other people — in the Catskills and because there were so many people, we were billeted all around the site of the retreat. Every morning at 5:30 we would be picked up by a school bus and we’d all shuffle out of our motels, get on the bus and it was a silent retreat but on each bus was a Buddhist priest who would read poetry. Some was Thich Nhat Hahn’s poems. He’s a fine poet. After the reading, there would be a guided meditation.

Our bus trip was forty minutes and by the time we arrived at the site we were, in a sense, in an altered state. The day went on with meditation, teaching and walking meditation until ten at night, when we’d get back on the bus to return to our residence and it was the same process: poems read and guided meditation to close the day. All this was done in silence and I found it deeply moving, almost magical.

I have a friend who makes banners out of beautiful paper and I always have loved the idea of Buddhist prayer flags. So I thought that after the dancers people could make some of these flags and put key words on them that arose from their experiences of the poetry and dance. The banners would be to take home to hang in their homes or offices as a reminder of that day.There would be no other agenda than to open participants to nature’s gifts of the day.

You mentioned the Porch View Dances that Kaeja d’Dance put on in Toronto. What element do you want to make part of your project?

As I understand Porch View Dances, they are about enabling people to express their sense of place in an embodied way, to express it with their bodies, and it’s pleasurable. It’s celebratory in a quiet way.

Prior to the dance, dancers interview neighbourhood people to get a sense of who lives what they love, how they work, what animates their days, their friendships, their paths through community.

Do you see residents of the Pickering Lands being the performers?

There’s very few people. The lands were expropriated. People left.

Is there a particular site you have in mind?

Not yet. Still exploring. I went on a walking tour last year, It was a beautiful fall day and a lot of us were in tears because the neglect of the land is sad, and the tears came because we were awed by the beauty of the place. It’s beautiful but it hasn’t been cared for and so we felt great sadness.

This is not just a bus tour in the traditional sense …

I see it as a guided experience for invited guests– people who are working on issues of safe food and water and land stewardship. As we all know, people on the front lines of change get burnt out so it would be to reinvigorate them, to give them an opportunity to reconnect to what they care about.

Why not take someone who’s in favour of building the airport?

Eventually yes, but the first round is to invite the willing pioneers and to reinvigorate them, to give them new energy and renewed vision.


At the beginning of a change process those who are open, who wish to try new alternatives need to be nourished and cheered on. It takes a lot of energy to sustain your vision in the face of nay-sayers.

Yet there’s nothing as infectious as somebody who is totally turned on to an idea, who feels so excited by it. After this trip we hope people will return to their homes, their offices telling their friends, families and neighbours, “You wouldn’t believe this land! It’s so fantastic! We’ve got this huge breadbasket, it could be bountiful, Imagine what we could do.” That’s very infectious energy. It’s has a ripple effect that I’ve seen work time and time again.

When I think of environmental activism I associate it with fear.

Absolutely, yes. And fear contracts. The Bus Trip seeks to counter the contraction. The experiences will enable participants to extend their minds, bodies, spirits to re-engage with nature’s gift, with what they really care about.

For those interested in knowing more, there’s a video here.

Heartbreaking Momentum

February 12, 2015

‘Gruelling’ was the word that came to mind as I watched Marathon, a new theatre and dance piece by Aharona Israel, part of the Progress festival at The Theatre Centre. Gruelling in a good way.

Clad in running gear, the three performers run in circles for a full, hyperkinetic hour. Besides the occasional “change!” signalling a change of direction, they call out words like “traffic!” “remember!” “hora!” “shiksa!” and “grenade!” accompanying each with a stylized gesture.

But nothing changes, really. They just get more and more exhausted. Shoulders slump, footsteps shuffle. For one seemingly interminable passage, they don’t change direction at all. “Are you dizzy?” They ask the audience. Yes. We’re all dizzy. The only place to slow down or stop is the middle of the stage, but the introspection that happens there is unproductive, tormented or both. Best to keep running.

The performers address the audience, and each other; still, the words don’t so much tell a story as create a collage of commonplaces. Punctuating the relentless rhythm of the footsteps, phrases return as they would in an exhausted runner’s mind.

Bathed in an atmosphere of machismo, the lone woman is jostled, pulled and blocked with a jarring lack of deference. At one point she’s herded menacingly into the middle, a place where she does not want to be. She shouts out obscenities with the best of them, yet her speech is marked by a girlish quality as she defines her role as a bereaved relative, a suffering sibling. The rituals of grieving she describes have a formulaic, unsatisfying quality. She offers food insistently, then pinches disgustedly at her trim figure, wherever she can find flesh.

War does not appear as a featured event; it emerges from the prevailing mood. The occasional raids, with their atmosphere of panic and confusion, are not followed by any hint of rest. The race continues, as fast as ever. Thus, momentum itself becomes a heartbreaking plot element. The most disturbing moment comes at the end. Because Marathon doesn’t end. The three performers keep on running, and we have no choice but to abandon them.

Marathon is very much rooted in contemporary Israeli society, but to me, it’s a universal cry for rest and introspection. These individual, exhausted bodies are make up a country, and in our visceral response to them, we can’t help but recognize elements from our own lives.

Small Axe, big shift

January 25, 2015

A few years ago, actor and playwright Andrew Kushnir was with a friend and colleague in their dressing room. The friend — who was from Jamaica — talked about being gay and coming from an oppressed culture. Kushnir, who’s of Ukrainian descent, said something in the order of, “I know how you feel.”

The friend gently and — as Kushnir often reminds us — generously, disagreed, giving rise to Small Axe, an exploration of what white people can and — and can’t ever — know. It’s on at The Theatre Centre until February 1.

Small Axe is documentary theatre; the text is drawn from interviews with lesbian and gay people of colour living in Canada. It’s delivered by five actors standing on platforms mounted on a simple scaffold, with Kushnir, front and centre, at stage level. He starts by telling the audience: “I am white; you are black,” framing the show as a a kind of theatrical address to his friend, but also setting up a dynamic of constantly shifting perspectives. We won’t be able to take any of what follows at face value.

There’s nothing more fascinating than people’s real stories, offered without pretense or manipulation. Having actors present them live provides so many more dimensions than any film; the human voice and body can invoke a whole world.

The initial stories are not-unfamiliar narratives of coming out, but the plot soon thickens to a murky brew of homophobia, racism and colonialism. Each story has an opportunity to stand on its own terms, then instantly, others layer and collide, making facile judgments impossible. Fragments circle back, gaining new levels of meaning every time they’re heard. Without losing sight of the horrors of homophobia in Jamaica, we discern the legacy of slavery that underlies it. The trauma is real, but just as real is the celebration of sexuality infusing all the stories.

“What is between stories?” asks Kushner. He had his own story, and tried to share it with his friend out of a simple desire to reach out to another person, never imagining that he might be opening a wound. And even now — as his respondents point out — Kushnir, the white guy, is the one standing centre stage, holding the microphone, not to mention the funding. He’s the one who gets to shape how the story will be told. It’s not the Jamaican story he’s telling, but his own story about recognizing his part in oppression.

Kushnir spends most of the play listening, and his task as an actor is hard. The stories may be grippingly dramatic; still, the main action of the play is internal. With his face, and some expressive movement as tools, Kushnir needs to convey what teachers of writing often disparage as a “shift in sensibility.” Small Axe is living proof that a shift in sensibility can both important and interesting. This play has been worked and reworked, torn apart and put back together a thousand times. To me, it shows. There’s a solidity and subtlety to this play, that could only have taken years to build.

The play wraps up with a more interactive segment. One of the speakers warns Kushnir against over-simplification. As a white person, and straight to boot, I can’t be the one to say whether he succeeds in avoiding it. I do know that Small Axe is a bid for attentiveness, patience and delicacy of feeling in a time of overblown plots and trite answers. I’m glad to live in a place where this kind of conversation can happen, even if its not often enough.

Essential reading

August 29, 2014

The title of Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: a True Story of Rape and Recovery is ironic. In the time it takes to watch an episode of Madmen or dry a load of laundry, the twenty-two year old Freedman’s life was changed, brutally, and against her will. The attack which — by the clock’s measure — lasted one hour has remained with her ever since. Freedman is unequivocal when she states, “trauma is permanent.” After that hour in Paris, it became a lifetime’s task for Freedman not only to live in the world with her trauma, but to decide how, when, and to whom to tell her story.

Not the least of her challenges as a rape survivor has been living at odds with the sense of safety most of us are schooled to take for granted. Writes Freedman,

Although this picture is slowly changing, historically, at least in the West, girls have been taught from a young age that the world is basically a safe place and that so long as you are sufficiently careful and intelligent, you can protect yourself from any serious harm. … So how does the rape survivor reconcile this dominant worldview with what has happened to her? After all, it cannot be true both that the world is a safe place and that you were raped unless, of course, the rape was your fault. The other alternative is to reject the dominant worldview, but this means accepting the fact that we live in a world where women, by virtue of being women, are at risk. For a variety of reasons, it can be easier and less painful to believe instead that being raped was a result of your own poor choices. (73)

I found it — I’m grasping for the right word here – Satisfying? Nourishing? … Essential! — to have it affirmed that the world is not really a benign place for women; we are at best undervalued, at worst, the targets of a merciless and systematic campaign of subjugation. It’s uncomfortable to talk about it, yet I think we all – on some level – feel it.

I’m not  – thank goodness – a victim of rape and hesitate even to write this for fear of diminishing the experience of anyone who has been through it. A vague sense of threat is not the same as full-on trauma. Freedman describes her panic attacks, her catastrophic fears. She has been robbed of the ability to be at ease in her body.

Yet all of us live with whatever attitudes, beliefs and habits of thought make rape such a common occurrence. Dissociation, cognitive distortion, simple abuses of power hurt us all. And the victims of rape include our friends, teachers, colleagues, daughters, and mothers. In her introduction, Freedman dedicates the book to rape survivors, and tells her own story with an unflinching intimacy, yet there is also a sense of universality.

“[Rape is] a problem that is the result of the way that societies are structured and resources and power distributed. The fact that rape is a social problem can be hard to remember, because rape is also intensely personal and deeply isolating.”

The book is less than 200 pages long, progressing from a detailed and frank account of the rape itself, through Freedman’s oh-so-understandable – though ultimately failed — attempts to minimize her trauma. Then comes the story of the tough and courageous work she did in therapy to first (as the title of one of chapter puts it) live in it, then live with what she uncovers. She goes on to write about how her world eventually expanded from the narrow horizon rape imposed on her. She has traveled to Africa, (ground zero — as she puts it — in the war against women), formed a healthy, loving relationship and even revisited the scene of her rape.

This process has not been a straight line. As that hour in Paris moved further and further into the past, Freedman’s understanding of it became increasingly nuanced. There were also excruciating, infuriating moments where the rapist’s violent actions continued to reverberate through her life.

The book is written in accessible, matter-of-fact language; still, beneath the surface we can discern a framework of questions that Freedman, a professor of philosophy, must regularly address, questions of what we know and how we know it, of the relationship between body and mind, of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity, of what language can and can’t do.

Her inquiry into how society has historically constructed trauma is utterly fascinating. I found myself wishing for more of this sort of discussion, informed by philosophical rigour and grounded in personal experience. I would have loved to hear more of Freedman’s thoughts on Africa, where sexual assault is so widespread, and resources so limited, and about how, as Freedman herself wonders, the women find it possible to survive.

At the prospect of publishing her book, Freedman writes that she “stopped breathing.” Grappling with a fresh outcropping of panic, she felt her rapist’s knife against her throat. During her ordeal, he told her to shut up, and now here she was, committing the ultimate act of rebellion against his threats. (Actually, the section made me think of a wonderful article by Stacy May Fowles — not about her rape experience — but about the anxiety of the first-time novelist.) I would like to hear more about Freedman’s process of freeing herself from this panic, and her interpretation of what all this means.

But I respect Freedman’s choice  – and clearly it was a choice – to keep this book short and to the point. It has integrity in this form. And even though I wanted to hear more, I would not wish the pain of revisiting the experience on anyone. Better still, I wish no one had a rape story to tell.

Making order, and other impossible tasks

August 19, 2014

No blogging all summer! I took a break to do a big purge in my office – not a very successful one. I didn’t end up throwing much away; mostly just cursed and sweated and rearranged things. Well, sort of. There wasn’t even time to finish it all, and now life is getting busy again.

That’s fine by me. The whole undertaking invoked a cascade of depressing thoughts. Shouldn’t some library be clamouring for my archives by this time? Look at all these manuscripts I’ve been working on for years and years and years! Will anything ever get finished? And these shelves of journals filled with nothing but worries! What have I done with my life?


But I did manage to make some fall resolutions. In the interests of making more room for what’s already there, I’ve decided to refresh this blog by covering more plays and performance events. That’s why I was delighted to hear about Light and Shadow: an exploration of lighting and choreography presented by Made in Canada Dance at the Winchester Theatre last Saturday night. The programme was the culmination of a workshop with lighting designer Arun Srinivasan, and two of the pieces were repeated, with different lighting designs.

Exploration … workshop … I’m there! I can never get enough of process, it seems. So even though it was just a one-night event, and thus, not the greatest subject for review, I’m going to cut my performance-writing teeth on it anyway.

Silencio, a Flamenco piece, opened with three dancers seated in a row on straight-backed chairs. The fourth chair, standing empty, served as a chilling symbol of loss. This piece was a study in containment and explosive release. The dancers’ bodies seemed to be packed with grief which found expression in rhythmic stomps and claps.

Peggy Baker’s Land/Body Breath was initially performed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, among the sculptures and paintings in the Thomson collection of Canadian Art. On Saturday, the repertory stream of Baker’s summer intensive program danced it on a bare stage.

The music, first performed by singers Fides Krucker and Ciara Adams, was interpreted this time by a group of people who mostly don’t identify themselves as singers. Entering along with the sixteen dancers, they gathered in a circle to one side, singing fragments from Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” which evolved into bubbling, chaotic sounds invoking running water. This gave way to a series of piercing nasal tones that made them sound like a troupe of gleeful mosquitoes. They finished with a throat-singing backup to Krucker’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”

Away from the artworks which had originally surrounded the piece, the dancers formed a kind of shifting landscape of their own, swirling, gyrating, rolling down to the floor and getting up again as one large, complex entity before ending up in a line across the stage. Backed by the steady pulse of throat singing, Krucker’s “Helpless” carried a sense of dignity that was heartbreaking. It did not protest against helplessness or try to fix it, but merely laid it out in a matter-of-fact way. The dancers, lined up along the stage swaying like grass or young trees had a quality of immense vulnerability.

The work I wished I could have seen twice was the gorgeous Tryptich by Alias Dance Project, On its website Alias acknowledges Street Dancing as an influence and indeed the movements of these three young women looked like soft, graceful breakdancing. There was an immense solidity to these dancers, and I was continually surprised to notice that they might be supporting themselves on one leg, or even one arm rather than both feet. They seemed to be able to multi-purpose various parts of their bodies. Most admirable was piece’s emotional tone, which, for me, captured something essential about adolescence. There were moments of trouble, of disorganization both within the individual and among the dancers. They would resolve, only to destabilize again. The angst was portrayed great respect, and the mutability worked because the emotional reality of each moment was so clear.

To me, the changes in lighting design did not make a big difference. Maybe this is not a bad thing. For a lay audience-member, a lighting design which draws attention to itself surely can’t be doing its job. But in the end, seeing the two pieces repeated served as a reminder that this was a live event, impossible to reproduce, exactly, from one time to the next. It gave a sense of continuous process, a question mark rather than a full stop.

And all this brings me to my second resolution of the fall: to start keeping journals again.


May 30, 2014

Thanks to Carin Makuz at for inviting me to participate in this blog tour.  Here’s a link to the post itself. It’s been a great opportunity to get better acquainted with other writers, as well as to reflect on how things are going these days.

The week of June 2, the blog tour torch goes to two writers I admire. The first is Ellen S. Jaffe author of — among works in every genre — Skinny Dipping With the Muse from Guernica editions.  It’s a powerful collection with great breadth of feeling: poignant, witty, sexy and wise, it strikes so many notes. The other is Julia Zarankin, a writer of hilarious and touching non-fiction and a finalist in Prism‘s non-fiction competition. She’s also a fellow contributor to The M Word.  She’s also an ardent and devoted birder.

Okay, here are the four questions I answered for the tour …

What am I working on?

My essay, “Junior,” recently came out in The M Word, so that has led to a number of readings. It’s also – and this is the best part – led to some fascinating conversations about motherhood, both in and out of print. Here‘s a great example. The Draft Reading Series just wrapped up its ninth season, and there’s been some administration to do. I also teach Feldenkrais classes in a couple of Toronto locations.

And … this winter – thanks to the dear Toronto Arts Council – I was blessed with lots of time to work on a non-fiction manuscript, The Last Time We Were All Together, a memoir about the decade-and-a-half that I spent as a care-giver, with a few music-hall songs thrown in to lighten things up.

I am also working on an ambitious series of novels about charismatic spiritual leaders and the groups which cluster around them. Research for The Last Time We Were All Together will also be useful for this series.

How does my work different from others’ in this genre?

My non-fiction manuscript is my own story so I guess that makes it unique, but lately, I feel that there’s too much pressure on writers of non-fiction to dress up or distinguish their experiences in some way. Maybe I’m just at the writing stage where I need to stick my fingers in my ears and hum. Honestly, though, I just want to tell my story well, hoping that others who go through the experience of care-giving at a young age will have a few more points of discussion and options for getting through it with grace.

Why do I write what I do?

I write things that are compelling to me, and stay that way, because these days, projects tend to drag on for a long time. Fiction, I write because I love the process. It is totally pleasurable for me. Non-fiction, I write because it’s meaningful. When I read really good non-fiction, it gives me a way of navigating my own experience. If I can do this for even one person then the work put into it – however painful or tedious — is worthwhile.

How does my writing process work?

I get up, I walk, I write. If I have something unavoidable to do in the morning, I get up very early, I write, I walk. Perspiration over inspiration is my motto.

I really have been fortunate over the last few months in that I’ve actually been able to make writing the main thing in the day. It’s like a dream come true. Of course nothing stays the same and I’ll cope with whatever comes next, but I’m also reaching a point where I don’t mind admitting it’s better this way. I have managed in the past to convince myself that I get more done or get less bent out of shape by rejection when I have a job or some focus other than writing, but I am getting too old for that. The truth: more time is better. Everyone should have more time.

Defining Moments

May 2, 2014

Many years ago, I went to a wedding, and at dinner, sat next to a woman with a toddler on her lap. The child did some kind of toddler-thing, and an object from the table – a salt-shaker, I think – went flying. I caught it in mid-air and placed it out of harm’s way, while the conversation continued.

Later, the woman asked me where my kids were. Twenty-five years old, and with no plans to procreate, I was stunned. This appeared to surprise her.

“Well then, you’ll make a very good mother,” she concluded, beaming.

The question of having kids was never not fraught, for me, but for some reason, I felt quite sanguine about that conversation. I took the remark as a compliment even as I recognized that a salt shaker was not the only potentially dangerous projectile in the room. Assumptions were flying around, too.

She didn’t say, for instance, “Wow, with a quick reflex like that, you really should run for mayor.” Or more to the point, “Thanks.”

The conversation was okay because I knew she meant well. And looking back, I wonder if including me in the category of mothers was the best way she could find to express, and strengthen, a sense of kinship with me. For a split second we had shared something important.

In the years that followed, assumptions about motherhood were to make my choices very fraught indeed, yet I went on connecting with mothers in ways that were as reflexive as catching that salt-shaker. Getting along with children has been an acquired skill, but I’ve always been hungry for books, films, conversations about mothering, even though I never had a child of my own. It was all fine, as long as I didn’t think about it too much. But I think about everything too much.

And this is one of the many reasons I was thrilled to have an essay in The M Word, Conversations about Motherhood edited by Kerry Clare. I’m in good company: among thoughtful women, thinking about motherhood. And not just women who are – in the physical sense – mothers.

Clare writes in her introduction of the “presumed gulf between women with children and women without them, one that is usually presented as unbridgeable.” Yet she also points out that there’s a perceived “central zone” of maternity to which none of us really belong. The book includes stories of abortion, adoption, step-parenting, ambivalent parenting (and non-parenting), infertility, miscarriage, the tragic death of children as well as the choice not to have children … and being more-than-okay with that. There are also families of all shapes and sizes.

It’s impossible to be objective, so I won’t be. My first reaction when reading the stories all together was to feel the physical gulf reinforced. I have never given birth, and never will. For better or for worse. The book reminded me of what I had accepted long ago: I will spend my life in constant mourning for that loss, though the feelings wax and wane. Yet it also made me realize how grappling with that grief brings its own rewards.

Having a child is different from not having one. The trick is not to value one life path more highly than the other. This, I think, is strength of The M Word. The book is presented in a balanced way, in alphabetical order, by its very form asserting that all have equal weight. Of course, this book does exist in a neutral climate. Assumptions are what do the damage. My hope is that the intimacy of the stories will create windows for women into each other’s worlds. This certainly happened, for me.

Heidi Reimer’s gorgeous description of birth and bonding invokes an experience that even “natural” mothers can’t always rely on, and an important gift of the book is the way essays such as Heather Birrell’s “Truth, Dare, Doubledare” express this. Indeed, Reimer’s own essay goes on to show that giving birth is only a small part of what mothering really means.

In “A Natural Woman” Amy Lavender Harris takes on the concept of The Natural. (‘Natural’ is a word I use in my essay, “Junior,” as well.) Natural and Mothering go together, we all know this, but the connection needs to be constantly, vigorously interrogated. Assumptions, expectations, habits can become so entrenched that they seem to come from within, or from some divine source, or from some combination of the two. We can’t reliably tell the difference.

But while motherhood may not be inherently natural, or nature inherently motherly, I do believe it’s natural for women to step outside our silos and participate in the big conversation. There was something — I daresay — natural, in the way I caught that salt-shaker, years ago. The way we all continued talking.

The M Word is also striking for the amount of deep, inner pain and conflict it expresses around motherhood, even though the families depicted are mostly resilient, and children are always a gift. Reproductive choice – understanding it, using it responsibly, coping gracefully when it is taken away, is the dramatic fulcrum for the essays in this book as it is in women’s lives. Choice is of course still being undermined. But even generations from now, even in the scenario I hope for, where choice is both universal and well understood, we will only just have begun to sense how its lack has affected us. We are still paying the price of having been defined by motherhood, for so long.

Union Street by Pat Barker invokes a world not so very far behind us, and a situation that still obtains in many parts of the world. When I read The M Word, I thought of the at-times agonizing intimacy of Barker’s book. She portrays the women in a working class neighbourhood in northern England. At first read, I pegged it as taking place just after World War Two, a grittier version of Call the Midwife; then it became disturbingly clear that this was the 1970s. The women’s choices are severely limited, and not surprisingly, the key moments, the defining dramas of their lives are played out on the stage of motherhood.

In “Iris King,” Barker creates a character who gives constantly: to her husband, her children, her neighbours, her extended family … and shows just how far she’s ready to go when the time finally comes to say “no.” A mother’s struggle to bond with her girl-child provides the dynamic in “Lisa Goddard.” Barker relentlessly lays out the horrors of Lisa’s domestic situation, the conditions under which the child is conceived and gestated, culminating in an alienating experience of hospital birth. At the end, we can begin to appreciate the courage it takes this woman to feel a sense of hope, as new life is brought into the world.

These are stories of rape and abuse, at work and in the home, all of it endured from pure economic need. The stories have the same epic – and brutal — quality as Barker’s later portrayals of the First World War. The author mercilessly, yet respectfully, lets the traumas play out, leaving each story only when her characters have reached moments of transcendence and grace. In this way, she lets them define themselves. Yet she never normalizes the conditions under which they live. Union Street is something to be left behind.

Union Street — and its modern-day counterparts around the world — are the reasons the very struggles in The M Word are to be celebrated. But the world of The M Word, too, must evolve into something new and better.

This is why I found it so encouraging to read another anthology called A Family by any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships, edited by Bruce Gillespie. There’s an exquisite hopefulness to this book, despite the difficulties many of its contributors have endured. Marriage, parenting, family-building, are presented as fresh and filled with sweetness. There are sad experiences: adoption is interrupted by an intolerant system in “Piecing my Family Together” by Jason Dale. In Jean Copeland’s “The Gay Divorcee,” a woman falls prey to age-old illusions about marriage.

Yet there is also “What She Taught Me” by Ellen Russell, a story of partner-loss, which is sad for sure, but it is also a celebration of a life shared. In “Hiddur Mitzvah” S. Bear Bergman describes the rich weave of old and new traditions that he and his husband are passing on to their son. A couple in Sarah Griffe’s “Rare Species” navigate the unfamiliar social terrain of raising a son with two moms. They proceed tentatively, but find they can sometimes dance.

Jeffrey Ricker in “Operation: Baby” concludes:

… when things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped, we make do. It’s what queer people have always done, take a shitty situation and sift through it for what is worth salvaging. … Give us something broken and we’ll fix it. We’ll make it better than it was to begin with, even. We do it with houses, we do it with neighbourhoods, and when we need to, we do it with families.

That’s a lot of responsibility to take on, but he’s right; the family is seriously in need of renovation. And conversations are part of the repair.

Books are a Girl’s Best Friend

January 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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