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 …


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?



History and Histamines

June 15, 2012

I’ve known many allergists in my time. The first – but by no means the strangest – kicked off each appointment by chanting a lengthy series of questions. I stared at the needlepoint representations of mushrooms on the walls of his office (stitching was his hobby, he beamingly told me) and struggled to calculate the average number of times I sneezed in a row or how itchy, on a scale of one to five, was my average skin-rash. One surprising item (along with, “Do you get up frequently in the night to urinate?”) was, “Do you tend to feel sleepy in certain rooms?”

Immediately, I thought of history class in high school, when no sooner would the door close than my eyes would feel heavy. I nibbled cookies behind a wall of books, doodled strenuously. Despite all this effort, my attention drifted. It was all I could do not to fall asleep. This wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I liked the idea of history and wanted to be good at it. With ambitions to become writer, I knew it was important. History was about people, and everything that helped me understand people should interest me. And though I didn’t have the words for it, even then I sensed the importance of context, of understanding who we are today in light of all that has come before. Most of all, to be a writer you had to be smart, and smart people knew history.

Guess I just wasn’t smart. And maybe writing was not for me, after all.

Later, I questioned that self-defeating conclusion. Who knew what building materials had been used in 1955 when they built that harshly lit and poorly ventilated wing of Jarvis Collegiate? Maybe my gluten allergy had already kicked in and the cookies were doing more harm than good. Or maybe the attitudes around me were proving as toxic as the school’s stale air. Back then, we learned history, not HERstory. In the early seventies, anything to do with women was relegated to a paragraph on “social history” at the end of every chapter of our textbook.

Without resorting to sugar, I pored, eagerly over these brief sections which described what people wore, what they did for entertainment, what they ate and at what time of day. They might mention how people looked after their health, how babies were born. Women were mentioned more often under social history than anywhere else, but really, it was by inference that I placed us in that realm. We were the ones with the narrow, domestic focus. We thought about art, fashion and other superficial matters. We were footnotes, addenda.

History glanced off me because I could not find myself in it. Myself as a girl, myself as an aspiring artist, myself as an ordinary citizen as opposed to as a politician or general. In my spare time, though, I devoured biographies, for here the personalities of history were in the foreground, and we heard about battles and parliamentary bills – not just for their own sakes – but in light of how they affected people’s everyday lives.

I wish I’d hated my history teachers; then I could have enjoyed a moment of vengeful triumph when I received the Alison Prentice Award for women’s history writing at a meeting of the Ontario Historical Society. But the teachers were not the problem. The curriculum was to blame.

So instead, I enjoyed the irony that this stone that (as it were) refused the builder should have become so central to me, and felt really proud to think that Outside the Box might be helping rectify the marginalization of women some small way. This summer has even seen a review in Canada’s History Magazine.

I’m also delighted to notice that things are changing in the education department. After the awards ceremony we spent time in the gorgeous Waterloo Regional Museum, which has a railway track running right through the middle. We saw video testimony of immigrants’ first moments in this country, punched a factory time clock, read a lexicon of teenagers’ slang for each decade of the 20th century. Even if textbooks are still about politics and battles, at least there’s a place where local kids can see themselves reflected, feel drawn in instead of shut out.

Another high point of my month was the Hamilton Jewish Literary Festival on June 3. Organized by Ellen S. Jaffe and Lil Blume the day included a reading and panel discussion as well as two workshops – oh, and lots of food. This redoubtable team always come up with projects make me feel energized and inspired to do more. The festival was a launch for Letters and Pictures from the Old Suitcase, a collection of poems and short prose pieces from new and established writers. I taught a workshop called Fictional Truth/Truth into Fiction, a theme that infused the whole day. These women have done an exceptional job of creating community among the contributors, a community which is constantly expanding because of their outreach projects. With their workshops and publications they have found a way to bring history alive by interacting imaginatively with it.

In the panel discussion Dr. Ruth Frager talked about collecting oral history. She pointed out that this is history seen from the ground. It is embedded in a point of view rather than delivered with the veneer of objectivity. Karen Shenfeld gave a fascinating, hands-on session on the history of Ma Jong, in which she shared the research she had done for her poem, “The Mazel Tov Club.” Here’s an interview with Karen on Open Book Toronto.

I’m happy to say I ate heartily at both events with zero rashes and .05 sniffles. Why am I not surprised?

Attention must be played

March 20, 2012

My get up and go, got up and went last month, which is part of my excuse for not completing my last blog post. I didn’t add the links until now. Part of my excuse. Really, I just felt fraught about the post and kind of hoped no one would read it. Because I still feel fraught about the subject: families.

But just now I finally put the links in. This means, from what I gather, that Rona Maynard, Marni Jackson, Susan OldingIan Brown, and Kerry Clare will get more of something. Clicks, I think. And I want that. I admire them and want to acknowledge their wonderful work. I want other people to know about their work, and to know that I admire it.

But the whole clicking enterprise is part of my reason for feeling fraught. Last month (yes, in February) we went to see Ronnie Burkett virtuosic, dystopian marionette production, Penny Plain (which – while I’m in the business of admiring people – confirmed my belief that Ronnie Burkett is a genius and a national treasure).

The friends we were with wrote about it, or statused about it or whatever you do on Facebook, which promptly sent an invitation to my husband to put our whereabouts on his Facebook page. He ignored the request and we all enjoyed our evening. Except that the haunted, dystopian feeling lingered just a little longer when I thought about our being – albeit automatically – tracked that way. What preserved our privacy was that everyone all over the place is doing the same thing.

I’m not saying anything against our friends or anyone else who posts their location on Facebook. It’s really just a way of reinforcing ties with friends, the cyber-equivalent of a refrigerator-note saying “gone to a brilliant, dystopian marionette production.” It says you want to make your schedule accessible to the people you feel connected with, and allows you to enjoy the fact that you have people who care about where you’re going for the evening. It’s also a way of letting people know about the show.

But last month (yes, in February) I was also reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. This book chronicles the life of an American diplomatic family stationed in Berlin through the rise of the third Reich. They arrived with open minds and what was then an all-too-common anti-Semitic mindset, and gradually came to see that that they were among – well – beasts. The warnings they sent back were downplayed. The book is chilling because it takes place just before the evil that was germinating in that country showed its true colours. Back then it was only too easy to justify, normalize or mock what we later learned fear and deplore.

I started to think about what all that surveillance could become, in the hands of a less-than-scrupulous government – or indeed anyone with unfriendly intentions who wanted to track your whereabouts. It gave me the creeps. And I started to think about my personal need for privacy. The need to hide myself away is part of the creative process, for me. Yet making myself seen and heard is part of having the career that will let me have the process.

I’ve also been thinking that this blog — which is supposed to be about body and language — has turned into a meditation on publicity. Indeed, it’s become an organ of publicity. Where’s the body in all this?


But besides tired.  I’ve been circling around a point for some months.  It started here – thinking about what it costs me to promote myself.  I have come to suspect that something about concentrating on the outer image, takes away from the inner sense of self.

Self: please define.

Later, I’m too tired.

Last month, I also took an excellent Writers’ Union seminar by Elizabeth Ruth on how to be your own publicist. Among other smart things, she told us that she consciously separates her SELF from the person she’s promoting. In preparing for the seminar, she had informally polled a group of authors about promoting their own work. Many felt resistance, either through lack of confidence, or the belief that a writer should be above self-promotion, or a sense that it’s an admission of defeat to promote oneself.

We all have those thoughts circling in our heads and it was great to hear them articulated at the very start of the session. I found myself better able to listen to practicalities when the big subterranean issues had been brought to light. I started to wonder what it would have been like if my grandmother had been able to take Elizabeth’s seminar. (Well, she could have taught it.) But what if she’d lived in a time when it was socially acceptable for a writer, particularly a woman writer, to admit to promoting herself. I wonder if she would have been able to speak to me more frankly about what she went through, building her career. Probably. Things are going in a good direction, I thought.

Yet it was sobering to hear Elizabeth read those quotes. We live in an age when we share everything from our family history to where we’re going on a Saturday night. And yet are we any further ahead when it comes to hang-ups or I dare say shame, about being seen and heard?

And even if she had told me different stories about the past, would the bottomless hunger for attention I found so disturbing in Mona’s middle age have been calmed?

After weeks of watching me stare out the window, interspersed with diatribes about the Nazis among us, my husband took over the cultural programming for our household. We hunkered down for the weekend with Kung Fu Panda II. The main character, Po, experiences flashbacks to being abandoned by his parents, which cramp his style as a martial artist. I cried. And I thought about the deeper issues behind all of this. What kind of a world creates Facebook?  What does that say about our need for attention, and in what form? Are we really that far removed from a world where leaders jackboots and beat people up for not saluting them?  What I mean is, I still don’t think we have it right.

Seems to me there’s some kind of deeper sense of abandonment, a very vulnerable, abandoned or at least abandon-able self underneath the surface in all of us. And our very public life takes us further from integrating it.

At the beginning of this month I did a talk at the Arts and Letters Club. I worked hard to make it a good performance. It was well received. Someone in the audience told me I was a natural. I told her no. Everything you see here is studied, practiced and chosen. “Your speaking ability was inside you,” she said. “All the work you’ve done just brought it out.”  I’m not even sure if I disagree, but a took a stand for perspiration rather than inspiration, as I do every time.

In all my blog entries, I’ve yet to write about my voice work with Richard Armstrong and Fides Krucker. This work that has allowed me to be whatever degree of public person I am, right now.

I think back to the first class I did with Richard in which I confessed my fear of making a wrong note. He told me to make a big wrong note. As big a wrong note as I could. It’s hard to describe how I got to the point where that was possible (take a workshop with him if you want to find out) but at that moment I felt an absolute joy in making noise just for its own sake. Sure, I was breathing deeply and feeling all the pleasurable vibrations that come from making sound, but I was also being noticed in the way you get noticed when you make a lot of noise.

I felt joy in flouting the convention that says one sound is good and another bad, and enjoyed the kind of attention you get when you do that. I’ll never forget that moment. I think it’s something I have taken metaphorically into my writing. It’s also something I’ve taken into promoting my book and if I’m sane through the past year it’s because I know that desire for attention is in me, and so is the ability to shout for it.

In case you haven’t noticed from reading my past entries, I don’t believe that there’s anything trapped inside us that comes out when we make a big cathartic sound. That was not years of pent up bellowing for attention I did in Richard’s class. To borrow an idea from Moshe Feldenkrais, I believe that different forms of behaviour have to be practised for us to feel fully – to quote his word – potent.

There are times, when you need to get attention. When you need to scream for it. If you go around in the world feeling that this behaviour is not available to you, there’s no way you can feel good.

So I can do it. But why am I so tired? I still haven’t figured out whether shame and fear are still curled up under the surface and hit me in the wake of a performance situation. Or whether it just takes a lot of energy.

Either way, the sun is helping.

Assumptions in the Closet

February 9, 2012

I got a copy of Rona Maynard‘s book, My Mother’s Daughter the week my mother would have turned 82. A January baby, she liked – well, insisted upon – being fussed over at the very time of year when I was most exhausted and most broke. Now, it’s the time of year I miss her most.

My Mother’s Daughter was the ideal read when days were short and thaw alternated with deep-freeze as my emotions followed suit. So much of this book resonated with my own experience: the Jewish mother, the WASP (artist!) father, the memories of being the responsible foil to a more flamboyant elder, but most of all, growing up in a family which considered itself special.

I started thinking about the challenges of writing about one’s own family, not just the decisions about what to say and what to hold back, that eternal balancing act between writing honestly and preserving the dignity of your subject. These are important decisions, but something deeper and more pervasive came to mind as I read Maynard’s book. It’s the challenge of deconstructing the assumptions and habits on which a given family’s culture is based … and she does it well.

It’s necessary, I think, whether or not we end up writing about our families. These days, there’s all kinds of consternation about when and how kids physically leave home. To me, it’s immaterial. The real maturity comes from seeing the behavioural “home” for what it is, and building a new one based on choice. This is superbly dramatized by Marni Jackson in Home Free, which looks at three generations of her family. Did going off to war necessarily mean you were grown up? Did having babies? Did risking your life hitchhiking across Europe while your parents were beside themselves with worry? Or is the slower, less visible process of today’s supposedly “pampered” youth a better road to maturity?

When it comes to writing, detachment from assumptions makes the difference between a sob story and a useful narrative, a character assassination and a compassionate analysis. We all benefit from stepping outside our habits, and a good book can give us the courage and imagination to do it.

It is a deeply subversive act, and it can feel like a betrayal. As I drafted Outside the Box, it was not any skeletons in the closet that kept me awake at night, but the prospect of identifying and making public my family’s assumptions, revealing them as assumptions. (The idea that we were special for instance.)

Maynard extends the exploration into adulthood, trenchantly describing how the conditions of her childhood home manifested in her working life: “I thought Maclean’s would take me forward; in fact it was pulling me back to the overheated dreams and incessant competition of my childhood. Like my mother’s house, the magazine was a place where women went hungry – for respect, for opportunity, for presence in next week’s issue. An extra page for my section meant one less for someone else’s, and there were never enough pages to go around.”

Maynard eventually became editor of Chatelaine. As she herself points out, Chatelaine has always been thought of as the magazine of the ordinary Canadian woman. For a person whose family rejected the ordinary, this could be seen as the ultimate act of “leaving home.” Paradoxically, it was also an exceptional achievement. I hope she writes more about her career on Chatelaine and what she learned from discovering and sharing the stories of Canadian women.

I was also riveted by Susan Olding‘s Pathologies, particularly the essay “Mama’s Voices,” in which Olding grapples with the taboo against writing about one’s own children. She doesn’t draw any conclusions or at least doesn’t hit us over the head with them, and I think this is a strength.

As I’ve already ranted on this blog, though: I disagree with any suggestion that holding back information or indeed feelings is physically unhealthy. Olding does suggest this, however obliquely. This premise makes me very, very nervous. It’s great to pay attention to the connection between mind and body, but so many people who do this, also go around feeling afraid that life and its complications will harm them. In my Feldenkrais practice I see many people who feel unnecessarily afraid for their health. To the point where – frankly — they could make themselves sick.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for self-expression. But it’s not always possible. For ethical or tactical reasons, we sometimes need to keep things to ourselves. In speaking, in writing, in blogging. It’s hard enough to do that without the threat of cancer hovering over you.

So glad to get that out of my system!

Back to the story. Olding treads a dangerous line in Pathologies, not only by describing her young daughter’s behaviour, but in sharing her story prior to adoption. In future years, Maia may not want the world to know any of this. As far as I’m concerned Olding shows herself to be a responsible narrator (and mother) simply because she gives herself a hard time. She weighs the issues and leads us through her process, giving us a path we can follow in undertaking our own.

She never mentions the greater good that is surely served by writing about this subject. The world will understand Maia — and kids like her – better, when they’ve read the book. To me, this is an example of the healthy editorial rigour she displays: framing the writing not as her daughter’s need, but as her own.

And Olding tells her own story first. I trust her, as a narrator because of this. She’s talking about Susan when she’s talking about Susan, and she’s talking about Maia when she’s talking about Maia, and where the line blurs, she talks about this too.

The other book I admired from this point of view was The Boy in the Moon, Ian Brown’s memoir about raising a son with a severe disability. He reveals his own struggles with such candour that no one can doubt the respect and love he feels for his son, and Walker is seen, not as an extension of his parents, but as a person in his own right.

I feel qualified to comment on this because my writer-grandmother wrote a lot about me when I was a child. She also wrote from my point of view. Yes, I felt exploited. And still do. This is because I felt my grandmother was not depicting me, but a projection of herself, of what she wanted me — and our relationship to be — without coming out and saying so. I know my grandmother loved me, and left a wonderful legacy, but on these writings, I take a tough stance. It’s been the only way to recover from them.

It did not create the same kind of lasting damage when I came across journals and letters revealing my mother’s ambivalence about caring for me when I was a toddler. They were shocking to read at first, and others were quick to criticize her, but I’m glad I had access to them. I thought about all this again when I read Kerry Clare‘s story “Love is a Let-Down,” deservedly collected in Tightrope’s Best Canadian Essays of 2011. In stark detail, she invokes the first weeks of her daughter’s life, when she didn’t know whether early motherhood was a passing storm or “whether your life has just descended into an all-enveloping hell.”

Like Clare, my mother faced her ambivalence, yet carried on with the business of mothering. I respected and loved her more, knowing how many good choices she made, despite the difficulties. In the long run, knowing this helped me to look after her when our roles were reversed. It was hard and most of the time, I didn’t want to do it. I did it anyway, though. And I think I navigated the experience better than if I had been given an idealized view of what caring for a vulnerable human being really means.

I guess that means I can see lots of reasons to be honest in writing. I just don’t think health is one of them.


December 23, 2011

I’ve been thrilled and touched to by the amount of support Outside the Box has received.  Reviews take a lot of work … and even though the book is a few months old, people keep on taking the time and energy to write them. Here are two …  

Diana Kiesners on Accordion Diaries:

T. Edward on Goodreads:

And Kerry Clare named Outside the Box as one of her favourite reads of 2011!

Have a wonderful holiday season, everyone — whatever you celebrate.

Lovely write-up!

October 5, 2011

I was thrilled to read this post by Kerry Clare on Pickle Me This.

Wandering the blogosphere

September 27, 2011

Here’s my Q and A with Bryan Ibeas of Found Press. It’s about my story, “The Last Judgment” which I’ve been honoured to see between their digital pages the past couple of months.

And here’s my post on Canadian Bookshelf.  At the end, you can hear me reading from Outside the Box.

I couldn’t have liked it more …

September 23, 2011

Many thanks to all those who attended the marvelous launch party for Outside the Box at the Dora Keough last Sunday.

In case you missed it:

Photography by the lovely and multi-talented Patricia Meindl.
Dress from The Common Sort in Leslieville.
Hat by Lilliput Hats.
Arms by Arabesque Dance Studio and the eternally fabulous
Laurie Few (in white hat, above).

Dust bunnies and Dieppe

August 20, 2011

I cleaned the house this morning. It’s stinking hot outside and the house isn’t all that dirty, but cleaning is the only antidote for the combination of melancholy and anxiety that hangs over me as I await the appearance of my book. It’s due out in September. I don’t know what to do with myself, and despite my resolution not to waste the intervening time, I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.

As I swore and grunted my way through the vacuuming it struck me that none of this would be happening if sixty-nine years ago today my great uncle Howard McTavish had not set out with five thousand other Canadians to the shores of Dieppe and met his death.

The raid did not bring victory, and victory certainly did not bring peace to the world. When the war ended, another set of problems cropped up to take its place, and another, and another. The headlines today are about the troubles in Syria, our economic roller coaster, and a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Still, I’m sure that as my great uncle prepared himself and his men for battle, he told himself he was doing it for me — or at least for my generation. He hoped that over a half century later a woman in Canada might have the luxury of complaining about dust bunnies and lamenting the end of a summer she never quite allowed herself to enjoy.  He would also have wanted me remember him.

And I do —  because, back in 1942, my grandmother, Mona Gould heard about her brother’s death, along with the families of over a thousand other men. She was a poet, and turned to her craft to make sense of the event. The result was “This Was My Brother,” which several months later appeared in newspapers across the country as part of a campaign for victory bonds. It is reprinted in schoolbooks and anthologies to this day.

There were many illusions propagated about the Dieppe raid, not only in the news, but years later, in Mona’s living room. In grooming me for a literary life, she told me that writing the poem had been cathartic for her. It was her triumph, as Dieppe had been Howard’s. Yet her bloated, alcoholic body said everything her words did not: she was in terrible pain.

My own life has been fortunate, compared to Mona’s and that of many other people; still I’ve seen enough trouble to believe that trauma never really goes away. Writing about it means revisiting it and – often – reactivating the pain. I used to think that Mona enjoyed the attention she got from the poem, but lately, I’ve started to wonder if it was a drug just like whiskey. It poisoned her, even though she could never get enough.

Still, there are real rewards to writing about trauma, and I think Mona experienced them when she saw the poem reprinted again and again through her lifetime. She liked to know that her brother’s death was not wasted. She felt passionate – once the war was over – about using it to put forward her pacifist message: make words not war

In later years, when her eyesight was failing, I took care of permissions for Mona’s poetry. She wanted to see “This Was My Brother,” indeed, all her work, distributed widely, and for free. This was crazy; she was poor. I bargained for the best rates I could, yet on at least one occasion, royalty cheques were found stale-dated under her bed. Now with a Creative Commons license Mona’s poetry will be freely available, and she’ll have her wish. Here is the poem. Please read it and share it.

This Was My Brother

Here are some links with information about the Dieppe raid:
Cbc archives
Canadian War Museum

In which I read proofs, walk in the snow(!) and fear for my sanity

April 18, 2011

On the dining room table, downstairs …

There is a pile on the left, with the proof of my book. There is a pile on the right: a print-off of my manuscript. There are the two pencils, red for my mistakes, blue for theirs.  I spent a whole day shopping for those pencils, and they’re beautiful. There is the pencil sharpener, the Post-its, and several pairs of glasses.

As I work my way through the piles, they both divide into two, for a total of four piles. The left of each version becomes gradually thicker, the right, shallower. Shallower. Is that the word? Is anything the word? And how do you spell shallower?

What if I’m wrong? I mean, not just the spelling: me. What if I’m wrong.

Yes, it’s back to that. 

“Are you happy?” My friend Diana asks. “Is the book beautiful?” 

 “Um.  I can’t talk about it.” 

I can’t talk about it.  But I have to.

On my desk upstairs there’s something called an Author Questionnaire: nine pages long before answers are added. So I can let as many people as possible just how wrong I am. Surely, someone will take offense when they read this book. Never mind that: sue me. For just writing anything. For speaking out, being heard at all. Yes it’s back to that. It doesn’t really go away. Just mutates. Like an antibiotic resistant bacteria or a new strain of bedbugs.

But never mind. This phase of work will end, and just about the same time, so will Mercury Retrograde. We have lived under the influence of that astrological combination for the past three weeks, in case you’re wondering why your emails have been going astray, why you have been losing things or having fights and miscommunications. I don’t really believe in MR except that I always back up my computer beforehand, check my junk mail box frequently, and try to cut other people lots of slack when they’re spacey.

Now if only I could muster the same technique on my own behalf.

I’m slow.  Oh so slow.  It took me a whole day to buy the red and blue pencils. I dread the coming week because there will be transitions between downstairs (the proofs) and upstairs (the questionnaire).  I am a Gemini after all, ruled by mercury, so I guess I have an excuse. But I think it’s just age. Multitasking used to be my forte. Or last least quick changes between activities … which is all multitasking really is. But the stairs seem to grow more steep every week, the mind less agile, the words, more arduous to conjure.

But maybe this is the snow speaking. Despite appearances, spring is here, and with it, a bunch of sparkling social engagements. In addition to the end of MR I’m going out to two, count ‘em two launches this coming Wednesday April 20th.

There’ll be a launch of Diaspora Dialogues TOK 6 at the Gladstone. I’m really looking forward to reading my friend Terri Favro’s story in the anthology. And at just about the same time, Jessica Westhead is launching her book of short stories, And Also Sharks at the Toronto Underground Cinema.

(I’m going to repeat these in another post so that you don’t have to wade through too much whingeing to find out the information.)

The point is, I need to be in two places at once. Oh alright, if I have to. Though with Mercury playing tricks it may all turn out like some kind of Harry Potter Polyjuice Potion experiment gone wrong. If you see me with a foot growing out of my ear or talking with a Rumanian accent that’ll be why.

And who could forget, the royal wedding on April 29th?  I’ve got my commemorative cup already, as well as a scarf to tie over my head while watching the wedding and talking on Skype with my friend Roxane who’ll be in Tacoma.  2 a.m. her time.  I don’t have a television, and am not signed on to Skype but I’m really hoping these details will fall into place with MR finished.

Here’s the web site for the wedding.  Watch it carefully to hear about excitement building in Royal Parks, and the release of Ceremonial Timings. http://www.officialroyalwedding2011.org

And oh, how it will lift the spirits!