These are a few of my favourite things

June 3, 2017

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

Mark Sampson: The Slip

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

Patti Flaher:  Paradise

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

Terri Favro: Sputnik’s Children

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

Catriona Wright: Table Manners

Peter Greenaway should direct the movie of this book.

Karen Mulhallen: Seasons in an Unknown Key

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

Rebecca Rosenblum: So Much Love

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

Kerry Clare: Mitzi Bytes

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

Eva Stachniak The Chosen Maiden

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


Let’s show some respect to the authors in Write

May 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the other authors and publishers.

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












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

Leanne Simpson:

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


Shaping narratives in Jack Charles v. The Crown

April 2, 2017

Jack Charles v The Crown — at Canadian Stage until April 8th — opens with the veteran actor creating two bowls, one after the other, on a potter’s wheel. His spare and expert movements are spellbinding to watch. Above his head, we see footage of Charles in earlier days, injecting himself with a shot of heroin, immediately followed by another clip of him doing the same thing. In a matter-of-fact tone, he says he’s been using the drug since the seventies; its effects don’t show on the outside.

When the live actor finally speaks, it is about the cycle of life, the powder that is used to make clay and the dust to which we all return. The screen shows the white powder of his art covering his hands and white powder being dissolved to shoot into his veins. He talks about his spiral of drug use and imprisonment as we watch him mold pots with elegant consistency. His hands are as deft inserting the needle as they are shaping the clay.

Then Charles puts on a suit and starts making his case against the crown. He wants his criminal record expunged. After many years of drug-motivated robberies, his prison number is as familiar as his name. He’s drug-free now, and wants to create programs to help Indigenous people in his native Australia, wants to give a home to his brother, wants to travel freely, yet the criminal record stands in his way.

He cites the many crimes that have been committed against him and his people by the state. Accompanied by three musicians in his songs and stories, he tells of being stolen from his mother at birth as part of Australia’s assimilation policy. Having spent his early years in an institution, he was criminally charged for the first time as a teenager, for trying to find his family.

Who gets to tell this man’s story? Projected are film clips of the prodigiously talented Charles playing roles on stage and on TV. A founding member of the first Indigenous Theatre in Australia, he also starred in the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith among many other films. I am not familiar with most of them, but the clips left me wondering whose had written these stories? And what narrative residue did they leave for the people who saw them? Or acted in them.

Charles quips that the judicial system has a whole biography of him, a thick file, complete with photographs. Mug shots are projected above, taking the place of family photos in recording the story of a life. Charles ends with a song, “Son of Mine” in which a father tells his son of his own narrative choice. He could tell of rape and destruction, but instead, chooses to tell a story of hope.

Charles takes charge of his own narrative in his play, and it’s a gentler one than we see in the documentary Bastardy, that inspired it. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of Charles at the height of his addiction, ricocheting from homelessness to prison. If the play tells the story of a survivor, the film shows what he survived. I was lucky enough to see the film straight after the play, and came away wondering if it was necessary to see the film, in order to appreciate it. His quick remark about his life in care being “similar to the residential schools” said a lot. Yet the film makes one point resoundingly. After years of sleeping in laundromats and public toilets, what finally broke Charles’s downward spiral was getting a home of his own.

Jack Charles is a brilliant man. At 73 he’s a masterful performer, as well as a teacher and respected elder, brimming with wisdom and full of potential for still more growth. He wants nothing more than to help other people. Because he’s housed, he has an opportunity to do that. His show serves as a reminder of what a whole society loses when so many are eking out an existence under bridges, or locked away in group homes and prisons. That’s a story we in Canada need to hear.

Doubious Allies

July 8, 2016

Moderated by Waubgeshig Rice, the Indigenous Writers’ panel at the recent Canadian Writers’ Summit consisted of Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams.

As I expected, these diverse individuals had very different things to say, but the discussion often circled back to one question: “How can white people in the literary community be better allies to Aboriginal writers?” Or maybe I was just focusing in on what I wanted to know.

Tracey Lindberg took the discussion to a whole new level, speaking with deep emotion about the contrast between her accomplishments in the world and her inner feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness.

Her novel Birdie, also goes straight to the heart. Lindberg hones in on the raw nerve of what violence and oppression do to a person’s mind and body and stays right on top of that nerve for the whole arc of the narrative.

Taking to her bed upstairs from the bakery where she works, Lindberg’s heroine Bernice/Birdie takes an internal journey through her traumatic past. Her cousin Freda and aunt Valene come to watch over her. The wrongs Birdie has suffered are unfathomably deep, and Lindberg is encyclopaedic in her description of the varieties and manifestations of her pain. Birdie has — as Lindberg puts it — a “palate for pain.” She divines the painful spots in the women in her life as if reading a map.

Boundaries between people are fluid; so are boundaries between thought and action, dream and waking, real time and memory. Birdie is an expert on the ways of trauma. “After any memory, after the thinking, it could take anywhere up to a week (if then) for her to even remember the incident that triggered the emotion.”

That this is Birdie’s internal landscape is horrifying, but there is strength in her very expertise. Lindberg has created a heroine whose resilience comes from living in her pain, not walking away from it. She is a survivor, not by mastering circumstances or by being rescued from them, but by finding her true resources, her true nourishment. There is no easy resolution but she emerges fortified and ready to take up the challenges of her life.

There are white allies in Lindberg’s book. They’re not allies for saying or even doing all the right things. At their best, they provide a space for Birdie’s process. In the pages devoted to Birdie’s foster parents, the Inglesons, Lindberg captures the brew of tenderness, gratitude, resentment and guilt she feels towards these “sweet” yet heedless and unconsciously privileged people. A scene where Birdie tries to decide on a prom dress is laden with irony. Thoughts and feelings roil beneath the surface for Birdie, while her foster mother (who has won an award for her foster parenting) sweetly — and disastrously — offers both dresses. With the Inglesons, Birdie has “moments of real tranquility, pieces of peace.” Yet she is always internally working, strategizing, translating.

Another white character, Lola unquestioningly takes in Birdie’s cousin and aunt as they tend to her through her long transformative process. Ultimately, Lola develops a close relationship with Birdie’s cousin Freda yet even here, we see Freda providing her with resolution, with a happy ending where Freda herself sees ambiguity. Freda is still doing a lot of work.

Back to the panel discussion:

Kenneth Williams suggested approaching elders and asking them questions, knowing that we will get things wrong, because we will.

I thought: That’s just it. We have got things wrong. We will continue to get them wrong.

Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past, came to mind as it often has in discussions of reconcilation. He’s a completely different sort of writer, but the simultaneously delicate and relentless probing quality of his thinking reminds me of Lindberg’s work.

Schlink writes: ” … during the soccer World Cup, I was watching a match in a beer garden in Berlin. When the German team scored its first goal, a worker my age threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘Wir sind wieder wer!’ (‘We are somebody again!’) So even this worker saw himself under the long shadow of the past and experienced this moment as a liberation, as a chance to get back into the light.”

For Schlink, “The thought that the past could and should be mastered contains not only the yearning for freedom from it; it even asserts an entitlement to such an end. As with every task, whoever works hard at it expects that the task will eventually be completed, and then demands to be released from duty once the task is finished.”

There’s a fine line between becoming a good ally and demanding to get back into the light. I wonder if it’s possible to ever truly know the difference.


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.

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.

The return of Cleopatra

September 12, 2011

I’m only reading this book because I’m in it.

And even then, I had to promise a few people I’d blog about it to keep me to my resolution to read the whole thing. It’s called Twelve Breaths a Minute published by Southern Methodist University Press, and it’s a series of twenty-three essays about death. My private name for it is The Grim Reader, but I didn’t want to use that as the heading for this post in case it turns anyone off.

It is grim though. In his introduction, Lee Gutkind writes that a colleague who had read it challenged him, “The combined effect is completely depressing.” His answer: “What do you expect?”

It’s a valuable book, and a very moving one. The question is not whether to read it, but rather when and how. I remember when Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking came out in 2005. The title alone provided a kind of balm, making sense of my experience in the way that great writing can.

I decided I must read it … some day.

That was a couple of years after my mother’s death, and I was just starting to admit to myself how traumatic it had been to see her so ill for so long. I decided to wait until I felt stronger. Then I did, and didn’t want to think about the hard times, at least not for a while. Last winter as I confronted a whole constellation of losses I took the book out of the library. It provided me with invaluable information about the effects of grief. So I wasn’t going crazy or succumbing to early Alzheimer’s when I got lost in my own neighbourhood! It was all part of the process and I wasn’t alone.

I felt deeply grateful for the book. After reading exactly half of it, I took it back to the library, came home bearing an armful of chick-lit, and while I was at it, renewed our Mirvish Theatre subscription. (They’ve got Mary Poppins this year!)

One of my favourite songs is a country and western classic by Pam Tillis called “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” An instinct tells me denial in small measure is healthy. After all, we know what’s coming. Is thinking about it in advance going to help?

Well, yes. Which is the value of this collection of beautifully written but excruciating essays. Medicine continually struggles to fix things, to do, and this leads to nothing short of torture for people in their last days of life when they are utterly dependent on the compassion of others. As a society, we turn our backs on the aging so that they are relegated to hellish nursing homes, sometimes for years. In one essay this is referred to in the anthology by Carol Cooley as “Figurative Death.” Most people I know would be the first to condemn torture and imprisonment, yet we’re doing it every day, in our own country, to the people we love the most. And families are not to blame; often, it’s the only option open to them.

Treating death as the enemy in an adversarial medical system, we save lives we can’t support. This leaves families without resources. In “Insights in a Rearview Mirror,” Phyllis Galley Westover writes of saving her 101-year-old father from drowning, only to wonder whether the two years that followed were worth the suffering … for either of them. She’s honest about her resentments, in a way that makes the love she expresses for her father ring all the more true. In many families, it’s an operation or drug intervention that raises similar questions. My own story, “Rules,” hovers around this very topic.

We have created new shades of gray in the definitions of life and death. In the astounding, “The Resurrection of Wonder Woman,” a mother donates her brain-dead daughter’s organs for “harvest.” Eleanor Vincent describes her agony at having no moment when she truly knows her daughter is dead. Thus, she spends years believing, at a level beneath reason, that she has allowed her daughter to be vivisected. Despite all this, she comes out in favour of organ and tissue donation. It is only through this kind of unflinching discussion that we can really come to terms with the issues medical advancement has raised.

The pain of these essays is the pain of lancing a long-impacted boil. The more infected it gets, the less we’re inclined to touch it, and yet, each of us must.

In a series of opening remarks, Karen Wolk Feinstein of the Jewish Healtcare Foundation in the US expresses the hope that this book be treated as a kind of conversation, and that it be a conversation-starter. Being part of the book had exactly that effect on me. The echoes are astounding. Little details of the nursing home, the ICU or emergency ward brought a satisfying nod of recognition, and I saw my experience as a care-giver in a larger context.

There’s no way for me to read my own story objectively or determine the way it fits with the others. For what it’s worth, though, I felt that it was sanitized in relation to many of the others, glossing over the most sordid details, adding judicious amounts of comic relief, even attributing a wry joke to my mother’s departing spirit at the end.

It was so important to me not to see my mother reduced to her illness, ever, and I thought of my portrayal as a kind of tribute to her feistiness and humour. I laboured to tell only what was necessary about her loss of dignity. It was the same instinct that possessed me, after her death, when asked if I would allow an autopsy for the purpose of science. I was oh-so-aware of my animal nature at that moment. In reply I growled (yes, growled): “Leave her alone!”

Back then her body was my responsibility. Now, it’s her story I strive to protect. 

But — as I found reading Twelve Breaths a Minute — the stories which share details of illness and decline show no disrespect to their subjects. Now, I wonder if I lacked courage or enough distance to look into those dark corners. Like the organ “harvest,” it can be worthwhile to mine even the most painful experience, if it leads to new life.

Most valuable of all is the interdisciplinary nature of this book. There are essays not only from family members but from doctors, medical residents, nurses and hospice workers. It’s clear across the board that there’s something wrong with the way we deal with death, and writing about all the grim details can galvanize us to change.

For my own part, I found the essays by doctors the most moving. In the opening story, “To Morning” a young resident, Anne Jacobson, juggles code after code throughout a long night. This brought the first hint of compassion in what had become a long-encrusted layer of anger at medical insensitivity. Over my years of caregiving I witnessed everything from flippancy to outright neglect. Obviously I don’t condone it any more now than I ever did. Through Jacobson’s essay, though, I began to understand what the medical environment and its punishing schedule costs the resident herself. The extra few moments spent in one room are moments taken from another: simple as that. Mistakes are made. Remarks, tossed off. The stupidity of bringing dying people into an ICU is made clear, again and again.

Nurses, ambulance drivers and hospice workers contribute similarly eloquent voices to this conversation. In the concluding essay, “Twelve Breaths a Minute,” Gulchin Ergun recounts what went through her mind when, as a resident, she was faced with having to unplug a ventilator. She describes the practicalities of the task, the fumblings she goes through with a vividness that transport us into her inner world. After so many years of training, stuffed full of medical knowledge she had no inkling of how to support someone at the end of life.

The book juxtaposes horrendous experiences with what can be called, “good” death. Among the other things I learned, reading it, was that my mother, despite having a rough life, had a good death. This was first and foremost because she was Jewish and had more services available to her than did others in her income bracket. It was also because I (yes, I do take credit) argued, cajoled, lied and even blackmailed her into using those services. She spent her final years in a facility where there was hospice care when the time came. To do that, I had to fight her denial and that of many other people.

Being a caregiver was for me profoundly isolating, and when it was over, I was desperate to reconstruct my own life. I wanted nothing more than to forget about it all. Still, I carry it with me and always will. Reading this book was like airing out a neglected room and I could not help concluding that silence surrounds the life experiences that need most to be talked about.

Or do they? Always, the same knee jerk reaction. Would I recommend that someone whose parent recently had a stroke pick up this book? Or a young person wanting to know what to look forward to in life?

Never! Forget it! Go to the movies! You’ll find out soon enough …

Or will it be too late? Even in the case of “good death,” we still have a lot to learn. About how to do, it and how to support it. How do you teach a thing like that? This experience is private, and unique to the individual. There is no dress rehearsal. Yet does that mean we have to abandon each individual, and each family, to blunder along so painfully?

At the very least, we can start the conversation.

A new dance

August 16, 2011

Don Hanlon Johnson’s 1983 book, Body, has been on my reading list for a decade now. It is no reflection on the book’s quality that other priorities have crowded it out. If anything, it has become more relevant with each passing year.

Johnson, who teaches in California, takes aim at the mind/body split which has characterized Western thought for centuries. He argues that this split — and the resulting mistrust of our own perceptions — makes us too subject to external authority, and robs us our birthright: a sense of agency in our own lives.

The book covers all the areas where the mind/body split has its noxious effects: in the areas of health care, politics and personal relationships, not to mention religion and education.

Johnson is a philosopher, and brings to his writing a kind of rigour which, as far as I’m concerned, becomes more and more important, the less concrete the subject. He brings a historical context to his work, too, broadening the horizon beyond the individual and the intimate sphere. As far as I’m concerned is the very kind of discussion we should always have been having, and are still not having, anywhere near enough.

He even takes on the delicate topic of how authority can become toxic, even within the very modalities which purport to heal the split between mind and body. He calls such modalities “the technology of authenticity,” and he defines ‘authenticity’ as the sense that one’s actions and feelings are one’s own.

Because the technology arose outside the world of universities, laboratories and books, those familiar with it tend to concentrate on the practical applications for personal health and well-being – expanding the ‘human potential.’ Both its supporters and critics tend to overlook its social and philosophical significance. Mostly upper- and middle-class whites pay large sums of money to study the techniques in resorts like California’s Esalen Institute or Maine’s Mohegan Island, far removed from urban poverty and international terrorism. They often become devotees of a specialized school: Rolfing, bionenergetics, the Alexander Technique, Lomi work, neo-Reichian therapy, and so on. Such schools typically become sects with rigid heirarchies of authority, ideal bodies, and ambitious commercial ventures. (156)

Well said!

Thirty years after its publication, the book is hauntingly relevant, given the way computers have advanced in the meantime, infiltrating our lives to a frightening degree. With the proliferation of images, the spread of information, we have so much more external stuff coming at us, so much to compete with the inner world of sensation and emotion. Our minds are swamped, leaving our bodies numb and passive in the glare of the computer screen.

Johnson mentions the tyranny of perfectionism when it comes to the body. In 1983, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Plastic surgery, dieting and body building have spawned massive industries since Body was written, and all of them have taken a correponding toll on the health, pocketbooks and available energies of millions of people who continue to feel worse and worse about themselves. And health care has even more technical, even more corporate and profit oriented than it ever was before.

Still, for some reason I could not put the age of the book out of my mind as I read it.

Since we’re getting physical, the feel of the book played a part in this. The paper quality, design and typeface, all took me back to the early 1980s, and maybe this brought on an attack of nostalgia. Body struck me as coming from a more idealistic time. Had I read it when it first came out, I would have been in my twenties, a time when I felt a lot less vulnerable, and when I believed that a lot more – for want of a better word – healing, was possible. In my body, and in the world.

I’m asking different questions now. Is it just my age, or has the world become less uncompromising, wiser … sadder?

It’s oh-so-clear to me now that complain as we might about modern medicine, sooner or later, most of us will place our lives in the hands of someone with a slew of letters after his or her name, someone who’ll either cut into our flesh while we lie helplessly asleep, or will have so much more knowledge of pharmaceuticals that we’ll simply have to take our medicine, and hope the doctor really does know best.

It’s not that Johnson denies the reality of illness and death. He concludes the book with a touching anecdote which acknowledges that these events are part of the cycle of life. A woman of seventy who has “lived close to nature” all her life refuses treatment for her cancer and decides to spend whatever time is left to her in the most meaningful way she can. She dies a happy woman, surrounded by friends. (207)

Today, the treatment would be just that much less yukky, the prognosis that much more positive, and her decision that much more complex. And when it comes to living “close to nature” … what does it even mean? How close to nature can anyone really get … and is it such a desirable way to live after all?

I don’t imagine Johnson would be unsypathetic to the new set of questions we have to ask these days. These days, it’s not just about regaining a sense of agency but knowing how to maintain it while at the same time, being treated by doctors, governed by leaders, taught by teachers, critiqued by editors and — if we’re so inclined — led by rabbis imams and priests. It’s a complex dance, but a fact of life. We have a new set of skills to learn.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I see examples of the need for this learning in my practice, all the time. I situate myself as an educator, not a therapist, but still a lot of my clients seek me out because conventional medicine has failed them, as indeed it has failed me at times.

The world of complimentary medicine purports a lot of the time to give the individual back the kind of agency Johnson says we’ve lost, yet it seems to me that this in itself creates a dangerous split. Each medical system has it own logic, its own demands and costs, and and least in this country, at least for now, we’re forced to choose.

This is a shame. I’ve seen some terrible experiences among people who have spent most of their lives outside the conventional medical system. I don’t condemn that decision; I don’t think anyone embarks on such a frightening path without good reason. But it has its dangers.

At a time when people desperately need help, during a complicated birth, for instance, in a sudden illness or following an accident they are suddenly faced with having to navigate a system they know nothing about. They’re left with trauma upon trauma, and worse still, they don’t get the help they need.

Modern, hi-tech medicine has a way of taking over. It doesn’t feel good, but sometimes, we need it. Doctors need to learn how to keep patients in the driver’s seat, but it also seems to me that we have to learn and practice ways having things done to us, without losing ourselves.