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What Miracle?

December 20, 2016
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Future Santa in his sleigh?

Here we go, lying to our children. Again. About a jolly, ageless man in a red suit, miraculously popping down a billion chimneys or magically passing through walls to deliver gifts to all the youngsters of the world in a single night. Then, we’re drawn along as though by some magnetic power and forced to buy! buy! buy!

Things.

Why?

To step back from the frenzy is a) to see how ridiculous it is, or, more hopefully, b) to search for the deeper meaning in this, the last month of the year…in children’s Christmas concerts at school, in the music we only listen to in December, or in the opportunities at every turn, church, grocery store, street corner, to give to those less fortunate.

I was in a shop downtown with my six-year-old buying a present for a family member. Suddenly my son looked up at me and said, “Santa isn’t real. Magic reindeer? How does that work?”

I should have patted him on the back and sighed with relief. I should have told him the truth. After all, when the tooth fairy forgot to come the other night, and there were no questions about “real” versus “fairy” I had to wonder, are my children naive? Stupid? Gullible?

One of the books I bought for my daughter this season was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. I couldn’t resist taking a peek. In one scene, Smith’s main character has just delivered her first baby at age 18. She solicits her mother’s advice about how to give her daughter a better life than she has had. Her mother says:

“And you must tell the child the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarves and such…. and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”

Mary [her mother] spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”

“I know there is no Santa Claus.”

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely, simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

Instead of responding to my son’s queries in that downtown shop, I allowed him the candy cane the clerk offered. I remembered the images I had as a child of a jolly Santa hurrying through the air behind his team of reindeer.

I can still hear those bells.

IMPORTANT: Libraries

October 7, 2016

IMG_4107Please, do not close libraries. My children have learned first words and important stories among the books and caring librarians of these establishments. We have spent countless hours of family time in libraries, made new friends, felt part of a community in this otherwise fractured and isolating world. The digital age can NEVER replace what a library does for a community. To be “lost in a book” is an activity, and event, a love that is essential for the intellectual needs of each and every human. A library is where we can all spread out, be drawn to the areas of our own interest, but rush back to each other to share pictures or words in respectful whispers….. Each of these activities teaches us something about being human than a computer never, ever could. We need the opportunities for not only literacy, but also for person-to-person contact that a library offers.

Soundtrack: The Tragically Hip

August 23, 2016

It was with mixed emotions that I watched Gord Downie’s final performance with The Hip. That sounds like a memorial, or a goodbye. It’s almost too hard to believe that it is.

I saw the broadcast of the concert in Kingston on our TV in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This is far away from the places where I saw The Tragically Hip live, about two decades ago. In Montreal, 1996. At Another Roadside Attraction in Camrose, Alberta, and at some point at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario. In 1999 I saw them in Prince George, BC. I was working for a newspaper, so I had comp tickets and got to write about the show. The memories are rich with associations. In Montreal I went to the show with two of my girlfriends, we had three tickets, two together, one single. I took the single seat. I was on my feet the whole time at that concert, someone tapped me on the shoulder to share what they were smoking, all of us singing every single word and howling along with Gord. Those same two friends, they had tickets to the final show in Kingston. Knowing they were there I feel connected, again, to the memories of that Montreal experience so long ago.

I watched the Kingston show with my husband, and another important person in our lives. A young woman who has babysat for us since we moved here five years ago, who has been like family to us in a place that was at first so strange. She stopped by to visit that night and we talked until the show started, and right through to the third encore. I hope we’ve helped to pass along our enthusiasm for this iconic Canadian band to the next generation.

Sunday morning following The Hip’s final concert, my husband and I took our three children, as we often do on weekends, for a hike. The blueberries here have just started to ripen, so we brought a few bags along for collecting berries. My husband found a Tragically Hip playlist, and we listened to Bobcageon as we drove towards Quidi Vidi. The kids chatted in the backseat, and I was stunned by the music. I said, “It’s still emotional, listening to this.” I was remembering the first time I really listened to Thompson Girl, we were in the process of moving from Sudbury to Thompson, MB. I was sad, and scared, but amazed to know that Gord and the band had been to Thompson, too. My husband added, “Even more so, to listen to this music while driving.” We were also thinking of all the trips across the country we did when we were first together, chasing tree planting contracts up the Yellowhead Highway. The Hip was part of the soundtrack of our coming of age.

To get to the hike, we parked on the gravel below the towering cliffs of White Hills, above the Quidi Vidi gut here in St. John’s. The kids ran out of the vehicle to do what they always do when we arrive at this spot—climb the steep section of a wooden ramp erected up one part of the sloping rock. My husband and I sat for a few minutes longer, listening to Gord sing, his voice pulling reminiscence out of us like a puppet master with a string.

My husband was watching the kids in his sideview mirror. Later, he told me he saw our agile middle child scuttle up the ramp and stand at the top like the king of the castle. Then our youngest clambered up, crouching two thirds of the way up the ramp. His shoulders jerked twice before my husband ran out of the truck like someone bound to rescue a child from a burning building.

I jumped out of the vehicle in time to see my husband lift our son to his shoulder and run back down the ramp with him. Our little guy was shaking with sobs. Behind them, I could see a cloud of wasps near the top of the ramp.

We scoured our son’s body for swelling. Amazingly, he’d only been stung once, on his arm. When I asked him why he hadn’t run away from the wasps, he said, “You told me if I stay still, they’ll leave me alone.”

Sweet little pumpkin.

We brushed ourselves off, and with relief watched the bump from the sting disappear within minutes. We climbed the path, away from the wasps, and settled into the blueberry bushes.

Courage was in my head. So was Ahead By A Century, the line about the hornet sting. Once, on the block tree planting, I was stung by a hornet right between the eyes. The next day both my eyes were swollen half shut, and Gord’s song was my theme of the day. Jump 20 years ahead, and, I’d almost forgotten…. I also got to see The Hip live in St. John’s, only two years ago, at a folk festival here in Bowring Park.

Now, I have a whole new set of images to associate with the music of The Tragically Hip. My son, his skinny legs folded at his sides like a frog’s, head on his arms, his dad rescuing him from a swarm of wasps. A pinprick of guilt over the shared moment with my husband, lost in memories, when our son needed us. A smooshy, balloon-soft bubble of adoration when I look at our kids, squatting in blueberry bushes, or chasing each other in tag. And a soundtrack that spans this whole country, a couple of decades of our lives, and counting.

An important novel about truth and reconciliation: The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manuel

June 21, 2016

A truly conscientious writer brings first-hand experience, research, and timeless understanding to a relevant issue. For this reason Jennifer Manuel’s debut novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float is well worth talking about.

The novel is set in a remote, First Nations reserve on the west coast of Canada, off Vancouver Island. The reserve is fictional, but the setting is real. This is the landscape of Emily Carr, who purposefully and respectfully inserted herself into a wilderness that few outsiders had entered. Like Carr, Manuel took a leap of faith as an artist to write as a white person, an outsider, living among people who have inhabited the land they’ve called home for thousands of years. Manuel spent time among the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, as a treaty archivist and then as a teacher, and this novel grew out of those experiences. It is clear, through the loving attention to the details of the landscape, the stories, the mythology, and the characterization of those who populate her novel, how much those years have meant to the author.

To write about blood and culture other than the one you’ve been born into is difficult terrain to navigate, even in fiction. In this case, the stakes are high, given the shameful fact of colonial history, residential schools and racism towards Indigenous peoples. In her author’s note, Manuel states that the novel “is about understanding privilege.” It is also a story about belonging, loneliness, and, I believe, more about what unites, rather than what divides us as humans. It is a most welcome addition to the current discussion of truth and reconciliation.

One way Manuel executes this difficult task brilliantly is through the intimacy of her first person narrator. Manuel leaves no stone unturned in her depiction of Bernadette. We see Bernadette as she goes about her work as a nurse, and we are inside her body to feel her joys, her sorrows, her shame and her confusion.

Chase Charlie, a character who is dear to Bernadette’s heart for reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, is missing. The potential tragedy inherent in this situation is magnified by the fact that Bernadette is scheduled to retire, and she plans to move away from the community. Bernadette is filled with doubt about leaving. She has spent forty years in Tawakin. Her one connection to the outside world, her sister, has passed away, and her sense of belonging is an idea she has tried not to think about. Her confusion about where she truly belongs, in the community of the reserve, or in the city, is believable. She has loved and been loved in Tawakin, and her responsibilities as both a nurse and a friend on this reserve have kept her busy. Manuel sets up a reasonable suspension of disbelief, and anchors it in her very animated characters. For example, Loretta, who “could find a way to blame God, the Lord Almighty Himself, for her own sins. I could picture her entry through the pearly gates, screaming at Him until her face turned red. Hurling cherubs across the firmament like bowling balls.”

There is humour in this book, because humour is part of the nature of the people. But the story leaves only precious slivers of space for laughter, for there is more than enough tragedy, suicide, accidental death, and hurt among this tiny community to last several generations. Manuel illuminates this contrast between joy and sorrow, makes it shine like the treasures that wash up on shore, the glass balls from Japanese fishing boats, the dentalia shells used to make dance shawls.

Most importantly, we are asked, “without knowing the truth, could there ever be a genuine reconciliation?”

I am pleased to add The Heaviness of Things That Float to my shelf of favourite books. Like Emily Carr’s Kleewyck, it is one I will return to.

As for the terrors ahead…

December 31, 2015

You’d think we’d never seen food before. December 31st, 11AM in the grocery store, and the line snakes around the centre displays of gift cards and bananas. We’re all at the same thing, gathering to consume larger amounts of the things we eat on a regular basis anyway.

What else is there to life but the necessity to feed, take shelter, and celebrate survival at the end of each year?

I pull out a book (I’ve taken the advice of Stephen King, never leave home without one). David Grossman, See Under: Love. I read:

Momik tells Mr. Munin about [the latest spaceship] Pioneer 4 and Munin jumps up and lifts Momik high in the air, and hugs him with all his might, to his prickly whiskers, and his coat and the stink, and he dances wildly all around the yard, a strange and frightening dance under the sky and the treetops and the sun, and Momik is afraid someone passing by will see him like this, and Munin’s two black coattails fly up in the air behind him, and he doesn’t let Momik down until he’s all worn out, and then he takes a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and looks around to see if anyone’s watching, and then he crooks his finger for Momik to come closer, and Momik who’s still pretty dizzy comes closer and sees it’s a kind of map with names written on it in a language he doesn’t understand…. Munin whispers in his face, “The Lord redeemeth in the twinkling of an eye, and the sons of light soar high,” and then he imitates a flying leap with his big hand and says, “Feeiiiww!” so loud and furiously that Momik who is still dizzy trips over a stone and falls down, and that’s when Momik with his very own eyes saw stinky black hilarious Munin taking off diagonally in a strong wind to the sky like the prophet Elijah in his chariot maybe, and at that moment, a moment he would never-ever-black-and-blue forget, he understood at long last that Munin was actually a kind of secret magician….

When I look up, a woman who was grunting in an attempt to get her shopping cart through the line has suddenly smiled at the crowd that parts just for her, and a child who was crying decides to laugh.

I consume books, in line at the grocery store, at home between work and guiding the kids to figure out how to clean up after themselves. I’m reading Geraldine Brooks’ latest, The Secret Chord. I adore the brilliance of Brooks’ historical fiction!

I dip into my daughter’s pile, but I never have enough time for fantasy, so I demand she summarizes all of her fiction I am missing.

I pull out one of my fav’s, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky.I love this one, and re-visit it for the brilliant voice, the surprising plot twists and depth of vulnerability of the main character.

Then I’m on to dancer memoirs, sheer, raw, admirable, take-my-breath-away perseverance in Agnes de Mille’s Dance to the Piper, and the much more recent  Life in Motion, by Misty Copeland. I prefer de Mille’s writing, the density, the wide world view she presents of life in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, but Copeland’s story is no less riveting.

There’s a different kind of dancing in Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a hilarious, one-sentence freak show, loveable, dirty old man, and in Karel Capek’s War with the Newts.

I’ve begun my own read-around-the-world, and I wonder how many of the books (thanks for Tweeting it, Gemma!) from Ann Morgan’s list I could get through, in 2016.

But I have my own project to work through in the coming year. My friend, Sharon Bala, says, tell everyone you are writing a novel and it will keep you to task.

So here it is: I will finish a first draft of my novel in 2016. For my Master’s thesis, but really, for me. Resolution: have a goal, stick with it. And in the dark of self-doubt, when weeks go by where laundry and doctor’s appointments seems to take precedence over my work, I will Dance to the Piper and persevere.

Or, as in my daughter’s favourite line from Bridge to Terebithia:

As for the terrors ahead, well, you just have to stand up to your fear and not let it squeeze you white.

Published!

December 7, 2015

One of the stories I wrote recently found a home! My story is called Rescue, and it is published in an anthology of new Newfoundland writing called Racket, along with stories by the other members of my writing group, Port Authority.

Racket is published by Breakwater books. Check it out:

http://www.breakwaterbooks.com/books/racket/

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The realm of the unexpected

April 19, 2014

 

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American plates are separating at a rate of 1cm per year.

When I was small enough to be stuffed in the back of the car with my brother and toured across the continent, my dad would sing a repertoire of traveling songs. Our favourite was about a man’s first night of marital bliss. The couple are alone in the bedroom, and the woman takes off her eyelashes, which were fake. She takes off her hair, which was a wig. She takes off her false nails, the blush on her cheeks, and her leg, a prosthetic. She removes unexpected parts of her body, everything besides the clothes the man had hoped to see in a puddle on the floor.

I was thinking about this song on the Icelandair flight back to North America from Europe. How appropriate it was that my dad only sung this one during road trips. In Iceland, I went to a geothermal pool in Reykjavik and had to shed my very North American notions of shameful nudity, to strip down in the change room and shower in front of other girls and women – how liberating! (see #4 here) Also in Reykjavik, I shrugged off my tendency toward nothing but mellow music, and, after seeing Sin Fang perform at an art gallery, I went to a heavy metal show at Gamli Gaukurinn – how ear piercing! I loved every minute of it (after shoving tissue in my ears to block the high notes). I learned that heavy metal has a basis in classical music (thanks, Gemma!), and that, as a lake-lover, there are public pools I can handle – the kind with no skin-drying chlorine.

This is what travel is all about: a stripping away of the expected, to step into the realm of the unexpected.

Travel is also about making new connections in a world of endless possibility, beyond the borders of daily life. In a Reykjavik café called Kaffibarinn, Gemma and I met a couple from Bergen, Norway. The man was fascinated when I told him I live in Newfoundland, because he is a journalist and friend of Todd Saunders, the world-renowned architect who designed the five star inn for the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, NL. I was struck by the way the couple talked about art – his painting, her adoration of music, the people they know and the communities they adore. I said goodbye, determined to incorporate more art into my own life back home.

I booked this trip to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. I wanted to do something special and memorable, and selfishly indulgent for my 40th birthday. The week knocked “special” way out of the park. The workshops were fabulous, with take-away inspiration about immediacy in literary beginnings, story arc, character and voice, and the emotional beat to end on. Every time I turned around there was another writer with a fascinating story to tell. Each and every one of us like a turtle poking our heads out of the shell of self-consciousness we wear, downplaying every small thing we’ve ever accomplished, and giddy to be in the presence of published authors.

home of Halldór Laxness

In the home of Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness.

We met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who told us with a smile that in his country there are no statues of presidents, but you can find many statues of writers.

The day of my birthday we went on a tour of the Golden Circle (even the weather cooperated with mostly clear skies), and that evening, we enjoyed two author readings by Gerður Kristný and Ragna Sigurðardóttir, and a performance by Lay Low. As we left KEX to head to another bar, the northern lights appeared. Only in non-fiction do things work out this perfectly.

My husband was worried I’d be sad and lonely to be away from my family for my birthday. I admit I did choke up once: during the final Q&A with the authors, when Susan Orlean said, Give yourself a break if you are writing into the void (without deadlines or promise of publication). I decided, if there’s nothing else interesting about me, this is it. The fact that I am committed to my writing, without any concrete goal besides maybe being published, someday. So committed, I take time away from my family and other pleasures to pursue it, to work at it, so committed that I’ve invested in it, in the best ways possible.

When asked her opinion on pursuing an MFA, the very wonderful and inspiring Geraldine Brooks suggested a writer could take the thirty thousand per year she’d spend on an MFA, and travel instead.

I couldn’t agree more.