Friday, January 31, 2014


I'll bet you have one.  A memory so secret that even you have forgotten that it belongs to you.  Forgotten, that is, until something startles you and prompts it out into the open air.  Last Friday, Bill and I were in the parking lot off Albert between Melrose Place and the liquor store when I saw a young woman walking across the parking lot, alone, jaunty, as if being alone were just fine and if there were a party around the corner and as if she knew, indisputably, who she was.  I wanted that.  I felt a moment of uncharacteristic self-pity:  I wanted to have had that while I was young.  Mind you:  I'm lucky to have it now, parts of it, the jauntiness some days, the sense of who I am on the days when administrivia doesn't threaten to drown me.  I have it when I teach and write and puzzle out the cats and have lunch with my daughter and cook dinner for Bill.  But that aching desire to have been someone other than the person I was in my twenties followed me around for a couple of days.  'Youth is wasted on the young,' I groaned with just about every senior I know. 

And then this memory fell out of its little synapse into my eyes and onto my skin.  I had just finished my master's degree at the University of Michigan.  I'd moved a stripped-down household and three cats to Ann Arbor for two whole summers, but it was only going to take me a couple of months to finish the degree, so this time I packed up only my summer clothes and stayed with friends.  It was a summer of working very, very hard because I not only had to finish my last two classes, I had to pummel my Russian back into shape so I could take and pass my language exam--the final barrier to my degree.  Kind Professor Shishkov was coming into his office a couple of times a week to meet me and to set me passages to translate and then going over flaws in the the translation.  He looked like a small, bald hussar and had a remarkably deep seductive voice that didn't fit with his waistline or his bald head.  In spite of the heavy workload, I found times to drive the wooded hills around Ann Arbor with one of my roommates and to occasionally go to the pub to hear blues bands.

After the final exams, after taking and passing my Russian exam and taking a bottle of wine to Professor Shishkov, while waiting for the weekend when my mother would come get me and my single suitcase, I went over to the new periodical reading room of the Graduate Library and read newspapers.  I read The Detroit Free Press and The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune.  I read the job pages mostly.  For reasons I could not quite explain, for reasons that I could give you now but that would be composed of hindsight, I did not want to go back to the life I was living.  I wanted a job.  I wanted to be that young woman walking off jauntily to get herself a bottle of scotch and then going home to read or write.  I wanted the independence to read and write and think.  I wanted to strip down to youthful, adventurous essentials; I wanted not to care where I lived or what I ate, but to have a vision of a future that glowed like a hot August prairie moon, huge at the horizon.

Here's the funny thing about that memory:  I'm seeing the future in it.  There must be a visual metaphor for this experience, perhaps the mise en abyme, as in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage where Van Eyck paints what he really can't see:  the wedding guests admiring the new couple.  Or at the Boston Institute of Arts there was a glass case full of pale blue and green glass bottles that were multiplied row on row by mirrors.  Is there a way to hold a mirror to the past and so see the future? 

Oddly enough, at sixty-three, I think I'm about to launch into my younger self's adventure.  That sense explains my crazy desire to get rid of stuff, my hunger to hunker down and think.  I have two wonderful classes this term, so if I simply organize my Mondays, they are thinking days, lessons in the contemporary Canadian novel for me as they are for my students.  When I'm lucky, I can get a bit of writing in on Friday.  These days, though, reading the files of students applying to our graduate program, or reading files of my colleagues (who inspire me) for the department's and the faculty's performance review make me feel as if there is no I to go on an adventure.

But my vision of that young woman in the parking lot and her relationship to the young woman I once was in the Graduate Library Reading Room with her secret are keeping my walk a bit jauntier than it usually is when I scramble from meeting to meeting or read ill-written graduate application file after ill-written file.  They remind me that I will dive deep into language and story in 10 weeks, coming up for air only when I choose.  And occasionally, when my spirits need colour and predictable patterns, I will make cheerful quilts for women in shelters, relishing the silence of working with my hands. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


One of the challenges of teaching my "Britain in the Sixties" class is to find a clear connection between some of the new forces making themselves felt in the country and lasting social change.  We can say without much hedging that when the post-war economy was up and running there was an element of celebration and joy--though not everyone shared in that boom.  We can also say that young people, for the first time in their lives, had enough disposable income--to buy records and fan magazines and miniskirts--to become a force to be reckoned with and to create a youth(ful) culture that continues to this day.  We can say that the pill influenced not only women's reproductive decisions but cut an inextricable tie between a woman and the destiny implied by her body.  Yet today when I talk to some of my younger students or listen to young women while they shop, I'm not sure we can register the effects of the pill as a lasting social change.  Feminist principles are taken for granted in some contexts; in others, I see gender stereotypes nervously yet cursorily reinforced rather than challenged.

Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, published in 2000 and thus the first novel in my CanLit class, challenges any individual's ability to turn aside the juggernauts of governments and revolutions in Sri Lanka.  Anil has found a single skeleton of a man clearly tortured in a burial site controlled by government forces.  She thinks that with the help of a local archeologist and an artisan she can identify the man, find out when he disappeared, blame the guilty, and establish that there are human rights violations occurring in Sri Lanka.  Her persistence and ingenuity end up paying off:  she gives him a name and can tell the authorities when he disappeared.  All through this process she has been reminding herself of one of the principles of a favourite teacher:  "One victim can speak for many victims.  One village can speak for many villages." 

Anil's principles are hopeful and laudable.  Through the silence of one of the minor characters, a young woman named Lakma who saw her parents murdered, we understand the importance of the individual and collective voice.  From all my years of teaching young people to write, I have observed that while the first and primal human desire is to be loved, the second is often to have a voice.  Our voices are our most basic way of being agents in our social worlds and of creating and articulating our connections with other people.  It is the manifestation of ourselves in the world, beyond our bodies.  But Lakma's voice has been stolen by the trauma attendant on her parents' murder.  We would hope, then, that someone would or could speak for her.  

While it is true that to prove human rights abuses, one must find the first victim and to give that victim a voice, it is also true that a single victim will not take one's case very far.  This is particularly true in Sri Lanka during their civil war: by the time Anil has gotten out of the country, lucky to still be alive, most of her carefully collected evidence has been confiscated.  Anil's danger-filled, earnest time there, despite her cleverness and expertise, will change nothing about the conduct of this war, for, as two characters observe in slightly different wording "the reason for war was war." 

I have been watching change on a micro level in my household:  Sheba has been sick.  About a week and a half ago, she began hiding out under things and was even more easily spooked than usual.  She was also scratching herself furiously and had taken out a chunk of fur and skin near her right ear.  Taking her to the vet is no joke, even when she's not unusually tense; in order to look at her closely and get blood tests, the vet had to anaesthetize her.  It turns out that she has a urinary tract infection and perhaps a skin infection too.  Much to my surprise, she's an easy cat to pill.  I fold the pill into one of her favourite treats and put it with five others in my hand.  If one tastes suspicious, the others are fine--which of course keeps her guessing.  Mostly she just scarfs it all down. 

The interesting change is that she has reverted to some of her kitten habits, and I think she's about 7 years old now.  She sleeps on my pillow as she did her first month with us, stretching her paws onto my shoulder and putting her face next to my cheek.  Or she comes under the covers, something she also hasn't done in years.  She continues to hide a lot, but when she comes out of whatever secret place she has, she wants LOVE and lots of it.  In fact, she's been in my lap while I've been writing this, often stretching up to touch my face.

She and Twig and pretty good friends, yet Twig, always an undemanding cat (unless food is involved) has been reacting to her times in her secret hiding places by in effect saying "Me. Want.  Attention."  So Sheba's body is prompting her to behave strangely and affecting the subtle feline power politics in the household.  Meanwhile, I'm covered in cat fur.

The segue from Ondaatje's remarkable novel to my sick cat was not entirely a swift passage from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Rather, watching Sheba has made me attentive to how often change happens for seemingly arbitrary reasons like an infection.  I've been watching this process as a writer, I guess, thinking about the subtle ways in which we change the behaviour of the people around us.  It's a truism of the counselling trade that while, to paraphrase Heidegger, mood is our primary interface with the world, our partner's moods are a similarly powerful filter.  That mood or change might have nothing to do with intentions and everything to do with something arbitrary like an infection or six cloudy days in a row.

At the same time I've been considering how difficult it can be to effect change in ourselves or others.  Change is always happening; we consider it one of life's constants.  Yet changing your diet or your smoking habits can be extremely difficult.  Some people embrace change; others are terrified by it.  Both groups would probably be challenged to explain their attitudes convincingly. 

I'm often told that one effective way of constructing a narrative is to consider the power balance between characters to be in continual flux as they jockey for control and establish their dominance.  I'm sorry, but that model of the universe is entirely foreign to me and I think it creates characters who are one-dimensional power-hungry little shits.  But change
--how to create it or avoid it or bring it to one's own life or bring some of its sweetness into the world--that I think I could get behind.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ritual and Repetition

I still remember the rather startling experience, probably twenty years ago, of deciding to put the newly-published novel, The English Patient, on the course outline for my Canadian Literature honours/graduate class, beginning to re-read the novel, and stopping suddenly to say out loud to one of my black cats "I have no idea what Ondaatje is doing here,"and turning back to the beginning.  I had read the novel when it came out and, like everyone else had been stunned by the powerful, evocative story, the gorgeously-imagined characters, and by the writing. My history with Ondaatje went back more years than that, when I gave a well-received conference paper on Coming Through Slaughter--which is "high postmodernism" if it ever existed.  Surely I'd be able to figure out how to teach The English Patient.  After re-reading about forty pages, I wasn't so sure.

Fortunately, when I came to the U of R English Department a couple of years earlier, I was recruited by the department's theory guru, Ray Mise, to meet once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, with the other theory-heads.  The supervisor for my thesis, Evelyn Hinz, was a hard-core Jungian and a devotee of myth criticism, which suited the Callisto project I had in mind.  (You also have to understand that I told Veronica stories from the Greek and Roman myths to entertain her while I washed her very long hair, so Evelyn's approach fit well with my enthusiasms.)  But I learned little about other kinds of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, or narratology in my time at the University of Manitoba.  I had bought a book I'd serendipitously seen in the U of M bookstore--Stanzel's Theory of Narrative, but I didn't know about Prince or Chatwin or James Phelan or Mieke Bal.  Ray introduced me to these writers.  Now you can rightly complain that narratologists go in for arcane vocabulary of the kind that splits hairs (or at least narration), but sometimes their in their enthusiasm to see and then define the most subtle strategies of narrators, they coined a term that helped readers to see what writers were doing.  Trying to get ready to teach The English Patient in several weeks' time, I was rescued by one of these terms:  "the iterative."

Narratologists use words like "prolepsis" for flash-forwards; "analepsis" for flash-backs, and "the iterative" for things that the characters do over and over.  These might be characteristic gestures or habits or obsession; things they do over and over to comfort or orient themselves; things that they do as professionals; things they do as lovers or parents:  stroke a face, fiddle with keys, analyze a skeleton or a passage of literature.  The iterative might be used to describe a typical day at work for one of the characters, or a tried-and-true way of coping with a lover's anxiety or a way of putting a child to sleep night after night.  The iterative allows the writer to describe once, and fully, something the character does over and over again.

When I began to re-read The English Patient, I could see what Ondaatje was doing:  describing the things that Hana, Almasy, Kip, and Carravaggio did over and over to comfort and orient themselves in a Europe that has come to a tense and sudden halt, having ripped lives and countries apart.  So I was not surprised, exactly, to find so much of the iterative in Anil's Ghost, which is one of the six Canadian novels written between 2000 and 2011 that I'm teaching this term.  I was surprised to notice it in February, and in The Winter Vault, and this has forced me to see how often this style of narration comes out of narratives that deal with trauma--heading straight into it or skirting around it.  

At a wonderful writers' workshop I attended this fall, the leader suggested that stories should start as close to the conflict or crisis as possible.  This "rule" panicked me for several weeks, until I simply decided to put the advice in my pocket, write a draft of Soul Weather, put it away while I finished another project, and then tried to see what form this narrative that I was finding should take.  But I've come to realize that even fairly tense novels like Anil's Ghost and February don't follow this advice.  Many of you commented last week that you and other readers in your lives had loved February, so let me use that as my primary example.  Helen loses her husband in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982, yet the novel starts in 2008 as she watches a workman sharpen her grandson's skates.  Cal's death is certainly the event that shapes Helen's and John's lives profoundly, yet we've begun emotionally about as far away from it as possible.  Moore's section headings always orient us, but they also allow her to swing from the eighties to 2008 and back again with rapidity and ease.  Why?  If we are following a widow's path as she attempts to come to terms with an unnecessary and brutal loss, why don't we get a tidy narrative through-line from Helen's certainty that Cal is dead to the moment when Helen achieves "closure."

How I hate that word.  It's a journalist's strategy for moving on to the rest of the day's news or for dropping the story suddenly in order to make room for more contemporary disasters and dramas that will grab a viewer's attention by the throat. But the iterative is something else.  It's the seasons of a garden, each stitch in a cowl, the making of quilts or meals, a day's work or labour. It's what we live inside most of the time.  I've been aware of it because as I've been trying to get ready for the new term, I've also been working on Veronica's quilt, cutting tiny pieces and putting them back together again--surely a metaphor for daily life if there ever was one.  The iterative, with its familiar repetitiveness, allows us to nestle or shrug or cocoon or struggle familiarly with our daily lives, giving our minds space between the rows of knitting or the chopping of vegetables and their time on the stove, to consider.  Just for a moment.  Not the painful meditation, but a brief meeting of now and then.  The truth is that we don't grieve for a while, have an epiphany, and then get over whatever loss we are grieving.  Rather, we keep putting one foot in front of another, feeding children and pets, showing up at work, mowing the lawn, while life goes on around us, as if we are stones in a stream (an image that I've stolen from W.B. Yeats's "Easter 1916").  It's a wonderfully honest way of writing a novel, even if it doesn't heighten the tension for the reader.  Writers who use the iterative trust their voices and their characters to pull us into a world where grief and loss and trauma don't get closure, but simply become impearled in our daily lives, part of who we are and will always be.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cold Weather and Simplicity

One of the things I actually like about the cold Saskatchewan weather is the excuse to stay home.  Knowing that the temperature wasn't going to get above minus 30 today permitted me to scale down my list to a few important things:  continuing to read Lisa Moore's wonderful novel, February, working on Nikka's quilt, and writing this blog post. Unfortunately, I almost got side-tracked by a sudden impulse to clean drawers and closets--I have no idea whether this is a nesting thing or a new year's thing or a cold weather thing. Two small drawers in my workroom now glow with order, and the linen closet is a little more functional.  

My first stop was Veronica's quilt, which I think I've been working on for over a year. I have promised myself that it will be ready for the outer borders by Friday, so this weekend I've made the last couple of blocks. You need to be short a few blocks as you finish a quilt like this, because until you've put them all out and figured out how they go together, you don't know what colours or values you need for balance.  The last two rows have been sewn together and now need to be "married" onto the rows that are already there. 

It was while I was waiting for lunch and cleaning out drawers that I nearly got sidetracked, until a startling discovery brought me back to my senses.

I have eight

yes, eight quilt tops that need to be hand quilted.  The one above also needs an appliqued border.  The discovery brought me back from that zoneless place where you tidy to the reality of things that need to be done.

After lunch, I turned to February, which is not one of the novels I've come to call "unsmiling."  There's lots of joy and whimsy and error in Lisa Moore's novel.  Sitting down to read for an uninterrupted couple of hours prompted me to pay more attention to the way Moore structures the novel.  There are two main narratives:  that which follows Helen's grief after her husband dies in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig i 1982, and a second narrative taking place in 2008 involving Helen's relationships with her grandchildren and her son John's discovery that he is going to be a father.  What I could see, however, through an afternoon's reading, was that these narratives touched one another so gently, echoed one another so quietly and so hopefully.  They are tied together by a query about risk--whether Helen and Cal risked too much in their love, leaving Helen vulnerable when he died in his risky job; how much risk companies are willing to take for profit; whether Cal feels like risking fatherhood. And what the hopefulness of babies does to our sense of risk. 

These are still random thoughts:  I will be much more attuned to what Lisa Moore is doing here when I teach the novel this spring.  But the other thing I noticed is how the simplicity of cold weather keeping you indoors makes you open to complexity.  Which, in an odd way, brought me back to the quilts.  Complexity takes time to cultivate, to order, to understand, to intuit and then articulate.  You need to make order out of it, but not too much order, because then it's not complexity any more. It's a system. Too much order takes away the casual beauty that being human has.