Thursday, February 27, 2020

Brian Doyle, my new hero

Major snowfall - it was spring on Sunday and now it's winter again. We'll continue to seesaw for some time. But the daffodils Ken brought me last week remind me - there's hope.

Yesterday, sitting in my dressing gown in the kitchen when I looked out to see these brave souls, in the falling snow, pruning a neighbour's very tall tree. We waved to each other. I was more grateful than ever for my warm, sedentary - and did I say warm? -  job.

Through it's been a difficult time - arguing with my relentless social justice warrior daughter about various political issues over text and email. Of all the things I have been through as a single parent to two shall we say stubborn, strong-willed offspring, and there have been many, I never thought what would crash Anna and me on the rocks would be differing opinions about Indigenous land claims. Of course I know there has been devastating injustice through the centuries. But I also think resolution of these issues is enormously complicated, and I think Trudeau, in his politician's way, is doing his best to balance hugely different viewpoints and needs. My daughter disagrees. Vehemently. I have pointed out that if she doesn't like him, wait till the Conservatives get in. But that doesn't change the outrage she feels now.

So I have a great deal of reading to do; Anna has sent me a lifetime's worth of articles, plus, coincidentally, someone just left in my Little Free Library 21 things you may not know about the Indian act: helping Canadians make reconciliation with Indigenous peoples a reality. When I've finished all else, including student essays, my own work, two library books, and the depressing newspapers, I will dig in on the Indian act.

Live and learn. Anna is way ahead of me on this one.

One of those library books is a joy, a true gem; I've been reading one of the essays from it to my classes, and when I read it to Ken, he went out and bought the book. I read a review of these posthumously published essays in the NYT Book Review and ordered the book immediately from the library. It's called One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, by Brian Doyle (not the Canadian writer by the same name, the Irish-American one, born in 1956), and it's stunning. Why did I never hear of this wise, spiritual writer, who won a number of prizes during his too-short lifetime but was never well-known? Doyle died in 2017 at sixty of a brain tumour. A tragedy.

This is a luminous, achingly moving book of essays - and yet some are also extremely funny. Here is a paragraph of an interview he did with himself about reading great books, after a rant about Marcel Proust, whom he calls a "sickly bastard" and his famous book "neurasthenic bullshit":

Well, any other writers you think, uh, overrated?

I'm stuck on Proust at the moment. To think of all the hours wasted on his interminable salon comedy, my God. To all those readers who think Proust is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I say go read a real writer. Read the first 100 pages of War and Peace. That's how you can take a salon comedy and make it work. Not seven volumes of twitches and repressed longing, for Christ's sake. Get back under the covers, you wheezing pervert.

I will never think of Proust the same way again. Thank you, Brian. And for the essay called Two Hearts which is one of the most beautiful I've ever read.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

the Bermuda Triangle of publishing

Here's one thing I'm grateful for re the Vanier revelations: my book is not yet published. Imagine if it was on its way to publication or already out, with its fulsome praise of the charismatic, warm, quasi-saint Jean Vanier. Which, of course, he was, for legions of admirers; no one knew about his secret life except the women he assaulted.  I do detail in the book the lack of guidance around sexual feelings at L'Arche, sections which I will now go back to and look at again. Rewrites needed.

The op-ed piece about this I sent to the Star remains unacknowledged, so I have sent it somewhere else. Publishing is like the Bermuda Triangle - you send stuff out and it vanishes into a black hole. As I've told you, my manuscript went out in July to six publishers and I have heard back, a no, from exactly one. From the others, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of the material. Maybe the stuff I send out is sucked instantly into oblivion.

Maybe I do not exist.

No no, I know I do, because I can feel my stomach telling me it's lunchtime. Just had a long bike ride, as I did yesterday, which was mild and sunny, like spring. But they tell us a snowstorm is coming. Still, it's been an easy winter so far, no complaints. Though a week in Mexico helped. Speaking of which, I spent an hour yesterday with my new media assistant Sophie sending a long, complicated application to teach two workshops at the 2021 San Miguel Writers' Conference. May that not be a black hole too.

Sunday night, the end of Sanditon, which was a huge disappointment, many fans furious, I read online. A lovely young woman with two admirable and very handsome men to choose from and she ends up with neither? Jane Austen would not approve. Mind you, though almost all the casting was perfect, I thought the adorable actress playing the heroine Charlotte was too uni-dimensional, dewy, and young. The Vienna Blood finale was awkward and flawed yet very enjoyable. Followed by John Oliver with an exposé of the authoritarian and racist Modi, Prime Minister of India, much loved by Trump.

Speaking of which - I do not envy our Prime Minister this impossible situation of the Indigenous blockades and the hereditary chiefs — on the one hand screamed at from the right for being too weak, on the other, by the left for being too harsh, from the middle for being too slow. A cartoon yesterday showed him crushed between a rock and a hard place: the environment and indigenous rights, and the economy. I can no longer speak to my daughter about these things, we are so far apart. It's the first time, and it makes me sad.

Monday night, a first rate class at Ryerson; the depth and quality of the listening, not to mention the writing, was thrilling.

And today, an hour with my friend Kathleen Trotter, a fitness guru, to find out what I'm doing right and wrong to keep my limbs limber. I left realizing I do not focus enough on my butt. Focus on engaging the butt, and you will spare your knees. That's what I learned today. Invaluable.

And now, lunch then rewrites. Onward.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Jean Vanier: shocked and appalled

A horrible revelation in today's Globe: Ian Brown reports that the saintly Jean Vanier, adored founder of the L'Arche communities for the intellectually disabled, was a serial sexual abuser of at least six women who came to work there.

I worked at a L'Arche community in France in 1979, a powerful, inspiring, life-changing experience which is the subject of my latest memoir.

The truth came out some years ago about Père Thomas, the long-dead priest who inspired Vanier to found L'Arche - that he was a sexual abuser. That was shocking enough. But it was felt by everyone I spoke to, especially my friends who worked at L'Arche for many years and knew Jean well, that he might have suspected or even known and turned a blind eye but was not implicated himself. There was not a hint of accusation against him.

But recently, there were accusations. Apparently his affairs began as far back as 1970, in the first years of L'Arche, but of course then women had no rights, no way to be heard. It took decades before the accusations surfaced.

It's alleged Jean made sexual advances to a nun and told her, "It is Jesus who loves you through me."


I do remember, several times, especially after the revelations about Père Thomas, asking about Vanier's sexuality which seemed to be non-existent. Is he gay? I asked, and was assured no, he'd had no relationships, was simply a spiritual man busy doing vital work.


This does not take away from the tremendous good L'Arche has done and will continue to do throughout the world. But it must be shattering to the many hundreds of idealistic people who've devoted their lives to the work of a man they revered, who turns out to have been a sham.

And selfishly, this is devastating news for me, with a manuscript about my time working at L'Arche trying to find a publisher. I write in the book about the time I met Jean, his charisma and warmth. And the fact is, no matter who he was underneath, he had tremendous, magical charisma and warmth.

But I do also write about how the community I worked in, and I assume all the others at that time, did not deal with sexuality, they simply ignored the risks. I was a young woman living and working with men who might have had intellectual disabilities but who had the bodies and needs of men. There was little direction on how to deal with any situations that might arise, and arise they did.

My daughter just wrote, "Ugh. Fucking men." I am angry when men are lumped together as a category, and I defend them. But not today.

Friday, February 21, 2020

the joy of produce and producing

Have been so busy since my return home to an empty fridge, I've been subsisting on random bits and pieces from the freezer. Finally made a quick trip to the No Frills on the corner. How spoiled we are in winter! I emerged with souvenirs of Mexico: 2 containers of grape tomatoes, 2 bananas, 3 mangoes,  3 avocados, and some asparagus, all from that sunny place. Also 5 divine Tangelo oranges from Florida, plus spinach and 2 tubs of tsatsiki from Ontario - all for $20. Spoiled AND lucky.

The teachers closed down the inner core of the city today, many thousands out marching in the cold, I'm embarrassed I was not with them. The Indigenous protests continue to paralyze the country. The vileness to the south continues. The world is too much with me.

However - two inspiring classes yesterday, and a ride to the Y on my bike today despite the cold. This weekend is going to be warm and sunny - relatively. I have so much to do, I'm hyperventilating, but today I interviewed a young woman who might be able to assist me with social media and some of the other stuff on my to do list. Very welcome indeed.

And best of all, I received a beautiful present in the mail today, a handmade book created by my blog friend, writer Theresa Kishkan, and her husband the poet John Pass - "hand stitched by the author and published in an edition of 65 copies in celebration of her 65th birthday." Just the way books used to be, a thing of beauty and thoughtfulness. A treasure. Thank you, Theresa. I'd better get busy thinking about what I'll create for my 70th! You've set the bar high.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

note from a writer fan

Just have to say - because I learned at the conference that self-promotion is not only acceptable, it's necessary for us starving artists - that I brought three books to the conference and sold them all, will hope to sell more in future.

I was leaving a workshop when a woman came up to me and said, "Are you Beth Kaplan? I bought True to Life yesterday and couldn't put it down, sat up late reading it. What an inspiring book."

Let me tell you, if there's anything that brings joy to a writer's heart, it's "I couldn't put it down." She emailed later:

I found the book so helpful that I sped through it and will undoubtedly refer to it often as I continue to work on my memoir. Thank you for offering such a helpful reference for those of us venturing for the first time into memoir writing.

Thank you! I will carry your words around for awhile, like the sunlight that's missing right now.

Wanted to go to the Met at Cineplex this afternoon to see Philip Glass's apparently unforgettable opera Akhnaten, but just could not justify an afternoon of passive pleasure so soon after re-entry. Got to get myself in gear and hope the opera will come back sometime when I'm less swamped. 

What joy it was last week to be out of the loop, not constantly checking up on the discouraging news. But now I'm back, and here we go.