Friday, August 29, 2008

of bicycles and Obama

More gifts.  My beloved bicycle Bluebird (named after the bluebird of happiness, because that's what she was to me) was stolen on Wednesday - the bike mentioned in my Star article. She was locked with a heavy U lock, but not in the right place - whoever it was managed to cut the post not the lock, and probably lifted her up over the post and carried her off, still locked.  This was at 4.15 p.m. in the middle of Gerrard Street.  I was in the Doubletake second hand store buying a pair of $6 jeans; I came out and just stood there, looking in incomprehension at the empty space where my bike should have been.  

I had sent her registration number to the police, who were kind and helpful.  You never know, they said, it might turn up.  Sometime this weekend I'm going to go down to the warehouse where police are keeping the thousands of recovered stolen bikes - maybe I can find the three that were taken over the last ten years. 

So where's the gift?  I told my dear friend Norrey, a lifelong bicycle rider, about the theft.  22 year ago, we bought this house from Norrey and her then-husband, and she comes by regularly to visit and to see how it looks these days.  Our children are the same age, so we have lots of stories to tell.  Yesterday when I got home, there was a message from Norrey - she had left something on the deck, a bit beat up, she said, but it'll do for now.  Somehow she had brought her former bike over from the other side of town, where she lives now.  It will more than do for now - it will remind me of her generosity and thoughtfulness whenever I ride it.

And speaking of generosity and thoughtfulness - I watched Obama speak at the Democratic convention last night, and all I can say is, the Republicans must be shaking in their stilettos and Gucci loafers.   He's a bloody miracle.  I can hardly bear to listen - it's like a dream, hearing someone say these things out loud after the monstrous nightmare of the last years, the loathsome silver-spoon-sucking fratboy idiot Bush.  How can Obama fulfill this idealistic mandate in a country drowning in problems?  How can such a sane and sensible man be so keen to try? 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

reading 1963

A great gift arrived in the mail today - my own self, on paper, from forty-five years ago.   The English friend I have not yet met, Penny the sister of my childhood pen pal Barbara, found a packet of my letters to Barbara starting in February 1963 when I was twelve, and ending with Barbara's death in 1966.  Barbara put them into a brown envelope before she and her mother flew from London to the Mayo Clinic in May of 1966, for the heart operation from which she never recovered.  She was sixteen. 

Today I received that brown envelope, with Barbara's writing on the front: "BETH'S Letters To Me."  Just looking at it made me burst into tears.

Luckily, the letters themselves made me laugh.  Barbara had lots of pets, and I wrote back, "We have only two animals - a 9 month old dachshund, and my younger brother Michael." 

On June 8th, 1963 - I was twelve, she was thirteen - I discussed our exchange of girls' magazines: I sent her "Calling All Girls" and she sent me "Princess." I had also sent her a map of the imaginary island a friend and I had invented, where we lived as orphans, and Barbara replied with a description of her own fantasy.  I wrote back:

"I think your dream world sounds lovely.  Is the house positively riddled with secret tunnels? I am glad your parents escaped the executioner and that you have a maid to wash the dishes."

And then: "Have I ever told you about the time I won a Junior Encyclopedia Brittanica? [my spelling at the time] It started this way, at lunchtime:
Mum: Oh, look Beth.  It says if you write about your favourite book, you can win a Junior Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Beth: crunch, munch, crunch, chew, cough, slurp
Mum: Beth!  Listen, it says ... (repeat)
Beth: Oh (munch) very nice (munch munch slurp)
Mum: (excited): Oh Beth.  You could win.  DOOOOOOO enter.
Beth: (Munch) Well, (crunch crunch) O.K. (chew)
Mum: Oh good.  I'll get pen and paper.
Beth: (reflectively) Hmmm.  (slurp)  What is my (munch crunch) favourite book?
Mum: You liked "A Little Princess."
Beth: (smacking lips) Ah, delicious.  Oh yes, by Francis Hogson Burnett.
Mum: (patiently) Yes dear, except it's Hodgeson, to rhyme with Podgeson, you know.
Beth: Oh ... (thinking)  Oh.  (scribble scribble) Oh dear!  Does this ketchup blob look too terrible?  I like this book ... ( mumble mumble) Mother!  (vehemently)  I can't write with you snorting down my back.
Mum: Beth.  Don't be rude!
Beth: Because she is genuine and (mumble mumble) There.  I'm through.  It took me five minutes and if I don't hurry, I'll be late.  Bye!

And I won.  Isn't it amazing?"

Amazing.  That is exactly how it happened; I remember that lunchtime well, though I was eating a poached egg which doesn't involve much crunching.  But there are so many other things I don't remember, which I can bring to life again through these letters.  Now I have the entire correspondence - hers to me and mine to her.  And also, more than forty years later, emails between Penny and me, as we become friends long distance, just as her sister and I did.  

How rich is life.

Munch, crunch, slurp.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I've just heard from Ryerson that my class there is nearly full already, with two weeks to go before it starts.  So strange - sometimes we don't know until the last minute if the class will be a go or not.  If you would like to take a class with me and can't get into Ryerson, I will also be teaching at the U of T - a course called Autobiography that starts on Monday Sept. 22.  It's in the afternoon, though - from 1 to 3.30 for 10 weeks.

And if you can't make that, there will be another Write in the Garden workshop on Sunday Sept. 28 from 9.30 to 5, and on Sunday October 26.  I'm also available, though it's more costly, to work one on one as an editor and coach.  And the whole thing starts again next term, in January, the night course at Ryerson and the day course at U of T.  

I look forward to meeting you.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Workshop number two

Just got a note from a student who was at the Garden Workshop yesterday: 

"The day was magical for me and your garden a mystical treat.  I was still high on creativity when I arrived home.  I enjoyed the company of the other writers ...  You have such a capacity for encouraging your students and inspiring us to excellence in our craft."  Many thanks.  

This time, while Wayson was away, the superb novelist Alissa York, my colleague at U of T, was our guest artist.  She told us that when she has figured out her story, she puts scenes on file cards, so when she goes to tackle the day's work, she can just pull one file card and work on that scene.   She also has all her research cross-indexed so isn't overwhelmed by the struggle to find research or the scope of her project.  I told her that if I'd met her as I was working on my book, it might only have taken me ten years instead of 25 to finish.  (Every time I sat down to work, I felt I was nearly drowning in the size of the project; it never occurred to me to divide it methodically into small chunks, and as for my research - it was a miracle I found anything at all.)

Alissa told us that our creative mind is bigger than our brain - it's huge, encompassing much more than ourselves.  A wonderful way to think about what we do and the giant self we do it in.

It was a beautiful day for the workshop.  Even the burst of rain midway through added to the adventure - we slung a tarp over the pergola on the deck and stayed right where we were.  I was exhausted by the end, as I think we all were; all I did in the evening was sit watching the closing of the Olympics.  I had the feeling the Chinese didn't want it to end; the entertainment went on and on.  If only, if only, if only, all that good will, the friendships of those beautiful healthy young people of all sizes, shapes and colours, could be transferred to politicians and governments.  If only the Olympics weren't a bubble of peaceful international connection in a world of war. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

Woody scores

Saw a good movie yesterday night - "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen's latest.  It's good to see him return to the kind of warm, thoughtful comedy-with-depth he made his own with "Annie Hall." And also to see him stepping off the screen - the neurotic Woody part here is played by the actress Rebecca Hall, who is much lovelier to watch agonise and fret. Whether he meant it so or not, the film is a celebration of the mature lover: the two young women are gorgeous but utterly dull in comparison with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, luscious and irresistible both as actor personalities on the screen and in the crazy characters they play.  

I loved the contrast between the stuffy, conventional Americans, discussing their decorators and the cost of Oriental carpets, with the flamboyant free-living mesmerising Spaniards.  I'd see the movie again just to check out Bardem's kitchen with the dishes stacked haphazardly on open shelves; the restaurants where Spanish artists and intellectuals argue and drink. 

The picture of marriage that emerges is not pretty - there's not a happy couple in the film.   Men are cuckolds and women are profoundly discontented.  And yet, as he so often does, Woody touches something very deep.  What woman has not had the fantasy that she'll be sitting minding her own business, when a fascinating, creative, handsome mensch appears, says he thinks she's beautiful and asks her to fly away with him?  And, for better or worse, changes her forever? 

Bring it on, Javier. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August winding down

Late afternoon, a glass of wine in the late summer tranquillity of my garden - but there are dark rumblings underfoot. My mother had heart palpitations yesterday and went to hospital in an ambulance; she's fine now and it has happened before, but it's always scary.  The husband of one of my dearest friends is having a cancerous lung removed right at this moment.  Yesterday there was a chill of fall in the air, and in the world - Pakistan, Georgia, many deaths in Afghanistan, unrest and war.  And in one corner of the world, athletes compete for round bits of shiny metal.  Sometimes I think I am not simply enjoying my garden, I'm hiding in here.

I was happy to see that the newspapers agreed with my glowing assessment of Ceasar and Cleopatra when it opened.  Paul McCartney has my vote for the 66-year old with whom I would most like to have dinner; Christopher Plummer has the 78-year old slot sewn up.  But he won't be free to dine for some time.

A few weeks ago, I was dozens of pages into my new work, a memoir, and wasn't sure where I was going, so I pulled together a bunch of pages and sent them to a wonderful dramaturge and editor, Iris Turcotte.  Iris and I finally got together recently, and she chain-smoked her way through an assessment.  Once again, I am taught all the things I teach my students: show don't tell, paint pictures, bring the story vividly to life with detail.  Go deeper.  Unpack.  

Iris told me that she thinks the last scene of the chunk I'd given her is in fact the beginning, and the voice and tense are wrong.  Suddenly, I understood why I was having such trouble. Her input was invaluable.  And now, to begin again.  Only a few more days to get a solid piece of work done, before September - teaching, sweaters, the gradual diminishment of the garden.  

So, as I hide in here, tapping away at the machine, I am relishing every second.  

Sunday, August 17, 2008

your friendly neighbourhood theatre critic weighs in on Stratford

Usually, after seeing a piece of world-class theatre, the audience walks out into the chaos of a big city - into Times Square or downtown Toronto or London.  But this past weekend, I saw some of the best theatre in the world and then strolled into a scene of pastoral bliss: swans floating on a river overhung with willow trees.  I breathed in sweet country air - until getting a whiff of pig manure.  Thus, the joys of Stratford, Ontario.

It was Chicago Weekend at Stratford, which means the place was full of Americans who had driven for many hours to see theatre in a tiny Canadian town.   Thanks to the gift of complimentary tickets, staff tickets and rush seats, I too was able to see four shows in two days: The Music Man, Ceasar and Cleopatra, Love's Labours Lost and Hamlet.  

Music Man was silly and delightful - and, Paul McCartney fans, did you know that's where Paul's ballad "Till there was you" came from?  I didn't.  I was proud of this first class piece of musical theatre starring Canadian talent.  LLL is one of the less performed Shakespeares - there's a lot of word play that's difficult to follow.  But Michael Langham, now in his mid-eighties, directed a beautifully paced production that was as clear as could be and performed almost entirely by the students at the Stratford acting school, a well-trained new crop.  

Hamlet has had great reviews, at least for Ben Carlson's performance, and I can see why - he's Canadian theatre royalty, the son of two fine actors, and he's strong, fiery and intelligent. But at the moment, or in this role at least, he has a flaw, one a surprising number of Canadian actors suffer from - he's not sexy.  He's cerebral and physical in a powerful, even violent but not a compelling way.  It's not that I think Hamlet should be handsome and seductive.  But true star performers have a magnetic appeal that makes both men and women want to watch them and spend time with them.  I didn't feel that way about this Hamlet.  I did feel it about Polonius in a superb performance by Geraint Wyn Davies, undoubtedly the juiciest Polonius you will ever see, a young-ish fuddy-duddy.  

But that quality of riveting sexual energy poured out in the fourth show I saw - the last preview of Shaw's Ceasar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer. Plummer is 78 years old, an aging lion, and an actor friend in the show told me it's like being on stage with a rock star.  He works simply; he stands and delivers, talks quietly and moves slowly, and he is absolutely mesmerising.  It's a gorgeous production, in which George Bernard Shaw speaks through Ceasar straight to a modern audience about the qualities of leadership and about mankind's need for the endless shedding of blood.

I also loved the colour-blind casting in Stratford - to see a talented young black actress playing Cleopatra opposite Plummer, to have some parts in this play and the others performed by white actors and some by black or Asian, almost at random - it's wonderful. 

And I had a good meeting with Martine Becu, the buyer for Stratford's store.  She agreed that a book called Finding the Jewish Shakespeare belonged in the Shakespeare Festival  bookstore and will be ordering my book.  So it was an inspiring country weekend.  I stayed with my beloved old friend Lani and her spouse Maurice, who has recently been through the horrors of lung cancer and is out the other side, gaining weight and energy again, a joy to see.  I also bought $50.00 worth of Rheo Thompson chocolates downtown and a pound of seven-year old cheddar cheese at the Saturday farmer's market.  Old friends, dark chocolate, cheese, a bit of business, some fine theatre and swans - who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Yesterday, as I was getting ready to go out for dinner, I had an email from Lori Fazari, the terrific editor of Facts and Arguments, about my piece which she was preparing to run in the Globe today.  I had written about the time my then 15-year old daughter walked out the door after I'd told her she couldn't, saying "Fuck off" on the way.  The editors wouldn't allow it, Lori wrote, so we'd have to say that she "cursed me using the f word."  I couldn't bear the coyness of that, so Lori and I wrote back and forth for half an hour, trying to find a substitute for the f word while I put on mascara and nice shoes.  Finally I came up with "threw a vile curse word my way."  And actually, I like it better.  

And then I went out for dinner with the nutty children described in the piece, now mature, warm, thoughtful, gorgeous adults (if I do say so myself), and their father Edgar and his wife Tracey, who are up visiting from the States.   It could not have been a nicer evening.  We went to the restaurant on the Toronto Islands where Sam works, so on his night off we were treated to superb service and food - it pays to have a foodie in the family.  Everyone at the table has a good sense of humour and so did our waiter, an old friend of Sam's, so the laughter was continuous.  As the moon rose over the lake, we sat outside under the trees and reminisced about sad things and happy.  Edgar's beloved father and older brother Don died last year; there were many toasts to and stories about them both.  

Our circle of family was complete; the kids were there with both parents, who are no longer married but are still dear to each other, and with their dad's new wife, a lively and welcome addition to the family.  At the end of the evening, I took a picture of the kids with their dad and Tracey, and then she took a picture of the kids with their dad and me.  And tonight we're doing the whole thing again, only here in the backyard on the barbeque.  A wound has healed.  

I thought about being single.  Since our separation, my ex-husband has almost never been without a partner, whereas I have almost never been with one.  I am simply happy with the smooth, slight path I make, swimming through life as a one, not as a two.   I am deprived of the daily companionship, support and comfort of one vital person; this is a huge loss.  In return, however, I have freedom and independence - and a lot of companionable, supportive and comforting friends.  

One of my father's wisest sayings was, "Choisir, c'est renoncer."  To choose ... is to renounce.  

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Facts and Arguments"

I have an essay coming out in "Facts and Arguments" in the Globe on Wednesday - making it about two dozen since the first in 1994.  900 - 1000 words is such a good snappy length - make your point and move on.  If only more papers and magazines were interested in the personal essay - between me and my students, we'd have hundreds ready to go.  This one is about my children, as many have been, and strangely, that very day my dear ex-husband and his wife will be in town, coming here for dinner with the kids.  I'm going to tell him that this is a common event, that articles about our children appear weekly. 

I've had two emails from Paul McCartney fans who found my blog and requested the longer version of the concert.  One was from North Carolina and one from Halifax, where I grew up. Paul fans, unite!  I read in the paper yesterday that the only place in Canada that has had more rain this summer than Toronto is Quebec City.  And yet that day, the day that mattered, the weather was perfect.  I do suspect that our Paul has a direct line to ... No.  I'll stop there. 

Still two or three places left in the August 24th workshop.  I will continue to offer one monthly on the last Sunday of the month till winter - September 28th, October 26th, November 30.  It may be that by the last one, we will not be in the garden.  We can be pretty creative in the house too.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

August 2008 - pictures

The woman with the brown hair (not unfortunately her own natural-born colour) has just turned 58, and the woman with the white hair is about to turn 100. It's true - that's Muriel, who will be one hundred years old in October. May we all age with such beauty, grace and vigour.

The view from the big rock at sunset, and during the rain.  Of which there was a considerable amount, but it didn't matter because it was beautiful.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Oh my friends, what a majestic country this is.  I'm just back from four and a half days of silence and space - trees, sky, water.  These are Canadian necessities that every summer should provide, but without a cottage, I usually don't find them.  

A friend rented us a cabin near Killarney Park, south of Sudbury - we were in a tiny place with a sprinkling of cockroaches, a leaky ceiling and a million dollar view.  It was hard to drag me away from my perch on the big rock in front of the cabin overlooking Georgian Bay, but we hiked and/or canoed every day - lungs full of sweet fresh air, eyes flooded with green.  The hikes were so solitary that if we found a nice lake, and as you can imagine there were a few, we'd take off our clothes and swim.  We saw dangerous wildlife only on our last morning - four giant black bears, happily ripping apart garbage bags at the town dump.

And best of all, when it rained, we were not in a tent, we had a roof, electricity, an indoor toilet and hot running water.  Bliss!  Oh the memories of camping in that very park with small children in the rain - one time when there was a near- hurricane, I drove the kids over to the bathrooms and they simply slept in the car.  But no, this time, just us, grown-ups who liked to read when it was pouring outside, as it was often often often, during this summer of rain. Today, driving back, was a downpour of biblical proportions - we needed an ark.

I had a chance to finish "Eat, Pray, Love" -  several friends have dismissed the book, but I was engaged all the way through.  She has a marvellously alive and honest voice, and I enjoyed her journey.  I also read a book called "The Writer's Chapbook" - a compendium of snippets about various facets of the writing life by a stellar assembly of writers.  I was sitting in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, listening to a gathering of the world's greatest writers talk about our craft.  I think they would have enjoyed the view, too.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Just back from Muriel Duckworth's hundredth birthday party, and I am feeling seriously deprived of family.  What a fantastic bunch was there to celebrate with her - scores of cousins, nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren ... And while we were toasting Muriel, word came through that one of her son's daughters by one of his marriages had just had twins.  

Through it all, Muriel refused to rest - greeted everyone, up to date and interested, though she occasionally had to be reminded who she was talking to.  There were neighbours of 48 years from her cottage in Lake Memphramagog, where she grew up and has been returning to since moving to Halifax in the forties; fellow Quakers and peaceniks; old friends. And the joyous tumble of family.

As well as this great event, it was a proud day for me as a teacher.  First, my former student Laurel Croza's story "The Whirlpool" was printed in the Star, where it won second place in the Short Story Competition.  And a moving story it is, written in the voice of an adolescent girl with Laurel's usual empathy and skill.  

And in the just-out September issue of "Real Health" magazine is an article on the writer's group that formed after a term in my class at Ryerson; they continued to meet for years, and when one of them, Liz Maxwell, died suddenly, the others formed a press and published a book of her stories, to raise money for liver research. 

So - much to celebrate today.  And tomorrow I'm going on vacation - driving off with my friend Oksana to a cabin near Killarney Park, for a week of hiking, canoeing and reading the "New Yorker" magazine.  Happy Summer to you all.  

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Write in the Garden, August 24

I recently received a card from one of the writers who came to the July workshop.  

"Dear Beth," she wrote, "I have been searching for the right words to express my deep appreciation to you for making July 13 such a memorable day.

You have a special gift for creating a safe learning environment and for supporting all of our efforts.  You seem to have this endless well of positive things to say without ever passing judgement.

It was a joy to be there, with you and the others.  Your garden is magical, and you created a magical day for me."

A great birthday gift, this lovely card - not only for the feelings it expresses, but just that it's so beautifully written.  

There is room for only two or three more writers in the next workshop, August 24th.  

the joys of summer

Mmmm, peaches.  A Canadian can never have too many peaches, because all too soon, we are once again peachless.  At least, sweet juicy local peaches, not hard rubber balls flown in from California.  

Another summer treat - visitors.  My friend Patsy Ludwick has been visiting from Gabriola Island.  We met 38 years ago, in 1970 - I was working backstage at Neptune Theatre in Halifax, about to go to theatre school in London, and she was a brilliant, fierce and beautiful young actress who had just graduated from that school.  We were housemates in a little cabin in a cove, and that year on August 1st, for my 20th birthday - is it possible? Was I ever 20? - she wrote "Happy Birthday" signs and placed them all over the house for me to find - in the fridge, in the coffee pot, even swimming in the toilet.  And then there was a party.  

And now we sit eating peaches, middle-aged ladies, not as lovely and fresh - oh God, back then, glossy hair and skin, flashing eyes and burning, ardent idealism about what we would do in life. All that, gone.  But now, we are so much happier and at peace.  We both started as actresses and ended up leaving the theatre for writing and the teaching of writing, though in very different ways -  Patsy is a dramaturge and writing teacher on Gabriola Island, and I in the middle of downtown Toronto.  But that nearly four-decade bond could not be stronger. 

And tomorrow I am going to Muriel Duckworth's hundredth birthday party.  Muriel is one of the great human beings of the earth - a Quaker peace activist, serene with a grand sense of humour, open, warm, generous, kind.  

It occurs to me that if Patsy and I, who have known each other for 38 years, live another 38, I will be 96 and she will be 100.  One of her grandmothers lived into her hundreds; my genes are not so formidable, but I will try.  I'm looking forward to that get-together.  Another joy of peaches - even without many teeth, they're still good.