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.

San Miguel pix

click to enlarge
The conference provided mats outside the workshop tents for people to lie down and rest. Thoughtful, no?
 Streetscape. Everyone must have a hat.
Colour and doors, magnificent old doors everywhere.
Funnily enough, when I looked back at my blog posts from August 2015, when I was here with my friend Annie, I found this exact shot. Unchanged.


Silver, inexpensive silver everywhere, so difficult to choose. I bought a pair of simple earrings from this lovely couple. Later I bought a pair, silver backed with malachite, which I now learn has mystical properties. Works for me.
The courtyard of the Instituto Allende.
And now for something completely different - the Aeromexico flight back. A movie theatre shaped like a silver tube. Surreal.

I'm happy to be home, rich with all I heard and learned. Am talking to two possible social media advisors on Friday, am editing madly for my class tomorrow - back to work! - and am beginning the long complex process of applying to the conference as possible staff next year, much documentation needed.

Toronto is cold, but I have a warm coat, and the house is warm. And now time for the six o'clock news and wine and dinner. Contented sigh.

But - an argument with my daughter about the Wet'suwet'en protest. She thinks, because I disagree with it, that I'm borderline racist and wrong. I think, because she believes that Indigenous Canadians should have unquestioned control over many thousands of acres of Canadian land, that she's unrealistic and self-righteous. So I'm feeling old. But home.

Monday, February 17, 2020

hasta la vista San Miguel

Posting from bed on my last night in San Miguel, after a great dinner with Cathy and Richard at the little restaurant where Curtis, Kristen and I ate the other night, my new favourite place. We sat in a courtyard under the stars and decompressed. Much needed, after this intense experience. Including, last night, an interview between Canadian Hal Wake, interviewer extraordinaire, and Delia Owens, a wildlife scientist whose first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, is a worldwide bestseller. One of the best author interviews I've ever heard, stimulating and very funny, will give you details next time.

I've been transcribing my extensive notes to try to hang onto what I heard and learned, as workshop blended into workshop and the wise words flew by. This morning, my new friend Edd, a young Mexican writer and teacher who came up to me after one workshop and offered to help me with social media, met me at breakfast and gave me a seminar on Instagram. And selfies. (I'm wearing wool turtleneck, jacket, and scarf. It was morning.)
I still barely understand the site, but I made my first post, the picture below of me here, and immediately my cousin in New York, whom I see once every 15 years or so, wrote to say she has lots of friends in San Miguel, why didn't I let her know I was going?

I have lists of things to do at home, long lists: to upgrade my website, learn more about Insta and the other platforms, read various useful books, get some personal essays out there, look at my work from the point of view of suspense, etc. I feel energized. Hope it lasts once real life hits me on the head very late tomorrow night. In the snow.

This is a beautiful historic town overrun with elderly American hippies - today, a man with a grey ponytail wearing a t-shirt that said "Portland Juggling Festival" - and Canadian retirees, but there's nothing wrong with that. They have created an arts mecca, with music, art, writing, dance - a great deal of stuff going on all the time, while Mexico flows by around them. I could not live here longterm, but short term - absolutely. Especially in February.

Today after my seminar with Edd I walked about - well, truthfully, I had a goal. Kristin had told me about the best place to buy silver jewelry, so I went there, not on the street or in the artisanal market but in an arcade out of the hot sun, where I tried on a hundred pairs of earrings and bought two pairs for me and one for Anna, for very little money. Walked and looked some more as it grew hotter, ended up buying the requisite Panama straw hat in the market - everyone has one here, only now I have to get mine back to Canada in my small suitcase unscathed. Was in the office of the shuttle from San Miguel to Mexico City when a woman said, "Aren't you Ruth Miller's friend Beth? I met you at her cottage last summer." Toronto journalist Cathy Dunphy, here with a friend. That's the kind of town it is.
Re-entry to cold will be a shock. People have complained of the cold here, and yes, it was so chilly one morning, they distributed blankets to those of us taking workshops in tents. (Much of this conference took place outside, with classes in big tents and reading sessions en plein air. Imagine trying to do that in Canada!) But with layers the chill really didn't bother me. What was extraordinary was the swing from really cold in the morning to very hot in the afternoon to cold again at night. But cold is relative to us Canucks. So many Canucks at this conference.

As always, I'll be happy to be back in my own bed. But this has been a very rich experience all round. One poor workshop, one not great, and five terrific, plus great keynotes and readings - almost too much to take in.
PS If you want more detail about Mexico and San Miguel in particular, and more pictures, please click on 2015 in the blog history to the left, and then August. I was here with my friend Annie and wrote rapturously, including that I'd like to come back one February.

Done.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

stuffed

I just met a young writer from Vancouver who said, "I feel overstuffed with both food and words." I think a lot of us agree. It has been an intense experience, and I didn't even do the full amount. The people who took two three-hour intensives yesterday are really bushed.

So now sitting by the pool, wincing to the loud explosions of firecrackers nearby; I'm winding down, though yesterday I did almost nothing related to writing. Except for the afternoon, a seminar about an organization called Narrative 4, founded by the Irish novelist Colum McCann who brought his charming self here to tell us about it. It brings together teenagers from vastly different cultures, to learn each others' stories and thus learn empathy and bridge divides. He had the audience do what the kids do, to show us how it's done: he had each person in the crowd find a stranger, sit with him or her, and tell each other a personal story.

I sat with Stephen, originally from England now based in the States, who told me stories from his childhood, starting with quite a funny adventure and ending with a tale about one of his brothers who was killed on his bicycle a week before Stephen was born. A ghost haunting you, I said. Yes, he said, and told me about it. By the end, we were besties, Stephen and I. The few who shared with us what they learned stood and said, "My name is..." using the name of the other, and then told the story in that person's voice. It was truly wonderful, one of my favourite events here.

Dinner that night with Curtis and his Montreal friend Kristen who has lived here in the winters for years, a wonderful meal at a small local place, grilled fish and vegetables and lots and lots of wine. Perhaps a bit too much wine - I'm a bit woozy today. Especially as the two last workshops were this morning at 9 and 11. Then the last lunch, and tonight the last party. And we're done. Today I learned about the business of publishing, and then about the generosity of personal essays. I'm glad I took a mix of craft and practical business workshops.

Mistakes: I only brought 3 books to sell because of suitcase weight and sold all of them, so could have sold lots more. Next time, if there is one. I'm going to think about applying, not to attend, but to teach here; I have as much experience as some of the teachers here, and in some cases more. It has been fantastic. I too am stuffed and will need time and distance to sort out what I learned about both craft and business. But I'm already looking for a tech assistant to help me up my social media game, have ideas about my books that are already out and ideas for what's next, how to approach the material. Really terrific.

Lots of banging and loud music - went to see - a funeral again passing by the hotel, the coffin carried high through the streets followed by the crowd and musicians playing bouncy music, one with tuba. A public celebration of death. Should I ask my kids to carry my ashes through the streets of Toronto playing loud songs by the Beatles, the Travelling Wilburys, and Bach?

Clanging of church bells, all day, all the time. Love that.

My photographs are very slow to download so will post when I get home. This is definitely a paradise, at least for us gringos. But it's a pretty good place to live for many Mexicans too. Do have to say: our CNFC organization has been talking about how to diversify our demographic from older white women, who make up the majority of our members. Well, the writers here are about 88% older white women. And hooray for them, too, or this amazing festival would not exist. Over and out for today, from this OWW. (If I called myself an older white lady, I'd be an OWL. But I'm no lady.)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

San Miguel writers' conference Day Four

Saturday - a day of rest, more or less. Some have signed up for two intensive three hour workshops, but Curtis and I did not. So today, we set out with a driver for Las Grutas, a hot springs with a grotto about 12 minutes from the hotel. It was not what we expected; we were almost the only gringos there and there was little in English, so we wandered about trying to figure out where you changed and how it all worked. We did figure it out, but Curtis decided he did not want to walk around in his bathing suit, particularly as the morning was chilly. So he found a comfortable rock to perch on, and I plunged into the hot springs pool.

To find many floating Mexican families and couples, most with cellphones, some holding them above their heads, some with them in plastic cases, snapping endless selfies and pix of each other. One huge family, 3 or 4 generations including great-grandma, gathered in the pool for a portrait up to the neck in hot water. It was hilarious. I had a delicious float and then Curtis and I had coffee and gossiped, as is our wont, I admiring these beautiful people with their gorgeous cappuccino skin and black eyes and hair. This is a people that believes in public displays of affection.

Incidentally, I've seen two funerals, men carrying a coffin through the narrow streets, followed by a big crowd of mourners with flowers. Day of the Dead artefacts are everywhere here, many skulls and skeletons. Death is more a daily presence in this society than in any I've encountered.

Yesterday, two good workshops, one on being a "marketable author," something about which I know very little, and the next on creating suspense in literary memoir and fiction, ditto. Very technical, full of valuable facts. Before and after, the usual enormous meals. At 3.45, readings by the Canadian faculty here, some terrific, some not so much, IMHO. And at 8, a big party. This is a huge conference; they'd built a stage outside, put long rows of tables, and an entire kitchen area - drinks, food, many interesting people. I met a couple from Sausolito, another from the Yukon, a third from Regina, a young Mexican woman and her mother, a photographer from Vancouver. We were treated to traditional Mexican dances, and then a solemn group of ten musicians played for a long time; unfortunately, we couldn't hear them well, and it was getting colder and darker as we waited for the dancing to begin. But first, there was an unfortunately very long tableau of the Quinceanera, the traditional celebration for a girl's 15th birthday, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of this festival. Only here it was a woman from the festival dressed up in glittering satin and a long hoop skirt like Cinderella at the ball, waltzing around the stage with the musicians for a long time, waving gaily to us and beaming. While we waited, and it got colder.

But then the music started, and the dancing. That was wonderful. Just to move my body is wonderful - it feels like I've been sitting, listening, thinking, and eating eating eating, for days. And in fact, I have. The mornings and evenings are very cold; everyone complains, especially the Mexican woman at dinner last night - until the man from the Yukon turned around and told us about two weeks at minus 57. Perspective, people.

Now a walk to town with Curtis, then an event I'll write about later, and dinner. That's the gruelling day. Tomorrow - back to work.

Friday, February 14, 2020

pretty nice

Images today. I've taken very few photos so far - too busy, also not wanting to intrude.
Okay, this is the only one that will download - very slow 'net here. This is the view from my bedroom door. More anon.

Sorry, Toronto, which is far colder than Antarctica apparently, to show you this. I feel for you. Tonight I was at a party here and dancing madly, but I was still feeling for you.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

San Miguel Writers' Conference Day Two, the Canada connection

Definitely surreal, juggling the delights of sunshine and this fine country with the reason I'm here - to sit listening to people talk about writing. Each morning at breakfast, I am the only person who takes the food outside; today I took my lunch plate outside too. Every chance I get, face in the sun. Got to absorb as much as possible because the deep freeze awaits.

Last night, Madeleine Thien gave an extraordinary keynote talk about her new novel-in-progress that made me, and I think the whole audience, feel a bit stupid and dull; she spoke about the space/time continuum, Spinoza, and Hannah Arendt. So you see, not light and chatty, but fascinating. Before she spoke, we heard from one of the founders of this festival, now celebrating its 15th anniversary, and then from a woman from the Canadian embassy, because the festival is deeply connected to Canada, many Canadians attend, and the embassy donates money. The cultural aide spoke beautifully in English, Spanish, and French about our country's support for the arts while also mentioning that our prime minister is a feminist and that a good way to stem the tide of populism infecting the world is through the arts. She made me proud. Yes, we Canucks have lots to fix, but in comparison with many countries - one in particular comes to mind - we have a lot to celebrate.
The all-female mariachi band that played before the talk.

After Madeleine there was an opening reception that I was not invited to; Curtis and I took the Writer's Package, much cheaper than the Whole Enchilada package but with many exclusions. I am starting to wonder if that was a mistake - we are missing a lot of things, could buy individual tickets but they're extremely expensive. However, I'm now sitting in the shade by the pool again while others are inside listening, so nothing to complain about.

This morning a workshop on social media, very interesting - I seriously need to up my game. And then a rather infuriating workshop entitled "Bring your scenes to life with cinematic flair," instruction I really could use because I'm not good at scenes. But the first hour was the nice young teacher reading long passages from novels and then showing the scene in the subsequent movie - not a valuable use of time. The last half hour, she gave us the six elements of scene and had us write from fiction prompts that I simply turned to memoir. So something gained in the end but a lot of time wasted. BK does not like to waste time. Even with the cheap Writer's Package.

Set out to go for a walk this afternoon but it was too hot (too hot!) and the exhaust fumes were overpowering, so I went for a swim. Soon Curtis and I will have a glass of wine and then the next keynote, by Colum McCann. Tomorrow a full day, from 9 right through to a big party at 8 that I bought an expensive ticket for; there's going to be music, can't miss that.

A lot of people are here to network and schmooze. I'm hopeless at it. The place is crawling with interesting writers talking madly, and I'm happy sitting here, writing to you.

PS And now, 5 p.m., I'm in jeans and a sweater. The weather turns quickly. Wine time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Vive Mexico.

Let it never be said that I am not a lucky woman. At this moment I am sitting by the pool of the Hotel Real de Minas in San Miguel, listening to the hooting of the doves and the distant chatter of writers here for the conference, squinting in the sun as I gaze at the scarlet poinsettia trees and trying to digest yet another huge meal. Muy bien, gracias.

Had to get up at six a.m. and out the door by 6.45 - was that only yesterday? The six hour Aeromexico flight left early and was marvellous; though the flight was full, there was an empty seat next to me and next to that an interesting guy with lots of opinions I didn't necessarily agree with, so we talked all the way to Mexico City. The flight arrived 3/4 of an hour early but I waltzed right out with my small carryon and there was Curtis, who'd come in a few days before from Puerta Vallarta where he spends the winter, waiting with the driver of our car. A four hour drive jabbering the whole way, with me sticking my face in the sun as much as possible and eating the delicious sandwich he'd brought for me.

The hotel where we're staying and the conference is happening is huge. I was thrilled to have exactly the right room, with a sliding door out to the pool and courtyard. We got our bearings and walked to the centre of town to have a margarita and some enchiladas con mole, while watching the town walk by: yes.


Today a huge breakfast - scrambled eggs with fried plantains. refried beans, papaya, pineapple, and a Mexican sugar doughnut. Registered, got my badges, put my books for sale in the bookstore here, and took a walk with Curtis through town again, buying necessities, including a bottle of wine for aperitif and some of those vibrantly coloured paper decorations Mexico is famous for. The shopping has begun.

And then a big lunch. Breakfast and lunch are included which means I will eat a lot. Perhaps I'll be able to go easy at dinner though that's unlikely, so they'll have to roll me off the plane home. Dinty Moore is here; he spoke at our CNFC conference in Toronto in 2018, it's good to meet him again. Have met a bunch of writers from all over already.

It all starts in an hour or so with the first workshop, and tonight a keynote from Madeleine Thien. I'll write again soon. Right now - maybe time for a swim. Or a nap.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Arriba y adelante to San Miguel

The title means: Onward and upward.

Woke up this morning to this, on the deck - an army of little paw prints, the raccoons checking to be sure I haven't flung the contents of my fridge out for them. Good luck with that, banditos.
A busy weekend - Eli over Saturday to Sunday afternoon. At one point I laughed, thinking of the fond feminist time when we tried to insist the sexes are basically the same, just conditioned differently - ha! After a long busy day at several anti-pipeline protests with his mother, a very long walk, and a huge dinner, he wanted to go to his favourite playground. It felt like the coldest day of the year - minus 12 with wind - but off we went. He brought along his favourite stick, that he'd packed in his backpack with other necessities; he jumped on and into every snowbank we passed, kicked a ton of snow into the street, stopped to whack icicles wherever he could see them, and at one point, threw the stick ahead and ran to pounce on it, like a puppy. And then he wanted to play tag. Just about the last thing on earth this freezing Glamma wanted to do.

We did play Monopoly - I for the first time in decades - and he made a risky gamble involving houses on Boardwalk which allowed him, with one unlucky throw for me, to wipe me out with $1400 in rent. I wrote to his grandfather that happily there's at least one savvy money manager in the family. And then we read more Alice in Wonderland in bed. What joy to revisit these beloved books.

Anna had spent her free time cleaning and organizing, and the place was gleaming. Thomas has made her a new bookshelf and she's colour-coded all her books. Beautiful.

Then the streetcar up Roncesvalles to visit the other offspring at his workplace, hearing from the lovely young women sitting next to me how much they, and the whole neighbourhood, care for him. Such a nice guy, they said, gazing fondly, perhaps a bit too fondly, as he's a seriously single guy right now. We went nearby for a great talk and a delicious meal. At the end, he ordered a pizza for his colleagues at the bar and took it back to watch the Oscars with them. On his night off.

And so home, with the best feeling a mother can have - that despite some natural concerns, I could not be more proud of these human beings and the lives they have created. A blessing. A mitzvah.

Watched a bit of Oscar but flipped to Sanditon and Vienna Blood on PBS. Can't help, though, being drawn to the glitzy spectacle. Have been meaning to see Parasite for months, but I guess after yesterday it'll be around for some time.

And now I'm packing for Mexico before teaching tonight, leaving at dawn tomorrow for a long travel day - a six hour flight and a four hour bus ride to San Miguel de Allende, for a week at their annual writer's festival. Apparently it's hot there during the day and cold morning and night, but I can't comprehend what that actually means, except layers.

I'll let you know. Happy February to you all.

Friday, February 7, 2020

a phenomenal community organizer

Anna has organized a "strike camp" at a local community centre - she and a bunch of high school volunteers are looking after kids whose parents can't afford child care during the strike. Today, the leader of the NDP Jagmeet Singh came to the camp, and the local MPP Bhutila Karpoche introduced Anna to him as "a phenomenal community organizer."

She is chuffed, and so are her parents. 'Community' and 'organize' are among her favourite words, words she acts on.
Inaya's poster says "I love my school and cuts hurt me." Eli's says "How will I learn math with 30+ kids in my class?" That's Paul Taylor in the middle, Anna's friend from high school, who ran for the NDP recently and came a close second to the Lib.

Before that news came in, I spent the morning in a depressive funk. It's just unbearable to see evil triumphant in the States, to witness a disgusting lunatic in charge with a team of craven lickspittles beneath him. How do the Dems fight a man and a party who have not a shred of ethics? How do they figure out the rules when there are no rules? And here, our teachers are on strike against another disgusting government. Is the world collapsing, or just democracy and decency?

So. Depressed and sad for a bit. Plus a ton of fresh snow.

And then I went out to shovel the snow and saw the mail had arrived and there was a parcel for me. I have established a strong bond over the internet with Antoinette in Edmonton, who was a good friend of Mum's and her piano teacher. She has knitted me a cowl, a beautiful pink scarf in a silk blend from a cooperative in Peru; it's soft and warm and perfect, and it made me cry. As I wrote to her, she reminded me that people do care for each other, and also that there are lots of kind people who care for me. Easy to forget during the down times. Thank you, Antoi.

Last night was the dance party with a fabulous DJ. I arrived as it kicked off at 7, and danced, almost without stopping, until departing at 9.45, grateful for a ride home in the snow from friend and student Sam and her husband Michael. Not a big crowd but bigger than the last time, and Gina is hoping to produce it 4 times a year. Nothing better for the soul than dancing your brains out.

At least some of us, unlike others of us, including 49% of the U.S. who approve of Trump, still have brains.

PS. Just had this email from a former student. More cheering up. Thank you! Onward.
I just wanted to tell you that your blog brings me great joy and I appreciated all the movies you recommend! I too saw and loved 63UP, Little Women, and the Dr. Ruth documentary, which surprised and enchanted me. I've admired Siphe November when I've seen him on stage at the ballet--I can't wait to see this documentary. I appreciate your curiosity and wide-ranging interests--it's inspiring.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Beyond Moving : a must see documentary

I know, I'm always rhapsodizing - I even rhapsodize about rhapsodizing. But now there's another must see film. My dear friend Marilyn took me to the Hot Docs cinema last night to see a new documentary, Beyond Moving. And it is.

It's about Siphe November, a young boy in one of South Africa's desolate township villages who takes dance classes with Fiona, a fierce British ballet teacher, is noticed by a Canadian family visiting there, and ends up at Canada's National Ballet School - described in the film, and now I believe it, as the best ballet school in the world.

Partly the film is simply a celebration of his magnificent human body, its expressive twists and turns, the boy, the young man soaring, flinging, leaping, all fluid legs and arms. He's small of build, which is a disadvantage for a ballet dancer, and he is of course the only black face on stage. And he's spectacular. Amazingly, his older brother is also a star dancer, in London. The scene where the older sits weeping in the audience, watching for the first time his kid brother dance a lead role with the National Ballet, a role choreographed for Baryshnikov - unforgettable. As are the scenes where Siphe goes home — to a village, a country, where everyone dances all the time.

But the story is also about the dedicated Fiona, how hard for her that her star pupil flew away. His extraordinary life, his success, is due to her; she's still in the dusty township, at the end with terminal cancer, while he and his brother are achieving their dreams on the other side of the world.

The director, Vikram Dasgupta, and Siphe himself, now twenty years old, were there last night to answer questions. It was thrilling. Dasgupta was asked how he chose the material to include, because he'd been following the story for so many years. He told us it took him two years to edit the film, that he had to decide what the core story was - not race, but love of dance and the drive to succeed. Siphe was asked if it was hard for him to be so far from home, so young. He said yes, but "Dance is my home."

Hope you have a chance to see this beautiful documentary.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI_UMT1FbVU

PS Eleanor just called to ask if I'm free to go to the opera tonight; the person she was going with is sick, as was the person supposed to go to the film with Marilyn. Another advantage of singledom: I am regularly offered the chance to fill in, giving me a feast of options — too many, in fact. First world problems. In any case, I'm not free tonight, it's the dance party. I may not dance like Siphe, but I'll dance. The feast continues.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Rosie: must see

A superb film today, with Ken - Rosie, an Irish film written and produced by the fantastic, admirable Roddy Doyle. Heart-rending in all the right ways, it shows a working class Irish family, four children, father a hardworking dishwasher in a restaurant, who are evicted from their rented home because the landlord wants to sell it. They can't find another place they can afford, and now are reduced to living in their car, spending the day phoning hotels that accept families paid for by the government, one night at a time. The children, beautifully brought to life by child actors who are so real, we can hardly believe they're actors, are deeply affected in one way or another. The only thing I'd criticize is that the parents are so wonderful, so loving and attentive despite their circumstances - it's hard to believe they wouldn't disintegrate. The mother, played with ferocious passion by the superb Sarah Greene, isn't a flawless character; she's proud and stubborn, and her sweet husband is beaten down and a bit feckless. But we love them, and we suffer with them.

Ken and I emerged from the Carlton Cinema with a whole new understanding of what it is to be homeless, to see a cavalcade of private school girls - from Havergal and other very expensive, exclusive schools in Toronto - who'd been having a sports tournament nearby. Their faces were painted with streaks of "Indian paint" as they giggled and shrieked and climbed into their vast new busses - or into the waiting Lexus, as a few did while we watched. I thought, they should all be forced to watch Rosie.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Doyle wrote “Rosie” after hearing a radio news report about how Dublin’s acute shortage of rental properties means even people with steady jobs have difficulty finding places to live. Unlike other writers who’ve taken on stories like this, Doyle has the gift of creating characters in extreme situations without hitting you over the head with their plight.                                       
We know this situation is taking place, in one way or another, all over this city. If you have the chance, please see it. It's the kind of film that will root in your gut and stay there. In all the right ways.

It's the State of the Union right now, the last thing on earth I want to see. Pete Buttigieg (is that how you spell it?) all the way! Please God may the orange curse be lifted from the earth.

As an antidote, I offer this, my beloved grandsons and their friend Inaya scribbling on the paper tablecloth at the restaurant we ate at before Beethoven. May they have a sane, safe world to grow up in. May they always, always, have a home.

Monday, February 3, 2020

51% Jewish

There was a sale at Ancestry.com in December - imagine, a sale on your DNA information! - so I decided to do it. I thought maybe long lost family might emerge, or even an interesting secret, though I was pretty sure of my ancestry - 50% Ashkenazi Jew, 50% British peasant. The results came in: "51% European Jewish, 45% England, Wales and Northwest Europe, and 4% Germanic Europe."

Interesting that the Jewish genes predominate. No surprise there. No long lost relatives - 1000+ distant cousins I've never heard of, but "no starred matches." I met someone who found her birth mother through this process. But I knew my birth mother quite well.

Spent lots of time at Roy Thomson Hall this weekend, thanks to Robin, my upstairs tenant, and the marvellous tickets he gave me: the Dvorak cello concerto on Saturday night and "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" with Eli and his friend Inaya on Sunday afternoon. The Dvorak - played by the TSO's principal cellist Joe Johnson, a sandy-haired guy who looks like a baseball player and played in shirtsleeves - was sublime, just glorious. Dvorak wrote about it, "I have also written a cello concerto, but am sorry to this day that I did so, and I never intend to write another." Sometimes artists are so very wrong.

The energetic conductor Aziz Shokhakimov is from Uzbekistan. What a wonderful world. They also played Smetana and Mendelssohn, so a 19th century romantic program. Jean-Marc and I did not fall in love, however.

How hard to try to help young kids understand classical music. The Beethoven show is an attempt - the story of a boy whose mother rents an upstairs room to Ludwig, and how the boy comes to know and understand the crazy deaf composer, who has the legs cut off his pianos so he can feel the vibrations through his body. Throughout, as actors play the boy and his uncle, the orchestra plays Beethoven's greatest hits. And I could listen to those forever.

As we sat before the concert in the magnificent room, I was explaining what a concert hall is, how it has sound baffles to make sure we hear all the notes. Inaya looked around and said, "Are there any code violations?" She's 7. Going to be a lawyer or city planner, I guess. The kids were engaged, though not overly. But I do feel one of my Glamma jobs is underway.

A grandson story: during the Florida trip, Holly said to Ben, "We're going to Miami." He thought she said, "We're going to my ami." He still says, "We went to Holly's ami." CUTENESS.

Sunday night, before the 3-hour feast of PBS, I watched an interview on 60 Minutes with John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, a hugely successful writer, married with 2 kids, who has suffered all his life from acute anxiety and OCD, has been on meds for years. He is forthright about his condition, wants to show the world it's possible to live a happy, successful life with mental illness. Hooray for him! Writers rule.
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-fault-in-our-stars-author-john-green-reaching-young-adults-and-dealing-with-mental-illness-60-minutes-2020-02-02/

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Pythons: The All-England Summarise Proust Competition

Bill Maher was so apocalyptic last night, it was almost unbearable, as I'd expected after the
Repulsives voted no to new witnesses in the impeachment process. "We're now living in a dictatorship," Maher said, pointing out that places like Russia and North Korea have fake "senates" too, where the actions of the dear leader are rubber-stamped. Scary times, my friends. Not to mention the hideous tragedy of Brexit. Read Ian McEwan's take in the Guardian. A long dark tunnel of current events, right now, with a little coronavirus hysteria thrown in to cheer us up. On the streetcar this morning, there was an Asian mother beside her young son, faces buried to the eyes behind masks, gazing at their phones. Soon the niqab won't be an issue; we'll all have hidden faces.

Oh come on, it's not all gloom and doom. January's over.

Yesterday, across town to see the family, the boys back in the cold - when I left they were playing hockey in the backyard with their dad which you can't do in Florida, so take that, boring old beach.

This morning I bought Daniel Levitin's Successful Aging. After all, I'll be 70 this year. Yikes. So far, I'm lucky enough to be getting through aging all right. 'So far' being the operative words. I will pass the book on to whoever feels the need for inspiration when it's finished. One quote: "The age that comes up most often as the happiest time of one's life is eighty-two." I have a way to go!

Tonight's treat - Robin my tenant got me the tickets I requested to Dvorak's Cello Concerto, one of my favourite pieces of music. Jean-Marc and I will have dinner and go to the symphony. Hooray!

Have been reading about Terry Jones, the latest Python to vanish. A lovely, brilliant man. God, if ever Pythons and their savage humour were needed, it's now. Please watch the "All-England Summarise Proust Competition" if you want an antidote to the news.
https://www.vulture.com/2020/01/terry-jones-interview-monty-python-comedy-poetry.html?mc_cid=fb81f910b3&mc_eid=6a20639251

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Successful aging

By chance, I turned on TVO's "the Agenda" with Steve Paikin tonight; I rarely watch though it's always interesting - and it was about successful aging. His panel of experts told us that the curve of life satisfaction dips in the thirties and forties and then climbs again, to the happiest time of life in middle and old age. That is, of course, for those who are relatively healthy, not too isolated, not too poor. Who are curious, resilient, resourceful, connected.

I concur. They pointed out that we elders adjust expectations, we have perspective, we've achieved a kind of serenity and acceptance and compassion for others and ourselves, and it's true. A younger self can't imagine the kind of peace and wisdom possible later. The stress of the thirties and forties - when kids are growing up, parents are aging, you're still wrestling with job stress and ambition and sexual needs - all subside, leaving someone who can relax into the smallest moment, grateful to be alive.

He interviewed Daniel Levitan, whose new book "Successful Aging" is now on my must-read list. They showed a quote from Jane Goodall, who, as Steve said, is 89 and "still kicking ass and taking names." She said that as you age, because you have less time to make your mark, you need not to slow down but to speed up. Levitan spoke of his new hero, an American woman who took up competitive running at age 100 and at 103 is breaking records.

HOORAY! When I look back at my fraught years, I feel sorry for that poor overloaded distraught woman. But here she is. Tranquil at last.

Speaking of tranquillity - yesterday we smudged my house. My son has long felt that there's something dark here, and recently a few strange things have happened. I don't feel it myself, but I wanted to do this for him, and a friend of a friend whose husband was Indigenous and is "accredited" to smudge by an Ojibway elder came over with sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. She shredded it into a bowl, we spent some minutes meditating and/or praying, and then she lit the grass and we wafted it about. It was wonderful.

Until my smoke alarms went off, screeching sirens and blinking lights. We had to move the smoking bowl to the deck. Ah well. It was well worth it. My house is cleansed.

In other news: Okay, I was wrong about Billie Eilish, whom I dissed in the last post after she won innumerable Grammys - I just watched James Corden's carpool karaoke with her, and she's adorable, even if she does have a pet tarantula. She and her brother have been writing songs together since she was seven. Extraordinary.

Last night, went with my oldest friend Ron to the Canadian Music Centre, to see a modern composer's concert and CD launch. I was particularly interested because one of his pieces was named something like, "What the wall sees as it watches Rob Ford in his office." Sounded funny and interesting. He's an exponent of "minimalist music," and it was indeed minimalist - as Ron said, where's the melody? There was a great video component that went with each piece, but half-way through, rather than waiting through a half hour intermission, my friend and I escaped. I'm very happy to know composers and videographers and musicians are out there doing their thing. Sometimes with greater success and sometimes, not so much.

There's a problem with the gang in Florida: they don't want to come home. After seeing the pictures, I don't blame them. However, they need hugs from their loved ones, including Glamma, and they need to go back to school. So home it is, tomorrow night. Re-entry might be difficult. Here they are, still suffering, with Greta, my ex their grandfather's daughter, so their ... 9-year old aunt? Too complicated.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Beethoven's piano

A former student with whom I worked for a few years on a memoir, now a beautiful book, gave me a gift certificate to Koerner Hall as a gift. Yesterday afternoon, the first concert: Louis Lortie playing Beethoven piano sonatas, including the Hammerklavier, a virtuoso feat of physical and emotional strength, breathtaking. It's really something to walk off the street into a concert hall to encounter a few of the geniuses of western civilization: the composer, the pianist, the person who invented the piano —according to Google, Bartolomeo Cristofori, around 1700, who said to himself, we could stretch strings across a sounding board and have black and white keys and soft little hammers hitting them at various frequencies. Astounding. And then that a nearly deaf German musician would hear music in his head and translate it into a million little black dots on paper, and more than 200 years later a French-Canadian would work for a trillion hours to translate those dots back into music for us ... It's good to remember, in this time of despair, how magnificent human achievement can be.

Sunday night, a feast of television: three hours on PBS with the Grammys in between. Howard's End, Jane Austen's Sanditon, and Vienna Blood, about the crime-solving friendship between a detective and a Jewish-Viennese medical student - all terrific, though Howard's End is by far the best. How do the British do it, line up these stunning casts, one actor after another perfect for the part?

The Grammys, the little I saw - sheesh. Too bad I missed Bonnie Raitt, the only performance I think I'd have enjoyed; she stood with a guitar and sang the gorgeous "Angel From Montgomery" in a tribute to John Prine. The rest - the costumes, Jesus, the grotesque over-the-topness of everything - I don't get it. Not to mention the incomprehensible lyrics and names: YBN Cordae. H.E.R. FKA Twigs. Lil Nas X. No, he's okay, he's fun, and "Old Town Road" is my grandsons' favourite, it's just the names ... And the young singers, like the prize-winning, weird Billie Eilish, who sing as if they can hardly be bothered to move their lips or push the sound of the throat - hate it. I watch to try to keep up to date on what matters in popular music, but I think it's too late.

What would Beethoven think? Unimaginable. He'd have liked "Angel from Montgomery," though.

In other news, family friend Holly has taken Eli and Ben to Florida for five days. They are having a miserable time, as you can see. In celebration of their short vacation, Anna and Thomas are going to paint the apartment.

A sign held up in Washington: "Come on people now/ Smile on your brother/ Everybody get together/ And impeach the motherfucker right now." Right on. As we used to say.

Continuing this profane mood, a final word, sent by my beloved friend Patsy on Gabriola Island:

Friday, January 24, 2020

getting through

I often think of pioneer women, on the frontier 150 years ago, trying to raise families and feed their children during the long hard winters. How did they survive the isolation, the cold, the deprivation? Incredible fortitude, which helped forge this country.

I'm thinking of them as I do every winter, because it's winter, and I'm feeling it. I, in my centrally-heated house, with electricity and running water and a huge grocery store a block away, with my new winter coat and warm boots, with all the resources keeping me sane - the Y, the TTC, television, films and concerts and galleries easily available, and more - even so, I am feeling the winter. It's just tough, the lack of light and colour, the inability to go outside - at least for those of us who don't ski or skate or even hike in the snow, as does my friend Carole - and for me, the hideousness of the city with its icy sidewalks and filthy snowbanks.

So. That's all; moan over. It's not fun, and we get through. Because we're Canadian, and it's what we do. Reading David Sedaris helps — was in bed last night laughing out loud — and Joan Didion. Wine and soup. The sauna at the Y. Documentaries - just saw one on a controversial sawmill in Nova Scotia, and another, right now, called the Divided Brain, about the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist. Very interesting - things I've never thought about. Why is our brain divided, why do we have two centres of consciousness?

Busy day yesterday - the first U of T class of term, the advanced class, students coming back for more detailed in depth editing. A nap, then the home class, the usual joy of stories with glasses of wine and piles of cheese - one student returning after 4 or 5 years, bringing back her unique and wonderful voice. Also re work: have been digging into old files and found stories, written 25 years ago, that I think are pretty good. Why didn't I do anything with them then? They're dated now - one mentioning the many AIDS deaths, another about a woman having an affair sneaking out to use a payphone - hard to deal with, though I hate to abandon. What a waste! So much written, so little published. Story of my life.

Today, watched the last ten minutes of the superb Adam Schiff addressing the Senate about the irrefutable reasons for impeachment. At last, an honourable, eloquent politician and a fine man. My God, we need to see that these days. Both sides of my brain salute him.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Anna disses this "vile" government

So despite the cold, my rabble-rousing daughter was on the front lines of the teachers' strike yesterday, at one demonstration and then another, with her boys and two kids she was looking after for the day. She was interviewed for the toronto.com website. She's articulate, my girl, and eloquent. One proud mama here.
https://www.toronto.com/news-story/9814531-striking-elementary-teachers-get-support-from-parkdale-rally/

Eli made his own sign. One proud glamma here.
On the other hand, if you want a glimpse of the end of a civilization, look at pictures of Monday's gun-rights protest in Virginia. Beyond belief that lunatics carrying those massive weapons, looking like they're on their way to war, are walking around freely and feeling empowered, egged on by Trump. Terrifying.

Back to civilization, in fact, its pinnacle: Gretchen and I loved the Mozart Requiem. We were on the mezzanine of Roy Thomson Hall, so the full power of the huge Mendelssohn Choir, singing from a level above the stage, blasted right out to us. It was magnificent. I did not weep, but the last chords made every hair on my body stand on end.

That night, I was awake for hours fretting about my organization the CNFC; sometimes problems overwhelm me, my heart races, my mind circles around and around. I almost got up and started emailing at 4 a.m. but was able to wait till 9. And then my colleagues wrote back to say, as my daughter would, CHILL. So I am trying to. I don't apologize for caring too much, but yes, chilling is not in my vocabulary.

Speaking of vocabulary, a student at Ryerson last night told me my writing book, the textbook for the course, is "dope." "You have a good vibe, Miss," he said. Glad to hear it. A thrilling class, travels around the world, from a courtyard in Beijing to a remote community in Newfoundland, where the moose stew was bubbling on the wood stove. How I love my job.

I am trying to find someone to do a smudging ceremony here at the house. Do any of you know how this is done? I'd like to convince whatever it was that lifted the picture off the wall and threw it to the ground, smashing vintage Fiestaware on the way down, that this is bad behaviour and they should go somewhere else.

Today, a true winter Tuesday, cold, snowy, slushy. After a morning emailing and doing class work, I realized I'd spend the day in here alone and instead rushed out to the streetcar and fled to the Y, where I did an Arriba class with my friend Tina - half an hour of Latin music played loud, dance moves, FUN. Just what I needed. Now back to my lovely silent house. Where I must learn to CHILL and write some more dope stuff.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Cabbagetown Youth Centre crisis

10.20 a.m. Saturday morning, and it has just started, the snow, as they predicted. We'll get a lot today, so a hunkering down kind of day; it already feels muffled and shrouded out there, with less than an inch on the ground. Tonight a huge treat - my tenant who works at the symphony has given me tickets for Mozart's Requiem at Roy Thomson Hall. Shovelling, and then Mozart.

Yesterday, a P.D. day, Anna came over with her two boys and three siblings she was looking after for the day, including a tiny preemie sixteen-month old. Here is Ben with his best friend and schoolmate Ian. They are about to make a huge mess with Play Doh.
Eli and Ian's savvy, sensible older sister were building a fort upstairs with ensuing chaos. A great thrill, to see Eli carry the baby around with tenderness and care. And to watch the love my daughter puts into all children, not just her own. I truly do not know where that came from; certainly not from me, I've never had that kind of patience. It's miraculous.

I took the older four to the playground and the Farm; what a resource, this quiet place where animals are chewing. We watched the piglets snarling and snapping at each other, as siblings do. There were lots of eggs in the henhouse, and I remembered with nostalgia when I used to be able to buy them, still warm with feathers. Then the city decided it wasn't safe.

Speaking of unsafe: it looks like our Cabbagetown Youth Centre is going to close for lack of funding - private funding dropped off and provincial funding was slashed by the vicious, stupid, short-sighted, mean-spirited Ford government. A vital after-school place for local at-risk kids, it's at the heart of the community. Our GoFund me campaign isn't nearly enough; I've spoken to our MPP and wrote yesterday to Bill Morneau, our MP, pleading with them both to do something. No one cares. If only I could sic Anna on the case. But she is preoccupied with the school strikes, which will hit her local school Monday. She has offered free child care to anyone who needs to go to work.

As Krugman wrote yesterday in the NYTimes, Why does America hate its children?
Multiple studies have found that safety-net programs for children have big long-term consequences. Children who receive adequate nutrition and health care grow up to become healthier, more productive adults. And in addition to the humanitarian side of these benefits, there’s a monetary payoff: Healthier adults are less likely to need public aid and are likely to pay more in taxes.
It’s probably too much to claim that helping children pays for itself. But it surely comes a lot closer to doing so than tax cuts for the rich.

ARE YOU LISTENING, YOU MORONS?

Speaking of Americans: Bill Maher was back last night after a long break, and his interview guest was Nancy Pelosi. Now that is an admirable woman. "When you enter the arena, as I do," she said, ladylike, in an elegant pant suit and very high heels, "you have to be able to take the blows and also deliver them." And she does. She pointed out with great relish, "Trump is impeached forever. No matter what the Senate decides, he will always be impeached." YES!

And finally, my own two cents: Hooray for Meghan and Harry. It will not be easy to figure out how to break free of centuries of tradition, and for Harry to leave everything he has ever known, to find a new way to live. I salute your courage for trying. Let's leave them alone to make their way, shall we?

If only. As someone said on Twitter, Harry's mum died when he was a little boy. He had to walk behind her coffin and remain composed whilst people in the crowd, who had never even met her, were in hysterics. I am vehemently anti royal, but I hope he has a fucking great time forever with his hot wife.

And now perhaps a good idea to get dressed.

PS From across town: snow is falling, Dad and boys playing board game, cat keeping an eye on things. Luckily, there are lots of places where children are loved.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

advanced class Life Stories II, and dancing

My advanced class, Life Stories II, starts next Thursday at 12.30 at U of T, and there is still room. It's for students who've taken my class at least once and would like to suffer all over again. Please get in touch if you have questions.
https://learn.utoronto.ca/programs-courses/courses/2288-life-stories-ii

And ... I produced a dance party last year, with Gina's help. This year, she is doing it on her own with a little shove from me. We hope if it works, these will be a regular event. It's specifically so anyone can come and dance with or without partner. All that's needed is a desire to move the body to music, and $10.

here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

The sun is shining, in more ways than one. Yes, it's beaming hot through the window right now, as I sit at my south-facing desk. Barely winter, today.

I just sent the manuscript to another publisher who expressed interest in seeing it and has promised to get back to me by the end of February. I'd already contacted someone who assists with self-publishing, will put that off for a couple of months.

So - onward. I expect nothing; this time, no unrealistic fantasies. But I'll wait.

Yesterday, I sent an essay to an editor I work with - it's time for feedback. I read a fantastic piece of reporting in the Guardian, about the swallowing of affordable housing in Parkdale, in western Toronto, by huge corporations, evicting lower income residents, tearing down smaller buildings and putting up expensive condos. Sent it to Mayor Tory. Today the Mayor's office wrote me back with a long list of what the city is doing to promote affordable housing. Amazing - one day later! Write letters, folks. Sometimes it really works.
https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2020/jan/14/my-parkdale-is-gone-how-gentrification-reached-the-one-place-that-seemed-immune?CMP=share_btn_link

However, the Mayor's office wrote that the city had developed a ten-year plan for more affordable housing. I sent it to Anna. She wrote back, in her inimitable way, "Fuck that.  More housing in 10 years? They tore down a tent city a few weeks ago, knowing shelters were at capacity. Shameful."

It's sad this piece appeared in the Guardian, not a Canadian paper. I used to subscribe to the superb Guardian, had let that lapse, re-subscribed yesterday. We must support good journalism, more vital than ever now.

Got a book out of the library recommended by the wonderful Kerry Clare, whose blog Pickle Me This is at left. She usually writes about novels and memoirs, but this book is On Boards by a Canadian food blogger, and it's about how to arrange cheese and meat and veggies on a platter or board to make them look delectable. Life-changing; as I wrote to Kerry, no more sad little piles on a plate, now I will be scattering nuts and spices and making it all look gorgeous.
Penny sent me a belated Xmas present - a calendar of Liverpool, with the statue of the Fab Four on the front. My friends know me well.

Tomorrow is a P.D. day and Anna will come to visit with the boys and three other children she is looking after. Monday elementary school teachers are walking out in Parkdale and she has offered to look after any children whose parents need to go to work, without charge. She and all the kids in her care will go to not one but two demonstrations against school cuts. Atsa my girl.

The sun on my face. Breath in my lungs. About to go down to the kitchen and refill my coffee mug. Impeachment moves ahead. It doesn't get better than this.

P.S. Even better: I just got a royalty payment - $70.17. I'm rich!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

and furthermore ...

Forgive me if I mull over that rejection again. I was awake in the night - well, in fact, I'm awake most nights, this is the time of my January insomnia. I'm never a great sleeper, but for some reason every January, it's much worse - awake at 3 or 4 a.m. for hours. Is it the lack of light? The new year looming? No idea.

I was thinking about what I'd just written here. In some posts, I'm trying to show non-writers and students who come to my blog the life of a writer. We're very lucky in many ways; I spend a lot of time in my pyjamas, for example, as I am right now. But the isolation is also one of the hardest things about my chosen profession. We work alone, sometimes for years, with no idea if what we're working on will appeal to others. A yes from a publisher is in invitation inside, into the warm bright room of acceptance, a acknowledgement that yes, all that solitary effort has been recognized. It's being heard. Being seen.

I know from my own experience and from writer friends that even being published can be a major disappointment, however. We have dreams for our books that most often are not realized. But still, on we go. And we do have the image of J. K. Rowling hanging above our heads - a single mother who worked alone for a long time, spending a grant on babysitting so she could have time to write a novel about a boy wizard, a novel that was rejected many times before it found a publisher. How disheartened she must have been at first. What lunatics we writers be. And yet for her, things panned out rather well.

I say in class - we write for ourselves, because we need to tell our stories. So even if our work never makes it out into the world, we've still done what we needed to do.

And now, to get washed and dressed and to my desk. Because – lunatic writer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

in which Beth feels briefly sorry for herself - again

Burst into tears earlier tonight, and, this time, not from joy at music or books. An email I'd long awaited finally came in, from an editor at a big publishing house who'd agreed to read the manuscript. Another editor at the same house had already turned it down, but irrationally, very irrationally, I had hope.

The fantasy: the editor says yes, how we love this book! The machine begins to churn - meetings with editors, designers, publicists. Rewrites, plans. The book is launched. It's beautiful. Readers find it moving and truthful.

She said no. She said the publicity department didn't think it'd have a big enough audience.

So I had a cry. I've spent three or four years on this book, though of course while doing many other things. I sent it out to some indie publishers in July - July - and have heard back from one. No.

Ah well. I'm sure you've heard quite enough whining about this, over time. I'll wait a few more weeks for the other publishers, and then do it myself, again. Finally, what matters is to birth the book and move on. I can't do any more for this one.

The weather is amazingly mild for January. Teaching last night - a big and very diverse crowd at Ryerson will be a challenge and a lot of fun. Tomorrow, a student is coming to rehearse a piece she'll be reading at an event for women who've survived terrible things. Which she has - the sudden heart attack death of her young husband when their first son was two and she was six months pregnant with their second - and she has written beautifully about it. I'm proud to have helped her.

I have nothing to complain about. The world is burning. We writers do what we do; we do what we can. That's all.

Maybe a little bit more chocolate right now, however. No, peanut butter. Peanut butter fixes everything.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Grizzlies and the Two Popes

Apocalypse: at 4 p.m. it's pitch dark and has been pouring all day. Apparently we'll get more rain today than is common for the whole month of January. I worry, as usual, about the basement which used to flood, now an apartment occupied by a family of four including a sick five-year old and a newborn. So, fingers crossed for the hardy new sump pump.

Extremely glad I don't have to go anywhere. Unlike yesterday, I did get dressed, barely, in sweats and slippers, tho' will still take it very easy. But I think I've defeated whatever bug it is that was trying to get in.

In fact, it was wonderful to have all yesterday to do almost nothing except read and watch things. I finished the Carrère and started a book by Henry Nouwen, made a vat of chicken soup from Thursday's carcasses and watched not one but two good movies: The Two Popes on Netflix, and The Grizzlies, later, on TV. In the Popes, it's a treat to watch two lions of the British stage grapple with each other, in a film which involves us in an abstruse crisis in the Catholic church. Who the @##@ cares? But by the end, we do, because of the skill of these actors and a good script. Not to mention lots of glimpses of the heavenly Sistine Chapel.

The Grizzlies is set in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, with an almost entirely young, marvellous, Indigenous cast. The film is an appalling indictment of governmental neglect of Inuit communities in the far north, where teen suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and violence are epidemic. All this in a film that's uplifting and even funny, in a "Jamaican bobsled team" kind of way - the "redemption from sports" trope. But it's based on a true story, a teacher who started a lacrosse team and brought teamwork and hope to the community. Highly recommended, not just for the story and acting, but for the stunning icy vistas and exploration of a hidden, dark, Canadian truth.

In between, I actually wrote 500 words, the start of something new that I liked, inspired by Emmanuel Carrère and his kind of truth-telling. Wrote another 1000 today. We'll see. Today, Skyped with Chris in B.C. and Lynn in Montpellier; she ranted about the state of the country - though she emphasizes the huge benefits of French life, including free university, the protest strikes about pension reform have continued, paralyzing Paris and much of France; it took her many hours to make a usually short journey by train. She and I are supposed to meet up in Paris at the end of March; the strikes may still be on. "Good thing we're walkers," she said, because there may be no busses and only the automatic metro lines. Chaos.

The only problem with this sedate life of reading, writing, and Skyping is my legs, twitching from inactivity, two days of sitting here or in the living room, wrapped in a blanket. But this is not a day to go anywhere. When I wrote to my friend Eleanor about Carrère, she sent me her interview with him. So now I'll listen. Please join me. Happiness is.
https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2440778459

Friday, January 10, 2020

the brilliant Emmanuel Carrere's "Lives Other Than My Own"


Just wiping away tears, yet again – I just finished the book Lives Other Than My Own, translated by Linda Coverdale, by a stunning writer, Emmanuel Carrère, considered France’s greatest writer of nonfiction. Essential reading. Extraordinary how he is both there and not there on the pages as an authorial presence. It’s personal, the “I” is constantly present, and yet his work is an extreme act of generous exploration of, as the title says, other lives, small lives, yet as big as the world. Wise even as he details his own weakness, blindness, and depression, humble even as he forces himself into others’ worlds to expose them, supremely honest – the book is also about the writing of the book. 

The narrative starts in Indonesia, where he was witness to the tragedies of the tsunami; the reader is pulled in to his story by the force of his skill and purpose as he moves on to the death by cancer of his young sister-in-law. Says a NYT article about him:
Profoundly intimate, historically and philosophically serious but able to cast compulsive narrative spells, Carrère’s books are hybrids, marrying deep reporting to scholarly explorations of theology, philosophy, psychology, personal history and historiography.

The article tells how he could not figure out how to write a story that obsessed him, of a Frenchman who pretended to be a doctor, and who, when his lies were about to be exposed, murdered his entire family to safeguard his secret.

But six years passed, “six years,” Carrère has said, “of my life circling this story like a hyena,” six years during which this very productive writer published only 150 pages. He just couldn’t figure out how to finish the Romand story. Before he put it aside, he wrote himself what he calls a memo about what he tried to do, as a way of getting some closure on the wreck that the project had made of his life and his career. The memo began:

On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. He was 5 years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal.
“I’m not an idiot,” Carrère has said about the moment after he wrote those lines. “I very quickly realized that this impossible book to write was now becoming possible, that it was practically writing itself, now that I had accepted writing it in the first person. ... Others are a black box, especially someone as enigmatic as Romand. I understood that the only way to approach it was to consent to go into the only black box I do have access to, which is me.”
What a wonderful way to describe the persona of creative nonfiction writer, especially the memoirist: going into the black box which is me. Have ordered his latest book from the library, 97,196 Words: Essays.

I’m in bed today, not actually sick but not well, with a bug of some kind hanging around, am doing my best to head it off. Last night was triumphant, a joyful gathering of writers eating, drinking, reading, telling the truth with skill and commitment. Delving into the black box that is them.

And there are leftovers for lunch.