Sunday, November 30, 2008

an amazing and beautiful story

Here, my dear readers, is an early Christmas and Hanukkah present: an amazing and beautiful story.  

I've written here before about my pen pal Barbara who died during a heart operation when she was sixteen, in 1966, and how early this year I suddenly felt it was time to write about her. I got out all her letters and decided to try to contact her family, whom I'd lost touch with forty-two years ago. I especially wanted to talk to Barbara's mother Elsie, to tell her how much Barbara still means to me. 

I had no luck Googling Elsie's name, so I went through Barbara's letters for information about her brothers and sisters. She mentioned that her brother Peter had graduated from art school, so I Googled Peter's name and "artist" in various permutations, and found someone I was sure must be him. There was even a photograph that looked a bit like Barbara, though now Peter is in his late sixties. 

The next day I found a London number I thought might be his and called several times, but got a non-committal answering machine and knew this was far too complicated a message to leave. So I emailed my friend Christina who lives in London and asked her to call Peter and explain about me and my quest to find Elsie.  She emailed a few days later.  "He was a bit hostile, but I think I know why," she wrote. "When I asked about Elsie, there was a pause and then he said, 'She died a week ago.'" What a coincidence.

Recently, as I worked on the story about Barbara, I wanted more information about that coincidence. I looked at my phone bill and found out that I called Peter on February 12th. Then I emailed Penny, Barbara's sister and my new dear friend in England, and asked her what day her mother died. 

She wrote back, "February 11th." 

The day I decided to write about Barbara, forty-two years after her death, was the day Elsie died.  

I do not think this is coincidence.

Wayson Choy believes that we all have at least two ghosts with us at all times. I believe it now too. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

writing in November

The dark days of November are here - snow and sleet with an occasional glimmer of sun luring me outside to be sure it's real. And yet despite the cold and dark, on this terrible day in the world, with bombing massacres in Mumbai and the world's finances exploding too, I am profoundly happy just to have a roof and a furnace and food in my fridge. How lucky we are to live in a relatively safe and stable country. How lucky I am to have a job that won't vanish in a recession. I'm talking about teaching, of course; writing has never had much to do with the finances of the real world. (See last post re frugalista.)

I have been having a tough go of my writing job, however, this last while. For so many years I was the writer of a very long book and of very short essays. Now, trying to do something in between - either longer essays or a shorter book - I keep running out of steam, or charging down dead ends. I pick a good topic and then throw the doors open to include every aspect, every event, the entire world view of every character, with the result that the piece becomes overloaded and waterlogged and drowns in its own good intentions. As I bemoaned all this yesterday to my friend Bruce, he said, "You need to take your own course!" 

And he's right. I glibly tell others, "Less is more," "Show don't tell," "Paint one picture with depth," but it's not so easy to do these things myself. Which is why all writers need editors, and also, if possible, writing groups or coaches or regular readers, to help them see what they simply can't, so close to the work. 

I talked about this with Wayson, how I rush into things and swamp the work, and told him I'd written the word "Slow" in big letters by my desk. He said, "No, not 'slow', that's the wrong word. The word is 'essential.'" So yes, "essential" is written there now. My writer friend Patsy, with whom I also regularly discuss these creative dilemmas, sent me this quote recently, which has joined the others on my study wall: 

"Write a little every day, without hope, without despair."
Isak Dinesen.

Gotcha, Isak.  Here goes: a topic that matters deeply, explored as deeply as I can, but just one aspect, one time, one event. Let's see if little miss Letmetellyoueverything can manage to tell only the essential. Slowly. Stay tuned.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Frugalistas unite!

Forgive me if I gloat - I'm not used to being so ... so right on, so au courant. It was thrilling this morning, reading the New York Times, to discover what was chosen by columnist William Safire as the word of 2008:

, defined as “a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc.” 

Frugalista, c'est moi!  And not only because, with a writer's income, I have no choice. I can't imagine changing my second-hand ways even if the lottery came calling. We've had enough of "fashionistas," the army of women scouring Vogue and rushing out to do its bidding.  The absurd list of "Must Haves," the obscenity of ditching last season's two thousand dollar handbag for this season's.  Now we just can't live like that any more. 

Brava to Michelle Obama, stylish and gorgeous without, to my knowledge, wearing a single visible label or ostentatious garment. 



Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bob Rae and Iggy controversy

I've been pondering an issue on the Canadian political landscape that's wreaking havoc in the Liberal party - why did Michael Ignatieff, writer and intellectual, suddenly decide to muscle into the political arena that had for decades belonged to his university roommate and putative best friend Bob Rae?  It smacks to me of "Anything you can do, I can do better."  And as someone who's allergic to that kind of competitiveness, I have been feeling sorry for Rae, who's a compassionate and capable man.  I sent the following email today to Judith Timson, the "Globe" columnist who recently wrote an article about the two men:  

Ms. Timson, I'm a fan of yours from way back.  But I don't understand why you and other commentators remark on the Rae/Ignatieff battle as if both men are equally responsible.  The fact is that Ignatieff made a very successful life for himself as a public intellectual, professor and writer.  Bob was always the politician.  What prompted Ignatieff to look at Rae's life and say, "I want that"?  Most writers wouldn't want in a million years to become politicians, but Ignatieff then suddenly returned to Canada to embark on a career in direct competition with his so-called friend.  Bob Rae did not announce that he would write books or try for Iggy's job at Harvard; it's Ignatieff who made the aggressive and competitive move.  

It would be a nightmare for me if my best friends from university, whom I love and admire, decided to throw themselves into my exact line of work in my home town.  I admire them because they're smart and energetic and talented women - the last thing I want to see looming on the horizon of my job.  I feel for Bob. 

There's way too much winter here already.  I heard one guy say to another this afternoon, "It's too #$% cold.  Who's the guy who called this in? I'm going to have to kiss his ass!" I agree.  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Excellence from the snow zone

It snowed the other night.  Toronto was wintery yesterday, and no one was happy about it except the snow removal guys who arrived with their hearty banter and extremely loud scraping machine at 4.15 a.m., to clear the courtyard of the condos next door.  They prefer 4.15 a.m. - it's their favourite time to tell a few jokes and move piles of snow around with a tractor. I'm sure if they knew that right there, overlooking the courtyard, are the bedroom windows of a formerly sleeping woman, they would move stealthily and wait to tell their jokes till daybreak.  But unfortunately they do not, and I have never, in all the years of our 4.15 a.m. trysts, felt like getting up to inform them of my whereabouts.

Interrupted sleep or no, that first snowfall was beautiful this morning as it always is,  the icing sliding along the trees and piled on the last hanging baskets outside - the cold kiss of death. 

Luckily I didn't have to stray far from home today.  I found a treasure at the Doubletake second-hand store - E.B. White's "One Man's Meat," one of my favourite books, in a big print edition.  So I can not only read his lucid, humourous prose again, but will be able to for many years to come, even without bifocals.  

"When a glass of wine is poured," writes Mr. White, "a wine fly appears promptly - but I never see him at any other time and wonder where he keeps himself in the meantime and what he does for a drink." 

"When a gentleman came to adjust a compass for me the other day," he writes from his farm in Maine, "he noticed how good the potatoes looked and asked me what date they were planted.  I had to admit that I didn't remember the date, and he seemed surprised and mystified, and wondered what sort of disorderly place he had got into."

My Thursday group came over last night with essays in hand, and we got warm with tea and wine and chocolate cake and then jumped into our favourite activity, talking about writing and reading some.  The importance of deadlines; how easy it is to write with a topic and a time limit in a group and how hard it is alone, how easily the muse vanishes.  How to let ideas and feelings pour out into a first draft, and then what to ask: What is this about?  Why am I telling this story?  Does it start and end where it should?  Is there a moment of change and connection? And then the fun of the next 46 drafts, trying to answer those questions while other questions arise.  

The joy is in the journey, as I keep reminding myself and them.  This is what is printed above my desk: "Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.  Robert Collier."  And below it, the same idea but older: "We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.  Aristotle."  

And nearby hangs a picture of E.B. White sitting at his desk, with only a typewriter, a pencil, an eraser, and a very large wastepaper basket.  

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I love Paris in the springtime

I spent time this morning looking closely at a map of Paris, locating the address where I'll be living next year.  Hard to believe but true: I have arranged to take the spring 2009 term away from teaching, my house is sublet between April 1 and September 1, and late on April 1 I fly from Toronto to Paris, to a small apartment that belongs to a family friend.  It's near the Jardins du Luxembourg, one of my favourite places in the city, and will be my home till mid-May - six weeks.  Paris in April.

I was born in 1950, that tidy mid-century year, and in my adult life, big changes have always come at the turn of the decade.  In late 1969 I became a professional actor, which was my work through the seventies until a trip in 1979 convinced me to change my life.  In 1989 I was unhappy in my marriage and thinking about therapy; a few years later I was divorced and in life-saving psychoanalysis.  And on December 31 1999 I deliberately spent New Year's Eve alone - years of therapy over, teaching a joy, children growing up, my book underway, the chaos at last beginning to settle.   

As 2009 approached and the cusp of my 60th birthday, it was important to mark the change between my previous life and the one to come - the old one as a single mother of two living in a time-consuming old house working on a time-consuming book, and the new one: two adult children living their own lives, the book out and about, and the house - well, decisions to be made there.  A new life of writing and travel.  Things fell into place for this dramatic five month trip to Europe to work and to play, partly because I want to write about the year my family lived in Paris, 1964, and will be able to revisit old haunts.  And walk and walk and walk.  And eat and eat and eat.

Then to England for around two weeks, and then to the south of France, to live with my friend Lynn and her family.  Lynn's daughter and my goddaughter Jessica, who's 29, has decided to get married in July, so I'll be there for a joyful family wedding.  And my children will come at some point to visit, walk and eat too.

One of the Irish writers who spoke at Harbourfront talked about his own exile from Dublin to Paris, where he lived for ten years.  "I was at an ideal distance from my own past," he said.  "I went there to find anonymity and detachment.  It was personally hard but artistically liberating to be completely alone and detached like that."  

Artistically liberating - that's for me.  And, of course, vast quantities of cheese.  

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I've just seen an excellent film - "Happy-go-lucky," from the director Mike Leigh.  I knew of Leigh many years ago because he started in the theatre, writing plays after intense periods of improvisation with his actors.  He then moved on to film where he works the same way with spectacular results, as in, for example, the moving "Vera Drake" or "Topsy Turvy," a beautiful film about Gilbert and Sullivan.

"Happy-go-lucky" is about a good person, Poppy, a woman without a cynical or sarcastic bone in her body who chooses to approach life openly and cheerfully.  The film explores the courage it takes to be the kind of person who doesn't just chat sweetly with a grumpy storeowner who refuses to chat back, but who sits down to talk to a terrifyingly incoherent street person who has probably not felt that kind of attentiveness for years.  Poppy approaches her work as an elementary school teacher with joy and deals empathetically, lovingly, with the problems that arise there - a child who bullies others, who she finds out is being bullied himself, at home.  

And for those of us who are single women happy in their lives, it shows us a single woman profoundly happy in hers.  She has, as she points out to her neurotic pregnant younger sister, a job she loves and a roommate she adores.  "I love my freedom," she says.  When she finds a man to love, she is on just as even a keel as when she finds a crazy man stalking her - she takes it all in her stride, love and fury and even finding that her beloved bicycle has been stolen, as I did a few months ago.  It's a film about the courage and effort it takes to be open in a mad world, and to choose, despite everything, to be happy.  In the bucolic final moments, Poppy says to her roommate, "We are lucky, aren't we?" 
"You choose your luck, don't you," Zoe replies. 

After the film I walked down Yonge Street to the College streetcar, thinking, as the wildness of the street roared around me, What kind of courage would it take for me to be open to this particular madness?  I am inspired by the film and its heroine, but perhaps I won't start practicing my new openness on Yonge Street late on a rainy Thursday night.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

the Giller Prize and my beloved Anne

The Giller Prize for best Canadian fiction was given out last night.  Like every year, I was at home in front of the TV, Cinderella in rags with cinders in her hair, watching the literati elite at the ball. When oh when will I be invited to the Giller Prize soiree?  Never, because it is an evening celebrating fiction, not non-fiction.  At least now there are prizes honouring non-fiction, the Charles Taylor Prize and the Writer's Trust Non-fiction Prize, though these are not televised. Non-fiction is beating fiction by a mile in sales, but the buzz is still for the weavers of tall tales, not true ones.  

That's all right, because we don't write for honour or money ($50,000, in this case) or prizes, we write for the bliss of it. Right, writers?

I love watching people who spend their lives rummaging around in their own heads and then, on Prize night, who have to get dressed up and mingle.  Hari Kunzu, a writer I heard at the Writer's Festival last week, said, "Writers were left alone until about 15 years ago.  Now they have to have a public persona and go on book tours.  But writers are the opposite of performers - they're people who have a high tolerance for being alone for long periods, who shout Go away! when visitors show up.  Now you have to perform, be a version of yourself on stage."

Of course, for some of us who are both writers and performers, this is not a problem.  In fact, the problem is the being alone for long periods, when you're used to the fraught closeness and instant feedback of the theatre. 

As I watched the Gillers I flipped around, as usual, for something else to watch during the commercials.  A new British version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" was on TVO; I missed the beginning but saw bits and pieces and the last half hour.   What I saw was stunning, conveying so well the claustrophobia, rage and terror of eight people shut up in a tiny space for two years.  But what it showed most clearly was the power of Anne's personality and drive - the selfishness and self-centeredness necessary for an artist to emerge.  Anne was not perky and sweet.  She hurt her parents, her sister, the vulnerable Peter, in her struggle to become an independent creator, to find her writer's voice.   

The ending in this version was heart-breakingly anti-climactic - not Nazi storm troopers bashing down the door, but two normal-looking men, efficient civil service Nazis in raincoats. "Here's another one, a young one," said a raincoat, as if Anne trembling in her bedroom were a cockroach.  

"To be a writer," said Hari Kunzu at the Festival, "you have to have an insane sense of self. A strong belief in your own interestingness."  All those writers last night did.  Anne did, and changed the world.  

Saturday, November 8, 2008

floating down to earth

My friend Bruce has just sent the following link to a funny video about the aftermath of the election: Obama supporters having difficulty adjusting to an incomprehensible new world.

This has been the first election fought as much on the Internet as anywhere else; so much interesting, clever, moving material emerged.  I won't forget a gorgeous little movie about the respect both ordinary and important Israelis felt for Obama; it made me weep.  And of course, the endless blogs.  All of us are alone out here with our little clicking machines, tuning in to site after site, posting our reactions to each other - entering, navigating this strange new world-on-a-screen that is so very noisy and at the same time, completely silent.

The weather these post-election days has been stunning - yes, even Mother Nature approves of the election results and has sent a November sun to reward us all.  Well no, on second thought it has been pouring in Vancouver and my friends Sarah and Ben just went to the Cayman Islands in time for a hurricane.  But here in Toronto, the skies are smiling Obama-like, even as leaves shower down with every breeze.  

So an intelligent, humane, thoughtful man will soon be running the most powerful country on earth. As the video says, we're a bit shell-shocked out here that for once the good guys won.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mr. Obama, Sir

I did reprint Obama's victory speech here, but it was too small to read.  It's a masterpiece, writers - I urge you to find and read it. 

Oh, and Mr. B. Obama, Sir - you can come and organise my community anytime. 

7.45 a.m., November 5, a brand new world

I just wrote this to all my relatives in the U.S.:

Dear American family, you know I am given to hyperbole.  But this morning feels like the moment in the Narnia books when the Ice Queen is killed, the terrible cold ends and spring returns to the land.  Or like "Sleeping Beauty" when the handsome prince hacks through the brambles and wakes up the sleeping princess.  Or any fairy story or movie where the forces of evil are defeated and the people are freed from terrible oppression.

America has found its spring and is awake, and the whole world rejoices with you.  

The funny thing is that Canada now has a right-wing government and you have Obama.  I'm moving.

It does feel like a nightmare has ended, doesn't it?  A dark time of torture, deceit, greed and corruption and foul stupidity.  There were three sublime moments last night: when the Obama victory was finally confirmed and the planet, with the exception of the Biltmore Hotel where the Republicans had gathered, erupted with joy, and when John McCain returned to the decent person he once was and made a gracious concession speech.

And then, of course, when that graceful young man kissed his wife and children and then turned to speak to us all.  I wondered if he's superhuman.  Think of what the last year has been for him, the last month, the last few days.  And yet he looked as if he had just returned from a retreat: relaxed, thoughtful, direct.  He was honest about what America faces.  I loved "I will be your president too," to those who did not vote for him.  

Just to hear an American president speak with such eloquence, warmth and honesty - well, Dorothy, this is not a dream, this really is Kansas. Even if the citizens of Kansas voted the wrong way. 

He will be their president, too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes we can, yes we will, yes we are right now

It's 6.45 p.m. on a most important night for our planet.  I have absolute faith that right at this moment, history is being made by American voters, and the world is about to change.  Change FOR THE BETTER, I mean.  For the much, much, much, much better.  

Obama as President would be phenomenal enough, a man of his intelligence and grace, and, of yes, he is half African-American, that's pretty incredible though it just shouldn't matter one bit.  Maybe race will matter less after this.  But to have him and his fantastic wife in the White House after eight years of George W. and the anaesthetised Laura - is it a dream?  When I listened to Obama in the debates, rolling through statistics, ideas, profound knowledge of so many things, I thought, how did W. even get through his debates without people screaming with laughter?  Did he make a single salient point?  I can't remember. Perhaps he didn't, and voters just liked the way he looked in his jeans, as people like the way Sarah Palin wears her hair and those stylish glasses.  Perky plays big down there.

Anyway, the TV goes on in only a few minutes and the countdown begins.  There's a good bottle of Proseco chilling - can't afford Champagne in this recession - and snacks and popcorn waiting for neighbours and friends to come by.  Soon we will toast the beginning of the next, better phase of our world.  Yes, he's not a saint or a miracle worker and will have the worst imaginable mess to clean up.  He will disappoint in some ways, I'm sure.  But right now, I'm crazy about this handsome, thoughtful man.  When I saw the picture of him yesterday, weeping over the death of his grandmother, I just fell in love. 

A toast to you, Barack Hussein Obama.  Long may our love last.