Monday, November 30, 2009

New York in the rain

I'm in an Italian cafe on Second Avenue, listening to a French chanteuse on the soundtrack and watching the cars zoom endlessly by in the rain. New York takes an enormous amount of energy, and I just don't have it today.

I did yesterday, which was a glorious sunny day. Here's what I wrote this morning, Monday, about Sunday:

"The little Porter airplane coming into Newark allowed us a fantastic view of the distant island – still, after all these years, like something out of a dream. Like a child playing with blocks, trying to squeeze as many upright rectangles as possible into a small space. The famous spires – the Empire State, the Chrysler - pierced the morning mist. Impossible not to notice the absence of the two biggest rectangles of all. And at the bottom, barely visible and all alone, the lady and her torch.

Each time I come in, there’s a frisson – like all my great-grandparents on my father’s side, I am an immigrant to this island. And yet I’m not, because I was born here. This metropolis is my birthplace. We moved from New York to Halifax when I was two months old. I carry the passport both of this country and of the country that is mine, that is my true home.

I am proud to say that I’d packed so little, I was able to skip immediately from the plane to the shuttle to the train and thence into Manhattan. 6.30 a.m., wake up in Toronto; noon, eat soup at Cousin Ted’s at 77th and 3rd. Cousin Ted has a place in the “country” – Northport – to which he goes every weekend, leaving his two-bedroom apartment for a steam of visiting friends and family. Without Ted, I would not have been able to write my book; I would not feel as at home as I do in this city.

Here is how to do Manhattan on the cheap: First, have a Cousin Ted in a perfect location. Second, a week-long subway pass costs a mere $27 and is good for both subways and busses. Even though I’m only going to be here for 4 days, by Day 2 the pass will have paid for itself; I haven’t taken a cab for years. I browse at the Housing Works Thrift Shop right across the street – this is not Goodwill, this is a New York thrift store with high end goods and extraordinary prices. My meals are takeout from the nearby Chinese restaurants or Citarella’s, the fish store and gourmet supermarket, and eaten at home. And, unless there’s something I absolutely must see, I get my theatre tickets half-price from the TKTS booth on Times Square.

Since during this amazing year I have visited both Paris and London, I must of course compare. This city is on a grid! You always know where you are! It’s not a rabbit warren, an ant’s nest of meandering streets, ancient medieval pathways, alleys and dead ends worn for a thousand years – well, it’s a bit like that downtown, in Chelsea and Soho, but the rest of the city is snappily efficient and organised. People are bigger here in every way – not just fatter, which of course they are, amazingly so, but taller and far, far louder. They take up a lot of space; there’s a confidence and swagger, a sense of entitlement. And yet they’re friendly, chatting openly with strangers in a way unheard of in European capitals.

At Ted’s I unpacked, called Ted and Henry in Northport and tried with Henry’s help and to no avail to get my computer hooked up to their internet, and called second cousin Lola who’s 87 and knows everything that’s worth seeing in the city. "Don't miss the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA," she said. "Go early. It'll be crazy." It's still Thankgiving here. I changed into my walking shoes and set off for the Met, where Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” was spending its last day. Thanks again to family, I know where the side entrance is to the Met, avoiding the crowds, and headed straight for my favourite painter. Though crowded, it was a fabulous exhibit – the “Milkmaid” had been sent from Amsterdam in memory of the discovery of Manhattan by Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch, and was shown with the other Met Vermeers and other paintings of the genre and era. Sublime. This has been a banner year for me - eight Vermeers! "The Lacemaker" was not in the Louvre but in Japan or it would have been nine. If I go to Frick Museum while here, I can see their three. But maybe I should stop; how many Vermeers can a person absorb in one year? There was a wall showing all 34; I decided that my favourite is "The Astronomer" which is at the Louvre. Which is yours?

Rather than more Met, it was such a heavenly day I took the bus straight down 5th Avenue to get tickets for the night's viewing. Time's Square is completely changed - they've turned some of it into a pedestrian mall and parkette, with little tables and chairs and a big staircase to nowhere to sit on - amazing, in the middle of the craziest intersection on earth, to have this little oasis. I lined up at TKTS and was happy that the show I wanted to see, Fela!, about a Nigerian activist, was on offer. I asked for the best single seat and the guy said, "Center orchestra." Great. It turned out to be center, all right - dead center of the very first row. I was so close that when the star bent over to bow, his sweat droplets landed on me. I'd like to see the show again from a bit further back, but no matter, it was fabulous - Fela was the founder of Afrobeat, there was an incredible band onstage and tons of beautiful black men and women dancing, singing, and acting. Full of energy. I could not have felt further from Paris or London.

But I carry those cities with me - walking around in my silk Paris scarf, my TopShop shirt. It is fun to be in New York wearing Paris and London. Though of course I could not compete with the stylistas here, nor ever want to, in their Prada and whatever. I meandered through Sak's on my way to the theatre. More expensive than is decent. But lovely to look at."

This morning, in the rain, I went to MOMA at Lola's command and did see Tim Burton. It's an exhaustive exhibit of his life's work - sketches, notebooks, sculpture, amateur films, stories, an amazingly creative guy exploring the grotesque and horrific since childhood. Much is made of his suburban childhood in Burbank, California - he was obviously an outcast, outsider, a geeky kid with vicious fantasies who has found a way to make a fortune playing those out for the world. If he'd had a best friend, or grown up in Manhattan, the world might not have those nightmare images - Edward Scissorhands, the Nightmare before Christmas, Beetlejuice. He needs some good buddies, I thought. This is what he wrote as a character study for Edward Scissorhands: "His hobbies are making ice sculptures and playing the steeldrums. Someday he hopes to vacation on the Caribbean Islands." He wrote about Little Dead Riding Hood and is fixated by dead dogs, eyeballs, skeletons, Martians, death, blood, gore. Here's an early poem:

My girlfriend is a statue/I don't know when I noticed it/but I think it was last year/I think it's when I noticed/That crack above her ear.

I had an ambitious plan for the afternoon but the rain and my own fatigue defeated me. I came back to Ted's and to this cafe. Tonight I have more plans, and tomorrow I do my talk at the Stella Adler Studio. At the moment, I am just grateful that I do not live here in this madhouse. A marvellous, thrilling madhouse, but mad nonetheless.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

arguing about memoir

Another correspondence to share with you. A friend sent me a link to the Washington Post's grumpy review of a new book called Memoir: a History, by Ben Yagoda (who also wrote a terrific book called The Sound on the Page: great writers talk about style and voice in writing.) The book goes back as far as St. Augustine's Confessions to show that the memoir genre has always been with us. The review, entitled "Shelve it under navel-gazing," disapproves of the popularity of memoir. Its author quotes Mark Twain on the notorious unreliability of memory, and writes:

"Never mind that few of these confessions can be of interest to anyone except the people writing them, never mind that few of these people know how to tell a story or write literate prose, never mind that the market is now so thoroughly saturated that it is just about impossible to separate what little wheat there may be from the vast ocean of chaff. What matters is that, as Yagoda says, we live in an age of "more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture."

I sent the review to my friend Mr. Ch*y, and this is what he replied:

The article makes its point - whenever there is a trend to publish certain genres (vampires, anyone?), much will be shallow entertainment/sensational, and poorly written. That shouldn't stop the best that still needs to be written, to be published and read.

Mark Twain makes an interesting point. But if one deeply remembers something that never happened - this still holds some clue to the truth of the personality whose memory suggests a need for perceiving the universe with his/her peculiar lens. That kind of memory is very different from a deliberate fabrication or a twisted lie, and is psychologically revealing. Deeply ingrained misconceptions are also truths about our imperfect humanity. All memory risking any truth is creative non fiction. Onwards!

I'll have what he's having.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bright Star

Well, if you want affirmation of the difficulties of the artist's life, see Bright Star, which shows us a divinely beautiful and inspired John Keats slowly freezing to death, unacknowledged as one of the greatest poets in the English language except for the love and admiration of a few friends. The film is beautifully acted, gorgeous to look at and way too long - but a treat nonetheless. It's about the sexiness of poetry. How many films can make that claim?

Beforehand, a Japanese lunch with my fierce mentor. He spoke again about how artists waste their time looking for approval instead of listening to their souls. He advised me to get rid of all my old drafts, not to let them weigh me down, just to start fresh. I thought, the support of this man is one of the greatest gifts of my life.

He told an amazing story - that friends visited him with their son when the boy was just eleven. The youth never forgot that encounter, and now, a university student, is writing a great deal as W'son does. He showed me the boy's piece in a university literary magazine; it was stunning. Another writer inspired and launched, thanks to this generous man.

At home, I found an email from a dear friend, who wrote to ask if perhaps I should just write the way I want to write, rather than to please Mr. Ch*y. Maybe, he suggested, he wants you to sound like him instead of yourself; maybe he wants something from you that you are not able to give, and why should you? What I read, though it's not what he meant, was: you can't do what he is asking. Give up. I wrote back:

W'yson's nagging insistence that I can produce something of depth and lasting value is keeping me alive. He's not an idiot; if he has faith, it's because he knows I can do it. I know with absolute surety that I can do it too. I have blocked myself in every conceivable way for as long as possible, but that will end and good writing will pour it. I am sure of that, and so, lucky for me, is he. He is expecting nothing less than the very best I can produce. A terrifyingly daunting thought.

I can do a certain kind of writing easily. This is a hard kind of writing, which is why I have avoided it for so long. I cannot write like my friend and wouldn't want to. But, once I kick my demons out the door, I can write from the depths of my soul. It's tough right now, with hundreds of wasted pages. But they're not useless, they were what I had to write then. Now I need to get on with now.

There is no guarantee that anyone will want to read what I write or publish it or buy it. But if I have written honestly and with passion and from my heart, if I have shaped what I produce with all the craft I can muster, then I have done my job.

pulling down the wall

As marathon runners can hit the wall - reach a point where they're so discouraged they want to give up - so can writers, and yesterday I did. The power of my mentor's words had not truly sunk in until I took the time, yesterday, to reread, not only what I have been writing over the past year, but over the past many years.

I opened some of the files I've created over time, the attempts to deal with the Sixties material. What I saw is that I have been telling the same story over and over and over, in slightly different ways, over hundreds of pages. It made me feel sick. I had no idea I'd devoted so much time to the same material while making only minor changes in voice, content, style. Isn't the definition of "stupid" doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results? By that definition, I have been excessively, pathetically stupid in the use of my time and talents.

Depression set in, briefly - a dark night of etc.etc. What the hell are you doing, wasting your time with this writing stuff that pays nothing and eats up your life? Go out and get a real job. Imagine if you'd actually been WORKING instead of sitting around inspecting your navel, tapping away telling yourself the same stories again and again. You wouldn't be fussed about selling your Balenciaga ballgown, you'd be happy and busy. So just forget it. Will the world care that it doesn't have your stories to kick around? Nah. The world will not notice one tiny bit.

That is what the negative voice sounds like, the voice of criticism, cowardice and self-pity (mixed with just a dash of truth and good sense) that kills creativity.

Luckily, I've been dealing with that voice for so long that I know how to tell it to shut up and go away. Which I did, pretty fast - I dismantled my wall. As my mentor also says, none of that past work is wasted. It's compost. You can only do what you can do when you can do it. I was not ready to tackle the stories in a different way, so I tackled them in the same way. Now it's time, somehow, to look at them differently. I have no doubts that I can do it, once I wrestle down the negative forces that have blocked me over and over again. There's a reason I'm nearly sixty and have published only one book, a book that took me 25 years to research, write and get published. I have had to battle such forces in myself to get the work out that there has not been much work to show.

That changes now, she said with energy and confidence and optimism, kicking the strewn remnants of the wall to the curb. But first, right now, I'm going to see the movie Bright Star with W'son. It's about Keats. Maybe he hit a wall too.

I write all this, yes, in a spirit of confession, but also to show those students of mine who follow this blog that though I can cheerfully steer them, encourage and prod and support them, it's a different matter for myself. Just as Mr. Ch*y can critique me brilliantly, but for his own work, he needs his own editors who do the same for him.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I've just received an advance copy of the December/January issue of More magazine; the Memoir section is a story of mine about love with a younger man. It's odd to read it now, because the affair described was some time ago. Still, it's a good feeling to open the mag, which always has lots of interesting stuff, and see the piece there.

To celebrate, I went to Doubletake, my local second-hand store, and saw a long line-up outside the cheque cashing place next door; the welfare cheques must be in today. Perhaps this is the only middle-class neighbourhood in Toronto acutely aware of when the government cheques come in; the No Frills on Parliament Street where I buy groceries will be packed for a day or two. At Doubletake I was happy to find a 50's aluminum cake preserver, something my daughter the baker really needs, and left it behind the counter while I looked at other things. As I browsed, I heard a local man, a cheerful character with long white hair who zooms about in a power wheelchair, bantering with the staff. "I'll leave it here and pick it up later," he said. "Put it on my tab. Only joking."
"Name?" said the staff member.
"Mick Jagger," he replied. "Only joking."

When I went to pay, I found out that Mick Jagger had bought my cake tin. Ah well. Another good story. It's raining again.

pensive in the mist

More fallish out there now - grey, rainy and cool. Perhaps those magical days of bright sun are gone for a few months, or perhaps we can squeeze in a few more ... let's hope. There's a huge, magnificent bird hanging around my yard these days, a falcon or a hawk - I watched him yesterday cleaning his long tail feathers. No wonder the sparrows are squawking more than usual during their dawn chorus. And yesterday, a doe was cornered and tranquillised near Union Station, in the heart of the financial district downtown. Perhaps the one I saw a few weeks ago on my walk, who decided to leave town by train.

An interesting interview with Mavis Gallant in Monday's Globe. Mavis is a good friend of my friend Almeda's in Paris, and was supposed to attend a dinner I went to there but was ill. How I wish I'd met her, slicing acerbic wit and all. About the end of her marriage, she says in the article, "I didn't like being half a person with half of another person attached. It wasn't his fault, he didn't do anything wrong, anything mean or nasty. As a couple you only ever see other couples. It was so boring. I was so bored. I was going out like a light. But if everyone was like me the human race would run out."

She is one of those writers who have no respect for creative writing classes. "I never asked for help," she says. "I didn't even show my friends what I was doing." She has only two words of advice for aspiring short story writers, says the article: "Read Chekhov." Well, I'm with her on that, but I am sorry some people say, well, I succeeded my way so that's the only way to succeed. There are other ways. The path to achievement does not have to be solitary.

Speaking of achievement, I heard a marvellous Writers and Company program yesterday, a panel discussing the work of Alice Munro. Worth listening to for the wisdom of the great Alistair McLeod alone, let alone the selected readings from Munro herself. She also mused sometimes about being a woman, wife, mother and writer. As perhaps I have said before, for decades there were almost no examples of women who had happy families and also successful writing careers. Think of the extremes of women geniuses: the despair of Sylvia Plath, the fragility of Virginia Woolf.

Then women like Carol Shields, with her Pulitzer and her five children, appeared to lead the way, and now we have Annabel Lyon, with two small children and a part-time job as a writing teacher, whose novel was nominated for 3 major awards and just won one. Juggling all of that seems perfectly normal now. Brava to her and to all the writing mothers out there. I mean the writers who mother. Or the ... well, you know what I mean.

Those of you who've followed me on this blog must wonder why I have not ranted about Stephen Harper recently, now that we know his government ignored allegations of torture in Afghanistan and was behind the hideous flyer distributed by a Conservative M.P. in Toronto accusing the Liberals of anti-Semitism. It's true that I did not enjoy the flood of pictures of our P.M. overseas, with his head in a turban and his cold, frozen face attempting to smile. The flood of articles about the horrifying abasement, thanks to this government, of Canada's position on the world stage.

One Globe commentator remarked that Harper has the least charisma of any Canadian prime minister except Mackenzie King. I don't know about that - King had his little dog and the ghost of his mother. In comparison with the calculating man we have now - I know which I prefer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

teaching and learning

My dear friend Bruce just wrote to say, "You sound like you're giving up on the book. Don't give up." Omigod, no. If you have the impression that I'm giving up, it's just that my mewling self-pity took over for a bit. I'm glad my stern editor read that particular section of the book, because I needed his critique, but there are other chapters nearer what he's looking for - the "hot bits," as he says, the juicy stuff, the harder, deeper stuff. What he was really saying was, don't start here, start there. I need to plunge into the back story and lead readers to the liberating wonders of the Beatles rather than the reverse. So off I go.

Teaching is winding down for the term and I marvel again, as I always do, at the secrets we all carry, the truths that emerge, the fears that silence us. What a powerful bond we share at the end of our weeks together. This term I had an unusual student, a man in his thirties who spent years as a homeless junkie. He's now clean and presumably lives somewhere, because last night, to the feast celebrating our last class, he brought a fruit salad made with his melon baller. A man with a melon baller has a home.

My job as his teacher was to honour his fantastical mind, his fierce imagination, broad quirky knowledge and improbable but true story, to preserve an extraordinarily interesting voice but get him to write so that our ordinary minds could follow. By the end, he got it. He didn't have to challenge or shock us, he, like everyone else, had to craft his truth to make the story compelling. And he did. As I ate my melon balls and listened to him read, I was proud - not only of him, but of the process I'm part of as a teacher. When people sneer that creative writing cannot be taught, I wish they could hear the first essay this man wrote, and the last. As W'son is helping me, and several fine editors help W'son, I helped a worthy beginning writer learn the craft of storytelling. It takes a village.

What I want to know is: How have I managed to live for 59 years without a melon baller?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

paean to this fine month

This has been the loveliest, gentlest November I can remember. As my daughter said today, in her usual direct way, "We didn't have a friggin' summer but at least we had a nice fall." Today, sunny sky and clouds of yellow leaves underfoot as I went for my usual Sunday jogette. (I can't call it a run or even a jog, I stop so often to look at things or saunter or meander or lollygag ... ) There was a bicycle race on Riverdale Hill, people in tight black suits on snazzy bikes charging frantically up, down and around - didn't look like fun to me but then I'm just a jogetter.

I have been digesting W'son's words and figuring out what happened to lead me so far off track. One of the things that happened is that I actually tried to write something that would sell. Ha ha, what foolishness! I thought my reminiscences about the Beatles and my love for Paul McCartney were fresh and original and fun and would be of interest to people my generation and even those younger, who'd want to find out what that time was like.

Rule # 6,742: don't quit your day job, and do not write to sell. Write what you must write truthfully and with depth and hope it finds readers, but if it doesn't, at least you've listened to your heart. My friend Chris disagrees completely; he only writes to sell and can't understand why you'd do otherwise. W'son on the other hand says there are two kinds of work: the stuff we write consciously for money, for magazines, say, and the stuff we write for depth and truth. These are often two separate things. I tried to combine them. Mistake. According to him, that left me with a bunch of flighty stuff that doesn't mean anything.

I think I am allergic to making money. Is there a cure for this, some sort of medicine I can take?
In the meantime, I still have not rented my two spaces, so now must sell my Balenciaga ballgown. It is a thing of exquisite beauty with the Balenciaga tag inside, full length heavy maroon silk with a giant bow at the back. I bought it at Goodwill many years ago for $18 and have been saving it for the Oscars, because one day, Steven Spielberg was going to option my book and make it into a movie. Well, even if by some unbelievable miracle that happened, it would still take many years until Steve and I got to the Oscars. In the meantime, where am I going to wear a full length heavy maroon silk ballgown with a giant bow? Some rich lady needs it.

Or maybe you do. Please let me know. I'll be consistent and make sure to sell it for much less than it's worth.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

the editor's karate chop

Another lesson in what it is to be a writer: as you may know, I've been working on a memoir for a few years and finally thought I was onto something solid that was working - voice, structure, story. I gave some pages yesterday to my mentor, Mr. W. Ch*y. This morning I called to apologise for burdening him; to say, don't bother reading, I know what I'm doing, you have enough to do already and I'll be fine without you.

I've read six pages, he said, and what I want to know is: why are you wasting your energy and my time on this material? I'm wondering when you're going to get to the real story.

Ah. Not quite what I was expecting to hear.

You're staying at the surface, he said, so busy arranging and organising your material and not going to the depths where the real story is. There's nothing real. It's an essay, not a book. Why would I read this story? Where's the drama? Where's the insight?

Throw all this away and start again, he said, like a real writer.

Dear reader, allow me a moment of mourning. How many hours to get here? Hundreds, perhaps. Is Mr. Ch*y just a nasty sonofabitch who can't see this wonderful work of brilliance? I know he is right. I think I gave him the pages so I'd hear what he's saying. On the surface I thought it was working; underneath, I knew it wasn't good or deep enough. I just needed a giant slap, a kick in the pants. Which I just got.

The sun is shining; it's a beautiful November day, soft and relatively warm. I will go for a walk and try not to be discouraged. I've just been given a gift. You have such talent, he said, and you're wasting your time. I do not understand why it's so, but it's the truth. Not the talent bit but the wasting bit. All the things I hear my students say over and over - Who'd want to hear my story? Why should I go back to where it hurts? - all those things are my problems too.

Tell us your story, he said, no one else's story, not a universal story, just your story of who you were and who you became.

If it weren't for this wise and generous man I'd be spinning my wheels forever. With all he has to do, including his own book, he is taking the time to give me a giant shove. Throw it all out and start again, he said, and that is what I will do.

But first, I'll eat a lot of chocolate, go to my yoga class, come home and drink a lot of red wine. And then I'll start again. He's right, I know it for sure, I've always known it. And how lucky I am to have someone to tell me the truth. Even if it hurts. Which it does.

Monday, November 16, 2009

new life, old(er) life

So far, November has been a gift, exceptionally mild and sunny - for November. Long may this last. Are you listening up there? Thank you. More.

A birth announcement: Greta Lee was born two days ago, and in the pictures I've seen on Facebook, she's beautiful and looks just like her sandy-haired dad and half-brother Sam. Her parents are my ex-husband and his wife, though, because of health issues, the baby was carried by a surrogate. Both my kids phoned to give me the news about the safe delivery of their half-sister, and then my son called back to leave a message. "I hope this isn't a hard day for you," he said. What a thoughtful guy. Of course it's not; I am thrilled to have new life in the family. Luckily my ex is slightly younger than I, only 56, and his wife much younger than that, because they'll need all the energy they possess for the job ahead. I wish all three of them the greatest joy, and their half-siblings too.

Another birthday - the fabulous singer/songwriter/satirist Nancy White had a big birthday recently, among several of my close friends to officially become senior citizens. Hard to believe - all so youthful, spritely, full of juice!

Nan had a party at her house with a formidable array of musicians and show biz people, including Don Cullen, Marie-Lynn Hammond, Judith Lander, Rick Whitelaw, Teresa Tova, Stella Walker and others. Don Cullen told me about appearing on Broadway as part of the replacement cast for Beyond the Fringe, and about spending the afternoon recently with John Cleese. Teresa Tova had just come from a performance and was headed to a gig in New York.

One of the many treats of the night was discovering the next generation, young singer/songwriters coming along nicely, including Nancy's daughter Suzy, who sings with not one but two bands. When the show part of the evening came along - there were two mikes and an electric piano, and the kitchen lights seemed to shine more brightly on the set - it was thrilling when Nancy and Suzy sang together. Nan's other musician daughter was in Dublin on a gig. Hooray for those musical genes.

Guests performed. Nan's ex-husband Doug Wilde played the accordion on one number. Stella Walker walked to the mike and said, "First, a few words. Gerbil," she said. "Tea bag. Forensic accounting." And then she did a hilarious version of one of Nan's songs, as did Judith Lander - a musical account of Francois Mitterand's last meal of a rare songbird. I did my part, standing up to tell the now-famous cheese tray story which involves me and Nancy 35 years ago and can be found on this website under Podcasts. It's a funny story about youthful excess. Now sadly in the distant past. Or not so sadly.

Nancy did a delicious assortment of her own compositions accompanied by Bob Johnston, whose children are also, of course, musicians, one in a band with Suzy. Nan sang about the "free-floating anxiety" that keeps us awake at night, about the takeover of Canada by American money which ended with a tribute to the "u" in honour. Such passionate intelligence and wit behind that strong, clear voice. Long may Nancy reign and her dynasty continue.


A dear friend for nearly forty years, Patsy on Gabriola Island, responded to my musings about death with musings of her own. I had talked about my image of the end: toppling off the conveyor belt into the cold and dark. Patsy, a poet in her own right, wrote:

The shadow side brings each detail, each moment, into focus: without these reminders of the impermanence and fragility of this life, we might never learn to pay attention, to feel gratitude, to honour the interconnectedness of every every every thing, the "ten thousand things" as the ancient Chinese buddhists put it. You use the expression "the cold and dark" - but is a deer dark? is a tree? is a bird? Who is to say that their energy is not simply human energy transformed? Here is Ikkyu's "death poem" which always makes me smile:

I won’t die.

I’m not going anywhere,

I’ll be here.

But don’t ask me anything.

I won’t answer.

Ikkyu (1394 – 1481)

Maybe he understands something that goes beyond the surface - a way of knowing that we will come to that is full of light and the warmth of compassion. I'm not asking you to believe in Heaven, or God, or Magic, or the Occult, or even the person called the Buddha. Just to let your heart/mind open to the possibilities. Shadows are not always dark and empty.

I promise to keep my heart/mind open to the possibilities. What a blessing to have such friends. And that November, too, is not always dark and empty.

Friday, November 13, 2009

half of the Stella Adler poster again

For some strange reason, the poster appears here, and then a day later vanishes. Magic. It's a New York poster and just doesn't like our weather.

the week that was

First, hello to the reader(s) in Mandaluyong, in the Phillipines, who, according to Google Analytics, spent 25 minutes recently perusing my blog. Hello to new readers in Kuala Lumpur and Bhubaneswar, India, who spent eight minutes and two, respectively. Please come in; take off your ... I guess coats aren't needed where you live, so don't take anything off; just make yourselves comfortable. I'd love to visit you, too. In the meantime, welcome to sunny Toronto.


When my children were growing up, I went to a family counsellor for help, first in how to raise them, and then in how not to go insane while they crashed through adolescence. She was calm and sensible, very reassuring. Recently, I thought I'd like to talk to her one last time, about how to be a good parent to young adults, especially ones who live in the same town. How near, how far, how much support, how much distance? She was calm and reassuring. Many young people these days are taking their time assuming adult responsibilities, she told me. Be there, she said. Listen and provide help only when it's needed and asked for, if you want to. Otherwise, stay back, stay out, get on with your own life and leave them to theirs.

Then the Globe ran an article saying exactly the same thing. It said - where do they get these statistics? - that 60% of twenty-somethings in North America are receiving financial help from their parents, and that there's an epidemic of anxiety and depression among them. The kids, not the parents. Somewhere, I knew all this, but it's good to have it confirmed - that our kids are not like us, and that it's not easy growing up right now, especially, it's clear, for boys.

So, my beloved children who never read this blog, I'm there and listening, but I'm also really busy.

Speaking of learning from our calm, wise elders, W'ysn Ch*y came to speak to my Ryerson classes last Tuesday; as usual, he was inspiring. Everyone, including me, left fired up for the writing journey.

"Art is about taking chances, putting your imagination in a new place," he said. "If you're comfortable and in charge as a writer, you're wasting the reader's time. Pour everything out. We write for three reasons: for therapy, in which case you'll play games and fight your own raw material; for approval, which means you're writing as a hobby; and for the truth. The truth is not beautiful. If it's beautiful, throw it away. Astonish and amaze me. Writing will not solve problems, it will enlighten us as to what the problems are. Create a 3 dimensional world. Shakespeare wrote characters both good and bad without judgement, just truth. Find and use the books that will feed you. Use your own fears, weaknesses, humiliations - they are everyone's. Take a chance and tell the truth, deeply."

Yes sir! we all said, brains whirling, clutching our notebooks.

And then he and I went to the Giller Light, the alternative Giller Awards. A ticket to the actual awards is nearly impossible to come by, so those not invited, small publishers, others in the book industry, go to a bar to watch the evening on a big screen and schmooze. W'yson said there weren't many writers in attendance this year, maybe because the ticket has gone up $10, to $30 - it's a fundraiser for Frontier College, which helps with literacy skills, but an expensive night out for a writer.

Anyway, lots of people recognised him. The room was 75% women, in fact, 70% women between 25 and 40 wearing little black dresses and boots, most with glasses. All smart, many lonely, would be my guess, and not going to find a partner here, that's for sure, except if looking for a fellow female. Many cheered the victory of Linden McIntyre, a hardworking professional who told a very important story, not just about the decades of sexual abuse by priests on his native Cape Breton Island, but more, about the criminal negligence of church leaders, who simply moved the abusers from parish to parish. Mr. McIntyre showed himself to be a true gentleman with his generous acceptance speech, in which he named all his competitors several times and urged the audience to "buy their books!"


Further to my post last week about pork, I've been trolling the Net for information. It seems lots of others are having the same thoughts about meat, and there are a few butchers in town who stock meat from animals raised and butchered humanely, or at least relatively so. Their wares are more expensive, but I've decided it's worth the cost. I'll eat less meat but be guilt-free. I'll let you know what I find when I actually go to one of these places. Until then, I'm consuming a lot of omelettes.

My own butcher Mark, whom I'd told about my quest, informed me today that pork raised without antibiotics or additives will start coming in next week. He still doesn't know how the pigs lived and died, though. But it's a start. I bought a free-range chicken from him for Sunday dinner. $3.50 a pound. Am I a good person yet?


Playing catch up, here's another movie recommendation. I just rented Up, a Walt Disney animated film which had great reviews. And justifiably so - it's stunning, rich, beautifully written and drawn, a treat for any audience from young to old. Imagine, an animated film which has as hero a crabby old man! And the best depiction of dogs ever. I thought of Wayson's words - there's a lot of subtle and moving truth in this film. A ++.

And now, off into the day. Because I'm here, and I'm listening, but I'm also really, really busy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

talk at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, New York

Great news - I have been invited to New York, to speak at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting on Tuesday December 1st. New York is always thrilling, but it's especially exciting to have work to do there.

Last year, I read an article in the New York Times about the Studio and about Tom Oppenheim, who runs it. Oppenheim is the great-grandson of Jacob Adler, the great Yiddish actor, who was the closest collaborator and colleague of my great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, between 1891 and Gordin's death in 1909 - exactly one hundred years ago. I called the Studio and left a message for Tom, and a few days later was having lunch with him and with his mother, a former actress, Stella Adler's niece and once the lover of Marlon Brando. Tom is warm, open and idealistic, with an intense belief in the theatre as a tool for social change, just as our ancestor's had. We have developed a great friendship, hopefully less fiery and melodramatic than the one enjoyed by our relatives a century ago.

I will be speaking about Gordin's life and about the family's bond with him down through time, but also about the Yiddish theatre in those days and its influence on American show biz, and about Adler himself, a magnificent man with a mane of white hair. They don't make actors like they used to, that's for sure.

This is half of the Studio's brochure. I have tried to shrink it but can't, sorry - but this gives you the general idea.

Monday, November 9, 2009

and now for something completely different

Just after that last, intensely meaningful and upbeat post, I ladled yogurt into a bowl and scooped in a lot of nuts and just unfrozen raspberries and blueberries. As I walked to the breakfast table, somehow the bowl slid out of my hands and landed upside down, of course, on the floor. My breakfast splattered all over the floor, the kitchen rug and even the back door, and then I looked up. It was all over the white ceiling. The kitchen ceiling is now covered with bright purple splatters, like freckles.

Into each day a little #$$%^&* must fall.

the dawn chorus

After this post, I promise to lighten up and return to the merry blogger of yore. It has been a particularly heavy week, with Irene's death, Departures, my friend's hospital visit in the chemo ward, my son with swine flu. Despite the beautiful weather, it's November and nature is closing down.

A haunting "Lives Lived" column about the exemplary Muriel Duckworth, a family friend who died recently aged 100, appeared this week in the Globe. I was particularly moved by a moment that was so very Muriel, thoughtful, warm and compassionate to the end: just before she died, in hospital and fragile with a broken leg, she was clumsily moved by an inexperienced young nurse. She took the young woman's hand and smiled. "And what is your name?" she asked.

I've been thinking of my dad, whose birthday is coming up - he would have been 87, a roaring lion still, I imagine, despite his age. He died at 65, only six years older than I am now. So death has been with me, this week. I've been thinking more than usual about how, at some point, we topple off the conveyor belt into the void. It's all going to end, forever and ever. We agnostics and atheists don't have a comforting belief in an after-life, "a better place," "the other side." What comforts me is my children; I will live on in them and in their children, and, hopefully, in my writing and the writing of my students and the hearts of my friends. But still, there's the fear of that moment, the tumbling off into nothing - the dark and cold.

Early this morning, I lay in my bed listening to the dawn chorus. There's a wall of thick ivy outside my bedroom window, and from about six a.m., for about an hour, all the birds who live there sing in unison. When my adolescent son lived in this room, he hated the tumult of the dawn chorus. I love it. There they all are, greeting the day and each other, until the moment when suddenly, by some signal, they all stop, and there's silence. I lay in my warm bed listening to the birds, and at about 6.30 this morning, I decided not to worry about death.

When I was pregnant for the first time, there was a moment when I made the same kind of important decision. The birth was going to hurt, no doubt about that. Better just to relax and not think about the pain to come - to prepare, yes, but not to fret. A dramatic decision for a chronic worrier, an anxious "what if?" person like me. And the births of both my children were exceptionally fast. Painful, no doubt about that, but drug free and fast. Perhaps the fact that I was relatively relaxed had something to do with it.

Here, I thought this morning, are the gifts of this wondrous day - birds, a warm bed, the morning sky, the neighbour's tree alight in the first rays of the sun. Here are family, friends, a sense of humour, a garden, a bicycle, the joys of writing, reading and teaching, walks in the sun and the rain, nice shoes that sometimes even fit. This crabby cat, still snoring beside me. Cheese.

All this. I will not have these things forever, but here they are now and I embrace them.

"And what is your name?" asked Muriel a few hours before she died, holding the nurse's hand.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My (almost) Perfect Day, by Beth Kaplan

The best day of the year here, perhaps - 17 degrees. I set out for a walk on the Don Valley Trail and ended up removing and carrying back most of my clothing. It was odd to be in hot sunshine surrounded by dead, dried wildflowers and the leafless branches of trees. Some of the bare branches were covered in soft fuzz, like reindeer antlers - I stopped to stroke them.

And then ... I saw a deer. Ten minutes from Bloor and Yonge, there was a young white-tailed deer, nibbling branches and grass. She watched me, and I watched her. A male mallard floated past on the Don River, his head glinting green. Above, a tiny bird's nest was nestled in a crevice between two branches. If it weren't for the relentless surge of automobiles on the Parkway behind, we could have been in the countryside.

On the way back I walked through Riverdale Farm, packed with families, and stopped in to see if there were any fresh eggs. Only two; enough for breakfast. At home, I put on Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman performing Bach Arias, made tomates provencales like Lynn taught me in Gordes, leaving the tomatoes frying for a long time till they were very soft, and then made fresh coffee, fried my eggs, toasted a bagel.

It doesn't get better than that.

Except that it did get better, because my son came over shortly afterwards. He had a bad flu last week that sounded like swine flu, but he's now well and able to provide much-needed upper body strength - I'm reaching the end of the basement ordeal, needed help moving box springs and chests of drawers. This is something married women cannot understand - the single woman's search for another pair of arms, strong arms. A friend came yesterday to return something he'd borrowed, and I wanted to ask him in to help me move box springs. He's a man; he has muscles; he should lift something. But luckily I have a son who does the trick, when I can lure him over to this side of town. So we tugged and lugged.

After I'd spent the afternoon doing every possible chore outside, because it was still so lovely, and Sam had hoovered down everything not nailed down in the fridge, he proceeded to cook dinner for us both. We talked; we called my mother in Ottawa; he texted and Facebooked and checked his email, and I read the New York Times on-line. And then, after Family Guy and a few other favourites, he went home. The house is almost in order. I am glowing inside with a store of Vitamin D from today's sun. The cat is snoring on the sofa beside me. All is well.

Except for this sharp little pain in my left heel. If only that would go away. If only someone in my family would win the lottery, and Obama would end world hunger and disease and war, and my new book would spring full-blown from my head and hand. Then everything would be perfect.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Big treat yesterday - my day carefully planned, and then naughty W'son Ch*y called. It was chilly, but the sun was shining. "Let's play," he said, so we did. We messed around doing errands and went to see Departures, an Academy Award winner from Japan, which we'd both long wanted to see.

A stunning film, my friends, highly, highly recommended. It's about death, which means it's also very much about life. I won't give anything away if I tell you it begins when a cellist loses his orchestra job and moves back to the house where he grew up, to take a job as a ... what's the name in English? A mortuary assistant? He assists a man who prepares bodies for burial. But in Japan, that job is a performance; a crowd of the bereaved kneels in front of the covered body, and the man hired by the undertaker works in front of them. He washes the body, clothes it and makes it up, allowing the mourners to see the dead loved one looking natural and warm, for the last time. And then the lid of the coffin is put in place. All of this as an exquisite ritual, a public dance.

The film brought back a powerful memory. My father died in his own bed in 1988, at the age of 65. Mum and I were there with him at the moment of his death. Even now, it's surreal to me that one moment my father was there, and the next, gone. Just gone. I wept again last night to remember that when the undertaker arrived, Dad's body was zipped into a large plastic bag and whisked away - no ceremony, no washing, no preparation. How much wiser to allow the family to spend time with this new form their loved one has taken - motionless and silent, never to return, but as beautiful as ever.

After seeing the film, I thought for the first time of the handling of my beloved father's body, and regretted that we did not treat him with more care.

The film is not remotely morbid - in fact, it's full of humour and it's about the greatest love. One of those rich, haunting films that will stay with me forever.

Then Mr. Ch*y and I went for dinner with Ben Torchinsky, a man who has dealt with his own terrible departures this year. He is coping magnificently with the loss of his right arm, less so with the loss of Sarah, his wife of more than 60 years. Ben is a rare conversationalist - last night, telling us tales of the tycoons he has dealt with or met, like Conrad Black and Peter Pocklington. Unlike his peers, Ben somehow managed to make an enormous amount of money while remaining a decent and honest man. He said, even when I had to fire someone with just cause, I wanted to do it humanely and well. I thought, you never know when you'll meet this person again and need his or her help or friendship. It sounded an awful lot like "Do unto others ..." over our platters of crispy chicken and honey-garlic beef.

Today was heavenly, true Indian summer or whatever it's called now, bright sun and swirls of dead leaves, and tomorrow apparently even better. Warm days in November are precious because we know we must make the best of the last real sun before winter. If only, Departures tells us, we could learn to treat every one of our days like a rare hot day in November.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a fallen friend

I've been thinking a lot about a childhood friend of mine, Irene Blum, who changed the course of my life. One day in 1981 I complained to her that I'd wanted to write my Master's thesis about my great-grandfather, but all the resource material was in Yiddish which I do not speak.
"I bet my friend Sarah Torchinsky would be interested in your project," Irene said. "I'll tell her about you. "

Sarah Torchinsky became my Yiddish translator and colleague; without her, there would be no book. More than two decades later, when compiling the list of Acknowledgements - more than a page long - at the end of the book, I forgot about Irene. She flew in to the book launch here in Toronto and said nothing about the very long list of names which did not include hers.

It was only when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, not long ago, that I suddenly realised my omission. It became vital to apologise to her. Though Irene was unmarried with both parents gone, her best friend Carol kept vigil with her almost every day in hospital. But, Carol told me, Irene was depressed and would not answer her phone; she didn't want to speak to anyone. Finally, one day, I was able to get through, and we talked for half an hour. She was her old self, full of humour and good sense. It was such a relief to be able to tell her how much her contribution and support had meant to me; how mortified I was that I'd forgotten to thank her in print. "When the book is reprinted," I said, "your name will be first." She liked that. In the days afterwards, when I called, the phone simply rang and rang.

Irene Blum, who taught French and loved the theatre, especially Brian Bedford, died in Edmonton on Saturday night. She was 61.

Another dear friend has had some worrisome test results and had to have further testing done. I went with her to St. Michael's Hospital this morning, and while she was with the doctor, I sat waiting. It was the chemo room, packed with LaZBoy chairs, men and women sitting with their arms chained to drip machines, lying patiently, dozing or reading, one woman, in a scarf - most of the women wore scarves or hats - feverishly doing needlepoint. It was calm and peaceful. It was a nightmare.

No time for morbid thoughts, as the cold dark days move in. We do what we can. I will not forget the woman in her bright headscarf, tethered to a clicking machine, busy making something beautiful.

I will try never again to forget whom to thank.

the writing life according to Philip Roth

Eleanor has sent me the transcript of the end of her interview with Philip Roth, so you can read what the man really said, not my mangled version. It's powerful and profound, I think. She asked him, if he had to live his life over again, would he do the same thing?

I don’t think I would want to be a writer. There are many hard occupations, to be sure. This is one of them. It’s very grueling because you’re always an amateur whenever you begin a new book. Yes, you’ve written before, but you didn’t write that book before. So you start off with scraps, and the first six months of a book are usually extremely frustrating and wearying. Everything goes to pot. Your writing goes to pot. Your imagination is insufficient. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You don’t know where you’re going. And then when you finish a book, you have to start again and come up with another idea, which is also grueling. So I don’t think I would choose to be a writer.


Despite the various gratifications…


Yes, despite the gratifications.


…and successes which you have had?


Yes, I have had considerable success. No, I don’t think I would want a child of mine to do it either. It’s too demanding. You are alone. You’re the only person who can make it happen. Nobody can help you. And you have to drag this thing out of you. I find it very difficult.

I’ve often thought that I would have been a good doctor, that I would have enjoyed the contact with my patients and that I would have gotten gratification from the work itself. And the problem is I don’t even think in the next life I’m going to be able to do the pre-med course. I’m going to be stuck.


Zuckerman tries to be a doctor, doesn’t he?

That’s right. In The Anatomy Lesson, yes. I took it seriously. I took his desire seriously. Also I’ve admired friends of mine who were doctors. I’ve envied them their work, and some of them envy me mine.


When you interviewed Primo Levi, you talked to him about those infamous words about the gates of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes you free, and what a horrifying parody of work it was, but that it was possible to view Primo Levi’s entire literary labour as dedicated to restoring to work its humane meaning. And I was thinking the same about you in a sense because you have worked virtually nonstop writing. Can you say what you want to be freed from?


You’re freed from the gag in your mouth. All your freedom is in your words, and all your freedom is in your narrative, and this is the compensation, that you eventually do make an object out of yourself, a book, all on your own, with no barrier. There’s nobody standing in your way. There’s nobody telling you what to do. There’s nobody who can stop you. So that’s freedom. And you buy that freedom at a steep cost, which is the work itself, but you do get a kind of freedom.

Monday, November 2, 2009

writing and money, for no money

Outside the window - piles of crushed leaves and flurries of fresh ones spilling from the sky. Inside: worry. Notepads covered with numbers. Money again.

There has been a steep price for my glorious jaunt to Europe. While I was away, as some of you may recall, there was a flood in the basement suite of my house, the rental of which is a vital part of my income. The flood was caused by something inconsequential which could have been fixed easily had I been home. But I wasn't, so my tenant moved out in August, and the damage got worse requiring major repairs, plus the on-going loss of rental income.

Hence, money worries. I know them well, Horatio, having lived almost my entire adult life with a gift, an absolute genius for not making money - for choosing fields in which decent remuneration was only a remote possibility. The only period of financial stability was during my ten years of wifedom during the eighties, when my husband provided security while I had babies, cooked, cleaned and got a Master's in that most lucrative of fields: Creative Writing.

I'd spent the seventies as an actress in Vancouver, when during my best year, which included a half-hour TV drama with Michael J. Fox, I made $13,000. During the nineties, I was a single mother, the most vulnerable and fraught of states, and then - woo hoo - entered a real money-making field and became a writer. Spent more than 20 years buying vast quantities of great clothing for other people and myself at Goodwill, and researching and writing a book that not many people wanted to read or at least buy, and that Stephen Spielberg has not, so far, optioned for a film.

Now I make a bare living as a teacher of writing, work I love, and as a landlady, and no longer spend hours as a buyer of second-hand clothes but at my new unpaid job, blogging, and my old one, working on a book which may not even be published, or if it is, that no one may want to read or at least buy. As they say in England - brilliant!

But I have chosen this life, or it has chosen me. The possibility of entering the stable workforce was always there; I was not interested. Why? I have no idea - was it a sixties thing? Perhaps not, perhaps it's a genetic hippydom, because so far in their adult lives, my children are not interested in the stable workforce either. It's one of my boasts that I've almost never worked in a place with fluorescent lighting, and neither have they. On we go, self-employed paupers in natural light.

This dark mood too shall pass. I'm not, all sounds to the contrary, complaining. The suite will get fixed and rented, and I'll pay off my debts and regain equilibrium. I'm not sitting in a traffic jam on the Don Valley Parkway, I'm in my dressing-gown at 10.30 a.m., about to get ready to cycle to U of T as the gorgeous fall scene glows outside my office window. This is to complain? No, this, with all its worries, is luck.

Yesterday was Sunday, so spent my usual two hours with CBC Radio, Tapestry at 2 and Eleanor Wachtel at 3. I cooked chicken in orange and leek sauce, leeks braised with cheese, and a lot of salmon and broccoli - part of my week's meals - while listening. Eleanor interviewed the elusive, brilliant Phillip Roth, and at the end I thought, radio does not get better than this. It was stunning to listen to one of our greatest living writers speak about his relationship with his father, his work, and with death. "All my friends are dying," he said. "I belong to the Funeral of the Month Club."

At the end, when she asked if he'd be a writer again in another life, he said no and he wouldn't want his children to be either. (I took notes and hope I got him right.) "As a writer," he said, "you're always an amateur. Yes, you've written other books, but not that new book. You've got to start all over again with scraps. The first six months are gruelling. You work alone; no one can help you drag this thing out of yourself."

Well, what do you like about writing? asked Eleanor.

"A writer is freed from the gag in his mouth," he said. "All my freedom is in my narrative, in my words. Freedom is the compensation. Eventually you make an object all by yourself - a book. Nobody can stop you, tell you what to do.

You buy that freedom at a steep cost, which is the work itself. But you do buy a kind of freedom."

Thank you for stating it so beautifully, Mr. Roth. All my freedom, too, is in my words. It's my pleasure, as a self-employed writer with sunlight on her keyboard, to give them to you.