Monday, October 14, 2019

holiday blessings, and Nuala

A silent Thanksgiving day - nothing open in the city, nothing scheduled here. What a gift. I was sitting on the deck in the sun reading Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody?: the accidental memoir of a Dublin woman when I had to put the book down, I couldn't see the words for tears. Nearby, the cardinal chipchipchipping at the feeder and the last roses, drooping, nearly gone, but not quite.

How grateful I am to belong to this crazy league, in however minimal a way: the writers. How I want to do what she does. She's writing about her Irish past, her parents, schooling, and work, a great swirl of sensations of such vividness and honesty and humour - exactly what I would like to do, what I have tried to do. These days it's harder than ever to get words out there; I realize I have no idea about the new ways it's done, the online zines, the podcasts, the ... whatever they are. It's discouraging. But I will take heart from Nuala's truth.

Lynn just sent pictures of her 70th birthday party this summer. Student Andy just sent an essay for So True. Antoinette, my mother's dear friend and piano teacher, just sent her thoughts on my work with the letters and on her own life. Wendy, a glamorous university professor, and Barry, an actor I've known since 1972, just sent pictures of their surprise wedding in Tofino.
Anna sent me a picture of her just-washed floors gleaming in the sun. Longtime student and friend Mary wrote to say, "I am thankful for you and the gift you bring to my life - friendship, encouragement and your wisdom." And I sent friends this, from yesterday at Sam's bar:
Blessings to you all, on this blessed day. Though it's a far from blessed day in many, many places in the world, I know that. But today I give thanks that here, now, it is.

And now - back to Nuala.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

thanks thanks thanks

The most beautiful imaginable day - I'm sitting on the deck in the hot sun. There are few plants around me, though - yesterday night it went down to 5, so yesterday afternoon was about wrestling the deck plants into the house, at last. Heroic Bill came over and we washed and hauled. Usually they're scattered all over the house and I just hope they survive; this year, because upstairs is now so light and sunny, we had to drag them all up to the second floor. Which is now a jungly plant sanctuary.

Last night, Monique called to say our mutual friend Jacqueline was coming for dinner, did I want to join them? I certainly did. We 3 are perfectly compatible politically and in every other way, including enjoyment of food and wine. We tried to fix the problems of the world, really we did.

Today is my son's 35th birthday. He is of course working - or should I say, receiving his adoring fans throughout the day; when he finishes work at 6, he's staying at the bar to receive more. Yesterday his sister cooked Thanksgiving dinner for Thomas's extended family, including about eight children, 3 of whom, plus of course hers, stayed overnight in her small apartment. I honour her and salute her, the woman who provides family, food, and support to so many.

Went for a walk this morning to the Necropolis, where my parents and uncle are scattered, to give them thanks for my life and heart. Soon I'll go across town to visit, then Eli, Ben, and I will walk up to Sam's bar to celebrate with him. I could ask for no better Thanksgiving. Our feast is on Wednesday. Whenever and whatever you celebrate, I wish you light, I wish you peace, I wish you playtime.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

harsh words

Sitting in the sun before going off into a busy day - class at U of T,  time to kill, then a big CNFC conference committee meeting. A gorgeous warm day with a chilly underbite. Just finishing off the last tomatoes and cucumbers, a little bit of chard left. And then - well, to comfort us as the cold comes, apples.

Yesterday, doing more transcribing of these old letters Mum left when she died, I wept twice. Once when I found a letter Dad wrote to her as she, my brother and I were on the boat from England, returning to Halifax after their painful separation due to my mother's affair. Dad had returned to Canada months before to resume his teaching work and to buy us a house, which he'd done. He sent her the most beautiful letter; I hardly recognize this tender, vulnerable man.

Well my life, such as it is, revolves about you and my children and I seriously doubt that I could survive without you. I need desperately to love, and you’re it and have always been so. I really have always loved you although at times I may have had a strange way of showing it. For this I beg for your forgiveness as I have freely given you mine for whatever required it. Let us try to forget the wounds which we have had inflicted on us by the other from inconsideration, egoism, or insecurity and lack of confidence.

I belong to you, body and soul for the rest of our lives. What I ask in return is a clean break with the past and our absolutely concentration on our lives and children and home. We must keep the doors open between us—we both have so much to learn about the other and try to learn to talk to one another.

I adore you, only you and always you.

He kept that pledge. That is, he had affairs, but discreet ones. Whereas Mum's next one, like her first one, was anything but discreet.

But then I read another letter from him, a few months earlier, responding to a letter of Mum's in which she wrote how difficult I was and how very jealous of my 4-year old brother, who, in all their letters back and forth, is "our adorable little man," precious, funny, so cute they want to eat him up. Whereas their 7-year old daughter is - I'm not sure what I was doing wrong, but obviously something. Dad loved wordplay - hence "mammaries." So, yes, reading this made me cry. Because it's not just that he's saying something so harsh, but that my mother's letter reminded him of it.

Most delicious of creatures – how I miss you and brood. What a marvellous letter from Beth – it almost made me forget what a bitch she often is – but your letter received this morning refreshed my mammaries.  

I want to defend that 7-year old girl. But you know, she grew up, not without some collateral damage, and turned into the marvellous human being I am today. LOL. And also, by the end, Dad and I were close, and he apologized to me once for being cruel. I loved him very much. 

So having access to my parents' intimate messages is both a blessing and a curse. But mostly, for a writer, a gift - help in the solving of mysteries. I did however book another appointment with my shrink. Who's on my side, definitely on my side.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Happy Birthday, Sylvia Mary Leadbeater. R.I.P.

October 8: my mother's birthday. She would have been 96. Yesterday at Ryerson a student wrote about her 90-year old mother with dementia who has turned violent, and I breathed, once more, a sigh of relief and gratitude that Mum died when she did. She was losing memory, getting weak and vague and sometimes strange, but still beautiful and more or less together. It's devastating to imagine your mother as a vicious stranger.

I'm still reading Mum's lover's letters. It's difficult, because I see her in a new light, as a modern woman struggling to sort out her complicated life, but at the same time, she had ensnared a married man with young children who was desperate to ditch his family and run away with her. There is mention of sheep farming in Spain. They were really nutty.

At one point in class last night, as the 13th person read an essay, I cried, once more, "I LOVE MY JOB." A room full of interesting people whom I didn't know a few weeks ago, and now I do. Now we are starting to know each other well. I just sent out a newsletter to former students; after reading it, Aime Wren signed up for my blog and then replied, "I must tell you that your suggested - to look up - book titles, account of seasonal garden closing, and your photo shoot description was heartwarming to read! I could hear your voice and recalled the class I took with you. A few of the women that met in your class about five years ago now are still working together in a writing group. Your warmth and humour united us. 

Currently I am typing from Oxford, on my fourth study abroad spell at the School of Continuing Education here in the UK. One never knows how their teaching efforts inspire others, and might not see the ripple effect of encouragement that impacts their students.

Beth, because you taught me at the University of Toronto, I am now at Oxford. 

I wrote back that it's especially great that she's at Oxford because that's where my parents met. I have an Oxford University sweatshirt from Goodwill that I wear constantly. It does feel good to know the classes have meaning. 

A beautiful day today - sharpness in the air but also hot, hot sun. Blissful. I am happy to report that I missed the debate last night because I was teaching. It sounds appalling, too important to have been handled so badly. I must stop thinking about the election or I'll go crazy. 

Today, my first piano lesson since June and not as excruciating as it could have been. I've managed to squeeze out a bit of time every so often and am hammering through another of the easy Goldberg Variations. How happy I am to write that.

On the other hand, had a sad duty. I'd emailed Lynn in France the lovely words of praise for my memoir friend Allan had written, and she sent back enthusiastic congratulations on finding a publisher so keen on the book. You must be ecstatic! she wrote. I had to tell her that Allan is a friendly fellow writer, not a publisher, and I am not, repeat not, ecstatic. Not yet. Any day now.

Monday, October 7, 2019

much-needed praise

After going on last post about partaking of the cultural riches of this fine city, I missed one of the greatest feasts of all: Nuit Blanche, on Saturday night. It was cold. I was tired. In the past, I've ridden around on my bicycle looking at myriad installations. But this year, after going to the theatre in the afternoon, I was happy to curl up at home with a good book or two.

Finished my friend Jane Silcott's wonderful book of essays, Everything rustles, which is Jane to a T - honest, warm, funny, and clever. One of the perks of being a writer is knowing writers, getting to read their work and seeing their personalities and souls translated into words. I very much enjoyed learning more about Jane's.

And then read a new nonfiction book, I am, I am, I am: seventeen brushes with death, by Maggie O'Farrell, which has been getting rave reviews. It's beautifully written, and one word kept hitting me: urgent. She grabs you with her near death experiences and doesn't let go. But I have to say, by the fifteenth time she nearly died, I was getting a bit tired. Can't you just stay home and knit - carefully? I wanted to ask. Still, it's a good read.

Now, for a palate cleanser, I'm reading Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials in the Golden Compass series. Daemons!

Speaking of a good YA read, my friend Allan Stratton, once a playwright and now a successful writer of YA novels, agreed to read my memoir manuscript. I was interested to know what he thought, because so much is set in the theatre world of Vancouver where he and I met and worked for years. He sent me his critique yesterday and made me a very happy woman.

You write awfully well. I found it compulsive reading, not just because of your prose but also because names like Brent, Nicky, Janet, Bill bring up those theatre days so vividly.

Your manuscript has great flow, and I think it succeeds in dealing with disturbing material in a way that’s affecting without being TMI. Act I has some very funny moments. The L’Arche section, Act II, is very moving. Alain is an interesting character. And your descriptions of the countryside and individuals you lived with are very human.

Your book is a highly readable and entertaining account of your journey to date. Reading it was a pleasure.

How I needed to hear this! Then I got an email from Laura Cameron, whom I've hired on several occasions to edit my stuff, about a few essays and the beginning of the parents book, encouraging on all counts. So yes, I guess I shouldn't quit writing and become a dental hygienist. Onward.

Yesterday, though, no time for writing — a very busy day starting to put the garden to bed. John and I spent hours pruning, putting away garden furniture and sun umbrellas, cleaning and covering the barbecue. Later I put away the tank tops and got out the sweaters. It's warm all this week, but still, we know, we feel, what's coming.

Best of all, Mia, the daughter of my best friend Anne-Marie - Annie - came over midday Sunday. She's a part-time photographer with a website and a great eye and talent.

I wanted her to work with me, to help me sit for photographs so I'm not so stiff and awkward, with, often, grotesque results. Often it looks like I'm grimacing or in tears instead of smiling for a camera that terrifies me.
I thought I was smiling.

She was wonderful, showing me how to tilt my head and relax my shoulders. We took a ton of shots, including a series after I'd put on my magnificent maroon Balenciaga ballgown with a train, bought at Goodwill 30 years ago for $18 and as yet never worn. (Oscars, I'm ready!) What fun to parade around in it, including in the garden and shots of me standing at the stove, stirring a pot. Will post. If and only if they're decent.

What I realized, after she left, is that when a camera comes out, instead of shrinking away, I should pretend to be someone else - a woman who's confident in her looks and enjoys being photographed. I'm calling her Angela. If you want to photograph me, I'll turn into Angela. And hopefully, Mr. DeMille, she'll be ready for her closeup.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Downton Abbey and Girl from the North Country

From the sublime to another kind of sublime - yesterday, the film of Downton Abbey, and today, a musical woven from the songs of Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country. Talk about a contrast!

Downton - glittering, frothy, absurd, yet fabulous, so stunning to look at, costumes, sets, countryside - just the kitchen set alone is worth the price of admission, you've never seen so much gleaming copper. And those actors, every single one perfect for the role: Barrow, Carson, the handsome "republican" Tom Branson, so solid and real, you cannot imagine anyone else playing those characters. Not to mention the very best: Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, and the rest, a master class in acting. It's a delicious treat that does not linger in the gut, but while it's floating by - heaven. (I thought of the two actors who insisted on leaving the TV show early and whose characters had to be killed off, one in childbirth and the other in a car accident; they've hardly been seen since. What could have prompted them to jettison such a phenomenal success? I wonder what they think now.)

I did read one review that, while raving, also mentioned tumbrels and guillotines. Because the wealth on display, the rooms full of silver, the strangling pomp, the scores of servants - no wonder there are revolutions! If all aristocrats were as enlightened and kind as the Crawleys, the world would be a different place. But of course, it's fantasy.

North Country is the opposite, a very dark oddity. The Irish playwright Conor McPherson took the entire catalogue of Dylan's brilliant songs, picked some, and wove a story around them; unlike Mamma Mia!, the songs are not part of a goofy plot, they're just sung, hauntingly, beautifully, by the cast of twenty. But ye gods, it's a gloomy story, set in Dylan's birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression, in a boarding house full of misfits. I'd read the Ben Brantley rave in the NYT, so I felt something was off for this cast. Mirvish is selling seats at a discount, that's why I was there, and it felt like they were all working too hard in a half-full house, before they set off for Broadway. The direction by the playwright feels harsh and forced. And yet the music, one incredible song after another sung in a completely new context, is so heavenly, you could listen forever. Dylan the genius, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. Miracles do happen.

And then out into a chilly Saturday afternoon. It was a COLD ride home. I had to take the deck plants in last night, it went down to 2, but it's going up again for a bit, they tell us. I thought, as I peddled madly home, that despite the many downsides to living in a metropolis - noise, traffic, chaos - it's worth it all to partake of the cultural banquet always on offer. One need only choose from myriad options and go. As I so often do. Plus today I got from Cabbagetown to Lee Valley and then the Queen Alex Theatre on King Street West entirely in safe bike lanes. Miracles do happen.

I saw Downton with one of my dearest friends, Suzette, a screenwriter and friend since university days. Afterward we ate piles of halal Lebanese food and talked shop. I confessed that I'm stymied right now, my memoir in limbo, my essays going nowhere, and now a giant pile of family letters - what to do? She reminded me that we should only do the work we're passionate about. And I remembered - oh yes, I care about this stuff. I'd forgotten. Still not sure how to proceed, but it was good to remember - there's no point doing this work that nobody gives a damn about unless we're truly hooked by what we're working on.

While I was downtown, before the theatre, I went to Lee Valley Tools on an urgent mission. This morning, I was horrified; there on the deck was a dead bird with a speckled breast, its neck broken. It must have flown into my sliding glass doors, the first time that's happened. So I went to Lee Valley to get a decal to paste on and make sure it doesn't happen again. Heartbreak - we're reading about millions of birds vanishing from the earth, and there, a tender little life, lost in my garden.

But - as my dear, sorely missed Wayson used to say - onward.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

heat wave

Such a contrast - Saturday, to a memorial celebration for a fine man, Jack Bingham, a neighbour and friend. His widow Gretchen had organized a lovely event outside with a canopy, stand up tables, tons of great food from Daniel and Daniel, a pianist playing, a book of remembrance. Many local people from around here and old friends of theirs from the States, including an elderly couple who flew in for a day and night. Neighbour Stephen, who's about 75, wrote in the book that when he grew up, he wanted to be like Jack, who was thoughtful, kind, meticulous. A great loss.

And then Sunday, bursting with life - I brought the two little boys over here for the afternoon. We went to one playground and then another; at the second one I delighted them both by playing catch, chasing, growling and snarling, as they scampered screaming over the climbing apparatus. As I puffed and panted, I thought, this is why I go to the Y - so I can be the Big Bad Wolf without fainting. It was fun. They destroyed my house and then I took them home for dinner. On the way back I stopped at John's; he and Sylvie drove me to an apartment building not far away where I'd bought a great chest of drawers for $40 on Craigslist for the downstairs apartment. We disassembled it, loaded it into John's van, delivered it, reassembled it, and I was home in time to watch The Durrells in Corfu. 

Yesterday evening, teaching the big class at Ry - a new person came so it's officially full at 18. Today, a day of record-breaking heat - 31 feeling like 37 - I spent in the garden pruning and pulling up. Got rid of the cuke plants, cut back the enormous coleus, the huge branchy cedars, the overgrown jasmine. Friend Jason came for dinner - a student 12 or more years ago, then in my home group, then a best friend who's the MC for So True. We are joined at the hip. He's a peach.

What am I doing during the days? No idea. FB and Twitter. A bit of work. The NYT, trying to keep up with the madness to the south of us. Trying not to pay attention to our own election. Reading. Editing for So True and students. Email. The various sites that send me stuff, overload. Coffee with Monique. Chats with JM, a bit of TV, a quick trip to the Y. And voila - the day has disappeared.

And then, best of all - bedtime. Right now.

Eat more cucumbers. Sorry about the bad grammar, below. But the point is taken