Wednesday, March 30, 2022

"Other People," Daniel Brooks, brilliant and moving

An unforgettable experience last night: a haunting piece of theatre. Ruth and I went to see the one man show Other People, written by and starring Daniel Brooks. There's an extraordinary backstory to this event: 63-year old Daniel, one of Canada's best-known and most experienced playwrights and directors - and a non-smoker - has been diagnosed with Stage 4 - terminal - lung cancer. 

Most people facing death would withdraw, conserve their strength, make peace with the world. Daniel wrote a play and stars in it, alone on stage, talking for a hour and 45 minutes. It's a tour de force of acting, but also of writing, of thought, humanity, depth. He tells us that in order to learn how to die peacefully, he went to a 9-day meditation retreat in Quebec, and the play is about that experience, day by day, but also much more, including his thoughts on Claude Monet, Primo Levi and the Holocaust - Brooks is Jewish - and Tolstoy. And his family, his two daughters, his lover, his friends. And especially lots about the other men at the retreat, who become real to us too and who drive him crazy. "Hell is other people," said Sartre, obviously behind the title. Brooks talks about a school of fish, "a murder of crows, an annoyance of people." And yet, in the end, the annoying others turn out to be struggling seekers, just like him. 

There's no catharsis, no sudden understanding of what it is to be alive, what it means to die. Just a man doing his best to understand himself and the world. At the end, he is struggling still. He brought tears to my eyes and Ruth's, and she's not a weeper like me. She loved it too.

Brooks early on lets us know he had a difficult childhood. He regresses several times to the abandoned and maltreated seven-year-old he once was, and somehow, throughout, he is still that boy. And yet he's the man we see working with such skill on the stage. He thanks us for coming to be with him; the lights go up sometimes on the audience, and then back down. The lighting and sound are subtle supports, but mostly it's this man and his powerful words and face. 

One thing made us laugh. He is so neurotic and cerebral and competitive, I said to Ruth at the end, The message here is that Jews should not go on meditation retreats. 

What theatre does best, when inside that dark room you encounter another human life that touches and enlightens you, so that when you leave, you're bigger. I felt bigger. He gave us a great gift. Thank you, Daniel Brooks. May you find the peace you long for. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Oscars, the tooth fairy, Betty White

I'll take a day like today - cold with bright hot sun - over mild but grey and wet, any time. I'm a plant. I needs me some sun.

So much going on. Yes, I watched the Oscars though also watching Call the Midwife and Sanditon at the same time, so missed some. Did not miss the slap, however. There you have it, America - hit someone in the face and then weep about peace and love. I dislike the nasty jokes people like Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais crack about their peers, but actors who make many millions of dollars doing their very visible work have to put up with it. The whole event was a textbook example of how important it is to have a sense of humour and some humility. I give the best of the night award to Amy Schumer when she came back. "I was changing. Did I miss anything?"

It was a family weekend; the boys were over for a last sleepover with their dad in the basement suite. I saw how wonderful it would be in a multi-generational home; they ran up and down from him to me, soccer and ice cream upstairs, archery and pancakes down. Ben ran up, very excited, to show me how he'd just pulled out his second tooth. Took a shot to send to his mama.

The tooth fairy left $5! Inflation. 

Eli and I are reading J. K. Rowling's The Christmas Pig, four chapters or so at a time. He nestles beside me, often with his head on my shoulder. Rowling's mesmerizing skill creates a world that's imaginative and intriguing but also filled with genuine danger and fear. I mean, Harry Potter confronts Death Eaters. It doesn't get scarier than that.

Later, Sam and I went for a bite to eat at our favourite pub a block away, the House on Parliament. It was full - servers in masks, everyone seated bare faced, fabulous. We're returning to life. I know, the virus is still out there wreaking havoc, but at least, triple vaxxed, we feel safer. I do anyway. Tonight I'm going to the theatre with Ruth. The theatre! Be still my beating heart.

Last night, a documentary about Betty White. What a charmed life, an only child of loving parents, a show biz career she enjoyed and was skilled at from a young age, an independent successful woman who eventually found her soulmate and beloved. Still working at 99. In all the takes, her glee and sweetness seem absolutely genuine. Ryan Reynolds told a story: that after finishing her scenes in a film with him, she turned to everyone as she left and said, "That was the most fun I've ever had. (pause) Standing up."

What a gift. No one like her. 

Sam loves old family artefacts and lore. I gave him my British grandfather's billiards medals - Percy Harold Leadbeater, champion, 1921-22. I think the chain is a watch fob; he always wore a waistcoat with a pocket watch. On it are two pierced sixpences, one from 1842 and another 1858. 

How I cherish these links to the past, and how grateful I am that someone in the family does too. 

Oh yes, one more thing in the Blowing Own Horn department: more nice words about the essays. A friend who's in a difficult legal situation wrote: Every time I see anything related to that damn mess I start to cry. So I read about YOUR life and find that people go through great stuff and awful stuff and all I need to do is get through this and see it in the rear view mirror. You are a gifted writer, Beth. Know that many who read your work, come away with much to think about.

A blog friend wrote about "Correspondence": Such a beautifully written  memoir and also beautifully illustrated. I read the piece aloud to absorb each word. May your rich  correspondence continue for many years, not only with Babs's sister  but with so many of us, your readers from around the world.

And another about "Correspondence": Very moving, Beth. I felt the fragility of your friend in her letters; iyour deeply compassionate style of writing, you describe not only her fragility, but yours and everyone's, too. Wonderful to revive these letters for such an affecting story. 

Thank you, friends. It's beyond heartening to hear from you this way. Onward.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

reporting back

By the way, if you'd like me to send you the PDF of "Correspondence," please email me. This is one of my most important stories. 

A gloomy wet day but mild. All is good here. For those who've been following my health travails, I spoke to the surgeon Dr. Lawless (yes, that's his real name) yesterday. TMI department: he thinks it's not a recurrence of appendicitis, the pain comes from a kink or obstruction in my gut caused by the scar tissue and inflammation from the appendicitis. Surgery not required. If the pain comes back, he says, go to Emerg immediately and they'll do a scan. They can't do one when I'm not in crisis.

Very reassuring to speak to a calm, competent, encouraging doctor. First rate service. Thank you, St. Mike's and Tommy Douglas.

So, that's good. Plus I did Wordle in three today, very satisfying as it was a tough word. Plus a friend with cancer has been told the doctor's sure he can cure it. Plus the boys are coming over soon for another sleepover with their dad downstairs, so can run up and down as they did last weekend, and their harried mother gets a break. 

Plus Sam is happy. He's been approved to foster a dog; he has wanted a dog for a long time, so this is a wonderful thing. There's an option to adopt so first he can see if having a pet works in his life. I'm pretty sure it will. A new furry grandbaby for Glamma! 

In the meantime, here's my current furry grandbaby, the not-so-dying cat, who still vomits regularly but otherwise is a happy beast. I used to have a collection of stuffed ducks, because ducks can fly, walk, and swim and have such a perfect shape. Here's Naan with one of them. Does this pic not make your day?

Thursday, March 24, 2022

"Correspondence" in Queen's Quarterly

A huge treat yesterday: the latest Queen's Quarterly arrived, with my article "Correspondence." It's a gorgeous magazine on silky paper, beautifully laid out and illustrated, with stellar writing. Very proud to be included. They sent two extra copies that will go to England, to the family of the penpal the essay is about. Barbara died in 1966; she'd just turned sixteen. I hope it brings her siblings joy to see her remembered and honoured, and loved. 

Speaking of honoured: A workshop I took recently from the Creative Nonfiction Collective, that dealt with writing about nature, urged us to learn the actual names of plants and animals. "To name them is to honour them," we were told. I know the names of few plants and trees, a few more animals. But for example, I just looked up "sparrows of Ontario," and found out there are 26 different species, most of them invasive. There's a shallow pan filled with water on my deck bannister so I can watch all the different sparrows come to bathe and drink. Not to mention the cardinal, who spent quite a bit of time today splashing about, ruffling and diving and fluttering. He's so red, and yet his face is so very black. After his bath, the sparrows return to drink. 

Yesterday I watched Nature on PBS about butterflies, marvelling again in the natural miracles of our world - the process of egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, one of the most glorious creatures alive - how not to weep at the marvel of it all? One species, the stunning Painted Lady, travels thousands of miles, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle and back - much further than the Monarch. 

Thinking of the intricacy and delicacy of our natural world, it's hard not to dwell on the vicious destruction going on, the smashing of everything not just in Ukraine, but all over the world - the rain forest in Brazil, the ancient forests of British Columbia ... And feel again for David Suzuki, our Canadian Cassandra, who's been begging us for decades to pay attention and stop.

Tonight, the last home class of term, a group of writers like family. Yesterday to the Y that's gradually feeling like normal — had my first sauna in two years, with a passel of naked ladies without masks. Heaven. On the way to the streetcar I passed this fellow. A modern kind of expert. Certified!

Monday, March 21, 2022

Submisson, in both senses of the word

Isabel just wrote, No blog for a few days, are you all right? Not much to say, I wrote back. But that's never stopped me before.

Surreal days, we Canadians living our tranquil lives while on the other side of the world, our kin are being blasted to pieces. Of course, it has always been so, and it's right we're accused of a kind of disaster racism - were we as concerned about the decimation of Syrians, or are we now about Ethiopians? No. But then, we're living this war in vivid, desperate detail, in real time. I never quite understood Syria, why the madman was attacking his own people (with the help, incidentally, of Putin), and don't understand the various conflicts elsewhere in the world, despite reading about them in the paper. But the sickening, criminal injustice of the situation in Ukraine could not be more clear and understandable. 

On Friday Bill Maher had on a scientist whose organization monitors and protests nuclear weapons. The very idea of their use was once unthinkable and now is not, because of the Russian madman. No, the several madmen. I think back once again to the election of Obama, when we glowed with the joyful thought that so many of the world's problems were or would soon be fixed. Not. Not not not not not. We are, as has been opined, fucked. Thank God, at least there's a grownup in the White House. 

Meanwhile, our city struggles into spring, with several heavenly days punctuated with cold and rain. Walking with Monique today, we both got overheated. I opened all the windows in my office, what heaven. But when I came up here just now, the room was freezing. Close windows immediately.

I spent the day crafting a query letter to go out with the essay book, a job in itself. How to sell yourself without sounding vain or pompous? Oh my, fabulous, I've got to read this! you want them to exclaim, the faceless gate keepers. Submitting is a long tedious job, one I hate, but there's no point being impatient or resentful, it's an unavoidable part of the job - one I wouldn't have to do if I had an agent, but then getting an agent is another job in itself. You'd think writing the books would be enough of a job, but no, that's just the beginning. Nothing for it but to submit. 

On the plus side, one of my beta readers, dear friend and member of my home class, Curtis, has read some of the essays. He wrote, I’m deeply immersed in your book and enjoying it tremendously. First, you emerge from the pages as a highly engaging, intelligent and “relatable" woman, very likeable. The second aspect of the work is the humour. I’m sitting in front of my computer laughing out loud, causing David to look at me with bemusement. “What’s so funny?” What’s funny is your wit. I’m loving it. 

Thank you, Curtis! Let's hope that feeling lasts. 

Last night's pleasure, the return of Ask the Midwife; I wondered if they'd be able to keep the characters and the fraught situations fresh after so many seasons, but it was a good start. They're all a bit too adorable, not a mean bone in any body, but still, I love them all. Any show that features the joys of newborn babies can't go wrong. And then Sanditon which is totally silly but lovely to look at, so why not? Tonight, the superb My Brilliant Friend from Ferrante's novels, the riveting season two. 

No pictures today. Well, I do have a few more lovely ones of Paul McCartney hugging children so if you ask nicely I could post those. But I think, for today, just the sign-off of CBC's The World at Six: Be good to one another.

No, can't resist: grandfather and grandson. Peace.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

nearly spring

What a day - 17 degrees! We all poured out into the sun. It'll get cold again, but we felt the dawn of hope. I actually did some pruning of the winter kill and saw green shoots, though most of my yard is still covered in slush and ice.

Went to get the boys today, brought them across town on the streetcar. We stopped on King Street at Sackville, went to Ben McNally Books to pick up a few I'd ordered, then discovered right next door is a great playground. So, an hour there, climbing, running, rollerblading. Then walking north, a stop at - I confess - Wendy's for a fast food lunch, forgive me planet and arteries, and then to the next playground, an hour there, running, climbing, rollerblading. It took us nearly 3 hours to get home. Then they destroyed my house, we made chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, and finally their dad, who's been living downstairs while looking for his own place, came home and took over. They've been running up and down but now it's quiet down there, I think. Tomorrow, more adventures. 

Nope, voices. It's 10.30 and they're still awake. Ah well. Maybe they'll sleep in tomorrow. Some chance. 

At one point, celebrating spring, Ben said, "So long, no bees! Now there's bees! (Pause.) I'm scared of bees."

Speaking of the blessings of family - my dear friend Jean-Marc was just home in New Brunswick for his mother's 99th birthday party. She's beautiful, healthy, strong of mind and body, surrounded by grandchildren including one ten days old. Almost everyone in the small town where she's lived all her life knows and loves her, as do the people in her fine assisted living place. She and JM are Acadian. Four hundred years in the Maritimes. Strong roots. Blessings.

The mystery of my own health continues — I feel fine. A few nights ago bent over with pain, and now fine. I speak to the St. Mike's surgeon next Friday. 

I can still feel the sun on my face. Soon we'll be complaining about the heat. 

Can't bear to write about Ukraine.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

V. Zelensky speaks to Canadians

A profoundly moving moment in Canadian history: Zelensky addresses our parliament, followed by a very long unanimous bipartisan standing ovation and moving speeches from every party leader, even the leader of the Senate, whoever he is, who was terrific. Nobody capped Elizabeth May, who spoke what we all feel as she nearly wept as she cried, Dear God, let's do something! 

This viewer, as you can imagine, wept too, all through. Zelensky, begging Canadian to imagine our cities - Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto - being bombed, trying to explain to our children what's happening. As Singh said, we cannot. It's unimaginable, as we sit here in comfort and safety, nearly one hundred Ukrainian children dead and a million displaced. 

A fantastic British writer, Ian Leslie, sends a substack newsletter regularly; his last was "Is autocracy smarter than democracy?" Authoritarianism does some things well, he says; look how fast China gets things done and has lifted millions out of poverty. But one man (always a man) with limitless power almost always descends into madness. There are the obvious culprits, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot - but also the leaders of many countries in Africa and South America. And now Russia, afflicted with a psychopath threatening the world. 

Whereas, Leslie points out, this cannot happen in a democracy, too many checks and balances. Mind you, the US recently had a narcissistic delusional lying man-baby in charge and may well again. But try as he might, he could not destroy a part of the planet as Putin is doing right now. 

To my simplistic eyes, it has to do with people looking for a wise all-knowing father figure to fix things, to tell them what to do and think because they're busy and tired and don't want to do it for themselves. They grant him full power over them and then find out to their chagrin what happens when they do.

On top of all the daily horror and grief of the news, it's grey and snowy again in this endless winter, though it will be hot on Thursday. And I had terrible pain again last night. How is it possible that I'm bent over with pain, take a painkiller that helps, and then even when the Tylenol wears off, the pain has gone? I almost feel fine now. What's happening in my body? I'm waiting to speak to my doctor.  

BUT on a happier note, if I may indulge: people currently reading the essay manuscript have been sending nice words. Said one: You capture essences in such a compassionate and complete way. i am engaged for the long haul. 

Ruth: I have read up to page 52 of your book and love it. Loved the part about being eleven. All of it interesting and beautifully written of course.

I've asked them to let me know what does not work. But am happy to hear what does.

From Brad, famous for his sense of humour: I’m not going to critique anything because I can’t imagine what I would critique. Since you sent it in word format and that allows it to be changed, I inserted in bold text “I love Paul McCartney” into every other paragraph on your behalf. LOL!

Speaking of which, I have a bunch of these photos so here's one: one of my favourite fathers, who happens to be a world-famous rock star, bathing his daughter Mary, who grew up to photograph the Queen. 

May we all find peace and warmth, comfort and safety on this dire day. 

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Thanks to those of you who've expressed concern. I'm better today than yesterday, which was better than Friday. No idea what this is; something's wrong, but it's not causing pain like it did. I hope to speak to a doctor tomorrow. In the meantime, after a hint of spring, it's cold and snowy out there — a good time to hunker down.

Last night I hunkered by watching Beans, a Canadian film about the Oka crisis in Quebec in 1990, told from the Indigenous point of view by a Mohawk filmmaker who lived through it. It's a flawed film, too pointed and tidy in its arc and conclusions, but absolutely worth seeing. The young star, Kiawentiio, is wonderful, and it's good to be reminded we Canadians can be vile and racist too. As if the convoy didn't remind us enough. 

I keep forgetting that at this time of year, the cardinals are on the hunt for mates and like what they see in the bits of mirror propped against the ivy in the garden. A female kept fluttering back and forth pecking at herself, though why she was trying to attract another female I'm not sure. Or maybe she was trying to drive the rival away. Had to go and stick newspaper over the mirror, to shoo her away. In the snow - rabbit tracks. The beasts are getting through the winter. Time for more seed in the feeder. 

Maybe I'll bake something today. Nah. 

If Ukraine could be saved by the good wishes of just about everyone on the planet, it'd be golden. If only. 

The medal count at the Paralympic games!


United States

And for your entertainment, a list of givens from the movie world:

Saturday, March 12, 2022

return of the appendix?

A note to my faithful readers and friends: if this blog disappears for a bit, it may be because a former health crisis has returned. For the last few days, I've had pain in my lower gut, particularly on the right side; it feels like the appendicitis that plagued me twice last year. Maybe it's not. In the night there was such pain I got out the bag in my closet I'd prepared for a run to Emergency, to be ready in case. (Earplugs, toothbrush, slippers, eyeshade, clean underwear, Louise Penny novel.) 

But today it's much better. 

Of course, these things always escalate late on Fridays. I've left a message for the gut doctor at St. Mike's, who said to call him if anything went wrong, but it's Saturday. My hope is that this holds off till Monday, or even that it's nothing. But it does feel like something. But perhaps it's not.

In the meantime, I'm working on the manuscript, to finish this new draft and get it out. Moving that off my plate, after all this obsessive editing, will be a huge relief. 

Sam has Covid again; for some reason he didn't get the booster and so is feeling really sick. Our dear friend Holly did get the booster but she too just tested positive. It ain't over by a long shot.

Nothing matters more than health. Except peace, world peace. That matters more.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

no, cancel that

A quick word to say - no, the essay book manuscript is NOT done. And I'd sent it out, too, before re-reading and realizing there was a big problem. I had to write and say please don't read that one, another one coming. Not good. And so am back at it. Have cut 350 words so far. I'll explain later what the problem was.

But anyone reading it, please stop. I will send the better one. To cheer me up, I received a wonderful cheque from Access Copyright and another from Queen's Quarterly for my essay. Actual money, from writing! Wonders never cease. 

In the meantime, however, nothing much matters except what's going on on the other side of the world. Here's my Macca during a concert in Ukraine.

And to cheer you up, another of my most favourite men in all the world. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Phew - manuscript draft done

Insanity. It's as if the world is insane, and the weather too. Sunday it was sunny and hot - 16 degrees or more - all Toronto out in t-shirts. Today, cold grey sleet. 

And of course, the news, which is hard, unbearable, to watch or listen to. 

But here, I put my head down and got on with it. My eyes are computered out, my bum is stuck to this chair, and I've gained 5 pounds, but I just got this draft of the manuscript out to a group of beta readers. It's a 64,000 word compilation that emerged in four months and has obsessed its author. Enough. I have to clean up the mess upstairs and fill the fridge and actually go outside and move my poor body. Until the next round of edits, and submitting, and submitting again. And then the next book.

What a life. And through all this, a family crisis or two, weathered and done. For now.

Paul Kelman's obituary was just in the Star; we were friends in Grade 13 and toured together in 1970, our first professional show. A great loss. Another dear friend's cancer, I've learned, has recurred. 

But there's happy news too. The character Philippe in Loose Woman, an assistant at L'Arche whose actual name is Philippe, got in touch recently after 42 years and sent a picture. He was a darling then and it sounds like he still is. Hope to visit him in France. Tomorrow, the marvellous John Sugden, aka Sugdoon - we lived in a communal house in 1972 - is coming for lunch here with Nancy White - we toured together that year - and Annie. Old friends. We're old. Friends from long ago mean that much more. 

I came down this morning to a spectacle in the garden. Two male cardinals, for some reason, were dive-bombing the yard, soaring one after the other up and down and through, in constant coordinated motion, just like the jets of the air show. Why would two males be doing this? Later I saw a female perched discreetly in a bush pecking at some berries, with a male keeping guard nearby. Could it have been a struggle for dominance and territory? Or, I thought, maybe they're gay, enjoying each other's company and showing off. 

In any case, something so glad, so free, so peaceful, was a welcome sight. Soon - I'm hanging onto this thought - there'll be life here too.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

fear for the world

On the news: images of a trainload of very sick Ukrainian children and babies being transported from hospital to safety in Poland or Germany. I have to turn away, cannot imagine such pain and fear, for parents, for nursing staff, for the children themselves. We are watching a madman unleashed, as the world reacts in agonized horror. How can there be no one in his circle to stop him?

Never has my home felt so safe and quiet. How lucky we are. How impossibly stupid, selfish, entitled, and blind the "freedom convoy" of aggrieved Canadians seems. Still out there, paralyzing downtown today! Unbelievable.

There's been moving footage of Germans lining up in train stations, ready to host refugees. My basement suite is rented through November but I'm wondering, when it's empty, should I offer it to a Ukrainian family in exile? What can we do? 

Strangely, in my own little world, things are unusually tranquil. Huge family concerns have settled down, at least for now. I got the third draft of the essay book back from the editor, Ellie, and am working on it today, hope to get it out mid-week. Ruth wrote to ask if I wanted to see Belfast this afternoon, and I wrote back that I'd love to - imagine, going to a great film with a friend on a Saturday afternoon, for the first time in ages! - but would have to say no, I can't concentrate on anything else right now. We'll go for a walk, but then I'll come home and get back to work. Sixteen degrees tomorrow! Briefly. 

Yesterday, though, across town - Anna needed after-school care. I got the boys at school, got Ben ready to go off with his dad for the weekend, and then played Scrabble with Eli. I haven't played Scrabble in many years, but Wordle has whetted my appetite for making words. I helped him and allowed a few backward words. He won. 

Also on the table beside us, in his temporary playpen - Nugget the adorable Christmas hamster. 
Anna lives in a small apartment with two whirling dervishes and a much loved cat who's incredibly thin, vomits regularly, and refuses to die. And yet, it's always tidy and welcoming and warm there. How she does it, I don't know. Pictures of family and kid art everywhere. In the kitchen, my parents' Danish modern cutlery, my mother's ceramic mugs and Le Creuset cookware. The blue chair belonged to Anna's dad's grandmother. Generations, gathered there, beside a small boy focussed on his hour of iPad time. 

It's all so fragile. Anything - a madman, a pandemic, a diagnosis - and life as we know it ends. But today — here, at least — for now, at least — there is peace.