Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.

***

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You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.

 

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Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017: from her daughter

My mother passed away on Sunday, April 9, 2017, after years of struggling with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

I’ve included the paragraph below as something of an introduction to my mother. My father and brothers chose not to include this paragraph in the obituary we wrote for publication in the newspapers. They felt a shorter, simpler notice was what my mother would have preferred.

Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017

(published paragraphs of obituary omitted here)

Eleanor was a brilliant high school student, one of 50 young women chosen from across Canada to participate in the Weston Tour of England in 1951, where she met the Queen Mother. Eleanor graduated from McGill University with a B.Sc. in 1955, and married Frank shortly thereafter. She chose to devote her considerable energy and talents to her family. She volunteered her time generously at her church and the library at her children’s junior high school. Always sociable, Eleanor kept her many friendships alive with dinner parties, bridge evenings, and daily coffee klatches with her neighbours. She also managed to run home businesses (including bridge lessons) and play tennis with Frank. Once her children “left the nest,” Eleanor gained employment at neighbourhood schools as a librarian and then as an office secretary. She and Frank played duplicate bridge regularly, and won awards for their excellence in bridge competitions.

Thank you

Oh, the mystery and wonder of heredity! To my mother and my father I owe the gift of life.

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My parents in 1955, around the time they were married.

My mother gave me her tremendous energy and joie de vivre. I inherited some of her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her musical ability. I have only a small part of her nurturing qualities and her domestic skills.

My temperament is quite different from my mother’s—I’m not sociable and outgoing, as she was. My mother and I never had the intimate friendship that some mothers and daughters share. This was mostly due to my reticence.

Yet I have my mother’s feminine emotionality and warmth. Through her example, I was later able to become a good mother.

My mother loved all her children wholly and unconditionally. Like most women of her generation, she put her family first and abandoned the career paths that her brilliant scholastic performance would have opened up for her—if she had remained unmarried. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rare for women to have both a high-level career and a family.

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1964: There was a time when I was a “big” sister!

***

It’s not my intention to write a detailed biography of my mother here.

Instead, I’m grappling with my thoughts and emotions of the past month, especially the last days of my mother’s life. Our family knew the end was coming. She was given a maximum of a year to live three years ago. But my mother confounded the odds and made almost miraculous recoveries several times over the past three years. She received excellent care from the palliative care team who visited her regularly at my parents’ apartment. And my father’s devoted caregiving never faltered, even though his tasks expanded at the same time as his arthritic knees made his own mobility increasingly difficult and painful.

Journal of a week: April 3­–April 9

Monday April 3

I felt great in the morning after a good sleep. It was cloudy and cold when I rode to Sasamat Lake in the morning, but by 11:00 the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day.

After my ride I realized I should phone Mom and Dad. I had been reluctant to call during the past two weeks. When I visited them early in March my mother was much weaker than she had been before. I knew when I said goodbye to her on March 9th that I might not see her again.

I could have planned another visit during a five-day gap in my work schedule, from April 3 to April 7. But I didn’t. I felt incapable of facing my mother’s suffering again.

But now, feeling strong after my bike ride, I could call.

Mom answered. When I asked how she was, she broke down, and said, “The doctor says I have to be moved to a hospital.”

Then Dad took over the conversation. He said Mom had seemed pretty good at his birthday gathering the day before. It had been a warm sunny day and my brothers had gone with Dad for his first bike ride of the season. I blabbed on about my own bike ride and the lousy Vancouver weather. But really, I was stunned by the meaning of the doctor’s decision. Yet I had known my life was about to change—that had been my intuition for the past few weeks—and it wasn’t just a change of season.

After all the topics that didn’t mean anything anymore, I blurted out something like, “Mom—if you want me to come—I will.” But she didn’t answer, and I ended the call soon after that.

Deep inside, I knew that I would go to Toronto to be with my mother—even though up until I heard her voice on the phone, I had resisted that idea. I started looking at flight availability and prices. When I talked to Keith, he offered to let me use his Air Miles points if flights were available.

My mind was still swirling, though, and a confusion of emotions was washing over me. I couldn’t make a decision immediately. My bike ride hadn’t been hard—I decided I would go to the gym and do some upper body weights. I might not be able to work out much for the rest of the week.

Walking to the rec centre, I was astonished by how much it had warmed up since my bike ride. Finally, it felt like spring!

When I got back from the gym my mind was calm and resolved. I found flights, phoned my brother to confirm he could drive me to the airport early Saturday morning for my return flight, and booked my flights.

The bad news about my mother contrasted so sharply with the beauty of the day. I couldn’t help but feel the joy of spring, and my own physical and mental strength. At the end of the day, I wrote:

But it is a solemn thing, my mother’s last days, and I’m thinking a lot about her, who she was, what a good mother she was, what love means, the cruelty of time and how it reduces a person. I am feeling the glimmer of grief through my joy in life that can’t be squelched.

Tuesday April 4

My father picked me up at Terminal 1 in Toronto about 9 p.m. and we drove immediately to Baycrest hospital, where my mother had been taken by ambulance about noon that day. Dad had already visited her during the afternoon.

I realized my father needed me as well as my mother. On that first visit to Baycrest together, we arrived at about 9:30 p.m. The pay parking machines were confusing. We stood outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out how to pay. Inside the vast hospital, the halls were empty and we couldn’t find an information desk. My father couldn’t remember how to get to the palliative care wing; nor could we find a map of the hospital. We wandered around for a while, but every step was hurting my father’s knees—he had already walked too much that day. Finally we were saved by a nurse who led us to the correct elevators and gave us clear instructions for getting to the palliative care area on the sixth floor.

As soon as my mother greeted me, I knew I had done the right thing to be with her. We got all emotional. I had worried about what to say and how to act, but when it came right down to it, my instincts took over—that night, and during my visits in subsequent days. There is a kind of adrenaline that surfaces in a crisis like this, a crisis of grief, and it enables “peak performance” though in a different way than happens from the adrenaline surge before a race.

I could see and hear the change in my mother even from my last visit less than a month earlier. All she could do now was fight to breathe. She had to remain in an almost-upright position at all times, even during the night, to be able to breathe at all. Talking was difficult and she was frequently racked by painful coughs as her body tried to expel the fluid choking her wasted lungs. She was being given morphine, not only for pain relief but to suppress the coughing somewhat so she could sleep. The morphine dosage was tricky; my mother was still intellectually sharp, and she didn’t like the “dopey” feeling the morphine gave her, but she needed to take it.

From my journal:

It strikes me now, with a clarity I haven’t had before, that when Mom dies the person who has loved me longest and most unconditionally will be gone.

I became much closer to my mother after I became a mother myself; it wasn’t until then that I understood what unconditional love meant. It’s a pure kind of love, not complicated by lust or any other way of having one’s own needs fulfilled. Even though mothers feel intense negative feelings about being trapped by motherhood, too, that love is always there. It is partly instinct, and partly a love that grows with the miracle of the child’s development and emerging personality.

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1961: Mom with me and baby Alan.

Wednesday, April 5

I had noticed on Tuesday night that my mother had taken almost nothing with her to the hospital. She had asked us to bring her reading glasses. I had suggested to Dad that he leave his cell phone with her the night before; she had no phone in her room. She had no TV, either, and no books. I decided to take her the book she was halfway through reading, as well as her current crossword puzzle book.

Mom had complained that the dinner they brought her on Tuesday was “horrible,” so we packed fresh strawberries cut up into small pieces, her favourite yogourt, and homemade vichysoisse that my brother Alan had put into their freezer the weekend before.

Dad and I visited Mom around noon. I helped her eat a few pieces of strawberries, but she clearly wasn’t much interested in food; she ignored the lunch the hospital provided. She didn’t want to read or do crosswords either.

After this visit I realized the full extent of my mother’s exhaustion. She no longer needed entertainment.

My brother Mike arrived at my parents’ apartment in the afternoon. He and Dad visited Mom again while I went for a ride on the bike Mike had brought for me.

Later, while we ate dinner together in the apartment, the three of us wrestled with some of the questions Dad and I had already talked about. We were worried about food; Mom didn’t have the energy to cut up food or chew much food. Apparently she had shown some interest in the chicken leg the hospital gave her for dinner, but if Mike hadn’t cut it up into small pieces for her she wouldn’t have eaten it.

Dad’s voice was broken when he said, “I feel so terrible thinking of her there all alone.” Should they have made a different choice; could they have kept Mom at home? They would have had to get 24-hour care for her; how much would that cost? She would have needed a proper hospital bed, too. And how hard it would be for Dad to have to witness her suffering, day and night!

After dinner Mike and I went back to the hospital to see Mom. We told her how bad we all felt that she had to be alone in the hospital, and asked if she thought it would be better if she was at home with a nurse helping out. Mom said something that Mike and I hadn’t thought of. She said, “I thought it was better for Dad if he got used to me not being at the apartment, while he could still visit me.”

Thursday, April 6

My father and I visited my mother around lunchtime. She was less responsive than the day before, showing little interest in food and no interest in the books we had left for her. My father brought her up to date on the latest soccer results and they talked about the teams’ prospects. We stayed for a while, and were able to talk to Mom’s doctor and social worker, but they could say nothing to reassure us.

My brother Alan and his wife Sarah, both busy with stressful jobs, planned to drive in from Waterloo to visit Mom on Thursday night. They had seen her on Dad’s birthday the previous Sunday, but I wanted a chance to see them before I went back to Vancouver. Mike was also going to bring his son Dan, just finished his second-year classes at McMaster University, to visit his Grandma that night.

My father and I were sad as we ate dinner in the dining room of the Donway (the senior’s home attached to the independent living apartments where my parents lived). Many people asked how my mother was doing. My father introduced me, and everyone said what a wonderful person my mother was and how they missed her.

My father replied politely to everyone’s inquiries and good wishes for my mother. Yet it’s so hard to respond when there is no good news!

I felt so bad for my father; maybe that’s why I broke down unexpectedly in the middle of dinner. The tears were good. They allowed me to open up to my father and show him how much I cared.  I told him how thankful I was that he and Mom had decided to have three children, and had been such good parents to all of us. Now, because of their dedication, we felt the strength of being a united, loving family. My brothers and I have always been good friends. Now I knew they would help my father in practical ways, as well as ease his loneliness somewhat after my mother was gone.

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Our family in about 1970.

My father was too tired to consider going back to the hospital, and his car is too big for me to drive, so I took four TTC buses to get to Baycrest on my own. It was a truly horrendous night; close to zero, and pouring rain. I wore five layers of clothing, and carried an umbrella and a dry pair of shoes and socks to change into if necessary. It was dark when I finally reached the warmth of Baycrest at 8:30.

I walked into my mother’s room to see her surrounded by Alan, Sarah, Mike, and Dan. I said hi to my mother and hugged her, then gave big hugs to Alan and Sarah, then Dan and Mike. Quickly pulling off layers of clothing and piling them on the window sill, I kept chatting with everyone as I pulled a chair up to my mother’s bed and put my hand on her fragile shoulder, apologizing for how cold it was. Then I announced that I had a funny story to tell about my dinner with Dad. No, I wouldn’t say anything about the deep sadness of that dinner, when I sat in my mother’s place at their usual table in the dining room.

I did have a funny story to tell though, one I knew my mother would enjoy. They had served a Chinese dinner that night, and everyone in the family knew how much my father loved fried rice. He had carefully ordered no vegetables (another instruction typical of him) and extra fried rice. When the server brought our plates to the table, we didn’t notice anything wrong until she had already sped away. But then my father looked at his plate. There were four chicken balls, an egg roll—good—plus a huge helping of beans and carrots and no fried rice!

My plate was normal—and I wouldn’t trade, because I liked fried rice too. You can imagine how I spun out this story. In the end I took my father’s heap of vegetables, and he got a new plate that contained lots of rice and so many chicken balls and egg rolls that he had to give some of them to me. We were both completely stuffed. My mother also smiled when I mentioned the lemon tarts I had enjoyed for dessert—my appetite and sweet tooth are pretty legendary in the family.

My mother didn’t have to talk much during that visit, because there were five of us there, all catching up on our news. I knew Mom was happy just to see us there, to feel the love we have for each other and for her. She was included just by listening as I gently touched her.

I admired Alan’s business shirt—it had unusual colours and looked great on him. He admitted it was a gift from Sarah, and said he liked it so much he had bought another one. Alan and Sarah have been married for less than four years—my brother found the love of his life at age 50! As Alan put his arm around Sarah, I exclaimed, “What a good-looking couple you are—we have to get a photo!”

My mother added, “They look good because they are so happy together.” Mike snapped a photo.

Mike and Dan left, and Alan, Sarah, and I stayed with Mom a little longer. After we all hugged her and said goodnight, I suggested that we chat for a few minutes at a comfortable place in the lobby before they made the long drive back to Waterloo in the rain (and snow, as it turned out!).

Sarah was shocked by how much Mom’s condition had worsened since Sunday. “Was she better when you visited in the morning?” she asked.

“No, she was worse this morning. Tonight I could see she was very happy to be surrounded by all of us, and I think she was making an effort to put on a brave face.”

“I was worried we stayed too long, that we were tiring her out,” said Sarah.

“It didn’t matter. Even breathing tires her out. She enjoyed listening to us—that’s the only thing that can help her now,” I replied.

Sarah made me feel good by saying, “That was a great story you told! When you came in the room and started telling that story it changed the whole atmosphere in the room!”

That was one of the times I felt the power and love of being part of my family.

Friday, April 7

When Dad and I visited Mom at noon on Friday, there was an obvious and ominous change in her condition—she could only whisper.

I sat down very close to her, and touched her, as always. I could hear her whispered words well, but it was difficult for Dad. Mom kept her eyes closed most of the time; because of this, Dad thought she wasn’t aware of what we were saying, and was probably in a drugged, semi-conscious state. However, I could tell she was aware of everything, because she responded appropriately to what I was saying with whispers or nods of her head.

Dad was very worried, but unfortunately, though we stayed for about 90 minutes, the doctor didn’t come at the usual time and we couldn’t ask any questions about Mom’s voice loss. Dad was getting hungry. He said some loving words to my mother, and she responded in kind, as best she could; he kissed her goodbye. I told Mom I would be back to see her that evening, and hugged her too.

Friday had turned into a beautiful sunny day, but it was still so cold I didn’t want to go for a bike ride during my free afternoon hours. Instead, I went to The Shops at Don Mills across the street from my parents’ apartment. I was in a strange emotional state: I was filled with foreboding. My flight home was early the next morning. I knew that tonight’s visit with my mother would be the last time I would see her. My mind was filled with sadness, but also busy reminiscing and mulling over what I wanted to say to my mother.

Sometimes in an emotional state like that some odd contrasts in behaviour come out. I went into one of my favourite stores, a place that has fashionable clothes in very small sizes. There, I was easy prey for a seasoned saleswoman. I was gay and enthusiastic with her. Between her choices and mine, I ended up in a changeroom with about 15 articles of clothing.

To make a long story short, in about 20 minutes I was leaving the store with over $200 worth of clothes. However, since I had come close to spending about $700, I considered myself lucky.

Dad’s form of escapism was his decision to play his usual Friday night duplicate bridge game at his club. After a Swiss Chalet dinner with him, I was once again taking my multiple-bus trip to the hospital. This time I was travelling earlier and it was a beautiful evening, though cold. When I arrived in Mom’s room, her window shades were still up, and I exclaimed over the colours of sunset that still lingered in the sky.

We were both crying when I chose to leave. Mom held my hand tightly for a while, longer than I expected. We kissed goodbye. I hate prolonged goodbyes. I walked out, walked numbly through the hospital corridors, sensing the fatefulness of this night. I would not take the Bathurst bus to Wilson; no, I would walk that stretch, letting the bitterly cold night air assault my sadness.

When I walked into the apartment (my father was still out at his bridge game), I looked at the couch, at my mother’s spot where she was always to be found unless she was in bed. I had a strange reaction: anger. She wasn’t there! She would never be there again!

I wrote in my journal:

Tonight I spent about 90 minutes with Mom. We both knew it was my goodbye. We had some reminiscing, some quiet times, and I told her all the most important things. We know we love each other.

I combed her soft hair a couple of times today. I guess I’ve never done that before. I never knew how soft her hair was, soft and fine like mine. I guess a lot of the time she had “hairdos” with lots of hairspray to hold everything in place; and a long time ago she used to get perms.

She gave me some beautiful smiles… beautiful although her mouth and lips are always dry. There is no adornment now. She cared right up until the end: lipstick, powder, hairdo, jewellery to match her outfits. Now that is all gone. All she can do is struggle to breathe.

Saturday, April 8

My father took me to Toronto Pearson airport early in the morning. Keith met me at the baggage area in Vancouver.

Shortly after we got home, I received a text from my brother Mike. He wrote that Mom had been unconscious all that day. Afterwards, Alan told me that when he and Sarah saw Mom later that afternoon, she opened her eyes briefly, tried to speak to them, and then fell back into that deepening sleep.

Sunday, April 9

Mike called to tell me Mom had passed away early in the morning. I told him it was better she didn’t have to be in pain any longer. All of us had been able to say our goodbyes to her with loving words on Thursday or Friday.

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1992. Mom with her first grandchild–my son Abebe.

 

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Vancouver’s collective depression and another hypothermic bike ride

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Soaked

I woke up this morning a little before 6:00, and registered some good things about the day. First, it was already starting to get light out. Secondly, it was a holiday—that meant no traffic noise. Instead, all I could hear through my open window was the sweet trilling of birds—and no sounds of rain!

Sundays and holidays are my favourite times to go cycling early. It’s so peaceful, and there are almost no cars on the road. So I decided this would be a bike ride morning.

Getting up, I saw the sky was ominously streaked with dark bands of gray. Rain would be coming soon.

I should have started my ride immediately. But no, I wanted to walk to Starbucks for coffee and wake up a little more. My walk was pleasant, cool but dry. By the time I had had some coffee, breakfast, and dressed warmly with several layers of clothing, including my waterproof jacket, it was almost 7:30.

Emerging on my bike from the underground parking, I felt the first drops of rain. With that came anger. Vancouver’s awful weather has been hanging on too long this year! First we had three months of snow. Mundy Park was covered for all that time, and I couldn’t run there. Now it’s mid-April, and although we’ve had a few sunny days, we haven’t had a single day that is both sunny and warm.

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The cherry blossoms are out (a month late), but Vancouver is still cold, gray, and rainy.

Vancouverites are suffering from a kind of collective depression. I’m not the only one; many of us are influenced by the continuous grayness, cold, and rain.

Yes, I felt angry. It’s a holiday! Why can’t I have an enjoyable extended ride; push myself without interference from cars (or many pedestrians, this early), stop to take photos, bask in the loveliness of spring sensations? Because spring is still not really here!

Nevertheless, today I was determined to go riding. My legs felt good—if I pushed hard, I would be able to keep warm. The best ride for that was my usual 8K up to Sasamat Lake—the climb is hard enough to get my heart and leg muscles working to their max.

However, in only a couple of minutes the few drops of rain turned into a steady, cold downpour. I should have turned back and gone later. But no—I stubbornly continued. I pushed hard; my core stayed warm for a while, but the icy water assaulted me from every direction. It was raining down on me, it was blowing uncomfortably in my eyes (and contact lenses), it was splashing up from the ever-deepening puddles until my butt, legs, and feet were completely soaked and my “waterproof” jacket was not functioning as it was supposed to.

I stopped briefly under the shelter of one of the buildings at the lake. I wanted to take a couple of photos, and transfer my phone to a safer inner pocket of my clothing. But I realized my fingers were already too frozen to be able to do these things. This ride had turned into a sufferfest, and I just had to get back home as quickly as possible.

As I rode along the road to exit the park, I noticed it had stopped raining. The sky had brightened and the lake looked eerily beautiful through the trees. But it was too late for me, and too late to take photos. Now I was riding mostly downhill. I couldn’t enjoy the wild speed I usually did; it was dangerous on the wet roads. Also, with frozen feet and fingers, I didn’t have good control of my bike.

I was getting colder and colder, and counting off the minutes as I rode back as fast as I could. Luckily, the bike path was clear—until I reached the steep little downhill to the bridge near the rec centre. There was a group of runners all across the path in front of me. My fingers were too frozen to even move my bell switch, so I yelled out, “Passing on your right!”

The runners couldn’t decide where to move, and still blocked my way, so I came to a full stop; then I struggled to gear down; my fingers had lost all their strength.

Even once I reached the warmth of my underground bike locker, I had difficulty turning the key in the lock. Back in my apartment, I struggled to remove all my layers of clothing so I could get in a hot shower.

What an idiot! Hypothermic again! Why don’t I ever learn?

Haruki Murakami on his writing process—and creative work in general

Last night I was reading a book by a writer whose style and imagination I admire—Haruki Murakami. I’ve enjoyed both his fiction (1Q84 and others) and his non-fiction (What I Talk about When I Talk About Running: A Memoir). The book of his I’m currently reading, Absolutely on Music, is about his conversations with renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.

What does this have to do with my bike ride? Well, it’s that my bike rides and runs are for me a both a source of joy and a form of escapism, whereas Murakami writes that both he and Ozawa “are happiest when absorbed in our work . . . our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward.” (p. xi)

I was awed by Murakami’s description of his daily work routine, which he has followed for over twenty-five years. He gets up at 4:00 a.m. and writes continuously for five to six hours, sipping hot coffee all the while. This is not merely one of the factors that makes him an internationally successful writer—it is what he most enjoys doing.

His ability to focus so completely on his writing reminds me that work can also be a kind of escapism. The best kind of work, creative work, is deeply satisfying and joyful. It makes external circumstances like bad weather irrelevant. It can also provide an anodyne to anxiety, depression, and nagging existential questions like “Why am I here?” Creative work, in itself, is the answer to this question.

AbsolutelyOnMusicMurakami

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ll always be a runner: the quest for self-identity

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Throughout childhood and adolescence we try to figure out “Who am I?” and we answer that question partly by attaching labels to ourselves. Before I became a runner, I identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, an actress, a violinist, and a girlfriend—but never as an athlete.

Becoming a runner

I began running regularly in the fall of 1975, at age 16. By the fall of 1977 I was a top runner nationally, winning the OFSAA senior girls’ cross-country championship and earning myself a berth on the Canadian team to compete at the World Cross-Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

Since then there have been times I’ve rebelled, inwardly, against being known as a runner above all else.

In university, I majored in biology, and worked in a lab part-time for a couple of years after graduation. I liked having a work life that was completely separate from running, and when I developed a severe injury in 1984, right before the Olympic trials (where I had hoped to run to a place on the team in the marathon), my lab job filled my daytime hours and saved my sanity.

Many years later, in 2009, I tore my right ACL in a freak accident at the gym. Before I could get the ACL repaired, my unstable leg buckled while I was running downhill. I fell to the ground awkwardly, feeling sharp pain as my knee cartilage twisted and tore. Two knee operations later, in January of 2011, my surgeon told me I could never run again.

At that time I was almost finished a two-year writing and editing program at Douglas College. I was eager to start a new career that was a good fit with my early definition of myself as a writer.

However, the thought of giving up running filled me with bitterness and panic. I couldn’t accept it. Yet I had to accept it. And it wasn’t just the physical act of running I would miss. I realized how integral running was to my life and—yes—to my very sense of myself. Most of my social life revolved around running. For years, my Saturday workouts in Mundy Park with the Phoenix club had been the highlight of my training week. And I still wanted the thrill of racing: the nervousness beforehand, the tactics and all-out effort, the relief of crossing the finish line, the exhilaration and camaraderie afterwards.

Now I had to pretend that none of that was important. It was a psychological adjustment I had to make, because I wouldn’t allow myself to be permanently miserable. Life is rich; I could  develop parts of myself that had nothing to do with running.

Keith’s support and humour helped a lot. “It sucks to be you!” he’d say, whenever I was feeling sorry for myself. I had to laugh; this was a comment from someone who had two bad knees. Keith used to love trail running, but now he had to be satisfied with mountain biking and hiking.

It turns out, though, that my running story hasn’t ended yet. Six years later I’ve proved my doctor wrong; I can still run 5–7K twice a week. But I have to be careful and disciplined about it; I have to back off sometimes when my knee flares up.

Always a runner

It’s become clearer to me than ever that I’ll never lose my identity as a runner. It will always be my destiny to be defined this way.

A week or so ago I was listening to a webinar to get some ideas on marketing myself for freelance editing work. One subject the presenter talked about was optimizing one’s online presence, especially on Google, because Google search is the most frequent way most people are found.

The presenter gave many good tips for using keywords, updating professional websites, and linking to other content to optimize Google results. However, I realized that no matter how and where I mention my editing work, the links and photos about my running will always predominate. In fact, the popularity of my running blog means that it will always come out at the top. I’ll never be most famous for my editing work!

I’ve finally realized that a good part of my life story is already written and can’t be unwritten. And I’m coming to accept that, whatever regrets I have about roads not taken, I don’t have to feel trapped or guilty about being viewed foremost as a runner. That’s just the way it is. The best I can do is use my running background in a positive way.

Running has not only shaped my identity and the way others view me. It has also permanently changed my attitude towards my body and the way I inhabit it. It has made me appreciative of all the ways physical activity can benefit people, not only for health reasons but as a means of expressing energy and the simple joy of being alive.

I could never have guessed all the ways that achieving certain running goals (especially going to the 1988 Olympics) would affect my future. Doors were opened to me that otherwise would not have been. Some of the writing and editing work I’ve done has been directly or indirectly tied to my running achievements. I often think that being a past Olympian is the characteristic that distinguishes me from other editors; logically, it is not a qualification relevant to editing, yet it can’t help but attract attention. I know, also, that people assume an Olympian must have certain positive traits—such as the ability to work hard, to be disciplined, and to persevere in spite of hardships and obstacles.

Back on the track

Ironically, on the same day I realized that online I would always show up as a runner first and an editor second, I did my first track workout in almost a year. My Running Room friend Zahida introduced me to the unusual 560m track at Empire Field near the PNE.

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Empire Field track

It was a holiday Monday; a gorgeous sunny day that gave us spectacular views of the North Shore mountains as we did our workout.

It was a hard workout, but it reminded me of all the sensations and emotions that running gives me. My body still has power and speed. The speed itself is certainly greatly diminished, but the sensations of running fast are still the same. And afterwards, I felt so high, happy, and relaxed.

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Finishing a hard 1,200m

There is a psychological duality for me now when I think about running. At the same time as I recognize how much running means to me, I have to deny its importance because I know it can’t be so important any longer; I could be forced to stop at any time; I need to focus on other pursuits.

The best I can do is enjoy each running moment as it happens.

Who am I?—and beyond

Asking “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” and experimenting with answers starts in childhood and adolescence, but it doesn’t have to end at age 21 or even age 30. This can be a lifetime quest.

This post has mostly been about the way people view me as a runner, and my acceptance that I am a runner. Even when I no longer run, “runner” will always be a component of my identity.

But like everyone else, I’ve played many roles during my life, and I know that my identity is much more multi-faceted than being “a runner.” I’ve identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, a musician, an actress, a girlfriend, a biologist, a wife, a mother, a teacher, an editor, a salesperson—and more—but who am I, really?

There can be a danger in playing many roles. The danger of feeling like a fake . . . or a fragmented person, without integrity.

The key is being certain of the answers to the following questions:

Who am I, when I’m alone? When I’m not being anything for anyone else?

Do I know myself? Can I feel my spirit? Am I at peace?

Yes.

And I know that some of my roles are integral to the “real” me.

  • I’ll always love books because they transport me into other people’s minds—and I need that closeness. They transport me to other places and times—giving me the discovery, escape, and fantasy that I crave.
  • I’ll always be a writer because that is the best way to express my thoughts and imagination. I want to shape stories.
  • I’ll always be a runner because that is a big part of how I express my animal nature. I’ve learned the physical joy of running’s power and rhythm.

Those are the main ways I identify myself. There is a place for all the other roles I listed above, too. But I must know that it’s entirely up to me how much I take on a certain role.

Moreover, when I am alone, in the silence, I feel that there is an “I” that is not “what” I do or “who” I am in relation to anyone else. That is what I mean by my spirit.

Then, if I touch another person’s spirit and share mine, we have intimacy. This can happen in close friendship, romantic love, long-term love. In this state there is complete acceptance of the other and the security of knowing my spirit is accepted.

This sense of complete mutual acceptance can happen through physical intimacy. The ironic part is that bodies, and the pleasure they give us, can sometimes lead to a transcendent state where the physical beauty of a body melts away to an indescribable “vision” of the spirit within that body, the body which is only a fragile and impermanent shell.

An afterword from Bruce Lee

We can perfect a role that we are expected to play; but in the words of Bruce Lee, there is a distinction between “self-image actualization” and “self-actualization.”

And why does creating make someone happy? This quote from Bruce Lee explains:

By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul.

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Psychology, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book review of My Struggle 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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I’ve just finished reading A Man in Love, book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page, 6-volume autobiographic “novel,” My Struggle. This work was a sensation in Norway, where one in nine citizens has bought a copy. My Struggle has been translated into many languages; the first volume published in English by translator Don Bartlett was released in 2012 and the sixth volume will be published shortly (in 2017).

Reading My Struggle is addictive. It’s like getting inside another person’s head and following their stream of consciousness. Knausgaard’s topics range from the utterly banal details of his domestic routines (including cigarette breaks, coffee breaks, and garbage disposal) to peak moments of ecstatic happiness. There is no censorship as he analyzes his friends’ personalities and relationships, his own rocky marriage, his pitiless self-criticism and despair (which sometimes extends to suicidal thoughts), and musings about life’s existential questions and their treatment by philosophers and writers both famous and obscure.

I can think of three reasons why My Struggle has become a massive success wherever it has been published:

  1. Knausgaard is emotionally honest. We, the readers, are not simply voyeurs of his life. We recognize our own fears, insecurities, joys, and irrationalities.
  2. The sheer amount of detail makes this book more like “real life” than a normal book. My Struggle breaks the rules of writing. There is no editing, no winnowing out the unimportant. This is part of his point, part of the paradox of life: we have to live with this deluge of everyday domestic routines and repetitive conversations and thoughts, which at times contrasts so ridiculously with our most sublime experiences and emotions.
  3. Knausgaard can write. His work has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu  (In Search of Lost Time). However, the rest of us could not get away with 3,600 pages of autobiographical meanderings.

One evening I read a short passage in the book that demonstrated all of this. Here is what I wrote about it:

I just finished reading a description of an evening they [Karl Ove and Linda] had together. They were about to watch a movie. She gave him a small touch and looked at him and the movie was ignored. They made love instead. That’s really how it happens. And he describes this in just a few spare sentences, yet makes it clear how profound it was. He was sure they were creating another child that evening. Somehow, in those simple sentences he conveys his awe, his love for Linda, his utter physical and spiritual satisfaction, and his sense of being overwhelmed by fate in this matter of creating a new human being.

My Struggle will resonate with every reader in different ways. What I found compelling is that Knausgaard expresses the unresolveable duality and ambiguity of life in so many ways. A Man in Love, is about the part of his life following his first, eight-year marriage. It is about his falling in love with Linda, and the four years soon after that, during which time they had three children.

How can there help but be conflict when a man’s daily life revolves around childcare and the endless domestic tasks of being a house-husband, yet what he burns for above all is to be alone with his writing?

His description of his first months with Linda shows a man so brimming with happiness he can’t contain it, and the couple’s friends see that they are each other’s entire world. But from this height, he falls to a state where his most frequent emotions are resentment, anger, frustration and boredom. He seems ruthless when he states that Linda needs him more than he needs her—he admits that for him writing is more important than anything, and if Linda won’t give him time for it, he will leave her. They go through a repeated cycle in which Linda suffers from depression and lethargy, and Karl Ove must do far more than his “share” of the domestic work. He does so—however unwillingly—but writes that the only outlet for his anger, the only “revenge” he can take, is to withhold his love from Linda. Yet because he still does love her, they always make up again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Almost anyone who has ever been a parent can understand Knausgaard’s conflicting thoughts about fatherhood. On the one hand, he analyzes his children’s personalities and is filled with joy, pride, and amazement about his children’s abilities and the distinctive personalities they express even as very young children. He and Linda welcome the news of each pregnancy with happiness and excitement. Yet the daily demands of taking care of children dramatically affect the couple’s relationship. Karl Ove and Linda fight about who gets time to relax and who “gets” their firstborn, Vanja—even though they both love her so much.

***

Above all I enjoyed reading Knausgaard because he doesn’t simplify life or come up with neat answers, despite his endless self-examination. He wants to be a good father, he wants to be a good person, but he often can’t. He agonizes about being two-faced—he says he can’t be himself with most people because he can’t bear conflict and therefore just says and does what he thinks others will accept. He writes about the psychological torment he feels before giving lectures about his books—even though his talks are successful, he says he’s just spouting falsehoods.

Yet he chose to write and publish My Struggle, to expose himself and those closest to him to the scrutiny of the world. The inside cover of my copy of A Man in Love quotes him saying, “I will never do anything like this again . . . I have given away my soul.”

It may have been the childhood abuse from his alcoholic father (which he sees as a major force in shaping him) that drove him to write about his life. The first book in My Struggle (entitled A Death in the Family) is about his father. (In my typical random fashion, I have read only Book 4, Dancing in the Dark—two years ago—and now, Book 2.)

But also, isn’t it true that writing is an attempt to capture our never-ending stream of thought—our very “aliveness”? Isn’t this what is behind the compulsion to write? It is for me. Karl Ove Knausgaard has done this—his My Struggle sequence of novels is an extreme case. He succeeds because of his exceptional energy and talent as a writer, the richness of his mind (I have to admit some of his philosophical digressions and analyses of Norwegian writers were beyond me), and his emotional honesty.

Further reading

The first five volumes of My Struggle has been translated into English by Don Bartlett. Martin Aitken has joined Bartlett to translate Volume 6, to be released in 2017.

You can read a fascinating interview with Don Bartlett in The Los Angeles Review of Books, in which he talks about the stamina and creativity he needed to translate My Struggle.

For an extensive review of Volume 1, A Death in the Family, read James Wood’s 2012 review in The New Yorker. This review is an excellent piece of long-form journalism. Wood felt it essential to include lengthy quotes from the book; it’s the best way to reveal the breadth, tone, and subjects of Knausgaard’s writing.

Another article in The New Yorker, Maria Bustillos’ “By Anonymous: Can a Writer Escape Vulnerability?” addresses the aftermath of the publication of My Struggle in Norway. What happens when a writer makes public the most intimate secrets of his friends’ and relatives’ relationships and afflictions? For Knausgaard, the consequences have been severe. His father’s side of the family threatened to sue him. His brother isn’t speaking to him. His wife had a nervous breakdown and their marriage almost fell apart.

He has said he wouldn’t do it again—but luckily, for us, his readers, My Struggle is out there and perhaps it can give us solace with our own struggles.

 

 

 

 

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The middle-aged athlete: bliss on a precipice

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View from “the Bear Loop”

In middle age, those of us who still love to run—if we’re blessed with good health and body parts that are holding together—know that we’re not too old to experience physical bliss.

I thought of calling it “physical perfection” but then what athlete over 40 or 50 can measure up to an athlete in their prime? What I really mean by perfection or bliss is simply experiencing one’s body as being in a state of complete contentment and harmony.

In the past month, I’ve achieved this state many times while running. Such a sense of wholeness has been rare for me since I tore my right ACL in 2009. It’s been difficult, and at times impossible, for me to experience my body as being “whole” the way it used to be. After all, I’ve had two knee surgeries; my ACL is repaired but my cartilage is all gone; I’ll never be able to fully straighten my leg again.

Yet I’ve been immensely grateful that I can still run a little, despite my surgeon’s warning six years ago that I could no longer run. Usually my knee can handle  two 6K runs a week, but often there is some discomfort, sometimes pain; and always the awareness of being somewhat crippled. (See my posts “My knee is an Alien,” and “Why do people tell me I’m limping?”)

Lately I’ve been able to run a little more than usual. This is ironic, since December’s heavy snowfall has prevented me from running in Mundy Park; I’ve had to resort to running on the well-salted sidewalks and quiet residential streets of Port Moody. Pavement has always hurt my knee more than soft trails, but, inexplicably, I’ve been able to do a few 8K pavement runs without any ill effects. I’ve also done some runs on the dikes of Port Coquitlam, where the snow and ice have melted away.

I’ve been surprised how easy it is to run on flat pavement (or gravel dikes), compared to Mundy Park’s hilly terrain. Maybe that has allowed me to get into a steady rhythm (and a decent pace!) where my body feels like the efficient, made-for-running machine it used to be. I’m light; I have a long stride; when I push the pace a little I can rejoice in my harder breathing, thankful for the strong heart and lungs that powered me through so many races.

Sun Run 10K?

After I did an 8.5K run a couple of weeks ago I realized suddenly that—if I wanted to—I could run the Sun Run 10K! Running 1.5K further would be easy.

I swore to myself several years ago that I would never again compete at a distance longer than 5K—or, possibly, 8K cross country. Pavement is too damaging to my knee. The rare 5K races I do are always followed by a period of pain and recovery for my knee.

The problem with doing the Sun Run is that I likely wouldn’t have the self-control to just participate, to do the run at an easy pace as an affirmation of being able to run, to soak up the atmosphere of celebration and camaraderie as tens of thousands of runners and walkers pour through Stanley Park and the streets of Vancouver. No, my innate competitiveness and pride would compel me to run hard and my knee might suffer severely. So—the Sun Run should remain a fantasy for me. Still, I found myself excited that the thought that I could do it!

The heart of this story

On Monday I drove to the start of what Keith and I call the “Bear Loop,” an 8K loop around some berry fields in Port Coquitlam. Half of the route is a gravel dike that runs along the slough and the Pitt River.

 

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Another runner on the frosty dike

I arrived just after sunrise. The day was mostly cloudy, and the newly-risen sun was hidden, but its light made some beautiful gold and reddish colours in the sky.

It was cool, just a little above zero; and still—perfect for running. But this was a morning when I wasn’t physically or mentally “normal.” I had slept only a little the night before. This run would be a solace for me, the best part of what I expected to be a hard day.

The day before, I had learned how quickly life can change. Keith had had a heart attack—seven weeks after his hip replacement surgery.

Sunday

I was almost finished my Sunday shift at the Running Room when Keith texted me from Lions Gate Hospital to say they were taking him to St. Paul’s Hospital for some tests. In fact, he had dropped in to the store a couple of hours earlier, complaining of heartburn. I had felt twinges of fear, then. Yet I hadn’t ordered Keith to go to the hospital, or made the (sensible) decision to take him there myself—my co-worker could have handled the customers for a while. Such is the power of denial. Luckily, Keith had made a smart decision and driven himself to the hospital immediately after seeing me.

I phoned him from the store. We had a brief talk, during which he reassured me that he was fine though “they suspect I had a heart attack this morning” and he would be taken to St. Paul’s any minute.

By the time I got to Lions Gate Keith was already gone, and the Emergency nurse didn’t know if he would be staying at St. Paul’s that night or returning to Lions Gate. I had to go home and wait.

***

It was while I was eating dinner in my apartment that what had happened became real to me. Exactly 24 hours earlier, Keith had been with me in my apartment. We had been enjoying one of our leisurely Saturday-evening dinners together; candlelight, red wine, fresh bread, and the delicious aroma of beef stew. Keith had done an easy workout on an Arc trainer when we were at the rec centre earlier that day, and he was walking very well for someone who had got a new hip less than two months before.

How could everything have changed so suddenly?

The words for what I was feeling came to me: deep loneliness. Not the ordinary loneliness that I sometimes feel when I’m eating dinner in my apartment. I was so anxious, so bewildered, and who could I talk to about it?

For seven years, Keith has been the person I can talk to about anything. He is the person I can call in the middle of the night, no matter what the reason. I remembered the terrible year when George’s health was deteriorating. I would hear the thumping of his cane as he stumbled around the house in the middle of the night. I knew he was in pain and couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t help him. In my own despair and sleeplessness, I would phone Keith for comfort.

Now, I tried to phone Keith, and I sent texts, but there was no response. He had already warned me that his phone was low on power.

Finally, at 7:45, I got a text from him! “I am fine. I had 99% blockage in one artery, but they put in a stent and now I’m fine.”

Typical Keith! 99% blockage but he still says, “I’m fine.”

We had a short conversation, then sent each other many texts at bedtime. Ironically, he was the one who reassured me after all.

It was only the next day, when I visited him at St. Paul’s, that he told me about his ambulance trip from Lions Gate to St. Paul’s. He recalled lying in the ambulance and seeing that they were going over the Lions Gate Bridge at high speed. “How come there’s no traffic on the bridge?” he asked one of the ambulance attendants.

“They’ve opened up the middle lane just for you,” the attendant replied.

Keith realized later that they knew every minute counted. If the 99% blockage had turned into 100%, he wouldn’t have made it.

It was also only the next day that he told me about the out-of-control bleeding from his femoral artery that occurred during his surgery. He had to spend the night with a big, painful clamp on his inner thigh to make sure the artery didn’t start to bleed again. Now he has a huge bruise covering most of his upper leg.

But Keith is tough and his prognosis is good.

***

Monday’s run

In spite of my physical and emotional exhaustion, Monday’s run was a good one. Maybe even a blissful one. The reality is that the fastest kilometre of that run would have felt like an easy jog to me thirty years ago. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I felt that sensation of rhythmic perfection. And all committed runners know the high that comes afterwards; the chemical bath that permeates the brain and smooths the way to coping with all anxieties and problems.

As with the rest of my “long” runs this month, my knee felt only slightly uncomfortable after—and not for long. I like the way my leg muscles feel after running, too—the pleasant fatigue and sensation of being well-stretched. Despite my age, I can still feel sometimes that my body is perfectly tuned, that my legs still are supple, quick, and strong. If it’s an illusion I’ll take it.

What is “fine”?

Along with my thankfulness about still being healthy and able to run comes the worry, sometimes, about how dependent I am on feeling physically good. As an aging athlete, it’s hard to think about the inevitability of the body’s decline. There will be a time when I have to stop running completely. Since my knee surgeries, I’ve known that time could come any day.

Keith and I have talked about my addiction to exercise and the sorrow I feel about the pain and limitations I see older people (my parents, especially) experiencing. Keith believes that as older people’s worlds shrink, their expectations change, and they can be content to do less. I agree with him to some extent, but I also think people are often forced to stop what they love to do long before they’re ready; there is a lot of rebellion and despair before acceptance comes.

For now, I cherish my body’s bliss and “wholeness” on the good days.

Keith’s spirit is strong, and he will try to become “whole” again—or as close as he can.

So what is “fine”? Bliss, wholeness, or simply being alive?

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Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

December darkness and a bright New Year 2017

December is over and all the hopes and plans for new beginnings are upon us.

For me, December is a time for reflection, and I’ll share some of my thoughts before moving on to January—a time for action!

What is December?

No other month of the year has the stark contrasts of December.

December means Christmas and holidays, of course. Physically, December’s contrasts are obvious. The outside environment is dark many hours of out twenty-four. It can be a time of bitter cold, gently falling snow, or miserable rain. We turn indoors for festive lights, warmth, the aromas of pine trees, mulled wine, and baked treats. Indoors we find lots of company, whether at crowded malls or theatre performances or friends’ parties.

The psychological contrasts of December are opposite to the physical ones. Outwardly, December is a time of joy and love. The deepest message of Christmas is a non-commercial meaning of giving. Christians believe that Jesus was a gift from God to us, and Jesus atones for our sins. But whatever your faith, you can probably believe in the kind of giving that means giving of ourselves: our time, our gratitude, our love—not only to our families and friends, but to those who are truly in need.

The psychological underbelly of December is the despair that can come to those who are alone; possibly poor, sick, or suffering from addiction. The brightness and good fortune that appear to belong to others makes physical or spiritual deprivation seem especially bitter. The hostility of the outdoor world only adds to the desperation.

December is both extravert and introvert, and perhaps people experience this month differently depending on their temperament.

To me, it’s the introspective side of December that best matches my nature. It’s a time of reflection, when I can often be happy indoors, by myself, reading and writing. But music is essential for the times when being alone turns to loneliness. Lately I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen songs constantly.

But I’m too restless and energetic to stay inside for long, no matter what the weather. I celebrate the outdoors however I can. I have two favourite kinds of December days. The first is when snow is falling heavily and even ordinary or familiar places are transformed into magical settings. I love the way snow muffles sounds and everything is peaceful.

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Lost Lake in Mundy Park

The second kind of December days I like (not available in most of Canada) are the cold but dazzling sunny ones when there is no snow and I can go for bike rides on the PoCo trail and the dikes. The December sun, so low in the sky, is rare and beautiful like a jewel. December’s sunny days are not sleepy and lazy like summer’s—or mellow like October’s—they are bracing, heady, energizing, times to be seized and enjoyed during their few brief hours.

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View of the Pitt River from the dike trail

I won’t be going to Mexico or Hawaii to avoid this season’s darkness, rain, and snow. I’m sure I would love to be there if I could, and I understand the desire to escape from Canada in the winter, especially when it rains for 15 days in a row.

Yet I’m content to be here and appreciate whatever December throws at me. I’m aware of daily and seasonal cycles and I don’t want to miss anything. How could I love summer as much as I do if I didn’t keep the memory of December’s bitter cold and darkness in my bones?

As Sheryl Crow’s song says,

It’s not having what you want

It’s wanting what you’ve got

—“Soak Up The Sun” (irony anyone?)

December 2016’s nadir

This December I had some especially low points. My partner Keith’s hip surgery was a difficult time and I felt guilty about not being able to help him more. Multiple pressures and uncertainties in my life were exacerbating my problems with insomnia; lack of sleep affects mood; it can become a vicious circle. Then the weather made it impossible to enjoy my scenic bike rides and short runs, depriving me of my favourite mood-changer…

December’s final spiteful act was to send a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. I endured a knuckle-whitening drive to Keith’s (he still can’t drive) so we could spend the next couple of days together. Our dinner was late that night, but overshadowing my exhaustion was a huge sense of gratefulness for making it home safely.

I don’t know how it is but my spirits always come back up like a yo-yo returning to its home. There was a day last week when I slept especially badly. Leaving the rec centre after yet another lab-rat gym workout, I couldn’t take my usual enjoyable meandering walk home via the Inlet. No, it was cold and raining miserably. I had to concentrate fully on my feet as I walked along the icy path. Once I reached clear pavement, though, my mind could be free, and that was when I noticed I felt strong and positive again. Undoubtedly it was partly the endorphins my workout had sparked. But it was also a conscious gratitude for some of the good things and people in my life. For my health, especially, during this month when there have been so many celebrity deaths, friends suffering from terrible flus, and Keith’s hip surgery.

My good spirits come from something else that is a mystery. It’s when I feel assurance of my own strength. It’s when I can accept and love myself despite my faults, failures, and times of agonizing doubt. It’s recognizing that I have something more valuable than money or possessions: a capacity to feel joy, and people to share it with.

New Year’s Day

Vancouver’s reward for the previous day’s storm was a New Year’s Day of breathtaking white beauty. What a perfect start to the New Year! I got out to run outside and Keith did his longest walk since his hip surgery three weeks ago. There is no need for more words: I hope I can share some of my New Year’s optimism with some of yesterday’s photos.

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Just after sunrise Cypress Bowl peaks light up

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Mount Seymour and Cypress a little later in the morning

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Late afternoon at Como Lake

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Keith in the Mundy Park winter wonderland

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Near Lost Lake in Mundy Park

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Happy New Year!

 

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Zadie Smith talks to Eleanor Wachtel about dance, Swing Time, and joy

I’m driving my car on the highway on a dark Vancouver evening between five and six o’clock. I have to concentrate on the road because the rain is pelting down. My wipers are going furiously and water has pooled in many places on the road. The traffic is moderate; everyone is driving slowly, wanting to get home alive on this Sunday night.

The outside world is hostile, and my eyes and a part of my mind must be on full alert to it. But my other senses and another corner of my mind are relaxed, engaged, filled with a sense of well-being. That’s because I’m listening to the cultured, soothing voice of British novelist Zadie Smith as she speaks with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC radio’s Writers & Company.

***

Zadie Smith became a successful novelist at only 24 years of age with the publication of her novel White Teeth, which won three first novel awards. She has also written the highly acclaimed novels NW and On Beauty. Wachtel calls Smith a “brilliant essayist.” She has written essays for The New Yorker, The Guardian and other top periodicals, and published an essay collection called Changing My Mind.

zadiesmithswingtime_Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, provided Wachtel with fertile grounds for conversation in Sunday’s interview. I encourage everyone to listen to the full podcast here.

I enjoyed every minute of their conversation, but it was Smith’s thoughts about joy that touched me the most. When I reached home and drove out of the heavy rain into the warmth and light of my condo’s underground parking lot, Smith was talking about the differences between joy and pleasure. I was entranced—I had to stay in my car for the last minutes of the interview.

The topic of joy had emerged earlier in the conversation  when Smith was talking about her essay “What Beyoncé Taught Me,” and what she had written about the connection between dance and writing.

“To me, the great lesson of dance is joy,” said Smith. She further explained that “dance is the expression of a way of being,” in much the same way as a writer’s style is an expression of their way of being. “Dance is the expression of a personality through form.”

I felt the thrill of recognition when Smith talked about great dancers and a great dance performance. My running friends will also understand the similarity between a beautiful dance performance and a perfectly-executed track race. Smith noted that an extraordinary amount of practice and work must be done by even the most gifted dancers, “but in the performance … the thing seems like a natural act … fluidity … the work is in some way hidden.

At the end of the interview, Smith was talking about her personal response to joy in. She admitted that like many writers, she has a “melancholy strain,”—yet she also possesses a huge capacity for joy, and frequently finds joy and beauty in everyday life. “Almost too much so,” she said. In her voice I heard a plaintiveness that added to the expressiveness of her words.

She tried to explain some of the paradoxes of joy and the way she experiences it. She spoke of how in today’s world, more than ever before, we are always globally connected, always aware of how other people live, the daily difficulties and horrors so many face. This leads her to the questions,  “How can you have fun in life? What gives me the right?”

She added, “Joy is a difficult emotion to manage … I find joy to be a sublime emotion—always tinged with terror—of loss [giving her children as the best example]… Can joy last?”

She believes that some people choose to live at a “less-high pitch”; they control their range of emotions. She’s heard about people in Japan called “shut-ins,” who spend almost all of their time alone, interacting with people only online. Smith understands this: sometimes, she says, she feels an instinct to shut down, to try to “manage” emotion.

Smith and Wachtel talked about the differences between joy and pleasure. Pleasure is easier to handle; there are many small pleasures; they can be bought, and they don’t last very long; Smith likened them to soap bubbles. In contrast, you can’t demand joy or get it when you want it.

“It comes over you. Maybe that’s why it’s so unnerving—it’s not controllable.”

Listening to Smith’s lovely voice on that rainy drive was a great pleasure for me. But the deeper good feeling came from her words about joy, and the way they harmonized with my own experiences of it. I know that I feel joy, and the glow of it had been with me all that day. And even on the bleakest November days, and during times of seemingly-hopeless discouragement, I remember that joy is renewable and irrepressible.

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Books 2016: A year of strange characters, both fictional and “fictionalized”

This year I wished I had a blog that functioned as an online readers’ salon. I read many books, and though most of them were neither new nor at the forefront of literary discussions in Canada, they each deserved a full review. I wanted to write about them because they were all in some way unusual, ambiguous, and thought-provoking.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to write when each book was still fresh in my mind. Instead, I hastily typed out some reactions and comments, and these formed the basis of what I wrote about the books below:

Hope Makes Love and Practical Jean by Trevor Cole

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop by Amy Witting

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry

Charlotte by David Foenkinos, translated by Sam Taylor

Summertime by John Coetzee

Of the six authors included above, three (Cole, Ferrante, and Coetzee) are currently well known and have earned multiple prizes and accolades. The other three, I suspect, might not be familiar to many Canadian readers.

What they have in common, and what intrigued me, is the strangeness of their characters. All of their main characters are damaged, isolated, crazy, or tragic in some way. Another common feature of these books is an unconventional structure or point(s) of view. They are highly sophisticated in their openness, their willingness to describe unconventional characters and relationships. This strangeness both comforted me, and at times puzzled me.

These books satisfied my curiosity about people. They are all classified as fiction, but at least some of the characters are based on real-life people. Whether “real” or not, each book gave me characters that satisfied my need to “meet” new people, to try to understand minds that are entirely different from my own. Part of the pleasure of reading is that it offers an escape, not only from the physical place and routines of one’s real life, but from the confines of one’s own mind.

At times my mind torments me with its anxieties, or I realize its smallness and its need to escape.

I like books that make me think—even about the writer’s purpose in producing them. I thought the books above captured the chaos and ambiguity of life more accurately than conventional narratives.

These novels were extraordinary and well written; yet I also saw flaws in them, and in some ways they left me unsatisfied. But perhaps this is a characteristic of writers who are not writing according to any kind of formula; they are not seeking, above all, to please their readers.

Part of my purpose in writing about these books is to ask questions about them. What gripped me? What puzzled me—in a good way, in the sense that I became an “active” reader who was wrestling with the questions and uncertainties they raised in my mind? What do other readers think?

What I’ve written below is taken from the hasty notes I made while I was reading (or shortly after finishing) each book. These notes are incomplete and fragmentary. They can’t be taken as book reviews. They simply give some insight (I hope) into one reader’s thought processes in attempting to interpret books and relate their ideas to personal experience. I have put the books in the order I read them.

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child

storyoflostchildjpg(by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Note 1: These books are the first and fourth of the four “Neopolitan Novels.” Because of availability (and the quirkiness of the way I choose to read books), I skipped the second and third books in the series.

Note 2: The Neopolitan Novels have received rave reviews from all over the world. Elena Ferrante added to the mystery of her books by using a pseudonym and refusing to interact with the press. I heard that her true identity was “outed” in 2016, but I choose not to write about that here.

The 800 or so pages I read would be overwhelming to describe and critique in detail. The notes I made (see below) mainly express my dissatisfaction with the books. Yet I read these two volumes because I wanted to—I didn’t tire of them—they gripped me.

I’ve finished reading The Story of the Lost Child. I’ve been immersed in the book for weeks. Most of the time I enjoyed it, it intrigued me, but it left me unsatisfied. For a book that has received such huge accolades, it seemed flawed to me. For a while the mystery of Lila (the narrator’s “brilliant friend”) attracted me, but then I became frustrated because I couldn’t understand her at all. I felt as though the writer and the narrator, Lila’s friend Elena, were giving so many contradictory accounts of Lila that they didn’t know her either. Why would the “brilliant friend” not have gotten a higher education, moved away from the neighbourhood, and travelled? Was Lila paralyzed by her strange psychological affliction, the “blurring” of people? If she was mentally ill, I didn’t recognize her illness. What was it?

The way she had power over people was explicable when she was young; she was a beautiful woman, and obviously bright. But what explanation was there for the continued hold she had over people?

Why did Elena love Nico for so long? Nico reminded me of Paul [my ex-husband]. Yes, I loved Paul passionately for a long time, just as Elena did Nico. Yet he was not really the person I thought him to be. Like Paul, Nico was a womanizer, but he was apparently sincerely and utterly in love with each woman he was with. Well, there is my answer, I guess.

The book puzzled me because the many “characters of the neighbourhood” came into the story again and again, so they came to life—in a way. But I have a sense that something was missing—they never came to life fully; only Elena herself did.

Why did Lila disappear at the end? Did she commit suicide? Was there no other answer to explain the mystery of her?

I feel as though Ferrante (also named Elena) might be telling her own story, though calling it fiction.

Hope Makes Love and Practical Jean (by Trevor Cole)

Hope Meets Love cover

Hope Makes Love was published in 2015 to rave reviews. Cole’s writing compels readers to love his characters, quirks, flaws and all. This page-turner alternates points of view between Zep, an ex-major league baseball player trying to win back his estranged wife’s love, and a neuroscientist named Hope who guides Zep through a scientific experiment designed to do just that.

Their voices are utterly different; Zep’s is at times profane, almost always funny, and casual in an endearing way. Hope narrates with the clinical tone of a scientist; yet Cole manages to put enough clues into what Hope writes that we can “read between the lines” to understand the human being behind the clinician. In fact, Hope is a deeply scarred person. The section of the book that reveals the source of her trauma leaves readers hanging on a razor’s edge of horrified suspense.

I had the good fortune to accidentally tune into a radio interview of Cole months after I finished reading Hope Makes Love. I was surprised to hear that he was worried about how he handled the subject of childhood sexual abuse; he was afraid that it made the book too “dark.” What surprised me was that Cole didn’t seem to realize that in creating the astonishing and beautiful love story between Hope and a young man who falls unshakeably in love with her, he had written a book that was overwhelmingly about the hope and power of love, its ability to outshine all darkness. Also, Cole’s writing is deeply funny because it makes obvious the striking contrast between Hope’s clinical analysis of love and her subjective experience of it.

I was so impressed with Hope Makes Love that I vowed to read everything else by Trevor Cole. I managed to pick up Practical Jean at my local library. This book about an outrageous murderer who believes she is killing her victims to spare them pain and suffering is meant to be a satire; I actually found it fairly plausible at first, until the murders became too grisly. It was an enjoyable read, though, filled with humour and the suspense of “Who’s next?”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry)

breteastonellisotherdogs

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs was a strange yet compelling book. It was convincing as a portrait of real people, though most of its characters were desperately sad. The book seems realistic because of its strange characters and apparent aimlessness—it’s more like “real life” than a standard novel would be. It certainly wasn’t uplifting, and I was trying to figure out why I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

Maybe I liked it because its unusual structure and unpredictability kept leading me on. The book is roughly divided into three parts, each of which focuses on one major character; yet all three parts are united by the character of Alba Cambó, a fascinating woman who lives life to the hilt but knows she is dying of cancer. Each part of the book is a story-within-a-story, narrated by the main character from the first story, a young girl named Araceli. All of the three main characters are unbearably alone and sad, each in his or her own way.

Araceli never meets a man who matches Benicio Mercader, a man she fell in love with as a child. In her imagination, she created a romance between the two of them, and no real man could fulfill this fantasy.

Madame Elaine Moreau, Araceli’s French teacher, has no friends and hates her pupils. She is unable to connect with people properly. She even rebuffs a young boy who is in love with her—she is hostile to all warmth.

Rodrigo Auscias is a man who comes to Araceli, ostensibly for paid sex, but what he really wants is someone who will listen to his sad story of estrangement from his wife, Encarnatión. Even within their marriage, he is unable to achieve any intimacy with her, and she finally leaves him.

Madame Moreau is a mysterious character. She is totally unlikeable and blunt. She has a bleak outlook on life. Yet for some reason she is drawn to Alba. (There are suggestions that she worships Alba because she is a writer whose stories have been published in the magazine Semejanzas.) When she finds out that Alba is her student Araceli’s neighbour, she invites Araceli and Alba over for dinner at her flat.

The dinner is a failure; yet at the end of the book, we find out that Madame Moreau was Alba’s devoted caregiver during the last weeks of her life, after Alba’s lover, unable to cope with her illness, deserts her. It is Madame Moreau who takes care of all the funeral arrangements and the distribution of Alba’s possessions.

Rodrigo Auscias comes to Araceli as her first client for sex. (We find out later that Alba set up this meeting before she died; she wanted Araceli’s first john to be someone who would be gentle with her). But it turns out Rodrigo doesn’t want sex; he just wants someone who will listen to his story; for that he is willing to pay double, and he stays up all night to tell Araceli his story. This forms the last third of the book.

I became frustrated trying to understand this story. Rodrigo describes a marriage during which he spent many years being distant from his wife, watching her from afar in a worshipful way as she spent hours doing crossword puzzles. They hardly communicated. Why was Rodrigo initially so satisfied with this relationship?

As time passed, Encarnatión became a serious alcoholic, but Rodrigo still didn’t probe into the causes of her unhappiness.

As Rodrigo tells his story to Araceli, he keeps insisting that he has always loved his wife, but as a reader I can’t understand what he means by that. What unites him with his wife? Nothing, it seems, and it’s clear to readers that throughout the marriage she was always terribly depressed.

Then, Rodrigo relates, Encarnatión fell in love with Ilich, a man that Rodrigo has painted as a manipulative bastard. How can she love this man? What kind of man is Rodrigo, really, if Encarnatión prefers Ilich to him? Does Ilich have characteristics that make him loveable and attractive to women, that Rodrigo is incapable of seeing? Is the explanation simply that many women fall for men who are “bad boys”?

Wolff’s skill is her ability to make Rodrigo’s mysterious story enjoyable, somehow, and to make him a sympathetic character—at first. But the novel keeps unfolding to reveal the complexities of how all the characters’ lives are intertwined. Readers find out that Rodrigo is an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to describing Ilich. It turns out that Rodrigo, Alba, and Ilich had a sexual threesome one night. This was part of a plan Alba had for getting Ilich out of her life. She knew Ilich would be able to blackmail Rodrigo with phone videos of the escapade. Ilich needed Rodrigo’s connections to get into the lucrative timber business.

At the end, Rodrigo is horribly callous to Alba. Near death, she tells Rodrigo that there is one thing that keeps her going—“The idea that I have done some good … that I’ve had some kind of positive impact on the people closest to me. If I have managed to make them feel happiness, my life won’t have been in vain…And I can die in peace.” (p. 289)

And Rodrigo narrates, “…I could hear my own voice saying that fuck no…she hadn’t been a positive force in my life. A curse is what she had been, an absolute curse and nothing else.” Rodrigo blames Alba for allowing Ilich to ruin his business and steal his wife. After this scene with Alba, readers suspect that Rodrigo has been a cruel man all along, ignoring his wife, being unfaithful, and generally being an idiot.

The great achievement of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is that it seduces the reader into becoming engaged with characters who are almost unbearably estranged and sad.

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop (by Amy Witting)

isobel

This book by an Australian author I had never heard of was a lucky find at the library, presented as a new book though it was actually a reprint of a book published in 1999. Though it was the second book about Isobel (I For Isobel was published in 1990), it stood well on its own.

This was another book with strange characters. The main character, Isobel, discovers that she has tuberculosis and must go to a sanatorium. This is the setting for most of the book.

A sanatorium can be a microcosm for the larger world, and despite being in an institution, Isobel experiences close friendship and love. Particularly in the final section of the book, I found myself pondering what Isobel’s story suggests about the nature of love and its possible bonds.

When Isobel is finally healthy enough to leave the sanitorium, Dr. Stannard (whom she has a crush on) asks her if she would like to start a part-time administrative job working for him there, with the possibility that it would turn into a regular paid job once she is fully recovered.

Her initial reaction is to say yes, but she is criticized by Dr. Wang, who is a good friend of hers. Wang’s memorable advice is, “It is better to love those who give rather than those who take.”

But it’s the words of the “cold and contemptuous” Dr. Hook (whom no one likes) that rouse Isobel to change her mind. He says, “Why don’t you get out of here and grow up?”

He makes Isobel see that many of the patients who are cured have chosen to stay at the sanatorium in some capacity. And by doing so, they are voluntarily accepting a kind of permanent prison. They are doing it out of a refusal to grow up, a fear of striking out in the big world.

I realized how Isobel’s situation can apply to many people. There are many kinds of prisons that people choose to remain in. They can include a sterile marriage or a job that has become rote and doesn’t use one’s greatest abilities. Any refusal to change can be a kind of prison. Sometimes we have no choice (or no decent choice), and sometimes we accept imprisonment temporarily, if we have good reasons. But most of the time we do have other choices; it’s habit and fear that make us remain in our prisons without bars.

Isobel ends up telling Dr. Stannard that she will be leaving. But she still finds his smile “enchanting.”

She thought, You may be a selfish, exploitative bastard, but in one corner of my mind, I’m going to love you all my life. (p. 311)

I had a flash of recognition when I read that line. I like the honesty of it, the wry admittance of our susceptibility to physical beauty and the way it can tug on our heartstrings.

Charlotte (by David Foenkinos, translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

charlotte

One of the strangest things about this book is that it owes its creation to the self-admitted obsession Foenkinos has for Charlotte Salomon, an artist who died in Auschwitz during World War II at the age of 26. The book was written as an act of homage to her after Foenkinos discovered her art, which has been exhibited all over the world. He based his book on her unusual autobiographical project, published as Life? or Theatre?, which is a combination of writing, musical scores, and paintings.

Foenkinos calls Charlotte a novel or an “imagined biography.” Half a million copies of the book have been sold in France. This is impressive given the unconventional style of the book, which is written entirely in paragraphs consisting of one sentence or sentence fragment. This structure creates a stark, urgent tone. There is always a sense of compressed and repressed emotion. Foenkinos chose this style, perhaps, as the best way to convey the exceptional quality of Charlotte’s art and the depths from which it came: the rampant incidence of depression and suicide in her family, and the tragedy of the young artist who was forced to separate from the love of her life, then thoughtlessly betrayed—another victim of the evil of World War II.

Summertime (by J.M. Coetzee)summertimecoetzee

Summertime is the third volume of a “fictionalized memoir” about a writer named John Coetzee by J.M. Coetzee. (I haven’t yet read the previous two volumes, Boyhood and Youth.)

It is an unusually structured book. Although the first short section is written from the “fictional” John Coetzee’s point of view, the remaining sections are narrated by women (and one male colleague) who were at some time close to John Coetzee, and are responding to an interviewer’s questions about their relationship with Coetzee.

The interviewer is seeking to understand Coetzee in order to write a detailed biography of a man who is now a successful writer.

The curious thing is that all of the women, despite being closer to Coetzee than anyone else, remark on his inability to be truly intimate with them. They all judge Coetzee as being incapable of sustaining an intimate relationship of any kind, whether a marriage, fatherhood, or any long-term relationship. All of the women express a strange dichotomy in their feelings about Coetzee; though they are attracted by something about the man, they all end up “giving up on him,” with varying degrees of anger, hurt, or frustration.

This book left me, the reader, with the question, “Is this how Coetzee, the real man, sees himself, or sees himself as reflected by the opinions of others?” What was his motivation for revealing himself in this way? Would I have understood Summertime better if I had read the previous two volumes? It makes me curious to find out more about the man, and to read more of his books.

Summertime is also a book about South Africa in the time of apartheid. The “fictional” Coetzee makes a point of doing rough labour on his own house instead of following convention and hiring black workers, which he could do very cheaply. I believe the author wants readers to think about how the Afrikaaners’ historical place in South Africa, their maintenance of apartheid, and their knowledge that this situation cannot endure affects an individual’s sense of belonging in South Africa. Also, how does it affect a person’s self-identity and ambitions? This sounds vague, but I would have to read more of Coetzee’s work to understand this, as I suspect it is one of the “real” Coetzee’s lifelong preoccupations.

The End … Not

The ramblings above show part of one reader’s book intake during 2016. I read many other books during this period, most of them excellent. For me, there can be no end to thinking about books and writing about them. In fact, I’ve just remembered two more books that fit in with the others in this post because of their rich and unusual characterization: A Curious Kindness, by Miriam Toews, and A Natural Curiosity, by Margaret Drabble. But this post is far too long already.

The journey of reading is an endless one. Part of it can be guided by recommendations one hears or reads. But I love the way the stops along the journey can be random and surprising. A book is discovered by accident at a library or a bookstore while searching for another book or another author. Something mentioned in one book leads to another book. And there is the magical way that a character, event, or philosophy in a book can speak to me personally to address something about my own life that is troubling me at the moment.

 

 

 

 

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The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.

(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panellists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panellists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

Dialogue
A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.

Performance

Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panellists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panellists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

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