“I know,” said my writing student yesterday, “that you’re not supposed to throw prophecies in at the beginning of a book. But I have. Three of them, in fact. I couldn’t help it!” (They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable prophecies, and it’s a truly remarkable book.)
And as we sat there in pre-rain heat, on the “patio” of a Starbucks, with cars, dogs, people and bikes passing by mere inches from our table, I thought of another August, and another novel that began with a prophecy. (A prophecy within a prologue—and there are those who insist that prologues, too, should be banned. I have no shame.)
The August was 1987’s; the book was Rowansong.
For the second summer in a row, my parents and sister had gone off to Nova Scotia, leaving me in charge of house, lawn and cat. Things weren’t going well. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I wasn’t feeling nearly as sanguine about this as I had a month before. The novel I was writing (yes: Rowansong) had, since the breakup, refused to be written. There were patches of yellow appearing on front and back lawns at an alarming rate, despite the fact that I soaked them unto quagmire with the sprinkler. I’d had some people over, and one of them had nearly set my kitchen on fire with flaming sambuca. And then, just when I thought I couldn’t pity myself any more, I got fired.
I was a City of Toronto Parks and Recreation employee, which meant that I’d spent the summer acquiring an unwontedly spectacular tan whilst standing by a wading pool. I was also supposed to run programs for the kids who came every day, and I’d been totally prepared to do this—but the kids turned out to be between the ages of 12 and 14, not 5 and 7, as I’d been led to expect. They didn’t want to play duck-duck-goose or make collages with bits of lace and dried pasta. These were mouthy, hilarious, sweet, smart people, the oldest of whom was a mere three years younger than I was, and when I wasn’t standing by the wading pool, we hung out. My supervisor didn’t like this at all, and she didn’t like them, and they really didn’t like her.
While it did occur to me that my supervisor might not be all that fond of me either, I wasn’t prepared for the super-supervisor’s visit to the park, in the almost-last week of August. I was, of course, standing by the pool. He cleared his throat. He told me I was fired. He said my supervisor had complained that I had been late on multiple occasions (which was absolutely untrue), and said that the Parks & Rec management team wanted, via my firing, to let other employees know that it wasn’t too late in the summer for them to be fired (which was just plain idiotic).
I went back to my empty house. So did the kids from the park. For five days they arrived promptly at 9, throwing their bikes onto the yellowing front lawn, charging around the place with the wooden sword I’d gotten from my “When Knighthood Was in Flower” enrichment course a few years before. We made peanut butter cookies. We lay on our backs on the stupid dying grass. They found my grade 6 diary and howled with laughter as they read bits of it aloud.
And then, as one, they stopped coming—cottages; a last week of sleepover camp—and I was alone. So self-pityingly, echoingly alone, despite the furry, kneading presence of Merlyn the cat.
I called my grandparents and cried a little. They commanded me to come to Stratford to stay with them; I bought a train ticket. The night before I left, I called my ex-boyfriend, who came over. By the time I’d packed the binder containing the handwritten pages of Rowansong and sat myself down on the train, I was already feeling a whole lot better.
That week was magic. There was the small matter of my parents’ panic—for I’d neglected to inform them that I’d be going to Stratford, and by the time they phoned my grandparents (having phoned our house over and over for days), they were out of their heads and probably about to call the police. Other than that, though: magic. I ate breakfast at the round table in the kitchen. My grandfather and I walked down to the river as we had since I was little, carrying bags of bread for the swans, who were gorgeous and greedy and ungrateful. I spent some afternoons with my grandmother at the art gallery where she volunteered. And in between, I went to the island—or, more accurately, the islette (a made-up word which, I hope, reflects the need for an additional diminutive form). It was the tiniest lump of land ever known to islettedom: it had a couple of trees, some grass and flowers, a graceful wooden bridge connecting it to the shore (to which I could have walked, had I had rubber boots), and, most importantly, a low, flat rock. I sat on this rock every day, with my gigantic binder open on my lap, pen in hand. I filled up three-ringed page after three-ringed page. After two months of stasis (“Two months!” the older me scoffs. “Just wait for the drought of 2004-2007!”), the ink was flowing. And it was the most wonderful synthesis: the golden-green, grandparent-warm space of Stratford; the boyfriend reunion; the kids who’d followed me into exile.
And the kids were on those three-ring pages. Oh, yes.
Kella awoke at dawn the next morning. The first thing she heard was Trillany’s voice.
“She’ll be angry that we followed her – maybe we should leave.”
“Certainly not,” came Doric’s voice. “This was my idea, anyway: we’ll stay with her.”
“Your idea?” demanded an incredulous Blaine. “Yours? Little brother, you’re deluded.”
“Now see here,” Doric retorted hotly, “I don’t know what that means, but – ”
“Shut up!” hissed Jemm. “You’ll wake her with your quarreling.”
Kella decided that she had heard enough and sat up, opening her eyes. “I’m awake already, thank you Jemm.” He hid behind his hair, while Doric looked decidedly uncomfortable. Blaine grinned and said, “This was actually Jemm’s idea, as you could probably guess. Doric’s trying to get all the credit, as usual.”
“Credit?” Kella demanded. “I wouldn’t accept credit for something like this! This is my journey – you can’t come with me.”
Trillany looked triumphantly at Doric, who stammered, “But you’re blind, and we can help you…” He withered under Kella’s glare, which, for a blind person, was quite direct.
“You know I don’t need help, and I won’t take it. Go home: your parents will be worried.”
There was an awkward silence. “Actually,” Jemm admitted, “they don’t expect us back for a few days. We guessed when you’d be going and said that you were…”
“Yes?” she snapped, and he looked defiantly at her from beneath his hair.
“We said you were taking us to my hill for a few nights. I told father that you probably forgot to mention it to him.”
Kella was relieved. “He knew you were lying.”
“Probably,” Jemm replied, “but he didn’t say anything.”
“Most likely because he hoped that this witch would frighten some sense into your heads!” Kella stormed, rising and beginning to stride up the trail. Trillany reached her first.
“Kella, we’ll let you see the witch alone. Only let us come with you to the cave. Then we promise to leave.”
And so it was that five people instead of one went up the path as the sun climbed higher in the sky.
(Don’t ask. Don’t ask how Kella could be blind but also the third-person-omniscient POV character who can somehow see that Jemm’s blowing at his hair and Blaine’s grinning. That’s not important.) (I was barely 17, OK?)
I went home to a changed world. Love: restored. Lawn: not dead, just ailing (chinch bugs). House: intact. Cat: sullen but not full of hate. Book: back on track. Parents and sister: as happy to see me as I, strangely-but-not, was to see them.
The last week of August, 1987. Thank you, o thrice-prophetic student of mine, for making me think of it.
Rowansong will have the last (and first) word.
There is a harp, standing alone in a cold stone room. Sorsillis’ Harp it is called, after the woman who crafted it. Its rowan wood is lined with age, and coursing with power long-stilled. The silver strings are silent: no hand for centuries has been able to wake the power. So Sorsillis had willed.
There are runes carved in the wood. They twine around the frame to the scrollwork at the top, where, suddenly, they stop. At one time – unknown Cycles ago – the runes continued serpentine to the ruby set in the center of the scrollwork. Now they have faded into virtual non-existence – mere scratches, indiscernible figures. Forgotten prophecies.
A white-haired woman slips into the room, closes the door softly behind her. She stands before the pedestal on which Sorsillis’ Harp rests, gazing at it with familiar desire. Her hands do not go to the strings: she knows she is not the one to break the silence. She hoped, long ago. But no longer. Now her fingers reach for the runes that are still decipherable; she touches them lightly, reading them with her eyes closed. Her lips form the words as her fingertips skim to the scrollwork. There they still, resting on the scratches. Her eyes open, and her hand falls away from the harp.
She leaves without looking back.
There will be many:
one for birth
one for forgiveness
one for salvation
one for Beyond.
There will be Three:
one for tears
one for hope
the last for sightless vision.
In the sleeping land will their meeting lie
where darkest caverns burn brighter than a thousand suns…
As a doula, I see new parents who, while they’ll admit to knowing almost nothing about babies, are also filled with certainty. One couple’s infant is sleeping through the night. Another’s doesn’t sleep at all unless he’s in the Sobey’s produce section. Even though, at some level, they know better, both sets of parents are sure that this is the pattern that’s in place for the duration, be it soul-crushing or delightful. As a writing instructor, I see students who are just as certain: This is how I write. This is never going to change. Now, while the author may have more control over his or her writing process than the parent has over the small, squalling life form, I’ve been both, and there’s a common thread: Whether you’re smug or resigned, contented or anxious, you can’t get too comfortable, and you shouldn’t ever capitalize The Way Things Are.
Until 2011, I wrote longhand. When other writers found this out, many would make dismissive hand gestures, roll their eyes and say something like, “You’ll change that.” Still others would get defensive: “Please tell me you’re not one of those writers who think there’s some mystical bond between your hand and the paper.” To the first comment I’d say (defensively), “I really don’t think so—and anyway, it doesn’t matter how you write”; to the second, “No—it’s just a functional thing; it’s how I work best.” And it was, for years and years.
I could write anywhere; all I needed was a pen and a notebook, or a napkin, a coaster, a grocery receipt (most of my bursts of inspiration were conveniently brief). I chose my notebooks and pens with an almost fetishistic fervour that sort of belied my insistence on the lack of a mystical element to the process. I did some quiet gloating while writer friends crawled around under café tables, looking for power outlets. And this quiet gloating did some more belying. Yes, I wrote longhand, and yes, I did think it made me a little bit better and cooler than the other kids.
Some of these other kids didn’t simply write on laptops: they wrote OUT OF ORDER. One characteristic of my longhand process was its linearity. I couldn’t jump around in the narrative without requiring multiple books, or colour coding, tables of contents, explanatory notes that would end up being longer than the actual story. So I started at the beginning and stayed firmly on course, chronologically. This meant that I’d sometimes spend weeks or even months not writing, as I was trying to figure out what came next. There might be an image in my head—a moment that I knew would take place another fifty or hundred pages in—but I wouldn’t write it. Not allowed, according to Sweet’s Longhand Code.
Three years ago, I was struggling with a new idea, scribbling notes in a book that didn’t feel quite right (too big, with pages that ripped too easily away from the spiral binding). I’d retired my Pattern Scars pen (because, as every fetishistic longhander knows, each book requires a new pen), and none of the ones I was test-driving was doing it for me. At the same time, my ancient-in-technological-terms iMac, after displaying some increasingly strident warnings, was unable to do anything except turn on and off—and sometimes not even that.
So I got myself a MacBook Air, and everything changed. Not right away, mind you. At first I kept scribbling in the sub-par notebook, struggling with scenes that weren’t coming together. I typed some notes and saved them on my laptop. One “Writing Thursday” at the pub, I went from typing notes to typing a paragraph of actual story. It wasn’t terrible. I kept writing the scene longhand the next day and was irritated when it didn’t flow as I’d expected it to. I returned to the laptop. That scene was followed by another, and another. No way, I thought. Nope—this isn’t how I work. So how dare it be working?
I got stuck. Longhand didn’t help. The laptop didn’t help. Jump ahead, a new, seductive inner voice whispered. You know there’s going to be a scene in a cave, with Minos, Daedalus, Icarus, Ariadne…you can see it now. So write it now.
I did write it—it, and another couple of scenes that came well before and well after it. I typed these scenes and then spent nearly eight months filling in the ones that led to them, all aflutter that I was being so risqué, so heedless of what I’d always considered to be my modus operandi.
I’m writing the sequel now, entirely on my laptop, entirely out of sequence. I haven’t made a longhand note in months. I crawl around under café tables, looking for a power outlet, and I can’t believe that I’m doing this; meanwhile, I also can’t believe that I wrote a book entirely on the streetcar, in a series of Miquelrius notebooks, with a red plastic pen, blue ink, medium fine tip. Both processes seem mysterious (if not mystical). The transition from one to the other is humbling because I can’t really explain it. The fact that I can’t be sure that this latest phase will endure is both unsettling and exciting—kind of like that moment in the middle of the night when you’re awake and your baby, who hasn’t stayed quiet for two hours in a row in its entire four-week-long life, isn’t, and you think, “Oh my god: what is this new state, and can it possibly last…?”
Last night, Peter and I went to liberate some of the gazillions of snails that have taken up residence in our aquarium. Semi-unwittingly, we chose the sweet spot between thunderstorm and sunset. In the space of about half an hour, this is what we saw. (God, I love living where I do.)
(NB: the odd orange/pink/blue variations had nothing to do with a failure of my camera’s; they occupied the sky together. All I did was pivot and point and shoot.)
The horrifying roar of Boeing 757 engines; the Enya ringtone of the Nokia phone the convention organizers gave Peter; the grand piano and tourist murmur in Temppeliaukio church; the whir (almost everywhere, outside) of bicycle wheels and thud of joggers’ feet; accordion music piped over a tour boat’s sound system; the applause of convention crowds; the plangent singing of dwarves; the hiss of water hitting sauna stove; a Swedish drinking song rendered with great enthusiasm by Swedes and Finns alike…There was a lot of bustle and noise, on our most recent trip. All of it (with the possible exception of the accordion music) was wonderful.
We were welcomed to Helsinki with exuberance, warmth and an impressive degree of organization. We ate herring of various sorts, and tar ice cream; drank (or, in my case, sipped gingerly) salt licorice vodka, Bear Beer and, at a wonderful Nepalese restaurant called “Yeti”, plain old pinot grigio.
We were surrounded by friends met last year in Uppsala, and ones met mere days ago: from Sweden and Finland, Russia and France, Germany and the UK. On one of my panels, I discovered a penchant for improvisation that I didn’t know I had (three words: post apocalyptic Teletubbies). Peter ate fermented shark in order to be made a Viking.
We craned up at a demon baby in a square ringed with cafes and full of bicyclists, walkers, shoppers, baby carriages, and gulls who managed to swoop into the gaps between the fishing wire installed to repel them, and make off with choice bits of patio food.
So yes: much wonderful, busy, sometimes cacophonous stuff. Also some pretty remarkable quiet.
I mentioned, above, the grand piano in Temppeliaukio church. It was certainly there, near the modest altar, and there was a woman playing it (some Chopin, some Liszt)—and there was also a rise and fall of tourist voices, in a multitude of languages. But it was sort of disingenuous of me to mention this place in the context of all the others that were so full of clamour, because the sounds here only served to emphasize the stillness.
The competition for this church began in the 1930s and was interrupted by World War II. It was eventually designed by the Suomalainen brothers, and consecrated in 1969. It’s a Lutheran church, but it didn’t even really feel like a building. It’s a grotto, a cave; a deep place hollowed out of bedrock. There are organ pipes grafted onto its jagged walls, and rows of pews, and, as I mentioned, an altar—but I kept looking around and up, away from them. From the outside, the church’s dome looks like a UFO, sinking slowly into old stone.
I assume that this place was designed to evoke awe and quiet reflection, and, in my own profane way, I felt these.
Speaking of which: Hietaniemi cemetery.
I’ve been to a good many cemeteries, here in Canada, some of them lovely, expansive and old. I’m used to iconography of the sort you find there: restrained, mostly. Nothing epic or unusual. So I wasn’t prepared for Hietaniemi, where weeping angels and simpering cupids and abstract sculpture and Viking serpents and even the odd hedgehog or two live side-by-side, among names that seem strange and magical to me.
Peter and I wandered a bit there, our first morning in Helsinki. I went back alone a couple of days later. It wasn’t enough. And I still can’t really figure out how to choose words for this place—so I’ve decided to use someone else’s.
Eeva-Liisa Manner was born in Helsinki in 1921, and died in 1995. I’d never heard of her until I went searching for words to go with the pictures I took in Hietaniemi cemetery. And now that I’ve heard of her, I’m smitten. Poetry-based smiting is something I haven’t experienced since my Lorca epiphany, back in the early 1990s. I imagine that reading Manner’s poetry in her own language would be that much more powerful—but translation more than suffices.
These are excerpts. I realize that citing excerpts of poems is as heinous as playing one movement of a symphony—but here I go. Here are some words that make me think of the husbands and wives and children who live in Hietaniemi cemetery.
When my head cracks like a flowerpot,
when my bones crack, my face falls away
I will breathe through the earth what is left in me,
I will breathe through the earth all love
and wrap it around my friends both here and there,
not forgetting the creatures;
in it I will wrap books, pens and clocks,
every familiar object,
mirror, ink-bottle, lampshade,
German dictionary, dog’s collar
- let them go sparkling on from hand to hand -
bees’ nests and diligent mathematics,
trees’ annual rings and calendar lore,
snail’s philosophical house and lazy grass snake,
hedgehog’s milk charm and swallow’s German tongue,
overgrown path and porch’s rotted planks
that rain has loved and snow and wind.
In it I will wrap the dates of the calendar,
let them be strewn on paths and in windy colours;
in it I will wrap a child’s solitary shoes,
small lost footsteps:
perhaps they will
sometimes when it is very difficult,
sense the lingering secret shelter
and go on.
“Games for Solitary People” (1956)
And two more lines, from “Theorem”:
shadows gliding on mountains; the image of wind and cloud,
the passage of smoke or life: bright, dusky, bright
To say “I’ve never been one for exercise” is to vastly understate matters. I inherited a quick metabolism, and a couple of people over the years have said sweet, misguided things like “You look like you work out!” and “You obviously do yoga or something.” Until last month, my response was always “Nuh uh” and “Nope. But I like to walk.”
And I do. I like to walk. Anything faster—let alone anything involving Frisbees or softballs, swimming pools with demarcated lanes, a track—makes my skin crawl with dread.
If I gamboled and somersaulted as a child, I don’t remember it. What I do remember is sitting on my tricycle at the top of an insanely high hill. We were living in Lausanne, so I must have been nearly four. The hill was right outside our apartment building. A few of my friends had been dragging their trikes up this hill and whipping down it, shrieking. I didn’t want to do this, but they all had, and they were saying it was my turn, so there I sat, poised, my feet on the pedals, the sidewalk dipping down and away from me like a rollercoaster track. I set a foot down and gave one tentative push, then another, and suddenly I was moving—swooping down so fast that I had to lift my feet off the pedals and hold my knees up and out, away from the handlebars. I remember feeling exhilarated for a few seconds, as the wind buffeted my face. I was powerful and free—imagine if this trike were a horse!—racing some invisible competitor and winning.
And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t exhilarating any more. I tried to put my feet back on the pedals but couldn’t. The sidewalk was leveling out but I was still going so fast—too fast. I remember the nauseating fear that gripped me right before I flew off the trike and skidded along the pavement. I ended up with skinned legs and palms, not broken bones, but that was it: forever after, I was leery of wheeled contraptions. Even on the Toronto Islands last summer, tootling around on an ancient, no-speed bike at 7 a.m., before the first ferry arrived, I got pasty-mouthed with dread whenever I saw people ahead of me on the boardwalk, or posts that were too close together. (In fact, one morning, while frantically attempting to swerve away from a huge garbage truck on a very narrow road, I ended up running the bike into Peter and throwing him straight into its path. He scrambled to the grass at the side of the road, where I’d already wobbled my bike to a halt. The driver grinned at us as the truck lumbered past.)
Then there was Mr. Evanoff’s grade 5 class. I hated lovely fall, spring, early summer days, because on such days he’d put down his chalk mid-equation, gaze out the portable windows, then say, pensively, “I wonder—would you guys rather do math or play baseball?” The other students would cheer. I, who despised math, would sink down in my chair, longing for more equations. Sometimes I’d bonk myself on the nose so that it would bleed (it did that fairly easily, luckily). “Mr. Evanoff…” I’d sniffle, and he’d hand me a clipboard so that I could sit on the big, shady hill and keep score. But sometimes my nose didn’t cooperate, and I’d end up swinging wildly at the slowest pitches in the world, or tripping over my own feet going after a ball in the furthest reaches of the outfield (where I’d imagined I’d be safe).
In grades 7 and 8 there were the “short” and “long” runs. Even the short one (across the back field, up the ramp and along a path that curved around to the school’s front doors) made me wheeze and gave me side cramps. But the long one…Oh, the long one. Across the back field, sharp right into the ravine beside the school, over bridges, down hills, up hills—I can’t actually remember much more, because long before we hit the back field again I’d be leaning over, gasping, trying not to choke on mucus or even, god forbid, throw up.
In grade 9 (my last year of gym—huzzah!), a miracle occurred. We had a two-week rotation on weight machines, and I liked it. My legs surprised me by already having some muscles. My arms surprised me by starting to develop them. I wasn’t competing with anyone, and no one was watching me, because the machines were set up in a circuit and everyone else was doing their own thing. Two glorious, surprising weeks—and then it was back to swimming and soccer and that familiar lump of dread in my gut.
Years went by. No more gym classes. Some walking. Lots of sitting at desks and on streetcars, too. Two kids. And, as the two kids grew and no longer needed me to haul them around on my hip or in a wagon, a niggling sense that I really should be doing something. This niggling became full-blown unease last year. My metabolism took a hummingbird-to-snail nosedive. I morphed into an achy, panting hunchback every time I went up a flight of subway stairs.
Something had to be done. I considered my options, and the memory of that grade 9 miracle returned. Circuit training. Yes. Maybe that.
I felt like an idiot at Winners, trying on workout clothes. I felt like an idiot getting into them for the first time in the change room. Who am I kidding? This isn’t me! I’m a bookish person who used to get nosebleeds! I haven’t owned a pair of running shoes in 22 years!
It’s been seven weeks now, and I’m feeling like less of an imposter. This place I go is for women only, and I recognize many of them from work (which is right across the street). Yes, sometimes I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror, trying to do a lunge or a side plank pushup, or hauling on some machine or other, and I think, Yup: still an idiot. But it’s kind of wonderful, doing something completely new and unexpected. It may not be particularly lofty or momentous, as when my 65-year-old high school Latin teacher went back to grad school for about his third doctorate (this one in ancient Greek, as he wished to read Thucydides “in the original”—and, by god, he did). But it’s difficult in a way that feels right.
And afterward, the wine tastes even better.
I got a nosebleed at Delphi, in the spring of 1986.
In the spring of 2013 (six days ago, in fact), a computer virus deleted all my contacts and every single message I’ve received since I opened my Gmail account.
I was stupid. I’d saved everything on Gmail, not on my laptop’s comparatively secure local turf. House-related documents. Messages from my kids. A draft with all my passwords. U of T course stuff.
Jaeho, my IT- (and Mac-) savvy friend, managed to restore everything up until March of this year. So I’m mostly redeemed—for now, at least. I’ve made the requisite silent (and maybe muttered, a little) promises to myself about Saving Stuff Locally, and generally Not Being So Dumb.
So. The Delphi connection.
I was a month away from 16 when I went to Greece and Italy with my classics class. I’d already written six short stories from the points of view of various people who’d known Alexander the Great. I was an Alexander fangirl, and the idea of setting my feet on a path where his feet had been made me dizzy. And I did—I walked along the path that winds up Mount Parnassus, and I took in the hazy line where the waters of the Gulf of Corinth met the sky. I got a nosebleed. A day later (or maybe before; memory fails, but it doesn’t matter) I stood atop the ruins of Mycenae and imagined Agamemnon’s voice, and Clytemnestra’s. I touched the stones of the beehive tombs and craned up at the lion above the gate, and I turned my face into a wind that felt ancient on my skin.
Peter wonders why I’m more drawn to history than to future. There are many answers; among them: the future may be unknown, but the past is a mystery. There’s a difference, and it’s one that’s always mattered to me.
You hear exhortations about living in the now. About not clinging to what’s gone; being mindful of the ground directly beneath your feet, not places already walked. I’ve never been good at this. When my emails vanished—every single once since 2007—I mourned. All those words: lost. Words for times, for people, for emotions that have passed.
Why does it matter? My friends and family, my editors and students, past and present, are still accessible. But the paths matter to me. The words, and all they call up. Aeschylus and my sister, summoning heady, wondrous images that would be fleeting—except that they’re there, in words.
I’ll try to save things locally from now on. But if I fail (as I mostly likely will, in time), Aeschylus will remind me, in words intended for predicaments far weightier than mine: Wisdom comes only through suffering. Also: Memory is the mother of all wisdom.
The sky above the Gulf of Corinth was painfully blue, and the columns were warm under my hands.
Memories are strange and fleeting companions, and ones that have chosen to visit me often of late. I am an old woman; I have ample time for remembering. Amongst the incoherent snatches of conversation and the half-familiar faces and sensations there lies a shining image, whole and vivid as ever it was.
I was a girl entering womanhood when I saw Alexander’s funeral carriage, but it has remained in my mind clearly, unblemished by the passing of time. I have kept the memory of that sight within me since then, but I fear that soon it, too, will become vague and distorted. That is why I have undertaken to write of the procession as I remember it. It began on a brilliant day in midsummer…
— “A Woman of Asia”, Caitlin Sweet, 1987
To Sweet’s alarm and delight.
If you’re in Toronto on the morning of Saturday, June 8, and can make it to the wonderful Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, check out the Academic Conference of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ACCSFF). The program looks erudite and engaging. Especially (say I, from a place of profound bias), this portion, which I hear will include “fairy tales/fables, (world) mythologies, monomythic story structure (the Hero’s Journey), Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars, the “Gormenghast” series, and a slew of other things.”
Oh, Titus: I am not worthy…
I used to be a voracious reader. During the endless summers when I was 11, 12, 13, I’d walk down to the local library every week. I’d get out seven books and read one a day, sprawled on a lawn chair in the backyard, or propped with my back against the brick by the front door and my thighs bobbing off the hot cement stoop. I remember the cover of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong as if it were in my hands now. John Christopher’s The City of Gold and Lead, too. And John Wyndham’s battered Penguin Classic edition of Consider Her Ways and Others. I stared at the cover of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon so intently that I imagined I might slip right through it and end up scrambling to catch up to that stately, wonderful woman on her stately, wonderful horse. (Though it wasn’t the summer when I read that one. I remember slapping it casually down on my desk in grade 7 homeroom, hoping for some sad, misguided reason that my classmates would notice its heft.)
Then high school. Lord of the Flies affected me so deeply that I had trouble writing the requisite journal “reflections” about it. Lives of Girls and Women made me admit, grudgingly, that Canadian literature could be OK. (Maybe it was the masturbation scene?)
University. From The Wide Sargasso Sea to No Pain Like This Body to La casa de Bernarda Alba (a play, but it still counts) to all the novels I continued to read in my spare time, including on the train to and from Montreal (If on a winter’s night a traveler, whose cover I also see still, when I close my eyes): I continued, voracious.
At some point between first daughter and second, I stopped being voracious. This seemed reasonable: I had a baby, a toddler; another baby, another toddler. I was tired. I was trying to revise my own book, then books—no time for anyone else’s. Forget greedy hunger: I stopped reading altogether.
I remember the night I started again, after at least four years without a novel. It hit me all of a sudden, hard—a sucker-punch of loss that all those other body blows (divorce, a new home, a new job) had masked. I was at Bakka-Phoenix, Toronto’s wondrous science fiction/fantasy bookstore. My U of T writing students were downstairs filling out their course evaluations; I was upstairs with Bakka’s surpassing awesome manager, whom I’ve known for years and years. “Help,” I said to her, suddenly, stupidly almost crying. “I keep starting books and not finishing them. I haven’t read a whole book in years. I need to read a book.”
She plucked one off the shelf with her usual combination of authority and empathy. “Here,” she said, pressing Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl into my hands. “Start with this.”
I opened it on the subway. I read the first two sentences and started, suddenly, stupidly, to cry. I finished it three days later, feeling a mixture of triumph and humility.
I read some more books. Then I didn’t. A few more years went by. More classes; more books of my own authorship to fret over; a full-time job. And yet there they were again: the ragged claws of hunger. (“Too sentimental”?)
Two weeks ago I pulled Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory off Peter’s bookshelf. I read it in four days, almost entirely on the subway to and from work. When I finished it, I took some deep breaths and shook myself free of the stark, violent, fatalistic, tragic Scottish wilds of Frank Cauldhame—and I reached randomly for a Flannery O’Connor collection.
I’m halfway through it now. First of all: if I’d known how insanely, wrenchingly similar Banks and O’Connor were, I probably would have decided to devote my commute to Jane Austen instead. Only now I’m in it: the beauty and the menace; the relentless, awful, delicious inevitability of cruelty and love. And I’m toast. My back’s stuck to fuzzy red subway seat, not sweaty summer brick, but the feeling’s the same. Incoherent gratitude. Triumph and humility.
Then she recognized the feeling again, a little roll. It was as if it were not in her stomach. It was as if it were out nowhere in nothing, out nowhere, resting and waiting, with plenty of time.
There’s a certain kind of emotional upheaval that has absolutely no sense of scale. It’s incoherent, both random and hardwired. I have no idea what to do with it except write about it.
My daughter’s heading down to the Eaton Centre this weekend with a friend, who’ll come and sleep over at our place afterward. When I was almost 14, I used to head down to the Eaton Centre with my best friend Alison. Alison died of cancer when we were 30. I just read an article in the Toronto Star about a 14-year-old named Katelyn who’s dying of cancer and wanted to experience a prom. Katelyn’s prom came to her, in her hospital bed.
I met my first love for dinner last week. I went to my first prom (or, in Canadian parlance, “formal”) with him. It was almost unbearably good to see him, last week. It made me feel old and young, as strong and vulnerable as I ever was, at 18.
Katelyn’s skin looks like yellow paper. She’s bald, and there’s an oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth. Her date bends over her hospital bed, holding a corsage.
There are pictures of my first love and me in my parents’ backyard, posing dramatically in front of the hostas. There’s a corsage on my wrist. My hair is braided and coiled and pinned, strung with baby’s breath. Alison acted as advisor, re: the hair.
My daughter doubles over laughing, as we watch Freaks & Geeks. She pushes her own thick dirty blonde hair out of her face with a hand all sticky with kiwi juice. The cat in her lap stretches hugely but does not wake.
Alison’s skin looked like yellow paper too, in the end. I washed it, moments after she died. I smoothed her dark cap of post-chemo hair. I kissed her forehead.
My first love’s hair is thinning, but his smile is exactly the same.
Katelyn has a spectacular smile. I can tell that someone’s employed the anti-red-eye function in this photo, because her pupils are so incredibly black. She’s gorgeous. This picture was taken before the others in the prom series. Her arms, here, aren’t so thin. Her skin is perfect, from forehead to cheeks to upraised knee. She looks brave. I can’t tell what her expression is in the other photos, because of the oxygen mask.
My daughter bends over the cat and rubs his belly. She’s going to the Eaton Centre in a couple of days. It’ll be her first such foray without me. I know I’ll be relieved when she and her friend walk in the door, dropping coats and boots and bags all over the hallway.
Alison and I made popcorn in a big yellow bowl. We always swore we’d stay up late, but she always fell asleep before midnight.
I don’t know what to do with all this. Even writing isn’t enough.
My elder daughter is 13.5. When I was her age, I was obsessed with taking things in. I wrote often, and copiously, in my journal—about a lot, but especially about The Feeling. This was the sensation that struck me when the wind was high, or the guy I liked waved to me while playing handball against the brick wall of the school. It made me want to write. It was a wild, strange, hopeful, hopeless feeling, and I filled pages, contemplating it. I wrote that The Feeling made me awake. It was an unsettling sort of wakefulness, because I couldn’t quantify or define it (though I tried, on innumerable sheets of 3-ring binder paper).
When I was in my mid-twenties, I discovered a show called My So-Called Life—and my god, there it was, after so many years: The Feeling. The protagonist and her best friend: the forces of change and coolness pulling them apart, then, tentatively, back together. The notes left in lockers. The tears. The huddling in childhood bedrooms, whispering promises and apologies. The obsessive and horrible sweetness of first love. The awkward, mostly unspoken love between self and parent.
I just re-watched this show with my 13.5-year-old daughter. Now, in my divorced-and-remarried 40s, I felt it all again—and then some. “Then some” = Things I Had Not Experienced, at 25.
The parents! They love each other. They’re tired of each other. They’re just plain tired. They snipe and squabble; they wear pyjamas to bed; they’re jealous of other people even as they desire other people. Their jobs suck them dry. They long for longing—the kind that belonged to long ago; the kind that might belong to a vague, dangerous future.
I’ve been the girl aching for the best friend who found other, cooler friends. I’ve been the pyjama’d wife who’s aching, just because. And now here I am, sprawled out in bed with my daughter, who’s digging at a pomegranate, her eyes on Jordan Catalano and Angela Chase. My daughter, who’s with me but also far, far away, in her own head.
We’ve watched other programs. Genre ones, mostly: Sarah Connor Chronicles; Battlestar Galactica; Buffy and Angel and Firefly; the original Prisoner. And I dozed. Without fail, about halfway through (having just thought, triumphantly, “I’m AWAKE! Look at me, so awake!”), I’d fall asleep. I’d miss explosions, uprisings, amazing special effects, heavy-duty genre emoting. My daughter would have to fill me in later, while I was putting her to bed.
My eyes didn’t close once, as we watched My So-Called Life.
I’m a lover of genre. Science fiction, fantasy—love it. And yet only this show about teenagers and their parents has kept me awake at 10:30 p.m., lying in bed with my kid and my husband and a bunch of cats. Only this show has made me remember The Feeling, in all its uncertain, unbearable, undefinable glory.
Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a lovely little cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always asleep. One morning she woke up and the candy had mould on it. Her father blew her a kiss and the house fell down. She realized she was lost. She found herself walking down a crowded street, but the people were made of paper, like paper dolls. She blew everyone a kiss goodbye and watched as they blew away.
– written by Angela