Visitor

Mark came up the stairs to the second floor saying my name. “We’ve got a visitor,” he said with quiet wonder.

I went downstairs to see our visitor. It lay on a section of newspaper on the kitchen counter, Peterson’s open beside it to ‘Magnolia Warbler,’ the resemblance exact in its way, upper parts blackish, large white patches on the wings and tail, underparts yellow, but the actual yellow almost too intense to be describable.

He had found it on the ground below our large kitchen window and brought it inside.

I picked it up and held it in my open palm and it was strangely substantial for something that weighed so little. The backward-broken swing of its neck also seemed heavy, yet weighed nothing. All the way from Mexico or Panama on its migration north.

In the night I had dreamt about an old friend seated in a restaurant, her beauty restored and all the puffiness and heartache gone from her face. A dream inspired perhaps by the full-page photo in the Globe of a very young Audrey Hepburn with her pet fawn. Mel Ferrer said that for two months the fawn followed her around as if she were her mother. We don’t learn what happened after that.

These wild creatures come into our lives and then what? The Magnolia Warbler will go wrapped into our freezer next to the Blackburnian Warbler with its flaming orange throat that Mark found on his office steps a few years ago, while we ponder and soon forget. I’ll reach for ice cream or a stick of butter and have no idea what’s in that small bag until I pull it out and hold the frozen bird in my hand.

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The Radetzky March

A week ago in Spain I was grateful for the spotless train windows. On the station platform, workers in yellow uniforms reached up with their cloths as easily as if they were cleaning windows in a room. The train pulled out and all the olive trees between Seville and Madrid were clear and bright. Train windows in Canada are dirty.

I promised myself that as soon as I got home I would wash the windows that overlook our back garden and life would similarly be transformed. In Spain I began to read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, those long sustained scenes about the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that revolve around a grandfather, father and son – a book urged upon me by my son – and one scene after another took my breath away.

I was still reading the novel on the airplane home. Especially towards the end, its pace is like a long, stately funeral procession that becomes increasingly moving as more and more figures join the procession on its way to the cemetery of the first world war.

Then we were home and the next morning my mother died.

It was three days before I had time to write down the details of the swift course of pneumonia and the hour and a half of being with her before she died, and the few hours afterwards. Then yesterday morning I read over the pages in my notebook and got great comfort from reliving those final moments in detail. I understood even better the power of Joseph Roth’s novel. Something important – life and death – is unfolding. You are immersed in it as it builds on itself and lays itself bare and leads you to a place that is momentous and strangely pure.

Yesterday snow was falling. Late April and snow was actually falling. In Roth’s novel autumn rain patters against the window panes in the final line.

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Deathbed

Every so often I’m asked if I love movies as much as Harriet in Garbo Laughs. I say that I do, then admit that I don’t watch movies much anymore: I can’t figure out the three remote controls. The last time I gave this answer, I actually received a round of sympathetic applause. We were all of an age in that room.

Now that I am squarely in late middle age, I’m close enough to the end to realize that when I’m on my death bed I won’t be regretting the movies I didn’t see, I’ll be regretting the books I didn’t read (and the music I didn’t hear).

I’ve read only a children’s version of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven’t read Dante. I haven’t read Measure for Measure or The Idiot. Was it Edna O’Brien who said some years ago when interviewed that she was determined to read two classics a year? And was it only two?

Weeks ago I read Diana Athill’s excellent Stet. Now, thanks to her chapter on Molly Keane, whom she edited, I’ve read Keane’s terrific novel Good Behaviour, uncannily unlike anything else, and so trenchant and precise about a daughter’s place in the family – what it actually is, and what she thinks it is.

I’ve also in the last week or so read John McGahern for the first time, Irish like Keane. His tremendous memoir All Will Be Well makes novels seem quite unnecessary.

But they aren’t. See above on Good Behaviour.

I wonder how many of the new technologies will expire before I do. It’s truly interesting to be living through the death of the telephone. It hardly ever rings anymore. Not having a cell phone means that my pocket is also free of distress. The silence in the house is like peace descending in a forest.

Only at dusk do the demons come out – the telemarketers; the NDP (bless their civic-minded hearts, but if I had a broadsword, I would use it).

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On CBC’s Creative Block

Elizabeth Hay was featured on CBC’s Creative Block on Sunday, March 18th, 2012 on bold tv.

For more, visit the CBC Creative Block Facebook page.

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Old Dogs

I traded advice with my daughter the other day – we were talking about the brave leap that all creativity requires. It can’t happen if you belabour and pummel yourself. It takes courage and self-forgetfulness. She knows this as well as I do. But there are any number of ways to undermine yourself.

I know that reading poetry first thing in the morning renews me – helps me enter my own writing with fresh energy. Instead of poetry, however, I often drift into the crossword, whose answers I can’t solve without cheating. Or The Globe and Mail, which never makes me glad to be alive. Well, seldom. Sometimes an obituary will perk me up.

This week I read about the cowboy poet Harvey Mawson, dead at 81, whose earliest years were on his great-grandfather’s Saskatchewan ranch. His backyard was “mile upon mile of open prairie – the Brightwater Marsh with its rich bird and plant life, the exquisite sand hills, and the Round Prairie, where a group of Metis had settled in the 1850s.” As a boy his greatest pleasure “was to explore this land on horseback, learning its secrets.”

Ah, to be a cowboy.

On a recent walk to the river in the surging February light, we came upon a man and a dog, the golden retriever wide and happy, the man ready with a friendly hello. Coming behind them at some distance was a smaller dog making slow, steady, dainty progress. She was eighteen years old. Blind and deaf, but happy to be out on a clement day. Her fur was mostly grey and her body was like my mother’s back, curved and shrunken. Nevertheless, she managed to be stately in her dotage. The man said that the younger dog, only seven, had always looked to her to see how to react, and now that she was blind and deaf, he still looked to her.

The same day we brought my mother here for dinner. She paused before the arduous climb of our front steps, looked around, and said with her special alacrity, “The snow is puissant!”

It’s not the first time a French word has surfaced to startling effect in her addled conversation. In the Oxford dictionary there it is: ‘puissant’ meaning ‘mighty, powerful.’

“Chapeau!” I said, and raised my hat to her.

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Signs of Life

January comes to an end. It makes me think of crooked teeth, this difficult month. Winter in rack and ruin. Our skating canal lopped off at the knees by freezing rain. Snow thawed and refrozen a dozen times. Walking a punishment and Ottawa no city for old men.

A week ago we were in Toronto to see our daughter and we went for a walk through the Distillery District, enchanted by the momentary sunshine and all the old brick and stone buildings converted into studios, workshops, arts offices. I bought a completely unnecessary dress, a black, cocktail affair, and heard my late friend Rhoda say into my ear: You are out of control.

I bought a hat.

We returned home by train and I went back to the second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters. I love his gloomy company. His wryness, tenderness, openness. His combativeness and considerateness. His poetry.

Beckett. The weekly dose of “Downton Abbey.” Drinking wine by the fireplace with friends. The lengthening light. My husband’s ever-hopeful despair about the canal and the world. My brother’s admiration of my mother. My son’s independence. My daughter’s determination.

It’s a month that demands strength of character, January. Nevertheless, good riddance, as my father-in-law used to say of his ex-daughters-in-law.

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Canadian

I find it extraordinarily sad, the sale of my proud and struggling Canadian publisher, McClelland & Stewart, to Random House, the German-owned conglomerate. Even though I can guess at the realities and appreciate the relief my friends at M&S tell me they feel, and even knowing it’s been in the wind for quite a while.

What a hue and cry there would have been once upon a time. Last spring, reading the correspondence between Margaret Laurence and Al Purdy, I came upon Purdy’s fiery denunciation of the sale of Ryerson Press to the American company McGraw-Hill in 1970: he immediately withdrew the book he’d been planning to publish with them.

What different times those were, yet not so different. As Purdy wrote soon afterwards, “the Ryerson sale gone ahead and completed as expected, everyone talking a good fight but not much action otherwise.”

Remember when Trudeau said that if Canada were to end, he hoped it would go with a bang and not a whimper?

As part of the present wrenchingness, if that’s a word, is the parallel bleakery, if that’s a word, of seeing the Harper government attack ‘foreign money’ the odd time it suits them. It suits them when they want to undermine environmental groups raising questions about Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat.

All this takes me back, of course, to the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline of the 1970s. In those days the bogeyman was ‘southern white advisors’ polluting the minds of the native people. See Late Nights on Air.

For different times, when Canadian cultural activists weren’t so thin on the ground, see Margaret Laurence—Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters.

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‘Alone in the Classroom’ in Ottawa Citizen’s Top Ten

The Ottawa Citizen’s Top 10 Canadian Books for 2011 leads off with Alone in the Classroom: “Ottawa’s Elizabeth Hay, 2007 Giller winner for Late Nights on Air, returns with her fourth novel, a rich story of interweaving human relationships and generations of a family.”

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Apricots

It’s tough to be sleepless at this time of year since we turn down the heat before going to bed. At two a.m. it’s on with my bathrobe, on with my llama wool socks and downstairs to hot milk, a shawl around my shoulders, a blanket over my knees. I start to read the first story in Transgressions by the Kentucky writer Sallie Bingham. “Apricots” is about having too much fruit and deciding to make jam. You see the jam being made and you see the story being made, one ingredient at a time.

What a lovely thing to be reading in the middle of the night, the Christmas tree dark beside me, Father Christmas on the coffee table.

Father Christmas I pore over every December, entranced by the book-wide panels of changing sky that St. Nick and his reindeer travel through on their annual round. Raymond Briggs has them pass through every weather and every hour: snow, rain, lightning, fog, first light, sunrise, morning. Did Paterson Ewen ever see this book? I think of his brilliant horizontal paintings on gouged plywood of atmospheric phenomena – rain, clouds, comets, sun, moon, storms.

It’s the progression from one thing to the next that enchants. The progression from a barren apricot tree finally bearing too much fruit to a 63-year-old woman deciding she will have to make jam but needs some help, to her selecting a young man to be the extra hand and thereby overturning her life. The progression of Father Christmas from his cozy arctic solitude out into the great world of skies and rooftops and chimneys that lead him into one home after another, until exhausted he makes the return trip to his own creaturely comforts of warm stove, hot bath, roast turkey, cognac, cocoa, bed, and beloved sleep.

One thing summons up another and you have a story. “And she longed to know what the apricots had meant, and continued to mean, even as she realized with dismay that her life was falling apart.” The falling apart is a late and embarrassing harvest that overwhelms her. What will she do with it?

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Delacroix Never Won a Prize

I keep eight or so quotations on a corner of my desk, written on slips of paper and held together by a paper clip, reaching for them when I’m low or lost or ashamed of myself.

Here’s one. Jean Renoir writing about his famous father. The impassioned serenity of the final period, ‘a question of being alert and not getting nervous’. He approached with less fear, having discovered that the hunter’s buckshot was love continually renewed.

Renoir, My Father rescued me one lonely winter’s night in 2010 when I was stranded in London, Ontario. I had given a reading in the afternoon, then been taken to a hotel, deposited there, and I had nothing to do until my train left the next morning. I knew a part of London, since my parents had lived there for many years, so I felt doubly alone or doubly strange. I decided to go for a walk and soon found myself on a typically long, cold, wind-blown street with nothing at all of interest until I came upon a used bookstore and fell into its arms. I poked about for an hour, reasonably happy, but finding nothing I wanted to buy, then instantly joyous when I saw Renoir, My Father on one of the shelves. I knew it; I had borrowed it from the library years ago and loved it and always wanted a copy of my own. For that night and the following day on the train, it made my life worth living.

I wasn’t even a great fan of Renoir’s paintings – they were too blurry, too marshmallowy for me. But I loved reading about his progress from boyhood to great old age, his discoveries and decided opinions in the notebook he kept. The two I remember best: An artist must eat sparingly and give up a normal way of life, and Delacroix never won a prize. The second is especially useful to remember.

A few weeks ago I happened to see one of Renoir’s last paintings and looked at it for a long time, disarmed, finally appreciating the loose, breathing brushwork that brought forth the full body of the young woman and her incredible skin.

As for the hunter’s buckshot being love continually renewed, I understand that better too, reminded of something my husband said to me many years ago. “If you could only enjoy the people you write about,” he said, “instead of forever criticizing them. No matter how flawed, if you would only enjoy them!” Love continually renewed is the weapon that brings your characters close, or brings you close to them. You have them in your sights and your sights aren’t narrow. It has nothing to do with letting them off easy. It’s something else entirely.

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