Spill

Yesterday about noon I was at my desk when loudness I can’t describe, except to say that it sounded ominous, made me look up as the wall spilled forward in an avalanche of books. I raised my arms against three heavily laden shelves the width of the room, against all their contents – books, papers, magazines – and against the shelves themselves and their twisted metal bracing. It was Samson bringing down the walls of the temple and I was the helpless Philistine.

I’m not hurt. But where is my coffee cup? Underneath the heap of books at my feet, that’s where. A puddle of milky sweetened decaf underlay the mess.

I rescued books, wiped them off, made stacks against the far side of the room, sponged the floor, set the wettest books out to dry on the porch. Then before self-pity got the better of me, I walked up to Bank Street and went to the Hitchcock double bill at the Mayfair. Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry. Several hours later I emerged quite cheered up by Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly handling their steamy-summer frustrations in 1954 and by John Forsythe and the young Shirley MacLaine still profiting in 1955 from early Hitchcock, for whom a corpse on a grassy hill provoked, not horror but bemusement, drollery, delight.

I walked back home and into my study that’s been on the edge for months, if truth be known. It was in a state of collapse. My study the nervous wreck.

The wall wasn’t heavy anymore. It had thrown off its staggering load, most of which were editions of my work or related to my work somehow or other, and turned them into coffee-stained rubble.

This is what I’ve been needing, too, I thought. A drastic sorting, tossing and emptying out of my brains.

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Honorary Doctorate

Carleton University awarded me an honorary doctorate on June 8. Not bad for a girl who barely finished university. In return, of course, I had to give a short speech to the graduating students, who charmed me with their shyness, giddiness, pride and astonishing footwear. Below is my convocation address.

Chancellor Chi, President Runte, graduates-to-be, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first thank the University and the Senate most gratefully for this honour, which was unexpected and totally gratifying. And let me extend my warmest congratulations to all of you who are about to graduate for all the good work you’ve done to get here. The stories of your lives are taking shape, each one unique.

Since I write stories, I like to think of each of you as the main character in the story of your lives. One thing I’ve learned about from writing and from life is uncertainty, about not knowing what comes next and how hard that can be. I also know that what makes a story and a life exciting, even bearable sometimes, are the things you cannot predict.

Here’s a story. In early May I went back to the town on Georgian Bay where I grew up to do a reading in the public library and also to learn more about a key figure in my childhood, my elementary school principal. He was an explosive bull of a man who waged a long reign of terror in that town, something tolerated and even encouraged by the attitudes of the day. Years later one of his former victims stood up publicly against him. That was the story I wanted to search out. But that isn’t the story I found.

First, I discovered that he was still alive, a gentle old man in his eighties.

Second, a boy I knew in those days, who suffered at his hands, spoke to me in his defence. Ross is now a man of sixty-two. He told me about his early years in school: how he didn’t really learn to read until he was in Grade 8, how as a result he spent a lot of time out in the hall, sent there by frustrated teachers, where he hid in the stairwell to avoid the terrifying principal. Years went by like this, and then he was in Grade 8 – “Remember,” he said, “I didn’t know how to read” – and Grade 8 was the grade the principal taught. There came the unforgettable day when the principal leaned over Ross and looked him straight in the eye and said, “Ross, are we going to panic or are we going to think?”

Until then Ross hadn’t known there were two options, or that the opposite of panic was not some unattainable calm, but thinking, which steadies the nerves and opens up worlds outside ourselves. The principal became his saviour, he told me.

Every life has lucky moments when you realize that the ditch you were in is part of a road. When what you knew, and were satisfied to know, becomes only one aspect of many.

Since that visit in May, I find myself frequently saying, “Lizzie, you can either panic or you can think,” and the words help me almost as much as they helped Ross. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to find help in such a roundabout way and from such an unlikely source as one of the prime terrors of your childhood. How often do we get advice from a bully about how to defeat him?

The thinking required isn’t rushed or on the spot. It’s a calm thinking-through to the end of a problem, and it’s both logical and intuitive. I remember the protracted, panic-stricken rewriting of my first novel. Over and over again my excellent editor would point out where I hadn’t thought through to the end some strand of character or emotion or action that I had set in motion. In rewriting a novel you’re trying to have the end complete the beginning. You don’t want the story to peter out, or lose its way in sensationalism or cliché, but touch upon a kind of truth that will leave the reader with many lingering thoughts. My editor was asking me not to panic, but to think.

Several years ago someone looked up from reading a story by the marvelous Alistair MacLeod and said to me, “Why do you even bother?”

It was an excellent and awful question. A fundamental question. Unanswerable, it seemed to me, except, perhaps, with a punch in the nose.

Like all excellent and awful questions, it never goes away. “Why do you even bother, when you’ll never be as good?” Faced with such a question, you can either panic or you can think. And under ‘panic’ I include everything from self-pity to infinite depression.

If we think about it, we know why we bother. We bother because working on something and making it better gives our lives meaning, makes us feel alive. Besides, a certain defiance is necessary if we’re to have productive lives. We can’t let other people tell us we don’t have what it takes.

So somebody in Iowa gets a better lab result. Somebody in Vancouver gets a better job. Somebody in Calgary gets a better scholarship. Somebody’s children one block over are more successful.

So what? If we think about it, we know that’s not the point. The point is to bring all of yourself to whatever truly interests you and then to surprise yourself with what you actually accomplish.

I said a few moments ago that thinking not only steadies the nerves, it opens up worlds outside ourselves. As a writer I work alone, but I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by books, I’m accompanied by the authors who wrote them. I’m surrounded by the place outside my windows, Ottawa, the Ottawa Valley, Ontario and restless Quebec, the world that extends north, east, west, south.

Creativity never comes from one person alone, no matter what the field, whether arts or science. It comes when you fully connect with your material, which has countless sources outside yourself, sources in the present and in the past that keep intersecting and opening up new worlds.

When I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I say, Just remember that being uncertain is part of the creative process, it’s natural and unavoidable.

I would also add, Don’t be too hard on yourself. Putting yourself down is another form of panicking instead of thinking. Life becomes very narrow when you’re hard on yourself. You become the only thing in your mind – when it’s openness to the world that will get you through.

The stories I like best are the ones where the author, without ever turning a blind eye, is kind to the characters and sees them not as open or shut cases, but in all their dimensions. I’ve been suggesting, on this day when we’re celebrating your hard-won achievements, that you are the authors of the stories of your lives. Be kind to yourselves. Panic will make you feel that you’re alone, and thinking will remind you that you have the whole world with you.

Let me only add that I wish all of you the very best. Congratulations, again, and thank you.

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“Alone in the Classroom” Back on Bestseller List

The paperback edition of “Alone in the Classroom” is out and was on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list for two months.

 

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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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