Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Father's Day memory

This Father's Day, I wanted to pay tribute to my dad with a poem I wrote a few years ago.

It recounts a memory from my childhood -- one that is actually related to Christmastime, so it's a little out of season.  But it's relevant because it acknowledges the kind of person my dad was and is: always helping and doing things for other people, without complaint. When you're a kid, it's so easy to take for granted the things your parents do; when you're older, those acts of sacrifice and service take on greater significance.

Happy Father's Day, Dad, and thanks for everything. I love you.

Christmas Concert

My dad walks down the lane in the dark 
– just a flashlight, snow knee-deep –
to brush off the truck and start it up.
Then it’s back to the barn to hitch the horse,
put bales of straw on the sleigh bottom,
and cover them with a horse-blanket.
My mom, my brothers, and I all climb on
for the short,unsteady ride
to the end of the lane,
listening to the stars shivering overhead
and the horse’s whooshing breaths.
We huddle into the warm truck
while my dad takes the horse
back to the barn, unhitches it, and walks
to the road once more
to drive us to the church.
After the concert, he does it again.
Patience is my dad’s red, scratchy face.
Goodness is the marks in the snow
from the horse’s hooves, the sleigh runners,
and my dad’s rubber boots.
Trust is a December night
– breathless cold, snow sparkling like jewels –
hardly needing to know
someone makes the wonder

Monday, June 15, 2015

June 2015 "Quick Lit": In which I review two memoirs, and then I rant

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," in which we share what we've been reading and provide short reviews.  I'm going to describe two memoirs I read this month -- and then I'm going to indulge in a little rant about a novel I abandoned in the early going.

What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill.  In the mid-90's, the author, a journalist from a lower-class background, met Anthony Radziwill, a prince who was also a nephew of Jacqueline Kennedy.  Anthony's closest friend was his cousin John Kennedy Jr., and Carole became very close to John's wife Carolyn. At age 35, shortly before his marriage to Carole, Anthony developed terminal cancer; he lived only five more years. The book chronicles the couple's relationship and their journey through the cancer diagnosis and treatments, as well as the tragedy of the July 1999 plane crash that killed John Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister only three weeks before Anthony's death. This combination of circumstances is sad enough, but in some ways, what is even more poignant is how Carole and Anthony could never really speak openly about his illness or prepare together for his death. A difficult book, but excellent; I'd recommend it.


Rumours of Glory by Bruce Cockburn.  This memoir by the Canadian singer-songwriter and activist (who is now 70) covers, in great detail, Cockburn's musical development, personal relationships, spiritual journey, social activism, and political thinking. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of how he has travelled to many different parts of the world, observing various conflicts and atrocities, and how his songwriting has borne witness to what he's seen. Cockburn's spiritual identity has evolved from orthodox Christianity to a more loosely defined faith in which he characterizes Jesus as "portal to the cosmos" and "compassionate activist." I appreciated his openness and honesty about these explorations, yet there were times when his account rang false for me. For instance, he talks at length of his affair with a married woman, whom he grandiosely calls "Madame X," saying confidently that God brought them together so that Cockburn could experience a deep, fully abandoned love. Of course, whether God orchestrates extramarital affairs so that aging lone wolves can have a soul-mate connection without actual commitment or self-sacrifice is open to debate. Cockburn talks a lot about love, but I wonder how he would put that into practice if he were faced with a sick or dying spouse or a disabled child -- or even what he would have done if "Madame X" had decided to get a divorce and asked him for a long-term commitment.  Hmm ... I can't help but think of the lyrics from a song by another Canadian icon, Gordon Lightfoot:  "I can't lay the promise down that I'll always be around when you need me ... I'm not saying I'll be true, but I'll try."

That aside, though, this book is a great exploration of Cockburn's career and personal development. I could imagine him saying the words on the page; that's a sign of a memoir that has captured the person's voice. And I liked how many of his songs are quoted in full, accompanied by  explanations of how and why they were written. This book gave me a fresh admiration for his skill as a poet and visionary. It's a must-read for any Bruce Cockburn fan.


And now for my rant.

Having heard good things about Ingrid Hill's novel Ursula, Under, I eagerly requested it from the library.  But I don't know:  maybe it's the fact that I'm in both a writers' group and a book club and am therefore way too picky, or maybe as I get older I feel less compelled to continue reading a book I'm not enjoying.  This novel is about a little girl, Ursula, who falls down a mine shaft; after this event, which occurs in the early pages, the book takes a "breathtaking leap back in time" (as the book jacket puts it) to portray her ancestors in China, Sweden, etc.  This sounds ... well ... okay so far, although I'm not always a huge fan of sweeps-us-across-the-centuries novels.  But frankly, at nearly 500 pages, I expect it to be really good at the beginning, because I'm not going to commit if I'm not immediately enthralled -- or at least impressed.

I wasn't -- and that's putting it mildly. Here's a paragraph from the first chapter. Ursula is annoyed because her dad, Justin, is focused on a hockey game being shown at a hotel where her family is staying: 

"Out through the glass door of the lobby, in the twilight, the surface of the lake sparkles. Ursula stands waving her packet of cookies with a defeated look but also with flashes of a tiny anger. She makes an exasperated face at the desk attendant, as if to say, Men. The attendant laughs heartily. The New Jersey Devils are playing the Anaheim Ducks, and the Devils are on their way to shutting out the Ducks."

Paragraphs have a purpose: to keep related sentences together. These sentences are not related. The sparkling lake is not what is annoying Ursula; in fact, she is not looking at the lake at all, so who, exactly, is looking at it?  Well ... I guess we're supposed to be ... except we're also supposed to be watching Ursula.  And the attendant's laughter at Ursula's expression has nothing to do with what teams are playing in the hockey game. Also, why does that last sentence have to name the teams twice? Why not just "The attendant laughs heartily, then turns back to the screen, where the New Jersey Devils are on their way to shutting out the Anaheim Ducks"?  

(Oh, and how can the surface of the lake sparkle "out through the glass door"? You're killing me here!)

A page later we read this:  "The Devils win, three-aught. Annie [Ursula's mom] comes down from the elevator, using her cane, looking for them." Leaving aside the archaic "aught" (three-zero?  three-nothing?) ... I hate to break it to Annie, but the New Jersey Devils are on TV; they're not there in the lobby. Where was the editor, who should have said, "Uh, you mean 'looking for Ursula and Justin,' right"?

But it was this paragraph (in a chapter about Ursula's 3rd-century ancestor, an alchemist) that brought to mind the old saying by Dorothy Parker: "This is a novel that should not be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force."  Here the alchemist has just heard a sound outside and gets up to investigate:

"He walks in his soft shoes across the floor to the high window and climbs to a stool to peer out.  He listens to the schiff-schiff of his leather slipper soles as he traverses the smooth stone floor. What would Zhou, his servant, be doing outdoors at this time of night? Zhou should have been asleep long ago, early riser that he is. Qin Lao steps up onto the stool and peers out the small opening."

In the first sentence, he walks across the floor and climbs on a stool (at least that's what I assume she means by "climbs to a stool") to peer out.  In the second sentence, after he has already walked across the floor, he listens to the sound his slippers (or his shoes, we're not sure which) make as he walks across the floor. In the fifth sentence, after already climbing up on the stool to peer out, he steps up onto the stool and peers out.  These are basic rookie mistakes, the kind of thing our writing group picks up on regularly in our members' rough drafts.  Again, an editor should have insisted that this paragraph be revised -- maybe this way:

"He walks across the smooth stone floor, listening to the schiff-schiff of his soft leather slippers, and climbs onto a stool to peer out the high window. What would Zhou, his servant, be doing outdoors at this time of night? Zhou should have been asleep long ago, early riser that he is."

But even then, why is Qin Lao listening to the sound of his slippers? He's heard something outside and wants to find out what it is. Unless he is trying to remain unheard himself, a familiar sound like his slippers on the floor is not going to capture his attention -- and certainly need not capture ours -- when he is seeking the source of some other noise. If the author is going to recount (twice!) every detail, big or small, for no real narrative purpose, it's no wonder this novel is so huge. 

I couldn't decide if Hill was trying much too hard, or not trying hard enough; either way, Ursula, Under wasn't for me. I know a lot of people liked it. But life is too short to read a 500-page rough draft (unless I'm getting paid) -- no matter how many breathtaking leaps back in time it takes.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

25 years of hope, faith, and love

Twenty-five years ago today was Richard's and my wedding day. We were married at Long Creek United Baptist Church in Prince Edward Island. It was a beautiful late-spring morning: after about three weeks of rain, the sun beamed down on us and blessed our day.

I like this picture of the two of us just coming out of the church after the ceremony. We were so young (26, to be exact). And my glasses were so big.

Our wedding was a relatively simple affair. We had about 80 guests, and Richard and I each had just one attendant. We didn't spend a lot of money or energy on clothes, makeup, and extra frills.  (We did, however, indulge in some chocolate lobsters for table favours at the reception!)  We made sure to focus on things that were important to us -- like music, for instance. Our wedding service included many of our favourite hymns:  "We Praise Thee, O God, Our Redeemer, Creator," "Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts," "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," and "Servant King." The processional music was "Be Thou My Vision," and during the signing of the register the pianist played "How Great Thou Art." Richard's cousin Linda sang a song she had written, entitled "Holding On," which was based on these words from our chosen Scripture passage:

"Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
for He who promised is faithful.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on
toward love and good deeds."
Hebrews 10:23-24

Twenty-five years later, Richard has less hair (though not as much less as you might think!), and I wear smaller (but thicker) glasses. And we are no longer so young. We have kids. We've experienced the illnesses and deaths of some close family members in the past several years. Life can be stressful and challenging at times.

Yet I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we are happy. To me, the verses above from Hebrews contain the secret to happiness, and it's nothing original or particularly earth-shattering:  just hope, faith, and love. We took vows on our wedding day, and saying those words was an important thing to do; but I've learned that there's more to life in general -- and marriage in particular --  than saying words. When difficult times come and you can still wake up in the morning and feel hopeful about the day ahead ... when you can trust in the other person's faithfulness and know that you're there for one another no matter what ... when you sacrifice for the other person and go out of your way to serve them, and they do the same for you, out of love ... I think that's a happy marriage.  For me, the important thing about hope, faith, and love is that they're not just words to say or tasks to accomplish:  they're gifts.  And we've been blessed by those gifts.  I'm thankful for that, and I'm thankful to have been married to a great person for 25 years.

Happy anniversary, Rich -- here's to another 25 and beyond.  I love you!

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The writing life: cats and phones, work and fun

I haven't been blogging much lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been writing.  I've actually been doing a lot of writing for a course revision project at work, and that's been interesting, though not quite as satisfying as personal, creative writing.  Life has been a bit stressful in the last while, too, and I've had a hard time focusing on larger pieces of composition.  However, I've spent more time working on my poetry and have found that both therapeutic and challenging.  I've composed three new poems in the past three months and have spent quite a bit of time revising them and, in the process, trying to find the poetic style that really suits me.  I also attended a poetry-writing workshop by local writer Helen Humphreys a couple of weeks ago; that session provided some useful tips and a good dose of inspiration.

At the biweekly meetings of the writers' group I'm in, we try to spend part of each meeting doing a writing exercise:  we take a phrase or word as a prompt and write spontaneously on it for ten minutes.  I've posted a couple of these attempts before -- here and here -- and thought I'd post a couple more today, just for fun.

For this piece, our prompt was just four words -- frown, green, light, and cat -- which we had to include in whatever we wrote.

So I'm standing at the corner, waiting for the light to turn green, when this guy comes up beside me and says, "You seen an orange tabby cat around here?"

I look around me at the skyscrapers and office buildings and the chaos of cars and buses and taxis streaming past and the mobs of pedestrians choking the intersection.

"Uh -- nope, haven't seen one," I said, wondering why the darn light didn't change and let me escape this nut bar.

"Her name's Snowball," the guy said.

Thank God, the light changed and I started forward, hoping to lose Mister "Named-My-Orange-Cat-Snowball" in the crowd.

No such luck.  He kept up to my pace.  I glanced his way, hoping the frown on my face would deter him.  But he kept walking along beside me.  "She usually comes when I call her," he says.

No way, I thought -- but yep, he started calling out, "SNOWBALL!  SNOWBALL!"

Screw this, I thought, and stopped abruptly, letting the guy go on walking ahead of me.  I pulled open the nearest door and entered what proved to be the ATM part of the CIBC bank.  And there in the corner was an orange tabby cat.

"Snowball?" I said tentatively.

A guy waiting for the ATM made a hunnhh sound through his nose. "That's the stupidest name for an orange cat that I ever heard in my life."

"Who the heck asked you?" I said.


For this second piece, the prompt was "Message on the answering machine."

When I checked my answering machine I heard a man's voice say "It's Dale.  Call me!  I've run out and I don't know if I can get through the night." {click}

I stand there wracking my brain, but I am 100% sure I don't know any guy named Dale.  It must be a wrong number.  Tough bananas, I think.  Dial more carefully next time, Dale

But the call haunts me.  What if Dale needs life-saving medication?

I press *69.  "The last number to call your phone was 613*555*1234."  I jot it down on the memo pad and then pick up the phone.  I'll just say, "Uh, Dale, I think you meant to call somebody else." 

But then I stop.  What am I doing?  Maybe Dale is a criminal -- a drug user -- and I'm phoning him because he dialed the wrong number??? 

I go back and forth for some time.  Then finally I call.  A guy answers.  "Uh--Dale?" I say.  "You accidentally called me and said you ran out and couldn't make it through the night."

The guy starts to laugh.  "Sorry, miss," he says.  "I was calling my mother.  She makes her world famous perogies for my restaurant and we've been really busy tonight and we're all out."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I say.

"No worries.  I wondered why she didn't call me back," he says.  Then he goes on, "Ever been to the East Street Grill?"

"I've heard of it -- never been."

"Come on down for supper tonight," he says.. "I'll give you a meal on the house -- for being so thoughtful.  Just don't order the perogies."

If you ever think you'd like to write something but don't know what to write, just try a ten-minute writing exercise like this.  You never know where it will lead -- and even if it leads nowhere, it's a lot of fun to do.