Eulogy for LC and the USA

cohenmonkThe morning the results of the 2016 United States election were confirmed, I cried. I am not an American but, like all of us, I am affected by its foreign and domestic policies. And I do ache with empathy for people whose vilification by trumpism has now been wrongly—evilly—legitimated. I reject that legitimization. It is sickening and terrifying.

Later the same week, when Canadian poet Leonard Cohen’s death was confirmed, I cried again. I didn’t know him personally but, like many of us, I am affected by his work. I posted an American magazine’s eulogy of Cohen on my Facebook feed along with half of a stanza of a poem, a song, I’ve known from memory since I was sixteen when my dad would play it in the car on our way home from late night shifts at the doomed sandwich shop we owned at the time.

The rain falls down on last year’s man,

an hour has gone by and he has not moved his hand.

But everything will happen if he only gives the word.

The lovers will rise up and the mountains touch the ground…

Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” is one of his prophetic works. I’ve always felt it was, even when I was a young girl. I’d listen to verses like

I met a lady, she was playing

With her soldiers in the dark.

One by one she had to tell them

that her name was Joan of Arc…

and I’d feel like they were important. I didn’t foresee an election where no amount of reasons to prefer a flawed but qualified woman over a car wreck of a man could convince people to follow her. Cohen wouldn’t have foreseen it either, but he could still write poetry about it way back in 1971.

In the same song he could write about a declining world power, the end of its moral authority, with poignancy and pathos, with just

And the corners of the blueprint are ruined since they rolled

far past the stems of thumbtacks

that still throw shadows on the wood.

I took Cohen’s death hard not because as a white person from outside the country I was exercising my luxury of being able to flip the channel on my grief machine as the mood hits me. I do have that unfair luxury but it wasn’t operating for me in this instance—not in the way it may seem. I publicly mourn Leonard Cohen because enfolded within my feelings for his death are my feelings about the 2016 US election. Cohen’s work—especially the stanza I posted in public—speaks to my grief and frustration as someone caught powerless in this moment of history.

Cohen was a spiritual person. He called out hypocrisy in people who claimed to be the same—who mouthed piety while indulging in hate, prejudice, greed, and violence. He pointed out the true character of religion is not about cupcakes and work ethics but about loving the world in spite of suffering and sacrifice—about reading “from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin.” Paradoxes are inevitable and vital. Hypocrisy is not. Consider this verse from “Suzanne.”

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said, “All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”

This is the theme I saw in the verse I posted from “Last Year’s Man.” No one compares to god. Even when he appears to be still, or impotent, just watching–none of us compares. And this world is to be transcended and overcome. We were made to rise out of it, to be free of it even though to do so is a miracle. We have two faculties for transcendence: suffering and love. Combined together, these faculties become hope. In revisiting Cohen’s work the week he died, I have connected with my grief for American society, and also with the beginnings of my hope for it–for all of us.

And so, we sail on.

 

Kleines Mӓdchen: Little Girls on a Book Tour

Reading on the Road

Reading on the Road

I never meant to cram a month’s worth of book promotion into seven days.  It just happened — an unforeseen consequence of good luck, good will, and good publicists.  I was so busy last week my kids actually noticed and mentioned how little time I’d been spending in my pumpkin shell.

I told them, “Look, I took a seventeen year mat-leave.  You’ve got nothing to complain about.”

Sure, it was a maternity leave full of freelance work and “will-you-just-let-me-finish-this” but I was here, in the house with them, for almost all of it.

The week started early Monday (because, that’s when it always starts) when I went into my closest — the room in the house most like a radio booth — and did a telephone interview with a talk-radio station in Edmonton.  It was a “top-line” interview meant to promote an appearance I’d be making in the city the next day.  It went well until the very last question.

“So,” Mr. Radio asked, “who’s taking care of the kids while you’re [in Edmonton]?”

Instead of musing, “You know, when my husband gets interviewed by the media, on the courthouse steps, no one ever asks him who’s looking after his kids,” I laughed it off.

“That’s their problem,” I told the interviewer.  “The oldest is seventeen so it’s Lord of the Flies over here when I’m gone.”

So far, no visit from Child and Family Services.

By bedtime that evening, I was gone.  I was at my sister’s house in Edmonton, getting ready for another “top-line” interview on the most terrifying of all media: television.  I haven’t watched television for years and I was scheduled to appear on a morning news show I’d never seen before.  What I remembered from TV was mostly how it’s been used to make “real” people look foolish and grasping.

In the morning, I got dressed while it was still dark — high black boots, skinny black pants, white top, black jacket.  Looking in my sister’s mirror, I finally saw it: I had subconsciously dressed myself to look like the black and white magpies on the cover of my book.

After a breakfast of Diet Coke with the coolest girl in Yellowbird Elementary School, I was on the freeway.  I got to the studio early enough to meet the other author being interviewed that morning.  In the green room was a man my age wearing a raspberry-coloured suit with a peach handkerchief tucked into the breast-pocket.  This was self-proclaimed over-dresser and Edmonton literary institution, Todd Babiak.  I thought I might run into him here.

“Don’t get nervous and start making fun of him,” one of my little sisters had warned me.  “That’s what I’d do.”

This was good advice.  It turns out Babiak isn’t a TV watcher either and we sat in the green room puzzling at the monitor on the wall as the program wound its way toward our segments.  He nodded at the anchor-lady on the screen.  “She’s actually read my book,” he said because, in a top-line interview, this is remarkable.

Left alone in the green room, I watched Babiak’s interview.  Of course, his raspberry suit had to be acknowledged on-air, just like my five kids at home had to be acknowledged on the radio on Monday morning.  The boys — they’re my raspberry suit.

Walking the hallway to the studio, I asked the producer with the pixie-cut hairdo, “There aren’t going to be any questions about who’s taking care of my kids, are there?”

She smirked.  “Any what?”

I told her about the radio station and we all scoffed together.  The anchorman who interviewed me was sweet in a clean-cut-captain-of-the-football-team kind of way.

I spent the rest of the day in the city, visiting family, calming the frick down before I went to a reading in a bookstore downtown.  The guests at this reading included some old friends I hadn’t seen in this century.  One of them reintroduced herself in case I’d forgotten her — which I certainly had not.  A wonderful thing about a book tour is the way it’s also a time machine.

After two days of massaging social media, the time came for another reading.  This one was closer to home, in the city my husband commutes to for work.  The Red Deer venue was warm and cozy and the time machine coughed out a long lost aunt and cousin.  There was a question from a woman — a fellow artist — who earnestly and innocently wanted to know how I “do it” with so many kids in my life.

I shrugged, “By being a crap mother, I guess.”  This might be my new pat-answer.  Put it right in the press kit.

fmroad

Get your kicks on Route 63

The last event of the week was the most ambitious one of all.  The person stepping out of the time machine this time would be me.  The  machine took the form of my black pickup truck — the kind they issue everyone crossing into Alberta’s borders.  I picked up my sister (the third sister in this story) and we went north, to Fort McMurray.

I’m no carpet-bagger, no oilsand opportunist.  For five years during the early 2000s, the city was my hometown.  I bought my first house, repaid my student loan, met bears, planted trees, and had two magnificent babies in the city.  An entire chapter of my novel is set in the Wood Buffalo region.  To get there, we drove for five hours — me boring the heck out of my sister with all my “Wow, this is so different.”  I alternated between, “I can’t believe all this is here” and “I can’t believe all that is gone.”  No matter what the Old Man says, the region is not Hiroshima.  It’s not a wasteland.  But it’s not like it used to be either.

In seven years, the city’s service industry hasn’t changed.  We arrived at 2:45 pm but we couldn’t get into our hotel room to change our clothes.  It was still a mess.  I’d be appearing in public looking like I’d spent the day in a pickup truck.  We hadn’t had a meal all day and we went to a fast food restaurant with milk and grease smeared all over the sky-blue tabletops.  This was familiar too.  The restaurant couldn’t hire enough staff to have anyone to clear the tables.  Customers go there knowing they’ll have to do it themselves.

At the event — a launch party for the latest edition of NorthWord: A Literary Journal of Canada’s North  I was invited to read first.  I chose the chapter set in the neighbourhood where I now stood reading.  And when I got to the part about the trees along the highway — the ones that now exist only in my imagination — I choked into the microphone.  Maybe it’d sound noble and Neil Young would pat me on the head if I tried to say I was having a fit of environmental conscience.  It wasn’t that.  It wasn’t the trees.  It was me.  There was some kind of awful longing rising in my throat with the words I read.  The whole time machine idea — it’s wrong.  This place that I love had moved on without me.  I was abandoned.  And I hadn’t even known it.

Part of the NorthWord event was in impromptu poetry contest.  The theme was contrast.  I jotted some lines and signed my sister’s name to them.  The poem was about the dirty tabletop at the restaurant.  It was silly and pretentious right down to the lines I wrote in German.  The judges got the joke and it won a prize in the contest.  But my sister was too embarrassed to let them announce it.  Fair enough.

Sister-Sleepover

Sister-Sleepover

When we were finally let into the hotel, we put on pajamas, got into one of the beds, put our heads together, and watched YouTube on my sister’s tablet — a sisters’ sleepover, just like old times, only not at all like old times.  Neither of us had wi-fi or a credit card or an ex-husband or a book to tour when we were little girls.

Still, those German words — the refrain from our winning poem — they were these:

Kleines Mӓdchen.

Sir Robert Borden Junior High School, Much, Much Later

DSCF7211When you can, go back to the place where they said you were the smallest and the ugliest.  Stand in front of it, turn your back to it.  And have someone who loves you as perfectly as he can pace across the street and take a picture of you, in the fog, on the side of the road, the barred windows and yellow brick walls behind you.  You are still small.  You are still ugly.  This is not a transformation story told with paint and hot irons.   It is not what you are that has changed.  It is what matters that has changed – what is said and seen.  The voice, the eye – all of it — is yours, now, and his and Yours.

Facing Up to Poetry

What the poets are doin’ – 2013 Poetry Prowl in Red Deer, Alberta. Photo by Grant Ursuliak

There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld joke rooted in a dubious claim that more people fear public speaking than fear death.  Seinfeld’s punch-line (in case anyone out there missed the 1990s) is “to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

It’s probably a better joke than it is a reliable piece of social science but there is a glimmer of truth in it.  Speaking in front of a crowd can be scary.  However, we all know a lot of scary things are also fun.  And while I don’t enjoy thrill-rides like sky-diving or giving high-strung driving lessons to my kids, I do enjoy public speaking.  I might even be good at it.

So I was surprised at myself when I realized late in my 30s that since I’ve started writing professionally, I have never stood up and read my work out loud and in public.  I’ve done some radio work but those productions were easy and chatty — not much like careful, literary writing where even tiny prepositions are weighed against something vague and dynamic called “art.”

Art is another one of those things that’s frightening and beloved at the same time.  It needs to be worked out with reverence and caution and that can make handling it in front an audience an intimidating prospect.  But I don’t think the gravity of art is what kept me from finding venues for reading my work to strangers.

The first obstacle was simply time.  With a larger than average sized family, my mommie gig is a larger than average sized time commitment.  That’s the easy excuse.

The more complicated excuse is full of traumatic memories from junior high school – some adolescent persecution over the fact that the perfectly fine face I inherited from my grandfather didn’t play so well on a young girl.  I’ll spare all of us a recital of the harrowing details.  It’s enough to say that the long-term effects aren’t simple and superficial.  They’re not the kinds of things that can be undone by Dove soap commercials.  And it means that I mistrust my face – the one that has stayed happily hidden on the radio and in print.  My face has sabotaged me before and, even though junior high was long ago, I still look like my grandfather and it makes me wonder if his lady-fied face might distract and disturb my presentation of my art.

Of course, all of that’s nonsense and it’s time for it to end.  And it did, a few weeks ago.  To celebrate poetry month every April, a group of poets from Calgary (the big city two hours south of my neighbourhood) travels through what is invariably terrible weather to spend an afternoon in the small city of Red Deer meeting those of us toiling in obscurity.  The event is known as The Poetry Prowl.

It’s fabulous – far better than I expected it to be.

The other poets at the event were high quality artists.  They were editors and writing instructors as well as artists – educated, experienced, and highly polished.  The chief organizer, Emily Ursuliak, even managed to bring along the city of Calgary’s current poet laureate.  The local contributors — all men except for me — were delightful too.  Performance after performance, I was pleased and surprised and honoured to be included.

What was nearly as impressive as the poetry was the personable warmth of the poets themselves.  Despite the haughty ring to his official title, Calgary’s Poet Laureate, Kris Demeanor, backed up some of his work by playing the pink acoustic guitar strapped around his back with a lace from a hockey skate.

The more educated and decorated the poets were the more humble and decent they seemed to be.  The man who’d written articles on “the philosophy of death” for academic anthologies gave me his program when he saw I didn’t have one and apologized that his bio in it sounded so much like a CV.  I pointed out that mine sounded like one too only it wasn’t nearly as impressive.  And my bio wasn’t just a CV it was also a plug for my upcoming novel.  So, yeah – there’s nothing to apologize for here.

Since re-entering arty society, I have no proof that the cold-hearted, self-involved, hipster jerk stereotype actually exists in real life.  So far, everyone I’ve met is lovely and collegial.

And by the time I was introduced and called to the microphone to read my work – the small collection of short poems I’d written during the Dark Ages of my artistic career when “creativity” was more literal than literary and meant blood and amniotic fluid and breastmilk – I wasn’t afraid to match my work to my face anymore.  I owned my physical appearance.  I joked about it, referred to myself with all irony as a “trophy wife” and let everyone laugh with me.

It had to happen.  I’m glad it did.  I can now say I’ve put all of myself into my work – even my face.