Lately I’ve been lonely for my sisters.  One is living abroad, and the other just off a heavy work/travel stint, and I think we’re all wanting for some serious sister time.  There are certain things best shared with my sisters, and these are unfailingly rewarded with appropriate levels of support, sympathy, understanding and agreement. 

Travelling to the UK to see Jane is out of the question at the moment, so web chatting will have to suffice for the time being.  Cathy, on the other hand, is home now, and we’ve managed to make the sister time happen.  The clock couldn’t be ticking slower in anticipation of having beers on a patio after work tonight for a really overdue catching up on all things sisterly.  Life is as it should be.  Or it will be at 7:00 this evening.  And we’ll toast you Jane, and wish you were with us.

And if beers on a summer evening weren’t that good already, we’re taking a spontaneous vacation together to the cottage next week.  I expect all of the secrets, joys, complaints, trials, laughs, rumours, silliness, toenail painting, morning walking, afternoon sunshine soaking, happy hour sipping, music sharing, scrabble playing and cooperative meal making will all be sufficiently caught up by the end of the week.

Go clock go.

For there is no friend like a sister, in calm or stormy weather, to cheer one on the tedious way, to fetch one if one goes astray, to lift one if one totters down, to strengthen whilst one stands.  ~Christina Rossetti

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This week I’m reading the Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Last week I read John Steinbeck’s memoir, Travels with Charley. 

Hemingway is reflecting on a time early in his career, living amongst artists and writers in Paris, struggling to make ends meet, and having doubts about his calling as a writer.  Steinbeck, near the end of his career, on an extended road trip around America with his dog Charley, had seen enormous success and recognition for his writing. 

So, I’m reading about Parisian cafes and shopkeepers and horse races this morning and it occurs to me, what if Hemingway never got famous after all that?  I’m struck with something akin to grief, thinking that if his fortunes had taken a different turn, would he have written these stories?  I mean, the events happened – what if I never got to read about them? 

For some reason I got to thinking about some balanced rock sculptures I saw in the Humber River a few years ago.  I walked by this spot regularly then; and one day, dozens of the otherworldly things were just there in the water.  I love the dichotomous nature of them: the ancient, permanent rocks balanced tenderly and precariously on top of one another – one swift wind or current and it’s all over.  A few days later, they were gone.  Not kicked over by unappreciative teenagers – there were no little piles to signify such a violent end.  The rocks that remained in the water were scattered as would any in a shallow riverbed.  In creating the mystery of the sculptures’ arrival and disappearance, the artist was telling a story.

So what if, like the rock sculptures, Hemingway’s life came and went and most of us didn’t know it?  His writing/living experiences in Paris could have been anyone’s.  And if the name Ernest Hemingway was as familiar to people as Joe Shmoe, would the story be of less value?

Steinbeck seemed to put effort into making his story less about John Steinbeck Famous Author than a man with questions, desires, doubts, faults and vulnerabilities.  And had this reader never have read one of his stories before this one, she would have fallen in love with him for the first time.

And she’d still want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s to sit at a café and drink brandy and eat fresh bread dipped in oil with artists and writers.

And she still thinks about the story of those rocks.

So if ten people – or ten million people read a story, would it make any difference?  Would it make any difference in your desire to tell it?  I think those ten people might have something to say about that.

 

A rock balancing artist making sculptures near my home in Toronto’s Beaches.

dancing for mitch

14 June 2009

There’s a scene that always really moves me in the movie Elizabethtown.  The scene is during Mitch’s memorial service and his wife Holly is on a stage, in Mitch’s world, far away from her world.  Holly is taking her turn to speak about Mitch to the reluctant audience that is Mitch’s family. The thing that is so moving is that she has her hackles up against the suspicious relatives when she walks into the room, but when she gets on the stage she gives them the whole honest truth about how she has been managing her grief.  About how Mitch’s death panicked her, and she felt the overwhelming need to accomplish and learn all the things she had never accomplished and learned while he was alive to share them with her. 

As she moves into a largely inappropriate comedy sketch (a result of her needing to learn how to laugh), she starts to break down the audience’s armour.  And by the time she sets the needle down on Mitch’s favourite song, Moon River, and begins to tap dance for Mitch, (another hastily learned thing), she finds loud support and applause.  Holly kicked away the hackles, and she was rewarded with love.

Once I took a writing class in which there was a young girl who overcame great personal fear just to tell her stories to us each week.  You could see that fear in her.  You could see her summoning inner resources even as she lingered for a moment looking in the window of the classroom before her hand would function against the door handle and open the door. 

Every one of her stories reflected her facing off against that wall with a determination that belied her masked exterior.  Her stories inspired us, and our reactions to her readings of them conveyed that.  But she didn’t finish the semester, and I remember wishing otherwise to my friend who was the facilitator.  “She’s just not ready” said my friend. 

There are lots of reasons why so many of us harbour the idea that risking honesty and truth will result in some sort of failure.  Maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests below, we could shift the responsibility of our expression to another force.  Our Mitch, our muse, or a higher power altogether.  And then maybe we can put it out there without those hackles that hold us back. The failure would not be ours to risk.

Last week, someone in my class took a personal risk and told a story.  That person reminded me of Holly.  Because like her, that person was rewarded with unbridled thanks and support. 

“We’re all in it together” said an old friend of mine recently.  Yeah, and that’s why we love to hear each others’ stories.  I really hope that young girl discovered that truth; that she’s found the gumption to shed those hackles.

channel it instead

7 June 2009

In every course I’ve developed, I’ve devoted one class to nurturing the artist.  Lately I’ve shown this video of a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in that class.  My friend Sheryl sent me the link the other day, thinking I’d like it.  I assured her I do.  A lot.  And thus posting it here.

Yesterday I leave work right after lunch to go to the dentist.  I sort of imply that I am “having dental work” to justify taking the whole afternoon off, even though I am really only having my teeth cleaned.  After forty-five minutes with the hygienist, I take the opportunity to run a bunch of errands, which lands me on the Danforth in a picture framing establishment called “Bobby’s” to get some new passport photos taken. 

The proprietors are a middle-aged East Indian couple, neither of which looks particularly like a Bobby.  Mrs. Bobby is serving a customer, and Mr. Bobby is sitting in a folding chair reclined against the wall.  When I tell him I’m there to have passport photos taken, he indicates that I should go wait in the photographing area with a lazy wave in the general direction of the back of the store. 

I go back and wait and eventually Mrs. Bobby comes over, tells me I’m “shiny” and hands me a paper towel.  After blotting and powdering, I sit down opposite the camera.  We have a little chat about the new passport picture rules, and after establishing that I must remain solemn and smile-less, I have to really try hard not to burst out laughing.  I’m not sure if it’s my inherent rebelliousness, taking the mickey out of the NEW RULES, or if it’s just a natural tendency for anyone to smile when they’re told not to.  In fact I used to do it to little kids all the time to get them out of a sulk:  “Now don’t you smile!  No smiling allowed!”  And it always worked.  (Especially with the super smiley Elaine.  But then, even Mr. Bobby could make her smile.)

Over the course of the next five minutes, Mrs. Bobby takes my solemn picture; comments on the bandage indicating the blood test I’d had just prior; talks about her long days which end with her doing all the cooking and house work (not hard to imagine given Mr. Bobby who has barely moved a muscle since I arrived); asks me if I’m interested in any of the books from the array she’s got spread out on the table before her, on topics ranging from health food to the Bhagavad Gita (which kind of does interest me ever since hearing about it on a wonderful radio documentary a few years ago); tries to convince me to become a vegan (armed with evidence from one of those books); and makes me promise to attend the Festival of India taking place on Centre Island this summer.

“For you, no taxes!” she says, and takes my ten dollars for the pictures. 

On the way out, she shows me the available picture frame samples.  “Look at this wood,” she says, stroking the underside of a frame with love, “not from China, but from Italy!”  I’m kind of wondering whether we might have more wood to make frames in Canada than Italy might, but I promise to come back when I have any picture framing needs.

And I will.  Because these are the kinds of little shops that make it so wonderful to live in the neighbourhoods of Toronto.  And when you’re mind is boggled by talk of million dollar bailouts and billion dollar deficits, it’s pretty easy to feel good about directing your few dollars to the “mom and pop” establishments down the street and feel like you really have helped a little.