Field Trip: An Evening With Ann Patchett

I discovered Ann Patchett in the same way you find a kindred spirit through a mutual friend. Of course I had heard of her, but it wasn’t until I heard her on my two favourite podcasts (Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond’s ‘Dear Sugar Radio’ and Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Magic Lessons’) that I realized that not only did I want to read her, but I could learn a lot from her also.

I read ‘Truth and Beauty’, the memoir of her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, in almost one sitting. I found it to be a stunning slice of the writing life, how our work drives us, how people can work so differently. I was struck by how level headed Patchett seemed to be about her writing, her ability to hole up and hunker down. In contrast to Grealy, who seemed to bask in the artist’s struggle, she offered an unromantic but highly productive approach to writing.

Next was her collection of essays, ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’, most notably for me the essay ‘The Getaway Car’. Tired of being asked for writing advice, she poured absolutely everything she knows about writing into one epic master class. It is good, sensible advice. It makes a good case for not being too precious. I purchased all of her novels and decided to read them in order, to watch her process, to follow her growth.

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My evening with Ann Patchett was the product of several small miracles: I was cruising the events section of the Toronto Public Library’s website, as one does, and was giddy to discover that she was coming to speak. I immediately went to reserve a ticket and the internet laughed heartily at my naivety – of course if was sold out. I gave the waitlist a shot.

A week later, hurrah!  An email saying that I had a spot. The night arrived. It was an insane week at work. I was exhausted. For the entire day I considered giving my ticket to a book club friend, but then thought, ‘No. I really need this.’ I dragged myself from one end of the city to the other on public transit in rush hour and arrived at the Toronto Reference Library with three minutes to spare. As I approached the desk I saw several muttering women stalking angrily away.

‘We’re sold out.’

‘But I have a ticket!’

‘We’re at capacity.’

Apparently book lovers are such a fickle bunch that the library always overbooks these events. We all just happened to show up. I quickly drummed up a sad monologue about having come from Scarborough, how I teach grade seven but am really a writer and really really need to see Ann Patchett because she is the oracle, but before I could deliver it the lovely man in charge looked at me and sighed.

‘You’ll have to stand.’ he said, and slipped me inside.

I got the last spot in the room.

I got the last glass of wine before the bar closed.

In a room full of people standing and sitting on the floor, I found the one empty chair.

And she was just so wonderful. Witty, wise, pragmatic, self-effacing, but seemed happy to be there. Despite the 600 people, she chatted easily about her new book ‘Commonwealth’. Her method of writing novels is to figure it all out in her head before beginning to write, which I found so interesting (I am devoted to notes on index cards). I was reminded how important it is to study the masters. Listening to any artists – but especially writers – discuss their process is such a rich resource, and such an affirmation of the thing I always forget – it is work. It takes time. You need discipline.

One very interesting topic was her total avoidance of social media. She is not on it. She doesn’t have a smartphone. She doesn’t even watch T.V. She is very aware of what is going on in the world, but, it seems, finds the noise unnecessary. As someone who has upped her social media game significantly for the purposed of this blog, I found this inspiring and unsettling, especially when she was asked about how to best get personal work published: she suggested a blog. I felt a certain comfort in the fact that I am already doing this.

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At the end of the evening everyone lined up to have their book signed (following an amusing but effective set of instructions on her part  on the required expediency of the task). I bought a copy of ‘Commonwealth’, and turned to the table where she was, and decided not to line up. Somehow I didn’t want to meet her if it was only for a moment, for my own sake. I could better honour her by spending all of Sunday, guzzling her glorious novel.

Which is exactly what I did.

 

Find an interview with Ann Patchett on ‘Commonwwealth’.here.

Find an excerpt of ‘Commonwealth’ here.

Find Author talks and other events at the Toronto Public Library here.

 

 

 

Propriety and Prejudice: A Letter to Jane Austen

Dearest, darling Jane,

I will admit that I am a little terrified, summoning you. This is silly, since we are dear old friends and you have shaped me so deeply. Maybe I know you are beloved of many others. Maybe I am afraid of getting it right. I am not writing this letter with ease. Maybe there is too much to say. I could gush for days about your wit, your way with language, your vividly drawn characters. I could marvel at how you spin the ordinary, even banal lives of fairly simple women, how you rush them with drama and tension. I could tell you that I have compared every man I’ve dated to one of your characters, and that this gauge has actually served me well (‘Is he a Wickham? Cut him loose.’). I’ve learned that I am less of a Darcy girl than might be expected and surprised myself when I realized that my true love is a beautiful hybrid of Mr. Knightley and Col. Brandon. (Think about it. So good, right?) Then of course there is the question of what character I would be, and I suppose that here is where I have found my letter to you.

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I am Emma. I am Lizzie. I am Marianne. I’m a little selfish. I’m a little headstrong. I’m a little impulsive. On one hand, these comparisons are trivial and especially irrelevant since it is 2016 and we keep very different society. I do not have your concerns for reputation or financial stability. I have a lot more freedom than you. I support myself as a teacher, I write for pleasure, and I live in blissful sin with my Knightley-Brandon. In your day, I would be a penniless concubine schoolmistress. I think though, like me, you would be frustrated here. In so many ways, so much has changed, and yet lately I am feeling trapped by the general boundaries that come from the expectation that I will be a well-behaved woman.

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Those close to me are chuckling as they read this, since I am known for my snark and sass. I was a mouthy child who read a lot – an articulate brat. I can come off as aggressive, opinionated, crass and even dominant in my close circles. When I make the long trip to visit my loving family, within an hour of my arrival one of my parents will be provoked to say dryly ‘The bitch is back.’ I rather enjoy this status. It can be terribly amusing to be me, and my bad behaviour is often rewarded with laughter. It’s a beautiful, viscous cycle. I’m a real saucy article in my most intimate life.

This is probably why it is so hard for me to be good in the real world. The real world wants me to be gracious, to take the high road, to rise up. My employment contract even stipulates that I will conduct myself according to certain values. I’ve become awfully concerned with how I am perceived. I’ve become awfully upset with myself for not feeling the ‘right’ feelings, the feelings a ‘good person’ would feel. I’m growing weary of playing nice. Lately, I find that I am living in some constructs that feel very false to me, and if there one thing I absolutely cannot abide, it’s inauthenticity.

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An example: I was recently invited to dine at an especially revered estate.  I was a welcomed guest, warmly received, and was indeed very grateful to be included in the party. I made a real effort to be gracious, charming, careful. Conversation was boring but pleasant, until a turn wherein my gender was reduced to a stereotype of an almost medieval level, where my core beliefs were so greatly insulted that my lukewarm blood boiled hard and fast. Being myself, I did not stay entirely silent, but I managed to speak lightly, gently, respectfully. I made a mild case for myself and my sex, and I may have made a comment about our general need to grow as individuals by opening our minds. I was turned down quickly and firmly, so much so that I was forced to remain silent for the duration of the meal lest I insult my host beyond repair. (You must trust me here, dear Jane, despite my vagueness: this was truly my only option, and yes, this is a relationship I am forced to maintain.) It was interesting timing in a week full of memes of the American presidential candidates, the boorish bull interrupting the poised, smiling woman, the picture of propriety. As much as we have reached levels of equality you couldn’t have dreamed of, and as many gloriously feminist men exist in our society, we women have long been accustomed to letting men have the final say, to being interrupted, to smiling politely and then rolling up our sleeves when the bulls have left the pen and actually getting shit done.

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More complicated though, is how we women behave with each other. We have become so skilled at propriety that in some ways, we are silencing each other more quickly than men can. Passive aggression has moved to the level of art, and we are all so afraid of stirring the waters that we stew silently, complain about each other over hushed cups of coffee with our intimate friends, or lovers, or therapists, and put on an otherwise poised face towards the women who challenge us. Women can hold grudges for years. I know I do. I have hurts that I cannot let go of, stories I tell over and over, and social webs so thick, so twisted, that the truth is near impossible to draw out.

I am in one such situation whose complexities are so well spun that I have trapped myself in my own web. Everyone involved is terribly polite. We are gracious. We have paved the high road with compromise and diplomacy. I have lived for some time in boundaries that I didn’t get to make, and have stayed silent often for the greater good. I have been welcoming when I did not feel it. I have been flexible when I did not want to be. I have given up my true self for the sake of the comfort of others.

Jane. I’m fucking exhausted.

 

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I cannot run off into the moors like Marianne, and wait to be pulled out of the storm by a handsome rogue on a white horse. I cannot fester in my own patience like Elinor and resign myself to my fate. I don’t have Fanny’s steadfast goodness, or Emma’s boldness,  I don’t even have Lizzie’s faith. I think here, I am more like you. I have since decided to quietly defer the expectations, and instead set out on my own path, create my own boundaries and live more happily inside them. And if someone proves to need a stern turn about the room or a throwdown on the pianoforte, I’m not afraid to do it. Life is too short to be lived insincerely. I can live my own quiet riot against what is not true to me. I can do it gracefully, with kindness, even, if kindness is the order of the day. But I do not need to behave myself, if it means sitting quietly on my settee in the corner, weeping into my needlework or wine. I can defy expectation and still rise up in my own way.

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Your life did not go as you perhaps planned. You did not have control over your circumstances – you had to make compromises and concessions. In so many ways your life was not your own, and yet – and here is the great gift of your work- you claimed it as your own in the stories you told. You raged at the injustice of women’s financial dependence on their sons and brothers. You explicated a society where marriage was a woman’s way up. Interestingly, you did not write of motherhood. You let your heroines be flawed, and you forced them to grow out of their sensibility, their prejudice. You did not give a double standard for your men and women – the quality of a person’s intentions, their treatment of each other was always the anchor in a romantic union. We have so romanticized your work, we have mythologized it to the point of cliche, I’m afraid. But so often, on closer inspection, you are really asking us to take a hard look at who we want to be, who we are willing to be. You remind us what substance you are made of.

 

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I raise my teacup to you, my darling friend.

With love, and the greatest admiration,

L

 

 

Pure Imagination: A Letter to Roald Dahl

Dear Mr. Dahl,

When I was about five my mum bought me a copy of ‘Revolting Rhymes’, your book of reimagined fairy tales. I could read pretty well by then. There was a lot of head-chopping. You called Cinderella a slut. My favourite was Little Red Riding Hood:

‘The young girl smiles,one eyelid flickers

she whips a pistol from her knickers.

She aims it at the creature’s head

and bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.’

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It was the 1980s. I think we have tightened up on parenting since then.

In grade four I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Barber. She read ‘Matilda’ aloud to us, and it blew my mind. I decided that I was like her in every way (the fact that I had loving parents who gave me inappropriate books, a kindly principal and no magic powers notwithstanding), and this quiz I took today on your official website confirms that this is still true. Mrs. Barber let me borrow books from her special shelf  and bring home to read, and I was more careful with them than I was with my three year old sister, whom I generally kept trapped under a laundry basket.

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I loved your books. They were saucy. They were scary. They were witty as hell. You understood about being a child; you understood how big and unfair things could feel. You understood that being a kid lasted a really long time, longer than we remember later. You knew that we could handle witches and giants and chopping heads off. We knew you were mostly kidding. You empowered us to face life, to stand up to the enemies and to trust the benefactors, and not to take shit from grownups, because sometimes they were mean, and sometimes they were wrong, and sometimes we were smarter.

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I grew up. It happens.

I’m a teacher now. It is September, and I feel a little overwhelmed already. I have the nicest class I’ve ever had, and I am still exhausted after only two weeks. They are sweet and lively, and I know I will have a lovely time with them. What a gift. I have my own bookshelf that the kids can borrow from. It is full of your books.

It’s an adjustment, though, after nine weeks without children, after hikes and patios and silence. It is interesting that my return to children coincided with what would have been your 100th birthday. There have been many celebrations, much reflection on your work. It is interesting, too, that this anniversary is so close to the passing of the beautiful Gene Wilder, who brilliantly immortalized your Willy Wonka. A live action film of ‘The BFG ‘has only recently left the theatres, and posters for the stage musical ‘Matilda’ are plastered all over my city. It is remarkable how present you are.

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It is interesting too, as I have been reading more about you, what rises to the surface. You were a bit of a tricky character, it seems. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. Hephzibah Anderson writes about this better than I could. It begs the question of whether these stories for children still stand, and the answer, I think, is yes. Your stories are not sweet (unless you consider the overriding presence of chocolate). They do not pretend that a child’s world is safe or without challenges. The children you write about are neglected, malnourished, orphaned, rejected, reduced, even eaten.

What is different, in your story world, is the presence of magic. Little girls can move things with their minds, and converse with giants, and become blueberries. Little boys can run chocolate empires, live in peaches, take down witches. There are greater possibilities in your worlds, fewer boundaries.

What happens to us as children stays with us (just ask my little sister how she feels about laundry baskets). What we read as children is the same. I can remember books that I read as a child as vividly as if it were last week, but can hardly remember what I read last week (actually I do – it was the new Maggie Smith bio and it is overdue at the library). So much is lost when we grow up. We stop looking for giants in the lamplight outside our windows. But we all hold, in some part of ourselves, whatever child we were. We still feel the dangers and the threats and we still seek the magic. We are still hoping we are wrong.

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This is the gift of children, and teaching. I get to live in their world for a few hours a day. I get to feel what it felt like. This is why I read ‘Revolting Rhymes’ to my kiddos every year (relax, they are in grade seven), and why I revel in watching their delighted shock. I’m drawing out all of the magic I can.

Wish us a good year,

x L

 

 

 

 

Read This: A Summer Reading List

Summer  is here!

Did I mention I have nine weeks off? Don’t hate me.

Before I abandon you for the summer, here is a list of lovely books for you. I have completely overthought it (‘The last one was six. Should this be six? But I want more! But not too many. Ok, one more. Is that one too heavy? Is that one too light? Are reading lists supposed to be new books? What does this list say about me? Does anyone even read this blog? etc…).

Screw it. Here’s a bunch of books that range from Really Lovely to Bloody Amazing. Read them on a blanket in the park with a Steigl Radler in hand. Or maybe in a travel mug. You know… laws.

Enjoy!

 

Fiction:

 

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  1. Oh. This book is beautiful. Two pianists from very different backgrounds and with very different struggles form a very beautiful friendship. This book is about artists and the gorgeous and troubling nuances of race, and the limits women often face. It’s one of those books that is so delicately and beautifully structured that I don’t want to give too much away. Just read it.

 

Fates and Furies

2. President Obama’s favourite book of the year, which made me like him even more (certainly a better choice than Donald Trump’s favourite book, ‘Mein Wig: The Hairstyles of Tyrannous Men’). Simply put, this book is about a marriage. The remarkable thing about it is Groff’s meticulous structure – it is in two parts: the first half from the husband’s perspective, the second from the wife’s. It is a visceral reminder that our experiences are our own, and that we only ever really know ourselves. I spent an entire day in bed reading this book. It’s complex, intriguing, and startling.

 

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3/4: A woman near the end of her life wants to see the sea. She leaves her husband and walks from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Coast of Canada, and befriends a talking coyote along the way. Need I say more? This is a really wonderful book: poignant, quirky, winsome. While we’re at it, you should probably  read this one too:

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Basically any book where the elderly go on long walks. Makes my heart go bubbly.

 

 

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5. This book won the Pulitzer Prize. No big deal. It is about 5,298,147,598 pages long, and it’s a big of a haul, but hey, it’s summer, you have nine weeks off (or is that just me?). Teenaged Theo loses his mother and in the process, gains a rather famous painting which becomes the great burden of his life. The narrtive voice is so remarkable in this book, and the characters so cleanly drawn. The last twenty pages make the first billion so, so worth it. Truly a wonderful book.

 

The Nest

6. Confession: I judge books by their covers. I really do. I am a real snob when it comes to what I read. I have this really gross affectation where I figure that if a book is popular, then it must be shite. What I am getting at here, is that a gold embossed book that was designed at Tiffany’s is not something I would usually want to be seen with on the TTC (Toronto’s epicurious public transit system). BUT. More than my snobbery, I am a sucker for stories about big, dysfunctional families with quirky, contrasting personalities (especially if one is a long-suffering-writer-sister). This is a really fun read, very well written, and my only complaint is that I think it should have been twice as long.

 

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7. More Heather O’Neill? You’re damn right. Everything she writes is gold. I am visiting Montreal for the first time this summer, and there are only two things I want to do: 1) Openly weep at a  Celine Dion concert with my mum (tickets in hand! Whoop!) and 2) Walk around. Heather O’Neill has set her two novels and many of her short stories in ‘Daydreams of Angels’ in Montreal, and her descriptions are so vivid and so colourful. This novel follows Nouschka, daughter of a formerly famous folk-singer, and twin to a destructive brother, as she grows up in a changing Quebec. O’Neill is a master of metaphor, and Queen of Writing. I loved this one.

 

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8. If I could have lived in any place at any time, it would have been Paris in the 1920s. This lovely novel is the story of Hadley Richardson, first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and outlines the first years of their marriage, the Paris year, and their demise. It’s a fun romp through the literary haunts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and the gang, and quite a stirring imagining of their inner lives. Really lovely.

 

Non-Fiction:

 

 

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  1. In many ways, women have come a very long way in the last 100 years, but our current society, media, social media, have created some real trouble spots. ‘Feminist’ is a loaded word, and it can be hard to navigate the many layers involved in living this word these days. Roxanne Gay is like a really bad-ass big sister who is really current and cool and also fiercely intelligent and is kind of humbly and loudly announcing her big ideas about our present world. She is sassy and sharp and really un-pretentious.

 

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2. This is a book by my personal best friend Sara Bareilles who decided that being a remarkable songwriter and Broadway musical maker and PRINCESS ARIEL wasn’t enough, so she made us a book. Bareilles is somewhat notoriously irreverent and saucy (which is why we are such close friends) and so I expected this book to be a raucous tell-all sort of thing. Not so. She has taken a lovely approach in telling stories from her life as they relate to, and have inspired, her songs. It is personal, vulnerable, inspiring, and I cried about eight times. It is a quick read, but powerful and entertaining. One of my favourite books of the year.

 

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3. The incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer whose cells, taken in a routine surgery without her knowledge, and having an ability to regenerate unlike any discovered before or after, were used in developing medical vaccines, cloning, and research. Rebecca Skloot investigates this remarkable story as it continues through Lack’s family, who had no knowledge of their mother’s medical fame, and who themselves could not afford health insurance. The injustice, racism, and human right violations that spin through this story are incredibly frustrating. Oprah thinks so too, which is why she’s making it into a movie. A compelling read.

 

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4. This was one of my favourite reads last summer. In this book of personal essays, Meghan Daum says the things we are not supposed to say. She is brash, funny, and also incredibly reflective, resulting in several moments of real affirmation, and some surprisingly emotional turns. My favourites are ‘Matricide’, ‘The Joni Mitchell Problem’, and ‘The Dog Exception’. It’s really smart, and pretty brave.

 

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5.   I just finished this beautiful book by Ann Patchett about her complex and beautiful friendship with the poet Lucy Grealey. It is a beautiful and immediate memoir, a hard and loving tribute to her friend, and such an intoxicating read. It’s really wonderful.

 

 

There you go, folks! Be sure to follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for weekly re-runs, and I will see you in September.

Have a beautiful summer!

 

xo L

 

p.s. If you have any great suggestions for my own stack of summer books, drop me a line, or leave them in the comments below!

School’s Out!

I am a teacher. It is Monday morning, the last week of the school year, and I am sitting at my desk listening to my students scream outside.

I am so ready for a break.

These past few months have been such fun – re-reading works I love, learning about my favorite authors, and connecting with people all over the world through our love of literature. I have many more letters up my sleeve, and lots of ideas for the blog that I am excited to share with you in September.

For now, though, Across the Bar is taking a summer break. I will be posting weekly ‘re-runs’ through social media in case you missed an entry, or want to re-read one.

Follow the blog on Facebook here.

Follow on Twitter here.

Follow on Instagram here.

I’m not going to leave you hanging, though! Check back next week for one last post, my Summer Reading List. It’s a good one!

Have a wonderful summer, my friends! Read lots!

xo L

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The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name: A Letter to Oscar Wilde

My dear friend,

I was saving you for when I needed lighter fare. You are one of my very favourites, and yours is one of the voices I aspire to – your wit, your charm, your sauciness have informed my own for 32 years. Your plays are among my best friends in literature. I was looking forward to a good romp among words with you.

 

But life, as it tends to do, has provided a call for serious pause. A week ago (only a week? Really?) a man opened fire in an Orlando nightclub. He credited a terrorist group, he has been remembered as unstable, abusive, mentally ill, and these are words we have heard often in relation to random, mass shootings. The United States, in their refusal to place effective regulations on the purchase of guns, have developed a rich lexicon for words to describe mass shootings. ‘Horrific’, ‘senseless’, ‘devastating’. They are usually the acts of individuals who are very broken, very lost. They are tragedies, every time. There are no words.

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But this is a new kind of tragedy. This was not random. This was a gay nightclub. This was an attack on a specific community of people, which brings this particular tragedy into a larger call to awareness. This is a very specific type of hate, and it is acted out daily, all over the world, on many different levels. It is endlessly frustrating that so many human beings all over the world have to fight so hard to be accepted for who they are. I take this act personally. I have many friends who identify as LGBTQ+ and without exception I have been welcomed into their arms, their homes, their creative projects, and yes, their nightclubs. I can say from vast experience that you would be hard pressed to find a warmer, more joyous, more inclusive community.

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In 1895, after enormous literary success, you were sent to prison for two years and hard labour. You had a lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie’, an aristocrat, whose father openly accused you of being a ‘posing sodomite’. You charged him for libel. After some time you withdrew your charges, but this act, which you later regarded as a mistake, drew enough attention to have you subsequently charged and imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’. You refused to admit wrongdoing. At this time in England, under the Labouchere Agreement, ‘gross indecency’ was a criminal act, and this was used to persecute homosexual men in particular. Your trials gained a feverish attention, there was much public humiliation at your expense. You did not deny the charges. You did not admit fault, as per the law’s description of your charges. When the prosecution asked (quoting the ‘incriminating’ poem ‘Two Loves’ by Bosie, “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name?'”(a phrase that also became a euphemism for homosexual love),  you responded thus:

“It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it… That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. “

1895, a beloved playwright is forced to stand on a platform in the town square to be mocked for his homosexual acts.

I looked up ‘history of violence against LGBQT+ people’ and the list was so staggeringly long and volatile that it nearly made my heart stop. This list was just was what documented in the United States. It only documented the last 30 years. There are centuries and countries and probably millions of names of people who have been persecuted. There has been progress, Oscar. There has been change. There are many countries around the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I am so proud to live in one of them. There is incredible activism, there are support and inclusion groups in schools, there are artistic festivals and gay Pride is celebrated in various forms all over the world. In the wake of this most recent act of hate, I have witnessed such a pure and steady outpouring of love and solidarity towards the victims, their families, the community. I have read so many personal stories, calls to action, words of heartbreak and frustration. I have seen so, so, so much courage in the words and works of the LGBTQ+ community.

None of this removes their wounds.

June 12th 2016, a gunman enters an Orlando gay bar and opens fire.

Here is what I know about hate: it is almost always rooted in fear. People who hate so actively are threatened by what is unknown to them, what seems different, what they feel invalidates their own values, themselves. People who are so easily threatened are rarely happy, evolved, or truly secure in themselves. The more we learn about the man who expressed his hate so violently in Orlando last week, the more possible it seems that he himself was gay. Perhaps this was something he was unable to accept in himself. How tragic, how he chose to manifest this.

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You did not do well in prison. Your health failed. You became depressed. It took a long time, and a liberal warden, do get you access to books, longer still for writing materials. How this must have killed you. You were given a page at a time, and could only write to friends and your lawyer.

You are Oscar Wilde. You found a way around it.

You wrote a letter to Bosie, outlining your past months, your affair, your trial, your feelings of desertion and disappointment in him. You offered your forgiveness. You called it ‘De Profundis’. This, and a poem about your time in prison were your final works.

“When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

De Profundis

I keep thinking about your choice to charge your lover’s father for libel. His aim was to disgrace your name. Did you fight because you were ashamed? You were married to a woman, you had children, you were a public figure. It would have been fair to try to defend yourself for these reasons, in this time you were living in. Were you under Bosie’s influence, part of his efforts to provoke his father? Or were you simply defiant? Were you taking a stand for what you knew to be true, what you felt was fair and valid and worth the fallout? Were you one of the first gay activists, in your own way?

You were released from prison and lived in exile in France for the rest of your years. They were not many. Your spark was gone. You could not write. You died in a Paris hotel, quite broken and broken. This does not define you. Your story holds such power – it is being told (notably in the recent David Hare play ‘The Judas Kiss’, and its star, the perfectly cast Rupert Everett is making a film of your final days).

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There are so many stories. There have been so many voices silenced by hate and fear. There are endless cries of ‘love is love is love’ and they are earnest and they are a sweet flicker of light in a dark time. There is a complex and beautiful blend of nuance in identity. There is fierce pride. There is such inspiring courage. Our world is changing. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of healing to do, a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of fighting for basic human rights that many of us enjoy without a second thought. It is on all of us to do this. It is everyone’s responsibility. There will be many more battles to wage.

There will also be dancing in the street in my city, in celebration of the freedom you began to fight for.

I will see you there.

xo  L

 

 

The Martyr: A Letter to Elizabeth Smart

Dear Elizabeth –

Some years ago a man stood in my living room and picked up a book.

‘I can’t believe you’re reading this,’ he said.

‘It’s great. You like Elizabeth Smart?’

‘Oh sweetheart,’ he sighed. ‘This changes the course of things entirely.’

What he meant, I think, was that he couldn’t believe that such a silly young thing could possibly be even aware of such a book, let alone absorb it, let alone have a key to the servant’s entrance to his heart. We had been distracting each other for about a month – me, from a slowly healing heartache, him, from a dissolved marriage. It was never meant to mean anything. Perhaps he just couldn’t believe the irony.

The book was ‘By Heart: Elizabeth Smart – A Life’,  Rosemary Sullivan’s remarkable biography of you. I saw the irony. Five minutes prior to this he had been lying on the floor with my cat, charming her with the same masterful blend of focus and detachment that he applied to me. She melted under his hand, purring shamelessly and I noticed this with amusement and dread and recognition.

A passionate young woman testing her powers is a dangerous thing. I was curious. He was a challenge. A tremendous, compelling challenge. He found me via online courtship, wrote to me, managed to combine Greek mythology, a photo of a dark haired man staring pensively at the sea, and the line ‘I’m sure I’m too old for you, but I had to say hello’. He was too old for me. His divorce wasn’t final. He was moving to Rome. Challenge accepted.

We wrote for a week, and by the time we met in a garden by the lake I had already decided that this would be a heady rabbit hole indeed, and that I was in exactly the mood to lose myself. And oh, I did.

It was a decision. It was a decision every time I went back, down the steps to his basement apartment. Whatever limits he had emotionally were well compensated for with other fire. He was an artist. He read poetry. Sometimes our intellectual conversation was more compelling than our physical one. But he held me at arm’s length. Sometimes I would enter his home and he wouldn’t look up, such was his focus. I tried waiting patiently. It didn’t suit me.

I got fed up. I ended it.

Two months later, though, a farewell drink before he moved to Rome. Just one drink, to say goodbye. Ay, me. Down the rabbit hole I went. We said goodbye in all of our languages, a sudden spew of longings and declarations, one huge heart surge towards each other, and a few days later he was gone.

Words from Rome, his voice on my computer, late night pleas to join him there. I was tempted. Somehow I was more under his thumb from a continent away –  it was so romantic to have a beautiful, soulful, tormented artist aching for me in Rome. I was writing a lot of poetry. Ache begets ache. It’s good for the writing. I looked up plane fares.

I was a plaything. He found me charming, I think, but he didn’t take me seriously until he saw a book on my table, a book about a woman so intoxicated by an artist that she submitted her whole life to him. A man who was married. A man who would never really exist. You had decided about your poet as I decided about my painter.

We are both a bit brazen, you and I. We are educated women, artists, and uncomfortable accepting society’s usual options. It’s a dangerous elixir. It was not enough to write a narrative, to explore the world through words. No. We – you, had to live the narrative, let the words be born of your life.

You were born in Ottawa in 1913. Your family was wealthy. You went to private school. Your mother was needy, manipulative. You could have easily settled into the life of a socialite, married a nice Canadian lawyer, born him children, tended to your garden. In early photos of you it is so clear that this life would not suit you. There is always wind in your hair, fire in your eyes, love on your mouth. You look determined to make more of the world than the comfortable patch given to you. You are a woman who will plant her own seeds.

You wanted experience. You wanted adventure. You went to England to study. One day, in a London bookshop you found a volume by the British poet George Barker. You fell madly in love with him through his words. For months you made the declaration that you would meet and marry him – no matter that he was already married. I wonder how much was unhinged lust, and how must was pointed stubbornness; you tracked him down. You posed as a Canadian collector of manuscripts (well, true in a sense!) and collected funds to pay forBarker and his wife to fly from Japan to meet you at a train station in New York.

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Thus began one of the most epic, twisted and fueled love affairs in literary history. You wrote a famous, firey,  fictionalized account of it, the long prose poem ‘By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept’ in 1945. Your mother bought as many copies as she could find and had them burned. He fathered four children with you (fifteen in total, between other women) and even after he left his wife, many years after, he didn’t marry you. There was drinking, there were bitter fights. He left. He came back. You were devoted to him. You were a martyr.

‘He has martyred me, but for no cause, nor has he any idea of the size and consequence of my wounds. Perhaps he will never know, for to say ‘You killed me daily and O most especially nightly’, would imply blame. I do not blame.’

You raised four children alone, working as a copy editor, keeping a hand in the Bohemian literary scene of London. As the children grew older you wrote more. You moved to Suffolk, to a little cottage called ‘The Dell’, and wrote and wrote, and loved your children, and built a garden, and Barker came and he went.

‘Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.’

I used to feel quite smug about you – yes, I loved your work. It was rich, dangerous, all the more because of its real life origins. I will admit that I judged you. How could you wait around for this jackass, however beautiful his poetry? How could you let him leave and return as he pleased? I would beat down the door for child support! I wouldn’t stand for that shit!

Or would I? Maybe I would quietly enter a room and sit in the corner, so as not to block the light he was working in. Maybe I would search every line he wrote me for a sign that he really did want me. Maybe I would feel so strung out on a man that I would hate myself. Maybe I would write about it too.

Perhaps this was your quiet revenge, this famous book of yours, this airing of passions. Maybe this was your way of making it belong to you, not just in the small shared world between your sheets, but out in the raging world. You howled how he terrorized you, how he pulsed through your blood.

If you put it all out there, it belonged to you. You owned your choice. I’ll give you that. You are entitled to that.

I did not fly to Rome.

After a couple months of spin, then silence, then the spin again, and again, I dragged a letter out of myself. A tear-stained message more full of feeling that I like to remember. It said ‘Leave me be.’ It said ‘I deserve a full love, and I need to be free from you to find it’. His reply was tender, remorseful, wine-stained. I never wrote back.

I watched an interview with you, late in your life. While the host introduces you you look down, smiling uncomfortably. You cling to your cigarette (‘I have learned to smoke because I need something to hold on to,’ you said.) The smoke half-covers your face and this almost seems deliberate. You are shy at first. Your laugh is sharp sudden, head bent down, girlish, and under the lines in your face, the wear of age, there are shreds of the beauty you were. Your confidence grows as you speak, and as it builds you seem almost pleased to be the centre of attention. You’ve waited a long time to be.

‘…this is the beginning of my life, or the end. So I lean affirmation across the table, and surrender my fifty years away with an easy smile. But the surety of my love is not dismayed by any eventuality which prudence or pity can conjure up, and in the end all that we can do is sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge and simple between us, and nothing more to be said.’

Two months after I cut the cord with Rome, I met my real love on a subway platform. We were going to the same birthday party. I recognized him from my friend’s photos, and though I didn’t speak to him until we arrived and were seated together, I had already decided to love him.

Oh, how huge and simple that love is.

 

Besos,

L