Leaving the Jungle: A Letter to Rudyard Kipling

Dear Mr. Kipling,

The first movie I remember seeing in a theatre was ‘The Jungle Book’. This was the Disney one, released in 1967. It was at the vintage movie theatre down the road from my grandparent’s cottage, around 1990, a special screening, I guess. It so appealed to my brother and I, this notion of a wild child living among beasts, no rules, no structure. My brother ran around for years on all fours in his underwear, trying to emulate – and earning the nickname – ‘Mowgli’. There were things to fear in the jungle sure, but it all worked out, and Mowgli eventually went to the village. There was a certain comfort in this, knowing that in the end, Mowgli returned to where he belonged, and, we assumed, he would be safe and well there.

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I went to see the new adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’ last week and I will admit that it really overwhelmed me. The jungle felt real. It felt beautiful and lush and bright and wondrous, but it also felt sinister. There was much to fear. Maybe it was the combination of ‘real’ animals and human voices. Maybe it was Jon Favreau’s gorgeous directing, or Justin Marks’ seamless screenplay. Maybe it was this spunky little badass kid flinging himself so bravely inside this wilderness. But I was struck again: in Mowgli’s journey among animals, there is so much to learn about being human.

Mowgli grows up in the jungle. He is raised by wolves. He has a mentor. He has a daft but loveable sidekick. He is sometimes misguided. He is headstrong. He doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t belong. He makes some false friends. He makes an enemy. He develops skills. He finds a weapon. He runs away, fails, falls, succeeds, saves, loves, loses. And then, after he defeats his enemy, after he brings destruction and is forgiven – he carries on. He does not leave. He keeps swinging.

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I realized how much I had riding on the assumption that after he got through the snake and the monkeys and the tiger he would meet a nice girl on the edge of the village and follow her there and grow up and go to university and become an investment banker and have 2.5 kids in a minivan. Now, the clever people at Disney are probably saving this scenario for a sequel, but what does Mowgli do in the meantime? He can’t just live out there forever, can he? What will happen? He’s supposed to go to the village! He’s going to get lost in the jungle! He doesn’t have a PLAN!

As a society, we are not trained to do well with this sort of open ending. And yet, so many people are living it. We are often just wandering our own wilderness, working through the adversaries as they come, whatever they are. Sometimes, growing up and moving on are terribly hard. Sometimes they are scarier than taking down a tiger. Sometimes, living in the jungle feels safer than starting over in the village.

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I know a handful of facts about you, Mr. Kipling. You were born in ‘British India’ and lived there on and off for many years. You were the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize and at 41, the youngest recipient to date. You declined knighthood several times. There is a lot of controversy surrounding you. George Orwell rather scathingly called you ‘the prophet of British Imperialism.’ T.S. Eliot defended your undeniable skill as a writer. There are a lot of politics surrounding you, which I will not get into. Although you were a prolific short story writer, I have not read any of yours. I read The Jungle Book when I was very young, and much of what I am speaking to here refers to a movie that has been out for a month. I’ve read almost nothing of yours, but know this one story so dearly.

 

 

There is one other piece of yours that I have always carried with me – your poem ‘If-‘. As a teen I was fairly inspired by it. As an adult, it interests me: it is a ‘how-to’ guide for growing up, and it came back to me as I was watching the film. It’s an interesting duality, that you have two such opposing worlds with such a similar through-line – this journey to becoming ‘Man’. I guess many artists do. Maybe it is that I just know the two, and that they intersect so neatly.

If RK

Your idea, I guess, is that we do leave the jungle. We do grow up. But there is no clear path, my friend. For one thing, you have to want to leave. There is no straight line to anything. The jungle just doesn’t work that way. We grow up when we’re ready to.

-L

 

 

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A Certain Faith: A Letter to Carol Shields

Dear Carol,

You left us thirteen years ago, which means you might be the most contemporary person I write to. Your children and grandchildren are alive and your voice is still very present in Canadian literature. This makes me a little nervous, the way I would feel writing to someone still alive. From all accounts, you were very supportive of writers; in fact, you have just released a new book of advice on writing, edited by your daughter, Anne Giardini, and grandson, Nicholas Giardini. It is just weeks old, so I have not read it yet. There has been lots of nice press about it, though, so it got me thinking about you.

The title of your new book is ‘Startle and Illuminate’, a good title, and interesting because you have another book with a similar title: ‘Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields’ by your friend Eleanor Watchel. Perhaps this comes from a phrase you used, or a mindset you had – I don’t really know. But illuminate is exactly what your stories do.

 

“This is why I read books: to feel that my experiences have relevance,” you said in an interview once, and it is exactly how I feel.

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I started reading you in my late teens. I think I was prowling through my aunt’s extensive bookcase and came upon ‘The Republic of Love’. That was it. It seemed oddly novel to read a love story set in a Canadian city, now, here. I guess I was still in the age where I thought everything good was old, but I knew who you were. I knew that there were some really cool Canadian ladies just tearing up the worldwide literary scene, and you were on top of the pack, so I read your book.

I’ve read it four times.

I’ve read ‘Larry’s Party’ and ‘The Stone Diaries’ twice.

This is not for lack of access to books. This is because of your incredible superpower: writing the inner life of real people. It is so beautifully compelling.

 

You work is about real people, real lives, real moments between extraordinary ones. Reading your work, I was aware that this was the sort of thing I wanted to write. I saw such value in exploring people’s lives and relationships and inner workings.

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From what I can tell, you have been more receptive to and respectful of the writing process than anyone I can think of. You had the inclination to write from a young age, you were noticed for it. In ‘Random Illuminations’ you tell Eleanor Watchel “Even though in my high school yearbook I was the one who was going to write the novel, I never believed that for a minute. I’d never met a writer; it just seemed like too difficult a thing to be.” This doesn’t seem to come from fear or self-doubt – I think you were just too sensible to want to be a writer. You went to university and met the man who would become your husband. “When she first met him, my mother mentioned to my husband, Don, ‘I hope you’re going to encourage Carol to keep writing.’ Don looked blank. We were engaged to be married, and I had never mentioned to him that I had done any writing.” You wanted a home and children. You were a 1950’s housewife. You were a perfect product of the society you were raised in.

The urge resurfaced though, didn’t it? You took a writing course even with two small children. You started to write, slowly, a story a year, then poems for a while. And then, novels. You had five kids and you wrote for an hour at a time, two pages a day, no matter what, and in nine months you had a novel (interesting, this gestational timeframe!).

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I’m sure you had troubles. I’m sure you got stuck. Maybe it is that when you speak of your writing there is no driving ego in your voice, no drama, no defense. You sound warm, cheerful, intelligent. You talk about writing like, well, like it’s your job. Because it was, eventually. Maybe the problem with so many of us is that we think our writing is this sacred centre, a gold nugget inside of us that we protect fiercely. You were not precious about your work. You were curious, analytical, serious. You worked in bursts when you could, when it was there. It doesn’t sound like you had any particular ambition. (Though you still managed to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General’s award for the same book…)

Your work affirms that what I want to write is valid. Sometimes I worry: ‘Oh yes, what the world really needs is another story about a white, middle-class woman’s struggles with whatever streak I am on that day, and yet you have shown how these stories, these intimate glimpses into ordinary life can be beautiful and powerful – illuminating. We need those stories. I needed yours.

Your books tend to have sub-layers, a thread that moves through the story, whatever the characters are obsessed with: Fay’s study of mermaids in The Republic of Love, the stone carving in The Stone Dairies, and the construction of mazes in Larry’s Party. As I reflect on you, and consider your work as a whole, they all work as beautiful metaphors for the writing process. The sea-deep mystery of mermaids – their unknowability, their elusiveness. The digging, the focused etching of stone carving. And, my favourite, the mazes. There is an entrance, a disorienting, sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating journey through to the exit. You can’t rush a maze. You should move through placidly, methodically. It is unproductive to panic. You move through a few steps at a time. You reach a dead end, you retrace your steps, and try another way.

You summarize this process so succinctly in this interview:

“I don’t know the whole plot. Sometimes I know where I want to go. I just don’t know how I’m going to get there. And this can be frightening for a writer, although, after a point, you develop a certain faith in your process, and you know you’ll hit those hard times, but you know somehow you’re going to work it out as you go.”

I’m starting to see that discipline is a certain kind of faith. We are all building our own mazes, getting lost, and finding our way out, whether in our writings or in our lives.
I am so looking forward to your new book.

xo L

 

Get ‘Startle and Illuminate’ here.

Read This: A Spring Reading List

 

Spring is here! This week, to shake things up, I have prepared a juicy list of wonderful books by – wait for it – PEOPLE WHO ARE ALIVE! Hurrah! It’s deviant. I like it. Here’s what I have been reading. You should too.

 

Brooklyn

  1. I finished this just the other day and I am quite lost without it. Isn’t that the sign of a great book? I saw the movie (once in theatres, where I ugly-cried publicly, and again in my living room, where I could snivel in privacy). This story is so close to my heart (see my letter to Yeats – of course I am a sucker for this story). The film was a perfect creation, which made me very wary of the book – the fear being that it would sully the magic in any way. The book is not perfect, but it beautifully draws out some of the details that the movie glazes over. It’s wonderful and intoxicating and you should read it.

 

Daydreams

2. Heather O’Neill is a wizard. I only got to know her in the last year: I first read ‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ and I just guzzled it – then bought ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ but waited three months to read it just to ration her. ‘Daydreams of Angels’ is the first short story collection by Heather O’Neill. It feels like a book of fairy tales or fables. The stories address, as she puts it, ‘the physics of the world’, often through the voices or perceptions of children. What I love most is the energy, the looseness, the joy. It is easy to read; it is funny, it is dark, sometimes sexy, and still poses beautiful questions.  She manages to say a lot about life, and the world, and us in it. I have an enormous writing crush on her. Read everything she’s written. There is no one like her.

 

 

Feminists

3. This is a teeny tiny, enormously important book. It is really a speech, adapted from her TED Talk of the same name. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie manages to break down very tricky, outdated ideologies with warmth, humour, and intelligence. It is a quick read and her voice is sharp and smart. She is also a wonderful writer of fiction.  Check out ‘Americanah’. Beautiful.

 

 

Signature

4. Are you especially interested in female American botanists of the 19th century? Me neither! I am, however, very interested in mostly everything that Elizabeth Gilbert does. This is her first novel since the phenomenon ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and the vastly underrated ‘Committed. This is such a skillfully nuanced work about growth, travel, self-awareness. It’s beautiful. It’s witty. It’s sexy.  It’s unbelievably well researched. Everyone I know who has read this book has fallen madly in love with it. You will too.

 

 

Fifteen Dogs

5. I am not a dog person. I would not trust any person who ran up to me, smelled me and jumped on me while declaring their love (unless it was Ryan Gosling, then I would just go with it). I much prefer the retrained distain of cats. I’ve never really credited dogs with having much of an inner life: ‘Food! Friend! FOE. Squirrel! Wheee!’ This book has ruined all of that. The premise (revealed in the first page, but stop reading if you really don’t want context for this adventure) is that two Greek gods are chillin’ in Toronto’s oldest pub, bored. They make a bet that animals, if given human intelligence, would be even more unhappy than humans are. Their victims are the fifteen dogs spending the night at a local animal shelter, and what follows is a powerful exploration of what it means to be human. Yes. This is revealed through dogs. Just trust me. I have the great fortune of living in one of the neighbourhoods where the book is set (and detailed with perfect accuracy) and I simply cannot look at any dog I meet the same way any more. I also kind of want one now. Andre Alexis won the Giller Prize for this highly original piece of fiction.

 

 

Tiny Beautiful Things

6. Remember the amazing Dear Sugar advice column I talked about in my letter to Rilke? It’s a book! It’s one of those glorious little gems where you can read just one, or, if you’re me, you can binge and cancel plans so you can stay in bed to read this. This began as a column in The Rumpus and here Cheryl Strayed has written some of the most generous, clear, and compassionate advice out there for some very complicated questions. My personal favourite is ‘Write Like a Motherf****r’. When you are finished reading this and missing it terribly, you can hear Cheryl and Steve Almond (the first ‘Sugar’) on their wonderful podcast. This book is the oracle. I just love it.

 

There you go! Hope you enjoy some of these.

Happy Spring!

xo L

 

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In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Letter to W.B. Yeats

Dear Mr. Yeats,

I have been writing these letters for a little while now. I’m enjoying it. I am enjoying re-reading works that have meaning for me, but which I perhaps haven’t looked at in a long time. There is a certain sort of magic that has filtered into this process – words are springing up where I might not have noticed them before, both in my reading and my writing. I start some weeks not knowing who I will write to, but the subjects keep revealing themselves, as though they – you – have a plan of your own.

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It has been a while since we have had a good sit-down together, and I had such a rush of nostalgia, reading you.  I knew I loved you, but I didn’t realize how much I knew by heart, how deeply rooted your words are not just in my memory, but in my core. I’ve known many of your poems since childhood, when I poured over as many anthologies of Irish children’s literature as were given to me (many) and delighted in swirling under the roots of some old tree into Fairyland. There was a dark layer to your poems, a sadness that crept in, and this fascinated me.

You were a believer in magic. Your early poetry is romantic, twilit, rooted in the mythology of Ireland that I used to read about, and in a way I suppose you always wanted Ireland to be seen and remembered for its beauty, for its poetry. There are many stereotypes about Ireland which people happily embrace, at least in my experience in the Western world. But people who really know Ireland in a visceral way know that is is divided – North and South, Catholic and Protestant, mythical and political. So much of Irish writing is burdened with this division. You knew this, you felt it. You later work reflects on this dissonance more deeply and, I think, you were able to fuse these separate worlds.

Your ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of my most beloved poems. You described it thus: “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill…” It is the ultimate dream of stillness and solitude, and escape. It is a perfect poem. My parents have it framed in their house. It is, in many ways, their mission statement.

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All of my life I have sought out such solitude. I am the oldest of four kids, and I spent my childhood carving out spaces – in closets, under stairs, under beds. When I was ten I built a platform in a tree in the woods where I could go to read and write. I am still this way. After living alone for four years, the culture shock of a house with three boys often challenges me and I seek escape for an afternoon, or a night, or a week. It is healthy for all of us that I do this. I am lucky to have a partner who understands the value of solitude, and who is glad for me when I seek it.

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Loch Gill

I learned this from my parents. My mother is Irish, born in  Co. Armagh and my father’s father was born in Bray, Co. Wickalow, and settled in Toronto in the 1950’s. My parents met teaching in British Columbia; what was supposed to be a two year adventure for Mum, but, as they say, they ‘met their fate’ in each other, married and made four brats. They have been married almost thirty-five years, and for almost as long I have watched them seeking solitude. Dad is a poet and has always had a cabin in the woods (or a shed in the driveway) where he goes to write for an afternoon, a day, a week. Mum has made it home to Ireland most years since she left, often on her own. There was never any question that it was ok for both of them to do this. For as long as I can remember they have been creating space for each other so that each could grow, create, find stillness. They have also been planning to spend as much time in Ireland as possible, once the kids grew up. They have finally arrived. All four of us have left home, they are mostly retired, and as I write to you today they are touring Co. Sligo, your stomping grounds. Mum arranged a wonderful surprise for Dad: the rental of a cabin on Lough Gill, facing – yes – the Lake Isle of Innisfree. He was kind of giddy over it. He loves you even more than I do.

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They have travelled around, they visited your grave, they have felt the poetry sweeping through the landscape. There has been much Irish poetry since yours, and I think many would agree that the purest origins of it come from you. You can hear your influence in poets since you – T.S Eliot, who refers to you in ‘Little Gidding’, Seamus Heaney, who writes in his introduction to your Selected Poems, ‘Yeats manages to create a heroic role for the poet in the modern world.’ Speaking of magic, the moment I sat down in a coffee shop to write to you, ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ by my favourite Irish band, The Pogues, came on – fairly obscure for Starbucks – and even their lyrics rang of your rhythm and influence.

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Even the modern American band Fleet Foxes reference Innisfree  in ‘Bedouin Dress’ (although they pronounce it wrong!). You, my friend, have built a mythology all of your own. Innisfree itself is now a part of this mythology, and in many ways it is a symbol of returning. My parents, my mother especially, have been called to return to Ireland again and again, and they always will. They are forever called towards their own ‘heart’s core’.

I love my parents in many of the same ways that all children of good parents love, but as an adult, as an artist, I love their commitment to their individual journeys. I love watching them journey together. I am so proud of them – with four kids and jobs and their hearts sometimes in different countries, they have continued to grow together. That is all you can hope for, I think. That is as much as you can ask for in a partner.

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Thank you for your magic, and your Isle,

With love,

L

 

Living the Question: A Letter to Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh darlin,

This letter is more for me than you. I know you will understand. Your history of generously responding to the letters and questions of others is your legacy.

When you were young your parents sent you to military school. It didn’t work for you – you were too fragile, too sensitive. You were a poet. You were bullied. You left. It was a formative but hurtful experience and as you moved on towards a glorious, bohemian life full of sex and poetry and great minds, you did your best to forget it. You turned towards the more interesting existential trials of an artistic life.

When you were in your mid twenties, you received a letter from a young man named Franz Xaver Kappus, a student at the same military academy where you had studied, a poet himself, and full of questions. He wanted your opinion of his work, answers about writing, and thus began one of the most poignant series of letters in literature. Your ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ are beautiful meditations on what is means to write, to create, to be human.

 

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I am always amazed by the quality of though and the clarity of these letters. You do not sound as young as you were. You sound wise and very human. You sound generous, sincere, and in some ways I wonder if writing these letters to this young guy who was living a version of a path you had been on was somehow healing. Perhaps connecting in this way to this time and place that hurt you awakened that memory and softened it. Perhaps there was a greater purpose to you having endured it.

Because of the level of awareness and mindfulness that some of your letters bring, you are often quoted and have even had a renaissance among the new age mystics. Which is why I was only half surprised when, arriving at a brand new yoga studio in a heavy funk and with a muddled heart, the instructor began the class with a quote from your fourth letter to Kappus:

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I was carrying a big question. I will not name it in this letter – my focus here is the challenges of life’s questions, not the nuance of my particular question. I have carried this question for a while now and it will probably be a lifelong companion. It is a question I thought I knew the answer to for many years – it is a common question and I figured that my answer would be as easy to reach as it is for many people. I guess it wasn’t a question for a long time.

And then it was, and it was the biggest one I’ve had to ask myself. On one side of the question was the life I had always imagined, the life I had told everyone I wanted. No surprise then, that many challenged me when I began to hover on the line. They thought they were protecting me. They thought the answer was being forced. They didn’t see as clearly as I did that on the other side of the question was a life I could never have anticipated wanting. It would be rich and full and free and buoyed by love. I chose that other life. It is so good. It is right and true and it has opened me in ways I didn’t expect and it has given me opportunities to live out parts of myself that, if I chose the other life, I would have had to compromise.

My question is unpopular. There is not a lot said about it, and there are only two pieces of advice that have resonated enough to help me in any real way:

The first is from Dear Sugar, an advice column formerly in the Rumpus, written by the the incredible Cheryl Strayed. A man had written in with similar theme to mine, asking how to know which life to choose. In her advice she references the poem “The Blue House” by Tomas Tranströmer which holds the line ‘We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.’  Strayed expands this to the idea that the life we don’t choose is ‘the ghost ship that doesn’t carry us’, a line I love so much, but she says the only way to honour that life is to ‘salute it from shore’. The more I think about it, the more that image of standing on shore, watching another life passing by is unsettling to me. It is more comforting to imagine, instead, two ships: the one I am on, sailing along with the realities and revelations of this life,  and the one that sails beside it, and that is the life I didn’t choose, the choices I didn’t make. And both ships are sturdy and strong and glide alongside each other. Those unmade choices haven’t escaped me. They are merely thriving in another universe.

This idea only gets me so far. It works when I am enlightened and strong. It is not always thus.

The other advice, of course, is yours, this full passage from that fourth letter:

 

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Sometimes I live far out in the pastures of the life I chose. I grow things there. I thrive there, with joy and truth and passion.

Sometimes I live a little closer to the line. Sometimes the line blurs. Sometimes it is on fire. Sometimes my question throbs  deeply in me and I want to rip it out entirely. It is an extra organ I do not need. Why is it there? Did I put it there, really, or was it just included in the typical structure of what most people want? Did society force me to make this decision? My parents, bless them, didn’t. My partner didn’t. It is my own thing to live with. Sometimes, very far down the rabbit hole, I doubt myself. I was there that day on the yoga mat, and the instructor read your lines again and I found myself with tears streaming out of my shavasana and I was reminded by you, as I tend to be exactly when you want me to, that I do not need to fight my question. It does not need to be a struggle. It is a conversation, a dance. I need to love the question like it is my child, and live out the truth I have chosen, for as long as it feels true.

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If nothing else, the journey is my own.

Onward.

-L

 

Dear Sugar also had a podcast! It’s spectacular. Have a listen here or subscribe on itunes:

http://www.wbur.org/series/dear-sugar

Find “The Ghost Ship The Didn’t Carry Us” here:

DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #71: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us