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.

jane6

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.

jane4

 

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.

jane-2

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.

jane-5

 

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.

 

jane5

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.

jane-8

 

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.

 

Jane 3.jpg

 

I raise my teacup to you, my darling friend.

With love, and the greatest admiration,

L

 

 

Advertisements

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.’

rd-9

 

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.

rd3

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.

rd6

 

 

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.

rd4

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.

rd10

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

ES2

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

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.

Jungle Book 2

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.

Jungle book 1

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.

Rudyard_Kipling_(portrait)

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

 

 

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.

CarolShields3 (1)

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.

Carol Shields4 (1)

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!).

CarolShields2

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.

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.

yeats3

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.

yeats7

 

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.

13148280_1028889660518857_607567402_o
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.

13170556_1029001527174337_1800360358_o
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.

pogues

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.

13187795_1030218193719337_1592383451_n

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.

 

rilke 7

 

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:

rilke3

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.

rilke2
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