The Depths of Despair go Two Feet Deep: A Letter to Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

Dear Maud,
When I was thirteen, a miracle happened.

My parents gave me permission to go to Prince Edward Island for a whole month with my very most bosom friend Abby. This was a very big deal, because when I was thirteen P.E.I. was the Holy Land. It was the land of Anne.

Abby and I sort of knew each other from school, but bonded over a small misunderstanding when she absolutely stole the table I had been frequenting at the public library for about seven years. After enough silent treatment for her to get the message, we bonded over our love of musical theatre, our disdain for grade seven boys, and, of course, all things Anne of Green Gables. We were very fast friends. What a gift, what a joy, then, that our parents were going to let us stay with family friends in their house by the sea. We would frolic in meadows of wildflowers! We would have deep poetic realizations while tumbling gracefully across sand dunes! We would visit Green Gables.

Then tragedy struck.

Only a few months before we were to fly out, this headline shattered every dream I’d ever had:

Fire Damages ‘Green Gables’ Farmhouse – Tourist Attraction May Be Closed for the Season

Obviously, our trip was ruined. We couldn’t go. We could barely deign to live.

I did what any normal person would do, Maud. I gathered every book you’d ever written, because, of course, I owned them all. I packed up my Anne paper dollhouse, my Anne mug, my VHSs of the TV film series. All of it. I wrapped them in garbage bags, sealed them with packing tape, put them in a box, and I dug a grave.

After directing me to the shovel, my mother stood in the window and took pictures of me. She figured that it was more important to document this insanity than to protect the front yard. She was right. She is often right.

So, somewhere in a blurry photo, there I am: brown braids and overalls, ball cap, tears blending with dirt and rain (of course I chose to do this in the rain. It was a funeral after all.) I looked ridiculous, but I tend to commit most when I know I am being ridiculous, so I did indeed dig a two foot hole, and buried Anne, and you, along with my very heart.
A few weeks later, another miracle:

Green Gables House To Reopen For Summer Season

HURRAH!

I got my shovel, ran out and dug up my destiny. It was all intact, despite the rain. Even my melodrama is thorough.

Abby and I had a beautiful trip, wildflowers and sand dunes and all. We visited the house, which was your cousin’s home, merely the rough inspiration for Green Gables, and we soaked in the idea that you had been here. The idea that a place in a book actually existed. It was so romantic. You were so romantic.

Maud 3
It was my mum who first told me about Anne. I was almost four when my brother was born, and as you can glean from the above, I did not respond well to change. I acted out. One night, my sweet, tired mother wrote me a love letter. It is one of my most treasured possessions (since she really only ever wrote me the ONE, Mum!). There is this line:

‘..if you ever feel you don’t know yourself, read Anne of Green Gables. She is very much like you – dramatic, imaginative, talkative and utterly charming!’

When the incredible mini series by Kevin Sullivan came out, and I was absolutely enchanted, most of all by the idea that I was anything like this dramatic, passionate girl. When I was older, I read the book annually. So much of who I have become is because I felt that I had permission to let my imagination, my wildness, drive me. So much of how closely I hold place, and words, and magic is because of how your writing shaped it in me. We are romantics, you and I. I have returned to you and Anne many times, and you are always anchors to draw me down into myself.

 

Maud 2

 

 

We grow up. It becomes harder to hold onto magic, and dusky twilights. Life creeps in, responsibilities, grief. When I was a child I assumed a writer was only a conduit, as though Anne was always alive and blasting through the universe and you just happened to be the one who harnessed her (and, in many ways, this is probably true). But the more I have gotten to know you, lately, the more I learn that you were not happy. You were not well. Writing Anne gave you such joy, and the sad truth is that would be the purest experience you would have of writing, as your publisher swindled you while still demanding more. You had an unhappy childhood. You were as good as orphaned. You healed in your work, and the more I know, the more I see how it was your escape. You married a man with poor mental health, which caused you much distress over the years. Your life became very dark. In her wonderful biography of you, Jane Urquhart writes:

“…it was shadow, not radiance, that often claimed her once the sun had set. Her seeming addiction to sunsets and twilights in her writing, if it sprang from anything at all beyond poetic convention, may have come from a desire to hold on to the fading light.”

Dear Maud, I am so sorry things were so hard for you. It would have made writing bittersweet, I imagine. Even your journals, which you worked on with such dedication (editing, re-writing them, knowing they would be published) tapered off towards the end of your life, adding to the ambiguity of your death.

I understand what it is like to write to stave off the darkness. And yet – whether you did it or not, your final scribblings were so desperately sad, so spent, so broken. Whether it was your own hand or your own heart that ended you, you must have used up all of your enchantment.

And years later, when little girls grow up and learn that you were human after all, flawed and complicated , what do you owe us? Nothing. Nothing at all. And what do we owe you? A writer’s work never really belongs to them, once it is released into the world. I hope that you didn’t feel that you had surrendered all of your light.  Because oh, what life it brought us.

Maud 4

 

Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) was a Canadian author who wrote the wonderful Anne of Green Gables series, as well as Emily of New Moon and many others. Her work largely features the rich landscape of Prince Edward Island, where she grew up. Anne of Green Gables is one of the most famous children’s books of all time.

 

 

Recommended Reading:

Anne of Green Gables

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/anne-of-green-gables/9780147514004-item.html?ikwid=lm+montgomery&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=2

L.M Montgomery by Jane Urquhart

Extraordinary Canadians Series: Penguin

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/extraordinary-canadians-lucy-maud-montgomery/9780670066759-item.html?ikwid=lm+montgomery+jane&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=0

L.M Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Rubio

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/lucy-maud-montgomery-the-gift/9780385667609-item.html?ikwid=lm+montgomery&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=87

 

 

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Why I threw out my T.V:

Six years ago I moved into my very first Grown-Up-Lady-living-on-her-own apartment. It was a bright, one bedroom basement nest in a little brick house in Toronto’s East End. It was all mine. I could decorate it however I wanted, without the compromise that siblings/roommates/boyfriends required. I brought my books. I had a little bookcase in the living room, another in the front hall, one in my bedroom, and, eventually, one in the kitchen. Then another in the living room. Then a few strategically places piles. It became clear to me that I didn’t need a few little bookcases. I was a Grown-Up-Lady. I needed a grown up bookcase. I designed the bookcase of my dreams, full of nooks and cubbies, and had my mum’s carpenter friend build it for me. I picked the best wall in my tiny home, which, unfortunately, was the wall occupied by a clunky old TV that I only used to watch Jane Austen novels on VHS. So I did the obvious thing: I dragged that monster to the curb. It was easy. A few weeks later, this gorgeous thang arrived:

new tv
See? Pretty.

I took to sitting in front of it with my tea and just looking at it. It was enormously pleasing.

(Three years later I met an exceptionally lovely man. On our third date I told him this story and he got up from the restaurant table and kissed me for the first time. Turns out he found the book thing charming. Two years after that, he and his sweet sons hauled boxes and boxes of books into their home, where my books and I now live. My bookcase is next to his TV. Charming.)

So, the point is, books are a big deal. I was a kid who built a fort in the woods near my house just so that I would have a peaceful place to read. I read books at recess, on the school bus, and any other time I was expected to interact with my peers unsupervised. I met my first real best friend at the library. My love of books has, at times, become extreme (see my Letter to L.M. Montgomery) expensive (see my Visa bill) and invasive (see my home). Books are what have driven me to write. Books are how I make sense of the world, and myself in the world.

cropped-annie-dillard.jpeg

 

As I read, I often find myself in discussion with the writer, especially when a work is very dear to me. I am fascinated by other artists and how they lived and worked, and there are so many who I wish I could have had conversations with. I have gotten to know many of these writers not only through their books, but through reading their published letters. It is an art form that seems lost. A letter can be so personal, so revealing. I have decided to write to the makers of art who have most revealed myself to me.

First of all, I will only write to writers who have left this world. This is because I am too afraid to write fan mail to living humans. One time I posted on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page and she REPLIED. Even though she was incredibly kind, the mere idea that we had connected gave me lots of weird anxiety. The blog title comes from the Tennyson poem ‘Crossing the Bar’, the Bar being Death, the idea of the great beyond. It is also a reference to the many times I’ve thought that I would so love to have had a pint with Al Purdy, a pot of tea with the Brontes, a gimlet with Noel Coward. So, here I will drink and chat with my old pals, and see what they have to tell me from Across the Bar.

I hope you enjoy it here!

-Lara