Rampant with Memory

Girl Power and the art of the pen

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Floundering words, words in flight, people too distracted to slow to read them. Syllables flap while we bow our heads and tiresomely glide through the weeks, months, until we also head south.

Huh? What’s that you say? Death is what.

So before that sad moment shifts your eyes permanently away, clutch a fistful of fleeting words.

Maybe you think I’m demanding you read my words? One more flapping, tongue-wagging writer begging an audience? But no, not so, at least not entirely so. I am also an avoider but I am weary of it.

And so a few minutes ago I grabbed a pad of lined paper, two fountain pens, and a bottle of Shaeffer midnight blue ink and sped-walked to the closest café.

“I am an essayist,” I said to myself. “I am a poet.”

I fled from home to write and when not writing to read an Arden edition of Henry IV. Falstaff, born of the imagination of an early 17th century writer who still breathes for us.

The other day I was at the gym working out beside Jian Ghomeshi.

I checked it out with Cheryl, who works at the desk.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s him. He bought a pass last week.”

So there we were, Jian and I, two Torontonians with distinct pasts and recent media presence. I have bylined on death in the Globe and Mail and he has lived violence in presses across the country. Now, apparently, we quietly pump together.

He is short, sheepish, awkward; tiny and breakable and very, very sweaty. But here’s the thing: I lifted more than he did

And I’m only a girl.

A friend said: “You should have patted him on the bum and said ‘how do you like me so far?’

This needs to an essay, said another friend.

And so these few words introduce what I hope will be steadier writing up ahead. But I promise it will be less about Ghomeshi–none about Ghomeshi in fact–and  more about girls and strength. About writing and inspiration.

While being alive.

“You must change your life,” wrote Rilke.

 

 

 

 

Snow lands on living statues

anonymous in snow
anonymous in snow

 

This child and these women are someone’s ancestors and dead as the driven snow. They pose somewhere in Toronto, I imagine, likely still inhabited by their descendants.

Descendants who pounded through the snows on the same city streets today as I write with a window onto this tiresome white assault. I am seated in an east-end cafe called Crema dreading stepping back into -20 blasting air but confident in my stunningly expensive Canada Goose parka.

Now back to the posers-of-old.

I found this photograph of anonymous Canadians while researching at the Ontario Archives a few weeks ago. It was plastered onto the walls along with dozens of other anonymous Canadians.

It got me thinking about my own anonymity generally but specifically today while disguised in tights, wool socks, Hudson’s Bay scarf, balaclava, mitts and a fur-trimmed ankle-length down coat. Tromping through the snow not pausing to pose for anyone’s camera.

I think perhaps the subjects are matriarch, daughters, and granddaugher. I imagine the picture was taken by the child’s father in High Park, a place I am familiar with, and have often wondered–in all seasons, really–about the lost generations who believed it to be their park, just as those of us who walk along Grenadier Pond or through the woods today believe it to be ours.

“You must be cold standing still like that,” (I pretend to say).

“No, we are from the Ural mountains,” ( I pretend the child answers).

I watch as her mother snugs the mitten back onto her hand.

Then I walk away returning to now.

 

 

A bit of life while pondering death

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All set to write a blog post, I arrived home and discovered that I had locked myself out of the house. No one with a key nearby. What to do? Well, obviously, head to the local French bakeshop for a strawberry scone with Devonshire cream. Then what?

Thinking about the blog post, I dusted crumbs off my lap, boarded the next streetcar and headed to Heather’s office to snatch up her key.

This story–the one I’m now writing, back at my desk –is a story about life while pondering death.

On the 504 streetcar: I was elbow to elbow, heartbeat to heartbeat against life. Toronto excels at life and it looks so remarkably different each time.

So my eyes cast hither and thither (great to use “hither and dither”), from the folks on the car to the folks on the street; bodies clutching parcels, children, bags, transfers, or hands; bodies perambulating (also a capital word) along Queen Street into shops, out of shops, chatting with neighbours or similar to me just watching, always watching.

And the death part that also preoccupied me?

It was a book that I’m reading and plan to discuss in a later posting. I thought I’d get to it today until said locked-out incident shifted my plans.

The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. 

“Birth is not inevitable. Life certainly isn’t. The sole inevitability of existence, the only sure consequence of being alive, is death.” J.M. Coetzee’s wrote.

Yes, true, oh yes but there I was stationed among all these lives. There I was with no key but a home to return to and a partner not too far away willing to rescue me from my foolhardy predicament and gently encourage me to “make a list of things you must not forget,” including my ring of keys.

While riding the streetcar I listened to a conversation between two men, around 30 years old, who just happened to sit beside each other in the back row of seats.

Man #1 (unsteady English): “I come from Italy but mostly I live, my family live, in Eritrea.”

Man #2 (steady English): “Yeah? Kind of like me. My mom is Jamaican and my dad is white and grew up here. Hey! We’re the same!”

I smiled. I love Toronto. And felt as though I was handed the key to the city.

A backdrop to death

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I don’t want to write about death anymore.

The little maple tree outside my window is covered in leaves and stands twenty feet high. Only a few years ago, when the city planted it for us, it was nigh five feet. I’ve watched it grow.

Every time I step out the front door I hear the chirping of baby sparrows as their parents load them up with grub caught in a fly-by to this tree and the suet-seed feeder I’ve hung for them.

My cat, Oedipus, meanwhile, snoozes on Heather’s grandmother’s cushion that we almost threw out but thought to give it another chance.

So, yeah, I want to heft the death focus.

But I won’t.

Because death, too, is life and allowing it room in my thoughts and words on this screen help me love what lies beyond: leaves and birds; cats, cushions and June afternoons.

While at the Remarkable Bean cafe this morning enjoying my 20-20 time (20 minutes for pleasure reading; 20 minutes for pleasure writing), I read a death scene in John Galsworthy’s novel The Forsyte Saga (published 1922).

Ann Forsyte, the eldest, unmarried, sister of eight siblings died in her sleep. She was 86. Her sisters and brothers stood around her bed and remembered the early death of their mother, and how mothering fell into Ann’s hands on that day.

A few pages later, at her burial, there is a tree. Galsworthy reaches its branches across the page, describing Ann’s love for it during her lifetime.

“She had seen it young, and growing, she had seen it strong and grown, and before her old eyes had time or strength to see any more, she died.”

Meanwhile, her birthplace, the city of London, continued living “with its overwhelming diversity of life, its innumerable vocations, pleasures, duties, its terrible hardness, its terrible call to individualism.”

My maple is a backdrop for Toronto. A backdrop to death.

Happy Pride, readers all.

 

 

 

The death of handwriting

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A recent report out of Finland said typewriting skills will soon replace cursive handwriting in the classroom. Concern was expressed about how this decision might damage a child’s brain development.

I remember learning to write. A specific memory comes to mind of a habited nun in my grade one classroom standing at the blackboard with a lonely piece of chalk in her hand.

She had just written a single word: content.

I remember thinking, that day, about learning to read and learning to write and wondering whether I’d ever really catch on. What bewildered me, and yes frightened me, was the mere idea that with so many words floating around out there, how was I possibly able to catch hold of them all and make any kind of sense?

Content, though, why do I remember learning that specific word on that specific day? And what about the double entente? Was I? Content? Or was there “content” that I needed to fill–and how? And where?

Flash forward fifty years to today.

Every morning, before leaving the house, I fill my red Lamy fountain pen with ink, grab my notebook, and slip out the door of my east Toronto house with Heather.

I walk with her to the bridge over the Don River then we kiss goodbye. She continues toward the city and I head back toward our home to begin my workday but first–

First, I head into a coffeeshop and write. With my hand. Holding my pen. Inside the pages of the notebook. I am invariably the only one in the place doing so. And I write quickly.

I tell stories in these books and have done so pretty well since I was six years old and that kindly nun taught me to clutch a fat pencil and stretch wobbly letters between dotted lines.

The linking up of thoughts, emotions, words, gestures–the staining of my fingers in ink–identify me just as much as does my name. I am Noreen. I write. Have always and will always create content.

Ah but here’s the rub: on the bookshelf beside my desk are stacked banker’s boxes filled with dozens of notebook, many thousand words mostly illegible (the nun, it seems, failed me!) and I’ve labelled each box with this note:

“Please pitch into the garbage when I die.”

(However, I won’t be around to thank you.)

The death of handwriting.

 

Their mates nearby

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Stan was my landlord and Milica was his wife and never have I seen two people more in love. Now he visits her grave twice a week, sometimes with flowers, sometimes with words, but always with further expressions of this love. Milica died last June; in her final conscious moments, it was only Stan whom she knew as he leaned across her asking please stay with me, please.

Stanco and Milica Matik came to Canada together from Yugoslavia fifty years ago. He worked on the line at Ford until his heart nearly gave out one day and she worked steady until retirement in another line–the cafeteria line at the Toronto Western Hospital. I lived at 75 Fern Avenue and they lived at the perfect 100 Fern Avenue in Toronto’s west end, near the many Polish delis and brightening mounds of fruit, vegetables; shops that overflowed and filled our bellies,that is, if we weren’t already stuffed up with gifts from their gardens, one at their own house and the other one at their rental house where my young son and I lived, and where Stan seeded, raked, and harvested each of the thirteen years we lived there.

I rented the bungalow in 1994 and I remember this man saying to me: “If you are a good tenant, I will never raise the rent. I will lower the rent, if you need me to, if you are a good tenant.” He never raised it. And he was always there, always nearby, if we needed anything at all done for the house. For Christmas he would give me a bottle of Chivas Regal and give my little boy a fifty-dollar bill just because.

Many times, Stan would be working in the back of our house when Milica would come by and retrieve him for lunch. Many times she’d first hand me a steamy and delicious plum crisp. They fattened us, these people, and now there is one.

I love Stan and I loved Milica.

She is dead and last week Stan told me about the way life continues regardless–a bit of beauty in the midst of this sadness. At the cemetery, he told me, he met a man who also visits the grave of his wife a few tombstones down from Milica. They got to chatting about this and that, their lives, their wives, their visits. Suddenly this man turned to my former landlord and good friend and said:

“Stan? Ar e you Stan?

“Danny?”

What do you know? These two men once lived on the same Toronto street and each weekday they climbed into one or the other man’s pick-up truck and drove out to the Ford plant as the sun rose; then returned at the end of their shift and said goodnight. Sometimes their wives met in the shops; or the four sat together on the front porch of a weekend.

Stan told me this story, big smile, saying, “We both changed so much neither of us recognized the other!” Danny, he said, big belly, was once so lean and strong. “And me? I’m old too Noreen.”

And now, he said, they arranged to meet each Saturday, at noon, by their wife’s markers. To say hello and then to grab a coffee at McDonald’s. They are joined, at their table, he said, by three others who are also visiting their mates nearby.

Death knell to Facebook

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This year in our home, New Years meant cranking down the hard drive and heading out for coffee with pen & paper in hand and thoughts of friends & family in mind. Yes, we cranked down—but not before printing out spanking new address labels bearing these few, simple words: “Anti Facebook Greeting.”

In our home, we opted to ring the death knell on Facebook in favour of Canada Post. Our New Year’s resolve was to take a bundle of postcards out to our local café each Sunday and for an hour or so, while sipping fine Fair Trade brew, write to our friends in real live, real wet ink.

We’ll post our greetings and prove they’re worth the extra mile and the opportunity for tactile touch at the other end. Refrigerator doors will sparkle with our words and selected images—the gift of our Anti Facebook Greetings dropped through the mail slot.

In our dining room sits an antique writing desk—the kind where the lid folds down to make a writing surface and where ladies of the last-to-last century retired, mid-morning, to catch up on correspondence a la George Eliot. Or perhaps, more recently, members of the Bloomsbury group might have settled at a similar spot, nodding to the quaint customs of the Victorians.

Once we returned from the coffee bar, my partner Heather set about expunging all the junk that had previously bulged from this lovely desk—the kind of stuff that gets tossed in because we don’t know where else to put it—and replaced it with writing paper, postcards, and greeting cards.

She sat the whole evening January 1st categorizing postcards and then dusted off greeting cards we had scattered around the house, things we’d once been charmed by, so purchased, but never quite got around to sending. We have a pulp postcard book called “Hellcat Amazons”;  Edward Gorey’s “The Letter Zoo Alphabet”; a great collection called “Lost Consonants” (‘her kids were driving her ‘round the bed’)—and the more staid and traditional Pre-Raphaelites and Van Gogh card collections. 

We now have postcards indexed into: cities/places; landscape; paintings; art objects; portraits; dolphins & whales (her fetish); and cartoons. On each paper we have stamped our AF Greeting. And snuggled in beside these mail-ables is a fat wad of spanking new postage stamps.

 

Timbits and dinosaur poop

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Writing the lede to a piece of journalism can feel like dangling from a rope over the abyss. I’m there now, puttering up to write another obituary, sitting in a Queen Street coffee shop while rain thunders down, trying to direct my eyes to the dreaded screen not to the umbrella-sheltered passers-by. I am thinking, thinking about that abyss.

Robert Kerrich, Earth scientist. My newest subject. Okay, here’s a story about the real abyss.

Dr. Kerrich kissed his wife goodbye in Saskatchewan and set off for a conference in Hawaii. While stashed in a room full of other scientists, cluttering his mind with paperwork and Powerpoint, he accepted a proposition and high-tailed it out of there.

From a Howard Johnson’s to the mouth of a volcano, literally.

He was lifted by  helicopter into a volcano to capture gases, an offer he simply could not refuse.

Here’s his wife, Bev:

“He said, well I had to get into this asbestos suit with a bunch of jars strapped to my waist by a kind of tool belt, and he was lowered into the volcano. This is valuable research.”

“Weren’t you afraid there would be one of those lava bombs?”

“Yes, of course,” he said, adding that it was sweating hot in that suit and his first terror was dropping the samples.

Robert Kerrich.

I like the title “Earth scientist” and I like that Earth is capitalized. It adds lustre to a much-maligned and degraded planet.

Dr. Kerrich dropped into volcanoes.  He also chatted with little kids about that solid thing they stomp on in the playground–again, I refer to Earth.

For one class of first graders he popped into Tim Horton’s on the way to the school and picked up a box of timbits, as a prop, gathering the kids in a circle for their lesson.

He also handed out fossilized dinosaur poop, borrowed from the Natural History Museum of Regina, transporting his crayon-hefting pupils more easily back to Precambrian days and teaching them the distinction between meat-eaters and veggie-eaters.

And now, here I go, finally launching into telling Dr. Kerrich’s life history.  I’m set to make the dive.

Read on anon in the (nearly extinct) newspaper.

Raymond Souster: Toronto poet and sometime-beatnik

I can tell from the sunlight on the window sill that this day means business. 

Raymond Souster was sometimes called the Bard of Toronto. Or street-poet-in-residence. One fellow poet called him “Canada’s Homer,” because at the end of his life, although totally blind, he continued to write and publish his poetry .

Last week I wrote Souster’s obituary.

Today I’ll fill in a few blanks: historical bits too lengthy and supplementary to include in the Globe and Mail piece.

Souster wasn’t quite a beatnik but he hung out with them at the old Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse on St. Nicholas Street, back in the dawn of the 60s when Toronto-the-good tried a little bit bad.

“I feel that it was baptism by fire because it was dark and you read on the stage,” said Margaret Atwood about the venue. “The washrooms opened right onto the room and every time someone used it a flood of light would fill the room.

“They also had what I think was the first espresso machine in Toronto which always seemed to be in use during the most dramatic points in the reading.”

It was on the second floor of a disused warehouse. Up a treacherous flight of wooden stairs into a dimly lit, smoke-filled room with black walls and small tables with checkered cloths and dripping candles.

Atwood shared a stage with Souster there. Later, she convinced him, who along with Irving Layton and Louis Dudek started up Contact Press, to release her first volume of poetry. The Circle Game not only released her onto a wider stage but also won her a Governor General’s award in 1966.

Atwood I can imagine at the Bohemian coffeehouse, her hair askew and her voice Atwoodian. Souster–not quite.

Raymond Souster was a conservative fellow who even so danced to the beat of the street. His true love was his wife Rosalia to whom he dedicated each of his 50 books of poetry. But Lia was agoraphobic and he preferred evenings at home with her to mucking about with the passionate crowd on St. Nicholas.

Some more history: The Bohemiam Embassy also featured Gwendolyn MacEwen, Milton Acorn, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Michael Ondaatje. To name but a few.

Bob Dylan came to a reading when he was 17.

Peter, Paul and Mary hung out there and maybe played with candle wax.

A young Bill Cosby did stand-up, taking a break from his regular gig a few blocks away at the Fifth Peg on Church Street.

Raymond Souster, a fine man and poet, part of our proud cultural history, died in Toronto on October 19th. He was 91.

The painting of him above was by Barker Fairley

Listen!

This bit for a Friday…

How they talk

We like it, they say

with our husbands away

women come, women go

stroller wheels kick dirt

toddlers tangle with mothers’ breath

all this sparkling boredom

I have cancer, she says

so crave my rituals

fingers wrench inside a hot New Yorker

her other hand coolly rims latté

Words gust and shift

these two tell tales

their men absent

they glide round each other’s orbit

imagine

all kinds of touch.

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