Marnie Woodrow

Essay: Hi, Helen

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2014

We both hated eggplant. Both loved Leonard Cohen. We were both born under the astrological sign of Aries. All this I learned in the basement laundry room of the apartment building where we both lived—imagine—on the fourth floor. She was camped out at the little café-style table: cookies, cigarettes, crossword puzzles, cane. She found it easier to just stay down there, do her laundry in one go and haul it back upstairs. I didn’t offer to help. Something about her demeanor said I am just fine thank you very much. I said I hoped we’d bump into each other again.

Outside the apartment building, on a balmy spring day two weeks later, she emerges from a taxi. Hi, Helen, I say brightly, how’ve you been? She tells me she’s been better: her husband died this morning. A woman alone in the world stands facing me on the sidewalk. I know nothing about her except that she detests eggplant as much as I do. I want to say more but there is really not much you can say to a woman alone in the world. I’m in 412 if you need anything at all, I tell her. I hear her cane tapping in the hallway, coming and going with the business of her husband’s death. Finally I write my telephone number on a Post-It note and put it on her door. I sense she is too tough a cookie to call.

The real change in our relationship came because of laundry. I offered to carry hers up one day. Her leg was bothering her. I suggested that I could save her a lot of trouble by just doing her laundry and dropping it off. I was already doing mine, after all. We then decided to go grocery shopping together, share a cab. There came a Wednesday when she wasn’t feeling up to the trek: I offered to do her shopping. All of this was infuriating for her in a quiet way. For me, skipping along the pavestones of my life on two sturdy legs, no health problems, it was no trouble at all. I felt foolish counting out exactly 22 green beans at the grocery store, but it was her way of testing to see if I would comply with her rituals. 1, 2, 3, 4…

I began calling her every morning for a little chat before I commenced work on my novel. If it was my gym day, I called her just before 9. So it was on a sunny September morning. My work out had been particularly strong and I felt wonderful as I sat down with my coffee and dialed her number. “Hi, Helen!” I said cheerfully. “TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION!” she screamed. When I tried to ask what was wrong she shouted again for me to turn on my TV and get off the phone. The second Twin Tower of the World Trade Center fell as I wept into my hands. We spent the rest of the day glued to CNN, making coffee, trying to determine, along with the rest of the world, what the hell had just happened.

Helen decided to quit smoking at the age of 74. Two major heart surgeries and severe circulatory issues were not the inspiration but rather, that she’d been ripped off by a con artist at the mall and she was disgusted with herself for having been duped. He’d offered her a carton for ten bucks cheaper than the going rate and she agreed to wait for him to return with the cigarettes. Her money disappeared with her trust in herself. I continued to smoke, amazed by her willpower. Smoking is for idiots, she reminded me, showing me the deep scar on her leg. I know, I said, I simply can’t write without smoking and I have a deadline. Hmph, she said, although she was very excited about knowing a published author. Right there in the dumpy little building where she had lived for more than thirty years.

By the time I was shopping and doing her laundry and cleaning her apartment, we were bosom buddies. Helen’s leg bothered her a lot; going out had become a painful chore. We now had Christmas dinners together as a custom, after which she contentedly slept through the original version of A Christmas Carol. We celebrated our birthdays together over Swiss Chalet or Chinese take-out, insisting we shouldn’t have bothered when it came to presents and quietly delighted that we had.

On the advice of her doctor, a nurse came to her apartment to provide foot care. The pain was severe and she had fallen using a walker, scaring her cat who then bit her. It was a rough time, during which she alternated between refusing to call for help and demanding it.

At around this time, the assumption that I was her daughter arose at appointments. I was about to correct one such query when Helen interrupted. “Honorary daughter,” she said firmly. Helen had had no children. I was it. Who knew how much a few laughs in a laundry room could change two lives?

When the necrotic gangrene was discovered we were in the Emergency ward of Toronto East General Hospital. In a whirl of examinations and grim looks from nurses Helen’s life as she knew it collapsed. She would lose her leg, the hospital diabetes specialist informed us. Arrangements for a move to a care facility would need to be made immediately.

As they wheeled her toward anesthesiology, I promised her vanilla ice cream—ONE scoop. Her fondness for chocolate and candies and ice cream and cakes would become a legendary battleground between us once she was in residential care, where hoarded sugar packets and chocolate bars posed further diabetic risks. But while they performed the removal of her leg from just above the knee, I sat in the waiting room and cried, and vowed to use my healthy legs for walks and runs, to cherish them always. I had quit smoking a few months before, cheered on by Helen, who wanted me to learn a thing or two from her mistakes. Don’t be such a tit, she told me when I started drinking again after an 18-month stint of sobriety. The gospel according to a former drunk, she added.

Now her advocate, I toured what we used to call nursing homes to see which one would be “home” for the most independent woman I knew. These places were dark, or smelly, and I knew collective dining room meals would be anathema to someone who liked eating her three squares in front of the blaring TV in her apartment. But one had to be selected and pursued, for her life depended on it. The one care facility she most wanted to consider had been the very women’s residence where she lived from age 16 until her first marriage, a house on Sherbourne Street where she had skipped out on curfews several times a week, rising fresh as a flower for work at the travel agency at Simpson’s department store each morning. She was mighty pissed off when I gently informed her that Fudger House was full, so we opted for her second choice, True Davidson. A woman she used to know had lived there and they had a resident cat on every floor, she remembered. Although no cats still resided therein, Helen was happy-ish and very well-liked at True Davidson. They were quick to spot her minor stroke in time. Tolerant of her impatient streak and amazed by her fondness for computer games. But rushed hospital visits became more frequent. I was the person to call, and though I had moved away by then, we would celebrate her 79th birthday over Swiss Chalet in the residents’ dining room, at a table set for just us two. That was the plan.

The words you should come right away never mean anything good. I drove the three snowy hours to East General hospital in silence. It was the day before Helen’s birthday; her True Davidson nurse, who knew we’d planned to have dinner, had told me I would be saying goodbye. I bought a thriller in the hospital gift shop—Helen loved trashy novels—and sat down at her bedside. “Hi, Helen,” I said, stroking her silky hand. “There’s no eggplant where you’re going,” I assured her. I began to read the thriller aloud and she immediately moved into Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a signal that death is approaching. “Oh come on, you, the writing’s not that bad,” I joked, and then her heart rate dropped, then dropped methodically to zero on the monitor. I watched in awe as she slipped away from the world. “You can sit with your mother for as long as you like,” the Emerg nurse told me through the
gently parted curtain. “Thank you,” I said.

I kissed Helen’s forehead. “Only geniuses die on their birthday,” I whispered. “Close enough, lady.”

 

RETREAT!

I am delighted to be returning to the idyllic shores of the Spanish River (near Sudbury) where I will soon lead a Fiction Writing Intensive from July 24-27, 2014. It is an ideal workshop-retreat situation, in that writers participating will have time to work, time to discuss writing life and story mechanics, as well as enjoying the incomparable natural setting. I myself have written in a BAM cabin by the river and the Muse is definitely present. The cabin I had featured a photo of Wyle and Loring, two female sculptors I had read about, so I was doubly inspired.

Leading workshops and retreats is something I absolutely love to do. It’s where I am honoured to witness the creative bonding that happens when people can focus, at last, on what their soul yearns to do, which is write and share that writing. Instead of the formality of a classroom, we’ll have the screened in dining room and the magical barn to work in, as well as the aforementioned cabins.

The retreat begins on the evening of Thursday, July 24 with a delicious dinner we won’t have to cook ourselves. After settling in and breaking bread together, we’ll dive right into writing after dinner and participants will also have the chance to experience the invigorating but somehow tranquilizing swim-and-sauna before bedtime. And if some of the writers sit up writing into the wee hours in their cabin, so much the better–provided they can rise for a hearty breakfast, also prepared by someone else—because we have a full day ahead of discussion, writing time and of course, time for outdoor pleasures like canoeing, swimming and kayaking. The property is also very conducive to thoughtful walks of the sort that stir the creative juices.

Writers will meet with me one on one to discuss the writing they sent me ahead of the workshop. It could be a short story, an excerpt from a novel or script, or something that defies categorization but is nevertheless fictional in nature. (Prose poetry anyone?) Saturday is another great day that affords time for writing, sharing ideas with fellow writers and more conversation over tasty meals. On Saturday night, we gather for a salon and writers will share and discuss their work with like minds. Overhead, a fantastic  spray of stars such as you never see in a city, and out on the water, the calls of birds heading for bed as we laugh and talk into the night. Sunday morning, writers can opt for a last swim or paddle before brunch, after which they will drive away knowing they treated themselves to the best gift a writer can ask for: time to write and the chance to discuss what gets in the way of that in the “regular” world.

If you are interested in registering for this retreat and workshop (there are only 2 spots left) please contact Beth Mairs at BETH@bamnorth.ca

The Facebook event page is also a resource for information.

The Most Trusted Reader

Writing fiction or non-fiction, we need a Most Trusted Reader. This is not someone who tells you that every line you scribble is genius, nor is it someone who guts you with enough criticism to lay you out on a gurney. For me a Most Trusted Reader must have the ability to deliver the hard news about a manuscript with a certain calm confidence in his or her abilities as a reader. Someone who reads books, in other words, and who knows some core facts about storytelling and the expectations of readers—while also paying some attention to what the writer is trying to do. Not easy to find, and certainly rare to find in a partner or best friend or family member. It can happen, but it’s more likely that those people are either going to be too easy on us (blinded by love?) or too far in the other extreme, as if trying to prove he or she is NOT “blinded by love.”

A literary writer does well to hand his novel to a dedicated reader who also appreciates a good thriller, a good old-school twist-and-turn yarn that demands pacing. Because it isn’t as if that writer will become less “literary” (whatever that really means) overnight as a result of receiving story notes of what you might call a more commercial variety. Underneath the “move it a little faster” and “I need some insight into character XYZ’S motives” is excellent advice that focuses on story expectations as old as dirt.

The Most Trusted Reader knows how to give compliments, sharing what works as often as he shares what isn’t working. Compliments need to be as precise as critiques, even if “I had trouble putting it down” is among them. Compliments are oxygen for the fire. That said, criticisms are NOT water on the fire. They are likely hard facts to face, or ideas worth considering, but they cannot be enough to douse you or you will not finish your book.

The Most Trusted Reader is found treasure on a beach. Whether you hire (pay) that person to provide you with copious professional notes or have the good fortune of a truly rigorous reader in your social circle, hang onto him or her. Few books are written in a vacuum, without input and support from other people. Writing groups work well for some people, but not for every writer. Writing classes are helpful to a point but nothing gets a book done like typing it up. Make sure your Most Trusted Reader is a careful, attentive reader of books you also respect and admire, because chances are some tiny (or huge) part of you is trying to emulate greatness in other writers. The chosen reader of your new work should be respectful and yet unafraid to call you on your crutches and cop-outs, the times when you lose track of your own characters and plot and yes, can also scold you when you insist there is no “need” for plot in a book like yours. (Every book, even a non-fiction book, has a “plot.”) You should be able to have a mature and balanced conversation with your Most Trusted Reader, even if it gets tense in some moments when it becomes obvious one of your darlings must be “killed.” This mature and balanced conversation also requires you to be The Open-Minded Writer. Because after all, why seek feedback if you are simply going to argue point-for-point with the Most Trusted Reader. Unless, of course, THAT’S your process.

Honour your process but don’t be precious. Hand work over when you have given it your all and when you feel ready to hear some truths about it. There’s nothing wrong with doing a draft or three on your own, getting to know characters and possibilities of plot and heading back for a LITTLE more research. Or hand over the first draft if you really feel like some feedback in the earlier stages, especially helpful for non-fiction projects.

As I told one writer who hired me (more than once) to be her Most Trusted Reader: you are the ultimate authority on your book. There is no right/wrong editorial feedback, only feedback that makes your gut say YES! Or NO! My biggest questions for my Most Trusted Reader are about the expectations I have created in the reader. Have I delivered? No, she will tell me. How have I not delivered? And then we have a conversation, sometimes long and sometimes brief about what she as a reader was expecting from what I had placed on the page. Not what I meant to do, but what was there for HER to work with as reader. Yes, she is one person, one reader with tastes and biases and life experiences of her own that may influence her comments, but the core reason her feedback works for me is I TRUST her. How did I know I could trust her? I didn’t. I simply watched her read other books, view films, and how she discussed them, and I took a leap. Writing involves a lot of leaping. Leaping onto the page, and then to a Most Trusted Reader and then, with luck, into the metaphorical arms of a trusted editor, another form of Most Trusted Reader who leads you to your other readers. Trust them too: they really are waiting for what you have to say.

 

Life Without Cats

The dog sleeps in. The dog can be counted on to rise with me when I wake at 5:30 or 6 and to pass out soon after on the sofa, as he is weary from a night of snoring and dreaming about who knows what. He is then inclined to ascend the stairs and return to the big bed, which is warm with the body of his other human, where he stays until she rises a little later.

Cats do not sleep in. If such a cat exists, I have not met her. If it is your habit to rise at 6 they will wake at 5. Possibly 4. Because it is the job of a cat to have the jump on everything, to make sure you do not overindulge in sleep. Sleeping is for cats, once they have ensured that you have had your minimal amount required for survival.

The dog will peep lovingly at you from across the room on his chair. Sometimes he will gaze openly, communicating a wish. Cats stare with a vague contempt as if your inability to read their minds is one more proof of feline superiority. Sometimes they narrow their eyes to indicate a passing wave of approval, letting you know they love you with a protracted blink. Then you are likely to be dismissed. A dog never dismisses a human. It would make no emotional sense to him to do so. Unless maybe, just maybe, he needed to show you (briefly) that you had been away for too many days. But even then, his inclination is to rush forward to welcome you back. To congratulate you with kisses on a lousy day transcended. To say, “I am so glad we are alive!”

I miss cats. I lived my whole adult life with two cats who charmed and annoyed me, woke me at all hours but whose love was intricate and secretly unconditional. But life is such that I have not welcomed another feline into my kingdom since losing my beloved Tennessee and Cleo, both of whom lived to ripe ages.  Not for lack of love of cats, but for respect for the special (crazy) commitment that is loving a cat. My cats were extremely different from one another, and if anything, Tennessee was one of those dog-cats, a dog inside the body of a cat. He slept in and came when called, to the horror of his elder feline boss, Cleo. He loved belly rubs and would have barked for joy if he could have figured out how. He basically trained me to be able to live with a dog after a lifetime of cats. I have no idea if this is the special province of male cats, to be more genteel and loving, but I have found myself developing a favouritism toward male pets.

I had always always assumed that I would have a dog and that it would be a female. But the three dogs in my adult life that I have lived with? All boys. Each one as gentle as a lamb and keen to please. Inclined to take off when unleashed, yes, but human error in training is the likely culprit there. (I am used to cats, who wander off at random and will not be coaxed back unless you are casually holding out an armload of fresh salmon.)

We have the most beautiful friend in Hank, but have discussed at various points the absence of a cat in our lives. We are both dog-cat people who miss the elusive energy of a cat. I have always longed for a tuxedo cat, having known two that were delightful companions to their owners, but then I have also always wanted a pug and allergies prevent such a dream from coming true. In truth I am allergic to cats and lived with them anyway, loving them as I have since childhood. It is hard not to fantasize about what a great friend a kitten would have in Hank, how much fun they would have when we are out. Another dog is just not an option in our current living space, although we talk about that too. We seem fated to long for a second pet and will undoubtedly give in to a rescue situation at some point in the future. But sadly, I doubt it will be a cat that comes to live with us.

There is a house down the road from us that I passed on one of my exploratory walks here in our new city. A cat on the front porch. A cat on the front steps. A cat on the driveway and ah, another and another cat, all reclined in various poses and all residents of the same house, I assume. Although it reminded me of a dear friend who hosted anywhere from 20-30 cats at a time on his farm property, this is a city. The house is not that big that six cats would not be a huge presence.  I imagined that the front lawn decorated with so many cats likely meant a house that contained an equal or greater number indoors. And here we are talking ourselves daily out of getting one. But that’s the problem with cat love. It’s irrational.  And addictive. Dog love is something else.

Theatre On A Theme

News:

My new short play At A Meeting of The Society For Individuals Who Believe Themselves To Be The Reincarnates Of Famous People was produced as part of Everybody To The Theatre Company’s new Theatre On A Theme show entitled “LOVE.” It was my second produced piece with this amazing young company out of Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto and I loved what they did with it. The title alone could have scared them off, but these are some intrepid theatre folk.

I recently “graduated” from 12 weeks at the Playwrights’ Junction with Playwright-in-Residence Matthew Heiti at Sudbury Theatre Centre and have been (ironically enough) working like a madwoman ever since on a new play about (among other things) apathy. I’ve hooked up with the amazing Lisa O’Connell and her talented gang at Pat The Dog Theatre Creation and had my first professional read-through of my other full-length script at the end of February. I was lucky enough to have a KILLER cast of stage and screen veterans.

As part of my theatre education, I’m reading a play a day for the next 30 days. I figure at that rate I should be able to address some of the holes in my self-education by oh, say 2020. I’ve got a stack of amazing work from a wide range of English language playwrights and although I’m only on day 4 I am having a blast. It’s in keeping with that amazing Samuel Johnson quote: “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” Good to keep in mind.

 

 

Ghosts

It had been my plan to give up meat for one year starting in January. To more fully embrace a dietary path I have been partially committed to for a year now anyway. Cooking vegan has been a joyful adventure and my imagination continues to brew feasts. In January, I said, I will remove meat from my diet for one year. Our favorite restaurants are vegan anyway, so no problem, in January.

But then we went to see, as part of Sudbury Indie Cinema Best of Hot Docs, Liz Marshall’s powerful documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine. It follows the life’s work of vegan photographer Jo-Anne McArthur as she documents cruelty to animals. I have seen Vegucated, and Food Inc, and Fast Food Nation, but The Ghosts In Our Machine managed to bring home what I am doing/participating in by eating meat. I am participating in the cruelty machine. My little ice cream habit, for example, is helping to keep dairy cattle trapped in tight quarters, slaughtered as soon as their contributions to industry are spent. Ice cream isn’t meat, you might think to yourself. It’s fun and festive food until you think about how milk and cream are harvested. I will continue to crave ice cream but I can no longer eat it. Solution? Buy an ice cream maker and enjoy almond milk ice cream knowing I am not adding to the cruelty of the world. There are solutions everywhere for the “problem” of how to live without meat, which isn’t a problem at all. When we wonder how wars keep raging, we can also look down at our plates and the violence that contributes to our dinner. Little innocuous rectangles of meat in the grocery store do not tell the truth. I would not kill an animal with my bare hands, so I have no business eating one. This struggle has been going on in me for years, but more potently since I embraced vegan cookery and its thrilling versatility and flavour.

“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not find himself at peace.” –Albert Schweitzer.

I have no plans to preach. This will be a mostly silent journey aside from great conversations with my partner and anyone who is interested in the experience. I feel no need to blog each step of the way because my life has been predominantly meat free. My emotional connections to certain food items are deep and it will be a long process, saying goodbye to meat that I have “enjoyed” all my life. Real “foodies” eat meat and other myths. Bacon is for me now the screams of pigs en route to slaughter in a crowded truck. It always was, but I kept eating bacon, abstracting. The comfort food of roast chicken, the sausage penne to please the boys in my life, just can’t be done anymore. I will be reading Eating Animals and Vegan on Main Street and educating myself slowly and quietly. Nothing bad will happen to my health; it is a myth that being vegan is hard work, dangerous or ineffective in terms of changing the fate of factory farm animals. I never feared for my health when I think of a life without meat; I fear for my morality and mental health if I keep eating it, knowing what I know now. Courting conflict inside myself is of no interest: it is why I stopped drinking alcohol, too, because the inner conflicts were too numerous and frankly, too much work. I like things simple.

The film shows, through making connections between the fur industry, animal laboratory research, dairy farms, pets, and pigs, cows and chickens that we do not need to eat animals to survive in 21st Century western society. We haven’t needed to eat meat in forever, but because it signifies prosperity, wealth, and vitality in so much messaging in our society, we keep buying the bland little rectangles in the grocery store and abstracting for sanity’s sake.

I’m really looking forward to this journey, which is not about doing without, becoming inconvenient, or limiting choices, but rather, exploring the good feeling of a life less invested in cruelty, unconscious or conscious. Mindfulness is my goal for all areas of my life. That is never too much work.

 

Play Thing

In Ian MacEwan’s novel, Atonement, we meet Briony Tallis, the playwright, director and general chief of operations of a play. She is very much in charge, and very frustrated by the limited ambitions of her “cast” members, recruited visitors to the estate on which she lives. Fellow playmates, literally. When I first read the novel I was reminded of childhood skits, as we called them, the carefully-planned and passionately executed pageants in basements and bedrooms. We sometimes went so far as to tape record them, using sound effects records borrowed from the public library. It all got very elaborate and we loved every moment of it. Then I discovered plays at school, much more organized and lorded over by a teacher/director and likely a senior student or two. We continued to do skits at home but the demands of the amateur theatre were great: between painting sets and hauling them to the theatre and sewing costumes and memorizing songs, lines and dance routines there was little time for playwriting.

I began writing plays when I was about 18 or so and recently found a packet of them in a box of keepsakes. (That’s the paper-hoarder’s euphemism for things she ought to have thrown out instead of dragging them around for 20 plus years.) They are painstakingly typed on my second typewriter, well before computers took hold of writing life. One features a group of lesbians dealing with the fact of their friend’s death, another is set in a haunted diner. Very ambitious stuff for a young thing, but then that’s the fun of being young. The whole point of it, in fact: audacity and naivete. I sent the one play off to Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre and was encouraged by the nicest rejection letter ever. I wrote a terrible mess of a play called Flesh Canvas about a very depressed young woman who takes far too many baths and self-harms and oh, it was the most depressing stuff ever, but my friends were too kind to let me down and they read it aloud at school. I was not present for that and am grateful to this day: I missed the repressed snickers and raised eyebrows it rightfully would have provoked. But the writing one does in one’s younger years (I’m only 44, for but sounding ancient just now) is kept for a reason, and when I came across this collection of plays (the depressing one mercifully destroyed) it made me think: why haven’t I written a play since?

It isn’t as if I fell out of love with theatre. In fact, I think the fact that I fell MORE in love with it kept me from trying another play. The old Tolstoy complex a friend of mine suffered from: he said if he couldn’t write like Tolstoy he wouldn’t be bothered and so he wrote nothing. In the time between my fledgling efforts and now I did write some scripts and a few episodes of a TV show, but to me a play was a mysterious and impossibly difficult form I would leave to others with more innate theatrical gifts. Thus forgetting that I have my own innate theatrical gifts and something else on my side: age. I am finally old enough to write a play, I decided recently, spurred on by the touching sight of my truly awful plays in the package aforementioned. I didn’t think too long about how and why and when and all that, I simply started, in a notebook, while waiting for my friend, Maria Vacratsis, to meet me at, yes, a play we were seeing together. I really hadn’t planned to write a play but then it started going along without need of permission and after Maria and I said our goodnights I continued writing in the car, poetically lit by the streetlamps outside the Factory theatre. Maria is a bit of a Muse for a lot of writers, I’m guessing, but she’d make a face at such a claim.

At some stage I let the thing fall to the side writing-wise but then I kept thinking about it. And so I am working on it now again without thinking too much and with the appropriate terror that accompanies handing it to anyone to read. What it needs is a workshop and it will have one soon. In the meantime I’ve started work with Playwrights’ Junction playwriting workshop at Sudbury Theatre Centre, a talented group of 7 other writers led by playwright and novelist Matthew Heiti. (The fact that he does both too really inspires me.) We will all work together for 12 weeks and present our new work to the public at the theatre in January 2014. Pinch me…

Then, probably because I was having so much fun, didn’t another bloody play leap into my head. Luckily this time it was shorter, on a theme proposed by a new Toronto theatre group called Everybody To The Theatre Company. The theme was/is Failure and well, I felt instantly inspired. Not because I see myself as a failure but because people who are brutally hard on themselves, as I am and always have been, think they have tasted failure more often than not. Whether it’s real or not doesn’t seem to matter. But in any case I found myself having FUN again with my writing and the play, which is seven minutes or so in length, is about someone who fails to win a contest for something he feels passionately about.

The play is one of a number of short pieces called Failure for Theatre On A Theme on Friday October 18, shows at 7 and 9 p.m.  at the Unit 102 Studio at 376 Dufferin Street, Toronto. Tickets are $10 and seating is limited. The exciting new company Everybody To The Theatre will perform each of our pieces in these two back to back slots and I am really very excited to meet these folks. Not only because they have made a particular dream of mine come true, but because they are making their own dreams come true too.

I think the essential word here is play.

Life Is Short and Other Urgent Memos

I am almost always reading something, and if I’m not reading, it’s pretty much a warning sign that something isn’t right in my world. My gratitude at being able to read has never abated, not since I finally mastered the art in grade one, with assistance from what they then called Special Ed. If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would make sense to have the word GERONIMO emblazoned on my (insert body part) because that was the word that unlocked it all for me. Since then, I have been reading like a demon, always grateful to the teacher (Wendy Baird) who caught my dyslexia and whisked me into training with the passionate and no-nonsense Mrs. Mangoff. And, as mentioned, when I emerge from the darkness of a non-reading patch, my gratitude is massive not only that I am able to read, but that I want to again.

Michael Chabon is one of my favourite writers and the publication of a book by him is a major event for me. So I saved Telegraph Avenue for a reward. I shelved it and told myself that as soon as I had a full draft of my play completed, I could read it. This system works well for me, especially since it helps to train me out of my instant gratification tendencies. “Instant gratification takes too long,” as Carrie Fisher once said in Postcards From The Edge. I’m working on that. As well as on a tendency to digress. I am on page 192 of Telegraph Avenue and holding, and I admit that I have re-shelved the novel in favour of other books just now. It took a lot of mulling and soul-searching to shelve the book I had waited so many months to read, and I questioned my decision mightily. I was enjoying aspects of the novel very much, as Chabon writes like no one else. I was loving the characters who were former Blaxploitation film stars and loving the setting of an indie record store in a soon-to-be-gentrified hood in Oakland, California. The characters of Julie and Titus were sweet and I yearned for their return to the pages. But I just found the novel hard to run to after a day of work, and I was not ignoring the phone and putting off other tasks as I had expected to with a novel by one of my favourite writers. This is not to say I think it is a bad book or that I won’t pick it up and start all over again. In fact, I know it will and I know from experience that sometimes a book will speak loud and clear to the soul another time. That it might just not be the time to read it, and you are doing both yourself and the author a favour. It isn’t that I am afraid to admit to not liking a book by a beloved author either. I have my authors I follow like a disciple and have had that experience before wherein the book just did not do it for me. Not just then or maybe not after re-reading it. It’s not unlike the sinking feeling you can have when writing something and the groove is just not there, the tone is wrong or the execution is labored and although you do not get to give up, sometimes you have to leave it aside and move on to something else and come back to it later. And sometimes, heartbreakingly in some cases, the thing is just not going to fly. There is stick-to-itiveness and then there is life is too short.

I moved on from Telegraph Avenue to Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In contrast to the Chabon in every way, it is 115 pages long and thus qualifies, I believe, as a novella. And yet because it is Marquez, you can go on an entire journey with him in 115 pages, following a 90 year old man as he falls in love for the first time in his life. I chose it because I am interested in reading novellas just now because of a project of my own I am working on, and because I have long been fascinated with what divides a novella from a novel. I still don’t know, and whether a novella is just a long short story or not remains unanswered. Still, as a form the novella fascinates me and is pleasurable to work with. I also chose the Marquez because he was one of the favourite authors of my friend Braz King, who passed away last month. He and I should have been able to have a rousing discussion about whether Memories of My Melancholy Whores was excellent or thin, and whether a novella is just a long short story feeling more self-important than usual. But I was too slow to get to the novella and more cruelly, cancer took my friend at the age of 47 and the conversations we will have about Marquez will be all in my mind, on walks, and as I re-read Love In The Time Of Cholera, which I try to do every two years or so, along with Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a couple of other personal literary bibles. The magic of my friend seems to be that we are all still feeling hugely connected to him, a testament to how present he was in his short life.

I have moved on to reading Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey for pure interest’s sake and also because I am obsessed and always have been obsessed with the person who follows this professional path. While Last Night is more interested in the club DJ, I am enjoying everything about it except its claim that “98% of DJs have a penis” and its garish red and yellow cover which I suppose I could cover with one of those handy dandy book-cover contraptions. Or, I could take a page from the school days of yore and make a brown paper cover for it. But life is too short and come to think of it, the Chabon has a glaring red and yellow cover too. Maybe I should only read books with cream coloured covers or purple jackets or ?

The next fictional works I read will be Jim Nason’s I Thought I Would Be Happy and Jennifer LoveGrove’s Watch How We Walk. Both are great stories I have already read in draft form and the emergence of these two novels in book form is a thrilling event. LoveGrove’s is about a girl growing up in the Jehovah Witness faith and I remember thinking it was unlike any “coming of age” novel I had read before. Nason’s novel is about a man struggling with the concept of happiness as he deals with the aftermath of a head injury that changes his life just enough to make it impossible to live the same old way. Both books are here on my desk and I admire them like treasures, symbols of two writers devoted to what they do with passion. I’ll curl up with each one and re-enter the unique worlds of their creations and know that each writer knew that life is too short to give up on a story you truly believe in.

Peaches

She had not peeled a potato in over ten years. Even the purchase of a new peeler that everyone told her was the Porsche of peelers did not spark her to action. The canning equipment sat dusty in the pantry; the pantry was now the mud room and graveyard for mismatched phone chargers and dustpans without handles. Boots, most of them left-footed for some reason, choked the side-door entrance to the kitchen. There was a bottle of perfume on the kitchen sill and a pepper mill in the bathroom. Also the business card of a young woman who had said she would come help her put things back together but the dog had gnawed off the last two numbers and Belle was not one for emailing. There were two people who could text message her and expect a reply; no one else had her cell phone number.

She had been the Queen of Scalloped Potatoes in her family and was equally famous for her jam; notorious for her spinach soup and a celebrated maker of macaroni and cheese with jalapenos for the boys when they came home.

Now the peaches were coming in and the markets were popping and she should want to cook and bake. She would ordinarily have flown into a panic of pesto when the basil bloomed but not this year. Not for some years, who was she kidding? It was a lost language.

And then Aaron called to explain that all he wanted, all he really fancied at this point, was a dish of canned peaches. Not from a tin, but the bottled variety, perhaps with a smidge of brandy smuggled in. Only Aaron could slide through a crack in the fortress, she realized as she went to market and bought up a basket of perfect Red Havens.

Alone in the kitchen, she gazed at the brandy bottle and at the peaches and tried to remember what to do with either. One memory fresher than the other, yet just as unwelcome. But Aaron. She could hardly turn down a request sent by text that likely took a good half hour to type. And he was part of that other time when things were luscious and promising, when life was fecund, not fallow. The field metaphor, the playing field back in the game insinuations: she’d walked away from it all, and with it went cooking and wisecracks and all of it. But tonight she was peaceful as the aroma of the peaches began to fill the kitchen. As she began to warm to the idea of just one more effort, if supposedly for Aaron, lying in hospice with his simple request and his big grin. There was no delaying such an ask, you got to it and delivered. It had once been the way of her life to be that prompt and that decisive about everything but not lately. Not for a long time and she had no idea why, what had caused it. Divorce was not the end of the world, and people lost their parents every day. It was something else.

She canned the peaches while listening to Pablo Casals, the window open and the neighbour’s cat in full August voice. Aaron would have no more such mundane evenings at home. She eyed the brandy then dumped it down the sink after sloshing a half-snifter into the peaches. A near miss in the name of love: she had been sober for nine months.

The next morning Belle hurried into a clean shirt and drove down to the hospice where he waited for his peaches as if he had set a stop-watch by her reliability. This pleased her and then she felt ashamed of her own ego under the circumstances. They sat in the dining room overlooking a bird-covered bright-green lawn as he nibbled at the peaches.

“Red Havens,” he noted as if tasting a vintage Cab. “Fabulous.” She caressed his thin hand and held her breath against the aroma of the brandy wafting between them as he sipped the syrup, smacked his dry lips.

She wished someone else had been chosen but that was never how it worked. She leaned in and kissed him full on the mouth and he grinned. A first, and now of all times, his dancing eyes seemed to say.

“I love you,” he said, swatting at her as she stood to go. She kissed him again with less force, then drove home feeling spied into and sad. The kitchen was scrubbed, David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” poured from the stereo speakers and her daughter sat waiting at the table with a bushel of tomatoes from the farm stand.

“Peel,” her daughter directed. “There’s three more bushels in the garage. I’ve been doing without your pasta sauce for long enough now.”

The text message came about an hour later. She winced at the effort it must have cost him. “Now get on with it, you. One basket’s worth doesn’t count.”

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2013

Pie

They said he was dying but he was trying not to and his sister brought him a home-baked pie that smelled fantastic and hurt his mouth to eat but it was worth it. There was Dylan playing in his house New Pony they always said they both loved it and across the city she was baking pie after pie because she’d always said she’d love to die while in the midst of making a pie.

They were no longer together but he was in her food, all his little tips and tricks and his favoured flavours and she only missed him when she cooked which wasn’t often. But when she cooked she missed him and turned the one cookbook to face the wall till whatever she was making was done. And now he was dying across the city and they had an awkward talk on the phone where it was clear there was nothing that could be said, not really and when they hung up she wept and he turned on The Clash instead and tried not to admire his housekeeper’s ass while he was also simultaneously trying not to die.

Blueberry pie of all things for their first at-home dinner date did he not know she was allergic to all antioxidants and now he was in a bed with cancer and she was roaming around making more pies, every flavour even those she didn’t care for. She thought of selling them from the trunk of her car on the side of the road just to see what would happen because of course she was the last person on earth to take a chance like that. He was exactly that sort of person which was why she had grown irritated and he had learned to despise her even as they agreed they were the best kissers in the known universe. And for the first four years they were together he begged her to make him a pie, any kind and she’d refused saying she was sure she would die making a pie so she was putting it off till later life. You say that like you know when it will matter whether you die or not, he teased but still she wouldn’t give in. He ate store boughts and frowned and heated them up so the house would fill with almost-pies and she’d come home from work with a plan for cupcakes or scones all the while pretending not to be a pie person. I’m a cake girl, she lied.

And now what? She could not look at a little tin of cumin without thinking of the day he taught her to make stuffed squash and even the smell of onion frying was a torment so it was best to stay out of there, out of the room they had spent more time in than any other.

When she heard he was dying she tried to call but she could not make her fingers press the right numbers. And it shocked her but didn’t when he called first and said he felt she wanted to talk. That by now she knew because he had asked a friend of a friend to tell her. How had he always known how to find her? She had not wanted to stop talking completely all those years but somehow rifts and ruptures required such silences, she had no idea why but he did not believe that bullshit so he called sometimes and hung up on her when she protested. You don’t get it, he said once and he was right but the pattern of being wrong suited her by then.

What are you doing? she asked this time and he said I’m trying not to eat pie and she heard something completely different and cried in a torrent right into the phone.

Peach, he added. Which was his old name for her when they still got along and still wanted the same things—a boy and a girl and a Boler camper they could pull behind their car. Peach pie, he said firmly and tried to move on to an actual subject.

I hear you’re back in school, he prodded. What are you studying?

How people pie, she said without meaning to and his laugh made her cry harder.

I love you, he said. I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you for loving me.

Listen, she said. I made you a pie. Can I bring it?

I don’t think so, he said quietly. She heard his sister shouting instructions at a nurse in the background and Dylan, always Dylan on the stereo and a dog barking and she smiled.

Love you too, she choked out.

Who does?

I do.

Good, he chuckled before coughing a little. Have a big piece for me, Peach.

 

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2013