International Women’s Day – Imagine!

When I was asked to speak to the Hazelton International Women’s Day celebration several years ago, I was first flattered, then I felt really old, and then I freaked. The request was like sprinkling warm water and sugar on what passes for my mind. A mind that some days feels like a batch of bread dough without the yeast. When I realized I’d said yes and would be standing up in front of a group of brilliant women, well, things started fizzing and bubbling. Mostly with anxiety. When I got down to the work of kneading that dough into some kind of shape, I had a hard time fixing on anything. What did I have to say about imagination? You’re a writer, I was told, you should be able to think of something.

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So I started thinking. And for some reason I kept thinking about bread. One of my happiest childhood memories is of coming home from school to the smell and taste of my grandmother’s buns, her cinnamon rolls, her bread. There are many kinds of bread and I’ve been filching and trying bread recipes for years. But although you hope your bread is going to taste good and be nutritious, it’s the work of making it that counts.  It’s called being alive.

Lots of hard work goes into making bread and into living both, but there’s an ingredient we often forget about.


And I don’t mean the kind you never have enough of. The time to do all the things you think you need to do and can never get done. I mean the other kind of time, the kind most of us are banishing from our lives.

Here’s my granny’s recipe for buns:

Scald two cups of milk. Add shortening, sugar and salt.
Let sit until lukewarm.
Sprinkle yeast on top.
Let soften.
Beat in one egg, then add enough flour to make a sticky dough.
Cover and let rest.
Turn onto a floured board and knead until dough stops sticking and is smooth.
Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place.
Punch down, form into buns.
Cover and let rise again. Heat oven. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes.

It’s the other kind of time we forget about. The time to let the yeast come to life, join with the air and lift that dough up off its butt. Time to regroup and rise again. Time to kindle a fire, and time to leave the bread to bake. You’ve got to work the dough and you’ve got to let it alone.

I made some of my granny’s buns this morning. And as I punched them down, I thought about standing up and talking to an incredible group of women, women who have already forgotten more than I’ll ever know about living, women who have suffered, women who are way better at having fun. I felt like a fraud. What could I possibly have to tell you?

I may as well have been punching myself as punching down that dough.

Thankfully yeast doesn’t need confidence to rise. It can sit for a long time in the back of your cupboard looking pretty near dead and, given the right circumstances, still rise.

Like you, I was born with my ovaries chock full of eggs. A lot of them flowed away, quite a few were duds, and a couple made their complicated way out of my body and joined us here. Two boys, bless their hearts, who taught me a lot about love, terror and self-doubt. All of us, men and women, are born chock full of those little yeast-like pellets of imagination. They’re inside there, waiting for almost any excuse to rise up.

Mary Oliver, a wonderful and wise poet, calls imagination “a sharp instrument”. It cuts through our isolation and gives us the capacity to feel a stranger’s pain, to understand a friend’s anger, to share a child’s joy, to share the unique experience of being human. But it cuts both ways. We can imagine failure, embarrassment, ugliness, or, heaven forbid, ordinariness, much easier than peace, beauty, brilliance. It may take days and months to grow a story or a song, years to grow a child, a century to grow a tree. But if we don’t guard them carefully, it takes only seconds to cut them down before they reach the ripeness they’re due.

I grew up in a time when we didn’t really recognize the dark side of imagination. Women’s liberation and the pill were new enough to be untarnished. I had no idea how hard women had fought to get there and how terrified, angry and hostile some people were about their victories. Imagination was, to me, something fuzzy and warm. We believed, like John Lennon, that by imagining a better world, we could build it. We would make love, not war. The bad guys would lay down their guns and come with us back to the land.

That the bad guys had ideas of their own, that they were, in fact, part of who we were, never registered.

It took moving into a small community to realize how far many of my ideas were removed from people’s day to day lives. It wasn’t that people here were less advanced. It was that the community was close enough, small enough, for me to be able to see how people could be many things at the same time.

I still had lots of ideas though, and lots of those were about kids. Although I hardly knew any real children, I liked the idea of them. I imagined raising these ideas of children in a warm and fuzzy place where we’d live in peace and harmony and eat whole wheat bread. Where we’d play wholesome creative games, share the work and the fun, and it wouldn’t make any difference if they were boys or girls.

I think these were good ideas and I’m glad I had them. But I wasn’t prepared for the real thing. The gut-wrenching love I felt terrified me. So did the power of my frustration, resentment and fury. No one had told me about that part. When you make something, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes goes places you’d rather it didn’t. The flip side of creation.

And then the self-doubt. I doubted myself as a mother. I probably had my first clue that I wasn’t going to have complete control over what my children thought and did, that maybe heredity, gender and culture had their hands in the bread dough, when Daniel started biting his cheese into the shape of guns and shooting things. When he spent hours looking at a book of drawings of earth movers. When his first phrase was “wheels on it”.

Then one day, when some earnest mothers were sitting around my kitchen table, reality came crashing in. We were mounting a campaign urging parents not to buy their children war toys for Christmas. Another great idea. The kids came trooping down the stairs lugging the machine guns they’d built out of Lego. We looked at each other, aghast. Then, mercifully, we had the sense to laugh, and laugh we did. But I have to tell you, there was a layer of hysteria underlying the laughter.

We’d been imagining a better world, alright, and even getting some good work in on that bread dough. Hard kneading. How had we produced these little wanna be killers? Why did our boys spend hours blowing up Lego with firecrackers? Why did our girls simper and want Barbies? Why did we feel such anger and guilt? I even remember feeling as if I was a failure because childbirth hurt. Was it a failure of imagination?

No. It was misunderstanding imagination. Not accepting that in the work of hatching children, of hatching ideas, there’s a process that requires time out. That requires punching down. That also needs high temperatures. That it doesn’t always go the way you want it and sometimes that’s not so bad.

I learned finally, with the help of my community, and with the help of some great books on writing (all written by women by the way) to accept those parts of the process that feel like time’s a wasting. When everything seems like garbage, when I feel really uncomfortable, I know creativity is happening. I still piss and moan about it, but I know the only way to get over it is to go through it, right through the middle of it.

Mary Oliver calls a poem “a confession of faith.” Keeping at it even when self-doubt is sitting on my shoulder, when my family, my job, and my community want me to do other things, other important things, is my confession of faith.

I’ve got a ragged old poster of Virginia Woolf on the wall above my desk. I’ve hauled it around with me and moved it from wall to wall for at least 25 years. She wrote that all a woman needs to create is a little money and a room of her own. We all need to build that room in our hearts and make sure it’s our room, not one our culture, our friends and family tell us to build. Not the one we tell ourselves we ought to build.

If the noise of the world keeps you from hearing what those little yeast pellets of your imagination need, then it’s time to turn off some of that noise. Literally. Turn off your television, your radio, your computer, open a window or, better yet, go outside, mosey down to the river and breathe. This is important work. It cannot be left until the last.

If, instead of breathing wonderful glorious air, we inhale a culture that tells us what to think and feel with every turn of the knob, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear, what mutual funds to buy, that tells us our truck is too old, our kids need $200 running shoes, that a holiday at a nearby lake is boring and we really ought to go to Mexico, we can’t hear the voice whispering inside of us.

Some of you may be thinking you’re not the creative type; you don’t sing, dance, or paint. Don’t worry. Being creative is hatching an idea and giving it the time and space to grow into something. Every time you think of a way to make your community better, every time you piece together a party, you come up with a better way to run your business, you’re being creative, you’re using your imagination.

But if you’re doing all those things and more besides, and still feel something’s missing, you need to make time and psychic silence to listen to your heart. Put out your elbows, like they tell you to do when the avalanche is coming, and make room for your imagination to breathe even if it feels like it’s buried under tons of snow.

If every second of our lives is occupied with structured pleasure or work, with television and microwaved popcorn, with piano lessons and cross country ski racing, we lose the ability to imagine a world where we are not measured at every turning against an impossible yardstick. We forget that bread doesn’t come from bread machines. We forget the pleasure of plunging our fingers into sticky dough and kneading.

But be careful. Because once you let your imagination loose, once it starts working, you had better tend to it or it will make a godawful mess of whatever spot you leave it in. That yeast may even start to grow in places where it has no business, where it makes you itch and squirm so badly even the best loving won’t take care of it.

Self doubt is part of the process. I realized how messed up we’ve become when we feel guilty about guilt, we feel like losers because we dare to doubt. Guilt and doubt are part of living. It’s time to stop blaming ourselves for those doubts, but there’s no point in blaming anyone else either. A friend said to me she was tired of hearing people tell her how they don’t have time to do what they really want to do. You can’t wait for conditions to be perfect, for there to be enough money, the perfect light, a satisfied family. We can and do create from many different places in the same way we make babies: from places of love, of joy, of hope, of perfect readiness, but also in anger, in resentment and even sometimes in hate. Creating may drive us crazy, but create we must to be healthy and whole.

I’m the only one who can sit down at my desk and write; and it’s no one else’s fault if I don’t.  Sure, it helps if I have the support of my family and friends, but they can’t do it for me. And if I really want to do it, they can’t keep me from it.

“A poem is a confession of faith.”  So is a baby, so is a home. So is a loaf of bread. A confession of faith that we are here for more than house work and more than a pay cheque.  “Imagination is a sharp instrument.” We have to keep it sharp to outwit the horrors that surface in the minds of bigotry, of greed and of fear. Imagining and creating is not something to be left until everything else is done; it’s the most important work there is. And like breathing, it isn’t over until you’re dead. If you win a little level ground, you’re lucky. If you get to the top of something, the only direction is down and sometimes it’s the direction you have to take.

You’ll have to fight for that breathing space, and you’ll have to keep fighting and you know, sometimes the person you have to fight the most is yourself. Every day that I manage to find my way to that room, set aside time and space to feed the sourdough of my imagination, to let it breathe and grow, every day that I sit down to the hard work of punching and kneading that dough into shape, I am offering my confession of faith. Sometimes I write in anger, sometimes in love. Sometimes my poems are terrible, but you know, sometimes, they’re true and beautiful.

In his inaugural speech Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” That light, he said, is in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Every day the world gives us air to breathe is, I figure, affirmation enough. We’re still here; we must have something worth doing. It’s time, right now, to get on with it.

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Punto en Aria

Outside mlace hoody pattern side 1y window, the snow hangs in great swags from the eaves. The bottom edge of the bunting dips into ruffles and finally, where gravity has exerted the most pressure, into a lacy frill. Sunlight shines through the intricate tracery – punto en aria.

Lace comes in many forms and dates back, they say, to the 1400s. There’s needle lace and bobbin lace, where threads are twisted into complicated patterns, there’s cut work or drawn thread work where threads are removed to reveal the design. But true lace – punto en aria (stitch in the air) stands alone, literally. It is its own unique manifestation of absence and presence.   It is the yin and yang. It is light and shadow.

I believe the fundamental nature of lace goes much further back than Renaissance Venice, back to nets, which have been made for tens of thousands of years and are essential markers of our divided nature. We want some things to be contained, others to be set free; we want some things to be seen, other things to be hidden; we need silence between the notes.

In the early eighties, when I started knitting and writing in earnest, lace was for babies, old ladies and soft core porn.  It was for old fashioned tablecloths and doilies stored in your grandmother’s cedar chest. It was for a certain kind of lingerie. It was not for feminists. It was silly, frilly, and frivolous.

Things have changed. Lace is now everywhere. As I write this in my chilly office, I am wearing fingerless mittens with lace cuffs and delicate picot edging. People are knitting lace scarves, lacy sweaters and vests, toques, and stockings. (Now that I think of it, perhaps lace has made a comeback because soft core porn has become mainstream. Cables are big too – probably for those interested in a little S&M).

Knitting lace is what I know, and it is very much like writing. Establishing a pattern out of single stitches strung on a needle or out of the single words strung together on a page can be daunting. It’s one after the other, again and again. Like writing phrases, lines, or sentences, knitting lace is a matter of ordering the components. Joining them, separating them, dropping them, picking them up again. Deciding what to put in, what to leave out. Often, while the work is in process, the fabric looks like a ratty old dishrag, rumpled, crumpled, rucked up and wrinkled. You just have to trust in the process and keep going.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get into a rhythm where the pattern begins to feel organic, something emerging from your heart. Your fingers fly and your mind is elsewhere. Other times you have to stop and count every stitch. Then there are the mistakes you notice much too late, mistakes that especially hard to fix in a lace pattern. As in writing – when you’re building something so interconnected, built word upon careful word to create a seamless whole – well, it’s both difficult and unnerving to have to go back and fix it. Sometimes you have to unravel the whole thing.

Lace is an especially apt metaphor for writing. When you’ve done the clunky work of putting a story or a poem together, you must step back and take a good look to be sure you’ve created openings in the fabric, openings through which your readers can enter, cracks where the light shines in.

Visiting Bonnie Burnard

Joining a community of writers at places like Sage Hill, Banff, or any of the diverse retreats/residencies available to us these days, is usually a treat. We can begin conversations right in the middle of things because the writing process is familiar to us all, even though how we go about the work is as varied as human nature itself. We share the knowledge of what it is to sit down day after day to start moving our fingers and somehow transform whatever it is that goes on in our heads to words on the page, whether we’re using a pencil or a keyboard. If we wander around with a glazed look and don’t say good morning, other writers know enough to leave us alone. Best of all, you don’t have to explain what it is you do or why you do it.

Of course, egos and competitiveness are present, but at the retreats that are well run, there isn’t much grandstanding and the most acclaimed writers sit down with the novices and share stories as equals. It is very affirming for those of us who sometimes feel isolated from the writing world.

When I attended the Banff Writing Studio in 2002 and was told that I’d be working with Bonnie Burnard, I was more than a little anxious. The author of award winning short story collections and the Giller Prize winning A Good House, she was a very big name in Canadian writing, up there with Alice Munro and Carol Shields. She had just flown in from Mexico City with a nascent case of pneumonia; Banff’s air was cleaner, but the altitude did her in. I had one meeting with her before she was hospitalized, but as I’ve said before, that one meeting sent me on a long journey, taking Isabel from a short story I’d called “Frost Warning” and set in Smithers to Vancouver, Guatemala and deep into the lives of her daughter, Janna, and Janna’s father, Alvaro.

So when I arrived in London (Ontario) last week, I was tempted to track her down. I wanted to thank her and give her a copy of The Taste of Ashes. I was a bit nervous – her time in Banff hadn’t been easy for her (there’s a story there, but it’s hers to tell) and I didn’t think she’d even remember me. When I found out she lived very close to where I was staying, I finally screwed up my courage and called her. She seemed surprised, but very graciously invited me over the next morning for tea.

I’ve always been nonplussed by stories of people tracking down writers – searching for Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra, or nursing endless cups of coffee at the café Simone de Beauvoir frequented – so felt a bit nervous walking up the leaf-strewn path to her door right on the edge of the University of Western Ontario campus. And there she was, smaller than I remembered, welcoming me into her home and congratulating me on the publication of the novel.

Her house is a long one with glass doors opening into a sitting room, a sun porch, a living room, each room with multiple doorways. This kind of house is a treat for a child (and Bonnie has a new grandchild living nearby as well as two others) – the many nooks and crannies can provide escape from whatever might be happening in the house, but are also connected enough so he or she doesn’t feel alone. It’s the kind of house that exemplifies the kinds of plots I love to read and write – storylines that have their own lives but link in sometimes unexpected ways.

By which I mean to say we soon got down to talking about writing, about her writing life, about Banff, about how we go about things, how writers find ways to support each other, how we go through times when we lose sight of writing itself until we miss it so much, we sit down again and begin.

It was good to see Bonnie Burnard living in a comfortable house because so few writers make a decent living from their writing. It was a pleasure to sit at her kitchen table and talk writing because that talk is not always easy to come by.

While she expressed some concern about having suggested back in Banff that I write a novel, I said it was just what I needed because as soon as she said it a whole new world opened up for the characters living inside my imagination, characters her encouragement led me to release from the strict confines of what the current literary expectations are for short stories. Discursion is not permitted. (Even within the breadth of a novel, I have difficulty reining in my characters.)

So thank you, Bonnie. As for the writing talk itself, I look forward to someday reading in print the writing stories you told me.

Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime

I’ve just finished reading tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. I first came across Dear Sugar in The Sun magazine – a wonderful magazine of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Its contributors speak in a voice similar to Sugar’s. Fearsome advice, often, and harrowing stories that are above all else, beautifully written.  Cheryl Strayed is a very big deal now (she just “came out” as Sugar and also had her new novel, Wild, kick-start Oprah to begin a new book club. It’s always a bit tough when a tiny beautiful thing you’ve come across unexpectedly turns out to be a very big thing many people know about and have been following for years. But what the hell – she’s great.

And while the book covers all the usual topics – love, work, children, addiction, Christmas and stupidity – it is also a handbook for writers. Her tone is reminiscent of Anne Lemott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Like Lemott she has a history of addiction, abuse and general trauma that she refers to when she responds to those who ask for advice. Her language is blunt and sometimes brutal. But she tempers it all with generosity and kindness.  We all fuck up, she says, and that’s how we learn. She answers a letter from a man who has lost his son in a car accident and is actually useful. She tells you to get on with it while acknowledging that nothing will remove the pain you’ve experienced. The bad things that have been done to you. The awful things you have done. Above all she tells you to face up to your bullshit  (and others) truthfully and keep climbing out of whatever hole you’re in.

“We’re all going to die, Johnny,” she writes. “Hit the iron bell like it’s dinner time.”

Which is all great advice for a writer. Get on with it. Write. Write truly and write well. “Write,” she says, “like a motherfucker.”