I write crime novels. People die.
Occasionally I like to reflect on books I've read, things I've seen, places I've been, people with whom I've spoken, dogs I've petted, kitties I've cuddled, things I've overheard. I like to give unlooked-for advice, and my opinions don't always mirror the status quo. Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
In the famous E.M. Forster novel Howards End, the phrase “only connect” is repeated several times, and mused upon by several of the main characters, including the hapless Leonard Bast. The book’s message of “only connect” points to our need as people for other people, including but not limited to those with whom we share blood and DNA.
In times past, people lived in much closer quarters than we do now. Working class families in Victorian London, for instance, might occupy two small rooms; since people back then had more children (thank God for modern contraception!) this meant that a dozen or more might be obliged to cram into a space not much bigger than two modern-sized bathrooms put together. Nowadays, most young school leavers depart the family domicile as soon as the exam results are out, to look for jobs, travel abroad, or take internships in some field of endeavor. I left home at age 18, two days after leaving school, to take a job as a live-in nanny/housemaid, which meant trips home were taken on weekends or during holidays or on the rare day off.
Modern families tend to scatter, going wherever work or educational opportunities take them. Parents, once the young have left the nest, may wish to reinvent themselves, acquiring new hobbies or even a new career. We don’t tend to clan together as we once did out of necessity. It’s easy to lose touch. So I’m grateful for modern means of communication like the telephone, the Internet, Skype, texting, and email. Today I got a call from my parents, or Mop and Pop, as I like to think of them when I’m being silly, and it was nice to reconnect. We talk at least once a week and the calls are seldom less than half an hour long. We like to talk. We practice a lot, so we’re good at it.
It’s fun to remember things from years gone by, like Remember when Nan lost her best set of false teeth in the toilet and had to dive for them or I mind the time Bun Hynes chased the hens into the harbour with a broom. We reminisce about Old Aunt Viney Someone, who chewed copious amounts of tobacco and wore a tin can around her neck to spit in, and the idiot son of some long-dead relative, whose favourite pastime was shooting beach rocks with a .22.
My mother gives me the latest reports of who is (1)dying; (2)near death; (3)waking; (4)awaiting their funeral; (5)cremated or in the ground. I call it The Necro Report. Similarly, those who have been diagnosed with an illness, cured of an illness, think they may or may have had an illness, were faking an illness for attention, broke out into pustular boils the size of silver dollars…
…or who simply had a really bad nosebleed.
I love hearing anecdotes and little remembrances, things I’ve forgotten, like the $60 I put on tick at one of the local shops for chocolate bars, ice cream and such, thinking they’d just forget about it. (Such is the logic of an eleven-year-old!) Or the time I told my sister the Jell-O rind I’d just put on her plate was an actual jellyfish and she had to eat it or else. Good times.
Often, there are long, complicated stories about people I’m supposed to know but don’t, such as the Tale of Betty YooHoo’s Youngest Daughter’s Boyfriend’s Great-Aunt’s Mechanic Friend Barry Who Has a Big Nose.
At any rate, it’s always good fun to talk to the fam.
When you’ve been living with someone for a long time, you become so comfortable with each other that you can sit for hours – quite literally – in the same room, reading, and never have to speak. I’ve often heard younger people say “Look at them. They don’t say anything.” That’s because ‘they’ don’t have to. A glance, a touch on the hand, can convey so much more than words, and by the time you’ve occupied the same space for days and months and years, you’re finishing each other’s sentences and reading each other’s minds anyway. You engage in the kind of loving banter that others, those outside your particular relationship, would consider hurtful. But you know better.
The two of us have very different personalities that are at the same time very much alike. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. For instance, Paul takes care of the finances because I love spending money, will spend it with impunity, and my maths skills are rubbish. Our ideas of what’s important are vastly different. I remember the time he gave me thirty dollars to get groceries; I brought home a loaf of black bread and a bottle of wine. I’d never seen his face turn that color before. It was almost…puce.
I asked you to get groceries!
This is groceries.
This is a bottle of wine and a round black thing. What the hell is wrong with you???
There were lots of raised voices and slammed doors that night. You do that when you’ve been together a long time and you’re arguing. You call each other horrible names and you scream about things that happened forever ago that hurt you SO MUCH and then you separate and sulk for awhile until someone decides to break the impasse.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say your bread had the consistency of wet cement. I didn’t mean to say you burned the sausages so they looked like the charred fingers of an immolated corpse.
Yes you did.
In the beginning, there were always arguments about my cooking. The potatoes were too soft; the potatoes weren’t done. There was too much fish; there wasn’t enough fish. Why did I add so much salt? Why couldn’t I cook – here is the absolutely most damning phrase a spouse or partner can ever utter – like his mother?
So, lots of arguments. Raging out of the house and slamming the door. Going out to look for each other: please come home. In the beginning all you do is argue. Some of the arguments are quite vicious. Your personalities are getting used to each other, jostling against the other person, afraid there won’t be enough room for you both in this relationship. No matter how well-adjusted you think you are, you have neuroses sufficient to drive the other person batshit insane.
But we’re also very alike, too. Everybody says that opposites attract, but I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we are both introverts, although he’s much less socially awkward than I am. We both love to read; we both love British crime drama; we both love ice cream; we both adore our dog, Lola.
We don’t have to say “I love you” but we do, often. I worry – a lot – about the day we will be separated from each other. No matter who we are or where we live and in what circumstances, the people we love will eventually leave us, and we’ll be alone again.
This is what nobody ever says out loud: some day you will leave me and I’ll be alone. Or I will leave you. Once you’ve been together for a while, you realize that, no matter how happy and fulfilling the union, it will end.
I try not to think about it. I have a lot of “issues” (as people say) around abandonment. I always fear – know – I am going to be left alone in the end. It seems a funny thing for me to worry about, seeing as how I’m such an introvert (INFJ if you’re into the whole Myers-Briggs business) but it has defined my life. And I don’t mean ‘mere’ physical dislocation, where the person you love leaves you in one way or another.
There are lots of ways to be abandoned. Not fitting into society or your family of origin is abandonment. Not knowing where you belong is abandonment. Feeling like a stranger on earth, like you are always on the outside looking in, is abandonment, in the sense that initially They abandoned you, but then you abandoned yourself.
Which isn’t to cast blame. Feeling like you don’t belong hurts so much and cuts so deep. Being close to someone who hurts you or rejects you or just outright burns you really hurts. For a long time afterwards you walk around feeling like your skin is gone and all your nerves and blood and feelings are on the outside. Even brushing up against another human being is horribly painful.
For a creative person, abandonment is when blood relatives either don’t understand or don’t care about what it is you’re trying to do, when they’re ashamed of you, because you aren’t a doctor or a success in business, or you don’t have a huge house and twenty-seven beautifully-turned out children. Because you have deliberately chosen what they see as a life of penury so you can do whatever it is that you do – paint, write, dance, act, make sock monkeys. Because you can’t do anything else. Because you tried, and you lost just about every job you ever had, trying to make a go of things in a world where you’re quietly screaming (or sobbing or muttering or praying) I’m an artist and nobody gives a tinker’s cuss. Not just that, but they think that you’re insane to even try.
You’ve felt the sting of abandonment every time someone says something like:
Grow up and get a real job
Stop wasting your time with that old garbage
You’re never going to get anywhere with that
How are you going to make a living
You’ll kill your mother/father/grandparents/drunk uncle Chester if you persist in doing this
I’m so ashamed of you
I’m so disappointed in you
What’s the matter with you? Are you insane?
You’re just doing this to get back at me
…&tc., and so on.
The truth is, unless you are supremely well-connected or supremely lucky and/or beloved of the gods, you probably aren’t going to make a kajillion dollars doing your art, nor are you going to afford that private jet/house in the Bahamas/whatever it is you think defines wealth and success. It ain’t gonna happen, child. And for a lot of people in your intimate circle, including but not limited to your family of origin, what you’re doing will seem to be utter madness. In a lot of ways, it is.
You live in a world ruled by money, influence, connection. It’s a generally accepted truth that these things are achievable only through committing oneself to a course of work that will guarantee them. Most creatives don’t make much money (the lucky ones make enough to live on); their only influence is their immediate sphere (usually other creatives, and if you’ve never witnessed the kind of jealousy and pissy infighting that often occurs in such groups, you’re missing out); they lack the kind of powerful connections thought necessary because, in order to create, you have to isolate yourself.
Art is something that occurs in solitude. I’ve written in crowded cafes. I quite like it, in fact, because after a while others’ conversation and assorted ambient noises fade into an agreeable background hum that drives my creativity. There are even websites featuring virtual noise machines that mimic this environment.
But everyone needs other people (some of us prefer them in small doses, but still) – at the end of your creative workday you need someone there to love, to hug, to pester, to bicker with. There’s a famous old saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but I beg to differ. Familiarity, especially the kind born out of years of close cohabitation, breeds content.
Today we’re in the midst of a great wind, and according to the experts, the largest waves on the planet are buffeting the island. The wind last night was howling around the eaves of our house and roaring in the chimney and I loved it. Dramatic weather stimulates my creativity. I love to work to a backdrop of howling wind or lashing rain. (Paul hates it and can’t sleep when there’s noisy weather.)
The work today is going so well. Maybe I shouldn’t even say that, for fear of jinxing myself, but it is. There are days when the work feels weak, tenuous, as thin as watered milk, so that I’m straining to make something happen. Then there are days like today, when the material, the inspiration, is right there, hovering like a butterfly, and I just have to reach out my hand and take it. Not even reach out – let it settle down on me. Days like today, the work is like listening and then putting down what I hear. At the risk of sounding altogether too esoteric and airy-fairy, it’s like being the music, not merely dancing to it. I’m not creating anything, I am in it, breathing it and living it.
Singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt has likened creativity to a visit: something that comes to dwell for a little while with the artist. This makes sense to me. To my mind, a visit cannot be forced or compelled. You can’t force the Muse. You can entice the Muse, romance the Muse, beckon the Muse, but as soon as you try to make it do what you think it ought to do, it vanishes like new snow in the sun. I know this particular event, this thing I’m making, is finite. The Muse’s visit is also finite. S/he doesn’t stay around forever. Or maybe there are multiple Muses, each with its own gifts to bring, like the wise men at Christ’s birth. Sometimes you get gold, frankincense, myrrh. Sometimes you get a really nice crusty baguette with cultured butter and some very good cheese. You can’t always get what you want, as the song goes, but you do get what you need.
I struggle with what I’m ‘supposed’ to be writing. I think I should either be writing something that’s wildly commercial and will sell more than the five or ten copies (if any) that my work usually does, or I should be writing the kind of serious literary fiction that wins all the prestigious awards. I’ve never won any awards. I won a free donut once. I like donuts.
But the work is going well and I hate to set it aside but I must, in favor of the editing assignments I get paid for. One must render unto Caesar after all.
I spent much of this past week trying to work on the book and it just wasn’t coming together. I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve accumulated enough years of experience as a working writer to know that it’s not all stardust and inspiration.
I started out with the idea that this was a certain type of book, and therefore the characters, the narrative, and the conceit had to fit a particular genre. Well, the book had other ideas. It doesn’t fit that genre and it isn’t going to. Trying to force it to fit was making me angry and frustrated. It was making my characters angry and frustrated, too. I’d written a scene where I made them behave as I wanted them to, and it fell flat. It was completely false. I should have known that the book always knows. Perhaps that sounds a bit too airy-fairy, but this has been my experience. The book always knows. It knows what it wants to be and what the story is. It knows where it’s going. My job isn’t to force it into a particular shape, but to let it reveal its shape to me in due course. This requires patience, something I’m not good at.
Writing is work. Writing is a job like any other. Yes, there are times when I honestly feel like I’m channeling something outside myself, that I’m a conduit, that I’m taking it down and not making it up, like I just have to listen on the page, as writing teacher Julia Cameron says, and it will all fall into place. I love when it’s going that way.
Then there are the times when getting the damned thing to work out is hard bloody graft, when I sit for hours and get nothing more than a handful of sentences, a paragraph or two. I hate that. That’s when all the fear and self-doubt rise to the surface, when I step back and look at what I’ve made and start thinking that this is crap, it’s no good, no one will ever want it, why am I wasting my time and all the rest of that poisonous psychological soup.
I know instinctively when something isn’t working, and that’s not a scary feeling at all. It’s a calm, measured response that says you know what this doesn’t feel right…I think I need to change that part in the first paragraph where the donkey eats the man’s straw hat…. It doesn’t scare me at all. That other feeling, the horrible fear that everything I make is rubbish? That arises when the work is harder than I expected it to be, harder than it’s been in recent memory. That alerts me that I need to step back, slow down, drop the pen and nobody gets hurt. I get to feeling that way when what I’m making is good, and somewhere deep in my subconscious I know it’s good, so I’m terrified of screwing it up.
When I was younger – a lot younger – I committed to the idea of being a writer. I had a notion that ‘being a writer’ meant sitting in dingy cafes on long, rainy nights, with pen and paper, surrounded by cigarette smoke and a low babble of voices, writing my fingers to the bone and creating a masterpiece, before going home to my rat-infested garret apartment and starving to death. With wine.
In those days I didn’t live in a garret exactly, but I lived in a pretty crummy apartment building and I was so poor I existed mostly on potatoes and couldn’t afford to put the heat on. I sat at my kitchen table wearing all my clothes and with a blanket wrapped around me for good measure and wrote longhand wearing gloves. But it was all good, because I was writing. I think such privations are easier to endure when you’re twenty years old.
So Friday night traditionally marks the beginning of the weekend, and we usually have a couple drinks to unwind and appreciate what we’ve accomplished during the week. His tipple of choice is beer or whiskey, and tonight he’s having a Crown Royal with some ice-looking things floating in it, topped with a splash of fizzy drink.
Me? I’m getting cosy with la fée verte – absinthe, the green fairy.
Until I was forty years old, I’d never tasted absinthe in my life. I grew up with no alcohol in the house at all (my father is a pastor) and the only drink I ever came into contact with was the sherry my grandmother sneaked into her Christmas trifle. I only knew absinthe was very strong, and made you crazy if you drank too much of it – and I’d read about the famous poets and artists of fin de siècle Paris who indulged, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin and others, and who were utterly destroyed by its fearsome power to rot the human mind. Then, during a trip to New Orleans in 2010, shortly after ‘real’ absinthe (containing the oft-disdained wormwood) became once again legal for sale in North America, I bought a bottle on impulse.
(Paul bought mescal, the one with the worm in the bottle. The least said about that, the better.)
I really like absinthe, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. It doesn’t make me hallucinate, although I’d think as a writer, a few genial phantasms might add something to my creative process. Taken sensibly and in a measured fashion (i.e. not gulped straight out of the bottle or in too-rapid succession) it is a lovely drink. The first sip is warming, sliding down the throat to pool agreeably in the stomach. Wait. Allow the heat to disperse throughout your being. Then take another sip. Surrender to the gorgeous lassitude this wonderful drink bestows: God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world.
To enjoy absinthe properly, you must approach it with due reverence. Unlike pouring out a glass of wine, absinthe requires preparation, a ritual. Use a proper glass. A dedicated absinthe glass, with that handy little reservoir in the bottom, if you can get one. If you can’t, any short, cocktail-type glass will do. (See the photograph, above.) Absinthe must be mixed. For God’s sake, don’t ever drink it straight; depending on the brand and country of origin, it ranges from about 90 to 150 proof. Drinking it straight will make you very sick if it doesn’t outright kill you.
The water you mix with your precious green libation must be ice cold. I’m afraid there’s no wiggle room on this point. I suggest pouring some cold water over ice cubes in a small pitcher and keeping it in the refrigerator until you are ready to drink.
Put no more than an ounce in the bottom of your glass. If you don’t know what an ounce looks like, a standard shot glass will not lead you astray. Measure one shot glass full into the container of choice. Now lay across the mouth of the glass your absinthe spoon. If you haven’t got an absinthe spoon, anything with holes in it will do. Since I broke the handle off my previous absinthe spoon and am waiting on a replacement, I used a fork. Whatever gets you through the night.
Place one or two sugar cubes (they must be cubes and not granular sugar; you really cannot compromise on this point) across the holes in your chosen instrument. Absinthe contains no additional sugar and is therefore very bitter. Although some heathens prefer it this way, those of us in the civilised world take ours with sugar. If you prefer your drinks medium-sweet, use two cubes. I find two to be exactly right.
Now take your cold water and drip it slowly over the sugar cubes, so that the water melts the sugar and sends it down into the glass. Here is where the magic happens.
As the cold water drips into the absinthe, it changes color, from a deep emerald green to a dense milky shade. This process is known as la louche, or ‘the loosening’. (It also means ‘ladle’, which I don’t recommend as a suitable vessel for absinthe drinking. Consider yourselves warned.) You have summoned the green fairy, and your absinthe is now ready to drink. Do not, under any circumstances, put ice cubes into your drink! Doing so will dilute the alchemical magic you’ve just created.
Some people find that absinthe heightens the creative powers. I find that it relaxes me to the point where my native neuroses obligingly disappear, and if I decide to write while I’m in this state, words seem to flow more easily and I’m less likely to judge my work. (This isn’t to say you should drink in order to write. Therein lies a slippery slope.)
If you drink in company, say at a bar or party, you may find your conversation takes a wittier turn and you are a most charming interlocutor. Or, you’re drunk. Either way, your companions are likely similarly impaired, so que sera, sera. And if you happen to catch sight of yourself in a mirror or other reflective surface, be sure to smile. You are among the blessed of the earth. The brightest stars of antiquity have appeared in the firmament, and we are all going to Heaven.
(Written while I was drinking absinthe, all of it. You shall be the judge.)
The book is driving me nuts. I feel for the most part I’m wading in a swamp through heavy fog, squinting at something – a light, possibly – that I can only just make out in the far distance. Insofar as there are sensations attached to making this thing, they are almost all unpleasant, apart from the temporary breakthroughs that happen now and then, like a ray of sunlight splitting open heavy cloud to reveal a patch of blue sky no bigger than the palm of a hand.
I’m used to struggling with the material. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I didn’t have to wrestle with it somewhat. With certain books I can identify the point at which it started to writhe away from me, when I lost patience with it, kicked a metaphorical foot through it, and smashed the whole thing to pieces with an imaginary hammer.
It was going so well a few days ago. Nothing changed; it just stopped cooperating. I try to pin it down (Tell me what you mean! What am I supposed to put here, just here, between that and this?) but it slithers out of my grasp. It’s like dropping soap in the bathtub. You grab for it and think you have it, only for it to shoot out between your fingers.
When it works, it works so well. Hums along, in fact, like the proverbial well-oiled thingy. When it’s not working so well, when there’s grit in the gears, well… I spend a lot of time staring out the window. What comes next? What is it? This hinges on that, so what’s the connection?
It helps if I can do something else, something that’s not writing. But I have the kind of personality that feels guilty about everything, so if I’m not working I’m a lazy slob with no motivation. There’s very little in-between for me. Days when I’m in a steady ‘normal’ mood are the exception rather than the rule. Either I’m bouncing off the ceiling and bursting with great ideas and the means to bring them to fruition or I’m lying face down on the floor, communing with the dust bunnies.
I’m eager to have this book finished, at least the first draft, because there are other projects I want to work on. But it keeps resisting me. It won’t stay still, no matter how hard I try to stab it. I think the only thing to do is to drop a metaphorical anvil on it by taking it in an unexpected direction OR to set it aside and write this tiny little historical thing that’s been niggling at me for the past several days.
A warning: contains a memory of a grotesque road accident that may upset some people.
It’s an often confusing place, my head. So many competing impulses and ideas, so much that seems at first glance to be absolute truth but later loses its power, usually on further reflection. It’s funny how the mind can produce an isolated thought, which immediately pulls to itself the myriad arguments for and against its truth. Thoughts have powerful echoes – not into the future, but into the past, or maybe this is a facet of my illness. Nothing is ever simply itself, but is instead a thing of multiple layers like an onion. I might think that red hat the woman is wearing interests me. This will be followed by my mind producing all the memories of past red hats I’ve ever seen or had contact with. If this were as far as it went, that would be plenty, but no – my illness instead drags up all the negative associations of a red hat. Then I’m remembering the time a boy with a red bobble hat threw things at me as I walked home from school, or a teacher with a red hat said I was unintelligent because I couldn’t do maths (I still can’t; that’s why Paul handles the household finances) or –
When I was four years old, I saw a boy run down by a transport truck right outside the window of our house in Sudbury, Ontario, on LaSalle Boulevard during suppertime rush hour. He and some others were daring each other to run across the street, dodging traffic. The others made it but he wasn’t so lucky. I didn’t see the initial collision. I did see his body flattened on the road and the spreading pool of red around his head, which had unfolded like a two-dimensional relief map.
The color of blood on asphalt is very particular. Darker than crimson, brighter than mahogany, it’s the bright ruby-red of newly-poured wine. It’s a shocking color, a shade that stays in your mind forever. So these are the associations of red.
Earlier today I wrote a note to someone who owed me money, politely asking when I might expect to receive same. I received an unnecessarily terse reply that at first irritated and then depressed me. Again, echoes from the past crowded in on me, all those times I’d done work for people and wasn’t paid. (You’d be amazed what people get away with when they know you’re too poor to sue them.)
This event brought up the issues I’ve had all my creative career around money. For as long as I have been a working writer, money has always been a huge issue. So immediately my mind went you suck at making a living, she is never going to pay you, forget it, you’re going to end up under a bridge lying on cardboard. Because, unless you are famous to begin with or very, very lucky, it may be years – no, decades – before your art brings in as much as a single cent. You may struggle in obscurity – you probably will – for a long time before you ever see anything from it. You may never see anything from it.
We don’t write/dance/act/paint because we’re going to get rich doing it. We do it because we have to. Writing burns inside me; potential stories obsess me to the point that I breathe and sleep them, eat and drink them, walking with them everywhere I go.
But one has to eat, so many of us or should I say most of us have to do other kinds of work, to keep body and soul together, to put bread on the table, to buy paper or paints or brushes, pencils and pens, printer toner, whatever you need. And you can’t go about naked (well you can, but in this climate I don’t recommend it) so there’s clothes to buy. I can tell you from experience that putting cardboard in your shoes is a temporary resolution at best. All of this needs money. So not getting paid for work you’ve completed in good faith is a big problem.
I’ve had lots of different jobs. The earliest I can remember was babysitting – first my youngest sister, then a live-in au pair job with an absolutely vile woman and her screaming demon child. At the time, it was acceptable to pay live-in domestics two dollars and seventy-five cents per hour, so that’s what I got. Believe me, I earned it.
I’ve worked as a secretary/receptionist, a shop assistant, a housekeeper, a parliamentary editor. In the 1980s I worked for an art dealer, advising customers on which paintings to buy and framing said canvases. Oh, the canvases I framed. Canvases were sold unframed and customers were encouraged to choose the frame they wanted; with the staggering artistic insight of the petit bourgeous, usually wanted something to match the sitting room furniture. So the procedure went something like, assemble the stretcher bars, choose the right size stretchers for the canvas, stretch the canvas over the bars while maintaining the correct tension. Too much tension and you’d rip the canvas. Too little and the canvas would ‘belly out’ in the front like a fat man’s beer gut.
There was a particular type of pliers I had to use, to grasp the edges of the canvas and pull it over the stretchers. They don’t tell you how these things tear the living shit out of your hands. So I learned how to sell paintings and I learned how to stretch canvases, two skills I will probably never need ever again.
When we were really busy, I sometimes spent sixteen hours straight framing paintings. By the end of the day, my hand was swollen, blistered and bruised. Good times.
But there were a lot of good things today as well. Paul and I spent a couple hours doing yard work – raking leaves, blowing leaves, putting leaves in those big brown paper bags. It was good to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine. The garden is so beautiful this time of year, the trees shedding their coat of red and yellow like drifting flames. I’m so lucky to live in this beautiful place.
“There the Loves a circle go,The flaming circle of our days,Gyring, spiring to and fro. In those great ignorant leafy ways.” – William Butler Yeats, “The Two Trees”.
I had coffee today with a new friend I chanced to meet while walking last week. She was walking her dog, a beautiful German Shepherd, when I came along with my Lola. It was freezing cold and we were both bundled to the eyes; nevertheless we stood talking for nearly an hour. This morning she invited me to coffee and we met in a cafe overlooking a quadrangle of sorts, formed by the confluence of no less than five different streets. Well, this is an old city, with 500-year-old pathways that went where they needed to go. Five streets in a cluster is to be expected.
From where we sat by the window we could see: a church, a hotel, a very short street with very big trees, a very long street lined with brightly-colored row houses, and the entrance to a little road leading to my very favorite cemetery. (I love cemeteries. They are like books to me, each headstone a chapter, some of them very sad.)
The wind today is very high, typical for this time of year, and a great many fallen leaves were being twirled in circles, lifted high in the air and dropped. It was a wonderful spectacle of what I think of as ‘dramatic weather’. Hot, sunny days are all well and good, and no one will dispute the glory of lying flat in a summer field watching the clouds go by, the heat of this good earth soaking into one’s bones. I like fields where I can see but not be seen, lying in a body-shaped coffin of rustling grass and hearing nothing but the wind and the faint hum of drowsing bees.
High summer is glorious, a time to be drunk on heat and wine and slumber, but I myself am transfixed by late autumn, the changing moods and wild winds of November. I went walking this morning, in winds gusting to 110 kilometers. That’s about 70 miles per hour in old money. On the way down the path, the wind pushed me, and felt like urgent hands against my back – Hurry up, get going, don’t wait, go go – but on the way back I was facing the opposite way, right into the luscious roar and buffet of it. Weather like this makes me feel vibrantly alive. Today I wanted to spread my arms and open myself up to it, breathe it all in. It absolutely delights me, weather like this. I often laugh out loud. I’m not embarrassed by this. I’ve long ago realized, as the first line of Timothy Leary’s famous prose poem says:
You aren’t like them. You’re not even close.
When I finally realized this, when I at last accepted that I am not and will never be like the majority of people, the freedom was astonishing. I may have laughed aloud; I often do. But it took years, a great many years, to get to the point where I was okay in my own skin. There are times, still, when external conditions and my mental illness temporarily gain the upper hand, and I am wretched. There are times I have taken a knife and done harm to myself – not as a serious suicide attempt, although I’ve been there many, many times, but as punishment. Punishment for what I saw as my own failure, for making things that no one asked for, that no one wanted. It takes a great deal of self-loathing to cut oneself to pieces in that way. (I’m being honest with you here, as honest as I know how to be without hyperbole.) Punishment for not being like them. God knows, I tried. Usually I felt like the outsider, and I was, the stranger in a strange land.
But every now and then there were chance meetings with people who seemed to speak the same spiritual language as I did, people who ‘got me’, who understood everything without having it explained to them – and it was like getting a drink of water after a long time of being so very thirsty. It was like being caught in the rain after spending an eon in the desert. That’s what it felt like. And so I could sit with these people and talk and listen – as my friend said this morning in the cafe, “to foster an exchange” – without the social awkwardness and feeling of displacement I almost always feel when in the company of others.
To be a writer, to be an artist of any kind, is oftentimes a profoundly lonely experience. If I’m working, as I have been these past several weeks, it’s not particularly present to me. Then the day’s work ends and it’s time to sleep or eat or do any of the quotidian things we take for granted, and the loneliness crowds in. I’m luckier than most because I have Paul. I’ve had Paul for 33 years. I might not be alive now if it weren’t for him. (I also have a younger sister who has been one of my best friends and giver of constant encouragement but I’ll tell you about her another time.)
But one’s intimate partner/lover/spouse can’t be everything to you all the time. You do need other people, but I’m wary. I’ve had horrible experiences with ‘friends’ who turned out to be nasty people. I’ve sustained a fair few ‘war wounds’. Here’s the difficult thing, though: in order to create, you have to be open to experiences that might rip you up inside. You have to, as the poet Anne Grant told me once, be willing to ‘write from the wound’. It’s not a nice or easy thing to do, and no one wants to do it, but right there is where you get the best stuff. I won’t lie to you: doing so is hard graft. It’s like being compelled to eat a Christmas pudding filled with broken teeth.
But what my friend and I both realized this morning in the cafe is that these are our better days. Life is now. In all its ugliness and squalor, in all its beauty and joy, here it is. As the motivational saying goes (I despise motivational sayings) “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal.” So yes, there’s hard work and there’s loneliness and a fuck ton of pain, but you know what? You’re alive, you’re here, you get to live in the world. That’s nothing to sneer at. Maybe it isn’t perfect (hint: it’s never going to be) but you can sit in a warm cafe on a Sunday morning and talk to a friend and look out the window where the autumn wind is whirling the fallen leaves, and be amazed at the spectacle.
I did something today that I haven’t done for a very, very long time.
I ate a slice of lassie bread.
Now, lest you think a slice of ‘lassie bread’ is a baked comestible formed from the unwilling flesh of a friendly Scottish girl, it’s not. Lest you think it is a comely Scottish lass lying on a slice of bread, and that arouses you, well that’s between you and your God. No, lassie bread is that finest of all island delicacies, a slice of bread with molasses on it. Best served with a cup of piping hot tea, it’s a foodstuff that can be enjoyed at any time of day or night, all the year round. (Ask me about lassie bread as a hangover remedy! On the other hand, don’t. I think I may have had a blackout that night and woke up on the floor of some poor old bugger’s fish store in the Battery, wearing nothing except tartar sauce and a shopping bag from the Arcade. Remember the Arcade?)
Sure we were all raised on it around here. In the old prehistoric days (before, say, 1998) people used molasses for all sorts. They took it in their tea, as medicine, used it to make sweeties with, put it in cakes, pies, bread, or paired with raw fatback pork (yuck) in delightful little buns for fishermen to take to sea. My late father-in-law swore by a concoction of molasses and kerosene as a sore throat cure. If you weren’t cured by it you were probably killed, so in the end it was no odds anyway.
Lassie bread was what your mam or your nan gave you when bad Billy Single pushed your off the wharf into ankle-deep water swarming with masses of killer jellyfish. Or that time you went arse-over-teakettle off your bike and scrope (past tense of ‘scrape’ in Newfoundland parlance) the skin from your hands, forehead, chin, and knees in an effort to impress some goggle-eyed, mouth-breathing comrade from one of the lower grades in school. Fall down and brain yourself on a rock? Lassie bread. Break off a pencil in your hand and spend the rest of your life convinced you’re going to die of slow poisoning? Lassie bread. Get your arse belted by a cranky old man in a flat tweed cap, for throwing some fisherman’s killick over the government wharf? Lassie bread.
(For special occasions like Speech Night at the end of the school year, there were potted meat – actual cow brains – sandwiches, but that’s for another blog post.)
Molasses isn’t something you are going to eat every single day of your life. It’s much too sweet. Anything more than a tablespoon full at a time is cloying, genuinely sick-making. But once in a while, on a rainy autumn day, you want to sit down with your cuppa and have something besides your usual Peek Freans digestive biscuit.
That thing, dear friends and gentle people, is lassie bread. It brings us back to the gentle country of childhood winters, when the snow was up to your neck and the snot froze in your nostrils to the consistency of candle wax, and Mam told you to go outside and play in the Antarctic blizzard because you had her ‘drove’. As far as comfort food goes, lassie bread is just the ticket.
I ate a slice of lassie bread today. I regret nothing.
A Grueling Journey Through the Horror of Domestic Abuse to Emerge Victorious Some books, when you finish reading them, leave you with a pleasant sense of satisfaction. It was, you think, a good read. Some other books affect you so powerfully that you want to leap up and run around the house, because this story has touched some deep part of you with a resonating, undeniable truth. THE WIFE BEFORE ME isn’t what I expected. I’d anticipated the usual story of a battered wife who finally achieves escape from her brute of a husband. It is a tale of victory over abuse, but it’s also the story of three incredible women and the power of love. Elena meets Nicholas at her mother’s funeral and is immediately taken with him. He is handsome, charismatic, and seems to offer her a unique empathy. Soon – much too soon, as it turns out – she and Nicholas have set up housekeeping together. In short order Elena produces two children, and all seems to be well. Except it isn’t.
Nicholas keeps a shrine to his missing-and-presumed-dead wife, Amelia, a woman in whose shadow Elena seems destined to live. Nicholas is obsessed with the drowned Amelia (who might, with a tiny stretch of nomenclature, be called Ophelia – see Shakespeare’s Hamlet) who was driven to her death by his narcissistic abuse. Before too long, Elena realizes that Nicholas is a psychopath, a man hellbent on controlling everything and everyone around him.
Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t read it, suffice to say Elena manages to escape, but at tremendous personal cost. Driven to despair and hanging on to her sanity by her fingernails, she can’t know that the fleeting touches of cold and presentiments of a disembodied presence signify the presence of a most powerful and unlikely guardian angel.
Read this book. Then buy a copy for every woman you love – your mother, your sister, your daughter, your niece, your friend. This is a vivid psychological thriller, but also so much more. It’s evidence of the power of female solidarity. The story told will resonate with you for a long time.