Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

(Triggers: physical and mental abuse)

A favourite song and video: “Would I Lie to You,” by Eurythmics. I watched it this evening after responding to a friend’s Facebook call for songs by or about badass women.

The video starts with the band waiting on Annie, who’s really late for the concert they’re giving. She arrives, driven by her lout of a boyfriend, who’s been at her all evening, it seems. As she tells him she may not come home to him tonight and walks away from his abuse, towards the stage entrance, he calls her a “Queen bitch” and adds “I hope your voice gives out”! Annie gets inside, sits before a mirror …

DAVE: Hey, you’re really late. What’s the matter?
ANNIE: Everything’s the matter, that’s all.
DAVE: Don’t worry. Just be yourself tonight.

This video, and especially that little exchange at the start, helped me break up with a guy who’d hit me. We were teenagers. He hit me during a minor dispute — not even a dispute, but a discussion — over what we might do that evening. I declined a suggestion. He punched me on the upper arm, hard enough to make me stagger, then seized my forearm and twisted it behind my back. I had no idea this attack was coming. I was so furious that the second he let me go I belted him one back.

This happened in public, in broad daylight.

He told me to calm down, as if it was my fault.

We were just teenagers, and I had a safe place to go: home. But even as a teenager, this guy tried mind-games on me, tried to convince me that if I somehow hurt or rejected him — he was sensitive and creative, after all, so I had to be careful, ya know — bad shit might happen. Nothing happened afterwards. I lived in dread of him for weeks. He didn’t come near me. We crossed paths a few times later, and I was civil, too polite, really — because I didn’t want anyone to know he’d hit me, and because, I think, I was afraid he’d do it again if I said the wrong thing.

The wrong thing — as if it was my fault.

We were both just teenagers, and he’d got no way to control other parts of my life, like my finances or, as happens now, my phone. So, yes, I could just walk away.

I couldn’t speak of it, though. And I’m pretty damn mouthy. I’ve no doubt there are people out there who hope my voice gives out some day. But I couldn’t speak of this. For years. Because I felt so ashamed of it. And I’d done nothing wrong. One smack and one arm-twist, from one teenage boy, and I couldn’t speak of it.

What does serial abuse do? Hey? An abusive partner who lives with you, has a finger in your bank account, puts surveillance shit on your cell phone: what toll does that take?

I think about him sometimes, wondering if he ever learned to deal with his anger.

I think about battered partners and the smug shit they have to hear from other people, shit like “Just leave,” as though it’s the battered partner’s fault somehow.

It’s never that easy.

Plague doctor

Posted: November 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

I have a recurring nightmare about a plague doctor, one wearing the mask and the long coat. I am lying prostate on a low bed, fevered and still, naked beneath a sheet. I am in a big tent, the light like bronze. Outside: spears, swords, arrows, screams, cries of men and horses. The plague doctor, ducking his head, opens the tent, and, through his dark mask looks down at me. I used to wake up there in sweaty fright; now I recognize the dream when I’m having it, and I try to let it progress, try to coax it. It’s progressed a little further. The plague doctor is trying to tell me something, and I lose his words when I look away.

Here, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris talks about the mask, and the plague, as part of her series Under the Knife.

The lunchtime walk

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

On my lunch break, after a long crutched walk, I sat on a bench beneath a blossoming tree. The blossoms were falling down — pelting, pelting. I shook off blossoms as I stood up. I felt rereshed, blessed. Then I nearly stepped on the dessicated corpse of a rat, likely poisoned (I was near a residential area) and now a feast for flying insects and subject to the heat of the sun.

Novelist and critic Jeff Bursey’s long-form interview with me, about my work, is up at The Winnipeg Review.

In this news story, Azzo Rezori of CBC St John’s discusses a business called Remembrance Diamonds Corp. The remembrance? Taking the ashes of your corpse and turning them into a diamond.

I like the idea of turning something normally considered vile — a dead body — into something normally considered beautiful — a diamond, but I admit, I’m a big baffled by it all. My body is not me; it’s just a temporary cage … a sick and bloated one at that, though I like my hair and eyes. My body is not me, whatever ‘me’ is. Also, a chronically ill body is a study in the idea of nuisance. I don’t think it much matters what happens to my body after I die, provided the body is not in anyone’s way. I’m all for letting it rot back into the soil. When I visited Salem, Massachusetts, in 1996, I visited the Old Burying Ground, which has, of course, some fascinating gravestones. (I love visiting graveyards; I love surrounding myself with lives and stories lived. Also, you can get good character names, mixing up surnames and first names: the dead are kind. I admit, finding the stones of children and infants, or, as happened in the General Prod cemetery here in St John’s, finding the graves of unmarried mothers who died in childbirth — still separated, still ostracized, away from family plots, away from the others — hurts.) Here’s what really got me, though: the trees. Some of Salem’s oldest trees were in and around the Old Burying Ground, and those in the graveyard stood taller, showed brighter (blazing orange and yellow, good New England trees) and had not yet dropped their leaves, while the other trees wept and showed bare patches. In the midst of death, we are in life. 

I know a woman who got a tattoo to mark the death of her mother; the ink was made up of the ashes of her mother’s body. 

How much heat do you need to make a diamond? Out of human ashes?

What do I want? A cheap box, or just a shroud, no embalming, no cremation — let it rot — get the body out of the way as soon as you can (there is a short Baha’i funeral practice that involves some prayers I wouldn’t mind being said), maybe listen to a few bits of my favourite music, and, if you’re so inclined, have a party afterwards. If I’ve loved, and lived with purpose, I won’t be forgotten.

Gems wander. They like to fall down drains, into cracks, out of tight and sweaty grips. What happens if one loses the diamond? What, precisely, is lost?

In the summer of 2003, I got the chance to attend a week-long writing workshop at the Humber School for Writers. I took a scarce five days of vacation time from my day job —  scarce because I’d been ill and kept burning through vacation time for sick time — and to boot, I got a lot of mockery for it: ‘You’re using vacation time to go sit in a classroom, to work? You’re crazy, Michelle.’

I heard ‘You’re crazy’ a lot. You’re crazy, Michelle. Who do you think you are, anyway, you some girl from Newfoundland who can write a radio commercial, oh, yay you, so that means you can write fiction?

I didn’t mock anyone else’s choice of how they spent their vacation time. I just smiled, and drank my coffee. 

One person who did not mock me was my husband. He agreed to stay on his own with our children, then 2 and 5, while I flew off to Toronto to focus on my oh-so-precious work. He agreed with great encouragement, as though it were a given I should want to, and be able to, do this: no fuss, no complaint, not a flicker of ‘How could you leave me and your babies like this?’

A few days later, I did feel like I’d abandoned my babies, but that’s another story.

The writing students got assigned to a mentor, who would evaluate manuscripts and lead morning workshops. When applying, we could indicate our first choice of mentor. I can’t recall who I asked for. I hoped a faint hope to get to meet Alistair MacLeod  and say I admired his work. My father was paying for the workshop, which included residence and some food; I jumped into a debt hole to pay my airfare, while my husband was unemployed: super-responsible, no? Things worked out okay. I got in, got a scholarship, and got assigned to a mentor whose work I knew and respected. On Sunday, we all got lanyards with our names and animal stickers on them, animals indicating which group we were in. I still have mine — a ladybug.  I also got a fright when MacLeod, meeting us all for the first time, addressing us all by surname, fixed his eyes on me and rumbled: “Butler Hallett. Hmm, yes. I know who YOU are.” 

What? Why? What the fuck did I do? 

A mite anxious, I slept badly that night. Monday morning, we got at it. First up: Lendrum. 

Bonnie Lendrum. She’d been a nurse, watching people suffer fear, heal, and die, and she was working on a manuscript about a family man who develops aggressive cancer. The novel itself needed structure and character work, but her prose, clear and clean, invited a reader in. Considering my own tangled manuscript, mired in poor narrative strategy, I thought: What the fuck am I doing here? 

I had no idea Bonnie was suffering paroxysms of anxiety, fearing she, too, had deluded herself, fearing she  should just go back to her science background and not bother with fiction. 

That decision would have resulted in loss. Bonnie’s sense of empathy is keen, as one might hope for in a nurse. A sense of empathy is needed for writing  fiction, too — for writing good fiction, anyway. Bonnie clued in to something about fiction that many established fiction writers seem to miss: a need for connection beyond the surface appeal of plot. Who are these characters, and how does their highly specific story shoot light back into the universal concerns of being human? Her manuscript that week at Humber? It’s become the novel Autumn’s Grace. It’s about painful shortcomings in palliative care for one specific family; it’s about how we face death.

So a bunch of us were crazy that week, hauling around manuscripts. We were a diverse group. It taught me that there is likely no such thing as Being a Writer, and thank fuck for that, because such thinking immediately sets up boxes and boundaries and prisons: I can’t Be a Writer because I’m not from an arts background / not living in a cabin in the woods / not male enough / not female enough / not not not … And this leads to defenses and walls going up, brittle walls built out of fear and a need for power and standing, defenses which then becomes tools of attack to belittle and step over one’s peers … to a lot of time wasted proving I Am A Writer. 

I see it. I see it all the time, a writer so busy Being a Writer that the work, and the best things about that person, wither and fall to the dust. 

Fuck Being a Writer. 

You want to write? Hey? You got something to say? Then fucking write it. Write your arse off. Kill your sleep. Hear ‘you’re crazy.’ Never mind fearing your background isn’t writerly enough; it will help you, if you let it, not hinder you. Develop your empathy — because this has got to hurt. It has got to hurt. If it’s coming easily to you, and for you, something might be wrong. 

I got to see Bonnie again this weekend, as she was in town for The Writers’ Union of Canada annual general meeting . I am not a TWUC member, so we sneaked off for a somewhat illicit lunch, joined by her lovely husband, who took the photo of us I’ve posted here.

I try to practice and cultivate gratitude; sometimes I find blessings, like stars in a dark sky. Today, I am grateful for Bonnie Lendrum. 


A roughness in the floor

Posted: May 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

I am considering ego this morning, my own included, ego in the arts: an emotional minefield. The dangers become clear in social interaction as one artist might belittle another, not via a thoughtful criticism of their work but by a dismissal of the other artist as a person. If gender is part of that conversation, then a female artist might get dismissed on a rhetoric of her worth as only an object, a rhetoric of whether she is deemed first, and foremost, worth fucking. A conversation about ideas might devolve into a slimy puddle of a personal attack, the idea neglected to fray in the wind. A mutual paranoia might infest a group: –Whom does she know; is he a threat; is she useful to my social climbing; how many useful contacts can collect here tonight, contacts who can help me later?

Then there might be backstabbing, especially deplorable for its dishonesty, its hypocrisy. 

The will to power is a common human failing. 

How much of our art comes down to a why? That is, why does one do it? Beyond the shoves and restless sighs in the middle of the night, I mean, beyond the sense many artists have of lacking a choice in the matter. Why bother with the agonies of creation, revision, performance, exposure, and rejection? Because one has something to say? Ideally, yes. But why say it: to bludgeon others with one’s brilliance; to mark one’s territory; to create a sense of fulfilment and joy; to serve something greater that oneself?

If ego is a prison, how much do those pocked bars and stone walls, those mirrors, gaol one’s art? 

I want to serve something greater than my little self. Yet how much of that sentiment is still my own ego, my urge to scream –Look at me! Look what I can do! 

Nothing here is a new observation or a new idea. Nor is what gnaws me a new fire, or a fire lit just for me. I’m seeking clarity here. I keep stumbling, falling, and my knees are so stiff.