Thursday, 25 April 2013

Podcast Thursdays

I was going to call this post Podcast Wednesdays, but I didn't find time to write one yesterday! So this new and hopefully regular weekly post is hereby christened, Podcast Thursdays. It bodes well, doesn't it?

I am excited about this idea. In the past few weeks, I've frequently listened to podcasts of interviews with or about authors whenever I get the chance (I should probably listen to music more, but I am an information hound through and through).

Today at the gym I found this podcast of CBC's lovely Shelagh Rogers interviewing one of my favourite poets, Lorna Crozier. I posted one of Lorna's poems, with her permission, here. 

In Shelagh's interview, Lorna discusses and reads from The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. These aren't poems, she claims, calling them miniature essays, but they hold all the power of the poet's facility with language and flexibility with images. I mean, she anthropomorphizes a fridge! I love that.

Off the top, Shelagh mentions attending a workshop with a Native woman, who says that everything, every object has a spirit, and we should be thanking the chair, for instance, for holding us up. I've always been quite an animist at heart, so I have no trouble feeling this way. However, I notice that it's easier to thank an object's spirit if that object is attractive.

If it's aesthetically pleasing, I honour it. 

Display it. 

Cherish it.**

If it's ugly or utilitarian and made from plastic, for instance, I think of environmental degradation and I'm not so grateful for its spirit. Yet the plastic object didn't ask to be here, didn't ask to be created and be useful for awhile and then to sit in a landfill for too many years.

I digress. But the interview made me think, so if you're in the mood to ponder life's big questions and be entertained by two lovely women, have a listen. Lorna is funny, Shelagh is funny (I laughed out loud on the cross trainer at one point). I really like the sound of Lorna's thinking. At one point, she's talking about jellied salad and Jello and says, "I think it trembles because it's embarrassed to call itself food."

They also speak of the soul. Where is the soul in the body? Lorna believes it moves from one part to another. She tells a story told to her by another poet who was also a doctor. He speaks of a patient he was operating on to remove a brain tumor. The skull is open, the knife begins to slice and the patient cries out: "Leave my soul alone! Leave my soul alone!"

Here is one piece she read in the interview, to give you a taste.

Snow (from The Book of Marvels by Lorna Crozier)
How much snow and grief have in common. Their connection with the seasons, their silence, their slow accumulation. Consider the woman who, sensing the hush of the first snowfall, gets out of bed in the early light of morning and lifts a man's loafers from the back of the closet, pulls on her boots and parka and steps outside. Placing her hands inside his shoes, she bends, plants his footprints next to her own, straightens, takes another step, and does the same thing again and again, all the way from the porch to the garden gate. There, she stops and looks back. His tracks beside hers. She has matched the drag of one heel and the longer stride. The snow briefly holds them, then, impeccably falling, fills them in.

Some are much more lighthearted, so don't be scared away. It's not a "heavy" interview, but I won't spoil it by chattering on and on. Oh, too late? Yes, without further ado, Lorna Crozier, Canadian poet extraordinaire.

** Note: the gorgeous big turquoise vase with the darker blue "drips" running down it and the three bowls on the table were a gift to the house, bought by yours truly, and are made by a potter whose work can be viewed here. 

Monday, 22 April 2013


I went out for a walk early yesterday afternoon (to get fish for dinner) and ended up coming home four or five hours later (just in time to cook said fish). La famille did wonder a bit at that—I should have told  them I'd caught the slippery fellow myself...they might have taken the bait (ahem).

I ended up on a nature trail I'd never been on before, so I was glad to have taken the camera. It's good to know there are still places I've never seen within walking distance.

I was happy to see green finally, but surprised that the shy buds didn't curl up into themselves and hide at the sight of me—so timid the little tendrils have been in this Most Reluctant Spring.

Later, I studied the shots at home and realized that they were more tightly themed than I'd first thought. I found that either pairs of photos or in some cases one photo on its own presented two dramatically different interpretations depending upon perspective. It was the distance that time provided that enabled me to change my perspective.

This tree that's growing horizontally over a ravine, for instance: is this its canopy or roots?

This view is beautiful, but dangerous.

Do pine needles prick or are they soft?

Do the same pictures in black and white change the tree's visual texture?

Is this a troll bridge or a dinosaur carcass or scrap lumber nailed onto a tree long ago fallen?

These flowers were rare bursts of colour in a grey ravine—not much when you stood back and looked at the wider landscape.

But look closely. Already a bee, slow-moving and groggy from winter, is hungrily feasting on pollen—up close we can see the miraculous symbiotic relationship that animates the landscape. Up close, we have new information about the mostly brown and grey "dormant" forest. Going in tight, we gain a new perspective. And what of the bee's perspective? Imagine that!

This is what we do in writing, too—see different perspectives, different points of view. It's essential in bringing characters to life, but it can also make writing difficult. My imagination allows me to see each character in many different ways, to hear their side of the story. Is the archetypal Evil Stepmother really evil? Does she have to be? What made her so? Couldn't she be terribly misunderstood? Or maybe she just is what she is, as a willow tree is not an ash, maple, oak or pine. It's a willow.

Or is it? Perspective and imagination can transform this tree.

When I see a willow, especially in Spring, its boughs are draped in jewels. They are ribbons of gold embroidered with green and pink tourmalines. In even the most gentle breeze they sway seductively, sleepily, and I imagine long-haired water nymphs or ondines rising from dark, weedy pools to tempt mortal men into marriage and thereby gain souls.

Undine by John William Waterhouse.

The Rhinemaidens by Arthur Rackham.

Rhinemaidens Warn Seigfried by Alan Rackham.
And that, I am EXCITED to say, has given me a clue into a particular character and into the plot itself of my story. Perspective and time has given me insight into something that has puzzled me for the last few days. Perspective, time, and the generosity of the Nature Muse to bestow, once again, the gift of inspiration to the writer who was feeling a tad confused before she went out to the forest to get a fish.

           I'm very grateful. 
Happy Earth Day, sweet planet. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Literary Landscapes Part Two

A few posts back I looked at how an admired author's use of setting affected my experience of her novel. Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea showed me how a little detail goes a long way when it comes to setting. Upon revisiting the novel after many years, I was surprised to discover that she had crafted a truly memorable setting with only a few judicious and evocative details that supported the story. The setting wasn't nearly as central to the story as I had imagined it to be when I first read it —not central, but still essential.

In my work, nature is a jumping off point for setting. My observation of it, my reverence for it, shapes what I'm writing because it shapes my experience of life.

Touching base with nature, letting landscapes enter into me, and then using that new knowledge to re-imagine landscapes for my own made-up universe, that's an essential part of the writing process for me.

Everywhere I go, I search out natural wonders that might inspire and enrich my writing.

On a recent trip to British Columbia, I found fodder for a great fantasy world, for I discovered where the little people live...and the not so little people.

I can tell you, this Green Man took my breath away. Nature did this? Wow! I kept thinking there must be a sculptor hiding nearby. Of course, the sculptor was right in front of me all the time. As soon as I met this guy, I realized how far I could go working tree-lore into my story. Nothing I could make up would be more magical than this fellow in the woods.

This island is enchanted, of course. I'm sure it will fit it to my story. But if not this story, another.

And that is how I move through landscapes. I use the photographs to file away digitally and mentally my literary landscapes. They will surface again when needed, when space in a story opens up and invites them in.

On Vancouver Island I found the archetypal fairy tale bridge. Oh, I was so grateful. Mossy, and ancient—I imagine a zillion different scenes and characters emerging from this landscape.

Here is a very different landscape. I can't tell yet if it will be useful to this story I'm working on now. My young heroine and her friends are on quite a journey, but I'm not sure open ocean or sea coasts will be part of it. I offer the images anyway, to examine how dramatically different landscapes and settings affect mood in a story. That's not news, of course. But it's still good to remind myself to be judicious in adding imagined environments to a piece. I go back to Jean Rhys to learn judiciousness.

The islands of Indian Arm near Vancouver will be in a story one day, I hope. Mystical.

These seals are clearly otherworldly. They were in a harbour when I met them, waiting for fishermen to throw them scraps. I'm told it is their routine to show up just before dusk, as the fishermen clean their catches and toss fish heads and entrails (yummy!). My friends told me that when they lived on one of the smaller Gulf Islands, harbour seals like these joined them for a play in the water. I hope to be so lucky one day!

But the story that I'm consumed with now is one of forests—a huge part of the piece takes place in the gentle, mossy green forests inspired by both cedar groves in Ontario and the amazing rain forests of B.C.

A forest invites you to examine light and dark, bringing to mind the conflict of good and evil, an essential element in folk and fairy tales.

But without the dark, what would this picture be? This picture reminds me that one reveals the other. It is only with both light and dark that the forest's beauty emerges. That's something to think about. 

Forest brooks and springs play a big part in the story. I am taking inspiration from archetypes like the Keeper of the Well.

Groves are key to the story, too. Secretive places with strong energy, they are.

The interdependence of life in a forest ecosystem infuses the story organically, but not necessarily overtly.

I explore how interaction with the forest ecosystem—the reverence we feel if we walk carefully there —can lead to a worshipful relationship with woodland, one that brings certain unexpected gifts to my heroine.

Mysteries are an essential part of the forest. The unknowable. The underground, hidden power of the tree is a great metaphor for the mystery of creation. The tree of life is a powerful motif. It's central to my own life, so it has to be central to this work.

But I'm also interested in the more menacing subalpine woods of the Rockies. The archtypal dark forest.

The first time I travelled to real mountains I was frightened and felt claustrophobic. Why claustrophobic when I was in the midst of what seemed an infinite wilderness?

I think it was the looming nature of mountains and the dark conifers that live there. They really close in upon you.

They evoke awe, where fear and wonder collide and make one feel very small indeed. I will draw on those memories/emotions to test my heroine. She just has to go to the mountains! Adversity abounds in such a setting!

These are some ways that I am piecing together a fantasy world for my characters. This world of ours is rich. I hope I do it justice in my work.

Thursday, 11 April 2013


I refuse to show you what it looks like outside my window today. I refuse to look. Okay, I just peeked. It is white and wet. They are calling for freezing rain by the afternoon commute. They did not call for snow, but that is what is falling and ACCUMULATING right now.

Being Canadian, I love to moan about the weather, no matter what it's doing. This Eeyore-like approach to meteorological conditions is a defense mechanism, of course. It helps me bear up under the heavy weight of disappointment. Expecting the worst weather-wise means never being crushed when it snows in April.

But I'm changing, I think. I'm hoping more, which is why I'm peppering this post with pictures that I took a few years ago on a garden tour on magical Ward's and Algonquin Islands. (Find out more about the Toronto Islands here. )

Just to look at these pictures in the midst of an April snowstorm feels like a defiant act of hope.


So, what is all this about personal transformation and hope?

It began when my indoor cat escaped and was lost. I was desperate to find him, and I walked the neighbourhood calling and calling his name (and delivering hundreds of fliers). As I walked and called, I felt how hard it was to hope for something that seemed hopeless. This neighbourhood is a dramatic intersection between built and wild environments. Ravines filled with coyotes, foxes, raccoons and peregrine falcons carve through the landscape, as does a busy six-lane highway lined with strip malls and questionable motels.

Hoping that my pampered indoor feline survived his first foray into the Big Wide World took guts. I felt brave as I called his name. I felt faithful. I knew the odds were miserable, and that's what made my act of hope so poignantly courageous.

As I thought about this partnership between hope and bravery, I realized it applied to so many acts.


Gardening is an act of hope. Who can plant a tree without hope? It is impossible! Who can dig with her hands and not feel hope for the cool dirt that is our Earth? Such an act of bravery and hope it is to plant and tend and love a garden.

And here is another aspect of the nature of hope.

What gave me the strength to keep calling for Jet, releasing his name into the quiet mornings on streets still sleeping? After all, I did not know if he was close by, miles away, dead or just alone and terrified in some dark, close hiding space.

It was love that kept me calling. Hope springs forth from love.

Losing Jet showed me that hoping is not a foolish, empty act, but one requiring great courage. Hoping to make the world better—through gardening, easing a lost pet's suffering, writing a letter to the government about gun control, praying for an abused child unknown to you who is alone somewhere out there in the world—these are acts of immense bravery, not pointless petitions to an uncaring universe.


I'll add one more act of bravery to the list. Writing fiction. Writing your first work of fiction, with no guarantee it will see the light of day as a published piece, doing it anyway because you have a story to tell and only you can tell it—that's brave.

And audacious. 

And hopeful!


So that is how things have changed in my world. I know more deeply that I simply must do what calls to me, and do it bravely, hopefully and with love. It's so very hard to hope without any guarantee that the suffering of innocents will cease, that the cat will be found, that spring will come, that the Earth will survive humanity, that our words will one day live beyond our hard drive...

...but you just have to do it anyway. Hope for more. Act with love. 

That is something—no, that's everything.


P.S. Someone found our cat hiding under their deck,
recognized him from the flier and returned him to us! We are so fortunate!
And I'm still writing.