Other (not always) wordless friends:
Ten thousand years ago when summers were long and the sun shone every day, when you could play outside up and down the street after supper until the streetlights came on and the lawns had that almost-evening coolness that felt so good on bare legs and made a soft place to lie down and wonder how many leaves or blades of grass or grains of sand or snowflakes there were in the world and if numbers big enough had even been invented, when afternoons were lived on bicycles, beside the lake, or in trees, and long before your parents grew old, long before you even knew such a thing was possible, in the days when people were still called Mrs. whether they liked it or not — Mrs. Moes made some cookies and brought them over on a blue plate.
You had at least three at the picnic table with a glass of Koolaid (flavour forgotten) and your parents had coffee and your mother may have been a little miffed at how well those cookies were going down… it’s possible she said something like too buttery if you ask me… and when the plate was empty and washed and you were sent next door to return it to Mrs. Moes and to remember to say thank you…. you could hardly believe it when she smiled and said You’re very welcome and did not refill the plate.
Years and years later, in your twenties, you asked Mrs. Moes for the recipe for “those cookies that day” and she knew exactly what you meant and she recited the recipe to you right there as you scribbled down what she said.
Maybe you got something wrong because they didn’t turn out anything like you remembered. Or maybe the magic was in the blue plate or the surprise of the gift or the happy unlimited picnic table munching.
Did she ever ask you how they turned out?
Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t remember.
Did you ever make them again?
But you still have the recipe you scribbled that day.
Its purpose no longer to magic up a plate of possibly too buttery cookies, but as a portal to a time of cool nighttime lawns and numbers too big to imagine.
I’ve said this before but am always happy to say it again: my favourite books are those where nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.
Ray Robertson is brilliant at this seemingly nothing but really everything approach to storytelling, most recently in his novel, 1979.
In a nutshell, the book is about a year in the life of Tom Buzby, 13 year old paper boy in small town Ontario. He has a mother, a father, an older sister, lives in an ordinary neighbourhood, has ordinary friends and pretty much lives the ordinary life of a thirteen year old paperboy in small town Ontario.
That’s the bit where nothing happens.
And it’s essential.
It’s the yin to the yang.
The yang being the part where whole worlds change, the part where you pay attention to life or you don’t. The book is about paying attention.
Three things are happening in the novel:
1— Tom Buzby goes about his ordinary life… ordinary for him, delightful for the reader… this is a kid who loves books and music and is having his horizons expanded in both departments. Being privy to his inner thoughts is a joy in itself… so honest are his meanderings it’s hard not to flinch a wee bit as we recognize our own young selves (especially if we, too, were kids who loved books and music and our own company and felt a little different, a touch insecure and out of step with all the ‘supposedly’ cool kids). Tom’s the kid with the North Stars when everyone else is wearing Nike.
2—Tom’s family goes about their business. His mother has found god and run away with the local preacher to open a courier company. His dad is currently making ends meet as a tattoo artist, and his sister is figuring out a way to get to Toronto so she can lose her virginity. When she nearly dies Tom uncharacteristically says a prayer and plays (recently discovered) Glenn Gould “…because it’s the closest thing to religious music I owned.”
And we’re privy to that through regular interruptions to the the larger story by way of headlines and light journalistic type slice-of-life pieces (that you would love to read in actual newspapers) about people who appear in the book (and in our life) like extras in a movie. Those surrounding us in our communities, towns and cities, whether we know them or not, and whether or not we even notice them.
What it seems Robertson has done is create his own version of Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, a book that uses poetry to chronicle the lives of residents in a small town. Tom is introduced to the book by the friend of his older sister (and I’m introduced to the book by Robertson’s book, by this book). The process feels a little like what’s known as the Droste effect, where the image you’re looking at is holding the image of what you’re looking at and so on. Like the old Pot of Gold chocolates cover.
These headlines are the stories we’d like told about ourselves… or that would be so useful to know about the ‘extras’ on our own movie sets. The waitress, the cashier, the history teacher, the widower, the lawyer (who, hilariously, if you like lawyer jokes, pretty much has no story), the guy who whistles for no apparent reason, the Camaro that drives too fast down a side street.
And the old woman who lives in a shack… and who one day dies “she just died… and there was no need to find out when or where she was born or what her last name was… and the only ones who really missed her were the cats… until they, too, forgot all about her.”
Even death gets its own headline, its own ‘voice’ through which it offers advice for the living, which could easily be cliche but doesn’t come off as such in this context. If anything, it’s a reminder. If you’re lucky, an epiphany.
Robertson also nails the era through language, music, politics, clothing, food and drink, the change to metric, the way the indie corner stores slowly became Mac’s Milk and how the product lines, the shelving, the lighting just looked and felt so different. He conveys small town Ontario, with its factories and clotheslines, beautifully, and with a nod of obvious affection, which it so richly deserves and too rarely sees in literature.
A small part of the book but not a small part of the story is Tom’s near death experience in a sewer, which everyone assumes he must have learned so much from but which wasn’t the case. “It felt as if I’d be letting them down if all I told them was the truth.” And therein lies the nub of it all, the thing every single one of us can relate to… this idea that on some level we’re fake, not good enough. As if the ordinariness of our lives just doesn’t quite cut it.
There are those who may only see 1979 as a book where not much happens… but they’d be missing the whole point. It’s actually more of a clever trick wrapped in a book and what it does most brilliantly is show us how we’re conditioned (in literature and in life) to notice only the shiny objects, the noise, to watch the magician’s hand, even though we know full well that’s not where the magic is.
I don’t care for the word ‘appropriate’ or its variations. Unless we’re talking how sandals aren’t appropriate for hiking in Antarctica or coal is not an appropriate gift for a miner, I’d prefer it not be used… or, more accurately, overused.
For example, in the context of language, inappropriate behaviour or messages, including those that, oh, I don’t know, threaten job security so an MPP in Ontario can get a date, let’s say, which is a very different thing than bringing coal to a miner. One is inappropriate, the other is pathetic.
See what I mean? Approprite/inappropirate are often words automatically used when other words would be more accurate.Words such as insensitive, racist, anti-semitic, sexist, unkind, or downright stupid and uninformed.
I’m not a fan of political correctness generally. I’m a fan of attempting to be a decent person, or as decent as one can be… and when one is not decent, to be the kind of person that owns up to that indecency by saying the indecency was wrong. Not inappropriate. Not politically incorrect. Just plain wrong.
The terms ‘political correctness’ and ‘appropriate behaviour’ suggest a sign of the times… the perception of a complicated era wherein complicated things need to be memorized. As if we should all make a list of Things To Say and Do in Various Situations and in the Presence of Certain People These Days, rather than acquiring the quality of giving a rat’s ass about people, generally.
It’s the difference between doing what’s decent versus doing what makes you appear to be decent.
I heard someone recently whinging about how things “used to be simpler’, that it “used to be okay” to say certain things, to raise a fist and make a joke about knocking a woman into next week… it’s a joke! Can’t you take a joke? It used to be okay to say these things. God. How is anybody supposed to know what’s appropriate anymore??
Here’s what’s getting lost in that argument… it was never appropriate.
Not in the good old days when Jackie Gleason did it, not when Ricky Ricardo put Lucy over his knee because she blew the housekeeping budget. Not any time before or since or in the future has it ever or will it ever be okay to disrespect anyone or put your rights above theirs.
Still, it seems there are a few confused souls among us, so here’s a couple of pointers that I hope will help.
♦ If it comes up that you sent emails to someone threatening their job security unless they _________ [fill in the blank], and nobody wants to hang out with you anymore, do not grumble how times have changed. Because that suggests the problem is the times, not you. Be accurate, say that you are an ass, that you have no consideration for others and especially do not value or respect the people to whom you’ve written the emails.
♦ Stop hiding behind variations on the word appropriate.
♦ And spare me the scripted apologies designed to get you out of sticky wickets rather than taking the three minutes necessary to actually consider your actions.
♦ Consider the fact that women are people (they have been since 1929).
♦ Consider that anyone, regardless of gender, might appreciate (instead of platitudes and political correctness) the sense that their feelings matter and to not have to constantly explain what those feelings are and why they matter, not to mention worry about your feelings in the process.
Here’s an example:
You step on someone’s toe . They say ouch.
a) be pissed off that they didn’t just keep quiet about it
b) say oh don’t be so stupid, I didn’t hurt you
c) sigh dramatically in the way of those who must occasionally throw the little people a crumb, and say fine, I’m soooorrreeee that I apparently stepped on your stupid toe, are you happy now?
d) send flowers, chocolates, jewellery, money, in lieu of recognizing their feelings and then refer to the injured party as a liar when said ‘gifts’ don’t work their intended magic
e) you can say (and actually mean it), oh, shit, did I step on your toe? What a moron I am, what a clutz. Sorry about that, are you okay?
Bottom line— intention, sincerity, genuine respect for another person is much more than appropriate behaviour.
Way more than optics.
p.s. This particular rant is about the treatment of women, but with a bit of re-jigging and imagination, it would easily apply to the treatment by anyone, of anyone, of any gender, class, culture, religion, hair colour or shoe size.
I’m not a joiner of things, not a clubbish person generally. This has always been the case, although when I was about ten I invented The Boogie Woogie Club and invited friends to join. Amazingly, on opening day, a few showed up in my parents’ basement where we sat around until someone… Kathleen Erickson possibly… said so what’s this club about… I mean what do we do?
Good question, Kathleen, I thought. But I didn’t have an answer. To this day I have no idea what the Boogie Woogie club was supposed to be or why I’d thought of starting it. I do remember seeing the words boogie woogie in a song title in one of my lesson books for accordion and, knowing me,
I probably just wanted to incorporate it… somewhere. A club with no purpose would have seemed as good as anything.
The club disbanded shortly after Kathleen’s unanswered question and we headed over to the school to do long jumps in the sand pits. Or similar.
Which more or less brings me to 2018.
Where I find myself part of another group, only this time I’m not the inventor (which bodes well for the group’s future).
Also, this group has that essential ingredient: a purpose.
The Wild Nellies is the result of two women having coffee one day and wondering what they could do to benefit the lives of other women, specifically women moving on from abusive relationships. What they landed on was the idea of women celebrating women through various disciplines — visual art, music, literature, sharing their own work or the work of someone that’s inspired or influenced them in some way. The event would be free, they decided, and held in one of the area’s most wonderful spaces, and all of it would be done to bring attention to the needs of a local women’s shelter.
That they take their name from Nellie McClung — writer, legislator, suffragist, activist, public speaker, one of Canada’s original feminists, and a member of The Famous Five, who met over tea to change the political shape of this country by having it declared (after extraordinary campaigning) that women were indeed ‘people’ — is most fitting and wonderful (not the least of which wonderfulness being the coffee/tea origins).
Women have always found ways around being invisible, of having no voice, of being ‘talked over’ and told to be quiet, that their passion and their interest in fairness is too ‘shrill’—
—Yet despite not having their voices listened to, and the sometimes even greater obstacles of being isolated, unable to speak the language, being penniless, afraid for their lives, or tied down with childcare, women continue to find ways to meet, to gather, to band together and bring about change for the betterment of not just themselves, but for all women, for community, the benefits of which ultimately reach beyond gender.
Which brings us to 2018 again.
And the announcement today of new legislation that requires employers in Ontario to pay all workers equal wages for equal work. While it has, for some time, been technically illegal to base wages on gender… until now it’s been okay to pay part-time workers less than full-time for the exact same job. And those part-time workers are often women.
It seems there’s no end of bits to take care of and so the tradition of women gathering continues.
Put the kettle on!
One of the the things I love best about Nellie McClung is that she used her fiction, her writing, as a springboard to discuss relevant issues of the day. This was unusual for a woman at the time. Women were meant to write about fluff and leave it at that.
And it’s what I love best about her namesakes, The Wild Nellies, who propose to do the same thing… use their art to bring attention to important issues.
I’m so happy to be a small part of their first ‘performance’ at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery on April 8th, along with eleven other women who will use their artistic voices to honour and celebrate the power of female creators in sculpture, film, theatre, illustration, literature, music and more, and in the process hopefully be part of that women’s domino effect that continues to try and make this pale blue dot a fairer, safer, and better place for us all.
Note: I have no problem at all making an exception to my otherwise anti-clubbishness ways for these chaps. Also, I think long-jumping might actually kill me at this point.
The brown and white border collie pulling its person with all its might along the walking path and the person stopping to tell me her dog is actually a good walker but simply excited because they’ve rounded the corner that means the beach is just there… which is where they play ‘stick’. The dog is still pulling on its leash like crazy and you can practically hear it saying, yeah, yeah, they don’t care, let’s go already! And in an instant they’re gone.
The ridiculously ideal stone skipping conditions of the day and the question: why is stone skipping not an Olympic event??
The seagull that keeps flying past when I’m not looking and by the time I point my camera it’s miles away and I swear I hear it chuckling with its pals.
The people who walk by deep in conversation about how someone recently found a piece of blue and white crockery washed up on the sand, smooth as beach glass, and which may very well be from a pirate ship. (Because what other possible explanation could there be??)
A ginkgo leaf three hundred miles from the nearest ginkgo tree.
The way you never feel entirely alone in the company of trees.
Abandoned things that are litter.
And abandoned things that are not.
And abandoned things that are maybe litter…
or maybe secret codes for travellers.
And, best of all, sitting on warm sand surrounded by ten million plain stones and spying a single black one with sparkles that reminds me of every sparkly stone I ever found on every beach when I was a kid and how I was convinced they were diamonds (and still kind of am) and how I was stunned that no one was as excited about this discovery as I was.
And I still kind of am.