I have my own preferred forms of retreat, not the least of which being an annual solitary escape at xmas to a tiny highway motel about an hour north in the country. The kind of place (I have discovered) divorced men go to lick their wounds and couples whose house burned down await insurance dollars and where you park your car in front of your room, where there’s a metal chair beside the front door if you feel like being conspicuous and a wooden one out back on your tiny private patio. It’s the latter I choose and sit wrapped in a heavy blanket under an awning on a snowy night with a glass of wine or a mug of chai; more stars than at home, the dark is darker, the silence more silent. I’m the only holiday traveller to this lonely sweet place at this time of the year where everyone leaves everyone else alone. I read and write and every night I stamp a labyrinth in the snow behind the motel as I watch the sun set. I eat wonderful meals from my cooler and in the morning I have a square of dark chocolate in bed before breakfast.
I can and I do all of this at home too (not the chocolate in bed and maybe that’s key) but on my retreat it all feels different. That too is key. Not what you do but how it feels.
I’m thinking a lot about all this currently and in the way of how things find you when you need to be found by them, I was found by Kirsteen MacLeod’s ‘In Praise of Retreat’, in which she writes of various retreat-ers, from Thoreau and Celtic hermits to E. Jean Carroll, Emily Dickinson and others whose lifestyle or parts of it demanded serious and regular isolationg from society. A gorgeous and enlightening read in which I’ve learned so much about ’emptying’, including that ‘kil’ is the Celtic word for ‘cell’ and refers to the caves of hermits up and down the Scottish coast.
Each of those place names that begin ‘kil…’ indicate they were once an inhabited space by some monkishly minded soul.
Written in my favourite style, heavily researched but conversational in tone, like lunching with someone whose every word you hang on to the point your soup gets cold and you don’t care one whit. In personal stories of yoga retreats, writing retreats, high and low end, historic and new-fangled retreat facilities in various corners of the world as well as accounts via third parties, MacLeod knows exactly how to balance research with a good anecdote. She tells of people who are drawn to retreats and the different and same things they, and we, are all looking for.
“A retreat is a place, but it is also an act of independence. A resolute effort of will is required. While it’s easier to go with the powerful tide of the mainstream, which requires no thought or cultivation, we can choose to withdraw our attention, step back. Like prayer, piano playing, tennis, yoga and meditation, retreat is a practice –the effort you put in shapes what you get out of it. The practice of retreat attunes you to the extraordinary, to the sacramental world.”
I’ve read other things on solitude that can get preachy or downright ho hum but not here. There isn’t a part of the book that feels heavy-handed, overdone or slow moving including a lovely section on Leonard Cohen that feels fresh with insight, in which she quotes him with this that I love because I love seriousness and it makes me happy to see someone taking it seriously:
“I think there’s an appetite for seriousness… [it] is voluptuous, and very few people have allowed themselves the luxury of it… Seriousness is the deepest pleasure we have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can’t enjoy the deep wells of experience.”
I’d like to paddle in this stream a bit longer, the idea of retreat and solitude, what it means, the various forms it takes, so if you have something to share on the subject, a quote, a photograph, a personal experience, a book, please do. I will be all ears and eyes and gratitude.
Ah, those were the days. When ads had private addresses and manuscripts were typed intelligently by people like Miss W.L. Pope of Handsworth who could spot an obvious slip when they met one.
I found this delightfulness in the sepia tinged pages of The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book 1935, a hard cover, novel-sized book published by A&C Black Limited, Soho Square London, which also includes ads for writing schools, journalism programs, private tuition “ENGLISH FOR AUTHORS AND JOURNALISTS” by Mr. Hubert Wolff, a request for British songs and lyrics (please send to the British Song Society; “write now for a free prospectus”), ads for Literary Agents anxious to read, among other things, the highly sought after “travel and adventure stories from authors who live abroad”.
The actual point of the book is writing markets. And to that end there exists an A-Z listing between the thick block of front and back page advertisements.
And wherein you will find magazines looking for submissions… magazines such as The Aryan Path, founded 1930, India, (“mysticism, philosophy, comparative religions and brotherhood”),
Boys’ Friend Library, founded in 1895 and requesting 64,000 word ‘short’ stories (adventure and mystery),
and The Boys’ Magazine, founded 1887, “stories suitable for boys of better class”, hobbies, handicrafts, stamps, engineering, etc., no fiction and nothing exceeding 600 words” [are we meant to understand that boys of better class have a limited power of attention?],
The Boys’ Own Paper, founded 1879, (“fiction, articles on games, travel, adventure, and construction and other subjects of interest to boys about 12-16 years old. Both stories and articles are acceptable but must be bright and full of incident.”),
Cement and Cement Manufacture, founded 1928, (“articles in any language on the manufacture and testing of Portland cement”),
Dairymaid, The Midland Counties, founded 1928, (“brightly written, informative articles of 1,000 to 1,500 words of interest to homes in large towns in the Midlands, also articles interesting to housewives, including plain needlework, art needlework, knitting and cookery”),
Draper and Drapery Times, (“constructive articles describing better ways and oncoming productions immediately helpful to either the textile manufacturer, wholesale or retail trader”),
Home Companion, founded 1897, (“strong, dramatic serial stories appealing to artisan working girls and women, a love element, quick movement and exciting, homely people, original but human in plot and simply told, 4,000 words”),
Mabs Fashions, (“articles of interest to women”),
Mabs Weekly, (“sister magazine to Mabs Fashions, containing serial stories, dress ideas and renovations, fancy work for the home, beauty and cookery”),
Nuneaton Chronicle, (“uses short informative articles on out of the way Warwickshire archaeology. Payment is not high; the Editor is very courteous to contributors”),
Peg’s Paper, founded 1919, (“weekly fiction paper for girls, short stories 2,000 to 3,500 words, or long stories to 10,000 words, serial stories, a strong love and dramatic interest necessary”),
Post Annual, founded 1921, (“annual popular illustrated magazine dealing with Post Office questions, designed to extend public understanding of postal service, lightly written articles 2,500 to 3,000 words on Post Office matters, stories having a Post Office flavour, humorous drawings dealing with different aspects of the Post Office”),
The edition contains markets in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand, the U.S., as well as notices of literary contests, advice and warnings to composers, info on copyright, libel, agents, pen names, pseudonyms, submission of photographs, censorship, literary prizes, markets for writer/illustrators, for writers of greeting cards, various schools of film and playwriting, and numerous ads similar to the above for intelligent typing and ‘duplicating’ services (“ten pence per thousand words”) by Dorothy Allen, Miss Stuart, Nancy McFarlane, Miss E.M. Shaw, Mrs. Haggard, et al.
Interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, much. Sport, engineering and adventure being encouraged for boys and domestic arts and romance being doled out for girls. Some progress in that area but maybe not enough since 1935.
I’m also sad that stories in many magazines and papers have long gone out of fashion, and that there seem to be fewer (paying) markets for writers (of cement and drapery especially) and saddest of all… the loss of post office intrigue and humour. Surely that is one rich vein waiting to be tapped.
Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.
I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”
In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.
It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.
In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.
Paintings now worth tens of thousands.
But it was never money that inspired her.
“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”
Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?
“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”
It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.
Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.
“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.
“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”
All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.
Image courtesy WikiCommons.
We all have a story or know someone who has one.
A story of abuse.
Sometimes you don’t even know that’s what you’re living.
Sometimes you don’t want to admit you were that stupid (though stupid rarely comes into it), so you trivialize, normalize events.
The details aren’t necessarily the thing, it’s getting out that matters.
It’s telling each other that getting out is possible.
That’s the part worth sharing.
The part where you asked for what you needed. Because that’s the day, the moment in the story where everything changes, when the universe rises up to meet you and begins to lay miracles in your path in more forms than you can dream.
A miracle in the form of a woman, for example, who comes out of her tiny row house two doors down from yours, just as the cab pulls up in front and no one knows you’re leaving, not even her, except now she does (your luggage is a clue) and no words are spoken while you look at each other and remember everything, the reasons you’re leaving, the laughter, the tears, the things you’ve talked about including the joy of hunting wild mushrooms; she doesn’t ask where will you go or how will you get there, she trusts you more than you trust yourself and in this moment that too is everything, because you’ve packed that luggage before and then turned back, but those times she wasn’t there on the street holding her breath on a morning in March, silently sending you some keep-going energy or so it feels when you reflect on that single moment in time all these decades later. That morning when you glanced back at the house, the tiny garden you’d planted, the mail slot you’d dropped the key through, the cat on the other side you’d spent hours saying goodbye to because you were leaving not just a house but a whole country, the note you knew was sitting on the kitchen table — maybe she saw you look, felt your hesitation, whatever it was, it was a gift beyond imagining when she said You are emotionally the strongest person I know.
The sentence stunned me.
It was the opposite of how I felt.
But because of it… because of that sentence… because it was so unexpected and so exactly what I needed to believe and because her saying it made believing possible…
I got into the cab.
I don’t even know if I waved goodbye.
A lifetime later, running workshops in a shelter, a woman told me her story; I’ve forgotten the details but I’ll never forget her saying she was saved the day a stranger in the park happened to ask if she was okay. She’d lied a thousand times before to friends and family and they’d stopped asking. This time she was ready.
It’s all about being ready. For the miracles.
Below is a post I wrote some years ago, dedicated to every woman who’s tried to save her life by making it to a shelter, in celebration of those who’ve made it or who are on their way, and in memory of those who didn’t get out in time.
In a nutshell: personal essays, each focusing on one bird or aspect of birding, as well as a gentle inter-weaving of childhood memories that embrace the disciplines of piano, Russian literature, ballet, which in alternating ways both parallel and contradict the author’s approach to a growing fascination/obsession with birds.
Also in a nutshell: an entirely lovely read.
So lovely in fact that I found myself looking forward to settling down with a chapter or two in the way you might call a friend and say, so what have you learned today about your beloved birds and KNOW you will be getting a fabulous story if only, and maybe especially, about the most ordinary of moments, about how these moments reflect so much more than the moment and how there is always some very great thing learned, about birds, yes, but about self at the same time, in a completely NOT self-focused way.
There is no navel gazing here. Observations, both avian, and self-reflection, come as happy surprises.
Zarankin writes (along with so much else) about getting up in the wee hours, in all weather, driving to meet birding groups in parking lots and from there heading to wherever sightings of note have occurred. She writes about how she can hardly believe she’s doing this, how she notices her house filling up with birding books and décor, her conversation laced with avian facts; she is considering the purchase of a multi-pocketed vest, the likes of which once made her cringe. Having reached her thirties without noticing much more than a robin she is stunned to realize the variety of birds that exist in the city of Toronto and, to be honest, I’m stunned right along with her. How is it I don’t know a nuthatch… have I ever even seen one? Apparently they identify themselves by walking headfirst down tree trunks. And warblers, well, they’re everywhere it turns out, and, get this: there is something called a veery. Also a phalarope, a towhee. These are birds that live… right here.
My mind is blown by how much we don’t know.
This is a book about discovery. Birds, yes. But passion mostly. It’s uplifting in a down to earth way; there are no promises that following your passion will lead you to what you expect, in yourself or otherwise, but, as Zarankin shows by her own example, there’s a very good chance it will lead you to the surprise of your own heart.
“It’s hard to measure my birding progress. Ten years later, I am no longer a neophyte… But I know I’m still far from being a skilled birder.
“…. Maybe the point isn’t about measuring at all; it’s about seeing.”
I am so in love with curbside living.
I get pineapple, bananas, avocado, clementines and various other exotics from Valles (including Covered Bridge chips from New Brunswick; the best); organic apples, potatoes and parsnips, sardines, juice, laundry detergent, dish soap, chick peas, goat yoghurt and a million other wonderful things (and mostly all Canadian brands) from Today’s Natural Solutions; Georgian Bay trout from Healthy Meats; locally grown (and preserved) peaches, homemade sauerkraut, butter tarts, apple cider (non alcohol’d), local greenhouse mesclun and cucumbers (we are SO lucky!!), onions, eggs, cheese, squash (I said butter tarts, right?) from Hy Hope Farm; excellent apple cider (alcohol’d) and homemade mustard from Slabtown Cider; more (Ontario and/or Quebec) cheese from Country Cheese; local frozen veg, pastry dough and potato scones from McMillan Orchards; books from Blue Heron Books and the Whitby Library; joy from my backyard labyrinth and the lake; pizza from Corrados; The Best eggplant parm and The Best parmesan cheese from Antonio’s…
I don’t necessarily do curbside with all of the above but most have that option and every one of them is small and delightful to shop in, careful about protocols, and the staff (in every case) is brilliant. And they are LOCAL.
This isn’t anything new to us, being long-time pooh-poohers of big stores. (Honestly, I can hardly think of one thing I need to go into a giant grocery store for that I can’t get from one of the above-named places, and that includes extraordinary olives.) And other than tropical fruit (and only in winter) we don’t buy out of season, but these days I have an even greater interest in spending my dollars in ONLY small, local, independently owned shops and curbside is just the cherry on top. Like having a personal shopper.
Cannot imagine the hardship so many small businesses have faced this past year. Here’s hoping there’s a groundswell of support that continues down the road.
So grateful to each of my go-to’s for sustenance and nourishment.
Including the lake.
And my labyrinth.
Nourishment comes in many forms.
I’m in no hurry to go back to shaking hands.
Hugs, yes. (Though I have some thoughts on that too.)
But the handshake I think we can maybe scrap forever.
Ugh. I’m thinking suddenly of all the hideous hands I’ve shaken and some really awful handshakes, the limp wrist affairs, the sweaty palms, the vice grips. The creepy lingering ones. Yeah, enough.
“Hello, nice to meet you” can so easily be accompanied by a nod or pirouette, a short expressive dance, a tap dance!, hand over heart, an elbow or ankle bump, a high pitched yip! or big toothy grin. It’s endless really.
Think of all the colds we’d save ourselves.
And the pleasure of meeting would be so much more pleasurable.