this is not a review: ‘the outport people’, by claire mowat

 

I have no idea where I got this book nor how it came to be included in my winter reading. I haven’t been talking to anyone about Newfoundland or outports and the only aquatic thing I’ve had on my mind recently is the Georgian Bay trout we get via a local fisherman. But there it was on my To Be Read pile so I casually opened it and wondered if (assumed that) Claire Mowat was related to Farley. She is. His wife. And it was with Farley that she lived in an outport on the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1962 to 1970.

That pretty much right there is the story. Except for the details. Because life in an outport, apparently, is/was not heavy on drama, intrigue, or big-time action, but details… oh yes. Oodles.

An outport, by the way, is a small, isolated fishing community almost always without roads. Access to ‘anywhere’ is by boat only, which means during the LOOOONG winters… there is no access to ‘anywhere’. Due to their isolation these communities became a lifestyle unto themselves and in their own way thrived up until the 1970’s when outside influences entered into things and changed that lifestyle (not for the better), after which residents were given incentives to move inland. Many moved entire houses, floated them along the coast, because they had no money to buy new. And a way of life vanished.

Mowat was there, unknowingly, for what would be the last decade of that old-world outport life. She shares those remnants by being an excellent observer of nuance and keeping herself in or out of the story in all the right ways.

The Outport People is billed as a fictionalized memoir but it’s generally acknowledged that the only fictionalized bits are names and the occasional need for artistic license in order to make whole cloth of the ‘details’ and shape the story. Capturing the essence of this now lost way of life was, after all, the point of writing the book, something that’s clear from the reading. You can tell Mowat was truly in love with outport life and deeply respectful, in awe even, of the people who lived it.

What comes off as most extraordinary is that they, the residents, seemed oblivious to the increasingly modern world going on around them. More importantly, that’s pretty much the way they liked it. Most people never once in their life set foot outside their remote community and when then did, didn’t much like what they saw.

“In 1939, when war broke out, Ezra was one of the first men in Baleena to volunteer for service in the British Merchant Marine. He was then close to being fifty years old. He made many stormy crossings of the North Atlantic in submarine-hunted convoys, oiling machinery in the throbbing engine room of an ancient freighter. In the port cities of England he first encountered a way of life that was not the way of Baleena. He had never seen so many buildings so close to one another and he marvelled that human beings could bear to live like that. No one ever invited him into a house there, and the pubs and teashops he visited were damp, chilling places that numbed your feet and soul. He was never warm in England. Even the poorest house in Newfoundland, he reckoned, had a kitchen that was warmer than an English castle.”

Once that ‘modern world’ began creeping in via telephones and televisions in the mid to late 1960’s (but remained a rarity in most homes); when the post office was rebuilt and the postmaster of 35 years, who knew everyone by name, retired and was replaced with a key to your own P.O. box so that there was no one to speak with at what used to be a communal hub; when the occasional car began to appear and the fish began to disappear along with the fish plants along with the young people who could no longer hope to make a living, changing the cycle of families so that elderly parents who were once cared for by their kids were now left to grow old alone…  nothing was ever the same or as good in its maybe-it’s-crazy-but-it’s-worked-for-generations way.

But all this comes at the end of the book and the end of the decade. By which time Mowat has painted a picture of a strangely beautiful world… beautiful despite the fact that no one has more than a few dollars at any given moment,  no reliable medical services, no actual shops (back to no one has any money to buy anything), limited food sources, and despite the howling cold weather and brutal life of families who fish for a living or work for the fishing industry (and receive ridiculously little $$ for it)… despite all that and more, there’s a warmth, from the people themselves, from the way they share what little they have, looking in on neighbours to make sure they’re okay, the way children have ten thousand chores but are also free to run and play and discover their enormous yet tiny world because there is nothing else, not a single other thing, to distract them. There’s a complete absence of fear (other than what weather and sea and fishing companies pose).

And the colours! in this grey landscape where no deciduous trees exist… the bright shiny orange of kitchen walls, a red painted floor, yellow table, lime green chairs, a turquoise exterior. (The fishing boats, however, are all proudly dory buff. A kind of beige. Which makes no sense to me… I’d have thought it would be an advantage to have brightly painted boats.)

Mowat also notes cultural peculiarities, what is considered polite conversation, the way it’s absolutely normal for anyone to walk into anyone else’s house and sit down, almost always in the kitchen, and talk or not talk. The tradition of mummers, the difficulty of unions in environments made up almost entirely of closely linked families, what’s important to people, most of whom, have never been or even seen pictures of… anywhere else.

“The economic history of Newfoundland was a subject as taboo in their house as a discussion about religion in Belfast.”

The reason houses and roofs are specifically shaped and why windows rarely face the sea…

“The Roses’ children had long since left home and their house, which once had had two storeys, had been decapitated. Removing the second floor of a house was a common alteration made by elder couples since it reduced both the amount of fuel need to heat it and the housework needed to keep it clean.”

Oh, yes, and the sea.

The book feels like listening to a friend tell the story of living eight years in a place she was initially only curious about but came to deeply love… including, and maybe especially because of, the tough moments. And what’s more brilliantly beautifully Maritime than that?

(All of which aside, I’ve read that in some cases, residents of Newfoundland outports have not found the book as charming as mainlanders have, but that may be a case of being in the forest, unable to see the beauty of the trees. There were occasions Mowat outlines, where residents wondered why she was taking pictures of the water or the boats, things they found so ordinary. There is also the possibility that residents interpreted Mowat’s ‘details’ of outport life as being meant to be demeaning, when in fact it’s all about respect, admiration and awe, with more than a dollop of envy.)

“I wondered if anyone [on the mainland] ever stopped to think, as they laid the fillets in the pan, about the men who had caught them, or the people who had cut them and packed them, or of the risky voyage[s] made to bring all this fish to them. Only rarely do we think about the complexities of the production and distribution of food. It is so mindlessly easy to ignore the human involvement when we simply reach into a freezer.”

 

 

 

 

say their names

 

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student

Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student

Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student

Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department

Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student

Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student

Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student

Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

imageimage

It’s been 30 years.

Sadly, violence against women continues.

And, sadly, it’s probably up to women to do something about that.

“Let’s not pretend that being hopeful is an easy or straightforward pursuit. Hope can be a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience… Experiencing hope may bring oxygen to a stifled set of lungs, but hope also brings the realization that if something else is possible, then the stifling wasn’t necessary or inevitable. Experiencing hope means running the risk of a kind of crushing disappointment and agitated torpor… cruel optimism. So yes, it’s complicated to be a hopeful feminist killjoy, complicated and necessary.”

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy,  by Erin Wunker

 

 

 

say the word

 

I just read this wonderful piece about seventh graders asking for tampons in their school and the powers that be who denied the request because of worries that the girls would “abuse the privilege”.

Because tampons are so useful for things other than menstruation. (Actually, I happen to know from an episode of Sex and the City that they can be used to staunch a nosebleed when cut in half lengthwise).

So the kids, instead of whinging and wailing

and crying about the unfairness of everything,

decided to bake cookies. Tampon cookies.

Which is lovely in its own self-evident way, but what got me even more than the cookies and the chutzpah is what someone in the article said about how things have changed, how once upon a time no one would have dared even SAY the word ‘tampon’. And when you think about that… I mean really think about it… it’s entirely mad. The silencing of what is so utterly normal.

Menstrual trivia: Not until 1985 did the word ‘period’ even appear in advertising, although, of course, many products were advertised (for ‘female conditions’ and ‘time of the month’ and other euphemisms. It was Courtney Cox who had the honours of finally outing the word in a TV ad for Tampax.

But for all the distance we’ve covered, we are STILL in this place where girls and women are made to feel a warped sense of taboo about their own bodies.

**

Two summers ago, in order to promote Gush, a book of essays, poetry, and stories about menstruation,  I sat at a little table on the sidewalk in downtown Uxbridge, outside the Blue Heron Book Shop, and chatted with passersby about menstrual memories. What were their stories? Etc.

It actually went brilliantly, as in PEOPLE (women mostly, but some men too, god bless them) WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS STUFF.

They just need to know it’s okay.

All that’s required is to normalize it. By saying the words. By asking the questions. By sharing stories that make us laugh and cry and want to change the world in tiny ways that are freeing. All of which toward the goal of changing things in bigger ways, as in, oh I don’t know… research into women’s health issues? which remain sadly underfunded and/or overlooked.

For starters.

Because we’re far from done with this subject.

(Slovenian graffiti in Ljubljana; courtesy of WikiCommons)

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding false, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.

 

 

 

jane’s walk — ajax, ontario — best parts

 

This year my Jane’s Walk was through a slice of Ajax , which wasn’t even established as a town until 1941, and then only by accident when a company set up shop in what was a field to make bombs for WWII. They made millions apparently… (40 million). And it was women from across Canada who made them. They arrived on trains from the west and the east and lived in dormitories built expressly for them (surrounded by 8′ walls and barbed wire).

Before that, Ajax was an unnamed area of fields, a scattering of farms, part of Pickering Township, east of Pickering Village, and west of the Town of Whitby. Then suddenly there are 9,000 people employed by Defence Industries Limited, all of them making bombs, and a wee town emerged.

After the war, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation built homes for returning soldiers. Our Jane’s Walk guide said they were meant to be torn down at one point but the residents put up such a fuss they were allowed to stay and are still the backbone of Ajax, lining the streets surrounding Harwood Avenue. (A few people on the tour grew up in, or knew people who still live in, those CMHC houses, and shared memories including how there weren’t a lot of cars initially and so the A&P would allow you to drop off a list of what you needed and they’d deliver.)

The best part is that in the centre of this beloved neighbourhood, where people still refer to houses by who lived in them decades ago, and in the very space where the women’s dormitories used to be, is now a park and community garden. Beans and tomatoes instead of bombs.

   

And a short walk away, the civic centre (Pat Bayly Square) features a memorial to the significant contribution by women to the war efforts of WWII.

The other best part is simply discovering a new neighbourhood in a town I very often drive past, assuming it can be summed up by a quick glance… because nowhere can be summed up that way. Everywhere has its stories, its nooks and crannies and spaces only the locals know about.

Importance of community is the best part of Jane Jacob’s philosophy, and the sense of connection to a place you thought you knew or a brand new place is the best part of any Jane’s Walk program. Keeping that in mind makes it possible to make all kinds of discoveries on your own anytime, anywhere.

Just throw a dart on a map and take a walk, reminding yourself that community takes many forms and is born in strange and wonderful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hey, cupcake…

 

Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up believing in bravery, truth, equality and heart. She thought everyone was the same.

She grew up.

She saw there was a difference.

And then one day so many voices sang a song she longed to hear… “same, different, what does it matter? !” What matters is brains and heart and truth sang the voices and the girl was happy to hear this happy song and packed up her brains and her bravery and her truth and arranged them on her new desk and on her shelves and she opened books that said this is allowed and this is allowed and this and this and she memorized it all and took it to heart and she was very good at keeping things true and there were pots of tea, and fresh cupcakes everywhere and they were marvellous and all was well.

Tra la, tra la, things went (or so it seemed) until out of the blue (or so it seemed) the people who said same different doesn’t matter said what are you doing? And the girl said keeping things true. And the same different people said why? And the girl looked up from her books, looked up into their faces, and she was confused, didn’t understand the word why.

There is no same they said (or maybe they implied it), everything is different. We thought you knew that. We thought you knew this was just a desk and those were just shelves (who cares that you line them with truth?) and you are just a girl and stop eating the good cupcakes… the stale ones are for you. We thought you knew that.

Once upon a time there was a girl.