Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Five Times a Day

In her beautiful memoir, Married to Bhutan, which I read yesterday in virtually one sitting, Linda Leaming mentions a Buddhist practice in which a person thinks about death five times a day. This made me wonder: Why five? Is that a lot? What kind of day do you have if you wake up and tell yourself, Today I’m going to think about death five times?
I decide to try it.
Thought # 1 (leaving for the gym): What if this is the last time I leave the house? People will say, “She was just on her way to the gym. She never even saw it coming.” (Ha! Little would they know....)
Thought # 2 (in spin class, pedalling as hard as I can): The instructor tells us to pedal harder, and in my mind, I pound the bike and say, “I’m dyin’ here.”  Does that count?
Thought # 3 (walking home from the grocery store in the rain, noticing tightly furled buds): I wish I could slow spring down.  “A peach blossom is beautiful...because it is temporary,” says the monk at the end of the Bhutanese film Travellers and Magicians. Yes, yes, I know! But if only it could be temporary a little longer.
Thought # 4 (staring at an empty Word document): Death is the blank page on which life writes.
Thought #5 (remembering Rome): It's so weird that my very Catholic mother doesn't believe in an afterlife.  We were standing in front of an Inferno-esque fresco when she mentioned, oh so casually, that she did not believe in heaven or hell. I was shocked. Can you be a Catholic and not believe in life after death? Isn’t the afterlife kind of the whole point? Also, if she didn’t believe in an afterlife, why was she dragging me into every church in the city? I asked what she thought awaited us after death. She said, “Nothing. I believe we live on through our genes, in our children.” I said, “Then can we go back to that restaurant near the place we bought the leather sandals?”
Thought # 6 (leaving to do a reading in Hamilton): What if this is the last time I leave the house?  OK, when you start to repeat yourself, it’s time to stop. Plus, I’ve done the required five.
Thought #7 (driving past a cemetery. A very big cemetery): “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Enough with the death thoughts already!
Thought #8 (on the way home from the reading): I talk with author Cynthia Holz about Buddhism, end of life care, the end of a life, the moment of death. Rain falls in the streets of the dark city. I am so absorbed in my life at the moment, I forget I am supposed to be thinking about death, even though we have been talking about it the whole way home.   

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cosmogony, for Writers and Word Nerds

Just read this in Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

-- Kenneth Koch, "Permanently"

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The publication of Every Time We Say Goodbye has not been easy for my parents, given that I borrowed (stole) parts of their histories and reshaped (hammered and chipped, chopped and screwed) them to fit into a novel. In my anxiety over how they might feel after reading my book, I wrote imaginary blurbs from both of them:
“Well, it’s a very nice book, but I don’t know why she couldn’t write about vampires. They're very popular. And she’d make more money too!” – The Author’s Mother
“I swear I didn’t know the car was stolen.” The Author’s Father
My parents split up when I was two. I’m now 46 and can only remember seeing them in the same room on a handful of occasions (funeral, graduation, my first book launch). Even when they are in the same room, they don’t really talk (for personal reasons which cannot be explored in this public forum, and besides I already wrote a novel about it).
So estranged are they that it was a shock for my son to realize their connection. “Wait a minute,” he said when he was about six. “Grandma Judy and Grandpa Jimmy used to be...married?”
And so I was delighted when they seemed to enter into a playful rivalry over book sales at two readings in their respective cities.
In the Soo, my mother mailed out postcards of the book cover, called friends, family, and absolute strangers, and liaised with staff at the public library, where the reading was being held.
In Toronto, my father emailed invitations, called friends, printed up postcards of the book cover, and worked with staff at Ben McNally’s bookstore, where the event was being held.
At the Soo reading, the room was packed; the novel sold out and the booksellers had to resort to selling copies of my Bhutan memoir.  In Toronto, the room was packed, and people bought both the novel and the memoir. At the end of the evening, my father tallied up the numbers: he was up by one book. But when I conveyed this fact to my mother, she said I’d miscounted. "Congratulate your father on his success," she said, "but I won by ten books." 
No, it's not time to cue the Reconciliation Score, but in my family, that counts as conversation.
At least they'll have something to talk about at the next launch.