Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Drink from Water Everywhere

The central Sierras of Argentina are dry, naturally dry because it is a semi-arid region (and it is August, the heart of winter), and unnaturally dry because – well, I can’t follow the conversations in Spanish, but my sister says the topic ruins more dinner parties than politics, religion or soccer, so I assume the unnatural reasons include climate change and other forms of human stupidity.

During the day we walk up into the hills, through scrub and thorny bushes, and I realize I am unconsciously listening for trickling water, which I associate with walking in the wild, but there is only the wind in dry branches, and our feet slipping on red rock, and other Waste Landic sounds.

In the city, it is easy to forget the earth. Cities are in fact built on rivers of forgetfulness. Out here, you see how long a vine holds on before it withers, how the husk remains after the roots are dead. How dependent we are on the water that runs beneath the earth.

I am not the only one missing this sound. My sister’s landlord has built a fountain near his studio that endlessly recycles its water, and one of her students shows me a falling rain app on his iPad.

At night, the south wind tries to dismantle the house. It is the loudest wind I have ever heard, and I worry it will pull down the trees. My sister says any tree standing can withstand the wind: its roots are deep in the earth looking for water. I think of a scrap of another poem, copied out in my journal in Bhutan, a translation of Rilke: these days / which seem dry and entirely fruitless to you / have roots between the stones and drink from water everywhere.

Still, I am nervous walking back to my place in the dark, expecting to be struck at any moment by flying roof tiles or logs or the whirling cab of a small truck. But even in my anxiety, I have to stop and gaze at the night sky.

It is the most beautiful sky I have ever seen, first because there is no light pollution, and secondly, because it is glitters with far more stars than the northern sky, in constellations I do not recognize, with the luminous arc of Milky Way stretching all the way across. After several nights of Googling, I can easily find the Southern Cross, and the bright spots of the Magellanic Clouds, but am too dazzled to recognize anything else.

One night I hear the sound of water trickling through the flagstones outside. In the morning, I cannot see any sign of rain. Everything is so parched that water disappears almost instantly into the earth. But then I notice: there is a sharpness around the edges of things, and the dirt path is firmer beneath my feet.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tribes of Liars

This time in June always reminds me of those long days in grade school just before summer vacation, when we were kept occupied by Twenty Questions and the same riddles year after year involving matches, ice, goldfish, and some kid whose mom was a doctor.

The riddle that really intrigued me involved a guy, a Tribe of Liars, and a question.

The guy is lost in a jungle occupied by two tribes: the Tribe that Always Tells the Truth, and the Tribe that Always Lies. After many days, he comes across a tribesperson at a fork in the path. He needs to know which fork leads out of the jungle, but he can’t tell if he's facing a truth-teller or a liar, and he can only ask one question. What can he ask to ensure that he gets the right answer?

For me, the real riddle was why he only got one question. Was one of the tribes also the Tribe that Would Kill You If You Asked More than One Question? I could suspend disbelief for a Tribe of Truth-Tellers and a Tribe of Liars, but this other condition was just inexplicable.

Listening to Mayor Ford’s evasions and equivocations about the crack video this past month, I felt like the guy in the jungle. What one question, I started wondering, could we ask that would ensure a truthful answer? And then I realized it wouldn't matter how carefully we worded the question, because there is no rule in place to compel the Mayor to answer honestly, or at all. Our powerlessness in this situation is the real riddle. 

When people want to speak honestly, they tell the simple truth. When they believe they can lie with impunity, they flat-out lie. When they want to lie but are afraid of being caught out, they equivocate. Equivocations are easy to spot because there is something off about the language; it ducks and dodges and veers away. An equivocation might be partially true, or technically true, or true if you squint one eye and shut the other, but it arises out of the same intention as the flat-out lie: the intention to deceive.

In these last days before summer vacation, I believe we know the answer to our question, but we’re still baffled by the conditions that surround the asking and the answering, and the fact that when elected officials deceive us, we can't do anything about it. 

Well, except vote.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Cowboys and aliens and spies

Spent the weekend on the couch reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a fluidly-written, extensively-researched masterpiece of synthesis and even-handedness. But there is just so much weirdness and wrongness to process that half-way through, I realized I was developing an odd immunity. Sailing to Italy to find treasures buried in former lifetimes? Uh huh. Universe four quadrillion years old? Uh huh. Writing so revelatory it will cause the uninitiated to jump out windows or die of pneumonia? Sure, why not.

The Church of Scientology infiltrated government offices around the world? Uh huh. Harassed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt status? OK. Woman with legal complaint against the Church found with slit wrists, two suicide notes, three bullets in chest and one in head, and it’s still not declared a homicide? Hmm. Next?

Defections and disappearances and secret bases? Cowboys and aliens and spies? Yeah. Uh huh. All of it.

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, T.S. Eliot wrote. And some humankind, it would seem, can’t bear any at all.

This book is not for sale in Canada or the U.K. Apparently we have libel laws that would only make it easier for the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology to win a lawsuit against the publisher. But I am full of admiration for Lawrence Wright for having the courage and the skillfulness (in the ordinary and the Buddhist sense) to take this on. I hope he gets another Pulitzer. (And makes a gazillion dollars, in case he has to fight lawyers on billion-year retainers.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Yesterday I finished reading a Frankennovel.  An award-winning Frankennovel, no less.

A Frankennovel is stitched together out of good and bad parts and brought to lurching life by an artificial external energy source (usually a jolt called Publication). The good parts are shapely and in working order, the flawed parts uneven or mismatched or bolted together.

But flaws are not the problem; readers will overlook or forgive or forget the flaws of living novels.

Frankennovels feel to me like exercises in novels. Like the author wanted to Write a Novel, and so assembled the parts, and pieced them together with skill. But the story started off dead, and remains dead at heart. 

Then I thought about the award, and wondered if it’s the reader’s job to bring the beating heart. Maybe the failing was mine. While contemplating the question, I came across this line in Peter Schjeldahl's review of an exhibition of abstract art at MOMA:

“The proof of any art’s lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it’s something that a person needed to do and which wakens and satisfies corresponding needs in us.”*

Not every novelist can write in the fever dream that Garcia Marquez says produced One Hundred Years of Solitude.  But that compulsion is necessary for lesser novels as well. What Schjeldahl calls a ”comprehensive emotional necessity” never arises from the desire for publication or from the idea of Writing a Novel (or Being a Writer). It’s a love affair with the story. That is the beating heart. 

* Schjeldahl, Peter. "Shapes of Things." The New Yorker: 7 Jan. 2013: 68

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Old New Year's Eves and Days

Notes from Old Journals. (With Status Updates.)

December 31, 1985: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Home for the holidays from university. My dad has given his sister a fat, smiling “Buddha of Happiness” statue and I rub the round belly for luck. (Later, in Bhutan, I will see hundreds of depictions of dozens of Buddhas, but never this one; I will learn this is not the Buddha at all, and the Buddhist way to happiness has nothing to do with luck, but with karma.)

January 1, 1991: Sudbury, Ontario
Home for the holidays after two years of teaching in Bhutan. I am miserable, disoriented, homesick for the mountains. “Time is moving so slowly, at times I feel stuck in one hour forever. If I were home for good, how long would this take? To pass, I mean.” (See Answer, January 1999.)

January 1, 1994: Gomtu, Bhutan 
Visiting my in-laws with my husband, Tshewang, and our son, Pema. “Pema wakes in the morning and escapes the mosquito net. There are the usual necessities – diapers, juice.” (I do not write about the other necessity: a feeling of belonging in this country that I love, that I have married into. I do not know it is necessary. I don’t even know it is missing.)

December 31, 1995: Thimphu, Bhutan 
We have just moved from a tiny, cramped, two-bedroom Bhutanese-style cottage into a spacious three-bedroom Western-style bungalow. I love the house and feel at home. Tshewang does not love the house, he does not feel at home. Our marriage is unravelling and I don't know how to knit it back up. Instead I write. My friend Susan has been pestering me to submit something to some CBC contest I've never heard of, so I begin an essay (that will win a $10,000 award and become a book).

December 31, 1997: Thimphu, Bhutan
Champagne and Auld Lang Syne with friends. Tshewang and I have split up. I have decided to leave Bhutan. I wake up on January 1 and write, “I don’t want to go.” Why am I leaving? Whenever anyone asks, I always have a good five or six reasons on hand, but none of them really answers the question.

January 1, 1999: Lanark, Ontario
With Pema and my best friend, Susan. I have been in Canada for six months. I have left Bhutan, I have left Tshewang, my life story does not make sense to me. I think I am going to feel this grief forever. Susan assures me I will not. I am afraid that I have burned through all my allotted luck and happiness. Susan assures me I have not. But how long will this take to pass? (Answer: a long, long time.)

December 31, 1999: Toronto, Ontario
With Pema and Tshewang, down by Lake Ontario, star-struck equally by fireworks and by the thousands and thousands of people gathered peacefully to watch the skies and celebrate the biggest New Year’s Eve in a thousand years. No planes fall out of the sky; the grid stays up. The only sign of disorder we see is a couple of teenagers throwing a newspaper into the street. A police officer tells them to pick it up. They do. Our eyes go back to the chandeliers in the sky. Tshewang says, “I feel proud to be a human being.”

December 31, 2002: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Visiting family. I make a list of accomplishments for the year: went to teacher’s college, got a Canada Council grant for a novel about a broken-up family, got shortlisted for a CBC Canadian Literary Award (what?? I don’t even remember what story I sent in), filed three years of late income tax returns. I have been in therapy for two years. I am lucky. I am starting to feel happy.

January 1, 2004: Toronto
Listen to Billie Holliday, eat leftover shrimp risotto, wish for a full-time teaching job. (Note: Wish comes true later that year. Luck? Karma? The fruits of therapy? All of the above? It is a job that gives me great happiness.) 

December 31, 2008: Toronto
I finish my first novel about a broken-up family, two hours before midnight. I mean, "finish." (It's never finished. Even after it is published, to my great delight, in 2011.)

January 1, 2012: Toronto
I go to the gym and am tricked by the sight of the sun into walking home with wet hair. While my scalp thaws, I leaf through old journals and think about luck and karma and happiness. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "a great majority of the European words for 'happy' at first meant 'lucky.' An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant 'wise'." In Buddhism, there are several words for happiness, but that is a topic for another day. According to the Bhutanese, whatever you do on the first day of the new year sets the pattern for the rest of the year, so I have to work on my second novel.