Tag Archives: ideas

Paradise Deleted

A while back, I was writing on a computer that clumped along like ol’ Dobbin the work-horse, its eyes too bleary for more than a frame or two of YouTube, its pace too slow for quick links to websites. The poor thing would freeze at the sight of my email, hitched as it was to a dial-up connection.  I promised myself that when the manuscript got done, I’d retire my faithful old friend and buy myself a brand-new, wireless computer. Engrossed in writing, I ignored the inconvenience. I was safe in that protected space that all writers carry within them, the silence in which imagined voices speak, a space nourished by good reading, long walks and gardening. I’d worked to cultivate this inner life — my house is quiet, my husband’s supportive, my time is my own.  The writing flowed.

Now I’m trying to find my way back into that space again.

With the new computer came wireless email. Some of it arrived with bulky videos, quick to download. My world exploded with new possibilities. I got a spiffy new website and two Facebook pages, one of them for a brand-new podcast. I’ve kept up my reading, my quiet walks, but life has gotten noisier. There’s software to learn, people to “friend” and “like,” a thousand opportunities to promote my work. Only now I’m beginning to wonder if I can still write.  My inner space has gone into hiding. I now live in a world of infinite distraction, clicking on weird stuff I’d always lived without, googling my way through a library’s worth of semi-useless info.  It feels like the bite of a serpent’s fruit, a fall from grace. Paradise deleted.

In the myth of Eden, the serpent tells Eve that the fruit would make her like God. Compare that to the old computer joke in which a room-sized IBM model answers the question “Is there a God?” by saying “There is now.”  The folks in Eden got it wrong, and so have we. In the arts, as in life, it’s all about human limits. Gorging and splurging on infinite choice  is nothing more than gorging and splurging. Every time I interrupt my writing to google the answer to some impulsive question, I’m affirming the nutty belief that I’m capable of knowing everything and anything I want, of having whatever I want whenever I want it, that my desires always come first. Go on, eat the fruit and you’ll never die. Hard-wired with the Eden myth, we still bite. Only the power to create thrives on boundaries and discipline, silence and protected inner space, the effort of staying focused on the work at hand. All of which affirms a more humble set of values: what we know is hard-won; what we can understand is limited, what brings joy is not self-indulgence, but the careful tending of words and truth. For a writer, nothing else matters. What always matters is to find a way back home.


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New Brooms

Here is a metaphor to delight a storyteller’s heart: a new broom sweeps clean. Egypt, as we all know, has been full of new brooms as its youth rose up to sweep away a thirty year-old dictatorship. Revolution is a modern story, one to which we can supply a few anxious beginnings and tragic endings. Egypt offers something more hopeful, a refreshing plot twist. Its new brooms became literal as the revolutionaries who’d occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square for over two weeks returned with brooms, dustpans and washbuckets to clean up after themselves.

This is a new story line for humankind. There is no record of French revolutionaries, Russian Bolsheviks or the Iranian Islamists heading back to the sites of their triumphs with brooms and buckets. Guillotines, maybe, or AK-47s. But in Egypt, young men and women swept streets, painted fences, washed away graffitti and even planted bushes. One woman skipped work so that she could paint the square’s railing green. Another in a hijab kept sweeping alongside a sign which read: “Sorry for Disturbance. We Build Egypt.”

Are we dull-witted humans finally learning something? Cleaning up after ourselves? Not blowing anything up? We don’t know how this brave Egyptian story will end. Yet nothing can take away from what these triumphant young people have given humankind. Because of them, millions of us have witnessed the world’s first nonviolent revolution. It’s possible; it can be done; it has been done. Kudos to Facebook and to all that connects us. History is tilting in a new direction.

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Christina’s Story

Fiction tries to embrace the world. Yet when the power of real-world events overtakes us, we writers of stories pause inside a necessary silence. We now contemplate six innocent dead whose stories were taken away from them in that savage Arizona shooting. The power of this loss is chastening. It asks us as writers to question how we proceed — not in order to paralyze us, but to make us understand what stories can and cannot do.

A nine year-old child by the name of Christina Green was shot dead in the January 8th massacre. Her brief life, by all accounts, was filled with energy and delight. She was her parents’ treasure, a stellar student who loved politics and baseball and animals. Her life also had a tragic narrative arc. Born on September 11th, 2001, she knew herself to be a sign of hope, and then she, too, was attacked by a fanatic.

Were you to write this true and dreadful taking of a life as a work of fiction, it would seem implausible, too tidy, too contrived in its irony and horror. Fiction leaves life room to breathe. This is what stories do. A story that ties up every loose end seems false, somehow, as if the author’s controlling hand had refused to let it live.

An individual with a loaded gun put an end to Christina’s story. Its cruel narrative arc was imposed on her. The horrendous symmetry of her brief life mocks life. It breaks the heart.

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Reinhard Filter’s Debut Novella: Retina Green

About a year ago, I learned that I’d been named co-winner of the 2010 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, for A Gardener on the Moon. Months went by, my book was published, and I kept wondering who my fellow Klonskyite co-winner was. Two weeks ago, the wait ended with the publication of Retina Green by Reinhard Filter — and what a super read it is. Every word counts in this trim, lean and beautifully written feat of storytelling. It’s as if Filter took his manuscript for workouts at the gym — not a gram of verbal fat on the bone, not a wasted word anywhere. Retina Green tells the story of Henry, an executive at a power company who obeys his boss and stonewalls a coroner’s inquest into the electrocution death of a young girl. In despair, the girl’s mother commits suicide. Henry, sensing the enormity of the wrong he’s done, begins to unravel in rage. He loses his job and starts his downward roll from respectability to a seedy flophouse to a shack in the city dump with a fellow down-at-the-heels homeless man named Torben Lipp. Torben’s as bright as the glint of a razor. He knows survival skills that most of us hope we’ll never have to learn. Torben also knows that Henry hates himself for provoking a grieving mother’s death. It’s when Torben starts to exploit the fury that’s eating Henry alive that the story moves toward its startling conclusion. It ends with a rare thing in fiction — a dramatic surprise ending that’s believable and really works.

Maybe that’s because at the heart of this often witty novella is a serious battle between redemption and revenge. Henry made me think of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a man who thought that his superior intellect gave him rights denied to other human beings, including the right to kill — until he does it and comes unstrung, then later confesses his crime and seeks redemption. In Retina Green, Henry also buys into this Great Man status conferred on him as a power broker at the inquest, but when he causes someone’s death, he, too, comes apart until he realizes — maybe too late — that beyond self-loathing is a desire for redemption — in his words, “for a better purpose.” In the novella, Filter often alludes to another literary great — Captain Ahab, hell-bent on revenge in Melville’s Moby Dick, and he points to the futility of going down in rage with that metaphorical white whale.  The book leaves us wondering if forgiveness is possible among desperate people — and it does all this with wit, insight and poetry. This is Reinhard Filter’s first novella. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.

Reinhard Filter’s Retina Green is published in Toronto by Quattro Books.

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A Sixties Tale: Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields

I don’t ever read books about historical events that involve me, because there aren’t any. Or so I thought until I got my hands on a wonderful book about one of the most interesting experiments of the storied Nineteen-Sixties. The book’s called Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune, and its author, Grant Goodbrand, himself a psychotherapist, was an eyewitness/participant in the events he relates. And — in the interests of full disclosure — so was I. Goodbrand, by the way, is not a close personal friend. I hardly knew him during our years in Therafields — a group which, by the way, has produced more than its share of artists and writers, including the late poet bpNichol.

For those of you who’ve never lived in Toronto, Therafields is part of city lore. It was a psychoanalytic community created over a twenty-year period by Lea Hindley-Smith, a gifted and charismatic lay analyst from Britain. It began in the early Sixties, and at its peak, it may well have been the largest commune in North America. It included nine hundred people, thirty-five houses, four hundred acres of farmland, two city offices and two houses in Florida, one for recreation and another for therapy. Lea Hindley-Smith came to believe that society could be changed by the use of psychoanalysis in everyday living, and she rejected the medical model of psychiatry as a one-on-one relationship in favour of a model in which group living could dramatise the problems that dogged peoples’ lives. It’s to her credit — and also, to the therapists she trained — that many lives were changed for the better.

Goodbrand traces this story from the time when Hindley-Smith began to work with a group of fifty Roman Catholic nuns and priests, all of them influenced by the liberal ideas of Vatican Two. By the early Seventies, the youth counterculture had planted firm roots in Therafields, and Goodbrand argues that Hindley-Smith found in them firm allies for a more radical view of social change than the so-called “Catholic group” would support.

Yet social change never happened, and in this sense, I’d contest the central thesis of this book. Far from being stodgy conservatives, the group of ex-priests and nuns may have been the most radical among us. They abandoned their religious callings and their academic careers at a time when these choices were highly respected ones. They also had brains, and some of them were grounded in a strong sense of history. On the other hand, our version of the counterculture was never radical in any self-conscious way. We were all very young, and we risked little or nothing by investing time and energy in this enterprise. That was as far as radicalism went. The self-actualising values of the Sixties promoted narcissism in Therafields, and, along with solid therapy came a lot of silly, new-age experimenting with fad diets, card reading and astrology (No drugs, thank God). Respect for critical thinking and social analysis was pretty darn low on the list.

As for Lea Hindley-Smith’s social radicalism, I don’t buy it — not with such massive acquisitions of private property. In fact, Therafields was feared by left-wing activists in the genteel Toronto neighbourhood where it bought contiguous properties. These homeowners worried that big-business developers were about to bulldoze the neighbourhood.  Goodbrand’s correct in pointing out that when the postwar boom economy that had sustained this experiment began to fail, social values became more conservative and Therafields eventually unravelled. All of it true — but we’d always lived in a capitalist culture and the seeds of conservatism were there from the start.

Yet Goodbrand has written a moving, heartfelt, and thoroughly researched book. Unlike many “rise and fall” books, this author doesn’t gloat, doesn’t remain aloof from tragedy and sorrow, but embraces it in an honest effort to understand what happened. It’s this candour and honesty that makes Therafields such a deeply affecting meditation on hope, vision and mortality. It allows all Sixties people — in or outside the Therafields experience — to mourn a moment in history when the world was full of fearless and passionate dreamers. Yet it gives historical weight and fulfillment to the real achievements of Therafields that still live on in the lives of so many.

That’s Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune by Grant Goodbrand. It’s published in Toronto by ECW Press.


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Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone

I’ve just finished reading an astounding five-hundred-page novel called Every Man Dies Alone by the German writer Hans Fallada. The book was written in 1947, but was only translated into English two years ago. What took them so long??? This compelling and inspiring page-turner was written — believe it or not — in the space of twenty-four days by a man who’d spent much of the Second World War confined to a Nazi insane asylum. As one of the first novels to emerge from that dark period of history, it has a stunning, frightening immediacy. To read it is to experience with all five senses what living in Nazi Germany must have felt like. You might choose, as I did, to read this book on the beach, because now and again it helps to look up at the beauty of the day, to keep yourself anchored in the real and present world.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin who decided to resist Hitler by writing messages of protest on hundreds of postcards, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage and by distributing these notes all over the city.  It was their hope that other citizens would pass the missives around and begin to act against the regime. It didn’t work out, either in fact or in fiction. Cowed and terrified by the Nazis, Berliners found the cards and turned almost all of them over to the police, yet even so, it took two and a half years before the couple were arrested. They were sentenced to death.

Knowing the bleak outcome, you may wonder why you’d want to read this book. To me, their simple act of resistance — as futile as it seemed —  was so stunning and so unheard of that I couldn’t help feeling that it deserved to be honoured through my reading. To read the saga of the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel is to rescue their deeds from oblivion and death. To read their story is to bear witness to the courage of people who speak the truth, even at the cost of their own lives. Is it a good read? And how. It’s both an action-packed thriller and a novel of ideas — about courage, truth-telling, moral integrity and the wisdom of a peaceful life in the face of sadism, cruelty, and stupidity. Most astonishing of all is the huge range of twenty or more distinctive characters. From the taciturn Otto Quangel to the conflicted cop Escherich, from Hetty the Gestapo-hating pet-shop owner to Eva the postal worker who delivers a form letter to the Quangels announcing the death of their soldier-son, each of these people is well-crafted, memorable, complex, and, by turns, profound, despicable and occasionally funny.

Every Man Dies Alone is a disturbing novel, but it’s a powerful affirmation of life, and the care Fallada took to delineate and enliven his characters stands as a confrontation of the savagery and inhumanity that his people endured. Don’t miss this book. Read it in sunlight, on a beautiful day. That’s Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman, published in 2009 by Melville House Publishing.

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