Here I am, in the finishing movements of the perfectly paced (less perfectly written) “The Testaments,” by Margaret Atwood. There are moments of awkwardness in this text that I am not sure were on purpose. Nonetheless, it’s a fine novel — not that you need me to tell you this. It co-won the Booker for god’s sake. (along with “Girl, Woman, Other,” by Bernardine Evaristo — which I have not read yet). Spent a few days in Banff after Christmas, reading in the hot tub, drinking wine, hiking, and eating. It was delightful. A welcome break from…well, everything. Now it is a new year and I am reminded of the quote from the movie Whatever Works. “That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” — Boris Yellnikoff
If I was going to make a New Year’s resolution, it would be that quote. To be open to anything that could provide a temporary measure of grace and grasp onto it!
This December darkness sits on the city like a beautiful, brooding woman wearing a flowing, grey satin dress that is dropped to the ground. Under her dress is a layered white crinoline.
It is snowing, hesitantly, as if it doesn’t really want to. It’s 3:34 p.m., and depressingly dark. The sun was a no-show. AWOL. Gone behind grey. On the radio, a drive-home host doesn’t know when the Solstice is – she has no idea. “Don’t things turn around sometime in December?” she says. Seventeen days, I say to the radio. How does anybody get a job on the radio without knowing when the Solstice occurs?
On the 21st, the light starts to return. Thirty-four days to get to this exact same quality of light on the other side. When did light become so important? You were aware of the value of light when you put the Christmas lights up on the house last week – you erred on the side of too many, and in fact, went out and bought more. Because light is important. Not because of the birth a Saviour story. Because of light.
Good morning!!! The Elephant onKarlůvBridge is top of mind this week, as it is still with a publisher, and anything could happen. This causes no small amount of anxiousness. I’m open to suggestions about what to do about anxiousness, and twitchiness. Let me know what I should do. You know how to get a hold of me.
Now, this alleged anxiousness raises some important questions in me about writing novels, about telling stories, and where is the “win” when it comes to publishing. Am I really anxious? Or is that just an expected emotion? Maybe I’m not anxious, but rather, excited and hopeful and honoured that my book is being read by a big publishing house – it’s being considered. For sure, I feel gratitude, humility. And it is a risk to put something you’ve worked hard on into the hands of strangers. But at my age, publishing, writing, this game in which I am intimately involved, is beyond ego. It is not about insecurities, or unaddressed damage. It’s certainly not about fame. And it is not about money. It is about story, curiosity, delight, beauty. And wonder – how is it that all of this running around mating, and dating, and falling apart, loving and hating, living and dying came to be? And isn’t it incredible? If you believe, as I do, that we human beings are hard-wired to respond to story, why? Why does “a man falls in a hole and struggles to get out, and then, finally gets out of the hole” work, every single time? The win is in the writing, the act of creating something, the surrender to imagination. There is a quote from Jane Smiley about writing that acts as a rebuttal to Hemingway’s “All first drafts are shit.” Smiley says: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” That’s a much more positive take on creation. So, if the win is the creation of a novel, a story, a poem, then what’s publishing?
Well, here’s my theory: Publishing is the woman at work who has dirty blond hair and wears sweaters, a lot, and who barely looks up when you walk past her every day. She doesn’t think she’s beautiful, but you have noticed she is – she is beautiful in the persevering way truth works. On her desk, is a picture of Woody Allen sitting on a park bench with Diane Keaton watching the sun come up over the 59th Street Bridge. No pets. No family. Just that image. You say good morning to Glenys every day and she says good morning back. It is a small dance. But that’s the end of it. You do not make forays into each other’s lives. You do not question, or comment about the weather. You say good morning. Then, one morning in December, Glenys looks up and smiles, and she takes your breath away.
That’s publishing. After all the joy of creation, and imagination, and the work of writing, Glenys smiles – and then, your work will in the world. Your story will enter a larger world.
Here is today’s sorbet. You too can get little packages like this delivered to your mailbox weekly, by signing up on the Contact page of this site.
a marigold in November
will watch the snow. I will play music, sit, and watch the snow as it twists
past the back window. Or falls – maybe the snow will just fall. It won’t serpentine,
or make delicate DNA strands past the garage light, or hush the night, or quilt
the ground. Sometimes snow simply falls, and is beautiful in its falling. Because
the snow has an unmatched vulnerability. There is a healing in snow if you are
wounded, or anxious, or downhearted. It can be a salve if you check any of
these boxes. Maybe it’s not the snow, but rather, the act of stopping, and
watching. I don’t know. I like to think it’s the snow.
Tonight I will watch the snow. Because it is Dia de los Muertos and in this house it is a time for remembering our dead. We gather our reminders – a ballet shoe, a bottle of Rye, a glass of vodka and orange juice, a picture of Harry in the mountains, or Rita in her kitchen, or Marie unabashedly wearing a Mu-Mu. For some reason, I always think of a bass player from a band I was in, who surprised and confused us all when he checked out early. There is even a faded picture of a beloved orange and white cat. I would like to have had marigolds (because the dead are drawn to marigolds) but it is Alberta and a marigold in November is fool’s dream – an absurdity.
will watch the snow. Perhaps, I will play Miles Davis, or Max Richter, and join
the dead in a drink as the snow falls. If
the snow falls. They say it’s going to snow, but it’s weather. Anything could
happen. As I age, the room on such nights becomes more crowded. Some of the
dead are quietly smiling and talking among themselves in corners. Some want to play,
to know things, to be who they were. Others sit and nod, happy to have been remembered.
The dead will draw no pleasure from watching the snow. That task falls on my
shoulders, and I am glad to carry that weight.
Tonight I will watch the snow. As if it is a prayer. As if falling snow is always a prayer.
The original of the above image once hung in Café Slavia, in Prague, and is called The Absinthe Drinker (by Viktor Oliva*). Many artists have grappled with the subject of absinthe and its affects, including Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, and Picasso — to name a few. I post this here, because this café, and this painting, make an appearance in The Elephant on Karlův Bridge. They are part of the landscape.
So as not to be obtuse about the writing process, young novels get tested. They should be tested, by readers. This step is especially important these days, as publishing houses require manuscripts to be very close to exquisite. The Elephant on Karlův Bridge has been read, by several readers, and many times by a fantastic editor in Victoria — who challenged and questioned. I ask a trusted reader to look for places where the narrative faltered — where they may have dropped out of the narrative dream (As a writer, you want to fix these, always.) And “did it capture you from the start?” And “were there questions you needed to be answered?” And “was the payoff satisfying?” And, “did you care about the characters? — not like, or dislike, but care.” I also ask about pace.
The answers to these questions — apart from buttressing your belief in the story (because writing a novel is a long-distance run, a gruelling marathon, this is important) — can shape future edits and revisions of your book. And this was the case with the Elephant book. Comments like this underscore a connection to readers: Within a few minutes I found myself 50 pages in and I was sorry to have to stop reading and get some sleep. I think this is going to appeal to a broad range of readers: It has an interesting setting and interesting characters both human and animal. Besides, who hasn’t wondered what elephants think about? This one deserves to be read by a lot of people.
And the blunt honesty of this: I think you have a winner here. As I have told you in the past, I have found some of your previous work challenging to get into. Not so with this one. I like the writing style and I find the story engaging.
I am so grateful for these early readers. The Elephant on Karlův Bridge is in the world now, being read, and considered. The elephant is alone, with other readers, and I am hopeful, and wish her well.
* Viktor Oliva was a Nouveau artist who fell in love with the bohemian Parisian lifestyle in the late 1880s, and had a fondness for absinthe and ballooning. His most famous work was “Absinthe Drinker”. The painting featured an absinthe drinker, and a green woman. It was based on the phenomenon known as “The green fairy”, a euphemism from the hallucinogenic effects of the absinthe.
Well, this is hardly a novel, (not yet) but rather an experiment to coax some characters to speak “oddly,” somewhat poetically, strangely. It’s forced and awkward but perhaps worth going after one day.
Maybe you can imagine a man pushing a shopping cart up the aisle of a grocery store and there is a woman leaned against the milk cooler – she’s blocking his way to 1%. She is wearing a camel-coloured overcoat that plays at her ankles. It’s hanging open and this allows him to see she is wearing shorts with black meshed stockings and simple low boots. It seems she is wearing just a white bra for a top. No shirt, or blouse, or anything else. Just the bra.
The man will clear his throat, hoping this woman, who has her eyes closed, will figure out she is in his way and move along.
“A man clears his throat and expects something to happen – some action, or eloquence, or balanced illusion. Some magic trick of bone and flesh and need. Maybe this man thinks there is a hidden code of polite regret inside his throaty interruption. Adjust! Adjust expectation. Cozy up to disappointment.”
And all he can think about is the white bra. He does not care about the 1% milk his wife insisted on. He does not care about the rest of his list. “Somewhere in the ether,” he says. “In the vast chaos of information that is not knowledge, there is an article about the sexiest colour of all the colours of lingerie, and it is white. It is white.” He sighs. He tries hard to look at the milk behind her, not her bra. Not the thought of flesh beneath that lacy fabric. Not the way she perfectly fills the perfect cup of that bra.
She opens her eyes. Blue-grey and intense. “So the man in the aisle finds a woman in a Safeway, sexy.”
“No, no, no, yes, no, maybe.”
“So many contrary options of meaning in such a small space. This imprecise nuance hardly counts as communication.”
“This man, who is almost at the end of his list, and just needs milk and cheese, and coffee – if it’s on sale, is thinking only of the colour. Not the breast beneath. Not the possibility beneath. Not the woman, who is a stranger, an unknown, a meditative curiosity who so effectively blocks the door to milk. This man is curious about that article’s assumption. About its proposal that it’s white, not red, not black, not burgundy, not silver-grey. But white.”
“And still, no meaning to this babel. An insignificant question, hardly posed, but reflected off glass and cold, and tiled flooring – made sharp and exposed by too-bright lighting. Some men are vague and uninteresting and without clarity.”
“A quest, then, this path to 1% milk. A hero’s journey thwarted by a white bra and the dream of the woman who made that choice. Because that woman is not standing here. The woman who chose white is elsewhere. She is perhaps of Persian heritage and devout to her kindness, her need, and her immeasurable talent in the art of passive seduction. Her intention will be veiled, always. There will be no directness to her. She seduces by denying the idea of seduction. Which sounds insane.”
The milk-blocking woman’s voice is quiet, but intense. “Words, words, words. A man must subvert his desire. Bury it deep. Pretend it never existed. Then he will be of interest.”
“Why?” “Because that sort of commitment to restraint is seditious. And there are women who would find it fascinating.”
“A wise woman would know that desire is hard wired into human beings. We reproduce not because we want to but because we must.”
“This is not about must, it is about want. Perhaps the man in the aisle wants milk?”
It could have been a different conversation in front of that cooler. It could have been that you are the man pushing a loaded cart, and your wife is off in another corner of the store buying flowers because you’re going for dinner and as much as she hates getting flowers for a hostess gift, this is seemed the simplest solution for a hostess gift. You wife will come back with gerberas because that’s her favourite flower. She will not try to imagine what Rebecca’s favourite flower is.
There is a woman in front of the cooler, in front of the milk, blocking your access to the 1%. She is leaned back against the glass and her eyes are shut.
Here’s a teaser. This is the Charles Bridge, in Prague, or the Karlův Bridge. The new book is set in Prague. It’s a story about the consequences of paying attention, or not paying attention. Populated by characters who are in the process of deep change, it is also a book about how we process grief and about how we might finish well. It is about fathers and daughters. It is a story that delves into the differences between falling in love and choosing to love.
It begins as a five-ton elephant escapes from the Prague zoo around midnight and lumbers into the city upsetting the lives of everyone it comes into contact with. The elephant is the unsettling force of change, uncertainty, and she challenges every assumption. She is part trickster, part adventure and whimsy, but also the embodiment of the German idea of weltschmerz, or world pain. And it ends, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book…
The histories roar in you tonight. Listening to Van Morrison’s “Pagan Streams” in the dwindling light, as the mountains inflict their false sunset on the valley. The song ends and silence falls – a thick snow that gathers on your shoulders as you are in the darkness under the pines, remembering the histories of this place.
Because you have come to this enclave alone more than you have come with people. Because you have come with only your love for the high, thin places as companion, and it has always been enough. Listening to the Oilers on a shitty car radio as you drove highway 16 through the night – there is NoJack, Granada, and Obed Summit.
Being stopped by the black wolf who stood her ground in the middle of the Miette road. Arriving late – picking the key to your room off the door at 3 a.m. – taped to the glass in a white envelope – the clouds, low and socked into the valley, and you just being so happy to have arrived – breathing the mountains on faith.
Conversations with John on the deck in front of the restaurant – and him protecting your solitude as you were distracted by story, or grief, or loneliness. Editing two books in room 35 – obsessing and pounding Greek coffee – working through the night and drinking Chardonnay at 8 a.m.
Your daughter in her playpen, sound asleep under a brilliant aspen and you watching over her – watching as she finds her mountain legs, as she learns to “be” in mountains. A brilliant fall wedding with the perfect golden-yellow veins of larches cut through the pines – and your daughter in between the two sons, walking the road to the ceremony.
Harry’s last trip to the mountains and the way the animals came toward him – deer and sheep and birds seemed to be drawn to him – as if there was a profound peace in him only they could feel. Climbing Mt. Shuey and near the top, the shadow of the golden eagle across your face – and at the bottom, the hot springs with its thick, mineral-laden water.
George Santayana said – those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Even though you well-remember your history in this place, you’re okay with being condemned to repeat it.
The work on the Elephant book has been going great! Slow and steady. One problem at a time. Bum in the chair and writing, revising, editing, writing some more. In the last little while, it’s been a major restructuring — which means pulling one thread in the beginning and watching the entire tapestry shift. It has been work. But, my god, the result is stunning. A more cohesive story. Several emotional punches. The stakes raised.
So, the work continues. And I can see the end of this project. It is a beautiful book now, and I am cleaning.
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Imagine this, for a moment. Close your eyes and conjure a man who is a writer. A gangly man, unshaven for days at a time, thinning hair, prone to whisky. He is sitting out back in the garden beside the Siberian irises grappling with a problem. He is trying to describe what it is to miss someone, a lot. How it feels. How much it feels. Essentially, he is trying to quantify a feeling, which is futile and stupid. He started with a description of a man with very long arms who is stretching them out at 9 and 3 o’clock – trying to show how much he will miss his friend. His arms are like the unpredictable branches of an oak tree, or like an awkward and massive airplane, or like an auk. Not a Great Auk, because they’re extinct. Maybe a Lesser Auk. Except, he’s not sure Lesser Auks have big wingspans. He is only sure when they stretch their wings to fly they are so earnest it hurts. Auks get extra points for looking as if they shouldn’t be able to fly and then, surprise! Maybe this man grunts with exertion as he stretches, as he pushes missing to the tips of his fingers. He is determined to make the biggest stretch he has ever made. He imagines looking into her eyes and asking – Do you want to know how much I am going to miss you? She might watch him – with no small amount of suspicion and confusion – as he stretches out his arms. And when she does not say anything, he will say – This much.
The woman is silent because she is imagining herself in a library, sitting at a long wooden table that has four green-glassed bankers lamps, looking up the wingspan of an auk just to see how much she is loved. She will find out that an auk can fly not only through the air, but also under water. Lesser Auks, or Razorbills, she reads, are primarily black with a white underside. The male and female are identical in plumage, except males are usually larger than females. This an agile bird that is capable of both flight and diving, but is mostly aquatic and only comes to land in order to breed. Lesser Auks are monogamous, choosing one partner for life. They nest along coastal cliffs in enclosed or slightly exposed crevices and females lay one egg per year. The wing length of adult Lesser Auks ranges from 24.8 to 26.8 inches. When the bird stands up, it can be about 16 or 17 inches tall. Of course, he already knew this, she thinks. He probably saw it on one of those nature documentaries – not the Attenborough ones – the obscure ones he watches late into the night, while the complexities of the relationships between airplanes and wingspans and missing keep him from the easy sleeps. She has not watched these same documentaries, as she is too busy watching MTV reality shows and wondering, what happened to these people in their lives that they would choose to be on these shows? But she cannot stop watching, cannot turn her eyes away from the gaping expanse of reality, like watching a man with his awkward arms extended at the 9 and 3 position…and she thinks – I will miss him too.
“The novels that attract me most… are those that create an illusion of transperancy around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel and perverse as possible.” — Italo Calvino
This is the view behind me on a lot of mornings, especially in the fall and winter and I am guilty of not seeing. Seeing that colour at the horizon. Seeing the new day as one of possibility. Seeing that anything can happen. I think of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
And I hear Mary Oliver shouting at me: “Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?”
And then: “Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides with perfect courtesy, to let you in! Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass! Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart! No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint that something is missing from your life! Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch? Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually? Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone? Well, there is time left – fields everywhere invite you into them. And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul? Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!”
These demands. These questions. These ae the things that push me to create, to walk through this life with eyes wide open, senses stretched, breathing and alive.
I have asked myself, many times over the past few months, about whether or not the world needs a book about a bunch of broken people in Prague and an escaped elephant on a bridge. And the answer has always been, well, honestly, at first, it’s: I don’t know. But, it is quickly followed by: Hmmm, well, this is a book about humans. It shines a light on the human condition. It asks questions it can’t possibly answer about being human. It’s funny, and delightful, and sad, and tragic, and at times, beautiful. So yes. Yes!
Italo Calvino, one of my Italian muses, says: “Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth. I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world.”
I will not abandon certain trees – even when I can do nothing to affect their existence in the world. As if worry is a powerful thing, and not as useless as prayer. As if memory is a formidable thing. Still, I pray in my own way for some trees. Remember them, and fret about them – while tending hands-on to a tree in the yard. I will bring these other trees to mind, invite them to ride along. Maybe they will be entwined in the melody of some song I can’t stop humming. Perhaps, they are beads on a mala, rolled gently between thumb and forefinger inside a quiet breath.
There is an oak my mom planted in the yard of the house where I was raised. (Do you have any idea how slowly oak trees grow in the boreal forests of central Alberta?) I tried to take it with me when I sold the house. Wanted to. But an arborist said moving it would most likely kill it. So I gathered as many acorns as I could find, with the intent of planting them, but these bundles of possible life were lost in the move. I do not see this oak any more. But it was steadfast in the backyard and I did not have a favourite season for it. Except it always surprised me that it was still alive each spring.
An ancient and gnarled Douglas fir in the elk pasture above the town of Banff, makes my list. There is a black-and-white picture of Marilyn Monroe sitting in this pasture that I have grown to love, and when travelling through Banff, it is our ritual to stop there and reflect. To have a swig of whisky from a dented pewter flask. To be grateful for breath in mountains. Or, to hold a baby daughter up to the quivering stars and shout “This is her!” and have a hundred midnight elk we did not know where there – turn their heads simultaneously. Perhaps the daughter doesn’t believe this story. Maybe she does. It is true nonetheless. The Douglas fir in the elk pasture is best in the off-season – spring or fall, when the possibility of being alone is high. But on a hot day in the middle of summer, the scent of her is intoxicating.
The stand of 700-year old Engelmann Spruce at the edge of the Columbia Icefields – stunted and ancient and sacredly resolute, always makes me smile with wonder. They persist with such a short growing season. And really, to call it a season is a terrible misnomer – it is a stingy window of growing. I have sat many a night in the Icefields camp around a fire and looked up toward the dream of the Engelmann Spruce. The Engelmanns are always best in the fall, when you have to bundle up to walk to the toe of the glacier to get a glimpse.
The Aspen at Miette Hot Springs whose shade kept watch over the daughter as she slept in her crib, while her parents drank wine and played backgammon. That tree watched her grow, collected a thousand child-hugs, watched her play, and hobble when her knee was damaged. We called it Mackenzie’s tree because she was connected to it. It grew as she grew. If you go to Miette Hot Springs and find this aspen outside motel unit #35, on its trunk, you will see a small plaque that reads: Mackenzie’s Tree. This is not a statement of ownership. It is a testimony to relationship. I do not know how it got there, but we were not shy about calling it Mackenzie’s tree. Now you know the story of this naming. In truth, we could have called the daughter the Aspen’s child, because she was. The Aspen is always stunning in the fall – with a breathtaking creamy golden-yellow colour.
There are the two Elms in the back yard that never seemed healthy. I put them to ground on a dull grey Saturday morning in July, while gulping a French Pinot Noir, and have watched for three years as they seemed to struggle. They were always late to come into leaf, and early to drop their leaves. They never seemed robust. This spring, they seem to be breathing easily in the sun. Perhaps I needn’t have worried. They’re fine. Do you know that colour of new elm leaves – pale green and bright green at the same time? The backyard elms are best in the spring, when they are filled with hope and energy, and that surreal green.
If all stories are reflections of the various stages of abandonment, I am part of no story. I exist as a non sequitur, outside of all stories, because I will not abandon certain trees – I carry them inside me, which is every bit as useless as a prayer, but still, a necessary thing. These trees are an essential part of me. I will, on some mornings, close my eyes and move from bead to bead on the mala, each stop a tree, each breath, a tree. I will perform the sacraments of memory, of imagining, of hope and worry. And I will believe, perhaps stupidly, that I have in this utterly intangible way, made a difference to certain trees.