writing stuff

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5

it doesn’t matter, of course.

it is only a website and if i am not here it is not the end of the world. i tell myself this.

it’s just a website. a collection of digital words and images in a genre that’s been declared regularly dead for the last four years. dead like the squashed slug on the bottom of my back steps…except, unlike the slug, the blog has a whole Jesus thing going on where it regularly resurrects itself.

or at least quietly continues on, dead or no. i like that about blogs. dead is just a state of mind.

i repeat this to myself as i stare at the trail of ants marching back and forth around the slug’s worldly remains, efficiently erasing all trace.

it’s only a website, i mutter. and dead is just a state of mind, anyway.

i look around and wonder if i am my own set of ants.

once upon a time, if you wrote something, you knew when you were done. the story or the book came to an end and then – if you were very very lucky – it passed the sanction of the gatekeepers and went off to the printers and that was it for that particular tale, that voice, at least until the anniversary reprint edition or the sequel.

print media have an inherent finite quality. they create artefacts, discrete objects. books can’t be 73,000 pages long. you run out paper, of arm strength. you are bounded by physical constraint.

digital media have no such clear lines. i’m in the midst of writing about this, on my theoryblog, for the Reading in a Digital Age class i’m teaching this summer. i’m in the midst of writing a bunch of things, one of which is my long-suffering and increasingly long-overdue thesis proposal. i’m writing all the time.

but i’m not writing here.

at the end of April, i marked Finn’s birth and death here, as i have every year but the first. i didn’t write of him that first year. the blog was three weeks old. Oscar was eight days new and still in the NICU. my very first boyfriend – he of the first sloppy kiss by the bricks out behind the junior high – had just died of AIDS. he was thirty-five years old. his funeral coincided with what would have been Finn’s first birthday.

i was so full up with life and death that everything was dust in my mouth. i sat at the hospital computer and opened up a post window and closed it again. i was not certain, yet, that this was a place i could speak of anything beyond the platitudes of baby poop. i left the hospital for an hour or two, with Dave and my mother, to dig and mulch Finn’s trees. i went back to the NICU to feed my baby. while my friend was laid in the ground, i sat in a hospital rocking chair, my shirt lanolin-stained and my fingers dirty with soil, crooning OMD’s If You Leave to Oscar. it was the best i could muster, for all of them.

that dust is gone from my mouth, now. i have written it out. and that voice has been precious to me. but this year, in the post for Finn, i said “there really isn’t anything else to say, anymore.”

and i realized that that i do not know what to do with this voice.

if this were a book, i would simply say done. rest now. and i would close the covers and feel immensely satisfied at a chapter closed, a piece of life’s work done, and proudly.

but if this were a book i would have said nothing yet because it would still have to go through the gatekeepers and the editors and there would be no thousands of comments and conversations and networks formed here over years, no traces of friends found and since gone and i would be the lesser. and i know it.

yet i think i am finished speaking in this voice. i think i am finished with this story, this piece of the narrative. i think its hour upon the stage is done.

i do not want to mark another birthday.

this August, in NYC, i’m lucky enough to get to host a BlogHer panel entitled Blogging for the Love of It. and i do love blogging, dead though it may be.

but i do not know what to do with this one.

it is only a website, i tell myself again, but i shake my head. i know better.


another part of me recoils and throws my arms around this space as if it were a living thing, because that’s what it’s been, to me: a voice, a network of relationships, a narrative, a precious, tenuous growing thing. an artefact, yes, for my children. but so much more. in the grand scheme of things ever written, a tale told by an idiot, indeed. but to this happy idiot, a life’s work. or at least the beginning of such. an enormous, beloved chapter.

i do not like declarations of done-ness. i am not done with the network, the relationships, the people. i’ll be around, on the theoryblog, on Twitter, in the too-many places i’ve had the privilege of stretching to.

but this voice has dwindled to a whisper, and it occurs to me that in this digital age of infinitely expandable and reproducible and extensible creativity, perhaps what we miss is the built-in sense of knowing when to stop, of being pulled up short and silent by physical constraints. i cannot run out of paper, here.

maybe i wish i could. it would be easier, that way, to say fini.

here, all i can say is see you around. and xo.


for almost six years now, i’ve written here. at least a few posts every month. sometimes, in the heady old days, twelve or more. but always a few.

i kept going because i was afraid if i stopped, i’d stay stopped.

until this month. i’ve been busy, under deadlines, distracted. three weeks went by. bless me internets, for i have sinned. it’s been nearly a month since my last blog post.

the words piled up in my throat and it felt strange, not to write, but also kinda…freeing. like unintentionally walking out a door and just keeping on going, collar turned up into the wind, not looking back.

yeh. self-aggrandizing fantasies. i was totally Bob Dylan, 60s-version, in soulful black and white. maybe i’d walk on ’til i found me some Allen Ginsbergs & men in heeled boots to hang with on suitably seedy streetcorners.

Photo courtesy of vvanhee

suddenly i can see why old rock stars get grumpy about playing their ancient #1s over and over and over again, no matter how much gas those hits have put in the car over the years.

old identities trap us, in a sense, like flies in amber.

and in the radio silence of the past month i wondered what it would be like, to close this door.

if i stopped, who would i be? what would i miss?

this is my brain on inertia.

the longer i hang on out here on the misty flats of the so-called long-dead personal blog, the more i suspect the radio silence – whenever it creeps up and swallows another of us – never comes from having nothing to say.

it comes from getting out of the habit of speaking.

and then the shame and fear creep in and we doubt ourselves. and maybe we stop. maybe we walk away. maybe we try to become experts on something people clearly want to listen to, instead.

because what value can there be, in just…writing?

i talk in my head all the time; stringing long disjointed narratives that trail out and weave tiny baskets of madness in my head, like waking dreams.

i assume you do this too. don’t crush this illusion for me, please. let’s just call it our little secret.

(well, ours and my neighbour’s, who caught me today as i scraped spring-wet slush from the sidewalk, words leaking aloud. i spun around and smiled, tried to look normal. she gave me a remarkably kind look as she scuttled back indoors. perhaps i should make her a pie. though my pies might be scarier than my muttering).

but that muttering? it’s a private activity. i don’t assume that everybody wants to hear every thought that runs through my head.

it’s just that the longer i go without filtering it somehow, without speaking aloud, without writing, the less i can tell the difference between what i need to say and what’s just noise.

Dave went to India last week. i work at home, so i didn’t talk much in the time he was gone. i mean, i talked to the kids, but my kids are small and forcing them to act as sounding boards and filters for the kaleidoscope blur inside my head seems…inappropriate. and he & i talked on the phone, but…he was half a world away. in a place i can barely imagine. and nine time zones removed.

by the end of the week, between his absence and my extended blog vacation, i was totally, absolutely fine…but unsettled, unsteady. i was Lassie, ears permanently pricked. Timmy, are you down the well?

and then i knew i couldn’t stay stopped. i couldn’t walk away.

this space steadies me. here, i make myself look in the mirror. here, i make myself speak.

when i do, i am lucky enough – sometimes more, sometimes far less, but still lucky – to find my words received, and reflected back slightly differently. this space is where i force myself to believe that i have something to say.

oh sure, i have my niche spaces. they’re easier: they’re focused. i write about academic research or open online courses or upcycling and renovating and i understand going into those posts what i want out of them.

here, i seldom do.

this house of who i am when i’m online? this lived experiment? has many rooms.

Twitter’s still where i spend the most time: i can work and play there, both. Facebook’s the kitchen party, where the old friends are and the longer conversations unfold. LinkedIn is the parlour with the plastic still on the furniture. Pinterest is the guest room i wish i had.

the theoryblog? it’s my study, with the door propped open because i don’t want to be alone.

but this blog is truly mine own…a space i no longer have in my embodied life. it’s my bedroom circa adolescence: the place where i am still working out who i want to be, the place from which all those other public identities got their voice.

and so i’ll stay here, try to stay in motion, try to keep speaking. not because the words are always important. but because the writing them matters. to me.

what online spaces matter to you? why? and how do you keep Timmy out of the well, in your own head? 


we dressed up and went downtown the other day. on a Sunday afternoon, like we were fancy people without small children and a brand-new washer full of gasoline fumes at home.

a date. a 1:30pm to 6pm date, but it ended with dinner, so a date nonetheless, at least by our low standards. at 4:45 pm, it feels like one should order the senior’s menu pot roast instead of the aged steak and red wine, but one steals time where one can.

the steak was not as rare as it could have been. over small puddles of blood, i put to him the two hardest questions EVER.

the first, i’ve asked before. the second, i should’ve.

we went downtown for the Island Literary Awards. i won the category of Creative Non-fiction, for a piece on the women in my family. and because i won, i got to read. i’ve had the good fortune to get to read my work three or four times in the past year, and i feel like i’m getting the hang of it. but i have never, til yesterday, read publicly about my mother in front of my mother. so i was nervous. and the piece of writing had to be hugely truncated in order to fit the time slot, so i was more nervous. and then i sang – OUT LOUD – a line from an old gospel-country song. onstage. ahem. so i was very close to wetting myself. i was not struck down by lightning, which i thought merciful. but my knees were still knocking when we got to the restaurant.

i politely arranged my silverware. then i looked him in the eye.

did it suck? i asked, carefully disentangling my identity from the performance about to be dissected. did i suck? does not invite anything but cheap reassurance.

and he met my gaze and gave me a full, fair, blow-by-blow analysis of what i did well and how it seemed to come off and how i might do it better, which he’s done for each of the public readings i’ve done over the past year. even though the first two were forced and raw and kind of awkward. it’s not that i didn’t sort of know, and wasn’t proud of myself for doing them anyway. but he told me how to get better, each time. and i have.

i think that’s what a partner is for.

we look to the world for reflections of ourselves. am i doing it right? do i make sense? is this how i find my way?

what we get back is a mirror ball, dazzling and dizzying, a thousand blurry visions of ourselves.

some loom larger than they should: you’re too fat. you’re the pretty one. you’ll never make anything of yourself. these reflections can hold us in thrall, while we stare, confused, into their void, frozen in the glare and wondering if we’re really IN there at all.

others we fail to see altogether. they might offer a new vision, a better path, a chance to alter old habits that we stumble on. but we ignore them and cling to the picture of ourselves that we recognize.

it is hard work to bring a thousand points of light into focus all at once.  a second, trusted pair of eyes can diffract your own composite picture of yourself, offering you possibilities you wouldn’t catch on your own.

i didn’t know i knew any of this, though. not until i felt the next question tripping out of my mouth.

what do you want out of a partnership? i asked, point blank.

he looked at me, surprised. i dunno, he said. more or less. not without thought.

you’d think maybe we might have had this little talk ten years ago, in the heady throes of first blush. we were both fresh out of failed marriages, and each respectively clear on what we didn’t want. we even knew what we sought and got from each other, in the personal, specific “this is why you and i work” way. and we had the good sense not to move in with each other for another coupla years and sully that with dirty socks.

but it never occurred to me to ask what he wanted from the idea of a relationship, over the long term. it never occurred to me to ask myself. if i thought about the longterm at all, i figured Dave on a front porch in fifty years’ time might at least be lively company.  but i think i totally skipped the middle years.

like, about thirty of them.

we have both, apparently, been stumbling along without a map. we do our best to reflect each other, to keep the trust open, to keep the eternal grind of house and bills and broken appliances more or less under control. to be present to the kids. to have some fun.

when i started #thehomeproject, i think, i was looking for a way to SEE him better, and to see us in the midst of all this flurry. i don’t know that i’ve found it. i feel like i’m still stumbling. not unhappily. but i’m curious.

we’re taking input. do you have a guidebook? a map? a sense of what you want from your partnership that goes beyond love or companionship or a second pair of hands to put kids to bed at night? what does it mean, do you think, to be somebody’s somebody?

what do YOU want out of a partnership? (or a marriage, if you make a distinction?) what does it mean, to be two?

(if i don’t quite get it, maybe it’s not a surprise. my sense of two was formed as the child of a single parent, the only child of an only child. the most powerful reflector and diffractor of my sense of myself in my childhood was the woman i called my grandmother. it was her i read about on Sunday. it felt good to do her proud.

here’s a little excerpt – bear with the first few bizarre seconds – from the part of the story about Hallowe’en, 1984. i was twelve. we lived with her, then. she helped me find my way through the most blinding of those thousand points of light that hit at that age, and it was her, i think, who taught me to trust my reflection in another pair of eyes.)

i used to travel.

a long time ago, Dave brought to my attention the handy fact that anyone who uses the words “used to” to describe an activity is rarely actually engaged in that activity anymore, only hanging onto it. a piece of identity.

i cringe a bit when i say “i used to.” when i take something up, i take it UP. i internalize it, wrap myself around it. this explains how i have managed to carry the same bright, fervid torch for David Bowie lo these many years: it’s my hobby. it’s a fundamental part of how i understand myself.

of course, i can’t just go altering how i understand myself willy-nilly, all the time. Dave starts three new things every week. i like to try a new activity every decade or so. i am part Ent, i suspect. i am not given to hastiness.

but i am given to wanderlust. or i was.

(at the end of The Lord of the Rings saga, the hobbit Frodo returns home to The Shire from his adventures as the bearer of the ring, but he cannot stay. he is too changed, and he leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf and the Elves to sail on to the Undying Lands. Frodo’s faithful Sam, the gardener, unwounded by the elven blade and the ring itself, settles down in The Shire and raises babies with his cute hobbit wife. this is ripe with metaphor, people.)

i had the wanderlust from the time i was a teenager, though it was probably mostly a contagious case of the Anywhere But Heres. i used to map travel, splayed out on the living room carpet with a highlighter and a fold-out map from a hand-me-down copy of National Geographic, imagining the places i’d go.

i was nearly thirty before i got to indulge it.

i’d nibbled at it earlier. i took the train across Canada the autumn i was twenty-two: spent my last $300 on the ticket, slept in the smoking car for a week, watched the stars over the Rocky Mountains, and got a job telemarketing in Vancouver the day we arrived. but passports and flights outside the country were beyond my reach, then. i spent a year in Vancouver, two teaching in the Arctic, headed back east to Halifax and a graduate degree. until friends blazed paths to expat teaching and it occurred to me that Scotland and Prague could be considered “on the way” to Korea if one was particularly creative with one’s geography and flight routes.

i left in the fall of 2000. i came home in January of 2005.

some wiser people used that period in their lives to, um, start careers. i plan to go live with them when i am old. i will tell stories from my lost years of indigence in return for small plates of catfood.

je ne regrette rien.

i don’t travel anymore, the way i used to. sure, we went to California for the first time this summer, and i’ll be all gussied up to speak at Blissdom Canada in The Big Smoke of Toronto come October, but conference travel is by its very nature bounded. it has a goal and a set destination. it is purposeful, and social, and for me, a lot of fun. but it is no more like the open-ended wandering that marked my late twenties and early thirties than babysitting is like having a colicky kid of your very own at three a.m., four months in a row.

this past year, i had the incredible privilege of revisiting one of my stories from those wanderlust days as part of a book: my work was included in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, a charming anthology being thrown lots of cool launch parties i can’t attend in glamourous far-away cities. sniff.

(yes, you should buy this for everyone on your Christmas list. absolutely. think of it as investing in the catfood stockpile.)

as the book makes the review rounds, those of us published in it were asked to answer a few questions about travel, and our relationships with travel. as i picked the questions that spoke to me, and tried to answer, a Mack truck of longing ran straight over me. the wanderlust flooded.

it told me i could not LIVE my settled life and needed to hightail it for the Undying Lands at first notice.

unfortunately, as you may have suspected, this is not Middle Earth. there are no Undying Lands for the weary soul momentarily overwhelmed by the drudgery and familiarity of The Shire. well, boo.

still. i think i can live out my Sam Gamgee days in peace.

truth is, travel, for me, was a constant cacophony: new smells, new sounds, new ways of seeing. history everywhere, if you look. i loved that about it. and i didn’t.

i didn’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like fish, which pops up in the most unexpected – and supposedly vegetarian – places, especially in Asia. i didn’t always like being an outsider. i don’t like being dealt with in an authoritarian manner. Dave still brings up that time i shouted at the customs officer as evidence of poor judgement on my part. what did you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if i’m not better off safe at home.

it’s hard to imagine going again. we have spent six+ years weaving ourselves financially and professionally and community-wise into this rooted life. the roots are good and growing strong. Dave spent the summer hacking out a patch of forest for a cabin for next year. we live a different kind of cacophony now.

i still don’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like the constant multiple demands on my attention. i don’t like mess. Dave looks at me funny when i shout about the fact that Oscar’s bus to kindergarten wants to pick him up SEVENTY MINUTES before the start of school even though we live an eight-minute drive away. what do you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if everyone wouldn’t be better off with me safe in Outer Mongolia.

sometimes far, far away sounds magical.

but wherever you go, there you are. ;)

the truth is, this is simply not that time in my life. i hope it comes again, and i will hold the space for it in my sense of myself. i even have vague hopes of vagabonding with the kids in five or six years time…taking a year or two as a family and committing to a joint work experience somewhere very different from this little corner of the world. but for now, i am mostly content to keep watering and weeding these roots here in The Shire my pastoral homeland.

(i’d happily eat catfood for a weekend in Paris, though. just sayin’.)

 what about you? where would YOU go, if you could pick up and go anywhere? what would be different about there?

…a few excerpts from my responses to the author interviews for BWTW2011. there are some exceptional writers in this collection: i’m looking forward to seeing the composite of answers that emerge. will share.

  1. What’s one place that has moved you or changed you in a significant way?

The Canadian Arctic. It was the first place in which I ever felt truly Other, and in which I came face to face with the legacies of colonialism and cultural history that permeate travel. I stayed a long time, and it taught me a lot about humility and relativism and my own privilege, and the folly of ever believing you fully understand what it is to be in another’s skin. The expanse of space there, the vulnerability of realizing that if you were to walk out into it you could go a thousand miles before ever meeting another human, is breathtaking. The North taught me that we are all different, and all inter-reliant, at the same time.

  1. In what ways does writing inform your relationship with travel? Do you keep a journal? Conduct interviews? Write on location?

Over the last few years, especially since I began blogging, my journal-writing has dwindled. I still have a big, black-bound artist’s sketchbook: the writing inside is still all-caps print, the aesthetic signature I developed for myself back in the days when I still considered my handwriting a part of my identity. But the current sketchbook – number thirteen or so in a long lineage – only sees the light of day these days when I travel. Especially alone. I love to travel alone, to play flaneur in an unfamiliar city. But writing is what keeps traveling alone from being lonely, for me. My journal is my companion when I’m stuck in an airport, or want to take up a table by myself in a pub without looking like I’ve been stood up. Writing is conversational: it allows me to dig in and reflect on what I’ve been seeing and how that changes what I’ve seen before. But these days I need to work harder to create that mental space, because the world and conversation and feedback are so easily at all of our fingertips…


i’ve never been in theatre, even if my mother used to call me dramatic. daily. but i was once – like most seventeen-year-olds of the human species – utterly and pretentiously enamoured of all things dark and mysterious and deliciously supernatural.

so when i was seventeen and my high school English class took up Macbeth and the fresh-faced student teacher told us that real actors always referred to it as “The Scottish Play” because there was A CURSE on the title itself, well! i secretly swore right then and there that i would ne’er speak aloud the dreaded syllables for fear of appearing like an ignorant sot.

of course, i then promptly went out into the world and found lots of other ways to appear an ignorant sot. ahem.

(there was much i didn’t know when i was seventeen. including how much fun it can be to drop the word Macbeth loudly and repeatedly in front of theatrical persons of the young and sincerely serious sort: they get all quivery and smug in their superior knowledge. the fool is one of the finest roles written. they will learn.)

but the curse. ah, the curse. in the long social history surrounding Shakespeare, some nervous or controlling soul became convinced that real spells were being cast by the Weird Sisters, with their catchy “bubble, bubble, toil & trouble”. everybody loves a scandalous improbability, after all. and some productions of Macbeth went awry enough to support the idea that serious bad luck had been invoked. theatre companies, running on rather thin budgets, seem prone to bad luck.

thus, tradition holds that if the play is referred to by title in a theatre, there are cleansing rituals to be performed, most of which involve lines from other Shakespearean plays. who the god of this black magic is thought to be escapes me. possibly Titania, Queen of the Faeries? maybe Caliban?

anyhoo. The Scottish Play. for twenty-plus years, i’ve thought of the word “Macbeth” as a stand-in for all things unspeakable, for that which must not be invoked.

except, of course, it’s taken me years to be able to identify my own Macbeth, my personal doom-word, bringer of the almost comically predictable foul luck that inexplicably seems to leap up exactly when it is most inconvenient. or awkward. or guilt-inducing.

this year, i sorted it out.

it is Travel.

particularly, Conference Travel. as in, whenever one of us goes away the children inevitably fall ill or hurt themselves or stop sleeping or are eaten by the cat or whatnot. you know.

we probably bring the doom of Macbeth down on our own heads, i figured, by acknowledging our travel plans.

so this most recent trip of mine, which came hot on the heels of crazy busy-ness and for which i barely had time to pack anyway got very little anticipatory fanfare in our house. i had an academic conference four hours away. i noted only that i’d be nearby but not home for a few days. i did not speak the word “conference” aloud, and i threw salt over my shoulder whenever i even mentioned i’d be so much as out of the house.

i felt smug and happy and hopeful that Dave and the dear children would escape the curse this time. i had figured it out.

while away, i had the pleasure of seeing Macbeth in a fabulous park production put on by Bard in the Barracks and Theatre UNB.

then i called home. and i laughed and laughed. and thus, even though #thehomeproject is horribly late this week and this is rather an unconventional presentation, blatantly and happily plagiarizing from both Shakespeare and from Elsie & Norm’s MacBeth, well, hell, the show must go on.

The Dramatick Players doth present a Truthfull Accounte
The Curse Which Hangeth On the Cribbe, A Most WoeFul Tragedie
Which Striketh Whenever
One Adulte Doth Go AnyWhere Else.

A Play in Three Actes:


(with apologies to William Shakespeare, John-Christopher Wood, and all the literate people in the universe.)

Scene I: Odell Park, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Absolutely no thunder and lightning in sight. Cue rain.

Enter three blogger friends, gathered for Congress of the Social Sciences & Humanities 2011 and a special production of The Scottish Play.

All three women wear the slightly wild look of adults who have been Too Busy but are momentarily freed of responsibilities. Two are far from home. Babysitter has been procured for local blogger’s child.

Each of these weird sisters wears rubber boots. One is sporting the same clothes she has worn for more than thirty hours, because Air Canada lost her luggage. All three are smiling. Also, wet.

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning or in rain?

When the hurlyburly’s cold
When the conference work doth fold

That will be when we’re real old.

Where the place?

Upon the rise.

There to eat some whoopie pies.

Fair is foul and foul is fair
Air Canada lost my underwear.

Scene II: Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The Crib Castle, or Bonnie & Dave’s house, where Bonnie is not, because she is cavorting with bloggers and academics in Fredericton, four hours away.

The house is littered, as after a great battle, with Fisher Price Little People. Enter two small children. The smaller has split her lip wide open.

What bloody child is that? She can report
As seemeth by her plight, of the revolt
The newest state.

That is my sister
Who like a good and hardy badger fought
‘Gainst our captivity. Also, the floor.

Doubtful I stood
Upon the chair. I look’d, listen’d
A drum, a drum,
MacBeth doth come!
Oh valiant Daddy
I am faint, my gashes cry for help.

By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes.
To bed, anon.
We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
Macbeth is in the house.
Bad luck and bandaids shall be the order of our night.

Scene III: Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The Crib Castle, the middle of the night.

Dave, bleary and nearing hopelessness at the children’s third waking in the course of the night, stumbles back towards his warm bed. He encounters a hallucinatory vision of Bonnie, who appears to be eating whoopie pies. He tries to fall into her arms but bumps painfully onto the floor, where he lies spent. A faint wail begins from the other room.

Is this my partner which I see before me?
Hand toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee,
I have thee not and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, blessed vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A partner of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the child-oppressed brain?

Yes. Thou art away.
They howl, and it is done; their cry invites me.
Hear it not, vision; for it is a knell
That summons me from heaven in to hell.

It cries ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house:
‘Macbeth hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cormier
Shall sleep no more; Dave shall sleep no more.’

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

He rises, and exits, weeping.

(if, of course, this were a proper tragedy, the main character would die. but as the main character in this is the spectre of Macbeth-ish bad luck that haunts us whenever one of us goes away, and we do not seem to know how to kill that particular spectre, alas, the play ends here, with my most sincere apologies to exhausted Dave for his sleepless, bloody travails during my absence, and my thanks to my Fredericton friends and colleagues who made MY trip so (shhhhh) fun.)

((Posey’s lip is recovering nicely)).


there was this line in Heave, maybe twenty-five pages in: Anne of Green Gables does the Big Time.

i read that line and exhaled a great, dramatic sigh and thought, there it is. the adolescent dream of a proper PEI girl.

the protagonist, she’s in London. a girl from the Maritimes, twenty years old and drunk as a sailor. quite profane, also high, and busy passing out in a graveyard. but in London.

when i was a sensitive foolhardy kid dying to be absolutely anywhere else on the planet but here where god and parochialism had planted me, far too big of head for the world i knew but far too small and provincial for anywhere else, i dreamed of London. i had barely been to Moncton, but i read everything about London i could get my grubby paws on. Boy George lived there. David Bowie lived there. actual straight men apparently lived there too, but they were not much on my radar when i was thirteen. i read and i hungered and i dreamed, because my horizons had suddenly outgrown Anne of Green Gables and i had no clue what came next.

had i read Heave at thirteen, i might not have needed to live it all quite so messily. but since i did, reading Heave was like finding a fictional kindred spirit.

not that Heave is meant for thirteen-year-olds, by any means. it ‘s the coming-of-age story of a quirky, singular, imaginative girl-woman, struggling to find her place in the richly cloistered, old-fashioned world of her Maritime hometown…and alternately, in the wide-open anonymous wonderland of danger and self-destruction that a city like London can be when all you have to hold you together is other people’s stories of who you are.  Heave is the story of a deeply-rooted Maritime sense of place and an even more deeply-rooted sense of culture and hierarchy and everybody in their place that anyone who has ties to this part of the world will recognize. Heave is ripe with characters, just like Rachel Lynde and Mrs. Blewitt, and with pathos, just like Matthew dying. except that its heroine, Seraphina, is very much an adult. she has a drinking problem. and a bit of a wedding problem, it turns out. she is Anne of Green Gables coming of age in the Big Time of the confusing late twentieth century, in a darkly rollicking story that is, in the end, a love letter to these small Maritime worlds that shape so much of who we are.

Christy Ann Conlin of Berwick Nova Scotia published Heave in 2002. a bestseller then, it made CBC’s Canada Reads Top 40 this past fall. it’s enjoying its revival quite nicely, thank you, as evidenced by the fact that three separate book clubs in Charlottetown ended up reading it this winter.

if you haven’t read it, you should. if you’re in PEI – or can hie thee hence to our pastoral province in four weeks’ time – then this post is especially for you.

next month, Christy Ann is coming to PEI. she’s doing a writer’s workshop with the PEI Writer’s Guild. she’s doing a reading from her new YA novel Dead Time at UPEI the evening of May 21st, in the illustrious company of her fellow Bluenoser Kate Inglis of sweet|salty and The Dread Crew, beautiful PEI poet Yvette Doucette, and, erm, moi. i’ll be reading from Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, in whose merciful-Jesus-it’s-a-book pages mah words are being published as we speak. i will be the one swooning, like Anne of Green Gables in the Big Time.

but. but.

book clubs make reading go round. so three book clubs were reading Heave. and members of the three clubs – one of them mine – got to talking on Twitter. somebody said, we should all get together! then somebody said, we should invite Christy Ann! then i said, let’s open it up and invite everybody!

social media, you’re fun. or i’m mad. possibly both.

i talked to Random House/Doubleday, Christy Ann’s publisher for Heave, and they kindly agreed to sponsor her trip.

i talked to D.B. Brickhouse, the newly renovated and swanked-up Off Broadway, already one of Charlottetown’s loveliest restaurants, and they generously agreed to offer their warm and lovely loft space, all exposed-beam and brick, for the event.

i talked to the PEI Writers’ Guild, and they sweetly offered up a sponsorship that will buy some nibblies for the evening.

i talked to Christy Ann, and she said she’d love to.

so. Friday, May 20th, at 8pm in the loft of D.B. Brickhouse on Charlottetown’s historic Sydney Street, an evening of good stories and good discussion and good company and probably lots of laughter and irreverence – a #citybookclub for Heave. good wine will also be for sale. all over the age of nineteen are welcomed, open arms.

please come. join us. we want to make it the book club we always wanted to go to.

and…so you can dive into the story of Seraphina Sullivan, late-twentieth century Anne of Green Gables, and get ready for this glorious soiree, we have copies of Heave for giveaway. four of them, to four commenters on this post, who will be randomly selected by my impartial yet helpful offspring this coming weekend.

all you need to do is leave me a quick story. about books, or London, or what place means to you. or whether you think Anne of Green Gables might have ended up with a substance abuse issue had she grown up a hundred years later. or what you’d like to see at a public #citybookclub. or just a nice loud I WANT ONE. whatever. all welcome. locals who can come on May 20th? especially so.

tell your friends. see you there.


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire

– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, Part I, The Burial of The Dead

April is a love letter, the worst kind. it sneaks up in flowered paper and leaves you twisted and gasping at its end. its mud holds all the carnal knowledge of dust to dust, all the endings from which beginnings start again, another year.

maybe we never bury our dead completely. dirt piles up on the graves we make, layer by forgetting layer, but dirt is fragile. the rains of April wash it loose.

it was raining, that morning five years ago when i started out.

the crib sat in the next room, an act of faith performed on our behalf. Dave’s parents had bought it and set it up for us: left alone, we might have wavered, too afraid to call down the eyes of the gods on our hubris. but it was there, sturdy and ready, covered in tinfoil to discourage the cat from nesting in it. i ran my hands up its old-fashioned spindles and caught my breath. it was an artefact of promise.

i named the blog cribchronicles.com ten days before Oscar was born. now, i blush at its domesticity. but in that moment, it felt crazy brave.

it said, this time we will bring him home.

the blog itself was Dave’s idea. he asked, and i said no, i couldn’t possibly, and then, well, maybe i could and he said yes and he set up the wordpress account and bought the domain. an act of faith. my words were bottled up and choking me, all this crocus blooming in the raw earth of April and my terror and my grief, and he saw and he opened a door and i walked through.

and so i began this witness, this love letter, five years ago today.

and now it is five years gone like *that,* another rainy morning, and i am stunned. an eye-blink. and i try to imagine this past five years without this space and i cannot, because this is one of my lilacs out of the dead land, these children, yes, but also these words and this work and this community, these friends. memory and desire.

five years in, i want to thank him. because i would not have started on my own.

it was raining last Friday afternoon when i met Susan in DC.

she was among the first bloggers i connected to, more than four years ago now. she wrote smart, humble, patient posts about her last baby, and her toddler, and science, and i thought, i have something to learn from her.

she discovered that summer that she had cancer. she beat that cancer, and a couple more to boot. the fight is ongoing. she writes about it. but she writes about living, mostly. mothering. being a NASA scientist, and a writer.

when i flew into DC for Theorizing the Web – which was fabulous and warrants its own post, coming soon on the theoryblog – i thought maybe i’ll go a day early. maybe i can finally meet Susan, if she’s feeling up for it.

then it was raining and i had a cold and she had scans that morning that will tell if the tumours are growing and i realized at the last minute that i’d asked too much but then my phone rang and she was there, at the hotel.

and one of the gifts of this blog is that everytime i meet someone i’ve known from here it is like meeting an old friend but this one afternoon will stand out for me for the rest of my days. because she took me on the subway into the city through the rain, the two of us without umbrellas, splashing like kids, and we went to the Library of Congress and stood under the vaulted ceilings in that temple to knowledge and the mythos of a nation and the tour guide asked us both if we were twenty-eight and we very nearly kissed him and it was like playing hooky, for a minute, from time and the rest of the world. there is an archway there with four mosaics on the ceiling, science juxtaposed with family and poetry with education, and we posed like muses in our representative corners and i felt like maybe that hall was built solely to house the two of us in that moment. or like it should have been, even if all the names on the tiles were dead men.

she stopped on the stairs. i don’t remember exactly how she said it, only that there were tears in both our eyes. i know she said the word “die” and i thought she was brave to insert it into the conversation, to breach the hull of the unspoken. i know that the afternoon light shone in on us off all that marble and gilt, and the rain outside was invisible for a moment. we read the gold plaque that testifies to the power of authorship, us two brought together by words. and i know that what i heard her say sunk deep in me and told me, in that timeless place, that words matter. that all we leave behind is what we make and share. love. legacies. lilacs out of the dead land.

something to learn, indeed.

it was a perfect April afternoon, joyful and raw and close to the bone and the soul, both. and i thank her, for bringing me, for sharing it with me.

Dave’s parents came again this weekend while i was gone. they brought a bed this time, a full twin bed for Oscar’s fifth birthday ten days hence. it waits in the shed for the pirate quilt to be unveiled. Posey will graduate to his toddler bed. and the crib will go, its spindles no longer needed here.

it has a drop-side and The Law tells me i should not pass it on, though it is sturdy yet. and i wonder, do i bury it? honour it? light it a pyre in the backyard?

it will be gone but its legacy will still be here, in these words. as will mine, someday.

i thank that little crib, for being true to its promise. and i thank you, for being here, these five years, for witnessing.



it’s been in the bottom of a drawer for years.

a little black notebook, scuffed and coffee-stained, with seemingly random pages bearing notes, lists, traces of stories. some pages are torn out. i imagine their scraps handed off like gifts, late at night, to people i’ve mostly never met.

when i first knew him, the notebook was omnipresent. i can tell you his face then was thin and young and old and earnest and cloudy, long-ish hair hanging across his eyes, but the full picture escapes me. if i try to conjure him up, i see his hands, gesturing, and his handwriting scrawled across the lines of the little book.

he was younger than me. we were both of us spoken for; there was no foreshadowing of the life to come. we knew each other only peripherally, then: a casual kinship forged over ideas and writing. i knew nobody else who had a journal, even if my hardbound art book with its lineless pages and consistent trails of black pen bore little resemblance to the record of entropy and energy he kept rolled up in his back pocket. he had written a novel of sorts that past fall, in the lines of a similar notebook.

he had a way of roping people into things. there was a literary magazine waiting to be born, he and another twenty-three year decided late one night. i had worked with him on his book – i was appointed editor, all of us swimming well over our heads. i worked for them for four months, juggling three jobs. we went national, then folded. they forgot to pay me, for awhile. it was two years before i saw him, after that.

but he was my backdoor into writing. he was one of the first people to ever take seriously whatever gift i had for words. he sat with me at a rickety table with that notebook spread wide open, and dared to ask, ‘do you think this can be better? how? and then he listened, took me at my word. sometimes. he was the very first to show me by example that just doing it – just working away, writing – was the way to build one’s craft.

he was a finalist in the Canadian Literary Awards that fall. a short story about his father, and their boat. no copy exists anymore, unless CBC has one trailing around in the bowels of an office, somewhere.

the idea that our children will never read it makes me sad. the idea that we have children – that reckless, storytelling boy and i – makes me smile.
respect, like writing, is a complicated art.

today is the first day of Canada Reads 2011. for ten years, it’s been an annual CBC radio staple: five books, five semi-celebrity champions making the case for their chosen tome. CBC, basically, goes a long way in Canada towards making those of us who actually give two shits about the written word feel like valued members of society. the CBC reflects Canada back to itself as a literate culture: they run the Literary Awards, they run shows where people talk about books, sometimes in depth. and they run Canada Reads.

like all broadcast media giants, though, CBC is scrambling and struggling to establish a social media presence. which ought to be – from where i stand, as someone whose writing has found an audience through the web – a glorious thing. instead, it’s awkward. Canada Reads’ selections this year were based on a massive voting campaign that Box 761 has slyly dubbed The Hunger Games: a Survivor-esque circus whose tone and lack of depth forced the authors into a travelling-salvation-show-style pimping of their wares and stripped the discussion of depth and dignity. Inklings has interesting commentary on how the cult of personality that has been foisted on the previously-congenial competition makes any real critique difficult. we are no longer evaluating novels, she claims. we are evaluating their author’s social media personalities.

i’m chiming in to note that the issue goes beyond Canada Reads. i entered the Canadian Literary Awards this past fall, for the first time. mostly because of Dave. his parents have his finalist letter laminated and tacked to their office wall. i figure my mother needs something purdy for Mother’s Day. ahem. or maybe i’m just still trying to learn to be as brave as he was, way back then.

but i note, from the date on Dave’s distinguished letter announcing his finalist status, that the deadlines for assessment of the submissions have been pushed waaay back since 1997, people. which i’m sure is a wonderful thing, reflecting the many fine pieces of writing clamouring for judges’ attention.

except that in the interim, they’re pushing us for more content. cute little contests, replete with excess of exclamation marks, dot our inboxes. share more stories!! you might win a Sony Reader!! we might publish your story online!!

my hope is that CBC is trying to create a vibrant web community around writing. my hope is that their intent is to showcase some newer writers’ work in with that of established authors, and perhaps build spaces for discussion and sharing: an online literary salon of the highest order. i like that idea.

but they’re doing it wrong.

i mentioned on the theoryblog the other day that social media is a produsage-based economy. creativity and consumption merge, and reputation is essentially built in the context of community. when it works well, it showcases work while creating strong ties and mutual audiences between people.

these contests, though, do little of the sort. instead, they take a captive audience of hopefuls and treat them as show ponies to build free content for a CBC books site that exists to feature established authors. worthy luminaries, a number of them – and i am not being facetious – but there is no produsage here, no fostering of shared community or flattening of hierarchy.

the real authors’ work is linked, to profiles and homepages. whether they control their own publication on the page isn’t clear, but it’s unlikely that their postings are random. check back every day, Joseph Boyden!! today you might see your own 250 words on the screen!!

the Literary Awards hopefuls – whose chances in the actual contest may or may not be impacted by their participation in these little games: the issue has never been addressed – are different. no links to external pages or profiles, nothing to build name recognition. no chance to pimp their social media personalities, for better or worse. and since the site appears built to showcase rather than dialogue – comments are sparse, because it is nobody’s personal space – even hopefuls who wanted to use it to comment and connect would appear odd, too keen, inappropriate to the context.

the Literary Awards themselves are useful arguably because they ARE a chance to build some semblance of profile as a writer. the pats on the head and the chirpy tone of the contests that appear to come along with participation, though, only disrespect both the writers themselves and potential of social media to be a part of their journey.

they need more Daves masterminding CBC online, i think, roping people into things and making them believe their words can matter.

all the Sony Reader prizes in the world won’t do that.

one word.

i think a lot about branding. not in the skeevy marketing sense where i wonder if you’d buy more chicken nuggets if just the right charming cartoon chicken came along to sing the praises of eating her, piece by tiny form-pressed piece. for me, branding is just walking around with clothes on, the bits of yourself you project and trail around behind you. it’s what people think of when they think of you. it’s a conversation you contribute to but don’t control. but i believe it’s a conversation you should BE in.

hence this post. at BlissdomCanada, the closing keynote asked us all, what one word describes you? what’s your presence in the world?

i’m up to my ears in the theory and practice of personal branding and digital identities every day, these days. i’m doing a Ph.D in this stuff. and yet. and yet.

i still couldn’t do it. i couldn’t tell you in a single word what it is i am and am trying to do out here.

i hate definitions. i rail against pinning myself like a science fair butterfly when i am, of course, a unique snowflake, ever-evolving (TM). i thought about it, saw tweets and posts with the #oneword tag and wondered if i had a word and then slapped myself and stuck my head back down into the hell that is my quantitative statistics paper.

unruly thing kept poking up. because i’m writing – or trying to write, starting to write – about the idea of digital identities, and the ways in which being online changes how we interact with the world and see ourselves. this is the story i want to tell. my own. yours.

it occurred to me that knowing my own damn word might be important. might even be aspirational, in a sense. because hell, i’m doing something every time i post, or tweet, or hold a SeaMonkey funeral, or cut off that lady at the supermarket. maybe if i found a word i could live with, it could serve as a little talisman; a stone to keep in my metaphorical pocket. a sightline to where i’m trying to go, as a mother, a grownup, a thinker, a human being.

tonight i figured it out.

my one word is witness.

i’m not going to show up at your door to tell you about Jesus. and i hope not to be spirited away in a possibly fictional protection program for people who see what they shouldn’t.

but what i’m here for is the not looking away. giving voice. nodding to the margins and the complexities and the silliness and the sorrow and the big ideas and the hope that someday, somewhere, it will all matter. trying to figure it all out, especially the stuff our culture likes to sweep under the carpet. dead babies and unwieldy educational theory both, plus the tantrums that occur in between.

this is my life, and my digital identity. this is my branded self.

i’d like to do a better job of it all, really. this is my reminder to myself to keep trying.

do you have a talisman in your pocket? a one word, or two, or seven, that you hold onto to try to make sense of what you’re doing online, or off?

we’re in the checkout line at one of those big, sad stores that has seen better days.

the plastic crap is crowding in. the lady ahead is counting change with shaking fingers, like she has been for the past thirty-seven seconds. the five people behind – me included – are beginning to flare nostrils. i think of my grandmother, small and bent in her last years, and force my tongue to be still. i am all impatience these days, a fuse primed and twitching.

Oscar’s head turns on its swivel and he catches sight of the racks of cheap Hallowe’en decorations far to the right of the cart. his face lights and he peers round me from the front of the cart and announces to the entire line, seemingly apropos of nothing,

For Hallowe’en, i’m gonna be a WINO!!

a beat. i look at him askance. ten ears behind me prick up.

you know, mom, with a big HORN on my nose!

OH, i nod. i turn my head slightly, encompassing the crowd, and repeat, a rhino, honey. you’re going be a RHINO.

i feel the same.

not that i’m planning to become a wino, though the urge to dive off the high wire into a cheap bottle of Hermits in a paper bag sometimes sounds deceptively pleasant. the seedy promise of respite. just that i too need a translator, a mother, to ruffle my hair and explain to the staring throng what i’m really trying to say.

my words are a tangled mess, these days. it’s like i swallowed a cauldron of alphabet soup and can only work with what i burp up.

i snap at the kids, because suddenly all the hours are accounted for and still they are slow and dawdling, or twirling in circles rather than putting on boots. the words i find are not the ones i want.  i mean to say, i am sorry i am so rushed, so distracted. i love you, little you.

but it comes out all edges.

in the car, stuck behind timid drivers and the omnipresent construction workers at the four brand-new roundabouts on the brand-new commute to French school, i choke down the round, raging words like cocksucker and GO the fuck already, do you want an engraved invitation? but still i growl and i hear Posey in the back shout Bad Driver! at a car she cannot even see and i am humbled and shamed and i bite my tongue, my errant tongue.

i sit in class and try to find the words to dig behind what “normal” means on those Bell Curves we are inundated with like some kind of fact when i remember all too well what they mean is some children fall outside and get labels slapped on them and yes, sometimes that means funding or meds and sometimes that helps but i know too if we never interrogate this concept of normal in its arrogance and its taken for grantedness, we perpetuate the idea that we all can fit in boxes and so be understood.

i want to say, THAT is a crime no funding or meds can alleviate. i want to ask Oprah and my professor why they are so sure a good education is something you can test.

i try to dredge up the words to explain that i can learn the Bell Curve and parrot it but that i want to engage with it, but my frail newborn chicks of ideas fall helpless into the no-man’s land between irreconcilable views of the world.

she says to me, 68% of the responses will fall between -1 and +1 SD and that is normal and i nod, because the words fail me.

i write, notes and papers and presentations, trying to pull the ineffable from the sky and pin it down, to find my balance amidst methodology and paradigm and epistemology and ontology. they are big words, big ideas. just when i think i understand some other paragraph comes along to destabilize it all.

i love it. i hate it.

i am exhausted, stuffed too full. i fall asleep reading Lacan or Giddens or some sociological theory critiquing the ways reflexivity is predicated on  mobility and wake up minutes later to a small coughing human calling, Mommy! and there it is, the start of another day.

on Thursday, Oscar was sick at school. and so i left my computer screen gaping emptily at the bones of another paper and half-jogged out to campus where Dave had parked the car after dropping the kids off.

there was more construction.

it took me longer to get the car out of the parking lot than it had taken me to walk to get it in the first place. the new roundabout at the campus exit would have wheeled me jauntily off in the direction of my waiting children, except that traffic was backed up in the other direction and the geniuses on the other side kept blocking up the bleeding traffic circle so they wouldn’t lose an inch of ground.

i waited.

i noticed i was crying.

and i remembered this post, the woman i saw weeping in July, and i smiled at her under the tears, that unknown sister. i looked around guiltily, wondered if anyone was watching me. i wondered, more defiantly, if they really wanted a show and whether it wouldn’t be kinda jolly, really, to go flatout apeshit in the middle of a petty Charlottetown traffic jam.

but then i shrugged because this is not despair, only stress and frustration. and i sat in my car repeating that like a mantra, grateful for the truth of it, grateful to have finally found the right words, for a change.

yesterday, an English professor i’ve always quite liked but barely known came up to me at a conference.

I have a poem for you, she said. For Women Who Cry When They Drive.

she saw me! i panicked, in the roundabout lineup the other day. and just as i was about to open my mouth to say yet again the wrong thing, she saved me. That post you wrote about the woman at the traffic light, it reminded me. I need to send it to you.

she sent it today.

i read and for a second, i stopped still, suddenly one of a thousand passengers on the same road of too many words and not enough words, the wrong words, maybe the wrong choices, overwhelmed in the middle of an ordinary day.

the writer’s name is Sue Goyette. like me, she is a Maritimer: perhaps this crying in cars thing is a local specialty. but her words wove me a story in which i knew both parts. in which it wasn’t my job to find the words. Thank you, Ms. Sue Goyette. Thank you Jane.

it is Goyette’s words i lean on today, offer up in lieu of my own, so unwieldly and congealed and ungentle. today, she is my translator, the mother who knows what i need to hear, what i want to say. maybe you need to hear them too.

For Women Who Cry When They Drive

Blame it on CBC stereo if anyone asks. Blame it on
the viola. I did and it worked. I never even had to mention locksmiths

and lovers, how close the two are. I never had to name
each white-knuckle grip of his on the steering wheel. I’ll name it here, though

for you. Surrender and all its aliases. I feel at home in two places now.
One’s here, the other in the library surrounded by reference books

To the stars. Driving doesn’t help. But you already know that. Remember
when you stopped, pulled over on the Cole Harbour Road and wept,

bowed to the wheel and the long road ahead, the long road behind. I tried
signalling, pulling over, but the traffic was stubborn. If you are reading this,

I did try to stop. The passing lanes of loss and love and the speed limit
to this life. I held you for days in my heart, dear, sad woman in the dark green Volvo

next to the Dairy Queen, next to the Royal Bank, feeling like you have no choice.
And you don’t. You don’t, except to fasten your seat belt

And yield.

– Sue Goyette
from CV2, The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, Winter 2004

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