Monday, October 30, 2006

The Elephant Talks to God

The launch Friday night of our friend’s book, The Elephant Talks to God, was a success, with about 150 people attending, and some forty books sold. It was held at the new Charlotte St. Art Centre, created from an old school, using the example of the Aberdeen Art Centre in Moncton. The whole of the Goose Lane Editions fall offerings was launched, with an unusual number of New Brunswick books, six, in the fall catalogue. Flora, Write This Down was the first Goose Lane edition, 24 years ago.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Moving On

Yesterday, after the apocalyptic sunrise, I started on the next stage. Stephen May’s exhibit was coming down today so Bill and I wanted to go to Gallery 78 to see the work again. While there I paid my November rent for my office. The new gallery administrator, Germaine, said, “I hate to take your money. You never use your office. Inga [the owner] phoned you about it.” Yes, she did, and afterwards I agonized over whether to give up the office or not. Bawled my eyes out, actually.

I replied to Germaine, spur of the moment, that I had decided to give it up, that I would take the month of November to clear my stuff out. I gulped and fought back tears. She was surprised, and my husband was even more surprised. I was surprised. But relieved. Mightily relieved. The end of a stage. Sixteen years at my wonderful office, but time to move on.

It is a beautiful space, at the top of a tower of a Victorian mansion, with thirteen windows overlooking the Saint John River, the green, and the Cathedral. It is – was – all my own. Several years ago my daughter gave me a box of Asian decorations to spruce it up – a rug, a strange hanging thing, miniature Chinese garden artifacts, a carved book rest. Over the years I had put up posters. An artist friend had given us a self-portrait, which I love, but which my husband couldn’t bear to look at, so I put that up. I had my religious reference library there, a table that had been in the kitchen of my childhood, a desk. Chairs. A chaise lounge.

Germaine and Inga had already decided that if I gave it up, they would make it into a lounge, where people could go and be shown art work from the bank.

After we saw the exhibit (we were gratified to see that most of the paintings had been sold), we went up to my space and gathered up some of the belongings to bring home.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Red Sun

Red Sun

Red Sun

This morning from my desk, I saw a red sun, and the red quickly spread over the sky.I've never seen so much of the sky red. It had such a feeling of the apocalyptic that our guest woke up and came up here to comment on it. The white globe is the wasp nest, a picture of which I posted when it was just being constructed.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Meditation on Psalm 139

I got the bright idea to make a failed novel into a blog, thinking that because the novel was written in journal entries, it would work as a blog. It didn't, so I have deep-sixed it. Are there any successful novels written in a journal form? I can't think of any at the moment. The pleasure of reading published journals is partly in knowing that the people are real and are going through real experiences, maybe even akin to your own.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Writer Friends

I belong to two writers groups. One is of long standing, meets in my house, and produces a variety of fiction, occasionally a poem or two and some memoirs. The other one I started at our church about a year ago. Various people attended or said they would attend, but the church group has settled down to seven or eight regulars. This group produces a wider variety: memoir, a first novel, other fiction, haiku, other poetry, theological examinations, anti-war proclamations, comic routines.

I have now belonged to several such groups, the longest running one, 1967 – 1983, housed at the University of New Brunswick. I have also taught many creative writing courses and writing workshops, from grade one to graduate students. What these groups have in common is that the participants become very close. We get to know each other in a way that doesn’t happen in other contexts, from the inside out. We get to know each others’ writing voices, obsessions; as my husband said one time, we educate the others to what we individually are trying to do, how to listen to us.

My church writers group met today. My pleasure was intense, far out of proportion to the amount or quality of the writing. Tonight a friend who used to belong to both the long-running UNB group and the one that meets at my house comes to stay with us. He is here for the launch tomorrow night of his latest book. Most of the writers from our group will be at the launch. I was going to describe the reunion as a family reunion, but that is not precisely how it will feel. A family reunion carries the tension of caring too much, whereas this reunion will have the quality of familiarity, of caring, but not of caring so much it hurts.

Apropos of my previous post, my own favorite hymn is Dear Lord and Master of Mankind, also by John Greenleaf Whittier. He was from my neck of the woods.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

New Music, Old Brain

One of the many things that perplex me is the content of contemporary popular music. Clearly this is much beloved of everyone born after World War II. In the past I was able to understand and appreciate some of it, but I am totally baffled by the latest music. I search for melody and find none. I listen to the lyrics, and if I can make them out, they are still incomprehensible. Why is this? Is my brain so set in its ways, so adverse to new things that I can no longer appreciate the new?

I was sitting in church with a good friend, my age, when I noted in the bulletin that we were going to sing, “Come in, come in and sit down, you are part of the family.” I was quite tickled because I know how much he dislikes the hymn. I try to be open-minded about these new hymns, but oh how I miss the old ones. On the rare occasion when we do sing one of these old ones, I will often find tears appearing in my eyes.

When our son got married, our daughter-in-law had a lovely thought. Because my father couldn’t be there, we would sing his favorite hymn, "Immortal Love", by John Greenleaf Whittier. “We may not climb the heavenly steeps to bring the Lord Christ down.” She photocopied the words and music for the guests, but the organist played an unfamiliar tune that my brother and I couldn’t sing, a terrible disappointment. I then realized how much the tune and the words belonged together.

Often before the organ prelude Irma Brewer would play a few of the old hymns on the piano. Last week she died, and a week from Sunday, in her memory, we are going to have a hymn sing an hour before the regular service. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stages Along the Way

I see from writing this blog that in my memory I divide my life into stages. The first stage, childhood, ended in 1952 when I went off to college and became peripatetic: college, Texas, Connecticut, and North Carolina.

In 1965 we moved to Canada. This third stage, the period when my life was immersed in children, my own and the neighbours’, finished in 1978. In that time also I began to write regularly, four novels.

In 1978 the fourth stage began when my son went off to university, beginning the emptying of the nest, heart-rending but satisfying too. By 1984, the three of them had left, coming back of course for periods, but essentially, gone.

My first published novel came out in 1982. In the next twelve years I had five novels out, taught full time at UNB for a brief period, was on several Canada Council juries, traveled throughout the Atlantic Provinces, to Ottawa and Toronto and Minnesota, was writer in residence at two universities, had two different offices away from home, and began to write arts journalism.

In 1994 the last of the five novels came out, and my husband retired from UNB. My father died in 1997. I seem to have been marking time in this stage, as if I really don’t know where I am going and where I will arrive. Lately, though, I am feeling as if I am close to arriving at the inn of this sixth stage, have rested for many nights, and am about to start out on the seventh stage, perhaps the last. Since March, on this blog, I have been tracing my way from birth, in no particular order, just as memories come to me. I am going to re-read the blog from the beginning and re-read the five novels, to see if I can discern something in this tracing that would give me a hint about the next stage.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Miracle Cactus

The Miracle Cactus

Twenty-four years ago, on the occasion of the launch of my first book, a friend gave me one of two cactus leaves she had brought back from California. It was a special and rare cactus, she said, and would produce beautiful flowers. I planted it; it took root and grew. For nineteen years it produced a lot of green leaves but no flowers, and then, inexplicably, buds appeared and indeed the resulting flowers were spectacular. For the first two years, it blossomed once a year, but now it blossoms three times a year. As far as I can remember, I did nothing different to induce it to bloom. We would comment on what an ugly plant it was, but because it was a special gift, we did not have the heart to throw it out. Was it our loyalty and patience that prompted it to produce? Even after five years, Bill and I are still amazed and pleased each time it blooms.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Hubba Hubba Night Club

I mentioned The Hubba Hubba Night Club in a recent post. When I was 10, my parents bought a beautiful late Victorian house. It had a two-story barn of the kind that was usually built in the village proper, with clapboards that had to be kept painted. Inside there was dark wood, huge beams, mysterious little closets, holes and a winding staircase to the second floor. My father used the first floor as his woodworking workshop. Upstairs there were trunks filled with treasures: a Gibson girl style jacket, green with black velvet. A maroon 1930ish evening gown. A fez. A Russian type fur hat. High heel shoes. A beautiful cloisonné stamp with the initial of the previous owner, N, other small pieces.

My best friend Ellie and I played their endlessly. I invented many scenarios, but the one I remember best is The Hubba Hubba Night Club. We scrawled the name in chalk on the door to the stairs. It is still there. It goes without saying that a ten year old living in a small Massachusetts village had never been in a night club. How did I even know such things existed? As I remember, our play consisted of our dressing up in the costumes, and singing and dancing.

Someone suggested that we get dressed up and walk the two miles to entertain a woman in the village, Isabelle, who had awful arthritis that completely crippled her. It was not long before the high heel shoes gave us blisters, the Gibson girl jacket was unbearably hot. We accumulated an entourage of boys on their bicycles intrigued by this parade. We got to Isabelle’s house, were welcomed enthusiastically by her mother, and ushered into the bedroom. I had never before seen such obvious suffering. We became shy, but we soldiered on, singing and dancing. I can’t remember which songs we sang, just that one of them was about a tropical isle. I think these were some of the words: “See the pyramids upon the Nile, na na na na na a tropic isle. Just remember na na na na na, you belong to me.”

The bedroom was on the front of the house (I think it must once have been the living room), and I could look out and see our entourage – Bobby Peterson and Richard Haberman are the only ones I remember – waiting for us, eager to hear about our adventure. Isabelle seemed to enjoy our performance. The mother served us kool-aid, urged us to come back again, and we said we would, but we never did.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Stephen May

Stephen May

Our friend Stephen May has an exhibit at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery this month and one at Gallery 78. The images below and above are from the Gallery 78 web site. He did the drawing of me that appears in my profile. I needed one for a short story being published in The Fiddlehead. The editor had decided that instead of photos, she would use drawings. I bought the drawing, and he obliged by framing it. We have two other works of his. One is a self-portrait and one is a drawing of our son. Stephen is widely regarded as one of the best artists in New Brunswick. His BAG exhibit was curated by our Lieutenant Governor, his Honour Hermenegilde Chiasson.

Stephen May

Sunday, October 15, 2006


One Word (aka Zhoen) left a comment and a link to a newspaper article about my last post. She disagrees with my conclusion that women are different from men. I should elaborate. I would agree that women and men are essentially the same, that humans are essentially not much different from apes, or dogs, or ants: living, breathing, consciousness-filled creatures whose reason for being is the big mystery we would all like to solve and alas never will. But the gender differences I am talking about are incremental and small in the great scheme of things. Yes, it is true that these differences have been exaggerated, “over inflated,” and it is thought that this exaggeration is generally to the detriment of women.

The article quotes a psychologist saying that boys want to play with boy toys and girls with girl toys so there must be some deep biological difference. Our son played with GI Joe dolls and our daughter with Barbie dolls. In both cases the joy seemed to be mainly in constructing and creating: scenarios, forts out of cardboard boxes, dresses out of bits of cloth and ribbon. Our daughter remembers playing Barbie’s on Patricia’s back deck when she was about 10 and thinking, “Right now I’m as happy as I am ever going to be.” My son remembers the joy of playing in Dan’s basement with their accumulated GI Joe equipment. I must get them to tell me how exactly they played. Where exactly did the joy reside?

And while I am at it, I will try to remember where the joy resided in my own childhood games. Why was playing Sardines so exciting? Croquet? The Hubba Hubba Night Club?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Female Brain

I have wondered about the profound change that came over me when I had my first baby. No woman expects this, and it is impossible to convince anyone until it has happened to them. One woman, who had expected to be able to go right back to work after her baby was born, said to me, “They told me I would be able to have a family and a career. But they lied.” When I read The Female Brain this change was made clear to me. “Motherhood changes you because it literally alters a woman’s brain—structurally, functionally, and in many ways, irreversibly.” For example, at the birth of her baby huge doses of the hormone oxytocin are released into the mother’s body, and the hormone is maintained by the physical connection to the baby. This hormone gives a woman a great high. When the physical connection is severed the hormone decreases and the stress of the lack is great. The oxytocin is further stimulated by holding other babies. I could have sat still holding my grandchildren for hours, the pleasure was so great. There is no joy comparable. The profound change of giving birth also affects the way a woman views the world, altruistically. I am simplifying the book of course.

But what happens as the woman gets old? These hormones dissipate; there are no more grandbabies or they live far away. And the great revelation for me in reading the book is why I no longer feel as if I want to take care of everyone. This deficiency has been making me feel guilty. When I read the chapter “The Mature Female Brain”, I thought, Eureka, yes this is how I feel and why I feel this way. This is why some post menopausal women fly the nest. In tracing my way from birth, I find I am now in an amazingly different frame of mind, wanting to look after myself, do things I want to do. I remember thirty years ago I was driving for meals on wheels, tending to every forlorn creature in sight, reading manuscripts for all sorts of people. At one point I realized I was burning myself out. In fact, I landed in the hospital.

The idea that women aren’t different from men (“biology is not destiny” is one way it is put) has always seemed to me to be ridiculous. How could they not be different, built so different, with such different hormones. One day after I had gone through menopause, I thought, in a flash of insight, This is the way men feel – no changes, no PMS, always the same. It was wonderful.

I have read three reviews of The Female Brain, one a so-so review and two slams. The reviews concentrate on Louann Brizendine’s use of generalizations of the pop culture variety, with no real scientific back-up. Women are more social, talk more, that sort of generalization. I ignored that part of the book. What I found so interesting was the more scientific account of the hormones in different stages of a woman’s life. Yes, it is true that her imagery was a little over the top: the woman’s brain was “marinated” in the hormones, for example. I don’t think women are better, more social, talk more, etc. but I do think there are probably reasons that there are not many women composers but there are many women novelists. Women are different from men, and the “political correctness” that makes it impossible to say that aggravates me.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Foolish Fantasy

Sometimes when I am overwhelmed by people, responsibilities, a houseful of disorganized stuff, I engage in a little fantasy. I run away from home with only the bare necessities and get a room (for some reason it always has green walls) where I read and write and have no contact with people.

I was thinking of this daydream this morning because we have a guest whose life is exactly that. He lives in a motel room, has only one friend, his barber (and he is nearly bald), and only three relatives, Bill and I and his brother from whom he is estranged. He carries the sum total of his possessions with him in a weekender bag, the kind that airline stewardesses drag behind them, and in a pillowcase which is about half full. He takes either a bus or a taxi where he needs to go.

The next time I begin my fantasy, I must remember what that kind of life would actually be like.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Beta Version

I have migrated to Beta Blogspot, thanks to the recommendation of ukbookworm, and I am now supposed to be able to do wonderful things. I haven’t yet figured out what. Fiddling with the technical end of the computer is relaxing for me in the way that doing the crossword puzzle is, but exciting also, the way no crossword puzzle could be. I am now on Instant Messenger, thanks to my son and his WebCam, two other marvels. According to The Female Brain what is missing is the actual physical touch. More about that later.

Monday, October 09, 2006


When I got back from Maine, I had a lot of catching up to do, reading the blog posts on my list, back nearly a month. I had to read them because of my insatiable curiosity. My kids have always kidded me about this curiosity about other people’s lives. “Who’s their doctor?”, they mimic me. This is a practical question, the only way really to find out who is a good doctor and who is a mediocre one. You have to be roundabout in determining this. At one point I heard many tales of a back surgeon who was bad. Eventually, probing, I realized that the many tales was just one tale of a person who had a bad experience and had broadcast this widely. Probing further, I discovered that the surgeon in question was really very good. Fortunately I have never had to use this information because none of us has had to have back surgery.

Blogs do give me some of that same kind of information. For example, today Anecdotal Evidence writes about Isaac Babel, one of the few notable Russian writers I haven’t read, giving me the urge to find one of Babel’s books.

Reading some blogs is very much like reading published journals, the ones of May Sarton, for example. After I had read one of her journals, I read some of her poetry and one of her novels, Anger. They are not nearly as good as her journals. In fact, she writes about the experience on which the novel is based in one of her published journals. This is so much more immediate and unmitigated. In the blogs, I follow the adventures of a man moving into a new house, of a woman with a new baby and still having time to homeschool her children, of the comforts of a woman having a toothache, the details of ordinary lives, but with those details thought about, philosophized over.

A while ago I went through my blog list and took some off it because it was becoming unmanageable to read all of them daily. Recently I added two. There are millions of English blogs (since I am unilingual, those are the only ones I know) and I have only found a tiny percentage of them. I am sure there are many that I would find fascinating if only I could discover their whereabouts.

Because I took as my theme, tracing my life from birth, I do not write about the day to day as much as others do. Saturday night Bill and I watched the end of the Detroit Tigers game where the young players were so excited by their victory that they ran out into the stands and squirted champagne at the fans, unadulterated joy and high spirits. Wonderful. A few days ago the new premier put the first Aboriginal to be elected MLA into the cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General. The Aboriginal MLA was so excited that he used the word “extremely” many times in the newspaper interview. Today in a quote of a few sentences he again used the word three times. Is he going to do a good job? I would bet on it. High spirits and joy and thoughtfulness. Ah yes.

Yesterday we had Thanksgiving at our lake camp with part of our family and some friends, a delicious meal, a beautiful warm day, leaves turned, great company. While we were there our daughter phoned to say she was to be in a commercial in which she has to swing from a chandelier, shouting “Whoopee.” "Whoopee," I say.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Being Reminded

In the Globe and Mail this morning is a thoughtful column by Neil Reynolds, the second in a series about an economics book by Dan Usher. Reynolds is one of several excellent Globe columnists, world class, in my opinion. He, Rex Murphy, Margaret Wente, and Christie Blatchford all have the ability to look at the world with fresh eyes and let me see various sides of any discussion. My idea of a good columnist is that he/she surprises me. When I read many columnists and letter to the editor writers, I know what they are going to say on any side of an argument.

Neil Reynolds was the editor of several newspapers. When he was the editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard, he made it into a newspaper with an excellent reputation, especially for its coverage of the arts. Later he became editor of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, turning it into an exciting paper. He hired several investigative reporters who uncovered all sorts of skullduggery. He created a Saturday magazine, The New Brunswick Reader. Near its beginning, he asked me to write for it, and for two and a half years I wrote weekly articles on craftspeople and artists. I even had the heady job of selecting the photo for the front cover.

My education in the arts began when my friend Joe Sherman became editor of ArtsAtlantic in 1979. Because he couldn’t find anyone from NB to write about the arts, he enlisted me. I had not been educated in arts and crafts, although my father was both, so I was reluctant to write. To compensate for my ignorance, I spent an immense amount of time educating myself on the particular art or craft I was to write about. It was my first foray into becoming an autodidact, quite exciting. Later I was asked to write an introduction for a book on NB crafts. Reynolds, a lover of crafts, read it and asked me to write for the Reader. I had always wanted to have a weekly column, and although it was immensely time-consuming, I enjoyed the job. Bill and I traveled all over New Brunswick interviewing artists and craftspeople. The ArtsAtlantic and Reader experience has been an important part of my journey from birth to where I am now. I should write more about it. When my father got sick and we were spending a lot of time visiting him, meeting the Reader deadline became too hair-raising, and when Joe left ArtsAtlantic, there was no one to badger me out of my inherent laziness.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Being Lulled to Sleep

We have a new radio station affiliated with ESPN. It is broadcasting the baseball play-off games. Last night I went to bed at 9, put the light out, snuggled down, and prepared to listen to the Yankee/Tiger game. I lasted for the first half inning and woke up at 12:40 in time to hear that the Yankees had won. I began to remember my mother. She would go to bed with a snack and a magazine to listen to ballgames. In those days she could even get minor league games, and as a consequence she knew all about the rookies who finally made it to the major leagues. My dad worked nights, and after my brother and I left home, she would be by herself. We didn’t even have locks on our doors. She loved baseball and the radio broadcasts must have been a great comfort to her. A game has a plot, interesting characters, a soothing jargon, my own partisanship and yet its outcome has no dire consequence.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Today is World-Wide Communion Sunday, a fine idea. This got me remembering various communion services I’ve attended. In the little village church of my youth, we went to the altar and kneeled, receiving the bread and little silver glasses of wine from the minister bending over us from the other side of the altar. The choir came down from the choir stall to sit in the front pews, where we had a good view of the soles of the kneelers’ shoes. Once when I was about twelve or thirteen, my friend Ellie and I saw that one of the soles had a hole in it. We got to giggling, and the more we tried to stifle the giggles, the worse they became. I was pleasantly surprised today that I could recall the event without embarrassment.

When my brother was in seminary, he decided to conduct a Watch Night Service, complete with communion, on New Year’s Eve, using John Wesley’s program. It was memorable for many reasons. First of all, the church wasn’t heated, it not being a Sunday. My brother determined to have the sanctuary lit by candles, so there was the strangely moving power always provided by such unusual light and shadows in amongst the pews and altar. There were only a few people there: our mother and father, Bill and I, and a few of our parents’ friends. One of the women had just undergone a sadness, I can’t remember about what, and afterwards she told our parents that the ceremony had touched her deeply. The service was very long, perhaps two hours. John Wesley never spared his congregation. He used to preach outside the collieries to the miners coming off work, and he would preach for an hour on, for example, justification by faith.

Once when my sister-in-law was having an operation, I went to look after their children, then about 6 and 8. After school I set out a snack for them, grape juice and cookies. As they were drinking the juice, the younger one said, “Aunt Nancy, you gave us the communion juice.” They thought that was a great joke. Afterwards my brother explained that he kept Welch’s grape juice in the refrigerator so that he could bring communion to the sick and shut-in.

When I first came to Fredericton, I was charmed by the communion. The members of the board of sessions would come to us in the pews and serve us cubes of bread on silver plates and little glasses of juice carried in silver cases. We would hold the cubes of bread until everyone was served and then eat it all together. After we had all been served the wine, we would drink together, and then you heard clink, clink, clink as everyone put down the glass on the holder on the back of the pew. Now we usually go up to the altar, dip a piece of bread (sometimes a piece of pita bread) into the wine, communion by tinction, it is called. There is available a rice cracker or water for those with allergies. Today we did it the old way.

Sometimes in church, my tears spring up, often for no reason I can discern. Today they had something to do with gratitude – just a flash of thanksgiving accompanied by tears.