Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Category: articles

How do you say goodbye?

Toni Morrison towered over literature. Though older than me by a generation, her early novels became my lodestones, magnets pointing me toward a new kind of literature. Her writing cracked open a world I hadn’t read on the page before, a vibrant world where Black women were accorded center stage, absent “the white gaze.” I knew how corrosive the white gaze could be from going to school in the Bahamas, and how complete, complex and nuanced were the worlds beyond its acid brow.

“Beloved” eventually became my most cherished title.

I started writing in about 1985 as an out lesbian, using mostly male protagonists. I snuck one story with lesbians into my first collection, a story about two women and their adopted autistic child. My second story collection had lots of queer protagonists, and my second poetry collection was all queer. By the time I wrote those books, I was done pretending just to get published. I understood that I’d been pandering (to use Claire Vaye Watkins’ word), though all the while I had been reaching for something else, the bravery to make up tales my way, from a queer gaze, a non-binary gaze, a disabled gaze, and to insist that mainstream Canada hear me. I honed my skills so that they would have to listen. When they wouldn’t, I submitted to literary awards, and I won contests.

That never translated, for me, into publishing contracts, and so, broken-hearted, I distanced myself. I’m sorry to have to say that we have a long way to go in Canada before parity for queers is reached.

I loved Toni Morrison, and I loved her writing, and the lessons of her writing resound with me even today. I’m grateful her literature is available to us all, and particularly grateful it and she stood as beacon and exemplar for generations of Black womxn. I’m going to be doing what many people around the world are doing now, reading her novels again, reading The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Song of Soloman, letting her literature soak back into me with all its strength and wisdom.

A white person, even one marginalized, cannot begin to understand the meaning of Toni Morrison to Black womxn. Here is a link to a touching and important eulogy by Dr Roxane Gay, NY Times. The Legacy of Toni Morrison.

At Medium, the Zora team has re-printed Toni Morrison: In Her Own Words; Cinderella’s Stepsisters, her commencement address to the Barnard graduating class of ’79.

 

Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Reifel2

Reifelphotographs: Jane Eaton Hamilton

republication: first published here in 2014

I was at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta with my friend M-E in October as it rounded towards November. Delicious place to spot wild birds, from Bohemian waxwings to Harlequin ducks. I had decanted seed into baggies, some kind of major success to even have remembered to bring it.  The leaves were changing in spectacular, eastern ways because of our dry sunshiny October. We had yellows, we had oranges, we had reds. Since photosynthesis had shut down, the anthocyanins in each leaf stirred to protect the trees from sunshine.

M-E and I stood watching 3 Lesser Sandhill Cranes do very little, their orange eyes reptilian and attentive, on the lookout for bugs. One would move forward on Pick-Up Stick legs and knobby dinosaur-skinned knees to peck in the dirt. Its tutu tail feathers would shake. Its knees, I noticed, were knobby; the skin thick and scaly, dinosaur-ish.

How to tear myself away even when M-E was showing signs of boredom?

I thought of how long Sandhill Cranes had been on Earth—according to fossil evidence, at least 10 million years. They had red topknots and white cheeks, but who knows why. They only weighed about ten pounds, but were still among the biggest, and most beautiful, of uncommon birds.

Uncommon, I mean, relative to Chickadees and Bushtits, ducks and coots.  Uncommon relative to starlings or crows.

Crane

I considered the woodpecker’s long tongue which curved around its entire head, wrapping even its brain; I thought of how birds had hollow bones, and many air pockets for flight. I had held two dead Yellow Finches in my hands just months earlier, victims of my cat, their bodies still warm, their heads lolling; I knew how deceptively light a bird was. (How big a cat bell really needed to be.) How my cat really needed to say indoors.

M-E and I moved along to watch catfish circle through slurry water, fins brown and slick. It was them or the ducks for the birdseed we threw.

We strolled along a pathway in dappled light, birdhouses and feeders nailed to the trees, Red-winged Blackbirds winging down and zipping gone. I admired the light, the leaves, the red fields, the sunshine and shadows on the lumps of the tilled farmers’ rows. Geese with black-tipped wings looked like hundreds of unmelting snowballs as they squabbled in the muck..

When I thought of birds dying, I always thought of the National Geographic article by Jonathan Franzen about the plight of songbirds in Europe and across northern Africa (Franzen article). I thought of the extraordinary video by photographer David Guttenfelder of Warblers caught on sticky lime sticks. Hunters trap Ortolan Buntings, a delicacy in France, and Quail and Turtledoves, and Cranes and Golden Orioles. In Cypress, a dish called Ambelopoulia calls for European Robins and Blackcaps; each songbird nets two bites.

All these birds have long migrations. Exhausted and depleted, perhaps after crossing the Mediterranean, they require rest and food, but hunters lie in wait with trap sticks, nets or guns. Capturing songbirds has a long history, Franzen tells us, and is even referenced in the bible, but today the practice (with the help of population surges and technology) has grown epic and is decimating populations.

Happily, here, in the reserve, we revered songbirds. Instead of eating them, we fed them.

When I thought of birds living, my heart filled. Now a couple passed us sunflower seeds.

chickadee

M-E and I stood with our arms extended, our hands now buckets for black seeds. The birds, small and frenzied, flitted through the shrubbery, chattering to each other, considering the lures. They did well to be suspicious.

A little girl, perhaps four, perhaps five, watched us. I thought she was going to say something about birds, but instead she just elbowed her friend. “I’ve spent all day with you,” she told her, her face drawn and worn.

The friend had curly hair which frizzed around her head with the sun shining through it. She ran her hand up and down the front of her brown jacket. From her cuffs dangled blue mittens she didn’t need. “I don’t know,” she answered, perplexed.

In the bushes, three Chickadees hopped from branch to branch, assessing the sudden windfall.

M-E’s hand shook a little from the effort of keeping it still.

The original girl said, “You have to give me that … I’ve spent all day with you, since morning.”

The friend slowly nodded. “All right,” she said.

The first Chickadee landed on the side of my palm, grabbed a seed and winged away.

“That bird,” said the friend, pointing. “I like that bird.”

I said to her, in wonder, “It felt like a whisper.” I talked gently for a minute about how they wore black caps—did she think they only wore them in the winter, like people might?

The first girl looked up at me, her face knitted into a grown-up expression of irritation.

A Chickadee landed on M-E.  Rotund, it hopped down her arm. She giggled like someone very young, and I photographed it.

The second girl extended her hand to me and into it, I tipped out some of my seed. She held out her arm; I saw that her eyes were wet, a tear trembling just in the center of her bottom left lid.

“Just wait,” a woman said. “Just stay very still, Margo.”

The first girl frowned. Her hair switched like a horse’s tail. Finally she hit the second girl’s arm, scattering the bird seed. She put her diminutive hands on her hips and said, “Margo, listen to me.  I’m trying to say that it’s time I saw other friends.”

The tear fell to Margo’s cheek and slid down her young skin while her mouth shaped an “O.”  For a second, that tear was everything, and I watched it while Chickadees landed in my hand, their claws like the tiniest tap shoes. Margo crouched down, wounded, something caught in a trap, and clamped her hands over her ears.

We all noticed the hush. The dees suddenly made themselves scarce; Margo looked up. Above the farmer’s field, a Cooper’s Hawk circled; from where we stood, it looked speckish and dull and no threat. But a din broke out as the field of migratory geese lifted. The sky turned white above us, as if we’d been caught in a snow globe. All the alarm honks, all the 54-inch black-tipped wingspans flapping at once, was overwhelming, and sounded first like an accident, a multi-vehicle pile-up, and then exactly like a train barreling towards us and about to run us down.

Run! came the primeval urge.  But only small Margo actually did and what she was running from was anyone’s guess.

“It’s just birds!” I yelled, but she couldn’t have heard me.

Over in Europe, maybe right then, robins, orioles, warblers were stuck on sap traps, every movement towards freedom ensnaring them.

The sound of their wings as they struggled.

The snow geese above us.

Fat-bellied Chickadees.  Long-necked Cranes.  Slick-finned catfish.  A little girl’s friendship ending.

A sunshine-doused day in the bird sanctuary.

I think it might be spring

The Garden Getting Going

Cutworms have decimated the sprouts of the daylilies; slugs have been rolling out placemats on my ligularia, forks and knives in hand. Yesterday, I tucked some last-leg plants that have been crying out for root-room into my new garden. I don’t even know if the delphinium, given to me by garden-witch Tekla Deverell on Pender Island, now deceased, can possibly make it. I’ll baby it along, thinking mauve/blue thoughts at it, but what if, as the sun rises higher in the sky, the garden still gets no sun?

All over town the cherry blossoms are out and it’s hard not to believe they are hollering celebration. Is there anything else as beautiful as a magnolia in bloom? I chase blossoms like candy, up and down the good streets in Vancouver, the streets where I know there are canopies, because I have to feast on the beauty, storing it up and hiding it the way chipmunks do stashes. All the hyacinths, the muscari, the daffs, the tulips play their parts. Come winter, I’ll be pulling blossoms into a memory quilt.

A flicker came to sit on my fence a couple of days ago, but it didn’t talk to me, just sat there, orange and grey, eyeing the suet feeder which is surrounded by a cage much deeper than the flicker’s beak. I used to get them at my house, drumming on the metal hat of my garden heater.

My feeder last year was clustered with baby goldfinches for weeks running.

This year I’ve got juncos, sparrows, chickadees, finches, bushtits and even (finally, finally) hummingbirds. I’m going to try that thing where you pour syrup into your palm and see if they’ll eat out of it. Plus I’ll do sunflower seeds to see if I can entice chickadees.

Suffused with well-being that never seem to let go.

Writing Advice from the Winnipeg Review

 

A piece of mine about writing appeared in longer form at the Winnipeg Review.

Show Me Your Worm

Many Gendered Mothers: Ntozake Shange

I’m not sure Ntozake Shange would be thrilled at being my literary mentor, but nevetheless, she was my first and I honour her every writing day.

Many Gendered Mothers

The Afterlie

Trump is gaslighting the world.

It wouldn’t be responsible, even on this, a literary blog, not to acknowledge the horrible and dangerous results of the US election. This Monday, the day before it unfolded, I was targeted by a young white man because I am disabled. Many times as he boxed me in, his car preventing mine from moving, he told me I was a “ret— bitch” and said that I had better get used to people not getting out of my way.

He was right.

Because Trump was elected, I need to get used to the wreckage of my social justice dreams. Because Trump was elected, I need to get used to my life of being imperilled because I’m disabled, queer and a woman.

Now, on the transit of America, white men grab women by the breast or genitals and tell them they have that right. Now, on the transit of America, white women scream at women of colour, insisting they are “stalkers” (meaning terrorists) and call for their deportation. Now, on the streets of America, a white woman walking dogs can be shoved off a sidewalk by a white man saying, “You need to get back in your place now, woman.” A woman’s crotch was grabbed by a stranger in an LA gas station in broad daylight, who said, “How do you like it, bitch?” A disabled man in Ohio was almost rammed by a grocery cart while in his wheelchair and a woman said,”If you’re lucky President Trump will gas you first.” A Canadian queer man was beaten in Santa Monica. College students have been spit on and mocked with black face. Children have been chanting white slogans in schools, even in kindergartens, and handing deportation letters to their Latino classmates.

As I write this, Trump has been President-elect for three days.

Three days.

Can I just emphasize that?

Three days.

Three days . My twenty-month-old granddaughter can count that high. Day One. Day Two. Day Three.

Sit with what that might mean for the coming few months and the four years after that.

Compassion and understanding of Trump supporters is not what we need now. Love, insularity and protecting your own will not save anyone. We need to stop “waiting and seeing.” Or “giving him a chance.” Or saying, “Let’s chat a bit more.”

It’s too late for all that.

Come January 20, a white supremacist with little grasp of foreign politics will have the US nuclear codes in his hand and he doesn’t like to be crossed.

We need action.

So, realistically, what can you, the average Jo, do?

When you hear a racist comment, intercede to let the racist know you are listening and judging and her behaviour isn’t okay. When you witness harassment, even though it might cost you in bravery and time, act to stop it. When you hear children saying “White might” stop them. When you see a man being an asshole, tell him no.

Let your disabled, immigrant, LGBT, BIPOC friends know you’ve got their backs.

Tell a supermarket clerk you are keen to protect her rights.

Wear a white rose or safety pin to let people know you intend to be a safe haven.

Get used to the fact that much of your energy is going to have to be used to stop what’s happening. No, you didn’t ask for this, but this is what you’ve got now. And if you’re not part of the solution, yes, you’re part of the problem.

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Martin Luther King Jr

“When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it’s not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters.”
Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio

 

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Campaigns Not Protests

Tabitha Southey

This is from Amy Ferris, an American, on FB:

“I’m gonna leave you with this.

So, tonight I went to our local yoga studio here in town. Truth be told, I don’t do yoga often, I’m more of a sit on your ass and watch it grow kinda woman. I know, I know… I know, but i’m learning to love every bad-ass inch of it, thank you very much. So, I go – reluctantly – and it’s jammed packed. It’s a cleansing bell ceremony. One hour. For the first 15 or so minutes I can barely breathe. Bells are ringing and chiming. Big bells, small bells, copper bells; little finger chimes. My head hurts. My heart hurts. I can feel my entire being shaking. I can feel the vibration. I can also feel every bit of anxiety & fear & worry and I wanna scream out-loud, but I don’t. I’m not a chime kinda girl.

Twenty minutes in, maybe twenty-five minutes in, I have an epiphany – a breakfast at epiphany moment. I no longer feel anxiety. I feel oddly calm, at ease. i feel – dare i say – buoyant. I kinda feel like I felt when I took Quaaludes.

So for months & months & months we’ve all been saying, writing, chanting #ImWithHer – our hashtag. I’m with her. And we write and share and galvanize. We are with her. She is our girl, our champion, she is our President. We forgive her all her flaws, we cheer her on, we adore her. We admire her. We criticize her, and yes, we judge her. We appreciate her. She is smart & sassy & bounces the fuck back. She is mighty. She is fierce. She is strong. She is grace. She is our imperfections, our mistakes, our foibles all rolled into one. She is our darkest secrets. She is our greatest dreams. She is our hope. She is cautious, collected. She is funny & quick. She falls down – she gets up. She is vilified, humiliated, embarrassed. She is saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes, wearing the wrong shoes. She falls down – she gets up. She is called under the carpet, she is swept under the rug; she is bold and audacious. She is our best moments, our worst moments and our nasty motherfucker moments. She takes punches. She takes jabs. She takes one hit after another after another. She is thrown under the bus. She is disliked. She is loved. She is ripped to shreds. She is put under a microscope. Dissected. She is ridiculed. She is a mother, a daughter, a grandmother, a wife. A public servant. She is complicated and messy; beautiful and gracious. She is resilient, passionate, committed. She is determined. She is the stars and the moon, the whole fucking SHEbang.

And then bam, she loses.
And holy shit, we all lose.
We all feel like we’ve lost, and that we are lost with no GPS in sight; that we’re spiraling into the darkest dirtiest most horrific abyss, and we mourn and grieve the end of her.

But here, this – this is the rub:

We woke up.
We needed to wake up.
This entire fucking election has been about waking up.
Awakening.

We have been screaming & marching & screaming about patriarchy & misogyny & sexism & equality for years & years & years & years. And she was gonna save us, make it happen – our knight-ess in shining armor.

So, i’m on a mat on the floor and my heart is pounding and my back is killing me and the faux suede oblong pillow under my knees is moving & shifting & slipping and i get it – a moment of clarity, not the pillow – I get it. We have now come face to face with the boogey man, and now what? We gotta save ourselves. And for one moment I see this as a huge motherfucker gift: we need to go from #ImWithHer to #IAmHer because we are her.

We are each her.

You are her and you are her and you over there in the corner you are her and you are her and you sitting down you are her and you are her and you are her and you are her and you texting your friend you are her and you are her and you are her and you eating sorbet and wishing it were ice cream you are her and you are her and you are her and you wishing to be seen and heard you are her and you are her and you are her and you are her and you are her and you with the baby screaming you are her and you are her and you with the broken heart you are her and you are her and you are her and you with the passion in your belly you are her and you are her and you are her and you with the desire to change the world you are her.

You are her.

#IAmHer”

And may I add my extreme gratitude to Ms Rodham Clinton for her run. And may I tell you that you have resources inside yourself that you didn’t know you had, and those resources will allow you to react, then rest, then stand again to resist oppression (RRR). There’s no prescribed way to do this. For you, it might be music, writing and making kick-ass art. For someone else, it might be attending rallies. For someone else, it might be combing through the legal system to find grounds for legal challenges.

There are more of us than there are of them and damn it, in the name of love and justice, we will win.

 

The Adequate Writer: A state of writing grace

JEHhand3
hand, Jane Eaton Hamilton, unknown date
There is a thing that comes over my brain when I can write well–a vacancy. It could be likened to Bev Daurio’s “round room without windows,” because it feels like a scallop of emptiness inside a clean, white, rounded bone, a beautiful meditation room with blowing cream drapes, but it’s sensate even in my limbs as an awareness of what I have to call clean energy, the shimmer of a mirage felt rather than seen. A meditation? A dream without a dream to fill it? I can juggle five or ten disparate things at the same time as one might, I’ve heard, in a manic state, when links between ideas/inputs/sensations are readily apparent and can be braided. It doesn’t matter how ordinarily jarring the information appearing is–it will in this rare capacity make a kind of fictional sense for what my characters are undertaking. The world opens its possibilities all at once. Yet this state of writing grace is as far from manic as anything could be; it’s calm and open and peaceful. Whatever difficulties were inherent in the manuscript previously will be unlocked.
Not the kind of unlocked where you come back the next morning and groan at all the ridiculous you’ve unleashed on the text, but the kind of unlocked that sends manuscripts out into their futures.
 
Outside disruptions can dispell this nimbleness. When I am getting a “write on” I will sense it for hours before it shows itself fully. I prefer to indulge it and not break away from it, because it’s not a usual occurence for me. I can toil weeks or months without it, even while regularly engaged in a project. I can’t will it to happen, but I do note that it’s always–always–preceded by frustrated hours or days of edging up to work with increasing levels of frustration, something I would once have called writer’s block, replete as those times are with self-castigation. Not just writing self-castigation but more wide castigations: Why won’t I do my taxes? A nap mid-day? I should call X. I could finish that drywall. I could paint that trim. Why didn’t I call TD? Why haven’t I been in touch with the pharmacy? Why didn’t I cut the plants back? I should have gone shopping. I should have worked on that article due on the first. Watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon? Why am I so useless? I could lift weights. I could go for a walk. Look alive! It’s Monday tomorrow! How can I just go to bed without accomplishing anything?
But now I see this unease/writer’s block/chastisement as just a prelude to my best work. It’s part of why I believe in my routine of sticking it out each day until some significant work occurs (though usually I write through without this suppleness to help me, somewhere in the middle of my two extremes, and make do). Batter myself against failure long enough and there will come a breakthrough.

A Challenge to Canada’s Writers and Artists

In this difficult week of MAU (Misogyny As Usual), when Jian Ghomeshi has signed a peace bond after already being acquitted of sexual assault and one count of choking, I’ve read many heartbreaking, raw accounts of women’s* encounters of violence at the hands of men. There is an outpouring of rage in response to the verdicts, and why wouldn’t there be?

Some solutions have been suggested: working to bring our justice system into alignment with the more functional and respectful sexual assault courts of the UK; thinking about alternative justice as a kinder, gentler way to mediate these cases. Personally, I like my idea of victims of this kind of treatment suing the feds over the abridgement of their women’s Charter equality rights, and this is an idea that could go wider and include women whose equality rights are abridged every day by Canada’s hatred of women.

What we need, it seems to me, besides, urgently, an inquiry on misogyny, is our creative people to put their best minds to work at developing solutions. We can’t leave systemic change up to the legal system, where things are hidebound. Lawyers have had misogynistic legal regimes drilled into them like fillings. 

So this is my challenge to Canada’s writers, artists, musicians: come up with ideas and get them out into the public sphere.

I guess what I fear is what I saw after the case itself was complete–women stopped demanding change. We are exhausted, demoralized, literally and figurately beaten back by violence and fear and compassion. We go back to our lives. We think it’s impossible. The system is broken; the system never changes. We realize how little has been altered there over the years and how impossible it is to enact change inside a system that’s functioned as a male-bastion since its beginning.

None of us know what to do, exactly.

But what I’m telling you from my activist days is this: DO SOMETHING.

 

*I note as always that women also suffer violence at the hands of people besides men, and that ciswomen are not the only victims of violence.

Canada is Raping You

#Ghomeshi ##gomeshi #ibelievelucy #IStandWithLucy #BillCosby #hairextensions #truthmatters #rapeculture #cndjustice #sexualassault #dowomenlie #canadaisrapingyou #rapeisrape #womensrights #listentosurvivors

The complicity of the Canadian state in rape is a prelude to assault.

We have debunked the myth that the blame for sexual assault lies with the victimized.* Verdict after case not tried after case not reported assures us the fault doesn’t lie with the offender. According to Stats Can, only 3 out of 1000 sexual assaults in this country end in conviction.

Folks, there is only one other place to land fault: With the government of Canada, which is failing to protect you, and in failing to protect you, creating the misogynistic atmosphere that virtually assures your victimhood.

Here is part of your Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which indicts the government for all of us to read:

Section 7: right to life, liberty, and security of the person.

Section 12: right not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

Section 15: equal treatment before and under the law, and equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.

Canada is courting rapists, and their statistical shout could scarcely be louder: Rapists, please, go for it.

Once, residential schools were legal. Once, Japanese internment was legal. Outside of our country, apartheid, the holocaust and slavery were legal.

Now, in Canada, rape is surely the next thing to legal. Rape is used as a tool of power and control to maintain the status quo and it establishes a dominance our legal system entrenches.

If you were a Canadian rapist, and you knew that you could rape with impunity, would you be likely to stop?

At least 1 out of 4 Canadian women is raped. Imagine 4 women in your life. Imagine 8 women. Imagine 16 women. Of those 16 women, 4 at least will have been raped. All of them will have experienced the preludes to assault, including the sure knowledge that if they are next, they will be unprotected by the law.

33 women out of 1000 raped women come forward. Imagine if only 33 out of 1000 break and enter victims called police. We would know something besides our front window was broken.

6 out of 1000 sexual assaults go to court. That’s how many victims Canada finds credible, and most of those complainants will be undermined—by introducing irrelevancies that don’t pertain to the assault.

Furthermore, only 2-8% of women lie about rapes, which is less than the percentage of people who lie about robberies, car accidents and assaults. Yet the outcomes to the different crimes are radically different.

Does anyone—even within the law profession–really imagine that the complainants in the Jian Ghomeshi case had equal treatment under the law, and equal protection and benefit of our laws without discrimination? Or do our Charter protections only come into play if you’re charged with a crime? Do women’s equality rights end when an abuser puts his or her hand on her? Do they end later when she reports to police? Or does she retain them until she is “whacked” in court?

I cherish our Charter.

As one of the litigants in Canada’s same-sex marriage case, I sat in Beverly McLaughlin’s courtroom in Ottawa as the court debated the reference questions from Parliament about changing our constitution to include queers in 2005. What living Canadian would I most like to have dinner with? Beverly McLaughin.

Our Charter is a living tree. It is meant to branch and change over time. I have watched it grow, quite literally under my fingertips. For a long time after the Charter’s advent in 1985, we had a program called Court Challenges, which provided funding to lawyers to challenge the constitution. The Harper government got rid of it and just this week the Libs announced they’re bringing it back.

Lately people, especially lawyers and pundits, seem stuck in the idea that we can’t change how sexual assault cases are tried. I find this notion bizarre and ridiculous.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

Neil MacDonald in an article for the CBC (linked below) maintains that I mock due process. And, in fact, he’s only half wrong: I regard it warily. If it is used as a means to justice, I admire it. If it is used to psychologically batter (almost always female) complainants, I do not admire it.

One is called to wonder why we value rapists’ freedom so very much that 2999 victims out of 3000 don’t have the reassurance that their rapists will be jailed for assault. Is it really better to let 2999 guilty offenders off the hook in order that one innocent one doesn’t rot in jail? Are abusers 2999 times more important than their victims?

Because that’s what we’ve been saying with how we utilize due process in sexual assault cases.

Leah McLaren has written in the Globe and Mail about the UK system of trying sexual assaults. It has changed there, and it can change here:

“The British court has significantly changed the way it deals with sexual-abuse trials. Most complainants are now interviewed and videotaped by police at home and not required to retell their story live in court. Complainants are then cross-examined via video link in a separate room from the defendant to avoid potential intimidation.

Defence counsel are required to make a special motion in advance if they want to bring up the complainant’s sexual history or conduct unconnected to the alleged incident. They must also, in most cases, submit their questions for cross-examination in advance, to be approved by a judge before trial. Neither are defendants given a choice to be tried by judge or jury. Virtually all serious crimes are tried by jury in Britain.

In the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile scandal and Operation Yewtree, it simply isn’t possible for defence lawyers in Britain to ambush and “whack” complainants in sexual-assault cases the way they once did (and the way, as some say, they are still perfectly entitled to in Canada). In Canada, by contrast, we still have a system that continues to fail the very victims of sexual assault it was designed to protect.”

We know the answer for why Canada has organized itself to dissuade victims from reporting their assaults. It’s because of systemic misogyny. Courts and the law have been formed and shaped by (elderly white) men to perform for (elderly white) men. At each step along a woman’s post-rape path, the system must step on her back and she must learn just how unimportant and impeachable she is as a citizen. Because if women didn’t stay down, misogyny would crumble.

Guess who will stop Canada from treating women like this, if you don’t? You know the answer: No one.

Here’s a radical idea:

Survivors who have been decimated in Canada’s courts, whether in the Ghomeshi case or in other sexual assault cases, might band together, preferably in several provinces at once, find a lawyer interested in constitutional law and sue the Federal government for abridging their Charter rights.

Readers will want to tell me, I know, how my analysis is skewed and this can’t possibly be done, given Canada’s current legal structure, but please save your breath.

Don’t tell me how it can’t be done, tell me how it can be.

And then show me.

 

*I use the word victim to refer to victims and survivors and complainants. I use the word men to also stand in for other genders. I use the word women to also stand in for other genders. I use the terms rape and sexual assault interchangeably despite the fact that “rape” is not legal terminology in Canada.

Court Challenges:

Relevant Dates:

  • 1978: First court challenges program for language rights.
  • 1985: Program expanded to cover Charter equality rights.
  • 1989: Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Disabled Persons carried out a study, hearing from 62 witnesses. It concluded unanimously that there were “not merely sufficient, but compelling reasons” for continuing the Program
  • 1992: The program was cancelled by the Conservative government.
  • 1994: Under a new Liberal government the CCP was reinstated under the Department of Canadian Heritage (it is later made into an independent non-profit corporation)
  • September 2006: Program abolished by the Harper government.
  • May, 15 2007: Parliament’s Official Languages committee stops functioning after the Conservative chair refuses to hear witnesses on the government’s decision to axe the CCP.
  • June 2008: The Harper government restores funding for the linguistic rights part of the former CCP, now operating under the name the Language Rights Support Program.

Role or Position

The Court Challenges Program (CCP) provided funds to support test cases of national significance. Specifically, court cases that clarified the constitutional rights of official language minorities and/or those pertaining to equality rights of Canadians.

Implications and Consequences

  • Equality: Access to justice in equality rights cases is severely limited and is available mostly to those with the financial capacity to pursue them.
  • Equality: Canada’s global reputation of being a leader in human rights is greatly diminished by the elimination of a unique program admired around the world.
  • Democracy: Discriminatory laws and practices remain untouched and unchallenged for much longer.
  • Equality: Programs to provide protection from government discrimination such as LEAF for women, DAWN, for women with disabilities, Egale for gays, lesbians, bisexual and trans-identified people are limited in their ability to protect individuals as effectively.
  • Equality: The cancellation of the CCP diminished the disability community’s access to justice.

Court Challenges Program

Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Canadian Rape Stats

Neil Macdonald for CBC

Leah McLaren for the Globe and Mail

Jane Eaton Hamilton The Preludes to Assaults

 

Intros for female leads in scripts

FullSizeRender(4)

sketch: based on Picasso, Jane Eaton Hamilton, ’13

Check this out and tell me we don’t have a problem with misogyny:

#femscriptintros

Lit Pop, Montreal

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 5.31.44 PM

chick with docked beak

I entered this competition on the off-chance hope of having George Saunders read my work–as a lark, in other words. The good news was just announced–I won for fiction, and Michael Prior won for poetry. Congrats, Michael. I’m grateful to Lit Pop and the judges, and most of all, to George Saunders for his generosity in choosing my piece “Battery,” a hybrid fiction/cnf work, and for his great comments.

“George Saunders says congratulations and:

I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.”

The piece is a story about a newborn chick in a factory farm as it has its beak docked. It is routine for chicks to have one-third of their beaks amputated without anesthetic. It would be stellar if this piece could play some small part in erradicating the torture-chambers that are factory farms.

George Saunders’ most recent book, Tenth of December (stories), was published in 2014, was a National Book Award finalist, and was named one of the best books of the year by People, The New York Times Magazine, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, New York, The Telegraph, BuzzFeed, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and Shelf Awareness. He is also the author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a New York Times children’s bestseller. In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the “Best Writers Under 40.” He writes regularly for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He won a National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2004 and his work is included in Best American Short Stories 2005. He teaches at Syracuse University.

Blog post up at Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s site

Magnolia2JEH

photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2006

Gail Anderson-Dargatz and I have known each other since she published her first book, ‘The Cure for Death by Lightning.’ She invited me to write a blog post on our favourite topic, the ins and outs of being writers. When you’re having a peak, notice she’s got blog posts up from many, many writers on all sorts of writerly topics.

“Losing the flow, for me, is a calamitous writer’s block.” Jane Eaton Hamilton

The Adequate Writer: On Writing Intensives

 

Bad News from Canada’s Writers’ Union

 

IMG_0832

sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2013

Today the Writers’ Union of Canada, of which I first became a member in the 1980s, released the results of a recent survey:

“writers in Canada are making 27% less from their writing than they were making in 1998 (when last surveyed to this extent). What’s more, a full 45% of those surveyed indicated they are working harder in order to earn that lower amount.”

Furthermore, Canadian women writers earn only about half of what their male peers earn.

Survey Results

Quill and Quire–women earn less

Stephen King, who knows a few things

JEHforsythia2

from

The Writer’s Handbook 1988 by Sylvia K. (Ed) Burack

“IV. Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully

1. Be talented
This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with “what is the meaning of life?” for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness. For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success – publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented. Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?

Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We’re not talking about good or bad here. I’m interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn’t get paid. If you’re not talented, you won’t succeed. And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming. Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer – you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It’s lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices … unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you’ll know which way to go … or when to turn back.

2. Be neat
Type. Double-space. Use a nice heavy white paper, never that erasable onion-skin stuff. If you’ve marked up your manuscript a lot, do another draft.

3. Be self-critical
If you haven’t marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don’t be a slob.

4. Remove every extraneous word
You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

6. Know the markets
Only a dimwit would send a story about giant vampire bats surrounding a high school to McCall’s. Only a dimwit would send a tender story about a mother and daughter making up their differences on Christmas Eve to Playboy … but people do it all the time. I’m not exaggerating; I have seen such stories in the slush piles of the actual magazines. If you write a good story, why send it out in an ignorant fashion? Would you send your kid out in a snowstorm dressed in Bermuda shorts and a tank top? If you like science fiction, read the magazines. If you want to write confession stories, read the magazines. And so on. It isn’t just a matter of knowing what’s right for the present story; you can begin to catch on, after awhile, to overall rhythms, editorial likes and dislikes, a magazine’s entire slant. Sometimes your reading can influence the next story, and create a sale.

7. Write to entertain
Does this mean you can’t write “serious fiction”? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.

8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”
The answer needn’t always be yes. But if it’s always no, it’s time for a new project or a new career.

9. How to evaluate criticism
Show your piece to a number of people – ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story – a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles – change that facet. It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it. But if everyone – or even most everyone – is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.

10. Observe all rules for proper submission
Return postage, self-addressed envelope, all of that.

11. An agent? Forget it. For now
Agents get 10% of monies earned by their clients. 10% of nothing is nothing. Agents also have to pay the rent. Beginning writers do not contribute to that or any other necessity of life. Flog your stories around yourself. If you’ve done a novel, send around query letters to publishers, one by one, and follow up with sample chapters and/or the manuscript complete. And remember Stephen King’s First Rule of Writers and Agents, learned by bitter personal experience: You don’t need one until you’re making enough for someone to steal … and if you’re making that much, you’ll be able to take your pick of good agents.

12. If it’s bad, kill it
When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

That’s everything you need to know. And if you listened, you can write everything and anything you want. Now I believe I will wish you a pleasant day and sign off.

My ten minutes are up.” –Stephen King

For more advice from Stephen King, check out his Reading List for Writers.

The Adequate Writer: The non-advice of how I write

IMG_8439

 sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

How I write?  (Do not what I do unless it’s fruitful for you.  This is non-advice gleaned over years of living with my idiosyncratic brain, and will not apply to everyone.)

I start with set but limited intentions.  A story, I say to self, 3000 words, go.  An essay, I say to self, longread, go.

I write scattershot.  I slam a metaphorical hammer into a metaphorical mirror-brain for all those pretty glittering silvers, that  debris-field.  I’ve got 26 letters: slurpy, corkscrewed, percussive, hot-bladed, shivery.  My job is to shape “bs” and “q”s and “es” and “rrrrrs” into sensical passages.  Get letters to tinkle out, fall into nothing sharp at first, messes of lines like snortable black coke, every edge ruffled and bleeding into the next.  Use them to compose some uneven, sloppy sentences and paragraphs while my eyes pretty much roll back in my head waiting to see if there’s a topic there, any topic there, a sentence, a phrase with energy, a sliver of glass that could cut someone, cut me, something to begin with.  If I sit in one place long enough–an hour, two hours–it’ll arrive.

I see my brain as a bullet shooter, inexhaustible.  Something that keeps language recycling, always good for a new burst.  It just needs the cue, and the cue seems to be that one good phrase or sentence.

Like Hemingway said in answer to what is the hardest thing about writing: Getting the words right.

I get rid of the pre-writing, the casting about, the baloney.  Those couple of hours’ work.  Snap.  Gone.  New writers think they need to recycle these.  I might be able to use this in a poem, they say.  Or writing teachers tell them to.  Thinking that way makes you small and hoarding, in my opinion, where writing needs to be expansive to make itself known.  What I know after many years of doing this is that, barring my incapacity, there are always new words; if I accessed them to write one piece, they’ll be there for the next.  So I toss those bad paragraphs out.

At this point, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next.  Really.  Story, 1500 words, has to be done today.  I’d kinda like to write about weaver birds and the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean.  So this was the line I kept:  My mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack.  What I had there I liked.  I knew my character is a kid and that her mom was scary, so that gave me context.  I could even see that woman’s legs.

So I said, Surprise me, little line.  Take me along, little line.  Tell me where you wanna go. After that, it was like grabbing someone’s hand.  Where to?

More pre-writing and as I went, I tossed, I honed, I worked hard with each sentence and paragraph–is this one pulling its weight here?  Any extra words?  I ask all those questions writing teachers are forever telling you not to ask, all the editorial questions:  am I repeating words other than for affect, what motifs am I running, here, does this make sense, what does it sound like, feel like, look like, taste like around the protagonist?  That editing that’s supposed to come second draft, third draft, fourth, I do it as I go, rewrite sometimes 7 times, sometimes 20 times.  Over and over till it sounds ok and suggests the next thing.  I think that’s how I learn the story.  I think getting the words right drags me forward to where the story is heading.

When I was writing my short story “Smiley” I was thinking, Why the hell is that character collecting bird nests?

I trust my noggin.  I really trust my noggin, so I just try to get out of its way.

And also I was thinking, because that particular story felt so transgressive and dangerous to me, You can’t write that.  Oh, for god’s sake, you really can’t write that.  When I found out what that kid was going to do with that nest he found, I was as shocked as anyone else.

Also, I do a lot of chasing down obscure research questions like What is an owl’s favourite tree to perch in, go.  I could not write my stories without google because the anwers I get to the questions I ask shape where that story goes, change the plot, define what the story will become.

It is chaotic and messy, my head, and in it, not a thing is linear.  It’s looping and tangential and writes itself in curves.  The best writing advice is probably, always, Work with what you’ve got. 

The Adequate Writer: Writing 101

Here are some tips for folks who are getting pieces together to submit (to the antho I’m editing or elsewhere).

1.  Write like a motherfucker.  Full out.  Don’t stop.  A good way to do this is to not allow your pen off the page, or your fingers off the keyboard.

2.  Wait.  Two days, minimum.  A week.

3.  Start editing.

EDITING:

1.  Announce your topic right off the bat.  You don’t need to be shy because the reader is eager to be situated.  You can be blunt:  This story is about a girl whose mother doesn’t love her.  There are 10,000 subtle ways to do this, too, but however you do it, do it.

2.  Get specific.

3.  Use your senses.  What does your narrator (even if that is you) see, smell, taste, hear, feel, touch?  Is there a pebble by his feet?  Are the leaves streaming down off a nearby tree?  Does it smell like cinammon?  If you want readers to be there with you, you need to tell them this stuff.

4.  Look at each paragraph.  Are they tight and organized there at the beginning, or are they flabby?  Lots and lots of people do something called “pre-writing.”  Novelists find the intro to their novels five chapters in and toss out the first four.  Short story writers find them a third of the way in and chop that preamble.  Did you just write a bunch of paragraphs before you really got down to business?  Cut them.  (You won’t die, trust me.)  Cut them mercilessly.

5.  Look at each sentence you’ve written.  How can you make it shorter?  What words are not pulling their weight?  If you drop, say, the first four words, could the sentence be stronger for it?  Or the last four?  Or four in the middle?  Chop your sentences back.  Get used to looking for the good parts in a sentence.  Keep those parts, toss the rest.

The thing is, your brain is an always-running font.  You don’t have to save what you cut, because your brain will generate something new.  Toss liberally.

6.  Use active tenses.  John was jumping.  WRONG.  John jumped.  RIGHT.

7.  Look for academic language (buzzwords like intersectionality, cisgender), clichés and jargon and cut them.  Yes, this means you cannot use the word “authentic.”  Apply this rule:  You cannot use any terms you heard in therapy or university; it’s all flab with little communicative value.  Your job with creative writing is to think of a fresh and unique way to say what you want to say.

8.  I wasn’t kidding.  Really.  Go through sentence by sentence and think up a new way to say what you just said.  This is all about re-inventing the world, folks.

9.  Kill the adverbs.  (We’re assholes, we editors.  We hate adverbs.)  Pretend you are a spy and your job is to rout out adverbs.  Start with your own writing, then do us a favour and get rid of them in the whole world.

10.  Invent some imagery (metaphor/simile).  We use either the same or connected imagery through a piece.  Through a short story.  Through a whole novel, even.  It is one of our super secretive ways to create connections that the reader doesn’t notice.  You need imagery because imagery is an individual author’s interpretation of the world.  Similes.  Metaphors.

11.  Kill the adjectives.  (Yup, we’re really demanding assholes.)

12.  Stick to “he said, they said, she said” to indicate speech.  “Don’t look at me like that,”  young svelte Becky chortled gleefully.  WRONG.  “Don’t look at me like that,” Becky said.  RIGHT.

13.  Strive for clear, clean, icy, sharp.  Could your writing knife somebody?

14.  Can you go home now?  Well, not quite.

The piece as a whole has to make cohesive sense.  The beginning starts somewhere and marches towards an end.  The piece still has to hang together as a logical whole.  There are things called narrative arcs. Here is a simple explanation: Arcs

15.  There.  You probably got rid of 50% of your text, or more.  Pat yourself on the back.  That is supposed to happen.  That means you’re doing it right.

16.  Yay, you.

Somebody’s going to be thinking, “What does she mean?”  They’re going to be thinking that calm and reflective writing, writing that could rub somebody’s back is real writing, too, not just sharp and edgy stuff.  I’m going to agree with you, whole-heartedly, because none of what I was just talking to you about has to do with style.  You will have your own style.  You are allowed to kill your reader with beauty as well as daggers.  Good sentences come in a thousand varieties.  Some are hard and jabby.  Some are long and windy.  Some are one-worded.  Some are mockers.  Some are like old driftwood, full of holes and craziness.  Some are blasé.  Some melt the reader like microwaved butter.  Some are like bullets.   Some are squishy like cream cheese.  Some are sticky like toffee.  Some are popcorn.  Some are so soft they creep by on baby feet.

Whatever use sentences are put to, though, whatever mood you create, you still need to care that each individual sentence is pulling its (considerable) weight.  And that they’re pulling in a piece that makes sense and carries a reader through it.  Readers have a choice of a gazillion cnf pieces, poems, short stories.  Why should they read yours?  Because you did the work.

17.  One more thing.  Rules are made to be broken.

 

The Adequate Writer: On Editing

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 1.22.42 PM

I just finished a travel essay, The Blind Warthog, about a trip I took to Namibia.  The essay grew too big for its britches, fast, and broke off into the possiblity of multiple essays, even a book of essays if I include other countries.  I pushed and pulled and snarled and snarked and moaned and groaned, tried this, tried that, and eventually, over days, a 2000 word piece strung itself together because writing is, at its essence, allusive, and the secret to getting the first draft is just staying put and getting any words on the page.  I didn’t ball those up, all those wrong words, and toss them.  I hung tight with them because one wrong word suggested another wrong word eventually suggested another right word in that freeway pile-up way words have if you let them have their heads.

Eventually, that gave me a schematic from which to go forward, a hint of a piece.  A friend offered an ear so that I could identify the flaws while reading aloud, always, for me, a productive process (because the embarrassment of having my mistakes seen by someone else highlights them for me).  A little too much this.  Not enough that.  Stylistic blunders.  Bits that got dropped in but not expanded.  Bits that need to be moved out.

Back to the hopper it went.  Squash this this way.  Squash that that way.  Tinker this, tinker that.  Absorb central metaphors; working?

Leave some time.

Rinse and repeat.

At that end of all that, I had a first final draft of just over 3000 words.  This is the one that’s good enough to submit.  This is the draft that’s like a small goat proinging through a meadow; all joy and exuberance.

But here is where the best person in my world comes in:  My editor.

I’ve had hundreds of these folks, and working with each is different than was the last, but working with each is also, always, deeply satisfying.  All those things that were suggested in your piece but didn’t make it to fruition because you were busy with nuts and bolts?  She will find them.  She will ask you to enhance them.  The things that kinda sorta worked but really didn’t?  She will ask you to turf them.

DO WHATEVER SHE ASKS is my rather-strongly-held opinion.  If you don’t trust her, keep a copy of your piece as it stood before the changes.  But make the changes she suggests with an open heart.  And here’s why:  Your editor is engaging your work with fresh eyes in a way that you have not and can not, and because of her suggestions, so will you.  It will open your work up.  You will learn things.  Your piece will very likely get much better.

You can see it as criticism.  You can see it as plundering.   You can see it as mean.

But trust me when I say if you participate, your work will come alive (and if it doesn’t, you still have that original to fall back on).  Understand that you and your editor share a goal:  to make the piece the best it can be.

Here’s how I see it:

An expert’s got her fingertips on my work–for free.  If she doesn’t pull her punches–please, editors, give me a hard edit–luckier still, the luckiest author alive.

I can’t wait.

The Great Christmas Tree Heist

FullSizeRender

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”—Anne Frank

“There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else.” —Peyton Conway March

Sarah rattles the chain link fence and breaking icicles shatter like bells. I look back at J in the driver’s seat of the Micra, drumming mittened fingers on the steering wheel while the car puffs determined smoke rings into a swirl of snow. This is not going to work. The tree lot still has lights on, but it’s late Christmas Eve, the roads are skating rinks, we’re in the middle of a white-out, there are no people around and the place is locked up tight. Except, maybe, for police trolling up and down Hastings Street eyes peeled for burglars.

I blow on my hands and say we can keep driving, check somewhere else.

Sarah scouts the perimeter. It’s so cold the inside of my nostrils freeze.  We’ve just come from delivering a hamper to a sole support mom and her kiddos. When Marsha said that she couldn’t find a single Vancouver taxi willing to deliver a tree to her, and her kids held up strings of homemade popcorn and cranberries, their eyes blinking, well, we were goners.

Sarah finds a spot where the chain doesn’t meet and manages to slide inside, elfin and thin. I’m a hundred pounds bigger and 23 years older, and when she holds open the gap, for a minute I just pray for a cop, anyone who’ll bring this illegal foray to an end just in order to stop me from getting stuck. At least I’m charged up with holiday spirit and reckless, but breaking and entering, me? But it’s Christmas eve, our motives are altruistic, so kind of it seems like we could never get caught. Sure enough, yup, I get stuck as if the fence is size 10 pants. Can’t go forward, can’t go back. Just for a second, I despise J safe in the warmth of the getaway car.

Sarah says, “Mom, come on,” and yanks my coat.

Like that will work.

Suck it in, I tell myself and surprise myself by popping out like an overgrown ping pong ball. Now, at least, I am the most graceful thief in all of Vancouver, betcha.

Green boughs beat in the wind like weird angel wings, but we soon discover there aren’t actually any real trees left. I think, Why lock the place up then? There are needles and wood chips and chunks littering the ground, heaps of string, dangling ropes that once anchored trees. I’m cold, shivering. Around Vancouver, no one dresses for the weather, and I’m in a spring jacket. Sarah finds tops that have been cut off other people’s trees, woebegone trees, and holds them up for my appraisal (which surely I could have offered from the legal side of the fence, so she could go to jail while I provide bail). Finally, I just nod, because really, they all look the same—like not real trees, just like Charlie Brown trees that no one could love.

The tree cries sap as we drag it back to the opening. I tell Sarah we should leave a twenty stuck in the door of the shed, but she says I’m insane, so I reassure myself the tree-top was going to be pulped. Sarah slides out. She tugs the tree out. I, on the other hand, heave and ho and suck in my gut and finally stumble free ripping the back out of my coat. J lifts the sorry little mess into the back of the car. We skid out on the slippery roads with the tree shushing out the hatch-back like some clear-cut’s Paul Bunyan wanna-be.

But little kids are happy.  Little kids are very happy.

 

Queerly Canadian: The Books

TwoWomen1

sketch by Jane Eaton Hamilton 2013

49th Shelf has a list of queer Canadian books up.  I can think of a whole heck of a lot of books that are queer and not on it (including 6 of mine), but it’s still a great resource for anyone looking for some sweet bedtime reading.

49th Shelf

Congratulations! It’s a 6-Pound 8-Ounce Novel!

JEHart

Here’s an essay that appeared in The Spirit of Writing, Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life, ed Mark Robert Waldman, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001

 

Congratulations! It’s a Six Pound Eight Ounce Novel!

 

The plot curls inside you, hardly formed, just eight weeks along. Two months–still time for a miscarriage. Has anyone else ever had that happen? Told the world they were going to be a novelist and then had the damned book slide out slippery as a dead fish? It’s true what they say–you need a good counselor. It breaks your goddamned heart.

There’s only one thing you can do. Toss. Take a helluva big breath. Start again. Like the doctor said: You’re not too old. You can have another novel.

You don’t think it should be so hard.

Your mother says anything worthwhile should be a little hard.

Your husband is worthwhile, and sometimes he’s a little hard.

Which is why you tell him to get home from work while you’re ovulating. You can’t do this alone. You need every one of the ideas that shoot out of him. Conception is no easy business. The circumstances have to be just right. Precisely right. Basal thermometers. Pillows under your hips. OED on the bedstand. You are not the kind of woman who conceives easily.

You don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant. You’re afraid of jinxing it. You don’t want to have to say: No, I’m sorry. I’m not. No. I lost it. I know. Thanks for the sympathy. Really. I’m sorry too. I’m heartbroken. Everyone is sorry, sorry.

You don’t want to be put in that position again.

There are other concerns: what if somebody else tries to make a novel that looks like yours? If someone copies you? Tells the story and acts like it was theirs all along? You know it can happen, especially these days with the Internet. Actually, it has happened to you, and more than once. A friend called up one time and said, I just read a story you told me in Alice Newbold’s new novel. Page 172.

You found Alice Newbold’s new novel and damned if it wasn’t a good looking thing. A little thin, in your opinion, but gripping. And there on page 172, just like your friend said, your story. The central conceit of your gestating book.

And once you told a writer friend something about yourself that you’d never before confided. You swore her to secrecy. Weren’t you shocked when it ended up in one of her stories? In a story that won a prize? And the worst thing was you couldn’t tell anyone. You couldn’t trash her the way she deserved, because then you’d have to say this private thing.

Plus, plus, the title of her book was a phrase you said, that you might have used as a title yourself in the future. You searched her acknowledgements page–nothing.

Forget it. You’re not going to mention the book prematurely. You could miscarry. You could hemorrhage, die and then your story would get adopted by someone else. Get their last name tattooed on its spine.

You long to push the new one out before it’s ready. You’ve lived with it for months, for god’s sake, and you’re tired. You can’t sleep on your stomach. You can’t smoke. You can’t drink. All your friends are deserting you. They didn’t realize you could be this boring. No matter what the doctors say, you’re not getting any younger. You have grey shooting through your hair, and wrinkles (laugh lines). You have to get it out of you. All the hip authors are under thirty-five. They just are. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. You have someone take an author photo in soft light. For god’s sake, you tell your husband. Just get me to the hospital.

The doctors examine you. They tell you it’s too early. The contractions are probably Braxton Hicks, and even if they’re real, the docs are going to give you something to hold them back. This story needs another six weeks. Minimally. This story isn’t ready to breathe on its own, they say. It’s intensely premature. Is that what you want? the doctors ask, mumbling through their masks? A story that can’t breathe on its own? A story with immature lungs? Lifelong learning problems? A story that won’t sell more than a thousand copies?

You don’t, of course. You want a famous story. A beloved story. A story that makes Oprah’s Book Club. But christ you’re sick of being pregnant. You feel like a cow. And anyhow, can’t they resuscitate even novellas these days? You’ve seen stories sixty pages long published as first novels. Sure, it’s true, they have tubes attached, cerebral palsy, they won’t ever walk, but– Just get it out of me, you say.

Go home, the docs tell you. It’s not your time. Get plenty of bed rest. See me in my office. We need to check your weight, your blood pressure. You need to get rid of some of those adjectives. I’m sorry, no. There isn’t any medication. It takes talent, skill, self discipline, compound sentences. No more adverbs. And straighten out that plot line. While you’re at it, wasn’t that piano on page 150 a guitar earlier on? Any swelling of the ankles? Any faintness on sudden rising?

You’re bloated. Your breasts are so sore you weep if someone so much as looks at them. Only why would anyone? You’re ugly. You’re fat and you’re ugly and there’s never going to be a story, anyhow. There isn’t. It’s all flatulence. It’s all wind.

Things they said the last time: You have what it takes to be a good writer.

This is good, but it’s not fully developed.

There are several awkward places.

Numerous spelling errors.

In addition, several statements that seem unnecessarily obvious.

It doesn’t seem likely to us that the protagonist would murder her husband.

Yet, we like it. We think the story has great possibility.

Intriguing characters and situation.

Maybe the next one.o

The first couple postpartum months are rumoured to be brutal. Numerous strange hotel rooms are involved, so alike that you’re said to forget where you are and say to an Edmonton crowd: I’m thrilled to be nursing my novel in Vancouver tonight. You won’t have had enough sleep. Your hormones are wildly swinging–you’re as liable to break into tears as laughter.

But those are concerns for women who have finished their books. For books who’ve scored a ten on the Apgar scale.   For books with publishers. Your novel won’t ever have a publisher. Because the stupid novel is never even going to get here. Never. You’re going to be waddling like an elephant until you’re sixty and it’s too late.

You’ve already passed your due date. After those contractions early on, fighting to keep the damned thing from being born too soon, now you can’t get rid of it. Two days, a week, two weeks. If it’s not done soon they’re going to have to induce you.

C-section. Your worst nightmare. They have to rip you open to get the book out.

But then it happens. They said it would happen and then it did. It happens and there’s no way you’re prepared. There’s no way this is what you want. Uh-uh. Stop the boat. I’m getting off. The novel can stay but I’m getting off. I’ve changed my mind.

Your water breaks all over your typewriter, ruining the climax. And oh no. There’s trouble. Meconium. Black flecks–the words you already edited out. You know what that means. All the how-to books you’ve riead have drilled it into you. This story has taken a breath of its own excrement.

The buzzer has gone off. You’re out of time. You have to get to the hospital. No turning back now. If you wanted to turn back, you should’ve considered abortion. It’s choice that you got this far.

You beg your husband to tell you things will be all right. Just say you love me, you beg. Just say I’m the best thing since cell phones. Just tell me my story is going to survive this. We’ll both survive this.

He’s good. He says all that. He whisks you to the car, props your feet in his lap under the steering wheel, says all the right things. But what does he know? What the hell does he know? He’s a fucking journalist.

And anyway. Why do they say labour doesn’t hurt? It hurts like a sonofabitch. You want drugs. Why shouldn’t you have drugs? They say no drugs, a natural birth, it’s what you wanted, you told them to ignore you when you changed your mind. Your asshole husband puffs in your face like a bellows. He’s useless, useless! Why did you sleep with him to begin with? What the hell were you thinking? He said, Stay home and take nine months to write. Hah! Hah! ≤

You can do it, your husband says now. You’ve got what it takes. Way to go, honey. Good job.

You’re nine centimetres dilated. Just wait, wait a minute. You feel like pushing? Don’t push. Honey, I said, Don’t push. The doctor says she’s gotta move the lip of your cervix away from the novel’s cover page. It’s gonna hurt.

Scream.

Sometimes it’s all you can do.

You could push the Empire State Building out, you swear you could. You grunt and bear down. You leave bruise marks on your husband’s arm.

But fuck it. Fuck it. Who cares about delicacy at a time like this? You’re crying, and then a few minutes later, when the doctor says she can see the title page, you’re laughing.

Okay, hold on. The acknowledgements page is out. The dedication to your husband. Hang on. Here’s the text, wailing its newborn lungs.

They’re passing you the novel, now, and it’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. You can’t stop crying, but the tears are tears of joy. Your husband kisses your face. He’s the greatest husband. Didn’t he stand by you, thick and thin? He’s whispering to her. He’s stroking the five little pages of her denouement. He’s smitten. Look. He’s starting to cry.

She looks just like you, your husband says. She’s got your fontenal.

No wonder he’s weeping. She’s the most beautiful novel you’ve ever seen. You don’t care what anyone else says, because you’re in love. You’re head over heels.

Congratulations, says the doctor. I’m pleased to say you have a healthy, six pound, eight ounce novel.

%d bloggers like this: