Life-blood: Desirae Matherly

Desirae Matherly, “The Denser of the Two.” Southern Humanities Review 43:2 (Spring 2009), 129-39.

It could be that this sickness of mine is a type of shout from my body. My body groans with the stretching ligaments, the pressure of building gas against my abdomen, the swelling of my uterus. My vessel creaks. We swell together and I am unsure which is the denser of the two — the container or its contents. (136)

An essayist friend sent me “The Denser of the Two,” because he thought I’d like it, and because he found echoes of my work in it. After reading it, I can see why.

The piece examines all my recent obsessions: morning sickness, the process of growing a body inside you, the strange sensation in pregnancy of being both one and two simultaneously, the weirdly solitary and communal experience of labour, and the ways in which birth and death are  separated only by a shadow.

Desirae Matherly’s essay is brave and sophisticated. Impressionistic, poetic and enigmatic, the text resists the temptation to spell out its connections between ships and bodies, morning sickness and the totality of human suffering, and survivors of an Antarctic expedition and a growing fetus. Instead, it raises questions quietly and almost slyly by juxtaposing images and fragments of Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre and classic Buddhist texts.

The author asks: Where does one soul end, and another begin? At what point does a baby stop being part of its mother? What should we make of human suffering? What is a body’s worth?

There’s nothing like morning sickness to make you appreciate how fantastic simply feeling normal feels. And there’s nothing like pregnancy to remind you that, like it or not, you are a physical being.  And this, at least in part, is what Matherly’s essay is about: coming to terms with an ever-changing, destined-to-die body that nevertheless wants to go on and on and on. “If discussion of death alarms those who enjoy their lives,” she writes, “then we have become too convinced of our temporary vitality” (138).

The most poignant moment of the essay, for me, is when Matherly admits: “When I studied philosophy long ago, my body began to repulse me. Before that time, in high school, my body felt like an enemy. I always resented being born female, even back into my early childhood” (134).

Matherly, it seems, learns to accept the body that is hers, in its change and instability and even decline. She learns to want to live, despite everything, including incomprehensible suffering, for as long as possible: “[My son’s] unfolding and unmapped future signals to me that my own journey is not over, but that I have only now become accustomed to the motion of life, its series which surrounds me, as vast and changeable as the sea.”

“The Denser of the Two” is not for the lazy student. It requires its readers to work, but it’s a rare pleasure to read something so daring and original on a theme too often diminished by cliché.

You can find this essay in any good academic library, or follow the link below to get to the homepage of the the Southern Humanities Review.

[Photo: Bonbon]

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Life-blood: Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father (Bloomsbury, 1997 [1996]).

I read this book on the recommendation of a colleague who thought it could be useful to my work. She was right: I found that it spoke to me on many levels.

I hadn’t expected to have so much in common with Mary Gordon.

Gordon’s book tells the story of her attempt to reconstruct her father’s life and identity through visits to archives and libraries, by wading through murky memories, and taking by both real and imaginary voyages.

She tells us that she connected to her father first and foremost through writing, and that she had become a writer because of him. But her daughterly love and pride get disturbed when she begins to learn unanticipated truths: that her father was both a Lithuanian Jew (who converted to Catholicism) and an anti-Semite, not an American-born, Harvard-educated once-married Catholic, as she had been told. Though he had indeed been a writer, his texts reveal he was not a very good one. His life revealed that he was not a very good husband. Certainly not a very good Jew.

This is a very honest book, so much so that at times it made me uncomfortable. As I read one bald truth after another, I wondered where Gordon got the courage to reveal so much about the things her father believed, about the lies he told, about family secrets. I wondered whom this book was for and who would care.

But just as I asked the question, I began to care about this family. This moment coincided with the author’s offering up of a portrait of her mother: a woman crippled by polio in childhood and struck by senility late in life Gordon’s discussions of her mother’s body struck me as particularly poignant:

For many years, the only adult female body I saw unclothed was, it must be said, grotesque, lopsided, with one dwarf leg and foot and a belly with a huge scar, biting into and discoloring unfirm flesh. She’d point to it and say, “This is what happened when I had you.” (221)

This mother is a phantom presence throughout the book (a shadow woman of sorts), the third member of the family, overlooked and largely unloved. But with her introduction, the narrative somehow fell into place for me, and the book began to sing, if sadly.

It was then that I started to find all sorts of common threads between my own life and work and Mary Gordon’s.  I began thinking about my own Lithuanian father who died too young, about my posthumous discoveries about his life, about my own processes of reconciliation with the dead, my relationship to Catholicism, to the country my parents left behind as children, and — most unexpectedly — about my relationship to my own mother and her poor body, battered by multiple sclerosis.

I read this book as I was starting to map out the first chapters of my current project, a family history of sorts. Gordon’s baldness forced me to ask: How much do I dare to tell? How much do I have the right to reveal? What do my parents’ stories have to do with the story of my grandmother that I’m writing?

Mary Gordon’s book is, at least in part, about learning to love someone with all their faults. It’s about forgiveness and acceptance, but without being too pretty or tidy. And (something that surprised me), it managed to speak to me on a most fundamental level by reflecting back my own story of intimacy, familiarity, and discomfort.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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Life-blood: Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden, Quotidiana. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

I started reading Quotidiana because I liked the title and because I’ve recently discovered how much I love the essay form. Good essays take the small, apparently throwaway details of everyday life and find in them universal truths and occasionally devastating beauty. Joan Didion is one master of the form, Phillip Lopate, another. Even Walter Benjamin worked in this vein through his examinations of Paris detritus, and of how his library mapped out his life.

It is their tradition in which Patrick Madden writes: “During my first extended encounters with the essay, I was struck (dumbstruck, moonstruck) by those authors who wrote from seemingly insignificant, overlooked, transient things, experiences, and ideas, who were able to find within their everyday, unexceptional lives inspiration for essaying” (2).

Quotidiana is about everyday things. In his essays, Madden examines love, family, fruit, garlic, physics, spirituality, foreignness, music, writing, sickness, teaching and raising children. My favourites are “Laughter” (that starts with a description of his baby daughter’s giggle at dancing sunlight) and “Ego Vici Mundum” that, using a visit to Buenos Aires’ Cathedral, ends up taking the reader almost accidentally through the history of Argentinean repression, the disappeared and the untiring activism of victims’ grandmothers. It’s a very, very good essay.

Themes that return again and again are the band Rush (whose music drifted up from my brother’s basement while I was growing up), life in Uruguay, the name Patrick and how it repeats itself and multiplies in Madden’s family, and (a current obsession of mine) Mormonism — Madden is a Mormon convert, and writes frankly and openly about the two years he spent as a missionary in South America.

Every essay in the book thinks about what the essay is and what the essay does, and the ways it can be simultaneously big and small, lyrical and mathematical.

When I read that while still a student, this author had been warned by a professor to switch from essays to fiction, since he would soon run out of material to write about, I scoffed (as apparently did Madden).

Truth is, anyone who lives life every day will always have something to write about. You just have to pay attention.

That’s the point of the essay.

And that’s the point of Quotidiana.

You can learn more about Patrick Madden at his site (whose URL acquisition he writes about in his book) at

[Photo: Elizabeth Anne Photography]

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Life-blood: Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Random House, 1994.

Perhaps you know this book already. If you’re a writer, chances are it’s been recommended to you, or you’ve come across it on lists of good books on writing. I know this, because it’s been on my horizon for years. I finally decided to familiarize myself.

I read my tattered second-hand copy this week while navigating through contract negotiations for my second book. (Because of this, Lamott’s description of a New Yorker cartoon struck me as particularly funny: “We’re still pretty far apart,” says a writerly type to a ‘normal’ person at party. “I’m looking for a six-figure advance, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript” [162].) I’m happy to report that negotiations have gone well.

But reading the book on the heels of completing a major project has allowed me to bounce Lamott’s description of the writing process against what I’ve just lived.

Even though she most often appears to be addressing relatively green and unpublished writers, I found many echoes of my own solitude, frustration, demons and necessity of faith and discipline, as well as confirmations of  hunches about the need for truth, honesty and mining  your past for material. Someone recently told me that if I wanted to get published in a “real” magazine, I had to stop writing about myself and start writing about others. Lamott, it seems, would disagree, at least to a certain extent.

In some ways the book is a how-to manual. There are practical tips about how to organize your time (sit down and write every day, even if you feel like you have nothing to give), how to narrow your focus (to the size of a one-inch picture-frame) if overwhelmed, to listen carefully to the world around you (and take notes on index cards), have friends read your work, and write in letter form to loosen stubborn ideas.

In other ways, the book serves as a warning. Writing is hard work and for most authors it reaps few material rewards. Fame, fortune and even publication may remain beyond reach for many, but, Lamott stresses, “the literary life is the loveliest one possible. [. . .] One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood” (232).

This is a book writers recommend to other writers perhaps because it puts the act of writing (not publishing or book promotion) at its centre. It reminds of the dignity of our work, and reconfirms its importance to culture at large.

For Lamott, writing is a gift to her child, her father, a dying friend, and probably herself. And, for her, writers (despite what the character Julie of the film Julie and Julia might have us believe — “You’re not a writer unless someone publishes you,” was it?) are people who write.

[Photo: TalayehS]

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Life-blood: Louise DeSalvo

Louise DeSalvo, “A Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write About Their Work on Women (Routledge, 1993), 35-53.

I love this essay for many reasons.

1) It’s a seriously learned text written in a light and readable first-person voice.

2) It tells a story about being a woman that doesn’t reduce our existence to beauty (or lack thereof), procreation (or lack thereof), or our relationships (or lack thereof) to men.

3) It’s about the pleasure of archival work and falling in love with a woman writer who lived long ago.

4) It’s about growing up in an immigrant family and making your way intellectually in the language (and culture) of the new land in a new way.

5) It’s about how Virginia Woolf can save your life. Still now, in 2010.

I came to Virginia Woolf embarrassingly late in my life. By the time I discovered her, or rather by the time I re-read her in a frame of mind that allowed me to be deeply moved, I was in my thirties and had a small child.

Louise DeSalvo describes a similar experience. Her essay starts: “I am thirty-two years old, married, the mother of two small children [. . .].”  Travelling to England on research with a friend, and without her family, she and her companion represent “[t]he next generation of Woolf scholars, in incubation. We are formidable” (35).

The essay explores the role of women among DeSalvo’s Italian parents and their peers, and their relationship to food and men. Both, she warns, tell you a lot about what was expected of her and the many ways in which she was a disappointment.

First: women who care about their families, she says, make fresh pasta every day — a process that takes hours, and ends up enslaving the person saddled with the task.

Second: women who do anything without their husbands are puttana — hence the essay’s title, and the opening scene on the plane.

Instead of a dutiful, stable, ever-cooking mother, DeSalsvo becomes a “whore,” a woman who lives her own life alongside her husband and children. A woman who does things without her man.

She narrates her own experience of the dichotomy of woman-writer (or woman-creator) that Woolf wrote about in her essay A Room of One’s Own, and the hope this text continues to offer to the despairing and frustrated among us.

She tells about loving a child and a husband, and at the same, loving reading, writing and writers.

Ultimately, this is an essay about how literature can change us in fundamental ways. For many of us, writing is no hobby or even profession. It is our vocation, our life-blood, the very thing that keeps us alive.

“Woolf taught us that writers are human beings, that writing is a human act, that the act of writing is filled with human consequences for a society and for its readers. No ‘art for art’s sake.’ Instead, ‘art for the sake of life'” (52).

[Photo: jspad]

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Life-blood: Piers Vitebsky

Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Houghton Mifflin, [2005] 2006.

When I told my aunt that I wanted to go to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother (her mother) was exiled for seventeen years, her immediate reaction was: “you can’t do that! you can’t go there!”

Since then, she’s changed her mind, and though I don’t think she would ever considering striking out into the tundra to find Brovka herself, she is now one hundred per cent behind the idea of my making the journey.

But her initial reaction got me thinking about how we imagine Siberia.

For my family, Siberia is not a place, but a catastrophe. It’s a trauma of the past: a scar that marks every member of our family more or less visibly. And in this sense, my aunt is right: you can’t go back there.

So, when I decided that my next big project would be about Siberia, I wanted to start thinking about it as a real place, and to try and see it through different eyes.

Even though the tundra, the permafrost, and the mines of the region have served as a place of banishment, punishment, death, and exile for hundreds of years, the place has another significance.

For its indigenous people — the Eveny, Chukchi, Sakha, and many others — Siberia is home.

Piers Vitebsky is an anthropologist at Cambridge University, and his book, The Reindeer People, tells of his many journeys to Siberia, where he lived with Eveny reindeer herders. Together with them, he travelled, ate, slept, and made offerings of vodka to the gods.

After reading this book, I became fascinated not only by the herding life, but by anthropologists. From his book, Vitebsky appeared to be adventurous and gregarious: so different from the vast majority of literary scholars, philosophers, or philologists I’ve encountered, who tend to be tortured, introverted, and socially awkward (myself included). And on top of it all, Vitebsky was a good story-teller.

Who knew anthropologists were so cool?

He starts by giving quick historical overview of the Eveny people, followed by a warm account of their present lives.

Then, just when you’re wishing you too could live a nomadic life, he hits you with reality: alcoholism and suicide, environmental disasters, gender inequities, economic hardship, racism, the ambiguous relationship of the herder communities to the gulag system, and the death of their native languages.

Perhaps the bravest moment of the book, from a writer’s standpoint,  is when Vitebsky brings his wife and two children to spend a summer with him among the herders. The conflicts that arise are funny and instructive: they force the anthropologist to see things he’d never noticed before. Not every family would survive this kind of test, but to their great credit, the Vitebskys return home to England intact.

Scholarly and informed, Vitebsky’s book is absolutely accessible to a non-academic audience. It’s a good text to pick up if, like me, you want to see Siberia through a new lens.

[Photo by ugraland]

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Life-blood: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. Harper Collins, 1995.

I wish I’d read The Blue Jay’s Dance a year and a half ago, when I was trying to rebuild my writerly self eighteen months after the birth of my son. In a flurry of frustration and aloneness, I read everything I could find on writing and mothering: Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath. For some reason, Louise Erdrich’s book never made it onto my horizon before now.

It’s the book I was looking for back then.

The Blue Jay’s Dance tells about writing and mothering in the first year of a baby’s life. Erdrich had six (six!) children when she wrote this book. The first three were adoptive kids who came with her husband into their marriage, the second three were all girls she birthed. The baby in the book is a composite of this latter trio.

Erdrich’s text shows how writers work: it stages the stillness, quiet, and observation that a life of writing requires, and the walks, musings and meanderings needed for story-telling, invention and problem-solving. She watches insects, flowers, and birds with an interest that is both scientific and poetic, and writes about the small and everyday in way that is absorbing. She describes the pleasure of nursing and the pain of birthing without cuteness, gore or cliché. And she tells with refreshing honesty how writing and love are occasionally at odds:

Women writers live rose nights and summer storms, but like the blue-eyed jumping spider opposite our gender, must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured. We are wolf spiders, carrying our babies on our backs, and we move slowly but with more accuracy. We learn how to conserve our energy, buy time, bargain for the hours we need. (143)

The Blue Jay’s Dance is an intensely bittersweet book. It’s about birth, but also about death – of grandparents and beloved animal companions. It’s about how time goes too fast, and how we both want our kids to grow and to stay little forever. It’s about the realization that when your baby is big, you will be old, and about how every minute gained for writing and work comes at a price. It’s about parenting with a lover and colleague, and staying strong and unified when it’s easier to divide and resent.

I didn’t want this book to end. When it did, curiosity got the better of me, so I did a quick  search to find out more about Erdrich.

It was devastating.

This woman, so positive, brilliant and balanced, and who thrice came through the Year-One-Firestorm of Motherhood intact, had the carpet pulled out from under her soon after The Blue Jay’s Dance was published. First: divorce from Michael Dorris (the dissolution of the “literary love affair of the century”), ugliness surrounding alleged sexual abuse of the adoptive children by Dorris, and finally Dorris’s suicide.

All this fills with me with a deep sense of compassion and admiration for Erdrich who has continued, despite all of this, to work amazingly well.

Just last year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

You can read Michael Dorris’s obituary in here. It sheds some light on the writer’s marriage and collaboration with his wife, as well as on Erdrich’s career.

[Photo of Louise Erdrich at Darmouth by Joseph Mehling]

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Lifeblood: J. Edward Chamberlin

J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Reimagining Home and Sacred Space. Pilgrim Press, 2003.

Ted Chamberlin was one of my professors at the University of Toronto, and if you read his book, you’ll understand what a good teacher and storyteller he is. It weaves together tales about cowboy culture, travels through Australia, his childhood fascination with mathematics, and of how chaperoning his daughter and friends at a U2 concert proved to be a turning point in his thinking about poetry and longing.

Among the best stories in the book is one Ted told me over lunch about ten years ago. It’s about going out into the Namibian desert with a tape-recorded greeting in a language thought to be dead. Not so, as it turns out: Ted and his collaborator ultimately found a handful of elders who responded to the greeting, and thus located the last speakers of an African language called N|u. The language is now being taught to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those elders.

If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? is about the connections between storytelling, language, land, identity, and social justice. Most importantly, the book proposes a new and radical way of thinking about and sharing land in places like Canada and Australia, where native peoples have been dispossessed of their homes, and who are in danger of losing languages, collective memories and culture as a result.

For me, this book confirmed that small peoples, marginal languages, forgotten places, and even anonymous lives were worth telling about:

“For ultimately it is all about the nourishment of what we might as well call the human spirit, that part of us which invents and discovers, as well as listens and watches and waits, and hopes and prays. Without it we are desperate.” (193)

[Photo: Fred Dawson]

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Life-blood: Assia Djebar

Assia Djebar, Algerian White. Translated from the French by David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager. Seven Stories Press, 2000.

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I invited the Algerian author Assia Djebar, who was in Toronto for the International Writers’ Festival, to dinner. We were in the process of putting together a literary anthology about archives and hoped that she would contribute something. I picked her up in a cab, and we met the others at an Argentinean restaurant known for its slightly bohemian atmosphere and good food. By then, the targeting and killing of authors, artists and intellectuals in her country had ended, but as we sat down for dinner, it was still on our minds. She chose a seat against the wall, explaining almost apologetically, that she felt safer this way.

From 1993 to 1997, some sixty journalists were killed in Algeria, many assassinated in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Also targeted were the country’s poets, playwrights, educators, police officers and Catholic clergy and monks, not to mention 100,000 ordinary Algerians.

In Algerian White, Djebar chronicles what she calls the death of Algerian writing. The book is dedicated to, and in part addresses, her three dear friends – a psychiatrist, a playwright, and a sociologist – all brutally murdered in 1993.

In many ways, Algerian White is an imperfect text. And even though (or perhaps because) you can feel that it was written quickly and through confusion and anguish, it’s one of the best examples of writing about mourning that I know. Djebar writes of her attempt to refuse healing, dreading the forgetting that comes with it: “No; I say no to all ceremonies: those of farewell, those of pity, those of chagrin which seek their own comforts, those of consolation” (53). But healing comes regardless. The writer, out of self-preservation, or simply carried forward by the wave of time, finds herself moving on:

“I simply live again elsewhere; I surround myself with elsewhere and my pulse continues to beat. And I regain the desire to dance. I laugh already. I cry as well, straight afterwards, troubled to note that laughter is returning. What, I’m getting over it! In my own way, I forget.” (138)

Djebar has a large body of work of novels, essays, films and poetry. She writes about women and Islam, about war, colonization, migration, North African history, and about our relationships to language, song, stories, land and the idea of home.

If you don’t know her work, take a look. She’s worth your time.

[Photo: cultphoto]

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Life-blood: Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson, Jane: A Murder. Soft Skull Press, 2005.

I read Maggie Nelson’s book after a Temple University professor recommended it to me as an example of writing that, like my own, was hybrid in form.

Jane tells about the author’s search for traces of her aunt who was brutally raped then killed in the late 1960s, before Nelson herself was born. The book is written as a series of poems, some of which are tiny and aphoristic, like the one from 1966 that goes simply “Cigarettes — one after another — why?” (188). But the story moves compellingly and fearlessly forward. Nelson weaves together fragments of Jane’s writing and other documentary material with her own reflections on life, death, memory, mourning, silence, violence, family secrets, coming of age, and the passage of time.

This is one of those problematic books that I love and publisher’s marketing departments hate: neither poetry nor prose, neither fact nor fiction, both memoir and biography. It’s a tightly controlled, exquisitely honed piece of writing whose beauty hurts, and that should serve as an example of what is possible when writing a life.

With Jane, Maggie Nelson has achieved something difficult: she’s made an anonymous life matter. And she’s done it without sentimentality or cliché. Read it. It may be the best book I’ve read all year.

(NB: “Life-blood” posts point to the work of other writers who, for some reason, have left on a mark on my thinking about how to write a life.)

[Photo by Jeff Westover]

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