Stones: on how gardens map our lives

A few days ago I heard a snippet of conversation on the radio that got me thinking about my garden. On an NPR program called “On Point,” the writer Sydney Edison described how she had been gardening more than two acres of land for fifty years. “Gardens reflect your life back to you,” she said. “People garden they way they do because of who they are.”

Two years ago, when our son was just a baby, Sean and I watched in dismay as the front lawn got worse and worse, its water drained by the silver maple next door. Once it had reached an irredeemable shade of gold, we finally decided to do away with it, and replaced the grass with a rocky and cascading riverbed surrounded by plants.

We were short on cash, as ever, so we recycled as much as we could. We divided up hostas from the backyard, moved in tiny perennials pinched from the overflow of a colleague’s gigantic property, and dragged out a pile of old paving stones from under the porch to create a tiny patio surrounded by thyme. The potted cedar that our friends had given us before moving to Whitehorse took a place of honour at one edge. Across from it we transplanted our once sad rhododendron that now flowered for the first time in years. (Woody plants, I learned from the radio, get better with age.)

In many ways, I garden how I write. I use my gut and instinct to guide me. I don’t plan beyond broad strokes or have a colour scheme. Riding a surge of energy and inspiration, I put things where I think they’ll be happy or where there’s a bald spot. If it doesn’t work, I rearrange.

I garden because it feeds me in ways I don’t quite understand, giving me a sense of pleasure that little else does. Both my writing and the garden are maps, recording birth, growth, life, struggle, sickness, death, and robust health. And in the corners of both lie shells and stones from beaches and forests I’ve been to.

Like a magpie, I collect these treasures obsessively, shoving pebbles into pockets and dumping small boulders surreptitiously into the trunk of my car. For the garden, for the garden, for the garden, says the voice in my head. Jagged, smooth, flecked: I can’t help myself.

Stolen bits of the world, I place these amulets in a way that tells a story, protects the past, and wonders at life all around.

Listen to “Gardening Gurus Spill the Dirt” on NPR’s radio show On Point here.

[Photo: withrow]

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Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

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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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On Joan Didion, domesticity and writing

Almost four years ago, I got a phone call telling me that I’d been accepted into the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism Program. Thrilled by the news,  I immediately went to the library (as I do at most major crossroads in my life) to do some research. I took out whatever I could find of Joan Didion’s work, since it was her legacy of smart, reflective and literary journalism that the Banff Centre aimed to foster. Since I didn’t even remotely consider myself a journalist, I figured I’d better see what I was getting myself into.

Didion is an author whom I’d somehow missed: she is famous for inserting herself into a story and telling about big events in a first-person voice, and master of balancing the big and the small.

She and her essays have often returned to my thoughts in the past couple of years, because she helped me dump some of my guilt about how I organize my days. Somewhere — I can’t remember where, and it’s been driving me crazy — Didion describes how domestic tasks have been an integral part of her writing process. She works in the morning, eats lunch early, and then turns to cooking or gardening in the afternoon, perhaps returning to work once again later in the day. At least, this is how she described her life before the deaths of her husband and daughter.

It’s exactly how I live now.

For a long time, my husband suspected that my mid-day meal prep, dishwasher loading or laundry undertaking were nothing more than time-wasting techniques. But now (two books later) even he admits that a balance between the creative and the mundane is necessary for my work.

These are my rhythms. When I let my brain rest, things have a way of working themselves out.

If it’s good enough for Joan Didion, then why not for me?

[Photo: ckintner]

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Globe and Mail article: “Alphabet fusion”

A big theme in my work is multilingualism. I’m interested in how people live in several tongues simultaneously: authors who speak one language in daily life, but write in another; families who embrace members from all over the world; and how kids navigate polyglot waters.

In large part my interest is biographical: I grew up bilingual (Lithuanian-English) and then continued to study other languages as an adult (French, Russian, German, Yiddish).

Now I’m watching in fascination as my three-year-old son grows up in three languages. He makes up words, fuses languages and translates constantly. A few months ago, I started collecting his linguistic inventions for a kind of Sebastian lexicon. The exercise then grew into an essay on how we talk.

You can read my article, “Alphabet fusion” that appeared in the Globe and Mail (April, 21, 2010) here. It’s about how the three members of my family communicate.

[Photo uploaded by quinn.anya]

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On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]

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Women, Writing and the Angel in the House

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks a series of questions: Why have women traditionally written so little when compared with men? What needs to change in women’s lives in order to make writing possible? And why have women been so absent from literary history?

The answer, she suggests, lies in the conditions of women’s lives. Women raise children, have not traditionally inherited wealth, and have had fewer opportunities to make the money that would buy time for writing. Women rarely have partners who cook and clean and carry (or share equally) the burden of home life. Our lives have long been and largely continue to be fractured, shared between child care, kitchen duties, family obligations.

To write, what a woman needs most is private space (a room of one’s own), money and connected time (that only money can buy).

Woolf wrote her thoughts on women and writing in the 1920s, a time before all the ostensibly labour-saving devices like washing machines, slow cookers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and so on. Most North American women now work outside the home, and most can probably find a corner in their houses to call their own. Problem solved? No. Despite all this, we still find ourselves fractured and split.

At least I do.

The first year and a half of my son’s life – he’s now three – shattered my understanding of myself as a writer.

They say nothing prepares you for the realities of having a child: cliché, yes, but true. Although, on some level, I must have understood that my writing would suffer after my son’s birth, I still wasn’t prepared when, for the first time in my life, the thing that made me who I was became impossible to do. Writing suddenly found its place at the bottom of a long list of other priorities, and fatigue only made matters worse.

Only once my son grew, and after making a series of decisions about child care, home care, and food supply did I begin to relocate as sense of my former identity.

In “Professions for Women” Woolf calls this process of carving out writing time, “killing the Angel in the House.” Who is this Angel? She is sympathetic, charming, unselfish, family-focused, self-sacrificing, undesiring, compliant and generous. She is the good wife, mother and hostess. She is Martha Stewart, June Cleaver and Betty Crocker combined.

“Had I not killed her,” Woolf writes, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing” (Woolf, Women and Writing 59).

I’ve been back to writing for more than a year, and for now, I think I’ve successfully killed my Angel.

Do you have an Angel to kill?

[Photo: Man Ray’s Virginia Woolf by A Room With a View]

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