This is gorgeous…

Alix MacLean PEI cottage beach

I’m reading a book about writing that features great selections from all kinds of different books. Here’s one from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us:

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

I’m pretty much swooning out of my chair.

Losing and finding Lucy Maud Montgomery

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I just finished the Lucy Maud Montgomery biography by Mary Henley Rubio, and it broke my heart over and over again. There’s so much I didn’t know about her, and what I mostly didn’t know was how bad it was: her life was hard. She struggled with her own mental illness, in addition to her husband and son’s. I’m certainly not the first person to assume that the person who invented Anne Shirley had a happy childhood and generally contented life.

Beyond her personal family struggles, the critics turned on Maud in the 1920s; this devastated her. Rubio writes:

In the mid-1920s, the growing cadre of men who panned her books included influential newsmen, university professors, and writers in Canada, and they all knew each other. In 1926, one of Canada’s powerful newspaper critics led the attach, labelling her books the nadir of Canadian fiction. A much respected professor of literature termed her books ‘naive’ with an ‘innocence’ that suggested ‘ignorance of life.’… In the face of such attacks, even the critics who had previously lauded her writing started being careful to temper their praise.

Nevertheless, all these men were impressed (and annoyed) by her sales and success. While some allowed that her large readership might speak to some undefined cultural need, others have felt that her popularity merely proved her ‘lowbrow’ quality. These detractors spoke with such a powerful voice in Canada between the mid-1920s and her death in 1942 that her work fell into disfavour… By the 1970s, the general wisdom was that Montgomery was a sentimental writer who appealed to the uncultured and masses of undiscriminating women and children, and still in the 1980s expressing an admiration for Maud’s books was rather risky. She was relegated strictly to the category of ‘children’s writer,’ and was judged by her weakest books, not her best.

For over 50 years, even during the hardest times, even when her family was coming apart at the seams, L.M. Montgomery kept writing. I can’t imagine what that drive is like – part of it was motivated by financial worries, since the publisher of her early books, especially the cash cow Anne of Green Gables, screwed her out of royalties. A lot of her drive came from being an ambitious hard worker at a time and place (turn of the century PEI) where being ambitious was not something a woman should be.

I feel closer to Maud now that I ever have. There’s something very sad about her, but something inspiring too.

You’re never through with surprises til you’re dead…

I’ve been reading up on Lucy Maud Montgomery lately for a piece I’m writing. I’ve learned a few sad, surprising, and interesting things.

One, she didn’t write Anne until she was 30-years old. Her first novel (AGG) wasn’t published until she was 33-years old. This makes me feel like slightly less of a loser.

Two, she likely died by suicide, 75 years ago today. I remember when this news came out back around the Anne centennial in 2008 but I had put it out of my mind. Her life in Ontario seems quite lonely and full of hardships, mostly domestic.

Three, her archives are at the University of Guelph, 45 minutes from my door. I must pay a visit.

And four, the Emily series, my absolute favourite, was her most autobiographical work. Emily was a dark little weirdo writer I always strongly identified with as a young person. I recently re-read the whole series for the first time in 20 years and loved it just as much.

Thanks, Maud, you strange little Island weirdo, who made millions of us feel less alone.

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And if a nice White lady writer from Nashville can be called dangerous…

The way Ann Patchett wrote about Lucy: I, and many others, loved it.

Some people very much didn’t like it. In an essay called “The Love Between Two Women Is Not Normal” from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett writes about the backlash she received when Truth and Beauty was assigned to incoming freshmen. A protest was planned.

My friends from New York offered to go with me to South Carolina, expecting a gladiatorial match I would surely win. My friends from home read drafts of my speech and howled over the ever-growing stack of newspaper clippings. My friend from Mississippi told me not to go. “Cancel,” she said. “Cancel, cancel, cancel.” Mississippians tend not to be cavalier about the dangers of bigotry in the Deep South.

And why the fuss? It doesn’t surprise me:

“The love between the two women is not normal.” The reporter and the seventeen-year-old had finally come out and said the thing that no one else had had the nerve to mention: Lucy and I must have been having sex with each other. That was the only explanation for our loyalty, love, and devotion. Sex was the payoff for a difficult relationship, and without the sex the whole thing made no sense.

She went, she gave her speech with a bodyguard there, and she notes there wasn’t much protest. She admits to spending a huge amount of time on her speech, hoping it would persuade young hearts and minds to avoid censorship, but ultimately doesn’t think she changed many minds, which is indeed a topic for another day.

In my better moments, I tell myself what happened was a noble battle between freedom and oppression, but I knot it is equally possible that nothing so lofty occurred. Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women unpalatable subjects, and seeing these subjects bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try and stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment. If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.

 

Oh Ann Patchett can soothe the soul…

I mentioned in the last post how vital and beautiful Ann Patchett’s writing about female friendship is. It’s also unique, as Erin Wunker pointed out. When Ann met Lucy:

When I turned around the say hello, she shot through the door with a howl. In a second she was in my arms, leaping up onto me, her arms locked around my neck, her legs wrapped around my waist, ninety-five pounds that felt no more than thirty. She was crying into my hair. She squeezed her legs tighter. It was not a greeting so much as it was a claim: she was staking out this spot on my chest as her own and I was to hold her for as long as she wanted to stay….

I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled. I was twenty-one years old and very strong. She had a habit of pitching herself into my arms like a softball without any notice. She liked to be carried.

I’ve read Truth and Beauty: A Friendship at least six times. That bolded line has always, and will always stick with me. It is one of the best books I have ever read about beauty, and about  love. It is a memoir about two women best friends.

I did Lucy and myself a great disservice our second year at Iowa and left the house on Governor Street to move in with my boyfriend, who lived in a small cottage behind a larger house a mile away. This act of packing up an leaving home set in motion a much larger mistake that would take years to correct. At the time I thought this was my big chance for love, that I was doing something very romantic and important, but looking back on it now, it all seems part of a very simple equation: I left the house where I lived with someone who loved me to go to the house of someone who did not love me at all. Wasn’t it more important to live with a man, a man who was certain to wake up one day and be happy because I was there with all my good intentions sleeping beside him? Wasn’t that more valuable than staying with a friend who made me laugh, who made me think about everything, but was, in the end, just a girl?

Ann Patchett has this language that Erin Wunker seeks, but is one of the few.

 

Finding a book at the right time…

A feminist book which addresses mothering, among other things. I just read and loved Notes From a Feminist Killjoy by Erin Wunker. She`s a feminist academic, blogger, activist and mother. She also, like me, loves Sara Ahmed.

She has a section of friendship that I love:

I hate most of the words used to describe friendship among women.

What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors? I struggle to find a collective noun that fits my friends without itching in it’s not-quite-right fit. My girls (too infantilizing). My crew (I don’t row, so…). My gal pals (sounds like a condition. My tribe (too new age-appropriative). My bitches (just no). ….

I’ve been looking for the language to describe friendship among women to myself, but I haven’t found it yet.

Why is that?

What do we resist when we resist finding or forging this language? What do we lose when we don’t have the language to name the communities of care that hold our heads above water and bring us back to ourselves?

I’m thinking so much about communities of care lately, partly because of my new job. Now I’m re-reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, which describes a female friendship in the best way, in the most unique and beautiful way. Ann Patchett found the language that so few have. I still have to digest this book, and will have more to say later…

Shifting gears

From how-to, nut-and-bolts, what-to-do-when-the-baby-won’t-sleep books, to more literary takes on mothering a baby. There are less of these books than you might think.

I recently read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Both of these books are made up of fragments. This is no coincidence. Our brains are fractured now, the time we get to ourselves is measured in seconds or minutes, not hours and definitely not days.

Rivka Galchen says, summing it up so perfectly: “In late August a baby was born, or, as it seemed to me, a puma moved into my apartment, a near-mute force, and then I noticed it was December…”

And: “My life with this very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don’t speak the same language still somehow fall in love”.

And: “A baby is a goldmine”.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a doozy. It’s about motherhood, step-motherhood, queer familymaking, and gender fluidity, all suffused with poetry and theory. I was mesmerized by it.

Maggie Nelson on pregnancy: “For the years I didn’t want to be pregnant – the years I spent harshly deriding ‘the breeders’ – I secretly felt pregnant women were smug in their complaints. Here they were, sitting on top of the cake of the culture, getting all kinds of kudos for doing exactly what women are supposed to do, yet still they felt unsupported and discriminated against. Then, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t, I felt that pregnant women had the cake I wanted, and were busy bitching about the flavor of the icing. I was wrong on all counts – imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears. I’m not trying to fix that wrongness here. I’m just trying to let it hang out”.

And more on pregnancy: “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters ones’s normal state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?”

And the most empowering sentence I’ve ever read about a birth. “Here he comes. It feels big but I feel big enough”. Wow.

Go read these books, especially if you’ve had a baby yourself, but even more especially if you haven’t. These stories will not be recognized as literature until people who don’t birth children (typically the tastemakers and gatekeepers of what literature is and isn’t) read them and soak them in.

What a freedom it is, to read again. To take this time for me, to do my most favourite thing.