An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)

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BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

http://www.sumeru-books.com/

Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.

Finding the Pony in the Pile

 

After four years during which my muse found the pen too heavy to lift,  in the past two months it seems she’s stretched and yawned and decided she was too young to retire.

So “we” opened my file labelled “edit new work” wherein rest stories that never made it to completion for one reason or another. Some of them, when I read them now, are not and clearly never will be worth the candle.

But I came upon one that I felt had “good legs” and so I found the flaws, asked a friend to read and offer her criticism and ended up with a story that pleased me.  I went to my list of past submissions and publications for some hint as to where this story might find a friendly editorial eye. To my surprise, “You Must Remember That” had already found such an eye. It was published in 2010 in the Antigonish Review.

Lessons learned: keep files up to date; and (I believe the essence of the quote is from Aritha van Herk) “We never really finish a story. We just abandon it.”

A second surprise on this sifting of stories—there were two (one fiction and a personal essay)  that I had no memory of writing. Only the memory of churning them in my mind years ago, and telling myself that one day, when the time was right, I’d find a way to put them on the page. Completion and editing now done, stories kicked on to magazine slush piles. Mission accomplished.

Rather than give “the muse” full credit for this return to story, partial credit is due to  Queen Elisabeth II. Netflix series “The Crown”, numerous newspaper and magazine articles on HRH’s long reign, and Theatre Calgary’s beautiful staging of “The Audience”  reminded me that I too have a QEII story and it has nothing to do with highways.

I wrote “The Queen is Coming” in response to a call for submissions from CBC’s Alberta Anthology, a program that was a gift to Alberta writers.

The theme was “Alberta’s Centennial.” I normally avoid writing to “themes” because most often the result is a heavy-handed story written without real inspiration or passion. But when several friends who are dyed-in-the-wool royalists began to go gaga over the upcoming royal visit, I decide to translate my eye-rolling into a story.

A helpful CPL librarian helped me dig through archived news of HRH’s visit in 1951for background, and in particular to find out what Her Majesty was wearing. It was the hat I was after. I even stood on the corner of 9th and Macleod and drank in the spectacle.

“The Queen is Coming” had the honour of a CBC broadcast, and was also included in a lovely collection titled The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005.

Because it’s been gathering dust now for 12 years, it’s time for an airing:

 

The Queen is Coming

 

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary was cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched over her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

END

An afterword from the anthology: ” The Queen is Coming” is about the relativity of the child-parent relationship and explores how grace inspires grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Promotion; the key to selling books, and the pain and the shame

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I know I am not alone in my dread of promoting my own books. It’s not only the obviously shy or tongue-tied who cringe at the idea of sitting behind a table in a bookstore, trying to catch the attention of the people who pass by deliberately avoiding eye contact. Or reluctant to approach event coordinators with a bid to be on the schedule. Not alone, but there are also many authors who are comfortable with and aware of the necessity of self-promotion. I pretend to be one of those comfortable authors, but all the while my ears are burning and the voice inside my mind is my mother’s. Blame your mother? Why not?

I grew up in the days before building self-esteem became one of the cornerstones to raising successful children. Be polite, do not brag about anything, and generally avoid calling attention to yourself. Those were my mother’s tenets and while I raised my own children with the hope they’d be polite but not afraid to speak their minds, happy to talk about their achievements without being boastful (that’s this mother’s job), and comfortable in speaking out and promoting what they believe.  My librarian, fisheries biologist, and musician all live and work with a fine balance of humility and confidence. I sometimes take their strengths for granted and forget to tell them how proud I am, but that’s for another post.

So. I had a new book published in May of this year, a novel for young teens, Odd One Out. Another book produced with the artistry of my good friends at Oolichan Books.

There were a few glitches in the beginning—problems not uncommon or unfamiliar to my author friends. A rush to have copies of the book in time for the scheduled date of the launch resulted in a small print run, because there was a design flaw that needed to be addressed. In truth, this was not a “flaw” to my eyes, but my publisher has a finer sense of the aesthetics of book design. Then, once the “new” book was off to the printer, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for it to reappear and more unfortunately, to appear in bookstores and libraries.

But at last. at last, the library orders have been filled: Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Camrose, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Vancouver libraries have copies waiting for your reading pleasure and more particularly the pleasure of young people in your lives from ages 11 – 15 and beyond as well from the feedback I’ve had. If your local library does not have the book, you could request that they order it. What harm in that?

And the bookstores. Our beautiful indie bookstores who’ve had copies albeit limited since the very first run. In Calgary Owl’s Nest, Pages, Shelf Life; in Edmonton, Audrey’s Books. Beyond the province, I haven’t been gathering stats. Available from Chapters/Indigo’s Signal Hill store in Calgary. And available online from Indigo Amazon.ca. as an ebook.

The one thing I don’t hesitate to tell people about any of my books is that this is work of which I’m proud. Odd One Out is a book that I hope will find its way into your hands.  I hope you will enjoy it, but if you don’t?  Then I rest on my strong belief that once a book is out of my hands, the story no longer belongs to me. Your experience, your taste, your perceptions will be your judge.

My mom is long gone, although she is so much a part of who I am, but she won’t hear me saying to you—

Hey, buy my book, give it to a young person for Christmas, or borrow it from our awesome libraries. Their circulation stats for the book are gratifying and nothing pleases me more when I visit the library than finding a copy of one of my books that’s dog-eared, well-thumbed, and has your fingerprints on it.

 

Gone to Grass

“Gone to Grass”

I learned this expression from the lovely Jean McKay when we were at Sage Hill in 2004, attending Robert Kroetsch’s novel colloquium. It is, in fact, the title of one of Jean’s elegant books which also include The page-turner’s sister and Dragonfly Fling whose cover bears the comment, “Jean McKay is one of North America’s finest writers” from no less than Annie Dillard.  This is all sidebar but important because if you have not read Jean’s book, do try to find them. It may be devilishly hard, but worth the effort.

“Gone to grass” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the back list of my books and those of many of my writing colleagues. It grieves me that while there are some literary comets that blaze for light years , too many of our books are more like shooting stars.

As many of you know, I have had the benefit of former bookseller and publishers’ sales representative, Susan Toy, in the promotion of my last three books, and while she was promoting those, she always shone the light on the first two as well. Susan closed down her business, Alberta Books Canada, when she left Calgary but she continues to be a fierce supporter of her Alberta friends and a whole new community of authors she has gathered online.

As many of you also know, I am totally dismal when it comes to promoting my own work, and I miss Susan’s help. She is one of those people who rarely go through a whole day without that light bulb flicking on over her head. I can hear her say, “I have an idea!” as I write this.

I’ve asked Susan if she would please go back to work for me for a short while to help get Odd One Out into the world, which she has graciously agreed to do. But not without coming back within hours with, “How do you like this idea?!”

Do stay posted for the Go Read Me Campaign! she will blogging about sometime soon. Now, Susan, compares this project to Crowd Funding, but it will feel to me like begging and I will blush but will not apologize.

Meanwhile, go in search of Jean’s books. http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/author/jean-mckay  I’ve found them listed on both Amazon and Chapters/Indigo, but you may need to buy a used copy. And if you find Gone to Grass please let me know because someone borrowed my copy about 10 years ago and didn’t return it. Which is why, if you ask to borrow my copy of the other two books, you’ll have to read them at my house.

Summer Stories

My garden is my sanctuary from the time blue buds on hepatica dare to appear under a dusting of snow and until the last trees finally begin to drop their leaves—the laurel leaf willow and the burr oak that seem to hold onto hope until late October or longer.

This time of summer, when every plant and tree has reached the peak of its perfection, has always been the best of all. In any corner of our garden, I can find a place for a chair and a bit of loveliness to contemplate.

I know that spring and summer are also the seasons of many of my stories. Rarely do I write winter and in particular the dark months.

Will there be a story from this summer? Or is this endless succession of warnings— “Weather Alert! Conditions are favourable for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and funnel clouds” —about to become the cliché for prairie summer.

This summer, my garden has been less of a sanctuary and more the scene of mad dashes into periods of sunshine to weed and dead head and clean up the damage from the latest deluge of rain and hail.  And yet, I’ve been in awe of the mild spring that began in April and carried straight through to summer, the explosion of roses, day lilies of spectacular size, the early harvest of vegetables and a Calgary landscape more lush and green than any I can remember.

Here’s a pictorial of the Seasons in My Garden https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

Next summer may arrive even earlier and bring weather more extreme but even so, as I watch my garden mature into its late summer beauty, I hold tight to the hope that the cycle will remain essentially the same. I’m hoping too, that the fall garden will provide its own sanctuary.

As for story, I’ve written weather many times, and I suspect that will not change.

Here’s a short excerpt that seems fitting in this summer 2016.  “Storm Warning” was published in AlbertaViews 2002 July/August issue, the 15th anniversary of the Edmonton tornado, Jackie Flanagan reminded me the day she called to tell me that “Storm Warning” was a finalist in the AV Short Story contest. “Storm Warning” was also included in the collection A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008)

Storm Warning

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rear-view mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiralling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

reunion: who are you? Who was I?

reunion;  (OED)   the act or instance of reuniting; the condition of being reunited; a social gathering especially of people formerly associated.

Google “school reunion” for more advice than I hope you will ever need:  6 Reasons High School Reunions should not exist; 5 Reasons to attend your high school reunion;  school reunion ideas, quotes, songs, invitation wording. Apparently high school reunions thrive in spite of the “6 Reasons” and in spite of reunion horror stories. Mine is not a horror story; simply the story of a woman who, for the most part, stays afloat by living in the Now.

I had an email today from a woman I haven’t seen in more than fifty years. As soon as I began to read the message I had a clear visual of my kind, funny, red-headed, preacher’s kid, best friend.  I met Joyce when we were ten years old. We’d moved to Camrose from a small town where I didn’t really have a best friend because I was a townie and all my “friends” arrived in yellow busses that rolled into town in the morning and departed at 3:00 in the afternoon.

I lost track of Joyce and other best friends when we moved to Edmonton six years later. So many different schools, so many partings with best friends, one would think I’d embrace the idea of “reunion.” Ten, twenty, thirty years of catch-up just might rekindle friendships and stir the pot of precious memory.

The invitation to the 50th anniversary of the class of 1966 at Camrose Composite High School arrived in February of this year. I was puzzled to receive it, because I’d only attended the first half of grade ten in Camrose. In 1966 I’d graduated from Bonnie Doon Composite High in Edmonton. When I questioned the enthusiastic woman who was head of the organizing committee, she said it mattered not. They were including everyone who had spent any length of time in grades 10, 11, 12 even if they’d moved away before graduation. A friendly inclusive gesture.  I left the invitation simmering in my Inbox; when the reminder came in May, I put off replying. The closing paragraph of the reminder: Don’t forget to pack yearbooks and conversation starter memorabilia and items that scream the 50’s, and 60’s. I didn’t have a yearbook nor do I keep memorabilia.  I let the date slip away.

I attended one high school reunion and it dispelled any notion I had of fun and renewed friendships. At this point in my life, connecting with people I haven’t seen in ten years is a  pleasure but in the context of a long life, not a reason to make of it a huge celebration. In 1976, high school graduation felt like the distant past and I allowed an Edmonton best friend to talk me into attending the ten year reunion of graduates from Bonnie Doon. Compared with Camrose Composite High School, Bonnie Doon was huge. For reasons too ill-conceived to ponder, home room classes were determined by academic achievement. I attended all the core subject classes with the academic bright lights. Many of them were also athletic bright lights and on the school council and beautiful. The combination of brains, beauty and success in every possible activity struck me as unfair in 1963 and still strikes me as an unfortunate glitch in evolution.

I was bright, but an ordinary looking teenage girl, totally lacking in athletic ability and morbidly shy. I suspected that it would be the most successful and happiest ex-Dooners who would attend the reunion, but never validated that prediction because there were few people I recognized and even fewer who remembered me. Apart from a half dozen people with whom Carolyn and I chatted, I felt as personally connected as I would have at a play or concert or wandering through the grocery store.  To be expected—name tags.  I was asked not once or twice, but far too many times — What was your name before you were married? Having morphed from the shy kid to the introverted adult with a sharp tongue, my answer to the question?  My name before I married is the same as it is now—Betty.  I convinced Carolyn that we (I) had stayed long enough to have made our understated appearance. She had her infant daughter with her and baby had definitely had enough. That, I told myself, was the last school reunion I would ever attend.

Joyce caught up with me because she did attend the Camrose reunion. She was in the 1966 graduating class. She’d gathered a mini-history of what I’ve been up to for the past 50 years from a few Camrose people with whom I’ve visited when I’ve done readings in that city.  I had a ripple of regret as I read her email, because I wondered how many other long ago “best friends” I’d missed by staying home. I found the invitation and scanned through the long long list of recipients and recognized so few names (although I make allowance for those girls, who like me, hadn’t kept their surnames when they married) that I imagined myself drifting uncomfortably from one corner to another wondering why I was there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so. Perhaps I would have reminisced and laughed and been saddened by the list of classmates who have died or suffered misfortunes. For all of them, I offer up a prayer of peace.  For all who are doing fine and are happy in their lives, I wish them well. I do this comfortably from a distance because age mellows memory, and what’s left in my memory of the time in which I knew these people makes me grateful that we survived those harrowing teenage years.

I’m delighted to have had this “reunion” with Joyce and I hope to hear from her again. I’m sure the weekend was a wonderful chance to feel eighteen years old again and to marvel over the distance all those who attended have traveled. Will I go to the 60th reunion? Or reunions of any other people with whom I was formerly associated? I suspect not.  Although imagine the fodder for writing?  Every former student a walking short story.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mr. Green,

Among the many things on my mind this week:  the relentless rainstorms; my sadly bedraggled garden; the unlucky visitors to our city who are sloshing through deep puddles on the Stampede grounds with their Big Pickle Dogs, Mac and Cheese Burgers, Poutine Stuffed Corn Dogs and other innovative food offerings; and short stories.

Although I’ve held tight against every twitch of my brain that wants to lead me into a story, I have been thinking how much I love the form. When I began writing, the idea of writing a novel was both terrifying and laughable.  What story did I have that would demand 350 pages in the telling?

I already knew the gargantuan task involved in the writing, and also in the search for a publisher. But in each short story class I took, we were urged to finish the work and “get it out there,” the “there” being to literary magazines. In 1997 we had far more possibilities in the form of magazines, many of which ceased publishing years ago.

Those submissions, the comments offered even on rejections, the lucky strikes that got our work between covers sustained many of us as we carried on and grew stronger in the craft.

By coincidence, the Stampede, a  beguiling old lit mag called “Green’s” published in Regina, and a story written from the perceptive of my own snooty indifference to the Calgary Stampede, came together. The story, “A Short Ride on Lightning” was published in the Summer 1998 issue of “Green’s.” The communication with Mr Green over some editorial suggestions – most of them good – was probably the lengthiest editing process I experienced with any of the other lit mags I managed to finagle my way into in the years that followed. My favourite comment/complaint: “Do we need a passion (yup, Mr. Green corresponded from his manual typewriter which did not have the option of italics) reference to their relationship? (does she live with him?)?

My reply:  “In response to your question about the “passion” reference, I think it is necessary that there be a strong attraction between these two. If they were only casual friends, why would he care if she rides off with a cowboy?”  He bought it.

To Mr. Green and the other publishers who have since folded, thank you for the opportunities and the honour you bestowed on us. To Anne Burke, whose magazine, “The Prairie Journal,” is still going strong since back in the days when I first began writing — a special recognition and thank you!  And to all my writing cohorts — send those stories out!

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