The Green House

Chapter One

It turned out that the best part of their relationship was over by the time he’d suggested they get married. They’d been arguing about everything ever since – from who should officiate at the wedding to where they should go after the small reception. They’d ended up at a run-down motel in the Muskoka Lakes, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto and a world away from how she’d always imagined her honeymoon would be. She knew better than to place any faith in convention, romantic or otherwise, but she found herself disappointed nonetheless.

After three years of squandering themselves down to the verge of bankruptcy, indulging their whims and appetites in celebration of their love, their honeymoon was like a hangover. It rained and rained, and they bickered over every cent they spent on touristy options that would allow them to stay indoors. On that day back in November when he’d gone down on one knee to present her with an engagement ring he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed – laughing over a congratulatory joint – that it was time that the two of them grew up. But it seemed that neither of them was keen to do it. At least not with one another.

Their final argument took place high above Lake Joseph on the first sunny day since they’d arrived. After talking to some guy at the front desk of the motel, Emil had decided they should take a leap from a sheer granite cliff that dropped twenty meters down into the deep blue lake. It was perfectly safe, he told her. All you had to do was jump out far enough to make sure that you were clear of the rock face. She was having none of it. Online she’d found stories of people who’d been killed or worse at this exact spot, and she said she didn’t feel like being married to a paraplegic. He’d insisted she come up with him to scout the situation, promising that they wouldn’t jump that day but only on the next if she agreed and if the sun was out again.

That’s not how it turned out of course — in part because the moss up top was slippery from the week of rain, and in part because in the split second in which she might have reached out to grab him by his shirt, that’s not what she had done. 

Sarah had decided she would stop reading there and, despite the temptation to continue (she loved to read her work aloud), she respected her earlier decision; it had been based on her conviction that writers should always leave readers hungering for more. She closed the book, took a breath and looked up. 

After a few moments of silence, during which it felt as though the audience were holding its collective breath, the hall erupted. A few people yelled “More! More!” and “Keep going!” 

Someone near the back called, “You can’t leave us hanging!” 

“Or ‘leave Emil falling,’ more precisely,” someone said, closer to the front, causing a murmur of laughter.

She smiled and dipped her head to acknowledge their approval of her writing. There were maybe fifty people in the lecture hall; as was usual at her readings, about three quarters of them were women. She nodded at a few fellow authors she recognized from conferences and Writers’ Union meetings.

She realized that Constance Browning was in the audience, off to her left, about six rows from the front. The older woman, beautifully turned out in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, was looking directly at her, and she was smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school and her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere anymore, aroused in Sarah an almost bashful pleasure. (She hoped the bashful part of it didn’t show.)

“Thank you,” she said into the mike, addressing everyone in general but meaning Constance in particular. 

When at last – it seemed like several minutes but it was probably just one or two – the applause began to ebb, Toby Green, a bookseller and the designated MC, joined Sarah at the podium and asked if anyone had questions. 

A few people raised their hands. 

Toby pointed at a woman with short blond hair about half way back who appeared to be in her mid-thirties. 

“Where did you get the idea for this book?” the woman asked. 

This was a question that came up regularly at readings. Most of Sarah’s stories emerged from the fabric of her life, and when she’d been promoting her previous books she’d answered similar inquiries as accurately as she could, recounting real-life incidents and explaining how she’d woven them into imagined events to create the scaffolds of her manuscripts. Among the members of her audiences, there were often would-be writers who apparently believed that the acquisition of certain rituals or tricks – ones to which only successful writers like Sarah Elliott would be privy – might lift their own fiction from obscurity. They ate up her responses, which often turned into wide-ranging discussions involving half the audience. Indeed, over the ten years since her first book had been published, Sarah had established a reputation for being a “generous-to-other-writers” writer, largely on the basis of the thorough and articulate answers she patiently delivered at readings, talks and conferences, and online as well, when she was asked about her work or about the writing life in general. 

But the spark that had become The Borrowed Knapsack – her newest novel – had been the rage and embarrassment she’d felt in the wake of a relationship in which, for more than a year before it ended, she’d invested too much hope and a stupid amount of money. When she’d started writing this manuscript, which — ironically — a couple of reviewers had already described as her most tightly-plotted work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Fomenting rage had propelled her half way through the first draft. 

She was still furious and ashamed about everything related to Wyatt; she was not about to talk about him to anyone, certainly not to the media or the reading public. But knowing that her readers would be suspicious or disappointed if she didn’t give them something concrete, before the book had even been published she’d reached into her past and managed to come up with a true incident she could use as a response to the “where’d you get your ideas” question for this book. It felt more honourable to her… and safer… than she’d have felt if she’d invented something.

“Well, that’s another story,” she said now, her voice well modulated. “It wasn’t an incident that happened to me directly: I was really just a bystander. But it had a dramatic effect on me. The memory has haunted me ever since, but when I started to work on this”— she raised her copy of The Borrowed Knapsack — “I didn’t focus on the memory itself the way I usually do, but on the feeling the memory gave me.” She looked across the audience, noticing that a couple of people were writing down what she said. “The incident really has nothing to do with the book, but I can tell you about it if you like.” 

There was a chorus of “Yes!” and “Please!” (What else were they going to say?) so she replaced the book on the lectern and, in a confiding tone, continued.

“Okay. Well, early in the summer when I was ten, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague. My mom decided to go with him, and they arranged for me to stay with some friends of theirs — the Thistles, also academics — who had a cottage in Muskoka. My parents probably figured it would be a great little holiday for me, but I barely knew the Thistles, and they didn’t have any kids, and the weather was cold and wet. Mrs. Dr. Thistle was working on a paper, and I was told that she must not be disturbed. Mr. Dr. Thistle read books and listened to music on head phones and went out for walks in the rain without inviting me to join him. I’d brought along a few things to do — books and pencil crayons and whatnot — and I was allowed to help with the meal preparation and the dishes — but most of the time I just sat around, quite bored. I considered it a catastrophe that they had no television.”

She heard small chuckles from here and there and felt the audience settling in to listen, as though she were still reading from the book. She let her mind go back to the time she was describing.

“A few days after we got up there, I woke one night to the sounds of a man and woman yelling at one another. The noise was coming from somewhere outside, at the front of the cottage which faced the road. My small bedroom windows looked out on the lake, so it was all too muffled for me to make out many words. But the tone was clear: it sounded like the people who were yelling wanted to kill one another. I was terrified — too scared to even get out of bed. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Thistles — yelling didn’t seem to be their style — but in truth I’d never heard adults raging like that at one another so I couldn’t be sure. I remember pulling my bedclothes up over my head and then trying to peek out from beneath them. After five or ten minutes, red and blue lights started pulsing high up on the trees outside my window, and then the yelling stopped. Suddenly it was silent.

“Then I did get up, and I tiptoed down the hall. I found the Thistles in their housecoats in the darkened living room room, silhouetted against the big front window. They were standing next to one another – almost touching but not quite. The cottage across the way — a much bigger place than the one we were in – was all lit up, and there was a police car, lights flashing, on the road that ran between us and it. Behind the police car was an ambulance, its lights flashing too. I couldn’t see any people out there. I asked if everything was okay, even though it obviously wasn’t, and the Thistles whirled around like I’d scared them half to death. When they recovered, Mr. Dr. Thistle said that everything was under control and that I should go back to bed. So I did.

“I have no idea how I ever managed to fall back to sleep! The next morning I asked the Thistles what had happened. Mrs. Dr. Thistle said that one of the people who lived across the way had had an accident, and had been taken to the hospital.

“‘Unfortunately,’ she added.

“‘What kind of an accident?’ I asked.

“‘We’re not sure about that,’ she said, looking at her husband.

“‘What about the yelling?’ I asked.

“‘The yelling?’ Mr. Dr. Thistle asked, as if himself had heard nothing of the sort.

“‘They were probably just worried about her,’ Mrs. Dr. Thistle said at the same moment, and again they exchanged glances. “Sometimes people shout when they are in distress,” she added in a quieter voice. 

“‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘They’re just renters. Not anyone we know.’

“I tried to protest this explanation but got nowhere. The next day some other friends of the Thistles showed up in a boat — they were staying across the lake, and they had a couple of kids my age. The sun came out, the lake got all blue and sparkly, and the rest of the week turned out to be a lot more fun than the first half had been. I was either too busy or too worn out to think much about the night-time shouting match until the day before my parents were coming to pick me up. Two cops showed up at the door around dinner time, wanting to talk to the Thistles. I remember being scared that it had something to do with my parents, but it turned out that the man from the cottage across the way had been found dead in the lake that morning by some other cottager out fishing. Near the bottom of the cliff I describe in the passage I’ve just read to you.” 

Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.

“And that’s all I knew about it for several decades.” 

“Wow,” said Toby Green, stretching up to lean into the mike. “What an awful experience.”

“Not knowing any details was the worst part,” Sarah responded, nodding. “My parents said they knew nothing about it, but I think they must have. They probably decided it was not something that should be discussed with a child. Years later I looked the incident up online, and found out it had been a domestic-abuse situation. But at the time my imagination just went wild.” She paused. “I guess nothing’s ever wasted on a writer…. or on a ten-year old who reads too many Nancy Drew books and will eventually become a writer.”

There were nods and bits of laughter here and there.

“So that’s where you got the seeds of The Borrowed Knapsack,” Toby said.

It was awkward with both of them trying to use the same mike. Sarah waited until Toby had moved back a bit, then said, “Well obviously what happens in the novel isn’t the same as what happened the week I was at that cottage. But I used the same setting for the piece I’ve just read you. It helped me keep that feeling front and centre.” She looked up at the audience, and delivered a tip in case anyone had been wanting one. “I often find that if I have plot problem,” she said, “if I just ask myself how the scene might be perceived or imagined by a nine- or ten-year old, the answer to ‘what happens next?’ will come to me.” 

Toby invited another few questions. The first few were fairly straightforward and then a woman who looked to be in her sixties near the back wondered why Sarah’s main character had said she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic. “Sounds a bit ableist to me.” 

Sarah nodded, took a breath, and then responded. “It’s not intended to be,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk.”

“But don’t we have an obligation to set an example?” The woman asked. “As writers?”

“I think our obligation is to tell the truth,” said Sarah. “Even when we’re writing fiction. If people talk that way, characters talk that way.”

“Did you think about that, when you were writing it?” The woman wanted to know.

“I did,” Sarah answered. 

Someone near the front turned around and said to the woman at the back, “If we are setting examples all the time, there will be no conflict. No story. Crime writers couldn’t allow their villains to murder anyone, for God’s sake.”

There was a bit of laughter. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the woman. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m wondering where you draw the line. What if she’d said, ‘I don’t want to be married to a fat person’? Would that be acceptable to you?”

A few people volunteered their opinions. Sarah stayed out of it, and Toby managed to wrap the whole thing up before it could go off the rails.

Then Toby said that people could purchase a copy of The Borrowed Knapsack and Sarah’s earlier novels, as well as books by a few other local authors, at the sales table in the lobby outside the lecture theatre. She expressed gratitude to Sarah for agreeing to stick around to sign books if anyone wanted her to do that. She concluded by saying that since the lecture hall was closing in half an hour, everyone who felt the least bit thirsty could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe, a pub two blocks away.

It was more like forty-five minutes before Sarah finished signing books and as she headed out, still escorted by the diminutive Toby Green, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and another writer she now recognized as Jayda Banks waiting for them near the exit doors. Jayda was a Black poet in her mid forties who was highly regarded in the literary community.

“We figured you’d be going to the pub,” Constance said. “We thought we’d walk over with you.” She added, gesturing at her companion, “I’m sure you know Jayda?”

“I know who you are, of course,” Sarah said, extending her hand to shake Jayda’s. “We’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? But I don’t think we’ve met.”

Smiling warmly, Jayda said with a trace of a Caribbean accent, “I loved the reading. I’m so happy Constance invited me to come along.” 

Jayda was much friendlier in person than she was in the photographs Sarah had seen of her online, most of which had been taken when Jayda been discussing political issues and looking somewhat fierce. She had beautiful white teeth, silky looking skin, and today her long braided hair was pulled up in a knot atop her head.

Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Green?” 

All three of them confirmed that they did know one another. 

Even though they had never met before either, Constance had not bothered to introduce herself to Sarah. Sarah decided that this was perhaps because she assumed that everyone knew who she was, which was probably true  — she was famous by Canadian standards, and had been for more than a generation. Or maybe she’d just forgotten that they hadn’t met before. 

Constance was taller than the three other women by half a head — a full head taller in Toby’s case. She must have been five nine or ten, Sarah though. She was wearing a full-length camel coat over her suit, ankle-high leather boots and a crocheted cloche hat that matched her scarf. Now in her late sixties, she’d lost none of the unique Browning aura that made it seem – even when she was in the middle of a crowd – as though she stood alone, isolated from the rest of humanity by the magnitude of her talent. 

“Shall we?” Toby asked and the four of them pushed out into the chilly late-October afternoon. There was a stiff breeze and they put their heads down and walked quickly. Leaves scurried about their ankles. When they reached The Half Horseshoe, they paused together just inside the door to gather themselves again before heading down to the lower level. There, several tables had been pushed together by others who’d arrived before them.

“I’d hoped to have a moment with you on the way over,” Constance said to Sarah as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit next together.”

“I’d like that,” Sarah said. “Could you grab a seat for me? I’m going to hit the washroom first.”

“Of course,” Constance said. Several of those already at the table were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.

When Sarah came out of the washroom, where she’d touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked her outfit — a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots that exactly matched her attache case and were the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned — she saw that Constance had found a seat near the back of the group against the wall. There was an empty chair beside her. Toby was sitting at the opposite end of the group of tables, and Jayda was about half way down on the side across from Constance. There were several pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses on the tables, and several conversations seemed to have taken root. There were about twenty people all together.

Sarah put her steel-coloured puffer coat and her attache case on a chair that faced a table behind them, and sat down next to Constance.

“Are you tired?” Constance asked.

“Not really,” Sarah said. “The adrenaline’s still going.”

“It does that,” Constance said with a smile. At that moment a waiter came over to see if they wanted anything besides draft beer. Constance asked for a wine spritzer. Sarah, drawing a clean glass and one of the pitchers toward her, said she was happy with the beer.

Over the course of the next hour, several self-declared fans of Sarah’s or Constance’s or both leaned across the table to talk to them, or got up and came around to chat. They wanted to discuss specific books that Constance or Sarah had written, or to tell Sarah how much they’d enjoyed the reading, or to chat about their own manuscripts. In no time, it was almost six and half the people — including Toby — had left. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or to find another place to eat. 

Sarah had at least an hour’s drive across the city, so she extracted her wallet from her attache case, pulled out a twenty to put onto the middle table toward the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also getting ready to leave. 

As Sarah was helping Constance into her coat — which was as lovely to the touch as it was to the eye — she asked Jayda if she was ready leave as well. Jayda smiled up and said she’d stay and grab a bite with the others.

“Thanks for suggesting this,” she said to Constance, then added to Sarah, “It was nice to meet you.” 

“You, too.”

As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said over her shoulder, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“True,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere.”

“I have my car,” said Constance. They were approaching the pub’s glass-windowed exit doors, and Constance gestured to the south. “I’m on College Street. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”

“I’m in a lot, a block or so that way,” Sarah said, pointing north. It was dark now but the wind was still blowing leaves and litter around outside. Snow was in the forecast. “Do you want a lift to your car?”

“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime soon.”

“Sure,” Sarah replied, surprised, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.”

Constance was looking evenly back at her. She had lovely grey eyes with dark lashes, and a faint brushing of aqua on her lids. The lines that age had added around her eyes and mouth didn’t diminish her attractiveness. Sarah had noticed before that the appeal of people who were intelligent and engaged was often somehow enhanced rather than diminished as they got older. Their lines added gravitas, she supposed.

“How about Thursday?” Constance asked, now rooting around in her handbag for her keys. “That’s the next day I’m in town.”

Obviously Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah was curious, but she didn’t ask.

“You don’t live in the city?” She asked instead.

“Just east of Cobourg, near the lake,” Constance said.

“That sounds nice,” said Sarah. 

“It’s a lovely spot.” She said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have lovely pastries.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario was right downtown, difficult to get to on a weekday afternoon. If it had been anyone else, Sarah would have insisted they meet somewhere else — Coburg itself would be easier for her to get to. But this was Constance Browning.

They agreed to find one another near the coat check at three p.m. on Thursday, and exchanged cell-phone numbers in case there were any changes. Then they headed off, in opposite directions, into the early night.

© Mary W. Walters

Submitting Stories to LitMags, Part II: Getting them back

Just over six months ago, I wrote a brief post about how I’d shaken some of the Covidious dust from my writer self and sent five short stories out to magazines. They had been sitting here in my computer doing nothing to benefit me, after I had gone through all the agonies and joys of bringing them to life.

I said I would report back.

Here’s the report:

  • One story came back in November, a rejection with some positive feedback and some useful comments that I will use in the revision.
  • Another story also came back in November, a rejection along with an invitation to submit to the journal (Crazyhorse) again. I sent the story out to another journal in January and it was turned down in May.
  • One came back in March with a nice note basically saying that they’d love to tell me why they rejected the piece, but they “receive so many submissions…” blah blah blah.
  • One was accepted in March. “A Change in the Climate” is forthcoming from Prairie Fire. Not sure when, but this delights me as I respect Prairie Fire a lot. The last story of mine that they published ended up in a Journey Prize Anthology.
  • One story is still being considered. Sigh.

I am currently working on a new novel, The Green House, and I have decided to release it in instalments here on The Militant Writer. Watch for the first chapter soon.

In the meantime, you might be interested in my forthcoming adventure with psilocybin, which you can read about here.

Submitting Stories to LitMags

I have had five completed short stories languishing in my computer (yes, that’s what they do there. I checked) for several years, and this weekend I have determined to get them out again to seek their homes in appropriate journals. It is a very demoralizing experience to mail out stories. I used to find it exciting, but that was because I used to be certain everything I wrote would be accepted immediately. I have been humbled. But here we go….

Wish me luck because clearly it requires some of that, as well as work and talent. I have no control over the luck or the talent, but I have put in the work!

I’ll keep you posted.

The Perfect Parent

by Mary W. Walters

Polly Prewitt was a perfect parent, or as close to one as any human being can reasonably expect to get considering the materials parents have to work with. She’d suspected this for many years, although she was careful not to speak of it to anyone, including her husband, for she was also sensitive to other people’s feelings. But it gave her a certain satisfaction to know that her children would be far-better-adjusted adults for having been raised by as conscientious a parent as she.

When friends discussed their children’s bed-wetting problems, she gave little clicks of sympathy and quietly savoured the fact that her boys had both been trained before their second birthdays, and without a single tear or relapse. When other people mentioned the abysmal eating habits of their offspring, Polly gently let it be known that her boys ate what she gave them or did not eat at all. She made no fuss about it with them, she said, and they ate: spinach, tofu, the whole works.

Polly nurtured her pride by reading covers of magazines in stores. “Are you passing on gender stereotypes to your children?” Nope, she mentally responded. Her husband William did the dishes every other night and made dinner for them all on Sundays.  Polly had taken a course in automotive mechanics specifically so the boys would never get the idea that Mothers Cooked and Fathers Fixed Cars. And she had not said a single word against it when Ricky demanded a doll last summer. She wrote it down on her list and bought it for him at Christmas; that way he learned he did not get everything he wanted at the moment he asked for it. It was a cuddly doll, a male baby doll, anatomically correct. The fact that by Christmastime Ricky was in kindergarten and refused to play with it – the other little boys had told him that dolls were for girls – was beside the point.

Jamie had learned that One Takes Responsibility for One’s Actions when he kicked the front wheel of his bicycle off centre in a fit of temper and could not ride it until he’d saved enough from his allowance to pay for the repair.

Her boys were in good shape, she thought cheerfully. And so was she.

And then one day she was standing in the checkout line at Safeway, frowning to herself at the boxes of sugar-coated cereal in the cart of the woman ahead of her, when a brightly coloured magazine caught her eye. She looked up. There, in bold red letters on the cover, was a question that stopped her cold.

“Has your child learned to deal with loss?” it said.

Loss? Loss? She’d never even thought of that, and here was Jamie almost nine and Ricky already past his sixth birthday. She snatched a copy of the magazine and tossed it, front cover down, into her cart.

She read the article covertly before the boys came home from school. She read it twice. The writer urged her to allow her children grief in little ways, so they would be better able later to handle major loss. A pet, the author said, is a perfect medium for teaching such a lesson.

“Do not ever attempt to replace a pet until the grief has been worked through,” the article advised. It went on to point out the identifiable stages of grief: denial, anger, finally acceptance.

Polly’s boys had missed all that, and she would certainly need to set the matter right. What if something terrible happened to her or William or, God forbid, to any of their school friends, and she had not prepared them for it?

All right. A pet, she thought, as she watched Ricky and Jamie brush their teeth that night, before she read them their story. Jamie preferred to read to himself, but she insisted. She knew that reading aloud fostered closeness between parent and child.

A dog would be too much trouble, she decided, and by the time it was ready to teach its lesson in grief, the boys would probably be living elsewhere, attending university or sweeping streets. (Whatever life course they chose was fine with her.) A dog, or a cat, would simply take too long.

Polly couldn’t stand rodents, so mice were out, and birds could live for years.

“Fish!” she said, firmly closing the book in the middle of a chapter.

“What?” said Ricky.

“Nothing” said Polly, opening the book again.

Next day, when their father had taken them to swimming lessons, she went to Sears and bought a big glass fishbowl and a guppy that looked suspiciously pregnant. She bought fish food and received instructions in the care and feeding of fish. She did not admit to the salesclerk that her intention was for the fish to die. In fact, she knew she wouldn’t be able to help sustaining its little life for as long as possible. Polly was an honourable woman.

The boys were delighted with her offering. The bowl was given a position of prominence on the coffee table in the living room. Ricky and Jamie watched the little brown being swim around for hours on end. Ricky asked at one point if he could take it out and play with it, but Jamie told him that fishes can’t live outside the water. Ricky didn’t want the fish to die, did he? Ricky solemnly said, “No.”

Polly looked on, approving.

She did not tell William of her plan because he’d only ask her at breakfast how her “ghoulish death experiment” was coming along, or words to that effect. He was capable of ruining everything when he didn’t understand her motives, and she had suspicions he would not understand them this time. There are things a parent has to do alone.

Polly changed the water regularly and fed her little charge, and it thrived. After a week or so, the boys lost interest in it, and so she gave it a name to foster their feelings of warmth and attachment toward it. “Jean,” she called it, a suitably androgynous name. The guppy had not yet produced any little guppies (which would have been a bonus: two lessons for the price of one), and William said all fish were rounder in the middle than they were towards the ends. She let the boys feed it, but even that bored them rather quickly, and they told her that since she’d bought it, she could feed it. Responsibility for one’s actions coming back at her.

______

Polly had almost decided that Jean would become a permanent part of the household, and a permanent addition to her daily routine, when she went downstairs and found him/her belly up.

Polly sighed and, her expression appropriately mournful, went up to tell the boys.

“I have some bad news for you,’’ she said when she went into their room. “Our little Jean is dead.” (“Tell them the truth!” the article admonished. “Do not tell them the creature has gone to sleep or gone to heaven. Be honest!”)

“No kidding,” said Ricky, and he began to hum the Oscar Mayer song as he pulled his pyjamas off.

“Can I see it?” Jamie asked.

That was better. “Let them see the body of the pet,” the article went on. “Let them confront their grief, hug the pet and cry.” Hugging was out, but the principle remained.

“Of course. You both can.”

She led them down to the living room and stood back to observe their reactions.

“Hm,” said Jamie. “What’ll we do with it?”

“We can bury it out in the garden, if you like. Together. The three of us.”

“Great!” Ricky said, and he ran off, half-clad, to get his shovel from the sandbox.

“Naw. I’ll be late for school and I promised I’d bring the soccer ball. Let’s just flush it.”

So Ricky and Polly buried the little bit of fish, and Jamie left for school. (Denial, Polly thought. He’s not confronting this issue. It takes time to come to terms with loss.) Ricky seemed more interested in a worm his shovel had unearthed than in the farewell to Jean, but Polly was satisfied. At least he had been present.

She waited for the boys’ reactions, but they never once mentioned the death of the fish. At last she took the fishbowl, clean and polished and very empty-looking, and she put it on the kitchen table to emphasize their loss. It was cruel, but it had to be done.

“Can I have it for an ant house?” Jamie asked.

“No! I want to collect bugs to keep in it,” Ricky said. “How come he always gets everything?”

Ants. Polly turned the possibility over in her mind. At least Jamie would have a commitment to his ants. He’d wanted them, and the loss would be greater for his having been the instigator. Ants it would be.

“Well, Ricky,” she said. “Jamie spoke first this time, and I’ve told you often enough before that life’s not necessarily fair.” She looked at Jamie. “Go ahead and start your ant colony, but I’m going to carry this out on the sun deck. I won’t have them in the house.”

It took less than a week for all the ants to escape, and they did not seem to have set up any domestic arrangements in the bowl at all during their brief stay. Polly found Jamie on the sun deck after school one day, staring glumly at the pile of dirt he had poured from the fishbowl onto the indoor/outdoor carpet. She did not mention the mess. He had enough to deal with, poor little tyke, having to confront all of this so early on in life. But it was good, she thought, as she saw a tear roll down his cheek.

She went out and sat beside him. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“I feel sick,” he said.

“That’s the sadness, dear. Nothing lasts forever, you know. All things must go away or die at some time or another.”

“No, Mom. That’s not it. My stomach hurts,” Jamie said, and then he threw up on the lifeless anthill.

It turned out to be chicken pox, and he was home for a week.

_______

“Now, bugs!” Ricky clapped his hands when he saw the fishbowl sitting clean and once again empty on the kitchen table.

“All right. But this is your last chance.”

“Last chance for what?” asked William, looking up from a forkful of shepherd’s pie.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just tired of pets, that’s all.”

Ricky collected a ladybug and two little green things and a fly before he, too, was stricken with chicken pox. He’d covered the top of the jar with a piece of plastic wrap with holes poked in it and thrown in a leaf or two for food. He’d given each bug a name and spent a long time watching his captives in the bowl. He’d left them on the sun deck when he began to feel unwell.

One morning, spotted but recovering, he recalled his menagerie and went downstairs to find them dead.

“Humph,” he said and went back to bed, leaving Polly to rinse the bowl once more.

In the afternoon, she found a piece of paper on which Ricky had written his name backward. Reversed writing was, she knew, a sign of deeper problems. Ricky was reacting. She leaned the paper against the empty fish/ant/bug bowl.

“Tell me why you did this” she asked him gently when he came down to supper.

“Did what?”

“Wrote your name backwards. Did you notice you had done it?” Ricky shrugged. “Jamie bet me a nickel that I couldn’t.”

“That’s it! I’ve had it!!” Polly, the almost-perfect parent shouted. She ran downstairs and wrote a caustic note to the perpetrator of the nonsense in the magazine.

“Loss” she noted in conclusion, “is not a big problem for well-adjusted kids. If everything else is going smoothly, they do not react to it at all.”

She felt better then, almost restored, and she went back to the dinner table.

“You’ve been awfully tense lately,” William said as she carried her plate to the sink and submerged it in the soapy water.

“I just got a little carried away with something,” she said. “It was no big deal. As I’d suspected, everything around here is just fine. And I,” she said, lifting the empty glass bowl into the air, “am turning this into a terrarium.”

“What’s a… ” Jamie said, as the bowl slipped from her hands and smashed to smithereens on the kitchen floor.

There was a stunned silence as the four of them studied the remains of the bowl.

Then, tumult.

“What d’ja do that for?” Jamie shouted. “I wanted that bowl to keep my rock collection in.”

Ricky started to cry. “I wanted to get a turtle.”

Polly stared at them in astonishment. “Keep your voices down, you crazy kids,” she said. “It’s just a bowl. I can get another one tomorrow.”

She stopped and watched their shuddering shoulders and listened to their sobs.

Then she said quietly, “No, I guess I can’t,” and went to get the broom.

(c) Mary W. Walters. Originally published in Chatelaine magazine. Also published in Cool, a collection of short stories by Mary W. Walters, River Books (2000).

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer

Arnie at the helm, the day before the capsize

Arnie at the helm, the day before his misadventure

Last week my husband and I took a four-day vacation at a rustic but absolutely magnificent hideaway in Algonquin Park. One of the best things about Arowhon Pines (aside from the food) is that there is no internet access, no mobile access, no television. You can use the overpriced payphone if you must. If there’s an emergency at home and someone needs to reach you, they can call the desk and staff will come and get you. And at 9:30 each evening if you are desperate for digital entertainment, you can go to the recreation hall to watch a movie on DVD. Aside from that, you’re on your own with the trees and the stars and the lake.

Needless to say, this is a perfect place to be a writer, because you can’t get onto Facebook. If you’re on your computer, there is nothing to do but reorganize your files, see what books you remembered to download before you left the city, and then get to work.

Not that you actually have to open your computer. You can go canoeing, swimming, hiking or kayaking instead. You can sit on the dock, look out at the lake (where no motorboats are allowed), enjoy the quiet or listen for a loon, try to catch sight of a moose, a bear, a fox, or a great blue heron. You can write in your journal. You can take a nap. You can read a book (apparently some people call Arowhon Pines “Camp Library” because everyone is either carrying a book or reading one.). You can sit by a campfire, sing and roast marshmallows.

Aside from catching sight of moose or bear (thank god), we did all of the above.

If you’re a writer, a place like that makes you feel like writing. It doesn’t have to be Arowhon Pines, of course. It’s the remoteness, the quiet, the space – mental, physical, emotional – that makes you feel like writing. So after lunch one day, I told Arnie that I was going to sit on the covered dining hall verandah that overlooks the lake, and work on my new novel. He said he was going to take one the two small Hobies out for a sail: he’d done that the afternoon before, and he’d enjoyed it. Today the lake was a bit rougher and it looked like rain, and I told him to be careful. “I’m too young to be a widow,” I said, giving him a kiss goodbye. I assured him I’d keep my eye on him.

And for a while, I did. I settled myself in one of the Algonquin chairs on the verandah, where I had a view of the dock and about half of the lake, my feet up on the middle rail so I could rest my laptop on my thighs, and I opened my computer. I watched as Arnie prepared the boat and himself for his excursion, then waited for a sudden downpour to pass by and the sun to come out again. I watched him unfurl the sail (there’s only one on those little boats. No jib) and start out toward the middle of the lake. Then I got to work.

Occasionally I looked up to see where Arnie was, but the third time I looked up, I could no longer see him. I wasn’t concerned. I could see only half the lake and I was sure he’d simply sailed out of my view. He’d gone all the way across the little lake and back the day before, without incident. I got back to work. Soon I was utterly lost in what I was writing, and almost unable to tear my eyes away from the screen….

Some time later, my concentration was disturbed by the sound of a motor boat setting out onto the lake. This I found curious, as there is only one motorized boat at the lodge – a pontoon boat – and it is only rarely used. I looked out at the lake again. Nothing to see there. I was settling into work again when I heard a person farther down the verandah say to another person, “I think someone’s in trouble in a sailboat, and they’re going out to help.”

I felt my heart begin to pound as I looked up and out at the lake again. Sure enough, there was the pontoon, chugging in the direction of something and someone that I, on the verandah, could not see. But I knew what and who it was.

I closed my computer, gathered up my notes, and headed down to the dock to await the arrival of the rescue vessel, now heading back to shore with the sailboat – my husband once more securely seated in it – in tow. I was glad he was wearing his personal flotation device. I noticed that his (Tilley) hat was gone. I was incredibly happy to watch his slow return to shore.

There were several people sitting in lounge chairs on the dock, two of whom were women of about my own age, facing out toward the lake.

“That’s my husband,” I told them, nodding in his direction, hoping they didn’t notice that even my voice was shaky.

“I saw him go over,” one of them said. “He righted the boat, and then it tipped again.”

The other woman nodded.

“After I few minutes we decided we’d better raise an alarm. So I went up to the reception desk and told them, and they sent out the pontoon boat.”

During all of this time, I’d been buried in my novel.

I didn’t mention that.

“Thank you for saving my husband,” I said as Arnie, having let go of the pontoon’s tow rope, paddled the sailboat up against the dock. The pontoon boat motored off, back to its mooring on the far side of the dining hall.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said.

After he’d  tied up the Hobie and climbed back onto the dock beside me he said, “These little boats without a jib are impossible to bring about. I got caught by a gust, and when the boat went over, the sail went straight down into the lake. There was no centreboard to climb onto, so righting it the first time wore me out. When I went over again, I just hung on and waited. I knew someone would notice, and they’d send the boat.”

“Fortunately, someone noticed,” I said, indicating the women behind me.

Still holding my laptop and my papers in one arm, I grabbed a strap of Arnie’s safety vest and held on tight with my free hand as we walked off the dock together.

In future, if Arnie insists we take two other women with us every time we head for the wilderness, at least I’ll know the reason why.

___________

Mary W. Walters is the author of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, among several other books.

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How do you beat writer’s block?

How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Virtual Reality and The Writer

Last weekend, I read an intriguing article by Simon Haupt in the Globe and Mail about the impending reality of virtual realityIn “Reality Check,” Haupt explores the downsides as well as the upsides of being able to put on a headset (“…really, just a pair of special goggles attached to a smartphone,” he says) and be immediately transported to somewhere where you’re not. I’ve considered the possibility of virtual reality before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never before considered the impact it could have on my own life… the benefit it could have, to be specific.

Here’s the thing. As I have groused elsewhere, often, I have wanted my whole life to travel, but I have only now started to be able to do it. The list of places I want to visit has been growing over the years to the point where I am sure I will never get to all the destinations I want to reach before I am too old to get to them.

Now, I have an alternative! If I can travel to the places at the top of my list while I still can, I can spend the next decade virtually visiting the ones I didn’t reach. (Although I do have a caveat: the virtual reality [VR] experience needs to include smells, because smells are – to me – a very important part of travelling. They’ll have to add a smell recorder to the Google car, I guess. By the time my knees and stamina for actual travel have given out, they should have been able to iron out that wrinkle.)

[Virtual reality is] coming very soon to a home near you, with the potential to transform not just gaming, entertainment and social media but social justice advocacy, tourism, education, marketing, shopping, and dozens of other everyday experiences. – Simon Haupt

After I’d finished thinking about how I could travel to Johannesburg from an armchair using only a headset and my iPhone (think of the money I will save!), I started thinking about the effect widespread access to virtual reality might have on writers, specifically of fiction. Haupt mentions that a VR experience based on The Martian is already in the works, and at least one VR creator he interviewed for the piece predicts that simply placing viewers in VR situations will not satisfy consumers for long.

Haupt relates his conversation with James Milward, president of Secret Location, a Toronto marketing company that is already making award-winning VR content. “Soon, he says, we’ll need stories, or ‘something you’d demand in any other medium to make it meaningful. So I think that’s inevitable. We’re going to have to continue to push how we make things, and what we choose to make, in order to make it meaningful’.”

I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would be to create a novel that translates easily to to a virtual reality format, and I’ve already decided that Rita Just Wants to Be Thin is not likely to appeal to most people who are consumers of VR. Who wants to actually go through the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stick to a diet? Maybe once or twice, but not the number of times it takes Rita to finally figure out how to live a life that is not associated with overeating. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on the other hand? That might be fun.

What do you think? Can you imagine writing something that can be reproduced in virtual reality format, or is it going to take a whole different kind of creators to make appetizing “stories” for virtual reality consumption? Maybe it isn’t possible at all, and (as Haupt also suggests) perhaps this is just a fad that is blowing in the wind.

In confidence

“You will be glad to know that there comes a time when you no longer care as much as you once did about what other people think of what you write. Now you write primarily to please yourself. After many years of practice and of being your own worst critic, you see that when you are ready to let a piece of writing go, it is because it really does have merit. Nothing has changed except your perspective, and your knowledge that you’ve earned the right to feel the way you do.”

Becoming the Person I Want to Be

(Instead of the one I was afraid I would become) *

 
By my late twenties, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I love to read and write, I also loved the whole idea of being a writer. I imagined myself in the future, living a writer’s life – long days of creating fiction interspersed with occasional public readings from my newest book to audiences who hung on my every word.

I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but no matter how long it took, I was determined that I would get there. I would become that woman.

Ten years later, I’d published a novel, some short stories and some essays, even a radio drama. Reviewers for the most part seemed to like my work, and small groups of people came out to hear me read: sometimes they even seemed to hang on my every word. That part of my life was all I had imagined, and I loved it.

But writing is no way to make a living, so when I wasn’t writing, I was stressed. I was stressed about everything – my teenaged kids, my relationships, my work deadlines, my lack of money: you name it. And while I was stressing about everything, a few bad habits were turning into serious addictions. I was smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much… sometimes all at the same time. Which added to my stress: now I also worried that my addictions were going to kill me – later if not sooner. My doctors’ advice just reinforced my fears, and a brush with breast cancer didn’t help.

By now I had a totally different image of my future self than I’d had when I was younger. Now what I saw was an enormous grey-haired woman rolling home from the liquor store, several bottles of fortified something tucked between her immense hips and the seat of the motorized wheelchair she now needed because her arthritic knees could no longer support her weight. An oxygen tank was strapped to the back of her wheelchair; tubes snaked into her nostrils.

In short, my image of the future was now fashioned out of fear, rather than from hope.

Gotta quit. Gotta quit.

For the next ten years, I was always trying to quit smoking. I was always trying to quit drinking. I was always trying to lose weight. Every day I made a new resolution and every day I broke it. I am pretty sure that I tried every single smoking cessation, drinking cessation and eating cessation program known to humankind – and I failed with every one of them.

Somehow I also managed to write and publish a few more books, but not as many as I would have if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my lack of money and my bad habits. (And, to make things worse, the price of cigarettes and booze kept going up and up, and the publishing industry fell to pieces!)

Finally, I hit bottom. And finally – with the help of a therapist I had gone to in despair – I began to realize that I had been taking the wrong approach. I began to understand that I could never quit anything when I was focussed only on the quitting. What I had to do was stop thinking about what I was afraid of, and start remembering what I wanted to become.

What I Did Next

At age 50, I took that image of myself as a failure and I essentially shoved her off a cliff. When I saw her trying to claw her way back up toward me, I shook my head at her. That wasn’t me. No more. After a long time, she grew weaker and stopped trying to return. Now I almost never see her.

In the meantime, I took that other image, the one which had become lost in all the stresses of the years, dusted her off, and put her back in front of me where I wouldn’t lose sight of her again. I did some fine-tuning while I was at it: imagining every aspect of what I wanted to become. I was getting to the age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never get another chance.

The woman I wanted to become was strong and healthy. She was aging powerfully and well. She was a woman whose children and grandchildren would see her as a role model – and (this part hadn’t changed!) she was a writer whose books (and blog posts! And Tweets!) made people sit up and pay attention: hang off her every word.

First, I quit drinking… one day at a time. That turned out to be much harder and to take much longer than I thought it would, but it was nothing compared to quitting smoking. That I had to do one hour at a time. Both of those recoveries caused me to gain even more weight than I was already carrying around, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that. Finally I turned to the challenge of getting healthy, and a few years later, I was able to get serious about actually losing weight.

I didn’t do any of these things out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t do them, or because I wanted to fit into some outfit for a certain event. I didn’t do them because the doctors told me I had to, or because my loved ones said I should. I did these things for me – because I know who I am, and because the person that I am has goals. I did them because I want to live long enough to enjoy my life and the people I love for as long as I can – without sickness, without shame, and especially without fear.

I Am Getting There

I have not fulfilled my vision yet, but today I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I get out and exercise regularly, and I weigh 35 pounds less than I did four years ago (I still have 10 pounds to go).

And I write. My latest book – a novel called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin – is the story of a woman who, at 29, learns the lessons that it has taken me a lifetime to figure out.

Who knows? Maybe some day Rita (or one of my other books) will put me on that stage I’ve been imagining for so many years, in front of a room full of readers who are hanging off my every word. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Because what really matters is what happens offstage, where most of my life is lived. And there, at last, I am finally getting closer and closer to becoming the person I have always wanted to be.

* This article was written at the invitation of Jan Graham and originally published on her great blog site, Cranky Fitness. Check it out. Thanks, Jan!