The M Word

I’ve just spent a couple of days with a collection of essays about motherhood. About life with a uterus, as Kerry Clare puts it. It was like slipping into this wonderful story circle, 25 articulate women speaking honestly of being–or not being–a mother. Choices or surprises. Twins. Abortion. Miscarriage. Child death. Step-parenting. Single mothering. Infertility. Delightful children. Difficult children. Now and then, when the children were especially demanding and the writer felt herself turning into someone, as Deanna McFadden puts it, “crammed into the corners of her own life,” I longed to put my hand through the page with a pat and say, It gets better. Usually it does, I think. But such a typically maternal gesture, isn’t it? Coming from the stage I’m in now, which is post-Mother in a way, easier on every level but with some terrific adults in my life who happen to be my children. Me still, and again, in Heidi Reimer’s words, “gobsmacked and humbled”by their existence.

mwordThe book is The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (Goose Lane, 2014)edited by Kerry Clare. I went first to fine pieces by two writers I know better than the others: “Primapara” by Ariel Gordon, who has opted for one child, and “How to Fall” by Carrie Synder, who has four. Myrl Coulter’s “Unwed, Not Dead,” about the scandal of pregnancy as a young unmarried woman in the 60s — yes, as recently as that! — stood out to me, maybe because I’ve written about this phenomenon, though in an earlier time-period. “I put my head down,” she concludes, “and did what my social environment conditioned me to do: buried my feelings and carried on with my life.” Saleema Nawaz’s and Susan Olding’s essays on stepmothering were standouts as well. And Alison Pick’s “Robin” on her miscarriage. And I loved and resonated with Michele Landsberg’s enthusiastic Afterword on grandmothering: “an astonishment of love” and “all this rich and complicated happiness.”

The extremes of sentimentality, defensiveness, or despair so easily attached to motherhood are mostly avoided here. I applaud the mutual respect implicit in the pieces’ co-existence. In spite of considerable variation in the women’s experiences, however, a sense of sameness misted up from the collection as a whole. I offer this more as observation than critique. Perhaps it’s because these women are writers–writer, in fact, being a consistent identity or foil through the pieces–and good writers too, so stylistically on a plane. Maybe it’s simply the nature of a thematically focussed collection. Or maybe it’s motherhood itself, a storyline ubiquitous, familiar, and essentially this: in it or not, the implications are profound.

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Does the First World War belong to me?

The first question Susan Sanford Blades asked me in an e-mail interview about “Mask” was, Was this story informed at all by any of your personal experience (via family etc.) with the war? (“Mask,” which will appear in The Malahat Review this summer, concerns the repercussions of an English soldier’s facial injury in the First World War.) A perfectly appropriate question, perfectly innocent, about the story’s origin. When I read it, however, I reacted with an inner gasp of panic. Does the First World War actually belong to me? 

It had never occurred to me to me that it didn’t, but in that moment, before I went on to answer Susan, it loomed large. Did it belong enough, that is, for me to use it in a story?    Continue reading

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A bow to the past in Kansas

In the spirit of the rather fitful reporting to which this blog has devolved, I’m here this Monday afternoon to say that I was away four days in Kansas, hanging out with historians and archivists. (I believe I’ve mentioned before that these are some of my favorite people.) I’m on the Historical Commission of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) denomination, which meets once a year, rotating between the four archival centers in Kansas, California, B.C., and Manitoba. We hear reports from the centers, undertake various publishing projects (including both scholarly and popular history–last year’s was the fascinating mystery-biography, It Happened in Moscow by Maureen Klassen, which has sold astonishingly well), sponsor research grants and an archival internship, and occasionally plan symposiums, all to foster the preservation of, study of, and reflection on our history. Continue reading

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The strong memory of places

House on Kildonan Drive, Jane's Walk 2014

House on Kildonan Drive, Jane’s Walk 2014

H. and I participated in one of Winnipeg’s 24 Jane’s Walks* this weekend: the one along Kildonan Drive North.  It was a chilly, rather overcast day, but a large group of us gathered to wander along a river street associated with North Kildonan’s rich or famous—names familiar to the Mennonite settlement here like Henry Redekop, A.A. DeFehr, George Janzen, Henry Krahn, and  those connected to pioneering and municipal leadership like J.M. Morton and Angus Matheson McKay. Continue reading

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Six more books and notes

DownloadedFileThis weekend in The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown wrote, glowingly, “Why I read a six-volume diary by a Norwegian novelist,” on his experience of the first volumes (the article title is a bit of a misnomer, as not all six volumes are available in English yet) of Karl Ove Kanusgaard’s My Struggle. I recently finished the first volume of Knausgaard and have to agree, it’s mesmerizing, this attempt to speak of everything, to recall the mundane, the truth of himself and others, memoir-like, but without the narrative arc of fiction or memoir. I’m glad I read the first 441 pages of the project, to see what the fuss was about, but presently am not inclined to continue. To me, it invites a kind of voyeurism I’m not willing to sustain. Continue reading

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A baby, a novella

20140411-IMG_5769A second set of sticky notes about books is nearly ready to post, as promised, but I’m going to interrupt that brief series with two recent happenings in my life.

First was the birth of another granddaughter! I visited the family in B.C. for ten days, to help as best I could in a busy household with a new baby and returned with warm memories of the lovely child (who bears the distinguished name Honor) and many memories of the other children as well. Choice sayings by the nearly-three-year-old, for example, moments of closeness initiated by a child who tends to self-containment, and so on. Things a grandparent gathers and chuckles over or ponders upon. Continue reading

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Sticky notes on six books

Since my blog posts so far this year have been about reading, I decided to list some books I’ve enjoyed the past half year or so, just in case some of you like that kind of thing (as I do). These aren’t reviews, as much as sticky notes, or cheers. If you’re interested, you can always google for more information. So, six today, six to follow.

DownloadedFileWe’re Flying (2012), short stories by Peter Stamm. I learned of Stamm, a Swiss writer, through one of Eleanor Wachtel’s “Writers and Co.” interviews. This is a large, wonderful collection, translated by Michael Hofmann. One reviewer has called Stamm’s stories “small canvases of precision as he maps the imprecision of human emotion.” I was beguiled by his style. This is the book on today’s list I want to re-read. Continue reading

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