Body and Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers

High time for me to say something about the anthology Body and Soul, edited by Susan Scott and published by Caitlin Press. I have a personal essay in it — “Mother and Child,” about my experience of our daughter’s came outing out — but that’s only one reason to mention the book. There are twenty-eight more, including contributions by writers such as Alison Pick (foreword), Sharon Bala, Carleigh Baker, K.D. Miller, Ayelet Tsabari, and Betsy Warland. And twenty-two others.

9781987915938Body and Soul takes on the daunting and often rather private concept of “spiritual.” As the back cover states, it breaks “that age-old code of silence to talk about the messiness of faith, practice, religion and ceremony…” Its writers emerge from contexts that may be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Indigenous, or nothing. There’s leaving and joining, leaning away from and leaning towards.

I confess that writing my piece seemed risky to me. Fear of judgment, I suppose it was. Fear it wouldn’t be enough of whatever for whoever. But putting it to paper was a powerful experience for me too, as writing can be when the very act of it traces through facts of the past to reveal a landscape seen as if in fog the first time round and now glittering with a kind of clarity. And editor Susan Scott was a marvellous (and soothing) guide and champion.

The seed for the anthology got planted when a panel on spiritual memoir at the Wild Words Festival in 2015 provoked surprisingly enthusiastic response. In an interview with Isabella Wang for Growing Room, Susan said:

“Let’s face it. There’s a lot of eyeball rolling when it comes spirituality, religion, faith—pick your word, they’re all words that make people uneasy. Real knowledge, understanding or empathy are often thin, and it’s no wonder. Canadians tend to keep such matters private, which is fine on the one hand; on the other hand, it means we lack a nuanced public discourse, a lexicon to reach for.”

Susan Scott

Susan Scott

I participated in two of the launch events for Body and Soul in Vancouver last month. As I listened to Susan introduce the project the evening we read at the Vancouver Public Library, as I heard her passion for what it represents and how unique it is, I felt myself pulled out of and beyond the personal experience of my own essay. I felt myself placed into a solid companionship — with the other women who happened to be reading that evening, as well as the others in the book, all of us beside the other in a fine alphabetized row. Companionship, yes, with the commitment to listen hard and well to each of them. I believed I could rest in the expectation that they would listen hard and well to me as well. 

“I liken the process of building an anthology to the practice of hospitality—another old word that’s misunderstood. The roots of hospitality are linked to care. In the writing community, a hospitable publishing process begins and ends with care. Care, as in deep listening and holding the space for writers. Care, as in I care deeply about what you have to say and I believe in my bones that others will care. Care, as in judicious editing that builds on trust.” (Susan Scott, interview with Isabella Wang).

You can look for Body and Soul at your local bookstore or library (if not, please request they order), or through Caitlin Press or Amazon.

Susan Orlean on libraries

Yesterday a friend and I went to hear journalist Susan Orlean, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of eight books, talk about her latest, The Library Book. The event was held, fittingly enough, at the Vancouver Public Library, a place I find compelling and enjoy spending time in even though its Colosseum-look seems, to my eye, somehow incongruous in this dynamic and contemporary city. But never mind, the book isn’t about this library in particular but about the Los Angeles Public Library and its devastation by fire in 1986, though it’s also, by extension, about libraries in general. download

My friend read Orlean’s book; I haven’t yet, though I listened to her in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. She’s a dynamic and articulate presenter, which isn’t necessarily the case with (us) writers, so the evening–to a packed hall–was both entertaining and informative. She’s been speaking about her book a lot, so I’m sure that helps; it’s down to a fine polish.

Orlean has a reputation for landing on unusual topics–a taxidermist competition, for example, or the dog Rin Tin Tin. And now a library. She arrives at them, she said, by “responding to an authentic curiosity I can’t shake off.” She’s delighted, she said, by two “species” of stories: 1. “something familiar I realize I know nothing about” or 2. “a story hiding in plain sight.” Her exploration of the L.A. library and its history combined those two.

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Susan Orlean, VPL Mar. 6, 2019

It took her six years to learn and write that story. “I see myself as a student,” she said. “The moment I feel I could teach [the material] is how I know I’ve learned it.” The book is “meticulously researched,” interviewer Carol Shaben noted, and, I gathered, the book wanders about considering almost everything imaginable concerning libraries. Orlean’s answer to the question of how she worked a topic so sprawling into a structure was interesting. The experience of the narrative, she suggested, was like being in a library, you might pull a book off the shelf about arson and then another on, say, shelving, and then another about something else. But always it circles back to: “there was this this terrible event, and why does that matter?”

download (1)It matters, she said, because libraries matter: physical, communal, shared spaces, one of the few public places left without commerce. They’re the memory of a culture or civilization. And, they’re not without vulnerability. As with the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 and on numerous other occasions in history, they can be burned.

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

41nBAtsStsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Dear Evelyn opens with a birth — of Harry Miles, who is half the couple featured in the book. I’d just read some wonderfully feisty comments by the late Margaret Laurence about birth scenes in novels, so was immediately positively predisposed to this novel by Kathy Page, which dared such a scene right out of the gate. (A male reviewer of Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, had wondered about “the obligatory birth scene in novels written by women,” which infuriated Laurence, though the good thing was, “that dolt” launched “a kind of self-liberation” for her in writing. Fine for men to write endlessly of violence or masturbation or sexual conquest, she said, but “not at all right, apparently, for a women to speak of the miraculous beginnings of human life.” After that, she never hesitated to write about birth, “from the viewpoint of the mother.”*)

And then, I happened to read Tess Hadley in a Guardian interview saying she wanted to write about long marriages (as apparently she does in her latest book, Late in the Day), because “they seem immensely interesting and they are kind of new in a way … people just live so much longer,” and I thought, well I certainly like to read about long marriages, being — at 44 years and counting — well on the way into a long marriage myself, and there I was, happily into Dear Evelyn too, which is exactly on the topic.

It’s not that Page’s novel needs these asides from Laurence or Hadley to bulk its worth, but I mention them by way of noting how often it’s the entire atmosphere of reading — current circumstances, personal life stage, other voices bumping alongside — that makes a particular book memorable. At any rate, with or without all that, Dear Evelyn is a fine and memorable book. Page skilfully unfolds the characters and experiences of Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill — from his birth to her death — in linked short stories. Each chapter/story treats of a specific episode or slice of their separate or joint lives, but the sum of them feels seamless, as if everything in between has been revealed to us as well.

Harry and Evelyn meet outside a library, and he is taken not only with her beauty but her strong sense of striving. “A girl like her would need him to be ambitious, more so than he had been so far. Even as he realized this, he committed to it.” We already know that poetry grabbed hold of Harry’s head and heart under the tutelage of his teacher Mr. Whitehorse, and at this early point it’s easy enough to assume that his “ear for verse” and nascent interest will grow and be fulfilled. But that’s the thing about life and marriage — they limit, even thwart. Which is why Harry and Evelyn as couple is a story of love but far from a happily-ever-after one. Their ambitions, so compatible at one level, compete drastically at another, not to mention the changing and powerful shaping circumstances of war (and the separation and temptations it imposed), children, and old age.

A week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about this fictional relationship. Does one admire, or pity? Can fault, realistically speaking, be laid? The 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury, which awarded Dear Evelyn the win, called the novel “tender and unsettling.” Yes. Both those words.

 

*Margaret Laurence, Dance on the Earth