“Are you writing?”

I am frequently asked, “Are you writing?” or a variation of, “What are you writing these days?” The answer is that I haven’t been doing much new writing the past year, except for one essay about Helmut’s death. I have had, however, two projects to focus on, which have given me a sense of schedule and purpose throughout the year, in the gathering, editing, and proofreading functions of writing.

One of these is Return Stroke: essays & memoir, to be published by CMU Press and released in early June. I’m still shaking my head at the surprise of this all. Sue Sorensen, my CMU Press editor for This Hidden Thing (2010), had returned as head of the Press and since we’ve kept in touch, I tossed her an inquiry about a book of nonfiction. Back in 2015 I got a Manitoba Arts Council grant to draft a memoir about our two-and-half years in Paraguay, the most interesting place I’ve lived. I did it, as proposed and promised, but nothing further happened with it. Now I wondered about revising and reducing it, then combining it with some previously published essays as well as other pieces in my files, including the new one on Helmut’s death. Before I quite grasped what was happening, I had a manuscript to her and it was accepted! I’m rather glad, actually, that it unfolded somewhat impulsively, because a book centred in my life feels decidedly more vulnerable than fiction.

I’ll let the Press talk about the book, below. Pre-order information is here. It will also be available through McNally Robinson Booksellers, where I’ll do a Winnipeg launch June 2. I have a local (Delta) event planned for June 9, and one in Abbotsford, date TBA. Thank you for sharing my gratitude–and wee bit of nervousness–about this new book.968A4166-49E0-4164-8018-07571BB46EAD_1_201_a

This is the CMU Press description of the book:

These graceful, probing personal essays by award-winning fiction writer Dora Dueck engage with a diverse range of ideas (becoming a writer, motherhood, mortality, the ethics of biography, a child’s coming-out) because in non-fiction, she writes, “the quest for meaning bows to the experience as it was.” Yet within Return Stroke, one theme in particular does resonate—change. “How wonderful,” the author writes, that our “bits of existence, no matter how ordinary, are available for further consideration—seeing patterns, facing into inevitable death, enjoying the playful circularity of then and now.”

The book’s title, Return Strokethe title of one essay, where it literally refers to lightning—suggests such a dynamic: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.” The topic of memory, in all its malleability, impermanence, and surprising power, is especially central to the collection’s concluding piece, an absorbing memoir of the author’s 1980s life in the Paraguayan Chaco. Whether she is discovering the more meaningful part that imagination holds within her religious faith or relating with astonishing clarity and honesty the experience of giving birth away from her home country, Dora Dueck’s beautifully written essays and memoir make her an insightful and generous companion.

Time passes

The other day I was invited to a friend’s house for coffee, and yesterday I had a friend over at my place, and somehow it all felt familiar — the way it should be — and yet oddly strange. Are we really emerging from the lockdown mentality of the past two years? I’m triple vaxxed and still pop on a mask in a store and will definitely wear a mask on Transit, and yet, eating and visiting with folks outside my bubble, well it’s wonderful, isn’t it! I’m particularly pleased to have visitors because some months ago I got a new sofa and chair and now I also got a new coffee table and end tables. And would you believe, I even assembled the tables myself? Everything in that department was always Helmut’s job. I could have asked my son to help but I thought, he’s plenty busy so I’ll give it a try first at least, and soon I was turning the Allen wrench like an old pro and nothing’s fallen down yet.

I was startled today when I opened “Borrowing Bones” and saw it’s been more than four months since I’ve written here. Since then I have a darling new grandson and Christmas happened and in January, my mother died (today would be her 100th birthday, in fact, and my siblings and I are going to Zoom together later to commemorate), and not long after that, two of Helmut’s older siblings in Paraguay died. The livestream of his brother’s funeral was at four o’clock in the morning my time, so I woke and watched it, but when it was done I fell asleep again and I had the most wonderful dream in which Helmut and his brother were talking happily behind a kind of screen or gauzy material, and then Helmut stepped through it and gave me a very tight hug. In February, I spent the first anniversary of his death with the Toronto kids and we had a family Zoom on that day while eating DQ blizzards, which was a favourite treat of his.

So all these things have come and gone, and now it’s March and spring and locally the blossoms are out. I suppose the theme of this little post is simply “time passes and there’s much to be grateful about.” (Though we’re riveted and saddened by events in Ukraine, birthplace of both my parents.) I have some book news to tell you about too, but I’ll save that for a subsequent post. I’ve decided I must try to be a little more regular here. See you again soon!

Charlie Pride at midnight

I keep telling myself I don’t want to write about grief, but then I show up to my semi-regular blog writing and it wants out again. Grief expert Alan Wolfert says grief is the interior experience and mourning expresses it outside yourself. And mourning is essential, he says, because one heals through mourning. (My friend Ruth Bergen Braun alerted me to Wolfert’s work; see “The six needs of mourning”.) So here I am, expressing.  

I’ve been reading Emily Carr’s journal, Hundreds and Thousands. I had not known that, besides her wonderful painting, she was such a good writer. Describing her dead sister Lizzie “radiant” in her coffin, all her “frets and worries” gone, she writes “I always want to remember Lizzie’s coffin face. It was so completely satisfied.” Seeing the dead person may be traumatic in many circumstances of death but my experience of Helmut’s body was similar to Carr’s of Lizzie’s, for in spite of the awful sad silence of him no longer breathing I was struck by the beautiful ease of his face. He looked good. I’d always thought him handsome, but what I mean is, his face was settled — utterly settled. There was nothing intentional or effortful there, just rest. This wasn’t entirely new for his face, for he’d won resolve and patience in his suffering, but now it was a step beyond; perfected.

So I was thinking about that, remembering, and later, when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep because I was imagining him slipping away from himself with his last exhale, but I couldn’t see him running or leaping or dancing, the way people often imagine their ill loved one’s release. He was never runner, leaper, dancer. What it would have to be was the sensation of wind, freedom on the open road. What he felt on his motorcycle. A motorcycle ride was like prayer for him: restoration in almost every kind of way. And if his drive took him northwards or through Birds Hill Park and he happened to see a deer, that was a God-sighting as bonus. D4EBDA4D-42F0-4903-A444-A202CBD15A03

Yes, that I could imagine. Or flight. He’d taken a test flight once and would have liked to learn to fly. Air and speed or lift. Not the mechanics of these objects in their metal and leather for his soul, but the particular ecstasy of movement they imply.

Or like hitting the road in his El Camino. Which made me think of our honeymoon, a road trip from Manitoba to Ontario and back again, all those hours in that two-seater brown El Camino when we listened, many times, to his tapes, chiefly Kenny Rogers and Charlie Pride. Music in my family of origin consisted of two kinds of music — classical and church music like hymns, fireside choruses, cantatas, oratorios, and the like — to which I added radio pop, but he liked country, and that’s what we listened to that week, and the sway and croon of it seemed just right for miles and miles to go and for a honeymoon.

So I was thinking all this and wasn’t falling asleep. Suddenly I wanted to hear Charley Pride once again. I knew there was a CD of his hits in the other room, which hadn’t been listened to for ages, and I figured maybe I would listen the next day, for nostalgia’s sake. But no, I needed it now and I argued with myself because I glanced at the bedside clock and saw it was midnight. But who would it bother, I was the only one in the apartment, and besides, I would keep it midnight low, so my wanting won out and I got up and put the CD in my little boom box, next to my pillow, and I listened through all 20 songs. They sounded a bit thin in that little thing, and began, the sleepier I got, to sound more or less the same, but for that hour or whatever it was, I lived in the longing and heartbreak of that music, and in the memory of being on the road a long while ago, together.