Jul 29 2011

Following Dawn Rae Downton “Into the Void”

I first met Dawn Rae Downton over the phone 15 years ago during a board recruitment exercise for MediaWatch (now Media Action). Even though the position was voluntary, we had more than ten applicants for the Atlantic Representative and most of them looked pretty desirable on paper. But Dawn Rae’s obvious intelligence, impressive experience and sophisticated sense of humour clinched the deal.

Shortly after joining the board, her administrative, process and financial abilities propelled her into the treasurer’s chair, and it was my great pleasure to serve with her for the next half a dozen years. But my fandom reached unexpected heights with the publication of her two memoirs, Seldom and Diamond. (Who says crackerjack administrators can’t also be gifted artists?) I find her singular voice both entertaining and seductively hypnotic: she lulls you in with the cadence of beautifully wrought sentences and then arrests you with a surprising image or irreverent aside.

Both of these traits are evident in her contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands. Her title – “Facing the Void” – is a play on words that hints at her essay’s focus on an aspect of aging that can keep one up at night. But in Dawn Rae’s inimitable hands, the essay introduces readers to some precious characters and offers an around-the-world privy tour that ends up in Anne Murray’s back yard. 

If you live anywhere near Halifax, you can hear Dawn Rae read aloud from the piece on August 16th. At noon she’ll be featured in a Halifax Club literary luncheon along with sister contributors, playwright, poet and performer, Sheree Fitchnovelist Carol Bruneau (more about her soon),and me. For lunch tickets — a steal at $20 — contact Stephen Patrick Clare at novamedia@gmail.com.

That evening, we’ll all be reading at a special event in the theatre space at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, accessible through the Bedford Rd entrance. RSVP info@informedopinions.org

Books sold at both events will benefit Informed Opinions, a non-profit project working to encourage smart women to mouth off more often. Really.  

Jul 21 2011

Susan Musgrave dresses for royalty

Much was made of Kate Middleton‘s wardrobe during her recent visit to
Canada, and although I’m more of a royal tolerator than a fan, I do appreciate a nice tailored dress, so I spent more time examining the ubiquitous photographs than intended.

But I think there’s a lot more entertainment value to be derived from reading Susan Musgrave’s ruminations on dressing for royalty than perusing the pictures of the recent royal visit.

Her contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands is called “A Woman Over the Preschool Age” and it features a couple of scenes that made me snort (in a good way). Susan delivers unexpected hilarity in her description of the shopping expedition she makes in the company of her mother in an effort to replace her dated and decidedly quirky writing wardrobe with a dress appropriate for an audience with the queen. It’s vintage Musgrave: perceptive, vivid and funny.

Jul 13 2011

Betty Ford, Sharon Carstairs great examples of power of voice

I read the news about Betty Ford’s death at 93 the same day as I learned a good friend had developed breast cancer. A passing reference in the obituary provided unexpected comfort regarding my friend’s unfortunate diagnosis.

Ford – an enormously respected former first lady who triumphed over both cancer and addiction, while challenging taboos with her characteristic candidness – went on to live another three decades after her mastectomy.

I don’t know what the survival rate was in 1974 when she had her surgery, but I’m certain that the numbers have improved since. According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, women diagnosed today in this country have an 87% likelihood of living for at least five years. I take additional solace from having watched three close friends emerge resolutely healthy from their own battles with breast cancer in recent years. 

But I also think about some of the observations shared by Vancouver physician, Gabor Maté, who wrote about the implications of the mind-body connection in his 2004 best seller, When the Body Says No. Featuring scientific research and case studies alongside Maté’s own experiences in palliative care, the book devotes an entire chapter to the relationship of emotional stress to cancer. It’s been years since I read it and my copy now sits on the bookshelf of a friend, but I remember being struck by his message about the importance of acknowledging and voicing one’s feelings.

Sharon Carstairs using her inimitable voice last year (screen shot from CBC site)

In her moving contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands, former leader of the Manitoba Liberal party and current senator Sharon Carstairs writes explicitly about this. Indeed, her piece is called “Finding My Voice.” In it she recounts the abuse she experienced as a child from a trusted family friend, and how terrified she was of the potential consequences of speaking up and accusing him.

It was several years later – when my younger sister caught the eye of my abuser – that I found my voice and spoke out. I told the abuser that if he did not stop, I would tell. The abuse stopped. Unable to find my voice to protect myself, I found it to protect my sister. That act of speaking out was a pivotal moment in my life. I learned that I need not be silenced by my fears, I learned that by using my voice, I had the power to seek change.

…Which she’s been doing ever since, arguing passionately for constitutional, health care and criminal justice reform. 

Jun 28 2011

Lynn Miles pays tribute to Rumana Manzur in “Love Doesn’t Hurt”

I think of Lynn Miles every time I read about the perilous fate of Rumana Manzur, the UBC graduate student who was brutally attacked by her husband last week while visiting her home in Bangladesh.

Ever since book contributor Renate Mohr recruited Lynn to donate the lyrics to one or her songs (“Rust”, a beautiful tribute to the lines we all earn on our faces through living), Lynn’s poetry and music have been a regular and inspiring presence in my home. And in addition to contributing to the book itself, Lynn offered to recruit other songwriters to work with her on creating a companion CD. It never quite came together — in part, we suspect, because as punishing as the world is to women of a certain age, it’s even more punishing to female performing artists of a certain age.

But the Juno-award-winning Lynn’s participation in the launch of I Feel Great About My Hands at the NAC in Ottawa in April was a huge gift to all who attended, and it made the other writers and I feel deeply honoured to be on stage with such a master. You can see her in action on the abbreviated video of the event, or find other samples of her performances online.

And the reason I think of her now whenever I’m reminded of the continuing problem of partner perpetrated violence against women is because the most heartbreaking song on her most recent album, “Fall for Beauty.” The song is called “Love Doesn’t Hurt” and on her website, Lynn explains that she wrote it as an emotional plea for people in abusive relationships.

I wrote this song after watching Oprah do a show about domestic violence. She kept repeating “love doesn’t hurt”, and even though I’ve written plenty of songs about how emotionally painful love can be, I wanted to put this crucial idea right up there beside my other songs, for balance, and clarity.” says Miles. “I’ve been playing the song live and have been approached by several people who work at women’s shelters who tell me it’s a powerful song, and that they want to play it for their clients. There’s no better compliment than that.

I think the song should be played every time domestic violence makes the news — and those of us who care about the issue should call up our local radio station and request it in honour of the women involved — both those who survive, and those who don’t. Its resonant lyrics and haunting music play in your head hours after you’ve heard it in the most beautiful way — like the entire album.


Jun 25 2011

“At least I’m not married to him”

That’s what acclaimed British editor and author Diana Athill used to say to herself when she felt particularly tried, having to deal with the talented but sexist and egotistical VS Naipal. And recently, when the Trinidad-born writer dismissed both women generally, and Ms. Athill specifically, for penning “feminine tosh”, she said,

I can’t say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh … (Naipaul) has “always been a testy man and seems to have got testier in old age. I don’t think it is worth being taken seriously … It’s sad really because he’s a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?

Athill didn’t start writing her own books until she was in her 70s, and at 93, she continues to display the healthy sense of self that gave her the strength to work with Naipal and other (ahem) shrinking violets like Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler.

Her matter of fact equanimity reminds me of some of the attitudes expressed by a number of contributors to I Feel Great About My Hands, including Heather-jane Robertson, a formidable author in her own right. In her essay, “The Joys of Mostly Good Enough”, Heather-jane argues that advancing age is largely incompatible with common failings and neuroses, and that’s a good thing. In retirement, she notes,

Narcissists soon learn that while co-workers may once have tolerated a self-absorbed albeit productive or powerful colleague, the post-employment world doesn’t cut much slack for people who expect it to be all about them. Folks who at one time found dealing with you irritating but necessary can become folks who don’t have to bother dealing with you at all.

Jun 19 2011

Rejecting the widow label

Susannah Dalfen is the kind of woman you fall in love with the minute you meet her.

In her moving and provocative essay, "Living Beyond Loss", Susannah Cohen Dalfen challenges the definition imposed on her by circumstance.

Warm and funny, perceptive and smart, she’s been a wonderful and supportive presence in my life since I moved to Ottawa nine years ago.

Two years ago our paths crossed unexpectedly while on holiday in Israel. Susannah had suffered the tremendous loss of her dear husband Chuck earlier that year and spoke about the impact of that, not only on how she felt, but on how others treated her. I was moved and provoked by her observations and delighted when she agreed to record some of them to contribute to the book. Called “Living Beyond Loss”, Susannah’s essay appears in the Surviving section of the collection.

Last week my friend Amanda told me that her mother-in-law, who lost her own husband last year, called her to express  appreciation for the gift of I Feel Great About My Hands. But in trying to communicate the great resonance she experienced in reading both the book in general and Susannah’s essay in particular, Amanda’s mother-in-law became overcome with emotion and was unable to speak.

Eager to read the book that’s had such an impact on both her husband’s mother and her own, Amanda nevertheless confessed that neither women would lend her the copies she’d given them: they’ve both become too attached to their books. (An inveterate under-liner myself, I’m guessing they’ve maybe made margin notes that are too personal to share.)

Jun 13 2011

Older women disrobe… and run!


I admire the confidence that allows mature models to disrobe before a group of people…

So wrote Meri Collier in the email she sent accompanying some of her beautiful, loose, spontaneous drawings of older women, like this one: 


Mature bodies are particularly challenging because they’re usually hidden, not displayed publicly. The visual vocabulary is not so familiar. My challenge is to look, see and believe what is in front of me. I derive pleasure as I explore and learn.

She hadn’t intended her words for inclusion in the book, but I found her observations a compelling complement to the images themselves, three of which I’m delighted to feature in the collection. The drawings’ economic lines speak volumes, evoking many of the same insights and reflections that appear in other essays.

Today, Meri — pictured here reading from her observations at Ben McNally’s bookstore in Toronto — sent me another intriguing email, this one introducing me to Olga Kotelko.

A 91-year-old Saskatchewan track star, who began her athletic career at the age of 77, Olga has since earned more than 600 – that’s right, 600 – gold medals. She explains her success this way:

It takes discipline, but I train a lot, I like doing it, it’s good for my body. I enjoy the camaraderie on the field. I love competing. I love to win.

Olga is a walking, talking (running, jumping, throwing…) advertisement for the “use it or lose it” philosophy. And even if you have no desire to run track yourself, she’s an inspiration.


Jun 8 2011

Bloomingdale’s supports the girls

It’s 36 degrees centigrade outside but in the lingerie department at Bloomingdale’s, the temperature is very comfortable, and the “intimate apparel” (that’s what they call it here), even more so.

Galina, the friendly and authoritative woman staffing the fitting room has convincingly demonstrated that – like the women on Oprah referred to in Marlaina Gayle’s essay (tellingly called, “How Drooping Breasts Led Me to A Truck-driving Life of Adventure”), I, too, have been wearing the wrong bra size.

“Your selection is overwhelming,” I tell her. “Yes, she says, it is. But –” (and here she sizes me up in a glance and pronounces my size, in advance of confirming her accuracy with a tape measure), “we can help you.” And she does.

Half an hour later, she and her equally professional and supportive (pun intended) colleague Erica have equipped me with four new bras and (who knew) relevant insights into how best to wear, adjust and care for them. (It pains me to say this, but I can’t think of when I have ever, ever had remotely this good service in a department store in Canada.)

Is a career change next? (That’s the trajectory followed by Marlaina.) (And will I, too, start to adopt “the girls” terminology used by Galina as she coached mine into place, and cheered when they stood at attention?)

Finally, should I be approaching Bloomingdale’s to encourage them to stock copies of the book that has the potential to boost their sales just as Oprah’s episode no doubt did a few years ago?! (Ok, that may be wishful thinking…)

Jun 7 2011

Contemplating one’s imminent demise

The real prospect of one’s potentially imminent death has a way of focusing  the mind and not only making one grateful to be alive in the event that the grim reaper is ultimately avoided, but clear about what’s actually important.  In a recent issue of New York magazine, American broadcaster Chris Licht, who last year survived a mysterious brain hemorrhage, commented on the perspective this provided for a new risky job change. Even in the event of his subsequent firing, he said,

I’d still have two amazing kids, an amazing wife and my life, you know? I mean, I almost died. What could you possibly do to me?

Reading his comments reminded me of the insights on offer in Ann Cowan’s funny and thoughtful piece, “On Birthdays and Bibliotherapy.” A long time senior administrator at Simon Fraser University, Ann is one of the most literate and interesting conversationalists I know, and she has an uncommon capacity to link disparate bits of intelligence and observation together in ways that surprise and delight — even when the subject matter is mortality — her own and others.  

She writes about being forced by an uncommon form of cancer to plan her own “endgame” and confesses:

Bibliotherapy and retail therapy are my usual supports when faced with any life crisis—the former reminding me that whatever is happening to me has happened or been imagined before, the latter providing a distraction. I’ve already bought a condo, and my bank account is pouring down the drain of its expensive bathroom sinks—appropriately called vanities— and so the time for bibliotherapy is at hand.

Then she moves seamlessly — and entertainingly — back and forth between Wordsworth and Rob, a pop-up advertiser on the Internet who’s flogging an apparently fail-proof fat-burning strategy.  Funny and thoughtful in equal measure, the piece is vintage Ann.

(And it helps to explain why a woman ordinarily protective of her holiday time with her husband would be happy to share their yoga vacation with such great company!)

Jun 4 2011

Two close friends, one dry sense of humour

Federal election campaigns are hard on candidates, but they’re no picnic for political journalists, either. That’s why when I Feel Great About My Hands was officially launched at the National Arts Centre on April 19th, Ottawa-based senior reporter for the Toronto Star Susan Delacourt, who co-authored a piece for the book with Carleton journalism prof, Susan Harada, couldn’t make it. She was on the campaign trail, covering the election.

The two long-time friends, who share a dry sense of humour and finish each others’ sentences, claim not to recall who wrote which bits of their joint essay, called “Back to School.” But readers aren’t likely to care: the whole thing is very funny. When Susan Harada read a short excerpt from it at the NAC event, she repeatedly had to pause for laughter, from her very first line…

Let’s be candid. No one wants to be known as a “mature student”. When you’re in university or college the first time around, a “mature” person is someone who chooses to spend the weekend at the library and arrives each week at class with the textbook artfully highlighted in multi-coloured, neon hues…

And it gets better from there!