The idea came up over lunch between two old friends. There was a need for a book that, eschewing sensationalism and simplistic answers, would examine the holes in the fabric of women’s talk of the last thirty or forty years. The contributors, a cross-section of women, would be asked to explore defining moments in their lives rarely aired in common discourse: truths they had never shared, subjects they hadn’t written about before or otherwise found a place for. What Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson wanted to hear about were the experiences that had brought unexpected pleasure or disappointment, that somehow had caught each woman unawares. The pieces, woven together, would be a tapestry of stories about what women experience but don’t talk about. The resulting book became an instant #1 bestseller.
“Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Carol Shields explained in an interview. Dropped Threads takes as its model the kind of informal discussions women have every day – over coffee, over lunch, over work, over the Internet – and pushes them further, sometimes even into painful territory. Subjects include work, menopause, childbirth, a husband’s terminal illness, the loss of a child, getting old, the substance of women’s friendships, the power of sexual feelings, the power of power, and that nagging question, “How do I look?” Some of the experiences are instantly recognizable; others are bound to provoke debate or inspire readers to examine their own lives more closely.
The book is a collection of short, engaging pieces by more than thirty women, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Many are mothers, some are grandmothers, and many are professionals, including journalists, professors, lawyers, musicians, a corporate events planner and a senator. Readers will find the personal revelations of some of their favourite authors here, such as Margaret Atwood, Bonnie Burnard, Sharon Butala, Joan Barfoot, Joan Clark and Katherine Govier. Other contributors include:
• Eleanor Wachtel, CBC radio host, talks about her early fears of speaking in public.
• June Callwood, journalist, social activist and a Companion of the Order of Canada, at the age of seventy-six is surprised at her failure to find answers to the imponderable dilemmas surrounding human life, and of her lack of connection to the “apparition” in the mirror.
• Isabel Huggan, short story writer, muses on what she considers the impossibility of mothers passing on knowledge to their daughters, and on her own feeling that “we are girls dressed up in ladies’ clothing, pretending.”
With writing that is reflective, often amusing, poignant, emotional and profound, Dropped Threads is the first book to tackle the lesser-discussed issues of middle age and is the first anthology the editors have compiled together.
About the authors
Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935 and moved to Canada, at the age of 22, after studying at the University of Exeter in England and the University of Ottawa. She was the author of over 20 books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a work of criticism on Susanna Moodie, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the American Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It was also a runner up for the Booker Prize, bringing her an international following. Larry's Party (also available from BTC Audiobooks) won England's Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. Carol Shields died in July 2003 in Victoria after a long struggle with cancer.
Excerpt: Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told (edited by Carol Shields & Marjorie Anderson)
The focus for this anthology floated out one day amid soup and salad at one of those gatherings where Carol and I take the emotional pulse of our worlds – or The World, it seems to us.
“The woman’s network let me down. Nothing I’ve ever heard or read prepared me for this!” This particular yelp resulted from the plummet of energy and purpose I experienced with menopause and quickly led us to wider, more lively musings on what else had caught us unprepared, where else we had experienced gaps between female experience and expression. We were surprised by the number of topics and by the ease with which they came to mind. The image of dropped threads from the fabric of women’s talk occurred to us and the familiar, satisfying assumption that women could talk about anything unravelled as we spoke.
We included other women in our speculations: friends, colleagues and family members took up the conversation with enthusiasm and immediate revelations as though, for some, the topic was one they had wanted to discuss for years. They identified gaps in their communal talk and named life-altering surprises in their individual lives. Most spoke of serious issues, of surprise bruisings or blessings, private moments of intense connection or bewilderment. Other women reported insights that bordered on the hilarious: one friend mentioned that her greatest surprise was “sagging earlobes” and another claimed it was “a husband who flosses his teeth in front of you and then expects passion in bed.”
The idea for an anthology of writings on the topic blossomed naturally. We had obviously tapped into a rich vein of stories that touched on defining moments in women’s lives. We invited a number of acquaintances and friends to write these stories, the ones they wanted and needed to tell, recognizing, of course, there would be private spaces that everyone needs to keep beyond the claim of words. We thought women writers would have interesting observations: what subjects hadn’t they written about that needed communal airing? We also asked women of other backgrounds, academics, ranchers, politicians, homemakers, journalists, lawyers, to identify the areas of surprise and silence in their lives.
The responses were immediate and the topics wide-ranging: everything from the joys of belly dancing to the shock of gender inequities in politics. There seemed to be a general embracing of the license implicit in our invitation, but also some reticence: more than one respondant commented on the courage it would take to write on personal issues that had long been beyond the limits of acceptable expression. A few women identified experiences which they could not write on because the pain was too new or the fear of judgment still too strong. What was particularly satisfying to us was that we were contacted by women who had heard of our venture and wanted their stories included. One of these surprise offerings is among the most powerful of the anthology.
The collection of thirty-four reflective pieces is the end result of those conversations and connections started back in the spring of 1999. Many of the voices will be familiar to readers; others will be new. Some are forthright and take the reader to the heart of intense experience. Others approach distinctly personal moments with caution and then veer away, as though the walls around the silences they’ve been keeping are impenetrable. What unites all these writings is the uncommon honesty, courage and acuity of emotion these women bring to their topics – and to us.
They tell us that once life slows down enough for reflection, women uncover truths several beats away from the expected and the promised: female friendships are often more central in our lives than those we have with men and children; what we are told can be as limiting as what is never spoken; and vanity, dominance and blasts of lust that break though marriage and age barriers can be good things. From those who document the private contours of grief and shame, we learn about survival instincts and minute-by-minute coping strategies that rise up and guide people to new spaces of accommodation. Other women point to the individual colourings of common human happenings: spiritual stirrings, aging and the discovery of fundamental gender inequities continue to catch women unprepared because these experiences can never be the same for any two people.
What the stories and the essays indicate about the variety and uniqueness in women’s lives is visually reinforced by the Vinarterta Lady sketch on the cover. This stylized woman speaks to the rich rhythms and shadings of our moods and approaches to life. As well, there is a mystery about this sketch that reminds us of the impossibility of capturing in any medium of expression all of what we are and what we experience. There are still blank spaces before us, and women are still asking, as one of our young contributors does, “What shall I tell my daughter?” When we scan through the topics that even this collection has skipped over – mother-daughter relationships, lesbian experiences, life without partners or children, to mention some, we realize that women’s conversational weaving will forever be a work in progress.
In the meantime we’re reminded not to forget the joys and potential growth from the uncharted. In the afterword Carol Shields writes a characteristically wise, gentle unfolding of the central theme as it relates to her personally. She tells of meeting the “surprises of self-discovery” with “gratitude” and then nudges the reader into embracing the unexpected: “Who isn’t renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses.”
Our wish is that this anthology will be liberating for readers. It offers a community of voices that are relevant to everyone, not just women, because the experiences recounted are ultimately those that give us our jagged human dimensions of joy and sorrow. We hope readers of all ages and backgrounds will be inspired by how the contributors answered the initial question we posed and will be drawn to examine their own crevices of surprise and silence.
I was twenty-one years old, and standing in line to receive my Bachelor of Arts diploma from Hanover College. Major in English, minor in history. It was June, and the temperature was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Under our black academic gowns my girlfriends and I wore, by previous agreement, nothing. Nothing at all. This was considered high daring in those days, 1957. The night before, seven or eight of us had gathered in the woods above the campus and conducted a ritual burning of our saddle shoes. We were utterly ignorant of what lay ahead of us, but imbued, for some reason, with a nose-thumbing rejection of the suffocating shell of convention that enclosed us.
And yet most of us were prepared to inhabit that safe place our parents had defined for us. We married the same summer we graduated, joined our lives with men no older than we were, and within a year we were buying houses, having babies and planting petunias. Hardly any of us thought of a career other than wife and mother. No one had suggested such a notion to us.
The 1957 graduation address was given by a very popular math professor at the college. He began his talk by telling us that we would remember nothing of what he would say that hot June morning. This was true; I sat dreaming of my wedding, which was just six weeks away, and of the apartment where I would live with my new husband. The charm of domesticity, its sweetness and self-containment, pulled at all my passions. But suddenly he broke through my daydreams. "I ask you to remember only two things," he said. "Remember the date, 1957, and remember the words tempus fugit."
I had studied Latin, but even if I hadn't I would have known what that phrase meant: time flies. Our convocation speaker was reminding us that our lives would speed by before we had grasped them. It was our responsibility to seize each moment and fill it with accomplishment. Otherwise our life would be wasted, worn away with the turning years, and we would grow old and disappointed in what we had made of it.
The phrase haunted me in the ensuing years. I was occupied with babies and with the hard physical work that babies involve. We moved several times and so there were always new domestic arrangements to carve out. Cleaning, cooking, coping, running errands - my days were filled with such minutiae. It was in the calmer, cooler evenings that the phrase tempus fugit would return to me, beating at the back of my brain and reminding me that time was rushing by. I was spooked, frightened by what this meant.
And then, quite suddenly, I realized it meant nothing. Tempus did not fugit. In a long and healthy life, which is what most of us have, there is plenty of time. There is time to sit on a houseboat for a month reading novels. There is time to learn another language. There is travel time and there is stay-at-home time. Shallow time and fallow time. There is time in which we are politically involved and other times when we are wilfully unengaged. We will have good years and bad years, and there will be time for both. Every moment will not be filled with accomplishment; we would explode if we tied ourselves to such a regimen. Time was not our enemy if we kept it on a loose string, allowing for rest, emptiness, reassessment, art and love. This was not a mountain we were climbing; it was closer to being a novel with a series of chapters.
My mother-of-small-children chapter seemed to go on forever, but, in fact, it didn't. It was a mere twelve years, over in a flash. Suddenly I was at a place where I had a little more time to reflect. I could think, for instance, about writing a real novel, and I did. And then another novel, and then another. I had a desk in this new chapter of my life, a typewriter and a pile of paper that belonged just to me. For the first time I needed a file cabinet and a wrist watch, something I'd done without for a decade. I remember I spent the whole of an October afternoon working on a single sentence; I was not by nature a patient person, but for this kind of work and at this time in my life, I was able to be endlessly, foolishly, patient.
In 1985 I looked up from my desk and realized that the children had gone, all five of them. The house was quieter now. The days were mine to arrange any way I wished. I wrote a novel in which, for the first time, there were no children. It was a different kind of novel than I'd written before, with a more inventive structure. The publisher was worried about this innovation, but I was insistent. The insistence was something new, and it coloured the chapter I was living in, my early-middle-age chapter. The woman I saw in the mirror looked like someone else, but I knew it was really me, relocated in time and breathing another grade of oxygen. I was given an office and a key to that office. I loaded it down with plants and pictures, a soft lamp, a carpet. It felt like a tiny apartment, offering solitude and giving a new permission, another space in which to live my ever-altering life.
Friendship took time, but luckily I had time as I entered yet another phase. My women friends provided support, amusement, ideas, pleasure, wisdom. The two-hour lunch was a luxury I could afford during this period; moreover, it was a kind of necessary music. The more words we tossed into the air the closer we felt to the tune of our own lives. We talked about what we knew and what we didn't know. Our conversations were punctuated with the joyous discovery of commonalities, the recognition that the narratives of our lives bumped along differently, but with the same change rhythms.
But one day, over a long lunch with my friend Marjorie Anderson, we spoke for the first time of all that went unspoken, even in an age of intense and open communication. There were the things our mothers hadn't voiced, the subjects our teachers had neglected, the false prophetic warnings (tempus fugit, for example) we had been given and the fatal silence surrounding particular areas of anxiety or happiness. Why weren't we told? Why weren't we warned? What contributed to the reticence between generations, between one woman and another?
We decided to ask some of our women friends to talk about the skipped discourses in their lives and how they had managed, at last, to cope with the surprise of self-discovery, stumbling on that which had been missing: an insight, a truth, an admission, a dark hole. The proposals poured in. This was an exciting time; Marjorie and I were exhilarated by the ideas that were suggested, and astonished that so few overlapped. The areas where woman had been surprised by lack of knowledge ranged from childbirth to working with men, to illness, loss, friendship and secrecy, to the power of sexual feelings, the frustrations of inherited responsibility and the recurrent patterns that haunt us.
The finished essays, which arrived like dispatches from the frontier, described these varied experiences and reported on how they were confronted or accepted. Each voice was separate, and yet each connected subtly with others, as though informed by an underground stream. The essays expressed perplexity at life's offerings: injury and outrage that could not be voiced (Woman, hold thy tongue), expectations that could not be met, fulfillment arriving in unexpected places, the need for roughness, the beginning of understanding, the beginning of being able to say what had once been unsayable. Or, in my case, the apprehension of a structure that gave fluidity and ease to a long life, the gradually (or suddenly) shifting scenes, each furnished with its own noise and movement, its particular rewards and postures.
We move through our chapters mostly with gratitude. Who isn't renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses. I thought for a while that a serious illness had interrupted my chaptered life, but no, it is a chapter on its own. Living with illness requires new balancing skills. It changes everything, and I need to listen to it, attend to it and bring to it a stern new sense of housekeeping.
But I have time for this last exercise. All the time in the world.
“There are exciting and truly intimate entries in this book…these women take ideas even secret ones, and infuse them with poetry, scoured and buffed sentences and …stopwatch comic timing…The true depth of the collection is found in these women’s clear memories and their willingness to share.” -- Quill & Quire
“It’s a collection of revealing essays and short stories by 35 Canadian women at mid-life and beyond, reflecting on the life events that caught them off guard and, somehow, haven’t been talked about…As it turns out, there are many dropped threads in our lives. Weave them together and you’ve got a tapestry.” -- Bonnie Schiedel, Chatelaine, April 2001
“Dropped Threads … is a collection of 34 pieces by Canadian women in which they describe…everything they never said or were not able to say before, but which had tremendous power in their lives…[Senator Sharon Carstairs’s] essay about women in politics [is] clear-eyed and devastating …Miriam Toews examines her father’s lifelong battle with depression, which culminated in his suicide … with gentleness and insight … These are all the conversations we would wish to have with friends and these essays stimulate the sense of exuberance and relief that one always feels after a long, self-revelatory talk.” -- Virginia Beaton, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 25 Feb 2001
“Dropped Threads is a much-awaited anthology of essays and stories by Canadian women, including celebrated writers as well as women who are neither writers nor famous … The angst of the women in Dropped Threads covers a wide spectrum.” -- Paul Gessell, Ottawa Citizen, 20 Jan 2001
“if the value of books were measured by the insights stored within their pages, Dropped Threads would be priceless…[This] is a wonderfully well-written and excellently edited book that offers such intimate insights that it sometimes seems like a stream of consciousness. The compositions frequently make the reader feel like an eavesdropper -- and an extremely entertained one at that…The stories in Dropped Threads cathartically tie up loose ends for their writers, while providing readers with an exquisitely crafted patchwork quilt of life experiences.” -- Winnipeg Free Press
On Lily Redmond’s Mrs. Jones, writing about abortion:
“One of the most powerful essays... . So many of us can talk with ease about the theory – our unwavering support for a woman's right to choose – but no woman ever wants to make that tragic choice or even admit to having once made it.” -- Pamela Wallin,@globebooks.com
On Joan Barfoot’s Starch, Salt, Wine, Chocolate:
“Barfoot is always interesting and her take on female friendship is clever and well observed. Loyalty, Barfoot feels, is the most important gift of friendship, although spinoffs abound.” -- Nancy Schiefer, The London Free Press
Other titles by Carol Shields
The Collected Poetry of Carol Shields
Startle and Illuminate
Carol Shields on Writing
Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush
Le Carnaval du quotidien
Life in the Clearings versus the Bush
The Stone Diaries
The Collected Stories of Carol Shields
Dropped Threads 2
More of What We Aren't Told