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My own indebtedness list

By kerryclare
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Jared Bland's indebtedness got me thinking about the books and writers I've become indebted to.
Anne Of Green Gables
Why it's on the list ...
Anne Shirley was truly irresistible, and I'm indebted to her (and to her creator) for pushing me to want to read and write, be independent, imaginative, and to get into trouble when necessary. Also for establishing first thing in my reading career that great books were to be found in my own backyard.
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Unless

Unless

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Excerpt

Here’s

It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

In my new life -- the summer of the year 2000 -- I am attempting to “count my blessings.” Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well, tallish, thin, and losing his hair nicely. We live in a house with a paid-up mortgage, and our house is set in the prosperous rolling hills of Ontario, only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Two of our three daughters, Natalie, fifteen, and Christine, sixteen, live at home. They are intelligent and lively and attractive and loving, though they too have shared in the loss, as has Tom.

And I have my writing.

“You have your writing!” friends say. A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta. No one is crude enough to suggest that my sorrow will eventually become material for my writing, but probably they think it.

And it’s true. There is a curious and faintly distasteful comfort, at the age of forty-three, forty-four in September, in contemplating what I have managed to write and publish during those impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief. “My Writing”: this is a very small poultice to hold up against my damaged self, but better, I have been persuaded, than no comfort at all.

It’s June, the first year of the new century, and here’s what I’ve written so far in my life. I’m not including my old schoolgirl sonnets from the seventies -- Satin-slippered April, you glide through time / And lubricate spring days, de dum, de dum -- and my dozen or so fawning book reviews from the early eighties. I am posting this list not on the screen but on my consciousness, a far safer computer tool and easier to access:

1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981, one month before our daughter Norah was born, a home birth naturally; a midwife; you could almost hear the guitars plinking in the background, except we did not feast on the placenta as some of our friends were doing at the time. My French came from my Québécoise mother, and my acquaintance with Danielle from the University of Toronto, where she taught French civilization in my student days. She was a poor teacher, hesitant and in awe, I think, of the tanned, healthy students sitting in her classroom, taking notes worshipfully and stretching their small suburban notion of what the word civilization might mean. She was already a recognized writer of kinetic, tough-corded prose, both beguiling and dangerous. Her manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage.

I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about.

I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the “merely frangible,” and poetry’s attempt to “repair the gap between ought and naught” -- what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.

2. After that came “The Brightness of a Star,” a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It’s hard to believe that I qualified as “a young voice” in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie -- in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. “How did you find the time?” people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local “writers’ workshop” for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other’s company, and that led to:

3. “Icon,” a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names – not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the “austerity” of my short story -- which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art “embracing/repudiating art,” as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don’t. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters -- pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would “step” along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.

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Why it's on the list ...
I've read this book over and over and am indebted to it for how it's taught me to understand that , “doubleness clarifie[s] the world.” The world is so complex that two things can exist at once, and we are not so simple as us vs. them, men vs. the feminists. That instead of “versus”, we have words like unless, nevertheless, next, hence, so etc. Words not to set up binaries, but to connect ideas in an intricate fashion.
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The Robber Bride
Why it's on the list ...
While Atwood's Cat's Eye is a strong contender for The Great Toronto novel, I'm indebted to The Robber Bride for it's portrayal of downtown and student life. It made me want to live here.
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Bear With Me

Bear With Me

What They Don't Tell You About Pregnancy and New Motherhood
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Excerpt

Once I was showing, I suddenly noticed that pregnant women were everywhere: on the bus, in Swiss Chalet, at traffic court. Janis pointed out that they were always there, we just never gave a crap.
I recently had lunch with a woman who was coming out of her first trimester. She looked at me conspiratorially, “You know what they don’t tell you?”

“What?” I whispered back equally furtively over a stack of creamers that my eighteen­month-old had erected and was in the process of destroying.

“Pregnancy is so much fun!” she hooted. My son bellowed, “Okay!” and a creamer exploded in his mouth.

While I wholeheartedly agree that being pregnant is one of the most joy-filled, awe­inspiring things a body can do, “fun” wasn’t where I was at by week sixteen.

My lunchmate was aware of this and said, “You’re sort of my benchmark. Nothing in my first trimester was as bad as yours, so I figured I was doing okay.”

Glad I could help.

THE LIGHT
By week sixteen of my pregnancy, I had begun to chart days: barf (b), not barf (nb), partial barf (pb). I meticulously measured and recorded these details in a futile effort to weave order and control into the unpredictable tapestry that was my stomach.

Then, slowly, through a cluttered tunnel of charts and graphs, I realized that I was starting to see some light.

It began the day I took a ride on my bike to the corner store. While I had to lower the gears to “Grandma with a bad hip” levels, and I had to grunt and heave and sweat my way up my street (which was on a slight, but definite incline, something I was determined to complain to the city about) I made it to the store.

The only thing I can compare it to is when you have one of those long, ugly winter flus. You start to feel like you’ll never have energy again, and you regret that you didn’t really enjoy your life before. An endless wasteland of sick stretches before you. Until one day, you get a little pep back. Three days later, you forget what the flu was like.

Yet, I wanted to hold on to my experience of the first trimester. I was thrilled that I might get my personality back, but I didn’t want to forget the magnitude of the change that had occurred in and to me.

I needn’t have worried. The changes continued.

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Why it's on the list ...
I'm indebted to this book because it really did tell me everything I needed to know about pregnancy and new motherhood. If only I'd paid more attention...
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Kiss the Joy as it Flies
Why it's on the list ...
I'm indebted to Fitch's novel for the joy it gave me on the bleak winter day I spent reading it. Like a glimpse of spring in February, so funny, moving, and rich.
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Octopus and Other Poems, The
Excerpt

Right now, the Voyager shuttles 1 and 2 are pushing deeper into known space. They will, like so many great American home runs, go far beyond the fence, across the street and through a window. They will never be recovered.

In a laboratory in Pasadena, at tables cluttered with cold cups of coffee and dot-matrix printouts, men interpret what Voyager sees: the spotty volcanic surface of Io, the irregular shape of Amalthea.

Voyager carries greetings from Earth. Simple diagrams of how our genes spool. Of the body of a man. Of where we can be found, like the map in the mall: We Are Here (note how the third dot in line is given more emphasis, stationed slightly above the other eight).

Also presented are rows of numbers, the elements of us:

hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus

the modest recipe of our shared life.

I wish the world’s memories well. I have my own secrets—shoeboxes and albums full of scribblings, tokens from misplaced friends and lovers. Everything I keep is paper, already disintegrating.

But while I’m here I’ll think of you, imagine you with your newest love who looks so much like you.

The two of you get steamed up like clamshells— half-moon arcs on the seabed. When you are both concave you come together, disappear from view; when one is concave, one convex, you form a perfect circle.

*

It is amazing what thoughts we let slip in and out like mosquitoes through the window.

*

Along with the math of us, Voyager lugs gold-plated albums etched with our essences: photographs, sounds heard on earth—in nature and on highways and in the womb. Greetings in fifty-four languages, and enough music for some all-night cosmic dance-a-thon.

Our lives orbit discretely these days, seldom intersect.

Now we trade thoughts on paper— long distance chess, one move at a time.

You tell me you can’t condone the reckless hope of finding some other life out there. Can’t fathom the waste.

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Why it's on the list ...
I'm indebted to The Octopus... first because it's my favourite book of poetry. But also because I was driven to get in touch with Harper after reading it to tell her so, and in the years since, my life has been better for Jennica Harper's presence in it.
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Light Lifting
Why it's on the list ...
I'm indebted to Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting for the fantastic reading experience it brought, but also because it reminded me to be more open minded to reading male writers. That these gender lines we impose upon our fiction are so often artificial.
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The Antagonist
Why it's on the list ...
So very grateful to Lynn Coady's The Antagonist for letting me love love love a novel in a way that I haven't for a long time.
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