"Family is our vernacular.."

At an event in Toronto in April, the brilliant Junot Diaz said, "Family is our vernacular." He said a lot of other quotable things, too, but that phrase stuck with me. And now that summer is hurrying to bunch us up with warm days before it ends, reunions small and large are happening everywhere. August weekends started with an extended family get together chez moi, three generations. The next week, the extended family of close friends, some of whom spilled over to my house. Last week a wedding. Just before the season turns, another wedding.

While they can sometimes be an oasis, others a swamp, families are nevertheless where we learn to talk in the first place, and family becomes perhaps the most common subject of conversations for the rest of our lives. Where are you from? What did your parents do? How many siblings? Are you the oldest? The youngest?

Over potato salad and beer, bar-b-qued salmon at one place, pulled pork at the next, older siblings reveal secrets to and about one another. Views shift to encompass new knowledge. Are we the same people we used to be when we were teenagers? Of course not, and yet... Individual identity is subsumed by the group identity for a day, a weekend or more of dutiful or sincere hugs. At a certain age, everyone learns to skirt potentially explosive issues. Politics? No. Body art? No, at least not when the younger set is present, as they are more and more, some already parents themselves, of those little ones jumping on the trampoline, swinging from the rope swing, putting on a play in a shed near the beach, where the unreliability of the makeshift scenery produces a tantrum that drives less patient family members of the audience to the pebbly beach from where the view is of cloudless sky and blue water.

Despite best intentions, promises made, some kind of explosion is bound to occur, and not only just among the kids. A relationship broke at one event. At another, a man proposed to his longtime partner and they were spontaneously married a day later, since the family was already there, in one place, which seldom happens these days, except in summer, when the common language is indeed family, and the dialects are as different as there are family groups, though that observation gives the lie to at least the first part of what another great writer, Leo Tolstoy, said: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

You Don't Know Me

A New York Times article on the recent Germanwings crash described the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz as someone who had "identified as a flier" since at least the age of 14. In trying to make sense of the tragedy in the Alps, we look for clues about the motives of this man who took 149 people (who did not wish to die) on his final flight. That he had "identified as a flier" for half his life suggests how devastated he must have been to learn about medical conditions which would prevent him from fully inhabiting that identity.
Deer in the headlights, or headlights in the deer? 

The same day I read the Times story I read an article in the often interesting Aeon Magazine about the loss of identity in people with dementia. The difference between the people described in this article and the late Mr. Lubitz is that beyond a certain point people with dementia are not aware of what they have lost. There has to be a stage, though, as there was for the Alice character in Still Alice, when one recognizes that s/he is about to lose that which s/he has thought of as herself.  A bleak, lonely and unsettling moment, surely.

Yet we get these experiences in small doses all the time. Even something as mundane as the flu can inspire a comment like, "I haven't been feeling like myself all week." Serious illness wreaks deeper, more lasting changes. The formerly capable and energetic must accept a view of themselves as dependent, sick, handicapped. A hard bridge to cross. "I didn't used to be this way." Grief, too, provokes deep questions about identity. The death of a parent at any age means the definite end of childhood. I've heard fifty year olds say they feel like orphans after an aged parent dies. But most people move through this transition and consciously or unconsciously incorporate their experiences into a new sense of self, like another layer of paint. Nostalgically or not, they refer to a time when they were different, before I was sick or before so and so died, or when I was young. When I played professional sports. When I was a dancer, before my knees went. Personal identity is not static despite birth certificates on which are printed names we probably keep for a lifetime, and that we can't change where we were born or who are parents were. Of course if we really wanted to, we could change our names, even our genders.

Assuming the theories about the motives of the Germanwing co-pilot are valid, it must be that Lubitz could not see the potential of a new identity. If he couldn't be all he imagined himself to be, he didn't want to be at all. Nobody knew that about him. Sympathies to all those who loved the victims.

I'll read you my story, you tell me yours

The people who attended my first Travelling Book Café opened their lives to me and to each other.

My format for the afternoon was to introduce my new book, You Again, by describing what had inspired the trilogy that this novel completes; then read a bit, parts that demonstrated the themes I wanted people to pick up on, then invite my listeners to tell their own stories.

How incisive a discussion that invitation sparked. Some people I knew and some I didn't told tales of their search for identity, of waiting until  their 30's, or 40's before embracing whom they felt themselves to be; the importance of recognition or non-recognition from mothers. The talk wound around to sisters, especially those from different fathers; then single mothers and the ways they were stigmatized in the days when banks would not approve mortgages, when potential employers considered lone women with children risks instead of assets. How more than one parent had opened discussions of a daughter's future with the phrase "when you're safely married". The crowd ranged in age from late 20's to early 70's, so layers of history unfolded through the speakers.

One person told of growing up with an invalid mother who thought of her daughter as her emissary to the world. Another of how she has been looking for an image that truly reflects her since her mother rejected her when she was a child. The mother of two daughters from two different fathers talked about the sibling rivalry between her girls, how both had courted the favours of the only father who was in the picture. An actress who is caring for her dying father revealed that she cheers him up by imitating the Irish lilt of her late mother. "I have her down to a t-e-a!"

All this, and just outside the gallery where the event took place, in the Mall, a pre-Easter petting zoo attracted a different crowd: parents and kids, some sitting nicely with bunnies or guinea pigs on their laps; others standing outside the fence watching little pigs, and some fluffy headed breed of chicken, beautiful yellow ducklings, and newly hatched chicks snuffle and scratch and gaze back at the spectators with that trust unique to infants.

A few days later, it was not baby animals but the stopping and going of the #9 Broadway bus outside the window of the Heartwood Café that provided the rhythm and the potential to distract. Under the stamped tin ceiling, in the cozy front part of the café, I read the two sections I had read at the gallery, in which Annette and Elfie, (the middle and youngest of Shinny's daughters, who are nearing and midway through their 30's in You Again), contemplate their own identities and their place in the family. But I added a paragraph from the eldest daughter, Lawreen, in which she grieves for the lost identity her daughter's career as an actress had made possible:
            She swallows, works her mouth from side to side, rolls her lips together. But the tears come anyway, and since Ken is not home to ask her what’s wrong, she sits down and gives in. It’s just so stupid. She misses Mariah, her energy, her beauty; she misses the thrill of walking onto a movie set, or into a wrap party, of dressing up, of not pretending to be but actually being someone. The star’s mother, or the second-lead’s mother, or the girlfriend of the lead’s mother. Mariah has not actually needed a chaperone for years, but no one minded Lawreen tagging along. Everyone knew her, the crew, the producers, some of the regular Vancouver actors. She went from vigilant at first, to eventually relaxed, and could sip a cup of coffee and make small talk with anyone. It isn’t her life, it’s Mariah’s; she knows it’s time to back off. But she misses it. Oh how she misses it. What will she do with herself? Now her chest is tight and she’s struggling for air as if she has run a marathon. Could it be asthma?

This audience included two women who are both the middle sister of three girls, none of whom have children of their own. And a new thread unravelled from stories about how sisters remember childhood experiences as differently as if they had grown up in two different families. To conclude the evening, a writer friend, Ethel Whitty, read a section from her forthcoming novel, in which the bond between mother and daughter is expressed by the dress the mother sews for her daughter's first dance. The lyrical language itself testifies to their complicated love for one another.

The Travelling Book Café moves onto Toronto first weekend in May; Quebec in June. Have book, will travel.

The Travelling Book Café

The Travelling Book Café heads out for the first time this week, stopping in Gibsons (Windows on the Water, April 12) and Vancouver (Heartwood Café, April 15).

The challenge for authors required to do their own book promotion, which is most of us, is to find a way  to reach readers directly. But at this point in life, I can't pretend to be someone I'm not, and so I came up with the idea of meeting small groups, in neighbourhood cafés or independent bookstores, presenting the book, You Again, and then inviting people to relate to my novel's themes by telling their own stories. I don't know how this will work. One person I invited said she didn't think people would want to publicly reveal their thoughts about mother/daughter relationships; another invitee confessed that she might be too shy to speak in a crowd, even a small crowd. It could be a very small crowd, a handful of people. That would be fine, and if people would prefer to listen rather than talk, that's fine too. But I want to say how writing for me is a way of thinking about things. In fiction the thought process develops, usually unconsciously, through stories employing scenes that show, in this case, the complexity of the relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters and sisters.

Beyond that, I deal with identity. At the beginning, when I first conceived the character and her life for Shinny's Girls, I wondered, what do Shinny's daughters, each from a different father, have in common as sisters? Well of course they have Shinny, and the shared experience of growing up with a single mother, and all that implied in the 70s and 80s, including a judgemental society and, almost always, very low incomes. It was a different world, but we were further along than when my grandmother lived as a single mother, with all the shame I fear she may have felt in the early 1900's.

I hope people will engage with me in a dialogue about these things, and others that come up in the book, including the sub-plot concerning Shinny's grandson Mattie and his escape from a ring of identity thieves.

A wonderful cover from Stephen (p0ps) Harlow; free coffee from the excellent roasters, Strait Coffee; a free book draw... how can I miss?