Understanding My Dog

I went to the International Women’s Writers Guild conference in Yale in the summer of 2012. When people asked me where I was from, and I said Canada, many of them responded, “Oh, then you must know Eunice Scarfe.” Of course that’s silly and they all looked a little embarrassed. But fairly soon I did meet her and attended her seminars.

Her face has an extraordinary plasticity which seems shaped and re-shaped by her profound creative enterprise. She leads by following just a beat behind what is happening — what is on offer — and in that way she accepts the offer. In her classes she moved out of the safe, established territory of what she had planned to say and responded, instead, to the happenstance, sensing what might be connected to something else because they arrived together.

I imagine that deciding to conduct herself this way reflects a deep (although not always unfaltering) sense of faith.

Here’s an example:

At the conference I was perplexed about something that had happened in a class. The instructor (Judy Adourian) suggested that being an expert is to do something twice. “So make a list of some things in which you’d like to become an expert.” On my list I wrote “understanding what my dog is thinking”. This seemed nuts. I don’t have a dog and, if I did, rationally I couldn’t imagine wanting to specialize in his thinking.

Dog

In the next seminar, being given by Eunice Sharpe, I raised my hand and explained this rather odd thing I’d come up with. Without missing a beat, Eunice said “Listen for what is missing in the story your family has told you.”

It’s really startling, the way deep insights are. I later wondered how she was able to be so insightful, saying this perfect and ambiguous thing to me. But of course it took a lifetime for her to be ready to say just what I needed to hear.

I have been thinking of her advice.

My irrational desire was a signpost directing me to recognize that there is something about the world in which I live which I don’t really understand. Of course, that’s true. But I mean something fundamental that ought to make sense and it doesn’t. As though there is a secret code to unlock meaning and I don’t have it. I want to learn it.

Eunice Scarfe’s idea was that this missing part can be located in my family’s story. The illogical notion that I should listen for what is missing (the quest requires listening and hearing, rather than seeing or guessing) — this notion isn’t as perplexing as it first seems.

In a culture whose narrative is still dominated by men, many voices are repressed. So too within the family. Who gets to tell the story of what happened? How is that story told? And what must be left out: in order to preserve the family’s notion of itself, in order to be faithful to the past, in order that no one rocks the boat. And it’s not only dark secrets which go unspoken. Joy can also be disallowed and silenced. And excitement. And creativity.

Sometimes a direction such as “listen for what is missing” simply results in paying more attention to everything. And paying more attention can lead to curious connections. For me this included reading a forgotten article about my great uncle, Jeff Home-Hay, which I guess I’ve had for about 30 years but had never read before. Jeff was a bush pilot in the prairies after World War II. One of the headings in the newspaper account of his death (from 1953) was “He could ‘take it'”, discussing his ability to fly long hours in a day (especially in search of hunters or trappers who had gone missing). The phrase had a booming resonance for me, as it was the guiding principle in my mother’s parenting. “You can take it,” she’d say — about almost anything, good or bad.

In my draft novel, Indulgence in the Afternoon, I am developing a character whose fatal flaw is that she always thinks she can take anything that’s dished out to her when she should, occasionally, say no.

Synchronicity, a term first coined by Carl Jung in the 1920s, groups events not by cause and effect, but by meaning.

There’s a “baby crying within the bricks” (Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture). To hear that cry, to utter words which are disallowed, is to create a different world.

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