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So you think you want to go to Brazil, lassie?

Recently I went on a month long vacation to Salvador, Brazil. What happened was not at all what I had expected. In the next five Catches I’ll describe some of the things which we encountered on our trip. First, the question of water.

Digging for water

Digging for water

After travelling for about 24 hours from Vancouver, my friend and I get to Salvador, on the northeast coast of Brazil. We’ve rented a lovely casa in a working class neighbourhood; however, when we arrive, we discover that the house has no water. Well, maybe a dribble. No casa is that lovely without water.
Because my friend, T., spent twenty-five years running a charitable organization in Salvador, she not only speaks Portuguese, but she knows a lot of people who can help. They arrive.
The possibilities canvassed as to the cause of the water problem are: the landlord hasn’t paid his bill; he doesn’t have water tanks on the roof; he’s illegally hooked into the city’s water supply and so doesn’t have enough water to get to the tanks on the roof, if there are tanks on the roof; the pipes are blocked/corroded/have air pockets…
So we decide to call the landlord, who lives in New York. The difficulty is that the phone doesn’t work. We call him on my ipad using Skype. He doesn’t have a clue what could be wrong.
As a result of the call, more people go off in all directions.
It’s very hot and I’m grimy from the trip. I stand under the shower as water drips from the faucet. I might as well be standing under a broken eavestrough after a rainstorm.
We set about finding a new place to live. T. can’t read Portuguese as well as she can speak it, so we don’t quite know what the internet ads say. We look at the pictures. T.’s friend, nicknamed Trouper, helps with the responses, but his eyes are weak and he can’t see what he’s typing. So he writes out the message to put on these websites, and I type it in; but I can’t read his handwriting.
This becomes the template for handling all our subsequent problems in Brazil.
As we are looking for a new place, workers arrive to do something about the water; someone comes to fix the phone. And I discover I’ve forgotten half my power cord for my computer. With a traveler’s early ignorance and confidence, I’m certain we can find a replacement cord.
Trouper falls in with my plan. Although we don’t speak the same language, we set out in his car. Along the main highway into town there are malls. We go from one to another, looking for Apple products and the power cord. The malls glisten with high end stores, oh so many pairs of shoes, and purses. Such incongruity with our neighbourhood. In one of the streets where we are staying, what looks like a speed bump on the road ahead is actually the pile up of garbage. The beaches have been fouled. The poverty is gagging. And we are currently in a mall choked with toys for the rich. Something is deeply wrong here.
Travelling in maniacal traffic, heading for yet another mall, I put the orphan half of my computer cord around my neck, so Trouper will understand I’m going to hang myself unless we stop this search, and go back to our desert casa. Which we do.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, which is Sunday, the house is crawling with men, each of whom is carrying a tool box. I say to T., “This looks promising.”
She says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Digging for water at night

Digging for water at night

They climb on the roof. They take off the roof tiles. They take apart the taps. They decide there’s air in the pipes. They use a bicycle pump to pump out the lines. This seems to be what T. described as jeito: the good-willed energy and ability to repair stranded cars with two wires and a pocket knife, or, in this instance, climb onto a high roof with neither rope nor ladder. To my surprise, the bike pump clears the air in the lines, but it doesn’t much help.
The only way I manage to cope with the frustrations which beset us is to think: actually, I’m in India. I was there once, and I quickly learned that you cannot control any situation, or exert your will, in India; one must surrender. So eventually I do. I smile a lopsided smile as my laptop dies.
One thing about being in India is that, after a while, events take on an absorbing teeter-totter quality. Whenever anyone says “good news!” I adopt T.’s mantra: “maybe yes, maybe no.”
Sharing a computer, even with a very dear friend, is tricky business, especially if neither of you has had shower. T. is generous; I am nervous.
And even though I thought I’d been paying attention, I don’t quite know how a decision was made (note the passive voice) that the real problem (not corroded pipes or an unpaid water bill) the real problem is that the water pipe belonging to the house is too small. So on Monday we have to hurry back from the beach because more, and different, men are coming. Using picks and shovels, they are going to dig up the street. Without getting permission from anyone.
The road in front of our house is wide enough for one parked car and one moving car; the position of the hole is almost half way across. In other words, it’s smack in the centre of traffic. After five hours, the diggers quit work to come back the next day. And the next. Eventually we learn they can’t actually find where the pipe emerges from under the sidewalk to connect to the city’s water line. There are as many holes in the road as days which had passed: four.
We’re not able to find another place to rent. We’re staying. Trouper holds the garden hose as we “bathe” outside, in the walled-in front of the house.
While we’re in the market today, we get a phone message that they found the water connection. “What good news,” we say. Maybe yes, maybe no. When we get home it’s maybe no. After replacing the connection, we have only slightly more than a dribble of water into the house.
But gradually — no doubt because I have become Mother Theresa — I feel lighter.
I’ll close now, wishing you well, from Salvador, India.

Light from a Bic

Comet-ISONA comet sits at the edge of our solar system, left out of the creation of planets. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years.

So loosely is it committed to its dark nothingness, it barely moves.
It doesn’t even know it’s going around the sun.

Then something perturbs it, maybe the gravity of a passing star. And the comet starts to fall.

Just a rock — I’ve stubbed my toe on one — it has bent the propeller on my boat — a rock, a billion miles away, this thing which began almost with time itself, is falling into the sun.

Time, measured by waking and sleeping, light and dark, tracks the comet’s descent from morn to noon, from noon until evening, its day a hundred years.*

What once flung it away now urges it back in. It is pulled by the sun.

The comet emerges from the dark.

We’ve never seen this part of the solar system before.

Disturbed from its vast sleep, the comet is on the move. It becomes a growing source of light.

The mile long rock sweeps back a tail which grows until it is a million miles long. From less than a plod, it’s now traveling 50,000 miles an hour.

I lose sentience, trying to keep in mind all these fabulous facts.

What can help me understand any of these numbers, help me count them out when once, using my ten fingers, I understood how old I was? I was five, then six, as my age danced on my hand. At eleven there was some kind of abyss.

How can my fingers help me now?

Once we blasted a hole in its side, to find out its composition, to learn more about the formation of our solar system. A crater answered with a shower of rubies.

And maybe there were also emeralds and sapphires.

This solid, inert, annoyingly rocky thing, with no brain or heart or any way of caring — despite my projections — this thing, which sat in darkness, comes closer, begins to feel the heat of the sun from millions of miles away.

I’m on my deck. Above me, the clouds shift to reveal the sun. I feel a little warmer.

IMG_0726We kitchenize these ideas which blow beyond the range of our minds. On November 11, 2014, a spacecraft, the size of a car, dropped a probe, the size of a fridge, onto comet 67P. Although its landing sounded like something falling out of a cupboard, it was as chancy as a bullet hitting a bullet.**

Some say the comet is like a hill going 50 times the speed of shot from a rifle. Its surface starts to sizzle and crack; it’s losing mass; it’s shrinking. Its orbit changes. It tumbles. Maybe it will be a sungrazer, compelled to hurl itself into the central fire and boil away.

Or maybe not.

Instead, it flings itself around the sun; it’s on its way back, gradually quieter, a ball of ice and dust, its geography rearranged, becoming, again, what it once was.

Perhaps it’s my intractable habit of seeing myself everywhere, even in a comet, but the solid science of its story connects me to it even more. We are all bound in birth to the instant when nothing became something, and the universe began.

Will we be able to remember all these numerical thoughts as we slowly wither from our atmosphere having no substance, being strafed and shredded until it’s as thin as cotton candy? Still, you have to admire us a little, as we hurtle into the sun. Maybe we can save ourselves even yet.

A friend, as though in another orbit, disturbs my dark and lonely space. I start to move. We are in one another’s arms.

And still, I long for the hubris of an earlier day, when we believed that although we could not make our sun stand still, we would make him run.***

Now I begin to know too much about comets. Too much to even say the sun is ours.

I suddenly see myself as a flicker of light, not even from a candle, but a flicker from a Bic lighter, and that’s all. And you, the same. Still, I see you for an instant. Let it be enough.


* This is an intentional chiming with Paradise Lost when the dark angel is thrown from heaven and drops like a falling star.
** A comment made by one of my Tuesday night “understanding the universe” friends.
*** This is taken from Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

You Baffle Me

Freud's Couch

Freud’s Couch

After working on my latest novel Indulgence in the Afternoon for over two years, and finally finishing it, I was more than a little surprised at the niggling feeling that the ending wasn’t right. As though I’d been invited to a farewell party, sent my regrets, hope all goes well. And I slipped out the back way.

It must happen in lots of professions, but certainly as a novelist I have this work in my mind — even when I’ve committed it to paper — and it roams around with me wherever I go. Often it isn’t quiet. The characters are chattering away; new ideas rear up like wild horses. I’d done their bidding, and yet —

I let it rest for a week or so, worked on something else, and then I re-read the last chapter. I had the sense, perhaps even more strongly, that I’d skipped town before the end.

I had taken my character, Lucinda Yates, through all sorts of misadventures. (As she says, she’s lucky in parking but not in love.) I took her down to the depths where she finally understands the cause of her romantic obsessions; she’s been transformed. The problem was, I didn’t believe it.

After 103,899 words, I was pretty sure she hadn’t found redemption. But I didn’t know what to do, what was missing, or how I was going to get her, triumphant, across the finish line. Certainly, the answer wasn’t to have her fall in love again for another thirty pages. She had to get off that merry-go-round.

Lucinda Yates was a creature of my imagination, but it seemed I didn’t understand her. Even to me that sounds goofy, maybe even pretentious. But what other explanation could there be? As though a god peers down at us and says “you baffle me.” I suppose that’s possible.

The only solution I could come up with was to take her to a shrink.

I had seen a therapist a number of years earlier, and she’d been very helpful; she was smart, well read, attentive. And because her specialty was neuropsychology, she was also practical; she wouldn’t be waylaid by Lucinda’s psychobabble or obfuscations.

The Mind has Mountains

The Mind has Mountains

As I explained the problem to her, the therapist expressed her willingness to help.

I arrived at her office.

“So you’re here as Lucinda’s creator, are you? And you don’t completely know what makes her tick?”
“That’s right.”
“Well, you’d better introduce us.”
“You mean we’ll do some psychodrama?”
“No. Just tell me what happens to her in her life.”
“Is this like anything you’ve done before?”
“Uh huh.”

In fifty minutes I told her Lucinda’s story, right to the end when — when the resolution was there but it was, well, phoney.

In the next session, we started in earnest.

“Lucinda is an actress. Each night, just before she goes on stage, it’s as if she blanks out. She can’t remember her lines. Hell, she can’t remember the name of the play. And then, miracle, the curtain rises, she’s launched. ‘Running and tripping and getting up and running until the thermal airstreams caught her and lifted her above the fear. She never thought it could, before it did. Once it did, she knew it always would. She could fly.’”

“That’s fine. But it stops working for her.” The therapist wasn’t beguiled.
“She has to describe — actually, for the first time she has to experience what’s inside that blank space.”
“She manages to re-imagine what happened, which was a tragedy she thought she had caused when she was young.”
“Had she caused it?”
“As an adult, she’s still like a child, believing she’s responsible. It makes sense, on some level.”
“I don’t think so.”

We talked more. Finally, the therapist said, “Lucinda would rather believe that she knowingly caused this tragedy, with its attendant shame and humiliation and blame — she would rather hold on to that child’s idea than face a pitiless world which has no cause and effect, which aimlessly batters her heart and gets no benefit from the bashing, nothing at all, it just does it.”

I was thunderstruck. The consequence for Lucinda, as an adult, is that she keeps getting involved with people who don’t really love her, who are even somewhat cruel to her. She allows it because at least she can experience causation, and with it a damaged sense of meaning.

All of this is shorthand. And it took an entire novel — and a therapist — to get my character to this realization. But it’s the right one. However, no matter how entrancing, I couldn’t end the book with a therapy session. I spent most of two weeks weaving these insights into the fiction of the novel. It was quite exhilarating.

Our desire to live in a purposive, meaningful world — and not be bashed about, arbitrarily, by capricious forces — is vast.

Although mine is more modest, this thought seems related to what Viktor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning. Even in the worst, most hopeless situations, a certain response takes hold in us: a sense that soon, all will be well. He called it the “delusion of reprieve.”

Even if delusional, it’s noble to have such hope, no matter how we come by it.

There are many ways to skin a novel. Most often with your own skin. And sometimes by taking your protagonist to the shrink.


Finding Mr. Universe – A Gentle Ride in Chaos

I was caught — pulled into an orbit, is the better phrase — by the discovery of the Higgs Boson in July, 2012. I’ve written about that in previous Catches [“The Courage to Imagine”]. I was entranced by the language the scientists used in struggling to describe, to the rest of us, what this was all about.

And now, a year and a half later, I’d been flung off-orbit by a Fiery Neptune, slung into outer space. These are their words, not mine — I wish they were mine — they are the metaphors of the poet-scientists, who talk about slinging stars and say “It’s not that we have moved here, into our galaxy. We grew up here. We belong. We can survive.” And, “The tension is there throughout, between expansion and collapse. It’s always present.”


Saturn’s view of our earth. The earth is the little headlight on the left under the rings.

I wanted to know more. But it was deeper than that. I didn’t want my excitement to go dead under the enormous pile-up of questions I had. I wanted to wrangle with this strange place that is our home. It was as if I suddenly knew nothing about my family or my origins. The very place my foot rested, in taking a step forward, was different from what I had assumed (we’re spinning on the earth at 1,000 miles per hour). It was all so counter-intuitive. Somehow, I secretly believed the earth was flat. It seems flat. 

And so I went to a lecture about anti-matter on a Saturday morning in November, 2013. At the end of the lecture, I approached the scientist. I wanted to find a teacher. He told me to write up an ad and send it to him.

On Monday morning, I did just that. Within a nanosecond, I received a reply. “I think I’ve found him. He’s a fourth year student in theoretical physics.” 

We had. I called him Mr. Universe. We made arrangements. 

Since then, on most Tuesday evenings he’s come to my house, along with two friends who’ve been captivated by this quest as well. We’ve watched “How the Universe Works,” stopping at various points when one or the other of us needed a clarification, an explanation. And Mr. Universe, who is about 6’5” tall, young and eager, provides the explanation, and on we go, zip-a-dee-do-dah, out into deep space.

This experience is changing me. 

Often I’d reach a point during the evening when I was filled — overfilled — with a sense of such pleasure at not-knowing and then knowing, figuring I’d glimpsed the miraculous — and I would sort of gasp. Here are some of the things which put me in such awe:

When a star burns and uses everything up, when everything is fused and burned and there’s only iron left, which can’t be fused with anything, then in a milli-second this massive star collapses. It becomes a corpse, a neutron star. There’s nothing to be made of it — except, perhaps, horse-shoes.

Except, perhaps, ourselves.

And all the water on earth came from comets and meteoroids which crashed into us from the outer reaches of the solar system.

Imagine a bell. You whack the bell with a hammer. It rings. That ringing fades and fades. The ringing is the structure of space-time itself and the hammer is quantum mechanics. In mid-March, 2014, researchers found the signal left in the sky by the super-rapid expansion of space (“inflation”) that must have occurred just fractions of a second after everything came into being with the Big Bang. The universe didn’t expand into space, it created space as it expanded. The expansion warped space-time itself; through telescopes, scientists have seen the remains of that warp, that ringing, 14 billion years ago.


Because of the circularity of the earth’s orbit we have a gentle ride in chaos.

“So I have I got this right?” one of my friends says. “A gamma ray burster blew up 7 billion years ago. And in 2008 we could see that burst in the night sky, with the naked eye. And we have no idea what’s there now, from which that great burst blew. We have no idea. It took 7 billion years to reach us. What’s happened since then? How do we know what might hit us in the next second?”

Right, says Mr. Universe, we simply don’t know.

One night, in the midst of watching “How the universe works” I bolted upright, opened the window and called out to the people running along the seawall in front of my house: you don’t seem to know this, but we’re facing extinction…

And my friend suggested that we four pilgrims go on to the seawall with sandwich boards declaring “Alas, the end is nigh.”

We laugh. Someone suggests we have a drink, something robust, a scotch?

And I think, given that we’re destined for ruin, that for absolute certain our earth is going to “end up in the sun,” what else is there to do but to love one another? Before it’s all blasted away into something so violent that, although that violence might create more earths, they will have nothing to do with you and me.

This is our hey-day. Come along, then.

The solar panel on my island, the sun catcher, doesn’t have much to receive today in the rain. It sits there, upright, appropriately slanted like an outstretched hand. I am in awe.

Come along, then.


Searching for Mr. Universe

Catch Starry-Night

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

In the summertime, I go to my cottage on a small island near the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. It’s off the grid, so that electricity is mainly from the sun, and water is only from the well. At the end of a day, I long to divert myself. In previous years, I’d done this by watching films on DVDs which I’d collected over the winter. However, I started to notice that when the movie was over, I’d have a tinge of fear. But then everything — sight, sound, emotion — is quite intensified when you’re on an island, off the grid.

I figured it was because, in watching a movie, I’d lost track of my connection to the place. I’d immersed myself in the narrative of the film, and when I emerged I wondered what had happened while I was away. I’d lost continuity: with the sound of the wind, the waves, the rain. As a result, instead of simply paying attention, I was now on the alert and somewhat anxious. 

(One of the noticeable differences, in being on the island and in the city, is that in the city, no sound has to do with me — I block them — while on the island every sound has to do with me.)

The result of all of this was that last summer I decided not to take with me the entire seven seasons of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect (which a beloved friend had given to me for Christmas) but instead try to find something more in keeping with being on the island.

In the racks of DVDs at London Drugs, in the miscellaneous section, I found something called “How the Universe Works.”

On May 2, 2013, a year ago, I was at the fag end of one of those exhilarating days of outside/inside: outdoors in the abundance of nature and indoors in my imagination. I wanted a diversion. Had I brought Helen Mirren, there’s no doubt I would have chosen her as my date. But I had intentionally left her at home. I had only — god forbid — “How the Universe Works.” The last bloody thing I wanted to know about.

Into my computer I inserted the first of two discs. For the next two hours — and then over three nights running, two hours each night, I watched “How the Universe Works.” 

What happened was unexpected. I heard myself exclaim, “You’re kidding,” into the silence of my cottage. And “What the hell?” And, more calmly, “I didn’t know that.” Out loud, because of my shock, my disbelief. 

In 1969, I was in a youth hostel in Europe. On a tiny television, almost obscured by the hulking shoulders and backs of other kids, I watched the moon-landing, and heard Neil Armstrong’s almost disembodied, grandfatherly voice declare: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Since then, for over forty years, I’d been self-absorbed, indolent. I’d missed an important scientific fact gleaned from that mission, which I belatedly received, by way of the London Drugs DVDs: the moon was created because it was sheered from the earth by the great impact of something. That something had wrested away part of the earth’s surface and gradually, over eons, all those broken bits of earth swirled into a stable orbit and became — miracle — our moon.

Catch Binary stars

Two spiral galaxies in the early stages of interacting

On my remote island, I went outside on the terrace and looked up at the starry night sky, and at the moon, half full. I haven’t really known you, I said out loud. The moon, born from the earth, wrenched from it; the moon beautifully organized after the huge impact which had skimmed off the earth’s outer layer leaving an undersurface, on which I walked every day and… — 

Amazing that I’d missed this.

Over the course of the summer, like a kid who has discovered self or sex or something profound, I’d say to my friends: did you know the moon is made from the earth’s surface?

Some did. Most didn’t. I’d look up, point, and say, “It’s true.” 

Strangely, in that summer of 2013, I felt that some of the existential angst of my adult life might have been abated by knowing the truth about the moon.

Well, darling, it’s never too late.

I understood a lot of what the scientists were saying — their amazing delight at everything, even when describing the certain extinguishment of our earth when we will “end up inside the sun” — I loved them all. They were my friends. But there was so much I didn’t really understand. 

“Some atoms of me, and of you, have been in other galaxies, and are now in this galaxy, are now in me.” 

“Be humble, as you are made of earth. Be noble, as you are made of stars.”

“380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe became transparent. From the dark ages to an age of splendour. We can hear the hum of the light finally travelling out.”

“The universe bulges with stars.”

These are found poems.

I hadn’t been so excited about anything since I was a child, and I couldn’t even recall what had generated comparable exuberance in me, way back then. But it was like that. Some feeling of the ineffable. Some sense of wonder. But this wasn’t “is there a god?”; it wasn’t “why do we exist?”. It was the proven, scientific, beginning of the world, which we can still see 13.82 billion years later.

I had to know more.

But before that, I had to take in more of what I already had.

So I bought a projector and displayed these amazing images on the wall of my cottage, many of them from Hubble, or from the Cassini probe. When that didn’t quite satisfy, I bought a large screen. As guests came that summer, I subjected them to watching these DVDs outside on the terrace, under the wondrous stars, the moon, the things which illuminated our very footfall, here and now, no matter how long the light had taken to arrive. 

For a young friend, a thirteen year old boy, I skipped over the parts in the DVD about black holes because, after seeing some of the pictures on the first night, he was scared.

My friends were excited, amazed, annoyed, uncomprehending.

When I went back to the city after the summer, I wanted to find someone who could answer the questions I had about the beginning of the universe. I needed a teacher. In November, there was a presentation at the University of British Columbia called “What’s the matter with anti-matter?” After the lecture, I approached the professor and told him of my search: “I’m a writer, not a scientist, but I want to know more…” He suggested I send him an ad.

And then what happened?

More happened.

Stay tuned.


I see you. I hear you.

In my last “Catch” I considered how metaphors define us. This post continues those thoughts, particularly about how shifts in the predominant metaphors used in the law enable —  even require — the law, itself, to change.

Perhaps one of the most pronounced and direct challenges to the western legal system has been that of aboriginal people: the claims of the First Nations to their own territory, in the face of the colonial power’s assertion of title over those same lands. It’s taken a long time to sort all of this out. We’re still sorting.

In the 1980’s, with other keen, young lawyers, I started working on behalf of First Nations’ communities. We faced a formidable task. It was like trying to open the sealed door of a kingdom which once belonging to the aboriginal people, but was now fully occupied and dominated by the settlers.

A metaphor.

Metaphors are not only radical, they are subversive. They work beneath the level of consciousness.

EarAs legal counsel, we had to listen very carefully in order to understand the nature of these aboriginal societies. Intuitively, we started to insinuate changes into the dominion of the metaphors which had taken hold in the legal system. For our clients’ voices to be heard, we had to change the prevailing metaphor from sight to sound. This was especially important because the foundation of most of their cultures — as with so many indigenous peoples — was based on orality (the transmission of the norms of the society through well-defined verbal customs and practices).


If we could achieve this, the entitlement to speak, as well as to be heard, would carry the newly established rights. First Nations would be ushered back into the kingdom from which they had been expelled.

But this was going to be a tough battle. The western legal system preferences the written word. Hearsay evidence is either discounted or entirely disallowed.

I noticed how this all was operating during a test case on the existence of aboriginal title called Delgamuukw v The Queen (1984-1997). It became the longest trial in the history of western jurisprudence.

Mary Johnson, an elder from the Gitskan tribe in northern British Columbia, was on the witness stand. She was giving evidence of her oral history as proof of her people’s jurisdiction over their territory. In the Gitskan traditions, a ceremonial song was sung at a particular fishing site when the people were gathered there. Despite the significance of the song to the case, the trial Judge was “embarrassed” at having to listen to it. “I have a tin ear,” Judge McEachern said. “It’s not going to do any good to sing to me.” Indeed, it didn’t do any good. He ruled that aboriginal title in B.C. had been extinguished and was no more.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Judge McEachern’s ruling was overturned, largely because he did not accept First Nations’ evidence as being on an equal footing with written records.

The Courts courts are required to adapt the rules of evidence in order to give due weight to the “aboriginal perspective”. In other words, the legal system must “come to terms with the oral histories of aboriginal societies.”

The voices of the native peoples can no longer be officially silenced. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the law of aboriginal and treaty rights is the reconciliation of those rights with the needs of the non-Aboriginal peoples. In court these days, counsel for the natives are talking about re-establishing a relationship of harmony between the cultures. The metaphor of singing continues.

EyeMetaphors are part of our deep structure. When the existing metaphors have become rigid, they must change or the law will ossify (a metaphor about turning to bone). To expand the metaphors and let in the other senses — from sight to sound — is to accept more of the world, in every way. It is to let in more choices.


Metaphors Define Us

Ice axe photo“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” 

In a post entitled “The Courage to Imagine” (July, 2012), I looked at some of the analogies the scientists were using to explain the phenomenon of the Higgs Boson and the so-called God-particle which had been (or might have been) discovered. These metaphors ranged from ski slopes to molasses.

The genius of science is again testing our metaphoric ingenuity in another recent breakthrough. Our genes were thought to contain millions of “junk” DNA. It turns out this junk actually controls whether we contract anything from cancer to depression. The metaphor some scientists are using is they they now have a Google Map. Before, with the Human Genome Project, it was

“… like getting a picture of Earth from space… It doesn’t tell you where… the good restaurants are, or the hospitals or the cities or the rivers.” NY Times

I love the image of these newly respected bits of DNA now being able to find a good restaurant. Or, more to the point, a hospital.

I began thinking again about the role of metaphor in our lives. It’s probably true that metaphors are “so much a part of the deep structure of our mentality that ‘our ordinary conceptual system… is… metaphorical in nature.” (Lakoff & Johnson)

Consider the law — which I did for many years as a practising lawyer. Legal discourse, court submissions and Judges’ rulings are rife with figurative expressions, so much so that the law has been described as “a magical world . . . where liens float, corporations reside, minds hold meetings, and promises run with the land.” (Thomas Ross).

Of the five senses which could be used as the conveyors of information, it is sight which has been in favor with the legal shape-makers. We “observe” the law; actions are seen “in the eye of the law”; lower court decisions are “reviewed”. Instead of being abstract, the law is something we can visually look at: it is a “body,” a “structure,” a “seamless web.” Ownership is imagined as a “chain of title.” The law is absorbed with light and darkness: there are “bright lines” between legal doctrines; we resort to “black letter” law and one can have a  “color of right”. Perhaps most telling about the domination of the seeing metaphor is that Justice must be blind, because otherwise she may be prejudiced.

Scholars have noticed a shift. Because of the influence of feminism and multiculturalism, metaphors having to do with sound are beginning to characterize the legal system.

‘… law [is] a matter of “voice”: a figurative “speaking,” and even, on occasion, a “singing” in which institutions, groups, and individuals should all be articulate participants. Some voices… generally those of the oppressed or the marginalized – must first be freed from the shackles of “silence.” Fairness demands “hearing” and carefully “listening” to all of these voices.’ Making Sense of Metaphors

I think this has happened because, if metaphors are part of our deep structure, when the existing metaphors have become rigid and won’t let in other perspectives, they start to change. They expand to the other senses — from sight to sound — to let in more of the world. And metaphors, by their very nature, are radical.

In the next “catch” I’ll write more about how some lawyers, in taking on the issue of aboriginal title in British Columbia, insinuated new metaphors into the language of the law in order to establish the recognition of these rights.

Franz Kafka, who narrowly escaped becoming a lawyer, wrote:

A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.

Now that’s a metaphor.

Having wandered far from molasses, ski-slopes and Google Maps, I return to the more central domain of metaphors (and similes) which is poetry; ee cummings, the master, wrote:

“My father was like a red red rose”

“Spring is like a perhaps hand”

“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”

It’s a relief to be in this realm.


Leaving you speechless

BMO Cutting Text1

In my last blog, “Are you at a loss for words?” I mentioned putting an ad in Craig’s list, and telling friends and acquaintances that I had 33,000 well chosen words for sale. These had been excised from my novel Bring Me One of Everything at the suggestion of my agent.

One rogue, obviously not understanding the depth of the wound which had been inflicted on my ego (and my manuscript) wrote:

“Put me down for:

– 210 and’s

– 4 pontifications

– 2 strifes

– 11 yoyomas

I replied:  “Dear Sir

Thank you for recent enquiry.

Sadly (for both of us) you are not familiar with my most recent novel.

If you were, you would be aware that the editor allowed me to retain all of the pontifications, the strife and the yoyomas.

However, I would be happy to provide you with the requested 210 ‘ands’ upon receipt of your cheque (I also use Paypal) for 21 cents.”

Another friend, learning of my plan, was concerned. She sent me an e-mail:

“Once you actually put it on Craig’s list it leaves the realm of whimsey and, frankly, sounds a bit demented.”

I considered my mental health, my reputation, my capacity for self-ridicule, and carried on.

Then came this inquiry:

 “I will buy some words…I would prefer them in random order otherwise they have way too much meaning for an Engineer to get his head around.”

In reply, I told the Engineer that I was sorry I hadn’t heard from him before the book went on the operating table:

“I wanted to tell the agent that I’d cut out every 5th word. If I’d done that, maybe the resulting novel would have suited you very well although, as you can imagine, the book would have suffered.  For example, it would be called ‘Bring Me One of’ by Leslie Hall and the Atwood quote would have declared me a ‘a writer of great and’.

A lawyer (admittedly a friend wanting to help me out) offered to buy all my “therefore’s”. But I told her:

“All creative writers eschew ‘therefore’s’, except if their character is a lawyer. None of mine was of your persuasion, therefore I didn’t have any to cut. May I suggest, sub rosa, that you lawyers use too many ‘therefore’s’ already and the vox populi has spoken. It’s bloody sick of them…  Now ‘heretofore’s’ are another thing. Would you like to make a request for all the ‘heretofore’s’ I had to axe?”

I never heard back from her. But I did receive the following note from another artist:

“So $1 gets me 100 words, right? I’ll take all you have on ‘overburdened, worn out, despairing and tired’.

Thank you, w.e.burnout”

I asked if I could come over and vacuum.

What have I learned from all of this? As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said, “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time.” Perhaps the same is true in novel-writing and the adage might be: take the time to make it short. My current book, Indulgence in the Afternoon, which I am still drafting, has 118,675 words (475 pages). I will eventually sharpen the knife again and see what can be trimmed. Of course, the issue is excellence and not length. On a piece of paper next to my computer I have written out a line from Madame Bovary. It comes after Rodolphe takes Emma riding in the woods and ravishes her there:

“Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”

Kathryn Harrison (NYT, 9/30/2010) has commented:

“This sentence is worth a day’s work, if that’s what it took Flaubert to assemble the details necessary to illuminate so critical a moment in Emma’s plummet. The dastard’s teeth already sunk in a subsequent gratification of his appetite; the phallic penknife; the broken restraint; the experience of drawing a previously chaste woman into adultery so unaffecting that his attention has already strayed to a routine chore…”

As Flaubert said, “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” That, I think, is the standard.

I will soon discover if I can find approximately 8,000 words in Indulgence in the Afternoon which are changeable.

The wonderful writer, Barbara Lambert (The Whirling Girl, Cormorant, 2012) has as part of her blog ( a place where she has invited other writers to post some “stricken” parts of their published work. Check it out.


Are you at a loss for words?

The literary agent who was interested in taking on my novel Bring Me One of Everything (2012, Grey Swan Press) said that the novel was way too long. Before it could be submitted for publication she suggested I “trim” 33,000 words. (A page of print has about 250 words, so this was 130 pages.) Although I agreed with her, I wondered if I could do it; I was afraid I would end up with a rickety skeleton that couldn’t dance. But I began the job. I reported to her occasionally by email on my progress:

October 12: I just wanted you to know that the liposuction on the ms. is going well.  (It only feels like that every other week. Okay, you’re right, every other day).

November 15: I’m checking in. The book is still under the knife. I feel like going on ebay and selling all the words I don’t need.

December 21: Victory. The flensing has brought the ms. down from 133,000 to 99,294 words. That’s 706 fewer words than you’d suggested. But, I brag.

In order to achieve these cuts I had to think of myself, not as Tolstoy but as someone short, say Danny DeVito. I also had to kick out of my mind my perfect readers who would sit down with a glass of sherry before the fire, the evening spreading luxuriantly ahead of them, filled only with the reading of Bring Me One of Everything. Instead, I imagined my readers were harried, hurried, harassed, quickly grabbing a bite of literary sustenance before the next onslaught of emails.  “Okay, I said to them. Listen up. You’re going to hear this once, and only once.” The nuanced paragraphs where a theme is repeated with a slightly different edge of mood or understanding: GONE. The second adjective which gives vibrancy and pleasure both to itself and to the first adjective: GONE. More gone.

In the draft, I had taken my protagonist, Alix Purcell, on a trip to Peru to meet one of Austin Hart’s lovers. (Austin Hart is the man in the novel who commits suicide at the height of his career, and Alix is obsessed with finding out why he did it.) I cancelled the trip to Peru. That’s okay, trips get cancelled.

I entirely eliminated one of Austin Hart’s friends. That’s fine, I thought, sometimes we cut friends out of our lives.

The book examines ‘collecting’ on many levels:  objects, memories, lost loves. Its characters walk the line between keeping things and then hoarding them and finally coveting them. I kept reminding myself that I mustn’t become like one of them, squirreling away scraps of my work like a literary Howard Hughes.

But I did put an ad in Craig’s list (Vancouver and New York) :

For sale by author: 33,000 well chosen words (eliminated from my novel before publication as requested by my agent). One cent per word (o.b.o). Available as a unit or in packages of 100.

It was followed by this picture, which was meant to show, as you might guess, a flood of words:

Waterfall 1


Wanting to ensure some buyers, I sent out the link out with the note:

Please forward to any friends or acquaintances who appear to be speechless.

Yours in edited verbosity, I remain

I leave to the next post my report on the responses to the ad. And to ponder whether I learned anything from this experience as I wrote my new novel-in-progress Indulgence in the Afternoon.

I hope this has left you hanging (but with a glass of sherry in hand).


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.


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.