A Read of The Girl’s Own Annual (1907-1908) and an Inadvertent Critique of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016).

At the 2018 University College book sale I bought this 1907-1908 volume of The Girl’s Own Annual, a bound compilation of the preceding year’s weekly issues of The Girl’s Own Paper.

The Girl’s Own Paper was a weekly and, later, monthly, publication produced between 1880 and 1956 for older girls and young women. Its founder and first editor, Charles Peters, is described as having sought “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood of England.” After Peters’ death late in 1907 (an In Memoriam is printed in the 25 January 1908 edition of the Paper); his successor, Flora Klickmann, saw the Paper through the First World War and the important social changes that followed, including women’s suffrage. Scholarly work on The Girl’s Own Paper notes that Klickmann’s editorial influence became apparent early on, especially in the form of an increasing (if somewhat ambivalent) emphasis on the changing roles of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At the same time, even under Peters’ directorship (at least in the volume I have), women, their lives, well-being, interests and work are valorized in ways that seem to go beyond commonly received late- and post-Victorian notions of the proper place of women. I found it both a surprise and delight, for example, to discover an article titled “How to Become a Lady Librarian” in a 1908 issue of the paper. The article notes the scarcity of training and opportunities for women librarians in England, and laments that even well trained women “have been unable to find employment at the same rate of payment as men.” It goes on to indicate the proper rates of pay women librarians may reasonably expect, and makes suggestions about where to obtain training, including at the London School of Economics. At its close, the article lists “public libraries controlled by women,” among them Manchester College at Oxford.

“How to Become a Lady Librarian” is far from the only article offering career advice. “A New Employment for Women” offers recommendations on obtaining training and suitable employment for teaching hearing impaired children. It also indicates the salary range a qualified teacher may expect to be paid. Another article, “A Strange College for Women Workers,” describes bee farming in detail, including set-up costs, and observes, “[i]t would take more nerve than the average “mere man” possesses to allow from 25,000 to 30,000 bees to roost on his bare arm and make themselves at home; any yet, at the Luton Bee College, women students think nothing of this performance.” “How I Became a Lady Doctor” describes one woman’s progress into the profession; in it the author, Doctor Penelope Smith, concludes that the greatest difficulty facing qualified women doctors is not ability but unequal access to hospital experience: “To gain a wide experience hospital practice is absolutely necessary,” she writes, “and it is in the deficiency of opportunities for this practice that women are placed at a disadvantage as compared with men; not in the training, nor in their capabilities for mastering the details of their profession.” An essay on portraitist and illustrator Marcella Walker describes her work (exhibited at the Royal Academy, reviewed in the Academy Review and published in the Illustrated London News) as a rebuttal to those who “assert that women have no originality, and merely follow and copy men in art.”

Swatting at much more than a tennis ball.

The volume is still, of course, evocative of its era. Young women are urged to take care of their skin, lest it become reddened and wrinkled with work. Readers are invited to participate in physical activity, but (horrors) not in any way that might masculinize them. An otherwise charming illustration of a woman playing field hockey, for example, has the admonition captioned to it: “Avoid all excess in the field games which are suitable only to sporting men.” Every woman pictured is white (although The Girl’s Own Paper was circulated throughout the Empire), in good health, and visibly representative of her upper class (or upper class-aspiring) upbringing. The amassing of a “White Trousseau” receives treatment in a number of issues, as does an ongoing series called “How a Girl Should Dress” (properly, with full skirts and gloves and enormous hats; restrictive, and yet: how I long to have at least one similar costume).

While browsing the Annual, I have felt wistful for two reasons. The first is that my mother would have loved it. We shared a fascination with the sometimes ephemeral traces of everyday life found in old newspapers, letters, paper crafts and magazines, and would spend hours poring over all these sorts of documents whenever they came to light. This Annual is one of the richest such resources I have encountered in years, and I wish so much that we could share it. She would have loved the quirky essays (and their quirky titles), like “Methods of Travelling Used by Women from Early Times Down to the Present,” “Fire-Lighting Without Sticks,” “Insects Mentioned in Shakespeare,” “Familiar British Seaweeds,” and perhaps especially, “Book-Binding for Girls.”

The second reason I feel wistful while reading the Girl’s Own Paper is because, despite its implicit snobbery and adherence to vastly outdated conventions, there is also something empowering in the articles and stories in its pages. Women, it says repeatedly and in many different ways, have value. Women’s pursuits and work have worth, whether they involve sewing, cooking, writing, playing music or caring for others–or pursuing higher education and working in demanding fields. An older girl or young woman reading its pages would have reason to feel encouraged, not only by the things articles suggested she could do if she chose, but by the histories of other women who have done them, too.

Annuals featuring improving stories for girls have fallen mostly out of favour, even in the United Kingdom where they could once make a publisher’s year, but some months ago I received a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin Random House, 2016) to give to my daughter. The book was received with wild enthusiasm by reviewers, spurring a sequel, but in our household it was met with a muted “meh.” The book is subtitled “100 Tales of Extraordinary Women,” and this, I think, is at the heart of the book’s problem. It is not that the women profiled are not extraordinary, and it is not as if this kind of book is not desperately needed: it is.

But even its dedication makes demands of its young readers: to be rebels, first of all. And immediately afterward, it suggests that the things girls do already are not enough: they must “dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder,” and live with the conviction that they are “right.” Most of the women profiled in Rebel Girls are wonderfully chosen, and I do love the profile of American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the narratives return, over and over again, to how extraordinary they were or are, and how unusual their accomplishments. Very few of the narratives directly invite the reader to consider herself capable of doing the same kinds of things. Sadly but perhaps revealingly, one of the few stories that does so is the one about Virginia Woolf, which discusses her depression and acknowledges the possibility that even rebel girls might sometimes be sad. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek is quoted as saying, “You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky. It’s fine to be shy,” — but her important message seems to be drowned out by so many injunctions in the other stories for girls to be aggressive, competitive and attention-seeking. After 200 pages of superlatives, the reader is, at last, invited to “write your story,” but it seems to me that by this time, after so many pages of genius, originality and victory, especially those in which systemic barriers to women’s flourishing are subsumed beneath narratives of individual strength, more than a few readers might feel deflated. I certainly did, and I am an exceedingly determined person who has been standing for something for nearly three decades. My daughter liked the book, but found the stories hard to relate to.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls reminds me of the response to the 2016 all-woman remake of the popular 1980s film Ghostbusters. Although the remake was fun to watch, it was essentially mediocre; basically on par with most remakes, and slightly better than a typical sequel. But public response tended to be sharply divided between those (whose testicles seemed to shrivel at the sight of a woman wielding a proton pack) who insisted it was the Worst Film Ever, and those (mostly women) who insisted upon its virtues. It seemed impossible for anyone to simply say out loud that it was a fun but essentially mediocre remake–because women in film, like women in public life, cannot afford to be mediocre.

In this context, the overwrought exhortations of “extraordinary” women’s greatness in Rebel Girls seem to me to undermine the book’s very good intentions. Indeed, ultimately the book’s message seems somehow indistinguishable from diet and ‘wellness’ marketing campaigns exhorting girls and women to be ever thinner, sexier, more feminine–and ever more obedient to always arbitrary, always external injunctions about how they must look and live. It seems to me, especially in the era of the ‘crisis of the mediocre man,’ that women should not always have to overcome the social (and political and economic) deficit of being women in a sexist society by being deemed geniuses, heroes, winners or leaders. Very good women actors should be able to star in mediocre films. Ordinary girls and women should be counted, too, whether they are ‘rebel girls’ or not.

This is something, oddly enough, that The Girl’s Own Paper seems to have gotten right more than a century ago. Despite its conventionality and essential conservatism, its pages reinforce the perspective that every girl, and every woman–not only those deemed “extraordinary”–is special and has worth, and that every girl and every woman has the capacity to stand up for herself, and for others, and has the right to contribute to both private and public life and to make herself heard in both worlds.

I suppose I am hopeful that the Rebel Girls franchise will eventually get to the point of unpacking some of the contradictions in its narratives. On the way, its authors could do worse than read a century-old volume or two of The Girl’s Own Annual.

Eggplant Stuffed Conchiglie with Zucchini and Spinach

Eggplant stuffed conchiglie with zucchini and spinach is my favourite dish. It emerged out of a double need: first, to create a delicious, meaty-tasting vegetarian dish, and second to fulfill all the nutrient cravings I feel during the colder months when good fresh greens are harder to obtain.

The combination of eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and spinach is very healthy and wonderfully hearty, especially when combined with a carbohydrate like pasta, and topped with melted, gooey cheese. The savoury goodness is likely to convert (or at least subvert) most people who claim they do not like eggplant, or zucchini, or mushrooms, or even spinach, because they merge into a rich flavour that amounts to much more than its separate parts.

This dish is a little labour intensive to prepare, but is worth it for a weekend dinner or gathering. It is worth making the tomato sauce from scratch because the flavour is richer, and there are no preservatives and less sodium to contend with (it also takes less than five minutes to prepare). Stirring garlic and (lemon) thyme with olive oil and frying it before mixing it into the vegetables adds depth to the dish.

I do save work by using a small jar of commercial tomato pesto sauce (President’s Choice Splendido tomato pesto is excellent, and widely available at Toronto-area No Frills grocery stores, and probably further afield as well; in the winter I use it as a base for quite a few pasta dishes — and suspect I’m not the only one, because in the middle of the winter it tends to sell out quickly). And I never salt and drain eggplant as many recipes suggest, allegedly to reduce bitterness. I’ve read it is not necessary to do so with most eggplants, and mine have never turned out the slightest bit bitter. I also don’t peel eggplant (or zucchini, or pretty much anything else); most of the time, I think doing so is unnecessary and wastes nutrients (and fibre, for those so concerned).

This dish had its origins in a vegetable lasagna recipe published in The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook (by America’s Test Kitchen, 2015). The original recipe included squash, which I love in almost any form but do not find works well in a lasagna or pasta dish. One weekend day last winter I had a craving for eggplant and spinach, and decided to use the original recipe as a base for invention. I used conchiglie because I am not a huge fan of lasagna noodles and because my first experiment with cannelloni ended in frustration (those things are hard to stuff!). Two things I’ve retained are the tomato sauce recipe, which is excellent, and the suggestion to mix garlic and thyme with oil to saute and then stir in with the softened cooked vegetables.

In the colder months I make this dish at least once every couple of weeks. It’s wonderful at the end of a cold day, and I don’t think anyone who has tried it has not loved it.

Print Recipe
Eggplant Stuffed Conchiglie with Zucchini and Spinach
Prep Time 40 minutes
Cook Time 25 to 40 minutes
Servings
Ingredients
Prep Time 40 minutes
Cook Time 25 to 40 minutes
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir together canned diced tomatoes (crushed tomatoes work well, too), fresh basil (and/or other fresh or dried herbs, such as tarragon), 2 to 3 cloves of crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, and red pepper flakes. Set aside.
  2. In a small dish, mix together olive oil, 2 to 3 cloves of crushed garlic, and thyme or lemon thyme. Set aside.
  3. In a large pot filled with water, boil conchiglie until cooked al dente, about eight minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
  4. Chop eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, and onion. Saute together in olive oil in a large skillet at medium heat until softened and cooked, about ten minutes. Open up a space in the middle of the skillet, and pour in olive oil infused with garlic and (lemon) thyme. Heat mixture until garlic is softened and oil is aromatic, about one minute. Stir together vegetables with garlic mixture. Stir in pesto sauce. Stir in spinach until wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
  5. Into a large, shallow baking dish (a lasagna pan works well), pour 1 to 2 cups of tomato sauce. Pour in 1 cup of table cream or milk and stir together with the tomato sauce.
  6. With a spoon, fill each conchiglio (jumbo pasta shell) with some of the eggplant vegetable mixture and set in a single layer into the baking dish, open side up. A full package of conchiglie (jumbo shells) filled with the vegetable mixture should approximately fill a typical lasagna dish. Dot shells with remaining tomato sauce, and top with shredded mozzarella (and/or cheddar and/or Parmesan cheese). Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with additional herbs (fresh basil, lemon thyme, tarragon) if desired. Bake in oven at 400 degrees until cheese is melted and dish is bubbling, 25 to 40 minutes. Cool and serve.

Cook’s Measure

Vintage 1950s Tala Cook’s Measure

Yesterday morning an errand took me across town. Half a block past the subway station was a new-to-me Value Village. And on a shelf in that Value Village was this 1950s-era Tala Cooks Measure, which I snatched up and bought.

I have been partial to Tala kitchen tools ever since I bought part of a late forties or early fifties cream-and-white multi-tiered cake tin (shown below) from super-cool Toronto vintage emporium mrs huizenga a few years ago, and sourced a few more tiers online. Somewhere in a box in the garage, unless I’ve managed to donate it, is also an old Tala icing set.

Established in 1899 (as Taylor Law & Co Ltd), at a time when confectionary-style baking had developed mass appeal in late-Victorian England, Tala has long been a leading supplier of cooking and bakeware supplies. At times in its history it has also reportedly produced gardening tools and even, during wartime, munitions. Notably, much of its manufacturing is still done in England, some of it (including delightful retro versions of the Cooks Measure shown above, which Tala supplies to kitchen goods purveyors) using production equipment dating to the 1920s. This makes Tala an iconic British brand, and is testament not only to the endurance of the company through cultural change, war, and corporate buy-outs, but also to the lasting quality of its goods.

Tala ‘CAKES’ carrier.

My Tala Cooks Measure (I am assuming there was a discussion about where to put the apostrophe and that, in the absence of accord, it was decided simply to leave it out) has measurement indicators (for ounces, pounds, pints and cups) for a wide variety of early-to-mid twentieth century cooking staples, including haricots, lentils, barley and peas; sultanas and tapioca; ground rice, currants, and seminola raisins; icing sugar, dried milk, custard and flour; fresh bread crumbs and rolled oats; desiccated coconut; corn flour and cocoa; ground almonds and shredded suet; and sugar and regular rice. The way it works, as I understand it, is that you pour in your choice of dry ingredient that most closely matches the volume characteristics of the choices on the label. It is quite ingenious, actually, and spawned a number of imitators, although Tala’s Cooks Measure remains the best known.

My own cooking preferences tend toward hearty vegetable-based casseroles, but many of the above ingredients feature prominently in older cookbooks. I am tempted to try some of them out just so I can use this cook’s measure … although perhaps not tapioca pudding. Or anything involving shredded suet.

Speaking of early twentieth century coking ingredients, below are a few of my favourite early-to-mid twentieth century cookbooks, probably all of which have a tapioca pudding recipe somewhere within their pages.

Feed the Brute! by Marjorie Swift, 1925.

The Art of Cooking and Serving, by Sarah Field Splint. Proctor & Gamble, 1930.

The New Hostess of To-Day, by Linda Hull Larned; illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark. McClelland & Goodchild, 1913.

MEALS Tested, Tasted, and Approved. Good Housekeeping Institute, 1930.

And, from a 1932 (I think) edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery, published by Ward, Lock & Co., a charming double illustration of 1930s-era kitchen cabinets of the sort in which one would be highly likely to find a Tala Cooks Measure:

“Kitchen Cabinets” illustration from Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery, edition circa 1932.

Hearty Lentil Stew with Yoghurt and Rich Cream

Served up in a beautiful Fiesta bowl.

I don’t like lentils.

I know they are healthy and, with rice, are supposedly a complete protein [although this article offers some interesting context to claims that plant-based foods like legumes lack the right kinds of amino acids to be considered “complete” proteins on their own].

But in reality, whether canned or dried and then home-cooked, lentils have always struck me as bland and textureless They remind me of the meals distributed at the many social-justice-oriented events I have attended over the years: morally unimpeachable and strenuously healthy–but flavourless, gas-inducing and somehow, as a result, more than a little bit soul-destroying.

Nonetheless, about a year ago I stopped in at my neighbour Rhea’s house and, as usual, smelled something amazing bubbling on her stove. When I asked what it was she told me it was lentil soup. LENTIL soup, I asked? Yes, she replied, and offered to share her recipe with me. The recipe turned out to be from a cookbook (unfortunately I have only an image of the recipe itself; I’ll add the title as soon as I get it from her) she had bought remaindered at Book City.  Rhea is not only an incredible cook; she also has a genius for identifying promising remaindered cookbooks, and I have come to trust her recommendations absolutely.

Beautiful vintage enameled cast iron Descoware (Belgium) dutch oven. I bought this from another neighbour for five bucks!

And so, unusually for me, every month or two I feel what for me is a very strange craving for lentils, and make a variation of the following recipe. It is adapted considerably from the instructions in Rhea’s cookbook, and could be altered even more to suit personal taste (I don’t use chiles in my version because I have a limited capacity to handle heat; perhaps in response, my husband almost invariably adds some sriracha sauce to his bowl). My version makes a large vat, suitable for several days of leftovers (like most stews, the flavours get richer over a day or two) or freezing. It is great with basmati rice or hearty bread. This is a great winter dish because it is so hearty; for a lighter summer offering, one could omit the cream and yoghurt.

As a note: in my view cardamom is the winning ingredient in this dish. Black or brown cardamom has a rich and smoky taste that adds quite a lot of depth to the dish. Buy it whole to preserve its freshness, crack it open and grind the seeds (discard husk) as needed in a mortar and pestle.

Enjoy! I’d love to hear about your variations on lentil dishes!

Print Recipe
Hearty Lentil Stew with Yoghurt and Rich Cream
A wonderful, hearty lentil stew
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
Ingredients
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Grind spices (red pepper flakes, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom) together in a mortar and pestle.
  2. Melt butter in large heavy pot (I use a big oval cast iron Dutch oven) over medium heat. Stir in onions, garlic, spices and saute for five minutes until onions and garlic are translucent and aromatic.
  3. Add lentils and vegetable stock (add stock 1 cup at a time, as needed), bring briefly to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for up to an hour. [Uncooked lentils will take longer; cooked lentils will require less stock.]
  4. When lentils are cooked and the stew seems 'ready,' add tomatoes and torn spinach and reduce heat.
  5. Mix cream and yoghurt together and swirl into pot. Remove from heat.
  6. Serve with basmati rice or hearty bread. This stew would also go well with chicken.

 

 

Treasure

On some mornings, especially mornings like this one, the ache to speak with my mother becomes a physical thing.

The cool air, the golden light, a faint crackle in the leaves: all portents of a shift in the season. The ripe tomatoes I picked and ate this morning, fresh from the vine, ripe and earthy and pulsating with light.

A garage sale around the corner at which for a few dollars I bought a pile of beautiful old books, a handful of old jewelry, a set of silver plate Apostle spoons, a vintage maple leaf scarf, a salt-and-pepper set made in Occupied Japan, two chunks of amethyst, and two mid-century calendars stuffed with kitchen advice and recipes.

Everything else that has happened in the five months since she died.

*

Twenty years ago, early every summer Saturday morning my mother and I would peel off in the car, either with my father or a next-door neighbour, to troll garage sales looking for treasure. The perfect yard sale morning, to both of us, would yield some interesting books, some ‘breakables’ (china, kitchenware, collectables), tools, some item of furniture, a little bit of jewelry, and at least one piece of art. Clothing, a carpet, a lamp, some useful household object or appliance, would be a bonus. On a perfect morning we came home with the car stuffed full. More than a few times another beloved neighbour brought home excess in his pick-up truck.

Many of the objects she bought were distributed to those who needed or wanted them, or were tucked away to be given as birthday or Christmas presents. The treasures, however, ended up in her cupboards and china cabinets or were hung on the wall.

And there they sat for two decades, admired but largely unused, their glitter growing dimmer, until after her death.

After her death I cleaned out her house and prepared it for sale. I packed all her clothes and arranged for their donation. I sorted her make-up and panty hose and medications and toiletries. I held an estate sale and sold her breakables and art. I packed her papers and brought them to my home, alongside all the things I could not bear to leave behind. As promised, I bore the burden of her death and, in doing so, came to realize that I would also bear the burden of her life.

*

In the five months since my mother died I have spent whole days in our garage, sorting and filing, or shredding as required, the paper detritus of her life. Financial records dating to the late 1960s. Letters, bills, research projects, consultant reports, manuscripts, publishing contracts, her peripatetic private journal. In doing so I have given a great deal of thought to the project of giving posthumous shape to her life.

A life is, of course, a narrative. It is a story we tell ourselves even before we transact it with others. But what becomes of that story when we die?

Often enough the story dies, too, memory being what it is.

*

I am not a person who forgets, which is not the only reason my mother asked me to be her literary executor. She also asked because I knew who she was.

This knowing is not precisely a source of comfort. It is actually, in some ways, a source of considerable anguish.

It is a source of anguish because I knew about her desires and, more particularly, her regrets. I knew how she served, and I knew what she gave up in order to do so.

I knew all this because my mother and I were, are, very much alike.

Our kindredness was not always a source of solace, but it was always there, the undercurrent to our discussions about writing, our perspectives on politics and people, even our garage sale going.

And this is why, especially on mornings like this one, the ache to speak with her becomes a physical thing.

Because she too would sense the currents in the air, the shifting of the seasons. She too would gloat over a pile of garage sale treasures: the musty, leathery smell of old books; the slippery feel of tarnished metal and its promise of restoration. And she too would feel the compulsion to write about it all, to capture some trace of these ephemeral moments: the golden light, the drift of wind through the leaves, the taste of ripe tomatoes, incandescent with sunlight and warm from the vine. And the task of giving shape to memory, of holding together the pieces of the story.

The Return of Chartreuse

greencrayons_1_11Feb2016Years ago, as a child and young teen, I would occasionally read books in which the colour chartreuse was mentioned, almost always disparagingly. In the pre-internet age it was not something one could just Google, and it never occurred to me to look it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or any of the large dictionaries we had at home. As a result, for years I equated ‘chartreuse’ simply with “ugly colour.” In my mind it inhabited a hidden section on the colour wheel somewhere near “puce,” whose particular hue was similarly  a mystery (it turns out that “puce” comes from French, to which it translates literally as “flea;” hence the unpleasant squashed-red-brown it denotes.

Chartreuse, I have learned, is a liqueur produced by French monks of the Carthusian Order since 1737. The liqueur–reportedly distilled from 130 herbs steeped in alcohol–takes its name from the Chartreuse mountains in the Grenoble region of southeast France. The mountains are beautiful and verdant, and seem to glow in the very green-and-yellow shades that give both Chartreuse liqueur (which comes in both green and yellow) and the colour its name.

And somehow, in the manner of all things, the colour chartreuse eventually made its way to America as an affectation, first as a jellied dish made with Chartreuse liqueur (somewhat infamously, it was reportedly served as a First Class dessert on the Titanic) and later, as a staple of the Hollywood Regency style of interior design popularized by Dorothy Draper.

By the seventies, chartreuse–still in wide use in both fashion and interior design–had become a kind of caricature of itself. In 1972 Crayola introduced a chartreuse crayon as part of its fluorescent series, enabling children to combine incompatible colours as well as any grown-up hippie might–but even then more muted shades of green (most notoriously avocado) and contrasting primary colours had begun to dominate the design world. By the eighties chartreuse was distinctly dated, and in 1990 Crayola quietly withdrew the chartreuse crayon (the new name was ‘laser lemon’).

Recollections of my late seventies-to-mid-eighties childhood are, of course, redolent with memories of avocado, and from time to time at a thrift store I still come across (and bring home) the odd brightly-hued polyester dress in chartreuse and, say, deep purple.

Not that I think of it as chartreuse, a colour whose overuse followed by denigration and cultural erasure has been so complete that the word has never been a natural part of my vocabulary.

*

This morning I dug through my daughter’s box of crayons, looking for chartreuse. I found it in a crayon labeled “green-yellow.” This is actually an utterly accurate description of chartreuse, which exists precisely at the midpoint of green and yellow.

While picking through my daughter’s crayons, I began thinking about the names Crayola chooses for its colours, and started to see them as cultural artifacts. Current colours, such as “fuzzy wuzzy brown” and “macaroni and cheese” seem to suit the current generation of children raised on daycare and cartoons about as well as “chartreuse” and “maize” might have fit kids growing up in the seventies.

Crayola has a long history of renaming its crayons, and sometimes this has been done done for obviously good reasons. At the same time, while records (of controversies, if nothing else) exist for these somewhat politicized changes, the subtle shifts in uncontroversial colour names arguably tell an equally important story. [Scholars interested in a critical assessment of Crayola colour changes, including the “flesh” controversy, might want to read Lorna Roth’s fascinating essay, “Home on the Range: Kids, Visual Culture, and Cognitive Equity” in Cultural Studies<->Critical Methodologies,; 9(2): 141-148 (2009).]

There is apparently a move afoot to abandon colour names. While I (and presumably IKEA) can see the obvious utility to such a thing, I think abandoning colour names entirely would be a terrible shame. Crayon (and paint and design) colours are meaningful cultural artifacts. They are records of our shifting preoccupations, and proclivities, and aspirations.

I wonder, a little, how future crayons will be named. I can easily imagine Chador or Raven, or Masala (in place of burnt sienna), or Polar for the pale blue shade of Arctic ocean meltwater currently called light blue.

I wonder, too, if some of the old colours might make a return. Chartreuse, for example, has made a hipster-ironic reappearance in the design world. The liqueur for which the colour is named has also come to the attention of Brooklynites tired of Absinthe and, reportedly, Jagermeister. Soon enough, Chartreuse jelly will undoubtedly appear on the menus at Waldorf Schools all across the land, and at some point Crayola will have no choice but to dredge up Chartreuse from the archives.

Perhaps at the same time it will make a little bit of room for puce.

On Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome seems to be in the air again. I’m not sure why, but the inevitable outcome involves large groups of accomplished people agonising over their struggles with it. This is a pity because not only does it spread like a psychological virus, freighting entire communities in spasms of self-doubt, I don’t think it even begins to account for the imagined *and real* challenges writers, scholars and other ‘thinking’ people face.
 
Me, I kind of like Misha Glouberman‘s response to Imposter Syndrome in The Chairs Are Where the People Go: that sometimes when people feel like imposters it’s because they are in fact imposters. Not only is the statement refreshingly honest in its invitation to self-reflection, I think it can also serve as a useful trick to get people ‘unstuck’ from unwarranted self-doubt.
 
I also like a lot of what American science fiction writer John Scalzi says in this essay (focused on writers, but applicable to other fields of endeavour), which he sums up as “if you write, you are a writer.” Period.
 
I encountered the idea of imposter syndrome as a graduate student in the late 1990s. I remember trying it on for size and setting it aside. It didn’t fit me. Something else did — something I couldn’t name; something that was (not coincidental to graduate school) becoming a force of active destruction in my life — but it wasn’t imposter syndrome.
 
Me, I am intensely intrinsically motivated (note: PDF opens). When I do something, I am motivated by a lot of things, but almost never by others’ expectations of me, or by the promise of praise or reward (or, by corollary, the fear of disapproval or punishment). I have (almost) always (see below) been this way.This is not to say I don’t like or enjoy praise, or remain unaffected by criticism (I actually like and appreciate thoughtful criticism), but that they do not (with the pertinent exception discussed below) strongly influence (and certainly do not define) the things I do or the ways I do them.
 
And it’s a good thing too. Because (unlike Scalzi, as described in his essay), I did not grow up in supportive or encouraging institutional environments. I was told, over and over, and in myriad ways, that I was not the ‘right’ sort of person, and that the things I did were either not the right sort of things or were not done in the right sort of ways. Certainly, the things I did or read or liked or wrote were not considered to have value. When I first read Alice Munro’s bookWho Do You Think You Are? it was like a punch to the gut, not because I identified strongly with her protagonist, but because this question had been asked of me almost every day of my life.
 
The best thing that ever happened to me was having the good fortune to attend Queen’s University as an undergraduate student. The best (and possibly worst) thing about Queen’s, at least as it was in the early 1990s, was that, combined with a yawning indifference to the individual circumstances of its students, the institution emitted a palpable aura of acceptance to us as a collective. If you walked its august halls, the University seemed to say (the limestone walls whispering with every step), it was because you deserved to be there. Queen’s didn’t care that I had no social graces, and didn’t know how to talk to people, and had grown up mostly in poverty, and struggled to remain afloat in the great current of ideas. It cared only that I did so, and helped me find footholds in all those rapids.

The worst thing that ever happened to me was attending a graduate program (at another institution) notorious (although I did not know it at the time) for its dysfunction. I will not say much about those days, except to note that when, a summer ago, I finally cleaned out the last of the paperwork (papers I had written, academic files) long stored in our garage, I was horrified to see–as if for the first time–the deeply personal invective that characterised one of my advisors’ responses to almost every piece of work I submitted. The worst thing was realizing that none of what this person had said had, at the time, stood out as inappropriate. I had taken it for granted that it was normal or perhaps even proper for an academic advisor to denigrate and abuse a graduate student.

How did this experience affect me? Going on two decades later, I have published one book that has been well and widely reviewed and won an award and has, I believe, been one of my publisher’s best-selling titles. I am working on two new books and have plans for more still. I have published dozens of articles and essays in popular and scholarly publications.

But.

When I inventory my publication record, the thing that stands out is not the long list of works, but the long span of years during which I did not write.

 

I began publishing articles in community and regional newspapers when I was fifteen. I was a paid, accredited freelance photojournalist before I was twenty. I am probably the first (and possibly last) person ever to have published a poem in Plan Canada

.

After that there is a long and telling gap.

It is a gap of years in which, despite all the history that should have indicated otherwise, and all the internal aching to the contrary, I decided I was not a good writer, and had nothing interesting to say, and as a result should not write. And so I did not.

*

In the fall of 2005 the (different) department in which I was teaching while completing a (very different) graduate program invited me to design a new course, a course entirely of my own choosing and design. And while crafting the outline for that course it occurred to me that the syllabus looked a lot like the outline for a book.

“Do I dare eat a peach?” asks Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s well-known poem–a poem suggesting that it is not only women who experience imposter syndrome, or something like it.

Me, I chanced a tiny bite. In the spring of 2006, almost by accident, I began writing short pieces for a then well-known (but sadly now defunct) city blog. Short, inconsequential pieces, as I saw them, although I meant every word I wrote. A blog post is not real writing, I reasoned, meaning I wasn’t risking anything by doing so.

Around the same time Coach House Books put out a call for chapter proposals for the second volume of its acclaimed uTOpia series. “Why not?” I thought. “Maybe even someone like me could have something published.

And, well, they said yes.

And me, or someone like me, began to publish semi-regularly in newspapers and magazines and journals.

And then, the publisher of a literary press asked if I would write a book for him.

I began to write again, almost (almost) as if for the first time.

*

The difference between the writing I did prior to my mid-twenties and the writing I do now is that two voices drive me.

The first is summed up in a kind of double mantra: “You will go further and faster than anyone thought possible,” and “I don’t give a sh*t what anyone else thinks.” When this voice is in my head, I am able to write solidly, intelligently, even powerfully. This voice helps me do my best work.

The other voice asks “Who do you think you are?” over and over. This voice paralyses me until the point at which pure terror–of failing entirely–propels me to write.

[The frightening thing is that sometimes I think the latter voice will push me to produce better work, and so I end up waiting for its inevitable tantrum to run its inevitable course.]

*

And so.

This is why I take issue with most pronouncements about imposter syndrome, and why I think its cyclical reappearance as a subject of discussion does far more harm than good.

It is an error, I think, to suggest that imposter syndrome is the product only of internal doubt, of an individual lack of confidence rooted in some personal psychological failure.

It is a mistake to think it can be addressed primarily by telling ourselves ‘new stories’ about who we are, via an “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind of mental sleight-of-hand.

I think imposter syndrome, or something like it, is at least as likely to be a response to something that it is not entirely an exaggeration to call trauma.

Researchers seem to find again and again that while men also experience imposter syndrome, it is far likely to affect women. Parallel evidence suggests it is also disproportionately likely to affect people who are racialized or who identify with other minority groups.

In short, imposter syndrome is as likely (and probably far more likely) to reflect structural power imbalances as it is to be a manifestation of individual neuroses.

This is why I have never felt comfortable with saying that I, too, experience imposter syndrome. Because I don’t think that is what it is. There is a material difference between thinking (rationally or irrationally) “I’m not qualified to do this” and someone else–especially someone else determined to assert their power for no reason other than to maintain it–telling you that what you do and therefore who you are is garbage.

I call bullsh*t on that.

Me, I have plenty of inadequacies. I know I am a mediocre public speaker (although I have interesting things to say and am often asked to share them). As a teacher I am best doing one-on-one consultations (at which I am very good) rather than working with large groups (at which I am distinctly average). As a (pseudo-)academic writer I am drawn to the evocative in ways that can come across as (and be) anti-theoretical.

But the one thing no one can ever legitimately say about me is that I cannot write.

That someone in a position of power said it to me, over and over, in deeply personal and abusive ways, says quite a lot about them.

>

That I internalized the judgement says something about me.

And this is why I do not like it when talented, accomplished people describe their struggles with ‘imposter syndrome.’

Church Hat, Hand Bag

NancyCHurchHatstoreWeston_1_19Sept2015

All rights reserved.

Every Sunday morning, the church ladies dress up. Their faces are powdered, their short hair (silver and sometime blue-rinsed) curled and neatly brushed. They wear wool, or cotton, or (if slightly daring) printed polyester dresses, short-sleeved and collared, or long-sleeved with a button at the cuff. And a hat: a church lady always wears a hat. In summer their shoes–polished pumps with sturdy block heels–are white; in winter black. Their gloves are chosen to match.

Their handbags–wicker or leather, always short-strapped and clutched at the crook of an arm–carry Kleenex and a change purse with money for the collection plate, and a few hard candies in a twist of plastic. The candies crinkle, and disturb the sermon, but are useful to stave off boredom, or to soothe a cough–or a restive child in an adjacent pew.

The church ladies walk along the street and cross carefully at the corner, waiting for the light. They board the streetcar at College or Queen or St. Clair, exact change or a printed ticket in hand. If it rains, a translucent plastic rain hood–printed with daisies or rain-drops– will be pulled from a small vinyl case and pulled over loose grey curls. There is no use ruining a wave.

The church ladies are always old, even though their actual ages are wholly indeterminate. They are widows, their children grown, their grandchildren infrequent visitors. Because they have the time, and because their culture requires it, they are volunteers. On Saturday nights they make crustless sandwiches, of cucumber or ham or egg salad and sometimes all three, trimmed into quarters, and on Sunday they preside over the social hour after the service. They set out baked goods–store bought cookies, or digestive biscuits– alongside the sandwiches and supervise the pouring of metallic coffee, orange pekoe tea, and Freshie into waxed paper cups.

They attend every funeral, evaluate every wedding, and applaud each Christening. No hospitalization is complete without a visit from a church lady, bearing an improving magazine or a small potted plant. They collect outworn glasses for international charities, and crochet booties for unwed mothers, and knit  raveled yarn mittens for the annual bazaar.

Their names are Mabel and Marion and Ethel, and occasionally Edna and Irma.

They have raised this culture, and carried it in their arms. They have survived the Depression, both Wars, social upheaval (with disapproval and, in the case of their children, gradual and grudging understanding), the raising and lowering and raising of skirts, the deaths of their husbands, the diminishment of their own lives due to age and illness.

And eventually, over time, the church ladies change.

The new church ladies are named Precious and Louella and Octavia and Grace. Their hair is straightened and clipped back, and held down by a beautiful hat. Their dresses, alternately black or batik, are their armament and shield. They are big, these church ladies, and they steer their congregations like ships, cossetting the children, praying for the family man who has lost his job, and pursing their lips at the young women who dress smartly but too loosely and who have not yet realized that one day, decades from now, they too will be church ladies.

They carry bibles, and read them on the Weston Road bus, a declarative finger pointing at each verse. They make food, great vats of it, for church suppers and praise celebrations. They nod at the pastor’s words, and sing hymns in their lustrous or tremulous voices.They sway, in sorrow and joy, at the certainty that suffering in this life will be rewarded with a ticket to heaven in the next.

They carry the culture, the church ladies, with their church hats and hand bags.

Stopping by Woods

Early morning; the hour before dawn. And the house is silent; the cedars dark shapes and stillness under their weight of snow.

And here am I, words at the ready, (now formally) writing another book. The sense of propulsion and purpose, an idea unfurling into its essence. All these living ideas, assuming their shape.

Unlike the Imagining Toronto book, which announced itself like an architectural edifice, this new project is taking shape in a different way. It unfolds like something fully organic. The pieces of it stir and rustle against one another, and it is hardly a surprise to see that they are green.

My hands in the soil; the smell of earth. That green universe; the one I have always waited for, drifts outward and opens a little.

I look up, and suddenly the sky is filled with light.