Not Quite Still Life

Working with words means one spends quite a lot of time turning them over and moving them around, fitting and refitting them together like stones in a wall. Thinking is a cerebral, iterative process that lends itself, oddly enough, to physical motion. Years ago in grad school, I used to write for an hour early in the morning before showering, and tease out ideas while shampooing my hair. While biking downtown to teach, I map out lectures between traffic lights, sometimes becoming so preoccupied that I’ll forget to turn down Yonge toward campus. I’ve done a lot of writing on trains, and out in the woods, and down along the lake. If I am not moving while writing, ideally there will be other things in motion: a river eddying around rocks, trees twisting in a wind, snow falling fast and slantwise.

A pandemic is a study in stasis, and after a year spent working from home there have had to be accommodations. After months spent livestreaming lectures from my office I’ve abandoned that space, opening up my laptop in the living room, or in the sitting room on the third floor, or even at an old secretary desk in the spare bedroom. In each room I’ll work for a while before getting up to check the fridge, or look out a window, or check the mail. A neighbour comes out of her house. The recycling bins need bringing back in. Hoisted by cherry pickers, city crews are trimming street trees. A cat wants out. A cat wants in.

In the house, winter light illuminates the undersides of things, and so I get up to look. This wooden shelf, hung in a corner by the bay window, glows between snow squalls in the pewter afternoon light. There is a story to every piece here. The shelf itself I found discarded at curbside around the corner five or six years ago. It is handmade, probably a project piece made from instructions in a DIY magazine published not long after the War. The sage-coloured candlesticks, jam pot, carved wooden bird and vases are from my mother.

I bought the two leather-bound books on the middle shelf for a dollar each at an Eastern Ontario yard sale many years ago: one (published in 1829), is a life of Alexander the Great; the other (dated a decade later) a life of Peter the Great (the volume on Alexander the Great has a folio-sized fold-out map of the Middle East and Central Asia). I found the brass owl and squirrel figurine on the shelf at Value Village. The two books lying on their sides are fascinating. The first, John Ruskin‘s Ethics of the Dust: Ten lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization, is a Socratic-voiced manual of geology, minerology … and metaphysics. Ruskin was a leading Victorian thinker who was influenced by Darwin and very much interested in education (including the education of women) and independent thought. The other volume, The Blind Farmer and his Children, is a nineteenth century ‘improving’ novel originally published in 1817 (my copy “awarded to William Meikle as a prize for regular attendance,” by teacher Agnes Morrison on 27 June 1872). Ethics of the Dust was a gift from my mother; I found The Blind Farmer and His Children among her books after she died. The green china deer came from the Leslieville Flea; the double-decker bus from an eastern Ontario flea market.

On the bottom shelf are my Mother West Wind books from childhood, some little books I like to look at (The Observer’s Book of Furniture, The Observer’s Book of Architecture, two ‘Mr. Cuthbert’s’ gardening guides from the early 1950s, and A Flower Fairy Alphabet.), and a small green pitcher I spotted on the shelf a year ago at Value Village and left there, regretting the decision as soon as we left the store. A week later it was still there, and came home with me.

I look upon these treasures, illuminated in the pewter light. The snow squall ends, the light shifts. It’s time to return to work.

A Piece of the Storm

“From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”

[Strand, Mark, 1998.A Piece of the Storm. From Blizzard of One. Knopf: 20.]

For twenty years I have loved this poem, the first of many of Mark Strand’s poems and essays I have read and loved. I have the book, with the clipping of the newspaper article in which it first appeared to me tucked into it. I remember the stillness it left in its wake.

For me the “city of domes” was and will always be Kingston, Ontario, where I lived within sight and shadow of its cathedrals. I first read the poem in another city, sitting in a chair in a south-facing window with the domes of another city shadowed and sunlit in the distance.

I awoke this morning with the certainty that has risen in me for months:

It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.

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.


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

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.