I’ve been incredibly busy with work for a while, not much spare time for blog posts, though I have a couple in mind that I want to write soon. But today I came across this, from a Facebook page called Death Cafe and it seemed about as fitting as any words could be for a blog called Start Now.
In his book, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, Peter C. Newman relates a well-known story about author Margaret Laurence. “The magnificent Ms. Laurence was a proud professional, offended by anyone who didn’t adequately respect her craft,” he writes. “Once at a Montreal reception, a distinguished gentleman came up to her and gushed, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve read everything you’ve written. I’m a brain surgeon, and when I retire, I’m going to do novels, too!’ She looked at him with pretend enthusiasm, grabbed him by the elbow, and bellowed, ‘What a coincidence! When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.’”
I saw this on Facebook the other day and, as a writer of 30 years myself, I immediately nodded in recognition. I try not to get annoyed when I’m at some sort of social gathering where someone asks me what I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” to which they respond, “I’m a writer, too. I write in my journal every day.” No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t make you a writer any more than my balancing my cheque book or doing my own taxes makes me an accountant. It makes you literate. There’s a difference.
At the same time, though, it occurred to me when I reread that Margaret Laurence anecdote that, although I understand the sentiment, the reality in the early third millennium is not the same as it was when she made that statement. In this era, it is feasible for people to retire from whatever they’ve been doing all their lives and become writers. Numerous current students and alumni of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction Writing at University of King’s college fall into that category. Some of them are likely to finish and publish at least one book, if not more.
Self-publishing makes it even more possible for people to retire and become published writers. It’s easy to say that’s just vanity publishing, but I edit a lot of authors who hope to be traditionally published but are willing self-publish, as well as many who choose a self-publishing model from the start, and I’m often impressed with the quality of writing and the story ideas that come my way, regardless of which publishing model the authors are pursuing.
My point is that, particularly in an era in which people are living much longer and often remaining productive until close to the end of their lives, the notion that one might retire from one profession, move on to another, and attain some degree of success—sometimes a considerable degree—is not unrealistic.
Look at Claire Sower, whom I’ve written about here—a successful writer for many years who is now thriving as a visual artist. And Guenther Krueger—another successful writer who earned his PhD in his late fifties/early sixties and worked at his dream job for the last three years before he retired. Clark Elliott, who wrote The Ghost in My Brain, is a gifted professor of artificial intelligence, not a writer, yet he published a book last year.
The whole point of this Start Now blog is to tell readers that it’s never too late to start something new. There are writers who not only did that but became very well-known and widely admired for their writing: although both Charles Bukowski and Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing earlier in life, neither were published until they were in their fifties, and Frank McCourt didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66.
It’s also not unusual for doctors to become writers. Think Oliver Sacks, Norman Doidge, and Peter D. Kramer. (Is it a coincidence they’re all psychiatrists?) On the other hand, my son and daughter-in-law are both in medical school and I can’t imagine anyone retiring and becoming a doctor, never mind a neurosurgeon. I can imagine a person starting in medicine perhaps as late as 40, but it’s at least a nine-year process (after completing a four-year undergraduate degree, usually in the sciences) from starting basic sciences to completing a residency, comprising long, stressful hours every step of the way. So, no, I can’t see a person retiring and becoming a physician.
That’s not to say I don’t see Laurence’s point. I work hard at my writing. I’ve been told I have a gift, which I think is horseshit. I’ve spent over 30 years learning my craft, most recently in a master’s program that had me working harder than I have in years. I have as little patience for people who think writers have a gift and writing comes easily to them as I do for people who refer to themselves as writers just because they’re literate. (I have even less patience for people who use these wrong-headed perceptions as excuses not to pay writers adequately.)
So right after I read that old Margaret Laurence anecdote and nodded my head in agreement, I had to think twice about what she’d actually said and whether it still applies. The spirit of it? Yes, unfortunately, it still applies. But the letter of it? No. It’s increasingly apparent that it is possible to retire from a career, take up writing, be serious about it, finish one or more books, find one or more publishers, build an audience, and maybe even win awards.
I’m glad about that, because it gives me and a lot of other people an opportunity to believe that if we work hard at it, we will be able to achieve what we’ve always wanted to but never before had the time or opportunity to do so directly. But I’d also like it if people would get the message beneath Laurence’s quip, which is as valid today as it was when she said it: writing is hard work and deserves to be taken as seriously as any other craft, art, or profession.
If you’re not a professional writer but you aspire to become one, more power to you. But before you say “I’m a writer, too” or “I plan to become a writer when I retire” to someone who’s already been doing the work and paying the dues for decades, ask yourself if you’d say the same thing to an accountant just because you balance your cheque book every month and do your own taxes every year. And maybe then consider saying something a little more appropriate, like “I write in my journal every day, and I often think I’d like to write more when the kids are grown and I have more time. Tell me what it’s like to be a professional writer.”
[Edited] Since posting this, the book has been launched. I thought I had the book trailer inserted here, but the link wasn’t working. However, you can see it yourself at http://www.nikikrauss.com/?page_id=1096.
I’d also like to add (and I hope it’s not unforgivably immodest) that the author just sent me a copy of her book with a lovely inscription and this paragraph in the acknowledgements:
The editor’s red pen can feel a dagger to a writer. Not so with Lynne Melcombe, who edited my very rough first draft. Your constructive criticism and carefully crafted corrections helped me to find my voice as a writer. You were not only editor but also teacher. Thank you for your gentle and respectful awareness of how fragile I often was. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with me.
Thank you, Niki, for allowing me the privilege of editing your very moving memoir (not to mention touching my heart and making my day). I hope it sells well and, above all, I hope you keep writing. I don’t doubt for a moment you have many more things to say.
In 1999, Clark Elliott, a professor of artificial intelligence at DePaul University in Chicago, was in a “minor” rear-ender. With no external injuries, he initially thought he’d escaped unscathed. It took some time for him to realize how wrong he was.
His symptoms, including spatial disorientation, dizziness and nausea, uncoordinated movements, balance issues, short-term memory issues, and much more, disabled him for the next eight years. But nothing about his injury was straightforward, as is often the case for concussion sufferers.
According to Parachute Canada, a nonprofit organization devoted to injury prevention, nearly 3,000 people in Canada reported to a hospital emergency department with a concussion in the fiscal year 2010–2011. However, as most concussions go unreported, that grossly underestimates the number that occur every year. In the US, the CDI estimates 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) annually, about 75% of which are “mild” TBI, also known as concussions.
The CDI further estimates that direct and indirect medical costs of TBI, such as lost productivity, totaled an estimated $60 billion in the US in 2000. (I estimated the income I’d lost from my 2003 concussion when my lawsuit went to mediation in 2007; it was substantial, and has grown every year since then.)
Elliott describes himself as fortunate in having an accommodating employer, so for him, at least initially, financial loss wasn’t the biggest concern, as it is for many people. Good thing; his symptoms, which he describes eloquently based on copious notes written throughout his ordeal and recovery with a scientist’s eye for detail, gave him more than enough to deal with.
The first chapter opens with one such description:
Just before nine o’clock, on a frigid night in early 2002, I completed my three-hour lecture on artificial intelligence at DePaul University’s downtown campus. I was exhausted, and ready to head for home, but it took me another two hours to make my way to the sixth floor of the building across the street, then crawl down the hall to my office and there rest in the dark and the quiet until I was able to attempt my journey north to Evanston. Finally, at eleven, I left the building again and headed off through the brutal wind, intending to walk the five blocks to my car, parked near the lake on Columbus Drive.
He goes on to write that his progress toward his car was slowed by snow flurries, which disoriented him in a city with which he was very familiar. He felt the onset of a visual distortion similar to the “dolly zoom effect” used by cinematographers. It took him an hour to reach his car, and another half hour to overcome the disorientation enough to unlock the door and climb in.
He then sat with the car idling until 2 am, resting enough to drive home safely. But once in his driveway, it took him another hour to get to his front door, though it was only 40 feet away. By the time he’d rested enough to get to sleep without getting sick, it was over seven hours since his class had ended.
It sounds too bizarre to be true, but I know from experience how easy it is for others to think concussion sufferers are exaggerating. On the outside, they may look and act fine, while on the inside, they are battling a crippling headache, overwhelmed with confusion, or trying to keep their balance in a room that won’t stop spinning.
The Ghost in My Brain conveys two important messages. First, the lasting impacts of concussion are, for some people, long and torturous. (I’ve read many sad concussion stories while collecting research for my book, but this recent one from the Toronto Star is particularly tragic.)
And second, even years after the injury, there is hope for recovery, as Elliott discovered eight years after his concussion when, on the verge of giving up his career, his home, and custody of his children, he made a last-ditch attempt to find someone who could help him.
He found a clinical psychologist named Donalee Markus who had worked with NASA and developed visual exercises designed to create new neural pathways to replace damaged ones. In her foreword to Elliott’s book, she writes:
Clark Elliott was a mystery to me when we first met. Observing him through my glass front door, I saw that it took him two minutes just to find the doorknob with his hand. When I gave him the simplest of my assessment tests—copying a geometric line drawing—his body went into bizarre contortions as he struggled to complete it. It hurt me to watch this brilliant man put so much effort into such a trivial task.
“The plasticity of the human brain is both its power and its weakness,” she writes. Although life-sustaining functions are hard-wired, cognitive functions, like thinking, hoping, planning, and controlling behaviour, are not. However, when damage occurs to these parts, it is usually diffuse and microscopic, so it is not visible through current imaging technologies and therefore difficult to diagnose, to treat—even to believe.
Because of her unique skill set and persistence, Markus believed Elliott and was able to diagnose and treat him (and many others). She did not do it alone, however. As it was clear visual perception was a significant aspect of Elliott’s dysfunction, she referred him to Deborah Zelinsky, a neuro-optometrist and innovator in the use of visual assessments to diagnose brain trauma, and treat it with a series of therapeutic eyeglasses.
(I haven’t interviewed Zelinsky, but I suspect the glasses she prescribes are similar to those Hilary Clinton was seen wearing after her concussion in 2012, but more advanced than the single corrective, rather than therapeutic, pair I was prescribed in 2004.)
The Ghost in My Brain is a fascinating read, though there are places where it bogs down, notably when Elliott includes long segments from his detailed notes. (This makes sense; he was not writing these for a reading audience but for his own edification as a scientist.) Yet those details were vital to the treatment that finally got his life back on track, and remain important to our growing understanding of what concussion is and how millions of people might benefit from similar treatment.
Perhaps my biggest frustration after reading the book (twice, to absorb as much as possible) is realizing how few people have access to such treatment. I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon the only neuro-optometrist in British Columbia, who is now retired. There are some other practitioners in Canada and the US who offer similar services, but they are few, far between, and hard to find.
Moreover, in most cases, patients have to be financially equipped to travel for treatment and pay out of pocket for their services, which are unlikely to be covered by most medical plans. That means many of the “concussives” Elliott refers to as the “walking wounded” have little recourse but to accept disability for the rest of their lives—and the rest of us have little choice but to accept the cost of everything we lose when people we care about can no longer contribute fully to our relationships with them, or to society.
My friend Guenther, non-Birkie wearing musician, nurse, therapist, writer, PhD, retiree, and now meditator.
Guenther Krueger is no stranger to starting over. I met him back in the early 1990s when we were both working as freelance journalists. At that time, I had no idea how many times he’d already started over.
Since then, we’ve been the kind of friends who see each other once every few years at social events. It was only recently we started getting together more often, after he read a blog post (which I’ve since taken down for personal reasons) in which I wrote frankly about some of my recent life troubles. He asked me out for coffee, and I found out a lot I’d never known about him, including that he’d recently been through a difficult time of his own, which led to his most recent “start over”—with meditation.
I would not have guessed Krueger was into meditation. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t wear Birkies. As far as I could see, he’s always had a sardonic wit and never let things bother him much. But after what he went through a couple of years ago, meditation was what gave him a fresh start—the thing that’s allowed him to ease into retirement and enjoy it instead of fretting over it, the way many new retirees do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Krueger’s first “start over” came when he was young, as happens for many of us. His youthful goal was to be a concert pianist but “I only lasted two weeks in the faculty of music at U of T.” He made a pretty radical career switch to nursing, where he worked in pediatrics for the better part of 12 years. He knew he wanted to work in health care and with kids, but nursing “was never really what I wanted to do.”
Then he did a master’s degree in counselling, but when he was finished, he realized he had only three real options: go on to a PhD, work for a company that was helping people get back in the workforce, or go into private practice. The first two didn’t appeal to him; the third, “I found frustrating because it would mean working with clients who could pay but had easily resolvable problems, rather than working with people with more challenging problems but who couldn’t pay.”
(Eventually, he did a second master’s, a liberal arts degree. Although it didn’t lead to a career, he does realize in hindsight that he got better and better at being a student with each degree.)
Then, in his late thirties (the mid-1980s), he realized “what I really wanted to do was write.” Like me, he started by taking a course with Vancouver’s legendary freelancer, Daniel Wood. (We might even have been in the same class.) Krueger remembers one class where the assignment was to write a query. “Daniel read it out as an example of everything NOT to do!” This is one of the things I love about Krueger: instead of taking it to heart, he took Wood’s advice, sent the revised letter to an editor, and “sold my first article on the basis of the very first query I ever sent out.”
He loved freelance journalism but, like most of us, he quickly realized there was not much money in it, so he got into reporting at medical conferences (the same type of work Claire Sower was doing), and picking up other contract jobs, too, as all freelancers do.
(“One of the things I noticed about freelancing is that nobody really understands it,” he says. “You’ll be at a party and someone will ask you what you do. You’ll say you’re a freelance writer and they’ll ask you one or two questions about what you write, not realizing that when you’re freelancing you basically write whatever pays. Then they lose interest.” I know just what he means. I’ve had exactly the same experience a hundred times.)
Around 2000, the medical reporting he was doing began to lean toward advertorial work for the pharmaceutical industry, which Krueger didn’t enjoy. “It was just what paid,” he says. Then in 2003, when he was in his late fifties, Krueger’s partner, Barry, who was then still part of the communications department [edited] at Simon Fraser University (he’s recently retired, though still in demand as a guest lecturer and performer) suggested Guenther talk to a colleague in communications about working with her on some grant applications she was writing [edited]. She was already pretty much assured of receiving a $3 million grant and suggested Krueger do a PhD there so they could work on that project together. “I thought about what I might like to do and realized I was really interested in how people cope with tragic loss,” he says. His acceptance to the program “effectively ended my freelance career.”
This is where things get really interesting for me. Other than my peers in the MFA program, I don’t know many people who are willing to start a new degree in their late fifties, much less a five-year commitment to a PhD. In his early sixties, freshly minted doctorate in hand, Krueger found his dream job on a three-year project at BC’s Children’s Hospital, bringing him full circle back to working with sick children, but in the way he’d always wanted.
Life was good, at least for a while. But in July 2014, his mother and father both died, just 10 days apart. He wasn’t close with his parents, so he didn’t expect to feel the loss acutely, and at first he didn’t. “I was the sole executor of the estate, and I treated it like I would any other project.” The whole thing was wrapped up by Christmas, and when he and Barry later went on holiday to Hawaii, he felt fine.
It was the following August, about a year after his parents died, that he suddenly started having anxiety attacks. “I’d wake up in the night, unable to sleep, and go out for a walk.” He found himself so wound up with anxiety that sometimes, in the evening, he’d go downstairs to his partner’s work space—something he’d never done in a relationship of 30-some years—and just lie down there for the sake of being close to someone who cared about him. “Barry felt badly because he wanted to do something to help, but being near him was all I needed.”
Eventually, Krueger started putting things together. He’d been through three major changes in his life almost simultaneously: the career-capping project at Children’s Hospital had wrapped up; he’d retired, which meant he wasn’t working for the first time in 50 years; and he’d been so busy with his parents’ estate that he hadn’t had time to think how he felt about their deaths. The losses had piled up, and were now compounded with a prostate issue and a hernia.
Once [edited] he realized this, he says, “I decided I had to attack the problem from all angles.” He went to his doctor to schedule surgeries for the prostate and hernia issues, started seeing a therapist to work out unresolved issues with his parents, and, on the advice of his therapist and some friends, started meditating.
Never one to do things in half measures, “I decided to read everything I could about meditation,” he says. The book he recommended to me when we got together last July was Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I promptly ordered and read it, and tried to follow Kabat-Zinn’s advice to the letter, but his eight-week program of building up to 45 minutes a day of a type of meditation he calls a “body scan” didn’t work for me.
“I don’t adhere to any one style of meditation,” Krueger says now. He doesn’t sit in a lotus posture, but lies down due to back pain (so do I). He doesn’t insist on any minimum amount of time, either. “I find that even if I sit still and focus on my breathing for as little as 10 minutes, my whole day goes better. I’m less stressed and more able to appreciate life in the moment. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about what comes next, and I’m not doing that anymore.”
Krueger’s partner recently retired and went off to Berlin to teach for four months. After his anxiety issues last year, Krueger was a little worried about how he’d do on his own for four months. “It’s been fine, and I think meditation is making the difference.”
Mid-sixties and still starting over—inspiring or exhausting? I’ll go with inspiring. Oh, and meditating for shorter periods and without doing the “body scan” is working better for me, too.
I’ve never seen my friend Claire Sower happier. Not that I see her often; we’re colleagues who bump into each other once every few years. But when I saw her displaying her work Art! Vancouver 2015 last spring, and she told me she’d been invited to participate in a show at the Agora Gallery in New York in October, there was a joy in her face I’ve never seen before.
“In my heart, I know this is what I was born to do,” she says of her mid-life switch from computer to canvas. “When I’m not painting, it’s what I want to be doing.”
Like me, Sower started out as a freelance journalist. And like me, as the years went by and well-paying freelance journalism gigs became fewer and further between, she filled in the gaps with contract work. Eventually, she landed a great gig as a medical journalist, writing reports about clinical research that had been presented at conferences prior to peer-reviewed publication. It was a stressful job, with ever-tight deadlines and a need for pinpoint accuracy, but it included world travel and good money—enough to buy a piece of property, not a common thing for a freelance journalist these days.
Her career switch had its seeds in 2007, when the FDA changed regulations regarding third-party reporting of medical conferences so it could only be done by those with university accreditation for providing continuing medical education. The bottom fell out of the industry; many communications companies went out of business. Out of work, other than the usual jobs most freelancers eke out a living on before finding something more life-sustaining, she set out to create a website providing medical information. But the internet was changing too quickly, social media had not yet evolved into the marketing tool it’s since become, and she was competing against dozens of other health websites, like WebMD, and tens of thousands of out-of-work medical reporters.
“I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t have deep pockets.” She was just making ends meet, and getting to the point where she realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to do what I want to do, goddammit!” She’d always wanted to paint, but “it never seemed like an option. I never had the time or money.”
Then in 2009, a friend mentioned she’d signed up for an art class and invited Sower to join her. Within weeks, she was hooked. After perhaps a dozen classes, “my friend and I went out and looked for a studio,” she says. “We had one within 10 days down on Granville Island. I just knew at the soul of my being this was what I should be doing.”
After a while, the paintings started to pile up and she figured she might as well try to sell them; if you don’t, she deadpans, “eventually, you’ll just be found dead under a pile of canvases.” Her first show was just a display of her work in West Vancouver City Hall, but it generated enough interest to keep her looking for opportunities.
I’ve been admiring and sharing her work on Facebook for a few years now; there’s something about the flowers she paints that draws my eye. She does landscapes, too—there were a few on exhibit when I saw her last May—but it’s the florals that are written about so glowingly in her artist’s bio for the New York show:
Claire Sower’s florals are tactile and interpretive, conveying a strong sense of tension and joy. . . . Eschewing detail in favor of essence, Sower works quickly, using palette knives to build depth by layering paint, allowing colors to mix on the canvas. This brings a sense of immediacy to her work, which conveys a flower’s “living energy.”
The New York show happened through social media. Claire has a website, of course, and a Facebook presence, but finds Instagram a great platform for emerging artists because it’s where a lot of galleries look for new talent. The Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York, found her there and invited her to participate in a group show, which opened yesterday (October 9) and continues through most of the month (to October 29).
There’s a whole business component to any art, she says, as any artist knows all too well. You can’t just sit back and relax; you have to be constantly self-promoting. You also have to make some hard choices financially; you have to love what you do or it won’t feel worthwhile. You have to be willing to embrace a somewhat precarious existence, have some faith, and let go.
In some ways, that can be easier for a young person at the beginning of their lives, but Sower feels it’s an advantage to be making this kind of life change at an older age.
“I think being older serves me better because having had 20 years as a self-employed writer and running my own business, I have a lot of experience to draw on in terms of how I want to set up my business as an artist. I understand there’s a lot of pitfalls. I mean, yes, there’s debt, but there’s always debt. I think that’s just a way of life these days. . . . I’ve learned to trust my gut, trust my instincts, and they’ve never steered me wrong.”
At the moment, Sower spends her mornings on freelance writing opportunities to help pay the bills; rent from her property helps, too, another way being older is helping her fulfill her dream. But throughout those mornings at the computer, she’s always looking forward to afternoons and evenings at her studio.
Her long-term goal is to paint full time. “I’m going to have a big studio with a studio assistant and I’m just going to rock and roll!”
I believe she’ll do it. Her work is beautiful and original, and she has the drive and passion to get where she wants to go. And why not? People are living longer and healthier lives these days. Why shouldn’t mid-life be a time when we switch tracks and gear up for something completely new?
If you happen to be in New York City this month, visit the Agora Gallery in Chelsea between October 9 and 29 (opening reception October 15). If not, check out her website or Facebook page and see for yourself. Claire Sower’s art rocks—and, by the way, so does she.
A few nights ago, I watched the second-season finale of Unité 9 on Netflix—and I thought Orange is the New Black was good. This piece of French-Canadian TV brilliance sheds a whole new light on women fighting an uphill battle to start their lives over.
Like OITNB, Unité 9 is set in a prison called Lietteville outside of Montreal. As the show opens, Marie Lamontagne is being hauled off to prison after pleading guilty to trying to kill her father. When she arrives, she’s surprised to find most of the women (except those few in either solitary confinement or the maximum security wing) living in groups of six in cozy little bungalows. Each woman has a small daily allowance for food, but in Unit 9 they pool their resources to have nicer meals, complemented by vegetables grown in a communal garden. Unit 9 is clean, organized, and run like a family by the maternal Elise, who’s approaching the end of her 24-year sentence.
But as Marie begins her seven-year term, a new prison director is taking charge at Lietteville. There have been problems at this new-concept prison and Corrections Canada has appointed stern-faced, tight-laced M. Despins to set the situation straight. Thus, the show starts out by playing into conservative, law-and-order stereotypes of convicts living the easy life on the taxpayer’s dime. Criminals who wear their own clothing, earn money at prison jobs to buy personal comforts like television sets and music players, and even take weekly piano lessons? What kind of system is this for punishing people who have committed crimes against society? And not just people, but women?
As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent this system was working quite well, thank you—or was, until Despins came along. Women whose root crimes were being poor, uneducated, and often lifelong victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were working through their problems and becoming equipped to rejoin society.
But as Despins implements his ideas of the way a prison should work, the thread holding the women of Unit 9 together begins to unravel . At the same time as we’re learning why each woman is really there, what demons many of them are fighting, Despins is busy throwing more of them into Solitary or Max, splitting supportive family groups apart, and tossing women who were beginning to heal in with sociopathic gang members.
Committed staff who have worked with female convicts for years become frustrated with the increasingly toxic environment and leave Lietteville. New wardens hired more for brawn than brains either brutalize their charges or become involved with them sexually. Smuggling and theft increase, internal intimidation and violence run rampant, and all of it gives Despins the excuse he needs to become even more controlling.
In this environment, women who have lived their lives by negotiating gendered double binds find themselves less and less able to do what is expected of them—take responsibility for their actions and prepare to start their lives over.
The script is, of course, laced with metaphors: The windows need no bars because the real prisons are in the women’s minds. The psychiatrist is legally blind but her insights are deep and true. Liette, the root of Lietteville, is both a short form of the romantic “Juliette” and a variant of the slang term “Le Tit,” which refers to a female girl with nice T&A.
Marie Lamontagne is a mountain of strength, having pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit to protect her daughter, Léa Petite, from sexual abuse at the hands of the same father who molested Marie. Through all the verbal abuse and sermonizing Marie endures for failing to take responsibility for a crime she did not commit (while her father’s abuse of both herself and her daughter goes unpunished), she protects her child (who attacked her grandfather in self-defense) by keeping her secret.
The story itself is, of course, a metaphor. Just as the best speculative fiction takes the problems we find most intractable on Earth and places them in distant galaxies, where we might see them more objectively and find our way out of the double binds we’ve placed ourselves in, Unité 9 places a group of women in their own small, separate universe so that we might see the double binds that tie us all into a world of gendered rules more clearly.
While OITNB strives to do something similar (and succeeds, as Stacey May Fowles wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail), it does so with a lighter touch, and it’s partly the humour with which the real-life protagonist, Piper Kerman, looks at responsibility in her own and other women’s lives that makes OITNB so good.
Unité 9 takes a different route, and a much harsher look at all the same themes, and reveals more in black and white than orange why it can sometimes be so hard for women who would like nothing better than to start their lives over, to actually do so.
Thank you to my wonderful daughter, Jayme, for attending my graduation with me.
History has a way of repeating itself. Nearly two years ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to begin my master’s degree. A couple of weeks ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to attend my graduation.
I couldn’t afford to miss a week of work, I reasoned. I couldn’t afford the expense after two years of accruing student debt. I might miss something blooming in my garden.
Best people I know.
I don’t know why I was even thinking of not attending my own convocation after all my hard work, but I knew none of my excuses were going to cut it. I missed my high school commencement due to illness, and blew off my undergraduate event because I’d done my degree over so many years that I wasn’t really graduating with a “class.” But I’m now 58 years old. It’s unlikely I’m ever going to graduate from anywhere again. If I missed this event, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
My family makes a big deal out of graduations. In the past decade, I’ve attended more than a dozen of them. When anyone in our family graduates, the whoops and hollers erupting from our aisle in the audience can probably be heard a couple of blocks away. I wanted to hear that yelping and yeehawing for me, yet I almost didn’t go.
Being piped down University Avenue to the cathedral.
I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my doubts. My MFA graduation was even better than I imagined. I couldn’t fly the whole family across the country to be my cheering section, and there were good reasons most of them couldn’t have attended even if I could have.
But I took my older daughter with me and we had a fabulous time. And my two dear writer friends in Halifax, Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron, came out to cheer me on. (In fact, Don, who has an honourary doctorate from the University of King’s College, donned his regalia and took part in the procession. I felt wonderfully honoured.)
I did it!
Chronic headaches have, for the most part, put an end to my partying days, but I was determined not to miss anything during grad week. For me, the celebration started with a day of attempting to show my daughter around Halifax but instead getting lost and walking around for four hours. No problem; we laughed a lot while wandering around looking for water (which shouldn’t be that hard to find in a small port city). That was followed by a wonderful dinner with Marjorie and Don. The next day, there was a rehearsal in the afternoon, a pre-dinner reception, and the President’s Dinner.
Then it was the big day, and it was worth every bit of the two years of hard work that preceded it. It started with photos of our MFA class on the steps of the Admin building, continued with a procession through the city from King’s College along University Avenue, and culminated with the encaenia (King’s still uses the Latin word) at the Cathedral Church of All Saints.
The wait for the ceremony, in a hot back room of the church, seemed interminable, but in no time we were processing into the cathedral. To my right, I saw my daughter’s smiling face as she snapped photos of me. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and that made me cry, too.
The ceremony was about two-and-a-half hours, and the MFA class was the last group to receive our degrees; in hindsight, it seems appropriate because we were the loudest, rowdiest group of all.
Loving thanks to Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron.
Maybe that was because we’re all mature students and never expected, before 2013, to do this; maybe it was because people’s book topics were so intense that they couldn’t help but bring us close together. Maybe it was because we were the very first class in the first program of its kind in Canada, or because all but one of us came to grad—and that one had a very good reason. (Good luck, Spencer Osberg!)
Regardless, there was no group of recipients in the convocation who were more enthusiastic about every single member of the class being “capped” and receiving their parchment—no group that cheered louder or clapped harder or made every member of the class feel more loved, appreciated, and proud.
The Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch was the real deal.
After it was all over and we’d taken a million photos, my daughter took me out for dinner before our grad party at Helen McDonnell’s, where I received the MFA (see photo) Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch. Then it was coffee at the Cobourg on Friday morning, a pre-party at program director Stephen Kimber’s home in the afternoon, and a final barbecue at Pauline Dakin’s house (with many thanks to Pauline for hosting our last “wrap” party as well as our first).
When I was accepted to the degree program two years ago and was wrestling with my doubts, one thing that kept me going was that I wanted to be a good role model for my kids—to show them it’s never too late to start over. At that point in my life, I was struggling to cope with daily headaches and deep depression. I’d given up on ever getting a master’s degree, writing a book, travelling, or anything else I’d once imagined doing before I died, so anything good that happened after that was a bonus, from my perspective.
If you’d told me then that, two years later, I’d be halfway through a book, partying in Halifax with some of the best people I know, and writing a blog about starting over in mid-life, I would have smiled politely and nodded, while inwardly rolling my eyes.
So much more than a piece of parchment.
I’m not rolling my eyes anymore. And I can’t even begin to imagine what else might still be in store for me.
One of the best things about starting over so many years after my injury has been reading. I’ve been a voracious reader for most of my life. During my years as a freelance journalist, I’d get up at 6 AM, or earlier, make a pot of coffee, and read for hours. I subscribed to 12 or 13 magazines and I’d power through every issue, rarely skipping an article, until I felt guilty about my children watching too TV (even if it was Sesame Street).
When I shifted to communications work, I had less time for magazines, but I scoured newspapers daily for stories related to my clients’ mandates so I could ghost write letters to the editor and op/eds, and if I happened to read a lot more than necessary, that was fine. I love good literary fiction, and although I was too busy to read more than a few novels a year, I always took time to read a few on the annual camping trip or over the Christmas break.
After my injury, though, reading for pleasure completely became a thing of the past. Even now, 12 years after the concussion, nothing triggers my headache faster than putting on my reading glasses, especially if I’m reading from the computer screen.
Very quickly after the accident, with no idea what a long-lasting choice this would be, my husband and I decided I had to focus the few good reading hours I had every week day—the few hours before The Headache became intolerable—on billable work only. I divided the rest of my time between health care appointments and rest.
For months, I was only able to tolerate reading for a few hours a day. For years, even when that improved, I still felt I couldn’t afford the time and pain to read for pleasure.
Before my injury, nothing had ever been higher on my Christmas wish list than books. Afterward, there was no point in making a wish list of books because they just gathered dust. Reading was, without a doubt, one of the many losses that steepened my descent into depression. Not only could I not escape into a different world in a way that’s not possible with TV or DVDs, I could barely keep up enough with events around the globe to carry on a conversation about anything larger than my increasingly confined middle-class suburban life.
When I began the MFA program, I worried about being able to manage the reading (and my lack of awareness of what was going on in the world at large, never mind the literary world, embarrassed me). But once I started reading again, it was like getting together with an old friend.
I still don’t read as much as I used to, or as I’d like to. That’s partly because the pace of my reading has slowed considerably, not just because of The Headache, but because the injury triggered symptoms associated with post-trauma vision syndrome.* The Free Dictionary defines PTVS this way:
A defect in visualperceptionthatfollows a neurologicalevent(e.g.,traumaticbraininjury,cerebrovascularaccident,multiplesclerosis,cerebralpalsy),which is characterised by theperception of movement by objectsthatareknown to be stationary,therunningtogether of printedtext,attempting to walk on a seeminglytiltedfloor,significantimbalanceandspatialdisorientationwhen in crowded,movingenvironments.
In the early days after my injury, I had all the above symptoms, and then some. The feeling of walking on a slanted floor is long gone, but I still become disoriented in a noisy, crowded room (MFA folks: this is part of why I don’t go to many parties), and I still see things moving out of the corner of my eye that I know aren’t moving.
The most frustrating symptoms for me have been the reading-related ones, like losing my place when I get to the end of a line of text; having double or blurred vision by the end of a day (or sometimes earlier); and needing to reread anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages because I’ve lost focus and absorbed nothing. Sometimes by the time I reach the end of a book, I feel like I’ve read at least half of it twice.
The good news is I’m not letting it stop me anymore. I knew I missed reading for pleasure, but I didn’t realize how much until I took it back. And it really was about taking it back. It was about deciding enough was enough, The Headache be damned, it was not going to run my life anymore.
My husband is a voracious reader, but he’s a library user. Not me; I like having a book collection, though I don’t collect books the way some people do. I’m the only one in my family without asthma, and books are dust-collectors, so I limit myself to two large bookcases in my office. Every few years, I used to clean out some of the old to make room for some new.
For several years, I didn’t need to do that. There was a disheartening lack of turnover on my bookshelves. But when I started the MFA program, I decided to change that, too. I cleared out one shelf for the nonfiction books and magazines I planned to read. I recently had to clear out a second shelf for the books, and a third for the magazines.
To people who have always read voraciously, collected books for decades, and don’t live with asthmatics, the single shelf in the picture probably doesn’t look like much. To me, it looks like heaven. When I took the photo, I decided to count up the books I’ve read since I started the program and discovered, to my surprise, I’ve read at least 30 in the past two years. (That’s not counting a few I took out of the library, dozens of magazines, and a dozen or more articles I read in the newspaper or online every day.)
I’m doing a lot better than I thought I was, and that makes me ridiculously happy.
Starting over in middle age is hard, especially when you have particular strikes against you that make it more difficult to keep up with younger peers, or your own expectations. But every so often I realize I’ve actually exceeded my expectations, and that by itself makes up for a lot.
* (For those interested in such things, my PTVS was identified by an optometrist who specialized in vision problems related to neurological dysfunction. It includes convergence insufficiency and mid-line shift. Medical doctors are more likely to refer to it as vestibular-ocular dysfunction. I later saw an opthamologist who provided the same diagnosis and remedy: glasses with refractive lenses, much like those Hillary Clinton used for a while after her concussion in 2012.)