Fall and words in the air…

I have a decades-old dream that I hope to realize now that I’m living in the GTA: to attend a high-profile public event that has loomed large in my imagination for years. I’m not talking about a U2 concert, a popular musical or a production of the Canadian Opera Company. I want to go to a Massey Lecture. Yeah, I’m kind of a nerd.

The CBC Massey Lectures are an annual series of lectures produced by the CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Each year one engaging speaker—a philosopher, writer, artist, politician, etc.—is commissioned to give five lectures on a single, broad topic. The lectures are delivered in the month of October, one at time in different Canadian cities, then replayed on the CBC radio program, Ideas, and reprinted in a book. I get excited by the thought that such an enterprise, going strong since 1961, exists. Few others I know share my enthusiasm. I don’t get that. Who wouldn’t want to explore a vital topic in great depth and detail under the leadership of someone with immense knowledge, creative expression and infectious passion?

My first exposure to the Massey Lectures was in book form, discovered while researching an essay in university. It was Carlos Fuentes’s series on Latin America. I was really lucky to stumble upon the lectures this way. Fuentes was one of the best Latin American writers of the twentieth century, and I already knew his fiction from my university courses. So, of course, his Massey lectures were well written and passionately presented. And I was surprised to find a Canadian forum for a series on Latin American issues. I was young and came from a small city with little diversity. Studying Spanish was a venture into an unknown world for me at the time. I sometimes felt alone in that particular wilderness, so discovering a Canadian connection to a Latin American topic made my choice seem more valid. I was proud of the fact that somewhere in my vast country, a voice was being given to a culture that was trying to be heard.

A few years later, I chanced upon the Massey Lectures on CBC Radio’s Ideas program. I  remember that I was working at my sewing machine with the radio on in the background, and I think the lecturer was Charles Taylor whose series was called “The Malaise of Modernity.” I heard the second or third lecture of the series, and I don’t remember many specifics other than that I was so interested that I didn’t finish whatever it was I was trying to sew, and I made sure that I had the radio on the next few evenings so I could hear the rest of the lectures. I have since bought the book of Taylor’s Massey Lectures and they are incredibly relevant now, even though they were written in 1991. Taylor foresaw many aspects of western society that other philosophers and writers have only recently been examining, and lamenting.

Like anyone who follows a certain kind of entertainment, I have my favourite Massey Lectures. The one I reread every year, a cultural ritual for me like watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, is Adam Gopnik’s Winter series. I’m a Gopnik groupie anyway (he writes for The New Yorker and has also written wonderful travel essays about his time in Paris and New York City). His Winter series explores the cultural significance of this cold season to a Northern people. He writes about how winter has shaped us and we have claimed it as our own. And reading his words, wonderfully expressed as they are, make me consider my own relationship to this time of dark and cold, a season I at times resent (especially when I have to scrape the ice off my windshield), but mostly love. Gopnik writes of that particular lavender-grey colour of the winter twilight, and how winter wasn’t fully appreciated until we could look out at it from inside our warmly heated homes. What Canadian doesn’t respond emotionally to those images of winter sky and a cup of hot something in front of a fire (or TV)? And I haven’t even mentioned his chapter on hockey—well, he writes about other winter sports too, but do they really matter? That chapter should be required reading in schools, along with Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (which I bet Gopnik knows well, having spent some of his childhood in Montreal).

I have a collection of Massey lectures on my bookshelves, that I want to expand. The names of the presenters/authors represent some of the greatest philosophers, artists and writers of our current age: Martin Luther King Jr., Northrop Frye, George Grant, Doris Lessing, Jean Vanier, Stephen Lewis, Margaret Somerville, Alberto Manguel, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Lawrence Hill, Margaret MacMillan. What incredible scholarship is represented here, and how lucky we are to have these provocative and insightful ideas available to us in so many formats. We often hear complaints about the lack of thought and reflection in our society today. The Massey Lectures are a long-standing rebuttal of that false impression.

The 2018 CBC Massey Lectures are being given by Tanya Talaga, and her title is “All Our Relations,” a reflection on “the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples—in Canada and elsewhere.” She will deliver them in October (this month!) across the country, the book is currently available, and CBC Ideas will broadcast them the week of November 12. You can find more information on the website at https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-2018-cbc-massey-lectures-all-our-relations-1.4763007. Consider making some time to listen, either in person or during an evening on the radio, and explore the books. I won’t be attending in person (this year), but a week of November evenings by my radio are already planned.

My New Logo – A Picture Worth Many Words

I’m very proud to show off the new logo for my editing business. Based on a photograph I took a few years ago, this logo was designed by my daughter, Colleen, an artist and photographer (see more of her work on her website, solas-photo.com). “Make me a logo, please,” I asked her. “Base it on this picture, maybe work in a Celtic theme, but do whatever you think best—you know what I like.” The choice of image seemed instinctual on my part, whereas her work shows considerable thought, deliberation and talent. Seeing the time and effort that she put into this image has prompted me to ponder my choice of the picture in the first place.

The photograph (seen here)Picture of gazebo roof was taken at Longwood Gardens in south-east Pennsylvania in July 2015. I was looking up through the iron-work roof of a gazebo at the towering trees and blue sky above. It’s a familiar perspective for me; I have many memories of looking up at the sky, whether it was the starlit black over a campground, the brilliant and breezy blue of the first warm day of spring, or the heavy lavender-grey from which fell the first snow of the season. Looking up, often from a comfortable spot on the ground, I would let my imagination wander and lead me through scenarios and possibilities. That sense of breaking free is something I still feel whenever I can find a few moments to look up.

I took this picture just days before I turned 50, normally an introspective milestone and I was in the middle of a particularly difficult time of personal loss. The trip south was meant to be a short respite from what was waiting for me at home. I had long wanted to visit Longwood Gardens, mostly for the giant lily pads I had seen on the PBS show, The Victory Garden. They were worth the visit, but the rest of the gardens, the grand scope of the place, and the trees and big skies, gave me moments of freedom from my cares. Looking up through that gazebo roof, way up at the blue beyond, I was able to imagine a way through the mire of my current life. I was able to see, and feel, a moment of clarity.

When I started my editing business, I chose this picture for my website. It was an instinctive choice, and now that I think about it, I realize that this image of looking up to see the light shining through, strong and clear, represents where I want my life—my work, my relationships, my future—to go. I don’t want to get lost in the clutter on the ground; I want to look up and see clearly, imagine the possibilities even if I can’t quite reach them, yet.

Colleen took this photograph, and all of its meaning, and turned it into this beautiful illustration of what has guided me since I was a child. The centre circle is both an opening to new possibilities and a representation of the light that draws us out. The lines emanating from the circle are like the rays of the sun, giving clarity to our lives. The blue symbolizes the sky and the water, which inspire us to explore and imagine. And the Celtic circles point to my personal heritage, but also represent the many fascinations of life that swirl around us.

A less whimsical interpretation is that this image embodies the main principle that guides me as an editor: to help authors bring clarity to their writing so as to best convey their unique ideas. I’m always impressed by the knowledge and insights of the scholars with whom I work. They study incredibly interesting subjects, and find nuances and innovative interpretations that few of us could ever see on our own. I learn much from each piece I edit. My job is to help my clients use language to its full potential so that those ideas are expressed with as much distinction and vision as they deserve. I’m not so narcissistic as to think I’m the sun shining down on their work. Rather I hope my work helps to guide their readers to the sky beyond the trees, to the hole in the gazebo through which imaginations can wander.

Where Words Can Take You

This time of year, when the spring is a little too timid to shove winter along its way, I yearn to take off, to pack a bag and go somewhere warmer, more colourful, different. Unfortunately, time and money—especially lack of money—prevent me from just picking up and going. I have to find another way to escape. And my favourite way to do this is by diving into travel books. I don’t mean guidebooks; I mean a genre sometimes called “literary travel”, books written by people who have explored the world, had adventures, or sometimes found new homes. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, I think a thousand words (or more) can be worth a week or two of escape. Well-written tales about journeys to far-off places can draw a reader into the adventure. Your body may not be able to make the trip but your imagination can travel far. The words can take you to anywhere you want to go.

Literary travel books are not a new genre. They have been around not just for decades, but for centuries, and fulfilled the same needs they do today; the authors wanted to tell of the wonders they had seen, and the readers wanted to know about them. In the prologue to The Travels of Marco Polo, an invitation is extended to “…all people who wish to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you.”[1] Marco Polo made his expeditions in the 13th century, and his descriptions of what he saw are still interesting to readers today. They speak to a longing many of us have to go beyond what we know, away from our ordinary or even dull lives. Many years later, W. Somerset Maugham echoed this feeling as he began his essay on travelling in Spain with a description with which many of us can identify:

In London now, as I write, the rain of an English April pours down; the sky is leaden and cold, the houses in front of me are almost terrible in their monotonous greyness, the slate roofs are shining with the wet…. And I think of Andalusia. My mind is suddenly ablaze with its sunshine….[2]

Now my mind is ablaze as well, and for a brief time I can shut out the browns and greys of an early Canadian spring and be somewhere brighter.

The first book of this genre that I ever read was Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun. She wrote about her experience buying and renovating a house in Tuscany in such a captivating way, with detail, humour and affection, that I devoured this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. Every spare moment in which I could so safely, I read. I loved being drawn into the Italian countryside, lingering over lunch at a stone table under giant trees, and feeling the hot mistral winds as I looked out a window over the olive grove. But my favourite episode, which I found so beautiful it almost made me cry, was when Mayes described a Christmas spent in Tuscany. She wrote of simple, magical moments, fully enjoyed:

Ed calls from downstairs, “Look out the window.” Snow fell in the night, just enough to dust the fronds of the palm tree and glaze the terraces with a sheen of white.

[…] We take our coffee to the wall, brush it off, and watch the fog below us moving like an opalescent sea. Snow on Christmas!

Is this much happiness allowed?[3]

Later Mayes and her family go on a Christmas Day walk in the Tuscan hills.

We see mountains in the distance we’ve never seen, and the hilltowns of Sinalunga, Montepulciano, and Monte San Savino rise sharply like three ships sailing against the sky…. I start to hum “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day in the morning.” A red fox leaps down onto the path ahead of us. He sweeps his plumy tail back and forth, regards us for a moment, then darts into the woods.[4]

She told of a Christmas that was very different from a North American one, less focussed on gifts and more focussed on family, food and the outdoors. At that time of my life I felt chained to the obligations of big family celebrations at great expense. Mayes’s description of a much calmer holiday gave me a momentary escape and hope for a possible reprieve, someday.

Another of my favourite writers is Adam Gopnik, who has written books about his time living with his family in Paris and New York City—two cities I especially wanted to visit but had yet to get to when I first read his words. Much like with the words of Frances Mayes, I was captivated by the descriptions Gopnik gave of the places he saw every day, and appreciative of the fact that he obviously realized how special these cities were and how unique his experience was. In Through the Children’s Gate, he tells of returning to New York City with his young family and preparing to see it anew through the eyes of his son and daughter.

We came back to New York in 2000, after years away, to go through the Children’s Gate…. The Children’s Gate exists, and you really can go through it. It’s the name for the entrance to Central Park at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. The names of the gates—hardly more than openings in the low stone wall describing the park—are among its more poetic, less familiar monuments…. There was, and is, the Miners’ Gate, and the Scholars’ Gate, and—for a long time this was my favorite—the Strangers’ Gate, high on the West Side. The Children’s Gate is one of the lesser known, though the most inviting of all.[5]

I was enchanted by the idea of these gates, something I never would have known about without reading Gopnik’s book. I eventually made my way to New York City and sought out the Children’s Gate. It is a very inviting entrance, and leads you to the sailing pond and the delightful statue of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling. This was a rare occasion when I got to live out what I had held in my mind for so long; those words actually did take me somewhere wonderful.

Another book that held me spell-bound for several days was The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester, about his journey up the Yangtze River, from its mouth in Shanghai to one of its presumed sources in Tibet. He told of a journey through what was to me a very foreign and fascinating country, all inspired by an ancient scroll painting of the great river by one of the most revered artists of ancient China, Wang Hui, that Winchester first saw in the living room of a home in New Hampshire.[6] That part of the book was more familiar to me at least—being cozy in a darkened living room on a winter’s evening, dreaming of a trip.

In her book, A Year in the World, Frances Mayes talks about the push-pull of wanting home and wanting away: “…my profound desire for home…the sense of this is my place—all that has been at the mercy of an equal force, the desire to shut the door, turn the key, and go. Go. The domestic and the opposite.”[7] That is a common feeling for many of us, wanting so much to go away and then missing home when we’ve left it. Reading about travel gives us the opportunity to journey without leaving the comforts of our home, to learn of new things while being surrounded by the familiar.

As well, it gives us the chance to understand and appreciate cultures different from our own, something that is becoming very important in our increasingly globalized society. When we can communicate so easily and quickly with people from around the world, it is essential that we understand each other. While it would be wonderful if all of us could travel everywhere and learn from experience, that is an unrealistic dream. But we can learn from those who are able to travel. The journalist Andrew Solomon’s book, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World, is a collection of his writing about the different countries he has visited as part of his job over the past 30 years. In the Afterword, he stresses the importance of traveling:

Witnessing a global world is a way to make a global world. Openness makes us safe…. We must take action as citizens of our own countries yet embrace a larger whole. As soon as we believe that we cannot be citizens of the world, we lose the world of which we might have been citizens.[8]

Earlier, he writes, “This is a book about boundaries: about both the beauty in our differences and the surprising symmetries among us that persist despite those differences.”[9]  As I read that, I was struck by the similarity to the preface of the Marco Polo book quoted at the beginning of this post; how if you “want to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world,” a book can show you that. To me, it’s a demonstration of the power and importance of language, and where words can take you—to different places, new knowledge and deeper understanding.

[1] Marco Polo, The Travels (London: Penguin Books, 1958), 33.

[2] W. Somerset Maugham, The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing, ed. Pico Iyer (New York: Vintage Classics, 2009), 3.

[3] Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 218.

[4] Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, 220.

[5] Adam Gopnik, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007), 8.

[6] Simon Winchester, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (New York: Picador, 2004).

[7] Frances Mayes, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 412.

[8] Andrew Solomon, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World (New York: Scribner, 2016), 520.

[9] Solomon, Far & Away, 512.

In Service to Canada

Our family—my brother, me and our children—recently received Memorial Crosses and Ribbons from the Government of Canada in memory of our father, Gord Penney: “One who died in service to Canada.” It was an unexpected honour because our father and grandfather did not die in battle or as a result of injuries sustained in battle. He died of ALS.

My father was a career military man, and very proud of that fact. He first joined the Air Force when he was 18, but didn’t last very long in that branch. He claimed they made the runways too short for him. He went home to Nova Scotia, recollected his ego, and joined the Army when he was 20. He served 35 years, retiring (as required) at the age of 55 and the rank of CWO (a rank that made the officer cadets my sister and I dated tremble). He would have stayed another 20 years if they’d have let him.

He was a lucky man, and soldier. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces during a time of relative peace, so never was required to fight in battle. He was a peacekeeper in the Congo in the early 1960s, and went through a couple of “incidents” that he played down as little “scuffles”. He almost went to Vietnam in 1971, but because of a paperwork mix-up that deployment was cancelled just days before he was to leave. My sister and I, aged 4 and 6, in our innocence, were disappointed because he had told us he was going to bring us back black silk pyjamas with roses on them. We didn’t even know what silk was—we thought it was like velvet—but that sounded pretty special and we were sorry we weren’t getting those pjs. Years later, when I learned about what happened in Vietnam, I was relieved my father didn’t go there (and embarrassed at my childish selfishness). Dad went away to far-off postings, like Alert in Canada’s North, but never really into danger. He got to travel around the world, and back and forth across Canada (sometimes with us in tow). He got to learn new things and meet great people. He was a pretty lucky guy.

Or so we all thought. In June 2015, he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease). In our preliminary research on this illness, we discovered—surprisingly—that there is a link between military service and ALS. They don’t know what that connection is, but for some reason, a higher percentage of military veterans get this disease than those from the civilian population. What a shock it was to find out that the life Dad had loved so much might have been the cause of the horrible way in which he was going to die.

While my brother and I might have been a little angry about this, Dad never was. With the courage and stoicism that had been trained into him, he faced his limited future with a positive attitude. Well, most of the time—there were moments of grumpiness and lament, and during the car ride to the long-term care home I thought he was going to jump out the window. But for the most part, he accepted the fate dealt to him.

It helped that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs provided so much assistance. As soon as Dad’s diagnosis was confirmed, they stepped up with financial and moral support. They gave him more than he ever would have expected. That was such a help for all of us. End of life health crises are so difficult, financially and emotionally. Finding out what resources are available to you is a full-time job, which is stressful enough, let alone trying to pay for what you need. DVA took a large amount of that stress away from us. I think that gave Dad the most pride of his military career, knowing that the organization to which he had given his adult life, willingly and happily, was going to come through for him when he most needed them. He died in October 2016, only 16 months after his diagnosis, under his own terms and knowing that he wasn’t leaving his family with burdens to shoulder. He would have preferred to live until he was 150, and not have had to die in a way that robbed him so cruelly of his independence and dignity; but leaving with no debts and providing something for his family was an acceptable alternative. He was grateful to the Government of Canada for allowing him that choice.

He never would have imagined that he would be honoured with the Memorial Cross. For a career soldier, this is a monumental tribute, and one that he probably would have felt he didn’t deserve. He didn’t die or get wounded in battle. He wasn’t even really in any battles. Yes, he served his country but he thought he got more out of that than Canada did. And ALS, that was just an unfortunate circumstance in a predominantly lucky life. He never blamed Canada for that. To have known that the country would not only acknowledge responsibility for his illness and support him throughout his struggle, but then pay homage to his memory with a tribute such as the Memorial Cross—that crusty Chief Warrant Officer would have grumpily brushed away some embarrassing tears.

My tears flowed a little more freely when I finally held the crosses and ribbons in my hands. I knew they were coming; I had been contacted by DVA almost a year ago to make arrangements for this. But there is something about the weight of it—both actual (it’s sterling silver, after all) and metaphorical…. I’m proud of my father, and proud of my country, for what they did for each other.

Gord and Jerry Penney (my parents)

We are all touched by illnesses that we or our loved ones suffer, and for many of us there are associations that can offer us support. But we need to support them too, whenever and however we are able. My family has been touched by cancer, heart disease, MS and ALS (to name the most recent), and we have been helped by all of the organizations working to find cures for these illnesses. I have given my money and time to them when I can. I urge everyone to support the ones that are significant to you in whatever way you can. And if you or someone you love is afflicted, reach out for help.

ALS Society of Canada – https://www.als.ca
Canadian Cancer Society – http://www.cancer.ca
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada – http://www.heartandstroke.ca
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada – https://mssociety.ca

Not long for the language

At the meetings of my local editors group, we have a “Word of the Month”. It gives us a chance to learn a new word or learn more about a word we already know, and have some topical discussion. This month I provided the word. I chose “cisgender”, which means (according to Merriam-Webster online), “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”[1] It’s a word that came up recently in an article I was reading with the ESL student I’m tutoring, and it came up a lot in a book I just edited about the opinions of Canadian youth on religion, gender and sexuality. It’s a fairly new word, but one that is perhaps not long for the language.

There has been much discussion, and some controversy, about how we discuss gender. There is debate happening right now about the use of “they/them/their” as a third-person singular pronoun. For editors, the issue with this is that it is grammatically incorrect—for now. That wasn’t always the case, and it may change again soon. For others, the debate is much more critical and is about the limitations of English when it comes to defining identity. “Cisgender” figures in this discussion too.

“Cisgender” is a fairly new word, emerging out of academia in the 1990s to fulfill a need in transgender discourse and study. A term was needed to describe what wasn’t transgender. Someone coined the term using the Latin prefix, “cis”, meaning “on this side of”—the opposite of “trans” which means “on the other side of.” It seemed to do the trick, at the time, an innocuous academic term. But”cisgender” has taken on much heavier meaning in recent years. For some, it has come to imply privilege and perhaps even prejudice. Identifying as “cisgender”, or being identified as such, suggests that perhaps you are not accepting of those who are transgender or don’t want their gender brought into the discussion.[2] My 25-year-old daughter tells me “cisgender” is almost a slur in some instances. So maybe this word won’t last much longer. Maybe it’s on the way out.

The book I recently edited showed the reluctance of young people to define themselves using old terms and phrases. When filling out a questionnaire, they didn’t always want to use the options provided for them when asked to describe aspects of their identities. They didn’t want to tick off just one box, or any box, or they wanted to create their own box(es). They wanted control of their identities, and that meant making the language fit their needs, rather than trying to make do with what was available to them. And they definitely didn’t want to accept the limitations of the common, perhaps old, identities that society dictates.[3]

This was particularly true of gender, and it’s the reason for the push to use “they” as a singular pronoun. People, especially young people, don’t want their gender—and all the judgements, assumptions, restrictions and expectations—identified when someone is talking about them. Refer to someone as “she” or “he”, and a lot is implied in those simple little words. But refer to someone as “they”, and gender is taken out of the discussion. That is what people want—to be seen, talked about, referred to as a person without gender, just as “themselves”.

When “cisgender” and the use of “they” as a singular pronoun came up in the article I was reading with my ESL student, it led to a very interesting discussion. It is hard for someone to learn our language when it is changing as they learn it. But as we talked about this issue, me and this young woman of the same age and opinions as my daughters and the young adults in that book, we both got very excited about the possibilities that change in the language could provide. It could mean a whole new way of looking at ourselves and each other, one that doesn’t have preconceptions or possibly bad intentions.

For me, watching this change happen is very exciting—but then I’m kind of nerdy about this stuff. It used to be that a change in our language would take years, decades. Now, in our “hyper-communicative” age, when ideas are disseminated globally in minutes, language change could be a matter of months or weeks or even days. As we grapple with this issue of identity and how to describe it, someone might come up with the perfect term, the perfect word, that will appeal to many, and it will sweep the planet, and just like that, the language will change. We might even be happy with it, for a while, until the next change is needed. I think that’s a good thing. Our language should keep up with us, not the other way around. But it does mean we have to pay attention to language, understand how and when it changes so that we can continue to use it well. I think that’s a good thing too.

[1] “Cisgender,”Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed 17 March, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender.

[2] Paula Blank, “Will ‘Cisgender’ Survive?”, The Atlantic, 24 September, 2014. Accessed 17 March, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/cisgenders-linguistic-uphill-battle/380342/.

[3] Pamela Dickey Young and Heather Shipley, “Identities Under Construction” [tentative title]. Forthcoming.