Revisiting Ethiopia

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It was Monday morning back to school for me this week – to spend a happy and rewarding day with students at St. Stephen Elementary, on the border with the U.S. in New Brunswick.

Usually in school visits I talk about writing and read a few episodes from my books. But all my writing during the past year has been for teens, and I had nothing new to share with the students, whom I’ve visited annually for several years during Family Literacy Week. So this time, for something different, I talked about my two visits to Ethiopia for CODE – where I went, how I got there, what I saw, what I did, and – most important – what I learned.

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I talked about the work of CODE (the Canadian Organisation for Development through Education), especially its work in Ethiopia, and showed photographs and a video of Addis Ababa and Debra Zeit, and answered lots of questions. Then, with the help of student models, I showed off the gifts of traditional robe, vest, dress and head scarf I brought home, bringing a little bit of Ethiopia into a New Brunswick classroom.

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Fairvale Elem 2       Fairvale 4      Fairvale Elementary 1

Really – what nicer start to a working day could there be than this? The posters greeted me at Fairvale Elementary School, New Brunswick, a few weeks ago. It’s one reason I love visiting schools to read and talk about writing, and one reason I do what I do. (I remind myself of this when I’m getting frustrated with a new story.)

Another school I visited was Touchstone Academy, in Rothesay, New Brunswick, where I spent a day with the grade 3-4 students and their teacher, Ms. Kati. The visit was the culmination of a project the class had been working on for several weeks. Last week I was honoured and flattered to be included in the ‘literacy’ section of the school’s new website, from which I quote (with permission):

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     The green class experienced “full circle” learning in literacy. Ms Kati chose a novel written by a local author, Robert Rayner, to read aloud to the students. The whole class fell in love with the story and begged Kati to continue reading books from the series to them. When the class finished listening to the second book, the students decided to dress up as all of the characters from the series at our school literacy celebration.
      Next, we surprised each student in the class with their very own copy of the third novel in the series. After reading each chapter, students completed mini projects, including alternate endings, readers’ theatres, short films and much more. The full circle learning concluded with a visit from the author! He spent the morning completing writing activities with the class, singing songs with the students about his characters, reading to the class, and listening to excerpts of the students’ work that they presented to him. This unit was exciting, motivating, and inspirational for these students, deeply engaging them in their literacy learning.

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The visit was as exciting, motivational, and inspirational for me as the unit was for the students. Thank you, Ms. Kati and students.

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Here we are doing the Libby Song, which I use to introduce the main character of Libby on Strike and Libby’s Got the Beat.

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More Romance

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More romance – make that Romance – this week, in the form of the opening of my first novel, The Ragged Believers (DreamCatcher Publishing 2003), which is about holding on – to a threatened way of life, to forlorn love, to lost love, and above all, to belief.

The opening paragraph is another example – one of the very few – of something I ‘just wrote’, as opposed to my usual process of wrenching stuff word by word from my floundering brain, then deleting it in disgust at its pathetic inadequacy and starting all over again. After struggling for weeks to come up with an opening, I woke one night and wrote this and hardly changed a word. It’s always been one of my favourite passages.

On sunny afternoons in summer the girls in their white dresses lay on the rocks by the sea, as vacuous and unglamorous as the gulls wheeling above them, as serene and languorous as the seals on the further rocks. They talked of the men they had transported the night before, and joked, not unkindly, of their clients’ foibles and confessions, their weaknesses and frantic lusts. Often I joined them, and they discussed my forlorn love for their colleague, Jenny, the prostitute who befriended me and lived with me, but denied me her love. They gossiped and drowsed the afternoons away, like sirens on the rocks, luring not sailors from the sea, but travellers from the dusty highway across the meadow and beyond the Seashore Boarding House.

The Last Dog

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Of all my writing, I think this essay, which I wrote some years ago as a kind of catharsis, has the most impact on readers. Whenever I include it at readings, there are a few in the audience in tears at the end, and when it was published I received telephone calls from across the country. It’s one of those rare pieces which I ‘just wrote’, without my usual struggle and over-and-over-again rewriting.

Every now and then I receive requests for a copy, or I give it to friends because it seems apposite at particular sad times, so I’m putting it here as a convenient and easy way of sharing. It appeared in the Globe and Mail as Doggone Memories, but I think I prefer my title, which is …

The Last Dog.

We measure out our lives in many ways, in cars, houses, friendships, wives, breathtaking summers, brutal winters, Christmases, illnesses, deaths.

And in dogs.

The first dog marking my life’s progress, although I know him only through fond anecdote, was Jock, my father’s boyhood companion.

Nominally, Jock, a terrier of unconventional ancestry, belonged to both my father and his sister, but the male ties of boy and dog, according to family legend, were the stronger. This was demonstrated by the trick of telling Jock to ‘stay’ in the middle of the narrow, house-lined Cambridge street where they grew up while brother and sister walked away, one to each end of the street, as if for a duel. Then, simultaneously, they turned and called, whereupon Jock would demonstrate his true allegiance, after minimal diplomatic hesitation, by running to my father, who related the story to his children – to me – with admonitions that it was not a fair thing to do to a dog, but with guilty pride, nevertheless.

My primary and junior school days were marked by Flossy, the Airedale, and Sandy, the golden retriever. Flossy is little more now than a vague memory of square face and funny moustache, and of Sandy I also remember almost nothing – except his death under the wheels of the London-Cambridge express during a walk with my brother, a friend, and me. I remember the train passing in an intoxicating surge of clatter and wind as we watched it from the meadow adjoining the track. I remember waiting for Sandy to return from whatever adventure he was on. (He always did return eventually, and there was plenty to interest him and the three small boys accompanying him in the meadows, the rabbits, the pheasants, the river.)

I still see the forlorn little group, knee-deep in grass in the sun-soaked meadow, awed by the gradually dawning realisation that this time Sandy was not returning as he should, and that catastrophe was afoot. I relive the cautious and unbelieving sortie onto the railway line, and the discovery. We didn’t know what to do, so we left him there, lying in the afternoon sun.

We went home and played cricket in the garden until my father returned from work and took control of the tragedy. I blush even now for our callousness in leaving Sandy lying there (but what else could three small boys do?), and I still feel the oppression of disbelief and guilt justly clouding our play.

Next came Roger, an English setter (the first of two in my life), of such impeccable temperament that the only time we knew him to growl was when his sleep by the back door was peremptorily interrupted by a guest tripping over a bucket and falling on him. He apologised for the growl, of course, with frantic and solicitous licking. Roger had an astonishing drool response, the mere crackle of a biscuit wrapper producing Pavlovian torrents. (We called him Slobber.)

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His patience with the demands and indignities of growing up with six youngsters – including being dressed up by my sisters – was the same patience with which he waited out his end when kidney disease had wasted him. A teenager by then, I’d come home late at night and in the dark kitchen encounter no longer the rambunctious greeting of his youth, when he’d fling himself ecstatically at us as we trooped off the bus from school. Now there was the barest, painstaking twitch of his tail, as he lay by the stove, patient and bewildered and dying.

Maxim, my red setter, accompanied me from adolescence to adulthood, gracing my life with his ineffable charm and unforgettable elegance. Having moved with me across the Atlantic, he began to suffer increasingly frequent epileptic fits that left him dazed and disorientated. On a stormy winter night, during his pre-sleep perambulation around the garden, he must have been struck by one, and in his disorientation wandered off into a Newfoundland blizzard. We never found him.   

I didn’t begrudge his passing after nearly thirteen years of devotion given and returned. From his exuberantly lunatic puppyhood by the river and in the meadows around our East Anglian home, to a stately and dignified maturity in a Newfoundland outport, he lived a rich and varied life on two continents. But, instead of that alien, snowy wilderness, I wish Maxim, my flame in the sunshine, could have died in an English meadow, on a warm spring day with the bewitching sounds of imminent birds and the tantalising smells of lurking hares rioting in his brain.

Now my Maxim has become my father’s Jock, and tales of Maxim’s antics, fondly and often related, are tolerantly received by my children, although I suspect they are as foreign and distant to them as Jock’s demonstration of allegiance was to me, part of another, fading lifetime.

The dog who led me into my middle years, and indeed modelled them for me, was Bilbo, the second English setter, who, after a year or two of puppyish antics, devoted his life to being a gentleman of courtly manners, deep affection, and profound trust. His courtliness made his puzzlement at his late-life inability to control his rear legs and bowels the more heart-wrenching. Waking to find himself lying in encrusted faeces, he’d mutely beg for an unnecessary forgiveness for such appalling breach of manners.    

And the trust compounded by his affection made the day we took a final stroll, and a few stumbles, through some familiar smells the more unbearably poignant. We sat in a warm spring sun that so gently soothed his dear, faltering joints (and held such hopeless and ironic promise of rebirth and regeneration), and went to the vet’s, where with my old friend’s trusting compliance, I laid him on a table and watched an injection sever his devotion.  

I believed Bilbo would be the last canine marker of my life, but now, just when I think my dog days are done, another retriever, Jesse, is battering and cavorting his way into my life against my better judgement. Against my better judgement, Jesse, because at the same time as you wheedle confidently into my affections, I fear you.

I fear the gradual misting of your liquid eyes, the dulling of your gloss, the crippling of your energy, because they’ll parallel my own decay. Whatever good night we stumble toward, you and I, we stumble together, the only difference being that you won’t understand, as I will, the significance of your encroaching decrepitude, and I envy you the exuberance with which you’ll canter into oblivion, while I shuffle, laden with memory and despair, beside you.   

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Ice bound and word bound

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In school visits, I tell students my ‘conditions for writing’ are silence and solitude.

Now, after nearly two weeks of mayhem in the aftermath of New Brunswick’s (latest) ice storm, with a live power line lying across the driveway, and losing power, and visits from heroic linesmen and our own equally heroic electrician, and shovelling snow and ice, and making sure the birdfeeders are topped up, all this on top of the usual confusion and excitement of the holiday, I realise I should add a third condition.

Routine.

Lately, it’s gone the way of cassette tapes and pogo sticks and hula hoops.

And writing went with it.

The idea of ‘routine’ is antithetical to the romantic image of the writer scribbling novels wherever and whenever inspiration strikes, in cafes, on buses, walking in the mountains, in between torrid affairs, and fighting duels, and fomenting revolutions.

But it’s not like that. Not for a no-name like me, anyway.

I need boring routine.

I need to be up early and to write for a couple of hours before breakfast, and then to get back at it as the day allows, and to end the day with a few notes that will lead in to what comes next, and to repeat that day after day until a draft is done. If I don’t, I find that for every day I miss, I need two days to get back into any kind of rhythm of writing.

Right now, I’m as word bound as we are ice bound.

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