Fifteen years old. Working for the summer at Monarch Pizza on Connaught Drive in Jasper. Busboy and dishwasher, and sometimes allowed to help with the cooking, when Nick and Antonia Demetrios, the owners, found themselves shortstaffed. And they were often shortstaffed, with all the restless young people coming and going, stopping in our town on their way elsewhere.
I remember the broiling sauna of the kitchen, the back door open to let in the breeze off Bear Hill. The tiled floor slick with a film of dishwasher suds and grease splatter, and no-nonsense Antonia at our heels with her mop and squeakywheeled bucket. Nick’s was the day, hers the night. She took orders, served meals, handled customer complaints and yet she always found time to clean, a job that was supposed to be mine. She preferred to do it herself, to make sure it was done right. Antonia never stopped moving the whole time she was on shift, and the same was expected of us. All evening I shook cold pizza rinds off plates and sent sticky dishes and cutlery through the huge dishwasher and hauled them out again, abashed and steaming, stacked them on the countertop for the harried, incessantly cursing cooks and waiters. And if Antonia overheard the muttered profanity, at our ducking heads shot a torrent of mediterranean imprecation. What was that? Do you talk like that at home, in your mother’s kitchen? What’s the matter with you people?
Earlier that year Nick bolted a television high in a corner, to add the excitement of Wayne Gretzky’s rookie season with the Edmonton Oilers to the dining experience. Customers with their mouths full of pizza, roaring at an Oilers goal with jaws clamped shut, cheese clinging to their chins. The soundtrack of hockey play-by-play like a homey fixture in the room, like familiar wallpaper. And then that summer all of us turning to that small high-up screen to monitor the progress of Terry Fox.
I would be on a break, talking with my friends in a booth by the window so we could watch for girls, and I’d glance up and see this freckled boy on the screen, toiling up a long stretch of highway. He was going to run all the way across the country. He had lost a limb to cancer and he was going to run across the whole entire country. No one had ever done that before, that anyone knew of. Every night, the updates on his location. How close he was to the halfway point, which to my surprise turned out to be somewhere in Ontario, when I had always thought maybe Manitoba. His run making the country larger, more real.
We got used to seeing him up there on the little screen, the matted curly hair, the permanent wince. His outdoor sweat seemed to be in brotherly concord with my kitchen sweat. The stride and the hop and the sideways heave of the body as the dead artificial leg is thrown forward, stride hop heave, one more time and one more and one more, measuring the immensity of this country in jolts to the pelvis, the spine. We would all watch him for a moment and not say anything, maybe laugh uneasily or say look at that poor bastard and then one of us would slide out of the booth to go pick up an announced order and imitate him on the way, stride hop heave, and this of course would set the table on a roar.  
I can see it in my mind’s eye now, as I write, hardwired permanently to who I am. That agonizing lopsided jig. The national dance.

The cancer returned and stopped him in Thunder Bay, and the next year he was dead, at the age of 22.

-- from The Logogryph

Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch, one of Canada’s greatest writers, died on June 21st in a car accident as he was returning home from a literary festival. He was a friend and mentor and one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever known. I admired the heck out of him, cherished his work and loved him dearly.

The first time I met Bob I was an intimidated novice writer whose first book had just been published. He was this wizard of Canadian literature whose awesome wit and intellect would surely reduce me to ashes if I dared have a conversation with him. To my surprise he turned out to be a warm, soft-spoken man, grandfatherly and unassuming. He talked to me as a fellow writer, an equal. I’ve always been grateful for that.

He was such a wonderful writer. In his fiction, poetry and memoirs he made this province more real and at the same time more mythical. Like all great writers he revealed the universal in the particular, the richness of our own history and stories, the ordinary yet strange and astonishing lives we live. Kroetsch showed me and so many other writers that our own prosaic corner of the world was a place that could be written about, that could be made into words, into art. He created a place I like to call Kroetsch Country, a wild, contradictory territory of words and tall tales, of fools and politicians and dreamers and lovers. Some people call it Alberta.

The last time I saw Bob, earlier this spring, he had just been recognized with the Alberta Distinguished Artist award. He’d also gotten some sobering news about the severity of his Parkinson’s, and the intense therapy that would be required to treat it. But he was in good spirits: he joked, and charmed the waitress at the restaurant we went to for lunch, and asked about people we both knew. Later we went for a coffee in the dining area of the assisted-living complex that was his current home, and he looked around at the other elderly people and said, “You can see why I like coming in here. Most days I’m the youngest person in the room.”

Kroetsch was a mentor and friend to many Alberta writers, and broke ground for so many others to follow. His work is and will continue to be an enduring literary legacy. It reminds us, as writers, readers, as people alive for such a brief time on this earth, to really pay attention to what’s right here in front of our noses, the shit and the foolishness and the glory. To remain open and curious and vulnerable to whatever the world brings.

Just days before his death Bob was presented with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement at the Alberta Book Awards in Calgary. I was looking forward to seeing him soon to celebrate this latest honour. I still can’t believe none of us will ever have the chance to enjoy his wonderful company again.

As it slowly began to sink in that he was really gone, I looked through some of his books and enjoyed his words again, and was grateful and inspired, as I always am whenever I take a walk through Kroetsch Country. Reading some of his marvelous poetry I had the odd Kroetschian thought that if anyone could write the most heartbreaking, irreverent, perfect poem about his own death, it would be Bob Kroetsch. How I wish he was still here to write it.

Rest in peace, Bob, and thank you.

Photo by Jenna Butler

The Lives of Animals

There was once a great shaman who wanted to see what it was like to live the life of all animals. So he let himself be reborn in all kinds of animals. For a time he was a bear. That was a tiring life, they were always walking, the bears, even in the dark they roamed about, always on the wander.
            Then he became a fjord seal, and he relates that the seals were always in the humor for playing. They are ever full of merry jests, and they leap about among the waves, frolicsome and agile, until the sea begins to move; their high spirits set the sea in motion.
            There was not much difference between humans and seals, for the seals could suddenly turn themselves into human shape. In that form they were skillful with the bow and amused themselves by setting up targets of snow, just as men make them.
            Once the shaman was a wolf, but then he almost starved to death until one of the wolves took compassion on him and said, “Get a good hold of the ground with your claws and try to keep up with us when we run.” This is how he learned to run and catch caribou.
            Then he turned into a musk ox, and it was warm in the middle of the big herd. Afterward, he became a caribou. They were strangely restless animals, always timid. In the middle of their sleep they would spring up and gallop away. They became scared over the slightest thing, so there was no fun being a caribou.
            In this way the shaman lived the life of all the animals.

Story told to Knud Rasmussen by Qaqortingneq of the Netsilik, reprinted in Northern Tales: Stories From the Native Peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic Regions, Selected, Edited and retold by Howard Norman. Pantheon Books, 1990.

Image: Shaman's Costume, 1984

by Lipa Pitsiulak (1943–2010)

Stonecut on paper, 41/50

49 x 51.3 cm Image: 37 x 42.5 cm
Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift of Indian & Northern Affairs, Canada

Annual collections of prints have been published in Pangnirtung since 1973. Lipa Pitsiulak provided early leadership to the Pangnirtung Print Shop and later to the Pangnirtung Eskimo Co-operative, established in 1975. He continues to create drawings, many of which have been rendered into prints. He is also known for his imaginative sculpture. In 1977 his print, Disguised Archer, was reproduced on a Canadian postage stamp. All of his work reveals an interest in portraying traditional shamanic beliefs and legends, as exemplified by the print Shaman’s Costume. He lived in the community of Pangnirtung from 1967 to 1977, but then made the decision to move to a permanent outpost camp. In 1988 his life and art was the subject of a National Film Board film, Lypa.

Sancho Tells a Story

Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza are lost in the middle of nowhere and night has fallen. Not only that, but a strange clanking and pounding noise from somewhere nearby in the darkness has Sancho frightened nearly out of his wits. To keep his master from investigating the mysterious sound, Sancho secretly ties the legs of his horse, Rocinante. Unable to ride off on this new adventure, Don Quixote must submit to Sancho’s offer to tell stories to keep them both entertained (and safe) until morning…

Sancho began: “ … in a village of Extremadura there was a goatherd--that is to say, one who tended goats--which shepherd or goatherd, as my story goes, was called Lope Ruiz, and this Lope Ruiz was in love with a shepherdess called Torralba, and this shepherdess called Torralba was the daughter of a wealthy grazier, and this wealthy grazier--"
"If that is the way you tell your tale, Sancho," said Don Quixote, "repeating everything you say two times, it will take you two days to finish. Just go straight on with it, and tell it like a reasonable man, or else say nothing."
"Tales are always told this way in my village," answered Sancho, "and I can’t tell it in any other way, nor is it right of your worship to ask me to change the way I’ve always done things."
"Tell it however you wish, then," replied Don Quixote. “Fate will have it that I cannot help listening to you, and so go on."
"And so, Se├▒or of my soul," continued Sancho, “as I have said, this shepherd was in love with Torralba the shepherdess, who was a wild buxom lass with something of the look of a man about her, for it’s the truth she had a bit of a moustache. It’s almost as if I can see her now."
"Then you knew her?" said Don Quixote.
"I didn’t know her," said Sancho, "but the one who told me the story said it was so true and correct that when I told it to another I could safely declare and swear I had seen it all myself. And so, as the days went by, the devil, who never sleeps and is always causing trouble, turned the love the shepherd bore the shepherdess into hatred and ill-will, and the reason, the gossips said, was the jealousy she caused him that went too far, into forbidden territory, so that the shepherd hated her from that time forward so much so, that in order to escape from her, he determined to leave that country and go where he should never set eyes on her again. Torralba, when she found herself spurned by Lope, was immediately smitten with love for him, though she had never loved him before."
"That is the way of women," said Don Quixote, "to scorn the one that loves them, and love the one that despises them. But go on, Sancho."
"It came to pass," said Sancho, "that the shepherd carried out his intention, and driving his goats before him took his way across the plains of Extremadura to pass over into the kingdom of Portugal. Well, Torralba found this out and went after him, followed him at a distance, walking barefoot with a pilgrim's staff in her hand and a saddlebag around her neck, in which she carried, so they say, a piece of mirror and a broken comb and a little pot of paint for her face … but whatever she was carrying I am not going to bother about it, so all I will say is that the goatherd, or so I’m told, came with his flock to the river Guadiana, which was at that time swollen and almost overflowing its banks, and at the spot he came to there was no boat or barge or anyone to ferry him or his flock to the other side, at which he was much vexed, for he he had seen Torralba approaching and knew she would annoy him to no end with tears and pleading; so he kept looking around and discovered a fisherman with a boat, a boat so small it could only hold one person and one goat at a time; but even so he spoke to the fisherman, who agreed to carry him and his three hundred goats across. So the fisherman got into the boat and carried one goat over; then he came back and carried another over; then he came back again, and again brought over another … let your worship keep count of the goats the fisherman is taking across, because if we miss one the story will be over and I won’t be able to tell another word of it. But to carry on I must tell you the landing place on the other side was muddy and slippery, and the fisherman took a lot of time going over and back again; yet he returned for another goat, and another, and another--"
"Let us just say he ferried them all over," said Don Quixote, "and don't keep going and coming in this way, Sancho, or it will take you a whole year to get them across."
"How many have gone across so far?" said Sancho.
"How the devil should I know?" replied Don Quixote.
"There it is," said Sancho. “I told your grace to keep careful count. Well then, by God, that’s the end of the story, for there’s no way to go on."
"How can that be?" said Don Quixote. "Is it so essential to the story to know exactly how many goats have crossed over, so that a mistake in the count means you cannot go on with it?"
"No, your worship, I can’t," replied Sancho, "for when I asked your worship to tell me how many goats had crossed and you said you didn’t know, at that very instant I forgot everything I had to tell, and by my faith the rest of it was most entertaining."
"So, then," said Don Quixote, "the story is finished?"
"As finished as my mother," said Sancho.
"In truth," said Don Quixote, "you have told one of the strangest stories, tales, or histories, that anyone in the world could have imagined, and such a way of telling it and ending it was never seen or heard of before; though I expected nothing else from your keen intellect. But I am not surprised, for it may be that endless pounding and clanking has confused your wits."
"Maybe so," replied Sancho, "but I know that for my story, there’s nothing else to say other than it ends there right where your grace lost count of the goats."
"Let it end where it will, then," said Don Quixote, "and now let us see if Rocinante can go," and again he spurred his horse, and again Rocinante made jumps and remained where he was, because Sancho had tied him so well.

From Don Quixote, Chapter XX. 

Five Important Questions for Writers (and other creative people):

The other day I was looking through one of my writing notebooks and I was struck by how many questions there were in it. There was at least one curly little ? on almost every single page, and on some pages there were many.  Questions about the plot, about what the characters should do next, about other ways the story might go, about why I’m writing this thing and what I’m trying to say.

It occurred to me then, looking at all those pesky interrogative marks scattered like tiny thumbscrews across the pages, how utterly vital questions are to any creative endeavour. How they’re always quietly (or annoyingly) driving the work forward, prompting one to ponder, delve, rethink, push a little harder, venture out of the comfort zone, change course …

So I decided it might be a worthwhile exercise to choose the five most useful, recurring, indispensable questions that come up for me again and again during the writing process. Limiting myself to only five was part of the creative challenge of the exercise.
Rather than tenets or rules to live by, these then are my top five questions to create by:

What if…?
What else?
What’s going on right now?

With the exception of scientists and three-year-olds, most of us probably don’t ask enough “why” questions in a day. If you’ve ever been driven nuts by a kid who keeps repeating that pesky monosyllable after every “final” answer, you’ve felt the power of Why?
            No wonder Why? annoys us: it forces us to do something our easily-distracted squirrel minds would rather avoid: to keep thinking. It’s the question that drives us on beyond our unexamined assumptions and easy certainties. Why? is how I find out who my characters are and what they’re likely to do. 
            While you’re at it, try asking some of the people in your life a “why” question more often. Not as a complaint or a rebuke, just to see what they think about something a little deeper than what needs to go on this week’s grocery list. (Have you ever noticed how rarely adults ask one another Why? unless they’re angry?)

Why? can burrow beneath the superficial skin of daily life and reveals the hidden or forgotten depths in those you think you know, including yourself.  

“What if trees had eyes?” my son wondered the other day as we were walking to the park. That kicked my sluggish mind into gear, as “what if” questions always do.  It’s fitting that we were on our way to a playground at the time, because that’s what What if? does: it turns the real world into an infinite playground for the imagination. It’s the world’s cheapest and most effective de-aging solution.
Okay, I’ll play: what if trees did have eyes? Eyes but no mouths or arms, so they could watch whatever was going on around them but be unable to do anything about it. Would a lumberjack see terror in a Douglas fir’s baby blues as he approached with his chainsaw? Or maybe trees really do have eyes. After all, they’re photosensitive beings: they take in light through every leaf, and use it to grow. What if we thought of a tree’s leaves as its “eyes”? Hey, there may be a metaphor here, or a haiku:
summer sun at noon
with every single leaf 
the elm tree looks up.

... or maybe even the seed of a whole story. Thanks, son.

Related to “what if” is the less well-known but equally powerful “what else?” The discoveries and connections I’ll make in a day, the deepening of what’s already on the page, will come about thanks to the mental nudging of “what else” and its refusal to be satisfied with the easy plot device or the pre-packaged solution. “What else,” to me, can mean many things. What else is going on in this scene? What else does the reader need to know to make sense of this? What else do these words imply? What else do I have to say? Maybe nothing, but I won’t know for sure if I don’t ask.

This question can propel me in two different directions: both deeper into the work and out of it, back into the unwritten world. Both are important for writing. Whenever either I or the work-in-progress seem to have lost focus, that’s the time to pause and ask what’s really happening at this very moment.
In terms of the writing, it’s a way of regrounding myself in the sensory, the immediate, the palpable urgencies of whatever place or situation my characters are in here and now. The question compels me to step inside the story and look around, to see, touch, hear, taste and smell this imaginary world I’m building out of words. And doing that reengages me with the story and the beings in it, and often shows me the way to go forward, from right now into the very next thing that should happen.
             But “What’s going on right now?” is also useful in one’s own life outside the page. I think a lot of people never finish (or begin) that novel they’ve always planned to write because they can’t stay put long enough in right now. It’s where everything happens, of course, but most of us avoid it whenever possible: it’s much easier to live in the past or dream of the great work we’re going to do tomorrow, yes, definitely tomorrow, because today we just don’t feel like it...
            There are times, of course, when it is best to let the work sit for a while and do something else (for five minutes, an hour, a day, a year…?). And asking myself what’s going on right now can help me understand when that’s the right thing to do. The question regrounds me in my own here and now, reminding me that the flesh is mortal and one can only accomplish so much in a day. So get up and stretch, the dog is whining to be let out, go play with the kids, take your long-suffering spouse to dinner at a fancy restaurant. The miraculous thing is that while you’re doing that, your mind will still be working, dreaming, forging unexpected links and taking audacious leaps across synapses, and then, just when you’ve completely forgotten about that problem you sweated over for hours, the answer comes, as if out of nowhere. (When really it comes from all the stuff going on inside you that’s not accessible to the prefrontal cortex. You’re not in control of everything, you know).

This one is the wet rag, the snarky teenager, the sober second opinion. “Cast a cold eye on life, on death,” Yeats said, and it’s good advice for anyone riding the exhilarating windhorse of creativity. He could have added, “cast a cold eye on your deathless creations, too.” That’s what Really? is for. I’m sure I’ve just penned the most magnificent pages the world will ever have the great fortune to read, but the next morning, once the high has worn off, I had better take another look. Once you’ve won the Booker you will never need to doubt your own brilliance again, but until then…
Still, like the other four, this is a dangerous question. It can easily be overused or asked at the wrong stage in the creative process, since it comes from the Critic-Within, that jaded gremlin who will choke off one’s imaginative flow if given too much time and power over the work.
            And like “What’s going on right now?”, the cold eye of “Really?” can be usefully turned on the unwritten world too, and cast at every glossy sales pitch, every last word on the subject, every politician who spins us a golden tale of better days ahead. And once we’ve asked it, we might find ourselves returning full circle to that other question that comes in handy whenever we’re told, by ourselves or others, That’s Just the Way Things Are:

One more thing: don’t forget to say thanks once in a while. To God, or the muse, or the right cerebral cortex of the human brain, or whatever mystical or biological source you believe your great ideas ultimately come from. No one creates anything in a vacuum. Whether there’s an Author behind it all or not, it seems pretty clear to me that this universe is an unfinished, always astonishing act of creativity. Just look at a lilac bush, or a giraffe. The universe came up with stars, galaxies, planets, life, and then it really got going and dreamed up a being that could create universes inside its own head, share them with others, and change the way things are. That’s creativity, and it’s in everyone, and belongs to everyone, so here’s one more question:
What are you doing with it?