“That’s a lovely skirt. Tell me, is it difficult to iron all those pleats?”
In the green room of the North York Centre for the Performing Arts, I’m keeping Alice Munro company until it’s time for her to step on stage for her rare double-bill appearance with Robertson Davies. I’m not sure who’s minding Mr. Davies, but I definitely got the good gig!
Of course, I want to gush to her about how Friend of My Youth (her 7th and my cherished title) changed my life, about how her writing is such an inspiration and how reading it makes me somehow feel less alone. But she wants to talk about something… anything else, as a way to calm her nerves. I’m happy to oblige her every need. In fact my job as the publicist for the Harbourfront Reading Series which is presenting the evening’s event, depends on seeing to her comfort. So, we talk about the challenges of keeping well-formed pleats in my skirt.
When she’s sufficiently relaxed, I shyly ask her to sign my copy.
That was in 1994. I declared my PR career could end then since I reached the ultimate goal of meeting and chatting with my favourite author.
Fast forward to 1998, Ms. Munro is up for the coveted Giller Prize for The Love of a Good Woman. I’m production coordinating the live-from-the-cocktail party portion of the Giller Prize broadcast on Bravo! where I work as PR director. Of course, the producers and hosts want to talk to her, but knowing as I do about her shyness and reluctance to be in the public eye, I keep telling them she will likely not show up until the absolute last minute. Sure enough, she sneaks by all the cameras into her seat in the Four Seasons ballroom.
Her acceptance speech is a very humble few words about how maybe now the short story will gain acceptance as a legitimate form of writing.
I didn’t speak to her that night, just simply basked in her graceful, winning aura.
In Vancouver in 2005, I get to talk to Alice Munro one more time after she accepts the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in the atrium of the beautiful Vancouver Public Library main branch. I line up to congratulate her and to my absolute astonishment, she remembers me from those many years ago in the green room at the North York arts centre. I wish I could tell you what we talked about that day at the library. I think I was overwhelmed knowing she could recall ever meeting me! She invited me into the small private gathering inside the library.
What I remember most is her warmth, grace and the generous way she spoke to her fans and colleagues that day.
I’m so pleased she’s won the Nobel. I can’t think of a more deserving or worthy Canadian writer whose first thought, when accepting this honour, was directed to those for whom she’s set the trail.
“I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”
Sadly, Alice Munro has announced her retirement from writing. But then again, she’s put so much of her singular talent out into the world, we can only be happy and grateful for it, and for her.
Every year for the past six I’ve written a fall books preview for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s labour intensive in the sense that I have to research all the fall offerings from the many large and small publisher catalogues (most are online now, which helps) then write a succinct few sentences on a variety of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction, lifestyle to memoir, biography, food, sports and Young Adult/Kids books. Since I’m writing largely from marketing copy with so few books actually finished or even in the advance reading copy stage, it takes awhile to come up with something new, fresh and lively to say. The task takes me awhile to research and a longer while to write.
Still, I love doing it because a) it introduces me to the new exciting list; b) I get boxes of books, the equivalent of Christmas morning to a book-lover; c) it’s become an annual assignment that I can count on.
Last week I renewed my delight and relief about my local Toronto Public Library branch (High Park) when I found the exact books I needed on the hottest few days of the year. I can’t always afford to buy books, and I certainly can’t afford the luxury of air conditioning, so to kill two birds with one stone was fantastic.
I hadn’t been for almost a year and was surprised to see that there’s a new self-serve check out. Signing out my books, I had a strong impression of working at the checkout at Albion Library when I was 14. Then we used an electric machine called a “recordak” into which we fed a library card, the book index card and a due date card which we then fit into the pocket at the back of the book. No email reminders of due dates back then!
Being back at the library reminded me of my Toronto City Hall deputation in 2011, when Mayor Ford sat, reluctant and restless, listening to “tax payers” speak on proposed cuts to some of the most important and beloved city programs and organizations.
Over 300 of us gathered at City Hall at 9 am on July 28th. So many enthusiastic defenders of public programs that Ford cut our original time of three minutes to only one and announced we’d be there through the night. This meant that many people left City Hall because they had to work or look after their kids, etc. (the media reported a 50% drop out rate – a result of the last minute decision to keep proceeding going through the night, and not because of lack of resolve or passion for the topic!) Those of us who stubbornly stayed through the night bonded in our conviction to see this mini-protest through.
Finally, at around 4 am, I heard my name and I nervously sat down to address our Mayor and the committee. I’ve spoken in public and in front of cameras, but it’s not everyday you come face to face with the Mayor to tell him you think he’s wrong.
Here is my original speech, which I had to edit for time, but I hope not for effect.
Libraries Matter – Toronto City Hall, July 28, 2011
I’m a writer, broadcaster and book critic. I’m not here as part of a “special interest group,” or because of any mythical library union pressure. I’m here as a citizen of Toronto and as a regular user of the Toronto Public Library.
My first-ever job was at Albion Library in Etobicoke where I worked as a “page,” shelving books on the main floor and if I was really lucky I got to organize old magazines in the basement stacks. It was dusty down there, but the reading rewards were worth it. I had shifts on the checkout and sometimes conducted a story-time in the kids section, reading picture books to the littlest library users. I was grateful for the opportunity to pass on to the kids a love of reading, and a fascination with the worlds inside books.
I worked there from the age of 14 to 17 and what started out as earning my keep at the library around the corner in the confusing time after my parents broke up became the spark that lit my career in writing and around books. It’s the same for a lot of my writing colleagues, who sight trips to the library as kids as the very reason they became writers. It’s important to note that many of us are not just “artsy” writers, but make part or all of our living doing corporate writing for various Toronto businesses.
From the first time I stepped into a bookmobile as a kid to my days working at the library, until this very day, the library is not only a vital resource but a place where I feel a necessary sense of community and belonging.
There’s this idea that everyone has computers at home and that the almighty internet can give us every little piece of information we need. But it’s just not true. Many individuals and families don’t have the money and that’s where libraries save them.
At the library everyone has access and therefore everyone is equal. Our most vulnerable citizens rely on libraries; low income individuals and families, new Canadians and seniors, people living by no fault of their own on the margins.
A kid having trouble in school but whose parents cannot afford a tutor can get help with their homework at the library. Kids having trouble reading or struggling with a learning disability can sign up for help. Seniors can brush up on their computer skills; freelance or contract workers who struggle with precarious income can book time with a computer or use the free Wifi.
I’ve interviewed new Canadians who have learned to read by checking out books in English, but can also happily borrow books in their own language among the many foreign language collections available. Seminars that help them learn about settling in Toronto and look for jobs are more than just helpful, they are vital to the success of immigrants in our city. People living on the margins or the many lonely people in our society find connection and community at the library. This is important for the overall health of the city. And isn’t it better to have a place for teens from priority neighborhoods to hang out instead of the street or local malls?
The Toronto Library system is one of the most used in the world. Some branches more than others, but low circulation should not be a factor in potential library closings – esp. the ones in at-risk neighbourhoods. If one person uses the library, that’s reason enough to keep it open. Not everyone can always even afford the bus ride to get to a library out of their district. Libraries help kids stay in school, they help steer our newest citizens in the right direction. They give seniors and other people a place to go, a reason to join in.
The benefit of libraries is long term and never-ending. They not only facilitate and foster learning. They introduce us to people, places and ideas we might not otherwise know about. They give people a vital sense of community and for some, a reason to get up in the morning and continue to strive to be contributing members of society.
For all these reasons and more libraries need to remain open, accessible and free.
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
In honour of Kate’s 31st birthday today, here’s a piece I wrote in July 2011, just after the newlyweds took their first trip abroad to Canada.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM KATE MIDDLETON
The other day I tripped on a busy city sidewalk and fell in plain public view. I can only hope my skirt didn’t fly up as I landed. At the time I was too busy trying to buffer myself from too much injury to notice. Now, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m clumsy, so tripping and falling is not all that unusual; the one and only time I’ve ever broken anything – my foot – was during a fall from two harmless and not even steep concrete steps.
But, my recent tumble is different. It happened because I was trying to BE Kate Middleton.
One day after the Duke and Duchess left Canada, and following days of my obsessive royal watching, I tried to emulate Kate’s flawless, confident walk. Instead of the normal cautious stride of a serial klutz, head down, carefully watching my step for any potential risks, I breezed along, head high, looking forward. I wish I could tell you my heels were too high, or my shoes were too tight, but no – nothing. Just klutziness and, well, the sidewalk might have been uneven. Something the Duchess likely never has to worry about, what with all the planning and inspections and all the practicing and coaching that goes into being a royal on display to the fawning public and unforgiving media.
So, why had I taken up the mantra of “what would Kate do?”
Well, because there’s a little bit of Kate Middleton in all of us, isn’t there? Sure, she’s a Duchess now, married to a prince who will one day helm one of the most influential monarchies around. She’ll likely produce a child who will also one day inherit the throne. Her parents are now millionaire entrepreneurs, but at the time of her birth in 1982, they were airline employees. She’s what is known in British circles as a “commoner” – not so different from the women in the crowd that lined the royal wedding route with signs on their backs reading “it should have been me.” It well could have been.
Kate’s 29, born in 1982. I’m 50, born in 1960. There’s no way I could ever be her at this point in my life, but watching her reminds me of the promise that life holds in your 20s, when anything is possible, everything achievable. Life before too much heartache; thwarted dreams, lost jobs, men, parents, friends; events that can affect even the way you stand, and walk in the world. I realized, watching Kate, that I’ve developed a hunch – part weariness, part self-protectiveness. It’s been awhile since I approached my life with the confidence I once exuded, with the poise my mother insisted I learn, with the spark constantly remarked upon and admired. And, I honestly never thought life could drag me so far down that it would show in my countenance. In fact, my mantra has always been, “just keep moving forward.” Yet somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it, no matter how often I give this advice to others.
Of course it didn’t immediately occur to me why the royals gripped me so strongly. But now I see that they look exactly like I used to feel. Happy, friendly, looking out, focused on the moment, ready for anything, generally game for life.
Prince William is compelling enough on his own – born and bred to one day be King, adored and protected by his mom, Diana, Princess of Wales, he was probably one of the most photographed babies ever. Who can forget his silent, heartbreaking walk behind his mom’s coffin after her tragic death? We felt invested in his growing up, his success at school and his struggle to learn to live within the stricture of his destiny. We watched and waited to see who William would choose for a partner. And though we saw all the tabloid “waity Katy” fluff, depicting her as a woman he trifled with and didn’t intend to marry, when they finally became engaged after eight years of dating, living together and one very public break up, everyone began to focus not just on what Kate wore, but on who she really is. Who is this steady, calming influence on our beloved Wills?
We caught glimpses of her on their wedding day – elegant and glowing, she looked to the entire world nothing but ready to become the Duchess of Cambridge, with all the attention – positive or negative, and service that is involved in being a member of the British royal family.
But, it wasn’t until she stepped onto Canadian soil for her first official Royal trip abroad with her husband that we saw her true nature. Leading up to the wedding I wrote a number of feature articles on the plans and preparations and I’ll admit it, I kind of fell in love with them. Now, since I’m a journalist I’m supposed to be naturally wary, or jaded or something that I can never quite pull off. So the thing is, they looked and seemed so down to earth, that I believe I was seeing one fairly normal human being, who just happened to be born Royal and bred to be King. And one natural beauty that just happened to appear in his sphere and become the object of his affection.
Some have said Kate Middleton quite strategically became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. That she set her sights on William at St. Andrew’s university where they both studied, and manipulated her way into his heart, that her mother helped her come up with ways to ensure she’d one day marry that prince.
Tell me, though, what teenage girl doesn’t dream of marrying a prince, real or figuratively? And if you happen to live in England and are around the same age as him, sure you’d have his photo on your wall. “Harry Hunters” have had the “spare” prince squarely in their sights for years. These are girls, mostly from abroad, who enroll in British universities and then track down Prince Harry in clubs for a chance to meet him.
At 20, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, the younger Prince Andrew attended an Ontario boy’s school in Lakefield, where my best friend lived. We weren’t aristocracy like Diana, but we felt sure we had a chance with him. We may not have had the breeding but we did have the poise, the manners and, most important, pureness of heart. The princess dream starts early and dies hard, or never.
Now, I’m not looking for a prince. One good man will do. And that’s something else about Kate and my sidewalk tumble. The dapper Prince is entirely protective of his bride. Never too far from her side, he often extends a reassuring hand to her back. Since royal protocol restricts too much, or any PDA, this is his way of letting her – and us avid watchers looking for signs of affection – know how he feels (I don’t want to even talk about the adoring and knowing looks that pass between them). They are obviously in a true partnership. They are clearly there for each other.
Since stumbling is par for the course for me, I’m usually pretty good at catching myself before I fall. This time however, I walked beside a male companion – someone I’ve spent a good deal of time with, whom I trust and care for. As I began to fall, I reached out for assistance, grabbing his arm with my hand as I went down. He let it go. He didn’t catch me; he said he thought I would catch myself.
Come to think of it, if there’s anything strategic about Kate Middleton’s behavior it’s that she was smart enough to leave a man who exhibited ambivalence about her. And he was clever enough to look inside his heart and out at his options, and see he had a good thing going and went back to get her.
So, what I learned from Kate Middleton is something I used to know. A little thing called confidence goes a long way to achieving the rewards you want, and deserve.
I’ve been telling 1st person stories for most of my writing life. I can’t help it, it’s my strongest voice. Which isn’t to say that by reading something I’ve written, that you will know everything about me. I get some criticism, but mostly praise and sometimes awe for having the so-called courage to put my life out there and myself on the line. The stories I choose to reveal my life through are the ones I think are the most relatable and the least told out loud. An example is my continual return to my feelings about being childless – I just think it’s a taboo topic that needs to be made a little more visible in order to be understood. Another is my struggle with loneliness, a word and state still so feared. Yet, another is my interest in fatherless sons and the voids in their lives because of it. Not my story to tell, but the topic of my upcoming book because of the many men I know who have suffered in silence. When we reveal ourselves in the most vulnerable ways we show how connected we really are by the condition of life. It can only help.
That’s why I’m so interested in a new show on OWN Canada (Oprah Winfrey’s network) called Life Story Project. My friend and colleague, the talented Dale Curd is a creator and co-host. Armed with deceptively easy to answer questions (“what was your most memorable 1st?” or, “what was your moment of truth?” and, “what does it feel like to fall in love?”) the two hosts – one a life-coach, the other a seasoned men’s counselor- invite random passers-by to sit on a purple couch and chat. What ends up being revealed is often a surprise to them, even though they have so much experience listening to “truths” from their clients. The show is not over-produced or stylishly edited. Participants have not been cast, though I’m sure the footage has been picked over for the best, most moving or entertaining stories. That’s just TV. The result is a fairly authentic representation of the powerful stories we all have living inside of us. People seem immediately to go to the crux of their pain or joy. One woman revealed how an accident she had caused resulted in her child’s eye disease which meant he couldn’t recognize her until he heard her voice. When asked if she had regrets her answer was a thoughtful and very raw, “I don’t know.”
Life’s just like that. It’s not always possible to wrap it up with a pretty bow and that elusive thing we love to say we’re seeking… closure.
While watching the debut show, I shared my experience of it with other viewers on twitter. Some of the comments surprised me. More than a few people said things like, “you never know what the person next to you is dealing with.” Really? Do we not know? Are we so caught up in our own private dramas that we can’t imagine others are having their own versions?
With all the soap boxing that’s available on television where people are continually revealing their issues to Oprah et al, how is it possible to still not realize we all have emotional confusion, pain, loss, doubt just as much as happiness, joy, contentment. You can’t have one without the other. Just because our minds return to the place of hurt when asked a simple question does not mean we haven’t processed it and moved on. Resilience is one of our finest qualities. But, why are we still so afraid of the dark side, even when we know experiencing it has certainly shaped our lives?
I think the beauty of this show is two- maybe even three-fold. 1) it’s local – the purple coach was placed on the Kew Beach boardwalk, in the middle of the Distillery district, and at Sunnyside Pavillion, so there’s always a chance someone familiar will show up. Not only that, but it’s much easier to relate to people nearer to us than on talk or reality show taped in some remote American city. 2) People seem to need a reminder that we all operate along the same thin emotional thread, though the manifestation may be different, and 3) Even the more empathetic of us who regularly tell the powerful stories of others, and our own, can be further moved by these ones, and also appreciate the skill of the hosts in drawing them out.
I recommend the show, especially if you need a reminder of the vulnerability of and the triumph over being human. Here’s the broadcast schedule.
A few months ago I went to a concert by myself. I do this a lot, go out alone. Sometimes I prefer it. I really didn’t think it was a big deal until I told a couple of people about the concert. Of course the inevitable question was, who’d you go with? The reactions surprised me.
Apparently it’s courageous to do something social on your own. Or, maybe it’s even anti-social!
I’ve often written about my intermittent loneliness and how I feel that it is something that, although difficult, can be overcome. The key is to learn how to not let it affect big decisions. I’ve let that happen and learned from it – I hope. The biggest one, I believe, was moving back to Toronto from Vancouver before I’d given my life there enough of a chance. I felt indescribably lonely and was susceptible to family and friends saying, just come home. It was a mistake, but one I am trying to make the best of.
These days I’m more willing to wait the lonely feeling out. To let it run its course, because I believe it always will.
I never felt lonely a day on earth while my mother was alive and because I believe my loneliness is attached to her death, I always think of it as situational. That she’s been gone 12 years doesn’t seem to affect my characterization of the feeling. It comes, it goes.
A new book called Lonely by a Canadian writer, Emily White has got me doubting myself and wondering if I’ve caught the bravado bug I sometimes accuse others of having, the ones who are unwilling to admit their loneliness.
White bravely tells of her chronic loneliness which she felt most of her life, but intensely so for about 3 years in her mid-30s. Three years! Chronic? Oh dear.
I have to admit I read the book with much fear. In fact, in parts my heart was beating so fast I felt sure I was having a full out panic attack. Her early life mirrors my own: feelings of separation, isolation, too much of a gap of age and temperament with siblings, parents at odds with one another, their evident loneliness, a mother who held me a little too close to fill in the spaces for her. Hell, even Emily White’s first boyfriend had the same name as mine. Has my loneliness been with me my whole life? Could feelings of loneliness and isolation be the reason I have so few memories of my young life?
I looked up from the book at the prints decorating my bedroom – it’s not the first time I’ve wondered why every single one of them depicts a woman alone.
Has loneliness so shaped my life that it’s the reason I am middle-aged, single, with no safety net, a tiny social circle and indistinguishable social life and, worst of all, no kids? Did I somehow make this happen? And collect the art to reflect it back to me each day upon waking?
Do people look at me walking down the streets of my neighbourhood and say, there goes that lonely woman. Always alone. (no wonder I feel giddy when I can go into a local coffee shop once in awhile accompanied by a – usually male – friend. Phew, they will know I have friends and maybe even a boyfriend!)
White makes a case for loneliness as an affliction caused by genetics and nurturing. She believes we are wired through DNA to be lonely. And that sometimes our loneliness mirrors that of our parents, in her case mostly her mother. Because she wants it more out in the open, she believes it should be listed in the updated version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), due to come out in 2012. This, she says, would ensure it gets properly funded for research and treatment, the natural progression of this being medication.
Now, I haven’t done the exhaustive research she has but I disagree.
I think loneliness is a periodic state of being that visits itself upon each and every one of us at various times. Let’s face it, more people live alone now and gone are the days of close knit communities and extended families. The key is learning to understand how it affects you and what to do to work through it. After all, we’re supposed to grow and learn in life. Sometimes my loneliness is acute and it feels like nothing can alleviate it. Since I’m pretty comfortable alone it’s not being alone that triggers it. It’s being alone when I don’t want to be and feeling like I can’t connect with anyone. It’s that feeling that there’s no way to communicate my deepest feelings that makes me the loneliest.
Admittedly, the biggest reason is not having a one and only – which isn’t necessarily a love partner, though that would be nice. And I’m trying to find a way to understand how to make that very neglected part of my life work. But, just one or a few good companionable, compatible, supportive friends would do the trick.
I have friends like this, but they are mostly busy with their lives of husband/wife, active young family connections. Or they’re too far away to connect with very often. I’m a natural sharer and sometimes feel unbelievably bereft, and afraid for my future with no safeties in place. Also, being alone so much means that my nurturing instincts can go numb with disuse, or worse, get misplaced on someone entirely inappropriate. Something that can catch me unawares if I’m not careful.
Emily White thinks this type of dulling of the senses is a result of loneliness. She also offers up plenty of studies, although they are relatively small ones, that show how loneliness affects heart health, and is implicated in dementia. These pieces of information are nothing short of terrifying to me and the surest way to get me to try any outlet at all towards connection.
White says lonely people are reluctant to tell their families and friends that they are lonely. It’s true. Most people end up feeling responsible for how you feel and it only serves to turn them further away, not closer. I prefer to just bare down and get myself through it. But I’m also not afraid to say it’s a pretty big part of my life right now. But that really is my challenge, not anyone else’s.
I do know how to reach out and I enjoy sociability. I welcome it, when I’m feeling up to it. The truth is, through many years of therapy and 5 years of living away from home, I discovered the original me and that person requires more time and space, which usually means plenty of solitude of the chosen variety.
Most lonely people I know -whether they admit to being lonely or whether it’s something I sense – are creative, singular, and as I like to call it, living outside the much touted “normal” lines. I can’t really complain about feel lonely when I bring it on by leaping out of my life every five years, at least.
My worry is that I will always do this and never settle down and that my innate (not genetic though) loneliness causes me to do this.
Perhaps I will never know. It’s not a worry I really want to take on. I prefer to believe it’s a badge of maturity to learn to live with loneliness. or should I say, live it out.
But I certainly have no intention of taking a pill for it. Nor will I stop my solo, apparently oh so courageous, outings to concerts and social gatherings.
Veteran 3rd wave feminist Naomi Wolf‘s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, reveals some new science about female sexual response and the power that good, attentive sex can give women. It’s been receiving scathing reviews, but I think there’s valuable and interesting information contained within.
The sexual revolution has not been kind to women or men; our information about the intricate science of female sexual response is at least a half century out of date; history reveals that in many cultures the vagina was once revered but has also been continually under attack as a systemic way to suppress women’s power; the click-of-a-computer-key availability of porn is rewiring our brains and impeding our ability to be intimate; and a woman’s sexual history – especially if it is violent – is held in nerve memory, but can be healed.
“We did not know when we felt wild and danced to Patti Smith’s Horses with our hair flying and could not stand ourselves for one more minute and wanted to tear the world open, we were not incipient sluts but normal girls becoming women.”
Women are more carnal than men. Petting should be taught in schools. Rituals marking the passage from girlhood into womanhood are necessary in our culture. Girls need to have a voice with which to tell the stories of their erotic awakenings and experiences. These are some of the revelations, and recommendations put forth by third-wave feminist, speaker and writer Naomi Wolf in her new book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. Wolf is the author of two previous polemical books, The Beauty Myth and Fire with Fire, both of which changed the tide of feminist debate and have since become cemented in current mainstream feminist ideology. Now Ms. Wolf veers into confessional mode in order to tell what she describes as a “sexual coming of age story for girls,” that is also an inquiry into the nature of female sexual passion.
With ideology firmly entrenched in power feminism Wolf urges girls and women to take the control they already have over their own bodies, emotions, and essences as women.
Wolf’s own sexual awakening story, and those of her girlhood friends are woven in and out of historical and cultural facts about the resilient quality of women’s passion. The setting is “ground zero of the Sexual Revolution;” those turbulent years between the Pill and AIDS, in her hometown The Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Wolf outlines the intricacies of dating, hierarchical “partner” selection, drug experimentation, sex struggles, loss of virginity, et al, against the backdrop of the newly forming ideas of the “tune in, turn on, drop out” blip in our history.
In the process we discover that our own culture keeps women forever adolescent by not empowering us to make informed decisions about what to do with our very real feelings of desire. While in some other cultures, Ancient China for example, men and women celebrated women’s passion as a force strong enough to hold the universe together. In fact, Wolf tells us, Western culture is the only one that doesn’t exalt female sexuality as an entity quite separate from men. This, of course, has devastating effects on young women. Wolf asks us to consider this: Any trace of “the bases”—petting stages somewhat accepted, or at the very least acknowledged as part of courtship in the ‘50s—has been virtually wiped out. This is exacerbated by an increased number of confusing media and pop-culture images, in which there is often no clear delineation between sex and violence. In the ‘60s and ‘70s these images were front and centre for the first time, perhaps too readily available to the developing pre-sexual teen. Post-sexual revolution teenagers, Wolf argues, go from “zero to sixty,” with little or no self-knowledge based on healthy exploration, on their own or with partners.
Most girls of her generation couldn’t wait to lose their virginity—to be all grown up—but they had no idea what it meant or would mean. They did know that if they were good girls they weren’t supposed to want it. After asking her friends about their “first time” sex experiences, Wolf concludes that many women talk about their “passage” with surprising passivity. “It just happened,” a chorus of women says. Consequently, they were unprepared, since preparation meant planning and actively participating in the act. Possibly even acting as the aggressor. “’Drawing a blank’—lack of consciousness—absolves you,” Wolf says of this phenomenon. Which leads to a high percentage of teen pregnancies and STDs that no amount of safe sex counseling seems to be able to control or change.
Wolf’s ideas about the sexual complexities facing teenagers and women today are a necessary addition to the feminist dialogue. But they are, at times, disturbing to ponder. In a section called “A Short History of the Slut,” Wolf recounts the stories of two schoolmates who were casualties in the secret struggle; one by becoming pregnant, the other by fulfilling the prophecy of “loose” bestowed upon her because of her early physical development. Wolf then traces female sexuality through two millennia and various cultures, engaging in some intricate discussion about what has been considered the norm for women, what our history can teach us about the true nature of female desire, and how hard it is to decipher all the in-betweens. Here, women’s history and today’s accepted sexual behaviours collide, shocking us into the sad realization that two hundred years of history and so-called progress has not redeemed women and their desire beyond the label of slut. Which raises the question: Will we ever feel healthy about our sexual selves? Will we ever be able to break our codes of silence, even with each other, to reveal that we are women full of desire, sometimes as much for the pure pleasure of connecting through sex for the sake of sex, as for the development and sustenance of a love relationship.
Thankfully, Wolf injects some comic relief with her search and rescue effort through history to reveal the path to female sexual pleasure: the clitoris. “Lost and Found: The Story of the Clitoris” spans 1559—the pleasure spot’s identification—through what Wolf calls The Great Forgetting period at the end of the 18th Century, to a brief 1896 celebration of it, to tiny evidences of its existence in the early 20th Century. Finally, second-wave feminists of the ‘70s introduced it as a novel discovery. Women, however, have been first hand witness to its reality all along.
As with all of Wolf’s books, Promiscuities asks more questions than it answers and opens the floodgate to healthy debate about the issues raised. Not the least of which is always: how to live in the world and still be feminist. I find Naomi Wolf a much better speaker than writer. Her weighty ideas are contained within sentences that are often poorly structured. Such big, complicated thoughts would be more comprehensible rendered through clean, clear prose. Her recall of verbatim dialogue from her youth, and the recounting of the stories of her friends seems, at times, contrived. And her own confessions would have the emotional impact that I’m sure she intended and felt were she a better writer.
That said, I personally loved reading this book simply because it represents the time-frame of my own coming of age–a moment in history that has not been discussed in any meaningful way. The pop-culture references alone were pleasing to look back upon. By risking telling her story, Wolf has helped many of us of that generation piece together our own. Over the years Naomi Wolf has provided a necessary link between the feminism of our mothers and that of a progressive and inclusive new feminism whose theories are less utopian and more achievable in our day-to-day existence as women. To my mind her uniqueness among feminists is that she is a living example for young women—who are often alienated by feminism to the point of rejecting the label even while embracing the ideals and goals—that it is possible to live within an inherited patriarchal construct, to do all we can to make it a better world for women, and also to be whole women. In other words, she shows us over and over, through her ideologies and prescriptions for change, and her own life as a wife, mother and now a woman with a sexual past, that it’s not necessary to take the feminine out of feminist.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto writer who works by day in Communications at Bravo!