As an added bonus, we asked Judy LeBlanc for her best piece of writing advice:
Judy LeBlanc: My first writing teacher, Margaret Dyment, advised us to start by muddling which I took to mean try one thing then another, create disorder and have some fun. Much can come from muddling. I read whatever interested me, lots of it, and I grew more curious about the smells and sounds and sights of everything, and also what people did and said. I filled notebooks and moved words around on the page. Then I learned there were rules to writing, I got my MFA and eventually taught craft. Now I’m older, I want to go back to muddling because why not. Jenny Erpenbeck who grew up in East Berlin just before the wall came down writes, “Growing up I hadn’t learned that life is a competition…the only thing I’d learned is that life is boring if you’re not interested in something.” I write because it’s so interesting where your curiosity will lead and how many ways you can express that in words. My advice is to muddle.
Beneath the Din by Judy LeBlanc
In July 2001, when Mom was still spending ten hours a day in her garden on the acreage my parents bought up island, she had to have a throat biopsy. Mom was a faithful smoker in spite of the COPD which took her several years later, a chicken soup of lung conditions from too many cigarettes.
Sitting in my Victoria townhouse a few days after the procedure, I wrote in my journal:
My mother gets up at six to go into the garden, and I get up at the same time to sit on a cushion and go into my mind. We’re both in search of silence. She bending to the soil and me to consciousness, both of us losing our selves.
My mother and I knew the weight of the self, how it was a trap, a demanding, fretful, cloying narcissistic clatter in the head from which we found respite in our own way. She found it in the morning air on her skin, the sun that rose over the mountain, the smell of the dark earth and her strong limbs, the flow of blood to the heart: the stepping forward of the senses.
Despite a stutter my brother, who was only eighteen months older than me, was a great talker at home and at school. His rapid fractured speech ratcheted above the voices of the other children, toneless, hysterical and trembling with colour. As if it had escaped from a region all but he knew to keep down.
To be heard at home, it was necessary to wedge words in between his, and this skill served me in alleviating the loneliness I began to feel at school. In my nervousness, I interrupted conversations, talked between two talkers. Though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it, I’d learned by grade two that fitting in had a lot to do with saying the expected thing or if you weren’t sure what that was, saying nothing at all. I made friends and learned to fill silences. Sometimes in doing so, I felt that I was becoming one of a loquacious
mass that never really listened to one another.
The day after her biopsy, I phoned when I knew my father was up and would answer.
“Have you heard the results?” I asked.
“No, but she’s fine.”
“Is she talking yet?”
“No, but there’s no reason she shouldn’t be.”
My father believed illness was something that happened in your head, like noise. He once removed a cast from his leg with a hacksaw.
In my journal I wondered whether my mother might, like the woman in The House of Spirits, choose to live with but not speak to her husband for the rest of her life. She’d only communicate with him through her daughters, their exchanges brief and efficient. I wouldn’t have blamed her and for her, I would have willingly participated in such an arrangement. In her interactions with my father there would no longer be the need to choose between defending herself or submitting to his will, the crux of most of their exchanges. Would this have disarmed him; he whose words were a flint looking to ignite? Would this have given her some sweet quiet?
In grade eight when we moved to Victoria, again I stopped talking. A kind girl whose father owned the corner store walked with me to school every day. “Why don’t you say anything,” she asked. This did nothing to break the logjam of my speechlessness. There were no words, not a scrap of language in my head. Only shame for the discomfort I caused. This went on for the rest of grade eight. I was grateful and I’m sure she was too when friends of hers joined us. Then I could relax, my silence dropping into white noise.
In this new neighbourhood, I had to learn the rules of social engagement, those that applied in a working class-suburban high school. The bad kids smoked pot on the fire escape and got expelled. The good ones drank jungle juice stolen from their father’s liquor cabinet on the weekends. Pretty much everyone smoked their older brother’s pot in the park. I discovered many ways to loosen the tongue.
After the surgery my mother spoke again. There was no cancer. She again found solace in the garden. I often wondered what came to her in the quiet hours spent there: a childhood rarely spoken of, inarticulate memory, the shadows of her Coast Salish grandmothers. Women unheard above the din, their silence a verb, an aggressive act.
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