The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You, Me and the Dalai Lama

I was on my own this weekend in Toronto, and when I travel on my own, two things happen. First, I get homesick; this time, for my husband, which was strange. He'd been commuting from Montreal to Massachusetts for much of the past year and had even acquired papers identifying himself as a resident, albeit temporary, of the United States. I thought that I was used to his being gone until my train pulled into Toronto's Union Station and I became aware of having left something essential behind at home. How could I endure one more moment of separation? I'd gone to a lot of trouble to get to Toronto, but suddenly all I wanted was to scurry back to my little apartment in Montreal.

The other thing that happens when I travel on my own is that I indulge in my favourite bad habit: eavesdropping. This worked against me in Toronto, where everything I overheard only seemed to amplify my lonely, homesick feeling, perhaps because the main topic of conversation was confidence, and the lack thereof. An unfortunate coincidence, maybe.

"The problem with Justin," said one man too loudly in a Bloor Village coffeehouse, "is that he just needs to be loved, and until that happens..."

"She has no confidence," said a woman later the same day on Queen West. "And you know how people with no confidence always end up taking it out on others."

I kept this in mind while attending as many events as possible at the International Festival of Authors, the reason behind my visit. At one point, I hesitated: should I get in line to meet the New Yorker writer Shalom Auslander? Meeting authors I admire often feels awkward and unsatisfying. I sometimes think that I should avoid writers altogether as social beings.

"But people with no confidence always end up taking it out on others," I told myself, before forcing myself on Shalom, who was speed signing as many books as possible on the table before him. He speed signed mine as well, asking gruffly who, if anyone, I wanted him to make his signing out to. The whole conversation was about three seconds long and left me feeling even more homesick than I'd thought possible.

Luckily, the wonderful Andrew T. was there to console me. He'd attended another author event, with another New Yorker author, who had graciously provided him with her email address so that she could send him one of her harder to get poetry books. Clearly, Andrew had confidence. It was probably a Toronto trait. By the end of the trip, it might even rub off on me.

In the meantime, I decided not to engage with any other strange authors. I continued, however, with my eavesdropping ways, which at the Festival, more often than not, meant peeking over attendees' shoulders, to see what they were writing in their moleskin notebook. (Everybody at the International Festival of Authors had a moleskin notebook. It was as important as having a ticket.) At one event, I tried to read what the man in front of me was scribbling in his during intermission, but all I could make out was "disappointing," "depressing," and "dark." I surmised that he was from out of town, too.

By the end of my trip, though, I found myself exposed to fewer and fewer deflating conversations. On my second last day, at the Ideal Cafe in Kensington Market, I listened to a woman leave a brazen message on someone's machine: "I'm calling to see whether you were able to secure that meeting with the Dalai Lama, and, if so, may I be so bold as to ask whether or not I can join you?"

I didn't think that this was a request well suited to an answering maching. The culture of confidence could apparently go too far.

That night, at the GG readings, I sat beside the man with disappointing, depressing and dark impressions of the IFOA. Whenever he found something funny, he'd turn to see if I found it funny, too. Even if I didn't think it was particularly funny, I'd laugh, so that he'd feel a little less alone. When the host thanked M.G. Vassanji, for transporting the audience to "strange lands. Strange, strange lands, indeed," the man and I were the only ones to find the comment funny. We laughed and laughed, without talking. It was a good evening. I am sad to be leaving Toronto.

Pictured above: Two lucky jack-o'-lanterns wearing hats that Melissa made for my children. Thank you for the warm welcome and the generous gifts! Esme, in particular, was very impressed.


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Hi, Anne, Mwah! Lack of confidence used to be a huge problem for me! I'm so glad I appear differently now. Inside, sometimes still, I'm a tiny bit shakey- but you've got to 'fake it till you make it'! I went to a panel with Diane Ackerman, Jacob Arjouni and Ian Holding and they were all so great I bought all three books and then had all three signed and had a nice little chat with each author. They should run a workshop and Shalom Auslander should attend!

Tue Oct 23, 01:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I'm glad you're doing this, Anne. It's good to test yourself alone once in a while. When I traveled on business, it was hard at first to eat dinner alone and face the empty hotel room. But I got to like my own company and enjoyed imagining what strangers were speculating about me as I sat by myself at a small table in the corner.

The Toronto book events sound great. Enjoyed your observations about the moleskin journals. Even starving artists like their status symbols.

Tue Oct 23, 02:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Great post! Feels like I was there.

Tue Oct 23, 03:33:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Great post, Anne. Thanks for the recap; I too feel as though I was there. Good for you for taking that step. I agree with Andrew, the motto 'Fake it till you make it,' is also one I follow. Though it doesn't always work. When I met Bill Richardson the first time, I felt sure he was laughing at me. Until I asked friends who know him, and was reassured: He was probably laughing at me. It's what he does. At least, I thought, I'm not alone in that one...

Tue Oct 23, 04:22:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

That's pretty funny about the Dala Lama, too. Spiritual name dropping!

Tue Oct 23, 11:08:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Sorry, Dalai...obviously he and I aren't that close.

Tue Oct 23, 11:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Yay, Anne! While sorry to see you leave T.O., I'm glad you made it back safely to Montreal and your family.

And the pumpkins look swell in their cupcake hats. :-) Just so the haiku contest people know, I will be knitting something slightly more...grown-up...for the winner.

Wed Oct 24, 03:35:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Great hats, Mel. The kids will look adorable, Anne. If I come to Toronto, Mel, will you knit me a nose warmer? If I were a dog, my nose would be perfect.

Wed Oct 24, 05:29:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger sass said...

i *love* eavesdropping. the last one i heard was "i wanted a doughnut, he wanted a doughnut...".

but i never have my moleskin to write them in. my boyfriend steals them to write his grocery lists...

fyi - you can get them at the strand in new york for about half price...

Thu Oct 25, 03:37:00 pm GMT-4  

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