Archive for October, 2008

A Bouquet Of Balloons

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I have been going through my papers, and have come across a correspondence that I hold dear to my heart. I worked as an author’s escort in Vancouver for five years. Had the privilege of taking care of writers that were having a publicity day on the advent of the publication of their books. My job was to escort them through their itinerary, whether that be picking them up at the airport, or a hotel, or their homes if they were local. Making sure they were on time and feeling good for scheduled radio interviews, print interviews, TV spots, book signings or any kind of literary event. I fed and watered them, found washrooms, telephones, snacks, addresses, parking spots. Ditched the car in alleys, raced them through hallways for live shows, opened doors, made introductions. Schmoozed, bonded, smiled, gritted my teeth, fell in love, listened, learned, paved the way. But most of all, this was their day and I was their helper, their ally, their contact, their support person.

In April 2002, esteemed author Carol Shields published what would be her last book, “Unless.” She would pass on from this world the following summer, July 16th, 2003. When I held it in my hand, it struck me hard. Carol’s story was of a writer named Reta, whose college-aged daughter Norah, suddenly and inexplicably drops out to live on the streets of Toronto, to sit with a begging bowl and a cardboard sign attached to her chest with one word on it – GOODNESS.

I felt compelled to tell Carol something I had seen, knowing that she would, yes she would, understand. And with grief in my heart, I knew I was using this as an opportunity to thank her, hopefully to entertain her, and to say goodbye.

The following is the letter I wrote to Carol Shields in May of 2002…

Dear Carol – I am writing to tell you a story. I am writing to tell you something that startled me so much. First I should re-introduce myself. A few years ago I was your publicity escort for your media tour in Vancouver and the launch at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre for “Larry’s Party.” What a party! The whole building festooned with streamers and balloons. Hi Carol, it is me Diane. My last name then was Taylor but I have since returned to my original name which is Toulmin.

Once again I will tell you what an honour it was for me to meet you. Back in another lifetime I was a young mother with four beautiful little children under the age of five, in a sad ridiculous relationship and had completely nipped and buried my dreams of living a writing life. But then I read reviews in the newspaper about a woman in Winnipeg with a whole passel of kids herself, who was writing books, good ones, and that made me feel better. Reading your books somehow kept my dream alive. I knew I wasn’t up for it yet, but at least it made me feel connected to know that a woman like you, in a house in Canada, was a writer. (I’m not describing this very well, but I think you know what I mean.)

On the day that I accompanied you Carol, we talked about family and I told you how excited I was because my sister, my estranged big sister whom I had never gotten along with, was visiting me for the first time at my home. And how wonderful it felt to feel “sister.” You were marvelous and supportive and happy for me too, and told me of a famous saying in your family. That one of your daughters, when asked to imagine life without a sister, had said, “What would be the point?”

My sister Janet came to your launch with me and had a thrilling time. And Carol, one of the greatest hurts of my life was healed that night because my sister told me afterwards that she was proud of me. That I had looked in my element and right where I belonged, standing at your side assisting you with the book signing. She saw me! Carol, that is the first compliment my sister had ever given me! And it completely removed all the pain I had not realized I had felt from not having my sister’s love and approval. So you see Carol, you are linked in my mind with sisterhood, healing, creativity, wise women, oh yes, the whole gamut.

In 1995 I picked up the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko from Vancouver Airport. I don’t know if you know his reputation but after scrutinizing me all the way from the terminal to the car, he announced that my wearing of masculine shoes could not dissuade him from noticing my charms. What a hoot! He spent the whole day trying to seduce me while I very good-naturedly told him he didn’t stand a chance. Once in a while he brooded, but all in all he found it quite intriguing that I was no pushover. He gave me examples of women who couldn’t resist going to bed with him, and he also wanted to know if I was perhaps unaware of how great he was? Aha! Maybe that was why I was so immune to him?

Shall I say it was a challenging day? Our lunchtime interview was on a bistro deck in the hot noon sun, where my Russian companion consumed in quick succession raw oysters and many, many shots of vodka. But I was pleased with how gallant he was in his (temporary) disappointment at his inability to have his way with me. He was very insistent that I should go to his reading later that weekend at the Jewish Cultural Centre where, he said, he would be MAGNIFICENT.

Carol, he was. The theatre was packed, the audience as one, rapt to attention. Onto the lit stage came Yevgeny, one single man, one solitary figure. Many of the poems he recited were in Russian but I swear I understood every word. What passion! The energy extended past his outstretched arms, past us sitting in the darkened theatre, out through the walls, into the very world. Yes, he was magnificent. He was a very charismatic and attractive older man. (Sigh.) So I have a wonderful memory of that day, and still smile at the saucy inscription he wrote in my book, “To make your husband wonder and be jealous.”

I share it with you, inscribed in my copy of his book, “Don’t Die Before You’re Dead.” Put on the most elaborate Russian accent you can, and read it aloud, as he did for me, before he snapped the book shut and ended with the day his pursuit of me…
1995 7 MAY

That is the setting, but this is the story. It was established, I would not be going up to his hotel room with him, so therefore he would like to look at some art. He asked that I drop him off in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was a bright day and the sun was hot. Yevgeny was looking a little petulant, and blaming bad oysters for not feeling so well. There was the usual crowd on the Gallery steps and we were caught in the slow moving traffic between lights. That’s when I saw the sight that I have never forgotten.

Standing alone on the steps was a young man holding aloft a large, hand lettered sign. He wore no distinguishable uniform differentiating him as punk, or hippie, or mentally unstable. He looked like a teenage kid you’d see on his way back from the 7-11, holding a slurpee, loping along in jeans and hightop runners. The heat beat down on the car, my day with Yevgeny was ending, the crowds of shoppers surged along the street, and the silent boy’s sign read – FIGHT FOR HUMAN BEINGS.

Oh Carol. Today I have your book with me and tonight I will begin it. When I realized what the book was about I remembered again the boy and the answers that I’ll never know about him. WHAT COMPELLED HIM TO THOSE STEPS AND THAT PROCLAMATION? I will treasure the unfolding of your questions and answers, as I’ve always learned when I read you.

So thank you Carol. For the gift of this book I get to read, and for the lovely memories I have of your special day of “Larry’s Party,” intertwined with my sister Janet and I. I am grateful to you for your grace and beauty and you are constant in my prayers.
Love, diane

And into my inbox from the giving and gracious Carol Shields…

Wednesday, May 08, 2002 4:44:52 PM

Dear Diane,
My husband and I read your letter over lunch and just loved it. Your story about your reconciliation with your sister touched me more deeply than I can say. I have had so many letters these last few weeks about estranged family members.
So thank you for making me laugh and cry, and bless you for writing, carol

* * * * * *

Anne Lamott has a clothesline strung up in her writing room, with all her ideas pegged to it. I have stickies. Simple yellow sticky notes stuck to the slanted eaves above the table where I write. Sometimes they fall down on my head. I’m supposed to read them. One of them says – THIS IS MY PARTY.

Carol’s party…Larry’s party…Yevgeny’s party…Don’t die before you’re dead.

This is my party. Have yourself a party, too.

Good Life