Maudie: A Marriage of Misfits

I am Canadian, work at an art gallery, but had never heard of Nova Scotia folk painter Maud Lewis before.

That changed when I saw Maudie, and I am really grateful to this beautiful movie for introducing me to her (it was filmed in Newfoundland though).

I saw it around the time my own artist-husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary and it got me thinking about Maud and Everett’s unconventional marriage.

As much as the movie shows Maud painting her charming scenes of rural life in her 13.5 by 12.5-foot house, the story is more about two misfits stumbling their way towards happiness together.

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The artist opening her house covered in paintings (Mongrel Media)

Maud Lewis was born in 1903, tinier than everyone else and with almost no chin. She suffered from juvenile arthritis that worsened as she grew older and made it incredibly difficult for her to hold a paintbrush. In the movie version, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she walks with a limp and keeps her chin tucked in, her body more and more bent as time goes on.

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Typical look on Everett’s face (Mongrel Media)

Everett is an irascible fish peddler with little to no social skills (Ethan Hawke also gives a great performance). That’s why it’s rather funny that when he puts up an ad for a housekeeper and Maud answers it, he takes convincing to accept it.

He reluctantly makes space for Maud in his house, yet doesn’t know what to do with this woman who, despite so much pain in her past (and far from just physical), exudes an infectious joy. She is also very witty.

Everett and Maud eventually get married but they enter into it without ideals. A man Everett works with and his partner are the only witnesses, and he says to the newlywed couple, “I don’t know whether to offer you congratulations or condolences.” Early in the story, he had seen Everett hit Maud.

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Just married (Mongrel Media)

There are definitely times when Everett and Maud’s relationship made me uneasy. As my sister pointed out, their complicated love story is not surprising given they are two hurting people coming together. (My one criticism of the movie is that we don’t know anything of Everett’s past to connect with his pain in the same way we get to with Maud). And yet we see a softer side to Everett as he and Maud spend more time together as husband and wife. Kate Taylor in her Globe & Mail review sums up how I felt watching his character:

Hawke’s precise performance manages to make the plight of an illiterate, insecure and occasionally abusive man deeply sympathetic, inducing pity rather than anger.

When Everett and Maud return home after their wedding, she puts her stocking feet on his dress shoes and they hold each other like they are dancing. She says, “We’re like a pair of odd socks.” He tells her he is an old grey one, all bent and misshapen, while she is a cotton sock, canary yellow. They continue to dance. He says he’s sure to say something cantankerous in the morning again. She smiles.

This was such a tender scene to witness. It showed a choice, an acceptance, to love someone as they are. After living and working together so closely, Maud and Everett didn’t seem to have any illusions about each other. Maud changed Everett to a certain extent, but in other ways, not really. He was still a grumpy, reclusive man who didn’t know what to do with emotion. Do I think they found happiness together? At least the way the film portrayed it, yes. A dying aunt tells Maudie she is probably the only family member who ended up happy. And she certainly looked it, despite her failing body. And she certainly painted it.

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Maud Lewis poses with one of her paintings in front of her home in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia (Courtesy AGNS)

Gold Creek Coincidence

While I wait for the BC election results, here are some pics from a beautiful hike along Gold Creek in Golden Ears Provincial Park on Sunday.

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Cool story: After we saw the waterfall, the Artist and I ate lunch on a stretch of beach below the main trail and stayed there for a while so he could fly fish and I could read. Out of the bushes, bounding towards us from the main trail was a dog that looked an awful lot like Scarlett, my brother and sister-in-law’s Nova Scotia Duck Toller. She was the very definition of a happy dog with her wagging tail and allowed me to pet her for a second before bounding right back up the path to her owner(s). I was pretty sure it was Scarlett though the Artist highly doubted the probability of it. We went on with our fishing and reading. But later that afternoon, back at the parking lot, we saw my brother and sister-in-law and turns out it was Scarlett! Since we had been completely invisible from the path, she must have sniffed us out with that impressive nose of hers. Needless to say, that canine encounter made my day!

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The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

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As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

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Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.

The Paris Wife

As I will be visiting Paris for the first time this year, I’m getting more and more excited by reading stories set there.

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I recently finished The Paris Wife by Paul McLain that fictionalizes the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife Hadley Richardson from 1921 to 1927. The story is told through Hadley’s voice.

There are always two sides to a story and after discovering Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast that also focuses on his years with Hadley, I was intrigued at what her version would say. Since she didn’t write her own memoir, we have to rely on McLain’s research.

She made the time period and the characters come alive for me. Hadley and Hemingway’s meeting and early dating in Chicago felt a little cliché, but the book really sang when they moved to Paris as newlyweds. In the prologue, the narrator writes:

This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.

Of course, when someone says don’t keep watch that’s the very thing I do. Every time there was a new woman introduced into the story (and there are a lot of characters since Hadley and Ernest hung around other expat artists and their partners like the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound), I wondered if this would be the woman who destroyed their marriage.

I also kept watch for Hemingway. I noticed McLain treated him very carefully—too carefully. It seemed as if she wanted to acknowledge his cruelty towards Hadley while still making him likeable. There are hints of Hemingway’s bravado and aggression in living room boxing matches he has with friends and in his appetite for watching Spanish bull fights, but apart from one tumultuous quarrel, all his and Hadley’s marital tension is unsaid or so subtle it feels unrealistic. For a character known as a hothead, Hemingway speaks remarkably cool, reserved, and casual throughout the novel.

I felt for Hadley in the net she was caught in—trying to believe in marriage in an age and place where marriage was becoming less and less defined. Men tried keeping a wife and a mistress in the same house. Hemingway and Hadley tried this with their friend Pauline who ended up being the woman to keep watch for, and you can imagine this arrangement worked out swimmingly for everyone involved (high sarcasm there).

Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.

Was Hadley as naive as McLain makes her out to be? I don’t know. I think you can be hopeful without being naive, but it does take her an awfully long time to clue into her husband’s infidelity. She is a good and faithful wife, but as Aritha van Herk writes in her review in The Globe and Mail, there are some definite moments in the book where Hadley could have been more nuanced, like when she loses a suitcase carrying literally all of Hemingway’s work (it was stolen on a train). She is all tears and apologies, but doesn’t she ever have moments of selfishness? Hemingway certainly did.

In reading this fictionalized memoir in the 21st century, I found it hard to completely sympathize with Hadley because she is portrayed as perfectly content to make her life dreams her husband’s. Her biggest streak of independence is playing the piano and practicing for a concert that she never ends up doing because that’s when she finds out about the affair. Certainly not every woman in this time period sacrificed like Hadley—look at Zelda Fitzgerald. Not saying she’s a healthy example either but finding your identity in your husband’s doesn’t leave you with much when the marriage dissolves.

I’d recommend reading A Moveable Feast and then The Paris Wife to see how the two accounts compare since McLain heavily drew on Hemingway’s memoir to create her version of this famous and tragic marriage.

A Crafty Winter

Happy New Year! I’ve been waiting for Christmas to be over in one aspect: so I can finally share some of my sewing projects I’ve been up to.

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This year I decided to make gifts for the women in my family. It was a great way to avoid all the malls and crowds and give something a bit more personal, though I probably won’t touch the sewing machine for some time now.

Table Runners

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I know how to sew garments pretty well, but when it comes to basic things like a table runner that doesn’t even require any seams, I’m out of my element and turning to google. I found my inspiration and directions from Apartment Therapy, where the placement of multiple table runners along the width of the table added a more contemporary look to the dining room. I also like how the table runner doubles as a placemat.

I cut out four rectangles, making sure when I folded over the raw edge 1/2″, the finished width was wide enough to fit a plate and cutlery on either side. Mine were 16″. However, I found that it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi when I tested it on my table, so I added red seam binding to all the edges.

img_4109The seam binding was a bit tricky at the corners. I folded and pinned them like this and then hand-sewed the gap together.

Here is how a finished one looked:

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Pillows

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I had also never made pillows. They’re not terribly hard, but they do take a while to get the hang of, especially if you want a full-looking pillow, rather than a saggy one. I discovered a great trick of cutting the fabric the same length and width as the pillow because the pillow form will stuff into it and make it look healthier.

I did two Christmas-themed pillows, using the dark red/maroon colour as a way to tie them together.

For the abstract lace Christmas trees, I followed directions from Make It & Love It. I was thrilled when I saw almost the exact same green zigzag fabric at Fabricland! Instead of doing 2 layers of lace trim, I had a lot of maroon ribbon to use up so I sewed a strand of that on each lace piece (9 in total), and then added the silver buttons for stars. Make sure you sew all these pieces to one piece of fabric before you sew the two rectangles together!

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The Canadian-themed pillow was my own pattern. I cut out the maple leaf from the leftover squares of this patchwork quilt fabric, sewed it together, turned it inside out, and handstitched the gap. I’m particularly pleased with how the envelope back turned out so that you can actually take the pillow case off and wash it if needed. Instructions on how to do that also from Make It & Love It.

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Fox Apron

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The last project I’ll mention because it’s so darn cute and was probably my favourite to make was this fox apron from Simple as That that I discovered on Pinterest. The main adjustment I did was instead of using white glue to fasten the paw pockets, ears, eyes, nose, and cheeks, I cut out backs for everything (including the face) so there would be no raw edges and fraying seams. This also meant I didn’t make mine reversible, but I didn’t think that was a great loss because if you have the option to wear a fox or a floral print as a little girl, chances are you’re going to go for the fox. So I altered the free pattern you can download from the site to allow room for seam allowances. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and my niece loves it too!

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