Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy: A Light Still in the City

Maggie Hope is a special agent for World War II Britain dropped in France in Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy. Her mission is twofold: 1) to unravel the mystery of a potentially compromised fellow agent and 2) to uncover her sister’s whereabouts and to bring her safely home. As I read the book I noted the themes of Sleeping Beauty and clocks, the pressure of time, threading throughout. Danger and threat hover ominously from even the beginning pages, leading the reader on a tense, heightened journey that the word page turner does not do full justice; it is a novel meant to be binge read.

Superficially perhaps the novel is about revealing a double agent, finding a sister, and completing a mission. The novel is really about courage. Most obviously, it’s about the strength and the lengths people will go and what they will sacrifice to fight against those who don’t value religious minorities and the mentally or physically disabled. The courage to fight against fascism and those who don’t value everyone’s right to exist and with equal rights. I championed Maggie and her friends for fighting for their principles and all of those resisting the oppressive, censoring, intolerant, horrific, and truly inhumane Nazi culture. I relished the line in which “Resistance comes in all forms,” referencing how art can be a form of resistance, even the ballet and the colours worn on the dancers’ costumes. Resistance to immoral forces can be subtle or overt, just as strength can be. Very timely motifs.

I enjoyed Maggie’s realistic use of mathematical games, such as reciting the digits of Pi or calculating the Fibonacci sequence to calm herself. Like Maggie, I find math to be comforting, a safe place to go in my mind. For me I use the game 24 to relax. 24 is where you use the four basic operations of arithmetic to form the number twenty-four from four numbers between 1 and 13 (for example, if your numbers are 3,5,7,11 you can take 7 minus 3 to get 4, then take 11 minus 5 to get 6, and then multiply 6 times 4 to get 24; it’s extremely soothing and addictive). I loved how Maggie described the meditative nature of math, how almost prayer-like it is, an experience of divine proportions. Even with math we can quiet our minds to defeat the foes who try to suppress us. In a sense, math can be a form of resistance as a way not to allow others to trample our minds and spirits.

But what I think The Paris Spy is really about is Sleeping Beauty and love. Like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Maggie and her friends wake up to what’s really important, which is love. Again and again through the Maggie Hope series, Maggie and her friends learn the depth of a love of country, love of freedom from fascism and extreme intolerance, love of peace, and a love for the bonds that connect her coterie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Maggie where she wakes up to who she and her sister are meant to be, even if she might despise the moral dilemmas she encounters. In the book, circumstances push her and her friends to their limits which test their characters, and Maggie, in particular, wakes up to the most fundamental meaning of duty and learns where hers lies. I cannot help but be reminded of the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching us to follow our duty, what we are meant to do in our lives. Through the course of The Paris Spy, Maggie learns who are her allies, who are not, and she grows up to witness the horrors of a game which is not as black and white as chess.

There is a line in the book, “Love is what matters.” As I journey through reading the Maggie Hope books, I see that they really form an unconventional epic love story. It’s not the romances that occasionally pepper the books that form the love story, but a more encompassing love, one of true fidelity to friendship and sisterhood and one to the very purity of mathematics that governs our world. As I myself age, I realize how I wish all of life could be as simple as math. I think Maggie must agree with me.

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Canada Day 2017: Happy 150th

As a Canadian, I have a number of rights and responsibilities which I could rattle off to you if you wanted. One of them is to work to the best of my ability and to take care of my family as best as I can. My plans for today were to honour these responsibilities by doing work on revising my book and relaxing with a movie and maybe some games with Andrew, my family. But this morning I awoke with more energy (or extra coffee) and decided to clean as well, which feels important in taking care of my family. I seem to do a lot of thinking while I clean.

It was a conscious decision to concentrate more on my career, writing novels, than writing without compensation. Too often in my life I’ve been solicited to do research work or other work without monetary compensation. Would we expect the same of others whose work we consume? So why am I writing this? Writing is isolating, and I find it rewarding to write blogs for feedback and for the feeling that I’m making a contribution, no matter how small it might be. Maybe I promote a novel I love or a musical performance that has transformed me. One of my responsibilities as a Canadian is to volunteer. I think of my pro bono writing as a way of contributing to my country and the arts organizations that I find so critical in a world that can seem bankrupt of valuing beauty, poetry, creativity, and art. How much value do we place on art? Is something’s value only commensurate with how profitable it is? Of course not. Society seems to place importance on financially lucrative pursuits, but there are so many significant entities that come unattached to price tags. Like the invitation my friend extended to coffee when I told him I’ve been down. Or a free concert I recently saw featuring the sensitive soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, and incomparable pianist and maestro, Alexander Mickelthwate. Value is inherent in art that moves us, the music that sustains us, and the books which teach us about other cultures, experiences, and relationships.

I went to Paris in May for a change of scene and to give myself a fresh start and rebirth myself from the stagnant quagmire in which I was mired. It worked for a little after my return, but on occasion I reverted to old ways and old thoughts, old patterns. This process of becoming and growing seems to occur in fits and starts, plateaus, and ascents. An occasional descent. And it’s not without its surprises. It’s a process, continuous like the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than discrete as in something quantized.

I am gradually changing. Emerging from my cocoon and truly understanding who I am and how I wish to contribute not just to Canada but to my family, friends, and beyond. I take each day one day at a time and squeeze in my novel writing or writing research, physics, and music whenever I can, letting it buoy my mood by being immersed in endeavours I find valuable. Everything we do which raises us from the quicksand we can so often revert saves our lives. Writing does this for me and also the feeling as though my writing resonates with others. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an ambivalent relationship with exposing my vulnerabilities and innards through sharing my writing, but somehow I’ve been training myself to do so and feel gratified when I can connect to my audience, that it touches people.

While cleaning, I meditated on how I don’t have a schedule any more. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I try instead to just do whatever I can each day to feel like I’m making my contribution to my work and my family and my family which is Canada. To do the best I can. I don’t take a single day for granted nor a single moment with my loved ones. I’m discovering new friends who reach out to me and offer their friendship which I return with love. I’m discovering there are pockets I haven’t explored yet and still more lessons to learn. This is another reason why I write, to learn from my characters. They all have something to teach me. My aunt always says everything is a learning experience, and it is.

Today is a historic day. I will finish my cleaning quickly and then celebrate at the zoo and a concert a friend invited me to. I’ll watch a movie and work on my novel.

My gift to you is these words. Don’t take a single moment or your loved ones for granted. Find honour in your rights and responsibilities and work every day to do your best to fill your life with meaning and joy and following your principles. Live a life and value the music and poetry that surround you. And when your mind is shrouded by darkness, hold on to the thoughts, memories, people, places, and experiences that can get you through until a beam of light can shine through. Life is short. And perhaps meaningless. So distill meaning from the little things. Even if it’s just improving your immediate surroundings.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: My celebration of Canada Day was even more memorable than I had anticipated.  Instead of going to the zoo, my friends and I stayed after the concert among the politicians gathered for the occasion.  First we proudly sang O Canada as a united group gathered outside all in red and white to be followed by the inspiring words of her Honour the Honourable Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon.  She urged us all to use our voices, a major theme in my fiction.  If memory serves correct, the Honourable Premier Brian Pallister welcomed the diversity which makes Canada Canada.  But what resonated the most was His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to action for all of us to think of three things we can do to contribute to our country this year.  What are you going to do to add to Canada’s story?

Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Rejection and Relationships

I wrote the following as an email to one of my closest friends who has been going through a break-up, and on reflection, I’d like to share it with you, my dear readers in the blogosphere, as well. I decided to retain most of the email in its original form, though I changed my friend’s name to Sophie, the protagonist of my first novel and my third and current novel. I did edit some of the letter for privacy as well.

This letter is for you who might have experienced rejection from family, friends, or a romantic partner. It is for you who feel alone or who might not feel as though you experience all the types of relationships you yearn for in life.

Dearest Sophie,

I have spent a lifetime trying to find substitute family-figures. I am so grateful for Andrew, for he was the first person to unconditionally love me and has been there for me for the long haul, but I feel sad when I see others with a close loving family and friends. We’ve moved around every few years, so it’s been hard to make lasting friends and to have a real community. I remember in a previous email I mentioned it gets me down a lot. And then you email me and fill my world with light and love! I’m introverted, so I typically only have one good friend with whom I hang out a lot at a time. And I’m intense with my friendships as well, which might turn people off.

In this new year, I’m coming to some revelations about people and relationships which I’d like to share with you. Although I understand your situation is more severe than mine, as yours was a romantic attachment and my relationship issues are with family/friends, I think these thoughts might help.

1. In Buddhism they say that everything changes (see recent blog entry on change). We can look with loving eyes at the relationships of the past, but realize we and the other people have moved on and evolved and no longer belong in each other’s lives. It’s okay to be sad (I think of the memories in the movie Inside Out turning from joy to sadness) and nostalgic, but we must live in the present and put the past behind us. These people are part of who we are but also a part of our past, they don’t belong in our present except in how they changed and touched us.

2. We must accept rejection, no matter how much it hurts, and treasure those who truly appreciate and accept us for ourselves in all our messy imperfections and flaws. We only really need one or two people in our lives who accept us to feel we share meaningful human connections. Not everyone gets the ideal family, romantic attachments, and friendships maybe in a lifetime, but if you can have one or two people from one or two of these groups, that’s enough. We need to focus on the people we do have in our lives and not the people we don’t have. The ones who reject us might have poor judgement and don’t deserve our love (platonic, familial, or romantic). We can be sad but need to accept the truth that there will always be people we like more than they like us. But there are some people who reciprocate our affection (like you!), and we should concentrate on connecting with these people. Some people don’t have any meaningful relationships, and we need to be grateful for what we have and focus on our gratitude rather than focusing on what we don’t have.

3. I think forgiveness comes in somewhere. We need to forgive ourselves for desiring the company of those who reject us, and we need to forgive the other people for rejecting us.

4. It’s good to exercise or do something to distract oneself from being lonely sometimes. And to get an Alicia Keys Girl on Fire attitude. The best way to fight feeling badly, the best revenge, is success (I learned this from the Hugh Grant movie, Music & Lyrics). In becoming who we are meant to become. In doing great things.

5. And finally, in seeing the sadness wrought by rejection (which I’ve had from family and friends), we learn to appreciate the people who unconditionally love us (people like you and Andrew and some others for me). Maybe we need the sadness to appreciate the joy? Like we need night time to appreciate the day? And even in night there is a sky full of stars…I don’t know what this means, but maybe it’s my way of saying there is a silver lining.

Much love and light and gratitude to have you in my life,

Becca