Mythical

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“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.”
~ Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

marriage certificate

An ordinary document: my grandparents’ marriage certificate.

My grandmother’s life was ordinary: she immigrated to Canada as an infant with her parents and older brother, she went to a country school. She worked as a housekeeper and cook; she married, farmed with my grandfather, had two children.

Her life is also mythical: her story is – in many ways – the story of Alberta, the story of this country.

Her stories filled my childhood and became part of the mythology I carry with me everywhere. I may have missed many of the Greek and Roman classical stories growing up, but I know about the first time my grandmother, Olga, baked bread on her own: it was the day her youngest brother was born. He was born on her last day of grade eight, her last day of school ever. Olga’s basketball team was playing a game but she couldn’t go to school because her mother was having a baby, and Olga had to stay home to bake the bread. (She never let my great-uncle Art – the baby born that day – forget it, either, and teased him about it the last time she saw him, when she was in the hospital. I know because I was there.)

I know all about the adventures she and her siblings had growing up along the train tracks, and all the trouble they got into on the family’s farm. I know how the men on the threshing crew at the farm where she worked when she was a young adult loved her baking, especially her pies, and told her she should open a bakery.

Of course, there is a darker side to this mythology too, one she didn’t talk about. Now, as an adult, I am slowly uncovering more pieces to the puzzle and filling in the gaps of some of those stories.

Last month I wrote about finding inspiration in history – and what better place to find it than in my own history?

While that is a rhetorical question, I’ve been thinking about the connections between the ordinary and the mythical lately, as my current project – although fiction – touches on my family’s history. I find myself asking other, real questions. Questions I don’t have answers for yet: what do I do with all of these stories? What is my obligation, my responsibility? And: if I am telling these stories, how do I do so in a respectful way – but a way that is also honest and doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of my personal mythology?

Finding inspiration in history

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I discovered these dishes in the Vindolanda Museum, along Hadrian’s Wall, and have been thinking about them ever since.

This almost-complete set of Samian-ware pottery was imported into Roman Vindolanda from France and, after being broken in transit, was thrown away, unused, into the ditch of the fort.

Imagine the disappointment of the intended owner – and the thrill of the archaeologists who found these dishes almost two thousand years later!

As a writer, I have all sorts of questions:

Who were these dishes intended for?

Did whoever ordered these dishes get a replacement set? How long did that take? How much did it cost?

Not all the dishes are here… does that mean a few of them arrived intact? If so, what happened to them? Where they given to a slave or someone else, or did the owner keep them?

These questions could be the beginning of a story. My current project is set in Alberta in the 1930’s and I have been thinking about a set of dishes ordered out of the Eaton’s catalog that arrives broken…