Toast to lives while living

As Heather was going out the door this morning she said: “I didn’t read that post you did, the one that you didn’t write. Why would I read something you just lifted from someone else?”

Good point. Good lesson. It’s a brave new world, this blogging one. Heather doesn’t have time, none of us have time, to slide in among the sites in an endless attempt to find a safe way back and still hold onto a job. At work, we only have a few seconds between tasks so what do we do? We tap a forbidden key and frantic blasts pop up asking us to surrender not seconds but minutes and suddenly there’s your boss standing over your shoulder.

So why would Heather read something on my blog that I didn’t write? And why did I lift this other blogger’s words anyway? Once again, it comes down to lack of time. I copied his words because he wrote them well and it took only a cut and a paste for me. Still, I cheated. There might also be something of a copyright concern in this, although I made clear it was a gift of another writer and I linked to his site.

But enough of an introduction.

Heather left and I came up to my desk with my cat and set to correct the wrong. I’ll discuss his ideas about the value and treasure in obituaries then send you off to his blog if you have time, but not to lose you from my own.

Wayne (the other blogger) cautions readers against confusing an obituary with a death notice. This is something I often come up against when telling people about my love for writing and reading obituaries. I write obituary features, I say, obituary essays.

He refers to the considerable task of representing a singular human life in summary form. “It is a narrative compiled by someone who has sifted through the pile to discern what is essential and what is incidental.”

Indeed. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for me in writing this art form. But it also gives me pause to consider just how much one can achieve in a single decade, much less six or seven or eight or nine of them. I flow through the years with my subject while building my narrative, like the white-robed, androgynous figure in A Christmas Carol who takes Scrooze by the hand.

An obituary is about life not death, Wayne wrote. This is something I firmly believe and insist on proving with each essay I write. Death is in the shadows and provided the impetus behind the writing but it isn’t the story I am telling. When interviewing people I often ask for details about the person including voice, gestures, quirks, obnoxious habits. She had a sense of humour, they might say. “Oh yeah, tell me about something that made you laugh? Where were you when it happened?”

Yesterday I spoke with Bud Wildman, former cabinet minister under Bob Rae’s NDP government, about his friend and colleague Bob Mackenzie. He said that everyday Mackenzie ate rice pudding in the legislative cafeteria.

I imagined his spoon pressing down to stir in the cream and nudge aside the raisins; this austere and impressive man, the first NDP Labour minister, instigator of anti-scab legislation Bill 40, suddenly became alive for me and I followed through backwards to his boyhood in Orillia, Ontario as his mother hands him a bowl of pudding.

There is romance and imagination in my work. Fortunately, if only flavours the writing.

To end: my new blogger friend wrote about how Ernest Hemingway used to read the daily obituaries with a glass of champagne in his hand. A toast to lives well lived and to lives while living.

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About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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