As the countryside whirls past my window, I write this message to you from my seat in the train. A glance outside can only apprehend one scenic view for an instant before it slips past us on board. We move forward à l'heure and given my current transitory state, I thought I’d write you a letter for this post.
Writing letters is a way of suspending an emotion. What we may feel in the moment of letter writing can very well change and disappear once our intended reader has received it. Yet, that’s part of the charm too. While the feeling of a moment may be gone, the writing – the evidence of our emotion - remains. A letter can be a part of us that we give to a loved one. As Beethoven once famously ended one of his love letters: “Ever thine, ever mine, ever ours, Ludwig.” AND as the iconic Stevie Wonder song says: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”. I’m yours. And as you read each word of a handwritten letter, you can trace where the other person was before you. You hold each of their words in your hand. I’m yours, they say.
I recently went to New York City and visited the Morgan Library. There, I was lucky to see “The Magic of Handwriting”, an exhibit of over 140 manuscripts and autographs from the collection of Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago. Spanning nearly 900 years across six broad areas of human endeavor—art, history, literature, science, music, and entertainment— this collection feels like opening one mesmerising time capsule. As it says on the Morgan’s description of the exhibit: “Handwriting works magic: it transports us back to defining moments in history, creativity, and everyday life and connects us intimately with the people who marked the page.” And so, for a day, I was connected to the likes of Van Gogh, Einstein, Puccini, Stephen Hawking and more…See for yourself below.
The words we write have the persistence to survive us. And thus, our words have immense power. You see, the magic of handwriting is that it is infused with a sense of a captured moment – a lingering sense of the person whose hand was there not too long ago. And as our eyes travel in their inked footsteps, we are able to feel the purpose they poured over those particular pages.
As my train pulls into my station stop, I leave you with these thoughts and look forward to our continued correspondence. Until next time, dear reader.
Insights into Montreal Part 5: My Interview with Louise Penny, Book Lovers Day, and an Invitation for the Voyage
One remarkable thing about reading is that it gives us the power to travel anywhere we please. Where, in your deepest desires, do you wish to go?
Over the past months, I’ve been visiting Three Pines – that is, the setting for author Louise Penny’s 13 best-selling novels. If you wish, let’s travel there for a moment with the novel’s main character Inspector Armand Gamache.
Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Quebec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.
(Chapter 1, The Long Way Home)
In Thee Pines, there’s a Boulangerie, a Church, a Bistro and a Bookstore…
Have a seat in the Bistro:
It was a restful room. The fires at either end of the beamed bistro took the gloom out of the day. Their light gleamed off the polished wood floors, darkened by years of smoke and farmer’s feet. Sofas and large inviting armchairs sat in front of each fireplace, their fabric faded. Old chairs were grouped round dark wooden dining tables. In front on the mullioned bay windows three or four wing chairs waited for villagers nursing steaming café au lait and croissants, or scotches, or burgundy wine…
(Chapter 2, The Brutal Telling)
Saunter into the Bookstore:
The walls were lined with bookcases filled with hardcovers and paperbacks. With fiction and biography, science and science fiction. Mysteries and religion. Poetry and cookbooks. It was a room filled with thoughts and feeling and creation and desires… A black cast-iron woodstove sat in the center of the room, with a kettle simmering on top of it and an armchair on either side.
(Chapter 4, How the Light Gets In)
Can you hear the simmering kettle? I can…
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Louise Penny for Literacy Quebec. It was a wonderful experience. She is as generous in conversation as she is in her stories. I had to refrain from pinching myself the whole time. Louise Penny is a New York Times Best-Selling author whose novels have been published in 23 languages. She is also the patron for one of our members, Yamaska Literacy Council.
As the patron of YLC, she has published a novella called The Hangman which is specifically geared toward emerging readers and adult learners. It deals with adult themes and challenges at a Grade 3 writing level. This gives learners the opportunity to strengthen their reading skills without having to resort to children’s books for practice. They have the chance to join Inspector Gamache and travel to Three Pines.
A cup of coffee is always the best when paired with a good book. Virgin Hill Coffee Roasters, a local Brome Lake family-owned business, created the Gamache Blend in tribute to their favorite author. The special thing about the Gamache blend is that for every bag sold, Virgin Hill donates $1 to the Yamaska Literacy Council. To top it off, Louise Penny matches these donations to support YLC programs.
Today is World Book Lovers Day. On this day especially, I’m reminded of moments from my conversation with Louise Penny, a fellow book lover. "Books can feed the heart, feed the spirit…not just the mind", she said. As an avid reader and of course, an avid writer, Louise is passionate about literacy. The first level of literacy is functional – reading a medicine label, writing a cheque, etc…"but what about making reading a joyous experience?" Louise asked, in our conversation. Yes. Let’s aim higher for literacy and the power of reading…"You can think of reading as more than just a tool to survive the day with…Ultimately, you want people not only to survive, you want people to thrive". Books have the power to take us there - "Books have the power to take us to places we can't normally go…so how awful it is to have a huge percent of the population not invited on the voyage".
42 percent of adult Canadians have low literacy skills. Thus, many are also less able to view reading as a joyous experience or an opportunity for travel. In an ideal view of the future, through Louise Penny’s eyes, "We all need to be able to be given the ticket to at least have the choice to go anywhere in the world through what we read…or go anywhere inside ourselves for that matter...Novels and reading can take us to places inside ourselves, help us to understand ourselves, human nature, compassion for others, and what makes others tick - that's what books can do. If you can't read, it's so much harder to get to those places."
With this said, organizations such as Literacy Quebec and our 13 members continuously strive to make our services as accessible as possible for those who need them. And Louise Penny is right by our side. If you visit her website, you will find a wealth of resources for emerging readers, aspiring writers and devoted readers alike. "Persevere. Believe in yourself", she writes as one of many tips to getting published. During her Hugh McLennan lecture at McGill University this past April, she shared her morning ritual. A quotation hangs above the dining room table where she writes that says, Noli Timere, the last words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Noli Timere is Latin for ‘Be not afraid’.
Here’s the thing: Three Pines is a fictional town. As in, it only exists on the page and in our imagination. Louise Penny told me, "Three Pines is an interior place, it's an allegory for kindness and the fact that goodness really does exist as a place of peace and comfort. It doesn’t mean that bad things don't happen there but rather, that they are survivable through community and belonging. It represents the certainty that goodness not only exists but will triumph". Three Pines is within us. When we read, we travel to a new place, to a point B. Yet, that new place also becomes an extension of point A: ourselves. We are all invited to embark on the journey of reading and together, we can conquer any fear of flying. Step by step, we can fill the pages of our literary passports and explore new worlds between the lines. Noli Timere, dear friend.
Have you ever thought of your hero as the person who makes you coffee in the morning?
Certain underlying, elemental forces set us on our good path every day that we work, play, dream, and succeed. Some of those forces are the people we start our days with- the people who care for us enough not only to benefit from the outcome of our success but to set our days up so that we may succeed.
Every Tuesday morning, RECLAIM Literacy holds a Summer Storytime program at Norman-Dawe on Woodland or in the Church of the Epiphany on Wellington. Every Tuesday, play mats and a bin of books are laid out before the kids arrive. Stories and puppets for the day are chosen beforehand so when the kids start pouring in at 10:30, everything is already waiting for them. I visited a session for the first time last week. As the children settled down and prepared for story time, I found a seat toward the back – perfect for quiet observation.
The animator began with songs and rhymes full of clapping and movement. The kids, all aged between 0-5, were already watching diligently. With their parents holding them in their laps, gently guiding their children and repeating after the animator, I could see the little ones already getting the hang of this. They watched wide-eyed as the animator then pulled out the first story of the day: Elliot Bakes a Cake. Lionel decides to bake Elliot Moose a cake for his birthday but it quickly turns into a disaster when Lionel is unable to follow some of the complicated instructions. Thankfully, Elliot comes to help. They work together and manage to bake the best cake either of them had ever tasted. You don’t need to read children’s books to realize that this is a story about teamwork and friendship. Watching the kids listen so avidly was touching.
In the moment that we finished that story, something magical happened. Joy, the director of RECLAIM, came out with a bowl of ingredients – all the ingredients needed to bake a cake. The story was coming true. Just as Lionel and Elliot had done, we were going to bake a cake together. Everyone was bursting with delight. Joy gave turns to the older kids at mixing the bowl as the younger ones watched in awe. You see, the day I visited was one of the rainiest days of the week but story time went on indoors regardless. No matter what, a story, a snack, and sunny people can bring light to any situation.
Reading aloud to children is incredibly powerful. In an article recently published by the NPR, it says that, “When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye”. As we read to them, they build the muscle in their brain that brings images to life in their minds. According to another recent article in the New York Times, The more parents read with their children, the more children have an opportunity to think about characters and the feelings of those characters. Eventually, “they learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”
As I watched the staff of RECLAIM and the animator of the Storytime program mobilize to read to these children, I realized that there is so much more to them than what meets the eye. They are the unsung heroes of our lives. And yes, heroes don’t always wear capes. Most times, they are the ones who make us cake. They’re the ones who read us stories that help us understand friendship and teamwork. They sing silly songs and rhymes. They bring us joy without any inhibition. They light the way for us every single day.