Sunday, June 14, 2009

Edge of the Cliff -- Lyndsay Wilson

_No Previous Experience_; Cameron, Elspeth

Literature is life at its most vulnerable, intense, and achingly mundane. That’s how it sneaks up on you.

A professor once told me reading a book is as risky as attending a lecture; you never know it’s dangerous until you know too much. When you learn something, you can’t turn back. You can’t pretend you’re unaware. You’ve changed before you realize change happened at all. A word. A sentence. A few pages.

How could I have expected that a lecture -- more specifically, a lecturer –- would transform my understanding of love and life, as well as propel and guide me through the treacherous world of academia? How could I have known that a woman almost three times my age would inspire strength, hope, and conviction?

My transformation began during an 8:00 a.m. class, in the winter of my second year at university. A group of cold, apathetic students filed into a large classroom and slumped in their chairs, more interested in their coffees than the upcoming lecture. I was one of these students. I remember opening my notebook half-heartedly and scrawling the course code in the lined margin: "ENGL 2P92: Canadian Literature After 1920. Professor: Dr. Elspeth Cameron."

She jolted us awake immediately, responding to a question by a student unsure of which textbook to use. Her articulate yet slightly gravelly voice filled the room. “You mean you haven’t read this poem?” she inquired incredulously, holding up the now-open book. “It’s the first day of class, isn’t it? Why would you come unprepared?” Sixty sleepy-eyed students stared at her, mouths agape, coffees in mid-air. "Who was this woman?" they seemed to ask.

It was my first experience studying “CanLit” since high school, and I found myself once again falling in love with some of Canada's great writers. I delved into the assigned reading with gusto, yet, what I didn’t know was the piece of literature that would most affect me had been written by the quietly confident woman at the front of the room.

A fellow student informed me about Prof. Cameron’s memoir, No Previous Experience, near the end of term, after she had heard a rumour that Prof. Cameron was lesbian. This classmate told me she had apparently come out in her book, and had recently left her husband for another woman. Intrigued, I took down the title, and was intent on reading it when I had the time.

I began No Previous Experience as soon as classes ended that school year. After a mere two pages, I was in "too deep" to turn back. So I risked it. What I learned was she was a risk-taker, too. “It can happen on a hike,” she begins, mysteriously,

"You round a woody corner and suddenly you’re in the clear on the brink of
a pale limestone bluff, your stomach clenched, breath held, as you stare
straight down into the lush damp valley you never suspected was there.
Or you pass through the quiet streets of a nondescript town and a double
rainbow arches right in front of you, so close you can see the iridescent
droplets suspended mid-air, and you are speechless with wonder."

"...It can happen when you aren’t paying attention. You can miss the whole
thing. You can be blinded by blizzards, forget the password, pass by the cliff or plunge to disaster over its edge... It can happen anytime, anywhere."

I devoured the book in two days. It was not entirely what I expected, in that it was not a detailed, linear account that culminated in the exposure of her sexual orientation; instead, the book follows her re-evaluation of her sexuality in mid-life, with carefully chosen flashbacks to her youth. It begins at a conference in Edinburgh, where she encounters and develops a friendship with a fellow academic. Over the next 200 pages, Prof. Cameron boldly and openly describes the unique, intense bond of their friendship as it evolves into a lesbian relationship. Interspersed in this love story are her reflections on “fabricating the illusion” of her marriage, the terror of abuse and divorce, the importance of women in academia, as well as an exploration of motherhood, feminism, nature, sex, and personal growth. It is a narrative that not only investigates connectivity and self-discovery, but also the value of the unexpected and the possible.

I remember looking up after reading the final page. My couch was covered in wet tissues, crinkled wrappers, and empty mugs. The room itself looked the same, as did the world outside the windows, but something was different. I felt different. I felt a strange bond with this woman, a connection that wasn’t shaped by common experience, age, or even location. It was a bond over the realization of my own potential as a human being. Suddenly, I understood in my life I would probably make tremendous mistakes, but I would learn from them and survive. I realized there were parts of myself that would remain unexplored until a particular moment in time, or a particular person awakened them. At this moment, there was a connection not only to the author, but to other women in my life. What I knew as theoretical had turned into something real. It seemed I had always known women who had experienced emotional abuse and divorce. There were women I knew who had been sexually abused as children, beaten and controlled by their partners. I also knew women who had given up children, questioned their sexuality, struggled in their careers, and suffered with broken hearts. While I did not need Prof. Cameron’s memoir to validate experiences of other women, it somehow gave these individuals a stronger voice. Together, her story and the combined stories of the women I knew, fused together and forced me to value and consider my own life. Here was an epiphany: if they could move on and learn from the hardships they had endured, I could too. This pushed me to think: what was I capable of? What strength did I have? How would I live my life?

My first reading of No Previous Experience helped me reconsider what I knew as love. While my parents had always inspired me with their beautiful, loving partnership, I was in a relationship that was on the brink of disaster. For months, I struggled to make it work, to change myself, and hope that my partner would change too. Soon after reading the memoir, I found the strength to end the strife and move on, despite the humiliation I felt in ending it. What my professor said in a similar situation came to mind: she had done her best. I had done my best, too, but realized something more fulfilling might be found. I turned to the memoir for inspiration and strength, and found comfort in new beginnings. Then, I could see over the edge of the cliff she described, and felt my heart pound. When she reflected on Paul’s abuse, my stomach knotted in anger and my hair practically stood on end. When she caved and went back to him -– over and over -– I understood, but was frustrated on her behalf. When Janice came to her and told her they could be together, I felt her surreal relief and contentment.

Over several terms, I came to know Prof. Cameron better after a few more of her classes. She became a mentor, and helped me run the gauntlet of undergraduate work. She praised my writing while at the same time bluntly articulating what was wrong with it and how to correct it. She encouraged me to do research at the National Archives in Ottawa, and was pleased when I returned overwhelmed with what I had discovered. When she found out I was interested in becoming a Teaching Assistant, she was the first to recommend me, and the first to reprimand the Chair of the department when he said I was “too junior.” I worked as a TA in her classes, and she allowed me to prepare a lecture. “Get used to being nervous, it doesn’t go away,” she declared, before I began. She was an encouraging reference included in all of my graduate applications. “Be sure to say exactly what you want,” she advised, “Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. It’s competitive out there, and you need to learn to stand up for yourself.” I tried to heed her advice. Eventually, when I received word I had been accepted to a graduate studies program, she emailed me, delighted. “I’m proud of you,” she wrote.

For other people, No Previous Experience may be a resource for sexual rediscovery, but to me it is a story of being and becoming, of learning as an incandescent process. It is an examination of boundaries and of love and the human experience. Most of all, it is about making mistakes and learning to learn from them. Many women will not have the chance to know the authors who inspire them; I feel lucky to have known, even for a limited time, the woman behind the words.

These stories -- whether they are from the pages of a book, from our relatives and friends or from the woman next to us on the bus -- connect us in our struggles and successes and allow us to draw courage from the world at large. We are never alone, whether we find courage from the pages of a book by a risk-taking author, or we seek out narratives of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, other relatives, teachers, and friends. In my experience, the connections we make and lessons we learn as a result are always worth the risk.

Elspeth Cameron
No Previous Experience
Penguin Books

Lyndsay Wilson hails from Beamsville, Ontario. She completed an undergraduate degree at Brock University and master's degree at the University of Ottawa. She currently works in educational publishing and lives with her lovely partner, Clark, in Toronto, Ontario.


Janet Jarrell said...

Thank you for this - I am now looking for a copy of No Previous Experience at the library.

Sarah said...

Hi Lyndsay - I'm an old Brockie in love with this memoir as well (also with an MA - Queen's - also working in publishing in Toronto. How do we not know each other? When did you graduate? What class did you have with Elspeth? Did her quizzes scare the sh*t out of you too?