So for a month or two I am,
of necessity, in a ‘Third Place.’ As the simple replacement of windows in my Toronto Cabbagetown home has turned into a predictable morass of repairing a century’s shoddy construction and fly-by-night adjustments to a house that was never anticipated to be the swell and gentrified place it is now, I find myself a refugee staying a few blocks away. Me and the animals, and my morning dogs’ walk back to the house to see how it is faring.
A couple of days ago I dropped by and thought I was in Texas after a hurricane—wondered, for a moment, about that work permit I did not get. One of the back walls entirely missing and the contractor, not a con artist, was explaining to me why it needed to be rebuilt. Now this is the sort of stuff that breaks many couples up—and cuts into decent writing time, that’s for sure. Fortunately, some time back, I studied archaeology and so I’ve been able to come to terms with this ballooned and expensive undertaking as a sort of late post-secondary entertainment. I learn the terms of carpenters and, reminded of those McGill student days, try and divine just what was intended by the tenants and builders of three, five, seven and even ten decades ago. Never thought the archaeology would come in handy in this way.
Or the psychology, for that matter. I have what I call ‘Dreams for Cretins’, they are so simple to interpret. One stream has me in houses that typically have a handsome front but cardboard thin walls or the torrent of some underground spring rushing through its basement and eroding the foundations. In either case, it’s easy to see that the total collapse of my life as a charade is what’s at issue, though on the bright side I often wander out through rooms that have the possibility of being grand and a back garden that stretches out into some extended, rolling field, like some seigneurial strip in Kamouraska, reaching down to the bank of a stunning blue river.
So I’m afraid my house is falling down but I dream of golden pastures anyway, what else is new? The house is particularly a Canadian literary metaphor—previously occupied by tenants long since evicted in B.C., a paradise built over First Nations guilt; vacated by departed generations in the prairies; filled with family secrets in the Atlantic provinces; and the place of refuge against a threatening outside world in Québec—but in my case, and I’d hazard that of many other writers, it’s just about feeling like a fraud. I’m okay while I’m doing the job, am very invested in it to the point of being somewhere else completely (the world of words), but at that moment where I come out of the glorious solipsism that allows an author to work at all, I can feel as vulnerable as a turtle on its back. Curiously, it’s a feeling I get with jet lag—day two flying west against the clock, to be precise. It’s on this day that I routinely have another of my Dreams for Cretins, this one where I get the call from the Ministry of Education examiner who says to me, regarding the course that used to be a mandatory requirement to graduate from Québec high schools, “Mister Richler, you did not pass French 432.” Immediately, the house comes crashing down: not having French 432 means I did not graduate, go to CEGEP, to McGill or Oxford, work at the BBC, in newspapers or become an author afterwards. I know this dream well enough by now to expect it—and to make a point of staying home in the comfort of my house on that difficult second day.
And so, despite the massive expenditure on my house renovations, I am, at this point, curiously okay with it all. I’ll be left with a house looking no different, attracting no more on the market (which was never and is still not the intent) and with nothing peachy like a new kitchen to show for the trouble. But a part of me, I know, like a mild version of Ken Kesey’s Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, previously imagining doom and conspiracy in the walls, shall sleep better, knowing they are just a bit likely to come tumbling down. Maybe even write more confidently, who knows—until, that is, the fella who left the Ministry of Education sometime back for a job in the Ministry of Labour calls me in the middle of the night to say, “Mister Richler, you do not have your Work Permit no 432.”
Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.