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Massy Interviews / Miriam Edelson

On Tuesday, October 11 at 6pm, join Massy Arts, Massy Books and author Miriam Edelson for the launch of her new book The Swirl in My Burl: Essays, a literary collection of memories, emotions and truth-searching.

In this intimate reading, the author shares the entangled splendour of life’s joy and pain. Like a burl—twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting—her stories are wondrous and invite us to find strength in the misshapenness. There will be a Q&A followed by a book signing.

Registration is free, open to all and mandatory for entrance.

To celebrate the launch of The Swirl in My Burl: Essays, Romila Barryman interviews Miriam Edelson for Massy Arts. In this intimate conversation the two name the tree rings in Edelson’s timeline and expand on the complexity of parental grief.

Your writing takes inspiration from the burl, the round knotty growth that marks trauma on a tree. How would you name the injuiries in your life that produced your burl and what inspired you to craft it into your collection of stories?

I became attracted to burl wood when I accompanied my daughter to an exotic wood supplier a couple of years ago. The patterns on the wood are quite magnificent and as I later read about burls, I began to think that one could think of one’s life as a burl—full of twists and turns, patterns and memories. In my own life, I’ve had to learn to live with an illness that can be quite surprising and debilitating. The birth of my son, who had a severe neurological disorder and died young, caused me a great deal of pain as well as the joy from caring for him. These situations generated my own burl, I suppose, and in my writing I try to make sense of it all.

As you carve through your stories, your daughter carves through literal burls as a woodworker. While there is a connection between your crafts, you also note its distance and the grief that arises from that.

The sense of loss I feel is likely common to many parents. My daughter is growing up and separating out from me. And while I am happy for her and proud of her accomplishments, there is some sense of loss of the close relationship we’ve had. This was all magnified these last few months as she has recently moved from Toronto to Vancouver to pursue her schooling. I am gratified that she is a sister creative, we share that in our lives. And while she works in a very different medium, wood, we are able to appreciate the successes and challenges we each face and to bridge the gap in our communications.

Your work reveals complex and intimate parts of your identity that can often be boxed by who you are perceived to be—a mother, Jewish, someone diagnosed as bi-polar. How did your “family constellations” shift as you revealed the rings in your timeline?

It’s true that my work delves into several intimate areas that are part of my life. Stories about mothering, about experiencing anti-semitism, trying to deconstruct one’s own mental health issues, are all part of my material. Mostly my family constellation has remained loyal through the inevitable changes and, sometimes, tumult. I did have an experience a short time ago when an acquaintance and former colleague learned that I have bipolar illness. She found it hard to believe as she knows me as someone who is stable and reliable. We had an interesting conversation, one that I think opened her eyes to the variety that can exist in the ways a particular diagnosis plays out.

It’s said that the burl is also a protective feature. If a tree breaks from a storm, for example, that the burl can act as a place of regrowth. Can you share with us an excerpt where you believe new work might branch off?

All of the writing about my son and daughter is, in a way, my attempt to deal with the particular set of challenges I’ve been dealt. I recently published a piece on the CBC that dealt with my mixed feelings about my daughter’s move. I recognized that I was conflating my son’s permanent leaving (through death) with that of my daughter’s decision to attend university far away. Both constitute loss, but they are of a different order. One is not permanent and I will continue a relationship with her across the miles. Once I realized this through my writing, I was able to act in a mature, measured fashion with my daughter. The writing was essential to recognizing my error in perception and I suspect that as I continue to write, I will encounter new growth in my burl. It’s a wonderful process!

How do you hope readers take away from these deeply personal essays?

While the essays are deeply personal, I believe they also touch on universal questions that many people deal with. Certainly this is true of some of the growing up and parenting pieces. Even my take on my own mental health can have meaning for others struggling with such issues. I would like readers to take away an enjoyment of the writing itself, as well as whatever meaning they glean from reading the book.