Though Matthew and Marilla would have been considered me a fine specimen of boyish orphan for Mrs. Spencer to bring home from the orphanage, they, like my farming fathers before me, would have been disappointed. And a little puzzled, if experience teaches me well. As a child, I was so instinctively bad at farmwork–so dizzyingly incapable, forgetful, and unknowledgeable–that I would even make visitors to the farm tilt their heads in puzzlement. My father, who lived and breathed farming, who left the streets of Vancouver as a hippy youth to farm, who travelled to other parts of the world to help poor farmers farm better–even he knew when I was very, very young, that I would not walk in his ploughed furrow.
See, that’s part of it. I know that a ploughed field is made up of ridges and furrows because “ridge,” “furrow,” and even “plough” (spelled that way) are such evocative words. But I could never actually ever plough a field. It wasn’t just tools and machines, but the whole life of the farm. Except for my keenly refined habit of stumbling upon skunks, nothing else I did on the farm went well for me. Unless the 4th “H” in 4H–the “H” I can never remember–is “Hapless,” this is another sign that I am one of the few people to ever fail 4H. The other signs include scattering crowds, terrified animals, the worst animal in our farm’s history, my bloodied and tear-stained face, and a certain bovine organic compound convincingly painted upon my lily white show uniform.
Honestly, if I was the Cuthberts’ boy, we would have lost Matthew around chapter 7 or 8.
I have come to a resolution about this, mostly. The fact is that I have never fit in well to “guy” spaces. I never liked hunting, have never caught a fish in dozens of outings, and I have always thought snaring rabbits a cruel affair (though that’s probably because of Watership Down). Guys can fix things or build things, but I’ve never had the knack. The only car thing I was ever good at was detailing, which is what guys call cleaning. And in a place and time where hockey was a thing like religion in Montgomery’s novels, I was so poor as a hockey player that I was lumped in with the heretics like soccer lovers or moviegoers. I was frequently picked last, after the girls.
This is largely how my life has gone. The result has been, not unhappily, that I am often in “girl” spaces. I liked to read growing up, and it was largely the girls I knew who could talk about books (though I was so awkward as a teenager that the conversations usually didn’t get off the ground). In college, when I finally discovered I had a brain that I could use from time to time, it was my female classmates that I had to keep up with. I have always been pretty good at connecting with guys, but it is entirely normal in an evening for them at some point to gather somewhere and talk about guy stuff and I discover that I am surrounded by women.
It is not much of a hardship. The women in my life have been very compelling. My wife is a superstar in her field, far more excellent than I will ever be in my career. My sister is now a successful leader. My mother was a fiery feminist who finished her degree as a young mom and then ran for politics as a young woman in the 80s. My grandmother, like Lucy Maud Montgomery before her, took her teaching license in a year and forged a career for herself in the Great Depression and through the war. Most of my bosses and team leads have been women, many of my co-teachers have been women, and my PhD supervisor is a woman. Honestly, in the top 5 students in any undergraduate cohort I teach, there will usually be one guy. But there always be at least 4 women who are the best and the brightest.
I am used to being around powerful women. Yet, I must confess, I find the L.M. Montgomery Institute conference a wee bit intimidating. In the four-day conference, there is only one other name on the paper presentation list that is definitively in the “guy” category. There were a couple of other lads at our workshop day yesterday, but women dominate the program with what look like strong and varied projects. All the keynotes are women, and there was a rumour that the “greats” in the field were haunting the UPEI halls yesterday–these are the (mostly) women who challenged the view of the literati gatekeepers that Montgomery’s work was popular slub, just another clatch of genre fiction that will pass as the girls that read her grow up. They took Montgomery seriously and forged a space for academic conversation.
It’s a little bit intimidating, frankly.
I think about these things, about me as a boy in this women’s world I love so much, because I think that L.M. Montgomery invites us to think about gender in her books and in the places we live in. “You don’t want me because I’m not a boy!” is one of the great literary contrivances of the 20th century. And of that period we might want to reach back to Virginia Woolf’s brilliant work to think about women and literary spaces in new ways, Montgomery’s work, though more varied in quality, is rich and ready for exploration.
Besides, I’m not the first guy to walk into this room. Among the Montgomery trailblazers was Dr. Francis W.P. Bolger, a local legendary figure that we lost last year. Father Bolger was the kind of historian who excelled as a storyteller. I remember as a teenager watching his lectures with fascination and starting to feel that hunger for the past–which, when you listened to Fr. Bolger, felt like “our past.” Fr. Bolger took Montgomery seriously, and joined these renegade women in creating space for me at this conference (indeed, in creating the conference to begin with).
So, I must admit that as I get ready to head into the conference today, I am feeling well in body although considerable rumpled up in spirit. I hope there isn’t anything too startling in that. I suspect that I will be received well enough, and if I am well behaved, I can avoid having a slate broken over my head.
I am part of the social media team for the conference, and you can follow at #LMMI2018 on Twitter and Instagram. On Sunday or Monday I will be blogging some highlights and notes I made during the weekend. Feel free to chat online, and I may add an update or two on here.
Update: So, there are some guys here. At least a dozen in a crowd of nearly 200. One is a teaching colleague, Dave Hickey, who created a gorgeous display, “Unearthly Pleasures: The Artful Astronomy of L.M. Montgomery.” This is a digital exhibition based on his academic work, highlighting how connected Montgomery was to the heavens. I also had a chance to meet some Japanese scholars and a Japanese-Canadian librarian. Breaking out my rusty Japanese, but I can still bow in all the right ways. I think I’ll be okay.
Update: Had a great Day 1. There is a real warm feeling in the room with some strong papers. I’m already mentally tired!