“No actor is an island”

“Laugh and the world laughs with you.” That`s what my old mother used to say. Me, I’m not so sure. When the chips are down, in my experience, a merry quip inspires nothing but intense irritation in those around you. Possibly even violence.

The chips were most recently down in the past week, when some 15 people related to me by blood and law gathered on an island that was entirely too small to contain so much raw humanity: just 400 metres of rock and pine thrusting its head up from the lake, with two rustic cottages perched on top. The week of family bonding started badly.

Imagine the blogger, dear reader, perched queasily in the bow of a big tin boat on the 8 August 2010 crossing a busy channel in Big Rideau Lake. The wind is high, the rain pouring down in sheets, and I am trying to control a wiggling puppy in the middle of the boat as we slam across the frothy, storm-grey waves. I have been out in the rain before, and I own raingear. Unfortunately, at that moment, it is hanging in the closet of my little house in Ottawa. Nice and dry, unlike me and the puppy. Oh well, we must try to rejoice for the water table.

My top priority in taking a week off was to reconnect with my dispersed family. However, I was also anxious to find a place of utter tranquillity – removed from real life, as it were – to devote to learning lines for the upcoming play (in which I rejoice in the juicy role of Madame Arcati). Be warned by my fate, dear reader: if you want to escape reality, DO NOT take 15 relatives with you, especially if nearly half of them have been among us for less than five years. (Peter interrupts me here to say with some indignation that he is almost six.)

Back to my theme. Of those 15 relatives, just nine qualify as adults in any formal sense of the word. The other six are what is euphemistically described as “children.” (I can think of other descriptors, but it would annoy the mothers.) Let me continue.

Our first night on the island – after we had towelled off, changed our sodden clothes, laid claim to our various beds and spread out the damp bedding – we gathered for dinner. As the full horror of the evening unfolded – tired children, mud everywhere, food being slung instead of served, the decibel level rising towards the sound barrier – I have to confess that I gulped my dinner and ran. It wasn’t gallant, I know, or helpful. I admit it. But “she who eats and runs away,” I maintain, “lives to learn her lines in the morning.” I spent the evening cowering with an oil lamp in a dark corner with a good mystery in hand, while others less fleet of foot wrestled with the progeny.

Day dawned, and I could no longer put it off – the committing to memory of lines. Actually I could put it off. I noticed that the verandah was an inch deep in mud – a souvenir of the recent monsoon – and I decided to get a little socially progressive exercise before taking the brain out for a canter. Two hours later I was still at it, scrubbing and developing into what I can only describe – and indeed my sister Claire did describe – as a maniac. I had what they call an “idée fixe,” and I had it bad.

The problem is that life doesn’t stand still while you mop the floor, and it turned out that I was operating smack dab in the middle of a migratory route. For two hours or so, I swabbed away while life passed me by – literally. It was pitiful. Every time I made some progress and turned around, there was a new set of muddy prints behind me. It was like that fairy tale, the one where the girl has to empty the lake with a sieve. Nephew Andrew called it right. He said it was an “EIF” (an “exercise in futility”).

I didn’t give up easily. Instead of sensibly throwing in the sponge (mop), I threw myself into defending the gleaming expanses of still wet flooring. I put out a bucket of water and every time anything even remotely approaching a human being – child or adult – loomed up, I met them at the steps, brandished my mop and urged them frantically to take off their shoes, dip their feet and walk barefoot on the half-dry verandah. It wasn’t a success. The human beings were uncooperative, to say the least – unflattering comments were passed – and the dogs simply did not get the point. They saw me and my mop as some new and enchanting game that involved dancing around me in muddy circles with the head of the mop in their teeth while I screamed with escalating hysteria: “No, no! Drop it!! BAD DOG!!!”

To make a long story short – though perhaps not short enough – I retired from the ring. From Day Two onward, the verandah was on its own.

Back to the play and my proper purpose in life. Learning lines is hard mental work. Let me describe the process (assuming that you are still with me, dear reader, after that oh so dramatic tale of me and the mop). I live by objectives. When faced with a mountain and feeling faint-hearted, I first break the journey down into manageable stages. With lines to learn, for instance, I count the pages where my character is on stage – 42 this year, which incidentally is the meaning of life (see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Then I divide by six (six days on the island) and presto: there’s the daily quota – seven pages a day, a mere bagatelle.

“You know my methods, Holmes.” Or perhaps you don’t, but I will tell you, if you haven’t already fled the jurisdiction with a loud yawn. I retire with cup of coffee to the southern point of the island on a little cliff overlooking the lake. There, reclining in my Muskoka chair at safe distance from the progeny and with a dog or two at my feet, I read the first line, put down the book and repeat the phrase aloud. Read another line, put down the book, say the two lines aloud, check the book for errors. Read the third line…. You get the idea, and yes: “tedium” is the word that springs to mind. Nevertheless, when I have committed the whole section to memory, I do feel a momentary glow. It does not last.

“No man is an island,” we are told, and no actor either. There comes a moment when every lonely line-learner begins to scan the horizon in search of rescue and human companionship. You see, until you actually hear the cues out loud and respond to them, with someone listening to correct and prompt you, you can’t be sure that the dialogue has been imprinted on the aging cerebellum. And you have to say the lines repetitively – again and again and again. Believe me, this is the kind of thing that strains even the closest and most loving of relationships. It is hurtful the way people begin to avoid you. Nevertheless, I persist. Every year, I prowl the island, book in hand, looking to entrap a friendly prompter. My prey grows wary.

I meet my niece Janibeth on the dock. Would she like to hear my lines? Absolutely, just as soon as she gets back from the mainland. Claire? Would you like to hear lines? Yes! But first she has to put the two children down for a nap. Maggie is painting with four other kidlings on the beach and, as I said, I am keeping my distance from the progeny. As for the men, I don’t bother asking. We had four engineers on the island on one particular day this year, and, whereas the children are making progress with the alphabet, I am not entirely sure about the engineers. Anyway, they have all gone fishing.

Finally, I give up – I am feeling tired and lazy anyway – and head down to the beach to see what’s happening. After sweating all morning, teeth gritted and brain aching, I find that I am revising my reservations about the under-five group. Unlike me, I observe, they are leading a life of idle pleasure with their colouring books, buckets and spades. Maybe they are on to something.

Down at the point, where the junior relatives are heavly absorbed in art, I ask to borrow a nice, greasy oil pastel and apply myself, side by side with a momentarily tame three-year-old, to my corner of the colouring book. Ephiphany! This is more like it! Not only does colouring please the senses and relieve the pressure on the little grey cells, but everyone is vocally amazed at how well I stay within the lines.

These are the lines for me, I conclude, basking in the glow of juvenile admiration. So what have I learned? That next year, Linden House should seriously consider producing mime? Or, better yet, an exhibition of colouring books. Stay tuned!