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Profile in courage

January 13, 2008|Eloise Klein Healy | Eloise Klein Healy's most recent poetry collection is "The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho."

LAST spring and summer, I spent some time corresponding with Jane Rule, the Canadian writer who died Nov. 27 at age 76, at her home on Galiano Island, British Columbia. Rule had just received the Order of Canada, that nation's highest civilian award, and I had been asked to conduct an interview with her, through the mail, to commemorate the prize.

Two things made Rule's selection amazing. First, Canada was her adopted country (she'd moved there from the United States in the 1950s); second, she was a lesbian and an outspoken critic of Canada's hostile border policy of inspecting and intercepting the works of gay and lesbian authors. Jane had spoken out vigorously against censorship, and she was a well-known champion of civil rights for gay people.

When I first met Rule in 1981, I had recently left my marriage and come out. Rule's reputation as a writer was well-established, and I was in awe of her. Her work focused on normalizing lesbian life and relationships. I had been trying to find a model for my new life, but most lesbian novels ended with the characters being punished for their transgressions and their so-called anti-social ways.

This image of the tragic lesbian was largely a creation of 19th century male authors, but contemporary fiction didn't offer many better alternatives. So, like a lot of other readers -- gay and straight -- I eagerly awaited each new book from Rule. She taught me how to think about living not separated from the world but deeply engaged in it.

Some of her novels became totems. "Desert of the Heart," made into the iconic lesbian film "Desert Hearts," dealt with the first blush of romance. "This Is Not for You" examined a lifelong connection between two women. "Contract With the World" chronicled the crisscrossing relationships of a group of artists and writers. "Memory Board," about a loved one's deteriorating memory, stood me in good stead when my mother faced the same challenges.

Politics and art intersected in Rule's work. Just being who you are can be a political act, and Rule artfully depicted that with the broadest range of character and emotion. She was telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we are on Earth to learn to be one family, no matter how difficult.

After our first meeting, Rule and I remained in touch. I went to Galiano a few times, when I could get away. So, it seemed perfect when she suggested that, after our work on the interview was completed, my partner and I should come for a visit.

Then, the week before our trip, Rule called to say that the visit would have to be canceled. "I've just found out I have terminal cancer," she said, with characteristic bluntness, "and I feel I wouldn't be a good host. I have tons of things I need to do."

This news was terrible in so many ways, so terrible I couldn't speak at first. I remembered that she had not been feeling up to par during the summer. She'd gotten through the award ceremony, tired but exhilarated by the huge community turnout on Galiano. A picture she sent me showed her with a broad smile, beaming.

I asked if I could continue to call her, and she told me she would talk on the phone until she couldn't do it anymore. After that, she said, her niece would give her messages and she would send me greetings in return. This was the way Jane did things, no holding back and no calling things by a more comfortable name.

Rule moved quickly and without ceremony to talking about her death. This mirrored the way we had worked on the interview, straight to the point, no holds barred. We had chosen to exchange letters because she did not use a computer. Nobody on the island had a fax machine she could use, nor did it seem as if she wanted to use one.

I was often traveling over the summer, and she was eager for news of poetry readings and places I'd been. She said she wanted to read my poems aloud to me when I visited. She made me feel as if my poems were fine wine to be decanted and savored.

That was always her approach to writing. Each day while her partner, Helen Sonthoff, was alive, Rule would read aloud what she had written, and she and Sonthoff would talk it over. It was like letting the air back into language, giving breath back to the words on the page. Of course, Sonthoff would make suggestions for improvement. But they were part of a long conversation between lovers who were friends in art.

In late October, I got a handwritten note from Rule thanking me for a bouquet I'd ordered from the only flower shop on Galiano. The florist had broken her knuckles and wasn't working, but when I told her the order was for the author, she said she'd get someone to help her.

Rule's note, in a shaky hand, told of the adventure of waiting each day for the flowers to arrive. "None the less beautiful for the delay," she said. The message was so like her, courtly and polite. It was the last thing I would hear from her directly. She died almost a month later to the day.

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