Published December 1998
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The triumph of Kathy Shaidle
It was a long way to this year's GG nomination
Six weeks after Kathy Shaidle quit her day job to write poetry full-time, she learned she had lupus, a chronic disease with debilitating, and sometimes fatal, side effects. Her first reaction was to think what a bad joke it all was, but she says her second reaction was one familiar to many freelance writers: “Wow, I can write about this one day.”
Seven years later, Shaidle has parlayed what could have been a paralyzing setback into a burgeoning writing career. This fall, Northstone Publishing released a collection of her essays, and in October, she was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Lobotomy Magnificat
The essay collection, God Rides a Yamaha, recounts the strange story of what happened shortly after she left New Catholic Times, where she worked as production manager, to make a go of it as a full-time writer with the support of a few arts grants. After a few weeks of feeling unusually tired, she woke up one morning with a bright pink rash on her nose and cheeks. Her doctor announced that she had the most distinctive sign of lupus.
When her colleagues at New Catholic Times heard the news, they asked her to contribute a couple of columns about life as a twenty-something with a serious illness. Shaidle did, and the response from readers was enthusiastic, so she kept on writing, and soon incurable diseases became her de facto beat. She wrote the column for four years while on government disability and suffering from crippling arthritis, receiving four Canadian Church Press awards, including one for humour and one for Best National Columnist.
Writing about a highly personal issue was difficult at first. In her poetry, which has appeared in What!, This Magazine, Poetry Toronto, and Poetry Canada Review, she’d written very little in the first person. “I didn’t know whether to be funny or serious. I felt like I needed mentors,” she says. So she took to reading Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. columnist and humorist of daily life, and Kathleen Norris, best-selling author of The Cloister Walk, another spiritual quest book. A different mentor-at-large was Flannery O’Connor, the southern U.S. writer and Catholic who died of lupus at age 39 in 1964, the year Shaidle was born. O’Connor never wrote much about lupus beyond telling her friends in letters when she was having a particularly bad day, but “I felt I had a little soulmate out there,” says Shaidle. “So few people know or write about the disease.”
She ended up writing about 90 essays – 24 of which appear in the book and deal with a variety of topics related to lupus and spirituality. The tone of most of the pieces is lighthearted – like the title of the collection. Shaidle says God Rides a Yamaha is both a nod to Joan L. Brady’s 1995 bestseller, God on a Harley – a spiritual quest book in which woman in a rut meets man on a bike who turns out to be God – and a signal to readers that it isn’t “a hopelessly pious sort of book.” But it’s punctuated by moments of contemplation about the relationship between faith and spiritual and physical health. “When something like that happens, you can’t rely on the plans you’ve made and that can lead you to realize that you have to rely more on God or on a higher power,” says Shaidle, who describes lupus in the book as “a lifelong Lent, a chronic opportunity for self-examination.”
In one of the most compelling essays in the book, she describes the frustration she felt while waiting for her first disability interview at a Family Benefits office in Toronto. “I hated that office,” she writes. “And as ashamed as I am to admit it, most of all I hated the shabby, beaten-down clients.... When my interview was over, I hoped for a sudden deus ex machina, a lightning-flash vision that would reveal, through my tears, Christ in the faces of the frozen, unblinking clients I was leaving behind. But instead of God’s voice, the only sound was the scratchy bellow of another client’s name being mispronounced over the loudspeaker.”
Years later, Shaidle glosses over her anguish, talking about the disease in a matter-of-fact tone and saying it’s unlikely she’ll write about it again. She stopped her New Catholic Times columns because, she says, she had run out of things to say. But the writing has helped immensely. “I had this wonderful outlet that a lot of people don’t have,” she says. “Though I was very, very ill, I was able to write about it. I’m just lucky I had that.” She adds, too, that her disability made her more disciplined about writing since there were only four hours daily in which she could work steadily before becoming exhausted.
Though Shaidle considers poetry her genre of choice, she hasn’t written any poems about lupus except one in Lobotomy Magnificat entitled “That Photograph of Flannery O’Connor,” which mentions the disease obliquely. She did try to write about her condition but found that lupus and poetry occupied “two completely different parts of my brain.” Her columns allowed her to indulge in what she calls “my sitting around talking voice.”
Compared to her mentor O’Connor, the Hamilton-born writer has had good luck. Today’s drugs are much kinder and more effective than earlier ones, and she was also fortunate in being diagnosed quickly. (Many other cases of the disease remain undiagnosed because the symptoms are so diffuse.) And since she went back to work full-time in 1995, she’s been in good health. She walks the three miles to and from work daily. She eats well and takes vitamins. She has to take good care of herself, not exerting herself unduly and avoiding the sun, which can often cause an outbreak of lupus symptoms. And if she does get sick again, which could happen as suddenly as not being able to get up one morning, she’ll be put back on the disability rolls quickly.
As for future projects, Shaidle says she’s taking a break from writing. For now much of her spare time is taken up with completing Ryerson’s publishing certificate, a professional development program paid for by Novalis. “I’m not very inspired to write at the moment,” she says. “I really needed some downtime. I’m in a different phase of my life.”