Lorraine Williams' two vocations

  • May 19, 2010

Lorraine WilliamsMARKHAM, Ont. - If Marshall McLuhan says you ought to be on the left bank of the Seine writing, perhaps you should book a trip to Paris and buy a leather-bound notebook. But that’s not what Lorraine Williams did after her famous English professor told her he thought she might have a career as a writer.

Not that she didn’t appreciate McLuhan’s encouragement of her very young self as she sipped wine at a reception following graduation from Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College in 1953.

“I felt a jolt,” Williams writes in her memoir Memories of the Beach. “Here for the first time was affirmation that I could write, that someone saw me as a writer — a vocation I had secretly desired since I began to read.”

It’s a secret no longer. Williams has published dozens of book reviews and travel articles for newspapers and magazines, including this one. Now she has a book which combines the history of a unique Toronto neighbourhood with her own memories of growing up Catholic in good, old Orange Toronto.

The young Lorraine Williams didn’t take her professor’s advice. On her graduation day she had only just been accepted into the University of Ottawa master of social work program, and she wasn’t going to throw away a career because her professor had a notion at a reception.

She went on to the sort of career few women had in the 1950s. She worked at the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females from 1955 to 1958 and helped set up and run the first forensic psychiatry clinic in Canada.

{sa 155488389X}Though she became a full-time mother through the 1960s with five children in her family, she eventually re-entered the work force working as a consultant in the prison system, then from the 1980s through to about 2000 as a counsellor in private practice helping people through marriage crises and addictions.

Full-time writing came late.

“Maybe I’ve had two vocations,” Williams mused during an interview in her Markham home.

The two vocations were never far from one another. As a social worker, Williams took great pride in her case notes. She contributed to academic journals on the practice and theory of running a penal system. Working in psychotherapy as a counsellor consisted mainly of eliciting life stories from people.

“You get to know people so intimately when you do psycho-therapy. Life’s not easy for most people,” she said.

For Williams the object of the exercise was always to get her clients to finish the story — to write their way into a future.

“So they can write their own script. That’s the freedom.”

Writing is a very Catholic vocation, said Williams. Not only is the faith passed down to us in the form of stories, but faith shares with every story one essential element, mystery. There can’t be a story unless there’s something to be discovered or revealed somewhere between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. And faith has no point unless it’s committed to the mystery, she said.

“The sacraments, they’re all about mystery,” she said.

One of the mysteries that compelled Williams to write her memoir was the gap she sees between her generation and the world young people inhabit today. She remembers a life founded upon certainties that guided her choices and those of her contemporaries.

“Choices were easier. Things weren’t black and white, but they’re weren’t every colour in the spectrum,” she said.

She wishes people could get back to a clearer sense of who they are and why they’re here.

“Life doesn’t have to be so fraught with indecision,” she said.

Williams doesn’t think she can simply tell people what to do. Instead, she does what writers do. She shows her readers a world and invites them in.

In the world of Toronto’s east end Beach neighbourhood in the 1940s and ’50s it is possible to know where you belong, think seriously about your life and happily settle upon a few basic commitments — marriage, parenthood, career, vocation.

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