Friday, October 23, 2020

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor I had anticipated the dip in temperature when we left our Toronto house to drive an hour north of the city. He's funny. He didn't want to go, but as he's only now just turned ten, I can still force him to spend time with me among the trees. Up until that point, I hadn't been outside in a week, and have been suffering from deep bouts of anxiety. About the virus. About the seasons changing (and the fact that I'd not even be able to spend much time outside). About working from home. About my job. About my husband, his heath is wonky, we're trying to get it figured out. Above all, I have a deep-seated, trouble-ridden brain that has a hard time getting outside of itself. The answer, sometimes, is simply to go outside. 

This time ten years ago, I was in the hospital. I had been there since the middle of September when my disease (Wegener's Granulomatosis; or GPA) had flared because of my pregnancy, and my life was at risk. My lungs had started to hemorrhage, and the disease was attacking my kidneys, my creatinine levels climbing and climbing. Essentially, the baby in my womb had sent my system into overdrive, the same effect of pregnancy that in normal women gets them through to the end had the opposite effect--it was killing me. I've written about it here. And as time rolls on, the scary moments of those few weeks reverberate back, ten years is a long time, but in my mind, I'm right back there in the hospital when the doctor (with at least five others standing with her) said they were needing to save my life and I burst into tears. 

And with one little blip, this is the longest I've gone without a major episode of the disease. I had a really small flare where I had to take some prednisone, but outside of having my son, I've been very healthy disease-wise. But I'm not healthy overall. It's been a struggle these last few years. Life-work isn't in balance, and I'm very tired, all the time, which is deeply ironic because I don't often sleep. In fact, this week alone I've had maybe one good night. At least Cathy Marie Buchanan's new novel is keeping me company (it's very good so far). 

Reflecting on an entire decade in one blog post isn't an easy thing to do. For one, we're older, my husband and I. Not that I feel older on the inside. I'm still the same stupidly insecure, loud mouthed, perfectly bonkers human I was a decade ago. Perhaps, I hope that I'm wiser, that I have also learned to listen better, that I know who I am a bit better, even if I still hate myself.

Surviving another decade inside marriage feels like an accomplishment, too. We've weathered a rough few years, with parents passing away, falling into dementia, and other issues related to being the in-between generation, elderly parents on one hand, school-aged kids on the other. That's what serves us for having our son so late in life. There's pandemic pressure on all of us. I'm glad the school's are managing to stay open. We couldn't have survived another year of homeschooling. We aren't cut out for it--our entire family would be divorced if that was the case. Our boy thrives in his school environment, he's got wonderful friends, and is wild to a degree, and now that his cousin is in the same class, he gets a taste of the sibling-like relationship they share on a much more intense level. This is all good. 

I don't know how to go into the next decade. I don't feel like I'm on firm ground. I don't know how to rebalance the teeter-totter that is the new reality. Working from home is so hard. The other day, when I hadn't slept, and got up, prepared the kid for school, made his lunch, made a cup of tea, and then sat down to work, my brain simply said, "nope." I wanted to "call in sick" but there was no way, as I wasn't sick, but I am so deeply down that I'm not sure how to crawl back up. 

Ten years. Another decade without my mom. Another decade where I've battled with my finances. Another decade where I don't feel like we've gotten any further ahead. And now I'm looking down the line at the last two decades of my working life and want to feel like I've made a difference in the world. My dad was a firefighter. He literally saved people's lives. My work is different. I love being a publisher, I love everything about the business, it gives me genuine pleasure to work with young writers, to see their books in the world, to herald their stories out over social media. It is good work. But at the end of the day, it is work. And I am tired. It could be that I just need a vacation. An honest-to-goodness break where I don't check my phone or play Emoji Blitz or check Instagram. Life is so amazingly ironic--I had to travel so much for work, and it was exhausting, but I also was exhilarated by spending a day in New York presenting at a sales conference or flying halfway around the world to try and sell rights to books to foreign publishers. I miss it. Zoom calls pale deeply in comparison. When I was gone, I would miss home desperately. Now that I'm home all the time, I want somewhere to go.

This post is rambling. It doesn't have a point except to say that I'm struggling these days, mentally. It's a new one for me. I'm quite used to dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, but only in context of the disease, where there was a cause I could literally point to. These days, it's not the meds making my brain wonky, I think it's something else entirely. Malaise? Exhaustion? A bit of residual stress from that moment ten years ago where happiness and joy was crushed up against the very real possibility of death. I'm sure it's all of the above. And I know there are self-care steps to take, breaths to manage, yoga to do, walks to take, birthdays to celebrate, but, in this very moment, even leaving the quiet dark-is room where I work feels like an impossibility. So, we shall see. We have another hike planned for this weekend. I hope the weather holds. I hope I can hold onto the outside as we dive into another winter that's defined by the virus. I hope we stay safe. I hope, I hope, I hope. 

Friday, October 09, 2020

On the Changing of the Leaves

 The weather has changed. It's colder. I feel the light pass my window feeling unable to go outside, to actually take a step forward. I'm stuck, wishing I had the power to change colour to something bold like this tree, but knowing that the only changes happening right now are me falling deeper into the ennui of quarantine. The hazy, foggy year I spent being sick after having our son coming into stark focus as we're about to celebrate his tenth birthday. Ten. An entire decade. All those months that I've been carrying around the baby weight, carrying around the shadows of that traumatic time, all those minutes that have passed where I should have been able to get up and get around, to do something, all those seconds I passed staring at my phone. 

Yet. All those moments where we cracked up. The trips we've taken. The story that I wrote that I'm really proud of, the work I do every day. The busy business of raising him, of the dishes and the meals and the snacks and the trips to the rink, there and back again. It stalls, but it speeds along, too, time. Context, as always, is everything. 

Maybe it's the fall because it such a season of transition. A time when we should be excited about change, preparing for the hibernation season, the deepening of thought as winter comes in, dark, brooding. We've been lucky so far this fall, the weather's been perfect, not too hot, not too cold, but the rising disease in Toronto means that we're likely headed to another shutdown, and I can't get myself into good habits. Yes, I sit at my desk. Yes, I'm getting work done, attending meetings, contributing, putting books on shelves and mentoring writers through their journeys. It's rewarding work. But I'm exhausted. Mentally. Physically. Spiritually. 

I've tried an exercise tape a few times over the last few weeks. It was very hard. I've tried to stop working at points to take a walk, and yet. I've tried to turn off the TV and get to bed earlier, and then I'm knee-deep in Emily in Paris and it's 4AM and I don't even know what happened. I just can't be motivated to move. To change and I know I desperately need to but I just . . . can't. 

There are a lot of tears these days. Sadness threatening to overcome a more usual emotions, and I can't remember another time in my life where I have felt depressed like this but without the context of the disease or the drugs. The black clouds, I remember an article I read many years ago in Saturday Night Magazine calling them, circling, and swirling, hazy, overcast, never moving through. It's like I can't take a deep breath and clear it all out. I can't roll over and shake off the bad dream. I can't step outside and stand in the sun. 

Like everything, it'll pass. For now, I'll meditate on the idea of changing leaves, and try to make a list of a couple of things that I can accomplish in a day. Try to not let all of the people down in my life who need things from me when I can't seem to put one foot in front of the other. I'm deep in it right now, but like everything, something will shift, soon, I hope. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

The End of Summer

I spent some time outside this past August, near the water, near the rocks, in the woods. And there are moments that I want to capture, and a moment that I want not to forget, so I figured I'd write about it here. Our cottage is near a hydro dam, and they control the amount of water that goes through, powering at just 5%, up to 50 homes. But because the river's so low these days, my son and his cousin or his friend, depending on who might be with us, crawl in and out and around the rocks, hopping over rapids in ways that make my heart stop. The being outside is so good for us. My life has changed. Our lives have changed, all of us in a new abnormal--it's breathtaking, actually, how both possible and impossible it is to adapt to life with the virus. Some things I have no issue with, masking up, following the path inside a store, washing my hands often (even if I forget). Some things, though, are much harder, getting into a healthy routine with working from home, finding time to separate home thoughts from business ones, getting enough exercise (let me tell you, not nearly enough). 

Being halfway between anxious and with that ever-present hum of terror thrumming in the back of my mind, I'm sending my kid to school. It's political and frustrating and the board is nowhere near prepared. It's like we're tossing our kids out into space and simply hoping they'll stay tethered to the lifeline attached to the rocket. 

Yet, that's not what I wanted to write about today. It's been a good year for wildlife up north. E's friend H found a teeny-tiny milk snake, and last weekend the boys, my son and his cousins, found a spotted salamander and a very small baby snapping turtle. I had photos of all of them. My phone died. And because the internet sucks so hard up north, nothing got uploaded to the cloud, I lost all the photos from the weekend. 

The turtle was about the size of the palm of my almost ten-year old. The little guy wasn't moving much. He must have already been in trouble, they found the turtle on our cottage road, far away from the lake--in my mind he'd already been picked up and then dropped by a gull or some other large bird. But that didn't temper my son's excitement at finding him. He carefully placed him down by the swampy area at the bottom of our bay. Still, the turtle didn't move too much. And they kept checking on him, and he kept not moving too much. And I know I'm anthropomorphizing, but I worried about the little guy, wanted him to be okay. Heck, I don't even know if it was a "he" but the boys had already named him. 

Fast forward another day, they tried to feed the turtle a blackberry half the size of its shell. Debated chopping up a worm to see if it would eat. It wasn't eating. It's Sunday of the long weekend now. My son's cousins go home, we're alone at the cottage, in our cabin that's seen far, far, far better days. The roof's leaking now and again, despite my husband fixing it at least a half-dozen times; at the beginning of the season we had a mite infestation; and now every time we turn around there's a chipmunk in the house. We're at the point where we can't keep the water, the bugs or the animals out of the house, something's got to give--it's like a metaphor for the news these days, relentless, terrible, life altering. 

Back to the turtle. My husband was up at the other cottage drifting on the good wi-fi while my son and I watched the truly terrible Spider-Man 3 (don't judge too harshly, the DVD selection up there is seriously wanting).  We turn the TV off and my son bursts into tears--giant, gasping, gulping tears--we have to save the turtle. He's worried about the turtle, he doesn't know what to do about the turtle, and can we not take the turtle back to the city to the animal shelter and see if they can save it. And I'm distraught because I'm very much of the mind to let nature take its course, and worried that if we take the turtle so far out of its natural habitat, back to the city, we'd be altering its life forever in not a great way. We look up how to care for snapping turtles. We make a plan. We are going to get the turtle and take him with us. The tears, they stop.

First thing the next morning, we go to get the turtle. Friends, we are too late. Something had eaten a part of its teeny head, and my son picked it up in horror. He made a small, last movement in my son's hand, and the tears, oh, the tears. We cried together in the muck, the smell of swamp around us, that deep earthy scent of damp squishy mud. My son wailed that it was all his fault, if he had only thought to protect the turtle sooner, and I didn't know what to say or how to comfort him in that moment because this has been a season of loss, for everyone. 

We didn't bury him, I said to leave him by the side of the lake, so that he could be of use to the animals still there. And we left the turtle behind, both of us upset. I was crying, he was crying, but still we had to pack up, get ourselves sorted to go home, knowing there probably wasn't anything we could have done. But I felt guilty, nonetheless, that I didn't help the little guy when we had the chance. And, as a mom, the ache that I felt in the moment when there wasn't much I could have done to make my boy feel better, not knowing what to say, not being able to do anything except hug him and try to explain that nature, by its nature, is cruel and kind in equal measure. 

And that little shell carried the weight of all our sadness about this summer--about the loss of half the school year, of his grandfather's passing after Christmas last year, of other tragedies that have happened in our circle, of the virus, how its changed the world, our little corner, the way he's growing up. There's always a silver lining if I can find it--the joy in finding the turtle, of saving him, even for a moment, the fact that my son's been outdoors for upwards of six hours every single day this summer, outside with his friends, outside at the lake with his cousin, of knowing that so far we've been safe. 

The well of emotion didn't stop at the side of the lake for me. I thought about that turtle all the way home, I've thought about him every day since. I wish we could have saved him, done that one small thing for the lake, given him back next summer when he was robust and ready to chomp. Anthropomorphizing, yes. Projecting, absolutely. That little shell carrying the weight of the end of the season, the change in the air, the fact that nothing looks the same, and might never again--and we couldn't save him. Because as much joy as it's been having almost ten years with our boy, I know that life's going to have equal amounts of pain--and that balance is a bit off kilter these days. And the turtle, well, it carried off some of the anxiety, the emotion, and allowed us to let it go, and for that, I'm quite thankful.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Friends, The End

What a day, a birth day, indeed, to say good-bye to this particular spot and happily announce that we have moved to a new house, a permanent house, kindly built for us by Stuart Lawlor @ Create Me This.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

#54 - Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard's The Good House. It's a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It's a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard's latest novel Suddenly, if only because it's the first one she's published in 10 years. That's a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It's neither the right time of my life (it's a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn't quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There's no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard's a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that's unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It's a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer -- her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn't that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra's brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It's all over the place and the pronoun "she" doesn't help matters when all three main characters are women...

It's a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra's a saint; so's Colleen only she's beautiful too, Jude's "wild" but reformed, and they all feel so old they're covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother's generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all -- even when it's "flashing" before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book -- Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra's journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it's neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease -- not fearing death is one thing but Sandra's utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she's portrayed on the page, no one. There's no anger, and even when there is, it's slightly ridiculous -- two women having slight "words" during a winter storm and then poof, it's back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver's approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting -- there's something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There's tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn't doing what it's supposed to. And I'd hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don't blame Burnard -- it's a great book club book for women of my mother's age, it's a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah's Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn't cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#53 - The Retreat

This may be hyperbole, but I think David Bergen is a national treasure. It's quite a statement to say that over the course of reading four of his novels, his Giller winner (The Time in Between) remains my least favourite. People, it won a major prize! Overall, I devoured A Year of Lesser and See the Child, and thought they were both excellent. But The Retreat might just be my favourite Bergen novel so far -- but I haven't read The Matter with Morris (just the first 50-odd pages for work), so I am reserving judgment until then.

The majority of the action in The Retreat takes place at a camp, the retreat of the novel's title, near The Lake of the Woods, just outside of Kenora. The landscape, having spent about a week there at a cottage of an old ex-boyfriend way back in the way back, is beautiful. The Lake of the Woods itself is huge, with crisp blue waters, but the pond close to the property isn't. It's murky, filled with reeds, and just as dangerous -- it's an important distinction, because major accidents and/or incidents happen throughout the book on or close to the water, and Bergen's ability to weave such an archetypal theme (man vs. nature) within his more specific, personal story, remains one of the book's true accomplishments.

But let me digress. Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old Ojibway boy, finds himself embroiled in an love affair with niece of the local police. Their relationship -- hot and heavy -- burns out quickly, and not just as a result of the intervention of her father and uncle but, because, it's just not meant to last. Alice's uncle takes Raymond out onto the Lake and dumps him on an island -- expecting him not to return. This dynamic, bad cop/good kid, feels familiar, and it should, the relationship goes exactly where you expect and the penultimate action remains utterly heartbreaking. It's 1974, and Bergen chooses as a secondary background of sorts, to wrap The Kenora Crisis around his story, even though Raymond and his brother, who has just returned from being "raised" (read: forcibly removed) by a Mennonite family in the south, are tangentially involved in the uprising.

When Lizzie Byrd (17) and her family arrive at The Retreat, a quasi-commune run by "the Doctor," a self-important, psycho-babbling fool who cons people into believing he can heal their souls by "talk" and the simple life of camp, she's reluctant to participate. The births of her younger siblings have been hard on her mother, and her father desperately tries to save his family and her sanity by granting her every wish -- in this case, it's to spend the summer at The Retreat. Lizzie meets Raymond and a cautious friendship evolves into something more substantial. As the summer progresses, their feelings grow deeper, regardless of whether they truly understand one another's complex situations (her crazy family; his unfortunate situation with the cop that never seems to end). But as the season comes to an end, the novel finds its conclusion -- the characters, distraught, damaged and utterly changed by the events of the summer. It's an amazingly quiet novel for the amount of emotional damage that is wrought on the people within, which remains Bergen's exceptional ability as a writer -- to place people in crisis and not let them entirely recover.

This is my favourite kind of book, a great setting, a complex, real issue that meant something in history, family dynamics that remain complex and difficult, and action that's both believable and well-paced. In short, it's an excellent read, probably one of the best books off my shelf. The Bs have been utterly kind to me (Barnes, Bergen, brilliant!).

Friday, July 01, 2011

#52 - The Uncommon Reader

Sleep refused to settle upon me last night, and I finished The Leopard, and went to my shelves to carry on trying to find something alphabetical that I could read at 2 AM. Luckily, Alan Bennett's deliciously short The Uncommon Reader was almost next on my British shelf and its 119 pages meant that I finished it just before I finally drifted off to sleep. It was a cute book to read upon as we (Canada) are in the midst of a royal visit (in fact, I heard on the CBC yesterday that over 120 foreign bureaus/journalists will follow the couple on their visit as compared to the 24 that applied when the Queen visited was it last year? We're all a little entranced by the Duke and Duchess. As Lainey says; it's good for gossip...).

So, The Uncommon Reader of the book's title is The Queen, who has never truly read before -- for reading isn't necessarily "doing" anything and she's been a "doer" her entire life. An ode to reading with a cheeky sense of humour, Bennett's novella remains thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Goodness, it's even got a fascinating vein of literary criticism -- of course The Queen wouldn't understand the nuances of Austen at first, having never lived among the lower classes. Of course, if she started her ready odyssey with Henry James, well, she might as well have given up all together.

One day, a travelling library shows up at Westminster and The Queen, on a whim, picks p a book by Ivy-Compton Burnett. Soon she's having Nathan, a former dishwasher and avid reader thus promoted to page, finding books for her from libraries all across London. They read books in aid of royal visits, they read popular fiction, they read the classics and all the while The Queen philosophically comes to understand the power of the written word in a way that was never presented to her before. The more she reads, the more she begins to write, and the more she begins to write, the more she decides she has something to say -- a voice, shall we call it.

I won't spoil the cheeky, cute ending but I will say that I smiled a lot while I was reading this book, even at 2AM when I really should have been sleeping. And, I've knocked another one off my shelves!

#51 - The Leopard

I've been reading a tonne of Scandinavian mysteries over this mat leave -- it's not that they are mindless, that's not what I am trying to say, but they do wonders for my tired brain, especially now that the RRBB is moving around like a maniac and I am spending a lot of my time just chasing him down. Anyway, I finally finished Jo Nesbo's The Leopard -- for me, these books are easy reads, one-nighters, that kind of thing, but this book is over 600 pages long; it's an investment.

When the novel opens, Kaja Solness hunts Harry Hole down in Hong Kong where he's gone to disappear after the toll catching The Snowman took upon him (a novel I haven't read yet). He's thin, addicted to opium, and refuses to come home even after she tempts him with a case only he can solve. But it isn't the crime that brings him back to Oslo -- his father is dying, and Harry can't bear to stay away. There's a new "sheriff" in town: a crass, crooked and unfailingly asshat-like boss of Kripos (which I am assuming is their national police force) named Mikael Bellman who threatens, not only Harry's success in solving the case, but his career in general. Yet, none of that matters to Harry -- brash, intelligent, strong -- he's James Bond with a drink problem, otherwise known as your prototypical hero in these kinds of books, and yet, like Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, you root for him regardless.

The gruesome nature of the central crime -- the killer takes his victims lives with something called a Leopold's Apple, an instrument of torture that punctures (24 times) your face and throat so you drown in your own blood -- stumps the officers, and as soon as Harry joins Bellman and Kripos, they start to get somewhere. Like any good mystery, there's red herrings and twists and false leads and impeccably dangerous situations galore. There would have to be to keep us entertained for yes, like I said, 600+ bloody pages. You could cut a third of this book and it would still be a great read -- there's a lot of extraneous stuff here that could have been pared down, that would have helped the book race along instead of plodding in some places.

Regardless, there's wonderful desolate scenery that takes place in the far-reaching snow-bound Norway that I found truly fascinating. Ski lodges that are sitting ducks for avalanches, that sort of thing, that add a certain nuance to the plot and characters. Of course, the crime gets solved and, of course, the criminal punished and I'm glad I read the whole book because there was a moment half-way through where I considered just skipping to the end because 600 pages!

I have Norway covered already via Karin Fossum, so Nesbo doesn't count for Around the World in 52 Books. I need to find some Finnish mysteries!

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...