Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Antiracism Books (Canada Sandwich)

Folks, the books. They are coming--all kinds of books. Almost as if everyone recognizes that we will gratefully receive them, coming into winter (as we are in the northern hemisphere). 

I've been reading them, and commenting, and thinking, and even posting about them here and on Instagram (where I am spending more time, and where I am, unsurprisingly, marionagnew. Come say hi).

I will have more to say about the books below (I've written about one here, and another one here), and I will share thoughts here in the coming weeks. 

For now, look at this lovely stack of books. And not for Americans only! Canadians, the books at the top and bottom are by Canadian authors. 

In order, top to bottom:

* Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French. Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 2019. Twenty-five Black Canadian writers consider so many subjects. So much to be learned from these pages.

* How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram K. Kendi. New York: One World, an imprint of Random House, 2019.

* Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2020.

* So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. New York: Seal Press, Hatchette Book Group, 2019. 

* The Skin We're In, Desmond Cole. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Doubleday Random House, 2020. A chronoicle of just one year--2017--in Canada. 

Order them from an independent bookstore if you can! These are just for starters--and not the only books I've read; just the ones I recommend. I'm still reading daily. I have much more to learn. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Chatting at a Dinner Party (Or: Holding Hands)

What if the world of books were one big dinner party? Or perhaps I mean some other metaphor—perhaps holding hands?*


Let’s stay with the dinner party for now. Sometimes a book is like a new guest at a dinner party of otherwise familiar people—a new energy that creates and directs energy into conversations in new ways.


Of course, that’s always true, in a sense—books live in a context. They’re produced by individuals who live at specific times when specific things are happening. Entire literary theories and theorists debate whether a book can be extracted from its time, and how to handle books that once expressed the best thinking of the time but that now are obviously (and painfully and dreadfully) flawed. But I’m not talking about that, today.

What I’m describing is a slightly different experience. While reading Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, I felt that this book could happily chat at a dinner party (or hold hands) with two other books I’ve read recently.**

One is Anne Bokma’s My Year of Living Spiritually. Both Beresford-Kroeger and Bokma are Canadians (and women), and both books talk about spirituality without the apologies some progressive societies and readers seem to expect. Bokma’s book is structured as a quest, during which she “tries on” various forms of non-religious spiritual belief and practice. Underlying the humour and game face with which Bokma tries singing, forest bathing, and magic mushrooms is a serious story of finding herself and evaluating her marriage.


The first half of Beresford-Kroeger’s book narrates her odd and lonely growing-up years in England and Ireland, and how her Celtic relatives embraced her presence and gave her--invested in her, really—the ancient wisdom nearly lost through colonization. In the last half of the book, she presents the Celtic Alphabet of Trees. Working her way through the ancient Ogham script, she shares why related trees are considered sacred and the properties for which they’re venerated.


To Speak for the Trees is also in conversation with my beloved Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I wrote a review of this book for Brevity five years ago, and my admiration of this book is unlimited. One of my favourite elements of the book is that it inspired me—and seems to inspire in others—an interested in learning NOT about some OTHER place, but about the place we live. Here. What’s out our own doors? Who has protected this land through the millennia, and whom has it sheltered?


Both writers speak from science and from deep wisdom. Both share indigenous knowledge of a specific place—knowledge that’s in danger of being lost and has long been dismissed. Knowledge that has much to teach us today as we ignore and wreck our one planet.


I don’t mean to say “If you liked this, you’ll love that.” I’m not an “others who bought this also bought” algorithm. But I do think that if you liked Braiding Sweetgrass, you might enjoy learning from Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s book. And if you’re generally leery of religion and spirituality (and even if you’re not), give Anne Bokma’s book a try—it’s a chance to spend time with an honest, adventurous writer.


This isn’t the first time I’ve described books in relationship to other books (sometimes including my own). For other times, clickhere.

I don’t have a deep or meaningful insight with which to end this post. Except, I guess, that in difficult times, like this past year and the past four years and all the years, even those extending into the future, sometimes it’s uplifting and energizing to think about ways human beings can live differently—with even more integrity, with love for each other and for our home, this one planet we share.


* Sometimes books seem to “hold hands” with other books. I know that books don’t have hands, Michael Dorsey from Tootsie, who said a tomato can’t sit down.

** This summer, Susan Scott, a consulting editor at The New Quarterly and community builder extraordinaire, led a workshop about Spiritual Memoirs for the Creative Nonfiction Collective. It gave me a new “dinner party” to consider.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Today's Focus

Sometimes it feels as if growing older requires consistently lowering expectations of others. Or maybe it just feels that way today.

Today, some people are determined to live down to the few expectations I had left for them--I'm looking at you, election officials in Oklahoma, to say nothing of half of the voters who live there. 

But. I have a choice. Today, I choose to celebrate people who are doing their best in impossible circumstances. 

Random slightly fuzzy photo
of a beautiful flower/weed 
from the most beautiful place
on the planet.

Today, I'm celebrating public health officials who are saying hard things in rooms of politicians, and who continue to say these hard things, day after day after day. These people are giving good, science- and experience-based advice. 

Their advice is too often ignored and wished away, lalala if I pretend to be responsible, if I raise my voice and tell people to get it together, maybe something good will happen, lalala. I can't imagine the frustration of experts whose expertise is denigrated and ignored.* 

We may never know the names of these scientists--epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists of all kinds, people who have lived through and squashed previous pandemics, those trained in public health. But they're there, and they're doing their best for us, and today, I'm celebrating them. 

Today, I'm celebrating workers in laboratories around the world who run experiments and crunch numbers, who use their training and expertise to investigate drugs that will--and drugs that won't--serve as a vaccine against COVID-19 and end our pandemic. 

Most of these people will find out what DOESN'T work, science being science. Most will have only the satisfaction of doing their jobs well--we'll never know who they are, though their bosses may win Nobel prizes or get huge pharmaceutical stock options. 

But those workers are out there in the world, in their laboratories, and they're working for the rest of us, and today, I'm celebrating them.  

Today, I'm celebrating people who care for elderly people, people who bring breakfasts, who clean bodies, who elicit smiles, who sing old songs, who lead exercise, who button cardigans, who find glasses and hearing aids and dentures, who bring cheer and care to our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, our neighbours.

These care workers see far too many people, for too little pay, at great personal risk. They are blamed and censured and ignored. Whatever they do, they know they could do more--there's always more they could do.  

But they do their best work, they care for our loved ones with hands and heart, and today, I'm celebrating them.

Today, I'm celebrating people who care for patients in hospitals, who give reassurance and use the best practices known at the moment to treat COVID-19. I celebrate those who treat patients with other conditions, and those who make the institutions run--specialists in computing services, record-keeping, imaging, housekeeping. 

While politicians stand in formation behind podiums and pontificate about how "we should all do better," this army of anonymous-to-us healthcare providers are already doing better. They work long shifts, at great personal risk. They serve us, even those who deliberately flout public health advice--who know better yet choose to risk the lives of people they profess to love. 

But these front-line healthcare workers serve us, even those of us whose actions endanger their lives--and today, I'm celebrating them. 

Today, I'm focusing on people who are achieving impossible things for people they don't know. Because they're holding together a world with little more than hope and their expertise, and I'm grateful to them. 



* Oh wait, yes I can imagine having one's expertise dismissed, because I'm a woman with expertise in my own body, yet many people without my expertise would say I'm not entitled to make decisions for my body. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Verbs These Days

Am I “between,” or am I “in transition”?*


“Between” feels stuck. “In transition” implies movement, but that movement feels passive.


What I need is a good verb. “Transit,” per the dictionary, is both a noun and a verb but it feels very noun-ish.


What are more-active options?


Walk (trudge, shuffle, stride, dance).


                (revise, edit, summarize, write)
                (ask, pitch, request, send)
                (stew, saute, braise, bake)
                (wipe, wash, sanitize, restore).


                (recognize, acknowledge, celebrate, enjoy)
                (breathe, rest, regroup, nourish).


Turn (look, orient, lean, commit).


Walk. Work. Wait. Turn. Repeat.

And, throughout: Hope (dream, yearn, hanker, aspire).


* by “I,” I mean “we,” as in "you and me," as in “the world.” We’re sharing a pandemic, political uncertainty, and a climate crisis. We could all use some good verbs. 



Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Citizenship and Action

Last week, I wrote about pre-ordering books as an act of literary citizenship. I'm not nuts about that term, citizenship, because it situates some people "in," with experiences and voices that are somehow more "worthy" or "legitimate," and others "out," and thus "unimportant" or "irrelevant."  

So I think more about literary community. And most of the time, I'm not in the big middle of the community. I'm the one hanging back by the snack table, trying to figure out how people on the dance floor get over themselves to have fun in public. Pre-pandemic, of course.

The other thing about citizenship is that it brings a set of activities--approved and expected, or less so. Which is neither a pro or con of the concept of citizenship, just a fact.  

So. I've just finished a couple of projects, and while working on them, I told myself about other problems, "I'll think about that after the deadlines." 

Now those deadlines have passed, and nothing much has happened on these other things. Some of what's happened has actually been counter-productive. And I have felt stuck. But taking action is on my mind today. 

I don't have my absentee ballot. But I'm now ready to fax a backup vote, I know the last date I can fax it, and now I don't have to worry about that.

In spite of multiple requests, I haven't heard what I'm supposed to do to fulfill a legal obligation. But I recognized today that I can still act in ways that both fulfill that obligation and benefit me. So I'm doing that. When those things are done, I can re-visit that obligation and my expectations.

There's other stuff--stupid political gamesmanship in North America; deadly stupidity in various judicial systems in North America; people not listening to others' lived experiences. It's infuriating. I'm looking for ways to act there, too. 

So that's what I'm doing. Not exciting. Not especially inspiring. But at least I'm still acting to support citizenship, and even community. That, at least, is empowering.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Citizenship and Pre-Ordering

In this Year of the Weird, I'm coming to understand that pre-ordering can be a significant act of literary citizenship. 

Side note: Here's a link to others' thoughts about the definition and meaning of the term "literary citizenship." To me, being a good literary citizen is to contribute, in a positive way, to a community to which I also belong--in this case, the community that writes and reads books. And attempting to contribute as much as I benefit. An effort which, I gotta say, in this community, is difficult. Because books!

I like books, and I read a lot of books. I have thoughts about them, and sometimes I write about books and those thoughts here. I rarely, if ever, review books--review meaning either "five stars" recommendations or engaged, contextualized criticism worthy of the academy. 

Part of the reason I'm circumspect is that I often like books that others don't, for reasons others don't. I also don't like books that others rave about. I can talk about those situations only so long before a. I get bored and b. the conversation hamstrings my writing. 

I also like some people who write books, and I applaud them and their work, without necessarily liking/respecting/admiring their work or wanting to articulate, in exquisite and painfully nuanced detail, what I did and did not like/respect/admire. Can we just raise a glass to the process of creation without being more specific? 

Another side note: My father's father was a country doctor in the first half of the twentieth century, and he delivered a lot of babies. When asked by doting mothers and others, "isn't this the most beautiful baby ever?" his comment was apparently a hearty, "now THAT's a baby!" Can't argue with that assessment, and mothers hear what they hear. And books *are* a sort of baby, as I now know. 

This year being what it is, I've become a slightly more active literary citizen: I've pre-ordered three books in the past two months. I think I've pre-ordered one or two other books, ever, in all my decades of reading.

I also bought new notebooks recently,
which is neither here nor there,
except that they're awfully pretty. 

I pre-ordered books because marketing and publicity (even, or perhaps especially, for books) is a world that likes reassurance. Booksellers like to know that a book will sell well before it's even officially a book. I don't always understand markets, or people, or sales, but pre-ordering is in any case an accepted way to support writers. Which I enjoy doing. 

And no, for the reasons above, I will not necessarily share what books I have pre-ordered. But I will share why, beyond reassuring booksellers. 

I pre-ordered the first book because I have been enjoying this person's "content," as we say in this world, for free for some time. I have learned from her thoughts, too, and I'd like to continue to do so. The book provides a convenient form for that ongoing learning. (Yay books!) For pre-orders, she also offered more content, for which she usually charges, for free, which I appreciated. My puny one copy didn't have any influence whatsoever on the success of this book. Which is fine. It was delivered at a good time for me.

I've pre-ordered two other books. Neither of them has been released yet, so I don't know how much influence my one (possibly two? I think I re-pre-ordered one of them, as schedules changed and slipped in this Year of the Weird) copies will have on the market. 

One of these I pre-ordered for many of the same reasons as the first one--as an act of community, of support and gratitude for a writer who gives generously of her time and energy. I pre-ordered the other because it's entirely possible that my one copy *might* add to the confidence the market has about the book. This is another writer I "know" primarily online, whose work I admire and enjoy a lot, and whose career I really want to support.

I look forward to reading both the books yet to come, and I'm happy to have participated in supporting others in the literary community. I have the resources to do this, in a limited way, and I'm grateful for that, too. 

Another important form of literary citizenship is regular, garden-variety citizenship. So yes, I'm voting. Because we all deserve to have the chance to speak and be heard.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Recommended: Podcasts to Learn By

Last week I wrote about some of the Mattie Rigsbees I have known, and how Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad, has helped give me tools to see them with clearer eyes. You can read that here. 

This is a Manitoba Maple I saw while walking and listening to an
episode of It Was Said. I goofed around with editing tools on my iPhone.

I have so much to learn about anti-racism. Besides reading, I'm listening.  

Here are some podcasts I recommend, if you're interested in learning but feel as if you can't read all the things. Links are to web pages or Apple Podcasts. Note that although much of the content focuses on the US, Canada shares a great deal of its history and attitudes.

1619, by The New York Times. Also, this article in Politico about fact-checking the podcast is interesting. Here's a quote from the article: 

Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.


It Was Said, a podcast by The History Channel and hosted by historian Jon Meacham. It analyzes famous speeches--the ones you know, or think you do. I especially recommend the first three episodes for information from the Civil Rights Era. And I can't wait for my walking schedule to let me hear Barbara Jordan's speech.

Seeing White, from Scene on Radio, is from 2017 and traces the history of whiteness. I've heard only the first eight episodes so far, but that's already given me a lot to chew on. The host, John Biewen, periodically checks in with Chenjerai Kumanyika, a Black historian, to evaluate Biewen's growing understanding. Be sure to listen to the episode (previously played on This American Life) about a specific incident of massacre of Indigenous people in what is now Minnesota. 

Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Self-help may not usually be your jam, but this distinguished researcher knows a lot of interesting people. The episodes with Tarana Burke, Alicia Keys, Ibram X. Kendi, and Austin Channing Brown are illuminating. I haven't heard the episodes with Sonya Renee Taylor or Bishop Michael Curry yet.

That's enough to start with, probably. 

These podcasts aren't perfect--none of them. But each of them (like the books your read!) offers you an opportunity to think about your behaviour and beliefs. 

When you feel yourself getting defensive, when you have an urge to argue with what you're hearing, why not take that as an invitation? Set aside your defensiveness and ask yourself, "What if what they're saying is true?" How would that change what you think or feel?

It's a lesson in empathy--which writers claim to have but all of us can likely develop further.