Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Indefinite Hyperbolic Numerals

How many is 400,000? How many is 20,000?


In days, 400,000 would be more than a thousand years; 20,000 would be almost fifty-five years.


400,000 pieces of ice? Maybe 20,000?

But these numbers represent human beings. Currently, more than 400,000 people in the US have died of COVID-19. The total in Canada has not yet reached 20,000—it’s between 18,000 and 19,000 today.


It feels so impossible to understand 400,000 people. Even 20,000. How do you convey that number? How do you transform numbers—embody them, literally give them skin, bones, breath? Show the people they were?


We’re writers. We should be able to do this. But 400,000 and 20,000 are big numbers. We might as well be using indefinite hyperbolic numerals—words that sound like really big numbers: eleventy-million, a jillion.


Does it help to focus on the little things? Do you talk about the birthday candles each person blew out, their favourite donut, the songs they sang along to and knew all the words? The stories behind each tiny scar on the knuckles of their left hand. When they’d planted those hyacinth bulbs in the side garden, and what colours they were supposed to be. Their favourite brand of chain saw, gas station, pickup truck, wheelbarrow.


Whether they preferred mittens or gloves, sandals or flipflops. Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, or even Louis Prima. English saddle or Western, mountain bike or road bike. Pierced earrings or clip-ons. Windsor knot or bowtie. And okay, fine—boxers or briefs. Sock-sock-shoe-shoe or sock-shoe-sock-shoe.


Their favourite snack—Cheez-its, Jolly Ranchers, popcorn, or a handful of walnuts and chocolate chips, mixed. Beef jerky, bologna rolled up around a slice of cheese and dipped in mayonnaise, ketchup-flavoured potato chips.


Their favourite pet: that parakeet, the gerbils, Buster, Percy, Chicken the dog, Alabaster the cat.


But 400,000 lives, or 20,000. In total, how many hours, minutes, days, months, years were lost, unnecessarily? How many people did they love—how many people loved them? 

How much grief those numbers encompass.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

No, no, nope, no

Sometimes the only words I have are that I have no words. 

Just kidding. I have these: "Remember: 'no' can be the most loving thing to say and do.'"

Related: Enough. Consequences. 

Here is a birch tree.

Stay home, stay safe, wear a mask, and hold elected officials accountable. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Mending, Tending, Extending

Hello, 2021. Yes, 2020 was the year like no other. The pandemic. The election.


But other things—I’ll resist calling them smaller—happened, too. 2020 was also the year in which I learned about mending, tending, and extending.


* I broke my wrists, both of them, and learned a new acronym: FOOSH, for fall onto outstretched hands. Related: I also became more aware of my intake of calcium and vitamin D, and the value of weight-bearing exercise. Also (again) that impatience doesn’t hurry healing. My first broken bones. (March)


* I drastically cut my to-do lists. It was hard to focus, early in the pandemic, so (beyond the basics—eating, showering) I did one small but important task on a project. And then the next task. Sometimes I could do two in a day, but I only had to do one. And projects got finished. “One thing a day” really helped me stay afloat through all the feelings everywhere. (April)


* I drew Hunter Biden’s face for 31 straight days. It had nothing to do with the man per se; I chose the project because of the photograph from a profile in The New Yorker. The image is striking—I remembered it more than a year after reading the article—and it gave my drawing skills quite a challenge. Which I guess was the point. (October)

I mean:

In 2021, I'll have to remember that 2020 held unnecessary loss of life, corruption, and ineptitude. I experienced personal fears for loved ones and disappointments, giving up some plans and postponing others. 

But I will also remember mending, tending, extending. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Goodbye Hello

Just to the years. Not me. I'm still here.

Goodbye to 2020. Hello to 2021.

Here's a random photo, the earliest I downloaded in January last year. No, my name is not Beth, but that's what I tell people when they're making me fancy coffee drinks. It's easier to spell, nobody feels impatient or stupid, and I don't have to drink out of a cup meant for Marianne, Maureen, Maran, etc. 

Ah, Beth, we could never have predicted 2020. 

Let's do all we can to make 2021 a good year. 

Think about the people whose work we've deemed "essential": caring for our health, and the health of our elders. Stocking grocery shelves and packing grocery orders, growing and harvesting and packaging food, driving the trucks that bring it closer to us, cooking it and  bringing it to our homes. Doing all of those same things for prescription drugs. Keeping networks and systems generally functioning so we can connect virtually. 

We owe them so much. We can pay them back both in increased salaries and our own behaviour. 

Stop confusing the concept of "following safety guidelines" with "well, I felt safe," "they were family so it was okay," "oh, they're clean," and "no harm, no foul--I got away with it."

If you're tempted to ignore someone else's caution with "don't shame me; I have a right to [whatever]," stop for a moment. Do they have a point? Is your behaviour endangering someone else? What if you're not asymptomatic, but pre-symptomatic? How are you sure? 

Stay home, remind yourself of the rules around contact with people outside your household,* and say "no" when urged to break them. Remember: "no" can be the most loving thing to say and do.

Cheers! See you in 2021.


*Ontario's guidelines are here. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Necessary Perils of Credit

Is it an accident that two of my favourite books of the past year both address the concept of receiving or claiming credit? (No.)

In If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, by Leona Theis, Sylvia wonders why there's no real way to get credit for all the things she manages to not shoplift. 

And in Marina Endicott's The Difference (AKA The Voyage of the Morning Light), Kay wishes that people could know just how many pieces of cake she has managed not to eat, how chubby she might have been.

Sorry, I don't have page references for these ideas--you'll just have to read the whole books (you'll thank me later).

My point here is this: in December of most years, I look at what I'd hoped to accomplish and see where I fell short. It's harder, in spite of all the urging from self-help self-care gurus, to think about what I did get done. I try--I even write a list every Friday of things that happened that week that I'm proud of. But it's easier to focus on the areas where I stalled out.* 

So this year I hope to give myself more credit. Not only for all the items I didn't shoplift and pieces of cake I didn't eat, but for all I finished, attempted, considered, shelved, and otherwise managed to hold together during this past year.

AND YET: I also must remember that some of us have also had a head start. My anti-racism reading this year reminds me of various forms of privilege I have. 

I need to own those, too. I want to be sure I'm not claiming credit for something I started out with, but for what I've done with it. 

Which takes me back to the beginning, because years are cycles, and I published a picture of this same recipe, on this same plate, the first time I made it, a year ago. It tasted good then, too.


* "Fell short," "stalled out," ho ho ho. How difficult it is to find appropriate euphemisms for "failed." But I listened to those self-help self-care gurus to THAT extent, anyway.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Black Lives Matter in Canada, Too

Last month, I showed a stack of books that constitutes part of my antiracism reading since June.

I’ve written about How to Be An Antiracist most recently, here; about Me and White Supremacy, here; and about So You Want to Talk About Race, here.

Today I want to highlight Black people in Canada. Although all people currently living in North America share history, Canada also has its own history to reckon with. And the two books below are excellent places to start.

The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole, has won All The Awards, and deservedly so.

Cole, a journalist and activist, writes about one year (2017) in journalism in Canada, primarily Toronto. Thirteen broad topics, all different and all depressingly the same, shed light on parts of Canada’s past and present that most of us would prefer to ignore. It’s full of research and great explanations, straight talk and vivid descriptions.

I appreciated how Cole doesn’t mince words. Early on, he sets up the reader for what to expect in the rest of the book: 

White supremacy, which informs and fuels anti-Black racism, is an insatiable force. White supremacy is never personal, never individual, never isolated  (7).

And then he begins. Going month by month through the year and bringing history in when illuminating, he sets out stories that allow readers to make connections. 

For example, I better understand the reasons for the distrustful relationship between Black communities and “law enforcement.” It reminds me of how listening to the initial 2017 season of Connie Walker’s true crime podcast, Missing & Murdered, showed me why Indigenous people don’t “just call the RCMP.”

Cole also considers a broad range of racial injustice—indigenous water rights, immigrants from the U.S. and Somali refugees. It’s brutal, and it’s personal. And well worth reading.

As is the other book, Black Writers Matter. Edited by Whitney French, who also introduces and contributes a chapter, and with a foreword by Dr. Afua Cooper, the anthology is divided into sections: Everyday People, Letters to Community, and Black Writers Matter.

The voices vary widely, from interviews and panel discussions to academic writing. Some author names are familiar to Canadian readers (Chelene Knight, Rowan McCandless, and Eternity Martis), while others aren’t. Yet.

All are distinctive and insightful. In “The Place That Is Supposed To Be Safe,” Angela Wright considers her schooling, especially the influence of an Indigenous teacher on her understanding of the place she lives and the system that governs it.

It was the first time someone explained Canada was not just a place; Canada was also a time. It was impossible to draw a start date, showing when the land began. But the beginning of Canada was clear. It was the year someone from another place decided to give the land a new name (104).


That’s a very different understanding of history than the one I learned, and I’m grateful to have read it.

In “Memorialty,” Christelle Saint-Julien considers her tendency to document her life, and the role memory plays in the contemporary world. 

Deliberately remembering allows you to rewrite the narrative. It is my own story that I’m trying to recount, to understand situations through and in the time, place, and people that made and shape me (162-163).

My interests--dementia and creative nonfiction, as well as fiction, not to mention the process of examining the stories we all tell ourselves to get through a pandemic day--dovetailed neatly with her insights.

Of course, it's irresistible to contemplate how we'd tell the story of the pandemic year. But I'm not sure that this year is more important than other times, places, and peoples. Nor more important than the stories we've lost over the decades, or the stories we heard from one perspective only--that of the history books. 

These examples from Black Writers Matter are picked at random. There is so much to learn from these writers and the breadth and depth of the experiences they share.

I hope Canadians make an effort to seek them out—both the anthology and Cole’s book. We have a lot of listening to do. 
Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Winter Rituals

We’re approaching the shortest day of the year, which marks the official start of winter. We’ve had some snow, and some lingers in the grass, but more snow has stuck around in other years. Parts of the lake are freezing already, and skaters are at play.


Squirrels and bears and foxes around us have been preparing for a full season already. The stretch of grass between our porch and my car is lumpy with squirrel treasures, buried there for “later.”


Recently, the dark fox came trotting up near the house, carrying something. It scouted and pawed in various places, apparently looking for soft dirt to bury its prize. I couldn’t get close enough to see what the prize was. I'd feel like a busybody if I looked for it now, though I confess to wandering around where the fox might have had easier digging. (No luck.)



Our human rituals are slightly different. A thermostat drives our heating system, so the heat comes on some nights as early as August, before I remember to reset the temperatures. By October, we've figured out our tolerance for chilliness, and the thermostat is pretty well set for the next seven months.


Otherwise, most of our "welcome winter" rituals have to do with bedding. Each time I change sheets in October, I wonder whether it’s time to make the bed with the blanket, or if the blanket at the foot of the bed, ready to be drawn up, is enough.


By November, there's a blanket under the bedspread AND one on the end of the bed. Our sheets are cold when we get in, and I wonder if it’s time to use the knit set. Something about the soft t-shirt material is magic during those transition seasons, warm in November/December, but cool against my skin in the May/June time.


At some point, we’ll have to break out the flannelette sheets. “Have to”—I actually love them. We have several sets, some more snuggly than others, but all welcome in late December and January, when our bedroom is the coldest room in the house, thanks to windows to the northeast. (Worth it.) 

This year, I've not put on the t-shirt sheets even. With temperatures hovering around freezing during the day, I haven't needed them. I need flannel sheets to look forward to when the cold and wind grow. 

I love the “yin time” of winter. It’s a time to drowse and dream, to spin stories and commune with other writers, dead and alive. Rest. Refresh. Renew.


There’s something satisfying—adult, nurturing—about making these decisions. Even noticing the accumulating signs of winter feels good. Solid. Like my feet are firm in this place.


And believe me, when the signs of winter’s end start accumulating, I'll be on the lookout for them, too.