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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Wonderfully Welcoming: Reading How to be an Antiracist

My reading life (and, you know, everything) changed a lot in 2020. Woefully late--far too many years too late--I've begun reading difficult books that relate to racism. 


"Difficult" as in "worth doing." "Difficult" as in "prompting re-evaluation of uncomfortable life moments." 


NOT "difficult" as in "poorly written" or "wrong." 


I can heartily recommend most of the books I've read about Black lives in North America--certainly all of those by Black writers. 


This one, How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, especially. It's valuable not only as a reader but as a writer. 




As a reader, I felt that Kendi was my host and companion on a journey. He shows the same generosity of spirit demonstrated in Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who also teaches by invitation and in community.


In some ways, How to be an Antiracist is like other nonfiction. As you can see above, the book is explicitly designed to help people learn. In eighteen chapters, with notes, Kendi defines terms and provides clear descriptions and examples to distinguish between racism and antiracism. 


Yet as a reader I never felt lectured to (or despaired of), which is not to say that books demonstrating anger and frustration are wrong. This just didn't feel like that experience. 


What was so special about this book? Here's where I find this book valuable also to writers. 


Kendi shows, from the very beginning of the book, his own journey to antiracism. This book is personal--Kendi humbly shows his mistaken ideas and beliefs, and their genesis. He credits those generous companions on his own path who helped broaden his horizons, describing how their conversations changed and enriched his thinking. 


This is the experience he now creates for the rest of us. Reading his personal story is incredibly effective in helping me drop my defenses. If Kendi had to learn antiracism, then of course I do, too. He's not asking me to do anything that he hasn't already done--in my experience, one quality of a good leader. 


And of course writers of personal essays and creative nonfiction already know the value of including their specific experiences. Personal (which is also political) often gives readers a window into a subject. Sometimes, my response is "let me share your experience so I don't have to have it," as I've written about before


Instead, Kendi's book serves as an invitation to take a walk with him. A heartfelt, effective invitation--that also addresses difficult subjects in clear and compelling writing. 


So I recommend this book to anyone looking for ways to learn. And--with so much ahead of us, from pandemic immunization to climate change to reforms in justice and economic systems--to writers who want to address complicated subjects in a generous, effective way. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Happy Book-iversary to Reverberations!

Monday was the one-year anniversary of the official launch of my book, REVERBERATIONS: A DAUGHTER’S MEDITATIONS ON ALZHEIMER’S.




The whole world looks a lot different today, in many respects. Pandemic, unprecedented, year of the weird, couldn’t have predicted, etc.


But some things haven’t changed, and I want to talk about some of them.


First: Family. Families may change in their makeup, but the concept of family—people with whom you belong—stays the same. I’m especially grateful to my family, especially my siblings.

 


It’s difficult to write personal essays at all. It’s especially difficult when you’re writing about family experiences, which other people may (or may not) have shared. My sister and brothers have been as kind and considerate as I could have hoped, letting me say what I believed to be true while keeping their muttering sotto voce. They’ve been kind advocates for the book, too, which I appreciate.

 

My launch anniversary coincides with a birthday. This year, Pete’s new age ends in 5, so it’s one of the “big ones.” Happy birthday, Pete, and thank you to Lee, Hugh, and especially Sue for your support. And a special thanks to the next generation for being pretty great folks.

 

I know it’s sophisticated to be “so OVER” Zoom, and I understand it’s fatiguing. Thanks to Zoom, my siblings and I can stay in touch, even though we are no closer in geography than we were last year at this time.

 

Second: Publishers. Signature Editions helped make this book available to people who need it—people who feel alone because of dementia. Previous versions of several essays appeared in lit journals, and I’m grateful to those whose (often unpaid) work connects writers’ work with readers. Specifically, thank you to Malahat Review, The Grief Diaries, Room, Full Grown People, Prairie Fire, NOWW Magazine, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel and The New Quarterly.


 

Third: The Local Writing Community. The Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop has morphed through the years, but its volunteer labour always tries to provide opportunities for writers to learn and share their work with readers.

 

Many individual writers in greater Thunder Bay provided companionship, prodding, expertise, and a helpful ear. My essays, to say nothing of this book or the launch event itself, wouldn’t have come about without the support of Susan Goldberg, Marianne Jones, Maureen Nadin, Jean E. Pendziwol, Rebekah Skochinski, and Cathi Winslow.


 

Fourth: the larger community of writers. I learned a lot from joining the Creative Nonfiction Collective, a professional organization for Canadian writers of creative nonfiction. Specifically, at a conference I learned about Susan Olding’s wonderful essay collection, PATHOLOGIES, and her mentorship proved invaluable in my writing journey. And writers are a generous group. Cathie Borrie, who wrote about her own mother’s Alzheimer’s, agreed to read and blurb my book, even though we hadn’t met. That larger community also includes the Canadian arts infrastructure: A grant from the Ontario Arts Council helped me finish this book.

 

Fifth: The community of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. I especially appreciate AlzAuthors, a clearinghouse of information by people who have dementia and those who love them, in various forms, including a new podcast. Care partners, grandchildren, people with dementia—all people interested in finding an understanding ear can find it there. And if you’re interested in ending stigma around Alzheimer’s and dementia, you can find resources to help you start conversations there, as well.


 

Sixth: Readers. Probably the most important group of all. People from all of the groups I’ve mentioned have read my work, and I’m grateful for them all. I extend a special thanks to the A to Z Book Club, with whom I met to discuss my work at the invitation of Liz Pszczolko, for donating their copies to the Thunder Bay Public Library. It’s great to know that other book clubs can check out my book and discuss it.


 

I say this nearly every time I mention my book, because it’s true: writing a book can create connections and conversation. Almost every person I’ve talked with about my collection eventually shares a story about their aunt or grandparent or neighbour. Dementia isn’t going away. We owe it to our elders, and our peers, to learn how best to support them.

 

Thank you, everyone.



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).

 

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

 

Wait
                (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.  

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Mixed Pleasures of Rereading with New(er) Eyes

Sometimes a book—or a series of books, or a cultural shift—comes along that causes lasting change. 

 




In the past five years, I’ve been part of many conversations about cultural appropriation, creativity, and Indigenous visibility. In the past four or five months, conversations around Blackness in North America have increased in frequency and intensity.

 

It’s come to a head, recently. I’ve spent the past month reading and working through Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad. It’s been intense. I may be able to speak about the experience coherently in the future.

 

For now, I want to talk about a recent re-reading experience, of a different book.

 

+++++

 

One of my favourite Book Groups (as they’re known in the US; Canadians don’t seem to mind saying “book club”) meets electronically. It’s small, just two of us. We used to be in groups together in Colorado, before we both moved.

 

One of our books back in the day was Walking Across Egypt, by Clyde Edgerton. Set in North Carolina, it’s the story of Mattie Rigsbee, a 78-year-old widow who might be slowing down. The aging of a fairly ordinary woman doesn’t sound like the setup for a funny novel, but wackiness ensues, all right. And plenty of baking. Even the stray dog on the porch on page 1 gets leftover biscuits.

 

As you might have guessed, I recently re-read this book. Amazingly, it’s survived several rounds of bookshelf culling and an international move. I kept seeing it and thinking, “Oh, that’s funny. I can’t let go of that. I should re-read that sometime.” And so during this (insert non-clichéd words that encompass the craptastic nature of politics and pandemic) time, when travel is of course impossible, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel by reading this book.

 

I can see why I kept it. I can see why I found it funny—it is still, sort of. Beguilingly, charmingly, deceptively funny. Mattie is the type of woman who forgets she’s sent chair seats to be recovered, so when she sits down in her favourite rocking chair, she falls through the frame and gets trapped for several hours. At last the dogcatcher shows up and frees her, but only after he’s washed her dishes. Because wacky.

 

Mattie is also the type of woman who hears of a sixteen-year-old orphan in a reform school and feels compelled to take him a piece of her pound cake and a piece of her apple pie, all because Jesus talks about doing good “unto the least of these my brethren.” And, predictably, the stuffy leaders in her church take a dim view of her consorting with folks who aren’t perfect, when isn’t that the role of the church in the world, to do good?

 

So, yes. Charming. But. As I continued to read, I could feel myself pulling back from fully engaging with the characters. Because of Me and White Supremacy.

 

For one thing, the folks around Mattie are casually racist. I don’t care that it’s authentic to the characters in that place and that time (the 1980s). They, and the author, know better. The one character who seems to understand that racism is wrong, who is also learning about misogyny and equality, is shown to be humorless and unpleasant. (Obviously, she was my favourite character—been there.)

 

What I found most disturbing about the book is that I know Mattie Rigsbees. I know the male versions of them, too. They are devout and sweet and the salt of the earth. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt a fly. They will press coffee and pie upon you if you happen by their house at any time of day or night and invite you to tomorrow’s dinner (the noon meal, BTW) before you get out of their kitchen. They will pick up bedding plants for you if they remember you like pansies, visit you any time they hear you’re not feeling up to par, and make sure you have holiday plans. Their pickup truck is at your disposal. And they casually discuss the racial makeup, using slurs, of a regional baseball team.

 

But wait. There’s more.

 

At one point, Mattie goes upstairs to the church sanctuary from the Sunday School rooms in the basement. She knowingly bumps into young people so they’ll say hello, the way they should.

 

She knew that courteousness had started on the way out with television and integration and a man on the moon. She wished somebody would put their finger exactly on the connections so something could be done about it. And she knew the weather had been affected by those people landing on the moon. No question about it. It was all mixed in with reasons for the great decline of courtesy. In some ways she was glad it was now that she was slowing down and not forty years from now, having had to live through the decline of everything good.

 

Wait wait wait. Integration is part of the decline of society? And something must be done about it? Ah. Yes. The Mattie Rigsbees I know—well, I know who they voted for in the last US presidential election.* They do not understand how wrong they were. They do not bear guilt or embarrassment for the craptastic consequences—lives lost, not their own; livelihoods ruined, not theirs, or if theirs, not their fault—of their wilfully ignorant cowardice.

 

+++++ 

 

Back to Me and White Supremacy. As I said, intense. Because of Saad I’ve connected dots in my past. I’ve seen how I have excused the Mattie Rigsbees I know, and how those excuses have hurt innocent people, and continue to hurt them.

 

Reading Me and White Supremacy has made it impossible to re-read Walking Across Egypt and feel amused and satisfied with the characters or the story. It’s not the same kind of nausea as reading about theslave trade in The Cooking Gene, but it’s related.  

 

I’m glad the book isn’t satisfying anymore. Maybe I’m beginning to learn things. What a gift it is to have educators like Saad and others. With what generosity they have asked questions, and explained ideas and concepts, and asked readers to reflect on their lives and attitudes and comfort zones. I’ve learned and will continue to learn. And in the coming months ahead, I need to communicate clearly with the Mattie Rigsbees in my life.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve found issues in an old favourite. Almost two years ago, in November of 2018, I wrote about re-reading Little Women. A week or so later, I linked to an excellent resource, American Indians inChildren’s Literature, a website written and managed by Dr. Debbie Reese

 

I’m keeping my copies of Little Women. I have too long a history with that book to let go of it completely—yet. But I think it’s time to pass along some of the books I’ve been hanging onto. New books come out all the time. I’m okay saying goodbye to Mattie Rigsbee. She’s taught me some perhaps unintended but valuable lessons.


Edited to add: I am not saying this to show how fabulous I am--I am in no way fabulous. I'm saying all this to show you how reading Layla Saad's incredible gift of a book can help you see your life--past, present, and future (we all hope)--with different eyes.

____

* I also know how the Mattie Rigsbees of the world feel about white ranchers killing Indigenous youths—because Mattie Rigsbees do not only live in the US, they live in Canada, and I know their voting habits, too. Fortunately Canada avoided having an election this autumn.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thinking and Re-Thinking

I don't really like the colour orange. As an athlete and fan, I wore orange t-shirts and accessories, mostly without thinking. They were accepted and expected parts of my life.


I don't mind coral, especially as Spring takes its own sweet time showing up and I'm tired of winter's browns, blues, and silvers. Peach, too. Back in the pre-pandemic days, coral toenail polish or a peachy scarf brightened April right up.


But I can look sallow in orange. And I have such mixed feelings about many sports (athletes and head injuries, mostly) that I've ditched all but one of my orange t-shirts. 


And then this time of year happens. Look!











Turns out, I like orange. I really do. I surprised myself!


I don't like it in all its versions. I'd still be careful about choosing to wear it. (Orange Shirt Day is September 30 this year; I'll wear mine then!)


It got me thinking: what else about myself (or the world--but let's start small) could I wonder about? I've said I don't like poetry--perhaps I could learn more about poetry so I can enjoy it more, and maybe even try writing some. 


A small example, indeed. But it's something I have control over. So much in the world now I can't affect, except through my own actions. So I wash my hands, stay physically distanced, and try to do the work in front of me to be done. And--gently--question my assumptions.


As I walk today, enjoying the oranges in the world, I'll look for other ways to challenge long-held beliefs about myself and others. Starting small. Enjoying orange.