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.