Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Days of Anniversaries

April 15 is the anniversary of my father's death, fourteen years ago. My sister and I actually begin marking the Days of Anniversaries--his death, and the anniversaries of my mother's birth and death, and Mother's Day--mid-March. That's when the joint vacation my father and I were enjoying with my sister turned into his last month. 

My father with his "map of the US" (except Texas) (because then-presidents)
(a story to be told another time) made from rocks picked up on the beach.

My book, Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's, is about both of my parents, though only my mother had Alzheimer's, because ... well, because families, I guess. In it, I describe my father's other "last" vacation, the summer before he died, when he came up here to visit with family and to remember my mother. Before leaving for the airport on his last morning, he and I visited the older family camp, walked to the point, and sat on the beach.

And then my father began to talk. He stared out over the water, but I watched him, listening intently so I could hear him over the waves. 

He described the summers he came to camp with my mother, starting in 1945, when he was back from Hawaii in time for V-E day. One summer included side trips researching his Ph.D. dissertation, which he'd abandoned in 1942 to enlist in the Navy. In 1947, he and my mother didn't make the long drive from the East Coast of the U.S. to the lake because they were expecting their first child, the baby that died the following January.

He meandered through stories inspired by stories layered upon stories that branched into stories and returned to summers. 

The gull hovered above us. 

At last, he reached 1950 and the birth of my oldest brother. He checked his watch.

"Well." He stood up. It was time.

I don't remember all the stories he told that morning, and I don't think he expected me to. I think he just wanted to tell them again in that place, in the presence of those rocks and balsams and birch. And the gull. And the water. 

This is one my favourite photos of my father. It's from the time of his 90th birthday, a great occasion. He appreciated the celebration not because it was about him, but because it wasn't, really. It was about being together, laughing and teasing and talking, and he could bask in that atmosphere without being the centre of attention. 


This past five years especially, I've thought often of my father, who not only taught and researched history but loved it. I wonder what he'd say. I wonder what he'd counsel when I am tired of politics and pandemics and bad behaviour--lethal, murderous acts--on the part of people who have power toward those who have less. 

I happened across this prayer today in my morning reading (which isn't always religious or prayers, though it always inspires contemplation). After my mother died, any time my sister and I were together with my father--visiting Mom's grave, or in that last month with him in the hospital--he asked to hold hands and recite it. It was one he and my mother learned in the early days of their courtship, when they both sang in the church choir.


I wonder if, perhaps, he'd offer this prayer as hope and consolation for us, once our work is done. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Where Else I Appear (Virtually)

 Last week, a review I wrote of a lovely book, A Father, a Son, and All the Things They Never Talk About, appeared at River Street Writing:

“There is only one way this story is going to turn out.”

Everyone has parents. Everyone’s parents die. Yet the stories where parents and death intersect are unique. 

George K. Ilsley’s recent memoir tells one such story. As a young adult, George left his Nova Scotia home, heading west, eventually landing in Vancouver—as far away as he could get while remaining in North America. Then, as he turns 50, his father turns 90, and his father needs, but doesn’t especially want, Ilsley’s care. 

I enjoyed this book so much--it's honest and engaging. Go here to read the rest of my review, in which I also share a few general thoughts about memoir and creative nonfiction, and check out the book from Arsenal Pulp Press

Also! In a few weeks, I'll be appearing with two other writers from the region on an "Ask an Author" panel, hosted by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop. It's free via Zoom on Thursday, April 22, from 7 to 8:30 PM Eastern Daylight time. Bring questions! We'll have opinions (maybe). I look forward to hearing both Jean E. Pendziwol and Vera Constantineau (Sudbury's poet laureate!) read from their work and share their writing experiences. 

Meanwhile, it's raining (Spring! Never a dull moment!), which is fun to watch. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Everything At Once

When we went to bed last night, the lake ice in front (back?) of the house was still there--increasingly rotten on the surface, but intact. 

This morning, it's not. Ice breakup is a huge sign that the earth really is invested in this new season. Spring is willing to crack the ice for us. Or perhaps for herself, with us as grateful beneficiaries.

A while later, it started to snow. 

Everything is happening at once. The fight against the pandemic is not going well in Canada and especially in Ontario. 

Yet age eligibility for vaccinations is dropping all the time, and we have made what appointments we can. 

I've long proclaimed a fondness for nuance, for "both/and," for "life is complicated." For one thing, life IS complicated, and in nuance lies the richness. 

And it's also true, because both/and, that (as I have said before here, recently): spring is exhausting

Much as I'd like to finish out this pandemic (at all) with the illusion that I'm self-sufficient and "I'm fine, we're fine, it's all fine" (which I am, we are, it really is), the tension is wearing on me. Even on me, by which I DON'T mean that I'm some superhuman pandemic-weatherer so much as I mean that our "pandemic time" has been relatively easy, and my heart goes out to those whose time has been so very different. 

That's it. Some things change; some never do. (Politicians will forever throw blame around like candy while ducking responsibility.) But March is over. Daylight is returning, and the ice is leaving. I'm grateful for those things. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

This, Too

 This, too, is what Spring looks like. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

You Have YOUR Signs

Signs of Spring, that is. 

Here's one of our favourites. 

Our deck. Look at all that exposed surface area! Look at all the snow that isn't there anymore!

A year ago yesterday, in the shutdown's early days, I fell on sneaky spring ice and broke both wrists. I am expert in denial, so I acknowledged two months later that maybe something had happened. But! They're much better today, and I'm grateful and fortunate.

And also: But! They will never be the same. 

We will never be the same. The world, metaphoric and the literal planet, will never be the same. 

The ravens, though, have found grasses and are repairing their nests. The eagles hunt, as does the fox. The deer come by to feed on whatever they find.

I'm going to sit in the sun, plan our next grocery pickup, and ignore the house upkeep we should be doing. Yep, Spring is on its way. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Spring "Curation"

I find spring kind of exhausting. 

Maybe it's all that spring energy, the energy for growing, gathering itself as the snow melts off. 

Maybe I'm just that introverted. (Ha, no maybe there.)

Maybe the exhaustion feels more concentrated this year because people are excited about the possibilities of vaccinations and seeing other people in real life. (I'm not immune, haha, to this myself.)

Maybe it's something else. Or nothing.

Regardless, I feel (yet again) as if people are talking a lot, producing lots of "content," as we are meant to say of artistic work, "content" that I must "curate." I'm not necessarily arguing with those terms but they're part of my fatigue, I suspect. 

Earlier this week: the fox listens before pouncing. 

More! More recognition! More lists! More podcasts, and more podcast episodes with more guests! More discussions and debates! More writing around my own writing to get recognition from readers and writers for my writing. More posts in many places to talk about me and my work!

So I'm curating. Fewer "hot takes" (which I suspect is no longer what they're called) and more considered opinions. Considered opinions often lend themselves to the form of books, whether electronic or printed. Which I'm enjoying even more, as I turn away from noise of people and toward noise of chickadees and dripping water as the snow melts from the deck. 

So when I say "here are two things worth looking into," know HOW I mean it. These two things have been worth looking into FOR ME. You may curate differently. 

For analysis of a show about book discussion and analysis, you can't beat Jael Richardson's post-Canada Reads chats. Find her on Instagram, where she's @jaelrichardson. Even if you're not much into Canada Reads (sorry; I'm not), I enjoy her enthusiasm for the event and find her comments wise. They add needed perspective. 

And at LitHub, this essay about one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson. (LitHub is an excellent pre-curator, by the way.) I love the interrelated sections of this essay. I love the awe with which an established writer views one of his teachers and mentors. 

Meanwhile, I just heard a gull--an early one--and want to go see it for myself. I hope you are the same. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Plans, and the Planning Planners who Plan Them

Note, by "planners" I am not discussing printed/written systems for tracking your days, although I certainly could because I love me some notebooks and systems and checkboxes, oh my. 

Nope. I'm talking about thinking ahead with confidence. Enough confidence to imagine doing something in the future. 

That's pretty small. But it's significant. As small things often are. 

Last year at this time, I was planning to participate in an event that eventually got cancelled. We get a mulligan (*sports term: "do-over" for us non-athletes) this year. 

The event: The Creative Nonfiction Collective's annual conference, mid-May. (You can look at a schedule at the link.) This year, it'll be online. Previous years' experiences have been well worth the conference fees, and that was back when I had to pay for travel and share a washroom with strangers. 

I'll be presenting about mentorship with Susan Olding, whose guidance is largely responsible for the existence of my essay collection. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the presentation and discussion in the future. 

For now, probably because we are approaching the anniversaries of everyone's "here's how I knew it was serious" stories about the pandemic, I'm just taking it easy. (Side note: Although I'm aware that "How was the pandemic for you?" will be an easy small-talk fallback, I am not looking forward to using it.) 

It's nice to be able to plan something that will happen in about ten weeks' time.

Planning feels hopeful, rather like sending out an essay or poem or short story or grant application--the act of sending it out is an act of hope: "I made this." Like that clip at the end of episodes of The X-Files

It's a way to say, "I am investing in myself, in the future, in the value of creativity." It shows my confidence that I will continue to be healthy between now and then. That people may still wrangle over politics, but I don't have to actively participate (though I will always keep an eye on actions I can take). And who knows, governments may still topple, but only according to the rules. 

Hopeful as crocus shoots poking up through snow. Which won't happen here for some time, but I remember them, and daffodils and hyacinth, fondly from my earlier life further south. 

All the (welcomed and appropriate) grey-zone lockdowns in the world can't destroy my confidence that spring will return, eventually.

I've missed that confidence. I'm glad it's back.   
Wednesday, February 24, 2021

New Review

A lovely review of my book is up at Prairie Fire, the home of a few of the essays before they were collected.

Here's a link to the review by Judy McFarlane, author of Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome.

Judy calls Reverberations "a poignant and eloquent tribute to the power of paying close attention." 

I love this observation, in part because the writing I enjoy the best, whether fiction or nonfiction, comes from a writer who pays close attention. And when I'm struggling with a piece of writing, returning to something concrete--an act, an item, a smell--helps me figure out what I really want to convey.

A rock shaped like a heart. Just lying there. As they do.  

Many thanks to both Judy and Prairie Fire for this review and for all the rest of the work they do within the greater writing community. 



Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Read Canadian

Today, February 17, is I Read Canadian Day. 

I'd love to say something flip here about "every day is 'I Read Canadian Day' in this house," but it isn't. We read our share of books written by writers who live and publish elsewhere. 

Still, as I'm considering books as background or models for a project, I look to be sure I'm including Canadian writers. 

And when I'm trolling for something new, I look at 49th Shelf--a website whose sole function is to call attention to Canadian books and writers. It's a great resource, today and every day. 

For more about I Read Canadian Day, click here.

To go to the 49th Shelf, click here. 

And now, I'm going back to working on books by Canadians--my own writing, and a new novel from my husband. It's THISCLOSE to going live, which will be a day of celebration.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Let it Lie There

Some twenty-five years ago, I had a disagreement with a friend and former colleague, who had moved away to live and work--slightly too far to see frequently, but still close enough to intend to see at least regularly

He and I communicated by email (near-instant contact in those heady days), and in a rare case of actually valuing a relationship enough to be forthright, I took the time to write a careful explanation of my perspective in the dispute. 

In response (a few days later; how valuable that time!), he said, "I'm going to let your 'explanation' just lie there...." and changed the subject. 

At the time, I was annoyed (by the quotation marks--"explanation," geez--and still irked from the original dispute). However, I let it go and allowed the change of subject. We never referred to the subject of disagreement again, and that was fine with me. Our friendship subsided--his life got busier, I moved, etc. We're still in sporadic touch, with apparent goodwill on both sides. 

But I think of him often, especially since the political, social, and religious climate has shifted and I find it difficult to be quiet when my conscience prods me.

I also thought of him on Sunday. A difficult day, though not as difficult as it could have been. 

From our beach, December 2020

Sunday, I locked myself out of my phone. I'm still not sure what happened, but it seemed to involve an update and a passcode that I didn't write down and somehow was then locked away from. Promises that I could access contacts and settings stored in the cloud turned out to be empty, because that required the passcode. 

But still, no big deal. It took a couple of hours, but I downloaded and reset logins and did All The Things. I'm still finding an occasional thing to re-set, but it's mostly resolved. 

It became a non-event because I just let it lie there. 

I wrote a personal essay--one of my favourites in my collection--about picking up a piece of driftglass on the beach and hearing my mother's voice in my ear. From there, I go on to examine lingering memories (and pillowcases). The essay shows my (ongoing) experience of communicating with my (long-dead) parents--how affectionate and puzzling thoughts of them are triggered by nothing, by everything. 

As is true of the genesis of most personal essays, picking up a piece of glass from the beach turned out to be a situation I most emphatically did NOT let lie there. Instead, I picked it up and worried it, the way dogs chew a toy for a while, then lick it, then take it elsewhere to gnaw and lick for a while. 

I could have done the same with "this whole phone thing," as I labeled it. I could have allowed it to be A Lesson, a time to seriously re-examine my relationships with phone-mediated forms of communication, with social media, with my thousands of photos, blah blah blah. I'm sure I've shared, in the past, times when I was inadvertently out of touch and recognized anew my relative unimportance.  

All that introspection can be extremely valuable. As is true of most people I know, I'm engaged in some of it already, given pandemic and political changes. Thoughtful consideration of the stuff of our days--where and how I want to spend time in the public eye and contribute (as they say) to a public conversation--yes, useful. 

But that introspection is also, frankly, exhausting. So, "this whole phone thing"? I let it lie there. I changed the subject and considered instead new and old fiction projects plus an essay revision.

And I'm a better person for it. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Reading for Resilience

What have you been reading this lockdown? Or perhaps re-reading?

I've written about re-reading and reading here a few times. What's worked well: Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy. 

What hasn't worked so well: older fiction set in the south. 

And Jane Austen apparently always works, for many folks. 

I just received and opened my Christmas stocking. My sister and I have been filling stockings for each other for some 25 years, ever since we finally acknowledged that our mother wasn't able to manage it anymore. 

I now have quite a wardrobe of masks, including this one, with Jane Austen quotes. 

A mask! And a built-in Austen quiz!

A friend on Instagram sent me to this article by Heloise Wood on the BBC site: What Jane Austen can teach us about Resilience. 

Oh, I don't know, how could we relate to someone whose life was largely out of her control and who experienced financial dependence and instability while refusing to cave to her culture's demands on her time? What could we possibly learn?

TL;DR: a lot.

And also: whatever you can read, read it. Whatever sustains you--whether what you need is a challenge or comfort--read it. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

January is Alzheimer's Awareness Month

This January has been a full year in and of itself. And it remains Alzheimer's Awareness month. 

I posted this photo and caption on Instagram on Monday. (You could follow me there, if you're so inclined. I'm @marionagnew.) 

How do you handle fear?

Denial was my go-to. I ignored my mother’s confusion and anxiety, her memory lapses. Then I tried to pretend it wasn’t serious—surely not Alzheimer’s. She was still okay. My parents were still parents, still “the grownups.”

It wasn’t true, of course. My mother was sick—afraid, disoriented. My father was just keeping up. And it wasn’t fair to them to pretend nothing was wrong. I had to face my fears around disease and loss to forge new relationships with them both.

Some people handle fear by cracking jokes—“I forget what I came in here for, it’s probably that Old-Timers.” “I tell you what, if I ever lose it, just take me out back and shoot me.”

Some in their audience laugh along. Haha. Ha.

Many “haha” through tight smiles, because honestly saying “ouch” and crying is too hard. It’s too big a risk—the stigma around a dementia diagnosis is real.

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. People with dementia, and those who love them, overcome their own denial every day. They may choose to live with grace and hope—and humour. They don’t need your jokes or your denial.

They especially don’t need your absence. When someone shares a diagnosis, their entire community can disappear. “Friends” say, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to act, it’s too hard.”

People with dementia deserve better. We all do.

So how do you support people with dementia? The Alzheimer Society (Canada) and Alzheimer’s Association (United States) have tips. An information clearinghouse, AlzAuthors, also has resources, including a podcast.

Mostly: be a friend. Ask. Listen. Overcome your own fear. Someday, you may need a community to do the same for you. 💜
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.