A Review: Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout

It is not at all unusual for me to cry while reading a book. Or any time, really. It’s kind of who I am, a real crier. And when I am extremely invested in characters and the situations they find themselves in, becoming emotional (aka a hot mess) is not much of a stretch for me. What really does it though is when I think I have my act together and that I will be totally prepared for whatever outcomes the author has planned in kind of a cocky “I’ve got this, I see where this is going” kind of way, but then what happens is that I actually don’t know and I am completely surprised by a turn of events that is so sudden and so extreme and that’s where the big, big feelings come in. Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout was exactly this kind of book.

Dawn Woodward is a soprano, on voice rest after a sort of crash and burn performance in Tosca that made its way – because this is the 21st century after all – to YouTube and other social media platforms, and the worry is that it might have been a career-ending move. She spends her days reliving and rewatching what could potentially be her final performance, rarely leaving the house, sinking ever lower with each rewatch. The stress of this adds additional strain on her marriage, a strain further enhanced by the arrival of her husband Ashraf’s somewhat estranged brother Tariq, recently separated from his wife and beginning treatment for cancer. Ash has asked them – Tariq and his African grey parrot, Tulip – to move into their house while Tariq undergoes treatment.

As part of her contract, while she isn’t singing, Dawn is required to teach at a local community college. The course she has been given, much to her anger and frustration, is a course on whistling. Her students, are a hodgepodge of whistlers known as The Warblers, a group they tell her proudly, that has been in existence for decades prior to Dawn’s arrival, and she learns they are preparing for their Biennial, an every-other-year whistling competition. Their plan is to whistle operatic arias which will give them an edge over their competition. This is, of course, where Dawn comes in.

In true diva form, Dawn resents the appointment, feeling it beneath her, but when Tariq and Tulip join the class, both Tariq’s easygoing, friendly demeanour and the antics of his quirky bird quickly make an impression on The Warblers and as Dawn begins to warm to them, she also hesitantly begins to develop a deep and meaningful friendship with Tariq.

I really loved this book for its quiet grace, subtle humour and its quirky cast of characters who appear to be so very different on the surface, but who have more in common than they really would like to believe or admit. I also loved Dawn’s growth throughout, her aching for something that seems just out of reach, something that she can’t quite yet name, and I loved that a merry band of whistlers helps her determine what she needs and how to find the strength required to attain it. This really is the perfect touch.

There is so much to love about this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special mention to Tulip the parrot, a diva in her own right. It can be challenging to include animal characters in novels without resorting to tropes or cliches, but Berkhout has made Tulip, Tariq’s companion and sort of protector, an extremely important part of the story and a true delight.

Why Birds Sing is just so lovely. Nina Berkhout has written a gorgeous, multi-layered novel that illustrates the beauty that can be revealed when the collapsing of one life leads to the building of another. Especially once you understand what exactly it is that you’re living for.

My thanks to ECW Press for the ARC and for the opportunity to review this wonderful novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Me vs. Weeds

I have a love-hate relationship with my garden.

Mostly I love it. I adore it. About 8 years ago we decided to eliminate the front lawn in favour of a garden. It’s not an easy feat, honestly, to rid yourselves of that much grass but grass is just so…boring. And not exactly the best thing for the environment. Not that we ever put a lot of effort into our grass – John would cut it, that’s about it – and we certainly didn’t fertilize it, but in time it started to become an eyesore, so we layered newspaper on top of it and wet it down really well with water then added a layer of topsoil and finally a layer of mulch and ta-da! Instant garden. In reality, it was not at all instant, the process took the better part of a month to really get done, but still. No more grass.

Then came the task of filling it which is probably my favourite part. I chose purple coneflowers, shasta daisies, poppies, a bleeding heart bush, hostas, a gorgeous peony a neighbour gave me that I nursed back to health. The grass would occasionally poke through but it is fairly easy to spot and as long as you get to it right away it can be eliminated on a pretty regular basis.

Eventually, we added cosmos, which are delightful and bees and finches and butterflies love them and they are easy to grow and they spread everywhere (you’re welcome, neighbours!) and overall my garden was off to a great start. Until The Vine showed up.

Be the dandelion you wish to see in the concrete.

The Vine (I could look up what it’s actually called but I don’t want to give it a name) is the part of the garden that I hate. This vine is the bane of my existence and no I’m not being dramatic. It parks itself as close as possible to the plants I actually want and if you don’t eradicate it immediately, it creeps and climbs and wraps itself around these plants, virtually choking them to death. It’s vicious and brutal and last year I had to pull out the massive lavender plant that was so beautiful and provided me with so many lovely blooms for arrangements and for drying and it was heartbreaking. So now? Oh it’s personal, vine.

And here is the thing about weeds: they don’t know they’re weeds. Well, technically they don’t know anything, they’re plants, but you know what I mean. They’re struggling to survive just like my precious peony and my poppies are, and, if truth be known, they’re actually doing a way better job of it.

A couple of years ago we arrived home from our cottage where we had spent a particularly rainy vacation week to find that this vine had engulfed the entire garden and I was horrified to think of the work ahead of me. And so I put on my gardening clothes and got to it, but I noticed something I’d never seen before – flowers. It’s a flowering vine, the blossoms like tiny morning glories, pale pink and white and absolutely charming. And yet, I was ruthless in their removal. They aren’t supposed to be there.

This year might be the worst year for it ever (I mean this is pretty much the worst year for everything else, why not weed vines?!?)  and past me would have wept, seeing half my garden covered in it and knowing that I will be spending my lunch hour and every lunch hour for the rest of the damn summer unwrapping its horrid tentacles from my beautiful plants and cursing while stabbing my Garden Claw into it to twist its evil roots into oblivion. (my gardening aesthetic is violence, as you can tell.)

But current me? Current me feels a little more sympathy this year, honestly. Current me will still attempt an eradication because I still do love my peony and my hostas and everything else, and I would hate to seem them choked by anything, really. But I also, when I dig it up, might find a spot to plant it. A place where it can thrive and spread, but where it won’t kill the other plants. A spot for it to creep and climb and grow to its heart’s content.

I am not great at metaphors, but I think living through 2020 is turning out to be much like that vine. Reach out and make contact and connections, but stay in one place. Grow and thrive in spite of a global pandemic. Bloom and flourish despite governmental incompetence, finger-pointing, and blame-laying. And, most importantly, try your absolute hardest to choke the living shit out of the status quo, out of police-sanctioned murder of BIPOC, and the entire complicit system.

And now that I have come to terms with this plucky little adversary, I did look up its name and it is known simply as Morning Glory Vine.

Be like the vine, friends. Spread out. Take up space. Make big changes in the landscape around you. Don’t back down. And even if someone twists your roots out of the ground, keep holding on as hard as you can. Then pop up somewhere else stronger and more resilient, and start all over again.

 

 

On notice

I’m a noticer. I notice things. I suppose this isn’t all that unusual, lots of people “notice things” of course, this is kind of how humans work. But if you and I work together and one day you come into the library with new earrings or a different bracelet, say, there is a good chance I will notice before anyone else does. The same goes for haircuts, a new coat, that book you’re reading because you were reading a different book yesterday weren’t you? I guess if you’re trying to blend into the crowd or not draw too much attention to yourself, it might seem as though I am the wrong friend to have, but it’s ok! Because guess what? If I sense you are at all sensitive about your new haircut or you’re not sure if those earrings were a good choice with that dress, I will also notice that about you and then at some point, when no one else is around, I will tell you your haircut looks nice or those earrings are perfect with that dress. So overall I am a pretty ok friend to have, if I may say so.

And I bring up haircuts because I’ve often had several inches taken off my hair or had it dyed a completely different colour and NO ONE AT WORK HAS NOTICED. And I mean who wants to be that guy,  the one who is all “Look at my new haircut!” right? So because I tend to see those small details and notice slight changes, I am often annoyed with the people who don’t. But then I remember that not everyone has made what seems to be a career out of being hyper-observant, so I do cut people some slack. Sometimes my husband will say “You are the only person in the world who would notice that” and I just nod sagely like the wise old crone that I am. It’s a blessing and a curse, as they say.

If you have kids you’ll know that once they start to be aware of their own surroundings they like to point out the things that they notice. Worms spring to mind, it’s that time of year after all, and if you haven’t spent 3o minutes or more just watchin’ worms, well you don’t know what you’re missing. There is a lot to take in, worm watching. But it’s not just wildlife, (are worms considered wildlife) kids like to point at everything and it’s up to you, their parent, to name everything they point at. Even if (when!) you’ve named it a million times before if your toddler points at a door you say “Door!” Or “Window!” “Doggie!” “Chair!” “Daddy!” etc. Ad nauseum. Trust me.

And I remember every so often one of the boys would point to something at the park or in the backyard and I would name it for them and then think to myself “Wow I have never noticed that before.”And I call myself a noticer! So it’s true that once you have kids you do tend to take better note of things around you, partly because a lot of things can kill or maim your child so you have to be on high alert but also because they are experiencing these little things for the first time but for them, they are actually the big things! And it is fun to see the same old same old in a fresh new light and to see the little things that you might not have noticed before. Like if your small child hands you a Cheerio that they pulled from the rug, you may notice it’s probably time to vacuum. Kids are so helpful that way.

And so I did start to notice even more things once my kids were walking around and usually they were things at their eye level, of course, and this really gives you a different perspective on the world which is very refreshing, but I think I really became more of an expert noticer once we got a dog.

Our very good dog, Mya.

We have a dog, she came to our family nearly four years ago and I’m honestly shocked that this is my very first post about our dog, this seems extremely off-brand for me, but anyway. She’s a very active dog, she has at least three long walks a day and for the first little while, it was mostly me walking her, with John or one of the boys taking over occasionally. This was mostly because I wasn’t working at the time, both boys had school, and John was at work (not at home, working, strange as it may seem in our current world!) so Mya and I had a lot of time together. And the great thing about walking a dog as opposed to walking with small children is that you actually get to look up and all around you because the dog, unlike the child, probably, is leashed and can’t get away, so you can truly take in your surroundings. And yes, it’s true, you can also do this while NOT walking a dog, just, you know, walking by yourself, but because dogs do a lot of stopping and starting sniffing and peeing, it gives you that time to look around and take note, and sometimes you see brand new things. Like the time I saw a tree FULL of robins. Not just a robin, that famous red-breasted harbinger of spring, but dozens, probably close to a hundred or more and it freaked me out. When we got home I Googled “huge flocks of robins meaning” (which is a terrible search string for a library professional to use but I was nervous, ok?) I had never seen so many robins at once and I was convinced there was something very wrong. The first few hits pulled up robin facts and areas they live, migration patterns, etc. but finally one site’s information went something like “As with most birds, robins travel in large flocks, only pairing off just before mating season, dumbass.” I added the dumbass part myself, but it might as well have been there. Birds are birds, and of course they exist in flocks, but for so many years I thought that robins were the loners of the bird kingdom! You see? Had I not had that experience of noticing the tree full of birds I would have spent the rest of my days assuming that robins were anti-social creatures. How unfair of me.

There is an awful lot to take in for everyone right now, but I hope that at least once this week, no matter how you observe the world around you, you get to notice something brand new or something wonderful or even something that has always existed, perhaps hiding in plain sight then finally, triumphantly, revealing itself to you. And I also hope it’s exactly what you need.

 

 

 

The future’s so bleak I gotta lie down

Hi, hello, how is your pandemic quarantining life going? I know we are all baking and cooking and growing wee little spring onions and (in the case of me) baby romaine lettuces, taking physically distanced walks in our neighbourhoods when we can, building The Big Lasagna together (it was so delicious) and participating in Zoom cocktails with friends. But. But.

How are you actually doing?

Because honestly? I’m struggling.

And the thing is, I’m not struggling with the day-to-day. On that front, I am mostly ok. We are comfortable, we both have work, we all have food. I miss having Charles over, of course, Zoom family chats aren’t the same, but we are managing. We are, actually, in a very privileged position to be able to ride this out, and for that, I am extremely grateful. And if I don’t think too hard about it, if I don’t gaze too far into the future, it can feel like business as usual around here, it can feel almost normal. Even though everything is, of course, so far from normal.

But one of the things about me is that I often do think too hard about it, about everything. I can’t help it. And on the days that my brain just won’t stop thinking too hard, these are the days I struggle.

Because for me, the future seems incredibly bleak.

I’m specifically talking about the future of work as we know it and even more specifically the future of work as I know it in libraries where I have worked, it must be said though it pains me to admit, for over 25 years.

The future will, at least, contain salad.

I’ve always worked in public services – you’ll always find me at the reference desk, answering questions, helping people find things, helping them make sense of subject headings and Boolean logic. In previous libraries where I worked, I had that role and others including teaching library skills to classes of students, teaching web searching classes in the community, and presenting at conferences. Always live, always in person, just the way I like it.

Currently, now that the library is closed not only to the public but to the staff too, we are doing what we can for our students and researchers and that means email reference, telephone reference, and the occasional Zoom reference call and it’s been fine, honestly. It works, and that’s the main thing. It’s not optimal but not much during pandemic times is.

This week my supervisor requested that we all start thinking about what reopening the library – the public services side of the library – would look like and as I read through the document and the different scenarios she had suggested, I couldn’t help but feel weighed down by the fact that once we reopen and for however long after that, public services could potentially be a mere shell of its former self. And that makes me really depressed.

Will we require plastic barriers to protect us from students and them from us, thereby limiting our personal interaction with them? Are we also going to limit the number of people in the library at any given time? If so, how? Should we disable the photocopiers and printers, since students always need so much assistance with them? What about the students who just need to talk? The ones who are struggling to find a safe space? Will we continue to only provide electronic reference services even when the library opens so that we can practise safe distancing from not only our students but among staff? What about the students who don’t have reliable internet or a computer? Will we ever be able to have staff retreats, lunches, and in-class learning sessions? Is the staff lounge off-limits now, the kettle, the microwave relics of the past?

And as I read through this list, a lot of the examples I used (perhaps with the exception of in-person information services) seem small and some of them seem like things that aren’t at the very core of what we do in the library – but that is my actual point. We ARE getting work done during this pandemic. We ARE helping students; we’re calling them or emailing them to take a look at their search to help them find their resources, all the things we usually do. But it’s the other stuff that makes what we do so, well, what we DO. And what we are.

I know a lot of us are rallying around the idea of mourning – mourning the things we aren’t able to do right now and that is so, so valid. We are mourning and grieving for the theatre tickets that we bought a year ago, the weddings and birthday parties that are cancelled or postponed; we are mourning the losses of extended family celebrations and the multiple plans we had and I’m definitely here for that, it’s so important. And perhaps mourning for a future that looks so much different is premature, but I can’t imagine how we go back to doing what we were doing before, all the while knowing what we know now, and having experienced this way of life for eight weeks and counting.

I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist (although I prefer the term ‘practical realist’) but I think about the changes that are going to have to be made and they aren’t small. They’re pretty significant and they will most definitely alter the face of my workplace and the way we function within it, perhaps the face and function libraries – all libraries – in general. And I am truly, truly not ready for that.

 

 

Eleven Springs

My mum died 10 years ago today. This marks the eleventh spring she has missed if you include the year she died, which I do.

It feels impossible that an entire decade has passed, impossible that she has missed so much. And yet, here we are at eleven springs.

I count the years in springs partly because she died in May, but also because spring was her very favourite season. Spring was ordering soil and mulch and starting the process of turning the backyard into a garden paradise. Spring was cleaning out the pond, filling it, and putting the little ceramic frogs and cast iron turtles on the edge. Spring was trips to the garden centre for pansies and geraniums, tomato and strawberry plants. Spring meant pulling out the patio furniture and flying the ladybug flag from the big maple tree. Spring had it all.

Spring is vibrant. When I spoke at mum’s wake, I talked about her love of colour, her vibrancy, how she loved brightness and colour everywhere. Everywhere, it must be said, except for her walls. There, only variant shades of cream and beige would do, but in all other aspects of her life, colour and lots of it reigned supreme.

Spring brings with it an abundance of colour and sometimes it has a slower-paced start, much like it’s doing this year, with cool temperatures helping preserve the magnolia flowers and allowing the tulips to open quietly and for a longer span of time. In other years spring seems to arrive almost immediately, urgently, with a brilliance, an incredible wash of colour everywhere, flowers opening and wilting in nearly the same breath. Such was the spring the year she died.

Towards the end of April ten years ago, I drove mum to the hospital for more tests, and these tests were the ones that gave us – finally – the diagnosis of advanced cancer, unknown primary, possibly lung. It was about to be the beginning of the end, we just didn’t know it yet. On the way there, weak and slumped in the passenger seat of my car, she watched out the window and commented on the brightness of the world as we drove along.

“Everything is so fresh and green, do you see that? It’s like technicolour. And the lilacs are out, too, did you notice? That’s odd, they usually come closer to the end of May, everything is happening so early. And the city looks so clean and beautiful it’s all so green and bright and doesn’t it seem more like summer than spring?” And on and on throughout our fifteen-minute trip.

Her thoughts were jumbled as she took in the scenery but her words have stayed with me. It was the most she had spoken for over a week, talking took such effort. But this wonder, this seeing the world almost as if for the first time was so thrilling to me. It felt like hope. The world was showing off and waking up and maybe that was the sign that she would, too.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last time she would be able to say more than a few words to me, I didn’t know that it would be the last time she’d see trees and lilacs and tulips, or any of the world outside.

But she was right. There was something about that spring. Everything bloomed early, everything was big and showy and blossoming way ahead of its typical time. It was unusual but it was perfect, and I held on to those images; the brightness, the colours, the big blowsy flowers, the fat buds seeing me through.

Not long after she died I wrote this blog post and while I don’t return to it every year, I did this year. Ten years is significant, of course. I mean there are no traditional gifts for marking a death, there is no wood deathiversary or silver deathiversary, but still, a decade. A lifetime, nearly. Or at least it feels that way.

I return to that piece because I remember exactly how I felt writing it. I wrote it quickly without a lot of editing, it just needed to come out all at once. If I was writing it now, ten more years of writing experience, would anything have changed? Likely not.

The night she died is etched in my memory, and while I don’t know that I have all the details exactly right…no, wait, I do. I know I have the details exactly right. Like the thunderstorm that started as I left the hospital carrying my mother’s belongings. Quite the sendoff, indeed. And the feeling of emptiness as I sat in my car for a few minutes, just a few, before I collected myself and drove down to mum’s house to begin the organization of the things that needed organizing.

The next morning was glorious as it often is after a thunderstorm and before I did anything else I took my scissors out to the lilac tree I had planted the year we moved to this house and on the 6th of May, 2010 I was able to cut the biggest bunch of lilacs I had ever cut, a full three weeks earlier than usual.

Today, in the eleventh spring, I spent a lot of time looking out my window, appreciating the peonies and bleeding hearts just beginning to poke through the soil in my garden, and gazing expectantly at the tulips who are not quite ready to open just yet. I paid a short, chilly visit to my lilac tree whose buds still sleep for now. And it’s ok. Every spring is different, each is exactly what it needs to be. But I will be forever grateful that that final spring was, for my mum, exactly what she needed it to be.

 

 

 

RIP to TAH: In which I spill a whole bunch of feels about my favourite bar

If you’re a fan of This Ain’t Hollywood you probably already know that the owners announced yesterday evening that the building that houses the bar has been sold and will not be maintained as a live music venue. And if you’re a fan you also probably realize what a huge blow this is for anyone and everyone who ever enjoyed a show there.

If you don’t know This Ain’t Hollywood it has been, since 2009, one of the best venues for live music in the city. Consistently winning awards for their sound, bringing in some incredible bands and artists, and just overall being a really cool spot to hang.

It’s located in a very old building, that has been some sort of drinking establishment or other for a long time according to their sign which reads “Serving since 1893”, an impressive record of drinks slinging, really. Charm – well, a certain type of charm, at least – it has, but not sophistication. The washrooms are not for the faint of heart and there is a very good chance that the stickers, the outdated gig posters and the thick layers of graffiti are the only things holding the stalls together. But it doesn’t matter because when you grab a pint at the bar and make your way to the front of the room to stand by the stage it is always a night to remember.

I’m super sad about this, and I don’t know if it’s because everything is extra pandemic sad right now, but losing this bar feels really personal. Maybe it’s because TAH came on the scene when we, John and I, were also getting back on the scene. By 2009 we had a couple of tweens in the house and it was just starting to get easier to get out a little more frequently, to go see more live shows, something we did nearly every weekend when we were dating and newly married. And TAH, located not too far from the neighbourhood where I grew up, became a favourite of ours. As well, having a cool rock and roll bar in that part of town is a source of pride. The place means a lot to me, honestly, and I know I’m not alone.

From the very beginning, This Ain’t was familiar and it was all Hamilton. Walking in felt like visiting a friend’s house and descending to their rec room, all dark wood, kitschy posters and board games, a faint smell of weed, as if their older brother and friends had just vacated, leaving us their cool records to play as long as we were extra careful.

There are too many shows to count, but some standouts off the top of my head include Diamond Rings, a show that happened during a pretty severe snowstorm, but a show that most definitely did go on. There was the incredible Carole Pope whose immense presence and voice filled the entire room of awestruck fans, and there was also powerhouse band Monster Truck, before they went on to sell out giant arenas all over Europe. We saw The Sadies, Shonen Knife, Teenage Head…and that’s not even including the bands that Charles has been in. Illusion Avenue. The Retroaction. Delta Days. Billy Moon.

Illusion Avenue, the first band Charles was ever part of got a headstart there because Lou, one of the owners of TAH, loved them. They were four 12-15-year-old kids and they had an old school rock and roll kind of sound and Lou and his regulars couldn’t get enough of them. These kids opened for bands like Monster Truck, and Blue Coupe, members of Blue Oyster Cult; they even headlined their own CD release show at TAH. I spent a couple of late nights there while they recorded live from the stage because the sound guy wanted to do them a favour when they didn’t have a place (or money) to record demos. On one of those nights, at midnight on a school night, I ordered pizza to the bar and we fed the boys and the grateful staff who toasted us and topped up our pints.

TAH is also part gallery with its rotating displays of local art, and part community centre, so many times raising money and support for local charitable organizations. It became the official Supercrawl after-party location, with queues to get in stretching for blocks, and there would be open mic nights, jam sessions, all-ages gigs for high school kids, and so much more. It is truly, truly the bar that is up for anything and everything.

The building has been sold but it’s not over ’til it’s over, and that doesn’t happen until August. Some shows are promised before the last last call, but with the pandemic forcing things to be so up in the air, it’s hard to know what that will look like. But I do really hope we get a few more nights to remember before the place as we know it now is gone forever. I still want another few pints, another few bathroom selfies, another few encores, and another few tipsy stumblings home at the end of another, final, memorable night of live music.

“Always catch the last set to play as the night gets old
Oh babe, It may be quite good
But it’s not quite as good as It should
Oh babe, It ain’t Hollywood”

Pour one out, pals.

 

Mondays are for Melancholy

I’m on vacation! Just for today, actually. I’ll be back at work tomorrow, but today is a day off for me. And this really just means that I’m on my computer in the living room (at the back of the house) rather than my office (at the front of the house) and WOW what a difference! It truly feels like a vacation!

Not really. These are the things we tell ourselves in isolation.

This vacation day was originally planned for Friday, April 17, the first full day of Hamilton’s gritLIT Festival, so today feels a little bittersweet since obviously, gritLIT didn’t happen the way it was intended – there is gritLIT content coming online very soon which is exciting, but there is nothing like the thrill of being in a room with dozens of writers and readers, of participating in a writing workshop with one of your favourite authors, of attending a reading, purchasing the author’s book and having them sign it right there and then for you. Literary and book festivals are among my absolute favourite things in the world and it’s been hard watching the dates come and go, honestly. And not just gritLIT, there are a lot of other festivals that won’t happen because of our current isolating and physical distancing situation. I hope you are ok

But the really nice thing about these kinds of festivals – any arts festivals I suppose – is that you can still support the work of your favourite artists by purchasing their art, their books, their music, even if you weren’t able to see them live and in person. You can make a donation to your favourite writers festival; you can order books from authors you were hoping to see, and you can order those books from your favourite local bookstore, some of which are doing curbside pickup or making local deliveries! You can find your favourite bands and musicians online and order music or merch directly from them or from their record label if they are signed! You can even purchase works from local artists and artisans to support them while this is all happening. And, if you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to spare right now, you can talk all of these people up on social media! Share their work, help get them followers! Like songs on Spotify, and add them to playlists! You probably know all this, I doubt I have to tell you, but somehow it feels good to say it “out loud” right here.

And it’s not the same, of course. Who doesn’t miss live music, author readings, browsing in book and record stores? Not to mention eating in restaurants and wandering through parks! There is so much we’re missing right now, so very much.

And like the rock says, I hope you are ok.

 

Weather or Not

Yesterday was Easter Sunday and the weather was lovely so we sat for awhile out on our front porch in the afternoon. We had glasses of wine and we waved and chatted with the neighbours who walked by with kids and dogs and there was a light breeze and you could almost believe that the world was normal.

Today is rainy and bleak and, if the Weather Network is to be believed (and you always SHOULD believe the Weather Network), we are expecting extremely high winds along with the rain. It is currently quite blustery but these winds aren’t exactly apocalyptic just yet, just strong enough to have me venture back out to the porch to secure the cushions from our patio furniture that like to upend themselves and flit about.

Two very different kinds of days and for me, two very different ways of reacting to each during these stressful, odd, pandemic days.

I have always loved rainy days. As I said to a friend not that long ago, there is so little expectation of one during rainy days. As soon as the sun appears, no matter the season, there are always loads of people on social media encouraging us to “Get outside!” “Make the most of this gorgeous day!” “Get off your ass, go for a walk, it’s beautiful out there!” There is a LOT of pressure to be outside in the sun when the sun makes an appearance. (Also can we please take a moment to discuss those irritating people who say this to the people whose JOB it is to be INSIDE so those same “Get outside!” people can purchase the goods inside or use the services that happen to be inside?! Can you imagine their reaction to a sign that reads “library/salon/bookstore/ restaurant closed because it’s JUST SO NICE OUT TODAY!” They would flip. Please don’t be one of those people.)

Anyway, rainy, windy, blustery days don’t hold the same level of expectation and I live for these days, I always have. I do like going outside, but I don’t really much care for the sun. Or perhaps it’s that the sun doesn’t really care for me. I burn. I sweat. I can’t seem to find sunglasses that work well enough so I continue to squint. Insects are drawn to me. It’s exhausting.

I am an indoors kind of person, I guess. I like to read, I like to cook, I like to watch TV and movies, and I like to clean and organize things like drawers and cupboards and the attic, things like that. And often if you spend a sunny day telling people that’s what you’ve been up to they become slightly to massively offended, as if you wasting (their words) a glorious sunny day by staying indoors is a personal attack. So I used to pretend, I honestly did. The beach? Oh my god I LOVE THE BEACH! A picnic? Absolutely what could be better than eating food on the grass in a public park? An outdoor music festival? Oh I am so down to spend 19 hours in a massive crowd, dehydrated and unable to tell who exactly is even onstage, let’s go!

I…might be exaggerating a little bit, but still. The sunny day  p r e s s u r e  is real.

In the before, a day like today, one where I don’t have to leave the house even to go to WORK would have been my dream. I am productive on rainy days. I dive into projects, I read entire books, I organize down to Inbox zero. I am a machine. Except now? I’m not.

Now I see these high, potentially catastrophic winds as a sign that the world really is in some kind of weird trouble, some apocalyptic limbo. I imagine the rains and the possible flooding in some areas as a kind of warning. I mean yes, climate change is real and a lot of extreme weather acts – or should act – as a warning to get that shit under control. But now, as the kids say, it hits different.

There is an electricity-like hum of stress that exists under everything now, a tight wire of tension. You probably feel it too. Extreme weather just adds to this tension. We’re going through so much, can’t we just have some nice, quiet, sunny days until we’re through the pandemic days? Is it too much to ask? Um yeah bitch, it is, says Mother Nature (or climate scientists if you want the real talk.)

For me it’s a completely new way of looking at the days as they unfold. Sun in the forecast? Great, nothing to worry about, relax and look at everyone out and about staying 6′ away from each other, yes, yes, nothing odd about that, nothing to see here it’s all ok. Rain and wind? We’re doomed. Such a complete turnaround for me, but that’s about where I’m at these days. So little makes sense right now and if sunny days give me (and possibly you) a false sense of security, I’m more than happy to live in that sunshiny little bubble for as long as it takes.

But maybe ask me again in August when the sun is baking down and it’s 39C. Provided the pandemic is history, you’ll probably find your girl back inside cursing the obnoxious yellow orb and trawling the Weather Network site for signs of rain. Let’s hope so, anyway.

 

 

 

Words come.

I mentioned on social media last week that in the past several days I’d started many blog posts, all currently residing in the drafts folder, languishing, it could be said, while I try to organize my thoughts enough to finish them.

Each time I open one up to write, the words don’t come. Or, they do come, but they’re trite, silly, words from before. Before we were isolating, sheltering in place, under quarantine and with an extra-large dose of social distancing. It wasn’t that long ago that these words would have been just fine, perhaps even good words, strung together in a blog post about something small, about nothing consequential, and that would have been ok. People would have read the words, maybe enjoyed the words that formed the post, they might have become thoughtful about something I’d written, or they might have smiled or laughed at the words and moved on with their lives. I feel now that these words aren’t right, they aren’t important enough to be said right now. And it’s ok. Honestly.

I have been working from home since Wednesday. But even before that, on Monday and Tuesday of last week, it was hard to focus on the work that needed to be done. Students were sent home from residences, classes moved to online delivery exams were cancelled. The campus felt deserted. Everyone was on edge. What would happen to the library? On Tuesday we spent the morning training on how to do our jobs from our homes. Tools we would use for meetings, for the public services work we normally did face-to-face. And we adapted, and it’s been a seamless move, really, but – and I am sure I’m not the only one to say this – the focus has just not been there.

When we have reference questions, sure, we’re focused and working hard to help the person virtually. And even with check-in meetings with our supervisor and our team, everyone is there, we’re doing ok, we’re getting by. But, as always, the elephant in the room is this: What is happening and when is it going to end. And the answer, of course, is that we just don’t know.

And so the words don’t come in this instance, we just don’t know what to say, so we say those things about coping, about getting by, and when we end the calls we say things like “Stay safe, everyone!” which is not, in case you were wondering, a sign-off greeting we have ever used before in our lives when speaking with co-workers at the end of a day.

And I know there are places and communities where that is a way to sign off a conversation and it’s likely my co-workers also know this and now we are all thinking the same thing –  that things are not safe in our world now and how did it come to this. But we don’t say it because the words don’t come. Or they do, but no one wants to be the one to say them. Out loud, anyway.

In my library, we have an archives and that archives is, as are most archives, run by an archivist. On Wednesday morning while we were all struggling with our technology, the resources that were going to help us do our job all alone in our homes, our archivist sent us all a message.

She told us she was going to be keeping a journal of this time. A document that outlined her day-to-day existence under self-isolation. Things like her daily routine, the weather, challenges and successes with work, reactions to the news, grocery lists and costs, etc. etc. Anything at all, really. And she encouraged us to do the same. Documentation of crises all through history has been crucial to understanding regular people living through difficult times, and whether it’s through poetry or letters or journals, the experiences are important. And they are necessary. And they should be documented.

I emailed her back right away and told her to count me in. I told her that I too would keep a journal of all of these things, these thoughts and feelings, these challenges and fears, and by sending that email I had found the words. And not only that, I understood that the words are important, even the trite and the silly. They are human, and they need to spill out in a format of our choosing to be documented. I hesitate to say documented for future generations but that’s exactly what this is. How will people in twenty or fifty years understand if we don’t actually tell them?

In the days, months, and years to come, there will be a LOT written about the pandemic.  Government officials, healthcare professionals, researchers and scientists, economists, financial experts and others will be weighing in with their expertise.

Maybe we should all weigh in too.

 

 

 

 

Some things can be more than just things

At the end of November I attended a fiction writing workshop at Hamilton Public Library that was given by Claire Tacon, author and lovely human being. Claire’s novel In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo was one of my favourite books from this past year and so I was more than excited to attend her workshop and hear her thoughts on writing. At the start of the evening she had the attendees go around the room and introduce ourselves by giving our names and then telling everyone gathered there a little bit about an object that fascinated them as a child. Claire started the introductions by telling us about an ancient apple press that had fascinated her, and then it was our turn.

This is the story I told about the object I remembered. I’m massively expanding on it here because I can.

For as long as I can remember the hat rack had been on the wall at the cottage. My memory blinks on and off as to which exact wall it hung on, and I think my mother moved it occasionally, but I am nearly positive it was on the south wall, just above the wood stove, a skinny Quebec heater that resided in the corner of the living room. The living room also included the dining room and the kitchen, divided up into rooms by the merest suggestion of walls. I suppose if I was a different kind of person from a different kind of family that room might have been known as The Great Room. But to us, it was really just the living room or even the “front of the cottage.” The house had been built in pieces: first the main room, a rough cabin structure designed to keep the rain out on days when my grandparents drove up for the day to picnic and swim. Then later, no longer wanting to rely solely on picnics, a small area to cook meals and wash dishes was added to the main room. Bedrooms were built later, when picnic days wanted to turn into overnight stays, and after that the outhouse, deemed too rustic now that my family were becoming “cottagers” was replaced by indoor facilities. Later still, the front of the house was pushed out toward the lake to accommodate a dining table and chairs and the little patchwork quilt of a cottage was complete. I might have the order incorrect, this was all happening long before I was born, but if you look at old photos of my parents and grandparents enjoying the place, or if you look very closely at the walls of the house itself you can trace its evolution.

The hat rack, as I knew it, was a bit of an oddity, and seemed to me a strange thing to have in a rustic cottage. We didn’t even have a hat rack at home and yet here was this solid wooden structure, hung close to the ceiling and over our woodstove – an odd location indeed. There were six pegs, three on each side, that came out of the back and angled slightly upwards. The top was about 6 inches deep and held a variety of treasures – tchotchkes, knicknacks, whatever you want to call them. Those nursery rhyme character figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea; novelty salt and pepper shakers, purchased in touristy places like Niagara Falls, Cape Cod. Probably also some shells and rocks from our beach.

The hats it housed were changeable, much like the people who lived there. There was always at least one Toronto Blue Jays cap (after 1977, of course) as well as cloth sunhats for children, and a wide brimmed straw hat belonging to my mother. At one point my father had been given a traditional Greek fisherman’s hat by a friend and so it lived there for awhile too. Sometimes other things were draped over the pegs; a dog’s leash and collar, a decorative scarf, a skipping rope.  As my brother and I grew taller and were able to better reach it, it became a catch-all for hats and more.

The most fascinating part of this hat rack was the drawer at the bottom. The drawer spanned the entire width of the rack and it had a lock. The key had been lost years before and the drawer, unlockable forever now, held batteries, other keys, sunglasses, some fishing tackle, fuses for the electrical panel and other bits that required housing. It was the equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer, a hall closet, that black hole of detritus and lost and found that resides in many homes.

Did anything change when I learned it was actually a gun rack?

My dad had been a hunter in his youth. Mostly deer, sometimes moose. Our photo albums are filled with pictures of him and his grubby, bearded friends posing with their kills… Did I say filled? Filled with grimy looking men who’d spent a week or so at a hunt camp, yes, but I really only remember one or two with an actual deer present. Dead, but present. And never a moose.

I’d never put the two worlds together in that way, but that legendary gun rack turned hat rack was one of the last remnants of my father’s younger self’s hobbies. That and a tattered hunting jacket and a 1950s-style sleeping bag that smelled permanently of wood smoke and cigarettes.

My father stored his guns on, you guessed it, that very same gun rack. It would have originally resided in my parents’ apartment in west Hamilton, I imagine (there is no one left now to ask, I’m afraid.) The lockable drawer made sense now, you would lock your ammunition away, of course. Safer that way. Space for three guns (on those pegs we tossed our hats on) a drawer for shells. I suppose it should have made me wary of it, but by 1976 it was so far removed from its original use that it was laughable. Imagine, weapons of ungulate destruction removed to make way for left over Lego pieces and packs of playing cards with most of the face cards missing.

When I asked him about the gun rack and the guns that were conspicuous in their absence and had been for as long as I could remember he told me this:

In 1966 we lived in a tiny apartment. I sold the guns before you were born in ’67, that was always my plan. I didn’t want them there once you came along.

I asked him if he missed it. The guns and the hunting.

No. My priorities changed.

But you kept the gun rack.

It makes a good hat rack.

Can’t argue with that.

The gun rack slash hat rack is no more. Eventually, after more than forty years of living through sweltering summers and frigid winters, the glue that held it together dried and cracked, the pegs fell out and the facing of the drawer broke and the whole thing just fell apart. My mother was, I believe, secretly happy about its demise because when I think back to it, this gun/hat rack was, while fascinating to us as children, deeply, deeply ugly. So she bought pegboard and hooks and our hats and other things were moved to the hallway. Now, I don’t think I could write 1000 words about pegboard but you know what? I bet there is someone who could.

I love the object exercise as writing prompt, it’s one of my favourites and I loved that Claire incorporated it into not just the beginning of her writing workshop during our introductions, but that she also brought along several objects for us to write about throughout the evening.

She encouraged us to choose one that spoke to us (not literally, of course, how weird would that be) and to think not only about its intended use but how it can end up out in the world to be used in other unintended ways. Think of its backstory and describe it in great detail using all your senses and then imagine how your character might use it or see it or react to it.

In her handy guide 5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark (which you yourself can and SHOULD obtain at no cost from her newsletter via her blog picklemethis.com) favourite blogger and lovely human Kerry Clare encourages us to explore the hidden lives of ordinary objects because so many of them have a story. You might not have a gun rack, but you definitely have objects with stories. What are they?

And even if you aren’t a writer, the object exercise can be a excellent one for mindfulness. Developing your observational skills, using all your senses to describe something thoroughly can help you to be more present in your day-to-day life, and taking the time to notice the world around you in greater detail can help you move through that world at a less hectic pace.

I’m so grateful to Claire and her wonderful workshop and to Kerry and her always on-point newsletter for reminding me to take the time to dive deeply into the world of observation, to mine memory and see where it takes me.