Ghost Music by An Yu

My favourite novels are the ones that stay with me long after I finish reading them. Sometimes it’s the characters that linger, sometimes it’s the writing itself, and often it’s because the subject matter makes me want to learn more. A novel that prompts me to delve deeper into a particular subject and its meaning, its symbolism, or its culture is, to me, the perfect sort of novel. 

An Yu’s deliciously strange and beautiful Ghost Music is that sort of novel. The surprising combination of mushrooms and classical piano music are at the heart of the story and after reading it—devouring it, actually—I spent hours down a rabbit hole learning about Yunnan mushrooms; learning and relearning their names, their relevance, their importance to the province and to the people who farm and/or collect them. It is fascinating stuff, truly.

In the opening pages  of Ghost Music, we are introduced to Song Yan, although we don’t yet know her name. She wakes in the night and finds herself in a strange room, startled by an orange mushroom growing out of the floorboards. It tells her it would like to be remembered. ”’It is normal that you don’t understand,’ the mushroom said…” 

“But when you leave this room, it said, I’d like you to remember me.”

From the realms of what appears to be a dream, Song Yan then moves to daylight and the real world of Beijing and the apartment she lives in with her husband Bowen and his mother who has just moved in with them after her husband’s death. Song Yan must navigate in the space between Bowen, a man who appears closed-off emotionally and whose sole focus is his job, and her mother-in-law who resents living with her son and his wife, and soon reveals a secret about her family’s past that further strains Song Yan’s relationship with her husband. 

When the first of many mysterious deliveries of mushrooms arrives at the apartment, Bowen’s mother recognizes them as ji zong mushrooms, grown in the Yunnan province where their family lived, and a tenuous bond forms between the women as they shop for and prepare meals for Bowen—soups and stews and noodles—that will highlight the mushrooms they receive. 

Song Yan recognizes the name of the sender of the mushrooms, Bai Yu. Could this be Bai Yu, the piano prodigy her father wanted her to emulate before she gave up performing and switched to teaching piano? The same Bai Yu who disappeared without a trace years before, on the eve of his European tour?

When the mushroom deliveries cease, so too, it seems, does the connection between the two women in the home, but a letter from Bai Yu asking Song Yan to visit him sparks another kind of connection. This connection, between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the world of who we are and who we present to others, sees Song Yan beginning to learn more about herself and to understand, ultimately, what she needs.

This is a gorgeously haunting story that moves between the world of the fantastic and that of the everyday, often with both worlds overlapping in a shift that throws the reader ever so slightly off balance and feeling the need to recalculate. An Yu manages this with such grace and lyricism, it feels effortless. With Ghost Music, she digs deeply into the ways we can’t escape our past, and of how the spectre of our past haunts and shapes us, even as we try—especially as we try—to forget it.

Make Art, Not Hustle

A couple of months ago our older son got a new job working part-time at a local grocery store, and he really likes it. Prior to that, he had been employed full-time at a place that he also really liked, but that gave him little time to pursue what he really wants to do, which is be a musician. 

I should say here that he is a musician already. In fact, he’s been playing in bars and clubs for literally half his life. He joined his first band and started playing his first gigs at the age of twelve. He is, in musician years, a seasoned pro.

His former job was unpredictable, though, and the hours were long which meant he missed out on a lot because of this, and he was constantly exhausted from the work and lacking the energy to play. Not the best for a working musician.

Circumstances during the pandemic allowed him to move home and save his money so that ultimately he could quit that job with no hard feelings and start to build up in the music world again. We were thrilled that we could help, and it’s been great having him home again.

The other day the old job called him up and asked him to come back for a three-week contract while some of the other staff were on vacation. He asked for some advice and John and I helped him lay out the pros and cons, and ultimately he’s going to do it. His current job is pretty flexible so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I did tell him my reservations, especially the fact that this place is notorious for its long hours and exhausting work and that I worried he’d once again be possibly missing out on the things he really wants to do. And he reminded me that it’s only for a few weeks, and that he’s thinking ahead. 

Thinking ahead to a potential tour with the band and wanting to earn as much money as he can between now and that point in the future (specific dates to be determined, but very, very much in the cards) when they’ll be on the road and earning zero money. So, he went on, he really wants to work as much as possible, and even try to work his current job during the temp contract with the old one, if that’s doable. And it just might be doable.

I’m proud of this kid and his planning and his work ethic and his drive to earn and save money for a time when, while he might be doing his favourite thing in the world, he won’t have an income.

And I look at him and at our younger son, an aspiring actor with a part-time job in a restaurant kitchen, and I think it’s great. He too likes the work and sometimes gets to bring home donuts and fried chicken! But I also look at these hard working kids and think “But wouldn’t it be even betterif they didn’t have to have a side hustle?!”

And the obvious answer is, of course it would.

Photo by Pixabay on

I think about this kind of thing all the time, not just for my kids, but for ALL the artists I know, all the writers and poets, the painters, the musicians and the actors. What would life be like if the beauty you create and push out into the world for people to enjoy becomes the beauty that allows you to live? 

What would it be like for my kids—and countless others—to get up in the morning knowing that their day was devoted to creating their art, performing their art, sharing their art? 

What if we as a society valued our artists not just for their finished products, their finished works, but for their artistic process? What if we—and hear me out—paid people to create art so that they didn’t have to rush through band practice to get to work at the grocery store, the pizza place, the library. That band practice was their work, the work that helped them live and eat and enjoy. Basically to do all the things humans need to survive.

What would that world look like? 

I don’t have an answer, of course. But every so often I allow myself to contemplate these scenarios and this kind of world and every time I do it makes me smile. 

It’s been a long couple of years for artists and I’m sure lots of them have had to give up—or at the very least reduce the amount of time spent on—their art since the start of the pandemic, and that is tragic. 

And, at the same time, I’m sure there’s lots of people who started to pursue art because of the pandemic, finding themselves with a lot more time on their hands due to lockdown, the disappearance of their daily commute, etc. And that is wonderful!

Not everyone who pursues art plans to or even wants to do it for a living, hobbies are important and are definitely a thing! But for those who do—my kids, maybe your kids, maybe you?—what a wonderful world it would be.

Pink Housecoat

At some point this spring I need to put the pink fleece housecoat away.

Do you use the term housecoat? I do, although I have been known to shift between that word and robe. Bathrobe, I suppose is the more specific term, as robe on its own feels too formal. It calls to mind graduations and courthouses, lawyers and judges. Robes of honour. Housecoat is, to me, the more serviceable kind of term, a coat you wear over your house clothes, or your night clothes. It makes sense.

I have friends who use the term dressing gown, too, and while I know what they mean, (they literally mean a housecoat) the dressing gown image always makes me think of old Hollywood. Women in satin, lace, and velvet and men in tapestry or brocade.

I guess it’s all a matter of where you live, where you grew up, and who you grew up with. My dressing gown friends have predominantly English lineage, while those who prefer the term bathrobe are more staunchly Canadian or American.

Housecoat falls somewhere in between, perhaps, and since that is the term I grew up with, that is the term I will use throughout.

At any rate, whatever you call it, at some point I need to put it away for the season.

The housecoat is made of heavy fleece. Two patch pockets, inner ties—also fleece—and a belt of, you guessed it, fleece. It reaches nearly to my ankles and I always think of how my mother said they’d expected more from me. In the height department, that is. In every other way I was fine, I guess. Just shorter than expected. She blamed my dad’s side.

The housecoat is pink. Not a colour I typically wear, but it is one that suits me, suits my complexion. When John and I were planning our wedding I had insisted I wanted an ivory dress, feeling that was much more sophisticated than white, the result of watching too many Edwardian dramas on PBS growing up, perhaps. There was a lot of ivory in Brideshead Revisited if I recall. Truth be told I really wanted to get married in a red dress, but there are things you sometimes will sacrifice for the greater good and less drama. At least I do. Or rather did. In 1995. My mother tsk-tsked at my choice of ivory, insisting that I should wear white. And, to prove it to me, she took me to “Get My Colours Done” which was a real thing in the 1990s, in case you’ve heard this phrase before and wondered what in the actual hell that meant. Indulge me while I elaborate.

These “Colours” places were rampant. I think they started out as home parties (like Tupperware and Aloette) and eventually moved to brick and mortar shops in malls and sometimes in hair salons or spas. It worked kind of like this: you would go to one of these places and sit in front of a well-lit mirror. Ideally (again, it was more than 25 years ago, memory may not serve) you went without makeup so your actual skin tone would be truly visible, and a woman would drape various coloured scarves around your neck and hold them up to your face. She would then tell you what “season” you are (seriously!) and what colours you should be wearing to reflect that season.

When my mother and I went, she informed the woman draping the scarves that I had chosen ivory as my wedding dress colour and the two of them had a good laugh. Then she placed an ivory scarf under my chin and remarked something along the lines of “Look how sallow!” When she held up the white one, I had to agree it did look better.

I probably still have the little wallet of colour swatches that was part of the fee for the scarf draping. You were supposed to carry it in your purse as a reference for when you’re shopping for clothes and accessories. There were guidelines for jewelry as well! And frames for glasses! The place I went to also had a line of makeup that you could be guaranteed would be perfect for people of your season. I remember being skeptical, but I did buy a lipstick that I wore every single day—including my wedding day—and I think I cried when I went back to the mall and the place was gone. RIP shade #495, we hardly knew ye. I don’t think these places exist anymore, although maybe they do, but they certainly fall into the deep, deep archives of my brain known as “Now That’s What I Call The 90s!”

And because you’re probably dying to know, I am a winter.

But the pink housecoat. I put it away every year around this time and it’s always hard. But eventually I will be wearing it and find myself sweating in the early spring warmth, the early spring damp. Between that and an ill-timed (are there well-timed?) hot flash, I begin to resent the pink fleece housecoat, and so I put it in the laundry. But once it’s washed and fluffed, I hesitate. I let it hang on its hook for a few days. And then, ultimately I pack it away.

I bought the pink fleece housecoat for my mother the year before she died. When I’d asked her what she would like for Christmas she told me she needed a new housecoat. Practical to a fault. So I delivered, but I made sure it was pretty. Serviceable, yes. Warm. With pockets (for tissues, her reading glasses, the lemon drops she liked to have on hand) but also with a lovely stylized rose print stamped into the fleece, and the perfect shade of pink. Not too pale, not too dark. It’s the pink of winter cheeks, of peonies. And yes, of roses. It brought out the blue of her eyes, the roses in her cheeks. It fit her perfectly, too—not too long, not too short. It was truly the perfect housecoat for winter. She loved it.

When she died my brother and his wife were living with her. They’d moved in when she first got sick to help with the dog and the cats, and they were still living there when she died. We began to make plans to sell the house, and at one point, after meeting with a realtor, they started to stage the house, which apparently means strip all of the love and comfort and personality out of a house, rendering it less of a home, more of a model home, but I digress. On the day I arrived to go through my mother’s clothes and things, they pointed me toward the garage.

In a kind of daze, I opened boxes labelled “Clothes” or “Shoes” and while I tried to go through everything, it felt wrong. Shouldn’t her things have been in her bedroom? In the wardrobe where it all belonged? The dresser drawers where she lovingly tucked lavender sachets and which she lined with flowered paper? The garage was hot (it was July) and dark, and it really was all just wrong, just absolutely wrong.

On my more charitable days, I like to believe they were trying to help. Perhaps they thought it would be too emotional for me to be in her bedroom with all the memories as well as the clothes. Perhaps having everything in one place would help. Perhaps.

On other days, even twelve years later, I rage about being denied the experience of holding each item, of remembering where it had come from, when I had last seen her wearing it. In my mind on those days I accuse them of, in their haste to sell, willfully ruining this final comfort, this last chance to feel the house as it was with her in it.

In the end, all the clothes from her wardrobe, her dresser that had been boxed and stashed in the garage were donated. The items hanging in a closet in my old bedroom, I found, had been spared. Included was a wool cape, a gorgeous linen wrap dress, and a pink fleece housecoat. I gathered those remaining things in my arms and I ran.

The house eventually sold and a lot of the furniture and things came to us, to our already cluttered attic. I had taken the cape, the dress, the housecoat and hung them in the attic closet and forgot about them.

A couple of years ago we started purging things from the attic. Donating things like my dad’s golf clubs, our kids’ old skates, and putting furniture we were never going to need or use out at the curb for neighbours to take. We were exceptionally popular for a time. Eventually I threw open the doors of the closet to see what else could be donated.

The beautiful cape was still there, but on me it looked like a BBQ cover. The linen dress was not my size or style at all, but the pink housecoat beckoned. It was stale after nine years hanging in a dark closet under the eaves, but it washed up beautifully and one evening I went up to change into my pajamas, and threw the housecoat on over top.

“Nice housecoat,” my younger son said. “You look like Nana.”

I wore it this morning as I drank my tea and worked on the New York Times Spelling Bee, my morning ritual. But the familiar warmth crept through me, and I know I probably only have another week or so with my pink housecoat before it will have to be replaced with something lighter, something less bulky. And that’s ok. Because come October, when the mornings are chilly, and before we put the furnace on, the pink housecoat and I will be reunited. And I’ll do what I do every time I put it on: I’ll pull the lapels together under my chin and say to the mirror, “You were right, white was the right choice. And this is the perfect pink for us, too.”

Dark Nostalgia

I have been feeling a certain way in the last few weeks. It’s a strange feeling, and I know I’m not alone in this, as there have been some excellent pieces written about the way a lot of people are feeling lately. And I encourage you to read them, especially if you too are feeling a strange kind of way. These pieces definitely deal with some of the things I’ve been experiencing for sure, but there was still, for me, something missing. Something a little different, a little extra. And yet it’s been a hard thing to put my finger on. “What is this feeling?” I kept thinking. It’s dread and anxiety and fear, sure, and all the other usual suspects two years into a global pandemic, but there is definitely something else. Something else that is weirdly and achingly familiar. And then I read Steve Kandell’s piece in Vanity Fair and thought, oh now I know. Now I know exactly what that is.

The movie Kandell talks about, the one he can’t bring himself to name until the end of the essay, is The Day After. It was a TV movie that aired November 20, 1983, and dealt with the lead-up to and the aftermath of nuclear annihilation for small part of the USA and its people. It was intense, and I remember the next day (the day after haha ugh) in school, the hallways seemed a little quieter, the mood a little more subdued than usual. Everyone had watched it, but nobody, save for a few people, really wanted to talk about it.

I am older than Kandell, I believe, and in 1983 I was sixteen. Girl of sixteen, whole life ahead of her…but it didn’t always feel that way. (And yes I know that song didn’t come out until 1984, but the sentiment stands.)

People love to hate on the 80s. They love to hate the fashion, the whole aesthetic: All that neon? The off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and the leg warmers? The shoulder pads! The teased and sprayed up hair! (Would you believe I spent the bulk of the 80s with a sleek bob and I wore a lot of jeans and sweaters? it wasn’t all Flashdance in here, honey.) But thick black eyeliner and jelly shoes aside, I’ve always found that the most difficult thing to express when people poke fun at the decade, is how we lived with a thick air of potential nuclear annihilation and destruction that permeated even the most French Formula-hardened ‘do. It was everywhere. And it followed us around for years.

It was in the songs we listened to and the movies we watched. We learned about radiation poisoning and fallout shelters, nuclear winter and what mutually assured destruction (or MAD) meant. Footage of missile stockpiles made appearances on national news on a regular basis. The President of the USA, a wildly warmongering sort, was nicknamed Ronald Raygun. This bonkers video from the UK was shown at least twice during Remembrance Day assemblies at my high school. The threat of nuclear holocaust was indeed the soundtrack to our lives, which is maybe one of the most cliché lines I’ve ever written, but it’s true. And yes, we went to school and accomplished things, and had crushes and hobbies and overall lived our lives, but it was always there, bubbling under the surface. At least it was for me.

I had a chat about the resurgence of these feelings with my partner who agreed that it was a frightening time for sure, but that we certainly didn’t think about it all the time, right? Like, it wasn’t living in our head constantly, right? And then I realized, oh boy anxiety really did a number on me back then. And clearly continues to.

It’s true that I obviously wasn’t paralyzed with fear 24/7, but living with the threat of nuclear war meant not knowing what your future held, or if you even had a future at all. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, are you gonna drop the bomb or not? If my high school had done yearbook quotes, that probably would have been mine.

It’s been hard to explain, this weird sensation that’s been cropping up in my brain and my body since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as I explained to my therapist it’s like a strange kind of nostalgia. An anxiety-tinged nostalgia, or a dark nostalgia, if you will. And it turns out, that’s a thing. Because the human nervous system doesn’t forget. And so when news outlets talk blithely about World War III or when you start to see headlines like If World War III Ever Happens, These Are The Safest Countries… it’s all giving a very, very hardcore sense of déjà vu. And it’s not a pleasant one.

My therapist she asked what I could have used back then, what I would have liked to hear, what might have helped, and I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t. At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, when your fears are nuclear destruction and vaporization, it’s hard to think of anything that might have calmed them. I don’t even think I brought it up to my parents. It was something that lay under the surface of everything good, but it wasn’t exactly dinner table conversation. Not in our house, anyway. My parents watched the same news, they experienced the same threats as I did. But they’d also lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. They’d lived through WWII as well, and although they were both only ten when the war ended, my dad’s four older brothers all served overseas, so that was his reality. Maybe for them these threats were just that, threats. Maybe they didn’t seem as imminent as the other situations they’d lived through. Or, maybe they were as afraid as I was, they just didn’t show it. Because that’s what parents do, isn’t it?

So I don’t know what I needed to hear. “Don’t worry it’s never going to happen” would have been too trite, too dismissive, too wrong, really. The headlines screamed it; the news anchors talked daily about the fact that it could happen. And they told us in great detail how it would happen, and what our side of the world was doing—not to prevent it from happening, but to be the ones to do it first, in case the other side tried to start something. Truly the biggest “the one with the most toys wins” vibes there ever were.

As I read Kandell’s piece I felt some relief. Relief that this is truly a thing for people of my generation, that it’s not just me, it’s not just my brain jumping to conclusions of epic, worldwide disaster proportions. We remember what it was like. Our bodies remember what it was like. And it might seem like an overreaction, but as I’ve learned in therapy, our nervous systems are there to protect us. The fight or flight response is real, and it’s important.

Kandell’s entire essay is so good, and I find myself returning to portions of it pretty regularly. Today, the paragraph I’m holding onto is this last one:

Ultimately, the abrupt reintroduction to this long-dormant but acute existential despair feels like an overdue gut check—a litmus test of how to be a citizen, a parent, right now. It’s a wake-up call to those of us who have been lucky enough to sleep as well as we have for as long as we have, and maybe there’s no going back. Because even if the unthinkable of The Day After—huge exhale—remains in the realm of childhood-nightmare fuel, the fact that it feels so palpable and plausible right now, for no good or sensible reason, means we were never really as safe as we’d thought.

Bleak? Perhaps. But definitely, as they say, real talk. And if you’re reading this and you didn’t live through the 1980s but you’re also having some weird feelings about the world in this time and place, the essays I mentioned in this post are well worth your time.

And, you could find yourself a GenXer to talk to, too. We kinda get it.

Coming out of my funk and I’ve been doing (mostly!) just fine

It’s been a weird few weeks. Maybe even months.

I have gone to work and I have been participating in family things, but there has honestly just been a lot of what can best be described as straight up nothing. A lot of sitting and staring into the middle distance or beyond when I should have been doing anything else.

I’ve done much less reading than is normal for me, and certainly not entire novels. Even my beloved short story collections have been neglected. I’ve been focusing—when I can—on books I can pick up at random and read a section and then put them down again. Katherine May’s Wintering is one such book, a balm in tough times. And speaking of tough times, Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times is another book that seems to fit the bill right now. Little bits of wisdom, small ideas to help. Both books have been precisely what I’ve needed.

I’ve also done a lot less writing, too, and in fact I had to scrounge around in my Google docs for something to submit to my writing group last month because I had nothing new to offer, nothing that I’d been working on. So the beginning of a mostly forgotten story from 2018 it was. And it’s fine, and I know it’s fine, and I also know that I need to be able to give myself the same level of grace and patience I would give to a friend who was struggling with these kinds of issues. Take your time. Do what feels right for you, what feels best for you. Be kind to yourself, be gentle with yourself.

And I’m trying.

There has been a hell of a lot of stuff happening lately, and while I try to balance my news and social media intake to remain informed without becoming obsessed, the balance has tipped more than once, and I’ve found myself in a pure news cycle spiral that continued unabated until I just couldn’t handle it. And then I shut down.

But I am seeing some signs of returning to myself. On Saturday and Sunday I did a deep clean of our dining room that involved washing walls and baseboards, pulling out tchotchkes from our china cabinet, boxing up the ones I didn’t want to look at anymore and organizing the rest so that the space is actually usable. It involved vacuuming cobwebs off the ceiling and washing the the inside of the bay windows and the thirty small panes of glass in the french doors that separate the front room from the dining room. It involved organizing my plants and alphabetizing our vinyl and so, so much more.

Delightfully decluttered.

It was exhausting but it was just what I needed. I know that when I allow the clutter to spread and the floors and windows to remain unwashed that I am not in a great place. And it’s not something I can force, this deep dive into cleaning and organizing, but when it arrives organically and enthusiastically, I know I’m back, baby.

And maybe it’s because the light is returning to this part of the world and maybe it’s because Ottawa is back to being boring again (sorry!) Maybe it’s because we have tickets to see our older son’s band Saturday night and we haven’t seen him play in over two years, and maybe it’s because we have plans to host a dinner party with friends in a few weeks. It is probably all of this and more, and I am slowly coming back. I’m shaking off the spiral and embracing what’s ahead with less apprehension than I’ve felt in a long time. More of this, please.

It’s been a very long road, friends. I hope you’re taking care and treating yourself with the gentleness you deserve.

Old friends (don’t @ me)

In January I turned 55. As I said in a previous post, “I know that isn’t old age, but I think I’m starting to be able to see it from here.” Looking back at that post, I thought it was a funny way to phrase it, that advancing towards old age. As if I am standing on a hilltop or a bridge, shielding my eyes from bright sunlight, squinting into the distance, pointing out to my companions, “Just there, do you see it? No, a little to the right, come and look where I’m pointing. Just coming into view. Do you see it now?” And I suppose in some ways, that’s kind of how it’s happening. Me, pointing out to my friends how old age is less far away than it used to be, and them not necessarily seeing it straight away, pointing out a lot of other things about me that aren’t old age, that perhaps I am mistaken. And it’s not that I want to point it out to them, but in a lot of ways it’s essential.

Years ago at an annual physical appointment my doctor who is just a year older than me told me that she had to remind herself to consistently look at her patients’ ages because outwardly, no one seems to change. She used me as an example (which is only fair) saying that I look good, my skin still seems youthful, my dark hair the same colour as when she met me in 1993 (thank you, Willow Salon.) Going by the surface, she told me, most of her adult patients are in great shape.

Now, because she is a doctor it’s her job to look beneath the surface, way WAY beneath the surface at bone health and bloodwork and all those things that deeply matter in the realms of human health. And of course she does that with all her patients, but the comment stuck with me because that’s kind of the way we view our friends, isn’t it?

If you’re someone who has children or someone who is child-adjacent, you’re used to watching humans grow up and hit those childhood milestones of walking and talking and going to school and finding hobbies and all those things that make us people. You might say to your friend’s kid, “Hol-eeee are you ever getting tall!” or “Are those your shoes in the hallway or your dad’s?!” because it is expected that kids grow. They expand, their voices change, they might require braces or eyeglasses…and we notice. And even if we don’t point it out to them or to their parents, we notice. Because it makes sense to us. Kids grow and change. That’s the way it is.

But with our friends, it’s different. There are lots of milestones you can hit as an adult, but most of us don’t really like to talk about them. (First pair of reading glasses! First colonoscopy!) Once you turn fifty, the government ensures you don’t miss the milestones like mammograms and other cancer screenings, but that’s not nearly as exciting as your five-year old learning to ride a bike, is it?

I think it’s because to us, our friends are always constant. If not exactly the same age as when we met, at least the same general stage of life. Our memories of them can be poised at a certain time and place. Obviously if you and your friend met when you were ten, you likely don’t think of them as a ten-year old now (should you be reading this as an adult) but it seems to me there is a way of thinking about our friends that renders them ageless. And I think that’s wonderful. But it’s tricky, too.

I had some bloodwork done recently and when I got a call from my doctor to discuss my results, I knew something was up. And it was my cholesterol. (See what I did there?) We discussed a strategy to hopefully help reduce it, although she knows my family history of high cholesterol could mean that there is not a lot I can do, but it’s worth a try, of course. Between that and my (also partially inherited) high blood pressure, my risk for cardiovascular disease is especially high. And, as my doctor informed me in the nicest way possible, I am 55 years old. In case I’d forgotten. Some lifestyle changes need to be made.

And so I told my friends. And they were sympathetic, of course. And most of them aren’t “there” yet. I am the oldest of my friend group, so I am hitting these somewhat hidden milestones first. And I feel it’s my role as the Capricorn in the group to let them know the straight dope. (Big Grandpa Simpson “It’ll happen to you” energy right there.)

And along with that sympathy and understanding I also saw the disbelief in their eyes, because they too see me as I was when they first knew me twenty, twenty-five years ago. Which is lovely, of course. And with the disbelief also comes that realization and that acknowledgement that, to use a common phrase, we’re none of us getting any younger. Ageing is a betrayal, more or less. And yet there is also great privilege in ageing in a relatively healthy body and mind and I love that for me and for my friends. And it’s weird to think of us maneuvering into this next stage of life, too because wasn’t it just last year we were partnering up and having babies and finishing degrees and making bad choices and recovering from too-late nights at the bar with too many tequila shots? Spoiler: it turns out it was much longer ago than that.

My friends and I, we’re not ageless, but we are definitely timeless. And you are too. And wherever you are on the ageing path it’s good to remember that. That and your annual check-up at your doctor. You owe it to yourself. And to your friends.

Silver (hour) linings

I had a thought during my morning yoga practice the other day about how, as the mornings get lighter (sunrise is starting to come a little earlier and sunset is coming later) the days themselves seem to stretch, to elongate, lengthen, and settle in to their routine. The amount of this time stretch right now is practically imperceptible—only about a minute or so on either side—but it’s enough. For example, the other day sunrise arrived at 7:51 am, and today it was 7:49 am. Contrarily, sunset, until quite recently occurred at 5:02 pm, and as of today we have nearly a full five minutes more daylight, with sunset clocking in at 5:07 pm.

I’m a little obsessed.

I know these things because I have a watch that tells me. Well, at least, I have taken the option of having it tell me. I received an Apple watch for Christmas and I’m not mentioning this to flex, it’s just that this watch does, as they say, it ALL. For instance, you can choose from dozens of watch faces, depending on your interests and/or aesthetic. I have, as you can maybe imagine given what I’ve been talking about so far, chosen the one that lets me know all the details about the sun’s current placement in the sky overhead. I like watching it make its moves across the sky, I love the countdown to sunset, to sunrise. I love how it changes colour as the sun—a small, white disc on my wrist—moves away from or toward the horizon. It’s constant and comforting, and I didn’t realize how much I needed to see it.

In the fall and the early part of winter, the days seem to contract. The sun is later to rise, earlier to set, and it’s the same with us. When possible we contract, too. We cocoon in our homes, we light lamps mid-afternoon to offset the growing darkness. We hesitate to venture out again—global pandemic notwithstanding—once we’re securely in. We transfer ourselves into night clothes earlier and earlier (I think my record is 5:02 pm, once my work laptop is shut for the night) and some of us may even head to bed earlier with books or podcasts or streaming services. We settle in, curling in on ourselves, making ourselves and our worlds smaller as if preparing for hibernation. It’s as close as we get, we humans, to the state of hibernation, I think.

But after the solstice you can, if you too are obsessed with the sun and its travels, feel the days slowly relaxing, drawing themselves out like a cat luxuriously stretching in a sunbeam. It’s still cold, don’t get me wrong! -12C when I woke up the other day! But the promise is there.

We dare not say the “S” word just yet, we have a lot of cold and winter left in this part of the country, this part of the world. But the sunlight, the daylight…well, it’s inching back toward us.

The specificity and accuracy makes me so happy.

Now when I walk the dog after work (when I’m not racing upstairs to get into my pjs) the darkness of November and December is gone. Now the sky remains light for at least the first half of our walk and it is so, so lovely to be out, once again in the twilight, the gloaming, that magical time when it feels like anything and everything is possible. Twilight is such a lovely term and there are, I learned recently, three distinct types of twilight: civil, (not just a song by The Weakerthans) nautical, and astronomical. Twilight also occurs in the mornings, just before the sun is up, which is something I also learned and which makes a lot of senseit’s just in reverse, that’s all.

I love the term “golden hour” for this time of day, too, just after the sun goes down, yet to me golden hour evokes warmth and sun and long, languid summer days, and so I’m not sure it’s completely appropriate in the depths of January. But maybe it’s “silver hour” this time of year? A glint of icy metal, a cool, reflective surface. The blade of a skate. Silvery frost on windows. Ice on bare branches.

The days are getting longer, one or two minutes at a time, and silver hour will once again give way to golden hour. I will miss, as I always do, the semi-hibernation of the winter months, but I will (also as I always do) welcome back the light.

And if you find you need the comfort of knowing exactly when the sun will be going down and when you can expect it to come up again so you can perceive the lengthening of the days minute by minute…well, just know you’re not alone.

Books, baby

Books did a lot of heavy lifting in getting me through this past year, I’ll tell you what. In Year One of the pandemic I didn’t read as much as I thought I would, but by 2021, I felt I was in the zone. I, like a lot of people, was better prepared in 2021 to deal. I mean, we’d already done almost a year, right? And, it’s true that some things did kind of get back to a type of normal, and even though my anxiety was still high, it wasn’t as high as it had been…especially if I made the decision to put down my phone, to log off the news sites. Which I did. Or at least tried to do. For the most part.

So, books. I managed to read quite a few and, in no particular order, here are the ones that stuck with me most, the ones that I still think about.

I suppose it isn’t shocking that all these books are by women; I don’t typically read a lot of men’s fiction. But what is surprising is the nonfiction representation here, because I think this might be the first time that not one, not two but THREE nonfiction titles appear on my best of list! Really love that journey for me.

As well, two collections of short stories made the list, and two novels. The bulk of my reading was novels, of course, and there is definitely something to be said for consistency, but I’m happy to have branched out just a little this year, too.

There’s not a real theme running through these top seven titles, except maybe the theme of “making me feel a lot of different feelings at the same time”.

I laughed and cried and spent time thinking “yikes” during All’s Well. Speak, Silence was overwhelmingly sad, and breathtakingly beautiful. I held my breath and peeked through my fingers while reading In The Dream House, and marveled at the beauty that can be found in trauma. And, The Most Precious Substance on Earth made me laugh and cringe and feel all the nostalgia, while stories in You Are Not What We Expected were startling and sad and fierce.

Crying in H Mart evoked laughter and heartbreak and feelings of loss, and Wintering made me wistful and pensive, with a desire to turn inward and spend time reflecting.

I’m not sure if my emotional response to what I read was heightened this past year, but I do know there were some books I had been anticipating that I was unable to read. At first I was beating myself up about it; “they’re books, you love all books, you’ve read harder books” but I eventually clued in to what my heart needed, and if I found a book’s subject matter ultra challenging, I gently closed it and told myself “Not yet” and moved on.

For the books I did read, I am so grateful to each of them for what they allowed me to feel this year, and if I had the time and inclination I would write small sentences for the other 44, too. Because when you don’t know what to do with your big, big feelings, it’s so nice to have stories as an outlet.

Best of, question mark?

The year that was was a weird one, friends. I know you likely feel the same, how could you not? We’ve been bandied about like balloons in a strange will we or won’t we kind of atmosphere when it comes to all parts of our lives. I’m exhausted. We’re all exhausted. It’s hardly even worth saying anymore, really. So few answers to the question “How are you?” other than “oh, you know” or that old chestnut, *gesturing vaguely to everything*.

We just learned today that we’re taking a step (a few steps? I can’t keep track) back in Ontario but as usual it’s a real lights are on but nobody’s home kind of vibe which, well…fuck. Typical.

And sure, I’m bummed because I won’t be able to go out for my birthday but more than that, I’m also bummed for my friends and neighbours who won’t be able to get their much-needed surgeries. I’m bummed for my parent friends who are staring down another virtual school term while also trying to work and not lose their minds. I’m bummed for their kids who are also staring down another virtual semester, who may struggle with virtual school. I’m worried for friends in healthcare who are pushed to the brink, and I’m worried about my in-laws locked down once again in their residence which is virus free for now, but for how long?

I can get takeout, have a cake delivered; I will be fine. It’s not the point.

And I could spill a lot of laptop ink going on and on about the incompetence, the sheer cruelty of our government. But you know that. If you live in Ontario you very much know that. If you live elsewhere, well, I hope your leaders are treating you better. But I watch the news. I’m skeptical. It’s all pretty bleak.

And yet, there were bright spots, weren’t there? Here are a few of mine.

In 2021 I read 49 books, and I loved them all. That is one of the good things about carefully curating your reads, you rarely end up with ones you don’t like. I tried to do a “Top 5” but it came out at 7, and later this week I will try to do a recap here.

My writing group has been the most wonderful balm in a trying year, honestly. Since the beginning of the pandemic writing has been a struggle for me, but having this group to offer support and to be inspired by their incredible work has helped so much. Forever grateful to them.

One of my short stories, Dog Walkers and Murderers won the Hamilton Arts & Letters Magazine Short Works Prize for fiction (for unpublished authors) and I am still not over that, to be honest. There was a cash prize AND I will be mailed a certificate! I got the news on an evening when I was dealing with a pretty severe UTI, so you know, it’s all glamour over here.

Our older son moved home at the beginning of the year and I really think that having the four of us together under one roof again has helped me make it through. I think the kids *mostly* feel the same way.

And as an aside, shout out to the 20-somethings (my kids and others) who have, contrary to what you might read, been EXTREMELY responsible throughout this whole ordeal. Lining up to get vaccinated, remaining masked when out for walks with friends early on, taking all precautions as things started to open up, being respectful of the rules, the whole deal. We love, as they say, to see it.

I know there were other bright moments in 2021, and I’ll probably think of them later, but those are the ones that jumped out. I hope you had your fair share too, friends, I’d love to hear about them!

And you know, it’s ok if you didn’t, or if maybe you did, but for now they are hidden in the murkiness of how hard it all was. If that’s the case, here’s to a much, much brighter 2022.

Acting Your Age

One night two weeks ago I woke from a deep sleep around midnight coughing and sputtering and with an awful burning in my throat, my chest. Sitting upright in bed I struggled to catch my breath, swallowing hard and fighting through the pain it caused me, trying not to cough to wake the entire upstairs of my house.

Ah, acid reflux, we meet again. My crime? Consuming two meatballs and one small glass of red wine after 8:00pm.

This episode was particularly rough. Typically I can come downstairs and sit in my chair, dozing until the worst of it is over. I can crunch a couple of Tums and take some small sips of water and eventually fall asleep again. But this night was very different in that I couldn’t even sit down. I walked the main floor of our house wrapped in a blanket, coughing weakly like a Victorian consumptive desperately trying not to disturb the acid that was staying put for now. It was precarious at best and one false move could force another eruption and my body was not willing to experience that.

And so I walked and walked, and every so often attempted to sit down, but then within seconds I was back to walking, and when eventually my body calmed itself down and I was able to go back up to bed, to lie down and sleep, it was nearly 5:00am. Our alarm goes off at 6.

I take medication for acid reflux and it has been a true lifesaver for the past several years, but not even it can handle some of the more serious transgressions, sadly. I need to be more careful, of course. But I sometimes forget.

I think it’s the forgetting that is making me hyper aware of my aging self, my aging body. Not forgetting as in losing memory, but forgetting that there are just things that aren’t possible anymore. Eating late, unless I’m planning on staying up past midnight, is definitely one of them. And that night of lost sleep took its toll, and it honestly took me several days to recover from that, so there’s something else that I forget. That a bad night’s sleep can ruin your week. A mantra of sorts, but a kind of depressing one if you ask me.

I am about halfway through You Look Good for Your Age: An Anthology, edited by Rona Altrows, and so the theme of aging—body and mind and soul—is clearly on my mind.

In this book of essays, stories, and poetry, the writers—all women—confront the inevitable. Some stories are crushingly sad, some are funny as hell, and they are all brutally honest looks at not only aging, but the ageism woman face as they age and how that can and does shape our perspective of it.

More than once during the reading of this collection, I have closed the book and stage whispered, “TOO REAL!” And, much like the “I’m in this photo/tweet and I don’t like it” meme, I have seen myself in several stories and have related to so many, and that is the appeal of this book. Relatable? For a woman of a certain age, indeed.

I will be 55 in January. I know that isn’t old age, but I think I’m starting to be able to see it from here. I’m looking to the future and it is reflux. And bad joints. And a shorter temper. But I’m planning on getting even older though, in spite of it all, so there’s that I guess.

And it’s not all terrible, as the women of You Look Good for Your Age will tell you. Some of aging is about power, about reclamation and about growing into yourself. And who doesn’t want that at any age?

I am really enjoying this book and I am grateful for the opportunity to read it, and so very grateful to the contributors for their incredible stories.