Changes: Ever in search of balance – A reflection

I don’t know when I ceased to exist, or how I fell off the face of the earth. 

I wrote this line in my journal on July 15 of this year. I’d been plagued by a persistent emotional heaviness for months, but over the summer that weight seemed to intensify. I began to look to the future with anxiety, to wonder how to find the will to keep existing. I had not written a single creative piece in the better part of the year. I struggled to read. I had given up editing because the necessary focus was gone. The only thing I could manage consistently was to put on my shoes, head out the door, and walk and run.

I have not missed a day.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

Of course, these days everything  is tinted by the pandemic. Normal is a nebulous concept. Where I live, our fourth wave is rising fast, we are once again leading the country in all metrics except vaccinations. Hospitals are beyond capacity and those who work the frontlines are exhausted and demoralized. All for lack of political will. The situation fuels stress, anger and concern. But I’m not alone in my reaction—in fact to feel less would be worrying.

My own condition has held firm no matter.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

A few weeks ago I made two decisions. One after extensive consideration, the other under relentless pressure. First I decided to go back onto the medication I went off a year ago last July following a diagnosis with bone loss. I’d taken that drug for twenty years and it seemed that a change might be good. But the transition onto the new (to me) treatment was extended, difficult, and, as I discovered, cost a vital aspect of my creative spirit.

Second, the day after beginning to add the target med, I agreed to take on a supervisor role at our unnecessary federal election—on the first day of confusing new COVID restrictions. When I expressed my concern about side effects and a sixteen hour day requiring some ability to focus, my worries were waved off. I made it through the day but it was blur. Somehow it seems that if you have a mental illness but can still tie your own shoes and drive a car, your symptoms are disregarded either at the beginning or during treatment. And it seems like this medication change is shaping up to be another. I was so excited when I finally decided to return to my old treatment. I was looking forward to catching up on reading and reviews. I had not factored in letters that would appear to dance across the page  or the associated nausea and instability.

I sure hope I can still read when I get to the other side. And run too.

Calgary, Alberta: Douglas Fir Trail

Meanwhile autumn has settled in around here. There’s a chill in the air and the trees are bursting with colour but a certain sadness lurks in the vibrant leaves. All those branches will soon be bare. Life is but one change after another, seasons tumbling down the years.

All photos by Joseph Schreiber

Seven years of roughghosts, now on to the eighth

May 31st, 2021. roughghosts is seven years old today. This space did not begin as a book blog, as I’ve said many times. I’m not sure what it began as other than a wildly impulsive fit of increasing mania. About three weeks after I posted my first sketchy musings, I crashed out completely, bipolar disorder effectively destroying my professional career and reputation. Much has passed since that time—cardiac arrest, my parents’ deaths, a dear friend’s suicide, travel to South Africa, Australia and India, depression, mixed moods, and diagnosis of bone loss. Oh yeah, and a global pandemic.

The only constant is the existence of this little blog which seems to sputter along and even grow in followers and visitors regardless of whether I add regular fuel to the fire.

I will confess that the creation of this space seemed to offer me an avenue to writing. I wrote poetry and stories all through my teens, but as I reached my twenties I became aware that I had little to say. I needed to live a little first. Then as I got older, I accumulated life experiences as we all do, yet the more I lived, the less I could channel any of it into writing. I could no more steal from my clients who all had fascinating stories than I could draw on my own. I discovered that I am not the kind of person who can violate the boundaries of others for the sake of writing, nor could I afford to push my own limits. By my forties I had found myself a closeted single parent whose gendered past had to remain a secret. It was not a space my twenty year-old self would ever have expected to be in, but I had a job, two children to support and no way out.

Except madness.

When I lost my job, my kids were in their twenties and I was in my fifties, I had this internet space and, well, I no longer had an excuse. On one level, writing was easy enough. My blog evolved into a bookish space rather quickly, my first essay submission for a queer themed book was accepted, and eventually I was writing critical reviews, occasional essays, and had been invited (recruited?) to edit for online publications. A scant few of these literary ventures paid but I didn’t care. I was writing.

And I was as out as possible under the circumstances.

Over the years I’ve chronicled my attempts to find a space within an LGBTQ identity and my increasing frustrations with the effort. During that period I became increasingly aware that I was stale dated. The trans man I know myself to be is not welcome by today’s trans community. Too old. Too old school. The essays and work I was creating fell on uncomfortably deafened ears when I shared them with people I had assumed were my peers. Not so when I reached beyond the LGBTQ world, but my fear of being either censored or misinterpreted has impacted my freedom to write. It’s like being closeted on the outside. I have, over time, shed all manner of identification with a space where I only nominally belong.

So, over the past few years, my literary ambitions have withered. My critical energies have, under the weight of intense editing responsibilities, all but disappeared. A medication change last summer affected my physical ability to read, a situation which is now slowly recovering. And although this blog has, in recent years, expanded my world and led to wonderful travel opportunities, the pandemic has taken its toll on my hopes for the future.

Now, having run myself into the ground on this, the beginning of the eighth year of roughghosts, there is probably nothing better to do than to start afresh. Find out, once again, where this blog might take me. Coincidentally, this is also the beginning of Pride Month. Something that no longer fills me with guilt and anxiety. It simply is.

So, going forward, I will set no goals, make no promises, and simply see where the next year takes me. Thank you to everyone who has kept me company thus far.

* All the images taken today on the Douglas Fir Trail, my favourite space.

Memory is a record book of errors: The Town Slowly Empties by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We take the everyday for granted. The history of the everyday, as Gandhi said, is never written. We don’t write the history of harmony. We write of history with a capital H. The history of strife. The history of the everyday is the history of a time that exists in the blurry lines between memory and forgetting. The days we remember are the days of events, personal, social or political.

It seems such a long time ago that the world slipped into lockdown as a strange, invisible threat began to spread causing illness and death. Where I am in Canada, our first lockdown was the strictest even if it was considerably less severe than in many places. Dramatic charts were hauled out, ominous predictions were made and the outside world suddenly seemed to become a dangerous place. Yet, the feared explosion of cases never materialized except in nursing homes and long term care. We slipped out of confinement into a summer of somewhat reduced freedoms but plenty of elbow room. The consensus: the lockdown was extreme and unnecessary. Of course, it’s impossible to convince a skeptic of the success of a measure by the absence of the thing you set out to prevent.

So we became our own control group. Winter brought a second wave and only when cases and deaths started to rise exponentially were some restrictions brought back. Protestors took to the streets to decry their loss of freedom in the name of an imaginary illness that, even if it existed, was primarily taking only the oldest and weakest among us. Nothing but the flu.

Now as Spring slowly settles in, we are into a third wave, fuelled by variants, striking a much younger cohort and rapidly expanding. The government is responding with weak-kneed measures—even less intense than the last round—figuring we will vaccinate our way out while ICU beds fill up with the sickest group of Covid patients yet. Yes, perhaps fewer of them will die. But anyone who arrives with a serious condition that would normally warrant an ICU bed will have to be weighed for worth, for likelihood of survival, against some young, otherwise healthy Covid patient presently gasping for breath. And people will die who would not have died otherwise. How serious are things? Today the case rate in my city was more than twice that of India.

India. A country that has come to mean a lot to me these past few years is presently on fire—metaphorically and factually. It is painful to watch, heartbreaking to think of. Here in the West, even when things are bad and resources are stretched beyond reason, illness and death is sanitized, hidden behind closed doors, underestimated, forgotten.

All of this is but a long, yet timely, introduction to my review of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Indian poet and writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. This has proved a very difficult book to write about. In fact, as the present crisis in India began to escalate, I found it increasingly difficult to read. Not that it isn’t good. It is a most wonderful, personal engagement with the early weeks of the sudden, strict lockdown imposed on India last March. Exactly a year ago as I was reading. At first there was a definite sense of déjà vu, but soon the altered routines, unexpected observations, and thoughtful reflections began to feel, quaint, otherworldly, against the horrific backdrop of the second wave now battering the country. Yet, the current state of affairs should in no way undermine the merit of this chronicle of adjustment to the limitations and possibilities of mandated isolation. In truth, it makes it all the more relevant.

The Town Slowly Empties—the title comes from Albert Camus’ The Plague—unfolds as a series of journal entries beginning on Monday, March 23, just after a complete lockdown has been declared in Delhi. Within days the entire nation will follow suit with only four hours’ notice. The daily reflections continue until April 14, the end of the first phase of restrictions. Each day’s record is a melange of domestic activity, pandemic progress reporting, political and social contextualizing, philosophical musing, and the sifting of memories, all woven together with  literary references, film commentary and a passion for food. Lockdown life offers an uncanny blend of the exceptional and the ordinary. Something frightening is lurking close at hand, just outside the door where the streets have grown quiet, while inside time has expanded, leaving even more empty space to fill, more anxious thoughts to fill it, especially supercharged in those early days.

We have become watchmen, standing guard at ourselves, at our shadows. We terrorize ourselves with caution. We become extremely careful about what we touch, and if we touch, we immediately wash our hands with soap for at least twenty seconds. We are mindful of the merest hint of a sore throat, or rising temperature. We also have the time now to watch others, and not just the human species. We carry the virus in our heads, in our sleep, and some with intense paranoia, perhaps even in their dreams. Fear is our only mode of retaliation. We are brave, we fear bravely. We cannot laugh at ourselves. The absurdity of survival must be taken seriously.

For Bhattacharjee these extra hours afforded by lockdown are measured out in poetry, prose and film. A host of writers and filmmakers become his companions, offering illustrations, examples and inspiration as the days roll by. Along the way he calls upon TS Eliot, Rimbaud, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Pessoa, Kafka, Agha Shahid Ali, Zbigniew Herbert, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and many others, engaging with their ideas and imagery. This is, then, far more than a record of news reports, readings and recipes, though there is a clear sense of the quotidian routine—waking late, securing provisions, morning tea, making lunch. Each day brings new circumstances, spectacles, and tragedies to process: face masks, Zoom meetings, lost lives translated into statistics, hungry migrant workers desperate to get home. The daily act of processing such experiences through writing opens avenues for the past to enter the stream of the present. Thus, this journal also becomes a memoir and a meditation on memory.

As the days pass into record and reflection, Bhattacharjee will recall moments of his childhood in Assam, his college years, his courtship with his partner, and his pathway to a love of cooking. But the memories he visits are as often collective as they are personal, of mutually shared experiences, or times captured in historical and literary record. For we live not only in our own pasts, but through the lives of others. Under the shadow of Covid-19, we look for meaning not only in pandemics and plagues, but also in disaster. One of the most interesting entries—and now eerily prescient given how the second wave is currently devastating India—moves through film and literature, from Chernobyl to Bhopal, tracing a landscape of disaster in the words of two writers formed in their wake—Svetlana Alexievich and poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both chronicle the pain and destruction of scientific catastrophe as written on the body and the spirit. Both speak to the necessity of remembering. But how?

Science has no memory. Memory has no science. Science is an idea of progress without memory. Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter. When a scientific experiment goes wrong, it affects nature. The sky, the sunlight, and even the silence turn toxic.

Covid-19 presents a complex interaction between nature, science and society. It is an event that has been anticipated for years, but the degree of disaster experienced reflects lack of planning and uneven response. Vaccines are welcome, if they can be produced and obtained, but the refusal of politicians and people to listen to the scientific advice they do not like—to wear masks, maintain distance, lockdown when needed—has led to unnecessary illness and loss of life around the world. What documentarian or poet will be the one to bring science and memory together to bear witness to this pandemic? For now, we can only meet the moment.

Today many people are starting to imagine a day when the pandemic finally recedes in the rear view mirror. Others are still fighting. Until the world is vaccinated, Covid will still be with us. It may always be with us. With this in mind, Bhattacharajee’s book is both uncomfortable and comfortably nostalgic. There was a sense of global unity to those early days. Yet there is much more within these pages. Reading The Town Slowly Empties is akin to spending time in the company of an intelligent, poetic friend—the sort of person who always has an interesting story to tell, a poem to quote, a book or movie to recommend. To that end, this friend has been sure to leave you, his reader, with a select bibliography, a filmography and extensive notes. You are not left empty handed.

The early months of the pandemic generated a flood of “Lockdown Diaries.” 3:AM, the magazine I was editing for last year, ran such a series as did many other venues.  A friend of mine in Bangalore dutifully maintained a daily record, with an eye to economics and social policy among other topics. He has picked up the thread again; at last count it was Day #415. Plague-themed literature also experienced a revival. For a while it seemed as if it was all too much. This warm and thoughtful work reminds me that there cannot be enough. Lest we forget. This experience will look different in a few years’ time, but already our world and our way of being in it has been altered in ways we could not have imagined when we first retreated into our homes in what sometimes feels like another lifetime.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, featuring a foreword by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Headpress.

Vernal Equinox 2021: Spring at last, let the thaw begin

According to the calendar, spring is here. It will be some time before leaves bud, blossoms appear and migrating birds return from their winter retreats. In the meantime, the trails are a mix of dry ground, thick mud, slushy snow and dangerous stretches of ice, their surfaces slick with the wet promise of passages opening up once again. But not yet. Yesterday on the Bow River pathway I was forced to turn back. Ahead of me I could see a couple, clinging to a tree, clearly considering their options. Through the forest rising behind them, I counted no less than three frozen streams inching their way downward. I called to them to find out how far this temporary glacial formation extended. Too far. I don’t remember ever seeing so many ice flows on the upper and lower trails. All along the escarpment underground streams emerge and make their way down to the river. In the summer most of them are little more than muddy passages to cross on logs or stones. In the winter, expanding, shifting patches of ice are common. This year it seems that all the water—like time itself—had seized and slowed to an icy crawl.

Today, on the Vernal Equinox, one of two days each year when day matches night for length, I am again surprised to see how much the trails have transformed themselves. Less snow and more mud here, less mud and more dry ground there. I look forward to the time when I run along the pathways with ease, watching only for roots and rocks and the usual tricky passages because, well, there are always a few rough spots. Kind of like life. The anticipation of spring is, this year more than ever, an analogy for the anticipation of a return to some measure of normal—here at home and across the globe. Of course, where only the tiniest buds are beginning to dot the bare winter branches of the pandemic scarred trees, blooms are yet a long way off.

On Monday I am due to have my first shot of a Covid vaccine. In my Canadian province I would not be eligible for vaccination until May but the country acquired a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine with a looming expiry date. Where I live it was decided to offer it to those aged 60-64 and I signed up in spite of the recent flurry of concern about side effects, efficacy and general lack of sexiness relative to the vanguard mRNA doses. Frankly I would rather be a step toward full immunization now rather than wait… an ounce of prevention and all that. Besides, the vials on hand are the Covishield vaccine manufactured in India and I’m just fine with that.

So, does this season (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), one that arrives with a promise of hope and new life, offer something for a pandemic weary soul? I’d like to think so. I’ve found myself feeling reduced lately, disconnected from the world, growing old in isolation. I don’t think I have ever felt more anxious for green leaves and fields, early blooms, and fresh birdsong in the trees. I’m hungry for spring and everything that it means—practically and symbolically. I’ve found it too easy to dig down into the darkness these past few months. Bring back the light! Who knows, maybe I will finally be able to celebrate Christmas with my daughter by the time summer arrives. If Covid allows…

Happy Vernal Equinox.

Weights and measures: 2020 draws to a close

Slippery section ahead, December 31, 2020

At the end of a year that redefined most of our goals and aspirations, I find myself in a strange space. This was, for me, a year of challenge, adaptation and growth. I had imagined I would mark a milestone birthday—one I was anxious about—with a special trip of some sort. I did not even have a destination in mind but it had to be important. Of course, travel of any sort was not to be. Instead, I find myself here, three months after turning sixty, in better physical shape than I’ve ever been, with about 1,000 kilometres clocked for the year, mostly on the trails, roads and pathways close to home.

In 2020 I became a runner. A trail runner.

The year began with a diagnosis of osteoporosis. It’s a condition that led to the death of my mother and one of my great aunts, but I my case, it turns out that a medication I took for twenty years to control bipolar disorder had been blocking the absorption of vitamin D. I immediately started supplements and monitored my calcium intake and made an appointment with a physiotherapist. But I was afraid that running, something I had flirted with, would have to be avoided. Strangely that—something I had never even had—was my greatest sense of loss and my greatest motivation.

Progress was slow. Through the winter I worked on flexibility and core body strength, developing, with my therapist,  a weight and resistance training routine. For aerobic exercise, I walked up and down the embankment I live above. As the trails started to clear, I was given the green light to start running. Initial efforts were choppy, but I would aim to cover longer sections of pathway before stopping to catch my breath.

At the same time, as early lock down restrictions began to ease, my psychiatrist and I discussed switching meds. Over the summer I started taking lithium, a drug I feared a little, but the potential side effects with other options sounded more concerning. The switch has not been smooth, but it has only enhanced my running. Or rather, in going off the original medication I quickly lost twelve pounds. Turns out less of me goes further! In mid-September I messaged a runner friend to tell him that, for the very first time, I started to run a familiar trail and I just kept running until I ran out of road.

I’m no marathoner, that is not my intention, and some of the trails I love are a challenge, but the buzz of feeling myself grow stronger has not left, especially as I push out over longer and longer stretches of the steepest inclines. There’s a healthy degree of caution too because I don’t want to fall, but I love the personal focus of this activity. My goals, distance and pace, are my own, but there is still a connection. The runners you meet on the trail are generally ready with a smile and a nod—a friendly acknowledgement. I may be going three kilometres to their ten, but it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the medication has had a less positive impact on other areas of my life. Through August and September I struggled with the books I managed to read. I found it difficult to get through more than one or two pages at a time. From mid-September to early December I accumulated a pile of half-finished books, writing was impossible, editing agonizingly slow. I figured that lithium was affecting my focus and concentration. I could remember a similar problem with the same med years earlier. I started to strategize ways to make reading and writing work in this new zone. I also made the decision to step away from my volunteer editing commitment, something which was very heavy this year, thanks to the pandemic.

However, hiking and running continued without any concern until I began to find myself dizzy and oddly fatigued on the trail one day. I felt like I hadn’t had a decent sleep in months and, in fact, I hadn’t. It wasn’t until I began to notice a marked loss of energy and significant muscle weakness that I finally realized about how often I would find myself thinking about  how much I was looking forward to going to sleep. All along my fitness tracker had been rating my sleep quality poorly but I had assumed it was an issue with my Fitbit, not me.

Over the past month or so I have made a number of adjustments to my sleeping environment that, if not perfect, have greatly improved my sleep. My focus, energy and mood are so much better. So, living well on this new med means extra attention to sleep. I can handle that. Mind you, there’s more. My blood work recently showed an elevated calcium level—not great given the osteoporosis—but another possible side effect of lithium. So in January I see an endocrinologist to rule out serious problems, but in the meantime I intend to read, run and write my way into the new year!

Wishing you all the best of the year ahead. We’ve gotten this far!

Entering the autumn of my life: A reflection

Here, where I live, autumn arrived with beauty, warmth and vibrant colour. I can only hope these past few weeks stand as a good omen for the coming year. A glimmer of light in the midst of a seemingly endless global pandemic.

Today marks a milestone for me, one I have dreaded, on and off, for the past year. It is my sixtieth birthday. It feels odd to say that. Without a long standing cohort of peers, friendships reaching back into high school or college, I have friends who are older and friends who are younger—some thirty years younger or more. There is a certain agelessness afforded by the way we reach out and make contact in the internet era.

I was late to open online engagement. I was guarded and relatively anonymous during my working years. I had to be. The sudden, unexpected end of my career opened a very different door. One without borders. One that has led me across the globe to places I never thought I’d ever see, meeting and making new friends along the way.

Yet, there have been great challenges, great joys, and many long, lonely nights.

Now, as I turn sixty, I am in better shape than I’ve been in years—a cranky right knee and diagnosed bone loss notwithstanding. In fact, it is the latter factor that has done more for my commitment to regular daily exercise than any other half baked New Year’s Resolution. I walk, hike, and  run at least four days a week, and complete a strength/weight training routine on alternate days. That’s why the fantastic weather we’ve enjoyed during this year of social distancing has been so welcome—there’s rarely been an excuse not to venture out. But I wonder if getting out onto the trails and disappearing into the forest for an hour or more, no matter how important for my physical health, has served as an escape from something else. Something I don’t want to face.

Reading and writing has been difficult. I’ve fought with blockages on both fronts. I realize I’m not alone in this during these exceptional times, however, when I’m out and on the move—especially running—I feel free. The focus on the body is a release from the weight of thinking about my life. To run rough trails your attention has to be on where your feet are. For a time you can forget your troubles.

But, back at home, I can’t help looking back. Measuring the challenges, the joys and the lonely nights and wonder what I have to show for sixty years. My life has led me down pathways and trails I could never have anticipated—I suppose everyone can say that when they stop along the way to take stock—and, especially during  this unique moment, the road ahead is less than certain. That’s the reality of being in the world.

So, on this first of October, 2020, I have to be glad that I am still here in the world, with so many friends and promises. I’m also very fortunate to have a network of pathways and trails that I do know intimately. I have, after all, been following them for almost half my life. They offer certainty and refuge in uncertain times.

And what could be more important than that as I enter a new decade?

Looking back and looking forward on July 27th

It’s July 27th, for years my wedding anniversary, but my marriage has been over, in practical terms, for nineteen years. More recently it marked the day my brothers and I accepted an offer on our parents’ house after only a week on the market in a region that had seen no sales in a year. But most importantly, July 27th is the anniversary of the day I almost died.

I have written about this event, but, of course I remember nothing about it. And with no memory of the moment of crisis, survival seems surreal. What I do know is that I came home from an evening event and told my son I was exhausted. I had in fact been tired and swollen for several weeks following a trip to South Africa, but I considered to be part of jet lag. I had never travelled such a long distance. So I got changed and stretched out on the living room sofa. My son was downstairs, drinking as usual, and playing videogames. Something distracted him or, he says, he would have put headphones on. I must have called out or panicked when I went into cardiac arrest, I don’t know, but he heard me and came upstairs. He called 911 and with the operators guidance performed CPR until the paramedics arrived.

When I got to the hospital they x-rayed my chest and discovered I had a large clot in my lung. The cardiac arrest had been caused by a pulmonary embolism, secondary most likely to a DVT. It would be several days before I was laying down memories and able to begin to make sense of what had happened. I’d be lying if I said I come to terms with it all yet. I live with a kind of stunned silence. All I know is that the chances of surviving a pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest outside the hospital is very small. Someone must be there and willing and able to act. In that moment when nothing else mattered, my son saved my life.

Today is the fifth anniversary of my near death experience. My son Thomas is thirty and I will be sixty this year. Strangely, a more recent medical phenomenon has altered my life in ways I could not imagine. Early this year I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. I wrote about my initial reaction and my positive hopes about living with this condition. The pandemic has delayed my ability to move off the medication that has been causing bone loss, but that is now underway. Visits with my physiotherapist were also on hold for a while, but they have also resumed. But what I really notice has surprised me.

I think that in the past, I have taken on diet and exercise in a haphazard way. Regular walking has been important for some time now, especially since I moved close to the network of trails I love so much, but now that almost-daily walking, hiking and jogging are as essential as three high calcium servings and vitamin D supplements. My bones depend on it. And I now I also have a weight training routine I do every other day, with extra planks, balance and some yoga on the alternate days. I am possibly stronger and more muscular than I’ve ever been in my life. I mean I’m not going to win any competitions, but there is a level of fitness that I can really feel. After all, this is for me. This is about living well and maybe even reversing some of the bone loss.

It is also about living through a pandemic. Perhaps people who take their health for granted are less inclined to take the risks seriously. I don’t know. But the number of people out walking, cycling and running lead me to hope that the need to stay closer to home and the relative safety of outdoor activity will reward some of us with more physical and mental fitness than one might expect. May I be one.

Half a dozen years and counting: Another year of roughghosting passes

Like clockwork, WordPress has kindly reminded me that I have been managing this small corner of the internet for six years. In the context of the Golden Age of literary blogs I have heard tell of,  I arrived after its lamented demise, but that’s okay. I have never aspired to greatness, nor do I think of myself as a literary, or rather, book blogger in any formal sense. Roughghosts is a space for idle musings like this and occasional reviews, some more formal than others. I like the freedom that affords even as accepted review copies pile up around me. It means that I can generally read what I want, if I can find the time, and write about it if moved to do so. Increasingly time is precious, the days and years pass too quickly, and I often find myself picking up books for deeply personal reasons that I do not want, or am not ready, to discuss out in the vast virtual open space.

Looking back through my archives I notice that I skipped this annual stock-taking activity last year, but my offering from the year before, May 31, 2018, still stands as if it could have been written yesterday. More or less. Do I really evolve so little? I’ve riffed on the same themes more than once over the years, but today I feel a heaviness that is not entirely accountable to the worldwide spread of a virus that is testing our resilience and laying bare the inequities that divide us within and between national borders or the civil unrest currently sweeping across the US…

For the past year I have been little more than treading water as an editor—a volunteer editor at that—a commitment that has left little time for me to amuse my inclination to think of myself as either a critic or a writer. From the background I have witnessed and very often nursed a great many essays and reviews into existence while realizing as I close in on sixty that the likelihood that I will ever write anything worth publishing myself is slim.  This feeling has been exacerbated by the fact that I’ll be unable to travel this year, and very likely well into next. I miss being able to connect with friends and fellow writers face to face; I mourn the loss of the opportunity to step away from editing pressures and the ongoing despair of living with an adult child who continues to drink whenever he manages to get his hands on money. If COVID-19 has forced us into ourselves, for many of us it’s a lonely and isolating space.

And so, roughghosts goes on. Traffic is respectable even though I rarely post more than five or six times a month and make little effort to promote my work. I’m always pleased and a little surprised that people actually read my offerings; invite me to review their books. I grateful for the attention, it means a lot, but to be honest, I maintain this humble corner of the internet for myself, more than anything. It’s a place for reading, reviewing, writing and wondering, and every now and then, shouting into the darkness.

Thanks for being here with me.

The Waiting: Remind me again what exactly are we waiting for?

The restlessness is inexorable. It distracts my days, sucking them away from me, knocking my rhythm out of synch. I wake later, the daylight lingers longer, the sun doesn’t set until after 9:30 and Summer Solstice is still nearly a month away. I rarely get out for a walk until late afternoon, and often fail to find my serious focus until midnight is closing in. Before I know it, it’s 3:00 am. Or 4:00. And so the cycle continues to slide out of time.

We have never been fully locked down in my city, at least not compared to many other parts of Canada or the rest of the world. Still, we have had a higher number of cases and deaths relative to the rest of my province, and so when restrictions started to ease, we were kept on a shorter leash, if you like, asked to wait ten extra days to get a haircut or sit in a occupancy-reduced restaurant or pub. Neither of those activities are either necessary or appealing to me. In fact, my tolerance for spending time in enclosed spaces with other human beings is limited of late. I almost feel like I do my grocery shopping holding my breath. Beneath my mask. However, the one engagement I am looking forward to is a face-to-face session with my physiotherapist tomorrow evening. I have had no trouble getting outside for the aerobic weight bearing aspect of my exercise regime, but the indoor routine has long lost its appeal. And I could not imagine moving it online, so I will be relieved to learn new ways to take the resistance side of the equation up a notch.

There is, of course, a societal ache to return to normal. But we are continually warned about a new normal. This is where we in the—I never know what to call it, every appellation is fraught, but let’s say—Western World are likely to be at a disadvantage. Yes, we have potentially solid medical systems, even if access is not necessarily equal, but we are unaccustomed to living with ongoing communal health concerns. Not since AIDS, perhaps, but even then, that was (and is) not a disease you risk catching on a crowded bus.

This weekend, my social media feeds streamed images of beaches, boardwalks, pools and parks crowded with seething humanity. There wasn’t one scene that I would have wanted to join if my life depended on it (rather a poor analogy, I know, my life being more dependent on my not being there). Not that I am claustrophobic; I have crammed myself onto buses or trains or airplanes but all of those activities are on hold or destined to be reconfigured for the foreseeable future. Yet, I have always marvelled at the way people tend avoid wide open spaces. Emptiness is so often viewed as a greater threat, feared, rejected for the comfort of the crowd.

I have frequently spoken of loneliness, the most constant companion I have ever known. I grew up in a rural neighbourhood where there were no other children my age. I followed horse trails through the fields imagining myself elsewhere, anywhere else; sought refuge among the aspens in the woods where I could disappear. I don’t know how, but somewhere along the way, this isolation formed me. Informed me. I can be alone in a crowd; that doesn’t bother me. I can manage one on one or limited group engagements, but I do not fit into groups naturally or easily. I resist any gathering that might define me, or rather, that might require me to conform to a certain definition. I can be queer, for example, without finding any comfort or connection from that fact. There is nothing like a period of imposed sequestration to bring this truth about myself home. I envy those who can navigate the social niceties of normal life with ease, who build around themselves a social network that they don’t have to travel or go online to reach out to. But that kid who would slip into the woods to be alone is still in me these many decades on.

On my walk this afternoon, as I neared the point at which I intended to cross the railway tracks and circle back on the paved pathway that winds through the floodplain along the river, the sheer number of runners and cyclists put me off. I chose instead to return through the forest, on  a path muddy and in places barely passable after recent rains. I only met two equally cautious runners on the way. Normal for this stretch of the trail. There may be plenty of aspects of my life where normal will have to be redefined, but this is not one—in many other ways a so-called new normal is the normal I already know and love.

Imagining the exotic: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

As a child of the temperate zone, there is no way that the palm tree can ever be redefined as ordinary. Raised and nurtured amid aspen, spruce and pine, the palm was that magical backdrop to postcard perfect white sands and crashing waves, the defining feature of the gawdy Hawaiian shirt, the label of Malibu Rum. When I was growing up, the closest I ever came to the real thing was the handful of leaves I brought home from church on Palm Sunday (the most crowded mass of the year my mother insisted, nothing like getting something free to put bums in the pews). I would take my leaves home and carefully tuck them behind the cross that hung above my bed. At the end of the year, as another Palm Sunday approached the old leaves were to be burned, but somehow we never were allowed to witness that ritual, if it even occurred in our house.

My first encounters with palms growing where palms can grow were in thoroughly domesticated urban settings—first in San Francisco and years later in Cape Town where many of the variants I met were shorter, bulky affairs, but they still made my heart soar. The first truly natural palms I encountered were entirely unexpected, stunted bush like desert palms tucked into sudden lush eruptions aside (typically) dry river beds along the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Red Centre. But it was in India where I was finally able to embrace palms that matched my imagination—casually lining the roadside, reaching their tousled heads above city skylines, growing free in open spaces. And although it is the perennial green that has drawn me to the country more than once in the depth of our bleak midwinters, palms hold a special allure. They symbolize, for me, the exotic like no other tree.

No surprise then that I was immediately attracted to Jessica Sequeira’s new book, A Luminous History of the Palm, the latest miniature masterpiece from Sublunary Editions. Here the palm is the common thread that binds a collection of imagined anecdotes, microfictional histories interspersed with brief meditations on luminosity—what it is and how it makes itself manifest in the way one entertains, orders and translates meaning in the world. Quite simply, this book follows a trail of associations, luminous associations, through time, across the globe, where the palm figures in some way, whether close at hand or only, as I once knew them, imagined from afar:

A luminous history seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events and statistical data. To do so it takes a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes.

The luminous begins from the small and everyday, the particular and the peculiar.

It is a very simple and delightful notion, perfectly suited to this sort of slender, pocket-sized book. Each anecdote gives voice to a fictional character, from a healer in Yemen, to, among others, a Thai rice farmer engaged in an illicit flirtation,  an opera singer performing for a young Mozart, a plastic surgeon in Australia and ultimately a cyclist in Chile, who may or may not be the author herself. Perhaps we have gone from the distant to the immediate, but  along the way a window has been opened on a wide variety of personalities and locales. The palm is sometimes an important element, but more often it passes by, almost unnoticed in the scene. Every story is different, nothing is predictable although it would be remiss if the original procession forever reproduced on Palm Sunday was not also among the histories—and of course, it is.

If the palm is the unifying theme, however quietly it might slip into any individual narrative, the meditations on luminosity and reflections on the project unfolding hold the work together. They give it depth, make it special and are, in themselves, worth returning to repeatedly for the inspiration they offer—for their ability to illuminate creativity:

To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and the sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace.

 This is the promise and excitement on offer. As the author, our luminous historian, describes her compact treatise: “it can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract.”  I would argue it is not a question of either/or—this little book can, and should be read as both. Sequeira explains that she chose the palm for its vital presence, but she invites the reader to repeat the exercise with a plant or animal of their own choice. The soil is fertile, she assures us; all we need to do is plant a seed. This is, then, a book with no end but infinite potential beginnings.

A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira is published by Sublunary Editions, purveyor of fine short texts, and available here.