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.

A seed, planted and nurtured: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

In this era of social media, similar bookish souls do tend to loosely gather, and I cannot be the only one who has been set off on the search for a book on the basis of a shared image and a few good words from a trusted fellow reader. Such was the case with a curiously titled book called How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. The title and cover art caught my attention. I looked it up and was shocked at the price demanded for the few copies I could find online. Consequently, it took me a long time to track down a copy. When in India I would forget the author’s name or not know what section to look in. Finally, back at home, I lucked out, placed my order and after a long wait, welcomed this most unusual volume into my library.

So what kind of a book is it?

Quite simply it’s a love song to plants and trees, part natural history, part personal exploration—a most unusual memoir/meditation, shot through with striking observations, and fascinating characters, both human and tree-like, drawn from science, spirituality and literature.

Sumana Roy is a freelance writer, novelist and poet writing from, as her bio puts it, Siliguri, a city in the northernmost reaches of the state of West Bengal, India. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, she is in the perfect space for a woman who finds herself, in mid-life, growing toward a desire to become a tree. Strange, perhaps, but it’s a notion that has deep roots in her own life. And although her inclinations are uniquely hers, she finds well-worn paths filled with kindred spirits in her journey to come to understand and articulate what it might mean to adopt a plant-like existence. To be a tree.

How I Became a Tree opens with a series of most unexpected observations:

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

The early chapters expand on these themes in a quietly dramatic unfolding of her shifting sense of self and awareness of the ways humanity and plantness intersect in life and literature. Drawn to the silence, the sturdiness, the slowness of trees, she is opening up the questions and notions stirring inside, and beginning to mark out the types of pathways she will follow in the pages ahead. Setting the tone.

There is a gentle meandering feel to this work even though it is actually carefully tended, like a beautiful garden. Each section wanders down a different trail, looking for connections, searching for possible answers. Roy analyzes her own obsessions, even her parent-like concern for her plant children (much perhaps to her patient husband’s wonder). She passionately describes the devotion of the remarkable Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose—formerly unknown to me—who among other important findings, invented a number of hyper-sensitive instruments to measure the most minute movements in plants, hoping to be able to determine if they could feel and communicate. And, not surprisingly, she brings in many literary elements, reading widely in English literature, but reserving special attention for Italian author Jean Giorno, and Bengali writers Tagore, Bhanaphool (whom I recently wrote about), Syed Mustafa Siraj and Bibhutibhushan Bhandyopadhyaya.

The latter of these authors may be known to those who received a copy of his novel Aranyak when it was Seagull Books’ contribution to the Asymptote Book Club in 2018. I brought my copy home from my first trip to Calcutta and, although I did not write about it here, the vivid imagery has stayed with me. It is the story of a young man who, like the author himself, takes a job far from the city, as an administrator in the forests of Bihar. He is captivated by the jungles and by the subsistence farmers who make their living there. It is not only richly descriptive, but, set in the 1920s, it is also an early account of pending ecological destruction for commercial exploitation. Roy connects deeply to the narrator, to his evolution and immersion in the world dominated by trees, plants and flowers. Her reading is detailed and will be of particular interest to anyone familiar with Aranyak.

As Roy’s journey brings her closer to an understanding of her own motivations for her strange longing, and her appreciation for the multi-faceted appeal of trees, this memoir/meditation left me thinking more and more about trees as I have encountered them in poetry and literature and, more importantly as I have known them in my own life. You see, I too, have a deep affection for trees. I even live in a neighbourhood called Spruce Cliff, where every non-numbered street has a tree name. I live on Cedar Crescent. The balcony of my apartment is embraced by the thick arms of a tree that towers over the three story complex. And a six or seven hundred year old stand of Douglas fir trees extends along the embankment below me. The trail that runs through there, a tough hike, washed out in spots, instantly transports me an hour west to the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been walking it for the better part of the last thirty years and have many tree “friends” I look forward to visiting each time. But trees are more than roots, trunks, branches and leaves. When Roy muses about shadows early on in her book:

That there is no history of shadows is one of the saddest absences in our archives. In that laziness is also the refusal to see any worth in the transient, the old privileging of, say, a romantic ‘forever’ over the ‘affair’. Shadows are affairs, short-lived and short-sighted ones.

I think about the spot at the beginning of the long descent at the east of the trail that never fails to catch my breath, no matter the season, when the sun throws shadows across its way. It is always magical. The shadows are as essential as oxygen in that space.

Then there are the trees I’ve met in my travels. Palm trees, of course, so exotic to a northerner like me. The ghost gums in the red centre of Australia. And in India—my newly found refuge for greenery when bare, brown and patchy snow defines our winter landscape. I don’t even know most of the names of the trees but there is always something green, something flowering, and plants that I almost kill as houseplants growing tall and healthy by the roadside. And finally, there are all the trees I had to say good-bye to—a number of sixty-foot spruce, an aging mountain ash, an apple tree and an untameable row of hawthorns—around the house I sold, only a kilometer away from where I live now. Every spring I mourn them. Two newly built houses now share the lot and only two spruce remain standing.

And from other years, in other places I have lived and visited, there are more.

That is the beauty of a book like this. It brings forth the tree lover that dwells in so many of us, ignites memories, and inspires further reading (there is a bibliography). Sumana Roy invites her reader to join her on an entirely singular journey, one that is her own, yet one that cannot but offer moments of insight and reflection, unique to and belonging to the individual reader alone. After all, it’s perhaps not so much a book about wanting to be a tree, than a book about what it means to find the way one wants to be a human in the world.

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy is published by Aleph Book Company.

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.

There’s a poem in here, but it’s lost in prose: Remembering my parents this week

My father was born on this day, April 26th, in 1928, the year before the crash. He has been gone four years this July. My mother’s birthday is at the far end of this week, on May 2nd. She was born in 1934 and, like my father, she too has been gone four years this July—my parents died eleven days apart. My mother’s final days were spent on a respirator in ICU while, across town, my father was slowly slipping toward death following a stroke and head-on collision— we’ll never know which one came first. Their deaths intersected in time but in separate hospitals, here in the city, two hours from the village where they’d been living. Neither was able to see the other as the end neared. Sometimes during his final week of life my father would shake himself into the present and say Where’s Mother? I’d like to see Mother. And I would have to tell him once more that she had died. I’m so sorry, Dad, she’s gone. To explain the cause was too complicated at that point. I think he thought she died in the accident even though she hadn’t been with him. I don’t know. But I do know it was enough to let him surrender his fear of death and prepare to follow her.

I’ve been thinking of my parents a lot these days. The sadness lingers, as it will, but I feel their presences with a new sense of connection, more immediacy and less of a painful sense of loss. Some of this is relief. Neither would have fared well with this virus at hand, nor would either have wanted to witness the decay of leadership and mounting death toll in the US. My mother was born in New York City. My parents met and married there in 1957 and for many years after they had moved to Canada, it remained attached to certain youthful ideal in my father’s mind. The devastation in that city alone would have been heart breaking for both. Best, I tell myself, that they passed as they did, together after good, long lives. And it’s a blessing that my brothers and I were able to be at their bedsides, a gift denied so many right now. I have, in this understanding, embraced a new stage of grief, one which recognizes that they are not ever really gone. I carry them with me. And with them I’m finally ready to move on.

I fear I’ve been in limbo since my parents died. Not certain who I am any more. Strange because I’ve been fortunate to travel far—to Australia, India and Nepal—but that has been as much escape and random exploration, haphazard, trusting to chance rather than direction. I put a critical part of myself on hold. It was easier to engage, easier to make friends, easier to feel a creative sense of worth away from home. No sooner would I get back than I would be thinking about my next trip out. Now, at least until this pandemic is under control, I’m here, in a city where I have never really found my footing despite 26 years in the same neighbourhood, tracing the same paths, growing old in the same streets.

Sometimes when I walk through these old familiar streets, I think of the many painful passages of the past two and half decades. The long evening excursions just to get out of the house as my marriage was falling apart and I was wrestling with a troubled identity I could not understand or name. Then, the times when an expanding grid of sidewalks became the course of a pained and slow rehabilitation, as, feeling aged before my time, I slowly hobbled through recovery from two botched surgeries, a third major surgery, a serious manic episode, treated, inappropriately, with a med that made me lose my balance as I walked, and finally with broken ribs healing after the CPR that saved my life. Little wonder now that I prefer to stick to the wilder pathways and trails along the embankment above the river.

While many of my friends across the globe have been enduring varying levels of restriction these past weeks, I’m lucky to be able to get out and walk—two metres distancing observed of course—and I try not to miss a day. Now that the snow is gone I can shift the walk into a serious workout. I marked out a good loop and measured a base level pace yesterday. The weather is good. Over the years, this day has often seen unexpected sudden heavy spring snowfalls. My father’s birthday as a reference point has fixed them in my memory along with cancelled school outings or missed children’s parties along the way.

This year I want to honour my parents for the entire week bookended by their birthdays. Spend time with my memories of them.

Think about what they left me. Left within me.

Taken in my parents’ garden, about a month before their deaths.

 

Weltschmerz: Some thoughts on the current state affairs

In this time of COVID-19 I am writing little. I’ve been wanting to record my evolving response to this exceptional time but the act of simply keeping up with my own thoughts, or rather, slowing them down long enough to get them on the page seems a monumental task. My feelings are mixed. Suspended anxiety. With every passing day, the number of infections and death counts rise and the world is suddenly filled with armchair epidemiologists pontificating on what local, national and international scientists, health officials and politicians are doing, or more often, have failed to do. Hindsight isn’t even 20/20 at this stage of the game. That analysis will not be possible for a long time and, even then, no one-size-fits-all solution will magically become clear—differences in circumstances are too great, inequities in health, wealth and access to basic services are even greater, both between and within nations. But in the meantime, greed, selfishness, and racism will only add to the cost. And deepen the despair.

But, on the bright side, the world is quieter, and the air cleaner than it has been in a long time. Mother Nature taking her pound of flesh to remind us of the cost our activity exacts on this planet? I wonder what lessons, if any, will stick with us.

However, not all my concerns are so grand and worldly. I am human. My fears also lie close to home. I worry about my daughter’s safety at the computer shop where she works—an apparently essential service that has reduced hours but, at last report, not instituted safety measures—and because she lives across town I cannot even see her. Despite our challenges, I am grateful to have my son at home. I would not want to be alone right now. But I am otherwise inclined to isolate these days—I  find it hard to find the energy to write an email, make a phone call or send a message. Everything seems to take so much energy. Fortunately I can still get out and walk and editing, or writing rejection letters, occupies a lot of time. Somewhere people are finding it possible to read and write and fill my inbox with their offerings.

But not me.

Most strangely I spend a lot of time thinking about mortality—well, under the circumstances I suppose that’s not too strange—but since surviving a pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest five years ago I’ve not known what to do with that experience. I have no memory of the event. There were no angels or bright lights, only the near miraculous sequence of coincidences that allowed my son to hear me moaning from his room downstairs, find me, call the paramedics, and start CPR. For some reason coming so close to death did not fill me with a renewed sense of purpose. I have, in the years since, struggled with suicidal ideation and, in anger and frustration, wondered why I had the misfortune to be saved. Now, faced with an invisible force that holds both existential and real threat, even if I have none of the significant risk factors apart from age, I am aware that I don’t want to die. I don’t even want to get sick with the kind of flu and respiratory symptoms many who suffer at home endure.

It’s funny how we take calculated risks—board an airplane, travel to foreign countries, drive a car, hike up a mountain—weighing the rewards worth the potential costs. But this virus is different, even if I have so many advantages on my side. I think about it all the same. The stirrings of a possible cold or allergy heighten the senses; body aches and malaise have me reaching for the thermometer.

This time of distancing forces one inward. The real test, I suppose, will be to continue to look outward, beyond our homes, our communities, and our countries. And to try to believe. Whatever that means.

Asking for angels: John Prine

It pains me have to update this, but John Prine left us today, April 7, 2020. This illness is taking its share of musicians it seems.

Originally posted March 29, 2020:

It is not in my common practice to share a song on this site, but as I write this, American singer-songwriter John Prine is in critical condition with symptoms of COVID-19. Like many, I will be listening to his music tonight, especially this, his signature composition made famous by Bonnie Raitt.

I think this song is especially relevant to our shared circumstances these days. This virus does not discriminate between race, ethnic group, religion, nationality, gender or income level. However, we can’t fool ourselves, those who have the least among us, the marginalized and disadvantaged in our respective communities stand to lose the most, to pay the highest price.

This song honours an aging woman with a rough life behind her and the simplest of dreams. I’m thinking of people like her, and the man who put her story to music at this moment.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go…

Reading (or not) through a pandemic

Remember that desert island  you used to playfully assemble a mental reading list for? That essential library that would fuel you through an extended period of isolation? How is that notion working out for you now in these days of lock downs and distancing and otherwise upended routines?

I was never much of an imaginary library builder, but at the moment, in a flat lined with a total of ten bookshelves—seven tall, three short—bursting with books, I am finding it almost impossible to commit to any one of them.

Some of this is probably reflects my readerly nature. I invariably pack too many books when I travel and as soon as I’m away from home, none of the titles look appetizing. I wonder why I brought some, wish I’d brought others. At worst, I pass through episodes marked by a literary nausea every time I think about reading. It’s odd, unsettling and counter intuitive to what I always imagine a vacation offers—time. All that waiting, flying, transiting, eating alone in restaurants…

These days, with varying distancing measures in place across the globe, many of us are faced with a surfeit of time. A reader’s paradise. Some seem to be coping well, if social media is any measure. Book related blog posts still appear, photographs of bookshelves and stacks of self prescribed reading material populate my feeds. I’m finding it almost as disturbing as the death counts and criminally inadequate political responses that also seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. I find books offer no distraction or comfort these days.

And I’m in a good space. The federal government here in Canada is responding rather sensibly to the medical and financial threats on the horizon and my provincial leader, much to my surprise, is responding with measured compassion and generosity even though our already weakened economy stands to take a beating. Certainly there are those who will always find fault, but the willingness to work across party lines is admirable. And although politicians have their share of time at the podium, our public health officials hold centre stage, earning respect and even a little celebrity in their own right. A sharp contrast to the crisis presently exploding beyond our southern border.

Yet, somehow I sit here, shuffling piles of books, reading a few pages here, a few pages there until once again anxiety pulls my attention away.

Some days are worse than others. The sun helps. Limiting time online is essential. But nothing works for long. Editing for 3:AM Magazine has helped a little—the imperative of a self imposed obligation I suppose—but I am engaged in precious little reading and writing for myself. Books that I’ve accepted or requested for review taunt me from the shelves even though there are no deadlines or absolute commitments attached. They fill me with guilt all the same. As do the partly read volumes I’m struggling to return to. Somehow I feel I should at least clear the deck a little before venturing on to something new. I’m already juggling a handful of titles as it is.

So I fritter around, surrounded by books, unable to finish anything, start anything, write anything. Overwhelmed by words.

These are, of course, exceptional times. Time perhaps, to throw out the “rules”, including all the idiosyncratic expectations we set for ourselves. Follow the flow. Resist the urge to measure ourselves against others. We are all in this together, but our circumstances vary. Friends in India, the UK, Italy, and South Africa are under lock down—variations on the theme are in place or on the horizon elsewhere. Here in Canada, physical distancing is advised if one is well, isolation if ill, and enforced quarantine if returning from outside the country. But each day, the parameters shift, the restrictions increase and for many the immediate future is unnervingly uncertain.

So I suppose my best pandemic reading strategy is to play it by ear.

Or is that eye?

Each day I try to get out for a walk, even if the energy sometimes eludes me. I’ve decided to set aside a few books in progress for the time being, and try to be open to any muse that might pass my way. At the moment, then, I’m reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter read along, R. K Narayan’s shortened modern prose version of The Ramayana and plenty of poetry. But is all subject to change without notice.

Stay safe, friends.