The poet who learned to fly: The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli

In the years when written words were indecipherable signs, entrusted to a world that I couldn’t even reach on tiptoes, a book would be opened only for its illustrations or because my father’s voice was passing through it, over completely unknown roads, although his index finger seemed to trace them out, leaving short trails in which black letters, like objects in a magical night, came to life, silently spelling out in unison the same story which, open and ready to shift and change its pictures, my father was holding on his chest. It was his voice that brought the stories to us as we three were half-lying in the big bed where my little brother was staying up late, with his tiny ears that would soon close, containing a trail of sound and sense in the warm silence.

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

If the first books read to us as children opened a world of strange symbols, hypnotic rhythms, and elliptical meanings, translations from foreign languages similarly open a doorway to landscapes and experiences at once distant and familiar. They introduce us to the images and words of writers we might not hear otherwise. Their stories. Their ideas. Their poetry.

The work of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli was first formally made available to English-speaking audiences through a small dual language collection of enigmatic, fragmentary prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor and published in 2018. These brief pieces which first appear to explore the vagaries of transit, packing, leaving, travel, soon begin to slide toward the examination of an existential space between internal and external reality—seeking form in that wordless, restless terrain of perception and experience. It was, and remains, a book that speaks to so much of my own sense of groundlessness. A collection containing Mancinelli’s two earlier volumes of poetry, At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007-2019), followed a year later. Once again her work is presented in a dual language format. Like her prose poems, her verses tend to be brief, spare, with an openness and space framing  unanswerable questions of identity, self and the insufficience of our connections with other beings.

Her newly released collection, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008 – 2021), stands as an illuminating counterpoint and companion to Mancinelli’s poetic work. Her most important stories, personal essays and writings about the poetic spirit are gathered here, including several pieces which have not yet appeared in print in Italian, presented, as before in both languages, and completed with a comprehensive assessment of her work written by Taylor, her long-time translator. For someone who has read her poetry, this collection offers further insight into the creative heart and soul of the poet herself—and that is not to imply that she gives herself away, for Mancinelli is a poet who manages to address the intimate and the universal, by speaking from the essential boundaries of experience—because, in her prose, one can begin to feel how her poetic sensibilities were born and nurtured and share in her vision of where poetry comes from.

Of course, it is not necessary to be previously acquainted with her poetry to appreciate the stories and essays contained in The Butterfly Cemetery (although it may well inspire a reader to seek them out), because this work offers its own rich rewards. If Mancinelli’s poems tend to be very open and spare, in her prose there is a profound lyric intensity. Her writing breathes, deeply and slowly, as her images, ideas and reflections rise, disappear and surface again. The book opens with stories and essays that strike a personal note, evoking memories of childhood and early adulthood, some sentimental, some gently fictionalized, and others tinged with aching and longing. In many of these early pieces, one encounters a sensitive, wistful dreamer, as in the title story about a young child fascinated by butterflies who does not realize her desire to touch their wings will kill them, or the exquisitely simple “How the Fire Loves,” a fable of a little girl who escapes to the comfort of the fireplace after supper:

She had curled up alone on the sofa. The television was turned off, and she was watching the fire in the fireplace, shivering as if it were cold. The fire cannot be caressed by anyone. It is always a little distant from the others, in its own space, alongside newspapers and pieces of wood; they will be in its arms, until they become ashes. This is how the fire loves.

The second section moves further away from the childhood home and the confused pain of first love, to explore the self in relation to natural landscapes and urban environments. Mancinelli wanders, on foot, by ferry and by train, observing and meditating on the landscape and communities that have formed and influenced her. There is a branching out and a cycling back to the people and places of her homeland—the hills, fields, and the waters that have cradled her family for generations. The tension between the desire to leave, the pull to return and the attempt to delineate the fragile borders of a personal geography are recurring themes. One senses that the weight of existence in a land with such a long historical, artistic and intellectual legacy both grounds and troubles the questions of identity and belonging that emerge from the shadows cast by her words. She is ever aware, in her prose as in her poetry, of the importance of darkness as a fundamental source of growth and understanding.

And that brings us to the third and final section of The Butterfly Cemetery. Here, Mancinelli the writer turns her focus to the nature of her own personal, creative relationship with words, and, more specifically, with the existential origins of poetic expression. She writes about the absolute urgency with which she first turned to writing, beginning in adolescence, as a means of “speaking” that which she could not find a way to voice, isolated and alone on the edge of her circle of friends. Feeling she was yielding her words to others, she reclaimed them with her pen:

I wrote within myself, on my body so deeply that ever since, I have taken the road on which I now walk. If had brought that sentence to my mouth, today I would be another person. The part of my life that I have spent up to now would have been different. This is why for me, everything continues to be staked on words. With words I have an unsettled account. (“Yielding Words”)

She speaks about the process of writing poetry with honesty, from the tentative beginnings to the frustrated failures—the lines that will never take flight—in “A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry” and talks about being mistaken for a traffic policewoman as she stands on a street taking notes in the notebook she always has close at hand. But it is the vital connection to poetry as a “practice of daily salvation” that comes through in the most powerful of these essays. Mancinelli is attuned the essential quality of poetic language, tracing its existence to the moment before it comes into being. In the wonderful piece “Poetry, Mother Tongue” she suggest that writing is the act of trying to translate what is already written within us, of looking into the empty space between “the unknown and nothingness”:

I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer into this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.

Before the words there is a rhythm: a cadence that suddenly reaches us, in silence through a hollow space that we carry inside us.

There is a strong sense in Mancinelli’s view of poetics that writing itself is a dangerous act, one that calls us to face the dark and the difficult, one that takes us into our own “darkroom,” that place where we are most vulnerable. “Writing,” she tells us, “is a soul surgery that calls for a steady hand, and a deep place to which uncertainty and tremor can be convoked. It is an act of internal self-surgery.” And yet in the writing, there is a possibility of decentring and being set free. Poetry (and prose) that arises from within, although grounded in direct experience and observation, allows for space and a measure of abstractedness to guide writer, and reader, from the individual toward the universal.

But, to return, once more, to the ability of translation to open doors to those who lack the fluency to read a writer’s work in its original language, John Taylor’s collaboration with Franca Mancinelli, has brought one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry to a wider audience. Unexpectedly that has also come to have a special resonance for me. Shortly after I read and reviewed The Little Book of Passage, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the poet in Kolkata when a visit I made happened to overlap with her poetry residency in the city. Her English far outpaced my non-existent Italian and although I felt no lack in our conversations, all of the subsequent interviews, poetry and prose that has become available in English has only deepened my appreciation and affection for her sensitivity and vision. Translation truly expands the world as we know it.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

Life keeps writing my story for me: A personal reflection on my mother’s birthday

May 2, 2022. My mother would have been eighty-eight today. This week just passed, between my father’s birthday on April 26 and today, is always the time when I think most of my parents. When they feel closest to me, like stars circling the planet. When their memories haunt me. This summer, they will have both been gone six years. But this past week has been a whirlwind of emotion in its own right and I’m afraid the time I wanted to set aside to be with them has evaporated.

Which has led me to think about what family means. About how much love and pain we can bear. And yet, what I can really say at this moment is guarded.

Same trail, same time, last year.

Last Sunday, April 24, I took a fall on a muddy, icy trail and fractured my left fibula above the ankle. At the time, I was still a treacherous distance from a point where I hoped medical attention might reach me and I knew from the screaming pain in my leg that I would never be able to walk all the way back up the hill to my home. Or, for that matter, drive my small standard transmission vehicle to the urgent care clinic to get it checked out. But I was still hoping on the idea of a “bad sprain,” so I called my son and asked him to come down with a trekking pole and I started to limp toward the access point.

I was inching my way down an incline thick with mud, clinging to a rope railing, when a young man came along. He was new to the city and new to the trail but he didn’t want to leave me alone. There was no place to sit without putting undue pressure on my injured leg so we waited until my son Thomas arrived and together the three of us continued down and then across a desperately slippery sheet of mud-covered ice. Soon a third helper arrived, one of the men I regularly meet and talk to on this path, and he provided extra support as we made our way up another hill and down a flight of rough steps to an open paved area. I called the emergency line and we tried to figure out how I might be reached. The normal access road is still impassable at this time of year, but a paramedic in an SUV was able to reach me on the bike trail and drive me out to where an ambulance was waiting.

Of course, there was still a long wait ahead, five hours at least, just to see a doctor at the clinic. With x-rays I had the verdict that leg was indeed broken. I was incredulous. I have some early bone loss and my diet and daily exercise have been focused on strengthening my body, but in the end it only took a rather classic fall to produce a common fracture. Common in athletes, I might add, if that is to make me feel better because I did not take up trail running until I was fifty-nine and never imagined myself even a casual “athlete.”

One week later, a little grief and depression has settled in along with the discomfort and agonizing difficulty of accomplishing absolutely anything on one leg and a pair of crutches. My injured leg can bear no weight at all for at least the rest of the month. I return to the orthopedic surgeon on June 1. I did rent a wheelchair for outings (assuming someone is available to carry it down a flight of stairs from my second floor apartment while I cautiously and gracelessly make my way down on my bottom end. I am terrified of falling on the narrow, old staircase. Chances are that could spell my end.  And no cruise around the neighbourhood will replace my daily walks and runs on my beloved trail—especially as spring arrives in force.

In the meantime, I have my adult son close at hand to help out. But I’m afraid that the responsibility and fear heightened his anxiety to the point that he turned to even more alcohol than usual and we had some very difficult moments. That’s all I will say at this time, because it seems like a change may finally be on the horizon (or a bottom has been reached). It won’t be easy but I’m willing to provide as much emotional caregiving as I can along the way.

It is this situation, however, that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. For years I have fussed with the idea of a “memoirish” project while, at the same time, memoir and autofiction has exploded into a genre of often very dubious quality with authors who seem to be able to drop boundaries and expose everything about themselves and those close to them without thinking twice. That holds no appeal to me. As a writer or as a reader. There are ideas I want to explore about living with mental illness, having a gender-different history and parenting a child with his own challenges. But my questions have always been more metaphysical than personal-detail-oriented, and I believe that my experiences, if interesting in themselves, are at once unique to me and in some sense universal to this messy business of living we all engage in. I am also aware that, even though both of my children are intrinsic to my story, they each have their own stories (or versions of my story) that I do not own.

How can one tell a “true,” yet necessarily subjective story that involves others closely and still respect their dignity and boundaries? There is a lot of anger, grief and joy in my story, like any other, but how can one write toward that emotion without exposing too much of one’s self or others? I know I keep waiting to move beyond all that before writing while knowing at the same time that writing is possibly the only way I will ever understand what I feel.

In recent years, I have published a few personal essays and poems in which I have sought to strike a chord between the raw and the abstract, but more recently I have been frozen. I only feel safe writing about the words of others. My own words about my life have remained strangely out of reach. However, of late, the desire to find them has returned.

So, on my mother’s birthday, with at least a month of down time ahead, as my son is making his own resolutions, I’m thinking it is perhaps time to open that work-in-progress file again. For my parents and my children and myself.

And maybe someone else will want to read it too.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.