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.

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.

Blue Monday meditation: Thoughts on writing a life (again)

I took a long walk today for the first time since crippling pain seized my lower back on January 2nd, followed by a week of temperatures in the -28 to -35C range that kept me close to home for the first half of the month. Now, with temperatures above zero under heavy grey Chinook sky, it felt good to be moving again.

Since Christmas I have had to guard against a seasonal tendency to slide toward despondency; on occasion I even found myself drawn down dangerously dark corridors. I am ever more aware of growing old, feeling isolated from the culture around me, and concerned that I have lived a life completely out of step with the rest of the world.

I’ve always been anachronistic when it comes to television or movies or music, but nothing makes me feel stranger than the complete alienation of my own experiences as a differently gendered person from the transgender dialogue that has become so prominent recent years. I don’t understand it. I feel that it has taken my voice away, invalidated my reality as someone who transitioned twenty years ago without the supports, protections, or pronoun politics of today. And worse, I fear it has stifled my ability to be honest about the costs of the path I’ve chosen.

So what about my reality? Does it have any weight at all? And when does a lived story begin to take shape, begin to make sense?

Over the past few years I have asked myself these questions, entertained scenarios, crafted neat narratives tracing crisis to closure. But every time I imagined I was nearing not only an answer but more critically a direction to guide my desire to examine this life in writing, something would happen to unspool the thread I’d been so carefully winding.

An unforeseen opportunity would arise; an unexpected twist of fate would knock me off balance.

I have long wondered what to do with this existential morass, slowly and steadily accumulating more days, months and years as I found myself unable to do more than collect, in fits and starts, stray notes in a random collection of books and files. Hidden, tucked into closets, real and metaphorical.

The other day I finally started writing in earnest. I would like to confess that at last a path has opened up before me, that a map has made itself clear, a puzzle into which all the various pieces of my story have suddenly fallen into place.

But, of course, life doesn’t work that way.

Life is not a novel. It cannot be edited; it can only be lived. And if any narrative construct can be observed, it can only be seen in retrospect, buried under all the diversions, denials and delusions we rely on to get through the responsibility of living in the moment—the messy business of being in the world.

And is that evolving target I am writing toward. All that I have been. All that I am. Whatever I may yet be.