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March 25, 2015

A Year of Days by Myrl Coulter

a-year-of-daysThe title and premise of Myrl Coulter’s essay collection, A Year of Days, bring to mind the quote by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But considering its inverse, Coulter’s essays examining the shapes of our lives by the days a life comprises, the singular days upon which time hangs its hat, and that become our markers from year to year to year. February, birthdays, the August long weekend, Thanksgiving, Halloween. In a life forever changing, it’s these days that are ever constant, to be counted on, and the seasons too, cycles returning every year, and it’s only you who has become so different. Our connections to these days are visceral—sometimes in anticipation, or anxiety, or happiness, or grief. And it’s this viscerality (a word she coins) as well as the days themselves that are points of departure for the essays in this book. New Years Day, for the first essay, a calm day, the chance to start again. All the while she’s mourning the death of her mother, irrevocably lost.

“As soon as she was gone from this earth, I felt an overwhelming need for more of her. I had to find her again. But how do you find someone after they’re gone for good? That’s where viscerality comes in handy. My viscerality took me on a trek into the years my mother and I had spent on the planet, both together and apart.”

Like many of my favourite essay collections though, the thematic here link is tangential. Even the essays themselves embark upon wild twists and diversions. Coulter’s essays fit Susan Olding’s definition of the genre, in which she writes, “Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go… We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave.” And with the book as a whole, you start out expecting a book that’s a kind of calendar, only to find that Myrl Coulter has cast her net so very wide.

And what has she captured? The magnificent frigate bird swooping over the sea, seen from the hotel where Coulter partakes in a Mexican sojourn. How does one capture a sunset? Winter as an analogy for her mother’s dementia, casting their family into a season of darkness. An essay on Valentines, and hearts real and metaphoric, and perforated hearts, and the difficulty of cutting while left-handed with right-handed scissors. On Easter, and Easter Island, and Easter Bunnies, and the lies we tell our children for the sake of magic. I love this essay’s ending: “Nostalgia lives in the impossible notion that we can start again… I suppose that makes nostalgia a little like repentance.”

I loved the essay, “Gym Interrupted, Again,” in which Coulter contemplates the work-out clothing she’s acquired over decades, considering her high school PE uniforms, ’80s aerobic sweatbands, expensive running shoes, bagging jogging pants, running tights, and all the changing fashions of fitness and its attire, and the body, the one constant (though in itself, ever changing). “But one relationship we have that isn’t interrupted, at least until the day it ends forever, is the one we have with our bodies. They are the houses we live in.”

She writes about her discomfort with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, built on idealized notions that often please no one. About the May long weekend, and her surprise that golfing has become part of her life, articulating what she loves about the sport in a way I found fascinating. “Lakes I Have Known” is summer and swimming and floating free. “Cornocopia Soup,” sort of about Thanksgiving, but essentially a recipe for making Chicken Soup over two days, about loneliness and soup-making as therapy, and it made me so hungry. “Survival Gear,” which riffs on Halloween and costumes, and our selves as costumed beings, and ends with, “Words and pictures—survival gear for our stories.”

“Wearing Black” on funerals and mourning, and the surprising “Music on the Hill” about the ins-and-outs of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and its peculiar and particular rituals recurring year after year, and she writes about these experiences while numbed by grief, after her mother’s death, of “my distraction year” when “my inner music stopped.” The collection ends with the weird and wonderful “Current Crossings” about Edmonton’s High Level Bridge and its various modes of crossing. Back and forth, back and forth, the traffic flowing like time is, and bridges are metaphors for so many things—for the possibility of connection, for how here we are between one thing and another, or the bridge itself as a year and every journey across it is so very different.

If Myrl Coulter’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she was a contributor to The M Word, her essay actually an excerpt from her phenomenal book, The House With the Broken Two. While Coulter’s complex relationship with her mother is an important aspect of her memoir, it’s considered more obliquely here. A Year of Days is not so much a book about grief as a book that’s haunted by Coulter’s mother’s spirit. As the whole world might seem to be after a loss, I’d suppose, the collection creating some order from the pieces that are left.

4 thoughts on “A Year of Days by Myrl Coulter”

  1. kate says:

    ah. again, amazing review. so glad i stumbled into your room.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you!

  2. What I really liked about this book was the joy that Myrl took in the ordinary. It made me think about the ordinary pleasures of life.

  3. theresa says:

    I’m very glad to learn that Myrl has a new book. She’s a beautiful writer. Thanks for highlighting it here.

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