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Pickle Me This

October 15, 2019

Cities Work

I understand the circumstances that have resulted in an increasing number of people on our streets, but what I cannot understand is how someone could walk on by someone who is unconscious on the sidewalk and do nothing, which happens all the time. “If that were me lying on the sidewalk, I’d want someone to help,” I tell my children. “If it were you, I would want someone to help.” Today we called an ambulance for the second time in recent months for someone who was in trouble. Because that guy on the sidewalk, he’s our neighbour. We share this city together, and cities work when we take care of each other. 

And as ever, I was so grateful for the kindness of first responders who accorded this man his dignity. Firefighters and ambulance arrived and took care of him, as a Falun Dafa Parade came up the street, an amazing marching band. We’d left by then and were across the street watching the parade half a block from where the firetruck and ambulance were blocking the road, and this tension, these intersections, and connections are why I love cities so much. Why I love this city so much. 

It’s a miracle that any of it works, but sometimes it does, and it can be beautiful and so absurd, the golden autumn day a glorious backdrop. 

By the time the parade had arrived, the emergency vehicles were gone, the man taken to the hospital, which I know is only the beginning of the story and unlikely to be the end of his struggles. But I hope it helped, and I loved the marching band and their music, and I am so grateful to be connected to all of it, to be part of this messed up, gorgeous, incredible world.

October 10, 2019

October

This month marks 19 years since I started blogging, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I was here a decade ago, when life was very different, when I was the new parent of a small baby and the universe was made of a million tiny little pieces that would eventually find their way together to make…my life. A life where the children go out of town for the weekend—WHAT? But yes, they went to Girl Guide Camp and Stuart and I were left on our own for 36 hours. So curious to slip back to the life that used to be, when days were wide open, we could walk until our feet hurt, and once the supper dishes were washed, we didn’t have to put anybody to bed. It helped that the day was golden, beautiful. We visited Little India in the east end, where we’d never been before, and then walked along Gerrard all the way from Coxwell to Logan, and it was so interesting and fun, and a great treat to return to that expansive life for a little while, and have my house clean. But oh, the children, with their complications and fascinations, and when they came home, we were glad to have them. Always, we are glad to have them. And lucky. And it occurred to me on Monday, when I was reading Theresa Kishkan’s blog, that I love her blog so much because she’s as mystified and fascinated by this particular thing as I am, the banal and extraordinary fact of the passage of time. How did we get here, far more interesting to me even than where are we going ever was.

September 26, 2019

On Beauty

If there is one mistake of mine that it’s really important to me that my children could learn from, it is this: leave your eyebrows alone. More important than not smoking or getting ill-advised tattoos, because there is no coming back from eyebrow ruin. During the early years of my life, I had perfectly acceptable, unremarkable eyebrows, and I could have stayed that way, were it not for a teenaged need to perform womanhood with stupid grooming rituals.

So I went and got my eyebrows waxed, and waxed, and waxed and waxed, and there was a point in 2001 where they were tiny little lines, skinnier than I’ve ever been, and there was also the women who did my brows the day before my wedding who nicked me with the tweezers and made me bleed, so I gave her an extra big tip so she would feel less bad about the whole thing, and being a woman is so idiotic.

And then one day a couple of years ago, I decided I didn’t want to wax my eyebrows anymore. I didn’t even want to tweeze them anymore, standing before the bathroom mirror, hair-by-hair, each pluck making me sneeze. I don’t have time for that, because it always grows back. The same reason I’ve sworn off dieting, and colouring my hair, and running on treadmills—the whole thing is Sisyphean, and I refuse to be pushing a boulder for the rest of my life. These are losing battles, and I will not engage.

But the result now is that I have terrible eyebrows, sprawling and patchy. Would be that after all the waxing, my eyebrows would have thinned out altogether, but instead they’ve grown back in wide but with bald spots, a shape that is so far from a shape, and I just don’t care. And also I do, because I’m already on my fourth paragraph writing about it. But I just can’t go in for the incessant demands of grooming, and most of the time I don’t, which is one great benefit of being in a romantic partnership with someone who is terrifically far-sighted.

I was listening to a podcast today (which is the way that I start most of my sentences lately) when the host came on with an ad for some kind of skin care product I wasn’t paying proper attention to, and she talked about how much she loved her nightly skin care regimen, how it was just so fantastic that it gave her “me-time,” and I almost died of despair right then. The saddest thing I’ve ever heard, though perhaps I’m reading more into this than I should be. It is possible that no podcast host is quite as enthusiastic about the product she’s endorsing as she sounds like she is, and I actually really hope she isn’t, because that’s the saddest excuse for “me-time” I’ve ever heard.

It is also possible that she has nicer skin than I do. Most people do. Earlier this year, I turned down a prescription for rosacea from my dermatologist, so I’m hardly an expert on any of this. I’m just kind of lazy when it comes to grooming, and also would prefer to squander all my money on books instead.

Which is not to pass any judgement on those people who heavily invest in their aesthetic appearance—they’re are a million ways to be a woman after all, and who am I to tell another person what to do with her body, but this is kind of just my point, that the whole world is actually telling us what to do with our bodies, and I wonder sometimes if the whole thing is a conspiracy to keep us from doing anything more useful.

All those boulders we’re pushing, even once we’ve refused to push the boulders. I have no idea what liberation might look like.

September 17, 2019

Waffles, Waffles, Waffles

A baking pan heaped with waffles. Photograph.

One of the things I am most proud of and amazed at having accomplished in my life is a Baby Book for my second-born child. I was never going to be a perfect mother, and being a second child definitely would inevitably suck in all kinds of ways (secondhand snowsuits, no one appreciating the miraculousness of things like you knowing how to roll over, and basically not being bathed for two years) but at least she was going to have a Baby Book, a record of those precious blurry days. Though it was less of a burden for me to assemble than it might have been for other mothers of two—her elder sister was all the way to four by then, and I also spent the first three months of her life on co-parenting duty instead of struggling alone because my husband had taken parental leave, which meant time for naps, and books, and writing down all the things that we’d never remember.

When Iris was two, I added a whole page of notes to the Baby Book, though she was not a baby anymore. But it seemed like there were more things worth remembering then, once she was able to speak, and her remarkable personality had formed. “Things Iris Says,” was how I’d titled this page, along with the date, and I turned to this page just the other day when Iris had brought her Baby Book down from the shelf (and how glad I am that she has a Baby Book, that I bothered to put the effort in. Both my children are so fascinated with their baby selves, and will look at all records of their early periods in a way that’s inexhaustible).

“Things Iris Says,” I read aloud, excited to see what forgotten treasures might emerge from this time capsule, but then. Oh. Almost everything that Iris said when she was two had basically found its way into our family vernacular, and it’s how we all talk all the time now. (Perhaps when I say “we all,” I just mean me.) “Atcheam,” for ice-cream, and “fuff-eye” instead of “butterfly.” And “ra-see-see-wah” for rice krispie square. But then Iris is a little bit like this, in our family as well as in her own peer group. Totally weird, completely absurd, and at first, we’re like, “What are you doing?” And then it doesn’t take long before we’re doing it too.

But really, I want to talk about Teen Titans and waffles. Not that I have actually ever watched Teen Titans Go, but it’s Iris’s favourite show, and somehow without me ever having actually watched it, it’s seeped into my DNA, and I think it’s also the inspiration behind what became our family’s new year’s resolution for 2019, which was Get a Waffle Maker. Part of our pattern of Keep the Stakes Low to Avoid Disappointment. If you package up all your dreaming in the hopes of picking up a secondhand waffle maker from Value Village for $6, things are probably going to work out fine.

Get a Waffle Maker became our family dream because there is a song from Teen Titans Go about waffles—like most things about Teen Titans Go, it’s catchy and also extremely annoying. I am also very impressionable, particularly when it comes to glutinous goods, and so eventually, I had waffles on the brain, perpetually. We got our waffle maker sometime in January, which means our annual goal was achieved, and as a family we could just sit back and relax and be delighted by having accomplished what we set out to do. And make waffles every Sunday.

The waffle maker has been a game changer. I used to make pancakes every Sunday, and they were good, but lots of work, and also results would vary. But now the waffle maker does all the work for me, in way less time, and all I need to do is pour the batter in and then read the newspaper and drink my tea while waiting for the light to turn green—so simple. I am partial to Smitten Kitchen’s Buttermilk Waffle recipe. I am also partial to adding poppyseeds and millet to everything. Waffles, waffles, waffles, indeed. I love them, their taste, and neat geometry, and how leftovers could be turned into cream cheese jam sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunches, and all the places where our children’s preoccupations take us.

Even if just to the appliance section at the secondhand store. Hooray for being goal-oriented.

August 19, 2019

I Found an Egg Beater

Of all the machines in a kitchen, the egg beater has always been my favourite, and while the electric version has its advantages (the beaters detach for optimum licking), it’s the manual (or “rotary”, like a phone dial, both rotating around an axis) that has long been an object of my fascination, even though I’d be wary of getting my tongue stuck in a thing like that. Probably I wasn’t, however, when I was a child.

But my children have never seen an egg beater, which a) explains some of the trouble they’ve had in swimming lessons and b) was confirmed to me when Iris and I were reading a book in which an egg beater featured, and Iris only shrugged. I’d had an electric egg beater once upon a time, but I got rid of it when I got my first stand mixer over ten years ago, and back then the children were not yet in existence.

And then we were at Value Village on Saturday, exploring kitchenware, which is one of my favourite things to do. And it had occurred to me that I like exploring kitchenware at Value Village just as much when I don’t discover any treasure as I do when the search yields a new Pyrex bowl or midcentury crockery (I am mad for midcentury crockery) because when I don’t find anything, it means I don’t have go about locating a place to put it in my very crowded kitchen.

But I found an egg beater, in fact there were two—in additional to so many cocktail utensil sets. There are too many cocktail utensil sets in the world, and also George Forman grills, but we’re not yet overrun with rotary egg beaters, so I chose the one that wasn’t rusty, even if there were pieces missing from the plastic handles on the other. (Why corrupt such a wonderful object with plastic anyway?)

Iris was overjoyed to recognize the object, and then everybody started fighting over who gets to turn the handle and make the wheel turn, and we hadn’t even paid for it at this point. But it is so satisfying, the whir of the blades, the smoothness of the motion, the perpetualness of it. How I use my own energy to turn the handle, which makes the big wheel spin, whose grooves connect with the two little gears atop the beaters, and what genius thought of such a perfect machine? (Willis Johnson, according to the BBC, in 1884.)

“It’s an amazing thing,” I told my kids. “It doesn’t use any energy, and you can even make a cake when the power’s gone out.”

And then Iris came up to me hours later, as though she’d been thinking about this throwaway comment. “How do you see when you’re baking in the dark?” she asked me. “When the lights are out.”

But how do we even turn the oven on at that point? (We have a gas oven. Perhaps it might work?) I imagine us making a soufflé by candlelight.

In 48 hours, we’ve used the egg beater twice, to whip egg-whites for the Sunday waffles, and Iris got to do that because Harriet was playing Nintendo. And then yesterday evening I was making muffins for the week’s lunches, and Harriet wanted a turn, and then the two of them started fighting because Harriet was going too fast and all the eggs were getting beaten, and it really is such a clever little gadget, no matter that it’s disrupted family harmony.

Better than a fidget spinner—I could run that thing all day.

June 22, 2019

Reflecting on 40

Not since the dawn of the millennium have I felt such pressure to mark the turning over of a year—and let me tell you, I don’t thrive under such pressure. I ended up spending the evening of December 31, 1999 eating chips in my parents basement, which was better than the world’s infrastructure crumbling as the clock ticked over, of course, but it was really only memorable because it was not a good time. (There might not even have been chips, but I just added that part for extra detail.)

So this was reason I wanted to keep things low-key for my 40th birthday this week, indulging in the everyday pleasures that I am fortunate make up the bulk of my life. The everydayness is the point…but then did I want to see my friends, but our apartment is too small for a party (it wasn’t once upon a time, but once many of our friends had children and then those children grew, the situation became untenable), and I can’t afford to book a venue, and I don’t want to spend the energy to make a big production, but…and here I was on the same tangent that led to me greeting the new millennium from a basement, so best to ease back if I don’t want that to happen again.

I am not good at milestone birthdays. My 30th birthday was only better than my 20th birthday, because my 20th was the birthday where I drank too much and ended up falling in a puddle of my own pee. (At least it wasn’t someone else’s.) When I turned 30, I was hardly standing upright either because I had a three-week-old baby and life was really hard, and that was also the day that my computer crashed, losing everything I’d worked on in my twenties. (Hindsight: this was NOT a tragedy.)

Kerry and Harriet in Younger Days

So I am hoping we can set the bar at this: my 40th birthday will be more pleasant than my 30th, whose highlight was that my newborn baby slept for twenty minutes will we ate our dinner and I was able to sit in a chair unencumbered and enjoy half a glass of beer.

Never mind that I no longer enjoy beer at all (alcohol affects my sleep, which has become my biggest vice as I move into this new decade, and then it’s hard to get up first thing in the morning for my daily swim, which is my SECOND biggest vice as I move into this new decade. It is a really good thing that I never hoped to die before I got old because it’s too late for that…).

I am so happy to be 40…or just two days short of it, as I write this. I’ve seen enough of my contemporaries die of cancer in the last ten years that my perspective on aging now is that it’s nothing short of a gift, and I feel so lucky to receive it. And grateful for my thirties too for what they delivered me, how far I’ve come since then, all the amazing things I’ve been able to make and see and do and meet, not least among them books, friends, adventures, challenges, and so many extraordinarily beautiful days. (Like Albert from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I continue to collect good days like other people collect coin or postcards. Unlike Albert, I did not die in WW1.)

That exhausted new mother sitting in a chair with half a glass of beer would have had her mind blown by the way it’s all unfolded. I feel so incredibly lucky.

I am reading Judith Viorst’s poetry collection How I Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities, which is fun and also fitting because it was ten years ago that I was reading her It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30 (and how—oh, and her most recent collection about nearing 90 [!] came out not too long ago...) And while I am loving the book (especially the design, since my library copy is decidedly vintage now), for me it has turned out not to be the poetic word on my new decade, because I recently read Marita Dachsel’s collection There Are Not Enough Sad Songs.

From her poem, “the forties”:

We are fabulous. We are stronger than we’ve ever been,/ because we know ourselves, and we love ourselves. Our bodies are finally our own…

(Get a glimpse of the whole thing here.)

May 29, 2019

My Ill-Fated Career in STEM

I spend a lot of time grateful for being a parent in the age of the internet, online bullying and Insta-perverts notwithstanding, because it means I’ve not only got at my fingertips birthday party ideas, assurances in the event of weird health symptoms, and recipes whose ingredients are whatever random vegetables happen to be shrivelling in my fridge, but that I’ll never be as lost as my mother must have been on that afternoon in 1988 when I came home from school and informed her that I needed to have a science project to take to school the following day.

And so began my ill-fated career in STEM, a career that was managed by my mom, from whom I might have received my lack of proclivity in the sciences, but who also taught me everything I know about being a parent who shows up for her kid. She must have called around our subdivision and found a book of home science experiments, and somehow that night she managed to help me put together some experiment involving a bottle and a balloon that inflates. I don’t remember what the science was. I don’t suppose I ever knew. I was oblivious to a lot in 1988, not just to science, but also to life-management in general, which was underlined when I took my project to school the next day, and learned I’d gotten mixed up and the science fair was not until the following week. Which meant that I was just ahead of the game, I thought, feeling cocky, until the science fair finally arrived, and one kid had built a solar powered barbecue, and here it became clear—with my pop bottle and balloon—that perhaps this was to be a field in which I wasn’t destined to shine.

We resolved to do better the following year, or at least my mom did, coming up with an ingenious solution—and indeed, this would be the zenith of my scientific career: she found someone else to do my project altogether. It wasn’t cheating, exactly, because the whole thing was transparent. Somehow, without internet—if I can remind you—my mom managed to track down contact information for Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau, to whom we sent a list of interview questions and a cassette tape on which he could record the answers, which he did, sending it back with photographs, stickers, and other cool things that made an excellent display. At the Science Fair, I played his answers on a tape player, and won a prize in my category, and felt pretty good about what I’d accomplished here, although I secretly wanted to build a model of the solar system like everyone else was doing, but my mom thought that was cliched.

Things would never be that good again. The following year, I began suffering from basilar artery migraines, which really only happened a handful of times, but the diagnosis meant that I could pretend to collapse on the playground and spend time in the nurses’s room being the centre of attention, and then my mom would come and pick me up and I’d go home and watch TV. The doctor I was seeing suggested I could do a project on brains and migraines, and my mom and I jumped right on board, because it meant we didn’t have to think of a project ourselves. I did some research, and must have learned something, although I remember none of it, and wrote up my project to be displayed on the three panelled wooden boards we now had explicitly for science fair purposes, held together with hinges. (Where did my mom get this board? How did she enact such miracles? Perhaps I should have done a science project on questions such as this…).

But there was a problem: I had nothing to display. Everyone else would have experiments, and the proverbial solar system models, and the kids whose dads were engineers all would have built water filtration systems in aquariums. But then my mom had an idea: what if we got a brain? An actual brain. And because she was my mom, she somehow managed to get a brain. (Where do you go to get a brain? How does she do it? Especially when you don’t have the option of online.) A cow’s brain, from a farmer, which came frozen, and I brought to school in a pie plate. But in all the trouble of acquiring a brain, my mom hadn’t thought about another scientific principle, and obviously neither had I, because I don’t think I ever thought about science at all: what happens to frozen things kept at temperatures above zero?

And so that was the year my science project was basically a melting cow’s brain, whose sight caused more than one child to vomit as she perused the science fair, and so that day my table had a layer of sawdust on the floor before it, courtesy of the janitor. It goes without saying that this was another year I didn’t win a prize at all.

We would do better then. Maybe I needed to be a more active part of the process, and do an actual experiment, so the next year I resolved that I would do some inquiry and come up with a vital scientific question that needed answering, and then I had one. Eureka. What was it? My question was: Do Plants Need Air. Which, to be fair, was a burning question that science has been trying to answer for centuries, and because my mom’s approach to parenting was to make me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent (and/or maybe she really did think that the jury was still out on plants and air?), she was all in.

In order for my experiment to be a success, my mom managed to procure plastic water coolers, have the bottoms sawed off them, and then we could use caulking to seal the water coolers to piece of plywood. Some of the plants would grow as usual outside the sealed coolers, which the others would grow inside the coolers which (as we failed to note or perhaps my mom was just too busy sawing plastic to consider it) were themselves filled with air. Maybe we had failed to think this through. And how would we water the plants that were in the sealed coolers? A burning question that (although we didn’t admit it to ourselves) transformed the scope of my project into one addressing the even less burning question of plants and air to this one: Do Plants Need Water? (Spoiler: yes they do.) I don’t remember precisely what the conclusions of my project were, but I know that I did not win a prize. (Also, because I had a mom that made me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent, I was surprised and disappointed by this.)

As a parent, this might have been the point where I packed the whole thing in, or had my child bake a cake and bring it in and declare that this was chemistry. But my mom would not give in so easily, was not that into baking, and between us we supposed we’d learned about from science fair disasters to do an experiment that was actually good. But in order to be good, preparation was necessary, so we started six months in advance—I would do a project on fast food packaging and biodegradation. (This was back when McDonalds burgers still came in Styrofoam boxes.) I remember driving around town with my mom and going to various fast good outlets to ask for wrappers, boxes and other kinds of packaging to use, and then I buried these packages in containers of soil that we kept behind our furnace with labels on the container so that we’d know which establishment had supplied each one. Sounds good, right? An actual experiment, with social relevance, and possibly could launch my career as an environmentalist? My science project was all set before the school year had even started. We had triumphed. We were awesome. We would not be defeated by the science fair, for once in our lives.

Except that turned out to be the year that the science fair was cancelled, and so the wrappers remained in our basement and rotted (or didn’t), and after that I decided to focus on the arts.

February 11, 2019

On Asking for Things

I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life, and I’ve written about one of those times before: the time I encountered hydro workers on a country road and pulled over to ask if I could have a ride in their bucket. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” was the worker’s incredible reply, and so we had an adventure, just because we’d had the nerve to ask for it. But such nerve, for me, was uncharacteristic, and while I will forever wish I was the kind of person who was ever asking for bucket rides, that day was an anomaly. Instead, I’m pretty religious about following the rules, keeping to the speed limit, staying in my lane, and watching spacing.

(“If we give one out to you, we’ll have to start giving them out to everybody,” I once told a patron when I worked in a library, and he’d asked to borrow a pencil. Libraries, with their decimals and rules, are my natural habitat, and the habits I acquired there have proven awfully hard to break. At my local branch, I still get rankled when I see children eating crackers by the board books, scattering crumbs across the floor.)

The other time I was audacious was completely by accident, or ignorance. When I was seventeen, I spent a week in Edinburgh, where my aunt, uncle and cousins were living for a year, by which I meant that my youthful naivety (and stupidity) was unleashed on the international community. I was a ridiculous human being, and insisted on wearing pyjamas on the plane, WHICH WAS NOT GLAMOUROUS. I also thought the whole point of travel was to try out the McDonalds menu in other cities. In Edinburgh, the commercial streets were lined with signs that said, “To Let,” and every time I saw one, I pointed and shouted, “Toilet!” I had to purchase a second suitcase in a charity shop in order to bring home the supply of chocolate bars I’d bought on my trip. And even with all this, my cousin consented to spend time with me. She is a very understanding person, and to this day (mysteriously, on her end) one of my dearest friends.

We spent a week together, aimless and kind of dumb, eating McDonalds, and visiting castles, and TopShop, and then one day we walked past a hair salon and there was a sign in the window: OAP Haircuts, £3. Which I thought seemed like a very reasonably price for a haircut, so I went in and asked for it. “I would like an OAP haircut, please.” I recall how the staff responded kind of strangely, but I just wrote that off as being because they didn’t much chance at this salon to cut the hair of a nubile young lass with long chestnut hair—everyone else in the place was kind of old, see? And afterwards, all this was just a funny story I told, about the time I went to Scotland and got my hair cut (which is far more characteristic than the bucket ride, if I’m being honest). We even took a photo to remember it by.

It was not until years later that I figured it all out, what an OAP haircut actually was, why everyone else in the salon had come in for a set. That an OAP is an “old age pensioner” (surely this had come up in Adrian Mole. How had I missed it) and what must the woman at the desk had thought when I walked into the place asking for a senior’s discount? (On the other hand, I was foreign. Being foreign helps you get away with so many things. Which makes me realize that “I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life” is not exactly accurate, because doing the year we lived in Japan, we did audacious things all the time. As gaijin, no less was expected of us.)

My biggest takeaway from all of this is that sometimes, if you want a thing, all you’ve got to do is ask for it. Sometimes, due to sheer audacity—accidental or otherwise—the person you’re asking will have no choice, but to just give it to you. (Unless it is a pencil, and I am working at the library circulation desk. Because if I gave one to you, I’d have to give one to everybody.) That being naive and ignorant enough ask for a thing can sometimes actually be the key to getting it. And that’s not the whole story, of course, and anyone who tells you that your consciousness is the key to unlocking the universe IS LYING. But still, there is power in asking. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

January 23, 2019

We Hold Each Other Up

I like people in theory, but I have to tell you that in practice, I find a lot of them kind of annoying. Which makes me despair sometimes, because this is a political moment in which solidarity, allyship, and cooperation have never been more necessary. And what can you do at a moment like that when you’re kind of a misanthrope? Which is overstating it a bit, I realize. People are fine, but it’s not like I want to invite every single one of them over for dinner, you know? I’d rather read my book than chat to a stranger on the subway. I’ve unfollowed people on social media for being on a juice cleanse. I don’t want to deprive anyone of their juice, but I reserve the right to not to have to hear about it.

So I felt a bit strange about the Women’s March held in Toronto this Saturday, kind of inauthentic as a political person, the kind of who has a pot of chilli perpetually simmering on the stove and everybody is welcome at her table always. I feel uncomfortable aligning myself with political movements, with partisanship, even though I realize that failing to understand that politics is everything has never ever changed the world. I still resist the idea of chanting in a crowd of people, scripted call and responses. Even though I know that such noise can be revolutionary, and there is so much that really has to change. I do believe that this is a historical moment in which it’s necessary to declare what side you’re on, and I know what side I’m on. As per the sign I carried on Saturday, I marched for midwives, Black lives, clean water, Indigenous rights, sex-ed, public schools, for teachers, for the environment, for justice, and so much more. This is my feminism. I was there for my city, my province, my country, for my daughters. (And so grateful to the people who did the work and made the march happen, who were too busy with boots on the ground to be hemming and hawing about simmering chilli.)

It was a joyous occasion, albeit one held in a snowstorm. But we were prepared with multiple pairs of pants, and scarves plus neck warmers, and before we marched, we had breakfast at Rebecca’s house, where she had poster-making supplies, and we all got to work. (Because fighting the patriarchy is more fun with friends.) We arrived to hear the last few speeches, and then to join the parade up University Avenue to Queen’s Park, snow piling on everybody’s hats and heads. I pulled up my hood with its furry trim, and loved the cocoon of it. That I couldn’t properly hear or see what was going on around me (hoods are the enemy of peripheral vision), and everybody else was tucked inside their own hoods, each of us in our separate warmths, and yet moving all in the same direction together.

And it was that simple. We didn’t need to have chilli. At the end of the march, we’d all go our separate ways, most of us on public transit. But the march was a reminder and a commitment to the fundamental ways we are all of us connected whether we want to be or not, however uncomfortable it makes us sometimes. Because people aren’t easy, but people are the project, the point of it all. We don’t all have to be friends, but we have a responsibility to still care for each other, to listen to each other (which is not the same thing as having to agree). Because, as Iris’s sign said, riffing off a book we love, We Hold Each Other Up. And it will never not be interesting.

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