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Pickle Me This

June 18, 2020

We Can’t Let Our Imaginations Fail Us

It was interesting to read Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column in May about expecting the worst in general and in particular during our current crisis. It was interesting, because I am usually pathologically inclined to hope for the best (albeit wisely—it’s a pack an umbrella just in case, kind of thing) and I get frustrated by doomsaying, because I feel like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But doomsaying and hoping for the best, so says Burkeman, are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are actions performed by people “engaging in their own private methods for managing their emotions.” And for the most part neither action has bearing on the future, because the one thing we all have in common is that nobody knows.

But I am not completely sure, at least not in the case of moment in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I feel like there is something craven in pessimism, or maybe it’s not that it’s craven so much as a failure of imagination, to be so adamant that things could not possibly ever be okay. Though as Burkeman writes, there is actually safety in imagining the worst possibilities, “as bad as things can get” as close as one might manage in uncertainty to a kind of solid ground.

And yes, of course it’s a failure too to imagine that things couldn’t possibly get worse, or more terrible, but here’s the thing: if things are going to get worse, they will, whether you imagine it or not. Whereas for building a better world and more possibilities, imagination is essential. Imagining ways to restructure societies so that racialized people are safe, for example, and the disproportionate funding of police forces is reallocated to social services instead. Imagining ways that schools and workplaces can function and keep people healthy and connected, or how outdoor parks and pools could reopen this summer and people can enjoy these amenities safely, or even how we can all keep going and working together as Covid outbreaks continue to happen, which they will, instead of throwing our hands up and screaming, “Second wave!” and taking up permanent residence under our beds.

There is optimism, and there is wilful ignorance, and they’re not necessarily the same. At the beginning of the pandemic too I was as doomy as anyone, because something was coming and no one knew what it was, and I wanted to be safe, for my family to be safe, for vulnerable people in our community to be safe. And because so many of us took precautions at that moment, which was a big sacrifice for all kinds of people (not me; I’ve been sitting at home eating gourmet cheese and keeping comfortable), things turned out to not be so bad after all. Not good by any means, but certainly good in comparison to the carnage in so many regions. I was thinking I was about to become a character in Station Eleven, is what I mean, and probably a dead one, but it didn’t turn out to be like that. Infection rates are going down in Ontario. We have reasons to be hopeful.

Which is not to say we’re about to pack hundreds of bodies into a crowded space anytime soon. Guys, we’re not Florida. And I think that many people in Canada are confused about this, sharing memes from Americans who are scared shitless, and for good reason, because culture warriors have decided to declare that an actual virus does not exist. “We’re right back where we started!” those memes keep on screaming, and they’re not wrong, but that’s because many communities have not done what’s happening here in Canada, in Ontario. (What’s happening here in Ontario is not exactly exemplary either. Testing and contact tracing have lagged. There has been a failure of imagination on that end, and also competence, but it hasn’t been an abject disaster. The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle…)

We’re not right back where we started because people are wearing masks now, avoiding large crowds, shops have built plastic barriers and have caps on customers, people aren’t commuting en mass, offices aren’t packed with workers, we’re not sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms. This is not square one, where we are—though that risk remains for racialized communities, for people in dangerous working conditions, working in food production in particular, should not make those of us who are safer complacent. But it also means that we know a lot more about how and where the virus is spread than we did in March when we were all in such a panic and the reports that were coming out of Italy were devastating. We’re so much further down the road.

And no, I don’t think the pandemic is over, as many people keep accusing others of believing, but I do think we have to imagine a way to move forward and live with the virus. And I am trying not to get too frustrated at the sight of young people congregating in backyards, not so distanced at all, or the families who have continued to have playdates all along, because the likelihood of harm is really quite low in practical terms, which is kind of annoying for everyone who has been so strictly following the rules, it’s true, because we’d like to see a kind of justice, right? I know there were people who were disappointed that there was no documented Covid spike following an epic gathering of people in their 20s at a Toronto park in May. Because it would have felt good to be able to point to those people and say, Serves you right, and even have somebody to blame for part this bad dream we’re collectively living through. Much better than so much being random and shitty, nobody to point at at all.

(There have been spikes of illness at people in their 20s in general, however, and I wonder how much of this is tied to young people tending to be employed in high risk workplaces, living with roommates, all plans derailed, and if the backyard parties are necessary because of how much shittier the pandemic has been for them than those of us who are more comfortable and established…)

But there aren’t rules. I’ve written about this before. Everybody’s using their best judgment as we venture together into the unknown, and yes, many people’s best judgment is terrible. But many people are doing just fine, and want to stay safe, and protect their communities, and return to their businesses, and socialize with families and friends, and support their favourite restaurant, and have a localish summer holiday, and take precautions to stop the spread of the virus, wearing masks, washing hands, keeping distance, and I guess what I mean is that I wish amongst the various catastrophic outcomes so many people are imagining is the possibility that we might also be fine.

June 8, 2020

Let’s All Take Care

There was a moment when “this all” started when everything felt particularly tender, when “care-mongering” became a thing and everyone was very scared, and I’d never felt more connected to others, to the people in my community and all around the world. And while people have continued to take care in so many ways since then, the general sense of goodwill seems to have evaporated around Week 6, and I get it. It doesn’t sound hard, what those of us who aren’t really going through anything are all going through. Stay home, work from home, carry it, plank the curve—it sounds doable. It is doable, because we’re doing it, but also nobody is bringing their best self these days. I don’t know if people have never been more irritating or I have never been more irritable, and the answer is a knife edge. I’ve unfriended people on Facebook, one person before I delivered a message to “Go fuck right off,” which is not the usual way I conduct myself, on Facebook or anywhere, but I’ve got no patience these days. There is nothing in reserve. I am a relatively stable person with a lot of support, and I was at serious risk of falling apart last week, several times. And if I’ve been struggling, what about all the people without people to hold them up, without the comforts and luxuries that I can count on, people with a history of trauma and mental illness. This collective devastation: never in my memory has there been anything else like it.

It’s too big even for a hashtag (WHICH, ADMITTEDLY, IS FINE).

Do you feel it too, that brittleness, everything so fragile? That care-mongering might be more necessary than it was 12 weeks ago? That even though our devastation is collective, that none of us really has any idea what the other is going through? I am relieved to be feeling so much better after last week’s struggle, but I know that it continues for so many others, and that getting through it is going to have to be collective too. We need compassion, and patience, and understanding, and empathy. We need to stop being furious at our neighbours for wearing masks/not wearing masks/for having playdates/for their furious social media tirades about people having playdates. We need to stop taking our collective helplessness out on each other.

And it’s not even hopeless. It’s been time since I’ve been able to say such a thing with confidence, but it isn’t. And maybe it’s the brittleness, the fragility, the rawness of our hearts right now that made the fact of George Floyd’s torture and murder at the hands of police resonate all over the world. That has made those of us who aren’t Black begin to viscerally understand the pain and brutality of racism in new ways, to ask questions we might not have ever considered before. That same impulse, edginess that led to “Fuck right off” and the Facebook unfriendings are the same rage compelling people to the streets. The pain is everywhere, and it’s spilling over. A river. An ocean.

All we have is each other. Let’s take care.

June 3, 2020

Thoughts about Being Okay

I started having panic attacks again on Monday, the kind I was having back in March when “all this” began. I’d been feeling sad and overwhelmed since Thursday, on Saturday our summer holiday got cancelled, and that afternoon helicopters circled the sky as protesters took to the street to stand up for Black people’s lives and the roar of those machines was dark and ominous. The scenes in the US were getting more and more upsetting, and Monday ended with news of the US “President” assembling troops to attack citizens in the street, and also peaceful protesters being cleared with tear gas so that dipshit could pretend he was going to church. (Dude did not know it was Monday.)

I was trembling, my heart was palpitating. I knew I was going to be in some trouble, and so after my children were in bed, my husband and I sat down to talk and try to calm me down, which helped a bit, but it still wasn’t finished, and the only way out of panic, I’ve found, is through. My mind so highly strung, and I was scared. We have a fan in our room, for ventilation and white noise, and I started imagining I was hearing the sounds of more helicopters. Trying to convince myself otherwise, but I was lying in bed awake for hours, my mind a million miles and hour, and it was the sound of people shouting and screaming I heard next, and what was happening outside? To this world?

I got up to find out, and went to the window, where perspective shifted—and I realized the sounds I was hearing were birds. I’d been up so long that the birds were awake. And the fact that birds were singing was a lulling thought, this ordinary thing instead of the nightmare I’d been imagining. And I fell asleep finally sometime around 4 am.

Spending the next day bleary-eyed and with a headache, the panic still there, and it was hard to function. I barely did. And then the panic was finished, and I still was tired, but I was calm again, and there was light to see, and the birdsong was birdsong, and world a place I recognized. Such relief in that—euphoric, even. Like an illness and the absence of pain—I was so glad to be through it.

But of course it’s not over. I feel okay again, but it’s not okay again, and I don’t think it ever has been. I was thinking too about how it’s important, perhaps even essential, for white people to feel uncomfortable. And how the greatest reason for my fear when I’m overwhelmed is usually connected to my children, my fears for this world into which I’ve brought them. And the lightness of my imaginary helicopters when compared to the concrete fears of other parents for their own Black children, to feel like that all the time. The people for whom the sounds don’t turn out to be birdsong.

I get relief from my fears—I acknowledge the privilege in that, and how different my experience is from those of other parents all over the world, in my city, even. I get to feel better, which is not a bad thing, because my panic was debilitating, short of rendering me unable to function. But the point is that now that it’s done, I need to remember that my feelings are not the end of the story of inequality and injustice, of battles that are still going on and which we need to be fighting regardless of what I’m going through.

But also that I can be okay when things are not okay, and that is okay too.

June 1, 2020

Calm Is Still a Superpower

It was my fault—all of it.

Do you do this too? Do you have a whole host of reasons why the disastrous spring of 2020 was a product of your own consciousness? Covid-19 has got me out of both jury duty and a colonoscopy, and it’s crossed my mind that I’ve likely engineered all this, my ability to control the universe gone terrifically awry. (I am sorry.)

But the worst of my crimes was this blog post, the one I published on February 21, when I wrote about how after months and years of freaking out over everything (natural disaster, WW3, and mass slaughter, and every theoretical terrible thing), I finally accepted that nothing TRULY bad was really going to happen and calmed down. And even though unrest and instability, war and tension continued throughout January and February, I met it with my Zen approach, because I’d mastered consciousness, and was basically a yogi.

And then the universe said HA.

Or it didn’t, because the universe isn’t so responsive, and I don’t actually reside at its centre (so I’ve been told), but for a long time, I thought of my February blog post and felt sick to my stomach. When I’d been feeling sick to my stomach anyway, because there was a whole week in March where I couldn’t eat for a week, or sleep, or even sit down and look at a puzzle without having heart palpitations—and that I was looking at a puzzle at all is indicative of how bad things were at. I am not a puzzle person, but I couldn’t even read.

I thought I’d figured out anxiety. What a lark! And that was back when I only had abstract notions to be anxious about, when I could shop for groceries or take my children to school without fear of a deadly contagion. When the President of the USA wasn’t sanctioning police violence in the streets. It seems laughable now.

And yet, the answer is the same. And at least I wasn’t giving a prescription in my February post and I acknowledged there was uncertainty, a wavering—I’d never really claimed to have mastered anything. But I was observing a point in my process instead.

None of it’s simple,” I wrote, “and the only way toward an answer is work, which is what’s happening now all around us, and we need to be patient. And calm.”

Which doesn’t mean passive. It doesn’t mean waiting and doing nothing, and eliminate the necessity of action, but instead.

It means breathing. It means grounding. It means thinking, and listening, and connecting, and learning, and (in the words of Ann Douglas) calm is still a superpower.

Maybe more than ever.

May 28, 2020

Terrible and Fine

Pink Lilacs

I can never understand how difficult a moment is until it’s over, which is useful as far as self-preservation mechanisms go—though it might be hard for other people to understand, people who prefer to confront the darkness head on. I imagine those people find my social media posts annoying, everything crumbling, and my insistence on noticing daffodils. But I cannot look at the darkness, instead walking through it in a fog, squinting and imagining that I’m discerning silver linings, and the fog is what’s keeps me going. The fog and the hope, because otherwise I can’t get up off the floor, and it’s doubly convoluted because this crisis, for me and my family, is abstract. Our home is comfortable, we still have our incomes, my children’s needs are met, we’re healthy, and we can afford to stay home and stay safe, meanwhile the weather is glorious, and potato plants are coming up in my garden, and there are wildflowers everywhere—lilacs, peonies, and irises, so much abundance, and so where is the crisis? Whereas if I walked twenty minutes east, I’d encounter homeless encampments, but they’re not on my route. And if I walked by them, would I even see them? How would I make them part of the story I tell?

I cried this morning when the school principal made an appearance on Iris’s class meet-up. Yesterday I scrolled through my Instagram account from the last few months, which is rich with colour and beautiful things, but I knew those images were standing in for sadness and hard feelings (and if you read the captions, this is often the case. I am not entirely delusional). It’s been a terrible few months. It’s also been fine. And how the mind struggles to know both these things at once.

May 25, 2020

There Are No Good Places to Be During a Pandemic

Me in my hammock
Possibly a good place to be during a pandemic.

Are there really no good places to be during a pandemic? During the last three months as I’ve gone nowhere, I’ve certainly had time to reflect on this. And definitely, there are bad places to be during a pandemic—at the source of the outbreak, of course. Or in a care home or group living facility, as the virus spreads through patients and staff (and the systemic failures here are a tragedy. Everything about how these places are funded, staffed and receive oversight has to change). On the streets is a very bad place to be during a pandemic. At work in a hospital is also a bad place to be, particularly when you don’t have access to protective equipment. Twitter is also a very bad place to be during a pandemic, because everyone is as angry and irritable as I’m feeling often these days. So I keep posting lilacs on Instagram instead.

But the idea of a good place to be—I’ve been thinking about this, because for the first time in my life, I have struggled with being in the city, being in the city without a car in particular. Envying people who’ve already escaped to their cottages, people with backyard pools, people with huge houses where everybody has their own room and no parent has to take a Zoom call in their kids’ bottom bunk because there is nowhere else to go. Wishing we had a different kind of life, living off the grid, self-sustainably in the middle of nowhere, perhaps. Would it be easier then? Seeing the appeal of the suburbs, of green lawns for days.

Although I am not complaining. Much. I miss transit though, so strongly, which made the whole city open up wide for us… But our apartment is a comfortable place to be with room for all of us, and the good weather means we throw open the doors and the porch becomes an extra room. We are surrounded by trees. We have a backyard, albeit one that is mainly concrete, but I’ve been hammocking avidly and we’ve bought a small pool that we’ll be setting up as soon as the cover arrives from Home Hardware. We have neighbours that leave gifts on our porch, and friends who leave chalk drawings on the sidewalk, and so many friends’ houses to walk by on our meandering aimless walks. Yesterday we managed to walk down to the lake, which always seems so much farther away than it actually is. (What I would give to visit the beach though!)

We’re luckier than many people, although so many of us can say that. I have a friend who lives in an condo tower, but the lake is at her doorstep. My friends in the suburbs can camp out in their backyards. Friends near lakes can go swimming. Friends in the wilderness are surrounded by the splendours of nature, and those of us in the city have bakeries and sushi joints nearly on our doorsteps, which has certainly made weathering these last few months a more pleasant experience—and I think living in more density has made me more acclimatized and less likely to view every passerby as a potential agent of contagion. My friend who lives in a high rise apartment can walk easily down into the cool of a ravine. Other friends have family nearby. Some have got the low risk of rural communities, but the best hospitals in the country are a ten minute walk from where I live, so it’s a trade-off.

So many of us, no matter where we live, are blessed with the extraordinary kindness of neighbours.

I suppose while there is no good place to be in the midst of a pandemic, the best place to be is where you’re home.

May 20, 2020

Finding Our Way

I noticed a chart on social media last week, a list that ranked one’s level of caution and care in terms of exposure to Covid-19, and a few of my friends seemed to find a great deal of appeal in this chart. The idea being that you could determine how you ranked and then find friends with similar rankings to associate with as we slowly expand our social bubbles after two months of quarantine, which makes sense, because you probably don’t want the person you hang out with when all this is over to be Buddy who was over at the Michigan legislature protesting with his machine gun the other week. Not just because Buddy is an asshole, but also because he’s been congregating in large groups without a mask on and likely doesn’t wash his hands.

Of course, there was a level of smugness to it too— I mean, no one who scored “VERY OPEN LEVEL 5” was sharing this chart on Facebook. And I mean no judgment with that either, because I can be as smug as they come, and if you’ve been depriving yourself of human company and good groceries for coming on 70 days now, you have every reason to feel superior to that woman down the street whose kids never stopped having playdates and whose boyfriend sleeps over every Saturday.

But still, it didn’t sit well with me, that list. It was the narrowness, I think—and I would consider possibly because I can’t declare myself a “VERY STRICT 0.” I have not worn masks while walking outdoors, I go shopping more than once a week, I’ve likely been within six feet of somebody while passing on the sidewalk. Although the shops I’ve visited have been small and not crowded, better than grocery stores. But also I live in a unit with shared space with other households. Which doesn’t require riding an elevator and my door knobs are my own, but I am also really not attentive enough at disinfecting doorknobs. Though since people have stopped coming over, I’ve decided not to get worked up over this. But what I mean by all this is what I mean most of the time when writing a blog post, which is that it’s complicated.

Has the pandemic made everyone more annoying, or has it made me irritable, or both, is another complicated question, and the answer is probably yes. (And don’t think I don’t acknowledge that I fall under the category of “everyone” who is more annoying too.)

But I really have struggled these last few months with people’s demands for certainty and clarity in a situation that no one really understands. The week before this all shook down, way back in March we cancelled our trip to England because it was becoming clear that travelling right now would be a really bad idea. Prior to this, I’d been watching government travel advisories and assuming these were gospel, and then had a revelation, which was that just because the government said we could go didn’t necessarily mean that they thought we should. That we live in a country where citizens are free to make their own choices for the most part, and don’t need to be told what to do. I found everyone that first week even extra annoying, because everyone on social media had an opinion about banning flights from certain places, shutting down the borders, etc—when it was clear to me that all this was going to happen, but the government was rolling out measures slowly because they have to. And yet I understand where the complaining people were coming from because there still were people departing on vacation in mid-March, when it was demonstrably clear that this was a terrible idea. But tragically, really (and even literally, sometimes), sometimes freedom of choice means that people are going to make appalling ones.

Or at least ones that are different than yours, ones that you just can’t understand—why that man isn’t wearing a mask, and why that woman brought her toddler to the grocery store, the person standing on the street corner audibly hacking up a lung. For me, much more innocuously, the big one is people who wash their fruits and vegetables in soapy water. I don’t get it—and also, it makes me terribly anxious because I’m just not doing that, and these people doing something different makes me afraid I’ve made bad choices, instead of underlining my virtue and my safety—which is what we all want anyway.

Also: okay. You’re washing your bananas. Great. But why do you have to document it on Instagram?

But my husband has a good point (he is one of the few individuals alive who has NOT been made more annoying by the pandemic) which was that washing fruits and vegetables, and Instagramming them, no less, made those people feel good.

“You know how you liked ordering from the bookstore?” he asked, because this was the week I’d ordered more than fifteen books to be delivered from stores across the city, and he really was bringing this home with an analogy that was so on my level. “Because it made you feel happy, and normal, and like you had some element of control over the world?”

We’re all trying to hard to find our way through this unknown situation. And the people who don’t seem to be trying are trying for the rest of us, and those who are struggling mirror all the ways that I am, and those who seem to know everything only underline just how much I don’t, and I suppose it doesn’t help that my relations with nearly everybody these days are enacted on social media where we are all performing, and sorting our feelings, and showing our best selves and/or our worst ones, and how are the rest of us supposed to tell which is which?

We’re doing it though. By trusting the science, and using our imaginations, we are, no matter how restless and impatient we feel. And that’s the amazing thing, even though nobody really knows what’s what, and it’s never been more apparent what has always been true, which is that we’re all trying to find our way in the dark. But we’re finding it. Day by day.

May 14, 2020

Rereading Jackson Brodie in the Spring of 2020

“‘Life’s random,’ he said, The best you can do is pick up the pieces.'” —When Will There Be Good News?

There are several ways a reader comes to Kate Atkinson: as the award-winning author of historical novels including Life After Life and A God in Ruins; as author of the Jackson Brodie detective novels, which were made into a celebrated television series; or as the quirky literary superstar who won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an event celebrated with news headlines referring to Atkinson as “an unknown hotel chambermaid.”

The third route was my own path to Kate Atkinson’s work, though I didn’t encounter it for another decade, reading a copy of a library book I’d borrowed from a friend, which seems like the least intimate literary encounter I’ve ever experienced, but it changed everything for me, the unforgettable first line marking Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”

I wasn’t fond of detective fiction when I picked Atkinson’s Case Histories, presumably around the same time, but it occurred to me when I did that all literary fiction is about mystery in a sense, and indeed Behind the Scenes at the Museum was, structurally at least, a work of detective fiction, except the sleuth was the reader, because it’s a puzzle of a novel with a solution I didn’t see coming.

But I read Case Histories, because Kate Atkinson was now on my list of fundamental authors, authors whose work I will buy the day of release. Even if I wasn’t as crazy about Jackson Brodie as other readers were, perhaps distrusting of genre—although these books would prove to be my gateway to detective fiction proper, and fifteen years later, I’m absolutely a devotee.

And maybe it was because these books weren’t my favourite, or maybe it was the reason why they weren’t: the plots of the novels didn’t stay with me. Except for the first book, vaguely, the story of the Land sisters and their pile-on of tragedies. When I sat down to reread Case Histories this year in March, it was remarkable that I remembered nothing at all about the story except who had dunnit.

Part of it was that I’m not sure detective fiction necessarily lends itself to rereading for the average reader (and I am also talking about the average work of detective fiction, of which the Jackson Brodie novels, I think, are not). Also because this is a series of novels that have come out over fifteen years—it’s been ten years between Started Early, Took My Dog and the latest, Big Sky. Which I read last June on my 40th birthday, and I remembered nothing of the books that came before. Which is fine—each of these novels stands up fine on their own. But to miss anything of Atkinson’s keen sense of story and detail would be thoroughly a waste, and I thought how much I’d appreciate the chance to reread the Jackson Brodie books from start to finish.

And when the world fell apart in March, and I cycled into despair along with it, finding myself unable to read, the chance appeared, and I took it. Case Histories: An absorbing novel rife with plot, perfect for escaping. But also undeniably dark, brutal, violent, in a way that resonated with the world around me. A book that was an escape, but that was not completely a disconnect either. Why do bad things happen? Why is life so unfair? How do we keep going when people die? How do people survive trauma and tragedy? What kind of life is possible after that?

I was still pretty shattered when I reread Case Histories, during that very bad week I spent unable to eat, barely sleeping, having panic attacks, and finding it exhausting to walk upstairs. But the act of reading, of finding joy and solace again in a book, which is my usual practice, helped me to find my centre again, to find my feet, and feel at home inside myself even at this very strange time.

I don’t know that I properly understand these books’ notion of justice until I read them again in 2020. Jackson Brodie as an outlaw—he used to be a policeman. But the sense that justice proper lives outside the law, which continues to benefit the powerful, which continues to undermine the safety of girls and women. Jackson’s origin story lies in the murder of his older sister, a murder that was was never solved, and it’s a need to right what happened somehow that drives Jackson in these novels, which portray a world, very similar to our own, which is a dangerous case for girls and women.

That murders go unsolved, crimes unavenged. Clues don’t add up, villains get away with it, the banality of so much of this. Reality is a different kind of narrative, is what these books are saying, and yet, somehow, within the confines of a narrative, and there is the possibility of redemption in that. For the world, I mean. The possibility of hope.

One Good Turn takes place two years after Case Histories, Jackson in Edinburgh where his girlfriend Julia has a show at the summer festival. “A Jolly Good Murder Mystery” is the novel’s subtitle, and there is a rollickingness to the novel, whose characters include a writer of middling detective fiction. One Good Turn is self-aware, possibly winking. And its many strands are slightly absurd, but their weaving is masterful, a much richer tapestry than Case Histories. The confident way it all holds together.

And then When Will There Be Good News?, which is a literary masterpiece, I think, the best book of them all, and they’re all extraordinarily good. Featuring Reggie Chase, who appears again in Big Sky—but I didn’t remember her. Unfathomable too, because she’s basically unforgettable. A teenage genius from the wrong side of the tracks, almost no one to guide her. A devastating train crash, and it’s Reggie who saves Jackson’s life, forever in his debt—and doubly, because he writes her a cheque that bounces when his wife disappears with his entire fortune. And we meet Louise Monroe again, the police inspector from the previous book, and this all is a book about trauma, and violence, everyday brutality, domestic violence—and Atkinson even makes it funny, like all the books, which still doesn’t undermine the enormity of the message. Humour is how you make it bearable, I guess, and it helps that life is so absurd.

To reread a series of books so concerned with history is interesting, and the series also shows the changes occurring during the years they were written and take place. I will never forget my first trip to the UK post 2008 economic crash, how different it was, all the holes in the streets where the Woolworths had been—and Started Early, Took My Dog is situated in the wreckage of that moment, another kind of trauma. “The world was going to hell in a handcart…” The sex workers who used to do the job because of poverty, but now it’s because of addiction. Started Early… moves between the 1970s and 2010, and it’s a strange kind of nostalgia. It wasn’t that things were better then, but they were different, that’s all. This is a novel that’s about the fraying of the social fabric, but that’s not necessarily a contemporary story, and might be classic after all. There also have always been bad guys, and some things never change, which is why Jackson Brodie knows as much as as he does—when he’s not walking headlong into disaster.

(This novel is also the way I discovered Betty‘s, and made our first visit to the one in Ilkley in 2011, on the recommendation of Jackson Brodie himself… “If Britain had been run by Betty’s, it would never have succombed to economic Armageddon.”)

And then last week I reread Big Sky, not even a year after the first time, and I knew Reggie Chase this time, now a police inspector herself. And I loved it, just like I loved all of them—its furious, unabashed politics and strong sense of justice. And I loved too the way a few strands in the book that do not quite get tied up, which could suggest that perhaps there are more Jackson Brodie novels to come. A reader can hope…

Or else it’s just that these books, while precise in their composition, are also meant to mimic reality—rough, ragged, and untidy, but sometimes so sublime.

May 8, 2020

18 Ways That Living Through A Pandemic is ALSO Just Like Having a Baby

It’s been eleven years since the first time I had a baby, and in years since then, I have found that almost nothing is truly analogous to the experience. Until 2020, that is, notable for being the year I discovered not one but two analogies that were absolutely perfect. The first was when I got a sourdough starter back at the beginning of February, and I really wasn’t being facetious when I made the comparison—thought my approach was lighthearted, of course. But if I thought I was serious then, I’m really serious now, when we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s exactly the same, and now I am going to tell you why.

  1. The universe as we know it is shattered. Farewell to the distinctions between day and night, possible and not, our worst nightmares and reality. Between each day. There is grief and loss, and letting go of plans you made, the life you recognize, and the expectation of ground beneath your feet.
  2. There are no real answers, but in lieu of a world we recognize, and because we feel so vulnerable, we cling to dogma, signal virtue, and make up rituals to feel exempt from bad things ever happening to us.
  3. These rituals and signals become performative and are insufferably dull, and yet we share them on social media because we’re desperate for human connection.
  4. …but we’re also desperate for validation, to have all our biases and points of view confirmed, because anything otherwise only reminds us that the universe is shattered and that we’re all just clinging to life as we know it by the skin of our teeth,
  5. (Shhhh!)
  6. A person might wonder how a world could shrink so small.
  7. The ordinary world is rife with dangers we’d never considered before.
  8. If you look hard enough, you can find a doctor telling you what you want to hear. You will find that online community.
  9. Other people’s rituals and signals are anxiety-inducing and only underline that nobody really knows how to do this and we’re all making it up as we go.
  10. Everybody is getting snippy in Facebook threads.
  11. Obviously, there is not a lot a whole lot going on where you are.
  12. Nobody is getting enough sleep.
  13. Is this what the rest of my life is going to look like?
  14. I don’t remember signing up for this.
  15. But there are moments of light in the darkness, of grace. We’ve never had so much food dropped off on the porch, or received so many cards in the mail. We feel cut off from the world, and yet connected.
  16. We consider how the people with real problems must be faring, as we’ve been overwhelmed with fear and anxiety while sheltering safe at home.
  17. There are some days, sometimes, that seem almost normal.
  18. But that we’re still inside the storm makes it difficult to know whether or when it will ever be over.

And a hopeful addendum from my own experience, relevant if the analogy holds: one day it was.

April 27, 2020

Where I Find the Time To Read: The Global Pandemic Edition

This is the third and perhaps the least fun installment in a series of posts about how I find the time to read. (Part one was about reading with a small baby, and you can read the post-breastfeeding edition here.)

And this post is remarkable because in the beginning of this, I couldn’t read at all. It was terrible, because the world was already upside-down, and then here I was unable to read—and if I’m not a reader, then who even am I?

Finding my way back to reading has been to find my way back into my own head again, and since I managed this, books and reading have provided the most wonderful distraction. Books have proven to be the very best way to measure out these days, and worthwhile not just as an escape, but also for the uncanny connections they’ve managed to make to what we’re going through, underlining the universality of experience even in extraordinary times, and also how amazing books really are.

Here’s how I did it.

  • Rereading: In difficult times, there is nothing like returning to a book that’s familiar, a book that’s not going to surprise you. It’s a comfort thing, but it’s also a wonderful experience to be able to read again, to encounter a book you know and then find it changed. Or perhaps you’d forgotten it altogether—last summer I read Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in almost a decade, and realized that I didn’t recall much of what happened in the first four books in the series. Returning to them since has been absolutely enchanting, and also so surprisingly perfect for this moment in a way I could never have predicted, not could have Atkinson herself as she wrote the novels years ago. That they acknowledge life’s darkness, which is important right now, but they’re also brilliantly funny and an escape in themselves. Getting to read these books again has been such a gift for me.
  • Create a reading project: Don’t make this aspirational, but instead make it something you really want to do, an indulgence instead of a chore. If your project, like mine, is about rereading, all the better, because these will be books you already have at home–which is important when you’re locked down under quarantine. I have one more Jackson Brodie book to read, and then I’m going to undertake rereading everything Margaret Drabble ever wrote in chronological order. Thankfully, Margaret Drabble wrote a lot of books, and I have this secret wish that as I read through them, the world outside might become a little less terrible.
  • Finally read the books you own that you haven’t read yet: I actually HAVE read all the books on my bookshelves, because the ones I haven’t read yet I keep on a different bookshelf…and some of these have been lingering there for a really long time. Now is the time! Keeping these titles distinct from the rest helps to focus your reading, and seeing the pile diminish can be satisfying. Remember too though that now is the time to acknowledge that some of these books you’re never actually going to read, and therefore you should get rid of them, which is perfectly fine and even freeing.
  • Have a book swap with your neighbour: You get something new to read, something just a little off your beaten track, and you also get a little burst of social connection. (Just make sure they’re not just giving you the books that they’ve finally accepted they’re never going to read, because that’s probably not going to end well for you…)
  • Acknowledge the reader you are: If your plan is to transform yourself into someone you’re not, then I’m not sure you’re going to be very successful. Life is hard enough right now, and I just don’t think it’s the best time to be adding reading Karl Ove Knausgård to your struggles if you, like me, have never found the prospect very appealing. Instead, pick up only the books you’re really excited about and read like nobody’s watching—because nobody is.
  • Don’t be afraid to break up with your book: If the same book has been sitting on your beside since March 11, then it’s possible that the pandemic is not your literary problem. Perhaps that book is not even a bad book, but it’s just not the book you need at this moment, and you should have no compunction about putting it away for awhile. Forever, if need be. Try another one, and even another one, and eventually, something will take. (Here are some recommendations!)
  • Order some books from your local indie, or from Indigo if that’s what’s available to you. I’m not saying this is going to get you out of your reading slump, but waiting for things to come in the post MAKES ME SO HAPPY these days and all days, and being happy feels good.
  • Set limits for social media: The only social media app on my phone is Instagram, because I find it inspiring, as opposed to Facebook or Twitter which just raises my blood pressure and lead to endless scrolling. I don’t hate these sites, but they suck up my time in unproductive ways, so I am glad they’re not always accessible to me.
  • Put your phone away: My best time for reading is from 9-11 once my kids have gone to bed, and I get the most reading done when my phone is out of reach.
  • Ask yourself just what you’re seeking from news coverage: I’m not hiding my head in the sand, and it’s important for me to know what’s going on in the world. But during the time when I couldn’t read books and was obsessively scrolling and refreshing news sites, I was desperately looking for answers that nobody had yet. They still don’t. Acknowledging the futility of this was useful to me, and it was heartening to realize that books knew more secrets. These days, I focus my news consumption on print media (it has context and it’s FINITE!) and don’t look at online news after sunset.
  • Stop watching so much Netflix. Unless you’re loving it and don’t miss reading at all, but I really do believe that books are a better kind of escape (and they help you sleep better). Rhonda Douglas is running a A 30-Day No Netflix Challenge over at her website as an incentive for writers, and I think it’s a great challenge for readers too. Or what if you set aside one or two evenings a week for reading instead of Tiger King? You probably won’t be sorry you did.
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