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December 14, 2015

Emerging

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If there is a better time in the year than this to have to spend three weeks in bed, I can’t think of it. I’m finally feeling well, rested and relaxed, emerging back into the world again (…slowly, slowly….) to realize that it’s Christmas. I’ve come a long way since a week ago when I thought I was feeling well-er, but wasn’t. This weekend I didn’t leave the house, but was mostly out of bed, and we put up our tree on Saturday (which Stuart carried home from the store by himself) and decorated, and then did all the Christmas baking yesterday. (All has been extensively documented on Instagram.) Today I have a doctor’s appointment at 2pm, and I’m hoping she’s going to give my lungs the all-clear, and then I’m going to finish up my Christmas shopping at nearby shops. I’m even going to take the subway instead of a taxi, which is a sign of health for sure (and also, I am not a millionaire), except that I’m forbidden to exit Spadina Station at Walmer Road because when I tried to climb those steps three weeks ago (before I knew it was pneumonia) I almost died. Today it will be escalators all the way.

IMG_20151211_152021And oh, there has been reading. Holiday reading. Any new or notable book released lately, and the very intriguing ARCs that are beginning to arrive for Spring 2016 have all been set aside as I’m going through my shelves noting the not-new and un-noteable—a trend that began with Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall last week, which I liked so so much and might have lingered on the shelf forever had I not finally picked it up looking for an inconsequential read. After reading the compelling and very strange Girl in the Dark (and oh yes, are misery memoirs ever effective at making one feel better about everything in general), I picked up Dead Cold by Louise Penny—somehow we’ve ended up with a stack of Louise Penny UK editions; this one was released in North America as A Fatal Grace. And it turned out to be a cozy murder mystery that takes place over Christmas, which was perfect. It’s not dead cold here, but it was lovely to be back in Three Pines and over the holidays no less. I love Louise Penny’s Gamache series so much, but got into it quite late in the game, so am playing catch-up with some of the earlier novels.

IMG_20151213_233153And then I started read Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Her new book, Mare, is on several notable lists of 2015, but remember I’m doing un-noteable, and Veronica has been sitting on my shelf for sometime—another book I found in a box in the summer, I think. And I’m really enjoying it. It reminds me of Jennifer Egan, Good Squad and Look at Me, except I like it much more than I liked the latter.  I read Gaitskill’s collection, Bad Behaviour, a while ago, and mostly remember it was conspicuously dated with references to obsolete technology. She is also a bit too gritty for me, and nobody is ever putting the kettle on or going to church (always a criticism in my books), but I am really enjoying Veronica, and this might be the perfect way to get to Mare. When I return to notable things.

IMG_20151212_221324And finally, we finished reading The Horse and His Boy, and convinced Harriet to take a short Narnia break so we could try something else as our family read-aloud. Last Christmas, we were reading The Children of Green Knowe, and I’ve been looking forward to a similarly seasonal read. So I picked up London Snow, by Paul Theroux, which I know nothing about, except that it is a Christmas story and it was a gift from our friend, Zsuzsi. And while it doesn’t seem so seasonal—we have no snow, and temperatures have been in the double digits (which after two wintry, wintry Decembers I kind of feel is a reward I’ve worked for)—we are definitely under its spell. A strange story that takes place in a sweet shop, whose proprietor is called Mrs. Mutterance and keeps muttering and uttering odd phrases that none of us understand, and her adopted son Wallace sleeps in a hammock in the hall and she has to yell at him to stop pendulating. In the weirdest way, it reminds me of Graham Greene’s super-strange Christmas picture book, The Little Steamroller. Sinister things afoot, and all, and yes, because of snow in London.

I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

December 9, 2015

Reading Report from the Bedridden

IMG_20151209_113735So there I was, reading The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis. A book I picked off my shelf after the Paris terror attacks last month, and as Canada stands on the cusp of returning to the international stage in terms of diplomacy. There aren’t any women in it, so it wasn’t completely my cup of tea, but it was relevant and really interesting. Further (and don’t tell anyone I said this, but) Lester “Mike” Pearson was sort of a bit womanly himself, in that he was a pragmatist with a sense of the universal, he was good at working with others, negotiating egos and orchestrating practical outcomes. He saw the value of a middle ground, nuance; his world wasn’t black and white. And I was learning so much about how decisions 90 years ago and ever since have set up the Middle East to be the bloody mess it is today. How much history matters to right now, but so few lawmakers seem to have that kind of vision (and also keep making the same mistakes over and over. Iraq in 2003, anyone?)

But then I got so so sick. The night my sickness arrived, I had a terrible fever and was staring at a photo of Anthony Eden in Ottawa in Feburary 1956 and he wasn’t wearing a scarf, and I was shivering inside my own terrible chill, and thinking, “Poor Anthony Eden. He was must have been so cold.” When I went to sleep, the fever continued, and I had weird, terrible Suez Crisis dreams all night.

The Diplomat is a very good book, but it’s a terrible book to be reading while one is ill. Though perhaps during that first week of illness, there is existed no book that would have suited. I kept falling asleep and staring at the ceiling, and Lester was kind of like my albatross—it was far too important a book to give up on (and perhaps I would never return to it) but I wanted light and Lester wasn’t it. Eventually though, as the fever abated and I persisted, I got to to the end. 340 pages of men doing men things, as my virus morphed into pneumonia, and I’m glad I didn’t give up. But it was also a relief when I was finished.

blue flwoerThe other terrible thing about being sick, speaking in terms of literary blogging, is that I never got a chance to talk about Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I was reading before The Diplomat. Penelope Fitzgerald, who I always struggle with anyway. Offshore is the book of hers I’ve most appreciated, and my desire to be more appreciative in general was underlined by the Hermione Lee bio. So I finally picked up The Blue Flower, which had historical fiction working against it. “You think that that you won’t like it, but you will,” is what everybody told me, and they were right. A fictionalization of the life of the eighteenth century German writer, Novalis, whom I’ve never ever heard of. So weird, but also perfectly realized. How did she do that? And, even more curiously, why? But yes, it turned out to be the most easily, immediately appreciable Penelope Fitzgerald ever. So glad I am persisting with her work. It helps, of course, that her books are short. I think a writer can make anything work if her books are short.

After The Diplomat, when I was still unwell, I spent a weekend rereading The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh, which was perfect. Then Next to Nature, Art, by Penelope Lively, which was a bit lacklustre but also comforting and funny. And from there to The Story of a New Name, because there is no time like the pneumonic to finally get down to Elena Ferrante. And when that near-500 page epic was finished (but not an albatross), I read The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami, whose UK edition is exquisite. So weird, but also short, and a beautiful book.

And now since I’ve been reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall, which I found in a box on the street sometime last summer, I think, and I like it so much. 12 years late to the party, I know—it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, a long-shot contender. But it’s a really weird, absorbing, surprising and beautiful book, if it is painfully sad as well. But it’s just so nice to be sick and stuck in bed, and loving a book at once. You never can tell the perfect book for the perfect time, can you?

Seasonally, I’m dipping in and out of Derek McCormack’s beautiful book, Christmas Days. It’s nice to have the time to do such a thing. And also enjoying my daily selection from the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar—today’s author is Rosemary Nixon, who I love so much. When I’m very excited about one of these stories, I save them all day long for the sweet joy of anticipating. And next up is Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey, which my friend Janine gave me last summer when I developed my bizarre sun allergy. (She sent it with hope that it would not be my future, but perhaps something I would appreciate.) It just seems like the right thing, someone else’s trouble to outweigh my own, plus it seems readable and easy. And yes, short. Means a lot these days. Will report back as things transpire.

Anyway, the other bad thing about poor Lester is that he’s become my teapot coaster, and I keep pouring tea all over his steely-resolved head.

December 8, 2015

On Needing and Feeding

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My friend Melanie, who has just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, wrote the most terrific blog post last week on how women are so reluctant to ask for help when they need it and how particularly strange that is seeing as how we tend to be very good at responding to others’ needs when required. How particularly strange too because the help is there; people want to give it. We’ve just got to open ourselves to receiving it, which can be tricky because it involves admitting our limits, crossing personal boundaries; letting other people into our personal spaces; and other possible transgressions. It involves needing, which has so many negative connotations in our society that so prizes self-sufficiency, independence, and so much reserve. A society that finds it simpler, tidier, to imagine that “social network” is a theoretical thing that lives online. And yet.

Inspired by Melanie’s post, and by the fact that we were two weeks into an illness that was not abating and running my husband ragged with caring for me, the children, our household and everything, I put the call out. “Is there anything I can do,” people asked, to which I responded, “Bring us food.” Already, we were pretty supported. My mom had been coming into the city every other day to take care of Harriet and Iris, and so that Stuart could actually, you know, go to work. And she’d been bringing food. But then on Wednesday, our friend Denise brought over turkey pot pie. Our friend Andrew brought over vegetable stew and rice that I ate for lunch the next day. Rebecca came on Friday with a batch of cookies. Athena dropped off a batch of broth. Our next-door neighbours delivered soup. My friend Lexi brought over more soup, and a loaf of challah bread. Erin came on Sunday to play with the children and give Stuart a break, and she brought so much soup. Our downstairs neighbours delivered latkes. My dad and his partner dropped in yesterday while I was sleeping, with more food and also the most delicious cookies. I got home last night to find a container of chickpeas on the step, from our friend and neighbour, Kripa. There are rumours my aunt is dropping off a casserole. And just now, my dear friend Julia let herself into my kitchen to drop off an actual chicken. So I know what we’re having for dinner tonight. All week, we’ve known what we’re having for dinner tonight. And I don’t know if I can convey what a difference that’s made for us.

The point is this: that people are terrifically good at taking care of each other. This very salient fact gets lost in a world that fills our news feeds with violence and despair. It especially gets lost too because we’re so reluctant to ask for that care, to admit that we need it. That human connections are not just theoretical, but actual, and we’d be very lost without them. That these families we build too are fragile things, and everybody needs a hand sometime to keep the machine in motion. That nobody is alone. That nobody should be.

Families facing what Melanie and her family are dealing with need this kind of help in the long term—before I got sick, it never occurred to me how much this was true, how debilitating it can be to have a parent who is ill. And how important it is that people like us to keep on bringing the soup so that mothers like Melanie can face the vital business of being well and loving her children ferociously. That we help too by giving money to support metastatic breast cancer research so Melanie ends up eating so much soup for such a long time that she eventually gets tired of it and asks for the menu to be changed.

December 7, 2015

What if I’m just really lazy?

IMG_20151207_091116In pneumonia news, I can breathe again, even huge lung-expanding breaths. Apart from being terrifically tired, I am feeling well enough, though not so well enough to get out of bed and go traipsing around like an actual person. But recovery is being complicated by the matter of Iris, whose own cough is fairly prolific, and of course I’m paranoid that she’s going to get pneumonia. Although she has no symptoms other than the cough, which only really affects her when she lies down to go to sleep, which means that she’s not actually been able to lie down and go to sleep for two days now. Or three? (Generally there is a scuffle around 10:30 and she ends up in our bed. Last night there was no room for me in our bed, so I had to sleep on the couch.) So Iris is generally under the weather, tired-gone-bonkers. We sent her to school today because I don’t know what we’d do with her at home. We’re hoping this was not a terrible decision.

Truth: lying in bed reading is my favourite thing, so having pneumonia is not all agony. But then I start to worry that perhaps I’m not sick, I’m just really really lazy…

Today I have a doctor’s appointment to see if I need another round of antibiotics, and then tonight I’m teaching the final session of my course. I am not quite sure how the latter is going to transpire. How does one teach a class straight out of lying in bed for two weeks? But needs must. I am sorry to be finishing a really great session on such a low note. I should have been wearing tap shoes and bringing in cupcakes, but I will be lucky to be showing up upright at all.

Other things: I finished the Elena Ferrante book, The Story of a New Name. My aversion to long books makes these a challenge for me, but I am certainly interested in them, very glad to be reading along with everybody else. Today I will be reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall, which I remember from when it was nominated for the Booker years and years ago. Also reading Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, whose UK edition we bought in April and is so amazing. And today’s Short Story Advent Calendar selection is “Laplanders,” by Zsuzsi Gartner, which I’m so enjoying looking forward to reading that I kind of don’t even want to read it.

I am just fortunate that I’ve built myself a life which is very conductible from my bed. On Thursday morning, I did an interview for an article, and I don’t think the subject knew I was in my pyjamas and 12 hours into a pneumonia diagnosis. I’m also due to be starting edits on my novel soon, which is certainly an in-bed activity indeed. It’s just a shame that I can’t invite my blogging students up tonight and teach my course from a pile of pillows as well. And yes, there is the matter of raising the children, rousing myself to do the school run. I’m thinking about getting a portable bed, going a bit bed knobs and broomsticks, and whizzing up and down the sidewalks on four posters/four wheels. Now that would be something after all.

December 2, 2015

The thing on my chest

IMG_20151202_090554Oh, it only gets better and better. That thing that’s been sitting on my chest for the last twenty-four hours has turned out to be pneumonia. Which has certainly undermined our plans to have me all up and repaired by tomorrow at the latest. But it’s also a relief—hooray for pneumonia, because finally it’s a non-vague diagnosis AND it has antibiotics. But no one has responded to the news by sending me platform shoes and a gong to bang. Apparently pneumonia is no fun? Oh boy. But I have started reading Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I read My Brilliant Friend when we were away in the spring, and while I liked it well enough, I wasn’t nuts for it. It’s possible it’s not the kind of book for that kind of vacation, when you don’t really want to tote around something heavy and when you only have a few minutes here and there throughout the day to dip in and out of the story. But pneumonia is kind of the opposite, because where I don’t really have anywhere to go now. And there is something about this second book that has hooked me much more immediately than the first one did. By which I mean that if do end up getting Ferrante Fever, on top of everything else, the time is probably right now.

November 30, 2015

Ten Things I Sort of Like About Being Sick

IMG_20151130_085600Okay, I am going to do it, because I’ve done enough moaning for sure. My own version of Ten Things I Sort of Like About Being Sick.

  1. Not thinking about food all the time: It is true that I am usually preoccupied by planning my next meal. And conspiring to bake a cake. Plus I have to feed the people I live with, and have the shopping done, and make lunches, but in the last week I’ve not cared about any of this at all and it’s been kind of freeing.
  2. My bedroom. I like my bedroom a lot. It’s huge and quiet and has an en-suite bathroom. My bed is comfortable. This is not a terrible place in which to spend a lot of time.
  3. Doing nothing. Like nothing, nothing. For most of last week, I couldn’t even read. Sometimes I would close my eyes, and when I woke up, then whole afternoon had disappeared. I have spent hours staring into the middle distance. I don’t ever, ever do nothing. It’s kind of interesting to know I have the capacity.
  4. My husband. Not that I needed him to demonstrate that a) he loves me or b) that he’s a really really good partner. But as ever, he’s stepped up. Not so much that he hasn’t had moments of frustration, demonstrating that he’s human after all, but he’s an amazing human, taking our kids to school, making those meals I can’t be bothered with, keeping our house tidy, the children happy, and getting his work done.
  5. My mom. For coming and bringing us meals, and picking up my girls from school, and playing with them so they are not watching TV all the time. So profoundly grateful for what she does for us. She’s been a lifesaver this week.
  6. Popsicles. And smoothies. Okay, it’s possible that I’m still preoccupied with food.
  7. Christmas is doomed. Okay, fortunately, I’ve bought all my children’s presents, and I’ve even bought the presents that need to be send across the country and across an ocean…but they’re still sitting in their packaging. I think we’re running out of time. I also haven’t done any Christmas cards. All this is going amiss. And it’s just going to have to…
  8. That everything has stopped. It is true, this fall has been a perpetual motion machine. And for a few days I tried to outrun my illness, but it turned out to be faster than I am. I also kept reading articles about people who’d been put into medically induced comas after ignoring illnesses for long periods of time and then nearly dying. So I decided to give myself the rest I needed. Oh, okay, I didn’t decide, I had not choice. But everything has stopped. And that’s okay.
  9. My bedside table. I love it. It’s its own universe. It has a tea pot, an a telephone, and a water bottle, and books, and a smoothie, and kleenex, and painkillers, and a lamp. What else does one need in the world?
  10. Getting better. It’s starting to happen. I just have to be patient to win this game.

Mitzi Bytes

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