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June 16, 2021

How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Home

Every weekday morning for the past year and a bit, I’ve woken up in the morning and moved the furniture around in order to transform our living room in a yoga studio. Enough space for two mats, though not enough that a supine twist can be performed properly. I’d love to extend my arm, but there’s the matter of the sofa, and what can you do?

The home gym doesn’t stop there though—upstairs in our bedroom we have a stationary bike that I bought about five years ago, and used joylessly until I discovered that swimming was my ideal physical activity, and put away in the closet. I really supposed I’d gotten rid of it altogether, but it’s a good thing I didn’t, because it’s been our pandemic saving grace.

When our bedroom is not a spin studio, it’s the place where we hide for Zoom calls because it’s most out of the way. Until a few weeks ago, our “desk” was a patio table with a table cloth over it, but when spring returned, we wanted our patio table back for eating, and I was lucky enough to find a secondhand desk online. (Very lucky! Desks are hard to come by these days. I’m sure there’s not a spare desk in the city…) The desk has wheels, which means we can arrange things to ensure racks of drying laundry do not show up in the shot. I have spent the pandemic envying people who have sensible homes with offices and bookshelves, but these days I am just happy to not be sitting at a wobbly bistro table from Canadian Tire whose bolts really need to be tightened.

Last year our children were certain they wanted a beanbag chair, and bought one with their birthday money, because what else are you going to spend your birthday money on in 2020? So now there is an additional place to sit in their bedroom, even though it takes up most of the floor space. It’s been one of our favourite pandemic purchases, and makes for a comfy seat when someone’s tired of sitting at her desk for virtual school. Her sister does virtual school in the living room, which gets turned into a classroom once its done its yoga studio duties.

The children’s bedroom is also the only room in our house that has a door, and so it’s where everybody else hides when I’m doing an important online event at the desk upstairs. Alternatively, when I had to record an interview for national radio, I did it in the children’s room, although Stuart had to go outside and tell the guys with the leaf blowers to stop it. The children’s bottom bunk has also proved to be a fairly good escape from it all when there’s no one else to hide in a way that I might not have expected.

The kitchen table has always been my desk, and so my pandemic has probably been less disruptive than everybody else’s, and I have to share my desk now, but it’s with a person who regularly makes my lunch, and so its always nice to have him. He always refills my teapot when he makes a pot of coffee, and we take turns fielding queries from the children down the hall: “What do you know about phantom power?” “How do you spell luck?” (My answer to any of the spelling questions: “What do you think?”)

It doesn’t surprise me that so many people have pulled up stakes and decided to move during the pandemic. The last year and a half has highlighted so much about our lives, and opened new possibilities we might not have considered before. If you have to spend weeks locked down at home, it’s also really imperative that that home be someplace comfortable, which is just one of the many reasons we’ve considered ourselves so lucky during this time. Our apartment isn’t large, but it’s adaptable, and has different spaces so we can all have a little bit of space to do our thing. We have a backyard too, which has meant the pool that’s delivered us so much happiness while public swimming has been off the table. Even better, we love our neighbourhood, and I’ve appreciated being close to great stores and bakeries, so many restaurants close for takeout, and being here throughout these last fifteen months has been to be connected to others, even when that seemed like a scary thing. It required us to go out into the world with courage and also faith in our community, and both things have been good for the soul, I think.

June 15, 2021

Gleanings

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June 14, 2021

NISHGA, by Jordan Abel

With his first two books, award-winning poet Jordan Abel’s conceptual writing allowed him a fascinating avenue by which to consider notions of Indigenous identity and cultural appropriation, but also—as he writes about in his latest, and painfully personal, book NISHGA—for him to engage with his own lack of connection with the Indigenous culture of his father and grandparents—the land, cultural knowledge and language of the Nishga people. The appropriative works he dismantles with his poetry are significant for being a primary way in which he’s been able to engage with Indigenous culture as someone who was raised apart from his community.

“Where do you come from?”
A complicated question for many people, and especially for Abel, raised in Ontario by his white mother, far from British Columbia and his father and grandparents whose lives had come to be defined by violence and abuse originating from their experiences at the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School.

Abel’s father was an artist. Ironically, he notes, his father Lawrence Wilson, whom he barely knew, designed the logo for the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society.

Throughout NISHGA, Abel uses his father’s art, superimposing his images with photography and text, connecting and engaging with, and disassembling. These images are included alongside government records, transcripts of talks Abel has given, and other notes and pieces about his experience as an Indigenous writer in Canada.

NISHGA is a complicated, vulnerable, brave and considered answer to the “Where do you come from?” question. Abel wrote this book, he explains, so that other Indigenous people raised apart from their cultures will understand that they are not alone in their experience.

For the rest of us, NISHGA, artfully, originally, continues to underline the enormity of the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, and the questions of identity that many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people rarely even consider.

June 10, 2021

Refreshing

Cheri DiNovo, a former Ontario MPP, and retired Canadian Senator Nancy Ruth make the most interesting literary and political companions in recent books The Queer Evangelist (DiNovo’s new autobiography) and The Unconventional Nancy Ruth (an authorized biography written by Ramona Lumpkin). Both daughters of Toronto but raised in classes that were divided by stratospheres, each woman has made her career out of embracing seeming contradictions, putting principles ahead of political loyalties, and both identify as LGBTQ (DiNovo is bisexual; Ruth is a lesbian). DiNovo may be a proud socialist and Ruth a longtime conservative, but both women have also found a place for themselves within the the Ministry of the United Church of Canada…though within that institution each would prove herself ahead of her time.

I devoured DiNovo’s memoir in two days after reading an article in the Toronto Star about how she wished to show in her book that change is possible and the fight is worth it. Perhaps unsurprising for someone whose true calling is writing sermons, DiNovo is a wonderful storyteller whose easy, informal sentences make for reading that’s both breezy and inspiring at once. She tells the story of her traumatic childhood, of living on the streets as a teenage drug dealer, of turning her life around after support from a shelter helped her return to education, and then how she went from being a teenage Trotskyist to running her own headhunting firm during the 1980s’ excesses. Her corporate success, however, coupled with its inverse as the 1990s arrived and the economy spilled into recession, led her to spiritual questioning whose answers she eventually began to find in the United Church, where she was ordained as a Minister in 1995. After serving a rural parish, she began to work at an inner-city church in Toronto, helping turn the church’s future around by strengthening its connection to the surrounding community. She performed the first same-sex marriage in Canada in 2001. In 2006, she was elected as MPP for Parkdale-High Park in Toronto, a position she would serve in until 2018.

I reviewed the biography of Ruth for Quill and Quire, and you can read my piece right here. Ruth’s childhood was not the hardscrabble experience of DiNovo, but it was difficult and traumatic in its own way, and she faced her own struggles to find her place in the world, though she always had her family fortunes to fall back on. After inheriting her family money, Ruth devotes herself to philanthropy, supporting causes promoting women’s empowerment. She runs for office twice for the Conservative party, but is both times defeated. In 2005, however, she was appointed to the Canadian Senate, where she used her power from within as she always had—to advocate and agitate for progressive change.

What I find most refreshing about both women is the ways that they managed to get things done by reaching across party lines. In the Ruth bio, it’s noted that she donated to the leadership campaign of Ontario Liberal Lyn McLeod when she herself was a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party, because she wanted to see women in positions of power everywhere. DiNovo was able to work with members of other parties to get significant bills passed in the Ontario legislature even when the NDP was in a third-party position. Both DiNovo and Ruth are far more interested in enacting policy change to improve the lives of vulnerable people than adhering to a party line, or ensuring an election win—and in their doggedness, they really do prove that real change is possible.

June 9, 2021

The Souvenir Museum, by Elizabeth McCracken

There is always something so delightfully skewed by Elizabeth McCracken’s literary world, which is populated by ventriloquists and people who play villainesses on children’s TV programs, with runaways and stowaways, and that voice on late night radio dispensing love advice. Literally uncanny, by which I mean that in her latest story collection,The Souvenir Museum, nobody is at home . A distant son takes his widower father on holiday to Scotland. A heartbroken woman checks into a hotel to drink her feelings, and narrowly avoids drowning in someone else’s bathtub. The TV villainess spends New Years with her brother in Rotterdam. A single mother takes her young son to Denmark to find an old flame to give him a watch her father had left him. A mother, the one character who never goes anywhere, is rendered homeless all the same when she loses her entire family. An older gay man takes his young son on a lazy river while his partner takes a break at the bar, and considers the unlikely course of his life. And speaking of unlikely courses, a mother buys her daughter the doll that she’s always wanted (a Baby Alive!) except that her daughter is grown up, expecting her first child, a recovered addict, and alive, while the child of a long-ago friend whose life had once run parallel to hers…is not. This story is called “A Walk Through the Human Heart,” its title referring to a scene set in a science museum, but the title is also an apt description of what it feels like to be reading this book, the exquisite agony of being alive, of being loved, of being left, and bereft.

Stories of Sadie and Jack weave their way among the others, starting near the beginning of their relationship as American Sadie meets her eccentric English relatives at Jack’s sister wedding in the middle-of-nowhere Ireland, and we see teenage Jack in London, later they spend time with Sadie’s mother, and these stories show the baggage that family brings with it, baggage that’s inextricably bound up with stories, some of them true, some of them otherwise. That to love is always, one day, to lose, but we embark on these journeys of a lifetime anyway, and yes, if we’re lucky, there are souvenirs.

These stories, their sentences—they’re disorientating (which is the nature of travel, of course). But they’re also strikingly evocative, marvellously descriptive—but sometimes too much? How can hair be “brown marcel”? Marcel means curly, I think? These are not images you breeze over. I’m imagining Elizabeth McCracken’s mind as a treasure trove of strange words and rituals and people and ideas, the world as we know it rendered in a funhouse mirror, strange and distorted, which is also to say just as it is.

June 8, 2021

Gleanings

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June 7, 2021

Gone Swimming

I swam! I swam! Not in Lake Ontario on Friday after we cycled to Ward’s Island, which would have been ideal because I had actually packed a bathing suit, but I didn’t swim there because the water was so cold and so was the air, although I did make it in to my waist and it was wonderful. (Both my kids swam though. It was incredible! I don’t know how they did it.) But the next day, which was Iris’s birthday, we drove to the Kortright Conservation Centre for a picnic and a walk in the forest, with intentions to dip our feet in the creek, and then it turned out that the one spot on the creek where we stopped was a perfect swimming hole, and so naturally I skipped down to my skivvies and swam right in, and it was GLORIOUS. The most beautiful spot, and there was no one else around, except for my children, who were mortified, but there was no one else around, and not all of us can swim at sub-arctic temperatures, children. Sometimes you have wait for the creek, the wildest swim I’ve ever taken, I think, although not so wild that there wasn’t a lifesaving float secured on the bank. Clearly I’m not the first person to take a dip there. But it was indeed a joyous way to kick off the 2021 swimming season.

June 2, 2021

Day For Night, by Jean McNeil

Day For Night hooked me from its first gorgeous lines, striking evocative prose, marvellous sentences that swept me along much in the way of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting. Something Woolfian about the project entire, though the copy on the back cover refers to Orlando. There’s also Walter Benjamin, whom I know nothing about, and I sometimes get deterred sometimes when writers write in homage to other writers I’ve never read before. This can be alienating, but here it isn’t. Richard is making a movie about Benjamin. It’s 2018 in London and Richard is still reeling from the shock of the Brexit vote, of the nastiness it seems to have unleashed in his world. There are parallels between his moment and that of Benjamin, who was exiled from his native Germany. Richard, born to a Kenyan father, an Italian mother. His history is complicated, sense of himself as a citizen of the world is anchored by his London home. Which feels like another world now. He feels alienated from his family as well, from his wife, a film producer, who’s proven to be far more successful than he has and her paycheques pay their bills. When he meets a young man who’s to play Benjamin in the movie, Richard becomes besotted. Something is going to happen. He knows this.

Day for Night reminded me of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, in its immediacy, and engagement with the UK’s political moment post-Brexit. (Perhaps also because it’s about film and a man called Richard. It made me think of another Richard too, Richard Dalloway.) The novel’s immediacy, however, reads as otherworldly in 2021. The overwrought preoccupation with Brexit seems faraway now that it’s happened, and in light of the pandemic. I found Richard’s agonizing ill-aimed in places, too much. Richard, do you know what a privilege it is to cavort around a city freely while fretting about Brexit? How what is existential in 2018 seems almost frivolous just a few years later? There is something artificial about the way that Richard speaks. He’s more a mouthpiece than a realized character. The meticulous construction of his spoken sentences are even commented upon in the novel—just a quirk of his. But it’s definitely strange.

I will confess that for the first half of Day for Night, I wasn’t sure I could commit to this book. Richard was unnatural. In some ways, he was kind of intolerable. But I persisted, and I am glad I did. Because something happens halfway through that’s entirely unexpected, and changes everything. Casting the entire book in a different light, filters upon filters to understand what’s happening. There are so many layers of meaning, even the layer in which the current moment of this very contemporary story seems out of date now—this is fascinating. And it turns out that this novel has a broader scope than I’d first supposed. Stretching across centuries, and continents, and media. Between reality, and unreality. Summer and winter. Night and day. Male and female. Messing with binaries. Diffusing polarities. It’s a rich and satisfying project.

June 1, 2021

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

June 1, 2021

May/June

May and June are my favourite months. They’re so much my favourite months that I like April even better for the sole reason that in April, we still have all of May and June before us. May and June encompassing what I like to think of as “Kerry Season,” from Mother’s Day until my birthday a month and a half later, and in between those two auspicious dates, both my daughters have their birthdays, we celebrate our wedding anniversary, and there’s that EPIC FESTIVAL known as Father’s Day, which is like Mother’s Day, but smaller. (Both my mother and my mother-in-law also celebrate their birthdays in June. So did Barbara Pym. How could 30 days contain such wonder?)

We are lucky in our household that anybody’s special day is everybody’s special day—we all get takeout and cake. We’ve been especially lucky this year in Toronto that the weather has been glorious and all the most incredible flowers are in bloom. May and June is the season of having so much to look forward to, even before we roll into summer proper. May/June is the season where sometimes we get tired of cake. May/June is before we start visiting places infested with bugs and before I start getting covered in rashes. Before everything is covered in sand, and beach days are just a delicious fantasy. But it’s not too soon for too much ice cream.

May and June are one of those rare experiences that I love and don’t encounter enough, which manage to be wondrous in themselves, but also on the cusp of everything. May and June are like the most wonderful swan dive off a cliff, gorgeous, in slow motion, and at the end of it all is the clearest, bluest lake you’ve ever seen. SUMMER.

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