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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 17, 2020

The Last Goldfish and In the Shade

“Good reviews…prompt me to borrow a recently-published book on grief from the library. I read the acknowledgements, glance at the author’s photo, and skim the table of contents. Partner, child, parent. Not a word about friends, which causes me to toss it onto the pile of books on my night table.” —Marg Heidebrecht, In the Shade

Thankfully, there is no reason related to my own life for me to pick up two books on friendship and grief, except that they’ve both come out this spring, and also friendship has been on my mind of late. Back in March, it was telephone calls to my closest friends that brought me solace in moments of stress, and my two best friends from high school in particular, friendships whose foundations were born on the telephone, long and pointless conversation, spiral cords wrapped around our fingers, until our parents would finally get on the line, and yell at us to get off.

It’s these connections that Anita Lahey conjures in her new memoir, The Last Goldfish, a monument to friendship and to her friend Louisa who died of cancer when they were 22. A friendship that begin in Grade 9 French class, and persisted through high school in the early 1990s, one’s teen years enriched with so much possibility because of friends, the doors they open for us. For Lahey, Louisa was it, a sparkly personality, with divorced parents who didn’t go to church. But soon their families were each other’s, and they would both go off to university together in Toronto, living together in a co-op dorm at Ryerson, studying journalism. Dealing with other roommates, boyfriends, school and family drama, and also Louisa’s health problems, which would stay in the background for many years, numerous lumps removed from different parts of her body from childhood. Until finally she is diagnosed with cancer, and Lahey continues to be part of her friend’s life, keeping her company during hospital stays and treatments, the hospitals just a stone’s throw away from where they lived and worked, and life goes on. Louisa works at the Eaton’s Centre, Anita at a bookshop across the street, and she gorgeously captures the spirit of the time, of youth and possibility, of life in the city.

When Louisa’s condition worsens, she decides to leave school, and ultimately moves to Vancouver to live with her boyfriend, and Lahey consoles herself that it’s like practice, that she’ll be losing her friend before she actually loses her. Lahey herself on the cusp of her whole life, as her friend is on the verge of losing hers, and she explores this strange conjunction 25 years later, how impossible it was to understand it then or even now.

The connection is different in Marg Heidebrecht’s collection of essays, In the Shade: Friendship, Loss and the Bruce Trail. Heidebrecht and Pam have known each other for years, part of the same community, circles of children. But now the children are grown, and the women are contemplating new horizons. Pam, upon retirement, declares her intention to hike the Bruce Trail, 885 kilometres stretching across southern Ontario, and Heidebrecht decides to join her, the two friends venturing out together and reaching their goal in pieces, over the course of four years. Shortly after their accomplishment, Pam is diagnosed with cancer, and Heidebrecht’s book is a memorial to their friendship, to the power and fortitude of women at midlife, and to the wonders of nature and rewards of walking and hiking. The essays are rich and funny, language sparkling, and the storytelling marvelous, packed with practical advice (stow your water bottles in each other’s backpack side-pockets=GENIUS), amusing anecdotes, and tales of the mistakes and misadventures essential to any journey being memorable.

I loved both these books, which are books about grief, but which are uplifting for the way they capture what is lost, just why the weight of grief is so enormous. Celebrations of women’s friendship, both of them, the kinds of stories that aren’t enough told.

June 16, 2020


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June 11, 2020

The Heart Beats in Secret, by Katie Munnik

There is a convention to covers of books by women, and the cover for Cardiff-based Canadian Katie Munnik’s debut novel The Heart Beats in Secret fits that bill. A woman shot from behind, a dress to suggest the domestic, the house in the distance—and even the title with its secret. A reader might think that they’ve read this book before…but stay with me. What if I told you that Munnik considers among the essential literary companions in her creation of this book not only Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, but Basho’s haiku? Or that the house in the distance on the cover is haunted by a wild goose?

Not literally haunted, of course, because the goose is living, and Pidge, who has inherited the house on the east coast of Scotland after her grandmother’s death, discovers it in the kitchen. Which makes it difficult for her to perform the task at hand, namely to get the house cleaned out and ready to sell before she heads back to her home in Canada. But then the goose is not the sole distraction—there is a relationship back in Ottawa that Pidge seems ambivalent about, plus the potential for secrets to be discovered amongst her grandmother’s things, for questions to be finally answered.

The narrative moves between Pidge in 2006; her grandmother Jane in 1940 who has just wed a husband who has gone to war, new to a village where she knows no one; and Jane’s daughter, Pidge’s mother, a nurse who immigrates to Montreal during the later 1960s and becomes part of a community supporting midwifery in the Quebec wilderness, arriving at motherhood also along the way. Each of them women venturing into the unknown, connected to each other, but also on her own, a pioneer. Their narratives far from nesting dolls, fitting into one another tidily, but something very different. As Munnik writes in her Launchpad post on 49thShelf, “Because my story plays with the shifting sands of family memory, I discovered I could play with non-chronological detailing, letting the characters and reader learn about events or motivations in different orders…In that way, writing a novel could be like writing a poem.”

This story is slow and quiet, an altogether pleasant read, but this also makes the novel’s interestingness easy to undermine. The strange ways that the three narratives fit together, the inherent mystery in the text, that the answers never turned out to be what I thought they were going to be. For a story so entrenched in the domestic, it’s really not conventional in the slightest. And the storyline of Jane during WW2 was especially resonant to me as I read it during our own anxious times:

“It feels close to the end now, but the end of my tether or the end of the world, I can’t know.”

June 10, 2020

Black Writers Matter

I don’t recall the catalyst for my decision to make a point of seeking out Black women authors in my reading (it might have been The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy), but only that I kept on doing it because the rewards were plenty. And I too have been frustrated by a lack of Black female voices in Canadian literature, which critic Donna Bailey Nurse addresses here, mostly because if the American example is any indication, then CanLit is missing out on so much—although there have been incremental changes on this front and I can now list Black Canadian women authors on more than one hand. (Note: this is still not enough, thank you.)

And in the last two weeks since the murder of George Floyd, as many white readers and white bloggers have been made suddenly conscious of the lack of diversity on their bookshelves (or cringe-worthingly hyper conscious of what diversity is there—yikes. Stop it, guys!), I’ve thought about posting a list about the Black writers I love, and the reason I’ve decided to partake in this kind of performance is because I’ve not written about so many of those books here on my blog, posting on the far more ephemeral Instagram instead, and so much gets lost that way.

And also because at this moment when so many readers are looking to add Black writers to their to-be-read lists, I can offer many excellent authors and books to start with—because this is only the beginning.

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What I was reading tonight at swimming lessons.

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#FridayReads @luvvie

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New day, new book. #britbennett #themothers

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June 9, 2020


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 4, 2020

The Trouble With Memes

A checkerboard floor

On Tuesday morning, Instagram went black. User after user started posting black squares in support of the fact that Black people deserve freedom from violence and murder by police, and this came a week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a day after corporate brands were busting out all over with their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, when the reasonable suggestion was being made by many that right now was a moment where white social media influencers could “mute” themselves, taking a step back from their platforms to amplify the voices of Black leaders instead. In the music industry, two Black women—Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang—had already launched #TheShowMostBePaused for Tuesday June 2, an initiative to show that they and others in music would “not be conducting business as usual without regard for Black lives.” And somehow this idea was spilled beyond their industry and over onto Instagram in general, utilizing the symbolism of the black squares, and users began adding the Black Lives Matter hashtag…because Black lives do.

But the effect of this proved disastrous, and because influencers are gonna influence, the effect was also huge. By Tuesday morning, the Black Lives Matter hashtag (essential for organizers and activists) was lost to a sea of dark squares, the noise of well-meaning white people’s efforts to be quiet. Though of course not everyone was white, and there were many Black people who were also part of the meme too, no matter how it absurd it may seem that any Black person should be silent at a moment when Black voices have never mattered more.

But this is how memes work. There is a sense of obligation, in addition to one of reflex, and of course, it’s easy. Although it’s not as easy to share a meme on Instagram as it is on other platforms, where sharing and retweets are built into the system. (They weren’t always. Once upon a time, pre the RT button, one had to go out of their way to share on Twitter, copying and pasting in order to post other people’s content.) On Instagram, users require a external reposting app (or screenshot captures) to share posts beyond the ephemerality of Instagram Stories—and this extra step required is why Instagram has long been my social media platform of choice. The extra step creates enough friction for users to be more thoughtful about what they’re posting, and it also makes it less trouble to post original content, something users have created themselves.

(This does not mean that Instagram is an intellectual oasis. But sometimes, it’s one of the less stupid sites on the internet I see.)

The black squares were so simple though, their symbolism poignant, and the matter was urgent with real lives at stake—so I understand why someone would leap on the bandwagon without thinking. And it’s not so much this particular bandwagon that I am critiquing here, because the fallout was dramatic enough to be obvious, but instead I want to critique the “without thinking” itself, which is the essence of meme culture and meme activism, undermining political messaging and making the internet a much less interesting place.

Of course, memes work. Right wing movements owe much of their success in the last five years to garbage social media accounts stating simplistic or misleading ideas, and demanding that your great uncle share if he agrees, which he does, and he did, and this is probably why some of you quit Facebook. More recently, however, progressive groups have tried similar approaches, which is why your enlightened uncle on the other side is sharing posts from “North 99,” which means that your Facebook feed is a little bit less racist, but it certainly isn’t any less dumb.

But what would an internet without memes even look like? And here I will hearken back to the glory days of blogging, to the first five years of this century when most people were barely online. Where instead of social media and algorithm, we had blogs instead, where everybody was a different kind of social misfit, and everything was a little bit technically clunky. If you wanted to put something online, you would have to write it in your own words, instead of borrowing somebody else’s—unless maybe they were the lyrics to a Dar Williams song.

Now this kind of nostalgia is as substantial as a meme is, so I’ll stop here, but I share it to show you where I’m coming from, the kind of “interesting” I’m looking for when I’m scrolling around online.

What if you believed in the power of your own words and ideas to speak up and make a difference? Just think of what kind of power that could be. What if, instead of a black square, you shared an image from your field of expertise and wrote some paragraphs about your thoughts on racial violence from your perspective as an art appraiser and as a parent? What if you curated your feed into a gallery of Black voices? What if you posted a picture of the view from your window, accompanied by a sentence or two about how that view looks different to you now that you have a new understanding of the murderous brutality of police violence? How does your sky look different today because of that? I’d really like to know. (And you don’t even have to tag your Black friends in this post, because none of this, to them, is news.)

What if it wasn’t even about what you posted, but instead about what was in your mind?

And if you weren’t ready to share that yet, if you still had learning to do, instead you could sit back and listen?

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.

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