The One where I reference the Biebs in a sermon

I’ve just finished a two year theology degree in which I’ve done a lot of thinking, growing, reading and writing. My hope is that the degree will infuse my writing, rather than that I take on a role in a church. It’s been a real pleasure to be a student again. And because this blog is about writing, I thought I might share a couple of pieces of writing I did. This one was for a course on Sermons which I took partly because it terrified me and partly because it was taught by a friend. It was both terrifying and fun. I took it –remotely — while I was living at a retreat centre where I did a placement. The retreat centre is just around the corner from where Justin Bieber has a cottage and where he spent the first months of lockdown. Folks at the retreat centre said they always know when Justin is in residence because you can hear his sports car coming long before you see it.

So, Jesus and the Biebs.

First, let me give you the Bible passage I used for my sermon:

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. (John 12:20–26)

And now, Jesus and Justin:

When I read John 12, I kept thinking about Justin Bieber. Not because Jesus is particularly like Justin, but both were celebrities who went to hide out in the countryside – Justin spent months of the pandemic near the retreat centre where I work, while Jesus and his disciples escaped to a village when the Pharisees began to see him as a real threat. Now Jesus has emerged and ridden into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees say, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

The scene in John 12 shows how popular Jesus was. And not just with the locals. A group of Greeks visiting Jerusalem for the Passover came looking for an audience with Jesus. Interestingly we don’t know if they ever got that conversation, but the person who DID get an interview with the celebrity, Jesus, was his disciple Philip.

If Jesus is Bieber, and the Greeks are the groupies, Philip is the connection between them – he’s the guy who knows Jesus and he’s the only disciple with a Greek name which may be why the Greeks approach him with their request. Clearly Jesus is the main event, but Philip styles himself as that influencer, the guy who can connect you with Jesus. The Greeks even call Philip Sir.

Philip also has a particular brand throughout the Gospel. When Jesus first calls Philip to follow him, Philip invites his friend and says, “come and see.” When there’s a crowd of hungry people, it’s Philip who looks around and does a head count to figure out the cost of bread. At the Last Supper, Philip will say to Jesus, “Show us the Father and that will be enough.” Philip is all about appearances, looking and seeing. So the Greeks are speaking his language when they tell him they want to see Jesus. But are they talking Jesus’s language?

At first it sounds like Jesus is with them. When Jesus starts to answer the request Philip brings from the Greeks, he says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It sounds like the celebrity is about to explain his rider—that he wants only green M and Ms or white tulips – but then Jesus flips the script to show Sir Philip what glory is really all about in God’s Kingdom.

And Jesus doesn’t draw on images of a rich and powerful guy staying in a secure country estate; instead Jesus points to the fields around such a place where it’s mud one day and glorious green shoots sprouting up the next – if and only if the seed is planted in the ground. In God’s Kingdom, the seed isn’t kept in a safe place and it isn’t called Sir. There’s no growth unless the seed – or Jesus – or Philip – agrees to die.

At the end of their conversation, Jesus tells Philip the Father will honour the one who follows him in being willing to fall into the ground and die. This is a hard teaching all by itself. No one is eager to die. But it wasn’t long before this that Jesus said he came to bring abundant life so I don’t think he’s against life in all its growing glory. Instead Jesus loves life enough not to hoard it. Jesus knows that a seed remains alone if it doesn’t fall into the ground. Jesus is less interested in appearances, in what can be seen, and more interested in what can be known deep down in the ground. He calls Philip to know him and be like him.

And so, us.

But you might say, surely we MTS students don’t aspire to be like Justin Bieber or to be called sir. But I don’t know. This past weekend, I led a workshop for… three people, and a church service of four. I’m no Christian influencer and I’m okay with that. Mostly. But some days I’m not. And it isn’t fair to Philip or me to think this desire to influence is all superficial. Sometimes a person has something they want to share. Sometimes I wish I could make more of a difference.

And maybe you’re frustrated with working in a small church as a solo pastor or having your time taken up with the demands of a young family or not getting published or having only a handful of social media followers. Or perhaps you’ve come to terms with a come-and-see-this-great-guy-I-know approach to ministry.

Jesus says we can have influence but not the way we think, that it happens if we go where Jesus goes. But Jesus says this with sympathy because he is headed toward his death. He is about to die and his soul is troubled and he’s wondering whether there’s another way. But he has spent time in the fields and he knows this IS the way of God’s Kingdom. He’s willing for his life to be literally planted in the ground so that resurrection can happen.

For us, death may be more metaphorical but it’s still hard. And yet, we only need to look at crops growing in the fields to know that death is actually good news, that if we want to have the hope of an abundant harvest, we have to risk throwing all the seed we have into what might look a lot like dirt.  And we do this, trusting that just as God takes a seed buried in obscurity and multiplies it into many seeds, and just as he brought resurrection to the crucified Jesus, so he can and will do a miracle among us wherever we’re planted.

And now, Jesus and the Biebs.

Top 10 Books of 2021

I did the math and reckoned that I read at least 3500 pages between September and early November for a reading course at school. What that meant, however, was that in late November when I caught a garden-variety cold, Dave suggested I curl up in bed with a novel. Which felt like a novel suggestion after months of reading theology, but also a very good one, and I’m back in my reading pattern again. Because of school, I didn’t always track the number of books I read this year, but I imagine you are here for the book recommendations not my personal stats, and I can certainly give you recommendations.

10 – Restoration by Rose Tremain – I pick up books like toddlers pick dandelions and small stones, although I am usually willing to leave them unfinished if I am not enjoying them. I picked this book out of our neighbour’s little library, not expecting much, but I was quickly hooked. And then I discovered that this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it came out in 1989. It has a really strong voice in it and is a long and winding tale of self-discovery. One of my favourite parts was the first chapter where the first person narrator tries to decide how best to tell his story. Since I am studying theology, it occurs to me as I write about it that in a strange way this book is a modern-day Ecclesiastes where the character tries to discover the meaning of life. Only with more sex scenes and humour and pathos. I read the more recently written sequel, Merivel: A Man of His Time, and liked it much less. This one is a good escape that’s well written.

9 – Once Upon A Wardrobe by Patti Callahan. This is a brand new book that imagines what’s behind C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. The author also wrote  Becoming Mrs Lewis several years ago, which I’m not sure I loved. I took this out from the library, willing to put it down if I didn’t love it, and instead I devoured it. I knew much of Lewis’s own biography but it’s woven beautifully into a story about a sibling pair whose own poignant story appeals to the Lewis brothers who share their stories in a roundabout way of telling how Narnia came to be. There are some slightly far-fetched and sentimental plot points but mostly this is a subtle and beautiful book, and it was a lovely one to read on a snowy early winter afternoon.

8 – The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny. Like the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, I can’t quit Louise Penny’s Three Pines books. Like a favourite longstanding television show, the writing waxes and wanes but once you’ve fallen in love with the characters, you’re usually willing to go along for the ride. Not everyone loved this particular book but I did and I think Penny is writing at her best again. It’s set back in Three Pines in a post-pandemic world Penny assumed was on the horizon when she wrote it, but also deals with some of the ugliness that happened during the pandemic in Quebec in particular, including what happens when people band together or are isolated together.

7 – The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde.  Full disclosure: I adore Jasper Fforde. I discovered his writing when he published The Eyre Affair. His ability to create worlds is second to none. He’s hilarious and satirical and possibly insane. This was the novel Dave suggested I read when I was sick, and it was just so much fun but also such a great commentary on our society and our fear of The Other. In this book, The Other are rabbits, and the book is set in the present, fifty years after the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event when suddenly rabbits more or less became human. This book was written in the shadow of Brexit and Black Lives Matter and Trump’s wall and treatment of immigrants and all the other social movements that polarize society and call us to do better. This book isn’t any kind of straight allegory but more a fantastical look at where this can go. But it’s also good fun and very wickedly clever. Highly recommended!

6 – Lying Awake by Mark Salzman.  This is a small and beautiful book about a difficult choice faced by a contemporary nun who is blessed with visions that may actually have a medical cause. It explores the nature of faith  and it’s just exquisite and complicated. I would recommend it to people of faith and people who aren’t religious at all.

5 – Death of My Aunt by C.H.B. Kitchin. This book was published in 1929. I found it in an article about terrific midcentury British murder mysteries that have been forgotten, and I bought it on Kindle. It deserves a rediscovery. I’m not giving away too much to say that the narrator is the one who actually delivers death to the victim but in a way that is innocent. The narrator is an everyman who has read murder mysteries before and knows the conventions. He doesn’t become the detective but when he’s detained at the house where the death occurred, with other suspects, he does quite naturally spend some time trying to figure out how this could have happened. But this is not a fluffy character either but a surprisingly sympathetic, unique and compelling one, trying to find his way through a difficult situation.

4 – Improvisation by Samuel Wells. Maybe you have to be a theology student to read this book written by an Anglican vicar and professor of ethics, but it truly was one of my favourite books of the year, despite my lack of particular interest in ethics. I’ll give you a summary of the big argument of the book: instead of approaching ethics from a traditional way, Wells argues that the church can draw from its history (including the events of both the Old and New Testament and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the history of the Christian church) to improvise ethics much as a theatre company does, having immersed itself and then adapting to new situations. I would argue that this approach could be used more widely than with ethics in order to think about how deep faith formation can then allow us to relax in the moment, like a well-conditioned athlete or members of a theatre company. It’s readable and thoughtful.

3- Faith and Art by Makoto Fujimura. I think this was a social media recommendation, a new book by the visual artist Fujimura who uses traditional Japanese art disciplines and precious raw materials to make the most stunning abstract art. But Fujimura is also a theologian and further someone who has experienced significant loss and trauma. In this book, he reflects on how art and faith intersect for him, and writes beautifully about the idea of kintsugi, the art that arises out of brokenness. It seems like a fine pandemic read. I read it while I was away on a writing retreat in a beautiful space and that made it all the better. Even if you don’t read the book, go have a look at his art: https://makotofujimura.com/

2-Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. Anthony Doerr is – without Doerr’s knowledge but with my husband’s consent – my literary boyfriend. After he wrote All the Light We Cannot See, he probably became everyone’s literary boyfriend but I do encourage you to look at his backlist, the books and especially the short stories he wrote before that book was published. He writes in exquisite detail about so many different places and times and things that you think he must have lived an extraordinary life to even know as much as he does. He lives in Idaho. I read this book as an advanced reading copy sent to me by my lovely literary agent, Don Pape, who knows of my love of all things Doerr. When I began it, I wasn’t sure I would like it. It includes many points of view in many times and places. It was more than a bit daunting. But I trusted Doerr to somehow bring it all together and maybe you can trust me that he really does in unexpected ways. This book is also a love letter not to me but to books and libraries and texts and the people who love them and preserve them and pass them along. It’s a little bit ancient and a little bit sci-fi, and—again, we can trust Doerr to make this combination work. If I’m honest, it doesn’t match All the Light, but it’s finer than most writing out there and it’s heartfelt and bright.

1-Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I mentioned how I read Art + Faith on a beautiful writing retreat. Sometimes where you read a book affects how you read it, and sometimes – like a wine pairing with a meal – you can choose a book to read to suit a place. Last year, when my husband and I first drove up to Lake Superior on a pandemic road trip, we listened to an Audible book of Waubgeshig Rice’s super scary Moon of the Crusted Snow, set in a northern Ontario reservation, cut off from the rest of the world. This summer, we drove up to the same place and I could recall where on the road or the lake we had listened to certain parts of that story. We also brought a new story with us, new to us anyhow, from a writer I should have known about because her writing is wonderful. Mary Lawson has written a collection of books set in a small fictionalized northern Ontario town called Crow Lake. This book is her first novel, about a family in the aftermath of an event that created a Before and After. But there’s humour and love and the most beautiful hard-won realizations as well as horrifying tragedy. It has an incredibly strong sense of place and family. I don’t think you need to drive through northern Ontario to read it, nor do I know if it will make you want to, but you will almost for sure love it.

Two last things: a note that in 2023, I will have a book being published by Inanna Publications, so I suppose I can predict the #1 read for that year. Also, my husband and I have continued to watch classic movies most Friday evenings so I’d like to share a few of our (somewhat unexpected) favourites from 2021, in case you want to watch movies instead of reading: Diva, Soylent Green, Gaslight, The Great Escape, The African Queen.

Easter Water

Before I could read, my brother, sitting with me in the backseat of our station wagon, poring over the unfolded CAA map of Quebec, pointed to Lac Manicouagan and told me that was where we were going, and that it was a lake formed by worms. He was wrong : Lac Manicouagan was formed by a meteorite slamming into Quebec, and then the gradual erosion of the dam it formed. Lac Manicouagan is what is called an annular lake – it forms the shape of a ring, with land in the centre. It does – I must give Bau credit for imagination – look like pictures of ringworm. But it was not to Lac Manicouagan we were going anyhow, although I felt squeamish about swimming in our lake even years after I had learned that it had nothing to do with worms.

We did the drive every summer: Toronto and then long rolling hills where I started to feel carsick. The Big Apple where we would stop to stretch our legs and climb the stairs to the top. We could see the lake from there. Somehow, eating a slice of apple pie from the Big Apple always settled my stomach. And then, it was the St. Lawrence river we looked for –so narrow, our mother told us, that American soldiers had invaded on the winter ice, crossing the river itself. Another long stretch of nothing and then we crossed the border into Quebec. My father would always stop at the last gas station in Ontario to buy gas and the first gas station in Quebec to buy cigarettes. He did not smoke often – not around us anyhow – but he always smoked when we visited Quebec. I never knew whether it was the smell and taste of home to him, or whether it calmed his nerves for driving through Montreal and for seeing his mother. As we drove onto the islands of Montreal, every year my mother would turn around and tell us to be quiet, for God’s sake, and let our father drive. And every year, it seemed, invariably, our father would end up thrashing his right arm in our general direction, while we ducked and squealed and continued the fight that had started probably precisely because our parents had begged us not to fight. Montreal was always longer than any other part of the trip, especially if we got stuck on one of the clover-leafed highways behind a diesel truck in construction. That was usually when the carsickness would strike me again. One year, I actually threw up into Bau’s baseball cap. “For God’s sakes, Theresa,” my father said, ash hanging off the cigarette clamped between his teeth. “Throw it out the window.” I always felt instantly better after throwing up – I still do – and I remember being quite calm as I watched the Blue Jays cap sail down off the top layer of the many highways. I couldn’t see where it landed, but I imagined it landing on the windshield of the car of an Expos fan. “The car stinks,” Bau said. “Can we open a window?” “No!” our parents chorused, and my mother broke out the spearmint gum I associated with carsickness, splitting a piece between Bau and me. “And I do not care whether her piece is larger,” my mother hissed. “She’s sick.” “She’s not sick – “ Bau started and then as my mother’s hand withdrew, still holding his half-stick of gum, he stopped and took the gum in silence, blowing bubbles. He could always blow bubbles out of the tiniest piece of gum. It was a gift.

Once we were past Montreal, we could open the windows and it seemed as if there was more light in the car as well as air. My father would put a tape in the cassette player – usually something French – and we would roll our eyes and get out the maps to see how much farther we had to endure this.

We would stop for supper in Trois-Rivières, rain or shine. Trois-Rivières is where I would first really notice the silver roofs of the churches. They’re really zinc but they looked like silver. Once I saw lightning hit one of the roofs and it glowed, although Bau said I was imagining it. There must be zinc mines in Quebec and there must have always been easy access to zinc because every church we passed had a zinc roof and was old. My father would find the St-Hubert chicken restaurant, and my mother would take me into the restroom for Femmes to freshen up while my brother and father waited in line. My mother would always wait a little longer than strictly necessary in the washroom, putting on new lipstick, because she was afraid she would have to speak French. “I’m rusty,” she admitted when I called her on it. “Do you want to speak for us?” I thought about how Bau and I used to pretend, when we were little, that we could speak French fluently. We would listen to my father talking on the phone to his mother or his father or one of his sisters, and we knew how to do the big exasperated French gestures and we could do the accent perfectly. We knew a few swear words and we could conjugate about four verbs in the present tense, if we started with je. I could count to a hundred in French – or probably nine hundred and ninety-nine. I wondered if the gibberish Bau and I used, mixed with our good accents and a little charades, might get us a table for four and some chicken, but I never tried. My mother had a gift for coming out of the Femmes at exactly the right moment, just as my father was looking wildly for her. She would fall in line, me hurrying behind her, and Bau, usually desperate to pee by now would beg her to let him go on his own. She shook her head – we knew the drill – and the need for extra vigilance in a place where we barely spoke the language and the highway was right there to take us God knows where.

The chicken was wonderful. The coleslaw had bits of mint in it and the gravy was thick and spicy, soupy. The French fries really were French here, I told my parents, and they laughed. I asked my father to ask for vinegar, but he told me people in Quebec didn’t have vinegar with their fries. “What do they have?” I asked. “Sometimes cheese,” he said. “Cheese curds.”

My father always claimed he could drive from our house to Lac St. Jean in a day, but we never found out if this were true on our summer trips. After supper, we would climb back into the car and my parents would begin to argue about how far we would drive that night. This was the point that Bau and I would become comrades instead of antagonists: we rolled our eyes together, against them. We knew, even if they didn’t, exactly where we would stop, at the same little motel we always stayed at – near Quebec City, but not so near that we had to pay city prices. We always begged to stay at a motel with a pool but our mother reasoned that she wasn’t going to spend the next day with wet bathing suits dripping all over the car. We could swim in the lake when we got there. Bau looked over at me and wiggled his finger like a worm. I shuddered.

I would lie in the bed in the motel room and watch the lights of the trucks go by on the ceiling on the TransCanada and I wondered where they were going in the middle of the night. We would have settled the sleeping arrangements by then, my father protesting every year that he did not want to sleep with Bau, that he would sleep with his wife as he always did. Some years, Bau slept with his head at the opposite end of the bed from mine, and some years he would sleep on the floor to avoid having to share a bed with me. It was true: I thrashed. But Bau did not clip his toenails often enough. “It’s one night,” my mother would say, in a sigh, as the air for the room clicked on.

The next morning, we would drive into Quebec City for a little detour. A little detour meant The Plains of Abraham, and my parents’ re-enactment of how the English scaled the cliffs and the French waited. Only in my parents’ version there was kissing. “This is how it should be,” my mother would say to our groans.  “It would be a better country if only we all got along, don’t you think?” And then my father would say something in French to her, quickly and quietly and she would laugh and push him away.

Our idea of a detour was to walk along the wall of the old city of Quebec and to find maple sugar candy. “It’s for the tourists,” my father would say. “But we are tourists,” we would reply, triumphant for once, sucking on maple sugar formed into leafy shapes.

Our mother wanted to walk through the Rue du Trésor and usually we did, but then my father would begin to look at his watch. “She is expecting us,” he would say. “For the dinner.”

She was his mother – hours away in the house he had grown up in on Lac St. Jean. The house we would spend the next week at with our cousins. The dinner would be soup, hot soup even on hot nights. Soup and delicious bread. It was always worth sweating for Mamé’s soup and bread. And then there would be dessert – almost always something with blueberries and maple and so sweet it would hurt our teeth. And then Mamé would let us have coffee. And our mother would say nothing, reduced by language to being one of the children.

In our family, religion ran along the maternal lines and my mother was not religious and so neither were we. Years later when she got breast cancer, my mother developed what was for me a startling belief in angels and crystals. I felt embarrassed about this – that, if belief were latent in her, it would take such a magical form.

My father’s mother was religious in a classical sense. She was religious like a married nun. She looked like a nun, too, I used to think, in her heavy black housedresses, even in the summertime. I wondered if it got so cold in Quebec that she never really thawed. My father had told us about the winters when he was a child, and had told us about the fjord that ran so deep and cold from glacier water.

Mamé’s house was a different world to me. In our house at home, we had our school pictures in frames and a print of a Renoir picnic my mother had bought before we were born, and a few other pictures of nature scenes on the wall. Mamé’s living room was shadowy, with the curtains hung with double layers of sheer curtains and on the walls were framed pictures of sad people I did not know, some of them with a glow about their heads. I asked Bau whether these were family pictures and he rolled his eyes at me.

Every night that we slept at Mamé’s house, she would come to my room, carrying a bowl filled with water. She would push the door open to the room where I slept and flick water at me with her fingers. Sometimes it splashed on me, cool and refreshing, and sometimes she missed. Once she hit a library book I had brought with me to read, and I was worried I’d have to pay a fine. She would mutter to herself as she did this and I had no idea what she was saying. Sometimes I was not alone in the room – sometimes one of my girl cousins was with me – but while we could understand each other well enough during the daytime when we were both awake enough to attempt each other’s language and when we could rely on pointing to make ourselves understood, I had no idea how to ask, in the dusky light of the bedroom, mourning doves outside the window, what our grandmother was doing and whether she was some kind of witch. In the morning, I would forget about the water and I never asked Bau if she did the same thing to him in the boys’ room.

One summer when I was too young to understand, my grandmother told my parents she was taking me to gather les bleuets. We walked, each carrying a honey pail, down the road toward the meadow on the other side of the post office where we had picked blueberries the summer before. We were not allowed to go picking on our own, because of the bears. There had to always be a grownup with us, although I was never sure how a grownup would protect us from a bear. When we got to the gap in the fence where we would turn in, my grandmother took my arm with her cool fingers, shook her head firmly and pulled me along the path with her.

“Where are we –?” I started to ask before I remembered how poor her English was. We crossed the road and climbed the steps to the big church she went to on Sunday mornings. I liked her church very much. On hot days, it was always cold inside. I wondered some nights if it would be okay if we slept on a pew in the church.  It had a silver roof too, in fact it was this church I had once seen struck by lightning. I liked the smell of the church too – it was one of the smells I associated with Quebec – woodsy and ancient and smoky and complicated. We did not go in by the front doors we usually did on Sundays. Instead we walked past the church and around the side – not the graveyard side. My grandmother knocked on the wooden door and a minute later, the priest came, in his robes. My grandmother pointed to me and said a few words. The priest nodded and placed his hand on my head, looking into my eyes searchingly with his dark raisin eyes. He nodded and turned around and my grandmother pushed me ahead of her into the coolness of the church. There was, it turned out, another entrance to the big church and we went in there, the priest, my grandmother and I. At the front of the church, the priest uncovered a stand and in it sat a metal bowl, empty. My grandmother reached into her pockets and handed him a jam jar, filled with water. The priest poured the water into the bowl and raised his hands and face upward as my grandmother bowed her head. He spoke for a few minutes words that were thick and slow. Then he put his hand in the water and cupped some into his hand. What he did next surprised me. It seemed almost like something Bau would do and I almost stepped back in surprise: he let the water pour over my head. It was cool and fresh and smelled of mint and grass and something I could not name. He raised his hand, still damp over his head, brought it down straight and then from side to side, chanting words I could not begin to understand.

Afterwards, he carefully poured the water back into the jam jar, sealing it tightly and handing it to my grandmother, who pocketed it again in the recesses of her housedress. I didn’t see the jar again until the night we stayed at the motel near Quebec City on our return visit home, when I found it carefully wrapped in cheesecloth in my suitcase. I didn’t say anything about it and I took the jar home and kept it at the back of my underwear drawer, hidden. But that day, as I picked blueberries with my grandmother, I kept touching my still damp hair, wondering what had happened to me.

I was all of fifteen when my grandmother died, early in April. The drive to Quebec for her funeral was different than our summer trips, mostly because it seemed we were silent the whole way. And because it rained from Toronto to Montreal and then there was something between rain and snow the rest of the way. We drove the trip in one horrendously long day – my father was capable, it turned out – and there was no apple pie or chicken, but instead my father handed us hamburgers he bought at each gas station restaurant. We were soon sick of hamburgers but we didn’t say so. Our father chewed mints the entire way, his face set and his teeth clacking as he crunched the mints as if they were rocks. There was no music and the trees were entirely bare of leaves. The St. Lawrence was gray and where the river was still narrow, I could see the finest slip of ice nearly crossing the whole way and I thought of the soldiers.

We slept, Bau and I, and we tried to do our math homework and we listened to music on headphones, but the trip was silent. We had quickly bought black clothes the day before – and when I had told my mother how hideous I looked in black, she had just looked at me, and I nodded.

We pulled into the house very late at night, but there were still lights on. One of my father’s sisters was there, talking to the priest, and she hugged each of us to her bosom, even though I wasn’t sure which one she was. The house smelled differently – of flowers and tuna. There was a tray of sandwiches on the table and massive garish bouquets everywhere. We fell into sleep and it was only the next morning that I realized it was the first time I had slept under that sloping red roof without being sprinkled with water. My dreams had been deep and formless.

The next day, we gathered at the church where my grandmother’s body rested on the altar, waxy and impassive. There were more cousins than I had realized, and so many aunts and uncles. My father stood outside and smoked, and my mother sat very close to me. Bau went over and attempted conversation. One of the cousins he was talking with was very good looking, dark eyes and curls, and I took lip gloss out of my purse and put in on.

After the funeral, the same cousin was talking with Bau and my parents were busy. I went over to talk. His name was Richard and he spoke decent English and he lived in Montreal.

There were more sandwiches at the luncheon that followed the funeral, and tables with cookies and squares and urns of coffee. People kept holding my hand and offering condolences. I spoke more French by now, but not much. “Merci,” I said to each one. “Merci.” If Bau and I had been young enough, we could have played a new round of the gibberish French game – the melancholy, subdued condolence version.

We had to be out of the church by five o’clock as the priest had to prepare for the Easter Vigil that night. My grandmother’s house was filled to overflowing with relatives. It was hot and still smelled exotic with flowers they had brought back from the church.

I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and found my brother smoking with Richard. I had never seen Bau smoke.

“We’re going to the vigil at the church,” Bau said. “Do you want to come?”

I looked back at the house and its bright lights. I could hear the loud conversations from outside. “Sure,” I said, and the boys stamped their cigarettes on the ground.

We walked along the road, past the post office and the blueberry meadow and across the road to the church. By contrast, it was dark, although as we came close, we could see a bonfire glowing in what looked like an oil drum, just in front of the church.

We stepped into the dim church and my eyes took a minute to adjust. I felt a hand at my elbow and it was Richard, guiding me. We slipped into a pew as far toward the back of the church as we could. We would take our cues from him.

The priest came into the church, carrying a lit candle. The light of the world, Richard said, translating quietly into my ear and his breath was warm and tickled my neck. I could smell the sweetness of honey and incense and the church glowed with flickering light.

But the service lasted forever and I was tired and I didn’t even understand everything Richard was saying, let alone the priest.

Then people stood at the front of the church, holding babies, and I wondered what was happening, and I watched as the priest dipped his hand into water, cupping water and pouring it on each of the babies’ heads, making signs in the air I realized were the shape of the cross.

“Baptism,” Richard whispered and I formed the words with my own lips: baptism. I put a hand to my own forehead. Baptism.

The priest poured water into jars and handed it to the parents. Then he took what looked like a branch – a cedar branch, and dipped it into the water and turned and flung it out into the church. I found myself leaning forward, wishing we had dared to sit closer to the front, without having any idea of what the water was really for.

On the way home, Bau asked Richard about it. Richard’s mother was more Catholic than ours, but he struggled to explain it.

“So it’s just superstition,” Bau said, and I wanted to protest but I didn’t have the words to argue or to agree.

“Not exactly,” said Richard. The house was quieter now and we went into the kitchen and watched people playing cards.

I woke up early the next morning and I wondered whether my mother had thought to bring chocolate eggs with her. We always had chocolate eggs at Easter. There were four other cousins in the room with me, and one of them was snoring loudly, so I got dressed and climbed over the one sleeping on the floor and went out into the hall to wait for a turn in the bathroom.

When one of my aunts came out, she too was fully dressed and she looked startled to see me. I wasn’t even sure which one she was – there are seven of them.

“Do you wish to go with me?” she asked quietly. “To get the water?” It must be Marie-Paule then, the one who spoke English, the one who worked for the government.

It was really early, I realized, as I looked at my watch in the bathroom. I washed my face and pulled my hair into a ponytail.

She was waiting by the front door. I couldn’t find my coat easily but I found my mother’s. I put it on and my running shoes and we stepped outside into what looked like twilight.

Again we walked past the blueberry meadow, still covered in spots in snow, and past the church. We walked for a long time. My aunt asked me about school and about Toronto and I tried to think of something to ask her about, but I was still sleepy. We turned off the road and onto a path and I wondered if bears were still sleeping for the winter. The path climbed upwards, higher and higher, and the sky grew lighter and my stomach grumbled with hunger.

Régarde,” my aunt said, turning around and I stopped and looked behind me. We were high above the town now, on the side of one of the ancient low mountains that surrounded the area. I could hear water trickling and I was glad I had taken time to pee before we left. Through the branches of the still bare trees below us, I could see the outline of the lake, Lac St. Jean. It looked like a relief map set out below us. I had known for years that it was not an annular lake – that Lac Manicougan was hours away – but it looked like a meteor had indeed crashed down, that something from outside our world had created a big chasm right in the middle of it and then it had filled with water. Beyond that was the fjord, I knew, scraped to unfathomable depths by glaciers.  And here where we stood was a stream that fed both the lake and the fjord.

Like my grandmother had years before, my aunt pulled out a jar, only this one was a large pickle jar and it was empty.

“Hold my coat,” she told me. “So I do not fall in.” I held at the edge of her coat as she bent over the quick-moving stream and filled the jar with water. She handed it to me as she stood up, and wiped her hands on her coat. The jar was icy cold.

I had never been able to ask my grandmother questions about what was apparently my baptism, or about the water she had blessed me with every night. I could ask my aunt because she spoke my language, but I struggled to find the words to even ask the questions as we walked down the hill toward the town again.  Maybe she thought I understood already, that we did this at home. Was it superstition as Bau said?

“Is this for the church?” I asked finally.

“No, no,” Marie-Paule said. “It is for our family.”

The sky was a vivid salmon colour as the path met the road and it made me want to get up to watch the sunrise more often, although I knew I probably wouldn’t.

“Usually Mamé does this,” Marie-Paule said. “This is bitter and sweet for me.”

At the house, people were stirring. My mother was up, making coffee. “I forgot the eggs,” she said.

I looked around to where my aunt was pouring glasses of water from the pickle jar, and at the faces of the saints on the walls, the arrangement of flowers and the heady scent of incense.

“I think it’s a different Easter,” I said and the sun shone blindingly through the kitchen window and I had to look away.

Richard was there at breakfast, sleepy-eyed and unshowered but still handsome. I looked over at him and he came to sit beside me at the table. Someone had made a mountain of scrambled eggs and someone else had brought danishes.

It was noisy as people found seats at the table and at the couches. My aunt, Marie-Paule, handed glasses of water to each of the people around the room.

L’eau de Pâques,” she said to my brother who had already poured himself a cup of coffee and who looked ready to refuse the water.

“Easter water,” Richard whispered. I nodded.

My aunt raised her glass as if in a toast and we all raised ours and drank it at the same time. If Bau had known about the source of the water, he would have been thinking about parasites and bacteria, but he didn’t know. Our mother looked as she often did with my father’s family, like someone trying to sing along without access to the words or the tune.

But the water was cold and it tasted of morning and mystery and glaciers and glory. There was a faint hint of mint and grass and something else. Maybe it was dill from the pickles. Or maybe it was something deeply rooted in me, like a language passed on from generation to generation, like a faith that took root in me whether I knew it or not.

Passover

I fell in love with Quebec for real when we first visited the Gaspé, wandering the shores of the St Lawrence, eating ice cream from bar laitiers, collecting sea glass, hopping over tidal pools and scanning the horizon for whales.

But the Gaspé was far and so about seven years ago, we ventured into the Laurentians, spending a week at a cottage that was also the summer home of a colony of Hasidic Jews and construction workers cutting down trees quite close to the lake where we were staying.

And yet again, I loved it. It was still Canada but so different. I love the work of translation, the deep challenge of communicating that requires thought and creativity and goodwill on both sides. When I move into a place where I have to use another language, a part of my brain blazes with good energy that delights me. I can feel the synapses sparking.

Over the last few years, we’ve returned again and again to the Laurentians, and found a small Nordic spa in the Laurentians, built along the side of a river. My favourite time of year to visit this spa is right now, on the March Break.

The March Break is possibly my favourite holiday of the year. I remember as a child walking arm in arm with a group of friends to the house of one of our friends, walking over a creek that was foaming with melt water rushing madly beneath us. March Break is almost always the moment when winter breaks up, when rivulets of water start running down the road. That’s what I love, the moment of that breakup of ice and winter and darkness, when everything good is ahead.

I started dating my husband on the March Break, on my very last March Break, when I was in high school and he was in university. I feel surges of energy at this time of year when warm days come like a gift and suddenly there are smells in the outdoor world once more and I don’t even care whether the smells are pleasant ones or not: it is no longer the frozen winter world that can only be smelled when someone comes in from outdoors smelling of freshness. Now growing things begin to smell once more again.

After we visited the spa, we fell into a ritual of visiting a cabane à sucre, with its long tables covered with plastic red and white checked tablecloths, and food served family style in ridiculously heaping bowls. We would arrive at the outdoor spa as it opened at ten, and then between the fresh air, the dips in water that was running hard even though it was at the freezing point, we would be starving by the time we emerged, fully relaxed around two. So it was good we didn’t visit the spas for detox purposes, because this first stop afterwards would cancel that purpose out. Instead, our noses red from spring sunshine and our bodies eased from hours of soaking in alternating hot and cold, and our hair smelling of a combination of eucalyptus steam and applewood smoke, we would settle down for a daunting feast.

We intended to go there last March, to visit our son who had spent the year living in Montreal on a mid-college gap year, and to go to the spa and the cabane à sucre. And then, as the days lengthened and the stories from Wuhan became stories from northern Italy and then from New York City and Seattle, our plans adapted and our tension increased. We would not go to the spa and the sugar shack; we would just come for a couple of nights in the city. Then, no, we would just come for a night and perhaps we would bring our son home with us for a bit. He had been stocking up on provisions as I had. Then, finally, the plan that stuck: we would send our oldest son in our car to pick up his brother in Montreal and they would drive back that same night. He left here just after noon on a spring Friday, arrived in Montreal in time to eat an ordered-in pizza, and then to reload the car and drive back home, arriving here at two-thirty in the morning. I called it a mission of mercy. I never stay awake when my kids are out late, but that night I slept restlessly and woke up the moment the car entered the driveway: my people were home and safe.

But they weren’t entirely safe. COVID had been in a family in my husband’s school. A contact of a contact is not a contact, public health told the teachers in a hastily called meeting on the second last day of school. Stay home anyhow, I said to my husband about that last day of school. It’s not worth it.

Instead of wandering the streets of Montreal or dipping into the cold stream at the spa, we walked our dog through the cemetery near our house. I had been on a tour of the cemetery a few years before and I knew which grave was the one of the young woman who had been the first person in our city to die of the 1918 influenza epidemic. I made sure to find it again and to wonder what lay ahead. My daughter and I walked through that same cemetery on the Saturday, each holding a handle on a cloth grocery bag that would not be used again for months, carrying home groceries from the little store near us, the one that had toilet paper and a few more supplies I thought we might need.

It was a few days later on a walk, two of our three kids, my husband and I, that my husband seemed grim, putting one foot in front of the other, silent and trudging. I’m just tired, he said, but a couple of hours later, he came up to our bedroom where I was trying to read and said, I think it’s more than tired. He gathered things he needed and descended to our basement where he spent the next three days, sleeping off a fever, and then another twelve days until it was determined it was safe for him to be with people once more. I knew by then that day ten was often a time when COVID patients took a turn and so I held my breath those entire ten days, losing ten pounds in the time of his isolation.

The anniversary approached for the start of COVID and I felt almost claustrophobic at the thought of the start of Year Two of the pandemic. I had read enough war fiction and memoir to know that everyone thought the first World War would be over by Christmas, that those in concentration camps in the second World War who counted on being released by a certain date were often among those who died of illness, immune systems weakened by hope unrealized. And how did you celebrate something that wasn’t over yet? I noticed people on news reports using the word “mark” rather than commemorate or celebrate or mourn to talk about the anniversary.

An idea began to come to me, that I would recreate a meal, a cabane à sucre meal. This would be no small undertaking and the question was when to do it. And then I thought we would do it on the anniversary of the night of our sons’ mission of mercy. And then one day, our second son made a joke about needing to put blood on the doorposts and it came together for me, that this meal would be a kind of Passover meal.

I talked with a Jewish friend about whether this would be sacrilege (and also about the fact that the cabane à sucre menu would definitely include pork and leaven, and coleslaw rather than bitter herbs). I told her about the sense of deliverance I had both the night our sons arrived home safely and then after day ten when I knew my basement-banished husband would be okay. Why was this night different from all other nights? It seemed a good question. That night had been different. I had gone on that cemetery tour and heard about the flu pandemic like it was science fiction, and even in the early days of Wuhan reports, it had seemed like something that happened elsewhere. And then, it crept closer and closer until its waters lapped at our very door. When I thought about the meal I wanted to make as a kind of Passover, it shifted a lot for me. It took away the feeling of claustrophobia and the questions about the ongoing Groundhog Day of COVID, and instead reminded me of the deliverance we experienced a year ago, the safe passage along the 401 and in our basement sickroom. It shifted my feeling from anxiety to gratitude. My Jewish friend fully approved the concept.

Yesterday was the day. On Thursday, I made the coleslaw, and the sugar pie that would be our dessert. I made the cretons that would be part of the appetizer for the meal—a kind of pate made of ground pork, garlic , onions, spices and breadcrumbs. Then yesterday, I made a pot of pea soup, and some pickled beets. I boiled potatoes and made a gravy in which to float meatballs, bought at the little store I’d walked home from a year ago. I cooked bacon in the oven and made maple baked beans. I stirred eggs into an omelet. I opened a jar of pickles and another of pickled onions a friend made as a lockdown project. I let buns rise and then I baked them.

We wore plaid shirts and I put on a fleur de lys necklace. We listened to Quebecois francopop music and we gorged ourselves on the meal and we remembered that night and that cabane à sucre and that flight from the Angel of Death. And we even – my secular children and I – found the passage in Exodus where the people of Israel remembered crossing the Red Sea from certain death, and we remembered with gratitude. I thought of the many people who have been swept away by the waters of COVID this past year.

Sorting out the mercy of God is a complicated business at all times. I do not want this to be like asking God to let my team win the game. I want everyone to make it through this hard time. We are not through it yet, but it is not even a choice for me to remember the events of a year ago with gratitude: it simply bubbles up in my heart, like the freezing cold water in the mountains of Quebec, at the moment when the ice begins to break up and the waters flow in rivulets in the streets everywhere.

The People’s Princess

Ours was an epistolary relationship, now that I reflect on it, something that would have delighted Anglophile bibliophile her, if I had thought to name it as such in time. We never spent more than maybe three hours in the same space together but she was my friend and she is gone and my heart breaks at the loss.

I first met Jennifer Campbell-Palmateer in the fall of 2014 when we were both panelists in the Waterloo Library’s Battle of the Books. Jennifer got a rom-com that was about royalty, I think. I got a memoir about depression that I didn’t really like. There was no trading so I just showed up to do my best. Not Jennifer. She showed up in a literal tiara. A Dollarama tiara, I think, but She. Showed. Up. Neither of us won, actually, but she made the night for me, and so I asked her to be my Facebook friend.

I didn’t see her again until the pandemic but we began a relationship that consisted mostly of reading and commenting on one another’s Facebook posts, and me listening to her in the season that she had a one-hour talk show on the radio. Then, I reached out to her to ask her to read the novel I was writing. My novel touched on deeply divisive feminist issues. I knew from reading and listening to Jennifer that she pulled no punches: she would tell me if she thought I was wrong, and she would tell me where I was going wrong with it. I wanted that honesty, that emotional honesty. I also knew that she was smart and that she loved books.

Gentle Reader, she put on the tiara for my manuscript. She fell in love with it and with my main character. We talked about my concerns and she honestly responded to say that it was all good.

Jennifer was confessional and open-hearted. She shared her life with her audience, whether that be on air or online. And then she went to England and got engaged to a prince who knew her love of Lady Di and gave her a ring just like it. I wasn’t invited to the wedding. I didn’t invite her to my big birthday party the next month. I don’t think either of us ever saw our friendship in that kind of way. But we did share our lives and our stories with one another, valuing one another highly.

When the pandemic struck, Jennifer couldn’t find hand sanitizer and I had a surplus. She came to my house with the other love of her life, her son, and took some along with some potted pansies for her garden. Then I needed a couple of things from a drugstore during lockdown and she was going anyhow and volunteered to pick them up for me. She started to complain of really bad sciatic pain and to look for any solutions or gadgets. I had a small TENS machine at home and I lent it to her for relief until she could get one online. It gave her some relief and when hers arrived she returned mine, along with a bag of cookies her son had made.

But the TENS machine was no match for what the pain proved to be. A few weeks later when I noticed she had gone silent on social media, I reached out privately to check in with her, and she confessed it was cancer and asked if I would walk with her through the journey in some way. She was afraid, I think, that she would be alone. But she was anything but. One of my nieces loves people so much that everyone thinks they are her favourite person – someone in their apartment building once said to my sister, “I think I’m your daughter’s second mom.” Jennifer was kind of that way, I think. She loved everyone so hard and well that we all thought we were her friends, and so when she needed the support, it came back to her in waves upon waves. I took her request seriously, though, and I dropped things off at her house, for her, for her kids. I sent her messages on Facebook. I sent her the draft of another book. She replied when she could, but she was in a bigger battle and had far closer relationships to pour her energy into. I recognized that and was fine with it.

About a week ago, though, my Spidey sense told me she had been radio silent for too long and I reached out with a message, saying “Are you ok?” Her lack of reply was troubling but still it was a complete and utter shock to read of her death last night. It was jarring to read it on social media but in hindsight, that it was in a written post was characteristic of our relationship, one of letters and stories.

Jennifer’s death hit me almost like that other death, the one in a tunnel in Paris, twenty-four years ago. The one that seemed impossible. She was too young, too bright a star to burn out so young. Again there are young boys who may have to walk behind a casket of a woman who was utterly at home in a tiara. It’s heartbreaking.

What she bought me at the drugstore months ago were iron tablets, pills to counteract my borderline anemia. I still have some of them on my bedside, there to strengthen me and give me vitality. That’s what Jennifer did too – she was one of the most fun people I know, one of the most real. I hoped last night that maybe there was one more video or broadcast, even just to say goodbye, but that’s being greedy. Instead this is my goodbye to her, a love letter of sorts to my penpal. And though it isn’t the country music she loved, I’d like to say goodbye with the words of a song, the words Elton John adapted for the people’s princess at her farewell, for ours at hers:

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England’s greenest hills
Your candle’s burned out long before
Your legend ever will

Loveliness we’ve lost
These empty days without your smile
This torch we’ll always carry
For our nation’s golden child
And even though we try
The truth brings us to tears
All our words cannot express
The joy you brought us through the years.

Top 10 Books of 2020

This past spring, many people found they could not read and were grieved by it. I had about a week of shock where I read at a slow, slow pace and found myself rereading everything I read, the words not sinking in. But quickly books became a good companion through this time. I put myself on a personal Pandemic Reading Course, reading all sorts of books set in the midst of plague or the aftermath. I’ve always been fascinated by how people get through difficult times, the resources they draw on, so I was both drawn to the content of such books but also found in them the friends I needed for the journey. Sometimes, too, it’s been nice to simply escape the present reality: a couple of the books on my list have given me the opportunity to be an armchair traveler. I read fewer books this year than in the last few years, probably because this fall I was also reading for school, but also because I watched more television than I have in a long time, classic movies and a couple of tv series. In addition to my top 10 list of books, I’m adding a short list at the end of the best films and tv shows I enjoyed in 2020.

In a countdown to my favourite book of the year:

10. Unto Us a Son is Given – I don’t know whether I’ve recommended Donna Leon before or not but I can’t say enough about her series of detective novels and her wonderful detective Guido Brunetti. The books are set in present-day Venice with its challenges of tourism and other forms of corruption. The plot in these books is always secondary to the characters and the setting, both of which are wonderful. A new Donna Leon book comes out each spring but somehow I read #29 this spring and missed #28 in 2019 until this fall. These books don’t have to be read in exact order to be enjoyed but they really are something to savour, with a tinge of melancholy and decadence and humour added to the warmth of married love, parental love, love for literature and for the magical city of Venice. I highly recommend Donna Leon’s series.

9. No Friend But the Mountains – I actually read this book last December after my top 10 list for 2019 came out. I had heard of this book for the way it was written: the author is an Iranian refugee in an Australian immigration detainee facility on Manus Island off the coast of Papua New Guinea; he wrote this book on his cell phone in a series of WhatsApp messages he smuggled to a friend. The book is extraordinarily powerful as a prison story but is also so well written. It won Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction, and was considered the most important Australian book of 2018. This is not an easy read but it asks necessary questions.

8. The Gracekeepers – I’m realizing there is an international quality to my choices this year. This book written by Scottish author Kirsty Logan vaguely fits into my Pandemic Reading category as it is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which only a few privileged people live on land while the rest are forced to make a living on the ocean. The stories of two young women—one a circus performer and the other a kind of ritual-keeper—intertwine. This is a beautiful, powerful and originally created world whose atmosphere and characters will stay with you long after you finish the book.

7. All The Devils Are Here – Next stop, Paris, France. Louise Penny and her detective Armand Gamache are longtime favourites of mine, but unlike many of her fans, I don’t adore all her books. This one is particularly good. The action moves away from Three Pines and even Quebec to France where Gamache’s children live. The book is rich in detail about a city Penny has great affection for. The longstanding relationships in this series undergo significant new growth and challenge. The mystery is compelling and exciting without being silly. A great edition to the Penny canon!

6. A Paradise Built in Hell – A friend who heard I was reading pandemic stories recommended I read this book by essayist Rebecca Solnit. I had never read Solnit’s writing before but I highly enjoyed this book in which she takes the reader to a variety of disasters to examine whether our expectations about what the experience would be like are true. It is not a spoiler to say that the experience of disaster can be unexpectedly positive, bringing out the best in people. Solnit looks at the San Francisco earthquake in the early 20th century, the Halifax explosion, the Mexico City earthquake of the 1980s 9/11. A fascinating read.

5. Burnout – Don’t skip this one. Twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagowski wrote this book and I keep recommending it to people. I’m not keen on the title (although it is memorable) because I think it’s greatest value is actually in preventing stress from turning into burnout. The writers get real with the physiology behind stress, and offer practical strategies for completing the stress cycle so that we can cope well in our lives. I imagine we all could use a little more of that.

4. The Doomsday Book – And now for something completely different. I read a lot of pandemic and disaster books. This one, which is a time-travel book whose time-traveling historians venture from the mid-21st century to the 14th century, has interconnected pandemic plots. It has rollicking good humour and inventive plot devices not unlike Jasper Fforde, but it also was more deeply moving than probably any other pandemic book I read. The book was written back in 1992 when it won the Nebula Award for science fiction.

3. Songs for the End of the World – I felt for Montreal author Saleema Nawaz who had been working on this novel since 2013, a novel in which a coronavirus in 2020 began spreading from New York City around the world. The book was scheduled to come out in August, but the publisher decided to release an ebook of it in the spring, which was when I read it. It was extremely compelling. I loved the deep interconnections between the characters, and the ways Nawaz uses this in the service of the whole overarching story. Perhaps most crucially, the story is told with hope and human kindness. Really well written and highly recommended.

2. Moon of the Crusted Snow – If I read Songs for the End of the World on my phone, I read this book in an even more unconventional way. This summer, my husband and I ventured up north to spend a week on the shores of Lake Superior. We decided to listen to this book on tape during our drive as it is set in northern Ontario in an Indigenous community where suddenly all power and connection to the outside world is cut off, and the community is must figure out how to live in response to something clearly big and widespread having happened in the world. We reached Lake Superior toward sunset and the views were stunning but we were at the climax of this book at that point, and there was no way we were going to turn the book off. This book by Waubgeshig Rice is an affirming view of Indigenous culture and it’s also a thriller.

1. Greenwood – This is a stunning book. It’s the book The Overstory wanted to be. It deals with big big themes of climate change, but does so in the most human and accessible way. It is structured beautifully. The world Canadian author Michael Christie writes about begins in the near future when trees have become critically endangered, but he traces the roots of a family whose lives have been connected with trees for generations. I don’t want to say a lot about this book other than to say: read it, put it on English curriculum, let it change your appreciation for the beauty of our forests. I was enchanted and moved by it. In a year where any one of my top 10 books could have been higher on the list, this was a clear #1.

PS While I’ve given you Amazon links to these books, I would highly recommend you visit your local independent bookstore or your local library. Both need your support now more than ever.

PS #2 My movie/tv list presented without comment

20 And The Birds Rained Down
19. Vertigo
18. North by Northwest
17. Knives Out
16. What we do in the dark
15. Lawrence of Arabia
14. Rear Window
13. The French Doctor
12. Song of the Sea
11. Schindlers List
10 Frankenstein (National Theatre broadcast)
9. Apocalypse Now
8. Chinatown
7. It’s a Wonderful Life
6. Citizen Kane
5. Pulp Fiction
4. Vikings (seasons 1-4 only)
3. Casablanca
2. Schitts Creek
1. Spirited Away

There was evening and there was mourning, the third day (of November)

I lose my phone walking my dog in the cemetery, leaves down everywhere. I retrace my steps in the gathering twilight, remembering where I had been, where I had paused, that dead branch a widow-maker, the place where I found the tiny discarded plastic ghost I used to pick up my dog’s waste when I had forgotten my own bag.

It had only been days since I lost my wallet which never surfaced. Who was I, my identity missing, unable to take out library books or to buy a thing?Now to lose my phone, my lifeline to the wider world: what did that say?

The skies all day had been the incongruous cerulean I recalled from the week of 9/11. I had spent the day reading of the racism of the Church. And now polls are closing to the south

But words come to me that day when my pocket word-machine is lost, long vowels of comfort: fear not.

I ask people for help: a couple walking their dog, a guy in a hoodie who stands too close and offers to accompany me, a runner.

I have been over the entire route when the dog-walking couple call out to me. They had said they would call my phone every few minutes in case I could hear it ring. But someone else has found it among the leaves, has called my mother and daughter in search of me.

As I set out to pick it up, the man who had dialed again and again says: I had just that very minute prayed to Saint Anthony. I stop and ask him to say it again, for I have been thinking of the beloved community, the communion of saints and now they have responded — the dog walkers, the ones who hold my phone within their safekeeping, Saint Anthony, the great cloud of witnesses–and it is about more than my phone.

That night when the election results come in, I carry safe in my pocket an icon that reminds me that what may appear as lost, dead and buried may indeed be resurrected to life.

Fear not.

The Day After or Singing Kumbaya

Yesterday, when praying for the US election, I heard an answer: Fear not. Do not mistake this for believing I think we should just sit around and sing kumbaya. On second thought, maybe do.

Who says fear not in the Bible? Angels say it. God says it. It is said in times where fearing is how we do respond, in frightening times. It is to say that God is on the move, that God is active in a situation.

I am afraid of a lot of things.

Fear not, however, is a call to be courageous, to act despite fear, to speak up in the midst of fear. It is a decision not to give into fear.

Yesterday, when the words fear not came to me while praying for the US election, my sense was that too many of us are giving into fear.

It is not my job to judge. But I cannot help but think this morning about the white supremacy and the fear that played into this election. There is so much fear and fear-mongering. Whiteness is seen as normal. It’s the alien, the refugee, that are now seen as invaders, as taking away our jobs, our homes, our livelihoods. We equate darkness with evil and whiteness with light and truth. Except in one clear place in the Bible, which is where Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law “white-washed sepulchres” (Matthew 23:27).

There is also one place in the Bible where we are told to be afraid, to be very afraid. It is the fear of the Lord, a holy fear, a recognition that Jesus isn’t simply my bestie but is God Almighty, the one who will judge the living and the dead.

And that is where that godly fear should come in to all who strained out the gnat and swallowed the camel. I stand in good company when I say woe to you who have voted according to this sensibility, and woe to you leaders who have led people into this kind of fear that they have gone deeper and deeper into sin. You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23). I read this passage to say that the issues by which you have justified your vote and your fear may well be legitimate ones, but you’ve focused on them at the expense of the weightier issues.

And the response to fear those who fear isn’t especially helpful either. We need to listen to the needs behind the fears and need to help our brothers and sisters who are feeling that sense of loss. This is work to be done by white people in the church. People of colour should not be required to do this labour – they have enough to do. We also need to follow the example of Jesus who didn’t spend the majority of his ministry arguing with folks on Twitter. He completely named their sin, offered them new life and then moved on to bring shalom to the people who knew their need and their poverty.

I am writing from Canada. It is more comfortable here for now. Fear not could so easily be interpreted as “not my circus, not my monkeys.” Instead, I think of The Lord of the Rings and the scene that makes me weep every time, when the quiet hobbit lights the fire that tells people waiting for a signal to light their fire and so the fire after fire is passed through the mountains in order to call for aid from the neighbouring kingdom. Gandalf who watches the first fire being lit says: Hope is kindled. And the message once received is answered with aid from the neighbours.

Who is my neighbour? Jesus answered that question in the parable of the Good Samaritan. My neighbour is the one whose wounds I tend, whose wellbeing I ensure. I do not simply cross the street and shrug it off, glad it isn’t me.

Someone’s crying here, Lord, kum-ba-ya. Someone’s crying here, Lord, come by here.

Who will go? And who will I send?

And I said, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

Edited to add: The important work right now is to listen to people of colour, not to rush in as white saviours. That isn’t my intention in this article.
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson.




Pandemic Reading – Part 1

decameronI remember walking dogs with a neighbour in February, and talking about whether or not we thought this coronavirus would be A Thing that affected our lives. But when COVID struck northern Italy, it really caught my attention. One of my kids and I began talking about it, the preparations we were each making, what it might look like. We both realized that we were kind of fascinated by the incoming tsunami and its implications, that while it was horrifying, it was also really interesting to us.

This kind of story has always held fascination for me. Just as I love traveling and visiting markets and seeing how people live in different places, so I am quite intrigued by how people make their way through very difficult times. I watched the movie I Am Legend with great disappointment — I didn’t realize somehow that it would turn out to be a red-eyed zombie movie. Instead I wanted to know what happened when the animals escaped the zoo, and grass began growing in New York City. (The idea of nature reclaiming developed spaces is a really compelling one. Red eyes not so much.) I loved the memoir Testament of Youth whose author (Vera Brittain) paints a detailed portrait of her shift from idealistic patriot at the start of World War 1 to devastated pacifist by the end.

And so, unlike those who either found they couldn’t read at the start of the lockdown or who read escapist stuff, one of the types of books I’ve been drawn to in this time has been pandemic reading–reading about pandemics.

In case you also are interested in this kind of reading, I thought I’d share some reviews of these books with you.

The first book to come to mind was one I read a few years back. I recommend Station Elevenby Emily St. John Mandel so very highly. Most of this book is set in a post-pandemic world, and it look at what culture and artefacts survive, and how. A line from Star Trek is held onto — survival is insufficient. This book is haunting and lovely. I picked it up from the bookshelf in March to read the initial chapters about the sudden onset of pandemic, and I shuddered. And yet I still recommend it highly to you.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley was the first pandemic book I read during this time. Just as her novel Frankenstein has a new Adam, so this novel has his inverse — the final man standing on earth. In the first third of the novel, set in the late 21st century when people travel by balloon, Shelley builds up a sometimes tedious world akin to a poorly realized Regency romance with some politics added in. But gradually come rumours of plague from the south of Europe. Surely it will be contained. It can’t reach England. Gentle Reader, it reaches England. It reaches everywhere. It is the process in which this happens and the way the main characters respond that make this book finally come to life, even as most of the world’s population is dying. This book was written after the death of Shelley’s beloved husband and several of her children. It’s a book about grief, but it is also one about nobility in the face of disaster. Characters are modeled after Shelley’s circle of friends, living and dead, a way of memorializing them. It is considered to be the first dystopian novel and was shunned for more than a century. This book felt more like a literary exercise to read than anything else, but some of the images and characters have stayed with me since, so I might recommend reading the first third quickly and then going along for the wild and tragic ride. I read this book as a free e-book through Gutenberg.

Saleema Nawaz has toiled since 2013 on a novel about–get this–a global coronavirus in 2020, greatly affecting New York City. That has to be awkward if not frightening. The Montreal author’s book, Songs for the End of the World, was scheduled to come out at the end of the summer but the e-book of the novel got bumped up to the spring. When the libraries were closed, I bought the e-book to read. And it’s excellent. I believe I was doing a contact tracing course as I read this book, and that gave me eyes to read the book, which contains a cast of characters whose stories are intricately interconnected in a web not unlike the ways in which we have all come to know our own connectedness to everyone in the world, both for good and for ill, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. The interlocking nature of the stories did make me have to go back and forth to reread previous chapters, but that was a pleasure. This is a warm book more than a scary book, a book about the choices we make and how they can come back to haunt us. I highly recommend this one.

I read The Odyssey for the first time last year. I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) that the story was timeless, interesting, compelling and funny. I think somehow I had concluded that a story written more than 28 centuries ago would be dusty and dull, but the reality is that it wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been such a good story, so well told. (My enjoyment also benefited from an amazing new translation, the first English translation by a woman, Dr. Emily Wilson.) When I started to see a theme to my reading, I knew that one of the books I wanted to read was The Decameron. This book was written by Bocaccio in the years immediately following the Black Death decimated much of the world–with tax records in Florence, Italy (the town where Boccaccio lived and set this collection) showing that 80% of the city died within four months! You’d think that such a book might be gloomy, but it is by far the lightest of all the pandemic books I’ve read so far. The book begins with the plague in Florence, and a group fo seven young women and three young men deciding that their best course of action is to retreat (with servants and delightful food!) to a villa in the countryside for two weeks. There they decide that each day (with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, for Sabbath reasons) they will appoint a king or queen of the day who will choose a theme for storytelling, and that each member of the company must tell a story on that theme each day. 10 days x 10 storytellers = 100 short stories. The book is considered a model for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and is filled with humourous stories, moralistic stories, and a lot of sex (especially between people married to others, and between priests and nuns). I was intrigued by the schedule of the villa dwellers, who woke with the dawn, then hung out in the gardens together before eating breakfast and retiring to sleep before passing the late afternoon in storytelling, and then the evening eating and in diversions. Afternoon has rarely seemed like the time for storytelling, but it appeared to work for these ten. I found the stories diverting at first but they did begin to blend together after a while. I was envious, too, of the young people who decided it was safe to return to the city and their usual lives after their two-week sojourn and before things became tedious.

 

That’s the end of the first part of my pandemic reading. I have a few other pandemic books I plan to read — Year of Wonders, Moon of the Crusted Snow (the One Book One Community bookfor Waterloo Region this year) and The Stand. First I have a stack of non-pandemic books piling up to join me on holidays. I’d welcome other pandemic suggestions, though, too, as well as your response to any of these books.

 

A Poem for Change

Maybe sometimes we do construct
a parachute while falling
if the falling lasts long enough.
We empty our pockets
to see what we have to work with,
who we really are.
If our pockets are empty,
we turn the pockets (or the pocketless pants themselves)
into parachute,
for needs must,
and maybe, if we are lucky,
we can build a balloon so we can
float instead of falling,
the goal no longer
a safe landing,
the earth firm beneath our feet,
but the chance to soar
and to see.
It’s dizzying
but just possible.