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.

Ithaca: Minestrone Soup, March 2020

A few weeks ago, my friend Tony asked me to write a sequel to Ithaca. He had a list of soups I could include. He wanted something to read in the pandemic.

I have always said no to such requests. I remember years ago a photographer teaching me about portraits, how in today’s world, pictures often crop off the edges of someone’s head so that the viewer’s eye focuses on the right things, and their brain fills in the missing parts. That always stuck with me. When it comes to a story, I think my co-creator–the reader–gets to do some of the labour too, figuring out what they think happens next, rather than me telling them all the things that happen to every character. I think it’s more satisfying to leave you just slightly unsatisfied.

But somehow Tony’s request put an idea in my mind: what would Daisy Jane do in a pandemic? Today Tony asked whether I had written that extra chapter. I had completely forgotten, but I sat down and was able to find that character all over again, and to find her in this moment in time.

If you haven’t read Ithaca, this won’t ruin anything for you. And if you want to, you can buy a copy here . But here, for Tony and for you, is another serving of Ithaca:

 

Mothers always worry about their children rather than themselves. It’s why they tell you to make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first because they know full well that mothers would adjust masks on their children until they themselves passed out from lack of air. And so I read the stories about the new virus in China and I calculated how close it was to Singapore and to Nick, and I remembered what it had felt like there, so steamy and tropical, like you walked outdoors and into an enormous humidifier like the type I had used with Nick when he was a baby and had croup, or when he was five and had bad bronchitis.

Nick had taught me how to use Skype and we found a time to talk, and I told him how at the market people had been bumping elbows and tapping our winter boots together, laughing, glad we didn’t live in Asia, and how I had felt an ache in my belly because my heart lived in Asia.

“You aren’t shaking hands or sharing drinks, are you?” I asked him. I could see behind him the futuristic skyline of Singapore. His apartment was on the 35th floor of his building. It had made me dizzy to think about it when I rode the elevator on my visit to him a few years back, but now he felt safer, as though he was above any winds that might blow the virus his way.

And then it was March, which was always the hardest season for me when it came to making soups for the Wednesday night dinners, because nothing was in season yet, and my cellar was down to sad looking vegetables, potatoes that had sprouted eyes like viruses, and turnips that had sagged like diseased lungs.

Soon there would be ramps in the market and I’d make my wild leek soup, and then there would be asparagus. The Cayuga people who had lived in this area before white settlers cam had names for each of the moons: they called the February full moon the Hunger Moon but I always thought this was a good name for the March moon too.

I was thinking about making something I called Minestrone Soup, but was really a way of cleaning out the icebox as my mother used to say. I would use dried beans and the withered vegetables, for Wednesday night. I had saved rinds of Parmesan cheese that I could add to the soup to give it extra flavor. I wasn’t sure what I would make the following week but this was a meal that could be extended and one that would make do with what I had in the cellar. I also had another secret ingredient that would make the recipe sing: many people used vinegar to give zing to soups like this, but I had tried it with some of Carmel’s hard cider and it had added sparkle and the acidity to the soup without making it sour.

I only had one bottle of cider left in the root cellar. It would be enough for the soup, but I called Carmel on the Tuesday night as the soup was simmering and after I had poured the entire bottle into the different pots on the stove. I wanted to ask her if she could bring me a few more bottles to stock me up when she arrived the next night.

“No,” she said. “Daisy Jane, no. You can’t hold the dinner tomorrow night.”

I frowned. “Because…?”

“Have you been listening to the news?” she asked.

I had deliberately not listened to the news because it had only been depressing lately, stories out of Italy and Asia. Nick had suggested I cut back on watching the news. Instead I had put on music while I cooked, music that made me think of my trip to Singapore, made me think of tropical sunshine while I cooked on a cold evening. It was technically the first day of spring but it didn’t feel like it.

“They shut New York City down,” she said, and she sounded far away, unfocused.

“The city that never sleeps,” I said.

“It’s being put to sleep now,” she said. “I mean it, Daisy Jane. Broadway’s gone dark, and museums are all shut. They closed the restaurants last night. I’ve had calls from all the places that buy my cider: they’re closed for two weeks. They’re being told they may have to shelter in place.”

New York was only four hours away. I looked out the window. The Hunger Moon had been waning for weeks now. I had seen it rise when I woke early this morning, just before dawn. It seemed backwards to me that the moon could rise in the morning rather than at night. I carried my phone outside and looked up into the night sky as I listened to Carmel talk about everything that was shutting down. The sky was so black: there was no moon visible at all.

“You need to call off tomorrow,” she said.

I had told her about the Wednesday night suppers during the Vietnam war and the Gulf war. The Berlin Wall had started to come down on a Wednesday and we had gathered that night around our television set, watching it. I tried to explain to Carmel that this was exactly what Wednesday nights were for.

“People can wash their hands,” I said, “but we need to make space for them to come together to deal with this. You don’t understand.”

I was getting cold. I wrapped my sweater more tightly about me and went back inside. I heard Carmel sigh as I closed the door.

“You know how people didn’t listen to the science about fracking,” she said. “Right?”

The soup was boiling slightly too hard. I turned down the heat and made sure it wasn’t sticking on the bottom. “Sure,” I said.

“I know this sounds crazy,” she said. “I know it does. I know some people are saying that this is just a bad flu season, but Daisy Jane, the scientists don’t think it is.”

I thought about the people who wouldn’t listen to the scientists on fracking, who thought it was a smart way to get American oil, who wouldn’t believe the stories about earthquakes and tainted water. After Arthur died, I had been afraid of becoming stuck in my ways. I had gone to visit Nick in Singapore. I had started new things, met new people, pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I had persevered even when it would be easier to quit.

But now Carmel was asking me to quit when it would be easier to persevere.

I thought about the game Lee had once asked me to play, dear Lee. How I missed her. What if? We had asked questions that night about moments that had been turning points in our lives, small moments that might change the course of everything. This might be such a moment, I realized. And I had the enormous luxury of asking the question in advance, rather than afterwards. Not what if I hadn’t cancelled or what if I hadn’t gone ahead, but what if I do cancel or what if I do go ahead. And going ahead had now become a decision rather than a default.

“Call Nick,” she said. “Talk with Father Jim, whoever you like.”

“No,” I said slowly. “I can decide this for myself. But I have four enormous pots of minestrone soup. What do I do with that?”

I could feel the waves of relief in her voice through the phone as she laughed. “That’s a good problem to have,” she said, shakily. “You could freeze some, in case we have to shelter in place here.”

“Here?” I said, feeling a wave of anxiety rise up in me. The winds had blown near Nick and then to New York, but here?

“But if you want to package some up, I could swing by tomorrow and take it to whoever you want me to take it to.”

I turned on my green laptop. There was a message from Nick – Mom, NYC! Stay home, okay? There were seven messages from people asking whether the Wednesday night supper was on.

I stared out the window into the dark, but I could see my own reflection in it, a woman standing in her kitchen with not even the light of the moon to light her way. But then I straightened my shoulders. My life had been fracked before and I had survived it. I felt terrified and I knew enough to know that I should feel that way, but I could choose a path forward. I turned off the soup to let it cool.

“Let’s do that,” I said. “I’ll let everyone know. And you really don’t mind dropping off soup to a few folks? Those girls from the College, they’ll want something to eat while they’re studying. And Father Jim. And Henry—”

Her voice brightened. “Absolutely. And I’ll bring you some cider.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

After I hung up the phone, I looked at the soup which had slowed its boil. I hoped I could make the transformation that these ingredients had, that I could hold onto what was nourishing and let go of what was not.

Dot’s Quick Lunch: Happy 100th

20200512_142616[1]Last week, on the eve of my own 51st birthday, my daughter pointed out that I was about to be closer to 100 than to zero. “I feel like it,” I said. But I also still felt 28 or even 21 or 13. I recently saw the actor Ethan Hawke interviewed about a movie he had made decades ago, in which he was asked whether he could still relate to his character. “The biggest shocking element of growing older to me,” he replied, “is how much I feel like the same person.” I know my Gram said much of the same thing, how surprised she was to be older and yet to feel the same.

Over the last year, I have felt more like myself than ever. I’m less interested (or able) to be someone I’m not. When COVID first hit, I realized I needed to come to terms with my own mortality, and I thought that meant facing up to the reality of death. But what it has more meant is realizing that I want to make choices with my life, even in the face of death, so that I live and die in a way that is truly me. So that even if this were to be the end, I’d be glad about the way I lived and the choices I made with the time I had left

Just this week, some video surfaced in which my Gram said some cutting things about someone I love. It feels a bittersweet way to go out on this year, thinking of the times she chose favourites (and yes, I was one of them) which meant that some people weren’t her favourites.

But this isn’t the life of a saint I’ve been telling this last year. It’s a life of a human being, the good, the bad and the ugly.

At the same time, as I tip my own scale toward 100, I think about what my husband has been saying the last few weeks. There’s understandably despair in the world about so much, but his goal is not to make everything better, only to apply the same rules he does to camping trips: to leave the place better than he found it. It’s something I can apply here: not to idolize my grandmother, nor to vilify her, but instead to take lessons from her life and her love, and then to do even better with my own choices, and to hope that my own future grandchildren will do all that much better than me.

That’s what cooking does, too. We take our Grandma’s recipes and we make them again and again as comfort food, but we learn which ones to keep as part of the regular repertoire and which ones are better left in the recipe book, or even taken out of the recipe book altogether.

The year my Gram turned 90, we made a book to celebrate her life and we presented it to her at what was effectively a living funeral, a This Is Your Life party she could attend and be surrounded by all the people she loved. Each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren contributed a piece of writing or art.

When I think about how to end this year of recollections, it isn’t with a recipe at all, but with my writing from that book, my love letter to her. Because that’s what it comes back to: not perfection, not sainthood, but love. My picture for this week is that of her Pyrex bowls in which I’ve made many of the recipes this year, because that is what her love was and is to me: a bowl that contained and held me, a place into which all sorts of ingredients could be mixed up and held together nd hopefully made into something good and nourishing.

And so, my love letter of lessons I learned from my Gram and lessons I wished she would learn:

Everything I Really Needed To Know I Learned From My Grandmother

I went to school for many years, but many of the best lessons I ever learned, I learned from my grandmother, Dorothy Cowin:

  1. Carrots taste far far better when they are crinkle-cut.
  2. Don’t ever stop living or helping people. Stay interested in everyone. Help out where you can.
  3. Cooking good food for people is a wonderful gift. My grandmother loves to feed people and is an amazing cook. Her food is not fancy but it is always delicious and beautifully presented.
  4. Being part of a church family is important. Stick with them.
  5. Being part of your own family is important. Stick with them.(Whether you like going to the B Picnic or not!)
  6. See the world. Gram worked as a travel agent and took me along with her on a surprise trip to Mexico. Even at 89, she decided to go on a Caribbean cruise.
  7. Your own bed is best. I have inherited a love of home from my Gram.
  8. Celebrate milestones – Gram gave me silver for my 21st birthday and a bed for my wedding.
  9. Speak your mind. Granny and I both have strong opinions. (We’re also both oldest children and were both born in May.)
  10. Call people dear and love them well. Gram never makes me feel guilty, always remembers my kids’ birthdays, is supportive and kind. She looked after me when I was a baby, while my parents were working.
  11. Don’t label people. The one fight I ever got into with my grandmother was when we were doing a quiz and we decided she was Orange. I don’t remember what Orange stood for – maybe a homebody. Gram did not like the colour and told me so. But she was right – labelling people puts them in a box they don’t need to be in.
  12. Hard work never killed anyone.
  13. Visiting your grandma as a teenager is especially fun when she has a pool you can skinnydip in, a mall within walking distance, a bathroom with risqué magazines, a lawnmower you can drive without a license, and an ear ready to listen.

What I wish I could teach her:

  1. Garlic is delicious.
  2. It’s okay to use your dishwasher.
  3. The Internet is not that complicated to use. And you’d love it.
  4. There really WERE stegasauruses under all your beds.
  5. You are one of my favourite people in the whole world.

Love,  Susan

And, as I close this year of Dot’s Quick Lunch, I send love to you, too, my readers, who have come along on this journey of recollection and cooking with me. History has often been told by and about men, with the thought that the most important stories to be told are the stories of the powerful. In telling my Gram’s stories over the last year, my hope was to make space at the table for a different kind of power, the power of love, the power of feeding people good food, the power of my ordinary and extraordinary grandmother.

 

Dot’s Quick Lunch: Harve’s Retirement Squares

20200501_183817[1]My Gram was the eldest of eight kids. One died about twenty years ago and three are still living, but until about six or seven years ago, they all were alive and well. We would see all of them each summer at our extended family picnic and then at weddings and showers. For all my life, my Gram and her siblings were older adults to me, and because they all lived long lives, it felt to me for a long time like things didn’t change: there was no changing of the guard in this family, no passing of generations. This meant that for the longest time, I was able to think of myself as a young adult while my parents were the middle aged ones, and my Gram and her generation were the older people.

Even now, it catches me somewhat by surprise that my kids are the young adults, my parents are now the older generation and I am firmly middle aged. It isn’t resistance to ageing or change so much as surprise after so long of things being blessedly relatively static. When COVID came calling on our shores and in our house, it made me think about my mortality as I’m sure it made many others do the same. The difference for me was that, based on my family’s profile, I’m pacing myself to live to be in my 90s, so it seemd shockingly premature to even contemplate.

I remember both the Harve of this recipe and the recipe itself. I am fairly sure my Gram made this recipe for a wedding shower for me, which was attended by my great aunts and cousins and second cousins from this side of the family. Harve was a World War 2 veteran with hair that was always crinkles of silver waves on his head as far as I can remember. LIke his brother, Harve would often load up on raffle tickets at our family picnic in hopes of winning door prizes.

I think this is the first recipe of the year that I did not make, but was made for me. I bought — or rather, ordered — the ingredients, but my husband made it for us on the day I finished my yearlong position at our church. He offered to make dinner that night and to make this dessert. When he looked at the recipe, he said, “It’s appropriate since this is the day of your retirement.”

I don’t think it actually is my retirement but these months and weeks of being largely at home are the closest I have come to what I imagine retirement to be like. I’ve been interested by the choices I’ve made and the choices others have made during this season. Some people are busier than ever with their usual work being done from home or even in their usual places of employment, but for many of us, there have been significant shifts to being more home-based, and for some of us, there are more decisions to make about how to spend our time.

One thing I have done is to move my office to our front porch. It’s unheated so there are days it’s been too cold, but it both allows me a window on the world going by and also some quiet to work separate from my family. I wave to friends walking past, stepping out the door to chat with some. My “retirement” has been extreme in terms of physical distancing but it’s also been very socially engaged so far, whether that is the people walking past, on my phone or on Zoom calls. It makes me think of my Gram and how she was largely at home in her later years, but kept engaged with all sorts of folks on what we called her “hotline.”

So, here’s to the changing of the guard, the retirement. But here’s also to remembering the times when time seemed to stand still and you could count on the same faces at the table for every celebration.

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Dot’s Quick Lunch: Apricot Zings

20200425_193247[1]This recipe isn’t one of my Gram’s but it is one that comes from her church cookbook, and it comes from one of her friends. I know I’ve mentioned before that my Gram was part of a Unit of Ladies in her church who took responsibility for all sorts of the work of the church. Her friend Dorothy Toal was another one who served in this way.

Every spring, the ladies of the church hosted a fundraising rummage sale at which my Gram manned the jewellery table, and both donated treasures and came home with more.

But also, throughout the winter, their church, located right next to Western University and not far from downtown London hosted an Out of the Cold type program. My Gram was well into her 80s and probably closing in on 90 before she stopped going to make meals to serve to those who came to the program.

My plan had been to make and share with you one of the meals the street-involved people particularly liked, a soup made with ground beef, onions, tomatoes, carrots and pretty much every kind of bean you can think of.

But these days, I’m planning our meals carefully, and unlike the street people who might struggle to get enough protein and vegetables at other meals and so welcomed being loaded up each Friday night at Robinson United, my family is missing the chance to just run out for something sweet, whether that’s bubble tea with a friend, or a chocolate bar from the corner store.

And so, I decided rather than making the Bean and Hamburger Soup, I would make Dorothy Toal’s Apricot Zinger squares because I had everything necessary, and my family had the need as well.

Over my career, I have worked a lot with nonprofits and charities, many of whom reach out to the needs of marginalized people. I’ve also donated to charities. Right now, though, with my work being curtailed by the pandemic, I am very conscious of the fact that we have less money to give precisely at the moment when the need to give is greatest.

It is a careful balancing act we all must do, whether that is about how often we go out to a store, whether we go out at all, and how we stretch our budgets and our larders. But it’s also important for me, even in a time of restraint, to remember that there are people who are struggling infinitely more than I am. These include refugees, street-involved people and other marginalized folks.

I feel oddly proud of myself because I’ve used a single turnip to add flavour to three different meals, and I’ve used a cabbage in two meals and there’s enough left for at least one more. Similarly, my Gram’s example teaches me that even when you could easily think your life is fragile or you’ve already given, it’s important to remember that you often still have a little something left to give, whether that’s making a meal or a donation to those around you in need.

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Dot’s Quick Lunch: Gran’s Bran Muffins

20200419_144751[1]Maybe because she was shaped by watching her father die a painful death of bowel cancer, my Gram wanted to be a nurse. Frankly she quite enjoyed herself when she had to be in the hospital because she loved watching nurses do what nurses do so well, coming alongside people in their suffering, comforting and easing pain. My Gram would have been a good nurse, I think.

That’s not me. But I can tell the stories and I can remember. These days my evenings are arranged so that I am home and available at 7:30 pm so that I can ring my cowbell out my back door for all I’m worth, to remember the healthcare workers who do come alongside those who are suffering and even dying without their families able to be with them. I know this experience Is shaping and wearing them down – and yet they are showing up. Not all heroes wear capes, as they say. That’s why I am showing up each evening: to stand with them. When I have talked with friends who are on the front lines, I tell them that I am ringing my bell for them.

What does it do to ring a bell? In one sense nothing. What do stories do? Again, they don’t save lives. There are times when I wish I was built differently, when I think my work is frivolous and meaningless in these times. But I’m not sure. I think that those of us who can tell the stories cast a vision for what could be, what may be. A scientist on Twitter the other day said that they could give the numbers, the what and the how, but that we needed the arts to say why and why it matters.

I reflect on this project as it comes toward an end, as I am within a few weeks of my Gram’s 100th birthday. What does it matter? I think of it as I make these muffins – good for your bowels, I will add – and I think about how making something nourishing, whether words or food, helps us remember and also be re-membered. As I think about the elderly in longterm care homes who are disproportionately suffering from and dying from COVID, I think about how vital it is that we remember them, remember that their worth remains, that they still have much to contribute.  My daughter is considering becoming a nurse. As we go through this season, I wonder how it will shape her. I know she also would be a good nurse too, just like my Gram.

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