Mountain-Top Experiences

On an early album, Amy Grant sang, “I’d like to live on a mountain-top, fellowshipping with the Lord…” I’m not sure you have to be Christian to see mountain-top experiences as peak ones, pinnacles, king-of-the-world moments.

And yet.

This morning, on day 3 of having nothing to do after months of frantic activity, my Bible reading was about Noah, and it was about the ark landing on Mount Ararat after five months of flood. And then staying there for another seven months or so while the waters receded. Just sitting there. In the ark. Watching the land re-emerge and dry up.

It’s weird. No paid work. My novel is off with an editor for edits. My other novels are under consideration with a publisher. My secret project is waiting for funders to get back to me. I’m not even knitting anything, for crying out loud.

I have an idea for a new novel, but it’s percolating. I have bits of wool. I have stain to redo the upstairs floors of our house. I have paid work on the horizon. But this week, it’s like watching land dry up. Or snow melt. (Although that happened while I slept last night.)

I’ve done everything I can think of to move my projects forward, to solicit new stuff, to make future plans. Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’ve dusted. Here’s the thing: I have even exercised. That’s how empty it’s been.

But maybe, just maybe, when you’ve been through the flood, you actually can do nothing else other than sit and wait for the waters to recede.

What I want, what I crave, is just a normal pace of life, normal stuff, dum de dum.

What I suspect is that this emptiness is a weird kind of gift. I don’t want to miss it, even if it isn’t the gift I was hoping for.

No one in my life is in crisis anymore. After three solid months, it’s good. My grandma is cutting back her help as of today. Everyone is home from their big trips. People are mostly healthy. Exams are done. Drip drip drip.

It’s good.


Shoveling Snow

This morning, it’s cold outside, but not cold like last week. Last week I was in Quebec. Last week, a five-minute walk outside burned my lungs. The windchill in Quebec approached -40. I had been to Quebec in winter before. One thing that strikes me every time is the sheer volume of snow: the yards in my friend’s neighbourhood were essentially cubes: piled as high with snow as they were deep and wide. So far this winter, Quebec City has received about 1.7 metres of snow, or nearly six feet. About 40 centimetres of that fell during my visit, and I was one of the people responsible for snow removal.

What I learned was that when you get that much snow, you can’t do a half-hearted job. Here at home, we have probably five or six centimetres of snow on the ground. We haven’t shoveled, tractors haven’t been by to plough. It will probably melt in a week or so, or we’ll get more and we’ll push that off to the side.

Not so in Quebec. In Quebec, you do that and by next week, there will be a single lane on the road, and the week after that, a small pathway. When there is just that much snow, you have to clear it completely every single time.

Just as leaving snow on the ground is something of a luxury we enjoy here, I’m starting to see complaining in the same light. I’ve been irritated the last few days by people complaining and I’ve started to see that those of us who complain are often those who have the least to complain about. This isn’t always true, but it seems like it these days.

I was in Quebec with my dear, dear friend who is wrestling with breast cancer and chemotherapy and all the tiny and big ailments and fears that come along for the ride. The other morning, she said her husband had been up with her in the night. I asked her what had been wrong and she waved her hand somewhat dismissively, saying she could tell me a dozen things, but why bother. Why not get on with the new day instead. And so we did, a day which ended with her husband on a work trip, her going to the hospital at midnight to discover she had a zero white blood count, and me home with her four children, shoveling the snow of the blizzard that followed the extreme cold.

When things get very hard, complaints become a luxury, while thankfulness and teamwork become necessities.

The last three months have been ones I hope are unusual ones. Other than a brief head cold, I’ve been healthy and well. But I’ve had to play an active role caregiving for six of the people I am closest to. It has been a sobering, growing experience. It has been hard. Often, it has been beyond words.

But we have not been swamped. We have had bright moments of great joy and small miracles. We have loved and been loved. We have had the words we needed to say. We have put one foot in front of the other. We have been awed by the bravery of those who suffer and yet do not give up on life, humour or joy. We have learned our limits and others’ limits, and learned to share the load when it is too much for one.

I wonder, if the tables were turned, would those who are privileged and who complain, if faced with suffering, would they endure with patience? and those who suffer, if they were hale and hearty, would they live frivolously and complain? As the caregiver, I’m somewhere in the middle: I can walk away and get a night’s sleep; I’m not stuck in a broken body. At the same time, I’m still very tied, practically and emotionally, to the suffering, and so my schedule has been dominated and turned upside down by all these things. I’ve had to be part of tough decision making and stress-filled situations, remembering to trust God and to breathe. And so too, I can indulge in the luxury of complaining (honestly, I would like more fluffiness in my life, thanks, and would even settle for normalcy). But at the same time, I’m not able to luxuriate in this.

The other evening, I sat in the airport in Quebec City for two hours. I was drained and exhausted and I had a headache. I had left my friend in her isolation room on an IV pole, her sweet family facing a new week without their mom at home, her children asking tough questions kids shouldn’t have to ask. I watched families in the airport, carrying their ski poles and leather carry-on bags, dressed in designer clothes, complaining about the slight delay of our plane after their weekend of skiing. I felt sobered. That was the word that came to mind, and comes to mind this week: I am sobered by my experiences.

Certainly, the kids and I, my friend and I, we laughed and played. Certainly, I am rejoicing at the almost-resurrection of my elderly grandmother. Certainly I am grateful that my daughter finally recovered from her serious illness. But it’s a sober joy, all of these, one that faces both dark and light. One that recognizes how much worse things could be and is grateful for each moment. One that has to shovel all the snow off the driveway and roads, because more snow will come.

Top 10 Books of 2012

The editor at the newspaper I write reviews for says he could likely fill his section each week with just my reviews. I’m a fast reader and I think the fact that I am a fiction writer as well as not-wealthy reader means I understand the balance between reviewing in a way that considers the ego of the writer and that also helps a potential reader decide whether a book is worth the twenty or thirty dollars it might cost. One of many things I like about reviewing books is that often I take the opportunity of reading books I might not have otherwise picked up.

I’ve chosen my ten favourite books of the year, but like children, it really is hard to choose between them. I will give you my number one book of the year — Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table — but really the rest are a jumble of assorted delights. You will enjoy any and all of them.

The Cat’s Table was published in 2011 but I didn’t pick it up until this year. I am a huge Ondaatje fan. I would love to get inside his complex brain to thoroughly understand how he creates the layers and collages of memory (real and invented) that make up his books. I read this book unusually slowly during a busy time of the summer: usually I read a book in an evening or two, but the book and my life lent themselves to a slower,more episodic reading that I think was part of the magic of the experience. The cover of the softcover book I read is a luminous navy blue of sea and sky at night, with a ship in the centre. This ship is home to the majority of the story’s narrative, and traces a trip that Ondaatje himself took as a boy, between Ceylon and England. This book, however, is fiction, and one I highly recommend.

Another fictional story that took place in a setting known well to its author is the Governor-General Award nominated The Juliet Stories. This book is one I did not publicly review, because I know the author, Carrie Snyder, whose son is in my daughter’s class. I always avoid reviewing books of people I know because of the dangers of gushing and/or not liking the book. I read The Juliet Stories in one very very long sitting, the night of its launch. It drew me in with its fine, fine writing, characterization, subtle humour, and unflinching look at life and memory. I recommend it to you.

Sometimes my reading is seasonal. I’m a big Olympics fan and in the lead up to the summer games in London, I enjoyed the book Gold by Chris Cleave. The novel follows a very small and intense world within the games: two female cyclists, three men and a very ill child in their lives. The book shifts back and forth between these six perspectives in a deeply authentic way. The book also evokes the pace of cycling and as the stakes in both life and game escalated, I found my heart racing.

Not long after Christmas, my family believed we were facing the imminent end of our matriarch. (It turned out she was able to make a remarkable recovery.) One of the books that accompanied me on that journey was The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This book had been recommended to me by a good reader friend but somehow the title led me to expect it to be schmaltzy, some sort of stupid bucket list kind of book. Instead, the book is a beautiful elegy to the power of reading, the strength of the mother-son relationship and the unfolding knowledge of how to live and die well. Schwalbe memorably says he learned from his mother: “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Dying is a key theme in John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. I was at a cocktail party with Green this past spring, but he was engaged in conversation and, as so often happens when I have the opportunity to meet even quasi-celebrities, the only things I could think to say fell into the category of Inarticulate Crazed Fangirl. The book, however, is a laugh-out-loud funny, cry your eyes out story about two young people who fall in love despite the fact that they both have potentially terminal cancer. I’ve read cautions about the tendency toward death books in young adult fiction, and there are some I would rather not read, but this is one of the good ones.

Another of the good ones is a fabulous biography of Julia Child, called Dearie. I remember Julia Child from my childhood as a weird woman with a strange voice. I had not read or seen Julie and Julia (and in fact tried the movie after this biography, and was not entranced.) This is a terrific example of biography done well, and in a way that absolutely suits its subject matter. Dearie‘s author, Bob Spitz, loved (and slightly knew) Child and his warmth for her enhances rather than takes away from the book. What intrigued me most was how very long it took Child to find a satisfying outlet for her intensity, passion and joie de vivre: she was 40 by the time she found her calling. I found this inspiring.

The book Indian Horse was one I read early in the year and also found inspiring. Writer Richard Wagamese tells a deeply disturbing tale that is at the same time hope-filled and beautiful. He examines the shame of Canada’s residential schools in a mystical tale that is an ode to the good old hockey game and its power to lift players above their situations, it is a story of a system that fails and fails its children in horrifying ways, but ultimately and from the start, it is a story of healing.

When I read the first half of The Poisonwood Bible years ago, I thought it was by far the best book I had ever read. The second half, however, left me cold. I had a similar experience with the debut novel of Australian writer M.L. Stedman: The Light Between Oceans. This writer leads the reader into her book better, more seductively and beautifully than any book I can remember reading. Her writing is a marvel and yet it does not call attention to itself. The premise of the book is compelling — a dead man and a live baby wash up on the shore of a remote Australian island in the 1920s where a shellshocked war veteran lighthouse keeper and his wife, who had miscarried yet again only two weeks before, find and decide to keep the child as their own. The resolution of the story is also fitting. It’s the middle bit where the same ground got trodden more than a bit too often that made me lose some patience with it. However, it still shines as a star and I still recommend it highly.

Babel No More was another well-written book of 2012, but this one is a nonfiction book. Writer and linguist Michael Erard sets out to understand polyglots, people who speak multiple languages. Erard’s own curiosity and storytelling skills are as much a draw as the unusual subjects he meets and researches.

This fall, I met Miranda Hill at The New Quarterly’s Wild Writers Festival. We both looked at each other and were fairly sure we knew each other from somewhere, although we weren’t sure quite where. Interestingly, I had a similar experience with the first story in Hill’s debut short story collection, Sleeping Funny, in which I could nearly imagine myself as a character. Hill has background in drama and her ability to inhabit the minds, hearts and lives of disparate characters, with compassion, was compelling. (I should also note how lovely it was to read Hill and Snyder’s stories and find lightness and humour alongside an unflinching gaze at reality. Too often literary fiction seems compelled to be Serious, Hopeless and Dour. These fine writers demonstrate that despondency is not a required quality in a writer.)

That brings me to ten. I want to add one more. This summer, the popular Irish writer Maeve Binchy died. A friend on Facebook mentioned how much she loved Binchy’s work. I had never bothered to pick up her writing before, but I decided to give it a try, and frankly, I loved it. I especially enjoyed how interconnected the characters of Binchy’s various novels are — someone who is the main character of one book might make a fleeting appearance in another. Binchy’s books are indeed feel-good books, but not at the expense of realty. Not everyone ends up happy and married and rich. She was a good observer of human nature and did a fine job of creating believable character sketches that told the tale. She will be missed.

How about you? What were your favourites of 2012?


Here I am

When I was in labour with my first child, I was nearly drowned by the pain. I remember the image of being in a fish tank, nearly full of water, but not quite. I was fully submerged in the water of pain, except for my lips, which remained above the surface, enabling me to keep breathing, through what turned out to be 46 long hours of labour.

My lips are still out of the water. Or maybe that’s just me being dramatic.

In any event, I’m still breathing, still here, even if here isn’t quite the place it was before. I’m here in a new blog location, one that I hope will better facilitate conversation, one that has better scenery. (Do you like the toad above? We found him in a gravel parking lot the night we stayed in a caboose in the Finger Lakes.)

I’m kind of glad to see the end of 2012. No Mayan apocalypse, but the year was characterized by what I’m thinking of as growing pains, as well as joy. There were things and people that nearly silenced my voice in this kind of forum. It’s taken some thinking to decide to keep writing in this public kind of way. It’s taken setting some new boundaries and letting go of others. In any event, I’m glad to be back writing this blog — there are things I’ve been looking forward to sharing with you.

Happy new year!