this is not a review: ‘brighten the corner where you are’, by carol bruneau

 

Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.

I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”

In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.

It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.

In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.

Paintings now worth tens of thousands.

But it was never money that inspired her.

“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”

Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?

“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”

It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.

Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.

“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.

“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”

All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.

1200px-Maud_Lewis

Image courtesy WikiCommons.

giving thanks on international women’s day

We all have a story or know someone who has one.

A story of abuse.

Sometimes you don’t even know that’s what you’re living.

Sometimes you don’t want to admit you were that stupid (though stupid rarely comes into it), so you trivialize, normalize events.

The details aren’t necessarily the thing, it’s getting out that matters.

It’s telling each other that getting out is possible.

That’s the part worth sharing.

The part where you asked for what you needed. Because that’s the day, the moment in the story where everything changes, when the universe rises up to meet you and begins to lay miracles in your path in more forms than you can dream.

A miracle in the form of a woman, for example, who comes out of her tiny row house two doors down from yours, just as the cab pulls up in front and no one knows you’re leaving, not even her, except now she does (your luggage is a clue) and no words are spoken while you look at each other and remember everything, the reasons you’re leaving, the laughter, the tears, the things you’ve talked about including the joy of hunting wild mushrooms; she doesn’t ask where will you go or how will you get there, she trusts you more than you trust yourself and in this moment that too is everything, because you’ve packed that luggage before and then turned back, but those times she wasn’t there on the street holding her breath on a morning in March, silently sending you some keep-going energy or so it feels when you reflect on that single moment in time all these decades later. That morning when you glanced back at the house, the tiny garden you’d planted, the mail slot you’d dropped the key through, the cat on the other side you’d spent hours saying goodbye to because you were leaving not just a house but a whole country, the note you knew was sitting on the kitchen table — maybe she saw you look, felt your hesitation, whatever it was, it was a gift beyond imagining when she said You are emotionally the strongest person I know.

The sentence stunned me.

It was the opposite of how I felt.

But because of it… because of that sentence… because it was so unexpected and so exactly what I needed to believe and because her saying it made believing possible…

I got into the cab.

I don’t even know if I waved goodbye.

 

A lifetime later, running workshops in a shelter, a woman told me her story; I’ve forgotten the details but I’ll never forget her saying she was saved the day a stranger in the park happened to ask if she was okay. She’d lied a thousand times before to friends and family and they’d stopped asking. This time she was ready.

It’s all about being ready. For the miracles.

 

Below is a post I wrote some years ago, dedicated to every woman who’s tried to save her life by making it to a shelter, in celebration of those who’ve made it or who are on their way, and in memory of those who didn’t get out in time.

 

‘Why She Stays’

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘field notes from an unintentional birder’, by julia zarankin

 

In a nutshell: personal essays, each focusing on one bird or aspect of birding, as well as a gentle inter-weaving of childhood memories that embrace the disciplines of piano, Russian literature, ballet, which in alternating ways both parallel and contradict the author’s approach to a growing fascination/obsession with birds.

Also in a nutshell: an entirely lovely read.

So lovely in fact that I found myself looking forward to settling down with a chapter or two in the way you might call a friend and say, so what have you learned today about your beloved birds and KNOW you will be getting a fabulous story if only, and maybe especially, about the most ordinary of moments, about how these moments reflect so much more than the moment and how there is always some very great thing learned, about birds, yes, but about self at the same time, in a completely NOT self-focused way.

There is no navel gazing here. Observations, both avian, and self-reflection, come as happy surprises.

Zarankin writes (along with so much else) about getting up in the wee hours, in all weather, driving to meet birding groups in parking lots and from there heading to wherever sightings of note have occurred. She writes about how she can hardly believe she’s doing this, how she notices her house filling up with birding books and décor, her conversation laced with avian facts; she is considering the purchase of a multi-pocketed vest, the likes of which once made her cringe. Having reached her thirties without noticing much more than a robin she is stunned to realize the variety of birds that exist in the city of Toronto and, to be honest, I’m stunned right along with her. How is it I don’t know a nuthatch… have I ever even seen one? Apparently they identify themselves by walking headfirst down tree trunks. And warblers, well, they’re everywhere it turns out, and, get this: there is something called a veery. Also a phalarope, a towhee. These are birds that live… right here.

My mind is blown by how much we don’t know.

This is a book about discovery. Birds, yes. But passion mostly. It’s uplifting in a down to earth way; there are no promises that following your passion will lead you to what you expect, in yourself or otherwise, but, as Zarankin shows by her own example, there’s a very good chance it will lead you to the surprise of your own heart.

Also birds.

“It’s hard to measure my birding progress. Ten years later, I am no longer a neophyte… But I know I’m still far from being a skilled birder.

“…. Maybe the point isn’t about measuring at all; it’s about seeing.”

curbside everything (almost)

I am so in love with curbside living.

I get pineapple, bananas, avocado, clementines and various other exotics from Valles (including Covered Bridge chips from New Brunswick; the best); organic apples, potatoes and parsnips, sardines, juice, laundry detergent, dish soap, chick peas, goat yoghurt and a million other wonderful things (and mostly all Canadian brands) from Today’s Natural Solutions; Georgian Bay trout from Healthy Meats; locally grown (and preserved) peaches, homemade sauerkraut, butter tarts, apple cider (non alcohol’d), local greenhouse mesclun and cucumbers (we are SO lucky!!), onions, eggs, cheese, squash (I said butter tarts, right?) from Hy Hope Farm; excellent apple cider (alcohol’d) and homemade mustard from Slabtown Cider; more (Ontario and/or Quebec) cheese from Country Cheese; local frozen veg, pastry dough and potato scones from McMillan Orchards; books from Blue Heron Books and the Whitby Library; joy from my backyard labyrinth and the lake; pizza from Corrados; The Best eggplant parm and The Best parmesan cheese from Antonio’s

I don’t necessarily do curbside with all of the above but most have that option and every one of them is small and delightful to shop in, careful about protocols, and the staff (in every case) is brilliant. And they are LOCAL.

This isn’t anything new to us, being long-time pooh-poohers of big stores. (Honestly, I can hardly think of one thing I need to go into a giant grocery store for that I can’t get from one of the above-named places, and that includes extraordinary olives.) And other than tropical fruit (and only in winter) we don’t buy out of season, but these days I have an even greater interest in spending my dollars in ONLY small, local, independently owned shops and curbside is just the cherry on top. Like having a personal shopper.

Cannot imagine the hardship so many small businesses have faced this past year. Here’s hoping there’s a groundswell of support that continues down the road.

So grateful to each of my go-to’s for sustenance and nourishment.

Including the lake.

And my labyrinth.

Nourishment comes in many forms.

hey there

 

I’m in no hurry to go back to shaking hands.

Hugs, yes. (Though I have some thoughts on that too.)

But the handshake I think we can maybe scrap forever.

Ugh. I’m thinking suddenly of all the hideous hands I’ve shaken and some really awful handshakes, the limp wrist affairs, the sweaty palms, the vice grips. The creepy lingering ones. Yeah, enough.

“Hello, nice to meet you” can so easily be accompanied by a nod or pirouette, a short expressive dance, a tap dance!, hand over heart, an elbow or ankle bump, a high pitched yip! or big toothy grin. It’s endless really.

Think of all the colds we’d save ourselves.

And the pleasure of meeting would be so much more pleasurable.

 

 

kindness unwrapped

My new favourite pastime is noticing the ways of kindness, what it is, how it becomes, the way people find or make their own versions of it, the sheer, sweet miracle of how the pandemic has inspired so much goodness and despite how tired everyone is there seems to be no wearying of being kind in extraordinary ways. It doesn’t feel like we are giving up on that. On the contrary, we seem to be getting better at it.

Not only in the giving and receiving, but in the recognizing.

Because it doesn’t always come as a box of cookies or slab of cheese. (Though either are entirely acceptable.)

For me, the awareness often comes as a surprise, a sudden sense of delight when I’m really not expecting delight and maybe lasting only a few moments but long enough to breathe differently, walk differently, to be in awe of how important we are to each other. Which of course is the true gift.

Possibly the very best of it is in fact wrapped up in something so ordinary that the one giving has no idea they’re giving kindness because it’s only a conversation, a compliment, a smile, a few minutes of listening, a pretzel made with sewing machine and catnip, a couple bags of potato chips (Covered Bridge brand from New Brunswick), a wayward puppet, a mouse saved, a jar of soup delivered, the title of a song that when played changes a morning, a page of typewritten text taken from a book that might make a day, a painting of peace and kayaks, a note left on a porch, a painted stone, a spontaneous book club for two, or (only) a cup of tea…

this is not a review: the fiction of politics

I didn’t intend to read two books back to back where women, politics, and arrogant men figure prominently but then I think if you have the first two ingredients, the last one is often a given.

Interestingly, both books take their stories from real events.

Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall, was the first of the two.

The overall premise having been inspired by Toronto politician Patrick Brown’s undoing. Forgive the pun. Told from the perspective of Brooke, a twenty-three year old political assistant who is smitten with the glossy veneer of politics and the (older) man behind the curtain in a way that may resonate one way with anyone who has long since been twenty-three (i.e. as cringing reminder of youth and the easy influence of someone ‘important’; gratitude for crumbs of attention; status by association; the way innocence walks into moments that experience would recognize for what they are and head for the hills) and resonate another way entirely with anyone who IS currently twenty-three (i.e. as fair warning). At its heart, a story about the abuse of power, both heartbreaking for what we recognize in Brooke’s naivete, and inspiring for the realization that this is how we learn. Sometimes it hurts.

Petra, by Shaena Lambert, is the little (to me) known story of Petra Kelly, founder and champion of the Green Party. Narrated partly in the voice of a former lover, the book is eye-opening in its account of the party’s origins, initial efforts against nuclear weapons and various other causes being championed such as climate change, feminism, humane treatment of all living things. The book opens in the farmhouse that serves as party headquarters and which beautifully sets the tone for what the party stood for, i.e. no fancy office building necessary. This is grassroots politics at its finest and well portrays the era of the 1980’s, the important work being done, the challenges Kelly, especially, faced, as well as the commitment of those doing the work, all the while revealing relationships and personalities, the struggles, the egos and ultimately, the betrayals.

I won’t spoil the pleasure but I will say that it has one of the best closing scenes I’ve read in a very long time

toasting toast

Can we please talk about toast?

I think we NEED to talk about toast.

More than ever.

It’s come up as a subject at my house and with a friend or two in the last little while and I think that’s no accident, because there are no accidental toast conversations. There’s a reason it’s knocking on the window of my psyche.

Toast is sanity.

And comfort.

Not to mention that a well toasted piece of bread is something you remember for possibly ever.

For example, those people in the country, that farmhouse we visited, me and some friends when I was a teenager. One of my friends knew them, said they wouldn’t mind if we dropped by unannounced. It was late, something like 8:30 or 9 p.m. (even then I had an abbreviated sense of ‘late’). It was a couple, a man and a woman, much older than us, they might have been 40, and whether or not they minded us popping in at the wee hours wasn’t apparent. They welcomed us, put the kettle on, and made toast. I remember that little plate with six or eight or maybe ten slices, buttered, on the table of this almost rundown farmhouse kitchen. I can’t remember how it tasted, what stays with me is simply that they served toast. It seemed such an odd thing– why not cookies or a slice of cake, muffins, crackers and cheese? And yet… it was perfect. It was possibly all they had on hand. And it was something. And they wanted to offer something. And it was perfect.

But that’s not my first memory of toast. The first would be the cinnamon toast my sister taught me to make.

Simple recipe:

SLATHER gobs of butter on toasted bread.

Sprinkle heavily with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Take to big fat overstuffed chair.

Settle in to watch Gilligan’s Island.

In some elementary grade we were asked to write a short essay on How To (do something). Then we each had to stand and read what we’d written. I stood. I began with the title: How To Toast Toast. Before I’d read more than a line or two I noticed kids were laughing. I kept reading, happy the piece wasn’t as dull as I’d thought but when I was done the teacher had a kind of tsk tsk look on her face. How was it possible to toast toast she wanted to know. The implication being I hadn’t thought carefully enough about my subject before I launched into the writing. It actually took me a minute to understand everyone’s problem with it and even then all I could think was how is that more important than these valuable directions???

When my sister moved out to what I thought was a wonderfully derelict furnished apartment that she entirely Lysol sprayed, the kitchen had one of those ancient toasters with ‘wings’ that come down and you lay the bread in, toasting one side of it at a time. It had a thick cord wrapped in frayed black fabric and it felt a little like taking your life in your hands every time you used it but it made the BEST toast ever.

Sometimes, if the stars are aligned just so, you can stumble upon a diner that makes toast almost as good as a winged toaster.

Fast forward decades to the hills above Penticton, B.C. where once upon a time lived a man with a donkey and a mill, who made such exquisite loaves of sourdough that when toasted could make you cry and we stuffed our suitcases with it and have forever called it, and any good toasted sourdough since… donkey bread.

So many other tidbits… the love you can express with a heart-shaped piece of toast, for example. TOAST FINGERS, or soldiers as they’re called in the UK where I first encountered them. And speaking of the UK, the way they do so much ‘on toast’ that toast should have its own food network.

A British friend has only recently informed me that there is something called a toasting fork. People use it for marshmallows and sausages as well. But I wouldn’t. I would dedicate such a noble stick solely to bread because I trust said friend who assures me that done properly there is no better way to toast toast than this.

Yes, that’s right, I said it, Ms. Thingy from whatever grade that was and who will forever be part of my toasted memories.

p.s. This toast post is NOT COMPLETE without a moment for this.

yellow cup

Yesterday a cousin sends pictures of alpine snow heavy on branches, mountains, rooftops, and me here in the rain feeling snow envy, sending a message back to her… “A slice of heaven!” I write and forget my laundry on the line and then this morning I open the blinds and see snow heavy on branches and rooftops and the morning light is just starting and I put the kettle on and go out to the porch, my laundry frozen and me here in coat and boots and a bright yellow cup, lemon balm tea as the sun rises through a slice of heaven.

IMG_0860

IMG_0862