this is not a review: ‘a walk in the night’, by Alex la Guma

I read a review about this book, a slim collection of short stories, ordered it from my bookseller then let it sit on my shelves for a couple years. Coming across it the other day I’d forgotten whatever the review said that originally invited me to buy it and because So Many Books To Read, I thought I’d give it purpose by sending to a friend who collects African literature.

I had a little note all written and ready to tuck inside, the brown paper ready to wrap it with and then… well, maybe I’ll just have a quick flip through first.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, or after the first story, I loved it.

Why?

Because it’s not what I expected.

I expected stories of apartheid and while, yes, these are stories of apartheid; how could they not be? Not the least because Alex la Guma was a freedom fighter against apartheid to the point he had to flee his own country in 1966. He went to the UK where this book was published two years later. So, yes, there are stories of oppression but what surprised me in the most eye-opening and beautiful way are the stories of what it is to be non-White in South Africa. Which of course includes apartheid but is so much bigger than anything, no matter how horrendous, that can be imposed upon a population. It means the resilience of people and the attitude of care and compassion toward each other; it means love and families made of blood and of choice. And it shows that apartheid was not only race based, but class based.

‘The Lemon Orchard’, tells of a Black man who is led by a group of White racists through an orchard (the details of which are exquisite; you are there in the orchard as they walk, aware of the fragrance, the fruit… the juxta-positioning of this with the action and the dialogue is powerful)… walking to the outer reaches of an orchard, where they intend to punish (kill?) the Black man for being ‘cheeky’ in his response to a White man. The ending isn’t what you might expect but it’s exactly this element of ‘the unexpected’ that keeps me reading.

Another story, ‘A Matter of Taste’, finds a Chinese man and a Black man, both hobos, sharing a cup of coffee from a precious few grounds they scavenged. They’ve made a fire next to a railway line when a White man appears from the woods looking thin, hungry, and bedraggled, much like themselves. The coffee is stretched to three as they make up stories about the best meals they can imagine eating and then they imagine eating them.

‘Blankets’ is about a Black man who’s been shot and takes refuge in a lean-to that smells of urine and rot, where he’s covered in blankets that are no more than rags and smell just as bad. Then a paramedic comes, a White face looks down at him and they get him into an ambulance where he’s covered in clean blankets, real blankets, and it’s at this moment he realizes the difference between one social class and another.

Little gems, every one.

All of which to say… I’ll have to buy another copy of the book to send my friend. I’m keeping this one.

workshops at the shelter: aka, what we write about when we write about avocados

The rule is this: write fast. No thinking allowed, no revising, no stopping. The rule is to write fast and only for a few minutes at a time. It’s important not to wander into the everyday stuff that takes up all the space in our heads. Especially now. For the length of this workshop we are not given over to thoughts of everyday muck, nor do we dwell on the why of why we live in a shelter— why they live in a shelter. I’m a volunteer. I can go home.

They choose their own notebook, their own journal for the writing exercises. People donate dozens, all of them in a variety of colours and sizes, and this is a big part of the workshop, this gift of blank pages. They take their time choosing, some have difficulty with decision.

For the writing, we use visual prompts and random words, things like cuticle, dragon, avocado, and the women always go Avocado? For fuck’s sake, we’re running for our lives, do you know how hard it was to leave, to come here, to not have the first clue about what happens next, because we don’t know what to do because all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever been told, is that we’re stupid and worthless and all we’ve ever done is give away our power because we believed, still believe, we’re stupid and worthless, because we’re deflated, broken, so fucking broken, and because he threatens suicide unless we come back, threatens to kill our dog, mess with our kids, he’ll find us he says, so why the fuck are we writing about avocados when all we can think about is what’s happening to our dog, because we couldn’t take our dog, we didn’t have a choice because this was the day we had the strength to make the move and it might not come again and so we just ran and it doesn’t make sense to be writing about avocados when all we want to do is cry, to replay it all over and over in our minds, the way it started, the way it was only emotional in those days, he has a temper, sure, but he loves me, he loves the kids, he always says he’s sorry, and how this time was always the last time, the last black eye, the last broken arm… he promised, he cried, he begged, because he’s really just a teddy bear underneath, he is so in need of love and we need to be needed, what else do we have? And you’re telling us to write about avocados? Why? Tell us why.

This isn’t what they say out loud, no one person has ever said it all out loud, but it’s there with every new group, in the expression on their faces, the impatient tap of a foot, the slump of their boredom, the question why?

And so I tell them: I don’t know… let’s see why.

And remember, I say, write fast, don’t think, don’t revise, and I’m amazed, every time, that they pick up their pens and begin.

And what happens is that avocados take them to the colour of a sweater they once loved or hated, which reminds them of the aunt who knit the sweater and that freezing night it rained and they all played Clue and somebody made popcorn with sugar instead of salt… and it goes on from there.

And this small memory always comes as a big surprise as they break the cycle of everyday thoughts, even for a short time. Not only that but they often tap into a part of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone because they didn’t think it was important.

And this is where the magic happens: when they read their work out loud and realize people are listening and laughing and crying and for a moment it occurs to them that they matter, that they are so much more than their present circumstances, so much more than what they’ve been told they are.

And so the woman with missing front teeth writes about shelling peas during a time of severe abuse, how the garden was her refuge. Another remembers her mother’s stew pot, the colour and texture, the smell of pork and cabbage, the way it felt to warm her hands on it. She says she hasn’t thought of that for twenty years, been too busy on the streets, making a living.

The woman who writes about leaving home at thirteen, the way she pauses and looks up to see if you’re shocked and how in that half second you can see that thirteen year old kid in her eyes.

A woman who was working as a trader in the NYC office of Merrill Lynch on 9/11 writes about how she left the building minutes before the plane hit, how she remembers bodies falling. She has the idea she made eye contact with some of them. She had a life until then, she writes, a career. But after that she fell apart, nightmares, survivor guilt; she took refuge in drugs. She’s all bones now and her face is scarred and covered in scabs. She says one of the great things about the shelter is that no one cringes when they look at her. She says that this group, the writing, the sharing of stories is the first time she’s felt joy, the first time she remembers smiling in years.

A 31 year old woman with six kids tells us about something called fricot, a New  Brunswick comfort food, and a former journalist with a black eye gives instructions for making a no-fail pot roast she swears will melt in your mouth.

The young woman with seven kids who has driven across the country.

The 17 year old who writes about praying for a baby so she’ll have someone to love her.

The woman who writes: I remember the soft hum my mother makes while baking.

The woman who writes: I want to acquire the skill of being able to say the difficult things.

The one with pink hair who writes about peace…peace be with you, she writes, peace out, I wish I had a piece of blueberry pie.

The teenager who writes about arriving at the shelter at one in the morning, alone and scared and how the next day was her birthday and how the shelter staff and residents surprised her with a cake that afternoon and how she’s still in awe that anyone could be so nice.

And the woman from India who, through an interpreter, tells us about a happy childhood, playing tennis, her mother’s cooking and the mango tree outside her bedroom window and then how, in Canada, she was essentially a prisoner in her home, beaten by her husband, not allowed to go outside or talk to anyone for six years.

From a selection of visual prompts that I bring in and place on the table… a button, Canadian Tire money, a stone, a crayon… a woman picks the bar of soap and, in tears, describes the hugs of a grandmother who smelled of Ivory. And in another workshop, on another day, another woman picks the same bar of soap and writes about how when she was five or six, her father asked her to have a shower with him, and how it turned out to be… in her words… not a normal shower. She reads her piece without emotion, the only tears are ours.

The woman who chooses the stick and I immediately think how ridiculous of me to bring a stick. You never know what will trigger bad memories, but a stick? That pretty much screams poor choice. And yet. The woman who chooses the stick writes about how one day in the park with her kids her son picked up a long thin branch and at home snapped it into four pieces and said This is us, we’re broken, but we’ll always fit together. She still has the pieces and writes how she plans to mount them on the wall above everyone’s bed if they ever find a home.

I bring the stick to another workshop and the woman who chooses it writes about the beauty of trees without leaves.

This is the part I never get used to. These women who’ve just done possibly the most difficult thing they’ll ever do, leave their homes, almost always with nothing, their abuser’s voice still ringing in their head, telling them if they walk out that door I’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault they say. They won’t be accountable for what they do. You’ve been warned, they scream, it will be your fault.

And yet… they write about the beauty of trees without leaves.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that even though they don’t know each other and will only share bedrooms, the kitchen, the TV room and smoking area in this shelter for a few weeks, a couple of months, they have an uncanny ability to feel each other. I marvel at how they know exactly what to say and when, or when to do no more than silently pass a box of tissues down the line.

One afternoon, close to the end of a workshop, after we’ve been writing and sharing stories for an hour and a half, I put out the visual prompts for one last exercise. A woman who has an easy laugh and leans forward to hear the stories of others, chooses a red feather and writes about a daughter who committed suicide two months earlier. No one in the room had any idea. She smiles as she reads, knowing how her words will affect us but wanting somehow to keep it light, to not become a downer. Her daughter, who is now an angel, she writes, loved to collect feathers and had this idea of maybe opening a shelter for women called Free to Fly.

And the woman who can’t decide between the prompt “I remember…” and “I believe” so I decide for her, I suggest she use I remember and she groans and starts writing and when she’s done, she drops her pen and covers her face, her shoulders shake with tears and I say how sorry I am, that it was a stupid prompt, that I should have given her I believe instead and she says, no, that she needed to do this, she needed to see it, she says, to remember, and then she reads out loud all the remembered things, the smell of her mother’s Exclamation perfume, her child’s birth, the love, the song, the dance, the chardonnay, the pain and the hunger, the strength she needed, the power her ex held, the day she changed, she remembers the money, she writes, the death, the rebirth. I remember never forgetting.

The women named Dylan and Raven, Cheyanne, Sue and Brenda, some of them tough as they get, who cry when they write about lilacs.

And the women not mentioned, and those who have yet to leave their homes, who stay because he is her family, because For Better or For Worse. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know.  Because she looks fine and manages to function even though she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically she can’t even see straight but still, it’s easier to hope than leave, so she hopes he will be in a good mood today, and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

And the youngest of women, no more than a girl, who chooses a dark brown feather and writes about the elders looking down from the eagle’s nest, how grateful they are to those who have come after them, who continue to tell the story of their people. She can hear them, she writes…

I can hear them. Can you?

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This essay originally appeared in The Malahat Review,  (Summer, 2018)
The shelter’s writing program has not been running since covid. I think of the women often, the women who make the hard choice of coming here to save their own lives, who with other women and children build a community, and who eventually create a new world beyond these safe walls… who knows where and how.
I think of those who because of covid no longer have easy access to safety.
I think of them often.
And I miss writing with them… and talking… about avocados.

♦♦

(time for) a stone story

True story.

I’m walking at the beach, looking mostly for beach glass but open to bits of weathered, washed-up crockery and good looking stones. I find an unusual stone, long and slender like a giant’s finger, you don’t see stones like this often… ever. I have never seen one like it on this beach. So I pick it up, carry it a while. It’s a good shape for holding as you walk. Then in the distance I notice stones on a picnic table. I walk over. Twelve stones arranged like a clock face. There’s even a stone in the middle. But no hands. And there I am with with a long slender stone. Very clock-handish in fact. I place it on the clock face and continue walking and on my way back I find another long slender stone. The odds for this are close to nil. I’ve been walking on this beach for three hundred years and have never seen stones this shape much less two, much less on the same day I find a clock face in need of hands.

this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Because, a) getting to know Sylvie is quite good fun and, b) because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and then see different possibilities of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel-in-stories with immense pleasure; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. I love that there is no wrong way to do this (in life and in the book), so many ways to imagine the future, so many fabulous ways to get there.

In the case of Sylvie’s lives, all of them a trip worth taking. Twice.

apropos of nothing

Well, not entirely accurate. Not entirely nothing.

There was a conversation recently wherein reference was made to the job of waiting tables as low-end work. The implication filled with judgement and pity for the poor saps who have to shlep bowls of soup for money.

I disagree with the idea that waiting tables is a low end job.

Hard work for low pay, yes, but not low end.

If ensuring the comfort and happiness of someone’s breakfast, lunch or dinner is seen as menial work then we really do have our values twisted.

There are real stars out there, servers who bring a sliver of joy to strangers in a true and authentic way. One of them works at a diner in town, has been there for decades, calls everyone hon, or love, in a way that you don’t mind.  She is one of the reasons the place is full of regulars (when places were full) (also the toast is excellent). And you can tell that she’s not putting it on for tips, that the people are a big reason she loves her job. When you ask for peanut butter she brings it over like it’s the most important thing in the world. She’s constantly moving, talking, being asked, answering, carrying, ordering, changing orders, shlepping.

Is it hard work? Sure looks like it.

Is it rewarding? As with everything, depends how you do it.

There are certain establishments, towns, cities, certainly countries other than ours where waiting tables is held in higher regard, a profession not merely a job that, when done well, is a respectable, and well respected, way to make a living for an entire lifetime.

Along the same lines, someone was saying how food delivery people are also looked down upon, barely spoken to, if at all, especially now that so much take-out is pre-paid. Which reminded me of the pizza guy a couple years ago who came to the door and we casually said how ya doing, and without missing a beat, and with tongue perfectly in his cheek, he said… I’m livin’ the dream.

We cracked up.

He smiled, said have a good one.

That’s star quality.

 

this is not a review: ‘a woman’s walks’, by lady colin campbell

The first thing I don’t like about this book is that she (Gertrude Elizabeth Blood), calls herself Lady Colin Campbell, which reminds me of the personalized stationery, little note cards on excellent stock, my mother-in-law (an otherwise intelligent and lovely woman) gave me, designed, I suppose, to obliterate any thought of whoever I used to be pre-marriage, being embossed as they were with “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)”. She explained that should I happen to send a card to a friend (who else would I send them to??) I was meant to strike a single line through “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)” and write in “Carin”. As if to say that “you (because we are friends) may call me Carin”. I still have the little copper plate that came with the box of stationery in case I ever need to replenish my supply. (hahaha) The fact that I don’t use anyone else’s name, neither first nor last (having been blessed with my own), is apparently beside the point. She, dear woman, came from an era of The Mrs.

The ‘Lady Colin Campbell’ syndrome is ridiculous. (And very different from adopting a family name, which makes a certain kind of sense in certain cases and to certain people. I do get why people do that.) But what sense can be made from using your husband’s FIRST name to identify you?

Especially, in Lady CC’s case, whose husband turns out to be an ass and they split up. Which is when she begins her worldwide wandering and writing.

But why keep the ‘Colin’???

So that was my first problem with A Woman’s Walks, by Lady Colin Campbell. Despite the rather promising cover.

The other problems relate to the privilege Lady Colin Campbell enjoys throughout her privileged life and incessantly complains about. It is a problem when a writer bores me as Lady CC does and I find it hard to plough through but I continue because I’m looking for a good walk. Unfortunately her idea of walking and mine are quite different. Hers involving much first class train travel and staff helping her get from one luxury hotel to another.

Two exceptions.

One was a stroll she took through a Venetian marketplace where she bought a captive bird, not to eat but to release. She felt very chuffed with herself about that. Her good deed for the day, which again says a lot about her and the era of that kind of privilege. Not to mention attitude towards ‘the little people’ who shop and work at markets for reasons other than amusement and who rudely eat the captive birds because they need protein and aren’t able to take a train to the next luxury hotel dining room to order their pheasant under glass.

I enjoyed seeing her hypocrisy on such magnificent display.

And of course markets always please me.

The other was a walk around Milan that ended, to her surprise, at a crematorium where she lingered, feeling comfort and solace in a way, she says, she never does in cemeteries.

Not a terrible read but not something that personally appealed overall.

The book is one of several from a London Library series: ‘Found on the Shelves’… collected essays on various subjects from “the modern cycling craze” with the invention of the bike, to dieting in the 1800’s, to trout fishing instructions for women. Etc. All of them from a time long gone and full of quirks by modern standards.

Though, really, who are we to talk of quirks…

Fun Trivia:

Turns out there’s another Lady Colin Campbell whose Colin also turned out to be a schmuck and who is not a Victorian essayist, but a contemporary writer of contemporary Royal doings.

Not only that but the modern Lady CC was originally named George William Ziadie (she had unclear genitalia at birth and her parents were advised to err on the side of male, which turned out to be wrong so at age 21 she had corrective surgery and became Georgia Arianna Ziadie). So then she marries Lord Colin Campbell who decides to sell her out to the tabloids who run untrue stories on how Lady CC was born a boy and had a sex change. So they divorce right quick. And yet… she keeps not only the whole Lady Campbell schtick, but the Colin part.

I just don’t get it.

details

I’m a big fan of the fine balance of nothing changing except whole worlds.

This can relate to books, art, conversations, people, places. To anything.

Sameness only looks/sounds/feels the same if you’re not paying attention.

Since the pandemic my walks have been pretty much limited to my backyard, where every winter I stamp out a labyrinth in the snow. This is the first year I’ve kept walking the labyrinth in every season. And it works just fine.

My penchant for nothing changing except everything fits well with traipsing the same paths over and over, several times a day in between reading, writing, chores. I’ve now walked these paths in rain and heat and snow and on windy days and perfect days.

Perfect being relative. Sometimes it means the weather, sometimes it means my own mood, which has me seeing beauty everywhere, swinging my arms, breathing deeply, thinking what else could I possibly want at this moment except to look at this precise shade of blueyelloworangegreenvioletcrimson.

Other times I’m walking my circles, feeling tense about one thing or another, muttering to myself about some scene I’m writing, arguing with a character who will NOT stop smoking, thus causing me to see a whole other side of her, which opens up a whole other aspect of the story. There are reasons these fictional types light up. It’s why I carry matches.

There’s comfort in the sameness then. The trees get me.

In this smallish space (larger than an average garden but not gigantic, not a park, not a meadow, not especially rambling) I’m allowed my many moods because there isn’t anyone to greet, no judgment, no bears, no coyotes, no traffic or intersections, and in the process of absolute walking freedom I always find a sliver of peace, of mind, of spirit. The things nature does best.

   

And in this confined space without distant horizon lines I see everything… woodpeckers, hummingbirds, doves, bluejays, the luminescent royal blueblack of the grackles and our beloved cardinal family who nested in the honeysuckle this summer, raised their kids, and who still hang out in the wisteria, like it’s their hood because, well, of course it is; and the hawk who sometimes sits at the top of a spruce until I shout and wave my arms about and it flies off (the doves audibly sigh); and goldfinches and things I can’t name, buntings or juncos, I’m really not sure. Geese fly overhead, seagulls too. And the crows crow about who knows what while the squirrels squirrel away things for me to find in spring. Or sooner. An apple in the nasturtium basket, a peanut shell on the chair were I sit to watch the sun rise.

Have I even mentioned the clouds?

Or the wild purple asters or the way virginia creeper turns scarlet and climbs to the top of the spruce tree.

Have I mentioned the last of the Queen’s Anne’s Lace, the zucchini, the green beans, the kale?

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Every day my walk is the same.

And entirely different.

joey’s box

 

My newest nephew is almost two, which means he’s well into the book loving years, which means books from this aunt will be in his future.

I’ve already given him a few, one of the first being The Wonky Donkey, which has resulted in him forming a friendship with a local donkey that must now be driven past any time he’s in a car so that he can wave hello and shout heeeeehawwww.

This is the power of literature.

Am currently putting together a whole slew of books from my own shelves because a) I am thinning my shelves, and b) yes I have a collection of kid books, and c) I also happen to have one of those wonderful pre-paid Canada Post mailing cartons that will send eleven pounds of books to Joey’s mailbox.

M is for Moose  by Charles Pachter. Oh my god, I love this for its brilliant simplicity. And art. The art!  Each letter of the alphabet gets a mixture of painting and collage and the stories at the back that explain these seemingly  minimalistic pieces that actually contain SO MUCH. The key is to look long at each page. And there are games to encourage the looking. (How many moose, barns, Queen of Englands, etc. in the book?) AND A BUTTERTART RECIPE  that I have copied for myself because at some point Joey and I will need to discuss buttertarts. All the words are spelled Canadian, as in neighbour, colour, favourite, which is always refreshing, but the best part is that it’s the kind of book you can grow up with… and continue to love as an adult.

Ted Harrison’s O Canada, is an illustrated edition of the anthem, but as it was published in 1992, it’s in need of updating, which this aunt has happily done.

The anthem, btw, originally read: thou dost in us command… and was changed in 1913 to in all our sons command. Changed again (thankfully)  in 2018. The book also includes wee blurbs on each province.

 

Are You My Mother, by P.D. Eastman alhtough I continue to think of as one of my favourite Dr. Zeuss books.

 

The Moon Watched it All, by Shelley Leedahl.

 

Alligator Pie, by Dennis Lee.

 

Seaside Treasures, by Sarah Grindler, because one of my hopefulest hopes for Joey is that he grow up to adore the sea and all it has to offer, not only through its treasures of glass and shells, stones, feathers and driftwood, the sand sculpting, swimming and barefoot walking… but the breathing.

It is my absolute favourite place to breathe and this is a beautiful book to introduce to all kinds of waiting-just-for-him joy.

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, by you know who, who knows about hopping Yops and Yinks who like to drink and wink and the sheep who walked at night by the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far, and Ned and his bed and the thing we found in the park in the dark who we will call Clark and honestly I’m beginning to wonder if I can even part with this book at all.

If You Could Wear My Sneakers, by Sheree Fitch. Beautifully illustrated by Darcia Labrosse, the poems address fifteen of fifty-four children’s rights listed in the United Nations Conventions, including the right to an education, the right to enjoy your own language and culture, disability rights, all written in Fitch’s inimitable style. On the subject of war, for instance, and a child’s right to protection, the poem has elephants thundering past to… fight a battle, thump-galumphing off to war. Did you hear a small voice say… “What are we fighting for?” and goes on to address a child’s fears and thoughts, all in the voice of a young elephant. At the back of the book are brief discussions of the poems and what they each stand for.

In “The Stinky Truth’, a child’s right to express their opinion is celebrated…

“What do you think?
Do you think that I stink?”
said the skunk.
“Do you thunk that I smell?”
“Well, I think that you stink
but I think for a skunk
that you smell
incredibly
well.”

Another alphabet book, and another Ted Harrison book, ‘A Northern Alphabet’ done with his usual bright illustrations of northern scenes, each page devoted to another letter of the alphabet and chock full of words and places beginning with that letter, all of them relating to the north.

 

 

 

Mice, Morals, & Monkey Business, is a book of Aesop fables, stunningly illustrated by Christopher Wormell. Each double-page spread contains the moral of the story and illustration. At the back of the book, are the fables themselves. Again, this is one I’m tempted to keep. But, okay, fine, yes. The noble thing will be done. Into the Joey Box it goes. There should be a fable about noble book gestures.

 

 

Mixed Beasts, by Wallace Edwards. Again with gorgeous illustrations and verses about such mixed beasts as the bumblebeaver, the pelicantelope, the kangarooster, written by Kenyon Cox. Utterly charming and I suspect when read by Joey’s mum they will give Wonky Donkey some competition.

 

 

 

 

 

To top things off and to bring the poundage to eleven, and because books are best read with bread and jam, a jar of our homemade best.

P’s peach jam.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’, by elisabeth tova bailey

 

In her thirties, Elisabeth Tova Bailey suddenly finds herself bedridden for a year as she recovers from a neurological disorder. Early in her convalescence, a friend brings her a potted violet dug up from a nearby forest. Under one of the leaves the author notices a snail. She watches it, expecting not much. What she discovers becomes not only an appreciation of this tiny creature but a kind of epiphany about her own slow process toward healing. All of which becomes the delightful memoir: The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating.

(spoiler alert: you can actually HEAR a snail eating)

Easy as it would have been, Bailey does not clutter the book with slow healing/snail metaphors, doesn’t even really mention her condition except to set it up at the beginning and how she notices the discomfort of those who visit, how her stillness makes them uncomfortable, how their own natural state is one of constant movement, agitation almost. At the end of the book she revisits her condition and takes what feels like a deep breath as she realizes what she’s been through and how impossible the year would have been without the snail.

Because the book is mostly about the snail…. as seen through the lens of someone who has few choices of focus and has chosen… the snail.

And so with her we learn with her, that snails do not, for instance, sit in their shells attached to leaves all day. They wander. They find places to drink (Bailey’s snail made its way regularly to the little tray under the pot where it searched out tiny drops of water) and they have preferences in food. Initially taking what it could find (bits of paper on the bedside table where the pot stood) Bailey’s snail (she never named it) much preferred the wilted blooms the author set down for it once she realized that fresh blooms were not its cup of tea. And remember, she’s bedridden. So she has nothing but time to study this tiny creature, the way it waves its antennae, and under what conditions. The snail becomes almost her entire focus and she searches out info online as well as through reading material she has brought in to her (a long list of ‘Selected Sources’ is included at the back of the book).

Each chapter opens with a short excerpt or quote from a piece of text or a poem and it’s a little mind-blowing as you realize how MUCH has been written about snails, how they’ve influenced art and literature, even architecture (at one point Bailey considers the design of spiral staircases and how it would feel to have one’s head at the top while our feet were at the bottom, our bodies twisted in the middle).

She learns about the gastropod’s history on earth, having existed for a half billion years and appearing on almost every part of the planet and how they move from one geographic area to another. The book weirdly charming in the best way, compelling with so much of interest in the way of snail trivia that it’s nearly impossible to imagine seeing them in the same way again, or ever taking them for granted.

Because (we discover) snails, like anything you focus on, are interesting.

It should be noted that none of this gastropod info is heavy going and all of it, fascinating. At only 175 or so pages, the book reads like a journal of notes and details the author found personally interesting, added her own moments of mulling and wonder, then arranged it into text.

“The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything, and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.”

This appears early in the book. By the end she has come to realize that the very act of being forced to slow down, of living with an abundance of time, and a snail, has allowed for much and continual forward movement.

 

Many thanks to Theresa Kishkan, who suspected I’d like this
given how much I enjoyed ‘the mole book’.

how to find a prairie in southern ontario during a pandemic

 

Begin with endlessly sorting your bookshelves. Keep, donate, keep, donate….

At the back of the shelves, find a book on road trips that looks boring and decide you don’t want to keep it but then notice a newspaper clipping tucked inside — an ‘Out Walking’ column from the local paper, by Margaret Carney, a (Whitby) resident, writer, and naturalist.

Notice the date: September 10, 2000.

Read the clipping.

Get excited about sentences like this:

“One of the biggest thrills of my whole summer was visiting a precious remnant of original tallgrass prairie — the site of a historic cemetery — and then, high on a bluff overlooking the Otonobee River, a magnificent restoration of acres of prairie wildflowers in bloom. Both are just east of Durham Region, on the Rice Lake Plains — a pleasant jaunt for anyone out for a drive.”

Consider whether you have enough cheese in the fridge to make a picnic.

(If yes, pick a sunny day, pack a cooler. Include peaches. The peaches are wonderful this year.)

Head out on the road.

Bring the newspaper clipping.

As you drive ask the person in the passenger seat to read out the part again where Carney says the cemetery, because it’s on land that has never been plowed, contains one of the rarest surviving plant communities in Canada.

Also the directions. Could they please read out the directions again.

Because you’re having trouble finding the place.

Though you do find some nice views and happy surprises en route and for a moment you think you’ve found the cemetery. But no…

Just as you’re about to give up, just as you begin driving away, heed the seemingly pointless impulse to turn the car around and drive back a few kilometres along the same road for the third time.

When you see a man on a small tractor (who was not there just a few minutes ago) drive onto his property in a cheerful manner, and apologize for interrupting. Ask about the cemetery and be a little surprised that he knows exactly where it is. Smile when he says have a good time. Grimace when he says watch out for snakes. Snakes??  Oh, sure, he says, there’s snakes out here. Bear too, and mean yellow-eyed Fishers (which you will google later.)

Drive back along the road for the fourth time.

And then marvel at how exactly where he said it would be, there it is, the Red Cloud Cemetery, once part of a community called Red Cloud.

Walk through this small slice of undisturbed grassland with reverence for the people who lived here, for those who’ve come and gone, and wonder about their stories (first burial in the early 1800’s, the last in 1940).  Reverence too for this slice of rich history and remnant of original landscape that looks so ordinary it makes you dearly want someone to explain what’s what.

Above all, feel reverence for the quiet energy that fills this space.

Decide it’s the perfect place for a picnic.

Open up your lawn chairs and haul out your cheese sandwiches. Notice the size and diversity of the trees and wonder how many eyes have looked at them from exactly this angle against a sky exactly this shade of blue. Do not think about snakes. Although because of possible bears, keep the picnic site close to the car.

From there follow Carney’s instructions an hour or so west, to the Rainbow Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Site near Rice Lake, which she describes as twenty acres of private farmland that a family is restoring to its original tallgrass prairie roots.

Once again be unable to find the place.

Once again notice a man on a tractor. A larger tractor this time, driving along the gravel road. He will tell you the prairie is long gone, the property sold to new owners who plowed it over in order to farm the land. He will wonder how it is you came to be looking for it. Tell him about the twenty year old newspaper clipping. Watch the confusion on his face, followed by an expression that might translate to something like: city people.

He will give you directions, tell you it’s over that hill, turn right at the next lane. He will tell you the sign is still there but nothing else and you decide to go look for it anyway, for the sign and for where the prairie used to be and once again, it’s all exactly where the man on the tractor said it would be.

Or would be if it still existed.

Decide to head home now that you are filled with knowing what you already knew, that some parts of nature are preserved and others are not. Be happy that if a tallgrass prairie restoration project had to be razed, it was for someone to make a living. Remind yourself that this isn’t anything new and just embrace the fact that tall grass prairies once covered this part of the province, wherever the soil is sandy. Imagine it.

Be grateful there are still small, independent farmers.

Sigh deeply. For the beauty and the sadness and the joy and the reality of the ever changing change of things. For the miracle of men on tractors appearing just when you need them. For not seeing snakes. Or bears. For the luxury of sandwiches made with local cheese and peaches grown on Ontario trees. For the privilege of being able to spend a day breathing in such peace.

Point the car in the direction of home.

Turn on the radio.

Be grateful for the person in the passenger seat.

And when the mood strikes, stop and stretch your legs, climb up to lookouts and see where you’ve been

and if there are no cars in the parking lot of a bakery, don your mask and enter, leaving with one perfect butter tart,

and when, like a mirage, a field of grapes appears where probably a tall grass prairie once stood, and a sign for libations… take a long deep breath for irony’s sake, slip on your mask, and find the patio.

And if there are only two other people there and they are waaaay at the other end — and down wind to boot — pull down your mask and enjoy the view.

More tallgrass prairie love here.