this is not a review — ‘boundless’, by kathleen winter

 

I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?

And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen 9781770893993_1024x1024Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.

While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.

Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.

Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”

It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.

“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”

The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).

Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…

“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”

It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.

“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”

In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.

Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about  the North… but more because of it.

Boundless   is available on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

 

this is not a review: burt’s shawarma, by kathleen winter

Rhonda has been angry and unhappy for a long time. It doesn’t help that she lives on the outskirts of a town whose claim to fame is being the nation’s teenage suicide capital “…just past the point where the Pinegate Pizza won’t deliver”. Nor does it help being married to Dan, a farmer with a soul as romantic as a milking machine. God bless him though, he’s one of those guys who thinks that duty and maintaining a roof over one’s head is enough. In his own out-to-lunch way, he tries. He’s probably in as much pain as his wife but it matters to him less or it matters in a different way. He takes solace, not in conversation, not in reaching out to her, but in immersing himself ever deeper in the work of livestock, insulation, leaks in the barn. Nothing personal… these are merely the things that matter.

Part of her knows he won’t change yet another part continues to believe he’s capable—if he tried—of finding a way in. She’s waiting for the moment where he’ll sit down next to her in his cowshit covered clothes and say to her:

“…Why don’t I get a shower and make you a cup of tea? Hoffman’s elm is like us, isn’t it? I’m sorry you’ve been lonely inside. Let me touch you? Not with my paws—with the word rain, the colour green, with eating bread and sitting here till a yellow bird comes and eats the crumbs.”

She’s starved for him to merely try. 

When Dan suspects (correctly) that Rhonda is having it off with Burt, the local ‘exotic’ who runs a Lebanese cafe, and who thinks Rhonda is perfect, he buys her tulips for Valentine’s Day. This is huge in their dry and loveless union and enough to keep it going for another painful stretch, despite her apathy.

“…she no longer cares that her vinyl toilet seat has torn pieces that stick up and prickle her butt.”

While she realizes the thing with Burt can’t last, she takes some comfort in the knowledge he can be replaced. By which logic, so can Dan, albeit with a bit more difficulty and anyway, what would be the point?

“You can tell about the state of anyone’s marriage from their medicine cabinet,” she tells her sister Bett. Her own has empty calamine lotion bottles piled in with rubbing alcohol for ears pierced fifteen years ago, ancient antibiotics, blunt useless tweezers and a stack of wrapped soaps with cobwebs on them from the Holiday Inn in 1989, which was the last time she and Dan took a trip together, and that was to bring home a trailer for getting show cattle to the fall fair. She doesn’t care about the fence Dan promised to make for her garden twenty years ago. She doesn’t care that Dan had an affair when the kids were little, or that there has never been chemistry between Dan and herself. She doesn’t even care that the magic with Burt is dying out. Bett calls him an interim phase and that’s fine by Rhonda. What matters is that her anger, her poisonous anger, has drained away, thanks to Burt. She watched her mother carry the same anger, panicked when she realized she had it too, knew one day she was mad as hell at her whole life and it looked like there was nothing she could do about it. Burt stopped the time bomb with his hideout, with its cool walls and blue shadows where she didn’t have to do things from morning till night in which she had no interest. She will feel relief deep down, be able to breathe deep down, whenever she thinks of Burt even after this is over, which it almost certainly is already, with no illusion of anything permanent. No one has mentioned Rhonda helping Burt run his cafe, but not in the same way that no has ever mentioned her helping Dan run his farm.”

— excerpts from ‘Burt’s Shawarma’, from the collection BoYs, by Kathleen Winter

Three Impressions Overall: delicious ironies, entire worlds sympathetically drawn in mere pages, and the kind of truth that makes you squirm as it pulls you forward, then leaves you pretty much where you thought you’d be left for pretty much the reasons you thought you’d be left there. Only thing that’s changed is that now you’re aware of the ‘why’. It may not feel like enough but of course, truth is always more than enough. (And may I say I love the cover of this gorgeous collection.)Note: this post first appeared in May/2011 as part of Year of the Short Story (YOSS) celebrations.

Now part of the Re-Run Series.

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—Purchase boYs online at Blue Heron Books.

passing the cake…

 

I’m swanning about the place in a tiara today. Also a sash. Just missing a mitre—and, what, an ermine robe is asking too much??  All this thanks to Allyson Latta  who bestowed on me the most wonderful surprise of naming Matilda one of her picks for the (brace yourself) Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award—whose logo is a strawberry shortcake, which makes it probably the best award I’ve ever heard of.

The protocol, I’ve been advised, on receiving the ISBA, is to a) thank the person who nominated you, b) share seven things about yourself, and c) pass along the award to other irresistibly sweet bloggers.

Well, first things first then: thank you so very much, Ms. Allyson, for thinking of my little corner of cyberspace and for the kind things you said about it—the phrase “sometimes wacky” notwithstanding; surely a typo… :D  (me, wacky??)

As for sharing seven things about myself—this should be relatively simple given that there happen to be exactly seven things about myself.

They are these:

1.   My backyard is home to several giant ant hills (by which I mean three or four), none of which I intend to do anything about. One of them has been there fifteen years. We call it the Ant Hotel. When visiting kids were small we had a sign for it. Very reasonable rates and efficient, speedy room service (albeit small portions) were its hallmarks.

2.   I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to like coffee but I keep buying tea.

3.   Corn makes my stomach ache. Annoying because I like polenta and Mexican food and Fritos, not to mention buttery cobs on summer days, which when I was a kid I used to eat like a typewriter. (Link provided for those who just said a what??)

4.   My heroes tend to be animals, children and very old people.

5.   I’m happiest when the fridge is on the empty side. I find this inspires creativity in my cooking. Some wonderful things have been invented under the most spartan conditions. Or maybe I’m happiest when I’m outside, up to my wrists in dirt (pardon me, soil), or on a lounge chair in the company of words. On the other hand, swimming, plunging my nose into laundry fresh from a sunny line, a morning spent walking or writing at the beach…all leave me smiling pretty solidly too. As does rain and snow and the kind of breeze you could fall asleep in and then you do and that feeling when you wake up and the world is just there, waiting for you, making no demands. And you remember there’s just enough ice cream left for a small bowl and because there’s only a bit, it tastes that much better. And then you find a jar of cherries.

6.   I saw Leonard Cohen in concert in 2009. I still haven’t completely recovered.

7.   I would like to learn Spanish and Sign Language. Spanish, so that I can go back to Chile and discuss bread and wine and life. Sign Language for its beauty and elegance.

Finally, a few bloggers to whom I’d like to pass along the shortcake. Not for sweetness but for enhancing the interweb with their wise words, gentle spirits and contagious sense of joy.

Alone on a Boreal Stage—Home of poet and visual artist Brenda Schmidt’s photo/video poems and other bird/nature/book related pleasures.

We Drank Cachaca and Smoked the Green Cheroot—I’ve become addicted to this site because of stolen rhubarb, orange knickers, lady bikes, Jean Talon Market and sentences like this:

“I was not expecting the skies of England to be all painterly, to perform for me as they have apparently done since William and Dorothy Wordsworth pottered about the countryside with their pockets full of mutton pies, but the skies did perform, and I am still thinking about them, because they billowed alive over the built-up bricks and statuary and pomp and palaces that caused the subtitle BYGONE DAYS to float across my mind the whole time I was there.” (From the post: Whence and Whilst and Those Constable Skies, 6/14/11)

Pickle Me This—I’m always happily surprised whenever I check into this site. Kerry Clare has exactly the right mix of book smart and life whimsy.

Carol Bruneau’s Blog—This is where I go to remind myself how to think about writing.

Four Rooms—Exploring the power of words in various forms.

Island Editions—Publishing, books, beachy vistas and occasionally food.

 

happy ‘new’ year, happy new old plaza

There’s a little plaza on my way to the dentist. I’ve driven past it three or four times a year for the past two decades. Used to be a pretty ordinary place, easy to miss—generic grocery, dry cleaner, bank, doughnut shop, LCBO (this was when outlets didn’t actually display booze; instead, they had pens chained to the counters and you had to order your Blue Nun by scribbling a code onto a slip of paper which you’d then hand to a dusty grey gentleman who would shuffle into the back room disapprovingly to fetch it for you). 

Eventually it  was all replaced with an Asian grocery and various shops—I didn’t know what kind of shops because I never went there again.

Not until yesterday.

I was half an hour early for a dental appointment. Normally early means reading time. I drove past the plaza as usual. A block later I turned around, drove back, pulled in under a sign that said Chinese Halal Restaurant.

I’ve been reading Kathleen Winter’s blog, where she’s doing a new thing every day—might be she’s wearing red tights in public, or buying orange lipstick, or leaving the room to crotchet a necklace when company gets dull—and I’m loving this stuff. Makes me want to do my own new daily thing but I realize it’s a commitment. Got to be in the right head space. And I’m not. My thing this year is not focussing on the new but getting rid of the old. 

Thing is, newness is creeping into my life nonetheless. Partly, no doubt, because of the not so subliminal messages of my daily Cachaca and Green Cheroot fix, and partly because with every bit of  ‘old’ I toss, I’m actually making room for something new. It’s like I’m working on a different end of the same stick.

Old new. Ying yang.

The plaza, as it turned out, was like any plaza except the signs were in Chinese and the cantaloupe was dragon fruit. A Chinatown vibe but less frenetic. Compact. Easier to park.

And it was new. Which equalled fun.

I bought okra chips and New Year’s clementines with the stems and leaves still on—the regulars were pulling them off because they’re sold by the pound, but too pretty for this tourist to remove. I also got birthday cards in Chinese characters and one mystery card. The woman at the store couldn’t tell me what it said… Not birthday, not new year, not thank you, not party… Anniversary?… Not anniversary, not sadness…Wedding?… Not wedding… And little red paper money bags to tuck inside. I loved how, at the checkout the cashier chatted merrily in (Cantonese?) with every customer then when I got there she rang in my stuff and said You want a bag? (I love how, unlike travelling in, say, Europe, where you might be taken for a local, I’m relaxed in Asian cultures, knowing I won’t have to figure out how to explain that I don’t speak the language, that being a tall white blue-eyed Caucasion is enough of a clue.) I watched some old guys happily arguing at a table in front of a tea shop and just as I was leaving I caught the eye of a woman pacing outside the BBQ pork place that didn’t open til 11 a.m. Her expression such hungry anticipation I’ve already made a mental note to go back—after 11—sometime soon.

Very soon.