this is not a review: ‘her name was margaret’, by denise davy

 

I’ve pretty much spent every waking hour of the past twenty-four reading this book that, essentially, tells how a homeless woman ended up dying on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, a story that might strike one as being not especially new. After all, there are only so many ways a homeless person dies. Usually from some form of violence, neglect, or addiction.

This is what I thought, that there was no new story to tell on the subject, so why read?

And yet once started I could not stop reading.

Why? Partly because of how Denise Davy tells the story. Oh my god, where do I begin to even say how well written this is. Throughout, I marvelled at how she, the author, was so very adept at restraint, keeping her emotion out of things and letting the story be entirely Margaret’s.

Margaret Louise Jacobson is the Margaret of Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets. Born to ultra-Christian, missionary parents, she spends the first fourteen or so years of her life being devoted to the church as her (rather unpleasant, austere) parents spread god’s word throughout every aspect of her childhood and the Caribbean. The book doesn’t go into the unnecessary details of their work, only suggesting the effect of all that fundamentalism on Margaret.

Then the voices start. And her family returns to Canada. The reader’s hope at this point is that they’ve come back in order to get help for Margaret, that they will stand by her in what is obviously the early signs of mental illness. But they deliver her instead into the arms of the Canadian mental health system while they return to god’s work and the system lets her down miserably.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but that’s not the story. That’s what we like to think the story is, or a version of it, for every ragged bit of humanity we see sleeping on sidewalk grates. Ah, well, we tell ourselves as we gingerly step around them or cross the street, some tragic tale, some sad past, another person slips between the cracks of a well-meaning system, probably their own fault in some way we can’t quite be bothered to name. If we’re in the mood to make ourselves feel noble, we drop change into a cup.

The other reason I couldn’t stop reading was because of how my mind and my eyes were being opened to a subject I thought I understood.

What Davy has done in this book is not only bring one person to life through making a small, personal connection with her, but also effectively taking us by the hand and walking us through a day, a month, a decade or five, of that life. And she’s done so without lectures or blame or righteousness but simply by saying look at this, and see that over there, and here’s a bit of info you may or may not care to know…

Davy, a well known journalist, received permission from a family member to access Margaret’s extensive medical files and with that (800+ pages), and access also to family letters, photographs and conversations with various people who knew her, she pieced together a life that with every page becomes more real.

Also more unreal insofar as the mind-boggling insanity of ‘the system’.

It is a story both shocking and endearing.

Davy honours one woman especially in this book, but in doing so she honours the homeless collectively and best of all, she offers suggestions for how we, as individuals, communities, and as a society, can honour our most disenfranchised fellow citizens by writing letters and demanding meaningful supports be put into place.

It’s not possible to read this and see homelessness the same way again. Not possible to carry on consoling ourselves with thoughts of how the homeless choose this lifestyle (the majority do not) or that there is simply nothing to be done with people who snarl and lash out, refusing to help themselves or allow others to help.

Because there’s a reason for that.

And there’s a solution.

On top of everything else, homelessness is expensive. The use of emergency and health care services, police, fire, prison, etc., (services used more frequently by the homeless due to lifestyle, mental health issues, and no other options) amounts to approximately $100,000 per year per (chronically) homeless individual. If anyone wants to talk money, it’s actually much cheaper to create supportive housing than support homelessness.

Along with the problems, Davy cites some uplifting examples of countries and cities that have adopted programs (like supportive housing) that work and where homelessness numbers (and costs) have dropped considerably.

Her Name Was Margaret is a compelling, unputdownable and strangely optimistic book for many reasons, not the least being that Davy shows us there IS a way out, a way both humane and economically viable. For that reason alone it’s must reading. Schools and universities included. We need to understand systems in order to fix them, not just sympathize with those caught in the middle.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened the book. To learn about one person, that would have been enough. I assumed there would be sadness, but I couldn’t have guessed that it would also contain such hope and be a source of enormous inspiration to DO something toward change.

I will be writing letters asking for change.

Thanks to Denise Davy for the extraordinary heart that has gone into the research and writing of the book. And to Wolsak & Wynn for publishing it.

this is not a review: reading my shelves

 

My reading usually goes something like this:

See/hear about some new title and check library to see if they have it. If yes, then I put it on hold. If I fall in love with it after reading library copy I will order from bookshop. If not available at library but looks REALLY good, I will order from bookshop directly and hope to fall in love.

A good system but one can only read so many books so what happens is that the books who live on my shelves (or stacks on my floor) (including those from bookshop) get read last because all those books on hold come swooping in continually from the library.

Except during a pandemic when the library is closed.

One of the joys during this time of isolation has been the luxury (i.e. no other choice) of reading my own shelves. Some of which has included time with old favourites but the most fun has been had in reading books whose spines I’ve stared at for years but for whatever reason haven’t taken off the shelf.

A sampling mixture follows:

The Road Past Altamont is possibly my favourite recent long-on-the-shelves discovery. What absolute joy to be embraced for a few days by Gabrielle Roy’s gorgeous sentences evoking landscape in and around Manitoba, including Lake Winnipeg and the eponymous Altamont, which reminds one of the characters of her childhood home in Quebec and which serves as a metaphor for how everything is connected and how knowing that changes our perspective on, if not everything, then much.

In the preface to City Poems, by Joe Fiorito, A.F. Moritz describes the poems as “very short, shooting stars”. I like how the image ties these ultra urban scenes to something from the natural world, a subtle reminder that even in the darkest corners of street life, life IS nature. Human or otherwise. Fiorito is a pro at noticing the life that goes on in an environment where so much and so many are ignored. ‘Blink’ and the moment, the star, is gone.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is a mad romp in the company of a perfectly (enviably) eccentric ninety-two year old woman in a nursing home who eavesdrops and offers straight-up thoughts about the world and the people in it, which sounds simplistic and it’s possible to read it that way, but it also veers heavily into a tongue in cheek surrealism of commentary on age, gender, family, animal rights, as well as offering a loose blueprint for changes to the current sad state of earthly affairs via starting over on another planet “… peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity …” 

Sheila Burnford is best known for writing The Incredible Journey in 1961, which was later Disneyfied in a movie. I haven’t read that book but will put it on my list because this is now An Author I Like based on The Fields at Noon which I’ve had on my shelves for who knows how long. An absolute joy for its themes of outdoorsy pursuits such as mushroom hunting and walking and toads and general love of nature. I also like that Burnford, who (from her author pic) looks every bit a housefrau of the 1960’s but comes off as someone who would absolutely rather have a beer on the porch than vacuum.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, is one I like to re-read for the pleasure of the characters. Don’t you just love a book where you enjoy being the in the company of fictitious folk, where when you put the book down you hope they don’t get up to anything until you come back even though you already know what happens. In a nutshell, and without giving too much away, the story is about a small community where two women have disappeared. But it’s not what you think. It’s not about the mystery, it’s about relationships and family, how they are forged, what they are based on and how (and why) they develop and how they evolve or de-evolve. Told in two alternating voices: Lulu, who grows up in the community, leaves and then returns. And Doris, who never leaves. There are roosters, beehives, greenhouses and gardens, barns and ponds, donkeys, a goat, an Airstream trailer, home preserves and foraging and among all this honest (never sentimental) beauty, there’s sadness too, and the contrast of life on the road as a musician and singer… and the sense of something that feels like a slow unravelling of darkness, but you’re never quite sure.

A few years ago Saskatchewan poet and naturalist Brenda Schmidt put out a call for culvert memories and experiences, explaining that she was working on a new series of poems that would incorporate selected comments within the collection. Published in 2018, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road is now that collection, poetry and prose that feels like a collaborative Paean to the large round silver objects that transport the lifeblood of water across the country and which are mostly never thought about. Each piece is prefaced by an italicized line, a contribution from an anonymous someone (contributors are listed in the introduction but are not linked to their specific memories, which creates fabulous and mysterious connections in itself) and which has Schmidt tapping into her own memories and experiences from various and surprising portals. I love work that inspires story through unexpected means. Schmidt has done that beautifully.

How to Catch a Mole, by Marc Hamer, warns the reader that by the end of the book they will know more than they ever thought possible about moles. And he’s right. And it almost put me off reading the book because why would I want to know about moles? Well. Turns out that mole catching is a pretty interesting metaphor for life. But isn’t it cruel? Yes. And no. Like life. The book is a sort of casual memoir about this mole-catching-career slice of Hamer’s life, which had unhappy beginnings and which saw him homeless for many years. He made some money initially as an itinerant gardener, which turned to professional mole-catching, which in the UK is/was apparently A Big Thing. Also, there is a WAY of doing it that’s ethical, which I found hard to believe but by the time I’d finished this very slim volume of a book I saw the other side of what appears to be cruel and unnecessary work. Surprisingly, it’s not a book that makes you squirm. On the contrary, it’s filled with honesty and sensitivity. Not just about moles, but life. It’s really about life. Excellent.

All Roads Lead to Wells. I read a review about this a few years ago and it appealed to me because it’s the true account of a hippie community that moved into the teensy tiny town of Wells, BC in the late 60’s and 70’s and stayed off and on throughout the 90’s. One of the original members stayed forever and is now a member of the town council. Another, Susan Safyan, is the author of the book. Safyan’s own memories as well as those of many former hippies tell a great story about A Time. A time which really isn’t that different from This Time, when youth believes it alone can change the world. Then it was through returning to the land and forming a counter-culture by living simply, eschewing the establishment, and ‘not trusting anyone over 30’. Much of how they lived was admirable, much was questionable in terms of hypocrisy… some accepted pogey for instance. And they didn’t change the world exactly as they’d hoped, in fact many/most grew up to realize the difficulty of washing diapers by hand in cold water fetched from a stream beside your tumbling down shack and eventually sold out and accepted the gift of Pampers. But the hippies did make changes to the world, if not in diapers, they were instrumental in starting the organic and ethical food movement. Among a few other things. Lots of pictures and conversational material in the pages. A slice of history worth having.

Beth Powning’s Seeds of Another Summer about her move to the countryside many years ago. Full of gorgeous photos and a shoulder-dropping, deep breath inducing narrative of someone who misses nothing.

On a similar note, but entirely different, Catherine Owen’s Seeing Lessons about Mattie Gunterman, an 18th century “photographer and mining camp cookhouse worker”, written in poems and poetic prose about not only the times she lived but also the power of seeing and being able to retain something of what is seen.

 

 

The next batch stacked and ready:

Land to Light On, by Dionne Brand (because I love how she writes about the/her Canadian experience)

The Cat, by Marie-Louise von Franz (because it’s a tale of feminine redemption and because she was great pals with Carl Jung, so should be interesting)

Structures of Indifference, by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adelle Perry (because it examines one life, and death, which begins with the 34 hours an Indigenous man spent in a Winnipeg emergency room before dying, unseen and untreated)

A 1987 copy of the journal Fireweed, the ‘Class’ issue, because I think it will be interesting and because Kate Braid is one of the contributors and her bio reads that she is a “carpenter living in Vancouver who writes her poems on lunch breaks and at STOP signs”.

Autobiography of an Elderly Woman, published in 1911 under no author’s name but research shows that it was written by Mary Heaton Vorse, a 37 year old Greenwich Village bohemian, journalist, and editor, who wrote it in the voice of her mother, and which (in 1911) has lines like this: “Each generation permits a different type of young girl, but the older woman must not change; her outline is fixed and immovable. She must be like [anyone’s] grandmother, ‘always there’.”

Portraits of Earth, by Freeman Patterson, a book of extraordinary photographs and contemplation on things like icebergs, leaves, wet sand, sky, air, forests, fish, water, driftwood… and how we mere mortals fit in. Or might if we tried.

Birds, Art, Life, by Kyo Maclear (a re-read because more beauty).

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because I never have.

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘falling for myself’, by dorothy ellen palmer

 

A few years ago on this site I told the story of watching a short man emerge from a large truck and how my mother, seeing the same thing, saw a handicapped man and how I just did NOT see the handicap. On the contrary, I saw resourcefulness in a world that was not built for his height. (And that if it were built to his height, well then, we’d be the ‘handicapped’ ones.)

I remember also a time when my sister, who had ALS, was confined to a wheelchair and the looks of outright peeved annoyance as I rolled her about some store or other, taking up, I guess, more room in the aisles than ‘normal’ people. I was shocked by these looks and later wondered if the people giving them were possibly the same people who, in a different situation, one that wasn’t inconveniencing them, looked at my sister with pity and prided themselves on their ‘compassion’, which probably more often than not translated into gratefulness for not being her.

My sister was also asked to please not attend the wedding of a close family friend (formerly close) because her wheelchair and generally emaciated and twisted appearance and inability to talk in anything more than grunts and slurs, was not the vibe the general wedding decor/party/event was going for.

Judgement.

All this, and more, comes to mind after reading Falling for Myself, by Dorothy Ellen Palmer, a memoir that addresses ableism and judgement and what Stella Young termed Inspiration Porn, (a reference to the way the disabled are treated differently, referred to as ‘inspiring’, and used to make the so-called ‘normal’ people feel better about themselves for a) not being disabled, and b) being ‘kind’ to those who are.

“In inspiration porn, the disabled person is reduced to the object, the silent prop. The heroic captain of the football team leans down and asks ‘a wheelchair girl’ to prom. A brave tech entrepreneur takes the ‘risk’ to hire a disabled programmer. A mega-millionaire basketball star drops by with cameras and has lunch, once, for ten minutes, with a  bullied, autistic child. In inspiration porn, the abled person is the hero; the disabled person is the second banana, the sidekick.”

Inside the cover (cleverly designed as an accessibility sign) Palmer writes from the place of someone who was born with the challenge of walking and staying upright. Her feet, as an adult, are size one and half, and two and half. She has given each foot a name. She also names her walking tools, her crutches, etc. She has done/continues to do much in her life as a teacher, activist, union executive, writer, and member of the Accessibility Advisory Committe of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). For starters. She is also a daughter and mother and citizen of a city and country that (like so many cities and countries) needs to take a look at how public spaces are built in order to accommodate both the disabled and able bodied equally.

Because the current tokenism that exists in the form of a designated parking space that is used by people who are not disabled and who justify that use since they’re only going to be a minute …. ditto that one wheelchair accessible stall in the loo… and a host of other issues knowable only to those who use chairs and walkers, who have impaired vision or hearing… isn’t going to cut it.

In a very conversational way, through frustration laced with humour, Palmer sheds light on an issue that shouldn’t exist but is, instead, sadly ubiquitous, and which stays hidden due to inspiration porn, ableism and much of the world patting itself on the back for NOT taking that parking spot.

Essentially, the book is about how she lives as a woman… also how she lives as a woman with a disability. The disability not being her body, she’s very content in her body… it’s the rest of the world that’s a bit of a challenge.

And if anyone reading this says well, heck, are we supposed to accommodate everybody??? The answer is a resounding YES. Because that would be the kind of progress that would actually benefit all of society, not just those who stand to make a profit from so-called ‘progress’.

“We all need to stop falling for the double lie that disabled people can be healed and should want to be healed.

Would love to see this as required reading in schools.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘treed’, by ariel gordon

 
 

There are certain books that become full-time residents on my coffee table or bedside table or table by the fireplace or sometimes, if the weather is good and the umbrella is up, the patio table. Weeks and weeks go by and the book is there, picked up regularly, set down maybe in a different place to be picked up again. And again. The more I love a book the longer it takes for me to shelve it. Re-reading is a favourite thing. I make meals of sentences, play a scene back in my mind, go back a page and work my way up to it again. I will read the same story or essay or poem over three days in a row, each time finding another layer of meaning or pleasure, some image initially missed.

Treed is one of those books. Currently living on my coffee table, this wonderful collection of essays makes me happy to know it’s there to fulfill any sudden craving I have for a discussion of tree love or a vicarious forest walk with one of CanLit’s most enthusiastic (and real life) forest walkers, the Winnipeg writer and poet, Ariel Gordon.

Gordon has a penchant for the urban forest and after reading about the trees of Winnipeg you practically want to book a flight and see it all for yourself. But you don’t have to… she’s very good at giving you the vicarious experience and her enthusiasm for woodland (& other) greenery is inspiring, the kind of person who instinctively sees, hears, thinks, imagines… who wonders and is constantly curious and learning, finding nothing in the natural world dull.

Just beyond the slough is a big old trembling aspen that has strange vertical scars on it at about chest height. It takes me a few minutes to realize that these are bear scratch marks, which makes me walk faster.

Gordon well knows that even along the same path through the same park or the same neighbourhood street, if you’re open to using all your senses, no two walks are ever the same.

When I was younger, I resisted naming. But I’ve realized, over time, that this tree, that tree, the other tree isn’t as precise as it could be. Names allow us, as writer and reader, to know that we’re talking about the same things. They’re suitcases that carry not only simply information but also historical allusions and memories of what it is like to stand in a field and be surprised by herd of white-tailed deer, for instance. It reminds us of the quality of the sun on their dun backs, little bluestem grass grinding between their teeth, the rattling leaves of trembling aspen on the breeze, the way the doe’s ears telescope at the least noise.

The next paragraph begins: I’ve started spying on barn swallows.

I love how she compares the community of trees to urban communities, the purpose of a tree’s architecture as important as streetlights, the grid patterns of roads. There’s so much to see and discover in her world of trees and, I’ll confess, while I, too, have never found a dull moment on any walk or in any part of nature, Gordon’s writing has made me see trees, specifically and  individually, where once I saw merely the beauty of the whole landscape.

In ‘Outage’, Gordon recalls a week spent in a farmhouse where she intends to spend her time writing but ends up paying attention to the stories and the life around her instead and we are so glad she did.

I come with my own stories and somehow land right in the middle of Sharron and Kerry’s, and through them, Ken and Alverna’s, to the first settlers on the land and the residents of Sandy Bay First Nation, moved and moved again to make room for those settlers.

In ‘Winter Walk’ she writes:

My favourite thing about a real xmas tree? Being alone with it…. I sit in the warm half-dark by myself and smell the tree’s piney scent. I sit quietly, sipping tea or sucking  on a shard of candy cane, and listen to my own heartbeat. I breathe tree.

A tree covered in vines that turn out to be tiny grapes inspires sentences like this:

Eating them – popping the grapes with my teeth and separating the flesh from the seeds with my tongue – is like completing a puzzle with my face.

In ‘Emergency Carrots’ she weaves various threads (including carrots), the memory of trees past and present, with concern for her husband’s health and safety, and it’s all so seamless. (It’s hard to pick a favourite from among the book’s sixteen essays, but this one’s a gem.)

And from ‘The Social Life of Urban Forests’:  

… every settled place across North America had elms and, eventually, an elm canopy. The arches of elm trees that we’ve cultivated here are just as much a construction as the streetlights, as the layout of the streets, their strange grids and confusions. Our communities of trees are as deliberate as the communities we build among ourselves.

The ending of this piece is simply beautiful… Gordon writes about trees that are marked to be taken down due to disease or other reasons, the stumps she finds in her travels, trees already felled… and if you weren’t at the start, by now you’re with her, not only in awareness, but empathy for the trees around us, those we take for granted on streets and boulevards, the urban canopies, the forest and field and farmland trees… and so when she tells you she sometimes stands on those stumps, stretches out her arms and reaches for the sun… you can hardly think of a sweeter homage.