Things I have and haven’t done

So, I’m coming out of the haze-of-work-into-inertia mode. I thought I’d tackle my patio yesterday. It’s been such a dry June and out of my window I could see the desiccated leaves of my limelight, the browned, skeletal remains of last years’ hydrangea blooms, the browning cedar hedge, flopping bamboo, broken terra cotta pots spilling soil onto the concrete, the curling edges of Sheila’s Perfume. The sheer work required made the task seem insurmountable but I knew if I didn’t start watering some of these plants and cleaning and clipping back I’d regret it. I’d put a lot of care and a pretty penny into this primarily perennial garden since I’ve had this place. If I let it go, I’d have to start all over again. More money, more time.

Three hours later and the garden was watered, the hydrangea clipped (probably not smart as there are some buds). More to do, but at least the leaves and pots had been cleaned up. I felt pretty good, I stood there, knowing the job was not complete, but at least I’d done something. It’s sort of my mantra right now – even if you can’t finish, start. One last little blob of dead leaves beside the limelight and as I swept it up I saw what looked like a tail, I swept it closer, and sure enough, a dead rat. Desiccated too…ugh. So I swept it back. After all, tomorrow is another day. Better yet, a task for the building manager.

 

Things I have and haven’t done

Away

I started this blog almost two years ago, and haven’t written anything for a year. It’s been a crazy year – I’ve done nothing but work. Really. And now I’m coming out of it, shaking off a little bit at a time these long days and crazy responsibilities.

I feel shattered. I opened my mailbox for the first time in two months, paid some bills and stared at others. And though I’ve made decent money, my VISA bill is out of hand. My cell phone has been disconnected. I feel not of the world — jittery and a bit desperate. And I’m so tired and I don’t want to  do anything. I just want to curl up and eat and have a drink. A drink. That’s what I want. Right now. My diet has been shot to hell. I gobble chocolates and Lay’s potato chips at work; I eat packaged food for dinner. There’s a pile of plastic take out containers that is guilting me out. I collapse on my bed amongst a pile of clothing – not sure if it’s clean or dirty.

Ugh, I am grossing myself out and I’m worried. Is this how I am going to have to work for the next ten years? Seriously? Because this is what I can do.

Listening to the rain. Home for the last couple of hours. Still wearing my jacket and my apartment is dark. The ironing board is up, there are unpaid bills on the floor, a dead spider I crushed this morning, The kitchen cupboards are open. Receipts everywhere. This is no way to live.

What am I going to do about it?

 

Away

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

WeHaveAlways

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead. “

 

Thus begins the beguiling and eerie  We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. It’s the story of ‘Merricat’ Blackwood and her sister Constance. The Blackwood girls–women really–are 18 and 28 years old, and for the past six years they have lived (along with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian) cloistered in their handsome paternal home. The rest of their family–mother, father, brother, and aunt–are dead, poisoned (perhaps) by Constance. The girls live in seclusion, seemingly ostracized, feared, and mocked by the townspeople. It’s a secure and imaginative world, one that Merricat cherishes and obsessively guards. However, it all comes crashing down when their distant cousin Charles comes to visit, threatening to disrupt their lives and offering an out for Constance.

The book has been described as horror, gothic and creepy. I felt mesmerized more than anything. The creepiness, I suppose, is due to the other-creaturely, almost witchy, character of Merricat. She collects talismans, buries treasures, summons her inner power and hides in tree forts. Normal behaviour perhaps of a ten year, but a bit strange for a budding adult. Much like in her iconic short story The Lottery, Jackson brilliantly weaves a sense of pagan menace into the quotidian small-town lives of her characters.

The Penguin edition describes the book as a “labyrinth of dark neuroses”. Certainly true, but I think there is more going on. Is it also the story of girls that don’t want to grow up, who are prepared to burn it all down and live in a decaying home rather than change their lives? Is it the story of the power of sisterhood, and the ability to turn a blind eye to evil in deference to family bonds? Is it about the power of the imagination and how it can allow us to live beyond the confines of our natural lives?

Much to ponder, and a memorable read!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Seven Fallen Feathers

Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers profiles seven Seven_Fallenindigenous teenagers who died while away at school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Talaga weaves a compelling narrative, showing us the lives of these kids, recreating the hours before they died and giving us insight into their families and First Nations communities. Interspersed with the personal stories, is a searing account of the past and present issues that have plagued First Nations peoples.

Racism. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at now-shuttered residential schools. Generations of family breakdown. Poverty. Lack of potable water. Food insecurity. Bigotry. These are all issues that First Nations people have faced since their land was colonized by Europeans. Talaga carefully tries to show how these systemic indignities made the kids vulnerable and played a part in their unexplained and untimely deaths.

There is much to admire in this book. It has been critically lauded and won, or been a finalist for, numerous awards. Talaga is meticulous in deconstructing cultural wrongs and providing sharp and colourful character detail.

As admirable as it is, one of the things I felt the book was weak on was an explanation of the conditions in Thunder Bay that may have contributed to the tragedies. Talaga says:

“To understand the stories of the seven lost students…you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence.”

The incompetence and racism by the local police is evident, but what we never get is anything up close and personal in the white community. A few racial incidents are mentioned, but aren’t explored with any depth.

We never find out definitively what happened (aside from lethal amounts of alcohol in all but one death) to cause the deaths, despite a lengthy inquest. Talaga exploits this a bit, suggesting that some of the deaths—the drownings anyway—may not have been accidental. A suggestion that seems a bit tenuous, and is my only other criticism of the book.

Seven Fallen Feathersis an incisive and admirable account of both individual lives and First Nations communities as they struggle for their rightful place in Canada.

Seven Fallen Feathers

Big Little Lies

BigLIttleLiesJust binge-watched Big Little Lies. Based on the novel of the same name (which I haven’t read) by Lianne Moriarty, Big Little Lies takes place in the picturesque town of Monterrey, California, and centres on a group of privileged women whose lives intersect through those of their young children.

The season opens with a murder. Blinking police lights, an unidentified (to the audience-and who remains so until the end) dead body and then a series of interrogations of secondary characters set up the tension and provide the hook that reels us in and keeps us enthralled for the entire first season.

From the murder scene, we go back in time to the first day of school, when the five central characters (really three plus two spares)and their kids are forced to choose sides when one of the kids accuses another of trying to strangle her. The mystery of who bullies Amabella is the main subplot of the series, and provides a great foil to the series’ central mystery of who’s the corpse and who’s the killer.

There was lots to like about the series. I thought Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, the A-type stay-at-home uber mommy was fantastic, seemingly all bossy and brittle but with a complex and principled heart. Nicole Kidman as Celeste, the wealthy and beautiful former lawyer who keeps up a perfect pretence despite being assaulted by her husband, was also fantastic. Shailene Woodley who plays Jane, the mysterious single mom with a seemingly hidden agenda, was good, too, as was Laura Dern (Renatta), the shrieking, highly-successful mother of the bullied Amabella and sworn enemy to Witherspoon’s Madeline.

The women’s lives and the murder provide a portal to examine issues of wealth, privilege, marriage, the mommy-wars, spousal abuse and disappointment . Although often satiric and funny–and visually seductive–there’s something deeply disturbing going on in this fecund little town beside the ocean.

My only complaint would be the ending! Jeez! Instead of going all in and giving us a logical perpetrator, the writer jammed out and turned the ending into a feel-good sisterhood moment. Really bugged me. I suppose the internet was to show women coming together when the chips are really down. I didn’t think it needed to go there. I liked the differences in personality, and the dynamics and felt that the ending betrayed that. Will definitely watch season 2, though!

 

Big Little Lies

The Break

The Break

The Break by Katherena Vermette chronicles the brutal assault of a Metis girl and its aftermath as it reverberates through the lives of the girl, her family, their friends and the interconnected Metis community they are all a part of.

Told from multiple viewpoints, and in both the third and first person, the novel provides a sweeping view of the community as it struggles with addiction, racism, poverty, violence, abuse and broken family bonds.

The book begins on a snowy night in Winnipeg when a young and privileged (married to a white man, nice house) Metis woman, Stella, witnesses what she thinks is a crime. Someone is struggling out on the Break, an empty stretch of hydro land that she can see from her window. Scared, with two small children, the woman waits awhile before calling the cops. When they come, they dismiss it as a figment of her imagination.

We soon learn that she has witnessed the brutal assault on Emily, a young teenager, who happens to be Stella’s second cousin. The assailant is Phoenix, a troubled Metis teen who has been in and out of the foster system since she was a child. It’s spurred by a competing love interest. But that is merely incidental: Phoenix is a scowling cauldron of rage who would have eventually found someone else to destroy even if Emily hadn’t crossed her sites.

The assault doesn’t just affect Phoenix, Emily and Stella. Vermette peers into the lives of mothers, grandmothers, aunts and even police officers as they come to grips with what has happened. We see both families in crisis, struggling with intergenerational addiction and poverty, and families in strength, who provide safety, love and mercy . Underpinning these communities are strong women. These women, often abandoned by (and disappointed in) their men, hold everything together. The Break is a tribute to them and their resilience.

Vermette’s portrayal is rich and sensitive. Her characters are compelling. My only criticism would be that the story sometimes feels overwritten. She has certainly provided a wide scope on both the issues in the community, and humanity as a whole. The inchoate rage and systemic abuse is certainly not confined to aboriginals or the Metis. And though it’s obvious who is evil and who is not, Vermette seems unwilling to assign categorical blame. Do we blame Stella for not doing anything? Do we blame Phoenix for being evil? Or do we see deeper than that–that the choices they’ve made have often been made for them. Ultimately, The Break is less interested in blame than it is in forgiveness.

The Break

Sapiens

Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind chronicles the rise of humans as Earth’s dominant species. Yuval Noah Harari weaves a compelling tale, positing how an unremarkable species–neither the strongest, nor the fastest, nor the most prevalent– is able to dominate the earth in a way that no other species has.

The catalyst for anthropogenic domination, Harari argues, is a cognitive revolution that happened around 70,000 years ago. He’s a bit fuzzy on exactly what that was except to say that it could have been caused by accidental genetic mutations (interestingly, this article talks about a recent discovery showing how our brain changed between 100,000 and 35000 years ago). This revolution resulted in humans developing a very sophisticated language and the ability to imagine other realities outside what is observable.  As he says: “Ever since the cognitive revolution, sapiens has thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, and tress and lions, and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations”

From the cognitive revolution, Harari takes us on the human journey. Highlights include usurping Neanderthals, developing agriculture which led to cities and hierarchical societies, developing writing and a numerical systems, which essentially allowed us to offload data. We then traded and created a monetary system, had an industrial revolution, developed through capitalism and then had scientific and gender revolutions.   All of our achievements have primarily been the result of our ability to imagine and build narratives.

This building of narratives or constructs and its importance in what we are as a species is the biggest takeaway in the book for me. The idea that ‘everything is a construct’ has certainly been argued before. But in Sapiens, Harari clearly demonstrates how dependent our very existence and how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, is dependent on constructs. Justice? It doesn’t exist except in our collective imagination. Kindness? Something we’ve invented. Government? An idea we’ve codified and built. Even love–at least as we currently define it–is a construct. And without constructs what would we be?

It’s a fascinating book, and ends with humans on the threshold of a very different world. Up until this point we’ve been defined by our biology, victims of random selection and death and decay like all other organic life. But now, we can engineer life itself–where do we go from here?

 

 

Sapiens