books

COVID-19: The Mother of all staycations

I keep finding messages. First I found a whole street of fairy houses I didn’t know existed in Victoria and then this (above), in a tree, near my apartment. I like it. Sweet.

I can take no credit for sourcing what I’m about to share with you.

My friend Susan in Vancouver sent it to me yesterday and someone sent it to her. Please share it if you are so inclined.

I started reading it while I was still in bed, early in the morning, worrying that using an IPhone in bed that I hadn’t wiped down upon waking would surely come back to bite me. You see how my brain has changed in ways that I’m not okay with?

Of course the topic is COVID-19. But it’s something that’s written with so much insight.

Yesterday, (today right now as I write this) was the first day I was feeling like, ‘oh, this, this is for real! This isn’t just some mother of all Staycations.'”

Here’s the article, The Coronation (15-30 minutes)  https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/

Here’s a link if you’d like to know more about this person, Charles Eisenstein.

Hope you’re staying the course, physically distancing at 2 meters, socially connecting, keeping up some weird new routine, taking time to go inside yourself, and think about what you might want to change once the crisis part is over. I hope you’re doing okay.

When the poetry arrives

There’s something so special about reading a book by someone you’re acquainted with after it has finally been written and published.

When I came home from an evening walk and saw a slim cardboard box leaning against my apartment door, I knew right away what it was.

I ordered it from Indigo way back in February (which I realize isn’t that long ago but now feels like another decade). The poet created it over 7 years.

I was sad the poet couldn’t see me rip it open. That would have been gratifying for her, I’m sure.

Her name is Tanja Bartel, the “j”, the Finnish give-away, perhaps.

She was one of my SFU Writer’s Studio peeps and by day she’s a high school English teacher in Mission, something she’s done for a very long time. She appears to be one of those high school teachers kids talk about into their futures and at reunions.

She’s been published in a bunch of literary journals: Geist, New Poetry, Antigonish Review, Rusty Toque, Grain, Maynard and others. This is her first book of poetry.

She’s of Finnish heritage with white blonde hair. She’s a wife and a mother to two children, now grown, including a son who lives with a rare genetic mutation. It’s almost guaranteed that she must be the only poet to have written an article that’s been published about a member of her family in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

She has an old yellow lab named Romeo who, in Facebook photos, I love.  She loves to walk Romeo on the dikes near her home in Pitt Meadows. And she’s a woman with a mind full of intrigue and eccentricities as I expect poets to be.

What I have just told you is pretty much everything I know about Tanja.

Her book is called Everyone at This Party, published by an imprint (icehouse poetry) of Gooselane Editions in New Brunswick. It’s 71 pages. And it has a fantastic cover you can see above by artist/photographer, Alexey Turenkov.

She’s agreed to let me write this blog post and to share a poem from the book with you. I picked the poem, Whisper Street, because it really captured me, including the line about the “caged hamsters,” or maybe especially that line. A commentary on suburbia that anyone who has ever lived in suburbia could relate to. While the themes can be dark, there’s a lot of humour in the poems as well. 

When I told Tanja which poem I’d picked, she told me it was the last poem she wrote, added to the book in the eleventh hour and one of her favourites.

There are so many other poems I loved every bit as much, like Oxygen, Everyone at This Party, Sawmill Town, Backyard Wedding, Best Laid Plans and others.

Whisper Street

People are not as friendly as you’d expect

in places that run on friendliness.


Work, parties.

Work parties.


I came to see all co-workers and all partygoers

as one rude unit.


And to view myself as an only

(a single rude unit).


On my street, crumbled clouds, a half-eaten sun.

Agony rolls underground.


Something stings my wrist in the fattest vein.

The day ahead itches and I embark on a radiant


laziness in an effort to mimic the way

of dogs, envying their thoughtlessness.


My deaf dog’s hauled his shapeless old self to bed.

I’d follow, but for all the noise:


One thousand caged hamsters crack

sunflower seeds. Neighbour removes the Earth’s crust


around his property with a pressure washer.

Toddler next door screams blue murder


that he won’t go to bed. A mirror busted in half.

Rubber gloves snapped off and flung to the tiles.


I want to live on Whisper Street where a lounging

willow tree soaks up all our consequences.


Where nobody kills dandelions and everyone

grows yellow roses that hug one bee per blossom.


Violins play from tree houses.

No one mows their lawns and laundry blows by


like sails down a stream.

Green traffic lights that say you’re allowed to keep going,


but you don’t have to.

Good luck that won’t let me be.
Congratulations Tanja. I’m savouring them.

COVID-19 & supporting your community

photo by gayle

If your employment isn’t impacted at this point and you’re feeling really grateful for that or you’re just fine when it comes to money, (How do I know you?), there are so many places you could support during this difficult time.

I’m worried about all the artists and musicians and writers who are barely making it as it is.

I’m worried about all the places I like to frequent here in Victoria because without them the city would be so much less, and there are so many restaurants and arts organizations that will really suffer given that the economy here is so focused on tourism.  

Either order take-out or pick-up from them (doing your own risk assessment on that) or donate to them. 

Places like Intrepid Theatre and The Belfry and the independent bookstores and the hole in the wall restaurants and the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera and Dance Victoria and Il Sauvage Brewing, Nourish and Hermanns because of the musicians who rely on that venue to make some money, and to do what they love.  Here’s a blog post by Frankies in Vancouver about supporting the musicians who normally work at the club.

And then there are all the market vendors on Salt Spring who depend on the next 7 months of the year to make a living. Some are set up for online purchasing but many of the smaller ones are not.

I’m worried about the vulnerable people I see on the street every day and know that donating to places like Mustard Seed and Our Place and Women in Need Thrift Store and Megaphone Magazine vendors  or Union Gospel Mission, the YWCA, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre or Atira Society, The Bloom Group or Covenant House for Youth or Victoria Women’s Transition House or Youth Empowerment Society can make a difference.

Think about where you live and your favourite places or social service and arts organizations and donate if you’re able to.

Don’t forget that you can write donations off your taxes (for next year). Find out more from TurboTax if you’re Canadian: https://turbotax.intuit.ca/tips/tax-benefits-of-charitable-donations-5414

Here are some places that are either delivering or doing take-out in Victoria, B.C., although I’m sure there are many more since this list was created: https://www.victoriabuzz.com/2020/03/these-greater-victoria-businesses-are-offering-special-services-in-light-of-covid-19/

Obviously you are only one person with limited resources, (and those have taken a big hit recently) but you are better off than someone else. That’s indisputable.

Just figure out which group in your community you would feel good about donating your limited resources to and Just Do It! Today. By the end of this week. No procrastinating.

Hedgehog therapy

In a world currently plagued by COVID-19, falling stock markets, the condo insurance crisis in B.C., protests and rampages and climate destruction and possibly the end of life on earth as we know it, today I would like to talk to you about hedgehogs.

Up until this past Christmas, I never gave hedgehogs any thought. I might have seen them in a children’s book when I was a child, but other than the boxes of chocolate hedgehogs that Purdy’s Chocolates sells, I never think of hedgehogs. Do you?

Oh, on second thought, I’ve already lied to you. I guess there was that one day last fall when I wondered whether I might consider getting a hedgehog as a pet since I can’t have a real pet, a cat or a dog, in my apartment which I consider to be a human rights slight. 

Then I found out that hedgehogs are nocturnal and I am an early-to-bed, early-to-rise creature and I didn’t want the spiky little thing running over me or manically racing for the edge of an imaginary cliff on its hedgehog wheel at 4 a.m. during a strenuous workout right smack dab in the middle of my preferred hours of shuteye.

At Christmas, I thought I would give a few neighbours on my floor in my apartment building Christmas cards. Rummaging  through my Christmas box, I came across some cute cards from years gone by. There was a quaintly illustrated picture of a stylized hedgehog on these cards. I don’t actually recall what the hedgehog was doing or what the card said or what hedgehogs have to do with Christmas at all, but it was a Christmas card so I wrote something in each of them and slipped them under the doors of a few neighbours.

The next time I ran into one of my neighbours, she thanked me for the card. She proceeded to tell me how she thought it was very strange that I should give her a card with a hedgehog on it since she’d just returned from France, she may have said Normandy, and every night, through the mist in the backyard, they made a ritual of watching for the hedgehogs. The spunky, spiky little ones would never disappoint. In turn, I found her story a little odd since in my research on whether to get a pet hedgehog or Erinaceinae, I thought it said that you weren’t likely to spot a hedgehog during the winter months because a little like bears, they hibernate, albeit less intensely.

When she told me her story, I had to remind myself that hedgehogs were actually real. They weren’t just cartoon characters or stuffed animals or chocolates in triangular boxes waiting to be devoured. I smiled inside with  contentment learning that somehow my choice in card had been so innocently spot on.

Before Valentine’s Day, in my local Pharmasave, there were a bunch of hand drawn cards and it said on the back that the artist was a mere 13 years old and a James Bay resident. These cards were wonderful and the first one I spotted was of two hedgehogs, one giving the other a single rose, the rose in the shape of a heart. It was so damn cute. What is it with hedgehogs lately, I thought to myself as I bought the card. That was hedgehog coincidence numero trois!

Yesterday in my Saturday wanderings, I was at Munro’s, a local iconic bookstore adjoining Murchies, a local iconic tea shop. I was doing what you do there: scanning and browsing and considering, and I came across a package of things called “Book Buddies.” And to think I’ve always considered the book all the “buddy” anyone would ever need. I didn’t know what these “Book Buddies” were so I had to read the package. I thought they were bookmarks. But as I took a closer look, I realized they were perfectly useless post-it notes for your book in case you had an epiphany during your reading.

This particular package of “Book Buddies” when I looked even more closely, contained paper hedgehogs. What is going on here? There they were again. Three hedgehogs of varying shades. “Helpful Hedgehogs” the marketing said. And they even had plucky names: Henry. Stucky. And Frenchie.  How could I not be charmed?

Sometimes, it’s these inane moments that bring such joy in their innocence and the uselessness of something like a Hedgehog post-it note for your book, with only enough space to write a single word, that can make an ordinary day almost sublime.

How would I use these? What one special, cryptic word would I write to myself that could be so significant and necessary? Someone had killed a tree for this? Would “Kaboom” suffice on page 35? How about “Wow” for page 42? Page 240: “Kowabunga?” Page 350: “Hegderama?” You see? Useless! Utterly useless.

But having said that, can I just say, I’ve come to understand how lowering one’s expectations is a highly under-rated exercise, and one that I partake in almost every single day.

Maybe we should all learn to be happy with the small coincidences and the weirdness of that unspoken but well known life law. You know the one. The one whereby as soon as something–a name, a word, a car– enters your awareness, especially when you’ve never previously given it two thoughts or even knew of its existence, it will pop up everywhere. Like a hello from a long lost friend, you will feel like everything you need is suddenly in that moment. For a few seconds you will be very happy and for a change that will be enough.

Top of Mind 2020

1. Privilege  Educate yourself about what the term privilege means and how it’s bigger than you, yourself and oh yeah, you again.

2. Gender Pronouns

If you don’t already know, discover why personal pronouns matter and what it means to not just be okay with them but how respect for others is inherent in using them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iKHjl5xAaA

 3. United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf

 4. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/

5. The #Me Too Movement in Canada

6. Climate and Earth

7.  The Sustainable Way

Making time for the benefits of doing nothing

This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.

Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.

Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.  

I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.

Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.

As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids.  We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.

When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.

I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”

Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.

And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.

When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.

On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.

She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.

I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.

Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.

It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?

And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?

Where books and shoulds may never meet

I’m sure there are extremely logical and disciplined individuals who happen also to be big readers, who tackle the long list of books they want to read and cross off books once they’re done like they’re crossing off their weekly shopping list.

For some people, regardless of what’s in their bookcase at home, they are as straightforward with their reading choices as they are with the weekly menus they surely must plan.

And now, I have a horrible confession to make. In the past year, I seem to have turned into a non-reader. Don’t get me wrong. I want to read. I love reading when I’m in the middle of the kind of book that takes me on a mini vacation inside my mind and when I get to the last page, I just don’t want to get back on the reality plane.

I still have the enthusiasm for hearing about books, to listen to Shelagh Rogers and others discuss books. Lately, I just don’t seem to ever get around to reading books the way I used to. And I’m trying to figure out what has led to this worrying state.

Is it too much scrolling on Twitter and Instagram? Is it aging and being tired after a day of brain work in front of a screen which is making me vegetative and making it all too easy to turn absentmindedly to another screen when I get home, where I begin pushing the remote as if I’m pushing the button for more morphine on my deathbed?

I’ve decided recently that everything I need in terms of reading materials is right in my own living room in my old bookcase so I’ve made a pact with myself not to buy any more books and not to take any books out of the library until I read what I have. I have at least 20 books in my bookcase that I’ve purchased at some time in the past or picked up from those little community book houses or have been given as gifts that I’ve yet to read.

I’ve always found it interesting that you can buy books and when it’s the right time for you to read a particular book, you will intuitively find your way to it. It will call to you as if you are the clairvoyant and it is one of your dead relatives saying, “May I come to you?” And you will say, “Yes, of course!” and you will sit down and read, leaving this reality for a more interesting or completely foreign one.  At least that’s how it used to work for me.

Part of my problem, I think, is falling into the trap of believing that I should be reading a certain type of book. I feel that fiction is the cut above so I tell myself that I really should like to read fiction but too often, too many fiction books bore me and I can’t get through them without being distracted in the first 10 pages.

I believe the last book of fiction I read was Brother by David Chariandy and I did enjoy that book and I finished it. Yay! I also finished Chelene Knight’s memoir: Dear Current Occupant. When it came to David Chariandy, what drew me in is that I could picture him in real life having seen him up close at an SFU reading that Dionne Brand was at and so I was curious about the real person, because he has such an interesting look to him, and simultaneously while I might be daydreaming questions about him and his life, I could, let the story he created on the page flow over me.

And isn’t that what we all really love about reading? The seemingly infinite layers, the dimensions and the conversations that are going on inside our own heads while our eyes decipher the words on the page delivering them like take-out for the brain?

I read Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet mainly because I was fascinated by the real hotel in Seattle called the Panama Hotel and enjoyed relaxing there during happy hours at the end of my days last September on a short getaway.

I have been reading Embers by the late Richard Wagamese in the morning as a meditation. During my favourite time of day, the quiet of a new morning at 6 am seems like the perfect time of day to read that book because you can imagine him writing it in those same type of quiet hours that bookend a day.

Books, in this way, are like different types of friends. A friend for the movies. A friend for entertainment. A friend to go to concerts with. A friend for advice and on and on; a reason, a season, a lifetime.

I subscribe to literary journals, The New Quarterly and the Malahat Review and I do read them but not completely. Like a finicky eater, I pick and choose, testing them out, either going the distance devouring the uniqueness of the stories and poems or turning away, unsatisfied and often confused about what’s being said, seeking something if only I could put my finger on what that something was.

So, it would seem I do have a list after all, if I could just sit down and get at it, pencil sharpened, crossing off the list except I don’t believe you should ever approach reading as a should. It’s a passion and like all passions, love and shoulds are inappropriate bedtime companions.

Here’s a list of the books in my bookshelf that I’ve purchased with enthusiasm at the time and have yet to get around to reading. Avid readers among you will review these and think to yourselves, been there, read that. In no particular order:

  • Milkman – Anna Burns
    Mammaskatch – Darrell McLeod
    Birdie – Tracey Lindberg
    For Today I am a Boy – Kim Fu
    The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore –Kim Fu
    Heart Songs – E. Annie Proulx
    The Parcel – Anosh Irani
    The Break – Katerina Vermette
    Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
    The House of All Sorts – Emily Carr
    The Vision – Tom Brown Jr.
    The Conjoined – Jen Sook fung lee
    Rudy Wiebe –Come Back
    Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
    Small Ceremonies – Carol Shields (read it in university, want to read it again)
    Alistair McLeod – No Great Mischief
    Thomas King – Green Grass, Running Water
    Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
    My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell
    A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
    The Space Between Us –Thrity Umrigar
    High Clear Bell of Morning – Ann Eriksson
    Travels with Charley in Search of America – John Steinbeck
    Malibar Farm – Louis Bromfield
    Island – J. Edward Chamberlin
    Dogs at the Perimeter – Madeleine Thien
    Outline – Rachel Cusk
  • Add to these books above, books that I’ve heard about recently that I want to read: The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari, My father, fortune tellers and me, by Eufemia Fantetti, Chop Suey Nation, Vancouver Noir, Fishing with John by Edith Iglauer (who just died at 101 years of age on the Sunshine Coast) and the list goes on and on.

I wonder what’s foremost on your reading list today?