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Book Review: Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series. I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels. Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes. The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage. In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with. By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents. Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections. But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

It’s morning. For now, night is over. It’s time for the bad news. I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them. On me, for one.

One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing. Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination. Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own. They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls. After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways. First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn. Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse. Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought. Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive. Birds sang. Mud dried.

Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel. But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have yet to read…

Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2006
Hardcover: 225 pages
ISBN: 0385503849
Language: English
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

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A Stone, A Tree, A Memory

When I was fourteen, I went to live with my father in Scotland for a month.  He had been stationed there for some time, but this was my first trip to Europe.  I was beyond excited to finally go to a country that I had romanticized since birth.

Being a moody fourteen year old that was prone to poetry and rambling walks, I often rose while the mist was still burning off of the lanes of the tiny village where we lived.  I would walk down to the river, through a graveyard littered with historical signs boasting about the medieval round tower on the church.  At the river, I had ducks for friends.

I was only visiting.  I didn’t know a soul in town.  And it was a small enough place that a month wasn’t nearly enough time to get to know anyone new.  And so I would walk and visit with the ducks and watch the other people, as they walked their dogs and played with their children.  It was lonely, but it was a very peaceful loneliness.

I have been thinking about that place a lot and wishing to visit it again, even though I suspect that it would not at all be the same to return there with the knowledge of an adult.  But metaphorically, my heart is there because, unbelievably, I put my other cat to sleep two weeks ago.

No, not the one I just blogged about at the end of March.  The one that survived her, my beloved, wonderful tabby Nevyn, who has been my constant friend for the last 20 years.  Nevyn of the sweet and fearless personality, who was once held for ransom (I paid!) and prone to wandering into the arms of strangers and making them fall in love with him.

So here I am again, writing a post that I have no heart to write, because I don’t really know how to be an adult without him there in my life.  I have never had to do it before.  We have been together that long.  Now, I dread walking into my house, particularly when no one is home.  For the first time, the house has no life on the floorboards, no soft feet pattering around behind me.

An 18 year old lover.

No one cares about you like your cat does.

It has been hard.  Perhaps it has been harder than it should be.  It’s been two weeks since I took him to be put to sleep because it’s taken this long to be able to look at the pain of losing my cats with any kind of insight or eloquence.  There’s a distance needed before words can form.  I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s a little closer today than it was yesterday.

Although it is brutal to lose two animals so close together, it is comforting to know that they weren’t without each other for very long.  They had been together for 18 years and I am certain that Nevyn felt all of the grief that I did when Morghan died.  His illness – kidney disease – began to progress more rapidly.  Suddenly, the cat that everyone exclaimed over as being unbelievably young for his age became an old man.  He spent more and more time napping on the couch and lost most of his interest in going outside.  He absolutely refused to stay upstairs, which is where Morghan had slept until her final illness made moving her closer to the litter box a necessity.  When I carried him up the stairs, he immediately ran back down them, in a burst of energy that was becoming rarer and rarer.

Nevyn Sleeping on Morghan, February 2017

I’ll never know if taking him to be put to sleep was what he wanted.  I’m told that it was the right decision by everyone who saw him in those last few days, but I can’t help but agonize over it.  The vet told me he might have had a few more weeks, if we tried to keep him going.  I know they would have been lonely.

But I miss them both terribly.  I know that there will be other pets in my life down the road, but right now it feels like I’ll never love again the way that I loved these two.  In some ways, it is like a first heartbreak, before experience makes you put your guard up the next time you fall in love.  You can never again not know how much loss hurts.  They weren’t the first cats that I’ve lost to time, but they are the first cats that I raised myself.  I paid the bill when Morghan was spayed.  I took them every year for shots and check-ups.  I worried for them when they were sick and I held them when they needed to be held.   And now they’re somewhere else, in a place where I cannot hold them any more.  I cannot protect them, which was my job for so long.  It feels like failure.

The Remembering Tree

All I can do for them now is remember them.  I brought them both home and put them in our front yard, wrapped in blankets and lying side by side under the Japanese maple, just as they were always doing for all of those years that we were all together.

Now they return to the earth.  And, somehow, the rest of us go on, drinking coffee and walking to the train, sitting in the office and doing what we always did for all of those years.  Squirrels run up and down their tree, looking for lost nuts in the mulch that covers their graves.  Songbirds — cardinals and robins and sparrows and starlings – fill the air in the garden over their bodies.  And I walk past the final resting place of my kids each morning as I emerge again out into the world.

 

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Easter Passes Me Over

I have been off of work for the last week, as Baba’s day care has been closed for the Passover and Easter holidays.  Not being a Christian nor a Jew means that this mostly turns into another one of of those holidays where everyone seems to need to be somewhere, but I’m not entirely certain where that is.

Apparently people get together for Easter?  And they eat food?  Also, sort of the same thing for Passover?

I’m not so culturally tone-deaf as to not understand that there are some significantly different religious underpinnings there, but my understanding is pretty vague.  Jesus rose from the dead; a miracle is celebrated.  The Jews were spared from the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians and were liberated from slavery — another miracle.  These are fabulous and powerful stories, even if you don’t share the faith behind them.

And I must admit that I rather like the idea of miracles these days.

These shoes were made for walkin’…on mulch.

Our celebrations were more pagan.  Baba was sent a chocolate rabbit and some bunny ears, which led to a full day of listening to Baba declaring her newfound love of chocolate. I spent the afternoon digging in the dirt in the garden and trying out my new garden shoes. (Sloggers!  Recommend!)  The house that we bought was uninhabited for four years before we moved in and the yard is showing the neglect.  I don’t know a great deal about gardening, as you could spit across the entire yard of our last house without really even trying, but I’ve taken on fixing this yard as a personal vendetta project.  I’ve been learning a lot about eradicating crabgrass and annihilating dandelions, which is very much the dark side of gardening.

Still, there are worse ways to celebrate a fertility festival than by making room for new things to grow.  Tonight, I sleep the sleep of the just, even if we still haven’t figured out how to make our mysteriously 9-zone sprinkler system work.

It has been really relaxing to be away from my normal routine for so long.  My grandparents were visiting for the week, which made my time with Baba very pleasant.  She has very much become a 2 year old, with the attendant fits and dramas that limited language and a whole lot of will power entail, and the extra adult hands around were greatly appreciated.  Our entertainments were pretty mellow, with many trips to the park and the grocery store and the back yard.  The weather finally turned for the season and, for the first time since we bought the house,  I’ve actually been spending time just sitting in the back yard, enjoying our tiny private patch of outdoor space.  I bought Baba some chalk and we’ve been working on decorating all of the bricks in the patio, which is just the sort of life goal that I’ve needed for some time.

Perhaps the lessons of Easter and Passover aren’t for my family, but all of the time together with Baba and my grandparents has felt very sacred, all the same.

 

Nap refusal is never pretty.
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Cancer Sucks: A Goodbye

I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family.  She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over.  I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect.  I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.

I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking.  It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice.  Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.

And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly.  It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer.  And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.

It could be cancer or a polyp, he said.  And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.

No, I agreed.  We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.

So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.

Ah.

My beautiful Morghan.

I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish.  When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills.  I know she’s terminal, I said.  I know that.  But how do I know when it’s time…?

Oh, you’ll know when, he said.

This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night.  It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least.  Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place.  When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time.  I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.

When had come.

Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone.  I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats.  The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you.  She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment.  She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother.  I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots.  She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend.  She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through.  No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her.  Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.

I have never had to put a cat to sleep before.  I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy.  My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking  as surprised as a cat can.  We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors.  Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.

But not for Morghan.  I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office.  I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was.  But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time.  I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car.  Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.

Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders.  I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down.  Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife.  Please, love, just don’t be afraid.

When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body.  I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on.  I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.

Don’t be afraid, I said.  Please, don’t be afraid.

As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could.  She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone.  My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true.  I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.

Morghan and Mushu, a lifetime ago

I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive.  I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought.  We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.

And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand.  When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.

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Hesitating Before the Dive

There is a moment in Olympic diving that every diver takes as they walk out to compete on the world stage.  They climb up to the diving board, then breathe in deep and square their shoulders.  After this moment, they walk out confidently onto the board, which bounces predictably beneath their weight, the way it has done thousands of times before, and then they take their shot.

Although my athletic prowess is limited to being able to run three consecutive 10 minute miles without immediately dying, I love watching Olympic sports.  The divers are a particular favorite, as they combine gymnastics and swimming — two areas far beyond my wildest dreams of ability — and fly through the air, bending their bodies in ways that seem impossible and then slip into the water with barely a splash to mark their passing.  They inspire my imagination, even as they please my love of beauty.  They are tremendous, frightening, inspiring people.

I’ve been thinking a lot of that sigh at the beginning lately.  I haven’t spoken much of it here, but I am at a similar point in my writing.  I’ve spent the last three months deep in research and plot, scrambling to work in the small bits of time that I have each day for writing, and putting together a framework that I can only hope will be strong enough to carry the weight of the story that I want to tell.  It’s a story that I’ve already told many times, over glasses of wine and lunches, to friends and family who listen politely and nod and tell me that it all sounds very interesting and they can’t wait to read it.

And now it is time to begin the actual writing.  Yet I’ve found myself delaying over the last few days, as I’ve taken a much needed break away from the ideas so that I can approach them again in a fresh and objective frame of mind.  I’ve never been the kind of writer that falls in love with the sound of her own voice; I will actually cringe my way through most of the rereading that I’ll do before hitting publish on this post.  And this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to tell this story, so I keep hearing the echoes of where the past efforts have stuttered out, even though I know that my new angle is much stronger.

Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said he never failed, but just found a thousand ways not to light a lightbulb?  I certainly have learned from the two previous beginnings, but there are only so many times you can take 40,000 words and throw them into a folder that you’ve named “Old Manuscript” without wanting to shy away from similar grandiose sacrifices. 

And so, here I am, having climbed the rungs of the ladder, trying to take that deep breath that will propel me out onto the board, to bounce in a place that is more familiar to me than standing here on the edge, wondering if I have the courage to go on. In another day or two, I will come back to the page and take those first steps out onto the board, just praying that this time, my mistakes will only propel me forward, as I finally learn what it is to write a full novel.

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Human Moments, No. 11

Baba stands up in her sleep sack and balances precariously on the rocking chair.  She reaches out for the light, which I have just switched back on in order to let her turn it off again.  She twists the switch, then settles again in my lap and throws her head back into mine.

“What song will we sing?” I ask her, as I always do.

She doesn’t answer.

“See saw?” I ask.

“No,” she says, giggling.

“ABC song?”

“No, no ABC song.”

“Twinkle, twinkle?”

“NO TWINKLE TWINKLE.”

“How about horsies?”

She’s silent for a moment and I take my chance.

Hush-a-bye,” I sing.  “Don’t you cry.  Go to sleep, my little baby.”

“No baby!” Baba says agreeably.

“When you wake, you will have all the pretty little horses.”

“No horses!”

Blacks and greys, dapples and bays–

“No bays!”

“All the pretty little hor-es-ses.”

“No horses,” she says, snuggling into my armpit.  “No horses.”

 

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Human Moments, No. 10

“I think that we’re the bourgeoisie.”

“The what now?”

“You know.  Like Lenin and the Communist Revolution.  The great experiment of the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie.  I think we’re the bourgeoisie.  We’re the bad guys.  Look at this house.”

“…..yeeeeeeeaaaah?”  My Beloved’s eyebrows wag.

“We have two bedrooms we don’t even use.”

“They’re guest rooms.”

“Exactly.”

“If having guest rooms makes us bad guys, I think…I can get used to being the bad guys.”

My Beloved rolls over on his half of our new king sized mattress and promptly begins to snore.  I lie awake longer, wary in our new house, uncertain when it will begin to feel like home.

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