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Ordinary Canary Posts

The American Legacy

My daughter crinkles paper, blows
on the tree to make it live, festoons
herself with silver.
So far she has no use for gifts.

What can I give her,
what armor, invincible
sword or magic trick, when that year comes?

How can I teach her
some way of being human
that won’t destroy her?

I would like to tell her, Love
is enough. I would like to say,
Find shelter in another skin.

I would like to say, Dance
and be happy. Instead I will say
in my crone’s voice, Be
ruthless when you have to, tell
the truth when you can,
when you can see it.
Iron talismans, and ugly, but
more loyal than mirrors.

from “Solstice Poem”, Margaret Atwood

 

 


 

On the radio this morning, the hushed voices of NPR reporters break the news that the largest mass shooting the country has ever seen happened overnight. The details are still sparse, but I wait for the body count. In the back seat, Baba babbles about the birds she heard singing, while I wonder what new words she’ll pick up from the radio this time.

After the barest details turn into empty radio filler, I turn down the volume. There is time later to obsess about the increasingly competitive rampages of men with guns who want to die over and over again on the front page of every newspaper. And we fall into the trap, as we must, feting the murders on every radio station and in every newspaper in terse and gently probing tones. The President issues a speech that manages not to insult anyone. On social media, the cringey and meaningless posts about thoughts and prayers are echoed over and over.

We are helpless. We are hopeless. But yet, we want to be seen having compassion for people we would not know walking down the street, because the situation is so terrible that we must be observed to publicly mourn to protect our decency. And so we perform our grief, but it feels false. How can you have grief left to give to strangers, when we’ve done this show so many times?

This season, it doesn’t even have an intermission.  Hurricane, hurricane, horror, hurricane, slow response, mass shooting, horror.

Later in the day, Tom Petty dies, because how could such a well-loved American artist live out this terrible day? Although we know by now that it is simply not safe to go to work or ride a train or dance in a night club, music had been safe.  If you weren’t French.  Now, thanks to yet another white man with far more guns than anyone should ever own, that too has been defiled. Even Tom Petty’s death is ruined, because our thoughts and prayers are already taken.

Tomorrow, his record sales are sure to spike, because that is what happens every time. And we will do nothing else. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

 


 

About a month ago, I told Baba that it was time to leave to go to school.

She says, “No, Mama. I no go school. I have to murder my tiger.”

“You have to what?” I ask, as I walk into the living room, where I find her holding a long piece of plastic across the throat of a stuffed Disney-shaped lion that we have yet to identify.

“Ehm,” I say.

“Ehm,” I say a little louder.

Baba interrupts her sawing and looks up with curiosity on her sweet and feral face.

“You seem to be murdering,” I say, in what must the epitome of good parenting.

“Yes, Mama,” she says happily. “See, I murder my tiger! Like this!  You want murder my tiger too?”

“No, baby. Murder is not nice.”

“Murder is not nic-CEEEEEE?” she asks, cocking her head with an overdone smile that usually makes me laugh.

“No love, murder is not nice. Tell your tiger that you’re sorry, honey. Then we need to go.”

 


 

We have a madness that we cannot seem to shake off.   Already the old conversation about gun control has started. I think more about personal risk.  I don’t worry for myself, because I have walked through high-risk halls on my way to work so many years that I long ago accepted the chance that some violent man will take my life. After all, I ride trains. And, in 2017, we all know that bombs and trains go along very well.

Hopefully not my one, but you never know.

But no parent considers sending their child to school without also imagining the day when that decision became deadly. Because you never know.

And this is the world that I must explain to Baba. Now she is so young that her innocence about the world constantly surprises me.

One day she took down our Bernie Sanders card from the bathroom mirror and said, “Who dat?”

“That’s Bernie Sanders, love.  He reminds us to look out for one another.”

“Who Ernie Sandbars?”

I thought a while about how to explain it. “He’s a man who wants to make sure that everyone can go to the doctor if they get sick,” I said.

“Why you no can go doctor?” she asked.

“Well…” I said, at a loss for words.

What a world I have to give you, my Baba, my innocent and feral child. And that is my deepest grief. All I can arm you with are the words and poems of the fighters and the heroes and hope that you stay as courageous
as you were born.

And do better, child. Do better than me.

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Human Moments, No. 11

It’s 4:30 a.m. and the doors slams shut behind her.  Baba’s small and heavy footsteps scurry to my side of the bed.

“Mama, Mama!” she says.  Half-asleep, I have already moved over to help her climb in and she does so, settling in under the blankets.  “Mama, Mama,” she says again, clutching my neck and face obsessively before rolling over and thrusting her backside into my chest.

“Hi Baba,” I say.  “Now, shhh…it’s too early.”

“Mama,” she says, pulling my arm over her.  “You put your hand on my tummy.”

“Okay,” I say, settling in with my arm around her as my heart melts.  The warmth of her relaxes me, just as the warmth of my much-missed cat would when he would curl up next to my side.

My eyes just close.

“Mama!” Baba says impatiently.  “Don’t touch me.”  She returns my arm to me, indignant at my daring.

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The End of Summer

Somehow, Baba’s summer break snuck up on me.  Each year, her day care closes for the last full week of August, as the school prepares for a new year.  Since I have the more forgiving job when it comes to vacation time, I take it off each year to take care of her for a week of full-on motherhood.  This year I didn’t even realize summer break was here until Wednesday of the week before, so I had very little time to plan or prepare, either for my leave of absence from work or for activities to keep Baba busy, which is rather a requirement if I have any desire of keeping my house from utter destruction.

As it happens, I recently started sharing my car with my brother, who is working far enough from home for the first time that he needs reliable transportation.  That seemed like a great idea until I remembered my time off and that he’d have my car for each afternoon.  So…homebound for half the day with a two year old or limited to how far our feet could take us, which is a shorter distance than you might immediately suspect, since Baba still badly needs naps, but refuses to take them when she’s at home with me.  That added some challenges.

Every time I spend a week doing full-time parenting, I am bowled over by how hard it is.  This year, Baba has enough friends that we could fill most of the week with play dates, so it was less lonely than past years have been.  But now that she is so much more mobile, I could barely sit down all week.  (And there is that issue of no more breaks naps.)  My feet are throbbing, my back hurts and my calves ache enough that I have developed a potentially unhealthy loathing of stairs.  As much as I’ve loved the extra time with Baba, who has developed just enough logic and vocabulary to have become hilarious, I am very much looking forward to sitting at my desk for a blessed six hours in a row tomorrow.  Sitting on a train, sipping my morning coffee, writing another scene in another chapter on my novel — this feels like an unbelievably civilized way of living.

Seriously.  It is 7:30 p.m. and I am writing this from bed becuase the thought of having to hold my head up on my own is simply untenable.

Alice Munro frequently mentions that being at home with three children was why she got so good at writing short stories, as she never had the focus to work on anything longer.  I’ve always loved her work, but when I think about that and the last week, I can’t help but admire her more. This blog post is the first writing that I’ve done all week, because my days started when Baba climbed into my bed and only ended after the fight to get her to go to sleep.  By then, I was so exhausted that I could barely climb onto the couch and feed myself dessert, much less put together words in an order that could possibly make sense.

But tonight my frustration with my lack of progress this week finally manifested as enough energy to actually get some work done.  And, wouldn’t you know it, as I opened up my copy of Scrivener, I realized that the notebook that I’ve been writing in has gone off with my car to my brother’s job, which might as well be Timbuktu for as reachable as it is to me right now.  It will return to me in the morning, but doesn’t it just figure?

Virginia Woolf was so right about that room of your own.  If you’re not familiar with the essay, her point was that the men of her day were expected simply to work, while the women were expected to take care of their families and households, so if they were writers, it was that much harder, since they had no space to sit and think and no one working out their meals and laundry for them.  As a working mom, I feel this intensely, since every minute of my day is planned long before the day arrives, which is the only way to keep a job and a household running and still have some energy each day to spend actual quality time with Baba, much less my Beloved.  And I’ve certainly been frustrated with how much that slows down my writing, since I must write in 45 minute chunks of time, since my train commute is the only spare time I have all day.  But that hour and a half each day is a gift and I have missed it, even as my time with Baba has given me more experiences to write about.

In the morning, Baba will go to a new classroom, with the same children that she’s gone to school with since she was four months old. She’ll have a new teacher and spend her days with her friends, who she has missed while she’s been stuck at home with me.  And I will go back to work, both grateful to get back to my normal challenges and deeply regretful that I will have to wait for hours for Baba to throw her tiny arms around my neck in that clumsy strangehold that always takes my breath away.

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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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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

 


Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
Subjects: ageing, canada, coming of age, family, feminism, love, nature, politics, regionalism
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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Book cover: The Edible Woman by Margaret AtwoodMarian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him.  So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out.  Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.

Filled with a postmodernist Thomas Pynchonesque absurdity, The Edible Woman carries the reader along from one hilarious situation to another, as Marian tries to discover why she isn’t happier about finally reaching that apex of female achievement: an engagement.  When she describes her triumph to her roommate Ainsley, Ainsley is barely interested because she’s in the middle of tricking Marian’s friend Len into fathering a baby by exploiting his weakness for underage girls.  Meanwhile, Marian falls in with a misanthropic English graduate student named Duncan that barely seems to exist of enough substance to stay alive – and it is their relationship, contrasted with the steady but domineering Peter, that forces Marian Into behaviors that she barely understands.

It is small wonder that, as the wedding hurtles ever nearer, Marian’s dissatisfaction begins to manifest physically, as her body begins to reject different types of food.  When she is forced into quitting her job, as her boss – a single career woman of intermediate skills and advancing age – doesn’t want young, married women working for her, as potential pregnancies make them too unpredictable, her body joins forces with all the other people taking control of Marian’s life.

That morning her body had finally put its foot down on canned rice pudding, after accepting it with scarcely a tremor for weeks.  It ad been such a comfort knowing she could rely on it: it provided bulk, and as Mrs. Withers the dietician had said, it was fortified.  But all at once as she had poured the cream over it her eyes had seen it as a collection of small cocoons.  Cocoons with miniature living creatures inside.

Although the novel is heavy-handed with symbolism — it is Atwood’s first — the light-hearted touch that Atwood deploys keeps it from feeling like an English class assignment.  Written in 1969, The Edible Woman gently satirizes on the beginnings of pop psychology and the emergence of a widespread feminist consciousness, while lodging the modern reader enjoyably in the formality of the late sixties, with its boundary pushing girdle advertisements and long white gloves.

Although the novel is witty, Atwood also delves fearlessly into the complexity and complicty of the power struggles within heterosexual relationships.  Before Marian and Peter become engaged, Marian adjusts her behavior to suit his moods, sidelining her own needs to please him.  Once they agree to marry, she hands over decision making to him, even down to what she wants to eat, until her body revolts.  When Duncan enters the picture, he gives Marian the impetus to choose, while his misanthrophy offers no obvious solutions.

Atwood is an accomplished poet and, by the time she wrote The Edible Woman, she had published three volumes of poetry.  Many passages that would be mundane in a lesser author’s hands read like sardonic prose poems.  In describing a Western movie that Marian watches, Atwood writes:

The coloured pictures succeeded each other in front of her: gigantic stetsoned men stretched across the screen on their even more gigantic horses, trees and cactus-plants rose in the foreground or faded in the background as the landscape flowed along; smoke and dust and galloping.  She didn’t attempt to decide what the cryptic speeches meant or to follow the plot.  She knew there must be bad people who were trying to do something evil and good people who were trying to stop them, probably by getting to the money first (as well as Indians who were numerous as buffalo and fair game for everyone), but it didn’t matter to her which of these moral qualities was incarnate in any given figure presented to her.  At least it wasn’t one of the new Westerns in which people had psychoses.

 

There are so many moments in The Edible Woman where Atwood’s prose is distracting from the story, but it is in this way, where the images suddenly strike you as so unusual that you must stop and read the passage again, enjoying the sensations that Atwood presents to you.  This is the strength of The Edible Woman, which is a must-read for any student of writing or second-wave feminism.  Atwood brings you into it with her wit and her poetry, in a journey that will still feel modern and relevant to any woman.

 

Publisher: Anchor Books
Publish Date: Originally 1969, republished June 1989
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 0765331721
Language: English
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Genre: fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
Subjects: family, feminism, love, regionalism, youth
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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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