Saturday, May 26, 2012

beatrice and virgil: review

When I read Yann Martel's second novel, Life of Pi, I was completely consumed by the magic of the fable. I got to the end, turned it over, and started again. I studied sections - trying to learn the secret to the wonder of it. There's always a risk when a story has that much power in reading something else by the author - can they possibly satisfy the now impossibly high expectations? 

The next work I read of Yann Martel's was his short story collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccomatios was significantly different, and did not disappoint. Of course, being a short-story collection freed that work from some of the pressures of comparison - different genre, different structure, different reader needs. 

It's hard though, for someone who so thoroughly consumed Life of Pi not to resurrect the strong comparisons when reading Martel's third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, particularly because once again Martel uses the distance between humans and animals to make his point. It's a completely different reading experience though. As the author himself says, 
There are animals in this story, as there were in Life of Pi. But it’s a very different story this time. In Life of Pi, you looked out at the animals and perhaps you forgot about yourself. In Beatrice and Virgil, I hope it’s the opposite: I hope your encounter with a donkey and a monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, besides other animals, will bring you closer to your humanity.
Beatrice and Virgil is not perfect, although it seemed throughout that even the imperfections were a part of the story - the bits that lagged and lumbered were, in the plot structure, written by a socially awkward (to be hypobolic) and struggling writer who seeks the protagonist's help. The plot is tight, except where it isn't for the sake of making a point. So there were weaknesses, but they are nothing compared to the unending string of absolutely lyric perfection.
Click to purchase
on Amazon

Again, I found myself reading and re-reading certain passages just to enjoy the feeling of the images and the sounds of the words. I danced with the phrases "this was a room full of adjectives; like a Victorian novel." Martel's perfect phrases are like rolling a hard candy with your tongue or whispering your lover's name - you just want it to keep going it feels so perfect in  your mouth.

The two main human characters are interesting, if incompletely drawn ... for the sake of the story. What really struck me though was Martel's masterful discussion of the Holocaust, a subject I always enjoy learning about, in a way that was never really overtly about the Holocaust. 

For as long as he writes, I will read Yann Martel. He has an uncanny power with words and story that moves and frustrates me. It frustrates me only because I see the gap between the deep vast waters he swims in, and the wading pool in which I splash.

Friday, May 25, 2012

write on edge: green

She'd never have chosen these mossy green walls - not in a million paint chips. And yet, now that she was experiencing them, she wouldn't change them for all the blue in the sea.

The oak trees shimmer outside the wide window - their new leaves joyously soaking in the sun, softening its eventual arrival. She laughs watching the dappled shadows on the walls and floor, appreciating the darkness as well as the light.

What stories these worn oak floors could tell. The aging boards so related to and yet distant from the young leaves outside. Their warm yellow glow balancing the calm green. Their firmness contrasting the tender spring growth.

She stretches across the island of the bed, crisp cotton quickly warming under her. She glances at books stacked on the nightstand, at pictures meandering the desktop, at her jewelry box with that one necklace that always pokes out.

Oh sweet sanctuary, she sighs. And her heavy eyes nod, the walls absorb the realities of her life. The heavy metal door, locked from the outside, dissolves. And for those few moments she is free.
Write On Edge prompt:

The prompt for this week is to use setting to deepen the development of your story ... You have 250 words, so make them count!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

love in the garden

I just spent almost 8 hours pulling brambles, plucking grass, trimming shrubs, uncovering succulents, and most of all enjoying having my parents visit my new home for the first time and appreciating the humongous contribution of their pulling, plucking, trimming, planting, moving, uncovering, repairing and building. I wish we'd taken before and after photos - the effects are amazing - there's an entire rock wall that we didn't even know existed this morning!
Mom never met a composter
she couldn't tame
Hardworking Dad working hard
It could be considered a parent thing, the giving of time and effort like that. Or it could be reduced to a protestant work ethic thing given that, you know, we're protestants with a work ethic. But I like to think of it as a love thing. It's a garden thing, but, really, it's a love thing. 

We are a gardening family - there was always a vegetable garden growing up, and flowers to remind us of life's beauty even in the cold north. Unfortunately, there were also those years on the farm when the veggie patch was bigger than usual, and in order to get it tended, mom would 'encourage' us girls to weed/thin/harvest a row when we were sniping at each other or silly enough to suggest we were bored or  generally disrespectful. Of course there were also times when we just needed to garden, but it was those punishment sessions that kept me from the vegetable garden for many years.

But then my BB's needed to learn. To see the magic of putting a seed in the dirt, tending it, and being rewarded with food. And in teaching them, I learned anew of that magic and experienced again dirty therapy. There are many cliches and quotes and inspirational messages about gardening, but none of it really encapsulates what really happens in the garden. It's as mundane and as profound as it gets. Dirty fingernails; clear mind.

Click to see STG's lovely flower photos
So it's a thrill for me to be back in a home with flower beds and a vegetable patch and herb garden and almost endless botanical possibilities. It's been fun for STG and I to spend time and effort on it. BB1 has a veggie patch here. Each of STG's kids have flower/veggie patches here. It truly is a family endeavour.

But today was really special - I don't often get to just be with my parents alone, and to not have any agenda or event or a crowd. They came knowing I hoped for garden help, but I never thought we'd spend the whole day out there. Perfect weather. Perfect company. Amazing results.

Once we couldn't stand to eradicate even one more weed, my dad and I pulled out two chair kits and built these beauties while mom cleaned the kitchen and made tea. There are books and websites and seminars on the five love languages, but I think there are many more. And one of them is 'garden.' 

Come on by, but bring your trowel

Friday, May 18, 2012

we've come a long way, or have we?

I tend to stay away from political conversations on here, not because I'm uninterested or unaware, but because I'm no more interested in foisting my beliefs on anyone else than I am in having your beliefs foisted on me. And, because so much of what we consider political debate is really just opinionated rambling that makes no difference. But I just have to get a little something off my chest ... I've been feeling a little more feminist than usual of late 

<tangent>... actually, is it possible to be more or less feminist? Is there a degree of feminism one can adopt, or are you always either feminist or not, like pregnancy or marriage? </tangent>

Okay ... well then ... I've been more aware of late of how many inconsistent messages women are bombarded with about what it means to be a woman - many of those messages are about mothering, and what to do/not to do, and for the most part those cancel each other out like the careless cacophony they are. Sometimes we're told we can have it all, and sometimes we're told to that we don't have to - that not having it all is perfectly fine. 

But what has really struck me, partly through an online conversation with Jill over at Gear Gals, is this noxious conversation about who is or isn't a woman based on body shape, some of which is meant to be empowering, but which always somehow pits us all against one another when we need each other more than ever. 

To be specific, this unrelenting marketing idea that 'real women have curves' gives me the heebie-jeebies - an itch that Jill, as someone who has been called a bitch for being fit, confirmed for me. Is Jill less of a woman because she's careful about balancing her caloric intake and her exercise? Or because her metabolism/frame (and hard work) combine to keep less fat on her? Taken to extremes, am I more of a woman because I've regained some weight and now have not just curves but rolls? Or am I less of a woman, because the curves are no longer in 'all the right places?'

I will admit, I like having curves. I didn't have them for a LONG time - those are some late bloomin' curves, as I've mentioned. And every time I lose weight, I bemoan that fat goes from all-over, not just from my belly (though it does only seem to come back there ... what's with that?). These are not sour grapes - that whole stupid 'real women' phrase is designed to help women like me feel at peace for not being a size 0. But it doesn't - it's reductive and condescending and just plain silly. 

Body issues are body issues, but why are they so often gender issues? Ya ya ya - I know about magazines and male gazes and feminist rhetoric, but what really alarms me is the female attacks on each other. 

At first I was going to combat the 'real woman have curves' line with 'real women have uteruses.' But what about the millions who don't? What about the women who have given up ovaries and wombs and breasts in order to preserve their lives? They are still 'real women' - maybe even more so, since adversity has such a strengthening effect and tends to crystalise for people what really matter to them. I found myself when an full on mental quandary - I know that real women may or may not have curves or uteruses or breasts; they may love men, or other women, or both, or neither ... I couldn't put a finger on what it is that really identifies us as women.

And then, in a completely unrelated conversation, it became clear. I work at a charity that runs a transition house for women, and I learned this week that that transition house is transgender friendly. As Miss C, one of the managers said, 'if you identify as a woman, you are welcome.' 

As women I know were are often individually told we are our own worst enemies, and I believe that's true corporately as well. But what if we took on the transition house approach - what if we weren't constantly comparing ourselves to sister X who breastfed forever or sister Y who climbed the corporate ladder or sister Z who is always just so put together and ranking each other on arbitrary scales of femininity, womanliness, success, attractiveness, etc. 

What if we stopped taking offence at every conversation about women and started new conversations instead? What if we were valuable not for the children we rear (or don't) or the businesses we lead (or don't), or the size we wear. What if instead of attacking each other's lives, bodies and choices, we were as welcoming as the transition house is? You are a woman, and you are welcome. 

And yes, men are welcome too - but in my experience they are far less likely to be the ones attacking us. And yes, there's an argument that the whole conversation about gender could be thrown out and we could just treat each other humanely. But, you know, we don't get into politics on this blog. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

a little less douchey monday

It was a day like many. A good strong start thanks to STG making breakie. A packed-work schedule. A couple hours spent A) thinking bulimia's not that bad a way to go after stepping on the scale for the first time in 2 months and B) dreading spending more months working off the weight I've already lost but for some reason re-found. It was a day that started strong but was faltering. 

And then this happened: 

If you aren't on Twitter, you don't care. If you are on twitter and aren't a girl or a celebrity watcher or into funny funny YouTube series or didn't watch TV in the 90's or now, you don't care. If you are me, you are all those things. And you squealed REALLY LOUDLY IN YOUR HEAD when you saw the notification. 

Tim Daly - sensible big-brother pilot on Wings. Heartthrob doctor. Internet sensation. Less douche Dad - retweeted something I said. Granted, I said it about him, his son and their YouTube series, but still. He liked it enough to retweet it. 

It's a funny thing, and yes, I truly am just that shallow. All of a sudden, my rapid weight gain is no big thing. A (very hot) complete stranger, whose TV shows I just happen to really enjoy, clicked a button on Twitter, and suddenly ... better day. 

I still have 47 pounds to lose (39 to re-lose - sneaky bastards); I still have a mountain of work to do and some major deadlines to face. I still have a long list of things to get done in a home I just want to go home and collapse in and enjoy. 

But who cares - Tim Daly retweeted me. And that makes this whole day just 'A little less douche.' 

PS - Watch Tim and his son Sam on 'The Daly Show' on YouTube - I promise you will laugh! 

Friday, May 11, 2012

a pox on perfection

Perfection, it occurs to me, is the silent murdered of happiness. And I'm guessing I'm not the first to experience that. If you saw my life, you probably wouldn't think I strive much for perfection - my hair is frequently long past its cut-date. I'm perpetually 10-30 pounds overweight. I often have wrinkled and/or spotted clothes on (they could be freshly laundered, and I'd still manage to get something on them by the time I get to work). Try as I might, my home is never quite clean. And as for the stuff that really matters - my relationships - well, honestly, it's probably a good thing I have other things to distract me from how imperfect I am in relation to the people I really love. 

I had a little (okay, not that little) melt-down last night. And for the life of me, I couldn't REALLY articulate what it was about. I was tired. Am tired. And behind with work. Unpacking in our fabulous new home seems to be taking forever, though in reality we've only been there 9 days. I was making dinner & doing laundry & dreading working more in the evening and the weight of the spare room full of boxes was weighing on me, and I was texting with BB2 trying to support him and BLAMMO. Sniffles turned to tears. Weeping turned to snot-covered everything. Poor STG was left wondering whether to hold me or leave me alone. He wisely did some of each. 

It doesn't happen that often, contrary to popular belief. I'm actually a fairly tough cookie. But every once in  a while the weight of my expectations shatters me - lots of expectation I have of other people, although those are merely feathers compared to the Sisyphean expectations I have of myself. It's never reality that gets me - it's always looking for what I think I should be/do/have rather than celebrating how rich my life is and acknowledging myself. 

It's maddening, in both senses of the word. The truth is though, I've always thought there was some beauty in brokenness: in decay and the rebirth it inevitably leads to, or in the way fractured glass reflects and refracts the light. I've often thought it'd make a good photography project, if I was talented enough with a camera. Alas, another imperfection. 

For now my wearing away and refinement shows in my life instead of in pixels. And I hope that the end result of the process is similar - that I'm being refined rather than worn down. That the editor in me will recognize that sometimes what you remove makes the rest that much more beautiful. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

oh mother-hood

Mother's Day is coming - it's inescapable. I've learned in the past to try to ignore it, but last week BB1 asked if he could take me out for dinner this Sunday, so this year at least I can acknowledge the day. I am honoured that he asked. 

Yes, they're cousins -  born 20 years apart
Every TV ad. Every radio conversation. Every other blog post I read seems to be about mothering/Mother's Day right now. They sing our praises, extol our supposed selfless-ness, encourage the purchasing of jewelry and spa treatments to repay us. Mostly they make me aware of how much I am NOT that mom in the ad. But I am a mom, and as content with that as I am with my other flawed identities. 

I began a comment this morning on 'Diary of a Mad Woman's post 'On Being an OLD Mom', but quickly realised that the comment was morphing into a post of its own. This post. I could go on and on about what it's been like for me being a 'young' mom - or a mom at all - but the job isn't over, so the story has no end.  

I was 20 when I got married, 22 when we welcomed BB1 into the world, and 42 when he and his brother left home simultaneously. For 12 of those years, it was just the 3 of us. We had the best of times, and the worst of times, and my daily prayer is that those two extremes balanced out. 

My first-born sister was 44 when she had her one and only - the light of his parents' and (now properly grandparent aged) grandparents' eyes, not to mention a complete joy to his mostly adult cousins and rested-enough-to-enjoy him aunts.

What I've observed and experienced is, being a mom is hard and delightful and the most confidence building and confidence shaking experience a woman can have. That was true when I was 22 and taking BB1 home from the hospital. It was true when I was 30 and the youngest mom in our middle-class middle-school. It's true of my high-achieving executive sister who I've only ever see really question herself at the thought of doing motherhood 'wrong.'

My sons are adults and I still spend sleepless nights worrying about if I'm doing enough. Or too much. Or the wrong thing entirely. We all do our best, and that best varies from day to day. We all learn as we go. We all stand - and sometimes cry - on the shoulders of those who've come before. We all light the way for those who will come after. And we all fight to be acknowledged for that job and still retain some sense of ourselves separate from the 'Mom' identity. 
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