Sunday, August 06, 2023

New home for my writing - find me on Substack

Hello everyone,

I've moved my writing over to Substack. All of the posts on this blog now appear over there as well.

I made this change because I was subscribing to several people's Substack newsletters, and it seemed like a very user-friendly and congenial place to share my own and others' work. A personal blog can feel a bit like an island, whereas Substack has a more communal feel to it.

I'll keep this blog active for the time being just in case something changes in future -- but for now you can find my Substack newsletter-slash-blog by clicking here. And please subscribe if you'd like!


Sunday, May 07, 2023

Two new poems: "Climate" and "On finding a stone..."


 I have been fortunate enough to have two poems published this week. Oddly enough, they were both accepted during the same week back in February, and they appeared in publication only two days apart.

The first one, "Climate,"  appears in Stone Circle Review, a lovely new journal run single-handedly by editor Lee Potts.

I started writing this poem during one of the many gloomy, rainy days we had this past winter. (Did you know this was Ontario's darkest winter in over 80 years?) It began as more of a gripe than anything else, but the process of writing it really got me thinking about the bigger picture of what is happening to our planet.

Here's the first bit of the poem:

I hate winter rain, how it soaks
dirty snow heavy, sluices beneath ice
dams at the curb, how it seeps,

(read the whole poem HERE)


  image courtesy of Stone Circle Review


The second of the two is called "On finding a stone to put in your father's casket" and appears in River Mouth Review. It's very fitting that it was published so close to the one-year anniversary of Dad's death. My brother Errol and I were the ones tasked with the stone-finding mission the morning of Dad's funeral; it's something I will never forget.

Here are the first few lines:

Morning of the funeral, you drive out
to the farm. Best not to disturb

the new owners, also the lane
is muddy and rutted, so you pull in

off the road...

(read the whole poem HERE)


image courtesy of River Mouth Review
(this is not the stone we picked up at the farm)

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Something the darkness can't take

I never thought I would like murder mystery TV shows, but I've discovered I do.

After enjoying seven seasons of Grantchester, about a vicar who helps the local police inspector solve murders in a village near Cambridge, England, I've recently been watching Endeavour. Set in Oxford, England in the 1960s, it's an excellent series that focuses on Endeavour Morse, a moody young detective working with his mentor, Inspector Thursday, to solve complex murder cases. 

(Hmmm... two shows about university towns with lots of murders... considering I live in a university town, should I worry? Or should I just get busy solving crimes?)

In an early episode, Morse is rattled by a psychopathic murderer whom they have just captured. Before he is taken away, the killer makes pointed comments about Morse's painful past and how the two of them are alike: brilliant but lonely.

As they stand on the roof of a college building after catching the killer, Morse asks Inspector Thursday how he does it -- how he can leave his work at the front door when he goes home to his family at the end of the day.

 image from Endeavour, "Fugue"

"'Cause I have to," replies Thursday grimly. "A case like this'll tear the heart right out of a man."

Then he says, "Find something worth defending."

Morse says, "I thought I had found something." (He doesn't elaborate.)

"Music?" Thursday asks, referring to Morse's love of opera and classical music. "I guess music is as good as anything. Go home, put your best record on -- loud as it'll play -- and with every note, you remember: that's something that the darkness couldn't take from you."

 image from Endeavour, "Fugue"

I've thought about these lines a lot since watching this episode. They remind me a bit of Sam in the movie depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, urging Frodo to hold onto the fact "that there's some good in this world... and it's worth fighting for."

I noted that Thursday doesn't say, "Find a cause or a project and put all your effort into it." There are definitely times when we need to throw ourselves behind a worthy cause. But not everyone is in a position to pursue a big project, become an influencer, blaze new trails, fight big battles. I think the deeper point is that anything beautiful and meaningful, anything you love (even something that's been misused, as the killer in the Endeavour episode had misused music by basing his crimes on scenes from various operas), can be a force that resists darkness, that can't be destroyed by the evil in this world.

I was going to continue this post with a list of things that might fit this description. Music. Poetry. Birds. Sunsets. Sunrises. But to be honest, it sounded a bit feeble. And anyway, Thursday says "music is as good as anything" -- as if it doesn't even matter that much what the thing is. So there doesn't seem to be any point in making a list.

Then today I read this paragraph in poet Maggie Smith's fantastic new memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful:

What now? I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.* But here's the thing about carrying light with you. No matter where you go, and no matter what you find -- or don't find -- you change the darkness just by entering it. You clear a path through it.

And it hit me: yes, we need to find something worth defending, something the darkness can't take away ... but we also are something the darkness can't take away. Just by being truthfully, genuinely ourselves we make a difference. Who we are can be an act of resistance to the forces that seek to destroy and divide. We can fight the darkness by being the carriers of light that we already are, and by letting our light reveal everything -- and everyone -- that is good and beautiful.

I find that well worth pondering. And I love it when the things I'm watching and reading, whether murder mystery or memoir, come together to tell me something.

*"I am out with lanterns, looking for myself": line from Emily Dickinson

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Five Minute Friday: STORY


I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is STORY.

I haven't been writing much in 2023 so far. The main reason is that my mother-in-law became ill with cancer in the fall and died early last week. At her funeral last Saturday, my brother-in-law and nephew got up and spoke about her devotion to her family, her deep faith, and her independent, adventurous spirit.

They also shared stories of her funny ways -- such as the time she went to a thrift store and unwittingly bought back the same pair of white pants she had donated months earlier. 

That anecdote got quite a laugh. I particularly appreciate that my mother-in-law actually told us about that in the first place. Some people would be too embarrassed to have anyone else know they'd done something like that. Not her. 

Telling someone else's story is a big responsibility, especially when they're not there to defend themselves or raise their hand and say, "Wait, that's not right -- they were black pants!" (They weren't. They were definitely white.)

I've been talked about in another person's publicly told story, and I have found it hard, painful work to separate their need to tell their own story in their own way from my desire to be depicted accurately and fairly. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in An Altar in the World,

"...encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get -- in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing -- which is where God's Beloved has promised to show up.... The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead."

Ultimately we can't control what others say. We can only live our own story with as much honesty and integrity as possible and try to respect that "unsolved mystery" in everyone else we meet. My mother-in-law was not perfect, but she loved us and we loved her. She can never be replaced, but we honoured her as best we could as we commemorated the end of her earthly story.

me with my mother-in-law, Audrey, on March 1, 2023 (six days before she died)

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

My year in books - 2022


It's time for my annual "books I read this year" list.

In previous years I've tried to break my list up into various genre categories, but this time I'm just going with plain old Nonfiction (20 books) and Fiction (7 books), alphabetical by author in each category.

I hope my list gives you some ideas for books to read in 2023.



Son of Elsewhere: a Memoir in Pieces - Elamin Abdelmahmoud.
I absolutely loved this book by the Toronto writer/podcaster and former Queen's student.
Abdelmahmoud writes with humour, humility, and grace about his experiences as a 12-year-old immigrant from Sudan to Kingston, Ontario and the struggle to fit into a new place where he was instantly defined as Black, an identity that was completely new to him. The author explores his youthful and adult passions such as wrestling, country music, highways, TV shows, and radio -- always making a connection to that concept of "elsewhere," that pull between the "once-home" and the "new home." A beautiful book.
(I also had the opportunity to hear Abdelmahmoud speak at an event put on by Kingston ArtsFest this past spring, just after I'd read the book; that was a real treat.)

No Cure For Being Human (And Other Truths I Need To Hear) - Kate Bowler.
In this follow-up to Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I've Loved), Bowler talks about her colon cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment and reflects on how our culture of relentless positivity tries to tell us we have unlimited choices and the best is just out there waiting for us. She reminds us that acknowledging our limitations and our fragile humanity is the most truthful way to live. I really enjoy Bowler's frank, funny style -- she can have you laughing one moment and tearing up the next.

Good Enough: 40ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection - Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.
I keep this book at my bedside and enjoy dipping into the short chapters about hope, disappointment, exhaustion, the in-between, and more. Each contains a brief reflection, a prayer, and a practice to help readers let go of unrealistic, guilt-producing expectations (of themselves and others) and accept the gift of being an ordinary, imperfect person.

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole - Susan Cain.
Cain is the author of Quiet, the best-selling book on introversion. In this one she talks about how some people are naturally drawn to sadness and longing and how an acknowledgement of these feelings -- rather than just relentless positivity -- is essential to personal growth and stronger relationships. She talks about the importance of grieving well, the role of sadness and longing in creativity, and the need to acknowledge impermanence, among other things. Excellent book.

The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness - Fr. Greg Boyle.
As in his previous books Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir, Father Boyle shares moving and humorous stories about the gang members he works with at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, showing how learning to be tender with ourselves and others is life-changing. His books are such a gift.

Atlas of the Heart - Brene Brown.
I have read all of Brene Brown's books (most of which address vulnerability and shame in various contexts), and this is one I think I'll be returning to over and over again to study and absorb. It's essentially a map of emotions and emotion-related thoughts, clustered according to different situations or needs. For example, Ch. 1 is called "Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much" and talks about stress, anxiety, worry, avoidance, etc. Ch. 2, "Places We Go When We Compare," addresses resentment, jealousy, schadenfreude, and other emotions. And so on. Very interesting and insightful.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground - Alicia Elliott.
Another excellent memoir in essays. Elliott was born into a racially mixed family (white Catholic mother and Indigenous father) and this reality shapes how she explores topics like depression, poverty, racism in the legal system, representation of Indigenous people in Canadian writing, and more.

The Sacred Pulse: Holy Rhythms for Overwhelmed Souls - April Fiet.
I had the honour of being an early reader for April's book, and it's lovely. She talks about the need for "holy rhythms" to guide our days, using everyday subjects like gardening, handcrafts, cooking, raising chickens, etc. to invite us to become more present and in tune with the "kairos time" of God.

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir - Jayson Greene.
This is a very sad, beautiful memoir by the father of a two-year-old girl who died when a brick fell from a building onto the bench where she was sitting with her grandmother. It sounds horrible and obviously it is, but it's also very life-affirming.

Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: The Story of Schitts Creek - Daniel Levy and Eugene Levy.
I watched all six seasons of Schitts Creek a year or so ago, and Richard gave me this companion book last Christmas. It was a lot of fun to read, containing interviews with the cast, descriptions of the characters and episodes, and tons of photos and fan art.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times - Katherine May.
this engaging book, May weaves stories and lore about winter with her own experiences, showing the importance of stepping into what winter has to offer and embracing the natural, seasonal cycles."Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again."

Attached to God: A Practical Guide to Deeper Spiritual Experience - Krispin Mayfield.
This book by a therapist explores the different attachment styles people have -- anxious, shutdown, and shame-filled attachment -- and how each one can affect their relationships with other people as well as with God. In all three cases a lack of trust, sometimes resulting from hurtful experiences in childhood and/or Christian community, can prevent us from experiencing God in the way we long to. Then Mayfield goes beyond simply telling us about how attachment theories work to addressing how we can move from anxiety to rest, from shutdown to engaged, and from shame to delight in our relationship with God. So good.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir - Elizabeth McCracken.
This is a powerful memoir about stillbirth. McCracken, an American, was living and writing in France while she and her husband awaited the birth of their first child; at nine months they discovered the baby had died. McCracken is a brilliant writer, interweaving details about that ill-fated delivery with those of her second pregnancy, so that she moves readers simultaneously toward the devastating events of her loss and toward the joy she and her husband have with their living child.

Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned - Brian McLaren.
I had only read one other book by McLaren -- A New Kind of Christian -- and that was a number of years ago, so I thought it was time to remedy that. Part I of this book addresses the reasons a person might want to leave the fold of Christianity; Part II addresses the reasons they might want to remain. Then in Part III he discusses some practices and principles which will help us become better people no matter which decision we make, such as becoming more in tune with the earth, committing ourselves to the pursuit of reality, etc. Lots to think about here; I'd highly recommend this.

When We Belong: Reclaiming Christianity on the Margins - Rohadi Nagassar.
Nagassar, a Calgary writer, church planter, and organizer, has written a very interesting and challenging book about deconstructing and decolonizing Christianity. He talks about various barriers to true belonging in society and the church and how racism and white supremacy must be identified and addressed for true liberation to occur. "
Institutions are not designed to change; they're fundamentally designed to keep things the same, a posture that comes at the cost of further marginalizing those who have faced abuse and seek justice."

Unprotected: A Memoir - Billy Porter.
I thoroughly enjoyed this inspiring memoir by actor/dancer/singer Porter, whose writing is bigger than life, just like his public and onstage personality. (You may be familiar with his iconic appearance in a black tuxedo gown at the 2019 Oscars.) As a boy, Porter experienced sexual abuse and was rejected by his beloved church for being gay. He writes about how his voice and other gifts took him places he would never have imagined, yet he still had to deal with the trauma of his past in order to truly thrive and love himself.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close - Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman.
These co-authors were close friends for many years -- and even started a podcast about women's friendships -- yet they had to acknowledge they were not well prepared when conflicts about racial insensitivity, life changes, and geographical distance strained their relationship. Their belief that their friendship was "too big to fail," combined with how public that friendship was, hindered resolution at first. But the investment they made in the relationship, including seeking a counselor's help, led to a stronger, more intentional bond. This book definitely struck a nerve for me; I read it with a combination of admiration and wistfulness.

The Journey to Wholeness: Enneagram Wisdom for Stress, Balance, and Transformation - Suzanne Stabile.
In this book, Stabile -- whose book The Path Between Us I've also read -- goes in-depth into two main categorizations of the Enneagram, the Triads (Heart, Head, Gut) and the Stances (Withdrawing, Aggressive, and Dependent), in order to help us find balance in stressful "liminal" times. I love the clarity and practicality of Stabile's approach to the Enneagram.

Coming Home: A Spiritual Memoir - Lori Vos.
The author, whom I've known for over 35 years, blends narrative, short essays, and poetry as she recounts her upbringing by abusive parents and her journey to healing and freedom from her past. This was a challenging book because of some of its subject matter and other aspects, but it was an important book for me to read this year, and I'm glad the writer has found peace.

Why Poetry? - Matthew Zapruder.
Zapruder argues that people are intimidated by and resistant to poetry because they've been wrongly taught that poems are deliberately obscure, with meanings that hide behind the words on the page. He looks at poetry more as a way for both poet and reader to make imaginative associations; experiencing poetry is an attitude or state of mind rather than the cracking of a code. I loved this line about the "usefulness" of poetry: "The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come."



Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke.
This 1,000-page novel of magical realism is about two 19th-century magicians who are at times allies and rivals in their quest to bring back "practical magic" to England. I first watched a seven-part BBC miniseries based on this book and loved it – and in fact when reading the book I found it quite advantageous to have watched the show first. The book is definitely a commitment but very enjoyable.

One Night Two Souls Went Walking - Ellen Cooney.
I really liked this quiet novel about the experiences of a chaplain during one night at her job at a hospital, as she interacts with various patients and ponders questions of the soul, life, and death. I had to keep reminding myself this was not a memoir because it reads so much like one.

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell.
"Mrs. Gaskell" was a contemporary of the Brontë sisters. This novel is one of her best known, about the remarriage of a widowed doctor and the relationships between his own daughter and his new wife and her daughter. I watched a BBC miniseries based on the book and thoroughly enjoyed that, so I decided to read the novel -- but what I didn't know was that the book was not finished before Gaskell's death. You get to the end where everything should be tied up and it just ... stops! It's a delightful book, but if you read it, be prepared for it to be inconclusive (and watch the TV series if you want a satisfying wrap-up).

Firefly Lane - Kristin Hannah.
A friend recommended this novel to me. It's about the 30-year friendship between two women who first meet as kids living across the street from one another: one flamboyant and from a troubled home, one more reserved and from a stable background. It's fairly predictable, and the endless references to time periods are kind of cringe ("Kate put on her tie-dyed t-shirt and bell-bottom jeans while listening to the Carpenters," that sort of thing), but it held my interest. It's quite a good story about two women whose relationship remains strong even through times of conflict and betrayal. (Apparently this novel was made into a TV series too, although my friend says it's very different from the book.)

O William! - Elizabeth Strout.
Strout is one of my favourite novelists and I will eagerly read anything she writes. This book, about the title character from her earlier novel My Name is Lucy Barton, explores writer Lucy's relationship with her first husband, William, and her role in helping him discover secrets from his past. Strout is so good at capturing people and relationships in a few quick strokes. I loved it.

Lucy By the Sea - Elizabeth Strout.
I was thrilled to discover this fall that another Elizabeth Strout novel about Lucy Barton had come out. It's about Lucy's experience through the Covid-19 pandemic as she escapes New York with William for a seaside house in Maine. This one was not quite as satisfying to me; Strout is not a highly dramatic writer, but this felt especially flat and formless. Maybe that was her way of depicting pandemic life – but I didn't find it as compelling as I'd hoped to. I also feel at times that Strout wants to "both-sides" things: for example, to use her characters to try to understand the motives of the Jan. 6/21 White House insurrectionists. I think if you're going to do that, you have to go all in, rather than say "but there were racists and Nazis there too" and then back away, shrugging at the mystery of it all. (There's a whiff of privileged Boomer energy here, despite Lucy Barton's destitute upbringing.) All this to say, if you're a Strout fan you won't want to miss this one, but in my view it isn't one of her best.

The Lincoln Highway - Amor Towles.
I'd describe this book as a "yarn." It begins with Emmett, a teenage boy in 1950s Nebraska, returning home from a work farm after his father's death. He and his little brother decide to drive from Nebraska to California to start new lives and maybe find their long-lost mother. But two friends from the work farm have stowed away in their car and suggest a detour that leads them in the opposite direction, to New York City. It's quite entertaining, with chapters told from the point of view of multiple characters.

(I also started Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land because I'd heard raves about it, but I abandoned it in the early going when it became obvious that a character who commits a terrible act of destruction (very early on, so no spoiler here) is likely autistic. Autistic people are far likelier to be victims of crime than perpetrators, so this inaccurate trope can be really damaging, regardless of the author's intent. Doerr strikes me as a wise author, so this was a real disappointment; I wish someone had warned him against taking this approach -- or if someone did, that he had listened.)

Well, that's my list! Thanks for reading it -- or skimming it, or even just glancing at it and saying "TL: DR -- I ain't reading all that." I'd love it if you'd leave a comment below and tell me if you've read any of these, or if you've read something else in 2022 that was especially meaningful to you.