29 August: An auntie muses
I am so very fortunate, I tell myself. Retired and on my own. Not to mention a lifetime of white privilege, class privilege. Location. Location. Settlers have more than a leg up.
And now I’m out of the loop of daily care for a young child. I don’t know how I would manage single mothering during COVID. Probably badly. Now I have no one to send to school or not. Home school or not. No classes to prepare. No papers to grade. No schedule to adhere to.
The end of summer approaches and I’m writing less, hanging around outside, walking more, leisurely weeding the buckets of thistles and pesky plants that rise up in all this rain and sun.
In spite of my state of affairs, adequate retirement income, a place to live, a garden to lounge in, indulgent friends, a daughter I adore — the thought of a long winter under COVID restrictions is daunting. I’m imagining that I will be writing more, finishing up some research projects, and crying into my beer or wine. Hopefully not too much of the latter in both expression and consumption.
How I loved to travel when I was younger – ok, up until February 25 2020 when I returned with friends from Mexico City and Oaxaca City – a treasured memory of special places filled with art and music, laughter and spectacular days and meals and nights.
In 1972, my dear friend Robert Handforth (a queer man about Ottawa and Toronto and New York with impeccable taste – a tender friend, a curator, an editor, a general wonder) told me when I returned from Africa at 21 that he would live vicariously through me. He insisted he had no interest in travel. An armchair provided his long-distance journeying. Nowthat I feel housebound and trapped during COVID, I think through and understand Robert’s commitment to living in situ. The pleasures of being here. Robert, long dead now, is my mentor through time. I imagine him talking with me while I sit in the garden during COVID while I focus on the moment and breath in. The scent of the rose or the leaf of a tree or a lemon grass strand or a coriander frill is a kind of rapture. The sense of life full and wet and green. And August terrifying in its thunderous storms.
25 August: On Schooling and COVID
My friends with children are rightly overcome with anguish about decisions to keep their children home from school during the reentry next week in Alberta. Or to send them to schools. In some places, provincial governments have provided funding for extra school cleaning, more teachers and classrooms to support smaller classes, etc. Here the UCP treats children like they are beef cattle heading to the COVID-ridden Cargill Meatpacking plant. A herd for disposal. My friend an elementary teacher is given two days warning that she will not only be teaching and preparing for seven contact hours in the classroom – what she was preparing for – but she will also simultaneously be teaching a cohort of children on-line at home. None of that preparation has any time allotted to it. She will be teaching day and night when classes begin on Tuesday.
The scenario shifts and changes depending on where you are located. Here in child-hating Alberta with the virus-spreading UCP and the Trump-like empathy-less weasel (sorry weasels) Jason Kenney, there is no provincial money to add teachers, distribute children in more classrooms to enhance social distancing etc. Will the welcome millions provided by Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals to provinces be deployed effectively in schools. Or will Jason Kenney‘s mob line their pockets or their portfolios? Who knows?
In most (but not all) cases, it will be the woman who diminishes her workday, quits her job if she can, etc. if she keeps the children home. On line and in person and in stats, it is the women who are being screwed over since childcare/domestic labour still remains their responsibility for the most part in many households. Otherwise, it is a free for all. Effectively, parents are forced to send their children into unsafe schools unless one of them is prepared to give up their paid labour. And that is certainly not always, a) possible, or b) advisable.
I know so many families are having such a terrible time with these decisions. Are the schools unsafe? A Simon Fraser University SFU mathematician who specializes in infectious diseases predicts 25 schools will have one COVID case each on the first day of BC schooling next week. In Alberta, the COVID numbers are higher and they have no idea where they are coming from with “community transmission” the mysterious site of infection. So who knows how much COVID will be in circulation. In Alberta, what would the mathematician’s prediction be when our 741,802 elementary and high school students head to their school buildings on Tuesday? Latest research notes that teens spread COVID at the same rate as adults.
Down with the loathsome provincial UCP slugs. May their families succumb to something that smartens them up!
The CBC headline notes that on the second day of school opening in Quebec last week, more than a dozen teachers are quarantined. Alarming premonition of what will be happening here?
30 August: Family Life During Covid
My selfish anguish is that I won’t be able to see dear friends and families whose children will be in school due to fears of contagion. My little friends, not to mention their parents, will be off limits. Up to now, my summer bubble had expanded to include them. This morning at the market I bought some chicken/beef/vegetarian empanadas (they were all out of mushroom) with delish coriander sauce at a stall run by a very kindly Colombian Canadian woman and her husband. I took the tasty empanadas (I love to the delicious sound of this word) to one of my family of friends for some snacks as everyone prepares for school. The mother also teaches and was busy preparing her syllabus.
I felt like crying as I left their house. I won’t be seeing them up close for some time. Our bubble is busted. My grief has, in part, to do with my own mothering. How as an empty nester, I’ve come to accept and appreciate my daughter’s decision to stay in a city across the Rocky Mountains. But my little friends who call me auntie satisfy some of my maternal longings. They aren’t stand-ins for my daughter, that’s an impossible plot, but the indulgent work of an auntie draws on some of the love and tenderness that mothering generates. It was being an auntie before I adopted my daughter at 48 that taught me that I did have a well of maternal love to draw on – a fact that had been suppressed in my formerly happy life as an energetic professor and writer without children.
So I will miss them all. My daughter daily, a sharp elbow in the heart if I think too hard about her absence. And now I will be missing the three children I’ve shared such fun with over these months and years: the reflective tender golden boy, so much taller than I am already; the Peaky Blinders haircut boy who peers out from under his bangs when he answers; the whirlwind girl who will chop up veggies with dangerous enthusiasm. All of them hugged me the last time we met while I barbecued their chicken and whipped up some delicious vegetarian coconut curry with the help of their Mom who chopped and chatted with me. S is a long-time friend I cannot do without. I will be shouting from the street at her when the winter ice and wind blow across her front step.
Tonight I visit them one last time and A, the father, cooks up a delicious dinner in a flash. I eat while I play a matching game with V. The boys give me tips. But V, now 7 is an eager competitor. O, a boy down the street who will not be playing with the children as he will be schooled at home is here for one of his last visits too. There is something in the air too loud with laughter to be melancholic. We howl at times while we play. After dinner, I take V to her bedroom to pick out her clothes for tomorrow, tidy up the costumes, hang up a striped colourful skirt, a hand me down from my daughter we purchased in Hong Kong on the way to visit her orphanage in 2009. All of the ripples of time are at play in the turquoise and orange and green of the skirt frills.
I so miss my daughter whose life is unfolding with its own pleasures in independence, urban living in a seaside city shared apartment in a funky neighbourhood with great food and cafes and transportation everywhere, a collective of caring and dear friends. She is accomplished in her studies and in her work experience in the public sphere and as an intern in a government department. I can’t begrudge my daughter her new life, but I can hang onto the sweet ties of affiliation that are called upon and answered in being her mother — now at a distance away.
My friends’ dramas unfold during COVID. One is visiting her young daughter who is embarking on a new life in California. Soon after arrival, they fled the fires there to drive east and arrive in a mid-West during curfews and protests.
Another family of friends drove from Edmonton to Pittsburgh to say goodbye to an ailing father who died with all of his children and grandchildren nearby – a heartwarming farewell.
Other friends escape to Gulf Islands where they discretely shelter in place beside an ocean missing their families and friends other oceans away.
30 August: Asma’s Celebration
Earlier, Sheena and I visit my friend Asma to celebrate her birthday and her distinguished appointment as Canada Research Chair at her university. A long delayed recognition of her brilliance and extraordinary industry as a scholar and intellectual. It is a breezy afternoon with a late summer autumnal chill in the air when we arrive with flowers and gifts. We have worked together in a trio writing group carving out time from our academic schedules. And we share a history of friendship – the other two were graduate students together. I met them later in life. During the afternoon, one of Asma’s giant potted fruit-laden tomato plants, now top heavy, blows over as though a toothpick in a storm. Summer toppled. We all have blankets to keep us warm with the temperature plummeting in spite of the late August rays of the sun.
We eat her delicious home-made pakoras and the strawberries she brought back from the interior of B.C. I fall asleep in my chair, my head falling back, my hat falling to the ground. My poodle on my lap. It is a lazy nap. The two women before me are talking about their course preparations and I think to myself how I don’t have to do that again. I have a mountain of course materials in my office. It is all about to be incinerated except for anything that might be useful for them. An old woman, now retired takes a well-earned lazy late-afternoon nap. Then she drives along the suburban streets to the deserted streets that will take them home.
29 August 2020: In banal but cheering news…
the weekend Edmonton Downtown Market was a delight today. I didn’t need much as I have leftovers from an earlier shop but I bought some wonderful treats along with the empanadas. Fresh raspberries and blackberries and strawberries. Scotch bonnet peppers. A shined up eggplant. Yummy blood orange Irish whisky marmalade, a Dauphine bakery almond croissant and a basil goat cheese brioche, a Jackfish fillet otherwise known as Northern Pike caught in Lesser Slave Lake, spicy Thai lemon grass pesto and bruschetta, homemade Greek dolmades, glowing bouquets of blossoms — of zinnias and sea holly, lime crysanthymums, sunflowers and coreopsis, and others I can no longer name.
25 August 2020: The news is bleak
In Canada, a new CON leader with a history of retrograde positions is elected. Hopefully his popularity will die on the vine, but who knows?
My parents were Manitoba-born Progressive Conservatives (the precursor party to dreaded Stephen Harper’s CONs. My mother, once a very Red Tory, later veered further left and voted NDP. We talked politics always. We talked about the news from the conservative Globe & Mail at breakfast and the more liberal Toronto Star at dinner. I won a public speaking contest and travelled to the United Nations when I was 15. My topic: the Diefenbaker conservative elections. My sources were all of my parents friends who would reminisce about those years with a prairie prime minister.
So it is no surprise that I’m such a political junkie though I’m further left than my parents. Thus I stayed up past midnight to discover the results of the CON leadership race. The fact that theIr faulty envelope-opening machines actually tore the ballots and caused hours of delay seemed an ominous omen.
I stayed up to hear the affable former soldier former lawyer father of two Erin O’Toole give his jolly triumphant speech. This made me anxious about the CONs winning not only Alberta and Ontario and Manitoba and Saskatchewan but other provinces in Canada and voting down Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights across the nation. I worry about a return of Harperites in this era of cruel alternatives to good enough Liberal minority government stretched to do the right thing by the NDP.
I slept fitfully and awoke with a start from a terrifying nightmare in the middle of the night. A friend called it a vision.
At my feet was an animal writhing in pain as I stood on a lakeside maze of docks. The furred creature looked like it was in good health until it flipped over. Eventually I realized it was a beaver that continued to flop around revealing its fleshy belly – skinned on the underside, whacked with a machete or a propeller. It continued to roll around my feet along the wooden deck in death throws.
I was sickened. I was frightened. Then I awoke.
The dream reminded me how horrifying our own history is. Centuries of settlement and the fur trade, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the extractive resource economy, the environmental devastation.
And the future of Canada with the CONs in power makes this an acutely present horror show. The cruelty of Harper and Kenney. their disregard of human beings. Their satisfaction with terrible inequalities. I was very uncomfortable with how appealing this new leader Erin O’Toole appeared to be in his first speech. Things at the moment feel like they can turn on a dime.
As a woman who taught Canadian studies for decades, the massacre of a beaver to celebrate the CON leadership seems appropriate, a reminder of the horror show of Harper-era CON policies that deliver for the rich and diminish the poor, that celebrate racist policies, that threaten social justice, that float “barbaric practices” as xenophobic and discriminatory plans. Will the CONs roll back the Canadian Charter of Rights if they have enough support from provincial conservative governments? Will they transform our country into a US mess?
23 August 2020: The News is Bleaker South of the Border or Not
In the U.S., a Black man named Jacob S. Blake, 29, is shot seven times in front of three of his four young sons. While shooting, the cop held on to the back of the victim’s shirt to keep him in point blank range. While paralyzed in his hospital bed following surgery, the shooting victim is chained in place.
Protesters against this travesty demonstrated across the U.S. In one, men were shot and killed by a seventeen-year-old white supremacist who was driven by his mother to the demonstration with his machine gun and then coddled by the police afterwards. The obscenity of this unequal justice is nauseating. And deepened when President Trump tweets endless messages egging on the White Supremacists including the young murderer. Why don’t newscasters just say “Donald Trump is a White Supremacist.” Joy Reid, the first Black woman to host a prime time news programme, contextualize her commentaries about this issue with mini historical documentation of the long story of White Supremacy and the presidency in the United States. The careful charting of this narrative offers viewers insight and understanding beyond simple demonization.
Our own Canadian racism peers out of the newspapers. A young racialized man is threatened with being shot as he drops off bottles at a Calgary bottle depot. The power dynamics and bigotry run parallel though the lethal shootings are less frequent. A young autistic Asian boy in Surrey, BC, is hit in the head by “a two-hundred pound stranger” because he flailed around while gesticulating to this large man that he wasn’t socially distanced enough. The mother of the boy started a petition to prompt the police to launch a hate-crime case against the stranger. The police declined to press charges against the boy or the man.
I consoled myself one day reading Stokely Carmichael’s October 29, 1966 speech at Berkeley. His words spoken so long ago ensure we understand the long history of this injustice.
Stokley Carmichael’s speech can be read and listened to here. Such a powerful analysis so relevant to today. And so many lessons for a white woman like me. This is an excerpt but it is worth an hour of listening to hear his words in full:
“Now, several people have been upset because we’ve said that integration was irrelevant when initiated by blacks, and that in fact it was a subterfuge, an insidious subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy. Now we maintain that in the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a “thalidomide drug of integration,” and that some Negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people. And that that does not begin to solve the problem.
That when we went to Mississippi we did not go to sit next to Ross Barnett, we did not go to sit next to Jim Clark, we went to get them out of our way. And that people ought to understand that. That we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy.
Now then, in order to understand white supremacy, we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom. No man can give anybody his freedom. A man is born free. You may enslave a man after he is born free. And that is in fact what this country does. It enslaves black people after they’re born. So that the only act that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom. That is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.
Now we want to take that to its logical extension so that we can understand then what its relevancy would be in terms of new civil rights bills. I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people. [applause] For example, I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black I am a human being. Therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people didn’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a place they stopped me. So some boys had to write a bill to tell that white man, “He’s a human being; don’t stop him.” That bill was for that white man, not for me. I knew it all the time. I knew it all the time.
I knew that I could vote and that that wasn’t a privilege, it was my right. Every time I tried I was shot, killed or jailed, beaten or economically deprived. So somebody had to write a bill for white people to tell them, “When a black man comes to vote, don’t bother him.” That bill, again, was for white people, not for black people. So that when you talk about open occupancy I know I can live anyplace I want to live. It is white people across this country who are incapable of allowing me to live where I want to live. You need a civil rights bill, not me! I know I can live where I want to live.”
27 August 2020: My Mother & Donald Trump: Diseased brain word play
During COVID, my mother is always happy to hear from me when I call. She knows me. Her Alzheimer’s is debilitating but she is liberated to obsess with delight about the birds and the squirrels in the garden. She also talks about politics and is irritated by the terrible leadership in the U.S. Sometimes she doesn’t remember the name of the president, but she captures the general corruption and horror of the scene.
As time goes by, words escape her. And why not?
The other day I asked her what she was eating as I could hear her crunch on something mid-sentence.
“You know, Jan, I really don’t know what I’m eating.”
“What colour is it, Mom?”
“Green on the outside and white in the middle…”
“Oh, an apple? Is it a green apple?”
“No, not an apple.”
“A cucumber? You like cucumbers…”
”Yes, that’s it. A cucumber!”
During Donald Trump’s mind-numbing Republican National Convention in front of the Trumpified White House, he accepts his nomination with an impromptu word substitution. And he staggers apparently unable to manoeuvre stairs.
The New York Times sets the stage with this ominous headline: “Trump Heads Into General Election He Casts as a Crusade for Law and Order.” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write about the distortions and lies:
Much of the night was given over to unusually explicit rebuttals to Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities: Seldom if ever has a political party spent so much time during a convention insisting in explicit terms that its nominee was not a racist or a sexist, and that its standard-bearer was, perhaps despite public appearances, a person of empathy and good character. Ben Carson, the lone Black member of Mr. Trump’s cabinet, argued that people who call the president a racist “could not be more wrong.”
It was not only on matters of character that voters were asked to trust the assertions of Mr. Trump’s family members and political allies over their own perceptions of reality. On no subject was that dynamic more dominant than the coronavirus pandemic: With a few exceptions, nearly every speaker who mentioned the virus sidestepped the scale of its devastation and what is likely to be a slow and painful recovery...
…The very staging of the convention on Thursday appeared designed to send a signal that the virus was a thing of the past, even as the U.S. death toll neared 180,000. Guests on the lawn were packed into rows of chairs in plain violation of social-distancing guidelines, and few face coverings were in evidence.
The program took on an atmosphere of pomp and celebration with Mr. Trump’s arrival late in the evening, as he and the first lady, Melania Trump, made their entrance down the White House stairs like the guests of honor at a gala. And when Mr. Trump concluded his speech, the atmosphere of festivity erupted again in the form of a bellowing opera singer and exploding fireworks that put an exclamation point on a convention determined not to be overtaken by a continuing crisis of mass death and economic adversity.
Mr. Trump spoke from a prepared text, reading an address that sounded less like one of his campaign-trail diatribes than a State of the Union-style recitation of his achievements and goals. Underscoring the scripted nature of the speech, Mr. Trump misspoke in a high-profile, symbolic moment: “I profoundly accept this nomination,” he declared, though the word in his prepared text was “proudly.”
My mother and I talk can laugh together when we talk. I have my own infirmities – I’m quite deaf in one ear and misrecognize her husband’s voice from time to time. My mother and I don’t minimize infirmity. Nor do we celebrate it. But we can share laughter in the decline of our bodies.
On the other hand, the terror about Donald Trump is his entire election machine invents a fiction devoid of infirmity. This denial makes his leadership a lethal machine. A brain-dead phantom pulls the levers behind the curtain.
28-29 August 2020: White Nationalist Fascist Fashionistas
Michael Moore warns Americans that Trump will win this 2020 election the same way he warned America he would win the last one.
The produce of Trump’s popular TV show The Apprentice produced the Republic National Convention. They lied endlessly presenting Trump as a non-racist non-sexist paragon of virtue. They pretended COVID was a thing of the past and amassed maskless people in rows as though contagion had been defeated. How convenient this myth is for the zillions of those who believe conspiracies rather than medical experts.
Jeanne Guerrerro author of Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda writes convincingly about the role of Trump’s Senior Advisor and the rhetorical tropes of the Republic National Convention’s campaign. It is significant that “cancel culture” was one of the themes introduced in Canadian CON leader Erin O’Toole’s acceptance speech and it remains a theme of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s political discourse that is paired with his fevered destruction of the province’s universities. Gerrerro writes:
The term “cancel culture,” used throughout the Republican convention, lumps together and demonizes critics of white male supremacy, in an attempt to silence them. The use of the term in this context allows the far right to dictate the terms of the conversation, as does the news media’s reluctance to call Mr. Trump and his chief adviser what they are: traffickers in hate, pushing a white nationalist agenda through narratives about national identity, prosperity and security.
Mr. Miller seeks to re-engineer immigration into this country to keep brown and Black people out, because he sees them as threat to America’s prosperity and national security. It explains why his policies disproportionately affect migrant families from Latin America and Africa, and why the federal government is using force against anti-racist protesters in cities run by Democrats.
This obsession with the supposed dangers of people of color, particularly immigrants or left-wing extremists, ignores reality. Right-wing extremists have committed the most terrorist attacks in the United States since the 1990s.
Officials say that a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse opened fire on people during a protest in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday, killing two and wounding a third. Mr. Rittenhouse, a supporter of Mr. Trump and the pro-law enforcement “Blue Lives Matter” movement, traveled to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Ill., in response to online appeals from a right-wing militia group to “protect” businesses, property and lives from “rioters,” investigators say.
13 August 2020: Daily rituals
Daily rituals provide concrete physical movements and distractions that make life liveable for me. One day I listened to a neuroscientist explain his analysis of worry. It went something like this: “If you don’t watch it, you will tip over the event horizon of worry into the black hole of anxiety.” He lauded good therapists who provided opportunities for people to be thrown out of the loop of their own repetitive thoughts. Last week, I chatted with a friend of a friend, a therapist with whom I shared a coffee in my garden. She talked about how yoga provides such solace to those who have suffered trauma. And I know that yoga helped me from the moment I encountered it in 1997. It was such a rewarding practice for so long. Mere masochism inhibits me from returning to a regular practice.
I was feeling so distressed yesterday and early today. The ups and downs of COVID even for someone as privileged as me (this mea culpa or is it mea cuppa should be the cut line to all of my pandemic journal posts), can be treacherous. So I “buckled down” to do some physical labour to end the droning throb in my head that drilled hideous UCP plots and horrid COVID effects into my slack morning brain. First I cleaned the fridge and found my way to some delicious leftovers for breakfast. Then I tidied up some drawers and discovered a few treats that had been hiding. Then I thinned down the contents of a few cupboards celebrating the act of disposal. When in doubt in COVID, cut back, cut out, cut it out.
…And then I cut down a tree, a small tree, and then I cut up another tree or two. Then I cut up and tied up the mountain of branches my neighbour helped me cut down with the telescoping loppers I borrowed from him a few days ago. I tied up the branches in bunches hoping they will be taken away. (They were.) I cut down a few more small trees growing where they shouldn’t. I bundled up the branches. (Again.) I raked and swept the backyard and disposed of lots of debris. (Encore.) Then I picked up a very large and long wooden bench by balancing it on my head and the fence. My hat was crushed to my scalp. Pulling hard and using all my strength, I tipped up the heavy structure till it was vertical. When it touched the tree branches high above, I could twist the wooden tower 45 degrees and slide it along the fence to ease it into the space between the garage and the neighbour’s yard.
At the back of the garden, I stored old pots, mounds of dirt, along with abandoned bits and pieces of things, the wheelbarrow, the old doghouse, the ladder, and so on. It being a pandemic and all things being ready for improvement, I sought to transform it all. I threw out what I could (this is my most satisfying act these days. In the midst of COVID, downsizing and an inadequately thorough “death cleaning” takes on special meaning. My immediate inspiration was a windfall that appeared in my laneway over the past week.
I repurposed a beautiful old metal and wood bench I found in the laneway along with a wooden table and a wooden shelf that was there. The wooden structure was a special delight. I gathered up all of my gardening gear and my pots of various sizes and colours and filled the shelves.
So I now have a potting shelf and seating area under the beautiful hundred year old evergreen at the back of my garden. On display are some of my daughter’s pots she made as a young girl on Saturday mornings with the wonderful teacher Ellie at Clayworks. The pots are precious: I love my daughter’s signature engraved on the bottom of her pots. The canopy is so dense that it is a little paradise underneath. Even with the wild thunderstorm, the air is electric with clarity and the fragrance of green. Not a drop of rain.
Then I washed down the garage walls. Cobwebs and autumnal crushed leaves blew into the gap created by the many pots that lined that wall.
Then I emptied by hand the water that had filled up my improvised rain barrels, dragging the barrels to a place that needed water and emptying bucket by bucket the largest bin that weighted at least a ton. My neighbour had invited several men with large machines to “grade” their lot. So my water tested out the effectiveness of their drainage – a small indentation draws the rain water towards the front sidewalk with ease.
Then I moved out a lot of verdant junk from the front yard. Weeds – creeping bellflower by the handful and prickly thistles. I pulled out the tough woody stems of dead delphiniums and scattered the seeds here and there in order to disperse the blooms next year. My efforts in mowing down (with my gloved hands) the high and busy garden in this area was to resurrect an overgrown stone pathway that the gorgeous blue blooms had taken over. After I raked and dragged many bags of leaves to the laneway, I repaired to a magical place. The porch and front garden.
6 August 2020: Of elephants and meth labs
Canada/U.S. relations have deteriorated over time. Once upon a time, Pierre Trudeau said living beside the U.S. was like sleeping with an elephant, ie – you can sense every grunt and fart (ok.. I’m paraphrasing)…. But Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis recently noted in a Rolling Stone article “Over the last months, a quip has circulated on the internet suggesting that to live in Canada today is like owning an apartment above a meth lab.”
And someone has a match ready to set fire to the mess. From discomfort to conflagration in a few short decades.
Sunday, 16 August 2020: The Lake
I visit a friend’s cabin on a nearby lake. The afternoon is hot. The lake is busy. But quiet enough. Motorboats roar at a distance. Trains lumber a distance away with their heavy double loads. From time to time, they sound out at the trestle crossing en route to the Rockies.
You stand with your feet in the lake. Waves lap at your ankles. The distant shore looks impossibly far but you imagine a long swim there. Later you paddle along the lakeshore as locals call out to wave hello. Or don’t. Your arms move in unison with your paddling partner in the stern. You don’t think about paddling. It just comes back to you. The lessons at summer camp when you are fourteen. A month in paradise on a lake paddling an “outtrip” in a never ending rainstorm. Two counsellors and eight campers break break into a cottage in a friendly way to seek refuge from days of rain to dry off for a few hours. One good night’s sleep that doesn’t require you to sleep in a wet hollow under an overturned canoe. You remember this for the rest of your life. Chilled to the bone doesn’t capture the feeling you have the first time you are wetter than you ever remember. You dream you are a slug.
This afternoon on the lake, you float. A grebe swims by. Two grebes. At first you think it is a loon. It has been too long since you visited a lake. The word itself lingers on your tongue, A slake of language.
The grebes miss their babies says my friend mournfully lamenting their death or disappearance. Aren’t we all? I think. During this pandemic, separation is what befalls us all over the world. A loon stretches its white-ringed neck around to worry something on its neck. What is it? Invisible from this far, we worry about the lake, contamination. The day the oil burst out of the rail car tumbling into water leaking everywhere. The recovery botched.
We paddle under the trestle and enter a small bay. The water is high and clear of the seeds that speckle the lake water elsewhere. The Bissell camp usually bustling with campers from the inner city is empty during COVID – locked up during the pandemic like so many places. The local community centre is closed too. But at the end of the bay, the provincial park is crammed with visitors. The entrance was an impatient traffic jam as I drove by this morning. A notice on the highway announced the park is full. But people are still arriving. Meanwhile Jason Kenney’s UCP government is closing down parks all over the province, selling them off to the highest bidder or just letting them disappear beyond the reach of happy campers on a hot summer day. The government exercises cruelty daily.
But this afternoon, my head is beyond the reach of pandemic worries and political rage at the destruction of this province. I sit with my feet up and look out at the water. The shimmering sparkles that delight. A light show of pleasure for anyone who looks away from shore.
Sitting with my feet up looking out at the water, I know good fortune when I see it. Lucky day to have such a view.
I walk into the lake slowly, the chill temperature drawing goose bumps up my thighs. A knife-edge of cold encircles my waist. And then the body adapts, the temperature warms after I dunk myself to my neck and paddle a bit. The swim is short. I’m not unhappy, The dog on the shore looks worried. Heads towards the neighbours where big dogs live. I swim and then walk back to shore. I’m overly attached to my dog, I think. Or just cautious about new horizons.
At lunch, we sit at a table in a beautiful old wooden porch surrounded by panels of paned glass. (I write “pained” – you catch the drift of my mood these days.) The room is patched together with care and white paint. The windowpanes have been repaired after last winter’s break in. Someone slept on the couch — a deep turquoise fifties number, nubbly against the skin. Nothing was taken.
After dinner, you depart. Reluctant to leave the lake and your companionable friend, you realize your fatiguelook forward to creeping into bed. You drive slowly towards the city along the highway past signs for Whitecourt and Devon Fox Creek and Smoky Lake and Grand Prairie. The trip back to Edmonton doesn’t take long. You think about the different lives lived by those who live in two worlds here, the city and the country. I had that luxury as a young woman in Toronto travelling back and forth to my mother’s farm for a retreat from a busy world.
This evening, the surface of the Yellowhead radiates heat. The cars beside and in front of you are impatient to get home for their children’s bedtime. It feels like yours after a day in the sun and breeze.
As you pull into your laneway, you are happy to be home. You lock the gate behind you after your break-in and a recent attack of a woman not much younger than you a short distance away on the ravine bike path. Such is life in a city turned mean with petrostate rollercoaster deprivation and pandemic isolation.
You miss the lake already. The stand of birch, the craggy caragana lining the zig-zagging switchback path down towards the beach. The sound of a breeze among leaves from a distance. The voices of neighbours refracting in echoing garbles across the water.
Tomorrow I’ll get up to walk across the city passerelle and the white bridge that I love. I’ll head across the North Saskatchewan River and then along its north shore towards the green low-level bridge and return through a neighbourhood split between modest bungalows and monolithic blocks of real estate. So many trees cut down to make way for concrete sidewalks and oversized buildings. So much of the city transformed. Infill, a word intended to expand the liveable city is nothing more permission for rich people’s mini-mansions to erase the natural world.
Already I’m itching to get into the ravine again. To smell the air under trees. The understorey. The understory. To live understudied in a story. Again.
Life among the phytoncides. Autocorrect rewrites this as “photo codes”. Adam Dickinson, a poet, describes in a facebook post a stay in a cabin in the woods in Muskoka:
You are walking aimlessly and slowly. The trees are augmenting the rain with captured rain. The phytoncides from the white pines, sugar maples, red oaks, northern cedars, red maples, and birch fill your lungs. The pandemic is displaced for a moment by the forest. (16 August 2020)
18 August 2020: The Understory En Route to Rossdale, Edmonton, Alberta
It is as though winter lives in the pause between breaths. That slight automatic lift of the chest accompanies the shift in barometric pressure. Your eyes adjust to the temperature.
News is mixed.
Americans have Kamala Harris to kick around as the Joe Biden’s Democrat VP nominee. Progressives disgruntled by aspects of her history as Attorney General of California promise they won’t vote for her. The nihilist enterprise of cynicism promises to derail any possible change. Michelle Obama gives a smashing speech registering affect as what generates motivation and shifts in politics. But on facebook pages and twitter scrolls, promises of people who will not vote make me cringe.
Women who make it to the big time are carved up like pumpkins, their accomplishments set in relief against whatever it is that irritates you about a twenty or thirty or forty year career. Never mind the highlights, the tremendous skills and gifts that make it possible for them to initiate productive programs. Your individual ire makes it impossible for us to collectively move beyond historical impasses.
In Wisconsin, a woman stands in the yard of her farm and explains that all of her neighbours will vote for Donald Trump because their parents and grandparents voted Republican. Shades of right-wing Alberta. Eternal conservatives no matter they have destroyed the economy by not diversifying and paying off corporate owners. The NDP under Rachel Notley won once in the past almost fifty years, but in retrospect that seems like no more than a blip. While she was in power and afterwards, her accomplishments were downplayed while the death threats and insults flew thicker and faster than at any other Alberta leader before her. Misogyny scars and endures.
The latest local pandemic news is alarming. In Edmonton the cases of COVID are rising and the source is for the most part unknown. Kenney’s UCP has provided no useful support. The sycophantic company they hired to make masks for school children designed them for maximum COVID exposure. They are as a friend said no better than tying a handkerchief over your face.
Green in the first image is Edmonton versus COVID-19 cases in the rest of Alberta. And orange in the second image is the unknown sources of COVID cases in the province. Clearly COVID is getting out of control.
Meanwhile our Public Health Officer insists children should return to school with large classes and few provisions to keep the children safe. The notion of Public Health is becoming an anachronism. I want her to resign but a colleague who is an expert in international public health insists that worse is yet to come if she resigns. So just give us all secret signs that you know some of what is happening is a compromise with the devil in the details of UCP COVID schooling reopening.
Friends with children go back and forth about how to design their children’s education so it doesn’t hurt their children or themselves. Working mothers and fathers plot the Winnicott “good enough” version of their working selves in order to adjust to reduced time and focus due to childcare and homeschooling. Or they go to school and risk exposure.
I anticipate not seeing many of my younger friends with children over the course of the winter if they send them to school or “bubble” with other families.
On a national front, Dr. Tam, the Chief Medical Officer, warns Canadians to be cautious as we enter this new stage of schooling.
In Ottawa, the Bloc Québécois and the CONs harangue the government over the WE student volunteer controversy. You would think they were selling children on the black market rather than setting up a student volunteer program to supplement young people’s COVID economies. The Finance Minister is driven from office by scandal mongering. With so much concentrated ownership, media operate like a single stung tongue.
One high point in the public outcry:
But it is not unusual for women to step into man’s work role when the going gets tough. With a huge pandemic deficit, will she advise bold moves and resist the austerity drive that would entrance the CONs?
For the first time in Canadian history, a Canadian woman, Chrystia Freeland, is appointed to this senior cabinet post. She replaces a man whose life was devoted to Bay Street.
Freeland, a feminist with a socialist feminist mother, could deliver national childcare. There is, according to the CBC, a “shesession”. The promise of post-pandemic childcare would draw women back into the workforce. Increased income taxes pay for $5 a day childcare in Quebec, I’m told.
Instantly conservative columnists trumpet her failure in the headlines —
A letter to the editor paints a more utopian vision of what is now possible.
(Let’s dream on…)
August Retreats and Transitional Spaces – the Porch and the Passerelle
On August 21, like most other days, the front porch is where I arrive in the morning to drink coffee before the beginning of the day. I meet up with friends here over the summer. The dog walk begins here with the dog circling my ankles.
The Passerelle running the length of the Walterdale Bridge is where I go with a friend to feel the thrum of the city soothed by the North Saskatchewan River flow. Summer skies heat up scudding clouds.
En route there, we visit the Indigenous park. There is a gathering in the field north of the bridge. A passerby dressed in his finery gives me permission to photograph him. Ninety Indigenous dancers and singers are here to for a film shoot that will be part of the new installation being built at Fort Edmonton. “The Meeting Place” will be open next year.
Two girls play on the sandy shore of the river below. The edges of things make way for us to live the in between.
A man rides by on his bicycle pulling his canoe behind. Ever ready.
Spread my ashes in the meadow near my house — fling them and sing from the passerelle towards the murky surface of this river that carries us forward.