all my puny sorrows

books

What a book. Miriam Toews tackles the touchy subjects of depression and suicide with a deft ability, taking us through the helplessness and desperation of loving someone who cannot embrace life. This story was sad – so sad – and also filled with a sort of hope and love of life. There was humour and overwhelming sorrow tempered with the love of family. My favourite character, the mother, was very familiar to me – I think I see in her some of my favourite people.

Mental illness is such a touchy subject. There is a great push nowadays to normalize it, but the problem is that it isn’t normal. It is the opposite of normal. It is a lack of the rational that cannot be helped. It is the diabetes/cancer/multiple sclerosis that doesn’t affect the function of the body but the function of the mind. It is sometimes fatal. And as someone who has grown up in the church, who is still active in the church, there is definitely an element of “you should pray (or trust or read your Bible or have faith or don’t worry) more” to make all such areas of “low self control” go away. Don’t get me wrong, there are changes in the wind, but not across the entire gamut of denominations or even individual churches. Not only do we Christians get hit with the “you don’t have enough faith” card for physical ailments, but it is worse for the mental ones. Talk about heaping guilt on to the heads of those who can least carry it. So what can we do? How can we talk God’s love to someone who needs it yet can’t accept it in the way that we try to give it?

I don’t have the answer. Depression steals self, steals health, steals life. It affects not only the one who has it but the loved ones who are helpless in the face of it. It can come across as manipulation or anger or avoidance or despair and it has an ugly face. Therapy can help. Medications can help. Sometimes nothing can help. Shame and guilt just hurt. The only way I know how to treat any of it is with patience, kindness, and love. I can help them practice strategies. It is all I can physically do. I cannot change anyone’s mind or feelings or perceptions, however much I try.

If you are at all interested in what it is like to deal with someone who has depression, read this book. If you like a good story, read this book. If you enjoy good writing, read this book. Can you tell I like it?

 

The Brontes

I just finished reading Juliet Barker’s biography The Brontes and am feeling a little time travel weariness. I look outside and I’m in the mid-nineteenth century, filled with consumption and spinsterhood and political turmoil, and then I go and turn on a light with this magical thing called electricity and bam! back into the twenty first century just like that. This book took me a long time to read because of its great number of pages and tiny little font but I found the entire thing fascinating and enthralling. Barker curated the Bronte Parsonage Museum from 1983 to 1989 and has put unpublished manuscripts of the Bronte siblings (poems, letters, juvenilia) out into the market.

Much of the book focuses on Charlotte, as she was the eldest (who lived past childhood), who had friends that she corresponded with, and was the instigator in publishing first the three sisters’ poems and next the novels. There is a wealth of knowledge about Branwell, Emily, and Anne as well, not to mention their father, Patrick, but it seems that Charlotte was the most prolific letter writer or had the most letter-hoarding friends. This book has illness and death scattered throughout, as well as an interesting glimpse into the differing degrees of crippling shyness all three sisters shared. It also lets us into the extreme imaginative worlds the siblings all shared – Charlotte and Branwell immersed themselves into Angria whereas Emily and Anne created Gondal. All four wrote massive histories, stories, poetry, and romances of these fictional places and carried this on into adulthood.

Jane Eyre  (Charlotte Bronte) is definitely one of my favorite books and truthfully I prefer Mr. Rochester to Mr. Darcy (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice leading man). Charlotte also wrote another three novels, but I haven’t read them yet. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) is a love-it-or-hate-it type of book, and I hated it the first time I read it and loved it the second time around. Maybe because I listened to it off of Librivox that time? Possibly. I finally read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte) last year and wasn’t very impressed with it. She definitely had a point to make and that came through loud and clear. They were all prolific poets as well. I “discovered” Emily’s poems a few years ago and was absolutely blown away by their rawness and emotion.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this biography, though you may want to set aside a good chunk of time to get through it. At over 800 pages with small print, it can be daunting, but so worth it.

 

The Bronte Sisters

Fur Elise

If you are or ever were a piano teacher, you would look at that title and shudder. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” is one of the most played, most practiced, most sought after pieces that just … never … goes … away. Even after a student has finished the piece, you will hear it whenever they are fooling around on the keys, whenever you are writing in their exercise book, whenever they see a spare piano. It gets almost as much play time as Chopsticks. Of course, many only play the first bit over and over and over, until a soul is ready to scrape their ears out of their heads with a dull spoon (and yes, I stole that metaphor from the “Robin Hood” movie starring Kevin Costner, only put in “ears” instead of “eyes”). I’m sure many who are not in the piano world would recognize the first few bars because someone, somewhere sat down at a keyboard and played the one part of the one song they can remember from way back when.

I remember playing it for the first time and falling head over heels in love with it. I could hardly believe something so beautiful and heart-wrenching was coming out of this instrument that I, little old me, was using. Oh, the anguish! The melancholy! It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Metaphorically, of course, since I am not a person who cries at weddings or speeches or other things that people cry at. This music, though, almost brought me there. I was so ecstatic; I must play this piece at my recital. This would make parents swoon at my feet, wondering at my talent. All other musicians would hang their heads in shame, knowing they could not hope to move the audience as I did. I would become a musical prodigy! I had big dreams, until my teacher mentioned that a different student was playing this very piece, my piece, at the upcoming recital, thereby chopping my wild imaginings off at the head. Devastation followed, hand wringing, a general plea for the possibility that two could play the same song, all to no avail. I was stuck with something Bach and baroque, and that was that.

It’s funny, how that memory comes back when I sit at the piano and play “Fur Elise” now. It is a spectacular song, no matter how many students crash and smash their way through it. It is so full of moody melody and uplifting runs, of feeling and sentiment, that it still is a favorite of mine to play. I like watching a student discover this song, recognize it from some distant memory, and be able to play it. It is like a light bulb goes off in their heads when they realize that they can make something beautiful from all the boring, hateful, technical stuff that they have practiced. Somehow, it makes it worthwhile. Even if every piano teacher must sit through it year in and year out.

To listen, go to Fur Elise.

He doesn’t look like a composer of beautiful music, and yet…

And 2012 enters with a whimper.

I don’t know when we’ve had such a mild winter. It was a little cold at the beginning of December but above freezing since with a few odd dips below.  You would think, with weather as warm as it has been, that the winter blues wouldn’t have hit very hard this year – unfortunately they socked me in the face and swiped my feet out from under me, beating me up worse than usual and wrenching my Christmas spirit from my grasping hands. I wonder if age has a factor in it. Not that I’m in my dotage, but I’m also not a spring chicken anymore. In fact, I didn’t really get into the swing of things until Christmas  Day when I arrived at my parent’s place and had a good conversation with Mom and hugged my brothers and sister-in-laws and most of the nephews and one niece and teased Dad about being old (he isn’t really, only 60, but it’s fun to mention it many, many times during an evening).

Despite the doldrums, I did manage to set up an advent calendar for the boys. No daily activities this time, which in hindsight was rather prescient given my general mood during season. I went simple and used paper bags with stenciled numbers and placed them conveniently on my large bookshelf.

There was a plan to make them prettier. Holes punched in the top fold and then tied with festive ribbons. The bags hanging on a string like a banner in the archway between the living room and dining room. All sorts of things like that. After number 17 with midnight on November 30th looming, all the artsy craftsy ideas got scrapped and “good enough” became the mantra. Not like the boys care what’s on the outside anyway, right?

Now that January is here, I’m feeling better. More optimistic. The days are getting seconds longer each day. It helps. I’ve been reading this poem every morning that helps keep my mood lighter and more grateful. It is by W. H. Davies (I always want to say W. H. Auden. Is that even a poet?) and it is titled A Greeting.

Good-morning, Life – and all

Things glad and beautiful.

My pockets nothing hold,

But he that owns the gold,

The Sun, is my great friend -

His spending has no end.

The first time I read it, my mind changed Sun to Son and it took a few days before I realized my error. Now, whenever I say it to myself, I mean both things. Isn’t it wonderful that I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that? Davies has given this to the world and left it there for us to find inspiration in it even if he didn’t intend for dual interpretations. It makes me love life.

Breathing is highly underrated

So, I’ve been sick. Probably the worst I can remember as an adult. Viral laryngitis doesn’t actually sound that bad and I’m sure if someone had told me they had been laid up by, of all things, laryngitis I would have told them to suck it up but I would have been WRONG. Incorrect, mistaken, big red X, wrong. It started on August 13 and I am actually thinking I am getting better now, although my voice isn’t back yet and I still have crazy coughing fits. At least I can breathe without fighting to force air through my inflamed and swollen trachea. I have been walking around the house at the speed I walked down the aisle during my wedding. Yes, I’ve been pacing myself to Palchabel’s Canon in D. How frustrating is it? Very. Anything more strenuous had me gasping for breath and taking 15 minutes to recover. Needless to say, housework is far, far behind and the boys are wearing clothes 2 sizes too small because Mama hasn’t had the energy to keep up with the laundry or the strength to carry a basket full of clothes. But I’m on the mend! So dust bunnies, beware – I’m on the hunt once again.

Of course the summer hasn’t been all about sickness.

Camping at Moberly Lake.

Marveling at how high Moberly Lake is.

Reconnecting with cousins and nature.

Enjoying the nightly fireside visit and sunflower seed war.

Holding the newest member of the clan (and wearing pink!).

Watching Titus get outgrown by Dad’s canola field.

Attending the wedding of two incredible people, Amy and Cory.

Getting almost outgrown by Caleb.

Spending time with family who are friends.

Ethan and his big muscles at an outdoor pool.

Climbing the big Manitoba trees.

Watching my dad win all 3 drag races in his red Camaro during amateur night.

Summer has been fun. Yes, we had to go to Manitoba in order to find some actual summer weather, but we made the most of it while we were there. I’m still peeling! The kids have seen all their cousins and are thrilled with the two new ones that just joined the ranks. We planted grass in front of our house which is taking its sweet time coming, but at least we know it’s there. We are getting things done around the yard and house that are necessary. And I got to read many new books during my enforced convalescence!

It’s a small world after all

I was flabbergasted the other day. Absolutely gobsmacked. All due to my insane book reading tendencies.

I’m a little bit embarrassed to tell you, but I have a system when I go to the library. I have to, otherwise I will end up spending the whole afternoon picking books, then seeing something else I think I need to read, then exchanging, then ending up with far too many and needing to put some back, and in the process of putting books back I see another one that catches my eye… quite frankly, it’s an exhausting cycle. So I have a list. In fact, I have many lists, but they are all organized and I usually know exactly which books I am taking home with me. Besides this list, I have a system that I am working on. I am attempting to read authors I never would have given a glance to before, because I know that there are gems out there that I just don’t know about. “Beau Geste” by P. C. Wren is one that amazed me many years ago. Same with “Mutiny on the Bounty” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. I love those kind of surprises! Poor Luke gets to hear me natter in his ear about such and such a book and why it’s so awesome and how I was so lucky to find it at all because the cover (and I’m a book cover girl, I’ve been convinced to read some real nonsense because of good artwork) was not compelling at all. So I am reading through the fiction section, one book by each author, starting at the end. Which is Z. I read “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (good) and “Fertig” by Sol Yurick (so-so) and “Lady Wu” by Lin Yutang (bad). A couple of weeks ago I picked up a book by Scott Young.

It was called “Murder in a Cold Climate” and has an Inuk RCMP investigator for a protagonist. It was a mystery. It was good. So good that I did my thing whenever I find a book I really, really like and asked Wikipedia about the author. I knew he was Canadian (I love finding Canadian authors that I didn’t know about before) and that was about it. I was not prepared for what I found.

I ran out into the garage and accosted Luke with my blown mind. “This guy, who wrote this book, he grew up in your hometown!”

“Really?”

“And he’s Neil Young’s father!”

“Who?”

“You know, Neil Young, singer, songwriter extraordinaire!”

“Oh, yeah, that Neil Young. Yeah, I’m friends with his niece on Facebook.”

I was stunned into silence. My mouth dropped open. How does a person recover from getting their mind blown twice in less than ten minutes?

“Huh?” I know I made other, more unintelligible noises but I don’t know how to spell them.

“Didn’t you know?” he said, “I thought I told you that before.”

He may have, but probably when I was pregnant with one of the kids and my memory was impaired beyond all belief. During Ethan’s gestation, I was the matron of honor at my best friend’s wedding, Heather, and I cannot remember the reception for the life of me.

“Aaaagh.” I’m sure my brain’s cortex looked like one of those Tesla coils with streaks of electricity arching out to all corners of my mind. “That means that this guy who wrote this book, he was her grandfather!”

“That sounds logical.” My husband, ever the wise guy.

And then I turned around and went back inside and waited for my brain to cool down. Small world, indeed.

Getting What I Deserve (aka The Universe Likes A Good Laugh)

Living way out in the boonies of northwestern BC has its pros and cons. Pro – watching wildlife out my front window. Con – a long driveway with drifting problems. Pro – the only dog barking is my own. Con – when the power goes out a person is really on their own. One thing that we have been doing since we moved out here is hauling our own water. We haven’t drilled a well yet and neither has anyone else in our immediate area. All our neighbors either haul water or get it trucked out to their homes. A well would be nice and it is definitely something Luke and I talk about hopefully doing this summer, but for now our truck and a 250 gallon water tank on the back are all we need. We do two or three loads a week, depending on laundry and how smelly our children get.

During the warm months of the year, this water hauling deal is quite easy. A good hose with ends that clamp and a tank are all a person needs. Winter, however, is another ballgame. Hose, yes, and clamps – both are still on the list. Add a good monkey wrench, some heat tape, a screwdriver, and possibly a propane torch and you would be a well prepared water hauler. Don’t forget the insulated work gloves, metal and skin are not made for prolonged contact in below freezing weather. You need the screwdriver to chip out the ice that always seems to collect in the valve where you connect the hose to the tank. The propane torch loosens the hose clamps so you can actually use them as they are intended. Monkey wrenches are great for turning noncooperative valves, and possibly hitting things if they get stuck together (my preferred method for dealing with unruly equipment). The heat tape is for on the valve, so that you can unfreeze it when you get home and need to pump the water into the cistern. Everybody still with me? Good.

Now that the scene is set, let me take you back to yesterday, when I decided that laundry needed to be done and a load of water was probably a smart thing to grab while in town. I drove up to the water station and got bundled up to go out and do my thing. May I remind you that it was a balmy -25 C yesterday? I hopped out of the Dodge with my water pass card, screwdriver, and monkey wrench in hand, ready for the unpleasant task of fighting with cold and unresponsive equipment. The hose was clamped to itself, so I set to work with the monkey wrench and banged it loose. Everything hooked up fairly well except that I, as a vertically challenged individual, have a hard time reaching the valve on the tank in the back of the pickup to close the clamp on securely. Yet another thing the monkey wrench is useful for (I really do like this monkey wrench. It’s big and heavy and blue.). I opened the valve and got the water started. During this whole rigamarole, another water hauler drove up and hooked up to the second station. I stood behind the truck, waiting for the water to get to the exact spot for me to shut the pump off, and he waited behind his. Small talk ensued until his (much smaller) tank had filled and he had to unhook. He took the hose off the station pump and a geyser of water erupted out. Embarrassing, especially for a water hauler pro. I started making some smarky comments, “I think the grate needed more ice,” “Newbie?” “Looks like the town is going to have to bring out the water shortage strategies again this summer.” His excuse was that the handheld controller wasn’t working and he had to go use the main controls right on the station. Yeah, right, I thought. I’ve gotten water when it’s colder than this and haven’t had to use the main controls yet this winter. Off he drove, leaving me and my tank almost filled. It finally got to that point where I had to shut down the pump and close the valve myself. I pressed “close” on the handheld. And held it down. And tried to listen to the pump over the sound of the Dodge. And realized that the pump was not shutting down, not even a little bit, and that water was going to start spilling out of the top, and in fact it already was, and I had to close that blasted valve! The water was spurting out of the top of the tank creating a huge fountain that was cascading down the sides, especially the back which was where I needed to be. I bravely stuck the monkey wrench and half myself into the frozen shock of water and closed the valve off, then ran (gingerly, remember, there is ice all around) to shut off the pump at the main controls.

I got the message, universe.