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Category: Writing exercises

Farther Away from Jonathan Franzen (part 1)

– Day 3 –

2013-10-19 11.21.28 The view from Arthur’s Seat, October, 2013

As a few of you might already know, I’ve just gotten back from a whirlwind trip to UK. As I nursed this coffee and rubbed my bleary eyes this morning at the respectably normal hour of 8:32, I accepted with satisfaction that I am officially (more or less) completely over jet lag, and committed to rejoining Life as I Know it.

Saying I “visited the UK” feels a bit misleading. Actually, saying that I had been visiting anywhere at all feels a bit strange. We have been slammed in work all summer, set back after set back taking us down a myriad of foundational roads we had perhaps naively assumed would have already been constructed prior to our arrival. That old “There’s a hole in my bucket” song comes to mind as I write this (maybe compounded with Beethoven’s ninth?). Compounded with huge changes in my personal life, two moves, a bike accident and arguably the most colds I’ve had in my life (that’s what working in a hospital will get you!): it’s been a crazy year.

I feel as though I’ve had to shelve a lot of my personal thoughts to keep things together and stay focused. I’ve thrown myself into work with a vengeance and spent as much of the balance as I can outside, bike riding or swimming to take my mind off things (water heals all wounds). As we passed in our final draft report two weeks ago, I decided to ask for the Friday off to recuperate. I realized a few hours later that I needed more than a long weekend, and the next day (thanks to my incredible boss) I was able to take the following week off instead – and four days later I was in Scotland.


Reading Farther Away, August, 2013

Staring at my bookshelf this morning (I spend a lot of time staring at my bookshelf), I realized that I had just experience what Franzen was trying to achieve during his terrifically farther, more exotic trip. The title essay of Jonathan Franzen’s most recently published collection of non-fiction essays, Farther Away, is just over 40 pages long (originally published here in the New Yorker, in April, 2011). I have an uncomfortable relationship with Franzen, he’s the kind of author that gets under your skin, challenges you and makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ve read both Freedom and The Corrections and loved them most for the discussions I was able to have afterwards. The bright blue hardcover dust jacket is simple, the only diagram instructions for folding  piece of paper into a boat, and the essays span from personal reflection, to activist essays on the plight of endangered birds and the panda.

In Farther Away, Franzen takes a similarly prompted whirlwind trip to Mas À Fuera, a remote, tiny island (44 km sq) located about 750km off the coast of Chile. It’s name literally means “farthest away;” the closest island is Robinson Crusoe’s Island, where the true story inspiration behind the shipwrecked survivor tale actually took place. Franzen sets the stage by describing his ridiculous trek to reach this far flung land and the abysmal weather and challenges he faced to achieve total isolation and a break from his own personal life. Effectively, this was a big part of what I wanted to do by going on my own trip. I needed to physically assert the distance I’ve been feeling with my current life, and to emotionally, professionally and psychologically completely unplug: to quite literally weather the storm. Unlike Franzen, I couldn’t commission a boat to take me 750km off the coast of Latin America, I was also physically exhausted and low on survival gear.

I needed to go somewhere where people would speak English, where my credit cards would work and where I would feel safe, but also a place where I could be afforded the luxury of knowing someone well enough I could be silent with them. Someone once told me that Rilke wrote a lover’s most important duty to another is to defend their solitude. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend in Scotland who would host me. There was no need for being “out there,” every day, being challenged by strangers and having my loneliness invaded. By being with someone with whom I could say anything, I was able instead to say nothing at all. I spent at least five hours outside everyday just walking. Sometimes I would listen to music, but more often than not I would just walk. There was physical distance and a mental grappling that needed time and physical space, wide open spaces, to process everything that has been going on over the past year. I didn’t even need to consciously think about it, I just needed to give it time to percolate. To have one other person there, a singular familiar lens with whom you can look back and reflect on your life, provide updates to, this is also helpful on crafting your own perspective. These self-made stories we tell to our old friends are effectively the tenuous threads that string our lives together through time. Franzen captured the need for these communiqués through his relationship with David Foster Wallace:

The curious thing about David’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island…we gratefully seized in each new dispatch from that farthest away island which was David…fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.

Edinburgh was the opportunity  to provide my own dispatches and updates to and from my life from a distance, to be forced to reflect back and articulate about my own island, to physically manifest this solitude and journey through seven leagues of darkness to daylight.

Please note, for readability posts this month are capped at 1000 words.

Continued tomorrow.

 Edinburgh, October, 2013

2013-10-19 11.21.05





I feel a cold, soft pencil-eraser pushing into my face. Then a facefull of wooly-undoubtably grey-fur. More fur. Purring. Purring? Who purrs before 7am?! The fur stops moving and I start to feel a tentative, rough lick and nuzzle on my forehead, ever so faintly, every so far away, my alarm.

Griz! Good morning Griz! For what more is there really to say? Being awoken by a 7.5 pound mass of fur – especially one so positively elated at the notion of me giving her just the tiniest bit of food – is not the worst thing I could think of. Not to mention that she has also learned intuitively to respond to my alarm clock by sitting on top of it to muffle to the sound, presenting me instead with her purring pretty face.

What a sweet heart.

I stumble into the kitchen, navigating the shadow-grey mass running figure-eights around my ankles like tires at a drill camp. I run the water, top up her kibble and fish, and fix myself a glass of lemon water. Breakfast is served. It’s crazy to think that three months ago there was no Griz, no morning water: nothing but a caffeine powered tardy sprint to the office.

I stand a few feet back from her voracious slurps and drink my own jar of water, letting my eyes adjust to the light, slowly planning the next half hour and my route to work. The rain on the skylight four feet above my head echoes like run-away dried beans down the bulk-food aisle. Spring rain is inevitable, but losing an hour of sleep,  and a rainfall warning? What a way to start a Tuesday.

Griz chartreux grey cat

Griz, Killoran Gordan, Dec 2012

My ride to work is short, but often unpleasant. A little over 3km it follows a major road and then a shipping route, not to mention that a bike accident a few blocks off my route had left another cyclist in critical condition the day before. It easily could have been me. As is rote for cycling accidents, the story was quickly flooded with notes and observations about bad bikers: helmetless, reckless yahoos that were obstructing the traffic-flow of good citizens. I am often rattled after reading this type of news, but I also know that if I give into my fear I’m libel to trade in my bike for the bus permanently. I strapped on my helmet, threw on my bright yellow jacket and headed out the door.

In honour of the time change, I decided to break my coffee-less Habit and grab one en route to work. Nostalgia flooded over me as I walked in the door. The café had flown under my radar entirely the first year I lived in town. It’s only two blocks beyond Chinatown, a stone’s throw from our house. I stumbled upon it blindly attending a poetry reading, astonished to find that I had been biking by it daily for months. Stumbling in this morning was like stumbling in for the first time, discovering a little self-contained universe right under my nose.

Unassuming, it’s filled with subtle dark wood, skylights and plants. A friendly, hip-yet-unpretentious staff and noteworthy coffee. The clientele consists of a healthy mix of construction workers (as they are open earliest of all the cafés), old men (who spend hours chatting in the lounge), a steady stream of postal workers (the post-office headquarters is next door), students (free wireless) and government workers (they’re everywhere). After my initial visit, I was completely hooked, joining the regulars. Having a welcoming, quiet space turned me around academically, powering me through my last semester and prompting a “thank you” in the Acknowledgements section of my final Masters project. The name of said café? Oh-so-approrpriately: Discovery.

photo discovery coffee

Discovery Coffee on Discovery st. (Al Champagne)

Coffee strapped in bike rack, it wasn’t until I arrived at work that I realized the news of the accident had subconsciously turned me into an exemplary cyclist: alert and awake, I had worn my lights and brightest clothing, over-emphasized all my turn signals, triple checked my blind spots and stood up extra-straight while I waited to make my left-hand turn in the intersection. An improvement.

A friend once told me that getting what you want out of life is simple; it comes in two steps. The first is recognizing that you want something, and the second is recognizing it when it comes to you.

May you also find unexpected changes to some of your old habits, a silver lining to these grey days and a rinsing away into spring.

Yeah write turns 100 this week! Er, 3! And 100 posts! Go yeah,write!

Selecky’s Party




sat down to write this hours ago.

It is nearly spring here. No, it’s finally spring here. The east coast in me can’t quite believe it yet, but it’s beginning to snow white cherry blossoms and the light has that liberated full-spectrum gilt to it at last. Nowhere else is winter as long as the dreary grey coast.

I biked home fast after work. I stayed a full ten minutes later than I had intended, wrapping myself up too tightly in a PowerPoint presentation and lost sight of the time. 4:15 means GO! This light you looked at so longingly is yours now! I frantically flew out the door and tried a new route home, up a side street and down a hill so steep I thought I’d fly over my handlebars before curling sharply onto the bikepath. The wind is still crisp and winter-clean, but the angle of the sun is a promise that can’t be revoked, and coasting over the clackety-clack wooden footbridge I wanted to scream at every person I crossed: we made it! The winter is done.

In celebration of our newfound daylight I nipped out for coffees before the cafés all closed at 6. The original plan was to write, but we got caught up meandering lazily home, and it hardly seemed worth it to rush over for the slim twigh-lit last half hour. I got take away cups. Because it is a special day (Day of Sunlight), I permit myself to a latté instead of a regular coffee, and I made his a secret decaf. Since the good weather hit the Island this weekend we’ve kept all our windows open, well into the night, like the people who flap around in sandals and shorts before the snow has melted. To compensate we’re both bundled in blankets and heavy sweaters, and Griz is curled up tight against me with her paws clamped firmly over her nose, but the air is fresh and promising and we sleep the sweep sunburnt dreams we’ve missed since September.

The coffee is ice now, thick and rich, forgotten.

this cake is for the party sarah selecky cover

I’ve seen Sarah Selecky’s slick little paperback around. It’s cute. The red Giller sticker is a beacon to the Canadian-lit junkie in me, it turns my head like a pretty bike. Or maybe Tiffany’s blue is has gravitational pull over all women. I like the cover, the empty cracked plate, and the title: This Cake is for the PartyIt’s the kind of title you want to say out loud to yourself several times, and articulate every consonant, like the name Maggie.

I had picked up the book a few times at Munroe’s but always seemed to turn to passages where people were talking in weird accents (having read the book, I am not able to identify which passages I must have stumbled upon). Printed with a tightly bound spine, it’s a book that hurts your thumbs if you try to read it without cracking the binding. But it’s glossy and durable and I loved the typeface. Sarah Solecky was also the name of one of my best friend’s when I was five, which gave the whole book an eerie familiarity to begin with. Maybe that’s part of what put me off, and it never made it to the check-out pile. But then last week I read a great article in the Walrus (Gossip GirlFebruary 2013- you can read the article here). The article was light and funny, articulate and well-written, filled with the kind of insightful insecurities I look for in a novel. This Cake is for the Party: devoured 48 hours after purchase.

2012-06-05 20.05.17

That kind of light, last year, Vancouver

I’ve read more Canadian lit this year than any year before in my life. One of my favourites, Zsuszi Gartner, is actually thanked on the inside jacket. Canadian contemporary lit has a strange little niche unto itself. We’re more somber and sober than our US counterparts, more stark and lonely. Our stories seem to stand out stoically against urban tundra. They seep a strange sort of arctic mysticism… I gauge the overarching flavour and temperament of this group I so desperately want to join the way I suss out the lake temperature by dangling one toe off the dock.

Selecky’s book was originally published in 2010 and is comprised of ten short stories set all over Canada. She writes like someone who has been trained to draw using guide lines. Like those books that I would save up for from the Scholastic catalogue, where they would start with an oval egg, add a cross in the next panel to show you where the eyes would go, and then suddenly a completed portrait in the last pain (with no traced of the x-egg to be found). Like foundation drawing, Selecky starts with simple oval mannequins and stick figures, abruptly filling in the fingers on one hand, the crumbled grass under one foot, the soft hair on her left ear lobe, leaving the rest faceless, ubiquitous. She describes people like pressed flowers no fewer than three times, and speaks about smooth pebbles from a river or lake just as many.

float plane base victoria bc canada summer

Float plane base, Victoria, Summer 2012

This interspersal of wide broad strokes and tiny intricate details is extremely evocative: it’s uncomfortable. In tandem with the fact that her stories take place in a glut of familiar but obscure locations (e.g., Manitoulin Island),  the visceral details that Selecky adds somehow burrow under your skin. They impregnant your mind with small bubbles of memory that flow like a marble through your veins until they unexpectedly burst in vivid total recall of some forgotten memory.

Part of what resonated most was the music she mentions: Broken Social Scene, Miles Davis, Metric, Arlo Gutherie. I finally know every artist she mentioned. I’ve lived them. I’ve also sung along loudly to that album in my car. I always wonder if Americans have this proximity when they read fiction. If you lived in New York does the New Yorker resonate with you differently? Are all of these things more vivid to your life? If I were twenty years older would all the literature I’ve been reading smell this much more real, more colourful? We are released.

*       *       *

Pathetic fallacy continues, yesterday’s brief spot of sun blotted out by the relentless rain. But the tension is broken, the promise is there. Technicolour summer is about to arrive.

Welcome to the Real World. We made it.

Yeah RIGHT this week I’m back on yeahwrite 🙂 Check them out!

Daily drop cap by the lovely miss Jessica Hische!

The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

Morning, Victoria Harbour, BC, November 2012

Starting in September, I have been writing at this one coffee shop near our house (incidentally, today the shoppe was closed for it’s Christmas party…).  It’s far enough away that I needed to get up, get dressed, and think about what I am going to bring with me-I can’t just sprint over, coatless. Routine is vital. When you are unemployed, unattached and floating, you need to create a routine, a regime, a raison d’être. Without these things life can get away from you and move on without you or your consent. It is imperative that you begin each day by getting up and making the bed. Exercise is vital. You must bathe. You must stretch. You must get dressed each day and put makeup on (or at the very least pants without an elastic waistband). These things sound a bit stupidly basic, but after a few weeks of looking they became small mountains, reminders that needed daily tending to to remind myself that not only was I human, but that life is important. That even a fabricated sense of purpose is importent: fake it till you make it.

These past few months katiclops occasionally became my motivation for getting up in the morning. It was a project that I could take with me, that I could build for myself, that was always moving (ever slowly) forward. I hope I do not lose sight of it in the coming months.

Estuary in Mist, Ben Fox, 2012*

*NB: This painting was donated to the awesome Raincoast Conservation Foundation for auction. You can bid on it here.

The coffee shop near our house is very similar to our apartment. It has two skylights, faces south instead of east, with a wall of windows on the street side. It is the same width, and like ours, is quite deep, with the washroom at the back.One wall is white and the other is brick (ours are both white-brick) and the floor is the same distressed, yet maintained (albeit barely) hardwood, the kind of floor  that is so warped it makes your table wobble. It is light and bright, two storeys high, with simple black benches, wooden chairs and metal stools. Art rotates through regularly. Right now it is Ben Fox, who paints large landscapes (1.25x1m) in a sort of Lawrence Harris, emotive style; cutting rock, water and mountain from arching curves and geometry. He finds a symmetry and balance in the shapes. Cutting them out using contrasting colours he puls from muted olive greens and greys. Suddenly: red, pale pink shapes the mountains, a forest frosted by pale blue. It is safe. I like it here. The barristas work, and I work. Other writers work. I had my table. I always arrived between nine and eleven. On the rare occasion when I arrived early or late I got a smile, occasionally an eyebrow shrug. Recently they hired a glut of new barristas. They aren’t as friendly as the old ones. They don’t joke with me, they don’t  seem to notice me, or they do, but courteously pretend they don’t notice I come in, every day, in the same way, alone (anonymity is one of my favourite and most-missed city-living quirks).

*                         *                          *

I picked this book up in October…or was it early november? After getting back from a biking trip up island. There is something so cathartic about long bike trips. Like long hiking trips. Ultimately the only thing you need to do each day is ride. You have a beginning and a destination. There is silence. There is the weather. There is the sky. I yelled at cows. I sang to myself. I thought. The power at my friend’s tiny log cabin in Cedar went out the second night I was there, and we spent three hours chatting around the gloaming fire while we waited for it to flicker back to life. Darkness is the best catalyst for conversation. My friend is taking a year off from university, and has amassed a personal reading list of just over 200 books. He had mentioned he was still looking for a good copy of Ulysses. The next day, (with dry feet, thanks to a fortuitous lobby-find of free Wellingtons), I stopped in at my favourite little consignment shop to browse their curated book collection and pick up a beautiful old copy. However, the first book I laid eyes on was Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had been recommended to me by the same friend who had first gotten me on to David Foster Wallace: I had to try this one too.

I really, really struggled “getting into” this book. I think a huge part of it was that it’s so rooted in the monotony of the everyday, which perhaps at the time, hit a bit too close too home. Once my fabricated routine became finite, I tore through the rest of it in a few days. Elegance is two intersecting stories about two residents of a Hotel particulier in Paris. The story revolves around two voices: one of Paloma, a thirteen year old bourgeosie, who is planning to commit suicide and is very, very bored with life. The other is Mme. Renée Michel, the keeper of the building and a fifty-year-old-something widower. Much like Super Sad True Love Story each alternating chapter (and voice) is further represented by a different typeface (Times New for Mme. Renée and Arial for little Paloma). Although Cloud Atlas does not employ this technique, it is still interesting to have read several books in quick succession playing with character voicing, highlighting the stregths and weaknesses of each author in turn. It’s a bit odd to think of the dominance (or perhaps only my affinity) for first person narratives in contemporary literature, and the use of the third person historically . What would Anna Karenina have read like written by Anna? Is this symptomatic on our masturbatory fascination with the experiential world? Or moreover the narcissistic need of narrative?

I learned after beginning Elegance, that the book was originally written in French. It has also been made into a(n apparently) popular French film (also available on US Netflix!) It is always a little funny reading a translation. It is like hearing a story repeated from a friend…You know you are hearing 98% of what is going on, but there all these quirky little anomalies, the beautiful ambiguities of language, where often, the character and talent of the author most prominently comes out. For example, this clunky passage:

The use of the imperative and the “I beg you” does not have the good fortune to find favor with me, particularly as he believes I am incapable of such syntactical subtleties, and merely uses them out of inclination, without having the least courtesy to suppose that I might feel insulted.

In French, this wouldn’t have felt clumsy and square. French is peppered with large old-fashioned ways of expressing oneself, and like any language the translations feel klutzy and slightly gauche as a result. As a whole, Elegance embodies so much of what I have come to regard as being very “French” in it’s meandering, slightly navel-gazing analysis of the everyday; the micro-analysis and cross-examination of the quotidienne. For example, from Paloma:

…If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interesting interaction with human beings. They drag themselves from one sofa to the next and leave their fur everywhere, and no one seems to have grasped that they have no affection for any of us. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but [does not apply to them]…[our family is] utterly spineless and anesthetized, emptied of all emotion.

Another aspect that struck me as a particular bit of discrete commentary, was that this story took place almost entirely at home. In France I remember being told that an Englishman would invite you for supper the first time you met him, but then never again, but the Frenchman will take weeks to invite you, but then he won’t stop! While I was in France, everyone loved their third places: cafés, bars, restaurants. Like a bar in Spain, most of these places are interchangeable, they are the third place. It is not at all uncommon to drink coffee and to have breakfast in the same café you have tapas after work, and beer while you watch the soccer match in the evening. In Canada there is alot of awkwardness around third spaces, maybe because of the Prohibition, or religion, or maybe still again our affinity for living in the country. Here, we like to keep all these places very clearly separate, and far apart if possible: food, dancing, bars – all deemed very, very different things from coffee shops. We are so dependent on third spaces, a place outside of home and work. But for the characters in this novel, home is their work, and also their third space. There is no commentary on this, but as someone  who was eking out purpose in a third space, I really struggled with this monosetting of the book.

Despite my reservations, I must give the book the same kind of credit: it was a bit of a farce on today’s youth: artificial depth, empty quests in education, foreign cultures and old texts, harsh judgements and critiques arising from apathy and excess, when the elegance lies in the haggard old workhorses. That in assuming all romantic stories exist in youth we overlook the beauty and richness that arises in old age. That youth perhaps become so haunting because we have the longest time to be haunted by it. Elegance is effective as a novel because of it’s tongue-in-cheek ability to not take itself too seriously. That all of it’s philosophizing and name dropping, it’s snippets of poetic genius (“for those who have no apetite, the first pangs of hunger are a source of both suffering and illumination”), it’s ultimately just a trite little story. At one point Barberry even states it out explicitly:

I have always been fascinated by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas. I spoke with a young doctoral candidate in Greek patristics and wondered how so much youth could be squandered in the service of nothingness. When you consider that a primate’s major preoccupations are sex, terrtory and hierarchy, spending one’s time reflecting on the meaning of prayer for Augustine of Hippo seems a relatively futile exercise…a shameless use of resources.

For the most part, Elegance is an uncomfortable book, in the same way that Michael Franzen’s Freedom is uncomfortable for Americans. It isn’t easy. It teases out our insecurities, holds up a mirror and picks at our sore points, our frailties and invented purposes with comfort ourselves with. I have spoken to  alot of people who haven’t enjoyed this book, have found it challenging or difficult.

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.

This book is filled with exactly what it critiques, ultimately leaving a hedgehog. It is a trite story, it is all it is. That is why it is happy. That’s why it begs this type of tongue-in-cheek analysis…why the “humour of Kafka” was not lost on Barbery.

For what is culture but a further expression of taste?

A plucky little roman: well worth a quick read.


Lille France nord pas de calais 2009Lille, France, January 2009, photo credit: David Foisy

More Clouds (part two)

(Continued from Navigating Cloud Atlas…)

Working nights on Cloud Atlas Sextet until I drop, quite literally, no other way to get off to sleep. My head is a Roman candle of invention. Lifetime’s music, arriving all at once. Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Take this island, midstream between timbre and rhythm, not down in any book of theory, but it’s here! Hear the instruments in my head, perfect clarity, anything I wish for. When it’s finished there’ll be nothing left in me…

The duo of Cloud Atlas book and film compliment each other well.

When I first watched the movie, I was blown away. I had been struggling through the beginning of David Mitchell’s book. I stumbled through the first section, finding it difficult to navigate the old English and identify with the characters. I finished just enough of the novel to allow myself to go see the film, to understand the premise and form a little opinion. Leaving the theater I was convinced that the Wachowskis took a good book, and turned it into an incredible movie. Beforehand I had only made it through about 60% of the book, and was on the fence about whether or not I would even bother finishing it…Leaving the theater, I was so impressed I convinced myself the book warranted another chance.

The sextet of voices Mitchell uses during the story are narratives: interviews, letters, journal entries. They are one way stories focused on experience, light on description and rich in personality. The movie picks up on things and compliments those that the book forgot. Taking advantage of the medium, the Wachowskis flush out Mitchell’s intersecting story-lines with lush scenery and attention to visual details unmentionable in the book. Where in the novel you at times feel as if you are swimming, anchorless in description, scenery and place, the movie is able to compliment the storyline wordlessly with luscious venues that more than make-up for what the book lacks. I have always found film an intense, overwhelming medium; I’m always a little disappointed when a gallery features films, they drain me and rapidly usurp emotional availability for other pieces. At a theater though, you can give yourself over entirely to the experience. Cloud Atlas was so visceral it became corporal: at times you can smell the film.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure if it was the film or the soundtrack that most moved me. I orginally tried to write this post while listening to the music, but I had to shut it off: it’s intensity completely fills every crevice of my little brain, and I can’t really do much else but clean or cook–things that require a different hemisphere. It’s the kind of music that when played during a dinner party, will consume the first lapse of silence that naturally occurs, and continue playing out until the record stops, an uninvited guest.

For writers (and readers-but aren’t we all the same?) and perhaps for everyone, language is the easiest medium through which to buoy yourself. Words invite us to spin a world, our own internal, clumsy experience  Off and on throughout my life I have felt this way. That the volume is just turned up all the time. All the volumes. Once when I was travelling, my hosts left on a trip of their own for a few evenings, leaving me to my own devices. I remember spending a dinner alone, soberly absorbed by the way the tines of the fork felt against my lip, the texture of the bread, even the density of the chair I was sitting on. Part of what makes the book so difficult to navigate *is* the lack of setting, of scene. It’s like reading Room for the first time, you spend the first couple chapters piecing together what is even happening, appreciating turns of phrase and brief, isolated moments before you can get into the horrific meat of the story. The brevity of Cloud Atlas means that you don’t really get this type of gravity.

Aside from a chance encounter with an ESL student while I was writing this, I haven’t had the occasion to chat much about the movie with anyone who has actually seen it and disliked it (she didn’t like it because it was too hard to follow). That being said, einmal ist keinmal: it is impossible to imagine what this movie would be like without having some vague knowledge of what you are going to see next. Having read the book, I was able to parse out the voices and piece together plots that might not have been so obvious. Walking out of the theater I was convinced that the movie was incredible, achieving a depth and dialogue beyond what the written medium could find possible: but after finishing the novel I was satisfied that both mediums had optimized their abilities to tell the story. For example, largely due to the lack of description in the novel, the futuristic passages of the book were difficult for me to conceive (let alone navigate), yet visually the film was able to do this seamlessly and well. On the other hand, the book was able to create personal connections and dialogue that would’ve been impossible in the film.

Reading Cloud Atlas was kind of like going on a backpacking trip with one of your best friends childhood best friends. You had heard snippets about them before (probably way more than you realized, before they had a name and a place in your mind). Your friend adores them, but at first you are a little apprehensive: they aren’t quite who you pictured, and they probably aren’t quite how your friend remembers them anyway. At first the trip is awkward: you know you are supposed to like each other and get along – you struggle to find your bearings, adjust your inside jokes; for the first few kilometers you’re working out the pace, the dialogue of your newfound trio. Eventually you (hopefully) come around to the friend. You don’t know the same childhood friend that you thought you were meeting, but in a way you know them better. A more up to date, stripped down version of the person they once were.

Going to watch Cloud Atlas the movie on the other hand, is like meeting someone in their hometown. Things make sense. They may or may not be as you had imagined: but that is how things are. Places and people have weight, shape, explanations for why they appear as such. All of the images that existed in your mind before you had arrived instantly vanish. Each aspect of your friend is explained, even the unnoticed bits, sculpted by the empty space that surrounds them. Their quirky sense of humour? That came from their dad. They have their mother’s eyes and must have gotten their love for Ginko trees from the unmentioned ones that line their childhood streets. Visiting your new friend in their hometown in a way is much more complete. You can breathe the air they breathed, walk the streets they walked and see the city as it stands.

It’s odd though, because in a strange way, the version of the person you met on the hiking trip is a much more complete person.

To be continued …

…The artist lives in two worlds.

*      *      *

And now, a brief announcement about my other world.

I wanted to include a quick footnote, to my tiny audience (Hello all of you! You are more encouraging than you will ever know: thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and following this site :)):

I don’t often include many details about my current life, but I wanted to apologize briefly, (especially to the yeahwrite folks) about my spotty postings the past two weeks. Life has been tumultuous – ultimately, quite hopeful! And very busy…

Recently I have been in the process of interviewing (successfully!!) for a new job. It has been a long and difficult search, and I’m totally thrilled and excited with this new position. I start next week, and I’m looking forward to settling back into a new routine of writing, working and reading. Regardless, lately the process and prospect has detracted from my capacity to focus.

Also, we have adopted Grizelda (aka Zelda or Griz). More details to follow.

Tips for timid cats welcome.

Much love and gratitude to all.

Navigating Cloud Atlas

After my first year of uni, during my final stages of  planning and packing for Africa I found myself staring at a stack of correspondance spread out all over our bedroom floor. I was on exchange in rural Québec, and we were rooming seven kilometers outside of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, which had a grand total of 732 people in it. The family had four children, and in honour of our arrival, they had emptied out their bright blue playroom for my counterpart and I. We slept on two foam mattresses on the floor an arms length away from one another, my letters covered the only small 8×10 empty patch of hardwood.

Mail is always exciting. My parents would forward packages of my mail via multiple rural routes until it eventually arrived at our old school mailbox in front of the giant blue farmhouse. Endlessly indecisive, I had applied for transfers into four other university programs and been accepted. The door to return to Ottawa was still open. I had been mulling over the decision for several weeks as the applications were processed, during my runs alone in empty fields behind our house, pondering while I replanted thousands of tiny conifers in the greenhouses at work and during the 44km bike-ride to our friends in Victoriaville. I had all the brochures and appropriate enrolment forms spread out all over the tiny space, and was (once again) trying to weigh my options, with grids and pro/con lists, when suddenly a calm washed over me: I realized I would never be attending some of these programs.
I had already made my decision.

I had never been to Halifax when I decided to move there. We hatched an elaborate plan for my arrival. I didn’t have any friends there that I knew of, and the first night we arrived our car was broken into and a bunch of our things were stolen.
I had zero expectations. I heard it was a rough town. I knew there was an ocean, that there was a good music scene and that the weather was crazy but that was about it.
I remember the exact moment of calm in knowing that this was what I was going to do. It’s funny, of all the things I have done in my life, I think moving out there was one of the best and most effortless decisions I ever made. The calm I felt during my time there is almost unmatched from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve heard a lot of people move to Halifax in this way.
And yet, I’m still not ready to even consider going back.

Halifax houseparty, 2008 Photo credit: Ben Dalton

Zero expectations are often the best ways to go about life, books, and when possible: film.

Cloud Atlas came highly recommended. Exceptionally highly recommended. Here is a sample update from one of my literary pals:

So for the last time, everybody read Cloud Atlas. Especially before the movie comes out. It is better than any book you’ve read recently and probably the best thing to happen to novels in decades.

Heck even Ben Affleck liked it. I had been forewarned by friends and pre-viewers to avoid seeing the trailer (by all means) before reading the book, and see the movie at your own risk. Good friends had seen it opening weekend, and returned with rave reviews. A few of us decided to head to pho and cheap night last week. We left the theater reeling.

That being said, if you are intending on reading and/or seeing Cloud Atlas I will not be offended, nay perhaps even recommend that you stop reading this post.

*        *        *

I have picked up several of David Mitchells books before. A few of them are regularly featured at Munro’s for no more than a handful of dollars. Their covers are decent. Provocative, but not captivating. Titles that are slightly ubiquitous: A Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten – poetic, but almost forgettable. Unfailingly, given enough time I will pick them up, scrutinize the cover, flip them over, skim the back and still intrigued, flip through it again. Each time I’ve put then down and walked away. Mitchell has been short listed for the Booker a number of times before, never made it.Working through Cloud Atlas I wonder if he may have broken the curse.

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in it’s own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.

Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished and by then it’ll be too late.

-Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

To give you a rough idea of the book’s layout, there are six narratives, arranged like Russian nesting dolls, one inside of the other. First up: Adam Ewing, a sickly yet important traveller on a boat in the late 1800s. Next, a series of letters from Robert Frobisher a composer living in Europe during the early 1930s. This is followed by a series of short, punchy chapters with 1970s journalist and protagonist Lisa Rey, in LA. Then comes Timothy Cavendish, a sixty-something year old publisher in London, UK during modern day (2012). This is followed by an interview of Somni-451, the first self-actualized clone in the not-so-distant future: it alludes to a location likely somewhere in Asia (judging from names and other descriptors). Finally, in the middle of the book the last narrative, a yarn told by an old man Zachry, about his escape from what we can only deduce to be Hawaii, sometime in a post-apocalyptical world.

In Mitchell’s novel they are arranged chronologically, cut neatly in half, ended abruptly (one can only postulate by death). The middle narrative is told in entirety, and then, lo and behold, each of the previous narratives are returned to in succession. We find our characters saved at a crucial moment. We had been deceived, they were indeed rescued. In the latter half of the book our suspicions are confirmed that each of the stories are related. The interview of Somni is a relic in the future, the recording captured on a spinning egg,  which becomes a mystic oracle in the future. Each of the previous stories had been interrupted part-way through:  Somni was watching a film of Timothy Cavendish which had gotten stuck. Timothy was reviewing a manuscript about Lisa Rey, which he had forgotten at home. Lisa had inherited half of the letters of Robert Frobisher (the balance of which are then sent to her). Robert had been reading the diary of Adam Ewing, which had been ripped in half; the second half had been used (as he discovers) to prop up his wobbly bed.

Before reaching the midpoint of the book, you do notice some repetition and common threads, but instead of finding it clever (ahead of your cogency the method to the madness), I found it vaguely irritating. An oversight by an editor? Or was I losing my mind? Several times I actually flipped back through the book to assure myself that yes, it was the second time that Mitchell had said “his muscles atrophied” or that the name of the cemetery was the same as…a nuclear reactor? Most of these “coincidences” are most notable in the second half, but regardless, I found myself flipping through the book a lot. Somni; wasn’t that the name of the last character? And what is with this recurrence of Hawaii? (On a slightly unrelated note, my friend and I unwittingly ended up attending a Hawaii spirituality workshop at a festival a few weeks ago. I keep finding the ticket stub everywhere-it seems to have the ability of being in the pocket of every jacket I own all the time….). Yet by the time you reach the second half of the novel you are aware that this beauty in serendipty is around us all the time, we simply chose to ignore it.

When I realized that these were embedded, intentional, delicately crafted threads, my heart melted. I was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever interpreted these repetitions were oversights, or literary blunders. I chided myself for being so pompous.Isn’t that how we so often deal with repetition? To dismiss it as an oversight, an annoyance?

Since my first reading of his book, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has remained firmly etched – for better or for worse – in some abscess of my mind. It was then that the segment that first made me fall in love with the book gently recited itself in my mind:

This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

For tonight, I leave you with this. Until then, enjoy the beauty in repetition and coincidence.

To be continued tomorrow!


– (Trying to be) Day 10 (!) –

The unsung exploit of the philosopher kings

Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged.

I’ve been trying to stay focused on my job search, but this article, published November 5 in the Atlantic caught my attention and momentarily derailed me back to WordPress (Should Science Majors pay less than Arts Majors?). The article briefly outlines a proposal by the state of Florida: devine the subjects most likely to result in growing the economy, and then encourage enrolment in these fields based on lower tuition rates:

Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math, among others. But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamouring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma… The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent.

Tax dollars are scarce, and the public deserves the best possible return from its investment in education. That means spending more generously on the students who are most likely to help grow Florida’s economy once they graduate. Second, he argued that too few young people consider their career prospects carefully when picking a major. “The tuition differential will increase the probability that there will be some introspection about careers and livelihoods,” he said.

My opinion of higher education has changed drastically over the past decade. I was strongly encouraged to pursue sciences and medicine. A woman in science, one who liked math – was good at math even, was touted to be rare. I was assured opportunities would be there for me, that doors would be open. I pursued a program in bio-chemistry, intending to go into pharmacy or medicine after my five-year undergraduate was complete.

I did not consider my job prospects outside of medicine after my degree. Not succeeding in those fields was not an option I ever even imagined; not liking my program or the work I would be doing was something else that had never crossed my mind. My first year was hard. We had between 39 and 42 hours of scheduled class or labs a week. Then we had hundreds of pages of technical reading, pages of practice problems for calculus and statistics and lab-reports for three or four lab sessions (normally taking between 6-10 hours each). Half of the first year was anticipated to fail out.

At times things were interesting, at times I wanted to learn more, but more over what I remember is the heavy pull of the lab, the drab whitenesss, the enormous, faceless classes the unforgiving fatigue. Walking across the empty barren parking-lots at 8am with Kyle, also another renegade jaded scientist/secret lover of foreign films, ice crystals forming in our insulated cups during the ten minute trek to lecture. Our friends snuggly tucked in their cozy beds, visions of Beowolf dancing in their heads.

In my “spare” time, in order to try to prep for med school applications, I signed up to volunteer for emergency work with the local Red Cross. On the way home from one of our first orientation sessions, I took the bus with another Biochemistry student, well into his Masters. We chatted. He asked me how my program was going, empathized with me over physics, laughed over the crazy bell curves and then in all seriousness confronted me if I liked it or not: “Do you like the labs?” he asked, pointedly. I nodded vaguely, shrugging, trying to say first year was always hard. He shook his head: “Yes, first year is hard, but it leads to more of the same. Next year you will have 6 hour labs, sometimes longer. If you screw up an experiment, you will be there all night. And when you are done, what will you do? More experiments.” His faint French accent allowed him to be blunt while also appearing unassuming. He wished me luck. I nodded, and thanked him, mullin over his words in my head for months. Apparently 80% of biochemistry students that graduate end up employed in the petroleum industry.

I don’t want to say that you don’t work hard in humanities. What I do want to say is that very very few 17 year olds are really in a position to look ahead into the realities of their future. They are prone to simply taking the advice of their parents, their teachers and their peers. It is easy to commit years and thousands of dollars on a path to a destination where you didn’t fully read the brochure. This type of thinking and examination needs time – the type of time most highschool students, desperate to get into the right program at the right school don’t have. The old adage of investment in a good university = an investment in your future is no longer proving as true as it once was, and is not a course to jump into head first before assessing the depth of the water. The educational journey is incredibly important. However university is not the only option for education, nor the best.

I don’t necessarily agree that arts degrees should cost more, but I think that the system is in desperate need for reform. Capping programs would improve their quality and usefulness. Maybe funding and seats could simply remain more open for programs in higher demand. We could train more doctors. That being said, not everyone can be a pipe fitter or a hydraulic engineer, but I think that is article starts to examine some difficult questions.

Like, if Canada was going to devote 10 million dollars a year to it’s olympic team and we had 900 people are interested in gymnastics, 90 people interested in hockey and 10 people interested the biathalon, how do we break down our Olympic budget? Gymnasts are cheaper and easier to coach, but maybe the might considerably less opportunity to win. Should everyone be allowed to be a gymnast? We need more hockey players and they will doubtlessly go on to perform well…do they need more per player support? What about our biathaletes? What if we only have six biathaletes but they are incredible, best in the world, but they still need their own course. Should their program receive equal funding? Should each olympian get equal funding?

Science programs require more money to run, more lab time, supplies, more face-to-face lectures, more marking – is it fair to recoup these costs by increasing their class sizes? Or raising their tuition? If ultimately petroleum engineers will contribute more back to our economy and tax base due to their higher salaries should they then have to pay more or less for their training? Should they be entitled to better training if their jobs are in higher demand? If most of the gymnasts are never going to the olympics anyway, why not just devote some of this funding to other leisure activities?

This was a heated article for me to read – and for many of my friends. There is no shortage of student debt for twenty- and thirty year olds. I don’t necessarily think that our academic pursuits costing more would let us change our opinion about them, but I would argue that a paradigm shift in how we perceive university education would be helpful. There is so much pressure on students right now to go to university to show that “they’re smart” or for “personal development” yet their are so many amazing ways to develop yourself. There also seems to be a huge stigma against going to college – which provides amazing opportunities for a lot of young people, and an excellent avenue into the working world. Maybe part of the solution to the underemployment/student debt equation is to (in part) allow academia to retreat back into it’s Ivory Tower. While education should be accessible to everyone, does it necessarily need to remain a requirement for entry into society? The huge pressures and health issues that are prevalent in many university students are also surely arising out of (mis)conceptions of future career prospects and forcing many people to conform into a system that might not be right for them.

There also seems to be a shift (especially in BC, Ontario and Australia) to move towards self-funding universities…in part by attracting foreign students (who pay an unsubsidized, much higher tuition). My question is this, why not attempt to shift more resources into attracting more members of our aging demographic? If these “leisure studies” (as quoted in the article) are believed to be pursuits for the affluent and bourgeoisie why are young people being exploited and (in part) deluded into thinking these are valid professional paths into the working world, and unfounded entitlement claims to non-existing jobs.

It isn’t that they aren’t legitimate jobs within academia, it is that there are gross misconceptions surrounding how easy and accessible these career paths are.

This was a very emotional piece for me to read, I would love to hear any reactions you have to the article.

November No sense Nonsense …

Five days in.

Five days in to the longest month of the year.

I have never done well with Novembers.

*         *         *

She loved the winter.

She loved the crisp crystal blues. The cloudless skies. The emptiness of cold.

She loved the open space.

Winter air was heat-less, power-less. The sun a large star in the frigid January afternoons, its dim light a feeble apology for offering nothing more to our distant land. It’s dim light a feeble apology for offering nothing more to our distant land. The absence of heat made the air seem bigger. Everything shrunk. Buildings looked like pictures pasted in 3d dioramas.

Everything retreated.

Everyone retreated.

The streets were empty. The rivers were empty. The parks were empty.

You are alone.

Ottawa, 2011

In the cold you finally have space to think.

Everything is white.

                              (tabula rasa)

In the cold everything is clean.

You finally have permission to start over. To believe that tomorrow will be better.

In the cold each day is a miraculous feat of survival. Every day is a new day.

Gasses dissolve more easily in cold than in heat. On days like these the industrial skyline of Hull suddenly seemed futuristic and pure. Chimneys forget their mandate of belching giant slimy soot upwards, and instead rest silently. Letting the off-gassing disappear seamlessly into the ether.

In the winter there is no desperation.

Without heat there are no clouds, only clarity. Every thing is crystalline.

In the cold everything is possible.

*         *         *

– Day 5 –

Some of you might be wondering why my posts have exponentially increased since last Thursday…well, now that it’s too late to back out…may I introduce…NaPaBloMo! Er, or something like that! I am looking at it as training wheels to National Novel Writing month, and a boot camp to working towards shorter more manageable posts! I am looking to write a blog post (almost) everyday and being supported by the lovely and amazing crew at yeahwrite.me!

That being said, I am struggling…I am used to writing much longer posts less often, so thank you to all for bearing with me as I blog out as much as possible over the coming weeks…my editing regime may suffer as a result! (December may be National Editing month!)

And a big hello to all my fellow Rowmies and thank you to all my commenters 🙂

*         *         *

In my second last semester of my undergraduate program my housemate convinced me to enroll in a poetry course. It was taught by one of her favourite professors, Dr. Andrew Wainwright, who was retiring at the end of the semester. He was hopelessly cool (I mean, the other class she had taken with him was Bob Dylan and the Literature of the 60s). I culled my journals and cobbled together a small portfolio that was miraculously accepted into the course.

I never for an instant regretted my decision to take the class.

We only had about four assignments.

A haiku, a sonnet (written in teams of two!), a longer poem of our choice, and a short description and presentation about the working method we went through to arrive at our finished project. We also had to provide critiques of each of our colleagues poems, which became part of our final grade. It was great to be able to finally feel justified in spending the same amount of time I would devote to a final essay on distilling the 12 perfect syllables of a haiku, spending literally hours mulling over finding the ultimate word. Gymnastics for the other half of my brain.

The class was incredible.

First off, the people in the group were decidedly not who I was expecting. I imagined us walking in on the first day and being surrounded by members of the creative writing program, who I had never met, but I envisioned as being predominantly women, tall and willowy in sweeping long skirts with forlorn hints of sadness hidden in their distant, contemplative gazes. The few men in the room would obviously be sporting black turtlenecks and goatees. Their work would be good. Really good. Deep. They would laugh at me.

I was intimidated. Really intimidated. And really, really relieved when we walked into class the first day and the room was filled with decidedly normal people. The class was capped at twenty students, 12 men and 8 women. Dr. Wainwright was wearing a baseball cap and a leather jacket. Student representatives included: a rapper from our undergraduate cohort, a law student who was a closet screenplay writer, a few scientists, a business student or two. The only thing we had in common was the terrified, slightly bashful expression on our faces.

Five years later and I still think of the people in that class. One girl wrote this beautiful piece about fall leaves in her bicycle spokes, which I always think of every autumn. Another time, we found out the rapper had a story-board tattoo of T.S. Elliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock on his chest. All of us became this ephemeral, close-knit unit as we gently, shyly exposed our poetry to one another. A secret sonnet society.

Today’s post made me think of them, because of the clumsy, bashful way I am already floundering material. The complete surprise and humility I am already finding from the work of others. And the constant lesson that not every day will be your best work, not everything you write will be for yourself, but progress comes in spirals, and all it takes is practice.

And so, we write.

Camus and Kathmandu

Bamako to Paris, December, 2004

When I was small, my aunt travelled around the world. I think she was gone for about 20 months, but it seemed like an eternity for a five year old. I must have been barely in first grade. Phone-calls from Asia and Africa were not cheap or regular 25 years ago, and contact was just as sporadic. Pre-wireless, pre-cell phone, Lonely Planet when the planet really was lonely. Postcards were coveted and preciously brought in to show-and-tells.  I remember being completely astonished to receive a pink, hello-kitty type asian digital watch for my sixth birthday. An actual package. Asian seemed like a different unfathomable planet (Africa had been  covered between the Bible, pyramids and Safaris, “jungles et al.” covered Latin America, but Asia…).

Each location would be referenced on our standard-issue cardboard globe, and then cross-referenced in my giant illustrated Children’s Atlas, which admittedly, led to some frustration. For example, Africa was almost entirely crammed on one page, with extremely limited photos; secondly, the several months my aunt insisted on lallygagging through some very tiny European countries, resulted in boredom due to the limited surface area of her travels and page turns. Seriously, another European postcard? IT LOOKS LIKE CANADA ALREADY! Paintings? Who wants more of those!

Quite possibly the most magical thing in the world to me at that moment, I treasured our globe and atlas. Tracing the rivets and snowy elevations on the foreign continents skeptically as my aunt criss-crossed her way around the earth. I couldn’t fathom what a real mountain would look like. Growing up we referred to the Niagara escarpment as a “Mountain,” it was even where I learned to ski (to make matters worse)…all 300 elevated meters of it. Further explanations from my parents did little to advance my conception of it…i.e., Mountains are extremely high. So high they are covered with snow – like where we go skiing? – No, higher than skiing, higher than airplanes. The concept was indeed, mountainous.

My birthday card with the watch mentioned that they had been trekking in the Himalayas, that they had made it to base camp, but my aunt had suffered a bout of altitude sickness and they had to go back. She became delusional, thought she could make the climb up. It had taken them eleven days to get there. I remember placing my fingers over the ridge skeptically, trying to find the *exact* bump that was supposed to be Everest, trying to determine if it *really* was any higher than Aconcagua. Naturally, my cardboard globe was not the most accurate height predictor…

Even now, after living seven years in their shadow, their presence is still one I sense more than their absence. I know others who are to mountains what I am to large bodies of water. The moment I am farther than a few kilometers away from a body of water I start to get antsy, to suffocate a little. The body of water doesn’t need to be huge. A large lake will do, but it needs to be one not conceivably tranversed by swimming. Islands are also acceptable, if the river leads to the sea (I’ll take Montréal). But mountains…the mountains are still growing on me. Like an exceptionally beautiful guest at a party you haven’t spoken with yet, they still look a bit like a false backdrop or a trick my eyes are playing on me with the horizon.

Hurricane Ridge,Washington, May 2010

When I worked on Nootka I worked with a woman who was ten years older than I; at that point, a decade might as well have been an eon. She was thirty. She had lived a lifetime ahead of me. She had her own apartment. Spunky, solid, short, with the kind of deep wrinkles you get from a hard life, filled with living outside and partying too late when you are beautiful and young and think you will live forever. She had dyed her hair a fiery red, and was the kind of girl you could picture riding a motorcycle. She had just finished community college and had transferred into marine biology for the fall – a source of tender pride. She was incredibly intense and blunt, if she had partied hard in her youth, she was going to be just as rigorous a reformed intellectual in her thirties. Aside from her delicious two week meal plan for our shift (years of working on dive boats had made her a stupendous cook of dried/canned goods), and her love of Shakira, the moment of hers I remember most was during our drive up to the launch in Gold River. I was studying a rock-face, reminiscing about my recent first foray into outdoor climbing at Lighthouse Park and waxing poetic about how cool it would be to get into climbing. Like it was a lifestyle you could shrug on like a jacket (when you’re twenty and healthy you really can just shrug on lifestyles like clothing).  To which she soberly replied: “Yeah, I used to climb. But I stopped when all my friends started dying.” Climbing is not for everyone.

In Freedom Climbers (written by Bernadette McDonald and initially blogged about here), Wanda Rutiewckz explains the mortality that she is seeped in after having over 30 of her closest friends have died climbing:

“I know the value of life, and not only of my own….Every one of us has his own other life. We have our loved ones, but..climbing has become a part of my life. A passion that engulfs everything so that I can’t quit it, just like I can’t quit my own life.”

Earlier in the book Krzytof Wielicki, another climber tries to explain:

“If you want to climb, there is a cost. Usually the cost is the family. I have to say sorry, sorry, sorry. They suffer at home and we suffer on the mountain….To experience pleasure when you have everything against you, you must have some kind of warrior philosophy…It is more appealing. It is more exciting.”

The Polish climbers made tremendous sacrifices to pursue their love, their lives. But what struck me above all is that they don’t feel helpless or trapped under the forces of Communism. They love to climb. They are internationally renown as incredible climbers. So what if they live in Communism? They have an incredible life.they have found true happiness, true raison d’être, freedom.

Polish climbers proved to be a creative lot, and they devised a system within  the system – a strategy that liberated them. They discovered a way to travel outside their borders, to experience new cultures and languages, to follow their passion for climbing and make a living at it. They discovered how to be free!

Sea lions at Cowichan Bay, October, 2012

A few weeks ago I biked up to Salt Spring Island with a friend, and felt so rejuvenated I promised myself I would leave the city at least once a month by bike, to be amongst the quiet, silent fields, the cold chilly ocean and leverage my appreciation for warm, dry clothing. And so, last week I saddled up my Bianchi (to the great expense of my wrists) headed up island to Cowichan Bay, where I eventually found myself fireside in a log cabin discussing the intricacies between French and English culture. At one point, my friend laughed, and apologized, excusing himself. He returned a few moments later with a pocket book and proceeded to read aloud a segment of Joseph Campbell’s retelling of Albert Camus’ version the myth of Sisyphus.

Ancient myth abbreviated, the myth of Sisyphus is that he is punished by the gods for his fascination and disgust of human mortality. His appropriate punishment?  He is sentenced to push a heavy stone up to the top of the hill, only to let it roll down, and then push it back up again for all of eternity.

If this myth is tragic, it is because its hero is conscious. Where would his distress be if, at each step, hope of success encouraged him? Today’s worker toils all the days of his life at the same tasks and his destiny is no less absurd. Still, it is tragic only at those special instants when he becomes aware. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, impotent yet rebellious, knows the full extent of his miserable condition: it is what he thinks about during his descent. The clear-sightedness that was to be his torment at the same time consummates his victory. There is no destiny that cannot be overcome by contempt.

If some days the descent is made in suffering, it can also be made in joy. The word “joy” is not too strong. I imagine Sisyphus coming back toward his rock; as he begins, he is suffering. When the images of the earth are held too strongly in memory, when the call of happiness is too compelling, sadness grows in the heart of the man: it is the victory of the rock; it is the rock itself. The immense distress is too heavy to carry. However, crushing truths die from being recognized. 

The Poles are trapped under Communism, but with a clearsighted task at hand, they are also free and fulfilled. It is not the mountain that is the rock, but the task itself.

Without a clearly defined task at hand, ones efforts are fractured. Fractured efforts are half-truths, foreign words taken out of context and out of their language, useless. If you know one thing well, know one thing extremely, excruciatingly well, and within that one thing, is everything, including it’s futility. One place is every place if you know it well enough. The Poles were able to achieve this through their climbing.

“I take all my emotions to the mountains with me,” [Wanda wrote to Marion], “so any fighting I do is with myself, not the mountain…What you can’t do is dominate the mountain. Mountains never forgive mistakes, which is why I keep up a dialogue with them…When I’m up tin that thin air, suffering at every step, I’m able to reach deep into my inner self and in those moments I have a certainty that someone is helping me.”

In my most recent kitchen-cleaning TAL podcast (#169 – The Pursuit of Happiness), I was especially struck by the last segment, when Nancy Updike interview Marcus Johnson, a boxing coach, who believes that we make a conscious choice, every day, to be happy. She goes on to document and illustrates how much work he puts into achieving happiness, how it is a constant daily (achievable) struggle. It is a choice, like living, that needs to be made everyday. And a choice implies a degree of freedom.

Camus concludes that the choice is also ours to make:

All the silent joy of Sisyphus is there. His destiny is his own. His rock is his thing. 

I leave Sisyphus at the base of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But, Sisyphus teaches the higher devotion, a devotion that repudiates the gods and that elevates rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This world, from now on without master, appears neither sterile nor futile to him. Each grain of the stone, each mineral chip of the night-saturated mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle toward the summit, in itself, is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.

If the existentialists touted suicide as proof of happiness (we are choosing life every day, we must be happy), then this can then be extended out to the Polish climbers. If they were able to chose to climb, if they had a reason, a purpose, a place to pursue. If they needed to climb the mountains “because they are there” then even in the face of repressive Communism, they too were free.

McDonald goes on to allude to the crumbling legacy of climbing as Communism fell:

…This exuberance of creative expression wasn’t limited to climbers. There was an abundance of artists and writers who thrived creatively during those severely repressed years in Poland. The censorship industry, rather than stifle, seemed to actually stimulate the artistic community. Like the climbers, artists became stronger through oppression; their most creative work came out of the darkest days. When repression collapsed, they collapsed too. They had no idea how to communicate without being rebels. When their world opened, they dried up.

I believe this begs the question vis-à-vis our modern times, are we feeling creative? Are we repressed? Has the internet catalyzed a surge in creativity? Or is it repressing us socially…causing us to be more creative? There is always some type of balance that exists in the universe. An ebb and flow of rights and expression, where are we now? Camus believes that with the choice of destiny comes the choice of happiness:

We do not perceive the absurd without being tempted to write some sort of happiness manual. “But, why must we proceed by such confined routes . . . ?” Well, there is only one world. Happiness and absurdity are its two offspring. They are inseparable. To say that happiness is the inevitable result of absurdity’s discovery would be an error. It also happens that the experience of absurdity arises from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and these words are sacred. They resonate in the world of man that is, at once, both wild and restricted. They prove that all is not, has not been, exhausted. They banish from this world a god who entered it with dissatisfaction and a taste for futile suffering. They make destiny man’s business, a business that men must themselves manage.

In a world of choices, now we must follow through. We must eliminate possibilities and shut doors to allow ourselves to discover a path and follow it. More words from Wanda: “Living means risking, means daring; not to dare is not to live.” Dare to chose to be happy, dare to commit to your passion, dare to be free.

Oh, and you should probably read Freedom Climbers.

– Day 2 –

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee – Author of Emperors

I got the book during a trip home to visit my parents, August 2010.

My mom had taken me to Costco.

I always find myself clinging to the books in Costco.

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming to a grad student. A decade of cramped apartments, small town and urban living has meant that I rarely have the means to visit a grocery store that is any larger than a few storefronts, let alone a city block, speak less of the equity or transportation necessary to purchase toilet paper for the year or tomato paste for a family of 50.

Even the idea of getting a shopping cart is still novel to me; what happens if I buy too many groceries to fit into my pack? How will I bike home? I remember my first trip to Red Barn Market on a Double Flyer Wednesday when I bought so many groceries I had to take the bus home. Struggling to strap my bike into the rack on the front of the bus, I stumbled in – head hung in shame – laden with not only my pack, but two massive bags filled with produce. The novelty of seeing household products on steroids, pre-packaged produce for a year, and Ikea-style warehouses of electronics quickly becomes dizzying. I am just as taken aback by the clientele – this particular location the majority fall into the the faction of the public I rarely see (the car-driving, suburban kind). Rapidly I find myself feeling foreign and lost; after a breezy pick-up of any palatable slightly-generic tasting samples, unfailingly I head to Books.

Set in the middle of the store, free from towering merchandise loaded scaffolding, the books are maleable, familiar, in reasonable, relatively low stacks. Archaic and humble compared to the massage chair twin seaters and “Party tents” for eight. Anyone who has previously visited cramped precarious used bookstores can attest to the relative relief the high ceilings and quiet nature of the Costco book section brings. After a quick perusal of redundant DVDs, it is here that I always find myself. And about fifteen minutes later, so does my mom.

“Why don’t you pick out a book?” she offers benevolently. My eyes undoubtably widened at such a suggestion. She urged once more before disappearing back into the metropolitan expanses of sunscreen and dog food: “You’re not home often, go ahead. Get yourself a nice summer book. My treat.” I get to work.

The limited selection at Costco always corners me into really considering books that may have otherwise fallen outside of my periphery. My best guess is that your average bookshop probably stocks no fewer than a thousand titles. In these instances I tend to regulate myself by clinging closely to familiar sections and authors, creating a map by which to navigate the sea of books. I also harangue my friends for recommendations via text message to further guide my perusal (sorry friends!). By contrast our Costco has one hundred titles at most, organized frenetically by relatively short stacks on card tables. Given the limited and un-intimidating nature of their display, I always find myself leafing through everything. Picking up titles indiscriminately, reading the backs absent-mindedly. Sometimes some are pretty good. Some are awful. Regardless, by the time she returned, I still hadn’t found anything that really jumped out at me. Sensing her urge to leave I grabbed the non-fiction, taupe-coloured volume bearing a Pulitzer sticker.

“This one I think.” She flipped it over. Then let out a breath and raised her eyebrows: “You sure? Sounds depressing. Not exactly a light summer read…” She popped into into the incredibly empty cart  and we headed out of the store.

I never started the book that summer. I did bring it with me to Victoria. I think. Silly new grad student, recreational reading is for regular people.

It’s sixteen months before I even crack the spine.

*              *              *

Even an ancient monster needs a name. To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering-a literary act before it becomes a medical one. A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering-a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill. To relieve an illness, one must begin by unburdening its story. ...Onkos…from which the discipline of oncology would take its modern name [is]the Greek term for a mass or load…cancer was imagined as a burden carried by the body.

-The Emperor of All Maladies (p. 47)

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 600-page tome is certainly a physical burden. The novel includes 472-pages of books, and the balance in notes and appendices. The Emperor of All Maladies is intended to read as a biography of cancer. Charting the history and personality of the disease, it’s relationship with mankind. I envisioned it would start in Egypt (it does). It would be full of anguish, of dying. Of old, waif-like women, soberly reflecting on their lives: from Cleopatra through the middle ages, until now. Even the idea of the book didn’t seem right for summer, and it certainly didn’t strike me as good accompaniment to policy studies. However after finishing In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (here and here), I was moved to read another account by a doctor. I started the book at the beginning of the summer, by lakes and on ferries. I finished yesterday, bundled in blankets on a blustery fall evening.

Reading the book was, I assure you, a bit of a massive undertaking – but it was also massively rewarding. I would not necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but would highly recommend it to those interested and committed to the subject. It is a huge, onkos. Lighter than other +500page novels I’ve read, Dr. Mukherjee walks you through cancer easily, gracefully, and humbly. He is able to meet readers where they are at, and writes so compassionately and eloquently the book can be read scientifically or for literare and history. Part of his success comes from his fantastic similes an metaphors that gently walk you through the tangle of oncology:

Cancer is that machine unable to quench its initial command (to grow) and thus transformed into an indestructible, self-propelled automaton.

Or later, he seamlessly develops another metaphor into a macabre explanation:

Halsted took this line of reasoning to its next inevitable step. Volkmann may have run into a wall; Halsted would excavate his way past it.

That being said, it is helpful to have some grounding in biology or even anatomy. The above passage continues  medically, but slips in explanation in a way that (while mildly horrific) is not patronizing.

Instead of stripping away the thin pectoralis minor, which had little function, Halsted decided to dig even deeper into the breast cavity, cutting through the pectoralis major, the large prominent muscle responsible fo moving the shoulder and hand.

Towards the end of book, as he gets into more modern molecular approaches to combatting the disease, I was transported back into a frigid cold Ottawa night, during my first year of biochemistry. Dr. Mukherjee explains that molecular chemists don’t tend to think of molecules as flat two-dimensional things, but as three dimensional objects. That chemists turn into architects and physicists  engineering new pieces to attack vulnerabilities within molecular structures. At a party of a friend of a friend’s, I had shyly injected myself into the corner of the conversation, lamenting over my understanding of my major. Upon over-hearing my struggles our host excused herself, and traipsed back into the room a few minutes later with a tiny grey plastic box. It contained a molecular chemistry modelling kit that she had been similarly gifted five years earlier.

The plastic atoms and little grey connectors nearly saved my life, becoming a staple in our late-night study sessions in the basement of monstrous Thompson Hall residence building. By enacting over and over again, mise-en-scènes of chemical reactions, suddenly the Morse code of pencilled orbits and valences became tactile magnified things.  Small vignettes that I would replay during exams and in our sterile, cavernous labs. It felt like seeing a globe for the first time as a child, and realizing that reality (we all live on a giant orbiting mobile of spheres) is paradoxical more far fetched and simpler than you had previously imagined.

Thompson Hall, (aka Home Sweet Home), Ottawa, November 2003

I have other, hazy memories of humanity in that cavernous year: trekking out the two kilometers in knee-deep snow beside a highway to one of my lab-mates apartments. It was a stone’s throw from my building, but the highway and canal meant an icy switchback over several bridges. Sri Lankan-Canadian, she radiated a warmth and colour that drenched her flat into humanity, transporting our study group from the stark monochrome of grey concrete, bleached labs and snow. On the longest nights she would make thick spicy dahl, plucking a few tiny hot chilis descendent from her one tiny plant of her family’s peppers that she and her sister miraculously kept alive in spite of the climate. She always had a giant pot of soup on, and rice in the cooker; we would eat heaping bowls of rice, drenched in the soup, with scrambled eggs and more chilis served on top.

These brief moments of people in the marching monotony of medicine are part of what makes this book so readable, so real. Dr. Mukherjee helps to cram all of this scientific detail into our heads by sandwiching it between punchy, colourful descriptions of characters and dialogue, turning passages into film and scientists into living breathing people with eye colour and character tic’s:…

…a pugnacious New Yorker who ha declared it her personally mission to transform the geography of American health through group-building, lobbying, and political action. Wealthy, politically savvy, and well connected, she lunched with the Rockefellers, danced with the Trumans, dined with the Kennedys, and called Lady Bird Johnson by her first name….Her disarming smile and frozen bouffant were as recognizable in the political circles in Washington as in the salons of New York. Just as recognizable was her name: Mary Woodard Lasker.

You can almost make out his subtle soft voicing, a trace of a British Indian accent. Despite innumerous quotes and literal references throughout the book, there are even more, sublter ones embedded in his descriptions, like the description of how each cancer is unhappy and infected in it’s own way, as to Tolstoy’s opening lines in Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”).

The Emperor is also filled with explanations and references to everyday things and trends. For example, for years I always assumed that a Pap-smear was named after the human PAPilloma virus…but in actuality it’s named after it’s creator (and his faithful, devoted wife): Papanicolaou,whose discovery and career is charted in The Emperor. The book fills in historical gaps not covered by popular narrative, like the science behind The Insider.

One does struggle with the layout of the book, but it adds to the experience. It is loopy and and cyclical. Loosely following a chronological format, but doubling back on itself so each strand fits together. You can not tell all the stories from all the perspectives at the same time. Breast cancer is chronologically followed in one section, which leads to genetic coding, which must be explained from the beginning. But even this overarching style, the see-saw back and forth builds the momentum of cancer’s story, highlighting it’s ruthlessness, and the frustration and futility in attempting to halt it’s progression.

It is partially the fatigue of this struggle that made me happy and relieved to have reached the end of the book. It is not entirely depressing. It is not a book about death. Major advances have been made in the past 15 years. But it was nonetheless a constant reminder that death is just around the corner. That genetically cancer is everyone’s end. Death in this book, as with in the Red Tent, is often referred to as an entity. Someone sitting in the corner. Someone that so many cancer patients know. Thom Wolfe is quoted in one of his last letters written during his battle with cancer: “I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close.” In this book however, death was not painted as defeat, but rather the lines that have created the picture. Without seeing people come close to death, often sacrificing themselves, oncology would not have advanced to where it is today. It is a biography of all the people cancer has stolen from us, and how science has tried to explain their absence, how it is trying to explain the white space. It is a manifesto of medicine, a reminder that science is storytelling.

(Continued tomorrow.)