Book review of Essbaum’s Hausfrau: NOT a modern Anna Karenina story

A couple of weeks ago I found two books at my local library using one of my common techniques for choosing books—browsing randomly. These books were in a corner of the library set aside for a summer reading club. This summer’s theme is “Walk on the Wild Side.” Two books piqued my curiosity and I checked them out.

HausfrauDarkCrop

I first read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. The back cover blurbs suggested that the novel could be compared to a modern Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. High praise, indeed, and all the blurbs gushed about Essbaum’s masterful writing.

 

As I started reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Hausfrau is the story of an expatriate American wife, Anna, living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children. Anna is not happy; after nine years in Switzerland she still feels herself to be an outsider and has no close friends. She is bored, without personal ambition or direction, and feels distant from her husband. At first I found her story compelling, mainly because it includes a lot of well-written sex scenes. Anna starts an affair with a fellow student in her German class. Only weeks later she gets drawn into another affair, this time with a family friend.

But Hausfrau is not a steamy romance or an erotic novel—it is neither of these. Essbaum is asking serious questions about how a woman creates her identity and becomes fulfilled. What roles can marriage and extramarital sex play in that process? What is love? Why does Anna feel so isolated? Why is she so troubled by the question of what comes after death? She has regular psychotherapy sessions with a Doktor Messerli, and their conversations make up many scenes in the book. Yet the psychotherapist seems unable to draw Anna into a state of greater self-awareness, or penetrate her depression.

Hausfrau engaged me completely and in that way it is a successful novel. It made me think not only about the questions above, but about how my reactions to the book changed as I continued reading it. I’m fascinated by the fact that different readers analyze and respond to the same book in different ways. For example, the jacket cover calls Anna an “electrifying heroine,” and a blurb on the back compares her story to the nineteenth-century heroines of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I, instead, found myself puzzled and frustrated by Essbaum’s Anna. In my view she was unbelievably passive, and strangely indifferent towards her husband, lovers, and friends.

What I didn’t understand about Anna is that she has tremendous sexual energy, but seems unable to transfer any energy or joyfulness to other areas of her life. The sex scenes are powerful and erotic—yet the overriding message seems to be that sex is, for Anna, her only form of escapism and self-affirmation. At one point Doktor Messerli asks Anna what she is good at. Anna thinks, but doesn’t say, that the only thing she is good at is fucking.

She feels no emotion for her sexual partners; in fact she knows little about them and has no interest in getting to know more. Also, there seems to be no adequate explanation of what has gone wrong with Anna’s marriage to Bruno. Why are they so distant? There is one scene in the book where they have wild, rough sex after a party, and it’s clear that Anna still finds him very attractive, physically. Yes, they have their cultural differences, but Anna knew that going into the marriage.

Why do Bruno and Anna seem to have no interest in strengthening their marriage? There is one scene where Anna’s pseudo-friend Edith (a thoroughly unlikeable character) says she doesn’t have a clue what her husband does at work; Anna admits that she knows nothing about Bruno’s work, either. Anna says, “We should care enough about our husbands to know what they do.”

Edith replies, “The only thing we need to know is this: they bring home a paycheck.” So Anna, passive though she is, feels more compunction than Edith; Anna at least recognizes that this level of disinterest about one’s life partner is callous and strange.

One clue about Anna’s distance from Bruno is a backstory about an affair she had with a man named Stephen a couple of years before the present-day events of the novel. Of all the men mentioned from Anna’s life, Stephen was, apparently, the one she loved passionately. In fact, we learn that Anna’s third child is actually Stephen’s daughter, not Bruno’s, but Anna has never told anyone this. Stephen left Anna for a job in the States. He never wanted Anna to be a permanent partner. She wasn’t realistic about what she meant to him.

Yet Anna doesn’t tell Doktor Messerli about Stephen.

As I progressed through the book, I continued to be drawn in by Anna’s predicament but I was increasingly frustrated by her apathy. To me, comparisons with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are not apt. Tolstoy’s Anna is passionately in love with Vronsky. She is the victim of the rules and conventions of her time. By choosing to live with Vronsky, she not only becomes an outcast from Russian society, but her petty bureaucrat of a husband bans her from seeing her beloved son. For Anna Karenina, every choice leads to heartbreak.

Emma Bovary is more similar to Anna in Hausfrau, in that both are unhappy and bored by their social environment. Both Emma’s and Anna’s first lovers (Rudolf and Stephen) don’t love them. But Emma is trapped in ways that the contemporary Anna need not be. Modern women aren’t severely limited in their choices the way women were in the nineteenth century. Emma’s provincial town has nothing to offer her in terms of personal development or stimulation. Also, Emma doesn’t love her husband or even feel any physical attraction to him.

Eventually Anna’s affairs can no longer be hidden, and can no longer shield her from some awful real-life events. Her son Charles dies in a freak accident. After that, Bruno finds out he’s not the father of their third child. He beats Anna up and then tells her she has to leave their home for a while so no one sees the marks he’s put on her. Now Anna has genuine causes for grief and desperation. Yet I still found her actions in the last part of the book inexplicable. How could she be so unhinged as to leave her purse and suitcase on the train? Why does she throw her cellphone—her last link to getting help—into the water? Is Essbaum implying that the only way out for Anna is suicide, as it was for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary?

After reading most of Hausfrau eagerly, the ending left me dissatisfied and depressed. What was Essbaum’s purpose in writing it? In the end, the book seemed to convey messages only about failure: Anna’s failure to develop herself; her failure to find intimacy with others, including her husband, her lovers, or her friends; and the failure of the people surrounding her, including Doktor Messerli, to help her.

Despite the fact that Hausfrau disturbed me, the fact that it left me asking questions and postulating answers speaks to its success in engaging me. The novel seems real and honest, in part because it doesn’t shy away from exposing people’s darkest, weakest thoughts and actions.

It left me wondering how other people will react to Hausfrau and its “heroine.” How will they interpret the book’s conclusion? To me it gives a warning about the dangers of being passive—going with “the flow” of accidents and others’ choices without adequate self-awareness and reflection. Perhaps Anna should not have married Bruno. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps she should have terminated her affair with Stephen early on, by admitting to herself that he didn’t love her the way she loved him.

***

When I was almost finished reading Hausfrau, I came across a quote from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website. She quoted the prolific writer Robert Penn Warren (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men) on the subject of “finding oneself” through taking time off from work or school to do extensive travelling. Warren’s words were:

. . . the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.*

Anna doesn’t make choices about her own work, productive leisure activities, or friendships. She only accepts, passively, the choices that others impose upon her. She never “finds” herself. Instead, she loses everything by leaving her suitcase on the train and willfully discarding her cellphone. It seems the only choice Anna is capable of making is that of self-destruction.

* From Democracy and Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975)

Posted in Book Reviews, Psychology, Relationships, Writing Criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The middle-aged athlete on the Buntzen Lake loop

On Victoria Day I met with some of my Phoenix Running Club teammates to run the loop around Buntzen Lake. We gathered in the parking lot at 8:30 on a perfect morning. It was still cool but  the sun promised heat to come.

It was more special for me than for any of the other five runners in our group. I hadn’t run the Buntzen loop for nine years—since before I tore my ACL. Subsequent surgeries and worsening arthritis have severely curtailed the amount of running I can do.

In our group we had two seasoned trail ultra runners as well as three very fit middle-aged guys. This was to be a social run, so our loose plan was to run together. Actually, my plan was to run with the group for about half the distance, and then hike the second half.

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All of the original six starters still together at 2K. Photo by Larry Lorette (#6 in file!)

We stayed together for about 3K; then four of us went ahead. Matt chose to stay back with Kathryn, who was the oldest and slowest runner in our group.

It wasn’t long before I lost contact with my three companions. The terrain had become very rough as we proceeded along the western side of the lake. I could handle the steep vertical climbs, but I had to move cautiously on the downhills. I expected Matt and Kathryn to pass me again.

I reached 5K alone, but now I was on the most difficult section of the trail. My young Phoenix teammate Simrin passed me easily, running like a mountain goat as she explained that she and her mother Neelam (another experienced trail runner) had arrived late. Although I am still faster than Simrin on a road course,  I couldn’t run with her here and she was soon out of sight.

The views as the trail came out in the open at the highest point above the lake were stunning. It was peaceful here too—so far I had encountered only the occasional runner or hiker moving in the opposite direction. Going downhill, I had to walk often because the footing was bad, with many loose rocks. Kathryn passed me, showing her agility and technical skill. She is over 60, but has the body of a twenty-something. We ended up running together quite a bit before the swinging bridge.

After a washroom break at the north beach, I told Kathryn I would go ahead since I’d heard that the trail was in good condition on the east side of the lake. I would run the whole distance after all. Maybe it wasn’t a sensible decision, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. Besides, I reasoned, my knee had already gone through so much after all those steep climbs and descents; it was too late to save it if it was going to react badly to this run, and it seemed to be OK.

I was astonished how hard the last 4K turned out to be. My quads had turned to Jell-O. I was beginning to get very thirsty, and my water was waiting for me in my car. Another problem was that the trail was becoming crowded with all the holiday hikers. I was constantly having to slow down and run around groups of people and dogs. Plus, even though the surface was quite good on this part of the trail, the punishing climbs continued.

When I heard the barking of dogs getting louder, I realized I was near the off-leash section of the beach; almost done! I ran up the trail beside the fence enclosing the off-leash area. As I reached the path above the beach, I stopped. My Garmin read 10.7K. With relief, thinking about my water bottle in the car, I started walking back to the parking lot. I was soon overtaken by Kathryn. She stopped running to chat with me. I told her that I’d found the run very tough. It demonstrated to me, once again, the mantra of “specificity of training.” Right now, I would say I’m quite fit and fast (for my age), but I lack the agility and leg strength of a regular trail runner, as well as the endurance of someone used to running long distances.

In the parking lot, the four speediest runners in our group were already gathered around Dale’s impressive “triathlon van,” along with Cathy and Dave, who had been hiking the trail. Everyone was eagerly eating the bran muffins Cathy had brought. I needed water first!

Soon Matt and Neelam appeared. The run around Buntzen was nothing for these two veterans of ultra trail running. Both, I noted, were wearing lightweight vests with water bottles.

The ten of us stood around eating and chatting in the parking lot while Larry and Simrin snapped photos.

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Left to right: Alex, Dave, Dale, Nancy, Cathy, Simrin, Matt. Missing: Larry (photographer), Kathryn, Neelam

As I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, I was overcome by a sense of gratefulness. I was grateful for being able to complete this run in spite of my knee’s fragility. Also, I had slept little the night before because of jet lag after my Toronto trip.

As always, I was thankful to be part of this group. I’ve run with some of these people for decades. We started the Phoenix Running Club in 1991, running mainly in Mundy Park. Over the years, we’ve often had a special summer event at Buntzen Lake, with a run followed by a barbecue and swimming. I liked the way the Buntzen run on Monday gave me this memory connection to something I used to do.

My long-time running friend Alex reminded me how fast he, Dave Reed and I used to be able to do the Buntzen Lake loop. Our times from “the old days” seem unbelievable now. My decline, in fitness but especially in agility, is huge. It’s humbling but it’s not very important. My expectations about my running performance have changed. I’ve accepted that I’ve changed physically, and I don’t have to prove anything about my running ability.

Before we left the park, Dale asked me if I wanted to join him for an “easy” bike ride of the 25K PoCo Trail that afternoon. Dale is fifteen years younger than me, a sub-elite triathlete who devotes a high percentage of his non-work hours to training. He has the body of a whippet.

I told him that the Buntzen loop had been a big run for me; that my legs were exhausted and I’d had enough for the day. He was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm! Dale remembers how fast I used to be before my knee arthritis. I know he can’t fully understand the huge impacts that age and my knee injury have had on me.

***

When we left the park at 10:20, cars were circling the full parking lot like buzzards, and the entrance gates were closed. Cars were lined up as far as the eye could see along Sunnyside Road, waiting for the chance to be let in. This is one way the Tri-Cities’ exploding population has become obvious. I felt sorry for all the people who had planned a special holiday excursion to this beautiful forested park; now they were sitting in hot cars waiting to join the crowds that had already converged on the beach and trails.

I’m thankful that I’m an earlybird. It’s painless for me to get up early to avoid the crowds; there is nothing better than the peacefulness and freshness of summer mornings at 5 or 6 a.m.

***

After the elation and accomplishment of the run, I soon plunged into a paralyzing exhaustion. The run itself was only one cause of this, though I certainly felt the tiredness of my legs and a general stiffness in many muscles following that unaccustomed effort.

I was paying the inevitable price for getting only a broken 2–3 hours of sleep the night before, following a whole week of poor sleep.

Usually my afternoon slump after nights like this is so extreme that I feel paralyzed. Any kind of intellectual or physical work seems impossible.

In this blog, I usually write with optimism and enthusiasm about my running and cycling adventures. This reflects what I think of as the “real me.” Yet when I’m in one of my frequent lethargic states, I’m often overwhelmed by negative thoughts and a sense of hopelessness. I hope that by acknowledging this, I can reassure others that it’s all right to have these ups and downs. It seems to me that middle age is a time of bittersweet extremes, both physical and mental. The highs are wonderful, and the awareness of time’s sands running on makes middle age cherish them more than youth ever could. But the lows can also be exacerbated by the knowledge of that diminishing time and the inevitable downhill slope.

I’ve learned that I always have the capacity to bounce back from exhaustion and depression. The morning after the Buntzen run, I woke up early, rejuvenated after a good sleep. It was a perfect sunny morning. I had regained my usual energy and eagerness, and looked forward to an easy bike ride; that would be taxing enough for my sore muscles.

I was riding back along my usual route home from the lake when I was passed by a male cyclist on a road bike. He appeared to be riding easily, and quickly opened a large gap on me. Then my competitive spirit kicked in. I decided to see if I could catch him and draft for a bit. I got a big kick of adrenaline and put my quad muscles to the test. In about a minute I caught him; I only hung on for a minute or two, but it gave me my fastest kilometre ever on that part of the route!

RunHappy

The Brooks slogan gets it right.

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.

***

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You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.

 

Posted in Writing, Writing Criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017: from her daughter

My mother passed away on Sunday, April 9, 2017, after years of struggling with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

I’ve included the paragraph below as something of an introduction to my mother. My father and brothers chose not to include this paragraph in the obituary we wrote for publication in the newspapers. They felt a shorter, simpler notice was what my mother would have preferred.

Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017

(published paragraphs of obituary omitted here)

Eleanor was a brilliant high school student, one of 50 young women chosen from across Canada to participate in the Weston Tour of England in 1951, where she met the Queen Mother. Eleanor graduated from McGill University with a B.Sc. in 1955, and married Frank shortly thereafter. She chose to devote her considerable energy and talents to her family. She volunteered her time generously at her church and the library at her children’s junior high school. Always sociable, Eleanor kept her many friendships alive with dinner parties, bridge evenings, and daily coffee klatches with her neighbours. She also managed to run home businesses (including bridge lessons) and play tennis with Frank. Once her children “left the nest,” Eleanor gained employment at neighbourhood schools as a librarian and then as an office secretary. She and Frank played duplicate bridge regularly, and won awards for their excellence in bridge competitions.

Thank you

Oh, the mystery and wonder of heredity! To my mother and my father I owe the gift of life.

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My parents in 1955, around the time they were married.

My mother gave me her tremendous energy and joie de vivre. I inherited some of her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her musical ability. I have only a small part of her nurturing qualities and her domestic skills.

My temperament is quite different from my mother’s—I’m not sociable and outgoing, as she was. My mother and I never had the intimate friendship that some mothers and daughters share. This was mostly due to my reticence.

Yet I have my mother’s feminine emotionality and warmth. Through her example, I was later able to become a good mother.

My mother loved all her children wholly and unconditionally. Like most women of her generation, she put her family first and abandoned the career paths that her brilliant scholastic performance would have opened up for her—if she had remained unmarried. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rare for women to have both a high-level career and a family.

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1964: There was a time when I was a “big” sister!

***

It’s not my intention to write a detailed biography of my mother here.

Instead, I’m grappling with my thoughts and emotions of the past month, especially the last days of my mother’s life. Our family knew the end was coming. She was given a maximum of a year to live three years ago. But my mother confounded the odds and made almost miraculous recoveries several times over the past three years. She received excellent care from the palliative care team who visited her regularly at my parents’ apartment. And my father’s devoted caregiving never faltered, even though his tasks expanded at the same time as his arthritic knees made his own mobility increasingly difficult and painful.

Journal of a week: April 3­–April 9

Monday April 3

I felt great in the morning after a good sleep. It was cloudy and cold when I rode to Sasamat Lake in the morning, but by 11:00 the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day.

After my ride I realized I should phone Mom and Dad. I had been reluctant to call during the past two weeks. When I visited them early in March my mother was much weaker than she had been before. I knew when I said goodbye to her on March 9th that I might not see her again.

I could have planned another visit during a five-day gap in my work schedule, from April 3 to April 7. But I didn’t. I felt incapable of facing my mother’s suffering again.

But now, feeling strong after my bike ride, I could call.

Mom answered. When I asked how she was, she broke down, and said, “The doctor says I have to be moved to a hospital.”

Then Dad took over the conversation. He said Mom had seemed pretty good at his birthday gathering the day before. It had been a warm sunny day and my brothers had gone with Dad for his first bike ride of the season. I blabbed on about my own bike ride and the lousy Vancouver weather. But really, I was stunned by the meaning of the doctor’s decision. Yet I had known my life was about to change—that had been my intuition for the past few weeks—and it wasn’t just a change of season.

After all the topics that didn’t mean anything anymore, I blurted out something like, “Mom—if you want me to come—I will.” But she didn’t answer, and I ended the call soon after that.

Deep inside, I knew that I would go to Toronto to be with my mother—even though up until I heard her voice on the phone, I had resisted that idea. I started looking at flight availability and prices. When I talked to Keith, he offered to let me use his Air Miles points if flights were available.

My mind was still swirling, though, and a confusion of emotions was washing over me. I couldn’t make a decision immediately. My bike ride hadn’t been hard—I decided I would go to the gym and do some upper body weights. I might not be able to work out much for the rest of the week.

Walking to the rec centre, I was astonished by how much it had warmed up since my bike ride. Finally, it felt like spring!

When I got back from the gym my mind was calm and resolved. I found flights, phoned my brother to confirm he could drive me to the airport early Saturday morning for my return flight, and booked my flights.

The bad news about my mother contrasted so sharply with the beauty of the day. I couldn’t help but feel the joy of spring, and my own physical and mental strength. At the end of the day, I wrote:

But it is a solemn thing, my mother’s last days, and I’m thinking a lot about her, who she was, what a good mother she was, what love means, the cruelty of time and how it reduces a person. I am feeling the glimmer of grief through my joy in life that can’t be squelched.

Tuesday April 4

My father picked me up at Terminal 1 in Toronto about 9 p.m. and we drove immediately to Baycrest hospital, where my mother had been taken by ambulance about noon that day. Dad had already visited her during the afternoon.

I realized my father needed me as well as my mother. On that first visit to Baycrest together, we arrived at about 9:30 p.m. The pay parking machines were confusing. We stood outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out how to pay. Inside the vast hospital, the halls were empty and we couldn’t find an information desk. My father couldn’t remember how to get to the palliative care wing; nor could we find a map of the hospital. We wandered around for a while, but every step was hurting my father’s knees—he had already walked too much that day. Finally we were saved by a nurse who led us to the correct elevators and gave us clear instructions for getting to the palliative care area on the sixth floor.

As soon as my mother greeted me, I knew I had done the right thing to be with her. We got all emotional. I had worried about what to say and how to act, but when it came right down to it, my instincts took over—that night, and during my visits in subsequent days. There is a kind of adrenaline that surfaces in a crisis like this, a crisis of grief, and it enables “peak performance” though in a different way than happens from the adrenaline surge before a race.

I could see and hear the change in my mother even from my last visit less than a month earlier. All she could do now was fight to breathe. She had to remain in an almost-upright position at all times, even during the night, to be able to breathe at all. Talking was difficult and she was frequently racked by painful coughs as her body tried to expel the fluid choking her wasted lungs. She was being given morphine, not only for pain relief but to suppress the coughing somewhat so she could sleep. The morphine dosage was tricky; my mother was still intellectually sharp, and she didn’t like the “dopey” feeling the morphine gave her, but she needed to take it.

From my journal:

It strikes me now, with a clarity I haven’t had before, that when Mom dies the person who has loved me longest and most unconditionally will be gone.

I became much closer to my mother after I became a mother myself; it wasn’t until then that I understood what unconditional love meant. It’s a pure kind of love, not complicated by lust or any other way of having one’s own needs fulfilled. Even though mothers feel intense negative feelings about being trapped by motherhood, too, that love is always there. It is partly instinct, and partly a love that grows with the miracle of the child’s development and emerging personality.

1961-d AlanNanceMom.png

1961: Mom with me and baby Alan.

Wednesday, April 5

I had noticed on Tuesday night that my mother had taken almost nothing with her to the hospital. She had asked us to bring her reading glasses. I had suggested to Dad that he leave his cell phone with her the night before; she had no phone in her room. She had no TV, either, and no books. I decided to take her the book she was halfway through reading, as well as her current crossword puzzle book.

Mom had complained that the dinner they brought her on Tuesday was “horrible,” so we packed fresh strawberries cut up into small pieces, her favourite yogourt, and homemade vichysoisse that my brother Alan had put into their freezer the weekend before.

Dad and I visited Mom around noon. I helped her eat a few pieces of strawberries, but she clearly wasn’t much interested in food; she ignored the lunch the hospital provided. She didn’t want to read or do crosswords either.

After this visit I realized the full extent of my mother’s exhaustion. She no longer needed entertainment.

My brother Mike arrived at my parents’ apartment in the afternoon. He and Dad visited Mom again while I went for a ride on the bike Mike had brought for me.

Later, while we ate dinner together in the apartment, the three of us wrestled with some of the questions Dad and I had already talked about. We were worried about food; Mom didn’t have the energy to cut up food or chew much food. Apparently she had shown some interest in the chicken leg the hospital gave her for dinner, but if Mike hadn’t cut it up into small pieces for her she wouldn’t have eaten it.

Dad’s voice was broken when he said, “I feel so terrible thinking of her there all alone.” Should they have made a different choice; could they have kept Mom at home? They would have had to get 24-hour care for her; how much would that cost? She would have needed a proper hospital bed, too. And how hard it would be for Dad to have to witness her suffering, day and night!

After dinner Mike and I went back to the hospital to see Mom. We told her how bad we all felt that she had to be alone in the hospital, and asked if she thought it would be better if she was at home with a nurse helping out. Mom said something that Mike and I hadn’t thought of. She said, “I thought it was better for Dad if he got used to me not being at the apartment, while he could still visit me.”

Thursday, April 6

My father and I visited my mother around lunchtime. She was less responsive than the day before, showing little interest in food and no interest in the books we had left for her. My father brought her up to date on the latest soccer results and they talked about the teams’ prospects. We stayed for a while, and were able to talk to Mom’s doctor and social worker, but they could say nothing to reassure us.

My brother Alan and his wife Sarah, both busy with stressful jobs, planned to drive in from Waterloo to visit Mom on Thursday night. They had seen her on Dad’s birthday the previous Sunday, but I wanted a chance to see them before I went back to Vancouver. Mike was also going to bring his son Dan, just finished his second-year classes at McMaster University, to visit his Grandma that night.

My father and I were sad as we ate dinner in the dining room of the Donway (the senior’s home attached to the independent living apartments where my parents lived). Many people asked how my mother was doing. My father introduced me, and everyone said what a wonderful person my mother was and how they missed her.

My father replied politely to everyone’s inquiries and good wishes for my mother. Yet it’s so hard to respond when there is no good news!

I felt so bad for my father; maybe that’s why I broke down unexpectedly in the middle of dinner. The tears were good. They allowed me to open up to my father and show him how much I cared.  I told him how thankful I was that he and Mom had decided to have three children, and had been such good parents to all of us. Now, because of their dedication, we felt the strength of being a united, loving family. My brothers and I have always been good friends. Now I knew they would help my father in practical ways, as well as ease his loneliness somewhat after my mother was gone.

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Our family in about 1970.

My father was too tired to consider going back to the hospital, and his car is too big for me to drive, so I took four TTC buses to get to Baycrest on my own. It was a truly horrendous night; close to zero, and pouring rain. I wore five layers of clothing, and carried an umbrella and a dry pair of shoes and socks to change into if necessary. It was dark when I finally reached the warmth of Baycrest at 8:30.

I walked into my mother’s room to see her surrounded by Alan, Sarah, Mike, and Dan. I said hi to my mother and hugged her, then gave big hugs to Alan and Sarah, then Dan and Mike. Quickly pulling off layers of clothing and piling them on the window sill, I kept chatting with everyone as I pulled a chair up to my mother’s bed and put my hand on her fragile shoulder, apologizing for how cold it was. Then I announced that I had a funny story to tell about my dinner with Dad. No, I wouldn’t say anything about the deep sadness of that dinner, when I sat in my mother’s place at their usual table in the dining room.

I did have a funny story to tell though, one I knew my mother would enjoy. They had served a Chinese dinner that night, and everyone in the family knew how much my father loved fried rice. He had carefully ordered no vegetables (another instruction typical of him) and extra fried rice. When the server brought our plates to the table, we didn’t notice anything wrong until she had already sped away. But then my father looked at his plate. There were four chicken balls, an egg roll—good—plus a huge helping of beans and carrots and no fried rice!

My plate was normal—and I wouldn’t trade, because I liked fried rice too. You can imagine how I spun out this story. In the end I took my father’s heap of vegetables, and he got a new plate that contained lots of rice and so many chicken balls and egg rolls that he had to give some of them to me. We were both completely stuffed. My mother also smiled when I mentioned the lemon tarts I had enjoyed for dessert—my appetite and sweet tooth are pretty legendary in the family.

My mother didn’t have to talk much during that visit, because there were five of us there, all catching up on our news. I knew Mom was happy just to see us there, to feel the love we have for each other and for her. She was included just by listening as I gently touched her.

I admired Alan’s business shirt—it had unusual colours and looked great on him. He admitted it was a gift from Sarah, and said he liked it so much he had bought another one. Alan and Sarah have been married for less than four years—my brother found the love of his life at age 50! As Alan put his arm around Sarah, I exclaimed, “What a good-looking couple you are—we have to get a photo!”

My mother added, “They look good because they are so happy together.” Mike snapped a photo.

Mike and Dan left, and Alan, Sarah, and I stayed with Mom a little longer. After we all hugged her and said goodnight, I suggested that we chat for a few minutes at a comfortable place in the lobby before they made the long drive back to Waterloo in the rain (and snow, as it turned out!).

Sarah was shocked by how much Mom’s condition had worsened since Sunday. “Was she better when you visited in the morning?” she asked.

“No, she was worse this morning. Tonight I could see she was very happy to be surrounded by all of us, and I think she was making an effort to put on a brave face.”

“I was worried we stayed too long, that we were tiring her out,” said Sarah.

“It didn’t matter. Even breathing tires her out. She enjoyed listening to us—that’s the only thing that can help her now,” I replied.

Sarah made me feel good by saying, “That was a great story you told! When you came in the room and started telling that story it changed the whole atmosphere in the room!”

That was one of the times I felt the power and love of being part of my family.

Friday, April 7

When Dad and I visited Mom at noon on Friday, there was an obvious and ominous change in her condition—she could only whisper.

I sat down very close to her, and touched her, as always. I could hear her whispered words well, but it was difficult for Dad. Mom kept her eyes closed most of the time; because of this, Dad thought she wasn’t aware of what we were saying, and was probably in a drugged, semi-conscious state. However, I could tell she was aware of everything, because she responded appropriately to what I was saying with whispers or nods of her head.

Dad was very worried, but unfortunately, though we stayed for about 90 minutes, the doctor didn’t come at the usual time and we couldn’t ask any questions about Mom’s voice loss. Dad was getting hungry. He said some loving words to my mother, and she responded in kind, as best she could; he kissed her goodbye. I told Mom I would be back to see her that evening, and hugged her too.

Friday had turned into a beautiful sunny day, but it was still so cold I didn’t want to go for a bike ride during my free afternoon hours. Instead, I went to The Shops at Don Mills across the street from my parents’ apartment. I was in a strange emotional state: I was filled with foreboding. My flight home was early the next morning. I knew that tonight’s visit with my mother would be the last time I would see her. My mind was filled with sadness, but also busy reminiscing and mulling over what I wanted to say to my mother.

Sometimes in an emotional state like that some odd contrasts in behaviour come out. I went into one of my favourite stores, a place that has fashionable clothes in very small sizes. There, I was easy prey for a seasoned saleswoman. I was gay and enthusiastic with her. Between her choices and mine, I ended up in a changeroom with about 15 articles of clothing.

To make a long story short, in about 20 minutes I was leaving the store with over $200 worth of clothes. However, since I had come close to spending about $700, I considered myself lucky.

Dad’s form of escapism was his decision to play his usual Friday night duplicate bridge game at his club. After a Swiss Chalet dinner with him, I was once again taking my multiple-bus trip to the hospital. This time I was travelling earlier and it was a beautiful evening, though cold. When I arrived in Mom’s room, her window shades were still up, and I exclaimed over the colours of sunset that still lingered in the sky.

We were both crying when I chose to leave. Mom held my hand tightly for a while, longer than I expected. We kissed goodbye. I hate prolonged goodbyes. I walked out, walked numbly through the hospital corridors, sensing the fatefulness of this night. I would not take the Bathurst bus to Wilson; no, I would walk that stretch, letting the bitterly cold night air assault my sadness.

When I walked into the apartment (my father was still out at his bridge game), I looked at the couch, at my mother’s spot where she was always to be found unless she was in bed. I had a strange reaction: anger. She wasn’t there! She would never be there again!

I wrote in my journal:

Tonight I spent about 90 minutes with Mom. We both knew it was my goodbye. We had some reminiscing, some quiet times, and I told her all the most important things. We know we love each other.

I combed her soft hair a couple of times today. I guess I’ve never done that before. I never knew how soft her hair was, soft and fine like mine. I guess a lot of the time she had “hairdos” with lots of hairspray to hold everything in place; and a long time ago she used to get perms.

She gave me some beautiful smiles… beautiful although her mouth and lips are always dry. There is no adornment now. She cared right up until the end: lipstick, powder, hairdo, jewellery to match her outfits. Now that is all gone. All she can do is struggle to breathe.

Saturday, April 8

My father took me to Toronto Pearson airport early in the morning. Keith met me at the baggage area in Vancouver.

Shortly after we got home, I received a text from my brother Mike. He wrote that Mom had been unconscious all that day. Afterwards, Alan told me that when he and Sarah saw Mom later that afternoon, she opened her eyes briefly, tried to speak to them, and then fell back into that deepening sleep.

Sunday, April 9

Mike called to tell me Mom had passed away early in the morning. I told him it was better she didn’t have to be in pain any longer. All of us had been able to say our goodbyes to her with loving words on Thursday or Friday.

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1992. Mom with her first grandchild–my son Abebe.

 

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Vancouver’s collective depression and another hypothermic bike ride

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Soaked

I woke up this morning a little before 6:00, and registered some good things about the day. First, it was already starting to get light out. Secondly, it was a holiday—that meant no traffic noise. Instead, all I could hear through my open window was the sweet trilling of birds—and no sounds of rain!

Sundays and holidays are my favourite times to go cycling early. It’s so peaceful, and there are almost no cars on the road. So I decided this would be a bike ride morning.

Getting up, I saw the sky was ominously streaked with dark bands of gray. Rain would be coming soon.

I should have started my ride immediately. But no, I wanted to walk to Starbucks for coffee and wake up a little more. My walk was pleasant, cool but dry. By the time I had had some coffee, breakfast, and dressed warmly with several layers of clothing, including my waterproof jacket, it was almost 7:30.

Emerging on my bike from the underground parking, I felt the first drops of rain. With that came anger. Vancouver’s awful weather has been hanging on too long this year! First we had three months of snow. Mundy Park was covered for all that time, and I couldn’t run there. Now it’s mid-April, and although we’ve had a few sunny days, we haven’t had a single day that is both sunny and warm.

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The cherry blossoms are out (a month late), but Vancouver is still cold, gray, and rainy.

Vancouverites are suffering from a kind of collective depression. I’m not the only one; many of us are influenced by the continuous grayness, cold, and rain.

Yes, I felt angry. It’s a holiday! Why can’t I have an enjoyable extended ride; push myself without interference from cars (or many pedestrians, this early), stop to take photos, bask in the loveliness of spring sensations? Because spring is still not really here!

Nevertheless, today I was determined to go riding. My legs felt good—if I pushed hard, I would be able to keep warm. The best ride for that was my usual 8K up to Sasamat Lake—the climb is hard enough to get my heart and leg muscles working to their max.

However, in only a couple of minutes the few drops of rain turned into a steady, cold downpour. I should have turned back and gone later. But no—I stubbornly continued. I pushed hard; my core stayed warm for a while, but the icy water assaulted me from every direction. It was raining down on me, it was blowing uncomfortably in my eyes (and contact lenses), it was splashing up from the ever-deepening puddles until my butt, legs, and feet were completely soaked and my “waterproof” jacket was not functioning as it was supposed to.

I stopped briefly under the shelter of one of the buildings at the lake. I wanted to take a couple of photos, and transfer my phone to a safer inner pocket of my clothing. But I realized my fingers were already too frozen to be able to do these things. This ride had turned into a sufferfest, and I just had to get back home as quickly as possible.

As I rode along the road to exit the park, I noticed it had stopped raining. The sky had brightened and the lake looked eerily beautiful through the trees. But it was too late for me, and too late to take photos. Now I was riding mostly downhill. I couldn’t enjoy the wild speed I usually did; it was dangerous on the wet roads. Also, with frozen feet and fingers, I didn’t have good control of my bike.

I was getting colder and colder, and counting off the minutes as I rode back as fast as I could. Luckily, the bike path was clear—until I reached the steep little downhill to the bridge near the rec centre. There was a group of runners all across the path in front of me. My fingers were too frozen to even move my bell switch, so I yelled out, “Passing on your right!”

The runners couldn’t decide where to move, and still blocked my way, so I came to a full stop; then I struggled to gear down; my fingers had lost all their strength.

Even once I reached the warmth of my underground bike locker, I had difficulty turning the key in the lock. Back in my apartment, I struggled to remove all my layers of clothing so I could get in a hot shower.

What an idiot! Hypothermic again! Why don’t I ever learn?

Haruki Murakami on his writing process—and creative work in general

Last night I was reading a book by a writer whose style and imagination I admire—Haruki Murakami. I’ve enjoyed both his fiction (1Q84 and others) and his non-fiction (What I Talk about When I Talk About Running: A Memoir). The book of his I’m currently reading, Absolutely on Music, is about his conversations with renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.

What does this have to do with my bike ride? Well, it’s that my bike rides and runs are for me a both a source of joy and a form of escapism, whereas Murakami writes that both he and Ozawa “are happiest when absorbed in our work . . . our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward.” (p. xi)

I was awed by Murakami’s description of his daily work routine, which he has followed for over twenty-five years. He gets up at 4:00 a.m. and writes continuously for five to six hours, sipping hot coffee all the while. This is not merely one of the factors that makes him an internationally successful writer—it is what he most enjoys doing.

His ability to focus so completely on his writing reminds me that work can also be a kind of escapism. The best kind of work, creative work, is deeply satisfying and joyful. It makes external circumstances like bad weather irrelevant. It can also provide an anodyne to anxiety, depression, and nagging existential questions like “Why am I here?” Creative work, in itself, is the answer to this question.

AbsolutelyOnMusicMurakami

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ll always be a runner: the quest for self-identity

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Throughout childhood and adolescence we try to figure out “Who am I?” and we answer that question partly by attaching labels to ourselves. Before I became a runner, I identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, an actress, a violinist, and a girlfriend—but never as an athlete.

Becoming a runner

I began running regularly in the fall of 1975, at age 16. By the fall of 1977 I was a top runner nationally, winning the OFSAA senior girls’ cross-country championship and earning myself a berth on the Canadian team to compete at the World Cross-Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

Since then there have been times I’ve rebelled, inwardly, against being known as a runner above all else.

In university, I majored in biology, and worked in a lab part-time for a couple of years after graduation. I liked having a work life that was completely separate from running, and when I developed a severe injury in 1984, right before the Olympic trials (where I had hoped to run to a place on the team in the marathon), my lab job filled my daytime hours and saved my sanity.

Many years later, in 2009, I tore my right ACL in a freak accident at the gym. Before I could get the ACL repaired, my unstable leg buckled while I was running downhill. I fell to the ground awkwardly, feeling sharp pain as my knee cartilage twisted and tore. Two knee operations later, in January of 2011, my surgeon told me I could never run again.

At that time I was almost finished a two-year writing and editing program at Douglas College. I was eager to start a new career that was a good fit with my early definition of myself as a writer.

However, the thought of giving up running filled me with bitterness and panic. I couldn’t accept it. Yet I had to accept it. And it wasn’t just the physical act of running I would miss. I realized how integral running was to my life and—yes—to my very sense of myself. Most of my social life revolved around running. For years, my Saturday workouts in Mundy Park with the Phoenix club had been the highlight of my training week. And I still wanted the thrill of racing: the nervousness beforehand, the tactics and all-out effort, the relief of crossing the finish line, the exhilaration and camaraderie afterwards.

Now I had to pretend that none of that was important. It was a psychological adjustment I had to make, because I wouldn’t allow myself to be permanently miserable. Life is rich; I could  develop parts of myself that had nothing to do with running.

Keith’s support and humour helped a lot. “It sucks to be you!” he’d say, whenever I was feeling sorry for myself. I had to laugh; this was a comment from someone who had two bad knees. Keith used to love trail running, but now he had to be satisfied with mountain biking and hiking.

It turns out, though, that my running story hasn’t ended yet. Six years later I’ve proved my doctor wrong; I can still run 5–7K twice a week. But I have to be careful and disciplined about it; I have to back off sometimes when my knee flares up.

Always a runner

It’s become clearer to me than ever that I’ll never lose my identity as a runner. It will always be my destiny to be defined this way.

A week or so ago I was listening to a webinar to get some ideas on marketing myself for freelance editing work. One subject the presenter talked about was optimizing one’s online presence, especially on Google, because Google search is the most frequent way most people are found.

The presenter gave many good tips for using keywords, updating professional websites, and linking to other content to optimize Google results. However, I realized that no matter how and where I mention my editing work, the links and photos about my running will always predominate. In fact, the popularity of my running blog means that it will always come out at the top. I’ll never be most famous for my editing work!

I’ve finally realized that a good part of my life story is already written and can’t be unwritten. And I’m coming to accept that, whatever regrets I have about roads not taken, I don’t have to feel trapped or guilty about being viewed foremost as a runner. That’s just the way it is. The best I can do is use my running background in a positive way.

Running has not only shaped my identity and the way others view me. It has also permanently changed my attitude towards my body and the way I inhabit it. It has made me appreciative of all the ways physical activity can benefit people, not only for health reasons but as a means of expressing energy and the simple joy of being alive.

I could never have guessed all the ways that achieving certain running goals (especially going to the 1988 Olympics) would affect my future. Doors were opened to me that otherwise would not have been. Some of the writing and editing work I’ve done has been directly or indirectly tied to my running achievements. I often think that being a past Olympian is the characteristic that distinguishes me from other editors; logically, it is not a qualification relevant to editing, yet it can’t help but attract attention. I know, also, that people assume an Olympian must have certain positive traits—such as the ability to work hard, to be disciplined, and to persevere in spite of hardships and obstacles.

Back on the track

Ironically, on the same day I realized that online I would always show up as a runner first and an editor second, I did my first track workout in almost a year. My Running Room friend Zahida introduced me to the unusual 560m track at Empire Field near the PNE.

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Empire Field track

It was a holiday Monday; a gorgeous sunny day that gave us spectacular views of the North Shore mountains as we did our workout.

It was a hard workout, but it reminded me of all the sensations and emotions that running gives me. My body still has power and speed. The speed itself is certainly greatly diminished, but the sensations of running fast are still the same. And afterwards, I felt so high, happy, and relaxed.

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Finishing a hard 1,200m

There is a psychological duality for me now when I think about running. At the same time as I recognize how much running means to me, I have to deny its importance because I know it can’t be so important any longer; I could be forced to stop at any time; I need to focus on other pursuits.

The best I can do is enjoy each running moment as it happens.

Who am I?—and beyond

Asking “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” and experimenting with answers starts in childhood and adolescence, but it doesn’t have to end at age 21 or even age 30. This can be a lifetime quest.

This post has mostly been about the way people view me as a runner, and my acceptance that I am a runner. Even when I no longer run, “runner” will always be a component of my identity.

But like everyone else, I’ve played many roles during my life, and I know that my identity is much more multi-faceted than being “a runner.” I’ve identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, a musician, an actress, a girlfriend, a biologist, a wife, a mother, a teacher, an editor, a salesperson—and more—but who am I, really?

There can be a danger in playing many roles. The danger of feeling like a fake . . . or a fragmented person, without integrity.

The key is being certain of the answers to the following questions:

Who am I, when I’m alone? When I’m not being anything for anyone else?

Do I know myself? Can I feel my spirit? Am I at peace?

Yes.

And I know that some of my roles are integral to the “real” me.

  • I’ll always love books because they transport me into other people’s minds—and I need that closeness. They transport me to other places and times—giving me the discovery, escape, and fantasy that I crave.
  • I’ll always be a writer because that is the best way to express my thoughts and imagination. I want to shape stories.
  • I’ll always be a runner because that is a big part of how I express my animal nature. I’ve learned the physical joy of running’s power and rhythm.

Those are the main ways I identify myself. There is a place for all the other roles I listed above, too. But I must know that it’s entirely up to me how much I take on a certain role.

Moreover, when I am alone, in the silence, I feel that there is an “I” that is not “what” I do or “who” I am in relation to anyone else. That is what I mean by my spirit.

Then, if I touch another person’s spirit and share mine, we have intimacy. This can happen in close friendship, romantic love, long-term love. In this state there is complete acceptance of the other and the security of knowing my spirit is accepted.

This sense of complete mutual acceptance can happen through physical intimacy. The ironic part is that bodies, and the pleasure they give us, can sometimes lead to a transcendent state where the physical beauty of a body melts away to an indescribable “vision” of the spirit within that body, the body which is only a fragile and impermanent shell.

An afterword from Bruce Lee

We can perfect a role that we are expected to play; but in the words of Bruce Lee, there is a distinction between “self-image actualization” and “self-actualization.”

And why does creating make someone happy? This quote from Bruce Lee explains:

By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul.

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Psychology, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book review of My Struggle 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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I’ve just finished reading A Man in Love, book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page, 6-volume autobiographic “novel,” My Struggle. This work was a sensation in Norway, where one in nine citizens has bought a copy. My Struggle has been translated into many languages; the first volume published in English by translator Don Bartlett was released in 2012 and the sixth volume will be published shortly (in 2017).

Reading My Struggle is addictive. It’s like getting inside another person’s head and following their stream of consciousness. Knausgaard’s topics range from the utterly banal details of his domestic routines (including cigarette breaks, coffee breaks, and garbage disposal) to peak moments of ecstatic happiness. There is no censorship as he analyzes his friends’ personalities and relationships, his own rocky marriage, his pitiless self-criticism and despair (which sometimes extends to suicidal thoughts), and musings about life’s existential questions and their treatment by philosophers and writers both famous and obscure.

I can think of three reasons why My Struggle has become a massive success wherever it has been published:

  1. Knausgaard is emotionally honest. We, the readers, are not simply voyeurs of his life. We recognize our own fears, insecurities, joys, and irrationalities.
  2. The sheer amount of detail makes this book more like “real life” than a normal book. My Struggle breaks the rules of writing. There is no editing, no winnowing out the unimportant. This is part of his point, part of the paradox of life: we have to live with this deluge of everyday domestic routines and repetitive conversations and thoughts, which at times contrasts so ridiculously with our most sublime experiences and emotions.
  3. Knausgaard can write. His work has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu  (In Search of Lost Time). However, the rest of us could not get away with 3,600 pages of autobiographical meanderings.

One evening I read a short passage in the book that demonstrated all of this. Here is what I wrote about it:

I just finished reading a description of an evening they [Karl Ove and Linda] had together. They were about to watch a movie. She gave him a small touch and looked at him and the movie was ignored. They made love instead. That’s really how it happens. And he describes this in just a few spare sentences, yet makes it clear how profound it was. He was sure they were creating another child that evening. Somehow, in those simple sentences he conveys his awe, his love for Linda, his utter physical and spiritual satisfaction, and his sense of being overwhelmed by fate in this matter of creating a new human being.

My Struggle will resonate with every reader in different ways. What I found compelling is that Knausgaard expresses the unresolveable duality and ambiguity of life in so many ways. A Man in Love, is about the part of his life following his first, eight-year marriage. It is about his falling in love with Linda, and the four years soon after that, during which time they had three children.

How can there help but be conflict when a man’s daily life revolves around childcare and the endless domestic tasks of being a house-husband, yet what he burns for above all is to be alone with his writing?

His description of his first months with Linda shows a man so brimming with happiness he can’t contain it, and the couple’s friends see that they are each other’s entire world. But from this height, he falls to a state where his most frequent emotions are resentment, anger, frustration and boredom. He seems ruthless when he states that Linda needs him more than he needs her—he admits that for him writing is more important than anything, and if Linda won’t give him time for it, he will leave her. They go through a repeated cycle in which Linda suffers from depression and lethargy, and Karl Ove must do far more than his “share” of the domestic work. He does so—however unwillingly—but writes that the only outlet for his anger, the only “revenge” he can take, is to withhold his love from Linda. Yet because he still does love her, they always make up again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Almost anyone who has ever been a parent can understand Knausgaard’s conflicting thoughts about fatherhood. On the one hand, he analyzes his children’s personalities and is filled with joy, pride, and amazement about his children’s abilities and the distinctive personalities they express even as very young children. He and Linda welcome the news of each pregnancy with happiness and excitement. Yet the daily demands of taking care of children dramatically affect the couple’s relationship. Karl Ove and Linda fight about who gets time to relax and who “gets” their firstborn, Vanja—even though they both love her so much.

***

Above all I enjoyed reading Knausgaard because he doesn’t simplify life or come up with neat answers, despite his endless self-examination. He wants to be a good father, he wants to be a good person, but he often can’t. He agonizes about being two-faced—he says he can’t be himself with most people because he can’t bear conflict and therefore just says and does what he thinks others will accept. He writes about the psychological torment he feels before giving lectures about his books—even though his talks are successful, he says he’s just spouting falsehoods.

Yet he chose to write and publish My Struggle, to expose himself and those closest to him to the scrutiny of the world. The inside cover of my copy of A Man in Love quotes him saying, “I will never do anything like this again . . . I have given away my soul.”

It may have been the childhood abuse from his alcoholic father (which he sees as a major force in shaping him) that drove him to write about his life. The first book in My Struggle (entitled A Death in the Family) is about his father. (In my typical random fashion, I have read only Book 4, Dancing in the Dark—two years ago—and now, Book 2.)

But also, isn’t it true that writing is an attempt to capture our never-ending stream of thought—our very “aliveness”? Isn’t this what is behind the compulsion to write? It is for me. Karl Ove Knausgaard has done this—his My Struggle sequence of novels is an extreme case. He succeeds because of his exceptional energy and talent as a writer, the richness of his mind (I have to admit some of his philosophical digressions and analyses of Norwegian writers were beyond me), and his emotional honesty.

Further reading

The first five volumes of My Struggle has been translated into English by Don Bartlett. Martin Aitken has joined Bartlett to translate Volume 6, to be released in 2017.

You can read a fascinating interview with Don Bartlett in The Los Angeles Review of Books, in which he talks about the stamina and creativity he needed to translate My Struggle.

For an extensive review of Volume 1, A Death in the Family, read James Wood’s 2012 review in The New Yorker. This review is an excellent piece of long-form journalism. Wood felt it essential to include lengthy quotes from the book; it’s the best way to reveal the breadth, tone, and subjects of Knausgaard’s writing.

Another article in The New Yorker, Maria Bustillos’ “By Anonymous: Can a Writer Escape Vulnerability?” addresses the aftermath of the publication of My Struggle in Norway. What happens when a writer makes public the most intimate secrets of his friends’ and relatives’ relationships and afflictions? For Knausgaard, the consequences have been severe. His father’s side of the family threatened to sue him. His brother isn’t speaking to him. His wife had a nervous breakdown and their marriage almost fell apart.

He has said he wouldn’t do it again—but luckily, for us, his readers, My Struggle is out there and perhaps it can give us solace with our own struggles.

 

 

 

 

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The middle-aged athlete: bliss on a precipice

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View from “the Bear Loop”

In middle age, those of us who still love to run—if we’re blessed with good health and body parts that are holding together—know that we’re not too old to experience physical bliss.

I thought of calling it “physical perfection” but then what athlete over 40 or 50 can measure up to an athlete in their prime? What I really mean by perfection or bliss is simply experiencing one’s body as being in a state of complete contentment and harmony.

In the past month, I’ve achieved this state many times while running. Such a sense of wholeness has been rare for me since I tore my right ACL in 2009. It’s been difficult, and at times impossible, for me to experience my body as being “whole” the way it used to be. After all, I’ve had two knee surgeries; my ACL is repaired but my cartilage is all gone; I’ll never be able to fully straighten my leg again.

Yet I’ve been immensely grateful that I can still run a little, despite my surgeon’s warning six years ago that I could no longer run. Usually my knee can handle  two 6K runs a week, but often there is some discomfort, sometimes pain; and always the awareness of being somewhat crippled. (See my posts “My knee is an Alien,” and “Why do people tell me I’m limping?”)

Lately I’ve been able to run a little more than usual. This is ironic, since December’s heavy snowfall has prevented me from running in Mundy Park; I’ve had to resort to running on the well-salted sidewalks and quiet residential streets of Port Moody. Pavement has always hurt my knee more than soft trails, but, inexplicably, I’ve been able to do a few 8K pavement runs without any ill effects. I’ve also done some runs on the dikes of Port Coquitlam, where the snow and ice have melted away.

I’ve been surprised how easy it is to run on flat pavement (or gravel dikes), compared to Mundy Park’s hilly terrain. Maybe that has allowed me to get into a steady rhythm (and a decent pace!) where my body feels like the efficient, made-for-running machine it used to be. I’m light; I have a long stride; when I push the pace a little I can rejoice in my harder breathing, thankful for the strong heart and lungs that powered me through so many races.

Sun Run 10K?

After I did an 8.5K run a couple of weeks ago I realized suddenly that—if I wanted to—I could run the Sun Run 10K! Running 1.5K further would be easy.

I swore to myself several years ago that I would never again compete at a distance longer than 5K—or, possibly, 8K cross country. Pavement is too damaging to my knee. The rare 5K races I do are always followed by a period of pain and recovery for my knee.

The problem with doing the Sun Run is that I likely wouldn’t have the self-control to just participate, to do the run at an easy pace as an affirmation of being able to run, to soak up the atmosphere of celebration and camaraderie as tens of thousands of runners and walkers pour through Stanley Park and the streets of Vancouver. No, my innate competitiveness and pride would compel me to run hard and my knee might suffer severely. So—the Sun Run should remain a fantasy for me. Still, I found myself excited that the thought that I could do it!

The heart of this story

On Monday I drove to the start of what Keith and I call the “Bear Loop,” an 8K loop around some berry fields in Port Coquitlam. Half of the route is a gravel dike that runs along the slough and the Pitt River.

 

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Another runner on the frosty dike

I arrived just after sunrise. The day was mostly cloudy, and the newly-risen sun was hidden, but its light made some beautiful gold and reddish colours in the sky.

It was cool, just a little above zero; and still—perfect for running. But this was a morning when I wasn’t physically or mentally “normal.” I had slept only a little the night before. This run would be a solace for me, the best part of what I expected to be a hard day.

The day before, I had learned how quickly life can change. Keith had had a heart attack—seven weeks after his hip replacement surgery.

Sunday

I was almost finished my Sunday shift at the Running Room when Keith texted me from Lions Gate Hospital to say they were taking him to St. Paul’s Hospital for some tests. In fact, he had dropped in to the store a couple of hours earlier, complaining of heartburn. I had felt twinges of fear, then. Yet I hadn’t ordered Keith to go to the hospital, or made the (sensible) decision to take him there myself—my co-worker could have handled the customers for a while. Such is the power of denial. Luckily, Keith had made a smart decision and driven himself to the hospital immediately after seeing me.

I phoned him from the store. We had a brief talk, during which he reassured me that he was fine though “they suspect I had a heart attack this morning” and he would be taken to St. Paul’s any minute.

By the time I got to Lions Gate Keith was already gone, and the Emergency nurse didn’t know if he would be staying at St. Paul’s that night or returning to Lions Gate. I had to go home and wait.

***

It was while I was eating dinner in my apartment that what had happened became real to me. Exactly 24 hours earlier, Keith had been with me in my apartment. We had been enjoying one of our leisurely Saturday-evening dinners together; candlelight, red wine, fresh bread, and the delicious aroma of beef stew. Keith had done an easy workout on an Arc trainer when we were at the rec centre earlier that day, and he was walking very well for someone who had got a new hip less than two months before.

How could everything have changed so suddenly?

The words for what I was feeling came to me: deep loneliness. Not the ordinary loneliness that I sometimes feel when I’m eating dinner in my apartment. I was so anxious, so bewildered, and who could I talk to about it?

For seven years, Keith has been the person I can talk to about anything. He is the person I can call in the middle of the night, no matter what the reason. I remembered the terrible year when George’s health was deteriorating. I would hear the thumping of his cane as he stumbled around the house in the middle of the night. I knew he was in pain and couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t help him. In my own despair and sleeplessness, I would phone Keith for comfort.

Now, I tried to phone Keith, and I sent texts, but there was no response. He had already warned me that his phone was low on power.

Finally, at 7:45, I got a text from him! “I am fine. I had 99% blockage in one artery, but they put in a stent and now I’m fine.”

Typical Keith! 99% blockage but he still says, “I’m fine.”

We had a short conversation, then sent each other many texts at bedtime. Ironically, he was the one who reassured me after all.

It was only the next day, when I visited him at St. Paul’s, that he told me about his ambulance trip from Lions Gate to St. Paul’s. He recalled lying in the ambulance and seeing that they were going over the Lions Gate Bridge at high speed. “How come there’s no traffic on the bridge?” he asked one of the ambulance attendants.

“They’ve opened up the middle lane just for you,” the attendant replied.

Keith realized later that they knew every minute counted. If the 99% blockage had turned into 100%, he wouldn’t have made it.

It was also only the next day that he told me about the out-of-control bleeding from his femoral artery that occurred during his surgery. He had to spend the night with a big, painful clamp on his inner thigh to make sure the artery didn’t start to bleed again. Now he has a huge bruise covering most of his upper leg.

But Keith is tough and his prognosis is good.

***

Monday’s run

In spite of my physical and emotional exhaustion, Monday’s run was a good one. Maybe even a blissful one. The reality is that the fastest kilometre of that run would have felt like an easy jog to me thirty years ago. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I felt that sensation of rhythmic perfection. And all committed runners know the high that comes afterwards; the chemical bath that permeates the brain and smooths the way to coping with all anxieties and problems.

As with the rest of my “long” runs this month, my knee felt only slightly uncomfortable after—and not for long. I like the way my leg muscles feel after running, too—the pleasant fatigue and sensation of being well-stretched. Despite my age, I can still feel sometimes that my body is perfectly tuned, that my legs still are supple, quick, and strong. If it’s an illusion I’ll take it.

What is “fine”?

Along with my thankfulness about still being healthy and able to run comes the worry, sometimes, about how dependent I am on feeling physically good. As an aging athlete, it’s hard to think about the inevitability of the body’s decline. There will be a time when I have to stop running completely. Since my knee surgeries, I’ve known that time could come any day.

Keith and I have talked about my addiction to exercise and the sorrow I feel about the pain and limitations I see older people (my parents, especially) experiencing. Keith believes that as older people’s worlds shrink, their expectations change, and they can be content to do less. I agree with him to some extent, but I also think people are often forced to stop what they love to do long before they’re ready; there is a lot of rebellion and despair before acceptance comes.

For now, I cherish my body’s bliss and “wholeness” on the good days.

Keith’s spirit is strong, and he will try to become “whole” again—or as close as he can.

So what is “fine”? Bliss, wholeness, or simply being alive?

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December darkness and a bright New Year 2017

December is over and all the hopes and plans for new beginnings are upon us.

For me, December is a time for reflection, and I’ll share some of my thoughts before moving on to January—a time for action!

What is December?

No other month of the year has the stark contrasts of December.

December means Christmas and holidays, of course. Physically, December’s contrasts are obvious. The outside environment is dark many hours of out twenty-four. It can be a time of bitter cold, gently falling snow, or miserable rain. We turn indoors for festive lights, warmth, the aromas of pine trees, mulled wine, and baked treats. Indoors we find lots of company, whether at crowded malls or theatre performances or friends’ parties.

The psychological contrasts of December are opposite to the physical ones. Outwardly, December is a time of joy and love. The deepest message of Christmas is a non-commercial meaning of giving. Christians believe that Jesus was a gift from God to us, and Jesus atones for our sins. But whatever your faith, you can probably believe in the kind of giving that means giving of ourselves: our time, our gratitude, our love—not only to our families and friends, but to those who are truly in need.

The psychological underbelly of December is the despair that can come to those who are alone; possibly poor, sick, or suffering from addiction. The brightness and good fortune that appear to belong to others makes physical or spiritual deprivation seem especially bitter. The hostility of the outdoor world only adds to the desperation.

December is both extravert and introvert, and perhaps people experience this month differently depending on their temperament.

To me, it’s the introspective side of December that best matches my nature. It’s a time of reflection, when I can often be happy indoors, by myself, reading and writing. But music is essential for the times when being alone turns to loneliness. Lately I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen songs constantly.

But I’m too restless and energetic to stay inside for long, no matter what the weather. I celebrate the outdoors however I can. I have two favourite kinds of December days. The first is when snow is falling heavily and even ordinary or familiar places are transformed into magical settings. I love the way snow muffles sounds and everything is peaceful.

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Lost Lake in Mundy Park

The second kind of December days I like (not available in most of Canada) are the cold but dazzling sunny ones when there is no snow and I can go for bike rides on the PoCo trail and the dikes. The December sun, so low in the sky, is rare and beautiful like a jewel. December’s sunny days are not sleepy and lazy like summer’s—or mellow like October’s—they are bracing, heady, energizing, times to be seized and enjoyed during their few brief hours.

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View of the Pitt River from the dike trail

I won’t be going to Mexico or Hawaii to avoid this season’s darkness, rain, and snow. I’m sure I would love to be there if I could, and I understand the desire to escape from Canada in the winter, especially when it rains for 15 days in a row.

Yet I’m content to be here and appreciate whatever December throws at me. I’m aware of daily and seasonal cycles and I don’t want to miss anything. How could I love summer as much as I do if I didn’t keep the memory of December’s bitter cold and darkness in my bones?

As Sheryl Crow’s song says,

It’s not having what you want

It’s wanting what you’ve got

—“Soak Up The Sun” (irony anyone?)

December 2016’s nadir

This December I had some especially low points. My partner Keith’s hip surgery was a difficult time and I felt guilty about not being able to help him more. Multiple pressures and uncertainties in my life were exacerbating my problems with insomnia; lack of sleep affects mood; it can become a vicious circle. Then the weather made it impossible to enjoy my scenic bike rides and short runs, depriving me of my favourite mood-changer…

December’s final spiteful act was to send a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. I endured a knuckle-whitening drive to Keith’s (he still can’t drive) so we could spend the next couple of days together. Our dinner was late that night, but overshadowing my exhaustion was a huge sense of gratefulness for making it home safely.

I don’t know how it is but my spirits always come back up like a yo-yo returning to its home. There was a day last week when I slept especially badly. Leaving the rec centre after yet another lab-rat gym workout, I couldn’t take my usual enjoyable meandering walk home via the Inlet. No, it was cold and raining miserably. I had to concentrate fully on my feet as I walked along the icy path. Once I reached clear pavement, though, my mind could be free, and that was when I noticed I felt strong and positive again. Undoubtedly it was partly the endorphins my workout had sparked. But it was also a conscious gratitude for some of the good things and people in my life. For my health, especially, during this month when there have been so many celebrity deaths, friends suffering from terrible flus, and Keith’s hip surgery.

My good spirits come from something else that is a mystery. It’s when I feel assurance of my own strength. It’s when I can accept and love myself despite my faults, failures, and times of agonizing doubt. It’s recognizing that I have something more valuable than money or possessions: a capacity to feel joy, and people to share it with.

New Year’s Day

Vancouver’s reward for the previous day’s storm was a New Year’s Day of breathtaking white beauty. What a perfect start to the New Year! I got out to run outside and Keith did his longest walk since his hip surgery three weeks ago. There is no need for more words: I hope I can share some of my New Year’s optimism with some of yesterday’s photos.

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Just after sunrise Cypress Bowl peaks light up

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Mount Seymour and Cypress a little later in the morning

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Late afternoon at Como Lake

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Keith in the Mundy Park winter wonderland

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Near Lost Lake in Mundy Park

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Happy New Year!

 

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Zadie Smith talks to Eleanor Wachtel about dance, Swing Time, and joy

I’m driving my car on the highway on a dark Vancouver evening between five and six o’clock. I have to concentrate on the road because the rain is pelting down. My wipers are going furiously and water has pooled in many places on the road. The traffic is moderate; everyone is driving slowly, wanting to get home alive on this Sunday night.

The outside world is hostile, and my eyes and a part of my mind must be on full alert to it. But my other senses and another corner of my mind are relaxed, engaged, filled with a sense of well-being. That’s because I’m listening to the cultured, soothing voice of British novelist Zadie Smith as she speaks with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC radio’s Writers & Company.

***

Zadie Smith became a successful novelist at only 24 years of age with the publication of her novel White Teeth, which won three first novel awards. She has also written the highly acclaimed novels NW and On Beauty. Wachtel calls Smith a “brilliant essayist.” She has written essays for The New Yorker, The Guardian and other top periodicals, and published an essay collection called Changing My Mind.

zadiesmithswingtime_Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, provided Wachtel with fertile grounds for conversation in Sunday’s interview. I encourage everyone to listen to the full podcast here.

I enjoyed every minute of their conversation, but it was Smith’s thoughts about joy that touched me the most. When I reached home and drove out of the heavy rain into the warmth and light of my condo’s underground parking lot, Smith was talking about the differences between joy and pleasure. I was entranced—I had to stay in my car for the last minutes of the interview.

The topic of joy had emerged earlier in the conversation  when Smith was talking about her essay “What Beyoncé Taught Me,” and what she had written about the connection between dance and writing.

“To me, the great lesson of dance is joy,” said Smith. She further explained that “dance is the expression of a way of being,” in much the same way as a writer’s style is an expression of their way of being. “Dance is the expression of a personality through form.”

I felt the thrill of recognition when Smith talked about great dancers and a great dance performance. My running friends will also understand the similarity between a beautiful dance performance and a perfectly-executed track race. Smith noted that an extraordinary amount of practice and work must be done by even the most gifted dancers, “but in the performance … the thing seems like a natural act … fluidity … the work is in some way hidden.

At the end of the interview, Smith was talking about her personal response to joy in. She admitted that like many writers, she has a “melancholy strain,”—yet she also possesses a huge capacity for joy, and frequently finds joy and beauty in everyday life. “Almost too much so,” she said. In her voice I heard a plaintiveness that added to the expressiveness of her words.

She tried to explain some of the paradoxes of joy and the way she experiences it. She spoke of how in today’s world, more than ever before, we are always globally connected, always aware of how other people live, the daily difficulties and horrors so many face. This leads her to the questions,  “How can you have fun in life? What gives me the right?”

She added, “Joy is a difficult emotion to manage … I find joy to be a sublime emotion—always tinged with terror—of loss [giving her children as the best example]… Can joy last?”

She believes that some people choose to live at a “less-high pitch”; they control their range of emotions. She’s heard about people in Japan called “shut-ins,” who spend almost all of their time alone, interacting with people only online. Smith understands this: sometimes, she says, she feels an instinct to shut down, to try to “manage” emotion.

Smith and Wachtel talked about the differences between joy and pleasure. Pleasure is easier to handle; there are many small pleasures; they can be bought, and they don’t last very long; Smith likened them to soap bubbles. In contrast, you can’t demand joy or get it when you want it.

“It comes over you. Maybe that’s why it’s so unnerving—it’s not controllable.”

Listening to Smith’s lovely voice on that rainy drive was a great pleasure for me. But the deeper good feeling came from her words about joy, and the way they harmonized with my own experiences of it. I know that I feel joy, and the glow of it had been with me all that day. And even on the bleakest November days, and during times of seemingly-hopeless discouragement, I remember that joy is renewable and irrepressible.

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