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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Books 2016: A year of strange characters, both fictional and “fictionalized”

This year I wished I had a blog that functioned as an online readers’ salon. I read many books, and though most of them were neither new nor at the forefront of literary discussions in Canada, they each deserved a full review. I wanted to write about them because they were all in some way unusual, ambiguous, and thought-provoking.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to write when each book was still fresh in my mind. Instead, I hastily typed out some reactions and comments, and these formed the basis of what I wrote about the books below:

Hope Makes Love and Practical Jean by Trevor Cole

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop by Amy Witting

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry

Charlotte by David Foenkinos, translated by Sam Taylor

Summertime by John Coetzee

Of the six authors included above, three (Cole, Ferrante, and Coetzee) are currently well known and have earned multiple prizes and accolades. The other three, I suspect, might not be familiar to many Canadian readers.

What they have in common, and what intrigued me, is the strangeness of their characters. All of their main characters are damaged, isolated, crazy, or tragic in some way. Another common feature of these books is an unconventional structure or point(s) of view. They are highly sophisticated in their openness, their willingness to describe unconventional characters and relationships. This strangeness both comforted me, and at times puzzled me.

These books satisfied my curiosity about people. They are all classified as fiction, but at least some of the characters are based on real-life people. Whether “real” or not, each book gave me characters that satisfied my need to “meet” new people, to try to understand minds that are entirely different from my own. Part of the pleasure of reading is that it offers an escape, not only from the physical place and routines of one’s real life, but from the confines of one’s own mind.

At times my mind torments me with its anxieties, or I realize its smallness and its need to escape.

I like books that make me think—even about the writer’s purpose in producing them. I thought the books above captured the chaos and ambiguity of life more accurately than conventional narratives.

These novels were extraordinary and well written; yet I also saw flaws in them, and in some ways they left me unsatisfied. But perhaps this is a characteristic of writers who are not writing according to any kind of formula; they are not seeking, above all, to please their readers.

Part of my purpose in writing about these books is to ask questions about them. What gripped me? What puzzled me—in a good way, in the sense that I became an “active” reader who was wrestling with the questions and uncertainties they raised in my mind? What do other readers think?

What I’ve written below is taken from the hasty notes I made while I was reading (or shortly after finishing) each book. These notes are incomplete and fragmentary. They can’t be taken as book reviews. They simply give some insight (I hope) into one reader’s thought processes in attempting to interpret books and relate their ideas to personal experience. I have put the books in the order I read them.

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child

storyoflostchildjpg(by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Note 1: These books are the first and fourth of the four “Neopolitan Novels.” Because of availability (and the quirkiness of the way I choose to read books), I skipped the second and third books in the series.

Note 2: The Neopolitan Novels have received rave reviews from all over the world. Elena Ferrante added to the mystery of her books by using a pseudonym and refusing to interact with the press. I heard that her true identity was “outed” in 2016, but I choose not to write about that here.

The 800 or so pages I read would be overwhelming to describe and critique in detail. The notes I made (see below) mainly express my dissatisfaction with the books. Yet I read these two volumes because I wanted to—I didn’t tire of them—they gripped me.

I’ve finished reading The Story of the Lost Child. I’ve been immersed in the book for weeks. Most of the time I enjoyed it, it intrigued me, but it left me unsatisfied. For a book that has received such huge accolades, it seemed flawed to me. For a while the mystery of Lila (the narrator’s “brilliant friend”) attracted me, but then I became frustrated because I couldn’t understand her at all. I felt as though the writer and the narrator, Lila’s friend Elena, were giving so many contradictory accounts of Lila that they didn’t know her either. Why would the “brilliant friend” not have gotten a higher education, moved away from the neighbourhood, and travelled? Was Lila paralyzed by her strange psychological affliction, the “blurring” of people? If she was mentally ill, I didn’t recognize her illness. What was it?

The way she had power over people was explicable when she was young; she was a beautiful woman, and obviously bright. But what explanation was there for the continued hold she had over people?

Why did Elena love Nico for so long? Nico reminded me of Paul [my ex-husband]. Yes, I loved Paul passionately for a long time, just as Elena did Nico. Yet he was not really the person I thought him to be. Like Paul, Nico was a womanizer, but he was apparently sincerely and utterly in love with each woman he was with. Well, there is my answer, I guess.

The book puzzled me because the many “characters of the neighbourhood” came into the story again and again, so they came to life—in a way. But I have a sense that something was missing—they never came to life fully; only Elena herself did.

Why did Lila disappear at the end? Did she commit suicide? Was there no other answer to explain the mystery of her?

I feel as though Ferrante (also named Elena) might be telling her own story, though calling it fiction.

Hope Makes Love and Practical Jean (by Trevor Cole)

Hope Meets Love cover

Hope Makes Love was published in 2015 to rave reviews. Cole’s writing compels readers to love his characters, quirks, flaws and all. This page-turner alternates points of view between Zep, an ex-major league baseball player trying to win back his estranged wife’s love, and a neuroscientist named Hope who guides Zep through a scientific experiment designed to do just that.

Their voices are utterly different; Zep’s is at times profane, almost always funny, and casual in an endearing way. Hope narrates with the clinical tone of a scientist; yet Cole manages to put enough clues into what Hope writes that we can “read between the lines” to understand the human being behind the clinician. In fact, Hope is a deeply scarred person. The section of the book that reveals the source of her trauma leaves readers hanging on a razor’s edge of horrified suspense.

I had the good fortune to accidentally tune into a radio interview of Cole months after I finished reading Hope Makes Love. I was surprised to hear that he was worried about how he handled the subject of childhood sexual abuse; he was afraid that it made the book too “dark.” What surprised me was that Cole didn’t seem to realize that in creating the astonishing and beautiful love story between Hope and a young man who falls unshakeably in love with her, he had written a book that was overwhelmingly about the hope and power of love, its ability to outshine all darkness. Also, Cole’s writing is deeply funny because it makes obvious the striking contrast between Hope’s clinical analysis of love and her subjective experience of it.

I was so impressed with Hope Makes Love that I vowed to read everything else by Trevor Cole. I managed to pick up Practical Jean at my local library. This book about an outrageous murderer who believes she is killing her victims to spare them pain and suffering is meant to be a satire; I actually found it fairly plausible at first, until the murders became too grisly. It was an enjoyable read, though, filled with humour and the suspense of “Who’s next?”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry)

breteastonellisotherdogs

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs was a strange yet compelling book. It was convincing as a portrait of real people, though most of its characters were desperately sad. The book seems realistic because of its strange characters and apparent aimlessness—it’s more like “real life” than a standard novel would be. It certainly wasn’t uplifting, and I was trying to figure out why I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

Maybe I liked it because its unusual structure and unpredictability kept leading me on. The book is roughly divided into three parts, each of which focuses on one major character; yet all three parts are united by the character of Alba Cambó, a fascinating woman who lives life to the hilt but knows she is dying of cancer. Each part of the book is a story-within-a-story, narrated by the main character from the first story, a young girl named Araceli. All of the three main characters are unbearably alone and sad, each in his or her own way.

Araceli never meets a man who matches Benicio Mercader, a man she fell in love with as a child. In her imagination, she created a romance between the two of them, and no real man could fulfill this fantasy.

Madame Elaine Moreau, Araceli’s French teacher, has no friends and hates her pupils. She is unable to connect with people properly. She even rebuffs a young boy who is in love with her—she is hostile to all warmth.

Rodrigo Auscias is a man who comes to Araceli, ostensibly for paid sex, but what he really wants is someone who will listen to his sad story of estrangement from his wife, Encarnatión. Even within their marriage, he is unable to achieve any intimacy with her, and she finally leaves him.

Madame Moreau is a mysterious character. She is totally unlikeable and blunt. She has a bleak outlook on life. Yet for some reason she is drawn to Alba. (There are suggestions that she worships Alba because she is a writer whose stories have been published in the magazine Semejanzas.) When she finds out that Alba is her student Araceli’s neighbour, she invites Araceli and Alba over for dinner at her flat.

The dinner is a failure; yet at the end of the book, we find out that Madame Moreau was Alba’s devoted caregiver during the last weeks of her life, after Alba’s lover, unable to cope with her illness, deserts her. It is Madame Moreau who takes care of all the funeral arrangements and the distribution of Alba’s possessions.

Rodrigo Auscias comes to Araceli as her first client for sex. (We find out later that Alba set up this meeting before she died; she wanted Araceli’s first john to be someone who would be gentle with her). But it turns out Rodrigo doesn’t want sex; he just wants someone who will listen to his story; for that he is willing to pay double, and he stays up all night to tell Araceli his story. This forms the last third of the book.

I became frustrated trying to understand this story. Rodrigo describes a marriage during which he spent many years being distant from his wife, watching her from afar in a worshipful way as she spent hours doing crossword puzzles. They hardly communicated. Why was Rodrigo initially so satisfied with this relationship?

As time passed, Encarnatión became a serious alcoholic, but Rodrigo still didn’t probe into the causes of her unhappiness.

As Rodrigo tells his story to Araceli, he keeps insisting that he has always loved his wife, but as a reader I can’t understand what he means by that. What unites him with his wife? Nothing, it seems, and it’s clear to readers that throughout the marriage she was always terribly depressed.

Then, Rodrigo relates, Encarnatión fell in love with Ilich, a man that Rodrigo has painted as a manipulative bastard. How can she love this man? What kind of man is Rodrigo, really, if Encarnatión prefers Ilich to him? Does Ilich have characteristics that make him loveable and attractive to women, that Rodrigo is incapable of seeing? Is the explanation simply that many women fall for men who are “bad boys”?

Wolff’s skill is her ability to make Rodrigo’s mysterious story enjoyable, somehow, and to make him a sympathetic character—at first. But the novel keeps unfolding to reveal the complexities of how all the characters’ lives are intertwined. Readers find out that Rodrigo is an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to describing Ilich. It turns out that Rodrigo, Alba, and Ilich had a sexual threesome one night. This was part of a plan Alba had for getting Ilich out of her life. She knew Ilich would be able to blackmail Rodrigo with phone videos of the escapade. Ilich needed Rodrigo’s connections to get into the lucrative timber business.

At the end, Rodrigo is horribly callous to Alba. Near death, she tells Rodrigo that there is one thing that keeps her going—“The idea that I have done some good … that I’ve had some kind of positive impact on the people closest to me. If I have managed to make them feel happiness, my life won’t have been in vain…And I can die in peace.” (p. 289)

And Rodrigo narrates, “…I could hear my own voice saying that fuck no…she hadn’t been a positive force in my life. A curse is what she had been, an absolute curse and nothing else.” Rodrigo blames Alba for allowing Ilich to ruin his business and steal his wife. After this scene with Alba, readers suspect that Rodrigo has been a cruel man all along, ignoring his wife, being unfaithful, and generally being an idiot.

The great achievement of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is that it seduces the reader into becoming engaged with characters who are almost unbearably estranged and sad.

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop (by Amy Witting)

isobel

This book by an Australian author I had never heard of was a lucky find at the library, presented as a new book though it was actually a reprint of a book published in 1999. Though it was the second book about Isobel (I For Isobel was published in 1990), it stood well on its own.

This was another book with strange characters. The main character, Isobel, discovers that she has tuberculosis and must go to a sanatorium. This is the setting for most of the book.

A sanatorium can be a microcosm for the larger world, and despite being in an institution, Isobel experiences close friendship and love. Particularly in the final section of the book, I found myself pondering what Isobel’s story suggests about the nature of love and its possible bonds.

When Isobel is finally healthy enough to leave the sanitorium, Dr. Stannard (whom she has a crush on) asks her if she would like to start a part-time administrative job working for him there, with the possibility that it would turn into a regular paid job once she is fully recovered.

Her initial reaction is to say yes, but she is criticized by Dr. Wang, who is a good friend of hers. Wang’s memorable advice is, “It is better to love those who give rather than those who take.”

But it’s the words of the “cold and contemptuous” Dr. Hook (whom no one likes) that rouse Isobel to change her mind. He says, “Why don’t you get out of here and grow up?”

He makes Isobel see that many of the patients who are cured have chosen to stay at the sanatorium in some capacity. And by doing so, they are voluntarily accepting a kind of permanent prison. They are doing it out of a refusal to grow up, a fear of striking out in the big world.

I realized how Isobel’s situation can apply to many people. There are many kinds of prisons that people choose to remain in. They can include a sterile marriage or a job that has become rote and doesn’t use one’s greatest abilities. Any refusal to change can be a kind of prison. Sometimes we have no choice (or no decent choice), and sometimes we accept imprisonment temporarily, if we have good reasons. But most of the time we do have other choices; it’s habit and fear that make us remain in our prisons without bars.

Isobel ends up telling Dr. Stannard that she will be leaving. But she still finds his smile “enchanting.”

She thought, You may be a selfish, exploitative bastard, but in one corner of my mind, I’m going to love you all my life. (p. 311)

I had a flash of recognition when I read that line. I like the honesty of it, the wry admittance of our susceptibility to physical beauty and the way it can tug on our heartstrings.

Charlotte (by David Foenkinos, translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

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One of the strangest things about this book is that it owes its creation to the self-admitted obsession Foenkinos has for Charlotte Salomon, an artist who died in Auschwitz during World War II at the age of 26. The book was written as an act of homage to her after Foenkinos discovered her art, which has been exhibited all over the world. He based his book on her unusual autobiographical project, published as Life? or Theatre?, which is a combination of writing, musical scores, and paintings.

Foenkinos calls Charlotte a novel or an “imagined biography.” Half a million copies of the book have been sold in France. This is impressive given the unconventional style of the book, which is written entirely in paragraphs consisting of one sentence or sentence fragment. This structure creates a stark, urgent tone. There is always a sense of compressed and repressed emotion. Foenkinos chose this style, perhaps, as the best way to convey the exceptional quality of Charlotte’s art and the depths from which it came: the rampant incidence of depression and suicide in her family, and the tragedy of the young artist who was forced to separate from the love of her life, then thoughtlessly betrayed—another victim of the evil of World War II.

Summertime (by J.M. Coetzee)summertimecoetzee

Summertime is the third volume of a “fictionalized memoir” about a writer named John Coetzee by J.M. Coetzee. (I haven’t yet read the previous two volumes, Boyhood and Youth.)

It is an unusually structured book. Although the first short section is written from the “fictional” John Coetzee’s point of view, the remaining sections are narrated by women (and one male colleague) who were at some time close to John Coetzee, and are responding to an interviewer’s questions about their relationship with Coetzee.

The interviewer is seeking to understand Coetzee in order to write a detailed biography of a man who is now a successful writer.

The curious thing is that all of the women, despite being closer to Coetzee than anyone else, remark on his inability to be truly intimate with them. They all judge Coetzee as being incapable of sustaining an intimate relationship of any kind, whether a marriage, fatherhood, or any long-term relationship. All of the women express a strange dichotomy in their feelings about Coetzee; though they are attracted by something about the man, they all end up “giving up on him,” with varying degrees of anger, hurt, or frustration.

This book left me, the reader, with the question, “Is this how Coetzee, the real man, sees himself, or sees himself as reflected by the opinions of others?” What was his motivation for revealing himself in this way? Would I have understood Summertime better if I had read the previous two volumes? It makes me curious to find out more about the man, and to read more of his books.

Summertime is also a book about South Africa in the time of apartheid. The “fictional” Coetzee makes a point of doing rough labour on his own house instead of following convention and hiring black workers, which he could do very cheaply. I believe the author wants readers to think about how the Afrikaaners’ historical place in South Africa, their maintenance of apartheid, and their knowledge that this situation cannot endure affects an individual’s sense of belonging in South Africa. Also, how does it affect a person’s self-identity and ambitions? This sounds vague, but I would have to read more of Coetzee’s work to understand this, as I suspect it is one of the “real” Coetzee’s lifelong preoccupations.

The End … Not

The ramblings above show part of one reader’s book intake during 2016. I read many other books during this period, most of them excellent. For me, there can be no end to thinking about books and writing about them. In fact, I’ve just remembered two more books that fit in with the others in this post because of their rich and unusual characterization: A Curious Kindness, by Miriam Toews, and A Natural Curiosity, by Margaret Drabble. But this post is far too long already.

The journey of reading is an endless one. Part of it can be guided by recommendations one hears or reads. But I love the way the stops along the journey can be random and surprising. A book is discovered by accident at a library or a bookstore while searching for another book or another author. Something mentioned in one book leads to another book. And there is the magical way that a character, event, or philosophy in a book can speak to me personally to address something about my own life that is troubling me at the moment.

 

 

 

 

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The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.

(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panellists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panellists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

Dialogue
A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.

Performance

Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panellists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panellists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

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Summer Nostalgia Part II: too late?

Summer nostalgia in a time of falling leaves

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In August, Vancouver’s hot sunny days finally came, but I never got around to writing my Summer Nostalgia Part II post. What happened? Well—editing work inconveniently interfered with my play time.

I am happy to be making progress in my mid-life editing career, but the time pressures of the past two months have got me thinking about priorities. In any case, I’m not alone. Many people become acutely aware of time’s passing in midlife and may reassess what they are doing with their careers, relationships, health, and leisure.

I’ve become more accepting of the idea that I can’t possibly do everything I want to do. Every day seems crammed to the brim. And it’s not just a matter of letting go of time-wasting activities like watching TV, browsing online, or shopping. It’s not just a matter of being less of a perfectionist with respect to work, housework, or personal appearance. No, prioritizing is painful because it includes giving up or spending less time on activities and people that are important. The vast majority of us cannot have it all, despite what the inspirational essays and stories would have us believe.

To achieve a work goal you may have to pay less attention to the people you love the most—your spouse, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your children—at least temporarily. Or you may neglect your health. You might seek to finally achieve a dream creative goal, realizing that it’s now or never—in spite of sacrificing your own or even your family’s financial stability.

The cliché says we should seek “balance” in our lives. But everyone’s balance, and everyone’s tipping point into being hopelessly overstressed, is different. You have to be self-aware and self-searching. There are no easy moral answers when it comes to prioritizing. You may have to hurt others or squeeze the lifeblood out of a part of yourself when you dedicate yourself uncompromisingly towards achieving a specific goal.

In 2016, I put my editing career first, while at the same time refusing to miss the workouts and the time outdoors that give me the endorphin buzz I crave. But something had to go. I was frustrated because I couldn’t seem to make time for creative writing or blog posts, even though I had plenty of subjects I wanted to write about. I was also itching to write book reviews for several of the unusual books I’ve read this year. I want to share these incredible writers with other people, and fix in my own mind the crucial kernels of their books—but I haven’t been able to find the time. Writing a book review is challenging. It requires an impressive art of distillation to do justice to a great writer’s skills with narrative, language, and conveyance of complicated ideas.

This year, I wrote a few blog posts that were “stale.” That is, I’d been inspired by something and jotted down a few notes, but didn’t get around to writing the blog post until months later. I realized this doesn’t work well. Blogging is a form of writing that is usually current and personal. Blog posts lose something when written months after the spark that ignited their creation. So much of my inspiration for posts comes from sensory details of a specific day or season. It can be impossible to recapture the vividness of the immediate impression later.

Nevertheless, I’m going to put some of my favourite summer photos in this post. I might even add some of those “sensory detail words,” faded and irrelevant though they may be.

***

But it’s fall now, so first I’ll write something fresh—from yesterday’s bike ride.

Leaves. That’s what I’m aware of in the first minutes of my ride as I cycle along the bike path. Not just brilliant colours. It’s their smoky musky scent and the sounds they make. Crackling, rustling, a swishing when the air moves. Suddenly I’m no longer clinging to summer. I’m immersed in fall.

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How can the smell of dying things be a good smell? It evokes memories: of cross-country season, being part of a high school team, being young when running was so easy and carefree. I remember weekend rambles in the Don Mills ravines with my high school buddies Jon and Gary. The smell of their cigarettes mingled pleasantly with the aroma of fallen leaves. We basked in October’s warmth, knowing that drab, bitter November would come all too soon.

***

Indian summer

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“serene and sparkly…”

As I return to writing this piece, it’s the afternoon of September 28, and I’ve just been for what was probably my last swim of the year (at least without a wetsuit) at Sasamat Lake. Maybe it’s not too late for summer nostalgia after all!

The lake in September offers special rewards for its hardcore visitors. It’s serene and sparkly. Kids are back in school, and the noisy, greedy geese are mysteriously gone. In mid-afternoon the sun is warm on the beach. The water temperature could be called invigorating. I only lasted four minutes in the water; I was too numb to feel much pain while swimming, but when I noticed my arm muscles weren’t working well I decided I’d better come out. I had to get my wet bathing suit off immediately to avoid hypothermia.

Summer 2106 photo blog

It may be Indian summer now, but I’ve decided it’s not too late to post some photos that bring back my best summer memories.

In June I competed in only my second race of 2016, the Longest Day 5K at UBC. This race is fast and competitive. It has a special atmosphere, being an evening race on a date that’s always close to the summer solstice. The weather is unfailingly gorgeous, and the popular barbecue adds to the post-race spirit.

I was quite fit for this race; though my knee, as usual, had severely limited my running, I had done a few fast workouts with the Phoenix club. However, a stressful week and several nights in a row of poor sleep meant I was exhausted before the race even started. It took a huge effort to complete the race in 20:08, almost a minute slower than my 2105 time. Yet as I crossed the finish line, I felt an immense physical and mental release, and I was content with my time.

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At Thunderbird Stadium after the Longest Day 5K

Keith took this photo after I’d done a warmdown lap on the grass in the stadium. I had to stop because of a pain in my hip that I’d never felt before. Little did I know that night that this injury would refuse to get better for almost three months. A month of no running, physio, and boring exercises led to little improvement. This was another injury that taught me the value of acceptance and patience. Sometimes an injury’s recovery will follow no timetable but its own. Once my hip started improving in late August, the pain disappeared rapidly, and I was able to get back to my twice weekly 6K runs without a hiccup.

Summer bucket list

This summer I wanted to break away from my regular cycling routes and revisit some of my favourite Vancouver cycling places from the past: Stanley Park and the whole route through Kitsilano and west to UBC, with its long stretches of road that are perfect for fast riding. I also wanted to swim in the Pacific Ocean at Third Beach. I like that beach because it’s relatively isolated and wild, far away from the larger crowds at Second Beach and English Bay.

I drove to Stanley Park one weekday with my bike in the back of my car. I cycled around the ring road a few times for the first time in many years. The hill up to Prospect Point was easier than I remembered; it’s nothing compared to the mountain I ride up from Port Moody to Coquitlam! After some hard riding on the road, I decided to play the sightseeing tourist, and did a loop on the seawall. It was hopeless for riding; there were huge groups of tourists riding at a leisurely pace; so I stopped several times to take photos as if I too were a tourist. The photo below shows an idyllic Third Beach. I couldn’t swim that day as I didn’t have my swimming gear with me.

I didn’t manage to return to Stanley Park later in the summer for a swim. Nor did I go to another location on my bucket list: Wreck Beach. I haven’t been there for many years. Wreck Beach is notorious for being clothing optional, but it’s also an outstandingly beautiful beach, perfect for sunset viewing. Its shallow water extends far out, and becomes especially warm and inviting in August.

But this year, again considering priorities, I had to accept that time was limited and my outdoor activities would have to take place close to home.

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Third Beach at Stanley Park

August at Sasamat Lake

I couldn’t do my Sasamat Lake mini-triathlon this summer because I couldn’t run. However, Keith took some good photos of me on a day when I decided to push hard on the bike-swim-bike portion.

I always feel at my best athletically in the summer. Muscles are ready to go almost immediately, and they seem to switch gears to all-out power more easily. Maybe it’s the freedom of wearing less clothing that makes me feel faster. And I like the sheen of sweat that covers all of my skin surface on a hot day.

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It’s a short but intense ride uphill to the lake

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Time to swim: Photographer Keith captures my playfulness.

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Finished the swim section

Most of my summer swims at Sasamat Lake aren’t workouts, though. I drive up there to relax, cool off, and enjoy the ambience and beauty of the lake. My favourite time to swim depends on the temperature of the day, but it’s usually around 5 p.m., when the water is warm but the glaring, dangerous heat of the sun has become more gentle. A quick swim gives me an instant energy boost, and out in the middle of the lake I’m transported to another level of being.

On some days I cycled to the lake early in the morning when there were few cars and people, then returned by car later to swim.

When I was back there to swim at 4:45, the water was warm. I swam steadily for a few minutes, then felt that surge of energy that often happens. Suddenly I sprint-swim, feeling pure joy at the energy that springs out of my body, the strength of my arms pulling, the satisfying depth of my breathing. I’m bursting with health, I’m still feeling good from my morning ride. I love being able to play in the water, alternating sprinting with a relaxed breaststroke that stretches my inner thighs in a satisfying way, sometimes swimming on my back, just kicking, making big splashes to express my exuberance as I look up at the dazzling bowl of the sky.

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Amongst the summer crowd I saw a mermaid!

Balcony sunsets

I’ve written about my balcony sunsets before. I’m sure many of my Facebook friends groan when they see another one of my sunset photos, but I have my fans, too. The thing is, the painter in the sky never runs out of new ways to astound me! Below I’ve included a few of my hundreds of balcony photos.

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A new fragrant rose this year: “La Grande Dame”

My summer balcony times were often visually stunning, but my sensory memories include much more. Sometimes the exquisite perfume of one of my fragrant roses was there to tantalize me. Always, as I sat on my mat, I was aware of the strong aroma of the rosemary plant beside me. Later in the summer, a surprise crop of mint sprouted up in one of my planters and it, too, became part of my sensory immersion.

The sounds of summer on my balcony were distinctive. Usually there was the soothing background of the fountain near the front door of my building. Sometimes there were happy sounds of kids playing in the courtyard beneath me, or adults on their ground floor patios chatting over dinner or late-night fires. Every now and then I would hear the evocative whistle of a train from the tracks nearby. On breezy evenings, wind chimes added their whimsical notes.

And many times, as we sat there watching, my cat Tux and I would see the blurred whirring wings of a hummingbird. Tux would be spellbound, longing for the unreachable as the hummingbird dip-darted nervously into the feeder, then plunged downward in an impossibly quick departure.

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Goodbye summer.

Posted in Cycling, Personal stories, Racing, Running, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cycling on Doug’s mountain: Athletic camaraderie and mad dogs

 

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View of Cultus Lake from the summit of Mt. Thom

My friend and long-time running partner Doug Alward has a sprawling property on Mount Thom above Chilliwack. A couple of weeks ago, he invited me to come and watch the Olympics with him.

(Warning: This is a long post. If you just want to read the “mad dog” story, scroll down to the italics in colour near the bottom.)

No visit with Doug could be complete without a workout. We’ve both been too injured lately to run, and Doug told me he’d been training hard on his $20 garage-sale bike.

I put my bike in my car one hot morning and drove to Chilliwack. Doug and I met in a big mall; the plan was to ride along the Vedder River trails, and then drive up the mountain to his place.

We took the back roads of Chilliwack to get to the Vedder River. Our pace was leisurely, as the route was winding and we occasionally had to stop for street crossings. By the time we reached the perfectly flat gravel trails, I was raring to inject some speed. Doug told me to go ahead. I rode hard for a few kilometres, thinking he couldn’t keep up with me, but he was actually just giving me a false sense of complacency. When the trail became narrower and more winding, he was right behind me.

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View from the Heron Trail

We continued on together before deciding on a turnaround point. On the way back, we took a brief detour on the Heron Trail, then chose a scenic spot by the river to stop for a snack. I had forgotten to bring any food, and was grateful to see Doug’s generous provisions. He had what seemed a huge number of watermelon slices, containers of black beans, and about six hard-boiled eggs covered with a spicy pepper mix. No GUs for him! The crisp watermelon was the perfect refreshment for a hot day. I declined the beans but gratefully accepted a couple of eggs—never has a hard-boiled egg tasted so good!

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Doug unpacks provisions

We pushed the pace pretty hard (I thought) once we got back to the main wide, straight trail. But Doug gave me a taste of what was to come the next day when he blasted by me in the last kilometre of the trail and my tired legs could give nothing more.

***

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Doug’s “backyard”–grazing was going on indoors and out.

Doug and I spent the hot afternoon just hangin’ out. I discovered right away that he doesn’t eat meals, but grazes more or less continuously on a simple, healthy variety of foods consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, boiled eggs, steamed rice and fish, beans, nuts, and oatmeal. He uses no condiments or sauces of any kind other than a few spices including pepper, turmeric, and cinnamon. In his kitchen I found no trace of sugar or any sweetened food. (Doug has some health reasons for following this diet.) I was thankful I had brought a loaf of chia fruit bread, but I longed for the butter I usually slather on it.

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Another kind of abstinence was a welcome relief; Doug has no internet connection. I couldn’t feed my online addictions any more than I could fulfill my chocolate cravings. I could have done editing work since I had my computer with my Word files, but I decided to take a complete break. I was reminded of cottage vacations over the years; the way the pace of life and the nature of social interactions were different without TVs, computers, or (most of the time) phones.

Of course Doug’s two TVs were welcome now as we could follow the Olympics on two channels simultaneously. We ended up glued to CBC for the whole evening track session. I was finally watching track and field, after seeing nothing of the first five days of competition other than the incredible women’s 10,000m. I had been overwhelmed with work. Now I relished watching every event: the decathlon, the hurdle sprints, the 1500m semis—but most of all, the men’s 200m semifinal.

To me the semifinal with Andre De Grasse and Usain Bolt delivered the single best moment of the Olympics. Bolt “bolted” right from the gun; he was well ahead of everyone coming off the turn. De Grasse was unimpressive. But he made what looked like an impossible come-from-behind run in the second half of the race, pulling up almost even with Bolt as Bolt eased into the line. They turned to look at each other; they grinned; it was wonderful to see the juxtaposition of these men’s speed with their relaxed confidence at the end. Here, in “the picture that tells a thousand words” was the joy of running, the generosity and camaraderie of competition, reflected in the two beaming faces.

***

By the mystery of serendipity, Doug had been talking about his philosophy of competition just before we watched De Grasse and Bolt run their semifinal. A few years ago Doug participated in a World Masters Championships meet in Kamloops. He described this as one of the highlights of his lifetime of running. He said that one thing he’s learned about competing is that you don’t do it only for yourself. You are also giving your best for your competitors. It may seem contradictory, this idea that you try to help your competitors. But it comes with the recognition that all of us who train so hard, who know the body’s suffering so well, who experience the euphoria and despair of competition, share an athletic intimacy that is incomprehensible to those who don’t give 100%. It is only in competition that we find the deepest reserves within ourselves.

The Rio 2016 Games were exceptional for instances of outstanding sportsmanship. In the women’s 5,000m heats, American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin collided and fell to the track. D’Agostino was back on her feet first, and urged Hamblin get up and continue racing. Hamblin responded to D’Agostino’s encouragement, but it turned out that the American had suffered the more serious injuries from the fall (a torn ACL and meniscus). Her knee weakness caused her to fall again. This time Hamblin was the one entreating her competitor to finish the race, which D’Agostino bravely did, though she had to be carried off the track.

In the grueling 50K race walk, Canadian Evan Dunfee was awarded a bronze medal after the third-place finisher, Japan’s Hirooki Arai, was disqualified for bumping Dunfee not long before the finish. After the Japanese coaches appealed the decision, Arai was reinstated in third place. Dunfee took this decision with a grace and good sportsmanship that make us proud to be fellow Canadians. In one interview I heard, Dunfee said that Arai deserved the bronze. Moreover, Dunfee expressed a huge enthusiasm about his Olympic experience and the support he’d received from countless Canadians who heard what happened. He saw the publicity generated by the incident as being a boost for the sport of race walking, because it greatly increased the public’s understanding of its extreme physical demands.

***

When track was over for the evening it was getting close to sunset, but I wanted to hike to the summit of Mt. Thom as I’d done with Doug on a previous visit. It is 2K to the top from his place—part of the route on the road, and the rest in wooded trails. I noticed he carried a can of bear spray. He said he always carried it on walks or runs around his mountain neighbourhood—and that he’d had to use it once, when an unrestrained dog threatened a vicious attack.

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Mt. Thom summit

There was quite a crowd of people at the summit! No wonder—the views of Chilliwack, the surrounding farmland, and nearby Cultus Lake were magical in the twilight.

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Chilliwack area from another viewpoint

***

After a restless night I woke while it was still dark. I could hear muffled sounds of a TV, and realized it must be after 5:30, when the Olympic coverage (triathlon, decathlon) was due to begin. Sure enough, when I got to the living room Doug was eating oatmeal and watching the action. The 10K run of the triathlon was in its early stages.

Doug invited me to finish the still-hot porridge in the pot. It was the best I’ve ever tasted! He had mixed together oatmeal, Red River cereal, lots of ground almonds, and mashed banana. I was thankful for the leftover Starbucks coffee I had saved from the previous day since there was no hope of getting any coffee at Doug’s.

We watched the Brownlee twins, Brits Alistair and Jonny, suffer through the extreme heat of Rio at midday. What a ridiculous time to make people do a triathlon. Alistair broke away from his brother around 3K from the finish; just before the line, with a sizeable lead, he turned around and waited for Jonny to approach the line before they crossed slowly, almost together.

Now, suitably pumped with food, coffee, and inspiration, I was ready (I thought!) for our morning bike ride on the mountain. We had to squeeze it in between 6:20 and 7:20 so we wouldn’t miss any of the track coverage.

***

Riding with mad dogs

The sun hadn’t yet risen over the mountain peaks as we began our ride, but I could feel the heat from the previous day rising from the pavement. Doug mercifully chose to give me five minutes of downhill riding as a warmup. It wasn’t much of a warmup for the enormous hill climb that followed.

We were a few minutes into the climb. I was in my lowest gear, breathing hard, but Doug was still able to make conversation. “There used to be a mad dog living at this house coming up on the left,” he said. “I was always worried the thing was going to escape from its yard and attack me—but I haven’t seen it for about six months.”

Just then we heard menacing barking. “Maybe it’s back,” said Doug. The barking continued, though we couldn’t see the dog. We were now at the steepest part of the hill; I was struggling. The grade of the hill eased slightly as we passed the driveway of the house on the left. “Sprint past this house now!” ordered Doug, as he quickly gained several metres on me.

“I can’t!” I gasped. I was at my limit already… and the climb wasn’t over yet!

But no dog emerged. I was granted a brief respite because Doug’s chain fell off. I was able to ride slowly to the top of the hill and take a minute-long break while he fixed his bike.

The rest of the ride was a blur of pain, broken up by the ecstatic downhill stretches during which I marvelled in a limited way at the magnificent vistas offered by the mountain scenery. Mostly I had to concentrate on staying in control of my bike at top speed, or grinding it out on yet another uphill. Doug wasn’t waiting for me; he was well ahead, though still in sight. I was desperately trying to stay close while feeling nauseous from the intensity of the effort. Finally, at an intersection he waited for me, and informed me that we had just completed one of his regular hill loops. “My record is 8:47 but today I did it in 9:20. Your time was around 10:00,” he said generously.

After that ten minutes of torture we still had another huge uphill to get back to the house (I remembered, with regret, our fabulous downhill start). Once again Doug got far ahead of me. Once again I heard the barking of mad dogs. This time I could see them. The two of them were barking furiously, running along the inside of their yard’s fence as if desperate to escape and attack the cyclists invading their territory. I wished Doug was closer to me. I opened my mouth to try to yell at him, but all that came out was a pitiful squeaky sound: “DOUG…!”

We made it back safely. It was a short but intense ride. Doug was quite pleased he had got the better of me. We are both born competitors.

***

A couple of hours later, after our morning dose of Olympics viewing, we stood outside in the sunny driveway as I prepared to leave. The day’s heat was starting to come on, but the light wind was causing gold leaves to rain down all around us, a harbinger of the next season.

I thought about how our coach George, gone now for four years, would have been impressed by  Doug’s Spartan training camp on the mountain. George, who loved to run 400s all-out and then “eat grass” after collapsing in the infield. He would have loved that bike ride. He certainly would have approved of Doug’s super-healthy diet!

As we said goodbye, I realized anew that friendships forged during the repetition of countless hard workouts and races, where each person learns the full mettle of the other, can endure forever. Age diminishes the power of our youthful selves, but our spirits stay the same.

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Doug’s driveway

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cycling, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book review: Taking the plunge into Jonathan Lee’s High Dive

Today I couldn’t resist reading Jonathan Lee’s High Dive until I’d finished every word, including the Afterword and the Acknowledgements. Seventy pages or so. Yeah, I was completely immersed in that book—didn’t take a look out the window, or a break to put my laundry in the dryer; ignored my computer, my phone, and my rumbling stomach telling me it was dinnertime.

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You can see from the photo that I got this book from the library. [Aside: libraries, to me, are the most wonderful institution of civilization—and how else could I afford all the books I read and avoid getting buried in accumulated books?]

But this time it’s too bad it’s a library book. I’m going to have to buy High Dive, because I have to read it again. This time I’ll underline all the phrases and sentences that delighted me—blew me away—made me think, “Jonathan Lee is a genius writer.”

I have this compulsion to write book reviews (see below), but no time. Yet High Dive deserves a book review. Maybe a mini-review will do? Here goes:

What’s it about?

An IRA attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while she’s in a hotel at a convention in Brighton. The book is based on the actual 1984 event, but the three main characters—the explosives expert, the hotel manager, and his daughter, are fictional creations.

Why should you read it?

  • It’s a damn good story, suspenseful, shifting point-of-views. It has a heroic act at the end, though the hero—(cut—no spoilers).
  • The characters seem real—complicated, confused, messed-up yet lovable. Lee shows immense psychological insight.
  • It’s thought-provoking. There are no easy answers about the morality of IRA violence and its causes.
  • Read it, above all, for Jonathan Lee’s genius-level writing. When I mark up my own copy I’ll be able to add ten or a hundred of my favourite sentences to this review. But most can only be fully appreciated in context.

Here’s just one taste—a description of a thoroughly unlikeable Security man.

Peterson’s smile was pure hygiene, the expression of a guy about to floss. The teeth were big. The mouth couldn’t quite hold them. It was a miracle the lips didn’t bleed. There was saliva pooling on his gums and shining on his bottom lip and when he closed his mouth to swallow there was a faint, squeaky sucking sound, like a cloth being used to polish cutlery. (p. 285)

What’s a fun way to find out more about High Dive and Jonathan Lee?

Listen to the peerless Eleanor Wachtel interview Lee on the Writers & Company podcast here.

***

Afterthought

My book reviews

In my dream world, a world where I miraculously have no need to make money, I would write a book review of every worthy book I read. I love the idea of having a book blog so interactive it’s like an old-fashioned literary salon, but online. I would so enjoy hearing other people’s reactions to books that I think are wonderful, or controversial, or puzzling. The analysis of books is one window into another person’s mind.

In the real world, I seldom have time to write book reviews. Yet still—I have this compulsive longing to write them. Why?

  • It’s because I admire—worship—writers who have the talent to put words together in ways that are clever, or unexpected, or right on. Whose words make music in my head or when I read them out loud.
  • It’s my desire to stay in the book’s imaginary world, with its characters that I’ve come to feel I know intimately.
  • It’s my desire to remember—and hold on to—what I have learned or felt. The discoveries given to me by a great book seem so significant. But despite what I vow to myself while reading, how do I hold on to that book’s impact? How do I make the cliché “It will change your life!” come true?

***

Quote from:

High Dive. © 2015 by Jonathan Lee. Alfred A. Knopf: New York

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Summer Nostalgia I: Lost Summers

Two or three weeks ago Vancouver was still in the midst of a “non-summer.” There had been very few warm and sunny days. Sasamat Lake was still cold. I felt uneasy, almost as though I was in mourning for everything that summer meant to me. This year it was passing me by.

On July 15 I went for a hard bike ride that took me 2K uphill to Mundy Park and my old Coquitlam neighbourhood. For the first time in years, I rode to Blue Mountain Park, a place I visited many times with my son Abebe when he was a toddler—over 20 years ago!

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Blue Mountain Park: Abebe used to love playing around this waterfall.

I also rode a few laps on the 400m gravel track across the street from Blue Mountain Park. When I lived up in Coquitlam, I often injected some speed into my bike rides with 20 or 30 laps on that track. I loved the view to the southeast of far-off Mt. Baker.

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The track at Como Lake Middle School. Too stormy a day to see Mt. Baker.

That ride gave me a good workout. It was also a bit of an adventure, especially when a storm seemed imminent just at the place where I was farthest from home. But the ride didn’t feel like a summer ride. It was a trip back in time, bringing back memories that left me aware of what I have lost.

That day I wrote in my journal:

Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for past summers.

This year summer is not right. I’m still wearing jeans and light jackets. I’ve hardly been swimming in the lake, and the icy water is not a relief. My hip is injured—I’m unable to run, so maybe I won’t get to do my Sasamat Lake mini-triathlon this year. Also, though I’m happy to have lots of editing work, it means my hours of idleness have to be carefully stolen.

Nostalgia is perfectly described by the adjective “bittersweet”—because you remember good things, but feel a stab of pain at the realization that they are irrevocably in the past.

For me, summer memories are the strongest. They exert a kind of magic that keeps a part of me unchanged through all the years of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Oh, those sense-laden memories! Toronto… The all-over sheen of sweat after a few minutes of morning running, the softness of nighttime summer air, and in between the relentless heat, the welcome relief of the air-conditioned library or movie theatre, dozing during the torpid afternoons while cicadas droned… Vancouver…the shocking relief of plunging into cold lake water, watching splendid sunsets from my balcony as the cooling air soothed my nearly-naked body.

So many summer memories are about family. My happiest family memories are of summer vacations spent at a cottage we rented near Parry Sound. Then, a generation later, my sister-in-law Pam introduced all of us to her family’s rented cottages near Minden, and my brothers and I went there with our kids and spouses and Pam’s childhood friends’ families. These cottage experiences weren’t so very different from my childhood ones: the main activities always centred around the lake: swimming, canoeing, diving off the raft; windsurfing and sailing for the more sophisticated. But also: blueberry pancakes, morning coffee laced with Bailey’s (adult pleasures!), board games, cribbage, card games, barbecues, campfires, badminton. Bike rides and runs knowing the lake was waiting at the finish line. No TV. No computers. Lazy strolls in the afternoon to the little convenience store for candy or ice cream.

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Minden cottage circa 2002: Abebe dives off the raft.

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Abebe and girlfriend Chihiro on the same raft, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***

All of these happy cottage memories revolve around families. That got me reflecting about one of my life’s failures—the ending of my marriage about seven years ago. At the same time, my son Abebe left to go to university in Japan. He has stayed there to work and live with his girlfriend, and visits only once every year or two.

This year I noticed that many of my close friends, relatives, and Facebook acquaintances were celebrating long-term marriage anniversaries. Some of them were eloquent and moving in their public tributes to their spouses of 20, 25, or 30 years. I’m filled with admiration for them. They have made it through the many challenges of marriage and parenthood and are now proud of their children, who are launching into their own adult relationships and careers.

These couples have something I don’t have and will never have. They have a shared history of triumphs, struggles, emotional highs and lows, major achievements and milestones, many of which will live on in their children’s (and potentially grandchildren’s) stories too.

I can’t pass on to my son an extensive family network like the one that my parents created for me and my brothers through their long-term marriage.

If my tone sounds sad here, it is in keeping with my mood during those “non-summer” weeks. Sad, yes, but not bitter. I seldom feel any anger or hurt about my marriage breakdown now; I’m on good terms with my ex-husband, who will always be the father of my son.

Moreover, I’ve been in a happy relationship with my partner Keith for almost seven years. Keith has supported me unconditionally through some hard times; we’ve shared the excitement of starting “creative” careers, and he’s shown me that life after running can still be fun!

But Keith, divorced after a 20-year marriage, has no children so we won’t have a future with a blended family.

I don’t want to glorify marriage and family life either; some couples stay together when they shouldn’t, and not all family gatherings are happy ones. The truth is that I’m a person who thrives on being solitary much of the time, and so was my ex-husband. That’s probably part of the reason we didn’t realize until it was too late how shallow our marriage had become. We took independence too far, and didn’t work on strengthening and adding to the bonds that held us together.

***

My next post will be a more positive one—because a couple of weeks ago summer finally arrived in Vancouver. I realized that in spite of all the changes in my life, I’ll always be a summer girl. I’ll never lose my capacity to savour summer’s delights.

4OnRockBorder

Boshkung Lake 2011: Sarah, Alan, Abebe, Margo

 

 

 

Posted in Personal stories, Relationships, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spiritual peace: December 2015

Why am I posting this article now?

There was a week in early December when I experienced a rare inner peace. I was bursting to write about it, but the season’s general busyness prevented it.

There was no big change in my life that week in December; no move, no new job, no new relationship or break-up. No, sometimes there can be turning points that aren’t triggered by such obvious “real” events. Such turning points might be invisible to others, but we sense them happening through intuition and inner conviction.

A series of coincidences made me sense that I was growing and learning in a spiritual way. You might believe in God or you might not (more on that below), and each of us has to decide whether certain coincidences are meaningful.

The coincidences I mention had to do with conversations I had, and articles I read, that all had a common theme: they were about spirit. They gave me the conviction that peace comes from feeling one’s own spirit; accepting and loving this spirit at the deepest level; and also being able to recognize, accept, and love the spirit in others when they reveal it to us. Much of what I heard and read mentioned two words: awareness and gratitude. Without awareness—which comes from being open-minded and paying full attention—we can’t feel our own spirit or others’ spirits. Awareness—of others’ spirits, and also of the overflowing beauty of the world—can’t help but lead to gratitude, I believe.

Coincidence? Five “spiritual” experiences in one week

In a one-week period I was influenced by five conversations or articles that my mind insisted on connecting. Of course, as human beings we are designed, psychologically, to construct meaning out of the vast chaos of events, people, and other stimuli around us.

I also found meaning in the way these five examples were framed, in time, by two extremely personal conversations (with two different people). Both of them were about the other person’s strong Christian faith. The first conversation took place in October with a close friend of many years. He talked about how the Holy Spirit had intervened in his life at several critical times, and some of the things that happened would qualify as “miracles” by almost anyone’s standards. I don’t have space here for an extended article about whether God exists or not. The important thing is that my friend convinced me of the reality of his faith—his belief that the Holy Spirit is always with him. I can’t say that his conviction caused me to immediately feel the reality of the Holy Spirit myself. But what did happen was that after visiting my friend, I felt a deep peace that I believe was the foundation for what I felt in December.

My other conversation happened in January, with someone who is decades younger than I am. We unexpectedly got into a “deep” conversation.It’s wonderful when people who don’t know each other well make this “leap” into revealing themselves. This friend also talked about his Christian faith, and how his family’s finding Christianity had saved his parents’ marriage, shaped his life’s direction, and enabled him to help friends with drug and relationship problems.

One thing I thought significant about both these conversations is that my friends and I did not judge each other for having different points of view or being unable to fully comprehend the other person’s point of view. We were attentive, open to learning, not only respectful of the other person but grateful for the personal thoughts and vulnerability that were revealed.

So it is within the “framing” context of these two conversations that I will describe the encounters and reading that affected me that crucial week in December.

  1. Practicing mindfulness while running

One evening while I was working at the Running room, I had the privilege of hearing David Westorp give an unusual clinic talk. Most clinic topics are about the practical basics of running, such as nutrition, clothing, and the building blocks of a training program. However, this talk was meant to give new runners a glimpse into how their mental state can affect the physical act of running. To me it was valuable because its essential ideas about how body, mind, and spirit work together can be applied to any endeavor.

I was also struck by Westorp’s definition of spirit:

“A force that gives the body life, energy, and power.”

I’ve shared a version of the diagram he showed us below. The centre area, where the three components of body, mind, and spirit overlap, can be understood as a zone of awareness that encompasses all three components of our being.

interaction of spirit, body, and mind

I think the diagram is also meant to show that all three parts can work to strengthen and support each other.

We run at our full potential not only through physical talent and hard training. We also use our minds—meaning rational thought—to plan scientifically-based training programs and race strategies. But the more elusive contribution of the spirit elevates our running to the highest level. I would explain it this way: the spirit is the force behind motivation, whether conscious or subconscious, and it is also the source of a joy that can be expressed physically.

Another key idea I gained from this talk about mindfulness has to do with how our ongoing thoughts lead ultimately to our destiny, through this chain:

thoughts→words→actions→habits→character→destiny

2. Kierkegaard and Camus on being busy

One of my favourite websites, Brainpickings, by Maria Popova (www.brainpickings.org ) had an article quoting Albert Camus which I read around the same day as I heard the clinic talk at the Running Room.

Popova prefaced Camus’ words by saying he was “echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — ‘Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.’’”

Here is Camus:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time if in doing one loses oneself…  Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.

I understood Camus and the Running Room speaker to be saying the same thing: eternity is found in the moment, and through being fully aware in that moment.

I began reading Camus in high school, with L’Étranger in French class, but I guess I didn’t read him enough—I didn’t realize how much he loved life until I read Popova’s article (read it here).

3. Connecting with an old friend over decades and thousands of miles

That same week in December, I got an email from a friend from my teenage years, who now lives far away. He had initially contacted me a couple of years ago after finding my blog on the Internet, but I hadn’t heard from him for about a year. Something I had written in one of my most personal blog articles provoked him to write to me, expressing concern and giving me some wise advice.

That led to an exchange of a couple more messages. It’s a curious thing to encounter someone decades after you were close to them, to recognize that person is still the same in many ways—essence?—spirit? Moreover, you can see your “old self” reflected in the way they write to you and about you. I found it miraculous in a sense to know that I could still communicate with my friend across such a vast swathe of time and distance. There was great comfort in recognizing the permanence of our spirits.

4. Connecting with a stranger

Another kind of miracle takes place when you have an unexpectedly profound encounter with a stranger. At a Christmas party for an editors’ association that I belong to, I got into conversation with the husband of one of the editors. What immediately struck me about him was that he gave off an aura of peace, of being “at home” even though he was at his partner’s social event and didn’t know anyone there.

We talked a little bit about running. When I asked him what his profession was, he named a word I can’t remember, but it was something to do with yoga. He soon mentioned the poet Rumi, and that name was familiar to me though I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything by Rumi. He then launched into a long and personal story about his multi-year inner journey into a spiritual kind of yoga. The last part of the story was about his trip to Rumi’s mosque in a large Turkish city. He had cycled from Munich to Turkey; this was how he spent several months last summer. He spoke about Rumi’s writings, and about this mosque and the thousands of pilgrims who visit and pray there.

He spoke in a soft, peaceful, reverential way. I don’t know if he speaks like this, or about this, with everyone he meets, or if he just judged that I was open to hearing it. Does he have a mission to share what he’s learned? I am open to hearing about others’ spiritual experiences and beliefs. I had the same sense of awe in October when my friend spoke about the miraculous coincidences that have happened to him during his life.

I can tell when someone is sincere; I respect their experiences and beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think that they have all the answers for me. Each person has to find their own way—but I am open to receiving ideas and clues.

5. The writer’s spirit

A final contribution to my thoughts about the spirit that week came from an article I found completely by chance while browsing on Facebook. The article, published on the website WriterUnBoxed, is by writing instructor Donald Maass (read it here).

Maass says that what makes readers love a book or story, what draws them in, is the writer’s spirit. As he says, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how a writer transmits his or her spirit. It doesn’t have to be in the characters, the plot, or the setting, even though these are essential to a good story. According to Maass, the critical thing is that somehow the writer offers the reader hope—(the subject matter is irrelevant)—and this may be subtle. Here are Maass’s words:

Heart is a quality inherent not in a manuscript but in its author.  It is not a skill but a spirit.  Spirit may seem mystical but it’s not an accident.  It can be cultivated and practiced.  Every writing day it can seep into the story choices you make.  The spirit you bring is the spirit we’ll feel as we read, and of all the feelings you can excite in your readers the most gripping and beautiful is the spirit of hope.

***

As I pondered all the experiences of that week in December, I felt a deep peace, and I had more confidence than usual that it wasn’t just an illusion that would evaporate. I wrote:

I feel the spirit. I feel my own spirit. It is a peaceful feeling. It is acceptance. Self-acceptance? It is also related to the increased appreciation and recognition I have for the goodness in others. Maybe I am becoming more aware of their spirits, too.

***

Has my inner peace from December stayed with me? Well, yes and no. But that’s fodder for other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Personal stories, Psychology, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Getting older: Crunch time

At first I was going to call this post “Getting Old,” but that was too blunt. I couldn’t accept it.

Soon I will have another birthday and it will be #57. I’m sure that for a long time, I would have said, “A 50-year-old is an old person”—now, of course, I know that isn’t true!

Yet people around my age are dying. Prince. David Bowie. Friends my age are getting treatment for cancer.

Friends just a few years older than me are retiring; they have had busy, lucrative professional careers and will now travel, down-size, and have more time for exercise and creative hobbies. In contrast, I extended youth in a sense by making competitive running my main career focus until an ACL tear in 2009 completely ended serious running for me. Instead of retiring, I went back to school as a 49-year-old. Learning, for me, was not just about acquiring new writing, editing, and design skills; it was about learning to interact with other adults in “normal” business environments (The Vancouver Board of Trade, the Running Room store), in ways that being an elite runner or a one-on-one English tutor had not required.

So my ACL tear in 2009 catapulted me from an artificially extended youth smack into a more “normal” middle age.

Now, only seven years later, I’m starting to acknowledge that I, too (if I’m lucky!) will be old. I know this because a few weeks ago I noticed that I have white (not gray) eyebrow hairs. I’m used to my thick, dark eyebrows—I’m not ready for white!

On a more serious note, though, one of the most difficult reminders of old age for me to witness has been my partner Keith’s suffering from hip pain over the past year and a half. He thought it was only a muscular problem or an inflammation of the bursa, but this week he found out he has advanced arthritis and will likely need to get a hip replacement. It has been heartbreaking to see him have to stop hiking and even cycling except on the easiest, flattest routes. However, he has a fighting attitude (more on that below) and we are both confident that he will be back cycling with me!

Facing old age: physical appearance and performance

This part could be summarized as “getting old sucks,” and some of my readers might want to skip it. The brave can read on.

The ultimate human tragedy is dying, and the process of aging is a tragic trajectory towards that point.

(I know not everyone would agree. Many believe in an afterlife: they may believe the ultimate human tragedy is not having such a belief; in the Christian tradition, not believing Jesus Christ is one’s personal saviour. Or, one could make a case that the ultimate human tragedy is living without loving.)

Our bodies display our biological nature whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Whatever we believe about the finality of death and our spiritual life now and hereafter, our bodies are part of the “Circle of Life,” as The Lion King puts it.

That inevitable march of our bodies towards death can be seen as tragic and ugly—certainly from an artistic point of view. Many bodies, in youth, are fit for the adoration of the sculptor, the painter, the photographer. The artist tries to capture the nobility of the human form, with its beautiful lines, muscles, and curves, its power and gracefulness. We watch athletes in their prime with admiration as they display the ultimate capabilities of the human animal: its awesome strength, speed, power, and agility.

But no matter how beautiful and impressive a body is, if it survives to old age it will change drastically. Old bodies: lumpy, misshapen, corpulent or shriveled, wrinkled, hairless in some places and too hairy in others, shuffling, limping, sometimes valiant in their efforts but never able to recapture the effortless beauty of youth. Our youth-worshipping culture encourages us to fight the physical changes of aging with cosmetics, surgery, diet, and exercise, but ultimately it’s a losing battle.

I remember reading a story a long time ago—it might have even been a novel—I think it was by Aldous Huxley. The gist of the story was that humans had figured out how to put the effects of aging on hold for about 50 years, so that everyone looked 30 until they were 80, and then within the space of a few days they suddenly looked and moved liked 80-year-olds. Shortly before that happened, the authorities rounded them up and euthanized them. But in this story, a couple of these people had escaped their “holding pen” before euthanization. They were still quite spry and capable of walking around. They tried to hide and find a way to exist “in the wild,” but they needed help from other people. The “young” ones they appealed to for help were appalled by their appearance.

That’s all I remember of that book, but it’s stuck in my memory for decades, that picture of how old age had become abnormalized.

Fighting back

Old age is both a tragedy and a comedy. The only way to cope with it is to see the comedy in it. You can’t hide from the limitations, the embarrassments, and the heartbreaks of old age, so you can only try to diminish its power by laughing at it. You share that laughter with others who are old enough to understand (no one else cares).

We fight against the inevitable with laughter, but we also fight with a positive attitude. Our hopes for ourselves and what we can accomplish become smaller, but we always have to stretch what is possible. That is why athletic pursuits are so empowering for older people, as long as we don’t judge ourselves in comparison to our youthful exploits.

A big part of a positive attitude is being thankful for everything you can do. I’m thankful every day for my good health. I still have times when I feel 100% (as long as I have coffee!). I can be swimming or running and feel graceful, powerful, and fast. Of course I’m nowhere near as speedy as I used to be, and a video would immediately show me I’m delusional about being graceful, but it doesn’t matter if I feel good. On the best days, everything is functioning harmoniously and my lungs feel pure and deep.

On the other hand, sometimes things go wrong in my athletic endeavors to remind me of how decrepit I’ve become. That happened this week.

Fat thigh

What could I possibly know about fat thighs? And why the singular “thigh”?

It happened this way. Monday was a holiday. Usually I love getting out on my bike early on holidays, because there are few cars on the roads. But it was drizzling, and I decided I’d go and do the Coquitlam Crunch. It’s not my favourite workout, but I hadn’t done it for a year and I had a sudden yearning to be high up there, looking out over Coquitlam on a day when the stairs and trail wouldn’t be busy.

My plan was to run up and walk down (to save my knee, which hurts badly going downhill). Twice, if possible. All went according to plan. As I expected, the stairs up were very tough.

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Steps on the Coquitlam Crunch

The circulation in my left leg isn’t perfect (I had a bypass done 25 years ago), so I felt cramping and pain in that leg on the stairs, but the leg recovered gradually as I continued to run up slowly after completing the 437 steps. I did an easy walk down, then told myself I would push even harder on the second run up. I expected to be faster since I was now well warmed up.

However, my leg still hadn’t recovered from its cramping, and the muscles were even worse the second time up—but once again, they recovered. This time, I pushed right to my limit on the last 500m of the climb, and I was pleased to be almost a minute faster! Going back down, I cheated a bit and mixed walking with a little jogging on the flatter sections.

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At the top of the Coquitlam Crunch

It had stopped raining. Feeling ambitious, I refueled with a second breakfast and rode up to Sasamat Lake. I was surprised that my legs felt only a little fatigued, and were able to handle the hill climb without any problem.

The next morning, I woke up with extremely sore muscles around my hip joints. That always happens after I do the Crunch, so I wasn’t worried.

I decided that after the previous day’s intense activity, I would just do an easy gym workout. I was due for some good stretching time after my easy cardio and upper body weights. I noticed that a chronic tightness in my left inner thigh muscle (which had been noticeable for several months, but only when I did certain stretches) was much worse than it had ever been. I did various stretches in an attempt to loosen it up, and that seemed to help a little, but I got a few worrisome twinges of pain.

A couple of hours after going to the gym, I noticed that sitting down was painful. I examined my leg and was horrified to see a huge swelling on the inside of my upper thigh. I had never had a fat thigh before!—and this one hurt!

I sat with a frozen gel pack on my leg for a while, but that didn’t help. Late in the afternoon I decided to see if I could ride my bike. The weather was supposed to be good the following day, and I wanted to be able to go out for a long ride.

As I suspected, sitting on my bicycle seat was pretty uncomfortable. I did a short ride to Rocky Point, standing up to minimize the pain as I went over the bumps on the bike path. It was warm and very humid; it looked and felt as though it was going to pour. As usually happens when I can’t ride or run, I loved being outside and wanted to be able to ride more than anything.

However, I resigned myself to the possibility that I would be swimming the next day. And, being a hypochondriac (could this be a hematoma?), I would try to make an appointment with my GP.

On Wednesday morning, though, my “lump” was significantly less painful (though it was starting to turn blue). The sunshine was so welcome after days of clouds and rain—I didn’t want to resist it! I decided I would try a ride to the lake to “test” my muscle. I could stand up on all the steep hills to avoid pressure against my upper thigh.

As it turned out, I had a wonderful ride. I was all the more grateful to be outside on that sunny day because I had feared it wouldn’t be possible. From the north beach, I rode into the trail and went to The Rock. I sat in the sun, took a few photos, and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore and the rocks, feeling very peaceful.

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Looking towards the west shore of Sasamat Lake from The Rock

***

Later that day, my GP confirmed that I just had microtears in my muscle—nothing serious; I just needed RICE.

I felt about 80 years old as I walked around with sore hip muscles, a sore inner thigh, and an extremely tender left quadricep—but I didn’t care. I’ll always try to push the envelope.

 

 

Posted in Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments