alharris

Not Quite Still Life

Working with words means one spends quite a lot of time turning them over and moving them around, fitting and refitting them together like stones in a wall. Thinking is a cerebral, iterative process that lends itself, oddly enough, to physical motion. Years ago in grad school, I used to write for an hour early in the morning before showering, and tease out ideas while shampooing my hair. While biking downtown to teach, I map out lectures between traffic lights, sometimes becoming so preoccupied that I’ll forget to turn down Yonge toward campus. I’ve done a lot of writing on trains, and out in the woods, and down along the lake. If I am not moving while writing, ideally there will be other things in motion: a river eddying around rocks, trees twisting in a wind, snow falling fast and slantwise.

A pandemic is a study in stasis, and after a year spent working from home there have had to be accommodations. After months spent livestreaming lectures from my office I’ve abandoned that space, opening up my laptop in the living room, or in the sitting room on the third floor, or even at an old secretary desk in the spare bedroom. In each room I’ll work for a while before getting up to check the fridge, or look out a window, or check the mail. A neighbour comes out of her house. The recycling bins need bringing back in. Hoisted by cherry pickers, city crews are trimming street trees. A cat wants out. A cat wants in.

In the house, winter light illuminates the undersides of things, and so I get up to look. This wooden shelf, hung in a corner by the bay window, glows between snow squalls in the pewter afternoon light. There is a story to every piece here. The shelf itself I found discarded at curbside around the corner five or six years ago. It is handmade, probably a project piece made from instructions in a DIY magazine published not long after the War. The sage-coloured candlesticks, jam pot, carved wooden bird and vases are from my mother.

I bought the two leather-bound books on the middle shelf for a dollar each at an Eastern Ontario yard sale many years ago: one (published in 1829), is a life of Alexander the Great; the other (dated a decade later) a life of Peter the Great (the volume on Alexander the Great has a folio-sized fold-out map of the Middle East and Central Asia). I found the brass owl and squirrel figurine on the shelf at Value Village. The two books lying on their sides are fascinating. The first, John Ruskin‘s Ethics of the Dust: Ten lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization, is a Socratic-voiced manual of geology, minerology … and metaphysics. Ruskin was a leading Victorian thinker who was influenced by Darwin and very much interested in education (including the education of women) and independent thought. The other volume, The Blind Farmer and his Children, is a nineteenth century ‘improving’ novel originally published in 1817 (my copy “awarded to William Meikle as a prize for regular attendance,” by teacher Agnes Morrison on 27 June 1872). Ethics of the Dust was a gift from my mother; I found The Blind Farmer and His Children among her books after she died. The green china deer came from the Leslieville Flea; the double-decker bus from an eastern Ontario flea market.

On the bottom shelf are my Mother West Wind books from childhood, some little books I like to look at (The Observer’s Book of Furniture, The Observer’s Book of Architecture, two ‘Mr. Cuthbert’s’ gardening guides from the early 1950s, and A Flower Fairy Alphabet.), and a small green pitcher I spotted on the shelf a year ago at Value Village and left there, regretting the decision as soon as we left the store. A week later it was still there, and came home with me.

I look upon these treasures, illuminated in the pewter light. The snow squall ends, the light shifts. It’s time to return to work.

Year (II) of the Plague

One year ago: wow. One year ago: eep.

One year ago I had lists.

Lists of things to store up ahead of the approaching pandemic. Groceries: of course. Beans are a staple food in our household, so of course canned and dried beans. Canned beans, tinned tomatoes, cat food, boxed soup, soup stock, salt, pasta, condiments, pizza sauce, tinned fruit, flour. Batteries. Toiletries and tampons. No toilet paper, because one package of Costco toilet paper lasts for months. Or so I thought: by May we were queuing at Costco for more.

People kept talking about hand sanitizer, which I loathe, but added it to the list nonetheless. Shoppers Drug Mart had packages of scented travel-sized hand sanitizer, so I bought bunches of those, and some tall dispensers of unscented sanitizer. By early March hand sanitizer was impossible to buy, except online from opportunistic price gougers who were eventually shut down. A year later, we have mostly used up the cute little travel sanitizers shoved into every jacket pocket, but the tall dispensers still stand sentry in our front hall, nearly unused because the first thing we do upon returning home is wash our hands with soap and water.

Seeds. Seeds and potting soil. Seeds and potting soil, because I garden, and because of the likelihood shutdowns and supply chain issues would affect nurseries and garden centres. Answer: they did, but only because many people suddenly became back-to-the-land apocalypse preppers and the demand for seeds and bedding plants reportedly exploded in 2020. Corner groceries and flower shops sold bedding plants by the trayful at the beginning of May, and garden centres opened almost as usual a week or two later. My seed potatoes arrived without issue, and I was able to buy the usual amount of seaweed meal from Urban Harvest. Sadly, my favourite plant sale was cancelled, but overall it was a good year for growing, and I spent much of the summer communing with bees and tending to the secret garden on the top deck of our home. Almost all of those seeds, though, are still in their packets, because as things turned out I had no spare time to grow seedlings from scratch.

I also maintained a list of the kinds of nonessentials that are nonetheless worthwhile to have when things become difficult. Summer shoes for my daughter, whose feet — stretching a half size every season — have long since outgrown mine. Easter presents to be hidden away in a closet. Books: oh, so many books, because even with a house filled with books one needs more. Chocolate. Cheetos. Luxury soaps. Lovely scarves.

Another new kayak, which, thanks to severe shortages in sporting goods, was paid for by the sale of two older kayaks that no longer suited our purposes. Sadly, our fleet made it out on the lake only once during the summer.

We did not buy gym equipment, although now I wish we had. Gyms were permitted to open in August, and I went three times a week until shortly before they were forced to close again. And while I support most of the policy decisions to close nonessential businesses as the second wave surged in our region, I think gyms, like other health-related personal service establishments, could have been kept open, subject to strict protocols. My gym, the West End YMCA, had stringent safety protocols and to my knowledge no cases of Covid were transmitted among GTA YMCA members or staff.

The pandemic hit Canada with a bang in March. A week before things began shutting down, we moved my elderly mother-in-law into our home. This move had been planned since shortly before the beginning of the year, but its urgency accelerated as the global case count began to rise. We spent the first two months of the year packing up her condo, and then several stressful weeks preparing it for sale, hoping to beat the shutdowns. In the end the listing agent advised us to wait, and we did, wondering when — or if — we would be able to sell the unit. Remarkably, when the embargo on open houses was lifted and the condo was listed for sale, it sold very quickly (although not as quickly as it would have prior to the pandemic) thanks to pent-up demand from buyers sidelined by the shutdown.

In late March both my husband and I became sick with something that, on the balance of probabilities, we thought might be Covid-19. I developed a terrible headache, and experienced a cough and lung congestion–ordinary cold symptoms, and not concerns on their own. What did worry me was pain in the lower lobes of both lungs, and shortness of breath, which I had never experienced before. We did not qualify for testing during those anxious early months when everything Covid-related — masks, personal protective equipment, hospital capacity, and of course tests — was in short supply. In the summer my doctor swabbed my cheek for research attempting to estimate how much of the population had developed Covid antibodies, but neither she nor I were able to access results due to the double-blind nature of the study. So we have no real idea whether what we had were mild cases of Covid or simply an unusual cold. And as the months have passed, we’ve concluded it doesn’t matter whether we had Covid or not: the safety protocols remain the same, and emerging variants may reduce the protective effect of past exposure.

And then the rest of the year went by in a whirlwind of at-home learning and then in-person schooling followed by another school closure, online teaching (a dismal way to run undergraduate courses that normally would proceed through urban exploration fieldwork), caregiving urgencies, and business responsibilities that kept us from ever being able to lock down. At the end of October we took in a cat belonging to friends who needed to cross the border and who are now stuck in the US. After the provincial stay-at-home order was issued in December, I had fantasies of spending the winter locked down at home, baking sourdough bread and inventing new recipes for canned beans while we waited for vaccine distribution to ramp up.

No such luck. Although I do manage to make sourdough bread once or twice a month.

Here we are, about to enter our second Year of the Plague. Our region appears to be emerging from the second wave, but there are concerns highly contagious Covid variants will propel us directly into a third wave amid efforts to reopen nonessential businesses and restart in-person learning even though vaccinations continue to lag due to supply issues.

This year, once again, I have lists.

But this year my lists inventory the things I miss.

Value Village. Book stores. The annual University of Toronto book sales. The Marshalls-Winners-Homesense retail trifecta. Teaching in-person courses. Literary events. Brunches, dinner parties and tea gatherings. Biking downtown on an elective trip. Brushing past strangers on the subway. Awkward social hugs. People holding doors for one another. Casual conversations about the weather. Sending our kid off to camp. Sending our kid off to school. Taking her to swim meets. taking her anywhere at all. Picking up building materials and being able to choose our own 2x4s. Dressing up. Sitting on a restaurant patio or — sigh — inside. Not wearing a mask. Sitting in a move theatre. Visiting my best friend and joyriding all over Northumberland County. Not thinking about Covid.

[In the picture are our Plague Doctor and Plague Nurse, keeping watch over the household.]

New Year, More Bookshelves

We live in a big, oldish (1910-1912) Edwardian Classic home in Toronto’s Junction area. Like many homes of its era, the house was built with generous brick bays on the first and second floors, offset from the central front gable in order to accommodate an interior plan defined by a side hall and staircase opening upon wide, comfortable rooms..

Here is a picture of our house, taken in about 1917 on the occasion of what looks like a wedding.

I love this picture because it captures the generosity of the house, especially its wide, double-story verandah wide enough to hang festive bunting from and sturdy enough to accommodate an extended family for a special occasion.

Fast-forward a century or so, and here’s a picture of the house taken shortly after dawn on Christmas morning.

Obviously, a few things have changed. Long gone is the elegant fascia board at the gable, and the graceful curve of the veranda. At some point, likely in the 1950s, they were replaced with an atrocious boarded contraption meant to look modern, which clashed terribly with the rather traditional brick and bays. Nearly a decade ago we rebuilt the front porch post-and-beam style, and, a few years later, the second story balcony, restoring consistency to the front of the house although not quite resurrecting its Edwardian flair.

Inside, the house has changed quite greatly from its original configuration. Like many homes of this size, our house was divided into apartments during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even earlier it had, we have been told, housed several generations of at least one extended family. In 1982 (I know this from a cache of receipts for building materials we found under the veranda!) a previous owner made structural changes to the interior that profoundly and in my view unnecessarily altered the flow and function of the rooms. These changes make me grit my teeth even to inventory.

Edwardian Classics were typically built with a long side hall and staircase, with the kitchen behind them, and a front room and dining room running the full length of the house, connected by an open archway or wide pocket doors. On the second floor there are typically three, sometimes four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small room often used as a sewing room at the top of the stairs. On the third floor are ordinarily two attic bedrooms. Commonly added on to the rear of these homes, likely a few years after they were built, are two-story frame structures serving a variety of purposes–storage rooms, sleeping porches, pantries, washrooms–with the upper level typically a fully-windowed sunroom. [The old sunroom in our house is now my office.]

The biggest change made to our house during that perplexing 1982 renovation was a basement stairwell hacked through the middle of the house, right into the archway that had once linked the front parlour and dining room. This atrocity had a functional purpose: to make the then-newly finished basement legally accessible to be used as bedroom space for a ground floor apartment. But it had several deleterious effects. First, an existing external basement access at the back of the house (houses of this era often had a set of exterior stairs to the basement, possibly so coal could be delivered) was closed off and built over. Second, a perfectly serviceable existing interior basement stairwell was, completely ridiculously, closed off to the ground floor (it remains accessible from the outside via a side door that is not original to the house). Third, the house’s natural front-to-back airflow was disrupted by all this boxing up and cutting off. And finally, the new basement stairwell, while functional, created a large boxed-in void in the middle of the ground floor. Functional for apartments, but architecturally terrible.

As our family and its needs have expanded–one child, one elderly person requiring full-time care, two work-at-home offices, space for a small business and an art studio–we’ve stopped renting out space and come to occupy the entire house. But the problem of the awful basement staircase persisted … until a few days ago, when I was (after 18 years spent wondering about it) motivated to take a crowbar to a curiously sloped stretch of drywall lining the basement stairs.

Behind that stretch of drywall was … nothing! Nothing at all but space, cobwebs, a 1975 penny, and a skittering of decades-old mouse droppings.

A perfect space, it seemed to me, for shelving that might, at the very least, humanize the scale of the basement stairwell.

In the garage we have a stack of beautiful old boards, milled from huge trees a century ago, and over the Christmas holiday we built in a set of shelving the full length of the basement stairwell. Here it is upon completion (I’ve since added more art and have plans to paint when hardware stores open again).

I love how the shelving adds functionality and a sense of proportion to the basement staircase.

I should add that this was not our first bookcases-in-underused-spaces project of the year: in November, I built a set of bookcases into a space behind the knee wall under the eaves on the third floor. Here it is in all its glory.

Still City; Resolve

The first day of the year, and light returns to the hemisphere. Early this morning I left the house, and moved through the nearly silent city on my way to the gym. Below the balustrades pigeons flapped like bellows, and sparks jolted down from the streetcar wire and guttered in the intersection, and smoke rose from grates and chimneys, and the city glowed like a banked fire against the pink and pewter dawn.

Years ago I used to make new year’s resolutions: in my twenties they focused on weight loss and grad school; by my thirties they revolved around research projects and, one memorable year, getting and staying pregnant (and, you know, giving birth). And then, since my forties began, I have been too busy for boot-strapping, and the new year is mainly a somnolent moment between teaching terms and publishing commitments. But this year I have taken a sabbatical, and have the sort of time for personal projects I have not enjoyed for years.

Like many academics, for me the ‘real’ beginning of the year is in September when the teaching term starts, and this was when my sabbatical began, so by chronological measure I have gotten a bit of a head start on certain things. But a new year is a new year, and so I will post herewith a haphazard inventory of my 2020 resolutions.

Smoke on the Water

Early last August, after years of talking about doing so, we finally bought kayaks, and put them to very good use through the end of the season, paddling the navigable stretches of the Humber River and on Lake Ontario as far west as Samuel Smith Park.

In 2020 we plan to take the kayaks with us camping, and have a few lakes in mind we’d like to explore. We also hope to spend much more time on the water at Toronto, perhaps paddling to Hanlan’s Point and revisiting some favoured beaches and inlets along the shores west of the city.

Shaking My Jelly I

Last summer was the second year of what I anticipate (and hope) will be a long apprenticeship as a maker of amateur preserves. Last fall I entered a batch of lemon verbena jelly in the preserves competition run annually by the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and it won first prize!

In 2020 I would like to make more more jams and jellies, improve my techniques, and perhaps try other preserves, like pickles. I am very interested in garden-grown and wild-picked foods (I grew the lemon verbena used in my prize winning (!!) jelly on our front balcony, and experimented with mulberry jam, and sumac, crabapple and wild apple jellies picked from street trees), and would like to expand my repertoire, perhaps to include rose hips (tried and failed last fall) and rowan berries.

Shaking My Jelly II

In November we joined a gym: the West End YMCA. I know! I never thought I’d join a gym either. But even after 45 years in Canada, winters are hard on my husband, and I have to admit they’ve lost some of their charm for me. We figured that joining a gym might stave off some of the inevitable winter erosions to health and well-being, and so far it’s working.

By good fortune, on the day we went to sign up, the Heart & Stroke Foundation had set up a table advertising their Activate program, offering two months of free membership at participating YMCA locations, a free session with a personal trainer, and wellness coaching for six months. My husband qualified because he is a cardiac survivor, and my historically low blood pressure and, ahem, weight have increased after years of unremitting overwork and periods of extreme stress, so I qualified as well.

As noted elsewhere, even five weeks of regular gym-going (we go together at least twice a week, and I almost always go three times) has been transformative. I’ve lost weight and gained strength, of course. But more pointedly: I feel good. My resolution this year is to continue going three times a week and to make further progress with a balanced program of cardio (I run! Or did until I strained my left MCL a week ago; now I use the elliptical) and strength training. I’d also like to try some of the classes, all of which look like fun with all the slogan-shouting and deafening music and uncurbed enthusiasm.

Shaking the Dust

Three years ago, when my beautiful mother was dying, we talked quite a lot about forgiveness. One of the many things we had in common was having borne the brunt of certain kinds of family dysfunction. Over the years we had made parallel accommodations to it, but mine was harder-edged. She had forgiven (or had at least tried to understand), while I had, at long last, said no.

Our discussions were an interesting inversion of the somewhat parallel conversations we had years earlier, after my father’s death. My father was a powerful, arrogant, larger-than-life person who was, at times, a terrible person to live with. But in the later years of his life he exhibited a startling, real and I think very rare awareness of the effects his disposition and choices had on the people in his life. He regretted the damage. And for me this was enough. But for my mother–who loved my father but also endured him at times–forgiveness was difficult and incomplete.

My mother was able to forgive dysfunction involving other family members because she saw these dysfunctions, in part, as consequences of my father’s disposition and behaviour, even after decades had passed.

I could not.

While my mother remained at home, I provided nearly all of her care, and after she died, I alone sorted her possessions and packed up her large, cluttered house. I kept silent about many things: much of my silence was at her request. I have maintained that silence. At some point I began to think of silence as the closest to forgiveness I am likely to get.

Until sometime last year that silence was a weight I carried. I had been carrying it for years–for years and years–but after my mother’s death certain things happened to make that silence heavier. In recent months I have taken steps to lighten that burden, and in 2020, my resolution is to set it aside entirely.

Purging

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I made shelf space for my own published work, rather than hiding it in various files or dispersing it among the books in my library. Then I cleared some shelf space for the books I love most, which have also been dispersed among various sections in my library. And then I cleared shelf space for research materials associated with current projects. And then I donated a ton of books I will not read again and do not care to retain. So cathartic! In 2020 I hope to expand this process vastly.

Projects

I have two important projects on the go, and in 2020 I am hoping to finish one of them and set the other one into meaningful motion. More soon.

People

I am considering–considering–being more social in 2020. I might–might–even go out voluntarily at night.

Three Views of Winter

The towering canopy of the honey locust tree that shelters our front garden, above; and, below, this morning’s view from the spare bedroom on the third floor.

Lastly, the view from the window of my office, a converted sunroom at the back of our house. Often cardinals come to visit, and sometimes a hawk.

In the night it snowed. The birds huddle together and then cluster at the feeder. Soon the squirrels will emerge from the roof over my head and descend to pick up the seeds they kick down to the ground. How stoically — how gently — the cedars bear the birds, the squirrels, the the feeder, and their burden of winter.