Full Beaver Moon Eclipse (and a few more thoughts on the education workers’ strike and on social media and the public sphere more generally *deep inhale*)

I awake as early as ever, and lie abed, cozy under the covers until remembering that the Beaver Moon is to be in full eclipse in the hour before dawn.

And there it is, hanging low above the western horizon, not long before setting: the Blood Moon.

I have not yet set up my new phone, and this one takes blurry shots in low light, but I go outside to capture what I can of it anyway. The moon: not cheese; not a man; not inhabited by a fox; not chased by wolves—just beautiful Selene, or perhaps just a trace of her chariot, wheeling across the Heavens.

An Update on the Education Workers’ Strike

[A follow-up to yesterday’s post, in which I commented on the unfolding situation with the Ontario education workers’ strike.]

Premier Ford blinked first, and promised to rescind his government’s short-lived legislation, including his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. And so ends this chapter of the 2022 education workers’ strike–all 55,000 library staff, early childhood educators, educational assistants, custodians and administrative staff returning to work this morning—meaning schools can reopen for learning. Reportedly contract negotiations will resume; perhaps, this time, they will be governed by something more akin to bargaining in good faith (another requirement of the Labour Relations Act).

I think it likely that the government was surprised by the level of public outrage, having banked on pandemic-weary parents turning against the first union to threaten a strike affecting Ontario’s schools. And this might even have become the case, had the Premier not announced his intention to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to abrogate basic labour protections, thereby threatening a Constitutional crisis.

I have little patience for conspiracy claims of any kind, but do know very well how back-room politics work. I think it highly likely that Premier Ford—a gifted populist but not (surely the obvious can be said neutrally, which is how I intend it) the brightest politician in the country—received advice from within the federal Conservative Party, but bumbled the implementation of that guidance (certainly the timing but probably also some of the details). I think, too, that the Premier’s office had gotten myopic about the labour negotiations and the union(s) involved, as well as the public’s perceived opposition to further school shutdowns. This sort of political myopia tends to occur when politicians are surrounded by too many yes-men or too many behind-the-scenes Machiavellians. In the case of Ford, for whom Cronyism is not just a practice but a kind of ethic and who is really a middle player, placed between the back room fellows who tell him what to do and the people who do his (and the back room fellows’) bidding, it was probably both. And no amount of gee-shucks-I’m-just-a-guy-trying-to-keep-kids-in-school back-peddling (this is, in fact, the source of Ford’s greatest and most genuine appeal) is going to undo all the damage. His political handlers know he is likely to fumble the big stuff, and the public (and by this I mean the non-ideological public, including the large swaths of suburban southern Ontario who returned him to office) is unlikely to offer further forbearance.

I’d have to have slightly more tolerance for conspiracy claims to wonder whether the whole Notwithstanding Clause business was intended (by Ford’s handlers–it does not require any conspiracy thinking at all to understand that almost politicians have handlers and that even gifted operators—e.g., former Prime Minister Steven Harper, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—answer to their back rooms) to be a trial balloon for further staged Constitutional crises. But I do not think it an entirely outlandish notion. We are, after all, now in an era in which political ideologues and fundamentalists of all stripes, on both the right and left, are eager to break stuff.

It is my hope that people—and by “people” I mean decent-hearted, open-minded, thinking people capable of setting aside their ideological commitments in the face of real-world evidence of their cost—will understand what has gone on here. It is heartening to see that members of the public, who are understandably weary of public sector unions’ strike actions (sorry, union friends, but it’s true), recoiled against what cannot be called anything other than an authoritarian act of government overreach (it seems important to remember that Ford could have waited a couple of days to pass back-to-work legislation that would have ended the strike and sent outstanding bargaining issues to binding arbitration, fully within the rubric of the Labour Relations Act, and received wide public approval for doing so).

An important reason I’ve returned to blogging here (and, with my husband, at The Space Between Us) is because in the last decade or so I’ve watched civil discourse deteriorate to little more than narrow  ideological posturing, disciplined on social media ever more tightly by algorithms ‘curating’ what people see, and by self-styled propagandists running scripts via 240 character posts and mic drops. I’ve seen people forget how to think with any kind of complexity.

It is not a conspiracy claim to point out that foreign agents now routinely meddle in elections, that home countries attempt to exert coercive control over citizens living abroad, and that social media platforms have become (with the blessing of their owners) tools of political influence and control. At the same time, there has been, from these same agents, concerted attacks on both representative government and the legitimate press.

You might say, in response, that these things have always gone on. But when have they had such a disastrous effect, or such crushing effect on the collective capacity to think, act, or protect the vulnerable? The examples I can think of—Hitler’s Germany, say, or the US in the McCarthy era, or the Isaaq Genocide in Somalia, or Chi/na in the Zer0 C0/vid era–have had disastrous and vastly spiraling consequences.

You might say that maybe things aren’t so bad—or, in contrast, that they really are so bad we need to burn it all down.

Are you sure about that? Are you really sure?

And are you really sure your views are your own?

If you do not, say, read newspapers, or read only publications whose editorial positions you are sure you already agree with; if you glean your awareness of global issues from social media platforms, online influencers, and/or from your closed circle of friends; if you find yourself responding to social, political, economic and environmental issues in ideological, oppositional terms in which complex problems have simple either/or solutions and easy-to-identify allies and enemies—then it is possible you, like most of us, have spent the last decade or so being hijacked.

There is no shortage of gleeful reportage on the unfolding implosion of Twitter, recently purchased by Tesla (for now: apparently he has just sold a bunch more shares) owner and likely future Russian oligarch Elon Musk. Disenchanted Twitter users are reportedly deactivating their Twitter accounts in large numbers, many joining distributed social network Mastodon in droves (you can find me at Mastodon dot Cloud, username alharris, although I retain a dormant Twitter account too, at least for now).

I find this lateral lurching from one social platform to the next somewhat disquieting. It reflects a genuine, if seemingly increasingly desperate, search for connection, community and (in the era of so-called influencers, the source of this decade’s fifteen minutes of fame, visibility. But I guess I see it as evidence of a problem, not a solution.

It’s become my view that social media are strongly implicated in the decline of civil discourse and the rise of narrow, hysterical, anti-evidence ideologies and fundamentalisms in the west in the last decade or so. The core of the problem, I think, is that social media were meant to augment civil discourse, but instead they have largely replaced it. In the era of social media, the public sphere has withered. It has, in fact, been under concerted attack not only by agencies seeking explicitly to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy but, at times, by social media companies themselves. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns (sometimes running on established social media platforms with the blessing of their executives star-struck by dollar signs); claims by ideologues that even real, verifiable, fact-based news is ‘fake;’ attacks on so-called ‘mainstream media’ (‘mainstream’ here meaning subject to fact-checking and statutory requirements not to make stuff up) on both the left and right; attacks on elections and the democratic process more generally; the concerted targeting (again, on both the left and right) of the hated political middle (i.e., that large section of the non-ideological public still committed to reality); etc. etc. etc. have hastened the decline of the public sphere.

The public sphere still exists. It’s not on social media, though: it’s out here. Here on the actual internet—Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. It’s in the mainstream newspapers ideologues don’t want you to read. It’s in conversations with your neighbours, including that woman in the apartment down the hall who shouts at her kids (what’s going on with her, and is there something you should do or say?) and the neighbour down the street who shovels his snow onto the street (that jerk). It’s in the way you treat the other road users you encounter on your commute. It’s in and on the roads themselves. It’s in the election signs people put up in the weeks before every election–not only the signs for your preferred candidate, but for all the candidates doing the hard and exhausting work of seeking public office because they believe in something, no matter how ridiculous. It’s in international concern for miners trapped during a cave-in. It’s in concerns about inflation, interest rates, and the stuff the government does behind closed doors. It’s in each other and the social world we negotiate, not on a social media platform in which you are alternately a commodity or target.

If we want to un-hijack ourselves, I think we have to do it out here.

Morning Ritual (and a short aside on the Education Workers’ Strike)

I wake every morning before dawn–sometimes hours before dawn, especially in this dark season–and rise to perform the morning rituals. Sit on the toilet, greet the cats (this morning Milo was sleeping rather sweetly in the bathtub), read a few pages (currently Margaret Christakos’ book Her Paraphernalia, but at other times it might be a decor magazine, Erazim Kohak’s The Embers and the Stars or an old cookbook found in the little library down the street), refresh the water dishes and clean the litter box on the third floor, and descend to the second to do the same (later, my husband will deal with litter box on the ground floor, because hunting for nuggets in all three litter boxes first thing in the morning is beyond my tolerance). Feed the cats (really, there are only two of them, but they are very spoiled), put away last night’s dishes, wake our daughter, nag her again to get up, and then, twelve minutes later, make dire pronouncements about the time and remind her she cannot blame the subway for her lateness more than once a week.

[If luck is with me, there will be a moment to glance out at the dawn, and to glean the day’s weather from it. This morning’s dawn: clear, cool, the trees stark against the pale sky, peach fading into pale blue; finches at the feeder; a squirrel rustling in the nest it has built in the Juliet balcony outside the third floor front window—tolerated because it cannot do any structural damage and entertains the cats.]

See our daughter off to school, greet my husband, discuss morning schedules, help with caregiving downstairs (early in the pandemic we moved my mother-in-law into the ground floor of our home—fortunate to have dedicated space in our formerly apartmentized house—cleaned out and sold her condo, dealt with the difficult transition, began learning how to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of Ontario’s eldercare system), walk the cats —

A year ago, at this point I would have disappeared into my office to organize a lecture, mark papers, respond to the deluge of student emails, deal with departmental bureaucracy, and, during the term last year when I ran an 8:30 Zoom class, teach for three hours before stopping to catch my breath and notice the patterns of light and shadow in the cedars.

A friend asked me recently what it is like to retire. I don’t really know, I said: it’s not as if things are any less busy.

And yet: the ceaseless stress, the tightness in my chest; the compounding urgencies; the roller-coaster of term; the steady string of heating or plumbing emergencies downtown—these I have almost forgotten to miss.

Our days are still very busy. Last week my husband had to take his mother to the hospital after a fall, and caregiving for someone with dementia is a 24/7 challenge; parenting our bright, creative, athletic, socially active kid is itself a full-time job; I still have publishing deadlines; we still have business affairs to attend to.

I have the project I’ve returned to, about which I will say little except that hopefully you will see it in print before too long.

And I have rowing, about more anon. Nearly every day, preferably in the morning, I go down to the basement to row for up to an hour (or sometimes, when I have foolishly committed to a half marathon, close to two). During the pandemic when the gyms were closed, we bought a Concept2 Rowerg, and it has been life-changing. After using the rower on and off for a year, I took seriously to rowing in March of this year, and in that time I’ve rowed well over a million metres, joined an international virtual team (which placed 59th out of 746 teams in the Fall Team Challenge and 8th out of 167 teams in our size category), rowed two half marathons, and lost 30 pounds. I work hard at rowing, and my top ranked workouts are in the 80th percentile in my category (not the half marathon, though, where I’m ranked 29th out of 76 bad fifty-something bitches who also like to row hard core).

Yesterday morning I rowed for an hour (while watching Man on the Moon), and then went out to put the gardens to bed. I didn’t finish everything before dark, but did manage to get the Hallowe’en decorations packed carefully away, put pumpkins into the compost, raked leaves, swept the front porch, put the hoses away, brought out the (shudder) snow shovels, and emptied the rain barrel. Today I hope to finish raking and sweeping, plant next year’s garlic, empty planters, and tuck the gardening décor and equipment carefully away in the garage.

Complicating today’s plans is the Education Workers’ labour action, a volatile situation that has closed schools in the Toronto District School Board and left students doing so-called asynchronous learning, with uncertainty about whether, when and how learning will resume later this week. This morning my daughter is finishing off some assignments and a couple of art pieces, while we keep checking the news for updates.

A Short Aside on the Education Workers’ Strike

My own view about the situation? In summary: (1) I believe in the principles that govern trade unionism and wholly support the collective bargaining process laid out in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. (2) I had some issues with OSBCU (Ontario School Board Council of Unions, representing over 50,000 Ontario education workers, including administrative and custodial staff, educational assistants, early childhood educators, and library technicians)’s approach to bargaining, namely the significant wage demands (yes, declining real wages and yes, inflation, but tell that to private sector workers earning minimum wage) and what seemed, from the outside, as its brinkmanship approach to conciliation and the strike vote process (the Province’s subsequent moves make OSBCU’s approach a lot more understandable). To be clear, I support the Union’s aims, but have found some of its moves seemed (again, from the outside) tone-deaf and short-sighted. (3) At the same time, nothing could be more tone-deaf than the Province pushing through legislation last week to impose a collective agreement and declare any OSBCU labour action ‘illegal’–ordinarily this would itself be an illegal act, given that labour rights are Constitutionally protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the government has indicated it will invoke the Notwithstanding Clause, which it appears to see as offering it a free pass from democratic accountability.

I see this not only as an idiotic move on the part of the Provincial government, but also as an authoritarian, deeply undemocratic action. Not only does it abrogate the statutory basis of labour relations in Ontario, it directly undermines the democratic process in Canada. Worse still, it wasn’t even necessary. The Province could have waited a few days and easily passed back to work legislation that would have sent unresolved contract issues to binding arbitration. Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce could have presented themselves as heroes standing up for public education, and the Notwithstanding Clause could have been kept in its box. Instead, most Ontarians blame Ford for the debacle, and labour advocates are now calling for a general strike.

Already this morning I see evidence the Premier might be backing down, and ‘walking back’ his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. If this actually happens, labour advocates will claim it was the threat of a general strike that did it, but it is almost certain that constitutional law experts within his own party have told Ford to back the eff down unless he wants to spend the rest of his term in office fighting a myriad of constitutional issues all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the meantime, however this travesty ends, it will mean that public support for the Ford government (returned to office in June 2022 with a stronger majority than it initially secured in 2017) will be deeply and likely irretrievably eroded, that public sector unions will be further on edge, that families with children in school will have terminally lost faith in the Province, and that the Notwithstanding Clause–even if not invoked this time–will have been firmly and disastrously let out of its Pandora’s Box. The winners: public sector education unions, who will be able to assert, somewhat accurately, that they are standing up not only for public education but also basic labour rights.

As my mother would say: Oh, the unmitigated idiocy of it all.

And Now For Something Completely Different

 

Well. At least it is a gorgeous November day. My pineapple sage are blooming, and with some luck I will be able to plant the garlic. The garlic are the last thing I plant every fall, in faith that spring will come and things will bloom again.

[Note: I’ve posted an update and a few more thoughts in the next post.]

Treasures from the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair

It’s November, and the air is velvety soft. Misty evenings precede gentle mornings, each more beautiful than the one before. At night the moon rides high in the trees, and all day the leaves, unusually beautiful this fall, detach themselves, one at a time, and drift down to rustle in the gutters.

Milo tiptoeing through the tombstones

It is a fall right out of Gray’s Elegy, and every front garden—still decorated for Hallowe’en, no one quite ready to break the spell—has the quality of a country churchyard. Stones askew in the tangled grass; leaves and lichen adorning gnarled roots and twisted branches like memento mori. November is a melancholy month, bringing with it the season of perpetual twilight. And yet: the light, so low on the horizon, illuminates the undersides of things.

Yesterday I rode downtown in the exquisite air to attend the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair. I left early, because I wanted to visit some friends at the Art Gallery of Ontario; namely, the paintings and sculptures in the Thomson Collection. I’ve recently gotten an AGO membership, part of making good on a first-year-of-retirement goal of focusing on inclination and not only necessity, and it’s my intention to visit the Gallery (and not only the Thomson Collection) as often as possible.

Ken Thomson tickles his ivories

I do have a soft spot for the Thomson works, however. Ken Thomson was my first employer when, as a teen, I wrote for the Oshawa Times. And I felt another kind of affinity when, in 2004, five small ivory figures, on loan from the Thomson Collection, were stolen from the AGO. After their recovery several weeks later, Thomson clutched the ivories to his chest and told reporters he would sleep that night with the sculptures laid out in his bed. “They mean so much to me,” he said; adding, “people wouldn’t understand that perhaps unless they were collectors themselves and had a very special affinity with something that they possess that virtually became part of them.”

I am not, of course, a collector of ivories. But I have strong attachments to resonant objects, places, times and loved ones both living and dead. My grandfather’s portable Underwood typewriter, a gift years ago from my mother, which sits beside some of my father’s favourite books in a bookcase in our home library. My collection of hag stones, found mainly in gravel bars along Duffin’s Creek. And books, of course.

Recently we acquired, via curbside score, a lovely old glass-doored china cabinet that now houses my collection of antiquarian domestic manuals; guides to deportment and etiquette; books on gender and sexuality; interior design, architecture, landscape and gardening; and old cookbooks. I’ve been collecting these kinds of books since first buying a copy of Woman: Maiden, Wife, and Mother (1898) at a yard sale for a dollar in 1997—a remarkable, proto-feminist book that advocates for women’s full partnership in society even in the late Victorian era. I love what these volumes reveal about the culture and norms of their era, for good as well as ill. [I love all kinds of quirky old books, having volumes on phrenology, and patent medicine, and … oh: just all kinds of weird topics, but will write about these another time.]

Every day or so I open the doors of my new-to-me cabinet and visit my old books, breathing in their distinctive smell of cellulose and smoke (more here about the fascinating science of historic odours) tracing the gilt on their spines, and browsing their instructions, say, on invalid cookery or Accompanying a Lady to the Theatre. Each book contains a story, made up not only of the material within its covers but also of the story of the book’s history as an object. I have always been interested in marginalia, and inscriptions and bookplates, and laid-in papers, and notes scribbled in the end-papers (recipes, calculations, reviews, reminders). I am also interested in how books have traveled over time, including how they have come to the place—a book sale, and yard sale, a box of books set out at the curb—where I first encountered them. Some of my oldest books have journeyed across the ocean in steamer trunks, while others have remained in the same city, passed down through inheritance until, at some point, being discarded or sold. Each one is a treasure, and I am well aware of being only a custodian along their journey.

This has been my first year attending the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair and, after two years of bookish events being affected by pandemic-related shutdowns, it has been a particularly good fall for book, publishing and literary events. The Fair felt like a homecoming event for antiquarian book aficionados, many of whom clearly knew one another. I am not entirely sure I belonged there: I am not a large volume (nor large budget) buyer of books, and my collecting is undisciplined and sometimes haphazard. I just like books. But I did chat with The Monkey’s Paw proprietor Stephen Fowler, and was pleased to make the acquaintance of the owners of The Scribe Bookstore, a new (since 2021) antiquarian bookshop located in Toronto’s east end. I also visited with booksellers I have bought from over the years, including Attic Books (of London ON) and Contact Editions (which seems to have sold much of its stock to Karol Krysik books, operating out of the same location, but running a separate booth at the Book Fair this weekend). Two booksellers I would have loved to see were Steven Temple of Steven Temple Books, formerly of Queen Street in Toronto (now based in Welland), and the late, lovely Nelson Ball, poet and bookseller.

I bought a few treasures at the Fair, including the following:

Toronto Survival Guide (Holy Trinity Church, 1973), a remarkable—and apparently now very scarce—guide to low-budget living in seventies-era Toronto. Edited by Brian Grieveson, of Rochdale College fame (and author of the memoir Rochdale College: Myth and Reality; 1991) and publisher of Charasee Press (and introduced by none other than then-“tiny, perfect mayor” David Crombie!), the book is geared toward hippies, Draft Dodgers and folks ‘Goin’ Down the Road.’ Its practical chapters, on topics including Accommodation, Food, Legal Rights, Education, Recreation and Transportation, provide a vivid picture of the city’s counter-cultural interests in this era. The book includes medical advice for drug dealing with drug overdoses, STDs and pregnancies; information for gay Torontonians; a discussion of labour rights; a list of entertainment establishments; a guide to local bookstores that even, in the book’s fine print, fills more than a page; random insertions of Grieveson’s poetry, and illustrated instructions for making furniture out of salvaged material. It’s really a remarkable book, one I’d heard about but never seen. I’m totally hepped to add this to my library. [P.S. Apparently—according to a 1973 issue of  University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity—the Carling-O’Keefe Brewery had planned to sponsor the book, and paid some costs, but eventually backed out on the grounds that the book’s content was aimed mainly at “transients under 30.” Holy Trinity Church covered remaining costs and absorbed the loss—perhaps one reason why the book is so scarce now.]

Canada’s Greatest Crimes (Harlequin, 1958). Written by noted Canadian pulp writer Thomas P. Kelley (of The Black Donnelleys fame), this book includes lurid accounts of crimes, the facts “a matter of record,” the descriptions reportedly “accurate in every detail.” This may (or may not) be so, but Kelley certainly went for the sensational, writing in the introduction that the chapters “present the cream of bizarre crimes” and “reveal stories of murder and of mass murder; cases of diabolical cunning and unbridled sex, so fantastic as to seem incredible.” Fitting, one supposes, given that Harlequins, like other pulps of their era, were sold in newsstands, drugstores and bus stations to travelers looking for light (and often lurid) reads. The chapter titles are evocative: “While Satan Smiled,” “The Corpse Went Wandering,” and “Wild Women and Dr. Buchanan.” I myself was not immune to Kelley’s sensationalized approach: I bought the book because one of the stories, “The Toronto Terror,” sounded too exciting to leave behind. I’ve only begun reading, but if the pathetic fallacy that forebodes so heavily in the chapter’s introduction—

On a raging fall night, over a hundred years ago, a flash of lightning split a Canadian sky and lanced downward to illuminate a small cabin in Northern Ontario, as well as the fields and thickly wooded area around it.

—is any indication, I’m up for a roller-coaster ride.

I have an enduring love for twentieth century interior design books, from the Edwardian period through to the 1950s or so (or, if I am honest, right up until the kitschiest and most hideous 1970s). How to Decorate and Light Your Home (Coward-McCann, 1955) is, as its title suggests, a double-header of a book. It is also a bit of a Trojan Horse, having been co-written by an engineer with the General Electric Company, then in the midst of the Live Better Electrically advertising campaign it ran in concert with Westinghouse. Reportedly one of the most effective mass marketing campaigns of its era, Live Better Electrically spurred homeowners to purchase and install electrical appliances in hopes of winning recognition as a Medallion Home.

Recently at a yard sale I happened to buy a copy of The Electric Cook Book (1960), presumably produced as part of the same campaign, which similarly extolls the virtues of electrical appliances. The cookbook is emblazoned with the Live Better Electrically slogan and logo and makes explicit the view that electric living is “gracious living.”

The Live Better Electrically campaign may seem ridiculous six decades after its heyday, but in 2022 homeowners are being urged to landfill natural gas powered appliances, particularly stoves, and switch to electrical heating, on the grounds that natural gas appliances contribute more carbon gases and emit noxious fumes (e.g., nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide) than their electric counterparts. Perhaps the ongoing campaign, delivered in the hectoring, moralistic language of far too much contemporary environmental activism (before the shouting begins let me say I note this with dismay as a person very deeply committed to environmental preservation, and as a person, incidentally, who line-dries all her laundry, but who cannot quite see the environmental merit in tossing her four year-old gas stove), would have more success if it took a page or two from the Living Better Electrically campaign of yore.

My final treasure from the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair was Social Dynamite; or, The Wickedness of Modern Society, an 1888 book compiled from the discourses of T. DeWitt Talmage, an American preacher, orator and supposed social reformer. Speaking of hectoring, Social Dynamite thunders at its readers against sin and social evil, with illustrations of “unfortunates” brought to ruin by licentious living. At the same time, it must be noted that the book also reads like a rather enthusiastic field guide to sin, with chapters like “Evil Companions” (this one includes the note, “No One Goes to Ruin Alone”–how comforting!), “Dark Deeds,” “The Babylonain Feast,” “High License, “Profanity, Drunkenness and The Social Evil” (I hastened to look up The Social Evil in this veritable encyclopaedia of sin, but, sadly, remain unclear whether he means drunkenness, prostitution, self-abuse, sodomy or all the above — but it seems Brooklyn was the place to go, with its streets “now night by night rivaling upper Broadway in its flambouyant wickedness.”), “Immoral Literature,” “The Theatre.” No evil is overlooked–not even Mormonism, Dancing or “Society Women.”

I love these old moralizing books, seemingly unvarying in their overuse of colourful description that must have made the sins their authors warned of seem thrillingly alluring to late Victorian readers.

Social Dynamite has already found a home in my cabinet of old books, and the other treasures will shortly be shelved with their kin.

Scenes from my Woodland Garden

I am typing this outdoors on a weekday morning, sitting in my woodland garden. The bleeding hearts are still blooming, their season extended courtesy of the cool spring. The Solomon’s seal hang their primordial arches over the garden statuary, and hover judiciously above the hostas. The fiddleheads have unfurled; the lilies-of-the-valley dangle their tiny bells; the violets are nodding their pretty purple heads. The garden casts a green glow.

I am sitting here, breathing, while a wash billows on the line.

A year ago, amid the pandemic, our life was as busy as ever, and in some ways more beset by urgencies than it had ever been, until, one day, we looked at each other and said “F*ck it,” and started talking seriously about retiring–my husband from his small business (and teaching during the fall and winter), and me from teaching (and working with him during the off-season–or, often, in the middle of the night). The overheated Toronto real estate market helped crystalize our decision to sell the small downtown building my husband had bought in the nineties, and after a quarter century of service (after enough glasses of wine I might be prepared to inventory the strange and disgusting things I have cleaned out of other people’s toilets), we retired.

This year I turned 50; my husband is closing in on 60. Like many Gen-Xers, we are sandwiched between parenting and eldercare, meaning we haven’t bought an RV yet! But we have embarked upon an important intellectual project, The Space Between Us, which consists mainly of us airing our differences in public in ways that, we think, can illuminate and perhaps map out ways to reconcile ideological differences in our divided culture. I continue to publish essays and review books (the latter mainly for Spacing magazine–hit up the editors if you have an urban-themed novel or non-fiction book pending), and have a book of my own to finish writing (for which I have spent a great deal of time reading 1940s issues of Chatelaine magazine–more about this anon).

The wind soughs in the trees. A robin flaps about in the bird bath.

After the sale of our building closed, and after my final term of teaching, I felt so tired it seemed impossible to focus. At night in bed, instead of reading I did crossword puzzles. I followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with dismay. I detached from social media. I went dumpster diving with a lovely neighbour. I went down to the basement almost every day and rowed, and now row at least 100,000 metres every month, accompanied by old X Files episodes. I have started walking long distances, as far as I can travel in three hours every Saturday while my daughter attends a downtown art class.

Last Friday I saw Sarah Harmer in concert at Massey Hall. It was a perfect, humid evening, and I rode downtown smelling the heady scent of lilac and crabapples, and listened as she raised her incandescent voice before a rapt audience in that beautiful building, and then rode home in the velvet night.

The garlic are getting ready to grow scapes. The rhubarb stalks grow with disquieting speed, seemingly overnight. I have planted borage. The carpenter bees have returned. My lilac, planted four or five years ago, has flowered for the first time. The iris are blooming.

A week ago we split the cost of a new fence with our neighbours. It is a very fine fence, and its construction has made me rethink the landscape of my woodland garden. I have cleaned out a neglected back corner and laid some stepping stones. I’ve cleaned out the composters and set two of them against the fence in a spot too shaded for much to grow. I have low stone walls to reset and a list of Ontario native plants to procure, and plans for a second row of raspberries to grow along the back of the garage.

Last night we went for a walk. This afternoon I will bike over to Canadian Tire in search of one last variety of hot peppers. Later on I might read on the verandah.

And tonight I will sleep on those wind-blown sheets, fresh in from the line.

Holding Tight and Letting Go

One of my Christmas gifts was a copy of The Faddon More Psalter: The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure (John Gillis; National Museum of Ireland, 2021). The Faddon More Psalter is a circa 800 CE book of psalms dug out of an Irish bog in 2006. This is remarkable in itself, but more remarkable still is that the book, despite being very degraded after having spent more than a millennium in a bog, was nonetheless intact enough for its conservators to reconstruct much of its structure and portions of its text. Two important discoveries during this process were, first, that the psalter remained in its original jacket (reportedly a very rare finding for a surviving early medieval codex, as most were rebound over the centuries) and, second, that its leather jacket contained fragments of papyrus, evidence of cultural and trade linkages to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of all the fascinating analysis in Gillis’ illuminating book, the subject that interests me most is how the psalter ended up in the bog in the first place. Gillis considers the possibility that the psalter had gotten into the bog inadvertently, perhaps dropped by an errant monk or lost during flight, before determining, based on available evidence, that the book was likely deposited intentionally.

But if so, why? Why would someone deliberately bury (or sink, as seems closer to the case) a holy book in a relatively remote corner of a bog? Gillis discounts the possibility that the psalter was concealed from marauding Vikings or hidden during local conflict, given that its simple cover and humble contents made it unlikely to have been considered a material treasure — or threat. It could have been stolen and buried out of malice–but the presence of a leather satchel and calfskin pelt (used, it is inferred, to cover the psalter) at the find site suggest more tender motivations. With this in mind, Gillis posits a third option: that of a ceremonial burial or votive offering. Speculating, Gillis suggests the psalter could have been buried as a deathbed request: perhaps a monk, nearing the end of his service on Earth, asked that the psalter be buried near the place of his ministry.

However the psalter ended up in the bog (and Gillis suggests we will likely never know), its deposition seems to have reflected one of the most consequential and bifurcated kinds of choices: between holding tight and letting go. And its discovery, similarly, highlights the paradox of its deposition. Had the psalter been held onto, like the dozens of other psalters that would have been in use at monasteries then operating in the region, it almost certainly would not have survived to the present day. Conflict, migration, fire, wear, indifference, revisionism, and time itself have done away with most ancient books. To read about the lost libraries of Alexandria is to feel some tug of the tides that sweep writing and ideas away, but most books vanish quietly, without fanfare or mourning. Even books that have survived have often done so only in greatly altered form. Medieval codices were regularly reworked into new books, and the study of fragments has become an exciting subset of medieval studies. But it is exceedingly uncommon for an early medieval book to survive in its original form, thus the paradox that deposition in the bog–letting go–was the reason the Faddan More Psalter survived.

What people hold tight to and what they let go of is a subject of considerable and longstanding interest to me, and has more recently become a major focus of my research. Why do we keep the things we keep? Why do we throw so many other things away? What forces (perhaps beyond our control, as forces so often are) compel us to leave things behind, and what hold do those things–abandoned, taken, lost, destroyed–retain on our souls? What are the consequences of holding on when we should let go–or letting go when we should be holding on?

It is a strange time for our culture, one in which the holding or persistence of an object receives so much less attention than the cycle of its manufacture and marketing and its disposal or repurposing. Objects, like people, are now in seemingly constant motion–and we seem to notice them only when, suddenly, they stop. Hence, perhaps, the widespread public fascination with the saga of the Ever Given, a Japanese/Taiwanese/Panamanian/German cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal in March of 2021, blocking nearly 400 container ships and holding up billions of dollars in trade–a potent metaphor, in multiple ways, of globalization, the state of the pandemic, and concerns about the contradictions of consumer capitalism.

I am very interested in what happens in moments when the movement of things pauses, and this is one of the reasons why I find the Faddan More Psalter so fascinating. Through its discovery and the process of its conservation, the book has become a kind of still life: a moment snipped out of the tapestry of time. As such, it is not only a revelation (of book history, of early medieval religious culture in Ireland, of the nature of trade and communications networks prior to 1000 CE) but also a meditation (on vanishing and persistence, of time itself, and of the consequences of keeping or letting go). The mystery at the heart of the Faddan More Psalter–what it meant to its possessor; how (and how long) it was kept; why it was deposited in the bog; what it can mean to its contemporary conservators and viewers–is the most enduring thing about it, so close to the heart and yet as ineffable as a thing can be.

Image source: National Museum of Ireland, via Brent Nongbri’s Variant Readings.