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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.]

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.

Endless Summer

This morning’s forecast–one last sultry, sunny day before fall weather descends–was enough reason to drop everything, toss our kayaks on the car, and spend a day on the water.

We put in at Humber Bay Park West and paddled west about 5 km to Samuel Smith Park. The sun beamed down; the breeze was mild; the lake warm, the swells gentle. We had a picnic and watched the downtown towers glitter, 15 km away. Paragliders rose and descended in the middle distance. Dogs dragged driftwood along the beach. Endless Summer, for one more day.

We surfed the swells all the way back, the lake just beginning to roil. The haze closed in; thunderheads loomed behind us. In the parking lot crickets were abuzz with the news: a storm, oncoming. Endless summer, for one more hour.

We made it home before the rain, and made pizza for dinner, savoring our sore shoulders and October sunburns.

Endless summer, one

more

day.

A Read of The Girl’s Own Annual (1907-1908) and an Inadvertent Critique of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016).

At the 2018 University College book sale I bought this 1907-1908 volume of The Girl’s Own Annual, a bound compilation of the preceding year’s weekly issues of The Girl’s Own Paper.

The Girl’s Own Paper was a weekly and, later, monthly, publication produced between 1880 and 1956 for older girls and young women. Its founder and first editor, Charles Peters, is described as having sought “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood of England.” After Peters’ death late in 1907 (an In Memoriam is printed in the 25 January 1908 edition of the Paper); his successor, Flora Klickmann, saw the Paper through the First World War and the important social changes that followed, including women’s suffrage. Scholarly work on The Girl’s Own Paper notes that Klickmann’s editorial influence became apparent early on, especially in the form of an increasing (if somewhat ambivalent) emphasis on the changing roles of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At the same time, even under Peters’ directorship (at least in the volume I have), women, their lives, well-being, interests and work are valorized in ways that seem to go beyond commonly received late- and post-Victorian notions of the proper place of women. I found it both a surprise and delight, for example, to discover an article titled “How to Become a Lady Librarian” in a 1908 issue of the paper. The article notes the scarcity of training and opportunities for women librarians in England, and laments that even well trained women “have been unable to find employment at the same rate of payment as men.” It goes on to indicate the proper rates of pay women librarians may reasonably expect, and makes suggestions about where to obtain training, including at the London School of Economics. At its close, the article lists “public libraries controlled by women,” among them Manchester College at Oxford.

“How to Become a Lady Librarian” is far from the only article offering career advice. “A New Employment for Women” offers recommendations on obtaining training and suitable employment for teaching hearing impaired children. It also indicates the salary range a qualified teacher may expect to be paid. Another article, “A Strange College for Women Workers,” describes bee farming in detail, including set-up costs, and observes, “[i]t would take more nerve than the average “mere man” possesses to allow from 25,000 to 30,000 bees to roost on his bare arm and make themselves at home; any yet, at the Luton Bee College, women students think nothing of this performance.” “How I Became a Lady Doctor” describes one woman’s progress into the profession; in it the author, Doctor Penelope Smith, concludes that the greatest difficulty facing qualified women doctors is not ability but unequal access to hospital experience: “To gain a wide experience hospital practice is absolutely necessary,” she writes, “and it is in the deficiency of opportunities for this practice that women are placed at a disadvantage as compared with men; not in the training, nor in their capabilities for mastering the details of their profession.” An essay on portraitist and illustrator Marcella Walker describes her work (exhibited at the Royal Academy, reviewed in the Academy Review and published in the Illustrated London News) as a rebuttal to those who “assert that women have no originality, and merely follow and copy men in art.”

Swatting at much more than a tennis ball.

The volume is still, of course, evocative of its era. Young women are urged to take care of their skin, lest it become reddened and wrinkled with work. Readers are invited to participate in physical activity, but (horrors) not in any way that might masculinize them. An otherwise charming illustration of a woman playing field hockey, for example, has the admonition captioned to it: “Avoid all excess in the field games which are suitable only to sporting men.” Every woman pictured is white (although The Girl’s Own Paper was circulated throughout the Empire), in good health, and visibly representative of her upper class (or upper class-aspiring) upbringing. The amassing of a “White Trousseau” receives treatment in a number of issues, as does an ongoing series called “How a Girl Should Dress” (properly, with full skirts and gloves and enormous hats; restrictive, and yet: how I long to have at least one similar costume).

While browsing the Annual, I have felt wistful for two reasons. The first is that my mother would have loved it. We shared a fascination with the sometimes ephemeral traces of everyday life found in old newspapers, letters, paper crafts and magazines, and would spend hours poring over all these sorts of documents whenever they came to light. This Annual is one of the richest such resources I have encountered in years, and I wish so much that we could share it. She would have loved the quirky essays (and their quirky titles), like “Methods of Travelling Used by Women from Early Times Down to the Present,” “Fire-Lighting Without Sticks,” “Insects Mentioned in Shakespeare,” “Familiar British Seaweeds,” and perhaps especially, “Book-Binding for Girls.”

The second reason I feel wistful while reading the Girl’s Own Paper is because, despite its implicit snobbery and adherence to vastly outdated conventions, there is also something empowering in the articles and stories in its pages. Women, it says repeatedly and in many different ways, have value. Women’s pursuits and work have worth, whether they involve sewing, cooking, writing, playing music or caring for others–or pursuing higher education and working in demanding fields. An older girl or young woman reading its pages would have reason to feel encouraged, not only by the things articles suggested she could do if she chose, but by the histories of other women who have done them, too.

Annuals featuring improving stories for girls have fallen mostly out of favour, even in the United Kingdom where they could once make a publisher’s year, but some months ago I received a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin Random House, 2016) to give to my daughter. The book was received with wild enthusiasm by reviewers, spurring a sequel, but in our household it was met with a muted “meh.” The book is subtitled “100 Tales of Extraordinary Women,” and this, I think, is at the heart of the book’s problem. It is not that the women profiled are not extraordinary, and it is not as if this kind of book is not desperately needed: it is.

But even its dedication makes demands of its young readers: to be rebels, first of all. And immediately afterward, it suggests that the things girls do already are not enough: they must “dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder,” and live with the conviction that they are “right.” Most of the women profiled in Rebel Girls are wonderfully chosen, and I do love the profile of American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the narratives return, over and over again, to how extraordinary they were or are, and how unusual their accomplishments. Very few of the narratives directly invite the reader to consider herself capable of doing the same kinds of things. Sadly but perhaps revealingly, one of the few stories that does so is the one about Virginia Woolf, which discusses her depression and acknowledges the possibility that even rebel girls might sometimes be sad. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek is quoted as saying, “You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky. It’s fine to be shy,” — but her important message seems to be drowned out by so many injunctions in the other stories for girls to be aggressive, competitive and attention-seeking. After 200 pages of superlatives, the reader is, at last, invited to “write your story,” but it seems to me that by this time, after so many pages of genius, originality and victory, especially those in which systemic barriers to women’s flourishing are subsumed beneath narratives of individual strength, more than a few readers might feel deflated. I certainly did, and I am an exceedingly determined person who has been standing for something for nearly three decades. My daughter liked the book, but found the stories hard to relate to.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls reminds me of the response to the 2016 all-woman remake of the popular 1980s film Ghostbusters. Although the remake was fun to watch, it was essentially mediocre; basically on par with most remakes, and slightly better than a typical sequel. But public response tended to be sharply divided between those (whose testicles seemed to shrivel at the sight of a woman wielding a proton pack) who insisted it was the Worst Film Ever, and those (mostly women) who insisted upon its virtues. It seemed impossible for anyone to simply say out loud that it was a fun but essentially mediocre remake–because women in film, like women in public life, cannot afford to be mediocre.

In this context, the overwrought exhortations of “extraordinary” women’s greatness in Rebel Girls seem to me to undermine the book’s very good intentions. Indeed, ultimately the book’s message seems somehow indistinguishable from diet and ‘wellness’ marketing campaigns exhorting girls and women to be ever thinner, sexier, more feminine–and ever more obedient to always arbitrary, always external injunctions about how they must look and live. It seems to me, especially in the era of the ‘crisis of the mediocre man,’ that women should not always have to overcome the social (and political and economic) deficit of being women in a sexist society by being deemed geniuses, heroes, winners or leaders. Very good women actors should be able to star in mediocre films. Ordinary girls and women should be counted, too, whether they are ‘rebel girls’ or not.

This is something, oddly enough, that The Girl’s Own Paper seems to have gotten right more than a century ago. Despite its conventionality and essential conservatism, its pages reinforce the perspective that every girl, and every woman–not only those deemed “extraordinary”–is special and has worth, and that every girl and every woman has the capacity to stand up for herself, and for others, and has the right to contribute to both private and public life and to make herself heard in both worlds.

I suppose I am hopeful that the Rebel Girls franchise will eventually get to the point of unpacking some of the contradictions in its narratives. On the way, its authors could do worse than read a century-old volume or two of The Girl’s Own Annual.