Friday, November 23, 2012

november beach reads.

One of the problems with being a librarian is that you're surrounded by books all the damn time. People always assume this is a perk, but in fact it is a pain in the neck. I can't even tell you how often I find myself completely paralyzed in the paradox of choice, unable to so much as crack a spine on something new. (Just kidding. I never crack the spines, and if I see you doing so I will give YOU a pain in the neck.) There're too many of them. They're all so beautiful. Please, don't make me choose. I always tell people not to buy me books as gifts--I don't need them, is what I say, but what I really mean is, I'll never get to them. My backlist is out of control.

It's even worse when you're traveling. My suitcases are usually 50 percent clothing and 50 percent paper. The thing is that you never really know what kind of a book you might be in the mood for when you're away. You might want a collection of essays, you might want a slightly smutty AGA Saga, you might want the one book in the Ramona series you haven't re-read as many hundred times as the others. (Bibliophilia should be listed in the DSM.) You have to be prepared for any scenario. Also, I feel like vacation reading should be as non-obligatory as possible. It's a time to read the books you've been meaning to get to for years. Screw the new releases! You'll still be on the request list at the library when you get back. They're not going anywhere. Grab the random paperbacks someone loaned you at yoga school, the publisher's proofs you schlepped home from a meeting downtown, the dusty novels newly reshelved in the back corner. Now's their time. They've waited so long.

With this in mind, here is my grossly inflated reading list for my trip to Costa Rica this week.

The Woefield Poultry Collective, by Susan Juby. This is one of the ones I've been meaning to get to for years. I devoured the Alice books ten years ago during my mid-twenties teen fiction obsession. They were fucking hilarious. If you are a fan of stories told by teen girls who are too smart for their small towns but also too loving to be too mean about them, this series is a must-read. I also loved her memoir of addiction, Nice Recovery. A copy of Woefield crossed the desk at my library the other day. Ah, I thought, serendipity.

In tangential news, one of my best librarian friends, Jen, is real-life AND facebook friends with Susan Juby. I just like knowing that this is so.

He's Gone, by Deb Caletti. This one's an advanced proof with a publication date of next May. There's something pretty wicked about reading a book before it's been published. Deb Caletti's one of those teen writers in the grand tradition of Sarah Dessen, so much drama, so much heart. She makes you remember how IMPORTANT everything felt when you were fifteen and articulates it beautifully. He's Gone is her first adult book, and it's about a woman whose husband disappears into thin air, forcing her to confront the dark truths about their relationship. YES PLEASE.

Awake In the World, by Michael Stone. No vacation is complete without a little yoga reading--not for me, anyway. When I'm on holiday I feel like I can relax into a complicated, philosophical text in a way I just can't when I'm really busy. Michael Stone is a yogi and Buddhist teacher whose teachings are firmly entrenched in the realm of social justice and left wing political action. He is such a great writer, so clear and thoughtful. This is a book of his transcribed talks and lessons, and I look forward to forcing all my friends to listen to me read eloquent lines out loud by the pool.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. People keep telling me I'd love Wild by Cheryl Strayed but god DAMN if the library request list isn't a mile long. Instead, I've got this collection of columns from her former advice column. I'm an advice column junkie. I love thinking about what I'd do in the same ridiculous scenario. I love being thoughtful and mindful about how to act. I also love peering into the dark, anonymous heart of humanity. There, I said it.

I'm also bringing along a really rad iPod filled with a lot of ridiculous things that I hope will make for excellent poolside dance parties. Among the requisite catalogues of Billy Joel, Elton John, Plaskett and the Strokes are a few new favourites, including the Lumineers. I like some jingle bells in my little love songs.

See y'all in December.

Friday, November 16, 2012

i'll make you a tape.

In a sudden spurt of fall housekeeping, I stumbled on an old notebook, among many (God help the poor bastard who is one day tasked with sorting out my papers). It contains a number of delightful and cringe-worthy things, including the early notes from the Latin class I ended up dropping after a few months, a letter I wrote to my boyfriend in case I died on an upcoming plane ride to Moscow, and the playlists for several incredible mixtapes recorded in the spring and summer of the year 2000. While there's a novel's worth of story in ANY of those selections, it's the mixtapes I want to talk about.

I know it's trite to wax nostalgic about the demise of the mixtape, but I don't care. Mixtapes were IMPORTANT, man. They took time and effort and a careful combing-over of your own music collection. They said things about the person that you were at a moment in time. They were sonic diaries, painstakingly crafted. They were time capsules you could listen to over and over. They were gifts to yourself and to the people you cared about. Most importantly, they amped up road trips in borrowed cars and prolonged subway commutes in a way that made your life feel worthwhile even while you were trapped in traffic or stuck in the underground purgatory somewhere between Spadina and St George stations.

Some of the mixes listed in that spiral-bound notebook were for others. There are three particularly emotionally-fraught playlists for my then-boyfriend, with whom I was tumbling into love at the time. These include songs like Yuko and Hiro by Blur (note: if I ever put this on a tape for you, it means I am strongly considering spending the rest of my life with you), Choke by The Cardigans (one of the most underrated songs of the late 90s, I swear), 100% by Sonic Youth (always include Sonic Youth for street cred), Passin' Me By by the Pharcyde (arguably the most listenable rap song of all time), and I Will, by the Beatles (never a poor choice). Man, I seriously still remember what it felt like, holed up in my bedroom on Huxley Avenue, making each one of those tapes for him. We spent our first summer visiting each other in our respective hometowns of Hamilton and Oshawa, and we'd make each other these incredible mixes for the train rides back and forth. We were both serious music dorks and our tapes were equal parts coded messaging (when I heard Happiness by Elliott Smith on the one he made for me I knew he really liked me too) and good taste one-upmanship (oh, you've never heard of the New Grand? It's cool, I'll loan you my albums). It was a complex and convoluted courtship powered by nervous sincerity and a second-hand Walkman.

Weirdly, there's no written playlist for the one tape that actually survived from this era. I rediscovered it for the millionth time a couple of weekends ago, still lodged in my sweet-ass double tapedeck. (I still use the Panasonic stereo I bought with babysitting money in grade ten, and it is still awesome.) It includes the Backstreet Boys, mid-catalogue Barenaked Ladies, and Natalie Imbruglia. I had an uncharacteristic pop-music Renaissance in first year university. Living on a floor populated entirely by girls under the age of 20, all away from home for the first time, has a way of turning life into a dramatic slumber party. In my defense this tape also contained Dirty Dream #2 by Belle and Sebastian, which is about as hipster-redemptive as it gets.

It's an interesting exercise to listen to an old mixtape. I always find myself thinking of all the songs that I know now that I didn't know then. There's something that's existentially jarring to think of time before you were aware of some pivotal song's existence. Before the song even existed for you to be aware of it. Who was I before I heard I Am Trying to Break Your Heart? Who was I before I knew the lyrics to every song on Blood on the Tracks? I guess, fundamentally, I wasn't all that different. I was, and am, just a girl who loves a sentimental, heart-felt song, a girl who reads obsessively between the lines, a girl who hopes you do too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

at the going down of the sun.

The things I remember about Remembrance Day aren't probably the things that I should remember. More than anything I remember feeling supremely sad each November. There was always an assembly at school, the recitation of Ode of Remembrance and In Flanders Fields, the minute of silence that seemed to stretch into awkward, uncomfortable hours. One year someone projected a close-up drawing of a young World War II soldier on the screen behind the podium, and I stared at it till I almost felt haunted by it. (I was an intense child, I'm not denying that.)  Shuffling back to our classrooms we didn't speak to each other. There was a sober, sombre, entirely uncharacteristic quiet about the rest of the day at school, a guilt about being alive and cared for.  

As I got older, I grew jaded by the idea of Remembrance of any kind. By highschool I had declared myself a pacifist and was unmoved by sentimentality. Instead of an assembly, the minute of silence now took place in the classroom. An embarrassingly off-key group of drama students sang One Tin Soldier a capella and I sneered my superior contempt. (I was also, I think, an intense and somewhat unlikable teenager.) Secretly, though, I still re-read the war novels I'd loved as a child: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, the War Guest trilogy by Kit Pearson, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. I was fascinated and horrified by the idea of living through war. I pretended not to pay attention to the veterans who would visit our history class, secretly hanging on every word of their incredible stories. My paternal grandparents were married only days before my grampa was called up for training; my maternal grandfather's boat sank in the English Channel and he survived on a life raft for days before being rescued. It was these human details that seemed the hardest to bear. It began, of course, with the realization that if either of them had not survived, I would not even exist. But it didn't take long to extrapolate from the ego to the bigger picture, of so many lives lived and lost and altered forever, with very little to celebrate in the larger world.

Years later I lived in Ottawa, where the whole city closes down on November 11th. Every year I'd vow to take advantage of the holiday, to go down to the Cenotaph and pay my respects. Every year I'd do something regrettable the night before and completely miss the boat. Instead I'd sit in my apartment and listen to the service on the radio, the real thing only blocks from my front door, the weird sensation of hearing the flyover jets pass by overhead moments before I heard them on the radio. The closest I ever got to a public act of remembrance was getting up to no good at the Peacekeeping Memorial before wandering around the National Art Gallery all afternoon. But still. There's something about living in the capital, something about all that commemoration and pomp and circumstance, that makes you feel close to your collective national history. It makes you feel like you're a part of some larger story. You're aware that you owe something to all those who came before you. It makes you want to take care of people.

These days I still listen to the national service on the radio, when I can. My dad drives up to Barrie every year to take my grandfather to the local memorial. A few years ago they interviewed Grampa for a piece in the local paper on living through World War II. When the article was published he clipped it and kept it in his apartment.  Today I stopped by to visit my dad while I was out running errands, and we talked about the poppies we wear (I having recently bought my fourth of the year from a perfectly kindly gentleman at Canadian Tire), about whether it's a commemoration of war, a glorification of violence, or a tribute to the many men and women who have served this country. I don't necessarily condone any kind of military action, and I'm still a pacifist above all else, but I sure do understand the idea of service, of listening to what you think is your highest calling, of doing what you believe is the right thing. And I understand the need to donate money to support veterans, military families, communities for whom tremendous risk and loss are daily realities. Remembrance Day still does evoke some profound sadness in me, but it's become a hopeful thing, too. A hope for peace and grace, a promise to continue to tell these stories, however hard it may be.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

gone til november.

So I've been away for awhile. This has been a fast fall, in more ways than one.

September flew by in a blur. I lost a friend and in the process also lost any shred of perspective I may have once possessed. I unwittingly put my heart on the line, forgetting that nine times out of ten, this is a really really bad idea. Then I ran away to Haliburton County for a few days. If you find yourself in a position to run away, I'd recommend it as your destination. It's a place of plenty and I always leave there several pounds heavier and with a heart three times its usual size. My mother and I rented a cottage for the weekend to celebrate my best friend's mother's wedding. My mom basically told me to pull my head out of my ass, in the kind, compassionate, generally perfect way she always does. I sang songs for the kids at the ceremony, songs I'd never sung on my own before. As the notes came out of me I could hear my dad's voice in my head, letting me harmonize along. My mother did all the driving and I got back home ready to shift gears, although that didn't really work out the way I'd thought it might. As bpNichol once wrote, "We drove West but the poems I'd planned to write barely occurred."

I fell silent, I guess. I couldn't quite articulate how I was feeling, and it just seemed easier to give it a rest. I remember writing a paper on literary silence, a long, long time ago. It was about Dennis Lee and how for awhile he just couldn't write, couldn't find the words to describe what begged for description. I felt like I knew what he'd been going through. So I kept to myself for a bit. I ran away again (two runaways in one month, oh what a lucky gal am I), this time to a yoga retreat on Wolfe Island, which afforded me a few days back in Kingston, the town I love, the town that's still so far under my skin it's almost too much to even go back. I saw most of my people, checked in on all the pieces I still have buried there. I spent three days fasting and practicing yoga in a yurt. This is the right place to be, I thought to myself, even as I felt scared and empty and uncertain. One night I sat by a bonfire built by a karma yogi with a very cute beard, island farmers' fields behind me and the lights of the city across the water before me. It's a good feeling, to be both close to and far from civilization at the same time.

At the end of that weekend I resisted the almost primal urge to veer north on Division and head out toward Westport. It's like resisting the pull of gravity sometimes, ignoring the deepest needs of your poor old sentimental heart. But I did it, knowing (or maybe just feigning the knowledge) that some past treasures are better left buried. I drove back home to the Hammer, listening to Hey Rosetta and the National and marveling at the fact that the leaves seemed to have turned just in those few days I'd been away. I resolved to just sit back and be ready. For what, I'm not quite sure yet, but I'm open to it.

It brings me back to bp again:

"You have plans but so many of them don't work out. You have dreams, tho you do not mean the dreams you wake from, troubled or happy, but visions rather, glimpses of some future possibility everything in you wishes to make real."

(I wrote a paper on him once, too. In pulling my copy of 15 Canadian Poets X3 off the shelf to double-check that quote, a 12-year-old scribbled note about word play and the human condition fell from its spine, a reminder of my onetime debilitating sincerity about CanLit. Oh, were we ever so young?)

The last time I read those words was a long time ago. I had a pretty firm vision of what I wanted, and I thought I was on the path toward it. I wanted something so particular, and I wanted it with every fiber of my being. Many years on, those words still ring so true, even though the things I dreamed of haven't quite materialized the way I thought they might. Along the way, though, things have softened. My dreams have become less precise. The things I need to feel happy aren't as specific. I think that's a pretty great gift of age and wisdom, the way our desires become protracted and abstracted to the point where nearly everything that comes to us can satisfy us on some level.

October was a quick one too, but those are ramblings for another day.