Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The End of July--Yay! And Books

Here we are on the last day of July. At the beginning of the month, I wrote on the calendar page for today 'another month closer to autumn.'  Ad we're closer to another season, too--saw this guy in a shop window a couple weeks ago:

As I said in a previous post, I dread July every year and it's always nice when we're past it. I have to say that this July has been better than last, possibly because we did not have a heatwave and drought, as we did last summer. Also, I have done a better job of accepting things as they are and taking steps to care for myself. One unexpected thing that happened was that I spent a lot less time online than usual. I particularly stayed away from Facebook. That page has been annoying me for months now. I know that they push people to use the site in certain ways and that everyone has their own ways of setting things up. I have a limited use for the page to begin with and have tried to streamline. I found groups to provide nothing but page clutter, so I left the ones I was in. I am not interested in the chat function, so I always turn it off and minimise the list that clutters up the side of the page. I don't use the marketplace. In short, I used it as a news aggregator, a place to see various artwork, and as a tool to follow people and blogs. I used to set things to 'most recent' and scroll through my newsfeed, sharing and responding to certain posts. Then this setting stopped working and there was no difference between having 'top stories' checked off or choosing 'most recent.' I would get posts at the top from several hours or even a day or two before. Not interested. I tried to edit my preferences, which was useless, of course, and when they asked if this was helpful, I clicked on the negative answer. This brought up a box asking me to elaborate, which I did. After that, things worked properly for a month or two, then went back. I tried this again, but when it reverted back, I just thought, 'Why am I allowing myself to be aggravated?' I know--when I set up an account, I agreed to pretty much let them do what they want and what they want is to make money in various ways off of my activity on the site. I don't get to have things set up as I want them. But I get to choose whether or not to participate on the site the way they want me to and right now, I am choosing not to. So, I allowed them to send notifications if I had one specific to me, even when I don't have the page open. I bookmarked the news sites I am most interested in and go to those pages, instead of viewing stories through Facebook. I get blog posts sent to my email wherever possible. And I don't bother with Facebook, except to answer messages when I get them. This has been great--freed up a lot of time, for one thing and I find I don't miss it at all. Bill got annoyed several months ago and stopped spending time there as well and he says he has no interest in going back. Neither of us has deleted our accounts, but I am not sure what I will do in future. For now, I'm happy enough with the way things are.

Of course, I filled up some of that free time with books and here are some thoughts about a few of them.

 Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
One day, in our local charity shop, I came across a book containing two of Margaret Atwood’s books in one volume. The first book was a short story collection and this was the second book. It’s a novel, published in 1988, in which the main character, artist Elaine Risley, returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. While there, she remembers back to her childhood and one friend in particular, who was a cruel bully. The first years of Elaine’s life were spent in a nomadic fashion as her father, an entomologist, would be out in the field a lot, accompanied by his family. When he got a professorship at a university, they settled in a new Toronto suburb. Elaine had only ever hung out with her brother, so had to learn how to navigate school, female friendship groups, and other social situations. She makes a couple of good friends. For the first year, things go fairly well. The following summer, the family goes back to the wild for dad’s fieldwork. When they return, a new girl, Cordelia, has arrived and Elaine’s childhood becomes much more difficult. The book moves back and forth between Elaine’s experiences being back in Toronto and flashbacks to her earlier life. Through the flashbacks, the reader learns how she got to where she is in the book’s present. I loved this book.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (audiobook read by Lorelei King)
This is a very early Margaret Atwood novel, which she calls ‘protofeminist.’ It was published in 1969, although she wrote it earlier than that. In it, Marian, who is torn between her own wants and needs and societal expectations of women, becomes disconnected from herself and starts to identify to some degree with various kinds of food, which she then becomes unable to eat. Marian has around her people who are comfortable within stereotypical gender roles and those who rebel against them. She has a low-level job in a market research firm, which she does not expect to be a long-term career option, but it pays the bills. When she and her boyfriend become engaged, she begins to struggle with expectations others place upon her.

 The Book of Extraordinary Deaths: True Accounts of Ill-Fated Lives by Cecilia Ruiz

I came cross this book when looking to see what was new in the e-book section of the library website. It sounded weird, so I had to check it out. It’s simply a collection of very short (a few sentences each) accounts of how various people died in strange and unlikely ways, beginning in the 6th century and going to the present. For instance, one guy beheaded his enemy in battle, tied his head to his horse as a sort of prize, and ended up dying when a wound inflicted by the teeth of the severed head rubbing against his leg became infected. A more recent example was of a guy who engaged in cock-fighting. His rooster stabbed him to death with the metal spurs attached to its leg. It’s a strange little collection that also includes artwork.

I'll continue the book thoughts tomorrow, as I welcome August. I hope July was good to you.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Frozen Berries

Today we went to Donegal Town to pick up stuff at the library. They had more books for sale, so we came home with more than we thought we would! We had to dodge numerous ice cream and slushy puddles, as well as tourists. While we waited for the library to re-open after lunch, we went to Aldi to get some groceries. I was pleased to see the frozen fruit section well-stocked. I bought several bags, packing them at the bottom of my backpack. They provided some nice cooling for me as I walked between the store and the library and as the pack sat on my lap on the bus ride home.
When I got home, I put the groceries away and made a simple smoothie with some raspberries, a banana, and a splash of milk. I added extra berries and it was like soft serve ice cream--I ate it with a spoon. It was exactly what I needed on this hot day.
We have reached the point in the summer where I am not alone in my dislike of the heat. Locals are starting to comment on it, too. Whenever the sun comes out after a grey/rainy period, people are almost giddy. When we're out and about, people grin and exclaim about what a beautiful day it is. I muster up enough energy to smile and agree with them. We walk on and Bill laughs and calls me a liar. But it only takes a few sunny days for them to get to where I am. As we were making our way to the bus stop this morning, we passed a guy, who smiled, said hello, and commented, 'It's a hot one today.' 'Yes, it is!' I replied, with complete honesty. According to the Met Eireann website, it's about 19c (66f). I am not sure whether it just feels a lot warmer than that because I have no tolerance for this kind of thing anymore or whether it actually is warmer than that, but either way, it's what counts as a hot day here. Don't take my word for it, just ask a local person! 😉

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Usual, But Different

As many of you know, summer and I have a hate-hate relationship. I dread its arrival each yer, and struggle with depression, exhaustion, agitation, nausea, and other unpleasantries. What many people experience in winter with seasonal affective disorder, I experience in the summer. This year, we had a summery April, which has been pretty typical in the years we've been here. I was preparing for what was coming. But then it cooled off again and was rainy for a month or two. I had a reprieve and was grateful. A couple of weeks ago, summer made its return. I was trying to prepare myself as I always do, but within a few days, I knew I was going to have to change my approach.

We were in Donegal Town, doing a library run. The tourists are back, so there were more people than usual. I could feel myself getting agitated and it was such a relief to get home. A couple of days later, we walked through town to call on veg man. There was an event happening, so again lots of people had congregated. It was hot (to me--other people had things like leather pants on and some had jackets) and sunny. I made it home, plopped myself into a chair and had a cry. I knew that I had to respond to this entirely predictable annual situation in a way that was different from what I've done in the past.

Every year, I spend a lot of time having mental conversations with myself in which I am basically taking myself to task for feeling the way I do. I remind myself over and over again that I am lucky to live in a beautiful place, in a cosy home. I do not have to walk miles to haul water or hope I have enough food. I am safe. There is no war here. I have no right to be depressed because of some seasonal discomfort when other people live in such horrific conditions and I should just suck it up and knock it off. Needless to say, true as it all is, it did not help.

As I considered some of the Buddhist teaching I have heard and read, I saw that I was going about all of this in exactly the wrong way, and actually making things worse as a result. This is what it is. It's July and current conditions are normal for July. My physical response to these conditions are also normal for me. I cannot change them. What I can do is accept and acknowledge that this is what happens at this time of year. It will be sunny and warm/hot. It will not cool down much at night, because there are not enough hours of darkness. I will feel like crap. That is July. Instead of trying to force my experiences into a different place, I am stopping and paying attention to them. Instead of trying to push them away, I am making friends with them and trying to express compassion to myself. And you know what? It's helping. It's not that the exhaustion, nausea, depression, and discomfort have gone away, but I am not fighting against them anymore and that removes the added layer of suffering I placed on myself. I still wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, no matter how much sleep I've gotten and I go to bed exhausted every night, wondering whether I'll be able to fall asleep. I still feel depressed. I still feel like it has been July for a couple of years instead of a couple of weeks. But I am not wishing it was otherwise anymore. I have stopped fighting. Instead of trying to force myself to carry on, I am adapting. When I felt so depressed and lethargic last week that I felt I could not do anything, I didn't try to push through that. I just sat and experienced it, doing the tasks that were necessary and leaving it at that. After a couple of days, I noticed that I was getting frustrated at not stitching, but I was unable to focus on a specific project or even have an idea. I brought an embroidery book upstairs, sat in bed and looked at it, occasionally looking through the window at the harbour, and I felt soothed. Soon, I picked up some scrap cloth and thread and worked on an abstract piece. It was calming and peaceful. I am doing a lot of comfort reading--short stories and Golden Age mysteries. Wherever possible, I am avoiding situations that are particularly annoying, thus conserving energy for the times when avoidance isn't possible. In short, I am giving myself the space to accept the way things are and doing what I can to take care of myself.

Am I enjoying July? No. Am I still eagerly anticipating autumn, crisp air, fewer hours of daylight, and refreshing sleep? Absolutely. When we went to get some groceries the other day, I noticed the fireweed and was bummed at how the blooms were still so low on the stalk. Then I reminded myself that this is how it is and the blooms will work their way towards the top of the stalk as the summer drags on, eventually reaching the top and then turning to white fluff. This too shall pass. In the meantime, I am going to continue this attempt to compassionately sit with what comes up, doing what I can to respond in ways that are helpful, instead of trying to force myself to change what isn't going to change.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reading to the End

Here are the last few books on my June book list. It was a good reading month! Parts one and two can be found here and here.

How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco (audiobook read by the poet)
I downloaded this from the e-audiobook section of the library website. These are powerful poems, addressing important issues about life in the US today. As I listened, I had goosebumps at times. I think the poems had even more impact because I was listening to the poet read them, with the cadences he intended as he wrote them.

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
I requested this book when I saw it in a Lit Hub email. I’d recently read a collection of the author’s short stories and this book sounded quirky, revolving as it does around candlepin bowling (it’s a New England thing), so I requested it. When I started it, I had the uneasy feeling that it might be too quirky and I considered setting it aside, but I read on and soon, I was immersed in the story. The book opens in a cemetery in Salford, Massachusetts around 1900, where there is a body. This body stands out because it’s alive. Turns out it’s Bertha Truitt, who has mysteriously ended up there in her bicycle skirt and a bag containing a candlepin, a ball, and some gold bars. She opens a candlepin bowling alley, which is at the centre of the story and is really a main character in the novel as it moves through the century. McCracken’s writing style is interesting--the story moves in paragraphs that don’t really jump around in time too much, although at times we are brought into the past and briefly tossed into the future. But the story moves along in bits, in a way--a short scene here and another one to follow. Everything and everyone spins out from Bertha and the bowling alley. There is some historical fact woven into the story, most notably the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. I’m glad I decided to read a little more and didn’t set the book aside--it’s a really good read.

Cities: The First 6,000 Years by Monica L. Smith
This book, written by an archaeologist who does her fieldwork in India, does not attempt to provide a linear history of the rise and continuation of cities. Rather, she discusses the ways in which the existence of urban areas came about, what this entailed, and what it meant to human societies. She talks about social interactions, language, infrastructure, consumption, the rise of the middle class, slums, and cultural aspects of urban living, including the relationship between rural and urban communities. It was quite an interesting book, although there were a few times where I felt she was glossing over some serious issues and making comparisons that were superficially valid, but in other ways missed the mark. For example, one of the main arguments of her book is that many of the things that people are concerned about today are not new at all, but have been experienced for thousands of years. In general, I agree with this and have made much the same argument myself. With the exception of the climate emergency, much of what we see now is the same old stuff that has been going on for a long time. Once human groups settled, certain things started to happen and while we are experiencing these things in specific ways through the lens of consumer capitalism, the overaching phenomena have played out in various ways throughout this time. However, some of her specific examples seemed to be missing crucial points. For instance, when she is discussing consumption, she spends some time describing disposable items from various sites around the world. Cheaply made clay vessels, she tells us, were imported to urban areas, purchased and used with the intent to throw them away. She then compares this to today, when people are concerned about the amount of garbage generated in wealthier nations, seeming to imply that this concern is overblown. Of course, she is an archaeologist and rubbish is a very important tool in that field--much of what we know about groups of people from the past is due to the rubbish they left behind. But cheaply made, low quality, disposable clay pots is a very different set of objects than toxic plastic tossed everywhere to poison the ground, water, and animals. The environment is not threatened by buried clay potsherds, but plastics, microplastics, and other toxins are a grave threat to many species. There is also a matter of scale. There are so many more people on the planet today than there were and a lot more waste is being generated. In addition to this issue, I found some of her other arguments unconvincing, but I have always had a difficult relationship with archaeology and used to have robust discussions in my anthropology departments with the archaeologists. On the one hand, there is much we can learn, especially as technology makes dating and other measurements more precise or even possible. On the other hand, any attempt to reconstruct cultural thinking that is beyond the measurable, is always a best guess and seen through the lens of the archaeologists own worldview, which includes their own cultural biases as well as a desire for professional prestige (it's more impressive, for instance, to have excavated a shrine that one can make a lot of assumptions about than to talk about a pile of rocks as the result of children playing, but that pile of rocks could be either one or an infinite number of other things besides).

There were other parts of the book that I quite liked. At one point, she mentioned that ‘the archaeology of disenfranchised’ has not been done to the extent that it should be (again, the prestige issue). I wholeheartedly agree with this.

I found out about this book through a book related email, although I get so many and I don’t remember which one specifically. In spite of some of the misgivings I had about certain aspects of her arguments, it was still worth reading.

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
One day several months ago, while looking at the books in the local charity shop, I came across an omnibus volume containing this book and Cat’s Eye. I brought it home, stuck it on the shelf, and picked it up the other day when I was finished with my stack of library books. This book is a collection of short stories. Since I’m a big fan of short story collections, I was happy to find it and read it.

I hope your book pile is full of interesting and entertaining content!

Monday, July 1, 2019

One Book Leads to Another

I know that some people were not happy when the physical card catalogues were eliminated in libraries and everything went digital. I liked card catalogues well enough, but I was thrilled when things went digital and I could click around in the middle of the night to look for and request books. This is still a habit. There have been many times when I've been sitting in bed, post-midnight, listening to a books podcast and doing a library search for the book being discussed at the same time. Weirdly, using the author's name in the search box gets better results than typing in the title, so I do that. This has the benefit of bringing up other books and I sometimes find other good stuff in the process. So it was with the next book in my June reading list.

Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn
John Craske (born in 1881) was a fisherman who, because of a set of mysterious ailments which surfaced in 1917, was unable to continue fishing. The sea was his home in many ways and he stayed connected to it by painting. Then he became so ill that he could no longer stand to paint and was bedridden. He turned to embroidery as a way to create his art while in his bed.

I’d first read about this man in a book I recently read about a history of sewing. Then I heard a discussion with this author about Doggerland, the subject of her most recent book. While I was at the library searching for the Doggerland book, I saw this one listed. At the time, my hold list was full, so I waited until I had some space and requested it then.

I had the impression that it was going to be a fairly straightforward biography, but it was not that at all. It was sort of a mix of biography, memoir, history, nature writing, and more. Blackburn tells the reader early on that absence was a big theme in the writing of this book.

She was fascinated by Craske, but had a hard time tracking down information about him. In the book, she writes about his life and that of his wife, as far as she can discover, but she also tells the story of her quest to find out. There are side stories about places and people associated with Craske. Threaded throughout is the story of what was happening in her own life during the time she was researching and writing the book. It sounds a bit chaotic, but she is such a good writer and ties everything together so well, as she did in her book about Doggerland, that I was hooked. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I realized that I liked it much better than I would have if it was a straight biography.

I quite like the fact that, as a result of this project, the work of John Craske is now at least a wee bit less unknown. Blackburn helped to put together an exhibition of some of the works that had been languishing in attics, dusty back rooms of museums, and other storage places.

I devoted a blog post to the two Doggerland books I read (Doggerland by Ben Smith and Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn). That can be found here.

I'd read about the following book in a book related email and put myself on the list at the library. It was well worth the wait. I've read Macfarlane's work before and I highly recommend it--this book included!

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
this artwork was done by a friend of the author and depicts the second after a nuclear blast

Macfarlane was the opening interview of a recent NY Times Book Review podcast, which you can find out about here.

I never know what I will find when I click around at the library website and the experience is even better now than it used to be. A couple of years ago, they went to a nationwide system, so now I can request books from anywhere in the country. I can use my library card to check out books anywhere in the country and we can return to any library in the country. Fun!

Happy July!