Sunday, January 31, 2021

January Books: Nonfiction

 The end of the first month of the new year has arrived. Like all months in every year, I am grateful that there were a lot of books to stick my nose into!

These are the nonfiction books that were scattered through my January.

Now and Zen: Notes From a Buddhist Monastery by Eiyu Murakoshi
I came across this book when scrolling through the new titles in the e-book section of the library website. It is an interesting book, describing some aspects of life in a Rinzai Zen monastery, providing some of the lessons the author learned while he was there and discussing some Buddhist teaching with a particular focus on the Heart Sutra.

Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley (audiobook read by the author)
I found this book in the e-audiobook section of the library webpage. Being someone who opts for a life in the slow lane and abhors consumerism and all that goes with it, it sounded like my kind of book. And it was! I loved it. The one quibble I had with it was that it was sometimes hard to figure out where we were in the author’s life. Because the book includes memoir, discussions of various parts of consumer/work culture, and descriptions of interviews with various people, she moves back and forth in time throughout the book, and since each chapter deals with a different topic, she would be moving back and forth in time in her own life. These chapters followed the opening of the book, which was pure memoir. 

Here’s the description from the library website:
‘In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.

The health crisis--not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety--forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out tracks Henley's journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.’

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 by Milton Mayer with an afterword by Richard J. Evans
On the first of each month, I get an email from the University of Chicago Press offering a free e-book download. I don’t remember how I originally signed up—I’ve been getting them for years—but a google search should get people to the right spot, if anyone is interested in signing up. This month, I got a bonus email, offering this book for 48 hours. It is their 2017 republication of this book that was originally published in the mid-1950s. There’s a new afterword. 

The author of the book was interested in how ordinary Germans got caught up in or happily supported the Nazi regime. He wanted to talk to some people about their experiences, so he got some financial support and found 10 men who had been involved to varying degrees. He went in the early 1950s because he felt that was enough time to give distance, but not enough time to forget. The book is in three parts. The first, and by far the strongest section, is when he recounts his conversations with these men. As is the case with other books I have read on this topic, their words illustrate how history repeats itself. Change a few proper nouns and you could be reading the words of a certain segment of some countries today.

Sections two and three are much weaker. He makes broad generalizations about German society (Germany was still divided between east and west at this time) and predictions about where things would go. He was wrong. So the latter part of the book was weak, but the first section well worth reading and I’m glad I was able to get a copy.

Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink (audiobook read by the author)
This book was a new addition to the library’s e-audiobook collection a couple of months ago. When I saw it, I put myself in the queue and I’m glad I did. It’s a memoir that revolves around books, as does the author’s life. Through tragedy and healing, books are her companions. At the end of each chapter, she provides book recommendations. She is a good reader, too.

May your February be filled with many excellent books!

Friday, January 29, 2021

Let the Weeping Commence!

 About 15 years ago, Bill was working at a ‘museum.’ I put the quote marks there because it was not a real museum, but was a vanity project on the part of a wealthy guy (I’ll call him George) who used to live in the town. Half of it was devoted to Western art and the other half was display cases filled mostly with looted artifacts. The guy would wander around picking up arrowheads and things, bring them back and stick them in a display case or, even worse, he would glue them to boards in the shapes of tipis and other things and stick these in frames. Some of the displays were of things he had purchased. In almost all cases, any sort of context or explanations were absent. In the case of the arrowheads, by just digging around for them and grabbing them, he ruined any possible context anyway. 

When the guy died, the wealthy owner of a local company (the largest employer in the area) bought it and hired a local woman to run it, although she wasn’t there full time. She was insecure and defensive—a lovely woman outside her job, but difficult to work with.  Bill became the manager. Some months later, I came up with an idea. I asked to attend the next board meeting, where I presented my CV, and a proposal. I told them that if they hired me on a part-time basis at a certain salary, I would do a series of things, like apply for grants, try to develop projects that would modernize the place a bit, etc. They agreed.

It turned out to be a mixed bag. When I would find a grant and suggest we apply, the director would shoot it down, saying things like, ‘It’s too competitive. We’d never get it.’ OK, then. We were more successful at getting the go-ahead to do a life story project with 10 local artists. That turned out to be an excellent experience for us and the artists. It benefited the ‘museum,’ too.

The director wanted to try to have weekend gatherings of artists like in the old days when the ‘museum’ was first created. She tried to interest artists in coming, some of them from afar, but was never successful. This really bothered her and she would grumble about how things weren’t like they used to be. I finally had to tell her that it made sense that no one wanted to come. In the past, George would pay their expenses and often buy paintings, so it was worth their while. But the way she wanted to do it, there was nothing in it for them—no possibility of work being purchased and they would have to pay their own way. 

At one point, I was walking through the displays, pointing out where there were problems, most of which we couldn’t actually do much about.  I was adamant, however, that we needed some explanatory material to go with the beadwork which contained the swastika image. It was just hanging there without any explanation that this is an ancient symbol and when the bags were made, the Nazis had not yet appropriated it. She seemed surprised, but agreed. She wouldn’t let me do it, though. She wanted to do it herself, being the director and all. It never got done.

Bill and I shared an office and of course we talked at home. At one point, we talked about doing an artist-of-the-month exhibition in the gift shop. Artists would bring in work and it would hang there for the month. There would be publicity. It seemed like a good idea for a few reasons. For one thing, the gift shop was the only part of the museum that one could browse without paying an entry fee, so publicity for a new exhibit each month might draw people in. Even if they didn’t pay to go into the museum, they might buy a piece of art or something else in the gift shop. The ‘museum’ got 30% of the sale price of any art/craft work that was displayed in the shop and the same would be true for these exhibitions. It would be good for the artists and the ‘museum.’ We brought the idea to the director and she barked some questions about it, which we were able to answer easily and convincingly, because she finally said we could do it. It was a success all around.

When I had my first evaluation, it was just me and the director in a small room upstairs. Things went along fine until she got to the point where she was expressing her displeasure at the fact that, as she put it, ‘You and Bill come up with all this stuff and then start it behind my back. I am the director and I should be consulted first.’ I told her I disagreed with that assessment and to please provide me with an example of when we had gone behind her back and implemented something, only to tell her after the fact. She was quiet for what seemed like a long time. Then she said, ‘The artist-of-the-month. You planned it all out and started the ball rolling without consulting me.’ ‘That’s not true,’ I said. I went on, ‘It’s normal for us to bounce ideas around with each other. We talk about everything, so of course we would talk about this place, whether in the office or at home. But we have never started something without coming to you first. We have the idea, but we don’t do anything about it until and unless you approve. That was the case with the monthly art exhibitions, too.’  She said that was fair enough. 

Then things got weird. She began to weep. I sat there, frozen in my chair, wondering what I should do. Through her tears she said that I was always so kind to her and how much she appreciated that. I felt terrible, because I was thinking that if she knew what I was thinking much of the time, she might be crying for other reasons! I don’t remember what I said to her, but I was really glad when she stopped crying and we could leave the room!

After Bill and I both left, we would sometimes go back to visit the people who worked there. She often cried then, too, because things had gotten bad when the owner died. There was some question about what would happen and the woman who did the finances was caught doing some shady stuff and had to leave town. It was a mess. And they kept on raising their entry fee, wondering why attendance kept on going down. Eventually, we moved away and the director was replaced by someone else. We would get a check every now and then for photo projects (Bill) and textile work (me) we still had for sale in the gift shop until that was all gone. Once a friend said she'd been to the place with another friend who got a free pass and it was still as bad as I use to describe it, so I guess not much changed.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Lacy Rocks

 Yesterday I posted a few pictures of painted rocks that we saw along the river trail. I haven't painted any rocks, but I was reminded of the rocks I've embellished with crocheted/tatted lace.

I love rocks. When we travelled from Fairbanks to Norway years ago, I returned home with rocks in my suitcase--and we didn't have suitcases with wheels then, so we carried them. We even had a candle holder we bought in Norway that was a large rock that had a hole bored through it nd the bottom levelled off. There was a hole in the bottom that had a cork insert where a tea light sat. Alas, we had to sell it before moving to Ireland because we had strict weight limits on our few bags. Still, it was cool to have it for 16 years!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Kindness Rock Project

 We saw this alongside the river trail today. I like it!

It's always good to be kind, even without rocks around as a reminder 😀

Today on the Glancing Back in Time blog, we posted photos along with the story of the Alaska cat boss, Pearl, eventually known as the Queen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What a Difference a Week Makes

 Last week, I posted pictures of a gorgeous interlude in the usual grey January. Here's one:

Today, we walked in far more typical weather.

We never know what we will see when we walk around the block!

Thursday, January 21, 2021

5 Years and 2 Weeks

 I came across this old poem--I did not remember it until I read it again, but it still resonates for me, even after more than a decade. I wrote it shortly after we left Sucktown, which I recently wrote a series of stories about on this blog. We lived there for five years and two weeks. 

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to be dragged to
the edge
and forced
to contemplate
the nothing
that lies below.

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to consider
whether one more
tiny movement
over that edge
might just be quicker
and less painful
than this.

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to decide otherwise.
To stand up.
To walk away
from nothing
and toward something
that might--
turn into
a life.

Shari Burke

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Gorgeous Day in the Neighbourhood

 Just before noon, we went out for a short walk around the block, also veering off to walk to the end of the pier. It was exactly the right time, because it was gorgeous. The fog had mostly burned off, but not quite all the way. The sky was filled with birdsong. The water was blue and still, with the fluffy clouds and everything else reflected in it. I was mesmerized by the shapes of the clouds and the shapes I saw in sky, land, water, and reflections. 

Less than two hours after we got home, the sky was grey, the water was black and it was raining. At the moment, it's somewhere in between. 

I hope you have some beautiful, peaceful moments in your day today, too. 

Note: The Glancing Back in Time blog continues with Alaska stories. Today's post is about moose 😀

Friday, January 15, 2021

A Walk Along the River Trail: Green!

 One of the things that's interesting to me here is the blurring of the seasons. We did have some frosty days over the past couple of weeks and there was ice on the ground. I guess other places got snow, which is rare here, at least from our perspective. Still, it did hover around freezing and slightly below at times. Then it got warmer and feels like spring once again. Our first winter in Ireland, people would always ask us if we were warm enough and doing OK in the cold. We assured them we were fine and that just about the entire winter felt like spring. 

Walking around, it's clear when looking at some plants that it's winter. Yet walking on a few steps and we come across plants that are many shades of vibrant green, sometimes with flowers in bloom and sometimes just with buds, but looking like spring is here in any case.
In a book about trees I recently listened to, I learned that gorse, pictured above, is a member of the pea family. I had no idea.

In today's post about our time in Alaska, there is more about our adjustment to the water situation.

Stay safe and well!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A Walk Along the River Trail: Pale Beauty

 As we walked the river trail, so many things caught my eye. The differences between what I was seeing from one spot to the next, only a few steps away, was striking. In some places, it seemed like winter. In others, like spring was almost here. I guess both are true. In these photos, Irish winter is evident.

On the other blog, today's post is the beginning of our Alaska water story collection. We never gave much thought to water before, but that quickly changed!

I hope you're having a nice day today.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday Words of Wisdom

 "I would rather be a [person] of conviction than a [person] of conformity. Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that [one] will stand on it till the end. That is what I have found in nonviolence."

Martin Luther King

Today on Glancing Back in Time, we've reached our funky new home in Alaska--a round house with a totem pole at the centre. Pictures and the story depicted by the totem pole included in the post.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Brown and Bloom

brown leaves hanging on
while a single flower blooms
soon one of many

Over on the Glancing Back in Time blog today, our story continues as we finally reach our new home, albeit not without some weirdness along the way!

Friday, January 8, 2021

Winter or Spring?

walk by frosted leaves
around the corner, green shoots
on a cold morning

For those that are interested, our Alaska stories continue on the Glancing Back in Time blog. Today there are some scenes from British Columbia and the Yukon, along with a story about our search for a simple loaf of bread, which turned out to be not so simple. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

December Books: A Couple of Classics and a Few Short and Sweet Reads

 There were some short fun books on my reading list in December, including a couple of cartoon books that were fun and made me laugh. I do seem to be reading more books of various kinds that make me laugh these past few months.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by Harriet Dwyer
This is a good little book, filled with information about the climate emergency and what we can do about it as we go about our everyday lives. The actions we can take will be situational, of course—not every suggestion will work for everyone. We already do most of the things that are possible, but there were one or two things that I can be more mindful of. 

People Who Love to Eat Are Always the Best People and Other Wisdom by Julia Child
I’ve read one or two books about and by Julia Child and loved them. She was such an interesting person and I loved reading about how she developed a passion for cooking and France. I don’t cook like she did and have never been to France. It has never attracted me, to be honest. But even though the particular places have been different, I do know what it’s like to go somewhere and fall in love with it, so I could relate on that level. I am always fascinated by stories of how people found their passions in life. Bill and I once worked at a small local museum and did a life story project with women who were artists. I began every interview with the same question: ‘How did you discover that you are an artist?’ In the books I read about Julia Child, I learned how she discovered she had a passion for cooking and how it evolved. 

So when I spotted this in the new offerings on the e-book page of the library website, I requested it. It’s a fun little book of quotes. There were many good ones, but this one in particular jumped out at me:’Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.’

The Philosophy of Snoopy: Peanuts Guide to Life by Charles Schulz
This appeared in the ‘new to library’ section of the library e-book site and I didn’t hesitate to borrow this fun little book. It made me laugh, which is always welcome.

Simon’s Cat vs The World! by Simon Tofield
I have seen a few animated ‘episodes’ of this on youtube, so when I saw the book in the ‘new to library’ section of the e-book site at the library, I borrowed it. I am all for stuff that makes me laugh at the moment, and this fit the bill!

Very Good, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse (audiobook read by Jonathan Cecil)
I am enjoying these comedic short story collections. I think I am enjoying the audiobooks more than I would enjoy reading them, because the reader is wonderful. I wonder whether I would find the print books as funny, because I think much of my amusement comes from the way Cecil reads the words.

It was a happy accident that I started listening to them instead of reading them. I have some of the works on my e-reader, I think, but one day I was scrolling through the library e-audiobook site and saw that they have a lot of them. I’d read somewhere that one should try to read these books in order, because of the way characters come and go and previous episodes are discussed in later books, so I looked up the order of the books and started. As I was listening to this one, I reserved the next one.

Turn of the Screw by Henry James (Phoebe Reads a Mystery podcast)
This is the book Phoebe began after The Secret Adversary. I’ve not read Hnry James, so I listened as she read a chapter or two per day. It was an OK book. I didn’t dislike it enough to stop listening, but I don’t think I’ll be that eager to read James anytime soon. In this book, a young woman goes to be governess for two children who have been orphaned and are in the care of their uncle, who does not want to be bothered by anything. He does not live in the house and leaves things to the hired help. Strange things start to happen and the governess and the cook, who became close friends, begin to attempt to get to the bottom of it all.

Here's to more great reading in 2021!

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

December Books: Nonfiction

 I read some fascinating nonfiction in December. Some of it was disturbing and one book in particular was hilarious. If you're in need of some laughter, I highly recommend Love, Clancy!

The Wisdom of the Buddha: Heart Teachings in His Own Words by Anne Bancroft
This is a collection of teachings from various early Buddhist writing. It was a re-read for me, but it’s the kind of thing that can be read over and over again and something new will jumo out each time. It is in the e-book collection of our library.

Donegal Poitín: A History by Aidan Manning
I picked up this book at a car boot sale a few years ago. It was time to read it and get it into the donation pile. It was an interesting book that gave me some information about the colourful history of some areas within Donegal that I have lived and visited. Poitín is illegal homemade booze. Unsurprisingly, stills were quite common in the remote areas of Donegal during this time when Ireland was still under British rule. 

To Speak for the Trees: My Life's Journey From Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger (audiobook read by the author)
This was a new addition to the audiobook offerings at the library website. It sounded intriguing, so I borrowed it. It was a fascinating book, combining memoir, science and old Celtic wisdom. This is from the website:
When Diana Beresford-Kroeger--whose father was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and whose mother was an O'Donoghue, one of the stronghold families who carried on the ancient Celtic traditions--was orphaned as a child, she could have been sent to the Magdalene Laundries. Instead, the O'Donoghue elders, most of them scholars and freehold farmers in the Lisheens valley in County Cork, took her under their wing. Diana became the last ward under the Brehon Law. Over the course of three summers, she was taught the ways of the Celtic triad of mind, body and soul. This included the philosophy of healing, the laws of the trees, Brehon wisdom and the Ogham alphabet, all of it rooted in a vision of nature that saw trees and forests as fundamental to human survival and spirituality. Already a precociously gifted scholar, Diana found that her grounding in the ancient ways led her to fresh scientific concepts. Out of that huge and holistic vision have come the observations that put her at the forefront of her field: the discovery of mother trees at the heart of a forest; the fact that trees are a living library, have a chemical language and communicate in a quantum world; the major idea that trees heal living creatures through the aerosols they release and that they carry a great wealth of natural antibiotics and other healing substances; and, perhaps most significantly, that planting trees can actively regulate the atmosphere and the oceans, and even stabilize our climate.

This book is not only the story of a remarkable scientist and her ideas, it harvests all of her powerful knowledge about why trees matter, and why trees are a viable, achievable solution to climate change. Diana eloquently shows us that if we can understand the intricate ways in which the health and welfare of every living creature is connected to the global forest, and strengthen those connections, we will still have time to mend the self-destructive ways that are leading to drastic fires, droughts and floods. 

Those Who Forget: One Family’s Story a Memoir, a History, a Warning By Géraldine Schwarz translated from the French by Laura Marris

Love, Clancy edited and debated by Richard Glover
I stumbled upon this e-book when looking at the new titles available via the library website. I decided to give it a try. I am so glad I did! It is hilarious and I laughed so much as I was reading. At times I tried to read passages to Bill and I was struggling, because I was laughing so hard and the tears were flowing as a result. 

The book begins with a brief introduction by the male human in which he talks about the dog he and his wife had for 15 years. When Darcy died, they were devastated and called the farm where they got Darcy, just to let the people know. After condolences, the people at the farm mentioned that there had recently been a new litter of puppies born and one was not spoken for. They decided to adopt Clancy. 

Clancy finds his move to the city (Sydney, Australia) and the behaviour of his humans, who he calls Lady and Man, puzzling and writes letters home to the farm. The book consists of these letters from Clancy’s point of view with occasional defensive commentary by Man. Clancy discusses the strange ways humans act, the lack of adequate chicken, his hard work digging holes to find valuable minerals, the dog park, and more. The book ends with an epilogue about Darcy and how he aged. 

Having been a staff member to dogs I could relate to so much of this, but beyond that, it was just hilarious and given all that is going on, this aspect of the book was particularly welcome. I highly recommend it.

The next part of our Alaska story is on the Glancing Back in Time blog now. Yesterday, we posted about starting the trip. In today's post, we begin the Canadian part of the journey.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

December Books: Mystery

 Before I start today's post, I just wanted to mention that on the Glancing Back in Time blog, we have started posting our Alaska stories. Today's post is the first part of the beginning of the story. It will continue from there. And now, onto the books!

Here we are, several days into a new year. We're back in a strict lockdown that may get even more strict and it will last until at least 31 January and possibly longer. I suspect it will be longer. So I am even more happy than usual to be surrounded by books. 

Here are the mysteries I read/listened to in December
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (Phoebe Reads a Mystery podcast)
I was so happy when I found out that this was going to be the book Phoebe reads in the podcast. I have skipped a few of the books, but loved several of her choices. 

This is the first Tommy and Tuppence book Christie wrote. It was published in 1922. I had to stop myself from grabbing my e-reader and reading it so I could find out what happens. I read it years ago and had some vague memories of one or two plot points, but mostly I’d forgotten about it. In the podcast, Phoebe reads a chapter each day (two if they’re very short), so it is a little treat each day.

This book begins on the Lusitania, where a man is handing over a packet of papers to a woman passenger, assuming correctly that she has a better chance of survival after the boat starts to sink. The story then moves forward a few years. The war is over. Tommy and Tuppence bump into each other in London. They’ve been friends since childhood and came across on another during the war in a hospital, where Tommy was wounded and Tuppence was a nurse. Both of them are now having trouble finding work and they have very little money, so they decide to put an ad in a newspaper offering to undertake tasks for people. They get drawn into a task that is much bigger than they expected when they are asked to help find those papers. And the adventure begins.

The Veiled One by Ruth Rendell
Before I picked this book up, I had planned to start a sprawling Victorian novel with a few dozen characters and a multi-stranded storyline. But I had a slight headache and was feeling tired, so wasn’t really following along. I wanted to read, but it wasn’t the right time for that particular book, so I grabbed this one, purchased at a charity shop for exactly such moments, and started. It was a good enough read. 

It’s an Inspector Wexford novel and it begins with him in a shopping centre where he is buying a gift for his wife’s birthday. On the wy to his car, he passed what he thinks is a pile of rags in the subterranean parking area. Later, when he is called to the scene of a crime, he learns that underneath the brown curtain was the body of a middle-aged woman. He and his sidekick, Mike Burden, set out to answer the questions. Who is she? Why was she killed? Who killed her?

When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh
I was feeling like a mystery, so I looked up the list of Marsh’s books so I could see where I was in the Roderick Alleyn series. I discovered that this book was next and after that came a Christmas book, so I decided to read both for the season that’s in it. As always, I enjoyed them. In this book, Alleyn is in Rome trying to track down some drug dealers. He books himself into a tour group and soon he is dealing with much more than drug dealers.

Tied Up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
In this book, set at Christmastime, Roderick Alleyn’s wife, Agatha Troy Alleyn, known as Troy, is at a country house where she is painting a portrait of the owner. Alleyn is in Australia when the book begins, but his case is due to be wrapped up shortly after Christmas, so Troy is there among strangers. More people show up for the holiday celebration and an elaborate party is planned for local people from the neighbouring workhouse and their children. When the servant of one of the guests goes missing, things get tense. When Alleyn returns and phones Troy, he is convinced to join the group and then to take over the case. He is not keen on this, but in typical country house mystery fashion, the local police are overwhelmed with cases so he is ordered to take over. 

Happy 2021 and stay safe! 😷


Monday, January 4, 2021

Walking Away

A quick note:
A few folks have asked Bill and I to post some stories about our time living in Alaska. We are starting that now, on another blog he has. Today begins with a photo collage of photos he took during our time there. In future, we will be sharing stories and photos about our experiences. Some of the stories are longer, so I've broken them up into segments. The photos are Bill's and most of the writing will be mine. If anyone is interested, the link to the blog is here

When we got to Sucktown, I was so hopeful and excited to start a new chapter in my life, having left academia and being ready to move on. Unfortunately for me, I chose a place that would allow me to grow and eventually move on, but I would have to go through much pain before that could happen. When we left, I felt like a wounded animal, dragging myself away from danger and wanting to hide so my wounds could heal. I have moved on, and the wounds have healed, but I will carry the scars with me wherever I go. The person who arrived in Sucktown was very different in many ways than the person who left 5 years and two weeks later. Still, I am a stronger person and I learned so much there that I can’t really say I’m sorry I lived there. Of course, had I known what was coming, I would have chosen differently. I would have avoided it. But pain shows up in every life and we can learn from it. If we don’t, the pain is wasted. I don’t like waste.

It was about two weeks into our time in Sucktown and I was starting to have vague misgivings. We’d bought a house and were still settling in, but I just had a niggling thought that something was off. One day, I was walking around the mattress we’d bought and put on the floor so we’d have a place to sleep while we looked for a bed, when it struck me like a physical blow in the gut—the understanding that things were going to get really bad. I burst into tears and sank down on the mattress, sobbing. I tried to rationalize with myself, but I knew. I think that this knowledge helped me somehow as things continued to deteriorate. I remember how later I wished various things—that we had never gone to Sucktown in the first place or that in that moment of realization we’d started making plans to leave as soon as possible. But we stayed, we struggled, we learned, and we grew.

We were by no means the only ones struggling with Sucktown. There were many people we met as we got involved in various community groups who had issues with the place. Many of these people built their identity around feeling superior to the residents that felt at home there. I found them equally disturbing, to be honest, and it didn’t take long for me to remove myself from their company. There were others, though, who did not like it there but tried to figure out a way to make it work. I never knew anyone who succeeded at this, but I think that maybe it was some consolation to know they’d tried. It was for me, anyway.

For a time, Bill and I were involved in the local arts association. I was vice-president and the president was another relative newcomer to the town. This was one of many groups that made a lot of noise about wanting new members and talking endlessly about ways they could attract new people, but never doing anything about it. One day, the president, who I will call Marge (not her real name), asked me to have lunch with her. After we’d ordered, she started expressing what was worrying her. She asked me why we couldn’t get anyone to engage with our ideas and why nothing was getting done. She wondered why it was so hard to do anything different, when that was exactly what people said they wanted. Having been there a while by then and having done what I always do, which is to do the anthropology and figure out the culture of a place, I explained to her that this had nothing whatsoever to do with her. It was cultural. These people did not care for change so when they said they wanted new people and new ideas, what they really meant was that they wanted new people to come and do the work, like we were doing, and to pay dues, but to not make waves and to let them keep on doing what they’d always done. We could keep trying to beat our heads against the brick wall and come out bruised and bloodied, but they’d be unmoved. Things had to stay the same, except with more money and others to take responsibility. As I started talking, her mouth fell open and she stared at me. Then her face brightened as she kept listening. ‘All this time, I thought it was me,’ she said. No, indeed it was not. 

After that, things went much more smoothly. We simply proceeded without input from the old-timers. Once, shortly after our lunch, Marge contacted me and said she’d come across information about a grant that we could apply for, but the deadline was in a few days. Should we go for it? We did, without telling anyone else, knowing that they would have dithered while the deadline came and went. Bill and I spent a day at her house getting everything together. We submitted the application and we got a grant. Then we announced the fact to an astonished board at the next meeting. The grant involved non-traditional quilts and we put together an exhibition without much, if any, help from anyone else. Bill and I did some interviews and solicited quilts for display from some people. I had some of my art quilt-ish work on the wall. It was great and well-received, but it never would have happened if we’d consulted anyone else.

To be sure, there were some people who adored Sucktown and would never leave. I remember one walk with a few members of the arts association where I had a conversation with a photographer who was very bossy, clearly had a chip on her shoulder, and was often avoided by people. I can’t say I ever had a good time in her company, but I could see that she had very low self-esteem and felt she had to always convince people, including herself, that she did good work, so I had a deep compassion for her. While the others walked on in a group, I walked with her.  The photographer asked me a question that I do not remember now, but I do recall replying that Bill and I were starting to talk about leaving and where we would go next. She laughed and said, ‘Oh, you can leave, but you’ll be back. People always come back.’ I looked at her and, with as even a tone as I could manage, I replied, ‘That won’t happen in this case.’

One of the big lessons I learned during my time there was that some things cannot be fixed and that I needed to be able to let go and to stop trying when in such a situation. I had to learn about acceptance of what is and about protecting myself. I am so much better at this now than I used to be. I know there are a lot of myths out there about perseverance and how we should keep on trying until we succeed and all of that, which can be good advice and can be hogwash, depending on the situation. Not recognizing when this is a fool’s errand does real harm to people. 

Sometimes, in spite of all our best efforts, the best thing to do is to walk away. So we did.

About a year after we'd left Sucktown, Bill was contacted by someone through an online photo gallery he had at the time, which had many images of the area. The person wanted to get some information about what it was like there, as he'd been offered a job and was unsure about whether or not to accept it, being able to find very little information about the place. Bill sent the message to me and I replied to him, saying that I was going to be honest with him, but he should keep in mind that what followed was one person's perspective and that others would experience things differently. Then I told him about the culture of the place, illustrated with a few anecdotes. He answered me with thanks for being honest and said he had decided to stay where he was. I felt like I was able to save someone some anguish. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Library: Safe Space in Sucktown

 While I was pretty indifferent when I applied for a part-time job in the circulation department of the library in Sucktown, being at a very low point in my life, I’d had a very good experience with the library by then. I say that it helped save my life and that is not hyperbole. From the time we arrived in the town, it was the one bright spot. It was a lifeline to me, being able to access the books that were there and to request from other libraries. As things deteriorated, it was more and more important for me to have access to books and ideas, given that I lived in a place where the latter were in short supply. People in Sucktown were most keen to go back to some mythical past and when they did engage with the present, it was to complain that the reason the town was struggling was because it was not on the major highway corridor. I heard this so many times that it started to annoy the crap out of me. Once, I replied, ‘That is not why people don’t come here.’  There were a few other people I knew who felt the same as I did. There had been others before me. We all left. But while we were there, the library was something of a safe space for many of us. This was before social media became what it is, which probably also made a difference. So although I struggled to get through each day at first, I felt some small measure of comfort because the library was a safe and familiar space for me—I can walk into any library anywhere and feel instantly at home. 

I did not expect to be challenged in the job and I wasn’t. I was immediately told that I would be trained in steps, with discharging to be left for last, because it had frequently brought people to tears. I had no idea what discharging entailed and I decided to just deal with it when I got there. I learned what I needed to learn and did what I was supposed to do—check out materials to patrons, shelve books, and, if someone had a query or needed help beyond checking things out, I was to direct them to the information desk. It did not matter whether there was a line several people deep and no one at the circulation desk was doing anything. We were not allowed to help them with anything other than checking out books, taking money for fines, and shelving books. This was sometimes convenient, because when people asked me for something, I could tell them that I was not allowed to help them and would get in trouble if I did, so they would have to go wait in line. This usually prevented them from expressing anger towards me. I did sometimes find it frustrating, though, and when I wanted to, I surreptitiously broke the rules. For instance, one elderly woman came up to me while I was shelving books one day and asked how to look something up on the computerized card catalogue. I showed her how to find what she wanted and brought her to the shelf where it was. 

Things went along for a week or so and one day there was much whispering behind the circulation desk. I took a cart and went off to shelve the books. It was always nice in the stacks and I often found books I wanted to take home, placing them on the cart, checking them out to myself, and placing them in my drawer. On this day, shortly after I’d started shelving, a co-worker came up to me and said to stop what I was doing because they’d decided today was the day I’d be taught the dreaded discharging. She assured me that I would eventually get the hang of it and she would be there to show me what to do and to help. It all sounded very ominous, but I followed her back to the circulation area, where I was instructed to sit at the computer. I was told to scan the books that had been returned and told how to organize them on the carts or on the shelves, if they were books that someone had requested. I started to do this and waited for the other shoe to drop. After a few minutes, the woman who was training me turned to the supervisor and said, ‘She doesn’t really need any help with this.’ The supervisor came to watch me, was apparently amazed that I was not in tears or frustrated or agitated, and we all went on with what we were doing. There was no other shoe. This was it. I was discharging. And I was not crying. I quite liked it, actually, because whenever I checked in a book that I was interested in, I could immediately check it out to myself and slip it in my drawer without leaving my seat. If someone else had already requested it, I placed a hold for myself.

Even though the things I was allowed to deal with were minimal, there were some awkward moments. These usually involved children. Once, a dad and his two sons came to the desk to check out some VHS tapes. They were already over the limit for how many could be checked out and they had some fines as well, so I told them they wouldn’t be able to check these items out until they brought some back. Dad was fine with this, but one of the kids started to cry. Dad hustled them out of there. Another father-sons situation was somewhat different and involved a different dad and sons. When I scanned the card of one kid, I discovered fines of close to $200! When I explained this situation to Dad, his mouth fell open and he understandably got quite distressed. He gave me the other boy’s card only to find the same thing. So there he was, just learning that these kids had almost $400 in fines between them. He spluttered something about divorce and the mother of the boys and how he had no idea. I felt bad for him, but all I was allowed to do was give him the name and contact information for the supervisor. Since this was during evening hours, she wasn’t there. People could work off their fines by volunteering to clean books and things like that, but I guess in this case, it would have to be a parent. People got $10 taken off their fine for every hour they worked—an hourly rate that was more than $2 more than we were earning. 

There was a fair bit of resentment between the people who worked downstairs in circulation and those who worked upstairs where the pay was better. There were no qualifications needed to work downstairs, and many who worked upstairs were not at all qualified for their jobs, so it was understandable. I had a friend who worked upstairs (who was highly qualified) and it was considered strange that we spoke. One day, she came down and stood behind the circulation desk while I was building a cart. As we chatted, I gradually became aware of the deep silence that surrounded us. I turned around to see my colleagues sitting there staring at us with their mouths open. I started laughing.

At faculty meetings, the upstairs people sat on one side of the circle and us downstairs folks on the other while we listened to the director droning on and on, sometimes for half an hour or more, while he said nothing. Words were spilling forth from his mouth and they were actual words, but when put together into sentences, they really didn’t amount to anything. Once, he came down to talk to someone who was using one of the circ computers and was going on and on about a meeting with the county commissioners, complaining that one actually fell asleep while he was giving hs presentation. I blurted out that I was not surprised and they both turned to look at me in astonishment.

I loved the library. I didn’t love working there, but it was not terrible, either. I ended up leaving when they were about to begin major renovations that involved knocking down asbestos filled walls while staying open and not providing adequate protection for workers. I avoided the library altogether during that time and I missed it, some of my former co-workers, and, of course, all those wonderful books.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Applying Myself in Sucktown

By the time we’d been in Sucktown for 3 of the 5 years (and two weeks) we lived there, I had reached bottom. We had been involved with many things in the town, each one more dysfunctional and delusional than the last. I hated the place with every fibre of my being.

There were many reasons for this, but the final straw was being asked at the last minute to organise a monthly art event that ran through the summer. The crap we had to deal with, from selfish and greedy business owners to obstruction from the previous organiser, who left at the last minute and wouldn’t give us any information, to the people who just felt like they were entitled to claim space that belonged to someone else, made me hate it even more. At one point during that summer, after dealing with a business owner who somehow thought it was our job to force people to go into her store and buy things, I told Bill, ‘This is it. I am done. I will finish this because I said I would do it and then I will not do one more thing in this hellhole.’ And I didn’t. From then on whenever anyone asked me to get involved with something, I replied that I had a personal policy of not engaging in any way with any groups in Sucktown. This usually left them speechless, standing there blinking at me. I didn’t care. At that point, I was just trying to protect myself and hang on, because things were really bad for me in terms of mental health and I was sinking deeper and deeper into a serious depression. Then, after we got through that summer, one of our dogs unexpectedly died. I spent days sitting in a chair and crying before I could manage to function again, albeit at a very minimal level.

I had applied for a crappy part-time job in the circulation department of the local library. At this point, we had very little income and even though I was wildly overqualified for the job, and it would bring in very little money, I applied. I knew enough by then to not talk about my education, skills, and knowledge, because those sorts of thing were frowned upon there. Many jobs of all sorts were filled with people who bragged about how they were completely unqualified for them, but got the job because no qualified person wanted to live there. This happened again and again. I totally understood why people would not want to live there, but I was always puzzled at the pride the locals took in proclaiming that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, but they’d put one over on someone (or something).

In any case, when I got a phone call asking me to come in for an interview, I went through the motions and agreed to a time. I didn’t care. I was just on autopilot and trying to get through each day and, at night before going to sleep, wishing that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. But wake up I did, so when the day came, I went to my interview, thinking that at least it was a library—a comfortable and familiar place for me. I sat at a table, across from three people who were going to interview me. One was the circulation department supervisor, one was the assistant director, I think, and I’m not sure what the guy did.

They asked me some weird questions and some that seemed reasonable. Then they passed me a piece of paper with an addition problem and a subtraction problem on it—three digits each! Through my fog of indifference, I was thinking that this said a lot about the kinds of people they are used to dealing with. I wrote down my answers and passed the paper back. They checked it and nodded.

Then they directed me to a cart with books on it, placed in random order, some fiction and some nonfiction. I was to shelve them in the correct order. I did. They checked my work and nodded. Then there were more questions. I only remember one, because it made the guy so uncomfortable and he turned beet red when asking it. They were taking turns asking the questions and it fell to him to do the sex question. I was informed that it was library policy to check out any book to any person, so if a 10-year old came to the desk with The Joy of Sex, for example, I was to check it out to them. Then I was asked what I would do if a 10-year-old came up to the desk to check out The Joy of Sex. I suppose my patience was wearing a bit thin, because I replied, ‘You’ve just told me that library policy is to check it out to them, so I would check it out to them.’ They nodded.

A week or so later, Bill and I were in the library checking out books when the guy asked me if I’d heard from HR yet. I shook my head, turned to Bill, and said, ‘I guess I got the job.’ I didn’t actually care, but was just making the observation. Then the director came over and asked, ‘did you hear from HR yet?’ I said I hadn’t and he swore, saying something about lighting a fire under their butts. I soon heard from HR and went in to do the paperwork. I had to watch a video about workplace safety as well. The following day, I went into the library for my first shift. The supervisor asked if I’d done all the paperwork. I said I had. She asked if I’d watched the video. I said I had. ‘And you peed in a cup?’ she asked. I shook my head, saying no one had given me a cup or asked me to pee in it. She freaked out. Finally, she asked if I’d gotten my name badge with photo. I said I had and showed it to her. She heaved a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, that’s OK then.’ And I started my work.

She was actually a very nice person who cared about the people she worked with and stood up for us. If I was doing something when my shift ended, she would tell me to leave it and go. She wasn’t into having any of us work one minute longer than we were getting paid for. The guy at the interview was the one who did the scheduling and after I’d been there for a few weeks, he knew that I didn’t like working when story hour was happening and there were a lot of children around the place (I don’t like being around kids), so he always gave me those times off.

I was still depressed and would go home after each shift, climb into bed, stare at the ceiling, and cry. But after a while, I found myself doing the anthropology of the library from the perspective of someone who was ‘inside’ instead of as a patron alone—such an interesting class structure there. On that day, I knew I was starting to heal.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Happy New Year!

 I know that the beginning of 2021 will continue on as 2020 ended, but here's hoping that things improve as the year rolls on! I wish you a year of health, safety, and many, many moments of quiet joy and inner peace.

This was the quote in my Daily Dharma email from Tricycle magazine this morning:

May myriad beacons of goodness overpower the dark shadows of the past year, and may their resplendence inspire us to acknowledge and make good use of this precious human life.

—Pamela Gayle White, “A New Year’s Wish for Light”