And so, let 2016 be the year of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
I have written anything here is six months. So here’s a new project.
So far I read the first two pages: tennis player, university administration, THE VOICE.
That’s DFW, isn’t it? The voice. The distinct wacky diction, the perspective that is both common place and coming out of left field.
I’m coming to this book largely virginal. I mean, I’ve heard various things about it, but I have no preconceptions.
What I seem to remember people talking about the most are the length and the footnotes … and the French Canadian separatists.
Did I get that right? We’ll see.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about the need for better palliative care. So I took note of the Canadian Cancer Society’s decision to publish an election document for the first time ever in its 77-year history.
More significantly, I noted that the document has three themes:
- palliative care
Whamo! Palliative care right there, in the top three.
I’m not always a fan of the Cancer Society. A couple years back they had a fundraising commercial that used carnival music, and it made me sick. But, here, they are right on the money. No pun intended.
Here’s a link to the document itself (pdf), which is titled “Wake Up Call: National Priorities for Patients, Families and a Healthier Future.”
Now what does palliative care have to do with health?
People cannot be abandoned when the oncology has done all it can do. And it’s notable that the Cancer Society makes it so plain. People who get cancer will die. Not all of them. Not as many as in the past. But a good number of them. And caring for them, assisting them through the process of dying, should be a top priority.
Not just for them. But for those who are left behind. For those who have to watch their loved one die.
It can be a profound, live-altering experience. And I mean that in a good way. Or it could be very, very bad also. The health-care system can have a huge impact on which way the outcome tilts.
Thank you Canadian Cancer Society, and thank you news media for coverage. Now on to the electorate!
K is also Kafka, and the protagonist of Kafka’s The Castle, a novel about trying to get beyond unfathomable barriers.
Which could be a metaphor for many things, including living with and dying from cancer.
Grappling with the unfathomable is part of the cancer experience, and part of surviving the cancer experience. It’s part of grief, too, I guess I’m saying. Why do some die and others live? What does it mean to go on? What does it mean to be denied entry to the life we were supposed to have, and yet continue to exist?
It struck me this week that I used to be an existentialist, but now I am not. Now I believe there is a mystery in the universe that defies explanation. For lack of a better word, I believe now there is spirit that cannot be created or destroyed, it simply is.
Which doesn’t mean I no longer believe in the absurd, because the absurd is pretty much all that there is.
I have been cataloging Kate’s photographs at a blog I’ve called Life is Beautiful. There are quite a lot, but I’m getting near the end. Obviously, there are only a finite number and I’m not including everything. Just the good ones. Which is still most of them.
Most of the ones I have left are from two sources: the cottage we rented for three weeks in 2011, and the farm house in the Caledon Hills we visited three times in 2011. The owner of the farm house loaned it out to people who needed a “getaway.” We went in March, June and September 2011, once before Kate’s mastectomy, once in the middle of her radiation treatments, and once when it was supposed to be all over, except it’s where she found the new lump, the metastases, the beginning of the end.
Both of these collections of photographs are so intimate they take my breath away, but I will include them. They are only her “arty” pictures, not our snap shots. I look at all of these photographs and I think: “She saw that.” They capture, directly, her view of the world.
That’s about all I have to say right now. I went to see my surgeon last week, and I’m doing excellent. I am in the middle of rehab and up now to walking three miles a day, five days a week.
Life is good. K?
I have a new essay on grief and reading up at Numero Cinq.
I write about some of the books I’ve read since my wife died in May 2012, the ones that spoke most directly to my feeling of being “after the end.”
- Four J.G. Ballard novels.
- Two Primo Levi memoirs.
- Dave Eggers’ Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius.
- Two fantastic Julian Barnes novels.
- Plus a bit of Heidegger and Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.
- And my own terrifying memories of attempting to move on, stay in the past, feel feelings and fight for hope:
If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.
My favorite? Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song.
It’s a book that almost defies description. I’ve told folks that it’s sort of like a Milan Kundera novel, a series of interconnected sections that are part essay, part narrative fiction, each popping with ideas. Often the ideas have to do with art and performance, the making of meaning and the push into the new, breaking down patterns of control, and what I’ll simply call finding the fun side of life. There is no single through line, but a collection of stories that are linked in surprising ways. One involved the New Film-making, which doesn’t involve any actual film-making. Another involves sports mascots in costume committing violent crime. I’m not going any further.
Other books I loved this year: Heather Birrell’s Mad Hope, Evie Christie’s Bourgeois Empire, Michelle Berry’s Interference, Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner, Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
The most recent book I finished was Wayde Compton’s The Outer Harbour. It shares some similarities to Polyamorous Love Song. It is a collection of stories that includes surprising linkages. It also bends reality – and pushes against modes of control. I liked it a lot as well.
Mark Abley’s Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott is a book more should know about. It was remarkably temperate considering its subject: Canadian poet, writer, and one-time, long-time bureaucratic head of the nation’s Indian Affairs department at the federal level. DCS left a huge legacy that continues to this day in the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada. It’s a legacy this book strips bare in an illuminating and introductory way.
Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending was fantastic. Tony Burgess’s The n-Body Problem was gross and satisfying. Greg Keaney’s The Desperates was hilarious and tender at the same time, and it reminded me more of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than anything else I’ve known. A satirist with a big heart, Kearney is as Twain as Lynn Coady, maybe more.
I could go on, but I won’t. I would recommend all of the books below, with minor caveats hither and yon. I hope you find something new here, a book you’ve never heard of, or a book you hadn’t thought about attempting previously.
It’s the unexpected that’s most thrilling, isn’t it? It’s a new year. Take a risk.
I realized that I missed Zach Wells’s Career Limiting Moves. I read this in April 2014 and reviewed it on my blog. Didn’t add it to Goodreads. Just forgot to. Have added it now.
Missed Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? also. This is my second favorite book of 2014.
“Keep calm, keep going,” is what a friend emailed me when I sent out a note about what was to happen to me on December 4th. I was to have open heart surgery, a triple coronary bypass, which I did, and it’s three weeks ago now.
I kept calm, I kept going. I have a feeling of happiness unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time.
“You’re lucky,” my surgeon told me on November 28th. I’d gone to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to have a stent or two put into my heart. The doctor got halfway through the procedure and then decided it was too risky. I had three blockages in the arteries of my heart, discovered on November 24th when I had an angiogram at the Toronto East General Hospital. Two of the blockages were right where an artery branched. At TEGH, one cardiologist said this might be a problem, another said, “It’s not a problem.” He also told me I could expect to be back at work by the following Monday (Nov 28 was a Friday).
Well, it’s five weeks later and I won’t be going back to work any time soon. It turned out the first cardiologist was right. The stent procedure was too difficult to do safely. The doctor told me that if he had attempted to put a stent in, there’s a good chance he would have given me a heart attack, or two, which is why the surgeon said I was lucky that they called him.
I spent six days in bed at Sunnybrook waiting for the surgery. They’d given me a handful of blood thinners for the stent procedure and they needed to wait for those to clear my system. I spent the week with heart monitor wires all over my chest 24 hours a day. I had a lot of time to think about things. I felt lucky. I felt sad for my chest. I felt unafraid. I felt anxious that I would have a heart attack before the surgery. I just wanted to get on with it. Three blockages in my heart! What?
Twenty-five years earlier my father had the same surgery. I had felt one of the goals of my life was to avoid being cut open, but when it happened, it felt like nothing really. I was lucky! (Not to have the surgery. I was lucky to have the surgery without having had a heart attack first.) I have not had a heart attack, I have not had a heart attack, I repeated to myself. Then, I’m not going to have a heart attack. I’m going to have this surgery instead.
The doctor operated on my beating heart. He took my two mammary arteries from my chest and one artery out of my left arm. So I have scars on my left forearm, down the middle of my chest, and in my abdomen, where I had four tubes to drain fluid out of my chest cavity. These tubes stayed in for three days after the surgery. Their removal was both a great relief and most uncomfortable.
I was in the intensive care unit for about 24 hours post surgery, then on the cardiac ward for five days. Then I went to live with my parents for a week. Then I came home 10 days ago. It’s been a remarkable journey. Every day since the surgery I’ve felt stronger. Initially it was difficult to even move, but on the day I left the ICU I was up sitting in a chair. The day the tubes came out I was walking. I’m told my heart was inflamed, and I felt it racing. When I slept, my pulse went up to 140-150. The hydromorphine pain killers left me constipated. The IV bells and whistles made me think I was back in a chemotherapy day care lounge. I had dream that everyone on the ward was getting chemo.
Yes, I missed Kate, my wife. I wish we could compare scars, her mastectomy, my straight line down my chest. We would have compared drug regimes. She took hydromorphine/dilaudid as part of her chemo process. There were other shared ones. Near the end, she had trouble with stairs; I was told to avoid them. The cardiac ward was one floor directly above the cancer ward, where she stayed for a number of days in April 2012. Hospital food. Fluid in the body cavity. Diuretics. Swollen feet. Bed rest. When I arrived on November 28th, I walked the hallways remembering that I had pushed Kate down these same hallways, her in a wheelchair, in the weeks before she died in May 2012. She was 44; I’m now 46.
But I was not captured by the past. I was keeping calm, keeping going. It’s not every day you get to fight for your life. I am most struck by the resilience of the human body, at least as a cardiac patient. As soon as they closed me up, the healing began. I don’t have to worry about metastases. So I’ll just say it again, fuck cancer.
The inflammation has gone away, and the palpitations have stopped. My resting pulse has lowered in the weeks since I’ve left the hospital. My heart is settling down, the trauma of the surgery drifting into the past. In the weeks ahead I will start rehab, which I understand will include classroom work on how to live healthy and also cardiac fitness training and monitoring. Plus advice on how to stay on the best track.
Before I was discharged from the hospital, the nurse practitioner went over my case with me. “You are lucky,” he said. The surgeon who stopped the stent procedure didn’t get paid for that, he said. He said it made him happy to see that his colleagues make the right decisions, based on good medical ethics. He said I had an angel watching over me.
“I know,” I said, “and I know who she is also.”
I told him my wife had died from breast cancer two-and-a-half years earlier. I choked up, he chocked up.
“I like stories like this,” he said. “You are a young man. You should be fine for the next 25 years. No, more.” He told me not to blame myself. “Genetics are 50%. You can’t do anything about this.” They knew all about my family history, and it explained everything.
“Go live your best life,” he said. At least I think he said this, but I didn’t need to be told.
I’m busting out, man. And I’m not ever stopping.
Back in 2011, I made a list of all the book reviews I had ever written and I posted it to this website. The first review I ever published, Milan Kundera’s Immortality, appeared in the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint, in September 1991, which meant my list three years ago captured two decades of book reviewing.
I thought I would collect my reviews and literary essays, possibly other nonfiction, and make a manuscript, perhaps even get a book out of it. I went as far as to give it a title (see photograph): Reading & Ranking: Selected Essays & Reviews – 1991-2011.
The subtitle was apparently going to be: Canadian Literature from the Back of the Class. Hmm.
Reading & Ranking is an essay I wrote in 2006 on the New York Times’ survey of best American novels, 1980-2005, and the moderated on-line conversation the newspaper hosted from May 22-26 that year between two novelists and two critics. It seemed not only a good title, but a good introduction to a series of book reviews and literary essays, such as my piece on the short stories of Carol Shields.
The summer of 2011 was our summer of sorting things out. Re-building. Getting ready to “return” to normal. Kate’s chemotherapy was over. Her surgery was done. Her radiation treatments finished. But we were not back to normal. We were trying to get ourselves righted. Sorting out this manuscript was part of my process of righting myself.
Then the cancer came back. I kept sorting my things, writing new reviews, and even bringing back The Danforth Review to publish new fiction. We were dogged about keeping on. But I could never bring the fragments of this manuscript together. Did the world need another book? No. Who cared? No one. Canadian literature from the back of the class? I felt the ground disappearing beneath me. I no longer felt any foundation for making any kind of judgements. Any truth I felt I might have captured dissolved.
But this past weekend, I dug out my draft table of contents and considered it again. I feel like I am meeting someone I once knew, but haven’t seen in a long time. I did this? That was me? I don’t think so. I feel a renewed interest in putting this manuscript together as a project of self-discovery. There’s some interesting things back there. What the heck?
Ranking? I’m not that kind of critic. I don’t like “Best of …” lists. But I do like rubbing things together to see what results. I wrote some reviews for money, and others because I just wanted to. I liked the discovery of new things, and over two decades evolved in my approach somewhat, but also not really. It’s amazing to read reviews I wrote while an undergraduate and hear that voice, my voice and not my voice. I would say different things about those books today, but I also know why that guy wrote what he did. I get it. And it’s nice to visit with him.
I think I’m going to enjoy rubbing different reviews together and coming up with something that might be a book. I might even assign myself some new books to read, to fill in the gaps. I have some views about literature in Canada, and they might not be as fragmented as I once thought.
Soooo. Not the first time I’ve written about Mary, but something drew me to her tonight on YouTube. She’s retired her persona now, but in 2002 I was having a very bad year and I took myself to a small club in Toronto and saw someone I knew nothing about, and haven’t forgotten.
The video below is a 26 minute mini concert. There’s much more online. Who is this performer? What’s the deal? Not exactly clear, but she lifted my spirits in 2002 and she lifts them still.
Content not for everyone. I warned you.
The second photograph is today.
They don’t look that different, except the cedar trees are now against the back fence and to the left, behind the shed.
In 2010, there was no shed. Also the 2010 photo shows the patio only half done.
The third photo shows the place as we bought it in 2007, the patio was on the left hand side.
At that time, there was also no garden, not even a flower bed.
The forth photo shows the vegetable garden added in 2008 and expanded in 2009.
But it was still too small for us, so …
The fifth photo shows the finished state in 2010, after we moved the patio and expanded the garden again, adding a fence and a gate.
This is when we added the cedar trees.
And later some pebbled paths.
And a garden shed.
So the finished state was never really a finished state. Life is change. Life is process.
The sixth photo shows me watering in 2010. Note the blue pots. They were part of our wedding ceremony.
Kate died in 2012 and we’ve now been three summers without her.
The garden was one of her great joys, and I felt that we had completed it, and I had no interest in changing it.
But also in the past three summers I have almost never gone out there, even though every year I made an attempt to plant vegetables and “keep it up” as she wanted me to do.
I just didn’t want to. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t stay in the past, but I didn’t want to go forward either.
I have been making changes in the house for a long time, though. Keeping much the same, but also making the space “mine.”
The garden was different. It felt “hers” more than “ours.” I wanted to keep that part of her life going, as it had been going. Wanted the garden to be a place where I could go and feel like, yes, this is the way it was, except it never felt that way. It started to go to ruin.
Here is her blog post, June 1, 2010, called “Garden of Earthly Delights“:
I have a lovely garden which keeps me focused on the tangible world around me. Our adventures into gardening, with gates, mesh fences, and an expanding repertoire of produce as I enthusiastically grab seedlings from the shelves of our favourite garden centres – makes my heart sing. Dirt, in its most elemental nature, brings me down to earth.
About a week later, she wrote about Zen and racoons, mentioning mindfulness meditation, something which became much more important to us later. Discovering this today sent a shock through me.
On October 31, 2011, facing the full weight of her metastases, she called the garden an oasis:
This past summer, I was strong, and getting stronger. I was looking forward to the future, and planning, thinking, re-jigging, re-thinking. All done either in my backyard, an oasis of green leaf, small bug, and dappled sun or on that brilliantly sunny dock in Muskoka, cold pinot gris in my hand.
Fall – with its evident decay, messiness of leaves and darkening days makes me sad; as Kate Bush says, it make me feel like an old woman. This may be because for the second fall in a row, I am facing a large obstacle, a behemoth – like l am looking a thundering fast-descending twister straight in the face.
Prose like this makes me miss her so much.
I was going to write something today about making changes to the garden, about how that was hard, about how working in the garden brings me close to Kate, because we spent so much time there, so much time talking about what we would do, about how we were always making changes, and how I stopped making changes, and how I can’t allow myself to stop making changes. Because life is change. Life is process. And because if I stop making changes, then I stop living.
I was going to write something like that, and I was going to add some quotations from Kate, because she was often mentioning the garden and what it meant to her.
Then I found this:”Frogs die, human don’t” (January 4, 2012).
It’s a post she wrote while I was out of town at my uncle’s funeral. It includes her favorite photo. I don’t remember it. I don’t remember that being her favorite photo.
I don’t remember talking to her about death and dying, though I wanted to. It seemed to me that every time I did, she didn’t.
But this post has deep words on death, riffed from a Stephen Jenkinson interview:
So, how do we die? How do we live while dying? It seems that when we are dying, we do not have a narrative to follow – there is no construct with forms, and symbols, and models, and it is a time of as Jenkinson says, “wretched anxiety – and toxic fearfulness”. Very sad that this is so. And from my own perspective, very much the case. We are afraid of pain. I am afraid of pain. But, more so, I personally am more sad for my children. Because, eventually, they will not have me. But then, Jenkinson points out also we have the ability to live well while dying, perhaps providing as much of ourselves or more for the ones who do not die. (A distinction, this, those who die and those who do not die – as opposed to those who die vs those who are “left behind” – an assumption that the dead have left us, instead of perhaps, gone on another journey. I admit, it makes me happy to think of the people I might meet…somewhere else).
These words had me breathless.
Then I went to the comments, and I saw an exchange Kate had with a couple friends, mentioning a book by Pema Chodron. I went to the bookshelf and there it was: The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times:
We always have a choice, Pema Chödrön teaches: We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Here Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is.
This is exactly what I need right now. Changing the garden is not a problem, being afraid to change the garden was.
Thank you, KO. xo
Two more photos. One, the place as it was a couple of years before we bought it. The second, from today. Note the size of the trees beyond the back fence … and the blue pots.