I wouldn’t live there if you paid me

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In 2015, the population of the Greater Toronto Area cracked 6 million people. That is more people than the whole of British Columbia and accounts for 29% of the total population of Canada. According to Statistics Canada, only 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. (I can’t wait to hear the update statistics coming out of our first real census since 2011.)

I am one of the 80% of Canadians who grew up and currently live in an urban area, which is why I am always bothered by children’s books that paint rural life as an idyllic paradise and city life as nasty, brutish and short.

Yes, yes, pros and cons for both choices exist, blah, blah, blah, but in the world of children’s literature, I come across proportionally more rural-based stories or read negative portrayals of cities and city life more often. Which brings me to the classic Aesop Fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.

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In the original tale, the city mouse scoffs at the country mouse’s simple meal and offers an invitation to the city. Upon his arrival in town, the country mouse tastes rich food but is almost killed by dogs while eating and decides he was better off with his simple, safe life in the country and returns home. Most modern adaptations take a to-each-his-own approach, but an undercurrent of rural superiority still remains.

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The music is too loud in the city

 

In the beautifully illustrated version by Helen Ward, the only hint of difficulty to rural living is “the aching hunger of a long, cold winter” and the cons of the city outweigh the pros. The story in Mousetropolis by R. Gregory Christie is more balanced but the illustrations don’t always support the city’s advantages. Jan Brett’s take is the most even of the ones that I’ve read, and the illustrations, with detailed, supporting stories in the margins of the page, complement the main narrative well without making a judgement on the mice’s choices.

I doubt my kids notice these distinctions overtly, my five year old prefers one of the more traditional tellings because he finds it funnier, but as city dwellers we have a surprisingly difficult time finding books reflecting our kids’ experiences. My three year old loves Toronto ABC by Paul Covello because he visits the places mentioned in the book. Some of the great ones we’ve come across in recent years include Symphony City by Amy Martin and Sidewalk Flowers by JonAron Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith. As the kids get older, we make a bigger effort to find overtly pro-urban stories, which portray cities not as places to overcome but places full of wonder, experience, and growth – just like the city we call home.

 

Supplementary reading

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I should be reading books from my 50 Book Challenge list. I’m far enough behind already that I shouldn’t even be looking at other book covers let alone cracking the spines. But I couldn’t help myself when I heard about the release of The Name Therapist by Duana Taha.

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Taha is a television screenwriter and a contributor to the gossip site Lainey Gossip, which is how I first came across her work. She writes a column called Duana Names in which she offers, you guessed it, naming advice to expecting parents (and the occasional pet owner). The column is equal parts informing, amusing, and reassuring as she digs into a vast personal bank of names to suggest or, more often than not, tell people they aren’t going too far by picking a name not familiar to most ears. (Although, her column talking a soon-to-be mother of twins out of naming her son Kale is what put her in my must-read pile.)

So I’m sure you can understand why I jumped at the chance to read Taha’s book. With a name like Bryony, I’m often the one holding the “Friend” mug while everyone else has a personalized cup from which to sip their morning coffee, and I’ve written about my name and the novel from which it came before. But, now, I had the chance to read the experiences of another unusually named child.

For those of you familiar with Taha’s column, this book will feel like a deep dive into the topics and issues she only gets to briefly discuss there. For the uninitiated name nerds, you are missing out, as you will learn when you read this book.

The Name Therapist is partly a name memoir, but she uses her own experiences and “name pain” from having an unusual name as a starting point to discuss the stories behind how we name our children; living in a multicultural naming playground; naming trends, influences, stereotypes, and nightmares; and if we are defined by the name we have no say in choosing.

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Just like in her column, Taha’s absolute delight in talking about names is evident. She makes no apologies for her name obsession, more frequently wondering why no one else cares about names with the same intensity. Her writing, while informative and candid, is also light and quickly paced, which may be the only draw back as I wished she could have spent a more time fleshing out some topics such as the white-washing of non-European names or, on the other side, the trendiness of some cultural names to the exclusion of others (especially in light of increasing discussions of cultural appropriation).

Still, I was hooked in Chapter 2, Where Do Duanas Come From? when she names – first and middle – two people, just based on the time they were born, and I know people with those names! I wonder if she is asked to use that skill as a party trick? Come on, Duana, 20 questions and then guess his name. Plus the conversations she has with unevenly named siblings or the bit about Mormon names (I had no idea!) – the section on the name Jennifer alone is worth the read. Taha leads you through all the things you never realized if you have a name easily found on key chains and coffee mugs or has you nodding your head and saying “yes!” if you either carry a unique moniker or have kept a name diary since childhood.

And, while my name never came up, I won’t hold that against her. I’d like to keep Bryony out of the top 100 names anyway.

All I learned in my son’s junior kindergarten

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My oldest son is reaching the end of his first year of school. We knew sending him to junior kindergarten would be a big change. He had never been in daycare and only interacted with kids at a community playtime or when visiting his cousins. I admit, we were a little nervous about what he would bring home, but for the most part, our fears have been unfounded. He has forged friendships, completed inquiries on topics that engaged his mind, and learned more about the world around him. He loves his teachers and regularly tells us how much he loves school. Kindergarten success!

The main downside of his new experiences has been the increasing gender division throughout the year. In September, his most common afterschool playmate was a girl from his class. For Halloween, he dressed as Julie Andrews. But by January, he no longer played with the girls in his class, and we began to hear about girl colours and boy colours, stories for girls and stories for boys.

Whenever the topic comes up, we try to have an age-appropriate conversation and encourage him to think about why he believes some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Trying to argue about every gender stereotype is a losing battle, so giving him the skills to think critically is our real aim. Watching him grow and figure things out for himself is a joy.

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But this school year just reminded me to watch my gender expectations as well. As the mother of two boys, I lamented for a while about not having a girl to share with all the things I loved growing up, especially books and stories.

Since the beginning of May, my son and I have read Charlotte’s Web twice. I wasn’t sure he would be interested. I don’t remember my older brothers reading this book, though I loved it, and the main human protagonist is an 8-year-old girl. I promised him that we would read the first chapter and if he wasn’t interested we could set it aside. We read four chapters the first night, and the moment we finished the book, he asked if we could read it again. And, in the wonderful coincidences of life, a spider built a web outside his bedroom window, so he named it Charlotte, after his favourite character.

With the success of reading Charlotte’s Web, I’m beginning to get excited about sharing all the other books I loved as a child, without worrying about if it is a girl book or a boy book. I can’t wait to introduce him to Anne of Green Gables or Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A good story is just a good story.

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A sanctuary for doubt

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Doubt has an uncomfortable place in faith. We’re not supposed to doubt, not supposed to question the ideas and stories that make up the foundation of our faith. But doubt is one of those sensations that, even as we try to push it down or run away from it, bubbles up until we can’t avoid what is bothering us anymore.

Fortunately for us, writer Rachel Held Evans is comfortable discussing her discomfort. In her third book, Searching for Sunday, Evans writes about feeling out of place in her faith community. The book is not so much about a crisis of faith but a crisis of community. Not of believing you know everything but of wanting to find people you can feel comfortable not knowing everything with.

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As Evans’ faith evolved, from easy acceptance to conflicting doubt, she found that her home church no longer had a place in which she could question freely or live out her faith. She and her husband found themselves staying at home more often than not on Sunday mornings, trying to disengage quietly from the church community in which she had grown up. Using the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation) as guideposts, Evans tells the journey they took from the church home they outgrew, to an experience in church planting, to finding hope and welcome in a new Christian community.

Each section begins with a more prosaic rumination on the sacrament, focusing on something tangible (water, ash, hands, bread, breath, oil, crowns) as a way into the topic. The introductions serve as a reminder of the ways in which we try to comprehend the vastness of God, while the chapters share her personal experiences of those touchstones. Her writing is sprinkled with humour that both informs and disarms, bringing familiarity and reassurance to the lonely experience of doubt.

Reading Searching for Sunday made me feel less alone. Growing up and away from the bedrock community of faith I had been raised in made the whole world seem unsure, and the place I would usually turn to for comfort now felt restricting.

Thankfully, like Evans, I have the support of my husband. Our family is a blended family, by which I mean that my husband and I were raised in different Christian faith environments. I come from a long line of Christian Reformed believers: Dutch, Protestant, reserved. My husband was raised in a Polish Catholic community: ritualistic, traditional, nostalgic.

Growing up, I never really thought about how Christians could be different. I thought that except for a few minor theological divergences, like transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ), the differences were more a matter of style than substance. Never mind that a difference of opinion about transubstantiation would get me burned at the stake during the Reformation, to me, all of that was behind us. You do you, Catholics, and I’ll do me. Christian is Christian.

It wasn’t until I actually had to interact with people of different backgrounds that I saw how profoundly my background impacted my faith. Building a faith life within our family is an ongoing project. When we first met in university, my husband referred to himself as a recovering Catholic and joked that I was a closeted Agnostic. I laughed but the idea that I was not committed to my faith, as I’d always believed in, made me uncomfortable, nervous. I began to notice the ways in which my church community no longer lined up with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of faith. I began to doubt. And my doubt turned to searching.

We were married in a Christian Reformed church by my family minister, and every moment was perfect, but after the wedding we moved to a different city, and we began to look for a church. We finally settled on the Catholic cathedral downtown. The service started at noon, so we could sleep in, enjoy CBC News: Sunday, and still make it on time. The liturgy took a while for me to get used to, but the sermons always gave me something to think about. I also got to hear the Alleluia Chorus sung by a professional choir for the first time. A perk of having a Bishop preach in your church at Easter, I guess.

Music would play a huge role in choosing our next church home after we moved once again. We spent over a year looking, with many listless Sundays spent at home. We discovered our current church through a rock band we both enjoy (The Low Anthem, in case you were wondering). They were using our church as a venue. We didn’t end up going to the show, but after perusing the church’s website we decided to give it a chance. We haven’t looked back.

Splitting the difference on our religious backgrounds, we started attending an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The choir is phenomenal, the clergy engaging and challenging, the community supportive. I feel at home in our church for a lot of reasons. In it, we get to live our faith by praising God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, writing to the imprisoned, and asking questions. There is room for doubt in the pews and chairs of the sanctuary. For confusion and anger and hurt. Without brushing away those emotions, but embracing them. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.

I may have doubts when I enter our church, but I always leave with a bit more hope. Perhaps that is what I search for each Sunday – hope.

Since the beginning of the year, our church has sent forth two priests to other ministry opportunities: one, a recently ordained minister; the other, the head priest for the last 15 years. As we wished them well, the whole congregation gathered around them and sang a beautiful song that I have a difficult time finishing without choking up. As anyone who has been part of a choir, or even just sang with the crowd at a concert, can attest, there is something special about joining a group of voices together. In these two lines, I feel unburdened from my fears and doubts and remember there is still hope.

Be not afraid, my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Be not afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised to always be near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast Reader, Slow Writer

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Getting caught up in a good book is easy enough to do, especially in the winter. What’s not to love about curling up with a hot drink and a strong story and watch the cold nights pass by.

While work generally leaves me little time to read in the winter, this year I did a pretty good job of keeping up with my reading. I think being part of a 50 Book Challenge really helped, and, though I’m a little behind schedule, I’ve managed to not completely lose momentum.

Except when it comes to writing.

Reading is easy. Enjoyable. Cozy. Writing, however, is work. Most days it requires great effort to put words to page. The struggle is real. I would much rather sit and enjoy quietly turning the pages than curse-out a blank page or delete and retype a sentence that just won’t come together.

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So while I’ve read the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I haven’t been writing about them. I’m trying to get caught up now. Trying to remember the books I finished reading weeks ago and write something thoughtful about the stories and my experience of them. But if I thought it was difficult when the stories were fresh in my mind, putting off writing about them has not done me any favours.

I am a huge procrastinator when I have the chance. A habit only matched by my fiery determination once I set myself to a task.

I have three books to write blog posts for:

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

And three books to read:

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The challenge for me this month is to write as much as I read. I’m trying to take it one book at a time and remind myself that while I did organize the books by month, the point is to read them all not read them as a prescribed time, so I’d like to have all the posts caught up by April. I really enjoyed all the books I’ve read. This was the first time I’ve read Alice Munro and the series of stories—wait, I’m going to save it for the blog post.

Happy reading (and writing!)

BJL

I am Seaweed

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As I read more of the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I find I am responding to them personally instead of intellectually. By which I mean, my reading feels like listening, like someone is telling me their story and I am there not to judge but just to listen.

I certainly felt that way as I read Arnold’s story in Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards. This is the first of seven of his novels I will be reading as part of my 50 Book Challenge (and Richards’ fourth novel overall) and, as I’ve read his books, I’ve developed the suspicion that I am one of the people he is chastising for their good intentions. I’ve read and not really understood why his characters make the decisions, poor decisions in my mind, they do. I’ve enjoyed the stories he tells, the craft of his writing, but the characters have been largely unlikeable. I have, as Richards has accused his critics, mistaken nice for good.

But, with Road to the Stilt House, I felt like I was starting to understand Richards’ point.

20160125_120015Stilt House tells the story of Arnold and his family. They are extremely poor. They fight. Randy, his younger brother, has just returned from being placed in foster care. His mother is ill. Her boyfriend and his mother poke and prod for sport. They are unlikeable and difficult and yet to pass judgement on them would only feed the source of their struggle.

The novel is one of Richards darkest but I found it made his point more clearly, largely due to the shifting narrative viewpoints from first and third person: being able to see inside Arnold’s head opens up a lot of understanding not because things are spelled out for the reader but because his feelings behind his actions are more evident.

Also, the personal toll of Arnold’s life – events outside of his control, illness, and universal sorrows – help retain empathy for him when he spits harsh words and lashes out at those around him. And they are not excuses for his behaviour; they are the roots of understanding him. His depression, ignored by those meant to help his family and used as a weapon by those within his family, holds him in place.

One scene in particular stands out. Throughout the book, Arnold deals with bad teeth. They are rotting and falling out. They have cut his mouth and his gums bleed. Finally, he works up the courage to ask the social worker assigned to his family to help him get his teeth fixed. She is embarrassed and asked why he didn’t go to the dentist years ago. I felt such rage toward her for asking that question. To punish him instead of helping. She waves it off by saying they cut back on teeth and he makes light of the problem but he is deeply hurt by the exchange:

And now Seaweed too. Even Seaweed was asking her favours!
He went upstairs. He sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. His chest shook and shuddered.

He refers to himself in the third person by his nickname, which only highlights his perception of worthlessness, as a thing instead of a person, and hates himself for asking her to do her job. This woman is meant to help him and instead she increases his shame, his sense of powerlessness, his sense of being stuck. That kind of systemic failing is what I believe Richards’ is trying to impart. The problem isn’t Arnold, it is those who would judge him for something over which he has no control, including the reader.

While Arnold does eventually get new teeth, this, of course, does not repair all the damage in his life. It is a cosmetic fix that does nothing alter the circumstances that led him to need them in the first place.

By the end of the novel, Arnold loses control over his life and, in fact, loses his life. His loss of control is reflected in the novel’s structure as his cousin finishes telling Arnold’s story for the last 28 pages.

I can only hope that Richards, as he frequently does in his novels, picks up Arnold’s tale and fills in the how and why of the end of his life. To be left as he was at the end of Road to the Stilt House is an unfair conclusion to his life. But perhaps that is also point. That the structures in place that contributed to his end are the same that will brush his life and death aside as inevitable. That we shouldn’t care or look too closely at Arnold’s death.

After all, it was just Seaweed.

And now a word from DAR

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I’m working on my post for David Adams Richards’ Road to the Stilt House and came across an interview with him from 1990. At this time, he had five novels published, the last being the Governor General’s Award winning Nights Below Station Street, and was soon to release Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace.

Well worth the read even if you aren’t familiar with Richards’ work as he discusses the book trade in Canada, a writer’s relationship with academia and critics, and the lives of his characters.

The interview is conducted by Kathleen Scherf for the journal Studies in Canadian Literature. Here is a little quote to pique your interest:

KS Speaking of shaping Canadian literature, what about the debate over government funding of the arts: does it encourage mediocrity, or provide for excellence? Is it possible to be a writer in Canada and to make a living without government funding?

DAR No. If no one got funding, then there might be two writers in Canada: Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. And as respected as these people are, I’d still like to see some others write, so government funding is necessary. And sure there’s going to be grants given at the wrong times perhaps for the wrong reasons to the wrong people, but there are going to be grants given to other people who certainly can use them and who will write fine work.

KS Some people make money by writing for film and television.

DAR Yah, well, I wrote a film script, but when it was finally produced it wasn’t very much like the film script I wrote, so I won’t even talk about it, but I did a CBC script for Nights Below Station Street.

KS Is there an art to writing television?

DAR Well, it’s the art of getting along with people because it’s so communal, and I’ve never been able to do that.

The link is below. Hope you enjoy!

Interview with David Adams Richards