Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.

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Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection

I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy not as a political explanation of why a crazy man is in the White House, or why a generation of white men is unemployed and opioid addicted – although it is both – but as a personal reflection.

At the age of 5 in 1941, having just moved to a small town 30 miles from the ‘hills’ I came from, I screamed, “Runaway horse, runaway horse”. My cries led to much merriment. It was the first time I had seen a horse-drawn van. When I was 12, a city classmate asked me why I talked and walked funny? I thought my difference was safely hidden inside. I set about immediately losing my hill twang and my bouncy stride in desperation to ‘pass’. The drama society helped immeasurably, although in my 6th decade, I still imagined I would drop the crystal wine glass, and somehow shatter it on the deep pile of the Persian carpet. I knew how to behave in a five star hotel, but I wanted the staff to stop grovelling.

You can take the girl out of the hills, but even in her old age, you can’t take the hills out of the girl.

J.D. Vance poses the question: how can a hillbilly develop the confidence to go to Yale, become a lawyer and write a best seller. He has always been J dot D dot, but he was born James David Bowman. After his father allowed his mother’s third husband to adopt him, he became James Donald Hamel. After that his mother, a trained nurse, went through a string of men, a lot of alcohol and a good many drugs including heroin. J.D. was saved by his maternal grandparents, the Vance’s, Mamaw and Papaw. Their house near his mother’s was a refuge.

The Vance’s had left the holler in Jackson, Kentucky when Mamaw got pregnant at 13. Papaw was then 16. They went north. She lost that child, but Papaw got a job at the Armco. He enjoyed a drink or two with the other Kentuckian immigrants.Whole families moved up to Middletown at Armco’s encouragement. Out of the coal mines into the steel mill. Mamaw eventually kicked her drunken husband out, but he had reformed by the time J.D. needed him. It was true even in her old age, Mamaw could still take down grown men and did so whenever necessary.

My family came from a northern branch of Appalachia in Quebec, and twanged and drawled more New England than southern. When the war ended in 1945, my 4H father lost his job to a returning  veteran. He moved us in a borrowed gravel truck to Ontario. My seat was in the gravel bed wedged among the furniture under a moldy tarp . I was armed with a package of Asper gum to quell motion sickness and a flashlight to be used only in emergency. My companion was a 14-yr-old Ontario boy, Daddy’s moving assistant. In those days, before super highways, the distance measured 800 miles and took all night and well into the next day. I remember only the first hour. The banging and bumping of shifting furniture and the steel gravel bed, hitting the tarp, trying not to throw up or panic is mercifully all but forgotten. The gum and the game of shadow animals had lost their effectiveness. I was convinced that my parents and two little sisters were forever gone. A gravel truck bed doesn’t access the cab’s window. The gravel never has to pee.

Thus we arrived in the much more advanced province of Ontario, Canada, in true hillbilly fashion, and finally ate sandwiches for breakfast on the grass at the side of the road.

We ended up eventually in the heavy industry town of Hamilton. Three of my mother’s five brothers arrived in due course to get jobs at Stelco and turn into alcoholics. My father never needed any help achieving an altered state. He could turn on a dime, faster than we could duck and run.

Violent, alcoholic, check and check, but did we have the Kentucky code of loyalty to family. I don’t think so. J.D. got in early, clobbering boys who said as little as “Yo Mama.” If anybody needed clobbering around me, well – I was the oldest, girl or not, and my weapon was mainly a loud, nasty voice. Once, all four female family members jumped on his back and took down our father as he whipped the smallest Then hurled his belt into a hay field. By the time he found it, he was sweating and not in the mood anymore. I want to say he was giggling, and perhaps he was, but my father’s giggle was just another danger sign.

In short, our family home reverberated with loud verbal and physical violence as did Vance’s home with its serial father figures – he said living with his mother and one ‘Matt’ was like witnessing the end of the world- as did the homes of hillbillies in general.

Vance’s grandparents still had strong ties to Jackson KY which was only three hours away and they visited often reinforcing the values of family loyalty, hard work and hard play.

As a 9-yr-old, I was convinced we could never go back to the hill. I would never again see the great aunt who had taught me to love Jesus. She had also helped me become a friend of an older cousin. His mother was ‘the teacher’ at the one-room school, and he was going to university himself. Never again see the ‘rich” and educated woman across the street I had befriended when I was five.

My mother grieved as though she could never go back. On the hill, she had had all of the women she had known since childhood, no matter how annoying, as backup. In the small town, she had had her cousin from the hills at the other end of our rented triplex. Now she had no one and she lost her mind. She locked me in a trunk. If not for my 3-yr-old sister, I would have stayed there until my father came home from the gravel pit in Orangeville the next weekend.

Still I did well in school. I was determined to. It made my father proud.

Vance was not such a good student. It was hard for him to find a quiet refuge to study, except at his grandparents. Fortunately, my father worked two jobs. After supper, I could count on the time until midnight to quietly study.

As well as his more or less stable grandparents, J.D. had his Uncle Jimmy Blanton who flew him out to visit him in Napa Valley. These visits and trips with his grandparents expanded his possibilities. When J.D. graduated from high school, he knew he was absolutely not ready for college. He joined the marines. In three years, including a stint in Iraq, he learned an altogether different code of living – disciplined, orderly, self-controlled,   He came back to do three college years in two, and to get admission to Yale law school. He credits one of his professors for mentoring and guiding him. And most of all the woman he fell in love with and married.

The boy I fell in love with came from working class Yorkshire, England, but his mother worked as a secretary in a law office and was a terrible snob. I was way beneath her son, but caving in to the inevitable, she took up my education, lending me books I hadn’t found in libraries, introducing me to English eating, gin, sherry and trifles. Then I escaped my violent home by insisting on living on the university campus. There the dean of women and all the middle-class girls continued my training in social niceties. I even ended pouring the tea at one of our white gloved afternoons. The manager of the retail department store which had given me money for tuition, was fond of asking me to pour tea for his guests. Much to my humiliation, for I had to sit still while he praised for 5 minutes. Hillbillies don’t cowtow.

The coal mines in Kentucky shut down. Armco and Stelco went steadily downhill as car manufacturing turned from solid steel to steel frame and plastic. My mother, who had worked in an aluminum plant, and the two uncles who stuck it out in steel, died young of cancer. My father stayed on as a mechanic at Ford, Oakville until he retired.

The three girls in my family earned degrees and had careers. Our dyslexic brother got his education on the road -Europe, India, Afghanistan, Turkey. He married a Belgian French girl and made a career in film and antiques. He never in his life borrowed money until a few months ago. In the 3rd and 4th generation, most have college degrees and all have jobs, although one is caught up in the gig industry. Economic downturns have left some of us the worse for wear. I no longer own my home, for example, but I am constantly surprised that we didn’t end up homeless addicts considering our impoverished and abusive beginning.

J.D. Vance’s book is called Hillbilly Elegy, a song of lamentation for the dead. In this case a whole class of people, without cohesion or identity. Gone. The hillbillies had valued family loyalty, hard work, God and the American Dream. They moved north in large part to give their children a better future, as our father did. When industry failed and they couldn’t get work, they continued to pay lip service to industriousness, even though they never worked a day in their lives. Vance says they practice avoidance and wishful thinking, living on welfare, addicts and alcoholics, like his own mother and her string of boy friends.

Vance regrets that.

Our hill culture has been assimilated. We live in Ontario, California, Belgium and Boston. The hill itself is nearly depopulated. The fields, so laboriously cleared, are going back to trees -plantations and wild woods. I keep a picture of our mountain on my computer. I do not think I will see it with my own eyes again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.

It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.

I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.

Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”

Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.

I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.

I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.

Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.

The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.

The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.

Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?

The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.

Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.

He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…

I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.

Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)

Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.

So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.

Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.

 

 

 

Kindle and the Red Top-Down (The Hawk flies again)

So the red top-down went missing. It wasn’t as if I could call the police. Not that I had left the keys in the ignition. The trouble was it was an imaginary 1963 red MGB. I found it  myself in the word document titled Hour of the Hawk v.8 for Vellum, put it back where it belonged between Chpt. 4 “Too Many Kids” and “The Sitter” which had got promoted to Chpt. 5. O.K. done!

But no!!! One hundred and four people had already downloaded my mystery Hour of the Hawk. (joycehowe.com) Without that clue-filled chapter, they wouldn’t understand the vision of the car at the bottom of the cliff. They wouldn’t understand why Xiao Yu ended up in a mental ward. They wouldn’t understand why Joanna Hunter’s life was in danger. They would think I was a terrible writer or that they were stupid.

Both J. and M. went for the latter. Thank God, C. who had listened to me talking about the plot, said, “Do you describe the flood?” OMG. Of course I do. Where was it?

That was Sunday, Dec. 31.

I don’t want you to think I did all this calmly and quietly. I could barely remember how to turn the computer on, and I wasted a good deal of time staring at the Kindle upload page, which I could not now comprehend. I felt as if I had never seen it before.

I shook of course. I had a dry mouth. My fingers blundered.

Well, that’s what got the red MGB lost in the first place. As I went through the Vellum version the umpteenth check, I saw the heading “Chapter Five”. It didn’t need to be there. Right below it was “5. The Red Top-Down”. I went to the tools and clicked “hide in book”. The tool did its job all too well. I didn’t. I didn’t do one more sweep as I should have.

At first, a KIndle employee, K, working late on Sun, New Year’s Eve, answered reassuringly, saying they would review the change and if it was a serious error, they would forward a link to buyers so they could get the chapter.

Serious, yes, serious! I shot back.

On New Year’s Day, I bought new versions for 5 friends I knew had downloaded it. Kindle wouldn’t let them “buy” the book twice. Somehow I managed to get myself and my sister, Georgia, the updated version. I e-mailed the chapter to the others.

The terrible thing was, except for C., they hadn’t missed it.

Then I waited. Not quietly. I sent Kindle ever more hysterical e-mails. A. responded with increasing empathy. Once she used the word ‘noble’. No, strictly venal. But it was up to K and the Star Chamber that would examine the book for quality.

It was a quantity problem, I replied.

Publishing a book, like giving birth, is a jarring experience. What was once a comforting inner presence is now out there in the world causing problems. I cried at any and all TV shows. Talk about baby blues.

Finally last night, I lost it. I wrote an e-mail lamenting my destroyed reputation and subsequent breakdown. I felt as if I were praying to an absent God. But still I was careful.  You don’t want to piss God off too much. Then I went to bed and read Fire and Fury – on KIndle.

This morning, dear heaven, I got an e-mail. I had passed the audition. Word would go out to all 104 readers telling them how to get a new version.

Vellum is a formatting program, recommended by Joanna Penn in her blog. “Why I changed from Scrivener to Vellum.” It formats your book in about 10 seconds in 8 different formats, including Print On Demand. It’s way too easy to use. See above.

Oh, my children used to call our green 1963 MGB the top-down.

 

Canadian Cold Front Moving Nowhere

Our cold water pipe froze. Water pipes are freezing across Canada. People are trying to thaw them with blow torches. Houses are catching fire. Fire hose water is freezing as it hits the air.

When I say “our”, I mean the residents of the 15 storey building I live in. Holy suddenly-cold-shower, Batman! Holy no-water at all!

“Can’t they prevent that?” my sister Georgia demands.

“Personally, I have never had any luck with preventing it,” I reply.

So, yes, I have had pipes freeze, but not in December, not at Christmas. The end of January, yes or the middle of a bad February. Not when my festive duds are lying ready for a freshly showered me.

I have a rule. Stay in until supplies run out. If the wind-chill is -30 C. (-22 F) make do. If it’s only -20 (-5 F) go for it. It’s -20 right now. I really do need to get to a store.

The wind is rattling my windows here on the 14th floor and moaning in under the door to the hall. I wear a woolen tuque when I go down for my newspaper. A heavy hoodie goes without saying.

One day last week, Toronto was colder than the North Pole. Ottawa, was the coldest capital city on earth that day. New Year’s Eve was basically cancelled, although some hardy soul lit the fireworks anyway.

Still never confuse weather with climate, as Georgia told me just now. She lives 3 lights west of me. We’ll get together again around Easter.

(I know I’m a softie. It gets down to -40C on the prairies. I put it down to history. Some of my ancestors came over to the Plymouth Colony on the Hopewell in 1634. The Mayflower arrived in 1621. I should be hardier. But I grew up in a farm house with one wood stove and snow drifts inside the windows.)

 

Excerpt from the beginning of Hour of the Hawk: joycehowe.com

The whole thing started at breakfast.Sitting at the table, I could see the cyclists on the bike path, and people walking their dogs. My laptop was lying to my left, waiting for me as I strip-mined the newspaper for information. It was the beginning of May. The maple trees lining the road had a green mist.

Spring north of Lake Ontario is a little taste of heaven. We sigh and let go of the winter scowls that warded off frostbite. We lift our faces to the long lost sun. For however brief an interlude, it is warm. It isn’t freezing like the Arctic or sweltering like a Florida bayou.

Son of a Trickster: Jared, a latter day Holden

Woodstock was over by the time school started in Sept 1969. I was a veteran of the high school wars, 7 yrs. of strife and skullduggery, and an assistant head of English. Even so, I was not prepared for the grade tens that year. They communicated with each by semaphore, weird hand signals and actual gibberish. They treated me as irrelevant noise, a distracting presence.

Then the sweetest little black haired girl reported to her parents that drugs were being sold at the school. The papers got hold of it. We were apparently the only school in the city where drugs were available. This neat little pixie, I finally realized, was stoned every day, as were all of her friends – 2/3rds of the class.

Sweetie soon discovered that she was outed, hoisted by her own petard. Somehow, I got back a reasonable sense of order.

Even so, how was I ever going to teach them Catcher in the Rye? Holden was you know, like the squarest!

In Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster, we find ourselves learning to love grade ten-er, 16-yr-old Jared, the Cookie Dude. His only social capital is his ability to bake and supply ‘edibles’. He uses butter and not the very best weed, but the cookies are ‘da bomb’.

What does he do with the income? He pays his father’s rent; otherwise his booted-off-welfare father and his pregnant step-sister would be out on the street.

His mother can’t know this because she will kill him. She’s already had a go at her previous boyfriend. Something about a nail gun. She’s handy with revolvers and long guns as well.

We are on the west coast of Canada, in northern British Columbia. The town and the Rez are almost one. Jared and his mother are Native. His maternal grandmother refuses to see him because she says he is the son of a trickster and not the no-welfare man his mother is separated from.

Jared is a kind boy who helps out his elderly neighbors -butchering a moose, for example, drinks beer and hard liquor, does every drug available, hangs out with party-ers at the beach and frequently has to get out of his bedroom, next to the laundry tub, to avoid his loving but homicidal mother.

Then a raven starts talking to him and says, ‘Jared, I AM your Father.’ Then things get weird. Apemen, otters, grizzly bears, singing fireflies casually materialize sometimes through the floor boards. Jarred rejects his mother’s explanation that he has magical abilities and should learn protective charms.

Meanwhile Jared, unlike Holden, has beautiful girls, who may or may not also have powers, turning up to join him in his sleeping bag.

I do hope that Eden Robinson has The Further Adventures of the Son of a Trickster up her sleeve.

Jared would have been fine to have in class. Stoned or not, he had good manners.

Winter Mind Games

It’ll soon be Christmas and New Years. I’ll meet family and friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s past the winter solstice (Dec. 21), now the days are getting longer. There’s more light. I’ll be all right.

It’s a new year. I’ll eat better, exercise more, read better books and get in touch with long lost friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of February. The worst of winter is over. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of March. It’s still deep winter. I may not be all right.

PS. Every time it snows, an unknown stranger cleans my car off in the parking lot. I’ll be all right

 

Who’s your Psychopomp?

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As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.

 

Should You Hunt a Doppleganger?: Redhill’s Bellevue Square

Trinity Bellwoods, the model for Bellevue Square

In Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, Jean Mason decides to track down her double/look-alike/doppleganger. One of the customers at her bookstore reports he has just seen Jean with shorter hair and in different clothes in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He reacts violently when she denies it, and, eventually is found hanging in his apartment. He’s not the only one who sees the double and ends up dead.

Jean sets out on a quest to find this other woman, who’s name is apparently Ingrid Fox, and who, it turns out, is a mystery writer.

I felt almost uniquely qualified to understand this book. (Not quite unique because my reading partner, Georgia, has the same sort of qualification.)

I can intentionally look at my image in a mirror, but if I inadvertently catch a glimpse of myself, I have to avert my eyes instantly because that’s not me I’m seeing. If I keep looking, I zone out or become dissociated. It’s as if the image is hypnotizing me. And, yes, I have had therapy. I have discovered hidden parts of me, particularly one – D, who led a life I didn’t remember. Not a very fun-filled one. A sober cult-ish life devoted to foretelling the future and trying to keep other cult-ish people out of trouble. With pretty much zero success! Knowing the future apparently does not change behavior.

Once I discovered D’s existence, I still had a long way to go before we got integrated enough that I stopped getting up in the middle of the night and putting on robes.

One thing I always knew was that I couldn’t just get rid of her. I had been assured that I was not psychotic -at great expense- but I always sensed that I could become mad if I tried to cut off D. or any of her lesser sisters.

Jean has a somewhat different problem, autoscopy. Something is wrong with her brain, somewhere between the temporal lobe and the ear. (There are several people with damaged brains in the story, oddly in the same area.) This disease causes sufferers to externalize their self-image.

In an effort to achieve integration (my interpretation), Jean begins neglecting her bookshop, her two sons and her ex-policeman (or actual police chief) husband Ian to search for Ingrid. She does this by sitting in a park, Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has been sighted. There she relates to the park’s habituées – eccentric, drug-addled, mad but lucid and just plain mad.

But she doesn’t find Ingrid. Not until the end of Part 1, when Katarina, who sells pupusas in Kensington Market and was the second person to report the doppleganger is shot. Jean is the main suspect. Only then does she spot Ingrid crossing the park. As she follows, Jean wonders if Ingrid is “the harbinger of her death”.

Then we discover Jean is actually a university lecturer who has vanished from her classes, and her husband, Ian, seems to have a problem with her owning a bookstore.

Things get weird. Jean has a mirror experience: she sees herself but she’s not in the room. While she gets closer to Ingrid -entering her home and making a gorilla sandwich for Ingrid’s daughter, and discovering Ingrid has a boo-boo in her head – she gets farther from herself. Finally, she ends up in a hospital bed, coming out of unconsciousness.

My reading partner, Georgia, said initially that she must be too stupid to understand the book. Then as we talked, she hypothesized that everyone besides Jean was really Jean. Even Jimmie, whom she breaks out of CAMH, the mental health clinic, and who goes with her on a long hazardous flight to a northern woods. There he seems to abandon her and she finds herself more than ever lost.

Obviously, the book is about identity and fluid identity at that. Jean is following breadcrumbs in a quest for herself. Does she succeed? Maybe the next book in this three part series Modern Ghosts will tell us.

I am a little worried about Michael Redhill, considering what happens to Inge Ash Wolfe in the novel, since that is his pseudonym when he writes mysteries. Maybe he just integrated Inge and Michael and all will be well with one author identity.

Bellevue Square must mean something. It won the Giller prize of $100,000. Perhaps Georgia, D and I aren’t up to the job after all.

Full Disclosure: Initially, I published Never Tell, my e-memoir, under the pseudonym of Joyce Hood, as I did this blog. I have reverted to Joyce Howe, now that all the cult-ish types are either gone or toothless.

Coming soon to an Amazon near you Hour of the Hawk, a mystery by Joyce Howe