I just completed listening to About This Life – Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez, one of my favorite authors. Replacing Memory, written in 1999 or earlier, was notably topical and I keep thinking about.
Lopez explores how photography – the act of capturing photos and the practice of looking at them later to invoke memory – affects first hand experiences and memories of those experiences. The topic of this essay is something I think about a lot. I spend my share of time browsing photo posts on social media, but it bothers me how many people seem to feels that experiences are not worthwhile unless they have been capturing on “film”. A while back, I starting limiting my social media posts to knitting-related shares because it gives me a sort of freedom. I take many photos (too many?), but my No Posting rule releases me from the burden of wanting affirmation of my daily activities and allows me to focus more on the present.
Earlier this year, my mom took photos of the most important event of my life – the birth of my baby. These photos were taken with the intention of being just for me. I wrote a journal entry about my experience shortly following the birth and then waited a month to look through the images. The photographs have stuck in my mind. My memories shifted to include a view from outside myself. I haven’t looked at my birth photos a second time but am glad to have them to return to if and when I am ready. For now, I want to recall the experience through my eyes and my hands and my ears.
Do you love to take photos every day? Only of important events? Rarely? Do you think taking and reviewing photographs improves or detracts from memory?
Island by Alistair MacLeod is a beautiful collection of short stories by Cape Breton, Nova Scotia‘s most beloved author. The unromantic lives of Cape Breton’s people are shown with simple, lyrical language.
The stories were written between 1968 and 1999, and touch on themes including family obligations, loss, tradition, and change. The land and sea of Cape Breton are essential characters in each. With each story, I reflected on my impressions of the places we had briefly visited on our loop of the Cabot Trail.
My only criticism is that all the stories have a similar tone as though there is one speaker, although they are each written as a different person. MacLeod tries but does not convincingly write from a child’s perspective, and he does not even try to write from any woman’s viewpoint. This tome took me over three months to make my way through as I usually took a break between stories, but it was worth all the library overdue fees.
Upon our return home from Nova Scotia, I finished The Nymph and the Lamp and began We Bought an Island (also published as We Keep a Light) by Evelyn M. Richardson. Part memoir, part almanac, this lovely read tells of the Richardson family’s life as light house keepers. In the 1920’s, Evelyn Richardson and her husband, Morrill, bought 600-acre Bon Portage Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia and worked as the island’s lighthouse keepers for 35 years. They lived a simple, challenging life there, homesteading as much as possible while raising three children. Evelyn tells about their life clearly and honestly through chapters arranged by topic rather than chronology. The book is a not a page turner, but I never found it boring either. One chapter per night satisfied me, and left me feeling positive. Some of Evelyn’s messages have stayed on my mind, including the fact that happiness is a often a choice. She said that she wrote the book in large part to show young couples living in isolated places how it is possible to be happy. I am grateful for her example even if I will never live in a place nearly as isolated as Bon Portage (she only left her island- population ranging between 2 and 6- a few times a year for 35 years and then only to visit family!) Evelyn did not want the same life as I, but I found it easy to relate to her. In large part, I think this was the importance of place in her life. She found her home on Bon Portage Island and never tired of it. She loved the fog and the weather, the plants and the animals. She was part of the natural community there. We are still looking for our home and hope to find it as surely as did Evelyn.
Sea Change by Frank Viva is a juvenile graphic novel, which I was not expecting when I went to pick it up from the library. It follows a tween who is sent to spend the summer with his great uncle in an isolated fishing village of Nova Scotia. Our protagonist is loath to go, which he makes clear with constant whiny, but of course a few days in his temporary home with his rough uncle and he starts to realize that his summer might not be so bad after all. A fun, quick visit into what it might be like to spend a summer far far from here.
Travelling by bicycle, G and I were, of course, limited in space. When everything must fit into panniers, you must be choosy. But a good book is always essential. I weighed my options (literally) and took with me The Nymph and the Lamp by Thomas Raddall.
This classic Canadian novel tells the tale of Isabel Jardin trying to make it in the rough years following World War One. It starts when unmarried Isabel is twenty-nine and working in the Halifax radio office. She is dreading her thirtieth birthday and depressingly wondering what life could possible have in store for a single woman. (Unfortunately, this feeling of hopelessness at being a single thirty-year-old woman still seems common.) Suddenly, Isabel meets Carney, the Morse code transmitter from isolated Sable Island. He is on a land side leave from his island (which is 100+ miles from mainland NS) for the first time in ten years. After two dates, Carney asks Isabel to marry him, and in a state of near hysteria, she agrees. Next thing she knows, she is a world away from all that is familiar. This book is a love story, but it is not a traditional romance. You may or may not find yourself routing for the central couple.
Raddall is a much-loved author in Nova Scotia, with a Provincial Park named in his honor, and for good reason. Isabel’s character development is flawed, but Nova Scotia’s character development is perfect. With each season’s passing, the changing landscape is described so beautifully and truly that I had to read each of these sections out-loud to G.
This book is also fascinating for anyone interested in Morse code, early radio, or maritime history. Raddall’s description of what happens when an SOS call goes out over the Atlantic had me so enraptured that I found myself tearing up from the suspense!
Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden is a modern story of a Cree community located in northern Ontario. The book is organized into chapters that are alternately narrated by Will Bird and his niece Annie. Will and Annie’s narrations travel between the present and the recent past, and between the woods of northern Ontario and streets of “southern” cities (Montreal, Toronto, NYC). They assemble one story like my family assembles a 1000-piece puzzle – the outside first, then working inward with growing intention. The characters in this book dealt with some of the same challenges as in Medicine Walk, including alcoholism, loss of family, racism, and guilt. However, their temperaments, and correspondingly the personalities of the books, are very different. The characters in Medicine Walk were taciturn. In this book they are talkative, sometimes even rambling. This is especially true of Annie, who has less of value to say and who’s adventure away from home involve frustratingly little personal growth. This book was not powerful, but it was thought-provoking and entertaining.
In preparation for G and my honeymoon, I am still reading books set in Canada. This April, I read three very different novels: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (Yellow Knife), Still Life by Louise Penny (near Montreal), and Medicine Walk (British Columbia).
Medicine Walk was my favorite. It was my favorite book that I have read in a long time. Medicine Walk is a beautiful, quiet, sad story focused on the lives of an indigenous father and son. The father is a lifetime alcohol and dead-beat dad. He made one good choice in his life – to give his son to an honorable man to raise. As his son is reaching adulthood at 16, the father is dying of liver failure. He reaches out after years away and asks his son to take him into the backcountry to die. On their journey into the forest, the father tells his painful life story. Wagamese is exceptional in his ability to show. I finished Medicine Walk over two weeks ago, and am still reflecting on alcoholism, PTSD, and acceptance of death.
In preparation for our honeymoon to Nova Scotia, I have decided to read at least one book each month book that is by a Canadian author and set in Canada. My January read was Bay of Desire by Farley Mowat.
In this book, Mowat, (in)famous Canadian story-teller, shared his experiences from visiting and then living in Newfoundland in the 1950’s. The sub-title of this book is “A Love Story”, and the description makes it sound like it will honor to Mowat’s wife Claire. The book does cover the way that Mowat (married with two young children at the time) met Claire and how they decided to be together. Because Mowat abandons his two sons – as in barely ever sees them through at least the next five years – to pursue this love affair, I was not able to embrace the relationship. I recognize that Claire was the true love of his life, but could not forget those sons. He also did not personally win me over because Farley claims to deeply understand Claire, but every time that he mentions her, it is in relation to what she cooked them for dinner or to a particularly strong show of emotion that she displayed when they encountered something strikingly beautiful or disturbingly sad. Isn’t there more to this woman?
This book is still well worth reading because the writing is excellent and because the true focus of the narrative is the life of Newfoundland outport communities. Without preaching, Mowat repeatedly shows examples of human short-sightedness destroying the very things that humans need to survive – specifically the forests and fisheries. This is a lesson to visit over and over again.