Curious about what memoir I’d recommend to an ADHD reader? Or what style of book I keep returning to, despite my sometimes short attention span? Or which audiobook made me laugh out loud, yet also cry, most recently?
You’ll find all these answers and more in my review of Brian Francis’ memoir Missed Connections, now up on the Plenitude Magazine blog:
ADHD, in my experience, is a condition not about the lack of focus, but a condition of loosely-controlled focus. Depending on the day, an ADHD brain might want to hyperfocus on one topic and take a deep-dive in the intricacies of moss, on another day, it might only be able to sustain focused reading for a single paragraph before it shifts and then shifts back. On another day, it might be happy to sit for an hour through a spiraling web of thoughts, that knit tighter and tighter through an essay reconstructing and reorganizing an event. This list has something for every kind of ADHD brain day.
Books to pick up, put down, and pick up again:
Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote
Coyote recounts life in the Yukon as a tomboy and gender-nonconforming human through short essays, stories, and a series of sentences-short stories which they refer to as “literary nachos”. While the stories work as a whole to depict a life and journey out of societal expectations and towards self-love, the book is built for a brain-day where focus in jumpy and skittered; even the short pieces offer something to ponder for the remainder of our most distracted day. And no guilt for finishing this set of nachos in one sitting.
2. The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
So much of our lives, for late-diagnosed ADHD adults, is grieving the shame we were given for how we operate in the world. The Book of Delights should be required reading post-diagnosis; to remind ourselves of joy, of how good it is to notice everything equally, to give equal attention to each item in our view, to be a person who recognizes all things wonderous. Bringing back the practice of joy, of “inattention” to ADHDers in context that’s allow us our joy again each day, to let our brains out and run away ahead of our bodies, our speech, our relationships, our culturally-driven/given duties, is to be our best selves, to find our brains at their best. Gays short essays on joy are moments, like how our brain moves when we let it, not necessarily connected but each moment worthy of attention, of noticing, until another joy pulls us elsewhere.
3. Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly
Described by non-adhders as “micro-memoirs”, a quick flip through the chapter titles appeals to the same jumpy-attention-span days. Written as a set of short observations on her life, Heating & Cooling is perfect for the ADHD reader who consistently forgets their meds. The slim volume is not intimidating and welcomes a reader to engage with and reflect on their own lives’ small moments. The font is large, the white space gracious, and each memoir has its own title; even the visual structure is ADHD friendly.
Books for hyperfocus days
4. The Crying Book by Heather Christle
The Crying Book is also an author’s hyperfocus on the history, sociology, and biomechanics of tears. Christle uses her own grief stories to coax us down the rabbit hole of what tears mean, why we cryand when, who gets to cry, how tears have been depicted in art, song, and science. This book is more than a collection of facts, yet it presents the facts in the way an ADHDer might mid-hyperfocus spell; all the facts spill out alongside our lives stories, as our world shifts mid-sentence as we reorganize our thinking and beliefs about the way the world works. Additionally, this book is about unmasking grief—something many late-diagnosed ADHDers and other neurodivergent folk go through—we look back at all the joy we stuffed down or all the heartbreak we felt buthid, just so we’d stay safe in a society not built for brains like ours. This book might be an example of what we could create, how we could live, when we are free to emotionally keep up with our ever-moving, ever-information-processing brains; we could hold hope, grief, joy, beauty, and heartbreak—logic and emotion held in tandem—a free ADHD brain leads to a constellatory life.
5. Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Straining to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filter of all the noise, to catch the music.”
As any ADHDer knows, we don’t give cursory glances, we can’t. Especially during an episode of hyperfocus. Every seeing, even if short, is purposeful, takes notes, files the information away for later. Like moss, a tiny moment might be an idea-in-waiting, like a moss spore waits for a raindrop to propel it elsewhere, to land it in some new place where it might tgrow. A fact in an ADHD brain functions the same way, goes dormant when the sun is directly on it but flourishes in a downpour of disparate ideas.
6. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
A chapterless book, this meets both the criteria for a hyperfocus and a put-down-pick-back-up-again book. Nelson guides the reader through a one-year period in her life as an expectant parent in snippets, short stories, and sometimes longer essays, that jump from fact to anecdote to theoretical discussion and back again. Described as “autotheory”, this is what happens when the subject of on hyperfocus (the story of Jason and the Argonauts) meets another hyperfocus (the self); Nelson seems to ask her self “Why do I think this? What has led me to experiencing the world in just this way?”. The ADHD reader gets pulled in and begins to ask themselves the same questions.
Books for Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)days
7. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
Many ADHDers struggle to manage their RSD in familial, romantic, and platonic relationships. We struggle to believe the places where we are loved are safe. Ford’s memoir tells of her journey to find these places and people where she can be her brilliant and flawed self. I cried throughout this book, so many relatable moments, while the author might not have ADHD or struggle with RSD, the vulnerability and care in her writing about her past self and family, remind everyone, including ourselves, deserves generosity and gentleness during times of struggle. It might bring up old grief, but it soothes it too.
8. Missed Connections by Brian Francis
A collection of letters responding to newspaper ads the author placed as a young gay man in the1980s looking for love, Missed Connections reminds us on the bad RSD days to take ourselves, and the search for love, a little less seriously. The book structure of letters and responses lends itself to an ADHD reader, and the content, knowing Francis’ other writing, is likely to pull at and heal our old and ever-fresh wounds but offer a balm of understanding that only those who’ve also grown up never feeling quite at home with themselves or their families can offer.
Essay Books for Changing Minds
9.Damaged Like Me by Kimberly Dark
“You do not wish for this to be a story that requires you to think of how your own memories have been shaped by social expectations, how social patterns are formed and how we accept and even expect certain terrible things to happen. You don’t want to think about where you are standing in the scenarios I’m offering.” (27). Part of living successfully with ADHD is recognizing the societal standards we never meet and finding ways to unravel the toxic behaviours we have learned that eventually fail us, leading to failed relationships, lost jobs, hobbies quit and messy homes. As Dark points out in the above quote, its unpleasant to recognize our own behaviours as the problem, but it is the only way we get better. ADHDers require a lot of reminders to change habits and thrive in situations and relationships where there is patience but also consistent calling-out of our toxicity. Damaged Like Me is a set of essays calling out whiteness, ableism, homophobia, fat-shaming, and ageism; it is a book for those already trying to change. It holds a place on the list because each essay stands alone, yet each is important to deconstructing the web of colonialism and productivity culture that continues to harm folks whose existence, race or brain or otherwise, fall outside the colonial norm.
10. Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity by Devon Price
While this selection might blur the line of books-not-about-ADHD (as ADHD falls under the neurodiverse banner), this book has been recommended by multiple autistic friends. ADHDers might use similar coping mechanisms to mask atypical behaviours that don’t fit societal norms. As part of my own journey towards understanding how my brain works, and how much work my brain does to survive in a culture not built for hyperfocus or focus-jumping, this book might give tools and language with which to better describe and survive my writing life.
I have been re-reading The Rapids by Susan Gillis for two months. I love this book, for how much a single poem can absolutely send me back to an earlier moment of joy, heartbreak, and healing.
Since my move to Nanaimo, I have missed long walks with friends. I have learned to tke myself for walks while talking to friends on the phone as a replacement. While never the same, physical closeness matters, the parallel experience of seeing and sharing something I see on my walk with someone walking their own path, is a precious and valuable way of connecting with another. This is the work of poetry. While the book and the words are in close physical proximity, the moment they were written about in is only available to us through select descriptions of the experience. This is how I read The Rapids by Susan Gillis. It’s a poetic guidebook to another place and person, an invitation to expand the metaphors we default to, to describe love, heartbreak and healing. The Rapids teaches you to be gracious with yourself as you process and learn to accept love and heartbreak, just as Gillis did with herself.
In this review I revisit where Gillis’ poems intersect with my reflections about my own journey. The Rapids is a unified set of poems, organized with care and intention, yet it remains accessible and inviting to my neurodivergent brain; I’ve taken two months to re-read the book because I keep returning, jumping around, seeing new connections and learning about myself through this reread. While my brain presents this review a bit piecemeal (highlighting portions of select poems) each poem and the collection as a whole, is worth and deservers the repeated five-hour hyper-focus sessions it has taken to write this review.
Quotes and poems are the copyright of Brick Books and Susan Gillis, 2012. Purchase your copy here or at your local bookstore.
I climbed in, with my kit of troubled origins.
The sun rose, the sky moved across it
And soon the field grasses became stark.
Nothing was hidden.
“How’s the review going?”
I pause before responding to my friend, she’s working on her an article about the songs of the Olive-sided Flycatcher. I don’t want to interrupt her headspace with the feelings The Rapids always gives me. “Ugh. My favourite books are almost always sad, or make me feel sad.”
Not with regret, but the nostalgic sadness of recognizing how much love requires of us. Susan Gillis carries me into, through, and out of, the relationships which have been the most beautiful, cost me the most, and given me the most in return. I’ve been re-reading The Rapids for two months. I’ve had to leave coffee shops and half-finished drinks because I can’t stomach the deep ache her work calls forth.
I try to write about this book as a collection, as a unit, complete. But it leaves me raw and unfinished, and each piece threads in a such a complex weave of feeling that as I attempt to untie it, I destroy it and am left with a pile of disparate threads shredded in my lap. I struggle to talk about the complex weft and weave of the tapestry which is her heart on the page, but invite you instead to follow how I read it this time, the computer keys a clumsy mimicking of a shuttle through silk, guessing at what exactly has made The Rapids a book I continually return—I remain overwhelmed by the beauty of the tapestry, and the skill of its weaver eludes me—aside from this I cannot explain it, only attempt to transcribe the feeling of it.
Neruda’s Rain, on first reread
It’s like this: open, the window admits more than I can bear.
Closed, it’s stifling.
Either way, I can’t rest.
Nothing in this room is gracious.
Nothing is rubbed to a loving shine, or dappled,
Everything’s nicked, marred, bent, chipped, torn,
It’s like comes not from the window but from floorboards,
At different points I feel both as if I’m going to vomit from hunger and cry from being so full of love. This collection, like all poetry, is for our past and present selves. Gillis calls me personally in to love my past self and be proud of all the work I’ve done to become today’s person. Yet today the past doesn’t shine, but the sun through the coffee shops picture window warms my arms.
Neruda’s Rain, second reread
…If I have left the world
It is because I am sick of the world,
Its treacherous flowering.
Neruda’s Rain, third reread
I reread Neruda’s Rain a month later, and know I am brighter for the many past heartbreaks. I love easier, with caution instead of abandon, letting the warm light in me meet the warm light in another.
There’s a balance to be found between keeping your light under a bushel and exposing a candle to the mist and wind of ocean. The ground within me, the dirt I am made of, keeps me steady—the place where I stand and feel secure on my own two feet is the place I can let my own light out, not reflect poorly only the light of another’s fading day. We can only be our own steady suns: we move across the sky and act upon on our worlds, rather than watching a sun come and go and wait for it to return again.
By this, I mean I’m talking about other people. They will always come and go, but we only experience the cold night of their leaving if we have abandoned the warmth of our own hearth/heart for another’s.
…The window admits more than I can bear.
Into the Storm
I feel most myself in the sunshine. I feel the most in the sun.
I have tried to write this review from home, but the oak tree is in full leaf and blocks the sun until evening, when its low enough to just peek over the hedge and under its branches for an hour before setting.
I left my hometown to a place of sunnier summers, warmer winters, yet set up home in the dark. An apartment all mine, but one I still feel the need to leave.
The Rapids is a book of movement, of obstacles, diversions, and progress.
I walked through a world slightly altered,
taking a new inventory
I think now what the neighbours called diligence,
the task chosen above all others,
was the garden dividing me.
Like some plants, love only grows large when we take chunks of it and plant it here and there, with this person and that one, in all the places we once called home. Love flourishes when we leave it where we planted it; we discover we can love those we once were in love with, we can love those who only tended to us, to those places where we grew askew, slanted or twisted, but still progressed towards and across our own horizons. Gillis writes about love this way, we can feel the churn of emotion, yet only see the surface of it foaming where the dissonance of her present crashes with the rocks of the unchangeable past.
If I have left my home
it is to watch the ships on the river,
try to learn something.
If I have moved away from the world
it is because I am helpless against its dazzlements.
If I have left the world
it is because I am sick of the world,
its treacherous flowering.
I love many people who love birds. I choose who to tell what I’ve seen on any given day, what sort of reaction I need—a prompt one, an excited one, an encouraging one. I saw a Lazuli Bunting last week. I tell a person adjacent to a person I love.
That’s not fair. I love the person I told, too. But I wonder how she’d respond if I said those words. If the adjacency of which we know each other has evolved yet to its own mutual care yet, if we both have learned to accept
a small kindness offered[…]
by a stranger, kindness I flinched from
like a cat who will not be stroked.
She loves the person I love. The one who loves birds. The one who I couldn’t figure out how to love myself well with, nor how to love them well without abandon. But this bird, a bright flight streaking across my vision backlit by a setting sun, shows me exactly how beautiful the love I had/have for them was, though they remain at the periphery of my vision, the song a distant call.
I would like to tell you about the [Bunting]
But a pang in my rib dissuades me.
How can I open my heart to you
When over and over you show me it’s too much—
That, or not enough?
(I have replaced the original word “Oriole” with Bunting in this poem, as it is the bird I saw on my own parallel walk.)
This is out of order, like how I still struggle to find and bloom in my own joy of this bird. Love expands, I believe, but not only outward, but inward too, towards the self.
“I love the tenacity that still survives in my eyes,”
And the flutter of air on skin that signals a change—
I return to this poem, to the blue bird briefly spotted, and allow the feelings to bloom up in myself. I love myself as a bird lover, as a person lover, as a self-loving person.
My coffee cup is empty. There are no free refills but at least there’s no line.
The sun shines on two women holding hands as they cross the street. I am sitting in the dark but the light still catches the line scrawled in the margin of my notebook: no one can cross the rapids without unnatural force.
I turn to the poem, to remember why this line and find
What distance this moving and unmoving mass
Sets between place and desire.
Its face is the one you could look at forever,
The one you know best and not at all.
Among the bellowing, bucking waves
And with this thought truncated, I cry a little. I am in love a little. I love these women in love, though I know nothing about it other than the sun, their palms, warming each other as they safely cross the street towards me.
Spring Pries at Me
This is the most me I’ve felt in a long time, the tears just behind my eyes as I remember that moment, just minutes ago. My coffee cup is still empty, but I am full up and about to spill over.
You’ll have to read it for yourself.
Stepping Outside the House in Late December
Every poem I remember about dusk reminds me I must choose to be my own day, my own sun.
The chill air that swept by when I opened the door
Is not what I thought.
It is the lit and humming in here
Rushing out of the frame.
My tracks begin to fill in,
Smudge into the shade that settles on things.
But I am allowed to leave soot where I’ve been burned, let the ash settle indistinguishable from the night as I take my light and leave.
Saint Jerome in the Wilderness
The animal pauses, roaring; the shaggy fur flares.
Half-hobbled by pain, it lunges on,
Tindered in the electrical charge of its progress.
The sun needs more time to burn the clouds off, to lift the fog. It hops between cloud and tree, and me and all my notebooks are in the shade. One third of the way into the book and my heart hobbles on, under the weight it feels of what it does not have.
The two women I didn’t see enter the coffee shop, leave. Cold drinks in their once co-warmed hands.
I know I have more work to do, but I love my loving heart, even as it hurts. Even as the remembering is always so close to the surface and the tension wobbles, threatening, release, begging for another drop or two, for a curious person to poke its shining surface and spill over.
Who’s mess would it be this time to clean up? There’s no sliver to be pulled out, but I’m trying to neither turn away / nor […] call out for anything. I am trying to love myself even as I spill out, again, all this love I could be, could give, if I believed loving those who are not around to accept it is still a worthy vocation.
What can I do but accept this is how I am built; I am made to and for love. I am of love. Aren’t we all?
There is no training for love, only love.
The man waits, then excises the thorn.
I skip many dog-eared pages and scrawled notes, to find another marginal penned note: “extant. We are most aware of ourselves, how we exist, when we struggle to breathe.”
A large black fly crawls across my laptop and I am tempted to close it in. But it too has a soft body. It changes direction, seeking the warm air of the fan exhaust. My fingers are cold, I am still on the brink, and The Rapids is about knowing we exist because and while we are so overwhelmed and only in that state of focus, do we find our way through.
A river guide once told me that while he knows where all the rocks are, the water and weather mean he gets better at maneuvering through the rapids, but every trip requires vigilance and caution. Overconfidence causes injury.
I want to share love again. I think I’ll be better at it this time. Cautious still, but I am a bit more aware of the rapid-causing rocks and how to maneuver around them.
I find my best work is done
At higher elevations, where even breathing
Is a chore, the air so thin
It might slip away between acts.
A woman walks in and suddenly I’m miles above sea level. I cuff my jeans but don’t take my outstretched foot off the chair beside me. She sits one table away with people who I hope are her family; I hope it is her mother who wears the rainbow beaded necklaces, her sister who texts beside her.
Saint Jerome in His Study
The problem of living by the water and not knowing how to swim is the impulse to walk off the edge of the pier. Rivers are bridged and railed, but the ocean is always open, somewhere. The ocean, even boxed between a continent and island, resists control and invites the last ultimate act of control for those who feel they have none elsewhere.
This scary part of me existed quietly before, but it rages now, the desire to be myself and loved feels impossible some days. Some days are rocky and I feel like I’m dying—what is dying is only the expectation of others. It is the bloodletting of others’ me.
Maybe the reason I cannot swim is the weight of all the other me’s I still bear. I still misread this poem:
Me: Rain-light / pours in but not the light
Gillis: Rain-light / pours in but not the rain itself
This matters. This is a matter of headspace.
I search for my own mattering as matter not memory.
What does it mean
to be wild? His gaze is drawn past the lion
to a corner of the room we aren’t shown.
I decide to pack up and walk home. I’ll spill over now. Wild. Unseen. I love. I matter. My material being matters; it is the only tool I have with which to write, speak, and share about love.
Still Standing in Front of the Door
A friend texts me today about discovering self love and dialectical thinking: human, not good, not bad, just alive and therefore worth loving. We spent last Christmas crying together over the endings of love, or something like an ending, a shift, a thing once set but knocked away:
Concrete stays damp for days after rain,
Carries the resin of weather in its pores.
And history is no different: it sets,
Then somebody knocks away the forms.
The back and forth of processing and pain over the past six months by text and phone call is the work of chipping away a form from a set block. We’ve done the work to recognize how we’ve got to be this shape, and are loving ourselves and each other in this particular shape as we seek a chisel to define and refine another for ourselves.
We can be the somebody who knocks away our own forms.
View at Dusk
I’ve slept and woken in a small room at the edge of this transition,
Clarified by an estuarial roar—
Except for the river, everything races dusk
To the point beyond the bridge
Where the sun, shrunk to a speck, funnels
Itself, siphoning us of form,
The western sky agleam, flocked
With shapes of what we were
And what we will become.
Love what we are, who we’ve been, and we’ll find ourselves someone brand new.
Re-reading The Rapids away from my favourite rivers and staring at the ocean, I am awash with empathy for Gillis, for myself, for my friends, and for my past partners. I have learned to love a little better for all the history shared between us.
I’ve been missing spruce forest lately. I cried as a friend walked me through her seven acre rainforest backyard, pointing out the salmonids in the stream, the wild orchids blooming through the moss, the woodpile where the lizards sunbathe, a Junco nest tucked into a pristine ornamental tree, and four abandoned eggs. I missed the dark and prickles of the forest I grew up with, but only when she told me her neighbors were logging and digging up their land did I feel close to home.
Sometimes our hometowns aren’t homey, and only the trees outside city limits beckon us back.
Gillian Wigmore is a poet from a little town just west of my own. I first read Soft Geography in the dark library stacks, hiding from the boredom of working a late-night library shift. I took down a display of local authors just a few weeks before, curious to see this small blue book of poems just metres away from its author, and me, both working for the same meager library wage. I didn’t know her then, didn’t really get to know her until after we both quit those jobs.
Reading Soft Geography then and now, is still an exercise of discovery. On the first read, I discovered a self I could become: a writer from Prince George; someone who loves the human body; someone brave and gentle. I discovered Gillian, the writer—well, maybe less the writer, and more the thinker. By this I mean only that a writer does so much more work than can just be seen by their published product; I didn’t actually get to know Gillian the writer, until we began to talk writing years later. But at the time, I thought I was getting to know her.
Getting to know Gillian through reading Soft Geography once is like getting to know a place by spending a week in it. You get the highlights: vets daughter, has kids, loves canoe trips and words like moonroof, gorge and spleen. You become entranced by the place you are invited to, but don’t stay long enough in for the air to make you sick. But I am lucky enough to know Jill the person when I reread Soft Geography for a sixth or seventh time.
I can hear my friend, Jill, saying Winterly, like how she might when I tag along on her evening dog walk. I can also imagine us both lamenting and laughing about our own stuckness—
when your view offered no answers to your salvaging
is that really up?
is this all that’s left?
do I want out?
from The Cave Caved In
As I read through Soft Geography the first time for this essay, I smile, thinking about her, missing her. But when I read it again, I read my own history.
I read of depression in a dark northern town. I read of survival and the desire to find somewhere to thrive. I read of a woman searching for a safe place to love and be loved in.
My therapist suggests I feel different in Nanaimo because it’s the first time I have a home that is truly my own, safe, and not subject to the whim of a landlord, free from noisy neighbors, where I don’t have to negotiate space with a partner, and am not stuck in the shame spiral of religion and closeted queerness. I am finally in a place where, when the depression storms subsides, when I’m done
[waiting] for the weather
to have no persona,
no desire to shred you
when “erosion is a horrible thought” and I am able to do more than
pee weekly behind a bush –
weary, but obviously living.
from Tent: No Shelter
Soft Geography is a reminder of where I’ve been, both physically and mentally. It reminds me of the baggage I’ll always carry with me, what I can’t leave behind just because I’ve left town. In Boots Jill writes about her veterinarian father washing down the remnants of his work the way we heal ourselves of our past, the way she writes about her own dark night of the soul.
he washes the inside with the water in the bucket,
he washes the outside by slopping vigorously,
he washes his hand and arms in the cooled water,
now red with blood and viscous with amniotic fluid.
he washes his boots at the end,
pours the half-litre onto his feet
place together so the water washes both of them;
green rubber emerges from the muck.
the steam rises.
he smiles to make lighter the night of a long ordeal
he looks kindly at you
dried to the lens of his glasses.
We heal only when we address the excised parts of ourselves, from top to bottom, understanding why the water is so murky. It is through making the mess we are able to move on from the muck. In Small Town Under a Canada Goose Flyway, I am reminded to love that once muck-covered “small town girl”, to
come home when it moves you, move with the current and come back by the way of that feeling in your arm when you sleep on it, follow the voices in your head, that goodbye goose goodbye song, the pull f the river in September, its scaly rib cage showing, breathe deep that full feeling of push and pull the salmon feeling spawning, through their used bodies upstream against the current – small girl, blue-eyed and born in the north, there’s no escaping the feeling of freedom coming upriver home, rock over rock, wind current, whorl, small town or not, the river moves you.
from Small Town Under a Canada Goose Flyway
“There’s no escaping the feeling of freedom coming upriver home”.
I’ve stared at this line long enough for my cat to eat, shit, and get the zoomies out of her system. (Jill would appreciate that order of events and delineation of time).
Though I haven’t gone back to my hometown yet since moving to Vancouver Island, I think Jill is right: I will feel a bit free returning to my hometown. I won’t be going there to be free necessarily, but I will be reminded that despite this conservative town and my religious upbringing, I found freedom and am safe enough to want to return to this town and its dark forests—both known to swallow and disappear people.
I am lucky to not be one of them. Not everyone lives long enough to find themselves able to leave and return free to this town. Not every fish survives the spawn journey to reach their hatch grounds. And those of us who do still end up battered with parts of our bodies missing. We have worked hard, and to maintain good mental health, must still
[…] work hard to attain hope
every day climbing out of the canyon bottom
like a pilgrim to your prayer flags
at the willowed edge
of the rock that rims your small house in.
you climb because your mind depends on it
from willow bracken to bright mountain view
your climb defines the morning,
the afternoon, the evening of your brain at peace,
from Canyon Home
I want to ask Jill how she reads Small Town Under a Canada Goose Flyway now, her daughter grown and off to school on the east coast. If she were to write a version of it today, would she change anything? I think I know Jill enough to know the sentiment would not change. Jill hopes for everyone to be who they are in their gut, to find a belly breathing metaphor of their own style.
And this is what I see as I pick up Soft Geography for a third read, a skim of my new favourite lines, of the images that stick in my head. Soft Geography is a record of Jill finding herself, breathing into who she is, where she’s from, and who she’s becoming. This is the beauty of poetry, memoir, and storytelling—the reader discovers themself by reading and relating to the brave and gentle words of writers who approach themselves, and their journeys, with kindness.
On the last in-person walk I had with Jill before I moved, she offered me an agate and said, “It’s good luck to give it away.” I didn’t take it. I didn’t want to lose her luck in the move. But I love the memory, and this reminder both of her and of the small hopes we squirrel away as budding writers discovering an author in the library stacks, as queer humans finding ourselves in a new group of people, as people passing on good luck even to those who leave us:
to pluck treasure from the ordinary, they are hopeful.
intent on a lucky find despite the miles of gravel muddied up with algae
they know the universe inside a rock held up to the evening sun
from Agate Hunters
I’ve been picking shells and sea glass off the beaches, thinking about this passage, Jill, and the small, beautiful universes of our flawed hometowns.
I am scared of sea lions. I didn’t know this until one month ago, when I decided to reread and review Anne Fleming’s Poemw. I went to clear my head in advance and walked down to a local beach at mid-tide. I picked my way across the slick rocks and draining tide pools, searching for nothing and anything. Just looking to see what might appear. I thought I was a good noticer until a smooth rock twenty feet to my right, suddenly grew a head and snorted unhappily at me. I froze for a moment, until I realized just how enormous and fast sea lions are, especially when they are headed in your direction.
I enjoy birdwatching and tide pooling—noticing hobbies. But I am new enough to the ocean that it is still mostly unfamiliar. I can’t yet look at an oceanscape with nuance, and see the difference between a sea lion belly and a rock. This is not yet a skill I’ve honed. This is my journey with Anne Fleming’s Poemw and the many re-reads since the day I first noticed it on the Staff Picks shelf at a local bookshop in 2016. In six years, Fleming still teaches me how to notice.
I’m not one for reading poetry books start to finish. When I’m shopping to add a poetry book to my collection, I pick one up, flip to a page in the middle that has a shorter poem and judge whether I’ll take it home based on this small sample. For Poemw, I landed on
Sea gulls dog fish truck down Clark,
coast even with truck’s square butt,
light at red light, loft at green,
float paint-white dock-grey on diesel-blue air.
(from Sea gulls dog fish truck down Clark)
The first sentence, full of gerundial nouns, forced me to read slowly. I should’ve known then that every poem in Poemw deserves a slow read, a noticing. To truly read Poemw well, a deliberate read start to finish is a gift to give yourself without being a laborious effort. But be prepared for the last line of a poem to surprise you, make you chuckle, nod, or most often, wrench your heart.
Fleming revisits her youth, navigating queer identity and relationships, she addresses colonization, the inevitable death of empires, among other topics. Poemw has a topic for everyone, but each poem together builds a network anyone can get enraptured in. I drew out a mind-map of what I wanted to say about Poemw before I started writing. My blue scrawl is mostly lines and directional arrows. There are four standalone subject words, but many notes travelling along lines of connection.
The first times I sat down to read Poemw, I didn’t read it through start to finish, or even make effort to read all the poems as a cohesive book. I wasn’t interested in theme or perspective, I wanted flashes of inspiration, playfulness, and heart-wrenching lines. But Poemw is most meaningful read and studied in its three parts and as a whole. Poemw reminds me that poetry is a language practice of connecting ideas to each other, connecting the mundanity of shared words and relatable moments to our readers in a way that pricks a heart just so; that as we invest time into discovery, this pricking turns to a roaring.
Reading someone who notices what we’ve noticed, who’s experienced similar or thought similar to what we have, is a way of finding community in an otherwise lonely and disconnected society. My heart bursts and aches through each reread of Poemw—Anne as an elder queer poet, writes about knowing herself as a child, questioning her place in family and peer relationships—I find myself recognizing old grief for what I felt but had no words for as a teen. But I also find myself hopeful, for how Fleming loves, has been loved, and continues to approach the world and words with deep care, a quiet love rooted in understanding the importance of the mundane; how ordinary it is to love, to be in connection with another, to grieve, to lose, to doubt, to share—how a habit of love leaves us always
One pin tumbler away
from a roaring heart.
I used to think about love as all feeling and flash, peaks and plummets—rocks shape shifting into sea lions. By learning to love well, and by being well loved, I see now what I missed on the early reads of Poemw. Like how the elation of a child riding a new bike, or a teen adrenaline high of flying down the road just managing to stay in control, changes when Fleming buys a new bike as an adult.
That’s the last bike that mattered
though I’ve got a new one now,
had it ten years.
I ride it, it’s not like it sits,
it’s just not mythic,
Love is not maintaining manic-level elation, it is a skill to practice, a habit to form, a vehicle for connecting with others and navigating our world. It is not often epic, climactic, or obvious. Love is ordinary. Love is taking the time to notice a grieving crow, giving a sea lion its space, constructing a book of poems that can be read over and over again; love is a deepening of understanding, it is both invitation and refusal, it is the simple practice of letting be. Love can be leaving or watching another go.
Publishing a book is a letting go. Publishing a poem is an invitation. We hope people find all the layers we put into a piece, not just give it a cursory read. Our imaginary ideal reader pores over our words and images, learns something new, and maybe finds themselves understood by a stranger.
How I hope to practice love doesn’t change when another leaves, rather only what causes I attribute certain emotions to, does. If I am stuck in an old heartbreak, I know how deeply I can love someone. If I am angry, I know I love myself enough to seek change. If I am tired, maybe I have loved someone well today. If am struggling to say goodbye to a mentor, a grandparent, or an old cat, I know I have been well loved. If I am overwhelmed at the roar of the ocean, I know it is because all whom and what I love are evolved from the ocean, and are born with the ocean pulsing under our skin. When I cry at the beach, I allow the ocean within me to greet the ocean in the air, the tide trapped in a rock; it is love bursting at my seams. Love is like water, mundane and I carry it under my skin everywhere I go. It connects everything, it is at the core of everything.
When I return to Poemw, I am seeking to connect with my loving self again, though I never understand this until I am enraptured by a line I’ve mostly skimmed before. Anne gently pokes at me, says, “Here, just pause here a moment. Be with yourself, the birds, the dead mouse, your brother, or his dog, for just a moment. There. There it is, your good heart, your worthy self. There, here—do you remember now? You are made of and for love. So are they, and them, that caravan of people in front of you, the buzzard above you, and yes, the wasps, too.”
I have wandered away from my plan to navigate you through my mind map about Poemw, but this rambling is appropriate, too. I continue to return to Poemw because while I know it, I never know where it will take me: I only know that reading it is an endeavour of love, a journey toward reconnection, an invitation to peer into at another’s heart in order to repair and reawaken our own.
between dusk and night by Emily McGiffin (Brick Books, 2012)
A friend gave me my copy of what is one of my favourite books of poetry from a northern writer: Emily McGiffin’s between dusk and night. I pulled it off the shelf today while working on my own writing, convinced the cover of the book was a wave. I realized how little time I had spent looking at the cover, a sun over a mountain turned on end—the sky fades to blue as it reaches the spine. It looks like a face in profile, or an abstract oceanside painting, the blue water cresting in yellow waves as it hits a dark rocky shore. Pink post-it notes curl out from pages I marked years ago, and corners are bent from dog-earing when I ran out of post-its. I think about the Buddhist concept of the wave when one of the post-it notes falls out but I can’t find the page it was on: the wave is just a different way for the ocean to be for awhile. The best poems, the best books, are this way too. They change us and change with us.
In the past ten years, I’ve lent it to friends, copied stanzas into letters, and referred to it in conversations about representations of BC’s northern writers. McGiffin is from Hazelton, BC, a small town a five-hour drive away from where I live in Prince George. Hazelton has a much smaller population and is more remote. From Hazelton you can take a day trip to the coast; Prince George is bowled-in by mountains and is located near the centre of the province. McGiffin introduces the non-northern reader to this area briefly, with two poems, just before she leaves it for Viet Nam. Deliberately, she taints her traveling poems with an “iron reek of viscera”: she is not acting as tour guide to place, but to herself as tourist, outsider, settler, and student of decolonization; opening this book is an invitation to do the same for ourselves.
My favourite poems are those where I find new beauty, meaning, or understanding in after its grown dust-weary on the shelf. I love finding a poem that continues to connect with me, like a committed partner, despite how I’ve changed. Ten years later, my reading of between dusk and night takes on new meaning as the public finally validates the trauma and grief of many First Nations Peoples when settler science confirms the mass child graves at residential schools, yet colonial and industrial development still ignores Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge; and the government still falls short of meeting its treaties, and reneges on promises to basic human rights to people living on reserve. I relate, as a white woman unlearning supremacy culture, to McGiffin in the Insects in Lamplight after Rain, how enacting our un/learning requires a decentering of self: when a “place knows a dignity and grace that leaves [us] shamefaced” and we find ourselves on the receiving end of a “calm, pious gesture that knows suffering and answers it”, instead of responding “I thought I knew how to be good!”, offer a simple “thank you so much” and take this learning home with us to continue our decolonizing work.
In the second half of the book, McGiffin returns to her home in the Peace Valley, in Nisga’a territory. In After a Journey she opens the section with “There is a language roots write through the soil;/you’ve begun to learn it” and ends with a reminder from a beetle emerging into the sun,
It has found the sun and remembers Its own limbs, its stiff grace. What it must do.
Like she stains the travel poem with blood, here she sets us up for heartbreak and healing; the latter half the book explores the end of a personal relationship, and her healing process as she reconnects with herself, the land with a new understanding of caretaking.
This is the second connection that has deepened over time. On my first reading, I loved these poems primarily for the careful and deliberate description of the things I love best about living in the north: finding patches of moose-slept grass, moonlight on willow branches, devoting attention to the sting of nettle rather than running from it—and this is what has kept it on my shelf for many years. But now I am navigating the abrupt ending of a relationship, I find myself taking time alone in the forest, in my backyard, stomping a spiral path into the winter snow and pausing to refill the bird feeder—and wonder, as a tear freezes to my cheek, what all this is teaching me.
I return inside, wrap myself in a housecoat—the last gift I received from my now ex-partner, and pick up the book to read Fog:
A wind comes up with a sound like water—leaves tugging loose and fluttering down all around. You say nothing now, but I know by the chill in the air that the sun has gone. Now we’ll both struggle home in the deepening dusk.
The days are so short in a northern winter, I often only get outside in the dusk. I go to work in the dark morning, and return home with the sun just peeking over the forested mountains. I sat outside in the warm wind and reread Canyon to remind myself this La Nina January is a tease, I have months to go before my own, and the season of, spring return.
Almost spring, though still too cold to pause long amid the leafless aspen, the dry pines on that broad open shelf above the river. But we do stop. Unexpectedly, you reach for my hand
and I wake, choked, groping
for the fading joy of that small moment in the cold blind sun when all the weight of solitude was only a small cloud scuddling past. If only that
could be kept, instead of this chill knowing, as you step back into the dream and I fall out, that I am as much yours as that sweep of broken rock that leads the eye up to a too-long canyon, up the river just freed of ice, over the basaltic ridges, the shadowed hollows harbouring the last remnants of snow.
You glance back. There is a minnow stranded on the road: its small tail lifting, lifting again; its silver body glinting under that quiet sun.
The final poem Swadeshi at times makes me want to throw the book across the room, and at other times, copy it out to my ex…I’m surprised to find myself crying over a single question in a poem about a sweater:
What is it in the end but two strands of aloneness plied double thick?
She honours her grief, her healing, and allows old memories return to with a quiet joy for what once was.
It was deep winter; ice etched across the old windowpanes. Snow burdened the spruces and bent the willow across the paths. I went out to gather lichen. The thought of you came too. I showed you the foliose type that dyes a rich brown; Usnea for green. You said you were sorry to have put me to such trouble.
I was silent. How to tell you that in truth it was no trouble? That thinking of you made me glad.
McGiffin brings her skill for language and description to each poem in the book, but this final long poem, the result of making a sweater from sheep-shearing to tying-off yarn, is a gift to the reader.
This entwinement of yarn: All the words that lived in me, the finest I could craft. I gave them to you.
If Emily were ever to read this, I’d want her to know how much I love her gentleness, and how this little book,
I have struggled to write original content this winter and instead have been drawn back to comfort reading. I’ve been pulling out old dog-eared poetry books, writing new and reading old notes in the margins. When I experience a loss of love, I have a habit of letting go of the confident, self-indulgent attitude necessary to write about myself. I stop writing completely and replace it by obsessing about my own heartache. But I have learned through the consistency meeting of assignment deadlines how I do love having a writing life. This venture into book reviews is a way to make writing an act of obsession. I will have many minor obsessions, in the form of poets. Or rather, their books. Books I’m re-reading will be a semi-monthly series where I rave about books that I’ve read before but still manage to break my heart. I’ll feature books that heal fresh wounds with their familiar words, and write about old books like I do new loves, how tangled up I can get in a five-word line.
The best books re-wrench our hearts in new ways with each read: for our younger selves, our present existence, and the world we believe is possible.
Do you remember when you asked me whether your moms were going to heaven?
We were sitting on a log, just off the path between the rose bowl and the cabin. We sat in the shade in our shorts and it was so hot we didn’t worry about mosquitos. I remember you looking at your hands as you talked, then at me, with your big brown eyes wide, waiting for answer.
I was 17 at the time, had my driver’s license, and played devil’s advocate at youth group and bible studies during the school year. That fall I was to switch schools, go into the largest public school in my city. You were likely one of the first non-Christians I met who would ask me about the core of my faith. I had good ways to answer other Christians about biblical interpretation, the value of doubt, and finding meaning in anything. But you? I had no good answers then.
I don’t remember what I said, but I know what I would’ve thought. I would’ve wanted to be your friend, to be the cool counsellor, to not upset you. My desire for people’s approval always came first, and I couldn’t decide whose approval I wanted here. The church friends, Jesus, the pastor who was speaking that week, or yours. A conversion would be the ultimate way to gain approval. During training the cabin leaders talked about how to create opportunities to witness, to ask kids about what they were learning, to have the space for serious conversations. You would have been celebrated, welcomed to a church, I’d have been a good witness and receive praise from church and camp friends. I believed my actions would have pleased Jesus.
You attended Intermediate Camp late in the summer, and we were in the youngest cabin. You must have been 11 years old. We would be peers now, it’s only a six-year difference and there’s not much difference between a 36-year-old and a 30-year-old.
I would have been the age you are now when I took up bird-watching. I’ve learned bird names, songs, identifying marks, flight patterns and migration routes. These skills have become useful for knowing myself, identifying who I was, seeing patterns I return to, and understanding what home looks like. Have you ever watched a Great Blue Heron eat a snake? I’m at the beach at my in-laws, and just watched a heron yank a snake from under a rock. The bird had half swallowed it before the snake realized it could wrap itself around the heron’s beak and not get swallowed any further. The heron scratched the snake loose and did manage to eventually swallow it. But the snake still wasn’t dead. The heron kept tossing its head back, swallowing, chocking as the snake fought its way back up. Usually, a heron will kill its prey before swallowing it, but I wonder how hungry she must have been to worry about the snake disappearing before she had a chance to stab it with her sharp beak. Did you know a Heron can digest the bones of an animal? They swallow them whole; their stomach secretes an acid so toxic it softens bones.
I didn’t know how to answer you, how to get you to swallow that snake without choking on it, rejecting it, or myself. I wanted to get you to that conversion prayer. You would’ve been my first that summer.
I think I knew then, how much the answer I gave didn’t feel like love. I must have known how toxic the version of God the camp (and I) preached was. I felt heartsick, unsteady, and seen by your question. If I said that your moms were going to hell, then God isn’t all loving, patient or kind. Are humans more capable of a patient and kind love than this God? We forgive each other, we can still cherish those who harmed us, we repair relationships after long absences, but God? Does it make sense that a being with unlimited time has the least amount of patience for those they claim to love? What is one single human lifetime when you consider the span of eternity? A finch lives five years, on average. A Great Blue Heron can live up to 17 years. My cat is 13. A parent who loses a child at any of those ages, would say it wasn’t enough time. Even the life of a finch is more than a blip in a bird-owners or rescuers life.
Instead of birds, maybe we should consider the wasp. A worker wasp lives between 12 and 24 days. They spend life tending to the hive and larvae at night and collecting food for the hive during the day. They do not sleep. I hate when wasps get stuck behind window-blinds. Say there was a wasp who spent 6 hours, or 2% of its life, trying to escape the house, trying to find salvation. We get annoyed at it, or scared of it, and catch it under a cup. We could drown it, flush it down the toilet or we could slide a piece of paper between the wasp and window, under the cup, and release it outside. If we live for 79 years, we spend 0.0007% (6 hours) of our lives being annoyed at this wasp before we decide what to do with it.
Humans spend one-third of their lives at work and another third sleeping. I believe most of us try to be good, to love better than we were loved. Some Christians and Exvangelicals revisit this understanding of God, that in eons of time, they only gave us mere years to reconcile to them.
If you believe in a young earth (~4000 years old), and your mom lives to 79, your mom will have lived only 2% of God’s time since creation. If you believe in a 4.5 billion year old earth, then your mom will have lived on 0.0000001% of God’s time since creation. Even if she spent all her 79 years awake and trying to find God, before God decided whether to send her to hell or not, our patience with the wasp is astounding.
I probably encouraged you to go home and witness to your mom, saying you have time to show her the truth. I don’t know if I believe any of us has time anymore. Maybe we never had a chance to begin with (original sin and all that). MAybe that is what the church means when they call it “the miracle of salvation”. Did God position us to fail?
We are starting a 500 metre sprint a kilometre back from the starting line. Isn’t it enough to get a participation award or a most improved player award, for trying to be a decent human being?
If you asked me this same question today, I would say I believe God is the love that exists between humans, the natural world, and all the things beyond our comprehension. If we do our best, no matter how far behind the starting line God has placed us (for some of us God has even tied our shoelaces together), if we use all the skills and knowledge we have accumulated over this short, short lifetime—then a God who is love would see our effort, and it would be enough.
Your mother clearly loved you.
She shook hands with a counsellor she knew would teach you things she didn’t agree with, just so you could have the camp experience. During the activity periods you could learn to canoe, shoot a bow-and-arrow, go tubing, or make friendship bracelets with someone you just met. You seemed mostly a happy kid, you smiled a lot, trusted a lot, you sang in chapel and learned the actions for all the songs. You were loved. Your mom was doing a good job.
Her love echoes that of a love-God, and so, yes. If there is a heaven, that is where she is headed.
I wonder now if what I have forgotten about answering your question has taught you to be anxious. About how you live, what you do, how you look, and how you relate to your mother. I wonder how much, like me, you learned to worry about the rapture, the left behind, and the death of those you loved. I wonder how much of the internalized queerphobia I learned from the church, I passed on to you.
I wonder if this was your first introduction to queer shame.
I am so sorry. I am sorry for what camp taught you about love, what I taught you about love.
I’m sorry I didn’t believe we were worthy of love.
I wasn’t loving to you in my response, but I hope this letter finds you well-loved. I hope you have learned to love the younger folks in your life better than I loved you.
The storms start at midnight. My cat jumps onto my bed and burrows under the thin white sheet, trying to hide from the hammering rain. I check my phone for the time, then pull her onto my chest. I lay a hand on back and listen to her asthmatic, shallow breaths. I coo to soothe both her and I.
You’re okay, you’re okay. We’re okay.
We stay this way for an hour, until the first storm passes. I flip between the Weather Network’s storm radar and Twitter, looking for others who are up and worrying about the storm. There’s a fire in Vernon. The wind sends it one way, and the fire watchers are relieved. It’s no long heading toward the highway.
An hour later, the wind changes and evacuation notices are in order. I text my partner, sleeping in the basement, the cat and I could use some comfort. I hope this text doesn’t wake you if the storm hasn’t yet.
They don’t reply.
You’re okay, you’re okay. We’re okay.
Light flashes through the blackout blind and I count Mississippi’s. The house shakes with thunder three Mississippi’s later. I push the cat off me to see if one of our trees was hit, even though by my count, the strike would’ve been too far away to be near the yard.
Thunder cracks again and the cat bolts down the hallway, claws scraping on the hardwood floor. I follow and head downstairs to the cool, musty guest bedroom. The curtain here is worse, and the flashes light up the room. I leave without making the bed.
At 3:30am a storm passes by just `east of town. There’s rain and a couple flashes but the house doesn’t shake. The radar looks like the storm will clear in half an hour. I open the windows and turn the fan on. I can’t see the stars; the sky is seeping blackness through the trees. This is the cleanest air I’ve smelled in days. The dark is storm clouds, not smoke.
I put in earplugs and try to sleep.
The fledgling crows start their awkward begging caws an hour later than normal. They’re beaks are all black now. When they first came to the yard, their eyes were too big for their heads and their beaks were short and pale pink where the crease meets their head. They dug up the onions and heuchera in the raised beds and sat on the edge of the bird bath begging. Days later, the heat wave hit. The heat dome over Central BC brought temperatures in the 40C’s, and a lawn watering restriction. Friends reported finding dead and dying baby birds in their yards, birdwatching groups reported swallow chicks jumping out of their mud nests early to escape the heat. There wasn’t a puddle around, and I worried for the crows.
Four fledglings and two parents. The parents seemed to leave for longer and longer after each visit. The loudest fledgling gets fed first, the weakest sitting quietly with its mouth open as if it were panting. The sun sets red and large three nights in a row. I haven’t seen a chickadee in the yard in a week. My partner and I move downstairs, close off the upstairs to keep as much cool air in as possible. We put cardboard in the windows, and the cat is cagey. The next day I dig out three terracotta planter saucers and scatter them in the backyard in the shade. I fill them with water, and the crows discover them an hour later. The fledglings stand in the baths and cry until the parents return with a hunk of bread, fries or a moth. They wash it in the water, then feed the fledglings. The fledging’s still cry, so the parent dips its beak into the water, fills it, then turns and gives each of the fledglings a drink in turn.
You’re okay, you’re okay. We’re okay.
It’ll be another week and a half before they learn to drink on their own. By now they’re used to me. They fly into the trees, but stay close enough that I can soak with my hose if I wanted. I aim a few feet away from them, let the wind carry the mist to them to cool them down. One sits quietly in the spruce tree, mouth open, like a child trying to catch snowflakes on their tongue.
I live in a city with two rivers. It’s difficult recognizing a drought when the mountain snowpack melts and floods the rivers. The water restriction seems excessive to my neighbor, who waters her lawn every night. I don’t blame her and am a bit relieved that at least someone on the street is keeping the clover alive for the bees, the ground cool enough for bugs, and soil wet enough to flush worms periodically.
It’s 4am and I’m in the dregs of Twitter. A local news reporter tweeted 8 hours ago that Prince George uses a lot of water, has resisted water metering, and notes ratting out neighbors can reduce water waste by the billions of litres. Though the weather has cooled by ten degrees, my brain still thinks Anthropocene.
Apocalypse. I google “What are the four horsemen?” War is old, never-ending news. Famine feels like it’s hitting here finally, though it’s existence in the global south has been milked by evangelist fundraisers and missionaries for years. Pestilence or Plague, the pandemic fits the bill. I stare at the popcorn ceiling, wondering when death will come around, when it’ll hit home, when the world and community will deteriorate to a point that I’m as scared of my neighbors as I am the storm I’m waiting out.
People call this the new normal. There is no waiting it out.
The invasive thoughts I haven’t had in years surprise me, and I’m glad again for having antidepressants that work. You’re okay, you’re okay. We’re okay.
The Farmers Market opens at 8:30am, and my brother and sister-in-law are selling donuts. I text them, and they tell me this is the first week they haven’t had a line up. I wonder if everyone else was up with me last night, watching for fire, falling trees and listening to see if the sirens were heading their direction or not.
The smoke has cleared enough that the morning sun is hot on my days old sunburn and the solar fountain is spewing water as high as it can go. I drive to the market instead of biking, buy four donuts and a churro. The sun comes out from the cloud, and the heat bounces off the pavement, the brick buildings and cement courthouse. My sunburn hurts again, my hair scraping against it on my back. I head home.
I find a spot of shade in the backyard and watch the birds. The crows aren’t here today, but I have chickadees again. And nuthatches, chipping sparrows and a lone Flicker. When I go inside twenty minutes later, the kitchen smells like smoke. My bedroom smells like smoke. I close the windows and turn the cooling function on the furnace.
My partner and I have fought over the use of the air cycling, the temperature has dropped enough that it’s not much hotter on the main floor than the basement. I worry about my cat, like the crows. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself, spitting out the prescribed steroids that are supposed to help reduce the inflammation in her lungs. I replaced the furnace filter yesterday. I hope that cycling the air will filter the worst of the smoke particulate out of the air. I hope I can prolong her life awhile, keep the last horseman from visiting me today.
I don’t believe in heaven like my parents. I believe in the spirit or soul, but mostly as a euphemism for the connection between living beings that exists outside of our perceptions. Does the soul have an afterlife?
“You know, I had a thought. One I haven’t had before…” Andrew said.
“Yeah?” We were talking about dialogue, and how to ethically quote someone you’re no longer connected to when you can’t remember the exact conversation.
“To an atheist or materialist, when someone dies, they just stop existing. They wouldn’t worry about it. Misquoting or misrepresenting a dead person can’t cause them harm. The dead person is still important to their family, as a memory, but they no longer exist…but some people do think the dead still exist as a being somewhere.”
“I hadn’t thought about that…” Do I think the dead still exist in some other dimension? This calls to mind religious notions of the communion of saints, reincarnation, heaven, resurrection, and the soul.
What do Hindu’s think? Does a dung beetle care what we say about its previous life? Or if we misquote them?
In Buddhism there’s no hierarchy between a beetle and a human life. Can we slander the soul of an insect?
And how pissed off is Mary Magdalene with all the things people say about her?
“And we only ever perceive what someone says to us. We can’t ever know how they intended it. What they actually meant.” I shrug, “Even asking someone what they meant, we’d interpret their interpretation of the original words.” My thoughts get hazy here, and the conversation peters out.
My gut says don’t speak ill of the dead, but also don’t let them silence you. When I try to determine if this belief stems from how I was raised or my current understanding of the soul, does the distinction matters?
A few hours later I try to reconstruct this conversation for my writing class. “Hey, question…So earlier you said atheists, and some other word? Another kind of person or belief you mentioned?”
“Materialist…not in the sense of buying things and consumerism, but like, we are only atoms and once the atoms disperse…well, that’s it…It’s my worldview, anyway. The sort of default scientific worldview. Think about a log in a fire pit…when it’s all burnt up it ceases to exist.”
A burned-up log is no longer a log, but a bunch of different, disparate things.
If the soul is in the mind, when the brain dies, does the soul also? Are people just a bundle of atoms that, once dispersed, become nothing?
Stardust, some people say.
If I believed in a streets-paved-in-gold heaven, would I believe it unethical to tell the truth about my dead relatives?
My father once told me he didn’t want to speak badly about my grandfather, referencing the Bible story where Noah’s son sees him naked, passed-out drunk, and runs off to tell his brothers. This son is cursed for seeing and exposing his father’s shame.
“Just the thought of…not sharing the shame of my father’s life and keeping it covered. I don’t know how much to share with my children. Of the pain and hate and hurt I went through.”
He is embarrassed to talk about his father’s life. Is he embarrassed for himself, or on behalf of this once-grouped-together set of atoms?
Maybe it was a simple fear of God.
“I didn’t want to lessen what you kids thought of your grandparents. Grandparents are supposed to be the ones grandkids look up to.”
Maybe it’s not about ethics, stardust or the soul at all. Maybe we just don’t want the living to feel the hurt the dead leave with us.