Month: February 2021

How I Chose a Timely Book

One of my Christmas gift books was a repeat so I had the pleasure of returning it to the bookstore and browsing the shelves for a replacement. I settled on The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani.

Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.

The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.

Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.

I was not disappointed.  Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.

As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.

A book with grief at its core  sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.

I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?

We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”

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What I miss the most

waiting for the rain to end.

The weather where I live has been grey and gloomy for weeks. The Covid-19 restrictions from Public Health get tighter and tighter and our case numbers hover in the dangerously high numbers. The vaccine supply is shorted.  I’m at home nearly all of the time. I have my husband and my cats for company. They have already heard all of my opinions and complaints and tend to wander off when I start preaching.

While staring out the window and pining for the day when life returns to “normal” I recalled something I posted here, some time ago about a book called The Book that Matters Most. It was a fun read and sparked great discussion among my book reading friends. Thinking of that book, I started a list of What I Miss Most. Sounds dreary, I know, but sometimes it helps to “define the problem.” So here’s my list.

  1. Casual friendships. Seems like an odd item to put in the number one position but there it is. I keep in touch with my close friends via e-mail or telephone or zoom. But the lady who sits beside me at Bible Study, or the woman with the hair appointment just before mine, or the vet, or the letter carrier–these are people I know only in one specific instance but I miss them. I like to hear their views on events of the day because they are outside my close circle of friends. They connect me with the world in different ways. They make me part of something bigger. I need these casual acquaintances to give perspectives that may not align with my own.
  2. The library. At present my library is available for pick-up and very limited browsing. I miss the freedom to peruse the shelves in my own time. To pick up a volume and read a few pages before deciding whether to check it out. I miss seeing the community notice board in the lobby. I really miss inspecting the “returns” trolley. I am convinced that all the best books have been checked out by someone else and I’m eager to scan those favourites. It’s a way to connect with other library patrons.
  3. Line-ups. What?  I can hear you all shouting that we line-up all the time. Yes we do. Outside stores to get in and inside stores to get out, we’re all in line six feet apart. Not many casual conversations at that distance. No playing peek-a-boo with a baby when parents are terrified of exposing their children to disease. No tips from a smart shopper on a bargain I overlooked. No connection!
  4. Exercise class. I know, there are endless exercise videos on the internet and I’ve got enough room to work out with one of them by myself. But that’s the point. Exercise by myself is a drag. Exercise with a bunch of other reluctant trainees keeps me at it and usually provides a laugh or two. We connect over a mutual dislike of exercise.
  5. Choirs –– both as a singer and a listener. There is something soul refreshing about making music in a group. Again, I can participate in on-line versions of rehearsals and concerts but they lack that vital element — connection. And with music, the connection is heart to heart without any interference from the mind.

I could make a longer list, but it seems I have defined the problem — lack of connection. On Sunday our minister preached a virtual sermon warning of the consequences of an  “us vs them” mentality. Without the kind of connections I mentioned, that us/them attitude flourishes. Such a mindset makes for an unhealthy society. 

As a writer, how can I use this insight to my advantage? 

In a dystopian novel, us-and-them makes a perfect excuse for war.  In a tragedy us/them is the driver behind the Romeo and Juliet story. In a comedy personal quirks, e.g. neatnik vs slob, can lead to funny situations. I write historical romance so feuds, immigrant vs native, rancher vs farmer provide plenty of scope for conflict. What’s needed is ways and means for connections if I want to lead my characters to a happily ever after ending. How to make those connections?

  1. Proximity. That’s probably the easiest one. Make the feuding families share a fence line, or a water source. No matter how much the clans dislike each other, they cannot avoid meeting.
  2. Common goals. In my present wip the two lead characters work in a frontier hospital. Despite their differences, they work together to cure disease and ease pain.
  3. Children. In a frontier town children all attend the same school. The grandfathers may hate each other, but the children play together. As time goes by they may fall in love with the “enemy.”
  4. Outside agency. Again, sticking with historical, feuding families may have to pull together against fire or drought or flood. Who is to say the patriarch’s won’t see the good in one another then?
  5. Mutual friend. Make them both friends with a third party. If A spends time with the librarian and B is a book lover, chances are A and B will run into each other frequently. This device even lets the librarian act as cupid when she sees two people who would be perfect together, feuding.

Most philosophies hold that hardship is opportunity. It is up to the individual to find that opportunity and make something of it. The disconnect between all of us during this pandemic is not fun. I don’t like it. I wish it would go away. But, if I look for opportunity, perhaps this time of physical distance can lead me to better insights into my characters and their journey to HEA.

What about you? What do you miss most? Will you use it in your writing?

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