My Absent Child

A kind reader shared these apt lines from Shakespeare’s King John with me in a comment on an earlier post:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

How well those lines capture the way that familiar things are now permeated with Owen’s missing presence. If anything, the house seems more full of him than it did in the days right afterwards, perhaps because as the initial shock has worn off, thoughts of his life crowd around and complicate thoughts of his death.

The sense of his presence in our house is particularly strong because, after living either in residence at Dalhousie or on his own since 2015, he had settled back here for a while, in between apartmentsthat was the plan, anyway. In preparation for his homecoming, I did a lot of reorganizing; I tried especially hard to make the space that would be his as welcoming as possible. I know he was grateful for it, and comfortable, as far as that went. Now, everywhere I look, I see reminders of this loving effort, and another line from In Memoriam haunts me: “Is this the end of all my care?” How can that be? How can this be?

Inexorably, days became weeks and weeks have now become the first month. “Time does not bring relief,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay in a sonnet another friend shared; “you have all lied / Who told me time would ease me of my pain.” The grief is still often overpowering; though I am getting slightly better at repressing the outward expression of it (I have to—a burst blood vessel in my eye is a warning about the physical toll of mourning) the pain of his death is just as intense as it ever was, and it is still worst in those moments of awakening, whether from sleep or from any distraction that has kept the thought of it at bay for a while.

“There are a hundred places,” Millay’s poem goes on, “where I fear / To go,—so with his memory they brim.” The paradox is that these places and memories are as precious as they are painful. I yearn for them even as I can’t—for now—bear to occupy them. I can’t imagine being “fond of grief,” but I think Shakespeare means (as Tennyson does when he says “Let Love clasp Grief”) that because we can no longer separate our love and our grief, our only option is to live lovingly with sadness. I don’t know how to do that yet: there’s such a shadow over everything, including over the happy memories that some (reasonably, kindly) suggest should comfort me.

I liked this recent essay on grief by Mona Arshi a lot. I think she is wise about how we think we are supposed to mourn; I appreciate her resistance to narratives of linearity and closure, which are at odds with what she rightly identifies as the stickiness of grief—which makes it repetitive, static, wearing. She’s right that grief is lonely, and that in the face of it, our words often fail us. She’s also right that “no matter how anarchic and wretched the grief may be, a poet will have gotten there first.”

That Thought’s Return

Content Warning: Suicide

—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more … 

The trick, it turns out, is not to think about it—about how it was for him, and especially about how it ended for him. I can manage it if I keep my mind busy: “O the mind,” as Hopkins says, “mind has mountains.” The trick is to smother those thoughts, or to overwhelm them: to fill in the space that they would otherwise occupy, and thus keep back from the “cliffs of fall,” from hurtling back into that place of horror and shock and the desperate wish to undo it all—the impossible, unreasonable, but inescapable feeling that I should have been able to comfort him, to hold him, to save him. Every grief has its own particular pangs, I know. That this death was deliberate and desired sometimes makes the pangs sharper to me, even as I hold firm to my belief in his right to make that choice and to my gratitude that when he left us, it was, as he told us, with a heart full of love.

mugI am trying. I have read my first new book, now: Lauren Groff’s Matrix. It was a good choice—unusual, unworldly, written in prose direct enough that my wavering concentration wasn’t too much of a problem. I might write a proper post about it in a while. I have been doing some work on my sabbatical project—mostly just reviewing the materials I had gathered and the notes and drafts I had begun last summer, to remind myself how interested and even excited I was about my book idea. I still am, I think: there are flickers, and they feel hopeful, if faint. In between these efforts I watch a lot of TV, a lot of it familiar, some of it new but low-key enough, trivial enough, that I don’t have to risk investing in it emotionally. All of this works to muffle the other thoughts, until it doesn’t. The house is so full of reminders; all I have to do is look up and there are the pictures of his joyful little baby face; there’s the piano he played unlike anyone else, the music just flowing out of his fingers; there’s his old desk; there’s his phone, which I saw so often in his hand. My office on campus is no safer, I realized today, stopping in briefly to grab some books (trying to stoke the embers of my research): more memories, more pictures, the mug he had made for me a few years ago for Christmas.

Sometimes I don’t want to try to be beguiled out of my grief, either, and that seems right, so soon after—it’s right to remember and to mourn, to let the thought return.


As a side note, or perhaps a kind of apologia, someone on Twitter recently shared this image of a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty. I found it very powerful and I hope he won’t mind my sharing it again here. I worry, especially because I’m writing about something as fraught and difficult as suicide, that my words might themselves be wounding, but others’ words of both grief and comfort continue to help me and so for now I will continue to write what I feel.


Novel Readings 2021

I have done a year-end round-up of my reading on Novel Readings since I started blogging in 2007. Since Owen died, a lot of people have suggested to me that routines and rituals have value, and I am also trying to make myself act according to the principle I mentioned before, that “if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing”—which is not to say that a post like this, or any individual post, is in itself especially worthwhile, but that perhaps Novel Readings itself is worth sustaining, and might be sustaining for me in some way as well. So in that spirit, here is a look back at the highs and the one big low of my reading in 2021.

Author of the Year

This doesn’t happen often for me, but it’s so much fun when it does: I read one book by an author that’s so good I promptly work my way through their other books and those are all really good too. Sarah Moss was an author like this for me a few years ago. In 2021 it was Jo Baker‘s turn. The first book of hers I read was actually The Body Lies, for my book club in February. I didn’t love it, but I found it really interesting, especially as a potential candidate for my seminar on women and detective fiction, because it is as much about the problem of how violence against women is represented in crime fiction as it is its own example of the genre. Our discussion piqued my interest in A Country Road, A Tree, which I loved, and that in turn convinced me to finally try Longbourn, which, against the odds, I also loved. Since then I have also read The Telling and The Undertow, and if her other two novels were more readily available in Canada I would have read them by now too.

Novel of the Year

The standout single book of the year for me was unequivocally Lonesome Dove. It gave me the kind of reading experience I am always looking for: immersive, affecting, thought-provoking. Close seconds were Whereabouts and Piranesi (neither of which, it’s worth observing, could be less like Lonesome Dove!) and maybe also Great Circle.

Non-Fiction of the Year

The best non-fiction I read in 2021 was Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five; a close second here was my colleague Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream. Both writers impressed me by their ability to tell a sensational story without themselves sensationalizing it. Rubenhold especially is committed to freeing her subjects from the pernicious and voyeuristic glamor that too often surrounds their killer, restoring them to us in the clearer light of their own humanity.

Most Fun Reading Something Together

A great summer project was reading Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale along with Dorian and many others. An unexpected perk has been the lasting connections made with members of the Arnold Bennett Society.

Late to the Party

After giving up on Conversations with Friends back in 2019, I had something of a conversion to Sally Rooney in 2021, starting with Normal People (for me, the difference was ‘hearing’ it in my head in a lilting Irish accent) and then extending to Beautiful World, Where Are You, which I appreciated very much as a novel about people trying to think seriously about serious things.

Gentlest Novel

If I were going to recommend just one book I read in 2021 to as many people as possible, Leonard and Hungry Paul would be the one. What a lovely novel, sweet but not saccharine, funny but soft. I didn’t write much about it myself, but my post links to Dorian’s much better one.

Most Unlikely Success

A Trollope novel but with dragons? It shouldn’t work, but somehow Tooth & Claw does—it was lots of fun.

Best Re-Read

Affinity: it remains my least favorite Sarah Waters novel—but because she’s so brilliant, that still means it’s better than most other novels.

Absolutely, hands down, the worst book I read in 2021

Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us.

I read plenty of other books too; another year-end ritual is updating the Novel Readings index, something I’ll probably get around to before too much longer, as it’s just the kind of relatively mechanical task that appeals to me right now.

If December had ended differently and I had completed this post ‘on schedule,’ I would have concluded it, as I usually do, with a look ahead at some of my most anticipated reads of 2022. For the first time in my life, however, I am not really feeling like a reader. It’s not just that I’ve been having trouble concentrating since Owen’s death: it’s that, for now, the lure of books is, not gone, quite, but very faint. A couple of days ago I decided to practice reading again with a book I’ve loved for decades, Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense. I think it’s working, sort of: at any rate, looking at its familiar pages reminds me of loving to read, which is a start. Beyond that, I’ll just have to see how things go.

Firsts, After

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix. (Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers)

There have been a lot of firsts for us since Owen died, new things we have had to say or do because of his death. As the days begin to stretch, slowly but inexorably, into weeks, now we have to face doing things we always used to do, but for the first time after his death. There aren’t any rules to govern when to do most of these: how soon is too soon, how long is too long to put them off. We don’t have any rituals to give us a timeline: our beliefs about life and death, which are in other respects enough for us, give us no guidance here.

Necessity has made some decisions for us: prescriptions have to be refilled, we need to eat, our booster shots were already scheduled. Steve and Maddie are starting classes again, which also, for better and for worse, generates immediate demands to be met. It’s the inessentials that puzzle me right now, the small but constant things that made up the fabric of my life before and that I know will once again be integral to it—but when? but how?

I have already written my first blog post, after—and my second, and now my third—but they are about Owen, about my loss and grief. (It turns out this is one of the only things I want to do. Writing feels safer than speaking; it is also how I have always sorted out my thoughts and feelings. I also feel uneasy about it, though: is it inappropriate to write here? How often, when writing about other people’s writing about grief, have I wondered why they took such private feelings public?) Eventually, I will write my first blog post after his death that is about something I’ve read—eventually, I will read my first book, after. (What will it be?) At some point I will rejoin the stream of conversation that is Twitter, to talk about the usual things, not about Owen—about the things everyone else is still talking about. (What a ruthless indicator Twitter is of how quickly everything moves on; while I find it painful right now, from the sad sidelines, there is perhaps some prospective reassurance in its continuity.) These are such trivial things to do, which is one reason I can’t bring myself to do them now, but the first time I do them, after, whenever that is, they will feel significant. How will I know when it is the right time—what will make the difference?

Maybe nothing will: maybe there is only the time, not the right time. In the absence of rules or protocols or schedules for mourning (which, I am realizing, is entangled with but not identical to grief), there’s really only trial and error. A small example. We have now watched our first episode of Jeopardy since Owen died, a nightly pandemic ritual he often joined us for after he moved back home in November; even though he didn’t really enjoy the show himself, he was willing to hang out with us, which was nice. It felt strange and wrong and haunted to do it, but either we were never going to watch Jeopardy again, or at some point we were going to have to get through the oddity of doing something so completely familiar in this still unfamiliar world, for the first time.

Normalcy is an emotional precipice for me right now: it’s still too common and too painful to look up from the stove or the keyboard or the TV and feel the new reality flash upon me all over again, with all the intensity of breaking news. In this terrible aftermath of our loss, I think in those moments, how can we bother with ordinary life? Yet the writer who means the most to me is eloquent about the beauty of “commonplace things” and I believe she is right. I’ve also been thinking about what I wrote last year about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, about its affirmation “that if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing.” I believe this too, though it is hard to feel its truth right now. At some point, then, maybe even today, I will try to do some work. Oddly, the book I was reviewing—am reviewing—for the TLS is Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation. (How hypothetical his arguments seemed to me only two weeks ago; now I can test for myself his claims about the healing power of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.) At some point I will pick up my research and carry on with the writing that this sabbatical was meant for: I will download a PDF and take some notes—such a mundane task, unless it’s for the first time, after.


Owen and Mom“Where can we live but days?”

At the end of the first day, the day it happened, the day we found out, we said to each other, “At least we don’t have to get through the first day again.” The second day wasn’t easier, but at least it wasn’t the first. The third day, we went to campus to see the flags lowered in Owen’s memory: it was sad but not terrible, like the sixth day, when he was cremated. Sleeping is good, because a day is over and then you forget it for a while, but waking up to every new day is awful, because you remember. “What are days for,” Larkin asks; “They come, they wake us / Time and time over.”

It turns out that there was a certain simplicity to the first few days. As many of you probably know, there’s a lot that has to be done after a death. There are questions to answer and forms to complete; there are announcements to prepare and arrangements to make. There’s also the shock, when the death is sudden, as Owen’s was, which is overwhelming but also insulating. For a while, grief is the only thing—but then the noise of life begins again. Now, as we pick up some of the pieces of what was once just routine, we all find ourselves confused by sudden vertiginous shifts between familiarity and estrangement. So much is exactly the same, but everything is different. I cooked dinner last night, a favorite dish, one I’ve prepared dozens of times; I broke down in the kitchen because it made no sense to me that it was all exactly the same when nothing will ever be the same. The food tasted delicious. How is that possible?

IMG_1127 (1)A lot of people who know about grief have told us it gets better, though it takes time, but also that the process isn’t simple or linear: it isn’t as straightforward as just getting through more days, each of them easier than the last. Right now the passing days feel too fleeting anyway. “I don’t want it to be four days already,” Maddie said last week, and now it has been too many more days but also far from enough days to understand what this loss means for us. We still feel grateful that we know what it meant for Owen, and there is still comfort in his last words of love. But we are the ones who have to go on now, a family of three where once we were four. He couldn’t tell us how to do that any more than we could tell him not to leave us.

In the days since his death we have talked a lot, to each other and to family and friends. I can’t talk much without crying; I think it’s because every spoken word confirms what otherwise seems surreal. Writing is strange and hard in a different way. “I sometimes hold it half a sin,” Tennyson notes in In Memoriam, “To put in words the grief I feel.” But he did, and his words helped him then and now help us. My mother shared this line from Macbeth with me: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” My life is in words as well as days, even when they are not “to be happy in.” All I can do is try to get used to them again.

Owen Maitzen

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
   Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
   But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
(In Memoriam)

Owen Maitzen (1997-2021)

My son Owen died yesterday, December 30 2021. He took his own life calmly and courageously, after a family Christmas celebration that was full of laughter, games, and music. We parted that night with warm hugs and warm words: the last thing he said to me was “I’m just so full of love.” Although we are heartbroken to lose him and will miss and mourn him forever, there is comfort in knowing that for him, this is the ending he wanted to his long and often very painful struggle with depression, and that he was both very sure and very happy at the end.


There is so much I could say about Owen, who was the most brilliant, creative, and talented person I have ever known. He was loving and generous, hilarious and principled, difficult and inspiring. His mind was lightning fast; he loved wordplay and linguistic absurdity and could recite entire episodes of ‘Epic Rap Battles of History’ and ‘Bad Lip Reading’ from memory. He loved numbers and mathematics, and one of his last completed projects was an astonishing video about Hackenbush, combinatorial game theory, and surreal numbers which he conceived, scripted, programmed, and recorded entirely by himself. He was a prolific and original composer; he left a legacy of hundreds of acoustic and electronic compositions. He loved nothing in his life more than spending time with his sister Maddie: their hilarity and ingenuity when they collaborated on improvs, music, and games always filled their parents’ hearts with wonder and happiness.

Inevitably, fragments of poems have been coming to me ever since he left us. Stop all the clocks. Remember me when I am gone away. Smart lad, to slip betimes away. Farewell thou child of my right hand and joy. They mean everything and nothing when it’s your own loss. Right now, the line I keep returning to is “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d.” My love and my grief feel boundless right now; they are the same. I want to remember him with happiness. I really do think that’s what he wanted. It is such grace that he left us feeling love and loved.

Owen’s full obituary is here.


“Where Life Is”: Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle

shipsteadHe knows the airplane and its deafening drone and its gasoline reek. He knows the shape of Marian’s elbow and knee visible through the cockpit doorway. He pencils his neat log of figures, updating the distance they’ve covered, the time they will arrive . . . He feels the lines of latitude sliding underneath like the rungs of a ladder, watches the whitecaps through the drift meter, measuring the difference between where they are going and where they mean to go. That’s where life is, that wedge of discrepancy.

Great Circle was a perfect choice for my end-of-term reading treat. It is capacious, immersive, and suspenseful—this last even though you know a lot, right from the beginning, about where the story is going. Paradoxically, the narrative has more, rather than less, momentum because of this: you want to know how we get there, you want to be a part of it. It seems to want to be told, the way that characters in the novel often remark that airplanes want to fly. The novel, in other words, has lift. (Flying metaphors are such a temptation!)

I’ve lost the completist urge (or maybe just the patience) to include plot overviews in my posts, so I’ll just briefly explain that Great Circle tells two stories, though not in equal measure. One is the story of Marian Graves, a pilot who disappeared with her plane in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. This part is a robust, textured historical novel that takes us from New York to Missoula, Alaska to Antarctica. It is full of details about bootleggers and artists and madams and World War II ‘fly girls’—but the research (while obviously extensive) never weighs the novel down. The other part of the novel is the story of Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood actress who takes on the role of Marian in a film she hopes will salvage her scandal-plagued career, perhaps even moving her from fantasy franchise sensation to Oscar contender.

shipstead2I was initially fine with the alternation between the past and present plots. By the middle of the novel, I had become impatient with Hadley’s sections, which felt at best peripheral to Marian’s much more interesting character and experiences, and at worst seemed gratuitous or even anxious, as if Shipstead lacked confidence in historical fiction, as if she felt that on its own it was somehow insufficient. The modern-day plot felt more like a device than a necessity—but a device to do what, exactly? I hoped that by the end of the novel I would realize the work the modern parts were doing and the two strands of the novel would prove integral to its overall vision.

It did not quite work out this way. Hadley’s story does turn out to serve one key function for the plot, but things like that can always be done another way. Hadley’s feelings of inquiry, connection, and ultimately discovery about Marian also do become more meaningful over time: “maybe the past had something to tell me,” she reflects at one point and maybe it does. But I still didn’t feel that we needed her; I couldn’t find any way to read her as in some sense an heir to the quests (literal but also metaphorical) that Marian is on. In this respect it seemed telling that she does not get as much space in the novel as Marian.

That said, Hadley’s exploration of Marian’s life story—which is mediated first through Marian’s ‘lost logbook,’ then through a novel about her (the basis for the film Hadley will star in), and then through letters she is finally given access to—does introduce metafictional, even historiographical questions that might (might) have been hard to engage with otherwise. It turns out that the version of Marian’s life story that we get is in many respects hidden from Hadley until almost the end of the novel. Aspects of it—especially what we might sum up as queer aspects of it—are occluded both by the sources available (including Marian’s own account) and by people’s imaginations, which shape and (we know, because we know the reality) limit the assumptions they make about what her life was like and what the people in it meant to her. In this way the novel’s account of Marian’s life is an alternative history, not “just” historical fiction, and the book’s two parts create an explicit space for awareness or self-consciousness about this.

great-circle-maggie-shipsteadjpeg-bookerStill, I think you can open up room to highlight questions about how stories are told in lots of ways, and even if this is one way to make sense of Hadley’s role in the novel, it doesn’t quite make up for how much less vivid and interesting her sections are than Marian’s. There’s so much wonderful writing in the novel, and pretty much none of it is in the Hadley parts. One reason is that the prose is at its best (appropriately) when Marian is flying, the language rising in a crescendo of vividness and intensity up to what sometimes seems like a limit of what words can convey:

 In the thin air, the plane traveled faster, nearly four hundred miles per hour. She couldn’t stay long. Up, though. She needed to find out what was up there, to be away from what was below . . . Cold now. Much too high, but only a little bit farther and she would know what she wanted to know. She was sure of it. The engine seemed to grow quiet, but still the altimeter’s arrow swept to the right. The sky turned midnight blue at the edges of her vision, darkness bleeding up and inward as though she were sinking into something.

If the whole novel was like that, it would be too much, but most of the time the narrative is brisk and unelaborate, which makes the moments when it pushes towards the sublime feel both earned and ecstatic:

For much of the flight the sky is not only free from cloud but so transparent there seems to be no air at all. At the pole, the stars hover against the black of the universe. Below, a frozen ocean is lit by starlight and the thinnest paring of moon, its platinum surface pushed up into broken dunes, shadow rippling in the trenches between. Where the tides have tugged rips in the ice, narrow channels of open water breathe fog as they freeze over. Never has Marian seen a landscape so suffused with hush, so monochromatic and devoid of life.

I found it hard to come back down from these moments to catch up with Hadley’s bad romantic decisions, though I suppose that contrast—which can feel almost like a descent into bathos—might be deliberate, as Hadley is looking to Marian for inspiration, struggling to shape her own life into its own embracing circles. For me, Great Circle is Marian’s book, though; Hadley is in it but not truly of it. Shipstead’s epigraph is from Rilke’s Book of Hours; it ends “am I a falcon, / a storm, or a great song?” Marian, it turns out, is all of these things, and so it is right that she has the last word in the novel, but also that Hadley’s last words are an invocation of what Marian sought and finally found: “And then I must have slipped back into being Marian Graves because, for a second, I felt free.”

This Week In My Classes: The End of Term – and of Online Teaching?

3031 STARTI’m in the little lull between the end of routine class work and the arrival of final essays and exams. Pre-COVID, this was a time for two ritual activities: cleaning my office and going Christmas shopping. Since I’m still working almost entirely at home, the first of these is mostly, if not entirely, beside the point: my current workspace, set up in what was once my son’s bedroom (and still furnished for that purpose, including his 20-year-old mate’s bed), could use a bit of tidying, but because online teaching means there’s a lot less physical debris from the term’s work, it’s not particularly chaotic. I’ll take the teaching-related books and folders to campus for storage when my courses are well and truly wrapped up – and bring home more books related to my sabbatical projects – but there won’t be any major housekeeping to do here until I return to working full-time there.Office

As for Christmas shopping, I’ve done a very little bit in person, in quiet local shops, and some online, but I’m not comfortable going back to the mall yet. I’m actually sad about that: I know a lot of people abhor malls, but I enjoy their cheerfully hectic impersonality. In the before times, I often headed out to the Halifax Shopping Center, ostensibly to do an errand or two, but also to get a little break from the relative isolation of my typical weekends. Much as I cherish quiet ‘alone time,’ sometimes it is (was) also good to be surrounded by the buzz of other people – people who have no expectations of and are placing no demands on me. A leisurely browse in Coles, a bemused poke around in Sephora, feeling old while idly rifling through the racks at H&M: honestly, I miss it, but not enough to do it while masked (and so overheated) and anxious about distancing, especially not now with an outbreak making our case counts spike and omicron on the rampage across the globe.

1015StartHere-cropSo what have I been doing instead of cleaning and shopping? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the “extra” time has gone. One factor, I think, is that online teaching actually doesn’t end neatly the way in-person classes do, or at least my classes haven’t: there has been a fair amount of tidying-up stuff to do, especially record-keeping and wrangling problems of one kind or another. One thing I suppose I didn’t have to do but considered worthwhile was an audit of students’ course bundles for English 1015 (where I am, again, using specifications grading). I would have had to do this eventually to determine their grades, but doing it now has given me a chance to identify a few students who, for whatever reason, were just one component short of a particular bundle, and then to see if there was a bonus exercise they hadn’t already completed that they could do to make it up, rather than ending up with a lower grade for lack of, say, a single discussion post. Of course the students themselves were supposed to be tracking their completed components, but I know that for some of them this was an unfamiliar and/or difficult expectation to meet: there were a lot of moving parts. One thing I like about specifications grading is that you can plug holes in this way, without creating different rules or requirements for different students (which I am always really reluctant to do). Overall, this process went much better this year than last year, when I ended up revising the bundles because so many students had (much to my mystification!) completed such a random assortment of components that an awful lot of them could not have passed the course at all if I hadn’t. I think my new slide presentation using a shopping metaphor to explain how specifications grading works really helped! Shopping Cart

I have also been preparing my final exams, including not just making up the questions but building them in Brightspace, a boringly complicated process with many opportunities to set a switch wrong and create problems, for them or for me. I have now ‘previewed’ and reviewed the settings for both exams multiple times! I also wrote up detailed announcements with information and instructions for the students about everything from the timing of the exam to where to get technical support while writing it. One of the most stressful things about online teaching turns out to be the pressure of putting absolutely everything in writing! Say the wrong thing, put the wrong date, explain something with inadequate clarity – or in too much detail – and there’s endless follow-up work to clean up the mess. There are definitely advantages, of course, over making announcements in person, exactly because the information is there, in writing, available 24/7. I think that weekly Brightspace announcements may be one of the elements of online teaching that I carry over into my in-person classes when I return to them next fall.

Latour reading womanNext fall! Yes, because much to my immense relief and gratitude I am on sabbatical this winter term. This means – although nothing seems absolutely certain about the future anymore – that this term may have been my last term of online teaching. Please let that be true! This is not to say that I’ve hated everything about it. There are some aspects of it I have grown to like, and others that I have learned the value of, whether I like them or not. I will probably never give an in-person quiz or exam again: the simplicity of arranging make-up tests is a gift, for one thing, and especially valuable as we are likely (I hope and expect) to be much more aware from now on of the importance of letting students stay home when they are sick. I also like online reading journals: I had used them in the past as a way of encouraging students to keep up with the reading and getting them to practice expressing ideas about it with low stakes, but then ‘upgrades’ to our LMS took away the journal function I had used and I gave it up. Now that I know how to set up one-on-one discussion boards in Brightspace, I can see keeping up some version of these, especially because Brightspace makes it pretty easy to keep the records.

2040 FAQWhat else has been good about online teaching? Well, while I still greatly prefer the energy, intellectual stimulation, and good cheer of class discussions, I have been impressed at the level of commentary on the discussion boards, especially, this term, in my 19th-century fiction class. I was frustrated all term at how much of it went on at the very end of each module, which meant only rarely was there substantial back-and-forth among the students, but that logistical griping tended to subside when I read through the posts that had come in. I am certain that I “heard” from more students this way than I would have in the classroom: I have pretty good participation rates, and I work hard to make space for students who are shy or just slower to know what they want to say (by, for instance, requiring everyone to put their hand up and wait to be called on), but even so it is typically a minority of students present who actually contribute. As was much discussed last year, when so many of us were new to online teaching, discussion boards proved to be fraught requirements, mostly because their demands felt really burdensome to students – particularly, perhaps, those who were used to coasting a bit by showing up to class and just listening, without (in some cases, not all, of course) doing the reading. The past 18 months of trial and error around online forums has given me a lot to think about in terms of how or whether I will build them into in-person classes. GE-Help-Icon-crop

I haven’t thought through yet how or whether I will incorporate recorded lectures into in-person courses. Happily, my sabbatical buys me time to brood about that! I am teaching English 1015 in person for the first time in Fall 2022; it is the first course I have designed from the start as an online offering, so it’s the one that will require the most reconsideration as with my other courses I can revert pretty easily to my old ways if I want to. For the upper-level courses I’ve created online versions of, my aim was to use the recorded lectures to replace my “front of room” work: some straight lecturing of the “here are the facts, here are the frameworks” kind, but then prompts for discussion, ideas to think through, and passages to focus on, with the work of talking these things through handled through the forums. They were never, that is, designed to give the whole story about our readings, which is also not a goal of mine in the classroom. If I’m (we’re) back in the classroom engaging in these conversations together, I am not sure there’s much point in laboring over slide shows even as supplements, and I would welcome the freedom to follow discussions where the students take them, too, rather than steering students down pre-ordained PowerPoint paths. That said, I have thought and learned a lot about accessibility since COVID struck – more than I ever had before, to my shame.

cow-cranfordThe single thing I have missed the most in my online classes has been laughter. You can do a lot of things asynchronously, and honestly I’m proud of the courses I offered. But asynchronicity is incompatible with spontaneity, which in turn is essential to the kind of fun we so often have in my classroom. The two best qualities I have as a teacher, according to generations of students, are that I am very organized and that I am very enthusiastic. The former has definitely helped me as an online professor: I feel confident that my students always knew exactly what was happening in every module; they knew exactly what was expected of them, and they could count on me to have prepared what they needed for it. I tried hard to convey my enthusiasm, through the tone of my announcements and lectures and through my own participation in the online discussions. I also tried to give some idea of my sense of humor in my slides, replacing what one student fondly (?) called my “demented stick figures” drawn on the whiteboard with the finest graphic design PowerPoint makes possible. smileyface


I know, because they have been generous enough to tell me, that some of my students over the past three terms have felt engaged and connected and motivated by my online teaching, and I’m proud of that! I am definitely eager, though, to be back working with students in person. I think none of us will ever take that experience for granted again.

“Perishable Moments”: Jo Baker, The Telling

A marriage, a birth, a death. This wasn’t a life. It was nothing like it. Life’s what happens in between. The tease of a flame at a dry twig. Snowflakes melting in upturned palms. The drip of chlorinated water from soaked curls, lips unsticking in a smile, outstretched arms with fingers crooked to coax a child into swimming. The dip of the tongue’s tip to the palm of the hand to lift a sweet blue pill from a skin-crease. These tiny things that change the world, minute by minute, and forever. These perishable moments, that are gone completely, if we don’t take the trouble of their telling.

I wish Jo Baker had not written Longbourn: if I hadn’t assumed that she was just one more unimaginative barnacle on the unstoppable ship Austen Always Sells, I might have read her other books sooner. Well, OK, I don’t wish that, since against all my expectations Longbourn, when I finally brought myself to read it, turned out to be really goodA Country Road, A Tree convinced me to try it; I went on to read The Undertow, also excellent—and now I can add that so too is The Telling.

The Telling is described on the cover as a “ghost story,” which would have put me off if Baker hadn’t already earned my trust. In fact, the blurb writers left out all the details that would have sold me the book: that it’s set in an old house called Reading Room Cottage, for example, named for an upstairs room featuring a massive built-in bookcase with an “archeological feel,” and that the historical story interwoven with its contemporary one is about the Chartists. In fact, it isn’t really a ghost story at all, at least not in a hokey haunted way. It’s more uncanny than supernatural, more about reverberations between past and present literalized as humming static in the air than about phantoms or visitations. The “ghost” sensed by Rachel, the modern-day protagonist, does have an identity, a story, one that Rachel eventually tries to uncover, only to be thwarted by the inadequacy of the archival record. We are the ones who know who Lizzy was and what happened to her in that house with the bookcase.

Lizzy’s presence in Rachel’s life — Rachel’s feeling that there’s someone else there and yet not there — does bring a frisson or chill into the novel. Baker’s as good at this kind of thing as Sarah Waters:

I felt it. A teetering, pregnant silence as if a breath had been drawn, and someone was about to speak. I looked up, glanced around the room. The daffodils on the windowsill, the grey paths across the floor, the silky ashes in the grate; it was all absolutely ordinary. The view from the window, grey sky and green fields. As I turned my head to look, I felt slow, as if moving through water. The air was thickening; if I lifted up a finger, and ran it through the air in front of me, it would leave a ripple. But it was too much to move a finger. I couldn’t move a finger. Each breath was a conscious effort.

Like Waters, Baker is smart enough to keep everything suggestive in this way: there’s no face looming through the window, no voice whispering in Rachel’s ear, no books shifting inexplicably about or lights mysteriously turning off or on. Everything abnormal thing Rachel (thinks she) feels could even be explained away by her unstable condition: she is recovering (barely) from depression brought on by the overlapping traumas of her mother’s death from cancer and the birth of her daughter. She has come to Reading Room Cottage to sort out her mother’s things and prepare the house for sale, and also to evade her husband’s loving but burdensome concern.

Lizzy, in her time, lives in the cottage with her parents. She is a housemaid; they are basket weavers and farmers struggling to sustain their family since the recent enclosure of some common land. To get by, they take in a lodger, a master carpenter who is also a radical—if, that it, it is radical to encourage working people to read, to question inequality, and to aspire to political representation. He’s the one who builds the shelves and stocks them with books which he begins leaving around for Lizzy to read. Until he came, she had “always read everything the way [she] was taught, as if it were gospel truth.” Fiction, to her, is an uncomfortable revelation: “I never knew that books could lie.” The books he lends her—Paradise LostHamletThe Odyssey, but also works of natural history and Lyell’s Principles of Geology—up-end Lizzy’s mental life, just as his presence, and the reading room he sets up for meetings and debates, disturb the already uneasy equilibrium in the community.

What brings Lizzy and Rachel together, across time (if we want to believe in ghosts) or just across the novel? Good as both strands were—both are convincing, gripping, moving—I was not 100% convinced that they made a unified whole. At any rate, the parallels between the two women’s stories were not obvious to me. What stands out most to me, thinking about them together, is that Rachel’s grief for her mother makes her acutely aware of how much of every life is ultimately lost. Lizzy’s sorrows are different; what draws her close to Rachel is not that their experiences are similar but that we don’t, or rather Rachel’s doesn’t, know anything about her. All that remains are fragile records, just as all that remains of Rachel’s mother are remnants already losing their meaning: “the photographs that Mum had selected, the moments of her life that she had wanted to keep, to return to, to experience again.” How different, too, is a memory from a haunting? Rachel’s mother is also now no more than an imagined presence. Stories are what remain. In a local bookstore, Rachel finds what we know are some of the books Lizzy read, and in its turn The Telling recreates and preserves the “perishable moments” of what Lizzy’s life might have been.

Painting Around the Obstacles: Molly Peacock, Flower Diary

book-cover-flower-diary-by-molly-peacockIn an era where Mary Cassatt eschewed marriage and a fully adult life to live with her parents in Paris so that she could produce her work, Mary Hiester bounded into an adulthood of painting with a grown-up’s problems of money and sex and logistics . . . Existing with an ambitious man in a socially constricted world for women of which a person today can barely grasp the demeaning dimensions, she lived, by her lights, “cheerfully.” She painted around the obstacles of an artist’s life by employing a woman’s emblem, the rose, and later an emblem of independence, the tree.

Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary weaves together three stories—each of which is also, in its own way, more than one kind of story: there’s the biographical account of artist Mary Hiester Reid, including her marriage to and working relationship with her husband George Agnew Reid; there’s the story of Peacock’s second marriage, which is also the story of her second husband’s illness and death; and there’s the story of Mary Evelyn Wrinch, who married George Reid after the first Mary Reid’s death. “The three of them,” Peacock notes, “are even buried together

in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, section 18, lot 22. Not side by side, but on top of each other; MHR is the foundational layer. Then George on top of her. Last, Mary Evelyn on top of George.

art-books_40_mary-hiester-reid-a-firesideLike Peacock’s earlier, similar work The Paper Garden, the biographical and autobiographical material is interwoven with commentary on art and creativity, especially in this case Mary Hiester Reid’s paintings. For me, these were the best parts of the book. Peacock is a wonderful observer. “A Fireside is rich, warm, and pillowy,” she says of one of Mary’s early paintings:

It’s full of interest for the beholder’s engagement (books, copper tea kettles, a Japanese print brought back from Paris, George’s copy of a huge Velazquez that Mary admired). To the side of the umber beams bloom paperwhite narcissus bulbs in a ceramic bowl. The sparkler flowers hurl out their scent in swift dashes of white that make you know it must be snowing outside. (Canadians plant them to bloom in January or February, life in the dead of winter.) Painted in 1910 when she was fifty-six, it is of a generous room where MHR lit her own art fire, warmed others, and somehow negotiated the complexities of a spiritual, aesthetic, familiar, and perhaps sexual, quasi-ménage à trois.

“Like the continent’s Depression, or perhaps her own,” she says later, of the still-life “Three Roses,”

Mary’s roses languish, looming from the dark background. One of them even drops two tear-shaped petals onto the table below. Another rose—the youngest?—barely out of the bud, has tightly folded petals. Each one is flushed, the pink of the inside of a mouth. The top flower almost pats the back of the one that has let two weeping petals go. It is a highly emotional scene—roses acting out a romance? The still life has a narrative quality. 

Now that she’s described it that way, I can see it: does it make her description any less plausible that it never would have occurred to me to read so much drama into these quietly lovely flowers? I remember having similar questions about her interpretations of some of Mary Delaney’s paper flowers—and about some of the commentary in William Kloss’s ‘Great Course’ on Masterpieces of European Art. “You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes famously chides Dr. Watson: it takes a trained eye, a sympathetic eye, perhaps a poetic eye, to see what Peacock sees. Her poet’s words, of course, also make the difference between plain description and illumination.Three Roses

I found Mary’s paintings really beautiful. (Flower Diary itself is a beautiful object, with heavy, glossy pages and rich, high quality reproductions, a treat for the eyes.) I hadn’t heard of her before. Peacock explains that MHR’s influences were the “tonalists,” painters who “attempt to represent emotions in their paintings through times of day like sunrise, twilight, or sunset, and weather like fog and rain”— a key example is Whistler, whose portrait of Thomas Carlyle was a significant inspiration for MHR’s late composition “A Study in Greys.” MHR, Peacock says, “made [tonalism] her own, with a Realist’s touch”; she had “zero interest in the hard abstraction of modernism.” These labels and abstract explanations mean less to me than Peacock’s insights into the paintings as reminders “that a moment existed, that it flowered fully, that it was fraught and complex, and that a woman in a lace collar holding a palette insisted on its essence.”

MHR by GARFlower Diary follows Mary’s artistic development, integrating it with the story of her personal life—as indeed the two were intricately related in reality. There are lots of parts to both, including the art school Mary and George ran and many trips to Paris and Spain and time spent in an artistic community in Onteora, in the Catskills. Peacock emphasizes Mary’s “persistence” as an artist. Hers was not a bad marriage, or an unsuccessful career: George was a supportive partner, and she was productive and accomplished and recognized. The times were not kind to ambitious women in general, though, or to women artists more particularly. “I don’t know where the assurance and conviction required for Mary’s sort of persistence comes from precisely,” Peacock comments,

but daily circumstances—the vector of a husband’s energy, an active social life, the maintaining of meals, clothes, sleep, friendship, sex, when no one expects you, a weaker vessel, to do what you do—require an internal stamina that must connect to a conviction that something inside of you will perish if you don’t protect your gift. I marvel at the ability to access emotions so thoroughly and to organize an art life, to display rage and to turn toward a canvas with plans. It is consummately adult to hold at once these contradictory responses and urges. “Going cheerfully on with the task” was her method. Eight paintings equaled health, equaled survival, equaled a truly textured life that could have disintegrated if the rage and disappointment she modeled had been enacted.

reid787“Going cheerfully on with the task”: there’s no doubt that this is admirable, and getting on with things rather than enacting one’s rage may indeed by a truly adult—the only possible—adult response to the complexities of life, including married life. There’s ultimately something a bit stolid about the woman we meet in Flower Diary, though, or about Peacock’s characterization of her anyway, and I think that’s why Flower Diary, interesting as it is, and full as it is of beautiful pictures and wonderful bits of writing, was a disappointment to me after the revelation that was The Paper Garden. The story of Mary Delany discovering and fulfilling her own peculiar creative genius late in life was so exhilarating; it seemed to offer so much hope. It is, as I said in my post about it “a subversive, celebratory view of growing older as a woman”: in Peacock’s wonderful phrasing, “Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment.”

When I wrote about The Paper Garden, it resonated with my rising hope that I too might be finding my moment. Now, almost a decade later, I feel less buoyant, more tired and uncertain. It’s not that I don’t recognize myself in MHR: it’s that I do (except maybe the ability to carry on the endless negotiations between life and work, reality and ambition, as “cheerfully” as she apparently could). Where Mary Delany offered inspiration, Mary Hiester Reid represents something more like sensible resignation: do what you can, keep on doing it as well as you can, be satisfied if the work is good. That’s exactly right, of course, and MHR’s work, as Peacock shows it to me, is good indeed. And yet at the same time it seems uncomfortably apt that the culmination of such a life is a study in greys and not an exuberant flowering.