Pick me! Pick me!

I have never voted for any Prime Minister of Canada or Premier of Ontario in any national or provincial election; yet I have never missed an election since I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.

In the last election, in fact, only 24,727 people voted for Justin Trudeau, representing 51.2% of the votes in the riding of Papineau, Quebec which has a population of 110,750 according to the 2016 census. Such is the reality of a Parliamentary democracy, perhaps the most confusing electoral system in the world. I did not vote for Justin Trudeau or Rob Ford or any of their predecessors because their names were not on my ballot.

Partial list of results from the riding of Papineau, taken from the CBC news website.

Nor did I vote for their rivals because none of the candidates in my riding have ever been the leader of their respective parties. There have been a couple cabinet members: Michael Wilson was the Progressive Conservative finance minister(prior to the hijacking by the Reform/Alliance) and Allan Rock was the Justice Minister for the prevailing Liberal party. I did not vote for either of them, sort of, which is precisely the problem.

Allan Rock, the Liberal party incumbent, arrived on our doorstep during the federal campaign, oh so many years ago, seeking our vote. The Reform/Alliance/Conservative appeared to be a legitimate threat and given the conservative tendencies in Etobicoke Central in our first-past-the-post system, I decided to vote Liberal knowing the NDP were a virtual non-entity in our neighbourhood. I responded to Allan Rock by saying, “I am voting Liberal to ensure the Conservatives don’t get to power.” To which he replied, “I hope that is not the only reason.”

“Nope, that is the only reason.”

My selection was not for the leader at the time, Jean Chretian; I did not choose the candidate; technically I voted Liberal which itself is a dubious interpretation. So when the analysts come on TV and begin to proffer their version of the results, they realistically have no clue as to whether the votes are for the party, the candidate, or the leader of the party. All three are possible, which makes the reality of who forms the government maddening.

Seats acquired and popular vote results from the 2019 Canadian federal election. Source: CBC news website.

The Liberal party with Justin Trudeau as its leader formed the government after acquiring 33.1% of the popular vote, 1.3 percentage points less than the Conservative party; yet, the seats won were 157 and 121 respectively. Indeed, in only five elections since 1867 did the winning party garner more than 50% of the electorate. In other words, the majority of eligible voters in Canada did not cast their ballot for the ruling government, regardless of party colour, for 38 of the 43 elections held in Canada. By all accounts the 44th parliament will be the same; approximately two thirds of the voters will not have voted for the party forming the next government. Never mind that only 67% of those eligible actually cast a ballot in the last election which means the ruling government was selected by 22% of registered voters and by only 17% of the entire population.

That’s Democracy.

The numbers work out approximately the same regardless of who forms the government. These same issues arise when we examine other electoral systems, but I digress. On Monday, I will walk to our local polling station, bring my own pencil, don the mask and place an X beside one name because my parents taught us early: you cannot complain if you don’t vote.

My parents were exceedingly proud of becoming Canadian Citizens and able to exercise their right to vote. They could not understand why people did not bother and even advocated for a law which would fine those who did not cast a ballot. Mom and Dad had close friends who refrained from voting or could not because they had not applied for citizenship. My parents would bluntly tell them to stop bitching about this or that decision – you didn’t vote!

Dad was open about his choices. He voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) because it is the workers party. Dad became disenchanted with them after the NDP government in Ontario under Bob Rae taxed auto insurance, something they promised not to do during the election campaign. Breaking that promise was the bone my Dad could not let go. Mom was more coy about her choices, never really trusting the NDP, probably voted Liberal most of the time but I would not be surprised if the occasional ballot was for a Conservative party.

Picture of Mom and Dad from a 1983 visit to Storybook Gardens: statement on their election choices?

Neither of them voted on the basis of the candidate in their riding. I expect they did not even know the name, nor cared. Their focus was on the leader and therefore, checked the box beside the associated party, much along the line of proportional representation to which they were accustomed back in the Netherlands. Politics was common fodder for conversations at home over the dinner table, spilling into the evenings and heating up during an election campaign all the way up to voting day. Not voting was a non-starter.

Beyond casting a ballot, however, they did not get involved with parties, campaigns, or issues. On one occasion, Dad and the neighbour, Fred Hoornick, called in sick as part of an organized, one day labour protest of Pierre Trudeau’s national wage and price freeze legislation. It would be the only day Dad would miss work. He and Fred went to the local forest and transplanted several trees on their respective properties to mark the day. One still survives at the back edge of our Kostis Avenue home. I cannot recall any other manner in which Mom or Dad participated in any form of political activity.

My experience has not been much different in terms of participation. Yes, I have voted in every election; I have signed petitions, written the occasional form letter to my local representative; and I have protested in a handful of rallies, one large one marching along University Avenue to Queens Park in Toronto. I have never contributed money to a political party much to the surprise of at least one relative. I keep close tabs on political news, reading opinion pieces, and am aware of the party philosophies and platforms so I can engage in intelligent conversation and make an informed choice.

I am not proud of my own inactivity and am grateful for the passionate few who bring awareness to issues with their efforts and work. Their work is important. Voting is the minimum requirement and represents the most passive form of democracy. The least I can do is cast a ballot in a manner which will help support and reflect my values.

Small is beautiful

I have a penchant for small books. Not measured in amount of pages, rather with respect to the physical size. Small books are more convenient to carry on a journey, fitting easily into the side pocket of my leather briefcase without bulging or distorting its shape. They are comfortably cradled with one hand, left or right, the thumb marking your place, dexterously flipping the page when your eyes reach the bottom. I do not break the spine of the book consciously to avoid any evidence of wear, especially if signed, so this maneuver is reserved for my inexpensive paperback baseball collection.

Small books tend to be more inviting, tempting the reader for selection rather than imposing itself on the shelves by dominating the sightlines. Larger books exude the appearance of substance until you leaf through pages of white and oversized fonts. The beauty of small lies within the precision of type and design into a compact package to entice you with an equally concise and dense story. Some recent purchases of newly released Canadian literature fit this description prompting my theme this month to focus on small books. Each is very different in style and content, offering up a variety to attract a number of readers.

McClelland & Stewart, 2021. 235 pages.

The month started with the purchase of What Strange Paradise, a novel by Omar El Akkad. Born in Egypt, he moved to Canada at the age of sixteen, earned a computer science degree before embarking on a journalism career with the Globe and Mail covering world events including the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay, and the Middle East uprisings of the Arab Spring. His background brings a lived experience with or at least a witness of the people he writes about in his new work. Like his first novel, American War, the subject matter is timely. You can read some of the accolades from the back inside jacket reproduced below.

The story revolves around a nine year old Syrian boy, Amir, who suddenly finds himself aboard a decrepit fishing boat loaded with refugees perilously floating across the Mediteranean Ocean to escape the horrors of their homeland. Crashing onto the shores of a Greek island, all the escapees, Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinians, perish except for Amir who is rescued by a teenage girl, Vanna. She navigates his trek across the terrain, avoiding the clutches of the local military, out of sight of the valued tourist industry and into the hands of sympathetic countrymen. In the chapters which alternate between past and present, the reader is confronted with realities of a harsh world where hierarchy, ranked differently within each context, largely determines fate. In an argument aboard the boat of refugees, the refugees talk about a racist America but are cautioned about their own prejudices: Kamal pointed to the floor, below which the lower galleys hummed. “Look at the skin color of the people up here and look at the skin color of the people down there and tell me we’re any better.”

The novel is compelling. In it’s description of the people and the dialogue between them, the reader is asked to re-evaluate our own beliefs with this understanding of another person’s reality. I was humbled by the plight of one passenger, a pregnant Syrian woman who mothers Amir along the watery journey. Throughout she kept practicing her lines, focusing on correct pronunciation and a western accent, hoping the words would elicit aid upon their arrival: Hello. I am pregnant. I will have baby on April twenty-eight. I need hospital and doctor to have safe baby. Please help.

At the same time, we are asked to consider who provokes change and influences events. In a passage relaying the circumstances leading to the disappearance of Amir’s uncle during the protests of the Arab Spring, we are left to contemplate the potential role of the average person: Perhaps it was not the presence of a revolutionary at a revolution that so enraged the secret police who took them, but the presence of an ordinary man.

No one can read this book and remain untouched.

Harper Collins, 2021. First Canadian edition. 180 pages.

Rachel Cusk is only nominally a Canadian writer. She was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to British parents spending her very early years in Los Angeles before moving to England in 1974, according to Wikipedia. Second Place is Cusk’s eleventh fictional publication along with four non-fiction works including three memoirs. She may be best known for the Outline trilogy, beginning in 2014 with Outline, followed up with Transit in 2017, finishing with Kudos one year later. These books are purported to represent a new approach to fiction drawing high praise from critics and numerous nominations for major literary prizes. I purchased Second Place in part because it has been long listed for the Booker Prize and according to the bookies (yes, they bet on book award winners in England) Cusk is among the current odds on favourite to make the shortlist and win the 2021 award.

The book is told exclusively through the words of M in a book long letter to an unidentified person named Jeffers about the attraction and interaction with an artist known only as L. The reader is introduced to a number of other characters, all with names, all related to each other as family or lovers, cohabitating without ever stating the complete name of either of the main two characters. M is attracted to L’s work, invites him to stay in the second place on their rural property for the summer, where he lives with an art groupie, creating havoc among all the couples; M and her husband, Tony; their daughter, Justine and her boyfriend, Kurt; L and his latest muse, Brett.

Ultimately the book is about the role of art and our relationship with it: For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging. Tony didn’t believe in art – he believed in people, their goodness and their badness, and he believed in nature. He believed in me….

Labelling the two main protagonists by letters, and writing to some unknown entity was strange in the beginning, but I became accustomed to the style. I don’t understand the convention and cannot explain how it adds value to the literature. I find it too abstract, analogous to a painting with splashes of colour called “untitled”. I kept thinking the book to be self-indulgent, a cathartic exercise albeit with pearls of wisdom: “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you”; “Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty [for receptivity] will fail us sooner or later”; “If we treated each moment as though it were a permanent condition, a place where we might find ourselves compelled to remain forever, how differently most of us would choose the things that moment contains.” Although it may not have widespread appeal, the literary lover will appreciate the work.

Harper Collins, 2013. 290 pages

I searched my bookcases for the remaining two small books this month, ones which had eluded my indulgence in the past. Natalee Caple’s 2013 novel, In Calamity’s Wake drew my attention for it’s red colour and hardcover format designed without the paper dust jacket. Now a professor at Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Caple has four novels to her name, several books of poetry and some short story collections as the editor. I enjoyed reading her debut novel, The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World when it was published in 1999 so decided to delve into this one.

The story is the fictional quest of Miette to track down her mother, the real life Martha Canary, famously known as Calamity Jane. The plot is best laid out by the protagonist herself in an explanation to one of the many colourful characters Miette encounters along the way: “Say you had a mother and by all accounts she was a liquor-loving wild whore. And say that in her wisdom, knowing herself, she gave you to a good man and in her wisdom she never contacted you, never wrote to ask how tall you were or if you were still alive. And say the one who had mounted her was a killer and he was dead before he ever knew about you. And say your real father, the man who was both mother and father to you, who made you a safe home and loved you – in his wisdom as he died when you could say nothing but yes to him – set you on a journey to find the woman who chose not to be your mother. Should you follow her wisdom and leave her be? Or should you follow his wisdom and find her and force yourself upon her?”

The lengthy quote also displays the general tenor of the book, replete with stories and characters and situations befit a good western. After several days on the road, Miette is talking to the boil on her foot, asking for advice on setting up camp given the oncoming storm. The description of the Pan-American Exposition, an exhibit of human nature, is hilarious with its endless variety of free soups, samples, sandwiches, cheeses and preserves; straight laced dames and tight laced dames and fair American girls; and the introduction of the latest gadgets like the Kodak craze or the latest thinking that the earth’s surface is concave instead of convex. In another chapter we meet Dora Du Fran who runs a brothel which was shut down by local authorities until her female lawyer convinced Dora to purchase cats for each room in order to demonstrate to the judge how the services were in fact a zoological exhibit, a residence for special felines and their personal guardians. Reminiscent of Chris de Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper, the judge declared, “After reviewing the facts, I find this ordinance is not applicable to cat houses. Case dismissed!”

The humour is deadpan throughout, contained in varying styles. Elements are in song; there are pages of lists, paragraphs of repeated phrases, chapters with only one sentence. If not a tremendous piece of literature, Calamity’s Wake is a very entertaining read.

McArthur & Company, 2007. 219 pages.

The subject of Come Away: Song of Songs by Anne Hines is a semi comedic look at a current state of contemporary religion. The online descriptions of Hines appear to be dated, making it difficult to ascertain her current works. One site describes her as Canada’s answer to Erma Bombeck, stating how Hines began her career as a humour/lifestyle columnist for Canadian Living Magazine and is currently a contributing editor of humorous articles at Chatelaine Magazine. She is or at least was a part-time Masters theology student at the University of Toronto, which explains the content of what appears to be her second novel, Come Away.

The book begins in 537 BC in the ancient city of Babylon during the Akitu, the largest and most anticipated festival of worship in the year. It is a time when numerous gods were worshiped, male and female, led by priests and priestesses. Here we meet one priestess, Shahiroz and her family who were part of the people banished from Jerusalem that eventually travel back to their homeland. Leap ahead to 2007 AD where we meet Professor Reggie Niefeild, pre-eminent scholar and expert on everything about the Song of Songs, an unlikely and largely unexplainable inclusion in the Old Testament. Professor Niefeild’s life work on this scroll represents the last legitimate academic scholarship in the theology department of Hosana College in the University of Toronto. The book attempts to demonstrate the devolution of religion into one god, dominated by men and their interpretations.

Come Away is based on historical records which will have been nourished by Hines’s enrolment in a graduate theology program. The story of Shahiroz is a depiction of the actions leading to the change in worship mixed with subtle humour of everyday life in the time: “Worshipping a single god is blasphemy”; “If the goddess wanted men to be doctors, she would have made them women.”

When the book shifts to today, Hines viciously skewers the world of arcane academia, specifically the department of religious studies. Professors not having published in at least a decade; a renowned Professor Niefeild who publishes regularly but always based on a spin on the same topic; and departmental meetings focusing on how to remain relevant: “You can hardly use public interest to determine what matters, Cullen. Look at The Da Vinci Code. Sex. Titillation. Religion as entertainment. It’s just giving the people what they want.” Watch the mini series, The Chair, on Netflix to get a visual understanding. The two time periods are connected by the Song of Songs, BC with its original existence and AD with its attempt to uncover the mystery.

I found the book inconsistent in approach, wanting to educate on an important interpretation of events whilst entertaining us with moments of slapstick style humour. I certainly learned much about the Song of Songs, making me interested in its existence and ongoing interpretation. The book does read well, offering up a smile and some religious history for the curious.

How do you feel about the size of books? Send a line with your comments.

We are entering into the season of new releases, so September will be dedicated to new Canadian literature. As always, I welcome your suggestions. Until then, happy reading.

How I spent my summer vacation

Summer brings up memories of driving and holiday excursions. Growing up, vacations normally meant visiting locations in Ontario, always involving a vehicle, and most of the time including relatives from the Netherlands.

My parents owned a car for their entire life in Canada. A vehicle was a necessity living outside the city limits with very little within walking distance and no access to public transportation. Dad had to learn to drive in order to work. I recall Mom explaining the process by which Dad obtained his license. There were no mandatory driving lessons or wait periods or graduated testing. He registered for a driving test and promptly failed on his first attempt. When the instructor informed my mother, she said simply, Dad was going to drive regardless because he needed to remain employed; the instructor reluctantly reversed his initial assessment and granted Dad his license.

My parents first car in 1958: a Volkswagen Beetle

My parents purchased a used Volkswagen Beetle, I expect on some form of credit since they arrived in the country with very little. It enabled them to get from A to B but little else. They would laugh explaining how driving skills included the ability to scrape simultaneously the frost from the interior side of the windshield because the fan produced insufficient heat in the winter. There would be bigger cars in the future as the family grew, all used until their last, a luxury they finally afforded themselves in the waning years. Mom also learned to drive early as she became the chauffer for the different Saturday activities when Dad was working. It was Mom who drove us to our swimming lessons, or bagpipe lessons for the 3M marching band, or to the London Gardens to watch 3M play in the industrial league or shopping. Everything required a vehicle. The car was our lifeline.

I can recall only two holiday excursions which did not involve driving or were outside of the province of Ontario. Both were trips back to the Netherlands in 1967 and in 1973. My first vague memory of a family vacation was of renting a cabin up north, on Manitoulin Island, which I know now because of the labels on some early photographs. I would have been four years old. The only incident imprinted in my brain was the presence of a large snake under the cottage which ventured onto the gravel road. The image still haunts me.

More clearly are memories of a week long camping trip to Sand Hills Park, a private campground on the shores of Lake Erie, near Port Dover. We vacationed with the Jansen family: Albert and Riet (Mr. and Mrs. Jansen as I always called them) and their two sons, Pete and Eddie. All the boys slept in the pop-trailer; our parents slept in the hard-top, borrowed from Gordon Appleby, the neighbour across the street who drove it to the site as a favour.

The days were spent on the beach and dunes, playing badminton and horseshoes, flipping knives and carving wood, as well as loud, robust games of cards, capped by a camp fire each night. I remember proudly spending the entire trip in my bare feet, never once donning a pair of shoes or sandals.

It seemed every other summer holiday time involved relatives from the Netherlands. Dad had to schedule a couple of weeks of his very limited vacation to host and escort a brother or sister, sometimes their children, around the province. There were the obligatory trips to Ottawa and Niagara Falls, sometimes to Toronto or Midland and always everyone packing into one vehicle, cramming bodies onto the bench seats, as many as four in the front and the remainder in the back. Cars were bigger, seatbelts were non-existent, and personal space was irrelevant. The trunk was spacious, easily holding the folding chairs, coolers, Coleman stove, luggage and tools, exactly as they said in the ads (a nod to fans of the Wonder Boys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHcwHxzDQDs).

I recall our first trip to Ottawa in the old green car. Given its dubious mechanical reliability, Dad decided to avoid Highway 401, the major four lane thoroughfare, and the heavy traffic of Toronto by following Highway 7 all the way from London, a six to eight hour drive depending on how many stops were required. We needed to have easy access to gas stations because that old green car needed frequent visits when we jokingly asked the attendant to check the gas and fill’er up with oil. The four of us would be on our knees staring out the big window and laughing as the car left a trail of heavy smoke for several miles after each stop, engulfing everything in its wake. You can imagine, as well, how four rambunctious boys could misbehave with all that time and the abundant space in the back seat. Mom would admonish us, demanding us to settle down; Dad would reach back to smack anyone within reach, threatening to pull over if we didn’t start behaving. It was the first of numerous trips to Canada’s capital city.

In the early years, we did not stop at roadside eateries or restaurants. Fast food enterprises were still in its infancy. My parents preferred the traditional picnic alternative which had the added bonus of saving money. The idea of stopping at McDonald’s for a burger was belittled especially when you could enjoy healthier, homemade sandwiches with smoked meats purchased from the Dutch Deli, packed in Styrofoam coolers along with fresh fruit and cut-up vegetables from the garden. Don’t even think about purchasing a coffee from Tim Hortons when a Coleman propane stove could quickly boil some water for a very hot taste of some Maxwell House Instant coffee.

Stop in a park for some lunch prepared, in part, with the Coleman stove. Coffee was instant.

Niagara Falls was another favourite site of my parents. The eighth natural wonder of the world is only an hour and a half drive from London, an easy one day trip, up and down, not costing the price of an overnight stay. No visit to Canada was complete without a trip to the Falls.

I lost any desire to view them again until Olga and I had our own children and we embarked on a driving family vacation around Lake Erie. The first stop? Niagara Falls. My Mom and Dad were so excited by the prospect they decided to meet us there, where we visited the major attractions and shared a picnic lunch. They wanted to relive those earlier experiences, this time with the grandchildren.

We eventually made stops in Cooperstown, New York and Kingston, Ontario mirroring the same kind of trip as in my childhood by driving somewhere. In retrospect, many of my own family holidays involved car travel. Olga and I drove back and forth to Quebec City for our honeymoon; the entire family drove from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Victoria, British Columbia by way of Swift Current, Drumheller, Banff and Jasper National Parks, Vernon, Vancouver, and Calgary, stopping frequently for a roadside picnic with our own prepared lunches.

Lunch stop in Revelstoke, British Columbia

Our first trip to Europe with the kids involved renting a car to trek from Tilburg to Paris and Normandy and back, visiting Brugge, Rouen, Antwerp and numerous small towns in between. Before we departed, Uncle Piet and Tante Franciene lent us a Styrofoam cooler so we could purchase food and eat along the road. We saved money by limiting meals at restaurants, acquiring groceries to eat on the road or in our rooms.

Stop for a picnic lunch out of the trunk of our car at one of many roadside cemeteries.

On another trip, Olga and I drove from Amsterdam to Barcelona via Provence and back through the Pyrenees. I still love a road trip and consider it one of the best modes of transportation to see any country.

Caribbean resorts have their place on a rare occasion to escape; ship cruises don’t have the same appeal. My preference would be to travel by car, stopping at small towns, eating along the roadside, checking out the world’s largest gavel, visiting the ball park, singing to tunes on the radio, getting lost along the way, embracing the journey and the destination.

Canadian Fiction in East Africa and India

The idea I am putting forward is that new Canadians bring their stories
with them, and these stories then become Canadian stories. Canada’s past
lies not only in the native stories of the land itself, but also in Europe, and
now in Africa and Asia; Canadians have fought not only in the World Wars,
but also in the wars of liberation of Africa, Asia, and South America. We
have veterans and heroes not only of those European wars, but also of wars
elsewhere. Our children, however much they sometimes pretend that our
past does not matter to them, also demand that. The stories of the Jewish
Holocaust, the holocausts in Rwanda, the Partition of India, and the massacres of Cambodia are also Canadian stories.

M.G. Vassanji, Am I a Canadian writer? in Canadian Literature. Number 190, Fall 2006, South Asian Diaspora.

I first read a book from M.G. Vassanji in 2017 prior to my initial visit to Tanzania which included a stop in Uganda. Mary Fisher, a colleague at Seneca College and fellow Canadian literature enthusiast, directed me to his 2012 novel, The Magic of Saida. The story takes place in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda so I was able to connect some of the content to my travels. I had been purchasing faithfully every book he has published since the mid 1990’s but had yet to read any of them. Vassanji’s last novel, A Delhi Obsession, was released in Fall 2019 immediately before our trip to India. I read it during that time and better understood the story because of a visit to Amritsar and the Partition Museum. ( https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/137 )

M.G. Vassanji is an accomplished and decorated author, winner of two Giller prizes for fiction and the Governor General’s award for non-fiction along with numerous others; yet, his name draws blanks to the large majority of people when they inquire as to my recent reading material. My sudden interest stems from the locations as they coincide with recent travel destinations and with my continuing exploration into to the life of my Uncle Kees in Uganda ( https://henrydecock.org/category/dikoko/ ). The work of M.G. Vassanji, therefore, became the source of my reading for the month of July.

I began with his fourth book and third novel, The Book of Secrets published in 1994, honoured with the distinction of being the inaugural winner of the prestigious Giller Prize. The new award was valued at $25,000, the highest in Canada, and has become the most recognized prize in the country, raising the profile and book sales of winners and nominees alike. I had only just begun collecting Canadian literature and purchased a post-prize 3rd printing version of the book complete with a sticker announcing the award on the cover. (All my subsequent books are first printing, although I have yet to acquire one with his signature.)

McLelland & Stewart, 1994. 333 pages.

The story transports the reader to a fictional town in Kenya, bordering German East Africa, present day Tanzania, in 1910. The book chronicles the story and discovery of a lost diary from the British Assistant Director which purportedly documents Alfred Corbin’s scandalous liaison with a beautiful, local girl, Mariamu, who is betrothed to marry Pipa, an aspiring entrepreneur. We follow the lives of the families and delve into the mind of the historian Pius Fernandez through World War I and into the 1980’s as the secrets are slowly revealed.

The books of M.G. Vassanji always include a lesson in history and an understanding of the times. The account of the fighting in East Africa during the first World War certainly helped me to understand the change of colonial powers as a result, filling in gaps of my knowledge about the African country. The perspective is always from that of the Asians, how they settled and lived in East Africa, their relationship to the indigenous population and with the Europeans. The story itself is compelling, slowly revealing itself in chapters looking backward in the pursuit of the owner and content of this so-called book of secrets.

The reader is totally immersed into the place and time with a litany of names and locations in the language of the protagonists, both Indian and African. At times the information is overwhelming and I found myself constantly referring to the four page Glossary in the back and to the map at the front. Each enabled me to situate the story and capture more deeply the meaning behind the words. After the first hundred pages, I became accustomed and simply intuited the meaning from the context, allowing the characters and situations to inform my understanding.

The Book of Secrets also struck a chord for me as an amateur historian attempting to uncover the world of a missionary Uncle in an unknown part of the globe. How do you write about a time or a person or a place about which the knowledge is limited or incomplete, “as incomplete as any book must be. A book of half lives, partial truths, conjecture, interpretation, and perhaps even mistakes. What better homage to the past than to acknowledge it thus, rescue it and recreate it, without presumption of judgement, and as honestly as we know ourselves, as part of the life of which we all are a part?

The story, the insight and the writing made for a pleasurable read.

Doubleday, 2003. 400 pages.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is M. G. Vassanji’s sixth book and the eventual winner of the 2003 Giller Prize. Vassanji thereby became the very first writer to win the coveted prize twice, an accomplishment not attained by the likes of Michael Ondaatje or Margaret Atwood or Lawrence Hill or Miriam Toews. Subsequent two time winners would be Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro and most recently, the internationally renowned, Esi Edugyan.

The story begins with the protagonist introducing himself and stating, “I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame.” Vikram Lall proceeds to detail his life growing up in an Asian family in Kenya beginning in 1952, through the country’s underground insurgency fighting for eventual independence in 1963 and into the increasingly corrupt government which collapsed following the death of its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The politics are infused with the personal as the reader witnesses the impossibility of inter-racial love and the realities of growing up Asian in East Africa. “Here I was, a young Asian graduate in an African country with neither the prestige of whiteness or Europeanness behind me nor the influence and numbers of a local tribe to back me, but carrying instead the stigma from generalized recent memory of an exclusive race of brown ‘Shylocks’ who had collaborated with the colonizers… Black chauvinism and reverse racism were the order of the day against Asians.” The book helped inform me about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda during the regime of Ida Amin and the reaction of my uncle to these actions. For all readers, the novel provides a fictional account of an historic period in the birth and development of fledgling African states.

Once again the reader is immersed in the country and the languages, this time without a glossary or a map, because as Vassanji writes in the end notes, “My usages of Kiswahili (or Swahili), Kikuyu, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati should be self-explanatory in their contexts.” When in doubt I popped a word into Google or consulted it for the geographic location of places. I could relate more easily to the time period and the unravelling of the story to explain the opening quote made for a compelling, highly satisfactory read.

Doubleday Canada, 2007. 314 pages.

M.G. Vassanji’s 2007 follow-up novel, The Assassin’s Song, was nominated for the trifecta of Canadian awards; the newly named Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Literature and the previously titled Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. This story takes place in western India, told in the aftermath of 2002 religious violence in Gujarat, by Karsan Dargawalla, anointed spiritual heir to become the next sufi of the Shrine of the Wanderer. Karsan, however, desperately wants to be ordinary with dreams of being a cricket star, an aspiration resolutely quashed by his father, the reigning leader, who succeeded his own father’s role. Neither Hindu nor Muslim, the followers of Pirbaag were caught in between the growing tension between the two religions: “Why do Hindus and Muslims hate each other?” He became quiet, looked away, and for a moment I thought he was going to say, I don’t know. Instead, he said, “They don’t hate each other. They’re only sometimes afraid of each other . . . and there are those among them who exploit that fear.”

Karsan learns of the world beyond his village through the newspapers provided by his truck driving friend, and with clandestine visits to the nearby city where he applied for university in the United States aided by the recommendation of a favoured book dealer. With a full scholarship, Karsan moves to Cambridge, gaining knowledge beyond the classroom, building a career and a life, returning thirty years later amidst political and personal tragedy.

Understanding the terminology of religious sects and spiritual followings was more of a challenge for me, especially given the author’s style of complete immersion into the world of the story. Vassanji does provide a glossary this time, explaining the evolution of literary proprieties of fiction in English reflecting the diversity of a growing body of writers: “There used to be a time when non-English terms appearing in fiction were necessarily italicized to denote their foreignness, or adorned with super-script to provide their meanings. Happily this is not the case any more, for the meaning of a term should be apparent in a novel of story wherever it occurs. However, to shun a glossary or even a hint of a meaning merely on principle risks becoming another orthodoxy, a posture which I would like to avoid.” There are moments of simplicity in the writing, applicable across languages, which evoke the raw emotion of the moment: “We had a life together, we had love and friendship and a child, we had some great times; but now there is nothing but pain and I have gone away. Hug and kiss understood. We did love each other, with our own brand of passion. We laughed. But that last long cry killed us.”

The attraction of the story was less about the clash of spirituality with the material, contemporary world and more with story of families, their bonds and influences, the lifelong impact of parents as exhibited by the propensity for children to follow subconsciously their parents in actions or ideas. This message will resonate more with those who reflect honestly on themselves and that of the lives of their children.

Doubleday Canada, 2014. 370 pages.

M.G. Vassanji is the author, as well, of three pieces of non-fiction, of which his travelogue A Place Within: Rediscovering India won the 2009 Governor General’s prize. I chose to read the 2014 And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa in hopes of gaining insight to support my other writing project. The Preface, however, quoted here in part, provides the most compelling reason for the curious. “From abroad, I often see Africa perceived merely as a place of war, disease, and hunger, a sick entity deserving pity and sustenance and all help possible. … Over the years I have often revisited East Africa, where I was born and raised, as were my parents and one grandfather. From the inside, the place is actually very different, and the world looking out also seems very different. … Every place is a universe in itself; I saw a diversity in a varied and teeming country. There was life, there were people. There was the geography. ” The words captured my very brief experience and I wanted to read how Vassanji would write this memoir, a genre about which I would like to learn more.

I have managed only to get halfway through the 370 pages at the time of this writing. The book is a combination of history lessons and personal reflection. The history is both about “discovering” the eastern side of the continent as well as the establishment of the Asian community in Africa. Vassanji utilizes numerous historic documentation, although, frustratingly, the quotes are not cited and all reference material is found in the back of the book organized only by chapter, somewhat inconsistently.

The best writing occurs when he reflects on his personal responses to the scenes of old stomping grounds or historic outposts of the Asian community: “As I stand here in the noisy clamorous heat and dust taking photos, I think I could fill all the apartment around this crossroads with people and stories. No amount of photography could replace the memories of a life lived, of lives observed and known, of lives elaborated in the mind and on the page.” ; and when Vassanji discusses the writing of history, who writes, and for whom: “We can hardly blame the others for celebrating their own heroes, writing their own stories; the question is, why did ‘we’ not produce our own stories?” I will finish the book and hope the balance of writing leans more towards the personal.

M.G. Vassanji is among the best Canadian writers, recognized with awards for both his fiction and non-fiction, here and internationally. And yet, he remains somewhat unknown. Vassanji’s African birth, Indian heritage and personal experiences form the basis and location of his work and always includes some connection to Canada. I would certainly recommend the books I have completed and hope you will agree. More information about M.G. Vassanji can be found below, reproduced from his website.

Until next month, happy reading.


From the website: M G Vassanji is the author of nine novels, two collections of short stories, a travel memoir about India, a memoir of East Africa, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He is twice winner of the Giller Prize (1994, 2003) for best work of fiction in Canada; the Governor General’s Prize (2009) for best work of nonfiction; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; the Commonwealth First Book Prize (Africa, 1990); and the Bressani Prize.The Assassin’s Song was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Prize, the Writers Trust Award, and India’s Crossword Prize. His work has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Swahili. Vassanji has given lectures worldwide and written many essays, including introductions to the works of Robertson Davies, Anita Desai, and Mordecai Richler, and the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. In June 2015, MG Vassanji was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts. (Photo: Mark Reynolds)

M G Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He received a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, before going to live in Canada. He is a member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto, and visits East Africa and India often.

Tanzania redux

I just finished M.G. Vassanji’s novel, The Book of Secrets. The story takes place in Tanganyika (German East Africa) and Kenya largely during the first World War years and into the aftermath of their independence. The protagonists gravitate between the cities of Moshi, Dar-Es-Salaam and the fictional Kikono; Voi, Mombasa and Nairobi respectively. The book resurrected memories of my 2017 work travels in Tanzania when I was writing home daily to describe my experiences. Rereading them made me realize the stories became the foundation of my blogging practice with their descriptions and observations.

A number of the emails dealt with the work itself and the people who I met in the process. I will spare you the detail; rather I will focus on a few of the humorous events but not before some initial, sober commentary. Except for minor editing for obvious typos, selected letters or portions thereof are reproduced here with accompanying photographs. The post is long so grab your favourite beverage, put your feet up and enjoy. I hope it brings the same thoughtful reflection and a smile to your face as happened with me in this Tanzania redux.

The front end of the May 2017 journey to the continent of Africa began in Uganda which I wrote about, in part, in an earlier post. I flew out of Entebbe, changing planes in Kigali, Rwanda, landing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to join up with my work colleagues. The next day, we left in two vans for Dodoma, situated in the geographic centre of the country.

Sun 2017-05-21 4:43 PM Day 6: Dodoma, Tanzania

If today is Day 6 then I must be in Dodoma.

I have travelled to a different place for the night every day since I have been here. Today was no exception.

Dodoma was declared the capital of Tanzania about a year ago and the president is moving government offices here. The city is 470 kilometres from Dar es Salaam which took us 9 hours to drive! The inordinate amount of time is result of a combination of going through numerous towns/villages where massive speed bumps make sure you slow down; trucks, trucks and more trucks with seemingly full loads because they move oh…so…slow….ly; and roads with craters and pavement with ruts from the weight of the trucks. I spoke last time about Dar es Salaam having a better infrastructure than Kampala. Well, the quality of the road is in a direct inverse relationship to the distance from Dar es Salaam. The holes here in the rural part of Tanzania were equally as bad as what I saw in Uganda. It is perplexing that the main road into Dodoma, which is the capital, is in such bad shape. We even witnessed the aftermath of a head on collision between two trucks which our driver suspected was a consequence of one or both trying to avoid the massive holes in the road.

View through the windshield of the road through one of the many small towns on the road to Dodoma.

At the guest office of the hospital in Kamuli there was a young English doctor named Joe who was practicing there for the last three months. I was chatting with him and asked about his sense of the poor conditions. One of his comments was about feeling guilty that people had to pay for the medical services. And he also said the conditions were worse outside of town, in the countryside. We got a good glimpse of that today on the road to Dodoma. There were the shanty like “shops” in all the towns/villages like I had seen in Uganda but there was a closer look at the “homes” which were spread throughout. I was not exaggerating when I described my hotel room (including this one here in Dodoma) as bigger than these huts/shacks….They were a pile of red clay stones cobbled together, topped by a tin roof held in place by large stones on the perimeter. They had no windows and the lucky ones had a door, otherwise a cloth curtain covered the entrance way. The grounds were surrounded by mud because we are at the end of the rainy season; and in one case, the hut was surrounded by ankle deep water which did not stop the woman from standing in it to hang the laundry. I have no conception of what their lives are like on a day to day basis.

Equally as difficult to see are these stands trying to sell vegetables or fruits or sunflower oil. Tomatoes seem to be the most popular item with row upon row of stacks of the vegetable. I cannot figure out who is buying and what kind of market is there for all these tomatoes. It feels like an act of hope or desperation which is epitomized by this lone woman sitting on a wooden stump on the side of the road with a large platter of what looked like nuts while trucks and cars pass by. No sign to indicate what she had, no stand to attract and certainly no customers. Who would stop and buy? And why? I have difficulty understanding the thinking or the process.

Our vehicles certainly did not stop at these type of “shops”. We ate at a roadside gas and restaurant…. The selection was extremely limited and without the samosas (because they ran out) the only other safely edible item was French fries (they were fresh cut!). The stop resulted in a funny interaction with one of the locals. I went to wash my hands at the restaurant because there were no facilities in the bathroom. There were two sinks both of which produced nothing when I turned open the taps. A gentleman moved in beside me and turned the tap on the water jug propped on the edge, calling it “African style”, an apt description for much of my experience so far.

Tue 2017-05-23 Day 8: Dodoma again

Today was spent either at the workshop or at the hotel so my story today is related to….. the hotel! Alan, the co-ordinator of the funded project who is living in Tanzania for the 5 year duration, says the Moreno Hotel here in Dodoma is considered akin to a Hyatt or a Marriott. This town had little to attract people to it until it became the capital; so now, there will be a need for hotels like it… but they have room for improvement. Getting small things right would go a long way.

The gardens at the back of the Moreno Hotel in Dodoma

When I stepped into the shower yesterday, I realized there was no facecloth. No big deal, thinking it was an oversight. I was pleased later that day when there was a face cloth in the bathroom; but, this morning when I went in the shower, it was apparent there was no soap. Too late to call reception I made due with body lotion. This evening I returned to my cleaned up hotel room and what do I find………. Soap ……but no face cloth. Apparently you can have one or the other but not both at the same time.

Then there is the matter of hangers in the closet. There were four flimsy thin, bent out of shape hangers in my closet when I arrived. The quantity was apparently a luxury because others in our party had none. No matter, most of my clothes weren’t in need of hanging and there was enough for my suit, pants and two shirts. And for the first day I was wearing causal pants and shirt. Today I wore my suit and shirt to the workshops leaving the hangers empty. Upon my return to the hotel room, the hangers were gone!

I managed to get the front desk to deliver more hangers but my request for a wash cloth has so far been unsuccessful. Part of the problem is trying to explain a face cloth – small cloth I try to say, drawing the approximate size in the air. We had a good laugh over supper about the story and now I have been given the challenge to get both and to show evidence to the other Canadian contingent. I have offered my extra hangers to anyone who will give me a facecloth.

You gotta learn to laugh, it is the key to happy travels.

and then a couple days later….

Thu 2017-05-25 4:14 PM Men/women at work

……Finally, there is the running joke about my wash cloths. The one lent to me yesterday disappeared and was not replaced when my room was cleaned. I was determined to get a wash cloth so at the end of the evening I went again to the front desk. I was armed with a Swahili translation. The young receptionist was laughing as Alan and myself were trying to explain what I was looking for. Fifteen minutes later I got two face clothes! My mission here in Dodoma is complete.

The workshops finished, our group began it’s journey back to Dar es Salaam. This time, we were scheduled to fly back in a small plane as part of a regular commuting option between the two cities. I was looking forward, with some trepidation, to this new experience.

Fri 2017-05-26 4:36 PM In-Flight Safety

The pictures say it all. The thrill of the day was sitting in the co-pilot seat on our two hour flight back to Dar es Salaam. As advertised the plane is a small fifteen seater with one person sitting beside the pilot. You have all the gauges in front of you as well as a steering wheel. Seat belt on and away we go.

Sitting in the “co-pilot” spot.

The view is beautiful going over the city and the country itself with small mountains, forests and farmland. We rose to has high as 13,000 feet above the clouds (when there – first part of trip was clear) before descending slowly. With the gauges in front of me, I can see that clouds are sitting at about 6,000 feet and it is total white, like a super thick smog when you go through it. The flight was smooth except for a bit of jostling going through the clouds.

We made one stop along the way to pick up two passengers. We landed on a grass runway. In the front seat I could see us slowly descending and approaching the town, clearly going to land. I am looking around and I don’t see an airport or a standard runway. As we approached the grass runway became apparent and we landed with unexpected smoothness. The terminal was a large tin shed, manned by a lone woman on a plastic lawn chair. With the brief stopover, the total flight was 2 hours compared to the 9 hours of driving.

Approaching Morogoro’s grass runway.

The pilot was a character. I joked just before taking off if there was anything I could do to help. “Don’t do a thing and only do as I say”. Everyone had a laugh. He also completed a minor repair along the way. A handle fell off one of the levers. He fished around on the floor till he found the piece, took out his all in one tool to reattach. He joked with me about making in-flight repairs to keep the thing in the air. No one else noticed, but it did make me wonder about the plane. Clearly we arrived safely.

After a day in Dar, everyone departed to their next destination; in my case, back to Canada. There was considerable homework in-between to complete the deliverables for the project, part of which necessitated a return to pilot the accountability instrument with two institutions, one in each of Moshi and Arusha. In November, Quinn De Vries and I flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport for a week long work visit.

Sun 2017-11-19 3:01 PM At the centre of Moshi

We met Moses and his family today.

The story is biblical in the sense that Quinn De Vries and I ventured into the centre of Moshi via a cab and started our walking tour in the vicinity of a Catholic Church where an outdoor celebration was loudly blasted on the speakers for all to hear. We stopped to listen without any understanding of the context or purpose. A mosque was visible in the near distance so naturally we headed in that direction crossing the busy street behind a gauntlet of three young children who cheerily greeted us at the corner. A few more pictures and we were aided in the crossing of another street (it is confusing when the cars drive on the left hand side in British fashion) by Moses. Shall we say he helped identify a parting in the flow of vehicles which enabled us to pass.

Moses was excited to speak with someone in English, and of course, he had just met someone else from Toronto. Canadians are such kind and honest people so he was going to return the favour by walking with us further down the street, identifying landmarks and places to shop or eat and drink. Don’t worry, he assured us, I am not interested in money; my only motivation and joy was to practice English with people who did not simply walk past and ignore my greetings.

We were too polite.

Quinn and I tried to ditch him by crossing the street again, hoping he would not follow. That idea didn’t work.

Then it was repeating and repeating that we were only out for a walk with no money. That line didn’t work.

We did continue in the general direction of our ultimate destination, back to the Kilimanjaro Co-operative Union Coffee House, but that route was precisely along the way to his sister’s “shop” selling dresses on the street. And while there, Moses introduces us to his brother who happens to run a co-operative gift store with wood carvings and hand-crafted paintings on cloth, right beside his father’s restaurant; we shook hands with all of them, exchanged pleasantries, and perused their wares. Moses was so happy we could meet his family, none of whom resembled each other.

Finally, we tapped our watches stressing the need to get back to the coffee shop because our taxi ride was waiting. Moses eventually left but not before quietly warning us of another street hawker tagging along attempting to sell his unique, mass produced art wares. The coffee house with its rifle armed security guard became the ultimate cross to ward off all street vendors and provide a safe haven from the streets.

And just as we sat down, the electricity went out everywhere. The generator kicked in and we were able to laugh about our mini shopping adventure in Moshi.

Wed 2017-11-22 3:06 PM Splash down in Arusha

Having completed our two days in Moshi we were scheduled to spend this Wednesday travelling to Arusha about 70 kilometres away. I had hoped to participate in a tour of some local waterfalls and the coffee district especially since the area is known for it. However, we were travelling with four others, all Tanzanians, who were only interested in leaving directly. They did concede to stop at a hot springs because it was along the way for an extra 50 American dollars. The spot was a 30 kilometre round trip off the major road.

When the driver turned onto the “road”, he immediately had to navigate through a series of small lakes which had spouted up because of rain overnight. Once we carefully and slowly sailed past, the vehicle began its venture into the Tanzania countryside. The next 15 kilometres were the worst excuse for roads I have yet to encounter. It was as if we were driving over a rock pile that was wildly hacked with a seriated knife. The rosary hanging from the mirror was swinging violently as the van rocked and swayed its way over the terrain which was really only meant for goats. The local dump trucks didn’t care as they bounced along at a reckless speed sometimes teetering to the point of rollover.

At a tiny village, we made a turn down what could generously be called a trail. Normally you envision horses gently traversing along but they probably would have turned a hoof on the ruts and rocks. No markers, no signs, and the occasional person on a bike; the last was a young boy who kindly led us in the right direction.

An oasis in the midst of dry lands.

But when we arrived, the place was an oasis. Picture the movie where in the dry arid desert, with the sun blazing, there suddenly appears a pond surrounded by lush greenery. That picture is precisely what we encountered as we arrived at the hot springs. 5,000 schillings for the locals, 10,000 for the foreigners (I wonder how they knew) and we were able to enter and swim in the clear blue waters. And if you stood still, or hung your feet in the water, little fishes would feast on your skin, nibbling away, providing a foot massage that would cost you a pretty penny at a luxury spa. It wasn’t busy since it is off the beaten path, but there were a handful of foreigners.

There was also a swing – check out the pictures.

We had a blast. The timeout was an extremely enjoyable escape.

After a couple days in Arusha working with another institution, I left for home aboard a late evening flight: one hour to Dar es Salaam; one hour stop then nine hours to Amsterdam; a five hour layover there before a final eight hour leg to Toronto. I would be remiss if I did not include at least a picture of our travelling group and the people we met in Moshi and Arusha. Their friendship and generosity were unforgettable.

There would be a third trip to Tanzania in 2018 to finish the project after which Olga and I departed for a safari to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park before a resort stay on the island of Zanzibar. The experiences and the people keep me craving for another opportunity to return one day soon.

Asante sana

No Reservations

News of the 215 unmarked graves of children found at the Kamloops Residential school broke on May 27. The country was horrified with many honouring the lives lost in some form including leaving small shoes at the steps of our institutions. The tragedy was magnified six days ago when the Cowessess First Nation discovered 751 unmarked graves outside the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as “cultural genocide” was personified by these findings, with more assuredly to be uncovered as provincial governments commit funding to search the properties of all former residential schools. This dark history has cast a pall over the upcoming Canada Day celebrations and this months review of books for Indigenous History Month.

Harper Perrenial 2020. 292 pages

Five Little Indians was announced as the 2020 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature on June 1. Michelle Good, a first time author, is of Cree ancestry and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Three days earlier the book won the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. After working for Indigenous communities, Michelle Good went back to school to earn a law degree at the age of 43. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in 2014 and published Five Little Indians in 2019 at the age of 65 – an inspiration for all of us aspiring writers. Although the accolades come with a heaviness, Michelle is comforted with the hope that “Every time the book gets a greater profile, there are more hearts and minds that can be opened to the direct and intergenerational impact of the residential school legacy, and perhaps it will contribute to an ongoing and a better participation in reconciliation.” https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/news/kamloops-area-author-wins-prestigious-awards-for-debut-novel-1.24325408

The book chronicles the lives of five Indigenous youth attempting to survive in the aftermath of years trapped in the confines of a residential school in British Columbia. The book bears witness to Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie, friends struggling with the horrific baggage of their experience, some managing to escape their shackles, the others succumbing to the traumatic abuse. “It was an unspoken agreement between them: the past was the past. It’s hard to run from the past, but once stuffed away, they knew it couldn’t be allowed to poison the present. They couldn’t be who they were now with their lipstick, pay cheques and rooms, if they were also those children, or the children who’d left the other children behind.” (p. 101). The book has been described as an introduction into the residential school system. The language and description is considerably gentler than the more graphic depictions from other writers; nevertheless, the book manages to convey the assault on the Indigenous life while at the same time providing some measure of hope for the survivors. The book is worthy of its awards and nominations and of your time to read.

Knopf Canada. 2000. 374 pages

CBC viewers will be familiar with the name, Eden Robinson, as the author of Son of a Trickster, the first book of a trilogy on which the TV series, Trickster was based. Acclaimed and on slate for a second season, the show ended abruptly when its producer and director, Michelle Latimer was found to have exaggerated her Indigenous heritage.

Monkey Beach is the first novel by Eden Robinson. It was shortlisted for the 2000 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and the Governor General Literary Award while receiving the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize awarded annually to the best work of fiction by a resident of British Columbia. The book is centred around Lisamarie and her immediate and extended family growing up on the west coast of Canada, coping with a traditional past in the midst of a modern world. The reader is introduced to an array of memorable characters, including Uncle Mick grappling with the residue of residential schooling and the Ma-ma-moo, the grandmother, extolling Haisla knowledge and wisdom. The book draws from myths and legends, not always obvious to a non-native reader but magical and mysterious nonetheless.

The writing in Monkey Beach is more complex than Five Little Indians, switching in time, sometimes without notice, and mixed with social commentary and dry humour. One example of the latter is this passage from the sharp-tongued Lisamarie which reminded me of a line from a popular movie: “As Uncle Mick would ironically have said, she is a delicate Haisla flower. I wonder what they said to each other when they first met. From what I can squeeze out of Jimmy, I take it they were introduced by Jack Daniel’s.”

The reader encounters the dark side of racism towards Indigenous people and the street life of Vancouver. At the same time the book provides detailed explanations of important cultural and environmental aspects such as how to catch, cook and grease Oolichans. I very much enjoyed the book and look forward to delving into her later works.

HarperCollins. 2014. 518 pages

Thomas King has been in the literary news lately, publishing regularly with significant notoriety and acclaim. His most recent novel, Indians on Vacation is on every list of books by Indigenous authors, longlisted for the Giller and nominated for the Governor General’s award. It’s publication came shortly after the release of Obsidian, the latest in King’s Dreadful Waters mystery series. I have read both in the past year. My first encounter with Thomas King was with Green Grass, Water Running from 1993. Very early in the book I was laughing out loud, stopping to read it to Olga so she could share in the enjoyment. We ended up reading the entire book to each other. When I purchased Truth and Bright Water several years later, I read the book to our daughter, Olena, one chapter each night. Both experiences remain etched in our fondest memories. Thomas King’s writing is among my favourites for it’s humour and use of dialogue. The Back of the Turtle was the 2014 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It’s imposing hardcover size and 518 page length was intimidating and hence it sat unopened on my shelves for years. It became the ideal book, however, for a mid-month planned stay at the cottage.

True to his style, Thomas King spells out with acerbic wit and humour, the story of the guilt stricken, scientist Gabriel encountering Mara on the Smoke River Reserve on the coast of British Columbia years after an environmental disaster. Central to the story is a local wise man, Nicholas Crisp who has a penchant for bathing nude; Sonny who collects scraps along the beach while holding vigil in the abandoned Ocean Star Motel; and Soldier, the dog who may be the smartest of the bunch (“He’s a dog.” “And what better thing is there to be?”) . I read this book with a constant smile on my face, imagining each hilarious scene: “Lustig was a tall woman with broad shoulders and stout legs. She was neither pretty nor handsome, but looked quite capable of bringing down large antelopes and small deer on her own.”

The Back of the Turtle also has a serious message about our contemporary approach to environmental issues in this consumer society. In the latter half of the book the warnings are more pronounced with biting critiques: “North American Norm didn’t give a damn about the environment. Cancel a favourite television show. Slap another tax on cigarettes. Stop serving beer at baseball and hockey games. That was serious.” I devoured the book in a matter of days and highly recommend it.

Cormorant Books. 2019. 265 pages.

I met Drew Hayden Taylor at the 2010 Premier’s Award Gala Dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology’s annual event showcases the achievements of its alumni in program discipline categories. As the administrative representative on Seneca College’s Board of Governors, I was invited to dine with other members of the executive and the school’s nominees for the awards. Drew Hayden Taylor was our suggestion in the Communication Arts category (although I cannot recall from what program he graduated) and was scheduled to be seated at the same table. I had already purchased his first novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass which was short listed for the Governor General’s award and a portion of the basis for winning the Premier’s award that evening. I brought it along and asked him to sign, which he graciously complied with an inscription typical of his humour, “To Henry, the people you meet over salads!”

Drew Hayden Taylor is known more for his short stories, plays and journalism; Chasing Painted Horses is only his second novel. I enjoyed his first much more. The story was interesting, the origin of a painted horse discovered by Roger, a police officer, in an alley in Toronto. Roger recalls his time as a child on the Otter Lake Reserve where he is introduced to the first renditions and the circumstances surrounding it. I found the craft of writing to be lacking, with wordy phrasing, obvious statements, and inconsistency in voice. From my perspective, the story would have been better as a novella. His plays are award winning and I do enjoy reading his regular feature in the Globe and Mail on Indigenous issues; however, I was not a fan of this book in its current form.

I haven’t decided the theme, if any, for the month of July. I am ecstatic now that it is possible to peruse book stores again at one’s leisure and stumble upon random works for my Canadian literature collection.

Happy reading everyone.

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

This post is not really about Zen and it is only a little about motorcycle maintenance. In my attempt to get the bike back on the road, I had to conduct a little repair and in the process surrendered to a Zen-like understanding in all things mechanical.

Spring arrives later at the cottage, two hours north of Toronto, and as such, my motorcycle riding adventures would begin weeks after the first opportunity in the city. A foster cat delay in April meant the season opening ride would be attempted on the long weekend in May. I lumbered through a 16 point turn in the basement to direct the front wheel toward the door, huffing and puffing the bike outside to park underneath the protection of the porch. Unearth the helmet and gloves, line up the boots, select the best jacket.

Ready for tomorrow.

Standing beside the machine, I survey the instruments and buttons and levers, stating out loud each function, reminding myself of those lessons from another long weekend way back in September. Foot brake on the right, below the handle with the pull brake; clutch on the other handle, shifting gears with the left foot. I found the choke, beside the auxiliary tank knob, just above the key ignition. Light switch, power switch, kill switch – I think we are good to go.

Turn the key, neutral light illuminates; straddle the seat, straighten the wheel, bounce a bit, press the starter button. The cold engine turns and turns and turns, then click click click click.

Hmmm. Did I miss something? Right. Pull out the choke.

Press the button and it turns and turns, then click click click click.

What the? Okay try again.

Press the button and it turns, then click click click click.

I know that sound.

Press the button and click click click click.

The battery is dead.

Where is the battery on a motorcycle?

It is a Honda Shadow 750 from 2004 so I figured an owner’s manual would have disappeared long ago. Besides, we live in a paperless world. I’m a modern guy so I consulted that virtual manual in the ether, the font of all knowledge – You Tube.

There are no judgements with You Tube videos. The search engine does not smirk or laugh when you type in the question. The people demonstrating are grateful for the audience, delighted you have selected their instructions. The hosts cheerfully walk you step by step with careful explanations, extoling all their other helpful hints, inviting you to return. You feel empowered. You can do this.

Here goes. I am told to pull off this apparent cap ….oh wow!

Not a battery yet, but a compartment labelled, “Tool box” where I put in the key to open and discover a package of tools with the owner’s manual. Who knew? Flip to the section on batteries, complete with pictures instructing me to take off the seat except none of the devices in the kit match the screws and bolts holding it in place. Rummaging through my own set and a few minutes later the battery is exposed. All 3 X 4 X 6 inches of it, buried in the heart of the machine.

Before storing the bike for the winter, according to the manual, I should have taken the battery out and hooked it up to a trickle charger.

A trickle charger. Right.

Google tells me Home Hardware carries them but the local store in Apsley would have to order and it will arrive next week. When we are back in Toronto. Of course. A purchase through Amazon (haven’t I become the high tech guy!) because it had the best explanation for my search and I returned at the cottage a few weeks later armed with the device.

I attach it to the battery, as per instructions, and watch the slowly pulsing red light, ebbing between a dull and duller glow.

Come back in nine hours, as per instructions, and it is still not flashing the go ahead green signal.

Maybe tomorrow.

The next day the same hypnotic red. Switch the trickle charger to a different 12 volt setting (there are three different ones, and a six volt as well) and wait for another day only to find the same result.

I think the pulse is even slower, taunting me now.

The battery is warm to the touch; something is happening. So, with patience waning I take the plunge. My aging brain needs a reminder to reverse the steps for extraction, rediscover the wires and account for all the parts.

Before the seat is bolted, I turn the ignition, suppress the start button; the engine turns and turns, then growl and purrrrrrr…. eureka! Two loud revs to let the neighbours know before I shut it down to reinstall the seat.

Back in the saddle, ignition on, press the button and she jumps into action. Let ‘er warm, a twist of the throttle….sputter, cough, cough,….silence. Not warm enough I guess.

Press on. Cough, sputter, spit…..Silence.

The bike is out of gas.

Did you know motorcycles do not have fuel gauges? Your only clue is the mileage travelled after filling up, based on experience and cruising habits….all in very short supply after my truncated riding season. No portable gas can, my goal to ride on Father’s day is thwarted.

Hands together, eyes closed. Breathe slowly.

Maybe tomorrow.

Just a little Zen to learn this art of motorcycle maintenance.

Stop all the clocks, let the mourners come

I have been writing about my visit to Kamuli, Uganda for a submission to a memoir writing competition and in that process a re-examination of my time has led me into a deeper understanding of the events. In previous posts about my uncle, Father Kees de Cock, I had described my quest to affirm some statements about him, espoused by my Dad. A more detailed representation of the May 2017 visit yields a richer recognition and understanding of the man known by the locals as Dikoko.

My chance opportunity to visit Uganda arose as a result of a work-related project in Tanzania. Once confirmed, I began corresponding with the Mill Hill Mission House in Kampala hoping there would be someone there to receive me. Bishop Phelan responded immediately connecting me with Father Wijnand Huis, the priest who had taken over after my uncle had died. Father Wijnand replied exuberantly and after several email exchanges, the timing for my visit was established. I had no idea what to expect.

The one stop, 16-hour flight, landed me at the Entebbe airport in the early evening. It was 8:00 pm local time when John, my arranged driver, began the hour-and-a-half, 35 km crawl into Kampala in the dark. There was little to see beyond the confines of the street as we drove through the poor infrastructure of narrow, cratered roads absent of lights or anything resembling a sign. People were milling about by foot and motorbike, mixing dangerously amid knee deep gutters and cow path walkways.  The jeep teetered over the moguls leading into the guest house compound with its massive metal gate entrance. After an overnight stay in a simple room, equipped with open, screened windows and mosquito netting, John drove me to a sketchy rendezvous with a money changer ( I needed some Ugandan money ) before we embarked on a two-hour ride to meet Fr. Wijnand and his close friend, Justin Ojambo. The three of us then proceeded for an equally long journey north, through several towns and villages, to Kamuli.

The initial welcome from Fr. Bikina, the parish priest, was cool, our conversation slow, a series of adjustments with unsure footing. I was ill prepared for the reception that followed. We spilled onto the outside porch, new arrivals meandering in slowly, scrounging for chairs to gather around, patiently awaiting their turn to speak about their relationship with Fr. Kees de Cock.

The praise began with Andrew Mugaya’s recounting of Fr. Kees installing the generator at the hospital next door. His mechanical prowess in repairing cars was mentioned often. Semenda Sylvester who was baptized by Fr. Kees in 1968, reminded how he had constructed the hall to help train new catechists. Moses Waiswa spoke of my uncle’s love of education, reconstructing schools so that children could continue. Gertrude Wakaalumba who cooked for the parish, kneeled before me to present an 8 X 10 portrait of Fr. De Cock. She retold the story where he demonstrated his adoption of the culture by crying like an African at her own father’s funeral. Sebastion Kutegana the ongoing secretary brought a registry of the baptisms to show Fr. Kees’ writing and signature. Fr. Kees had found ways to help pay the hospital bills of his wife. Peter Nzlambi became a catechist under Fr. de Cock, spoke of his love of their work and of his encouragement. Funny stories of his dog, of playing soccer, of cooking the books to satisfy the bishop, of driving away rats, of installing microphones to hear his soft voice; thankful stories of caring and compassion, counselling and support.

Ponsiano Kayanga spoke of his appointment to take care of the room, following the announcement of my Uncle’s death, but couldn’t enter because the spirit of Fr. de Cock remained. Many mourners flocked to sleep outside on dried leaves, like a pilgrimage to his home. They considered themselves orphans and were present to honour his memory.  

Fr. Kees had some medical issues, sometimes leaving to have them addressed in Europe, but he always returned. The news of his death shocked everyone and reverberated beyond the parish. People never had an opportunity to say goodbye, to mourn at a funeral.  The congregation lobbied unsuccessfully to have his body returned for burial in Kamuli. I was the first person from the family to visit the parish since his death. In a country where nephews and nieces are considered sons and daughters, I represented his direct descendent.  The reception, the gathering, the wake was an opportunity, as one person stated, to bring back the good memories which had left when Fr. Kees de Cock died. I embodied my uncle’s return and finally brought closure to the people of Kamuli.

Group photo outside the rectory with everyone who paid homage to Fr. Kees de Cock.

After everyone had an opportunity to speak, we began sauntering around the grounds, when I was able to witness the FATHER DE COCK MEMORIAL HALL, situated behind the church, a stone’s throw from the rectory, the hospital and the schoolhouse (see henrydecock.org/2020/11/05/building-pillars/) The facade had faded from the photograph of its first designation and needed a refresh generally; nevertheless, the building remains an important feature of the parish community.

A small group gathered for a dinner in town where we were joined by Stephen Dhizaala and his wife Josephine. The former school headmaster and now chair of the local education council, Stephen had made all the arrangements of my visit. Stephen had been absent earlier because he buried his sister that day. Despite his own tragic loss, Stephen did not want to miss my presence.

The following morning, after a tour of the expanding facilities and a photo in front of another surprise, the Father de Cock Children’s Ward, I was escorted back to the hall. Inside we encountered a group of children who feted me with a rousing song, celebrating the visit of the “son” of Fr. de Cock. Overwhelmed, embarrassed, I did not know how to react as I stood awkwardly, watching, smiling, uncomfortable with the attention, unsure how to respond, what to say. The headmaster walked me across the dusty yard to a classroom of young boys, most barefoot on the dirty, pocked concrete floor. When Fr. Wijnand asked the class how they felt that day, the boys responded in unison, “humbling and obedient”. I was stunned. They were dutiful and quiet; only one brave soul answered my question about their lesson. The focus of everyone’s gaze, the son of Fr. Kees de Cock, I was the one feeling very humbling.

Stephen accompanied us as we began a tour of several structures for which Fr. de Cock was personally responsible: schools, churches, hospital buildings as well as seemingly mundane needs such as the water pipes and tanks for the hospital, installing the bell atop the parish church, replacing windows with open walls of circular tiles. Indeed, he was renowned for his practical skills; in particular a seemingly profound form of construction by beginning with concrete pillars, but also the constant repair of automobiles or the assembly of new hospital equipment.  

Another goodbye, a heartfelt thankyou and we were on the road again. Forty-eight hours after landing at Entebbe, I was back in Jinja, head still spinning. The visit was over. I left with the regret of hindsight – why had I not given myself a few more days, arrived earlier, brought gifts of gratitude, expressed more thanks, asked more questions. A longing to return gnaws at my conscience. 

The very brief incursion into Uganda helped verify my father’s claim there was a building named after his older brother, Fr. Kees de Cock. The nature of the building itself did not seem to matter. The naming and recognition by the Queen represented his status and therefore, considerable pride for my Dad. Although I had not imbued his assertions with any real importance or significance initially, my road to uncovering the life of Fr. Kees de Cock and to visit his parish in Kamuli 36 years after his death has brought me to an understanding beyond the discovery of facts.

The words of Fr. Willigers’ obituary (https://henrydecock.org/2020/10/17/server-to-everyone/) reverberate loudly: “[Fr. Kees de Cock] was true, and truly an ordinary man, … But in there lies the reason for his “legendary” status. He very seldom thought of himself, and hence reached his highest point that we all fully knew as: ‘The Servant for All’.” Dikoko, as he was known throughout the district paid attention to everyone and made no distinction between people. “You do not fool ordinary people in such things.” Fr. Kees de Cock lived his life with the values cherished by the people of Kamuli, Uganda who still honour his memory; beheld by my father, a younger brother separated by years, desiring a role model; and admired by a distant nephew laden with the compulsion to remain ordinary, hoping to accomplish as much.

The Sun Rises in the East

The choice of Asian Canadian writers is considerable, a number of whom are ranked among the best the country has to offer. This month’s selection from my literature collection takes the reader to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Korea and Japan with protagonists rooted in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. The choices were deliberate, covering as much geography as possible, albeit missing significant writers and countries from the continent.

McClelland & Stewart. 2011. 253 pages

In my opinion, Madeleine Thien is the best writer in Canada today. Her first publication was the 2001 short story collection, Simple Recipes, which won the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Olga and I read this one out loud to each other, cherishing each story. Madeleine Thien’s first novel, Certainty, released in 2006, was the recipient of the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her most recent book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Governor General’s Award, The Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. I recall it being one of the odds on favourites among the British bookies so I fully expected the novel to win. It is a masterpiece of fiction. Dogs at the Perimeter is her second novel, published in 2011. It was shortlisted for a number of European book awards, winning one at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book centres around the life of Janie, as she is called in Canada, who is haunted by a past and whose friend and mentor, Hiroji, is possessed by a lifelong search for a missing brother. Janie escaped the Cambodian Genocide between 1975 and 1979, while the rest of her family perished under the Khmer Rouge. The novel tracks her memories and that of Hiroji’s brother, James, eventually found in Vietnam. The prose is elegant and poetic yet still capturing the atrocities of this bloody period. The beauty of her language (We were like two coins left in the bottom of the jar: here by circumstance and luck, here together) is also interspersed with profanities when the circumstances warrant: This is the city of before. Five-year-olds fending for themselves, and the Khmer Rouge, arrogant, shit-faced, still prideful in their stronghold in the north, still holding their seat at the United Nations and hobnobbing with the Western elite, conspiring to take it back. Phnom Penh is no longer the agitated city he remembers, no, the dial has ticked back and stripped the place of people and goods, it is a city now where the kids run naked, where people walk around with photographs of missing family, where, by accident, you step into a pile of bones, rinse your foot off, and then move on, where men and women dress in hothouse colours, clashing motifs to push back the memory of black clothes and black hearts.

Identity is a strong theme throughout. “A different name and a new soul”. Janie becomes Mei, James is now Kwan. The changing of names, different lives, separate but intertwined is part of the question Janie grapples with at the end: Inside us, from the beginning, we were entrusted with many lives. From the first morning to the last, we try to carry them until the end. I highly recommend this book and every composition by Madeleine Thien.

Simon & Shuster. 2016. 275 pages.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards, is the first and thus far, only book by Ann Y.K. Choi. The story is set in Toronto, and according to her Wikipedia page, was inspired by her life growing up above her parent’s store. Certainly when you read the Ann Choi’s bio on the back flap of the cover and reflect upon the story you can very easily imagine much of the content is autobiographical and the instances were either part of her life or were the combinations of actual incidents she witnessed. As the title suggests, the story centres around Mary, the anglo alternative to Yu-Rhee, whose family owns a variety store on Queen Street West in the 1980’s. Although specific to Korean life in Canada, the story resonates with many an immigrant child attempting to navigate the western world outside the home with the vestiges of old world culture and practices within the family domain. Mary/Yu-Rhee is in constant conflict with her mother over work, education, clothing, friends and the ethnicity of her future husband. The latter is of particular consternation when arrangements have been made with another Korean family who is attempting to find a suitable match for their son.

The writing is straight forward, more compelling for the story than the vivid descriptions. The scenes and dialogue are real, the emotions are authentic. The insights exhibit those of a young woman maturing, viewing the lives of her parents differently with the growing knowledge of their past and the internal reflection of Yu-Rhee’s own experiences: My mother had taught me that dreams didn’t come true just by thinking about them. She’d chased after them, and in so doing had cleared a path for me to do the same.

The story also provides perhaps the most important rationale for the establishment of Asian Heritage month, or any other inclusive recognition of the diversity of the Canadian people. Yu-Rhee’s mother finally concedes to her daughter’s desire to become an English teacher, acknowledging it provided a steady job, summers off and therefore, time for children. Most importantly, however, she says, “Yes, become an English teacher. Make sure your students realize there are writers out there who aren’t just black and white. Make sure they don’t miss the point like you did.” I enjoyed the book.

Turnstone Press. 2000. 212 pages

I selected Lydia Kwa’s first novel, This Place Called Absence, because the reader is transported to the city state of Singapore in Southeast Asia, and some of the characters originate from China, two different countries from my previous readings. The narrative alternates between four people: Wu Lan residing in Vancouver; her mother, Mahmee, living in Singapore in 1995; and two prostitutes (ah ku) Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui, working in the brothels in Singapore at the turn of the twentieth century. Wu Lan is on a leave of absence from her work as a therapist, attempting to cope with the suicide of her father. Her struggles and responses run somewhat parallel to the forbidden love relationship between Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui. At the same time we delve into the mind of Mahmee attempting to understand the motives of her husband and the lifestyle decisions of her daughter.

Lydia Kwa’s own work and sexual preferences are reflected in the text. The sensual descriptions of relationships and sexual encounters amongst the women of the novel would appear to be borne from her own intimate experiences. Once upon a time the wind was a willow. It loved a woman who rested underneath its supple limbs. The woman liked placing her head in the fork between roots, because that way she was close to the earth’s smells, wafting up to her nostrils in the heat of day. She would look up to catch the colours of light filtering through the slender leaves. The willow wanted to tell the woman how much it loved her.

The language and process of Wu Lan’s actions and strategies resemble the knowledge of people grappling with the tragic death attained from the practice of a psycho analyst. Father’s vitality was trapped inside him. He could feel a loss, but didn’t know what to do about it. The more he didn’t change, to allow his vitality to be expressed creatively, the more he felt powerless. Loss bred more loss. Eventually, this was why he did what he did. Quickly, anonymously. The wheels of the car. The squirrel. He was perpetrator and victim. Without witnesses. The insights and the well crafted prose produce a novel of raw emotions, beautiful and powerful, sad and redemptive. Slow to begin, by the end of the book I was enraptured.

Arsenal Pulp Press. 2007. 262 pages.

Terry Watada is a former colleague of mine, an English professor at Seneca College in Toronto. Olga and I were attending the annual Word on the Street being held in the park at Queen’s Park Circle. The event was always a tremendous opportunity to purchase new Canadian literature and as importantly, get the authors to sign them. On this occasion, in 2008, we stumbled into the open tent where Terry was reading from his first novel, Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes. I knew he was a writer of poetry but I was unaware of a novel let alone that Terry was participating in Word on the Street. He was just as surprised to see us. I was pleased to purchase a signed copy. Terry retired about five or six years ago and continues to publish poetry, children’s books, comic books, novels and historical non-fiction. He has been quite busy during COVID finishing off a new book, Mysterious Dreams of the Dead, released last December.

The Blood of Foxes is set in 1920’s Japan and 1940’s Vancouver. The story alternates between both periods, describing the lives of a young, naive Yoshiko Miyamoto craving adventure in a new land, marrying unseen, a purported entrepreneur in Canada; and Etsuji Morii, the Japanese equivalent of the Godfather, lording over his fellow immigrants in Vancouver to retain the glory of his emperor and the honour of his people. Yoshiko and Etsuji collide in Vancouver, neither achieving their ultimate dreams by the end of the novel.

The work is not as well crafted as the other reads, utilizing too many adjectives and adverbs, clumsily moving between time periods and locations. Nevertheless, the story illuminates the lives of Japanese Canadians, subjected to acts of violence and racist actions by the people, the police and the government. Terry conducted considerable research to accurately portray the conditions and the times, providing the reader an understanding of one of our numerous dark chapters in history. For this reason alone you will find the book worthwhile.

June is National Indigenous History month. Mark, if you are reading, I would welcome some suggestions. Otherwise, I have a few unopened on my shelves which will find their way into my next Books 2021 post.

Until then, happy reading.

True Confessions of The Constant Gardener

Hello. My name is Henry and I am a gardenaholic. It has been 12 days since I last planted something new into the garden. Although, I must confess, I transformed an existing clump of shrubbery into a quasi-garden yesterday. Just a little one. Really.

The day started innocently with the intention of weeding the earth immediately surrounding some berry bearing plants which I put into the ground last year. Amongst them, I dug in some silver dogwood, one of the objects of my earlier relapse almost two weeks ago. It’s spring, the place needs to be tidied; one pulled errant crab grass opens up space and I say to myself, this next intruder should be extricated as well. A couple more would be even better and before too long, a new garden emerges, complete with rocks to define its borders, scrounged from other parts of the property.

Have shovel, will dig.

I really fell off the wagon on that planting stint almost two weeks ago. The silver dogwood? Well there were twenty five of those bare root plants which I purchased along with twenty five white cedars. Every one of them found homes in newish areas created last year – down close to the lake beside the uprooted small trees rescued from the side of the road; at the edge of the horseshoe pit along with a birch and a pine relocated from our back forty; and behind the cottage nestled on the slope with other repositioned long needled trees. And if those weren’t enough, I found a home for a eight flowers and bushes to attract butterflies. Oh, I almost forgot – a packet of wildflower seeds was spread in that new garden along a path I am building.

Another confession – I love to hunt for rocks. The obsession is a variant on the gardening disease since they serve primarily as the perimeter for the newly cultivated beds and function as stepping stones to enable a guided stroll through the growing expanse. We are talking about boulders really, not a stone that fits in the palm of your hand; rather, massive hunks which require two hands and lifting with your feet so to not wrench a back. The bigger the better, limited only by my inability to physically will the granite into the wheelbarrow or roll it to the final destination.

As a last resort, roll the rock to its ultimate destination.

The spring and fall are the most opportune times to spot prospective boulders when the lack of vegetation reveals their existence. I walk the cottage access road assessing the viability of transporting that beautifully round, pink piece of quartz because it would fit perfectly into that new corner just built. At the end of our driveway is a motherlode of possibilities. If I can dig underneath and pry it out of the ground with the shovel, then it is mine. When I realize the protruding piece is really just the tip of the iceberg, then I find myself wishing for a little Bobcat.

At home, the size of the gardens have reached capacity, leaving just enough grass to merit a mower. The cottage is the last frontier. As Olga and I tour the estate, my mind’s eye sees unkempt corners full of sporadic brush, shoots of straggly trees sprouting into a tangled mess, waiting for the swing of a pick and the scoop of a shovel to clear the earth for another garden. I imagine a grove of tamarac trees beautifying the driveway, especially in the fall; or envision flocks of birds and clouds of butterflies descending on our 1.5 acre piece of heaven because I had filled it with fruit and nectar bearing plants.

My next fix will occur at our lake’s Planting Palooza in June when participating cottages will get three plants to enhance their shoreline. If not everyone avails themselves to the offer, then I will be lucky to get a few more. Plus, another cottager has already pledged five cranberry plants…. I already know where they will be placed.

Henricus, you better dig that garden over there.

Your going to work for next 30 years.

At 60 I feel kind of old, I’ve already tilled most of the land.

So I’ll hum a little tune called

This work, brings joy.

Makes me, a happy boy.

Malcolm McLaren’s song, The Boys Chorus plays in my head.
Can you see that? Ain’t that lovely?

A garden is all about the future. The plants put in today are the glory of tomorrow. Gardens are not about the past, except for what we have learned so we can enjoy it today. And I can’t seem to get enough of them.

My name is Henry and I am a gardenaholic.


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