Books as gifts are always delightful, providing a sort of innocuous blind-date excitement. Took this gem along as a roadtrip companion and I really enjoyed it. I was delighted to discover that Fawn Parker is a Canadian writer who splits her time in homes in both Toronto and my city, Fredericton.
Parker tells the story of Hillary Greene : a thirty-something urbanite who leaves her apartment in Toronto and her job at the university (a job she admits to acquiring through nepotism: they rather wanted her famous father to stay on, but upon his retirement the job dutifully became hers)– to live instead in her childhood home, caring for her father as his dementia requires. Besides boiling eggs to his liking, taking him to the market, or to his childhood home for a peculiar visit; she must also write his memoir. A tell-all he’s promised his publisher but cannot write himself. Hillary must sift through his scrambled notes; revisit her own experiences of her parent’s marriage and divorce; and unravel her sister’s suicide to decode how to tell hisstory– and whose version of it.
The author begins with the following note to readers: this book includes depections of animal death, child abuse (emotional and sexual), self-harm and suicide.
Snapshot of the book in my classroom
I might offer the first paragraph as a Writer’s Notebook passage study, it is such an odd opening, but the explicit detail about how exacting her father is in the tasks she must complete for him is also part of her character building.
The egg is boiled until firm. Rubbery outside and chalky in the middle, a moment before it might form a dark silvery ring around the yolk. The yolk will be removed, a soft almost-sphere, the white disgarded. The egg is boiled on high heat for ten minutes, removed, placed on a paper towel, cooled. A crack is made against the counter, the shell chipped away into the damp paper towel which is bunched then placed in the trash. (p.1)
The passage not only creates a keen sense of sight imagery around the egg; but also is a type of process-writing: a description of steps to follow that could easily be played with in our writer’s notebook. Steps are described, the writer doesn’t offer a numbered list as we are used to, but instead makes clear in prose the order and precise actions of each step. Even the most mundane task can be written about playfully and with skill.
Snapshot of the book in my life
When Hillary has to take a meeting with her father’s publisher to update on his progress on his memoir (which she is in fact writing, not him), she tells him:
“I only worry I will regret what I write,” I say.
“When a person does something they regret it’s because they don’t know who they are,” he says. (p.163).
Title: From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way
Author: Jesse Thistle
Date Read: May 19, 2020
Some of the best stories are the ones lived and not made up. From the Ashes was heart-wrenching and traumatic– but also honest, poetic and hopeful.
Jesse Thistle’s memoir was a short list contender for this year’s (pandemic post-poned) Canada Reads competition. This year sought the one book all Canada should read. I think they found it.
I try to select titles from the annual Canada Reads short-list. I have reviewed a few in the last two years: Marrow Thieves (short-listed in 2018 as a book to open your eyes); Brother and The Woo Woo (both on the 2019 short list as a book to move you); and We Have Always Been Here (short listed this year alongside From the Ashes).
Why should you read this book? Because Thistle’s lived experience reveals the consequence of trauma. Children who experience disconnect in childhood, inevitably seek to numb in adulthood. Thistle and his brothers experienced severe physical and emotional neglect from their father, a drug addict, who was frequently incarcerated or on the run. As much as relatives did step in to look after the boys, much of the enduring damage was done.
His memoir is divided in to four sections: Lost and Alone; Falling Apart; The Stolen Streets; and Reconciliation. His dedication speaks to the damage done not only to himself and his family, but to so many Indigenous families. He writes: “The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually cast upon the streets, in jail, or wandering with no place to be.”
The Homeless Hub, (part of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness) suggests that many of the personal issues (including familial dysfunction, substance use, addictions, health issues, community violence) faced by Indigenous Peoples and that act as contributors to homelessness can be directly linked to various types of historical trauma. Research has also shown that Indigenous Peoples experience lower levels of education, poorer health, higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels compared to non-Indigenous people. You can research this and more about the trauma and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, but if you need one book that Canada needs to read, to really understand— it should be Thistle’s story.
There is power in story. We live our stories everyday– we show up and face our truth. Our stories make us who we are; the torment that breaks us and the mettle that builds us up. And, in sharing our stories we give voice and power to our ways of seeing the world and living in it.
As Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Let Thistle’s catharsis be your invation to see Canada in a whole new way. From the Ashes is my (unofficial) choice for the book Canadians should read.
Title: Kids These Days: A Game Plan for (Re)Connecting with Those We Teach, Lead & Love
Author: Jodi Carrington PhD
Date Read: April 1, 2020
This was a staff book club pick– and a real winner! When we came together (on Zoom) to discuss it — it had our unanimous praise.
If you have not heard of Dr. Jodi Carrington, you are in for a treat. Carrington hails from Alberta, bringing a classic Canadian-girl charm and warm kindness to her philosophy and approach to child psychology. A mom to her own three “babes”, Carrington proposes that the most integral step in helping kids who experience grief and trauma is to assist the people who hold them– their parents, educators, and counsellors.
She speaks with a humbling reverence for teachers and the challenging work they do in assisting all of the kids in their care. Above and beyond all else, she posits that it is connection that we all crave– and that many of the kids we serve are terribly disconnected. There was a time when families lived close to and with extended family. They weren’t so distracted and busy– there was connection. In fact, she writes: “… every time you hear yourself say, that kid is attention seeking or lying,” try to replace that phrase with, that kid is “connection seeking,” and see what happens” (p.63).
In teaching, in parenting, in coaching– in any capacity in which we look to help kids learn and become better at something; our job, first and foremost, must be to develop a relationship with the person we want to teach. Kids do not learn from people they think don’t like them. I have taught for over 20 years, and I know nothing to be more true. Teaching is about relationships. I think that is why online teaching during a pandemic is so difficult; we miss out on the face-to-face interactions that help us to form strong relationships. In fact, Carrington outlines five keys to (re)connecting with people in our life; and one of those keys is eye contact. She writes, “I talk to educators about doing this every day so they can connect with their students: Meet your students in the morning and greet them with their name and notice if they give you their eyes. The ones who do make contact easily concern me far less than the ones who don’t” (p.122). What I wouldn’t do to be in the hallway to check in with my students right now!
Another key to reconnection is to “get down on their level.” She says that meeting someone face to face is where the magic lies. I know this all too well from parenting. (Have you ever seen a mom kneeling in front of a toddler in the candy aisle? Turns out she knows her stuff. Been there. Done that.) She writes: “Being on the same level as the other person allows for easier access to their eyes. It slows you down too because you’re consciously thinking about creating an optimal environment.” She notes that fear based techniques certainly have their proponents and do garner some success in times of significant distress; you can threaten or inflict pain and likely get a response– but where do these approaches leave the relationship? Without a relationship, you cannot teach. And I love this, “When compliance from people we love or teach is predicated on what they stand to lose, they will never be motivated by respect. They will be motivated by fear. And fear is very different from respect” (28). You don’t learn to get better or to self-regulate when you are fearful of the person holding you.
When kids are dysregulated (or have “flipped their lids”) they are in a primitive state of fight, flight or freeze— and they need us, the adult, to offer them soothing connection. Carrington explains the Circle of Security, and our job as regualtor is: “Always be bigger, stronger, kinder and wiser. Whenever possible follow a need. Whenever necessary, take charge” (p.48). Which means, she says, “when your kid is losing their freaking mind, you need to dig deep into the core of yourself and figure it out with them” (p. 49).
Carrington describes so many of the kids we meet in our work: regular lid-flippers; Caillou kids; Flat Stanley kids; attention-seeking; manipulative liars (you need to read her book to get her great descriptions of each of them)… but, as she says, “these babes all have the exact same needs. How they pull for us to meet those needs makes all the difference” (p.71). Carrington is on the mark throughout this book. She spoke to me as a teacher, as a parent, and as a leader in my school. Carrington’s experience as a child psychologist allows her to build narratives around each of these kids, suggesting strategies to repair and rebuild relationships. You will see many of the kids you have taught, or coached, or cared for– and you will understand them better. And, hopefully, after reading her book, be in a better place to help them in the future.
She even seemed to narrow in on my own marriage. She explains that “[We] often tell people what to do, rather than showing them. We say to kids, “That’s not a good choice” or “Just calm down!” Here’s the thing: Never in the history of telling someone to “calm down” has “calm down” ever worked. Telling someone how to behave is never, ever, as powerful and transformative as showing them what you want from them. Think about the last time your partner told you to “Just calm down!” How effective was that? What was your response? The hope, when we yell or hiss “Calm down!” at someone we love is they will, indeed, calm down. The hope is they might even look at us and say, “Oh you’re right babe, I didn’t realize that I was losing my mind. You always know just how to get me to calm down. I’m just so glad that I married you” (p.29). If, like Carrington, you can agree that never in the history of my spouse telling me to “calm down” (or “relax!”) has “calm down” ever worked, then why do we keep trying to make it so, with everyone, including kids, all the time?
Really, Jodi says it best: “The kids are the least of our worries. Seriously. If that sounds blasphemous in a book for concerned parents and educators (and anyone, really, who worries about “kids these days”), then I am so glad you’re here. If you own a kid, work with a kid, or love a kid, you will find something inspiring in these pages” (XIX). She is not wrong. If you care about the kids these days… read Jodi Carrington’s book!
You can also find Jodi on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. She does great Facebook Live chats (usually over a glass of wine…) dropping the occasional f-bomb(which I also kind of love) as she wades through the weeds of raising, loving and connecting with kids.
Title: We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir
Author: Samra Habib
Date Read: March 8, 2020
One and a half snaps.
One of this year’s (indefinitely postponed) Canada Reads Selections.
I liked it, but I am not so sure it meets the criteria as the: “one book to bring Canada in to focus.”
Habib writes honestly and irreverently, and with a distinct and lovely prose, but I didn’t find her story particularly compelling, and I am not sure why I didn’t feel much. It was more factual than tender and more clinical than emotional. Her memoir helps us to understand the racism, bullying, and sexism she faced– as it happened to her both in Pakistan and Canada; illuminating the duplicitous trials of her sexuality, culture and faith. But understanding something is different from feeling it.
In anticipation of what lay beyond the glass doors, I thought back to the lush green landscapes I’d seen in episodes of Little House on the Prairie. That is what I imagined Canada– the entire Western world for that matter– would look like. Miles of green hills dominating the horizon. Rich with abundance. Nothing like Pakistan. In my ten-year-old mind, war and persecution didn’t exist this many oceans from home. Bodies weren’t disposable.
But that is not the Canada I encountered on that ripe July day in 1991. Instead of blooming with potential, Canada felt oddly sterile. Or maybe overly polite, as though it didn’t want to ruffle any feathers with a jolt of personality.
She did help me pass the time on a few flights… but I will need to read another of the finalists to find the book that brings Canada in to focus.
Title: The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family
Author: Lindsay Wong
Date Read: July 16, 2019
Almost unbelievable. Like, when Oprah couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around James Frey’s memoir… but here it was, wildly incredible– but just grounded in enough legitimacy that you have to let go and trust Lindsay Wong as she recounts her wildly eccentric life with keen prose that is at once castigating of her parents and her upbringing and also graciously sympathetic to the mental illness that ran unchecked amongst them all.
In the prologue Wong sets us up for the ride. Finding herself in a neurologist’s office in Manhattan, she discovers that she has migraine-related vistibulopathy– an intense neurological disorder that plagues her with acute vertigo. This diagnosis is a relief to her, because it is not the Woo-Woo. The Woo-Woo are the ghosts that her Chinese family believed responsible for cancer, viruses, and psychological disturbances– and she and her family actively evade the Woo-Woo as best they can by camping out in Walmart parking lots, not sitting too long on the toilet, or living at the mall eating processed food and endless amounts of candy.
As a parent, my heart ached for Lindsay and her siblings and the disregard for their emotional and physical well-being as centuries-old beliefs kept her grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles from facing and treating the mental illnesses that made them unprepared and unable to cope with the needs of their generations of children. These disorienting relationships left Lindsay feeling crushingly alone, and often pushed her to react and retaliate with physical anger. A lot of her physical aggression was meted out as a goon in the hockey rink– and widely championed by her parents as they collected her medals and encouraged her high-sticking and brutal checking.
Wong offers an unflinching look at mental illness. Hers was a life filled with anxiety and uncertainty, where her needs were often neglected as she competed with the symptoms of her family’s crippling mental illnesses. Wong miraculously succeeds despite it all and shows a personal resiliency and fortitude beyond what could ever be expected.
It is a stunning memoir. Like a car crash in slow motion– you cannot look away. It is heart-breaking, candid, and somehow all at once funny, bitter and melancholy. It is a must-read. Wong’s bravery in telling this story makes her the real poster child for the Let’s Talk About Mental Illness campaign.