When my husband suffered a stroke, I was determined that this was not going to be the thing that unwound our love.
I was rowing when it happened. I heard a thud, the kind of full, invasive sound that could only be a body buckling to the floor. It’s amazing I even heard it. My computer had died and whatever mindless rowing show I’d been watching had left my AirPods. It’s also amazing I was still home. I’d had a late start that day and was running about an hour behind. It’s funny how those sorts of random occurrences take on deep significance when they are simply fortunate. I knew what was going on the moment I rushed up two flights of stairs and found him. The kind of stroke my husband Roland had that morning, basilar artery ischemic, is not the sort of thing you want to be googling. It has a high mortality rate in cases where the victim (and yes, you are very much the victim, a stroke attacks cruelly) is not given prompt medical attention—if, for example, they are home alone. Somehow, in another (ahem) stroke of luck, we happen to live just a few small blocks from the best stroke hospital in the country. Roland was at the hospital very, very quickly. I remember every detail of that day. I remember how long the ambulance idled in front of our house. Our son Jamal and I stood on the lawn in the April chill. Way underneath the magical thinking of this is going to be fine, I was quietly hysterical. I remember thinking, people should know how much pain I’m in right now, like I already knew it was going to be a long road. I remember the kindness of the first-responder medic, who rolled her eyes with me when her clueless partner asked what my relationship to Roland was as I was stroking his face. I ran into her hours later, my car illegally parked on a street near Toronto Western Hospital. Why wasn’t he already in surgery? She remembered my name and walked me in to expedite the process. I was there to sign liability paperwork—due to early COVID restrictions, that was the only reason I was even allowed inside. I was lucky enough to be able to briefly see Roland before he went into surgery. One of the nurses was annoyed I was there. He shoved a gown at me and grudgingly allowed me to accompany them to the stroke ward. I just kept telling Roland it would all be okay. I pulled my mask down for a moment and smiled at him. The nurse glared at me but I didn’t care, I thought there was a very real possibility I would never see my husband alive again. I probably made a few jokes which mercifully I can’t remember but can guarantee were highly inappropriate. Then I sat on the floor in the waiting room, beside a plug so I could charge my phone. It was the worst five hours of my life. At one point, the doctors emerged and told me they’d been unsuccessful in eliminating the blockage but were going to go back in. They were performing an extremely sophisticated laparoscopic surgery. They enter through a vein in the hand. I just sat there, texting frantically with friends who couldn’t be with me. David, a friend and colleague, came and waved from the street. I could see him but he couldn’t see me, which is a great metaphor for how I actually felt, completely alone, invisible. The waiting room was almost totally empty, many of the chairs taped over, signs of COVID everywhere. Finally the doctors reappeared. Was it the same doctors? I couldn’t be sure. He had survived and was resting in post-op and no, I absolutely couldn’t see him because of COVID. I went home completely numb and friends brought dinner. It was soft, whatever it was, and I could just let it slide in. I had zero appetite even though I’d eaten nothing all day but I needed something to soak up the three glasses of wine I chugged. Later in the evening, Roland called me. He was pretty out of it, but he was alive. * Our life before the stroke had been a whirlwind: me refusing to stop building restaurants, Roland painting more in the last fifteen years than he had in the twenty prior. In some ways we are each other’s muses. He is the person I want to most impress with all the ways I choose to flex creatively and I know he only cares about my feedback on his visually arresting, large-format paintings: portraits that will stop you in your tracks, eyes that jump off the canvas and bore into you. When COVID hit, all of that ground to an immediate halt. Being in lockdown, even for those of us able to do that in the most privileged way possible, still felt like the kind of dream that has an ominous soundtrack. Things seemed, ostensibly, okay—shaking a daiquiri for cocktail hour is fun, for a minute. But the restaurant business reality of no revenue for the foreseeable future quickly set in. The stroke got way out in front of all my fears about losing five successful businesses, literally how we eat. A really good way to stop caring about potentially devastating financial consequences is to only care about whether your husband lives or does not. * What I wasn’t expecting was how normal it would all eventually feel. The way we could adjust to vastly different circumstances, like newly wet flour in yeasted bread dough settling into a pan, proofing into all the nooks and crannies, breathing in the constraints, like it’s nothing. A medium-plus stroke is not nothing. But in the months after, it somehow went from feeling like everything to just being a thing we deal with. This happened at a glacially slow pace, as all things in stroke recovery do—can you still call something glacially slow if the icebergs are melting way too fast? (“Yes!” a pedantic loser cried from the balcony, “the metaphor is about speed of movement, not the climate crisis!”) Obviously everyone’s stroke “journey” is different and some people make fast(ish) and almost total recoveries, but that has not been our experience. Even though Roland had the stroke, I very much think of it as our experience, because when you live with someone and love them and are also in some ways a caregiver, you are very much in it with them. This can be incredibly isolating, not just in a practical sense, but in a way that makes you feel as though no one can really understand, unless they’ve been through it. At first it was the destabilizing uncertainty: would it be a bad day, or a rare good day? How could I keep both our moods afloat when I was working really hard on the basics of our survival while maintaining an unbreakable facade of hopefulness? Was there effort in that? I don’t remember. Roland was sad a lot at the beginning and I knew I couldn’t let that sadness drown us both. Many of life’s challenges force reaction and demand a change of perspective, but particularly with health issues, you have to really be committed or the ugliness of it can win. I absolutely refused to let it. This was not going to be the thing that unwound our love—a love born in a fireball of attraction, bonded over a shared enemy and nurtured over decades of simply never being bored of each other or running out of fascinating things to talk about while remaining enthralled with each others’ faces. * The first week was scary. There is an increased chance of a second stroke in the immediate aftermath of a first one, so getting through that first week is nonstop stress. My adrenaline was pumping, I felt coked out. I barely slept and hardly ate. I still couldn’t see him in person. Roland’s face sagged on the right side, and his right eye drooped and wasn’t properly doing its job. On the second day, already transferred from Western to a rehab centre—a good sign! and a place I hope to never see again—Roland walked to the washroom on his own. This made it seem like the stroke hadn’t done too much damage. But this walk was a false flag. It turned out the stroke was still evolving and hadn’t finished wrecking shit yet. On day five, still unable to see him in person, I got a call that he’d have to go back to the hospital. I collapsed as the doctor was patiently explaining what was going on. Well, not so much collapsed as slowly sunk to the floor. The MRI confirmed what the doctors suspected, that it was the "best case scenario,” an evolving stroke. It did not sound particularly best to me. I begged the doctor to let me come see Roland, but got nowhere. That was the second-worst day of my life, waiting by the phone and feeling completely without control and terrified that the man I loved so much was going to die alone, in a hospital. I don’t know who I was more scared for, me or him. I remember Jamal trying to comfort me in this moment but I couldn’t be comforted. I waved him away and distracted myself by pacing around a house that felt shrouded in fear, a marked departure from our usual Haitian music, accompanied by Roland loudly unloading the dishwasher while I sat in my chair, laptop and phone in eyeline, putting out fires and maybe writing something about how annoying the restaurant business is. I was suffering from PTSD and I kept replaying the fall over and over to the point where I stepped around the space on our bedroom floor where he’d collapsed as though there was police murder tape outlining a body. Roland eventually moved back to rehab. He called it “jail.” The longest they will let you stay is seven weeks, and the doctors and physiotherapists were all strongly encouraging him to stay the full tour. Most of the nurses were perfunctory at best, with a couple of exceptions. Obviously they were working under very taxing circumstances, but as a patient, maybe Roland shouldn’t have a clear memory of one of them checking him a little too coldly for death signs. He said he felt like they were just waiting for him to die. I was totally unmoored. I felt all my roots pull out and revolt, my sense of self tangled up in fear of the unknown. I didn’t cry much, I just got numb. I am so used to being in control of what happens to me that when it was ripped away I was like a beach ball floating out to sea, getting tossed by waves I’d never seen coming. I continued sleeping and eating the bare minimum. I will be forever grateful to a small group of pals who took turns dropping off dinner because I really couldn’t take care of myself. All I could see was cloudy grief and all I could do was soft focus on Mad Men. I pretty much retreated from my life, which wasn’t hard because, thanks to COVID, most people were doing the same, retreating. It felt like the whole world had stopped anyway, so my world being yanked to a halt didn’t register much. I didn’t want to take sleeping pills or eat weed because Strokey had no sense of time. He would call at all hours and I never wanted to miss a FaceTime. I wouldn’t let him see me cry, I felt like my only job was to keep his spirits up. Even if I had allowed myself a rare bout of tears, when he called I wiped my eyes, taped on a smile and slid the phone open . . . it’s called acting, and it actually helped me cope, in a strange way. Knowing I had to be strong for someone allowed me to access more bedrock than I even knew I had. It was around this time I discovered ASMR videos, out of desperation. I truly cannot explain why someone role-playing a doctor or aesthetician or giving me an eye exam in a whispered voice (shout out August and Whisper Audios and obviously Maria) would be so relaxing and lull me to sleep, but it really helped. I only just recently weaned myself off regular use of them as a sleep tool (in an ironic twist, watching videos right before bed can’t actually be all that good for you, even if it’s effective short-term). Roland tried hard to keep his spirits up but it was very, very difficult. COVID protocols meant many hours a day alone and the ward was understaffed. There is a strange phenomenon that is common after a stroke in which you may become far more emotional, called emotional lability, and yes, it feels like a liability, to so much, if you’ll allow the almost-homonym. In Roland’s case this often manifested in sudden-onset bouts of tears, which was so hard to see through a screen and so extremely out of character. The doctors wanted to put him on antidepressants (they were often looking for quick solutions to make the rehab day-to-day easier but those solutions didn’t usually take in the big picture). I was positive Roland’s depression was circumstantial and would lift when he came home. We discussed it at length. I was nervous about making a potentially wrong decision but some part of me felt sure antidepressants were not the right way to go (though obviously they are right for some and have helped many, many people). We opted not to do it. Around that time one of the rehab social workers decided it was good social work to tell us that maybe this was it, that perhaps he wouldn’t improve any more, which was absolute bullshit and borderline cruel. Even if it had been a reasonable prediction (he couldn’t walk at the time), it wasn’t (because now he can), and there is no way this is a good thing to say to people in week three of stroke recovery who desperately need the motivational power of hope. I was furious and complained about her and have no regrets. That is sadistic behaviour, a way for a person who feels small to taste a little power. It wasn’t all doom and gloom at Toronto Rehab (a place I suspect is vastly better in non-COVID times). There were a couple of people who went above and beyond. A nurse, Gita, showed Roland tremendous kindness and extended humanity in a forehead touch or words of encouragement. And Jennifer, a personal support worker, sat with Roland while he ate lunch, mostly so he wouldn’t choke on his food, but the company was appreciated as he slowly and carefully taught himself to use cutlery with a hand that wasn’t fully tuned in. We FaceTimed many times a day but it wasn’t the same as being there. The weeks just kept ticking by. * It was somewhere in these grey and fuzzy weeks that I started really working out, like maybe I took it a bit far? I had done Pilates and weights and some light cardio for years but I amped it up considerably, rowing for thirty minutes six days a week, doing twenty minutes of Pilates, yoga or weights and then thirty minutes of hula hooping, just to put a fairly low-impact workout into the “maybe a bit much?” category. I’ve only cut the time down a little bit as I’ve gotten more into lifting, which is quite possibly the perfect workout, or at least, it’s what I’m currently obsessed with. It did wonders for my ability to cope, which had started to feel quite tenuous. Of course I told no one how unhinged I was feeling, because I’m terrible at asking for help. It’s funny to be so aware of all the things I’m bad at. Here’s a list: Things I Am Bad At (an ever-evolving list): Asking for help: Number one thing for sure, I would far rather suffer in silence than try to explain why I am feeling sad to even the best pal Letting go of control: Whether it’s as a table boss or just in general, my instinct is to be a decision maker. It’s something I consciously work on and every once in a while I just let someone else drive, and it’s nice! Constant productivity: I can be lazy in ways that would astound. Some days I will simply choose to do nothing and honestly I don’t even feel bad about it Being empathetic enough: Under some circumstances I can lack appropriate empathy. I usually get there eventually, but my instinct is towards harsh judgments, maybe unnecessarily harsh Letting go of dead horse grudges: I will simply keep beating them, sometimes quietly, to myself, sometimes screaming from Twitter Hearing all the praise: Even though the dumb insults flow right off, the architecture of the gatekeeping, the sense that there are forces at work to actively keep me down never fully leaves. And even if a lot of that is actually true and we obviously know that misogyny . . . exists, I could maybe focus a little more on the positives Making money: I could’ve made so much more money if I had just played a different game But then the final "what-are-your-flaws-that-you-are-quietly-spinning-into-positives-as-you-go-down-the-list thing" is being bad at giving a shit: I truly don’t care about all the garbage bridges I’ve burned. I didn't really want to cross them anyway . . . imagine wanting to be famous? Disgusting. I'm unable to really do anything about all of this, despite trying. Yes, I have tried TRYING. I will never be good at asking for help, it’s simply not in my DNA, but I am aware enough to have warned a few friends I’ll need to be on suicide watch when Roland dies, as life would seem quite pointless without him. I learned this while we were apart for almost seven weeks. I suppose it’s possible I’ll die first, but it seems like a bad bet. One thing I am good at is kicking up a stink. The head of Toronto Rehab had naively given me his cell number and, citing Roland’s mental health hanging in the balance, I bugged him so much he caved and let me sneak into the facility four times in ten days for evening visits, which massively cheered Roland. He was miserable and wanted to come home so badly, but of course, the rehab doctors wanted him to complete the recommended stay, and so did I. I was concerned his mobility was still too limited to safely navigate our house, despite my efforts to add some ease with toilet and shower bars. (The day after Roland came home the ban on visits from partners/essential caregivers was lifted. I’d like to think I played a tiny part in that. Masks work and it was a cruel separation.) * Home day was late June. I had arranged for a physiotherapist to come to our house. I found him through Twitter (can’t fully hate that hellsite, have made a lot of pals on there). His wife reached out to me when I was crowdsourcing, looking for the best physiotherapist in the city. I sent him an email and he replied with so much empathy and shared so many recovery stories, I knew we should work with him. Roland was skeptical. “He is just trying to get a client,” he told me. But also, Roland’s brain was fucked up! He wasn’t thinking straight and he was wrong. David Frake of Balance Physiotherapy has been a life-changing person. It is no exaggeration to say that I have no idea how we would have come this far without him. The care he puts in, the hope he endlessly provides, it has been the single most important thing for us. He goes so far above and beyond the hour-long weekly physiotherapy sessions he has with Roland on Fridays. I have sent him many text messages when things have felt a little bleak, because the real cunty part of stroke recovery is that it’s unreliable. When Roland couldn't see properly out of his sluggish and sagging right eye, he insisted that he would be happy as long as his eye recovered, which he didn't believe would ever happen. It eventually did, and he just replaced that goal with other impossible-seeming ones. The happiness he expected to feel over his recovered eye was not proportional to the relatively quick recovery of said eye. Happiness in general, at this time, was elusive. Because even though you are always making progress, it is one step forward, two steps (five steps?) back. The plateaus between progress jumps can be six weeks long, so you constantly feel like you’ve hit the final recovery wall, that there may be no place left for the goalposts to move. That’s the thing about recovery: you are always moving the posts in terms of what is acceptable, and based on many conversations, I know the only thing that is actually acceptable to Roland is walking and existing as he used to. Within a couple of days of being home, Roland was chewing something and spat out most of a molar. Yes, absolutely, this is what we needed right now, a broken tooth and a dentist visit post-stroke at the height of the first lockdown, the first of many, it would turn out. Remember being super scared of getting COVID? Because I do, and going to the dentist felt extremely high risk, but what choice did we have? I parked as close as I possibly could to the entrance to the office on Bathurst, but there was construction and a lane closure so I couldn’t pull over right out front. The best I could do was just around the corner. We had a walker for Roland, but he didn’t want to use it (pride, stupid stubbornness?) so Jamal and I just held onto him as we took a thirty-meter walk that felt like a mile. He did not get COVID at the dentist. Those first few weeks at home feel like they were a million years ago. They say you don’t remember pain but I’m not sure that’s what I felt. I was so relentlessly hopeful and positive and I just dug into that, even as Roland was unable to walk on his own (we had a walker on every floor to assist him and going up the stairs involved a lot of effort on his part and mine, as I lifted his disloyal right leg for each step). On his first night back I cooked poached chicken with ginger scallion sauce and steamed a big pile of vegetables with a small side of brown rice. I wanted to vastly change his eating habits to help stave off another stroke. He was not impressed. And I was extremely not impressed by his disappointment. We had a small argument and I very quickly realized he wasn’t fully himself, which scared the hell out of me. But that this was one of maybe two or three disagreements over the last two (almost three) years frankly feels like a fucking miracle. We slowly learned to navigate his healing. I learned to be very soft and forgiving of things that might once have irked me. He napped a lot in those early days of recovery, sometimes sleeping more than fourteen hours a day. I continued to cook healthy food but stayed away from poached chicken breast, a leg man is a leg man. (Though I do think it’s worth pointing out that I make very delicious poached chicken.) I started describing a stroke as a twenty-car pile-up on the highway of your brain’s quickest route. Recovery is the next car getting off the highway just before the devastation and twisted-up metal of cars blocking the road, except it’s night time, and the power is out, and it’s a thunderstorm and actually, turns out there is no road. So one car slowly and timidly draws a new path where there never was one. Your brain is resourceful this way, but it’s slow going. After a while, all the cars start taking this newly formed exit and your brain learns a whole new way of communicating with your body. It isn’t just the slow mobility or plodding “stroke walk” we are always fighting against to ward off permanence. It’s waking up feeling shitty most days and knowing how hard that is as a constant and working to try and bury that feeling, which in itself is effort. I remember assuming there was going to be a moment where everything would feel like it was going to be okay and I’d cry and it would be like this sappy TV show snapshot, but that has never happened. Roland’s first steps unassisted were across our front porch late in the afternoon on July 1. Even though we were both overjoyed, it didn’t have that sigh of relief, everything-is-fine vibe. Recovery is so torturously slow that you almost don’t notice it. This is why I record Roland’s walk all the time. He needs to be able to see how far he’s come. I see it, but it can feel imperceptible and if you let it, and that’s where hope can get sucked out, Dementor-style. And what you need to keep moving forward in impossible-seeming circumstances is hope. So we just keep having it. Some days it feels okay. Roland is able to speak at close to his pre-stroke pace, and he seems less bogged down by foggy neural pathways. These days are the pins in the mountain that keep the whole climb from falling apart, but they are also psychologically torturous. Knowing that it is possible to feel better, but often not in fact feeling that—the frustration of that would knock me right down. But Roland works so hard to stay optimistic and keep hope alive. I know I am a huge part of that. To try and recover from a stroke without a devoted partner? I can’t even imagine. We have a running joke where he’ll respond to some low-level annoyance of mine with, “Don’t worry honey, I’ll died soon” (which is precisely how he says it in his own particular vernacular) and then I wait a beat and say, “But when?” Every once in a while, he’ll add an addendum that takes a dark quip and forces too much reality onto it, noting that if he ever has another stroke I should let him die. These kinds of conversations about our mortal fragility are important and more people should have them—autonomy over our own bodies is essential, even if it includes not wanting to exist in them anymore—but I am not always able to face that version of reality, especially while already confronted by so much of it. Obviously I would prefer Roland had not suffered a massive stroke that has infected his (perfect) walk. Yes, I miss seeing him stride toward me. It would always raise my heart rate a bit, confidence personified in movement. But I am so grateful he is still fundamentally the same person. I know we aren’t supposed to think in terms of it could have been worse, BUT IT COULD HAVE BEEN! Many stroke survivors experience massive personality shifts and memory issues and I don’t know how we would possibly navigate that. Learning to walk again, even though it is too slow for two impatient people, feels surmountable. The nebulous fog of the unknown—will he paint again, will he ever wake up not feeling like he was run over by a truck, will he walk close to normally and have his old energy back—can seem like an impossible maze, but it’s one we need to stay put in, because it’s the hope that keeps us going. How would we cope if it ever were to feel hopeless? He still hasn’t painted. The thought that he might not again is unbearable for me, but for him, the focus is on survival, painting feels less urgent. A small mercy that he isn’t aching for it, although he recently mentioned an urge to for the first time since the stroke. Occasionally he gets very wistful and introspective and asks me if this is how people will remember him, which guts me. I have so many memories of him pre-stroke and while I can hold on to them and think fondly of a time in our lives when we weren’t mired in the worst parts of recovery, I also have a strong sense of who he is fundamentally. Even though our lives are maybe less carefree now, my love, adoration, and respect for him remain unchanged, perhaps even elevated by the boundless tenderness that one must access when caregiving. I don’t fully understand where I am in terms of processing because a large part of plowing ahead through the obstacles of stroke recovery is this whole keeping hope alive thing. And maybe a little bit of that is believing in something that isn’t achievable. Almost three years on, I am not prepared to accept that we have reached any sort of pinnacle of recovery, but is that naive? I wonder what would happen if I had to acknowledge that this is as good as it gets,which, our physiotherapist is constantly assuring me, it isn’t. But is that just part of his game at keeping us focused on physiotherapy? A so-called normal walk? This kind of circular thinking, while obviously pointless, is effective at keeping me in a state of suspended hope. I don’t try to pretend it hasn’t been traumatic, but I am good in a crisis, always have been. One thing I can say for certain is what a profound experience it has been and is. To discover what I am capable of as a person. To know that the deep love I always believed Roland and I had is in fact extremely real. The complexities of a strange new power dynamic could easily crush the strongest relationship, which is why open communication is so important. There are unpleasant things that need acknowledging, and if you ignore them, they can swallow up all the good. I sometimes feel like Roland is so focused on his recovery that my stress is irrelevant to him. But when we talk about it, he is understanding. He gets that he is not in this alone, although I’m sure it’s easy for him to feel like he is. Roland probably has moments of feeling like he can’t criticize me, or more specifically, something I’ve said or done, as he might’ve before the stroke, because he depends on me more. which becomes especially fraught when I occasionally get sick. I was recently down for 48 hours with a barometrically swollen head, not quite a migraine but enough to make me pretty useless for day-to-day tasks. I got annoyed when Roland didn't load the dishwasher—who is going to do it, the magic dish fairies? I heard him say "I can't" and insisted he meant "I won't" because even though simple tasks like that are difficult for him, he is absolutely capable, he just normally doesn't have to, because when I'm not sick I don't care about doing it all myself, (which is a whole other conversation about what motivates my domestic inclinations, me or the patriarchy...why not both!?) I knew saying something would only make him feel bad, but I was feeling so shitty and just couldn't stop myself. It took some time to unwind because his first reactions in moments like that can be defensive, mostly because he feels so bad a lot of the time! It makes for complex discussions, but essential ones. Without those kinds of talks your brain is left to circle its own drain with unanswerable questions. What if I got really, actually sick? It would be like having both kidneys removed, the relationship would have no one able to clean up. We both need to understand each other or we won't have the strength that comes from mutual support to bear the additional pressures stroke recovery heaps on us. I truly understand how hard it is for him, because I am bearing witness to it every day, and we talk about it a lot but try not to let it rule all conversation, a delicate balance. It’s very painful, physically and psychologically, and he navigates it all really well for the most part—he cracks sometimes, and so do I, but I know how lucky I am to have him and that feeling has only gotten stronger even if he (stupidly) wonders why I choose to stay with him. I joke that I can’t leave him, it would only confirm to the haters what a cunt I am if I do! Find yourself a partner with black humour and be happy for a long time. I don’t know how you untangle your own trauma when you are focused so completely on someone else’s. Most days I think I’m fine and am exactly the kind of person who can take on this kind of constant thrum of pressure. It’s like living next to a hydro field. The result of the stroke, the hum of electricity, is always there filling in the days, influencing our lives in countless ways, but also easy to adjust to so you almost don’t hear it. * I‘ve been thinking about it, my trauma in this, because of a conversation with a new pal who knew just what to ask me and intrinsically understood the complicated feelings that can exist around caregiving for a loved one. I pointed out that she seemed to understand this a little too well. “A parent?” I asked. Turns out her husband had died of cancer a few years back. She talked about how long and intense grief can be. I have been turning our conversation over, trying to figure out if I am in fact grieving something. I can honestly say I’m not. This is a lie I tell myself, because a person who is not mourning anything doesn’t randomly well up—not often, but it happens—and if it happens when I’m alone, sometimes I’ll allow strange sounds to leave my body. It would be misleading to call them anything other than grief. I was walking around New York City recently—I left Roland for five days (very encouraged by him to do so: “Honey, you need a break from me”) for the first time since he had the stroke. I cut fruit and put it in deli containers for five breakfasts and made bulgur and bean sauce for five lunches, hopeful this would mean healthy eating (not Pizza Nova). And still, I was very anxious leading up to this trip. (I’m not an anxious person generally—I have obviously experienced anxiety over the past few years and when it does hit, I wonder, how do people live like this?) Anyway, there I was on a beautiful late autumn day, crispy skies, bright, happy sun, wandering the Lower East Side, stopping in appealing-looking stores and letting the city guide me, sitting down for a glass of chenin on a sidewalk patio before searching out the next thing, and I thought, damn, I’ll never do this with my husband ever again. I’ll never walk aimlessly around a city with him ever again. I welled up behind my sunglasses. And then I thought, he never liked doing this shit anyway.
Why the producer’s “do-nothing” approach means everything.
Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. I’ve always found it strange trying to explain moments of creative inspiration that felt like signals from the beyond to my skeptical audience of friends. I was in London, UK, a few years ago and bought a vintage designer jacket from a charity shop. After close examination and some Googling, I became paranoid that it was inauthentic and returned it. This experience got me thinking about the thin line between fake and real online and unexpectedly led me on the path toward the album that I’m working on now. There was the time I was asked to officiate a wedding in Los Angeles and nearly fell down a cliff into Topanga Canyon while staring at my phone. That inspired me to write about technology’s effects on our lives in my song “Infinity Pool.” One particular walk along Queen Street West where I noticed a shockingly high concentration of weed stores led me to write the politically charged “Skyline” in one sitting as soon as I awoke the very next morning. Even a stray sentence overheard at a house party could be the impetus for a great creative endeavour, but you’ll only see it if you know to look for it. The internet was set ablaze recently by an insight into the creative process—an old rich white man at the top of his field proudly claiming total ignorance about his profession on national television. The takes came in hot and hurried. No person of colour could ever say that they had no idea what they were doing in their workplace. He was the poster boy for white male privilege. Commenters claimed that he was a Republican who was responsible for turning Kanye West into a Trump supporter. Folks unearthed a quote, of him suggesting that a band should change their name to something more racially provocative, as evidence of his low moral character. Worst of all, they even found photos of him in front of a mixing board, irrefutably proving his technical acumen. Someone even said he ruined Yeezus. So many people rushed to invalidate this isolated statement. People were outraged. But how would they have responded if he’d said the opposite? “I’m a musical genius. After producing hit albums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Johnny Cash and others, I would say that I know everything about making music. I’m the best—that’s why people hire me.” Wouldn’t that have been more distasteful? Maybe what’s so triggering about this shoeless man lying on the couch with his eyes closed in the studio is that we all wish we could reach his level of nonchalance, to go on TV and say, “No special set of skills over here, just vibes.” A far cry from the explosive, angry discourse that preceded it online, Rick Rubin’s new book The Creative Act: A Way of Being is a surprisingly reassuring and comforting read about the spiritual origins of creativity. The Creative Act isn’t a straightforward guidebook on how to become a better producer, musician or artist. There’s little in the way of direct anecdotes about Rick Rubin’s experiences in the studio shepherding world-famous acts to their greatest achievements. He avoids naming names unless it’s absolutely necessary. You won’t find any technical jargon or learn about mixing techniques. Instead, the book is a celebration of the intangible factors that foster creativity that aren’t often discussed. With all the industry machinations that can get in the way of art being expressed fully, it can be easy to forget that music itself is quite a magical thing: an untouchable, invisible element that emerges out of the ether and carries an immense power to move us emotionally, intellectually and physically. Rubin’s book encourages us to listen to ourselves and be more intentional with how we develop our ideas, whether we’re artists or not. You get a feeling of what it might be like to be produced by Mr. Rubin when absorbing the various kōans in the book. The author doesn’t suggest that his way is the only way of doing things. He writes about building habits that put you in the ideal state of mind for creativity to flourish. Anyone familiar with the mindfulness movement will recognize echoes of contemporary self-help language in Rubin’s writing, especially when he compels us to look to the cycles of nature for inspiration. While any experienced artist will likely already be familiar with many of the principles within The Creative Act, there’s something revitalizing about having your mind reoriented by the consistency of Rubin’s spiritual perspective. The book points the reader back toward ways of thinking that they may have always suspected were true but perhaps had ignored or forgotten in the name of logic and maturity. Rubin’s ideas often go against conventional wisdom, particularly the repeated adage that “the audience comes last” when it comes to creating. Rather than thinking of everything you work on as the piece that will define you for eternity, Rubin advises us to think of each release as an “experiment” that functions as “a diary entry of a moment of time, a snapshot reflection of who the artist is for that period.” While the music industry exhorts artists to produce as much music as possible to stay relevant, Rick helpfully reminds the aspiring artist that “commercial success is completely out of your control.” The book does a great job of illustrating how our own psychology can impact what we create. The “78 Areas of Thought” in the book seem designed to shift the reader to the point where their mind is free enough to operate from a childlike, open perspective that helps to remove the pressurizing influence of commerce and expectation from the creative process. I was particularly struck by the section about having your antenna up to be aware of “apparent coincidences appearing more often than randomness allows—almost as if there is another hand guiding yours in a certain direction.” I haven’t seen many people in the music world acknowledge the unexplainable, otherworldly aspects of creation so to see it be one of the main parts of Rubin’s book is heartening. The Creative Act showcases what often takes a lifetime of creating to realize: that the artist themselves isn’t always the driving force behind what they create. It’s a welcome reminder that what we do as artists is inherently a spiritual exercise. “We are required to believe in something that doesn’t exist in order to allow it to come into being” is how Rick puts it. With The Creative Act, Rubin digs into his vast well of experience, not to take credit for his many successes but in an effort to explain the unexplainable—to gave a face to the heretofore unseen.
In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew.
I stood at the lip of the cliff watching the other kids bound off its edge. Behind me, Rig Nilsen started running from the tree line, like he did every time he leaped, convinced the running start let him gain a few extra feet in the air. He was a short, string-limbed kid with a waxy face. His older brother’s hand-me-downs were bunched on his body, flapping in the breeze as he ran—baggy clothes, he told us, helped prolong his time in the air. He jumped off the cliff. He let out a warbling howl as he fell but went silent when he slammed into the ground. I hunched down with the others and peered over the ledge. In the rocky grass, about fifty feet down, Rig Nilsen lay on his back surrounded by the kids who’d already leaped. “It’s just the legs!” he finally shouted. Both bent out at the knees, his shins perpendicular to his thighs. Everyone rushed to drum on his twisted knees as his legs eased back to normal. Rig pushed himself to a stand, clapping and bouncing to prove he was fine—like we ever had doubts. In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew. It took a few seconds for Rig to straighten to normal. Just as it had taken a few seconds, collectively maybe a minute, for the other children to heal from their injuries. Healing? Injuries? God, if I’d spoken like this on that spring afternoon, everyone would’ve thought I’d gone crazy. Billy Logan leaped off the cliff and twisted his arm in the landing. Susie Cannavale snapped her left thigh into an L. Ty Donahue struck her head on a rock, creating a gash as deep as a fist, but soon her skull fused back together and Ty was laughing, asking the other kids to describe the wound, jealous she hadn’t seen it herself. Then it was my turn. I often wonder what would’ve happened—to me, to Rig, to the entire town of Dolor—if I had refused. What if instead of leaping I stretched out in the grass and gazed at the sky, or walked back to the tree line, spent the afternoon hunting for berries? What if I had suggested we all go swimming? But I lived for these milliseconds of flight. I’d waited all winter—the rainiest in my thirteen years—for a day as brilliant and clear as today. At the edge, I sprang off my left foot, flapping my arms like I might lift into the sky, falling forever. But I landed. Everyone always landed. Except when my left foot hit the ground, a terrible sound cracked out of my body. A strange sensation—I knew it only as a sensation, not as pain, or as agony, fear—fired through my body. The other kids started laughing. They thought I was playing a trick, imitating some deranged monster by yowling and screaming. My left ankle bent in like a hook, the sole facing the opposite thigh. The cuff of my pants started to darken. Something slick and warm coated my skin. But we were miles from any lake. The ground was as dry as a dune. The kids swarmed around my discolored jeans. Rig Nilsen grabbed my ankle—we loved touching the misshapen limbs—and the sensation spread to my eyes. “Don’t!” I yelled, rolling side to side, grays, greens, and blues blurring together. “What’s wrong with Jackson?” “It’s taking too long.” “I need . . .” I shouted. What did I need? I needed the sensation to end. “Father . . . My mother. Take . . . Me to . . . home,” I spit out. “We should get someone,” Rig said. “Move out of the way!” someone screamed from the cliff. “We can’t!” Rig responded. “Jackson is . . . I don’t know.” “His leg’s not going back!” “Home,” I muttered. “Can you walk?” Rig asked. I assumed I could. Perhaps that was my problem: If I stood my leg would return to normal. But I collapsed when I tried. Chewed food spilled from my mouth. “What the hell is that!?” someone said. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “We need to carry him,” Rig said. I appreciated his know-it-allism, then, his need to be the smartest person in all situations, traits that had, before that moment, made Rig insufferable. Eight sets of arms slipped under my body and scooped me up to their waists. I was taller and heavier than most children my age, and their hands slipped and tensed underneath as they carried me from the cliff to the forest. Ferns on the floor of the forest brushed my back. I caught glimpses of canopy. I kept expecting the sensation to cease. Soon enough, my ankle would straighten and I would wriggle from everyone’s grasp, run back to the cliff, ready to leap. As we closed in on Serenity Lake, splashing and laughing grew louder, the idle chatter of people who’d never known pain. The kids let me down in the sand. Adult faces replaced the children’s faces. I recognized the adults, and was relieved to see them. In Dolor, everyone knew everyone else—if not by name then by face—but these faces were poor replacements for the only two faces I wanted: my mother’s and father’s. In crisis, I would learn, we long for love to alleviate pain, for the familiar to suppress the intrusion of hurt. I believed seeing my mother pull her hair into a bun before leaning over to kiss my forehead would oust what had invaded my body, that my father’s calm baritone voice could alone silence this awful sensation. “We’d all been jumping,” said Rig to the adults. “He didn’t do anything different. He landed and we waited for his leg to go back but it didn’t.” “It’s the oddest thing,” said an adult. “I see you put water on it,” another adult added. “Did that help?” “It’s not water,” said Rig. He hand was pink at the fingers. The first adult reached for my leg, ignoring Rig’s protests and mine. He squeezed the ankle. I screamed the loudest I’d ever screamed. The adult withdrew his hand. “This isn’t for me,” he said. “Not for me,” said another adult. “I don’t like the look of it,” said a third. “Maybe someone in town would know what to do,” the first adult suggested, trying to sound wise but clearly disturbed. He wanted only to do what he’d come to the lake to do: relax and swim with his family. The other adults wanted the same. They gravitated back to their chairs and their books and their snacks. “One . . . Two . . . Three.” I was lifted again by the children. On the edge of town, we passed the rundown shacks where the eldest community members resided, the old men and women who lived off small vegetable gardens rather than buying food from the Market. Only one person lived there now, Ginny Prentice, the oldest woman in Dolor. No one interacted with Ginny. She was months from Resignation and, we believed, she preferred to keep to herself, preparing for an eternity of unimaginable bliss in Fortune, the life we all received after this one. But that day she waited outside, leaning against her fence tapping the point of a picket. “Is he alright?” Ginny asked. There was no time to respond. We passed the school house, the market, the tennis courts where the balls thwacked against rackets. A football flew over my head. The sound of feet on grass became feet on concrete as we entered town square. They let me down on the steps of town hall. In front of me stood the statue of Henri Caton, the man who established Dolor more than a century earlier. He’d chosen this land for its beauty and safety—mountains surrounded the town. The outside world was shaded by constant suffering, while Dolorans—thanks to Henri Caton—had lives of love, leisure, and plenty, unthreatened by peril. Governor Brase, the trusted and unfazeable leader of Dolor, crouched above me. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he muttered. He bent closer, his glasses tipping down the bridge of his nose. “And if I touch it . . .” I didn’t stop him. As Governor, it was his right. His touch caused me to spit up more food. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “We need to get him—it might be contagious. Have you kids felt anything?” “Felt what?” Rig asked. “Hey you,” said the Governor to Ty Donahue. “Kick him.” He pointed at Rig. She kicked him hard in the thigh. “OW!” Rig said, confused. “It’s—what is—like a dull thing in my—” “Annabelle! Get me six pairs of gloves!” the Governor shouted at his assistant. He and five gloved kids hauled me up to a restroom on the top floor of town hall. They lay me down on a bed of yellow towels. “We need to quarantine you,” said the Governor. “It won’t be for long.” He beckoned the other kids out of the bathroom. The lock clicked into place. * My mind went messy with hyper-sensation. The pain waned and strengthened. The cool tile offered me solace. I rested my cheek against it, then flipped to rest the opposite cheek, to distract myself from the pain. Finally, I passed out, and was awoken by a rubbery hand on my forehead. My parents hunched above me. Puffy suits marshmallowed their bodies. They looked at me from behind bubbles of plastic. “Honey,” said my mother, as she stroked her gloved hand on my cheek. Her voice sounded abrasive through the mask. “How you holding up, sport?” bellowed my father. I flinched seeing them like this; the sensation spread. I shouted in agony. They held their hands to my shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay,” they said. “What happened to me?” “It was an accident,” my mother said. “When will it stop?” “Soon,” said my mother. She opened my mouth and placed two tablets inside. “These are from the Governor. Imported from beyond the mountains.” “Swallow them whole,” said my father. They tasted bitter but I swallowed. “You’re going to need a doctor,” said my father. “What’s that?” “It’s a . . . I don’t really know. They tell me it’s someone who fixes bodies.” “There aren’t any in Dolor,” said my mother. “I’m broken?” “It’s confusing for us, too, honey.” My parents leaned down to hug me, but barely. “Can you take off the suits?” “It’s for our own protection.” “And yours.” “We need to be one-hundred percent in order to help you.” They placed a pillow under my head, a blanket over my body. They slipped into the hall. * In Dolor, children played together in the streets, in the forest, at school, at the lake. Families went for long walks before dinner, commenting on the flowers and lizards and other creatures they encountered. Dinners were healthy and large and dragged deep into the night. Parents tucked their kids into bed, reading them the books that were read to them as children. In the morning, the sun provided its favorite rays. We deserved exceptional lives because we lived exceptional lives. But I had none of that now. There was only pain circling the edge of my body, waiting for the numbing tablets to quit. Screaming sounded in the hall. I wondered if it was the doctor. The door opened. Two people in marshmallow suits heaved Rig into the room. He skidded into the base of the sink but quickly stood, rubbing his back. He hobbled across the room, hugging the walls, to keep a safe distance between us. “What’s it like out there?” I asked. “Don’t talk to me,” he said. “I don’t want to get sick.” “My parents said a doctor was coming. They’re the ones who fix things.” “Doctors are just a myth to make people feel better.” Footsteps sounded in the hall. We silenced ourselves. I looked at Rig, made a face like, See? The door widened enough for a tray to slide into the room. It closed immediately. Rig raced for the door, but the lock had already clicked. There were two plates, two slices of pizza on each, and paper cups next to the plates: numbing tablets. I asked for my share but Rig told me I didn’t deserve it. “If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be stuck here,” he said. He stuffed half a slice in his mouth and struggled to chew. * On our third day together, Rig discovered a bar of soap under the sink. To pass the time, we tossed it back and forth. Once that became too easy, Rig wet the soap. We only ever caught it two or three times in a row, but the suspense gave us something to care about. * Five days passed with no sign of the doctor or our parents. Rig and I started to smell. He washed himself in the sink, rinsing his face and under his arms and—as I covered my eyes—his privates. Rig filled me a soup bowl with soapy water and I washed myself on the floor. The pain decreased. Or, I got used to the feeling. My ankle doubled in size and resembled an eggplant. Rig loved poking the squishy expanses of flesh. The fifth day became the sixth then the seventh. Our rapport splintered into something meaner and feral. “I need to get out of here,” Rig kept saying. “I can’t go anywhere.” “You’re not coming.” “You can’t leave me here” Rig had grown up in the same Dolor I had. We’d been taught to care for each other, to praise each other, to smile in the streets and to tell everyone how good we felt. This mindset had helped our community prosper. And it would help us prosper again. “That’s all junk,” Rig said. “No one’s helping us. No one’s praising us. I’d rather get resigned. Secure the bliss waiting for me in Fortune.” “What’s happening outside?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. “Who do you see?” Rig’s descriptions of people hanging out in town square had helped me endure our confinement. It had given me hope, because I believed I might one day be back among them. But for the first time since I’d been put here, the square was empty. Rig stared out the window. “I don’t even see any birds,” he said. He leaned to the right, to get a better angle, then to the left. “Nothing.” “It’s never empty.” “Come see.” He helped me into a stand. I leaned against him, hopping on my right foot. The streets were as empty as air. The statue of Henri Caton stood alone in the center of town. I pressed my ear to the glass, listening for children shouting or adults laughing, and what I heard was a wide sheet of silence. I slid down the wall to the floor. In the hallway, footsteps pounded faster than normal. A white suit flung open our door and tossed a large cardboard box inside. The door slammed shut. The box was packed with nonperishable foods, chips and cereals and dried milk and canned peas. Enough to last for a month. Rig panted ferociously. He kicked the door and hammered the handle with his fists. “I need something heavy,” he said, and I suggested the porcelain lid on the tank of the toilet. He lugged off the lid, dragging it to the entrance. It took every muscle in his body for him to lift it, but when the lid struck the handle, it snapped off with a shuddering ting. “You’re a hero!” I said. “Help me up.” He didn’t even look back. “Rig!” I shouted, until I could no longer hear his footsteps. I crawled to the sink and pulled myself to a stand, hopped out the door, where I could lean against the outside wall, hopping down the hall without putting weight on my ankle. I shouted “Hello” every few minutes, hoping someone might answer, might come to my aid. Downstairs, I collapsed into a leather rolling chair at the front desk and wheeled myself into the empty world. I only lived a few blocks away, in a small cabin not unlike every cabin in Dolor—wooden and pleasant, with a wraparound porch and rich green shutters, a flower garden tiered with tulips, a row of stones cutting a path across the yard. As I wheeled through the streets, eyes washed over me. Blinds flinched shut when I looked at the houses. It took nearly an hour to get home. I waited for my parents in the driveway, expecting them to rush to my aid. I called for them. Finally, I hopped to the porch and sat on the doormat, screaming for help. People in the surrounding houses watched my pleading unfold. I had assumed my parents were busy hunting for doctors, but no—they were hiding at home, ignoring me. My mother pulled the blinds in the closest window. “Honey,” she said through the glass. “You can’t be out here.” “Let me in,” I begged. My father appeared beside her. Red lines streaked their eyes. They seemed disturbed by my presence, or by what my presence suggested about them. “This is terrible for us.” “We really do wish we could help,” said my father. “You abandoned me,” I said. “We need to do what’s best for Dolor.” “We wouldn’t know how to live with it.” “Live with what?” I asked. “You’re so much stronger than us.” “And we need to protect ourselves.” “For the good of Dolor.” They started to cry. This gave me minor relief, knowing this wasn’t easy for them, but that comfort meant little beside their betrayal. “I’m healthy,” I told them. “You’re contagious,” said my father. “And we don’t have a cure.” They insisted they loved me. They insisted they felt for me. “We know what you’re going through,” they said, because they didn’t. People who’ve never known pain can never know empathy. Comfort had trapped them inside of themselves. They were caged by convenience and pleasure. They lowered the blinds. * In the morning, a man in a marshmallow suit delivered a box labeled TUESDAY. I was awoken by the package thudding the porch. “Help me!” I said. But he strolled away, confident I couldn’t catch up. He delivered similar boxes to every house in the neighborhood. I opened ours, picked out an apple and a bag of almonds. I hopped back to the chair. Once I rolled out of the driveway, my parents stepped outside for the box and, as if I were going to school, they politely waved goodbye. I wheeled into the center of town toward the lake, planning to return to the cliff. I thought if I jumped again it might fix everything. I didn’t care how long it would take to get there. I would crawl if I needed to. In the town square, the statue of Henri Caton had been toppled, and its extended arm, pointing—as the story went—in the direction of Dolor, was bent to a crooked V where it hit the ground. I touched the arm, and the metal pressed inward under my hand, the material cheap and pliable. There were scrape marks over the body and it smelled like an unflushed toilet. Beside the school, the tennis court nets had been shredded. A wavy metal sheet covered the face of the general store. I rolled closer, to see where the sheet had come from—normally, even at night, the general store windows were exposed, greetings cards and boxed cookies on display—and was surprised to see the metal had been lowered from above the windows, that it had likely been there the entire time. At Serenity Lake, the lounge chairs that once crowded the shore had been tossed in the water, stuck upright in the lakebottom, so they poked through the surface like fingers through the holes in a glove. As I rolled on, I felt people around me, the way you can feel someone is home even when they’re not speaking, but no one emerged from behind the school or the stores, no one shouted to me from the forest, or crept wetly out of the lake, waving to me. At the edge of town, though, close to the cliff, I heard an aged, gravelly voice calling my name. Ginny Prentice leaned against her fence. “You’re the hurt boy,” she said. Her face resembled an onion, round, with sprigs of hair on the top. I nodded. “About time it happened to someone.” “Are you a doctor?” I asked. She shook her head. “But I’ve known doctors. I can fix you.” She pushed me onto her property, rolling me up the walkway. “Don’t you need a suit?” I asked. “What’s the point?” Ginny said. “I’m a month from Resignation.” At her porch, she bent down and I draped my arm over her shoulder. Together we limped inside. She fed me porridge and raisins and let me sleep on her couch. I flinched awake a few times from rolling onto my ankle but slept largely uninterrupted, my best sleep in a week. In the morning, I bit on a towel as Ginny straightened my ankle. It hurt more than it had the first day. Afterward, she tied a T-shirt around the ankle and lumped ice over top. Weeks passed before I could put any weight on it. Over that time, Ginny talked about the utter boredom of life in Dolor compared to the rest of the world. She fled Dolor once, in her teens, but returned home after two days, frightened by what she discovered: a world of risk and excitement and grief. She regretted not staying longer. She lacked the courage, she said, to ever go back. She was a Doloran. Whether she liked it or not. And she’d spent her life awaiting Resignation. I didn’t like hearing her talk this way, didn’t like being reminded that very soon, on her sixtieth birthday, two officials would inject Ginny with a serum that would send her to Fortune, where population stability wasn’t an issue. “Are you excited?” I asked her one day, hoping to slip some joy into our morbid conversations. “Fortune is supposed to be even better than Dolor.” “It’s not any greater than here. Not any worse. It’s just an end. It’s called death—not Resignation. That’s a word you should know so you can accept it.” “I’ll be all alone.” “That other kid’ll probably show.” “No way I’m letting him in,” I said. “You’ll get lonely,” she said. And I knew she was right. The final week before Resignation, when I could hobble without the aid of a crutch, Ginny did what she could to teach me to survive on my own. She wrote out instructions for maintaining the garden, showed me how to fry an egg, how to sew a button onto a shirt and chopped an excessive amount of firewood for the winter—she said I was too young to learn to chop it myself. I was slow to pick up new skills. And the low hum of pain still in my ankle made any physical labor exhausting. Ginny pitied me. “You’re gonna die here,” she said, watching me mangle the tomatoes I plucked from the vine. “Then tell me how to survive,” I said. “They’re coming tomorrow,” she said. “You’re too young,” she said. “You’re gonna die here,” she said. “Stop telling me that,” I said. “It breaks my heart just thinking about it,” she said. “Now come, let’s eat some dinner.” That evening, the night before her sixtieth birthday, we feasted on a platter of Ginny’s favorite foods: waffles, French fries, salted cashews, ice cream sandwiches, and a rich brown drink that burned and scraped in my chest. After a while, the burning softened, and I was all giggles and burps. We played backgammon until my eyes glazed over in sleep. I woke up later than normal. My head was a pile of stones. The Resignation Officials always came first thing in the morning, before the sun even rose, and the sunlight pressing through the blinds made it obvious that I’d slept in too late to see Ginny again. I hobbled to the kitchen, then to her bedroom, but both rooms were empty. I am going to die here, I thought, the idea coming to me in Ginny’s pitying voice. There were some leftovers in the fridge and, though my stomach felt spiky, I tried to heat half of a waffle using a skillet on the stove. I burned it so badly a sooty cloud of smoke climbed out of the pan. Ginny’s voice returned to me. It seemed like a guarantee, now. I would die here. She had died here. Death—the word she taught me to use instead of Resignation. Death, a word that hovered in front of me. A word like a door I would enter. I hadn’t been awake for an hour and I already wished that Rig was here with me. I would’ve been fine to return to the bathroom if it meant I wasn’t alone. If my parents refused to see me, surely his had refused to see him. Ginny was right. He would find me. And I would welcome him in—I would beg him to live with me. Anything would be better than slowly starving to death on my own, if I didn’t burn down the house before he even arrived. I limped to the front door planning to forage some fruit for breakfast now that I’d ruined the waffle. When I opened the door, however, Ginny was standing before me holding a deep plastic bowl filled to the brim with blackberries. “They must’ve forgotten about me,” she said. “But they’ll be here tomorrow.” The next day, the officials didn’t arrive. They didn’t arrive the next day or the following week. It’s been a month, and every day we are waiting a little bit less, and a little bit less, and a little bit less.
The author of The Wife of Bath: A Biography offers an unexpected channel into the life of one of literature’s greatest fictional characters—Alison of Bath.
The Wife of Bath (a.k.a. Alison of Bath) speaks with the knowledge of experience: travels throughout Europe, mercantile savvy, five marriages, domestic abuse, sex, and pleasure. Indeed, before launching into her Tale—a parable about what women desire—she delivers a Prologue rife with “truths” from her own “life.” Truths and life are in scare quotes here because Alison, of course, is a fictional character. But that fact hasn’t lessened how real she has felt to centuries of readers and reinterpreters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the iconic late fourteenth-century poem that portrays a heterogenous group of Canterbury-bound pilgrims. Alison calls our attention to who has long wielded the pen and shaped the record, and who has not: “By God, if women had but written stories / Like those clergy keep in oratories, / More had been written of man’s wickedness / Than all the sons of Adam could redress” [“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” trans. Nevill Coghill]. Alison is astute, wry, and candid. She also likes to enjoy herself. As Chaucer scholar Marion Turner writes in The Wife of Bath (Princeton University Press), a new biography of this titular taleteller, “[S]he gossips! She drinks! She tells her husband’s secrets! She looks for a new husband at her previous husband’s funeral!” Turner’s biography traces Alison from her fourteenth-century context to her appearances, both literal and referential, in works by William Shakespeare, Voltaire, James Joyce, Hilary Mantel, Patience Agbabi, Jean “Binta” Breeze, and Zadie Smith, among many others. “She lives for readers in a way that most characters do not,” Turner writes. We spoke about how and why Alison’s presence has endured, and our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Melissa Rodman: I’d love to start out by placing this book in conversation with your previous book, Chaucer: A European Life, which focused on Chaucer himself as the life to untangle in context. Now you’ve turned to the Wife of Bath, the character, and I’m wondering what led you to make that choice. Marion Turner: I really enjoyed writing and researching the biography of Chaucer, and it involved a lot of travel, a lot of working with different kinds of records. I did feel like I was able to get inside the imagination of the author and the audience in the fourteenth century, through thinking about what he saw, where he went, the structures he lived in. I thought, “I would really like to write about a woman,” and I really enjoyed writing literary biography, but I wanted to do something experimental as well. Of course, it’s hard to write about women from the distant past because we don’t have the same amount of evidence. And when we do have evidence, it’s often been written by men, or—even if it’s been written by women—it’s usually been filtered through men, through forms that have been designed by men, sometimes male ghostwriters, sometimes there’s a male editor, male scribes. I wondered if there were other ways of thinking about women in time that didn’t involve going to an actual, individual woman. What would it be like to try to think about how we can access different aspects of historical truth and the imagination, through someone who is not real, who is a character? Right now, people are still writing new versions of the Wife of Bath, which is crazy in a way—650 years on, she’s still inspiring so many texts. The intertextuality you’re talking about really emerges in reading The Wife of Bath, not just in medieval times but also in your incorporation of Virginia Woolf, for example. Woolf seems to be central to your project. I don’t know if that connection was something you thought about prior to the research stage? Woolf has always been really influential for me, even though I’ve never been an expert on modernism. One thing that’s very striking for me is that many of the things that Woolf was saying in the early twentieth century were things that the Wife of Bath was saying in the fourteenth century. There are two particularly important aspects here. First, Virginia Woolf writes at length in A Room of One’s Own about the fact that women haven’t had the chance to tell their own stories, and she tells this story of an imagined Shakespeare’s sister who would not have been able to get her voice heard. Now, Virginia Woolf is writing this in the early twentieth century, but in the late fourteenth century the Wife of Bath is saying, “All the books have been written by men. Who painted the lion? Men have told all the stories. They have said terrible things about women,” and, “If women had been able to write stories, they would have told of the wickedness of men.” The other thing, which I think is fundamental to what Virginia Woolf wrote, is the idea that women need a room of their own, which is shorthand for saying economic independence. A key part of my argument is that the Wife of Bath emerged at this particular historical moment because women did have a certain amount of economic freedom and independence. She has benefited from inheritance laws. She’s been able to be a working woman; she’s been able to inherit from her husbands; she’s been able to have a certain degree of economic power. And that reflects the historical reality of the late fourteenth century, although, of course, this is not an era of equality. But it wasn’t an era of total subjugation, oppression, either, and, in fact, after the Black Death, women were able to work more. Women also set up new households with their husbands. They weren’t staying, living, with their parents or their husbands’ parents. They weren’t childbearing, usually, at very young ages. This was a moment at which women did have some economic independence and, therefore, more sexual choices as well. Interestingly, it’s comparable to post–First World War, which of course is an important moment for Woolf. At a time of demographic crisis, when lots of people die, when terrible, terrible things happen, out of that can come social change. And in both of those appalling instances—the Black Death and the First World War—because so many working men died, it did give rise to opportunities for women. What’s so interesting is that Alison, a fictional character, emerges in a nonfictional way. I’m going to quote something you wrote that’s really intriguing: “The illusion of honesty that she cultivates through her assured performance is deeply appealing to many readers who feel they can see inside her head, and this becomes even more engaging when she voices things with which we can identify.” I’m wondering, in your reading of the Canterbury Tales, when did you first connect with Alison in this way? It also brings up this question of gender dynamics that you’re discussing. How can Chaucer, a man, create this woman who has spoken to both men and women across time? I first read the Wife of Bath when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I did find her extremely striking as a character. So many people say, “Oh, Chaucer. The Wife of Bath. Oh, she was my favourite. She was the one I remember.” Many people when they read her, first they get deceived by the illusion, so they think there is an authenticity to it, which changes once you understand some of the misogynist sources that lie behind her construction. Some of us might think, “Oh, good on her”; medieval readers are thinking, “Oh, women are so terrible.” So, there are all kinds of complex things going on with our preconceptions. The Wife of Bath is essentially the first character in English literature, and not just the first female character. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to experiment with the very concept of what a literary character can be. That doesn’t mean she is the same as characters in Victorian or modern novels; of course not. There are all kinds of stereotypical aspects. But, at the same time, this is a figure who speaks at length in her confessional Prologue about herself. She talks about her past. She has a sense of temporality. That’s crucial in character formation. She circles things in her mind; she returns to things. Traumatic incidents keep coming back when she talks about the domestic violence that was enacted against her. That keeps recurring in a way that really gives us the sense of a mind. And, of course, it’s an illusion. This isn’t a real person. Her voice is so idiosyncratic because, unlike her sources, she has this properly funny voice. She’s comic. She kind of laughs at herself. She’s self-deprecating. And she’s not the kind of cynical old bawd of the Romance of the Rose, which is one of the key sources. She has a moral sense. There are all these aspects of her, which are not just about being a woman but are about being a character. Chaucer uses this character; he does it a bit in other characters as well, but more in the Wife of Bath than in any of the other Canterbury pilgrims. It’s partly about character, which isn’t only about gender. But it’s absolutely fascinating that he chooses to experiment with a female character, because not only should literary characters not speak this way, neither should fourteenth-century women. Chaucer is able to give us the sense of someone who is thinking about issues, such as rape and domestic abuse, in ways that he couldn’t have experienced—but that a fourteenth-century woman might have. He moved in very mixed circles, and women were reading and listening to his texts. The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is to let all kinds of voices speak. As a writer, as a thinker, he was deeply invested in trying to make leaps not only of imagination but of perspective. What you see is determined by where you are standing. You mention briefly in The Wife of Bath some allegations against Chaucer in his own life, his own domestic violence potentially. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more about that. In some headlines earlier this year, that discussion also has reemerged. There was a legal document that said he was no longer liable for allegations of “raptus,” which can be translated as rape, against someone called Cecily Chaumpaigne. There was a phase of scholars who said, “Well, Chaucer couldn’t possibly have been a rapist. What an outrageous thing even to imagine.” And then there were other scholars who said, “We have to take this seriously. We have to wrestle with the idea that the author whom we love might have done this terrible thing and that he might have been able to write sympathetically about women and treat them badly in his own life.” And just a few weeks ago some scholars found some other documents, which have demonstrated that this was not about rape. That, in fact, Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were on the same side of a legal dispute, where she had left an employer to go work for Chaucer, and, by joining together, they were stopping the employer from suing her for leaving him or from suing Chaucer for taking her away from this other employer. It’s a great example because it shows how people think, “Can anything still happen in the world of medieval studies?” But documents are still being found. There’s still ambiguity, but we’ve got a bit more clarity now. Would you say that Cecily was in an economic relationship with Chaucer, or was there a romantic tinge? There’s no evidence of anything romantic, but the economics—as you identify—is so interesting. One of the things that fascinates me about the Wife of Bath is not only her individually but the literary and real worlds that she represents. For instance, when the Wife of Bath talks about her own household—maids and nurses, working women within her household. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really crucial that women are able to work, and service was a major way for them to gain economic independence. There are many societies in that era, and in other eras as well, where the kind of service work of the house is done by women who are not paid, by the daughters-in-law, sisters of the household who are not allowed to leave, who are not allowed to earn money, who stay within the household as unpaid service providers. The fact that Chaucer lives in a world of female domestic and other labour, it meant that women could leave their fathers’ homes. They could go and earn a salary. They could save up money, and then they could set up their own home. Now, of course, that’s not to say there was no exploitation. But it was better for women than living in slavery. Women did lots of different things, like the cloth trade and brewing and different kinds of textile work. The Wife of Bath herself talks about working in the cloth trade. We also hear about women who are parchment makers or who own ships, and there are women who own companies. Particularly widows. Their husband would die, and they would go on running the company, training apprentices. You can imagine these networks of women, who are sometimes crossing hierarchies, employers and employees. But sometimes they’re obviously supportive networks, where money is being left, where training is being gifted, and women are being gifted the economic independence. [In] the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, where she is talking about how she gets money from her husband, she loses all her personal power when she gives it up to her fifth husband, and she has to get it back. She has to get economic power before she can have any other kind of power. Cecily Chaumpaigne in some kind of service role shines a new spotlight on that part of Chaucer’s world. It also makes me think about the lion line that is instrumental to this book: “Who painted the lion, tell me who?” It’s such a beautiful line as written by Chaucer, and then your close reading of it in The Wife of Bath is so powerful. Can you walk me through how in Chaucer’s text you were drawn to that line and then what the close reading process entailed? The Wife of Bath’s Prologue has lots and lots of different sources, and many of those sources are from an antifeminist tradition, a tradition of texts which are about how dreadful women are. Some of them are biblical texts by people such as Saint Jerome or texts by poet Eustache Deschamps. In the “who painted the lion” moment, Chaucer moves outside of that antifeminist tradition and goes to a fable. Fables were a really crucial way in which people were taught at school. So, we’ve moved into a different kind of source, and that is striking in itself, in terms of thinking, “What is Chaucer doing here?” He’s allowing us to have a moment where the Wife of Bath keeps telling us, essentially, that she’s a creature made by texts, that there are only antifeminist texts, there are only misogynist texts. She’s been made out of them. How can she get out of them? The basic idea is there’s a picture of a man killing a lion, and a lion looking at it says, “Well, who painted that?” Obviously, this is a painting done by men to say, “We’re better than lions. Aren’t we great?” If the lion were able to do the painting, then it would be different. The lion is saying, “This isn’t fair. The artist is biased.” It’s back to perspective again; where you’re standing determines what you see and what you represent, or history is written by the victors. This is something that really speaks to all of us, to say, “Think about the bias in art. Think about the bias in everything that you read. Who wrote it?” This is the fundamental point not only in thinking about gender but in thinking today about fake news, social media. This could not be more relevant, I think, to our own era as well. She’s so prescient. I don’t know how that happens. Absolutely. There are so many things which are extraordinary, and I think that also speaks to why people have taken her up so much across time. Because you also think about the Tale that she tells, which is then this story of, “How do you construct an appropriate punishment for a rapist? Is the appropriate punishment simply to kill them?” And she says, “No. Let’s make them think about what they’ve done. Let’s make them think about female desire. Let’s make them try to get into the shoes of someone whose desires are not taken account of. Let’s try that.” And there are lots of issues and complexities with that story, but it’s a very modern perspective on punishment. Make the punishment fit the crime. Try and reform someone. And some people wouldn’t agree with that. But it’s very, very interesting to think about her foregrounding those debates. One of the things that also is so modern is this concept of interruption. As you write, “At the heart of the Canterbury Tales is the idea of interruption. We repeatedly hear an authoritative voice challenged by a kind of voice that isn’t usually given the opportunity to speak—in life or in literature.” How might Chaucer have found that kind of voice in a sea of prescriptive—repeated, regurgitated, everybody painting the lion in the same way—voices? It is important to note that he is doing something that is genuinely innovative in literature. Chaucer is a merchant’s son, so he’s not brought up in a courtly, aristocratic environment. He’s brought up in the city of London. He has a variety of different jobs that involve travelling. He’s a prisoner of war. He’s mixing with different kinds of communities and ethnicities. He lives in the heart of the trading world. But in terms of the texts that he’s reading, a really crucial source for him is Boccaccio’s Decameron, which does have lots of different voices telling stories. At the same time, they are all of the same social class. He gets models from literature, “Okay, we can have different voices coming in,” and the tale collection is such a rich genre for being able to voice different opinions and have different voices. But I think that one of the genuinely novel things that Chaucer does is he says, “Well, what happens if we make these people different classes? If I say, well, actually, I’m going to have a miller interrupt the telling of the stories and stop the monk from telling his Tale and say that he’s going to reply to the person of high level, the knight. What happens if I have the person who talks at length being this kind of mercantile woman?” I think he also is inspired by things like the development of new kinds of voices in Parliament, so the growing strength of the Commons in the English Parliament, the emergence of the speaker, someone who can speak for a group of others. He himself was an MP at one point. This is also the era of the Great Revolt of 1381, so politically he does have models for interruption, for low class voices being able to speak. In literary terms, he’s really trailblazing in that. I wonder if it would be interesting for me to say a little about the fact that this book goes up to 2021? Yes! It was actually after I started the work for this book that I heard about Zadie Smith’s play, The Wife of Willesden. I already knew there were modern Wives of Bath, but that play was being written while I was writing this book, and then I was lucky enough to be able to see an advanced copy and then to go and see the actual play in November 2021. The fact that one of the most celebrated writers today, Zadie Smith, is choosing to write a play about the Wife of Bath really makes my point: that this is still someone who is so relevant, so interesting to people. In Smith’s play, Alison becomes Alvita, and the Arthurian Britain of the Wife of Bath’s Tale becomes eighteenth-century Jamaica. It says to audiences today, “Look, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a relevant part of our history, but eighteenth-century Jamaica and the slave plantations, they are also a relevant part of our history.” And today, I think, there are some people who want to say, “Well, it’s one or the other,” who want to say, “No, we have to focus on Britishness, on this country. That the history of what was going on in the colonies, or on the slave plantations, that’s only relevant to a small demographic.” It’s [Smith’s play] saying, “No. This is the history of this country.” And it’s not about shutting other parts of history out but demonstrating the breadth of what is relevant to thinking about British identity in this case, and saying that we need to acknowledge colonial histories does not mean saying we’re no longer interested in Chaucer. Not at all. We’re interested in all these things. That’s also very interesting to me as someone who works in a university, where we think a lot about diversifying the curriculum, which I’m very committed to. It’s not about trying to limit but trying to expand in various ways. Something like The Wife of Willesden or Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales. Patience is a Nigerian British author who’s done this brilliant version of the Canterbury Tales, each in a different kind of modern poetic genre, but it started as the Wife of Bath. There’s something in the last chapter, too—in talking about the live aspect. Of course, one can read a play, but it’s also about seeing a play. Zadie Smith, I believe, includes herself in the final scene of The Wife of Willesden. It’s the “who painted the lion” question again, and Zadie Smith’s parallels to Chaucer, all those questions about authorship. There’s an author figure at various points in the play, and when you see it live, the actress playing the author figure looks kind of like Zadie Smith and is there with her MacBook, and it’s very cleverly done. I’m glad you also raise that issue of orality of the text, because across time the Wife of Bath has usually been put into oral forms: ballads, plays, performance poetry. I found it very interesting, then, to write the penultimate chapter, which is about what happens when she goes into the traditionally silent form of the novel. And very often, novelists then find ways still to make her voice very important because that voice is really crucial to understanding her. So much about this project is about life writing. I’m wondering if there are other lives you’re looking to write about next and where this process of life writing has guided your scholarship. It’s a really interesting area, isn’t it? Of what’s happening with life writing more generally at the moment. Hilary Mantel very sadly died after I had written this, but I was pleased that I had the little bit about her in it as a small homage. [The introduction to Turner’s The Wife of Bath begins with an epigraph from and close reading of a quotation from Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light: “It might have been my mother or it might have been the Wife of Bath.”] Traditionally, I would have said that historical fiction is a very different thing from life writing or biography, and, of course, that is broadly true. But someone such as Hilary Mantel, who was so extraordinarily talented and groundbreaking, really troubles that boundary by doing so much research into thinking about [Thomas Cromwell]. It is fiction, and she markets it as fiction, but there obviously is also truth to it. So, I think that kind of work is really challenging us to think about the place of different kinds of historical life writing, that there are times when using the imagination in the way that she does might give us access to a certain kind of historical truth. That is, of course, something that can be very misused. You have to have the kind of talent of Hilary Mantel to be able to make it work and to make clear that there is historical truth, and there are truths; there are things that happened, and there are things that didn’t happen. It’s important not to blur the boundary so much that we get away from that, of course. It’s so interesting with both Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel making the jump, as their careers progress, into playwriting. It gives you such a different way of thinking about subjectivity, doesn’t it? When you have that performance and when you are also as a writer handing over so much to the actors because their imagination, their interpretation, counts so much. I imagine that for a novelist, that then allows them a different kind of collaboration, which for some people would be a nightmare but for some people would be very energizing, and pleasing, to have that more collaborative mode of writing, which I think is absolutely what we see in Chaucer’s work and in the way it was treated by readers and writers who did feel they could intervene and do their own versions and write their own things on the text. Lots of times they do things that as a reader you think, “Oh, you know, they really got that wrong. They’re doing all kinds of terrible things.” But there’s also something very important about the fact that people respond creatively to these texts. These texts are not dead, even when people might think, “Oh, they’ve got it wrong.” But they’re reading it! They’re thinking! They’re doing things!
Are we losing our capacity for cinematic enchantment?
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. Quentin Tarantino was fourteen when he first watched Rolling Thunder, tagging along with his mother and her boyfriend to a Friday night screening in Los Angeles. Years later, he’d show up whenever the movie was playing in a theatre in the city, regardless of the time of day or distance. In his recent book, Cinema Speculation, he claims that the film is “the best combination of character study and action film ever made.” A contemporary viewer, however, might be forgiven for being baffled by the enthusiasm, for even wondering what Tarantino saw in the movie at fourteen. It’s not just that we’ve seen multiple versions of the story of a returning war hero who goes on a murderous rampage after a family tragedy; more that, in an age where every other TV show is a crime procedural or a violent thriller, and every other movie about a celestial superhero battling apocalyptic nemeses, we’re too jaded to believe that action flicks can double up as character portraits. Later in the book, Tarantino praises the “feel-good catharsis” of Rocky’s screenplay. He claims that Sylvester Stallone was, among other things, a canny scriptwriter with an ear for comedy, and that the dialogue in an early film, The Lords of Flatbush, is replete with his trademark wisecracks. But there isn’t a funny moment in The Lords of Flatbush—I rented it last week on Amazon Prime. The entire movie is just about redeemed by sporadic closeups of Perry King’s zero-buccal-fat face. The story revolves around four young ruffians growing up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood where women end up marrying their high school boyfriends and men inevitably have a comb handy in their pockets. The characters are stuck in crises not too different from ours—Who do you love? Who do you marry? What are we supposed to do with our lives?—and yet their predicaments seem naïve to audiences hardened by decades of group-tested entertainment. Halfway through, Stallone features in a rooftop scene where Tarantino feels his performance is “Brandoesque.” King’s character, Chico, chastises Stallone for being happy with idle fantasies, for not wanting to step out of their borough and see the world. This being early fifties’ New York, Chico can’t help but be casually racist: “You can have all the imagination you want, but you’re never gonna see no c----s in Tokyo.” Stallone’s resemblance to Brando, however, is cosmetic: his character is named Stanley, much like the lead in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he is dressed in a sleeveless black vest in multiple scenes. When he goes off on Chico, he mumbles his lines too effusively, like someone acting in a college play. It could be that a millennial like me was born too late to grasp the import of a movie made fifty years ago. Or perhaps we’ve all collectively squandered our capacity for enchantment. Tarantino first watched Rocky on the big screen during opening week, and the audience apparently went berserk during the climactic knockout: "I’ve been to movies where something happened on screen and the audience cheered. But never—and I repeat—never—like they cheered when Rocky landed that blow in the first round that knocked Apollo Creed to the floor…Every blow Rocky took seemed to land on you." My first time watching the film was different. Not long after Rocky Balboa was released, a school friend decided that we needed to catch up on the previous five movies to better understand the latest installment of the franchise. And so, on a Saturday afternoon in Assam, a crew of peacocking teenagers were huddled around someone’s older brother’s desktop—back when we called computers “PCs”—passing around a joint and hallucinating over Stallone’s bloodstained face. The plan was no doubt to watch the films back to back, until we discovered that the torrent file for Rocky II (or was it Rocky III?) was overlaid by Russian voices. I remember us all erupting when Hulk Hogan came on. Cushions and mattresses were soon lumped on the host’s bedroom floor and the viewing area was transformed into a ring for spontaneous wrestling bouts. Our friend’s parents were away at work, which meant that we were free to raid the kitchen cabinets in search of alcohol. At some point more people, all of them boys, were invited, and someone came over with a box of pork dumplings from a vendor at the end of the street. Stuffed and stoned, I passed out on a couch while Rocky kept swearing in Russian in the other room. And yet it wasn’t as if we just thought of movies as ambient noise. I remember countless late nights when my sister and I would catch the last few minutes of a whodunit or comedy on TV and spend the next hour dreaming up outlandish backstories. What was supposed to be an empty hour before drifting to sleep became something to look forward to: I still don’t know if Dr. Evil from Austin Powers had indeed travelled from a different planet in the first half, as we imagined, or if Matthew McConaughey had spurned Kate Hudson in the opening scene of How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days. We were ardent about our tall tales, our pretend versions of these half-glimpsed movies, in a way that those who sat through the actual films from beginning to end couldn’t have been. Then there was the Harry Potter universe, with which my sister was obsessed at that age. Someone had gifted her a DVD box set of the first five films, and she used to watch them after school on loop. I, too, sometimes found myself affected by their charms. Reading Oliver Twist in eighth grade, I pictured little Daniel Radcliffe ambling around the streets of nineteenth-century London in a newsboy cap. Long John Silver, from Treasure Island, looked suspiciously like Alan Rickman when he popped up in dreams. Tarantino might yearn for the exuberance of crowds applauding the action hero in a theatre, but those of us who witnessed audiences cheering on the most mindless of Bollywood flicks—and later replicating the violence offscreen—will always struggle to see that sort of fandom as innocent. I feel envious about the flashes of insight that older generations claim to have routinely experienced at the movies. The Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy reportedly started writing his magnum opus, Samskara, after watching The Seventh Seal without subtitles as a graduate student in England. Recalling the memory later, he wrote, “Often creativity is aroused by imperfect understanding and even misunderstanding.” The closest I came to having an epiphany inside a packed theatre was during an IMAX screening of Avatar years ago, when the colours in every frame seemed like something out of a psychedelic trance, though I doubt I’ll feel the same way about the images in the new sequel. Decades after seeing The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie could credit the film as his “very first literary influence.” Who honestly expects Marvel Studios’ Eternals, or last year’s Hindu-nationalist cringefest RRR, to ever inspire anything imaginative?
Carmela remains Falco’s most enduring on-screen alter ego, the crystallization of her mysterious genius.
Since airing in February 1999, The Sopranos’s fifth episode, “College,” has been revered as a television landmark. It not only reinvigorated a moribund medium but affirmed it, once and for all, as nothing short of an art form, laying the foundation for an ongoing “golden age” in small screen storytelling. When people describe “College,” they tend to emphasize one half of its bifurcated story: During a trip to Maine to visit colleges with his daughter, James Gandolfini’s New Jersey mobster, Tony Soprano, spots a former mafioso turned informer. By episode’s end, Tony has garroted the man in retaliation. “College” announced several elements that quickly became trademarks of creator David Chase’s opus. There was its mobile camerawork and sidewinding story, a bold narrative detour centred around events that deepened the series’s fundamental themes and characterizations without directly propelling the larger plot of its inaugural season. Most memorably, there was the mesmerizing and fully realized tour de force of the late James Gandolfini, whose Herculean performance would mark the advent of a new criterion in episodic screen acting. These feats understandably take precedence in discussions about “College,” though there was another player in the episode whose key contributions helped canonize the HBO drama into a televisual touchstone. In a dual storyline, Carmela, Tony’s pampered yet guilt-ridden wife, finds herself home alone with her church’s handsome priest, whose spiritual guidance and kind companionship intensify into something more illicit over the course of a dark and stormy night. Over time, Carmela would evolve from her husband’s cosseted, emotionally neglected helpmate and staunch defender into one of his chief adversaries. Along the way, there would be chaste flirtations with this clergyman, then with a made man. There’d be some light bribery and intimidation, thousands of dollars stolen from Tony’s secret stash, a thwarted divorce, a stop-start real estate career, and plenty of marital anguish. But before all of that, there was “College.” By affording Carmela’s contrition and moment of (ultimately unconsummated) temptation the same amount of screen time as Tony’s act of vengeance, Chase and episode co-writer James Manos Jr. ensured viewers knew that the character’s multi-season arc would be just as crucial, engrossing, and psychologically intricate as her husband’s. On this front, Chase and his collaborators were aided in no small part by a little-known thirty-five-year-old actress who had come up on the fringes of New York’s independent film scene. Throughout eight years and eighty-six episodes, Edie Falco would simultaneously play and authenticate Carmela Soprano with a combination of skill, discipline, and nerve that have become the hallmark of this sublime actor. * Like many of the East Coast peers she would act with on The Sopranos, Falco experienced a slow, uncertain rise. Upon graduating from the acting conservatory at SUNY Purchase in 1986, she popped up in a series of indies during the early to mid-’90s, done by homegrown New York directors including Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, and Abel Ferrara. In the lean years, in between parts, she waitressed, struggled with alcoholism, and found solace in Buddhism. In 1997, she starred as Marge Gunderson, immortalized by Frances McDormand in Fargo, for a television adaptation of the Coen brothers’ crime drama that was quickly scrapped after an initial pilot. That same year, as the ensemble of The Sopranos was being assembled with character actors both seasoned and untested, Falco was in the middle of her three-season tenure as a guard on HBO’s prison saga Oz. For Chase and his casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, Carmela Soprano proved the hardest role to cast, a complicit suburban housewife with a mindset just as roiling and agitated as her capo husband’s. In the days leading up to the pilot’s production, the role was still unfilled. Lorraine Bracco, who would go on to play Tony’s riveted and repulsed psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, turned down the part. She felt the character shared too much DNA with her performance as decadent mob wife Karen Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the closest thing to a forerunner to Chase’s series. After gradually building a reputation as a go-to embodier of unglamorous, hardscrabble women, Falco was far from an obvious fit for the primped and spoiled Carmela. “I would have cast me as Dr. Melfi, but, luckily, I was not in charge,” Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. She assumed the role would be snatched up by a more famous Italian-American actress—a Marisa Tomei or an Annabella Sciorra. (The latter would eventually and unforgettably guest star on the series as an unhinged, ill-fated mistress of Tony’s.) Yet something in Falco sparked with the familiarity of the part. As she told author Brett Martin in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: “Maybe it’s because I’m part Italian, or grew up in Long Island, but I read the part and thought, ‘I know exactly who this woman is. I can feel her already.’” After reading just two scenes in her audition, Falco slipped out of her Oz police uniform and donned the silk blouses, French tips, and shield of gold jewellery that would make up Carmela Soprano’s signature style. Falco sports Carmela’s flashy exteriors with the complete credibility of a natural-born chameleon. But what first stands out about the character is not what she wears, but what she says. “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die,” Carmela tells Tony as he prepares for an MRI in the aftermath of his first of several panic attacks during the pilot. She’s confronting him with the full and unforgiving awareness of his ongoing adultery, the kept “goumadas” who will drive a wedge into their marriage during the show’s run. Falco spits this line out with all the venomous pique she can muster, her Jersey accent thick and strident. (It’s no wonder this barb was revisited in subsequent seasons.) Another performer might have only conveyed the anger of this exchange, but it’s what Falco does after the line that clues us into Carmela’s emotional complexity and steers the character away from the carping and castrating wife stereotype that has plagued many stories, mob-affiliated or otherwise. Seconds later, Falco’s face sinks with remorse, and as Tony slides into the MRI machine, Carmela offers him a conciliatory hand. Falco’s symbiotic chemistry with Gandolfini, a man she claims to have hardly known outside the fervency of their on-camera union, is immediate and indispensable here. * For many viewers at the time, The Sopranos was their introduction to Falco and Gandolfini, two obscure and atypical stars who had spent years batting around the industry, untied to any one image. For most viewers, Gandolfini and Falco will always and only be Tony and Carmela, so firm and deeply felt is their bond. “He was totally un-actor-y, and was incredibly self-deprecating, and he was a real soul mate in that regard,” Falco told The New Yorker about her late acting partner in 2021. “We did not spend a lot of time talking about the scripts. It was like when you see two kids playing in the sandbox, completely immersed in their imaginary world. That’s what it felt like acting opposite Jim.” In the pilot episode, Carmela informs Tony during a dinner date: “I’m getting my wine in position to throw in your damn face.” Minutes later, she lavishes him with giddy praise for starting therapy. Here, unmistakably, is a real, warts-and-all marriage; a perpetual battle between ardour and rancour, enacted so casually in Falco’s quicksilver moods and the way Gandolfini engages and evades her, assuming he knows all there is to know about this woman yet jittery that, one day soon, she may figure him out too. Such moments also cut to the core of Carmela’s contradictory identity and fundamental dilemma as a frustrated homemaker with repressed desires, a loyal wife who has suffered endless slights from an adulterous husband she cannot bring herself to leave, a devout and conscience-stricken Catholic who owes the spoils of her upwardly mobile lifestyle to blood money and an endless cycle of immorality, and a smart, self-assured woman who has sacrificed all of her potential for a humdrum home life spent in the service of unappreciative spouse and spoiled kids. “That a woman of your intelligence is content to ask so little from life and from herself… I don’t know,” Tony’s rebellious sister Janice tells Carmela in the season two episode “Commendatori,” in which Tony and his crew jet to Sicily on a business trip, leaving behind his resentful wife. Though Carmela laughs off Janice’s intervention, the private moment that follows, capturing the grin slipping from Falco’s face and the grimace of wounded discomfort that takes its place, signals that this lack of fulfillment has nagged Carmela far longer than she perhaps even realized. Early in the series, when Carmela fervently defends her position in this corrupt hierarchy, her body resists such allegiance, revealing the apprehension that goes unuttered. This reaction is classic Falco. She is an actor of redoubtable economy who can capture a feeling and distill it into a gesture or a single glance, her face the magnificent terrain upon which so much of the character’s transformation subtly plays out. Few actors have ever thrived in the solitude of an extreme close-up like Falco. So many shots of her, close-up or otherwise, show nothing more than Carmela in active and extended thought, the minute changes in her visage the only action unfolding on-screen. To watch the shifts, both micro and macro, in Falco’s magnified expressions is to understand the character’s internal changes on a gut level; the viewer detects Carmela’s mounting anxiety and private ache in Falco’s early physicalization of the character long before she finally utters them later in the series. Carmela’s clever, curse-laden rejoinders were always a delight, enhanced by the guttural punch of Falco’s tough-broad deliveries, each word wrapped in barbed wire. (Whether wailing with jagged cries or tartly calling Tony’s bluff, Falco’s voice is an expressive tool of clear and commanding eloquence, not to mention a unique and underrated pleasure.) But Falco tells another story beneath the language of her scenes, enabling Carmela’s surfaces to contain and convey the entirety of her private world. There is an innate power to these moments, rooted in an idea, expressed cinematically by Dorothy Arzner, Kinuyo Tanaka, George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Chantal Akerman in their time, that a woman’s conflicted inner life is a monumental subject and thus story enough for a dramatic work. Those who write about and worship the angst-ridden male antiheroes of the twenty-first century’s cable dramas have not always shared this view, loath to afford Tony Soprano’s, Don Draper’s, and Walter White’s wives the same curiosity and respect. In 2013, Breaking Bad actress Anna Gunn responded to the rabid misogyny that her character Skyler, the conflicted though ultimately conniving spouse of a drug kingpin, prompted from scores of internet trolls. In a New York Times op-ed, Gunn wondered, “Could it be that [these critics] can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, [her husband’s] equal?” Similarly, fans of mob dramas have often regarded wives who question and flout their husbands’ authority, who dare to behave as though they are their spouses’ equal, like mares in need of bridling; when I attended a 2017 anniversary screening of the first two Godfather films at Radio City Music Hall, a sizable contingent of the audience burst into hearty applause each time Michael Corleone closed the door on his inquiring, insubordinate wife Kay (Diane Keaton). Then again, Kay Corleone and Skyler White were secondary and primarily reactive characters enriched by gifted actresses. Carmela Soprano is the bridge connecting these women and the only one who fully transcends their shared archetype. Unlike her forebear and descendant, Carmela was never written as a stock character. But it was Falco, physically grounded and psychologically direct from the beginning, who cemented her existential significance. * The early seasons of The Sopranos establish a Jeanne Dielman–esque monotony to Carmela’s daily activities, framing her in familiar poses of gendered domesticity. How often have we witnessed Carmela seemingly trapped behind the kitchen island, brewing espresso and offering various breakfast foods to her taciturn husband and children? Or seated at the dining room table, straining to be a merry hostess over tense Sunday dinners? Or bursting into her children’s bedrooms, ready to chide them for their misbehaviour? Falco’s presence amid these chores—plus her equally routinized lunches and get-togethers with her cohort of fellow mob wives—puts one in mind of Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity, which, as elaborated by the writer in a 1992 Artforum interview, “has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify.” From the outset, these norms are a source of contentment and consternation for Carmela, nudging her towards flickers and then full-fledged acts of defiance. Falco sows the seeds of Carmela’s rebellion in the home—evident in the grimaces that greet Tony as he lumbers into the kitchen after a night at the Bada Bing or the seething retorts that she seldom holds back during familial squabbles—without ever breaking the patterns of her housework and daily routines. In this, Carmela reminds us that performativity, according to Butler, “is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in,” a trap that Tony, through his refusal to let his wife work, has coerced Carmela into occupying. A performer less dynamic than Falco might have allowed Carmela’s very character to get lost in the shuffle of her day-to-day tedium. But Falco’s unrelenting intensity foregrounds Carmela’s frustration at every turn, her prickliness and self-assertiveness the defence mechanisms of a woman chafing at the dreariness of the demands placed on her as a stay-at-home wife and mother. At times, Falco’s performance assumes a certain heaviness, an air of desperation, that can make one wince, daring us to look away from Carmela’s states of lassitude, sullenness, and rage. It’s a rage just as titanic as Gandolfini’s yet one that manifests both in Falco’s compact frame and her pinched and puckered glare, its varying levels of severity constituting the grammar of the performance. This effect can be unnerving: think of Carmela badgering her friend Rosalie Aprile over dinner on their trip to Paris in season six, pushing her towards a killjoy conversation about her dead husband and slain son until she explodes. There is a vibrating, keyed-up quality to Carmela in these moments that derives from Falco’s conception of the character. This fearless, full-body approach grants Carmela a constant visibility, but it also makes Falco her character’s fiercest advocate, ensuring that the character will not recede into the decor like many a mob wife before—that attention will be paid her. What makes Falco’s approach fascinating is the elusiveness of its origins. Falco called on her internal knowledge of women like Carmela, those she clocked and scrutinized in the commuter belt of Long Island, to inhabit a character highly unlike herself. But awareness of Carmela’s type only skims the surface of Falco’s artistry. Her performances always appear to be lined with lived experience, as though her characters have built a home inside her; then again, Falco herself has admitted that she seldom dwells inside the psyches of the people she portrays for any longer than required. Whereas Gandolfini sustained a furtive, Method-like approach to Tony in order to reach his towering dramatic heights season after season, and suffered some of its real-life torments as a result, Falco maintains that she acts from a place of gut instinct, as opposed to one of uniform process or active intellection. “I was in such awe of what the writers could do that it would never occur to me to have ideas about my character’s arc,” Falco told The Guardian in 2018 about her tenure on The Sopranos, which she frequently confesses she has never actually watched beyond a handful of episodes. “I often didn’t understand how Carmela fit into the larger picture, but I believed that somebody did, and I also knew that wasn’t my job.” Falco is prone to playing down her own achievements in interviews like this; she would be the first to deny any sense of authorship in her acting. But her performance is so attuned and authoritative that she becomes our foremost guide into the character through the potency of her living, breathing, and thinking being. Take what might be considered a trivial exchange, set during a scene in season three’s “Amour Fou,” in which Carmela and her fellow mob wives discuss Hillary Clinton over lunch. At first, Carmela rebuffs Rosalie Aprile’s suggestion that they model themselves on their betrayed First Lady: “What, to be humiliated in public and then walk around smiling all the time?” she groans. “That is so false.” But as her fellow helpmates make the case for Clinton as a woman who managed to rise to power in the wake of her husband’s adultery—or, as another friend puts it, “took all that negative shit… and spun it into gold”—Carmela’s view changes dramatically; Falco’s gaze turns inward as she slowly, even grimly comes to the conclusion that Clinton “is a role model for all of us.” Falco builds a small but substantial arc for Carmela in the span of this just-under-two-minute scene, in which her distaste for Hillary’s ambition morphs into one of reluctant identification. This is a canny, critical portrayal of white neoliberal feminism in the service of a character with a complicated relationship to feminism, one who outright rejects such a label. (“Women are supposed to be partners nowadays,” Carmela gripes in season four before prevaricating: “I’m not a feminist, I’m not saying fifty-fifty, but Jesus.”) Neither Falco nor the writers explicate Carmela’s sudden change in opinion during that Hillary conversation, but the reasons are there in the scenes and seasons to follow: they’re present in Carmela’s see-sawing real estate career (introduced in that same episode), her tenacious and at times duplicitous pursuit of financial autonomy, and her eventual search for freedom from the sclerotic marriage that has inhibited her growth. In that single exchange, Falco quietly and shrewdly plants the seeds for many decisions Carmela will make henceforth. Falco may not have operated from a process as shrouded in lore as Gandolfini’s, but she was hardly immune to the strains of enacting the volatile spats in Tony and Carmela’s decaying marriage: “Occasionally I would get a sharp twinge at the back of my neck, because, especially if I’m tired, the emotional lines would bleed into each other and I’d have to kind of keep my bearings and remember, No, no, no, this is your job, and at home you have your life,” she told Vanity Fair. Falco’s physical difference from Carmela allowed her to wriggle free from her on-screen counterpart and keep a healthy distance from the show in her daily life, a privilege that the easily recognizable, six-foot-one Gandolfini was never afforded. In the years since The Sopranos, the actress’s relative anonymity, which is to say her lack of self-serving vanity, has helped her blend into numerous ensembles and slip in and out of roles with great, unassuming ease, from the dour, disenchanted Florida motelier of John Sayles’s ensemble drama Sunshine State to the pill-popping, hard-as-nails Nurse Jackie to the raving schizophrenic wife in the 2011 Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves to the Menendez brothers’ obsessive defence attorney Leslie Abramson on Law & Order True Crime. In 2021, Falco even played an ascendant Hillary Clinton on American Crime Story: Impeachment, meta-casting that blatantly draws on the legacy of Carmela Soprano—one brooding and betrayed wife reaching out to bolster another. Yet Carmela remains Falco’s most enduring on-screen alter ego, the crystallization of her mysterious genius. Her consummate command over the character doesn’t implore us to decipher or evaluate her choices in the moment but emits an air of “How did she do that?” wonder in the wake of our initial viewing. Gandolfini tends to get all the credit for leaning into the unsavoury components of his antiheroic protagonist, deservedly so, but Falco dug just as deeply into Carmela’s bedrock of contradictions and immoral behaviour, and with equal gusto. I shudder whenever I recall Carmela strong-arming her neighbour’s sister, a distinguished lawyer, into writing an unmerited college recommendation for her daughter, Meadow. That sense of second-hand mortification is increased tenfold during Carmela’s homophobic rant after Meadow’s college roommates bring up the queer implications of Billy Budd, so strongly has she identified Melville’s dashing sailor with Furio, a Neapolitan associate of Tony’s with whom Carmela pursues a fervent yet fruitless flirtation. But even when Carmela sinks to her most self-delusional and unsympathetic, Falco preserves her connection to the audience by using her emotional transparency to carefully accentuate the character’s intent. Carmela’s actions can be untenable, but Falco compels us to understand the reservoirs of heartache from which they spring, the lack that spurs her to lash out. The earnestness of Falco’s playing during these contretemps, indelibly illustrated by the dogged conviction in Carmela’s bulging and endlessly reactive eyes, presents a thought-provoking ambiguity: Is Carmela even aware of her own hectoring and unscrupulous nature, or is she simply immune to restraint when it comes to matters pertaining to husband, home, and heart? Carmela’s calculating streak comes to an apotheosis in season five when, during a separation from Tony, she attempts a sexual relationship with the guidance counsellor of her son, A.J. When Carmela complains about A.J.’s failing grade on a paper, going so far as to withhold sex from her new bedmate, the counsellor gets it raised, only to later accuse Carmela of deploying her sexuality as a means of manipulation on her son’s behalf. She seems genuinely shocked by the allegation, as she so often is by any implication of personal fault. It is Falco, specifically, who closes up the space between the character’s wrongdoing and her understanding of these murky actions. Falco very rarely plays Carmela as cunning, much less self-aware, choosing instead to foreground her sincere hurt when confronted by allegations of her skilled deceit. Falco embodies ambiguity, trusting in the viewer to understand the psychological depth that is implied rather than tidily diagnosed, existing beneath a facade inclined to explode. Falco’s protean ability to swing back and forth from the placid to the volcanic and scale the full extent of her dramatic register is formidable, whether making a half-hearted suicide threat to Tony in calm yet weary tones or delivering an excoriating rant at her wicked mother-in-law’s wake, her high dudgeon threatening to cremate the woman all on its own. In “Second Opinion,” a showcase episode for Falco from the third season that marks a seminal point in Carmela’s storyline, so much of the character’s long-festering shame and indignation simmer below as Carmela pressures Tony to make an exorbitant donation to Columbia to ensure Meadow’s academic success there. Later in the episode, she is told in no uncertain terms by a no-bullshit therapist that she must leave her husband and surrender the comforts funded by his criminality if she is ever to lead an honourable life. The slack-jawed look on Falco’s face, punctuated by the fine-grained precision with which her pupils dilate ever so slightly from one shot to the next in her therapy session, attest to Carmela’s dawning comprehension that she stands no chance of redemption should she remain her husband’s enabler. Elsewhere in the episode, Falco makes demands and gets results without raising her voice a single octave and sheds tears without heaving histrionics, privileging the difficult truths of Carmela’s revelation over any actorly need to impress; here and across the more than eighty hours of television that surround it, there is not a self-indulgent instinct to be found in Falco’s entire characterization. “Second Opinion” ends, post–therapy session, with a minor victory (Carmela gets the donation), an inevitable concession (she resumes her wifely role as Tony offers to take her to dinner), and a near-tragic instance of repression that will have ramifications far into the series. These ramifications come to bear in the peak of Falco’s performance and possibly the series as a whole. In the season four finale, “Whitecaps,” Carmela discovers another of Tony’s affairs, this one far closer to home than she anticipated, and puts a fiery and abrupt end to their marriage. The greatest actors are able to honour the intentions of a script while simultaneously making their own meanings through the sheer force of their performance, and Falco’s work in this episode is one of the fullest realizations of such a possibility. As Carmela ambushes her husband and bats away his desperate recriminations, Falco is wide-eyed with rage, but also something like white-hot exhilaration. Laughing with grim disbelief one moment and then vigorously wiping away mascara-streaked tears the next, she gives paradoxical significance to the character in a searing confrontation that finds her finally able to unburden herself after years of Tony’s humiliations, wringing her body free of the despair it has long suppressed. In Falco’s hands, what we watch becomes not so much a breakup as an exorcism. Every time I revisit “Whitecaps,” I am confounded as if for the first time by the extremity of Falco’s incarnation; the image of a sweat-slicked Carmela’s huffing with ragged and near-ecstatic release after Tony pushes her against a wall to protect himself from her lunges is seared into my brain. Later in the episode, as Carmela tells Tony about her love for Furio and how close she came to violating their marriage, Falco’s cold, radiant expression, fighter’s stance, and cutting speech signal that Carmela relishes watching her husband squirm with jealousy. At long last, Carmela gets to play the torturer in her uneven marriage and if she seems to delectate in such exhibitionistic cruelty, it is only because melancholy has hardened her beyond recall. Through Falco’s playing, the unvarnished immediacy of live theatre interpenetrates the fine, up-close distinctions of on-camera acting. That these performances have assumed their rightful place in the canon of television acting is a testament to Falco and Gandolfini’s peerless work as well as a reminder that both performers brought new reputability to the small screen, authenticating it as a working actor’s oasis. In the years during The Sopranos and following its finale, television saw a sudden migration of mid-career actresses who had decisively decamped from the film industry in hopes of finding regular, more multidimensional work on the small screen. It makes sense that the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Glenn Close, Mary-Louise Parker, Robin Wright, and Viola Davis—and even Oscar-anointed megastars like Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, and Reese Witherspoon—were lured to the medium by the prospect of tackling a sprawling and nuanced character arc, like that of Carmela Soprano, and an opportunity to exhibit their own range, as Falco did to the tune of three Emmys. When Anna Gunn auditioned to play Breaking Bad’s Skyler, the actress was promised by series creator Vince Gilligan that the initially underwritten character was going to be “Carmela Soprano but… in on the crime.” The life-of-crime narrative that Gunn’s Skyler ultimately adopts owes a massive debt to Chase and Falco’s construction of Carmela. Carmela never fired a gun or discovered where, exactly, the money came from, and yet the portrait of penitent immorality resonated with viewers eager to plumb the nitty-gritty, hypocritical contradictions of the character. Carmela’s story, the tale of a woman dissatisfied by her domestic station but ultimately unable to rise above it, always belonged more in the realm of that oft-misunderstood genre, the heartfelt melodrama, than the sordid crime thriller. Remove the silver chains and dangling crucifix from Carmela’s neck and her situation recalls the repressed and ravished heroines who populated Sirk’s Universal women’s films of the 1950s, tearjerkers whose stinging cultural critiques were leavened with voluptuous feeling from the women at their centres. This is perhaps most apparent in a pivotal season five scene taken right from the Sirkian handbook. In the episode “Unidentified Black Males,” Carmela watches from her bedroom window as Tony, from whom she is separated, floats uninvited in their pool. She is overcome with emotion, both at the news of Meadow’s surprise engagement but also for her dashed hopes of personal freedom and financial support from her husband, who has deadlocked divorce proceedings. As Falco’s tearful despondency takes hold, the viewer watches Carmela at long last realize what she is and always will be: a prisoner of choice in a cage of her own design, beholden to a man who knows she is far too craven to seek a solitary life less cushy than the one he has gifted her. Falco’s performance in this scene throws these criticisms into relief. But it also moves me with an immediacy that I can only attribute to Falco and the extent to which she has wormed Carmela under our skin. Falco exposes the flimsiness of Carmela’s pride—yet rather than punishing the character for her faults, she finds the necessary pathos in her failure to change. Like Tony, Carmela possesses the intellectual capacity to examine her flaws but too little of the bravery and backbone required to actually correct them. Tony’s brush with death in season six may have renewed Carmela’s dumb yet intransigent commitment to her husband, but the series concludes not with the solidification of their love, but a slow, less decisive drift apart as Carmela finds increased success in real estate ventures largely subsidized by Tony. Although Carmela’s ability to envision and pursue a life for herself outside of Tony’s world gradually diminished with each passing season, Falco’s own virtuosic abilities and commitment to honesty stayed true until the series’s ambiguous end. Sitting in a diner booth on the eve of Tony’s likely indictment, suffering more of A.J.’s whiny self-pity, Carmela looks as nettled and impatient as ever, perhaps all too eager to get back to her trade and leave her husband and kids to fend for themselves once and for all. Like the best acting, which is to say like the best art, Falco’s embodiment of Carmela raises questions and teases possibilities rather than arriving at easy moral conclusions. Though season three’s pitiless therapist offers her an easy out, there can never be any easy answers for a character like Carmela, whose life is one of constant negotiation between shame and rationalization. Is it any wonder that so many of Falco’s greatest scenes find the character in intense contemplation, reassessing how much neglect, contempt, and disappointment she can stomach for designer duds and a spacious house to fill with her loneliness? I think again of Falco’s eyes—that narrowed, heavy-lidded gaze that she lent to Carmela as a kind of armour, signalling a sangfroid easily set ablaze. Falco’s courageous and clear-sighted performance revolves around a single, shiver-inducing question posed to the self: Have I missed out on the chance of a better life? “You raised two gorgeous kids. You got a husband that loves you. You made us a beautiful home,” Tony tells Carmela in season five after her plan of building a spec home is briefly thwarted. “Doesn’t that count for something?” Every restless bone in Falco’s body, as exhibited across seven seasons, tells us that it never will.
The author of The Red Arrow on West Virginia, psychedelics, and a literary education through film.
William Brewer’s The Red Arrow (McClelland & Stewart) is a sweeping work of magical realism that follows a promising millennial artist and author whose recent successes are undercut by his severe depression and suicidal ideation. He refers to his condition as “the Mist.” It obscures all love, hope and joy, leaving him feeling like “an abscess on the smile of reality.” The Mist first appears during the narrator’s childhood in West Virginia, following the Great Monongahela River Chemical Spill of 1996. After the chemical spill infiltrates the water supply in his hometown of Morgantown, he recounts in harrowing details its impact on him, his family, school and community. However, after he receives an advance for an epic novel about West Virginia, he struggles to translate this first scene into literature. Soon the Mist takes over his apartment and when others speak to him the Mist spills out their mouths, tinting their words with hate and revulsion. He hasn’t written a word of the novel and he eventually finds himself with a sizeable debt to his publisher, a debt that also implicates his steadfast and loving wife, Annie. He believes he should kill himself but his love for Annie keeps him tethered to this world and desperately seeking treatment that proves more difficult to find than it should be. He strikes a deal with the publisher to ghostwrite the memoir of a famous physicist—a development that sets him on a powerful, psychedelic-infused journey of self-discovery that takes him from his prestigious university in California to a train rushing across Italy. If you’ve lived with mental illness then you understand what it is to exist with a barrier keeping you apart from others—be it a mist or, as I envision it, a heavy sheet so that you and the rest of the world can only experience each other as silhouettes. Mental health conditions rob people of themselves, possess their bodies and impose their disorder on others without discretion. You cannot write your way out of it, study your way out of it—it doesn’t care about your friends or family or goals for the future. Furthermore, as Brewer eloquently articulates, it doesn’t care about your novel, your publishing deals or financial obligations. Before I read The Red Arrow, I encountered Brewer through his haunting confessional poems that eventually populated his debut poetry collection, I Know Your Kind. The spoon on the cover, an allusion to the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, reminded me of my own past in Welland, Ontario, and my many friends who have disappeared into their addictions. In the aftermath of the War on Drugs, as Americans and Canadians alike fight to decriminalize controlled substances, Brewer’s work takes a nuanced look at the potential for such substances to be used as tools for both treatment and self-harm. A drug’s healing potential is both individual and circumstantial, regardless of what the drug actually is or the opinions held by various governing bodies and institutions. He draws parallels between a psychedelic-induced altered state of consciousness and the practice of reading or experiencing a scientific epiphany. The boundary between what is real and what is illusion is always blurred, even when stone sober, even in analytic practices in physics and mathematics. What is so profound about Brewer’s work is that even in the muddy centre of life’s heaviest hand, he never loses his sense of humour, optimism and hope. He believes in love but doesn’t skirt the complexity of personal tragedy with easy answers. Brewer’s work doesn’t shy away from the economic realities of mental health obstacles. May we all be so lucky to have a paid fellowship and an understanding friend with the propensity for unconditional love that is truly unconditional. Still, given this exceptional disposition, finding treatment, or a professional who is willing to take on a client with severe suicidal ideation, is nearly impossible. This experience, when juxtaposed against his West Virginia childhood, conveys the broad scope of barriers people of different class backgrounds face when in need of psychological care. From my desk in Niagara, surrounded by notes from my own unfinished novel and the fruit trees of my youth, I interviewed Brewer about the role of psychedelics in treatment, the role of physics in his process, all things literary and the importance of love and humour both in general and in creating art. Julie Mannell: The Red Arrow seems to suggest, at least in this particular story and in the trajectory of your characters, that both the act of reading and consuming psychedelics have the power to fuse memories—allowing one to internalize experiences that are not their own. Could you expand on that a little? William Brewer: Psychedelics and novels are technologies that elegantly show you how the central experience of consciousness—the limited story of your self—isn’t that sturdy. It’s actually quite fictional. Psychedelics, especially at larger doses, take away your ego. This is the force that tells you the story about yourself and creates that subject-object relationship to reality. When that’s gone—when you are gone—there’s only the experience of awareness. Suddenly the mind can go to a memory and witness it without your “self” at its center. This avails totally different perspectives on life. Sometimes this is a kind of omniscience; other times it’s about another person’s perspective, or many people’s perspectives, of a memory. These experiences generate realizations that can be very profound and lasting. I think fiction inhabits an equally psychedelic space. I often say that the novel is the most psychedelic art form. While reading a great novel, I can forget I exist and get transported to a room in Dublin and smell a kidney searing in a pan—I can actually smell it while I’m sitting on my couch in Oakland, having forgotten that that’s where I am—or I can watch a Midwestern family argue and somehow inhabit multiple characters’ perspectives at the same time, or I can follow a Frenchman’s mind as it loops and spirals through associative memory to the point that the rhythms of his mind override the rhythms of my own. In both cases, the experience of consciousness persists, but its central component does not; the results are often magical and sometimes transformative. What intrigues you about physics? Why did you choose a physicist as the central muse of the narrator and not, say, an ecologist, a geneticist, a dog whisperer? The Red Arrow is interested in consciousness, specifically how our sense of time, the self, and our subject-object relationship to reality causes us to become these narrative engines, and how sometimes those narratives go haywire and become mental illness. Psychedelics are powerful at treating mental illness because they pull those forces away and show that they’re never really there. The problem is that a lot of people—at least in America, anyway—have a cynical, puritanical relationship to non-normative states of consciousness. So, even if someone’s life is fundamentally changed for the better because of a drug trip, a lot of people will roll their eyes and say, “So what,” or, “That’s not wisdom, that’s just drug talk.” Even otherwise intelligent literary people have a very unintelligent relationship to this part of human life. Their perspectives are outdated, uneducated and based mostly in fear. They also reveal something about how they relate to nature: people have an easier time believing that mental illness is a kind of soul-curse that can’t really be cured, or can only be cured by a pharmaceutical whose mechanics can’t be explained and whose efficacy is notoriously awful, than they do believing that a fungus might have the capacity to heal us. I often wonder how these people reconcile taking penicillin… Anyway, if one part of The Red Arrow is dealing with something that can teach you great lessons and change your sense of the world and life, but most people are going to scoff at it, then physics provides a counterweight. I admire how physics stares straight into the big mysteries of being. Especially over the last century, physics has shown that what we take as reality isn’t real at all. It’s an illusion. Or it’s only real in the sense that our perceptions make it so. The science points to similar realizations as the fungi. It must be noted too that contemplative traditions from Asia have been pointing out this stuff for millennia. The point, though, is that there are multiple ways to get at these ideas and while some people might roll their eyes at one avenue, it’s much harder to roll their eyes at another. That both science and a mushroom can peek behind the curtain of experience and see very similar things—that’s exhilarating to me. That’s precisely the kind of stuff I want art to dance with. Your protagonist struggles with depression and suicidal ideation that ensnares him in a profound state of creative stasis. Do you believe that the ability to create and the creator’s mental health are always comorbid? Do you have any advice for artists currently going through something similar? No, I don’t think they’re always comorbid because I’ve been making art my whole life and I was terribly depressed for much of that time, yet I still managed to get work done. That said, creative blocks are likely a kind of rumination like depression or anxiety. You’re stuck in a loop pattern driven by fear. It’s the mind trying to abate failure and pain. Instead, I tell people to drill into the fear, the potential failures, the shortcomings. Make those the subject. Go straight into them and usually what happens is you pass through them. I’m also curious about the central relationship between the narrator and his partner Annie. I admired her patience and unwavering faith in him as he spirals into mental illness and simultaneously creates a disastrous financial predicament for which they’re both implicated. What would you say bonds them together? Love. That’s it. When you deeply love someone, you can look at them and see the difference between their true nature and a behaviour that’s an expression of suffering. That doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging, having to stand by and hope they’ll make it through. But when you love someone, the alternative is often unconscionable. As much as this novel is heartbreaking, it’s simultaneously extremely funny (to me at least): phrases like “it was almost rewarding: finally I was seeing people treat me as the disappointing virus I knew myself to be,” or the scene where the editor fails to press the hold button and lets out a sequence of expletives about the author. What’s funny to you? What makes you laugh? I’m very happy to hear that! Thank you. As for articulating what’s funny—I don’t think I can. Humour is mysterious. That’s why I’m drawn to it. You write about West Virginia, a home state you share with your narrator: “there is nothing there but undulating, ever-changing space.” How has growing up in West Virginia impacted your journey as an author? What do you think can be gained and lost through living outside of metropolitan spaces and the artistic establishments (literary or otherwise) within? West Virginia had a huge impact on me. Even in the early days of the internet, it felt very remote. Culture took a long time to get there, so you felt like your world lagged behind the rest of the country’s. There’s a disjunction in time. Cities, even with their historical buildings, are churning engines of the contemporary. Places like West Virginia, on the other hand, are experiences of “long time” colliding with the contemporary. A 250-million-year-old mountain can disappear practically overnight. And then all the toxic waste from that removal can fill in a valley and make it disappear too. This means you’re also witnessing large economic systems at work in ways you don’t in a city. You can see how corporations can do whatever they want to a people and a place. In a city, you can go to the wing of a museum and see a priceless object, whereas in West Virginia you’re living in the world that is being exploited to make the money that in part gets donated (for tax purposes) to build that wing. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum of what money can really do. One end is exploitative, the other is performatively generative. It’s also hard to overstate the influence of West Virginia’s landscape. It does things to the mind, good and bad. Cities are also a kind of landscape, but there are parts of West Virginia that are extremely wild and remote in ways few places still are. When you go to those places, your sense of how humans fit into the broader network of the planet changes. Another quote from your book, and I apologize for so aggressively quoting you at yourself: “There is no self-hatred like that of the working man who can’t work and there’s nothing more dangerous than a self-hating working man with an Internet connection.” As someone who grew up in rural Niagara, on the tail end of the Rust Belt, in an area dominated by a specifically American form of conservatism, the opioid crisis and anger over factory closures, this line struck a chord. We also see economic struggles play out as your protagonist is forced to pay off an immense debt. Can you speak a little of the role of financial incentives and obstacles, both personal and systemic, in the creation and completion of works of art? Like most people of my generation, I live with debt. It’s always on my mind and it seems to be on my characters’ minds too. Unsurprising, considering that the financial realities of my generation have been trash. That said, they’ve sort of always been trash for artists, which I think is unacceptable. Writing takes time and time is money. There’s obviously money around. Cash is king and this is no less true in the literary world, but it’s a grind for most. When talking to other writers about the intersection of writing, publishing and money, something that’s often articulated is this sadness about how publishing has, for the most part, gone from something that challenged the mainstream to something that chases it. This is bad news for books, since the mainstream is almost always flat and boring and exactly the thing that most people turn away from when they start reading seriously. No one seems particularly happy about this, but the tune stays the same. I’ve never been to West Virginia so a lot of my references come from the media: the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Senator Joe Manchin’s obstruction of Biden’s initiatives. I also think of J.D. Vance’s controversial depictions of Appalachia in Hillbilly Elegy and the subsequent debates/fallout. What do you think people misunderstand about the Rust Belt? What aspects haven’t been adequately explored and which tropes have been needlessly amplified in common portrayals? Also, what’s your hope for West Virginia? My hope for West Virginia is that what needs healing will heal. That even a fraction of the wealth that was taken from it be returned to it. That it gets what it’s owed. And I especially wish that Americans better understood West Virginia’s role in the nation’s history. Much of the energy and resources needed to make the empire most people got to enjoy living in came right out of West Virginia’s bedrock. Moreover, anyone with any sympathies toward liberal or leftist politics in America should understand just how critical West Virginia was in the fight for the better lives of working people. And I use “fight” literally. People died in combat for their rights as workers; many of them were immigrants with no money or resources, and yet they put their lives on the line. There has been so much talk about West Virginia since the rise of Trumpism, but few have taken time to stop and look at what sacrifices West Virginia made and then how those sacrifices were essentially forgotten or erased. The Red Arrow is rich with allusions to other books, both literary and otherwise. You’ve described Virginia Woolf and Don DeLillo as two of your biggest influences. I remember specifically thinking of DeLillo’s White Noise when reading your descriptions of the Mist as a representation of the narrator’s depression. What authors or works did you draw upon during your writing process? For The Red Arrow I drew on Geoff Dyer, Michael Herr, Carlo Rovelli, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, among others. Part of my task was to take what I was reading at the time and incorporate it directly into the novel as a way of openly tracking how books are products of other books, art comes out of art. I think people try to hide this, especially American men—they’ll allude to things to bolster the book’s intellectual worth, but they don’t acknowledge indebtedness and lineage. I was interested in showing how a novel is often one component in a much larger web. The book is an expression of its innate interconnectedness. I was first introduced to your work through your stunning poetry collection I Know Your Kind. You were primarily a painter for many years. I’m wondering about the role of confessional poetry and the visual arts in the conception and writing of The Red Arrow. Confessional poetry wasn’t much on the mind, but visual art and cinema were. High-quality film was one form of art that was readily accessible in West Virginia thanks to places like Blockbuster and I often say that film was my first literary education. That, in combination with my background in painting, spurs me to write stuff that I hope feels visually arresting and cinematic—in the sense that it’s moving—in the mind. What is your favourite colour and why? Green. I feel like its spectrum contains every tone, energy, and emotion. It holds the universe.
There’s a one-sidedness to the second-generation relationship. The homeland looms large in our imagination but we don’t in theirs.
When the plane door opens on the tarmac in Malta the cabin fills with humid air, along with a wave of heat in summer, the first welcome to the island. With that air comes the smell, a not-unpleasant melange of Aleppo pine trees and other Mediterranean flora, a bit of smokiness, farmers’ manure, a wisp of the sea and the limestone that the island nation is built on and of. There’s more to the smell and it eludes exact description, but I know it when I smell it and it’s immediately familiar and comforting. Malta’s airport doesn’t have jet bridges so one exits the plane by stairs, like a head of state arriving on a foreign mission or the Beatles at JFK. For a few seconds there’s time to survey and savour the landscape, to breathe in more of that familiar smell, and to think, to feel, “I’m home.” Well, sort of. Diasporic second-generation homecomings are strange things. A friend of mine, a second-generation Sri Lankan born in Toronto, describes visiting her parent’s motherland as akin to hollering, “Hey everyone, I’m here!” on arrival and in response everyone looks over their shoulder and says, “Who cares.” We second-generation people (and later generations to fading degrees I imagine) have been told about the “old country” by the generations that emigrated from there, often an idea of place frozen in time the day they left while the actual place kept evolving and getting on with the business and busyness of life. Standing on the airplane stairs that knowledge starts to creep in, as does an uncertain feeling of belonging. With some exceptions beyond personal ones, there’s not an awful lot of thought given by the mother country to the far-flung diaspora, so there’s a one-sidedness to the relationship, where the homeland looms large in our imagination but we don’t in theirs. But a few years ago, upon returning to Malta, the customs agent looked at my Canadian passport and saw my very common Maltese name and asked if it was my first time visiting. When I said that I’ve been many times she stamped it and slid it back to me saying, “Welcome home.” A small comment but the first time I had ever experienced such an “official” acknowledgement, and the feeling was gleeful. My dad is always waiting to pick me up by the car outside the relatively small but busy terminal. I’ve visited him enough times that we now forgo the in-terminal arrival for this in order to save a few euros on parking. It’s good to have a dad who retired back to the Mediterranean island he was born on, as it provides a built-in excuse to visit a Mediterranean island often. After a long pause during the pandemic, it was also good to resume these visits this year and repeat some familiar routines. We drive across the island to his flat while I gape at the scenery in that dreamlike state the first few hours arriving somewhere faraway by plane creates. A pleasurable phantasmagoria, this place that is usually in my imagination is suddenly real. Inside his flat it’s the reverse of what Maltese homes in Canada are like, with their artifacts from “back home.” It contains similar items, but instead from his adopted home of forty years, Canada. Mementos, photos, furniture, and even some appliances that require electricity adaptors all made their way over the ocean in a shipping container. It isn’t uncommon for me to find him up when I arrive back at the flat at two or three in the morning after visiting friends, watching a Toronto Maple Leafs or Detroit Tigers game on his couch. The line between new and old and new countries is blurred. I spend the rest of the trip catching up with my friends and relatives in Malta but also exploring the island as a diasporic tourist. An interloper in the land that I’m partially from, that somehow made me who I am, I’ve taken to going for drives and long walks without a real plan in order to discover more of Malta, to understand it and map it out in my head. Malta is small but compact, so there’s a lot to explore. Knowing how the streets are laid out, what’s around the bend, where countryside trails lead to and the inside of more buildings slowly builds a sense of connection. Did my people walk here once? Maybe. I’ve taken my dad on some of these journeys but he’s not so interested. He's really of this place so there is no pressing desire to know it in order to know himself. He says I probably know the island better than he does now. There’s a cinematic black-and-white photo somebody took of my dad, his two sisters and parents, the same month and year the Beatles arrived at JFK, as they walked across the Maltese tarmac to the plane that would take them directly to Canada. Emigrating from Malta in suits, ties, and dresses, they all glanced back over their shoulders at the photographer as the picture was snapped from the viewing platform all old terminals seemed to have, as if they had called out one last farewell to the family. Forever glancing at the other place, back and forth, trying to recognize something familiar, saying goodbye and hello, and inventing home as a tourist.
I didn’t want to know what I was looking for. I didn’t want to search or bid. What I wanted was the dream.
What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2022? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year’s series here. In the beginning it still didn’t feel safe, so I dreamed about going instead. The setting was always a bunch of places from different eras of my life, interconnected. I’d walk through the back door of Beyond the Blue Box in Cobourg (dusty, concrete) into the basement of the Goodwill that used to be at the bottom of Roncesvalles (fluorescent, chaotic), then climb through a window into the Value Village up the street from my house (unventilated, lush). In every one there was my grandmother, sorting through boxes of books at the back. Sometimes other dream-type stuff would happen—a spontaneous farmers’ market in the parking lot, a Squid Game-style mass casualty, basketball over the PA—but for the most part I would just walk up and down the aisles, touching things and deciding. I tried on pants, sent pictures to Carlo, went through the checkout, stuffed my stuff in the big paper bag. Every time I’d wake up with an ache, like when you dream about flying or a very intense crush. Sometimes I’d remember to write down what I’d found, like a reverse shopping list: purple mohair sweater brand-new pair of leather gloves enormous collapsing faux fur top hat pair of “Golden Girls-themed” Nike Cortez sneakers stretchy black sequinned turtleneck pastel-pink melamine iMac liquid silver American Apparel bodysuit rare jazz tape by the artist “Steve Honk” , etc. I wondered whether I was supposed to read any significance into the items themselves, or whether all they symbolized was the strength of my addiction. Either way, it was just like real life. Sometimes I’d walk away with nothing. The store was just fifteen minutes from my house, this whole time. * I experimented with substitutes. I scrolled through Instagram accounts. I watched livestreamed videos. I tried Etsy and eBay and Depop and froze over the search bar. Sometimes a deep and primal and useless frustration would pulse through me. It was the anger of a baby. I didn’t want to know what I was looking for. I didn’t want to search or bid. What I wanted was the dream. * I used to describe it as a meditative activity. “My only hobby,” I’d say, in a tone like I was joking. “My only sport.” When I went to the thrift store I felt like I was kicking my brain into a particular gear, one that allowed me to work out more complex or high-stakes problems in the background while the more conscious part of my mind was absorbed in the upfront, surface-level act of assessment. I wasn’t totally wrong. There is a right-now-ness to it. You have to be present, paying attention. But meditation implies a quieting down, a calm. I only learned that my only hobby didn’t work this way after my first concussion. I was stuck at home back then, too, and so bored, so exhausted, so tired of actually literally meditating, of “coming back to my breath.” I craved what the thrift store offered: a gear where everything was instinct. A chance to direct my focus outward, to completely ignore my body while also paying a lot of attention to it, from a pleasant distance. Alone, but surrounded. The first time I thought I was ready to go back, I walked the five minutes to the Value Village closest to our apartment, this store I’d spent months recalling wistfully as a palace of ultimate calm, the only place where I could settle down. But the second I walked through the doors I could feel the fluorescent lights buzzing in my teeth, the noise and the mess and the people closing in around the edges of my peripheral vision. When I tried to look at a shelf, make some kind of order from the jumble of stuff, I felt a buzzing error glitch in my prefrontal cortex. Blood moved, burning, from my spine to my skull. I had to leave. I wouldn’t be able to come back for months. I had made an enormous mistake. There is a difference—it turns out —between calm and complete immersion. * On my first day back, a man came up to me in the aisle and offered me a crumpled 30 percent off coupon. I’ve seen you around here, he said. A lot. He asked if I was a teacher. I know I worked with you, he kept saying. I know we’ve worked together before. They’d gotten rid of the change rooms. “Because of COVID,” one of the employees told me, rolling her eyes. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant but also I completely understood. The downside was no change rooms, which basically eliminated the concept of pants. The upside was that now people left their discard piles on the racks near every mirror, little pre-curated collections you could scavenge through once they were done. I liked learning about someone by what they’d left behind—the through line of what they chose and chose to pass on. Later, at the Showcase counter, I tried on a thick-linked chain. “Do you think this looks good on me?” I asked the woman leaning against the glass. “In what sense?” she asked, cautiously. She was right. Still, I walked out clutching it, elated. * half blue/half red windbreaker with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation logo on the back Russel Wright butter dish shaped like a blimp Pleats Please houndstooth shirt that makes you look like an optical illusion record that is just the sound of wind through the trees in a forest blazer whose label says ILLEGAL WEEKEND, priced $17.29 * Sometimes, instead of pride or accomplishment or pleasure, I’d feel a guilt-tinged melancholy settle into the back of my throat, or pressing on my eyelids. Sometimes I heard the voice of an old roommate, burned into my memory, asking if we could have a “one-in-one-out policy for the stuff you bring home.” Sometimes it felt more like renting. Like, I’ll take out something for a few years and then bring it back when it no longer fits, when I run out of space, or when I notice I’m not using it anymore. I thought often of Chris’s line about throwing things back into the sea. I’d drop a bag full of clothes off at the back of the store, then come through the front to find them on the rack again, returned to their rightful home. Sometimes I’d forget. Like the time I picked up a red Diane von Furstenberg dress that I could maybe see myself in, and walked around for fifteen minutes before remembering the first time I’d bought it, at the place near my optometrist where I was always finding good stoneware. Other times I’d see something on the shelf, then meet it again a few days later on Facebook Marketplace, marked up by twenty to forty dollars. The Baribocraft salad bowl, the ‘90s IKEA wall lamp, the smoky highball glasses. Every so often, these experiences would melt together, and I’d see something I’d donated to the store show up on Facebook Marketplace. First you would see it on a person’s kitchen table, being sold for thirty dollars more than they’d paid. Then the ad would disappear. Sometimes, a week or so later, it would show up again, this time against a white backdrop or on a teak table, with a phrase in the description like FOLLOW @BESTGIRLVINTAGE FOR MORE TREASURES. Each time, a different value assigned to it. Each time, it sold. Disappeared back into the sea. * There was still a truth at the core of my obsession I couldn’t completely articulate or understand, no matter how hard I tried. But sometimes it seemed close. Like when I put on the robe my grandmother gave me, the one I remembered her wearing every weekend of my childhood. Or when I visited Layne and she’d hand me a glass I remembered using when we lived together. These things had a glow, like sacred objects in a painting, or tokens in a video game. * The day I bought the bright-white jeans a man approached me, made the take-off-your-headphones gesture. I need your help, he said, not asking. I’m trying to pick an outfit for a funeral tomorrow. He brought me to an aisle where he had laid out a grey suit jacket and an array of different shirts. Which one do you think? I took a second, then pointed to a black turtleneck. Hm, he said, staring down at it. I’m not sure you know what you’re talking about. But thank you. Later, checking out, I asked the cashier how his day was going. Pretty bad, he said, but at least I finally finished watching all the movies in the Child’s Play franchise. I asked some clarifying questions as he scanned. Later, as he keyed in my total, he asked a question that I recognized: it was a lyric from the theme song of a TV show I hadn’t watched since childhood. I racked my brain for a half-second, then answered with the line that came after. Later, outside the store, I unfolded my receipt and realized he’d given me the staff discount. Just for remembering.
As grief shaped daily life over the past three years, one of the few things that has reliably brought me comfort is helping my dog be brave.
What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2022? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year’s series here. Oh, dogs. Walk outside your house and they are literally everywhere. Lurking at intersections as their owners wait for the traffic lights to change. Sniffing tree trunks and potted plants. Peeing on garbage cans. Over tens of thousands of years, humans have designed these hedonistic neurotics to bark, whine, jump, and trot around on our streets and in our parks. Over the past year, I have become acutely aware of the location, activity, and temperament of all these dogs, because my own—a three-and-a-half-year-old hound-collie mix named Veronica—believes with the faith and certainty of a “Karen” reporting a suspicious man outside her home that she is responsible for collecting, corralling, and chiding every dog within smelling distance. During this time, she, my long-suffering long-term partner Paul, and I have been engaged in a behaviour-modification campaign designed to help her not do the very thing she believes it is her life’s purpose to do. Tell a bird not to fly, a cow not to graze, or a cop not to write you a speeding ticket—this is what it’s like to ask Veronica not to bark at dogs on the street. The bark is not mean, unless of course a dog dares to appear without warning. There has never been—knock on all wood—a bite, not even when that territorial shih tzu on Fawn Street broke away from its owner and chased us off the block with a shrill, honestly quite aggressive, warning. Ronnie’s bark is, however, deafening, and while I know she will always have a voice in her, I would like to preserve what little hearing I have left. This bark is the adaptive response of a smart but nervous dog who sees, hears, and smells too much and—due to breeding, unknown but likely trauma, and the frustration of living in a loud, crowded city—is vaguely scared of strange men, falling leaves, loud trucks, her reflection in certain mirrors, and anything that dares to move erratically or suddenly in her peripheral vision. As helplessness, loss, and grief shaped daily life over the past three years, one of the few things that has reliably brought me comfort and satisfaction is helping my dog be more confident, braver, and just a little bit quieter in this increasingly chaotic world. * Veronica is not my first troubled dog, nor is this the first gargantuan behavioural hurdle of hers we have climbed. When I first adopted her, she was incapable of staying at home alone without having a panic attack. It was heartbreaking to hear her incessant barking turn to plaintive shrieks and yelps, to see her standing at the upstairs window afraid we’d left her forever. Her angst had to stop and at first the only surefire way to control it was to never, ever leave her alone. This was unsustainable. We could not take a reactive, hyper-vigilant collie mix everywhere we went and so we hired a trainer who met with us every week over Zoom. “My therapist,” I called her, and together we began the arduous process of desensitizing Veronica to our absence. We worked twenty minutes a day, five days a week—first by merely standing by the door, then by stepping outside briefly, finally by leaving for minutes at a time. It took four months of active daily training. There was a spreadsheet. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. But it worked. As of this summer, she can stay alone and her confidence around new people, other dogs, strange noises, and leaves has improved. * To have a rescue dog in 2022 is to endlessly wrangle, counsel, comfort, and analyze the actions, emotions, and attitudes of a member of a co-evolved species. Anyone with an adopted canine who doesn’t know what I’m talking about is either in denial or incredibly lucky. While you might hear some old school dog owners and trainers talk about “alpha” dogs, “pack leadership,” and “dominance,” Paul and I are fully indoctrinated in the cult of positive reinforcement. There is no yanking the leash, no yelling, absolutely no hitting, not even a harsh tone. After months of classes (with waiting lists) and private training sessions aided by forty milligrams a day of a generic SSRI that was prescribed by a $160-an-hour behavioural vet, the notion that aversive methods would only serve to make my high strung, hyper vigilant dog more anxious is my gospel. Training a reactive dog requires endless environmental management—crossing the street to avoid confrontations, buying a white noise machine to drown out the neighbours’ dachshund (when will they learn the subtle art of behavioural modification?), and tireless attention to things like body language and threshold. On the street, the mood is a sort of quiet cajoling that looks suspiciously like prayer. One must be equipped with pockets full of treats at all times to dispense along with a steady stream of singsong praise. To train my dog, I must be attuned not just to her and her environment, but to myself. My frustrations, anxiety, happiness, and joy. We’re in this together—Ronnie and me—surviving our respective trauma by rewarding the good behaviour and ignoring the bad. Controlling what we can and learning, slowly, to look to each other for comfort when that asshole German shepherd walks past our house.
Guy Mirabeau was one of many dreamers who hoped to live beyond bureaucratic reach, but the colonial reality of the “frontier myth” can no longer be ignored.
In the summer of 2004, a small cabin stood on the western bank of Chain Lakes in central Yukon, bordered by poplars that had flourished in the wake of a forest fire years before. The cabin was nine-by-twelve-feet, the logs cut by hand with a machete and Swede saw, topped with a sod roof. Rows of radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets, and watercress grew out front, and a tall wooden food cache poked up above the spindly spruce trees nearby. Near the cabin was a smaller structure filled with almost 400 books, including Spanish and French literature, history and philosophy texts, and hunting and trapping guides. A 200-metre trail encircled the main cabin—a bush running track. Guy Mirabeau called this place “Monlac”—“My Lake” in French. It was the 56-year-old’s wilderness paradise. Inspired by prospectors who lived this way during the Klondike gold rush, he’d started building it in 1996. Every summer, he would fly from his home in Ottawa, where he worked as a translator, to the Yukon and spend three months living alone here, fishing, hunting, and canoeing—while also studying Russian, listening to Latin American music on his Walkman, and baking clafoutis in the outdoor cement oven he had made. It was a tiny one-man civilization in the sub-arctic boreal forest, more than 100 kilometres from the nearest communities—Faro, home to 340 people, and Keno, home to 20—over mountain ranges and rivers. Moose walked the lake’s edge and wolves howled at night in the distance, providing a musical accompaniment to Mirabeau’s solitude. In his daily journal, he documented, in French, the weather, his meals, and quotations from Seneca, Baudelaire, and other classic writers. Mirabeau claimed not just the lake but the wider area as his own. One year, he bushwhacked up the mountain behind his cabin, lugging a chainsaw, and built another small structure to serve as a base for future hunting trips into the valley. Another summer, he built a cabin north of Monlac, along a creek near the Hess River. This, he thought, could be a launch pad for fishing trips on a lake nearby—he’d already stashed a green canoe near the Hess in 1998. Mirabeau wasn’t a total recluse: Every fall, when temperatures dipped below freezing and the daylight dwindled, he would close up his cabin and return to Ottawa. There, he’d spend time with his family and friends, and resume his freelance translation work. Some winters, he’d vacation in an expat community in the Dominican Republic. When June rolled around again, he’d eagerly return to Monlac, chartering a small plane in Whitehorse and flying into Chain Lakes. His plan, ultimately, was to live out his days there. By 2004, he was retired and separated from his wife, their two children grown. He wanted to devote more time to his isolated homestead, and even try surviving a winter there. On August 18, Mirabeau had been in the bush for two months. He had grown a grey beard and wore a plaid shirt on his five-foot-eight frame. That afternoon, he was preparing to bake bread when he heard the whirring of a helicopter overhead. It circled the cabin, whipping the leaves of the surrounding trees, and landed near his garden. He didn’t know it yet, but the arrival signified the end of his idyllic existence at Monlac. His homestead was about to be snatched away from him, though it was never really his to begin with. * Before Canada was Canada, First Nations people in what’s now known as the Yukon travelled across large areas to food sources that flourished in different seasons—a river during the summer salmon run, the mountains in the fall to hunt moose and caribou. Some built rectangular lean-tos and circular dwellings made of brush and poles, which, according to Catharine McClellan’s book My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory, often housed multiple families and relatives. They’d walk long distances on well-worn trails and paddle canoes across large bodies of water to meet other nations for trade. First Nations across the country shared a view of land as something that provided for them, and that they in turn were responsible for protecting. When European settlers began to arrive in Canada, they brought with them the idea of land as a commodity. It could be farmed, mined, tamed, civilized. In 1872, Canada passed the Dominions Lands Act, which established homesteading policy that promoted settling the West by offering free 65-hectare chunks of land to newcomers, ideally Europeans with farming experience. To entice people, the government produced propaganda that heralded “The Last Best West.” From 1870 to 1930, the government issued about 625,000 land patents. The historian Richard Slotkin has written extensively about “the myth of the frontier” in describing how the American West was viewed during colonization: as free, “untamed” wilderness, where man, if he was tough enough, could conquer nature, wild animals, and Indigenous people. For 200 years, American settlers’ preoccupation was westward expansion; when they reached California in the late nineteenth century, it signified the end of the frontier. That created an existential crisis for pioneers, according to the late David Neufeld, a Whitehorse historian who had studied the frontier myth. Who were they without exploration and adventure? What would set them apart from their strait-laced European counterparts now? “The threat to masculinity, I think, was a prominent part of that,” Neufeld said when I interviewed him in 2019. The solution was to colonize the North. The Yukon and Alaska presented one last chance for settlers’ discovery, and when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, thousands of Americans boarded ships heading north. While the Klondike gold rush was brief—just three years—it paved the way for the settlement of the Yukon. “That kind of last chance still holds true, because it’s so embedded in contemporary popular culture,” said Neufeld. Alaska’s license plate slogan is “The Last Frontier,” while the Yukon’s plate has an image of a man panning for gold. The territorial government heavily promotes the gold rush in its tourism advertisements. Whitehorse jewellery stores sell gold nuggets, downtown buildings in both the capital and Dawson City have Old West-style false fronts, and Dawson’s casino features high-kicking, short-skirted dancers. Robert Service’s famous poem “The Spell of the Yukon” is painted on the side of a building there. Indeed, both Service’s and Jack London’s writings about the gold rush play into its enduring romanticization. In the 2020 film remake of London’s The Call of the Wild, Harrison Ford’s character refers to Yukon locales as “places no one had been—wild places.” The frontier myth erases the presence of Indigenous people and conveniently avoids examining the negative impacts of colonization. During the Klondike gold rush, when settlers began arriving in droves on the territory of the Hän people, they quickly populated Tr’ochëk, an ancient fishing village at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The miners staked any land in the area they could. According to Hammerstones: A History of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, written by Helene Dobrowolsky and published by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, accounts of what happened next differ, but some say that in September 1896, the Hän people accepted money, between $50 and $200 for each of their fifteen dwellings. The miners’ intent, apparently, was to buy the buildings and the land. But, as Dobrowolsky recounts, the Hän merely thought they were selling the structures, which would then be moved across the river to Dawson City. “The story of the ‘sale’ of Tr’ochëk and the confusion that followed becomes more understandable given that the idea of land as property—to be parcelled into small chunks then bought and controlled by individuals—was a completely foreign concept to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in,” she writes. The Hän were denied access to their village after this, and moved across the Klondike River to the south end of the Dawson City townsite. The North-West Mounted Police, though, had already staked this area for a compound. “The police saw the First Nations people as undesirable neighbours, squatters on officially surveyed land,” writes Dobrowolsky. Ultimately, after correspondence between the federal government in Ottawa, the local Anglican bishop, and the police, the First Nation moved to Moosehide, another traditional camp, five kilometres down the Yukon River from Dawson. “The newcomers brought a new view of land ownership; for them, land was a commodity to be exploited rather than a resource to be cherished,” writes Dobrowolsky. * Guy Mirabeau first visited the Yukon in 1982. For a month, he toured around the territory, visiting several of its small communities. The vastness of it all made him feel free. If it wasn’t for his family back in the city—his wife, Laetitia, and two young sons, Laurent and Olivier—he’d have stayed in the Yukon. He decided, on that trip, that he’d return one day for good. Over the next few years, though, only short trips were possible. In 1984, Mirabeau paddled the MacMillan River—typically a ten- to sixteen-day trip—with Laurent, who was then fourteen years old. The canoe tipped in one of the river’s bends, and they nearly drowned. Four years later, he returned with Laurent and his brother to paddle the Big Salmon River. And in 1992, he visited again with a friend and the friend’s son. While Mirabeau enjoyed these adventure trips, as he got older, he knew the physical demands of paddling, and the effort of setting up and taking down camp every day, would at some point be beyond him. Then he had an idea, inspired by the writings of a British gold miner and explorer: perhaps he could build a cabin and use it as a retreat from urban life. Nevill Armstrong had been managing a mine outside of Dawson City when, in 1900, he got word of gold potential on Russell Creek, hundreds of kilometres southeast. He travelled there to investigate, and so began his years-long relationship with the area. Between 1900 and the late 1920s, he made several trips to the confluence of the creek and the MacMillan, where he built a cabin, hunted caribou, sheep, and grouse, fished for salmon, grayling, and pike, and, to his delight, found traces of coarse gold. The Geographic Names Board of Canada named the site Armstrong Landing, and the tallest nearby peak Mount Armstrong. “A tract of country—barrens, mountains, river and lakes—was mine, the size of England,” he wrote in his 1937 book After Big Game in the Upper Yukon. “With the exception of about three tribes of Indians and a few white trappers I was ‘Lord of all I surveyed.’” Armstrong was a hero figure to Mirabeau. Though his books were imperialistic and out of date, his hardscrabble existence, coupled with his descriptions of the Yukon’s rugged beauty, was tantalizing. Once Mirabeau’s children were grown, his wife left Canada and returned to France, where she was from. (Though the couple ultimately split, they remained in touch.) So he hatched a plan: In the summer, he would live alone in the Yukon woods. Come fall, he’d return to Ottawa to do his freelance translation work and spend time with friends and family. It seemed like an ideal balance. Mirabeau knew exactly where he wanted to go: the Russell Creek area. By the mid-’90s, though, a large outfitting camp sat on the creek, so he turned his attention to the eastern side of the Russell mountain range and found Chain Lakes, about 25 kilometres from Russell Creek. The lakes are two skinny networks of water, one above the other, separated by two kilometres of muskeg. They’re bordered to the north by the turbulent Hess River and to the south by the MacMillan. Chain Lakes are on the overlapping traditional territory of three First Nations—the Ross River Dena Council, Selkirk First Nation, and First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun. Both Selkirk and Na-Cho Nyak Dun, along with nine other Yukon First Nations, have signed final and self-governing agreements with the federal and territorial governments. The former, often called a modern-day treaty, is a comprehensive land claim, while the latter defines First Nations’ self-governing powers, such as law-making and taxation. By signing these agreements, First Nations are no longer governed by the federal Indian Act. (With no treaties, the Ross River Dena Council’s land remains unceded.) As part of this modern-day treaty process, different classifications of land were created. While nearly all of the Yukon is on the traditional territory of First Nations, today, they don’t own their traditional territory but they do own what’s called their settlement land. It’s divided into Category A land (where a First Nation has surface and mineral rights, ownership of what’s above and below ground), Category B (surface rights only), and “fee simple land” (where the nation has the same rights that private property owners do). On their settlement land, First Nations are the main decision-makers, while on non-settlement land, the Yukon government holds that role. But, as per the agreements, it must consult with First Nations on many land management issues. “Land ownership and management was a major reason that the Yukon Final and Self-Government Agreements were negotiated,” states the website Mapping the Way, produced through a partnership between the Council of Yukon First Nations, the Yukon and federal governments, and the eleven self-governing First Nations in the Yukon. Chain Lakes are on Crown land—land owned by federal, provincial, or territorial governments—and are sparsely populated and little-used. In the winter, the lakes are split by the border of two trapping concessions. An Alberta-based outfitting business operates in the area for a month every fall, escorting wealthy clients through the sprawling wilderness to hunt caribou, moose, grizzly bears, and sheep. MacMillan River Adventures has seventeen camps spaced out over 11,000 square kilometres, including one on Chain Lakes. “It’s rugged country,” owner Don Lind told me. The silence gets to some visitors. “We’ve had clients come and even though there was a guide in camp with them, the solitude unnerved them, I guess you could say,” he said. “It was just too remote.” In Mirabeau’s eyes, it was perfect. On June 26, 1996, he climbed out of a small plane that bobbed on the southern end of North Chain Lakes, ready to realize his homesteading dream. He’d brought a canoe, a rifle, a Polaroid camera, and groceries from Whitehorse, including rice, semolina, cheese, soup packets, and vegetable seeds. He pitched his tent and, in the 10 p.m. daylight, caught a 25-inch trout. He crawled out of his tent in the night to see a cow moose, itching for a fight, her baby nearby. He shot them both, dragging the bodies away from his camp, saving only the calf’s hindquarters to eat. Over the coming weeks, Mirabeau chopped down trees to build cabin walls and tilled a garden. He paddled south on the lakes, taking notes on each one in the vertical chain. He watched beavers swim, a pair of loons pass by with their newly hatched offspring, eagles swoop overhead, and moose—many moose. He ate well, supplementing the groceries he’d brought with food he harvested at Monlac: lentils, onions, potatoes, and trout one day, another, rice, vegetables from the garden, a morel mushroom he found near his cabin, and chunks of a moose he’d shot. Mirabeau quickly learned the problem with killing big game. After shooting a young bull in August, he placed three of its quarters in a hollow and covered them with branches. Tucked away from sunlight, he thought they’d be well-preserved. But the next day, he arrived at the cache to find a bear had discovered the meat and dragged it out into the open. One shoulder was half-eaten, and what was left was covered in flies and worms. A waste. He raced back to his unfinished cabin and moved his tent inside, then nailed logs in the doorway as a barricade should the bear return to the area. For dinner, he cooked up the moose tongue in a sauce with parsley from the garden. Delicious. At least it was one thing the bear wouldn’t get—“unless he eats me, of course,” he wrote. From then on, he stuck to fishing and hunting small birds. Much like Armstrong before him, Mirabeau surveyed the lake, surrounding forest, and nearest mountain, whose summit gave him a glimpse of the Hess River, and felt they were his. “My domain,” he called it. The fact that he had no legal right to be living there seemed inconsequential. This was the Yukon, after all, and he was certain it was outside the reaches of bureaucracy. * Canadians are allowed to camp on Crown land for 21 days, after which they must relocate to another site at least 100 metres away. Building any permanent structure, like a cabin, is illegal. The Yukon Lands Act prohibits using or occupying “Yukon lands without lawful authority.” And yet the territory has a proud history of squatting, given its origins as a place where newcomers cleared brush and built homesteads pretty well wherever they pleased. Through much of the 1900s, squatting was commonplace, and even up until the ’70s and ’80s, it was socially acceptable —part of the place’s anything-goes reputation—if not totally legal. The Yukon appeals to people who seek the opposite of dense, urban living. As Neufeld wrote in the 2016 book Canadian Countercultures and the Environment, “incoming back-to-the-landers conceived of the Yukon as untouched wild space, a place where they could build alternative ways of living.” He writes about a young American man who, in the ’70s, came north with some friends. They paddled down the Yukon River towards Dawson City, looking for places they could live in the wilderness. “Steering into likely spots, they wandered through their selection of ‘free’ land, dreaming about what they could do,” Neufeld wrote. “Their experience was an almost mythic idyll of the counterculture.” Also in the ’70s, a handful of people staked land on the Annie Lake Road, half an hour outside of Whitehorse. I know of one resident who bought property off another squatter in ’77 for $200—less so for the land than the hand-dug well the seller had built. (Now, the hamlet of Mount Lorne is home to about 400 people, with a community centre, ski trails, and a bush golf course. Large homes sell for over $500,000.) At least in part, what’s fed this persistent “free land” mentality is the displacement of First Nations people dating back to the gold rush. The Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s 2020 book Dǎ kwǎndur ghày ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words lists nine forced relocations of its people since 1897. Post-gold rush, as Whitehorse grew, neighbourhoods sprung up along the Yukon River downtown. In the ’40s and ’50s, about 1,000 people, including many First Nations residents, lived in Whiskey Flats, Sleepy Hollow, and Moccasin Flats, tight-knit communities of cabins and shacks with no sanitation, and many without electricity. According to Pat Ellis’s book The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse and Their Stories, one-third of the city’s population in 1956 were squatters. As the city developed, though, these makeshift buildings were deemed unsafe eyesores and residents were ultimately kicked out of the area and their homes destroyed. “Labelled as ‘squatters’ by townspeople in more fortunate economic circumstances, they lived in difficult conditions and faced constant pressures to leave—but had nowhere to go,” states the Kwanlin Dün book. Elijah Smith, an influential figure in Yukon history and the former chief of what was then called the Whitehorse Indian Band, called this what it was. At a 1968 public consultation with the federal government regarding changes to the Indian Act, Smith said: “We, the Indians of the Yukon, object to…being treated like squatters in our own country.” Smith and other leaders would pave the way for First Nations’ self-government and modern-day treaties. But that came later. By the ’80s, the Yukon government decided it had to better address the high demand for rural land—and along with it, all the squatters. It had already developed rural residential neighbourhoods on the outskirts of municipalities for people who wanted a less urban lifestyle, but in a 1986 document, the government noted that there were still people who wanted to live in a “less structured environment.” It acknowledged that there was limited rural land available for a few reasons, indicative of a young jurisdiction: a lack of land use plans, land inventories, and “a suitable land base” for the government to create a rural residential policy. Some people, as a result, chose to quietly squat. The federal government had amended the Territorial Lands Act back in 1957 to allow squatter evictions, according to Ellis’s book, but the problem continued. In the 1986 public document, the government acknowledged squatting “has long been recognized as one of Yukon’s most serious land management issues” and estimated there were 400 squatters in the territory. It proposed a homesteader policy, which would provide inexpensive rural land for purchase, and a squatter policy, which would offer people a 90-day window to apply for lease or purchase of the land on which they’d been illegally living. If they ignored the process, they’d be evicted under existing federal and territorial legislation. And then the government would, typically, burn down the unauthorized structures. * Gerd Mannsperger, the owner of Whitehorse-based charter company Alpine Aviation, recalls many cabins being burned down in the Whitehorse area in the ’90s. He flew Mirabeau in and out of Chain Lakes several times over the years and warned him about the legality of what he was doing. “Quite a number of people over the years did exactly that,” he says. “They’d think they could just come up here, build a cabin, spend a winter, and there were cabins going up everywhere.” Another warning, according to Mirabeau’s journal, came from a man named Simonson, who visited Monlac in 1999. It seems both men believed the cabin sat on Simonson’s trapping concession, which he used in the winter. Simonson advised Mirabeau to leave a sign on his door when he left for the season, informing government inspectors that the cabin was registered and that Mirabeau wasn’t a squatter. But Mirabeau didn’t think it was necessary—he wasn’t bothering anyone. According to Mirabeau’s journals, the next few summers at Monlac were idyllic and passed without incident. He kept busy: In 1998, he cleared burnt trees from around the cabin, remnants of the forest fire a few years before, and crafted a bunk bed in anticipation of a visit from his son Laurent. The pair fished, hiked, took photographs, and baked bread. “These eight days went on like a dream,” Mirabeau wrote. “I wish all the fathers of the world to live from time to time a week with their son like the one I just lived.” In 2000, he upgraded his oven, building a structure of willow wood, laying flat stones upon it, mixing powdered cement his pilot had dropped off, and pouring it over the oven vault. Two years later, he began constructing a library near his cabin. An avid reader since he was a child, he called it the Very Small Library of the Very Big North. By the following summer, his collection had more than 150 books, including Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Plato’s Republic, and Sophocles's Complete Plays. He decided the library’s ex libris—a bookplate inscribed with its owner’s name—was the mosquito, since one of the smushed insects decorated the first page of nearly every book, sometimes tinged with his blood. “The departure of guests is a blow every time, but then I resume my rhythm,” he wrote after his close friend Pierre Devinat visited in 2003. “I note that both types of stays, (alone or with one or more people) have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It’s not the same experience. More friendly, closer to what we experience in the city when we’re in company; more austere, almost religious or mystical, when you’re alone.” That summer, he finished building a cabin on the mountain, complete with a stove and chimney. When September rolled around, he was already excited for the following year. He’d decided to retire in the spring, then spend fourteen months at Monlac. “Finally… I will not be a cheechako anymore”—the derisive gold rush-era term for someone who hasn’t endured a Yukon winter. The summer of 2004 passed as previous ones did, with long sunny nights and mild days, until the helicopter landed near his garden in August. Two territorial natural-resources officers, Aaron Koss-Young and Glenn Sorensen, stepped out of the chopper. By both Koss-Young’s account in the court documents he later filed and Mirabeau’s as per his journal and court filings, it was a pleasant interaction. Mirabeau offered them coffee and proudly showed them around. Though the officers complimented him on his setup, he was suspicious. Mirabeau told Koss-Young and Sorensen of his plans to live at the lake throughout the winter, and, according to his journal retelling, they had no problems with this, though they advised him to apply for a lease on the land. But alarm bells were going off in Koss-Young’s head. “It cued a whole bunch of concerns in my way of thinking,” he told me in 2018. “He was well set up and stuff like that, but I don’t think he understood the full effects of the Yukon winters there. And as well as sustaining himself, there were a lot of questions in my mind how he was going to do that legally.” At the time, one of Koss-Young’s tasks was to fly around the area and inspect residents’ properties, many of them trapping cabins. Often, he’d encounter people squatting. “You talk to anybody that visits the Yukon and a lot of people still think it’s the last frontier, the wild west here so you can get away with anything,” Koss-Young told me. According to his affidavit, he told Mirabeau that he was unlawfully occupying the site, and Mirabeau said he wanted to get tenure for the land. Koss-Young instructed Mirabeau to visit the lands branch office in Whitehorse when he was there in the coming weeks, a pre-planned trip to gather supplies for winter. During that week-long trip in early September, Mirabeau talked with family and picked up a suitcase of books Devinat had mailed him. He did not, according to Koss-Young’s affidavit, visit the lands office. In court documents Mirabeau later filed, he said he’d given his mailing address to the officers so they could provide him with more information about getting land tenure. When he checked his mailbox in Whitehorse and saw no letter, he figured all was well. He arrived back at Monlac to snow on the mountaintops. Meanwhile, Koss-Young had confirmed that Mirabeau had no claim to the land. While Mirabeau had told the officers he had Simonson’s permission to be there, the cabin didn’t actually sit on Simonson’s concession—it was on the neighbouring one, leased by a woman named Jane Wilson. Her lease only allowed for structures at two specific sites. The government began moving to seek a court order that would force Mirabeau off the land. At home on Monlac that autumn, he was oblivious to this. He watched the temperature dip below zero, snow start to fall, the lake freeze over. On October 25, he turned 57. He spent the early winter months baking, feeding his wood stove, and reading. Periodically, he called Laurent and his mother using his satellite phone. “I have no alcohol or beloved in my cabin and I do very well,” he wrote on December 22. “Apollinaire and all his friends in the very small library are enough for my happiness.” On Christmas Day, he called his brother and his mother, and on December 30, he called Laetitia and Olivier in France. Temperatures dipped to -40C outside, and -15C inside his cabin. Mirabeau would get up in the morning and hurriedly make a fire. He wrote that he felt like the character in Jack London’s To Build a Fire—a man who, rushing to his friends’ mining camp at 70-below, falls through ice, soaking his feet, and tries several times, unsuccessfully, to start a fire to warm them. Ultimately, he freezes to death in the snow. It took hours for the cabin’s temperature to creep up to 10C, so Mirabeau would put on a wool sweater and make steaming coffee, then crawl back into bed and read. On New Year’s Eve, he wrote a poem: “Dark evening The cover of the calendar That ends” * On July 24, 2005, Mirabeau flew to Whitehorse on his way back to Ottawa, feeling triumphant he’d survived his first winter. Nine days prior, the territory’s manager of land use had filed paperwork in Yukon Supreme Court, seeking an order that would kick Mirabeau off the land. He got word of the motion on August 1, and hastily filed a response at the Whitehorse courthouse. He was livid and felt betrayed by the officers, who built a case against him while he showed them hospitality. Over twelve pages, handwritten in blue pen, he railed against bureaucracy and what he called the new Yukon mentality. “This is why I tend to stay away from governments,” he wrote, mentioning that he knew Jane Wilson well and that they had been about to make a deal so he could stay on her concession. That he’d hoped the cabin would live on after his death as a refuge for travelers passing through the area. “But it seems that in this 21st century world, this kind of acting and thinking is out. It’s OK, this was done in the old Yukon spirit, the Yukon has sure changed a lot in the last years, and for the worse, this Yukon that’s rejecting me, I don’t want to be part of it anyway.” The case made the local news. “It’s just not permitted to go out into the wilderness and hack out a homestead,” a government spokesperson told the Whitehorse Star. To some, though, Mirabeau’s actions were admirable. He was a symbol of the perceived good old days, before the government started to meddle in everything. “This man is living the dream!” one person wrote in a Toronto-based online forum. After a hearing in Whitehorse on October 4, 2005, which Mirabeau did not attend, a judge ruled that he must stop living on the land. That month, employees with the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources moved Mirabeau’s possessions out of his cabin and library, and loaded them onto a helicopter bound for Mayo, a small community 160 kilometres away. Once there, the belongings were placed in a truck and driven four hours to Whitehorse, where they got moved into a storage locker. EMR employees poured gasoline on the cabin and library and watched as they went up in flames. (It appears the government didn’t know about the other cabins Mirabeau built: the one on the mountain and the one near the Hess River. Those stayed standing.) In a November 4, 2005 letter to Mirabeau, the department informed him where his belongings were, and that he had until June 30, 2006, to collect them. Mirabeau was devastated. Sometime between June 15 and June 30, 2006, he returned to Whitehorse and showed up at the storage locker with the government letter. The facility owner cut the lock and allowed Mirabeau to gather his things. “Mr. Mirabeau did not contact the Yukon government prior to retrieving his belongings,” EMR spokesperson Rod Jacob wrote to me in an email. “If he had, Yukon government would have unlocked the storage unit for him.” Devinat tried to help his friend cope with the loss. He thought Mirabeau was depressed. “He was bitter about what happened, his way of life shattered,” he told me. A couple of times, the two men drove hours north of Ottawa, into rural Quebec, in an attempt to find an isolated, wooded area where he could live, closer to home. But nothing was suitable to Mirabeau. What exactly was he looking for? “A replica of the Yukon,” Devinat said. Instead, Mirabeau occasionally returned to Chain Lakes. Mannsperger recalls flying him out every few years for month-long stays. He’d bring a tent and, according to the pilot, bake bread using his oven, which was still intact. * In June 2014, Mirabeau arrived in Whitehorse once again. He was 66 years old now, with sagging skin at the corners of his eyes. He checked in to the Chilkoot Trail Inn, a derelict downtown hotel that tourists usually avoid, and booked a trip to Chain Lakes in a four-seater Cessna 180. On June 24, Mannsperger hopped into his truck at Alpine’s floatplane dock and drove into town to pick up Mirabeau at the Chilkoot. The man was “super happy,” as he always was on Yukon trips, Mannsperger says, and carried his usual amount of supplies: a duffel bag, a backpack, and two large plastic bins. What was unusual, though, was that Mirabeau hadn’t booked a pickup date. He told Mannsperger he didn’t need one; he planned this year to paddle out via the Hess and Stewart rivers—a challenging trip, especially solo. He’d already stashed a canoe on the Hess, he said. But what if the canoe wasn’t there? Mannsperger asked. Mirabeau said he had a second canoe on Chain Lakes that he could use. Mannsperger relented, but told him he’d better call to let him know he’d made it out safely. One of Alpine’s pilots flew Mirabeau to Chain Lakes that afternoon. Meanwhile, Mirabeau’s family members and a few close friends received letters from him. Devinat told me Mirabeau wrote that he didn't want to grow old and weak—he had aches and pains now that troubled him—and he was struggling financially. According to Devinat, Mirabeau wrote that he planned to shoot himself near one of his cabins. On July 2, 2014, Mirabeau’s family reported him missing. For four days, police and EMR inspectors searched around Chain Lakes on foot, finding a small structure about 150 metres from where his main cabin used to be. Inside was, according to Yukon RCMP, “additional communication… indicating his potential whereabouts.” When they followed his directions, though, they turned up dry. When I told Devinat about this, he chuckled. “That might be a false hint,” he said. To him, Mirabeau had vowed, “They’ll never find me.” The searchers did find a cabin on the mountain, though, and in their travels north to the Hess, another cabin along a creek. They also discovered a battered green canoe near the Hess. A few weeks after Mirabeau’s disappearance, a hunting guide was walking alone on the south side of the Stewart River, near where the Hess flows into it, scouting the area before his clients arrived. He spotted human footprints in a sandbar, and, knowing someone was missing in the area, called Brian Wojciechowski, another guide who works that concession, directly north of Don Lind’s. They contacted RCMP, who brought out a helicopter. “We never found any evidence of anybody except these footprints that were there in this back channel, out in the middle of no place,” says Wojciechowski. Searchers made frequent checks along the Stewart River, according to Jacob, and over the next three months, the RCMP and a government employee made at least three trips back to the area. Mannsperger never did get a call from Mirabeau to tell him he’d made his way out on the river. In November 2014, at -40C, officers flew over the area, looking for smoke curling up from the trees. In July 2015, a ground search uncovered nothing; the following month, another search was unsuccessful. Police have now stopped looking, though they still consider the case open. Devinat died in February 2020, but when we spoke a year earlier, he was certain his friend killed himself. Mirabeau was stubborn and steadfast—he wouldn’t change his mind on something he felt strongly about. At the time, Devinat was angry at him for what he’d chosen to do, angry he didn’t ask for help. His sons could have supported him financially. And Devinat could have passed along some translation work. “For me, it was more [that he was] giving up on the good things life could have given him.” But over time, Devinat came to respect his friend’s decision. “He was a bit of a showman, so his death was a bit of a show as well.” Had Mirabeau decided to build Monlac a decade earlier, prior to the government’s squatter crackdown, perhaps he’d have been able to lease the land and live out his days there legally. But that would’ve required him to participate in a bureaucratic process, applying to the Yukon Squatter Review Panel, and Mirabeau bristled at complicated government procedure. Even up until the cabin and library were destroyed in 2005, he had opportunities to try to make what he was doing legal. He was warned about what would happen if the government found him. But he seemed to be in denial—he wanted to believe there were parts of Canada that you could escape to, that didn’t have laws or red tape. Perhaps this was the most crushing thing about what happened at Monlac—not the physical loss of his lovingly built homestead, but that this ideal he’d held so closely and projected the remainder of his life onto was not real. “I don’t believe in property any more, nor in money, I don’t want to be an ‘owner,’” he wrote in his court affidavit. “In a few years I’ll be dead, and I’m not going to take this with me to the netherworld.” Canada was founded on colonialism—land was not settlers’ to take, but we took it. To this day, we’re still reckoning with the fact that this theft—and everything that came after it, from disease to the Indian Act to residential schools—is what our country is built on. What does land ownership even mean in this context? Only in recent years have many non-Indigenous Canadians begun opening their eyes to the country’s full history, learning about colonialism and reconciliation, offering land acknowledgments, thinking about what existed here before we did. Before Mirabeau, before big-game outfitting camps, before Nevill Armstrong, the Chain Lakes wilderness was the realm of the Northern Tutchone and Kaska people. Hallmarks of the landscape back then would have appeared much the same as they do now: moose picking their way through thick forest, wolf howls and loon calls carrying across the lake, warm, evening sunlight in summer, the stillness of deep winter. Today, Mirabeau’s imprint on the land lingers. Sometime between 2010 and 2012, Lind, the outfitter, found a cache in the trees near the lake and a concrete oven dug into a hillside. The three buildings discovered in 2014—the small log structure on the side of the lake, the mountain cabin, and the fishing cabin—are still standing, according to the Yukon government. The intention is, perhaps next year, for territorial employees to remove these traces of inhabitation and reclaim the site by returning it to its pre-Mirabeau state. Something Mirabeau wrote in his affidavit sixteen years ago echoes: “They can take what I have, they can’t take what I had.” This piece was written with support from the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program at the Banff Centre.
A friend texts: Have you heard this term “she-cession”? You reply with another term you’ve seen popping up: Forced domesticity.
What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2022? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year’s series here. This past year you had a second baby and wrote a book. You knew it would be difficult, but also you knew you could do it. Because if your first kid taught you anything, it’s that your threshold for pain is boundless. Joy too, it turns out, but that wouldn’t help you write the book. You’ve been a stay-at-home mom since July 2020, when your mat leave with your first kid ended smack dab in the darkest thick of the pandemic. When toilet paper was scarce, and groceries—handled in separate clothes—were scrubbed down at the door. Daycares were closed at that time, but even if they weren’t, the idea of relinquishing your baby to a squall of respiratory droplets smothered you in panic. So, like many other mothers at the time, you decided to quit your job. Just for a little while. Until things got better. Because they had to get better eventually, right? You felt a certain unease about becoming a stay-at-home mom, of course, even just temporarily. Like a dog, cautiously following a hunk of cheese into a crate. But you also knew that you were very lucky. Very, very, very lucky. To have had the option to keep your child safe during one of the most frightening and uncertain periods in recent history. This is a good thing, you reminded yourself as you Clorox-wiped a swing at the park for the two-hundred-and-thirteenth day in a row. You are very, very, very, very lucky. * And then sometime between May 21 and June 21, your second baby is born. He quickly dissolves a lifetime of prejudice you’ve built up against Gemini men. He is a decent sleeper. An amazing eater. Breathtakingly cute. He’s somehow polite. Even his dumps are civil. A friend of yours, a software engineer who you admire very much, had quit her job around the same time you did. Her two sons were falling behind in school. Online learning was a disaster. It was either her career or her children’s education, as far as she could tell. And you totally understood. Her husband was also a software engineer, but of course he made more money than she did. Not a ton more, she’d said over text. That’s not the main reason. It’s just easier if I do it. The two of you text constantly. You share articles about other women, forced from their jobs by the pandemic’s relentless caregiving demands. She comes across the term weaponized incompetence, a behaviour pattern in which one partner pretends to be bad at simple tasks to get out of shared responsibilities. Learning about this term is a genuine danger to her marriage. Um, have you heard about this? Is that what he’s doing to me? Am I being fucking gaslit? Her rage is escalating. You let her vent. The text thread, this secret, sacred space, is the best place for it. He'd have to be a criminal mastermind to be manipulating you to that extent. And let’s face it, he’s no mastermind lol he can’t even homeschool the kids! Anyway it’s only temporary. This is going to pass. And when it does you’ll find something else. Something better. You didn’t even like that job, plus they obviously weren’t paying you enough. This is the first time you notice yourself doing it, a service you’ve been performing unconsciously for years: deescalating another woman’s rage. This service has been performed for you as well, by this very friend in fact. Because you’ve both been trained to believe that rage will only hurt you. A woman enraged will be perceived as hysterical. Mad. Unfit to make her own decisions. A woman enraged is unattractive, unlikeable, unfeminine. She is transgressive. She is too big. Too selfish. Too entitled. Too much. Who does a women enraged think she is? You raise your fingertips to your head as though searching for an implant, some insidious rage stabilizer plunged between lobes before you were old enough to protest. And like a good-natured orphan from a holiday special, your friend has trained herself to be satisfied with very little. This small portion of rage has done the trick. Like a treat. Treats: things women earn by suffering. By enduring some form of socially acceptable torture. Like starving. Or Pilates. You recall the term push present—a gift from a husband to a wife after she ejects a baby from her body—and your stomach turns. Do men have these complex and deeply personal suffering/reward algorithms baked into their brains? Or are they simply entitled to everything already. Empowered by their rage. * Every night you write on your phone in the dark while Gemini eats or sleeps soundly in your lap. Every day you write on your laptop, standing at the kitchen counter while Gemini sleeps in the carrier. Your lower back will never be the same. Gemini’s face is so squishy you could die. But no time for that. Every night you edit the day’s work in bed. Every night Gemini wakes up hungry. Every night you write on your phone in the dark while Gemini eats or sleeps soundly in your lap. Again and again and againandagain andagainandagainandagain. A male writer has never had to do this. It’s not their fault—it’s just a fact. A male writer has never written a book with a strange creature latched to his body 24/7, draining him of milk and energy. You are on track to meet your deadline. * Another friend texts: Have you heard this term “she-cession”? It’s a word used to describe the record number of women pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic. By the demands of sick children and relatives; by the hot mess of online learning; by insidious social messaging that we are the default caregivers; by the weaponized incompetence, whether conscious or not, of men who’ve been tapping us for free labour since the dawn of capitalism; by the wage gap, which leaves us making less money than our male colleagues. You reply with another term you’ve seen popping up: Forced domesticity. This particular friend of yours is suspicious by nature. When Roe v. Wade is overturned the following summer, she is not at all surprised. First they take away our financial independence, now they take away our bodily autonomy. What better time to deliver this blow than now when, what, over a million more of us have become financially enslaved by them? She references The Handmaid’s Tale, as she often does. And you wonder if you’ve been naive. You peer warily at Gemini. At your husband. A fun and reliable and wise father. Spectacularly competent. And so, so supportive. The most supportive. Isn’t he? Isn’t he? You don’t have time for this. * Another friend, a writer and mother who knows very well what you’re up against, texts periodically: just keep swimming! You appreciate it every time. You love her so much. You haven’t seen her in literal years now. You haven’t seen any of your friends. There isn’t a vaccine available for children under five yet, so even though the world is moving forward you’re all still housebound. Buried alive. Texting. Texting. You are somehow on track to meet your deadline. Actually not somehow. You’re meeting it because you have to meet it. Because your threshold for pain is a miracle. Nothing can kill you. You are proud of this. And why shouldn’t you be! * The holidays are a lot of work. You seethe, thinking about how many women will be receiving socks that say “If you’re reading this, bring wine” on the bottoms. Or, god forbid, charm bracelets from Pandora with their kids’ birthstones on them. Because no one really knows their mother. All they know is whether their mother is sassy (socks) or sincere (bracelet). You text a friend about this. She says LOL followed by a sad face. The holidays are also the best. It’s especially snowy this year. A thick layer of sparkling buttercream whipped by the wind each night into something new each morning. The kids notice every detail. They bang on the frosty windows for you to look too. Despite being busy beyond all reason, you somehow carve out time to rewatch While You Were Sleeping. You are mildly amused to learn that the man who directed it, one Jon Turteltaub, went on to direct Phenomenon the following year. Despite finding it only mildly amusing, you suspect you will never forget this fact for as long as you live. Turteltaub. Probably a perfectly nice man. Turteltaub. He’s directed plenty since Phenomenon. He directed National Treasure, Instinct, The Meg. Meanwhile Elaine May, a bona fide fucking genius, directs one flop and can never direct again. Plus Ishtar wasn’t even that bad. You’d watch Ishtar any day of the week over Phenomenon for god’s sake. Instinct? Please. National Treasure’s not bad. Didn’t see The Meg. You text the only friend who will care about this. She says: Mikey and Nicky was a commercial flop too, in fairness. You say: Seems like things have already been plenty fair for old Turteltaub. You are, of course, on track to meet your deadline. * You submit the second book. There must have been a treat but you can’t remember what it was. Gemini is a year old. This past year you wrote a book, but also you finally gave yourself permission to be as frivolous with stickers as the kids are. It felt incredible. It feels incredible. The effect on your mood, your life, has been unexpectedly profound. The three of you made pinwheels and you’ll never, ever forget the looks on their faces that such frantic geometry had once been paper. In the wagon, when their little bodies react to the cracks in the sidewalk you must restrain yourself from dislocating your jaw and devouring them both in one bite. They are just so good. You really are so very, very, very, very lucky. * You’re asked to create publicity content: essays, interviews, short videos. You’ve had requests to see your workspace, to reveal your writing rituals. Ha! You’ll be touring the book in the UK soon. You’re visited once again and as always by guilt. Your husband is consistently dumbfounded by this reaction. It’s work, he says logically. You don’t have a choice. I get missing them, but you shouldn’t feel bad. You talk to a friend, another mom, who has had to travel a lot for work, and this friend, paradoxically, expresses guilt about the fact that she feels no guilt at all. Without warning an ugly spark of judgment flickers in your mind. YoU dOn’T fEeL gUiLt? ArE yOu EvEn A mOtHeR? Quickly you trap the vile spark between your palms, bring your eye to the natural peephole formed by the bangin’ curves of your thumbs. This spark, this thought, it is not native to your psyche. Another implant. Like when you’d talked your software engineer friend out of her rage. Part of your programming to maintain the status quo, to keep other women from the freeing power of their rage. When you’re in the UK you think about this miraculously guilt-free friend. You drink to her. You try to channel her. And it works. * You’re scheduled for a lot of interviews. All of the interviewers are very good. Very conscientious. They know not to ask you about your children. Until male creatives or entrepreneurs or CEOs are asked the question of how they juggle work and family, female creatives and entrepreneurs and CEOs shouldn’t be asked either. To ask is to normalize the assumption that women are primary caregivers. And yet somehow, even though the interviewers have stopped asking, the problem persists! Your suspicious friend would ask who it serves, really, to avoid the question of how working mothers do it all. Who benefits from keeping these details hidden? Buried in the text threads of you and your friends. Moms and their friends. So many secret catalogues of rage, but not rage. Not exactly. More like rage testing. Should this enrage me? Can I feel rage about this? I’m really very lucky. I know I’m very lucky. I’m so lucky I don’t even really know how lucky I am. You are lucky and you are full of rage. You should use this platform to tell the world about The Rage. But also, and mostly, you are petty. And tired. All you really want anyone to know is how hard you worked this year.