The Hours That Remain

Keith Barker, the playwright of The Hours That Remain, has taken on a challenging project as he explores the aftermath of a loved one’s disappearance. He has executed it with elements that I would describe as shape-shifting and magical realism. (I’ll not say more because this play is essentially a mystery wrapped inside a series of mysteries.)

The play spans a five-year period during which Denise (Cheri Maracle) searches for her sister Michelle (Cherish Violet Blood) while Denise’s husband, Daniel (Ryan Cunningham), waits for her to return home after her searching escapades. Michelle had disappeared after her shift as a waitress near British Columbia’s infamous Highway 16, and Denise is ‘haunted’ by regular sightings of her sister. The situation becomes more curious when we learn that Denise’s husband cannot see Michelle. As the sightings increase, the marital frustration mounts; the ending is as close to heart-breaking as I can imagine.

Much happens on this small set. Ostensibly, it’s the interior of a home, but with the sound and lighting effects, the actors are frequently placed at the side of a highway.

There have been only a few plays in my theatre-going years when I’ve been compelled to purchase the script. This play was one of them. I appreciated how Mary Francis Moore envisioned Barker’s words on the page to honour the missing and the murdered. The Hours That Remain shines a light into the dark corners of news coverage, police investigations and our justice system. I will be curious to see how the next director stages it.

The Hours That Remain is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until May 7th, 2022.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of the novel Autumn’s Grace, a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.

©2022, Bonnie L. Lendrum.

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl The Cowboy

Through the years, there are books I have wanted to reread but haven’t yet. However, two new launches this spring, Constant Nobody and Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, made me snap to attention. These were books to be reread immediately. They’re both historical fiction, and each one had me sitting bolt upright in bed.

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl The Cowboy, by Gary Barwin, could be the whimsical tale of a middle-aged wanna-be-cowboy who has lost his testicles, but it’s not. And while there is more than a dash of caprice to the story, the backdrop is horror exercised over decades.

Motl, our gunslinging hero who has spent more time with his nose in Westerns than in paid livelihood, finds his métier when the Nazis invade his Lithuanian village. He leaves town with his ‘hoss’ hitched to a wagon and his mother sitting by his side. In time, he loses both, but he gains Esther. She too has lost her family to the Nazis. Their escape becomes a quest to find his testicles, leave Europe and begin a family.  

Between hair-raising adventures and near encounters with gun-toting, sharp-shooting Nazis, Barwin’s use of humour evoked spontaneous laughter from this reader. Shock and guilt followed because what can be funny about Nazis hunting and slaughtering Jews? The humour, however, is like a trail of crumbs. It leads the reader through a landscape fraught with uncertainty and danger, and it offers hope.

The title, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, is apt. It’s the feeling I’ve had touring the German countryside, strolling Buenos Aires’ Avenida de Mayo, and standing on the plaza at Tiananmen Square.  The ghosts remain. Their stories need to be told.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Constant Nobody – A Tale of Espionage and Love

There are books in my library that I have reread several times since their first publication. Among them are Timothy Findleys’s Famous Last Words and Pilgrim, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,  Alistair Macleod’s And Birds Call Forth The Sun and The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Carol Shields’ Unless. But until Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody, I have never reread the same book within a month. It was even better the second time around.

Constant Nobody transports the reader to Moscow, Russia, in 1937. It is an immersive sensory experience. There were moments when it felt like I was in the front row of an intimate theatrical performance. I’d catch a whiff of perfume, feel my heart race as characters were awakened by knocks on doors, shiver when the shower water in a Moscow apartment switched from lukewarm to ice-cold, or breathe a sigh of relief after an injection of morphine dulled intractable pain. 

Constant Nobody is a love story caught up in the espionage intrigue of Moscow, 1937. And as I write that sentence, I fear it trivializes Constant Nobody to historical romantic fiction which it most certainly is not. However, it is historical fiction that deftly depicts another time and place by attention to detail. And Constant Nobody is a love story that captures the depth of feeling between men, physician and patient, a man and a woman.  But Constant Nobody is also an exploration of humanity. Throughout this novel, there’s an underlying question: How does one navigate a life that seems destined by chance? The answer might be “by free will and twice as much by compulsion.”

Constant Nobody, like Butler Hallett’s earlier novel This Marlowe left me in respectful awe of this formidable Canadian author.  

Fine Books for a Plague Year

Like many of you, I’ve spent hours with my nose in a book during these plague months; witness the picture. Sadly, I did not keep notes as I read. I just stacked the books in order of reading with the intent to make comment later. Not quite good enough, methinks. Hence, as one moves down the page, the comments become rather sparse. A disclaimer here—four books, Happily Ever Older, Tamarind Sky, WhyBirds Sing, and Afterlife Crisis came to me as ARCs from their respective publishers. Two of these were e-books (Tamarind Sky, and Happily Ever Older) and because of that they are not captured in the photo.

When Luciana Ricciutelli asked me to blurb Thelma Wheatley’s latest book, Tamarind Sky, I was honored. I became a fan of Thelma’s writing with her book And Neither Have I Wings To Fly. Tamarind Sky is a master class in the social history of forgotten yet recent times. In a tale that centres on family love and the immigrant experience, Wheatley has skillfully captured the searing ugliness of racism in Ontario (1967-1989) and Ceylon (1947-1956). Her portrayals of time and place on each continent are riveting. Tamarind Sky is a compelling read about colonialism, its aftermath, and the human spirit’s will to survive and overcome. (Note the book mark on which my blurb is quoted. Some of you may recall, that I only believed I was a ‘real’ author, when I had my book Autumn’s Grace AND the book mark in hand. I confessed that level of neediness to my editor, Luciana, at the Toronto launch, and she laughed. Luciana died this past December; Thelma’s bookmark feels like it was a departing gift—delivered with a wink.)

Happily Ever Older is essential reading for anyone who hopes to grow old and to do so with dignity. Instead of seniors’ housing that resembles warehouses for storage, think greenhouses for growth. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that Moira Welsh depicts through innovative housing models that have launched across North America and in the Netherlands.  Each of them defeats the three plagues of old age: loneliness, boredom, and helplessness. But as a society, we will succumb if we don’t act now. Between 2019 and 2050, the cost of long term care housing will triple. To combat that future, we need healthier models and better government policies with a laser focus: supporting seniors’ independence. Only then might we live happily ever older. (Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. )

Why Birds Sing is a delightful novel that seamlessly blends commentary about opera, architecture, avian husbandry, health care, and whistling. It’s an unlikely tale of friendship, hope, and love that begins when a flamed-out opera singer, her ailing brother-in-law, and his African Gray parrot meet up with a clutch of siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. I enjoyed it.

Afterlife Crisis by Randal Graham is a madcap and frenetic romp through an everchanging fantasy of future Detroit. Our guide for this adventure is Rhinnick Feynman, a character who maintains his equilibrium through a series of misadventures. He has been gifted with remembering how things once were while everyone around him is subject to forgetting. His quest is to determine why this is so.

It’s not often that a book makes me laugh aloud, but this one did, many times. I imagined Feynman navigating his strange world with a GoPro strapped to his forehead while a chip embedded in his brain recorded his thought processes. And with that chip, he gives us access to the literature, science, mythology, and history that underpins his world view. Feynman sprinkles clichés as liberally as one would salt potatoes and uses arcane words to entertaining effect.  And his parallels are—unparalleled. Here’s a sample of the ones that made me snort with surprise and delight: “sensory gumbo,” the pace of “a unionized snail,” and “a pack of wild piranha meeting up with an unsuspecting knot of bathers.” Afterlife Crisis is unadulterated fun; its author is a master of comedy.

Becoming by Michelle Obama was loaned to me back in the winter of 2020. It sat on my bureau in that category of  ‘not likely to read because it’s a celebrity memoir, but I don’t want to be rude to the loaner, so I’ll return it in six months or so.’ All I can say is that it’s a good thing I held on to it. I began reading it to my eighty-seven-year-old friend who lives in a seniors’ residence. We haven’t been able to visit in-person because of various COVID-19 restrictions, so we began our own private book club in November. Every day we read for an hour over FaceTime. Becoming gave us insights into race, poverty and the US political system that astonished us. Our current selection is The Audacity of Hope. It’s giving us each a deep appreciation of a fine former president.

Nora Ephron’s essays were the books that started my eighty-seven-year-old friend and me on our private book club venture. We laughed a lot. I can identify with Ephron’s neuroses.

Famous Last Words is a book I’ve read five or six times. It always amazes me. Timothy Findley ranks as my all-time favourite Canadian author. (I’ve re-read Pilgrim and Not Wanted on the Voyage at least twice.)

Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson was a delight. Doug worked with authors whose books line my library shelves. As a result I’ll be re-reading Monro, Macleod, and McLennan.

The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro is a book that I missed when it came out in 2006. Reading it felt like visiting with an old friend. Munro writes about a community and way of life that I know well; my mother’s family came from nearby Bruce County.

The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal is extraordinary. This past fall, on a hike with some fellow authors, I described it as luminescent, only to find as I sought the URL that other reviewers had used the same descriptor. We lost Ms. Uppal to cancer in 2018. I learned that sad fact when midway through the book, I went looking for her other works. The knowledge of her death made the remaining chapters all the more poignant.

The Pull Of The Stars by Emma Donoghue immersed me in a make-shift maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. My sleeves were figuratively rolled up prepared to help with deliveries. Her descriptions of Dublin under a pandemic siege made me grateful to have been born decades later.

Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019. It’s a superb book about the web of relationships in women’s lives, and how they come to be shaped through sexuality, community, race and history. I loved the complexity and the minutiae of this book. The Testaments was a co-winner of the 2019 prize. It too is excellent—very different from Girl, Woman, Other. I read it in 2019, so it didn’t qualify for the attached photo.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.  It begins as the protagonist’s body has just been dumped in a rubbish bin just outside Istanbul. And as her brain begins to shut down, she begins to weave the story of her life. It’s a fascinating tale that had me gripped from beginning to end. The Forty Rules of Love is equally imaginative and could not be more different. It’s a tale imbued with Sufi wisdom that spans two cultures, over seven centuries. Both of these books are on my ‘to re-read’ list.  I will happily read any new novel that Shafak produces.

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s true; I hadn’t read Toni Morrison until I read A Mercy. My only excuse is that she was not Canadian. Why then, you might ask, would I have read Shafak, a Turkish-British author? And the simple answer is that 10 minutes and 38 seconds was a gift. But I went looking for Toni Morrison. References to her kept popping up at a seminar I attended in San Miguel last winter. In A Mercy, Morrison has made the tensions of seventeenth-century colonial America —race, religion and class—come to life as she explores the plight of a little black girl sold into the household of an Anglo-Dutch trader.  This book, too, will be on my ‘to re-read’ list.

I have now started on what will become a new stack of books. I’ve just finished The Dutch House and am reading The Jane Austen Society. I’m looking forward to The Glass Hotel, Constant Nobody, and Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted. And my commitment to readers of this blog is that I will take notes as I go along —not wait until months later.

Happy reading while we wait to be vaccinated!

Review: Flush – A Dog’s Life

This week, we basked in the pleasure of our first in-house theatrical production in over a year and a half. The play was Flush, a one-act ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel of the same name. It was an unexpected delight. I hadn’t read production notes, didn’t remember which play I was about to attend, and had forgotten that it had been written by Virginia Woolf. (It has been busy here as we prepare for a backyard wedding.) The writing sparkled, and the tone was light-hearted. Anthropomorphism was largely held in check, but Flush’s observations about the comings and goings of his mistress’ home on London’s Wimpole Street and later in Florence, Italy, allowed for keen observations of class, wealth, privilege, and the plight of women intellectuals.

Flush. Photo by Lauren Garbutt.

Flush’s observations come by way of his olfactory and taste receptors, not a surprise because dogs have over 300 million olfactory receptors compared to human’s six million, and the part of their brains dedicated to scent is proportionally forty times greater than human’s1.. Anyone who has been blessed with a dog will have observed the power of the nose to glean information. To his credit, Flush’s puppeteer brought the dog ‘to life’ as a confidant, observer, protector,  and bon vivant. The play was narrated in Woolf’s ‘voice’ by four actors who also assumed other roles: Julie Lumsden (Elizabeth Barrett Browning),  Drew Plummer (puppeteer), Jonathan Tan (Robert Browning, Barrett’s father) and Jacqueline Thair (the Barrett’s maid). The set within a set created a pantomime-like cloistered experience for the Wimpole Street period. The actors’ faces were hidden from view, and their interactions with Flush were silent. The result was that Flush was front and centre. By contrast, the set for the period in Florence was open and expansive, a metaphor perhaps for the social and intellectual differences between the two countries. Freedom was the operative word for both Flush and his mistress.

Covid-19 has played havoc with theatre for over a year and a half. For our part, my husband and I felt comfortable with the precautions taken by staff. We were well distanced from other attendees, and we all wore masks except when we took sips of wine. My only regret is that the constraints on numbers mean that fewer people will be able to see the festival’s excellent productions this summer and fall.

  1. Dogs’ Dazzling Sense of Smell | NOVA | PBS

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of the novel, Autumn’s Grace, a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.

©2021, Bonnie L. Lendrum.

Trash the Gloves

It’s the uncertainty about this COVID-19 virus that gnaws at my soul. And it’s the ignorance of others that makes me want to snap at anyone who blows their nose and then touches a communal condiment. I want to snarl: Are you trying to kill me and everyone else?

The uncertainty is reducing me to shreds. I’m no longer whole and resilient. Little things are becoming big. Is the bellyache a result of nerves? Or is it from an appendix about to burst? Are the inflamed and itchy spots on my body from a benign mosquito? Or have I been bitten by one of the two species of poisonous spiders in this country? And because the spots have not reduced after forty-eight hours, and have a weeping crusted centre, what are the chances of developing necrotizing fasciitis? A little knowledge can be dangerous in uncertain times. And a trip to the hospital could put me in greater peril than sitting here with my worry.

I’ve moved into vigilante mode on infection control. My husband understands, not because of my relentless reminders over the years, but from an episode of Scrubs. It was one of the best illustrations I have seen of what happens when people do not think through their responsibility to protect others. In this particular episode, whenever a character touched another person or object, without first washing their hands, a glowing green spot was superimposed on the image. The result? A trail of fluorescent green wound its way through hallways, along IV poles, into patient rooms, onto meal trays, and throughout the hospital. People died.

I was reminded of that episode recently when our server came to the table and handed us our menus. What caught my eye was her vinyl gloves, which she wore bunched at each wrist with beaded elastic bracelets. The resulting frill was somewhat fetching, but to this cynical eye, it was a clear message that her gloves were not coming off until the end of her shift. When I asked who was being protected by her gloves, she indicated that she was. I then asked, “What about me?”
She looked surprised. I gestured to the menus and said, “These have germs.”
Once again, she looked surprised.
“Will you wash your hands when you take your gloves off?”
“Of course,” she assured me. “They would be dirty.”
“What will you do to protect me between now and taking your gloves off?”
Her plan, she said, was to wash her gloved hands with soap and water or with antiseptic gel.
Did that happen?
My husband said, “Yes. Once.” He saw her washing her gloved hands as he headed to the bathroom. However, I saw no evidence that she did so as she handled cutlery and folded it into napkins. The experience made my decision for the next few weeks: I will prepare our food; we will dine at home.

Is there an upside to COVID-19? I think so.

I grew up at a time when mothers were insistent on hand-washing before meal preparation, before consumption of food, and after blowing of noses. These same mothers washed and rinsed dishes in hot water, and as part of their weekly housework, they wiped doorknobs with diluted bleach. These women understood “Germ Theory” at a practical level. Their approach to maintain the health of their families was primary prevention: Protect yourself AND protect others.

But, gloves isolate us from the intimacy of touch, and it’s that intimacy that, at a basic level, reminds us to wash our hands. I could understand gloves if the people wearing them had no access to soap or hand sanitizer. But I fear that the motivation at worst is ‘protect myself and to Hell with others.’ When I see anyone going about their business outside a hospital wearing gloves, I do not feel safe.

I’ve thought about health, safety and infectious diseases for decades— ever since my first encounter with a patient who unbeknownst to me had active TB. I was the first responder at her cardiac arrest and administered CPR. As a result, I was on medication for a year, and my awareness of infection control was forever changed. I don’t shake hands at church, and I’ve been known to grab the arm of someone who is about to double-dip. Amongst friends, my cautions have been a running joke; with my sons, I’m an embarrassment.

Two earlier versions of coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, did not result in pandemic management measures. Borders stayed open; schools did not close, and people commuted to their workplaces. I suspect that it was a small pool of the population whose behaviours changed forever: our health care workers, and the families and friends of the people who became ill. But the upside of our global experience with COVID-19 may well change personal behaviour.

Are more of us are now aware of the ‘fluorescent-green’ bio-trail that tracks our movements when we do not wash our hands. I think so.

Do more of us understand that we can spread a virus before we have ourselves developed symptoms? I hope so.

If each of us, to our very core, recognized our civic responsibility to protect ourselves AND to protect others, our bio-trails would become bio-dots. They would stop at the sink. The result would be that we would have protected ourselves AND protected others.

As for COVID-19 and it’s spread, I would say, “Trash the gloves; wash your hands; and Namaste—May the goodness in me greet the goodness in you.”

Let’s take care of ourselves, and each other.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Wash Your Hands—Please!

Coronavirus, and its persistence, has reminded me of a blog post I wrote in 2018. I was frustrated and angry. A magazine that reaches hundreds of thousands of households had arrived in the mail with the advice to wash your hands with soap and water at least five times per day to prevent the spread of infections.

“Five times per day?” I read aloud. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

My husband, in the midst of a winter cold, harrumphed, “Fifty’s more like it!”

Tell a mom with two children under the age of four who has wiped two noses and two bums before she has sipped her first-morning coffee that she should wash her hands five times per day. “That’s ridiculous!” she’ll say. “We’d all be sick all the time!”

Wash your hands at least five times per day? Really? Tell that to the husband of a woman who is immunocompromised. “How irresponsible!” he’ll say. “If I did that, I could kill her!”

Let me suggest then how you can keep your family safe, your friends and workmates safe, and yourself safe.

If you’re preparing food, wash your hands.

About to eat? Wash your hands.

Blown your nose? Wash your hands.

Wiped your bum? Wash your hands.

Wiped someone else’s nose or bum? Wash your hands.

And always wash your hands before you rub your eyes, pick your nose, or bite your fingernails.

Let's give everyone a [clean] hand - from Global Handwashing Day 2020
Global Handwashing Day 2020

For a single, healthy individual who eats three squares a day and who toilets five times per day, that’s eleven handwashings.  If we give this person a winter cold, which necessitates nose-blowing every half-hour, then add thirty handwashings. That brings us to a low estimate of eleven handwashings or six more than the recommended “at least five,” and a high of forty-one, or just nine handwashings shy of my ailing husband’s estimate.  Which just goes to show that any number as a recommendation for hand-washing frequency is meaningless.

Let the situation be your guide. So at the very least…wash your hands BEFORE preparing and eating food; wash your hands AFTER wiping any nose or bum, and wash your hands BEFORE touching anyone’s face.*

And if you still want to talk numbers, then count out twenty seconds the next time you wash your hands. That’s about how long it should take you to hum the Happy Birthday song from beginning to end, TWICE.

* For more indications, see When & How to Wash Your Hands.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

And btw, Bonnie thinks everyday should be Global Handwashing Day.

Hello Again!

This theatre buff cannot help herself: I must comment. I miss the experience of writing about the plays I have seen. The reality is that the revision of this current manuscript requires more creativity than I had expected. I’m trying to develop my ability to show more and tell less. Time is too scarce to write reviews. Having said that, what I’m about to do in the next few paragraphs is to tell you, nay urge you, to take yourself to the theatre. There are some spectacular plays on stage at both Shaw and Stratford this summer.

My absolute favourite is Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell. It’s a marathon performance of Olympian theatrical skill. Gray Powell is onstage throughout the entire performance, and I swear he speaks two-thirds of the lines uttered. When I have the script in hand I will do a count.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a fine piece set in the 1600s. It’s a tale of unrequited love, and it is brilliantly performed with Tom Rooney in the lead role. Kate Hennig of the Stratford trilogy translated and adapted this show.

Mother’s Daughter closes the circle on the story Kate Hennig opened with The Last Wife. While The Virgin Queen addressed the early days of Queen Elizabeth I, Mother’s Daughter answers questions about Mary, the first of the two queens spawned by Henry VIII. It’s well-told; I was engaged.

Even though I have given up on most musicals (Come From Away, Billy Elliott, and The Last Ship being recent exceptions) Brigadoon was lovely. It’s romantic and the music is hummable. I was enchanted with the notion of time travel.

The Ladykillers was frenetic fun with split-second timing.

And finally, anyone who has ever thought their family of origin was dysfunctional will appreciate the complexity of The Glass Menagerie. For some time, I have admired the range and skill of Julia Course and Andre Sills. They each have an extraordinary skill to breathe life and nuance into challenging characters.

Mad Dog – A Review

Mad Dog, by Kelly Watt, is a tale that both captivated and terrified me. The writing is exquisite. Ontario summers, circa 1960, evoke the scent of apple orchards, the itchiness of sand inside a bathing suit, and windblown rides in the back of a Bonneville. Then there’s the experience of tentative first-time explorations of sexual arousal—the curiosity, the thrill, and the fun.

But there is a memory in this book, and it is the memories that unsettle the young protagonist. She can’t place them, yet they feel real. They are thematic and become more layered and more disturbing as summer slips into autumn.

Within the first few pages, this reader’s sense of foreboding was on full alert. I wanted to scoop up the protagonist and take her out of harm’s way. But then I too was lulled by the heat, the nuzzling of bees in blossoms and the sense of being safe in Canada while radio news relayed civil unrest and police brutality in the USA. 

In closing, I will say this: the canine in this story is not the mad dog. And when you read this book, do so with the lights on.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope, humour, and knowledge, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.