How We May Grow Even After Losing a Part of Ourselves

Naked Imperfection was my #FridayReads last weekend, and it gripped me straight through until early this week. Gill Deacon is the host of CBC Radio’s daily afternoon show from Toronto, Here and Now, with a voice that’s good company on the air, and in print. Prior to her broadcasting career, she was an environmental journalist and consumer health advocate. She lived consciously and consumed carefully, avoiding products that could harm her, her family, and her fellow denizens of the earth. She wrote an earlier book called There’s Lead in Your Lipstick. This made her all the more ill-prepared when she received a chilling diagnosis of breast cancer. She propels her narrative forward rapidly, in modified stream-of-consciousness style, with many of her paragraphs built of staccato sentences, like this one, after she’s had a mastectomy: “Tonight, as Grant and I move between the sheets in the blue-grey, pixelated, late-night bedroom light, I look down at my chest. A single orb of flesh presses up against my husband’s chest, its twin felled—an abandoned goddess, carrying on alone. Beside it, the graveyard of ribs. I am snatched by the escapist pleasure of my husband’s touch by the reminder of what had happened. Mourning the imperfect body I once had. I wish I still had two breasts. Sometimes the sadness surfaces like a beluga gasping for air. How can I be grateful for being misshapen.” The closing chapters were so well-crafted, I slowed my reading, lest I finish the book too quickly. I kept paging back to re-read passages I’d just read, so apt were they about living a full life, if an imperfect one. After writing candidly about the prosthetic breast she got after her surgery, Deacon ends her book, some years in to the slow-motion crisis, with good news from her doctor, who “used the words cancer and gone in the same sentence. ‘Go out and live your life,’ she said with a smile. ‘You’re always going to have more doctor’s appointments than most of your friends, and technically it takes more than five years before the odds of you getting cancer drop down to match the general population, but for all intents and purposes your cancer is gone. Get back to whatever you were doing before this disease rang your bell.'”

Much of my recent reading and other cultural consumption has featured people who through accident or illness have endured the loss of parts of themselves, like Miles O’Brien, whom I tweeted about above. To his credit, he not only wrote in New York magazine about the frightening accident—when on a reporting trip to the Philippines last February he suffered an accident that led to the amputation of his left arm—he also reports on the neurological sources of phantom pain, and the design and engineering of high-tech prosthetics, a field that’s burgeoning due in part due to the return home of many wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of miniature electronics.(Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine)

Relatedly, I later listened to a gripping episode of a new CBC radio series called Live Through This. It featured an account of Paul Templer, a wilderness guide in Zimbabwe who survived an attack by an aggressive hippo that nearly killed him, though he lost an arm in the melee, during which he was for some time in the gaping mouth of the animal. Templer healed and was fitted with a prosthetic arm. He later guided another trip down the Zambezi River, to raise money that will help victims of land mine explosions receive prosthetic devices of their own.

These incidents reminded me of what my longtime author Lt General Roméo Dallaire told me in 2006, when he was in New York City, promoting Carroll & Graf’s edition of his Canadian bestseller, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Reflecting on the PTSD he’s suffered with since, as commander of the under-manned UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda in 1993, he endured the searing experience of trying to prevent the genocide, he told me: “When I slip into depression, the medicines and therapy act like a prosthetic and keep me from falling.”

It occurs to me that in some ways human evolution is a long-running narrative of the development of various kinds of prostheses, from the first crutch to aid a hobbled walker, to the development of finely ground lenses for eyeglasses, the fitting of dental plates (the latter two are prostheses that I use every day), limbs, and other miscellaneous body parts. Even the wheel can be seen in this light as an aid to our daily work, and the club or hammer. Whether affixed and integral to our body; an extension of our hand or arm; or wholly apart from our person, it it fair to say that tools = prosthetics, and vice versa.

These were among the reflections stirred up in me while reading Gill Deacon’s astonishingly fine memoir, a superb first person narrative. I recommend it if you want to read a candid memoir, and if you, or a friend or relative, has been ill. There’s lots of hope and bright humor in this honest book.

 

N.B. Gill Deacon’s book is the second terrific memoir I’ve read by a female Canadian writer in the past few months, the earlier one having been Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue, which I made a #FridayReads last March 14 and wrote about again on March 21, after I’d finished it.

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#FridayReads, March 14–Jan Wong’s Memoir of Depression, “Out of the Blue”

Out of the Blue


Triggered by a death threat targeting her for a story she wrote, Wong–a career reporter–does a superb job investigating and striving to understand her own illness.

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#elexn42 #ToPoli 60 MInutes 1993 2015 elections 2015 Federal Election 2016 presidential election @CBCRadio3 Abraham Lincoln Acadia Adolf Hitler Agent Orange Alice Munro Amanda Lang Amelia Curran Amity Beach Amtrak Anderson Varajao Antonine Maillet architecture Arctic Ocean Arkells AUX TV Ben Caplan Beverley Slopen book-to-film adaptations Born Ruffians Boyhood Brain Cloud branding exercises Brandon Downing bullying Cabot Trail Calvin Reid Canada Canadiana Canadian authors Canadian bands in NYC Canadian Blast Canadian elections Canadian indie music canadian indie rock Canadian indie rock n' roll canadian politics Canadian rock n' roll Canadians abroad Canadian vacations cancer CANlit CANRock Cape Breton CBC CBC Books CBC Music CBC Radio CBC Radio 3 CBC Sunday Edition CBS Chicago Cleveland CMJ CMJ Music Marathon CN Tower coffee Cold War Colm Toibin comedy Communion Music Corb Lund corruption covert agents cowboy culture Crime Writers of Canada cross-cultural writing Daniel Canty Dave Bidini Dave Van Ronk David Margolick Del Barber depression dialect Doug Ford drunk driving editorial services Edward Keenan Edward Robb Ellis Elizabeth May Elliott Brood Ethan Hawke Ewan Turner fair housing Farley Mowat Fence Books flickr folk music Franconia College Frazey Ford French FridayReads Gaspé Peninsula George Elliott Clarke George Washington Bridge Gill Deacon global climate change Grant Lawrence Greenwich Village Harlan Pepper Henry Tandey Hidden Pony HIGHS hockey Hollerado Honourary Canadian Howard Engel humor Ian Tyson indie music In Flight Safety Ireland Irish music Israel Jan Wong Jian Ghomeshi Jill Barber Joe's Pub journalism Justin Trudeau Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Kevin Donovan Keystone XL Lee's Palace Lee Harvey Osmond Lee Lorch Leonard Cohen life after corporate publishing Linda Ronstadt Lisa LeBlanc Little Red Lighthouse Little Rock Nine live music Lo-Fantasy lower east side Lt. General Roméo Dallaire Marc Maron marijuana laws Matt Andersen Matt Mays Mayor Bill de Blasio Mayor Rob Ford McGarrigle Sisters Megan Bonnell Mellow Pages Memoirs mental health treatment Mercury Lounge methane M for Montreal Michael Barclay Michael Enright Michael Ruby Miles O'Brien Mo Kenney Monomyth music festivals music marketing National Film Board of Canada Neil Young Neil Young. Third Man Records Nevado Records Newfoundland New York City New York music venues Noah Nobel Prize NXNE Olympics Ontario Ottawa Jazz Festival Paperbag Records Parks Canada Percé Rock Peter Warner photojournalism podcasting poetry political mindsets President Obama prosthetics PS I Love You PTSD PublishersMarketplace.com Publishers Weekly Pumpkin Pie Q Quebec racial bias Rah Rah Random House Canada road trips Robert Henry Adams Robertson Davies Rob Ford Rockwood Music Hall Rolling Stone Rural Alberta Advantage Ruth Gruber Sadies Said the Whale Sam Roberts Band SaskMusic SaskMusic.org satire Scott Young sex education Shawn William Clark Shore Fire Media short stories Siberia sister cities spy novels Stephen Harper Stephen Marche St Louis Stompin' Tom Connors Strombo Show Strumbellas suicide prevention summer vacation 2014 Swiss Water Syrian refugees Talonbooks Thanksgiving The Ballad of Crowfoot The Deep Dark Woods The Great Gray Bridge. TheGreatGrayBridge.com The Orchard The Revenant The Strumbellas This is That Toronto Toronto Book Awards Toronto mayoral election Toronto Star Torquil Campbell traditional music Turnip King Ugly Duckling Presse Undercover Books upper Manhattan Vancouver Vietnam W.B. Belcher war memorials Wigrum Wilderness of Manitoba WWI

#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s Novel “All the Broken Things”

Monday Feb 10 Update: Wow, I loved All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s exquisite novel. Such a rich story of an orphaned boy, his sister, and the carny world of bears and barkers that both assaults them and supports them. They weather all that is arrayed against them. I give this extraordinary novel my highest personal recommendation.

All the Broken Things
#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s novel All the Broken Things. This is an amazing and compelling novel set in Toronto in the early 1980s, about a Vietnamese immigrant family of three, former boat people–mother Rose, teenage son Bo, 4-year old daughter Orange Blossom, known as Orange, who was born with profound birth defects owing to Rose’s exposure to the Agent Orange that the US used to defoliate the countryside during the war. The killing chemical was manufactured in Ontario, a factual point that Kuitenbrouwer makes in an Author’s Note. I’ve found the writing in this so good, the sheer sentence-making and storytelling, that though I had read terrific reviews of the novel, prompting me to to order a copy, when it arrived I was expecting to only glance at the opening page and then put it aside until a moment when I thought I would have more time for it. Suffice to say, I didn’t put it aside at all, and now a day later, I’m on page 134. The book is commanding my attention, drawing me in, like the wrestling bear does Bo, the teenage boy of the tale, who willingly folds himself into the animal’s embrace.

Bo is the is fulcrum of the tale. He, far better than Rose, is able to handle Orange and comfort her. But he’s having a very hard time in middle school, picked on by a kid who yells ethnic slurs at him and wants to fight. Bo obliges this kid, and acquits himself well in their after-school battles. One of these scrums is observed by a carnival promoter who thinks Bo may be able to help out in his sideshow that features a bear, Loralei, who is trained to wrestle people. The Author’s Note also make the point that bear wrestling was at one time legal in Ontario, even common on the carny circuit. Just as Bo has an uncommonly intuitive way with his sister, he also has a gift with bears. Kuitenbrouwer’s descriptions of the tactile and empathic relationship between boy and bear could be outlandish, but instead are wholly believable. This is the book’s first paragraph:

“1984, BEAR
Look at the bear licking Bo’s toes up through the metal slats on the back porch. Bo is fourteen years old, and the bear not a year. The bear is named Bear. When the boy spreads his toes as wide as he can, Bear’s mottled tongue nudges in between them and this tickles. Bear craves the vanilla soft ice cream that drips down Bo’s cone and onto his feet. Bo imagines it must be glorious for Bear to huddle under the porch–her favourite spot–and lap and lick up the sweet cold treat. He imagines himself tucked in down there pretending to be a bear, and then how wonderful it might be, after a day alone, to have someone drip vanilla ice cream right into this mouth.” 

From Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business to Ellen Hunnicutt’s Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, a book I edited and published, to W.C. Fields’ 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,” I have long had an affinity for carny stories, and All the Broken Things belongs in that good company. I want to know what happens next for Bo and his fragile family, and will be spending much of the next few days finding out. Writer Jonathan Bennet has also discovered the charms of this book, in a great appreciation here
[Cross-posted on my blog The Great Gray Bridge]
All the Broken Things

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#elexn42 #ToPoli 60 MInutes 1993 2015 elections 2015 Federal Election 2016 presidential election @CBCRadio3 Abraham Lincoln Acadia Adolf Hitler Agent Orange Alice Munro Amanda Lang Amelia Curran Amity Beach Amtrak Anderson Varajao Antonine Maillet architecture Arctic Ocean Arkells AUX TV Ben Caplan Beverley Slopen book-to-film adaptations Born Ruffians Boyhood Brain Cloud branding exercises Brandon Downing bullying Cabot Trail Calvin Reid Canada Canadiana Canadian authors Canadian bands in NYC Canadian Blast Canadian elections Canadian indie music canadian indie rock Canadian indie rock n' roll canadian politics Canadian rock n' roll Canadians abroad Canadian vacations cancer CANlit CANRock Cape Breton CBC CBC Books CBC Music CBC Radio CBC Radio 3 CBC Sunday Edition CBS Chicago Cleveland CMJ CMJ Music Marathon CN Tower coffee Cold War Colm Toibin comedy Communion Music Corb Lund corruption covert agents cowboy culture Crime Writers of Canada cross-cultural writing Daniel Canty Dave Bidini Dave Van Ronk David Margolick Del Barber depression dialect Doug Ford drunk driving editorial services Edward Keenan Edward Robb Ellis Elizabeth May Elliott Brood Ethan Hawke Ewan Turner fair housing Farley Mowat Fence Books flickr folk music Franconia College Frazey Ford French FridayReads Gaspé Peninsula George Elliott Clarke George Washington Bridge Gill Deacon global climate change Grant Lawrence Greenwich Village Harlan Pepper Henry Tandey Hidden Pony HIGHS hockey Hollerado Honourary Canadian Howard Engel humor Ian Tyson indie music In Flight Safety Ireland Irish music Israel Jan Wong Jian Ghomeshi Jill Barber Joe's Pub journalism Justin Trudeau Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Kevin Donovan Keystone XL Lee's Palace Lee Harvey Osmond Lee Lorch Leonard Cohen life after corporate publishing Linda Ronstadt Lisa LeBlanc Little Red Lighthouse Little Rock Nine live music Lo-Fantasy lower east side Lt. General Roméo Dallaire Marc Maron marijuana laws Matt Andersen Matt Mays Mayor Bill de Blasio Mayor Rob Ford McGarrigle Sisters Megan Bonnell Mellow Pages Memoirs mental health treatment Mercury Lounge methane M for Montreal Michael Barclay Michael Enright Michael Ruby Miles O'Brien Mo Kenney Monomyth music festivals music marketing National Film Board of Canada Neil Young Neil Young. Third Man Records Nevado Records Newfoundland New York City New York music venues Noah Nobel Prize NXNE Olympics Ontario Ottawa Jazz Festival Paperbag Records Parks Canada Percé Rock Peter Warner photojournalism podcasting poetry political mindsets President Obama prosthetics PS I Love You PTSD PublishersMarketplace.com Publishers Weekly Pumpkin Pie Q Quebec racial bias Rah Rah Random House Canada road trips Robert Henry Adams Robertson Davies Rob Ford Rockwood Music Hall Rolling Stone Rural Alberta Advantage Ruth Gruber Sadies Said the Whale Sam Roberts Band SaskMusic SaskMusic.org satire Scott Young sex education Shawn William Clark Shore Fire Media short stories Siberia sister cities spy novels Stephen Harper Stephen Marche St Louis Stompin' Tom Connors Strombo Show Strumbellas suicide prevention summer vacation 2014 Swiss Water Syrian refugees Talonbooks Thanksgiving The Ballad of Crowfoot The Deep Dark Woods The Great Gray Bridge. TheGreatGrayBridge.com The Orchard The Revenant The Strumbellas This is That Toronto Toronto Book Awards Toronto mayoral election Toronto Star Torquil Campbell traditional music Turnip King Ugly Duckling Presse Undercover Books upper Manhattan Vancouver Vietnam W.B. Belcher war memorials Wigrum Wilderness of Manitoba WWI