Marking Time

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

These three books fall into the category of life writing and remarkably share a focus on time experienced and felt through the lives of the authors: Kenneth Sherman’s moving and poetic, yet gritty Wait Time takes the reader through the writer’s experience of cancer from diagnosis through treatment; Myrl Coulter’s A Year of Days tracks occasions and holidays as they recur through the years, but intriguingly draws the focus away from conventional celebrations to the subtler and yet more significant elements of the seasons; Shelley A. Leedahl’s I Wasn’t Always Like This shares snapshots of the writer’s life through seemingly disconnected and non-sequential journeys and choices while drawing attention to the absurdity of the statement in the title. All three books are magnificently evocative, drawing us into regional and national commonalities, whether frustrations of the health-care system, urban and rural lives, or associations with nature across the country.

Wait Time is perhaps the most explicitly theoretical and dense—though the shortest—of these three life studies. Sherman, a published poet and scholar, draws on his familiarity with Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), and many other reflections on the literature and language of disease; he revisits the writing of Frost, Keats, Yeats, and Woolf, and even passages of Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible, as he self-consciously constructs his narrative. He skilfully weaves these more distanced reflections with his own lived experience, teasing out, for example, the irony of his family doctor’s comment—“I can feel your spleen . . . I shouldn’t be able to feel your spleen”—which was followed by his decision to buy groceries after the appointment; he created a mental list of all the reasons why he couldn’t possibly be ill. His sometimes-fragmented pieces of poetry punctuate the book as much as encounters with physicians, receptionists, family members, and his remarkably resilient life partner.

Moreover, for the reader, Sherman’s frustrating and painful, yet surprisingly encouraging, negotiations of Canada’s health-care system resonate with bitter truth; the “Kafkaesque hospital bureaucracy,” an apathetic surgeon referred to only as “Dr. X,” and the mysterious “Tumour Board” are balanced by the personal care of his family physician, personnel at Mayo, and his relatives. As Sherman has stated in an interview with Jennifer Hunter, physicians have difficulty stepping out of the perception of the human as a material body, so that “you can fix it or you can’t” and death is often viewed as failure. He notes that “I never felt I was battling cancer as much as I felt I was battling the medical system”—with its special treatment reserved for the famous and connected. The redemptive element is Wait Time‘s focus on poetry and language: “[P]oetry is a kind of antithesis of cancer. Poetry is such a life-affirming activity.” In the end, Sherman’s book—with its mix of theoretical, distanced reflection, personal glimpses of his family, narrative of treatment and surgery in which he uses second-person pronouns, and the beauty of poetic language—is uplifting on so many levels.

Coulter’s A Year of Days is similarly life-affirming, even while its occasion is the death of the author’s mother after a lengthy illness. Her emphasis is on intensified attention to recurring yet distinct moments, from the counting of “Twenty-Eight Magnificent Mexican Sunsets” (winter vacations), through “Pesky Natal Days” (birthdays), “Death by Dementia” (Canadian winter), and the equally quirky reflections on parental days, Easter (spring), and Thanksgiving (fall). The evocative “Lakes I Have Known” is a celebration of the senses and emotions associated with water through various regions; in effect, it is a celebration of Canada from an intensely personal and yet shared perspective on years, significant days, and experiences of significance. The days are predictable—Christmas is always coming—and yet the visceral nature of these experiences through the years is somehow more transient and more powerful.

It is Leedahl’s perceptive and self-effacing sense of humour that resounds through I Wasn’t Always Like This, a foray into the genre of life writing after what she describes in a blog as a “quiet but prolific career.” Her experience of the Canadian writer’s life reaches out to a larger literary community—“We try and we try. It’s exhausting,” she states. The book is itself a stitching of journeys across Canada and internationally and family relationships as they unravel and resolve in new patterns; the places—whether coastal (East or West) or prairie, small town, rural, or urban—establish a fascinating backdrop for her recollections, admissions, confessions, and yearnings. In one section focusing on her dabbling in online dating, she provides a quirky and endearing list of her self-identified characteristics. In another, she reflects on an exchange in Mexico, and here—as in most sections—her contemplations on personality, place, and experience are candid and engaging. The arrangement of sections sometimes seems arbitrary, so that this book, like Coulter’s, can be picked up and set down without a loss of continuity; the teasing out of the expression “I wasn’t always like this” brings the concepts of time and stability into question. More disjointed to the reader are the selections of fictional writing that mark various sections of the book. Sections such as “Plenty of Fish” and “San Francisco: Photos Not Taken”—ingenious experimentations with narrative and intertextuality—show Leedahl at her best.

All three of these books are brief, “quiet” (Leedahl’s word), and powerful examples of Canadian life writing; when savoured they provide wisdom, intellectual engagement, and waves of intangible spirit. They are compelling appeals to a shared and yet intensely personal humanity.

This review “Marking Time” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 138-140.

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