Peonies

This morning as I was sipping my tea and typing away on my laptop at the kitchen table, my Mom walked in and we took a break to enjoy the garden. I inhaled the gorgeous scent of our beautiful bright pink peony that had just bloomed. I wish there was a poem that could describe this scent – more intense than a rose, sweeter than the best perfume, and more potent than the sultriest bottle of wine. I searched for a poem that would capture my sentiment and found one, by one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, as well as these pictures of the peonies (bloomed, in bloom, and soon to be bloomed) in my garden.

Peonies

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

— Mary Oliver

Books I Read and Loved in 2017

Here are the Top 10 books I read and loved in 2017! It was a wonderful year for reading, with lots of memorable stories, twists and turns, and inspiring prose.

1. The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin – I initially chose this book for my Toronto book club, long before it became a bestseller. I was intrigued after reading the first few pages at Chapters; at the time I thought that it was some type of dramatic romance novel. When I eventually got further into it, I was amazed to discover that it was actually about reincarnation and past lives. The three main characters, Janie, her son Noah, and psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Anderson are on a journey to uncover what is haunting young Noah, and to help prove the truth about reincarnation. The story is a page-turner, and makes you think about your own beliefs and encounters with the paranormal. I read this book mostly on my phone, nestled in my bed late at night.

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – This startling memoir describes a man’s end of life journey with terminal lung cancer. I first read an excerpt from Paul’s book in a famous article, which included a poignant letter to his daughter. My friends got me this book as part of a care package before I moved to Ottawa. Reading about Paul’s gruelling days while his body was wracked with pain is astounding – I have no idea how he did it, other than that he was so immersed in his work that he literally forgot himself. Kalinithi writes: Every morning at 5:30, as the alarm clock goes off, and my dead body awakes, my wife asleep next to me, I think again to myself: ‘I can’t go on.’ And a minute later, I am in my scrubs, heading to the operating room, alive: ‘I’ll go on.’ I read this book mostly on my phone, while travelling with my Mom to a wedding in Boston. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time.

3. The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami  This is a really beautiful book. It’s written as if the author is an artist painting a beautiful landscape. It’s about a man named Sripathi Rao, who undergoes a huge life shift when he discovers that his eldest daughter has been killed in a car accident, and him and his wife must care for their granddaughter Nandana, who arrives from Vancouver to Sripathi’s home in Toturpram, India, shy and scared. The characters in this book are memorable – Sripathi himself, his cantankerous mother, his loyal yet fed-up wife, and his son, who is a source of disappointment in his life. I first heard of this book when I attended the taping of Canada Reads at the CBC studios in Toronto, and watched in awe as actor Vinay Virmani defended it (it ended up losing out to Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal).

4. A Space Between by Ranjita Ghosh  Oh my ghosh this book was good. Haha, see what I did there. It’s not every day that you get a read a book written by a friend. This amazing book is a tale of romance, conflict, and the impacts of breaking societal norms, with a shocking twist. Daniel falls for Aahna, an Indian girl who works as a cleaner at his company in India. They fall in love but it is forbidden by society and their families. I read this book mostly at the kitchen table at home in Kanata, while having tea or eating breakfast. Being rebellious by nature myself, I found myself getting irritated every time that Daniel and Aahna ‘couldn’t’ do something because it was forbidden, and also very impressed by their courage to risk everything for true love. The twist made my jaw drop, and added to the depth of the story – it’s at this point that the story became a real page-turner for me; I couldn’t wait to find out how it ended! I was inspired not only by the story itself, but also how Ranjita found the time to write it, given her busy schedule! Definitely a sign that anything is possible.

5. The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh – This is a book for all of us math geeks and nerds, especially those that are fans of the Simpsons. Did you know that all the writers on the Simpsons are mathematical geniuses? Many of them chose a career of comedy writing over a path of academia. It’s because of this you will find hidden references to mathematics throughout episodes of the Simpsons, from Bart’s calculus equation in his first class at a private school, to Maggie’s blocks spelling out E = mc². I learned so many cool math tidbits in this book, many of which I shared with my students. The author, Simon Singh, manages to take us on an intriguing mathematical journey, with humour, insight, and creativity. You definitely don’t need to be a math whiz to enjoy this book.

6. The Buddha in Brooklyn by Martha Sherrill  I discovered this book in the Religion section of the Toronto Reference Library (a place that brings me great peace). I sunk into it immediately. It’s written as part journalism and part biography. Martha Sherrill follows the unlikely path of Jetsunma, a Jewish-Italian woman from Brooklyn who becomes a Bodhisattva after a high-ranking lama sees divinity and great leadership potential in her. In what begins as a journey to document the building of a stupa, Martha discovers shocking secrets about Jetsunma and how she treats those that believe in her. This book is well-written, informative, and provides an in-depth portrait of a complex person who in desperately seeking perfection, which paradoxically heightens her flaws.

7. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh  I read this book for my Ottawa book club. It is written by Clare Mackintosh, a former police officer who was greatly moved by a case in England where a child was killed in a hit-and-run accident. She used that incident as a basis for this fictional novel. The main character, Jenna Gray, is harbouring an awful secret, and hopes to rebuild her life anew in another town. Yet the memories of the accident cannot stop playing through her mind. I want to fix an image of him in my head, but all I can see when I close my eyes is his body, still and lifeless in my arms. I let him go, and I will never forgive myself for that”. Meanwhile, two police officers are investigating the case, and will stop at nothing to uncover the person responsible. The book touches on themes of mystery, betrayal, domestic abuse, and the quest to uncover the truth. Highly recommended.

8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce  It’s a good thing I don’t list these books in order because this one might’ve been my favourite. Harold Fry is on a journey to save his friend Queenie, and he is going to do it by walking from his home in Queensbridge to her hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I read this in the summertime, mostly at home and outside near the Beaver Pond. One afternoon, I sat on a bench at a park and a man walking his dog saw me reading and said “that’s something I always want to do but I never get a chance to. Enjoy.” Another lady smiled and said “Good for you”. So friendly and nice!! Harold’s journey starts out as a one-man show, but eventually it becomes much larger than he anticipated. It is up to him to remember why he started and not get carried away by all the fanfare. One of the best parts of this book is Harold’s relationship with his wife, and how they both discover how much they mean to one another.

9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh  I read this book in the fall, and it lingers with me still. It is about Victoria, a broken girl in the foster care system, who is trying to find purpose in her life through her love of flowers. Sometimes the flowers say things that are trapped inside of her, and at other times the flowers allow her to communicate with others, and say more than she could ever say in words. The book could be frustrating at times, because, as one reviewer put it, you continually find yourself wanting to shake Victoria and say, “Why can’t you just let yourself be happy?”  Time and again, she lets love slip because she feels unworthy. The book is extremely well-written, emotional, and beautiful.

10. The Girl With Seven Names by Hyenseo Lee – This book was selected as the November read for my Ottawa book club. I literally could not put it down. It’s a book about a girl who escapes North Korea and goes on a long, arduous path to reunite with her family and find her identity in a new country. We had a lively book club discussion about this book, and wondered how one person could possibly endure so much, and if she feels as though the pain was all worth it in the end. I posted a picture of all of us from the book club, and it was so cool when Hyenseo herself came across the photo on Instagram and liked my picture! (yep I am easily excited). Hyenseo Lee (her seventh name) is now a human rights advocate and has given one of the most-watched TED talks of all time. This book shook me to my core. It was equal parts inspiring, tormenting, and riveting. I highly recommend it.

Notable Mentions

  • Ruling Your World – Sakyong Mipham
  • Brain Rules – John Medina
  • Save Me – Kristyn Kusek Lewis
  • Proof of Heaven – Eben Alexander
  • The Path of the Dreamhealer – Adam McLeod
  • Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff