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Sharon Kirsch

When I entered Humber’s School for Writers, I had a track record as a writer of short travel narratives. My motivation for enrolling with Humber was to acquire guidance and support in producing a full-length manuscript of creative non-fiction, parts of which were already under way as a series of linked essays about first encounters between Canada’s early European settlers and unfamiliar animals. As well, I was keen to be mentored by Howard Norman, whose novel The Bird Artist I greatly admired. His enthusiasm for the manuscript that later became my first book, What Species of Creatures, inspired me with the confidence to carry on writing. As it turned out, Humber’s Creative Writing program also provided an early experience of self-imposed lockdown—an essential for any author.

I was delighted when the Humber School for Writers invited me to its Success Stories panel to talk to students about What Species of Creatures. The inspiration for my book came from reading 17th- and 18th-century accounts by French and English travellers who had never before met many of the animal species we take for granted: the ruby-throated hummingbird, the chipmunk, the polar bear. I was especially pleased to be able to share my experience as a first-time author with the Humber students because writing is generally a solitary pursuit demanding perseverance, the ability to weather downturns, and faith in an eventual good outcome. These, I realize, also form a list of key qualities for enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the several years following the publication of What Species, I was faced with a succession of losses involving my own and my husband’s close family. The demands on my time—in particular the frequent travel between Toronto and Montreal to care for my elderly mother—meant that my writing life was largely suspended. Yet those experiences furnished the material for my second book of literary non-fiction, The Smallest Objective. The title refers to the smallest objective lens of a microscope, the lens that allows for the greatest degree of magnification, and the book ultimately is a close-up examination of lost family as revealed through once-hidden objects that illuminate their lives. These discoveries are made as the narrator (me) is sorting through her mother’s home in Montreal to prepare it for sale. Having engaged in a lifetime of willed forgetfulness, the narrator’s mother is now battling memory loss in an assisted living facility.

The trajectory of a book is always unpredictable. Nonetheless, I could never have imagined the circumstances in which The Smallest Objective would eventually appear. Scheduled for release on April 23, 2020—as it turned out, the height of the pandemic—the book became stalled at the printer after a COVID-induced shutdown. The Toronto launch, scheduled for May 6 at my local independent bookstore, had to be postponed, and of course the store itself was only operating online by early May. Planning for the Montreal launch was suspended and, more drastically, the institution my publisher and I hoped to partner with lost its premises—another outcome of coronavirus.

The Smallest Objective begins with a search for buried treasure and is fundamentally a story of loss and recovery—a daughter’s impending loss of her mother, her mother’s loss of her memory, and then the daughter’s surprise retrieval of hidden objects revealing both forgotten family and the history of 20th-century Montreal, especially its immigrant and Jewish past. My own response to the plight of my book mirrored this trajectory. Having succumbed at first to grief and frustration, I then began to imagine how I might move forward in unpredictable circumstances. With gatherings confined to a maximum of ten people outdoors, I planned a series of miniature backyard book launches over the summer, which proved delightful in their own way, allowing for more time spent interacting with individual guests. I supported my local independent bookstore where the launch was to be held by ordering my supply of The Smallest Objective from them.

As someone who’s accustomed to working solo, I’ve been spared the difficulty of this adjustment during the pandemic. The patterns I’ve established over the years for effective working from home continue: maintaining a structured schedule, protecting outdoor time for exercise, restricting my work activity to a specific area of the house, keeping up social contact, even if only by videoconferencing or phone.

In the same way that coronavirus has encouraged social withdrawal, living with dementia can impose social isolation. As I shepherded my mother through the “dementia journey” and then wrote about her struggles, I never could have anticipated the further tragedy awaiting dementia sufferers. According to Dr. André Picard, “No group has been harder hit by the coronavirus pandemic than people living with dementia. They account for a staggering two-thirds of the nearly 9,000 COVID-19 deaths in Canada.” (The Globe and Mail, August 4, 2020) In recognition of World Alzheimer’s Month, for September 2020, my blog will address the themes of memory loss and dementia in an effort to raise awareness of the vulnerability of this population, as well as to explore the broader implications of what it means when we can no longer remember.

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