The Letters Page, Vol 5, #8: You’ve Been Wondering About My Life

Today’s letter comes from Julia Zarankin, a writer, lecturer and birder from Toronto. Her first book, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in September 2020. Her work has appeared in The WalrusOrion MagazineThreepenny ReviewPrism InternationalAntioch Review, Birding Magazine, MaisonneuveThe New QuarterlyOntario Nature and The Globe and Mail. She’ll be receiving a series of extremely handsome books from Fitzcarraldo Editions throughout the next year, as thanks for this letter. 

The photographs below are the authors own. 

Dear Universe, 

You’ve been wondering about my life, about my routine, about how I’ve been spending my days. You mentioned Annie Dillard’s famous words, ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,’ and it makes me shudder. These days have yielded so very little and so very much.

To be honest, I’m kidding myself. I know you don’t really care how it is I spend my days – or my life, for that matter – but living with the illusion that you’re invested in my particular form of coping helps somehow. And these days, it feels like everything is a form of compensation. 

At this point it’s safe to say that nothing makes sense anymore. The weeks float into one another; not colliding exactly, but they’re not building off one another either. I walk around our apartment and I’m confronted by the absurdity of it. I live with a husband and many stuffed animals. Right now, as I write this, a semi-life-sized tiger and leopard pair lie on the couch in a full-on embrace. Leon hates it when I arrange them in provocative positions, and even more so when I snap photos of them and disseminate the feline creatures among my contacts. Something about having them in the cloud makes him feel exposed. They deserve better, he said.  

My husband rarely projects his emotions. He’s even-keeled, rarely flustered, and raises his voice only to cheer for his favourite powerlifters. But when it comes to the tiger-leopard combo, he loses all sense of decorum. He grew up in the former Soviet Union where his family had no access to children’s toys, and especially stuffed animals—these appeared in the orbit of the happy few. He grew up with a few trucks and a single plush poodle whose polyester curls were so rough to the touch that the beast remained purely decorative. Once he started earning a decent living in Toronto as a computer programmer, he began amassing a collection of stuffed animals. The larger the better. The tiger commemorated his birth year according to Chinese zodiac, and later a leopard was acquired to keep him company. 

We compensate for our losses in childhood any way we can. 

Are you curious about my yesterday? I spent two hours standing in the middle of a dog-less dog-park flogged by intermittent hail, waiting for a sedge wren to jolt up out of the reeds for a few seconds. In the end, after doing its mouse-like scurry through the tall grasses, the wren poked its head out for a few minutes, regaled me with some breakdance moves and a few head-bobs. We didn’t lock eyes, the skittish marsh-bird and I, and I saw more of its partially erect tail than its face, but it’s the most alive I’ve felt since March 13—the last time I roamed freely in the world. 

I hesitate to say this, but it’s not just the birds I’ve been conversing with. I’ve amassed an embarrassingly large collection of imaginary friends. In this era of Zoom and YouTube-everything, I’ve let my inner adult-ballerina run wild. Not only have prima-ballerinas Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, and Heather Ogden let me into their kitchens to take online ballet class, but I listen obsessively to Megan Fairchild’s interviews with fellow dancers, nutritionists and physiotherapists. I point my toes while Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz discuss the dynamics of their on-stage fifteen-year partnership, and for a minute I forget that I’m a middle-aged, inflexible level-one-ballet-lifer and not a professional dancer. I’m so immersed in their conversation that I start massaging my calf muscles, imagining what it must feel like to dwell in a body that is worked to the point of exhaustion daily. After dancing “with” Abrera and Fairchild and consuming a daily dose of their Instagram feed, I feel I know them, but I’ve resisted the impulse to email them. Just barely. Yesterday, I caught myself composing an epistle to Megan Fairchild in my head, assuming that because we’ve both had disappointing first marriages, but then eventually found love with someone outside our profession, she’d love nothing more than to hear about my lopsided pirouettes. Here I was concocting a bona fide friendship. Who am I to mock Leon’s relationship with his plush tiger-leopard duo? At least his animals amount to physical entities. 

And all that is to say nothing of the dreams. The montage of nonsensical images, shards of reality and desire refract into a funhouse that I’d rather not dwell in. Let’s just say that for someone inhabiting an almost exclusively indoor life, my nights are my forays into the surreal. There’s no point in analysing the meaning behind all the teeth I’ve lost in my sleep or the fact I’d imagined that bathing my nephew in the toilet was a good idea.   

Let’s just drop it, dear Universe. All of it. My days, your days, whatever it is we can call these days. I’m living and that feels like something already.  



Thank you to everyone who has written to us recently; we’ve enjoyed hearing from you. Since our post-room is still locked-down, we are currently welcoming your letters in the form of an email. Simply reply to this email with ‘submission’ in the subject line, and feel free to include a picture of where you are right now. Each letter we publish will be rewarded with a gift subscription to one of our favourite small presses or literary journals.