This Strange Visible Air: Essays on Aging and the Writing Life

By Rudy Wiebe

by Sharon Butala, Freehand Books, 2021/$24.95/232 pp.

Since 1984 Sharon Butala has published 21 books; her second, Queen of the Headaches, was shortlisted for the 1986 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, which was won by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Full disclosure: I was on that GG jury, and I’ve been reading Butala’s writing ever since.

An oeuvre of 12 fiction and nine non-fiction books in 37 years is a truly remarkable achievement. As Butala describes herself, she is of French-Canadian/Irish descent born in a northern Saskatchewan bush homestead. She was married to a rancher on the immense grasslands rising to the Cypress Hills, and committed herself to being the “chronicler… of the rural agricultural people of Western Canada.” With a specific focus on women.              

So she did “not write willy-nilly as the inspiration hit me.” Rather: “For at least 30 of (the last) 40 years I wrote two to six hours every day, weekends and holidays included…. I rose at five when my husband did, and went straight to my desk. In the afternoon I spent three to four hours reading (up to) six books at the same time….”  That’s awesome dedication!

After her husband, Peter, died in 2007, Butala moved to Calgary. The 15 essays of This Strange Visible Air are explorations, contemplations, often soul-searching confessions of what it is like to be a single woman growing old in a large city. She begins with discussing “the staggering ageism everywhere we old people turn.” This expands into a detailed discussion on solitude, loneliness, isolation, on being alone (two words in early English: “all one,” that is, “completely by oneself”) which for many older individuals means being filed away in a so-called “care home” to “face the terror of nothing.” 

Butala can be a profound and relentless thinker, but, above all, an unintimidated one. She shifts large philosophical subjects beautifully into personal experience. In “Inglorious on the LRT” she unravels the fears of late-night travel when she slips through a closing train door and finds herself facing half a car “occupied by heavily built, leather-wearing, tattooed young men… grinning at each other … along with look-at-the-surprised-old-white-lady smirks.” Halfway through “A Life with Friends” she realizes that “all those years I lived on the ranch with my husband, I was… nearly 33 years without a close friend,” and she expands that recognition into the “celebration of life” after her sister’s death where, with all the persons from her distant past, together “we were weeping for the cruelty of life.” In “Vanished Without a Trace” she weaves the story of her writer’s life from her first book, published when she was 44, to her present “burst of late life creativity [that] is surprising to everyone, and I laugh….”

Every essay here affirms her statement in Wild Stone Heart (2000): “[I am] a good deal more concerned with the progress of my soul than with my body.”

The third poem in Robert Kroetsch’s “Sounding the Name” begins with: “I’m getting old now.” In the decade since Bob’s death, I have pondered these four simple words: What do you get when you “get old”? However old we may be at this moment, with every breath we are all “getting” more. In This Strange Visible Air 81-year-old Sharon Butala tells us some things she’s “getting.”  I urge you to read it, word for evocative word; you’ll get a lot of it.

Rudy Wiebe wrote his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, in 1962. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.

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