When We Are Broken: The Lake Elegy


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ISBN: 978-0987-83841-4 Paperback: 70 Pages Published: 2020 Dimensions: 28 × 21 cmWeight: 28 × 21 cm Tags: , , , , , , ,


A lyric essay about life and loss interwoven with stunning photographs of Kootenay Lake.

Back Cover: “Part of my life’s work has been to truly understand the place where I live and the other creatures that dwell there with me. In my daily walks, I focus on the quiet, always changing occurrences of nature. Every day, I stand, watch, listen at the margins of things, the line between mountains and sky, lake and mountains, the ragged roughness that separates human from non-human. When something snags my attention, I stop and look. I try to bring such moments home with me in the form of words or photographs. This book is a small compilation of these meditations.” Luanne Armstrong


When We Are Broken: The Lake Elegy by Luanne Armstrong

Reviewed by Diana Hayes, The British Columbia Review, Nov 4, 2022


Luanne Armstrong, a prolific writer who has published twenty-five books of fiction, memoir, and poetry, has crafted a soulful and meditative narrative in her book, When We Are Broken – The Lake Elegy. Here, we are invited into her Kootenay Lake environment through rich, poetic observations, reflections, and photographs, capturing the beauty and harshness of farm life and the environs under the looming “cold blue of the Selkirks.”

“Part of my life’s work,” she says, “has been to truly understand the place where I live….” Near her family’s farm in this southern lake region of British Columbia, she paints a wild and seasonal tableau of flora and fauna, of mountains and sky, of human and non-human existence. The pervading spirit of place, the genius loci, is a driving force in Luanne’s work, as is the challenge and grief that surround the reality of aging. She takes on both these primary themes with grace and candour.

While reading and re-reading When We Are Broken — her book being an intimate invitation to ponder and reflectI recalled the spirit of place explored by other writers such as Lorna Crozier, in her memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, Sharon Butala in The Perfection of the Morning, and Wild Stone Heart, and Theresa Kishkan in her novellas Winter Wren and The Weight of the Heart (reviewed here by Miranda Marini and David Stouck — Ed.) Each of these accomplished writers takes on the unique, distinctive, and cherished aspects of belonging — the soul of a place, which is shared in abundance in Luanne’s When We Are Broken.

As a photographer myself, I am particularly pleased with Luanne’s inclusion of her photographs, documenting the seasons and wilderness of her rural landscape, so well paired with her prose contemplations which often flow like the lyrical cadences of poetry. The book’s format is 10” wide and 8” tall, which provides ample perspective for full frame images. In these pages I join her on her daily sojourns, through the years and varied weather. Here, she brings me closer to the earth and to the “line between mountains and sky.”

This beautiful volume, seventy pages in length, with the apt subtitle The Lake Elegy, is a book of reflections, inviting ghosts and memories and recalling the harshness of a rural landscape. She still lives on her family’s farm on Kootenay Lake, in the original log home where she has dwelled most of her life. We experience the seasonal landscape on her daily walks, often accompanied by her ageing white cat and two working farm dogs. As I read further into the book, after summer had passed and October arrived, the red and golden leaves of my own deciduous trees began to fall. “Death’s beady eyes peer everywhere,” she reminds me. “When you are old, your life is full of ghosts … the memories that people a house.”

We meet Luanne’s father during her childhood years, out fishing the lake in her grandfather’s boat. “All my life, God has sat on that granite mountain with my grandfather; they laugh together, just out of my sight.” We feel the chill of a cold winter walk where we find, “the plants with their small slow present lives…, the lake pulsing like a heart….” Here, “we plan how to shed this world with grace … how to live in this moment, think of peace, go most easily from all we have done and loved.”

Now, at 72, Luanne is grappling with chronic illness and debility, brought on by two motor vehicle accidents experienced seven years previously. Ageing, she says, “is a bigger identity crisis than adolescence … hardly talked about or written about.” This central theme draws me closer to the hearth of my own mortality.

Luanne is “preoccupied by the multiple complexities of ageing,” her children say. When We Are Broken offers a sage and honest look through that naked closing chapter of life that we all must face. “I hate old age,” she laments. “In my secret broken heart, I rage against it.” We can all join her in this sentiment, especially when ageing often comes with the high price of infirmity.

She finds solace through her affinity and deep connection with the natural world; all the creatures, four legged and winged, feral and tamed, wild and gentle. “I am so heartened by the new work and discoveries of the sentience, the intelligence, the communication, the cultures, of the non-human.” Luanne is acutely present to animal and plant languages, and this attunement forms a large part of the book’s idiom and its strength.

Memories tumble and crescendo: stark images reflected in nature’s cycles, a cold brisk walk in the dead of a Kootenay winter, feeling the familiar mix of sadness and belonging, the ticking of time, the eternity of the stars.

She brings her meditations to a close with a heartfelt poem, full of questions:

I reach out, touch nothing except questions:
Have you read enough poems?
Have you looked in terror at the night sky?

and ending with:

Are you ready yet?
Are you ready?

Her photograph of the lake shimmers on the verso page. The sky is heavy with cloud, but light makes its way through to form a generous reflection on the still water.

Inside a place I know so well and can never know at all, there are no promises here, and no surprises. I will miss it all.

I am forever grateful to Luanne for inviting me on these soulful, all season walks through the pages of When We Are Broken. I too am preoccupied with aging and mortality, and her wisdom brings clarity and openness to the process and offers courage in the face of it all.

When We Are Broken: The Lake Elegy by Luanne Armstrong

Review by W. D. Valgardson


Many years ago, I had the good fortune to have Luanne Armstrong as a student in my creative writing workshop at the University of Victoria. Like most students, she reveled in her creativity, learned, wrote, and then disappeared. Students live intensely in the present and their talent takes them on long journeys to far places in the future. Some people complain about Facebook but I have found that it brings me together again with people I haven´t heard from in decades. We are searchable, we are findable, we are communicable. Some times that reconnecting is very rewarding. In a recent Facebook message Luanne said that her two years at UVic were the best of her life. That made me ask myself what were the best two years of my life and the answer was immediate: my two years in the Creative Writing program at the University at Iowa. She gave me that the way that someone might come across a piece of worn but beautiful coloured glass on the beach and handed it to someone.
On her journey, she earned a Phd, she has published twenty books, she has lived the struggle of being a writer in a country where no matter how well you write, no matter how beautiful the geode that you find and break open, you are seldom rewarded financially. Her talent is such that she writes young adult books, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been anthologized. She has been nominated for and won numerous awards. I think of her books and awards as Christmas decorations on a young fir that grows beside her path to Kootenay Lake.
Her latest book, When We Are Broken, has the subtitle, The Lake Elegy. It is a book of reflections, illustrated with photographs of mountains and lake, streams and fields, shares with us the things that must still be done, the stove that gulps wood, the dogs that must be fed, the cat coaxed into the house at night.
This is a book for people who have the understanding of age in the same way that Sharon Butala’s recent collection of short stories, Season of Fury and Wonder, profiles older women and their life’s struggles. Here, in When We Are Broken, is one of those older women speaking about her life and approaching death. The first lines say “The late season dahlia heads, suffocated by heat, droop on their thin stalks. Dead gold grass mats under a confusion of fallen grapes—flashes in the slant light of fragrant sun.”
The writing is filled with surprising images. “Today, after the walk with the dogs and the white cat, there is tea and chips and the garden left untended.”
But age, for all of us who have survived any great length of time, is always a comparison and it is those comparisons that reveal who we have been and who we are. She says, “At twelve, I was proud of my strength. One August day, I worked the whole day with my dad, piled hay from the field into a stack for winter, dug, bent my back and straightened, heaved. Again and again, all day, back and arms, down and up with my three-tined hay fork….I was a summer girl who ran barefoot, who worked all day, swarmed up trees and ladders, swung a forty-pound box of cherries onto my shoulder.” It is this image that lets us understand the losses created by time.
I found moments like this made me reflective, made me recall my young moments of triumph, those times I was proving myself, not so much to my father or any other adult, but to myself. I found that throughout When We Are Broken, I frequently stopped reading to reflect on what was the equivalent in my life.


But it is not just the past of childhood that she will miss. She has, after all, grown into an adult with adult concerns and adult successes. “I think when I finally do go, I will miss so much the plain cadence of people patiently waiting in line; I will miss the scent of coffee at the bookstore, and the lifted faces of old friends, and conversation in the grocery aisles”. Yes, I want to say when I read that, these are the things that knit our lives together and, once again, the author has started me off down my own path to my own lake, down my own path of memories

“my old friends, my cadres, my age-mates. We will see each other out of the world. For now, at Solstice parties, or over coffee, we ask, we plan, how to shed this world with grace: furniture, clothes, books, goals” Yes, I would say if I were at that bookstore with a cup of coffee in my hand, I’d say how difficult it is to shed those things that it took us a lifetime to gather, that have meant great things to us but now are just old clothes, old dishes, old books.

“And there were places all around the house with names and stories, so the house had a map of its own, and time surrounded it and the walls opened every day to new light and new stories and new names, as the gardens were made the fields were planted and harvested. But…the house, made of dreams…now sits square on the stones of its foundations….All the gates are open now, and the fences collapse into tall grass.”

My life is littered with these houses, carrying their history but a history unknown. How often have I returned to the Interlake of Manitoba to look at houses abandoned, houses as Luanne says, that were filled with dreams.

“Another morning with a white cat, a white dog, a black dog for company and the day’s quota of friends.” And that is how we live, with our cat, our dog, our companion, present or past, that is precise as Luanne’s. Her language is precise, sensory, making her memories shareable. The Kootenays are far from many of the places I have known, far from the places that you have known, but if you read When We Are Broken, they will stir in you your own memories, make you want to say, do you remember when, or did I tell you about? It will make you think on a life lived. It will, I think, comfort you and encourage you to write that life.

After a certain age, our lives change, something in the ballast of the ship we have sailed shifts, whatever cargo we have carried is being readied for its final destination, and with it a desire for understanding, an acknowledgement of the inevitable. We are no longer sailing through ocean storms to discover new worlds, seeking fortunes. We have, as the author has said, learned to value “the lifted faces of old friends.”

About the Author

Luanne Armstrong

Luanne Armstrong holds a Ph.D in Education and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She has written twenty- three books, and has co-written or edited many other books through to publication. She has published several novels, children's books, memoir and books of essays, as well as poetry. She mentors emerging writers both online and in person. She presently mentors two writing groups in Creston BC. Most recently, she had edited through to publication a book by Ellen Burt, of Nelson BC. Previous to that, she has helped many many authors to either self-publish or find a publisher. One of her most notable editing projects was The Yaqan Nukiy, with Chief (Nasookin) Chris Luke, Senior, of the Yaqan Nukiy Lower Kootenay Band of the Ktunaxa Nation. She will also be helping to curate a session of First Nations films for the Seventh Station Film Festival in Creston BC, in November 2021. Her most recent book is A Bright and Steady Flame, from Caitlin Press, 2018. Her new book of essays is Going to Ground: Being in Place. A new YA book is also in process. Her newest publication is a poetry and photography book, titled, When We Are Broken: The Lake Elegy, distributed by Maa Press.

Other Books by Luanne Armstrong