Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Blog News

A few weeks ago, I learned about the stats option on my blog, whereby I can see that you all are out there.

Now I've learned that I can change the settings so that you don't need a Google account to comment here.

I'm expecting you peeps to say more here now.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Family Christmas

Family holidays tend toward complication in my extended family. That's just how it is. The flip side of it is that there is also a lot of laughter and music, good food and fun.

I admit I was more worried that usual about what complication might look like this year. Nine or ten months ago, my brother and his wife announced they were divorcing. Two weeks ago, my grandmother broke her hip and went through a week of hell in the hospital. My parents, upon whom the caregiving burden falls very heavily, had lost their senses of humour in the last few weeks.

My sister was hosting in her new house in Toronto, a beautiful house, well-suited for absorbing crowds. Plans ranged from "show up whenever you like" to "we must all wear red." We prepared food, wrapped gifts and set out, hearts in our throats, hoping for the best.

At the last minute, my brother's dog kennel cancelled his reservation for his Boxer. The dog made the trip and was accommodated in my other sister's basement, with hopes that he would Behave.

There was less drama than I feared. The conversation was somewhat scatological, thanks to my mom's hospital stories and my sister's tales of her three young kids. Dave woke up with a full-blown wicked cold and slept half the day away.

There was more joy than we dared to hope for. The dog did behave. My other sister brought Christmas crackers that contained musical horns, each set at a different pitch, and a songsheet to direct us in Christmas carols. Two people cleared the table, mid-song, so we had no notes 3 and 8. Note 5 thought it funny to play at random intervals. Note 2 - who was keen - had surprisingly few notes. Note 1 kept coughing. Note 4 stopped to eat and drink. Our gifts were appreciated and we appreciated the gifts we received. My sister, who is seven months pregnant, took my kids and hers swimming. My mom got a much-needed break, letting other people cook and tidy up. She got great gifts, really well-suited to who she is.

My brother, who talked of the neighbours he was meeting and the people he was getting to know in his work at a bank, spoke of how he had been struck repeatedly by the fact that, even within a family, every person had different values and priorities.

With minimal drama, that was perhaps what struck me most at Christmas. I wanted to be able to decide that my way was right, but I couldn't exactly. My siblings and I are sometimes drastically different in our priorities and choices. And, old sibling squabbles do break out if we spend terribly much time in close proximity to each other.

But, I thoroughly enjoyed having our different choices brush up against one another over Christmas. At times, I felt appalled and at other times envious. I got ideas from my sibs and saw them nod at some of my own. For days afterward, I was fascinated by the different measures of success we each use, the different priorities we have, even coming from the same family.

And yet...I have to admit that part of me heaved a sigh of relief to head for home, family Christmas successfully weathered for another year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sucre a la Creme


It was a very bad idea to read about someone making Sucre a la Creme. And an error in judgment to google the recipe. A crime to make it. A mistake to taste test it. A problem to shave bits off to even up the rows.

So I will make amends by sharing the recipe with you, Gentle Reader.

Sucre a la Creme is a traditional, oh-so-simple Quebecois fudge. We often buy a chunk of it while we are in Quebec. Sans preservatives, my version is similar but actually even better.

Sigh.

Here you go:

In a microwave-safe large bowl, combine 1 cup each sugar, brown sugar, whipping cream. Cook in microwave for five minutes. Stir. Cook another five minutes. Stir. (I added a splash of vanilla at this point.) Let sit five minutes. Beat with electric mixers on high for 4 minutes. Pour quickly into buttered 8 x 8ish casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate until set. Then, sample and REJOICE!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Duck


I wanted to go dancing last night, or to see a movie that would pull the tears from my eyes. I had spent a lot of the day - between work assignments and meetings and other parts of life - advocating for my grandmother to get her surgery. Which, I might add, she still hasn't had. We're hoping, in a realistic way, that it will be tonight.

All this to say that I'm more than a bit spent emotionally. So maybe that's partly why this story hit me hard, but maybe there's more to it too. Maybe there's something in it that should hit me no matter what else is going on in my life.

My oldest son is in grade 8. Last week he told me he was part of two Secret Santa exchanges - one within his homeroom and the other with Athletic Council. The AC one involved four one-dollar presents with clues, followed by a ten-dollar gift and reveal. The classroom one was simpler - one ten-dollar gift on the appointed day. He had planned to spend his own money on all these gifts, but I offered to give him ten dollars or so, to help subsidize the expenses.

He got nice gifts along the way and then a box of gourmet jelly beans on the last day. The problem was the gift HIS Secret Santa received.

It was a used, cigarette smoke-scented stuffed duck.

My son explained that the kid who gave it came from a poor family, but that the kid was always joking around and never took things seriously in class, so he figured the gift was partly from a lack of means and partly as a joke.

We were less sure. And my heart broke.

Apparently the duck has become a kind of mascot already. It has been regifted along with some chocolate, and people think the duck is awesome. Except not on its own as a Secret Santa gift.

All the exchanges were optional and at least one person opted out of one of them, so she could focus on the other exchange. The giver of the duck didn't have to participate. There would have been no stigma in not participating. But he did and he gave a duck.

Our family talked about this at length. About what the kid could have done, what the teacher could have done (our other son's class did a two-dollar exchange, and the teacher said she would bring a couple of extra gifts in case either a child forgot or was unable to purchase a gift), what the school could have done. My son said another class did a more extravagant exchange: with four three-dollar gifts followed by a twelve-dollar one. Did that teacher not think? Is school designed for the wealthy? My husband's school identifies kids whose families are in need and makes sure they quietly give a gift to those kids, so that they don't go without at Christmas. He also said that sometimes programs that make it easier for kids to participate can encourage them to stay in their current situation, rather than either saying no to participation or finding a means of earning income themselves.

I hate child poverty. I really do. Because what choices do kids really have? A lot of my work has been with charities that come up with good solutions for child poverty, but it's so dreadfully wrong. It upsets me to no end that the duck smelled of cigarette smoke, because I wonder how many packs of cigarettes could have been foregone to buy a Secret Santa gift.

My family has choices. We don't choose to buy into every program the school offers, nor every trend, but we can find money for kids to participate in the activity of their choice. Some kids don't have that luxury. Some kids, at precisely the age where peers mean so much, jokes that deflect attention must be cultivated and excuses must be made, don't have choices.

And worse, some kids don't have the choice to eat in the morning.

The really awful thing is that more than one in seven Canadian kids lives with this on a regular basis.

I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Victory Garden


I kind of finished a draft of my book, The Victory Garden, this week. Today, with sick kids and still waiting for my Grandma to have her surgery, I went through and put it all in the same font and adjusted the spacing and the indents at the front of paragraphs.

I've been looking forward to this part of the process.

It's kind of like the part in a jigsaw puzzle where you have all the border done and you've separated the green parts from the blue parts. Everything is on the table now and you have some idea of where it will all go.

This draft came together really quite quickly - five months - but it's partly because it's the third book with the same characters, so I know them well, and partly because I pondered and researched all summer and then exploded into writing when the kids and husband returned to school this fall. Also, because paid work has been spotty all autumn.

There are two major challenges with the book right now.

One is that it's too happy. If you read early drafts of my first novel with these characters, you may find that hard to believe, but it's true. I need to really look at whether it's legitimately happy or whether it's cheesy.

The second problem is that it's a bit more of a play than a novel. Today as I was indenting every paragraph, I was struck by how often my characters toss lines back and forth with each other. As I said, I know the characters well - I know how they talk and there's a good rhythm to their dialogue. What needs fleshing out - and a lot more - is the setting. I realized early this fall that this was happening with the book. It was very peculiar because when we were in the town that inspired the book this summer, I sucked in the atmosphere of the place, made detailed notes, really inhabited the place. And then, as the story of the characters took hold, it might as well have been set on a dusty stage with blackout curtains behind them. Well, not quite. Still, that's one of the things that needs addressing.

What I can never remember now is how to do this. Do I print off a copy? keep notes of repairs needed? cut and paste in literal ways? There is no actual right way, I suppose. You do whatever works and that can be different from story to story. I have written books longhand and books on the computer.

What I do know is that this revision process stretches my brain like nothing else I know. I have to simultaneously keep the big picture and the little details in mind. Try doing that for a while. Sometimes it feels like a muscle is being exercised between my ears. For real.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Grandma


It would happen at a church ladies' party.

My grandmother, who is 90 and a half, changed churches two months ago after her old church closed due to lack of attendance. She decided which church she would attend - one that the majority of her friends would be going to - and started going, without missing a single Sunday.

Today, she was at one of their houses for a Christmas lunch after church, and put her hand out on a chair to steady herself as she crossed the room. The chair, as it turned out, was none too steady itself, resting on the edge of the carpet and a wooden floor. It slipped out from underneath her and she fell down, landing on her hip, unable to move.

They called the ambulance, called my parents. I got a call to say she was en route to the hospital. I was home with my influenza-ridden, feverish son. There was a lot of snow between me and the hospital so I stayed here and did laundry, prayed, made supper, imagined the worst, shoveled the driveway three times and waited.

About six years ago, I sent her a bouquet of flowers because I wanted to give her flowers while she was still living, while she could smell the roses. She was somewhat creeped out and told me she had lots of living left to do, but thanks for the lovely bouquet. I want to send her flowers tonight but she's stuck on a spinal board in emergency, drugged up on morphine.

I've been thinking lately about the passage of time, how my kids are big kids at Christmas, how things just change - sometimes for the better and sometimes not. When my oldest turned one, I remember thinking that I had savoured his first year of life like nothing else, and even still, it was over. This past summer, I watched a documentary about the street artist Banksy that also told about an obsessive videographer whose mother had died while he was at school, when he had no idea she was even very ill. For the rest of his life, he had tried to catalogue every moment, taking endless video of mundane and important moments. He never watched the videos again, but he could.

My grandma looked after me for much of the first year of my life, while my mom worked. We both have always enjoyed cooking and people. We share a faith. She calls me dear. I would call her homely, but you would probably misunderstand and assume I meant ugly, when I mean radiantly beautiful in the same kind of way Mother Teresa was beautiful. The food she makes is delicious - paper-thin oatmeal cookies spread with cold date paste, bean soups, carrot cake. Simple foods well made. I can see her shadow side too, but I've always been one of her favourites and she is certainly mine.

This past year, I had a chance to honour her by throwing her a big birthday bash. It was a great success and she loved every minute of it. I've also spent the fall writing a book that rehearses my grief for a time when she is gone: one of my characters recovers from the death of her beloved grandmother and makes it through on the other side. But first she goes through what she calls "my hard year." The first year after someone dies or something bad happens is very hard because you can say, this time last year, we...

She told me this fall, at a time when her medicine for various ailments was out of whack and she felt horrible, that she still had tremendous quality of life and lots of living to do. Today, I clung to that. Dave was going out to do errands and I asked him if he would stop at Canadian Tire to pick up something my grandma mentioned recently she needed, a new mailbox. It's sitting on our kitchen counter now, waiting for her to come home to get my love letters.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best Little Christmas Pageants


Imogene Herdman: I'm going to be Mary in the Christmas play. And if you try to be, or raise your arm, you'll wish you didn't.
Alice Wendlekin: I'm always Mary in the Christmas play.
Imogene Herdman: Go ahead then. And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow so for the rest of your life, there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear.


My husband is the staff sponsor for the Muslim Association at his school. He asked them once if they would be offended by a Christmas assembly. They looked at him like he was crazy. Of course not, they said. Go right ahead.

*

Last year, our daughter was Santa Claus for a third of a school play in which the Claus had developed amnesia about the true meaning of Christmas. Different classes of children tried to jog his memory with songs and dances. In the end, two children who decided to make the day meaningful for others reminded Santa that Christmas was about love and compassion.

*

Tonight I went to the smartest school Christmas event I had ever been to: we were each given a program with precise times on it. At those designated times, classes came on stage and sang a song. My son sang Dona Nobis Pacem as a canon with his class. Some chairs were set up, but many people came and went between songs. The rest of the school was set up as an Open House. There was face painting, a family literacy centre where you could write letters to Santa or follow a writing prompt about Christmas. There was a room in which I was nearly dragged into learning how to mambo with Santa. One could learn origami, learn about celebrations around the world, do a variety of Christmas crafts and songs. Students organized a coffeehouse with donated hot drinks and cookies, with all proceeds going to support education in Pakistan. Mittens and hats were collected for cold fingers and heads in the community. People of all faiths and nationalities came together to have fun as families as a school family. It was creative and compassionate. The teachers could participate as they chose: no one got stressed out, except possibly the music teacher, but I suspect stress is a requirement in a music teacher's contract.

*

I've been in a few Christmas pageants. I remember dying to be Mary as a child in the Presbyterian Church, but Fiona Yeudall always got to be her. (I did not threaten her.) I have no idea what I got to be though. Maybe a shepherd. I did get to sing a solo in verse 2 or 3 on Christmas Eve when our junior choir sang See Amid the Winter Snow. One of the first years we were married,we helped out in a Nativity Tableau in my uncle's church which was held in a wedding chapel in Burlington. I played the piano. My dad and my husband got to be shepherds. They came in pretty early and had to stay kneeling on bended knee for a long time. I knew my husband was close to losing it when he started turning the stuffed sheep's head around to gawk at the audience.

*

I have been to some very very dead Holiday Evenings where political correctness drowned out spirit more than Scrooge ever could have. I've also been to evenings I've loved, where the door is opened wide so that all faiths and their music are welcomed.

But, while I believe in the Christ of Christmas and the story is still filled with wonder and truth and joy for me - Fear not. Glory to God in the highest - it's just I'm not sure it's always the most religious pageants that have the most sense of what the first Christmas was really about. That Christmas was a time when God came to be with us and showed up to the most unlikely people in the most difficult conditions in a way that they were able to respond with incredulous joy

Ralph Herdman: What did she says the play is called?
Leroy Herdman: "Christmas Pageant."
Ollie Herdman: That's no name. That's what it is.
Gladys Herdman: I know a name. I'd call it "Revenge at Bethlehem."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Green Stars


I got married in 1991, a time when the most beautiful colours were forest green and dusty rose. I had a fondness for a country look (sans ducks and plaid) and so, where most of my friends were opting for duvets, I wanted a quilt for our marriage bed - a dusty rose and forest green quilt.

My grandmother – who was buying us a bedroom suite – told me that she had a cousin who would make us a quilt, for relatively little money. Her cousin’s name was Tiny. Tiny lived in Exeter, Ontario, and one day, my grandmother drove me up to Tiny’s place to talk about what I wanted.

You would think I would remember what Tiny looked like, but I don’t. I remember our conversation where she steered me away from 100% cotton to a cotton-poly blend, told me I didn’t want a pure white background – it would be too stark, said yes, it could have a great deal of forest green in it, and that I should send her the different fabrics and she would make the quilt.

I visited fabric stores and bought single yards of a variety of fabrics, mostly floral patterns in pinks, greens, purples and blues. The pattern that felt the most daring was an off-white with baby blue alphabet letters dancing across it. To me that pattern was the promise of children who would trace their hands across the stars of the quilt, find letters they recognized and patterns they liked. Imaginary children who would come out of this bed, from under this quilt.

The quilt arrived in a garbage bag, rolled up. I unrolled it and was a bit daunted. The green fabric Tiny had used to make prominent bars around each colourful star was a brilliant kelly green. But – as I did on the morning of my wedding when the flowers arrived and they were lovely and absolutely other than what I had ordered – I nodded my head and accepted what had arrived.

Our first home was a narrow apartment in a post-war divided house on the west side of Toronto. It was an ugly neighbourhood but the buses ran by the door, it was halfway between our parents and I was seduced by the rounded doorways, the burnished wood trim and the old radiators. Plus, I could see a billboard from my kitchen window if I looked straight up. The quilt kept us warm two winters there, one in a townhouse that felt luxuriously spacious by contrast, and about a dozen years in our first home in Waterloo.

By then, three children had arrived and two cats had clawed their way across the bed. One child was even born in the bed, although with the quilt removed for the occasion. I don’t recall a child ever tracing letters or patterns, but the green bars served as benchmarks for babies, lain on the bed to be photographed to see how they had grown.

Some of the fabric looked nearly new, some had faded and others had frayed and torn quite badly. I should have sewn each tiny hole closed each time one appeared, but I didn’t. A finger would catch on a piece of fabric, or a toe, or a cat paw and it would pull a little farther.

A friend was an excellent seamstress. I hired her to sew a few replacement stars, and to insert them into the quilt.

One day a few years later, I went to the outlet mall and bought a new burgundy and navy quilt, probably made in China, certainly not made by Tiny. It never worked for us – it was heavy and it reminded me of the time I had bought it – not a terribly happy time.

We stayed at a cottage and slept under feather down duvets and melted with delight. A few years later, we decided we would buy a duvet. I gave the burgundy quilt away but the green starred quilt got tucked away into a cedar chest.

This year, we moved our tall teenaged son into a double bed. For a while, we turned the comforter he had used on a single bed, sideways, and this worked until the weather grew cold. I wish I had a duvet like yours, he said.

One day, spontaneously, I put our duvet on his bed and reached into the cedar chest for the old green quilt. It sits on our bed now. It’s thinner than it used to be and there are two or three stars that badly need mending. But somehow I like it.

Nearly twenty years later, I still like it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Blue Christmas


I’d like to finally admit something awful: I am not entirely a fan of Christmas.

There. I’ve said it.

It has been something I’ve been slow to admit to myself as much as anyone else.
It certainly isn’t the social demands and the busyness – our Christmas season isn’t much busier than the rest of the year. It isn’t keeping up with anyone.

What weighs on me are several things. Chiefly, my expectations and my conflicting expectations. At Christmas, I can never ever decide whether I want to be the world’s most lavish gift giver, choosing presents with extreme care and a carefree budget or whether I want to focus on the spiritual aspects of the holiday and eschew materialism.

The true answer is, um, both.

It occurs to me that this year is likely the last year my little girl will welcome dolls and toys. Why not go nuts? I love to find the perfect gift for people – to me, that is a chief way to express love. But I remember a few years ago when we used to make Operation Christmas Child boxes and I had a fantasy that a child would open a box only to discover toys they had made in their sweat shop. Bizarroland.

The other thing is that Christmas has had a melancholy tinge to it for me ever since I was about six years old and I started to worry that Santa did not exist. My parents told me that Santa was real as long as I believed in him. Somehow this launched into motion an enormous sense of responsibility for Christmas: that I had the ability to kill Santa or keep him alive. I will note in passing that the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny were never real in the least to me. But somehow – maybe it was a confusion of the central male characters at Christmas – I felt a dreadful angst about Christmas.

Every year, I feel a deep sense of responsibility around Christmas, making it perfect for my own kids. For a while I had thought I would never tell my kids that there was a Santa, but I did. At this point, my oldest has chosen to believe, my middle grasps the concept of Saint Nicholas and giving, and the baby accuses me, “I know it’s you.”

I always feel a sense of sadness at Christmas, that maybe there is something more I can do to make Christmas perfect. For a long while, I would feel disappointed about whatever I didn’t do each year. I’d feel a fleeting sense of time, that my kids would only be small for so long. I would heave a huge sigh of relief as we turned the calendar to January. Then, joy could come as it would. There would be no pressure to make things perfect and memorable, to keep a minor pagan deity alive.

The other weird thing has to do with the timing of Christmas. Liturgically speaking, Advent is a penitential season, a time of waiting. Christmas starts the festive season. But nobody told the retailers or my kids. At the same time, I am decorating the house and the tree and stilling my heart. Memo to self: it’s very hard to do both simultaneously. The last few years I’ve tried to get around this by doing a fair bit of my shopping before Advent starts.

Last year was an interesting Christmas. The day before Advent started, I caught a cold which instantly turned into a sinus infection that felled me for the better part of three weeks. I was able to drag myself to the very most important events of the season and I got a plague-imposed exile from the rest. I had to let go of a lot of expectations on myself and instead find gratitude in the things I could do. And I did.

So, here we go again.

I’d like to recapture last year’s experience, sans sinus trouble. I’d like to leave Santa in Jesus’ hands, shovel my expectations for perfection away with the snow and just receive the good gifts that come.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review - Bonhoeffer


A new feature here. I write book reviews for our local paper. I will copy or link to them here. The following review is of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas Thomas Nelson 591 pages $36.99

Throughout this new biography by Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shines through as a real, multi-faceted, inspiring human being. The thought process that brought him to make controversial decisions during the Second World War – to act as an agent of the Nazis in order to bring down the government, and to participate in a plot to kill Hitler and his accomplices – is explained in all its complexity. The material Metaxas selects from letters, diaries and conversations builds a portrait of an engaging and exemplary theologian, pastor and fully-rounded human being. At the same time, this is a hard book to review because of its flaws.

Metaxas is clearly not an impartial biographer. He notes in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book that Bonhoeffer’s writing was introduced to him soon after his 1988 conversion and was very meaningful to him as a descendant of Germans who had suffered during the Nazi regime. At times, this book read as hagiography – the life of a saint. I struggled with this because Bonhoeffer, without question, was indeed an exemplary man of faith; at the same time, though, some of Metaxas’ description of Bonhoeffer seems cloying and the reader is very clearly led by the author in matters of interpretation. While I never felt sympathy for the Nazis, I thought a number of matters had to be more complex, at the moment, than the author with his hindsight sometimes gave credit for. He also assumes to know the mind of Bonhoeffer at times: for instance, Metaxas seems to act as omniscient narrator in the section where Bonhoeffer learns from his well-placed brother-in-law about the atrocities being committed. The author writes: “Future generations would be convinced that nothing good could ever have existed in a country that produced such evil. They would think only of these evils. It would be as if these unleashed dark forces had grotesquely marched like devils on dead horses backward through the gash in the present and had destroyed the German past too.” While the crimes of the Nazis cannot be overstated, I’m not sure this is Germany’s legacy and I wondered at this hyperbole.

Other aspects of the writing are also curious. The language blends folksy casualness with academic theological language. The best example of this occurs when Metaxas describes a sermon on the book of Jeremiah as an “unrelenting homiletic bummer.” (p. 209) Are the people who understand and use the term homilectic likely to describe something as a bummer? I doubt it. The book is laid out chronologically and thoughtfully - although there are endless foreshadowings. At the same time, the author sometimes fails to note important events in their chronological place. For instance, Metaxas describes Churchill’s response to Hitler both before and after his election, but fails to note the key 1940 election of the British leader. Another omission occurs around the failure of the resistance to launch a coup in 1940: despite the extensive build-up in this biography, the reasons for the failure to act are dismissed without explanation. Some parts of Bonhoeffer’s life are given detailed moment by moment description, while others are skimmed over. The only place this is explained is at the end of Bonhoeffer’s own life when his correspondence ceased.

There is also inconsistency in Metaxas’ explanations: several times he gives not only translation of German terms but also pronunciation help. Other times, he does not explain key acronyms (such as SS and SA). There are also grievous errors – Bonhoeffer’s brother was a physicist who worked with the best minds in Germany, including, apparently, Alfred Einstein. This error even made it as such in the good index at the end of the book. Many of these errors could have been resolved by a judicious editor

In the Acknowledgements, Metaxas notes his great debt to all previous Bonhoeffer biographers and mostly particularly Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s confidant and biographer. He says of Bethge’s biography that it forms “the great foundation upon which every syllable thenceforth written or spoken about his best friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer gratefully rest.” This prompts the question of why this new biography is necessary.

The strongest part of the book is actually the final section where there is much less historical material to work with. In this section, it struck me that the author had a clear grasp of Bonhoeffer’s theology and had likely found ways to live it out. While I had difficulty with some of the writing in this book, I nonetheless came away inspired by the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I suspect, for the author of this biography, that would constitute a successful response to the book.

(Disclosure: Thanks to Graf-Martin Communications for this review copy.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer

You know the games you can play with your family - the brown-eyed group and the blue eyes; those who like ketchup on KD and those who know it is disgusting? We found another distinction this weekend: those who love to dress up in costumes and those who don't.

I am firmly in the former camp while Dave is in the latter.

A few weeks ago, I took the kids on the Uptown Waterloo Treasure Hunt. One of our stops was Queen of Hearts costume store. They asked the kids in passing if any of them were interested in being a costumed character in the Santa Claus Parade. Two said no. J. Shakespeare said Heck yeah.

I needed to remember to register him by the 15th - and remembered, on the 15th, to do so. We needed to go into the store to sign up for and try on a costume to be one of the - and I kid you not - Fancy Walkers. John had a clear idea of what he wanted to be: a Green Elf. When we made our special trip to the store we were told the elves were not among the fancy walkers, but were Sign Bearers. The SIgn Bearers had to report to McGregor School Friday evening from 7-9 for a meeting where all would be revealed.

As the designated costume-friendly parent, I went along to the meeting. It was held in the gym. The chairs were set up beautifully in a traditional semi-circle big enough for the 100-odd teens who had assembled. There were two nice Lions Club men taking waivers at the door.

We didn't have a waiver. No problem, they said. Go see those two old men at the table over there. We did. They didn't have waivers. Go see that guy there drinking from the bottle they said. The guy who was preparing to lead the meeting. So we did. Are you Catholic or not? he asked. Not, we said. Turns out he thought we needed the form to get our high school volunteer hours verified for participation. That cleared up, he gave us a waiver. We signed it, delivered it to the first two men and sat to be enlightened.

I will note that the arrangement of the chairs was the best-organized part of the event. If the affable gentleman with the forms had tried, he could not have been less clear. Never were we told any useful information. There was no assumption made that people knew what to do but he was all in a muddle. A woman with a very complicated elf hat herself climbed on a chair and explained things better, but her explanation ended with a call to action that entirely messed up the Forms Man's game plan. Several times he lost his train of thought. "I am going to..." he said. "Have a drink." And so he did.

Despite this, we had our costume, had signed up on a list and got our requisite coat check papers for the costume -- all of which were done in complete confusion and bewilderment on the part of the organizers -- and were out of there, laughing our heads off by 7:40.

"He was drinking vodka," my precocious 11-year old elf commented. I cracked up.
"That's a reasonable explanation," I said.
"No," he said. "Those men at the table said that - they said, see that guy drinking vodka over there?"
I had missed that part.

I fed him waffles and sausages the next morning to fortify him against the cold. We had been warned to be there by 8 am OR ELSE. We were there. He had his costume on by 8:01 and sat and played on his iPod, the youngest of all elves, until they assembled on the street at 9:15.

In the meantime, I went to the market, went home and put supper in the slow cooker, and biked over to the parade at 10. At about 10:45, my elf came by. He spotted me in the crowd and waved gaily. Other than that, he was what a friend described as a Conservative Elf.

At the end of the parade, he was ushered onto a bus and brought back to the school for pizza. I'm not sure anyone spoke to him the whole time. But he still loved it. I went into it, he explained, to be famous. To be on tv and to have people I know in the crowd see me. But I liked the little kids waving and getting excited about seeing Santa's Real Elves.

He explained all this to me later at home as we both thawed out. His cheeks were pink, largely with the makeup that had been drawn on them in rosy circles. Next year, he wanted to do it again, but he knew exactly what he wanted to be: A Christmas Tree. That costume, he explained, had Christmas presents for shoes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Inside Passage

So, People Magazine came out this week with their Sexiest Man of the Year. For those keeping score at home - and I must admit, I've discovered a stats button on this site that tells me there ARE a few of you - it's Ryan Reynolds.

Now, I appreciate beauty as much as the next person. I loved seeing the toned muscles of the World Cup dudes and Michael Phelps at the last summer Olympics. I think Angelina Jolie is stunning. I'm a big fan of Michelangelo's sculptures and Henry's Moore's too. I think Reynolds' wife, Scarlett Johannson, is luminous.

But sexy? Give me interesting over abs any day.

I was listening yesterday to Sting - while I delivered flyers. Sting is a bit of a dilemma for me. I adore the guy and his music, but I worry such adoration might put me in the camp of the middle-aged women screaming and throwing their underwear at Tom Jones or Fabio. Not that I think it would come to that. Probably.

But Sting is interesting. He continues to challenge himself artistically at a time of life when other artists fall back on old standards and cover tunes or sink into lush retirement. I love that sense of exploration and intellect. It's not something that can be captured in a magazine spread. But I find it terribly attractive.

It is also something I'm examining in my own life and art. I am not self-pitying about this in the least but I find it curious that as I age, two processes seem to be happening simultaneously: the outside me is waning while the inside me is waxing. (Who was it said youth is wasted on the young?)

Now, frankly, I'd rather be waxing more and more inside and out. And, I think there would be self-pity if I were single and wishing to be noticed. But I'm mostly okay to be largely hidden behind my Mom Cloak of Invisibility. As long as I continue to grow and explore and create on the inside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Paper Route


It’s more than a bit embarrassing to admit but all this fall I’ve had a bit of a paper route. And I love it.

Let me explain.

My kids have long been seduced by ads promising lots of cash -- $40 a month! – in return for delivering flyers a few days a week. This fall, my middle child, who is 11, decided he really wanted to buy himself an iPod and that a paper route would be a good means to do so. We talked with the liaison at the paper, found out the details, arranged direct deposit into his bank account and waited for flyer-filled plastic bags to be deposited on our driveway.

The first day, he nearly gave up. He tried to pull stacks of papers on a go-cart, tried carrying sacks of papers on his shoulders, tried making return trips home. There were only 60-some papers to deliver but they were widely spread out on the streets around us. Two hours later, he begged for help.

I climbed on my bike and delivered the last fifteen or so.

Eventually, he figured out a strategy – he also used his bike and a backpack filled with flyers. But some days each flyer stack was about 3 inches thick and it took a long time to deliver.

I offered to help do fifteen or so.

It became part of my regular routine, a couple of days a week, and it dawned on me that, far from resenting this bailout, it was something I looked forward to.

I like the waning light of late fall afternoons, the trees silhouetted against the orange sky. I like twenty or thirty minutes of quiet as I bike around the neighbourhood, tucking newspapers into mailboxes and milkboxes. I feel sheepish if I see adults – I have a Masters degree and yet I deliver papers. One day I needed a break from editing and the day was unseasonably warm and luscious, so I delivered my papers in the middle of the day. Sometimes I wear my own iPod and listen to music – on the day the miners were freed in Chile, I listened to two of their rebirths on the radio while delivering my own load. Often I listen to the quiet and just think.

I delivered newspapers as a kid myself for a while. I don’t remember how long. I don’t remember whether I loved it or hated it. I wonder, as I walk up to a darkened house whose occupants are not yet home from their Real Jobs, whether I like this activity because it harkens back to a simpler time in my own life, when my financial goals were immediate and achievable, when I had loads of time to walk from house to house. Maybe.

What I think it speaks more to is a sense of purpose: these fifteen houses need flyers before 6:00 p.m. After thirteen years of freelancing, I am tiring of being a self-starter. I want some same old –same old, I tell someone and she laughs, but it’s kind of true. I meet deadlines and I’m productive and efficient, but I’m longing for the routine of a job and the accountability of my work each day. I’m not sick of what I do and it is a sweet deal, so what I do next has to be even better – no small order – but I’m looking ahead and making a few plans for the next step.

My son bought his iPod a few weeks ago. We’ve talked about the near-impossible logistics of transporting thick packets through deep snow. After a family meeting where we couldn’t come up with other ways to make this work, he emailed his liaison last week to give his two-weeks' notice.

I’ll miss my paper route.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Happy Garden


I have written before about my ambivalent relationship with my gardens. Really, it's all quite positive except for the big stupid rock garden. This time, last year, I decided to add a new garden.

We had a small vegetable garden already, but most of our vegetables came from the community shared agriculture (CSA) farm we had been part of for 10 years. They had decided to take a year off. We had a largeish side yard that seemed to grow mostly weeds, bad violets, and moss, and also seemed to get some amount of sunlight. I layered cardboard and leaves over the ground, and left it to gestate all winter.

We borrowed a light-table from Dave's school (and called it our grow-op). We circled the best varieties of vegetables in a seed catalogue and made our investment of seeds.

The initial plan had been for this to be a money-making project for our kids - they would, theoretically, plant their seeds, transplant the seedlings, weed the garden, harvest the veggies and I would pay them for their produce. By the time the baby plants were an inch tall, I knew this was my project.

As soon as the ground was workable this spring, we rototilled it, and surrounded it with wood from another backyard salvage project. I then dumped in the entire contents of two composters. I planted spinach and peas in early April, and lettuce and beets a few weeks later. In May, I took my chances on warm weather and planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil, sunflowers, green peppers, hot peppers, sage, sweet peas and giant pumpkins a week or two before the May long weekend. The gamble paid off and we began a summer of great eating. Only the pumpkins and sunflowers failed to grow.

Weirdly enough, I enjoyed weeding this garden. I tend toward being an "outside the box" thinker, but I was charmed by the lovely straight rows of the garden, and I was quite content to putter about it this garden, keeping the rows neat and tidy.

One day while weeding, I named the new vegetable garden my Happy Garden. It was while weeding that I got the pivotal idea for the novel I was about to embark on writing. It was a delight to discover sugar snap peas emerging from the white blossoms of the plant, to find a new green pepper hiding in the foliage. I loved brushing against the basil, the tomato plants and inhaling the fragrance.

By August, it was a hot mess. I had tried not to plant too many tomato plants, but the baby plants looked deceptively small; by August, they had to be tied to the fence, having pulled the cages out of the ground and having punched and wrestled each other for real estate. The cucumber plants snaked everywhere.

I knew you could plant cool weather crops again, once the weather cooled off. The problem was that it didn't cool at all until the first week of September. Again, the gamble. What would grow and what would be a waste of seeds? But, what did I have to lose? I replanted spinach, lettuces, peas and arugula.

This evening - one day after a snowfall - we had another meal featuring arugula and spinach from the garden. It's still going strong. The only plant that didn't work this time was the peas: the plants grew - probably 10 inches high - but never blossomed. It occurred to me today while I was adding mulched leaves to the garden that even these pea plants were good for the garden - pea plants add nitrogen to the soil, good for other crops.

It makes me happy, this happy garden.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In Defense of November


"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."
- Emily Dickinson


My favourite season is spring when every single good thing is before us, when the days are lengthening noticeably, when every green sprout is a wonder, when the air is like a kiss, and gardening seems like pleasure and not chore. I love the smells of the promise of spring.

"No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -
November!"
- Thomas Hood, No!


I always tell myself I hate fall, but this is not entirely true. What I do not love is early fall. I hate the hot, wasp-filled, over-ripe fruit, overblown garden days of early fall in all its gaudy colours. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, I am glad I live in a country with four seasons. But early fall is the tawdry cheap cousin of summer. Early fall signals the end of things and I protest every single time. Early fall means school must begin again. Early fall means frost may come. The pool must close. The tomatoes are done. Holidays are packed away. The days are visibly shorter.

By October, I reconcile myself. I cook squash-ginger soup and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie. I turn the fireplace on. I rejoice in the victory over the weeds in the garden – for now I am ahead of them. I snuggle in sweaters and socks. I turn the fire on and light candles. I decorate with gourds and dried Chinese lanterns. We carve pumpkins and plot costumes and collect candy.

"The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain
Loveliness"
- John Updike, A Child's Calendar


And then it is November. So many people jump ahead in November. They rip down skeletons and spiderwebs and put up Santa and snowmen.

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show."
- Andrew Wyeth


I think they miss the best part of fall. The air is crisp and the ground dazzles with frost. Half the leaves fall from our trees in one morning. I can rake patterns into the lawn. The trees reveal their shapes. Geese flap their wings as they fly overhead, rarely directly south.

I read a novel recently in which a character was dying of all sorts of cancer. She had come to the place beyond anxiety where she accepted the end of things and her own end in particular. I think that’s what’s behind November for me. It has been an acquired taste but I like the sparseness of November, the baldness, the noise and smell of fallen, decaying leaves. I’ve accepted the end of the summer before November and I can enjoy the ends of the year quite peacefully.

"The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine they tell of. The mite which November contributes becomes equal in value to the bounty of July."
- Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Justice

He looks more like Al Bundy than Ted Bundy. He's a serial rapist and killer with an obsession for cataloguing his lingerie trophies. He's a terribly sick and evil person.

But he is not what disturbs me most.

This week, self-portrait photos of the man, clad in stolen women's underwear graced the front cover of our local newspaper and many other publications. These papers are delivered to schools, scanned by kids walking down the street and read by stable and unstable people alike.

Yesterday I listened to the radio discuss whether too much information about the case had been released. Caller after caller volunteered to pull the trigger on this low-life.

What is our society coming to?

I believe this case will be as much of a watershed in our country as the O.J. Simpson case was in the US. That case opened the door for the 24-hour news cycle and the need to obsessively document the behaviour of deviants and celebrities. This case marks a change to criminal justice proceedings here.

The argument has been made that this criminal may seek parole or even appeal his conviction, and that, therefore, the public needs to know and see the extent of his crimes so that he never walks the streets again. I strenuously protest this reasoning. There will not be a binding referendum about whether or not to release this person; the decision will be made by a judge and panel. God help us if public opinion plays such a major role in public policy and individual cases of law - and thank God it does not.

What the publication, in particular, of the photographs in this case serves best to do is to further victimize the victims and to victimize innocent viewers of the photos. I have a sneaking suspicion that the publication of the pictures and the lengthy victim impact statements that have been read directly to the accused are an attempt to publicly shame him, in a way that would previously have been considered unthinkable. Where is the publication ban that was instituted in the Scarborough rapist case? Where is the understanding that this crime is against society and that the judge will act on our behalf to sentence such a monster?

I am sickened by the public appetite for images and for retribution. How exactly are we different from such a monster, other than that our passions come out of a motive of revenge?

I believe in God and that God judges justly, that even secret acts of goodness and evil will be noted and judged someday with equity. This does not mean I want this person enjoying three-course meals, university courses and an accumulating pension on the public purse. However, I can't bring myself to want anyone to treat him as he has treated others. That is a perversion of the Golden Rule and a sad statement about the condition of our society if it is the way we are.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Circling the Pool

I love to swim but nearly every time I enter a pool, I have to give myself a countdown. There is something in me that resists - strongly - that initial shock from warm, dry world to cool wetness.

This fall, I have had the luxury of time to spend on my fourth novel. It's going well - within a month, I'm 20,200 words in, and I have a very good idea where it's all going to go, and I'm delighted to have the opportunity to write this tale. My goal is to be done a good draft by April, but I suspect it could happen sooner.

And yet.

Every day is the same story. It's the pool story. The countdown. The resistance. The small load of laundry that could be done. The phone call. The paid work project. Today, this blog entry. Some days I can't force myself to engage with the story until mid-afternoon. I've never been a procrastinator before, but neither have I had open time just to write a novel. When I do force myself to get wet, the words come fast and furious. I write perhaps as much as I might have if I simply shut off the Internet in the morning and opened the document or the notebook and set to work.

I'm not exactly sure which process would be better. And what I'm doing is working, I suppose.

I just thought I would note the oddity of the process.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Esperanza

I cry when I watch the Olympics, profoundly moved by the human spirit that makes people go beyond what they believe to be possible.

Tonight, I am hoping to cry such tears but not simply about games. Tonight 32 Chilean men and a Bolivian man will be - God willing - raised a kilometre through the rock that has entombed them since August 5.

I can think of two other stories that resonate deeply in the same way: one is the story of Ernest Shackleton whose ill-fated 1914 trek to the South Pole resulted in the most remarkable story of courage and survival I've ever heard. The bottom line with this story is that despite three years under horrifying and isolated conditions as well as a nearly-impossible rescue, every single man survived. You can read his story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Shackleton

The other story is that of the Apollo 13 space mission. You've seen the movie. You've seen how ingenuity coupled with courage and providence made all the difference in getting them home. That and hope.

I want this one to be the third. I wonder which conditions would be the least hospitable - living in pack ice in the antarctic winter, being isolated in a small capsule in space, or being deep in the bowels of the earth. I suppose space is truly the least life-sustaining but really, I don't choose any of the options.

People keep using images of birth for tonight's rescue. I think it is apt.

What moves me most here is that no one ever gave up. The miners persisted in their tasks with stoicism and deep unyielding faith. The families have camped out at the site, wives and mistresses alike. There has been a baby born - named Esperanza. No expense has been spared and people from around the world have shared their expertise. For 33 men.

It is also a picture of salvation for me. A very clear picture. A rescue of people who cannot rescue themselves, and who have to believe that rescue is coming and entrust themselves to their rescuers. How far would you go to rescue someone who could not rescue themselves, I ask. And how far did someone go to rescue me.

Tomorrow, if all goes well, hope will turn to great rejoicing.

The Apollo 13 astronauts went on to careers in business and politics. Ernest Shackleton, by contrast, had a hard time returning home after the grueling conditions he faced and died prematurely from heart conditions caused by his years on the ice. I have to wonder about the 33 men being reborn tonight - what their futures will hold. I've heard there are television and movie contracts being negotiated, visits with royalty and politicians, and financial rewards. I hope there's more for them too - not stuff and ceremony - but more.

Something that kept them hoping these 68 days,

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thanksgiving

I've been cranky lately. Not constantly and not at everyone or everything. But a few things and a few people. I describe it best as "not suffering fools gladly." Not gladly at all. What has made me particularly grouchy is that there have been several occasions when I have been very excited about something I have done, only to be blamed for it, rather than smiled at. I'm also tired. September blew by incredibly quickly, but it was only yesterday that I finally got my house in order after nearly three months of minor but time-consuming and furniture-moving and waiting-for-paint-to-dry renovations. (In case you are curious: we took out most of the walls in the basement and scraped and properly painted the basement walls and floors, then moved our laundry upstairs to the main floor by ripping out an office wall, hiring someone to do plumbing and electrical work and constructing a wall, then redoing the office, including ripping out carpet and paneling, redoing the above and painting, then swapping that room with one son's bedroom. Let's just say that A Lot of Stuff was moved about endlessly in the process.) There is something tiring about living in chaos, possibly more so as I get older.

Yesterday morning early, I sat in bed with a grievance about a few family members and aching muscles, preparing to nurse my grudge. I opened the Bible and the book of Common Prayer I use to direct my readings. It sent me to Psalm 116. Where I read "I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving."

Crap, I thought. Yeah. Thanksgiving. Like next week. Like the sign I read on a church billboard the other day that said thanksgiving is the mother of all virtues.

And sacrifice too. The easy way out really is self-pity, nurturing slights and justifying myself. It's not where I live all the time, thank goodness, but neither is thanksgiving.

Thankfulness is a radical postural change of heart. It genuinely is the difference between the perception that a glass is half-empty, and solid appreciation for the few cool, wet gulps that really are there.

My problem is an embarrassment of riches: where do I start?

How about from where I sit right this moment. I am typing on a working computer. A purple one. I have a cup of hot green tea beside me. I have a view of trees outside my window. I have time to write and think. I am fed and clothed. My husband's desk is beside mine. I am grateful perhaps most of all for him, for the fact that we have been able to bend, stretch and change over the years and still stay together. There's a picture of the St. Lawrence river above the desk - a place I love and get to visit thanks to my sister. I have a funny greedy letter to Santa on my desk, written by one of my kids. My kids are healthy and funny and kind to one another. I can't take any of those things for granted. My parents are living and so is my grandma. There are stories around me, some even written by me - this is a gift too. There is money for groceries in my wallet at my feet. I have lovely friends and neighbours. I had good paid and volunteer and creative work to do today and I did it.There's a pool pump running outside and a furnace running within.

It always feels weird when you take on a new exercise, whether physical or mental. This is no exception. Part of me says, "yeah, I know" even to this long good list. But part of me wants to open my eyes to the beauty of all that is around me.

And that is thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Smells

Our neighbours are dogsitting. The other morning,their 9 year old son came to my house as usual at 8:15 am. He had already taken their loaner dog out for three walks that morning. I heard the six a.m. walk in my dreams. I talked with his dad last night. The dad is less fond of the dog. Well, that's not exactly true. He is less fond of having his house smell like someone else's dog. He thought the dog should stay at home and be visited by his family (all of whom are at work or school all day anyway). He was outvoted and now his house smells of eau de dog.
***
This morning I was freezing so I put on a sweater and shirt I haven't worn since last winter. The shirt smells funny and it made me think about house and clothes smells. How everyone thinks their house smells normal and everyone else's house smells a bit funny. My shirt smelled like it was someone else's, although it probably smells like a wooden drawer.
***
We once bought a house largely because of its smell. I'm not kidding. The garage smelled exactly - and I mean exactly - like the cold room of my great grandparents house. I was transported back every single time I went there. The same cold room is finding a place in the novel I am working on right now.

Smells matter.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

It was 1994 when I first heard university students singing and dancing along to ABBA. I started to laugh. To me, ABBA was the music on the vinyl records at the houses I babysat at. It was music of the late 70s. I remember being incredulous in 1994 that ABBA had made their big comeback. Ten years later, my young sister-in-law laughed when I told her I had never truly lost my love for skinny jeans - but within a couple of years, they had become fashionable again and she too gave up her wide-legged pants.

Everything old is new again.

The other day, I saw a sign outside a restaurant inviting patrons to enjoy locally brewed beer on their patio. It got me to thinking about how, years ago, local went the way of wide-legged jeans.

I imagined a time when the world felt chaotic after the war and when the idea of standardized, systematized, regular, knowing-what-to-expect felt comforting and safe. Open a McDonalds burger and you'll find your pickles arranged just so, whether you are in Moosejaw or Montreal. Same-sized eggs. Uniformly perfect apples. Brands you can buy at home or on holidays. Labels that made you feel big cityish even if you lived in a small town. Starbucks instead of going to the local diner for coffee in a chipped cup. Sophistication instead of same old-same old.

Now the pendulum has shifted again. Uniform red tomatoes have less taste than the variety of weird-looking heritage ones. Thoughts of local sufficiency and consuming less fossils have fueled our consumer trends toward eating the view. Local honey counteracts local allergens.

I have yet to see a non-ironic power blue frilly tuxedo in the 21st century. Some things - mercifully - don't come back.

But I wonder, what will last? Where will we be five years from now? In our wide-legged jeans, will we have shifted back to global foods? or will an orange in the toe of our Christmas stocking be an unaccustomed treat? Will we even have choices to make - or will our choices be made for us by the choices we make today.

I don't always follow trends (See Skinny pants). I am actually irked by the glass wall that comes up at 100 miles for the Correct Diet Today. I have almost always eaten seasonally - have you tried that dead corn-on-the-cob that is available in January? - and locally. I have always loved going to farmers markets wherever I am, learning about how people eat in that place. I'm concerned that buying locally is a fad that will be abandoned as quickly as a 1970s pop group. I hope not.

For the sake of our planet and our taste buds, I hope not.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why lack of bathing prevents me from getting a job

Made you look, didn't I?

My skin dries out if I bathe every day, and my hair gets lank if I wait two days to shower. I like both baths and showers. So, I bathe every day and a half - usually showering, say, Monday morning and then a bath on Tuesday night.

It works well for me in all ways but one: schedule.

My husband gets up at the same time each day, showers and goes about his day. Me, it's a little more syncopated than that.

As I was having my shower this morning, I was thinking about this. Thinking about the parallels between my semi-erratic bathing habits and the fact that I don't have a regular job, and am trying to sort out whether or not I should.

I react against being a Lady who Lunches. I don't want to walk a small, yappy dog about the neighbourhood, exercising and exfoliating to fill my days. But neither do I want to be tethered to a cubicle on sunny summer days. And yet, all the good jobs tend to be fulltime ones.

Freelancing continues to work for me - it allows me to be relatively well paid for flexible, meaningful work; it allows me time to volunteer and write fiction and, yes, meet friends for the occasional lunch. Even to exfoliate periodically.

Still, I waffle. Just as I would like the orderliness of showering or bathing every day at the same time, part of me craves the simplicity, definition and salary of a regular gig.

I have decided that this is not the year for that. I need one more year to finish up the book I am writing and to finish a major volunteer task I've taken on. A year from now, too, my youngest will be old enough to stay home on her own for 20 minutes in the morning. A year will make a big difference, I think.

But then again, I wonder whether a year will make the difference, or whether I will never be someone who bathes at the same time each day and sits at the same desk for the same hours.

We'll have to see.

If the women can't find you handsome


I always knew when Red Green was on television. I would hear great gasps of laughter coming from my husband. Nothing else ever elicited that kind of laugh. Red Green was a character of actor Steve Smith's. A bumbling do-it-yourselfer who belonged to a lodge of equally memorable characters. One of his lines was, "If the women can't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy."

Fortunately, I find my husband both handsome and handy.

Last week, we hired another handyman, though, to build, plumb and electrify a new laundry area on our main floor. I took inordinate pleasure in having Adam here, working away, and I tried to analyze why. Did I enjoy the feeling of being the Lady of the Manor? Did I enjoy the company of another person in the house while I worked? It was neither of those really.

What I love about having a handy-person around is that they make my creative vision into reality.

My own hand-eye coordination is limited. I'm not a technical person - as a toddler, my daughter once looked up at me in amazement and said, "YOU can fix?" Yes, honey. A little bit.

I can cook and tell stories. Those are my main creative outlets. But I also have a larger creative vision that primarily involves my home. The problem is that other than describing what I want done and choosing the paint colours, I'm really not very useful. It can be frustrating. Plus Dave has a job, which means he isn't always available to "make it so!"

Enter Adam.

I was embarking on the beginning of my new novel - the one that has been brewing in the back of my mind all summer - as Adam came to our house a week or so ago. I had researched all summer and then circled the story like a cold pool, ready but not quite ready to take the plunge.

We ripped out the old purple wall - okay, Dave ripped it out - a few days before Adam arrived. Our office looked like a television stage set with the wall missing.

Everyone went back to school and I sat down and began to write. It reminded me, oddly enough of the stomach flu - only instead of uncontrollable vomit and heaving, I had copious words and ideas flowing from my pen. I told a friend that if I didn't have to eat and sleep and rest my brain, I could keep writing endlessly.

And then Adam arrived. He set to work, quietly and methodically and by the end of that first day, he had hammered in the wooden frame that would be the walls of the new laundry area and the doorway to the foreshortened office.

I felt like I was watching my own process made visible.

It was very satisfying.

It turns out a novel takes longer to hatch than a laundry room. And a laundry room, possibly, pays better. We did our first load of laundry last night and there were no leaks, no sprays, no running down to the dingy basement. I felt like a queen. But a substantial part of that satisfaction was that someone, once again, had taken my ideas and direction and made it real.

My job is to bring the same workmanship and craftsmanship to the novel. And then, hopefully, to experience even deeper satisfaction from being the one who can make it so.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Anthony Doerr on Writing and Seeing

Upon the occasion of watching a cardinal announce the selection of a new Pope in Rome.

"Every story seeks, in Emerson's words, the 'invisible and imponderable,' Faith, loss, emotional contact. But to get there, oddly enough, the storyteller must use the visible, the physical, the eminently tangible; the reader first and foremost must be convinced. And details - the right details in the right places - are what do the convincing. The ringing mouth of a 9-ton bell, green with verdigris, shows itself, then sweeps away again. A gilded carpet unfurls from a balcony. Two three-story curtains ripple, then part. A man steps into the light.

"The glory of architecture, the puffing chimney, the starched white robe - these details are carefully chosen, they are there to reinforce majesty, divinity, to assure us that what is said to be happening actually is happening.

"And doesn't a writer do the same thing? Isn't she knitting together scraps of dreams? She hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let a reader see, small and hear a world that seems complete in itself, she builds a stage set and painstakingly hides all the struts and wires and nail holes, then stands back and hopes whoever might come to see it will believe.

"As I work on yet another draft of my story, I try to remember these lessons. A journal entry is for its writer: it helps its writer refine, perceive, and process the world. But a story, a finished piece of writing - is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world - the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream,. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last.

"Every morning I try to remind myself to give unreservedly, to pore over everything, to test each sentence for fractures in the dream."

Two more:
"In a poem, Tom Andrews once asked the Lord to 'afflict me with Attention Surplus Disorder so I can see what is in front of my face.'"

"The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself."

Amen, amen and amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Things

1. "Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We'd pass out every time we saw - actually saw - a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there'd be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs." Anthony Doerr - Four Seasons in Rome

2. A woman I know only slightly lost her daughter on the weekend - a virus, complications from surgery, bleeding brain. She was 16 and lovely. An only child.

3. One Day on Earth

One Day on Earth - Original Trailer from One Day On Earth on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Savour, Squander, Hoard

There was a widow in a famine who took in a prophet even though all she had was a small jar of oil and a small bowl of flour. And yet, there was enough for three years of famine. It was a miracle.

On Sunday, I was listening to a food show on the radio. The guest ran olive oil tastings from his store and suggested the listeners at home find olive oil in the cupboard and taste along with him. Pour it in a small cup, he suggested. Hold it in your hand to warm it. Inhale deeply the cut-grass smell. Pull the oil into your mouth in a quick gulp and then swallow.

I found the silver metal can of olive oil we had received in exchange for a litre of maple syrup when we visited Florence last year. It was the olive oil that had introduced me to how good oil can be. We had used it sparingly but it seemed to last and last and I often thought of Elijah and the widow. Maybe it would never run dry.

Olive oil can last up to two years, the radio guest said, depending on how it is stored. We stored ours in the back of a dark kitchen cupboard.

I took my oil can out. It had always reminded me of a motor oil can. I loved that rugged efficiency - the contrast to the fancy-schmancy bottles in many stores. Their effort went into the oil itself. It was cold-pressed extra-virgin greenness. The woman who traded with us explained that it should never be ruined by mixing it with vinegar. You did that with inferior oils. This one would be best drizzled over bread with a sprinkle of salt on top. Oh, she was right.

I poured the oil into an egg cup and held it in my hands to warm it. And I looked into its depths and there was a trickle of what looked like motor oil suspended in the green liquid. I smelled it - it smelled fine. I dipped a finger - it tasted fine. But I was still dubious. I got a larger glass bowl and poured more. More motor oil. I suspect the can had actually rusted or something had fallen in and gone mouldy.

I poured the rest of the contents into the glass bowl and looked at the measuring lines on the side. A hundred millitres remained.

Fully ten percent of the elixir of Italian delight. Ruined.

I wasn't sure I would be able to dump it down the drain, but I did. It was the last day of summer holidays - New Year's Eve, so to speak. A day for reflection.

Apparently, fully 30% of all purchased food gets thrown out, mostly ruined. According to that measure, my ten percent loss looked pretty good. And it had not been two years and we had kept our oil can correctly stored. But there were more meals I would like to have had with it. More bread to have eaten.

And the summer? And my life? What do I throw away, unused, unappreciated in my life? It does not come back. It goes rancid. What do I throw away by trying to hoard? I throw away the present moment. I always, always struggle with this, tending to live in the past and the future, tending to tinker with the present to make it better. At the end of the first year of my oldest son's life, I realized I could not have savoured it more. I felt pretty much the same way about our two weeks holiday this summer. But so much of the time, I hold back and hoard.

The widow kept spending her oil. She wanted to hoard it. Common sense said to do so. But she spent it and spent it and it was renewed.

The oil went down the drain. The oil can is going off to be recycled. But at the start of this new year, I wonder: how can I spend every single drop? how can I squander less and hoard less? how can I savour every drop?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bliss - Part II

(Did you worry I would forget to write Part II?)

The cottage is what we call it. Like it's ours. It actually belongs to my sister and her husband, but for years before they had kids, they encouraged us to use it when they couldn't, so we feel a strong sense of attachment to the place.

But that's not quite it. Eight years ago, I had hurt my back two weeks before we were scheduled to go for our first visit. It became a goal for my physios to get me there: fourteen hours away. It probably helps to give a physio patient a goal. So, that became it for me. I was sternly told to stop every 1.5 hours, get out a little yoga mat on the side of the road and do my exercises. Which I did. I saw a lot of Ontario and Quebec from ground level. I remember though, after three days of driving and stretching, getting out of the car and walking straight past the house down the steps to the beach, standing there and surveying the sweep of the St. Lawrence at half-tide. I felt triumphant that I had made it. I felt home. Right from that first moment.

The cottage is in a curious situation. Bear with me if you've heard the story before. In the mid-19th century, a number of English Montreal elites sought a restful summer place with good air for their families in the summer. They settled on this place and built their three-story summer homes along the curve of the bay. Their heirs, by birth and sensibility, still return each year. They golf and play tennis, hold dinner parties and tournaments, engage locals to weed, mow lawns, maintain homes, serve food, and care for children. A read through the golf club membership directory reveals celebrated last names - and often first names that sound like names I would give only to a pet. All this in the midst of a separatist region of Quebec where even the tourist centre staff may speak no English.

My sister often encourages us to get involved at the Club, but we have no interest at all. For us, it is and has always been about the natural beauty and the isolation of the place. It is a dramatic contrast to our regular life and it refreshes us like nothing else.

After our first visit to the cottage, I started a novel set there. And then another. I am about to embark on a third. I spent a good deal of time this past year revising my books for (hopeful) publication. In a sense, I have come to live in this place (although I decided I like my fictional town even more).

This summer when I returned, it was as if someone had fine-tuned my every sense. I started carrying my notebook around like Harriet the Spy, observing every little smell, sight and sound. I realized that this place is my muse. It inspires me and speaks to me at a very deep level. It's the ground of my stories for now. No matter that my sister now has three loud preschoolers who spend the entire summer at the cottage. I would wake at 5 most mornings and write. I had a sense of incredulity the whole time - "I really get to be here. Right now, in this place." - as if it were life imitating art.

But the other source of delight was that we did all our favourite things and every new thing we did was wonderful. As usual, we visited the honey place - finding the queen bee and squeezing samples onto popsicle sticks before choosing a box filled with jars of different varieties; we went to the steamy bakery and bought cream buns; we went to the little store for candy; we made stores on the beach (this year they sold hot stone massages and skipping stones); we walked and walked the beaches. But, we also discovered the 50,000,000 year old fairy caves on a half-washed out gravel road inland from Ste-Leandre, at the northern edge of the Appalachians. It was a wonderful challenging hike, complete with swimmable waterfalls, piles of deer poop and wild blueberries. We found an organic herb store that made and sold knots of soap that smelled like every good Gaspesian thing. We found a new bakery. We tried wines and ice wine at a winery we had heard of but never found before. Best of all, we discovered the Jardins. I had assumed that the Reford Gardens would be snobby and boring. Their signage was muted and tasteful. I had been in their high-end gift shop before. But this year we went inside and we discovered the International Garden Festival they hold every year. And we discovered that it was the most playful, creative place. It was delightful in every way. I laughed and gasped and held my breath. I got glimpses of the St. Lawrence through the trees. It was stunning.

Probably best of all on our trip, I had the sense of being utterly outside time. From the start to the finish. I more or less knew what day it was but that was all.I even had none of the usual sense of melancholy as our trip drew to a close.

I was very low when I got home and everything - the washing machine, the hard drive, the modem - broke in very quick succession the next morning. I wanted to be in a place where I could speak French and smell sea air and eat sugary things. I didn't want to be in poky, landlocked southwestern Ontario. If I could bring the sea and the French here, I would be okay, I though, or if I could bring my friends and family there. I started looking at Quebec real estate and to make a case for a job exchange. Not one family member would agree to consider it.

And then, I was brushing my teeth, and I suddenly thought about my fiction: I can live there, I thought, even when I'm here. And the bliss seeped back in.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bliss - Part I

I struggle to explain how deliriously happy I was on our trip to Quebec.

It has been our custom, for the last nine years, to spend time at my sister's cottage in Quebec - four hours north-east of Quebec City on the Gaspe Peninsula. I fell in love with the Gaspe the first time we went and spent a good deal of the following winter pining for the beach there, and wishing I could see it draped in snow and ice. The next time we went, it poured and fogged and drove us half-insane. I did not love it so much. But we returned each year, varying our trip there, discovering traditions (visiting one of my best friends and my brother en route, eating decadent fine-chocolate-dipped ice cream, buying packages of plump dried cranberries, eating poutine and St. Hubert and sugar pie and cream buns. Okay, apparently it's all about the food.) I also, early on, began to write a novel set there - after a board member of the local English school there asked my husband to move there to teach. Who would say yes, I wondered. Now I know and am embarking on my third novel about that person and that place.

This last year, I really buckled down to finish up both of my first two novels set on the Gaspe. I hired a fine editor to work with me and I spent diligent, delightful hours being ruthless with my prose, shaping it until it shone to the best of my abilities.

In some ways, I lived in this lovely French-Canadian village all year.

But, it was not just that that made me feel so happy. I know this because I can pinpoint the exact moment my bliss began: there was a bad, lane-blocking crash on the 401 near Bowmanville, which meant we took back roads through suburban Pickering and Oshawa. It was just as we got off the 401 on the far side of Toronto for this long annoyance of a detour that my happiness set in. I was with the people I loved, I was heading in the direction I orient to, and there was nothing we needed to be doing but enjoying the ride. So we did.

We took a very different route this year than we have in the past. Usually, after Quebec City, we continue on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, which generally consists of rolling narrow parcels of farmland, punctuated by the occasional town, zinc-topped steeple, or hummock of a small mountain. This year, we took the north shore, and then took a ferry across the St. Lawrence.

The North Shore is wilder, with steep drops and curves, as you drive on and around mountains. Some of the north shore was shaped by a massive meteorite. We started at Ste. Anne de Beaupre church, marvelling at the artistry of this almost-European cathedral and at the crutches no longer needed, hanging on pillars inside the church. We decided to take our time en route too, stopping to sample food in the famed Charlevoix region. We stopped in the town of Baie-St-Paul, which was as touristy as our St. Jacobs on a Saturday. We gave it a shot, but quickly moved on. We discovered a wonderful village just past B-S-P. It was right on the water, but to get to it involved taking an 18% grade road. In all our travels, I'm not sure we've encountered such a precipitous drop. Our new car struggled mightily to get up the hill on our way out of town. But first, we visited a wonderful bakery where we ate lunch - a delicious regional meat pie - and visited an atelier where they made their own paper and paper art, and another where santons or little clay figures of Nativity scenes and Quebecois scenes were crafted.

Eventually we reached the Saguenay fjord, where the water that met the St. Lawrence is 200 metres deep and home to a resident pod of beluga whales. The fjord is about half a kilometre wide and because, presumably, the water is too deep to put a bridge in (or possibly too beautiful), they run car ferries year-round, 24 hours a day, every 10 minutes. ("I hope they change captains though," my daughter said. "That's a long day.") Some of us saw a minke whale from the deck of the ferry.

We stayed two days in the Tadoussac region and loved it thoroughly. We weren't sure how long we would like to stay, so with uncharacteristic spontaneity, we decided to not book our ferry until we were sure when we wanted to leave. We liked the place so much that we decided to stick with our original shorter length of time - and to come back next year. But when we found an Internet cafe (in a great funky restaurant where no one even looked up when we went in), the ferry we had planned to take was booked for the next three days straight. We had to recross the fjord in dense soupe des pois fog and take a ferry in tamer waters, forty minutes back.

From the bigger ferry, we saw belugas and dolphins and imagined what shipboard life would have been like for Canada's early emigrants. The water spread out around the ship as far as the eye could see, as silver as the zinc church spires, like a brilliant field.

And then, an hour on the south shore to the cottage.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tadoussac


We drive past our motel and reach the next town before we turn around in a lumber store parking lot. I have been entranced by the opportunity to speak French, but right now, I want to cut to the chase and get an answer in plain English: where is the place we are booked to stay at? Finally we spot it. There is no room, the proprietress tells the two elderly women who step briskly ahead of me into the motel unit that is the office. The proprietress is younger than me, plump with glasses and wavy brown hair pulled up behind her. She looks like someone who should be dressed in period costume at an interpretive museum. She speaks no English but she seems to understand me quite well, although she corrects my French as though I am a slow child, and her own sentences seem to end in mid-thought, quixotically.

*

We drape ourselves on the giant rocks, as if we are seals, looking into the cold depths from which sleek, glistening black backs and fins emerge at every angle unexpectedly. Farther out dolphins, grey seals and porpoises cut dancing silver crescents in the water. It is irrational, especially since I am a good swimmer and my kids swim like fish, but I am afraid that if one of us were to slip and fall into the icy water, we would immediately sink 300 metres to the river bottom. All except my daughter: her I picture astride one of the minkes, as if it were a horse, her dark hair streaming in the water behind her. I perch myself, leaning on a sunwarmed ledge of soft pink granite, my foot slipping once into into a slimy tidal pool behind me and I scan the horizon.

*

I meet a man dressed in camouflage-type clothing whose summer job it is to sit under the cover of a wooden shelter, counting whales and other aquatic mammals. He alternates between reading an apparently self-published thriller novel and looking out through tripod-mounted binoculars. I ask him if this is both a wonderful and terrible summer job. It must be hard on the eyes, I say. This morning, he says, I stared into the sun for two hours straight. Everything was shadowed afterward.

*

We climb the wrong dunes. We have been told that Tadoussac has impressive sand dunes. You can sand-ski down the dunes, but you may break a leg. You must climb to the top of the dunes and roll down laughing. We climb the dunes, so steep and thick that we move in slow motion and our legs ache with the effort. It is nearly sunset. We try sliding but there are rocks and scrubby plants, so we run down, thudding and laughing to the bottom. I find a bank card in the midst of this strange desert and decide I must ask a group of young adults if it is theirs. They look at me quizzically. It is not theirs. And later, we discover we climbed down the "other" dunes. But by then, we have decided we will return. And then we will find the right hill.

*

At the day's end, we seek a place to eat dinner. I am tired and do not want loud music and chatter from the tables around us. We find a pub and follow a ship's captain in full regalia into the pub. Our menu options are: flabby spicy chicken wings, steaming hot lasagna, a spinach-potato-salmon appetizer. I choose wine and the appetizer. We sit upstairs where the sea captain joins an elderly man at the brightly lit electronic gambling machine and where I have a view of the door. For some reason, I love this place. It feels like a place where the locals come, and indeed I wish we were there on one of the karaoke nights they advertise in the tiny washroom with the cherry-scented soap. Rhubarb grows in the garden behind the pub.

*

As I fall asleep at night, my husband's heavy exhale reminds me exactly of the huff of a dolphin or a juvenile minke, releasing air as it surfaces. I do not surface: I fall into deep sleep, the sounds of the logging trucks and motorcycles dimly heard as I dream.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Black Cat


Yesterday morning I woke up early and biked to the local Anglican church. I haven't done that in a while, and I've missed it. As I was biking along, something crossed the road in front of me. As I drew closer, I realized it was a cat. A black one. I said hello to it and biked on. And then, I remembered that it was bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. I'm not superstitious, but I held that cat in my mind, considering it. I wondered how that became a superstition, what reality there could be to it and how my day would unfold.

After that church, I went with my family to our church. Our eldest was refereeing a soccer tournament and we picked him up, mowed the lawn, finished last minute packing fro our daughter's week at camp, jumped in the pool, ate lunch and left for camp. Actually, some of us left for camp. The boys stayed here on their own, with a World Cup final to watch, twenty dollars for a supper adventure, and phone numbers of nearby adults. Dave and I, along with Megan and her best friend, took off down the 401 and up the 400 to just past Gravenhurst. It was our first big trip in our new vehicle and other than slight seasickness in stop and go traffic in Toronto, and a sore behind after 7 hours in the car, the drive went beautifully.

The girls chattered the entire way to camp about what they were expecting and hoping for. We listened to the BBC commentators splutter about the World Cup and its umpteen yellow cards.

At camp, we were greeted at Cabin 6 by a Very Loud Singing Girl. She reminded me of my hospital roommate when I was eight and recovering from anesthetic. Then, Megan's counsellor barely recognized her existence. She did get a top bunk by a window though. Finally, when I asked about whether they needed a note so that Megan could come home from camp with her friend's parents, they shrugged the question off, leaving me to worry that they would either allow her to leave with anyone or that it would be mass chaos at the end, and they would presume everyone would end up with the right parents. I thought of that black cat and did not feel confident about her security at camp. I redrafted our church's policies this year on protecting kids, so maybe I'm more sensitive than most about this. And, we don't have a rogue parent or person in our life who shouldn't pick Megan up. Still, these policies have a reason. I planned to cry after dropping her off and I did, but my tears felt a bit heavier than just missing her. I hope they are vigilant.

We stopped at Weber's on the way back home and Spain won the World Cup at that moment and the rain stopped and we had a picnic for two. It was very very nice and the whole thing gave me a glimpse of a nice empty nest in another dozen years. The boys checked in with us to tell us they were walking to Dairy Queen for supper. We made a u-turn south of Barrie for butter tarts. We also resolved the enormous work-house-church-life balance questions I have been wrestling with this summer. Truly we did. We've talked - poor Dave - about these questions a lot, but yesterday, driving alone through green rolling hills on a quiet evening, my understanding fell into place. I know my matrix now - how I will make decisions. That's all I needed.

And then, I got home and had a letter from my literary agent in my inbox. It was another rejection from a high-end publisher whose reading of my writing made him a fan. He was very flattering, but alas, had to wash his hair. I have been convinced that to take these letters at face value: that while they try not to be mean and nasty, they will say what they really mean. They will not lie to soften the blow. It's a business. So, I had mixed feelings on this. Then, an hour later, another email, about a terrific work opportunity I had thought was lost, and apparently isn't. More on that later when I know more.

I'm not sure what to make of that cat. I'm not sure it was a lucky day or an unlucky day. What I know is that it was a full, full day and that I was glad to crawl into my bed and dream quiet dreams.