Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rock Garden

So, I have this stupid rock garden.

Don't get me wrong. I have two vegetable gardens that bring me great delight (and hopefully great zucchini and striped beets this year). It's this stupid rock garden that makes me growl.

First of all, it's big. Secondly, whoever planted it wanted plants to succeed each other throughout the growing season. This may be lovely and all, but it also makes for a very full garden. And, did I mention the rocks? Here's what rocks do in a garden: they harbour fugitive weeds. And, as soon as I've finished weeding the garden, they release new ones.

Finally, my garden has a couple of very subtle weeds that lurk in it, most notably Creeping Charlie. Two years ago, old Chuck took over half of our back lawn and even the region's environmentalists threw up their hands and told us to spray it dead. We have a new lawn now, but we weren't about to spray the rock garden. It is pretty, at least.

So, I go outside to look at the tulips in bloom, to see what survived the winter and what didn't. I'm itching to get my fingers into soil and so far only the peas have come up in the vegetable garden. I get a tool and pull out dandelions from the garden. And then I sit on one of the rocks and pull handful after handful of weeds. And I put my eye right down to the thyme and the violets and find tendrils of Creeping Charlie sneaking through them, and I slip a finger beneath and pull them out. I make mounds of pulled weeds. I snap off dead branches and twigs.

And then two days later, I do it all over again.

When we moved into this house, the rock garden was home to sumac and goldenrod. Shrubs had run rampant and Chuck had had his way with it. I knew it was a recovery operation and I was happy to do it. What I'm less happy about is that it comes back. Really really fast.

(I will say that I am grateful for the garden. I do take photos of it. I make bouquets from it. I cut chives from it for salads. I know my apartment-dweller friends wish they could have a garden. I have opted not to bulldoze it. But still, my relationship with the garden is tenuous - like a pet the kids promised to feed and clean up after which ends up being the parent's responsibility on a dark winter morning.)

Maybe it was because the sun felt good on my back as I weeded the other day. Maybe it was because the kids were playing nicely. Maybe it was because the rain had softened the ground and the weeds weren't playing hard to get. Maybe it was because the double colour of the lungwort was stunning.

Because what happened was this: I started to see the stupid rock garden as a metaphor for my inner life. Or at least that I approach both in the same way, willing to do the big recovery project more than the daily tending, frustrated that weeds come back, wanting everything to stay the same like furniture does once it is arranged. It's that Creeping Charlie that bugs me. In my inner life, anxiety is like Creeping Charlie. It's insidious and seems to survive regardless of what I do. I'd like to blast it with chemicals sometime, but I'm afraid of wrecking the rest of the garden. Like the garden, I get frustrated with what is left undone in my inner work. I want it all weeded now, thank you very much. I remember when we moved to another house with a rundown yard and I assumed we could pick all the dandelions in the bright yellow backyard in oh, an hour or so. Five hours later we had cleared a small patch.

I wonder what would happen if I shifted perspective. In my garden and life, what if I just worked happily on a little area each day and then smiled at the progress. And then the next day did a bit more elsewhere and sniffed the lavender. If I accepted that the weeds will come, that the presence of weeds is not an affront to my hard work or a failure, but just reality in a broken beautiful world. I don't want to embrace the weeds, to welcome whatever the wind blows into the garden - I can't imagine cultivating Creeping Charlie as a friend, but I want to learn to recognize where he lurks and to calmly remove him before he takes over.

There's a parable like this - about letting weeds grow up with good crops for fear of destroying the good in removing the bad. It's a parable about why God allows evil. It might explain Creeping Charlie, anxiety and the other weeds that lurk within my garden, hidden under rocks.

Growing a garden is not like arranging furniture. Things change. Things sprout up or are choked off. It's a work in progress. Learning to accept this is a process for me too.

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.
Gardening is an instrument of grace.
- May Sarton

Gardening is an active participation in
The deepest mysteries of the universe.
- Thomas Berry

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Loose Change

Neil Gaiman writes, "I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces [by Joseph Campbell, whose work seems to describe themes in Gaiman's work] and found myself thinking if this is true — I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is."

I am currently trying to decide whether to spend money we don't have to take a course at Regent College in Vancouver this summer. The course is a theology one for artists. Which is what I am interested in exploring. But, I resonate with Gaiman's quote deeply too, and find myself less interested in talking about theology - or any ology - than either doing it or illustrating it. The course dovetails pretty perfectly into other summer plans and gives me a chance to satisfy my Vancouver craving. It might also let me see an old friend I really need to hang out with. But, it's money we don't have. It probably costs the same as replacing our shed, which we had already planned to put off because of the cost. And, what if my Gaiman-like gut is right?

Do I search the couches for loose change to finance this trip or not?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Runner's High

The urge to pin a number to my shirt caught me unawares. It was a cold and stormy evening, a miserable April Saturday. My ten year old son had been training all winter for the 5K. The Endurace, they called it. The name was apt. The gun blew at six pm, as did the sleet, the wind and the runners. 263 of them across the line, down the road, along the lake, up a slow, merciless incline, followed by a steep hill. By the time my son came gasping down the hill, 21 minutes and three seconds later, I was nearly in tears.

And weirdly, I wanted to be part of it.

There were people in much worse shape than me in the race, people panting, people not finishing. And there were families running together. My boy came in first for his age, 33rd overall. But before the race, he quoted Florence “Flo Jo” Griffith-Joyner to me: “We run because it makes us feel like winners – no matter how slow or how fast we go.” That’s what I wanted. I have no idea why.

I ran at the age of thirteen or so. Ran a gruelling 10K that started with a punishing hill, saw me in the lead briefly partway through the course, and ended with me coming across the finish line in tenth place. I’m not sure why I stopped running. I remember it hurt but like childbirth, the pains have slipped into fuzzy memory.

Starting again has something to do with skiing too. This past winter I discovered the joys of cross-country skiing, and skied compulsively, joyfully three times a week. More if I could get it. And then the snow melted – and I was the only sorry person I knew. My skiing was ponderous. OK, it wasn’t, but it felt like it compared to the Olympians slicing up and down hills, like bears were chasing them. Me, I just kept shaving minutes off my time gradually, enough to be drenched in sweat and smiles, but not enough that I lost the opportunity to look at the changing sky, and to hear the sighs of the wind in the trees.

So today, I arranged a stop at the sporting goods store where our only purchases for the last eight years have been for my husband and kids. The sporty members of the family. Today, it was my turn. First, I found shoes. Good, sproingy shoes, shoes I pray will cushion my back from further injury. I have a numb left foot from old herniated disk issues. I am not calling my physiotherapist for permission on this one. I may regret this. I picked out my first white socks in more than two decades. Sporty socks. For me. And then I moved to the clearance rack, looking for clothes that will wick away moisture. My husband found me looking at baggy black stuff. Try this, he said, holding up a turquoise shirt. I did, along with a magenta shirt. I ended up going with the pink one and a pair of black shorts.

Look at me, I said to the kids. I’m your new Athletic Mom. They agreed – or humoured me – that I looked the part.

A friend with a herniated disk said to start slowly – run a minute, walk a minute. Our award-winning runner agreed to train with me – on the condition that one of my new pairs of socks could be his. He ran at his pace and I ran at mine. He called back encouragement and ran ahead, lightly. “What do you think?” he asked eagerly. “Are you enjoying this?” My cardiovascular was pretty good from skiing, but my legs, even in sproingy shoes, were lead weights. “No,” I replied. “But I’m not hating it either.” I ran my first minute pretty well, walked it off, ran another a little more slowly, walked, and then didn’t manage the whole third minute before my leg started to hurt. We ordered chicken and fries for dinner. This is not our usual fare.

All evening, I kept my running gear on. Our neighbour, who will be running a marathon next week and who has had bleeding toes and tears, stopped by to talk with my husband. He can tell I’m a runner now, I said afterwards.

After the kids were in bed, my husband and I went out for a walk. Only tonight I ran a block and ran back to him, walked a minute and ran again. And this time I managed four sets.

“I like this,” my husband said. “You’ve got a sparkle about you.”

“It’s a runner’s high,” I explained.

“You broke through the wall?”

“You have no idea,” I said. “We run because it makes us feel like winners. No matter how slow or how fast we go.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I'm Bored

I am sitting on my back porch, watching four robins and two unidentified birds vie for real estate and mates. They are not quiet. My cat is enchanted. The forsythia is in full Technicolour bloom and the air is as soft as a kiss.

I had a sickish child home with me today, and I was aching with exhaustion from having a sick child awake in the night last night (after a couple of killer long days). Nevertheless, I managed to write a beautiful, beautiful scene to fill in a blank in the book I am revising. (I also managed to paint her and my toenails alternating toes of magenta and petal pink.)

I'm planning a birthday party for my grandmother's 90th, have a couple of interesting work projects on the table and the horizon, not to mention the garden which is springing up.

So, bored may not exactly be the word. And I am, as mentioned, super-tired, so, like my kids, I may be too fatigued to amuse myself. But, what I'm itching for is something completely entertaining, something clever, something amusing, something creative and exciting and witty. I think my larder needs filling up.

Here's what I have determined through careful research: it's not on television or the Internet. Seriously, I've checked.

Tonight, sleep is the priority. And tonight, two books on reserve are coming home from the library to me. But, I need a mental spring tonic. My writing is going astonishingly well, and it energizes me, but it also saps some of my creativity. I need to get a little back.

So I'm on the lookout. Tomorrow I have my first pottery class. Maybe that will be it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Terry Fox

This is a story I have rarely told.

In the summer of 1980, I was eleven years old. Terry Fox ran through my hometown on his Marathon of Hope. We didn’t go but I wanted to. The next summer, we went on a family trip to Prince Edward Island at the end of June. I remember hearing on the radio, as we waited for the ferry, that Terry Fox had been admitted to hospital and that the end was near for him. The next day, we heard that he had died. We were staying in a bed and breakfast and I sobbed into my pillow in the night and then got up early before anyone else and wrote out my memories of Terry and what his marathon had meant to me.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the start of the marathon that still continues with annual runs. My kids have learned the mythology of the young man and have taken part in mini-versions of the run against cancer.

I don’t think my family ever knew how deeply his story touched me. I’m not sure why I never told them.

My neighbour plans to run a marathon on the last Sunday of this month. He’s a wiry man with stamina and still we’ve heard tales from his son about bleeding toes and tears. Terry Fox ran a marathon every single day, before it was de rigeur to take on such a challenge.

I read somewhere yesterday that Fox’s kind of cancer had a 50% survival rate thirty years ago, and today it has a 90% survival rate. My first thought was to wonder what kind of 52-year old man he would have become. To mourn a life cut short. And then I realized that, though a cure has not been found, cures have been. And many, thanks to funds raised by the inspiration of Terry Fox.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What I Can't Afford

A friend cancelled a much-anticipated trip this week: a strong wind blew one vehicle door into another and the repairs meant the trip was off.

When it comes to money, I often feel like I live between worlds: I have very wealthy friends and relatives but I also have friends who live frugally below the poverty line, some by choice, some not. We are somewhere in the middle. Realistically, though, we are in the top 0.1% of the world for wealth. And yet, like my friend, I am not ashamed to admit there are many things I simply cannot afford.

Last year, we traveled a ton, and had a blast. This year, we are tightening our belts, stopping the gaps where money was seeping away. We have reinstituted an old habit of giving ourselves weekly allowances. This gives us discretionary spending money but puts a limit on it. We have put a strict ceiling on our grocery shopping. We don't eat out often at all and we don't buy tons of clothes or toys, but we are being far more intentional in our thinking.

We also live in a house that costs more to operate than expected. So, we pull down and build up ourselves. And sometimes, like now, we wait and save.

At least once a year I rethink my subscription to a decorating magazine and the lust it induces. Yesterday was the most recent occasion: the latest issue features photos of a salt-water lap pool, surrounded by a newly built stone privacy fence, because the owners don't want to see the pool from their house. Frankly, I can't relate.

Sometimes I think that if a million dollars dropped in my lap, I would decorate with the best of them, but I'm not certain I would. Or at least, I'm not certain I'd like to be that person.

Dave said recently about something, "we can't afford that" and I corrected him: we choose not to afford that. We choose how we spend the money we have and we choose to be rich in time: he gets summers off, and I work as a freelancer, which means I have more control over my schedule than I would if I worked for someone else. We have time to hang out with our kids, to go to their sporting events, and to garden. We choose to own only one car. We choose to wait before we rebuild our pool shed. We choose to repair rather than replace.

To some of my acquaintances, I am rich beyond their wildest dreams, while others may consider our entire budget to be pocket change and wonder why we aren't traveling this year or renovating more, but I have always considered myself fortunate that I have never felt either rich or poor. Either one can be a burden.

In a time when people hope to start out where their parents ended up and are willing to max out their credit cards in the pursuit of stuff, I am happy to say: I can't afford to do that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Me and Facebook

A few weeks back, nearly halfway through my Lenten fast from Facebook, I read the following article: http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/03/24/north.carolina.freed.inmate/index.html?iref=allsearch

What struck me was Greg's conclusion about Facebook: "Neat but a waste of time." Last year, I also fasted from Facebook during Lent and it was a very interesting experience. I wrote Facebook statuses during the season, although did not post them until the end. I felt compelled to describe my life. I was reflective about the compulsion and the need for feedback.

Maybe it was because it wasn't the first time, but fasting from Lent this year was different. Very very quickly I stopped being inclined to pause in the middle of the action to think of a great caption that would get response from my Facebook friends. I just stopped narrating and started living.

What I missed this year was the news of others. I heard that two people had called it quits on their marriage and I broke my fast to check their relationship status on Facebook. I did go on on Sundays, briefly, not to post or to play but to scan for babies, broken bones and book news.

My fast was not the spiritual exercise it was last year. I did not come away with a sense that it drew me particularly closer to God, but it did make me recognize that I was addicted to praise or at least feedback. But I also realized that the need to communicate is a good and healthy thing. The question was where would I spend my daily allotment of words. Like a news ticker, constantly changing, the words I write on Facebook are soon replaced by other words. The quick quip, the wry comment seem easy.

A few weeks into the fast, I decided to revive this blog. I don't spend ages on it - far less than I did on Facebook frankly - but somehow it seems a bit less ephemeral, a bit more substantial an activity. I also made a point of emailing my friends more, or calling them, or even getting together. Most of all, I did not bounce back and forth to the computer, and away from my life, looking at who had commented, or "liked" what I had written. The intriguing thing to me about this blog is that very few readers are commenting here, even though I know there are a number of people reading it. I don't feel like I'm writing into a vacuum, but neither am I expecting instant gratification from it. Some of the blog posts have even been transformed into articles or pieces of writing to be shared with a wider audience.

Re-entering the Facebook world last year after Lent felt like the hesitation I experience before jumping into a cold pool - but this year I have a different metaphor: it reminds me of salt. Apparently, if you salt your food heavily, unsalted food tastes bland and tasteless. However, if you cut back salt, over time your tastebuds adjust so that even mildly salted food tastes salty to you. And over 40 days, my tastes have adjusted.

I'm back on Facebook and I know the routine, know what to do, but it's feeling a bit like going back to an old boyfriend, or a friend from long ago who expects you to be the same person you used to be - or like eating what tastes like overly salty food. I can tell that I'm adjusting to the saltiness - a few smart remarks here and there, a few approving "likes", and I'm checking lots of times a day.

It's just that I liked the fresh taste of life.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Looking for a little romance?

On the inside covers of many books, or sometimes on the back jacket, you will see a bald summary of the category they belong to: Suspense. Self-Help. Horror.

When I asked the editor I hired last fall how he would pitch my writing, his answer was: "Anne Tyler meets Canadian romance novelist." If he's right, apparently, if and when my book gets picked up, its cover will be tattooed with the word Romance.

I am not entirely sure how I feel about this. I'm rarely sentimental or maudlin. I haven't seen any of the Jane Austen adaptations, let alone attended a weekend back-to-back screening of them. I have watched several of The Lord of the Rings films back to back, but I have to admit that, in reading the series, I sometimes skipped ahead looking for scenes between Arwen and Aragorn.

This week I've been reading Stephen King's book On Writing. It is likely the first Stephen King book I've read - and it's brilliant and helpful. One thing he says is that for a long time he felt somewhat ashamed of the kind of writing he engaged in, that it wasn't Literary enough, that it appealed to much to popular audiences. But, Mr. King says, the material and the themes you write are often not yours for the choosing. They just are what they are.

And the main reason I squirm a little at the thought of being classified as a romance writer - besides the fact that I might be called upon to wear flowing dresses and heave my bodice with sighs - is that I associate the genre with cheap thrills, offering unrealistic men to unsatisfied women.

But, as King so aptly demonstrates in his own writing, there are writers in every genre who rise above the classification, who care about the reader, the characters, the language and, most importantly, the story.

So, if I can do that, okay. I'll accept the label. I think.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Braxton Hicks?

I've had a lovely, lovely Easter weekend in every respect. Woke to rain this morning and fell back asleep. By the time I woke up, it was thinking about being sunny and then it turned into a glorious day. We've enjoyed good time together as a family over the weekend, roto-tilled a new garden, watched Sherlock Holmes (meh), sang praises at church, hosted a sleepover, survived a family dinner, visited the butcher, and lots more.

The only trouble is I'm having contractions - and I hope they aren't just Braxton-Hicks ones.

Let me splain: a common malady I suffer from is dawdling with my fiction until the last hour before the family returns home for the day. I don't get like this with paid work, but sometimes I find it hard to get my head into the fiction space. Once I'm there, it's ducky. The corollary to this, of course, is that I have an incredible urge to write whenever I can't. They feel kind of like contractions.

Well, yes, I could have sat and typed on my laptop while everyone else hung loads of laundry, hunted eggs, caught fish and dug compost, but really that's not a choice. Not a good one anyhow.

Tomorrow I have to work Outside The Home because that's what I do on Tuesdays. I'm just hoping these contractions a) don't keep me up at night, b) keep going until I can write on Wednesday, and c) result in a bouncing baby chapter or two.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Risen Indeed

Oh children," said the Lion, "I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh children, catch me if you can!" He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table. Laughing, though she didn't know why, Lucy scrambled over it to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again....and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.

Friday, April 2, 2010


This is my blog. I control its content. You'd think I'd make myself slimmer, funnier, and more attractive than in real life.

Instead, you get what you get.

Right now, going to the Family Easter feels Fraught With Potential Tension. My family is experiencing the breakdown of a particular relationship and we haven't all agreed on how to proceed. Some of us have been severely criticized for our choices.

I've been really happy with how I've dealt with it all so far, but I'm not exactly sure I'm prepared to break bread with those who chewed me out so recently.


In happier news, I planted magenta primulas and the sweetest pansies ever in window boxes at the front of the house. We also gave the yard a severe raking, which felt very cleansing for it - like getting tangles out of your hair - and seeded and top-dressed it. And we went to church and it was good.

I suppose that is the tension of Good Friday - the now and the not yet. The hope that all relationships can be reconciled, even when it looks like the very end. And in the midst of that heaviness, we plant and we rake and we wait.

As for tomorrow, we've decided to go but to keep our visit shorter than planned. A serendipitous hockey final for Matt gives us a reasonable reason, I hope.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Pal Brad Pitt

So, I have this friend who's a homeless man. He sits every morning on the steps of a fancy bistro I've never gone to (because when I called them to ask their specials, a haughty voice said, "...and our liver of the day is..." and I decided to boycott). In a reedy voice, he asks passersby, politely, for fifty cents. Never more. Never less.

The bistro is a few steps away from the Ten Thousand Villages store I work at on Thursdays, and not far from the gelato store where I meet friends on Mondays. I see this gentleman regularly, but I didn't know his name - nor he mine - for a long time. We would have our exchange about money and then, as I locked my bike up, we would talk about his health, the weather and other such matters. And then, I was off.

In my mind, I started to think of him as Brad Pitt because, like Pitt, he often has beads braided into his beard.

Periodically, I have given him a cup of coffee. At Christmas, I gave him a copy of my book. In February, I gave him a small chocolate - "For Valentine's Day" I said. His face lit up with delight, but then, as I turned away to lock my bike up, I saw another look settle back into his face. Something resigned and harder. Something tired.

And I realized I was playing a bit of a game. No, I was not simply walking by.Yes, I was genuinely interested in this neighbour. No, I do not believe I was mocking him in calling him Brad Pitt. But, he was not my friend. Not really. I was reminded of the passage in the Bible where it says if we see someone in need and we wish them well without meeting those needs, our faith is dead.

I do not know how to meet this gentleman's needs. It's complicated. I don't think I need to stop offering coffee and the like. But I need to remember that he doesn't leave our exchange to go off into a nice day and a nice life. He sits on a cold stoop and sometimes he coughs a lot.

There was one thing though I thought I could do that might genuinely matter. I could ask him his name. The week after Valentine's Day, I told him my name and asked him his.

"Robert," he said, surprised. "I'm Robert."

Robert is my dad's name. It means "bright fame." When I hear his name, it changes things. Someone chose that name for him, had hopes for him that were probably higher than the shady step of a bistro. But Robert has managed to hold onto that name through everything. He didn't become Rob or Bob or Bobby or any other diminutive.

I make sure to call him Robert when I greet him now.

Today, though, I told Robert that I used to call him Brad Pitt in my mind, because they had similarly styled beards. He laughed, but afterwards, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tired look return again.