Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When the Dog Bites

No, no, no. I did not get bitten again. That was so early March. But while no new tragedies or insanity has befallen my family, some are lingering.

Tonight I began to think of the journal I kept when I was in late high school in the late 1980s. I have that journal somewhere in a box in the basement. It's floral covered with big unlined pages and I wrote my idealistic thoughts and observations in it - as well as my Top 10 Lists of Boys I Liked - using a fountain pen.

One day I decided to make a list of my favourite things. It became a full page of sensory detail. When I found the journal and the list a few years ago, I was happily surprised by how many of the things on the list I still liked.

So given that the dog has bitten - literally and figuratively - this month, I thought I would create a list of my current favourite things. Please feel free to share your own list in the comment section below.

Summer rain on a flat metal roof.
The smell of the ocean.
Dark coffee and the baristas who remember how I take it
Grana Padano cheese
Pino Grigio in a thin wine glass
Cashmere socks
Choral music on a winter's night
Cross-country skiing
Naming things, pets and people
Laughing until tears pour down my face
The back of a baby's neck
The leg muscles of a runner
Twilight (not the book nor the movie)
Stewart & Colbert
Arugula from the garden
Trying to speak another language and the accompanying charm it requires
Collecting sea glass
Scented violets
Three year olds
The montage at the end of the Olympics that makes me cry
Henry Moore sculptures
Michelangelo Bound Slave sculptures
Making a feast
Dark chocolate
Montreal bagels
Someone making food for me
A clean counter
Flowering bulbs in the winter
Pussy willows
The ache of bare trees in late autumn
Garbage trucks that take it all away
Good neighbours
Finding the perfect gift
The ideas of children
The laughter of children
Goofy teenagers
Room temperature drinking water - cool but not cold
Playing Hide and Seek
Line-dried cotton sheets
The right word
Black licorice
A good story
Farmers Markets: particularly ByWard, St.Lawrence and Santa Croce
Olive trees
Orange blossoms
Brushing against a tomato plant
Painted toenails
Bedtime conversation

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saying the Unsayable

Let me plot for you the trajectory of my Facebook life over the last month or so:

1. Urgent request for health information when dizzy stomach flu hit my house.
2. Missives from the front.
3. Brief psychotic break* with short postcards from my Walter Mitty-esque adventures.
4. lower case phrases exhibiting inability to raise my energy level to the height of a capital or a full sentence
5. Small observations about the good things in life.
6. General silence.

Facebook and I have long had a complicated relationship, as you no doubt know. This winter, I came to terms with Facebook largely - and recognized that it was not entirely benign but the larger issues were mine. Dealing with that, rather than quitting the site, was how I decided to proceed.

So this isn't a rant against social media. Just an observation.

My life has been a series of unfortunate events for the last month or so, and I have lost the ability to discuss this on Facebook. In spare moments - or stolen ones like this one - I'm trying to understand why this is.

I'm not someone who posts my prettiest self on Facebook, so it isn't that I think "if you can't say anything nice..."

It kind of relates to my theory that as troubles increase, self-pity must decrease. There simply isn't room for it. And how do you blithely announce to all and sundry the latest trouble?

I do fear I will come across as Debbie Downer - I know I do when I list all the Stuff.

But it's also that what is happening is too real to toss off lightly to the masses. People half-read things - whether it's here or on Facebook or anywhere. People who read my earlier posts on Facebook (when I was in Stage II as listed above) meet me on the street and say, "So, you've been sick, eh?" For the record, I am the last one standing - or as my corrected friend said, "You're the Immunity Idol."

That's the other thing. Sometimes it's all so bad, it's funny. And sometimes something beautiful and tender and true happens - and it would cheapen it all to say it on the social network.

A man from our church died recently and I found out about it on Facebook. Let me say clearly how deeply wrong I believe it was for the information to be passed along in that public way.

Weirdly though, the very best thing that has happened in the midst of all this has a Facebook connection too. A friend of a Facebook friend helped me to ease the burden of the person in my life who is struggling the most. There was miracle and persistence and coincidence and serendipity and providence and gift and relief - but there was also Facebook as the vehicle.

So, far be it from me to condemn the thing just now. It's just that I have no words.

* Disclaimer: Not a real psychotic break.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Thing With Wings

One of my sisters says: It's all about managing your expectations.

So, what did I expect?

I expected that after a solid month of car accident, multiple violent stomach flu episodes, dog bites, new jobs and more, it would not be too much to ask that we could enjoy a nice weekend away with our kids on the March Break.

A friend who had heard about our calamities laughed. I bet you kind of want to stay inside and hope a tree doesn't fall on your house, she said.

I kind of did. But hope being the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all (thanks ED), I booked a hotel room and made tentative plans.

And then.

Then, my sister's family needed our help in Toronto and so we spent the first afternoon and evening of our getaway looking after her small people. And then, my daughter woke up feeling more than slightly queasy the next morning, and sagged when we even tried to take a walk to the harbour.

Gentle Reader, I could not hear the thing with wings for quite a while.

I sat in the hotel lobby late last night, with my husband, because our daughter had insisted on sleeping in our hotel room and our big plans for booking two whole hotel rooms for our family - one for the parents only - had been squashed. We watched a couple get evicted from the hotel by security - she pulling her shirt up to flash a black bra in defiant, drunken protest - and realized it could be worse.

I also realized that it had not been what I hoped it would be, this March Break getaway, but it had not been a horror. I've been terribly lucky in so many ways for so much of my life. So much so that my hope muscles were stiff with disuse.

I started with gratitude - that we had not gone farther away; that we never had our sleep interrupted; that our hotel was directly across the road from our favourite Toronto restaurant (and we went, leaving the just-old-enough sickish child on her own with a television remote and a cell phone); that we could walk to the market and the lakeshore; that we could watch molten glass being blown and pulled and hammered and shaped; that we could skate on a broad and tended outdoor surface, that we saw a woman who dwarfed me, a man dressed like Batman, a dog the size of a pony; that there was no snow in Toronto; that we had a wonderful time with our nieces and nephew; that we could help; that we could visit our newest nephew and hold him; that there was a Starbucks within walking distance and my favourite linens store had a 50% off everything sale; that the sun on my face was warm; that I found a breathtaking basket for my bike; that we all loved each other; that there was no earthquake, no tsunami, no lifelong health struggles.

To be honest, that didn't quite do it.

We were more or less grounded by my daughter's illness and so we took turns with the boys, walking along the harbourfront and the city streets. Everywhere we went, our son Matt brought one of three cameras. Between Saturday and Monday, he shot close to a thousand images.

As we returned home today, I was weary and not as revived by the break as I had hoped to be. My daughter was still feeling unwell and I was starting to be concerned. She joined us for our simple supper, and managed to eat for the first time in days. As we finished the meal, Matt downloaded his photos into a slide show on the nearby computer and we sat and watched his impressions.

He may be a sporty teenager, but he's also an artist who loves line and shape and texture. He experiments with shutter speed and light. He has an incredible eye.

He also loves little details that most of us would miss. A fraying rope on a ship, tied up for the winter. A happy dog with a tennis ball in his mouth. An old brick building framed on either side by glittering skyscrapers. Dappled light and rippling water.

And pigeons. Oh, good glory, the boy was inspired.

Walking pigeons, soft-shoe pigeons, fearless pigeons. Pigeons and seagulls. Seagulls in flight. Swans against the black velvet harbour at night. Harlequin-like long-tailed ducks, turning to show their plumage. Pigeons with dancing children and silly adults.

It wasn't the trip we had hoped for. I'm not even sure that it was the holiday we needed. What I know is that as I watched the trip through the eyes of the boy who had walked alongside me, my heart took flight and, without words, I knew the tune of hope.


A long time ago, I sat in a workshop led by one of my peers who had struggled mightily with rejection on the basis of his race. This was years before Stephen Colbert announced he did not see colour, but I was perplexed, unable to enter into the guilt I was supposed to feel as a white person. I genuinely did not see this as an issue for me.

Until Mike, the man leading the session, pointed out that when his wife, who was a black woman, bought panty hose, the colour that was nude was not her nude. The penny dropped: it was not so much that I was openly racist or deliberately rejecting of people of other colours and races, as that I was naively oblivious to my culture's rejection and that I participated thoughtlessly in it.

I tend toward erring on the side of having too much of an open mind. I like to credit my intelligence for my waffling and my ability to see many sides of a story or an issue, but it may just be indecision. Nevertheless -- aside from despising criminals who laugh at their most heinous crimes - I don't often find myself sitting in judgment on a person or a situation. Instead, I tend to have sympathy for most people, imagining what might have brought them to the place where they would behave in such a way.

What brought me up short most recently was not pantyhose but people close to me laid bare by a series of unexpected and unfortunate events. Two friends and I were talking last week as one of them prepared to fly home to see her dying father. The other told her to leave her work behind, unless she needed to do it for her own sanity. "You need this time," he said. "To grieve and to fight with your siblings."

That's what can happen in a time of crisis, isn't it? And, apparently it is not only normal but something that should be planned for.

It isn't what happened in my real life situation, but it's what happened in my head - I sat in judgment on actions and non-actions taken by various people.

And once again, I shocked myself. Because just as I blithely chose nude pantyhose that matched my skin, so, when push came to shove, I thought my way was best and that those who chose otherwise were wrong.

Except that what they did was real and raw and true and brave. And what I thought was small and self-serving, when what was called for was pure love.

Some people think that when Christian religion calls people to repent, that it's a terrible thing that induces guilt. For me, it's an utter miracle, a blessing, grace. Because what I cannot change, I can turn from. And I can turn to One who can change me as I too apparently need to be changed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


You know how you think your family is normal until you grow up and get to know other families?

Well, I know what my kids will have to cope with someday. When they're adults, my children will have to revisit the notion that their cat was really a talking cat.

We first got a cat, eighteen years ago, not long after we moved to Waterloo. We had left our screen door open one warm evening and an orange cat wandered in, looked around and then swayed off into the night. We decided we needed our own orange cat. On Thanksgiving weekend, we went to the Humane Society and brought home a palm-sized kitten. Our kitten was so tiny, in fact, that the Humane Society staff couldn't tell whether it was a boy or a girl cat. We needed a gender-neutral name. We went to my husband's Greek-English dictionary and looked up Thanksgiving, in honour of the occasion. Eucharistia is the direct translation and so our kitten got a name that was bigger than he was.

Euchar was a stuttering kitten with a penchant for being shrunken and carried around in my pocket. At least, that was the character I assigned to him, and the voice I gave him.

When I say voice, I mean voice. I would create a persona whereby I was more or less his translator, saying the words I thought he might be saying. And he stammered his love for us.

Perhaps this was why he ran away 18 months later.

Not daunted, we adopted another cat after six months. She needed a Greek name too, we thought, and so we named her Eleuthera, which meant freedom. This was ironic since she was a declawed indoor cat.

And, maybe it's the irony of her name that determined the personality I gave to her voice.

While in reality this cat is the epitome of long-suffering patience, in my too-fertile imagination, she is a stealthy ninja, a weasel, a softened criminal, who regularly threatens to eat us and complains about the tuna shortage of the world and her own near-fainting experiences from lack of cat treats.

She has her own special voice I use for her complaints, and even her own diction. "You did not say hello of me," she whines to the kids when they walk past her.

It occurred to me one day that she's my best character. When I write fiction, the best characters just let me tell their stories and for me the experience is relaxed and playful.

It cracks me up that my kids think she really wants to give people who frustrate her "the middle paw", and maybe they will end up in therapy over this, but isn't that also what good fiction does -- makes us believe hook, line and sinker in the words and existence of a make-believe character, at least for the moment?

Last week, someone came to our house and saw our cat for the first time. "She looks like a cat from a fairy tale - like a talking cat."

You have no idea, I thought.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Giving It Away

Entering on the journey to publication is not for the faint of heart.

I started writing fiction the year after Megan was born. Nine years ago. I make the link between her birth and writing although it certainly wasn't a conscious decision and even now, I'm not sure what the link was. All I know is that after the birth of my last child, I began to gestate stories and to be great with characters.

My first little book took a year to write and a year to find a publisher, and then one more year until it came out. There was a year of promotion that followed.

In that second year - the one of finding a publisher - I got my hopes up repeatedly and had them dashed repeatedly. A publisher asked to see the manuscript and I began checking my email mailbox and my real mailbox several times a day within about two weeks of sending it in.

That first rejection took four months. I assumed I would lick my wounds for a while afterward and then decide what to do next, but what I actually did was to send it out again the next day.

The publisher who took the book was Lucky 13. Unluckily, the publisher went bankrupt a year later, leaving me to sell the rest of the books.

I met a woman at a conference soon after my first book came out. She had several books published and made an offhand comment that stuck with me: You're only as good as your last book. She herself felt a kind of desperate fear that she always had to have a new book ready in the wings, that there couldn't be a lull or else. She didn't exactly explain what the "or else" was -- but it would be dire.

So, I got right to work on my next book. It was longer, however, and more complex and made me doubt myself periodically. I had doubted myself wit the first book, but when that happened, I felt no pressure -- I was having fun. Having had one book published, I felt the need to get the next one published. Or else.

The next one didn't get published. Hasn't been published. At least not yet. I have since, however, written two sequels to this book.

I've had a few very kind people tell me about ads they have seen in magazines offering book publication to writers. My well-meaning friends who suggest I self-publish want to read another book of mine and they want to help me succeed. But what I learned through the process of the first book is that distribution is key - if people can't buy your book, it won't sell. Unless you have an amazing platform or are writing a family history and only want to have copies for all the cousins, I don't think self-publishing is for you. Or for me.

Someone else recently suggested e-books to me, not knowing what a complete Luddite I actually am. I still have to think about this one.

I have a new and interesting option I'm currently involved with. I hope it will lead to publication, but I've learned that hope is something you engage in for the long haul. Hope in this business requires either genius or patience - and ideally both.

But, I came across an idea a few weeks back. It was written by a pre-published author. I'd link to it if I could find it again. But the idea has stayed with me. This author has created a website that offers a home for the world of her story. If you go to her website, you can learn all about the characters and the world of the story. If it were Harry Potter's world, there'd be a map of Hogwarts, a list of food available at Hogsmeade, and that sort of thing. But the other cool thing she offers is complete short stories involving her characters. These aren't book excerpts - something she says leaves readers feeling ripped off and left hanging. Instead these are complete gifts to the reader, something that will be satisfying in and of themselves and leave you wanting to read more. I found this idea fascinating.

For now, I'm going to keep pursuing my new option. But, in the back of my mind, I'm remembering what this unnamed author said: You don't want a publisher. You want readers. A publisher is a way to that end, but there are other ways, ways that put the power back in the writer's hands. That power is to give stories away.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Both writers and readers.