Friday, May 27, 2011


My ten year old daughter gradually covered the walls of her bedroom with images of dogs. At the top of a pyramid of cut-out calendar pictures, she affixed letters spelling out: I love dogs. She reads dog training books and dog mysteries. She saves her money and buys dog collars and leashes, which she attaches to her stuffed animals. A few weeks ago, she built and painted a doghouse out of a large cardboard box. For about three years, she has been begging and imploring us to get a dog.

Ah, we said. We have a cat. We had read studies that said you could introduce a kitten to a dog, but if you brought a puppy into a cat home, the cat would be inclined to kill, or at least hurt, the puppy. Besides, we reasoned, we couldn't do that to our beautiful old lady cat.

And then she went and died. The cat, that is.

A day later, our daughter raised a doggy eyebrow. Too soon, we said.

We talked about what we would want in a hypothetical dog. A black lab, only softer and smaller. A medium-sized dog. An easy dog. We discussed how we needed to wait until I decided whether I would continue freelancing or get a job - because we felt it wouldn't be fair to cage a dog all day. I decided against the employment option.

A month ago, we found great puppies online. Our stomachs fluttered; it felt too soon. We contacted the breeder and fortunately all the puppies were gone.

This past weekend, we found perfect puppies online. Our stomachs fluttered; it did not feel too soon. We contacted the breeder and they still had puppies. We counted the cost. We slept on it. We cleaned our house from top to bottom. We set up barriers. We called people. We picked up puppy food and poop bags. We shook our heads. We prayed. We got in the car and drove for three hours.

En route, we discussed potential names. It ran the gamut: from Chickenhead to Ethiopia, from Jasper to Newton. We narrowed the list down. We drove through rain and wind and lilacs. We talked about puppy mills and reasons we would say no, even after meeting the puppies.

When we pulled up in front of small suburban house, we were met by a comfortable-looking lady, her affable husband and relaxed, shy teenage daughter. The puppies - there were two left - were wriggling around the gated kitchen. We met the mom and dad dogs - both family pets - who were penned in a huge enclosure in the back. The family let us visit with the puppies for as long as we wished.They talked to us about the vet's reports: one had a possible mild heart murmur. Both were black, one resembling the English springer spaniel fluffy father, and the other looking much more like the Lab mother. The kids went back and forth as to which one they preferred and everyone left the decision to me. I borrowed the family's computer and looked up heart murmurs. Dave reminded me that no pet came with a guarantee.

We decided to take our chances on the soft black Lab with silky floppy ears, the one with the possible heart murmur. "Let's hope he has a good heart, even if it's a weak heart," I said. The family dropped the price for him but we said our concern was not being sold a defective dog so much as attaching ourselves to an unhealthy dog.

He curled up between the kids in the back seat and slept most of the way home. Our stomachs fluttered with butterflies of happiness. We noodled about more names as we went. Finally, our oldest said, "What about Lucky?" and suddenly all the other names slipped away. He was Lucky.

There have been moments of buyer's remorse this week, usually when we are dead tired or when Lucky's intelligence tends toward chewing and biting everything. The first day was challenging for me. I felt like I was out of my depth, that I hadn't settled on an approach for puppy-rearing. My other worry is existential: part of my work decision has been one where I'm moving out of mommydom into a new direction for my business; my fear is that puppyhood will take me right back into that role, like an unexpected pregnancy.

However, for the most part, even though I'm more of a cat lady than a dog person, and even though this pup is more for the kids than us, I'm falling in love with a puppy who is quick to learn and eager to please. I love seeing my kids take on responsibility for him. I am forever in debt to my husband for taking on the night shifts this week.

I feel pretty lucky.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stuff and Such

Oh good glory it has been a full time. My apologies for going AWOL here for a week or so.

In no particular order:

1. The chicken pox fairy came to visit our house. You would think I would recognize the signs, but in my defense, our boys had the pox almost eleven years ago, and at that point, I was reeling from the brand-new knowledge that I was pregnant with my third baby in three years. Realistically, this visit was easier and the recipient of the fairy's gifts got a torso covered with pox but only enough on her face to vaguely resemble an acne-prone teenager. The one mishap of the week was the night when the anthistamine seemed to have little effect; around midnight, it dawned on me that I had used the antihistamine from a travel kit, without checking its expiration date. March 2008. Turns out effectiveness does dwindle with age.

2. I picked up eighteen new books for review in the last week. Oink, oink. I feel like a glutton. Reviewing books is the best gig. Interestingly it is also my best source of fame. I've been writing professionally for more than fifteen years, but my "name recognition" has exponentially increased in the last year of reviewing books for the local paper. Apparently people read it. (There's a review of mine in today's paper. It was a great read.)

3. Speaking of writing, I've said for years that freelancing is "feast or famine." This school year has been a kind of lean one, work-wise, which has allowed me to edit one novel and write a draft of another. In the last ten days, though, it has been an ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET WITH GOOD DESSERTS AND DUMPLINGS. The kind you need to roll away from afterwards. My goodness. Those clients who had all been promising me work soon were not kidding. I'm not complaining in the least. I love it and every single one of the projects is fascinating (something that doesn't always happen in the freelance world, if I'm honest.)

4. That novel I edited went out into the world on Thursday, looking for an agent and a publisher. After our first visit to my sister's cottage on the Gaspe peninsula in Quebec where they asked my husband to stay to teach at the little English school, I began to imagine a character who would say yes to this and what would happen to him if he did. I wrote a novel about him. And then a second, and this year, a third. The first novel has been making the rounds for the last couple of years. Editors love it, BUT. And it has gone nowhere. This year, I worked with a fine fine editor on fine-finetuning the sequel and both of us felt that the second book was far stronger than the first. So, as a good environmentalist, I decided to recycle some of the best description from the first book, adding it to the second, among other revisions - and decided to put the first novel away in a drawer for now. The fine fine editor noted that a sequel freed me "from the burden of exposition" -- I was able to bring the reader into the story much more quickly. I don't mind putting the first one aside. I'm not sure yet what to do with the third one though. Still pondering.

5. I've written about a fictionalized version of the place I love in Quebec for the better part of a decade now. It's more than weird to think that I'm effectively done. It feels like a muse to me, Quebec does. It's familiar enough but also very compellingly foreign. When we went to Italy two years ago, I wondered if I could write fiction about the place (read: more research trips required!) but Italy felt too foreign and inscrutable to me. I felt I did not dare to try. Anything I could think of felt either like A Room with A View or Under the Tuscan Sun. With Quebec, the difference feels approachable. Maybe it's the shared Canadianness, and the separate nationhood. The challenge for me now is how to write fiction about something else. I have several ideas in mind and I'm very interested in the stories. I can't tell, though, whether I need to write more about my muse or whether immersion in a new imaginary world just takes time.

6. For the first time, I included a real person in fiction this year. He is disguised - not with the anti-semitism and small apparatus Anne Lamott recommends for concealing identity from the original person - or, more truly, blended with several other people so that the character is an entity unto himself. However, the real version just dropped a bouquet of asparagus at my door. (Do not panic, Gentle Reader. I have no intention of making it a habit of including real people in fiction.)

7. A robin started a nest atop the wicker shelving unit we inherited from the woman who owned our house before us. Dave destroyed it as the shelves are right outside our back door and he did not want to be divebombed each and every time we went outside. We placed a plastic owl in its place to Scare Her Away. Instead, she moved to the apartment downstairs and built a nest on the second shelf. There are now three gorgeous eggs inside. And, if we are stealthy, we can see her profile as she sits on the nest. She looks strained with attention as she protects her babies. Yesterday was the first truly warm day and we weeded the back gardens, mowed the lawns and ate outside. All of this made her keep away from the nest for quite a while. You can tell we miss having a pet: I thought about ways to keep the eggs warm and called to her to tell her it was safe for her to sit on the nest, and Megan dropped bread crusts on the ground near the nest for her.

8. Our old house is for sale. I was biking past it when I happened to notice an open house sign. I turned and went home - into the house I know with every one of my senses, as well as my heart. It's a lovely house and has been well-loved the last few years too. But we decided not to move back, even though we entertained the idea for a few hours. I like that we had the choice and also that we choose to move forward and not to take the safest options.

9. I've been away from our church for several months now. When the chaos of illness in my immediate and extended family was heightened, I decided I needed to do two things: cull my Facebook friends list to a much smaller group, and finish my role as Children's Ministries Coordinator at church. I had planned to finish in May or June anyhow, but it was a good decision to leave. For a few weeks after that, I needed to be with Megan who was sick, and then we needed to be visiting my grandma or my sister, and then we chose to go away at Easter. But I also decided that when I was in town and available, I would take myself to different churches, as a mini-sabbatical, so that there would be some space for me and others between my role as coordinator and my role as regular person. My family has gone to our church - when they are well and in town - without me. It's been interesting.

Oh, I'm sure there's more. But that will keep for another day.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Meaning of Life

I am not 29 and holding. I'm not 39 again. I'm 42 today.

When I was 18, I had a strong sense of coming into my own. I was finally free, in my last year of high school, to take the courses I was passionate about. I was finally allowed to roam the big city on my own. I remember in particular a bright spring afternoon when I took myself out for a movie I knew I would enjoy more on my own than with anyone else. It was a heady, powerful time. It is no wonder, I think in hindsight, that this was the time I met and fell in love with my husband. I was incredibly alive.

If you are at all familar with the Myers-Briggs personality tests, you will know that NF's like me are forever and always wondering what we will be when we grow up. I spent years after high school fraught with anxiety around questions of vocation and work.

I planned to teach gifted kids, but I hated sociology; I loved English literature, but what do you do with an English degree? I accepted a teaching position and spent every day of the next year in tears. I started to figure out what I was good at and what I loved. What I recall most clearly was my colleague, a man named Valentine, who was easily 50 years my senior but who was younger than me -and the rest of us - in spirit. At 28, I had my first baby. I had post-partum bliss. A colleague commented that she had never seen me so free and happy. I loved parenting my kids and found a good work-family-life balance.

In the last few years, though, several shifts have happened: I began writing fiction again, in earnest, after my daughter was born; I had a back injury that resulted in some degree of chronic disability; my kids needed less than all my attention.

This past winter, I went on my annual solo retreat, determined to sort out once and for all - ha! - what I would be when I grew up. Or at least the next step.

The retreat centre I visit has a small stone labyrinth. I set out to walk it this January, weighed down with my questions and angst.

Only it was covered in snow. No problem, I thought, I can see the lumps that are the stones - I'll walk it anyhow. Only halfway round, I realized I was utterly outside the circle. A thought slipped into my mind: This isn't the season for walking the labyrinth. You can't know yet.

It made me think of Rilke, who writes: Try to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is: live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And that's what happened. There was a cat and two books and some pain - and then one late night epiphany.

Only here's the thing: despite the gray hair and the aching back and the immediate (but deferred) need for bifocals that was come with the accumulation of years, I feel more like I did when I was 18 than anything else. I feel freed and wild and excited. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction and belonging and passion. I feel a rightness about the new possibilities that are opening up. Whether my plans come to fruition or not, I am on a very good track. I feel like I'm owning my own truth, as they say, more than I have in years and years. I'm delighted and relieved that my marriage and family are flexible and accommodating enough to allow me to take on new ventures. I'm grateful for people who are encouraging me to dream big dreams.

I'm writing this with a fever and a stiff right shoulder - I'm no spring chicken - but also with a heart that feels like a powerful engine, racing to go, eager to take the next bend in the road.

Happy birthday to me!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I forgot how green

I forgot how green the world is in May. Truly I did.

It's been such a cold, damp spring that only now is everything alive starting to believe that the winter is past. My elderly friend and former neighbour told me once that in our neck of the woods, asparagus grows between Mother's Day and Father's Day, but this morning at the market, the only asparagus to be found was withered and woody, imported from California and Peru.

But the thin green straws of lilies of the valley are emerging from the brown shoots that precede and protect them. Tulips have sprung out of nowhere - from small shoot to bloom in less than a week, it seems. Trees are almost chartreuse, with baby buds, limp maple flowers that will drop as the leaves unfurl.

The grass these days is an incredibly verdant velvet. Most of us have not yet found time to mow the lawn and so it has a bit of a shagginess to it, like the lush pelt of some great green beast.

The air smells green and fresh and the light is clear and brilliant, almost blinding.

Ever heard of pathetic fallacy?

That's what this feels like to me. After a few sorry months of strain, we are emerging on the other side. Not one bad thing has happened in our immediate household for a few weeks now. We finally have been bolstered by support from the medical system. I've finally dared to relax, to breathe, to dream.

All well and good. Breathe a sigh of relief. Raise a glass. But, first, a confession: when things went south, so did my attitude.

Years ago, I heard someone tell a story about being completely dirt-broke poor, with not a penny to spare, and a tremendous amount of strain to even make the most basic ends meet. What I remember most about this story was what this person did: every day, she changed her underwear several times. She did it as the only treat she could afford, because it was one thing she could do to remind herself that despite her straitened circumstances, she was a worthwhile human being.

One thing you should know about me is that I never think anything will end. I'm always and forever surprised and sad when a vacation comes to an end, when a stage of life passes into the next, when I get to the bottom of a bowl of M&M's. I want every good thing to last forever. The flip side is that I never believe the bad times will end either. I steel myself for a filling at the dentist - more than I need to. I miss my husband terribly when he goes away, with a feeling like homesickness. I brace myself against winter, expecting it to be eternal.

And then spring comes and dazzles me once again.

I don't know if this is something easily changeable. Perhaps it is a longing for eternity. All I know is that far from changing my underwear several times a day this winter, I put on sackcloth and ashes, and a survival suit - and just cleaned up the vomit, called the insurance company, begged for doctors' appointments, did the work that needed doing, made meals, ate and slept.

Only here's the thing. Every year, in the cold of winter, after the Christmas decorations have been packed away, I buy pots of forced bulbs and I watch as the snow accumulates outside and the audacious green shoots push bravely upward.

It is possible to find spring in the dead of winter.

And while what melted the ice of my life was the sympathetic and professional help the naturopath gave my daughter, what brought bits of spring into my life was when I finally remembered that I was not required simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I was allowed to dance. Even when things were still worrisome and frustrating.

For years, I've saved a quote from a Starbucks coffee cup on my kitchen windowsill. It reads: There are many times when dancing is the most unsupportable, ridiculous, unexpected and necessary action. Life should be spent finding those moments and tap dancing through them.

I knew about the coffee quote and I knew about the underwear change, but I forgot. I'm writing today in case you are as foolish as me, believing what your circumstances tell you about who you are rather than remembering to dance and planting a little bulb of belief that spring will come.

It will be greener than you ever remembered.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dear Matt

Dear Matt,

Next month you will be fourteen years old. We realized the other day that the next time there is a federal election, you will likely be eligible to vote. It's amazing to realize that every day does accumulate and that so soon, you will be a grown man.

You laughed at me during this election, as I flipped and flopped. (They say the ability to see both sides can be a sign of intelligence, you know.) But, I also wanted the process to be transparent for you and your brother and sister - I wanted you to see that engaging in political process is challenging in so many ways. I'm conscious that it's not possible to raise kids in a neutral way: at this point, you will tend to believe what we, your parents, believe. But, on the other hand, you've been a reality check to us: do we believe what we believe - about God, the world and its power structures - do we believe enough that we are willing to indoctrinate you?

When you were four years old, on your very first day of kindergarten - September 11, 2001 - the world as we knew it blew up. You know what we did that day: we went to Herrles' Country Farm Market and ran in the corn maze, we bought corn and apples and we laughed. You know - although you won't really know until you are a parent yourself - that day was one of my bravest and proudest days as a parent. Because what I did that day was to utterly refuse to give in to fear. I refused to allow terrorists to dictate my life - and, even more importantly, yours. I did not take you out of school and clutch you to me. I looked at the empty skies and breathed deeply to hold the tears at bay. Every single night, the instant you and your brother and baby sister were asleep, your dad and I turned the television on, desperate to devour details that would help us understand. But what we understood, instinctively, from the very first day was that we would choose to live our lives even though we walked through the valley of the shadow.

A different shadow has been cast over our country in the last few years - a shadow of government corruption. You know I've been angry about it. You know I want it to be stopped. And you know the root of my flip-flopping: do I vote against what I despise or for what I want? I laughed with you on Sunday afternoon when we pictured me, lining up over and over at the polling booth, getting to the front of the line and being unable to commit so going to the back of the line again. It was a possible scenario because the dilemma ran that deep.

I wrote about our September 11 experience and it was published. Some people found my response frivolous, apolitical and untheological. But someone else wrote back that it was indeed a political response and a theological one - and a very valid response to the situation.

I made up my mind about how I would respond to this election late Sunday night. When I woke yesterday, my mind was unchanged. I tried to put myself ahead 12 hours, to imagine how I would feel in the worst case scenario if I voted according to my conscience, rather than strategically. I walked into the cardboard booth and my eyes welled up with tears. I tried to understand why. A day later, I have an idea.

Because my worst case scenario did happen - a sweeping majority. And yet, last night, I had a very peaceful sense that continues this morning. I think my tears and my peace come from the same place. It is a place of peace with myself. Because I voted with hope. I voted for a vision I believe in even if it is hard to see on today's political landscape. There is a line I recall from one of The Lord of the Rings movies. It happens as the Men of the West are mustering anxious troops and the leaders are conferring quietly. "We cannot win," one says. "No," says another, with a gleam in his eye. "But we can fight."

Fear paralyzes me too often in life, honestly it does. I fear heights, I fear snakes, I fear some illness. I feel badly, Matt, for what I say to you and your brother and sister in my fears. I'm glad none of you share those fears. My deep deep desire today is that you and they will see my "naive", non-strategic decision yesterday as a choice to fight with hope and love.

One of the elements that reminded me that it was okay to vote according to my conscience was my faith - a faith that reminded me that God is God and I am not, that even when the dust of the election cleared, God would still be God. My job was to be faithful to a vision I could believe in.

I had tears again last night, as I read aloud the climax of the book I've been reading to you guys - Museum of Thieves. Great danger has come to the city that protects its children, the city where even the adults are unprepared for trouble. "There had been nothing to test his courage, nothing to teach him when to stand and when to run. Now he was paralyzed with fear...they were afraid to stay where they were, and they were afraid to go." Flip-flopping again. The hero of the book must convince the city to flee the danger, but its inhabitants are paralyzed. But here is where the tears came: "Each time, it was the children who slipped out into the raging darkness first."

Jesus said, "Unless you become like a little child, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Yesterday your brother's class held a mock election. The NDP won with a Green opposition. My vote yesterday was, I hope, not a childish one, but a childlike one. Like the kids in your brother's class, I dared to believe that I could vote for the party with a vision I could believe in, and a leader I could admire wholeheartedly.

And yet, here we are today. Are we defeated? Not hardly. Because as much as I believe deeply in the democratic process, I also believe that we have more opportunities than simply at election time. We can hold our Member of Parliament accountable, speaking truth to power. We can also make choices in our community each and every day that reflect the values we want to see, the values we wished we could see in our representatives.

Matt, you head into an unknown future. So many people would tell you to be careful -- and they are not wrong, any more than the people who chose to vote strategically were wrong last night. They are not wrong. But, I want you to choose life in every way, to embrace it with hope and passion, to stand up for what is true and beautiful, to laugh and to cry, to fall down and to get up and try again. Don't fall prey to cynicism - stay engaged and alive. And be exactly who you are.

Much love,


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Impossible Choices

My daughter invented a new holiday a few years ago: Birthday Eve. Like Christmas Eve, Birthday Eve is characterized chiefly by excitement about the next day, but occasionally a present or two can be opened the night before.

Tonight does not feel like Birthday Eve.

Tomorrow we will vote. (Oh, please tell me you will vote. Think of the people who have died around the world, in the last six months, for precisely the right you are willing to throw away. I don't think any of them were expecting a perfect candidate before they would exercise their franchise. Please, please vote.)

I am torn in this election though. Deeply torn. I live in what's called a "swing riding." In the last election, the incumbent lost by 17 votes. In that election, I voted with my conscience. Afterwards, when I saw who actually won and what it contributed to, I realized that my conscience would have been fairly happy voting with the incumbent. I knew a good dozen other people who felt the same way.

So, fast-forward to this spring. And here is my choice: do I vote tomorrow for what I want or vote against what I don't want? If I vote against what I don't want -- "holding my nose" as I've been hearing people say -- how am I different from the thing I don't want, the leader who has moved from principle to what I see as complete corruption on the basis of expediency?

And yet, it came down to 17 votes the last time and the polls say it will be this close tomorrow night again.

The books I'm reading counsel me. I read a biography of Bonhoeffer a few months back, and I've had to consider what the German pastor who was instrumental in a plot to kill Hitler, would do in this situation.

When I think about casting my vote according to my conscience, I am of mixed minds too. I feel like a fool - but maybe a holy fool, a Shakespearean fool, rather than a complete idiot.

Here my reading of the memoir of Christian Peacemaker Team kidnap victim, James Loney speaks into the situation. He writes, "Do we choose the power of threat, ultimatum and consequence, gun and bomb, or the power of love, solidarity and compassion, patience and reconciliation? Is it the power of domination and subjugation or the power of nurturing and collaboration? Is it the power to destroy or the power to heal, to take life or give life?"

In the moments when I have been quiet and still, at peace with myself, I lean this way. This is more me. It is better to choose love rather than fear. The cross looked like failure even more than casting a lone, useless vote for a party that cannot win. And yet.

I went into the headquarters of the party of my choice a few weeks back and volunteered for them for a half an hour or so. The one thing I wouldn't do, I said, was to canvass because I could not fault those who had decided to vote against what I too do not want.

Over and over again, this process reminds me of vaccination: the people who decide not to have their children vaccinated depend on the majority deciding otherwise. If we all refrained, our kids would die of smallpox and other eradicated diseases.

Here the problem is not the individuals so much as the system. In a proportional representation system, no one would be urging me to choose the fearful response, and we would all be free to vote according to our consciences and our visions of the world.

But that is not the world we live in. My task tomorrow - and yours too - is to sort out what it means to live with hope and idealism in a very real world. And to vote.