Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Years

The frost must have come earlier five years ago. Because the leaves then were all yellow-gold, tumbling to earth one after another.

Five years ago today, we bought a house we had only seen nine hours before.

But, of course, it had started sooner than that. It started with a restlessness, a certainty that something was about to change. It began with a dream that stuck in my mind, a dream that meant something: a dream in which I showed my mother-in-law a new house, one that had a lake out the back window, two kitchens, extensive storage, and a Subway restaurant next door. To her every objection - for the house in the dream was dilapidated and filled with the previous owner's belongings - I had a confident response. ( "A Subway -- how convenient!")

I spotted the house online, accidentally, the day before. I was about to leave home but I took a moment to call our agent, to insist on seeing the house as soon as possible.

He and I arrived at the house, only to be greeted by the owner's agent who told us they were already entertaining an offer. My agent parried with the fact that we had the right, because of our appointment, to make an offer as well. We stepped inside and saw blue shag carpet, mirror after mirror, every surface wallpapered, the kitchen painted jet black, the floor strewn with chicken bones and soiled laundry, every window hung askew with dusty venetian blinds. I almost didn't bother.

But I did persist beyond the toilet held together with a rusty paperclip, the jacuzzi tub encrusted with mould and hair, the vines that snaked through the garden, the goldenrod, the tilted deck, the homemade wiring job strung throughout the basement, the hole straight through the roof and the ceiling.

(Is it any wonder the neighbours stopped by after we arrived, placed grateful hands on our forearms and blessed us for having rescued the house? Is it any wonder I have no time for home renovation television: I live the reality.)

We had renovated a house before, from top to bottom. Dave had fitted drywall together against a gabled roof, in a way that resembled a jigsaw puzzle. We had roofed, re-windowed, stripped, removed bricks with a chisel, removed a cat from a wall. Dave is more than handy and I have vision and a work ethic.

This house would try those skills. They would try our networks of friends and family, and our pocketbooks. I remember my dad -- who had not seen the house -- trying to rein me in by reminding me that the house didn't need to be perfect before we moved in. I became hysterical with laughter: I was going for safe and dry. And wallpaper-free. I remember a friend who saw me in the throes of renovation during the two-week window we had between taking possession of one house and letting go of the other: it was a painting day and that was obvious from my clothes, my hair and my hands.

But October 31 was the day we saw the house. As I walked through the house, there were two or three places that felt like home. There was storage galore. There was an inground pool, a fireplace. It was all of two blocks from the kids' school. The price was right.

I called Dave and he had time between classes. We walked through the house and then stood on the back hill behind the house, literally and figuratively counting the cost.

What I remember most clearly that day was how everything fell into place. The picture that came to my mind was of a barn with both doors swung wide open. It seemed there was no question about whether or not to proceed.

I made the offer myself as Dave had to go back to work. That meant I had to stay home from trick-or-treating that night, to sign back any adjustments, to respond to counter-offers.

It was 8:30 and we had blown out the candles in our pumpkins and were checking out the loot when the doorbell rang. It was not a sullen teenager in a hockey mask with a pillow case; it was our agent, informing us that the following year, we would be trick-or-treating from a new address.

Let me say that I don't recommend such a quick turnaround. Let me say that shock will hit at three in the morning. Let me say that some people will say that impulsiveness is foolishness. Let me say that I grieved for the loss of my first house, the one in which my daughter was born. Let me say too that this is not likely the house in which we will grow old. I miss an older house.

But I've loved the location -- the fact that my kids can be free range children, the fact that the golf course nearby affords us a clearer view of stars at night and a marvellous place to ski in the winter. It's a great house for having crowds of people over. We feel grateful every time we use the pool. We have the best neighbours I could ever imagine.

On the days when the yardwork seems overwhelming, it's fun to remember the difference five years makes. It's one of my war stories -- the uphill both ways story -- that we survived this overhaul and made a comfortable home.

We say however that the next time we're buying a fully-furnished brand new model home. And we're only half-joking.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Monkey Mind

So here I am again with a million things on my mind.

1. The kids are better. So is the dog. Three of the six of our family were sick over the last few weeks. Partway through, I realized my anxiety was rooted in a thought: if I can't figure out what's wrong/if an illness lasts more than a few days, it must be something concerning. Once I decided that wasn't necessarily true, I relaxed significantly. It made me remember how much our thinking affects our experiences.

2. Halloween approacheth. We may be the least ready we've ever been. My daughter got her costume -- a cute Cookie Monster -- in mid-September, but Son #1 is not going out for the first time ever and Son #2 says it's all about the candy this year so he plans to throw something together at the last minute. How times have changed since the year I made him a giant spider costume or even last year when he was a hippy with an awesome Afro. As for me, I generally figure out something fun and simple -- a wig, a mask, false eyelashes, a full Sarah Palin costume -- to accompany the kids with. This year, I haven't found something that tickles my fancy. I had considered a Storm-from-the-X-Men costume, until I found out that Storm is always a black woman. (I'd love to be able to control the weather!) My latest thought is that I will make myself cat ears and will bring the dog with me -- and we will be a cat and a dog who get along. Pathetic, I know. We've abandoned thoughts of decorating the dog.

3. Speaking of Halloween, we visited Goderich last weekend for the first time since the tornado two months ago. What devastation. So many venerable old houses looked like they had war wounds -- mostly boarded-up windows that looked like patched eyes. It's the Square that is completely devastated though and all the shops around it that look like a war zone. It was more cleaned up than people had led me to believe it was -- and the clean-up continued even on a Sunday afternoon -- but what struck me was that there was far too much light. Which means far too few trees. But, the spirit of this town has been strong, and so too, apparently, is their Halloween spirit. I wished I had my camera for the one house on the highway that had Gone All Out for Halloween. Their porch in particular caught my eye: it was decorated with strung up, bloodied Cabbage Patch kids. If we lived in that town, I'm pretty sure we'd skip that house on our trick-or-treating route.

4. In a freelance world that is nearly always feast or famine, I need to report that I have a Just Right amount of work this fall. I'm really grateful for that. It's good, interesting work and it keeps me busy but not stressed out.

5. When things were really crazy this spring, I told Dave I needed a new outlet and that I was going to become a baseball fan. And then I promptly forgot about the idea. Until the World Series began. I've been obsessed with the team with the nice little red birds on their chests. Who kept me up until the wee smalls last night watching them come back from behind -- five times.

6. I learned a new word last week in the weirdest way. The Internets told me that Justin Bieber had released a lovely new Christmas song. I listened to it and was charmed, but there was one word I couldn't quite understand. Here it is in context: "Imma be under the mistletoe with you, shawty, with you." Imma, I got. Actually as much as it's technically an abuse of the English language, I really like the syncopation of "Imma be under the mistletoe." It was 'shawty' that threw me. My first thought was that it was a girl's name but then I thought of all the young girls who would be disappointed by not being able to see themselves in the song. It had to be something more. I went to the trusty (and dreadfully rude) Urban Dictionary to look it up. Lo and behold, shawty derives from shorty and is apparently a term of affection a guy uses with a girl. Honestly I was amazed. (Remember though that I was the last person to find out that hosiery was out of fashion.) I checked in with my resident teen and he knew how to use shawty in a sentence.

7. Our leaves are the very last to fall in our neighbourhood. Most of them are still green. We have four massive maple trees in our front yard. The city promises to come by once to suck up raked leaves at the curb. They came by earlier this week, when we had about seven leaves in trhe gutter. Now the perennial race is on: will our leaves fall before the city finishes their sucking? will the snow fall before the leaves fall? will the city have time to make a second pass at our street? will we have to resort to filling hundreds of bags? Stay tuned.

8. I've written about this before but I'm starting to like this time of year. Not for one moment do I like short days, but I like bare branches and golden-leaved trees. There's something noble in the stark beauty of this season. I like the silhouettes of leafless trees against brilliant early sunsets.

9. I've been talking with a newlywed friend lately about where we get our pictures and expectations of marriage. I know that, as a writer, there needs to a plot arc and compelling characters. I know that I want to live and love with passion. At the same time, aren't we all just amateurs doing our best to be kind and honest with one another? And don't the glamourous images we get from magazines only make us discontented and filled with unrealistic expectations, even in the face of what is a pretty great life?

How about you? What's on your mind these days?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Don't know much about Genealogy

I like comfort reading when life gets stressful -- I often turn to the Anne of Green Gables series. Last night, I was weary (see yesterday's post to know why) and took to the bath with one of my daughter's books, Laura Ingalls Wilder's -- On the Shores of Silver Lake.

(Before I go on, let me note that I'm not going to be Laura's Ma anytime soon. Laura's Ma accepts every hardship and move to wolf-infested, terribly isolated territory with extreme equanimity. Her weakest moments include not being able to whip up food as she recovers from the scarlet fever that leaves Mary blind, and sitting on Pa's knee after a tragedy takes place. I'm more of a Susanna Moodie kind of pioneer myself: sure you gird your loins, but you write down a few complaining letters along the way. And you don't simply answer: yes, Charles, to every new scheme.)

On the Shores of Silver Lake takes place on the banks of a small lake in North Dakota. There is a winter scene in which Laura and Carrie slide on the ice after dark, only to realize they are being watched by an enormous buffalo wolf (which is a wolf, not a hybrid creature).

It made me think suddenly of a family story about my own paternal great-grandmother, who only died a dozen years ago, nearing the age of 100. She lived in rural Minnesota as a child, and remembered seeing buffalo roaming, but the story that always captured my imagination was this: she too lived on the shores of a lake. She and her siblings rode horses to school in the warmer months but more than once in the winter, when the lake was frozen well, they stood on the ice, opened their coats to the wind and were blown across to the far side of the lake.

Isn't that the best picture?

I've long held a theory that the desire to pursue genealogy strikes at a certain age, and usually just as one's forebears are losing their memories, when it is nearly too late. My mother has traveled to the small Isle of Man, in the middle of the Irish Sea, from which her grandparents emigrated to Canada. She visits graveyards and travels to see the estate where my great grandfather worked as a gardener. My brother-in-law, too, is putting together an extensive family tree, using websites and contacting long-lost relatives who are also doing the painstaking jigsaw-puzzle work. In this family, the past is murky as the grandfather was, we think, the White Sheep of the Family, who went off to China as a medical missionary and lost touch with the rest of his family.

But either I haven't hit the magical age or I just don't have the gene to search out my genetic past.

I spent a lot of last year writing the first draft of a novel in which one of the main characters excavates her late grandmother's life by readying her house for sale. (It was weird then to have opportunity to go through my own grandma's things after she moved into the seniors' home. My writing had taught me that you can take months to do this; my experience showed me that you can find what you need in 45 minutes. Maybe the writing prepared me to know what to look for.)

But last night in the tub, I realized that my approach to family history is just really different. I would rather capture a few stories, a few moments that might not even be archetypal ones in the lives of my family, rather than retrace their steps, marriages, births and deaths. (Or maybe that's for now. Maybe I will wake up one day with the need to understand the scaffolding of my family. It is altogether possible.)

I love the story about my mom's parents, who eloped during the second World War, in part to avoid military service. Both my grandparents were working for hosiery companies at the time. They married secretly, spent the weekend away and returned to work. But it was a custom at my grandfther's factory to dip a newly-married man in the dye pots. When my grandfather arrived at his parents' house, stained purple, there was little hiding what he had done.

I've written before about how I like to capture a moment of my kids' lives, how I take a snapshot of who they are at that moment, twice a year. I think that's what I'm doing with my own past, and that of my characters too -- finding a story, in time, that tells something of who they were at least at that moment.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Here we go again

Not knowing why your kid is sick is one of the most difficult things I can think of. And here we go again. It's been more than half a year since our last child went through pain and testing, and now here we go again. This is the third week for our second child with a stomach problem. I have deja vu all day long, in my heart and in my own stomach. I'm sanitizing, sterilizing, asking questions, taking child to doctor, letting child sleep, accepting that illness comes, trying to be thankful for small mercies, taking breaks along the way, remembering those whose kids suffer for lack of clean water and killing diseases, sanitizing some more.

But what I want is to know why. I always want to know why. Why am I so tired? Why does this or that happen? There's power in knowledge: our daughter would still be up till one every night with vomiting had we not figured out why she was sick.

I want that medical device they used on Star Trek, the one that looked like a remote control, that could be run over the body and scanned for a quick analysis of what was wrong.

In the absence of understanding, I point fingers, mostly at myself. Have I cleaned enough? Are they stressed and not telling me? Is something wrong with our house? Is there something psychological behind the illnesses?

What I learned last time is that I need breaks from this, even from the trying to understand, the trying to help. I need stories -- movies, books, the World Series. I need laughter and friends. I need people to come alongside to say it's okay, and not to suggest, even in fun, that I've done/not done something and this is my just desserts.

I keep thinking "well, thank heavens I don't have a fulltime job," and this morning I thought to myself, yes. Thank heavens I don't. I have lots of work to do, but no pressing deadlines or impossible clients. I can do what I need to do, and look after sick people. It's okay.

I tell myself, it will be okay.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Veggie Tales

I tried last weekend. I tried again today.


I couldn't bring myself to pull my withered old cherry tomato plants from the ground. The rest of the tomato plants went last week, and the green pepper bush was listing to the side today, so I jettisoned it too.

But last week, I fully gleaned every last red cherry tomato from the bushes and decided to leave the others on the vine to ripen. I didn't expect much, and today I set out on the sad end-of-season task of cleaning out the vegetable garden for good. But there were about three cups of newly reddened cherry tomatoes, with more still to come, if frost holds off.

These last tomatoes are really sweet. I needed tomatoes for a kitchen project I have planned for tomorrow, and it is a gift I don't take for granted to have land that grows produce mere steps from my back door. Some of the tomatoes had split but many were still good. I pulled every good one off and saved them for tomorrow's recipe.

As I looked among the dried brown vines that scarcely look as if they could hold themselves up, let alone pass life-giving nutrients on to the little fruit at their ends, I thought of my grandmother.

My grandma will be 91 and a half in a couple of weeks. She's had a crummy year or two compared to the rest of her life, but compared to most people her age, she's doing great. She moved into a retirement home nearly a year ago after a bad fall at a party. Once that broken hip healed from surgery, she had a little tussle with a bath mat that left her with a broken pelvis and wrist. That was in March.

I thought we were going to lose her then. Really, I've held my breath about her for the last few years -- although when I sent her flowers a few years back, explaining that I would rather send her flowers while she's living than at her funeral, she tartly declared that she had plans to be around for a while longer yet.

She had her feet up when I called the other day -- she was tired after doing a half hour on a stationary bicycle in the gym. At 91 and a half, she's doing what she can to regain her mobility after a fall. Most people don't: for most people, a broken hip signals the beginning of the end.

Realistically, the end will likely be sooner than later, both for my grandma and my cherry tomato plants. Death and frost come to us all eventually.

But, there's my grandma, still producing fruit, still sending out love and life to all her little cherry tomatoes, even in the late October of her life.

I'm not plucking those plants out of the garden until I really, really have to. No matter that my garden would be tidier, that I could cross that task off my list. Nope. Not while it's still doing what it was made to do. Not while it still has life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Divine

So, a few weeks back on Facebook, a company I had "liked" offered a contest. Divine Chocolate is a fair trade chocolate company that has made my kryptonite all the years I've worked as a volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages: they make a version of mint-filled dark chocolate squares that I've bought, telling myself I can have a square a day. Ha ha ha.

The contest announced several new limited time holiday flavours: dark chocolate with cranberries and hazelnuts, milk chocolate with spiced cookies, dark chocolate hazelnut truffle, and milk chocolate with whole almonds. People were invited to describe the people with whom they would share a sample pack of chocolate.

I was cheeky. I suggested this had to be a trick question -- that any chocolate lover was greedy about her chocolate. I said something about saving crumbs for my family and making recommendations more widely.

I did look back to see if I had won, and put it out of my mind until early this week when I spotted an item on the Divine news feed asking the following winners, drawn randomly (alas for all the earnest folk who suggested they would share with their mum or their kids), to send in their mailing addresses. Lo and behold, I saw my name and did as I was bid.

This morning, I came home from walking the dog to discover a small cardboard box on my doorstep. My first thought was that I had been "boo'd" -- an occasional Halloween version of a Secret Santa -- but it was The Chocolate.

And not only the chocolate. I had to take photos as I unwrapped the box. Shipping chocolate is delicate business, as it turns out. Not only was there crumpled paper along with the explanation and survey, but the bars were wrapped in a heat-sensitive bubble wrap, and nestled beside a squishy cold pack, that was still cold, and which would keep the bars at optimum temperature.

I took out my bars and lined them up. I opened the Divine Guide to Chocolate Tasting and read carefully the pages about how to taste chocolate. I decided it would be a public service to share the how to's with you here.

Appearance: I was given a list of possible adjectives to describe the appearance of my chocolate -- was it glossy, shiny, dull, mottled, waxy,discoloured? Was it coarse or crumbly at the edges? (I can report that my chocolate was glossy indeed, with divine little hearts printed on its squares.)

Touch: Apparently chocolate should feel silky not sticky, waxy or gritty in one's hand. (As much as touch is one of my keenest senses, I had never focused here before, although I probably would have noticed gritty.)

Sound: The lower the cocoa content, the less snap. Dark chocolate should have a nice crack when you break it. (And it did.)

Aroma: "Take a small piece of chocolate and let it melt between your forefinger and thumb, cup your hand around the chocolate and then smell." (Oops. It was not because these instructions were confusing that I omitted this step. It was because my teeth wanted to see whether the chocolate would crack. Will try to remember this step next time and to apply some of the words used to describe the aroma -- anything from earthy to fruity to wine, toasted nuts or floral.)

Mouthfeel: I had trouble with this one too. They suggest pinching your nose during the first bite in order to "let your tongue and mouth isolate the chocolate" at the front of the mouth where the tastebuds predominate. For me smell is entirely wrapped up in taste, so I kept cheating quickly on this one. What to pay attention to here included the hint of flavours and how long these last. Apparently the flavour should "steadily rise and linger" -- and some fine dark chocolates can linger up to 45 minutes. Also, the finest chocolates will produce a series of flavours. (This last part I found to be true, especially for the darker chocolates.)

Flavour: "The basic flavours are acidity, bitterness, sweetness and astringency." (Hm. I wasn't able to distinguish between acidity and astringency, at least not enough to know to identify them.)

The process reminded me of watching the ballet -- I almost never keep track of the storyline at the ballet because I'm so dazzled by the beauty of each movement and the exquisite dancers. Here, it was challenging to articulate what specifically I liked or didn't like about each kind of chocolate.

I have to confess that I let one of my kids taste with me. We discussed our reactions. He found the dark chocolate too intense; it was probably my favourite. We both really liked the hazelnut truffle -- unlike, say, Nutella or a Ferrero Rocher chocolate, here the chocolate dominates nicely and is complemented by the hazelnut. He liked the almond chocolate -- I could barely taste the chocolate, although I thought the almonds were nice. We both were dazzled by the milk chocolate with spiced cookies: it had a crunchy texture from the cookies and the flavours were, ahem, divine together. We agreed it was something we could eat at any time of the year. We also both agreed that we kind of wished for a white chocolate with crushed candycanes in it, as another holiday flavour.

I'm not sure I was particularly good at testing, but I imagine I could get excellent if given more opportunity. To which I am very much open. Because I am nothing if not about learning. Especially when it comes to chocolate.

(PS Divine didn't ask us to post anything publicly -- they just wanted our opinions)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sweet Moments Don't End

I used to keep a calendar where I made notes of all my kids' milestones, cute sayings, and challenges. Every six months, I would transfer the best of these into their baby books. As they got older, their milestones were less recognizable, but I still sat (and sit!) down twice a year to write a snapshot of where they are at at that moment. As I look back, there are many details I would remember no other way.

And yet, so much gets lost along the way. This weekend, a few sweet or hilarious moments stood out to me:

- On a walk, we crossed a bridge and started talking about the Billy Goats Gruff. "What I never got," said my crafty middle child. "was why the biggest Billy Goat Gruff didn't claim a fourth, bigger brother."

- My mall rat daughter spent five solid hours in the mall with a friend, the girl's mom and sister. (I escaped!) She bought two items with birthday money -- one at 40% off, both totally her style - and had a great time. Same daughter had a friend over on Friday afterschool and they cut out fleece to make knotted baby blankets, which they will sell in two weeks, raising money for a refugee family. I'm thrilled that they've adopted my plan, at their willingness to work hard for others, but I had to giggle at the following scene: The three of us - me, daughter and friend - cross-legged on the basement floor, sawing at fleece with semi-dull scissors, Adele belting it out in the background. Suddenly, apropos of nothing I could determine, Friend says, "Isn't gravy the best?" and daughter agreed, "I just love gravy." Sawing resumed.

There were more moments. I meant to capture one per child, give you some nice symmetry and a glimpse into the quiet sweet moments of life. But life got busy and two kids fell sick, and football playoffs happened and the dog needed to be walked again.

I'm reading a book I need to read these days. It's by a local author and it's called One Thousand Gifts. She writes beautifully and honestly and it's all centred around one epiphany in her life: the transformative power of gratitude, which is preceded by the discipline of noticing and awareness. Which is what I did with these great kids of mine, and what I've been consciously trying to do lately when I'm walking the dog.

The first day I made a point to do this I saw a leaf suspended in midair over a driveway. I'm pretty sure it had caught on a strand of spider web, but it was really cool. I wonder how long it withstood the wind. Yesterday I was walking the pup again and watched as the wind caught, just right, the three cloth ghosts that are standing as seasonal sentinels outside my neighbour's house -- they shivered like Scooby Doo ghosts in the wind, and then one swayed and righted itself. Perfect.

I can't tell you how easy it is in the midst of this life that is too busy for the likes of me to forget to pay attention, to focus instead on the next thing that needs to happen. I can tell you how taxing that posture is and how refreshing it is to pay attention, to find the still point of the turning world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs, A Dead Cat and a Kidnapped Peacemaker

I know, I know. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. They should walk into a bar. But instead they walked into my life, inspiring and transforming it.

I'll start with the cat. Six months ago, my beloved Eleuthera died. As I've written about here, I had created a wicked persona for that cat, complete with cat swearing and wildness. When she died, I missed her but I realized I also missed the opportunity she offered me to be creative and witty, playful and slightly irreverent. And then, one day it occurred to me that I didn't have to stop. I didn't have to fit myself into a mould that I only approximately fit.

I had been agonizing about what I was going to be when I grew up (if I grew up) for a good eighteen months. My poor husband. I had talked with consultants, clients, colleagues, friends, postal workers. OK, I exaggerate, but only slightly.

The penny dropped for me one night after the cat died. I had had my epiphany and I was reading a careers-at-midlife book. The book asked the question: if you could do anything, whether they paid you or not, what would you do?

I thought immediately of a book I had reviewed, written by James Loney, one of the Christian Peacemaker Team members who was kidnapped and held in Iraq for months. I don't get paid for my book reviews for the local paper, but I still say it's my best gig -- because I get free books from the arrangement! A couple of weeks after I reviewed Loney's compelling book, he spoke at a local high school where a good friend teaches. She asked him in passing about the experience of having his book out in the world, and the reactions to it. He expressed disappointment that few reviewers "got" what he was trying to say. "In fact," he said, not knowing that my friend was my friend, and she, not knowing that I had written the local review. "Only one reviewer really got it -- and it was the one in your local paper." As a writer myself, I know deeply the importance of someone understanding and receiving what you write. The communication process isn't just one-way: it's not really done until it has been heard/read/received.

So, that night, reading my career book, I knew that what I wanted to do was exactly that: to help people tell their stories well so that they could be received well.

Initially, I did not know precisely what this would look like, but the miracle was this: in an instant, I stopped fretting and started pondering.

It's taken six months of pondering and gestating this baby, and even then, it was almost stillborn. Not long ago, a different opportunity presented itself. There were reasons to say yes to the other opportunity, even after my months of dreaming, finding a name, doing market research, working on a logo and a website, talking with potential associates, and -- good grief -- even meeting with an accountant!

And that's when Steve Jobs stepped in. I was waffling last week - setting up a bank account for my new company and at the same time considering this other opportunity. (Let me note, as an aside, that waffles are far tastier than waffling.) Stay hungry, stay foolish, the man said. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: if this were my last day, is this what I would choose to do? Don't live someone else's life.

I let go of the other opportunity and heaved a sigh of relief. Then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work -- on my work.

And so, the big reveal. I'd like to introduce you to my soon-to-be-fledged company: Storywell.

The purpose of this company is to help individuals and organizations tell their stories well. Whether that means working with someone writing their memoirs, helping them polish, shape and find the right words; or whether it means offering an editorial review (a pre-published book review) to a fiction writer; or helping a not-for-profit create a teachers' guide or a newsletter -- I'd like to help you. I am in the process of pulling together a team of associates who will work with clients, but what I am most excited about is connecting people together and helping them become better at expressing themselves and their stories.

My official launch will be January 1 and I'm planning a fun networking event later in January (because goodness, January needs some fun!) but it's already starting -- the website will be up soon at -- and I wanted to let you know what I'm up to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mall Rats

Some of my kids' best -- and worst -- qualities can neither be tied directly to nature or nurture. Like my eldest's astonishing ability with money. That one was not inherited from either parent, although I'm grateful for it.

I'm much less grateful for our daughter's growing penchant for going to the mall with her friends.

Let me be clear: I like buying. I like grocery shopping because you never go to the grocery store just to browse. You go with intention and appetite, and you leave with bags of food. You might discover fun delicacies along the way, but really you know what you've come for. I like incidental Christmas shopping, whereby I keep in mind the people I need to buy for and randomly pick up gifts throughout the year when I find the perfect item. And, my dislike for malls has something to do with the fact that my back gets tired and easily sore when I walk too long on polished floors. But, even as I look back to my misspent youth, shopping was not a major feature.

I will also say that my daughter is a good shopper. She makes great choices, has fabulous taste and gets how a budget works. She has learned not to beg or whine along the way. She comes home empty-handed more often than not.

It's the lurking in the palaces of conspicuous consumption that I don't like. I remember when Chapters opened up in our city and lots of people made it a destination, to get a cup of coffee and browse for books. Or Ikea. Plenty of folks I know make Ikea a wandering destination.

People: a park is a wandering destination. Climb a mountain. Sit by the lake. Walk along the beach. Hold hands with a toddler and take an hour to walk a city block. Take a trail. Ride your bike.

A store is a place to buy things. When you need things, you go. When you don't, you live your life.

Yesterday, I dropped her off at school. She and her friends talked and then ran back to me. "Can I go to the mall this week?" she asked. I started to shake my head. "You don't need anything." "But I haven't been to the mall in two or three weeks!"

I surveyed the crowd. "Tell me why you don't want to be a mall rat," I asked. They all shrugged. They DID want to be mall rats. You can get feathers woven into your hair at the mall.

As the dog and I walked home, I thought about this and I tried to be fair. I know what appeals to her about shopping: it's a bit of freedom with your friends. It's the hunt for something novel and interesting. It's finding ways to express who you are through clothes. But I used to volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages and one of the things I learned there is that it's pretty much as much fun helping someone else choose something for their occasion as it is finding something for your own.

By the time I got home, I had concocted a dangerously elaborate plan: I would herd the group of mall rats to my house, teach them how to make fun crafts (they could even buy the supplies together! with my seed capital!) Then they would sell the crafts at my friend's Christmas bazaar. The funds they raised they could use for a shopping trip to the mall -- with a twist. Instead of buying for themselves, they could buy clothes, toys and gifts for a family in need. I contacted a friend who works with refugees - she has two families who came to Canada with the clothes on their backs. Bingo!

I said the plan was dangerously elaborate because it was a bit like a Jenga tower: one misstep in how I communicated this to my daughter and the whole thing could fall flat. After school, we sat in the backyard and I asked her to listen to the whole idea before she came to a conclusion. I told her she and her friends could adapt the plan, make it their own - that they didn't need to do my idea exactly. She listened and nodded. "I like it, Mom," she said. "Except I think my friends and I should keep the money for ourselves and go shopping."

[Insert sound of head banging on table here.]

All I said was that I wouldn't provide the seed capital in that case. I read her the profiles of the families. I said we could talk about it again later.

But I'm kind of perplexed. I haven't wanted to be one of those parents who insists on food bank donations in lieu of birthday party gifts, but we have tried to model generosity and compassion in a variety of ways. I know that a tween who wants to go to the mall with her friends is more typical than not, so it's not that I'm disturbed by this. I just wish I could shift the balance a little. Truly, she does not need one more skinny teeshirt in her drawer, and there are kids in our city who have only the clothes on their backs.

I'm just wondering how we get from here to there. Thoughts?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


My siblings and I always used to say that our sister Heather was our parents' favourite but that was okay with us, because she was our favourite too.

I kind of feel that way today. Erin Bow is both a member of my writers' group and the newly chosen 2011 winner of the TD Canadian Children's Book Award for her debut young adult novel Plain Kate. I gather that some writers' groups are hotbeds of jealousy and one-upmanship. Not ours. I will freely admit to moments of envy but they are vastly, vastly swamped by a deep sense of community and clan. I'm so deeply proud of Erin and in awe of her abilities to go to dark places in the most unflinching of ways and to create bright spells of hope and humour in the midst, while wordsmithing in the most jaw-droppingly beautiful way. While the rest of the writers in our group are enjoying small successes and kind rejections, Erin is being swept along -- but we understand exactly why, and we're having fun being bridesmaids next to her.

Popularity is a curious thing. Last night, my grade nine son talked about how he's straddling two worlds -- the smart geeks and the popular kids - and how he doesn't want to be the coolest kid at the geek table or the geekiest kid at the cool table. He's pretty sure, and so am I, that he'll work this out, but it is the perennial high school dilemma that continues to play its way out for the rest of our lives too.

For writers, this sometimes means figuring out whether you'll write what sells or write what is in your heart and mind. When those overlap and when there is brilliance, you have Erin. Actually Erin's success sustains me some days because it's a relief to know that in these days where publishers and book chains and independents are failing, excellence still finds a place in the catalogues, on the shelves and at the award ceremonies. It inspires me to work harder.

At the same time, I remembered my own high school experience last night and I told my son that I had never been willing to pay the price of popularity. I know a lot of people who lurked at the margins of their high school (their workplace, their university residence, their neighbourhood), noses pressed against the glass of popularity, wishing they could get in. Not me. I sort of always believed it was a choice -- that if I really wanted, I could morph into the Popular Girl. That gave (and gives) me a peculiar contentment. I'm not willing to mask or cut off parts of me in order to fit into the popular crowd.

Some people just have "It." Our middle son does. Erin does. For some people, it's not a matter of making a choice -- they just are popular because everyone wants what they have to offer, because what they offer is just awesome. Certainly not everyone who is popular is a sellout. Some are the most authentic and original of all.

And that's what should -- and did last night -- receive the prize.

Monday, October 3, 2011

October Rambling

"She was never going to be the most beautiful woman in the room" - novelist Louise Penny writes of a minor character - "[but she] was alive."

I'm alive. After this past week, that feels like more than a bit of an accomplishment. During this last week, we juggled my nephew's heart surgery, helping out at my great uncle's funeral in London, and emceeing a wedding in Ottawa. Oh, and the diamond falling out of my engagement ring (found it!), the kennel losing our dog's reservation (found another one!), grade nine parent night, a potential football concussion, and all the normal detritus of family and work life.

Surgery went well - although the weight of it hung heavy even though we were at a distance. The funeral was fitting - despite the fact that I confused the deceased with his brother and did a doubletake when the living brother walked toward me.

Our drive to Ottawa was beautiful but it wasn't pretty. Our kids had been too excited to sleep much before midnight the night before. We had heard that the leaves in Algonquin Park were at their absolute peak this weekend and we - perhaps foolishly - decided to take the road less traveled, effectively doubling our drive time to nine hours. Thank heavens it was spectacular and that the rain was only intermittent. We got to stop at Webers for burgers, to show the kids our honeymoon place just outside Huntsville, and look at amazingly colourful vistas. We also got to endure Much Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth. I had loaded new music into my iPod and since it was, after all, Friday, I decided to include the infamous Rebecca Black song. Which my kids promptly declared verboten. Later in the day when the fighting became intense, I threatened to play the song again; that's when the tears started again.

The next day, they were even wearier from the journey. We went over to Gatineau Park in Quebec (I blew kisses to my beloved belle province from the hotel window -- and I'm not ashamed to admit it) and hiked around the meromictic Pink Lake. Meromictic apparently means a lake where seasonal mixing of the water from the top and bottom does not occur and so the bottom of the lake is oxygen-free, in part because of geology (the cliffs surrounding the lake shelter it from mixing winds), and in part because the water at the bottom is heavier than the rest. Apparently the stuff at the bottom, only 20 metres down, hasn't had a good breath of oxygen for 10,000 years, and the lake is home to prehistoric creatures. These facts and the fascinating way the wind rippled the surface of the water in a variety of directions caused our middle child to create a lengthy science fiction story about Homo Aquatic Man, who lived in the lake, and who came up to take a breath every 10,000 years, sucking all the air out of the valley. The story was detailed and was embellished as we walked the three kilometres of paths around the lake. It was around the time that we spotted flakes of mica on the path and the deep caves beside the path (mica mines from the early 20th century, apparently) that the energy of our youngest started to flag in earnest. We could see, directly across the lake the place where we had started - it would take just as long to get back either way. By the time we reached our final stretch, I was hoping Homo Aquatic Man might consider taking her for his own.

After a hurried visit to William Lyon Mackenzie King's summer home in the park, we went to the Byward Market, where we picked up lunch, apples, braided garlic and Lush toothpaste tablets (wasabi flavoured!).

By this time, we had a relatively short time to get to the wedding. We parked in the 15-minute parking in front of our hotel, rode up the elevator, threw on clothes and mascare (some of us) and hurried back down with minutes to spare.

The wedding was lovely. It was held in a massive wood-lined, stained-glass Anglican church, with coffee mugs, coat racks and bookshelves lining one side of the church. The church was abuzz with chatter before the service -- it was a rollicking crowd -- and laughter throughout the service. The minister blended tradition with innovation and sincerity, personalizing and sympathizing and adapting to technical glitches. The bride's younger sister, who has intellectual disabilities and is exuberant in her affection, read beautifully about leaning not on your own understanding. The bridesmaids carried sunflowers. The groom and his brother wore kilts in their family tartan. And the bride, whose life has been deeply involved in our family's life for a decade, was happy, as she will be.

When I looked ahead at this week, I was afraid that the weight of all the different events and needs would accumulate and I would be stressed and strained at the reception. We had chosen the emcees at our own wedding because they were fun people, but at the wedding, they turned prim and proper. I could imagine it happening to us. I could also imagine just wanting the whole thing to be over with -- when what I really hoped was that I could enjoy every minute. We planned ahead, so that the weight of the entertainment would not rise and fall on our jokes. We chose small symbolic items and wrapped them, placing one on each table at the reception. We instructed guests to open the gifts and to figure out how their item connected with the bride's story, the groom's story or their shared history. If they told a true, good story, the couple would reward them with a kiss.

I probably should have known when I heard the jocularity at the wedding, the unconventional music, and the bagpipes - I should have known then that we had exactly the right crowd for this activity. Every single table rose to the occasion. True, I had to correct some of the outlandish stories, but it provoked more laughter, community and shared history, and it honoured the bride and groom, rather than embarrassing or humiliating them.

And here's the thing. At the wedding, the minister talked about whether or not Jesus would be fun at a party -- that most would probably consider that having Jesus might put a damper on things, but in reality, the story of Jesus' first miracle was where he was at a wedding and the wine ran out and he turned water into fine wine. At our wedding, lo these 20 years ago, one of the songs we had sung was precisely about this miracle. Some of the lyrics said this: So amidst the laughter and feasting/ There sits Jesus full with the fun.

That's how I felt -- full with the fun. Really, that was a miracle to me after a week of the good, the bad and the ugly. I wasn't -- and was never going to be -- the most beautiful woman in the room, but I was alive. In Penny's novel, a character observing the woman "had come to appreciate how important it was, how very attractive it was, how very rare it was, to be fully alive."