Friday, December 30, 2011

Making Merry

"I don't myself make merry at Christmas."
- Ebenezer Scrooge

"You can't be merry by yourself. Sure, you can be content, happy, possibly even delirious. But merriment requires a group, and that group is almost always a group you can see and touch, one that's sharing the same molecules of air, face to face. The digital revolution continues to get deeper, wider and more important. But it has made no progress at all at increasing merriment. That's up to us."
- Seth Godin

I have two favourite Christmas movies. One is utterly silly and the other has Muppets.

The first is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; the second is The Muppets' Christmas Carol. The first movie resonates with my traditions: when we brought home a wrapped IKEA Christmas tree this year and prepared to cut the cords that bound it, I called my husband Sparky and prepared for the windows to be blown out. The second movie resonates with my heart: Michael Caine plays Scrooge straight, despite the fact that his fellow thespians are largely puppets.

Both films are stories of second chances, I suppose, but they're also both stories about learning to appreciate the people around you, whether it's Cousin Eddie or Bob Cratchit.

One of the things I have most appreciated this holiday season has been the opportunity to make merry with groups of people. We have hosted more events than usual and have attended a number of parties with friends and family.

Maybe it's because I'm working from home mostly. Maybe it's because this year was not the easiest or nicest. All I know is that I've been so happy to make merry with others, so thankful for the gifts of people in my life.

For most of my life, Christmas has been a challenge for me mostly because I want to make it perfect, want to savour every moment, want to find the elusive balance between spirit and shopping mall.

What I want to pack away with the ornaments so that I can pull it out next year and every year is this: no Christmas is perfect, no balance is ever struck, no one can be so mindful as to attend to every moment.

Nor is this necessary.

What is necessary is the giving and receiving of hospitality - not necessarily in terms of food and drink, although those are really good too -- but in terms of welcoming one another, remembering one another. It's about doing the best we can to celebrate together, to make surprises for one another, to create good memories together. It's about making merry -- something we really can't do alone or even virtually.

I think of the first Christmas, which was probably not a silent night. In my imagination, the innkeeper who found a place for the holy family has a wife who cannot sleep for the sounds of the young girl in labour and who comes and lets her hand be wrung by Mary, and who washes the baby, calms the father, finds a bite of food for an exhausted new mother. Shepherds and angels come too, and animals surround them with their soft sounds and comforting smells. And later, the kings bearing tributes that point us now to gift giving.

Maybe these lessons shouldn't be packed away, but instead tied to the doorposts. Scrooge said, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." What I take from that tonight -- my stomach and heart full after a good, good night with dear friends -- is that we don't live our lives alone: we are surrounded by people to whom we can extend and receive hospitality on any occasion, even if that hospitality is only, or especially, that of a listening ear, a presence.

And together, as not alone, we can be merry.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Small Joys

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”
― Pearl S. Buck

A friend asked me the other day what the big gifts at our house were going to be. Honestly, I was stumped. I couldn't remember a single one. We have occasionally gone in for big gifts but today, as so often, was about small joys.

My crafty engineer daughter who knew that I wanted an angel to add to the choir I keep on the piano at Christmas made me one, with wings of washers and a skirt made of a knob wrapped in blue felt. It's just lovely and ingenious.

Last night, our dog jumping for scraps of drifting tissue paper.

Our technical son bought a domain name and host for my husband, and will create a website to order.

Our eldest squirreled away my gift since midsummer -- a tiny but deeply precious glass-and-metal cube of a necklace charm.

I gave my husband the gift of Tuesdays - knowing that what he needs most of all these days is quiet time to himself.

Tongue tattoos, fair trade chocolate, bath bomb, Justin Bieber stickers, Sting's 25th anniversary CD, great secondhand books, an elusive calendar, a funky mousepad, honey sticks and maple leaves, more books, an Aragorn action figure (My precioussssss....).

Our day unfolded with small joyful moments too. For the first time in recorded family history, neither extended family opted to celebrate today. Some of us stayed in pyjamas all day. Some wore new clothes. Most of us climbed back into bed at some point to read. There were waffles with raspberries. There were walks with the puppy. There was a leisurely preparing of a full turkey dinner. There was a midafternoon craft session where we made a small spare Christmas tree out of branches we've picked up while walking the dog on the golf course.

Dave initiated that last one, and did most of the picking of sticks himself. He said today that it had reminded him of gathering sea glass on the beach, that steady attention.

And that really was what today was all about -- finding small and precious treasures together. That was the big gift at our house today.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sparkle and Glow

Yesterday was my first real day off. I had a party this morning so I things to do to get ready, but I had stayed up until the wee smalls finishing off all the work I needed to do in 2011. The problem was that my body could barely believe that I was really allowed to stop, to rest. My fear was that I had forgotten how.

I had one small idea in mind that might put me in the Christmas spirit. At church on Sunday, one of the coolest girls I know had hair-thin tinsel glistening in her hair. Her mom told me where they had had it done, that it was inexpensive. It occurred to me that if I wanted to go gray, I could test out a few sparkly silver threads.

I called the hair salon at noon. They had one small opening at 12:45. It was warm and dry so I hopped on my bike and drove across town. We talked tattoos and teachers while the stylist tied elaborate knots of silver in my hair. By the time she was done, I felt all festive.

I decided to ride to Joseph Schneider Haus which was close at hand. I tend to go there before Christmas each year to at least feast my eyes on the lovely, homely gifts in the pioneer homestead.

This I did but then I ventured into the rooms near the shop and was captivated for an hour. This year's Artist in Residence has been bookmaker Marlene Pomeroy. Pomeroy has set up a fabulous one-room exhibit that takes the museum-goer through the history of bookbinding and making, the history of local printing and binding, and her own love affair with Italy and Michelangelo. I described the installation in the guestbook as exquisite, and it certainly was. I copied down quotes and ideas throughout the room. The entire experience was meditative and wonderful.

The exhibit is only open until tomorrow, sadly. On the chance you won't have a chance to attend it (and if it's an option, I'd really encourage you to do so), I wanted to share a taste of it. One of the pieces Marlene had made was an inscribed clay tablet hanging on the wall. She called it, I believe, Thee Commandments, and subtitled it the Bookbinders Code of Conduct. But though I am not a bookbinder, the lessons spoke deeply to me. I thought I'd share them with you.

Bookbinders' Code of Conduct

I. If you meet resistance -- why
II. Better a good mend than a bad match
III. Take a break
IV. Think twice - do once
V. Make mistakes - no one dies
VI. Build release layers
VII. Charge what you are worth
VIII. Find a mentor
IX. Ask questions
X. Work with joy

As I lean into the holidays -- the holy days -- these unexpected lessons feel like the gift of a map. My hope is to practice the third and sixth commandments in the next few weeks, and then to return to work -- to launch my new business - with joy.

I wish you the same -- and would love to hear your responses to this wise list.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas 2011

Two years ago, our Christmas letter felt almost embarrassing. (It had been a great year.) 2011 has also been an unusual year.

In January, Dave got a call from the Perimeter Institute, the physics think-tank he’s worked with for years, asking him to join them fulltime for a semester starting in February. An administrative glitch at his school meant this came together surprisingly easily. Megan and I enjoyed a few days of fresh oranges and shopping with my sister and my parents in Florida.
Possibly the most significant spiritual moment of 2011 for me happened in late January when I was on my annual retreat weekend. My agenda was to figure out what my next vocational step would be. I got up early to walk the labyrinth. It was covered with snow but I decided to walk it by feel. Halfway around, I realized I was out of the maze altogether. I had a clear, freeing sense of God saying, “This is not the season – you can’t know yet.”

In hindsight, I’m glad I couldn’t see ahead. Because the next few months were a blur, a bad dream of significant illness, a run of bad luck and crisis in our family and extended family. And then, as the smoke cleared in May, we adopted a puppy. We had considered a number of elaborate names – our cats had been Eucharistia and Eleuthera – but when we met our sweet, goofy black and white lab-springer spaniel cross, Matt took one look at him and said, “His name is Lucky.”

I’ve thought a lot this year about the concept of luck. What does it mean to be lucky? What does it mean when a heap of horrendousness piles into your life? And really, where is God in the middle of what looks like bad luck? (Or good luck, for that matter?) There have been times this year when it would have been too much of a stretch to say we felt lucky. But we’ve also learned that what we see as bad may not always be, and what we hope for may not be what we need. And oftentimes the blessing we experience is an unexpected one.

I’ve been reading a great book – One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Her premise is that when we practice gratitude, in small things and hard-to-be-thankful things, we learn the goodness of God in all situations. I’m learning to pay attention to the blessings around me, even in the midst of what sometimes threatened to be an annus horriblis, as the Queen would say.

There have been many things that have not been hard to be thankful for: two graduating boys (John from grade 6 – with a citizenship award, and Matt from grade 8); a 20th anniversary stay at the Muskoka resort at which we spent our honeymoon; Megan returning to piano lessons with delight; Dave’s opportunities to travel to Switzerland and Winnipeg, as well as the extension of his PI sojourn; all three kids having deeply meaningful camp experiences, thanks to Grandma and Grandpa Fish; a lovely few days hiking in the Finger Lakes of New York with our puppy; three kids playing rep or select level soccer and two boys playing on their school football teams; and, new work direction for me at last (see for details).

Advent is a season of “you can’t know yet”, a time of waiting and hoping where perhaps the best preparation is the confession that we are a people walking in darkness, waiting for great light. The great good news of Advent is that “when the time was right, God sent his Son” and that God meets us in our own particular time and place and need, if we will only wait.

This Christmas, may you experience God’s light in every corner of your life and may you know gratitude.

Much love,

Dave, Susan, Matt, John, Megan & Lucky

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dear Peter Kent

Dear Minister,

I was two years old when Trudeau swore in Parliament. Pierre Trudeau. A few years later, in my grade 3 class, we had daily current events where a class member would listen to the news or read the newspaper to acquaint ourselves with issues of public importance. At school, we had a large wooden television case, with the television removed. The current events person of the day would sit inside the box and report on the news. I remember once, when it was my turn, quoting a politician -- maybe even Trudeau -- when he used strong language, and getting away with it because it was a quote about something important.

Fastforward few more years to the early 1980s when you yourself used strong language -- not profanity -- to warn us about the dangers of global warming and climate change. I was in high school then, already scared to death by movies like The Day After. But climate change was something we could do something about.

Or so you said.

So now, here we are in 2011. You go off to South Africa -- without giving permission for opposition party members to join the Canadian delegation (Elizabeth May got permission from Papua New Guinea, for heaven's sake!) -- and break our promises. And then another Trudeau swore.

My own kids -- who range from grade five to nine - sat at the dinner table the other day and imagined, not current events, but future history classes when this historical moment is described. You know you'll get a footnote, of course--as the minister responsible for the first ever ratified treaty broken by Canada. You know too that comments like Archbishop Tutu's will be attached to your posterity: "Canada, you were once considered a leader on global issues like human rights and environmental protection. Today, you're home to polluting tar sands oil, speeding the dangerous effects of climate change." You know that you listened as a 17-year old delegate spoke at the conference: “I speak for more than half the world’s population,” declared Anjali Appadurai of Maine’s College of the Atlantic. “We are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not at the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? You have been negotiating all of my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.”

You know, that's not how I'd like to be remembered. It's not how Canada wishes to be known or remembered.

The alternative is not merely pie-in-the-sky. There are good, practical, creative, economically viable alternatives to fiddling while tar sands burn. In Calgarian writer Chris Turner's new book The Leap, he agrees with you and many others that Kyoto is not the most practical of solutions -- but, he says if delegates to the Copenhagen conference had stepped outside the conference hall, they would have seen innovative, green solutions that build community and profit.

(Hint: Do something that is innovative, green, community-building and profitable and not only will you get re-elected, you'll be able to sleep at night.)

As for me, I'm riding my bike instead of driving. I'm turning off lights, buying energy efficient appliances, shoveling my driveway, hanging my clothes to dry, constantly looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint.

Frankly I don't even care to debate whether this helps lower the world's mean temperatures or gives us a white Christmas and coastal cities a fighting chance. What I'm doing can't hurt and very well might help.

I'd like to suggest you take that approach in your legislation and your treaties. I'd like to see Canada restored to its former role as an admirable world leader. I'd like to have my grandchildren be able to see snow someday.

It's a really busy time of the year. Maybe the hope is that we'll be too busy with our shopping and cooking to say this kind of consumption must stop.

You know what? I am that busy -- and I'm still making time to send you this note. Because it matters that much. I'm not going to swear, but I still hope my voice, my passion and my fury will be heard.

Maybe Kyoto targets were unreachable -- someone said the original plans to meet targets had 'other reductions' listed as the main ways of reducing emissions and likened it to a miscellaneous spending category on a family budget exceeding the mortgage payments. Fine. That doesn't mean we have license to wait until 2015. The time to act is now.

I think of the visitations of the spirits upon Ebenezer Scrooge -- the past, the present and the future. How will you be visited this Christmas? I imagine your own 1984 broadcast as your Ghost of Christmas Past -- the one that shows you your youthful idealism. I see Bishop Tutu as your Ghost of Christmas Present -- the one who shows you the true state of things. But, the third ghost is the one who frightens Scrooge, the one who foretells the doom of Tiny Tim and the unmourned death of Scrooge himself. It is to the third ghost that Scrooge asks -- Are these things that will be or things that may be? Your Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Minister, is Anjali Appadurai, my children and yours -- those for whom climate change is a life and death issue.

Now is the time to act. Throw open the shutters. Buy the biggest turkey you can find -- so to speak -- and send it to Tiny Tim that he may be well. Dream dreams. Find solutions. Put them in place. Ride your bike. Take the bus. Skype your meetings. Change. The. World.

And then, this Christmas, with grateful hearts, we will say "God bless us, every one."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Grey-Haired Girl

Because I know you're breathless to follow my grey journey, here's the update.

Today was the day I had scheduled for a haircut and silver streaks to be added to my hair. The person I spoke to on the phone at my usual salon said, "Oh yeah, we do that kind of thing all the time" and said I should plan to be there for two hours. I hoped I wouldn't have an allergic reaction to the peroxide -- it would be ironic to react only as I stopped dyeing.

I arrived and was suited up in several layers of plastic before my stylist arrived. My hairstylist is a very short, Vietnamese woman in her fifties who cuts hair like a dream and swears like a sailor. She watches The Bachelorette and is a devoted grandmother. She is also a collaborator with me on my hair plans.

Not so much today.

Today, she shook her head and told me she would do whatever I said, but she said it in a tone of voice that suggested I was insane. And then she said no, she wouldn't actually do it. She said she had clients who got grey streaks and then went to Shopper's Drug Mart -- "It's always Shopper's Drug Mart," she said -- and were asked if they wanted the discount for Seniors' Day. "They always dye their hair back," she said. She also made the argument that my hair might fall out from the damage of stripping the dark colour out. She pointed out that I was really tall, that few people could even see the top of my head, that the back and sides were barely grey at all.

We talked haircuts then. Could I get it all chopped off or would I look like a potato? We compromised with a non-potatohead short cut, no dye job, and she began to snip.

As she cut, I mentioned the people who had died of toxic, accumulated dark hair dye. She shrugged and said that cancer was also a strong possibility.

She asked what my mom thought of my idea to stop dyeing my hair. I said my mom still dyes her hair and now so do both my sisters while my brother is quite salt and pepper at 31.

As I paid, I asked her whether she thought I would cave in and dye it dark. Again, she shrugged.

I stopped in at my husband's office afterwards to show him my hair and to get a cup of coffee. He was working on something with a colleague, a guy I have also worked with. "Hey, no colour," Dave said. I turned to Richard, "I'm going grey," I said. "Me too," Richard replied. "No, I said. "I mean, I was planning to get grey added to my hair today." I told the Shoppers Drug Mart story.

I don't want to get carded, so to speak, at Shoppers Drug Mart. I don't want to be mistaken for my children's grandmother. I don't want to look ugly. But, why is it, I thought that Richard, who is younger than me and who has probably the same amount of grey as I do, is relaxed about his hair colour, and that the world is too? Would Richard be offered the seniors' discount? Probably not.

I know there's almost certainly a grey hair-female fertility connection going on here. That's the subtext of the fact that the vast majority of women dye their hair. But, I'm okay with the fact that I'm done birthing babies. (I would accept a three year old, mind you. I love those guys.)

What I'm not okay with is any assumption of loss of creativity or relevance, with the idea that grey hair = rocking chair.

With today's haircut, a greater percentage of my hair is now greyer, even without a bottle. I think growing the grey out will be significantly more annoying than growing bangs out. And maybe I will cave in rather than accept fraudulent discounts at chain drugstores. But, for now, it feels like a step of authenticity.

And that's the silver lining.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

it's the little things

Four appliances broke this week, more or less. Well, three did and we decided to get a four for one deal -- getting the oven door repaired by the same repairman who came to fix the clunk in our dryer. The ba-dunk, ba-dunk, ba-dunk of our dryer. We left the two faulty laptops for next week.

Friday morning, the repairmen arrived to fix the appliances an hour early. An hour before that, I had a call from my printer who was doing a last-minute rush job for me to come see the proofs. And it was a good thing I did. I needed to call my designer and wait for the changes and then a new proof. I had two wilted kids home from school -- and Wilted Kid #1 phoned me at the print shop to say that the repairmen had called to say they were on their way. We finished up our business and I raced across town to drop things to a friend who was moving this weekend. Sitting in her living room, Wilted Kid #2 phoned to say the repair truck had pulled up. I flew into motion and was home five minutes later. Reapir guy already had the top off my dryer -- "I just noticed," he said. "That you wanted an hour's notice. And I'm running really early today anyhow -- I had a cancellation."

Ten minutes later, he came to me with a small piece of metal in his hand -- the bottom piece of a metal zipper had somehow gotten into the works of the dryer. Fifteen minutes after that, he opened the faulty door of my oven and gave me the opportunity to clean off the insides of the window before he put the pieces back together again. Apparently this piece was open-able, though we had never figured out how and had resigned ourselves to having a filthy-looking glass door. Or, as I sometimes liked to think of it, a well-used glass door. He sat on his haunches on my kitchen floor while I scrubbed and scraped and generally felt like the World's Worst Housekeeper. He told me he had taken sick days the two previous days -- his first in forever -- while my wilted children ran past, miraculously revived. I felt like the World's Worst Mother.

Two hundred dollars later, he left the house. I had two now-working appliances and I should have been happy. Instead, I looked at the tiny piece of metal that had occasioned his visit, and thought about the tiny piece of metal -- a screw -- that was needed inside my oven door. Together, they might be the size of my baby fingernail.

It made me think about how little things make all the difference -- for good and for bad. A smile, a dash of cinnamon, exact change. A scowl, too much cinnamon, being five cents short.

Tomorrow is haircut and get-streaked-with-gray day. It really should be a little thing, but it feels rather huge. It reminds me of a sign we pass on our route from Waterloo to Lake Huron: the sign notes the head of the watershed: water on one side flows one way, and on the other, flows opposite. The sign is not on any apparent hill. It appears to be on flat ground. It's a little thing and yet it makes all the difference.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Best Books of 2011

I may have mentioned before that one of my best gigs is writing book reviews for our local paper. I love it and take my responsibility -- to reader and writer - really seriously.

Today I had the opportunity to correspond electronically back and forth with one of the authors whose books I most enjoyed this year, and it made me want to spread the word about her books even farther and wider.

And so, with the thought that many of us are doing holiday shopping these days, I thought I'd offer a list of the best books I read this year. Please note that the longer reviews are ones that I wrote for my newspaper reviews, and that there were many other books that could have made this list.

1. Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner
When my children were small, I read chapters of great books aloud to them each night. We slowly made our way through classic books and newfound treasures. As they got older, sports and homework began to dominate our evenings and we decided we would read aloud mainly in the summertime. This spring, I picked up Museum of Thieves, read it and announced to my children that homework could wait - we would be reading this one aloud.

Museum of Thieves is a unique book in so many ways. It is a kind of dystopian fiction for children, to start with. In the book’s world, children are the most precious of commodities and must be kept safe from a wide variety of dangers – including dirty water, scrapes and possibly extinct creatures. The characters allude to a time when all the dangers of their town, Jewel, were contained. After this time, children were kept chained at the wrist to Blessed Guardians by day and parents by night until they are 12. On Goldie Roth’s Separation Day, the unthinkable happens: a child is murdered. The Separation ceremony is cancelled but Goldie, prompted by an inner voice that never leads her wrong and the appearance of a mysterious man, escapes. By the next morning, she has found her way to safety in the town’s Museum.

The Museum, as the title suggests, is a major character in the novel, but it is no less memorable than its Keepers who teach Goldie, “The people of Jewel treat their children like delicate flowers. They think they will not survive without constant protection. Bu there are parts of the world where young boys and girls spend weeks at a time with no company except a herd of goats...And so, when hard times come – as they always do in the end – those children are resourceful and brave.” Goldie learns that a certain amount of wildness is not only necessary, but desirable. When disaster does befall the town, Goldie is ready.

One reviewer of this book took objection to the fact that the people of Jewel worship a wide variety of gods and that the Blessed Guardians who are condemned sound like conservative Christians. I think this reviewer fails to see a few things: first, the gods are completely powerless and foolish, and secondly, what is criticized here is not conservatism – the good guys are museum keepers and the city’s leader – but those who prevent any progress, those who believe that there is no room for freedom and bravery and wildness. If the church loses those virtues, it should indeed be criticized. But here, no critique of a particular institution is intended.

This book delighted my kids as well as me, and brought me to tears more than once, thanks to the spirit of its characters. The book stands alone well, but, happily for readers, will have at least one sequel, published later this year.

2. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
This book is a rare thing: a lyrical, brutally honest, deeply theological meditation. To summarize it thematically would reduce what it is, but Voskamp -- who is a local author -- tells how a small, simple practice entirely changed her life. I am buying several copies of this book to give at Christmas.

3. The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
I could not put this book down – it knocked my socks off. If it were up to me, I would put this book on Canadian high school English curriculum, along with Robertson Davies and W.O. Mitchell. Of course, the book would be taken off the curriculum for the excessive amounts of profanity it contains, but that would be a shame, because this is a masterfully told tale, by a narrator who, frankly, needs to swear. At times this book reminded me a bit of The Catcher in the Rye or even a bit of The Great Gatsby or Fifth Business, but it is also clearly its own self with an intense and sympathetic narrative voice. The story is told in a series of unrequited emails from a middle-aged man to his college friend who has written a loosely-veiled novel about the real life of the narrator. The series of letters create a powerful layering experience through which truths are gradually revealed and re-revealed, with new nuances added by reflection over time. I have not yet read a novel that integrates electronic communication and social media so deeply and well into its narrative – here, this is done as part of the writer’s (and narrator’s) exploration into identity, how we are known, the stories we tell and the roles we play within stories. This is an extraordinarily powerful novel by an author previously unknown to me – I will certainly be picking up her other books.

4. Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor
The last time I read a novel plastered with extremely high praise, I have to admit I was disappointed. The author in that case was no 21st century Jane Austen. Ghost Light, by Irish author Joseph O’Connor, is tattooed with the most laudatory comments, but I’m not sure they even begin to scratch the surface. This was a remarkable book. I have little to compare it to.

As a writer, I wondered what state I would have to get into in order to be able to write with the subtle, exquisite lyricism O’Connor uses throughout. This is a book written by someone who adores and has fully and utterly mastered the English language, but also by someone who adores and lovingly observes every bit of the world around him.

O’Connor takes for his premise the fact that the real-life playwright John Synge died prematurely of Hodgkin’s disease, leaving behind a fiancĂ©e, Molly Allgood, an actress from a lower class of society. However, as O’Connor writes in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book, this is a work of fiction where the author “takes immense liberties with facts”, including character and plot.

The novel is told largely in the second person, which is unusual in itself. The “you” who is addressed is Molly, now an old woman as she lives in near starvation and alcoholism, but at the same time recalls beautiful and vivid moments from her past, particularly her affair with Synge.

The most beautiful scene in the book – a month’s idyll spent at a cottage – stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of Molly as an old drunk, and reminds readers of the possible past lives of any person they might meet.

The title is only revealed near the end with the explanation that a light is traditionally left burning in a theatre so the ghosts can perform their own plays. Synge’s shaping influence in Molly’s life, before and after his death, make him a significant presence in the novel.

Any reader who appreciates a well-told, well-crafted story will be sure to delight in this book.

5. A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light is the seventh book in the series, set in fictional Three Pines, a small Quebecois village, with a familiar cast of characters. Penny’s books are nothing if not character-driven and her legion of fans flock to these books to see what happens next to these beloved people. While not quite as strong as her last book, readers will not be disappointed.

A Trick of the Light is brilliantly plotted and is also possibly one of Penny’s most personal of novels, dealing as it does with alcoholism, its roots and consequences, as well as the experiences of success and rejection in the artistic realm. I waffled back and forth between delight at genuine insights into these difficult places and an occasional sense that the book was a vehicle for the author’s experiences.

Still, I was kept guessing at the murderer’s identity until nearly the end, and I both chuckled out loud and got tears in my eyes as I read. Also, as always, I appreciated Penny’s deep insights into human motivations and – perhaps more than in any previous book-- the way she weaves the interplay of light and dark in both art and human nature together with tremendous insight into both. I also like the way Penny connects books together – not everything is wrapped up by the end.

One of my biggest beefs with the book was its timeline and the sheer number of events and personal developments that took place over such a very short period of time – if I were one of the characters, I think I’d be exhausted, but it also seemed too quick to have a ritual smudging to get rid of bad spirits the very day that the body was found. I was struck, too, by the amount of profanity in this book: many of Penny’s witty, distinctive characters have always had salty language, but in this book, it seemed that the profanity had gone up a few notches, including times that seemed arbitrary. I also found at least one scene heavy-handed – a scene of great revelation takes place during a violent thunderstorm, but by the end, the storm has moved on. The reader doesn’t need the pathetic fallacy for the emotional resonance – Penny has created a rich world with memorable characters and leaves the reader eager for the next instalment.

6. Divergent by Veronica Roth
If you thought deciding which house you might belong to at Hogwarts was exciting, wait until you try to decide which life-altering choice the characters in Divergent should make. In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Chicago, people have decided that the root of war is not ideology so much as personality flaws. Society is split into factions which function as parallel tribes, based on which personality problem people believe is at the root of conflict. Those who believe deception are the problem, for instance, live in Candor, while those who believe hate is the issue live in Amity. At the age of sixteen, each child undergoes a chemically-induced aptitude test to determine which faction they are best suited to. The following day, the teens must declare their allegiance, and join their new (or old) faction to complete their education. Divergent begins on the day of the aptitude test and is told from the point of view of Beatrice (or Tris) who has never felt completely at home in her self-denying faction of Abnegation.

I had trouble putting this book down. I read it late into the night and then dreamed about it.

Veronica Roth, the author, sold this book while she was still a university student living in Chicago. Roth creates a terrific and believable world. Like the Harry Potter books, Divergent functions as a kind of boarding school story, but in many ways, it is better likened to The Hunger Games series, in terms of its challenges, violence and political subplots.

Roth does not shy away from instances of violence in this book, and unlike The Hunger Games, the violence is not exactly condemned. Instead Roth sorts out whether the faction solution can actually work and how it leads to a new set of problems.

Roth hooked me with her ability to write about teenage romantic yearnings – and she creates at least one character I could develop a crush on.

Divergent is going to be the first book in a trilogy. While I devoured this book and am eager to read more, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the last few chapters that set up the next book. Things changed far too quickly and felt like it created a “to be continued” sense of disappointment at the end, rather than having a satisfying feeling of completion. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly to teens and adults.

7. The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather
In one unforgettable week in April 2009, Robin Mather’s husband announced he wanted a divorce and the Chicago Tribune, where Mather worked as a food writer, laid her off. Stunned, Mather packed her dog, her parrot and her belongings into her old car and drove to her cottage on a lake in Michigan. The Feast Nearby details the next year of her life, a year devoted to living as well as possible on a meagre freelancing income. Mather’s previous life had afforded her opportunities to eat fabulous meals. She writes, “Those days were gone. Still, eating well had become my habit. I was unwilling to compromise on that matter.”

I have read a wide variety of books about local eating – from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to The 100 Mile Diet. This book is by far my favourite in the genre. I was delighted by so many things about this book. Chiefly, I appreciated Mather’s attitude and sensibility. Rather than being motivated by any kind of agenda, Mather applies commonsense to all the cooking lessons she learned from her mother, a thrifty, seasonal cook, and from her years as a food writer. She buys local food because she wants to support her neighbours and because it is cheapest and often tastiest to buy local food in season.

Mather’s first book, published in 1995, A Garden of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering and the Future of Food was the first to expose the consequences of genetically-modified foods. Still, she is no purist. She acknowledges that she could not afford to buy all-organic food, and that coffee is a necessity. She also does not skimp on good spices, Parmigiagno-Reggiano cheese and occasional non-local delicacies, but she uses them judiciously. I so appreciated Mather’s non-judgmental attitude: she has carefully thought through her ethics of food and the limitations of her budget and understands that others may make different decisions. The entire locavore movement would do well to embrace such an attitude of thoughtfulness toward both food and people.

I like to think I’m a good cook and I’ve been buying local food and cooking seasonally all my adult life, but again and again, I learned new cooking and preserving tips from Mather, who intersperses short chapters, arranged in seasonal order, with excellent recipes of dishes she has talked about in the preceding chapter. The recipes are all simple and inexpensive – Mather was living on a food budget of $40 per week and could not, for instance, afford to be part of a community-shared agriculture arrangement – but almost all were new and deeply appealing to me. Of the recipes, Mather says they “satisfy[y] the spirit and nurture the body.”

Another aspect of Mather’s book that I appreciated was that this was not a memoir. The only mention of her now-ex-husband after the initial divorce announcements are when Mather realizes she can now take on a free kitten (her husband was allergic) and when she talks about her husband’s fondness for strawberry jam. She does not use this book as an opportunity to look back; instead, she looks forward as she gains in self-sufficiency and strength. I came away from this book wishing I knew her personally and glad she had taught me cookery and personal lessons of living well.

In the last chapter of the book, a friend of Mather’s invites himself and his family to visit Mather. It is a particularly lean season financially but Mather draws from her freezer and shelves a bounty of food and is able to create a feast. She writes of the food she found near her new home, “It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain. My life is newly deep and full of riches.” So is this book. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

8. Winterberries and Apple Blossoms by Nan Forler
This book insisted on making my list for two chief reasons: it was responsible for the hands-down best meal I ate in 2011, and Nan workshopped this book in our writers' group. And yet, even if you missed the book launch-ish meal co-sponsored by WordsWorth Books and Nick and Nat's Uptown 21, and even if you didn't watch this book grow, I still recommend it highly to you. The book is comprised of a series of poems that follow a Mennonite girl through a year in which she sits on the fulcrum between childhood and a grown-up world. The book is illustrated by Peter Etril Snyder, Waterloo Region's Mennonite painter, and has as a delicious bonus, a collection of recipes at the end, one corresponding to each month. But it is the delicate, sensitive capturing of that bittersweet time of turning in a girl's life that makes this book so exquisite. As she did with her earlier celebrated book, Bird Child, Nan brings a beautiful and genuine awareness of the emotional life of a child in this book. Winterberries and Apple Blossoms can be savoured by people of all ages -- and ought to be.

9. The Watcher by Sara Davidson
I once asked writer Joseph Boyden what made a novel work. He said that a good novel makes a promise to the reader in the first chapter and fulfills it by the end. On that basis, The Watcher is a very good novel.

I am not always the biggest fan of Christian fiction, even though I firmly share the faith behind many of the novels. The reason for this is two-fold: oftentimes, such stories are message-driven and often, good intentions are stronger than good writing. By contrast, Guelph writer Sara Davison’s debut novel The Watchers is extremely well-written with a suspenseful plot that hooked me from the very first to the very last page.

The greatest strength of this novel is its narrative voice. Davison and her narrator are utterly confident, even masterful. The narrator speaks directly to the reader and his or her identity is not known until the last page. While the story moves back and forth in time over a twenty year period, this is done with tremendous skill, allowing for a slow reveal of a devastating story.

I was reminded at times of the novel that was popular a year or two ago, The Shack in both the subject matter and the themes of grace and forgiveness, but I also saw elements that reminded me of John Bunyan, CS Lewis and more. At the same time, this is a contemporary, Canadian suspense novel with a mystery and a thriller dimension to it.

The Watcher takes place over the span of six days. During this time, both the narrator and the main character, Kathryn, must come to terms with the horrific event that defined her life twenty years before, so that she can finally be free of its effects and move on to a happy future with the man she loves.

I suppose there were a few improbabilities or coincidences to create a perfect storm of tension, but I was able to suspend my disbelief to go along for the ride. The one element that continued to ring a little too-good-to-be-true for me was the intense, ongoing attraction between Kathryn and Nick, the man who has waited for many years to be with her; in real life, I think such sustained and unattained passion would have wilted. I also hoped for a slightly different ending to the novel, but only slightly.

This is a fine first novel and I will be very excited to read more from Sara Davison.

10. Plain Kate by Erin Bow
My writers' group has an embarrassment of riches: not only is Nan Forler in the group but so is Erin Bow. Plain Kate was published in late 2010 but has continued to be recognized throughout 2011, and very deservingly so: Erin won the TD Canadian Children's Book Award this fall for this book. Erin is a poet and it is the language that swirls around in Plain Kate that creates as much a spell as the forms of magic within the plot. And there's an amazing cat. This book does not avoid the dark side of the world but young adult (and adult) readers will savour this book throughout, and will root for this fine heroine.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Snuggle Your Babies

The worst thing anyone ever did for my theology was when I was told as a small child that Santa Claus was real only as long as you believed in him.

In my family, staying little was valued.

By the time I left for university, my youngest sibling was only six or seven years old so there were always little kids around.

Not so in my own house. From oldest to youngest, my three are three years and eight months apart. They're all big kids now -- teens and preteens. And I love this stage nearly all the time. I love the goofiness, the questions, the energy, the emerging selves that surround me (and threaten to eclipse me in every sense). I do not love the mess and the no-private-time-for-parents and the occasional eye rolling, but I really welcome these older kids with open arms and heart.

But then it comes time to set up the Christmas tree. We have two large boxes of ornaments. Almost every ornament tells a tale. There are the ornaments I choose each year for each child, trying to find something that fits. There are the ornaments we've collected on every trip. But the sweetest ornaments are the ones made by preschool hands -- googly eyes askew, hands traced to form angel wings, copper hammered into heart and star. There are photo ornaments of the impish little faces (and our much younger faces too).

This year, we have a little one in our midst again. He's rolling on the floor beside me as I write. Because of the puppy, we've put our tree up in the family room this year instead of in the living room window. The family room can be closed off from eager paws and energetic tails.

This little one will have his own stocking this year (and, truth be told, a Santa hat with an elastic under his chin. Which will last all of thirty seconds.) But it's not the same as the wonder of a small person.

As I say, I adore having big kids. I don't miss bundling three kids in and out of snowsuits in the winter. (I had to bar the door this morning until the eldest accepted the winter coat I insisted he wear.)

But, at the same time, I want to say to those of you with little ones: savour the moment. Put aside your fatigue and the must-do's once in a while to breathe in the wonder and delight of little people. Sing with them. Make one batch of gingerbread cookies. Plan surprises. Roll snowballs. Go see the lights in the park. Sit on Santa's knee. Tell them the story of the stable and the star. Sit quietly and watch the lights on the tree twinkle. Count down each day of Advent in some way.

And really, the same is the true for our household. Last night, I played piano duets of carols with my daughter and played dress up with her. This moment too and all its sweetness will pass.

Wherever we are, there is something good to be savoured this Christmas. It may take hunting to find it. It may come in the offering rather than in the receiving.

But it's there. Whether we believe in it or not.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Power's Out

For a decade now, I've gone away on a personal retreat once a year, usually just for 24 hours. Two years ago, they accidentally booked me in for 48 hours so I rationed my food and stayed the whole time. I'm scheduled in for the last weekend in January 2012, but a craving for quiet meant I went this past weekend too.

The place I go to is about a half-hour from home, an old farm homestead that has been converted to a retreat centre. There's wifi only in the conference area. I once went there with a group of friends and one of my closest friends and I decided to walk in a quiet pine forest and some distance out, hearing the crackle of Something Else Out There With Us, we thought of bears and retreated, terrified but laughing at ourselves.

The particular place I stay at is a teeny weeny cottage. It's a former dairy with thick stone walls. The whole thing might be 12 feet wide and 12 feet long. There are two rooms -- with the mini kitchen alongside the pullout bed, and the toilet, desk and shower in the other room. It has everything a person could need.

Except for a few key things this weekend.

The bathroom desk -- which is nicer than it sounds -- is equipped with a desk lamp, a journal (to record observations about one's time at the Hermitage), and a group of candles. I brought a nice soy candle of my own. I did not bring matches, but there are always matches there. Not this time. I searched every nook and cranny -- including under the sink, in pots, in the first aid kit - and there were none. No candles for me. I worked all new-fashioned with the desk lamp and fell asleep, really late.

When I woke up in the morning, I surveyed my hot drink options. Note that I had brought all the options -- and that there were options. I had brought decaf coffee, decaf Earl Grey tea, Creativity rooibus tea, peppermint tea and apple juice. Not one speck of caffeine. Quite accidentally. I made and drank a cup of Earl Grey, hoping to fool my brain.

Then I set out to walk the labyrinth as I often do. The ground, the trees, every blade of grass, every twig and every dried wildflower dazzled with hoarfrost in the early morning light. I walked along one of the paths in the field, and through a little incline and cluster of trees to approach the labyrinth. I spotted a man stepping in, and then another man coming toward me on another path. I decided to wait, and to walk around the trees. I kept my eyes open for the massive wooden cross that stands on a hill, surrounded by a pile of rough field stones. Couldn't see it. The trees must have grown up, I thought. I thought I saw it, then, but it was a telephone pole. Curious, I circled back toward the labyrinth and to the place where the cross stood. There atop the pile of stones was a small stool and a woman sitting on it with a book. In the morning light she looked like a statue, like Rodin's The Thinker.

I sat down on a bench, near the heap, and kept stealing glances up at the woman. I thought it might be a statue. I thought it might be a dream. I felt sick at heart -- more than I would have thought. I kept saying to myself, "There's a lady where the cross should be."

A friend of mine wrote to me after my recent blog post about faith. She suggested that doubt was good -- I agree - and that probably I was living a good moral life, faith or no faith. What I tried to explain to her was that what was missing at times was what felt like a partnership, a relationship -- that all that was left was me. As I looked at the woman sitting in the place where Jesus was, I felt indignant and upset -- but much more than I might ordinarily when I push that relationship, that partnership out to the edges of my life in order to put this lady -- myself -- at the top of the pile.

I wandered somewhat unhappily away. I assumed that this retreat centre had received flack about the cross from other groups that wanted to use the facilities, and so had removed it and left it as a place for contemplation of any stripe. I felt a sense of loss: are any of us strengthened when others' faiths are watered down? I don't think so.

I thought about the three kinds of power I had lost: light/heat; caffeine; the Cross. (Once I came to this centre to write and all four of my pens died. Every year after, I've brought a laptop and a fistful of pens.)

Later in the morning, I walked up to the conference centre kitchen to ask for a book of matches. They had hot water brewing and tea bags, and would not take my money for a cup of tea or the matches. I asked the man working in the kitchen about the cross: it had blown down in a massive windstorm this summer and would be re-erected -- resurrected -- next spring.

In an instant, the power was back on.

It wasn't so much that I actually needed the matches for warmth, the caffeine for wakefulness or a cross on a hill for faith. But their absence jarred me into awareness.

You can't force much on a retreat. You can't get far when you insist on epiphanies; that's precisely when they elude. You can't do the same thing twice -- once I saw a rainbow that cascaded down seemingly onto my wee cottage. You can only get quiet, pay attention and take it in, if and when it comes.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Amazon Women on the Moon

The Amazon of South America is the second longest river in the world and by far the largest by waterflow with an average discharge greater than the next seven largest rivers combined (not including Madeira and Rio Negro, which are tributuaries of the Amazon). The Amazon, which has the largest drainage basin in the world, about 7,050,000 square kilometres (2,720,000 sq mi), accounts for approximately one-fifth of the world's total river flow*

When I was in university, I held a summer job in the conference centre. One summer, I accidentally became the de facto, temporary conference director when the previous director quit. Another summer, I worked with a wonderful woman who was both elegant and bawdy. We laughed our heads off all the time and got so much done. One of our most absurd moments happened when we called over to another university building, looking for someone, only to be told, "I'm sorry. She's on another floor and cannot communicate." This became our go-to line whenever anything insane happened.

I had a "she's on another floor and cannot communicate" moment this week.

The Amazons are a nation of all-female warriors in Greek mythology and Classical antiquity.*

Actually, moment does not fully describe the two hours I spent on the telephone with various and representatives. Though unfailingly polite, they were unable to help me.

Amazon Women on the Moon is a 1987 American satirical comedy film that parodies the experience of watching low-budget movies on late-night television. The film, featuring a large ensemble cast, takes the form of a compilation of twenty-one comedy skits directed by five different directors.*

Let me explain to you -- as I did to all eight Amazon reps -- my own comedy skit. Six years ago, I had a book published. Five years ago, the publisher closed its doors and the book's rights and copies reverted to me. This year, I was encouraged to consider self-publishing and I decided that there was no harm in re-issuing my Christmas-themed book.

No harm except for the hair pulling.

I went to Book Surge, Amazon's alleged self-publishing arm, loaded up my content, filled in all the forms, answered all the questions. It was relatively painless. This was about a month ago. I was sent a sample copy -- and lo, it looked like a real book, was well-bound and printed. I approved the copy, and waited.

And waited.

Yesterday, I decided it was time to find out why the book was not appearing on the site. And to figure out how to adjust the price of the book, which still appears at its (higher) 2005 price on the Canadian website.

This was not as easy as it sounds. It did take eight conversations, two passwords, and one ticket to the IT department in order to find out that someone was on another floor and could not communicate.

To be fair, it's a weird situation. And, if I had posted the book in the first place to amazon, or if this were not a re-issue, I think things would have gone swimmingly.

Or maybe there would have been piranhas in that Amazon story. I don't know.

I'm still on hold, so to speak. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, if you're interested, I'm selling the book at Waterloo's Ten Thousand Villages store and through Kindred Productions.

Happy start of the Christmas season!

* so saith Wikipedia

First World Problem

Do you remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Great Oz is revealed to be a small, ordinary man operating illusion from behind a curtain?

I feel more than a bit like that with this blog post.

Despite the fact that I have chestnut brown hair, I come from a line of prematurely gray women. The brown is the illusion - created every three weeks with products that are among few chemicals I use. My lawn is drug-free; I use Norwex cloths instead of cleaning products; the most potent drug I take is Advil. And yet, every few weeks, I douse my scalp with hair dye.

I had come to terms with this, as my mom and grandmother did before me.

But two weeks ago, I read an article about a UK woman in a coma after a reaction to hair dye. I only do the recommended skin allergy test the first time I use a new product, and not always then. This story frightened me because apparently the woman had used the same product for years, and the reaction came as a result of an accumulation of the chemicals in her system. She is not expected to live. The chemicals that cause the problem are so toxic they are not permitted in skin products, and are prevalent in dark hair colouring.

Like chestnut.

Five years ago, I let the gray grow in and had gold highlights added too. I wasn't that keen. We look back at the photos now -- and think it was aging.

But, we are all aging. And maybe this is what 42 and a half looks like.

My mother doesn't think this is the best idea. She cites a friend whose return to dyed hair "took ten or fifteen years off her." My reply is that I'd rather hair dye didn't take ten or fifteen years off my life expectancy.

When ethics and aesthetics clash -- I wonder who will win. I wonder too, if I undertake the Brave Gray Experiment and then return to brown, will people treat me differently? Can the Great Oz ever be what he was once he is revealed for who he really is?

These are, as the title indicates, first world problems. I'd rather we all donated our energy and funds to helping the Attiwapiskat community, but as I look at the tinsel on the tree this Christmas, I'm going to be wondering about the beauty of silver streaks.