Friday, November 9, 2012


I just finished a really long post explaining my internal conflicts around Remembrance Day. Basically I'm a pacifist who is moved to tears by the sacrifices made for our country by soldiers. I'm someone who thinks fighting is almost never the solution, but that occasionally it is -- and the enormous challenge is to figure out, in the moment, which kind of situation we face.

I struggle to wear a poppy because it feels inadequate to express my complicated feelings about the day -- and also because those suckers either fall off or stab you -- but I don't want to not wear a poppy. I know that I'm not on the white poppy team. I know that the "to remember is to work for peace" pins don't quite do justice to the day either.

If any book series has ever formed me, it is L.M. Montgomery's Anne books. The final installment of the set is called Rilla of Ingleside. It has been called one of the finest depictions of the First World War on the home front, and I recommend it to you heartily. But there is one scene in which a pacifist gets up at a prayer meeting before the soldiers leave PEI to cross the Atlantic, and begins to pray against the war effort, and someone else stands up and curses them down. Here is what I know: I don't want to be either of these folks.

I know that the most patriotic among us, and the most decorated of soldiers would say: never again. I know that there are few war mongers out there. I know too that conscientious objectors are sometimes the bravest people out there -- stretcher bearers who refused to take up arms but who were willing to serve their country and cause by running out into harm's way to bring back the fallen. If I have to stand somewhere, I think it's with them.

And here else is where I want to stand:

I want to stand with those who take the very tools of destruction and make them into something beautiful and transformative, who remember and re-member quite literally.

Thank you to those who stood up and fought for us. Thank you to those who would not fight but still stood with them and with us.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Market season

You live close to the land when you farm,
When you sell produce,
You never know what a season will bring

And so you plant your seeds, your slips in faith
Trusting the one who decides what will live and what will not
What will thrive and what will wither.
You plant and you wait and you watch the skies for rainclouds and sunshine
Check forecasts for frosts
You don’t always see the storms coming.
And yet you prepare what you can
As ready as you can be for the day when the unimaginable rains down upon you

Angels and axles, screams and silence

And then you begin the long wait
The praying as you have never had to pray before
The knowledge that this crop matters to you more than any green plant
But that all you can do, this time, as any other, is trust.

Some do not know where milk comes from or eggs, whether corn grows underground or on high.
You know all this, living so close to the land
And yet even you know that there is still a mystery
At the heart of it all.
Market season spans the summer, with wide margins on either side -
Spinach and strawberries are replaced with corn and tomatoes and peaches, and then it turns
back to spinach again, and pumpkins.

Somewhere around peaches is when you really see the green life sprout up in her again
Around the time the pumpkins ripen she comes home again at long last.
And every day, even as the leaves fall and plants wither, spent,
you see new life and frostbite, drought and flood,
good green growth and ripening fruit within her.

You know years of plenty, years of abundance, but also years of loss, years of less.
And you just never know which it will be: the almanac does not always tell.
You look out now at sere fields, shorn, dying, finished and you know what might have been.
You know what had to die in you this market season.

You know too what did not die
What springs to new life.
Green banners wave hosannas
Like new tassels on tall brave ears of corn

Many people wait a long time for the harvest
Rejoicing when it comes
But none perhaps more than you who sat and sits vigil
Who knows the cost, the mercy, the grace,

This too is a mystery,
at the heart of it all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Soggy Snoopy

so i finally persuaded the dog to go out into the dark, sodden morning to walk around the block, but when we were halfway around, the rain picked up and we began to be pelted with leaves and cold water, and he balked. i knew what he meant and that there was no use trying to persuade him so we turned around to walk back.

that's when i spotted him. sitting propped against a garbage can on the side of the road, in a puddle, looking for all the world like a homeless person was a snoopy stuffed animal.

i felt like i had no choice. i picked him up, heavy, so heavy with water, and carried him dripping home. for now, he sits propped against a pumpkin on our front porch. once he dries out a bit, i'm planning to put him in the dryer and then to give him to the dog.

because i have no toddler, no small child.

next week is halloween and for the first time i can remember my needs to parent are clashing with my kids' needs to grow up. two of mine are still going trick-or-treating, but both are going out with friends. neither wants nor needs me to go with them. i can see why people dress their dogs up -- how far is the difference between giving the dog a stuffed animal and treating the dog like a baby? i'm not sure i want to know.

i am not done trick or treating. i have a costume in mind for myself, as i always do. but this year my role is to drive and to give out candy, to put makeup on the kids, take their pictures, and send them out into the world.

sometimes my grandma says, well, you wouldn't actually want them to stay babies, and that's true. i wouldn't wish that on them for a moment and i adore them as big kids. it's only me i feel a bit sad for -- and certainly not all the time. there are so many things i can do now, my own things and their things, that i could not with babes in arms, kids in hand. but there are things i can't do and halloween is apparently one of them.

the other day we drained the pool, added chemicals, and put the heavy black tarp on for the winter. the next week, we -- and i do mean dave -- surrounded the pool with snow fencing to keep the dog from a polar bear swim through the winter. i carried heavy muskoka chairs out of the backyard. we unscrewed hoses. there is a finality to the closing up of fall that feels a lot like a soggy snoopy sitting against a garbage can. some chores -- like raking -- have to be done over and over again, but others -- cutting back the hostas -- are done and that's it. i know spring will come again. i love the beauty of fall and even late fall, but oh there is a melancholy to it too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bless me, Amanda Hocking...

While a commercial publisher's intended market is the general public, a vanity publisher's intended market is the author.

The term "vanity press" is sometimes considered pejorative,and is often used to imply that an author who self-publishes using such a service is only publishing out of vanity and that his or her work could not be commercially successful. In other words, a work published by a vanity press is typically assumed to be unpublishable elsewhere or not publishable on a timely basis.

- Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago, I organized a small, low-key wedding shower as part of a family dinner in a public place. I had planned two simple games and everyone had brought gifts. The problem was that we were surrounded by other people and the room was buzzing. I had a decision to make: the bride and groom are all about people and not materially oriented. Even though it was hard to hear, I decided we would go ahead with one of the games, rather than just opening gifts. The game was a success for the people right next to the couple, but was impossible for everyone else to play. It made the couple feel appreciated, but it was kind of a dud. Afterwards, I felt disappointed -- chiefly because I wondered whether the other guests had indulged me, thinking that I thought I had gone to all the work of planning the games and so they would make me feel good by playing along as best they could under the circumstances. I wanted to explain myself, to say that I had no ego attached to the games, that I would have been happy to jettison them but had attempted to keep them for others' sakes, that I actually knew how to plan games and throw a good party.

In other words, my ego got involved, although perhaps not the way it might appear at first glance.

I wonder whether we really know our own vanity or if it's a kind of blind spot. I'm thinking about this because the idea of self-publishing has been on my radar for the last little while. I have two manuscripts of books all dressed up with nowhere to go. They've been sent out in the world lots of times but they always find their way home, with notes attached to their coats.

Here is one such note:

I had just spent the few days before Christmas reading your novel. The fact that I spent that time demonstrates the quality of your storytelling; your writing is quite lovely and I found Jason's story absorbing. I'll be honest; I think the Canadian setting works against your favor. I used to work on the editorial side at Doubleday and I can't tell you how many novels we turned down from our Canadian counterparts because of the setting - deemed as a "hard sell" unless the book had already hit the bestseller lists in Canada. Of course, hardly any editor will tell you that's the reason because it seems so superficial, but in my opinion that's the reality. Also, there's a big push to publish bigger, more ambitious stories painted on large canvases, and that trend also is likely working against this project - there's less space for these types of stories. Sorry for the hasty response; I'm still on holiday with family but wanted to get back to you quickly. I do admire your writing and hope you can find someone to take it on!

Some of the notes are more like this one:

After review, I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it is not something I wish to pursue.

I often tell writers I work with that publishing is a difficult business these days. As the first note above indicates, anything that makes a book a "hard sell" is, in fact, hard to sell. An editor friend of mine said wisely, "Sometimes what sells is not what should sell."

Which brings us to self-publishing.

After my first book was published seven years ago, the publisher went out of business a year later. All rights and responsibilities reverted to me. I had a good lesson in what's involved on both sides of the table. Distribution was something I had never considered before and really came to see as valuable.

They say every cell in the human body replaces itself within seven years, and so too, the publishing industry has changed remarkably in that period of time. The popularization of e-readers and the proliferation of self-publishing programs and print-on-demand options has made the option of self-publishing much easier and cheaper -- and has meant distribution is less of an issue than ever. There are success stories of writers like Amanda Hocking who have built successful writing careers and healthy bank accounts on a foundation of self-publishing.

What stops me from taking this route is primarily stigma that isn't that different from how I felt after the wedding shower. Will anyone who has literary chops to speak of think that my books are even half-decent if I can't find a publisher? And, even deeper, if I can't find a publisher, is there any chance the books are actually half-decent?

What makes me toy with this option is simply the fact that I want these stories to be read. I heard someone say once, "What we want is not a publisher, but readers." And that is true indeed.

I can't seem to pull the trigger to go this route. Honestly, it still feels like some degree of failure, that my ego might be more bruised by self-affirmed publication than traditional publishing's rejection. And yet, I want these stories to be read. I think people would like these stories. In my heart, I think they are decent and deserve to see the light.

And many writers who have been traditionally published are going indie themselves. This fabulous blog followed the story of a writer who did just that, and the benefits she found in self-publishing.

What I am doing is writing, working away on a new book whose characters I love. That's what I will continue to do because the motive to write doesn't come from a place that needs fame and fortune. And yet, I am quite sure that we write to communicate, and that the desire for readers is a very good thing.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this -- reader, writer, publisher, whoever you are -- both in general and in particular. And stay tuned. I'll keep you posted.


Monday, October 15, 2012

On Bullying

Like many middle school kids, my son is wearing pink today. He's wearing it in support of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide last week after a relentless campaign by bullies and after her own cries for help went unheeded.

I heard someone on the radio this morning say she wondered what would have happened if dozens and hundreds of kids had worn pink last Monday instead. Would Amanda still be alive and have hope?

The answer may be Whitney Kropp. The Michigan teen was elected to the homecoming court of her high school -- but it was a prank, done by bullies who thought it would be hilarious. Like Amanda, Whitney felt crushed by the mockery -- but then local businesses supported her by providing a dress, shoes, flowers. Her parents and siblings stood alongside her, literally and figuratively. 145,000 people have joined a Facebook group called Support Whitney. She stood proud and beautiful at her school's homecoming, surrounded by friends, family, media and some confused and hopefully chagrined bullies.

Standing up against bullies and for the bullied is hard. I know this because I failed to do it last week.

Last week, I was at the dog park in the evening, as usual. One dog owner called out a teenaged dog owner for not watching and scooping after his dog. The teenager cleaned up after the dog and then went back to playing with his friends, ignoring the dog, who left behind another steaming pile.

This happens sometimes at the dog park. The general protocol is that you call to the owner -- "Hey! I think Lucky left you a present." The kindest of dog owners clean up after other dogs.

But when the dog in question had left a second pile behind, the dog owner who had observed both offerings chewed out the teenager. And I mean chewed out. Shamed. There was no literal nose-rubbing -- but I'm sure it felt like it.

I stood there with my daughter and let it happen. I felt sick. I felt confused. What the dog owner was saying was actually true but the way it was said was horrible. I had no idea what to say. Anything I could think to say sounded aggressive and nasty. I watched the teen clean up the poop and then sink to the ground, slouched, no longer playing.

My kids were so angry with me for not saying anything -- and I had no defense. They were right -- I should have stood up for the teen. My one child suggested I say, "Back off," to the dog owner, but I couldn't imagine myself saying that. Finally, days later, someone suggested I could have said, "I think he gets the point." That would have worked.

I saw an encounter on The Big Bang Theory where someone insulted Sheldon. He replied something like this, "I'm not saying anything right now, but you'd better watch your inbox carefully for the next few weeks, because eventually I will send you a scathing rebuttal." That's kind of how I felt. And the thing is that I'm pretty good with words and I'm an adult.

What about kids who lack language to speak up? who feel powerless against powerful kids? And here I mean both the victims and the bystanders.

The teen's mom spoke up a few days ago -- when she figured out who the other dog owner was. The other dog owner protested that the teen must be overly sensitive. The mom firmly and quietly held her ground.

The best I could do was to talk to the mom afterwards, to tell her that I had seen the incident, that the teen's account had been correct. To apologize for not speaking up.

But that isn't true. The best I can do is to speak to the teen and to apologize, to name what happened to him --by the bully and me, the bystander -- as wrong. I could wear pink today but instead I think I will try to do more what was done for Whitney and what, sadly, was not done for Amanda.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The whole damn bus is cheering

As a little girl, I remember early on learning the lyrics to the song Billy, Don't Be a Hero,  a sad anti-war song but I also could sing along with Tie a Yellow Ribbon, the song about a prisoner who asks his love to show him whether she wants him back after he's done his time -- as his bus approaches the house, he sees a hundred yellow ribbons 'round the old oak tree.

I thought of that song this morning as I was walking the dog, as I walked past trees marked with lime green ribbons. I thought of other ribbons, those worn for solidarity with breast cancer, AIDS, violence against women.

We have a lime green ribbon wrapped around one of our maple trees. It has sagged about a foot since we tied it there at the end of May, the week after young Lydia Herrle was hit by a garbage truck while getting off the school bus. She's the age of my middle child and a friend of a friend. She's also the daughter and granddaughter of Herrle's Farm Markets, home to the best corn in the region. I think many people, for that reason, felt connected with the family and the tragedy of Lydia's accident. Her friends and family asked people to post ribbons in Lydia's favourite colour, to stand in hope with them that, like a butterfly, she would come out of the cocoon that was her serious coma.

I thought of her often this summer and our family talked about and prayed for her, following updates her parents kept in a transparent blog.  Many of us get involved in causes when they touch our lives, even peripherally; we can't do everything, and so we follow our hearts. But causes are big things -- curing cancer, ending HIV-AIDS. Lydia is a smallish girl.

For a while this summer, it looked like there was the possibility that she would not emerge from her coma. As I mowed the lawn, I looked at the green ribbon and I wondered what we would all do if she stayed dormant. What would we do when the ribbon frayed, bleached, ripped? How long do you hold onto hope?

And then, Lydia's progress quickened. She began to focus her eyes, to swallow, to speak, to take tentative steps, to walk, to come home for weekends and now to stay. She has a long recovery ahead of her, but she is clearly and remarkably mending.

I asked our mutual friend when the time would be right to take down the ribbons. The family has decided that they will hold a homecoming celebration for Lydia once their farm market is closed for the season, that they will invite everyone who has held them up in hope and prayer to remove their ribbons, line the laneway and wave them in celebration.

The day I told my family that Lydia had first spoken, I said it with an unexpected sob. I know I won't be alone in crying that day -- for a girl I don't think I've never met.

But I don't know that the tears are just for Lydia -- nor are they for the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I of the situation. It's for all the ribbons that get old and worn, the causes that are not done yet, the new cases of cancer, the worries and the aches, the lumps and the losses.

It could have gone entirely differently with Lydia; there are no guarantees. I see this as a miracle, as answered prayer -- but there are times when prayer is not answered with a yes, when the reply stings.

But the waving of the green ribbons, tattered as they may be, is a renewal of hope for all these situations. It's saying that this time, we can surely and easily celebrate. It's one happy ending that can bolster us up for all the hundreds of ribbons we have tied around each of our trees.

Welcome home, Lydia.

Monday, October 8, 2012

An Embarrassment of Riches

Walking the dog in the violet light last night, I turned my mind to giving thanks, which is, of course, the purpose of this weekend, and yet is a posture I forget so easily. How much easier and more natural it is to create a to-do list, one that looks forward with momentum, with urgency, with necessity. And yet, as I walked over rain-drenched leaves and woodsmoke came from houses around us, I wondered about what was really necessary and how maybe giving thanks is far more to the point.

I start with my beautiful family, with the fact that I enjoy the freedoms and relative wealth of living in Canada, that I still have my parents and the rest of our family, for health, for work I love, for longstanding friendships that sustain me, for beauty, for our neighbourhood, for this dog who gets me out every day and who has meant I've met such lovely people.

For pain that makes me take better care of myself.

For the fact that we are all home together now. That I still take great delight and pride in each of my kids, that I enjoy their company, that we find humour together, that while I walked they were finishing tidying the house for a Thanksgiving supper with extended family. For my grandma at nearly 93 -- we talk and it stuns me to think that I have a living, loving bridge to a time that is nearly a century ago.

For brilliant trees. For hot coffee. For knitting beautiful wool.For sleeping in. For good books to read.

I settle deep within. What is there not to give thanks for? Even the things that hurt, the things I wait for, the longings and griefs - even there I can find reason to give thanks.

The sky has deepened to a rich royal blue. When I look straight overhead, tiny stars, little pinpricks of light, shine down on me.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Deconstructing Three Controversial Things

1. When the brouhaha about redefining human life was raised in Parliament a couple of weeks ago, I looked carefully at the photo of the Member of Parliament who presented the bill. He looked familiar and then I remembered. A few days before, I had been windswept and frozen, sitting outside in a sweater at Word on the Street. I had met a vast array of people that day. One of them had been a man in a suit, quiet and pleasant, who was talking books with me when he was approached by a panhandler looking for spare change for a meal. The suited man checked his pockets and only had a twenty. He offered to take the man to lunch and the man agreed. Before they left the booth, the panhandler asked the suit whether they knew one another, that the suited man looked familiar. Quietly, the suit said that maybe they had met before, that he was in fact a member of parliament. And then they slipped away together. It helped me in the midst of the outrage of the week that followed to remember that this was a man who treated people with kindness and dignity.

2. I read yesterday that Gloria Taylor died. Taylor was a passionate voice for assisted suicide, who lived with ALS and who did not want the horrible death that comes with that disease. But it wasn't the disease that killed her -- it was an infection that appeared to be unrelated. She died quickly, with her family around her. I was happy for her that she had had a good death, as they say, but I was also struck by the fact that too often I worry about things that may never happen. Her fate looked pretty clear -- which was why she fought as she did -- but in the end, it was different. It made me think.

3. Today the weather is cold and breezy -- and I love it. We've had warm weather since about February. I mention to someone how glad I am for sweater weather and they look at me like I have three heads and mention the snow in Winnipeg and Calgary. Well, that's not what I want either. I just want proper Canadian seasons. Once summer holidays end and the days start to shorten, I want winds and rain and even frost. I actually don't like hot days in autumn (or winter, for that matter). I want to buckle down to work, to be glad to be inside, happy to put on wool socks and to drink hot tea.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What I Said At Church on Sunday

Prayer is an intimate act, and like all intimate acts, can be frightening. Like kissing and writing, there are times in my life when I resist praying, and then when something breaks through and I do engage, I wonder why I would ever stop doing this in the first place.

But there’s a risk to any intimacy. The entire time I was pregnant with my first child, I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to be a mother. It wasn’t until he was born and I looked in his eyes, I literally thought, “Oh, I can be your mother.” For me, it’s kind of the same with God: sometimes I’m afraid that prayer is me talking inside my own head, sending good wishes out into the universe, and then a very real, very specific God answers those prayers – and I don’t always mean with a yes – and my faith takes on a new dimension, a new level of trust.

When I was a little girl, my parents taught me a NowIlaymedowntosleep prayer, and every night when they tucked me into bed, I would recite it. Then I went away to camp and had a deep experience of God. I learned to pray heartfelt spontaneous prayers and I didn’t know what to do with the NowIlayme routine, so I kept reciting it to my parents and then really talking to God afterwards, alone in my room.

As an adult, I have come to appreciate the Book of Common Prayer, the way it invites us to pray Scripture, and to take well-distilled words of faith and let them sink deep into our being. Even if we aren’t interested in most rote prayers, we have The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus gave us. We can chew on those words, let them come back to us, let them form us.

I want to tell you about one of my experiences of prayer. Last year, one of my kids was starting high school, another middle school and the third was coming back to school after significant illness. It felt like a big September so I decided I would walk around each of their different schools and pray for them and for the year ahead. As I walked and prayed for my child at the first school, I saw a small yellow bird take flight in front of me, and it felt like a picture God gave me of how I should pray: that the child who would go to this school would take flight, would be eager and willing to soar. Near the second school, I saw a boy on a bicycle at traffic lights. He was hesitant and in his hesitation, he was actually not obeying the rules. I saw this scene too as a way to pray – that my child at this school would have the confidence to move forward, the courage to do what was right. By the time I reached the third school, I was expecting a picture and trying to force one. There was nothing, until I was leaving the school. A school bell rang and it struck me as a picture of discipline, that that was what my child who would attend that school would need most. I wrote out just a few words: yellow bird taking flight, bicycle moving forward, bell and discipline on a piece of paper and kept it on my desk to pray for my kids throughout the school year.

I’ve had a number of occasions where God has put someone on my heart like a burden. One of those people was a boy whose family had not been at our church for long when he was diagnosed with severe and life-threatening pneumonia. There was one night when I woke several times and every time I woke, I was still praying for him. I had a similar experience many years ago when I was at a national ministry conference and it was announced that then-Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard had been diagnosed with flesh-eating disease and that, at the very least, he would lose his leg. I felt compelled to pray for him and I did.

(I feel like I need to interrupt this to say that there are a lot of days where my prayers are either quickly tossed off “please bless us” kinds of prayers, perfunctory grace at meals or are forgotten altogether.)

A friend of mine has just had her first chemo treatment for breast cancer. She and I were talking about how it’s so much easier to send something out in an email or on Facebook than to pray, because the answers we get are immediate and definite. Social media and texting are amazing tools for spiritual growth and encouragement, but they can’t be a replacement. Our job as a church is very much like that of the elders in Numbers – we aren’t simply to wish one another well or leave it to the leaders, but to take the time to share the burden before God.

I don’t know how prayer “works.” It’s mysterious. God can and does most certainly act without our input. God is most definitely not a celestial vending machine where we put in our coins and press numbers and voila. And yet, we are told to pray.

Mother Teresa says, “Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”

My friend who is living with cancer has asked us to pray boldly for her complete healing. She knows that this may not be the answer, but she believes that God wants us to ask for the deepest desires of our heart and to listen to his reply.

In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says there are really only two prayers. One is "Help me, help me, help me." The other is "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

I had an experience of this last summer. I was pretty angry at God for what felt like His absence in a certain situation and I went away overnight to have it out with God. Except that’s not how it happened. Instead, I was able to sense the presence of God, the thing I needed most and frankly, my anger evaporated and I spent a fair bit of time listening to music, going for walks and being thankful for the time I had alone with God.

And that, I think, is prayer too.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On hiring gardeners

Last week I parted with money for the second-best non-breathing investment of my life.

(The best was for a dishwasher. It cost $200. I had a three year old, a one year old and a big belly and it came with a shimmering glow and a chorus of angels.)

Last week, I hired two ladies with rough hands and soft hearts to come weed my hated rock garden.

I looked out every few minutes from my computer to cheer. I confessed to them before they left that I loved them. I believe they understood what I meant.

They edged the back of the garden so it looked clean. They got at the roots of the wild mustard that was invading. They tidied things up. They got dirty and I stayed clean.

I thought that was why I had hired them -- but it wasn't.

In having them come, I figured out all sorts of things I had never known before.

I'm a hard worker. I don't mind getting dirt under my fingernails -- literally or metaphorically. I scrub bathtubs with joy, for the sake of seeing the difference afterwards. Having people come to weed my rock garden wasn't about being unwilling or too busy to work.

What it was actually about was me being overwhelmed and not knowing what to do about it.

I love my vegetable garden. I till it under in the fall, like putting a well-loved child to bed. In the spring, as soon as the snow is mostly gone, I poke fingers into thick, cold soil and drop peas in a row, and I wait. When plants come up, I know what they are. I know what to thin. I know to brush tomato leaves for the scent.

The rock garden was different. I've whined about how it harbours weeds among the rocks, and it does, but it turned out that that was not at the heart of my trouble with this garden.

There were four or five clumps in my rock garden that were a mixture of goodness-knows-what -- some desirable and some not-so-desirable plants, all growing together. It may sound really really simple to you, but the very best thing these ladies did for me was to set a tarp on the lawn, dig out the good, the bad and the ugly of a clump and then put back the plants we decided we wanted. That I could do this was a complete revelation to me somehow.

I looked at the garden when they were almost done and I pointed to another clump that had a couple of plants mixed together in it. They explained to me what was what and said they could both stay, that they were both desirable plants.

What I had felt toward this garden was frustration -- that no matter how hard I worked at it, it would beat me. Even while I slept, it would keep churning out stuff to thwart me. I would pull and hack at it and my efforts felt futile. In reality, they kind of were. What I needed was to take a step back and to see what it meant to take charge of the garden. I needed someone to help me sort out what was what, and help me to know how to do that for myself.

It got me thinking about all sorts of ways we can help one another not get overwhelmed by life, ways I need help and ways I can help. But mostly I'm thinking about how I didn't even know I was overwhelmed and how frustrated I felt, and about how much frustration I see all around me and what might be lurking beneath that and what might pull those roots out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

what i made in your absence

i'm afraid this will come out wrong but i'm going to say it anyhow. when you are gone and the kids are here i feel very deeply responsible, more than i am probably. i think about safety more. i feel sometimes like i'm all that stands between them and orphanhood. when you are farther away, i feel it more, that you couldn't just pick up and come home if there were an emergency.

i feel that i am acting in good faith in your absence, keeping the contract we've made of our lives, the normalcy for the kids even when you aren't here.

i made cod cakes in your absence -- cod and mashed potatoes and onions, dipped in bread crumbs and fried. i made curried lentil-cauliflower soup and homemade bread. i made a hot orange-ginger-honey tea. i made ground pork, potatoes and peas. i made dishes clean and children wake up. i made sure the house was locked for the night and the dog was fed and watered. i do these things of course when you are here, but you do too. when you are not here, it is a solo dance. this is where i'm afraid it will come out wrong, that my single mom friends will read this and think big whup, i do that every single day, and you do and i want to acknowledge this and to say it's not that i am complaining about my hard lot as a two-day single parent, not at all. it's the absence i'm talking about and the need to temporarily figure out the juggle. it's like someone changed the music and i have to find the new rhythm, but not forever, just for now.

i count the hours until you return every time. again not because it's too hard but because i like the other song, the one where you are here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On Things I Want to Touch

I often want to touch things I shouldn’t: in particular, sculptures and molten metal and glass. Scolding museum docents and third-degree burns are sometimes all that keeps me back. I am fascinated by the red-hot glowing of metal and glass and I have stood watching glassblowers and blacksmiths at work on their craft.

And that is particularly what I was reminded of on Thursday night as we sat in the audience at the Molson Amphitheatre watching Gotye. To most people in North America, Gotye is a one-hit Somebody I Used to Know wonder. I first heard of him last spring, described as being like Peter Gabriel and Sting mixed together: I had to investigate this further. The chorus of Somebody led me to find his other – in my opinion better – music and I was hooked. I watched a short YouTube documentary in which he talked about coming across a sound fence in the Australian outback and how playing it had inspired his environmentally apocalyptic song Eyes Wide Open (my personal favourite). The day his North American tour was announced, I bought tickets without checking my or Dave’s schedule: we were going. I felt fortunate that Dave didn’t think this was one of Those Singers that women like and men loathe. We were both excited to go.

We’ve been busy about the business of children and soccer and work and concerts have fallen low on our lists in the last, um, couple of decades. We have enjoyed concerts by friends, but the last big concert we remember going to was Ashley MacIsaac, about sixteen years ago.

There were parallels. What I adored about MacIsaac was how the man shredded his bow as he fiddled. He plays with such intensity that he literally must replace bows as he goes along. It looks like curls from a wood plane or tangles of hair coming off the bow.

Gotye moved around the stage with energy, singing, playing various instruments, but as I watched, I knew that primarily, foundationally, the man is a percussionist. Because I knew the music well, because we were sitting in a cloud of pot smoke, because we weren’t close to the stage, it was actually easy to watch the clever videos and to sing along to the music, losing sight of the excellent small performers on stage. I kept reminding myself to watch the musicians themselves.

But there was one sight that imprinted itself on my mind: Gotye, de Backer, himself, joining the drummer on his own set of drums, raising his arm to full height and bringing it back down to hit the drum, over and again in a rhythm that reminded me exactly of a blacksmith hammering at his forge.

And that, I think, is the key to the beauty of his music: that molten quality, that too-hot-to-touch danger, that between states of matterness.

I wondered as I watched whether such vigour took or created physical strength: did he have to work out in order to be able to play, or was the act of playing the workout?
At one point, he confessed to having had a frog in his throat that evening. It was hard to hear but after he announced the last song and after that song was played, Dave stood up to go while I cheered for an encore. “Let the man rest,” Dave said, but Gotye came back on stage for three more songs, possibly the best of the night. We talked about this afterwards, that probably a rest was what was needed on one level, but the passion for the music, the love of performing, the ability to create such raw power was that much stronger.

I was inspired. I want to bring that same kind of energy – the bow-shredding, anvil hammering passion – to the work that motivates me with that kind of passion. It had occurred to me before the concert – not with any kind of worry – that we might be the most ancient people there. This was not true – there were people of all ages (elderly to very young), genders, races, and economic abilities all enjoying the music. It was perhaps the most diverse concert I have been to. What made me feel really glad was that while drumming may require physical energy I don’t always have, what I do does not. Writing fiction is a quiet interior experience of shapeshifting and molten transformation. Physical fitness helps – typing is hard on the neck and shoulders – but it’s not necessarily a young person’s game. In fact, sometimes the skill and passion grow with age.

I see Gotye’s arm poised, fully extended above his head, ready to slam down with precision at just the right moment. That’s the picture I carry away from the concert. That’s what I want to be able to touch when I sit down to write.

The Provenance of Things or Dear Rob A

Dear Rob A,

It's been more than 21 years since our wedding, but today I was folding the sheets you gave us, the double-bed sheets that are royal blue and purple, kind of an Aztec print. Maybe the sheets that a young guy buys for the sister of his ex-girlfriend when she gets married.

Anyhow, I thought you'd like to know that those sheets are still with us, and they spend the summer on my six-foot tall son's futon mattress, and I've now replaced them for the colder months with fuzzier sheets.

I think about the provenance of things sometimes. I survey my own clothes and remember that this shirt came from Value Village, the scarf from Italy, the jeans from Reitmans, the socks from Quebec, from that trip we took.

Or it could be wedding gifts. The cozy blanket we stared at aghast when we opened it after the wedding became our go-to keep-us-warm blanket for a million years, that now keeps the dog warm at night.

Sometimes we get gifts or buy things and they get integrated into our life and we don't think about where they came from. Sometimes we remember to check labels before we buy, avoiding products and produce from places where things are produced badly and people are treated poorly.

But sometimes we remember. I called a great aunt this week for a phone number and we chatted for a few minutes and I felt deeply rooted in my family, even though this is a woman I see once a year only, if there are no funerals.

In Ithaca this summer, I noted that the provenance of food was more important than the provenance of people. Ithaca is not a place where one is shunned for being from away: most people are, many have found the place and stayed. But where your food comes from --- ah, now that matters. The market has a strict 30-mile radius, and when we stopped at the deli (The Piggery) for sandwiches, the woman at the counter greeted us with "what can I tell you about our food?" I didn't know what to ask so I said, "What should I want to know?" and she told me how the pigs were raised and slaughtered and prepared. And then we ate glorious pulled pork piled high.

Knowing, remembering where we, our stuff, and our food come from matters.

I don't know where you've gone, Rob A. Maybe I could find you on LinkedIn or Facebook. But I thought of you today as I turned the sheets and folded them away into the cupboard once more. And I was grateful that you were in my life, even for a short season.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Huh. She's Not Dead Afterall.

It's been a good summer and it was nice to be a little less plugged in than usual. Which brings me to my point.

I don't keep Miss Vickie's Sea Salt and Malt Vinegar chips in my house because they would last no time at all. They would whisper to me from the cupboard and my plans to have a small bowlful would result in frenzied gobbling and licking of the bag. I know that about myself. It isn't pretty, but it's true. My self control takes place in the store; if the chips get past that line, there is little defense remaining.

Likewise, the matter of being digitally connected. When I go on holidays, part of the joy of the vacation is being disconnected from any electronic existence. Being freed up to live in the moment, rather than keeping track of the world and my world. When we were in Ithaca this summer, we missed two big news stories: the US senator/congressman who said that rape never caused pregnancy, and some celebrity hookup or breakup I've already forgotten.

I also have regularly maintained a different kind of disconnect: while I use a laptop that is perpetually connected to the Internet, I have the cheapest, oldest cell phone with a pay and talk plan and no real data plan that I know of. In other words, I don't text and I can't check the Internet while I'm walking my dog, getting groceries, sitting at soccer games, having dinner with friends, etc. (I may not be dead after a two month hiatus, but I certainly am a dinosaur, no?)

I do rush home from any and all events and -- before I even use the facilities -- I run to check what I might have missed in the ether. But my point is that, like my lack of resistance to chips in my house, I am firmly convinced that I would never again make eye contact, notice birds and sunsets and telephone poles were I to give in and buy myself a smartphone. I would be texting with the best of them and frankly with all of them, all the time.

But, I have a nonagenarian in my life who has decided that the fax machine is the Last Communication Technology She is Willing to Learn. Although she has been given an iPad and has wireless access in her home, she has declined to adopt any more technology, even though she forfeits the chance to see most photos of her great grandbabies as a result. And I'm scared of being like that. Our fax machine broke a few years ago and we never replaced it. There may well come a point when the only option is a smartphone and what will I do then?

Unlike my elderly friend, I am not being a Luddite about this. I get the convenience, the opportunity to text with my kids, the apps, everything. But I'm actually trying to protect myself from myself. You can say all you like about quiet hours, but seriously, I'll eat those chips until the skin is hanging off my tongue and my ankles are swollen to bursting. (I exaggerate only slightly. And really, do you know how dangerous it is for me to even write about chips?)

Once in a while, I use my husband's smartphone simply to keep up with the cool kids, to make sure I'm not left behind altogether on the information highway. But I'm wondering about how to stay being a person who is connected and yet who wants to wander -- literally, not metaphorically -- keeping my eyes open on the very real world around me, rather than glued to a small, blinking screen.

How about you? How do you work this one out?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Talk Amongst Yourselves

Dear Blog,

I know, I know. I've neglected you like I usually forget my Twitter account.

The thing is that it's summertime and the kids are home, but the work hasn't stopped. If anything, it has actually increased. Don't get me wrong: I love it, the whole thing. The work, the family, the fun. Oh, and the novel that is springing forth from my head these days. It just adds up to a lot. Which leaves me little space for you, blog-o-mine.

So, barring unexpected found time, I'm going to stop passively neglecting you and instead actively neglect you, in a planned way. You can say we're on a break.

And to you, kind readers, I do know that blogging demands consistency, so I apologize for going missing for a while. I may pop in from time to time over the summer, but I might not.

Summer is a pretty short season. I hope you will be able to take breaks from some things and add other ones in too.



Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Strawberry Children

My eldest was born on June 26 and from an early age loved to pick the strawberries that ripened at the time of his birthday. For his very first birthday, we actually invited friends and had a strawberry-themed soiree.

When my second child was 9 months old, I discovered I was pregnant again. I had had plans to take the two boys strawberry picking and then I did the test. Once I realized I would soon be the parent of a three year old, one year old and new baby, taking two toddlers to mash red berries into their clothes felt like a piece of cake, and a necessary stretch: I was going to have to learn the art of multitasking in a big way, and I might as well start right away, crouched down in rows of straw, inhaling the candy-sweet smell.

Picking strawberries has always had a child theme in my lfie: I recall being a child and being left with my sister in a patch to pick while my mom picked up our other sister. I remember that it was hot work.

My own kids don't usually balk at strawberry picking: by June, the idea of unlimited, accessible fresh fruit has great appeal, and strawberries fill a pail quite quickly, as compared to, say, blueberries. My daughter came with us a couple of weeks ago when the news spread that the fields were open. Today, I tried to persuade the eldest to pick with me -- I only wanted enough to make jam -- but he had plans with a friend to work out at the gym. He said he did want to pick, but another day. And maybe that day will come and maybe the berries will be done.

Either way, he's not a kid anymore anyhow. But alone in the field, under a gentle rain this afternoon, I watched and listened to other moms with their small people. I know there are umpteen studies that talk about the calming effects of being in nature, but I suspect there is something more about picking berries en famille. Because every mother I saw and heard had kids who were running and picking, making observations and needing to go pee -- and every mom spoke calmly and patiently to her offspring.

It made me feel very glad. Glad to be part of a group who showed their kids where food comes from. Glad to see moms with better skills than mine. Glad to listen to the sounds of small voices discovering the perfect berry. Glad to have big kids who still, gym date notwithstanding, don't mind coming along. Glad to connect with the land and to pick food and later to preserve it so that even as the seasons change, there will still be summer sunshine and gentle warm rain by the delicious spoonful.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

All Greek to me

I went through a French Immersion program in school and came out fairly fluent in the language. When I went to Mexico, I could pick up bits and pieces of the language, and when we studied Italian in advance of our trip to Florence, the French helped me out immeasurably.

But, in my fourth year of university, one of my roommates was from China. Her boyfriend -- whose name was Bean -- was a Chinese student living in the US. They had a tumultuous relationship and she spent many evenings in her room on the telephone. Screaming into the telephone in Cantonese. Overhearing her wasn't optional; understanding her was impossible.

And yet, I tried. Having learned new languages somehow made me believe -- not consciously, not rationally -- that if I tried hard enough, concentrated hard enough, I would be able to catch a hint of what she was saying.

Suffice it to say, I could not.

As a writer, I inhabit other people's heads. One of the nicest, if weirdest, compliments I ever had about my fiction was when an older male friend of mine told me I had a remarkable grasp of adolescent male sexuality and psychology. Recently, I had people tell me my portrayal of grieving rang very true for them.

But, just as my reach exceeded my grasp with languages beyond the Romance group, so there are definite limits to my understanding of other people's psychology.

I came up against those limits with a thud this week. Because I can fairly easily imagine myself into very different lives/genders/characters/persona, I fell into the trap of believing I understood how some -- real -- people thought. And I was arrogant to do so, and wrong to boot. These are people who might as well be speaking Mandarin for all I can understand them.

It's humbling. I like being able to imagine how different people think because it generally gives me sympathy for points of view other than my own. It also adds colour and flavour to my own life, and lets me try on new ideas for size. But what this experience has shown me is that it's all been imagination and guesswork, that even with the equivalents of French, Spanish and Italian, I will never be a native speaker, and with Cantonese-like people, I may have to sit and listen to the music of their language and life, and quietly live my own.

Monday, June 18, 2012

I'm not exactly complaining

My calendar says that the kids go to school until Friday June 29 -- and that between now and then, I have about five work contracts to finish. All well and good. Except that today one child is sick, the rest of the week will see another child in exams, and the third home with permission while most of his classmates go to Quebec City and Ottawa.

Let me say that I have always been a mom who loved summertime, who loved having my kids home and grieved when September rolled around.

But that was before a few things changed. Thing 1 was that my husband took on a now-two-and-a-half-year secondment from teaching to work at the Perimeter Institute. In his new role, summer is the busy season, rather than the off season. Last summer, I did not anticipate this change well -- and the kids went to various camps, all at different times. It meant that no two weeks were alike and I got interesting combinations of children, but no week when everyone was occupied. It just meant that by the time September rolled around, I breathed a tired sigh of relief.

This summer, there's another change, which is that my new business is thriving and it ain't really a seasonal one. So, I've committed to work throughout July and August, with the exception of our family holiday week.

I am deeply grateful that the business is doing well and that I made the decision to be self-employed over fulltime employment where I would be committee (trapped?) inside for 40 daylight hours a week. I am also glad that my kids will soon be home. They are tired after a long school year and ready for some time off. We have a nicely paced summer in terms of their activities -- and this year, there are two and a half weeks of camp/program overlap.

But there's another change too, and that is that as my kids have approached adolescence, their pace has changed. Two of the three are now Kids Who Sleeeeeeeeep In. It used to be that summer meant we'd get out early in the morning and do something fun -- and then we'd putter in the afternoons, allowing me time to work. Now, work shifts to the morning and hopefully that will be enough. They are also plenty old enough that I can leave them on their own -- but at the same time, left to their own devices, free time devolves into technology time of one sort or another. The other part of this adolescence thing is a tendency to rush from sports to collapse, or work to indolence, leaving piles of laundry, refuse and general stuff in the wake. (Honestly, they were more able at cleaning up after themselves a few years ago. Pesky adolescent brain...)

The worry is that Mama won't be able to do it all -- the work, the tidying up, the keeping kids oocupied, the enjoying this short sweet season. I really want to make sure that last task doesn't fall off the list, because my kids are growing up fast. The fact that they leave detritus behind them, that they need too-frequent chauffeuring, that they sleep till all hours -- these are really beside the point. It'll take some renegotiation of roles and responsibilities, like any change does, but I want to make sure to enjoy them and the summer along the way.

So that's the plan.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Accidental Stalker

I didn't set out to be a stalker on our trip to Newfoundland. It just kind of turned out that way. And I'll blame small populations spread over a large area.

Let me explain. Last Saturday, we had driven down the length of the coast of the northern peninsula, back into spring sunshine. We had nearly run out of gas -- and then found a gas station. We had made better time than we had expected and the air was warm and soft as we turned off onto the secondary road into the mountains that would lead us to our final stop on the trip. We saw a sign to a scenic lookout and stopped to survey the beauty of the valley we would stay in that night.

As we got back into our car, we noticed a small portable sign advertising the local radio station. We tuned into VOBB -- Voice of Bonne Bay -- and as we drove into and along the curves of the sunlit bay, funky, mellow jazz music filled our car. I could not stop smiling. At the conclusion of the second song was a short commercial, advertising a French program hosted every Monday night by Sebastien and Cedric. They talked about how they had found each other, two ex-pats, and how they brought the music of France and Quebec to the people of Newfoundland once a week.

The next morning, we drove all the way around the bay -- a drive of an hour -- to the Tablelands, a flat bronzed monolith that stood directly across from where we had stayed. Our goal was to climb the mantle rock. We went into the vistors centre just before a bus of high school students from Nova Scotia arrived. We paid our admission and looked at exhibits while the students were given a crash course in geology. We had been offered a GPS unit as a tour guide: as we walked up the Tableland, it would offer us short videos or readings to tell us what we were seeing. Before we left the centre to drive to our hike, we went back to the counter to pick ours up.

We spoke with a different staff person this time, a young man with a French accent. I glanced at his nametag: it read Cedric. Quickly, I did the math: in a tiny community, how many francophone Cedrics could there be? To his surprise -- and Dave's -- I asked him whether he had a radio show.

"No," he said. "I mean, yes. Yes." He asked how I had heard of it.

When we saw him, an hour later, leading the students on the mantle, part of me wanted to explain that I wasn't a stalker -- just as I wanted to explain to the Viking chieftain at L'Anse aux Meadows that we weren't stalking him a few days before, when we took the shortcut to the cove where he lived. Our reason that time was that we had been told there were icebergs in the bay there -- and there was a massive monolith -- and that it was one of the prettiest bays (which it was). It was only when we were driving past its 50-odd houses that I recalled the story that had been told in the sod hut, that a couple of years before, a polar bear had actually wandered into that town, shredding two of the chieftain's sheep. I wondered aloud which house might be his, and Dave pointed out the only one that had livestock.

"You're a Viking stalker," he said.

And maybe I was.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What we left behind

We had stopped at The Arches to see limestone rock formations and to stretch our legs. A sign directed us through a Tolkienesque forest of white-bleached trees to the toilets. These were a pair of airy outhouses at the top of the hill. I went in one and Dave went in the other. Suddenly I heard him gasp.

"Oh no."
"What is it?" I called back.
"I dropped my sunglasses down the toilet."

I looked into my toilet and, frankly, I could not even see the bottom. When I finished, I gallantly offerd to hold him by the ankles while he reached down into the murk, but he declined.

The rest of the day was largely overcast, but whenever the sun broke through, I made sure to remark that it was too bad the driver didn't have sunglasses.

I think he smiled the first time I said it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Tickle: A narrow salt-water strait, as in an entrance to a harbour or between
islands or other land masses, often difficult or treacherous to
navigate because of narrowness, tides, etc; a 'settlement' adjoining
such a passage.

Pretty much everywhere we went in Newfoundland, we saw notice and evidence of the Dark Tickle, a small company that made artisanal jams and spreads using Newfoundland berries. The directions on their website suggested you get to Deer Lake and then drive 430 kilometres north. It made me laugh, but since we were taking that drive anyhow, we decided we would stop in along the way.

It was more than disappointing. We had driven past Gillian's Jams and opted against buying jewel-filled mason jars at The Hut, where we did choose a pair of hand-knitted green socks, met a dog and talked about the dying art of knitting on The Rock. We went into the economusee of the Dark Tickle and found that while there was a glass-walled exhibit of the jam-making room, the space was far more filled with teeshirts and Christmas ornaments than jam itself. And from the attached cafe came a dreadful smell that drove us out of the place sooner than we would otherwise have chosen. At first, we wondered why the woman behind the cash register was ignoring what smelled like burning frozen pizza with the plastic wrap left on -- cheese and petroleum were predominant smells -- but eventually we realized that actually we had arrived on Oven Cleaning in the Cafe Day. With all the windows closed. We quickly picked up a tiny jar of cloudberry jam and another of partridgeberry, and beat our retreat.

We stopped at the liquor store in St. Anthony -- after driving around thinking that the town was still dry after the temperate Dr. Grenfell who had established the town as a medical outport -- and revealed ourselves as Complete Tourists by buying partridgeberry wine (Sweetness: 3) and a tiny bottle of screech for my babysitter-father.

We visited the Grenfell Mission store and bought a children's grab bag for our daughter (which contained a beautiful scarf -- sadly made in China), a 1917 Newfoundland penny for our coin collector, and a book about survival on the barrens. And a tiny pair of snowshoes -- maybe 2 inches in length -- to hang on our Christmas tree.

We considered buying a small bag of savoury at a convenience store -- it was a key ingredient in the codcakes -- but Dave thought it looked dusty.

On our return trip down the coast to Deer Lake, I knew that what I really wanted was to bring home a rock from the rock. We stopped outside a small town for me to slide down the embankment to a stoney beach. There I selected a rock, dull gray and criss-crossed with glacial scars, and carried it in my lap. I also tore a few pages from a water-logged book I found in the seagrasses. Its title: Written in the Tide.

But that was not all. We spent our final night in Newfoundland at an inn on the edge of a tickle. There was a boil-water advisory and the power would be interrupted for a few morning hours but these were negligible compared to the beauty of the place. It was extremely hard to imagine that we would wake in such a place and would be home before dinnertime. The water that lapped at the shore below us dropped quickly to a depth -- we were told -- of 250 metres and contained whales and eels and capelin. I had tasted the water the night before as we walked down to the shore: pure salt. And so, on that final morning, I brought home something nearly as invisible as memory: I walked down to the tiny spit of sand one last time, rolled up my sleeve and dipped my entire forearm in the icy water. I love the sea, the smells of salt and fish, the freshness of the air, the blast of wind, the treasures that arrive with each new tide, the rise and fall of the level. By supper, I would be landlocked, away from this. I suspected it would feel like a dream. And so, I wanted something real, something I could taste that said that this body had indeed been tickled on the rock by the sea.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Elementary, my dear

A counsellor friend once talked to me about the importance of creative people getting grounded. We talked about how to do that, how to literally anchor oneself in the present, concrete moment. It was very good, last Thursday morning, to be surrounded by mountains and rock formations because I needed grounding. I had known it would be strange: to be a single parent for a few days while Dave worked in Newfoundland, while at the same time getting myself excited about going away for four days of holidays with my husband afterward. What I hadn't factored into the equation was a sudden and persistent infection, antibiotics that did not kick in until a day into our trip, and the need for consultations with medical professionals about whether or not travel was wise. I had also not factored in the strange feeling of dislocation I experienced when the flight to Newfoundland was far shorter than I had expected. I sat in the car last Thursday morning, kind of dazed: I had been home at supper time the night before, spent just over two hours on a plane, and then there I was, suddenly in Newfoundland, suddenly on holidays. Rocks, I told myself. Rocks and mountains. Rocks and mountains and water. Breathe.

Our one son had done a geography project on the geology of Newfoundland and had told us that Newfoundland was the product of the collision of three continental plates, of what is now North America, Europe and Africa. Within an hour of driving on Thursday morning, we were at the western edge of Newfoundland, on the northern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with what is called the Long Range of mountains on our right. It was partly sunny and that seemed like a good reason for us to stop and hike out to the Western Brook Pond, a deep glacial chasm carved into the Long Range.

We followed a more or less straight line from the highway inland, over gently undulating and incredibly varied terrain. Early on, a sign explained to us that the Long Range itself was the product of the smash-up collision between two plates, with the eastern side ending up rising above the western, forming the range. And then, a zillion years later, the glacial action sawed into the range, forming a deep fjord with sheer cliffs rising above water that was deeper than the CN Tower. (You get less dizzy when you take portraits, I tell you.) We walked over little hills that were glacial deposits, past lakes stained as dark as weak coffee or strong tea by decaying plant material. We walked on boardwalk above carnivorous plants (Newfoundland's provincial flower is the treacherous pitcher plant) and bogs, with many deep animal tracks around us. We walked past weathered trees. Then we found ourselves walking uphill and across a platform built across a peat bog. The uphill part was explained by a sign that told us that the peat was four metres deep, expanding deeper and wider each year.

We stopped after another hour's drive at another rock formation, a series of stone arches, caused by wave action under rock that had been upheaved by another collision of continents. This one was exactly at the edge of the Gulf and we walked under one of the arches, balancing on egg-shaped rocks of every colour imaginable.

And then, we drove and drove. The sun went in and out of clouds, shadows creasing on mountains that accompanied our journey. We never wearied of the scenery on the drive, which was good because scenery was the main thing. There were mountains of 700 metres in height that had water-marks well more than halfway up. On one of these mountains, I saw what looked like a row of terracotta soldiers all looking out to sea. On others, snow lay draped across the top, and still others had swaths of coloured rock and new growth of scrub near but no trees.

We did not realize we had driven north of spring until late in the day. I had closed my eyes for a few minutes and when I opened them, I honestly thought the world had gone black and white. The sun had gone in and the trees were not yet in bud. The coast was bleak and poor, shale and shanty. We had had a hearty breakfast at the bed and breakfast that morning and so we had foolishly skipped lunch. Granola bars and oranges were no longer cutting it, but there was nothing other than a very occasional gas station at this point.

I found our guidebook, looking for some small diversion. Flower Cove was near where the road swept inland and east toward our destination of St. Anthony. It was one of the very last villages we would see. It was also home to thrombolites, unusual rock formations. We decided to stop, if only to stretch our legs.

The wind was strong and the air was biting. We walked on a raised wooden bridge, with planks slightly too far apart for comfortable walking. We walked above sea grasses, bent down by tides and wind. It was more than desolate, but I was fairly sure someone was gleefully watching us, someone whose job it was to count tourists and whose work was not arduous. We reached a newely-repaired gravel path, saw men shoveling gravel into winterworn holes in the path, and burning seaweed on the beach, in advance of the start of tourist season. We kept walking.

And then, we spotted the thrombolites and the sign that explained that these were microscopic creatures, somewhat like coral, that formed colonies, that there were only two known places on earth where the formations were found: here, on the desolate coast and off western Australia. These colonies were calcified, we were pretty sure, and they looked like nothing more than massive canteloupe halves, pocked and ribbed, sitting on the shale beach. We could walk on them or around them and we did, tasting the salt water once more.

On the way back to the car, to what would be the longest-feeling part of our whole trip, I was glad to be there, to bear witness to these rocky structures. I didn't care if the locals were laughing at us or not. I was definitely grounded, definitely taking mental and actual photos of the landscape, tasting the water, the sky and the rocks.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

For Tony Steinberg

If you read enough, watch enough, listen enough, remember enough, it's funny what comes back to you at different times. Some people can recite chunks of poetry, swaths of the Bible. For me, last Friday, driving into the mist at the end of the world, it was The Far Side and Taylor Mali.

I remembered as we drove down the splintered highway, the world closed in on either side by leafless bushes and staunch tuckamore, I remembered The Far Side cartoon where a dog had made signs to lure the cat to its doom by promising 'cat fud.' I remember the dog, hiding behind a door frame, muttering to himself, "Oh please, oh please." I wondered aloud if we were the cat in our scenario, whether we would suddenly find ourselves submerged in the North Atlantic, tricked by signs promising Valhalla.

We had spent the night in the small outport of St. Anthony and had woken to a foggy morning. We turned north, north of this northernmost town and headed to the very end of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, to the place we had been told Vikings had had an encampment a thousand years before. We had the ocean on our right as we set out, but soon we could sense that the ocean was on our left too. We saw a moose and realized that the moose did not have far to go on either side of us. The fog deepened and the ponds turned to dark tea around us. We drove more slowly and the road became more fractured. We entered the grounds of L'Anse aux Meadows, which we had read might have been a mishearing of the French version of Medea, after whom many old ships were named. We stepped out of our car and wrapped ourselves in every layer we had. There was snow in the crevices of the rocks.

We had talked before about why Newfoundland was familiarly known as The Rock. It was not hard to see why, to see the outcroppings of rock everywhere, to see the electrical posts that could not be buried to any depth and so were held up with cribs filled with massive sea rocks, aboveground. But, too, it easily could have been called The Ponds. In another place, a warmer place, perhaps, there would have been faery stories about the creation of all the ponds, big and small. Here, survival was still a pressing matter. And again, it could have been called the Woods or the Barrens, for the stunted and spare trees bent into the wind, or the wide open arctic plains.

We went into the main visitors centre and the machine they needed to process credit card payments was down. Women were unpacking souvenirs from boxes in the gift shops. It was June 1st, the very first day of the season.We had wondered whether we would be the first visitors of the year and whether Viking hats would be issued to the lucky keeners. We were not the first, but about the seventh car to arrive. We had followed a car in that had come from Saskatchewan, and slowed as they slowed when we all saw the moose. It would be awful, we had said, to have driven all the way from Saskatchewan, only to be stompled by a moose two kilometres from the end of the world. They were not and we were not.

We walked about the Visitors Centre and I felt a bit tired and headachy. I thought of one of my kids who hates museums and only wants to learn in situ. We watched a National Film Board movie about the discovery and excavation of the site, by a husband and wife team. We talked with the chatty staff. We saw a fragment of a hundreds-footlong tapestry that told the story of the northern coast.

And then we decided to climb down to the grassy hummocks below. I will confess that I had low hopes. My dad had told me he really enjoyed L'Anse aux Meadows but I wondered if that was all relative:that maybe it was the most interesting thing on the coast but...

We walked through seagrass and stepped between clearly marked raised grassy outlines of ancient structures, houses, workshops and outbuildings. Ahead of us in the gloom was a wooden fence surrounding recreated sod buildings. It made me think of Laura's sod house in the Little House books. I heard voices in the biggest house so I stepped into the doorway.

And that's where everything changed.

Outside it was cold with a damp that seeped through wool and waterproofing and into bones. Inside there was a fire and benches and a fully recreated Viking chieftain's hut. I sat on rabbit skin, next to an elderly man and listened as a man with iron grey hair waving around his shoulders and boots lacing up his legs and homespun layers of cloak and tunic sat, spinning a tale. As my eyes adjusted to the inside of the hut, I could see that there were more than half a dozen people sitting around the fire, listening and interjecting. Four of them were apparently costumed interpreters but all of them knew far more about Vikings than I ever did. I felt very much like I was catching fragments of a history and a people, trying quickly to make it into a whole, to put it into any context I knew. By the time Dave came in, a smile had settled itself over my face and Taylor Mali's story of Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Warrior was in my head.

"He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven."

We talked of heaven and hell in the hut, of how Viking hell was not hot but cold -- how people dread the extremes of the climate they live in -- but that it was not so bad as there were women there, and there weren't in Valhalla. They talked of how Vikings, unlike the British of a thousand years ago, bathed weekly and how the British reported on this with disdain, adding that the clean Vikings then attracted the British women "by their novelties." We learned that the Vikings were tall thanks to a healthy diet --a full foot taller than the average Britisher. We learned how Irish monks in their coracles had landed in the lands of the Vikings and how the folk religion and Christian religion had mingled. We talked of Vinland and dyeing of wool, of privies and burial sites, of eating fish and not shellfish. That women were fully educated. That storytellers were prized.

There's little I like more than to learn the domestic details of a people. And here, the sagas were told by people who were not rusty after winter but instead were bursting with stories, and with the rough burr of a pirate could switch from Viking lore to current archeological research, quoting anthropologists.

Inside the visitors' centre, there had been signs that said Please Touch. Here it went further. I was allowed to put on an iron helmet and to hold a Viking sword in my hand, and then to trade it for an axe, much lighter to wield in battle. I was told that a sword was more of a rich Viking toy -- that an axe was useful for taking an opponent out at the knees.

And then after an hour of wonder, talk shifted to the present. The youngest of the Vikings asked if we had been hiking at Fisherman's Cove the other night. We had. He had been there with his wife and dog, and thought he recognized us. It was early enough in the tourist season that we stood out. (Later that evening, a woman at the next table at our restaurant got talking with us about L'Anse aux Meadows and how they had seen the chieftain at the Foodland the night before.)We asked them about Parks Canada cuts, feeling that the very best part of the park had been the people and their ability and passion for bringing history to life. They were cautious in their reply, but said that they had done all right, far better than other places. The woman Viking asked us if we were newlyweds.

There were no cartoonish Viking helmets or goofy teeshirts anywhere to be found. Maybe you don't mess with Vikings. Or maybe at the end of the world, you respect such tenacity and life.

We did.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Newfoundland Part I

You've heard of the guy who left his heart in San Francisco? Now you know the woman who left her jeans in the Deer Lake airport. And no, it wasn't an overenthusiastic patdown by security.

I like to travel light, partly so that things don't go missing in transit, partly to make a quick exit from an airport and partly to prove that it really is the kids who need all the stuff. Both Dave, who spent a week in Newfoundland, and I, who joined him after his work in St. John's was done for four days of fun and exploring brought one pull-behind-you-carry-on bag and one other small bag. I will note that Dave's contained hiking boots and a camera, two jackets and all the warm clothes he would need, and mine had a hot water bottle, heels, several books and all the warm clothes I would need. The only thing I didn't use was the skirt I brought.

It's hard for me to know where to start in telling all our stories of just four days, so I'm starting at the end and working my way backward. It may be a series of posts.

We traveled the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, driving 1200 kilometres of mostly coastline. We saw Labrador from up close and it made my heart stir. Labrador is to me something almost mythical, the Remote North. And there it was, only a channel away. Suffice it to say that there was not one single McDonalds and that the mall in St. Anthony contained a grocery store, a liquor store (we went for screech and came back with partridgeberry wine), a drug store, a government office, and a bargain shop.

Nevertheless, despite the blessed relief from retail opportunities, we did manage to purchase the requisite souvenirs. (An aside: I hate souvenir shopping and the pressure to find something for people. I much prefer the approach of finding something perfect for someone and bringing it home. The problem then is that the hard-to-buy-for or the never-found-the-perfect-thing people end up feeling sad.) We also stopped at a small coastal beach on Saturday afternoon -- not in a national or provincial park -- and I chose a good-sized gray rock to bring home to plant in my garden.

So, space was at a premium. I had brought a book to read and review and didn't like it, so I left it behind in our hotel room. I had brought fresh fruit along -- we had been told, wrongly, that fresh fruit was only occasionally found in the north and that the cost would be astronomical -- and we ate it. And then, Dave noticed that two seams in my jeans had been thoroughly frayed to the point of no return. It was he who suggested that we could acquire space if the jeans stayed behind.

And so, yesterday morning, once we had finished the super-scary beach cliff hike to see where two continents once collided and two kinds of rocks in one cliff tell the tale, and once we had walked on the earth's mantle (the earth's mantle, people! The rock beneath the surface. The rock that is visible almost nowhere on the planet because usually in tectonic collisions the mantle slides beneath the other guy) for a couple of hours, we returned to the visitors centre, where casually and ever-so-gracefully, I stealthily removed my jeans and replaced them with a pair of yoga pants.

We had planned our morning well, but the walk took about ten minutes longer than we had planned, and we hadn't calculated on one last restroom visit, and moose lined the highway to bid us farewell and to keep us from speeding, so suddenly there was some possibility we would miss our plane. I was not altogether unhappy about this prospect but there was a dreadfully homesick child at home who might implode if we announced we were staying away another night, so we sped as quickly as we dared along the road, paid the penalty for not filling up our rental car, checked our bags, went through security (where Dave did indeed get selected for the dubious honour of a parting Newfie pat-down -- which he said functioned as a nice massage after a morning of hiking) and had five minutes to spare before boarding. It was there that my jeans and the plastic water bottles we had toted around the island found their final resting place.

And then we were in the air on our way home, leaving more than just jeans behind and taking more than just a rock in exchange.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Single Red Poppy in the Garden

There's a single red poppy in my garden. Yesterday it was a ball of green and this morning, the colour shone forth -- red as shameless lipstick. It has not yet opened, but by tomorrow night, the petals will likely be strewn about on the ground, spent. But tonight, it's there, brilliant and singular and vivid.

Which is good because this week has not exactly been that sort of week. It hasn't been a bad week in any way, but it hasn't been brilliant.

I fell off my bike a week ago and it was the next day that I noticed the sharp bruised pain in my lower back that came as the result of bike seat meeting my seat. Three days later we had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Pool -- and the leaping of the rescuing dog owner, who fortunately happened to be at hand when the dog stepped out onto the pool cover to test its and his buoyancy. By evening, my clothes were still damp and my other hip was complaining. (Interestingly, a bout of lifting and spreading two cubic yards of mulch actually made a positive difference to these woes which slowed me down for much of the week.)

Another aspect of my week involved Recently Employed Son #1. My almost fifteen year old son did the not-impossible-but-difficult thing recently : finding a decent job at the age of 14. He works as a dishwasher in a new gourmet burger restaurant with walking distance of our house. He's the youngest employee by far. Driving him home at midnight last weekend -- after his third of four evening shifts on the long weekend -- I asked him whether he felt older. He said he did, that most of his friends had spent the weekend at Wonderland or cottages while he was working each evening. I recognize that I don't have the body of a 14 year old (see paragraph above) nor the stamina, but it has been anxiety-producing in me to watch this kid burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. The other comment he made about his new job -- other than the running income tallies -- was that there was no longer any room for procrastination in his life. Which, in itself, is a great thing and I'm delighted to see it. However, work is not his only commitment. He took on the job, being assured the restaurant would open later in June, rather than in mid-May. This would be good because his season on the bantam rugby team would be over by the first week of June. And then, around the time that the restaurant actually opened, the fly-half on the junior team got injured (as fly-halfs apparently do) and my boy was called up to this team, in addition to maintaining his role as fly-half and captain of the bantam team. (Are you still following along?) And then came the mysterious "summatives" -- year end projects in virtually every subject. Group meetings, research, videos, power point presentations, brochures, song and dance numbers, classroom lessons must all be planned between dishwashing shifts, rugby practices and matches, school, oh and sleep. Sleep is like the fly-half in this game, more than a little injured. My fear is that he will get injured or sick from the pace he's keeping. Especially this week.

This week promises to be weird and possibly wonderful. (Close your ears robbers who read this blog). This week, my husband heads off to St. John's, Newfoundland for three days of presentations -- just as he spent three days in PEI two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, I got very excited to see him return. This week, at the end of the third day of single parenting, I will hop on a plane and join him in Newfoundland where we will wend our way to the northern tip to see the little town where he was born. We're missing the rugby championship, one work shift for son #1 and several major summatives and math tests. The last time we went away, he got sick. I am deliriously excited about the prospect of a trip with my husband, but I feel like the energy of the week is weird -- gird loins for first half of week, relax for second half and hope that all is well at home. And then, a week from now, I will be home again, hopefully having seen the massive icebergs that are currently resident in the harbour of the small town at the top of the Rock.

I visited a different church this morning to celebrate their new building, and the choir sang a song where two lines repeated over and over again: Take me to the water, take me to the sea/ Take me to the water and set my spirit free. This week, this day, I saw this in the single poppy -- which has actually started to open up in the sunset even as I write -- but this week, my prayer, my hope is that I will be able to sit by the sea with my love, and that there, in the presence of icebergs and whales, my spirit will indeed be set free.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I Got Nothing

Actually that is a lie, on the scale of "pregnant at 43." The reality is that my life has been too full of life this week to be able to blog about it.

While I've been walking the dog, I keep thinking of things I want to tell you about, but then I get home and the ideas have evaporated. Except, I need to tell you about the seductive scent of lilies of the valley at dawn and the whisper of lilacs after dark. These alone are worth walking the dog for.

I've been a single parent most of the week while Dave has been in Prince Edward Island. PEI is a place I should like, but it has always been an unpleasant place for me -- I've had some of the worst injuries of my life while there, on more than one trip. That bridge induced vertigo in the steadiest driver I know, too. The last time I was there, our tent was mere inches from the next campsite, and we were serenaded with late night flatulence, peeing, burping and crying from the neighbours. We left early. I didn't mind being left behind on this trip.

Soccer has begun and it looked like it was going to be ALL SPORTS FIVE NIGHTS A WEEK, until my thoughtful eldest decided that playing school rugby on both the bantam and junior teams, as well as taking on part-time employment, was more than enough for him. Now our Tuesday and Thursday evenings are freed up. I've met a few parents recently with similar sports attitudes to mine -- adore watching the kids play sports, strongly encourage them to do so, but seriously wish things would revert to the way they were twenty years ago when each child had one or possibly two nights of sports per week. Also, open to having a sane pace of life, and separate adult interests.

Last weekend, we hosted my Grandma -- who turns 92 tomorrow -- my mom and dad, sister and brother-in-law for High Tea, which included maple scones, clotted cream (homemade -- dead easy), lemon squares, banana muffins, chocolate dipped strawberries, tea, coffee, and lemonade. It was a memory in the making, and while Dave said he regretted the fact that I had to make my own Mother's Day (kids slept in and were somewhat lethargic about the occasion), I couldn't imagine a nicer day.

My birthday was the day before. It was a low-key day, but better than last year when I was sick on my birthday. (The outrage! The wrongness!) We had dinner with Dave's parents and brother's family and it was good.

The days and weeks are flying by. It seems it's always the weekend too soon -- which says to me that I love my work and there's a lot of it. Both are true. I've moved my office to the back porch most days and I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. I'm learning and being challenged and hopefully helping people too.

It feels like that only scratches the surface of it all. But, the lilacs are beckoning me for a smell and a stroll. See you soon.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Proust Questionnaire

I like this series of questions, often asked of celebrities in Vanity Fair magazine. I'm going to offer my answers but I'm actually more interested in yours.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A good book, a cup of dark coffee, a comfortable chair in the shade outdoors on a warm spring day. With violets underfoot.

What is your greatest fear?

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

The loss of my flat stomach.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In writing, many of my characters have a "tangle" of hair or eat tangled-up salads.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My husband and children.

When and where were you happiest?
In a garden in Florence, Italy.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I'd like to be able to fly.

What is your current state of mind?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My children who seem like they might turn out to be lovely people.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?

A robin.

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?

A minke whale.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?


Where would you like to live?
By the sea.

What is your most treasured possession?

Sea glass in my jean jacket pocket. And small letters from my children.

What is your favorite occupation?


What is your most marked characteristic?

Maybe persistence.

What is the quality you most like in a man?


What is the quality you most like in a woman?


What do you most value in your friends?

Who are your favorite writers?

L.M. Montgomery, Madeleine L'Engle.

What is it that you most dislike?
Weeding my rock garden. Unresolved conflict.

How would you like to die?

In my sleep, in perfect health, at the age of 100.

What is your motto?

Beauty will save the world.