Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Juliet Stories

I must first of all confess that I read Gone with the Wind in one epic night and spent one of the happiest days of my life reading the final Harry Potter book from cover to cover.

So I've been known to binge before on books.

Sunday morning, though, I was feeling it. I had been out the night before to a book launch for local author Carrie Snyder's book The Juliet Stories. Carrie and I live in the same neighbourhood, do kind of the same thing, and even have children in the same class, but as it is her eldest and my youngest, our paths have only peripherally overlapped. Almost a year ago, we met for coffee to see whether my fledgling company Storywell, might provide some employment for her that would complement her parenting and writing. She's now one of my associates.

For that reason, my editor at the newspaper felt there was a bit of a conflict of interest in me reviewing her book. I also felt the familiar sense of dread one gets when a friend has a baby or a book -- what if it's ugly? what if I just don't like it? what if it's riddled with typos (book, not baby)?

I knew Carrie was a fine writer from reading her blog, so the fear of quality wasn't there. In this case, I was afraid that the feeling I get when I read a certain wedge of literary fiction or listen to Sarah McLachlan would surface -- a feeling of melancholy and despair. (I can be happy as a clam, but put Sarah on the radio and angst soils my soul.)

So, we went to the launch and it was lovely and crowded and convivial -- all the things you want in such an occasion. We bought a book and Carrie signed it for me. It wasn't a late night so I decided to curl up in bed early and crack open the book. Really, by the second page, I knew I was reading something remarkable. I thought I was reading quickly and then I looked at the clock and discovered it was nearly one-thirty a.m. I was that absorbed.

I had understood that this was a collection of connected short stories, and possibly this is true, but for me the book read as a novel, with gaps and finely chosen moments even within individual stories, leaving space for the reader to make connections.

As I read, two images of the writer came to mind: Carrie as artist or Carrie as surgeon. In either case, what came to me was that where many writers bludgeon around with pens as thick as kindergarten paintbrushes or axes, Carrie uses the finest of paintbrushes or scalpels to paint and carve the most extraordinary portrait of a world. How she does this -- and forgive me for getting technical here -- I think, is in her use of verbs more than adjectives. This isn't a flowery descriptive kind of book; it is more poetic and at the same time, incisive in its observations of the world.

The world of this book almost exactly parallels Carrie's own experience, with a few notable exceptions. Like her character, Carrie is the daughter of peaceworker parents who took their children to Nicaragua. Like her character, Carrie and her family came home because of her brother's illness. The parallels go on. Like many people who knew the parallels and knew that Carrie had attempted some memoir with similar material, I wondered whether this would be more biographical than the author was willing to admit. Probably only she knows for sure, but during my read, I had no sense that it was memoir. Instead, I was fascinated by Juliet's own memory process -- "...there is nothing absolute about telling: there are only fragments, shards, the rare object retained whole, ciphers removed from original context, hoarded by shifty, impecunious memory."

As I read the book, two memories of the book launch arose for me: one, Juliet, at the start of the book, is ten years old, red-haired and aware of adult condescension and failure but also only half-aware of the adult world. As I read, I saw again at the launch the one of Carrie's children who chose to come -- a red-haired girl of almost ten years of age, who at times watched her mother with intense pride, at times surveyed the audience with curiosity and at times curled up into her own world with a book. Juliet come to life before our eyes.

The second alchemy that happened at the book launch was this: as Carrie stood on stage and read from a story where a young peace worker offers Juliet candles to smell, talking about what the smells evoked for her, I began to get whiffs of freesia. I was sitting at the back of the room, on a window sill next to the bar, beside a woman who was not wearing perfume. Carrie was describing a warm subtropical evening and I kept smelling freesia. I wondered how she did it. Later I realized that the room was well-ventilated and that the bouquet of tropical flowers on the stage contained freesia whose scent was carried around the room and to me.

But, even later, as I read the book and had a similar kind of transport, I wondered if maybe I had been right at first, that it had been Carrie's words, carrying me to a place where even flowers give off waves of scent and memory.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Don't milk the pregnant cow

"It is important to not milk a cow in the last couple of months of her pregnancy, so she can "dry off" in preparation to give birth." - ehow.com

I'm not pregnant and not a cow. I have however been silent on here for more than a week and for that I sort of apologize.

It's not that there's anything wrong. It's been a very busy season of paid work and starting a business.

But, I'm also gestating a new story world -- after eight years of inhabiting the same place and characters. I'm mulling the new characters over. I'm trying to see their world for myself. I'm trying to hear their stories. I'm struggling with knowing how to tell their stories -- which kind of narration this story requires.

And so, like a pregnant cow, storing up her milk for the new baby, I kind of feel like I'm gathering my words under me in order to tell a new tale.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Child's Play

Do you remember how to play? how you played as a child? Do you still have access to that part of yourself?

I used to play Barbies until I was about 12 or 13. I played with the most frustrating girl because most girls had stopped long before then. My friend frustrated me because she would spend all the time we had between school and supper, setting up elaborate houses and furniture for her Barbies. I wanted to get at the stories as fast as possible. No wonder she grew up and went into engineering -- and I didn't.

I'm fascinated by my own daughter, who can be heard hammering these days, who goes through more hot glue than candy, who sees possibilities in the weirdest spare parts, and turns them into whimsical, creative pieces of functional art.

But what intrigues me even more is the schoolyard. Even though I'm still a big kid who plays with stories now, I'm not sure I remember how to do recess. I'm sure there are some kids who go outside and play soccer every single day of every single recess of every single year, but for most kids, there's more variety. Some days, you chase the girls. Some days, you build a fort. Some days, you swing your feet up to touch the sky. Some days, you wander aimlessly kicking stones. What I tried to recall was how you decide? Large piles of leaves or new-fallen snow makes the decision easier -- some of this is not an internal process (although still -- do you build a fort or a snowman? or skate? Or sled?) You don't have long to decide -- recess is all too short.

I've started to catch a glimpse of the process in my afternoon walks with the puppy. We walk on the golf course, now that it's closed, but far from walking the same route every day, we mix it up. So much of my life is contained in lists and necessities, but walking the golf course is a pretty free-form, stream-of-consciousness activity. Both the dog and I can be diverted, literally, by something shiny. Sometimes I tell him he can decide which way we go, sometimes I take the lead. Sometimes we do take the same route over and over again. Sometimes we don't.

When I taught for one terrible year, the philosophy of the school included a tenet that in order for people to be fully creative, they needed to have an idea, a plan, and then they needed to bring that plan to fruition. So possibly my walks aren't actually creative -- they have vague ideas and they come to fruition, but there's no real plan to them at all. What I find, though, is that the lack of planning is very freeing, allowing my mind to drift into other plans.

And that sure feels like play.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Scent of Love

A million years ago when I worked for Habitat for Humanity fulltime, one of my colleagues was an unofficial ambassador for Clinique products. At the time, I was using industrial-sized vats of drugstore brand moisturizer that would last me for years. I remember being amazed that someone actually visited department store makeup and perfume counters. I'd always been daunted by them. I decided that I needed to take better care of myself.

My friend told me to keep an eye out for Clinique's bonus days -- when I could get a good deal along with special products or makeup cases along with my purchase. I duly did this and then bravely ventured up to the counter to have my skin tested.

I came away with small vials of what my kids call lotions and potions and a round silver cosmetics bag. I felt special as I used the products for the better part of a year.

Except that I didn't really like the way my skin felt. I actually preferred the way it felt when I used the drugstore brand. It was a bit of an ah-ha to realize that part of self care is knowing yourself and living within your budget. I liked the cosmetics bag, but I went back to my old routine.

Over the years, I've found products I like and places to splurge. I'm fairly low-maintenance even now, but I won't tell you how much I spent ordering the soap I had found overseas.

In honour of Valentine's Day, though, I thought I'd offer some shameless product placement in case you're looking for a little gift for someone special. These are what I'd like to receive:

Dreamtime - This is one of the most relaxing, romantic smells I can imagine. It's a rose-lavender cross that leaves my skin feeling amazing. I only use about a third of a bath melt in one bath, so it lasts.

When we went to Italy three years ago, we had heard about this perfumery/pharmacy. It was amazing. I watched women with a lot more money than I had spent literally hundreds and thousands of dollars on cosmetic products. I bought three things: rose-scented wax tablets to hang in my closet, rosewater skin toner, and violet-scented soap. The wax tablets were lovely but broke. I'm still doling out the rosewater on occasion and it still smells magnificent, but it's the soap that made me a violet lover. Violets smell a little bit like candies, like Valentine candy actually. Trying to reproduce their delicate scent is a tough one -- usually it turns sickly, headache-inducing sweet. But this soap is amazing. When I used up the bar I had purchased, I found a company in Toronto who was able to order me a couple of bars. A friend is visiting Florence this spring and I've begged her to bring some back. It's just that good.

Since discovering my fondness for violets, I've spent time and money trying to find a cheaper, local substitute. It is not easy. The only product I've actually found is from Lush. The only problem is that they've kind of discontinued their Bathos bubble bar. The only way you can purchase it is in a gift box -- but fortunately it comes with a Dreamtime bath melt and a Waving not Drowning bath bomb.

Lest you think I'm completely frou-frou in my tastes, let me tell you about an utterly different, equally captivating product. I stocked up on this guy when it was temporarily discontinued from, you guessed it, Lush. It used to be called Middle Earth Turns to Rock and now is called Waylander Rhassoul. It's a completely earthy smell that has patchouli and mud and sandalwood in it. It smells like the woods, like the seashore, like everything green and good. It's a scent that would work whether your Valentine is male or female. I keep this one in my teeshirt drawer so I can enjoy the scent on all my clothes.

Wishing you a lovely Valentines Day, filled with scents and people you love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When what you want is wrong

I walked the golf course today with the dog in the sunshine and thought long and hard about the unseasonality of the weather this month -- heck, this "winter."

My very favourite seasons of the year are the shoulder seasons on either side of winter -- the quiet days of midNovember, and even more so the strengthening clear light of March. The problem is that these have come far too soon -- or too late. I'm of mixed minds how to go through them: do I exult in them or rue them? A scientist friend shook his head the other day and forecast tropical diseases and bugs within a couple of these sorts of winters. It's kind of like the tree line advancing steadily northward into what was so recently tundra.

I said to other friends this week that one of the reasons I like early spring so much is that it's a kind of reprieve -- a yahoo, we made it feeling. I said maybe it was the Protestant in me, needing to earn my salvation. But this, this is far too easy and far too difficult. It's what I want but it's wrong.

No one has called me crazy yet for riding my bike all winter, and there are lots of us out there, riding bare roads. I saw a guy in shorts today. He had red legs but still. My cousin spotted a flock of robins near Guelph. I saw a bug on the golf course the other day. I'm afraid for the maples, that the sap will flow too soon.

My son planned to earn his volunteer hours this winter by flooding the school rink weekly. So far the rink was skate-able for two whole days. We've skied once.

I wonder what my puppy thinks, in this first and formative year of his life: he's figured out a lot of how his world works, and I'm sure he sees snow as a strange, occasional and arbitrary thing instead of the constant it usually is. It's what I want but it's wrong.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bloody Fears

The last therapist I saw taught me that avoidance only makes fear grow. Which I swear is not the reason I stopped seeing her.

She was right, though.

I feel foolish and silly and stupid to admit how I've spent the first waking moments of nearly every day of the last year -- evaluating whether or not today is The Day I Will Go and Have Blood Drawn in a Fasting Test.

It all started out well. I had a physical February 10, 2011. February 11 I went off to the clinic to get it over with. Except, while I had fasted, I was chewing sugarless gum in an effort to calm my nerves.

(Why the nerves, you ask? Are you afraid of needles? Well, no. I don't fancy needles and I'm not keen on watching, but I'm quite fine with needles. My fear goes back to about 1992 or 1993 when we lived in Toronto and I had a fasting blood test as part of a physical. Because my appointment wasn't until noon, I had fasted a good 18 hours before the test. Afterwards I sat and ate a bag of Sun Chips and drank a bottle of orange juice. Then I got into my car and started to drive back to work. Within blocks I was feeling queasy and I opened my window a crack. I crossed Yonge Street and felt worse. Within a block of that major road, as I pulled up to a stop sign, my world went black. The next thing I knew was someone knocking hard on my car window. I had no idea where I was at first. A man from a nearby house brought me a glass of milk, kindly. Then, once the tingling subsided in my hands and feet, I drove back to work. Scared. And ever since then, I've avoided that test where I can. I've never fainted before or since, but still. I was a fainter.)

So, back to February 11. I brought Dave to drive me home afterwards. We sat and sat for about ninety minutes, among coughers and sneezers, the elderly and the pale. It was finally my turn and I walked into my cubicle, scared but determined. The humourless vampire wrapped the band around my arm, asked me if I had fasted and then looked me in the eye and told me that the gum I was chewing would invalidate the test. She said she was still willing to take the blood (of course she was) but that the test would be skewed. I walked out.

A coupe of days later, Dave got really sick, really really sick. And then two of my kids got sick, and one of them had a systemic reaction that lasted for months. I decided it wasn't a good time to faint, so I put off the test a little. And then a little more.

Friends mention a fear of the dentist. It's very similar but there's one small difference: the dentist tells you exactly when to appear. Not so much the blood test. It's at your convenience - and really, I asked myself, when was it convenient to Go To My Doom?

Some mornings I woke up ravenous -- nope, not today. Other days, I awoke exhausted -- people faint from exhaustion, no? I didn't want to go during my period. The beginning of the month, apparently, is a very busy time for such clinics. Sundays and holidays out of town were a relief because there was no way to go to the clinic.

Let me say that this was not something that has plagued me all day long. As soon I committed to the first cup of tea, bowl of granola or piece of sugarfree gum, I would put the question out of my mind entirely.

Something about this morning, though, seemed reasonable. I had found out about a clinic that was out of the way, that might have a shorter lineup. I told Dave and he had a free schedule to be able to take me. The dog was settled. We didn't have to drive anyone else anywhere. Rats.

Maybe my requisition was out of date, I thought hopefully, as we drove in the car. Maybe there would be too many people in the waiting room. As I waited for my number to be called (there were four people ahead of me), one man did bring in an outdated requisition and they happily called the doctor's office to send over a fresh one.

I was happy to see that unlike the clinic I had been to before, this one offered a private area for the actual Scene of the Crime. Not only that, there was a small washroom only a few steps away from the chair.

My strategy while waiting to be called in was to think of airport security. I don't like airport security; it makes me feel anxious and I believe that's deliberate on their part. And yet, it's a necessary step to be able to get on a plane to go somewhere fun. You sort of blur your eyes and grit your teeth and focus on getting to the other side. That's what I did until I went in.

In The Chair, I had a different plan: I decided I would hold the rock I had in my pocket in my non-draw arm, that I would go to my happy place.

"Why are you holding a rock?" the nice vampire asked. (Did she suspect I might throw it at her?)
"I'm nervous," I said and then I confessed all while she bound my arm for the ritual, injected me, told me to breathe, and then -- before I knew it -- told me to hold a piece of cotton firmly over the site.
"That's it?" I said.

No, that wasn't it. What happened next was not that I fainted, not at all. I got into the car, reclined the seat, ate a slice of orange and burst into tears. Because it hadn't been as hard as I had made it out to be (stupid therapist was right!) Because I had built it up in my mind for a whole year. Because I was a nincompoop. Because I was a brave girl. Because I didn't actually faint.

My reward was to spend the next hour in bed with my laptop, working, rather than at my desk. I emailed Dave twice to tell him I hadn't fainted yet, and then once, when the hour was up, to tell him that the Faint Watch was Over and he could Resume Normal Activity.

So far the only side effects have been a tendency to capitalize -- and deep relief. I'm glad to have the first few moments of my days back. I'm glad I was brave. My word for this year is anticipation -- and I practiced its dark reverse for too long when it came to these bloody fears. I'm glad to have this behind me so I can look ahead without holding back.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Airing Out

I almost hyperventilated last week just from the sheer volume of plates I was spinning. Figuratively speaking, that is. Literally speaking, it was the large number of projects I was working on simultaneously, as well as the learning curve of starting vast new areas of business. And, as I said to someone, I'm not only starting a new business, I'm still doing all my old business too. And did I mention the guilt? You see, our household has fallen into traditional gender roles for many of our daily tasks. (Absolutely the opposite with some of the big and occasional tasks): the mom who has worked from home has made supper and cleaned the house. Except when work moved into high gear, the house fell into shambles. Well, not really shambles, but instead of washing, drying and folding laundry, I washed laundry, dried some and folded precisely none. It sat in large piles near my back door. I tried to delegate: my second son is an excellent and willing cook. The busiest night last week, he agreed to make dinner and asked me simply to throw the pizza dough together. This is normally a two-minute task -- but at the precise moment that I discovered we had no flour, the phone rang and it was that ship horn telling me I had won a cruise, the dog slammed into my backside, insisting on a walk, my stomach growled, hungry for lunch at three o'clock, and I realized there were still things I needed to do for my workshop and I had only an hour until I had to leave. On my bike.

That was the hyperventilating moment. I decided walking the dog was the best solution and it was. Ordering in dinner was another good solution. Sitting down with my sweet husband on the weekend to renegotiate roles in light of what I called 'growing pains' was still another good answer.

The best, though, happened on Saturday. We were all tired from a week of busyness and exams, and one of us (son #1) had the beginnings of what is now a raging ear infection. We wanted low-key adventure. And, we got it. We packed the dog and kids in the car and drove an hour west to Goderich. There, in the still bare but recovering square, we paid five dollars a head (not the dog), and were given a coffee cup, stuffed with a dinner roll, a spoon and a paper serviette. We were also given a score card. We took our cups and walked the perimeter of the square for the next hour, stopping every few stores to receive, eat and rate a ladleful of chili. There were fifteen competitors in all. I don't know who won. I know which were my favourites. I know that, like a good wine taster, I learned not to finish the ones I didn't like. I handed off the cilantro-infused chili and a sweet one, and we dumped another one out for the dog. That left twelve really good ones. Dave and I made it all the way around the square; the kids stopped a couple short.

Then, we drove our filled stomachs down to the lake and found the leash-free area and walked the path above the beach for an hour. Pack-ice had been driven into the cove by waves, but it was pretty sparse (tell that to the dog who tried to clamber out a few times) and the lake was almost entirely open. Although the weather was unseasonably mild, it was also lovely. Everything was still and silent, bleached and worn to comfort for the eyes. We saw an enormous bird in a tree at the top of a cliff, looked more carefully and saw that it was a bald eagle. Son number one climbed the hill to capture it on film, spooked it as he neared the top (blurry photos only) and it took flight, soaring over us and the water.

That was the non-hyperventilating moment of the week.

On the way back, I picked up a rock and put it in my pocket. Usually I can find smooth rocks at the lake, worn by waves and other clattering stones, but the beach was covered with big debris this time; it was a winter beach, even if there was no snow. The rock I pocketed has a thumb print in it but it's hefty and a bit mottled in feel. I liked it because it reminded me that not everything has to run smoothly to be good.

I walked out the door this morning to find two police cars, an ambulance and a firetruck. Hours later, it turned out that our 90 year old neighbour had died, at home, suddenly and peacefully. It hit me, as death always does, as a surprise. Our kids felt the same way. "Imagine," our daughter said. "Waking up and then just dying."

There's a quote I read recently that's been resonating in my head. It says: Make up your mind once and for all to live an extraordinary life. It resonates because what's easy right now is to put all my focus, all my breath, all my life into the new business and the old business, to make a difference, to make a success, to let it grow and prosper. And certainly that is part of an extraordinary life. But not all. My neighbour's death and my rough egg stone remind me that even when life is full and messy, I need to also make time to walk by the still shores of a winter lake, to sample rich chili on a cold afternoon, to be and breathe with the people I love.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Story of Stuff

When I got married in 1991, forest green and dusty rose were the big colours. Before my nine (or was it ten?) bridal showers, I was required to register for china, silver, bedroom linens, towels, and teapots. (Did you know that the number of teapots you receive -- chuckle, chuckle -- tells you how many kids you'll have? We received eight. Or was it nine?)

Some of the registering and the gifts seemed over the top, even then, but others felt terrific. Having been the Emptier-of-the-Dishwasher for many years growing up, I welcomed the opportunity to have all matching cutlery. In fact, I'm still really fond of my flatware, more than two decades later.

But lately, I've noticed a new phenomenon creeping into my life: I've started to embrace the mix-matchedness of things. A few years back we emptied my grandfather's hoarder house, and I brought home some pale green glass bowls and a small crystal pitcher. (And a few bow ties.) Another time, a friend offered us dinner plates that had been his mother's. (She had many, many sets. We took eight plates and use them regularly.) Last year, I took possession of my grandma's recipe book, but also her Corningware mixing bowls and some small juice glasses. Our kitchen no longer lines up neatly and tidily, with all white plates, but it tells a story.

And it doesn't end there. As I walk the dog around the neighbourhood, I look at houses. What intrigues me, day after day, is not the magazine-perfect homes, but the quirky ones. The one with the collection of frogs poised around a small well. The one with china horses arranged in a window. The one with stained glass hanging in the centre of a picture window. The ones that tell the story of a life that is unique and unashamed.

It takes money to have all your things match. It takes courage to live your own life. I wonder as I walk, what goes on in the different houses. Are they all watching the same television shows -- or are some of them constructing scale models and composing music together? Are they all surfing the web or are some of them hooking rugs of their own design?

As I said, I still like my matchy-matchy cutlery. I have no plans to curate either frogs or china horses. But more and more, I want to live freely and to let my life tell its story, and to let my stuff do the same.