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.