Wednesday, 30 April 2014

All Growed Up

My son and his family take possession of their new house today. It's pretty, from the pictures I've seen of it, and near the river walk. I imagine them living there, mowing the lawn, going up and down those front steps. I would love to go and see it (and them!) in person. Hopefully this fall.

It's a weird thing to think of my kid being a dad and having a mortgage and a job and doing all those regular adult things. I still think of him as eight and forever falling off his bike. There is a poster on the subway advertising a local college, and the model in the picture looks exactly like my son. It's freaky. Right down to the hat. Whenever I see that poster I sit and gaze at it and wonder. And maybe sniffle a little bit. I haven't seen him in a year and a half. I don't like the feeling of being so stretched in distance from my children. I know it's the normal thing these days, and I'm proud of him for working a job and being an adult. He's a great person and turning into a fine man. But how did he get to be so old? How did I get to be? There are times I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I walk past and my first thought is "What's my mom doing here?"

I want to be there pushing my granddaughter in a swing at the park, poking at bugs in the garden with her, holding her hand to cross the street. It seems like only a few days ago that I was holding her dad's hand, helping him explore the world.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Quiet! Mommy's Thinking Again

They say you're supposed to write
about things you truly know,
things you've had experience with,
and then the words will flow.
But as I sit with pen in hand
and ponder my predicament--
who would want to read a poem
about Tinker Toys and lint?
Silly Putty stuck in the vacuum,
the thrills of chicken pox,
lunch bags left at the bus stop,
or the dryer that eats socks,
no room in the cart for groceries,
dogs chewing an expensive shoe--
When it really comes right down to it,
what I know, you don't want to.

Friday, 25 April 2014


I came home from work to find the mini greenhouse shelves I use for my sprouts in the swimming pool and the tray of sprouts (which were so cute) upside down on the patio. And miscellaneous other damage, such as lawn chairs knocked over and garbage can lids missing.  Apparently we had either a really strong wind or a microburst. I know it's only a dollar worth of seeds and a couple of weeks' work down the tubes. But it's so sad. I hate to see any living thing dumped and dead like that. They were so defenseless...

Meanwhile I can console myself that I didn't lose my Cape Gooseberries, which were still in the house under the grow lights, or the Black Krim tomatoes, which never -- alas -- sprouted at all.

This doesn't bode well for a good gardening season...

Thursday, 24 April 2014

I'm on a roll...

Appalachian Appellation
to be sung to the tune of The Wearin' o' the Green

My mother was a Hatfield, my father a McCoy.
It made my life exciting when I was a small boy.
The hills of home resounded with feuding loyalty.
They hanged each other from the branches of my family tree.

When Grandpa Hatfield shot my cousin out behind his shack
my father snuck me to the wake behind my mother's back.
My mother caught him drinking toasts to honor poor old Phil.
She didn't say a word but went and burned down Father's still.

I skipped church whene'er I could. I didn't know where to sit.
If I went with the Hatfields then my father threw a fit.
If with McCoys I tried to join my mother boxed my ears.
Compared to Mother's anger, fire and brimstone held no fears.

I walked on quite a tight rope when I was just a lad.
I never could quite pacify my mother or my dad.
I tried to call a truce one time and called myself McHat.
It lasted 'til my parents heard---that was the end of that.

Whene'er I tried to emulate my father or my mother
I'd always get in trouble from one side or the other.
As an adult I no longer tried to please my kin and kith.
I moved to New York City and I changed my name to Smith.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Upon Reading Edith Holden's Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady

Edith Holden's countryside
in soft pastel and saccharine poem
is sweet on the tongue and to the eye
but that's not where I'd want to roam.

More appealing to me the Canadian North,
which no one can domesticate.
I escape to pine and rock,
wind and water, glacier's fate.

You feel small in such terrain
'neath massive sky in frigid light,
yet mind awakens, heart expands,
rising to meet the mountain's height.

The North demands soul's stamina
through rugged ground and river's peril.
Yes, I prefer scenery like myself--
remote and fierce and somewhat feral.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Reflections on Holidays and Traditions

It's Easter morning, and the sky is the colour of a pearl as the sun comes up, glittering on the frost on lawn and hedge. The birds are singing, the dogs are on their couch, and all is right with the world.

I like how holiday traditions incorporate plants. Easter lilies, Halloween pumpkins, Christmas trees, poinsettias, and cactus, St. Valentine's roses, Dt. David's Day daffodils, St. Patrick's Day shamrocks. It's as if we're inviting the natural world to join us in our celebrations.

But what about those holidays that don't have plants associated with them? I think we should choose some. Canada Day or the 4th of July, for example---well, the obvious choice would be arugula, also known as "rocket." Victoria Day ought to have something old-fashioned, like hellebore or lavender. Labour Day's perfect choice would be quack grass or dandelions, because those cause us the most labour. And February's Family Day? Probably the Zucchini. One hill will feed a family of four. I remember as a child being fed zucchini pancakes, zucchini lasagna, zucchini milkshakes... Once a new neighbour moved in and, in a burst of enthusiasm, planted about seven hills of zucchini, and I remember my parents giggling over it. One year my dad gave away zucchini to any trick-or-treater over the age of twelve. I myself have been reduced to wrapping zucchini in baby flannel, sticking a note on it saying "My mother can't provide for me. I have too many siblings. Please give me a home" and leaving them on people's doorsteps.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Howard Buffett's Forty Chances

I am reading an interesting book right now, Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard Buffett, son of Warren Buffett. It's about his philanthropic efforts to address long-term food insecurity by addressing the whole value chain and not just providing temporary emergency relief or short-term benefit.

A few things jump out at me in this book. One is that we all only have about forty productive years in which to make an impact. One is that we have to give very careful thought to how we act, because something that seems right or generous on the surface can actually have unintended terrible consequences. For example, I have always admired Rick Mercer's "Spread the Net" initiative to send mosquito nets to the developing world. But Buffett points out (not naming Rick Mercer specifically) that it would have been better to invest the money into a local business that provides the nets, because then there would have been a sustainable and long-term benefit to the area. Instead, the market floods with donated nets, the local small net-maker goes out of business because he can't compete, and then when the nets wear out in five years and the charity has moved on to other projects, there is no local manufacturer left to fill the gap. Anyway, not that I'm saying we should stop humanitarian efforts -- far from it! But we need to think about long-term impact. As he points out, it's no good helping a farmer increase his yield if he has no way to store the surplus or get it to market.

But there's something else I'm learning from this book, which surprises me. It's causing me to rethink some of my views and prejudices. For example, I have had a negative view for decades regarding the big agro corporations, and Monsanto in particular. I've read a lot of negative things about them. And I still think much of what they do is wrong-headed and harmful. But this book pointed out a different side to them that I wasn't aware of before, about the initiatives they have undertaken to address world hunger. The reasoning behind the research. Do I think they've always taken the best route? No. Do I admit, grudgingly, that I have maybe jumped to conclusions without knowing all facets of the story? Yes. Do I admit that maybe even evil can do good once in a while? Maybe. And that perhaps the motive for action isn't entirely about money? Mmm...maybe. If nothing else, I think I have become aware of a need to let both sides tell their stories before making up my own mind about something. I have always read heavily just one side of the story and haven't given the big corporations a chance to put forth their perspectives. It's only fair to do so.

I do agree -- based on lots of things I've read and my own personal gardening experience -- that "eat local" and "go organic" is not enough to address the magnitude of the problem of world hunger. It can help with local efforts to address hunger in my own community (which is there, in every community, if you look for it, even the most "wealthy" ones). But while eating local is great in Ontario, it doesn't compute so well for someone living in Sudan. And organic small-scale farming can certainly make a big difference to people around the world. But we don't all live in areas where farming is possible or where we're allowed to own land or where food can be safely stored or where there is water for farming. To feed daily the upcoming 9 billion people on the planet, we have to increase all agricultural output by something like 70%, and that just isn't do-able with our current methods and mindset. (If at all, quite frankly.) And what happens when that 9 billion turns into 10 or 12 or 15 billion?

A lot of -- pardon me -- food for thought in this book. No doubt I will have more to say on it after I've finished reading.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Interesting Canadian Mormons Podcast

Hi! Just letting you know I was recently interviewed for a podcast for (thanks again, Sampson!) if you want to check it out. It's in two parts and some of what we talk about is my writing methods and where I get ideas for my books.

It's funny how many people ask me that. Once at a book signing when the umpty-umpth person asked me that question, I couldn't help myself. I replied, "I buy them bulk at Cosco." And they didn't even bat an eye. I'm convinced when most people ask a question ("How are you?" in particular) they really don't listen to the reply. I read an account once of a man who -- whenever someone said "How are you?" -- replied, "My mother just died." And it was amazing how many people just said, "Good" or "Glad to hear it" and kept going!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Slight Set-Back

Freezing rain and snow this morning. I'm sorry this Blog seems to have turned into a weather report, but so much of life here is determined by the weather! Canadians seem especially tuned in to the caprice and whimsy of nature. And they suck up every drop of summer they can while they have the chance. That is one of the things that really struck me when I first moved to Canada -- Canadians are always outdoors! They all seem to be avid gardeners, hikers, dirt-bikers, boaters, skiers, tennis players... Whenever I talk to a neighbour or colleague, they've just returned from a weekend on the Bruce Trail or canoeing on a lake. Gangs of neighbourhood kids congregate by some unspoken agreement to kick soccer balls around the field or ride their bikes around the park. The teenagers down the block play cricket or ball hockey in the street. On any warm weekend you will find a thousand people, literally, in Erindale Park picnicking by the river. It's impressive.

On the other hand, I've never seen a people more keen on reading, either. When winter drives us back indoors, Canadians reach for books and newspapers (they seem especially interested in news and keeping up to date on world events - probably because so many are from elsewhere in the world). I ride the subway every day and I see everyone on the train reading, and usually not fluff, either. Usually it's thick, serious-looking literature or newspapers. Well, or thumbing their electronic devices, but that's a relatively new phenomenon. Conversation is always about the weather yesterday and today and what's predicted for tomorrow. You can't help but pick up the habit.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Planting Seeds

This weekend I started the tomatoes and gooseberries indoors in their mini pots. I used to use the peat pellets you soak to expand, but the last couple of years I've used Keurig coffee machine one-serving cups for growing seedlings. My colleagues at work drink about 300 coffees a day, and they were just going to waste (the plastic cups, not the colleagues!). So I asked if I could haul a big bag of them home. The coffee grounds and filters went into the compost and the washed plastic cups, filled with seed-starting soil, are perfect -- they even have a ready-made drainage hole already. Nestled in their black plastic tray, they'll perch atop their heating pad until the seeds sprout, and then I'll move them under the grow lights until time to plant out. I've also started a tray of lettuces which I'll just harvest indoors as they grow.

Like any keen convert, I am dedicated to converting my neighbours and friends to the joy of vegetable gardening. I've taught workshops and seed-saving seminars, I give away extra seeds, and I love giving out excess vegetables to people. I've discovered that feeding people is as enjoyable as growing the food, and there is something very satisfying in watching a person's eyes light up with pleasure at the first bite. I believe deep relationships can be built on food.

Gardeners are optimistic people, since gardening by its very nature is about looking to the future. I stand in my muddy patch where the snow is still melting and I see the first spears of the garlic coming up and envision the whole garden in a riot of summer growth. I am awash with a sense of abundance. The earth provides all we need. One of my favourite scriptures is Doctrine & Covenants 59:15-20.

"And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances...the fullness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards; Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart...for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess..."

Gardening teaches you about seasons, about taking each thing that life brings to you in its season, and not trying to live in a different season than the one you are in. There are ways to extend gardening into winter, but I don't tend to want to do that, because I'm okay with winter being a season of rest, of daydreaming. I'm okay with spring and summer being seasons of hard work, and autumn being the season of harvest. When it comes to gardening, seasons seem simple and logical. I wish I were so philosophical about the other seasons of my life - aging, child-rearing, working, learning - and were content to be in whatever season I'm in. I think too often I'm looking backward or dreaming forward and forget to enjoy now, this moment. That will be my goal this summer. I'm looking--ahem---forward to it!

Friday, 11 April 2014


We got up to 12 degrees today (about 60 F). I ditched the coat and played ball in the park with Brio for an hour, then came home and played ball in the backyard for another 1 1/2 hours, then came in the house and played fetch with a toy for... well, you get the picture. The little creature doesn't hold still. He ran flat-out at top speed for 2 1/2 hours! And he's not even tired. Whew! I'm going to have to get in shape if I'm going to keep up with him this summer. There's nothing quite so joyful-looking as a puppy with a ball in his mouth.

I cleaned up the yard a bit and turned under one of the garden beds. Five more to go. I'm going to take it slowly, a little every day, so that I don't overdo it. It wouldn't have taken long except I had to stop every other shovelful to throw the ball for the dog. If I tried to ignore him, he would keep picking up the ball and dropping it at my feet, over and over like a woodpecker. When I went into the fenced-in garden, he would carefully nudge the ball through the fence and make it roll to a stop in front of me. (He's a clever one! Not all dogs grasp the concept of "She can't reach it from there." Certainly Maple has never been able to figure out other beings' points of view.) It was like watching him play pool, getting the ball to land just so. If I still ignored it, he would start doing his little "talking" sound -- not a bark or a whine, just a sort of "rarr rarr ooo?" as if he's saying "Hey, I'm standing here waiting for you. Don't you see me?" And then he'd stare intensely into my eyes, unblinking, willing me to bend down and pick up the ball. Sending me little telepathic zaps. So of course I complied. Who can argue with a face like that?

Halfway through the evening, my husband's bagpipe students spilled from the house onto the back patio and gave me some music to work to. We have such understanding neighbours! I'm sure they wouldn't have given us such a nice welcome to the neighbourhood if they'd known what they were getting into. Of course Brio had to throw back his head, close his eyes, and join in. You could almost see him smiling.

It's 10:30, time for bed, and as I write this, Brio is lying on my feet like a hot water bottle, comforting and heavy. I have to say, no matter what kind of day you've had, no matter what goofs you may have made or how disappointed or rotten you may feel, when you walk in the door and your dog greets you with such pure joy and affection ("You're back! You've been gone so long! I missed you so much!"), you feel like the best, most blessed human in the universe. You can't help but feel better with a welcome like that. Everybody needs a dog to remind them every moment that they are loved.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Signs of Spring

The temperature climbed to about 9 yesterday and people suddenly burst from their homes like seeds from a milk weed pod, scattering out into the sunshine. People walking their dogs, pushing toddlers in swings at the park, zinging past on skateboards, washing their cars. A general feeling of, "Hey! I remember you!" and "Hail fellow, well met!"  A thicket of "For Sale" signs has sprung up too -- a sure sign of spring. Had they been planning all winter to sell their houses and were just waiting for the spring market? Or was there something about the fresh air that made them wake up yesterday morning and say, "What a gorgeous day! I think I'll sell up!" More likely it was the thought, "I'm never going through another winter like that again. I'm getting out while I can and moving to Belize."

The spring air is energizing. I feel the familiar tug beginning. Time to drive through the countryside and watch for new lambs. Time to dig out the work gloves and hoses. Time to set up a million tiny pots under the grow lights. Time to pack away the hated snow boots. Time to scoop the poop in the backyard that's been frozen in place all winter (we don't call it the Dog Bog for nothing). Time to plant lettuce. Time to get to know the neighbours again. Time to breathe deeply and smile up at the benevolent sky for the first time since October.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Some sobering thoughts

An acquaintance of mine took her own life a couple of days ago, extremely unexpectedly. I didn't know her well---but now there is the wish that I had known her better. That I had paid more attention. That I had been less caught up in my own day-to-day life and more aware. It surprised all who knew her, so she must have kept her troubles very much to herself. I don't know if paying closer attention would have helped, and now I'll never know. Some thoughts jump out at me as I contemplate it:
  • You only see what people allow you to see. You really don't know what is going on behind the front that people show you.
  • You can't assume all is well with everyone. The happiest faces can hide the most aching hearts. We should treat everyone gently, as if they are going through challenges---because the odds are high that they are. None of us can hang up a sign that says "Nothing the matter here."
  • Nothing in life is so important that it should keep us from tuning in to the people around us.
  • A little compassion can go a long way.
  • We are all interconnected, and even if you feel no one will be affected by your actions, you have a greater impact on the people around you than you know.
I think it has hit me especially hard at this time when I'm just coming out of my own depression. I can understand her, and I am grateful I never got to the point she clearly must have reached. If I ever do reach that point, I am grateful I have a network of supportive people available to me. It has left me a little bit awed that someone so young could do something so big and irrevocable. I felt the same way when our foster son took his life. When you think about it, it takes a kind of courage to make that big of a decision and launch yourself into the virtually unknown. Or a depth of desperation that I hope I never face.

There is nothing I can do about it now, but I can certainly try to be more aware, more present, more tuned in, and more compassionate in future. And maybe just a little more understanding of myself as well.