Saturday, 31 January 2015

Parenting small children and Thoughts about Water Torture

I have to share something funny. I was talking with a woman at work who has two very young children. She said sometimes living with them is like having a slow drip of water constantly hitting your head. (I've also heard some moms describe it as living with woodpeckers.) So I remarked that if you endured it long enough, it would eventually erode away your skull and drill into your brain...but it's a slow way to commit suicide. And she replied, "Yes, that's parenting." And it struck us both as riotously funny. Or maybe it was just the sleep-deprivation getting to us.

Parenting can feel a bit like water torture at times, there's no doubt about that. It is constant and messy and sometimes it can hurt. There is no end to it. It is not for the faint of heart and shouldn't be entered into lightly. But I have to say, there is growth and beauty and joy that comes out of it too. Living things are nurtured by water. It isn't only about raising the child -- it's about raising the parent, too. You can't spend twenty-five years thinking of other people, caring for them, nourishing them, praying for them, serving them, without it changing you. I think that's why God gave us the family structure as our training ground. It's the best way to learn selflessness and patience and endurance and faith and sheer determination. He's a Father too, after all, and knows that the parenting experience can exalt us in ways no other experience can.

The trick is to learn to use that water for growth instead of letting it drown you.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Book Reviews on Amazon

For the first time in a year or more, I remembered that I have an author page on Amazon and went on to see how sales were going. There were a bunch of really nice, positive reviews of my books, and I feel rather bad that I never noticed them when they were first posted (months ago) so that I could reply to the kind people who wrote. I doubt they'll see any comment I leave them in return on Amazon at this late date. So here is a general "shout out" to say thank you for the encouragement and compliments, and I hope you are reading this blog so you know your reviews were appreciated! I even appreciate the person who declared they couldn't stand reading Desperate Measures because the characters were too quirky. (Funny, several other people used that word too, and said that was why they enjoyed the book! I guess you can't please everyone, and different people have different preferences. Which makes all of us a bit quirky, I think.)

When I first joined the Mississauga Writers' Workshop years ago, it took a while to get used to receiving criticism. I had to learn to separate myself from my writing and not take disparagement as a personal attack. There really is a lot of value in criticism, and every comment - positive or negative - has helped to strengthen my writing over all. The trick is to evaluate each comment to find the useful truth within it and then learn from it. If they're negative, you can grow from them. If they're positive, you can soothe your sometimes-bruised ego but hopefully not let them go to your head. No one ever reaches a point where they can say they have "arrived" and have nothing further to learn.

My husband teaches bagpipes to seventeen students. He tells them right up front that they'd better learn to enjoy the journey, because there's no destination. Even experts who have been at it for years and years are still just on the journey, just further along the continuum than the rest of us. There is always another step to take.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

I'm Dancing as Fast as I can

I once had a reader criticize my book Promise of Spring because she felt it was unrealistic that the character would get up and make cinnamon rolls for breakfast. I was astounded. I do this quite frequently (probably more often than I should). Doesn't anyone else do this? I tried not to respond defensively. I've had readers criticize my description of harvesting wheat, too, and managed not to feel defensive about that. (I've harvested wheat. I feel pretty confident about that one.) So why did that one particular comment get my back up, so much so that I still remember it years later?

It was the same feeling I got when I wrote a paper in university about a particular aspect of bagpipe music, and my teacher accused me of choosing an arcane topic just so he couldn't tell if I had done my research or not. It took all I had not to reply, "Just because you don't know something doesn't mean I don't!" Fortunately, I managed to quash that particular childish and shameful response before it escaped, but the defensive feeling remained.

I think if I'm honest, I am prideful about how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time. I do more in an hour than most people do in three. I find I am most productive first thing in the morning. I can get up at 4:30, dress, have breakfast, pack my lunch, throw supper in the crockpot, read for a while, let the dogs out, fold a batch of laundry, make a batch of homemade granola, and still catch my 5:30 a.m. bus to work.

When I first started working at my office, there were three of us assistants to take care of three managers. Then there were two of us taking care of five managers. Now I am by myself, taking care of seven, as well as the committees and projects associated with them. I can write a novel in a week, for pity's sake, and have done. The question is, should I? What is it that makes me think I need to do all this? Is it just the satisfaction that comes from knowing I can? Who am I trying to impress? No one else in the house is even up at 4:30 to witness my brilliance! :) And what sense of self-worth am I getting from being able to be busy?

Obviously, my self-worth should not be reliant on the amount I accomplish in an hour. Nor should I judge other people's worth by the same standard. And I should not be looking down my nose at the critic who is not up making baked goods for breakfast! But as I am forced to slow down a bit due to my health, I am also forced to acknowledge that until now a lot of my self-worth has been derived from what I do, more than -- perhaps -- who I am. That's why it has been so difficult acknowledging that I can no longer do everything I used to. It makes me feel diminished.

Time to change all that, I think. As I've been learning over the past couple of years, it's all right to sit still and just be. A life lived quietly is as valid as a life lived large.

Of course, that doesn't mean I can't still have cinnamon rolls...

Friday, 23 January 2015

Changing Language

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I heard certain "Canadian" words, like "Chesterfield" and "broadloom." These were new words to me when I first came to Canada 25 years ago and I heard them frequently. I don't know if Chesterfield was a person or a place -- I'd have to look it up -- but it sounds so much more interesting than "couch" or "sofa." Its name hints at history. And "broadloom" conjures up the clack and clatter of massive machines and Victorian-era child labour. It reminds you of the origin of the carpet and the work that went into it.

Words slip from the language when we're not looking. I suppose being Canadian is not defined by using words like Chesterfield...but maybe it is. What else are we losing without realizing it?

At the same time, new words are creeping into the language, things like "hashtag" -- an ugly word if there ever was one, and one whose origins I can't fathom -- and most have to do with technology. I guess it is inevitable that looms move out and electronics move in, and language has to reflect that, but it's still sad when you lose bits of your history.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Today I looked up from the mess of my desk and saw the sun shining like melted butter through the window. I stood up, got my coat, and went outside for five minutes, just to stand on the sidewalk in front of my office building and turn my face up to the light like a sunflower. It was weak and watery and hardly warm (-8 today), but it was heavenly.

This winter hasn't been as long as last year. Last winter began in October, but this year it really didn't get cold and yicky until January. There has been intermittent sunlight, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds like glimpses of summer. I haven't felt the blahs descend quite so heavily this winter as last. I look at the calendar and remind myself there's really only two and a half more months until I can start thinking of planting seeds under my grow lights. Surely I can handle two and a half more months. If I keep myself busy -- exhaustingly, Whirling Dervishly busy -- I might get through this without too much trouble.

I'm reading Gretel Erlich's account of seven seasons she spent in Greenland, where the sun disappeared for a great part of the year, and I don't know how people can stand living there. Parts of it sound fantastic -- such expanse, such clear air, such challenge, living life distilled to its most basic components. I don't mind cold and isolation and remoteness. But I could not live without light.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Attempt #1

The lower one on the right isn't half bad!

Try try again.

New Adventure

For Christmas, Son Number Three got the materials for making sushi. Today we are going to try it. From the look of the instructions, it could turn out simple and fun, or it could turn into a complicated mess. We will see how it turns out! If results are successful, I will post pictures. If not, we'll just move on and pretend this never happened. At least we can eat our mistakes.

I like trying new things and exploring new hobbies. There are so many new experiences to try. My past is littered with glass paints, balls of yarn, Hardanger fabric, and bins of embroidery floss. My closets overflow with guitar music books, riding boots, and pipe band uniforms. Sometimes -- like knitting and crochet -- it sticks, and sometimes -- like English dressage lessons -- it is a fun-but-only-done-once experience. Other things I've abandoned halfway through and acknowledged that I'm not suited for it--or it's not suited to me. (Flashback to a purple leotard and pink tights and Colleen Collins Smith barking Glissade! Glissade!  while she beat time on the floor with a stick. Or the time I had to do the "Jingle Bell Rock" on stage in my pajamas. Some things are better left unvisited.)

I enjoy hanging hand-made ornaments on the Christmas tree, and I like watching the sunlight shine through my bamboo painted-glass picture in the living room window. I like browsing through a photo album of things I've tried and activities I've done. I'm glad I had parents who encouraged us to try new things and find what fit for us. I've tried a ton of things, from ballet to clogging, banjo to bagpipes, Welsh to Bislama. I still have a list of things I want to try, but I am happy so far with the few things I've settled on.

Now it's my son's turn to explore his interests (Japanese, art, bagpipes, and piano so far). It's fun to watch and see what he will settle on, what sort of person he will become.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

You just never know

I have always been the type of person who likes to have a plan, a To Do list, and a definite vision of what the future will be like. Everything has pretty much turned out like clockwork in my life -- education, marriage, children, home, job, publishing, travel -- all the things I wanted for myself. I always believed that if you did what you were supposed to do, as best you could, everything would always turn out the way it was "supposed to."

The older I get, though, the more I understand how little in life we really control. There's only so much planning and preparing you can do for the future, and then you just have to hang onto your hat and go with whatever happens. If you get too inflexible and set on what should happen, you miss what is happening. And if you spend too much time mourning the things that didn't turn out the way you wanted them to, you miss the joys that are before you.

You may think you know what is best, and you may lay the greatest plans, but in the long run only God knows what life holds in store for you and what strengths you will need to develop to face it. We are expected to learn and prepare and grow stronger. But ultimately, we have to hand it all over to God and believe he will work things out in the best way for us. That is a difficult thing to do when you are a micro-manager like I am, and it involves having to humble yourself and admit you may not know everything or be able to handle everything on your own. You can study and prepare and do all you can to lay out a plan for your life, but it all comes down to trusting God in the end.

As a gardener, I should have figured this out long before this, of course. We can research and select the best seeds, till the soil and set up trellises and push our seeds carefully into the earth...but then it is basically out of our hands. The seeds will germinate or not, run true to variety or not, and plants will get pollinated or not. The rain will come or not, the sun will shine or it will be cloudy. There is only so much we can do. Even if we have taken every precaution, it still comes down to relying on miracles.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Planning the vegetable garden already

As the wind howls down from the north and the ice pellets sting the window, the first seed and bulb catalogue arrives in the mail, and I cheer at the thought that only about four months remain until I can get back into my garden. (Hey, I'll cling to any hope at this point.)

It was a Vesey's catalogue, and frankly I have little use for flowers other than as pollinator-enticers, but it sent me to the computer to prowl Baker Creek's and Salt Spring Seeds' websites. I already know what I'm planting this year. Every year I tell myself that this is the year to hold off and not plant anything because I really do need to put some effort and money first into setting up a proper garden. I need permanent paths, a drip irrigation system, maybe some raised beds. By the time the ground dries out enough to do those things, we'll have missed the planting season, and if I plan to do any travelling this summer it would be best not to grow a garden this year...

And even while I'm telling myself these reasonable things, I'm scribbling down my planting plans and seed wishlist for spring. I know I will end up doing what I've always done for the past thirteen years---I'll dig up the whole plot of ground, toss down a few random used bricks to use as stepping stones instead of paths, and cram every square inch of earth with plants. I invariably end up tiptoeing through jungle-like growth, teetering on a two-inch standing space and cursing myself for not relinquishing a few more inches of precious space to accommodate a decent path.

But putting down permanent paths means less room for vegetables, and what would I give up? The Swedish red peas last year were amazing, voluminous and pretty and nutty-tasting, and they produced right into October, which is astounding in this climate. So I definitely have to have those again. Never will I go back to ordinary green garden peas. Then there's the zucchini -- gotta have that staple crop -- and the yummy white cucumbers (though this year I think I'll try the Crystal Apple variety). I want to try orange beets instead of the usual Crapaudine or Bull's Blood. The salad stuff is a must, and the radishes and onions always self-seed every year so they're coming whether I want them or not. The garlic is already in and slumbering beneath a six-inch layer of leaves. Then there's all the permanent features like asparagus, rhubarb, and the blueberries and strawberries. I want to get some raspberries and blackberries started. I want to try the Cape gooseberries again (last year they produced lovely fruit that unfortunately froze before it could ripen, but this year I could think to throw some covers over them). And then of course the usual suspects -- green beans and dry cooking beans and various herbs, which fill every available corner of the garden as a sort of default filler.

I have decided against tomatoes and peppers this year, and probably won't do potatoes or sweet potatoes either. For the volume I require, it's cheaper and easier to buy them. I mean, when you're bottling four or five bushels of tomatoes at once, a handful from the garden is just a tease. You can enjoy the music, after all, without having to be the whole orchestra.

I detest washing carrots, so I might give those a miss for this year, even though I love their sweet flavour. I likely won't try cauliflower, broccoli, winter squash, melons, or pumpkins again. I have had limited success with these in our short growing season other than the Collective Farm Woman melons, and those just simply take up too much space. And the family is starting to burn out on all the hubbard squash still in my freezer from last year.

So there's the line-up. In past years I've tried growing everything from oats to chick peas, and I enjoy trying new things each year. It's hard having to pick and choose because of space constraints. I could go crazy and grow more food all over the yard, but the dogs do need a place to run, and my long-suffering husband likes sitting in the shade without feeling as if he's been thrown into the middle of a Kansas corn field. So I will restrain myself and stick to the designated allotment. This year I have sons to help me, so I'm looking forward to a great growing year.

Now all I gotta do is wait for all this snow to disappear...

Thursday, 8 January 2015


Cold. Face-falling-off-and-shattering-on-the-ground cold. Don`t-care-if-I-lose-my-job-I`m-not-getting-out-of-bed cold. Why-didn`t-I-marry-someone-from-Arizona-instead-of-Canada cold. It takes ten minutes to dress. Underwear, long-johns, pants, shirt, two pairs of socks, boots, hooded sweatershirt, coat, two pairs of gloves one inside the other, scarf around the neck, hat, hood from sweatshirt pulled over hat, hood from coat pulled over that, second scarf tied around face so only the eyes are showing. That kind of cold.

And you wonder why I get depressed in the winter!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Gratitude as a Practice

I recently read Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she said that gratitude is not an attitude (despite the catchy jingo); it's a practice. It's something we exercise and actively do. She points out that you can have a yoga attitude, but until you actually hit the mat, it doesn't do you any good. Gratitude is the same.

With this in mind, and remembering my goal to focus on gratitude this year, I thought I would spend today's blog just listing a few of the things that I am grateful for.

As I watch the snow coming down outside and as I hear that Thompson Manitoba (where my kids used to live) is at -48 today with the wind chill, my first thought is that I'm grateful to have a warm house, out of the weather, with central heating and a fireplace and a cozy blanket. I'm grateful to whoever supplies the heat I enjoy. I'm grateful for the joy of having good books to read while curled up in that blanket, and the ability to read them. And the time to read them. My boss phoned me on January 1 at home, to tell me she was sick and wouldn't be in to the office on Friday after all. So I was not to come in either. Seriously, she gave me a free day off (how often does that happen?), so I spent it catching up on some errands and, of course, reading.

Lying there with my book (I'm now on to Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes), my hand rests gently on Brio's head, and I am filled with gratitude for the animals in my life. I have been blessed with the presence of animals since I can remember, not just all the dogs I've already mentioned, but the cat and rabbits and mice and hamsters and horses and frogs and fish and snakes and birds. My horse Shadow and Nick the Thoroughbred (on whom I took riding lessons) taught me courage. Kiai the German Shepherd gave me unwavering loyalty. Holding abandoned rabbit kits in my hand taught me about life and death. There was even a lesson to learn from my hamster, who got loose and reduced my only Barbie doll to a pile of chewed rubber bits under the bed: the impermanence of things, the role of my own responsibility, and the meaning of forbearance (I mean, how do you get mad at a creature the size of a dust bunny?).

I am grateful to have had parents who would allow so many animals for their children. I'm grateful for the grandfather who gave me my horse and the run of his farm, to follow hens and their chicks around and watch the pigs eating corncobs. He let me watch the goat feed the two orphaned calves (the goat had to stand on a table to be tall enough, but only looked rather bemused and didn't seem to mind nursing these gigantic foundlings). Grandpa let me ride on the wagon behind the massive draft horses and pitch hay off the back, while the other horses materialized out of the mist to follow along and eat. (That was a magical moment, never to be forgotten, watching those gigantic beasts appearing from all over the field, rising up out of the mist like mythical creatures.) I don't remember ever once being made to feel like a tag-along or a nuisance, though I'm sure I probably was.

I'm grateful to my father, who took the time---and had the know-how---to help me train Shadow to the reins and saddle. He also taught me math and how to carve soap and scythe cockleburs, how to build rabbit hutches and pitch a tent and make pancake syrup out of sugar water. He took the time to go sledding and hiking and biking with his children. He modeled service to others. He taught me what loving, righteous fatherhood involved and gave me a pattern and a type to look for when choosing my own husband. I'm grateful to a mother who taught me to crochet and sew (in spite of my protests) and how to bottle fruit and plant flowers. She let me experiment with her expensive oil paints and shared her love of books and the countryside with me. She taught me to care for my neighbours, to fulfill my callings at church, and she made sure I stuck to what I knew to be true. Most of all, she taught me faith and the importance of a gentle, loving home.

So many things to be grateful for! That hardly scratches the surface, but I suppose it's a good start. Now back to my blanket and book, while the ice pellets chime against the window.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Sure Enough, They Lasted Until Friday...

Well, of the five books I brought home in my last post (one being on pre-order), I have read three and a bit. So by the time I go back to work tomorrow, I'll have probably one left. Luckily it's the Kate Morton one and the thickest of the five.

The cold wind is rushing around the house like a demented ghoul trying to get in the windows, the dog is tucked warmly against my side, there's the smell of homemade zucchini bread (made with hubbard squash this time instead of zucchini)...and a book. What more do you really need in life?