Friday, 30 September 2016

Books are a Girl's Best Friend

My granddaughter has started kindergarten and is finding it a bit too easy. She's sort of bored, actually. I was telling my daughter-in-law that it will be easier once Kiddo can read -- then she can entertain and challenge herself outside of school. For the rest of her life, she'll be able to teach herself and explore, without having to wait for a teacher to take her there. Once you can read, you're never bored again. I can't wait to introduce her to my old favourites... A Hundred Dresses, A Little Princess, Charlotte's Web, Bread and Jam for Frances, Chicken Soup with Rice, My Father's Dragon, Blueberries for Sal... All my old friends I grew up with.

I remember the thrill of the Bookmobile coming around to our block in the summer. It would park in the church parking lot, and my brother and I would run to meet it. I still remember the hollow thump of our feet in the back of the truck, the smell of the books, the joy of checking out a new Hardy Boys mystery (we would practice inking each other's fingers and study our fingerprints with a magnifying glass, talking knowledgeably about ulnar loops, and we'd try to track various animals -- practising to be detectives, you know). It was like Aladdin's Cave on wheels, full of adventure and excitement.

Sometimes we'd get to go to the old Provo City Library, where my red plastic card would admit me to the children's section. I envied my mother's pink card that let her wander into any area of the library. We'd check out old Charlie Chaplin movies to play on our ancient projector, too...Ah, the days before Blockbuster and Netflix!

At Edgemont Elementary we had a wonderful librarian named Mrs. Condie, and she would read us Where the Red Fern Grows and The Great Brain in the perfect reading voice while we sat mesmerized on the carpet at her feet. My 5th Grade teacher Mr. Madsen read us Little Britches when we had free time in class. My favourite times at school were when we got to have read-a-thons in the gym. We'd lie on the floor with any free-reading book we wanted for the afternoon, and we could bring red licorice or Sugar Babies to eat while we read. Boy, those days are long gone now too. Try proposing an afternoon of sprawling on the floor with sugar at a grade school now! But it just added to my love of reading.

I love the feel of books in my hand. That kitchy furniture that looks like it's made out of books makes me happy. I love those podium things that hold special, heavy ancient books in museums and churches. I inhale that musty paper scent in old book shops as if it's the most expensive of perfumes. I love the very idea of glass-doored bookshelves and those sliding wall-mounted ladders reaching up to the high shelves. I can't help but judge people by their bookshelves. I collect pictures of reading nooks and window seats made for reading in. I know the advantages of e-readers, but they just don't feel like books, you know? Some of the cozy joy of it is lost when you try to curl up with a Kindle. It just isn't the same.

Once you can read, you can learn anything, because everything is in a book somewhere.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016


I had great plans today. I was going to come home after work and go weed and water the food bank garden. And I started out well, really I did. I went and harvested a bunch of tomatoes, peppers, okra, and kale and delivered it to the food bank. And then decided the rain last night watered things well enough that I didn't need to do it again. And then thought of the Maggie Smith movie I'd rented from the library, and remembered my husband was at band practice so tonight would be a good night to curl up with a chick flick... And so Maggie Smith it was. And the weeding didn't happen. My apologies. But between Maggie Smith or purslane...really, what would you have chosen?

I often get sidetracked by things when I fully intend to do something else. I go to dust the bookshelves and spy the little book by Dan Holst Soelberg and simply have to stop and read it. (My favourite stanza is "Paloma is plummeting fast through the sky. She cannot recall when this started or why.") Or I go to do the dishes and start thinking about the jar of chopped pecans in the cupboard and next thing you know, I'm making butterscotch bars (and dirtying more dishes). I go out to work in the back yard and end up sitting in the far corner eating wild strawberries. I fully intend to walk the dog but somehow end up sitting with my feet in the pool instead. And I sat down at this computer just now to email someone and totally forgot and wandered onto my blog instead...and just now remembered.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

One just out of the chute, another on the way!

My next book, The Governess, comes out in October. There are all the usual labour pains - having to ratchet myself up from writer to seller, sending out notices, organizing signings and book club appearances. But even while I'm in the midst of all that, I just got word that my next manuscript has been accepted, and will come out in November 2017. It's like getting pregnant before I'm finishing birthing this one. I'm happy, but I'm also already gearing up for the series of rewrites and editing sessions to come. And there will be struggles, because the Nov 2017 one is more of a drama, and I want to get it exactly right. Working title for now: Sing Your Way Home.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

If there are Cardinal Numbers, are there Venal ones?

I have always had a love/hate relationship with numbers. In grade school they would give us a page full of times tables and we would race to fill it out within a certain period of time. I liked the feeling of filling in the tidy little boxes and discovering patterns. I liked the pat on the head I got when I did it quickly and correctly. Around 4th Grade, I got put in an “advanced” class for math, meaning I left the main group and went into a little side room for instruction, and then endured the sneers and teasing of my classmates when I emerged. I got the message pretty early on that it wasn’t good to stand out, and smart kids were considered teacher’s pets. Part of me liked being petted, but there were also times I purposely played dumb to fit in better.

My dad the math professor would give us kids playful math problems and number games as we grew up, I suppose hoping to instill a love for numbers in our hearts. He would be positively gleeful as he showed us clever tricks that "proved" 1 equaled 2, or gave us probability and logic problems. Some of us kids caught his enthusiasm and some of us didn’t. I didn’t. (Though I have kept for thirty years the scrap of paper on which he wrote the 1=2 problem.)
When I was about 16, I transcribed the 1840s journal of my 3rd-great grandfather. In it, he paced out the length of the ship on which he sailed from England to the U.S. and faithfully recorded the measurements in his journal. I think I know where Dad gets his love of numbers.

In high school, math got serious. And difficult. I would stare at the page and the numbers would stare back up at me mutely, refusing to reveal their secrets. My father laboured long and patiently with me every night to help me understand my homework. He made me do the work, but he took the time to explain to me the things my teachers just couldn’t seem to present logically. When I protested that I would never need to know any of this (and I haven’t), he would remind me that I wasn’t learning math; I was learning how to learn. I was practising discipline. I am grateful for those sessions because they got me through, but I remember automatically starting to cry every time we sat down to work. It was an instantaneous response. I don’t know if I’ve ever properly thanked my dad for dragging me kicking and screaming through those tedious hours, but the good grades got me the scholarship that let me get into university, where I could pursue my true passion: languages. (And he’d be the first to point out that math, a system of patterns, is a language in itself.)

Now I work as an administrative coordinator, and part of my job is keeping statistics. And I have flip-flopped again. I’m back to filling out tidy little boxes in Excel, playing with word problems, and looking for patterns. I can see how the math applies to daily life and makes sense of what otherwise would look like chaos. So I’m back to liking it again.

Son Number Three has a flair for math, and it is paying off for him in college. It’s one less thing he has to struggle with in his program. It gives him a boost of confidence. He knows he’s capable of learning. Maybe the genes have jumped a generation. Thanks, Dad.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

A Magical Moment in the Forest

Yesterday I walked Brio down to the library to drop off a book, and then without really thinking about it, we just kept walking. I knew vaguely that there was a nature trail somewhere by the University of Toronto down the street, but I wasn't sure how to get to it or where it went. But we found a path leading to it and off we went. It's called the Sawmill Creek trail, I think. And I had no idea such a hidden gem was so near my house!

A well-maintained path led through a mixed forest along a lively little stream, and even though I could hear the distant hum of cars on the road, it felt as if we were quite far removed from the city. Tunnels of green, filtered sunlight, a damp cool breeze... it was just perfect. Here and there were bridges over side tributaries, and in one place there was a nice boardwalk constructed over marshy ground, making a satisfying hollow sound as we marched over it.

At one point they had laid down a Trex walkway, solid and easy to walk on but in a startling orangey colour that didn't match the natural surroundings. Brio lowered his head, and as we walked along he got closer and closer to me until he was pressed against my leg, and then he dropped behind me and got even slower. Clearly didn't like this foreign stuff he was walking on. Not sure why. As soon as we left it and stepped back onto the dirt path, his head went up and he bounced back out in front, happy again. Note to self: don't use Trex in my yard.

And then, as we rounded a corner, I happened to glance to my left and there was a doe standing, watching me in stillness, with her fawn a little ways behind her. She must have been about ten or twelve feet from me. She held still, a gentle brown statue, but the fawn lowered its head and ate nonchalantly. They don't expect predators here. I strode on past without making eye contact and kept a good hold on Brio's leash, but he didn't even notice her. When we'd passed her, I glanced back and she was calmly standing...and then a few feet later I looked again and the deer had blended into the surrounding trees and I could no longer see them, though they hadn't moved.

Such an unexpected treat! And so lovely to know I can walk there whenever I want to, a soft hidden retreat from the city.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Reviving the Salon

It used to be that well-connected people in places like Paris and New York would open their homes to literary and artistic guests, hosting social gatherings and dinners and discussions. They called it a "salon" and it was meant to both entertain and educate, giving artists a chance to rub elbows and share knowledge as well as amusement. The practice was big in France post-Renaissance, and it continued into the 20th century but seems to have died out in the 1940s. I guess World Wars dampened the enthusiasm for such things, or stole away many of the creative generation of that time. Women joined the work force in greater numbers, the commute to distant factories ate up our time, and dinner became a bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese eaten in front of the TV.

I like the idea of having people to dinner, just to sit around the table eating and chatting and sharing insights with inspiring people. I like to think about who I'd invite. Who I'd like to learn from. Alexander McCall Smith for certain, and Robin Pilcher (both of whom I actually have invited to dinner next time they're in this area). Susanna Kearsley. Alan Bradley. Louise Penny. (All of them are locals, come to think of it. It could happen.) I'm not really a follower of actors and entertainment, but I wouldn't mind meeting someone like Michael Caine or Maggie Smith. Or Betty White, just for tips on longevity (I personally suspect it's having spent life laughing. Look at Bob Hope and George Burns, who lived to a good old age). Carol Burnett. Bill Nighy. And I'd enjoy an intense discussion with Rick Mercer. Then there are the non-artistic in the classic sense, but just people who have crafted an interesting life--- Joel Salatin, for example, or Simcha Jacobovici.

And why limit it to live people, as long as I'm dreaming? Imagine this: a dinner table with softly glowing candles, a chamber orchestra playing in the background (magically fitting in my 10 x 10' dining room). Homemade pasta and crunchy garlic bread. Napoleon flirts harmlessly with Charlotte Bronte, while Marie Antoinette goes for the piece of cake with the most frosting. Victor Hugo commiserates with Hemingway, Tolstoy ignores them both, and Genghis Khan tries to pick a fight with Gandhi over whether to pronounce the Hs in their names. Dorothy Parker pokes at her garden salad and scribbles on the tablecloth with a pencil, while Sigmund Freud quietly pockets the silverware. Mozart hums along to the music, and Noah slips food scraps to Brio under the table. Paul Bunyan has to eat outside on the patio because he's too large for the room. Heathcliff stalks the grounds in deep conversation with Melrose Plant. I'd get my husband to do the cooking, because he's better at it, and afterward we'd all tour the garden to pick blueberries to scatter on our ice cream (I said this was a dream, right? I picked -- count'em -- four blueberries from my garden this year).

Who would you invite? Whose brain do you want to examine? Whose life do you have questions about? Who would you find fascinating? And when you host your next salon, can I come?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016


My favourite time of year is here. The leaves are starting to turn, the air is starting to cool, the stars seem brighter and sharper at night, and the garden is beginning to wind down. I've picked the last squash and am hoping the Collective Farm Woman melon ripens before frost. (Yes, melon. Just one this year. Previous years I've gotten a dozen or more, but I think the heat really sucked away their will to live this summer.) The beans are hovering on the edge of dry, the pea vines have been cut down, and every day I check for fallen ground cherries in their paper wrappers beneath the vines, as if I were feeling for eggs beneath a hen. I feel like apologizing to the lush plants for peeking.

The farmers' market only has a few weeks left. I went on Saturday and just wandered the aisles, admiring the piles of golden beets, the abundance of butternut squash, the buckets of herbs and rows of containers of wild blueberries. I commented to the girl behind the table that someone must be insane by now, picking all those tiny blueberries. She replied solemnly, "I think there's a hotline for blueberry depression."

I bought bags of stuff just because it looked so good -- cauliflower the size of a basketball, dark green zucchini, mouth-watering red peppers, plump crimini mushrooms, and a half-dozen pumpkin-chocolate chip muffins (from the Mennonite table. Best baking in the world.). The teenage boy I bought my gigantic unruly lettuce from had a hard time getting it into its plastic bag. My remark "It's like trying to get a girl in a frilly dress into a sleeping bag," got a smile.

The cooler temperatures bring out the energy that's been flagging all summer. Suddenly I feel like doing things -- climbing mountains, wandering along rivers, writing poetry. I took the dogs out for their walk last night and you'd have thought they hadn't been out in months. They towed me along as if we were in the Iditarod, Brio's ears streaming back and a wild grin on his face. Yeesssss! I took my sewing out to the picnic table in the backyard to enjoy the cool evening. All I could hear was lawnmowers and my neighbour on the phone, but I pretended the droning was the splash of the waterfall at last week's Zen retreat and it was very peaceful.

I am determined to avoid my usual winter blahs this year. I'll throw myself into learning to weave, practise my yoga, try to be more consistent with meditating. I'll find some new and exciting writing project to focus on. I'll spend time with my grandchildren. I'll eat the bottles of fruit I've carefully prepared all summer. And sometime around late January, I'll pull out the seed catalogues with their glossy, enticing photos.

Life is good.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Beauty and the Beets

Yesterday's project was harvesting all the beets, steaming and peeling them, and then pickling them. I grew Goldens and Bull's Blood, and they gleam like jewels on the shelves. There's nothing quite like that cozy feeling of putting up food for the winter.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

How to Cook a Yeti

Hubby and I went on a low-carb diet a while ago and lost 25 pounds each, but some of it has slowly crept back in the last few months. After the three days at the meditation retreat eating nothing but carbs in multiple forms, we decided it was probably time to go low-carb again for a while. I cooked up a spaghetti squash, and on the way home today I was thinking about the spaghetti sauce I could put over it. Sauce and squash. Sauce squash. It sounded disturbingly close to eating Sasquatch.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Monk with the Steel-Toed Boots

Just returned from a three-day meditation retreat at the Zen Forest in Tweed, Ontario. Hard to explain how amazing it was. Beautiful location, super-kind people, and three days of peacefulness. And three days of the half-lotus position, which has pretty much crippled me. The last day was done in total silence (we were supposed to be silent the whole time but we were a bit naughty. I mean, if one sees a beaver swimming along or hears a loon, one has to comment on it, right?). Anyway, it was a very interesting long weekend.

The Zen Forest is run by a Vietnamese abbott, who came there to homestead 21 years ago. He also happens to be an engineer. For six years he lived on his own without running water or electricity, and he has slowly built up this amazing temple and retreat centre. He's built a beautiful central building, multiple huts for guests, and he's excavated a big lake and built walkways and bridges and terraced landscaping. He's sculpted a massive reclining Buddha out of cement to lie peacefully against the hillside across the lake. Quite wonderful. Everywhere you could see evidence of further projects...backhoes parked under the trees, crates of yet-to-be-unpacked statues and stone lanterns, an electric sawmill beside a stack of cedar logs. Fascinating to wander around. All of it has been accomplished through donations, because he has no money himself. (And we were paying less than $16 a day to cover food and lodging, so he wasn't making any money from that. If anything, we cost him.) You stumble across treasures out in the woods, evidence of even more creativity and industry. Abandoned chicken coops. Pillars for a gate that wasn't installed. Sheds of tools. Plastic chairs just sitting out in the woods, waiting for someone to discover and sit in them. The monk himself has the most wonderful, gentle smile that made you love him immediately. He strode around in his saffron-coloured robes with a matching ski hat and steel-toed boots, a beneficent and quiet presence working in the background.

The Buddhist nun who cooked for us was a jolly, smiling, shaven-headed woman who turned out great quantities of delicious food for the 15 of us---flavourful soups, salads, stir-fry, terrific spring rolls, and tofu and rice made in a myriad of ways that I'd never thought possible. Five or six different carbs every meal, really. You haven't experienced anything quite like her cauliflower and noodles in broth for breakfast. We all fell in love with her and wanted to take her home. She confided to me that she loves winter, and when it snows, she goes out in the yard and rolls in it...when there's no one watching. As I was sitting later, supposed to be working on my koan, a fully-formed Haiku popped into my head.

Nun rolling in snow
smiling face like the Buddha
No neighbours to see.

You can see my mind was doing its own thing, not cooperative at all. Except sometimes. Sometimes the usual chatter in my head would still, and the sound of the waterfall would wash away words, and the soft sunlight filtering into the sitting platform would bathe my brain, and the cool breeze would brush my arms, and for one perfect instant there would be total peace.

Going again someday. I'm hooked. Except this time I'll do some Working Meditation too, and help with the weeding. The acreage is expansive and volunteers are needed. In fact, if I'd stayed another few days, I think I may never have left. I could easily picture myself moving into one of the little shacks and spending the rest of my days gardening and moving stone and slurping rice noodles.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Toronto Air Show a Bonus

I went for a walk at Queen's Park at lunch today to enjoy the (finally) cool temperature and lovely sunshine. I like walking there, even though it's usually crawling with people. The big, fat-trunked trees are so old their bark has started to bag around their ankles like socks that have lost their elastic. The flower beds are thick and lush and alive with the sound of water splashing. The paths are full of people walking their dogs, jogging, or wandering around with selfie sticks (why is it tourists in a new place aim their cameras toward themselves? They know what they look like! Aren't they supposed to be more interested in the new surroundings? Are they trying to prove to people back home that they really came?)

As I was moseying along, there was a roar like the end of the world and a jet shrieked by not far above us. Followed by three yellow smaller planes flying in formation. Followed by what I think was a Harrier (the June Bug of aircraft). And I realized this weekend is the air show. They must have been doing a noon show, or else practising for tomorrow. It lent a surreal aspect to the afternoon, this peaceful park, the ancient trees, and the scream of modern technology over all.

I have a secret passion for speed, for sleek planes and cars. I remember one year taking my young boys to the air show, and a Stealth Bomber zipped past before we even saw it approaching, and then it was just a speck in the distance before the sound caught up with us. It was a dark phantom shaped like a manta ray and then gone before we even knew what had happened. Fascinating!

The Latest Love of My Life

This is what I found for sale on the Internet.
What would I do with the place? Restaurant? Family home? Music school? Artist studio? Itching to get my fingers on this pipe organ!