Monday, 24 February 2020

Great company while I'm sick

I'm still on the couch with a bad cold and cough, but I've been kept great company by Susanna Kearsley and Robin Pilcher. Reading my third book in two days... There is a silver lining to being sick.

I am so grateful for good writers! My life would be so much less without them.

Friday, 21 February 2020


Down for the count with a bad cold. No desire to do anything but curl up on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of Picard. I'll write again when I re-emerge...

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Little Notebooks of Quotes

For many years, I have made it a habit to carry a little chubby notebook with me everywhere, and whenever I hear a good quote or run across a name I like or learn of a book or website to check out, I jot it down. I have distilled some of these into books I've written, and I've referred to them to find book recommendations. But I've now got a box full of these little books, and it really isn't very efficient to page through them all to find specific things or when I'm looking for writing inspiration.

I have started copying these books into an Excel spreadsheet, categorizing the entries by "Life Thoughts," "Reading Recommendations," "Writing Ideas," "Recipes," "Poetry," "Meditations," etc. So far I'm up to about a thousand entries, and I still have several notebooks to enter. But as I'm typing it all up, I'm rediscovering some great tidbits and thought-provoking sayings. It's been enormous fun to go through them all again.

Some of the highlights:

  • "Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." - Lemony Snicket
  • "They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde
  • "Simplicity undertaken to bring the life you lead into alignment with your deepest values is a spiritual practice." - Alan Morinis
  • "A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man's soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man's stomach." - Rabbi Salanter
  • "You cannot entirely despair with your mouth full of bread." - Anne Michaels
  • “Not wanting something is as good as possessing it.” - Donald Horban
  • "Gardeners can suffer from a chronic inability to be in the present moment. That's because, like Joan of Arc, we're afflicted with future visions…a real and present delight is bartered for an imaginary future." - Des Kennedy
  • “Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something.” - Elizabeth Gaskell
  • "The implication is that when mothers work, families, like chickens, go free-range and slightly feral." - Susan Maushart
  • "…the solace of emerging from the ruins to find that at least you no longer had any hair left to catch fire…" - Anne Michaels

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Cleaning out the freezer and other exciting pastimes, and some thoughts about interdependency

In anticipation of spring and gardening, hubby and I went downstairs and took inventory of our big chest freezer. We still have carrots, squash, kale, beet greens, rhubarb, and a lot of green beans left from last year's harvest. We're running low on strawberries (you would have thought 45 pounds would be enough, but I guess not) and we're out of asparagus. And of course I still have quite a lot of bottled stuff left (apples, pears, peaches, grape juice, jams and jellies). Maybe 25 heads of garlic left. If we pace ourselves correctly, all this should be running out just as the new harvest is coming in.

I always have arguments with myself about how much I can realistically do versus what I want to do. I know I don't need to grow all my own food or make my own soap or weave my own fabric...but it's fun to do and it's confidence-building to know I can. There's also something deeply appealing about the idea of living the hard-work-and-exhausting-but-creative life of our great-grandmothers. With that kind of life, you can see at the end of every day what you have accomplished and what your hands have made.

Someone I know on Facebook was complaining about the time it took to make a certain dish from scratch (I think it was an hour and a half). I couldn't help responding and telling them about our homemade lasagna that takes about three days to make (homemade sauce from the garden produce, homemade pasta, homemade ricotta, homemade sausage) and ten minutes to eat. And then it occurred to me--it actually takes much longer. Someday I will write a cookbook that starts each recipe with "First plough a field, plant wheat, and start some tomato seedlings indoors..." Or maybe it should start earlier with "mine and smelt the ore to form a ploughshare and then raise a horse..."

And then I'll follow it up with "First grow an acre of cotton, harvest and spin it, build a loom, and weave a tablecloth... Dig some clay and cast some pottery plates... Plant a tree and wait twenty years until it's big enough to make a table..."

Everything we do, something as simple as lasagna, really depends so much on what others have done before us to make it possible.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The first seed catalogs have arrived...

The perfect way to spend a snowy winter day---curled by the fire with glossy photos of vegetables and flowers! What new thing shall I try this year? Or shall I stick with the tried and true? I'm travelling a lot this summer, so should I only plant early spring stuff and late autumn stuff? Can I live a summer without green beans? So many lovely decisions! I think about the fifty heads of garlic snuggled in my garden under the snow, waiting for summer, and I am very happy. Gardening gives you just a little taste of what God must feel like, creating worlds.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Yay, Mitt Romney!

The only Republican in the Senate with principles. Whether or not you agree with his stand, you have to admire his courage and integrity. You've done us proud today, cousin.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

How Brio Fared at the Kennel

So apparently Brio got the luxury spa treatment at the kennel while we were away. They let him hang out at the front desk with them, he got free run of the place, he had cats walking around the office to entertain him, and he got a bath and nail clip. Since he returned home, he has been lying on the couch like a fuzzy pillow, giving periodic audible sighs. Clearly bored now after his big adventure.

On the plus side, when I took him to run off-leash in the park and chase his beloved red ball, you could tell he has missed being able to run free (no off-leash facilities at the kennel). There is nothing more joyous than a dog running toward you across the field with a ball in his mouth, his ears flying out behind him, and that gleeful light in his eyes.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Sleepless in Paradise

A little something I wrote the second week we were in Hawaii:

Things that keep me from sleeping in Hawaii:

  • Roosters. There is almost a cult about roosters in Oahu. Like the sacred cows of India, the roosters are free to wander at will, and they don't crow at dawn like normal roosters. They crow at midnight. And two a.m. and four a.m. and more or less constantly after that. I am an animal lover, but there's a particular rooster below my balcony that I want to punt into the next county.
  • Dogs. Like roosters, these are ubiquitous. They are generally left chained outside, though many wander free, and they bark and fizz whenever you walk gingerly past. Each yard has anywhere from two to seven dogs in it, mostly bulldog and terrier mixes.
  • Sirens. There is only one main road, and it links the health centre and the surfing beaches. Enough said.
  • Cleaning ladies. They are cheerful, noisy at 7 a.m., and they took six hours to clean the next-door 500-square-foot apartment, oblivious to the needs of jet-lagged neighbours. I tried to think kindly toward them and reminded myself that they were at work while I was not.
  • The ocean. Lulling, then booming, like the sound of a storm. At home in Canada, there are no waves, but a strong wind in the trees sounds similar. So in Hawaii, when I hear the rush and pulse of the waves, my brain thinks it's the wind in the trees, and I go to the window expecting to see a storm. But it's a clear, sunny, windless day.
  • The food. The food here is lovely, but I'm not quite used to eating so much fruit. I'm grateful we have modern toilets and not the paint trays Italians favour.
  • The impeachment trial. When it's too hot to go out, we watch hours of the trial on TV, and at night I'm pursued by confused dreams. What if they remove him from office? What if they don't? What must the world be thinking as we air our dirty laundry before the nations? If it's a foregone conclusion, why are we bothering going through any of this?
  • The realization. We've been living harmoniously in just over 500-square-feet for two weeks, and we've never felt the need for more space or used the dishwasher even once. We don't need as much as we think we do. I lie awake designing a minimalist home I'll likely never build. But what if I could?
  • The guilt. I'm lazing in the sun while my son is shoveling snow and my dog languishes in the kennel.
  • The dread. I return in a few days to -22 and two feet of snow.
  • The glee. How can I sleep when Hawaii is out there?

Hungry in Hawaii

We are back from our grand adventure! My husband and I initially went with the idea of treating it like a two-week meditation retreat---perhaps even doing some of it in silence---to completely unwind, ground our souls, and calm our minds. Life at home is busy, and this was our chance to refocus without distraction. I went armed with scriptures, exercise routines, a meditation guide, and good intentions.

And I was good in many ways, breathing and doing my mindfulness exercises and stretches on the balcony,  and trying to do walking meditation on the beach, which turns out to be difficult. Partly this is because sand is incredibly tricky to walk on when you have bad knees, and partly because who can possibly focus their minds when surrounded by breath-taking beauty and dare-devil surfers and stunning sunrises and green-fuzzed mountains and fascinating sailboats and whales (yes, really, breaching and blowing whales, on several occasions)? The green-marbled waves were especially tall, thundering into the coral sand with a sound that reminded me of my neighbour back home banging his big plastic garbage bins to the curb. There would occasionally be signs posted saying the surf was especially high so only professionals and experienced swimmers should enter the water. I'd tiptoe out onto the beach and see five-year-old native kids on boogie boards wrestling the waves with fearless aplomb, while pale white northerners kept well back on their towels, slathered in coconut tanning lotion. Once there was a sign saying a shark had been sighted so no one was to enter the water. (The building's handyman told me they'd recently caught a 15-foot tiger shark on that beach. I stuck to the hot tub, thanks very much.) Anyway, the meditation happened, but mostly I just mindfully lazed around and read 12 books in a 14-day period. Yup. And I feel unapologetically wonderful about it.

And that silence thing? My husband and I haven't talked so much in years. We caught up with each other, discussed hopes and dreams and regrets and beliefs. And that was wonderful too.

One of our intentions was also to eat mindfully on this trip (i.e. treat it like Fat Camp). I'm dealing with cholesterol and insulin issues---no surprise there---so we intended to kick off a healthy diet while away from home. Except it turns out that's difficult to do on a tropical island where a little bag of kale is $7 and Spam is apparently the national dish.

We bought chicken in a big ten-pound freezer bag and frozen vegetables and told ourselves we'd eat carb-free stirfry and nourishing soups for two weeks. We were living in our own apartment, just the two of us, in total control of what food was in the place. This was our chance to act intentionally and focus on our health.

My husband and I went from supportive partners to parenting each other to policing each other to being accomplices. Life lesson: When you're detoxing from carbs and sugar, you shouldn't get a sponsor who's equally going through withdrawal. By the end of the trip we were having conversations like:

"I'm going for a walk in the sunshine. I'll be back in twenty minutes."

"Good. That's enough time for me to get to the 7-Eleven and back without you knowing."

"Oh. Uh. I guess I'll see you there, then."

We kept our valuables in a little electronic safe in the bedroom closet, which wasn't handy, because if my husband was napping, I couldn't get to my purse without the beeping waking him up and exposing me.

I found myself walking through Longs Drugs, caressing the Brookside chocolate-covered blueberries and the half-bushel bucket of Red Vines licorice. I was tempted by stuff I've never been tempted by before---fried pork rinds and shrimp-flavoured chips and taro and teriyaki jerky. Do you know they sell Karo syrup in gallon jugs? (My husband leaned down and whispered "Half for you, half for me.")

I did cave and have a manapua with sweet pork filling, because it's something I've eyed on previous trips to Hawaii and have always wanted to get the nerve up to try. For those who don't know what manapua is, it's like eating a little pillow. It's a soft white mound of dough that's a bit sticky but somehow melts in your mouth like cotton candy with no need to chew. The pork inside was magenta, the colour of a melted cherry Bonnie Bell Lipsmacker, and it tasted wonderful. Later I learned manapuas are made from a yeast dough but with shortening in it. Gack. So now I've had the experience and likely won't repeat it.

It turns out there are only so many ways to stir-fry chicken. By day three I was craving Spam, cold, straight from the can. Maybe it was the salt. My husband started fantasizing about opening his own poutine shop. I tried to eat my three healthy fats a day as my dietitian instructed, but avocados require crackers or bread to eat it with, and expecting myself to limit the almond intake to a reasonable serving size was unrealistic. Whose idea was it to treat a two-week tropical vacation like boot camp, anyway? And even supposing we could endure it, how would we carry over the diet once we returned home? As my husband muttered, it's easy to be celibate in a monastery. What about once I resumed my normal routine, trapped in a cubicle with a box of chocolate-pecan Turtles on my colleague's desk?

At the end of the two weeks, we were still righteously eating our carb-free stirfry and then retreating from the heat of the day to watch the impeachment trial and snarf Violet Crumbles. And there was an unfortunate incident with an entire bag of Bugles. And full confession, there might have been some two-bite brownies in there somewhere. But all in all, it was a relaxing and beautiful time, and I returned home weighing the exact same as when I went, which I consider a win. I feel relaxed to the point of being boneless, I avoided sunburn, I now know all I ever wanted to know about the impeachment process, I've seen some amazing rainbows, I've tasted a manapua, and I've seen a dolphin. A successful vacation.

I went to sleep last night with the white-noise machine set to "ocean waves," but it just wasn't the same.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020


We're off! Two weeks of sand, sun, and sleep. Books are packed (that's really the only vital thing to take), poor Brio is at the kennel, food is in the freezer for Son Number 3 (Yeah, I know, he's a chef, but habits die hard), and my out-of-office notification is set at work. And it's two weeks of no computer, so I won't be posting for a little while. Talk to you when I get back!


Monday, 13 January 2020

The corollary of travel...

Since we are going to be away, I've had to find a solution for Brio's care, and it's been surprisingly difficult. There are three young men living in my house, but all of them are working or in school or both, and trying to ensure someone would be here at the right time and frequency proved impossible. And even if they were able to let Brio out, no one would be willing to walk him as much as he needs. And he needs a lot. This is one energetic dog!

So I looked into having a friend watch him at her house. But she had to work out of town and he'd be left alone for huge stretches of time, which wasn't doable. Then I looked at having another friend down the street just come to the house when the three young men weren't available. But she never could firm up details or commit to anything.

Then I looked at professional dog walkers and dog sitters, but they wanted $16-25 a visit or $50 a day. Wow, so not doable. I'd have to mortgage the house. It seemed like a lot for a $150 dog.

Then I looked at having someone just come house-sit in general, but it would have been awkward for them with the three young men bustling in and out.

I considered making friends with a homeless person and offering them a place to stay for two weeks in exchange for watching Brio. But my social worker husband informed me they would likely lose their beds at the shelter if they missed a night.

So as a last resort, I booked him into a kennel, run by the vet. He's been there before and I know they'll take care of him, and it's cheaper than a dog walker. I know they'll let him out on a regular basis, though not as frequently as he's used to, and they won't play Frisbee and ball off-leash with him. I know he'll cry for a lot of it. But they'll be on hand if there's any medical emergency, and they might consider letting him lie on their feet under the reception desk all day if he's lonely, which would make him perfectly happy. (They did note that they couldn't put him on payroll, but it's okay if he volunteers at the desk.)

So the problem is solved. But I'm already getting teary-eyed at the thought of leaving him for two weeks. Which tells me I'm way too in his head, and he's way too in mine. Maybe the separation will be good for us. We've become a little too reliant on each other. I'm trying not to think about it.

Funny how these little furry friends get under your skin, isn't it?

Meanwhile, I'm not concerned about leaving Son Number 3 at all. Which tells me I have confidence in his responsibility and self-reliance. Which means he's an adult now. Which means my work here is basically done.

Which means I am now free to go travel!

Saturday, 11 January 2020

My Year of Travel

Last year I travelled to New York City, Utah, Idaho (twice), and Washington State, and I thought surely this year I won't travel so much, because really, that's quite unusual. But...

Next week we go to Hawaii for two weeks, to escape the winter.
This summer my sister and her husband are coming to tour Quebec with me, entirely due to reading too much Louise Penny.
And my husband is competing in Scotland in August, so I'm tagging along. We're going to spend two weeks in Scotland and...drum roll...three nights in Iceland!

Now, I'm currently sitting outside Toronto, Canada with Arctic temperatures and freezing rain outside, so you might be surprised that I'm more excited about going to Iceland than Hawaii. But it has been a long-held dream of mine. My husband spent a month in Iceland many years ago and came back full of glowing reports, and I've been wanting to go ever since. The thought of that totally (to me) alien landscape, the ocean, the history, the language -- I am enamoured. Icelandair is having a great deal where you don't have to pay for the extra flight when you stop off on your way to other places, or I never could afford it. But because they're trying to attract tourists, I'm able and happy to oblige.

I know three nights isn't enough time to get to know the place, but it's a beginning. I'm saving my pennies to go back someday and make a proper tour of it. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy what I can do. Because who knows how long I'll be able to do it? Seize the day and all that. I know we have to be frugal and plan for our futures, but we also have to act while we're still young and healthy enough to do it. I've heard it said it's more likely you'll look back and regret the things you didn't do than the things you did.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Lessons from a Rabbit

Son Number 3 was walking along the road one day and saw a rabbit just sitting on the grass at the side of the road, not moving. My son approached closer and closer, but the rabbit still didn't move a whisker, just frozen in place. My son stopped a couple of feet away, puzzled, and then he noticed what the rabbit had seen earlier---a coyote was crossing the road.

So my son froze alongside the rabbit. The coyote continued on his way, and once he was gone, the bunny bolted. So did my son.

Lessons learned: Awareness is crucial. When in doubt, hold still. Think things through before you react. Pay attention to small furry creatures. Keep one eye out for escape routes. Small details will keep you safe.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan

I am reading a delicious little book right now by Michael Pollan. I've enjoyed his other books, but this one really speaks to me. Ostensibly it's about him building himself a writing retreat in his backyard, but really, it's about much more than that. He explores the psychological needs people have in relating to their environments, how space and light affect us, and how shelter means much more than its sheer functionality.

A few of the points he has made so far really jumped out at me. He talks about how a part of himself has always stood apart from the people around him, and he wanted to build a structure to house that part of himself. That hits the nail on the head! I've always felt a need to withdraw a little on a regular basis to "regroup" and think. I just can't find that renewal and clarity when I'm surrounded by other people. Maybe that's part of being a writer, and maybe it's part of being an introvert who is forced every day to interact outside of my comfort zone. Last night I even found myself sitting on the couch beside my husband, watching TV, and pulling on sound-cancelling headphones and picking up a book, just to retreat for a few minutes from the noise and information input. All I needed was a few minutes and then I could breathe again. It has taken me a lot of years to acknowledge that introversion and realize it's okay to accommodate it. Without apology.

He also describes---in hilarious fashion---how important books are to him, and as I read it, I felt I had met a kindred soul. For example, page 44: "...Marshall McLuhan had likened opening the Sunday paper to settling into a warm bath. The metaphor delivered a tiny jolt of recognition, because I too found reading---reading almost anything---to be a vaguely sensual, slightly indulgent pleasure, and one that had very little to do with the acquisition of information...the deep piles of words on the page comprised for me a kind of soothing environment, a plush cushion into which sometimes I could barely wait to sink my head." He talks about feeling naked without a book, and reading over people's shoulders on the subway and never thinking to look into the faces of the people opposite him. That's it exactly! It's an addiction, I acknowledge, one that feels like sinking into a bath of warm honey. He also admits that half the appeal of starting a new project or hobby is the fun of reading about it. I fully confess the reason I still garden is because I love poring over the seed catalogs and reading the histories of certain varieties. And how can you not order seeds and plant them when confronted with such luscious photos?

The part I'm reading now is how buildings are experiences more than objects. That resonates with me too. All of my hunting for real estate is about the stories that jump into my head when I see a place. I'm looking for a feeling and experience, more than the actual tactile structure. The certain slant of light brings to mind curling up with a book or smelling cinnamon rolls baking. The graceful arch of a doorway has me walking through it, hanging my coat just here, bending to greet my dog there. I can't really explain it well, but Michael Pollan, I sense, understands it. But it's the reason why I could see myself living equally well in a Quebec City loft with exposed brick walls or a rambling white farmhouse on the Bruce Peninsula or a glass-and-steel condo overlooking Lake Erie. There really is a coherence to all of those disparate places---the fall of the light, the space above my shoulders, the warmth of golden-wood bookshelves and a crackling fireplace---they're all possible in all of those places. The experience of each place ties them all together. Maybe I'm not fickle or indecisive after all.

He also talks about how a home needs to be situated and crafted to fit a certain site, and the site determines much about the structure. In turn, the structure molds the person, and vice versa. Maybe that's why the cookie-cutter suburban house never has appealed to me. It isn't the sameness so much as the all-oriented-to-the-street-the-same-way-ness. The way the roads ignore topography and blast their way through rock in order to stay straight instead of curving and allowing the flow of the landscape. The way we try to cram as many houses onto the head of a pin as possible. The way we clear away all of the trees to build the houses and then stick trees back in again. That kind of building doesn't honor the location, even as it tries to own the view.

Back to reading now. Can't wait to see what he says next!

Photos swiped from the Internet of favourite houses: