Book Nerd, Out.

In 2013 I attended the gritLIT Festival, Hamilton’s literary festival for readers and writers, for the very first time. I remember being thrilled to be in the presence of so many authors, so many readers – and don’t even get me started on the book room, where all the featured books were being sold! It felt like heaven in a downtown Hamilton hotel, and while I was only able to attend a couple of events that year, I knew I would most definitely be back.

The following year’s festival, however, blew right by me. In 2014 I was spending most of my free time at the dojo, training in karate and kickboxing, working towards my black belt which, as anyone who has ever earned their black belt can tell you, is practically a full time job.

By the start of 2015 I was nearing the end of my journey to black belt, my final tests were scheduled for February and March and by April, I would participate in the black belt show known at our school as the BBX – the black belt extravaganza – where my senseis would present me with my belt. So, in January, because I knew that the end of 24/7 (nearly!) training was in sight, and because I am really just that little bit extra when it comes to being prepared for things, I navigated to the “contact us” page of the griLIT website, and signed myself up to be a volunteer. And then I was hooked.

In 2016 I became an official member of the gritLIT planning committee and it has honestly been one big long love affair since.

Forever and ever.

I can’t even begin to count the number of amazing people I’ve been so privileged to meet as part of the committee, but please do know that book people are some of the nicest and most wonderful people you will ever meet. There is nothing like the feeling of rushing to the book room after a reading to quickly purchase a copy of the author’s book so you can then stand in a queue of people all buzzing about the book, the author, or the entire festival and wait until it’s your turn at the table to offer your book up for a signature. (There is also nothing like spending an unholy amount of money in the book room every year either, but that might be a whole other post.)

There is also nothing like the feeling of bonding with an author at the signing table. Whether it was chatting tattoos with Cherie Dimaline, or having Claudia Dey give me the name of the woman who designed her boots, or having Casey Plett write “your tights rule!” in my copy of Little Fish, I have learned that many, many authors are as generous with their time and their hearts as they are with their words.

There is also nothing like watching community being built by and around authors at the festival. Whether it was Ivan Coyote whose talk resonated so emotionally and completely with the group of teens/young adults who then stuck around chatting with them afterwards, much to the group’s absolute delight, or the droves – DROVES – of fans who turned out for an event with Guy Gavriel Kay (who was exquisitely patient and lovely), there is no doubt that authors are rockstars in so very many ways.

And, there is really also nothing like kicking back with some of your favourite authors – or even authors that you just met! – over dinner or a glass (or*ahem*bottle) of wine, and I feel so privileged to have been able to do that on more than one occasion, too. Whether it was drinks in the hospitality suite with Anakana Schofield or Denise Donlon, or navigating my way to The Mule, on foot and during an ice storm, with Judy Rebick on one arm and Kristyn Dunnion on the other, there was never any shortage of adventure or misadventure with the gritLIT team.

(And by the way if you think I’m namedropping, I totally am namedropping. It’s one of the perks, and I won’t apologize for it!)

Finally, there is also nothing like being welcomed to a team where you know absolutely no one, and the next thing you know, you’re bonding over books and authors and food and beer and music, and then just like that, you’ve made some lifelong friends. Looking at you, Jessica, Jaime, and Jennifer. Thanks for letting me be an E in a dream team of Js.

Tuesday night was the 2021 festival wrap meeting and it was also my last meeting for the foreseeable future. As much as I love this team, as much as I love the festival I think it’s time for me to take a step back, to move on, and to make space for someone else.

Will it be strange, attending the festival next year as a member of the general public? Well, yes and no. The amazing thing about literary festivals is that the experience is always wonderful, whether you’re part of the team that plans it or not. The authors are just as generous, wandering around the book room is just as exciting, (fingers crossed the 2022 festival gets to happen in person!) and the whole atmosphere still has that buzz. I think I’ll be just fine.

So thanks for the memories, gritLIT – those past and those still to be made. You are my favourite festival and you always will be. And I can’t wait to see what the team comes up with for next year.

Soup, Love

Yesterday I made soup.

When our older son arrived home from work, he served himself a large bowl and proceeded to tell me how much he loved it” “Mum, this soup is SO GOOD. Like, really good.”

And then I reminded him of the time that his younger brother roasted the hell out of me for ordering soup in a restaurant, “Um, why are you ordering soup when there are so many other things you could have? Soup is something you eat because you HAVE to. At HOME.” And then we laughed because while it’s kind of true, soup is still one of my favourite things to make and to eat.

Growing up, homemade soup was something we had occasionally, and it was usually turkey or chicken, when there was a large bird carcass to use up after Thanksgiving or a after a Sunday dinner. But mostly the soups of my childhood were tinned: Habitant pea was definitely in the rotation, as was Campbell’s tomato. Occasionally chicken noodle. Depending on how close we were to payday and our next grocery shopping trip, sometimes it was Lipton’s Cup-A-Soup for a few days in a row. Sometimes money was extremely tight, is what I’m saying.

By the time I was in high school, my dad was retired and he took to spending more and more time in the kitchen where he became a pro at cooking things like clam chowder, minestrone, pea soup from scratch. But that was much later. And while the soups became a little fancier, they were still, at their heart, soups. Appreciated, yes. Exciting? Not really.

The soup I made yesterday, specifically, was the Cream of Tomato with Tarragon soup from the Rebar Modern Food cookbook. I have never been to Rebar, but my sister-in-law bought me the cookbook one year for Christmas – I believe she and her husband were travelling in Victoria and thought it would be something I would like – and she was extremely correct, I have made a LOT of the recipes from the book and each one is absolutely delightful.

Still life with cream of tomato soup and journal.

This particular soup tastes and feels like sunshine. You can used tinned or fresh tomatoes, and while I have never used fresh, I plan to try that in the summer when tomatoes are perfectly ripe. I think it will add a whole other layer of sunshiney-ness to the meal. It also calls for fresh tarragon (which I didn’t have, but dried seemed to work just as well) and heavy cream which I had, but I don’t always have, so I will occasionally substitute half and half. I’ve also used 2% milk in a pinch and the soup is very, very forgiving.

I think that is what I like so much about soup. It is, by its very nature, a dish that you don’t have to apologize to. I suppose there are soups out there that are less forgiving, more intense to create, but consider some of these instructions in various soups I have made:

-Dice 3-6 medium or large potatoes, whatever you have on hand.

-Chop 1 or 2 leeks, or even up to 4 if they’re small. You can also use a combination of leeks and spring onions.

-Add 8 cups of vegetable or chicken stock or water.

-Use garlic if you like it.

-Grab a couple of handfuls of kale and toss it in towards the end. Or use spinach. Or leave it out.

Parsley, if you have any.***

Like, how can you NOT love a recipe that is that laid back?

Okay, yes, I know there are people who crave order and exact measurements and specifications and so reading recipes like this gives them hives, but I am not those people. I love skimming a recipe then looking in the crisper and thinking “great, I have one of these things, let’s do this!” and coming up with something delicious.

Soup is opening a tin of something when you don’t have a lot of time before dinner, or when you have a craving for the comfort of a childhood favourite. Soup can also be time spent shopping for the exact ingredients to make something very special for a family dinner or a dinner party. And, soup can be somewhere in the middle when you’re down to your last potato, some sort of wilted celery, an onion, eight cups of water and some spices.

The process of creating soup, of heating it slowly on the stove, stirring it, tasting it, adding a little of this a little of that…there is magic in that process, and every time I make soup I think of the kitchen I grew up in, the bowls of soup we were served when we came home for lunch during elementary school, the sleeves of Premium Plus crackers that accompanied them. It was comfort and it was love.

And while I know that soup night still isn’t everyone in my family’s favourite, I do hope that one day if the boys need to get creative when the crisper is a wee bit light, when the fridge is a little emptier than it could be, that they will remember “there’s always soup.” And whether they open a tin or they throw some random stuff in a pot, I hope they will also remember the steaming bowls of soup that were set in front of them on cold nights and feel that same level of comfort, that same level of love.

***This is one of the best soups I have ever made/eaten, and it is the quintessential “what you got? that’ll work” recipe. Please do give it a go, it is really delicious, and your reward for reading 900 words about soup.

Doggo Knows Best

I took the dog for what I thought would be our usual walk yesterday evening. She is a dog with strong opinions about where she likes to go, and while I am very good at rerouting her should I need to, tonight I thought that I would let her take the lead. So, when we headed up our street toward the base of the escarpment, I knew she wanted a trail walk. Perfect, I thought, because now that the weather is nicer, neighbourhood walks are a little trickier, it’s a little harder to maintain distancing on narrow sidewalks. This trail, though, is wide, wide enough that we can ensure we are staying far enough away from fellow trail walkers, runners, and cyclists.

We entered the trail at Dundurn St., started walking west, and made it just to the edge of the golf course before she stopped and stared at me. Sometimes this means “I need a treat before we move on, please” and sometimes it means she’s had enough and wants to go home, but since we were only about 10 minutes into our walk, that seemed odd. I gave her a treat (she is a very good dog, after all) and while she crunched away on it, I stood beside her, waiting to see what direction she would choose once she’d finished. She looked west, the direction we’d initially been heading, looked east, back the way we’d come, only to forgo both of those to head due south. And if you know Hamilton and you know this trail, you’ll also know that south = straight up.

Not exactly straight up, of course, but the top is visible from there, and…wait, you know what? It really is practically straight up.

Slightly above the trail we typically walk is another trail – let’s call it the upper trail – and I’ve always been hesitant to walk it with her. Mostly because it is, as I mentioned, practically straight up, and once you’re there, depending on the route you take, you can get even further straight up, so it can become even more challenging, especially for the unfamiliar.

It should also be said that I am not a hiker by nature. I like my trails flat and debris-free, as much as possible. Paved is even better, if I’m being perfectly honest. Fine, sidewalks, I like sidewalks, ok?! I am, at heart, a city child and an indoors child and have always been. For me, walks need to have a destination (Bookstore! Patio! Ice cream!) so the idea of walking an unknown route (straight up, did I mention) with an energetic husky does not typically excite me.

The upper trail is most definitely a marked trail – a portion of the Bruce Trail, even – but the trail itself is less obvious; it is very uneven, there are fallen trees, and lots of leaf litter that can hide large rocks, loose rocks. There are massive expanses of tree roots stretching along and across the trail, a myriad of places for a soft city child like me with soft city shoes like mine to trip and fall and not be able to get up, to stumble on the knees that, after years of dance then years of karate, are kind of shot.

But, on a lovely warm Thursday evening, and against all better judgement, up we went.

The dog was extremely excited and kept looking back at me, tongue lolling, with an expression of “I told you it would be great!” which didn’t surprise me at all. She has often strained at her lead, willing me to follow her up there but I’ve always resisted.

In the early evening the lower trail can be quite busy. Lots of cyclists, people walking dogs, people commuting home from work. But the upper trail was practically deserted; we only had to move for one cyclist, one runner. And there was something really special about being in that in-between place, too. In between the trail with its views of backyards and the very top of the escarpment with its road access and its own residential areas. A sort of magical space, not quite anywhere, but perfect in and of itself.

And it was good to get out of the comfort zone, too, to let the dog make the decision, to be the follower for a change. It’s been a long year for everyone, and while the first year of plague might have seemed like a good time to get out more and explore more, I’ve consistently felt like I just want things the way I want them. I need, I crave routine, I need that comfort. I need to know that we are going for a walk on these specific streets, or that we are going as far as the big rocks at the edge of the golf course parking lot and no further so I can plan, so I can maintain that level of control. So I can know what’s coming next.

I’m not saying that tonight’s walk will spark something in me that will get me branching out further and further – mostly because we are now, once again, under a stay-at-home order – but I’m not not saying that either.

Maybe once it’s ok to do so again, it will be a good time to hit the road, so to speak, and wander a little further afield. Maybe we’ll get in the car, the dog and I, and travel down to the lake for a lakefront walk or pick up the trail at the other end and see it from that perspective. Maybe we’ll explore other alleys not just the ones in our neighbourhood. It might be time to emerge from the year-long-plus cocoon, to take a chance on a route or a road less travelled.

And, it turns out, I can do hard things. I was so worried about my knees, about tripping or not making it the whole way along, and yet when I didn’t really think about it, when I just followed and enjoyed the surroundings, I did it. And I loved it. And I can’t wait to do it again.

I think that’s worth celebrating.

Rejection Introspection

On Sunday morning, post-tea, post-meditation, post-yoga (I know, I am slightly insufferable) I decided it would be a good idea to check my email. Not my work email, of course, I’m pretty good at leaving work at work on weekends, but I opened my little Gmail app and what was waiting there for me amongst the dozens of Sephora Rouge deals and the Old Navy offers (they both need to take several steps all the way back, honestly) was a rejection email.

I mean, I didn’t know it was a rejection until I opened it, but I eagerly clicked on the message and got the news.

A month or so ago I had submitted a story to a publication, something I had done on a whim part way through a Friday evening post-work glass of wine while waiting for the pizza to arrive. I actually said, out loud, to no one but myself, “What the hell, here goes nothing!” as I clicked the submit button. And then it was done. 

And I should mention that this was my very first submission to something that was not a writing contest, so it was exciting! I had done it! Then, on a lovely Sunday morning several weeks later, my very first non-contest writing rejection hit the ol’ inbox. And maybe because I was in a relaxed state (see above for post-yoga, etc.) I actually smiled as I read it. 

It was a lovely rejection, as rejections go; very encouraging, very thoughtful, and I was quite touched. Flattered, even. But then, from the dark area of my brain, the spoiler of good moods, the killer of happiness, came these thoughts: It’s just a form letter, they send this to everyone, they don’t really mean those nice things, there is absolutely no way they truly want you to submit again, etc. etc.

My dark brain can be quite persuasive. Destructive. But this time, I was ready for it.

What if, I told my brain, this truly is a heartfelt email? What if I believed that they had considered my submission very carefully, that they really meant it when they said that I should submit to them again in the near future? And, in the meantime, that I should also definitely look into other places to submit this particular work? What would happen?

And so, instead of cringing, instead of fretting and stewing over the fact that I had submitted the absolute worst piece of garbage writing this publication had ever seen, I chose to celebrate the rejection. I chose to believe that my piece was good, and even if this was a form letter, it didn’t matter. Because at least I had done it. I had sent something out into the world and much like the old quote about missing 100% of the shots you don’t take, I’ve chosen to view this in the same kind of light. Your work can’t be rejected if you never submit anything. And, related to that, your work also cannot be accepted if you never submit anything.

I’ve participated in a lot of writing courses and workshops, and I’ve read and listened to the wise words of published authors when they are asked if they have advice for new or emerging writers. So often I’ve heard them say “Submit. Submit, submit, submit! Submit early, submit often!” or some other version of this sentiment, and I nod sagely and I write that down, and then…I don’t do the exact thing they just said to do. And why is that?

In large part it’s thanks to the aforementioned dark brain, the main reason I can’t have nice things. It’s that fear of looking silly, fear of sending something out that isn’t absolutely perfect, fear of rejection.

But I’m working on it. And I don’t know whether it’s being in therapy for the first time in my life and learning to be kinder to myself, or if it’s being 53 and thinking, as I did on that Friday night in February, “What the hell?” Or maybe it’s that the pandemic has emboldened me, has given me a sense that it’s now or never, and you know what, it shouldn’t be never, so it needs to be now.

Whatever it is? I’ll take it. I did this one hard thing and I can do it again. And I’ll look forward to celebrating many more rejections until perhaps – no, not perhaps – until definitely, one day in the future, the not-so-distant future, I’ll be celebrating an acceptance.

Book #6 for 2021: The Beguiling

I treated myself to a couple of books for my birthday back in January, and The Beguiling, by Zsuzsi Gartner was one of them.

As is typical for me, I can’t remember where I read/heard about the book (I really should come up with a system, like a note in my phone or something equally as simple) but it obviously intrigued me enough to grab it off the shelf at Epic Books on Locke St. And can we talk about that cover?!

In The Beguiling, Lucy is grieving the loss of her much-adored cousin Zoltan who was attacked at a bizarre warehouse party (ceremony?) and succumbs to infection of the wounds inflicted on him there.

Shortly after Zoltan dies, strangers begin to seek her out as their confessor, a role which she accepts and later grows to need in order to keep going.

Back then, just two years after Zoltan’s death I fed on the confessions much like a vampire bat feeds on sleeping cattle. What was this endless hunger I was feeding? My ego or a sense of spiritual entitlement? Lucy of East Vancouver, patron saint of bottom-feeders.

As we read the stories of Lucy’s confessors – and the majority of them are grim, horrifying confessions – more is revealed about Lucy’s own character and history and throughout the novel, she becomes less and less reliable as she becomes more and more distant from family, and, it might be said, from reality.

This is a extremely dark, occasionally shocking novel that requires a great deal of concentration – or at least it did for me – to comprehend the twists, the topsy-turvy kind of narrative. There is, as I mentioned on Instagram when I first started reading it, a LOT going on, but it is so, so worth it.

And lest the idea of it being extremely dark prevents you from picking it up, please know that there are parts that are also desperately funny, and writing that is intensely, gloriously human.

It is also the kind of novel you will likely want to go back to immediately after finishing it. Gartner plays so heavily with style, with narrative, and with timeline, that it’s a bit like being underwater and not knowing which way is up until eventually you burst to the surface and everything makes sense again. That is, until you take another plunge with eyes closed back into the unknown.

This book is exceptional and is one I’m very glad I own so I can go back and reread the highlighted (with post-it note tags only, of course) sections and flip between confessions to determine links and relations, and to bask in Gartner’s intensely tight, evocative, mind-bending prose.

How do you measure a year?*

“What a weird day.” is something I’ve probably said thousands of times since this time last year, and you have also probably said this or something similar an equal number of times. Perhaps more, who knows. Last week we marked the anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, and a lot of us marked that as the first last day – or the last first day – or something like that. For me and for my coworkers, our pandemic anniversary (I refuse to say pandemicversary) comes this week, and so like a lot of people, we did a little reflecting.

On Friday (this year) we had our weekly meeting and our director talked about how much we’ve done for the past nearly-a-year; how quickly we pivoted (a word we all heard a LOT) to online teaching and information desk help and everything else we do as the health sciences library in a research university. And indeed, we were able to quickly move our services online, almost seamlessly last March, without even missing a beat.

We talked, in this meeting, about the Friday before shutdown, when we learned that schools would be closed for an extra long March Break. On Monday we all came back and put up signs saying the circulating collection was closed, no more borrowing until further notice. We had fewer students in the library than usual, and those who were there were asked to email library staff if they had questions, we’d help them that way. No one wanted any help, and we mostly stood around – far too closely, in retrospect! – and chatted; we compared stories of what we’d heard, we talked about the risks, things like public transit and how are we going to deal with the books that come back? Procedures were put in place and by the afternoon, our library director told us to prepare for closing. That preparation came in the form of a half-day teach-in the next day where we learned Zoom, we had the phones forwarded from voice to email so students and faculty who preferred to phone could still reach us. We exchanged cell phone numbers so we could text each other. We created a LibGuide (because of course we did!) for library staff that had all the information we needed to log into our desktops remotely, to access the library system and the catalogue, and a lot more.

March 17 was our final day in the library, and then we were closed “for a few weeks” or so we all thought. Although we weren’t closed at all, really. Not service-wise anyway. And that’s kind of my point.

This story isn’t really unique, nor is it probably even interesting, by now. We’ve all – across the board – got similar stories of the “now you see us now you don’t but don’t worry we’re still online” at our jobs or our schools. We closed, we pivoted, (sorry) we did it all and then some online without even missing a beat.

And now that a year has gone by I often think, “But what if we had missed a beat?”

I know why we didn’t, of course. We’re a service-driven organization. We had students who were, at that point last year, finishing up assignments and theses, preparing for exams. They needed us. But what if they, too, could have missed a beat?

What if – and hear me out – we had ALL taken an extended March Break? What if we’d actually pulled the plug for a bit, just taken some time to breathe? Could we have avoided some of the burnout?

I guess when you think you’re only closing for a few weeks, a couple of months at best, there doesn’t seem to be any point. But once we were four then six then ten then twelve months into this year of pandemic, the pressure to keep on keeping on was immense. We’ve been doing it all along, haven’t we? And look, everything is going really well! But, as they say in the movies, at what cost?

I’ve been in meetings where there is so much “business as usual” that I’ve cried, muted, with camera off, because I wanted to scream, “I was just at the grocery store and the shelves were empty and no one was wearing a mask!” but instead I said “Yup, I can do that! Let me have my thoughts to you by the end of the day! Ok sure, no problem, I’m on it!” Because that is just what you do.

And I don’t mean that my employer didn’t give a shit, I mean that I think perhaps early on we should have normalized the feelings of despair, of helplessness. Normalized saying “You know what, that experience on the bus was scary and I can’t really give you those notes by the end of the day, is tomorrow ok with you?” Or whatever. There was so much business as usual, and a year in, has it mattered?

The pressure to appear just as normal has taken its toll. I find myself reminding people in meetings that “We are still in a pandemic, so maybe don’t knock yourself out?” And sometimes people laugh at that but I also remind them that I’m serious. Or, maybe I’m the only one crying off camera, stressing about the rising numbers, worrying about my son who has to go into work every day, feeling the pressure of a year of living the way we’ve had to be living. But I doubt it.

We spend a LOT of time bucking up, keeping on, soldiering on and not talking about it. And maybe if we’d had some more time at the outset to take stock, to breathe, to make a plan, to feel the feelings and share them, and to take a short break before we launched directly into this new normal (again, I’m sorry) it might have set the tone for the future. But again, we didn’t have the foresight to know that a year from then we’d be in the same situation, just now with less disinfecting groceries.

Looking back is a gift, and this gift is not lost on me. As is having a job, having a roof, having my family with me under that roof. Things aren’t hard per se. But maybe that in and of itself makes it hard. How can I complain when I have all that I have? So many people are much, much worse off, so it’s not right that I’m complaining. It’s not right that I’m stressed when I’m as fortunate as I am. Tell it to your therapist, you might be thinking, and please know that I am.

We congratulated ourselves at last week’s meeting: look at all we’ve accomplished, look what we were able to do with little to no extra budget, little or no extra time. And it’s impressive for sure. But I am so tired. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

One year of pandemic living has taken its toll indeed, and should I still be working at the outset of the next pandemic, you better believe I’m calling for things to be done a little differently.

*Apologies to anyone who thought there were going to be RENT references galore in this post. I only realized after I’d created the title what I’d done. (Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, actually, if you’re curious.)

A Week for Cold Earth: Book #4 of 2021

I finished Cold Earth at lunchtime yesterday, a day where the sun was shining through my living room windows, warming my hair, and causing me to shed my ever-present (since the pandemic started, really) hoodie. And yet, I shivered as I read the final pages. It’s just that sort of book, and really the best sort of book to read when it’s not yet spring but no longer quite winter; that limbo season we are known for in this part of the province, this part of the country.

It’s a book that is about 10 years old, but it’s been on my to-read list since I recently saw it on this Book Riot list, 10 Books That Take Place in a Desolate Landscape because if that just isn’t my jam, I don’t know what is! And yes it’s a book about a pandemic (I’m back on that bullshit, because of course I am) but in all fairness in Cold Earth the virus is much more peripheral than in books like Station Eleven or Severance, both of which I highly recommend if you are, like me, fascinated by plague fiction. And desolate landscapes.

Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of a team of six archaeologists on a dig in western Greenland, there for a few weeks in summer to excavate a medieval Norse settlement. The story evolves through journal entries and letters home, and we hear from each character in turn, beginning with Nina. Nina is a somewhat reluctant participant in the project, the only non-archaeologist, and shortly after arrival she begins having dreams. Dreams that are filled with violence and destruction, dreams that stay with her in the morning light. She begins to hear footsteps and voices, someone or several someones moving about in the night, taking her boots, messing with their dig site, and she becomes more and more convinced – and terrified – that something is present there. The others, with a job to do, are somewhat sympathetic at first, but mostly not interested in her ramblings, and see her as a threat to the project.

In the backs of all their minds as they work are thoughts of the virus that is moving through the rest of the world. Not, as of yet, rapidly enough to shut down travel (obviously, they made it to Greenland) but it’s enough of a worry for most of the team to want to check in regularly with family and friends via email. Eventually the websites stop responding and the team begins to wonder if they’ve lost contact not due to an equipment or internet problem, but what could ultimately be an end of civilization as they know it problem, and of course, what does that mean for the plane that is to bring them home again?

Part ghost story, part love letter to a world and worlds past, this is the kind of book that gets deep into your bones. Unintended archaeological puns aside, it’s the kind of book where you too can experience the weather, the freezing cold, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you are confronted with the utter darkness of a Greenland night, exposed tents with only the rocks and the water, a few sheep, and the subject of Nina’s horrifying dreams. Moss does an incredible job of conjuring ghosts – real or imagined – with an urgency that transports you. Stylistically, too, the book feels urgent. Each section is told from one of team member’s point of view, and while we hear first from Nina, then Ruth, then Jim, by the time we are hearing from Ben, Catriona, and Yianni, their sections are short, tense, and filled with the imagery and language of survival.

I loved this book. I loved its themes of love and loss, unspoken grief and unresolved pain. And I loved its look at worlds that can change seemingly in an instant, juxtaposed with what remains in the earth forever. Forever, or at least until scientists dig it out and remove it for further study. Human lives have always been fleeting yet they leave indelible marks on those who are left, and I adore how Sarah Moss teases out those paradoxes throughout the book.

If you’re curious about Cold Earth – and I hope you are now! – I also read Ghost Wall by the same author which is also brilliant and evocative and creepy and perfect. And highly recommended.

Cake, on occasion

On Tuesday I posted the following on Instagram:

Nothing says “We are so happy you survived a pickup truck hitting you and sending you to hospital one year ago today” like a chocolate cake from Weil’s Bakery!

The post got several likes and comments and one dear friend, confused, mentioned in her comment that she hadn’t heard this before! What happened??

Rather than tell the tale on the post, I decided to text her to fill her in. I told her the story of how Max was walking our dog and when he was (legally! with the lights!) in the intersection, a driver in a large pickup truck hit him not once but twice, knocking him down and sending him to hospital with slight bleeding in his brain which freaked us all out, given what he’d been through 18 months before.

I concluded with “So, we have cake to celebrate being alive.”

I can’t remember when we started marking random occasions with cake, but it was definitely before Max’s hospital ordeal of late 2018. We have birthdays in pretty quick succession in our house – December, January, February – then no birthdays until July, and then nothing, again, until December. Now, I know cake isn’t only for birthdays, but those are truly the traditional “occasion” cake days that we mark in our household, anyway. And so after John’s birthday one February, I declared the new tradition of “a cake a month for whatever reason” which was wholeheartedly embraced by everyone.

And it needs to be said that these cake occasions had to be what I call “occasion cakes” the kind you order from a bakery or pick up at the grocery store. These cake occasions did not include things like banana bread or other types of loaf or pan cakes. No, these needed to be, for want of a better term, birthday cake cakes. Chocolate or vanilla or marble. One or two layers. Heavily iced, preferably with flowers or balloons and such. I don’t know why this is, but those were my deeply arbitrary rules for this new tradition I totally made up. We did mostly grocery store cakes for our occasions which had more to do with me not planning ahead than any great love for grocery store cakes (although who among us can resist a good old-fashioned sheet cake?!) and having to quickly stop by the grocery store on my way home from work to ensure the needs for our tradition were met.

So, that year we had St. Patrick’s Day cake, Easter cake, then cake for Mother’s Day, for Father’s Day, then for a birthday! Then came Civic Holiday, then Labour Day…you get the idea. Sometimes our cake eating fell on the appropriate days, sometimes it did not; sometimes there were random “holidays” like International Turtle Day or something that may or may not have been legit, but it didn’t matter. Because CAKE.

Our tradition stopped when Max went into hospital, but it resumed in full force when he was released, once he started to get his appetite back. Only now, the occasions were a little different. We celebrated “No more IV antibiotics!” and “The PICC line is out!” and “Physiotherapy graduation!” and all those milestones that were so important in his healing. And sometimes there were even two cakes in a month because there were, and are, no rules.

So, on March 2, one year after the accident, we celebrated once again, with cake.

Sometimes cake is all you need

Given the year we’ve been through, it’s surprising that I haven’t continued the cake a month tradition, but it’s never too late to start up again. After all, Easter is only a few weeks away at the beginning of April. And maybe 2021 will see some new milestones requiring cake: “First outside friend hang of 2021!” or “Got your vaccine!” etc. Covid-19-related cake things should probably exist. We’ve all endured so much.

And so when I told my friend that we have cake to celebrate being alive, it felt like I was being funny, but there is just so, so much truth to it.

Maybe cake isn’t your thing, maybe your thing is popcorn or red wine or chicken wings or Skittles. But whatever it is, I hope you also celebrate being alive with it. Regularly, if you can. Because we need that. We need it now, but I honestly think we’ve always needed it. Now just seems more urgent.

Watercolour Wednesdays

Back at the end of December/beginning of January, I signed up for a 4-week Zoom watercolour class. It’s not something I’d ever tried before – except for provincially-sanctioned art classes from grades 1 through 8, of course – but the classes were being offered by a local artist I know, and I wanted to give it a shot.

I first met Nancy through a yoga class we both attended regularly and learned she was an artist because for a time, our yoga studio was also a sort of gallery, and I immediately admired Nancy’s work hanging on the studio walls. Her style tends to lean to the abstract which I love, and her use of colour is both soothing and exciting, and I’ve always regretted not purchasing one of her pieces back then.

I would see Nancy over the years at yoga, in the grocery store, dancing at 80s nights at the Casbah, the usual places I run into people in Hamilton. We started following each other on Instagram which is where I learned about her classes and signed up.

And oh friends, was it ever fun.

I assembled my supplies from my local art store and for four Wednesdays in February, I tuned in as Nancy led us through a variety of watercolour techniques and styles and we all followed along. There was no pressure to share our work, no grading or correction, it was just a group of people with visual artistic experiences ranging from pre-beginner (me!) to advanced (a woman who is an artist but in other mediums) and I had a blast.

In previous visual artistic pursuits (see above and provincially-sanctioned and required art classes) I was always afraid to start. If I didn’t have a vision of what the final finished product would look like, I would hesitate, lest I start something in the wrong way and then not be able to make it look like what I wanted it to look like, what it looked like in my head. And so, I spent many an art class carefully sketching drafts, carefully searching for and gathering just the right colours, the right tools for the job; cutting out all the pieces of construction paper that would eventually be the finished product BEFORE I started gluing, in case I glued incorrectly, which would of course mean that the entire project was GARBAGE.

And yes, if you’re curious, it IS exhausting being me.

I was always envious of my classmates would would start slapping down paint, who would start GLUING or drawing with no idea what the picture or the collage or the painting was going to be ahead of time. Renegades! It was thrilling to behold, and yet I spent those same classes getting organized to the point of not actually being able to start and ultimately having nothing to show for anything. It was the same in shop class, but that’s a whole other middle school memories blog post, honestly.

Now, if writing has taught me anything it’s that some words on the page are better than no words on the page and if they’re garbage words, or garbage idea, that’s ok because you can make garbage words and garbage ideas into really nice and good words and ideas later, once you review and edit. And guess what? You can do the same thing with art.

Some of the things I worked on in watercolour class

So, in my watercolour Wednesday evenings, rather than sit there wishing I could make something beautiful, I actually did it. I applied the same guidelines to painting that I do to writing: get it down, fix it later. And it worked. In some ways. The difference is that once the paint is on the paper, it’s a challenge to remove it, but this time I was able to go with the flow, to let the paint show me where to go next, and it was really lovely to relinquish control and just see what happens. ‘Go with the flow’ and ‘see what happens’ are not, and have never been, phrases that I utter in relation to anything in my life, but something about these Wednesday nights just allowed me a level of freedom that I think I’d really been needing. And I have Nancy to thank.

Do I think painting will replace writing as my creative and artistic outlet? No. But, I do think painting will be something I come back to frequently, perhaps working on a small watercolour when I’m feeling blocked in other ways, and letting the paint guide me toward an opening, letting it act like a passageway to further creativity.

See? I’m learning.

If you’re interested in art classes, or you just want to see some lovely art check out Nancy’s website. You can also follow her on Instagram: @nancybenoy

Blue Skies Ahead? Yes, Please

In December I bought myself the gift of the Headspace app. If you don’t know Headspace, allow me to fill you in a little bit. It’s a meditation app for your phone or computer allowing you to have a pocket full of meditations of all shapes and sizes that you can do wherever you want.

I had used Headspace before, 4 years ago or so, when things were stressful in my life and I decided I really needed to do something other than pace and stew. And then things got a little easier – although it’s still life, so stress never does actually go away – but I found I was using it less and less, so I stopped the subscription. Then, of course, 2020 happened, and while at the beginning of the shutdown/lockdown/quarantine I didn’t have the patience to sit and be mindful, (you know it’s chaotic when!) there were news reports to read and toilet paper to hunt down, after all. But as we all got into the swing of the slowed down pace (for those of us lucky enough to have been able to maintain our jobs and homelives, of course) I found myself once again needing some brain relief.

Headspace is one of many meditation and mindfulness apps out there. When I first decided to give it a try, I tested a couple, signing up for their trial periods. Now, there are quite a few to choose from (stress is big right now, go figure!) but Headspace was the one that clicked for me, the one I stuck with, and the one I’m using daily now.

The theme of the current series of meditations I’ve been doing is Appreciation and throughout, the instructor reminds you to, at the end of the day, write down three things you appreciate/are grateful for. The first time he suggested this, my mind went straight to a blog I used to follow in the mid-2000s, Three Beautiful Things. I was pretty sure the blog had ended a few years ago, but when I looked it up, I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the writer had started back up again in 2020 as a way of coping and finding light in the bleakness of the current world. I suppose it’s a bit weird and somewhat selfish to think “Yay, you’re blogging again because life is shit!” but reading Clare’s blog was a true comfort and rediscovering it has felt a bit like reconnecting with an old friend.

For a time I used the 3BT as prompts in my journal, trying to notice the little things that make life so bright and it was honestly one of the best things I could have done. I didn’t publish them like Clare does, but they were daily sparks for me when things were hard. Sometimes my three things came first thing in the morning on my bus ride to work, for example. I would notice kindnesses that had I not been looking for them might have escaped me, and I would arrive to work feeling grateful for 3BT, for everything, really.

If I were to look back at old journals, my three things of beauty entries ended, as did all my journal entries sadly, when Max entered hospital in November 2018. There was no joy, no beauty to be found at that time, there was only darkness and worry, stress and tears. And yet, if I’d been thinking straight (which I rarely was) there were actually SO MANY moments of beauty that could have been found in that pain. So many wonderful people at the heart of his care, so many friends and strangers who provided love and support, so many things that I saw and experienced that just never made it to my journal.

When you get started with Headspace they talk about the Blue Sky, that clarity of mind that is always with you, even if you can’t see it. Thoughts and feelings can act like clouds. Some clouds are ok, a few little ones flitting around are fine, but too many of them build up to create an all-consuming storm and it’s at that point when you start to wonder if you’ll ever see that blue sky again. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s a really great image. And if you’re struggling with a storm of your own, writing down three things that you’re grateful for, that you appreciate or even three beautiful things, three lovely things that you observe in a day, can be a really great way to help you find your way back to blue sky.

In the journaling workshops I’ve hosted in the past with Hamilton Public Library, some of the questions I get asked the most are variations of “What if I can’t think of anything to write?” or “What if I open my journal and there is nothing to say?” or “How do I write when I don’t know where to start?” And these are valid questions! For those participants my suggestion is always to start with three things: three feelings you have currently, the three items closest to you, three random words. If nothing else flows from there, you’ve at least listed three things on a page, and that’s better than a blank page. But three things – any three things – will usually lead to more. Three is the magic number, after all.

2021 is proving to be as much of a challenge as 2020, and if you’re struggling to find your blue sky, or even your three lovely things, you’re not alone. But remember, it’s there, it’s always there. When you push away the clouds, there it is. And when you are able to take notice of the little things, the beautiful ones will be revealed, too.

Wishing you blue skies and beautiful moments as we launch headfirst into this year, friends.