Baby, look at me and tell me what you see

On a whim, on Saturday afternoon, I pulled out a photo album my mum made years ago. She was a very organized person, and I remember when she decided to make a bunch of these themed photo albums. She sifted through boxes and boxes of photos to create them, and they are honestly pretty great. We have one called Pets, another called Cottage…you get the idea. The boys love them, have always loved going through them, turning the pages to reveal the dogs and cats of my childhood (there were so many) and the photos of parties and events at the cottage (ALSO so many) and asking questions about who the people are, what was that dog like, you had how many cats at one time??? (that answer would be five.)

I am not really a photo album kind of person, but decided to pull out the one labelled Dance and take a look at it because I couldn’t remember the last time I had. In fact I may have never looked at it, although some of the photos felt very familiar so I had either seen the album before or I had seen the photos at one time in their natural habitat: a large suitcase under my parents’ bed.

I started taking dance lessons in 1975 at the age of eight and continued until around 1992 when I was 25. I loved it and I was good at it and as I advanced the teachers challenged me with complex steps and routines and accelerated me within the school. By the time I was 12 I was an assistant teacher and at 14 I started teaching my own classes to the littlest kids with prescribed choreography. Then I was allowed to develop my own choreography which I started teaching to the bigger kids, and then, finally, to the adults. I loved everything about it, and looking at the photos brought back so many amazing memories. And so, I decided to share some of these photos with the internet.

Dorothy Hammill was the inspiration for this haircut, I’m pretty sure.

The response was overwhelming, honestly. People left the loveliest comments about how cute I was, how great the photos were, how they evoked a real time and place (the Dorothy Hammill-esque ‘short and sassy’ hairdo got a LOT of love) and it was fun to see how much people were enjoying these snaps from the past, from a life that not a lot of people know about (I usually don’t drop the “Oh yes, that time I was a tap dancer…” in polite conversation, you know?)

And for me it was interesting to look back on myself, to that body that I have always felt was so incredibly flawed and realize that it was, in fact, just fine. And yet, even the tiniest iteration of myself on those pages—eight year old me, ten year old me—already knew that she was a chubby kid, a chunky kid, the kind of kid who was destined to shop in the Misses Plus department at The Right House and Eaton’s. And she knew that back then not because she felt it, or understood anything about bodies in general, but because she was told those things. And so she shrunk, literally and figuratively. And she apologized. And she tried to make herself different, better.

And what a waste to think like that, to think that my body was too much or not enough. But now? Now it is so overwhelmingly wonderful to look at that girl and tell her,

“Look at you go, look how happy you are there. To be dancing. To be performing. To be onstage. I know how self-conscious you were in every other aspect of your life, but onstage, you owned it. You were confident, you were so good. People watched you and said you’re a natural. Teachers accelerated you because you picked it up – all of it – so quickly.”

And I’m getting there again, I can feel it. Trying so hard to eliminate the critical self-talk, treating myself, my body, the entirety of me with kindness, with respect, with the words I should have been using for more than 40 years.

How lovely it is to say to myself “You’ve done a good job, here” instead of picking the job apart, looking for its flaws.

How affirming to make a mistake and gently remind myself that I’m human, I’m not ‘an idiot’ for forgetting, that I don’t have to jump so quickly to anger with myself.

What a gift to find and wear clothes that make me feel good, that make me say to my reflection “You look so nice” instead of wishing away the parts of me that don’t seem to measure up to what others want to see, what others expect to see.

How wonderful to exclaim “I exist like this and I’m actually quite ok with it!” Such a simple sentence and yet for so long, so impossible to utter.

Yes, that is sequined ricrac on that leotard. Thank you 1978.

I spent a lot of years trying to fix myself, to make myself different, better. But when I entered my 50s I said I was done with that and nearly five years in, I’m getting there.

Do I wish I’d started earlier? Of course. But on Saturday I was so immensely happy to be able to look at those dance photos and smile. To reminisce without judgement, without cringing, without apologizing for how my thighs look, for my double chin. To see that girl and know she’s still inside me, dancing her heart out.

Give us a stage and stand back. Watch us soar.

Baby, remember my name.

As Luck Would Have It

I’ve been thinking a lot about luck lately.

Last Wednesday, in the midst of our cottage vacation, I had a fall. I was stepping off the deck, a deck I have stepped off multiple times in the past 40-something years, didn’t place my foot fully on the concrete step, causing it to slip off and causing me to soar twisting and windmilling in a—as we now know, futile—attempt to right myself.

I think I would have been ok—lucky, even—if I’d landed on the grass, but the final spin took me over to an exposed tree root that met my left elbow with surprising force. The wet-sounding “thunk” I felt more than heard. The pain was immediate and searing and I knew that I was in trouble. Unlucky, then.

When my brother and I were young and running around at the lake, climbing trees and launching ourselves into the water from large rocks, the common refrain from our parents was something to the effect of “If you break a leg, you’ll have to hop to Hagersville!” Hagersville being the closest hospital, of course. I was never sure why they wanted us to hop, and as I got older I took it to mean either, if you’re dumb enough to hurt yourself in a dumb way,well you’re on your own, or that cocktail hour with the neighbours was in full swing and none of the adults were in any shape to drive in case of emergencies.

Whatever the reasoning, neither my brother or I or any of the other kids to my knowledge needed the local ER. Lucky. We did a lot of dumb stuff.

As John buckled me into my seatbelt while I clutched my injured elbow in a death grip with my other hand, I was very glad to have a ride to the hospital. Lucky John was there. Lucky I wasn’t on my own. Lucky to not have to hop to Hagersville.

The ER was quiet at 7:30 on a Wednesday morning. Lucky for me I was seen and given a sling almost immediately. There were xrays and a diagnosis: your elbow is in a very wrong place, the doctor told me. Look, here is what it’s supposed to look like! Lucky it isn’t broken then. Just dislocated. Lucky me.

The doctor told me they would do a relocation and I prepared myself for the worst. Where would they send me? To Hamilton, I hoped.

Fixing a dislocated elbow is called a relocation, I learned.

The L is for left. Or, perhaps, lucky.

I waited and the nurse came back with an IV for me. When they relocate your elbow they give you drugs. So no bullet to bite, no length of dowling shoved in my mouth, that’s nice. I don’t think he was impressed by that.

The nurse asked me how are you doing? Ok, I said. You’ll be groggy but it’s done. What’s done? Your elbow. I missed it all, out like a light. Lucky for me.

Can you walk to another room? I think so. Drawers and drawers of splints and bandages and plaster of paris awaited. What’s happening here? I’m giving you a cast, the doctor said. I had hoped for just being wrapped up and taking it easy. Not lucky enough for that.

When I tell the story now I always talk about how lucky I was. How it could have been so much worse. How lucky to have only dislocated it! It’s not broken, right? Whew, so lucky!

And I am and it is, but why the need to explain away a pretty serious injury? Why minimize the trauma just because, well shit it could have been worse?

I have some thoughts and most of them have to do with not wanting to complain. And, if you explain to people “Oh it’s just dislocated haha nothing to worry about!” there’s no room for less-generous people to tell you you’re overreacting.

The truth is that the pain from this injury was the worst pain I have ever experienced. It’s my dominant arm, too, so rarely have I felt more helpless. I can’t drive. Can’t walk the dog. Can’t write or type. (This draft is in a phone note and it’s taking me forever) Can barely shower unassisted. Getting dressed is a challenge so sometimes I just don’t bother. It’s so frustrating and yet there is that voice that continues to remind me how lucky I am, that it’s a temporary situation, remember; that I should be so grateful.

Decades of putting myself in others’ shoes and looking on the bright side and being thankful, so very thankful for everything I have, means that wallowing in self-pity or even just acknowledging that hey, this is really awful right now feels impossible.

And I know that this is, as they say, a “me thing” but I also suspect I’m not alone in these feelings of guilt for wanting to wallow, to complain, to be sad. Even just for a little while.

A lot of us come from long lines of people who regularly thanked their lucky stars, who didn’t want to be seen as a complainers, to whom “grin and bear it” was a constant mantra. And please trust me when I say I do want to be one of those people! I always want to be the person who thinks of others before themselves! It’s who I am and I am very, very good at it! I just wish there was some sort of middle ground. For me. For all of us.

On Friday I will see a specialist who will determine the next steps for my elbow. With luck, it’s healing well under its cast. Perhaps the cast can even come off.

There are other scenarios, of course: potential for surgery if fractures are found; maybe it’s not healing well and more casting is required. I try not to think about those.

Whatever happens I will bear it, of course. And, with a little bit of luck I may learn to grin only part of the time.

Wish me luck.

Trust in the Process, 1000 Words at a Time

From May 31 to June 13 I took part in 1000 Words of Summer. This is a two-week period where you (voluntarily) add 1000 words to a project – a current project, something brand new, or even a couple of projects – daily. The goal is, of course, to add a significant number of words (ideally 14,000 or so) in a fairly quick timeframe, giving you that impetus, that drive and that desire to keep going, to push through, to realize that hey, there really is something there, something tangible that can be built upon, that might even turn into a book, a screenplay, a whatever it is you’re writing.

It is, of course, the brainchild of author Jami Attenberg who had the idea for the 1000 words writing sprint four years ago. I can’t remember if I participated in the very first one, but I have done it a few times, and it’s always a fantastic exercise in perseverance. Attenberg is an extremely gracious host who sends daily newsletters to the participants’ collective inboxes to inspire us. Sometimes there is also advice penned by other authors, sometimes Attenberg herself is our cheerleader, but no matter who is doing the writing, I think I have saved every single one of them. These emails are meant to keep us focused, grounded, and believing in ourselves as we push through to write 1000 words every. single. day.

I love these two weeks every summer and look forward to them even if by about day nine I’m thinking oh my god whyyyyy. I love the community 1000 words brings to my writing. I love scrolling through the hashtag and celebrating milestones with people, reading about their triumphs, and of course commenting with support and cheerleading for those who are struggling to find the words, for those who have to cut more words than they write, for those who are just not sure they belong.

But the great thing is that each time I participate I learn something about myself and about my writing. My writing self has definitely evolved since I decide to try my hand at writing fiction and creative non-fiction a few years back, of course, but each 1000 Words session I learn a little bit more about who I am.

This year in things I learned doing 1000 Words, I learned that I am an early morning writer after all. I kind of hate myself for morphing into a morning person, as morning people have always been my nemeses. But, when I realized that I was setting my alarm a half hour or even an hour earlier to get up to write, I was secretly thrilled. Look at me go, isn’t this what real writers do? I mean, some, sure. Lots write late into the night and lots write in chunks throughout the day, there is no *real* way to write, all writing time is valid writing time. But there was something about being up not just early but before the sunrise early (which is VERY early in the late spring in this part of the world, just saying) that was beyond motivating for me and so I’m going with it.

And in these early morning sessions, the 1000 words just flowed out of me and onto the page. It might be a coincidence, or it might be *a thing*, but and I have a couple of theories as to why it seemed easier than ever this time.

When I pre-ordered Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours a couple of years ago, she included a cool postcard from New Orleans and this rad sticker of her dog, Sid. I put him on my notebook for inspiration.

The first is that I’m getting someplace with this project of mine. It feels real now and I’m figuring it out. I’m understanding my characters, learning about who they are and what they need, and having them do things that make sense for them now.

I’m also taking full advantage of all the writing workshops and author talks and readings and everything I’ve been to regarding writing, and I’m just… writing things down, putting words on the page. I’m no longer backspacing through entire sentences because they “just don’t look right.” I’m leaving shitty grammar and sentence structure in there for now and I’m writing small notes for myself like “you need to fix this” and “what the hell does this even mean???” so that when I go back to slash my way through, I can figure those things out.

And finally, I’m trusting myself to get this done. Trusting the process: the write, delete, write again, revise, write… Because it is a process and there is truly no other way to get it done. That old saying, something like “If you’re going through hell, keep going” really applies here. Getting the words on the page, trusting that eventually, after much hell (likely) but not the worst sort of hell (probably) something beautiful will be formed, that all those creative hours will lead to something good, eventually.

As always, I was sad to see the end of 1000 Words of Summer, but the motivation to continue on, to write more, to see this project through to the end, to set a stupidly early alarm and write stupidly early in the day, has remained. And that in itself is a beautiful thing.

Write Group, Right Time

A couple of months ago, a tweet from the author Bianca Marais came up in my Twitter timeline. In it, she was putting out a call to the writing community. The gist of it was that anyone looking to join to a writing group, they should email her with their name, writing genre, and location, and she would do her best to match them with other writers in their area. This seemed, to me, like an extremely generous thing to do – and also potentially quite time-consuming! In the end I think she had over 200 emails from writers looking for their community. Including me.

As you know, I attend a lot of book and author events, and one of the things that’s always struck me when authors are chatting about their work, their process, etc. is how many of them speak so eloquently and exuberantly about their writing groups. “But, writing is so solitary!” is what I always think when I hear that, and it definitely is. So where do these groups come from?

Much like I have never been part of a book club, I have also never been part of a writing group, and while I have wanted that to change for quite some time, I didn’t really know how to go about forming a writing group or finding a group of people who all like and trust each other enough to read their work.

A few years ago I took an intro creative writing course through a local college and it was great. It took a few weeks for the group to gel (as it typically does) but by the final few classes, a core group of students seemed keen to continue the discussion after the course ended. We established our first couple of meetings, get-togethers, whatever you want to call them, but we went in not really knowing what to expect, not laying any ground rules, not managing any expectations as to how things were going to happen. I am a person who likes structure and who also likes to know ahead of time what the plan is, and while I really liked the people in the group, I found the group itself kind of stressful.

The great thing about Bianca’s offer was that she also runs workshops on how to organize and participate successfully in a writing group, how to establish the guidelines needed, how to avoid some of the common pitfalls groups might encounter.

Writing groups, she tells us in the workshop, tend to mostly happen organically. It could be the people you bond with during your MFA or throughout a writing course, much like my creative writing class. Or you might be lucky enough to have a group of friends who write and who want feedback and encouragement and all the things you get in a writing group. And if you don’t, well that’s where Bianca’s generous offer comes in.

And so, a few days after I sent my email telling Bianca that I wanted her to magically find me some writing people, she came through in a very big way, and our group of five was formed.

Once she had assigned everyone to their groups she told us that the rest is up to us. We are the ones who need to establish our ground rules, our plan for making the group work. And with the help of her workshop (which THREE of us from our newly formed group attended and Bianca referred to us as “Type A Capricorns” which for me, anyway, totally tracks) we met via Zoom and got to work.

It’s a lovely group of people, and even one familiar face (hi Sarah!) and I felt so comfortable with everyone. I think we’re going to be a good fit.

She’s ready.

By the end of day this coming Monday, the members who are submitting their work for critiquing will have sent it to the rest of us, and the following Monday is our first official meeting, and I am really excited.

I’m excited to share my work, of course, even though I’m a little nervous about that, but I’m more excited to read the work of the others in the group. It feels like such a privilege to be granted the opportunity to read fresh work, to be among the first to see a writer’s early drafts. We are so used to seeing the finished products in the books, stories, articles, and essays – and blog posts – we read, it’s easy to forget that these things don’t emerge, fully formed and onto the page straight from the author’s brain. I mean, if only, right?

And writers know that there is so much editing and deleting and reworking and revising that goes into these projects, writers know that for a fact. I know that for a fact! Yet we forget, and when we read a perfectly crafted story that seems effortless in its execution, we forget that a whole lot of sweat, and probably some swearing, (maybe even tears although that could just be me) occurred, to ensure that this story seemed to float effortlessly to life.

I think this is what I’ve been needing, honestly. Likeminded people, writers who will hold me accountable, and I in turn will do the same for them. Writers who will push me to be better, to dig deeper if that is what is required, to ease off, if it’s more that. (with me it’s probably more that, but anyway.)

All I know is I can’t wait to get started.

Lilacs

When Charles was about a year and a half old, we started looking for another house. The house we were in was fine, in fact, we loved almost everything about it, and if it hadn’t been located on one of the busiest streets in the city of Hamilton, we might have stayed put. But the traffic was wild, and there was nary a glimmer of traffic calming or pedestrian safety ideas anywhere in the minds of the city council at the time, (or since, to be honest) and the street we lived on seemed designed to be a sort of pre- or post-highway in that as drivers sped toward or from Highway 403 as they moved along the street. Meaning that, depending on which direction they were headed they either ramped up to or maintained 400 series of highways speeds. Posted at 50km/h, like most of Hamilton’s streets, the average speed along that stretch of road was, in the mid-90s, 85km+. Is it any wonder the gardens at the front of the house were neglected? We were walking distance from the entrance to the 403, but it sometimes felt like we lived on the highway itself.

And while we wanted to get away from the busy street, we still did want to stay in the same area for all the reasons people like to live in the neighbourhoods they like to live in: proximity to schools, groceries, parks and greenspaces, and other amenities as they say. So, in the spring and early summer of 1999, we started our hunt.

I don’t want even want to let you know what our budget was or what our first house was listed for, it’s too sad. Let’s just say that in 1999, the only half-million and million dollar homes around here were homes that looked like you would think a half or million dollar home would look like. Not the 1.5 storey, 2 bedroom one bathroom kinds of deals you get around here now. In other words, housing prices MADE SOME DAMN SENSE.

Anyway, we made our list of things we wanted in a new house: Two bathrooms; an extra bedroom that wasn’t the size of a small closet; maybe a basement that was finished? These don’t seem like extremely luxurious expectations, but they were to us. We knew we would likely have another child within a year or two, so we wanted a little more space. And mostly we wanted off the super highway known as Aberdeen Avenue.

Our real estate agent printed out (I know!) lists of homes for us to consider. The listings had all the details, of course, and small black and white photos of the houses in question. Because we were still looking in the same neighbourhood we would bundle Charles into the stroller, and off we would go to check out the properties.

There was one house on the real estate printouts that we would walk by all the time. It was slightly out of our price range (again, you would weep if you knew what this price range was) but it was really lovely to look at. Not from an aesthetics point of view, mind you. Visually it was a bit of a clown house: brick painted bright red with white trim around the windows, a yellow screen door, that very 70s light green aluminum siding in parts. A bit of a train wreck, an assault on the senses if I’m being honest. But it was more the feeling I got when we waked by. It just felt like comfort, like happiness. I could picture Charles playing in the backyard, I could envision our family on the deck. The vibes, I guess you could say, were good. When our realtor guy asked us what houses we wanted to see, that house was always one he recommended. But we always hesitated, even when the price dropped and dropped again.

“It doesn’t have everything on our list,” I would say to John, to the realtor.

“Just take a look,” said the realtor.

And privately to John I would say, “I’m afraid to go through it. Because it doesn’t have everything we’re looking for and I’m afraid that if I do view it I will want us to buy it, I will want us to live there, no matter what.”

And, you have probably figured out, that is exactly what happened.

Eventually during our search, the house moved right into our budget (we later learned that it’s likely because it’s a corner lot, and who wants a corner lot with all that much more snow to shovel) and so I finally relented and off we went to see it.

The first steps through the door I remember thinking, “Well, I told you.” and then I went happily along paying little attention as the realtor pointed out features and things that might need to be fixed or changed. The house just felt happy. I can’t explain it, but there are happy houses and there are sad houses. We toured some houses where I would just shake my head at John and say “Sad” or “Cold” (not in temperature but in temperament) or in one case “Death.” Again, I can’t explain it, it’s just feelings I get, but John agreed that we didn’t want to live in sad, cold, or death houses, so he followed my lead. And this, this was a happy house. And while it might not have checked all the boxes on our house hunting wish list, it offered something else: it felt like home, already. This would be our new house, our forever home, all things going according to plan. And we went through it for the first time and then we all stood on the sidewalk to debrief and told our agent that we wanted to put in an offer.

It’s been a very good house to us, and it continues to be. We did have another child of course, Max was born in July of 2000, and it’s really the only family home either kid has known.

In the spring of 2001 I surveyed the state of the gardens and decided that what was missing to make the entire place complete was a lilac. Lilacs, to me, are home. The house I grew up in had two massive lilac trees, one light purple, one dark. The dark purple was old, my grandmother had planted it at some point after my grandparents moved to Hamilton from Winnipeg. The lighter one not quite as old, my mother planted that one after she and my dad bought the house from my grandparents who had moved to Nanticoke. By the time I was leaving home both trees were taller than our house with massive, fragrant blooms every spring.

She endures.

I didn’t plant a lilac at our first home because I knew we would likely be leaving, but here, I thought, here is where we will stay. Here is where we will raise our family, here is where we need a lilac tree.

So I planted one and it thrived, and it is now taller than anyone can reach and the boys don’t know this home without it, which is exactly perfect and exactly what I wanted.

If you believe Flora’s Lexicon (which I do!) the symbolism for lilac is “first emotions of love” and I think that’s fitting.

I think love can be a place just as easily as it can be a person. I think planting anything with intention – especially something that is likely to outlive you – can also be love, a promise to future generations, a gift from the past, a legacy in some sense. And for my grandmother who didn’t love Hamilton right away, who missed her Manitoba family, maybe planting the lilac was her way of putting down of roots (quite literally) and striving to make something beautiful in her new life.

My lilac is 20 years old this spring. It feels like a lifetime and in a lot of ways it is. But, compare that to the lilac my grandmother planted, closer to 75 years old, and the one my mother planted, nearly 60 by now, surely. I hope they’re still there, I hope that other families have marked the years based on the height of those trees, have cut bunches of blooms for their tables, to take to friends, teachers, neighbours.

A lot has changed in 20 years for our family and our world, and our lilac has been there for all of it, a beloved constant each springtime no matter how harsh the winter. A metaphor if ever I heard one.

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.