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.

Book #1 for 2021: Migrations

I chose Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy as my first read of 2021 not for any real profound reason other that it’s a library book and library books need to go, eventually, back to the library. I checked it out before Hamilton went into lockdown then forgot about it over the Christmas break due mostly to the fact that a stomach bug knocked me out for nearly 72 hours and I didn’t have the energy to do much of anything except stare into the middle distance feeling sorry (so very sorry!) for myself. Eventually I came around, got my act together, and started reading again on New Year’s Day.

And while I didn’t plan out the book that would usher in a new year of reading for me, it turns out that I could not have chosen a better one to set the tone for 2021.

“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”

In Migrations, the animals are mostly all gone. Climate change and humanity’s role in it has driven wildlife not just to the brink of extinction (where we are now) but has pushed it completely over the edge. There are no polar bears, seals, or wolves; no lions, giraffes, elephants. Think of an animal, now think of the thousands, the millions of others. All gone or nearly gone. It is staggering to imagine. This is the world Franny Stone inhabits.

A young woman with a troubled past, a troubled mind, and cursed with the inability to stay, Franny’s obsession with the Arctic tern, the bird with the longest migration of any in the world, forces her aboard a fishing vessel, one of the last of its kind, to follow the terns for what is likely their last migration.

I will always, always be drawn to books where bodies of water – especially large, northern bodies of water – are prominently featured as central locations, almost as central characters. For Franny, the sea is as much her home as any place else and McConaghy develops her sense of belonging to it in a kind of magical way. Franny meets two women surfers who are astounded at her ability to brave the freezing sea without a wetsuit. “Seal blood,” she tells them. Then, “Oh aye, you’ve the dark look of them, too,” one of the women tells her, evoking the mythical selkies, the seal people of Norse and Celtic mythology. And you get the feeling, then, that there truly is something otherworldly about Franny, something that explains her need to leave, to keep moving, to keep searching.

As Franny’s past is slowly revealed and as we learn her all-too-human story, McConaghy deftly blends the stark realities of this life, as well as the science surrounding the extinction of the world’s animals and ultimately the destruction of the earth, with lyrical, poetic, almost dreamlike prose. A continued blurring of the lines between fact and folklore, the mystical and the real, gives this novel an incredibly magical feel.

The characters in Migrations despair of the state of the world and of humanity’s role in it, but, when faced with the cataclysmic, catastrophic realities of extinction, of the irreversible change to the climate and destruction of the earth, McConaghy finds for them, for Franny especially, a sense of hope which leads finally, ultimately, to the desire to remain.

This book is a wonder, an absolute gift and I am so grateful for it.

Happy New Year indeed, dear friends.

Behold, I Bring You Tidings of…Something Something…

I feel like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard on the blog lately, what with all the big feelings and deep-rooted traumas. So in honour of the festive season which is upon us as of today, December 1, please sit back and enjoy this tale of how, once upon a time, my newly-formed family became not just any family but the family. I’m talking the big three, here. The Holy. Family.

John and I were married on December 30, 1995 at St. John the Evangelist Church on Locke Street here in Hamilton. You might know it as the “Rock on Locke” but while it didn’t yet have that hip moniker, it was still a pretty nice place. I didn’t grow up in a church, in any church, and as such I would have married John in a parking lot, but he did have a church background, and so partly for his parents and partly because a parking lot in December in Hamilton just isn’t feasible as a venue, we had a church wedding.

When we chose that date to get married, we didn’t expect that not quite two years later we would welcome Charles to the family on December 24, 1997. His due date was December 17 but as we know, babies don’t read calendars, and as the days dragged on (and oh they can drag so goddamn hard when you are 18.5 months pregnant) I feared I would be having a Christmas baby. Feared? Really? Yes, I did fear that at the time. I didn’t want to be in hospital over Christmas! I didn’t want my poor baby to share his birthday with Jesus (I am aware that December 24 is the arbitrary date for the birthdate of Jesus but you WOULD NEVER KNOW IT given…everything!) I didn’t want him to endure the “this is for your birthday AND Christmas” gift situation for his whole life, so I hoped that he would arrive well before Christmas or possibly just after. But mostly before. My god I was tired.

At the beginning of December 1997, a good family friend died after a long illness. I had known him and his family my whole life. He had a long career in the Anglican Church, culminating in being named (promoted to? ascended to? I don’t know the process) Archdeacon of the Diocese of Niagara many years before, so his funeral brought Anglican priests from miles around, including the one who married us two years before. When he saw me at the reception, great with child, (see where this is going?) he pointed at my belly and asked “When is that baby due?” I shrugged, and through a mouthful of church egg salad sandwich I said, “Few weeks, probably?” He explained that the epiphany pageant committee at the church always liked to have a real human baby to play Jesus, and could he tell them to give me a call?

So Charles came into the world December 24 and I did have to spend Christmas in hospital, but whatever, our baby was here and he was perfect and so a few days later we went home. And then, a few days after that, the epiphany pageant people called.

“We would love for you to bring Charles to be in the pageant!” and in my sleep-deprived state I said “Sure, why not?” and so on the appointed day we all bundled into the car and off we went to church.

The ladies all ooohed and aaahed at the tiny human and gave us instructions as to what he should wear, how the show would work, etc. and I remember thinking that this might be nice, actually. Sitting in the front row while Charles made his debut, ready to jump up in case he cried but also enjoying the show, the warmth of the candlelight, the traditional songs and carols. And then they started measuring me and John for costumes.

I remember we looked at each other and then John spoke up, “Wait, are we in the show? Doing what?” and the costume lady just laughed and laughed.

There was one rehearsal. It was all very surreal, but we had to walk up the aisle toward the altar carrying Charles while the choir was singing. After that we mostly we just had to stand around holding him, moving here and there depending on where we were the story. At one point I had to kneel at the altar and I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up, but I made it. And Charles, that absolutely perfect little human, slept through the entire thing. Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

A couple of weeks later we received a package in the mail. The pageant committee had taken some photos that they had included and there was also a really lovely letter telling us how impressed people were with our performance, how so many parishioners were moved to tears, how radiant we all were, the perfect embodiment of the holy family. Never mind that we were so, so sleep-deprived, that I was still healing from the emergency c-section I’d had; that John hadn’t shaved in days, that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered. But maybe that was the point. Maybe what they saw was a couple of 20-somethings with their first child, without a real clue what to expect, fumbling along, doing their best in front of everyone. Maybe we reminded some of them of their own early days as parents, or maybe they even thought of that family in the stable and how staggeringly tired and confused they would have been, too.

Over the years it’s become one of our favourite stories to tell and while it isn’t the best Christmas pageant ever (that title belongs to this incredible work of art that you should definitely read) it still has everything. A delightful baby! A hilarious mix-up! Two people completely out of their element but just kind of going with it! A happy ending! And, as much as it was a bizarre, exhausting experience, I’ve always remained happy we did it. They got their live action baby Jesus, and we got to make a lot of people happy. And we got some photos that are absolute GOLD. Everybody wins.

But, while the people of the church were delightful and friendly, and adored Charles, please know that we never EVER answered their calls about the Easter pageant.

Your Life Can Change in an Instant

Although the actual date of the ‘incident’ as we’ve come to call it in our family happened on November 16, 2018, it was a Friday night two years ago when it occurred, and so today I have spent a lot of time thinking about what used to be the unthinkable.

A day like any other is how they start the movies, just a normal day doing normal things until… And it was. And I will always marvel at how fucking normal a day it was until.

We went to work, to school. I met a friend downtown for dinner. I had the duck and we shared some wine. She had dessert because she always has the lemon tart (we go to the same restaurant every time because we are like that.) I hugged her as we left and walked a few blocks towards the theatre where I met John who was just parking the car and we carried on together. John had dropped Max off there a few hours before, his call time was 6:00 or 6:30. We showed our tickets and took our seats. We watched the first act, we had a glass of wine during intermission and watched the second act. It was a very good show and we enjoyed it. We waited for Max to see what his plans were. Sometimes he went out with friends from the show afterwards but this time he was ready to come home with us. His head hurt, he told me. A splitting headache. We left the theatre and he was holding his head. We’ll get you home, I told him. What did you eat today? Did you drink any water? You’re probably dehydrated. I’m dizzy, he said. And then he vomited. And then I can’t see, mum, I can’t see, what is happening to me. And on the sidewalk he collapsed and John ran to get the car, we need to get him to the hospital, but then no, not the car, we need to call 911.

I had never called 911 before. I tried to explain where we were, I don’t know the address, I told him, but you have to hurry. I gave an intersection. MacNab and Vine and please hurry. He asked a lot more questions and I was frustrated, then I heard the sirens. People stopped nearby, do you know him? they asked. He’s our son. I wanted to go in the ambulance but the paramedics said no, better to follow us, we’re going to St. Joe’s. We followed, John drove. I jumped out at a red light in the middle of James Street and ran into the hospital. There was no one to ask, where have they taken him. John parked the car and came back. The ER doc saw me, is this your son? Yes, how is he. A stupid question. He’s intubated now, we have the neuro team ready at the General, CT scan showed a bleeding in his brain. A stroke, I said. But no, not a stroke. Something like that but not that. You can see him for a minute, but the team is ready to go with him. And don’t give up hope, just yet. I wasn’t planning on it, honestly.

At the General Hospital, directed up to ICU to the surgical team. Papers to sign. Consents for contrast CT, blood products, more. Definitely a brain hemorrhage, surgery will take several hours, he will go back to ICU. Back to the waiting room. A foam cup of water pressed into my hand. Waiting. Practical to a fault, I make lists. Appointments to cancel. People to call. Work. The director of the play. The school. Charles. This can’t be where it ends, over and over. This can’t be where it ends. I don’t pray, that is not me. I ask my parents to pull some strings, wherever they are. If anyone can do it they can. I let the idea of a funeral suck me in occasionally but then I force it to go away. This can’t be where it ends.

At 7am the surgeon comes back to us. We have been there since 11:30 the night before and so has he. He is happy, confident. He is so kind. The surgery went well, we removed the faulty blood vessel. We won’t know the full extent of the damage to his brain for a couple of days. Can we see him. They are getting him settled in ICU, go home for a bit. Rest and come back later.

Saturday now. A plastic bag of his clothes, his wallet, his phone. Personal effects. Phone calls and no sleep, little food. When can we go back.

ICU day one. The nurse says he’s doing well, all things considered. Max, she says, you have visitors, do you know them. The breathing tube muffles his voice, makes it hard to talk but we hear it. My mum and dad. I squeeze his hand he squeezes back. Max, the nurse says, can you move your feet for me? He does. Wiggle your big toe. We love you, Max, you don’t have to talk. But he does, softly, around the tube, I love you too.

ICU day two. That breathing tube needs to come out, the nurse says, he doesn’t need it. Progress. Let me get the doctor. Extubation. Better, Max? Yes, better.

You need to know this story has a happy ending and many of you do. Max remained in hospital for another 30 days and endured more surgeries to clear out infection that had developed, but on December 19, 2018 he got to come home and after heavy duty antibiotics to clear his brain of all signs of infection and a few months of physiotherapy to work on strength and balance, he is the same kid he was. We are so very lucky.

I wish I could remember more, Max tells me and I laugh and say I wish I could forget. But I don’t, not really. I need to remember, even though it’s so hard. The details of that night are there and sometimes they creep up on me, startling me with their clarity, and I’m back on the sidewalk, in the ICU, in the surgical waiting room.

Your life can change in an instant, they say. And they are not wrong.

Future Promises

Like you, I was extremely relieved this past Saturday morning by the outcome of the US election and also possibly like you, I’ve been tense for so long that it’s truly become a challenge to untense. Everything from stiff and sore shoulders that remain up around my ears no matter what I do, to a jaw that seems permanently on the ‘extremely tense setting’ in spite of my best attempts at relaxing it, to the kind of sleep I’m getting – or not getting as the case may be. If you’re like that, I empathize. Everywhere we look there are reasons, so many reasons to be anxious.

But I was able to breathe that sigh of relief along with everyone else, even though I recognize that there is still an incredible amount of tension in the air, in our bodies, in our world. We are, after all, still in the middle of a global pandemic. And, if you live in Ontario, you’ll know that our government still doesn’t seem to be taking that as seriously as it should. Cases are rising daily with no end in sight. As I write this, there are over 1,500 new cases today and a new model for the pandemic to be released later this afternoon is said to show that by mid-December, daily new cases will rise to 2,000 or more. The ineptitude of our provincial government is staggering, it has to be said.

However, if you felt that relief on Saturday morning along with everyone else, you might have allowed yourself some joy (I hope you did!) to know that decency triumphed over evil. Or if not evil, exactly, at least decency triumphed over what had been a complete and utter disregard for everything decent. I mean I like using evil to describe that man, that administration, but that may not be your cup of tea. There is a lot to say and to read on this subject and I am not the person to do that, but what I do want to say is that feeling you have? That better things are possible? That sense of relief and those tears that you had been holding back for the past four years? Those things are real and they are valid. They reflect hope and a sense of optimism, a way of looking forward that is bright and beautiful.

On Sunday, the day after the election had finally been called, I went outside to put my garden to bed for the winter. I cut back dead flowers, trimmed the leaves of our beloved peony bush, pulled the long since wilted hosta leaves from their stalks and cut back the fall blooming aster too, on its last legs by now in the first week of November. I left the leaves that had fallen from our weeping mulberry because why rake and pick up leaves when you can leave them where they are and cover them with black mulch?

Before the mulch, I planted some bulbs. I usually shy away from bulbs because this city’s squirrels like to dig up and rearrange them, and so it always seems a waste of time unless you enjoy garden design by rodents. But this year I wanted to try. I wanted to see something that I planted grow from, quite literally, the ground up. Well, from below the ground, I guess.

I chose Tulipa ‘Vincent van Gogh’ an extremely goth, so ‘dark purple it’s almost black’ tulip whose petals are serrated, like a knife. So, goth AND metal. By contrast I also chose Narcissus ‘Acropolis’, a delicate white flower with hints of palest pink. I think they will make a lovely couple.

After planting, we spent the rest of the afternoon spreading the remaining mulch, carefully blanketing the plants, ensuring the most delicate ones received an extra layer for warmth and safety. For the already established plants along with the newly planted bulbs, tucking them in for the season until it is once again safe to grow and bloom brought a comfort that I wasn’t expecting. It is still so soothing to me to think of all my plants safely underground, sleeping their long sleep through the remainder of autumn, through winter, with the promise of spring on the horizon.

It’s that promise that gets us through, isn’t it? Whatever is happening in our lives, in our world, the promise of the future is what helps us remain hopeful, helps us make plans for better days. If we have that plan, that promise, we can thrive during the bleak times.

Planting spring bulbs in the fall has always been a way to plan for future beauty and this year it just seems so, so necessary to want to lay that groundwork for the hopeful season to come.

There are no guarantees, as we all know, but if we can hold on to the feelings from last Saturday, those feelings of relief, that sense that change and growth and better times are coming, finally, all that will help so much in the depths of winter.

My plants will make it through. We will too.

Remembering. Always.

In March 1973, my grandmother died. For awhile before she died, she lived with us, sleeping on a sofa in the rec room in our basement, and my brother and I used to go “visit” her there. My grandparents lived in Nanticoke, too far for Nanny to travel for all the appointments she needed, so she stayed with us. I remember sitting with her, reading the cards she’d received, looking at the little gifts her friends had sent; hard candies in a little round tin, rose-scented hand cream. I remember the feel of her quilted dressing gown, too, but not much else. After she’d been with us awhile, she went into the hospital, and we didn’t see her. Kids weren’t really welcome in hospitals back then, and I don’t think my mother liked the idea of us seeing her so sick. I was six, my brother five.

I have a vague recollection of the day she died: there was a phone call and then my parents were bringing my brother and I into the living room where we all sat together on the sofa and they hugged and hugged us. I don’t remember being sad. I suspect I was, but at six, nothing seems permanent, and Nanny had been gone for some time by that point.

When I was in my mid-twenties my Mum and I were talking about Nanny and she mentioned that the day after she died, she and my Dad took us to the carnival that came to the Centre Mall every March Break. I was shocked, how could you do that when Nanny had just died! What was wrong with Michael and me, that we still wanted to go to a carnival?! Because we had promised we would take you, because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant, she told me.

On October 19, 2003, my Mum and I left the hospital early in the morning and after I took her home and we made some initial arrangements, I drove home to tell John and the boys that my Dad had died. John met me at the door, the boys – Charles almost six, Max, three – were playing in the living room.

Tiny boys with the World’s
Best Grandpa

Charles knew something was up by the look on my face and he came right over to me. I sat down on the floor and told them I needed to tell them that Grandpa had died that morning and the rest of the conversation went something like this:

Charles: Grandpa died???

Me: Yes, honey.

Charles: Max! Bad news! Grandpa’s dead!

Max, looking up from whatever he was playing with: What? Grandpa’s dead? Oh no!

Me: …

Them: …

Charles: Can we watch Power Rangers?

Me: Of course, sweetie.

SCENE

The first time I told the boys that story, they were horrified for the same reasons I was horrified by the carnival story. We were monsters, they said. Not at all, I told them. Because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant.

For the boys and their Grandpa and for me and my Nanny, the grief came later, once we could better understand loss. We grieved (and we still do grieve) not just for the person we loved, but for the time we never had with them, for what was taken away from us, for the unfairness of it all.

I used to think that the ache would disappear, that the hurt would fade but seventeen years later I’ve learned that grief is a journey without a real destination. Sometimes the road ahead is calm and smooth and other times it’s a goddamned wild ride, but you’re always on it.

So today, in my melancholy state of reminiscing and remembering and grieving, I think of how much my Dad my dad has missed in seventeen years. I think of how utterly unfair that he died so young – 68, just 15 years older than I am now. I alternate between rage and sadness, which is how grief often is, but in the midst of this I also smile to think how much he would have laughed to hear Charles announcing Bad news! Grandpa’s dead! and immediately segueing into the Power Rangers. Because really, what else needed to be said?

Life goes on, indeed.

On Simplifying

When you come into our house you are likely to notice two things right away: the first is that there are WAY too many pairs of footwear for the mere three people who live there (especially now that no one is actually going anywhere) and the second (if you can draw your eyes upward away from the jumble of shoes and boots in the hallway) might just be the wooden sign that hangs over the entrance to the main part of our home. Painted black it reads, simply, Simplify. I spotted it in a stationery store in Westdale about twelve or so years ago and it really resonated. At the time, our kids were 8 and 11, and it seemed as though our lives were anything but simple. There were so many things to navigate with school, extra-curriculars, the boys’ social lives, our own lives and hobbies, our ageing parents and their health concerns, etc. etc. etc. If you have lived that sort of life or are living it now, you likely know just what I’m talking about. It’s often chaotic trying to juggle it all without things smashing to the ground around you and every day where all the balls manage to stay in the air is a successful one, worthy of high-fives for all involved and celebratory dessert.

And so this sign in all its simplistic splendour really spoke to me as something that was, if not completely attainable at the time, at least something to strive toward. Simplify, it said. OK! I said. Let’s give it a shot.

I didn’t buy it that day but it did turn up under the Christmas tree later in the year, a gift – more like a challenge, probably – from my mother, the queen of simplification, the woman who hated clutter, who disapproved of “stuff” for stuff’s sake; who had all the boxes in her attic labelled so when we eventually had to clear out the house to sell it after she died, we knew precisely what was in each box. It took us just 30 minutes to clear out the entire attic. Unreal.

The Simplify sign spoke to me less about clutter and stuff (although yes, that was definitely part of it) but I also looked to it for a reminder that life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we often make it. Some parts are complex by default, of course, but some can be controlled. Was I overcommitting myself? Double-booking myself? Burning the candle at both ends as a result? Absolutely I was. Was I spending time with and energy on toxic people? Unfortunately, yes to that as well. Did I stop doing any of those things once the whimsical wooden sign came into my life? Not entirely. But it did, daily, remind me that there are things I can control, things that that I could say no in order to make my world a little less complicated, and in time I would start to make some of those changes to do just that.

Just over 10 years ago when we were clearing out my mother’s extremely well-organized home, there were certain things I couldn’t get rid of. Ok, there were a lot of things I couldn’t get rid of. In cars and vans of family and friends we brought these things to our home and stored them in the attic. Chairs. Tables. Clothes. Photo albums and framed photos. To be clear, we did donate or give away a lot, but there were some items I couldn’t bear to see gone. And even as I was making my 97th trip to the attic with some knickknack or other I could hear my mother’s voice “Elizabeth, why on earth are you keeping this?!” but it’s what I had to do at the time. “I’ll sort it out eventually,” I said to her voice.

My cousin brought a chair in from her car and nodded up at the black wooden sign hanging over the doorway and laughed, “Funny how that says Simplify, and here we are with…all this. The opposite of simplify!” I ignored her and pointed, “That goes in the living room. Please.”

Ten years later much of the stuff I brought home has been used by us or rehomed or donated, but a lot still remains. In the other areas of simplification I have been much more successful, and I am quite proud of this. I do find my life less chaotic overall (global pandemic notwithstanding) and I’m no longer willing to do much too much. I call that ageing out of FOMO, the fear of missing out and embracing JOMO, the joy of missing out.

Just last week we began tackling (sometimes literally!) the things in the attic and while it is going to be a very long process to eliminate many years of overaccumulation of stuff, progress is definitely being made and I finally feel as though I can look up at that pretty little sign without guilt.

Simplify. Yes, I tell it. We are. We’re trying. We’re getting there.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

This is, in case you aren’t sure, the title of a book I recently read. It is not a command or anything like that. Just to be clear. 2020 is a wild ride and I suppose anything is possible so disclaimers such as these are…necessary, perhaps.

I started this book months ago – possibly pre-pandemic, if there ever was a pre-pandemic time, although I’m not convinced anymore. I do remember I had a physical copy of the book, from the library, and it wasn’t one of the five or six books that kept me company in the early days of lockdown, the books the HPL so graciously allowed us to hold onto until they were able to reopen, so it must have been before March that I had it from the library. 

(You know, it’s paragraphs like these that remind me that I am inching ever closer to fully turning into my mother…holy hell.)

ANYWAY. 

I started reading it way back then, but it just wasn’t the right time. You might recall that I recently wrote about the books that find you at the absolute right time, even when you’re not sure that particular book is what you actually wanted, because you thought you wanted to read something else entirely. But what about those books that you eagerly anticipate? When you wait patiently for them to appear as “ready for pickup” in your library holds, and you hurry home with them and then you are not nearly as enthralled with them as you’d thought you’d be? There has to be a German word for that kind of let down. 

The good news is that when this happens, you can always tell the book, “It’s not you, it’s me” and that will almost always be the case. Because I recently downloaded the ebook version of this same book and I loved it. So there you go.

This book by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, starts off as…well, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, it seems almost like a kind of pseudo-fairy tale (to my mind, anyway) and then morphs quickly into a sort of murder mystery/thriller (several dead bodies show up throughout the novel) with elements of screwball modern-Eastern Bloc comedy (complete with incompetent government officials and eccentric villagers.) But, there is also a healthy dose of environmentalism, of feminism and animal and elder rights within the novel, too. Oh, and there is also a great deal of astrology (astrology- and horoscope-loving friends, you will appreciate this) and lots of William Blake. Kind of the most perfect combination of everything, in my opinion.

It is also an extremely funny novel, and once again, it is the translator – that absolute GIFT of a human being – that allows us (me) who can read in only one and a half languages (like a lot of Ontario public school educated people my spoken French is awful, but I can kind of sort of read it?) to be able to fully embrace a novel originally written in Polish, right down to the sarcasm and the sadness and the humour. I remain constantly in awe of the art of translation and in this novel especially because I found this review in The Guardian from a couple of years ago and, well, this paragraph made my head swim:

“In Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, the prose is by turns witty and melancholy, and never slips out of that distinctive narrative voice. It also contains perhaps the most bravura translation performance I have ever seen, when Janina and her companion repeatedly attempt to translate a passage of Blake: several versions of a particular verse are rendered in English, which has been translated from the Polish, which in turn has been translated from English. It is difficult to imagine a more tricky task for a translator, or one undertaken with more skill.”

HONESTLY.

The translator is a magical unicorn wizard of words, you guys. Just mad, mad respect.

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko – please don’t call her Janina – is truly a force, and I loved the way bits of who she is – who she was – are revealed a little at a time with always surprising results. Surprising to the other characters and also, somewhat shamefully, to the reader. This shock and surprise is exactly what happens to older people and how they are treated by society, a society that takes them only at face value, as if they’ve always been old and hard of hearing, frail and possibly forgetful. As if they couldn’t possibly have had extraordinary or even interesting lives. As if they barely even exist anymore. It’s a hard look at a society unable or unwilling to reckon with aging and the aging process, something I imagine a lot of us also stubbornly refuse to face. In this book, though, Olga Tokarczuk has given us Duszejko, an old woman who is still learning and knows what’s going on. An old woman who has things to say, who refuses to be silenced and from whom we cannot look away. 

And thank goodness. More of this, please.

 

In Praise of Anne Lindsay

Last week some bananas in our house had turned brown – very brown – and I needed to do something with them. I am a pretty terrible banana buyer. I have such high hopes that I will Eat. A. Banana. Daily. but inevitably they become spotted then brown and I turn them into banana bread or muffins or something which is not an awful way to eat bananas, of course, but I still feel like I’ve let the bananas down. 

Anyway, I went looking for a recipe and rather than turning to the internet and one of the many recipes I have bookmarked, a recipe from the past flashed into my brain. Didn’t it have, like, bran? And maybe dried fruit that isn’t raisins? Yogurt too? Was this a healthy option muffin? Did I make these for the boys when they were little? Or maybe it even predates them? So many questions! And so I pulled out the oldest cookbook I own, and as I took it off the shelf, it practically fell open to the correct page: Banana-Apricot Bran Muffins. 

The cookbook is none other than Smart Cooking: Quick and Tasty Recipes for Healthy Living by Anne Lindsay and it was, for a time, like a bible to me.

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s your family too may have welcomed Anne Lindsay and her heart-smart counterpart Bonnie Stern into the kitchen via their incredibly popular cookbooks. Simply HeartSmart was Stern’s and it was published with the Heart & Stroke Foundation, and Smart Cooking: Quick and Tasty Recipes for Healthy Living by Lindsay was published in cooperation with the Canadian Cancer Society. If the 1970s was the decade of cheese logs, fondue, jellied salads, and fish moulds (I am not even joking, we had a copper one and you can also look up 70s Dinner Party on Twitter and Instagram if you didn’t have the intense pleasure of living through this era) then the mid-80s and into the 90s seemed to be an attempt to usher in an era of reckoning with the country’s collective cholesterol and glucose levels. 

These cookbooks were designed to promote each organization’s dietary guidelines, they raised funds, and they were developed in conjunction with dietitians and physicians from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart & Stroke Foundation. They also worked to gently move Canadians (white, working- and middle-class Canadians mostly, if we are being truly honest here) away from the high fat, meat-based diets that were so prevalent to a lot of us who grew up with white bread on the table, lots of butter, meat at every meal, etc. This is a gross generalization of course, you may not have eaten that way, but I certainly did. And so these books were a real departure from that. In fact, Smart Cooking, published in 1986, was the first cookbook I had ever seen with nutrition information right there in the recipe. Not extended nutrition information like we see today, but the basics at least, and it was a start.

If you look at these books now, decades later, they are hugely dated, they can’t not be that way, honestly, and some of the recipes and nearly all of the photos just scream 1986. But, having said that, much of it does hold up 30+ years later, and I’ll be always grateful to the cookbook that really started it all for me.

One of the very first recipes I ever tried from Smart Cooking was ‘Hummus (Chick-Pea Dip)’. Imagine not knowing what hummus is, it seems impossible! And even more incredible that it needs a parenthetical explanation as to what it is! But again, who are these books aimed at? Exactly. And in the mid-90s when I was really starting to get into cooking, there were most definitely not 18 types of hummus in the grocery store where I shopped. Hummus, in the Hamilton I knew, was something you got at La Luna. But, I made this hummus many times and the little pencil marking that reads ‘excellent!’ with a smiley face beside it proves it. The tahini stains do too.

I went on to make so many more. Fettuccine with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil, Triple-Cheese Lasagne, Tuscan White Kidney Bean and Tomato Casserole, Broccoli Frittata, Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread, Chick-Pea Salad with Red Onion and Tomato, most of the salad dressings and some of the desserts. And after I made the muffins that I wanted, I leafed through it further and it brought back so many happy memories which I guess is kind of the point of cookbooks, isn’t it? They can spark nostalgia for grandma’s shortbread or even some random church lady’s icebox cookies. But this was a special kind of “I’m a real grown-up now” nostalgia. It was the cookbook I pilfered from my parents’ house when I got married. That lasagna I mentioned? I made it for our first real dinner party. The banana-apricot muffins? I made those for the very first school bake sale when Charles was in JK. The fettuccine dish got a thumb up from my dad (honestly, the highest honour) and the hummus was a signature dish of mine for a long time, something I brought to potlucks and dinner parties with friends. There are so many recipes with moments like that, and it was really nice just to sit with the book and flip through to see the notes, the post-its and the stuck-together pages. The hallmarks of a well-used and well-loved cookbook. 

When I look at the recipes now they all seem so basic, so simple. Like why would I have ever needed a recipe to create a bean salad or a tomato sauce or a pasta dish or a vinaigrette? Don’t I just make things up as I go along? Don’t my children refer to me as the Queen of Throwing Shit Together to Make a Meal? Yes and yes. But that’s now. Back then, as a novice kitchen owner in the mid 1990s, I needed a guide and Anne Lindsay became my guide. Her recipes were the building blocks for my culinary life and when I got good at branching out, at substituting, and at knowing what works well together, I started to improvise. And going through the book last week I was amazed at how many things I learned, how many things I can chalk up to Smart Cooking and Anne Lindsay. If I have ever made you dinner you likely have her to thank (if you enjoyed it, that is. Please don’t blame poor Anne if I fucked something up really badly!)

I have branched out to newer, more modern cookbooks over the years, lest you think I am stuck in the past! Indian(ish) by Priya Krishna is a current favourite in our house right now (so many delicious recipes and fun family stories!) and I also adore my copy of Lidia’s Mastering Italian Cooking which isn’t fancy at all – no photos or stories, just delicious Italian recipes. Every so often I purge my cookbooks, too (I know! But sometimes a cookbook just isn’t very good!) but I don’t think I could ever give up Smart Cooking.

So thanks, Anne Lindsay. Thank you for a cookbook with recipes that were simple enough for me as a novice to blunder my way through but robust enough and with enough potential and staying power that they became the foundation on which I was able to base so much of my future cooking. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pass Smart Cooking along to the boys so they too can become masters of throwing shit together at mealtime. Anything is possible, I suppose. 

No doubt exactly what my mother also thought about me, more than 25 years ago. 

 

Holding Multiple Truths

My lovely friend created a really thoughtful instagram post yesterday in which she shared some of her conflicting feelings related to life, the world around us, and just kind of…everything that’s going on…and then asked her followers to share some of the ‘this and that’ kinds of feelings they are having and I need to tell you, friends, it was SUCH an enlightening experience. To see the number of responses from so many people who are currently holding a lot, who are feeling so very much. Love and rage. Hope and defeat. Energy and fatigue. Excitement and dread.

And of course, we are humans, we have complex feelings, we contain multitudes, we sure can have lots of feelings at one time! What I think doesn’t always happens is that we fully acknowledge the – and I hate to say negative feelings because all feelings are valid – but let’s say the less-socially-acceptable ones. So it was hugely refreshing to know that there are a lot of people just out there feeling their complicated, messy, and sometimes contradictory feelings – and that they were willing to share them.

And I do think this extremely complicated year has done a lot for many of us to throw down the gloves and just say “Ok, look. I’m scared and I’m mad and I’m gutted and I could cry and I could rage…and…and…and” because there has been a lifetime of things to feel all these ways about in the first half of 2020 and no doubt another lifetime of things will take us through to the end of the year and beyond.

When he was little, our younger son, like most kids, felt things so very deeply and he only ever seemed to have two states of being: it was either the best day EVER for Max, or it was the WORST DAY OF HIS LIFE. And yes, these phrases are verbatim, and he uttered them, it seemed, daily. (capitalization by me, on his tiny self’s behalf). A child of extremes, indeed, but it was important for us to let him explore those big feelings and wallow or revel in them as appropriate and then, ultimately, to work his way through them.

And of course as he got older, the big feels were mediated and the good things became “awesome” and the bad ones became “bummer” and the swing between the two narrowed a bit as he began to understand that life is going to life at you no matter what, and eventually you take the good, you take the bad (you take them both and there you have the facts of life…etc. etc.) and it takes maturity to be able to deal with this life.

And my friend’s instagram question to her followers reminded me of that journey to awareness and maturity that he went through. This ability to acknowledge that we hold multiple truths simultaneously, it’s learned through life experience and growing up, and time spent as a human being. There is power in that acknowledgement because I feel as though we aren’t always encouraged to talk about our emotional complexities. Society tells us to be positive, to have a ‘good attitude’, (I’m oversimplifying and generalizing of course) but I think we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t acknowledge what is actually happening inside our clever minds and our oh-so human hearts.

I answered the question with my two almost constant feelings currently, anxiety/apprehension and hopefulness. I am, by nature, an anxious person and a bit of a pessimist, but on my absolute best days I am also a hopeful person because yes, sometimes anxiety and pessimism can be tinged with hopefulness. That is my truth, and there was something really freeing about being able to express it like that.

And I will admit that on some days, the really tough days, my tendency is to channel my son at four or five years old and rage and rage because it is actually the absolute worst day ever. And then I find something else that I am feeling and hold onto that and you know what? I can feel them both, I’m human. And you’re human. So state your conflicting emotions, let me hear them.

Scared and enthusiastic. Melancholy and excited.  Overwhelmed and grateful. Brave and chickenshit…because we can have both. And because you know Alanis said it better in Hand In My Pocket, so maybe (definitely) go listen to her instead of me.