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.

 

Letting the Books Decide

On Monday I was looking for a book to read, and rather than glance at the stack of books beside me in the living room, or at the stack of books in my bedroom, I decided to wander to yet another room and peruse my to-read bookcase (yes, I have an entire bookcase dedicated to books I need to read, this is what happens when your tbr piles become treacherously tall) and the cover of one caught my eye. You might remember that I do, in fact, judge books by their covers, and this one just seemed so perfect for what I needed this week.

It turned out to be anything but, which is not a fault of this dazzling book, it is clearly a me problem, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The wind-down of summer always puts me in a nostalgic mood, remembering the excitement of gearing up for school when I was a student, and the excitement of gearing the boys up for school when they were students. Please note this was always my excitement, not theirs. How I managed to birth two humans that have zero interest in school supplies and new shoes I will never understand. But now? Now I don’t have either of those scenarios and I really miss them.

There is always a little bit of apprehension for the “new year” and all the promise that September holds. I still hold the Tuesday after Labour Day as the true start of the new year and I probably always will. Don’t, as they say, at me.

That apprehension is heightened this year, of course, due to the pandemic and the mishandling by the provincial government of schools reopening and pretty much everything else, and even though I am not having to make the same tough decisions other parents are, I do feel that collective anxiety, all those “what ifs” hanging in the air.

The summer days slide by sluggishly, the heat makes everything slow right down, routine is for the most part a distant memory. Corners are cut, plans are put off until it’s cooler (valid) or darker (also valid). Who wants to be productive in August, anyway? But come September, oh it’s on. So there is pressure, after all. Self-imposed pressure, of course, but isn’t that the most intense kind?

So when I browsed for a book to read, I was looking for something that would reflect that summertime slowness, a story that would reveal itself little by little, a story I could take my time with, relax with, perhaps mitigate some of that apprehension that looms as summer comes to a close.

Instead, Blue Field by Elise Levine caught me up and sliced me through with its stunning look at grief and anger, pain and loss. All while spinning me in every direction with prose sometimes stark and fractured and mean, and other times so perfectly and beautifully lyrical, making me lose all sense of balance and which way is up. And I am not even talking about the descriptions of the underwater cave and shipwreck diving.

I truly have no business reading books about diving, especially about dive adventures that might possibly go awry.

I don’t know that I am entirely claustrophobic, confined spaces do give me trouble, but it’s not all confined spaces. Elevators, for example, don’t bother me. I don’t love crowds, but I think that’s more of a getting old kind of thing – even pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic, I believe we will all be terrified of crowds.

But watching The Great Escape? The whole movie is about prisoners digging a tunnel and they spend time in the tunnel, because they are digging the tunnel. That stressed me out badly. Same with that episode of CSI where Nick gets buried alive. I watched it from the kitchen, peeking in only when John told me the scene had changed. Even descriptions of trenches in books about the First World War challenge me, so maybe it’s claustrophobia or maybe it’s just tight spaces where people don’t have control over their situation, where they are in danger or there is potential for disaster? Either way, cave diving and diving into and exploring ships hits all those stress buttons for me too.

I found myself holding my breath, skimming over these intense passages only to go back and read them again because they were so very good and necessary, but wow, so many parts were really difficult to get through. There were some sweaty palms, friends.

It’s funny how a book reveals itself to you when you least expect it, when you’re searching for a particular kind of read and something else, something nearly the exact opposite of what you think you want ends up being perfect.

Blue Field wasn’t the book I thought I needed to read in these last days of August, but it was the book I actually did need to read.

I have owned this book for four years and I know I have looked at it more than once before, picked it up, ran my hand along the cover, read the blurb on the back, and returned it to the shelf. “Hmmm, not now,” I would think.  So why now now? Why, when I was looking for something different something – and let’s be honesty here – easier, why did I decide on Blue Field. Well, why not, the reading goddesses might answer. Do the books know us better than we know ourselves? Not to get weirdly philosophical or supernatural or anything, but sometimes it seems they do.

And so? I read it. I devoured it in about a day and a half; the story, the writing, it’s all staying with me and I have returned to sections again and again just to feel the intensity of the language, the story. This was what I needed to pull me out of the writing/blogging drought I’d been floundering in. I needed that heightened sense of awareness as I read, I needed the adrenaline rush. Blue Field did that for me and then some.

Has a book ever thrust itself upon you like this? Did you accept your fate willingly? If so, I would love to hear about your experience!

 

 

 

The Halfway Point…And Beyond

About a month ago I started writing a blog post that began with the sentence “Approximately four months into lockdown, I have run out of things to say.”

It sat there for a month, in fact it sits there still, in my drafts folder, taunting me, proving that I have, in fact, run out of things to say.

And not just on my blog, but in general. Like I have lost the ability to be interesting, assuming I had been interesting in the past, and conversations are a kind of struggle like I have never before known.

I had a hair appointment last week for the first time since February, much like everyone else, and while I was thrilled to be back in the chair in my friend’s extremely safe and secure salon, the words didn’t flow like they used to and even trying to explain something simple (like what colour I wanted my hair to be???) became an exercise in frustration when I started to talk and realize that my mouth just could barely form words, and when it did, they were the wrong words.

A few weeks ago I revealed on Twitter that I wasn’t tweeting as much because I have become just so very boring. What is there, honestly, to talk about? If I can’t carry on a conversation with my hairstylist, who is also a very good friend of 20+ years, what hope is there for me in any other realm?

At the beginning of the year, back in January when we had no idea what was going to transpire in this new year of 2020, I, like so many of us, wrote some goals and plans for the year. It seems wild now that a year could have possibly unfolded without a major global pandemic, but oh, how young and optimistic we were!

Typically I check in with my goals at about the halfway point in the year, but in June I just couldn’t do it. I fully expected to be dismally disappointed in how I fared (I mean understandably so, but still) and so I put it off until this past weekend.

I won’t bore you with too many of my plans but suffice to say many of them were writing-related: write more, blog more, finish that second draft, etc. my intentions were good and then March arrived and a lot of my writing plans, like most of my plans altogether suffered.

Then there were the financial goals to be more mindful of what I purchase and a little ditty called “Don’t buy things you don’t need” and HOO BOY did the pandemic mess THAT one up. Come for me, Instagram targeted ads, yes I do need whatever you are selling! A romper? A jumpsuit? Obviously these are necessary during a pandemic when I can’t even leave the house! Eventually the packages stopped coming to the front door, but for a time it was so extreme.

But there were a couple that actually seemed spot-on and downright scary to think they came out of my brain prior to this whole…thing:

  1. More kindness
  2. Commit to less; stay home more

I mean come ON.

Full disclosure, I make the “more kindness” goal every year and it’s one goal I know for sure I improve upon as time goes on. And honestly, if there is something to be learned from living in 2020 so far, it’s that kindness and giving the benefit of the doubt – to yourself and to others – can go a very long way.* The kindness toward myself is still very much a work in progress, but it is progress, and this will come.

Commit to less and stay home more definitely came from over-committing myself in the past decade or so and realizing that I suffer from doing so. Not intense life-threatening suffering, but, and I know it’s cliche, I am not getting any younger and I really wanted 2020 to be the year I checked out of FOMO and started saying no just a little bit more. And look where that got me! Nothing to miss out on and nothing to say no to! I should be thrilled.

And this leads me to wonder what next year’s goals will look like for me. “Go out more” and “Be less boring” will probably top the list, but I think concepts like patience and gratitude, flexibility and resilience will also be right up there. 2020 has been a learning curve of a year so far, and there are still months and months left with new challenges every week. And, if the experts are to be trusted (jk OF COURSE THEY ARE TO BE TRUSTED) 2021 may not look much different, and so it will be all about strength and resilience and making the most of a new kind of world.

I’ve spent the last few months trying to wait it out, waiting to get back to if not normal at least something like it, something recognizable. And now I know – or at least I’m willing to admit – that it’s not happening and it’s up to me to live my life to find a way not just to exist but to thrive, to soar, and to actually find the words again.

So maybe I won’t wait until January to set some goals, make some priorities for the rest of the year. September is as good a fresh start as any, maybe better if you, like me, always saw the beginning of the school year as the new year anyway.

I think it’s time.

 

*This kindness does not extend to (most) politicians. Because fuck those guys.

A Review: Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout

It is not at all unusual for me to cry while reading a book. Or any time, really. It’s kind of who I am, a real crier. And when I am extremely invested in characters and the situations they find themselves in, becoming emotional (aka a hot mess) is not much of a stretch for me. What really does it though is when I think I have my act together and that I will be totally prepared for whatever outcomes the author has planned in kind of a cocky “I’ve got this, I see where this is going” kind of way, but then what happens is that I actually don’t know and I am completely surprised by a turn of events that is so sudden and so extreme and that’s where the big, big feelings come in. Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout was exactly this kind of book.

Dawn Woodward is a soprano, on voice rest after a sort of crash and burn performance in Tosca that made its way – because this is the 21st century after all – to YouTube and other social media platforms, and the worry is that it might have been a career-ending move. She spends her days reliving and rewatching what could potentially be her final performance, rarely leaving the house, sinking ever lower with each rewatch. The stress of this adds additional strain on her marriage, a strain further enhanced by the arrival of her husband Ashraf’s somewhat estranged brother Tariq, recently separated from his wife and beginning treatment for cancer. Ash has asked them – Tariq and his African grey parrot, Tulip – to move into their house while Tariq undergoes treatment.

As part of her contract, while she isn’t singing, Dawn is required to teach at a local community college. The course she has been given, much to her anger and frustration, is a course on whistling. Her students, are a hodgepodge of whistlers known as The Warblers, a group they tell her proudly, that has been in existence for decades prior to Dawn’s arrival, and she learns they are preparing for their Biennial, an every-other-year whistling competition. Their plan is to whistle operatic arias which will give them an edge over their competition. This is, of course, where Dawn comes in.

In true diva form, Dawn resents the appointment, feeling it beneath her, but when Tariq and Tulip join the class, both Tariq’s easygoing, friendly demeanour and the antics of his quirky bird quickly make an impression on The Warblers and as Dawn begins to warm to them, she also hesitantly begins to develop a deep and meaningful friendship with Tariq.

I really loved this book for its quiet grace, subtle humour and its quirky cast of characters who appear to be so very different on the surface, but who have more in common than they really would like to believe or admit. I also loved Dawn’s growth throughout, her aching for something that seems just out of reach, something that she can’t quite yet name, and I loved that a merry band of whistlers helps her determine what she needs and how to find the strength required to attain it. This really is the perfect touch.

There is so much to love about this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special mention to Tulip the parrot, a diva in her own right. It can be challenging to include animal characters in novels without resorting to tropes or cliches, but Berkhout has made Tulip, Tariq’s companion and sort of protector, an extremely important part of the story and a true delight.

Why Birds Sing is just so lovely. Nina Berkhout has written a gorgeous, multi-layered novel that illustrates the beauty that can be revealed when the collapsing of one life leads to the building of another. Especially once you understand what exactly it is that you’re living for.

My thanks to ECW Press for the ARC and for the opportunity to review this wonderful novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Me vs. Weeds

I have a love-hate relationship with my garden.

Mostly I love it. I adore it. About 8 years ago we decided to eliminate the front lawn in favour of a garden. It’s not an easy feat, honestly, to rid yourselves of that much grass but grass is just so…boring. And not exactly the best thing for the environment. Not that we ever put a lot of effort into our grass – John would cut it, that’s about it – and we certainly didn’t fertilize it, but in time it started to become an eyesore, so we layered newspaper on top of it and wet it down really well with water then added a layer of topsoil and finally a layer of mulch and ta-da! Instant garden. In reality, it was not at all instant, the process took the better part of a month to really get done, but still. No more grass.

Then came the task of filling it which is probably my favourite part. I chose purple coneflowers, shasta daisies, poppies, a bleeding heart bush, hostas, a gorgeous peony a neighbour gave me that I nursed back to health. The grass would occasionally poke through but it is fairly easy to spot and as long as you get to it right away it can be eliminated on a pretty regular basis.

Eventually, we added cosmos, which are delightful and bees and finches and butterflies love them and they are easy to grow and they spread everywhere (you’re welcome, neighbours!) and overall my garden was off to a great start. Until The Vine showed up.

Be the dandelion you wish to see in the concrete.

The Vine (I could look up what it’s actually called but I don’t want to give it a name) is the part of the garden that I hate. This vine is the bane of my existence and no I’m not being dramatic. It parks itself as close as possible to the plants I actually want and if you don’t eradicate it immediately, it creeps and climbs and wraps itself around these plants, virtually choking them to death. It’s vicious and brutal and last year I had to pull out the massive lavender plant that was so beautiful and provided me with so many lovely blooms for arrangements and for drying and it was heartbreaking. So now? Oh it’s personal, vine.

And here is the thing about weeds: they don’t know they’re weeds. Well, technically they don’t know anything, they’re plants, but you know what I mean. They’re struggling to survive just like my precious peony and my poppies are, and, if truth be known, they’re actually doing a way better job of it.

A couple of years ago we arrived home from our cottage where we had spent a particularly rainy vacation week to find that this vine had engulfed the entire garden and I was horrified to think of the work ahead of me. And so I put on my gardening clothes and got to it, but I noticed something I’d never seen before – flowers. It’s a flowering vine, the blossoms like tiny morning glories, pale pink and white and absolutely charming. And yet, I was ruthless in their removal. They aren’t supposed to be there.

This year might be the worst year for it ever (I mean this is pretty much the worst year for everything else, why not weed vines?!?)  and past me would have wept, seeing half my garden covered in it and knowing that I will be spending my lunch hour and every lunch hour for the rest of the damn summer unwrapping its horrid tentacles from my beautiful plants and cursing while stabbing my Garden Claw into it to twist its evil roots into oblivion. (my gardening aesthetic is violence, as you can tell.)

But current me? Current me feels a little more sympathy this year, honestly. Current me will still attempt an eradication because I still do love my peony and my hostas and everything else, and I would hate to seem them choked by anything, really. But I also, when I dig it up, might find a spot to plant it. A place where it can thrive and spread, but where it won’t kill the other plants. A spot for it to creep and climb and grow to its heart’s content.

I am not great at metaphors, but I think living through 2020 is turning out to be much like that vine. Reach out and make contact and connections, but stay in one place. Grow and thrive in spite of a global pandemic. Bloom and flourish despite governmental incompetence, finger-pointing, and blame-laying. And, most importantly, try your absolute hardest to choke the living shit out of the status quo, out of police-sanctioned murder of BIPOC, and the entire complicit system.

And now that I have come to terms with this plucky little adversary, I did look up its name and it is known simply as Morning Glory Vine.

Be like the vine, friends. Spread out. Take up space. Make big changes in the landscape around you. Don’t back down. And even if someone twists your roots out of the ground, keep holding on as hard as you can. Then pop up somewhere else stronger and more resilient, and start all over again.

 

 

On notice

I’m a noticer. I notice things. I suppose this isn’t all that unusual, lots of people “notice things” of course, this is kind of how humans work. But if you and I work together and one day you come into the library with new earrings or a different bracelet, say, there is a good chance I will notice before anyone else does. The same goes for haircuts, a new coat, that book you’re reading because you were reading a different book yesterday weren’t you? I guess if you’re trying to blend into the crowd or not draw too much attention to yourself, it might seem as though I am the wrong friend to have, but it’s ok! Because guess what? If I sense you are at all sensitive about your new haircut or you’re not sure if those earrings were a good choice with that dress, I will also notice that about you and then at some point, when no one else is around, I will tell you your haircut looks nice or those earrings are perfect with that dress. So overall I am a pretty ok friend to have, if I may say so.

And I bring up haircuts because I’ve often had several inches taken off my hair or had it dyed a completely different colour and NO ONE AT WORK HAS NOTICED. And I mean who wants to be that guy,  the one who is all “Look at my new haircut!” right? So because I tend to see those small details and notice slight changes, I am often annoyed with the people who don’t. But then I remember that not everyone has made what seems to be a career out of being hyper-observant, so I do cut people some slack. Sometimes my husband will say “You are the only person in the world who would notice that” and I just nod sagely like the wise old crone that I am. It’s a blessing and a curse, as they say.

If you have kids you’ll know that once they start to be aware of their own surroundings they like to point out the things that they notice. Worms spring to mind, it’s that time of year after all, and if you haven’t spent 3o minutes or more just watchin’ worms, well you don’t know what you’re missing. There is a lot to take in, worm watching. But it’s not just wildlife, (are worms considered wildlife) kids like to point at everything and it’s up to you, their parent, to name everything they point at. Even if (when!) you’ve named it a million times before if your toddler points at a door you say “Door!” Or “Window!” “Doggie!” “Chair!” “Daddy!” etc. Ad nauseum. Trust me.

And I remember every so often one of the boys would point to something at the park or in the backyard and I would name it for them and then think to myself “Wow I have never noticed that before.”And I call myself a noticer! So it’s true that once you have kids you do tend to take better note of things around you, partly because a lot of things can kill or maim your child so you have to be on high alert but also because they are experiencing these little things for the first time but for them, they are actually the big things! And it is fun to see the same old same old in a fresh new light and to see the little things that you might not have noticed before. Like if your small child hands you a Cheerio that they pulled from the rug, you may notice it’s probably time to vacuum. Kids are so helpful that way.

And so I did start to notice even more things once my kids were walking around and usually they were things at their eye level, of course, and this really gives you a different perspective on the world which is very refreshing, but I think I really became more of an expert noticer once we got a dog.

Our very good dog, Mya.

We have a dog, she came to our family nearly four years ago and I’m honestly shocked that this is my very first post about our dog, this seems extremely off-brand for me, but anyway. She’s a very active dog, she has at least three long walks a day and for the first little while, it was mostly me walking her, with John or one of the boys taking over occasionally. This was mostly because I wasn’t working at the time, both boys had school, and John was at work (not at home, working, strange as it may seem in our current world!) so Mya and I had a lot of time together. And the great thing about walking a dog as opposed to walking with small children is that you actually get to look up and all around you because the dog, unlike the child, probably, is leashed and can’t get away, so you can truly take in your surroundings. And yes, it’s true, you can also do this while NOT walking a dog, just, you know, walking by yourself, but because dogs do a lot of stopping and starting sniffing and peeing, it gives you that time to look around and take note, and sometimes you see brand new things. Like the time I saw a tree FULL of robins. Not just a robin, that famous red-breasted harbinger of spring, but dozens, probably close to a hundred or more and it freaked me out. When we got home I Googled “huge flocks of robins meaning” (which is a terrible search string for a library professional to use but I was nervous, ok?) I had never seen so many robins at once and I was convinced there was something very wrong. The first few hits pulled up robin facts and areas they live, migration patterns, etc. but finally one site’s information went something like “As with most birds, robins travel in large flocks, only pairing off just before mating season, dumbass.” I added the dumbass part myself, but it might as well have been there. Birds are birds, and of course they exist in flocks, but for so many years I thought that robins were the loners of the bird kingdom! You see? Had I not had that experience of noticing the tree full of birds I would have spent the rest of my days assuming that robins were anti-social creatures. How unfair of me.

There is an awful lot to take in for everyone right now, but I hope that at least once this week, no matter how you observe the world around you, you get to notice something brand new or something wonderful or even something that has always existed, perhaps hiding in plain sight then finally, triumphantly, revealing itself to you. And I also hope it’s exactly what you need.

 

 

 

The future’s so bleak I gotta lie down

Hi, hello, how is your pandemic quarantining life going? I know we are all baking and cooking and growing wee little spring onions and (in the case of me) baby romaine lettuces, taking physically distanced walks in our neighbourhoods when we can, building The Big Lasagna together (it was so delicious) and participating in Zoom cocktails with friends. But. But.

How are you actually doing?

Because honestly? I’m struggling.

And the thing is, I’m not struggling with the day-to-day. On that front, I am mostly ok. We are comfortable, we both have work, we all have food. I miss having Charles over, of course, Zoom family chats aren’t the same, but we are managing. We are, actually, in a very privileged position to be able to ride this out, and for that, I am extremely grateful. And if I don’t think too hard about it, if I don’t gaze too far into the future, it can feel like business as usual around here, it can feel almost normal. Even though everything is, of course, so far from normal.

But one of the things about me is that I often do think too hard about it, about everything. I can’t help it. And on the days that my brain just won’t stop thinking too hard, these are the days I struggle.

Because for me, the future seems incredibly bleak.

I’m specifically talking about the future of work as we know it and even more specifically the future of work as I know it in libraries where I have worked, it must be said though it pains me to admit, for over 25 years.

The future will, at least, contain salad.

I’ve always worked in public services – you’ll always find me at the reference desk, answering questions, helping people find things, helping them make sense of subject headings and Boolean logic. In previous libraries where I worked, I had that role and others including teaching library skills to classes of students, teaching web searching classes in the community, and presenting at conferences. Always live, always in person, just the way I like it.

Currently, now that the library is closed not only to the public but to the staff too, we are doing what we can for our students and researchers and that means email reference, telephone reference, and the occasional Zoom reference call and it’s been fine, honestly. It works, and that’s the main thing. It’s not optimal but not much during pandemic times is.

This week my supervisor requested that we all start thinking about what reopening the library – the public services side of the library – would look like and as I read through the document and the different scenarios she had suggested, I couldn’t help but feel weighed down by the fact that once we reopen and for however long after that, public services could potentially be a mere shell of its former self. And that makes me really depressed.

Will we require plastic barriers to protect us from students and them from us, thereby limiting our personal interaction with them? Are we also going to limit the number of people in the library at any given time? If so, how? Should we disable the photocopiers and printers, since students always need so much assistance with them? What about the students who just need to talk? The ones who are struggling to find a safe space? Will we continue to only provide electronic reference services even when the library opens so that we can practise safe distancing from not only our students but among staff? What about the students who don’t have reliable internet or a computer? Will we ever be able to have staff retreats, lunches, and in-class learning sessions? Is the staff lounge off-limits now, the kettle, the microwave relics of the past?

And as I read through this list, a lot of the examples I used (perhaps with the exception of in-person information services) seem small and some of them seem like things that aren’t at the very core of what we do in the library – but that is my actual point. We ARE getting work done during this pandemic. We ARE helping students; we’re calling them or emailing them to take a look at their search to help them find their resources, all the things we usually do. But it’s the other stuff that makes what we do so, well, what we DO. And what we are.

I know a lot of us are rallying around the idea of mourning – mourning the things we aren’t able to do right now and that is so, so valid. We are mourning and grieving for the theatre tickets that we bought a year ago, the weddings and birthday parties that are cancelled or postponed; we are mourning the losses of extended family celebrations and the multiple plans we had and I’m definitely here for that, it’s so important. And perhaps mourning for a future that looks so much different is premature, but I can’t imagine how we go back to doing what we were doing before, all the while knowing what we know now, and having experienced this way of life for eight weeks and counting.

I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist (although I prefer the term ‘practical realist’) but I think about the changes that are going to have to be made and they aren’t small. They’re pretty significant and they will most definitely alter the face of my workplace and the way we function within it, perhaps the face and function libraries – all libraries – in general. And I am truly, truly not ready for that.

 

 

Eleven Springs

My mum died 10 years ago today. This marks the eleventh spring she has missed if you include the year she died, which I do.

It feels impossible that an entire decade has passed, impossible that she has missed so much. And yet, here we are at eleven springs.

I count the years in springs partly because she died in May, but also because spring was her very favourite season. Spring was ordering soil and mulch and starting the process of turning the backyard into a garden paradise. Spring was cleaning out the pond, filling it, and putting the little ceramic frogs and cast iron turtles on the edge. Spring was trips to the garden centre for pansies and geraniums, tomato and strawberry plants. Spring meant pulling out the patio furniture and flying the ladybug flag from the big maple tree. Spring had it all.

Spring is vibrant. When I spoke at mum’s wake, I talked about her love of colour, her vibrancy, how she loved brightness and colour everywhere. Everywhere, it must be said, except for her walls. There, only variant shades of cream and beige would do, but in all other aspects of her life, colour and lots of it reigned supreme.

Spring brings with it an abundance of colour and sometimes it has a slower-paced start, much like it’s doing this year, with cool temperatures helping preserve the magnolia flowers and allowing the tulips to open quietly and for a longer span of time. In other years spring seems to arrive almost immediately, urgently, with a brilliance, an incredible wash of colour everywhere, flowers opening and wilting in nearly the same breath. Such was the spring the year she died.

Towards the end of April ten years ago, I drove mum to the hospital for more tests, and these tests were the ones that gave us – finally – the diagnosis of advanced cancer, unknown primary, possibly lung. It was about to be the beginning of the end, we just didn’t know it yet. On the way there, weak and slumped in the passenger seat of my car, she watched out the window and commented on the brightness of the world as we drove along.

“Everything is so fresh and green, do you see that? It’s like technicolour. And the lilacs are out, too, did you notice? That’s odd, they usually come closer to the end of May, everything is happening so early. And the city looks so clean and beautiful it’s all so green and bright and doesn’t it seem more like summer than spring?” And on and on throughout our fifteen-minute trip.

Her thoughts were jumbled as she took in the scenery but her words have stayed with me. It was the most she had spoken for over a week, talking took such effort. But this wonder, this seeing the world almost as if for the first time was so thrilling to me. It felt like hope. The world was showing off and waking up and maybe that was the sign that she would, too.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last time she would be able to say more than a few words to me, I didn’t know that it would be the last time she’d see trees and lilacs and tulips, or any of the world outside.

But she was right. There was something about that spring. Everything bloomed early, everything was big and showy and blossoming way ahead of its typical time. It was unusual but it was perfect, and I held on to those images; the brightness, the colours, the big blowsy flowers, the fat buds seeing me through.

Not long after she died I wrote this blog post and while I don’t return to it every year, I did this year. Ten years is significant, of course. I mean there are no traditional gifts for marking a death, there is no wood deathiversary or silver deathiversary, but still, a decade. A lifetime, nearly. Or at least it feels that way.

I return to that piece because I remember exactly how I felt writing it. I wrote it quickly without a lot of editing, it just needed to come out all at once. If I was writing it now, ten more years of writing experience, would anything have changed? Likely not.

The night she died is etched in my memory, and while I don’t know that I have all the details exactly right…no, wait, I do. I know I have the details exactly right. Like the thunderstorm that started as I left the hospital carrying my mother’s belongings. Quite the sendoff, indeed. And the feeling of emptiness as I sat in my car for a few minutes, just a few, before I collected myself and drove down to mum’s house to begin the organization of the things that needed organizing.

The next morning was glorious as it often is after a thunderstorm and before I did anything else I took my scissors out to the lilac tree I had planted the year we moved to this house and on the 6th of May, 2010 I was able to cut the biggest bunch of lilacs I had ever cut, a full three weeks earlier than usual.

Today, in the eleventh spring, I spent a lot of time looking out my window, appreciating the peonies and bleeding hearts just beginning to poke through the soil in my garden, and gazing expectantly at the tulips who are not quite ready to open just yet. I paid a short, chilly visit to my lilac tree whose buds still sleep for now. And it’s ok. Every spring is different, each is exactly what it needs to be. But I will be forever grateful that that final spring was, for my mum, exactly what she needed it to be.

 

 

 

RIP to TAH: In which I spill a whole bunch of feels about my favourite bar

If you’re a fan of This Ain’t Hollywood you probably already know that the owners announced yesterday evening that the building that houses the bar has been sold and will not be maintained as a live music venue. And if you’re a fan you also probably realize what a huge blow this is for anyone and everyone who ever enjoyed a show there.

If you don’t know This Ain’t Hollywood it has been, since 2009, one of the best venues for live music in the city. Consistently winning awards for their sound, bringing in some incredible bands and artists, and just overall being a really cool spot to hang.

It’s located in a very old building, that has been some sort of drinking establishment or other for a long time according to their sign which reads “Serving since 1893”, an impressive record of drinks slinging, really. Charm – well, a certain type of charm, at least – it has, but not sophistication. The washrooms are not for the faint of heart and there is a very good chance that the stickers, the outdated gig posters and the thick layers of graffiti are the only things holding the stalls together. But it doesn’t matter because when you grab a pint at the bar and make your way to the front of the room to stand by the stage it is always a night to remember.

I’m super sad about this, and I don’t know if it’s because everything is extra pandemic sad right now, but losing this bar feels really personal. Maybe it’s because TAH came on the scene when we, John and I, were also getting back on the scene. By 2009 we had a couple of tweens in the house and it was just starting to get easier to get out a little more frequently, to go see more live shows, something we did nearly every weekend when we were dating and newly married. And TAH, located not too far from the neighbourhood where I grew up, became a favourite of ours. As well, having a cool rock and roll bar in that part of town is a source of pride. The place means a lot to me, honestly, and I know I’m not alone.

From the very beginning, This Ain’t was familiar and it was all Hamilton. Walking in felt like visiting a friend’s house and descending to their rec room, all dark wood, kitschy posters and board games, a faint smell of weed, as if their older brother and friends had just vacated, leaving us their cool records to play as long as we were extra careful.

There are too many shows to count, but some standouts off the top of my head include Diamond Rings, a show that happened during a pretty severe snowstorm, but a show that most definitely did go on. There was the incredible Carole Pope whose immense presence and voice filled the entire room of awestruck fans, and there was also powerhouse band Monster Truck, before they went on to sell out giant arenas all over Europe. We saw The Sadies, Shonen Knife, Teenage Head…and that’s not even including the bands that Charles has been in. Illusion Avenue. The Retroaction. Delta Days. Billy Moon.

Illusion Avenue, the first band Charles was ever part of got a headstart there because Lou, one of the owners of TAH, loved them. They were four 12-15-year-old kids and they had an old school rock and roll kind of sound and Lou and his regulars couldn’t get enough of them. These kids opened for bands like Monster Truck, and Blue Coupe, members of Blue Oyster Cult; they even headlined their own CD release show at TAH. I spent a couple of late nights there while they recorded live from the stage because the sound guy wanted to do them a favour when they didn’t have a place (or money) to record demos. On one of those nights, at midnight on a school night, I ordered pizza to the bar and we fed the boys and the grateful staff who toasted us and topped up our pints.

TAH is also part gallery with its rotating displays of local art, and part community centre, so many times raising money and support for local charitable organizations. It became the official Supercrawl after-party location, with queues to get in stretching for blocks, and there would be open mic nights, jam sessions, all-ages gigs for high school kids, and so much more. It is truly, truly the bar that is up for anything and everything.

The building has been sold but it’s not over ’til it’s over, and that doesn’t happen until August. Some shows are promised before the last last call, but with the pandemic forcing things to be so up in the air, it’s hard to know what that will look like. But I do really hope we get a few more nights to remember before the place as we know it now is gone forever. I still want another few pints, another few bathroom selfies, another few encores, and another few tipsy stumblings home at the end of another, final, memorable night of live music.

“Always catch the last set to play as the night gets old
Oh babe, It may be quite good
But it’s not quite as good as It should
Oh babe, It ain’t Hollywood”

Pour one out, pals.