In Spite Of

Today is March 14 and it is Pi Day, if you are into that. I am not, really. I am Team Cake all the way, there are few pies I truly love and none that I crave or insist upon. My husband is Team Pie, so it’s true what they say, that opposites attract, if you believe that the opposite of cake is pie, which it probably isn’t. In spite of this obvious difference in our psyches, on Friday we will have known each other exactly 30 years. We should probably celebrate with cake and with pie, to be fair.

Today it is also -2 degrees Celsius in Hamilton, with the windchill making it feel like -7 degrees Celsius. In spite of this, I am inside and the sun in beaming through my living room windows making it feel much warmer than it is. It’s lovely, honestly.

We moved the clocks ahead an hour on the weekend, so it’s incredibly dark now when I get up at 6am but in spite of this, I have been enjoying the quiet the dark provides in the early mornings. I have been enjoying sipping my tea with only the streetlights shining softly in the windows. I like the early mornings, in spite of myself. I never thought I’d be a morning person but here I am. To be fair I am a morning person who requires silence and a cup of strong tea and approximately one hour in which to be quiet before I can begin my day, so perhaps I am still a night owl whose hand has been forced by circumstances. And capitalism.

In spite of the fact that spring arrives in a week, it feels nothing like spring. At least ten centimetres of snow blanket the lawns and gardens, and massive piles of grey-black icy snow grace the street corners. It’s been a strange winter in southern Ontario but in spite of this, I walked the dog this morning through the quiet, dark streets and enjoyed the crisp cold air and the feeling that we two were the only ones up and about at 7am. Not true, of course, there were other people and their dogs, there were buses rolling by, several runners, etc. But until the light of the sun broke through, it felt at least a little bit like we had the place (the neighbourhood) to ourselves.

A headline told me Ontario has experienced the greyest winter in more than seven decades. In spite of that—or perhaps because of it—I’ve been savouring the sunny days, documenting the blue skies, and thrilling to the sounds of robins in the air. It feels so early for robins, but in spite of the cold and the snow, they are back in my part of the world. I have yet to see one, but my ears are attuned to their song, so I know.

Great Lakes and blue skies exist, persist. In spite of everything.

I have been off work the past two days—well today is the second day—because I’ve not been feeling well, and while I probably could have gone in today, I’m glad I didn’t. I am learning, finally, at the ripe old age of 56, to allow myself the opportunity to slow down when I need to. To take it easy or if not completely easy, at least easiER than I might have done last year or the year before or twenty years before. Yesterday was a day for sitting and drinking tea, for napping, and for staring into the middle distance and then napping again. In other words, it was a day to take care of my body. Today I am writing, I am reading, I am blogging, I am making food. Today, then, is a day to take care of my mind. I am still taking care of my body, I am listening to its signals, listening to what it needs, how it wants to be. My track record for this kind of thing has not been great, but I am learning. In spite of everything.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Love.

I was thinking recently of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. I was thinking of the cookbook, specifically, because it’s cooking season again in my world, and this is the time of year I pull out my favourite cookbooks and turn to the recipes that comfort; the recipes that nurture as well as nourish.

I do cook in the spring and summer months, but that kind of cooking is different. I can’t explain it fully, but spring and summer cooking, to me, is “Just-in-time” cooking. It’s vegetables from the farmer’s market made purchased that morning and turned into big colourful salads or grilled to perfection on a BBQ, occasionally with hamburgers, hotdogs, sausages or fish. It’s rarely, for our family, a season of leftovers. Autumn and winter cooking, by contrast, is “Just-in-case” cooking.

Both these terms are business terms which is very odd coming from me, an extremely non-business person, but they seem to work well to explain what I mean here. The Just-in-time strategy refers to inventory or stock that is kept low and replenished on an as-needed basis. This, to me, is summertime food. The Just-in-case strategy refers to maintaining a large supply of inventory so as not to run out. This then, in my scenario, is fall- and wintertime food.

This is the season to cook big batches of your favourite things and store them in the freezer. It’s the season for building multiple lasagnas and using all the elements on the stove to make double- and triple-recipe curries. It’s frozen meat and veggies that can be thawed slowly in the fridge during the week for a binge of stew-making on the weekends. And it’s my favourite time of year.

Samin Nosrat, in her excellent book mentioned above, has some of these kinds of recipes, and when I pulled out the book, I reminisced about watching her wonderful TV show of the same name, and reminded myself that I need to watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a marvel. Nosrat travels the world to highlight the specific elements (the salt, fat, acid and heat) needed for cooking and creating wonderful food. It’s highly educational and is also a beautiful testament to the power food has to bring people together in community. There are people who will tell you that food isn’t love, but they are wrong. Food is definitely love. Cooking and/or sharing a meal with your people is to me one of the highest forms of love. My dad, who died nineteen years ago this month, instilled this into me, but what solidified it completely is that the last time I saw my dad before he went into hospital, he was doing just that.

John and the kids and I were at the family cottage the weekend of the massive August 2003 blackout. Our power, oddly, was restored before Hamilton’s and so I called my parents and suggested they come to the lake with us. They showed up with a whole bunch of pickerel that my dad bought the day of the blackout that needed to be cooked before it spoiled, so he invited the neighbours to a big fish fry. He was in his element. Battering fish and dropping it into the oil, chatting and laughing with the boys and the neighbours and just having the best time. I am so glad he had that. I’m so grateful we all had that.

October is a beautiful month. It’s also the gateway to the dark months and I know there are those who miss and crave and yearn for the light and the warmth of summer and I get it! I do love a good summer backyard BBQ with friends and family, but my absolute favourite shared meals are inside. I can’t resist a bright kitchen with the oven on and all four elements bubbling away, creating steam and fogging up the windows. I adore seeing a group of friends gathered around a big table in a warmly-lit dining room. Flushed faces sipping wine, laughing and chatting, and helping themselves to seconds while the cold wind blows the leaves around outside.

Every episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is beautiful and the ending made me cry because Nosrat’s whole thing is about sharing food with the people you love, learning from each other, and making memories around the table. And every time I do that, every time I host my friends or make a meal for John and Charles and Max I think of my dad and how he created something so special without even realizing it. He thought he was just making dinner for the people he loved the most. But he was doing so much more.

My Year of Sitting Quietly

When I sit to do my daily meditation, I try not to look at my meditation streak. Like a lot of apps, Headspace, the meditation app I use, calculates a variety of different things, captures a variety of metrics. Minutes meditated is a big one, as is number of days meditated.

I tend to be a somewhat competitive person, and so sometimes these metrics do more harm than good for me. I want to have the longest streak! I want the most minutes meditated! I don’t know why I’m like this (ok fine, I do, I’m a Capricorn) but it’s sometimes off-putting to me. It felt weird to be gamifying meditation. Apps can be sneaky that way, I’ve learned. Like when I found out I had high blood pressure and my doctor suggested I find a way to track the sodium content in my food and so I downloaded My Fitness Pal, the only app that seemed to be any good at the time I was doing this. Sodium tracking was part of the premium plan at the time (not sure if it still is) so I paid a monthly fee to access that, but what I learned was that there was NO WAY to turn off the calorie counts. This really fucked with my head and sent me back into disordered eating for a time because LOOK HOW MANY CALORIES I CAN RESTRICT JUST BECAUSE! I’ve since deleted it and now I just wing it with sodium which might not be the best, but it’s not worth backtracking on the progress I’ve made with regards to eating. Also: if anyone knows anyone at the Heart & Stroke Foundation, there are probably lots of people who would benefit from an official H&S sodium/cholesterol tracking app! Spread the word!

Anyway, so Headspace. I’m almost positive when I started using the app ages ago there was no tracker feature, but over the years they have added a phenomenal amount of content, and one day I finished my mediation and a little ticker flipped over and read “Current Run Streak: 1.” Now the type A part of me thought “Oh, it’s on, suckers! I am going to create a streak that is so long!” and then I thought, wait, what are you doing?

Meditation isn’t a competitive sport. Does it matter if you miss a day or a few days because you’re sick? Or your phone died? Or, or, or… I mean no, it doesn’t. But if you’re like me, the type of kid who strove for perfect attendance and read the most summer reading club books, it’s a hard habit to break.

And I would do a month’s worth of meditation and it would be a nice round number like 30 and then I’d miss a day and when the little ticker went back to 1, I would feel like I’d let it down. I need to be better at this, I would think to myself, trying to organize my day around meditation which is fine in and of itself, but not the best when it came to this weird obsession.

But after a few months of starting over and watching the ticker go up and up, something shifted in me. I no longer cared. 195 days, 62 days, 12 days, whatever. I was showing up and meditating as often as I could, sometimes two or three times in a day, and that felt good. I started closing the app before I could see the total number of minutes meditated, the number of days in a row I had sat in silence. I started focusing only on allowing myself to breathe and giving myself what I needed in that moment. I began carving out time in my morning to practice instead of saying “oh god, must meditate so I don’t lose my streak!” I started incorporating a night time routine of winding down meditation as well, and I began to look forward to heading up to bed. Ok fine, I always look forward to heading up to bed, I love sleeping and I am SO good at it. But this routine with a half hour or so of reading followed by a wind down or a sleeping meditation became such a part of my day, and an important part of my routine.

Time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking / into the future…

And yesterday when I finished my morning meditation, I did see the little number tick over and the screen read “Run streak: 365 days.

A year. One entire year of daily meditations. It seemed almost impossible that I’d made it. I don’t remember saying on August 11, 2021, “Right, this is the time you don’t give up, this is the time you make it to a full year!” Because I didn’t say that. At all.

And I’m thrilled! A year of doing anything that is beneficial to your mind and/or body is a very good thing! But I also recognize that had I stopped for whatever reason at 360 days or 279 days, that also would have been ok too.

One of the founders of Headspace had this to say to a user on Twitter last year:

Whether your run streak is 4 days, or almost 4 years, today is a good day to congratulate yourself…and to keep that same streak going.

And I loved that. That is truly the crux of it. Showing up daily to meditate or walk or run or swim or whatever it is you do for your mental health is always a good thing, whether you’ve been at it for years or you’re just getting started. Whether you’re a creature of habit or you roll with the punches and the whims of the weather.

We did it, Joe.

Will I keep the streak going and this time next year be celebrating two full years of daily meditation? Possibly! But there’s also a good chance there will be a morning when I will forget and then I’ll fall asleep before I’m able to do the nighttime routine and when I wake up the little ticker will have reset itself to 1. And I’ll probably grieve the loss of that streak, whatever it was (the Capricorn vibes are very strong, after all) but I’ll be ok. Because 1 is a start. And 1 is always better than nothing.

Review: The Things I Came Here With by Chris MacDonald

June was an exciting month for me because I received not one but TWO advanced reading copies from ECW Press as part of their Insiders program! My previous blog post is a review of Pamela Mulloy’s As Little As Nothing, and today I’m reviewing The Things I Came Here With by Chris MacDonald. Two very different books—one historical fiction, one memoir—but both involve people trying their best to fulfill their dreams in spite of the bumps along the way.

Chris MacDonald’s story begins in Alliston, Ontario. He was born into an artistic family, the youngest of three brothers, and lived a tumultuous and raucous childhood in rural Ontario. A move to Toronto with his father once his parents split up was a major shift for MacDonald, and eventually led to a rift with his dad and saw him spend a lot of his teen years moving from place to place. He spent some time relying on the generosity of friends, living in shelters and rooming houses, and despite his often desperate circumstances, he never really let go of his dreams. And that might just be what saved him.

In The Things I Came Here With, MacDonald weaves lovely sentences that are often at odds with the subject matter he’s discussing and we learn to understand that his ability to find beauty in despair, and to long for beauty and art, even while at his lowest point, indicates a level of hope that resonates with his readers. His desire to seek out beauty (there is a great story about his attempt to steal some plants because that felt like something he needed to make his squalid living space seem more homey) illustrates a sparkle, a zest for life and for art that runs deep within him. Something that can’t be extinguished by even life’s hardest struggles. 

MacDonald’s ultimate goal throughout the book is to become a tattoo artist, and since tattoos and tattooing are two of my favourite subjects, I was excited to follow his journey. The stories about his early days tattooing and some of his early clients and experiences are told with so much empathy and care, and these add an intimacy to the narrative that allows the reader to become immersed. At its core, The Things I Came Here With is a story about family; it’s a story of art, of loss, of grief, and of passion. It is raw and heartbreaking and funny at times—often within the same paragraph. And it is especially a story about love and finding your way home.

Review: As Little As Nothing by Pamela Mulloy

I started reading Pamela Mulloy’s lovely new novel As Little As Nothing the same day the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. 

I hesitate to call this day a milestone, although it is, of course, but perhaps turning point is a better phrase. A turning to the past, even as we hurtle into the future. Something of this staggering significance can only become one of those “Where were you when?” moments of which we all have so many in a lifetime. 

And so where was I? I had just arrived at the cottage at the start of my two week vacation, and Mulloy’s book was the one I’d chosen to read first. I felt angry and frustrated and hopeless, but it turned out that As Little As Nothing was an excellent book to experience on such a dark day. 

“Miriam knew she needed to fly when she lost her fifth baby.”

In 1938, one year before war is declared in England, we are introduced to Miriam as she leaves her bed, still weak from a miscarriage, in order to seek out a plane that she can tell is in trouble. 

The plane does indeed crash, and at the crash site Miriam meets Frank, another bystander and together they assist the injured pilot. Miriam and Frank become friends of a sort, even as we quickly learn they are from very different classes, and Frank works to help Miriam fulfill her dreams of flight.

In addition, we are introduced to Frank’s Aunt Audrey, a fearless, modern woman who lectures on women’s rights and advocates for safe abortions. She lives in a caravan and swims in the river, and is unlike anyone Miriam has ever met. 

It is through Audrey that Mulloy’s themes of early 20th century feminism are revealed. In addition to abortion rights and the rights of a woman to choose, Audrey wants the women she talks to to also understand desire, to be able to have sex for pleasure should they want to, and therefore to learn about various sorts of birth control available to them. It was so refreshing and the timing could not have been better.

 Layered in with these themes are the rumblings of the war that is just over the horizon. Mulloy weaves in newspaper headlines and snippets from news programs to illustrate an England, while perhaps not entirely in denial of what is to come, still somewhat reluctant to entertain the thought of another war. To me, there is always a delicious sort of foreboding in novels where characters go about their lives, preparing in small ways for something that we as readers know is monumental and about to change everything. In 1938 of course, they were still holding out hope upon hope that Chamberlain would be able to smooth things over with Hitler.

As Little As Nothing was a lovely read on a warm summer day, and it was also a reminder that women have been fighting for decades and will continue to fight, for agency and the right to make decisions about our bodies. And on a day that felt so heavy and like so much progress had been erased, it was so good to read a story about women looking to the future, and making a difference it the lives of other women.

I am grateful to Pamela Mulloy for writing such a beautiful story that is at once timely and timeless, and I am grateful to ECW Press for sending me the ARC to review. 

As Little As Nothing is out on October 11.

Tasting Vacation

I am one-and-a-half days away from two weeks vacation. I am so close I can almost taste it.

It mostly tastes like a hot cup of Yorkshire Gold tea with a side of early morning birdwatching from the deck of our family cottage. I have an app for my phone that helps me identify the birds I see and hear and it is one of my favourite pieces of technology, and one of the only ones I’ll use consistently while on vacation.

It tastes like walks to the beach with the dog who, while she isn’t much of a water dog, does like to paddle a bit, provided there are no waves of any kind. For a wolf-type dog, she is surprisingly timid of tiny waves lapping at the shore. If we go early enough, the lake is often so still its mirror-like surface can trick you into thinking there is not water there at all. That is her favourite time. And mine.

It also tastes like pockets full of beach glass, the sand still sticking to their edges. After we rinse them, they find their home in one of several containers on a shelf in the cottage. Mason jars, vases, vintage milkshake glasses, all are bursting with the glass we find. Light blues and greens, milky whites and amber, the occasional cobalt blue and, even rarer, red. The collection has always seemed to be there, it has no discernible beginning.

Vacation tastes like the wild garlic that grows in the ditch along the road, too, a secret ingredient I can add to recipes. When I was little, it tasted like the wild strawberries that grew in the same ditch, but that have been missing for years now. Our neighbour would make wild strawberry jam and she’d send the kids up and down the road picking the tiny fruit, most no bigger than our small thumbnails. A good way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours, we’d return with bowls and baskets full and eventually we’d be rewarded with our own small jar of jam, usually in an old baby food jar with a disc of wax protecting the seal.

It also tastes like cold beer, directly from the place’s original refrigerator, a Westinghouse model from 1950. Apart from beverages right out of an ice-filled cooler, I haven’t yet met an appliance that works better at keeping beer colder. There are usually other drinks in this fridge of course, but it’s the beer than I can taste when I think of vacation, the beer that refreshes after yard work, the beer that we bring down to the beach and take in the water with us while we float and bounce around in the waves.

Vacation tastes like the memories of my fifty-five summers, plus the photographs that show fifteen summers prior to that. It tastes of pig roasts and corn roasts, of perch caught by my brother and I from the bow of our small aluminum boat then filleted (also by us) and fried (not by us) for dinner.

It tastes of starry nights, thunderstorms, and big winds and it tastes of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of celebration and of mourning.

And I am so, so ready.

Ghost Music by An Yu

My favourite novels are the ones that stay with me long after I finish reading them. Sometimes it’s the characters that linger, sometimes it’s the writing itself, and often it’s because the subject matter makes me want to learn more. A novel that prompts me to delve deeper into a particular subject and its meaning, its symbolism, or its culture is, to me, the perfect sort of novel. 

An Yu’s deliciously strange and beautiful Ghost Music is that sort of novel. The surprising combination of mushrooms and classical piano music are at the heart of the story and after reading it—devouring it, actually—I spent hours down a rabbit hole learning about Yunnan mushrooms; learning and relearning their names, their relevance, their importance to the province and to the people who farm and/or collect them. It is fascinating stuff, truly.

In the opening pages  of Ghost Music, we are introduced to Song Yan, although we don’t yet know her name. She wakes in the night and finds herself in a strange room, startled by an orange mushroom growing out of the floorboards. It tells her it would like to be remembered. ”’It is normal that you don’t understand,’ the mushroom said…” 

“But when you leave this room, it said, I’d like you to remember me.”

From the realms of what appears to be a dream, Song Yan then moves to daylight and the real world of Beijing and the apartment she lives in with her husband Bowen and his mother who has just moved in with them after her husband’s death. Song Yan must navigate in the space between Bowen, a man who appears closed-off emotionally and whose sole focus is his job, and her mother-in-law who resents living with her son and his wife, and soon reveals a secret about her family’s past that further strains Song Yan’s relationship with her husband. 

When the first of many mysterious deliveries of mushrooms arrives at the apartment, Bowen’s mother recognizes them as ji zong mushrooms, grown in the Yunnan province where their family lived, and a tenuous bond forms between the women as they shop for and prepare meals for Bowen—soups and stews and noodles—that will highlight the mushrooms they receive. 

Song Yan recognizes the name of the sender of the mushrooms, Bai Yu. Could this be Bai Yu, the piano prodigy her father wanted her to emulate before she gave up performing and switched to teaching piano? The same Bai Yu who disappeared without a trace years before, on the eve of his European tour?

When the mushroom deliveries cease, so too, it seems, does the connection between the two women in the home, but a letter from Bai Yu asking Song Yan to visit him sparks another kind of connection. This connection, between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the world of who we are and who we present to others, sees Song Yan beginning to learn more about herself and to understand, ultimately, what she needs.

This is a gorgeously haunting story that moves between the world of the fantastic and that of the everyday, often with both worlds overlapping in a shift that throws the reader ever so slightly off balance and feeling the need to recalculate. An Yu manages this with such grace and lyricism, it feels effortless. With Ghost Music, she digs deeply into the ways we can’t escape our past, and of how the spectre of our past haunts and shapes us, even as we try—especially as we try—to forget it.

Make Art, Not Hustle

A couple of months ago our older son got a new job working part-time at a local grocery store, and he really likes it. Prior to that, he had been employed full-time at a place that he also really liked, but that gave him little time to pursue what he really wants to do, which is be a musician. 

I should say here that he is a musician already. In fact, he’s been playing in bars and clubs for literally half his life. He joined his first band and started playing his first gigs at the age of twelve. He is, in musician years, a seasoned pro.

His former job was unpredictable, though, and the hours were long which meant he missed out on a lot because of this, and he was constantly exhausted from the work and lacking the energy to play. Not the best for a working musician.

Circumstances during the pandemic allowed him to move home and save his money so that ultimately he could quit that job with no hard feelings and start to build up in the music world again. We were thrilled that we could help, and it’s been great having him home again.

The other day the old job called him up and asked him to come back for a three-week contract while some of the other staff were on vacation. He asked for some advice and John and I helped him lay out the pros and cons, and ultimately he’s going to do it. His current job is pretty flexible so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I did tell him my reservations, especially the fact that this place is notorious for its long hours and exhausting work and that I worried he’d once again be possibly missing out on the things he really wants to do. And he reminded me that it’s only for a few weeks, and that he’s thinking ahead. 

Thinking ahead to a potential tour with the band and wanting to earn as much money as he can between now and that point in the future (specific dates to be determined, but very, very much in the cards) when they’ll be on the road and earning zero money. So, he went on, he really wants to work as much as possible, and even try to work his current job during the temp contract with the old one, if that’s doable. And it just might be doable.

I’m proud of this kid and his planning and his work ethic and his drive to earn and save money for a time when, while he might be doing his favourite thing in the world, he won’t have an income.

And I look at him and at our younger son, an aspiring actor with a part-time job in a restaurant kitchen, and I think it’s great. He too likes the work and sometimes gets to bring home donuts and fried chicken! But I also look at these hard working kids and think “But wouldn’t it be even betterif they didn’t have to have a side hustle?!”

And the obvious answer is, of course it would.

Photo by Pixabay on

I think about this kind of thing all the time, not just for my kids, but for ALL the artists I know, all the writers and poets, the painters, the musicians and the actors. What would life be like if the beauty you create and push out into the world for people to enjoy becomes the beauty that allows you to live? 

What would it be like for my kids—and countless others—to get up in the morning knowing that their day was devoted to creating their art, performing their art, sharing their art? 

What if we as a society valued our artists not just for their finished products, their finished works, but for their artistic process? What if we—and hear me out—paid people to create art so that they didn’t have to rush through band practice to get to work at the grocery store, the pizza place, the library. That band practice was their work, the work that helped them live and eat and enjoy. Basically to do all the things humans need to survive.

What would that world look like? 

I don’t have an answer, of course. But every so often I allow myself to contemplate these scenarios and this kind of world and every time I do it makes me smile. 

It’s been a long couple of years for artists and I’m sure lots of them have had to give up—or at the very least reduce the amount of time spent on—their art since the start of the pandemic, and that is tragic. 

And, at the same time, I’m sure there’s lots of people who started to pursue art because of the pandemic, finding themselves with a lot more time on their hands due to lockdown, the disappearance of their daily commute, etc. And that is wonderful!

Not everyone who pursues art plans to or even wants to do it for a living, hobbies are important and are definitely a thing! But for those who do—my kids, maybe your kids, maybe you?—what a wonderful world it would be.

Pink Housecoat

At some point this spring I need to put the pink fleece housecoat away.

Do you use the term housecoat? I do, although I have been known to shift between that word and robe. Bathrobe, I suppose is the more specific term, as robe on its own feels too formal. It calls to mind graduations and courthouses, lawyers and judges. Robes of honour. Housecoat is, to me, the more serviceable kind of term, a coat you wear over your house clothes, or your night clothes. It makes sense.

I have friends who use the term dressing gown, too, and while I know what they mean, (they literally mean a housecoat) the dressing gown image always makes me think of old Hollywood. Women in satin, lace, and velvet and men in tapestry or brocade.

I guess it’s all a matter of where you live, where you grew up, and who you grew up with. My dressing gown friends have predominantly English lineage, while those who prefer the term bathrobe are more staunchly Canadian or American.

Housecoat falls somewhere in between, perhaps, and since that is the term I grew up with, that is the term I will use throughout.

At any rate, whatever you call it, at some point I need to put it away for the season.

The housecoat is made of heavy fleece. Two patch pockets, inner ties—also fleece—and a belt of, you guessed it, fleece. It reaches nearly to my ankles and I always think of how my mother said they’d expected more from me. In the height department, that is. In every other way I was fine, I guess. Just shorter than expected. She blamed my dad’s side.

The housecoat is pink. Not a colour I typically wear, but it is one that suits me, suits my complexion. When John and I were planning our wedding I had insisted I wanted an ivory dress, feeling that was much more sophisticated than white, the result of watching too many Edwardian dramas on PBS growing up, perhaps. There was a lot of ivory in Brideshead Revisited if I recall. Truth be told I really wanted to get married in a red dress, but there are things you sometimes will sacrifice for the greater good and less drama. At least I do. Or rather did. In 1995. My mother tsk-tsked at my choice of ivory, insisting that I should wear white. And, to prove it to me, she took me to “Get My Colours Done” which was a real thing in the 1990s, in case you’ve heard this phrase before and wondered what in the actual hell that meant. Indulge me while I elaborate.

These “Colours” places were rampant. I think they started out as home parties (like Tupperware and Aloette) and eventually moved to brick and mortar shops in malls and sometimes in hair salons or spas. It worked kind of like this: you would go to one of these places and sit in front of a well-lit mirror. Ideally (again, it was more than 25 years ago, memory may not serve) you went without makeup so your actual skin tone would be truly visible, and a woman would drape various coloured scarves around your neck and hold them up to your face. She would then tell you what “season” you are (seriously!) and what colours you should be wearing to reflect that season.

When my mother and I went, she informed the woman draping the scarves that I had chosen ivory as my wedding dress colour and the two of them had a good laugh. Then she placed an ivory scarf under my chin and remarked something along the lines of “Look how sallow!” When she held up the white one, I had to agree it did look better.

I probably still have the little wallet of colour swatches that was part of the fee for the scarf draping. You were supposed to carry it in your purse as a reference for when you’re shopping for clothes and accessories. There were guidelines for jewelry as well! And frames for glasses! The place I went to also had a line of makeup that you could be guaranteed would be perfect for people of your season. I remember being skeptical, but I did buy a lipstick that I wore every single day—including my wedding day—and I think I cried when I went back to the mall and the place was gone. RIP shade #495, we hardly knew ye. I don’t think these places exist anymore, although maybe they do, but they certainly fall into the deep, deep archives of my brain known as “Now That’s What I Call The 90s!”

And because you’re probably dying to know, I am a winter.

But the pink housecoat. I put it away every year around this time and it’s always hard. But eventually I will be wearing it and find myself sweating in the early spring warmth, the early spring damp. Between that and an ill-timed (are there well-timed?) hot flash, I begin to resent the pink fleece housecoat, and so I put it in the laundry. But once it’s washed and fluffed, I hesitate. I let it hang on its hook for a few days. And then, ultimately I pack it away.

I bought the pink fleece housecoat for my mother the year before she died. When I’d asked her what she would like for Christmas she told me she needed a new housecoat. Practical to a fault. So I delivered, but I made sure it was pretty. Serviceable, yes. Warm. With pockets (for tissues, her reading glasses, the lemon drops she liked to have on hand) but also with a lovely stylized rose print stamped into the fleece, and the perfect shade of pink. Not too pale, not too dark. It’s the pink of winter cheeks, of peonies. And yes, of roses. It brought out the blue of her eyes, the roses in her cheeks. It fit her perfectly, too—not too long, not too short. It was truly the perfect housecoat for winter. She loved it.

When she died my brother and his wife were living with her. They’d moved in when she first got sick to help with the dog and the cats, and they were still living there when she died. We began to make plans to sell the house, and at one point, after meeting with a realtor, they started to stage the house, which apparently means strip all of the love and comfort and personality out of a house, rendering it less of a home, more of a model home, but I digress. On the day I arrived to go through my mother’s clothes and things, they pointed me toward the garage.

In a kind of daze, I opened boxes labelled “Clothes” or “Shoes” and while I tried to go through everything, it felt wrong. Shouldn’t her things have been in her bedroom? In the wardrobe where it all belonged? The dresser drawers where she lovingly tucked lavender sachets and which she lined with flowered paper? The garage was hot (it was July) and dark, and it really was all just wrong, just absolutely wrong.

On my more charitable days, I like to believe they were trying to help. Perhaps they thought it would be too emotional for me to be in her bedroom with all the memories as well as the clothes. Perhaps having everything in one place would help. Perhaps.

On other days, even twelve years later, I rage about being denied the experience of holding each item, of remembering where it had come from, when I had last seen her wearing it. In my mind on those days I accuse them of, in their haste to sell, willfully ruining this final comfort, this last chance to feel the house as it was with her in it.

In the end, all the clothes from her wardrobe, her dresser that had been boxed and stashed in the garage were donated. The items hanging in a closet in my old bedroom, I found, had been spared. Included was a wool cape, a gorgeous linen wrap dress, and a pink fleece housecoat. I gathered those remaining things in my arms and I ran.

The house eventually sold and a lot of the furniture and things came to us, to our already cluttered attic. I had taken the cape, the dress, the housecoat and hung them in the attic closet and forgot about them.

A couple of years ago we started purging things from the attic. Donating things like my dad’s golf clubs, our kids’ old skates, and putting furniture we were never going to need or use out at the curb for neighbours to take. We were exceptionally popular for a time. Eventually I threw open the doors of the closet to see what else could be donated.

The beautiful cape was still there, but on me it looked like a BBQ cover. The linen dress was not my size or style at all, but the pink housecoat beckoned. It was stale after nine years hanging in a dark closet under the eaves, but it washed up beautifully and one evening I went up to change into my pajamas, and threw the housecoat on over top.

“Nice housecoat,” my younger son said. “You look like Nana.”

I wore it this morning as I drank my tea and worked on the New York Times Spelling Bee, my morning ritual. But the familiar warmth crept through me, and I know I probably only have another week or so with my pink housecoat before it will have to be replaced with something lighter, something less bulky. And that’s ok. Because come October, when the mornings are chilly, and before we put the furnace on, the pink housecoat and I will be reunited. And I’ll do what I do every time I put it on: I’ll pull the lapels together under my chin and say to the mirror, “You were right, white was the right choice. And this is the perfect pink for us, too.”

Dark Nostalgia

I have been feeling a certain way in the last few weeks. It’s a strange feeling, and I know I’m not alone in this, as there have been some excellent pieces written about the way a lot of people are feeling lately. And I encourage you to read them, especially if you too are feeling a strange kind of way. These pieces definitely deal with some of the things I’ve been experiencing for sure, but there was still, for me, something missing. Something a little different, a little extra. And yet it’s been a hard thing to put my finger on. “What is this feeling?” I kept thinking. It’s dread and anxiety and fear, sure, and all the other usual suspects two years into a global pandemic, but there is definitely something else. Something else that is weirdly and achingly familiar. And then I read Steve Kandell’s piece in Vanity Fair and thought, oh now I know. Now I know exactly what that is.

The movie Kandell talks about, the one he can’t bring himself to name until the end of the essay, is The Day After. It was a TV movie that aired November 20, 1983, and dealt with the lead-up to and the aftermath of nuclear annihilation for small part of the USA and its people. It was intense, and I remember the next day (the day after haha ugh) in school, the hallways seemed a little quieter, the mood a little more subdued than usual. Everyone had watched it, but nobody, save for a few people, really wanted to talk about it.

I am older than Kandell, I believe, and in 1983 I was sixteen. Girl of sixteen, whole life ahead of her…but it didn’t always feel that way. (And yes I know that song didn’t come out until 1984, but the sentiment stands.)

People love to hate on the 80s. They love to hate the fashion, the whole aesthetic: All that neon? The off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and the leg warmers? The shoulder pads! The teased and sprayed up hair! (Would you believe I spent the bulk of the 80s with a sleek bob and I wore a lot of jeans and sweaters? it wasn’t all Flashdance in here, honey.) But thick black eyeliner and jelly shoes aside, I’ve always found that the most difficult thing to express when people poke fun at the decade, is how we lived with a thick air of potential nuclear annihilation and destruction that permeated even the most French Formula-hardened ‘do. It was everywhere. And it followed us around for years.

It was in the songs we listened to and the movies we watched. We learned about radiation poisoning and fallout shelters, nuclear winter and what mutually assured destruction (or MAD) meant. Footage of missile stockpiles made appearances on national news on a regular basis. The President of the USA, a wildly warmongering sort, was nicknamed Ronald Raygun. This bonkers video from the UK was shown at least twice during Remembrance Day assemblies at my high school. The threat of nuclear holocaust was indeed the soundtrack to our lives, which is maybe one of the most cliché lines I’ve ever written, but it’s true. And yes, we went to school and accomplished things, and had crushes and hobbies and overall lived our lives, but it was always there, bubbling under the surface. At least it was for me.

I had a chat about the resurgence of these feelings with my partner who agreed that it was a frightening time for sure, but that we certainly didn’t think about it all the time, right? Like, it wasn’t living in our head constantly, right? And then I realized, oh boy anxiety really did a number on me back then. And clearly continues to.

It’s true that I obviously wasn’t paralyzed with fear 24/7, but living with the threat of nuclear war meant not knowing what your future held, or if you even had a future at all. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, are you gonna drop the bomb or not? If my high school had done yearbook quotes, that probably would have been mine.

It’s been hard to explain, this weird sensation that’s been cropping up in my brain and my body since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as I explained to my therapist it’s like a strange kind of nostalgia. An anxiety-tinged nostalgia, or a dark nostalgia, if you will. And it turns out, that’s a thing. Because the human nervous system doesn’t forget. And so when news outlets talk blithely about World War III or when you start to see headlines like If World War III Ever Happens, These Are The Safest Countries… it’s all giving a very, very hardcore sense of déjà vu. And it’s not a pleasant one.

My therapist she asked what I could have used back then, what I would have liked to hear, what might have helped, and I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t. At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, when your fears are nuclear destruction and vaporization, it’s hard to think of anything that might have calmed them. I don’t even think I brought it up to my parents. It was something that lay under the surface of everything good, but it wasn’t exactly dinner table conversation. Not in our house, anyway. My parents watched the same news, they experienced the same threats as I did. But they’d also lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. They’d lived through WWII as well, and although they were both only ten when the war ended, my dad’s four older brothers all served overseas, so that was his reality. Maybe for them these threats were just that, threats. Maybe they didn’t seem as imminent as the other situations they’d lived through. Or, maybe they were as afraid as I was, they just didn’t show it. Because that’s what parents do, isn’t it?

So I don’t know what I needed to hear. “Don’t worry it’s never going to happen” would have been too trite, too dismissive, too wrong, really. The headlines screamed it; the news anchors talked daily about the fact that it could happen. And they told us in great detail how it would happen, and what our side of the world was doing—not to prevent it from happening, but to be the ones to do it first, in case the other side tried to start something. Truly the biggest “the one with the most toys wins” vibes there ever were.

As I read Kandell’s piece I felt some relief. Relief that this is truly a thing for people of my generation, that it’s not just me, it’s not just my brain jumping to conclusions of epic, worldwide disaster proportions. We remember what it was like. Our bodies remember what it was like. And it might seem like an overreaction, but as I’ve learned in therapy, our nervous systems are there to protect us. The fight or flight response is real, and it’s important.

Kandell’s entire essay is so good, and I find myself returning to portions of it pretty regularly. Today, the paragraph I’m holding onto is this last one:

Ultimately, the abrupt reintroduction to this long-dormant but acute existential despair feels like an overdue gut check—a litmus test of how to be a citizen, a parent, right now. It’s a wake-up call to those of us who have been lucky enough to sleep as well as we have for as long as we have, and maybe there’s no going back. Because even if the unthinkable of The Day After—huge exhale—remains in the realm of childhood-nightmare fuel, the fact that it feels so palpable and plausible right now, for no good or sensible reason, means we were never really as safe as we’d thought.

Bleak? Perhaps. But definitely, as they say, real talk. And if you’re reading this and you didn’t live through the 1980s but you’re also having some weird feelings about the world in this time and place, the essays I mentioned in this post are well worth your time.

And, you could find yourself a GenXer to talk to, too. We kinda get it.