Category Archives: Life

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.

Rejection Introspection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you measure a year?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watercolour Wednesdays

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

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

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

And oh friends, was it ever fun.

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the things I worked on in watercolour class

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

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

See? I’m learning.

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

Future Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My plants will make it through. We will too.

Remembering. Always.

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

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

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

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

Tiny boys with the World’s
Best Grandpa

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

Charles: Grandpa died???

Me: Yes, honey.

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

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

Me: …

Them: …

Charles: Can we watch Power Rangers?

Me: Of course, sweetie.


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

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

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

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

Life goes on, indeed.

On Simplifying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.