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Book Nerd, Out.

In 2013 I attended the gritLIT Festival, Hamilton’s literary festival for readers and writers, for the very first time. I remember being thrilled to be in the presence of so many authors, so many readers – and don’t even get me started on the book room, where all the featured books were being sold! It felt like heaven in a downtown Hamilton hotel, and while I was only able to attend a couple of events that year, I knew I would most definitely be back.

The following year’s festival, however, blew right by me. In 2014 I was spending most of my free time at the dojo, training in karate and kickboxing, working towards my black belt which, as anyone who has ever earned their black belt can tell you, is practically a full time job.

By the start of 2015 I was nearing the end of my journey to black belt, my final tests were scheduled for February and March and by April, I would participate in the black belt show known at our school as the BBX – the black belt extravaganza – where my senseis would present me with my belt. So, in January, because I knew that the end of 24/7 (nearly!) training was in sight, and because I am really just that little bit extra when it comes to being prepared for things, I navigated to the “contact us” page of the griLIT website, and signed myself up to be a volunteer. And then I was hooked.

In 2016 I became an official member of the gritLIT planning committee and it has honestly been one big long love affair since.

Forever and ever.

I can’t even begin to count the number of amazing people I’ve been so privileged to meet as part of the committee, but please do know that book people are some of the nicest and most wonderful people you will ever meet. There is nothing like the feeling of rushing to the book room after a reading to quickly purchase a copy of the author’s book so you can then stand in a queue of people all buzzing about the book, the author, or the entire festival and wait until it’s your turn at the table to offer your book up for a signature. (There is also nothing like spending an unholy amount of money in the book room every year either, but that might be a whole other post.)

There is also nothing like the feeling of bonding with an author at the signing table. Whether it was chatting tattoos with Cherie Dimaline, or having Claudia Dey give me the name of the woman who designed her boots, or having Casey Plett write “your tights rule!” in my copy of Little Fish, I have learned that many, many authors are as generous with their time and their hearts as they are with their words.

There is also nothing like watching community being built by and around authors at the festival. Whether it was Ivan Coyote whose talk resonated so emotionally and completely with the group of teens/young adults who then stuck around chatting with them afterwards, much to the group’s absolute delight, or the droves – DROVES – of fans who turned out for an event with Guy Gavriel Kay (who was exquisitely patient and lovely), there is no doubt that authors are rockstars in so very many ways.

And, there is really also nothing like kicking back with some of your favourite authors – or even authors that you just met! – over dinner or a glass (or*ahem*bottle) of wine, and I feel so privileged to have been able to do that on more than one occasion, too. Whether it was drinks in the hospitality suite with Anakana Schofield or Denise Donlon, or navigating my way to The Mule, on foot and during an ice storm, with Judy Rebick on one arm and Kristyn Dunnion on the other, there was never any shortage of adventure or misadventure with the gritLIT team.

(And by the way if you think I’m namedropping, I totally am namedropping. It’s one of the perks, and I won’t apologize for it!)

Finally, there is also nothing like being welcomed to a team where you know absolutely no one, and the next thing you know, you’re bonding over books and authors and food and beer and music, and then just like that, you’ve made some lifelong friends. Looking at you, Jessica, Jaime, and Jennifer. Thanks for letting me be an E in a dream team of Js.

Tuesday night was the 2021 festival wrap meeting and it was also my last meeting for the foreseeable future. As much as I love this team, as much as I love the festival I think it’s time for me to take a step back, to move on, and to make space for someone else.

Will it be strange, attending the festival next year as a member of the general public? Well, yes and no. The amazing thing about literary festivals is that the experience is always wonderful, whether you’re part of the team that plans it or not. The authors are just as generous, wandering around the book room is just as exciting, (fingers crossed the 2022 festival gets to happen in person!) and the whole atmosphere still has that buzz. I think I’ll be just fine.

So thanks for the memories, gritLIT – those past and those still to be made. You are my favourite festival and you always will be. And I can’t wait to see what the team comes up with for next year.

Soup, Love

Yesterday I made soup.

When our older son arrived home from work, he served himself a large bowl and proceeded to tell me how much he loved it” “Mum, this soup is SO GOOD. Like, really good.”

And then I reminded him of the time that his younger brother roasted the hell out of me for ordering soup in a restaurant, “Um, why are you ordering soup when there are so many other things you could have? Soup is something you eat because you HAVE to. At HOME.” And then we laughed because while it’s kind of true, soup is still one of my favourite things to make and to eat.

Growing up, homemade soup was something we had occasionally, and it was usually turkey or chicken, when there was a large bird carcass to use up after Thanksgiving or a after a Sunday dinner. But mostly the soups of my childhood were tinned: Habitant pea was definitely in the rotation, as was Campbell’s tomato. Occasionally chicken noodle. Depending on how close we were to payday and our next grocery shopping trip, sometimes it was Lipton’s Cup-A-Soup for a few days in a row. Sometimes money was extremely tight, is what I’m saying.

By the time I was in high school, my dad was retired and he took to spending more and more time in the kitchen where he became a pro at cooking things like clam chowder, minestrone, pea soup from scratch. But that was much later. And while the soups became a little fancier, they were still, at their heart, soups. Appreciated, yes. Exciting? Not really.

The soup I made yesterday, specifically, was the Cream of Tomato with Tarragon soup from the Rebar Modern Food cookbook. I have never been to Rebar, but my sister-in-law bought me the cookbook one year for Christmas – I believe she and her husband were travelling in Victoria and thought it would be something I would like – and she was extremely correct, I have made a LOT of the recipes from the book and each one is absolutely delightful.

Still life with cream of tomato soup and journal.

This particular soup tastes and feels like sunshine. You can used tinned or fresh tomatoes, and while I have never used fresh, I plan to try that in the summer when tomatoes are perfectly ripe. I think it will add a whole other layer of sunshiney-ness to the meal. It also calls for fresh tarragon (which I didn’t have, but dried seemed to work just as well) and heavy cream which I had, but I don’t always have, so I will occasionally substitute half and half. I’ve also used 2% milk in a pinch and the soup is very, very forgiving.

I think that is what I like so much about soup. It is, by its very nature, a dish that you don’t have to apologize to. I suppose there are soups out there that are less forgiving, more intense to create, but consider some of these instructions in various soups I have made:

-Dice 3-6 medium or large potatoes, whatever you have on hand.

-Chop 1 or 2 leeks, or even up to 4 if they’re small. You can also use a combination of leeks and spring onions.

-Add 8 cups of vegetable or chicken stock or water.

-Use garlic if you like it.

-Grab a couple of handfuls of kale and toss it in towards the end. Or use spinach. Or leave it out.

Parsley, if you have any.***

Like, how can you NOT love a recipe that is that laid back?

Okay, yes, I know there are people who crave order and exact measurements and specifications and so reading recipes like this gives them hives, but I am not those people. I love skimming a recipe then looking in the crisper and thinking “great, I have one of these things, let’s do this!” and coming up with something delicious.

Soup is opening a tin of something when you don’t have a lot of time before dinner, or when you have a craving for the comfort of a childhood favourite. Soup can also be time spent shopping for the exact ingredients to make something very special for a family dinner or a dinner party. And, soup can be somewhere in the middle when you’re down to your last potato, some sort of wilted celery, an onion, eight cups of water and some spices.

The process of creating soup, of heating it slowly on the stove, stirring it, tasting it, adding a little of this a little of that…there is magic in that process, and every time I make soup I think of the kitchen I grew up in, the bowls of soup we were served when we came home for lunch during elementary school, the sleeves of Premium Plus crackers that accompanied them. It was comfort and it was love.

And while I know that soup night still isn’t everyone in my family’s favourite, I do hope that one day if the boys need to get creative when the crisper is a wee bit light, when the fridge is a little emptier than it could be, that they will remember “there’s always soup.” And whether they open a tin or they throw some random stuff in a pot, I hope they will also remember the steaming bowls of soup that were set in front of them on cold nights and feel that same level of comfort, that same level of love.

***This is one of the best soups I have ever made/eaten, and it is the quintessential “what you got? that’ll work” recipe. Please do give it a go, it is really delicious, and your reward for reading 900 words about soup.

Doggo Knows Best

I took the dog for what I thought would be our usual walk yesterday evening. She is a dog with strong opinions about where she likes to go, and while I am very good at rerouting her should I need to, tonight I thought that I would let her take the lead. So, when we headed up our street toward the base of the escarpment, I knew she wanted a trail walk. Perfect, I thought, because now that the weather is nicer, neighbourhood walks are a little trickier, it’s a little harder to maintain distancing on narrow sidewalks. This trail, though, is wide, wide enough that we can ensure we are staying far enough away from fellow trail walkers, runners, and cyclists.

We entered the trail at Dundurn St., started walking west, and made it just to the edge of the golf course before she stopped and stared at me. Sometimes this means “I need a treat before we move on, please” and sometimes it means she’s had enough and wants to go home, but since we were only about 10 minutes into our walk, that seemed odd. I gave her a treat (she is a very good dog, after all) and while she crunched away on it, I stood beside her, waiting to see what direction she would choose once she’d finished. She looked west, the direction we’d initially been heading, looked east, back the way we’d come, only to forgo both of those to head due south. And if you know Hamilton and you know this trail, you’ll also know that south = straight up.

Not exactly straight up, of course, but the top is visible from there, and…wait, you know what? It really is practically straight up.

Slightly above the trail we typically walk is another trail – let’s call it the upper trail – and I’ve always been hesitant to walk it with her. Mostly because it is, as I mentioned, practically straight up, and once you’re there, depending on the route you take, you can get even further straight up, so it can become even more challenging, especially for the unfamiliar.

It should also be said that I am not a hiker by nature. I like my trails flat and debris-free, as much as possible. Paved is even better, if I’m being perfectly honest. Fine, sidewalks, I like sidewalks, ok?! I am, at heart, a city child and an indoors child and have always been. For me, walks need to have a destination (Bookstore! Patio! Ice cream!) so the idea of walking an unknown route (straight up, did I mention) with an energetic husky does not typically excite me.

The upper trail is most definitely a marked trail – a portion of the Bruce Trail, even – but the trail itself is less obvious; it is very uneven, there are fallen trees, and lots of leaf litter that can hide large rocks, loose rocks. There are massive expanses of tree roots stretching along and across the trail, a myriad of places for a soft city child like me with soft city shoes like mine to trip and fall and not be able to get up, to stumble on the knees that, after years of dance then years of karate, are kind of shot.

But, on a lovely warm Thursday evening, and against all better judgement, up we went.

The dog was extremely excited and kept looking back at me, tongue lolling, with an expression of “I told you it would be great!” which didn’t surprise me at all. She has often strained at her lead, willing me to follow her up there but I’ve always resisted.

In the early evening the lower trail can be quite busy. Lots of cyclists, people walking dogs, people commuting home from work. But the upper trail was practically deserted; we only had to move for one cyclist, one runner. And there was something really special about being in that in-between place, too. In between the trail with its views of backyards and the very top of the escarpment with its road access and its own residential areas. A sort of magical space, not quite anywhere, but perfect in and of itself.

And it was good to get out of the comfort zone, too, to let the dog make the decision, to be the follower for a change. It’s been a long year for everyone, and while the first year of plague might have seemed like a good time to get out more and explore more, I’ve consistently felt like I just want things the way I want them. I need, I crave routine, I need that comfort. I need to know that we are going for a walk on these specific streets, or that we are going as far as the big rocks at the edge of the golf course parking lot and no further so I can plan, so I can maintain that level of control. So I can know what’s coming next.

I’m not saying that tonight’s walk will spark something in me that will get me branching out further and further – mostly because we are now, once again, under a stay-at-home order – but I’m not not saying that either.

Maybe once it’s ok to do so again, it will be a good time to hit the road, so to speak, and wander a little further afield. Maybe we’ll get in the car, the dog and I, and travel down to the lake for a lakefront walk or pick up the trail at the other end and see it from that perspective. Maybe we’ll explore other alleys not just the ones in our neighbourhood. It might be time to emerge from the year-long-plus cocoon, to take a chance on a route or a road less travelled.

And, it turns out, I can do hard things. I was so worried about my knees, about tripping or not making it the whole way along, and yet when I didn’t really think about it, when I just followed and enjoyed the surroundings, I did it. And I loved it. And I can’t wait to do it again.

I think that’s worth celebrating.

Cake, on occasion

On Tuesday I posted the following on Instagram:

Nothing says “We are so happy you survived a pickup truck hitting you and sending you to hospital one year ago today” like a chocolate cake from Weil’s Bakery!

The post got several likes and comments and one dear friend, confused, mentioned in her comment that she hadn’t heard this before! What happened??

Rather than tell the tale on the post, I decided to text her to fill her in. I told her the story of how Max was walking our dog and when he was (legally! with the lights!) in the intersection, a driver in a large pickup truck hit him not once but twice, knocking him down and sending him to hospital with slight bleeding in his brain which freaked us all out, given what he’d been through 18 months before.

I concluded with “So, we have cake to celebrate being alive.”

I can’t remember when we started marking random occasions with cake, but it was definitely before Max’s hospital ordeal of late 2018. We have birthdays in pretty quick succession in our house – December, January, February – then no birthdays until July, and then nothing, again, until December. Now, I know cake isn’t only for birthdays, but those are truly the traditional “occasion” cake days that we mark in our household, anyway. And so after John’s birthday one February, I declared the new tradition of “a cake a month for whatever reason” which was wholeheartedly embraced by everyone.

And it needs to be said that these cake occasions had to be what I call “occasion cakes” the kind you order from a bakery or pick up at the grocery store. These cake occasions did not include things like banana bread or other types of loaf or pan cakes. No, these needed to be, for want of a better term, birthday cake cakes. Chocolate or vanilla or marble. One or two layers. Heavily iced, preferably with flowers or balloons and such. I don’t know why this is, but those were my deeply arbitrary rules for this new tradition I totally made up. We did mostly grocery store cakes for our occasions which had more to do with me not planning ahead than any great love for grocery store cakes (although who among us can resist a good old-fashioned sheet cake?!) and having to quickly stop by the grocery store on my way home from work to ensure the needs for our tradition were met.

So, that year we had St. Patrick’s Day cake, Easter cake, then cake for Mother’s Day, for Father’s Day, then for a birthday! Then came Civic Holiday, then Labour Day…you get the idea. Sometimes our cake eating fell on the appropriate days, sometimes it did not; sometimes there were random “holidays” like International Turtle Day or something that may or may not have been legit, but it didn’t matter. Because CAKE.

Our tradition stopped when Max went into hospital, but it resumed in full force when he was released, once he started to get his appetite back. Only now, the occasions were a little different. We celebrated “No more IV antibiotics!” and “The PICC line is out!” and “Physiotherapy graduation!” and all those milestones that were so important in his healing. And sometimes there were even two cakes in a month because there were, and are, no rules.

So, on March 2, one year after the accident, we celebrated once again, with cake.

Sometimes cake is all you need

Given the year we’ve been through, it’s surprising that I haven’t continued the cake a month tradition, but it’s never too late to start up again. After all, Easter is only a few weeks away at the beginning of April. And maybe 2021 will see some new milestones requiring cake: “First outside friend hang of 2021!” or “Got your vaccine!” etc. Covid-19-related cake things should probably exist. We’ve all endured so much.

And so when I told my friend that we have cake to celebrate being alive, it felt like I was being funny, but there is just so, so much truth to it.

Maybe cake isn’t your thing, maybe your thing is popcorn or red wine or chicken wings or Skittles. But whatever it is, I hope you also celebrate being alive with it. Regularly, if you can. Because we need that. We need it now, but I honestly think we’ve always needed it. Now just seems more urgent.

Blue Skies Ahead? Yes, Please

In December I bought myself the gift of the Headspace app. If you don’t know Headspace, allow me to fill you in a little bit. It’s a meditation app for your phone or computer allowing you to have a pocket full of meditations of all shapes and sizes that you can do wherever you want.

I had used Headspace before, 4 years ago or so, when things were stressful in my life and I decided I really needed to do something other than pace and stew. And then things got a little easier – although it’s still life, so stress never does actually go away – but I found I was using it less and less, so I stopped the subscription. Then, of course, 2020 happened, and while at the beginning of the shutdown/lockdown/quarantine I didn’t have the patience to sit and be mindful, (you know it’s chaotic when!) there were news reports to read and toilet paper to hunt down, after all. But as we all got into the swing of the slowed down pace (for those of us lucky enough to have been able to maintain our jobs and homelives, of course) I found myself once again needing some brain relief.

Headspace is one of many meditation and mindfulness apps out there. When I first decided to give it a try, I tested a couple, signing up for their trial periods. Now, there are quite a few to choose from (stress is big right now, go figure!) but Headspace was the one that clicked for me, the one I stuck with, and the one I’m using daily now.

The theme of the current series of meditations I’ve been doing is Appreciation and throughout, the instructor reminds you to, at the end of the day, write down three things you appreciate/are grateful for. The first time he suggested this, my mind went straight to a blog I used to follow in the mid-2000s, Three Beautiful Things. I was pretty sure the blog had ended a few years ago, but when I looked it up, I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the writer had started back up again in 2020 as a way of coping and finding light in the bleakness of the current world. I suppose it’s a bit weird and somewhat selfish to think “Yay, you’re blogging again because life is shit!” but reading Clare’s blog was a true comfort and rediscovering it has felt a bit like reconnecting with an old friend.

For a time I used the 3BT as prompts in my journal, trying to notice the little things that make life so bright and it was honestly one of the best things I could have done. I didn’t publish them like Clare does, but they were daily sparks for me when things were hard. Sometimes my three things came first thing in the morning on my bus ride to work, for example. I would notice kindnesses that had I not been looking for them might have escaped me, and I would arrive to work feeling grateful for 3BT, for everything, really.

If I were to look back at old journals, my three things of beauty entries ended, as did all my journal entries sadly, when Max entered hospital in November 2018. There was no joy, no beauty to be found at that time, there was only darkness and worry, stress and tears. And yet, if I’d been thinking straight (which I rarely was) there were actually SO MANY moments of beauty that could have been found in that pain. So many wonderful people at the heart of his care, so many friends and strangers who provided love and support, so many things that I saw and experienced that just never made it to my journal.

When you get started with Headspace they talk about the Blue Sky, that clarity of mind that is always with you, even if you can’t see it. Thoughts and feelings can act like clouds. Some clouds are ok, a few little ones flitting around are fine, but too many of them build up to create an all-consuming storm and it’s at that point when you start to wonder if you’ll ever see that blue sky again. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s a really great image. And if you’re struggling with a storm of your own, writing down three things that you’re grateful for, that you appreciate or even three beautiful things, three lovely things that you observe in a day, can be a really great way to help you find your way back to blue sky.

In the journaling workshops I’ve hosted in the past with Hamilton Public Library, some of the questions I get asked the most are variations of “What if I can’t think of anything to write?” or “What if I open my journal and there is nothing to say?” or “How do I write when I don’t know where to start?” And these are valid questions! For those participants my suggestion is always to start with three things: three feelings you have currently, the three items closest to you, three random words. If nothing else flows from there, you’ve at least listed three things on a page, and that’s better than a blank page. But three things – any three things – will usually lead to more. Three is the magic number, after all.

2021 is proving to be as much of a challenge as 2020, and if you’re struggling to find your blue sky, or even your three lovely things, you’re not alone. But remember, it’s there, it’s always there. When you push away the clouds, there it is. And when you are able to take notice of the little things, the beautiful ones will be revealed, too.

Wishing you blue skies and beautiful moments as we launch headfirst into this year, friends.

Book #1 for 2021: Migrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year indeed, dear friends.

Behold, I Bring You Tidings of…Something Something…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Life Can Change in an Instant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words come.

I mentioned on social media last week that in the past several days I’d started many blog posts, all currently residing in the drafts folder, languishing, it could be said, while I try to organize my thoughts enough to finish them.

Each time I open one up to write, the words don’t come. Or, they do come, but they’re trite, silly, words from before. Before we were isolating, sheltering in place, under quarantine and with an extra-large dose of social distancing. It wasn’t that long ago that these words would have been just fine, perhaps even good words, strung together in a blog post about something small, about nothing consequential, and that would have been ok. People would have read the words, maybe enjoyed the words that formed the post, they might have become thoughtful about something I’d written, or they might have smiled or laughed at the words and moved on with their lives. I feel now that these words aren’t right, they aren’t important enough to be said right now. And it’s ok. Honestly.

I have been working from home since Wednesday. But even before that, on Monday and Tuesday of last week, it was hard to focus on the work that needed to be done. Students were sent home from residences, classes moved to online delivery exams were cancelled. The campus felt deserted. Everyone was on edge. What would happen to the library? On Tuesday we spent the morning training on how to do our jobs from our homes. Tools we would use for meetings, for the public services work we normally did face-to-face. And we adapted, and it’s been a seamless move, really, but – and I am sure I’m not the only one to say this – the focus has just not been there.

When we have reference questions, sure, we’re focused and working hard to help the person virtually. And even with check-in meetings with our supervisor and our team, everyone is there, we’re doing ok, we’re getting by. But, as always, the elephant in the room is this: What is happening and when is it going to end. And the answer, of course, is that we just don’t know.

And so the words don’t come in this instance, we just don’t know what to say, so we say those things about coping, about getting by, and when we end the calls we say things like “Stay safe, everyone!” which is not, in case you were wondering, a sign-off greeting we have ever used before in our lives when speaking with co-workers at the end of a day.

And I know there are places and communities where that is a way to sign off a conversation and it’s likely my co-workers also know this and now we are all thinking the same thing –  that things are not safe in our world now and how did it come to this. But we don’t say it because the words don’t come. Or they do, but no one wants to be the one to say them. Out loud, anyway.

In my library, we have an archives and that archives is, as are most archives, run by an archivist. On Wednesday morning while we were all struggling with our technology, the resources that were going to help us do our job all alone in our homes, our archivist sent us all a message.

She told us she was going to be keeping a journal of this time. A document that outlined her day-to-day existence under self-isolation. Things like her daily routine, the weather, challenges and successes with work, reactions to the news, grocery lists and costs, etc. etc. Anything at all, really. And she encouraged us to do the same. Documentation of crises all through history has been crucial to understanding regular people living through difficult times, and whether it’s through poetry or letters or journals, the experiences are important. And they are necessary. And they should be documented.

I emailed her back right away and told her to count me in. I told her that I too would keep a journal of all of these things, these thoughts and feelings, these challenges and fears, and by sending that email I had found the words. And not only that, I understood that the words are important, even the trite and the silly. They are human, and they need to spill out in a format of our choosing to be documented. I hesitate to say documented for future generations but that’s exactly what this is. How will people in twenty or fifty years understand if we don’t actually tell them?

In the days, months, and years to come, there will be a LOT written about the pandemic.  Government officials, healthcare professionals, researchers and scientists, economists, financial experts and others will be weighing in with their expertise.

Maybe we should all weigh in too.

 

 

 

 

Back 2 School, Back to the Future

I am late, so late to the back-to-school season, I know. I had planned this post for much earlier in September, but things happen. Not terrible, awful things, mind you. Just…things.

But a few weeks ago, closer to the beginning of the school year, I posted this picture of me on Instagram and it sparked a back-to-school kind of vibe that I didn’t even know had been lurking in my brain.

This was Kindergarten class photo day. The year? 1972.

When I look at this photo I am overwhelmed by some pretty intense feelings for this little girl, this tiny 5-year-old whose cardigan game was fire, even then.

There is a kind of trend online these days where people write letters to their former selves, their childhood selves, their other selves. And I love it, I really do. Imagine being able to confront yourself in another dimension, so to speak; to be able to warn yourself, to prepare yourself, to encourage yourself. To impart the knowledge you have now to yourself back then. What a wonder.

What would you say to another you, a younger you, a different you? I had never really felt the urge until I posted this photo.

There is something about the girl in this photo that feels, to me, more vulnerable than any other school photo I own. Perhaps because it’s Kindergarten, her first foray into the education system, a year that helped forge her love of learning, of reading and writing and of following rules. (oh how she loved and continues to love rules.)

And perhaps it’s because of this vulnerability that I do, finally, have some thoughts for 5-year-old me:

  1. You are a pretty smart little kid and for the longest time, you will be picked on for being “the smart one” in the class and you will resist that completely until one day you will learn that someone else is “the smart one” and you are just the ok one, and you will find that extremely hard to take. So I am here to tell you that it’s ok to be the smartest kid in the class. It’s also ok to not be the smartest kid in the class. This probably feels like a contradiction but as with everything I’m about to tell you, you just have to trust me. Be yourself. You are actually pretty great.
  2. Your illness does not define you. I know it’s hard right now, it’s so, so hard. But soon, very soon, you will get a diagnosis. You will be asthmatic for your whole life, I’m sorry to tell you, but there eventually will be medication to help you breathe. It won’t be great at first, but it will be something, and the medication only gets better as time goes on. Trust me. You won’t always miss so much school, so much life. You will dance and you will run and in 2015 (a lifetime from now, I know, but just you wait) you will earn a black belt in karate. YOU will do this. YOU.
  3. You will always be emotional. Lots of things make you cry now, and lots of things will continue to make you cry. But this: your empathy, your compassion, your ability to put yourself in others’ shoes, these things actually make you strong. So go ahead and cry and continue to feel things deeply. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t.
  4. I know that Rosa Too Little by Sue Felt is your favourite book right now, and the only book you ever want to borrow from the library,  and that’s ok, but you know what? You will move on from that book, and even though it will always hold a special place in your heart, you will read HUNDREDS of other books. Really! And the library will continue to be a place of solace for you and one day when you are grown up you will not only WORK in libraries but you will also be asked to teach classes in the public library and you will think that you could not be any luckier. And this will actually be true.
  5. You will spend years trying to find your signature “look” with various fashion trends but your ultimate style will come full circle to this very photo. A plaid dress, a sensible cardigan, tights, and cute shoes. Own it. It’s your destiny.

Happy September, friends. Knock ’em dead.