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Trust in the Process, 1000 Words at a Time

From May 31 to June 13 I took part in 1000 Words of Summer. This is a two-week period where you (voluntarily) add 1000 words to a project – a current project, something brand new, or even a couple of projects – daily. The goal is, of course, to add a significant number of words (ideally 14,000 or so) in a fairly quick timeframe, giving you that impetus, that drive and that desire to keep going, to push through, to realize that hey, there really is something there, something tangible that can be built upon, that might even turn into a book, a screenplay, a whatever it is you’re writing.

It is, of course, the brainchild of author Jami Attenberg who had the idea for the 1000 words writing sprint four years ago. I can’t remember if I participated in the very first one, but I have done it a few times, and it’s always a fantastic exercise in perseverance. Attenberg is an extremely gracious host who sends daily newsletters to the participants’ collective inboxes to inspire us. Sometimes there is also advice penned by other authors, sometimes Attenberg herself is our cheerleader, but no matter who is doing the writing, I think I have saved every single one of them. These emails are meant to keep us focused, grounded, and believing in ourselves as we push through to write 1000 words every. single. day.

I love these two weeks every summer and look forward to them even if by about day nine I’m thinking oh my god whyyyyy. I love the community 1000 words brings to my writing. I love scrolling through the hashtag and celebrating milestones with people, reading about their triumphs, and of course commenting with support and cheerleading for those who are struggling to find the words, for those who have to cut more words than they write, for those who are just not sure they belong.

But the great thing is that each time I participate I learn something about myself and about my writing. My writing self has definitely evolved since I decide to try my hand at writing fiction and creative non-fiction a few years back, of course, but each 1000 Words session I learn a little bit more about who I am.

This year in things I learned doing 1000 Words, I learned that I am an early morning writer after all. I kind of hate myself for morphing into a morning person, as morning people have always been my nemeses. But, when I realized that I was setting my alarm a half hour or even an hour earlier to get up to write, I was secretly thrilled. Look at me go, isn’t this what real writers do? I mean, some, sure. Lots write late into the night and lots write in chunks throughout the day, there is no *real* way to write, all writing time is valid writing time. But there was something about being up not just early but before the sunrise early (which is VERY early in the late spring in this part of the world, just saying) that was beyond motivating for me and so I’m going with it.

And in these early morning sessions, the 1000 words just flowed out of me and onto the page. It might be a coincidence, or it might be *a thing*, but and I have a couple of theories as to why it seemed easier than ever this time.

When I pre-ordered Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours a couple of years ago, she included a cool postcard from New Orleans and this rad sticker of her dog, Sid. I put him on my notebook for inspiration.

The first is that I’m getting someplace with this project of mine. It feels real now and I’m figuring it out. I’m understanding my characters, learning about who they are and what they need, and having them do things that make sense for them now.

I’m also taking full advantage of all the writing workshops and author talks and readings and everything I’ve been to regarding writing, and I’m just… writing things down, putting words on the page. I’m no longer backspacing through entire sentences because they “just don’t look right.” I’m leaving shitty grammar and sentence structure in there for now and I’m writing small notes for myself like “you need to fix this” and “what the hell does this even mean???” so that when I go back to slash my way through, I can figure those things out.

And finally, I’m trusting myself to get this done. Trusting the process: the write, delete, write again, revise, write… Because it is a process and there is truly no other way to get it done. That old saying, something like “If you’re going through hell, keep going” really applies here. Getting the words on the page, trusting that eventually, after much hell (likely) but not the worst sort of hell (probably) something beautiful will be formed, that all those creative hours will lead to something good, eventually.

As always, I was sad to see the end of 1000 Words of Summer, but the motivation to continue on, to write more, to see this project through to the end, to set a stupidly early alarm and write stupidly early in the day, has remained. And that in itself is a beautiful thing.

Write Group, Right Time

A couple of months ago, a tweet from the author Bianca Marais came up in my Twitter timeline. In it, she was putting out a call to the writing community. The gist of it was that anyone looking to join to a writing group, they should email her with their name, writing genre, and location, and she would do her best to match them with other writers in their area. This seemed, to me, like an extremely generous thing to do – and also potentially quite time-consuming! In the end I think she had over 200 emails from writers looking for their community. Including me.

As you know, I attend a lot of book and author events, and one of the things that’s always struck me when authors are chatting about their work, their process, etc. is how many of them speak so eloquently and exuberantly about their writing groups. “But, writing is so solitary!” is what I always think when I hear that, and it definitely is. So where do these groups come from?

Much like I have never been part of a book club, I have also never been part of a writing group, and while I have wanted that to change for quite some time, I didn’t really know how to go about forming a writing group or finding a group of people who all like and trust each other enough to read their work.

A few years ago I took an intro creative writing course through a local college and it was great. It took a few weeks for the group to gel (as it typically does) but by the final few classes, a core group of students seemed keen to continue the discussion after the course ended. We established our first couple of meetings, get-togethers, whatever you want to call them, but we went in not really knowing what to expect, not laying any ground rules, not managing any expectations as to how things were going to happen. I am a person who likes structure and who also likes to know ahead of time what the plan is, and while I really liked the people in the group, I found the group itself kind of stressful.

The great thing about Bianca’s offer was that she also runs workshops on how to organize and participate successfully in a writing group, how to establish the guidelines needed, how to avoid some of the common pitfalls groups might encounter.

Writing groups, she tells us in the workshop, tend to mostly happen organically. It could be the people you bond with during your MFA or throughout a writing course, much like my creative writing class. Or you might be lucky enough to have a group of friends who write and who want feedback and encouragement and all the things you get in a writing group. And if you don’t, well that’s where Bianca’s generous offer comes in.

And so, a few days after I sent my email telling Bianca that I wanted her to magically find me some writing people, she came through in a very big way, and our group of five was formed.

Once she had assigned everyone to their groups she told us that the rest is up to us. We are the ones who need to establish our ground rules, our plan for making the group work. And with the help of her workshop (which THREE of us from our newly formed group attended and Bianca referred to us as “Type A Capricorns” which for me, anyway, totally tracks) we met via Zoom and got to work.

It’s a lovely group of people, and even one familiar face (hi Sarah!) and I felt so comfortable with everyone. I think we’re going to be a good fit.

She’s ready.

By the end of day this coming Monday, the members who are submitting their work for critiquing will have sent it to the rest of us, and the following Monday is our first official meeting, and I am really excited.

I’m excited to share my work, of course, even though I’m a little nervous about that, but I’m more excited to read the work of the others in the group. It feels like such a privilege to be granted the opportunity to read fresh work, to be among the first to see a writer’s early drafts. We are so used to seeing the finished products in the books, stories, articles, and essays – and blog posts – we read, it’s easy to forget that these things don’t emerge, fully formed and onto the page straight from the author’s brain. I mean, if only, right?

And writers know that there is so much editing and deleting and reworking and revising that goes into these projects, writers know that for a fact. I know that for a fact! Yet we forget, and when we read a perfectly crafted story that seems effortless in its execution, we forget that a whole lot of sweat, and probably some swearing, (maybe even tears although that could just be me) occurred, to ensure that this story seemed to float effortlessly to life.

I think this is what I’ve been needing, honestly. Likeminded people, writers who will hold me accountable, and I in turn will do the same for them. Writers who will push me to be better, to dig deeper if that is what is required, to ease off, if it’s more that. (with me it’s probably more that, but anyway.)

All I know is I can’t wait to get started.


When Charles was about a year and a half old, we started looking for another house. The house we were in was fine, in fact, we loved almost everything about it, and if it hadn’t been located on one of the busiest streets in the city of Hamilton, we might have stayed put. But the traffic was wild, and there was nary a glimmer of traffic calming or pedestrian safety ideas anywhere in the minds of the city council at the time, (or since, to be honest) and the street we lived on seemed designed to be a sort of pre- or post-highway in that as drivers sped toward or from Highway 403 as they moved along the street. Meaning that, depending on which direction they were headed they either ramped up to or maintained 400 series of highways speeds. Posted at 50km/h, like most of Hamilton’s streets, the average speed along that stretch of road was, in the mid-90s, 85km+. Is it any wonder the gardens at the front of the house were neglected? We were walking distance from the entrance to the 403, but it sometimes felt like we lived on the highway itself.

And while we wanted to get away from the busy street, we still did want to stay in the same area for all the reasons people like to live in the neighbourhoods they like to live in: proximity to schools, groceries, parks and greenspaces, and other amenities as they say. So, in the spring and early summer of 1999, we started our hunt.

I don’t want even want to let you know what our budget was or what our first house was listed for, it’s too sad. Let’s just say that in 1999, the only half-million and million dollar homes around here were homes that looked like you would think a half or million dollar home would look like. Not the 1.5 storey, 2 bedroom one bathroom kinds of deals you get around here now. In other words, housing prices MADE SOME DAMN SENSE.

Anyway, we made our list of things we wanted in a new house: Two bathrooms; an extra bedroom that wasn’t the size of a small closet; maybe a basement that was finished? These don’t seem like extremely luxurious expectations, but they were to us. We knew we would likely have another child within a year or two, so we wanted a little more space. And mostly we wanted off the super highway known as Aberdeen Avenue.

Our real estate agent printed out (I know!) lists of homes for us to consider. The listings had all the details, of course, and small black and white photos of the houses in question. Because we were still looking in the same neighbourhood we would bundle Charles into the stroller, and off we would go to check out the properties.

There was one house on the real estate printouts that we would walk by all the time. It was slightly out of our price range (again, you would weep if you knew what this price range was) but it was really lovely to look at. Not from an aesthetics point of view, mind you. Visually it was a bit of a clown house: brick painted bright red with white trim around the windows, a yellow screen door, that very 70s light green aluminum siding in parts. A bit of a train wreck, an assault on the senses if I’m being honest. But it was more the feeling I got when we waked by. It just felt like comfort, like happiness. I could picture Charles playing in the backyard, I could envision our family on the deck. The vibes, I guess you could say, were good. When our realtor guy asked us what houses we wanted to see, that house was always one he recommended. But we always hesitated, even when the price dropped and dropped again.

“It doesn’t have everything on our list,” I would say to John, to the realtor.

“Just take a look,” said the realtor.

And privately to John I would say, “I’m afraid to go through it. Because it doesn’t have everything we’re looking for and I’m afraid that if I do view it I will want us to buy it, I will want us to live there, no matter what.”

And, you have probably figured out, that is exactly what happened.

Eventually during our search, the house moved right into our budget (we later learned that it’s likely because it’s a corner lot, and who wants a corner lot with all that much more snow to shovel) and so I finally relented and off we went to see it.

The first steps through the door I remember thinking, “Well, I told you.” and then I went happily along paying little attention as the realtor pointed out features and things that might need to be fixed or changed. The house just felt happy. I can’t explain it, but there are happy houses and there are sad houses. We toured some houses where I would just shake my head at John and say “Sad” or “Cold” (not in temperature but in temperament) or in one case “Death.” Again, I can’t explain it, it’s just feelings I get, but John agreed that we didn’t want to live in sad, cold, or death houses, so he followed my lead. And this, this was a happy house. And while it might not have checked all the boxes on our house hunting wish list, it offered something else: it felt like home, already. This would be our new house, our forever home, all things going according to plan. And we went through it for the first time and then we all stood on the sidewalk to debrief and told our agent that we wanted to put in an offer.

It’s been a very good house to us, and it continues to be. We did have another child of course, Max was born in July of 2000, and it’s really the only family home either kid has known.

In the spring of 2001 I surveyed the state of the gardens and decided that what was missing to make the entire place complete was a lilac. Lilacs, to me, are home. The house I grew up in had two massive lilac trees, one light purple, one dark. The dark purple was old, my grandmother had planted it at some point after my grandparents moved to Hamilton from Winnipeg. The lighter one not quite as old, my mother planted that one after she and my dad bought the house from my grandparents who had moved to Nanticoke. By the time I was leaving home both trees were taller than our house with massive, fragrant blooms every spring.

She endures.

I didn’t plant a lilac at our first home because I knew we would likely be leaving, but here, I thought, here is where we will stay. Here is where we will raise our family, here is where we need a lilac tree.

So I planted one and it thrived, and it is now taller than anyone can reach and the boys don’t know this home without it, which is exactly perfect and exactly what I wanted.

If you believe Flora’s Lexicon (which I do!) the symbolism for lilac is “first emotions of love” and I think that’s fitting.

I think love can be a place just as easily as it can be a person. I think planting anything with intention – especially something that is likely to outlive you – can also be love, a promise to future generations, a gift from the past, a legacy in some sense. And for my grandmother who didn’t love Hamilton right away, who missed her Manitoba family, maybe planting the lilac was her way of putting down of roots (quite literally) and striving to make something beautiful in her new life.

My lilac is 20 years old this spring. It feels like a lifetime and in a lot of ways it is. But, compare that to the lilac my grandmother planted, closer to 75 years old, and the one my mother planted, nearly 60 by now, surely. I hope they’re still there, I hope that other families have marked the years based on the height of those trees, have cut bunches of blooms for their tables, to take to friends, teachers, neighbours.

A lot has changed in 20 years for our family and our world, and our lilac has been there for all of it, a beloved constant each springtime no matter how harsh the winter. A metaphor if ever I heard one.

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.