Books did a lot of heavy lifting in getting me through this past year, I’ll tell you what. In Year One of the pandemic I didn’t read as much as I thought I would, but by 2021, I felt I was in the zone. I, like a lot of people, was better prepared in 2021 to deal. I mean, we’d already done almost a year, right? And, it’s true that some things did kind of get back to a type of normal, and even though my anxiety was still high, it wasn’t as high as it had been…especially if I made the decision to put down my phone, to log off the news sites. Which I did. Or at least tried to do. For the most part.
So, books. I managed to read quite a few and, in no particular order, here are the ones that stuck with me most, the ones that I still think about.
I suppose it isn’t shocking that all these books are by women; I don’t typically read a lot of men’s fiction. But what is surprising is the nonfiction representation here, because I think this might be the first time that not one, not two but THREE nonfiction titles appear on my best of list! Really love that journey for me.
As well, two collections of short stories made the list, and two novels. The bulk of my reading was novels, of course, and there is definitely something to be said for consistency, but I’m happy to have branched out just a little this year, too.
There’s not a real theme running through these top seven titles, except maybe the theme of “making me feel a lot of different feelings at the same time”.
I laughed and cried and spent time thinking “yikes” during All’s Well. Speak, Silence was overwhelmingly sad, and breathtakingly beautiful. I held my breath and peeked through my fingers while reading In The Dream House, and marveled at the beauty that can be found in trauma. And, The Most Precious Substance on Earth made me laugh and cringe and feel all the nostalgia, while stories in You Are Not What We Expected were startling and sad and fierce.
Crying in H Mart evoked laughter and heartbreak and feelings of loss, and Wintering made me wistful and pensive, with a desire to turn inward and spend time reflecting.
I’m not sure if my emotional response to what I read was heightened this past year, but I do know there were some books I had been anticipating that I was unable to read. At first I was beating myself up about it; “they’re books, you love all books, you’ve read harder books” but I eventually clued in to what my heart needed, and if I found a book’s subject matter ultra challenging, I gently closed it and told myself “Not yet” and moved on.
For the books I did read, I am so grateful to each of them for what they allowed me to feel this year, and if I had the time and inclination I would write small sentences for the other 44, too. Because when you don’t know what to do with your big, big feelings, it’s so nice to have stories as an outlet.
The year that was was a weird one, friends. I know you likely feel the same, how could you not? We’ve been bandied about like balloons in a strange will we or won’t we kind of atmosphere when it comes to all parts of our lives. I’m exhausted. We’re all exhausted. It’s hardly even worth saying anymore, really. So few answers to the question “How are you?” other than “oh, you know” or that old chestnut, *gesturing vaguely to everything*.
We just learned today that we’re taking a step (a few steps? I can’t keep track) back in Ontario but as usual it’s a real lights are on but nobody’s home kind of vibe which, well…fuck. Typical.
And sure, I’m bummed because I won’t be able to go out for my birthday but more than that, I’m also bummed for my friends and neighbours who won’t be able to get their much-needed surgeries. I’m bummed for my parent friends who are staring down another virtual school term while also trying to work and not lose their minds. I’m bummed for their kids who are also staring down another virtual semester, who may struggle with virtual school. I’m worried for friends in healthcare who are pushed to the brink, and I’m worried about my in-laws locked down once again in their residence which is virus free for now, but for how long?
I can get takeout, have a cake delivered; I will be fine. It’s not the point.
And I could spill a lot of laptop ink going on and on about the incompetence, the sheer cruelty of our government. But you know that. If you live in Ontario you very much know that. If you live elsewhere, well, I hope your leaders are treating you better. But I watch the news. I’m skeptical. It’s all pretty bleak.
And yet, there were bright spots, weren’t there? Here are a few of mine.
In 2021 I read 49 books, and I loved them all. That is one of the good things about carefully curating your reads, you rarely end up with ones you don’t like. I tried to do a “Top 5” but it came out at 7, and later this week I will try to do a recap here.
My writing group has been the most wonderful balm in a trying year, honestly. Since the beginning of the pandemic writing has been a struggle for me, but having this group to offer support and to be inspired by their incredible work has helped so much. Forever grateful to them.
One of my short stories, Dog Walkers and Murderers won the Hamilton Arts & Letters Magazine Short Works Prize for fiction (for unpublished authors) and I am still not over that, to be honest. There was a cash prize AND I will be mailed a certificate! I got the news on an evening when I was dealing with a pretty severe UTI, so you know, it’s all glamour over here.
Our older son moved home at the beginning of the year and I really think that having the four of us together under one roof again has helped me make it through. I think the kids *mostly* feel the same way.
And as an aside, shout out to the 20-somethings (my kids and others) who have, contrary to what you might read, been EXTREMELY responsible throughout this whole ordeal. Lining up to get vaccinated, remaining masked when out for walks with friends early on, taking all precautions as things started to open up, being respectful of the rules, the whole deal. We love, as they say, to see it.
I know there were other bright moments in 2021, and I’ll probably think of them later, but those are the ones that jumped out. I hope you had your fair share too, friends, I’d love to hear about them!
And you know, it’s ok if you didn’t, or if maybe you did, but for now they are hidden in the murkiness of how hard it all was. If that’s the case, here’s to a much, much brighter 2022.
One night two weeks ago I woke from a deep sleep around midnight coughing and sputtering and with an awful burning in my throat, my chest. Sitting upright in bed I struggled to catch my breath, swallowing hard and fighting through the pain it caused me, trying not to cough to wake the entire upstairs of my house.
Ah, acid reflux, we meet again. My crime? Consuming two meatballs and one small glass of red wine after 8:00pm.
This episode was particularly rough. Typically I can come downstairs and sit in my chair, dozing until the worst of it is over. I can crunch a couple of Tums and take some small sips of water and eventually fall asleep again. But this night was very different in that I couldn’t even sit down. I walked the main floor of our house wrapped in a blanket, coughing weakly like a Victorian consumptive desperately trying not to disturb the acid that was staying put for now. It was precarious at best and one false move could force another eruption and my body was not willing to experience that.
And so I walked and walked, and every so often attempted to sit down, but then within seconds I was back to walking, and when eventually my body calmed itself down and I was able to go back up to bed, to lie down and sleep, it was nearly 5:00am. Our alarm goes off at 6.
I take medication for acid reflux and it has been a true lifesaver for the past several years, but not even it can handle some of the more serious transgressions, sadly. I need to be more careful, of course. But I sometimes forget.
I think it’s the forgetting that is making me hyper aware of my aging self, my aging body. Not forgetting as in losing memory, but forgetting that there are just things that aren’t possible anymore. Eating late, unless I’m planning on staying up past midnight, is definitely one of them. And that night of lost sleep took its toll, and it honestly took me several days to recover from that, so there’s something else that I forget. That a bad night’s sleep can ruin your week. A mantra of sorts, but a kind of depressing one if you ask me.
I am about halfway through You Look Good for Your Age: An Anthology, edited by Rona Altrows, and so the theme of aging—body and mind and soul—is clearly on my mind.
In this book of essays, stories, and poetry, the writers—all women—confront the inevitable. Some stories are crushingly sad, some are funny as hell, and they are all brutally honest looks at not only aging, but the ageism woman face as they age and how that can and does shape our perspective of it.
More than once during the reading of this collection, I have closed the book and stage whispered, “TOO REAL!” And, much like the “I’m in this photo/tweet and I don’t like it” meme, I have seen myself in several stories and have related to so many, and that is the appeal of this book. Relatable? For a woman of a certain age, indeed.
I will be 55 in January. I know that isn’t old age, but I think I’m starting to be able to see it from here. I’m looking to the future and it is reflux. And bad joints. And a shorter temper. But I’m planning on getting even older though, in spite of it all, so there’s that I guess.
And it’s not all terrible, as the women of You Look Good for Your Age will tell you. Some of aging is about power, about reclamation and about growing into yourself. And who doesn’t want that at any age?
I am really enjoying this book and I am grateful for the opportunity to read it, and so very grateful to the contributors for their incredible stories.
Last weekend, because it was the beginning of October, I asked my partner if he would bring down from the attic the storage bin that holds my fall and winter clothes. I realize as I’m writing this that it makes me sound a lot like a fancy person who has a lot of clothes that I have to sort and store by season but the truth is less glamourous: we just don’t have a lot of storage/closet space.
Like most older homes, ours is lacking in closets. There are no closets on the main floor at all. There are two in the bedrooms on the second floor. Both of these are built under the stairs that lead to the attic, so these so-called closets are oddly shaped and extremely small, almost unusable. We have added wardrobes to hold clothes in those rooms. The third bedroom has no closet at all and no room for a wardrobe.
So, every “season” (I use season loosely here, honestly) I box up the clothes I won’t be wearing for several months and take them to the attic.
And while I don’t seem to have a lot of clothes, this storage bin has been getting heavier each time I empty and fill it. It’s your standard sized Rubbermaid tote, you probably know the one, and it’s always kind of exciting to be reunited with the clothes that I haven’t seen for some time, like old friends.
“Oh, there’s that dress that I love, you’re looking great!” Or, “I forgot I bought you, lovely sweater, just at the end of the season, and we had so little time together! How nice to see you again!” And it’s so nice to wash and dry them and hang them up and anticipate wearing them once the weather turns cooler.
But then, inevitably, there are those few items that return to me via the Rubbermaid bin that are less like old lovely friends and more like the toxic relatives at family gatherings. The ones that make things awkward and make you uncomfortable but you can’t escape them. These items, well, they are a bit more complicated.
And maybe if you’ve read this far you know what I’m talking about, your head might be nodding right along because you too have these items of clothing that present challenges to you, to your wellbeing. And if so, this is for you.
In the past when I’ve done the seasonal switcheroo with my clothes, I’ve pulled things out and made decisions based on qualitative data. Saying things like, “Oh I love this dress” or “Yes, this is still so cute” or using anecdotes like, “I wore this to that concert and had the BEST time!” But what I wasn’t doing was looking at the quantitative data, the measurable data, the data that can be used for statistical analysis. So my research was flawed. (I work in a medical academic library, I’m so sorry.)
Basically I was going by feelings. And in other non-research language: I was not trying things on.
And this was a HUGE error on my part. And really WHY on earth would I take the time to wash, dry, and hang clothes that didn’t fit me? Because the plan used to be that one day they WILL fit me, that they are the INSPIRATIONAL items of clothing and they will REMIND me daily that they don’t fit but that they SHOULD fit. If only I could be better.
And if you read my last blog post, you’ll know that I’ve been on a journey for the past several years to avoid this kind of thinking in a lot of areas of my life. But for whatever reason, when it came to the clothes in my wardrobe, my brain just didn’t get the memo.
And so these dresses and jackets and things would hang there, and when I would go to get dressed for work or for an event I would see them, just hanging there. Unwearable for me today. But maybe next week or next month they would see the light of day. If I could just be better.
And it’s madness, isn’t it?
And so this time when John carried the bin downstairs and put it in our bedroom for me, I attacked it with a plan and an evidence-based plan at that. (Again, sorry.)
This time I brought a large garbage bag with me and every item I took out of the box, I tried on. And if it didn’t fit on Saturday, it went into the bag for donation.
It was probably the WORST day to try on clothes because it was hot and muggy and if you’ve ever spent an hour or more trying on clothes in a mall or a department store you KNOW how awfully sweaty you can get. My lighting was better, but that’s really the only difference. Nevertheless, I continued until I had tried on everything in that bin. And I was ruthless.
At the end, I had about five or six dresses, tunics, etc. that I was keeping and nearly three-quarters of a bag of things to donate. And eliminating some of those things made me sad, I’m not going to lie. Clothing can be tied to so many memories, and it can be hard to let go. The dress I wore to a good friend’s wedding; the one I wore when I presented at my first conference. Both had to go.
It also might feel wasteful or fiscally irresponsible. “I bought these things with actual money, now it’s down the drain!” But the reality is a dress that hangs in a closet unworn for season after season after season is already money down the drain, isn’t it.
After the bin, I attacked my current clothes, my warm weather clothes, and did the same thing. That exercise filled the garbage bag to the top and then some.
And how overwhelmingly freeing to see not a wardrobe bursting with clothing that makes me say “Maybe one day…” but to instead see a neat row of STUFF I WILL ACTUALLY WEAR on a regular basis. And how much better for my mental health to not look at all those clothes and then judge myself for reaching for the same four items because they are the only things that truly fit.
It’s a task I should have done years ago, of course, but I wasn’t ready for it then. Then, it felt like admitting failure, admitting defeat. I was ready for it Saturday. On Saturday it felt like a triumph.
And, it turns out, I don’t have too many clothes. What I had was a wardrobe overstuffed with dreams and sadness. And now I don’t. And my mood, my mental health, everything, is better for it.
So, if you can, I encourage you all to fill your closets with loving friends and purge them of toxic relatives. You deserve to be free. And comfortable.
On a whim, on Saturday afternoon, I pulled out a photo album my mum made years ago. She was a very organized person, and I remember when she decided to make a bunch of these themed photo albums. She sifted through boxes and boxes of photos to create them, and they are honestly pretty great. We have one called Pets, another called Cottage…you get the idea. The boys love them, have always loved going through them, turning the pages to reveal the dogs and cats of my childhood (there were so many) and the photos of parties and events at the cottage (ALSO so many) and asking questions about who the people are, what was that dog like, you had how many cats at one time??? (that answer would be five.)
I am not really a photo album kind of person, but decided to pull out the one labelled Dance and take a look at it because I couldn’t remember the last time I had. In fact I may have never looked at it, although some of the photos felt very familiar so I had either seen the album before or I had seen the photos at one time in their natural habitat: a large suitcase under my parents’ bed.
I started taking dance lessons in 1975 at the age of eight and continued until around 1992 when I was 25. I loved it and I was good at it and as I advanced the teachers challenged me with complex steps and routines and accelerated me within the school. By the time I was 12 I was an assistant teacher and at 14 I started teaching my own classes to the littlest kids with prescribed choreography. Then I was allowed to develop my own choreography which I started teaching to the bigger kids, and then, finally, to the adults. I loved everything about it, and looking at the photos brought back so many amazing memories. And so, I decided to share some of these photos with the internet.
The response was overwhelming, honestly. People left the loveliest comments about how cute I was, how great the photos were, how they evoked a real time and place (the Dorothy Hammill-esque ‘short and sassy’ hairdo got a LOT of love) and it was fun to see how much people were enjoying these snaps from the past, from a life that not a lot of people know about (I usually don’t drop the “Oh yes, that time I was a tap dancer…” in polite conversation, you know?)
And for me it was interesting to look back on myself, to that body that I have always felt was so incredibly flawed and realize that it was, in fact, just fine. And yet, even the tiniest iteration of myself on those pages—eight year old me, ten year old me—already knew that she was a chubby kid, a chunky kid, the kind of kid who was destined to shop in the Misses Plus department at The Right House and Eaton’s. And she knew that back then not because she felt it, or understood anything about bodies in general, but because she was told those things. And so she shrunk, literally and figuratively. And she apologized. And she tried to make herself different, better.
And what a waste to think like that, to think that my body was too much or not enough. But now? Now it is so overwhelmingly wonderful to look at that girl and tell her,
“Look at you go, look how happy you are there. To be dancing. To be performing. To be onstage. I know how self-conscious you were in every other aspect of your life, but onstage, you owned it. You were confident, you were so good. People watched you and said you’re a natural. Teachers accelerated you because you picked it up – all of it – so quickly.”
And I’m getting there again, I can feel it. Trying so hard to eliminate the critical self-talk, treating myself, my body, the entirety of me with kindness, with respect, with the words I should have been using for more than 40 years.
How lovely it is to say to myself “You’ve done a good job, here” instead of picking the job apart, looking for its flaws.
How affirming to make a mistake and gently remind myself that I’m human, I’m not ‘an idiot’ for forgetting, that I don’t have to jump so quickly to anger with myself.
What a gift to find and wear clothes that make me feel good, that make me say to my reflection “You look so nice” instead of wishing away the parts of me that don’t seem to measure up to what others want to see, what others expect to see.
How wonderful to exclaim “I exist like this and I’m actually quite ok with it!” Such a simple sentence and yet for so long, so impossible to utter.
I spent a lot of years trying to fix myself, to make myself different, better. But when I entered my 50s I said I was done with that and nearly five years in, I’m getting there.
Do I wish I’d started earlier? Of course. But on Saturday I was so immensely happy to be able to look at those dance photos and smile. To reminisce without judgement, without cringing, without apologizing for how my thighs look, for my double chin. To see that girl and know she’s still inside me, dancing her heart out.
Last Wednesday, in the midst of our cottage vacation, I had a fall. I was stepping off the deck, a deck I have stepped off multiple times in the past 40-something years, didn’t place my foot fully on the concrete step, causing it to slip off and causing me to soar twisting and windmilling in a—as we now know, futile—attempt to right myself.
I think I would have been ok—lucky, even—if I’d landed on the grass, but the final spin took me over to an exposed tree root that met my left elbow with surprising force. The wet-sounding “thunk” I felt more than heard. The pain was immediate and searing and I knew that I was in trouble. Unlucky, then.
When my brother and I were young and running around at the lake, climbing trees and launching ourselves into the water from large rocks, the common refrain from our parents was something to the effect of “If you break a leg, you’ll have to hop to Hagersville!” Hagersville being the closest hospital, of course. I was never sure why they wanted us to hop, and as I got older I took it to mean either, if you’re dumb enough to hurt yourself in a dumb way,well you’re on your own, or that cocktail hour with the neighbours was in full swing and none of the adults were in any shape to drive in case of emergencies.
Whatever the reasoning, neither my brother or I or any of the other kids to my knowledge needed the local ER. Lucky. We did a lot of dumb stuff.
As John buckled me into my seatbelt while I clutched my injured elbow in a death grip with my other hand, I was very glad to have a ride to the hospital. Lucky John was there. Lucky I wasn’t on my own. Lucky to not have to hop to Hagersville.
The ER was quiet at 7:30 on a Wednesday morning. Lucky for me I was seen and given a sling almost immediately. There were xrays and a diagnosis: your elbow is in a very wrong place, the doctor told me. Look, here is what it’s supposed to look like! Lucky it isn’t broken then. Just dislocated. Lucky me.
The doctor told me they would do a relocation and I prepared myself for the worst. Where would they send me? To Hamilton, I hoped.
Fixing a dislocated elbow is called a relocation, I learned.
I waited and the nurse came back with an IV for me. When they relocate your elbow they give you drugs. So no bullet to bite, no length of dowling shoved in my mouth, that’s nice. I don’t think he was impressed by that.
The nurse asked me how are you doing? Ok, I said. You’ll be groggy but it’s done. What’s done? Your elbow. I missed it all, out like a light. Lucky for me.
Can you walk to another room? I think so. Drawers and drawers of splints and bandages and plaster of paris awaited. What’s happening here? I’m giving you a cast, the doctor said. I had hoped for just being wrapped up and taking it easy. Not lucky enough for that.
When I tell the story now I always talk about how lucky I was. How it could have been so much worse. How lucky to have only dislocated it! It’s not broken, right? Whew, so lucky!
And I am and it is, but why the need to explain away a pretty serious injury? Why minimize the trauma just because, well shit it could have been worse?
I have some thoughts and most of them have to do with not wanting to complain. And, if you explain to people “Oh it’s just dislocated haha nothing to worry about!” there’s no room for less-generous people to tell you you’re overreacting.
The truth is that the pain from this injury was the worst pain I have ever experienced. It’s my dominant arm, too, so rarely have I felt more helpless. I can’t drive. Can’t walk the dog. Can’t write or type. (This draft is in a phone note and it’s taking me forever) Can barely shower unassisted. Getting dressed is a challenge so sometimes I just don’t bother. It’s so frustrating and yet there is that voice that continues to remind me how lucky I am, that it’s a temporary situation, remember; that I should be so grateful.
Decades of putting myself in others’ shoes and looking on the bright side and being thankful, so very thankful for everything I have, means that wallowing in self-pity or even just acknowledging that hey, this is really awful right now feels impossible.
And I know that this is, as they say, a “me thing” but I also suspect I’m not alone in these feelings of guilt for wanting to wallow, to complain, to be sad. Even just for a little while.
A lot of us come from long lines of people who regularly thanked their lucky stars, who didn’t want to be seen as a complainers, to whom “grin and bear it” was a constant mantra. And please trust me when I say I do want to be one of those people! I always want to be the person who thinks of others before themselves! It’s who I am and I am very, very good at it! I just wish there was some sort of middle ground. For me. For all of us.
On Friday I will see a specialist who will determine the next steps for my elbow. With luck, it’s healing well under its cast. Perhaps the cast can even come off.
There are other scenarios, of course: potential for surgery if fractures are found; maybe it’s not healing well and more casting is required. I try not to think about those.
Whatever happens I will bear it, of course. And, with a little bit of luck I may learn to grin only part of the 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.