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.

Rejection Introspection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book #6 for 2021: The Beguiling

I treated myself to a couple of books for my birthday back in January, and The Beguiling, by Zsuzsi Gartner was one of them.

As is typical for me, I can’t remember where I read/heard about the book (I really should come up with a system, like a note in my phone or something equally as simple) but it obviously intrigued me enough to grab it off the shelf at Epic Books on Locke St. And can we talk about that cover?!

In The Beguiling, Lucy is grieving the loss of her much-adored cousin Zoltan who was attacked at a bizarre warehouse party (ceremony?) and succumbs to infection of the wounds inflicted on him there.

Shortly after Zoltan dies, strangers begin to seek her out as their confessor, a role which she accepts and later grows to need in order to keep going.

Back then, just two years after Zoltan’s death I fed on the confessions much like a vampire bat feeds on sleeping cattle. What was this endless hunger I was feeding? My ego or a sense of spiritual entitlement? Lucy of East Vancouver, patron saint of bottom-feeders.

As we read the stories of Lucy’s confessors – and the majority of them are grim, horrifying confessions – more is revealed about Lucy’s own character and history and throughout the novel, she becomes less and less reliable as she becomes more and more distant from family, and, it might be said, from reality.

This is a extremely dark, occasionally shocking novel that requires a great deal of concentration – or at least it did for me – to comprehend the twists, the topsy-turvy kind of narrative. There is, as I mentioned on Instagram when I first started reading it, a LOT going on, but it is so, so worth it.

And lest the idea of it being extremely dark prevents you from picking it up, please know that there are parts that are also desperately funny, and writing that is intensely, gloriously human.

It is also the kind of novel you will likely want to go back to immediately after finishing it. Gartner plays so heavily with style, with narrative, and with timeline, that it’s a bit like being underwater and not knowing which way is up until eventually you burst to the surface and everything makes sense again. That is, until you take another plunge with eyes closed back into the unknown.

This book is exceptional and is one I’m very glad I own so I can go back and reread the highlighted (with post-it note tags only, of course) sections and flip between confessions to determine links and relations, and to bask in Gartner’s intensely tight, evocative, mind-bending prose.

How do you measure a year?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Week for Cold Earth: Book #4 of 2021

I finished Cold Earth at lunchtime yesterday, a day where the sun was shining through my living room windows, warming my hair, and causing me to shed my ever-present (since the pandemic started, really) hoodie. And yet, I shivered as I read the final pages. It’s just that sort of book, and really the best sort of book to read when it’s not yet spring but no longer quite winter; that limbo season we are known for in this part of the province, this part of the country.

It’s a book that is about 10 years old, but it’s been on my to-read list since I recently saw it on this Book Riot list, 10 Books That Take Place in a Desolate Landscape because if that just isn’t my jam, I don’t know what is! And yes it’s a book about a pandemic (I’m back on that bullshit, because of course I am) but in all fairness in Cold Earth the virus is much more peripheral than in books like Station Eleven or Severance, both of which I highly recommend if you are, like me, fascinated by plague fiction. And desolate landscapes.

Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of a team of six archaeologists on a dig in western Greenland, there for a few weeks in summer to excavate a medieval Norse settlement. The story evolves through journal entries and letters home, and we hear from each character in turn, beginning with Nina. Nina is a somewhat reluctant participant in the project, the only non-archaeologist, and shortly after arrival she begins having dreams. Dreams that are filled with violence and destruction, dreams that stay with her in the morning light. She begins to hear footsteps and voices, someone or several someones moving about in the night, taking her boots, messing with their dig site, and she becomes more and more convinced – and terrified – that something is present there. The others, with a job to do, are somewhat sympathetic at first, but mostly not interested in her ramblings, and see her as a threat to the project.

In the backs of all their minds as they work are thoughts of the virus that is moving through the rest of the world. Not, as of yet, rapidly enough to shut down travel (obviously, they made it to Greenland) but it’s enough of a worry for most of the team to want to check in regularly with family and friends via email. Eventually the websites stop responding and the team begins to wonder if they’ve lost contact not due to an equipment or internet problem, but what could ultimately be an end of civilization as they know it problem, and of course, what does that mean for the plane that is to bring them home again?

Part ghost story, part love letter to a world and worlds past, this is the kind of book that gets deep into your bones. Unintended archaeological puns aside, it’s the kind of book where you too can experience the weather, the freezing cold, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you are confronted with the utter darkness of a Greenland night, exposed tents with only the rocks and the water, a few sheep, and the subject of Nina’s horrifying dreams. Moss does an incredible job of conjuring ghosts – real or imagined – with an urgency that transports you. Stylistically, too, the book feels urgent. Each section is told from one of team member’s point of view, and while we hear first from Nina, then Ruth, then Jim, by the time we are hearing from Ben, Catriona, and Yianni, their sections are short, tense, and filled with the imagery and language of survival.

I loved this book. I loved its themes of love and loss, unspoken grief and unresolved pain. And I loved its look at worlds that can change seemingly in an instant, juxtaposed with what remains in the earth forever. Forever, or at least until scientists dig it out and remove it for further study. Human lives have always been fleeting yet they leave indelible marks on those who are left, and I adore how Sarah Moss teases out those paradoxes throughout the book.

If you’re curious about Cold Earth – and I hope you are now! – I also read Ghost Wall by the same author which is also brilliant and evocative and creepy and perfect. And highly recommended.

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.