Embracing the Stillness

Last week, after nine months of working at home, Mr. Petrol Head went back to the office. There, the door is locked; everyone is physically distanced and separated by plexiglass; there are masks, sanitizer, and he must fill out a daily form stating that he’s well and without Covid symptoms.

Other than Team Sheltie who like to herd me on the treadmill desk when I start writing, or bark at the courier when the bell rings, the house is quiet and still. It is empty. Or at least it’s emptier than it was a few weeks ago. And I think my muse has noticed.

Mr. Petrol Head isn’t especially loud. When he was home during the week, he would be at his desk and I would be at mine. We’d always connect at lunch, but the rest of the time we were both silently engrossed in our respective jobs. Yet I always knew he was there. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a different quality to the air when you know someone is close by. Or maybe the nurturer in me is automatically attuned to another body in the house.  

After a few days of him being back at the office, my productivity seemed to increase. I also seemed to be thinking more deeply and in new ways about my work in progress. I thought perhaps I was imagining things. I also felt vaguely guilty. It’s not like I want him out of the house. I like his company.

Around the same time, I received my latest hold from the library, a book I’d requested many months ago. Simple Living:100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy by Shunmyo Masuno. It’s a short volume of single page entries designed to make you think. And think I did when I opened it to the first entry.

Make time for emptiness.

The words struck a chord because I’d been thinking about how empty the house is without Mr. Petrol Head in it.

Masuno goes on to ask if we have time to think about nothing in our everyday lives. It’s important, he believes, to make time for emptiness, even ten minutes of emptiness, every day. He writes: “when you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed. And that’s the first step towards creating a simple life.”

I know he’s speaking about meditation, or something close to it. But the same concept applies to the creative life. In the same way that we need to empty a vase before we can fill it with water and add flowers, we sometimes need to empty ourselves before we can fill back up with our muse. We sometimes need stillness, complete stillness and an empty house, to create.

The house isn’t completely empty – I do have my ever-present canine pals – but there is a stillness in the air these days. And that makes it easier to hear my muse.

I Read Canadian

I Read Canadian Day, which is coming up on February 17th, is a day to celebrate Canadian books, to acknowledge the writers and illustrators who create them, the publishers who get behind them, and the independent bookstores where you can buy them. The I Read Canadian initiative takes place this Wednesday in homes, schools, libraries and bookstores across the country. All Canadians are encouraged to read a children’s book by a Canadian author or illustrator for even 15 minutes.  

The initiative began two years ago as a collaboration between the Canadian Children’s Book Centre; children’s author Eric Walters; CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers) and the Ontario Library Association.

The goal is to raise awareness of all Canadian books and to celebrate the richness, diversity and breadth of Canadian literature. And this year, as we seek to connect while remaining physically distanced, the goal seems to resonate even more deeply.

If you’re a teacher, librarian, home schooler or simply a lover of books, you can register to participate at the official website here: https://ireadcanadian.com/day/   And at noon EST February 17th, a series of videos called I Write Canadian will premiere on the CCBC’s YouTube channel, Bibliovideo. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoRQbrmtvSYMRm1emqkhP8Q?sub_confirmation=1

Set aside a few minutes to check out the presentations. And remember to read Canadian for even a few minutes on February 17th!

Steady On . . .

I’m working on a manuscript I started several years ago, and I’m second-guessing myself with just about every paragraph. The story in question is a departure for me; it’s a contemporary middle-grade novel but with a suspenseful, paranormal element. The only thing I’ve written that comes even close is Exit Point, a short novel for reluctant teen readers, and I use the word close loosely. There are some similarities but not many.

Earlier this week, in need of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore from my shelf. And I opened it to this quote by John Irving:

If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.’  John Irving

The passage goes on to talk about how the work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth. If you are trying to tackle a project that is beyond your existing capacity as a writer or an artist, if you’re just a little bit afraid of the direction in which you are heading, then you are likely heading in the right direction.

Onward. And steady on.

My January Reads

Every year, I track how many books I read. Since Covid forced us to spend more time at home last year, I expected to read more titles than usual. But that didn’t happen. I read only 70 books in 2020, and I’m usually well above the 80 book a year mark. While I regularly buy books, I also borrow heavily from the library, and our library was shut down for months because of Covid. I looked at borrowing e books but I don’t like to read on my phone, and I didn’t have a tablet.  Well, now I do. I didn’t need another piece of equipment, but I did need to communicate with my dad who is in care and struggles to use a phone. Being able to borrow e books from the library only added to the tablet’s appeal.  Just one month into the new year and I’ve already read more books than I had at this time last year. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Lemon Sisters by Jill Shalvis

Intimate Conversations with the Divine by Caroline Myss

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson

Books read to date in 2021: 12

The Gift of Sight

In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

                                    High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver

I was reminded last week about the gift of sight, a gift we sometimes take for granted. Unless or until your sight is diminished, it’s relatively rare to be conscious of how much joy sight brings to our lives. I certainly don’t get up every morning and celebrate the sight I see in the bathroom mirror, though I always smile at my first glimpse of Team Sheltie.    

Last Saturday night, Mr. Petrol Head asked me to examine his left eye. “Does anything look different from the right?” he asked. Turns out, the left eye was so blurry he could hardly see out of it. It was, he said, like having “a thick film of Saran wrap covering his eyeball.” More than half his vision was gone, and it had happened just in the last hour or so. If that wasn’t alarming enough, he told me it wasn’t the first time he’d had the problem, though it had never been this bad. But the blurriness had been coming and going for three weeks at least.

After a weekend of fretting (and spending a little too much time in the company of Dr. Google), he saw the optometrist today. It turns out he has something called narrow angles which, if not treated, can lead to permanent vision loss. The cure (laser surgery to shoot holes in your eyes) doesn’t sound at all appealing but apparently, it’s effective and carries little risk. He’s scheduled to get it done later this month.

Growing up, I watched as my grandmother slowly went blind. She had diabetes, and while she went through multiple laser surgeries to prolong the inevitable vision loss, eventually she was left with very little sight. She took it in stride, and with amazing grace, though there were times it got her down.  

Memories of my grandmother, and especially what Mr. Petrol Head went through this past week, have made me look more clearly at my life the last few days. I don’t usually think of winter as being visually remarkable, but I am wrong. The holly bush is glossy and covered with brilliant red berries. The daffodils are poking through the soil in our front and back gardens, and the winter heather is in full bloom, covered with tiny purple-pink flowers. The blue jays flit from tree to tree, splashes of color against the cloud-filled sky, and on the trail as we walk Team Sheltie, there is a brilliant wink of yellow as a tiny pine siskin hops through the leaves searching for dinner.

There is beauty all around . . . and I am lucky enough to be able to see it.

Happy New Year!

And so it begins! A new year, a fresh start, a blank calendar to note down dates and events and maybe, if we’re lucky, the ability to gather in groups with family and friends again, to hug them freely, maybe even to take a trip.

2021 is a 5 year which is supposed to mean twelve months of adventure, opportunities and change. Five is a potent number and the number of balance. Everything in nature is made up of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. Five is also considered the number of human beings with our four limbs and body, and our five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell).

In the natural world, a regular starfish has five arms, an earthworm has five hearts, and the apple tree bears blossoms of five petals. Even the apple itself, when sliced horizontally, has five seeds and a star-shaped design inside.

There were five rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology. There are five vowels in the English language and five lines in a limerick.  In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, five wizards are sent to Middle Earth to aid against the threat of the dark lord Sauron. Number five is a character in the Lorien Legacies, a series of young adult science fiction books by Pittacus Lore. The Famous Five was a series of children’s books by Enid Blyton, while The Power of Five was a series of children’s books by Anthony Horowitz.

The power of five. As I write this, the Coronavirus vaccine is starting to roll out. It looks like the general population in my part of the world will have access to it this spring or summer. About five months from now.

I’ll high five to that.


Happy 2021!

Merry Christmas

Wishing you a joyful holiday season, even if things are quieter than you’d like and different than you’d hoped for. It’s a good time to celebrate those simple but incredibly important things: health, peace, and the family and friends who make our lives worth living. They may not be able to join us at the table this year, but they can be with us in spirit or perhaps virtually. It’s also a good time to indulge just a little. For those whose indulgence is chocolate, here’s my easy and go-to recipe for chocolate truffles. See you in January!

Chocolate Truffles

8 ounces/227 grams bittersweet chocolate (Bakers or a high quality bar)

3/4 cup/180 mL whipping cream

2 tablespoons/30 mL butter

2 – 3 tablespoons/30 – 45 mL orange or almond liqueur (or substitute your favorite)

Combine cream and butter, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat; add liqueur and chocolate. Stir until chocolate is entirely melted. Chill the mixture until it’s firm enough to handle, but not rock-solid, about 3 hours. Using a teaspoon, form and roll mixture into small balls. Roll each truffle in cocoa powder or ground nuts. Store in the fridge for several weeks or freeze for up to three months.

Holiday Reading, Take Two

I have some fiction recommendations for you this week. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, there’s still time to choose a book, and many local bookstores are happy to arrange curbside pick-up. On this list, you’ll find a picture book, an intermediate novel and a young adult pick, as well as some adult titles to appeal to a variety of tastes.

I Am Scary by Elise Gravel. Picture book, ages 1 – 5. A monster tries to scare a child who refuses to be frightened. The monster wonders, “What will happen to me if I’m not scary?” The child offers him a hug and the monster melts . . . softening into an adorable creature. A sweet and humorous tale from Montrealer Elise Gravel.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel. Intermediate Fiction, ages 8 – 14. It was just rain. But after the downpour, odd black plants begin to shoot up. They take over fields and twine around houses. They bloom and throw off toxic pollen – and feed. Strangely, three Saltspring Island teens – Anaya, Petra and Seth – seem immune. Are they the key to fighting back the invasion? They’d better figure it out fast, because it’s starting to rain again.

Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Young adult fiction, ages 12 – 18. Set in New Orleans in 1906. Sterling shines shoes, helping support his laundress mother. Sterling also plays the trumpet, and what he really wants is to learn from his idol, Buddy Bolden, who is playing music that’s turning New Orleans upside down. A richly textured story of a culture and character surviving against all odds.

What You Wish For by Katherine Center. Women’s fiction, contemporary. Voted a library reads pick for July 2020, Center’s characters come alive in this charming story that also touches on serious issues. School librarian Samantha Casey loves her life and job. But when a man from her past, Duncan Carpenter, shows up at the school to become the new principal, things quickly go downhill. Center writes about resilience and struggle and ultimately finding joy and savoring life’s moments of grace.  

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal. Women’s fiction, contemporary. A story of four generations of women grappling with family betrayals, long-buried secrets and a mysterious tragedy that brings them together. Set in Devon, and rich in imagery, characterization and language, this story addresses some difficult issues from multiple points of view. A strong family drama with a touch of romance and mystery woven in.

The Paris Hours by Alex George. Literary, historical. Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers and musicians. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost. Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours tells the story of Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust; Souren, an Armenian refugee; artist Guillaume; and journalist Jean-Paul. When the quartet’s paths finally cross, each will learn if they’ll find what they were looking for.

And finally, here are two uplifting and light holiday-themed novels:

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. Sweet and laugh-out-loud funny in spots, this holiday romance features terrific characters, one of whom must relive her day multiple times, a la Groundhog Day. When Maelyn Jones asks the universe what happiness looks like for her, the answer she gets is more than she ever dreamed. A quick, easy read that will make you smile.

Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan. Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, a family in turmoil prepares to open a hotel in time for Christmas. Though the novel primarily focusses on the love story between a shy island girl and a fellow kitchen worker (a disgraced Norwegian prince exiled by his father) it also delves into other relationships and capers on the island. Quirky characters, tender and moving.

Holiday Reading

It’s a different kind of holiday for many this year as Covid prevents us from traveling or celebrating with other households. For us, it means our first Christmas as a twosome in over thirty years! Rather than being upset, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to focus on the things that bring us joy, rather than focusing on the needs of family and friends. For instance, I’ll have a lot more time to read, and that always makes me happy. But because this year has been a challenging one, I’m looking for books that offer an escape, or ones that are ultimately uplifting, and if there’s food or travel involved, so much the better. Here are some non-fiction titles to consider. Stop back next week for some fiction recommendations. 

Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn and Emma Brockes.  By the time twenty-one-year-old Dominique Crenn decided to become a chef, she knew it would be tough in France where almost all restaurant kitchens were run by men. So, she moved to San Francisco to train under Jeremiah Tower. Almost thirty years later, Crenn was awarded three Michelin Stars in 2018 for her restaurant Atelier Crenn, and became the first female chef in the United States to receive this honor. Part biography starting with her childhood in Versailles and part food memoir as she details out her cooking journey, this is a lovely read about a chef’s personal discoveries.

Hidden Places: An Inspired Traveller’s Guide by Sarah Baxter. Here’s some armchair travel for those who feel housebound. Travel journalist Sarah Baxter reveals twenty-five of the world’s most obscure places.  She takes us to little-known spots in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada and the U.S. Some locations are remote, others are near more widely known attractions, but each destination has a story to tell. Evocative text and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations by Amy Grimes. A short, quick read and a lovely escape.

The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Even though it’s not a new release (this book has been out for five years) it was new to me and I enjoyed it enough that I’ll be seeking out more by Helen Russell.  Denmark is officially the happiest nation on earth, so when Russell’s husband is offered his dream job at LEGO in Denmark, Helen goes along and begins her quest to find out what makes Danes so happy. Each month, she shares a primary takeaway contributing to the country’s general happiness level and the related lessons she learned. Though she also touches on the not-so-great parts of living in Denmark, Russell’s narrative is upbeat and even funny at times.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman.  An honest and sometimes funny book that celebrates friendship and what it takes to stay close for the long haul. Sow and Friedman tell the story of their first decade of friendship, both its joys and its pitfalls. More memoir than intellectual study, and very occasionally veering into the preachy, Big Friendship is nevertheless entertaining and affirming.

Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek H. Murthy. Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy delves into scientific research to explain how our brains function from social interaction or the lack of it. A great book to read and help us understand why we may be feeling strange or uneasy during these times of isolation. The good news is that social connection is innate and a cure for loneliness. Filled with interesting anecdotes, this is an inspirational read that reminds us to practice compassion as often as possible.

We are Santa: Portraits and Profiles by Ron Cooper. Not only feel-good but seasonally appropriate! Award-winning photographer Ron Cooper has curated a collection of fifty professional Santas from across the USA. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who slip into the red suit to spread Christmas cheer. Before and after portraits as Santa transforms from his (or her) everyday world to becoming Santa, and behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes to bring home the wonder and joy of the seasonal Santa. Highly recommended.

Hear the Mouse Roar

Sixty-eight years ago today, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End. It played every day for all those years, only going dark this March when Covid-19 made live theatre unsafe.

That makes The Mousetrap the longest-running show of its kind in the world. Agatha Christie herself is the best-selling novelist of all time, with estimated sales of around two billion. And yet, when people are asked to name her best-known work, The Mousetrap is rarely mentioned. Instead, people point to Murder on the Orient Express, or The Murder of Roger Akroyd, or And Then There Were None.

That lack of recognition wouldn’t have surprised Christie. The Mousetrap was originally written at the request of the BBC as a radio play for Queen Mary, and when it moved onto the stage, Christie didn’t expect it to last more than six or eight months.

But it outlived her. Since its opening in 1952, it’s been presented in 27 languages in more than 50 countries. Over 460 actors and actresses have appeared in it, and some have made records doing it. David Raven is in the Guinness Book of Records for 4575 performances as Major Metcalf and the late Nancy Seabrooke made it there for her 15 years as an understudy.

As creators, we can never gauge the impact of our work. We might think we’ve written or created a masterpiece – a work of art – only to find the rest of the world disagrees. Or we might create something rather quickly, with joy and skill and attention to our craft, but not expect it to amount to much. And yet, that something might grow legs and end up impacting people in ways we never imagined.  

It’s a bit like the butterfly effect: the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts in a big way. Only in Agatha Christie’s case, it was a little mouse. A mouse that roared for 68 years.