Stand Up

Someone once said that strong people stand up for themselves but the strongest people stand up for others.

Have you ever ignored an opportunity to stand up for someone who was being disrespected or treated poorly? I have, and to this day it’s something I regret. It’s easier and far more comfortable to stay quiet. There’s always justification for not wanting to rock the boat, for wanting to avoid adding more hurt to an already hurtful situation, for letting rude or insulting behavior slide because you can see both sides of a given situation. I don’t want to get involved. It’s their issue, not mine. I hear those comments more than I care to admit.

The reality is that disrespect and hateful treatment, whether it’s on the world stage or between only a few, is a human issue. That makes it everybody’s issue. It’s not about taking sides, nor is it about seeking right or wrong. It’s about choosing love over hate.

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Always.

There’s a reality TV show called Love It or List It. Homeowners must decide whether they’ll love the home they’re in or whether they’ll list it. In other words, whether they’ll stay or cut their losses and sell.

Love it or list it. If you take away the real estate component of that show and replace it instead with human dynamics, you could rename it love it or lose it. Because if you boil any disagreement down to its pure essence, distill it completely, that’s pretty much what you’re left with. Will we choose to love or will we choose to lose? Will we be big-hearted, compassionate and accept someone even if we don’t agree with them or will we be small-minded, mean and reject them?

Love or hate. It’s pretty simple.

Last week it was the horror of Charlottesville. This coming weekend alt-right demonstrators are planning protests in Vancouver. There will be counter demonstrations too. People willing to stand up for inclusion instead of exclusion. People motivated by love and hopefully wise enough to demonstrate soulfully rather than aggressively.

I hope things stay peaceful. I wish I could be there to add my voice to the crowd. But instead of bemoaning the fact that I can’t get there, I’m reflecting on the Greek theory of the cosmos: that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. I choose to believe that what we do in our own little world makes a difference. I believe that when we reject bigotry, hatred, disrespect or petty meanness on even a small scale, it adds a sliver of light to a dark corner of the world.

I believe I’ll stand up. I believe it’s time we all did.

Summertime . . .

It’s the season for backyard BBQs and camping under the stars . . . for walking barefoot on the grass . . . for buying lemonade from the pop up stand down the street . . . and for friends who come to stay.

We’ve had several sets of out-of-town company this summer and I’m so grateful. Life’s busy. It’s easy to put things off. So when people I love come to visit I’m always thankful they took the time. One set of friends was in the middle of getting their house ready to sell but decided to come and spend a weekend with us (we did mention tequila in the invite). Another set of friends was flying from Ontario to BC and their primary destination was the Okanagan. They decided to detour to Victoria for an in-person catch up.

These are friendships that go back decades, to my teens and early twenties. We’ve kept in touch over the years, sometimes sporadically and sometimes more regularly, but whenever we reconnect in person, it’s like no time at all has passed. There’s an incredible gift in that, a joy in having a kind of shorthand with a person, a sense that you  know the core of each other and you like what’s there. And though we connected this time in summer, when the living and the laughter both come easy, both of these friendships have been through some figurative winter storms. However, like any true friendship manages to do, they not only weathered the storms but became stronger for them.

A few minutes after waving good-bye to Keith and Carol-Anne, I happened to wander onto Twitter where I saw an agent calling for submissions. One of her biggest wishes: to find stories where friendships are front and center.  Stories where friendships aren’t the afterthoughts of our lives but the cornerstones. Where differences are respected and even celebrated. Where pure loving kindness prevails . . . stories where friendships last and last and last.

From summer to winter and back to summer again.

Because while it is the season for backyard BBQs . . . for lemonade stands and for walking barefoot on the grass . . . friendship – honest, to-the-bone real friendship – knows no season at all.

My July Reads

Since it’s summer and I’m trying to fit in a little more aimless wandering, I haven’t been showing up here as often as I normally do. I’m trying to post every couple of weeks until September when I’ll go back to weekly updates. The fall promises to be busy with a few exciting new projects. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the sunshine, the garden and time to read. Here’s what I’m dipping into this month:

On the Kindle: The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

Beside the bed: Option B, Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg

At the Gym: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar

Books read to date in 2017: 40

Impromptu Date

After dinner last week, we had an errand to run in a town 30 minutes away. As we drove in, Mr. Petrol Head was forced to detour because the weekly summer market had taken over the main street. Once our business was done, we headed back that way and spent about 90 minutes wandering the stalls, sampling fresh strawberries, tasting black bean hummus on crackers, and enjoying a few tiny shots of cider. The ocean was at our back and the scent of the sea mingled with the smell of grilled meat and those deadly but delicious market temptations: deep-fried donuts. We chatted to people, patted sweet dogs and listened to a short, impromptu concert.

We had such a good time.

Driving home, I was struck by how infrequently I wander. I’m a planner by nature, generally more disciplined than spontaneous. Even at play I tend to go out with a purpose: I head to a concert or a movie or a lecture; I go out for dinner with Mr. Petrol Head or meet up with friends for drinks. My walking buddies and I text and plan before we link up too: what day, what route, how long. Sometimes we’ll even text in advance about what we want to talk about.

Yeah. Not quite an agenda but not a lot of spontaneity in that. Not a lot of room for wandering, either literally or figuratively.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, is a big believer in artist dates. That’s an hour or longer block of time every week spent with yourself by yourself. Doing something fun to fill the well. She recommends everything from going to a flea market or seeing a vintage movie to lying on the grass and staring up at a tree or possibly even visiting a cathedral. Or maybe the tree is your kind of cathedral. It is mine.

Because I had such a great time at the market last week, I’m taking myself on some artist dates over the coming weeks. Maybe not every week but at least a couple of times a month through the summer. And while Cameron recommends setting these dates up ahead of time, I’m going to block off the time but not set the destination. I’m going to wing it, depending on what’s happening that day and how I’m feeling. I’m going to lean into spontaneity.

I’m going to wander.

Wish me luck.

 

My June Reads

It’s been a ‘bookish’ few weeks around here as the Graduate packed up and moved into his own space. Change is exciting, though the process of integrating change can be a messy one. And things did get chaotic as we helped him sort and toss and pack and schlepp his belongings across town to his new place. We sorted through a lot of books. A LOT of books. It was like a snapshot of his growing up years as we paged through picture books, early readers, teen novels and his more recent adult reads, including a number of educational textbooks.

At the same time, I accepted an assignment to write an article on almonds. Since I have to develop a healthy recipe using raw almonds, I gravitated to my large cookbook collection. I lost several hours and took another trip down memory lane flipping through vegan and vegetarian cookbooks purchased on trips over the years. Each book was a reminder of a country we once visited and a stage of life now gone – a time before we had our kids when vegetarianism, at least at home, was viewed with skepticism and veganism was barely understood.

Times change. Kids grow up and move on. Vegan dishes are on just about every restaurant menu these days. But books?  Books – electronic or paper, fiction or non-fiction – remain pretty much the same; they’re still informing, still entertaining and still providing some much needed escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

On the Kindle: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Before bed: The Dogs by Allan Stratton

Books read to date in 2017: 35

True North

A few weeks ago an editing client presented me with a question. “How can I know,” she asked, “which direction is the best one for this story to take?” Her novel was essentially finished but there were issues with the middle so she’d hired me to provide feedback. Her beta readers had highlighted the muddied middle, and the writer herself knew it was a problem. There was so much going on that the through line of the story had gotten cloudy and the ending, while nicely executed, didn’t have the punch it deserved. Each of the beta readers, however, had come up with a different solution. One reader suggested thread A be dropped, another loved thread A but argued that thread B needed to go.

The writer wanted me to make the final decision and choose one. I couldn’t. I could point out the pros and cons of losing one thread over the other. I could give my opinion on how each thread deepened the basic conflict and impacted the main character (and even the supporting players). I could discuss and debate the ending payoff of one thread over another but I could not choose. For one thing, there are many right ways to tell a story. The story could be told, and told well, minus either of the two threads. Most importantly, however, it wasn’t my novel. I could advise, I could be a midwife to her process, but she had to birth the story herself.

She needed to find her true north, or the true north for this particular novel, and go from there.

True north is our internal compass. It guides us through life at our deepest level and helps us stay on track. With all the chatter we’re subjected to on a daily basis – from family, friends, the media or, in this case, from beta readers, it’s easy to lose sight of true north. It’s easy to doubt our instincts when we can barely hear the still, small voice of our soul.

I suggested to this writer that she employ Vanessa Grant’s ‘garbage can’ test. Pretend she’s throwing thread A in the garbage can and proceeding with thread B. How does that make her feel at a gut level? Then I told her to switch it up and pretend she’s throwing thread B in the garbage and moving forward with thread A. How is her gut feeling now? Don’t overthink it, I told her. Go with the initial feelings that arise. She could do this exercise in a few minutes or spend a couple of days mulling it over. But she needed to honor her feelings and not over analyse them.

She needed to decide what was most important to her, what direction would give her the most satisfaction when it came to writing the novel. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way. There was only her way.

True north would point her in the right direction.

We’re Celebrating!

 

If you’re in Victoria this Wednesday, June 7th, please join us at Munro’s Books where a group of us will be launching our spring releases. I’ll be talking about my latest book, In Plain Sight. It’ll be a fun evening. I hope to see you there!

My May Reads

Reading time is at a premium right now as the garden calls. The tomato plants are taking over the greenhouse, and so are the peppers, basil, sweet peas and a few restless eggplants. Normally everything is in the ground by now but things are different this year. After weeks of not being able to work outside much, of wearing a hat and a heavy coat to walk Team Sheltie, we’re now outside in t-shirts and capris. Seemingly overnight we’ve gone from October-like cold to July-like heat. The garden is confused. Some beds are still heavy with moisture while others are sprouting weeds faster than I can pull them. Consequently I’m working outside most evenings until sunset trying to get on top of things. Here’s what I’m reading when I finally come in for the night.

On the Kindle: One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline

At the gym: The Happiness Animal by Will Jelbert

Beside the bed: 100 Best Plants for the Coastal Garden by Steve Whysall

Books read to date in 2017: 32

Overheard This Week

“I hope you guys are in school because this really isn’t the kind of career type job I like to see people in.”

So said a customer at the local bottle depot where my son, now known as the Graduate (AKA Teen Freud or The Basement Dweller), has worked part-time sorting and stacking bottles since he was in high school. Amazingly (and I use that word deliberately because he’s not known at home for his diplomacy) the Graduate  smiled, nodded politely and waited for the woman to take her bejewelled self back to her Mercedes before letting loose with a rant to his co-workers about judgement and expectations and class systems.

With his undergrad degree freshly in hand, the Graduate will likely make a job switch at some point over the coming months. But so what if he doesn’t? What if he decides he wants to stay where he is or open a bottle depot of his own? What if he was like a former co-worker who chose the job because he was a photographer (his passion) during off hours but the bottle depot provided a steady salary? Or his single mother co-workers who find the work, though dirty and often unpleasant, reliable and well-paying, especially for a job that doesn’t require post-secondary education.

Why do the jobs we do, the Graduate asked, inspire so much judgement? Why indeed.

That got me thinking about some of the jobs I assign my fictional characters. The mother character in In Plain Sight is an artist and predictably absentminded when she’s lost in her painting. The father is a terrorist and in jail so I went out of the box there. But in The Art of Getting Stared At, the main character’s parents are a doctor, an airline pilot, and a model respectively. In Girls Who Dish, my latest Laura Tobias title, the main characters are a restaurant owner and a lawyer, though I do throw in an accountant with a Shirley Temple obsession.

Sometimes characters and plot reveal the best choice of career or job to further our stories. You need a detective in a whodunit, for example. But Agatha Christie’s  Miss Marple was an elderly spinster and a most unlikely detective, something Christie used to her advantage.

So the next time I’m considering character careers, I’m going to forget the doctor or the teacher or the artist or the politician (especially the politician). I’m going to look for something fresh. How about a timeshare seller or a spider researcher or a cello maker or an otter technician for the Department of Conservation? Or  a chimney sweep . . . letter carrier  . . . judo instructor . . . dialysis tech . . . FAA tower controller . . . exterminator . . . glass blower . . . Christmas Around the World salesperson . . . preschool dance teacher?

So many jobs . . . I’d better get writing.

But first I’m heading out to get a t-shirt printed for the Graduate and his co-workers. I want it to read: Recycling Equipment Engineer . . . and proud of it.

A Matter of Taste

The first crop of spring asparagus has arrived. Field asparagus, I mean. There’s such a thing as sea asparagus too, and that’ll show up at the market in June, right around my wedding anniversary. Sea asparagus is delicious. The tiny stalks are thinner than a straw and their taste is subtle but unique: a little ocean and a little lettuce. There’s nothing fishy about sea asparagus, nothing even remotely close in taste to its earth-grown cousin.

I first had it at a fancy restaurant where we Dined – capital D dined – to mark a milestone anniversary. It was a magical night. So every year when I spot sea asparagus at the market I immediately think of my love, a delicious dinner with sablefish or maybe scallops, a crisp glass of Prosecco,  a table overlooking the ocean, and candlelight.

Taste can conjure memories and stir emotions as much as the sight of a child’s first photo with Santa . . . the smell of steak barbecuing on a summer night . . . the sound of rain on the roof while you’re in bed . . . or the touch of a puppy licking your hand.

My job as a writer is to mine the senses, including the sense of taste. But it can be easy to slip into taste clichés: soothing hot chocolate on a cold night; refreshing ice cream at the lake; salty corn dogs at the fair. Those tastes are relatable because most of us have had hot chocolate on a cold night or a corn dog at the fair. But taste, like so many other things, is subjective.

Take corn dogs, for instance. I had a corn dog just once and once was enough. I was nine; it was my birthday; the corn dog made reappearance during a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I haven’t had a corn dog since and the very sight of them is enough to make my stomach flip.

Grilled cheese sandwiches, a comfort food for some, remind me of a friend who died. So does cherry pound cake and licorice candy. Depending on my frame of mind, any one of those foods can make me feel nostalgic.

Other tastes have more positive connotations for me.

Braised short ribs take me right back to the comfort of Sunday dinner when I was a kid.

Coconut-covered marshmallows remind me of my grandfather and make me happy.

The taste of chives takes me back to my first garden and the sense of accomplishment I felt at planting it.

A sesame ball with red bean paste is guaranteed to make me feel sixteen again . . . thinking about friends . . . travel . . . and new horizons.

Earthy and old-fashioned date squares inspire gratitude because I’m reminded of a woman who gave me a place to live when I was a teen.

One sip of a margarita mentally transports me to a Mexican beach no matter where I happen to be.

And the taste of cherry cheesecake reminds me of the exhaustion, confusion and joy of being a new mother . . . and reminds me too of the friend who showed up with it and an offer to hold my infant so I could take a shower.

Taste can be a memory that lives again. Do you have any taste memories?