My September Reads

Today is the autumn equinox, that point of the year when we have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night time. From here, as the calendar marches us towards winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer. Trees lose their leaves; plants go dormant or die; and animals begin to hibernate. Humans tend to draw inward at this time of year too, and since I have books to write and books to read, I’m fine with that. Here’s what I’m reading this month:  

Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

Prom Mom by Laura Lippman

Kitchen Bliss: Musings on Food and Happiness (With Recipes) by Laura Calder

Books read to date in 2023: 47

My August Reads

It’s the height of summer. That’s what I tell myself, though I know, technically, this is the last full month of summer and we are heading inexorably toward fall (I refuse to go there). The harvest has started – we’re picking masses of blueberries and plums and figs, tomatoes and peppers and eggplants. And beans. Lots and lots of beans. We’ve had friends come to stay and soon we’ll be having a family reunion of sorts with a beloved aunt and cousins. It’s a happy and productive time, but a busy one, and that means less time for reading. That said, I’m stealing a few minutes here and there, and I always fit in a few chapters before bed. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Echo of Old Books by Barbara Davis

The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work At 72 by Molly Peacock

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Books read to date in 2023: 42

In Stillness


The last few weeks have certainly not been monotonous, but they have been quiet. That’s given me more time to write, to read, to walk and to think. It’s the kind of slower pace I usually associate with August. This year, though, we’re expecting lots of company in August, so I’m embracing a little solitude now.

Solitude and stillness are important to creativity. We know that intellectually – creatives generally need alone time to pursue their path. But what we tend to forget is that the stillness can also help us clear our minds and even inspire us. “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for the constructive use of solitude,” said Rollo May. “One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

A little time alone gives us a chance to think about what we’ve done artistically and where we might want to go; it helps us focus on our own priorities and our own voice; and in my case at least, it gives me a chance to appreciate some of the simpler things in life – losing myself in a good book, enjoying a delicious meal from the garden, and listening to the sound of the baby quail as they make their way along our back fence.

I hope you’re enjoying summer!

My June Reads

Summer has arrived here in the Pacific Northwest, bringing with it long days and a more relaxed pace. Over the next few months, I’ll be taking a little extra time away from the desk to reconnect with family and friends; to cycle and hike; and to do some day trips to the nearby Gulf Islands. But while I may not be as active on this blog, I’ll certainly be active in other ways. And while I’ll be stepping back from the computer a bit, I’ll still be reading. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

What the Dog Knows by Sylvia McNicoll

The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig

Books I’ve read to date in 2023: 33



“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through.

Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs.

Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Katherine May

Last weekend, I went on a yoga retreat, one focused on honouring Winter Solstice. The women running the event decided to hold the retreat in January even though Winter Solstice is the third week in December. Their reasoning? December is an extremely busy month, and early January felt more appropriate somehow. My busyness lasted well into January, so retreating at the end of that first week was the perfect fit for me.

The day was about letting go, slowing down and getting still, something that doesn’t always come easily to many of us. Katherine May talks about this in her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. While I’ve only just started reading it, the book encourages us to find joy in the quiet of winter and accept life as cyclical, not linear. She writes: In winter, I want concepts to chew over in a pool of lamplight – slow, spiritual reading, a reinforcement of the soul. Winter is a time for libraries, for the muffled quiet of book stacks, and for the scent of old pages and dust.

I’m not so sure about old pages and dust, but the idea of slow, spiritual reading and libraries definitely resonates. As I write this, the wind is howling and the rain is lashing at the skylight; it’s a day to curl up inside. Writers – probably most artists when I think about it – are comfortable with solitude. I certainly am; I need it to do my work. For the last six months or so, though, I’ve been out in the world far more than usual, and it upended my natural rhythm and definitely negatively impacted my writing. So, for me, ‘wintering,’ pulling the metaphorical shades and getting back in touch with the cyclical nature of life and of my creative muse, feels appropriate.

Not everyone likes winter; I realize that. For those of you who find this season difficult, I leave you with this quote from John Geddes:

When a Writer Goes Into the Woods

If this were a story, it would have a prologue something like this:

One morning about three weeks ago, while walking sweet Luna, I ran into a neighbour who told me she was woken up around 1 am by someone (something?) crying. She went onto her deck and saw two bear cubs up her cedar tree. Seconds later, she heard a growl coming from the darkness below. Then the cubs tumbled out of the tree onto the ground and presumably joined Mama before lumbering off into the night. Or maybe they jumped. I don’t remember the specifics of the descent because, at this point, I was calculating the number of feet between her house and mine (not nearly enough) and wondering just how far the trio had travelled. They obviously didn’t get very far because there were regular sightings over the next week and a half.

Despite that, I wasn’t thinking about bears as we set out for a bike ride a few Sundays ago. Instead, I was looking forward to a change of scenery and getting some heart-pumping exercise. So we decided to cycle the Big Qualicum Fish Hatchery trail, a route that’s new to us but one our neighbours, Rusty and Carol, ride regularly. They love it because it’s a wide gravel trail with easy climbs.  It’s also beautiful and surrounded by forest. “There’s never anyone around,” they both love to say. “We sometimes do the whole route without encountering a soul.” Since we were expecting a tradesman shortly after noon, we planned a short ride of about 10k and left early in the morning.

We cycled to the trailhead. There was a sign: bears in the area. I quickly hit the brakes and turned to Mr. Petrol Head, who said, “Look, it’s a permanent sign. It’s there twelve months of the year. There are no bears around here.”

Technically, he was correct. There were no bears in the immediate vicinity. And I was pretty sure if bears were an issue, Rusty and Carol would have alerted us. [They have kind and altruistic hearts; this story is not a thriller].

We rode on. The route followed the Big Qualicum River. It was lovely. The air was fresh; the sun sparkled off the water. We could see eagles soaring above the tree canopy. I whined again about the sign, mentioning that animals are typically more active early in the morning and that rivers are favourite gathering places.  

Mr. Petrol Head ignored me. “We should have brought our breakfast and had a picnic by the river,” he said. “That would have been romantic, don’t you think?” [It was our anniversary weekend. If my lack of response surprised him, then he’d forgotten who he’d married]

We continued. After about 1k, the tree canopy grew thicker. The trail began to twist. River glimpses became less frequent. It was still lovely and peaceful. It was quite literally a cathedral of nature’s making. I began to relax. I began to consider future picnics.

We cycled around the bend. And there it was.  Smack in the middle of the path in front of us. Substantial evidence of Smokey’s morning constitutional. “That pile is the size of a toaster,” I said as we gave it a wide berth. “A toaster oven.”

Mr. Petrol Head found my panic fear nervousness funny. I did not. This was not the kind of heart-pumping outing I’d had in mind when we’d set out.

We didn’t turn back. Of course not. We were only a few kilometres into the ride and wanted to continue (at least one of us did), so we cycled on. I tried to relax [I did not relax]. I wouldn’t let Mr. Petrol Head get too far ahead. By this time, we were climbing and descending. The forest canopy was becoming even thicker. We were banked on one side by a small mountain. Cougars were mentioned. One of us laughed.

And then, around another bend, right about the kilometre three mark, was another mound of bear scat. Smaller than the first one but unmistakable.

“I’m sure it’s from a dog,” Mr. Petrol Head said.

“I have a well-honed shit detector, plus I know dogs. That’s not from a dog.”

We agreed to keep going but to turn back at the five-k mark.  Over the next three kilometres (we missed the five-k marker), we saw not one, not two, but three more piles of bear scat. No dogs, no other people . . . nothing but us, our bikes and deserted forest. I rang my bell a few times occasionally a lot. “Stop it,” said Mr. Petrol Head. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Why are you embarrassed?” I asked. “There’s nobody here but us and the bears.” By now, I was convinced Mama and her two cubs had travelled from our neighborhood to this one. Where they belonged and we did not.

Finally, finally, we turned around and started back the way we came. After a while, the tree canopy thinned. We could see the sky again. Soaring eagles. Glimpses of the river. My shoulders loosened. I began to think about picnics, to laugh at Mr. Petrol Head’s teasing. We were nearly to the trailhead and talking about how we might want to do the ride another time when we saw more bear scat. A very fresh and very large pile that hadn’t been there on the ride out. By this point, even Mr. Petrol Head wasn’t laughing.

A few days after our ride, I emailed Rusty and Carol to thank them for telling us about the trail. I also mentioned how anxious disconcerted I was by the bear scat we’d seen.

They laughed. “Oh, there aren’t many bears in the summer,” they said. “That was probably from the horses. There are horses on that trail all the time.”

I laughed too. Of course, it was horse manure. That’s what happens when you set a writer loose in the woods. Her imagination turns horse shit into bear shit every time.

Except. Many doesn’t mean none. Probably isn’t definitive. And we didn’t see a single horse the entire time we were on that trail.  So, I’m still betting on Mama bear and her two cubs, which means no romantic picnics by the river any time soon and a lot of bell ringing if we ever go back.  

My Summer Reads

Life has thrown a few too many curve balls these last few months, so I’m taking most of the summer to be still. To listen, to think, and to enjoy simple pleasures like picking dew-touched blueberries, or the intoxicating smell of lilies on a warm night, or losing myself in a good story. You’ll find me back here on a regular basis come fall. But for now, I’m filling the well with silence and some great books. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Atlas of Happiness by Helen Russell

The View From Here by Hannah McKinnon

Books read to date in 2021: 55

The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal.

Yes, You Need That Break

For writers who don’t write quickly, it can be hard to justify taking a break. Instead, we often push ourselves to write more, while mentally beating ourselves up for not being as prolific as we’d like. However, the research is clear: taking a break from what we’re working on can actually improve productivity. A new and growing body of research outlined in the New York Times shows that strategic renewal – daytime workouts, coffee breaks, time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations – boosts productivity, job performance and health.

Many writers rely on the routine of a daily walk. Stephen King gets in about four miles a day; Charles Dickens logged about three hours every afternoon.  Walking leads to more creative thinking than sitting does. Researchers from Stanford University found it boosted creative output by 60 percent. That’s significant. We walk Team Sheltie once or twice a day and I look forward to the break. It often sparks story ideas or helps with my work in progress.

But a walk is just a walk. And unless you cycle or drive to a new destination every day, the same old walking routine can become stale fast.

That’s where the artist’s date comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The brainchild of Julia Cameron, the artist’s date is a weekly solo expedition to explore something that interests you. It need not be overly ‘artistic.’ Cameron says it’s more ‘mischief than mastery.’ It’s meant to fire up the imagination and spark whimsy.

To be worthwhile, an artist date must happen every week and it must be taken alone. No friends, spouses, children allowed. It should involve leaving the house. What about being housebound because of bad weather, you ask. Cameron believes that an occasional in-house date if you’re alone and devoting yourself to something that ‘fills the well’ is acceptable but the goal is an excursion out of the house. Essentially, it’s a two-hour play date where you indulge your inner child.

It doesn’t have to cost anything, other than time. Some ideas:

Visit a shop that has nothing to do with what you actually do – an art supply store, a music store, a fabric, bead or (my favorite) a yarn shop.

Visit a U-pick farm.

Go to a graveyard and read the tombstones (it sounds morbid but this is great for writers who want story ideas).

Explore a neighboring town, or a part of your town you aren’t familiar with.

Take a hike.

Walk around town and take pictures of what inspires you.

Watch the birds.

Go to Home Depot with $5 in your pocket. See what cool things you can find to create an art project with five bucks. Go crazy.

Visit a plant nursery and plan your perfect garden.

Go to the library and find a book on a subject you know nothing about. Check it out.

Spend some time at a furniture auction.

Go for a bike ride.

Listen to live music.

Take yourself out for afternoon tea and people watch.

Visit a rock hound shop.

See a movie that appeals to you.

Go to a museum.

Watch a sunset.

Visit a farmer’s market.

And my personal favorite: walk on the beach and watch the waves crashing on shore.


My June Reads

It’s peony season. Stunning pink flowers are in full bloom outside our cottage by the sea, and red peonies grace the back yard of the house we’ve just bought. In the language of flowers, peonies represent love, romance and good fortune. In Greek mythology, the peony is linked to the moon. It was said that the moon goddess, Selene, created peonies to reflect the moon’s bright beams during the night. That’s especially true of very pale or white peonies. And interestingly enough, I divided some ethereal white peonies before we sold our old house so I could bring a few peony tubers with us. Those potted plants are now unfurling frilly white flowers. Soon it will be time to transplant them into the garden at our new place. For now, though, gardening is on hold while we renovate. At the end of the day, after showering off concrete dust, I relax with a book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.


At the gym: Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

Before bed: Lasting Impressions by Geoffrey Jowett

On the weekend: The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’Neal

Books read to date in 2019:  24