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.

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.

My November Reads

I think of late fall as my pause point before I start baking and preparing for the holidays. Even though the days are shorter and the nights are longer, I seem to have more time to devote to quieter pursuits, like reading. And these days, with the Covid numbers climbing and creating a sense of unease everywhere, books are my favorite way to escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Dance Away with Me by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Silver Bay by JoJo Moyes

Books read to date in 2020: 58

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

Rituals and Writing

This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions, and that has me thinking about writers and their rituals. Not all of us have rituals, but many of us do, and we’re in good company. 

Apparently, Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before he started writing. May Sarton cued up 18th-century music. Maya Angelou used the same writing ritual for years: she got up around five am, drove to a hotel, and was writing by 6:30. Longhand. On yellow pads. And she asked the staff to take everything off the walls so there was just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that started in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a letter that sparked The House of Spirits. 

Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in longhand using a particular type of pen (she orders them in bulk). Another can’t write with shoes on her feet, only slippers. My ritual is an early morning walk, a check of email while I drink my first cup of coffee, and a glance at my ‘to do’ list. Then I’m ready to write. But I do like to have a sweater hanging on the back of my chair to pull around my shoulders when a chill (or insecurity) hits. The latter ritual goes back years to a hand-knit sweater my aunt gave me. Having it close was a reminder that someone had my back. It was a good feeling. 

You might think I’m fussy or just plain weird, but there’s nothing weird or merely superstitious about rituals. Neuroscience tells us that rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry, and make it easier to get things done.   

When we repeat behaviors, the neurons in our brains communicate together, wire together, and activate each other. If we do things fairly often in a similar sequence, our brains get used to that order and become more efficient at the task. 

“It’s like developing friendships,” says Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, the conversation is awkward and stilted, but as you become more comfortable and better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

That means if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time as you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the things on your desk as Dickens did – they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become. 

I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get. So, I’m off to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.  

My October Reads

I’m in the mood to escape reality for a little while, but given the current circumstances we find ourselves living in, I’m not going very far. Instead of hopping on a plane (not wise with the rising Covid numbers) or planning a future vacation (delayed gratification only satisfies me for so long), I’m escaping via books. I’m looking for fiction with appealing settings or nonfiction books by people who have moved to new countries. And if their book provides details about local culture, flora and fauna, and food, so much the better. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Peach Keeper by Sara Addison Allen

Plum, Courgette and Green Bean Tart by Lisa Rose Wright

The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy

Books read to date in 2020: 52

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. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/