Where I live, the Covid numbers are climbing again. It’s now a race to vaccinate people to offset the spread of more contagious and potentially more severe variants. Maybe that’s why morale seems to be dropping amongst friends and family. These aren’t easy times. It’s been a long, difficult haul, and the restrictions aren’t over yet. So, this week, a bit of cheer from Canadian Neil Pasricha, one of the most popular Ted Talk presenters. Admittedly, some of his recommendations for simple pleasures – going to a movie, for instance – are off the table right now, but they won’t be forever. And his short twenty-minute talk is guaranteed to make you smile.
The daffodils are blooming and the tulips on the windowsill are too. The seedlings have sprouted, and once they get a second set of leaves, they’ll make the pilgrimage to the greenhouse to harden off before being planted out in May. Gardeners live for warmer weather and more hours of daylight, but the downside – if there is a downside – is that the gardening season means less time to curl up with a book. At least for now. Once the spring chores are done and the seedlings are planted out, there’s usually more time. That being said, I can always find an hour or two after sunset to get in bit of reading. Here’s what I’m enjoying this month:
Grit by Angela Duckworth
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters by Bernie Glassman & Rick Fields
Books read to date in 2021: 26
Life has thrown me a curve ball in the last week and my attention is fragmented, so here’s a blog post that appeared five years ago. The sentiments are as true today as they were back then.
I received an email a few weeks ago about living in B.C. The woman in question is doing her master’s and preparing to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.
I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island (Victoria), I grew up in both Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.
I think there’s a certain mindset one has, having been born and raised on an island. To a large extent, you’re dependent on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return, for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular as being ignorant or disinterested in different cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.
With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally, which, by extension, flavours my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies, which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.
For me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So, when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.
I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know precisely what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark; I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.
Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The saltwater tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.
We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.
Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.
American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.
Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.
Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.
In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.
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 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!
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.
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
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.
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!
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.