Category: Books

What’s precious

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We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.

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We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.

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I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.

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The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?

I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.

But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.

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I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.

Art on the driveway

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Change. When you make art on the driveway in winter, here is what happens to it over the course of several months.
I would like to speak today about the idea of being, at least in part, a public person. I wonder how others do it. How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling? How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional? How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories? How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets? How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter? How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner? How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind? How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
I know I set the bar high, and I know it’s me doing the setting of the bar. We all have our (tragic) flaws. Mine may be that I want to do it all, big and small.
I want art on the driveway. I want books in translation. I want to run fast. I want singing. I want fun. I want to braid hair and apply bandaids and hold hands and honour all the stories. I want deep still quiet reflection. I want to stir. I want to comfort. I want invention.
And I’m sitting here in my office with the dogs, slumped on my stool rather than walking on my treadmill, with eyes at half mast and emails unanswered, wondering how exactly to do all of this. Because I really don’t know.
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advance reading copy, i.e. not for sale, still needs to be proofread, but looks awfully book-like
And then this arrives in the mail. Seeming to say: well, you’ve done something you wanted to do, woman. Now, enjoy it for a moment. So I sit on the radiator (because I’m cold because it’s still winter, this spring), and I read the first chapter out loud to myself (and the dogs).
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mirror, mirror

London album

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Westminster Abbey

It’s hard to go wrong, when photographing a city like London. Nath and I walked to Westminster from the rebuilt Globe theatre on Wednesday evening, before I left.

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London Eye

Crossing Westminster Bridge, this was the view behind us (above), with the sun shining, as if it never rained in London — which it almost never did while I was there; I had a running joke with my UK publisher Lisa Highton that she’d arranged the weather especially for my stay.

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And this was the view from the banks of the Thames as we approached Westminster. On the walkway beside the river were crowds of people, some of them tourists, some commuting home from work on foot or bicycle, and a surprising number of runners, many of them training while wearing backpacks, dodging the crowds while trying to keep up a quick pace. It looked moderately hellish, frankly, although in theory I can see the appeal of running along the river. I much preferred my morning runs in Greenwich Park, with green grass everywhere and buds on trees, and the wafting perfume of the flower gardens in the air. (No photos, however, as I was running.)

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London Eye

The queue was enormous, so it’s a good thing I hadn’t planned to go on the Eye, although it looked much more tempting up close. Each of those pods holds 25 people. Essentially, it’s a giant money-generating machine.

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Globe Theatre

Earlier in the evening, Nath and her kids and I met at the recreated Globe Theatre and went on the tour. It was as if I’d planned it: tickets for the last tour of the day were half price. You know I love a bargain.

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Tate museum, with bird

I’m going in reverse, I see, though I’m not sure how that’s happened. Perhaps it’s because, after my 20-or-so hours in transit yesterday, I’m more tired than expected, so exhausted, in fact, that it feels like I’ve entered a kind of fugue state. I have no idea if anything I’m writing here is comprehensible, but I sense this will be a longer post than usual. Brace yourselves. I’d arrived early, Bankside, to meet Nath and kids, so I popped in at the Tate, which is beside the Globe theatre. At that point in my day, I was pretty foot-sore and had lugged my laptop all over London and the Tate seemed enormous, so I stood for awhile before this painting by Dorothea Tanning, an artist I’d never heard of before; I was strangely transfixed by it — it’s quite large, and it seemed almost to move or transform, as if it held figures emerging before my eyes.

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views from the Millennium Bridge

I’d come here on my own by the underground; it took me a couple of days to become oriented to the system of overlapping lines and trains, but I had no trouble finding my way around. If I lived in London, I would never drive.

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spring, outside the Victoria & Albert museum

Earlier in the afternoon, I went to the V&A, mainly to visit the gift shop for a specific souvenir for Child-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and also to look at clothing and household items from the Renaissance.

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British Library

That final day in London was crammed to max, but mostly I spent my time here, at the British Library.

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inside the BL

It’s a new building (built within the last 20 years), and it’s bustling and vibrant. The individual Reading Rooms are packed, yet quiet, and in order to protect the valuable and rare material that can be accessed by anyone with a Reader Card (like me!), people are only allowed to bring in a limited number of items, which one carries into the reading room in a large plastic bag, provided by the library. Pencils only. No drinks, no edibles of any kind. Laptops permitted only in certain areas. I discovered on the first day the importance of arriving early, finding a desk, and staking it out for the rest of the day.

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train, before and after arrival at the Charlton station

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I commuted to the BL by train and tube.

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escalator inside London Bridge underground station

I have a fear of heights. It took me the better part of the week to conquer the fear and be able to ride the escalator without clutching the handrail with a death grip, and literally going weak in the knees. Miraculously, I trained myself out of my fear by the end of the stay. Breathing exercises. For serious.

I have no photos from the parties I went to on Monday evening. It rained, but I brought along a little umbrella that fit into my satchel. I did not wear a dress, but tried to look suitably glamourous. This was achieved with mascara, earrings, and my gold shiny top, three things I never wear under ordinary circumstances. I like to go unadorned most of the time, so that when I dress up the difference is measurable; start with a low bar, that’s my advice.

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Trafalgar square

On Sunday, I rode the train and tube for the first time all by myself, and met my agent and my US publisher for lunch. Afterwards, Nath met up with us, and we went to the National Portrait Gallery, which is right behind me in the photo above. Having been once, I would go again, and again. I will never tire of faces.

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Tower of London, foreground, by the river

Saturday, Nath and I walked all around the old city of London. We walked at least 8 kilometres, according to Nath’s calculations. All of the old buildings are surrounded by new ones. Transposing oneself back in time requires imagination, but that’s fine by me. I’ve got plenty of imagination.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

Take for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral. This building is really really old. But it’s still not as old as the St. Paul’s Cathedral that existed during the time period I’ve been researching (1530-1660). That St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 (which destroyed two-thirds of the city of London). The “new” Cathedral was built in the same location, but not to the same design.

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Nath knocking on the door of St. Paul’s Cathedral (as instructed by her photographer)

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creepy cherub detail on St. Paul’s Cathedral

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with Lisa Highton, at the Two Roads office

I take a lot of things for granted that I know I shouldn’t. For example, when I arrived in London on Friday morning, I went directly to the offices of my London publisher, where I was welcomed with open arms by Lisa Highton and her crew, and Nath and I were fed sandwiches and fruit followed by a sumptuous cake. I’m not saying I took that welcome for granted, exactly, more that I just find myself rolling with these things as they come. I never quite expected to be where I am, but it is where I am, and so I try my best to be here without questioning it or worrying over the transience of the experience. That’s what travelling is like, too. You roll with what comes at you. You have to, really. And so, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I welcomed the welcome at Two Roads, as you can see from the photo above. And later that same day, with a short nap to bolster me, I welcomed the welcome of dinner out with my fabulous Canadian publisher, Anansi, who were in town for the London Book Fair.

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Friday evening, street in Charlton, looking rather Dickensian here

I welcomed the welcome of my friends, too, who hosted me so generously in their home, and who accompanied me around London, and got me oriented. I wouldn’t have gone to London at all if they hadn’t been there — I couldn’t have imagined taking the leap on my own. And that’s what it comes down to, really, the leap of the imagination, which is the first step to any adventure.

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Westminster Abbey

Music for the spirit

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my new book (essay anthology): The M Word!

Newsflash: Inbox no longer empty. I guess inboxes are like kitchens. Cleaning them is a process not an end.

A few newsy bits to record today.

I’ve started a spring yoga challenge: hot yoga every day for the next two weeks. I’m thinking of it as a bridge to get me through to spring. Like, the real spring. Or at least to get me through to London, and maybe when I’m back from London conditions will be favourable once again for running outside. But right now, I’m so tired of running on icy slippery windy snow-flecked streets. I need an exercise practice I can look forward to. (I’ll still be running during the next few weeks, of course; I’ll just be cursing as I go, which is not so good for the soul.)

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the dogs say hello

I’ve been working on the children’s book: THE CANDY CONSPIRACY! And I can now announce that the illustrator will be Marion Arbona, whose work you can browse on her website here. I haven’t seen her concepts for the story yet, but I’m really looking forward to that. The illustrated imagination. I find people are often fascinated (horrified?) to learn that as the writer I have nothing to do with the cover design for my books, nor will I have anything to do with the illustrations for this children’s book, but I actually think it’s best that way. I’m not a designer or an illustrator. I write the words. And it’s a privilege to get to see my words interpreted by someone else. The words become shared. Maybe their meaning is altered too, to some small degree, but that’s the case every time someone reads them, because reading is a collaborative experience.

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our yard, March 20, 2014: the dirty truth

Today has been a day of pleasant list-crossing-offing.

I went to a mid-morning yoga class, which felt entirely decadent. I got to the university library to gather some research material. I sent off forms for children’s summer camps. I met Kevin for lunch! I renewed library books. I’m an efficient relaxed version of myself. Plus it’s sunny.

Plus I’ve started playing the ukulele. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s relaxing. I’m currently harbouring a small fantasy that we have ukes enough for the whole family to play, and we all sit around strumming and harmonizing together. Note: this has not even come close to happening. But Kevin and I did spend an evening in front of the fire, last weekend, playing 3-chord songs, him on guitar, me on uke. It was not in the least bit romantic, because I’m an impatient and grumpy teacher, and he is still learning rhythm, but he didn’t give up, which was very nice of him, and I got to sing, which was very nice for me, and now we want everyone to do it.

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boy with viola

The thing about making music is that it is both creative and relaxing. The rhythm and repetition take you to a meditative place. You can do it for a long time and not get bored of it. You can do it alone, or with others. You can challenge yourself to learn something new, or you can comfort yourself by playing something familiar. When my kids are feeling down or tired or restless or bored or melancholy, I want them to consider turning to a musical instrument for consolation and for pleasure. I go to the piano like that. I play more often than my family knows.

I often start my day with a song.

I often have no idea what I’m going to play. I just sit down and discover it. It’s a creative process that’s much like free-writing. Our brains are wired to rhythm; it begins with the heartbeat. As much as I love sports and believe in it as a positive body-healthy outlet for all ages, I believe too in music-making as a way of connecting with our deeper selves, and with others. Music for the spirit!

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

Newsflash!

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AppleApple’s last major school project before March break: an original handwritten folk tale

March break started yesterday. The kids celebrated with Minecraft in their pyjamas, a game that they play collaboratively, and that includes everyone, and which therefore I don’t find myself objecting to as stridently as I do to other video games. I also make no comment when Kevin sneaks off to play FIFA14 (a soccer video game) with one kid or another, calling it “soccer practice.” I actually think that “pwning” his opposition in FIFA14 may be helping Albus with his “mad dekes” on the field, in real life. It’s the power of envisioning results. If you can’t imagine it — in specific, calculated detail — it’s never going to happen.

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the couch in its new location + airborn son; we call that beanbag chair “the cow”

On our first family outing of March break, we walked uptown to get passport photos taken. Because — newsflash! — I’m flying to London, England next month! (My passport is actually fine, but in digging up everyone’s, I discovered that most of the kids’ had expired.) This trip fulfills a dream to research early print culture, specifically popular culture (i.e. the precursor to the tabloid), in Elizabethan England. Long ago, I wanted to write a doctoral thesis on the subject, but I have the feeling that fiction will be much more fun, and ultimately more in line with my talents and abilities. I studied English Lit through grad school, but have never seen the places imprinted in my imagination by all that reading of English Lit; just like I wanted to see Nicaragua again before trying to write about, I want to see England before trying to write about it (I’ll save the time-travelling for my imagination). There is no guarantee that I’ll find my story, of course, but I know for sure I won’t find it unless I go (see above re power of envisioning.)

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different airborn son

I’m going before the spring soccer season starts, and Kevin claims not to be worried at all about managing the house and kids and scheduling madness in my absence, now that he’s home so much more often (and he really is home so much more often, a fact I don’t mention enough, but which has greatly benefitted and altered all of our lives). The timing couldn’t be better: I have friends on sabbatical in London this year, who have offered to feed and shelter me. In fact, Nath has been acting as my unofficial guide, looking up directions to places I want to see, and providing advance tips on using the British Library and getting an Oyster pass so I can use the trains, etc.; plus she says she’ll come with me on my outings and provide me with an umbrella. I keep emailing her questions like: what kind of shoes should I bring? (Don’t we all need someone to whom we can email questions like that? It’s funny how it eases the mind just to have someone to ask.)

I also hope to see another friend, whose family is also in the UK on sabbatical, and meet my UK publisher, Lisa Highton of Two Roads, in person.

And maybe have a jacket potato and some beer.

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Fooey playing with matchbox cars, last weekend

Our second stop on yesterday’s family outing was Words Worth, where I bought a pile of bargain books, and AppleApple ordered Black Beauty, and Fooey picked out a guide to making bracelets on her Rainbow Loom (she has been doing nothing else since), and CJ chose a Pokemon guidebook. (Albus was at the library with a friend, as he didn’t need a passport photo). CJ is starting to read, for real. Pokemon guidebooks wouldn’t be my first choice for his reading material, but if he’s the one reading them to himself, I have no objection.

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jam cupboard in its new location

We have a list of things we want to do this week, including:
– matinee movie at the Princess
– family party night (tonight!) [note: definition of party supplied entirely by the children]
– make-up piano lesson
– possibly move children’s rooms around
– clean basement / house
– trip to mall
– plan CJ’s birthday party
– family cross-country ski trip
– lamps for living-room
– uke night
– supper at Grandpa’s
– play with friends
– early morning swim with AppleApple
– trip to the Museum to see this exhibit (over strong protest from the very family member we wish to take)
– hot yoga in the living-room
– fix iMac (the computer on which I process photos, which has been crashing with alarming regularity: which is why this blog doesn’t always have up-to-date pics at present)
– transfer all important files to laptop
– exhibition soccer games
– plan Carrie’s trip
– library

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new bookshelf

We’ve already added a new bookshelf to the living-room and shifted the location of the piano and the couch, and moved the jam cupboard up to our bedroom where it looks so beautiful it almost causes me grief — I think because it seems like hoarding to keep such a beautiful object in such a private space.

“Does it seem like we’re in a constant state of change?” Kevin asked this morning, as AppleApple offered to do a room switch with Albus, who is not enjoying sharing with CJ. To which I could only reply, Yes. We are.

Larger than life

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After this morning’s run (-24 with the windchill, again!), I felt inspired to post photos comparing the weather today, March 6th, 2014, to the March 6ths of previous years. Easier said than done. I’ve just been scanning through the past few Marches, as recorded on my blog, and it would appear that in those years when it was simply grey and dreary and melty, I didn’t take a lot of seasonal outdoor photos.

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March 4, 2012

Here’s one. Looks like there was still some snow two years ago at the same time, though not nearly in our current volume. Photos from later that month show the lilacs starting to bud, and lettuce and chives coming up in the back garden beds, but that hasn’t been the March-norm, according to my blog. It was odd enough to remark on.

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not all photos are flattering

This is me, this morning. I have a moustache! And a beard, kind of. This photo was taken around 6:45AM. The light was beautiful. The cold was not. My toes were frozen.

I have a sick child home again today. Not the same sick child, either. We’ve cycled through sick children this past week, with the three eldest taking their turn. March break begins tomorrow. I shake my head. This winter.

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AppleApple finished Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story before I did. It was a very readable book, we agreed, although odd to be reading in book-form such recent news events; and of course the story remains unfinished.

I’ve been thinking about tyrants and celebrities. Larger than life. That seems to be how we want our leaders. That’s why the most impossible-seeming characters wind up in power, despite being bumbling fools or ruthless autocrats or outright sociopaths. The gods and goddesses had outsized appetites and were obviously flawed, too, but we never said we wanted perfection, we the people. We are awed by enormity, by behaviour on a scale we can’t imagine of ourselves, whether it be idiocy or tyranny.

Vladimir Putin is larger than life. He may appear bizarre to the Western eye, posing shirtless while conquering a variety of wildlife, but he knows what he’s doing: he’s creating a potent myth of himself. What an oddly self-inflated little man, we might think, while he smiles like the Mona Lisa and crushes his opposition. And on a scale of far less global importance, Rob Ford is also larger than life. His appetites are renowned, his body enormous, his inability to speak the truth unstoppable, his buffoonery legendary. When we laugh at him, we forget that he still has power. In some ways, it’s an odd trick common to many a corrupt leader: their pretensions are so absurd, we can’t believe anyone’s taking them seriously.

We should. We take them as seriously as they take themselves, or else we’re the fools.

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