Category Archives: writing

The end of the Endless Summer

Today marks the first day back to school for many children in British Columbia. The teacher strike is over, and today, children across the province what it back into their schools.

My kids go to an independent school so we been back for a while. A week or so before school started I wrote the following poem and I thought that it would be appropriate to post it now.

Summer’s End

Summer’s waning
The bare shoulder of the season
Turns towards the setting sun
To catch the last rays, warming,
As they fall below the horizon.

The evening breeze whips about the damp of the grass
Cooling the evening air
Chilling my daughter as she rides her bike
Through the growing shadows.

These are the last days of August
In which we trudge towards fall
With the reluctance of a child being drawn out
From a candy store.

When lazy summer mornings begin to have
Overtones of anxiety – this time cannot last
But must be replaced by those harsh taskmasters
The alarm clock and the school bell.

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Fresh Air

Photo courtesy of www.pixproductions.ca

Every Wednesday my mother-in-law picks up Ben from school and brings him home for me.  It’s early dismissal at the school and it clashes with naptime for John and my niece, so the Wednesday pickup is my mother-in-law’s weekly gift of sanity to me.

As I was standing on our front doorstep yesterday talking to her after Ben had run upstairs to watch George Shrinks with Cate, a little breath of wind came down the lane between the townhouses opposite and blew into our house.  It had rained earlier in the day and the air was cool and fresh.  It was cloudy overhead, but the kind of cloudy where you know that somewhere back there is sunshine, but it hasn’t yet broken through.

I sucked in that breath of wind and all of a sudden my sensory memory jolted awake.   I was standing on the banks of Cultus Lake, I was waiting for the elementary school bus on a cool spring morning, walking to university on a crisp fall day.

I was able to take in two deep breaths of this memory-inducing wind, right in the middle of the conversation with my mother-in-law.  I didn’t say anything about it to her, just kept it all to myself.  And just like that, the wind was gone.  The whole thing had taken about two seconds.  But there it was, the wind connecting my present and my past, then vanishing off around the corner to shore up the wings of one of the pigeons that nest in the eaves of the townhouses.

Alice Advice

“I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”
Alice, “Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll

What I try to do when I am sad and feeling low.

  1. Don’t look at blogs and websites that are better than yours.  You will just get more depressed about how much you want to do with yours that you don’t have the time to do.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t look at the “Home Decor” or “DIY & Crafts” sections on Pinterest.  Stick to “Humour” and “Geek”.
  2. Pick one small task.  Do it. This could be as little as clearing off one spot in your kitchen.  Then you can look at that clean spot and think: “I did that” And you did!
  3. Eat a butter tart square.  Just one.  You will feel better.
  4. Pick one more small task.  Do that.
  5. Take a couple of deep breaths.  Look out the window.  Hopefully it is sunny.  Smile, even if it isn’t.

You will be okay.

Most Beautiful Thing: Literature and Imagination

A few days ago Jason Borkowski, the principal of Benno’s school, wrote about upcoming changes to our school library on his blog, CatholicPrincipal.  For those of you who may not have time to read the post, the gist is that because our school is offering two classes of kindergarten next year instead of the regular single class, space is at a premium in our small school.  As a result, the library will be temporarily displaced.  Mr. Borkowski asked for parent feedback and, in a fit of inspiration, I replied to his post with the following behemoth. Coincidentally, my reply happens to fit in nicely with my Monday posting about “The Most Beautiful Thing”.  Ah, serendipity…

I think downsizing the library is a good opportunity to “refine” the book selection available to make sure that our kids are reading beautiful, uplifting, interesting, and creative material that will feed their imaginations and their intellect.

If the universe was mine to control, or the CCS library selection at least, I would keep all the books that are original works and temporarily archive all the books that are spin-offs of other media. For example, keep “Asterix and Oblix” but pack away all the Star Wars books (my son loves both, by the way, so I am not making these comments based on my child’s preference, but my own). If the book came first, keep it. If the book is a merchandising spin off, box it up for a year.

From their first poop in a “Winnie the Pooh” newborn diaper to their first “Thomas the Train” swimsuit, from their first pair of “Dora” runners to their first “Transformers” school backpack, our kids are bombarded with profit-driven merchandise that demands their allegiance to a particular product. Maybe instead of reinforcing these patterns in our school library, we should give their brains a rest from all this profit-driven advertising and, just for a single year, give precedence to original creative works.

Original works of fiction have the ability to open up our imagination in surprising and delightful ways. I first read “The Lion. The Witch, and The Wardrobe” when I was in grade two. I was a voracious reader, I was home with a cold, and I was bored to death of everything else in the house. I remember looking at my parents’ bookshelf at the end of our hallway, picking up Lewis’ work, and going to the living room to curl up on the couch to read and feel wretched. (I may have asked my Mom’s permission to read the book first – I can’t remember that part). As I began to read about the Pevensies and their adventures I was transported away from my home on Fairfield Island in Chilliwack to wartime England and then to Narnia, that most magical of worlds. When my Mom called me in to dinner that night my body may have been at the dinner table with the rest of my family, but my mind and my heart were with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy as they struggled to defeat the White Witch.

To this day, I love being utterly captivated by a good work of fiction (just ask my husband and my kids!). A good book has the capacity to change us, to transform us into better people, to turn our hearts towards the good, the beautiful, and the true so deftly and silently that we hardly realize the transformation until we finish the last paragraph, close the cover, put down the book, and give a sigh of contentment. When I’m reading to my kids, it isn’t Strawberry Shortcake or the retelling of Disney’s “Cinderella” that holds my interest. For the most part I suffer through the stilted storylines and mundane illustrations. It’s “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Pinkalicious” and “The Hobbit” and “The Hungry Caterpillar” and “This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall” and “The Boy Who Ate Books” and all the other myriad of original works that sparks my imagination and makes reading to my children a joy rather than a chore.

Why not use this opportunity to encourage our children to explore creative and original works of fiction, rather than reinforce media-driven literature? Now that would be truly counter cultural and would, I suspect, substantially help the school to live out its mandate* of teaching our children about truth, goodness, and beauty.

*(“Statement of School Philosophy”, page 4, CCS Parent Handbook)

One Hundred

one hundred

My blog is now just over a year old and this is my hundredth post.  A lot has happened in the past year, and I can’t tell you what a joy it has been to have this outlet for my creative energy.  I’ve been eyeing this milestone for a while now, and I’ve actually been doing a fair amount of procrastinating now that the time has come to write Post #100.  What should I say?  Should I try to be funny or wise or nonchalant?  Does one hundred posts and a year of blogging matter?  Is it worth celebrating or should I wait for a bigger milestone before I really try to make a big deal out of this?

Well, the answer to the last few questions is “of course I should make a big deal out of it” because it is a big deal to me.  Like I said, this blog has been a fantastic outlet for my creativity and has inspired a lot of positive changes in my life.  It has allowed me to start dreaming again after a time where I felt that dreaming was something for people other than myself.  The internet is a big place and there is a spot for everyone who wants some real estate.  And this humble little place is mine, all mine.

So, to celebrate this Happy Hundred I will compose a small list of things I have learned since I began this blog.

1. I love to write.  When I was little I loved to read and write poetry.  I continued to ply my angsty pen throughout my teenage years – some of that output makes me cringe and some of it is actually not half bad.  In university I chose to do an Honours thesis for my undergraduate degree and I wrote a 190 page thesis for my Masters degree.  It was an incredible amount of hard work, but seeing the final result was extremely gratifying.  This blog has rekindled my authorial ambitions and encouraged me to use lovely polysyllabic words like “authorial.”

2. I have learned that blogging has its seasons. There will be slow times, there will be times when the words rush from my fingers like grasshoppers scattering before me on a hot summer afternoon in the prairies, and there will be times when I am so busy that I can scarcely string together a coherent sentence, let along prep it for publication.

In a perfect world I would be posting two to three times a week, but the tyranny of the immediate does have a tendency to … tyrannize… over my artistic endeavours. For example, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted in about a month or so.  This is because I have been up to my eyeballs in planning a fundraiser for my son’s school.  This year I was in charge of public relations for the event and overseeing the silent auction portion of the evening.  Lots of time and effort, but worth it.  The event is over, so hopefully I’ll be able to post a little more frequently.

3. Learning how to manage my online presence is both fun and challenging.  I must admit, watching my stats go up whenever I post does quite a lot for the ego, and I thank each and every person who has taken the time to read this blog. It is great to write and it is lovely to know that someone is actually reading what I have written!

Having this digital space also means that my life is fodder for the blog.  It is very easy to go to an event, spend a lot of time taking what I hope will be cool photos, and plan out how I will write about what is going on. And in the middle of all that, I find that I haven’t really been present and I have missed actually being with my family.  I become a journalist rather than a wife and mother.  Furthermore, getting caught up in the digital world can sometimes do more harm than good.

All in all it has been an interesting exercise in personal branding – how “plugged in” should I be? I dabble in Twitter and Instagram and there is always Facebook, but promoting yourself and your ideas can be a little overwhelming.  I guess, like all things, I am still learning to find the balance between living my life and writing about it.

4. Over these hundred posts I have learned that, with grace, I have the ability to be myself, regardless of whatever I encounter.  If you have ever read Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (the book, mind you, not the appalling adaptation that they tried to pass off as a movie), you will know that Bridget encounters the Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, at a critical time in her life.  I re-read that book before Christmas and I found that Kipling’s poem really resonated with me.  I was going to give you an excerpt, but here’s the whole thing:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!

Keep your head, hold on to your virtue, don’t lose the common touch.  Be a good leader, don’t stoop to lies and hate, seek the good, the true, and the beautiful. It’s that difficult, and that easy.

And that concludes my not-so-short list of things learned.  Thank you, again, for reading what I write!  I always love to hear your thoughts and comments, so keep them coming.  Here’s to another hundred posts!

As the year wanes…

As the year wanes I sit by the window on a crisp December afternoon. After days of family and feasting and enjoying the company of others, I am soaking up this solitude. I can hear the dishwasher, John’s noisemaker, and the ticking of the clock. I have wrapped a blanket around my middle to keep me warm.

When I look out the window I can see white clouds against a cold blue sky, the neighbors’ backyards, and the red tipped branches of the trees, their leaves gone for almost a month now. If I look down I can see the fence that we finally got around to staining late this summer. An assortment of toys are scattered throughout the yard, leftover from an energetic summer. Our grass is slowly being taken over by the moss that climbs the hill from the common. We will have to deal with that in a few months.

Outside is bright and alive. Inside is quiet and messy, the detritus of Christmas morning still homeless and strewn throughout the house. What an awful lot of work life can be! But how rich and rewarding, especially when one has the time to appreciate what has been given.

Listening

We’ve all done it.  Someone is telling you a story.  Their story sparks a memory of something that happened to you.  It happens to be a good story, a great one in fact, with a fantastic punchline. And so, quivering with anticipation, we half-listen to our friend as we try to gauge the best time to jump into the conversation.  This is going to be good, and my friend will really appreciate my story.  My story.  My story.

What happens, though, if their story is merely a prelude to something deeper?  What if that person had been thinking about this moment for weeks and had just mustered up the courage to confide in you?  What if your fantastic story shattered that small token of courage that they had just begun to extend in your direction?  What if they just needed you to listen, to be silent, to receive what they are saying and hold it, treasure it, and not throw it back at them coated in your own glossy remembrance?

I know I do this to my kids, I know I have done it to my friends, and It has certainly been done to me.  Lively conversation and storytelling is essential to our lives – it is the way that we share, the way we communicate, and the way that we build friendships.  But sometimes, sometimes, we just need to listen.

The Queen of Crime

Agatha Christie

I have been doing a fair amount of tidying around the house lately (not that you can necessarily tell because I do live with three kids and I’m not always the neatest napkin in the drawer), so I have been “listening” to YouTube while performing the mundane tasks of life. “Listening” to YouTube consists of finding a program longer than half an hour, inserting one earbud into my right ear, placing the iPhone in my pocket, pressing “play”, and getting to down to the task at hand. This usually works best if I am listening to familiar material. That way I don’t have to keep sneaking glances at the phone to see what I am missing.

I always love series because they eliminate the need to search for something new. That sounds like laziness, doesn’t it? It also has to do with the comfort of knowing what I am getting. And who better to start with than the great Agatha Christie?

I began reading Agatha Christie as a teenager, and it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I devoured her novels. Every time we went to the library I would scour the mystery section for novels I hadn’t read. For those uninitiated, Christie created two major characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, an elderly crime specialist. She wrote scores of short stories and novels, as well as novels under the name of Mary Westmacott. One of my favourite non-fiction books is Come Tell Me How You Live, in which she writes about her journeys with her archaeologist-husband, Max Mallowan.

One of my favourite Poirot novels is Death on the Nile. I know that there are a couple of good movie versions, but there is just something about reading that story that puts me completely into that world. I am wholly transported to Egypt in the 1930s, traveling down the Nile by steamer, visiting the monuments, and trying to discover just who could have shot the lovely Linnet.

Also worth while are the two movie versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Can there be anything more chilling than the opening sequence of the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot? I remember watching it when I was babysitting as a teenager and I was so creeped out I had to turn it off even though I had seen the movie before. It’s even worse when you have kids.

But I think I’m even more impressed with David Suchet’s 2010 rendition. Suchet (and the writers) does such a wonderful job of portraying the great moral struggle that Poirot goes through as he discovers the identity of the killer, you see that his love for justice is coupled with his knowledge of the frailty and fallibility of human beings. (For an extra treat you can take a peek at David Suchet’s trip on the real Orient Express where he learns about the history of the railway, rides in the same coaches that Christie would have travelled in, and even gets to drive the engine!)

My favourite Miss Marple series is with Joan Hickson, who was actually tagged by Agatha Christie herself to play the character. She is so gentle, but so brutal and clear. Here she is in the first of the programs, Body in the Library. Do yourself a favour, check up the full program list on Wikipedia, and watch them all on YouTube.

In addition to watching her novels on screen, this last little stint of Christie-obsessiveness lead to a couple of interesting programs on the Queen of Crime herself. The first is Agatha Christie’s Garden which shows Greenway, her home in Devon which is in the process of being opened to the public. The second is a biopic called Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures that explores her mysterious disappearance in 1926 as well as her husband’s infidelity. I recognize some of the monologues as taken directly from her autobiography, and the meat of the story is apparently taken from her interviews with a psychiatrist after her disappearance. I’ve read a couple of reviews from people who were disappointed with the docudrama, and it certainly isn’t a factual, linear representation of this time in her life. Christie never spoke of the incident in public. However, I really liked how the film shows her sifting through the fog of depression to confront the betrayal of her husband. It is very stark, making you feel her loss very deeply.

So there it is. A glimpse into my lifelong appreciation of the writing of Agatha Miller Christie Mallowan. Now go borrow one of her books from the library or I’ll slip you some cyanide.