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Pickle Me This

July 29, 2020

A Season for Spaciousness

A sand path through dunes leading to a beach. There is a huge blue sky overhead.

Taking a small summer break from blogging, for this is a season for spaciousness after all. I will be back in early August. Wishing you goodness and joy in the meantime.

July 24, 2020

122 Days

I don’t remember my last swim, though I remember the date. March 11, which stands out for many of us in all kinds of ways, and it was the last day of a lot of things—that evening I would run my cart through the grocery store heaped with cans of beans and bags of chips (necessary supplies for impending disaster). It was the last day my children were both at school, because Iris woke up with a cough on Thursday and I didn’t want to chance it. It was the last day of normal life still seeming like a possibility, through we had cancelled our trip to England, which was due to happen the following week. But on Wednesday March 11, we still weren’t sure we weren’t overreacting. By Thursday morning, I would be overwhelmed with dread and skipping my swim (why chance it?), my towel and bathing suit hanging over the railing in my bedroom where they would stay for the next four months.

I need to have a towel hanging on the railing, even when I’m not swimming at all.

But then last week at the cottage (I think it’s interesting the way we say “at the cottage” as though there were one, as though the specificity mattered in the slightest), there were towels hanging on the railing all week. There were bath towels too, but we didn’t even use them, because nobody is required to shower when you swim in the lake every day. Every day twice a day.

We’ve never had our own personal waterfront before, been just 47 steps from a swim. Though it wasn’t so much more than that in that 100-days-ago era, back when I used to swim every morning, when I would leave the house at 7:00am and be in the pool by 7:15, pushing off for my very first length, never once taking such an extraordinary privilege for granted.

But on summer holiday, there is no such need for early rising, and it’s far more vital to linger in bed with refilled cups of tea. Finally making our way down to the water mid-morning once the heat of the day had started rising, and leaping off the end of the dock. Every day I got to fly.

Truth be told, I’ve been able to fill the swimming void. We do yoga every morning and it makes my body feel the same way swimming does, stretched and limber. For exercise, I’ve been riding a stationary bicycle, which I don’t like—but at least it permits me to read at the same time. It turns out that as much as swimming itself, I missed the aesthetics of swimming. I saw an illustration of a blue circle back in the spring, and it moved me to tears. We bought a smallish pool for our backyard, and while I can’t swim in it, I can sit on an inflatable tube and float, which fulfills nearly all my aquatic needs.

But there is something about a lake, particularly one that’s 47 steps down from the door. A lake on such rugged terrain that there is no seaweed, but instead rock-faces, rocks themselves, and long lost tree trunks. The water so clear that I could see down to the bottom: a kitchen sink, a sunken rowboat.

Every day, I swam across our bay to the beach on the other side, equipped with goggles and earplugs. Last summer I could swim long distance, all the way to the island where we picnic, but now I’m out of practice. There was a point where our inflatable flamingo was taken by the wind, and I chased after it, caught it, so I’ve still got it, is what I’m saying. Not much of it, mind, but it was the most exhilarating swim of the holiday for sure.

I’d wondered about renting a cottage without a beach—it was a “con” as we were choosing a place. But it turned out to be the best thing ever—no sand, not a grain of it, which under normal cottage week situations would be caught up in my bed sheets by Tuesday, and I’d be sweeping the floor at least five times a day. Okay, we were still sweeping the floor, because whoever owned the place appears to have had a very, very fluffy white dog… But the lack of sand was amazing. Who needs sand anyway? Beaches are nothing compared with the end of a dock, the leap and the plunge. The kids who get to show off their swimming skills, nervous as the holiday began, but by the end of the week, they were fish.

We had one last swim before we left on Saturday. (I have completely forgotten about the horseflies, as I knew I would. You can’t see them in the photographs.) Like all the other swims, this one was perfect. Smallish lakes are always the nicest temperature in July, invigorating but inviting. When we got home that afternoon, the towels were still damp, like a memory.

July 22, 2020

The Ghost in the House, by Sara O’Leary

Is there a more charming phantom than Fay, in Sara O’Leary’s The Ghost in the House, who wakes up one day on top of her piano, and realizes she’s haunting her own house? Dressed in her husband’s white shirt, a set of black pearls, and it’s obvious that something is not right. Everything in the house has altered—the atmosphere, the decor. And when she realizes her husband has taken another wife, of course Fay so delicately nudges that woman’s wedding ring off the counter into the sink until it falls down the drain. Because what else would you do in that situation, when your realize your beloved has replaced you with another wife? How would you go about spending your days?

It’s such an interesting premise, but O’Leary makes something substantial, surprising and lovely with it. The narrative itself a bit ghostly, walking through walls, a short book whose chapters and sections leap easily between past and present. There is some mischief, naturally, but the story really gets going when Fay’s husband begins to sense her presence, to see her. After five years of grief, she has come back to him—but he loves hs new wife too. Where do allegiances lie? And there is no right or wrong answer to the question.

The Ghost in the House resonates because Fay herself is so achingly human, yearning for impossible things, and as readers, we can empathize with her supernatural predicament. What would you do? Which is the happy ending, after all? A ghost story that is actually a love story, and one whose spirit lingers once the last page is turned.

July 22, 2020

Summer Reads on the Radio

What a pleasure to talk about books (and swimming, and books ABOUT swimming!) on CBC Ontario Morning today! If you missed it live, listen again on the podcast—I come in at 28.30.

July 21, 2020


I haven’t paid much attention to the numbers, at all, unless they’re good (just 102 cases in Ontario last Wednesday!), but when they’re not, they don’t concern me. Because my concern doesn’t help, I mean, neither me nor the province, and there are actual people who get paid to know about these things, so instead I wash my hands, wear a mask, and focus on the things I can control. Like remaining calm, which is to say measured.

“Carefully considered; deliberate and restrained.”

I would like to call a moratorium on the word “surge.” I would like to call a moratorium on headlines. “It’s not a linear path,” says a person who actually knows what the measurements mean in an article whose inflammatory headline runs counter to the message. “Periodic outbreaks, periodic reopenings… It’s going to happen. It should happen. I think the key thing is communicating that and normalizing that.”

“an estimate of what is to be expected (as of a person or situation)”

How do you measure risk? I wrote about this in May, which in retrospect was a really hard time, and I was frustrated by other people’s demands for certainty and clarity, which seemed impossible. I continue to be frustrated by a lack of regard for any middle ground between ordinary life and lockdown, a middle ground that is possible (although less so with our provincial government’s dearth of vision and unwillingness to invest the money to make this possible). But then we all measure these things differently, don’t we. Slight odds mean something different and dangerous to people who have been outliers before, whereas to me they suggest safety. And neither of us is wrong.

“to estimate or appraise by a criterion”

I am thinking about how to connect all this to music, the measures that make a song as days make a week, weeks to years. How an archaic definition of “measure” is synonymous with “dance,” albeit one conducted with gravity instead of abandon. This is not the mashed potato, is what I’m saying, neither the latest, nor the greatest. But still a dance, a navigation in time and space with others.

“You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes, we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. (chuckle). And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called mercy, mercy, mercy.”

July 21, 2020


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July 20, 2020

Pandemic Vacation

A thing I never knew until 2020 is that there is no vacation like a pandemic vacation—but what a wonderful lesson to learn. If one must live through a pandemic, I mean. Our original summer holiday was cancelled at the end of May, but summer rentals had reopened in Ontario at the same time after being closed since March, which meant there was still some availability and we wasted no time in booking. We weren’t sure what we’d find when we got to the random cottage we’d booked on the internet, or if this holiday would feel second-tier, as sad as 2020 in general. Plus what of spending time together as a family after having been holed up for months… But it was everything, beautiful with amazing swimming (I hadn’t swam for 120 days!), cut off from the world so we could forget about everything except the sky and the trees, and the way the lake was always changing. I read a book every day, relished escape from the city heat, had fun with my family, and delighted in these days of being at peace. Checking out the newspaper midweek too to learn that not much had even happened while we were gone. It was a very good week, and I’ve never been more grateful for a holiday.

July 10, 2020

The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam

Last weekend, I had no idea what to read next, which never happens, because I always have this book or that to read for review, or whatnot. I have a pile of new releases that I am definitely excited about, but these were being saved for my holiday. So what? I picked a few books off my shelf and started them, but none of them took, and then I started reading The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam, a book that’s been sitting on my TBR stack for a while, which I wasn’t even that excited about because sometimes Jane Gardam is hard work (kind of abstract; wholly worth the effort, but can be daunting; maybe it’s just me?).

The Hollow Land was winner of the Whitbread Book Award when first published in 1982, though the fact that it was a collection of linked stories about two young boys didn’t really grab me in theory. I started reading, however, and was hooked—finding the perfect read when you’ve been floundering is a little bit like that sweet relief of being well after an illness. “This book!” I kept exclaiming. So funny, so biting, so delightful. About a rural family in Cumbria whose grandfather’s farmhouse is let to a family from London who come for vacations, leading to all kinds of cultural intersections and misunderstandings. (It is not entirely unlike Schitt’s Creek, to be honest, especially in that polite fun is poked at everybody, and everybody gets to be human.)

Indeed, a collection of linked stories, but more effective than just a gimmick, and they come together to make the book more than the sum of its parts. We return to Bell and Harry as they grow older, as Harry and his family become familiar with the community, and we meet its eccentric characters. It’s pitch perfect, clever and fun, deft and subtle characterization. Kind of like Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches if they were 300% times better…

And then in the last story, the whole book shifts into a dystopia, taking place in a 1999 after the end of oil…but not so much as changed for Bell and Harry in Cumbria—they’ve gone back to plowing the fields with horses, that’s all. An interesting thing too to consider the end of oil in a land whose hollowness comes from the fact it was long ago mined for coal. A dystopian future set in a rural idyll where nothing ever changes, where timelessness is its essence. It’s such a strange and unexpected diversion, but makes perfect sense at the same time.

Just as reading the book did for me.

July 9, 2020

Where Are The Dads?

New piece up at Chatelaine. So happy by response to this one.

July 7, 2020


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