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October 12, 2020

What the Trees Were Doing

We called them Sad Covid Walks, but only in hindsight. At the time we were walking, they were everything we had, during those months when traffic was deserted and the only ads in the transit shelters were telling us all to stay home.

We had a circuit through and around the university campus, a walk we took once a week to track the progress of spring. Two secret copses—one at the school of mining, the other at the faculty of forestry—and then the tiny Zoo Woods beside Sidney Smith Hall. Which at first were barren of anything green, just a trillium here and there, and then the season came on like a deluge. Never have I been more grateful for spring.

A woman in my blogging course last month wrote about that waiting, and watching the naked trees with an attention she’d never experienced before. About how as the leaves fall away again, she is trying to hold onto the promise of winter trees instead of sadness as the seasons change again.

We’ve taken such comfort from trees this year. Retracing our steps today even though we really didn’t want to, even though anything that was full-on in Covid spring, we’ve developed an aversion to (except for ice cream).

But I wanted to see what those trees were doing, to give thanks for the ways they have saved us, and the ways they persist, oblivious to everything, from the sad people looking up, to the pigeons in their boughs.

To their majesty, their steadfastness, and the admirable way they keep reaching for the sun.

September 4, 2020

Why I am Still Not Freaking Out About School

Photograph of a barrel of red apples, with a sign on it that says, "Welcome back to school"

I am still not freaking out about school. There are a lot of reasons why not, and some of them include denial, but mostly it’s that me freaking out about school isn’t going to make anything better. It will be as futile as all-caps screaming at the Education Minister on Twitter, and I don’t do that anymore. (Most of the time.)

This is not to say that I have done nothing. (There is a wonderful plot of land in that space between “freaking out” and “doing nothing,” and I’ll meet you there.) A bunch of parents with smarts and agency put together an advocacy group calling on the government to put caps on class sizes, which would go far in actually applying the advice of medical experts that keeping groups small lowers risk of disease transmission.

This group is called Ontario Safe, and you should follow them, and support their initiatives, which include an email-writing campaign to the Minister and local MPPs.

I have sent the letter, I have encouraged other people to get involved. I have also emailed the Minister on my own behalf. I have thought about the importance of public education, for my own family, and also across the board. (Have you listened to Nice White Parents yet? It was fantastic and challenging in the very best way. I learned so much in ways I wasn’t expecting…)

I have also not really engaged with other parents about their own thoughts on sending their kids back to school, because in general, I just don’t care. Quite magnanimous of me, because usually I am judgey as all get-out, but the best thing about there being no perfect choice is that there is no terrible one either. Usually the idea of “choice” is totally sanctimonious (and I should know—I cloth diapered) and kind of gross, not remotely as neutral as it would like to be (don’t get me started on “school choice”) but this is a different kind of situation, or maybe I’ve just evolved since the spring (I doubt it).

You will make your choice based on your own childcare needs, and your own child’s social needs, and the health of the people who live in your home, and the size of your school, and your comfort with school and teachers in general based on previous experiences, and your child’s personality, and how well virtual schooling went in the spring, and your own level of anxiety, and infection rates in your area, and whether it’s really worth it to have the people in your family start wearing pants again.

I am sending my kids to school because local infection rates are really low; because I want to demonstrate my trust and support in the public school system which I fervently believe in as much as I believe in any system, because the government is telling us that it’s safe to do so and I also believe in trusting the government (because the government is more than just the ding dongs and because not trusting the government can turn a person into a lunatic); because public schools are the only choice that is financially possible for me; because my kids are old enough that I trust them to follow processes and direction, and be smart; because when I think about sending millions of kids into schools my head explodes BUT when I think about the fact that my children will be under the supervision of two specific teachers (I don’t know who they are, but it’s always easier to break a thing down into parts) I feel better because I know how seriously teachers take their responsibilities; because the risk of serious harm to ourselves or others is statistically lower than in many activities we partake in regularly; and because if things go wrong and we’re not comfortable/it’s not working, I can take them out of school again, as we’re flexible enough with two parents working from home that this is not a big deal—and the last six months has taught me that missing school does not mean missing education. Even if they miss that remote learning transfer window, or whatever, it will be fine. Kids are resilient. I think we parents should strive to be more so.

By which I mean we should not be freaking out, I mean. Whether you are sending your children to school or not. We all have our reasons. And other people’s reasons really shouldn’t even apply to you

There is also a plot of land I’d like to meet you in between the space where you might shrug off the pandemic as a hoax and regard mandated mask wearing as a government conspiracy and where you constantly share articles from CNN about outbreaks at Georgia high schools and wake up with night terrors at the premise of a second wave (which in news headlines always gets calls a “DREADED second wave). Another plot of land between the pandemic being a hoax AND an awareness of the fact that news outlets want you clicking on their stories all the time and keeping you anxious works to their benefit. Stories about Georgia are not necessary applicable to my situation.

In March and April, children hung rainbows in their windows with signs that said “Everything is going to be okay.” In March, for a week or so, I was convinced that we were all going to die in the coming days, and it turns out the children were more correct than I was. I have been working hard to channel their optimism ever since, and in many ways, it’s been the right path. And no, “everything” is not going to be okay, but when was it ever? In general, we have been and we will continue to find a way for ourselves through all this, and working hard to keep our responses calm and measured goes a really long way.

August 31, 2020

Look for the Light

Everything I know about uncertainty I have learned from being a writer, and being a blogger. And I have never really had to use this knowledge in a practical sense until the last few months, and there have been days and weeks when I’ve done a very bad job of it, but in general I am keeping an even keel, and here is the stuff that is helping me with that.

1) Nobody knows what is going to happen next. This is a promise as much as it’s also a curse. But we keep going/reading/writing to discover, and it takes faith, stamina, courage. We all possess these things, and can cultivate them too.

2) If magic is real, it lies in the process, where one thing turns into another. And process is never a straight line. There will be setbacks and failures. Some drafts will be garbage. And it’s easy to be mired in the process, to despair at all the road ahead, if it will ever end, if that road is a road at all.

But then, please revisit my first point.

3) Take breaks. Take walks. Step away from your screen sometimes and often.

4) We move forward one word/post/page/day at a time. Breaking a thing down into manageable pieces is essential. The big picture is so overwhelming—a whole book, a whole blog, a global pandemic. But if you just focus on the challenges and tasks immediately before you, you can do it.

We can do this!

As we move into a new season, I look forward to discovering new ways to rise to the occasion, to finding new solutions to the problems that arise, to realizing our own strength and resilience as we do.

Our species has travelled to the moon, guys.

So surely we’re up to the task of autumn.

Even in 2020.

Keep going. Look for the light.

August 21, 2020

Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

For YEARS, I have had Maggie O’Farrell confused with the author Catherine O’Flynn, and also I once read another Maggie O’Farrell book (Instructions for a Heatwave) but forgot about it completely, so I wasn’t exactly primed to pick up her latest, Hamnet and Judith, especially since it’s set in the sixteenth century and is about Shakespeare. No thank you.

And yet?

Then I kept reading reviews about it, and I can’t recall exactly what swayed me, but it was something about the universality of the fiction, and the glowingness of all the raves. And so I bought the book when we were at Lighthouse Books last month, and I loved it so completely, reading it a few weeks later when we were camping at Bronte Creek.

Which was two weeks ago now, and this week has got away from me. It is 5:31 pm on a Friday as I write this and I have to go make diner, but first, I want to put down on the record that this is perhaps the finest book you’ll read this year. Oh, the writing! The sentences! The scene in the apple store, those pieces of fruit bop-bop-bopping on the shelves to a rhythm. The whole world so magnificently conjured, and yes, it was the universality. It doesn’t matter that this was Shakespeare’s family (in fact the bard himself is not even named), or the century where the story is set—there was an immediacy to the narrative that I so rarely experience in historical fiction. Perhaps because the story is written in the present tense, but it works, the people, the scenes, so alive, so achingly, complicatedly real. And yes, the heartache, for this is the story of a child who dies, and the family who must suffer this incalculable loss, and this universal. The unfathomability. The fear as well, for this is a story of plague, and it seemed especially resonant as I read it in the summer of 2020. And the chapter about how the plague arrived in Warwickshire, fleas, and beads, and ship cats, the way that one thing leads to another, how everything is connected.

A truly magical, and stunning read.

August 17, 2020

Pandemic Things I Love

  • the sound of neighbours’ voices and laughter drifting over the backyard fences as they sit outside on summer evenings
  • my children kicking the soccer ball outside
  • people taking up space in the street—walking, cycling, playing ball, protesting, etc. etc.
  • supporting small and local businesses
  • books delivered to my porch
  • the occasion of bin night
  • local indie bookstores putting their stock online
  • the advent of 3pm cake break
  • takeout from a local restaurant at least once a week
  • a reclaiming of public space—park benches have never been more precious
  • thanking people who move to give me room on the sidewalk
  • rainbows in windows
  • learning to be patient
  • ice cream every day
  • encouraging billboards (there is one on highway 401 near Oshawa that says, “This is hard and you are doing great.” It makes me cry.)
  • picnics in the park
  • it turned us into a family of cyclists
  • and into seasoned explorers of alleyways
  • it has forced us to re-imagine the way we live our lives, and made visible the forces of poverty and systemic racism so that those of us with privilege can’t ignore it any more.

August 12, 2020

I Went to a Bookstore!

I like how no mask could hide how happy I am in this photo.

My last bookshop visit was March 8, a stop in at The Nautical Mind, the marine-themed bookshop on Toronto’s Harbourfront. Not that this experience was the end of me buying books, of course. By the end of that week, I’d already placed my first online order with a local bookshop to have a couple of books delivered to my door, and this would continue throughout the spring—I got books from Ben McNally, Book City, Queen Books, Ella Minnow Books, Flying Books, and probably others. One great thing about having absolutely nothing else to spend money on through April and May was that I could fulfill all my book-buying dreams and then some, which really did raise my spirits and help tide me over while the libraries were closed.

Most of the shops doing curbside pick-ups were just a little bit too far out of my way for me to take advantage of this, but I did finally get to partake in July when I ordered a stack from Little Island Comics. A recent development in my life is that I now have a bike, with a basket, and riding home with that basket full of books was exhilarating.

But not quite as exhilarating as my annual trip to Lighthouse Books a few weeks later, a pilgrimage we making on our camping trip to Presqu’ile Provincial Park and one I never take for granted even during the best of times. It wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t even sure Ontario campgrounds were going to open this year, so everything that weekend seemed especially precious. Lighthouse Books had only opened up for customers a week before, and so the timing was great.

While many of the Covid measures in place right now put a damper on fun, one I don’t hate entirely is the rule that whatever you touch in a bookstore, you must necessarily buy. Okay, then! Lighthouse Books had the most appealing table set up by the door, and in no time I had my mitts on an Attica Locke book I’d been meaning to read for years. By this point, shop owner Kathryn had already greeted me by name, which is remarkable when you consider that my face was covered in a mask AND I only visit once a year, but this is part of the reason that Kathryn is so good at owning a bookstore. The other part of the reason is the marvellous curation of her shelves—doesn’t the photo above make your heart swoon?

I ended up getting that copy of Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell you can see on the right-hand side of the middle shelf—and oh, it blew my mind, that book, plus books for my kids to read. One of my greatest parenting accomplishments is that I’ve somehow convinced my children that sitting around with a book is integral to the camping experience, mostly likely because it really is. And then I got sign a copy of Mitzi Bytes (and no, I don’t love this bookstore just because they always have a copy of my novel in stock, but it helps), and talk to Kathryn for a few minutes…before it was time to go, because my family was waiting for me outside, and also because there were other book buyers who were lined up at the door.

PS I love that a bookshop visit has never not been remarkable.

PPS Thanks to DoveGreyReader whose bookshop post (her first since buying the new Hilary Mantel in March) inspired my own.

July 21, 2020

Measure

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 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 2, 2020

Things I Like

A desktop with a laptop computer, bouquet of daisies, and a pink teapot.

I am sorry I’ve been out of touch. Except for social media updates, of course. And we’ve been getting together with friends in our neighbourhood, picnics in the park, but the idea of anything further afield kind of overwhelms me. By April, I was done with Zoom. And my world is so small right now, wedded to routine, that any deviation throws me for a loop. I’ve always been a bit like this, but living in pandemic times is even more so—and as real life begins to return again, it’s something I’m going to have to work on, at least if I want to continue to have friends, which I do.

But in the meantime, I read on the couch every night—which is kind of my ideal situation, to be honest. And I’ve tried to balance going to nobody’s online literary event by buying and reading all the books instead—even in the before-times, I’ve always preferred partying alone with my book to going to a book party anyway.

And when I’m not reading, there are a few other things that I’m getting up to, things that help me measure out my days and bring me joy, which is why I want to share them with you.

Five Minutes for the Planet

Jen Knoch’s Tuesday newsletter is fabulous reading, rich and thoughtful with smart ideas about our environmental impact. I look forward to it every week and you should sign up too!

Wind of Change

I’m not a metal fan (you are SHOCKED, I know), but “Wind of Change”, by Scorpions has long been a fascination of mine, along with Cold War history, so I was intrigued by this podcast exploring rumours about whether the song had been a project of the CIA—and it’s by Patrick Radden-Keefe whose book about the IRA Say Nothing was a favourite in our household this year. The podcast is fun, but really interestingly explores ideas about propaganda as it progresses (is the podcast itself propaganda, Radden-Keefe wonders?).

The New Abnormal

We call this “The Trashy Podcast” at our house, but it’s also smart and interesting—the episode with Congresswoman Katie Porter was unforgettable. To be honest, co-host Rick Wilson is not my fave, a former Republican strategist whose work is responsible for the mess we’re in—he refuses to see a possibility of politics not having to be a dirty game, but he likes himself enough that my feelings are never going to matter—but Molly Jong-Fast is great, and it’s the kind of perspective on American politics I appreciate right now, one that refuses to take the Ding Dong President seriously.

The Big Lasagne

There are some stand-out moments in the blur of these times, and the weekend of The Big Lasagne at the end of April was one of them. (It was actually too hot to be cooking lasagne that weekend, and I was reading Writers and Lovers, by Lily King. It was lovely.) Samin Nosrat, of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame, decided that people the world over could cook lasagne together, and so we joined her, making SmittenKitchen’s recipe that involved two days of prep and fresh pasta. It was amazing and our lasagne even got reposted on the New York Times Cooking Instagram feed, which might be as close as I ever come to being in that paper.

Spade and Spoon

Things delivered to my door have also been a real delight—books, donuts, popsicles, and more!—but Spade and Spoon is my absolute favourite. We were almost out of maple syrup one day in April when they first came to our service, and we bought jam too, lots of jam, and pickles. Every two weeks they’ve been delivering their products to the GTA, and we’ve ordered quite a few times. Nothing tops the pickled asparagus though. So so delicious.

The Austins (again)

When I read Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin series last year (which I haven’t mentioned for at least five minutes!) I felt very sensible for having borrowed each book from the library, but there came a moment in April where not having these books in hand was no longer acceptable, so I ordered them all, speaking of deliveries. The best thing? They’re kids’ books so five of them is not much more expensive than a regular hardcover. (In my mind, this basically constitutes making money…which is one of many reasons why I am not rich.) And then I started to read them with my family, and everybody’s enjoying them—we’re halfway through The Moon By Night. I can’t WAIT to read The Young Unicorns with them! Previously, I’d thought perhaps these books with their ominous undertones was too dark for family read-alouds (as Vicky Austin contemplates the genocide of Indigenous peoples and fears nuclear holocaust) but it doesn’t feel like that anymore.

Yoga with Naz

I miss swimming. It’s been over a hundred days since my last morning swim and my towel and bathing are still hanging over the banister where I hung them, but I am filling the void with morning yoga classes online with the YMCA of Greater Toronto, which similarly let me start my day with my body feeling good. Our favourite teacher is Nazia White, and we love her. The YMCA is moving to a summer schedule next week so there might be less yoga in the offering, but we might double up on the classes, because a daily dose is a very good thing.

July 1, 2020

Leftover Spaghetti Frittata (or We’ve Come a Long Way)

I made leftover spaghetti frittata for the first time at the end of March. This was when I kept scrolling news in hopes of good news, and there was none. I kept checking in on food writer @emikodavies under lockdown in Italy, and it was some solace to see her family’s daily life continuing, albeit in confinement. If they could keep going, so could I, was my reasoning. The recipe she posted in her feed also appealed to me for its frugalness. This was in my “reusing parchment paper” phase, when I was worried about food availability. It made a meal that was as comforting as it was delicious.

I do not think the pandemic is over. And I WOULD go into detail about our rituals, the ways we’re taking precautions, but I won’t, because reading such posts from other people makes me anxious. Suffice it to say, however, that we have not returned to business as usual. But we have also found ways, in this new reality, to reclaim joy and pleasure, and it’s not at all as incongruous as a lot of people might think.

I do not think the pandemic is over, but I really want to celebrate how far we’ve come since that dismal day in late March when I first poured eggs into my spaghetti. I think a fixation on US politics here in Canada has confused many people about the many ways their situation is different from our own. And there are, of course, a hundred other reasons to be lugubrious right now…but we’re still here, and now it’s summer, basil blooming in my garden, which I mixed into our frittata today.

There have been unfathomable losses, it’s true, but things are better now, infection rates here in Ontario continue to be low, community spread decreasingly a factor. The pandemic is not over, but do you not see still what a wonderful thing this is? That we are not without reasons to be hopeful after all?

I am going to make spaghetti frittata forever, I think. I am going to use spaghetti even as a means to frittata, in fact, and it’s going to remind me of these days, of all we’ve learned about community and connection, living with uncertainty and weathering hard times. Of what grows, and persists, and even blooms.

The pandemic is not over, but we have come such a long way.

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