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December 1, 2020

Alfie’s Christmas

I’ve measured out my life by the children in Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books. I remember when we thought of Alfie as a big kid, and when we wondered what Iris would be like when she was as old as Annie Rose, and then my children kept on growing and now we’re looking in the rear view. Alfie and Annie Rose are tiny little relics now, but we’re so fond of them (okay, maybe it’s just me and everybody else is mostly just being indulgent) that we’ll never let them go completely, especially Alfie’s Christmas, which is the first book I’ll be writing about over the next few weeks as we blow the dust off the titles in our Christmas Book Box.

I love Shirley Hughes scenes of domestic life, the jumble of stuff in her illustrations, the clutter and mess of family life. I also love the shading in her illustrations, rich and vivid colour, but just muted enough that it’s sepia-toned. The books themselves are an exercise in nostalgia.

Which is another way of saying that they’re also timeless, in away, because they always appealed to my children, books written exactly from their point of view, and my favourite bits were always the parts in the margins—the pets who wandered into the spread, teapots on the counter, when Dad sits on a bench while Alfie splashes in puddles, and how I’d love to go have a cup of tea with his Mum and get to know her—I feel like we’d get along.

Alfie’s Christmas is a delight—not much of a plot, to be honest, apart from when they realize that Alfie’s new remote control car requires batteries. Alfie gets ready for Christmas, prepares presents for his parents, they put up a tree, carollers come by on Christmas Eve.

In typical baby sister fashion, Annie Rose gets up in the night and rummages through her stocking, and at first, Alfie thinks it’s Father Christmas creeping about his room. And then finally it’s Christmas morning, and the big day begins, and I like too that their family celebration is a bit modest, which our family can relate to. Alfie’s grandmother and her brother (from Australia turn up) and then Uncle Will and Alfie’s Dad get Christmas dinner on while Mum and Grandma head to church (taking along some of Alfie’s Christmas baking “to share with people who had no home to go to”).

Which is to say that these books are not so old fashioned at all, that their coziness is underlined by a progressive sensibility, and while Alfie gets some fun things for Christmas, connection is really what the holiday is truly about. “As they walked home they could see lit Christas trees shining out of all the windows and neighours like the MacNallys and the Santos family with their friends and relations, enjoying themselves, eating nice things, and watching television together.”

And oh, the colour of the sky at dusk! The most majestic ordinary splendour.

August 27, 2020

Island Days

I didn’t move to Toronto until I was 19 years old, but there are parts of the city I’ve known all my life. My grandparents lived at Dundas and Greenwood, where my dad had grown up, and so I knew the park and the pool, the side street where we’d park with its NO BALL PLAYING signs. I know Simpsons, where we’d go to visit Santa at Christmas. The Skydome for baseball games, and the Exhibition Stadium before it. I knew Kew Gardens and the Beaches, and then as I got older, Queen Street became part of my personal geography too, my friends and I being driven downtown on the weekends to buy vintage jeans at the Black Market, buy chocolate chip cookies at the Second Cup on John Street, and peer in the windows at Much Music.

The Toronto Islands have always been a part of that geography though. It was an important place for my grandparents, and they took me there—I remember the extravagance of the ride-all-day wristband they bought me for the Centreville Amusement Park, which cost an entire $13. Another time we met our grandparents there after travelling to the islands in our boat, which we’d launched at Scarborough Bluffs, I think. It only happened once, as far as I can recall, but boating around the Toronto Island Lagoons was one of the most memorable experiences of my young life.

In university, I didn’t have much to do with the islands (apart from the obligatory boat cruise during frosh week) until my fourth year when I got a bike. Heading to the Hanlan’s Point nude beach that summer with two friends who were willing to indulge me, an experience that changed the way I see myself and my body forever. Another time that summer I ran away to the Island all by myself and nobody knew where I was, and there I sat on the beach with a copy of A Room of One’s Own, which I still have, and written on the inside cover is my name, and underneath in parentheses, “who is happy,” with the date, August 4 2001.

So many things about the island have stayed the same, apart from the cost of the wristband, and the way the beaches have shrunk due to erosion and encroaching water levels. Sometimes, loving the island brings profound sadness, at the inevitability of the land slipping away, of climate change and ever-change. But somethings seems eternal too about the place, its draw, being herded onto its iconic ferries.

Stuart and I went to the island on his first visit to to Toronto in 2003, and we got terrifically sunburned. It was the place we brought visitors to once we’d moved to the city ourselves. I celebrated my birthday on Ward’s Island in 2006 or 2007—friends waited in line for hours at the ferry docks because I didn’t have a cellphone then so they couldn’t call to cancel. We used to ride our bikes there, even though the uphill journey home at the end of an island day is the most exhausting trip in the world. We celebrated our three year wedding anniversary on the island in 2008, taking the ferry across after work on a Wednesday night, the most amazing indulgence.

And then we had a baby, and the island became a different kind of place. We stopped riding bikes, spent a lot more time lying under shady trees. We had another baby and the children grew, and Centre Island became important again. The wristband is not $13 anymore, but the amusement park remains cute and charming, not too much. We never buy the wristband, however, because I never want to stay for more than an hour or so.

Because there is so much else to explore! It was two years ago that we walked from Centre Island to Hanlan’s and I took my kids to the nude beach by accident—so many penises. They’re still traumatized. It was good swimming through, and I’ve also made them walk all the way across to Ward’s, where the beach is my favourite. We’ve had ice cream at the Island Cafe and dinners on the patio at the Rectory Cafe, and so many picnics on the green lawn just south of the ferry docks. (The best days involve picnics AND dinner on the patio. The objective of an island day is to stretch it out as long as possible…)

Yesterday we travelled to the island again, late August such a long time to wait for the first island trip of the summer, but it’s been a weird summer. A day spent on Ward’s Island with friends, a perfect spot on a not-so-crowded beach, and the water was beautiful, late-August warm, so clear and clean. The swimming was amazing, and the kids played, I read my book, we devoured fresh peaches, and everything was wonderful. The kind of perfect day only the island can make, and we felt so lucky to have it, and so grateful for everything as we made the familiar journey home.

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.

January 6, 2020

New Year Reflections

Nobody got sick. I think it’s safe to say it now, with the holiday over and the children back to school, though I felt uncomfortable even thinking it during the break, a jinx. Which is just one of the reasons that our holiday was so exceptional, the other being that Stuart took two full weeks off work and therefore so did I. A low-key affair—we didn’t travel far. But it was all of it such a pleasure, and has me thinking—as we return to routine—not about new year’s resolutions, necessarily, but instead about what elements of our holiday I’d like to carry with me into the months ahead.

  • Less Time on the Internet : I took a full seven day break from the internet and it was amazing. This is the most important answer to the question of how I got so much reading done (see below). It did wonders for my stress levels. It was so nice to be reminded that if I do something beautiful and it doesn’t get instagrammed that it still happened. When I finally went back online in the second week, I did a lot less posting and scrolling, and I want to keep this up (or down). That said, I do now have a backlog of blogs to catch up on, but that is not a bad thing.
  • Board Games: I like board games for the same reason I like reading with my kids—it allows us to connect on a common level and I want to work on nurturing these connections as my kids get older. I have many aversions when it comes to games (Stuart calls it my “board game face,” and knows as soon as he sees it that I’ll be asking, “Like, what’s the point of this?) but there are many I do enjoy, and we spent a lot of time this holiday playing these, which was good fun for everyone.
  • Reading: “I’m going to try to get into reading in 2020,” was the hilarious joke I kept telling over the break, and because I’m better at reading than I am at humour, I came away with 14 books read, a splendid and eclectic mix of titles that I’ll be writing about in a further post this week.
  • People: My favourite parts of the holiday were times spent with family and friends, and I want to continue to nurture these connections in the coming months. Especially in the winter, it’s sometimes easy to retreat from the world, and sometimes asking to make plans seems like a risky endeavour (what if they say no! Schedules are tricky to accommodate!) but I am so glad we made the plans we did over the holiday. Speaking of which…
  • Cheese boards: Did I by Lisa Dawn Bolton’s book On Boards because we were entertaining a few times over the break, or did I make plans to entertain because I needed an excuse to buy a copy of On Boards? Who knows, but I am sure glad it all worked out the way it did. I learned so much from this book, our guests were seriously impressed (and at least twice ended up purchasing the book themselves!), and the Christmas Day cheese board we made in lieu of a roast dinner has changed my life. I might never roast turkey again.
  • Letting things slide: I don’t know if you could say I was easygoing over the holiday, because this is me, and the fact that I’m writing about this at all defeats the argument, but I feel like I was a little less ridiculous. The one example I can point to is that we started the Globe Holiday Crossword, had fun with it until we didn’t, and then stopped doing it. I would like to be more okay with not finishing things in the new year, or maybe what I mean is not insisting on doing things for the sake of doing them. We also woke up more than once on a day with no plans, and I want to keep that kind of openness and possibility going too.
  • Chocolate: I want to keep eating chocolate. I probably don’t need more of an explanation than just that.

December 6, 2019

The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis

“So the shortest day came, and the year died…” begins The Shortest Day, an extraordinary picture book by Susan Cooper, with illustrations by Carson Ellis, a celebration of solstice, Yuletide, and rituals that light up the darkness. “And everywhere down the centuries/ of the snow-white world/ Came people singing, dancing,/ To drive the dark away.” In her illustrations, Ellis shows those centuries progressing in Northern European cultures, as people move from the Neolithic era, carrying spears, and then “down the centuries” to the contemporary moment, children revelling in a warm and cozy home decorated with an evergreen tree and boughs, candles and a menorah, traditions that connect us to our ancestors and to the earth. This is one of the loveliest “Christmas” books that I’ve ever come across, a book that celebrates what, to me, are the most sacred parts of the season.

November 25, 2019

Local, Sustainable and World-bettering: Great Holiday Gifts

My newsletter went out this morning with a special holiday gift list, including goods and services I’ve got on offer (a special holiday deal for Blog School!), and a whole bunch more that are things I love and which might prove inspirational as you make your own lists and check them twice. Local, sustainable and world-bettering were my priorities. Check it out!

PS It’s not too late to get a 2019 Short Story Advent Calendar!

January 16, 2019

This is Not a Metaphor

I understood it as a metaphor: it is okay to fall. It is okay to fall, to flail, to plummet. As much as can be expected from an ordinary human, I know this. I have lived it. Accepting, and even embracing, imperfection and failure has been key to any success I’ve managed to achieve along the way. But I have never managed to embrace this idea on a concrete level, concrete being the word, which is a hard and painful surface to have one’s body strike even at a moderate velocity. And it doesn’t even have to be concrete—for a few winters midway through my childhood, I used to go skiing, and I hated it, the terror. Where is the pleasure of sending one’s fragile physical self down a steep icy hill? I used to weave my way down slowly, slowly, repeated the mantra: Please don’t let me die. And then one day I occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to endure this anymore, so I didn’t. Why would I?

I took up ice skating four years ago with my daughter, who was five at the time. The task of teaching her to skate would fall to me, because it turned out I was the best skater in the family, even though I hadn’t skated in 25 years and never really enjoyed it as a child. Winter sports are not my thing. Sports in general even really aren’t, but at least in summer it’s not cold. I have memories of skating on canals when I was little, and these are mostly memories of freezing. And sore ankles. I mean, at least with skating you aren’t sending yourself down the edges of icy mountains, and the fall is never going to be so far. But still, there is falling. Even worse, there is fear of falling.

But for the last four years, I’ve been trying to commit to enjoying the winter outdoors, and skating has been part of that. It’s fun. Of course, I don’t enjoy skating as much as I enjoy having skated, which is my favourite part of the process, followed by hot chocolate. But I like it, and it’s free, and it’s been interesting to relearn an old trick, and to be learning alongside my daughter. I think it sets a good example for her too to see that acquiring new skills is not just the jurisdiction of children, and is important to keep doing this throughout one’s life. Her father and her sister have since joined in our skating life, all of us learning together. Harriet now gives me a run for my money as the best skater in the family, and last night Iris skated around the rink multiple times without holding onto my hand at all.

But we are slow. We are slow, and we skate in terror of those fast skaters who weave in and out among us slowpokes, or else the little kids who are skating haphazardly in the wrong direction and moving right into our path without consideration for the fact that none of us actually knows how to stop. None of us skate with ease, although my children have a bit more ease than I do because they’re more comfortable with falling. They’re closer to the ground anyway, and they’re fundamentally bouncy and less breakable, and with all the padding from their snowsuits they’re well protected. Neither of them likes falling, but it happens, and that’s okay.

I, however, have never fallen. Hardly something to brag about, because I’ve only never fallen because I’ve never being moving fast enough. From the metaphor, I know that the only people who never fall are people who’ve never been high enough to do so. As a skater, I am so cautious, nervous. I have been skating for four years with so much fear of falling—and then last night it finally happened.

I skated over a leaf, a dead leaf that had blown onto the ice, and I don’t know why it so destabilized me, but I felt it, the ground no longer steady beneath my feet. “It’s finally happening,” I realized, and there was so much time to think as it did. A brief attempt at re-finding my balance, but then then it was all over, and down I went. Landing with a spectacular crash on my bottom, which was better than my head taking the impact, or my wrists. “And it’s actually okay,” is what I was thinking as I lay there on my ice, except it wasn’t entirely because I’d knocked my littlest daughter over in the process (let’s not make a metaphor out of that, okay?) and she was screaming. Attracting the attention of the ice skating attendant, who came over to see if she was okay, and, “She’s fine, she’s fine,” I said, dismissing her pain. (But she was fine. Walk it off.) And then he helped me up, and I was almost euphoric, so much so that I forgot to even be humiliated.

Because the very worst thing had happened: I had fallen. And I hadn’t fractured my elbow or even sprained my wrist, or received a concussion. I didn’t break or shatter, which is what I’d always imagined. That I was fragile—but it turns out my body is stronger than I thought. And there really isn’t even a lesson beyond that—I’m still going to skate slowly, I’m not thirsting for opportunities to fall down again. It wasn’t like one of those Instagram memes where I thought I was falling, but it turned out to be flight, because it definitely wasn’t flight as I lay there on the Dufferin Grove Ice Rink staring up at the glow of the artificial lights. It was falling, but it was fine.

December 14, 2018

Santa Never Brings me a Banjo, by David Myles

During The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it can be easy to forget that Christmas is not a season of light for everybody, that those who are struggling can find the holidays particularly trying—and in his song-turned-picture book, Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo musician David Myles gives voice to one boy’s particular plight. Because, see, all he wants is a banjo, a simple request. And year after year, Santa fails to deliver, the boy’s hopes piqued by banjo-shaped packages that turn out to be something entirely different—a fishing net, a unicycle. But not a banjo to be had. 

It’s a story of persistence, I suppose. We liked this book a lot and it’s made a great, non-cloying, and original addition to our Christmas library. A story of wanting and yearning and longing and the sweet anticipation of Christmas morning that has always been my favourite part of the season. It’s a story about one child’s love of music, and wishes finally coming true, and also a catchy melody that will get stuck in your head—with the music included, along with the chords. So you can play in on your banjo when all your dreams are realized.

September 3, 2018

Summerlong

I love summer. I love it. I love popsicles and pools and eating dinner outside in the shade of umbrellas. I love the buzz of cicadas, the flash of butterflies, and the birds that start chirping before the sun comes up. Even if they wake me up before the sun comes up, and I even love the heat. Or maybe I mean I don’t mind hating the heat, because if ever there was a thing to suffer through. Treatable with long saunters through the frozen food section at the grocery store, whole weeks without turning the oven on, and by jumping into pools whose hours have been extended late into the night.

We have had a beautiful summer. (I think I write this every year, but it feels incredible and novel every single time. A triumph.) We had a wonderful week at a cottage by a lake with friends who make our life so rich, and our kids were kept entertained and stimulated at daycamps they both enjoyed so much. We went camping twice this year, which is a very big deal for us, and there were marshmallows roasted and wildflowers spotted and stoned skipped twice in the water. We spent a week in Peterborough with my parents, and there were turtles and crafts and voyageur canoes. We went on adventures around our city and went to events at the library, dipped our feet in wading pools, hung upside down on the climbing bars, and raced through the freezing relief of fountains at the splash-pad.

There was ice cream, and popsicles, and walks home from the grocery store where we had to run so the contents wouldn’t melt. My basil plant became enormous. I read extraordinary books. We went to shows at Fringe TO and saw Midsummer Night’s Dream in High Park, which delighted everybody. We went on car rides with the windows wide, and listened to Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” and “Strangers” by Sigrid. We went to the ROM, the AGO and the Textile Museum. We went swimming in lakes, pools, a quarry and a river. We had to shake sand out of everything numerous times. There was a rainbow at least once, and everybody got better at swimming. The Christie Pits waterslide was aways an adventure. We saw a meteor shower and fireflies.

And it was precious, all of it. Because summer is abundance, a wave of too-muchness, life growing up between the cracks in the sidewalk, and you can’t hold any of it, not even for a moment. Summer is a force and it just goes and goes and goes, and the best thing you can do is just be swept along by it, and be able to say in the end: we are so lucky and that was good.

August 16, 2018

August

It’s been a wonderful summer, but now it’s mid-August, and I’m starting to lose the plot. And maybe I mean that even a bit literally—I’m 47,000 words into the first draft of a novel and I’ve just kind of reached the climax and don’t actually know what’s going to happen next, which is a terrifying point to be at. It’s like staring over the edge of a cliff, and thinking, But what if this thing doesn’t fly? Which is kind of the way I feel in general, 3/4 of the way through a summer that has been sunshine and swimming and holidays, so many good things, which is nothing to ever take for granted. We make these plans, and then sometimes fate intervenes—but this summer so many of our good days have rolled out like carpets. It’s been fabulous, but I’m also find the lack of structure a little overwhelming. And yes, I’ve succeeded at writing 47,000 words of a new novel and also the 49th Shelf Fall Preview (which IS NO SMALL TASK) but everything else has fallen by the wayside. I’m been meaning to write thank you notes, and letters, and clean my house, and organize the giant pile of stuff on the kitchen table, and read library books with my children, and do little things to get ahead once the craziness begins come September, and it all just seems out of reach, and not because I don’t have time for it all, but because I’m feeling sluggish. It’s hot outside and I’m always sweating, and I could be on the ball to just go go go, but I’m not. I am also spending disproportionate amounts of time being befuddled by the stupidity of people on Twitter and also the abject cruelty of conservative politicians, and it’s so disheartening, and takes up energy too. And today I thought, “What if I’m never productive again?” I pride myself on being a person who gets things done, but when I’ve got less to do, it all falls apart. So I’m looking forward to getting back on track in the next few weeks—either that, or having my entire being atrophy.

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