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December 16, 2015

When Santa Was a Baby

The only thing I like better than a bookshop in general is a bookshop in December, when the lines at the till are long, the floor is buzzing, and everybody’s walking around with arms full of books. Lying in bed these past few weeks as December began to eke out, day by day, it was holiday bookshops I was missing. I used to do all my Christmas shopping at Book City around the corner, and feel ridiculously smug for buying so locally that the distance could be measured out in metres, and while I miss Book City all the time, I do so particularly at this time of year—this will be our second Christmas without it. So yes, I’ve been feeling a dearth of bookshops, so when I went to the doctor on Monday to have my lungs examined (and receive the all-clear), I made a point of skipping across the road to the nearby Indigo, to purchase gift cards as end-of-year presents for Iris’s teachers, of course, but also to do some book buying.

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I bought two books, both of them “for my children” (ha ha) and I’ll be writing about both titles, the first one being the wonderful When Santa Was a Baby, by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Genevieve Godbout. Cheerfully illustrated with a delightful vintage vibe, it’s the story of a little baby who was unusual from the start:

“Look at those dimples,” said his dad. “How merry!”

“And his dear little nose,” said his mom. “Like a cherry!”

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Instead of coo-ing, Baby Santa booms an enormous, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” He refuses to wear any colour but red.

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And he has a curious preoccupation with the chimney.

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Santa’s parents never waver in their pride for their unusual son, even when he insists on standing naked in front of the refrigerator for a little chill to escape the summer heat, or when he gathers all his birthday presents into a big sack and goes about distributing them to neighbourhood children. They think their boy is pretty terrific, and so creative, and curious, and they’re willing to do whatever they can to make him happy.

Children will find the idea of a Baby Santa quite hilarious, with the bare bums and all, and it’s wonderfully novel to recast such a familiar cultural figure as a child. But for parents, it’s the unconditional, ever-elastic, infinite love of Santa’s mom and dad in the story that will so resonate—and quite possible inspire.

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December 14, 2015

Emerging

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If there is a better time in the year than this to have to spend three weeks in bed, I can’t think of it. I’m finally feeling well, rested and relaxed, emerging back into the world again (…slowly, slowly….) to realize that it’s Christmas. I’ve come a long way since a week ago when I thought I was feeling well-er, but wasn’t. This weekend I didn’t leave the house, but was mostly out of bed, and we put up our tree on Saturday (which Stuart carried home from the store by himself) and decorated, and then did all the Christmas baking yesterday. (All has been extensively documented on Instagram.) Today I have a doctor’s appointment at 2pm, and I’m hoping she’s going to give my lungs the all-clear, and then I’m going to finish up my Christmas shopping at nearby shops. I’m even going to take the subway instead of a taxi, which is a sign of health for sure (and also, I am not a millionaire), except that I’m forbidden to exit Spadina Station at Walmer Road because when I tried to climb those steps three weeks ago (before I knew it was pneumonia) I almost died. Today it will be escalators all the way.

IMG_20151211_152021And oh, there has been reading. Holiday reading. Any new or notable book released lately, and the very intriguing ARCs that are beginning to arrive for Spring 2016 have all been set aside as I’m going through my shelves noting the not-new and un-noteable—a trend that began with Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall last week, which I liked so so much and might have lingered on the shelf forever had I not finally picked it up looking for an inconsequential read. After reading the compelling and very strange Girl in the Dark (and oh yes, are misery memoirs ever effective at making one feel better about everything in general), I picked up Dead Cold by Louise Penny—somehow we’ve ended up with a stack of Louise Penny UK editions; this one was released in North America as A Fatal Grace. And it turned out to be a cozy murder mystery that takes place over Christmas, which was perfect. It’s not dead cold here, but it was lovely to be back in Three Pines and over the holidays no less. I love Louise Penny’s Gamache series so much, but got into it quite late in the game, so am playing catch-up with some of the earlier novels.

IMG_20151213_233153And then I started read Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Her new book, Mare, is on several notable lists of 2015, but remember I’m doing un-noteable, and Veronica has been sitting on my shelf for sometime—another book I found in a box in the summer, I think. And I’m really enjoying it. It reminds me of Jennifer Egan, Good Squad and Look at Me, except I like it much more than I liked the latter.  I read Gaitskill’s collection, Bad Behaviour, a while ago, and mostly remember it was conspicuously dated with references to obsolete technology. She is also a bit too gritty for me, and nobody is ever putting the kettle on or going to church (always a criticism in my books), but I am really enjoying Veronica, and this might be the perfect way to get to Mare. When I return to notable things.

IMG_20151212_221324And finally, we finished reading The Horse and His Boy, and convinced Harriet to take a short Narnia break so we could try something else as our family read-aloud. Last Christmas, we were reading The Children of Green Knowe, and I’ve been looking forward to a similarly seasonal read. So I picked up London Snow, by Paul Theroux, which I know nothing about, except that it is a Christmas story and it was a gift from our friend, Zsuzsi. And while it doesn’t seem so seasonal—we have no snow, and temperatures have been in the double digits (which after two wintry, wintry Decembers I kind of feel is a reward I’ve worked for)—we are definitely under its spell. A strange story that takes place in a sweet shop, whose proprietor is called Mrs. Mutterance and keeps muttering and uttering odd phrases that none of us understand, and her adopted son Wallace sleeps in a hammock in the hall and she has to yell at him to stop pendulating. In the weirdest way, it reminds me of Graham Greene’s super-strange Christmas picture book, The Little Steamroller. Sinister things afoot, and all, and yes, because of snow in London.

I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

December 1, 2015

Two more things

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Stuart emailed me from work after reading yesterday’s post to inform me that he likes zero things about me being sick. And I see his point of view. While he hasn’t had to contend with fever dreams or coughing until his lungs hurt, he’s being doing everything to keep our household running—it’s been very hard. So hopefully he won’t be too bothered that I add a couple more items to my list, which are a) Vicks VapoRub, the magic elixir, the stuff of childhood comforts, and b) I am have ample time this morning to read the first instalment in my 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar!

And yes, I am getting better—two nights with no fever has helped a lot. The cough is improving. I just need to work on getting energy back (i.e. being able to walk upstairs without having to follow up the journey with a nap).

November 4, 2015

Butterflies

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As much as I cherish the feeling of my children’s hands in mine, I do so love watching them race ahead of me down the sidewalk. I love their freedom, speed, their unfettered exuberance, the possibility that their feet might indeed sprout wings. Their sense of entitlement that this world, this city, is open to them. And I like trusting too that they’ll know to stop at the corner. Every time.

IMG_20151031_165340 (1)But there was something remarkable about watching them fly down the sidewalk on Saturday, Halloween, butterfly wings billowing out behind them, colourful spans. The most low-maintenence costumes in our family history of Halloweens—we had one pair of wings already, and borrowed the other from our cousin. We made antennae out of pipe-cleaners, styrofoam balls, and headbands. Ordinary clothes beneath. I was terrified that all this would backfire the night before and Harriet would decide that what she really wanted to be was a fiery glittery invisible incandescent humdingermabobber. Or Elsa. But she didn’t. And whatever Harriet wanted to be, Iris wanted to be too.

Butterflies are special to us. We can trace this back to ancient times, when Iris was a small baby and was given a dress with a butterfly print that was designed to become a shirt as baby grew. As Iris is small, it’s possible she’ll be wearing it forever. She loves it, and calls it her fuff-eye shirt, and now we all call butterflies fuff-eyes because  this is what happens when you live with a two-year-old. And obviously, we like to read about them also.

We love love love Julie Worsted’s How To, which has a real butterfly or two, but also has a girl in fuff-eye wings on the “how to go fast” page. (From experience, I can say that wings are an excellent suggestion.)

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Then there is Elly McKay’s Butterfly Park, about gardens and community, and mostly about McKay’s exquisite illustrations, which my children get lost in.

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It’s also been a pleasure to revisit Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, a book we bought in July when gardening fever was at its height.

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Autumn seemed a long way off then, so we’re re-reading it now with entirely new eyes—even if the butterflies are gone.

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And butterflies always have been more than a little bit fleeting, haven’t they? Inherently ephemeral.

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One of my favourite butterfly books is Bye Bye Butterflies, by our friend Andrew Larsen, which came out just before Harriet started preschool. And I’ve always linked the story to our own experience, in two ways. One, that this was a book about a kid going to school for the very first and beginning to make his way in the world—it was amazing to be on the cusp of that. And also that Charlie’s adventure caring for the butterflies was analogous to our own lives as parents. That these amazing, ever-changing creatures are only with us for a very short time before they find their wings and fly away—an achievement that makes us “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” Which is true.

But, yes, how joyful is watching them soar.

November 1, 2015

The Future is Dark

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The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think…” —Virginia Woolf

Something has turned, not just the calendar, making the world around us distinctly November. The leaves on our big tree have gone suddenly from green to yellow, and are starting to fall. The clock has gone back, and the evening comes sooner. And yet the temperature is mild tonight. We walked up to the ice rink to meet our friends and go skating, and our hats and mitts were overkill. The sky was curiously mottled, dark clouds, setting sun and blue.

IMG_20151029_084302We were looking forward to skating—our second time out this season. And our second time out skating as a foursome. Last weekend, we drove out to the west end and hooked Stuart up with his first pair of ice skates ever, and traded in Harriet’s last year pair for a bigger model. When Harriet and I first bought skates last Christmas, it seemed a dubious experiment—would we actually undermine our reputations as terrible Canadians and partake in a winter sport? But it turned out that we loved it, and Stuart looked on longingly. This year, Stuart is in on the fun, and Iris too on bob skates. Though we are particularly excited because we’ve been spent the last week tracking the postal progress of her brand new deluxe bob skates with straps that won’t fall off (we hope!) and they’re due to arrive any day now. And we’re even looking forward to skating proper on the outdoor rinks once they’re open because Stuart and I each bought a pair of snow pants, my first pair in many years. I actually think that they might change my life, and certainly will make walking the children to school at -40 degrees celsius much more bearable, not to mention outdoor play during playschool co-op shifts, and even the prospect of tobogganing. Last year we went tobogganing once, and my jeans got wet, and I was so cold, I could have cried.

IMG_20151030_185418But all that was a long way off as we walked up Brunswick Avenue tonight, enjoying the strange light and the post-Halloween quiet. Stepping over smashed pumpkins, and being in the perfect place between warmth and chill. Arriving at the ice rink to find our friends there, everyone a bit disappointed. The Sunday night public skate schedule was from the summer, apparently. In autumn, the public skate is on Saturday. And it took me far too long to process that it wasn’t actually Saturday. Okay then. But it seemed that the entire park beside the rink was ablaze for some kind of festival, pumpkins lining its perimeter. Children were climbing ladders into up into trees and swinging from ropes in a manner that suggested that nobody had thought about safety permits or wavers. Someone else had set up straw-bales and an old mattress, and the children were taking turns flinging themselves upon it. The adjoining playground, whose climbing structure is a pirate ship, was absolutely full of children, taking in the festival, perhaps, as well as the perfect autumn night. (All this is so lovely—it has rained for the last three Halloweens, I think.)

IMG_20141102_154120So we stood in the playground with our friends while our kids played, and it was perfect. And I was thinking about Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Woolf’s Darkness, which we’re reading tomorrow night in my blogging course. The line, which is also the epigraph to my novel, “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next…” I’ve been thinking about nighttime walks, and street haunting, and one thing leading to another. How exactly one year ago, when I was also about to be discussing Woolf’s Darkness with my blogging course (and yes, one might ask me the question: how have you managed to find a way to be paid for doing all the best things ever? To which I would reply: I have absolutely no idea…) and I wrote this post, one of my favourites ever: “On Uncertainty, Mistakes and Accidental Cake“, which might just be my philosophy of the world. Tonight another example: often, not ending up where you were intending to go turns out to be startlingly right.

IMG_20151031_113232We walked home again and it was dark outside. “I don’t like the dark,” said Harriet, who always claims that she can’t see at night, never mind the streetlights. I pointed out that what I liked best about walking in the dark was everybody’s lit windows, and how we could see the worlds inside. We decided to make a quick visit down to our own neighbourhood’s annual pumpkin festival before heading home for dinner: baked butternut squash risotto was waiting in a cast-iron pot on the stove. Although we were less excited about the pumpkin festival as we’d been in years previous, as our own pumpkin hadn’t been picked up to be part of it. We remain fuzzy on how which pumpkins get to be in the festival. I thought it was democratic, but ours keeps not getting picked up. Then we wondered if it was just that it sucked, but I don’t think that’s actually a barrier to entry. Anyway, just to demonstrate that we just didn’t care about any of this, okay, FINE!, we’d hacked our pumpkin to bits this afternoon with an intention to roasting it and making it into something to eat. As we walked home from the pumpkin festival, I was anticipating a rich pumpkin pudding—the perfect end to an excellent, albeit meandering evening.

IMG_20151101_173338Oh, but reader, my pumpkin pudding was vile. Demonstrating that not all winding roads eventually lead to cake or such deliciousness. Sometimes one’s culinary accidents are scraped into the bin, and the problem isn’t solely that you forgot to add sugar (I know! What was I thinking?). But also that carving pumpkins are just fundamentally not meant to be eaten by creatures more discerning than raccoons. Which would be the point at which wiser women might give up, but oh no, that would be too easy. The grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, remember? So I’ve roasted the pumpkin, and now I’m going to turn it into soup. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll chuck the whole thing into the garbage and officially go to bed.

October 11, 2015

Always thankful…

IMG_20151010_132838But at this moment in particular, I’m thankful for good health, pumpkin soup, sunny days, music to dance to, tea in the pot, too many pies, hometowns and home towns, time, walks, pumpkin festivals where they shoot pumpkins out of cannons, the turkeys who give their lives and also the gourds, those precious moments when the children play together, for harvest, last precious weeks of the farmer’s market, my daughters’ teachers, Crowded House, going to bed early, hoodies, pancakes, groceries, holiday Mondays, for a Canada we recognize, for uppity women, vandals and pot-stirrers all of whom keep it interesting, for the literal pot-stirrers for the gravy, for my children’s incessant chatter, Tabatha Southey, for the people who write the books and the people who sell them, for autumn leaves (the un-ironed ones) and how the sun shines through them, for my mom and my dad and my sister, summer memories, that Taylor Swift songs are so easy to play on my guitar, for my Dyson, for all the kindness, for cheese and beer and wine and ice cream, for precious friendships, Friendsgiving, for Motown music, chestnuts, husbands, lingering baths, and every mortifying thing I’ve ever done that I can no longer remember.

Happy Thanksgiving!

October 8, 2015

Really Fun DIY Autumn Craft

IMG_20151008_121227A few trees on our street have gone all autumnal, and while the world is not yet awash in golden and orange, the few trees that have turned already have got us in an autumn spirit. Iris had fun playing peek-a-boo with some of them on her way home from school today, and we’re glad she was not picked up by the Ministry of Flagrant Racism and Canadian Values for daring to hide her face no matter how patriotic her covering.

(Halloween is coming. If our government is still in office then, what are they going to do?)

And so we were inspired to partake in an autumn craft this evening for our weekly Fun Night, which is a dinner-hour activity that allows us to hang out and play together for a little while, instead of the rush-rush-rushing that is our regular weeknight routine. I’ve included step-by-step instructions below so you can play along too!

  1. See a link to a DIY Autumn Leaf Bunting tutorial posted on Facebook, and because you have a thing for bunting, actually consider doing it. Even though you hate doing crafts. The site it’s from is called The Artful Parent, but you’re more of an abstract artful parent, if you’re remotely artful, which you’re not.
  2. Gather leaves on the walk home from school. Feel smug and sanctimonious, anticipating the excellent time you’re going to be spending with your family and anticipate the reactions you’ll receive when you post your DIY Bunting on Facebook. Contemplate making strands upon strands of the stuff, and bringing them to Thanksgiving gatherings all weekend long so that people will admire your creativity and quirky bunting ways.
  3. Feel extra wonderful because you even let your kids pick up leaves that were kind of gross and had spots on them. Because it’s about them, really. And my, what a terrific childhood you’re providing them with…
  4. Buy store-brand wax paper at the grocery store.
  5. And now it’s time! You’ve already made cranberry brie chicken pizza for dinner that made the children cry (although this was before they tried it; they conceded it was delicious in the end) and so you’re on a roll.
  6. Press the leaves between two pieces of wax paper. The child who is still upset about the pizza gets upset again because she wants matching colours for each piece of bunting, but you want to mix it up like a rainbow. You’re really fucking insistent about this.
  7. (Read through the instructions for the bunting at The Artful Parent and realize that the Artful Parent actually made HER DIY autumn bunting while her child was at school.)
  8. Your husband pulls out the iron. Your children have never seen one. They marvel at this shiny and new piece of technology.
  9. He begins to iron. It should take a few minutes, the instructions say, for something to happen. Nothing happens. So he turns up the temperature. He starts to iron like no one has ever ironed before. Eventually you realize he is about to iron a hole right through your kitchen table. The leaves are burnt to a crisp. The wax still hasn’t melted. The leaves aren’t pretty anymore.
  10. This is the point when you storm off and start googling “Why won’t my wax paper melt?” This doesn’t actually seem to be something that happens to many people. You get sucked into a hole of websites about weird ways to preserve leaves and really stupid things that people do with them. You wonder what the point of anything is. You are suffering from bunting grief. It’s terrible.
  11. This is the least fun Fun Night on record.
  12. Back in the kitchen, however, your husband has saved the day. He’s poured out glue and everybody’s slapping the non-burnt leaves onto paper. “But what’s the point of this?” you ask him. “What’s the point of bunting?” is his retort, which is blasphemous, but still. And gluing leaves onto paper looks like of fun, so you join in.
  13. The night is saved by your husband’s excellent improvisational skills. And red wine.

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July 14, 2015

Nature is as careless as it is bountiful

IMG_20150714_130830“For nightmare, you eat wild carrot, which is Queen Anne’s lace, or you chew the black stamens of the male peony. But it was too late for prevention, and there is no cure. What root or seed will erase that scene from my mind? Fool, I thought; child, you child, you ignorant, innocent fool. What did you expect to see—angels? For it was understood in the dream that the bed full of fish was my own fault, that if I had turned away from the mating moths the hatching of their eggs wouldn’t have happened, or at least would have happened in secret, elsewhere. I brought it upon my self, this slither, this swarm.

I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I supposed it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful…” –Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

IMG_20150714_130842Although Dillard concedes that fecundity is not quite so appalling with plants. She goes on to report, with amazement, a fifteen-foot-long tree growing from the corner of a garage roof, “rooted in and living on ‘dust and cinders.'” I had forgotten about her relative comfort with, her admiration for exploding botanicals, because it’s around this time of the summer every when I spy life coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk that I think about her comment on the appallingness of fecundity—something awful in both senses of the word. When summer throws off its harness, asserting the wild. We are no tamers of it, any of us, and concrete is only incidental. The whole world is bursting with green.

Though I am not sure there is anything careless about it. I have never encountered a force more determined.

weeds-find-a-way-9781442412606_hrSo it seemed like as good a time as any to get Weeds Find a Way out of the library, a book I recall hearing about last year when it came out but hadn’t read yet. The writer, Cindy Jensen-Elliott as full of wonder and amazement as Dillard is when it comes to the tenacity of weeds, their adaptive knack. Carolyn Fisher’s illustrations are beautiful, the book’s unique design bringing text and images together in a playful, gorgeous and illuminating experience. A glossary at the end of the book highlighting a number of common weeds, weeds so common as to be obscure if (to steal a line from poet Mary Ruefle via Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock) “we can extend the meaning of obscure to be mean covered up by dailiness.” And who doesn’t love a book with a glossary?

weeds“Wild carrot (Daucus carota) is also known as Queen Anne’s lace. It is said to have gotten its nickname when Queen Anne of England visited Denmark and challenged the ladies there to create lace as fine as the flower of the wild carrot.” 

Which you can also eat for nightmare, apparently. Who knew?

June 30, 2015

Summer Plans

IMG_0489There was a while this weekend when summer plans weren’t looking good. On Saturday I made a soup that featured the uncanny flavour of actual dirt, which was devastating. And it rained and rained all day, and even the next day, so our plans to go for a hike were ruined. All melodrama heaped on by the fact I was premenstrual. We decided to go to the board game cafe instead of the hike, but when we got there, there was a sign on the door explaining that they were closed due to flooding. We ended up going out for schnitzel instead, which was kind of consoling, but the weekend was mostly disappointing all around, and the children reached a state of maximum solid gold 100 karat bonkers. By Sunday evening, Stuart had stopped telling me that he was jealous that I was the one who got to stay home with them all summer.

Fortunately when Monday arrived, it delivered the sun. We went to the park and built castles, moats and fortifying walls, which Iris wrecked and we tried not to get annoyed about. And then the girls practiced climbing, drawing on their inner-monkeys, all the while satisfying my agenda which was basically to get these children as exhausted as possible. Fresh air and physical exercise! Scurry up the play structure. Faster, faster, go! Which might turn out to be the theme of the summer entire, except for the afternoons when Iris naps, Harriet watches movies, and I get my work done. Everything slows right down at nap, and the challenge then is to strike a balance between the two. Between go and stop, between fun and relaxation, between doing stuff and doing nothing.

IMG_20150624_191728This summer, as with all summers, I become busier than usual just as my time disappears to the children being home and weekend getaways. And so the days are full, full, full, and I need to stop adding to the fullness by baking strawberry pies at 10pm because I end up staying up too late and the pie turns out looking like a bloodbath (even though it was very delicious). This summer is going to have to be about the store-bought pies, and hotdogs for supper, no more dirt soups and choosing my priorities. Which include meeting my deadlines, doing well at my work, not ignoring my children to the point of neglect, and hanging out with my husband (which is hard to do when the prime time of one’s workday begins at 9pm). To help with this, I’ve hired a babysitter one morning a week, and look forward to that solid block of three hours to work, which will feel positively luxurious as it goes by so fast.

But it won’t go by as fast as the summer itself will seem to, which is the lesson I learned last year. I really do like being home with my kids, providing I get ample time to do my own thing during our days, and I feel really lucky that my home and professional lives merge so seamlessly. When the children (both of them! I know!) head off to school in September, I will miss them dreadfully…even as I begin to delight working in the daytime and the possibility of evenings of leisure (a stretch, perhaps).

So in the meantime, we’ll be visiting the library, reading books together, hanging out with friends, going to visit my parents, frequenting local cafes, Harriet will be doing a few daycamps, Iris will be taking long naps (I hope!), and I will be doing my darnedest to tire them out so that bedtime occurs before 9pm. We’ll be spending a week away at a cottage, a long weekend camping, and we’re looking forward to fun weekend adventures in the city too. Plus spitting watermelon seeds, wading in local pools, forgetting to put on sunscreen, and gathering our freckles while we may.

March 19, 2015

A sign of spring

sheetsI love the springs that arrive like this, like an unexpected gift instead of something long overdue. Spring is not quite here yet, but it’s making itself known, the way the green of a crocus appears like a dot in the dirt (and the way a tooth first appears, a dot of white on a baby’s gum—this is my metaphor lately). There are no leaves on the trees and the air still has a chill, but look how the sky is blue, the snow is gone, and our household’s sheets are drying on the line.

Though the surest sign that it isn’t spring (yet) is how cold were my hands after hanging out the sheets. Soon though…

laundryI was inspired to hang out the sheets from Sarah’s blog post about hanging out her washing (and her comments on the magical high-up washing lines with pulleys that need to be hauled in and out—I dream of these, though they terrify me also. What if something comes loose and my pillowcase falls down six stories, lost forever). It strikes me what a literary thing is clothes on the line—indeed, as I was hanging the sheets this morning, the “Grandma hanging washing on the clotheslines to be dried” line kept bouncing through my head from Peepo.

For more on literary washing, do read Anita Lahey’s blog post, “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry.” (Lahey had a poem included in the anthology, Washing Lines, a collection of poetry of laundry and washing.) And see also Matilda Magtree (Carin Makuz) with “Pinning, Pining and Penning,” about repairing clothespins and other essential acts.

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