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Pickle Me This

December 31, 2015

New year, new books, new teapot, etc.

IMG_20151231_140910We have had a stupidly crummy holiday, mostly for non-monumental reasons. A year ago I wrote this post about our family’s talent for leisure and enjoying ourselves—we were skating, movie-going, relaxing, lunching, going offline for an actual week, etc.—but we were showing none of those tendencies this time around. Things got off to a good start, but Harriet came down with a stomach bug on Christmas Eve that stayed around for a few days. Iris stopped sleeping over Christmas, and was conspiring to kill me. Stuart was diagnosed with strep throat, and while I was pretty well post-pneumonia, I was so tired and crabby. We weren’t terribly ambitious then—some days our big outing was to the grocery store. Though there were a few highlights—before it all went wrong, we had a fun day downtown(er) and got to visit Ben McNally Books, where I picked up Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, which I’m about to begin as soon as I publish this post. We had nice visits with my parents, who braved our company. Lunch at Fanny Chadwicks yesterday, though Stuart is still unable to eat solids, so he didn’t have the greatest time. Tonight we’re going to our friends for a New Years get-together, though we won’t be staying too long (and I am sure nobody else at the party is too upset about that. We’ve become social pariahs).

I did, however, get a lot of reading done, mostly because my evening companion took to going to bed at 8pm, and I took a holiday from work things and read all through nap times (bliss!). My holiday reads were not at all disappointing, mercifully, and I look forward to writing a post about them this week. My final read of the year was a gift from Stuart (who got me so many excellent bookish things), The Magician’s Book, by Laura Miller (and we’re going to be starting Prince Caspian in a few days and I am so excited). My final read of 2015 then, followed by my first read of 2016—Birdie. I really want to keep a focus on reading First Nations women writers.

IMG_20151231_132842Anyway, a disappointing holiday is winding down on the right note. Iris’s weird rash (of course she has a weird rash!) is clearing up, if that’s any indication. Today I did receive the great joy of not only a pair of Hunter wellies in the post, but a brand new teapot. And why did I need a teapot, you might ask, seeing as I came into possession of the greatest teapot on earth just six months ago? Well, on Christmas Day, my teapot got smashed, which led to sulking and petulance on my part, and put a damper on our holiday on top of everything, because I am shallow and materialistic. (But it’s a teapot! Not just any ordinary material.) The bright side of your teapot smashing though is that you get to wait for a new one to come in the post. (I wanted a London Pottery teapot, you see.) There seemed to be no more white polka-dots to be had for love nor money, but I was able to order a plain red one from the shop I’d bought the last one from in Bobcaygeon. And it arrived quickly and intact, alongside my new wellies which replaced a) the wellies I’d got for Christmas that didn’t fit and b) the wellies my mother-in-law bought me for my 26th birthday a decade ago and whose image was for a time my blog header and can still be seen if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page, and which finally started leaking after many years of service. So things are certainly on the up-and-up.

I’ve had a good year, even though it’s gone out with pneumonia (but then having pneumonia was terrific, from a reading point of view…). I am pleased that I sold my novel and am excited to turn it into an actually book over the course of this year, though I still can’t quite believe that’s going to happen. I read a lot of good books. I had a splendid trip to England, the land of teapots and wellies. I learned to write profiles, which was a new challenge—I wrote about Julie Morstad in Quill & Quire and have a cover story forthcoming in my alumni magazine. I’m pleased with my review of Marina Endicott’s new novel in The Globe and really, really proud of my essay on Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Adult Onset, which was another challenge and I’m so happy to have met it. I want to keep expanding my writerly horizons. Readerly ones too.

This fall has been exhausting. When I look back, it seems like getting pneumonia was inevitable. It doesn’t help that Iris’s sleep is so patchy, as it’s ever been. My resolution for 2016, if I had one, would probably involve getting more sleep, if that weren’t at the expense of so many things, but I will make an effort. It might also involve baking fewer cakes, but this kind of thing is why I don’t go in for resolutions in the first place.

Happy New Year to you, and thank you for reading!

December 21, 2015

Merry Christmas!

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Today we went to the 12 Trees of Christmas display at the Gardiner Museum, which was amazing, and will most likely become a new family tradition. It’s on until the beginning of January, and definitely worth a visit—Harriet and Iris thought the trees were great, and this one was my favourite, for obvious reasons. Tomorrow we’re venturing into ROM holiday madness, and then to the Maurice Sendak Exhibit at the Toronto Reference Library (because when we tried to go yesterday, the library was closed…). Days that follow will feature AGO Brunch, Christmas windows at The Bay (and a trip to nearby Ben McNally books, eh?), skating at City Hall, and lots of do-nothingness too. And reading. Always, reading.

See you in the new year.

December 19, 2015

Light the Darkness

IMG_20151219_210213But of course, lighting the lights isn’t all of it. Marsha Lederman wrote a great column in the Globe this weekend about how terrible the holiday season can be for those whose spirits are far from bright. The example she gave of someone having to linger in the grocery store deli listening to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” after having lost a loved one. Harriet’s school choir sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in their concert this year, and while it’s long been one of my least favourite Christmas songs (I’m more of a “Silver Bells” kind of gal), I kept choking on the line about, “Through the years we all will be together—if the fates allow.” An ordinary wish, I suppose, though the older one gets, the more you realize how extraordinary a fortune is such a thing. It reminds me of Joan Didion writing in Blue Nights about her daughter’s wedding, not long after which her daughter died. She wrote, “Do notice: We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as ‘ordinary blessings.'”

It’s been a weird few weeks. We have friends who are facing merciless illnesses at the moment. I think about the loved ones of those killed in Paris a month ago, and in the shootings that are happening in America all the time. I think of the people I know, many parents of young children, who’ve died in the last year or two. Friends who’ve recently lost their parents. Last week, a colleague of Stuart’s—by all accounts a truly excellent human being—was killed in a random stabbing while out for an evening walk. There is so much inexplicable sadness, so much darkness, as, I suppose, befits this time of year.

But isn’t that why we light the lights? Last Sunday on the last night of Hanukkah, our neighbours invited us over and let Harriet light their candles. I stayed upstairs battling it out with stubborn shortbread while listening to Darlene Love, but the sounds of their singing came up through the vents, and I caught the sparkle and glow of our own Christmas tree down the hall, and it all seemed to me quite sensible why we do what we do at the darkest time of year, not frivolous at all. With the winter solstice just days away, the sun down before five p.m. every day, we light candles, turn on lights, and we sing together, songs about tidings of comfort and joy.

Life is hard and the world is cruel—and yet I’m so glad I get to live in it.

I reread Rebecca Solnit’s “Woolf’s Darkness” again. I find myself returning to that essay, reading it over and over again, getting lost inside its twists and turns. I read it for comfort and insight, for the way it lights the darkness. For the situating of hope as somewhere between the certainties of despair and optimism. “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.” I think about the line that follows the “through the years…” one in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: hang a shining star upon the highest bough. A song I hate a little less now.

For those of us who can, we have to light up the darkness. And then find as many ways as possible to let others in on the glow.

December 19, 2015

Light the Lights

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A lot has escaped my attention these last few weeks, including that Coach House Books had a pop-up shop in their warehouse throughout December, but I heard tell of it yesterday on Twitter, a few hours before the whole thing was finished, and decided we would stop in on our way home from fetching Harriet from school, in order to satisfy my holiday book retailing fix. I got a book for Stuart and two books (surprise, surprise!) for me, and then we walked down the lane and my children began playing hopscotch on bp nichol’s poem, which really is the most practical purpose imaginable for concrete poetry, and I don’t why it had never occurred to me before.

So now school’s out, and we came home from hopscotch to a mailbox stuffed with cards and parcels, as it’s been all week. Our kitchen features ridiculous amounts of chocolate and cookies, all of these balanced out by the proliferation of clementines. The Globe and Mail holiday crossword arrived today, so we now what our preoccupation for the next while will be. We began watching Mad Men from the very start last night, because I am longing to write about this series and the depth of my feelings for it, as well as to deepen my understanding, so it’s back to the beginning, little Sally Draper with a bag over her head. I think it’s the third or fourth time I’ve watched Season One, and it only gets better and better.

Plus there’s Baileys, and I’m no longer on antibiotics. And while Stuart does indeed have to work on Monday and Tuesday, we’ve already gone into vacation mode. We took a trip to the library this morning and followed with lunch out at Caplanskys, because going out for lunch is our main vacation occupation. We’re looking forward to lots of fun with friends and family this week, and skating, and going to see the Christmas windows at the Bay, and finishing our chocolate and buying more, and getting to the bottom of Betty Draper, and wrapping presents tonight (in the Saturday papers) and listening to the Phil Spector Christmas Album and Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, and there will be more lunches, lazy mornings, too much indulgence, and maybe even the possibility of snow.

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!

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