The other night, we watched the Bach Consort ensemble perform Handel’s Messiah (Knowledge Network). I’ve heard the Messiah hundreds of times, but this time one line resonated especially—Gaia Petrone, mezzosoprano singing, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) Yes, Jesus was acquainted with grief. And as we traverse our later years, don’t we all become well acquainted with grief? In the last six years the losses just keep on coming, so grief has become an intimate familiar to me.
And yet, there’s joy! The chorus sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). My whole body is engulfed with joy tempered by grief; tears stream down my face. My intellect has no chance to do its fancy override of emotions, has no opportunity to ridicule me: You’re not Christian, Madeline, why so moved by this, you silly? The analytical brain successfully bypassed, I am immersed in the bittersweet joysadness of the words, bathed by a sense of the sacred: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and flowing frescoes of a Viennese cathedral. The possibility of God. The swell of triumphant sound fills both church and body.
The past rolls in. I go way back and find myself sitting beside my mother who gifted me with her love for classical music. We sink into the wine-red velvet seats of a hushed concert hall. It was 1983, and I had my first job after graduating with a BA in English: I was secretary to the head engineer at the newly built Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. There was one marvelous perk that kept me showing up at the gloomy subterranean office: free concert tickets. When I got tickets for the Toronto Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth and invited my mother, she was thrilled. During the final movement, as the four soloists and choir sang the “Ode to Joy,” I turned to her and saw her cheek wet with tears, her dark eye sparkling with complicated joy. Just as my father retreated into jazz to feel his feelings, classical music was the vehicle for my mother’s deepest emotions. Many times, I caught a glimpse of her crying as she sat on the living room couch, listening to a moving passage from a symphony or quartet or aria. As I wept last night over the Messiah, I felt our tears intermix. We are connected.
I noticed another sweet outcome from watching the Messiah: the opportunity to hug an old friend no longer with us. One of the second violinists resembled Hanna, who died in 2018. I went to sleep with that image of the violinist merging with the face of my dear friend: wide grin, glasses, brown bob laced with grey. When I met her in the dream, she felt real as anything, and I stayed for a while in her warm, familiar embrace. I love that I can still access my lost ones in the dream world.
So, in a few weeks the year rolls to a close. Last December I wrote about all the things I had accomplished during the year—sewing and writing projects, starting my business. What did I accomplish this year? I put one foot in front of the other every day. This December it feels like more than enough to just write a few paragraphs and give thanks for the good things in my life.
In August my eldest sister and niece moved from Yellowknife to Nanaimo. The three Walker sisters haven’t lived in such proximity since the 1980s in Toronto. Our closeness brings me comfort and happiness.
Walking the dog day in, day out, has given order to our lives. Sky and earth, weather, sun, moon, trees, and birds break through my orbit of self-absorption, and I am grateful for them all. To stand in rain puddles and watch the fast scud of grey clouds, cormorants flying low over the steel-gray Gorge—is to feel alive.
Although my writing group only met a few times this year, I appreciate each member. Late one recent afternoon, we sat in a beautiful room as the winter light slanted through the tall windows, Japanese oranges in a brown bowl, our faces rapt as we listened to one another read our work. We need stories now, more than ever.
This was a year for intake rather than output. I didn’t sew or write much. I read voraciously and watched a lot of television. Grateful to the authors whose words I enjoyed this year, too many to list. But three memoirs stand out for me. I loved poet Elizabeth Alexander’s narrative The Light of the World about her marriage to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, his sudden death and her grief. She writes with the poet’s delicacy and attention to detail, and her grief/joy is palpable on each page.
Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, about her fraught relationship with her depressed mother, Bess Gornick, resonated with me. Vivian struggles for independence from Bess while loving her with the potent mix of passion/compassion limned with hatred and resentment that seems particular to some mother-daughter bonds.
Perhaps you have to be a Margaret Drabble lover or a lover of puzzles to appreciate this one (I am the former). In The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Drabble leads us through her lifelong fascination with puzzles, mixing in portraits of family members, tidbits of the history of puzzles, and asides about memory, writing, and life. A circuitous maze-like quality to the writing brings form and content into alignment.
And so many good stories streaming on television. I was grateful for a daily escape from reality through hours and hours of Grey’s Anatomy, No Offence, Pretty Hard Cases, Succession, Shetland, The Chair, Shtisel, Lupin, and many more. . .
I look forward to the shortest day of the year and the return of the light. Thank you for reading, dear people. One foot in front of the other.
I sat in a coffee shop with a latte and a pumpkin scone, my journal from summer of 1977 before me. Pages and pages of my fat cursive filled the college notebook. At one time, I’d felt burdened by the huge tub of journals—a sporadic record of my life dating back to my early teen years. But lately, I am grateful that I saved these ragged books; they give me insight into who I was and am and the forces that shaped me. I laugh out loud when I come to a passage about my strange encounter on a Greyhound bus from Gravenhurst to Toronto. I describe the encounter as “euphoric.” A handsome man sat next to me:
Every time his arm brushed against me, shivers went up my spine. For a while we slept, and our bodies were quite separate. While he was awake, I was always worried that he might know exactly what I was thinking. At some point, when the bus turned, my arm was nestled next to his. . . . And then he began to gently stroke my arm. I kept telling myself I was imagining it, but I wasn’t. The rest of the ride was seventh heaven. He continued to ever so lightly caress my arm. Neither of us looked at the other, yet I felt an infinite closeness, a bond with this gorgeous man. As we approached Toronto, I was surprised, the ride seemed so short. . . . When he got off the bus and it pulled away, I saw him standing on the sidewalk looking at me. I looked back. He was so beautiful. That was a most incredible experience.
I love that 18-year-old me: naïve, open to life, hungry for it. Trusting, fearless, sensual, absurdly passionate, saying yes to everything. Wait a minute, though. I take a pause. Yes, there’s something juicy about her eagerness to embrace the strange. But let me think past the wild beauty. This young woman’s lack of boundaries sometimes led her into the dark: dangerous situations and unhealthy relationships. It’s a little easier on my heart to squint from both the distance of time and third person point of view.
The romance of saying yes to life masks an inability to say no, to discern what you truly want, what’s good for you. I see with clarity and growing acceptance how my early childhood experiences of boundary-less-ness have engendered a lifetime of struggling to set limits. I learned early on that to say no, to set a limit, meant to risk being rejected, unloved, or abandoned. Thus, I said yes even when I felt no. I accommodated others at all costs, a human pretzel, ignoring the internal cries that grew fainter:
“I can’t do this, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t want to, I don’t like this, no, I can’t, no…no…no….” Whispers fading away.
Author James Joyce apparently described “yes” as “the female word” that showed “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance” (see Hugh Kenner’s  Ulysses. Johns Hopkins University Press). At the end of Ulysses, Joyce puts “yes” into his character Molly Bloom’s mouth many times during her pages-long monologue that ends the book.
“yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
I was enamoured by Joyce when I studied Ulysses during my PhD program, and his idea that “yes” was a female word aligned with my view of myself as a nice, easy-going, accommodating female. But now his gendered claim about “yes” disturbs me. Sure, I see the value in saying yes: the self-abandon and relaxation Joyce cites. And female energy has long been associated with yielding, opening, giving birth (the ultimate yes), just as male energy is associated with law and logos. But—as with most things—context is everything.
I am learning to say no. No thank you, I don’t want to teach a course next semester. No, I’m busy with other clients—I cannot edit your dissertation. No, I’d rather not. No, that doesn’t work for me. Kindly, but firmly: no no no no no no no. Like the terrible or terrific two-year-old, I am the terrible terrific 62-year-old: No, no, no, no. Because saying no makes space for a-flesh-and-blood-I-mean-it-down-to-my-toes, yes.
Hard Work of No
To push the muslin down
into the vat of boiling blue,
I used my broomstick
pounding, nonono and nonono
It took a month to wring
it out. My shoulders ached,
my hands turned blue,
each drop a no no no no no
Ten yards of billowing
indigo—a sister to the sky—
I hung it out to dry, to crackle
in the wind: no no no no, nononono
With bundled sheet across
my breasts, I headed back
to childhood, and there I found a
cache of suffocated noes
reduced to infant bones,
all petrified, but still faint
echoes of the negative. From
those timbers, I built a scaffold
and as I worked, I sighed
reminders to my infant bones
of the pleasures of autonomy:
a no and a no and a nonono
Birds helped by lifting corners
of the sheet, then draped it
on the bony frame. A blue-domed
tent appeared before my eyes then
Spent, I crept inside, where bluish light
bathed me to sleep and children’s bones
sang me a lullaby of no no no and no no no
of no and no and no and no
It took the hardest work
to get here. Know my tool
of choice: Nicely, firmly, thank
you, thank you, no and no and no
A month went by. I woke
refreshed and listened to a
sound, a curlicue of pink
that whistled through my core
And there again the whistle,
delicious worm of want
winds up my empty throat,
and from my tongue
slides out the baby of
a thousand noes, the
pretty word all plump
with meaning: yes
Madeline Walker, October 2021
Sometimes I get a couple of hours, sometimes a whole morning when luminous joy bubbles into life, oxygenating a flat week. Savour the perfection—then *pop* it’s gone. Lately, when I experience these rapturous periods, I am intensely aware of time fleeting, of the unreliability of “happiness,” of my inability to “keep” the moments, of my impotence in the face of life.
September 28 is a good day for birthdays. Two of my friends and our puppy were born on that day. Leading up to Tuesday, I was thinking about cake, how I love making, giving, and eating cake for birthdays and other occasions. But there is always the problem of excess. Do other cake bakers and eaters have the same problem? If there’s a big (9-inch) cake in the house—do you eat a slice every day for a week and gain five pounds? Or do you obsess over it, polishing it off in two or three days and feel sick? Or does it go into the compost because you can’t eat it all? Whichever scenario fits, the solution is the same: bake a small cake. Because small is practical and beautiful.
One day a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I headed to a kitchenware store, and I bought two sturdy 4.5-inch springform pans. I found a good recipe for carrot cake in Canada’s Favourite Recipes by Murray & Baird and halved the recipe. I wasn’t sure what it would yield; it turned out the batter filled the two small cake pans and three cupcake liners.
I sliced the two cakes horizontally to fill them, then frosted both cakes and cupcakes with maple butter frosting. I put the better-looking cake and the cupcakes aside for my friends, and Michael and I “tested” the other cake, eating one slice each for three nights. I know, I should have given both cakes as gifts, but I had to test cake production. Six tiny, perfect slices of carrot cake, sweet and moist. Who needs more than a few bites of something delicious?
Then I assembled the birthday packages. I save good boxes, so I had two shoe boxes at hand made of strong cardboard. I lined each with purple tissue paper, then went out to the garden to pick posies. Fragrant thyme, rosemary, and lavender mixed with pink, red, and purple blooms, tied with a ribbon. I put the cupcakes in a plastic container and the cake on a round of cardboard cut from an old box and covered with foil. Cakes nestled in their boxes, I added the bouquets, a small box of Eddy matches, a candle on the cake, and loose candles for the cupcakes. I closed the lids, then taped birthday cards on the box tops.
On Tuesday morning, we fussed over birthday puppy Marvin with a new toy and some treats. Then, enjoying one of the perks of self-employment, I took off for an hour. After placing the birthday boxes in the front seat of the car, I drove along Craigflower to Vic West, listening to NPR’s jazz and blues station, window open to the breeze. The splendid fall day sparkled. Coppery leaves fell slowly from the trees, and the clear, cool, blue sky made me feel lighthearted. I parked and walked box #1 up to my friend’s townhouse door and placed it there. Then Google maps told me my other friend lived only 150 meters away. I knew they shared a neighbourhood, but I had no idea they were so close.
So rather than drive, I walked the other box through a children’s playground to my friend’s house, feeling so happy I could burst. And yet, the day before I was swimming in sadness about every little thing. I placed box #2 on the doorstep and walked back to my car, humming a song, alive to the crackling beauty of early autumn, favourite season.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d been thinking about that proverb and how it didn’t make any sense. Turns out Ursula Le Guin agrees with me. In 2010, 81-year-old Le Guin (1929–2018) started a blog and wrote delightful posts for seven years. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the collected blogposts as No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017), which I recently finished. Many of the posts are about her cat, Pard, good reading for cat lovers:
One thing that mattered to Le Guin was figuring out weird language puzzles, including the annoying cake proverb. Of course if you have a cake you’re going to eat it! Le Guin wonders in her post about the logic of this proverb, but then it dawns on her that the verb “to have” has several meanings—a less common one is “to keep.” The order of the proverb also seems awry, so, she revises it, reversing the order and using “keep” instead of “have.” And suddenly it makes sense:
You can’t eat your cake and keep it too. You can’t have it both ways—eating and keeping.
When I got thank-you texts and emails later in the day from my friends, one of them ended her message saying she hoped we could get together more often in the coming year. I had acknowledged in my card that we had hardly seen each other lately, what with the pandemic and both of us being introverts. Her final line was, “nothing is forever.” I paused. Of course.
I can’t count on that fickle flicker that moves me to make cakes, write, sew, create. It comes, it goes, I can’t keep it, I can’t summon it. The work wants to be made, and the work—not you—chooses when and how. As I head for 63, I am keenly aware of energy slowly flagging, of a narrowing in my interests and available time, of the limits to life. All the more reason to relish eating the cake when it appears on a plate in front of you. Don’t even try to keep it.
We walked slowly Thursday morning because overnight, recycling boxes and bags heaped with cans, bottles, cardboard, and newspaper had appeared at the curb. Blue splashes up and down the street that Marvin had to investigate, and so our walk slowed to a shuffle. He snuffled like a pig rooting for truffles, straining at the leash to lick the pizza box, to reach the Friskies can with a smidgen of catfood left on the rim. The night before, during his last walk of the day, he’d let out a volley of piercing barks at a pile of recycling across the street. Perhaps to his eyes, in the dark, the mound of stuff piled high above the blue box was a threatening mammal.
Early September’s morning chill, high scudding clouds above, and a Northern Flicker playing hide and seek in a hawthorn tree, his red head popping in and out of sight. The street is quiet—just the distant thunder of the McKenzie interchange as a blur of cars crosses into town. I am grateful to work at home, no need to commute. Instead, I love these 7 a.m. walks. Something in a recycling box caught my eye. Neatly folded on top of a pile of newspapers was a section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, folded to the crossword puzzle. Every clue solved; every box filled with a neatly penciled block letter. Perfection. Did my puzzle-solving compatriot struggle over it as much as I had?
I felt connected to that person—their careful block letters different from my scribbled slanty ones, but we both finished the thing. Did they do it quickly, or did they stretch out the experience into Sunday or even farther down the week, relishing it? Did they approach the task methodically or fill in random clues? Did they ask for help or go it alone? Dictionary or no dictionary? Google or purely old school?
Think of all of us across the nation who turn to the crossword first thing on Saturday. Sharp number 2 pencil. Or maybe a mechanical one. Do some confident people use pens? Fresh white eraser by Mars. Or a pink Dixon, perhaps? We sit in armchairs, on couches, sprawled on deck chairs, scrunched on buses and subways, drinking lattes in coffee shops. All of us, together in the challenge.
My mother did crosswords daily for the last 22 years of her life. They helped fill blocks of morning time after her mandatory retirement from her job as a lecturer in art history at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. I found a letter from her dated February 1997. She had just received a package I’d sent intended to cheer her up:
“I didn’t realize my depression was so obvious. It isn’t a deep depression. It is simply that I no longer have an audience and no longer get paid for doing something I enjoy. The awful thing is that as soon as a person retires, he/she loses status. I notice it when I talk to people at Ryerson . . . They seem extra kind and sort of smile at me and ask me what I’m doing, etc. I smile back and try to talk glowingly of having time to read, etc. pretending that it’s absolutely great. And I know, as I’m doing it, that they know I’m putting on an act. . . So, I’m trying to develop a new lifestyle as a person with time to do those things I really enjoy. The difficulty is to distinguish what it is that I enjoy doing! Meanwhile, I do crossword puzzles, which is new for me and I’m getting pretty good at it (usually at breakfast), and it’s very nice to have the leisure not to have to rush.”
I started doing the Saturday crossword soon after my mother died in 2019. I thought they were too hard at first, and so I’d abandon them quickly. I have a healthy vocabulary, and I love language, but the crosswords seemed like something else. They’re filled with puns and tricks, and it seemed you had to be part of the in-crowd to get them: both hip to idiomatic English across the decades and savvy about current cultural trends. I’m just too literal, I thought, and what I know fills such a narrow groove. But then the challenge started to intrigue me. Now I look forward to the Saturday paper. After reading the headlines and the obituaries, I find the crossword, fold it into a nice rectangle, and begin.
All of this is a preface to say, I’ve had no will to write. Nothing seems worth writing about, these days. Life has a flat, fallow quality. Nothing’s important enough. Although there’s plenty of big bad news—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change—I don’t feel equipped to talk about any of it.
So, I push myself to finish this rather silly piece, a blog post about something as quotidian as the crossword puzzle. I stop and pause often to ask, “Why bother?” Why bother indeed. But it’s just that writing something, anything, seems as if it might be the antidote to the flat way I feel.
My thoughts return to my mother, sitting on the loveseat in her high-ceilinged living room, wrapped in a thick robe, blinds down, doing the crossword. Filling the hours. Her sleek black cat, Cicero, is curled up beside her. She is deep into it, puzzle dictionary next to her on the small rococo marble-topped table, Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing softly on the CD player. Missing the old nicotine rush, the sweet suck of smoke into her lungs, she holds the pencil like a cigarette for a moment. I miss her. In that old letter from ’97, she wrote,
“I’m probably exaggerating, but I have been in their situation [those Ryerson people who acted extra kind toward her] when a colleague retired and made her appearance at the annual fashion show. She smiled too much and talked of having time to sew and do the things she enjoyed. I remember trying to avoid her because I think I was embarrassed and felt sorry for her because she was no longer part of those of us who were still doing important things—not just passing time.”
Doing important things v. Just passing time. . . I flinch at my mother’s binary of “important” paid work and “just passing time.” But something in what she wrote resonates with me. I work part time as a self-employed editor, but lately, I often feel as if I’m just “passing time.”
Maybe this is just the flatness of grief. Flat-footed grief walks over me. After many losses, I am a fallow field—nothing growing here.
I have been reading memoirs about aging parents. . . Elizabeth Berg writes in hers, “I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young.” After my father died at the end of June, I’ve felt old, flat, fat, tired, sad. Nothing feels important. Especially not the weekly crossword. And yet, musing over the word problems gets my brain churning slowly, raking over clues like a pitchfork turning organic matter in the compost heap. I feel connected to crossword puzzlers across Canada. I imagine, for example, an old guy in Mahone Bay—let’s say he’s 82, goes by Ernest Nickerson and sits in the kitchen nook with morning coffee, chewing the end of the pencil as he tries to remember what a 10-sided shape is (79 across, 7 letters).
Remember geometry class in tenth grade? That’s where Ernest first noticed the girl who would be his wife, in geometry class at Mahone Bay School. As he digs deep for the name of a ten-sided shape, another thought is unearthed from that compost heap: Darlene’s thick red hair, held back with tortoiseshell barrettes. He couldn’t take his eyes off those red wings in front of him during class, couldn’t stop imagine pulling his fingers through that rough, dark crimson hair. He unclicks the delicate barrettes to let those wings loose to fly. If Darlene were alive now, Ernest thinks, she’d lean into my ear, her coarse grey hair tickling my nose, skinny shank up against mine, and whisper, “Decagon, Ernest. You knew that, honey.”
I write to get momentum, to feel connected to people, to create worlds. To feel connected to you, and Ernest, and Darlene. So, if you are a maker, a creative person, (we all are, each in our own way) remember: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you. Even if it doesn’t seem important. Believe me, it’s important. It connects you to life. The fallow field regenerates.
Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story
Elizabeth Hay, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.
That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before.
So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.
So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet.
I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow?
But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here.
A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign.
In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
hush, little baby, don’t you cry
From long ago
from far away
of red travels along
when that shark bites with his teeth,
scarlet billows start to spread
and meets a tributary.
I know your voice.
You are mine.
I want you close
but this trip
is made alone.
The woods in here
are dark and deep
I want to sleep,
a worry burns:
Tell me, do I have
promises still to keep?
No, I hear you say,
no more promises to keep.
Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper
Take to the sky papa,
Take to the
“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”
David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship
Ever since I was small, I have felt I don’t belong. As I grow older, I see how this sense of not belonging is linked to black and white thinking: I am excluded either because I am not good enough or because I am superior (“arrogant worm,” as they say in AA). This strain of thought is endemic for alcoholics. To break the spell, it’s crucial to look for similarities not differences when you attend twelve step meetings or, indeed, whenever you feel the sharp edges of polarity creating a sense of distance.
For me and perhaps for you, the isolation resulting from the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and a sense of exile. Last month I was feeling particularly alone in the sadness that can arise from being a parent. Only in recognizing that many other parents across the world share in this pain did I not feel so alone. Facebook groups and other modes of connecting across space and time are wonderful to bring a sense of “I’m not the only one.” But also useful has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing in the thick suffering of others in your predicament and breathing out coolness and healing. This practice connects me with others, but more than that, it dissolves the sense of specialness and exclusion I am prone to. We’re all in this together.
There is another simple practice I have started. I review small events from the perspective of community. This week, for example, I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. She is a gentle young woman named Demi with a river of brown curls running down her back. She made me feel so comfortable and safe as she stuck a dozen needles into my legs, hands, and back. As I laid face down on the warm table in a quiet room, I felt joined with all of the other people suffering sciatica or other pain in their bodies, and I also felt part of a group of people who get acupuncture. I could picture hundreds of us lying on surfaces—floors, grassy fields, dusty streets, tables, beds—and kind practitioners breathing slowly and rhythmically, putting us at ease, as they insert the slim sharp points. I imagine a collective release of endorphins through bodies old and young, fat and slim, smooth and rough. I imagine our relief.
The next day, I suffered from self-doubt about my new editing business—will I get clients? Will people I’ve done work for get back in touch with me? And imposter syndrome: Am I really an editor or just pretending? Perhaps I don’t belong.
Drawing a tarot card, I asked, “What do I need to know right now?” I pulled the Six of Wands, then consulted Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. She writes that “the Six of Wands appears when you have been working hard toward a goal, and success is finally within reach. . . . If you do not feel close to victory now, know that it is on its way provided you are doing all you can to make it happen.” I felt encouraged.
Amazingly, later that day, I received two emails from former clients who wanted me to do work for them. The next day, a new client gave me an update on work that is planned for this summer. And a referral from a colleague I thought would come to nothing yielded another email today asking for my services.
I feel not only encouraged by all of this positive activity, but connected to a community of editors. Yes, I belong. Amazed by the rightness of the card, I feel connected to all those people everywhere who use tarot to help them make sense of life. I can see the decks being shuffled and cut by hands everywhere—brown hands, gnarled hands, arthritic hands, young hands, a hand with a missing finger. . . . We shuffle and cut and draw and learn about ourselves and others, about our Fool’s journey on this Earth.
On Friday, I felt down again, and as I sat in the backyard with my next-door neighbour and we watched the puppies play, I shared a little of my current grief. She popped out of her lawn chair, “I’m going to get my Animal Spirit cards. They’ll help you to feel better.” She came back with the deck and I shuffled and drew. I tried to pull just one, but two cards were stuck together—Elephant and Otter. She read aloud the description of each animal, and a tear rolled down my cheek.
The descriptions felt resonant—the qualities of the unstoppable, gentle, noble elephant and the giddy and joyful otter were combined inside of me. I felt connected to my neighbour then, linked to her through her kindness to me and her willingness to explore beyond the rational self. I feel connected to everybody everywhere who is suffering and uses tools to understand themselves and bring solace: tarot, mandala-making, building sand-castles, creating songs and singing them, writing novels and poems, reading palms, tea-leaf interpretation, or casting the I Ching.
Then on Saturday, I was washing dishes and noticed movement in our back neighbour’s yard. Raccoons? I fetched my binoculars and trained them on a raccoon couple mating—the male straddling the female and biting her neck. Their black bandit masks and long striated fur were crystal clear through the binocs. I was awed. I am part of a community of animals—our bodies are drawn to one another, we mate. I am connected not only to a world of animal lovers, but to a world of lovers of animals. We train our binoculars on birds and lovely beasts of all kinds; we are curious about the natural life we are part of.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that has been my experience. An (invisible) sense of community is essential to me now more than ever. This week I call forth community in many ways. I call it forth through my pain and suffering. I call it through being a patient of acupuncture. I call it through using tarot and other mystical tools. I call it through imagining myself as a member of overlapping groups: editors, parents, and neighbours. And I call it through membership in a society of homo sapiens and other animals. An invisible sense of belonging keeps me going. I may not be able to touch you but I feel you.
For four weeks, Brian Butler taught my husband how to play guitar on Zoom. I don’t know how my husband found Brian Butler, but when I came home one day from grocery shopping, Stan was enthusiastically tuning his old Checkmate guitar. He has dragged that guitar around all of our married life, yet it’s rarely been out of the case. It was good to see him plucking at the strings. Especially as I’ve been down lately. What with Covid and all. Since I met my husband in 1974, learning how to play guitar has been on his to-do list. Whenever we’re packing to move house—six times in 46 years—he takes the guitar out of the case, noodles around on it, lays it on the sofa or leans it up against the wall for a few days, even gets out some chord charts. Then as the packing boxes start to pile up, he quietly puts it back in its battered case and it gets moved to the next apartment or house.
I washed my hands after I unloaded all the groceries and threw away the disposable mask. After I shut off the water, I could hear him picking out a tune, faltering. Going into the living room, I asked him what’s up? and he said I found this great guy on the internet, name is Brian Butler. And? Well he’s going to teach me how to play, finally, on Zoom. We had just signed up for a Zoom account and my husband was eager to use it as often as possible to make the twenty bucks a month worthwhile. Okay, when do you start? Tonight at seven. But we always watch the Good Wife at 7. Well, can’t it wait a night? The Florricks aren’t going anywhere.
As 7 o’clock got close, I was curious about how the guitar lesson would go, but I knew my husband would be shy about it. He went into the basement with his laptop and the guitar, just before 7. I watched a cooking show instead of the Good Wife—Bobby Flay gloated over beating somebody at making waffles.
I assumed music lessons were half an hour. So I was surprised when 7:30 came and went. So then I watched a real estate show Love it or List it, where some terrible asbestos problem blew the budget. I’ve gotten the formula down pat now. Everything is going well with the reno’s then, Bam! There’s a crack in the foundation, asbestos in the kitchen, a dead rat behind the wall.
When my husband’s head bobbed up the basement stairs just after 8, I looked over and could see he was animated. He practically danced into the living room. How did it go? He’s great! Just great! This guy is fantastic! He had me playing a bunch of chords at the end of an hour. And he has some great ideas about life too.
I think my husband felt sheepish because he went into his study then and shut the door for a while. After about five minutes I called through the door, wanna catch a Good Wife? Just one episode? We have time before bed. Okay. And he came out and we didn’t discuss guitar lessons for the rest of the evening. For that matter, we never mentioned it the rest of the week.
I’ve been depressed lately. What is there to be cheerful about? I force myself to go to the grocery store so I will see another living person other than my husband. It’s hard to get out of bed. The birds who come to the feeders give me some pleasure, especially the Northern Flicker who has been making the rounds. That and coffee, snacks, television, and wine keep me going.
During the second lesson, I was nosy enough to go down and stand outside the closed door at the mid-way point. I could hear laughter and some guitar playing and then more laughter. I hadn’t laughed with my husband for weeks. No wonder he wanted to learn how to play guitar from Brian Butler. Brian Butler sounded fun. I went back upstairs and made microwave popcorn, poured a water glass full of red wine and watched the rest of Love it or List It.
The next week, my daughter called me to see how I was doing. She deals cards in Vegas, and she’s been calling me once a week since the Covid to see how I’m holding up.
“Mom, I found this dance therapy called Gaga, and I think you’d like it. There are classes online. You just move your body around, and it’s very liberating. I wish you’d try it—I see lots of older people doing it. I’ve been doing it myself, and I feel great.”
“Gaga, as in Lady Gaga?” I was proud of myself for knowing who that person is.
“No, it’s some Israeli guy that named the dance method after his first word when he was a baby.” She laughed. “That’s probably everybody’s first word. Either gaga or googoo. Was it mine?”
“No, yours was blackjack.” That was my attempt at a joke because from a very young age, my daughter said she wanted to be a card dealer in Vegas. But the joke fell flat. She kept on about the Gaga dance until I agreed to go get my iPad and look it up, try the streaming classes.
“Please try it out this week. It’ll cheer you up, Mama.” She called me Mama when she was feeling concerned about me. So I agreed to give it a try.
I didn’t actually have an intention to try anything new, but when my husband started to get ready for his lesson Tuesday after dinner, taking out the guitar and noodling around, I remembered the Gaga class. I didn’t tell him, but when he went down to do his lesson with Brian Butler, I opened my iPad and found the class, paid with PayPal, and got a glass of wine. Nobody could see me, I had my camera off and Stan wasn’t there. I could do what I wanted. So I see a bunch of people moving in strange ways, and the leader calls out to them, “Okay, be a feather, I want to see your feathers.”
Do you know what? I love being a feather. I could see myself loosening from the Northern Flicker’s wing and floating, twirling on a pillow of air, my downy bits fluffing in the wind. I shut my eyes and my quill lowered to the carpeted floor as I listened to the deep voice of the teacher encouraging me to be something other.
The week after that, Tuesday night, I got ready. I found the old djellaba I bought in 1977, folded in plastic and set on a high shelf in the closet. We both bought djellabas in the night market on that trip to Marrakesh—Stan’s is purple and mine is yellow. I rarely wear it, but it reminds me of a canary feather, so that night I poured a glass of wine, took off all my clothes and pulled the djellaba over my bare skin. I had bookmarked the class on my iPad so I got there quickly, paid my $12.50 drop-in fee, and soon I was dancing like a feather. Nobody could see me, but I could see a grid of young women, light on their feet, prancing about in their living rooms, shaking their manes. And one very old couple being frail feathers together.
The teacher was calling out instructions “let everything drop away….shake out your legs and your arms. . . what’s left? Just the core of you. Let your core lead you,” he called in a deep voice. “Follow your limbs. . . follow your fingertips…” I forgot about my wine, I was so busy following my fingertips around the house, then I followed them back to the iPad propped on the coffee table. Next, we were clouds floating and changing shape, and after that we turned into hollow seed pods, skipping along, carried by the changing wind. I was so busy being not myself that I didn’t hear Stan come up from the basement. He stood at the top of the basement stairs—I don’t know for how long—watching me. When I saw him from the corner of my eye, I got flustered and shut everything down.
You’re early tonight, I said, and he agreed. It was the last class and they finished a bit early. So I went quickly down the hall to our bedroom and changed out of the djellaba and put on my sweat pants and sweat shirt and we watched an episode of Good Wife. It’s funny, but we didn’t talk about what I’d been doing. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. I felt vaguely ashamed, as if I’d been doing something forbidden, ashamed of the way I’d followed every instruction of the Gaga teacher as if he were Franz Mesmer himself. Ashamed at how I had enjoyed my bare breasts and thighs rubbing against the old Moroccan cloth as I moved through the house, not even remembering that I had a self. It felt good, but bad.
That brings me to last night. After dinner, I loaded the dishwasher, and I was wiping down the counters when Stan called up to me from downstairs. Hey, Darlene, will you do me a favour? Put on your djellaba? And come down here? I have something I want to show you. A strange request, I thought, but I shrugged my shoulders and yelled down the stairs okay, Stan. After the other night, I’d draped the yellow djellaba over the chair in our room and it was still there. I let my clothes drop around me in a heap, and I slid the long garment over my body. I liked how my naked skin felt next to the cool, rough cotton.
I picked my way down the stairs, my bare feet caressed by the textured carpet. I stopped and really ground my feet into the nubbiness of that carpet, like I was scratching a deep itch on my soles. The swivel chair was positioned away from me, so I couldn’t see Stan’s face. When he turned around, I saw he was wearing his purple djellaba and he held his old Checkmate in his hands, poised, ready to play. I laughed out loud to see my husband in his djellaba. Beside him on the desk was his open MacBook and a man’s face was looking at me from the screen. This is Brian, Stan said, gesturing at the face, and the man, who had drooping moustaches and a sad face, waved at me. I could see now that he had a guitar in his hands, too, and he tapped the wood on his instrument, one, two three, then both Brian and Stan started to strum chords and sing.
“Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes / Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies. . . . ” So this was what Stan had been practicing all these weeks, behind closed doors! Our song from long ago. I started to sway and dance as I had for the last two Tuesday evenings, as if nobody was watching. My spine turned into seaweed, and I was floating in the North Atlantic Sea while Stan sang the old song in his cracked voice and Brian’s deeper, suppler voice came from the computer’s speaker as he watched me. I wasn’t ashamed anymore. I moved my arms and legs and my torso, following my body every which way it wanted to go to the music. “Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express / Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express/ They’re taking me to Marrakesh. . . .” I started to sing with them, “All on board, that train, All on board that train…”
My husband got out of his chair and put his guitar down on the floor and then it was just Brian playing and singing as Stan followed my lead. We waved our arms and danced. We twirled around the basement room. Soon we were turning into seaweed under the ocean. Jellyfish spun around us, salty ballerinas, translucent yellowy orange with long fronds and frills. Then we became the jellyfish. When I moved my body, Stan mirrored me, and our fronds waved and sparked with electricity. I looked down at his pale slender feet gliding across the pocked tile, purple cloth draping his bony shins. We moved together, jellyfish mates under the long fluorescent light tubes, sinuous in our coloured dresses. The song was over, and we heard rustling coming from Stan’s computer, but we didn’t look over to see what Brian was doing. Now it was just the buzz of the tubes above us as we rocked in the deep. My husband’s crooked grin lit up the greenish underwater world.
This week, I moved my office to the basement—a desk, a rug, a chair, lamps, a bookshelf full of books about writing and editing, my computer and my big monitor. I like working down here – I feel more efficient and less distracted than when my office was upstairs. I am getting ready for self-employment as an editor. Part of my moving process included going through some old papers. I came across a bag of letters from the 1960s from my adopted grandmother. Phyllis took my mother, who felt neglected by her biological mother, under her wing in the 1950s. She cherished “Ginger” and paid for her psychotherapy for years. When my sisters and I were born, we always called her Grandma, and she showered us with love, attention, and gifts.
In August 1965, when I was six, our family moved from Berkeley, California to Toronto. For several years after that, my grandmother and I wrote frequently—we missed each other. Her letters were many pages long: typed, double-spaced in Courier with cross outs here and there. She typed on thin paper, then folded the pages into sixths so they would fit into small envelopes. Much of what she wrote was about her several cats. She usually had three or four cats at a time, mostly strays she found or who found her. She never tired of describing their behaviour, their looks, their sweet antics. Today, I slipped my hand in the bag and pulled out a letter dated February 12, 1966.
Mercury retrograde has been disrupting communication since the end of January, and I’ve felt those disruptions—messages gone astray or misinterpreted. But the serendipitous reach into a bag and the pulling out, like a rabbit from a hat, a message from fifty-five years ago to the day—feels special indeed. The magic lingers today. She wrote,
February 12, 1966
You make me feel very lucky to have such a good little letter-writer for a granddaughter. I have two letters to answer, just as I did the last time I wrote to you. That means you are twice as faithful in your correspondence as I am.
You wrote to me on January 20th, “I don’t think I can think of much to say”, but don’t every worry about not having anything to say. If you only say “Dear Grandma, I was thinking of you and wanted to say hello. With love from Madeline.” I will be thrilled to get your letter. Just to know that you were thinking of me and just to see the envelop in the mailbox with your writing on it gives me such a big happiness when I come home from work. I get lonesome for all of you, even though I am kept busy.
I got some pictures of all of the family with my valentines, and I can see you have lost a tooth. You didn’t give that news, and anyway I suppose it didn’t seem like much news to you. But everything that happens to each of you is news to me, because I try to keep track of you in my mind and think about how you look. You may be surprised that in just the six months you have been in Ontario when the pictures were taken, you have all changed a little. You have probably grown taller too. All this is happening a long way from me, so I have to depend on your news about yourself to fill in the picture of you in my mind’s eye.
I have just re-read your two letters to see if there is anything in them I should reply to at this time. (I ought to know them by heart, I read them over enough times. The first reading is more like a mental gulp, and then I read them over and imaging you writing them, and it makes you seem closer than five thousand miles.)
Well, right off, your letter of January 20th gives me a subject to write about. In it you said that you didn’t think you would ever draw like Kathy—and this is true, I hope; because only Kathy will every really draw like Kathy. Anyone else who drew like Kathy would only be imitating here, and you know that an imitation is never as good as the original thing. You will draw like Madeline, and I think each of you are pretty wonderful, and each of you has a definite quality in your drawings that speaks for you—it is the beginning of a “style”, as it is called in the artistic world. . . .
It was in the pencil portraits of Ginger and Kenneth that the “you” in your drawings was particularly effective. . . . the pencil drawings were quite remarkable, I thought, not because they were as expertly drawn as you might have thought they should be—but because they were as they were genuine portraits in the fullest meaning of the word, not only a physical resemblance, but you caught something of the total character of your mother and father. Not only would I recognize them immediately if you hadn’t labeled the drawings, but they were well proportioned and had had an inexplicable quality I can only call “aliveness”. This means that you are both perceptive and have control over your pencil—two qualities a great many grown-up artists which wish they had.
I hope you learn all you can about the techniques of drawing and painting, but I hope even more that you hold onto the precious quality of being able to draw what you see without self-consciousness. I hope I don’t bore you with all this talk about your drawings but I just took at the envelope and looked at all of the paintings and drawings over again and I feel just as delighted with each of them as I did the first time I got them.
I was struck by how loving and lively her voice is. It reaches to me over decades, skipping over death. Her affection touches me afresh, like fingers brushing against my cheek. Her words demonstrate a lively interest in me as a person, a lovable girl with talents and potential, and her enthusiasm, her vigorous voice, still warms me as anew, even though her hands folded these pages more than half a century ago.
The letter goes on, the next four pages all about her cats: Thumbelina, Pinky, Batu, and the newest addition, Duckling. She describes driving to the mail box , and getting out of the car to mail a letter, when a small black cat comes up and mews at her. She asks the neighbourhood children walking to school whom the kitty belongs to and none of them know. She tries to shoo the cat away, but when Grandma opens the car door, the cat slides in beside her, “settling herself into a comfortable little bundle and starting to purr.” Then she writes, “What could I do? I turned the car around and took her home.”
Grandma writes she is “altogether the most unprepossessing little black kitty—and that is how I started calling her a little ‘Ugly Duckling,’ which has now been shortened to ‘Duckling’.” On page 5, after descriptions of Duckling’s warrior stance with the other cats, Phyllis writes, “She adores the sheepskin rug, standing ankle deep in the fur, purring and making biscuits with a trancelike expression on her little face.” I can see that little black cat kneading even now, deep in her pleasure, having found a refuge.
Grandma ends the letter at the end of page 6 with rhetorical flourish, “Now I come to your lovely valentine…Thank you, darling. It is one of the most original valentines I ever saw, and I dearly love what you wrote on the back. Many kisses to you for making it and sending it. …
Goodbye little sweetheart. This is almost like reading a book, isn’t it? Tell me if you get tired reading long letters and I’ll try not to be so long-winded, or divide my letters into three separate epistles.” And in pen, “Lovingly, Grandma Phyllis,” with many x’s and o’s across the bottom of the brittle paper.
Tears clumped in my throat when I read the last paragraph. “Goodbye little sweetheart.” I’d forgotten her affection for me; I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a child treasured by an adult. I’d forgotten the warm articulate voice that spoke to me in Courier typeface, that set me firmly in her pink spotlight, never talking down to me, using language so beautifully and naturally, telling me her stories. Perhaps reading her long letters planted the seed for my love of reading and writing, my love for stories, my affection for the long dash. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have an adult consider you—a small child—valuable and important, your burgeoning talents of great interest and worth remarking on.
In the universal way of impermanence, the relationship slackened over the years, which was not surprising, given our distance from one another and my encroaching adolescence. But that little magic pocket of emotion inside of me has been lit up, rosy pink, these last 24 hours. A lamp-like glow that bathes me from the inside out. I feel loved.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you. Thank you for reading.
Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook
Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.
When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.
Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice. This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.
And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!
–cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions -open and drain one can of chunk white tuna -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup -drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter. -pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top. -bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.
( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)
Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:
-put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish -place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered -mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions -serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side
I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.
My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.
Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.
In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.
I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.
I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story. It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.
Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.
This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.
Baked chicken Potato salad Corn on the cob Watermelon Chocolate cake
I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.
Good food is good food.
Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:
Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)
I know it was a horrible year, and yet it was somehow a good year for creativity. The work wanted to be made.
I finished the first draft of my first novel—as yet untitled. I have been living my own dictum. You only learn to write by writing, I tell the students I teach and tutor in academic writing. The more you write, the more you experiment, the more you learn how to write.
James Hillman said that “truth is revealed. It cannot ever be told. It has to appear inside the telling or through the telling.” Never have I found this more resonant than in writing fiction. I started out with a vague idea for a story, but it has only been inside the telling that truth has been revealed, an exciting and serendipitous—perhaps even magical—process.
I was privileged to have the first six months of the year off work and the second half working at home. This flexibility allowed me to establish a regular writing time in the mornings, so most days I wrote at least a paragraph and sometimes several pages. The novel is about 300 pages long. I will leave it to rest for a few weeks before I go back with an eye to editing. My small but loyal writing group helped me stay motivated, and I am grateful to them. I loved hearing other writers in the group read their work.
I published 18 blogposts in 2020. Long ago Michael helped me to be content with “3 plus me” (it’s written with a wineglass writer on my mirror). That just means if I like it and three other people like it (Michael is inevitably one of the three), then I am happy.
One of the posts this year was a beautiful guest blog by my sister. And we collaborated on a second one. I love collaborating on blog posts and I welcome any of you to get in touch with me if you want to write together.
This year I was accepted into Simon Fraser University’s Editing Certificate program and I have completed 3 of the 12 courses. I aim to finish in 2021, and intend to start my own freelance editing and writing coach business. I have done this kind of work as a side gig for years, but now I am ready to formalize my training and freelance in a serious way. Editing is a profoundly creative act. All of those decisions to be made about word choices and paragraphs, sytnax, architecture, punctuation. . . .
In my reading about editing, I came across Susan Bell’s, The artful edit, an interesting book about how to edit your own prose and hone your understanding of other people’s. I loved the way she takes the reader through the masterful editing of The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. She has provided me with so many ideas both in editing my own work and as I apply my skills to my clients’ writing.
I sewed in fits and starts this year, but as I look back I realize I was productive, though it often didn’t feel that way. I finished the textile art piece Eight Worldy Winds early in the year. The piece now hangs on my office wall to remind me of the transitoriness of feelings, fortunes, and life itself. Then the pandemic shifted me into giving mode—I wanted to make small gifts for people. So I started with potholders I had promised to friends a long time ago, then I delved deep in my scrap supply to make one-of-a-kind bags for other friends. After that, I sewed masks. I have to admit, that was a duty more than a joy. Then I started making aprons for people I love. By the final apron, I felt I’d perfected the pattern. I almost forgot about the blue cape I made (my courage cape) out of an old wool blanket. So much fun!
I went back to a bigger project with the Rhapsody in Blue quilt. It’s one of those weird quilts that actually look awful close up, with the mishmash of colours and patterns. But the total effect is pleasing. I started machine quilting of the top today, after pinning the whole quilt with safety pins. It’s the first time I’ve tried using curved safety pins to sandwich a quilt, and I like it. In the past, I’ve used the spray adhesive between layers, but I find it is not secure over time, and sometimes it takes me a while to finish a quilt top (now, especially, with a puppy).
There is something incredibly liberating in free motion quilting. And it’s a physical act; my whole torso sways and moves as I push the material under the needle, forming loop de loops.
Raising a puppy is a creative act. Just as raising children calls for creativity every day, so does having a puppy in the house. I used to make up games and stories, craft activities, and innovative ways to distract and delight my children. Now I am doing the same kind of thing with Marvin.
I put sewing and writing on hold during our first few weeks with Marvin because it was an immersive experience—all of my energy was need to do my paid job and engage with and train the puppy. Those few weeks taught me an important lesson. I felt drained and bereft without my creative outlets. It is not just a luxury to take time to write and sew. Creativity is my lifeblood; creativity gives me momentum to keep on going; creativity feeds me. Especially in this year of the pandemic, I have leaned heavily on creativity, and I am so grateful to have the time to pursue my creative acts.
This year I let go of some things—drawing and my aspiration to learn to play the ukulele to accompany my singing. I just can’t do everything. So I focused on writing and sewing. I’m not sure what I’ll focus on in 2021. Some contemplation is in order.
Remember, creativity is your birthright. It’s not granted to just some people—we are all born with innate creativity. As children it seems more accessible and we rarely question it, but then its force seems to fade for some people. I encourage you to spark your creativity if it’s dormant. Write a poem, cook something new, learn a song, write a song, draw a comic, sew something. Make a birthday card for a friend. You never know. . . .