Thursday, December 31, 2009

Auld Lang Syne

This is the time of year you're supposed to spend summing things up: this was good for me, this was bad, this I want to change. Even though I don't like new year's (it's part of the general hate I have on for winter and all its festivals) I still feel the societal urge to Make a Resolution! to Go Forth! to Lose Weight! (What is it about January 1 that makes everyone want to be thinner?)

So this is how I shall sum up my year:
1. I have a great job that I love.
2. I have made some excellent, rocking new friends, some of whom even knit.
3. I have lived in my very own house for a whole year. That means the warranty is up and I can now sit very quietly and wait for the whole thing to crash down around me.
4. I've read a lot of great books, but not as many as I would like to have read.
5. I spent a whole summer with my boy.
6. I am taking riding lessons to fulfill a life-long wish (yay me!)
7. There have been no major disasters, in spite of my anxious waiting for something really bad to happen. Just goes to show, I guess.

And this is how I will go on:
1. Keep the job. Be better at it.
2. Keep the friends. See above.
3. Don't panic. Everything will be fine. See above.
4. Read more.

(Heh. Number 4 is going to be fun.)

In the last decade I've had a baby, and raised him all by myself. I've gotten more education than any human being needs, and had some really cool jobs. I'm in a place now that I never ever imagined I would be in...

I wonder what the next ten years will bring?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday I fell down the stairs TWICE, spraining a different ankle each time. I now walk with a slight limp.

Yesterday I made a lovely brisket in the slow cooker, while the dog looked on and begged with every fibre of her being that, just this once, I would drop it.

Yesterday I got the car washed, which turned into a bizarre affair that ended with me receiving a free $12 wash as well as the $8 wash I paid for.

Yesterday I made an appointment for a hair cut, did a pile of marking, and had a riding lesson. I talked to my gramma about her birthday, and I got all the way down to the bottom of the yoke in my sweater, which always feels like half-way done to me, even though it isn't. I went to the bakery, I cleaned the bathroom, I did laundry, I took all the Christmas music off my iPod. I prepared and served three healthy meals. I cleaned off my desk, shredding or filing the huge pile of papers that usually sits beside my computer.

It was a shockingly productive day.

Today, I have taken out the garbage and done some worrying. I intend to knit and read and not think about New Years or Resolutions. I may buy milk if I get around to it.

Or maybe I won't.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's over now, we can laugh about it.

I have been hiding in the house, writing my manifesto.

And knitting:

It's a top-down raglan cardigan in Noro Silk Garden, chosen because the colours are so fabulous - the exact opposite of the colours of winter (the sludge on the floor of the garage, the salt-grimed car, the six minutes of daylight). Also it's light and warm and soft, which is just what I need.

I found a group on Ravelry that is doing a Cowichan sweater knit-along over the Olympics. Now I am morally opposed to the Olympics for a number of reasons, not just the way the real live Cowichan knitters have been treated. The dilemma thus remains: do I knit a Cowichan-inspired sweater out of solidarity for those knitters? Or do I do what I usually do and ignore the Olympics altogether?

Something else to ponder while I stay inside and hope for spring.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weekends are for Poems

It's cold outside. There are bears. I'll be knitting, and reading the Guernsey Literary Something Pie Thingy. Looking forward to it.

Here is a poem.

Staying Power


In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can't go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I'm focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It's the attention, maybe, to what isn't there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they've found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn't
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God's not fire, say anything, say God's
a phone, maybe. You know you didn't order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don't know who it could be.

You don't want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

Source: Poetry (May 2004).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Je me souviens.

Because today is December 6.

Because I am a woman, because I spent five years walking the halls of Concordia University, just down the road from the Polytechnique, because I am a feminist.

Because, twenty years on, we live in a world where this still happens.

Je me souviens.

Light a candle.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Poem

by Frank O'Hara

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Snow, it Snoweth Every Day

We are here in the middle of a winter storm, and a real doozy at that. It took me a long time to get home - I have been driving for 17 years and never been so afraid on the road. At one point I was going down the highway at 40 kilometers an hour, in second gear, white-knuckled, with my four-way flashers on. There was an especially memorable moment that ended with me on the shoulder, stalled, inches from a ditch.

But I made it home, the boy and I had curry for dinner (the Santa parade he was supposed to take part in this evening was cancelled) and now we are snug in our little house, with the fireplace on, and new knitting to knit.

In other news, I've been tired all week - I remember being this tired just before the tattooed man at the blood donor clinic watched a drop of my blood float bravely in that blue stuff they use and said "dude, your iron is seriously low." Perhaps I shall eat a steak, just for the hell of it.

I have marking to do (yuck) and books to read (hurray!). I've been working on Hunger, a young adult book that is the sequel to Gone. Sadly, all the things that were bugging me by the end of Gone are the focus of Hunger, so it's a bit of a slog. Thankfully, I am also rediscovering the old Inspector Banks books I haven't read for years. I'm especially thrilled when I come across the original receipts (I bought most of them in Montreal when I was in university and seriously poor, but still managed to carve a bit out of the beans and rice budget to get a British detective fix) and remember where I was then, and what I was doing.

Things sure have changed since then, but on a snowy night all that matters is a good book, and home. That hasn't changed at all.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Things that will be different when I rule the world: a short list

1. Winter. It is dark now by 4:30. This is simply not acceptable. It makes me grumpy (well, more grumpy).

2. Marking. I brought a big box home for the weekend and didn't touch it. I hate marking.

3. My dental coverage says it's 100%, but it is only 100% of what the insurance company figures it should cost, not what it actually does cost. The next time I take the car for an oil change, I'll tell the dude at the garage that, while he figures it should be about $50, I figure it should be about $20, so that's all I'm paying. Wish me luck in that.

4. Christmas. It is stressful and expensive, and because it is, in fact, a religious holiday, it's a little too... churchy for my taste. When the boy is grown up and gone, I am going to check myself into one of those luxury hotels in the mountains for the whole week and not hang a single freaking ornament.

4b. Also, it starts too soon. I can see three lit trees in the complex next door from my window. This is not okay.

4c. And I just finished a bit of deadline knitting, and I hate deadline knitting. Knitting is what I do to relax, dammit! It's the one thing in my life that doesn't have a timetable attached, and that doesn't charge by the hour. Deadlines take all the fun out of it.

5. I will be able to get my Master's degree and they (that's the imaginary group of "they" which is responsible for things like dental coverage and Christmas) will pay me.

6, All books will be as good as The Time Traveller's Wife. And all spellings will be Canadian.

7. Everyone will be equipped with an "undo" button for those moments when something unkind or careless or stupid comes out of one's mouth without warning, and hurts someone. I could have used one last week, actually.

I think I have a slight touch of that Seasonal Affective whatsit. Perhaps I should spend a few weeks in Mexico on a beach in an attempt to get better.

Or I could just wait and see what happens when I rule the world.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Poem for Saturday

This be the Verse
- Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


As the Flying Spaghetti Monster is my witness, I'll never be cold again!

Dear reader, I have had a bitch of a week.

Boy and I got our flu shots on Monday, and Tuesday I felt awful. The lady on the help line said, essentially, "there there, dear, just drink lots of fluids and take it easy."

As bloody if. The only fluid I wanted by then was gin, and I don't think that's what she had in mind.

I called the furnace repair dude on Wednesday morning, when the furnace refused to miraculously heal itself and was blowing out cold air for hours on end. (I've come to the realization that I'm in the wrong business - furnace repair dudes charge $84 an hour, which is (ahem) quite a bit more than I make. Also I don't get overtime.) One new part later, it is once again warm in my house! (I know, 18 isn't that warm, but I just got home and had to take the picture before I realized how silly it is to take a picture of your thermostat to put on your blog. I have some postmodern angst.)

And to top it all off, I am having one of those weeks, when I'm behind on everything, struggling to keep up, and feeling like I'm really very bad at my job and should be sent back to wherever it is I came from.

On the plus side, though, there are 16 more working days until the Christmas break.

Do you think if I told him I was, after all, doing my very best, Santa would bring me one of these?

Maybe next year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

This seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel, blog-fodder-wise speaking, but the other night as I was ready to go to bed (about 7:35, you know) I was in my bathroom washing my face. I'd taken off my glasses, and I was squirting a bit of soap into my hand (one must cleanse one's T-zone, even at this age). I always forget that the soap pump has a tendency to clog, so when the soap didn't squirt out I got closer, and pushed harder, and ended up with a jet of soap (tea tree oil and something else organic) straight into my right eye.

It. Really. Hurt.

Then my eye swelled up and turned all red and burned for a while, before returning to normal.

Which is all a really weird story which has nothing much to do with anything else, except that I got my flu shot today and now my arm hurts too.

It's a world of hurt, is what it is.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Might as well face it, you're addicted to knitting.

The stripey scarf stripes on....

... and on....

.. and I find myself smitten. A friend looked at it and said "No offense, but the beauty in this scarf isn't the knitting, it's all about the yarn." I think that's the fun of it - you keep knitting not because knit one, purl one is so freaking exciting, but because you want to see what the next colour change will be, and how it will look with the row you're just knitting. Riveting, I tell you. Riveting.

Here's the baby hat....

The little one should be born any day now. I love the colour - that's Debbie Bliss Cashmerino I got on sale; less than one skein. Good choice, I think, for a little boy born in November.

The furnace seems to be working again, the anxiety is slightly less, and a Sunday of doing Not Too Much of Anything beckons. I think I'll knit.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In which I appear to have lost my blogging mojo

Some things that have kept me from Le Blog lately:

1. Work. Lots of it.

2. An actual social life. Very small, but visible nonetheless. I suspect that this "social life" (please picture Dr. Evil saying "laser beam" while making those little quotation marks with his fingers) will continue up to and including Christmas, after which it will fizzle out.

3. Knitting. Still haven't finished those mittens, but made a baby hat for my long-lost cousin Liz, and am in the midst of one of those stripey Noro scarves that are said to be highly addictive. Seems to be true.

4. Worrying. About my furnace blowing out cold air today, and having only one of its two blinkey lights flashing while it did so. And then suddenly fixing itself. Who knew that home ownership was such a pitfall of anxiety? Also worrying about global warming, my parenting ability, and whether I'm too hard on my students.

5. Riding. Have ridden over jumps and not died! Also, am "canteriffic." (I made that word up just for the occasion.)

6. Reading. I finally figured out the do it yourself holds feature at the local library. This resulted in my boy and I placing holds on 3,465 books, and then in the library calling us 3,465 times and having to make 3,465 trips to pick up the books. (Today they called me to come and pick up the copy of The Arabian Nights which I had placed on hold. This might be part of the space-time continuum issue I am having (see the Spontaneously Self-Repairing Furnace Debacle as evidence) because I did not actually place a hold on The Arabian Nights. Could I possibly have an evil twin who goes around impersonating me and generally messing things up? Or am I in fact doing all this in my sleep? The questions, they pour down like rain.)

7. Worrying. About Christmas, and how I will afford it, and if something really is wrong with my brand new, highly expensive, very efficient furnace. About my friend whose grandmother died, and who is sad right now. About the noises my car makes, which may be related to the Flux Capacitor or the Canooter Valves. Hard to say which. Also worrying about whether my reluctance to put up Christmas decorations of any sort means that I am really a bad person.

8. Hiding under my rock. I am having an overwhelming urge to become a hermit.

9. Worrying about the Wonder Dog, who has started coughing. Unfortunately, she is not coughing into her sleeve in the prescribed Alberta Health and Wellness manner, despite my in-depth coaching on the issue. A coughing dog is very weird. Perhaps I could slip her into the vaccination clinic when the boy and I go? Do you think they would notice?

10. Also, last but not least, blogging inertia seems to feed on itself - I feel guilty about not blogging so I don't blog. It must work for me on some level, or I wouldn't do it.

And that's all. I sure hope the mojo comes back soon. (But I'm kind of enjoying the social life.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Setting the Bar Low

L and I have been friends for a long time. It's one of those unusual friendships - we live in different parts of the country, she in the Centre of the Universe and I in God's Country. We met by phone calls: I was editing the magazine in which the organization for which she did PR was frequently featured. We had these long conversations, I remember, full of jokes and laughter and sharing before we got to the business part of things, and we became friends long before we ever met.

But meet we did, 10 years ago now or so, and we were just as good friends in person as we were on the phone. When I was pregnant, she was one of the first I told. My son's father left me soon after I told him about the pregnancy, and L was nothing but supportive of me, every day of those long lonely months. We spoke more while my life moved on, past that job and into others, as I re-imagined myself and my life, as I became a mother and as I moved into becoming a teacher. Her life changed, too: she got married to a lovely man, and they had two beautiful, bright sons, both a little younger than mine. We met again a couple of years ago, when I was in Toronto to see my brother, and we took our boys to the museum where they stared up at us, two women laughing together like the old friends we are, before running off together to play.

This is one of the things I remember about L, and one of the reasons I cherish her as a friend: we were on the phone one day just after a sensational news story had broken - a mother somewhere had left her toddler out in the snow on a night where the temperature had plunged well below -30. The little one had frozen, literally, solid, which was a good thing because it meant she could be thawed out slowly, and manage somehow to survive virtually unscathed.

"You know," said L to me over the phone, "that's the secret to parenthood. Just set the bar really low. As long as you don't leave your baby outside to flash freeze, you're doing great!"

I laughed then, and I often think of that conversation and laugh even now. I think L had a point: we have such crazy expectations of ourselves as parents that sometimes we just need to give ourselves a mental shake - as long as I have not accidentally locked my two-year-old outside overnight in February, I'm doing just fine, thank you very much.

So when a colleague loaned me "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls, that's what I was thinking. The book is one of those stories of unutterable sadness: poverty; destitution; abuse; neglect. It's an autobiography, and the scenes of those children going from day to day without a bite to eat, cold and poor and essentially abandoned by their parents, turned my stomach. But all the way through, I kept thinking of L and her advice to set the bar low: I have never been rich (or even close to it), but my child has never gone to bed without his supper. He has never had to dig through the garbage cans at his school to get some lunch because there was no food at home. We have shopped in second-hand stores, but not because there is no other choice. We have never had to leave our home in the dead of night, one step in front of a landlord. Bill collectors have sometimes called my house, but they have never been looking for me.

I have never had a lot of money, but I had a life that is rich in other things.

Including my accidental, lucky, cherished friendship with L.

Friday, October 23, 2009

How I Will be Spending My Weekend (since I brought home a bunch of work and we all know how I feel about marking)

How to Knit a Poem (Gwyneth Lewis)

The whole thing starts with a single knot
and needles. A word and pen. Tie a loop
in nothing. Look at it. Cast on, repeat

the procedure till you have a line
that you can work with.
It’s a pattern made of relation alone,

my patience, my rhythm, till empty bights
create a fabric that can be worn,
if you’re lucky and practised. It’s never too late

to pick up dropped stitches, each hole a clue
to something that might be bothering you,
though I link mine with ribbons and pretend

I meant them to happen. I make a net
of meaning that I carry round
portable, to work on sound

in trains and terrible waiting rooms.
It’s thought in action. It redeems
odd corners of disposable time,

making them fashion. It’s the kind of work
that keeps you together. The neck’s too tight,
but tell me honestly: How do I look?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Open in Case of Emergency

Today was much better; thanks for your comment (Mrs Spit!) and for your emails. Today I was not stuck in traffic, or in meetings; the photocopier did not hate me; my beloved offspring did not lock me out of anywhere I wanted to be; the wonder dog (while still stupid) was not perceptibly stupider (more stupid?); no kids had panic attacks in my classroom; and my mental health stopped crumbling away into oblivion.

So, an improvement.

On the other hand, I'm still behind on just about everything.

Oh well, we keep on keeping on here chez Artsy, no matter how far behind we get.

Yesterday, while waiting on the Wonderful Opener of Locked Doors (hi Doug!) to unlock my car, I had a thought. (Not the homicidal kind, those don't count.) There, on the passenger seat of my car, along with my bag, cell phone, leftover lunch, city street map, gas receipt, to-do list, and reusable grocery bag (as well as a few CD cases, most of which had their liners pulled out), was my book. The boy's babysitter laughed at me a little - "You know you can't read and drive at the same time, right?"

Well, it was news to me.

I always have a book. I bring a book to my riding lessons, when I know I won't have time to read. I bring a book to work, where there is never ever ever even a spare second to open it; I bring it to the dentist, where a nice man pries my jaws apart and drills bits of my teeth out before taking all my money away; I bring it to the garage where they change the oil and generally inspect the Crapalier on a regular basis.

No matter where I go, there's a book.

Because if I don't bring one, that's the day I'll be stuck on the highway for three hours waiting for a tow. That's the day there will be a record snowfall and NONE of my students will arrive and my marking will all be done, along with all the paperwork I'm behind on (as if). That's the day when everyone will fling up their hands in dismay and say, collectively, "to hell with it. Let's just read our books for a while, and maybe have a cup of tea or something, until things settle."

So you see why I bring my book places. (Sometimes, if I'm being honest, there's more than one book. Because if I'm waiting a long time for something, I might finish the book! And need something else to read!)

But I'm wondering now, as I contemplate the confession I have just made to the whole wide world and everyone, am I the only one? Surely not. What, dear internets, do you bring with you to open in case of emergency?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dear Today,

You sucked.

That is all.

Sincerely yours,


PS Getting my boy to lock the keys in my car when I picked him up at his babysitter's house when I was already an hour late getting home? That was a stroke of genius. The cherry, as it were, on the cupcake of my day.

Now I'm going to go drink some wine and count down the minutes until you are over.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"It's Dead, Jim" and other miscellany

Last night my DVD player died a spectacular death (its last words? "No DISC..."), leaving me no choice but to worry myself to sleep rather than be lulled into slumber by the flickering lights and lulling sound track from the greatest soporific I know: television.

Now, I am not exactly a TV person, as some of you know. I've still got the 20 inch old hulking set I bought when the boy was a baby; none of your wall-mounted surround-sound flat-screen jobs for me. I have no cable, and peasant-vision doesn't reach me out here in the boonies, so I don't even get the CBC. TV has almost always sent me directly to sleep, especially in times of stress, when otherwise I just lie in bed and worry about things I have no control over.

In fact, now that I think about it, my tendency to fall asleep minutes into any movie is partly why I learned to knit. I wanted to know how that Harry Potter movie ended, so I needed to do something with my hands while I watched.

Anyway, I don't have much of a plan at the moment, because I secretly want to be the kind of person who can airily claim "Oh, I don't even have a tv!" while the truth is that I do, in fact, want to be able to watch a freaking movie at night after the kid goes to bed. Surely I've earned a little brain-dead time for myself!

So, naturally enough, I stopped at the book store on the way home and spent the money that could have gone towards a new DVD player on books. (What? They were having a sale!) I bought Juliet, Naked so I can keep up with the Well-Read Hostess, and I picked up the sequel to The Hunger Games at the library, so I'm pretty well set for reading material, at least on Saturday.

Sunday, though, will have to take care of itself.

(And, in keeping with the "other miscellany" part of today's post, I read The Book of Negroes by Laurence Hill last weekend and loved it. The friend who passed it on said that it was published under another title in the US - Google tells me that title is Someone Knows My Name. I find this most curious. Also, I like the Canadian title better. That is all I have to say about that.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why isn't "knat" the past tense of "knit?"

Inquiring minds want to know!

I've mostly finished one (and only one) Newfie Mitt for my mom - a birthday gift that I'm not letting out of the bag, because my mom is so far away right now that she can't even reach my blog.

Funny story about the mitten. I was watching the boy swim yesterday, while finishing off the top of the mitten. There was a lady sitting beside me who was staring, absolutely agog, at my knitting. Turns out she's in town to visit her brand new tenth (!!) great-grandchild, and, having recently taught herself to knit, was curious about how the mitten went together. I told her it was dead easy, and then I gave her my pattern.

Yep. So now I have to finish the other mitten, not to mention the thumb on this one, having parted with my only copy of the pattern.

In other news, I finished the boy's much desired sweater off yesterday. He wanted it in stripes: "black and yellow stripes, mummy, like a bee," and that is exactly what he got.

Me? I got a headache.

Next up is the other Newfie mitt, obviously, as soon as I can lay my hands on another copy of the pattern. This altruism thing sometimes bites one on the ass.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Holy Timewarp, Batman!

Overheard the other day:

Middle-Aged Woman the First (with teased bottle-blond hair, wearing a sweatshirt with a kitten applique): My daughter's getting married!

Middle-Aged Woman the Second (with teased bottle-brunette hair, wearing a sweatshirt with a cartoon character applique): Finally! How old is she now?

MAWTF: She's twenty-three. She waited a long time!

MAWTS: Did she ever. Who's she marrying?

MAWTF: Oh, a very nice boy from Drayton Valley. They're going to live out there.

MAWTS: That's nice. Does she have a job in the area?

MAWTF: No, she might look for something after the wedding, but we're focussing on that right now.

The conversation fades away, while Artsy's head quietly explodes....

Seriously. Twenty-three? Twenty-three years old is a long time to wait before you get married? What century is this? And what, pray tell, would happen to a woman who passed the best-before date of 23 years old? Maybe she would end up like me - independent! Educated! Unconventional! Not particularly interested in getting married! Set in our ways! (That's what my gramma says about me - and she does have a point.) A spinster!

I remember when I was 23 - I got my dog that year, and that was the very limit of what I could handle. A marriage at that age would have been an absolute disaster.

I suppose there's only one thing to be done: never tease or dye my hair, and resist the lure of sweatshirts with appliques on them. That way lies madness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In which October Comes In like a Lion, and I Overhear a Funny Conversation

It's snowing here, dear hearts, and there is no heat in the school, for the foreseeable future.

This is good because I get to wear all my fabulous knitted sweaters, and also the "Fetching" fingerless mitts I knitted for myself.

This is bad because... well, because it is snowing.

Yesterday I heard the best conversation among a group of grade nine girls. It went a little something like this:

Girl the First: Did you go out with him? He is so hot!!!

Girl the Second: (giggling) No, I didn't go out with him... but Girl the Third did!

Girl the Third (giggling): Only once!

Girl the First: No! It was more like three times! And he's so hot!

Girl the Third: I know!!! But we only went out, like, twice!!

Girl the Second: You know who else is hot? Boy the First!

Girls first and third: Oh my god! He is so hot!!!

[Things continue in this vein for a few more minutes, after which a short silence falls upon the group. It is broken by this:]

Girl the First: You know what would be cool? A slide that went, like, from your bedroom, to, like, the kitchen.

Girls second and third: Oh my god! That would be so cool!

Say what you will about teaching junior high: I never overheard anything that hilarious when I was working for White Rednecks Inc. I love my job, mittens and all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Keeping On

Mother to Son
Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
But all the time
I’se been a climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Dont’ you fall now-
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Came, I Saw, I Cantered

I went to art school when I was 28. (It seemed like a good idea at the time, really, it did.)

I remember my first drawing class: a bunch of us in the studios with the huge skylights, a still life set up in the middle, easels on which to rest our drawing boards, pads of paper clipped to them.

"Draw!" said the teacher, "draw what you see."

And me? Oh, dear reader, I was beside myself. I was never any good at drawing (I'm still not, even though I finished that damn art course) and I could see quite clearly how I would frame that still life as a photograph, but had no idea how to draw it, how to capture it in charcoal on newsprint.

Where, I asked myself in dismay, is the book? How can I learn anything at all without a book? What does he mean, "draw what you see?" Somebody point me to the bookstore, I'll learn all I need to there.

Writing school and drawing school are very different: when I was learning to be a writer I was told to put everything down on the page, and edit later. In drawing school, you have to start lightly and build up gradually - the opposite of what I was trying to do.

It was not the first time I would be contrary like that.

I've been taking these riding lessons, even though they're costing a lot, and I love them. I'm pretty proficient at a posting trot, and now I usually only put one piece of tack on the horse upside down, or backwards. This is progress, oh yes indeed.

And a few weeks ago, my teacher said it was time to canter. "It's okay!" she said, "You can do it!" I could do it, in fact, but I couldn't steer or stop, both of which are rather important (at least in my humble opinion). Then she put the horse on a lunge line so I didn't have to worry about steering, (after a near miss with a parked car and a paddock gate) and that made me really dizzy and not much more successful.

I thought to myself, where the hell is the book? Where can I read about this? How can I possibly understand how to do this if I can't consult some kind of text first?

I don't think I can adequately express my disappointment, no, my utter dismay, that there is no book for this kind of stuff. There's no parenting book, either, which is awful! How am I supposed to know how to raise up a boy person, without any kind of manual? And teaching? Don't get me started. (A professor at university, when asked about classroom management, shrugged the question off. "If there's inquiry in your classroom," he said, "discipline will never be a problem." Ass.)

So there's no book. There's no experienced voice telling you what to expect, what to do next, how to make everything work with the minimum amount of damage, to yourself, to other people.

But I've managed so far, I think. I finished the BFA, my boy shows few signs of becoming a psychopathic serial killer, and (best of all) last week I cantered. (Hold the horse to a slow trot, squeeze with the outside leg, lean back, hope for the best. Don't panic.) I'm sure it seems like a small victory to you, but right now it feels enormous.

And I did it without a book, which, to be perfectly honest, is nothing short of a miracle.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today is Cancelled Due To Lack of Interest

I have lots of stuff to blog about... Sadly, I have a cold (for real this time - last week it was just teasing me, but about 10:30 this morning it steamrolled through my classroom and flattened me) and I am unhappy.

Now go talk amongst yourselves for a while. I'll be drinking tea and blowing my nose.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stiff as a Board and Bright Green

This link is because it's easier than writing a Whole! New! Post! and also because I have called four sets of parents this week, two of them today. Also, I may be getting a cold.

Have a good laugh, on me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sidetracked, yet again.

What I really wanted to write about today is how September is second only to February as the Official Longest Month of the Year. I mean seriously. It's not quite half done yet, but I'm quite sure that it is never going to end.

Then I slipped and fell while on the internet, and found this, which I provide for your perusalment and enjoyage. (There's some dropping of the f-bomb in this. If that offends your delicate sensibilities, then kindly don't click. There. I warned you.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Fish

She felt like a deep-sea fisherman, like a character in Hemingway who spoke only in the briefest phrases and yet whose motivations were as clear as the fathoms of deep water below. She was fishing for a husband by showing how helpless she was, how much in need of rescuing. She had given a lot of thought to her choice of bait, she had wondered about men and watched her friends as they paired off happily and walked down various types of aisles, coming back paired off, two by two. It wasn’t the independent ones, the unconventional, the difficult who made that symbolic walk. It was the quiet and kind girls she had grown up with, the gentle young women who always took it for granted that they would marry, use the phrase “my maiden name” and have a couple of small blonde children. She chose not to think of what she was doing, of all the implications of helplessness and of how she suspected it could cease to be a ploy and become a real handicap. She thought only of the sun, the waves under her boat (the possiblity of storms), the tension of the line in her hands and the focus of her effort, the sea beneath and all its danger. The possibililty of reward, or renown.

One afternoon, a hot day in summer, no wind, no thunder to clear the air, she strung her hammock up between two elm trees in the back yard and lay back. For once she did not have a book open in front of her, she put a bare foot down to the ground and let her big toe push against the cool grass and rock the hammock gently. She was thinking about this obsession with finding a husband and settling down.

The night before she had dreamed of weddings, she had dreamed that everyone around her (all her friends, her family, the people she worked with) was getting married while she tried desperately to get away, avoid their pity because she was the last one not attached, the only one not loved. In her dream she heard their demands to be a bridesmaid, a caterer, a master of ceremonies, a toast-giver (in the dream the word she heard was “toaster” which dismayed her then and amused her now). She closed herself into a room with a locking door, ignored the knocking from the outside, held her aching head in her hands and cried. Her only solace was her refusal to admit entry. Everyone but me, she thought. Everyone but me.

Lying back in the hammock with her eyes closed in the dappled shade, she felt tired, probably because of the weather, the oppressive heat and the bronze glare of the sun, and because of her dreams, all the running and crying she had done while she slept. I do want to be rescued, she thought. But in a different way. From a different sort of danger.

She realized, in this moment of reflection and half sleep, that had used the wrong bait, thinking he would be attracted by her offer of her body, of all that went along with that, when he was not, it wasn’t a complex need enough to satisfy him, it was (she was) too easy. Wrong bait, too soon, she thought. Shame crawled over her skin like lice. She felt as though there were bits of herself, tiny pieces of a treasure she could never recover, scattered around a beach somewhere, being picked up and turned over and flung away like dull flat stones to skim the waves and sink away to nothing. Wave battered, sand washed, jetsam.

The rocking of the hammock slowed as she thought about the ways she had tried to show her need – the sudden inability to light a match or use a tool, the practical uselessness and feigned helplessness. She thought, why? Why are there all these games; why don’t they tell us the rules so we know if it’s okay to have a toolbox in the cupboard and know how to change a lock, or if only the basic skills (driving, baking) are acceptable? It was like going to the wrong job interview, every single time. She felt as though the basic essence of who she was, a competent woman, a fully formed individual with some small value if only to a couple of people and her dog, was all wrong. She hadn’t got the memo. She didn’t know about the dress code. She was being left behind, waving and calling as the procession moved past, oblivious.

And that’s what it came down to, not really to keep up with her peers, her friends and relatives who had baby showers and wedding showers and bachelor parties and receptions and whose conversations included an awful lot of the pronoun “we,” but just to move on. To let momentum move her closer to the next place in her life, so she wasn’t always living out this same pattern – catch and release, catch and loss, catch and miss.

The hammock swung, the shade dappled her closed eyelids and her unguarded face, she dreamed about catching a fish in the ocean, she felt the weight of it on her arm, aching and pulling, she held it aloft in triumph at the end of the struggle and wondered what she was supposed to do with it, anyway.

The Fish
Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Something I Wrote in my First Year of Teacher School, Which Purports to be about Knitting but is Actually About Teaching

I’ve started work on a new knitting project. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done – more so even than the turning of a sock heel, which is spoken of in whispers and legends, but which really isn’t that tough. I’m knitting a shawl, gossamer-like, lacy, made of a single skein of silk/wool blend, hand dyed in a rainbow of colours. The skein contains 1250 yards of yarn – that’s more than a kilometer of thin, soft, colourful yarn. I spent more on this single skein than I have on any other single knitting-related purchase to date. (In my own defense, I bought the yarn before the dog got sick and the clutch on the car packed it in. Clearly I tempted the Gods of Financial Ruin.) I believe to the core of my psyche that the knitting and the wearing of this shawl will make me a better person. When I wear it, I will be the kind of person who has Matching Accessories. My shoes will transform magically from three pairs of Clarks, Blundstone boots, brown Crocs and a pair of Birkenstocks to… well, whatever people who care about shoes wear. I will be a better person in this shawl: kinder, more considerate, less critical of people who misuse the possessive apostrophe.

So I started, as one does, by knitting a swatch to see if I got the guage right. This is important: after the guage swatch, I’ll cast on 112 stitches and knit 110 rows to make one section of this shawl. We ain’t talking about a scarf here, this is the real deal. This is KNITTING. While knitting said swatch, I did several things: I fantasized about the New and Elegant Artsy who will drape herself in this piece of wearable art; I admired the fabulousness that is the wool (some more); and I decided to tackle the dreaded yarnover.

A yarnover, referred to in a pattern as “yo”, is the stitch that makes the little lacy holes in knitting. Apparently (according to my mother, who is not necessarily trustworthy in such matters, because she's been knitting since Jesus was a cowboy and I have not) it’s dead easy. I got out my huge knitting bible and turned to the page (with diagrams) called “yarnovers.” Very carefully, I brought the yarn to the front of my work, inserted the needle, wrapped the yarn around the other needle, and knitted a stitch. Aha! I have defeated the dreaded “yo”! I am worthy of the Elegant Shawl. The transformation has begun, soon I will wear lipstick and go shopping for no good reason!

When I got to the end of the row I realized I now had one extra stitch. Damn. I went back and took that extra stitch out. I re-examined the knitting book. Surely I had done the yarnover correctly – where was the extra stitch coming from? I tried it another way, no joy. I knitted on and attempted another yo in the next row. Still the extra stitch. I thought about calling my grandmother (whose knitting mantra is “don’t think about it too much, just follow the instructions” – clearly she doesn’t know me at all) but it was past her bedtime. It was past mine too, but I cannot sleep with a problem like this standing between me and Elegance.

Fortunately, I have more than one book about knitting. (I know. Control your shock, please.) Off I went to a secondary source. I looked up “yarnover” in the index and turned to the correct page. I had to get my poor sick old dog up to get at the book (bottom shelf of the bookcases in my room) but it was worth it, I thought. And right there, in a neat little box, was the commentary on yarnovers. “The yarnover,” it said blithely, unaware of how long I’d been trying to make a lovely little lacy stitch on my guage swatch, “is a quick and easy way TO ADD A STITCH TO YOUR KNITTING while creating a lace effect.”


So this has, of course, led me to commentary on teaching. This is what I have learned through my struggle with the yo that stands between me and Girly-ness:
1. Consult secondary sources whenever possible.
2. Sometimes a mistake isn’t a mistake.
3. An extra stitich isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
4. Sometimes you have to learn by doing, and no demonstrations by female relatives on imaginary needles (or lectures about imaginary classrooms) can replace the actual experience.
5. Don’t think about it too much.
6. The only zen at the top of the mountain is the zen you brought with you.
7. I will probably never be Elegant.
8. That’s okay.

And for the record, two and a half years have passed since I wrote this piece, and not only do I wear that shawl regularly, but I am the master of the freaking yarnover. I will not be defeated by knitting, oh no I will not.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Person, Place

Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud, and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet, and spotted orange Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce.

My feet are wet. Off in the woods I hear a Peabody bird tentatively try out a song he seems to have half forgotten. I look to the left, up the slope of the hill, to see if I can catch a glimpse of Ridge House, but see only trees.

Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wallace Stegner.

I like Stegner for a number of reasons. For one, his family was homesteading about the same time mine was; but while my folks were further north, his were down in the Porcupine Hills. When I read Stegner, I know what things were like for my grandfather, growing up on a quarter section near Cereal, Alberta in the early days of the twentieth century. My grandfather is long, long gone, as are his contemporaries, but the narratives of Wallace Stegner survive, untouched.

Another thing I like about him is how well he writes about place. There are some authors who are just gifted with the ability to make setting leap of the page. To make a spot, which exists only in their imagination, so real that you want to go there. You know how sometimes people will urge you to "find your happy place?" (Yes, actually, I did have rather a trying day.) I must admit that the happy place I choose to go in my mind is often from a book. It's a kitchen, maybe, or a walk like the one Stegner's hero is on in these opening pages of Crossing to Safety.

But honestly - doesn't that seem like your happy place, too?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Plot Thickens

The other day I read a book review that said nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important in a book than character. If you have compelling characters, the reviewer asserted, then you can do whatever you want with structure, with narrative, with plot, and the reader will come along willingly.

That's an interesting idea. It reminds me of what Anne Lamott wrote in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life". (Yes, of course I have a shelf of books about writing. We are very meta here at the Artsy Homestead.) She writes:
...we want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing games or being coy or manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability. (Unless a major characteristic of his or hers is coyness or manipulation or lying.) We do not wish to be crudely manipulated. Of course, we enter into a work of fiction to be manipulated, but in a pleasurable way. We want to be massaged by a masseur, not whapped by a carpet beater.
For Lamott, too, writing fiction is about character, first and foremost. Get the main character right and all the rest will fall into place.

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. (The inside jacket blurb makes one of those annoying assertions so common in literature for teens, which seems to be pulled from a tabloid headline: Compelling Parallels to Today's World! Perhaps the copy writer thinks we are living in ancient Rome.) The Hunger Games is a book which is driven, for the most part, by plot. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, is one of two tributes sent from her district to the Capitol, where she will compete in the Hunger Games, a sort of odd virtual reality Survivor game where the last person alive wins untold riches. The trials and tribulations that accompany Katniss through the Games are the meat of the story, and character, while touched on briefly, is not the driving force.

Anne Lamott has more to say about character:
If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn't really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds you attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, "Hey, I've got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma - wanna come along?" and you honestly can't think of anything in the world you'd rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you'd rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

I need to say that, as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, I would not drive to the dump in Petaluma with Katniss Everdeen.

So, having read both the excellent review that praises the art of characterization, and a novel which is all about plot and story and suspense, I am left wondering: which is better? I have read character-driven novels that changed my world (The Diviners, best Canadian novel of all time), but I can't think of a story-based novel that grabbed me in the same way, although many of them have diverted me for an afternoon or two. I suppose that one thing leads to another - I find it interesting that we are always, in all our interactions with other people, looking for stories. (Who are you? What do you do? Where do you come from? Tell me about yourself? These are all questions we ask when we first meet a stranger; these are all questions that beg for stories as answers.)

I suppose that the two things go hand in hand to a certain extent: once you know all the stories, then you can start to piece together character; and once you know character, all the stories make sense. And honestly, that's good enough for me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

This is Just To Say...

That I am so glad it's a long weekend.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Language Makes Us Human

Some of my students are not, to put it mildly, thrilled about taking French.

Learning a new language is difficult, it's frustrating, and it makes you want to throw reference materials at the wall, howling about subjects, and objects, and verbs, and how absolutely infuriating it is to not know what someone is saying to you, or how to answer back.

My response to my students is to tell them that learning a language opens doors. It changes the way you see the world, it makes you a better, richer person who can look at things differently, who understands things on a deeper level.

Then, when that doesn't work, I tell them that they have no choice, and they need to suck it up.

For a long time, I wondered if it was just me, if I was the only one who felt this way about words, and language; the only one who cared this much about learning how to communicate in a different tongue. Then I picked up Kate Grenville's book The Lieutenant.

The book is about a young man, an astronomer in the British Marines, who goes along with the First Fleet in 1787 to New South Wales. While there, he forms a friendship with a young aboriginal girl named Tagaran and begins to learn the language of the Cadigal people.

And then, as they say, everything changed.

He had thought himself superior to Silk [another soldier], who was innocent and smug in his belief that there was a precise unambiguous equivalence between words, and that one could exchange them as one might trade a Spanish dollar for two shillings and five pence. Now he saw that he had done the same. He had made these lists of verbs, these alphabets, these pages stretched like a net: other inflexions of the same verb.

But learning the Sydney tongue was not like that. Both the language and the act of learning had burst out of the boundaries he had tried to put around them. Proof of that was what he had just done. The press of the unknown had made him invent a new language, even newer to him than the Cadigal tongue: the language of doubt, the language that was prepared to admit I am not sure.

What he had not learned from Latin or Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.

The names of things, if you truly wanted to understand them, were as much about the spaces between the words are they were about the words themselves. Learning a language was not a matter of joining any two points with a line. It was a leap into the other.

To understand the movements of the celestial bodies, it was necessary to leave behind everything you thought you knew. Until you could put yourself at some point beyond your own world, looking back at it, you would never see how everything worked together.

This is what I try to say to my students. I expect that they're too young, that all they see right now is the brick wall of a foreign language in front of them. I hope that one day they see what the narrator in this book sees: how language connects us as nothing else can, and how making that leap into the other means that we are never, ever the same again.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Do not try this at home.

I was walking the dog this morning when my very strange neighbour roared up in his car.

Remember his car?

He pulled up in front of his place (no, silly, not on the driveway, right in the middle of the road, of course), revved the engine a few times, popped the hood open, and then got out to do some kind of mechanical adjustment that will keep the thing gasping for a few more months.

Which is when I noticed that he had decided not to wear shoes that day. For reasons known only to himself, strange neighbour was driving around the neighbourhood wearing rollerblades.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

All is lost

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Yet Another Short Post....

This one to tell about one of those crazy teacher moments, when my grade 8 French class walked in (they were my grade 7s last year) and I knew all their names, and they knew me, and they were ready and eager to get started, and I looked around at all of them (taller, more mature, grown closer to the people that they are really meant to be) and felt this surge of something that could only be called love.

Someone (Iris Murdoch?) said that you shouldn't get married until you can't believe your luck. These wonderful kids are all part of my life, and I quite simply cannot believe my luck.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How can you tell?

Sign at the camp site I visited last weekend (without my camera, alas):

"Before check-out, all fires must be distinguished."

I am proud to say that my fire was extremely distinguished. It looked rather like this:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Aaaaaand.... the knitting goes on

This is the next thing I'm knitting. Because, seriously - a sweater and a poem? A poem by Charles Bukowski, no less? It simply does not get any better than that.

I shall call it my Bluebird of Happiness Sweater and it shall be mine and I shall love it, my precious.

In other news, I went back to school today - kids are back later this week. Now I know that this makes me a complete geek (and some of my work friends read this blog and can now mock me mercilessly) but this is the best job ever and and I can hardly wait to start a new year. For one thing, the French department has doubled and I really like my counterpart. For another thing, a teacher from last year has returned, and I am thrilled. Also, I'm going to be so much better now - after all, I'm twice as experienced as I was this time last year.

And there's no marking yet, so really everything is ideal.

Forget what that sappy Christmas carol says: people, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Enough with the angst, already; what are you reading?

I suffer from intermittent bouts of loneliness, which I stubbornly refuse to treat, but which leave me absurdly sensitive to all mentions of my condition in books.

I was reading "Iris and Ruby" by Rosie Thomas, which is about a granddaughter (Ruby) and her grandmother (Iris) who are in Cairo (where Iris lives and to which Ruby has run away) when the middle generation, Ruby's mother Lesley, appears. The three women are in the courtyard of the house in Cairo, talking about the upcoming Christmas holiday.

It was a winter's day. The parallelogram of sky overhead was pewter grey, but the garden offered shelter from the cold as well as the heat of summer. Iris sat wrapped in blankets, her stick laid beside her chair.

Lesley bowed her head. "I understand. But you see, Mummy, I have to go home to Andrew and Ed because we do have Christmas; Ed's still a little boy, really. But I am torn because I don't want to go and leave you when you are not strong, and I don't want you to be lonely."

Ruby looked quickly away, up at the needle points of the minarets that now seemed almost to pierce the heavy clouds.

"Lonely," Iris repeated, in a voice that sounded as cold as frost.

Lesley persisted, unwisely. "Yes."

Iris's fingers tapped on the wooden arm of her chair. "It takes some initial determination to be alone. After that it is easy."


"Perhaps you are the one who is lonely."

Ruby drew in a sharp breath and stole a look at her mother. Lesley sat very still. There were tight lines drawn from her nose to the corners of her mouth. "Perhaps," she agreed.

No one said anything else and raindrops suddenly scattered on the tiles.

"Let's see you indoors," Lesley murmured and went to help Iris to her feet.

Two things strike me as interesting about this passage: first of all, it's how loneliness is perceived, as the worst possible outcome. What is it about our society that we think being by yourself is the worst thing? It isn't; but being seen as a lonely person is pretty awful. The sickly pity, the refrain of "Eleanor Rigby" hummed along in the background. (Ah, look at all the lonely people! Where do they all come from?)

The second thing that made me notice this little scene in what is, after all, a pretty big and very engaging novel, is the difference, shown by language but not pointed at explicitly, between being alone and being lonely. It is, I have often believed, quite possible to be alone and not at all lonely. The opposite is also true: I have been in several relationships where I was gasping from loneliness, when I wasn't supposed to be and couldn't admit it. ("You couldn't possibly be lonely, now that you've finally got yourself a boyfriend!" people would have said, refusing to see what is apparent if it doesn't fit with what they believe.)

I also believe quite firmly in what Iris says: It takes some initial determination to be lonely - although sometimes, like greatness, loneliness is thrust upon us.

After that it's easy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I suppose I do have a grudging respect for copyright laws, after all

I wanted to put the whole poem up (High Windows by Philip Larkin) but I really love the last bit best, and I do keep posting poems in flagrant disregard of copyright, which is even worse seeing as how I too am a writer and don't like it when other people put my stuff on the interwebs without asking me.

So here it is, anyway, and sorry, Philip.

I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Monday, August 17, 2009

And all manner of things shall be well.

That was Julian of Norwich's picture on the last post, by the way. She was a British mystic-type person who is credited with the line I ended on: "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." While the picture and quote from a very religious person like Julian of Norwich might, at first glance, seem odd on the blog of a very dedicated atheist, let me just say that I believe in finding comfort wherever you can, and I have always found that quote to be profoundly comforting.

The teacher dreams have stopped. I'm on to dreams about losing my house, which are still disturbing but which frequently accompany anxious periods in my life, so at least they're familiar. The devil you know and all that.

The sun came out again after all. When I walked the dog last night the stars were incredible - dippers (big and small), milky way, all manner of constellations which I cannot name. It was stunning. I thought that, if you looked at the stars long enough, surely all your worries would go away.

And sure enough, this morning was bright and clear, and then I learned that my cousin had a baby girl today, and now I know for sure that everything is well, and that Julian of Norwich was quite right, after all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Intro, with Whining

I have been having Teacher Dreams. Last night's were particularly vivid: I was late for every single class, and I hadn't prepared a single thing because I was busy chatting with the other teachers, catching up on our summers, et cetera. So in I would wander, late, to a class full of bewildered adolescents. Then I would try to get a seating plan in place, but the kids weren't interested because they were already sitting where they wanted to be sitting, and since I was late anyway who the hell was I to tell them where to sit? In one dream I was in my old high school, where I did a stint as a student teacher, but they had given me a storage cupboard as a classroom and it didn't even have desks.

Then (strange how all these different dreams were one) my grade 9 French class came in, with a textbook they got from the teacher before me, which I didn't use and had never seen. They were complaining about what a crap teacher I was last year, and when I looked around, there in the back was a man I taught ESL to a few years ago, who was one of the most difficult people I have ever known. (To be fair, he had been a doctor in his own country, and when he came to Canada as a man in his 50s, not only did no one recognize his achievements and general wonderfulness and the superiority of his gender, but he had to take English classes from some woman who thought she was the boss of him. Damn, he was irritating.)

So I wake up all edgy every morning, thinking about how I'm not ready for this year to start, how I'm running out of money and how long it is until pay day, how the sun hasn't shone in days, how there is a social occasion approaching which I positively dread, the arguments I have had with people who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that, right or wrong, this is how I feel, and the absolute impossibility of keeping going like this, all alone, with 250 students ready to start depending on me and all the while there I am, late, in a closet.

But... the sun will come back. The days will pass and I will be paid again. The money will stretch as far as I need it to stretch. Being alone has not killed me to date and so will probably not kill me now. I will be organized on the first day of school, because I am, deep down, an organized person.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Two by Freaking Two

The world is made for pairs. Everywhere you go, there are two of people: a co-signator, a partner, another. An other. There are no cars made for one person, no restaurant tables, not very many activities. There is a huge group of people who think that going to the movies by yourself is the height of social failure.

The things I do are meant for individuals. Knitting, for instance, requires only one person (albeit a person with two hands, which may bring me back to the “world is made for pairs” thesis, but nevertheless). Riding, as I was thinking yesterday, is for one person. You would look really silly with another person sitting on the saddle behind you, clinging on for dear life, while you do all the things you need to do on a horse (post a trot, shorten your rein, stretch out through your heel, lift your shoulders). Likewise walking, although certainly an activity that can be enhanced by the proper companion, is something that I would just as soon do alone, at my own pace, with perhaps a dog to keep me company.

I would rather do things for singles.

Ballroom dancing is something that can only be done by pairs. If there’s one of you, and there’s been one of me for every day of my thirties, then you are the wallflower, you are the extra, you are the pity dance, you are the one who came without an “and guest” because you couldn’t find one. (Or because the hosts realized that you would be alone anyway and so didn't even offer you the choice.) You make polite conversation instead of inside jokes. You concentrate on your feet because you know that everyone is watching that person, that freak who walks with only a shadow, who isn’t connected to anyone. You have to be really sure not to screw up, because there is no one who will ever, ever catch you. Everything you do depends on only yourself. You are awkward in every single (hah, there’s that word again) thing you do because the world is set up for two of you, and you are only one.

Only one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Little Larkin for when Things are Difficult and There Is No One to Talk To.

Aubade by Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

In Which the Generation Gap Rears its Ugly Head

The boy was watching Season 2 of the Muppet Show on dvd this morning. I loved the Muppets when I was a kid, and I'm pleased to report that the show is still very, very funny.

So it starts out with the signature Kermit line: "It's the Muppet Show, with our very special guest star, Elton John!" and there comes the Piano Man himself, with much more hair, and some crazy flamboyant costumes, much slimmer than he is now. His first number was "Crocodile Rock" and after a while he sang "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," (in the picture above he's singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with Miss Piggy) and I had to sing along because I had the Greatest Hits on tape when I was in high school and listened to it on my walkman all the way from Chicoutimi to Montreal on a train (9 hours), with Simon and Garfunkel on the flip side of the tape. (No, dears, I was not cool even then. I know; it's shocking.)

And then my son, my darling child, the hope of the future, says to me:

"Hey mummy, have you heard this guy before? Does this dude have a CD out?"


Monday, August 10, 2009

It has come to this.

Today at the used book store, I bought a book I already have.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Excruciating Dilemmas of Daily Life

As the countdown begins to the new school year (only 17 more days of vacation - sob!) I have paused to reflect on the terrible, agonizing decisions I have had to make over the past few weeks.

Should the boy have swimming lessons at 9:30 or 10:00? IPod on Shuffle, or on a playlist? Library before swimming or after? Riding lessons on Tuesday or Wednesday? Clean the house today or tomorrow? (Actually, the answer to that one is tomorrow. Always tomorrow.) And the most difficult, the one that has caused me the most lost sleep and mental anguish, is this: reading, or knitting?

It is a matter of constant sorrow to me that I can't read and knit at the same time. There comes a day in a person's life, though, when they have to choose: Peanut butter or chocolate? Fixed rate or variable? Rock or country?

I believe that, while my plan for world domination has not yet come to fruition, I have solved the reading/knitting dilemma to certain extent.

I have chosen to read about knitting.

The other day I went to a little knitting/weaving place not far from here. It's run by this teeny tiny leprechaun-type guy, who used to be a teacher, with a bluetooth thingy stuck in his ear, big round glasses and long flowing grey hair. He has a small shop that is full of yarn, and spinning wheels, and equipment for weaving and spinning and knitting, and books. (He has all of Barbara Walker's stitch dictionaries in stock. I am not thinking about that right now.)

Here's the thing about the books, though: you pick out the one you want, and then he goes and gets you a brand new copy from the depths of his stash. One that has never been touched by human hands. One that is pristine. He does that with knitting needles, too - it's very interesting.

So anyway, the other day I went in search of yarn - mitten madness has begun chez Artsy, and I needed a couple of skeins of worsted weight in nice colours. Of course, being me, I browsed for some time among the books, and found this one: "Two Sweaters For My Father" by Perri Klass. I have a previously undisclosed fondness for books about knitting: essays on the noble art, personal reflections, funny anecdotes. They're not exactly thick on the ground, but a couple spring immediately to mind: one edited by Annie Modesitt called "Cheaper than Therapy"; and one at the local library (whose title escapes me) about knitting through sorrow and change. It seems to be a universal theme: knitting is more than just knitting, it is soothing, it is solace, it is creation, it is warmth, it is challenge, it is everything you need it to be.

Perri Klass's book was full of essays she's written for knitting publications over the years, and includes an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine back in 1992, about knitting through meetings and lectures and classes when she was a medical student, intern, resident, and finally a fully qualified pediatrician. The quality of writing is fabulous (turns out she's won a boatload of prizes for her writing) and the stories were all excellent. I couldn't pick a favourite if you asked me, but I did appreciate one essay about how knitting goes well with murder mysteries - in particular, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. "The scarf [knitted by Miss Marple during the investigation] after all, we might imagine, is rather like Miss Marple herself: feminine and traditional and even maybe just a tiny bit ditsy to look at, but strong, well-constructed, warm, and highly serviceable." I like the idea of being strong, well-constructed, warm and highly serviceable. Seems like a good thing to be.

She goes on to write "Knitting goes perfectly, in so many ways, with books that are themselves constructed as sophisticated puzzles, complex patterns full of twists and turns. When you come to the end of such a novel, you look back and appreciate all the most elaborate zigs and zags, all the places where the pattern turned inside out, or where the individual twists suddenly wove together into a remarkable braid that you hadn't been expecting."

So you see? Sometimes you can combine your favourite things: raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Mint and chocolate. Warm woolen mittens (in red Lamb's Pride bulky) and the stories of Perri Klass.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

People And The Odd Things Up To Which They Get

I have a secret fascination with people who do weird things. (I spent the August long weekend knitting a pair of mittens - I know about people who do weird things.) I particularly love it when people do peculiar things and then write books about the experience. A timely example, of course, is the book, about to be released as a movie, about the lady who decided to make all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. If you haven't read the book, please do. It's hilarious. (Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell)

Only slightly less well known, however is a book I bought in Victoria: Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21,730 pages by Ammon Shea. Yes, you guessed it, it's about a dude who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume, 150 pound version) over a year.

It is very, very funny, as one would expect a book about reading the dictionary to be.

Although I laughed many times while reading the book, I marked this page, where the author is talking about why he does not choose to read the OED on a computer:

You cannot drop the computer on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut. You cannot leave a bookmark with a note on it in a computer and then come upon it after several years and feel happy you've found something you thought you had lost. You cannot get any sort of tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages of a computer. (Maybe some people do get a tactile pleasure from rubbing their computers, but they are not people I have any interest in knowing anything about.)

Reading on a computer screen gives you no sense of time or investment. The page always looks the same, and everything is always in the same exact spot. When reading a book, no matter how large or small it is, a tension builds, concurrent with your progress through its pages. I get a nervous excitement as I see the number of pages that remain to be read draining inexorably from the right to the left. The fact that this will happen twenty times over as I read the OED does not in any way diminish its appeal.

I've never sat down at a new computer and, prior to using it, felt a deep and abiding need to open it up and sniff it as deeply as I can, the way I have with many a book. To me, computers all smell the same, and their smell is not a nice one. And though a computer will inarguably hold far more information than even the largest of books, sitting down at a computer has never provided me with that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.

I've never looked across the room at my computer and fondly remembered things that I once read in it. I can while away hours at a time just standing in front of my books and relive my favourite passages by merely gazing at their spines. I have never walked into a room full of computers, far from home, and immediately felt a warm familiarity come over me, the way I have with every library I've ever set foot in.

And to that, my friends, I have only one thing to say: Word.