Gratitude jars

December 17th, 2014

Hi again, friends, and sorry this post is a little late. Among other things, I was wrapping up these gratitude jars. I’ll explain.

gratitude jars

Gratitude jars. Sorry about the photography – I always seem to take photos late at night under incandescent light.

Our three-year-old attends preschool at the Mulberry Waldorf School. It’s an amazing program staffed by gifted teachers who really pour their souls into their work with the children. Our preschool teachers, Holly and Janie, are wise and patient, serene and nurturing, creative and consistent. They are two of the best people with whom our daughter could begin her education, and they inspire us to be better parents. Near the holidays, the question arises: how can we begin to thank our teachers appropriately?

Early childhood education is woefully undervalued in our culture. ECE workers are paid little and command less respect than even elementary and high-school teachers. While we (as a society) are happy to bang on about the importance of the formative years, we don’t put our money where our mouths are. We seem content with our cognitive dissonance.

Obviously, there’s no teacher gift that can right these wrongs. But I always want to do something more meaningful than buying a mug or a gift certificate. A couple of years ago, my friend Jillian Murphy came up with a much better suggestion: gratitude jars. For each teacher, class parents write a little something – a sentence or two of appreciation – on a slip of paper. We slide them into jars and present the jars as a class gift.

I love this gift for so many reasons: it costs no money and little time, so that every family can participate. It’s a gift that endures. And, hopefully, it’s a tangible reminder for our teachers of how profoundly we appreciate them, and how critical their work is.

Later this morning, Holly and Janie and 12 three-year-olds will host a holiday tea party for their families, and we parents will get a small chance to say “thank you”. It’s not enough. Not by a long way. But it’s a start.

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Holiday lag

December 17th, 2014

Hello, friends. Things are a little a lot crazy around here right now. For this week only, my regular post will go up on Thursday (when I’ve had a chance to write it). See you tomorrow!

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My Year of Non-Fiction

December 10th, 2014

Hello, friends! ‘Tis the season for guest-blogging, apparently. My weekly post is up today at the Booksmugglers, where I’m talking about 2014 as My Year of Non-Fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

If you read my History Girls post about Freddy Spencer Chapman last week, some of this will be familiar but you might hang want to in there for a little about Fanny Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Imlay, the firstborn daughter of the original hyena in petticoats, Mary Wollstonecraft.

What are your most memorable books or reading threads of 2014? And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

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Freddy Spencer Chapman

December 3rd, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve blogged before about my research for my novel-in-progress, Monsoon Season, but I just realized that I haven’t said much about one of my favourite historical figures (and new historical boyfriend), Freddy Spencer Chapman. Let’s change that!

Freddy Spencer Chapman

Freddy Spencer Chapman

My blog post today is over at the History Girls, and it contains more adventure in two paragraphs than you and I will probably ever experience in our lifetimes. Hope you enjoy it!

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Returning to yoga

November 26th, 2014

Hello, friends. Last week, I wrote about re-starting my novel-in-progress, Monsoon Season, for the fourth time. The post was written in a spirit of frustration, wariness, and not-quite-nascent optimism, and I’m so very grateful to everyone who paused for a moment to assure me, “Keep going. You have something worthwhile to say.” Thank you for that! I’ve shuffled forward a little with Monsoon Season 4.0 but life (aka small children, viruses, and profound sleep deprivation) keeps me from striding ahead. So this week, I want to share another area of my life in which I’m making a fresh start: yoga.

I find myself ambivalent about saying that I love yoga. Happily, fitness trends have moved on (Pilates! Pure Barre! CrossFit!) and I like being unfashionable. But I detest the lingering commodification of yoga: all the special gear and garments marketed “for yoga”, when all you need is enough space to wave your arms around. The cults of celebrity that accrue around so-called “rockstar” yogis. Ugh. Still, I can’t deny that yoga is still very much my thing.

Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, whose home practice manual is much more accessible than this photo suggests.

Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, whose book is much more accessible than this photo suggests.

Twelve years ago, I tried “power yoga” for the first time. I was living in Bloomsbury, researching my doctoral dissertation at the British Library, and living above a gym with a regular yoga class. I fell in love immediately. (Okay, so it wasn’t an unimaginable leap: I’ve always enjoyed solo sports and stretching. Also, the instructor had a south London lisp and regularly advised us to “breave into it”, which I found delightful.) When my research was finished, I came back to Kingston, found a yoga studio, and then a dedicated ashtanga studio, and attended classes regularly. What I never managed, though, was to develop an independent home practice. I was always a bit too busy, too distracted, too lazy… but I managed to get to at least one class a week. At least. For six years. And then I had children.

The short version: it’s been six years since I regularly practised yoga. I’d always intended to return to it; it’s important to me. But I was waiting for the magical day when I could duck out of family responsibilities for 90 minutes at 5 pm (aka the Arsenic Hour), or leave the children to fend for themselves in the morning. And just a few weeks ago, I had this realization: I’ve been absent from my yoga practice for as long as I was in it. And really, eating dinner with my family will always be more important than any single yoga class. Yoga isn’t waiting for me, and I can wait no longer for yoga.

So two weeks ago, I began an extremely modest home practice. 15 minutes a day, 4 times a week. That’s what I can commit to, right now. I’m using David Swenson’s Home Practice Manual to remind me of the details. Each week, I’m going to add one more asana, or posture, to the series so that my practice time builds in tiny and manageable increments. This feels good and safe and like a realistic long-term commitment. I’m fortunate to have had enough high-quality instruction that I remember how to protect my back, to prevent my joints from hyperextending. In a while, I will start dropping in to a class once a month or so because a teacher’s eye is important, and hands-on adjustments are incredibly helpful.

In the meantime, I’m back on the mat, using my breath as my metronome, and remembering just how challenging and rewarding the practice can be. I am stiff, and sore, and easily tired. And I’m in love all over again.

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A(nother) fresh start

November 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I talked about my work-in-progress, and that’s no accident. I have been tussling with Monsoon Season, aka the Next Book, for ages now. I’m almost ashamed to say how long, but there’s no point in being coy: I first started it about 18 months ago. Then I scrapped what I had, and re-started it. Then I junked the second version and began afresh. And guess what? Uh huh. Monsoon Season 3.0 is now in the dustbin. (That’s an exaggeration, btw – I keep every word of the old stuff until I’m truly happy with a finished manuscript.)

So what happened? I’ll begin by saying that I’ve had doubts, all along, about my ability to pull this one off. The novel is set in Malaya (now Malaysia) during the Pacific War – that is, during the Second World War as it played out in Southeast Asia. It’s a terrible and fascinating few years in history, and one that’s very seldom acknowledged in the West. So part of my uncertainty definitely grows from the heavy responsibility of representation. If I’m going to write a novel about events few have ever heard of, I’d better do a stellar job.

Civilians in Singapore in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

Singaporean civilians in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

The second weight on my conscience is that of family responsibility. My grandparents all lived through the Pacific War and it marked them deeply. I want to pull their experiences into a book. Yet who do I think I am, embroidering upon their trauma? Again, it’s the responsibility of representation – this time on a family-history scale, with all its guilt-making problems of loyalty and love.

Third, and probably the one that makes me wince and flail the most, is the ghost of the Novel of Asian Experience. (Helloooo, Harold Bloom! I do not pretend to be a genius of any sort but I’m still struggling with the Anxiety of Influence.) There’s a great deal of important, well-regarded fiction about the immigrant experience (this list of immigrant fiction is exclusively American in its focus, but a good starting point nonetheless). There are even a few novels about the period I’m interested in: Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, Madeleine Thien’s Certainty). I find them interesting and highly skilled – Tan’s in particular – but these are not the kinds of book I aspire to write. The problem is very basic: they are profoundly earnest books about profoundly earnest characters in a profoundly earnest culture. And I don’t want to write that. I’m not sure I can write that.

What to do? I was complaining about this to my friend Sarah, who said, “Look. I think you’re a very funny person. I think anything you write is going to turn out funny.” (By the way, it’s such a privilege to have friends who listen to you whine about how hard it is to write a novel and then call you “a very funny person”. I have splendid friends.) The unspoken corollary to Sarah’s observation, I think, is that anything I write that twists itself into the category of Earnest Novel of Asian Experience will be unrecognizable as me.

So here’s my plan: I’m heading off, once more, in a new direction. There’s a comic thread in Monsoon Season 3.0 that I found very enjoyable but had cut out, because it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. And I’m going to follow it for a while. See where it goes. It could be a dead end. But it might also take me somewhere new entirely.

What do you think, friends: funny vs. earnest? Is that a false dichotomy?

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It has begun

November 12th, 2014

Hey, guess what? Middle age is quickly overtaking me, in small and amusing ways. I’m not anxious about my age (she said, pre-emptively), but I have noticed a distinct slide into thoughts and actions that I associate with my parents. Want to hear them?

1. I’ve recently begun sorting the recycling and taking out the garbage on Sunday afternoons (for Monday morning pickup). This used to be a grumbly, late-night, about-to-go-to-bed-and-argh-we-forgot-the-recycling-again kind of chore. Now, I just do it before dinner. At 3pm, it’s an astonishingly trivial task.

2. If I don’t moisturize, my face feels like it will crack.

3. I like to make plans well in advance. I even get a bit funny if friends say, “Oh, I might pop round on Monday sometime.” My inner old lady is muttering, “Well, ARE you or AREN’T you? And at WHAT TIME?”

4. I’m reading more non-fiction than ever.

Vic Gatrell, The First Bohemians

Right now, I’m really enjoying Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, which was recommended to me by my friend Keri Walsh. She’s a professor at Fordham University, which brings me to my next point:

5. I meet someone and think, “Wow, s/he’s awfully young to be a psychiatrist/school principal/professor.” A second later, I realize, Nope. S/he’s just my age.

6. I can’t visually distinguish between people in their early 20s and people in their late 20s. They all look young to me.

7. I don’t understand the beard resurgence. Or the man bun.

8. I have a 3-month supply of toilet paper in the house right now.

How about you, friends? How are you resisting or embracing the passage of time?


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The King’s Evil

November 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Happy Guy Fawkes Day! I hope you’re celebrating with just the right combination of open flame and recreational explosives.

This week, my main blog post is over at the History Girls, where I write about the King’s Evil – another name for scrofula, a disfiguring swelling of the neck glands that was often linked to tuberculosis in the seventeenth century.

scrofula (image via wikicommons)

scrofula (image via wikicommons)

What has this to do with the king – and the young Samuel Johnson? Head over to the History Girls, to find out!

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Best-case scenario

October 29th, 2014

Hello, friends! Today, I’m visiting the Oshawa Public Library as part of its Suspects and Sleuths Mystery Festival. The other day I was thinking ahead, planning my presentation, wondering what the day would be like. That’s the lovely and exciting thing about public appearances: who will come? What will they ask? What bizarre and unpredictable events will pop up to enliven the day? It’s a cliché, but you never can tell.

That evening, I read Hilary Mantel’s short story, “How Shall I Know You?” The story was first published in 2000 but it’s reprinted in her new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

When I think of Mantel’s work, I think of it as cool, precise, ruthless, unnerving, and terrifyingly direct. I don’t often think of her as uproariously funny. But “How Shall I Know You?” is about author visits in all their surreal extremity, and I was shaking with laughter by the halfway mark. Then I hit this passage, about a good author experience:

“When I arrived at the library, an ambitious number of chairs – fifteen, at first count – were drawn up in a semi-circle. Most were filled: a quiet triumph, no? I did my act on auto-pilot, except that when it came to my influences I went a bit wild and invented a Portugese writer who I said knocked Pessoa into a cocked hat.”

And I laughed so hard I drooled on myself.

If you’re in Oshawa today, come see me! I’m presenting at 2 pm at 65 Bagot St., Oshawa, Ontario. I’ll try not to drool. EDITED: the location has changed! I’ll be presenting today at 2 pm (not 1 pm, as some schedules have it) at Village Union Public School, 240 Simcoe St South, Oshawa. I’ll still try not to drool.

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Temples of Convenience

October 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. I have bodily functions on the brain this week. Let’s talk about public toilets, yay!

When Nick and I lived in Manchester, many years ago, one of our favourite after-work meeting spots was a pub called The Temple of Convenience. It was near my office, in the city centre. It was extremely cozy and atmospheric. It had good beer at reasonable prices. But the main reason I loved it so is because it was converted from a disused, underground, Victorian, public toilet. You entered by going down the stairs between spiky, wrought-iron railings. Here’s a picture:

I suppose, given my slightly obsessive interests in historical grit and the Victorian era, I was always going to love The Temple of Convenience. What’s also inevitable is that I’m very excited about Lee Jackson’s new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, which will be published here next month (it’s already out in the UK).

To celebrate its publication, Jackson wrote a series of blog posts called 30 Days of Filth (har har). I recommend reading them all, of course, but today I’ve picked out a few public-toilet-related excerpts for your, um, delectation. For example, did you know that the creation of public toilets was hotly debated in the mid-nineteenth century? People seemed to agree that they were necessary – otherwise there was the “continual annoyance” of “disused doorways” being used as urinals. Yet the Victorians were NIMBYs, too. According to Jackson, “Whenever [officials] created a dedicated urinal – even the self-contained, rather decorative iron structures which became relatively common in the latter half of the century – they were bombarded with yet more complaints from local residents… It was not uncommon for urinals to be erected, then removed within a matter of months, thanks to public pressure.”

Also, let’s remember that these public conveniences were for men only, at first. Jackson says that for poor women “there were common privies in the slums – but these were often abominably foul… Admittedly, middle-class females had more choice. They might make use of the private closet of a tavern or shop – if the owner permitted. Many a trifling purchase was made simply to obtain discreet access to an establishment’s WC.” Things haven’t changed that much, have they? It’s easier these days – any Starbucks will do – but I’d bet that most of us in North America still depend more on private toilets than public ones, when we’re out. According to Jackson, after the Ladies Sanitary Association began campaigning for public women’s toilets in the 1870s, one health official acknowledged it was “a selfish inequality” to provide public facilities only for men. Another “denied that women were physically better able to exercise self-control – a popular myth. Rather, he claimed, they were simply more uncomplaining of discomfort.” Even so, it was only in 1889 that authorities built “London’s first municipal ‘public convenience’ for women“, underground, in Piccadilly Circus. Finally!

Maybe it’s time to resurrect the Ladies Sanitary Association for the twenty-first century. My first request: more cubicles per washroom, to reduce wait times. Who’s with me?

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