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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October 15th, 2014

Hello, friends. It seems like every autumn, my family experiences a maelstrom of work- and school-related insanity. Things are INTENSE. This year, we made some strategic choices to minimize negative stress (for example, we didn’t sign up the children for any after-school activities. No team sports. No music lessons. No nature camp. What on earth do we do after school? We read books, draw pictures, garden, ride bikes and cook dinner. It’s really nice.) but even so, the Thanksgiving long weekend couldn’t come at a better time.

The garden haul, 2014. Clockwise from top right: oxheart carrots, butternut squash, bean seeds, late-ripening cherry tomatoes, leeks, chioggia beets

This past weekend, we had a breakfast toast marathon, drove out to a farm to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey, had friends over for the celebratory dinner, basked in the sunshine on our patio, rode our bikes along the waterfront path, and harvested the last root vegetables from our garden. (It’s weird, though: there are still half-ripe tomatoes clinging to their vines, so we may get a few more of those AFTER the beets and carrots have all come in.) We also did some cleaning and organizing around the house. Oh, and Nick and I each did about three hours’ work yesterday, to get a jump on the week. And here’s the magical part: the whole weekend felt pleasantly productive, not pressured and frantic. It was amazing. (It may never happen again, which is why I’m memorializing it here.)

And I had lots of time to step back and think, I am so outrageously privileged. Here is a very partial list of things for which I am thankful, this autumn of 2014:

– My spouse is my best friend and my ally in all things

– I feel lucky to be the mother of my children

– I have some genuinely exciting things happening with recent and new writing projects

– I feel strongly connected to my local community

– I feel strongly connected to my family, despite the geographical distance between us

– I have dear and brilliant and generous friends

– Every year, I care less about what other people think of me

– I have the time and good health to be thankful for my enormous good fortune

What about you, friends? How is your autumn going, and what are you thankful for?

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Alaska, Kingston, Bath

October 8th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve got my head down this week, working on revisions to my forthcoming short story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”. It’ll be part of a Candlewick Press anthology called Petticoats and Pistols, edited by Jessica Spotswood. I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been! I loved the research, as always. I used this short story as a chance to experiment with a first-person narrator, which I found both liberating and satisfying. And for the first time, I wrote about a pair of sisters. Yes, yes, there’s that old adage about writing what you know. I confess: I have a sibling, but not a sister. But the Garrett girls’ sibling relationship felt very real to me, and Jessica (who knows from sisters) found it believable, too. Hurray for the dark art of fiction!

Kingston Penitentiary, c. 1901 (image via wikipedia)

Kingston Penitentiary, c. 1901 (image via wikipedia)

In other news, I posted at the History Girls about historic Kingston Penitentiary. (I’ve blogged before about my tour of the Pen – Part 1 and Part 2 are here – but this is a separate post about KP’s past.) Dickens toured Kingston Penitentiary in 1842 and called it “an admirable jail… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect”. Can you picture the frantic scrubbing, sprinting, and general fluffing that went on before the great man’s arrival? He was much ruder about the rest of Kingston. The rest of the post is here.

I also want to draw your attention to Stephanie Burgis’s post on approaching Chronic Illness as a Reader and a Writer. It’s a personal response to a novel that uses chronic illness as a way of building sympathy for other characters – ie, the ones who live with the chronically ill. More importantly, though, Steph uses this moment to talk about stereotypes of chronic illness in fiction and confesses that she has, in her own fiction, drawn “on nineteenth-century comic tropes [of the manipulative invalid] from Jane Austen onward - even though I had a chronic illness myself”. This is where Steph’s post goes from being brave and compassionate to being extraordinarily courageous and insightful.

Steph talks about rewriting her manipulative invalid – but not as a reformed character or a misunderstood heroine: “Instead, I left in every line where she wielded her health issues – and the effects of stress upon them – like a sword over her son’s head. I wasn’t writing an unthinking stereotype anymore – I was writing my own personal nightmare of the mother I was terrified to become. Mrs. Carlyle gives in to every temptation to seize power where she can, in a situation where her son is the one with all the legal and financial power and she lives on his sufferance. She listens to that dark voice inside her that I’ve heard, too, and she lets it take charge of her mouth.”

It’s an amazing post, and one that reminds me of the urgent necessity of looking at my own comfortable assumptions very carefully indeed. Thank you, Steph. As Tricia said, you’re a lion-hearted woman.

How about you, friends? What are you writing, reading, and thinking about this week?

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The Tear Thief

October 1st, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been only a few months since I last blogged about bookish serendipity, but it’s something that seems to happen fairly often at our house. In our most recent instance, Nick came downstairs one weekend morning with a slightly dazed expression and said, “Have I been a while? I got sucked into a really great poem by Carol Ann Duffy.” I was going to ask him about it, but then life (children, house guest, the inarguable necessity of producing breakfast immediately) intervened.

Later that day, however, we went to a bookstore. Nick’s mum wanted to buy each of the children a gift, and I plucked this one from the shelf: The Tear Thief by Carol Ann Duffy, with illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli. It seemed like it was meant to be.

The Tear Thief, Carol Ann Duffy

I’ll state my reservations right up front. I didn’t love the cover, although the glowing lights are very compelling. And I’m still a bit squeamish about the super-sentimental, lollipop-model-girl illustrations. Here’s an example:

detail from The Tear Thief

It’s all a bit airbrushed for me. Maybe that’s okay because it creates a tension within the book: Duffy’s words don’t idealize the existence of tears, although she offers a lyrical explanation as to where they all go. Still, I’d prefer images that don’t present small children as Bratz Lite.

But the words! Don’t listen to me; listen to Duffy. “A light rain began to fall, orange under the street lights. The Tear Thief worked hard. She stole the oddly long tears of a boy who had trapped his finger in a flute. She stole the tiny tears of a baby having her nappy changed. Into the sack: the tears shed by a pair of twins fighting over an orange teddy bear. Into the sack: two pear-shaped tears from the sly cheeks of a boy who’d been caught telling a lie about a big hole in his trousers.” I love the way the passage begins slowly, dreamily, then accelerates. I love the deft choice of details.

And I adore this description of moonlight: “The girl saw the light of the moon in her garden, turning the leaves on the trees to silver. Beyond that, she saw the light of the moon on the rooftops of all the houses, like honey. A midnight cat walked along a wall and the light of the moon made its eyes burn gold. The whole town moon-bathed as it slept. The river lay on its back and gazed up at the moon, dazzled and lovesick.”

When I read a passage like that, I uncurl with satisfaction (and feel a stab of envy). It’s absolutely thrilling to share language like that with my children. I hope that one day, they too will get sucked into great poems and wander downstairs, slightly dazed, to tell me about them.

How about you, readers? Are there particular books or passages that make you sigh with pleasure (or writhe with envy, or both)?

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Fashion Victims, with Sarah Albee

September 24th, 2014

“You know,” said Sarah Albee, “this is a very strange thing to do.”

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Toronto and we were at the Bata Shoe Museum, about to tour their special exhibition, Fashion Victims: The Perils and Pleasures of Dress in the Nineteenth Century. Sarah and I share a lively interest in the gritty real-life details of history: disease, poison, food contamination and, of course, filth. (Especially in Sarah’s case: she loves insects and poop. She’ll make you love them, too.) There was absolutely nothing unusual about our being at an exhibition about Victorian craziness… unless you count the fact that we’d never before met in real life. Call it a Writer’s Blind Date. It worked beautifully.

Sarah knows a lot more about fashion than I do, so I felt privileged to see the exhibition through her eyes. One of the first items was this pair of impossibly small satin shoes.


You can’t get a sense of scale from my photo but trust me when I say they’re maybe 8 inches long, and proportionately narrow. Sarah explained that they’re called “straights” – there is neither a left nor right shoe, and the wearer must alternate feet in order to preserve their delicate shape.


Here’s another pair of “straights”, which were the standard even for bespoke (custom-made) shoes until the second half of the nineteenth century. The museum plaque explains: “This pair of almost impossibly narrow boots and gloves belonged to Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria. The boots were gifted to Colonel Louis de Schweiger, one of the countless men who had fallen under her spell, by the Empress’s maid Marie Doré as a ‘tendre souvenir’.” I love this story! I picture a moustachioed colonel sitting all alone in a first-class rail carriage, cuddling a pair of boots. But I want to know more about the maid, Marie Doré. Why is she named? Did she take pity on the colonel and slip him the boots and gloves on her own initiative? Did giving them away save her the labour of having to clean the boots? They’re slightly scuffed…

Here’s a terrific example of a corset and crinoline combination, from the back 3/4 angle. We don’t often get to see the underpinnings so clearly.


Again, this example is tiny – so narrow that I felt a little breathless just looking at it – and the plaque speculated that it was made to fit a young girl.

Here’s the other end of the spectrum: black shoes with a beaded butterfly detail, made in 1888 to fit the century’s most famous widow: Queen Victoria herself.


I love these French boots, which were the height of 1860s fashion. I would absolutely, unhesitatingly wear them myself on a regular basis.


…Except, of course, that the dyes used to create these screaming-bright colours often gave the wearers chemical burns. Ahem.

Speaking of chemical innovation, I was astounded to read that the tortoiseshell-looking comb in the next photo was actually made of celluloid. Celluloid, a kind of plastic, being mass-produced in the 1880s!


(As I stood in front of this display, muttering “Celluloid!” to myself, Sarah kept saying, “Where? I don’t see it. Where are you reading this?” Dear reader, she thought hoped I was saying “cyanide”.)

Near the very end of the exhibit, we finally saw these plain shoes and we both sighed, “Finally! Working-class shoes!”


We agreed that the men’s shoes (with the buckles) were the first sturdy, practical shoes we’d seen thus far. The women’s pair, although made of leather, was still straight and rather delicate-looking. I suspect that it’s harder to preserve everyday working shoes because they’re so much more likely to be (literally) worn to pieces. Or do you think working women simply wore men’s shoes when they really needed to get around out-of-doors?

With Victorian fashions dancing in our heads, Sarah and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking, lunching, and talking pretty much nonstop. It was an immense treat, talking to another writer about work-in-progress, agents and editors, proofreading angst (Sarah’s tip: hire a super-literate college student to be your extra pair of proofreading eyes) and balancing work with family craziness.

Here are the happy faces of a pair of writers who’ve been talking cholera and intestinal worms for much of the day:


(She ducked down to my level for this shot. In real life, we look like a racehorse beside a Shetland pony.)

Sarah’s right: it was probably a very strange thing to do. But I think it’s the kind of strange thing that should happen more often. Don’t you?

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