Posts Tagged ‘life stuff’

About a dog

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

This past weekend, Nick and the children and I drove 260 km to meet a dog.

This dog, to be specific.


And, having met him and lost our hearts (and probably our minds), we drove 260 km home again, phoned his owner, and asked to buy him.

He’s a 3.5-year-old smooth collie named Mac. He’s smart and serene and sweet-tempered. Every day since then, my 7yo has said, “I love Mac! I love him already, with all my heart!” My son is already planning dog parties (with all the other calm, friendly dogs in the neighbourhood) and wondering what Mac would like best for Christmas. Me, however?

I’m nervous because I know very little about dogs.

I’m not enthusiastic about doing more housework and picking up poo.

And I’m imagining what it’ll be like to welcome another personality into our family. What parts of his temperament remain undiscovered? How will we bond with him, and he with us? How will he deal with the 7yo, who already loves him with unconditional devotion, and the 4yo, who is so eager to boss him around?

It’s not all anxious foreboding, of course. I’m looking forward to getting to know this dog. I’m really curious about what I’ll learn. I know this pet will expand my understanding of the world, and my heart, too. And I am ready for that.

But I’m still nervous.

(That said, isn’t he handsome? As my friend Sarah said, he looks like a cross between a deer and a lion.)

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Past lives

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

A few days ago, I opened a box and one of my past lives fell out. Specifically, I found the papers related to my comprehensive exams, way back in the second year of my Ph.D. Without question, the seven months I spent studying for the comps was the most stressful period of my life. And long after it was over, some of those papers held an eerie, residual power over me. They were like voodoo dolls of a former self.

Weird, super-nerdy voodoo dolls, I freely admit. In the year 2000, if my apartment had suddenly gone up in flames, THIS is what I would have risked everything to save. Check it out:

Handwritten notes on every poem/novel/essay on my reading list…

comps notes

And more…


(These go on for hundreds of pages. I’ll spare you the rest.)

I even saved basic administrative memos as though they were essential legal documents.

comps instructions

And in a sense, they were. For seven precarious months at the start of my academic career, they represented everything that was official and certain. Certainties are a rare luxury in the humanities and I felt deeply superstitious about throwing these out.

As for the comps, I’ve never worked so hard or so long at something for which there was no feedback, no further steps, no discussion. After I got my exam results, that was… it. End of story. Yet the trauma around the comps haunted me for years. I even blogged about it a few years ago, and the horror was fresh and vivid at the time.

When the comps jack-in-the-boxed out at me this week, however, I felt… mildly amused.

I sifted the papers. I flicked through my painstaking notes. (I disagreed with my assessments, at some points. At others, I found my past self quite insightful.) And here’s the best part: I recycled all the administrative stuff, the stern injunctions to self (Check dates v. v. carefully! ESP. CENTURY!), the practice exams, the elaborate table I made that cross-referenced critical themes in canonical works. All that stuff? Gone.

For some reason, the comps wound has finally healed. I’m keeping my handwritten notes because they tickle me, and because I feel a distinct nostalgia for the hundreds of hours of work they represent. But they’re no longer a sinister talisman to ward off failure and ignominy and an uncertain future. And maybe that’s the point.

Fifteen years on, I’m an entirely different person. I’m happily, confidently working outside academia. I know who I am, and I like who I am.

That other, anxious, frantic Ying? I’ll keep her notes because I like her company. But I don’t need her baggage.

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Protecting our creative time

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Hello, friends, and happy belated Canadian Thanksgiving! We had a splendid long weekend with just the right proportions of feasting, sunshine, leisure and work. In fact, I am eating leftovers as I type this. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my blogging about writing habits and practices: I often talk about mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned, slowly, to work more efficiently. In the past year or so, I’ve talked about writing incentives, feeling stuck, staying focused on work, and being my own good boss. But one thing that I’ve done for years, and never really noticed, is be highly protective of my creative time.

My fiction-writing time is very clearly delineated. It starts when I drop off my daughter at kindergarten and ends when it’s time to pick her up. This year, that’s four 3.25-hour sessions a week, and that slot includes commuting time. Recently, before school, I fell into conversation with two other parents. It was a really great discussion: friendly, constructive, thoughtful problem-solving for the greater good. But when it was time for me to go, I said so without guilt: “Time to go to work.” I declined an invitation to sit on a committee: “Sorry, I’ll be working.” I said I couldn’t attend even a single committee meeting (that occurs during writing time): “Sorry, I’ll be at work.” I did this all cheerfully and without internal debate, despite being a dutiful person who was raised to please the entire world.

As I was walking out, one of the parents said, “When you say you’re working, are you talking about writing?” I felt my defense reflexes kick in. After all, there are so many people who think that writing isn’t work; that somehow it just happens effortlessly in the twenty minutes of free time between nightly chores and falling asleep.

I prepared myself to explain that writing, like all work, requires time to perform and replied, a little warily, “Yes.”

She sighed with relief and said, “That’s great. It’s really good to hear you being firm about needing creative time.”

As it turns out, this parent is an artist who also wants to make more time for her work! She was frustrated because her work time was being nibbled away by a high volume of things that were, taken individually, only small time commitments. So as we walked swiftly from the building, I laid out the realization I had a few years ago:

If I don’t respect my creative time, nobody else will, either.

Once you’ve decided to protect your creative time, it’s so easy to do. It doesn’t require a single concerted effort that will overturn your life. Rather, it requires very modest daily vigilance, sentence by sentence:

“I can’t make that appointment; how about [a suitable time]?”

“I can’t meet for coffee then, but I’m around at [a suitable time], or maybe we could [alternative plan].”

“I’m going to work now.”

And, for friends/family who interrupt you while you’re working: “Nice to see you! I can chat for five minutes [look at watch] and then I’m going to have to kick you out, because I’m working.” And then after five minutes – you’re watching the time, right? – bounce them.

Boom. Just like that, everyone else* respects your creative time, because you showed them how.

*Almost everyone else. There seems to be a special dispensation for mothers, when you’re trying to work at their house. If I find the solution, I will definitely update!

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Summer adventures

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. My family and I are presently revelling in the glory that is North Wales in the sunshine. See what I mean?IMG_20150718_134539368_HDR


Here’s some breaking news from Betws y Coed. You heard it here first.


A view from the town centre of Betws y Coed:


The three soccer hooligans in the foreground (red, white, orange) are cousins, aged 6, 7 and 8. Together, they produce an absolutely astonishing amount of dirt, noise and hilarity. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve even been able to slip away to do a little work on many days. (That sounds sick, I know. But I’m really absorbed in this project and it brings me a huge amount of peace and satisfaction to dip into it. I’m not striding ahead, but I’m keeping myself linked to it. It would be hugely stressful if I had to abandon it for the whole holiday.)

And here’s my most recent “office”!


The view from the office:


Another view from the office:IMG_20150719_150325696_HDR

I hope this post doesn’t come off as unbearably gloaty. We’re having a marvellous week and I hope you are, too.

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“I’m stuck.”

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, I felt tired. I was easily irritated. I slept poorly, drank too much coffee, and didn’t get enough fresh air. It follows that I also didn’t write as much of my novel as I’d hoped – and not for lack of honest effort.

In the past, I’d have been angry with myself. I’d have decided that I was a slacker and an impostor, and found ways to punish myself. It would not have occurred to me that a) I don’t treat others this way, and 2) I would not tolerate this treatment from someone else.

However, in a small but encouraging sign that change is always possible, I didn’t fall for the own-worst-enemy routine. Instead, I decided to be gentle with myself. I gave myself an hour off. And when that hour was over, I went to my writing shed and happily fixed a scene that had been troubling me for 2 days. It really works, not being a jerk to oneself.

In an effort to step back and protect myself in future rough weeks, I’ve made a checklist called, “I’m stuck/tired/lethargic/don’t feel up to writing, WAAAAAH.” As its name so subtly suggests, I’m aiming to train myself to refer to this list every time I feel stuck, etc.

When I mentioned my checklist on Twitter, I got an immediate response and fell into a really interesting private conversation with another writer, which made me think that I should share my list here. It’s geared to me as a self-employed writer, of course, but I think it’s much more broadly applicable.

So, on days or in moments when I feel stuck, etc., my goal is to step back and consider: why do I feel this way? Is it a) low mood, 2) mental fatigue, 3) physical fatigue, or 4) a combination (or something else entirely)?

Then, I have a list of strategies for each type of problem.

Low mood

  • Focus on self-care: go for a walk, practise yoga, or make a cup of tea and drink it while looking at the garden.
  • Do a couple of small tasks that cost little energy and are satisfying to check off on a list (viva the bullet journal!).
  • Organize something small; choose something that gives positive concrete results.
  • Think about another aspect of my life that I could change, with satisfying results, and make a plan to take care of it.
  • After an period of self-care, try slipping into a writing session. Even a couple of hundred words can be a triumph.

Mental fatigue

  • Take a short break from work.
  • Focus on something concrete and personal (NOT for the children!).
  • Maybe do something domestic: garden, bake, tidy.
  • After a break, turn towards the WIP: where am I in this project? What tweaks do I need to make? Make notes towards the next writing session. Maybe slip into that writing session, or maybe not.

Physical fatigue

  • Rest, already!
  • Read (secondary sources or go over the existing WIP).
  • Think about an aspect of the WIP and where it’s going. Once the brain is humming, slip into a writing session.

If progress on the WIP remains elusive

  • Work on a secondary project (mine is currently a picture book)
  • Make a list of scenes, flesh out in the historical detail in the existing WIP
  • Read secondary sources
  • Figure out how to start the next writing session with a sense of momentum, inevitability – map out where I need to go

That’s my checklist-in-progress. It’s far from exhaustive, though, and I hope to build on it. What do you do, friends? How do you manage work slumps and protect yourself from your harshest critic?

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Year of the Goat

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Or sheep. Or ram. Year of Some Delicious Herbivorous Quadruped, at any rate. Today is the eve of the Lunar New Year and, as my mother always points out, today is the day that counts. Your house is spotless, your hair freshly cut, your new clothes pressed, and you go back to your mother’s house for a celebratory feast. Actually, in my case, none of the above is true. Oh, well. At least I have dinner planned.

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

Because my family is (mostly) ethnically Chinese and culturally from Singapore and Malaysia, I take a pan-Asian approach to the meal. I’ll be making roast chicken with lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce; coconut-ginger rice (nasi lemak); and a simple Malaysian chopped salad (kerabu). We like to have a good stash of almond cookies on hand (here’s my mother’s recipe). And this year, my six-year-old asked, repeatedly and urgently, for char siu bao, aka Cantonese barbecued pork buns. These are crazily time-consuming to make when we live so far from a Chinatown, so they won’t happen this evening. But I marinated and roasted the pork last weekend, and froze some (I used Corinne Trang’s recipe in Essentials of Asian Cuisine). Sometime this weekend, we’ll make the bao dough together (the kids love kneading), shape the buns, and steam them. It’ll be the most time-consuming afternoon snack of my life.

It’s probably a good thing we only attempt this annually, but I’m so glad that we do. What are you up to this week, friends? How do you celebrate the New Year?

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The Haul

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Hello, friends. I hope you’re having beautiful, restful, joyful holidays!

This week, I want to gloat over my recent haul of books. My birthday falls soon after Christmas and while this is sometimes a disadvantage (after all the December festivities, nobody ever wants to go out for my birthday), it’s delightful to look at the stack of fantastic books I’ve accumulated in just a few days. This year, I was especially thrilled to receive these:


From the top:

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch argues that nighttime, far from being an uneventful pause for sleep (or tossing and turning), used to have “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals”. As an intermittent insomniac, I expect to find this inspiring!

Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability. I’ve long loved Shapcott’s poetry. This collection is haunted by illness, aging, and the spectre of death. The title poem begins, “Too many of the best cells in my body/are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw/in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four/and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small/among the numbers. Razor small.”

Ali Smith, How to Be Both. I’m not-so-secretly intimidated by this one, which starts like a roared poem. I’ll need to be fully awake to keep up.

Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. I love Caitlin Moran but this is a PG blog. You may google it for yourselves.

Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest. Who else would dare to write a satirical novel about the Holocaust?

A. N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life. The jacket flap describes her as “one of the most passionate, expressive, humorous and unconventional women who ever lived”. I imagine that Wilson would strongly disapprove of my borrowing of Queen Victoria in The Traitor in the Tunnel, but I’m not interested in his approval. Bring it!

How about you, readers? What books did you give or receive? Oh, and Happy New Year! I’ll see you back here next week, in 2015.

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Gratitude jars

Wednesday, 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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Returning to yoga

Wednesday, 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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It has begun

Wednesday, 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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