Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reflections on 2010: The Highs and Lows of a Year

Well, tomorrow is December 1st. Only 30 days left in 2010 so I'm feeling a bit reflective and, with the holidays (and my birthday! GAH!) approaching, also feeling somewhat maudlin. I have this overwhelming urge to just curl up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and a mug of hot chocolate and do nothing except stare at the pretty silver and blue lights of my Christmas tree (yes, we just put it up on the weekend. I'm that keen on Christmas decorating. Cut me some slack.) and think, "Wow. I made it through."

This year has not been a restful one for me. In fact, it's been highly stressful in so many ways that I'm kind of glad to see it go. Not to say it's been all bad mind you. But there has been a pretty even mix of highs and lows. After all, I saw my first book published in the spring - one of the biggest highs a writer will ever experience. But on the personal side, it's been more drama and angst than I like. My mom diagnosed with cancer at the same time the book was released, so the high was immediately tamped down with a pretty devastating low. The ensuing months of surgeries and treatment and me being four hours away feeling pretty helpless most of the time weren't fun. But Mom's almost through radiation now and doing well. So we're creeping up to a cautious high in that area now. Then there was the excitement of my daughter getting accepted and choosing her university tempered with facing the reality of her leaving home. Not exactly a low but a pretty major change in our lives nonetheless. Finally, the high of taking the leap of doing our home renovation, hiring an architect and moving out of the home we've been in for twelve years. Highs in terms of "Yay! We've finally moved forward on this albatross of a reno!" to lows in terms of "Gah! I'd forgotten how stressful a move is!" and "When is that G*%$d*# building permit going to come in??"

And, of course, threaded throughout all of these major life changes the usual stressors of raising teenagers and being hockey parents and handling day jobs and feeling like you're not writing enough or not doing whatever your supposed to be doing enough. So no wonder I just want to sit, stare at pretty lights and be thankful the year is almost done. Unfortunately, I can't do that for very long. We've got two hockey practices this week, plus a drive to Coburg for a three day hockey tournament on the weekend, plus dealing with a few home reno decisions we've been putting off, plus Christmas prep, plus a school concert to attend, plus a Christmas party or two, plus a kick in the pants to push past the 30,000 word mark on the WIP and make myself finish the dang thing already, plus…

Oh, heck. Forget the hot chocolate and pass me the wine. Happy December everyone!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"We try to understand the world through stories..."

I read this article the other day on how young children who can't read yet still identify intensely with the characters in the stories that are read to them. Here's the link. It's not surprising to hear that even if the written word isn't comprehensible, the words - the story - is what connects to a person. In the article one of the researchers tried to explain that when children listen to a story they empathize with characters - they are 'mentally simulating' what is happening to that character. It's the first step to comprehension. It's the first step to, ultimately, understanding the real world through a story.

Kind of awe-inspiring, isn't it? To think that stories can have such an impact. I don't think I could imagine a world without stories. Human existence has never not had stories (just check out those pictographs from cave man times if you don't believe me). Movies are stories, family dinner time has stories, photo albums have stories. We're programmed at some primal level to tell, write, watch and listen to stories. Why this all encompassing need to do this? Well, as one of those University of Waterloo researchers said, "We try to understand the world through stories". Yes, so very true. But, at an even deeper level, I think we're trying to not understand the world - which kind of intimidates me - but, on a more selfish level, I think we're trying to understand ourselves and our relationships. I think stories, the best kind of stories, are about human experiences and what is revealed about ourselves and the rest of the people with whom we share our lives.

Writers usually have similar themes running through their work. Issues and ideas that I think we're personally trying to understand and grapple with on an ongoing basis. When a reader listens/reads our stories we hope that some of those themes are shared so we can connect to others. We need to share our stories because, ultimately, we're not only trying to understand the world but we're trying to connect with people too.

So when you wonder why you're beating your head against the wall doing this crazy writing thing just remember that one day, somewhere someone might read one of your stories and feel a little shiver of something called "understanding" and know that you will have connected with another human being. Really, can there be anything better?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Lost Weekend

It's been awhile since I've had one of those weekends. You know the ones - where you open your eyes Monday morning more tired and exhausted than when you fell into bed the night before? Where the past two days seem a blur and you can't quite figure out what you did, where you went or what, if anything, you accomplished? No, I did not have a bender. Please, who had time to even down a glass of wine? What I'm talking about is two days where your entire existence is for, about and in service to your children.

My kids are not infants or toddlers. They are, supposedly, getting more independent as the days and years go on. But honestly, with the demands put upon me these past two days with The Boy's hockey and a dreaded school project, we had more angst and drama than when one of my babies was up all night with colic. Please, I'd trade a colicky baby with having to motivate an eleven year old boy to get a school project done and getting studying accomplished for yet another math quiz on Monday any time. Throw into the mix that on the heels of having an awesome hockey game on Friday, the poor kid then has an unfortunate hit against another player on Sunday and gets his first ever game misconduct (thrown out of the game and suspended for one more) we had an extremely emotional end to an already conflict-filled weekend. This latter event caused some major upset for the poor kid. He always plays by the rules (both in hockey and in life) and when something like this happened he felt so horrible about it that both husband and I were thrown into instant counselling mode (as were several of his coaches from the team - we have a very supportive team and we know we're lucky).

So, by 11 pm Sunday night (a full two hours after The Boy is usually in bed) he's finally calmed down enough about what happened, he's finished his project and has done a bit of studying for his test. But not only is the poor kid wiped out today so are his parents. Needless to say, no writing has been done on my part (even missed one of my bi-weekly blog posts). Sometimes life just throws a few curve balls at you to remind you to put writing into perspective. Family first always - even if it wipes you out. You can recharge later. The words will always be there waiting for you even if you ignore them. Your kids may not be.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Engagement of Wills and Kate: The Ring

I was all ready to do a blog post about my need to Stop, Drop and Plot - you know a writerly kind of post that examines my process through that dreaded middle and my need to outline and plan ahead to the coming climax but I'm instead going to do a very silly post about the just announced engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton. For no other reason beyond the fact that despite my trying to stay away from stories about the Royal Windsors I can't. WHY am I so fascinated by this Royal Family?? It goes beyond my understanding.

So, okay. Here's probably the genesis of my obsession. I've always found the history of the British royal family interesting. My goodness, all those betrayals, beheadings, abdication, duty, loyalty, wars, romance - the sheer vast scope of being able to trace your entire family back to William the Conquerer. Whew! What's not to love? It's a thousand year old soap opera! So when way back when the romance of the century (or so it was spinned) happened between Lady Di and Prince Charles I was a naïve, impressionable teen much like the naïve Lady Di. I was definitely caught up in the romance of the thing. The Fairy-tale (which we found out later wasn't so much a fairy-tale as a carefully concocted marriage of convenience). So of course I watched the engagement, got up early to see the wedding, celebrated the birth of the young prince, read with fascination the increasing rift between the two parents, remember with horror the news of the crash and death, and wept with abandon at seeing her two boys following her coffin and the close up shot of the envelope with the word "Mummy" written on it. I still remember how much I cried when I heard Sir Elton John singing Candle in the Wind at her funeral. Argh.

Whatever people think about Princess Diana and her troubles I don't believe anyone can doubt her love for her children (as I don't doubt that Prince Charles loves his boys as well. From all accounts he has been a kind and caring father and his sons seem to adore him). So now as 'Wills' becomes engaged I admit I will follow the story and watch the wedding but not with the naïve eyes of a teenager who believes love will conquer all but with a slightly more jaded view. I'm glad Will and Kate have been living together so they know exactly who they are committing to, glad they are in their late twenties before taking the leap and taken their time to come to this decision. I hope their marriage will be a strong one but there is no doubt they must be aware of the pitfalls that might be ahead of them. One only wishes good things for a young couple starting out on a long road together. Still, for all the celebratory happiness surrounding this story, for some reason, I have one question that all the media hasn't touched on (or maybe I just didn't see it): the engagement ring and the negative connotations it has.

I understand that the blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds is inextricably linked to Princess Diana and her son honours his mothers memory with sharing it with his fiancee. And that's lovely. But a part of me cringes at seeing Kate wear it. Am I too superstitious? Do I see this ring as a symbol of a young love gone bad? If I were her, would I want to wear it given it's turbulent history? Or am I putting too much stock in an inanimate object? It's a beautiful, valuable ring and many families provide their sons/daughters with these items to pass along to the next generation. But, for me, that ring is Diana's - not Kate's. I know it will be inevitable that the next Princess of Wales will be compared with Will's mother and what a burden for the poor girl. I was kind of hoping Kate would have at least gotten to establish her own style with her own ring. But, what do I know? Perhaps she loves it and is honoured that Will has given her something he finds so evocative of his mother.

So, for all you British Royal watchers out there (if there are any :) ) what do you think? Should Kate have gotten her own ring or is family tradition more important?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Subway Stranger Reading Recommendations

Usually I pick the books I want to read in one of two ways: I receive recommendations from friends or I read reviews. It's been a simple and, for the most part, effective way to broaden my reading experience. But the other day, as I was sitting on the subway riding in to work, I looked up and saw a woman reading a book that had an intriguing cover. I tried to check the title without looking like I was a subway stalker but because of the angle I couldn't quite catch the title. She got off on a stop before mine and I was never to find out what book she was reading. This bugged me. I don't know why but I decided to pay more attention to what the mass of people were reading on the TTC (that means subway in T.O. but really stands for the Toronto Transit Commission. But that's not the point of this story). Anyway, I decided to check out these random books so that I could decide whether to add them to my reading pile. A stranger's recommendation, if you will. A barometer of what the everyday, joe-blow, go to work person like me is spending their precious 20 min, half-hour to an hour commute reading in the morning. It wasn't as easy a task as I thought it would be.

Some days not one person had a book. Which appalled me. It's not that people weren't reading - they were. It just happened to be newspapers, iPhones, or university or highschool textbooks. Many were just listening to music. Others just staring off into space. I despaired of finding ten different books that I could check out before Christmas. But, by the end of two weeks (and some days I didn't ride the subway) I had my Subway Stranger Reading Recommendations.

So here are the books (and the blurbs I hunted up on Amazon and other sites) that I'm committing to either buying or checking out from the library over the next few months. Of the 11 books I spotted, I only read one (The Time Traveler's Wife) so I have a nice even ten books to check out:

The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl. But in a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter's life is to give her away.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Stratten
January 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

A Mortal Curiosity by Anne Granger
The second novel in Ann Granger's wonderfully atmospheric Victorian mystery series. Lizzie Martin, lady's companion, has been sent from London to the New Forest to comfort a young woman whose baby has tragically died. A sad enough task, but things take an even darker turn when a rat-catcher is found murdered in the garden, and the young woman is discovered beside the body, crying and covered in blood. Not knowing where else to turn, Lizzie calls upon her friend Inspector Ben Ross from Scotland Yard to solve the horrific crime.

Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard by Richard B. Wright
In a quiet manor house in Oxfordshire, an ailing housekeeper by the name of Aerlene Ward feels the time has come to confess the great secret that has shaped her life-she is the illegitimate daughter of William Shakespeare, England′s most famous playwright.

Lie Down with the Devil by Linda Barnes
Things get moving quickly in Bostonian Carlotta Carlyle’s twelfth mystery, picking up right where Heart of the World (2006) left off, with Carlyle’s mobbed-up fiancé, Sam, sought for murder, and teenage Paolina, Carlotta’s adopted little sister, recuperating from her horrific experiences in Colombia. In her emotional agony, Paolina has shut out Carlotta, so the six-foot ex-cop and part-time cabbie turns her energy toward proving Sam innocent—in the face of his secrecy, his womanizing, and, worst of all, mounting evidence that he actually did the deed.

The Debutante by Kathleen Turner
Cate Albion is a gifted artist who is hiding from her past in her elderly aunt’s London antique shop. When her aunt sends her to Devon to catalog the contents of an old Georgian house, Cate finds more than just antiques, she finds a mystery. The home belonged to Irene Blythe, a wealthy, elderly woman who was once a beautiful socialite between the wars. Cate finds an abandoned nursery, locked for years, and a shoebox full of mysterious articles hidden behind a stack of books. Cate realizes the box belongs not to Irene but to her sister, Baby Blythe, the dazzling, dangerous, over-the-top debutante who mysteriously disappeared without a trace more than 60 years ago. Unable to resist, Cate unpacks the box and follows the clues to Baby Blythe’s dark, secretive past––one that parallels Cate’s own dark life all too well.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
"The Lost Symbol" solves puzzles, analyzes paintings and reveals forgotten histories -- all so that Brown's tireless hero, Robert Langdon can find a legendary Masonic treasure despite special ops squads that are dogging him and a bizarre killer who has kidnapped his dear friend and mentor.

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin
Rebus is juggling four cases trying to nail one killer - who might just lead back to the infamous Bible John. And he's doing it under the scrutiny of an internal inquiry led by a man he has just accused of taking backhanders from Glasgow's Mr Big. Added to that there are TV cameras at his back investigating a miscarriage of justice, making Rebus a criminal in the eyes of a million or more viewers. Just one mistake is likely to mean an unpleasant and not particularly speedy death or, worse still, losing his job.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This zany tale of the bungling of Armageddon features an angel, a demon, an 11-year-old Antichrist and a doomsaying witch; unmistakably British humor is in abundance.

The Kings Grace by Anne Easter Smith
Smith's newest historical fiction is a complex exploration of a turbulent period of English history, taking on one of its biggest mysteries: the fate of princes Edward and Richard, locked up in the Tower by Richard III. Protagonist Grace Plantagenet is the illegitimate daughter of Edward IV and had been confidant to his family—including her imprisoned half-brothers Edward and Richard. After Richard III is killed and the princes disappear, a man named Perkin Warbeck appears to challenge Henry VII, claiming to be the presumed dead Prince Richard. Determined to discover the truth of Warbeck's claim, Grace throws herself into the politics of the court, knowing that if Warbeck is Prince Richard, it could be drastic for Grace's family—especially for her half-sister Elizabeth of York, now Henry's queen.

Whew. That's a heck of a lot of different books. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I'm going to like each one. And if I don't, I'm not sure I'll finish them all. But it's an experiment in whether I can enjoy books I haven't sought out myself or that have been recommended to me by someone I know - a broadening of my reading experience to see if I like other tastes and genres. We'll see how it goes. I think I'm going to try The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society first - just because I love the title and I love WWII stories. I'll keep you posted on the progress.

So, have you read any of the above? And how do you go about picking what's going on your To Be Read pile? But, please, don't give me any more recommendations. I don't think I could handle it!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is the Gut Always Right?

I have to make a decision soon. It's not life or death or anything, just something that is not clear cut in my mind. So, like I do when I'm figuring something out I research the hell out of it and make a mental list of pros and cons. I'm a Capricorn and I'm a very practical, linear, and (mostly) logical person when it comes to matters of career or finance or day to day matters. So this decision is not based on emotional commitment or family/friend related matters which should make for a very clear cut decision then, right? Um... not so much.

For the first time I'm listening more to my gut than my brain. I feel more that I should go one way even though, logically, my brain is telling me I probably should go the other way. But I keep remembering the last time I made a decision where my gut was telling me "Uh, Nelsa, maybe you should hold up there a bit. Think on it a little more." But my brain said, "This is an opportunity you need to take advantage of now." I regret that decision now although it didn't result in a disaster or anything. Just a general feeling that maybe I should have listened a little more to my emotional radar rather than the intellectual one.

I wonder if my gut now is just mirroring my natural worry and anxiety of making a decision that will take me down a different, unknown route - maybe my gut wants to play it safe? But I really don't think that's it. I should be excited about the decision - it's all right to feel nervous, anxious even but ... a gut level feeling that this is not right for me when all logic is telling me otherwise? I think I need to listen to that.

Maybe I need to follow my gut this time and see where pure feeling takes me. How about you guys? Do you always trust your gut? Or does logic win out every time?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vintage or Just Old Crap?

So my daughters have decided that buying vintage sweaters from the Goodwill is cool (well, not cool exactly - they'd never use that word). I am, shall we say, ambivalent about this sudden thriftiness. I grew up with hand me down clothes (even a bra once, Lord help me) from my cousins. Some of them were even girls :). I did get new clothes as well but I remember getting dresses and coats and other sundry items from various relatives and thinking they really were not my style. Perhaps they were my style but, darn it, they weren't new so they couldn't be as good, right? Anyway, I've had no trouble over the years donating tons of clothing to Goodwill. It is a fabulous organization. But I never really ever shopped there before. So when, the other night, Daughter 2 said she wanted to go we went. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Goodwill Store we went to was just recently built, bright lights, clothes organized in colour-coded blocks on racks and while, yes, there were some sketchy items, most of them were very well cared for, clean and in good shape. Daughter 2 bought 3 old man sweaters (don't ask. Apparently old man is a style these days) in almost perfect condition for under 20 dollars and was thrilled. Now I know she's not going to stop buying ridiculously expensive brand name items at American Eagle or Hollister (she'll try her hardest to make me buy them for her) but I love the idea of her recognizing that just because something has been used before it doesn't mean it's crap. The idea of not wearing something that a thousand other girls have in their closet is also a good thing as well. Wanting to be unique/individual is to be celebrated so if my girl wants to wear an oversized sweater that has a picture of an equestrian and his horse on the front then more power to her! Even better that it only cost $5.99.

Now if I can just convince my Dad to donate all his old shirts and sweaters to me I've got the next few Christmas's and birthdays covered. But then they'd probably think they're just hand me downs. I guess the fine line between Crap and Vintage is being hung on a rack with a thousand other old man sweaters and a price tag of $5.99.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Blog Post about Nothing

It has come to this: I have no ideas for a blog post today. Blank. Nada. Empty. Some days there is just no water in the well. So, the big question is: what do I do? Do I just not post? Do I do a tepid 'writerly' post about my crawling along WIP? Do I talk about the stresses and strains of raising 3 kids, working full-time, my mother's cancer treatment, my stalled renovations? Do I post about something I heard on the news today? Do I try and do a motivational post about never giving up when things seem their bleakest? I feel like I've written these posts before, like there's nothing new to say and no new way to say it.

I know this is normal. I've been writing this blog for over a year and a half, so why try to force a blog post when there's nothing to say?

Why? Why, I ask??

Because if I stop writing one day, it might lead to two. If I don't write two blog posts then a whole month could quickly go by and before you know it I've stopped writing the blog altogether and even though it may not be the most widely read or the most filled with wisdom (not by a long shot!)it is something I've committed to do and I'm a big believer in sticking with something even when it's not easy, even when it doesn't seem to be returning anything tangible some days. Because there are moments when a blog post does work and someone might see something in it that helps them or they can identify with whatever was written. I know there have been many blog posts I've read that have helped me. Blog posts that might have never been written if that blogger decided to stop writing just for a day, or two, or three...

Huh. What do you know? My blog post about nothing kinda turned into something. Another lesson about why writing when you don't feel like it is very important. :)