Tuesday, February 26, 2013


There was sunshine this morning, and blue sky, and the temperature was mild enough that I didn't layer a sweater under my coat when I walked down to the shops. The maple tree outside my window is sporting tiny red buds now; the branches of the willow tree in the cemetery across the street are a little bit more yellow every day. Soon tulips and daffodils will dance around the grave stones – but tonight the wind is raging and they're calling for both rain and snow before dawn. Winter isn't over yet.

Today I took everything off my desk, pared down, tidied up, rearranged my pencil jars and notebooks. I've been having trouble concentrating when I sit down to work, and I hope that a bit of pre-spring cleaning will help me refocus. That's something about small-space living: creating a home office in a 310 sq ft apartment is not without its challenges. The boundaries are blurry.

February is an especially resonant month for me – here, too, the boundaries are blurry. Everything I do, everywhere I go, all the things I cook and conversations I have, hark back to years past. Dinner dates from a decade ago feel like they were just last week. I wake up and briefly think I'm in a bed in a house I haven't slept in for six years. I see the back of someone's head – they look familiar but disappear around a corner just as I realize it can't possibly be who I think it is; who I wish it was.

I tug at the threads of my memories and they collide, piling up in a jumble, again and again. 

Yesterday I went to Staples to print a copy of my manuscript. It wasn't very busy, so I waited, cruising the aisles and picking up a new notebook, a stack of post-it notes, a pack of pens. There's something ritualistic about stocking up on office supplies as I prepare to dig deep into a new project. After ten minutes, the girl behind the desk at the copy centre called to me down the notebook aisle: "It's ready!" I paid for my projects, new and old, and as she passed my book across the counter, the cashier patted it and said, "Good luck!" 

Over on the couch, in my newly designated knitting spot, I stitch away at my current sweater project while watching reruns. After having abandoned three different grey sweaters three Februaries in a row, I'm feeling pleased with my choice of this cheerful heathered blue. There's colourwork ahead, in a week or two; yellows and greens that will evoke the colours that are appearing outside as I knit away inside. It pleases me when I achieve that sort of knitterly synchronicity. After three years of crafting six months out of season, I'm happy to be finding a new rhythm.

And so it goes. Tea and toast; knitting and writing; walking and watching. The sun comes up a little earlier each morning, and goes down a little later each night. Lions and lambs await their turn.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Soup for Sunday

Chopping, stirring and simmering is a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and I'm happy to reap the rewards all week long. Making a big pot of soup gives me a hearty Sunday dinner – and a week's worth of leftovers for meals that require just 10 minutes on the stove and a bit of bread and cheese on the side.

This is the soup I've made most often this winter. It's pretty basic, but I can guarantee that it's simple, satisfying, tastes even better after a stint in the fridge, and lends itself well to substitutions and improvisation. Cooking the pasta separately means it doesn't get all soggy – a nice way of keeping your leftovers from seeming like leftovers.

Sunday Soup 
Makes about 8 servings

2 tsp olive oil
2 sweet Italian sausages, casings removed
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 bay leaves
28 oz can diced tomatoes
19 oz can white kidney beans
2 cups chicken broth or water
Parmesan rind
1 small bunch kale, ribs removed, chopped
Farfalle or ditali pasta (optional)

In Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat; add sausages. Cook, breaking up with spoon, until meat is browned outside and no longer pink inside. Remove sausage meat from pan and set aside.

Add onion and garlic to pan; sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring and scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan, until onion begins to soften. Add celery and carrots; cook 3 minutes, until onion is translucent. Stir in Italian seasoning, pepper and bay leaves. Stir in tomatoes, beans and chicken broth; stir in sausage meat and Parmesan rind, if using. Bring to boil over high heat; stir in kale.

Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, partially covered, until kale is tender – 30 to 45 minutes should do it. Remove bay leaves and Parmesan rind.

Meanwhile, just before serving, cook pasta according to package directions in boiling salted water. Drain well. Add pasta to each bowl, then top with soup.

It's great as-is, but I also like to serve this with Parmesan cheese on top, or – if I'm feeling really fancy – Parmesan crisps, made by topping thin slices of baguette with heaping spoonfuls of Parmesan and running them under the broiler. Yum!

Oh, and for dessert? Chocolate pudding.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On becoming a sock knitter

Considering how much emphasis I put on making things that are both beautiful and useful, it's a bit surprising how long it took me to convert to the way of the sock.

The beauty of sock yarns is matched by the dazzling variety of sock patterns that are available, from basic to ornate to downright jaw-dropping, and I'm not sure there's a knitted garment that's more useful. Toques and mittens are seasonal, after all, but I wear socks on all but the very warmest summer days.

Many of the knitters I most admire are ardent sock knitters. Glenna knits socks at the movies; Kate knits them on the streetcar; Tanis makes socks that feature her amazing yarns. Stephanie – well, she's in a league of her own.

Inspired by them, I've been toting a sock-in-progress whenever I leave the house. But short commutes aren't conducive to making much progress on a sock, and this pair has been languishing since last autumn. I even carried them with me to New Zealand and back, without a notable increase in size.

This weekend something changed. I went away for the weekend and took a half-finished sock with me. I knit the heel flap on the train and turned the heel on the bus; thirty-six hours later, all that was left to do was the grafting.

I think I've hit the sweet spot: the perfect combination of my favourite yarn, the right needles, and a pattern (Glenna's "Nice Ribbed Sock" is my go-to) that I'm familiar with, and enough sock-knitting experience that I can trust my instincts when it comes time to turn a heel or pick up gusset stitches. It is so satisfying to be able to turn a heel without looking at the pattern.

I can't wait to wear my new socks. And although I've got other things on the needles, I cast on for a new pair this afternoon. I could get used to this sort of quick knitterly gratification.

(Oh, and speaking of socks, one day I will make these Beowulf socks. They're terrific!)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Snapshots: quiet days

I've been under the weather this week so I've been sticking close to home. Here's what I've been seeing around the house.

Sock #2 is coming right along. I go back and forth on this colourway...sometimes I love it, sometimes it reminds me of Chews.

Afternoon tea with my sister. A calm, quiet afternoon with one of my favourite people. 

My Squam sweater – Gudrun Johnston's Trefoil Cardigan. I've got miles to go before I steek.

Tulips, their petals dry and thin as paper. At the right time of day, the sun lights them up like stained glass.

And in other news:
Listening to: Canada Reads
Reading: The Kitchen Diaries II (Yes, still. It's good.)
Eating: Oatcakes with peanut butter
Drinking: Tea with manuka honey
Coveting: Snowfling mitts
Hoping: This cough is on its way soon.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Simple stitched heart pendant

It seems that it's cool to be cynical about Valentine's Day, and I get it: when the merchandising and advertising gets to be too much, it's easiest to retreat behind a sneer and a sarcastic remark and sit back to wait until all the leftover chocolate goes on sale for half price.

But why waste an opportunity to tell your friends and family that you love them? I'll take any excuse to send cards and bake cupcakes and buy flowers. And, of course, to make things.

Laser-cut wooden cross stitch pendants are one of the staples of my craft stash – I always like to have a couple on hand, because they're super versatile and make beautiful (and fast!) gifts. The embroidery floss (regular and sparkle) comes in myriad colours. I buy it by the fistful.

The back of the package insert has a tiny chart, so that you can plan your design before you start stitching. (One of these days I'm going to make myself a monogrammed pendant – fun!)

Three strands of embroidery floss and one strand of sparkle floss work perfectly. In the end, I didn't cross stitch – I felt that the simple diagonal stitches were enough. The whole project only takes about an hour. 

And done. I love the way the sparkle floss adds a subtle sheen. I strung the pendant on a cord of braided embroidery floss. A length of silk cord would look lovely, too – I just didn't have any on hand.

Speaking of needlework, isn't this new book by Anna Maria Horner beautiful?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Make marmalade

On Wednesday I made marmalade. It's a day-long job, but I didn't have much else on the agenda. Besides, there is something very appealing about the sort of gentle, constant labour that attending a pot of jam requires.

With sun streaming through the windows I set about juicing, slicing, mixing and boiling. Hours later the house was perfumed with citrus and I had fourteen jars of jam.

I set the jars in a pyramid on the kitchen table to cool, and the next morning I enjoyed the way they glowed, backlit by the sun. I've been enjoying toast with marmalade for breakfast, and I've really been enjoying giving the jars away. A little bit of bottled sunshine goes a long way in the middle of a blizzard.

(Recipe: Five-Fruit Marmalade. In my experience, boiling down the fruit and sugar mixture takes closer to 25 minutes than 12.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tiny hearts

I'm a big proponent of crafting things which are beautiful or useful (ideally, both), but every once in a while, I get caught by a bit of whimsy.

Valentine's Day is a week away, and I found these tiny knitted hearts from Mochimochi Land just irresistible. They work up quickly – I made four last night, in less than two hours.

I used TFA Yellow Label in Garnet (that palette pack is endlessly useful) and 3.5 mm needles; I didn't bother with felting them. A handful of polyfill was more than enough stuffing.

They'll go into Valentine's Day care packages, I think. I don't know if they'll bring bigger smiles than the chocolates, but I imagine they might last a while longer. And who doesn't need an extra bit of love once in a while?

(Oh, and Valentine's Day robots! Terrific.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Above all, write.

I started writing my third novel on the first of July. I needed a challenge; something to take my mind off an increasingly stressful work situation, to fill those early morning hours on days when the sun woke me up hours before I had to be out of the house, to fill the void my fingers felt because the hot weather meant I wasn't knitting as much.

I didn't know if I could finish it – after all, it was my third, and I hadn't finished the first two. But I'd approached those projects casually, without a plan. This time, conditioned by years of planning magazines with spreadsheets and work-backs, primed by a year in which I'd decided to knit a sweater a month, working methodically and with great focus and many checklists...this time, I was serious.

So I consulted books and websites. I looked at calendars. I drew up meal plans. I re-read Bird by Bird. I cut activities out of my social calendar and set the alarm to go off even earlier. I wrote an outline.

Soon my desk was overtaken by piles of index cards and stacks of computer print-outs. I jotted key plot points on fluorescent post-it notes, then stuck them to the wall over my desk. I stayed up late. I got up early. I bored my friends, talking about "my book." They were very gracious.

Like many of the writers I know, I am best motivated by deadlines, so when I found out about the CWA Debut Dagger contest, with its hard-and-fast submission date, I was pleased. I set my sights on February 2nd and kept writing. I passed ten thousand words, then twenty-five thousand. I kept going. At some point, I stopped using quotation marks when I talked about my book. Fifty thousand words and the summer was waning, the days getting shorter and the evenings cooler. Soon I was wearing a cardigan as I typed. Fifty-five thousand words and Labour Day was a distant memory.

I had hoped that the more I wrote, the easier it would be, but that isn't the case. It doesn't seem to matter how many thousand words you've already committed to paper; the next thousand are just as much work. But the momentum builds, and it becomes more difficult to stop. I was tired by the time I got to sixty thousand, and slowing down at sixty-two thousand, but I pushed on. Fall arrived, and with it, added uncertainty about my work situation. Leaves were falling. Would there be layoffs when the new boss arrived? I kept typing. I wasn't going to waste all that work. I told anyone who would listen that if I was let go, I'd take the time to write.

I finished my book – all 73,000 words of it – at the end of October, and the next day I flew to New Zealand. I came home. The layoffs began; two of my friends there in the morning, gone by lunch. I gritted my teeth, turned up my music, took Advil for the headache that had become my constant companion, and worked. Each night after dinner, I worked on fine-tuning my contest entry – all they needed was the first chapter, so following the advice of my generous friends, my gentle first readers, I trimmed and tucked and trimmed some more until 6,000 words had become 3,000. The new boss arrived. Christmas came and went, then New Year's. The week-long vacation was too short. I went back to work.

On January 15th, I lost my job.

The next two weeks were a flurry of emails and phone calls, lunch dates and drinks nights. I knitted. I watched a lot of Doctor Who. The weather was good, and then bad, and then terrible. I cleaned out my desk. I signed papers. I mourned the loss of my daily routine and a job I'd once loved. I was sustained by my family and my office mates – many of whom I'm proud to call my friends. I read books – entire books – for the first time in ages. I knitted more. I baked. But I didn't write.

This Tuesday I woke up with the heaviness of an impending deadline sitting on my chest. February 2nd was days away and I hadn't looked at my contest entry in weeks. I remembered the brave, fool-hardy declarations I'd been making all summer, the promises that I'd take the time my severance package bought me and use it as time to write. I finally sat back down at my desk, and looked once more at the index card I taped to my wall so many months ago.

I uploaded my file and clicked "submit" a few hours ago. I won't know the result for weeks; just one more uncertainty to add to the list of mysteries about what 2013 holds for me. But I know that tomorrow I'll get up, and make a cup of tea, and sit down at the computer once again. I'm only a couple thousand words into the sequel, and the next two thousand will be just as much work as the first, but I'm not going to waste the effort I've put in. I'm not going to waste the time I've been given.

Fiddlehead mittens

It's February 1st, and after the warm temperatures and rain from earlier this week, winter seems to have returned. It's -18ÂșC today with the windchill, but I'm not worried, because I'll be wearing my new mittens.

The Fiddlehead Mitten kit was a Christmas gift two years ago, and I wish I hadn't waited so long to start. They were a quick, satisfying knit, challenging but not difficult, and I love the way they look.

The outside is knit with TFA Yellow Label yarn; on the recommendation of a friend, I knit the linings in Fresco, a wool-alpaca-angora blend that ensures these mitts will be the warmest I've ever owned. They're like wearing tiny woollen duvets on my hands. Winter? Psht! No problem.