Saturday, November 30, 2013

November 30


This morning, a common occurrence: the arrival of a mother and her seven-year-old daughter on a learn-to-knit mission. I used to dread this – I worried about giving the wrong answer and sending them in the wrong direction, somehow ruining knitting for two generations with one careless word. But three months in, I've come to love it. There's something exhilarating about all that potential waiting to be realized.

Now, I ask questions first, talk later. What do you want to make? What is your favourite colour? Which of these yarns is softer? Do you like to learn from a book? From a person? From a video? Every knitter is different, even the knitters who don't know how to knit yet.

*

The first time I learned to knit was on a Monday night in a Sunday school classroom; I was in Brownies. My teacher was older, Dutch, no-nonsense; the yarn was brown, acrylic, scratchy. The classroom was dimly lit – it was a winter evening, dark and cold. I was eight and I had a head cold. I struggled to concentrate; I wanted to learn but my nose was running and I couldn't hold the knitting needles and a kleenex at the same time. It was a conundrum.

The second time I learned to knit was from a book – an old book with black-and-white photos and a crackly plastic dust cover, with that musty sweet smell that old library books seem to have, the combination of dust and fingerprints. The yarn was from my mum's stash, in a range of colours that do a good job of dating my childhood: brown and rust and orange, with some cream and a bit of avocado thrown into the mix. The needles were yellow plastic, with the size – 5 – stamped into the grooved brown buttons on the ends. They lived in a marmalade jar, high on a shelf in the laundry room.

*

Today, I walked the mother and daughter through choosing yarn and helped them pick needles. The choices are overwhelming: five choices of purple, just for example. It's a big responsibility for a seven year old, requiring serious deliberation. Needles were easier: laminated birch, 4.5 mm, grey. Three sets the same, one each for mum and two daughters. Identical, so easy (and undetectable) to mix and match: handy if there's more than one kid involved.

*

Important lesson for daughter: what to do when you're finished knitting for the day. In the last month, I've seen four different boyfriends come in to replace broken knitting needles. "Someone sat on them," they say, sheepishly, holding up the unbroken tool as an offering. "Do you have a replacement?" So, lesson number one: knitting needles and chairs don't mix. She nodded, wide-eyed. Can she even imagine having a boyfriend to send for replacement knitting needles? Probably not.

Important refresher course for mum: how to make a slip knot and cast on. When is the last time you tried to explain a set of actions that are completely automatic? Now I remember my own mum showing me this, again and again, patiently tying and untying, casting on again and again, as I struggle to put words to unconscious action. A slip knot – that basic foundation for so much of knitting – turns out to involve half a dozen steps and innumerable subtle hand movements. We muddled through.

*

My first projects: endless rectangles. I made doll blankets, too-short scarves, lopsided teddy bears. Eventually, a garter stitch vest, in peach acrylic (two big rectangles, sewn together). None of it amazing, and yet all of it amazing: amazing because it was one thing and I made it into something else. It was amazing enough to keep me trying.

Their first projects: scarves. It doesn't get much more basic, or more satisfying, than that.

*

I've been knitting now for more than 25 years, through school and jobs and more school and more jobs and cross-country moves and innumerable trips. That I've been doing anything for more than 25 years still shocks me. The list is fairly short: knitting and writing and baking, the things I was interested in first, that I continue to come back to year after year. The three pursuits that give me the most satisfaction: equal parts challenging and comforting, all of them delivering on the promise that if you put the right components together with enough care, you'll end up with something greater than the sum of its parts.

But it's challenging to explain alchemy to a seven year old. Instead: simple tools, an old rhyme, and a little encouragement. It's OK to be frustrated; keep trying. Nothing worth knowing how to do can be mastered in 10 minutes. Stick with it, and you'll give yourself a gift you can enjoy for the rest of your life. It's a little bit like magic.

Friday, November 29, 2013

November 29


After I finished my Tilting Tardis Cowl I decided I needed a hat to match. A lace hat is no match for Toronto’s winters, so I went with a straight-up tuque – with a Tardis, of course.

This was actually a fairly straightforward project and a fairly quick knit. I started on Sunday and finished on Wednesday – and that's with a fair bit of mid-project pattern revision and ripping-out.
I used Tanis Fiber Arts Yellow Label (DK weight) and a 16" long 3.5 mm needle, for a dense fabric that had both body and drape. (And after a wintry walk this afternoon, I can assure you that it definitely kept out the wind!)
Here's what I did:
Cast on 120 sts and join to work in round. 
Worked 1.5 inches in 1x1 rib. 
Changed to St st for 3 rows, then added the Tardis. Used the chart from Bigger on the Inside, working it upside down, with a border of 3 purl sts on either side. 
Added two beads to the top, for the light. 
Worked a few more purl rows, then switched into St st and knit to 6.5 inches. 
Crown decrease set up row: * k 12, pm, repeat from * to end of round. 
Dec row: * k to 2 sts before marker, k2tog, repeat from * to end of round. 
K 1 row. 
Repeat last 2 rows until 10 sts remain. K2tog around. Cut yarn. Thread tail through remaining sts and pull tight.

It’s not fancy – in fact, I’d say it’s relatively subtle for a Doctor Who–related knit – but I love it! Midnight is the perfect colourway for this, I think, and the yarn washed up beautifully. 
And, oh by the way, if you need a quick, easy Christmas gift that's a little less...nerdy...you can just make the hat without the Tardis chart. It's a good solid pattern to have in your back pocket, and it'd work with just about any yarn you have in your stash. I used about half of a 115 g skein.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

November 27 and 28


Up early this morning before the sun rose, the streets dark and quiet and covered in ice; you could have told me it was January and I'd have believed you. It's cold again, crisp and dry, and the snow is staying where it falls, icing over in places where people haven't taken care of their sidewalks. I have about as much regard for people who don't shovel and salt as I do for people who see a word they don't recognize and tell you that you've made a mistake without checking the dictionary, which is to say, not much regard at all. In sidewalks, writing and life, a bit of due diligence goes a long way.

I like being up early in the winter; it's often the best part of the day. This morning, watching the sky lighten, I caught a glimpse of bright red clouds in the southeast and chanted the old rhyme to myself. Sailors take warning, indeed; the news was full of accounts of the devastating storm that hit Nova Scotia last night and left 40,000 people with power. I thought of my friends there, with their emergency kits and bottled water and flashlights, and wished them wood stoves and extended-life batteries. Then I put the kettle on again.

Much later, I taught my last class of the semester. A bit of review, face-to-face check-ins, and closing remarks: I meant to talk about writing, but I ended up talking about people. After all, that's what stories are about, who they're for, why they exist – if not for people, those ideal readers and fascinating subjects, why write at all? I'm afraid that I got a bit sappy, but sometimes it's good to remember that good writing means more than just proper spelling and syntax; that sometimes, if we're doing really well, we manage to create something with resonance, something that goes beyond due diligence.

And then the cold walk home through the gathering dusk, the interminable wait in line at the grocery store, the dinner of leftover chicken pot pie and the evening of knitting, the wool the colour of an overcast sky. The hunkering down.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November 25 and 26

A bit of a random assortment today.

1) After a brief cold snap, the kind that brings brilliant sunshine and the smell of imminent snow, we seem to be back to dreary November days. Grey, overcast, drizzly; the sort of day that feels as though it slides from pre-dawn to dusk in under an hour. The branches are bare now; the only things up in the trees are squirrel nests (in the crooks of the branches) and wasp nests (dangling precariously from the ends of said branches). Days like this leave me craving a peculiar set of comforts: milky tea, banana bread with chocolate chips and coconut, a sweater in soft pink alpaca. Some are easier to rustle up than others.

2) Last night I went to watch the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who in 3-D; my friend Lisa's awesome idea. We weren't late but we certainly weren't early, at least not by the standards of the Whovians. We ended up just five rows back from the screen, necks craned. Still, I loved it. It was great to be there amid a group of fans, and I loved hearing the laughter ripple through the theatre any time there was an in-joke on screen. People were wearing their special outfits: huge striped scarves, Tardis shirts and dresses and bags and fascinators, a tuque shaped like a Dalek. I wore my Tardis cowl and talked knitting with a girl in the next row. Combine Doctor Who with knitting and you start to develop a very specific common language.

3) I'm still working on that hat. I thought I'd finish this morning – tea, knitting and a (very recent) re-run seemed like a good start to my day off.


Unfortunately, I wasn't paying attention when I planned (ahem, "planned") my decreases, which resulted in a very skew-whiff crown and then some very ruthless ripping back. I'm still not finished. There's always tomorrow. 

4) Banana bread with (chocolate chips and) coconut. You should try it. Perfect for a rainy November day, or a snowy one. Whatever you wake up to tomorrow will be better with a slice of that bread.

5) Apparently Christmas is just around the corner. It seemed like it was all-Christmas carols all-the-time out in the world today; after the third round of "Santa Baby" I caved and bought Christmas cards. That's a good three weeks early by my usual standards. Anyway, I think these ornaments, aka "Wesley Bobs" are pretty neat.

That's all for now. Stay safe and warm and dry, and be good to one another.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

November 23 and 24

Up late last night, I pondered the wisdom of sewing a seam on unblocked knitting. I had my needle threaded and ready, but in the end discretion (or maybe distraction) proved the better part of valour. I washed and blocked the pieces instead, and woke up early to do my seaming by morning light.


I love my version of the Tilting Tardis cowl. The colour is a perfect mix of night sky and Tardis blue, the cables and lace give it movement and shape, and the yarn washed up beautifully. The pattern worked well – but I'm still super glad I decided to cut it in half.

Of course, with an extra skein of yarn, 36 hours, and temperatures that are suddenly below zero, how was I supposed to resist casting on a hat to match? 


It's a basic tuque pattern: 120 sts on 3.5 mm needles in DK yarn; 1.5 ins of 1x1 rib and then switching into  St st. One repeat of the Tardis pattern from Bigger on the Inside (worked over 13 sts and 37 rows, with a border of 3 purls on either side) will add a subtle Doctor Who touch. It's not too complicated, but at 3.5 ins I've still got a fair bit of knitting to do if I want to be all matchy-matchy for tomorrow.

And so the clock is ticking once again...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

November 22


A prosaic photo if ever there was one. I was so pleased with myself for buying the amaryllis well ahead of time this year, but I planted this more than a week ago and it's showing just the tiniest bit of growth.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 21


Every so often, I need to remind myself that my "stitch by stitch, word by word" mantra applies to more than just knitting and writing. Almost everything in life comes down to ongoing effort and incremental progress. Tomorrow I'll swathe myself in a woollen metaphor and see if that helps me remember.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

November 20

I like a geeky knitting project once in a while, and what better reason to cast on than the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who? I'm going to see the anniversary episode in 3-D (thank you, Lisa!) and I wanted something suitable to wear...fannish, but not full-on Doctor Who scarf fannish, and preferably something I could work into my wardrobe.

Anyway. I poked around a bit on Ravelry, and eventually I landed at the Tilting Tardis Cowl. Working part-time at a yarn store meant I had lots of opportunity to peruse the shelves for the most Tardis-like (and most wardrobe appropriate) blue. Tanis Fiber Arts yellow label in midnight: hello!


I've been knitting away diligently for a couple weeks now – a Tardis here, a Tardis there. And then today I looked at it compared to another favourite cowl of mine (above) and realized that I wasn't happy. I didn't want a wrap-around, button-up cowl with Tardises flying sideways. I wanted one that didn't need buttons, with Tardises that flew up and down. I pondered this a little, and then out came the darning needles and the scissors.


The idea was that I'd find the height I wanted on the piece I had, then cut the excess off the top. That would allow me to pick up three sets of stitches: at the top of the larger piece to knit the top border; at the bottom of the shorter piece to knit the bottom border; and at the top of the shorter piece to knit a few more pattern repeats and a border on the top. After that, all it would need would be a bit of seaming up the sides to create the actual cowl. Not as easy as knitting it in the round from the get-go, but I wasn't about to rip the whole thing out and start from scratch.


Two steeks does not an expert make, but I long ago discarded the idea that anyone other than me is the boss of my knitting, and if I want to cut it, I cut it. What's the worst that can happen, really? Bolstered by this (over)confidence, I roughed in some lifelines and snip, snip, snipped away, all the while with a little niggling voice chattering away in the back of my mind. A chattering voice that actually sounded a lot like it was reciting Elizabeth Zimmermann's discourse on mitten thumbs in Knitter's Almanac.

Oh right. According to EZ, if you're cutting into knitting horizontally (as you would for an afterthought mitten thumb, for example, as opposed to vertically, as you would when steeking a cardigan), you just need to snip one stitch in the middle of the row and (un)ravel sideways from there. It's a neat, tidy solution. Of course, it was a bit late at that point. 

The rest of the cutting was the work of a moment, although unravelling to live, unharmed stitches took a bit longer than I'd anticipated, and I ended up losing about four rows of knitting along the way. But it was worth the sacrifice to get a little closer to the cowl that I want.


I've got about 15 rows to go to catch up to the first piece, and then I'll figure out where I want to stop and add the top border. Easy-peasy. At this rate, I might even finish early. Chop chop!

November 19


Souvenirs from last week at the beach.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 18


The sky this morning was amazing. Just for a minute, everything seemed to glow.

Later, after the clouds had won the day and the temperature had plummeted and I was on my way home, I was caught in a flurry of pebbly snow. You know the kind: looks like styrofoam, feels like an insult. It bounced around on the sidewalk and trickled down the back of my neck and was over as quickly as it had started. Half a block later it had all melted; the merest preview of what's to come.

Even later still, after work and after dinner, I finally had some time to wrestle with a knitting design that's taken over my brain. After a bit of futzing around I had a rough idea of a pattern jotted down; then it was time to set up my makeshift light table. (Who has the room for a real one? Not me. In a pinch, a 9x13" Pyrex baking dish over a headlamp does the trick.)

I played around with tracing and graphing until two things became apparent: one, that I've got a classic round-pegs-square-hole problem on my hands, and two, that I was spending too much time bent over a Sharpie. Whew. It seems this project requires more time, specialized graph paper, lots of swatching and, yes, maybe a pencil crayon or two in lieu of that marker. Oh, and finer yarn, and teeny-tiny needles. It's getting complicated.

Of course, I don't really want complicated: I want results. As much as I rail against "quick and easy" craft projects (and I'm in good company), I also know the feeling of wanting to hold the finished object in my hands without the hours of grunt work that must come first. I'm torn between wanting to be finished the design and wanting it to be great. I think I have a neat idea on my hands, and I want to see it realized, editing deadlines and paper-marking be damned. Then again, there's the old rule instilled in me by my dad: If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I'll take my (wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey) time, then, and settle, once more, for a mere preview of what's to come.




Sunday, November 17, 2013

November 17


Halfway into a month of daily blogging and every day has been different. Some days it's easy: a topic is ready and waiting as soon as I wake up, and it takes shape during the day, words coagulating into sentences, sentences into paragraphs that I write and re-write in my mind as I make my way around the city. Then again, some days I wake up without an idea, when I sit down to write at nine-thirty at night I stare at the screen for twenty minutes to no avail. 

Today I'm somewhere in between. I've got plenty of ideas but nothing to tie them together – I've been writing (and re-writing) for more than an hour as the ideas come and go, flashy as goldfish and just as quick to disappear. I'm tired, and the wind just picked up; I can hear the rain lashing down outside and the inevitable sirens that seem to accompany every spate of bad weather. Somewhere behind the clouds the full moon is exerting its power. 

There's always tomorrow. I'll get a net.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

November 16


A bit of streetcar crochet this morning on the way to work. Sometimes you just have to make your accessories with whatever tiny scraps of time (and materials) you have at hand. (Pattern – for a crochet heart motif, the perfect last-minute broach – here.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

November 15


"It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much and what is done in love is well done." –Vincent van Gogh (via Lisa Congdon)

November 14

By the time I got home from class it was early evening, which these days is very early indeed: dusk is sneaking up well before five. I turned on some lights and made a cup of tea and sat down to finish my marking. It's not my favourite thing to do, but it is engrossing, and at some point (an hour later?) I looked up to realize my tea was cold and the sky was on the verge of nighttime's navy blue.

I got up to close the blinds. The maple tree in front of my window acts as an awning from late April to October, shielding me from the sun at midday and my neighbours at midnight, but it lost the last of its leaves earlier this week, and I knew that my yellow windows would be shining like a beacon through its bare branches. I am fascinated by the slices of life I catch through my neighbours' windows – the flicker of the late-night TV, the crowded living room and steamy windows of a holiday party – but am reluctant to share the same slices of my life with them. I miss the tree's reassuring green canopy during the winter months.

But last night, a surprise: hanging there in the space between the two apartment buildings across the street was the moon. Low in the eastern sky, almost full, it glowed chalky white. The sky was dark blue, banded with cotton-candy clouds; the west-facing balconies across from me reflected an vibrant pink sunset.

Standing at the window, I watched the moon's barely perceptible progress for a little while; contemplated taking a photo then decided not to. Sometimes it's better to rely on the mind's eye. I watched and waited. It didn't take long. There it was, and then it was gone: within five minutes the moon had disappeared behind a building. An urban eclipse.

I closed the blinds and went back to my desk and picked up my pen. I carried on.



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

November 13


We took the dogs to the beach. The last time we were there it was high summer, hot and humid in that typical southern Ontario way. I slipped off my sandals and waded for a while to cool down while the dogs gambolled on the sand. Later, itchy, I remembered why you're not supposed to wade in Lake Ontario in the warm weather.

Today it was far too cold for wading – a fact not lost on Flash, who bounded into the lake and, shocked, bounded right back out again. Insulted by the cold water, he stood and barked at the waves until he got distracted by something – a piece of driftwood, maybe, or another dog. Hard to tell. He's a rather inscrutable hound.

We walked eastward, into the wind. The dogs' ears fluttered like flags. Walking with my head down against the wind, I found piece after piece of beach glass glinting in the sand, a handful of tiny bits of blue and green and white, and I remembered someone telling me that the best time to find beach glass is at a full moon. Perhaps I'll go back on Sunday to see what else I can find to augment my collection.

Finally we turned around, and walking with the wind at our backs made all the difference. Suddenly it felt like the sort of day that, if you were sitting in a sheltered spot, you could almost pretend was warm enough for an ice cream cone. Almost, but not quite. Instead, we drank tea from insulated mugs cradled in mittened hands and urged the dogs along, ready to get back to the relative warmth of the car.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November 12


"Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know." – Sarah Vowell


Monday, November 11, 2013

November 11


I've walked past this alley twice a week for twelve weeks now; not sure why I felt the urge to stop and take a photo today. I stood there in the driving rain, balancing the umbrella in the crook of my neck and getting wet anyway, poking away at the screen of my phone, keenly aware of how much I was discomfiting the group of teenagers who'd loped around the corner behind me to light up contraband cigarettes. Looking at the photo now, I can almost catch a whiff of cigarette smoke.

Getting to know this part of the city has been an unexpected bonus of my teaching gig – I haven't spent much time in the east end before now, but these days I take the long way home from campus, exploring the residential streets and enjoying the echoes of all the places where I've lived before. I've met the friendly local Doberman, discovered my favourite front gardens and waded through the after-school rush of kids clutching art projects and soccer balls. One of the houses boasts a collection of topiaries; the one closest to the sidewalk seems to be a curious amalgam of Coyote and a jackalope.

This part of town has a nice "main street" shopping area, including a disproportionate number of bridal shops and a really good health food store, so big and bright and clean that it puts the one in my neighbourhood to shame. Once I'd finished taking pictures in the rain, I pushed thoughts of take-out pizza into the furthest corner of my mind and went to stock up on grains and greens instead. Brown rice and bok choy and tofu; the perfect foils for magic sauce.

Finally, I headed home through the lengthening shadows. I don't love the rain, but I do love the way the wet streets reflect the streetlights. Who can argue with puddles full of rubies and emeralds?


November 10


The baby shower was Saturday, but I've got one more gift on the needles – Hansel, a hap shawl designed by Gudrun Johnston. A hap shawl is a traditional Shetland baby gift, a garter stitch square bordered by a traditional Shetland lace pattern such as feather and fan or old shale, with a knitted-on border that finishes the whole thing off. They are simultaneously workaday and beautiful, full of personal meaning and carrying the weight of tradition, and I have wanted to make one – to have a reason to make one – for a long time.

I have been tinkering away on this in the background for months, but it's suddenly at the front of my queue and I urgently need to get moving. Acres of grey garter stitch isn't the most engaging of knitting, but I've only got 72 more rows of that before I get to tackle the fun part. I intend to be knitting lace by the weekend. Even the Christmas socks, those fingering-weight-on-2-mm albatrosses that I've been carrying everywhere lately, have been set aside for this project.

And so: back to the needles.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 9

I love crafting for babies, even though I always end up tackling something at the last minute and sewing or knitting right down to the wire. For example, this hippo:


I've known for five years that my friend wanted me to make one for her first-born, but there I was last night, with 15 hours to go before the baby shower, getting out my scissors and setting up the sewing machine. I snipped the last thread at 2 a.m.

He's a variation on the elephant pattern in Joelle Hoverson's Last-Minute Patchwork and Quilted Gifts, designed by Hillary Lang of Wee Wonderfuls fame. I'm pleased with how he turned out – my sewing skills are a bit rusty but I don't think anyone could tell. It took just two fat quarters (you could get away with one and scraps) and the most time-consuming thing was the painstaking pinning. But seeing the look on my friend's face when she pulled it out of the gift bag was worth all the effort.

There were more than 20 people at the shower and mine was the only handmade gift. I spend so much time around crafty, creative, talented people that it hadn't occurred to me that might happen; that mine would be the only non-primary coloured, non-plastic, non-covered-in-baseballs-or-tiny-cars thing she received. Ah, my sheltered life.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

November 8


It was cold this morning: -1ºC. The air smelled like winter and the weather report called for snow, but the sky was absent that tell-tale touch of red. I made spiced apple oatmeal, and drank tea, and watched the day begin.

Spiced Apple Oatmeal
1/4 cup large-flake rolled oats
1/2 apple, cored and cut in chunks
1 tbsp raisins
Pinch each cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger
Dash of salt
3/4 cup boiling water

Combine dry ingredients in small saucepan. Pour boiling water over top and stir. Simmer over low heat 15 to 20 minutes, or until oats are plump, apple is soft and most of the water has disappeared. Serve with maple syrup and milk (or cream, if it's the weekend and you're feeling fancy). Serves one but is easily multiplied to feed a crowd.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November 7


The sun was gone by lunchtime, but it was nice while it lasted. We walked up the rickety metal stairs from the train station and skirted the plywood hoarding, caught up in the push and rush of people to-ing and fro-ing. Sometimes it feels like the construction at Union Station will never end. Those new platforms, that promised atrium, the refurbished girders and rebar and concrete that the train station so obviously needs: the idea that it will ever all be in place just seems impossible most days.

We carried on along Front Street. Many of the restaurant patios are still set up, although it's been too cold to sit outside for weeks now. We saw chairs and tables stacked in corners; limp greenery hanging desolately from window boxes that have been fertilized with cigarette butts. A collection of trailers occupied a side street – someone shooting a movie. We carried on.

 A couple blocks south hulks the Gardiner Expressway, the elevated highway that ferries cars across the bottom of the city and which occasionally calves chunks of cement onto the cars below. People scurry underneath, dodging cars and other pedestrians in an effort to get back under clear skies as quickly as possible. Even a deluge of cold, sleety rain is better than the thought of a concrete block landing on your head.

Heading north, we almost missed the light because the couple in front of us didn't understand the walk signal. The hand flashed red and counted down: 15...14...13... . We brushed by, hungry, in a hurry to get to the restaurant. "But can we go?" they asked. "It flashes red!" "Hurry, hurry," I said, but as we gained the opposite side they were still on the corner, deliberating.

Even further north lies City Hall, which has its own clouds hanging over it these days. If you've been anywhere near a newspaper or a late-night talk show this week you'll have heard about our mayor, a man in crisis who could give a reality TV show a run for its money right now. Unfortunately, unlike on a reality show, his troubles are real, unscripted, and there's no help waiting in the wings and no prize at the end. We can't vote him off the island; the interventions have all failed. Our laughter, which always had a self-aware "isn't this awful?" hollowness to it, is dying out completely.

But life carries on. Inside the Belgian restaurant, with its tiny booths covered in sparkly green vinyl and its dual specialties of waffles and beer, the air smelled of breakfast, yeast and hops. No matter the news, there's still the pleasure of good company and good food; the joy of laughing with a friend about nothing in particular. Outside, the wind swirls tiny dust devils, picking up twigs and gum wrappers, plastering wet leaves to the crackled paint on the door. Inside, it's the talk that swirls, twisting and turning and doubling back.

It's all temporary, but I know which one I'd rather pay attention to.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November 6

Today: A red sky in the morning, then heavy grey clouds stretching out to every horizon. Stop-and-start rain, a walk with two hound dogs, one of whom nabbed a truly impressive stick. Endless cups of tea, endless stacks of papers to mark. Three dead ballpoint pens. A little girl in a red macintosh and matching rubber boots, skipping down the sidewalk in the rain, singing a made-up song. Macaroni and cheese; a pumpkin spice doughnut. I bought my first Christmas present, and a birthday present for my favourite three-year-old. I looked at Christmas cards and tiny gilded Christmas tree ornaments. The sun set at 5:02 p.m.



It's tempting to say that I've hit the late-autumn doldrums, but I'm anything but becalmed. I'm refusing to acknowledge the early sunsets, with varying degrees of success, and my body still hasn't caught on to the time change: every day this week I've been ready for lunch by 11 a.m. The body wants what it wants when it wants it (which, this week, is meatball sandwiches at 11, although it gets carrots at noon instead).


My craft projects orbit my work space like moons, challenging my grasp of time and space. It's a small apartment, so they never get to occupy one surface for very long; instead, they get shuffled from couch to ottoman to desk to table and back again. The next pair of Christmas socks is proceeding well, though typically slowly; the tilting Tardis cowl gets a halting three rows before breakfast and another three before dinner. This stack of fabric is destined to become a stuffed hippo sometime before Saturday afternoon, although my current strategy of leaving everything piled next to the sewing machine doesn't seem to be working.

Everything, suddenly, has a deadline; but I'll get there. As with anything, it's just a matter of taking it one thing at a time: one word after another, one stitch after another, one day after another. It will all get done, and soon enough the days will begin to lengthen once more.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

November 5

This afternoon, in need of a bit of fresh air and a bit of perspective, I headed across the street for a walk in the cemetery. Macabre or not, I love it there: immaculate lawns, unusual trees, the chittering of squirrels and chipmunks. The noise of the subway and the traffic becomes just a distant rattle and roar. On my way home I am always restored. 










Back tomorrow. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

November 4


I was beset by writer's block this morning and so instead of working I sat at my desk and watched the shadows of leaves chase each other across the wall. The maple tree outside my window has held on admirably, but today its leaves were falling in flurries; giant yellow snowflakes, catching in drifts and banks on the lawn below. The temperature dropped dramatically a couple nights ago, and suddenly it's not difficult to imagine snow in place of the leaves.

The enormous oak tree next door has leaves the colour of old, burnished copper saucepans. In the morning, if I time it right, there's a short time when I can catch the sun as the light slants down and illuminates the leaves from behind. I stand at the window with a cup of tea in hand and I watch the leaves glow just like a stained-glass window: yellow and green, crimson and burnt-orange, black branches instead of lead solder. The layers shift in the breeze. Five minutes later, the spectacle is over for another day. Another week, and it will be over for another year, and the only stained glass I'll have to admire will be the windows in the hundred year–old church down the street. It suffices.

Meanwhile, the cool days with their early evenings have their small consolations – crisp air,  woodsmoke and beeswax candles; rice pudding, jewel-like pomegranate seeds and tiny, juicy oranges; woollen hats, handknit socks and cozy afghans. Spiced tea and spiced rum. The fall-coloured leaf and the stained-glass window.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

November 3




A couple weeks ago I had dinner with an old friend of mine who was in the city on business.

The last time we saw each other was over a year ago, and I was visiting her. I turned off the Trans-Canada and into town just in time to sit down with her family for dinner – pork tenderloin, corn and green beans, noodles. There was ice cream for dessert. Her sons, who were just a toddler and a newborn when first we met, are now young men, pushing six feet. I tried not to stare; tried not to repeat too many variations of "You used to be so small..." I wasn't particularly successful on either count, I don't think.

When we finished eating, we headed out again; out across the highway and into the countryside, to the dairy farm where her younger son boards his 4-H calf. It started to rain. I was wearing just a t-shirt, a denim skirt, slip-on Keds; I was completely unprepared. They managed not to laugh out loud at me as I tip-toed across the barnyard, slipping and sliding through the cow manure, or when I recoiled from the attentions of the dozens of curious barn cats. When the thunder and lightning started, I bolted for the car, secretly happy for a legitimate excuse to seek refuge from all that mess, all that life.

Home again, she and I stayed up late, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea from the old Pyrex tea pot and talking. The house was dark. The only illumination was from the fixture over the sink; the light spilled onto the floor in a golden pool. The streetlight out the window glowed sodium orange. We talked past midnight. We had a lot of catching up to do.

We had a lot of catching up to do this time, too. As I rode the rush-hour train downtown to meet her at her hotel, I thought about our last visit: how the town where I'd once lived had felt simultaneously so familiar and so strange to me. How I'd driven past my old apartments, peered into the window of my old office, walked the old familiar campus paths. How I'd watched that teenage boy work with his calf, and how confident and self-assured he'd been, and how somehow his calf had looked better, more special, than all the rest. How later, retelling the story of my farm visit to my friends at work, I'd watched them lift their feet off the floor in sympathetic dismay, imagining the mud and the manure, and how then I'd laughed, recognizing myself in them; recognizing the city-mouse caricature that I'd become.

We walked up Yonge Street to my favourite local pub. I'd estimated it would only take us twenty minutes, but it was more than half an hour. I'd forgotten how much there is to look at when you're seeing it for the first time. How bright the lights are; how many people there are; how close and loud and crazy they all seem. She pointed out businesses I'd forgotten existed. She asked questions about things I'd never wondered about, and questions I wasn't sure I had the answer to.

"How do you do it?" she asked. And "Do you like it here?" I hesitated too long before answering.

Once again we talked for hours. We had salads in order to justify the giant plate of fries. No dessert. The light was dim, but the space heater behind us was hard at work, so the pub was warm and cozy. The other tables filled and emptied, but we stayed on, until the fries were almost all gone and it was finally time to go. We caught the subway back downtown; it was full of the usual late-night characters, and there were empty paper cups and plastic bottles and discarded newspapers on the floor. In the darkened windows I caught a glimpse of my city-mouse self, operating in her element, navigating a different kind of mess, a different kind of life.

We hugged in the hotel lobby and went our separate ways. It will probably be a year before we see each other again, even though a year is too long. In the days since then, I keep hearing her voice asking me, "How do you do it? Do you like it here?" And then I hear the echo of my hesitation.

But this morning I rode the streetcar to work and I had my answer. Queen Street is quiet first thing on a Sunday morning, and the air was crisp and the sky was blue and there was time enough to walk to the coffee shop to buy a muffin from the guy with the wire-rimmed glasses who knows all the neighbourhood kids by name. I tucked the muffin into my bag and headed east, walking past the park, into the sun. Something about the light made me look up, and I saw those trees, and that lamp post, and the blue blue sky, and I smiled. I do like it, most of the time. It's like anything. You just have to know where to look.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

November 2

A grey day today: glowering skies, wind whipping through the trees, and rain that varied from a romantic Scotch mist to the sort of driving force that somehow forces water up your sleeves as you walk home, despite the best efforts of your umbrella and your mittens and the general principles of gravity. 



After a long, mild fall, the trees in my neighbourhood are finally shedding their leaves, and I'm predicting many bare branches by Monday morning. Walking home tonight in the gloaming, I saw the Japanese maple on the corner practically glowing in the dark; the pale hydrangea three doors down were almost iridescent, beads of water on every petal, shimmering in the light from the front porch. The people next door have a new golden retriever puppy, a cheerful, bumbling ball of fluff who doesn't seem to mind the weather at all. I should be so lucky.

And so tonight, a comfort-food dinner: a hearty slice of country bread, layered with bright green kale (simmered in chicken stock with a bit of tomato paste and some sautéed onions stirred in), and topped with a fried egg. One pan, one bowl, one fork, one knife; simple but deeply satisfying. Rice pudding seems like the natural follow-up, but tonight ice cream filled the bill. We're on the cusp of winter; there will be many other nights for a dessert cooked low and slow, filling the house with the scents of vanilla and nutmeg. I'll save it for another, colder day.

Friday, November 1, 2013

November 1

A year ago today, I stood on the beach in Napier, New Zealand, and watched the waves roll in. It was early afternoon, and the sun was high overhead. The sky and the water seemed endlessly blue.


I had woken up that morning on the other side of the island and driven cross-country for almost four hours. I crossed from lush forest, thick with ferns, to meadowed valleys, where gorse crowded the roadside. I wound my way up and down mountainsides, my cautious Canadian nature balking at the 120 km/hour speed limit on the precipitous two-lane mountain roads. Whenever I could, I pulled over to let people pass, although I pretended that I was getting out of the car to look at the sheep.

The fact that I can't find any pictures of sheep is probably revealing.

I got to Napier and checked into my hotel. That day I was supposed to join my tour group, half a dozen other writers, but I found myself wanting to prolong my solitude. I begged off lunch and headed into town, where I bought an apple and a homemade granola bar from a health-food store and a latte from the coffee shop next door. I'd been travelling on my own for five days and my head was swimming from too much time alone and an incipient head cold, but I found some comfort in the fact that the health-food store smelled familiar: sandalwood and nutritional yeast and paper bags. Some things don't change, whatever the hemisphere. The smell of the health-food store, the shape of the lid on my takeaway cup, the taste of the hot, frothy milk – each carried their own brand of familiar reassurance.



The walk down to the water took less than five minutes. I crossed the promenade, skirted the band shell and hopped a low tide wall onto the shingled beach. The gravel crunched beneath my boots and the sun glared down; there were girls in bikinis, hopeful, watching the surfers, but the breeze was cool enough that I was moved to wrap myself more tightly in my scarf. I sat on a driftwood log to eat my snack, and I watched the waves, and I thought about "my" ocean, the Atlantic, and wondered if I'd ever seen it so blue.

After a while, I pushed the apple core into the empty paper cup and stood up to walk back. On the way, I looked for rocks – striped pebbles, my favourite – and tried to fix those moments in my mind.


(More about Napier, the Art Deco capital of the world.)