Bread of life

Today’s loaf of fresh bread — the Rapid White product

So, hubby and I are self-isolating for a few days. We’ve only been lightly ill; in any other year we’d just be treating this as a seasonal bug, and it’s strange to have to consider that we might have picked up the coronavirus. Provincial health officials stated a few days ago that anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness has a high probability of actually having the Omicron variant, such is its transmissibility.

I did a grocery run on Sunday, using all the proper precautions — surgical-quality mask, hand-sanitizer after I left every store, then washing my hands for 20 seconds when I got back in the house.

On Monday morning I started getting chills, aches, a headache, some coughing and possibly a mild fever. None of these are unusual for me by themselves (except the fever) — they’re just a fun part of having fibromyalgia. After popping Vitamin C and acetaminophen all day long, and waiting to see what might develop, by the next morning I felt substantially better. The Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period (as low as 2 days), but I had no other symptoms, so I put it down to one of my worse days with a chronic condition.

By Wednesday morning, hubby told me he was so achy he wasn’t going in to work. That is highly unusual; I can probably count on one set of fingers the number of times he’s stayed home over the decades. He spent most of the day wrapped up in multiple throw blankets. When he remained home again today, we decided to do the right thing and follow the province’s protocol to assume the worst and quarantine ourselves.

There’s no way to tell if we have the virus or not; we’re certainly not ill enough to go the hospital (not complaining!), but since we’ve had symptoms we can’t go out and get a couple of Rapid Antigen test kits to see if we even have the antibodies. So we’re ‘stuck’ at home, sitting by the fire with cups of tea and watching television — not the worst position to be in.

Fortunately we have plenty of the two most critical needs in stock: food and toilet paper 😉 We were running low on bread, though, and as a result, today became the day my hubby must stop yanking my chain about how much each freshly-made loaf has cost us so far after we invested in a bread machine last fall.

I began thinking about getting an automatic bread-maker — even though we didn’t really need to add another appliance taking up counter space in our modestly-sized kitchen — after some of my favourite commercial breads started adding barley to their flour mix. For years I’ve had to read ingredient-labels on everything to avoid things like soy and sulfites, both of which give me nasty migraines; after several unexpected migraines I wasn’t happy to be forced to add barley to the list. Barley can add fibre and help the fermentation of the yeast. Neither of those benefits did me any good, and I started looking into making my own bread.

After talking to friends with a variety of machines and conducting online research into features and user reviews, and after hubby suggested we buy a machine as a Christmas ‘house gift’, I made the decision to go for the top-rated brand, the one with the weird name, Zojirushi. The brand has had some negative reviews on Amazon, although most were very positive. I’ve been using it at least once a week for about a month and a half now, and have no complaints at all.

I chose the Virtuoso Plus model for one crucial reason: it makes Sourdough bread, and even makes the starter. My hubby and I were introduced to great Sourdough in California on our first visit. It should be chewy and distinctively sour, and since it’s been hard to find good Sourdough in our neighbourhood ever since, that was the first feature I looked for.

Our machine makes a very good Sourdough. The whole thing takes about six hours: a little over two to make the starter, after which you must directly segue into making the bread itself, another roughly four hours. The bread has a nice crust, good toothsome-ness, and a lovely tart flavour.

I didn’t jump into that at the beginning, though. I tried the easy Italian bread, because it didn’t require dried milk, of which I had none on hand. Carefully measuring the ingredients and adding them to the baking pan in the order prescribed (apparently each bread machine has a specific order it wants you to follow), I keyed in the correct Course on the control panel and nervously pushed START.

When the machine beeped 3 & 1/2 hours later, I was rewarded with a perfect loaf of warm bread.

Here’s how an automatic bread machine works (at least the one I have): After washing and some assembly — basically putting the little beater bars in place inside the baking pan, which mix the ingredients and knead the dough — you put the ingredients in as listed in the handy Recipe Book. If you’re making one of their suggested breads, you enter in which one (with Zojirushi they’re all numbered) and push the Start button. That’s essentially it, until 2 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 hours later the aroma of freshly-baked bread fills your house.

The image isn’t the clearest, but this is the control panel of the machine for today’s bread: Course 9, Rapid White Bread, to be finished at 3:45pm

Some breads have added ingredients, like Raisin Bread; the machine pauses and beeps at you to let you know when to add the raisins. I haven’t tried every single standard recipe, but the Raisin Bread is very nice, pleasantly cinnamon-y and tender.

The machine will also just make dough for you, which you can then take out and shape into a number of other bread-based things, like bagels or dinner rolls. For Christmas Eve I found a recipe online for making buttery Parker House rolls using a bread machine, and they turned out perfectly despite the fact that I messed up and put double the amount of butter in. (There must be a saying somewhere that you ‘can’t have too much butter in a roll’, or there should be.) For the Parker House rolls, I used the “Homemade” course, which requires you to manually enter the timing for each cycle of the process by pressing the Cycle button: Rest >> Knead >> Shape >> Rise 1 >> Rise 2 >> Rise 3 >> Bake. Depending on what you’re making some of the cycles may be set to zero, i.e. they’re not being used for your bread type.

I don’t know what other brands have, but there are several things I like about my machine:

a) The Rest cycle, which the machine uses to bring all the ingredients to the right temperature. When making bread by hand, bakers have to be aware of the temperature of the room at the time, and make sure none of the ingredients are too warm or cold. My machine eliminates that.

b) The default setting for the crust is “medium”, which produces the lovely golden-brown crust you can see in the photo at the start of this post.

c) Although the manufacturer states that the machine gets quite hot during the Baking cycle, I didn’t find it too bad. I still pull the machine out from under the cupboard, where it normally sits, to use it (away from my wooden cabinets), and use oven mitts to remove the hot finished loaf, but otherwise I find it not much hotter to the touch than our toaster, and during the preceding cycles it stays cool.

The only suggestion I’d have for the manufactures is to light up the control panel; it’s hard to read without using a flashlight.

I’ve read that many bread bakers find the kneading process quite therapeutic. All I can say is that I find the simplicity of the machine, freeing you to do something else until the incredible aroma lets you know that your warm, fluffy loaf is ready, is very therapeutic — especially on days when you’re under the weather 🙂

Here’s what the machine process looks like:

Choose the recipe;

Measure the ingredients, using the handy measuring cups that come with the machine, and place them in the Baking Pan in the order listed;

I dump my bags of bread flour into a plastic bin — much easier to measure the flour correctly

Place the Baking Pan inside the machine; mine has metal feet that click into place;

One critical tip: you must place the yeast (the darkest brown in the photo) so it doesn’t contact the salt – otherwise the yeast will be deactivated. I tuck the salt into the back right corner.

Close the machine’s lid and program the bread course that you want (as in the photo earlier in this post);

Take out your beautiful finished loaf!

Using oven mitts (the baking pan is hot when you take it out), you just turn the pan over and gently shake the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Then you’re supposed to wait for it to cool down, but I wanted to show you what the bread looks like inside when freshly cut:

A slice of freshly-baked, pillowy white bread

Your loaf will have indents on the bottom where it baked around the beater bars. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, but once you bite into the delicious bread, you won’t care.

Bite into a piece of this bread and then tell me whether you’re worried about how pretty it is 🙂

For breads where you take the dough out, let it rest, and shape it (e.g. there’s a great Party Loaf recipe included where you cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and stuff the balls with something like cream cheese or chocolate), you can remove the beater bars before you put the shaped dough back in, or bake your dough in a regular oven (as I did with the Parker House rolls).

Our machine makes a two-pound loaf, which typically lasts us about a week. The bread is more delicious than anything I’ve ever bought in a bakery, even a really good one (truly). Plus, you can’t beat a loaf that’s still warm from the oven, but even at that our machine-made bread has taken several days longer to begin going stale than commercial bread does.

All in all, our investment has been an unqualified success. As long as I keep stocked up on a few basic ingredients, I can make us bread whenever we want, which will be delightful during our self-imposed quarantine. The machine will also make things like pizza dough, cake, and even jam, none of which I’ve tried yet, but I did order some whole-grain rye from Amazon to use for my sourdough starter, and I hope to try making a full-on hearty rye bread with caraway one of these days.

Today, since I had a turkey carcass left over from having made a turkey dinner on Monday, I decided a good turkey soup was just the thing to go with a fresh loaf of bread — healthy, cozy and nourishing. By my hubby’s cheeky calculations we’re probably down to about $50 a loaf now, but like any new toy the cost will go down the more we use it, and the pleasure we get from having this resource, as well as the comfort of knowing I can both control the ingredients so that I don’t get a headache and keep us well-supplied even as prices in grocery stores rise this year, have already paid for the gadget long before we reach that break-even loaf. And that will likely happen very soon!

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Gifts for travelers – my most-used items over the years

Sacsayhuaman from a distance in Peru. Photo and rights by E. Jurus

Even though travel abroad seems really far away these days, there are always daydreams and wishes. People ask my hubby and I all the time about our next trip, and my answer is always the same: when the pandemic settles down enough that the main adventure is at the destination, not getting there or back home. We love unpredictability, but not from the governments 😉

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for gift ideas for an adventure traveler for some future journey, here are a few things that my hubby and I have found really useful over the years:

  1. A lighted magnifying mirror. I’ve used it on every safari we’ve been on, trying to insert contact lenses in the pre-dawn hours in a dark tent; on every single other trip since I bought it, because hotel bathroom lighting is never good enough to apply some basic facial care, or get a fallen eyelash out of your eye; and daily at home. This is the exact mirror I have — it’s lightweight, has an unbreakable mirror (so far, in 14 years of ownership), and doesn’t drain the batteries (I typically replace them maybe once a year).
  2. A cordless flat iron. If you have hair that looks ridiculous when you get out of bed, this item is invaluable for looking presentable when your lodging has no electricity — like some safari camps. The one I have holds enough charge for a week’s worth of quick hair-fixing, assuming I don’t loan it out to all the people who usually ask me to borrow it. I’m not sure my brand is still made, but I found quite a few different other offerings on Amazon.
  3. A good day-pack. The one I have is called the “Healthy Back Bag“. What makes it so great are the myriad pockets both inside and out that hold an amazing number of essential items. On our first safari in 2007, post-9/11 anxiety was still high and airlines were only allowing a single carry-on item per person. I managed to stuff my HBB with all my travel documents, a small leather journal, several pens, all my medications, my camera with spare batteries and memory cards, travel-sized toiletries for the 1 & 1/2 days of travel just to get to Botswana, and a paperback book to read while flying — all neatly organized. When we were on the safari, I carried everything I needed for the day’s game drives and a bottle of water. The bag is incredibly durable, comfortable to carry and even has a slash-resistant strap. In between trips, I take use it when I’m out hiking.
  4. A synthetic base layer, aka undershirt. Even in Africa, the temperature variation from dawn to dusk can be significant, so a good base layer will help you feel comfortable in a variety of places. I bought mine at a local outdoor outfitter; a good fit is essential.
  5. A good pair of hiking shoes. Hard to buy for someone else, so you might need to do this as a gift certificate.
  6. Packing cubes/pouches. When you’re on an adventure with limited facilities, keeping your toiletries, underwear, medications and other such items organized and easy to find is invaluable.
  7. DK Travel Guides. I love poring through these detailed and beautifully illustrated guides when I’m planning a trip, or just need a little mental escape. If you’re planning your own itinerary, their information will help you whittle down your must-see list.
  8. Stocking stuffers: a) Spare camera batteries. I always carry three — one in my camera, and two fully-charged spares. At night I take out the one I’ve been using all day and charge it up. b) Spare camera memory cards.

Things we have but don’t really use:

a) Binoculars. They’re heavy to carry when you’re trying to travel light, and if I want to zoom in on something I use my camera.

b) Bug shirt. Yes, there were a lot of insects in the Amazon jungle, but they weren’t biting us. I use it more here at home on summer hikes in the humid and mosquito/tick-filled woods.

c) Money belt — we’ve never used them. They look silly and are blindingly obvious to thieves when you’re trying to retrieve your cash.

If you have a real traveler on your gift list, I hope my top picks give you some inspiration.

Cheers,

Erica

430 million years of history into cement

Buried under more than 50 wineries, 10 golf courses, a college and a university, shopping malls, an outlet mall, and around 447,000 residents lie rocks that predate the dinosaurs by almost 350 million years. Standing on top of the Niagara Escarpment and looking out over the Queenston Quarry, it’s impossible to imagine what this land looked like so long ago.

More recent than that, but even harder to picture as the wind blew clouds fiercely across the sky, from 23,000 to 12,000 years ago the land we were standing on was covered in a glacial sheet of ice between 1 to 3 miles thick. That was the last of three successive glaciers that changed the shape of everything in southern Ontario.

Ice of a mile thick would exert 150 tons per square foot of pressure — it’s been estimated that the weight of the Late Wisconsin Glacier pushed the land 200 feet downward. When a glacier retreats the land begins to push back up, and in the Niagara basin it created the 11th and 13th largest lakes in the world: Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. We took visiting friends from Australia to the beach along Lake Ontario, and they asked if they were looking at the sea, not a lake.

At 445 million years ago, the entire area was a sea — the Michigan sea. tropical, and full of small creatures that, when they died, deposited enough calcium carbonate shells to form thick layers of sediment that slowly turned into layers and layers of limestone. It was this very limestone that, over 400 million years later, would become the basis for both a quarry and a cement company in 19th century Queenston, originally named Queen’s Town by the British soldiers occupying the area during the War of 1812, then shortened to Queenstown. The area was actually settled in the 1770s by Loyalist refugees and immigrants from the United States.

The Queenston Quarry was founded in 1837, supplying the stone for many of Ontario’s cities. The Royal Ontario Museum, Queen’s Park and Union Station in Toronto were all built with Queenston stone.

In 1882, ‘Isaac Usher & Sons’ opened a cement operation at the top of the escarpment running past the quarry. They mined a layer of stone with components similar to cement, firing it in huge limestone kilns, Once finished in the kilns, the product was ground into a powder and sold as Red Star cement. It was the first such plant in Ontario. In 1898, the Ushers issued a 33-page pamphlet entitled “Practical Hints on the Use of Queenston Cement” can still be found in libraries as far away as Australia.

Screenshot of brochure cover; the document can be viewed in its entirety on the Canadiana website.

The Ushers closed their doors in 1905, and their kilns and ovens began to disappear under the rich soil and forests of the escarpment. Luckily they didn’t vanish entirely, and partially-restored remnants can still be seen today on a strenuous hike along Queenston Heights.

The trail starts off innocuously flat.

After a while you come across a strange structure poking its head out of the trees. It’s an old metal tower that was apparently used by the Department of National Defence to intercept foreign radio waves during the Cold War.

As we wound our way through the trees, we found two of the pit ovens used to treat the raw limestone.

The remarkable stone structure of the escarpment could be seen in a breathtaking natural amphitheatre about half of the way to the actual kilns.

After that point the trail becomes extremely hilly, and it was treacherous to hike on a fall day after several days of rain had littered the ground under our feet with thousands of wet leaves.

If you want to do this hike, I’d recommend spike-tipped hiking poles at the very least. Even with sturdy treads at the bottom of my hiking boots, I was happy to take the bypass where dirt steps have been added.

It took us a good 45 minutes to reach the kilns.

During excavation of the Third Welland Canal, it was discovered that a layer of natural cement rock underlay the blue dolomite running across much of the Niagara Escarpment. Usher leased the land from the owner of the property in order to build three kilns (later increased to six), 40 feet high by 10 feet in diameter. Two of them can be seen in the photo below.


The kilns were constructed of rubble and lined with fire brick and fire clay.

At the bottom, steel rails formed grates on which firewood and soft coal were layered with the cement rock and soft coal until the kiln was filled. The firewood was then lighted and kept burning as more coal and rock were added from the top. Below you can see remnants of the steel rails in the roof of the bottom opening.

I haven’t so far been able to find a definitive description of the process, but the resulting cement powder was packed in barrels produced at the warehouse. Each barrel held 350 pounds of powder.

The Queenston Cement Works was a going concern for several years, supplying cement for the St. Lawrence/Welland and Sault Ste. Marie Canals. The adhesiveness of Ushers’ cement was so high that in 1932 , during the blasting to remove the old Welland River Aqueduct, which carried the Welland River under the Canal, the stone itself typically broke before the cement bond did.

Unfortunately the Ushers weren’t able to compete with the lower pricing of Portland cement, developed in England earlier that century. Portland’s base materials were lower cost and widely available, and this cement remains in wide usage to this day. Queenston Cement also took 24 hours to dry, as compared to only 6 hours for Portland.

The cement stone was mined not far from the kilns in a system of caves that can still be seen.

When you look in through one of the two openings, you understand how difficult this mining must have been.

The caves are squatter than a person’s height, and the limestone rock bearing down on them is full of cracks. The tunnels are also flooded much of the time.

People have climbed down into them to have a look around, but from the number of cave-ins that have been spotted not far from the entrances, it’s not a stunt I’d recommend.

The Queenston Quarry itself was operated until apparently around 2008; its last owner as such was Lafarge Canada. After that it was bought by a developer, the Queenston Quarry Reclamation Company, who’s transforming the land into a golf course and residences. And so, another piece of Niagara history changes hands and develops a new face.

A ghostly hike

I’ve never seen a ghost. I’m not saying they don’t exist, and I’d love to see one (except in my own residence). We love to go on ghost walks pretty much everywhere.

We even requested tickets to the nightly locking-up ceremony at the Tower of London, which is reputedly one of the most haunted places on the planet – given the number of people who went in but never came out. I really wanted to see the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who reportedly runs around carrying her severed head under her arm, but no luck. Not even a glimmer.

Ah well, I keep persevering. When my hiking buddy suggested a look at an abandoned railroad tunnel colloquially known as the Blue Ghost Tunnel, I was in like a dirty shirt.

The official name was the Merritton Tunnel, in honour of William Merritt, the ‘father of the Welland Canal system’. It was built in 1875 as a way to cross the third version of the Welland Canal, the famous transportation canal system by which cargo ships traverse from the St. Lawrence Seaway, through Lake Ontario, and then down to the lower Lake Erie. The tunnel was placed between locks 18 and 19, and spans 713 feet (including stone work capping the ends).

Historic photo of the newly-constructed Merritton Tunnel, source unknown.

It’s astounding to envision hundreds of men excavating the tunnel with picks and shovels. People died during the construction, including a 14-year-old boy, and two employees were killed in 1903 at 7:03 a.m. when two trains, Engine Number 4 and Engine Number 975, had a head-on collision about one-third of a mile from the tunnel’s western entrance. It was reported that both engines in “full steam” at 22 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound like much in modern times, but the two firemen for the trains were gruesomely injured; one died instantly, the other in hospital just a few hours later.

The tunnel received its more colourful name from a young paranormal investigator, Russ (last name undiscoverable) who visited the tunnel several times. He reported intense feelings of fear, dizziness and something like an electrical charge; on one occasion he states that something invisible was barring their access to the tunnel and that he and his group felt their lives would be at risk if they proceeded.

Russ believed he saw a bluish mist at the entrance, which transformed its appearance from a pretty little girl to a dog/wolf to a demon. His compatriots apparently didn’t see it, and photos from the visit are said to be explainable as pictures of Russ’s own breath in the chilly tunnel. From what I could find, Russ planned on selling his story to the movie industry, and perhaps got caught up in his own haunted creation.

Ghost tours are occasionally run at night, which would be an eerie experience indeed, as the tunnel is quite chilly, as well as partially flooded. Water drips constantly from the ceiling and the footing is very uncertain.

My buddy and I visited in broad daylight on a hot summer day. After a long walk down an old factory access road, one looks for an indicator marked on a metal railing.

Then it’s a steep skid down a bush-studded hillside to where the old railway tracks used to run. I wouldn’t want to try this after a good rainfall.

Unfortunately vandals have rather spoiled the entrance with graffiti, and we saw a fair bit of garbage around the entrance.

As soon as you enter the arched tunnel, you can see substantial flooding on the left side — it runs the entire length of the tunnel.

There are still remnants of the wooden parts of the tracks, but they’re very worn and really slippery from the pervasive moisture. The footing in general is quite treacherous. There are no lights inside the tunnel, so a good flashlight is essential.

The water along the side wall is at least a foot deep — not something to stumble into in the dark!

There are ceiling supports in several spots to shore up the collapsing roof, and we had to duck under them to move onward.

Supports also run to the walls in a few places; we weren’t sure what they were for. Between those and the water dripping down, however, you’re left with the distinct feeling that you don’t want to linger too long.

The far end of the tunnel is completely flooded, and impassable. It looked several feet deep, with no hint of what might be underfoot in the cold water.

We didn’t experience any feelings of dread or being watched by something. As we returned to the entrance, I took this photo of what looks like mist just inside — not surprising given the chill of the tunnel meeting the heat of the day outside. It does look vaguely bluish, I will admit.

According to records, a total of 107 men were killed during the construction of the tunnel and the canal, so the Blue Ghost Tunnel seems like the kind of place that would be haunted. It would be interesting to see at night, if you’re up for seriously wet and chilly discomfort; if you decide to try it, please do wear hiking shoes with a good tread and be very careful while you’re walking through. All kinds of debris litter the water, and I can only imagine what could be caught by falling into it. And if you experience any kind of haunting there, please do let me know 🙂

All photos by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Just try this out, will you!

I’ve been working through a marketing book about honing your message, and one of the questions the book asked its readers was ‘What ticks you off more than anything?’

I had to think about that for a few minutes, since I have a number of pet peeves, like everyone. Eventually one thing particularly came to mind: people who always refuse things.

I’ll readily admit that my hubby and I are more adventurous than just about anyone we know personally. There’s very little we’ll say “no” to, whether it’s a new restaurant, a new activity, a new place to visit.

My mother-in-law said to us once, as we took her to a favourite restaurant in Toronto whose entrance was located down a back alley: “Where do you find these places?”

Well, I explained, a couple of years previously we’d arranged tickets to a theatre performance of Argentinian tango, and we thought it would be fun to have a themed dinner beforehand. I found a book on all the ethnic restaurants in the city, then looked up all the Latin or Spanish restaurants and picked one. It was a fortuitous choice and we’d been going there ever since. Best sangria ever!

In our house we have a standing rule: guests can’t refuse food without at least trying it. (Before they come over I always check on any food issues first, of course.) Once tasted, if someone doesn’t like the dish they certainly don’t have to finish it, but that rarely happens. Most food is delicious if it’s made well, and even if someone’s tried out a dish in a restaurant, that’s not a guarantee that they’ve had a good version of it.

All of us have likes and dislikes, as the interesting individuals we are, but so many people seem to have a much bigger negative list than positive.

Such a narrow little world they create for themselves. They won’t even give something new a chance, and really, how do you know if you’ll like something otherwise?

People who look for perfection and absolute order will always be disappointed. Half the fun of doing anything is being surprised by it – the random roadside café on a trip that served great food, the movie you didn’t expect much from that turned into great entertainment, an outfit that looked blah on the hanger but amazingly good when you tried it on (just bought one of those the other day, as a matter of fact 😊 )

Imperfection makes things interesting. Possibly our all-time favourite golf course is in rural Tennessee. It’s not upscale by any means – it could certainly use a little TLC around some of the greens – but the layout is spectacular and adventurous between and across two flowing rivers, and both times we’ve played there’s hardly been anyone else there. We love it so much that each time we travel down there we make a point of seeking it out.

Our favourite eateries tend to be family-run ethnic restaurants with really great, unpretentious food that feels like you’re eating at their home.

On trips we like to get away from our hotel and wander the streets in town to see what’s there – a great shop on a small street in Paris that had shelves and shelves of inks and writing instruments; food trucks along the harbour in Papeete, Tahiti, where we had fantastic small plates under awnings in the pouring rain; a shaman shop in Cuzco, Peru where I bought a cool carved and feathered gourd rattle.

What experiences we would have missed if we always looked for the posh and controlled! We’d never have met a group of school girls at a temple in Bangkok who asked if they could practice their English with us, or the little alpaca who wanted to have a taste of my hubby’s pant leg in Peru, or have rattled through the crazy dusty truck ride to find the local camel market in southern Egypt.

We’d have never had a Yorkshire barkeep explain what a “vicar’s collar” is (a poured beer with too much foamy head on it), or spent an evening on the banks of the Nile singing Egyptian folk songs with the boat crew, or even discussed our subsidized health system in Canada with an interested waiter in New Orleans.

Stop saying “no” to the unfamiliar, or the less-than-perfect. Approach everything with curiosity and an open mind, and you’ll never be bored. The world is full of fascinating things to explore, if you’re only willing enough to enjoy them exactly as they are.

The little writer that could

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can write a novel…but I didn’t for a couple of decades, or more. Actually, I’ve been jotting ideas for a very long time. With every approaching milestone birthday I’d set that date as a deadline for writing a book, but it never came to pass.

You see, nothing new ever happens unless you take a chance, take that first step outside your comfort zone.

I have finally finished that first book, and I did pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. I typed “The End” on August 1, and thought I’d run out to get a nice new bottle, but as fate would have it, all the stores were closed for our Civic Holiday. Drat! I hunted through the stock of wine in our rec-room bar, and finally found one old bottle that someone had given us for a gift a while ago. It was dusty, and debatably drinkable, but it was the only option, so after dinner we opened it up, hoping for the best. Luckily, it was still potable, although I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t.

What really mattered, of course, was the achievement, and even if the book never gets published, the fact that I wrote it means a great deal.

I’ve backed up the files onto two separate portable drives, and am determinedly leaving the pages to rest for a while. It’s been surprisingly difficult to step away – I have so loved telling the story of my tarnished heroine and her adventures into the supernatural – but during the down-time I am getting caught up on quite a few chores that took a back seat for the past few months, so that’s a good thing anyway.

Editing will begin in a couple of weeks, coinciding with the return of kids to school at the beginning of September. I wonder if that may be fate; as a child I always loved restarting school each autumn. I may have grumbled about homework and occasionally day-dreamed about being outside on a beautiful fall day if I was bored in class, but I loved the atmosphere of learning.

Learning to me is one of the greatest gifts in our lives. There are so many fascinating things to explore about our world! Today is World Elephant Day, for example, and I just read that elephants have about 150,000 muscles just in their trunks, which are remarkable appendages that they use to drink with, breathe with while wading in deep water, and pick up food with – anything from small twigs to large fruit and grasses. When we were in the Okavango Delta of Botswana we watched one elephant rip up great hanks of grasses with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth.

I learned a great deal from writing my novel, and for anyone who thinks they’d love to write as well but are too worried about their ability to finish to even begin – as I was – I can tell you what guided me to that final page:

  1. I had a good idea of what my heroine’s journey was going to be – in other words, a plan. I would have found it virtually impossible to start cold turkey. Maybe some writers can do it that way, but I couldn’t.
  2. I was worried whether I’d have enough of a story to tell, but as the heroine’s journey went on, a lot of events fell logically into place. After all, every action has consequences, and I was interested to see them play out. Sometimes the results surprised me as much as they did the heroine, and that was half the fun!
  3. I wrote every single day throughout November to get to the desired goal of 50,000 words. That was really important to me – it was my barometer to decide whether I was capable of producing an entire book. Every successful author’s advice has always included one particular message: perseverance is key.
  4. Embarking on this project was a big leap of faith, but I didn’t want to reach the end of my life (some day in the far distant future, I hope) without having at least tried. At the beginning I worried about all the same things as other would-be authors, I’m sure: am I worthy, can I fill up an entire book, can I come up with believable dialogue… In the end, my journey was as intense as my heroine’s, and we both discovered new things about ourselves.
  5. Every big project looks intimidating at the beginning. The road to success consists of achieving one part of the big picture at a time. Writing that first chapter wasn’t too bad, and then the second, then the third…and one day eight months later the last.
  6. Finishing the book has given me an enormous confidence boost. If I can do it once, I can do it again – for Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy (for which I’m furiously jotting down ideas even now), and for a couple of non-fiction books I also want to write.

Goals and journeys are only ever achieved by taking that first wobbly step into the unknown. I’m nervous about editing my draft, wondering how painful/frustrating it’s going to be, but I forge ahead in the knowledge that I have a dedicated group of beta readers waiting excitedly to see what I’ve created, and I can’t wait to show it to them. I hope they love it as much as I do, even if parts of it stink and need revising. Then, like the Little Engine that toiled determinedly over the crest of the hill, I’ll be able to say, “I thought I could”.