It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.
NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.
While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.
Sadly, Halloween has passed for another year. Our ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab’ candy table turned out well:
We only had about ten kids come trick-or-treating, although apparently that was a good number compared to other neighbourhoods. The kids who did visit our house got quite a kick out of it, and my hubby and I did have a lot of fun handing out (touch-free) treat bags that way and sending puffs of fog out to drift eerily around the circle in the still cool night; we may turn it into a permanent tradition. I have to admit some disappointment that more people in our neighbourhood didn’t hand out candy — granted, my hubby and I have a lot of props on hand from various parties we’ve thrown over the years (in fact, he suggested we could probably have decorated our entire circle) — but this seemed like such a cute and fairly safe tradition to hold up this year, a much-needed breath of lightness into a dismal year.
No one has any idea so far regarding what the December holidays may bring, but in the meantime, this year I’m participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event this month. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out much more about it here. Each year thousands of writers attempt to pull a novel out of their heads and put it onto paper (real or electronic, whatever suits their style) with at least 50,000 words. The idea is to just get it written, a first draft unencumbered by worries about making it the perfect book of our dreams. As someone who’s been researching, jotting ideas down and drafting the odd orphan paragraph for years, I can attest to how freeing this process is.
We earn badges along the way for things like updating our word count each day, and we can connect to other writers through different groups with a specific focus, or during “write-ins” (short dedicated marathon writing sessions that encourage us to put more words down).
Personally I’m finding it rather liberating to just let ideas flow wherever my mind’s eye takes me and worry at a later date about which ones I want to keep for the final product, and so far, just sitting down with my fingers on my keyboard seems to bring all kinds of interesting ideas to mind. Maybe at some point I’ll run into writer’s block, but I’m content to enjoy the journey.
If you’re wondering what I’m writing about, for now I’ll just say that it’s an urban fantasy with some touches of sci-fi, about a woman who discovers that, far back in her ancestry, she is descended from a race on another planet, and that her progenitor was placed here for a specific purpose because of certain abilities inherent in her bloodline. The concept sprang from my family’s annual road trips to northern Ontario when I was a child — every time we passed an exit ramp leading away into the mysterious unknown, I’d imagine what it would be like to one day explore those other roads. From there my imagination, inspired heavily by Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, extrapolated to roads that led to other dimensions or other planes of existence.
For now I’ll continue sending my heroine on her warrior/hero journey. I know where she’s going and how she’ll end up by the close of the third and final book, but I’m having a blast getting her there and I hope that one day in the near future you’ll be able to read her story yourself. Today it stands at 6467 words, more than 10% of the ultimate goal. Stay tuned for more, and if you feel so inspired yourself, it doesn’t cost anything to sign up for NaNoWriMo.
As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.
I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.
By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.
What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.
When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.
Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.
There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.
Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.
Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.
It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!
Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.
My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.
I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.
Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.
To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!
A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.
We never know where life is going to take us, do we?
While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.
Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.
There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.
I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.
This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.
You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.
Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.
So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.
Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.
One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.
This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)
One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.
Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.
Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.
About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.
I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.
When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.
Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.
In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.
It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊
Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.
If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.
I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.
Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!
But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.
We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.
We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.
There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.
Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand – talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.
My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.
Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.
On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.
Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.
One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.
In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.
Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.
Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.
There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.
The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..
What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means:
This will be a short post, as I have a virus and my head is on strike, but I did want to mention that yesterday was World Kindness Day, and that’s something I really believe in.
In a world with a lot of daily stressors, it’s easy to be grumpy, short-tempered and so wrapped up in your own issues that you forget to take other people into consideration. I think we’re all guilty of it from time to time in varying degrees, but sometimes you run into a person who is so toxic to deal with that it taints your entire day.
My best antidote to that is to go out of my way to be kind to someone. I’ll make someone a nice cup of tea, or make a point of chatting with a stressed store clerk to make them smile, or give a Tim Horton’s gift card to a homeless person so they can get a hot meal. These small acts of kindness are my way of putting some good karma back into the world.
If each of us can take the time to be kind, to give someone a break or the benefit of the doubt, even just to smile at people, we could make the world a much nicer place.
In the words of Brooke Jones, Vice President, The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, ” Kindness starts with one. One smile. One compliment. One cup of coffee. One conversation.” Find out more about being kind at the Random Acts of Kindness website.