View From The Glen

Friday, April 30, 2010

National Poetry Month - Charge Of The Light Brigade

April is rapidly drawing to a close, so I thought I'd better catch up with my contributions to National Poetry Month. I thought it was a great opportunity for the kids to each learn a classic poem. Grace did Daffodils, and Erik chose (or rather had chosen for him) Alfred, Lorn Tennyson's Charge of  the Light Brigade, incidentally one of the first poems I ever remember being awed by.

Apparently that bloodthirstyness is a family trait. Erik loved this poem, and was interested enough to learn more about the Battle of Balaclava as well. So good for me, combining history and poetry in one fell swoop.
Charge Of The Light Brigade
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
     Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
     Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
     Rode the six hundred.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
     All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
     Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
     Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
     Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
     Noble six hundred!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aunt Elvina's Garden

In a busy heart-of-the-city section of Toronto, just south of the 401, is a half acre lot with a small war bungalow on it. Around it the city has grown up, with highrises and fancy wrought-iron fenced homes, and over the years this once-rural street has become a bustling, diverse community. One by one the other war time bunglaows were torn down, their lots turned into town homes and single-family montrosities, but smack dab in the middle of all of this is Aunt Elvina's.

She bought it post war and has been happily living there since. She planted the maple in the front yard, close to the street, and she still has raspberry canes and rhubarb in the spacious back garden behind the garage. Now in her mid 90's she still maintains and looks after the gardens and the house, though apparently she now hires someone to clean out her eavestroughing.

We were there the other weekend, and it's always so peaceful. The city is all around, but you can sit in the swing on the patio and not hear it. You leave the busyness of the world behind and instead watch the breeze blow blossoms across the grass, and listen to birds in the trees that are all around the garden.

You know what I'd like, she told us. An Inukshuk. So Andrew and the kids made one in the shade for her while I did helpful things like eat cake and sip tea.

Inukshuk means Someone was here. Or You're on the right path. In both senses of the word, the inukshuk fits Aunt Elvina's garden. She has been there probably longer than anyone on the street - such is the transient nature of life in the city. And while it might not be progressive, the peace and quiet of a country garden seems like the right path to me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Gardening Your Words

It has been gorgeous weather and I'm spending much of my time in my vast gardens. It struck me as I raked and hoed and spaded and transplanted that spring gardening is very much like editing. It's the same basic steps.

  1. You start with a mess, a jumble of plants/words that you're pretty sure belong together.
  2. You go over it as a whole, raking off the excess leaves/descriptions to see what lies beneath, to reveal the bones of the garden/story
  3. You consider the plot. Does it work for what you intend?
  4. You do some judicious pruning of plants/words, cutting back where necessary.
  5. You look for gaps, and transplant with complementary plants to fill the gaps in without marring the lines of the garden.
  6. You look at form/structure, colour/description, variety/character, and location/setting, ensuring that everything works harmoniously together and nothing is forgotten or overlooked. Having a shade plant in full sun is the wrong setting, and it just won't work.
  7. You add compost or fertilizer to improve what is there, to make it stronger and to help your garden/story flourish.
  8. You take cuttings and surplus plants/plot elements and put them somewhere else. There will be a place to use them in another garden/story.
  9. You sit back and enjoy a job well done.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dear Angus:

Dear Angus;

When your were born, a tiny calf on a dairy farm, they didn't want you. You were too small, and of no use to anyone.

I took you. I hand fed you milk. I brought you warm bottles at first, and then pails, trudging up the snowy track in minus 20 degree weather, in snow, and sleet, every morning before work.

I cleaned out your stall. I turned you loose once the new grass of spring was here and made sure you had young shoots to whet your appetite.

Yes, I know I shot you with a stun gun too, but seriously, you wouldn't have wanted to go through that little operation awake.

For a year and a half now, I have had hay brought in in the winter, and allowed you to roam free through the pastures all summer, sheltering under the apple trees, playing with the other steers.

And this, this, is how you repay me. By leaping over the fence, churning up my gardens, eating my new flowers, and stomping on my freshly planted bulbs?

And then you tried to walk up the stone steps to the patio door! Did you really think I would let you in?

Really, Angus. This is too bad.

Be a good little steer and go back to the field now, will you.

And take those darn lambs with you!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

National Poetry Month - Daffodils

April is National Poetry Month. I love poetry. I can forget this for months on end, but something will happen and it will come upon me suddenly that I need it. To read it or write it, just to immerse myself in the flow of words, the quick breath of an emotion, the hint of a moment captured.

To mark it this year, being the fun mom I am, I thought I'd make my kids look at some classics. I'm sure plenty of people don't agree that kids should be made to memorize poetry, and I don't want to spoil their enjoyment of it, but I still made them memorize their favourite parts. I don't think it hurts. And then they can come out with random lines with their future spouses and get the look Andrew gives me when I do that.

I started with Grace. She's not quite 7, she loves the flowers that are just coming up in the garden, and I thought WIlliam Wordsworth's Daffodils was perfect. She has the first verse memorized,

by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Me: So what do you like about the poem?
Grace: The daffodils. And the stars. I'm going to be a rocket scientist.
Me: Why do you think the poet likes the daffodils?
Grace: Because they're golden, and because they mean spring is here.
Me: Have you ever seen daffodils dance?
Grace: Mom! Flowers don't really dance, you know.
Me: Why do you think the poet thought they were dancing?
Grace: Because he was a rocket scientist looking down from space and he couldn't see them properly.
Me: How does the poem make you feel? How do the daffodils make you feel?
Grace: Happy.
Me: Would you like to dance with daffodils?
Grace: No. I'd like to cut some and put them in a vase.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grocery Shock

Okay, what's with the price of groceries these days? How is it possible that I am always surprised by how much I spend on Monday evenings?

Now I'm not a bargain hunter. I go to the Independent because it's on my way home from work. Neither do I stint - Andrew and the kids (not to mention myself) all have healthy appetites. But I do meal plan two weeks ahead, and I make a grocery list so I always know what I need to buy. I might stray from it - if, for example, coffee is on sale, but I'm pretty good at sticking to it for the most part.

I don't buy beef or lamb because we grow our own. I don't buy sausages, bacon, pork or chicken because I get them fresh from a local farmer. Sometimes I buy chicken if it's on sale. To the kids' regret I don't buy pop or chips or junk food either. And hardly anything pre-packaged.

So it's veggies, dairy, staples. Mostly dairy - we do go through 16 litres of milk a week, and more cheese and yogurt than I care to admit. But lots of fairly inexpensive fruit and vegetables too - whatever is in season.

I'm aware that when it comes to food, Canadians are fortunate. I realise that groceries take a lot less of our disposable income here than in many places around the globe. So I'm not really complaining. We eat well., and I'm thankful for that.
I know the price of groceries has increased in the past few years. I factor that it. And yet, when I get to the cash, it's still more than I expect.

I spend (on average) $150 a week for two adults, 3 children aged 7- 10. This doesn't count the freezer full of meat we have at home, or the roughly $30 a week I spend at the local butcher. Is this normal, or do I need to completely rethink my grocery habits..

I'm starting to think I'm just a bad shopper, so I'm interested in your thoughts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Just A Game?

On cold winter nights, when the sun goes down early and the darkness stretches indeterminently ahead, there's something Andrew and I like to do to while away the time.

No, not that. Family site and all.

Scrabble is our fallback game du jour. We've always played, and one year for Christmas I bought him a Scrabble dictionary, lovingly isncribed, "maybe now you'll be able to beat me." I should have known not to challenge Andrew, because of course that's exactly what he did. It's to the point now where I have to struggle to win, mostly because of his incredibly esoteric knowledge and memory of unique words spelled with x, q and j.

We bought kid scrabble a few years back, but quickly abandoned it when it became obvious the kids didn't need it. We had to stop giving them head start points too - they're just too good.

So when I heard the great Scrabble debate about the game loosening its rule structure to allow proper nouns, names, etc, I was disappointed.

It turns out they are not changing Scrabble, but are coming out with another version that will appeal to people who can't spell.
As I was shaking my head about this, I came across another interesting fact: Monopoly now includes a calculator so that people don't have to do any actual subtraction or addition.

It sure does make me wonder. If we don't expect adults to be able to spell or do basic math, what do we expect of kids?

And how sad is it that these basic games have to be adjusted to the lowest common denominatior.

Is it just a game? Maybe. But I think it says something quite depressing about the values and expectations we have in our society.

So I'll continue to play the old fashioned way, thank you very much.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why I Am Not As Productive As I Want To Be

If I only had that third hand, think of what I could accomplish!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I was motivated by Christine at Coffee and Commutes to write about happiness. Ever since reading her blog post yesterday, I have been singing this song from You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. And I think it really gets to the heart of what happiness is:

Happiness is finding a pencil,
Pizza with Sausage,
Telling the time.
Happiness is learning to whistle,
Tying your shoes for the very first time.
Happiness is playing the drums in your own school band
And happiness is walking hand-in-hand.

Happiness is two kinds of ice cream,
Knowing a secret,
Climbing a tree
Happiness is five different crayons,
Catching a firefly,
Setting him free.
Happiness is being alone every now and then,
And happiness is coming home again

Happiness is morning and evening,
Daytime and nighttime too.
For happiness is anyone and anything at all
That’s loved by you.

We often speak of happiness as being elusive, as being something we need to pursue, to find, to grab hold of when we can because it will slip away again so quickly. We can know we are happy without always feeling it. This is something I've discussed with my book club before - everything is good, everything is happy, but where is that sense of euphoria that we associate with happiness?

When I look around me, at my children, at their friends, at family parties, at the lambs, at the dog - well, the truth is, they are all the epitome of happy. They don't find happiness elusive or hard to find. They just are happy.

It made me wonder, what do they know that we adults don't?

As many of the wonderful comments on Christine's blog point out, happiness is a state of mind. It's never about the big things in life, though they can make us happy (think a wedding, a baby's birth). In fact it is often the smallest things that bring the most happiness to our lives. And I think where kids (and yes the lambs and even the dog) have the edge on us is that they are not trying to capture happiness. It's like sand, the harder you try to clench your hand around it, the more it escapes. 
Perhaps in our adult world where (let's face it) there are so many other things to think about - what's for dinner? did I sign those forms? why doesn't he want to go to music camp? how can I squeeze in a trip to the dentist between school and karate? - it's easier to lose track of the present moment. And happiness is all about being present in the moment.

Think about the moments that have truly made you happy recently? For me it's not the raise at work, or the editing contract I got. It's not paying off the car loan, or even the new windows I'm finally putting in my ancient farmhouse. Rather, it's other smaller, more important things:

  • the sun that streams through the window in the morning;
  • the single cup thermos of coffee my husband always leaves for me next to the bed despite the fact that he gets up and leaves at 4:30 am every morning;
  • saying good morning to the cows, sheep, llama and sheep dog as I cross the field for my morning run;
  • getting morning hugs, kisses, artwork, from the children, and those moments when we amuse ourselves so much that we fall over in a big laughing heap together;
  • watching the kids play and laugh and run, all long limbs and smiles;
  • watching the lambs skipping, seeing the daffodils poking through the dirt, and feeling the breeze blow gently across the veranda.
  • the taste of a glass of shiraz on a Friday evening; the pleasure of a new book and a weekend ahead
  • brushing my children's freshly washed hair and telling stories together before tucking them into bed
  • the quiet of the house when everyone is asleep and safe and together
Wouldn't it be great if we could get everyone to stop and think about what makes them happy? Christine challenged her readers to write their own happiness post, and I'm going to do the same. You know who you are. Don't forget to leave a comment on Christine's blog too.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Three Little Words

My friend Becky was over this afternoon with her son. We talked about books and browsed through my library; we talked about kids and watched the Grace and Brodie stand-off, each of them as stubborn as the other. (They're not getting along, said Anna the peacemaker with a solemn shake of her head.) And Becky asked me about my writing, specifically about the first draft of the novel she knows I just completed.

What's it about? she asked.

Three dreaded words.

Because I know what it's about, of course I do. But when someone asks me, I either clam up, or break into a volley of incoherant explanation.

I'm a good speaker. I've won awards for speaking and presenting. But when it comes to off-the-cuff speaking, there's no getting around this simple fact: I Suck.

My goal for April is to take every single one of my draft novels or works-in-progress and memorize a clear and succinct description that answers the question,What's it about?

The next time someone asks, I'll be ready.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lazy Linking

I'm feeling a bit lazy, blaming the weather, so instead of coming up with original material, I'm going to suggest a few links:

With apologies to Nicholas Sparks fans, I thought I'd die laughing reading this post.

My friend Cyndi offers this tidbit. You may have heard it before, but it's worth remembering.

If you're a mom, particularly of young girls, you should check out this important conversation that Candace Derickx started: She has some great links too.

Jamie Oliver gives us food for thought - literally - in his now-famous TED speech. For the record my kids grow their own gardens and sometimes mix up potatoes and tomatoes, but there is some great stuff here. Beware: TED is addictive.

Brave writers (I know, all writers are brave) who want to get tips on writing a query or get feedback on their work, can do no better than check out or where writing is harshly - but fairly - critiqued.

And finally, an intriguing discussion on the ethics of book buying in a digital age. As a purchaser, are you buying the format or the content?

Let me know if you linked to any of these and what you thought.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sure Signs of Spring

Wellingtons and Cleats in the Mudroom.

Cherry Blossom Budding

Muddy, Dirty, Tailgate

Garden Waiting To Be Tilled;
Wood Waiting To Be Stacked & Dried

Maple. Ash. Come Back To Me Now.
(This was me channeling Treebeard)

New Grass Seeding. New Path.

My Darling Spirea Shrubs. Hmm. And Weeds.

Pastoral Sheep
One of them on the wrong side of the fence
(Because they truly believe the grass is always greener.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sometimes You Just Have To Be A Pirate!

"In your message you said, you were going to bed

But I’m not done with the night.

So I stayed up and read, but your words in my head
Got me mixed up so I turned out the light.

And I don’t know how to slow it down.

My mind’s racing
From chasing pirates."
~Norah Jones, Chasing Pirates

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Spring Cleaning (and a touch of vanity)

The windows are all flung wide open today and the curtains are gently billowing in the breeze. Afternoon sunlight dapples the wide pine planks making them glow golden, and the red tile of the kitchen floor is cool and smooth underfoot. There is a cold ham, potato salad and grilled vegetables sitting on the oak counters in pretty dishes ready for dinner and two types of pie for dessert on the windowsill next to wilting daffodils and sprouting alyssium. And the kitchen table is empty save for a glorious cream-coloured lily in full bloom.

Freshly laundered linen is folded on the edge of my bed ready to be put away. Every piece of clothing in the entire house is washed, dried, ironed and hung in closets or placed in drawers. Every surface is dusted and the house smells faintly of lemon. Winter gear is stowed away in labelled totes, and soccer cleats are lined up ready for a new season of use. Birdsong filters through the house, trills and whistles and cheery chirping making every room brighter. A line of pots filled with soil and seeds sits next to a trowel by the back door - the promise of fresh herbs, broccoli and tomato and other summer culinary delights.

With the help of my house elves (see house elf #2 at left), we are ready for spring. We decluttered with a vengeance in bedrooms, laundry room, family room and mudroom. Unused, unwanted, unworn clothing was bagged and sent off to the St Vincent de Paul society; we were ruthless about stuff, filling garbage bags with anything broken or unloved, and finding a place for every single piece of paper in the house - filing cabinet, portfolio, or trash; and we stashed movies and books in the library on shelves, with the caveat that when we ran out of space we had to start weeding out the ones we no longer wanted.

It feels good. To be this organized, this uncluttered. It won't last, I know. But for a moment, allow me to bask in the reward of a hard Friday and Saturday morning's laour.

It was a very productive day and a half, and we finished in time to shower and change into pretty easter dresses for a family dinner.

Yes, even me. Mostly delighted because while decluttering my own rather large, horribly disorganized closet (four bags to give away, two bags of junk), I discovered this hidden away from my pre-mom days. And it still fits. Jubilation.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Not Adding Up

The Bank of Canada is recommending that Canadians put aside 20% of their gross income for retirement.

Those same experts suggest spending up to 30% of your gross income on a mortgage is acceptable.

Let's say taxes average around 35%.

That leaves most of us around 15% of our gross income for other minor things. You know, bills, food, extra-curricular activities, cars, gas.

And what is left? Not much.

So when I read that if you want to get ahead in business you need to dress the part, and spend 5-10% of your gross income on clothes, I just laughed.

Something doesn't add up.

Maybe the talking heads who come up with this stuff should try living in the real world for a bit first.

I have never in my life spent $3000 a year on my own clothes, let alone double that. I'm not sure I spend that much per year on clothes for the entire family!*

Of course, I hate shopping (except for books) so perhaps that has something to do with it.

*although with Erik growing approximately an inch a week (hyperbole), it doesn't feel that far off sometimes