Thursday, 24 November 2016

Still winter on my blog, but spring on instagram

Someday I'll write here again. Hopefully sooner rather than later. The ideas mill about, but there always seems to be something more pressing to do, or a more relaxing way to unwind. In the meantime, I'm loving instagram: the ease of photo editing, the brevity of captions, the blatant adoption of hashtag as postscript (I'm in the descriptivist linguistic camp on that one - as long as you are understood, use language how you will). Plus I can do it all on my phone, which is replacing my aging laptop for almost everything at the moment. 

If you've been missing me here, you can find me there @rachel.friesen 

It's a private account, but, provided you don't look like you're selling something, I'll probably accept your follow request. Please don't be offended if I don't follow back. Too much beauty can turn into clutter, so I try to keep my follow list short.

Stay warm, friends.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Gone fallow

As part of our big backyard reno last year, we put in a small garden plot. It was an extra negotiated with our contractor. The crew used materials already on hand: they marked out the space with extra lengths of fence post already stained to match, and filled it with leftover dirt from regrading the lawn. A very exciting addition to our backyard kingdom, but finished far too late for any immediate planting. It lay barren while we finished staining fence boards, placed paving stones, and put in the sod. I brushed leaves away late in October to set in tulip bulbs; I found it tough digging but blamed the frost. It wasn't 'til I tried weeding it the following May that I realized our dirt mix was more clay than topsoil.

My tulips pushed through late but bloomed bright. And stood sentinel before a rowdy bunch of dandelions, clover, milkweed, and hundreds of Manitoba maple. I worked valiantly to pry them all from the stubborn soil as time allowed in May, but planting time kept getting pushed further and further away.

Then the rains came. If you live in Western Canada, I needn't to say more. All the moisture that didn't come through the mild, dry winter fell in torrents. Way too much, way too quick, and much too late.

Somewhere in June, we accepted that there would be no garden beyond the tulips this year. The soil was too tough, the weeds too hardy, and digging days too few.  There's a stack of garden soil bags and mound of compost waiting to be worked in the clay once the weeds are finally cleared. In the meantime, the plot has gone fallow.

This was as good as it got

Sometime this spring, my little blog ran into similar problems. I've got a draft list sprinkled with stunted posts, and a hard drive as dense as my garden clay. My laptop is as old as my son; at six and half, he's all elbows and knees, wild imagination and explosive emotions with plenty of growing left to do. My computer's already an old man, straining to see the pictures and struggling to bring in the mail.

I find myself doing more and more computing tasks on my phone just to avoid the sluggish start-up. I flood my brain with click bait while I wait for programs to load; my own ideas choked out in the mud. Or I'm called away by meal prep, bedtime, leaky eavestroughs and potty mishaps. It's the season for the quick post when technical difficulties only allow for the slow. Posts push up rarely, lie dormant, miss the link-up deadline or relevant season and die. The blog has also gone fallow.

I'm weeding out years of emails and getting choosy about what all gets synced. I'm walking more - mainly to limber up stiff muscles, but feeling the wake-up in my brain. And I'm pressing publish now, before I talk myself into waiting to take a picture of my now entirely withered tulips, lest I wake to find my thoughts far beyond my latest post again.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Riding the Christmastide: how honouring a slow, lingering feast battled my winter blues

Last year, Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy invited her readers to share a list of things that were saving them through the long winter months. It turned out so delightfully well that's she doing it again. Since my first list was full of the little things that make a difference, this year I'm sharing one big thing: honouring the Christmastide.

Christmastide begins on Christmas Day (Dec 25), and, depending on who you ask, extends to Theophany (Jan 6 if you're Orthodox, or the next Sunday after if you're Catholic) or to Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and Festival of Lights (Feb 2). The longer period is the older tradition, and comes with a soothing sense of symmetry: forty days of feasting to mirror the forty days of fasting before Christmas, just like Lent's forty days are followed by 40 Paschal days until we hit Ascension. It's not same level of party as the feast day itself, but it allows for an extended feeling of celebration before the next fast is upon us. 

It's an idea our household has honoured for many an Eastertide, but this is the first year that I've been intentional about making lingering feast out of Christmas. Here's how it turned out:

The promise of Christmastide took the pressure off the pre-Christmas season. Advent is a funny time to be a traditionally-bent Christian. It feels like the whole world around you is going crazy to celebrate your big holy day, but they're doing it too soon. I'm often fighting the urge to run around yelling "It's not Christmas yet!", swallowing guilt about making yet another fasting exception so my family can join in the too-early celebration, or stressing out about cramming all the fun holiday ideas I keep hearing about into the twelve days after the 25th of December. Staying off social media during the fast helps, knowing I had forty days coming later to spread out the fun stuff helped even more.

Its length kept the post-Christmas season relaxed. A lingering feast is a wonderful thing. I'm not gorging on chocolate, but I'm still nibbling. I did more baking in January than I did in December, but it never turned into a marathon, and I didn't end up throwing out an entire tin of stale cookies. My ghost of Christmas past nods approvingly; we've played part of this game before. Taking the tree down - with the "help" of small children - was still an ordeal, but it lost it frantic edge. The bits and bobs of non-tree decor are still around; they come down tomorrow. This year, I'm not worrying that they'll never make it back to the trimmings box. Those ornaments haven't been lost or forgotten, I left them there on purpose, and all that red and sparkle have been cozy companions whenever the sky's turned white. 

Nothing fights off dark nights like holiday lights. The days may be getting longer, but at our latitude, the initial rate of change is incrementally small. The pace picks up by the end of January. Until then, the nights are still very long, and without Christmas lights, they feel even darker than December's. Our outdoor display is pretty piddly (we ran out of extension cords after only one side of our front step railing), but we kept plugging them in all through the first month of the year. It made our front walk and driveway much easier to navigate, and I felt cheered everytime I peaked out the window. I even found myself saluting in solidarity whenever I passed a house still lit with twinkle lights. I have no inkling of whether I was viewing the work of a fellow Christmastider, but in a world of white days and black nights,  I'll take the colours as a gift, regardless of intention. Thanks, fellow neighbourhood holiday-stragglers. 

It made winter seem six weeks shorter. I can hardly believe that January is already over. This is new. Usually, I'd be incredulous that it's only February. I don't know if this effect will last once I get used to seeing Christmas cards on my mantle and listening to carols 'til Groundhog's Day, but this year, it feels like I've skipped out on the worst of the post-holiday blahs. I've often thought C.S. Lewis' White Witch laid the perfect curse: 'round these parts, always winter but never Christmas is a pretty apt description of the second two months of the year.  Though I've been working on that a while already, I'm not about to forgo adding a few more rounds to my joy arsenal.

It's hardly been a flawless experiment. There are still sugar cookies in my freezer waiting to be iced and another week of saying yes to my five-year-old's one and only favourite holiday album might have done me in. My grand plans for making Vasilopita for St. Basil's Day only got as far as acquiring the recipe; skating, carolling, and all things crafty are also going to wait another year. And that's okay. It's good to have something to build on. And if the post-holiday blues hit on Wednesday, Mardi Gras is right around the corner.

So there you have it. A modern take on an ancient tradition. For more lovely ideas of what's keeping other writers going this winter, do check out this year's link-up here.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Binge-reading into winter: a mammoth Quicklit update

Another month has Two more months have gone by, full of good intentions for blog posts gone fallow but books devoured by the stack-load. School's start-up must have taken more out of me than I give it credit; either that or the early mornings are leaving far too much time for reading before errands are even an option. I may have to take part of Emily's advice on reading rhythms and stop reading fiction before noon. It's all too easy to take my morning coffee and breakfast novel from table to easy chair and read the early hours away. Both my blog and my housework are feeling my absence. In the meantime, here's a recap of all the input my brain has been receiving, the binges, the rereads, the new finds and all:

The Nesting Dolls12 Rose Street, The Last Good Day, The Gifted, Verdict in BloodThe Glass Coffin, & A Killing Springby Gail Bowen
In late September, I went away for a weekend retreat for the first time in years, leaving house and children in my husband's capable hands. I picked up a hoard of Gail Bowen mysteries to keep him company in my absence, only to read them all myself on my return, even the ones I'd read before. I've listed the thrillers in the order I read them, and it differs widely from the order in which they were written. I'm evermore impressed with Bowen's ability to allow her highly chronological series to be read in almost any order at all. She fills a reader in on enough of Joanne Killborn's past to give proper context for her current adventure, but she leaves out the pertinent details that would give the earlier games away, in case you'd like to get to them later. Joanne speaks and thinks of friends and acquaintances who met their ends in previous novels, but doesn't mention who their killers were or even that their deaths involved any foul play. So if you'd like to give Bowen a try, don't worry about finding the first book. As long as you read Murder at the Mendel before The Gifted, none of the plots will be spoiled.

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
Much like the Antoinette tale I read in August, I made the delightful discovery that a famous figure I knew very little about was an absolutely fascinating person. Gregory tells the story of Anne Boleyn's pursuit of queendom through the eyes of her younger sister, a person almost lost to the historical record but for the fact that she was Henry VIII's mistress in the years before he set his eyes on Anne. Gregory takes meticulous research and a rich imagination to create an engrossing tale, rift with dangerous games, complex characters, and detailed machiavellian intrigue. It's a little on the racy side at times, but not nearly the bodice-ripper I was afraid it would be. I'm looking forward to reading more about the Tudors.

Jane of Lantern Hill, by L. M. Montgomery
This out-of-print lovely spent a long time coming to me, and then was gobbled up in a day. It was typical Montgomery: a stifled child blossoming in a new environment, a thwarted romance with potential for mending, and the joys of country living in good old P.E.I. I'm so glad the Book Man found it. NB: I linked to that video on purpose. You're welcome ;)

The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery
Jane's transformation from a frightened hopeless clutz to intelligent and confident home manager reminded me so strongly of Valancy's that I picked up her adventure next. The Blue Castle has been my favourite Montgomery book for years, and I don't see that changing (though Jane of Lantern Hill is vying for close second).  It's amazing the turn that life can take when one lets go of one's fears. I never tire of reading on the subject.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Remember last spring when I skipped QuickLit to keep reading The Brothers K? It happened again in October, but this time the culprit was Gone with the Wind. I couldn't believe how engrossing it was; every one of those thousand-plus pages was rift with action, drama, and vivid imagery. Scarlett O'Hara makes for an almost omnipotent narrator; she witnesses so much that she fails to take in. A reader is more than free to disagree with the heroine's point of view, which - given Scarlett's perfect storm of prejudices, snap judgements, and faulty conclusions - is often a very good thing. You remember all that she's dismissed or forgotten, and those details bring her main supporting actors a depth of character far beyond what Scarlett herself would ever grant them. On the other hand, Mitchell's black characters are only seen as Scarlett sees them, but that strange mix of loyalty and suspicion, dependency and paternalism explains a lot about the master-to-servant attitudes portrayed in Stokett's The Help and Monk Kids' The Invention of Wings. I can see why it's such a controversial classic.

My Secret Sister, by Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith
I picked this fascinating story of twins separated at birth off my parents' shelf over Thankgiving. I'd meant to leave it for later, but when my eight-year-old starting eying it, I thought I'd better give it a thorough read before handing it on to her. It was a good call. Edwards and Lee Smith take turns telling of their separate lives as far back as they remember right up to the point, nearly sixty years later, when they finally discover each other's existence. It's a fascinating memoir of two very different growing ups through the 1950s and 60s, but the abuse and neglect on Helen's side would be a bit too much for such a young reader. In a couple years, it will be a different story. I only wish the sisters had been able to find out why their mother made the choices she did; but that's the difference between truth and fiction I suppose. You don't always get to pick your own ending.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
I enjoyed Rowling's second private eye novel even more than the first, and that's saying a lot. The Silkworm digs into the fragility and self-importance of the post-modern publishing world, where every writer believes they deserve to be famous and that no relationship is worth more than a story that sells. Smart, fast, and - despite centering on a novel too disgusting for publication - not nearly as explicit as A Casual Vacancy.

And that's all she read. Really. If your appetite's larger than mine (or your tastes differ), do head over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for many other great reviews.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Suburban wonderland

For the last two years, I've spent my Monday evenings chauffering my daughter to and from ballet. The class is a twenty-minute drive away, taking us from the city's century-old core into a neighbourhood who's oldest homes were built in the 1970s. Rather than spend the forty-minute lesson in the cramped foyer outside her classroom, I've used the time for grocery shopping or taking a book to one of the few chain restaurants in the nearest big-box strip. Such weekly indulgences get pricey, however, so I  swallowed my preferences for prewar homes and stately elms and tried taking a walk.

I first discovered this path in early October. Instead of an alley, there's a bike path between back fences, over-hung with branches from back yard trees. I still missed the elms, but the willows swayed invitingly and the mountain ashes flamed bright. It's a big step up from the garbage-can-strewn alleys that string between the lots of yesteryear, and so well lit I kept up my jaunts even once sunset had crept up before ballet time.

This autumn, I followed my feet in the opposite direction and found an even greater treat: Lake Beaumaris, Edmonton's first man-made lake. It has aged so gracefully since it was first dug in 1979, and is surrounded on all sides by a well-used public path. If I hadn't seen its convenient moat-like shape on the map, I would have assumed it was a relic of pre-city landscape and that the park was built around it.

I'm sometime loath to change my own narrative. Decades of turning my nose at cookie cutter homes and traffic calmed streets may have saved me from getting lost in pre-planned neighbourhoods, but I now have reason to believe I've missed out on a few gems. Urban planning can be done right. Who would have thought?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Reading into fall

It seems only yesterday I was gearing up for September, and here we are at the halfway mark already. Quick Lit day has snuck up on me yet again. Rather than leaving my reading list fallow for another month, I'm slapping together a shorter post than usual. That's the idea anyways. Wish me luck.

Here's what I've been reading since mid-July:

I can't believe it's not better, by Monica Heisey
A short collection of humourous articles, poems, and pictures. Heisey's zany style grew on me the more I read. It was like sitting down with a collection of the Far Side Comics; each piece was funnier than the last, even if some of the racier content had me wincing. On that note, I'd think twice before following the back cover's suggestion on giving it to a niece you don't know well but want to impress. My nieces are both minors; I doubt my sister-in-law would appreciate them receiving a gift with that much adult content from anybody.

She's come undone, by Wally Lamb
This seminal novel of hurt and slow healing made it's way on to my to-read list for reasons since forgotten. Much like The Color Purple, it was definitely worth the time and emotional energy, but it was one hard read. HSPs beware.

Ellen Tebbits, by Beverly Cleary
After my last two literary choices, a kids' book was just the ticket. I'd never read any Beverly Cleary books, but my daughter got a gift set for Christmas and has a habit of leaving them around the house. Ellen Tebbits was a short and sweet ride down memory lane to the ups and downs of child friendships. It wasn't until Ellen expressed surprise that not all mothers know how to sew that I realized how old it was. Turns out Cleary started writing back in 1950, and she kept at it straight until 1999. I've now read her second oldest novel, published in 1951. I'll have to see how the others compare.

Kilmeny of the Orchard, by L. M. Montgomery
Speaking of early novels, this one hails from 1910, right in the midst of those first Anne books. I can't help but wonder if Kilmeny's neglected orchard was inspired by Hester Grey's abandoned garden from Anne of Avonlea, or vice versa. Much like Anne's House of Dreams, I had to set aside my knowledge of modern medicine and believable rates of rehabilitation, but the high romance is worth the suspension of disbelief. A lovely escapist read. I'm so glad I found a copy.

Anne of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery
The latest Anne instalment has never been my favourite - it spans a few too many years and the children seem almost type-cast - but this time around I found Anne's endless patience and understanding downright irksome. There's nothing like reading of a fictional mother's first and only recorded bad day to your own child when both of you are well aware that bad mother moments happen a lot more frequently in your own home than at Ingleside. I wish Montgomery had written in a scene where one of Anne's children complains to Miss Cornelia about Mother getting cranky and she tells them bluntly "that's because your mother is people, dearie." Thankfully, my own girlie didn't feel the need to ask why I'm not like Anne, though she kept waiting in vain for stories about Shirley. Poor little boy didn't get a single tale. I suppose being Susan's favourite isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel, by Boris Akunin
The end of the Sister Pelagia trilogy went in curious places among curious people: one character travels from city to city in Russia, stumbling upon government conspiracy and secret horrors while Pelagia is in Palestine, weaving through rebels and conmen in search for a heretical prophet straight out of Bulgakov's The Master and Margerita. There's still a mystery of sorts, and a brush with the paranormal that cannot be explained, but the odyssey's the thing.  Not nearly as fun as the first two, but thought provoking and very well written all the same.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, by Juliet Grey
It's been a long time since I read any historical fiction. Last library visit, I picked two off the shelf. This was the first. It's actually the second novel in a trilogy covering the life of the infamous Marie Antoinette. This instalment followed the doomed queen from her husband's rise to the throne to the storming of the Bastilles. The French Revolution is one of those famous European epochs of which I hold only a cursory knowledge; thanks to Juliet Grey, I'm now entirely hooked, and totally sympathetic to her heroine's plight. Sarah Crew's obsession makes sense to me now.

Keeping it short clearly isn't happening, but my morning's getting shorter by the minute. My last couple books will have to wait until next time. Do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for more promptly submitted reviews.

Happy September.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Summer lessons

I had to clean my desk before I attempted to write. I've been trying to curate a nook of sanity for myself - an oasis of tidy with little vignettes of lovely in the sea of kid mess and home decor projects pushed ever further down the to-do list. But the toddler is standing tall and reaching further, and sorting school supplies on the dining room table doesn't mix with serving supper. The pencils and duotangs are still squatting next to my knitting bag, but they're neatly stacked at last. And the dust, the dust is gone. As are the crumbs from my English-biscuit-dunking experiment inspired by "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel;" they were Russian biscuits, not true British ones, but the union was blissful all the same, if one ignored the mess.

School starts next Tuesday for my third (!) grader. Kindergarten hits full swing the Monday after, and it will be just me and the babe five mornings a week. And today, I'm taking a break from pressing forward to look back on what I've learned from this summer of mothering three.

I'm linking up with Emily, along with many other life-long learners. For more lists of lessons, be they deep or mundane, pop over to Chatting at the Sky. Here's mine:

Summer vacation is a really great time to introduce the concept of chores. For the last few years, I've been trying to instil some sense in my children that running this household is a team effort. While they're often game to help out with exciting big projects (like making French toast, or packing for a trip), and we've occasionally exchanged housework for goodies beyond allowances, we've never managed to establish any daily responsibilities. Learning a new task takes time; between my daughter's long bus rides, homework, and early bedtimes, there never seemed to be enough of it. When summer hit, however, I no longer had to choose between giving my children time to play together or teaching them some self-sufficiency. Once a day, my eight-year-old now folds and puts away whatever kid laundry is dry and waiting. My five-year-old empties the dishwasher and puts away as he can manage. There isn't a set time of day to do these tasks, but they must be done before television.

I felt strange making my kids work harder during the season of relaxation, but they didn't actually make that particular objection. They made plenty of others, of course, but by the end of the first week or so they'd found a way to make it fun. My eldest enjoys announcing which coveted items are clean again, and cooing over the baby's cutest outfits. She often complains about the size the job before she begins but glows with accomplishment once it's completed. My son is getting better at squirrelling away the dishes whose homes are in his reach. Those that live too high are prime building material for "big bubble buildings." He usually asks to keep them standing to show off later. We settle for taking a picture before I dismantle them.

A big kid can make a big difference on a solo-parent road trip. As I mentioned last month last post, we embarked on our longest family adventure near the end of July. While we were gone, our yard was to undergo metamorphisis, from the land of concrete and rotting fence posts to a haven of good drainage: fenced, landscaped, and ready to sod. Unfortunately, a permit got missed and the job stalled until we returned to request it, and then paused while our contractor went on his own family vacation. My husband's holidays were up, but the yard was still a mess, and I hadn't seen my hometown since Christmas. So we packed up the van again, hugged my man goodbye and headed six hours east without him, forgetting that it had been nearly four years since we'd last tried it.

Unlike those trips of yesteryear, there were no hour-long cries or parking lot tantrums, just the odd call for snacks and a whole lot of Coldplay. Filling the van's six-CD-changer before we left helped a lot, as did the promise of DVD time after lunch, but the biggest boon was a child with a good head and long arms to hand snacks and books and toys to her car-seated siblings in the row ahead. My first baby is growing up. It's bittersweet, but also kind of wonderful.

Our crabapples usually ripen in mid-August - not September. It's been two years since I posted my recipe for crabapple butter, complete with complaints about my backyard harvest coming unseasonably early. Two years where the apples turned rosy just as early, even when the preceding summer weather wasn't nearly as strange. That leaves only one year with September apples, and that was our first autumn after moving in. The three years before that, we had a different house with a different species of apple tree; I'm wondering if that first year was the anomaly or if my memory's confused one fruit's time of ripeness with the other. Next August, I'll be ready.

That'd better be it, or I'll miss the link-up deadline. Sorry for the long and rambly post. It's been a dry summer for writing, and I'm a little rusty.

Happy September, friends. Enjoy the New Year!