stuff to buy

“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen,
a wholesome, upstanding man.
You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies,
so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea
Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain,

the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death.
Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.
Don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen.”

-Hermann Hesse

i told myself i never wanted to be a solid citizen.

maybe everybody does that, when they are seventeen or twenty-three: or did, at least, before our culture started rolling out young Alex P. Keatons raised on the Disney Channel, with life goals and imaginations vanilla-bland and based on the accruement of millions. maybe it’s easier to idealize artistry when one is young: at that age the filth and the nausea belong to the most interesting people, none of them yet worn frayed and incoherent by decades of abuse.

the young make good outlaws: they can sleep it off.

but for every outlaw heart there is always a before.

that year i was eleven and twelve and we moved to the neighbourhood of solid citizens where all the girls i went to school with lived, i wanted to be a solid citizen too. i had the manners, the grades; my mother saved up for suede moon boots for the first day of school. i studied my role, went onstage everyday bewildered but keen. i relegated my dolls and my poems to the back of the closet, secret shames. i stumbled down the byzantine corridors of seventh-grade cabals, learning how power is played. i was a victim, then a mean girl: those seemed to be the parts available to solid citizens.

i liked myself in neither.

by the time a few years passed, i had found another compass. i had friends, some very dear, but my real world lived in books, in Elsewhere, in the mythology i made of Bowie and Iggy Pop and Dylan and all those models of debauched exceptionality.

i left home at seventeen, and it was easy to make myself one of Hesse’s vagabonds. i had no other life to step ready-made inside. i went hither and yon, tried everything once. saying yes to everything was my way of trying to find a door that would open and admit me.

yet i have never really believed that any doors would, not the doors of solid citizenry, of stable lives and sky’s the limit.

it is okay. i am good at being an outsider. i no longer like to remember that i was not born this way, blowing smoke from the womb.


but there is this house.

it’s low, cottage-shaped, shingled green, sage green. with yellow shutters. when i dream it reverts to the yellow paint and burgundy trim of my childhood.

it was the last house we trick or treated at this Hallowe’en. we approached the grand arch of the porch, kangaroo and dragon in tow, and i saw the sign on the lawn and one of those little swooning sighs escaped me, soft as dough, guileless.

my grandmother lived here, you know.

Dave glanced across the street. of course. across the street is the house my grandmother was born in, the other yellow house, the family home, the one i have dragged him by a hundred times since we first moved back here. nearly seven years. seven? can it be?

when we moved here, i thought i was bringing him to my hometown.

but it is this corner that is my hometown, really: the last trace of roots that go beyond me into the earth and history of the city. every summer and after-school, i walked these leafy sidewalks to my Nannie’s, to the old yellow house she’d been born in. this was the place that stayed the same: the family home, no matter where we lived. i know the way the light falls at this corner, every season and every time of day.

on this corner, my grandmother lived in three separate houses over a nearly ninety-year span.

my great-grandfather built here in 1901, already a rotund middle-aged businessman on his second marriage. the neighbours across the street – who were then the only neighbours – gave the happy couple a vase that had, so the story went, been given them on their own wedding some decades before. one hundred and ten years later, that vase lives beside my bed.

the neighbours’ son, a little older than my grandmother, built a house kitty-corner to his parents that was the mirror-image of my grandmothers. then he built an Arts & Crafts-style cottage next door to his parents. then they died, presumably, and he moved back to the home he’d grown up in.

so when my grandmother married in 1938, well into her 30s, she left her family home and she and husband moved across the street, renting the cottage from the neighbours’ son.

The Bungalow, they called it. my grandmother had a piano, there.

it is a pretty house, modest from the street and quaint. it looks like no other house in this city. a story and a half, with a concrete basement painted fifties rust-red. hardwood and all the horizontal lines of the Craftsman cottages.

my grandmother’s friends Doris and Mabel lived in The Bungalow when i was a kid. the neighbourhood was all old ladies in those days, the men vanished or barely visible: a land of milk and cookies. i pretty much had the run of the corner. Doris and Mabel had me over sometimes, when it was after-school and my grandmother had appointments she couldn’t take me to. they had a goldfish pond in the backyard.

Doris and my grandmother lived, respectively, in various houses clustered around that corner for nearly ninety years: i have a photo of the two of them, four years old, at a tea party the year Anne of Green Gables was published. the photo sits near the vase upstairs. i have been carting around the last remnants of this neighbourhood all my vagabond years.

here, on this corner, i do not need to be an outsider. on this corner, i am nine decades of a family history. it is whittled down, now, to my mother and i, my children, a few photo albums and a Freemason’s kid leather apron and a family Bible. in the context of this corner, all my baggage? just belonging.

i have flown around the world three times. there is no other corner of the world to which i have claim or pedigree.

the corner is my before. but it has been out of reach for nearly twenty years.

it was Dave’s idea, not mine. we should see it, he said. just a viewing. ha.

it is different than i remembered in my mind’s eye: same bones, but opened up, brightened. it had me at hello.

we can’t, i thought. but it appears we have.

we bought it this afternoon.

it doesn’t make me a solid citizen, no. i hope not. but the idea of going home to that corner maybe slides me a little closer to that balance between Hesse’s “laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death” than i ever expected to be again.

we closed on the house we currently live in the day that Finn was born: it has been a good home, but tinged always with that apprehension, that accident of circumstance, that wound. if we can all four of us move safely into the new place in February? grace, says me. new beginnings. full circle homeward.

(our friend is buying it. Finn’s trees will be with someone we love. that makes my heart quiet.)

this is our new home: the new crib. The Bungalow, where my grandmother lived. part of me still doesn’t believe it. but i am saying yes.



i used to travel.

a long time ago, Dave brought to my attention the handy fact that anyone who uses the words “used to” to describe an activity is rarely actually engaged in that activity anymore, only hanging onto it. a piece of identity.

i cringe a bit when i say “i used to.” when i take something up, i take it UP. i internalize it, wrap myself around it. this explains how i have managed to carry the same bright, fervid torch for David Bowie lo these many years: it’s my hobby. it’s a fundamental part of how i understand myself.

of course, i can’t just go altering how i understand myself willy-nilly, all the time. Dave starts three new things every week. i like to try a new activity every decade or so. i am part Ent, i suspect. i am not given to hastiness.

but i am given to wanderlust. or i was.

(at the end of The Lord of the Rings saga, the hobbit Frodo returns home to The Shire from his adventures as the bearer of the ring, but he cannot stay. he is too changed, and he leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf and the Elves to sail on to the Undying Lands. Frodo’s faithful Sam, the gardener, unwounded by the elven blade and the ring itself, settles down in The Shire and raises babies with his cute hobbit wife. this is ripe with metaphor, people.)

i had the wanderlust from the time i was a teenager, though it was probably mostly a contagious case of the Anywhere But Heres. i used to map travel, splayed out on the living room carpet with a highlighter and a fold-out map from a hand-me-down copy of National Geographic, imagining the places i’d go.

i was nearly thirty before i got to indulge it.

i’d nibbled at it earlier. i took the train across Canada the autumn i was twenty-two: spent my last $300 on the ticket, slept in the smoking car for a week, watched the stars over the Rocky Mountains, and got a job telemarketing in Vancouver the day we arrived. but passports and flights outside the country were beyond my reach, then. i spent a year in Vancouver, two teaching in the Arctic, headed back east to Halifax and a graduate degree. until friends blazed paths to expat teaching and it occurred to me that Scotland and Prague could be considered “on the way” to Korea if one was particularly creative with one’s geography and flight routes.

i left in the fall of 2000. i came home in January of 2005.

some wiser people used that period in their lives to, um, start careers. i plan to go live with them when i am old. i will tell stories from my lost years of indigence in return for small plates of catfood.

je ne regrette rien.

i don’t travel anymore, the way i used to. sure, we went to California for the first time this summer, and i’ll be all gussied up to speak at Blissdom Canada in The Big Smoke of Toronto come October, but conference travel is by its very nature bounded. it has a goal and a set destination. it is purposeful, and social, and for me, a lot of fun. but it is no more like the open-ended wandering that marked my late twenties and early thirties than babysitting is like having a colicky kid of your very own at three a.m., four months in a row.

this past year, i had the incredible privilege of revisiting one of my stories from those wanderlust days as part of a book: my work was included in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, a charming anthology being thrown lots of cool launch parties i can’t attend in glamourous far-away cities. sniff.

(yes, you should buy this for everyone on your Christmas list. absolutely. think of it as investing in the catfood stockpile.)

as the book makes the review rounds, those of us published in it were asked to answer a few questions about travel, and our relationships with travel. as i picked the questions that spoke to me, and tried to answer, a Mack truck of longing ran straight over me. the wanderlust flooded.

it told me i could not LIVE my settled life and needed to hightail it for the Undying Lands at first notice.

unfortunately, as you may have suspected, this is not Middle Earth. there are no Undying Lands for the weary soul momentarily overwhelmed by the drudgery and familiarity of The Shire. well, boo.

still. i think i can live out my Sam Gamgee days in peace.

truth is, travel, for me, was a constant cacophony: new smells, new sounds, new ways of seeing. history everywhere, if you look. i loved that about it. and i didn’t.

i didn’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like fish, which pops up in the most unexpected – and supposedly vegetarian – places, especially in Asia. i didn’t always like being an outsider. i don’t like being dealt with in an authoritarian manner. Dave still brings up that time i shouted at the customs officer as evidence of poor judgement on my part. what did you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if i’m not better off safe at home.

it’s hard to imagine going again. we have spent six+ years weaving ourselves financially and professionally and community-wise into this rooted life. the roots are good and growing strong. Dave spent the summer hacking out a patch of forest for a cabin for next year. we live a different kind of cacophony now.

i still don’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like the constant multiple demands on my attention. i don’t like mess. Dave looks at me funny when i shout about the fact that Oscar’s bus to kindergarten wants to pick him up SEVENTY MINUTES before the start of school even though we live an eight-minute drive away. what do you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if everyone wouldn’t be better off with me safe in Outer Mongolia.

sometimes far, far away sounds magical.

but wherever you go, there you are. ;)

the truth is, this is simply not that time in my life. i hope it comes again, and i will hold the space for it in my sense of myself. i even have vague hopes of vagabonding with the kids in five or six years time…taking a year or two as a family and committing to a joint work experience somewhere very different from this little corner of the world. but for now, i am mostly content to keep watering and weeding these roots here in The Shire my pastoral homeland.

(i’d happily eat catfood for a weekend in Paris, though. just sayin’.)

 what about you? where would YOU go, if you could pick up and go anywhere? what would be different about there?

…a few excerpts from my responses to the author interviews for BWTW2011. there are some exceptional writers in this collection: i’m looking forward to seeing the composite of answers that emerge. will share.

  1. What’s one place that has moved you or changed you in a significant way?

The Canadian Arctic. It was the first place in which I ever felt truly Other, and in which I came face to face with the legacies of colonialism and cultural history that permeate travel. I stayed a long time, and it taught me a lot about humility and relativism and my own privilege, and the folly of ever believing you fully understand what it is to be in another’s skin. The expanse of space there, the vulnerability of realizing that if you were to walk out into it you could go a thousand miles before ever meeting another human, is breathtaking. The North taught me that we are all different, and all inter-reliant, at the same time.

  1. In what ways does writing inform your relationship with travel? Do you keep a journal? Conduct interviews? Write on location?

Over the last few years, especially since I began blogging, my journal-writing has dwindled. I still have a big, black-bound artist’s sketchbook: the writing inside is still all-caps print, the aesthetic signature I developed for myself back in the days when I still considered my handwriting a part of my identity. But the current sketchbook – number thirteen or so in a long lineage – only sees the light of day these days when I travel. Especially alone. I love to travel alone, to play flaneur in an unfamiliar city. But writing is what keeps traveling alone from being lonely, for me. My journal is my companion when I’m stuck in an airport, or want to take up a table by myself in a pub without looking like I’ve been stood up. Writing is conversational: it allows me to dig in and reflect on what I’ve been seeing and how that changes what I’ve seen before. But these days I need to work harder to create that mental space, because the world and conversation and feedback are so easily at all of our fingertips…


there is no photo for this story. you make your own picture: your hands in the dirt.

where are you? what do you see? what spreads out from the frame to ground you in a particular place and time?

this story is a knot, a tangle of earth and weeds and ashes and roots. a rhizome, it has no beginning and a hundred beginnings. if you tug gently to pull it from the dirt, it slides loose: hanging naked and exposed, sometimes it will make you believe you have captured it once and for all.

don’t believe. there is more, always more, beneath the surface.

we bid on land last night.

not the 73 acres from a few months back, with the raccoon-infested cabin.

this is two small cottage lots, raw land, never built on. fallen birches white and rotting lay across the mossy, lumpy green of its old-growth floor. the place smells wild and salty, the sea air sharp over the green spring moss. the beach is littered with round hard rocks washed in from other shores. there are bunnies in the undergrowth of the old dune. one twitches his hindquarters at us. Posey is smitten, forever.

down a dirt track two or three minutes’ walk from the water, the lots themselves, loosely pinned. the corpses of the trees lay like porcupines, dead branches menacing at perpendicular angles. be careful! you could put an eye out! my hysteria comes mainly from lack of experience: what do i know of a place like this? i know only that small feet can trip: i grip the children as if they are greyhounds champing for release.

you could say it is him who hankers after land.

he longs for space, for a wide-open-ness i do not truly comprehend. i grew up in apartments. i am only, six years into house ownership, beginning to stop modulating my footsteps for the non-existent neighbours.

he is the gardener, the weed-warrior, the one who tackles the tangle of our side yard season after season. he grows seedlings that swell into tomatoes and pumpkins. i half-heartedly pluck, water the pansies, the cucumbers. in the dry heat of August, i am the long-haul salvation of thirsty plants. but i am no saviour: i am a stop-gap measure. his is the real work and energy out-of-doors. the prospect of clearing stumps makes him giddy.

i try to understand.

i dug one hole, one time: six years ago yesterday, my first Mother’s Day. Finn’s ashes under the tree in the backyard in the rain. just the one time. like all the strength i could ever muster for digging and growing was buried in that hole. done, before i started.

but do not be mistaken. that thread of the story is only one root. i will not clear stumps, perhaps, but this land is not for him.

i can tell you that i fear the dirt, that i do not like the worms wriggling from the shovel. true, without doubt. but there are counter-stories. Oscar and i rescued two worms the other morning, from the drying-out puddle on the way into preschool. i picked mine up and dropped him because my fingers feared the line between firmness and squish. i tried again, my fingers better readied for the soft live earnestness of the wiggling body. look, i said to my son, as if i carted worms about daily, he’s okay, it doesn’t hurt him. i didn’t add, look! my fingers haven’t withered off from touching him! i am a paragon of wise judgement. also, in that moment, amazement.

if they say yes to the land bid, maybe there will be more worms.

i say this with hope. i say this with trepidation and horror.

i hanker after the land for what it might change in me. for what it might teach my children. for the stories it might tell. the smell of earth that has never been landscaped. the patience of meandering along a rocky beach, watching the tide line. stars, maybe. bonfires.

some lost, misplaced part of me is a flaneur at heart, a wanderer of city streets, a dilettante observer of the human urban bustle. drop me mapless in the middle of Paris or Saigon and i would thrill, and walk, and find my wayless way without worry.

drop me in the middle of the woods and i’d begin writing my own obituary in my head.

but i wonder, at the stories of rocks and trees, at the possibility that somewhere under the surface there is some tendril of connection between pacing cobblestones and treading moss. i wonder if the built world and the one that precedes us are so divided. i wonder if Walter Benjamin, trudging on foot over Nazi-occupied mountains to Spain and his own suicide, found it possible to be a flaneur of rocks and flowers, an aesthete of worms.

i hanker to know, and so i hanker after the land.

he asks me, are you sure? are you sure you want this?

i imagine walking, walking, with only the smell of salt spray to guide me. i hear Oscar sing, the world’s largest rock collection! Posey peers between briars at a bunny. for a moment, i see my hands in cool dirt, and i do not cringe. in the same flash, i see the work of boarding up a place in fall, and the dead flies and the septic system and the hauling in laundry to town and all those hundred Cinderella tasks.

i nod.

all stories are part of the truth, and part lie. they are roots, pulled bare from the earth and left to dangle out of context, white and quivering.

he knows. he sees all that i do not say, the tangle of answers that cannot be unknotted. he hands me the pen and i sign and we wait to see what the answer will be.

what do your hands in the earth mean to you?

if they say yes to this land, people, shine up your hammers. you’re in for a barn-raising.




our first Christmas together, he bought me the hat.

i never wanted diamonds. or perfume, or whatever was supposed to make me feel cherished.

those proper things always made me feel inept, party to an exchange that was somehow utterly unrelated to any of the things i valued about myself.

but a patchwork velvet top hat that called up Dolly Parton songs and Alice in Wonderland?

i think i smiled at him with tears in my eyes, that Christmas morning.

i turn 39 today. he got me the leather satchel he told me he’d gotten me last year but then, erm, forgot to order. it is beautiful. it looks like a refugee from 1974. i am told it will be here Friday. of THIS year.

he also got me a steamer thingie so that we can give up any pretense of me ever picking up an iron again in this life. a partner who can embrace one’s peculiarities, even the prosaic ones, is a keeper.

then he took my picture.

back a few years ago, when i was still frequently startled to discover that there were other people out there in this online thingy box, i woke up one morning to find i’d been given an award. i was more delighted than was strictly necessary, but the world of memes and blings was still a vast untrodden snowfall for me, and it looked right pretty. the bestower of said award had honoured not just me but another writer, so, curious, i clicked the link and wandered over to check out the company i was keeping.

and that was how i first stumbled across Vicki Forman. Vicki wrote a column called Special Needs Mama, part of the Literary Mama e-zine family, about parenting her son Evan.

in an ensuing email exchange the likes of which i never seem to engage in anymore, alas, i discovered that Evan’d had a twin, Eleanor, who died a few days after birth. and that Vicki’s elder daughter was Josephine.  had Finn been a girl, i wrote back, he’d probably have been Eleanor. or Josephine.

it was early 2007. it was the first time i had seen any shadow of my own reflection – in name tastes or in loss. and i found the idea that Vicki was out there somewhere immensely comforting, normalizing. i also found it thought-provoking.  she brought dignity and unflinching matter-of-factness to her narratives of Evan and her role as parent to a significantly disabled child. she did not pander to people’s pity, or expectations of a fluffy, inspirational happy ending. reading Vicki, i began to take steps towards writing my way out of a box i’d seen no other other exit to.

one of the most surreal parts of having lost Finn, for me, was the silencing effect it had. it created a space around me that felt filled with cotton batting, or a choking kind of insulation.  a dead baby is the conversational equivalent of a cement truck. i did not know how to introduce the subject in relation to myself, did not know how to negotiate the weight it carried without feeling awkward or skinless or somehow miscast. i was neither serene nor destroyed, which were the main culturally available motifs for my new role. i was simply…messy, then.  too messy and too vulnerable to even begin to invite attention to it all. and so this tremendously important part of me, the struggle with my grief and anger and fear and sorrow, became isolating and…unspeakable.

i was lucky, in that i was surrounded mostly by kindness. but people who knew me and knew of Finn skirted the subject, probably afraid of hurting me with reminders, probably afraid of saying the wrong thing.  i understood that. but in the midst of all that well-intended ignoring of the elephant in the room, i sat smothering under the silence and the elephant itself; the face i presented to the world a mask that ellided everything underneath.

i’d allowed my grief to be socially relegated to a little airless box, and i was choking in that box.

so i started to write about it, face-on, to allow myself to begin to explore here the things i desperately wanted to and needed to, but couldn’t, not aloud. and in doing so, i started to integrate my inner life back into the face i wore to the public, even this small, semi-private, semi-anonymous public out here online. it was enough.  i believe writing here kept me from suffocating  in my own bewildering loneliness and sadness.

mostly i think i’ve absorbed Finn’s death. sometimes, though, i’ll catch a scent in the air at a particular time of year, or read a story, or hear a pregnant woman dismiss risk as if she were immune, entitled, and scenes crash in on me, the horror reel of it all going wrong.

the grim neonatologist who came back to the delivery room to tell us, bluntly, that he would not make the night and then walked away. my baby’s tiny, punctured chest, only an hour old and already his body breached and bloodied while we were not even there to comfort. the machine-gun gasp and pound of the ventilator.  the  nurse who told me his blackened fingers and toes were a sign of something congenitally wrong, then the other nurse – when i finally got up the courage to ask – who stared at me surprised and said, no, he’s perfect, it’s just oxygen deprivation. the swell of fear and rejection that backed up in my throat the first time i saw him there in his isolette, splayed out, red-raw, so compromised, and how my mind hissed you’re going to die at my newborn son before my hand reached out without me and touched his and his fingers wrapped around mine and i was lost, in spite of myself, to wonder and tenderness, to loving him. the confusion of it all, the helplessness. the feeling of somehow having being stripped of the right to compassion by the crisis, and stripped of the right to hope.

all these swarm in and punch me in the gut and i am left gasping, stunned by what my memory has secretly stashed away.

i thought maybe i was crazy, the kind of closet cat lady who looks perfectly bland from the outside but one day snaps and ends up on the nightly news because the picture bombs in her head finally exploded.

apparently not. apparently it’s just my amygdala, a part of the brain “so ancient and original it’s present even in lizards,” where the raw fight-or-flight emotions triggered by significant trauma are preserved and kept alive. the brain cannot integrate or defuse those emotions. there they sit, preserved in neurotransmitter amber.

i have Vicki Forman to thank for the comfort of the amygdala, because Vicki published a book this summer, a book called This Lovely Life: a memoir of premature motherhood.  and i ordered it and ate it up and found myself reading it half in her world of the summer of 2000 and half in my own of spring 2005. and then she explained the amygdala, and i felt…once again…just a little more able to breathe.

Vicki’s book is not an easy read.  there’s no enlightened, illumined mama guru enriched by the smiling happiness of her disabled child. rather, the book tells the story of the trauma of the twins’ birth, Ellie’s death, and the unfolding story of Evan’s blindness, seizure disorder, and survival in a light that most of us would shrink from shining on our egos, our mother roles.  it is one of the most honest and troubling and beautiful stories i’ve read in a long time, and though Vicki is the figure at its centre, it is the evolving relationship between her and her son that the book stands as paean to.

in one of the cruel twists that life deals out sometimes, it seems that Vicki had just finished this book and landed a publisher when Evan, days short of his eighth birthday, died suddenly and without warning.  i read the book knowing that the child whose survival seemed so uncertain would grow to become the boy his mother wrote about at Special Needs Mama, but also knowing the heartbreak at the end of the story, the coda that even the writer of the reflections in its pages couldn’t see.

i want to thank Vicki for sharing Evan. i want to thank Vicki for consistently, at Special Needs Mama and in This Lovely Life, carving out a space of words and dignity that has helped me with my own processing, my own healing, my own understanding of how vast and fraught and boundless the word mother can be.

i want to encourage you to read this book.

i’ve been thinking a lot about food lately.

two separate flu bugs in the first three days of 2009 actually started the year off with weight loss, for once. worry not. i’ve made up for it since…those Christmas chocolates were at risk of spoilage.

food is my crutch, my weak spot, my pleasure, though we try to have a straight arrow relationship these days. Posey’s digestion seems depressingly sensitive to what i eat, so i’ve cut dairy and most legumes from my diet entirely. add in the fact that my gourmandaise star turn into artichoke cauliflower soup the other evening turned her little gut into a kettle of gas, and we’re back to keeping the cruciferous vegetables in check too. for ethical/environmental/financial/ colon cancer prevention/save the children reasons i’m also trying to rein in my rather outlandish meat consumption, and yep…the prospect of making dinner with what’s left drives me to break out the chocolates again.

unfortunately, as i learned – however unwillingly – from Mad a few months back, chocolate isn’t exactly a food choice without a footprint. i kinda knew that before, but i was ignoring it. thanks to the Lorax The Just Posts, i am now trying to green my chocolate purchasing. i won’t single-handedly end child slavery, but i need to at least take responsibility for not making the problem worse.

i’m still coming to terms with the idea that not only does everything i eat impact my body, but it comes from somewhere. it impacts the earth, it impacts an increasingly global system of capital and resource exchange, it impacts what seeds farmers can plant in rural India and whether kids eat in Botswana.

i like the idea of the hundred-mile diet.

then i look out my window at the five feet of snow blanketing my neighbourhood and i quake at the notion of ever seriously adhering to something so…disciplined. i live on a small island in Canada, people…unless i want to go out and jig for fish under the ice six months of the year or subsist on sprouted spuds all winter, my options end up even more limited than they are already. yes, we have a fine farmers’ market and some local organic growers, but i’ve asked about out of season products at the Saturday market and discovered that their fat spring blueberries come from Chile, just like those at MegaGroceryMonopolis. except more expensive.

though, everywhere, even MegaGroceryMonopolis, food seems to be more expensive these days. part of me laughs and says, good thing we all resolved to eat less for January, huh? part of me knows the distance of irony is a privilege. the inflation will mean some hungrier kids, some emptier food banks.

i’ve been wandering the aisles of my local grocery stores noticing that all the produce – even the goddam potatoes, in a province almost synonymous with spuds – are from locations crazy far away. i also noticed, just yesterday, that while all the apples at MegaGroceryMonopolis A are imports, even the Macintoshes, which grow locally and should still be quite nice this time of year, the organics were actually the same price as the non-organics. this is the first time i’ve ever seen price equity. and the whole web of supply and demand is so complex that i don’t even know if that’s a good thing. it’s good for me. it means Oscar will get his beloved apples sans pesticides without us eating up more of our budget to buy ’em, and since apples are one of the few things still left for me to bloody eat, they’re a significant part of that budget right now. i guess it means that if more people buy organic apples, maybe more growers can go organic, thus indirectly and eventually creating less profit for companies like Monsanto, and maybe less pressure for farmers to subscribe to ecologically and financially ridiculous proposals. but these organic apples still appear to have been shipped thousands of miles to make it to my fruit basket.

maybe i should’ve tried to be more hundred-mile and, uh, canned the pile of apples we picked at the local organic orchard back in September. but who eats canned apples?

i dunno what to make of all this. i don’t want to spend as much on food as i do. i don’t want to eat as much crap as i do. i want to make informed choices wherein what ends up on my plate has logged as few travel miles and oppressed as few living creatures as possible, while still being, y’know, delicious. and preferably chocolate.

i need ideas. ideas about what to eat that’s non-dairy and non-gassy and preferably grows somewhere at least in the northern-ish zones of North America without massive amounts of pesticides. cheap would be nice. recipes would be awesome. and in the interest of full disclosure, i am that odd Maritimer who actually does not eat fish or other sea creatures. they’re gross, don’tcha know? except tunafish from a can, but that’s all full of mercury and endangered to boot. sigh.

what do you eat? what are your priorities in terms of making choices…cost? health? environmental impact? likelihood of toddlers to actually consume it? tell me what you love, what you know, what you eat. because stew and spinach huevos rancheros (sans cheese, sniff) are getting waaaay tired up here.

my house is drowning.

or rather, i feel like my house is drowning…to the outside observer, it more likely looks a little cluttered, overstuffed. and dusty, definitely dusty. but i can live with the dustbunnies…we reached a detente years ago, where they keep to their corners and i keep to mine. it’s the clutter, the sense of being crowded in on by stuff, stuff everywhere, that makes me batshit crazy, turns my voice shrill and my eyes all deer in headlights. i have more tolerance for dental drilling than i do for clutter, especially clutter of the sort where there’s really nowhere left to put any frigging thing and you can no longer keep track of what half of it is for or where it would go.

i blame the children.

Josephine, it appears, was born with six suitcases worth of stuff to her name. i swear i didn’t buy it, much…it just materialized with celebrations and kindnesses, donations and gifts and hand-me-downs and my occasional breakdown in the face of wee smocked dresses on sale. Oscar, too, owns more clothes than i do, and seems to sing toys from the sky like birds.

or bird droppings. scattershot, they adorn our den helter-skelter, while i flap about the house trodding on Thomas the Tank Engine and squawking “confusion and delay!” in my best – if unintentional – Sir Topham Hatt imitation. Thomas at least has spent a solid year enthralling my offspring…the charms of others have not been so enduring. i didn’t realize how quickly kids outgrow their toys…that the Little People farm will not do him until he’s twelve, no matter whether i spent fifty bucks on it or not. in any case, old toys are banished to the shed to lie in wait for Posey or for loan to little cousins, and new ones arrive to take their place. the task of trying to squeeze them back into the house when Poe is ready looms like a date with my own personal idea of hell.

yesterday my half-sister, bless her, brought her rainforest swing for Josephine. it’s a gorgeous swing, almost new. the baby loves it. and it has a footprint the size of a small zeppelin…i’ve slept in rooms smaller than the floorspace that swing eats up. i’ve been hyperventilating since it arrived, trying to figure out which wall to knock out in order to make room for the bloody thing. i want it, don’t get me wrong. but i don’t want to give up the room for it. and when your house is twelve hundred square feet, room is not in infinite supply…thus clutter happens.

so much has come so easy. fifty years ago, families of four and five and six children were regularly raised in houses precisely this size, likely with fewer lamentations and a lot less clutter. my mother, who has not hesitated to inform me more than a few times that she got me through to toilet training with only a dozen thin old diapers and a wringer washer, stares in thinly veiled horror at the largesse of toys and outfits that her grandchildren possess. i shrug lamely and swear i didn’t buy it all, and she and i both recognize how lucky i am to be freed from the worry and want that haunted her all through my childhood.

but it’s too much, people. it is a joy and privilege to be able to give my kids some nice things…creature comforts, imaginative toys, cute clothes. i am in no way above the materialism of my world and my time…this age of indulgence that’s crept over all of us – or at least all of us who can lay our hands on credit – has left me thinking little of dropping dollars on things that please me. and things for my children please me. but when we live more simply than most people we know and i still have nightmares wherein colonizing, primary-coloured plastic toys eat me alive whilst playing tinny nursery rhyme tunes, there’s a problem somewhere. and maybe it’s not just that i’m disturbed.

recession scares me, sure. the shitkicking my savings have taken over the past month or so leaves a little tang of fear in my mouth so sour that my brain prefers not to consider the subject at all. but, at the same time, the Scots pioneer deep down in my soul feels freed by the prospect of reckoning, of forced frugality, of a retreat from a culture of such excess that my not-quite-six-week-old owns more stuff than whole families not so far from here whom fortune has not treated so generously. parenting as a consumer pastime is not what i want to be. i need less, folks, less than what i have.

we may all have to make do on less, and i don’t want to paint that as falsely rosy. for some, there is genuinely no wiggle room. but for many of us, less is a very relative term at this juncture…our less still more than any generation before us ever considered having, and much of it unnecessary. i hope our culture can use this downturn to do a little needed paring of our bloat, our clutter. i do not want my children to mistake all this for entitlement, or for happiness. and – for the sake of my sanity – i do not want to step on another godforsaken toy train.

are you drowning? in stuff, or fear of what a downturn will mean?

she doesn’t need much.

milk, Zantac for her nasty, nasty reflux, diapers, a warm chest to cuddle into. she wears her brother’s preemie-size handmedowns for now, mostly blue…though kind friends and family have ensured she will have more pink than i ever dreamed of to grow into once she gets out of doll-sized clothing. which should be soon…she’s back up to her birthweight as of today, clocking in at about the weight of a diner lunch. she’s pretty enamored of her car seat, way more than the sweet little nest of a co-sleeper by the bed, no matter how i prop it up. but mostly she sleeps on me. and since this is our last time around the baby block – and i’d sell my hindquarters cheap right now just for unbroken rest in any form – i’m cool with that.

she has old soul eyes, this one. she stares, searchingly, like the one thing she needs is to know the world is a decent place. it’s a tautology to tell her that it seems that way to me because she’s in it. i look around me and all i got for those eyes right now is the weary, abiding love in this little zone of sanctuary and the sweetness new babies bring out in the most unlikely people and i pull what is precious to me tighter and hope that her serious, wary gaze finds beauty to light on in this life.

that’s what i’d like to give her.

but a beloved old buddy is throwing a shower – my first, ever – since we work amongst mutual friends now. and people are asking what this baby needs, what i need, in the manner of things that can be wrapped and opened. and i am grateful…but terrible at these things, eternally gauche when it comes to being the gracious recipient. my instinct is to tell everyone to just bring baby wipes or a donation to charity…or yeh, gee, that $150 swing in the catalogue looks gorgeous. erm, yeh. i have wants, see…but guilt, too. there really isn’t anything we need…we’re lucky. very, very lucky. plus my Scotch Protestant roots demand we get “good use” out of everything i’ve ever bought so it’s painful for me to retire any item before it yelps and sags and cries “uncle”. and yet…this time around i splurged and bought a cheap nursing rocker with footstool, and i’m already kicking myself for thinking i didn’t need one with O…no wonder i had that backache for three months, nursing on a futon couch after eons of bedrest. so sometimes stuff is good. somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, there’s got to be some cool baby stuff that’s moderately green-ish and not too greedy that we’re missing out on knowing about here at chez crib? or at least that i can tell people about so they can bask in the joy of shopping?

leak the good stuff, friends. if you had cool baby items or can’t-live-without things for your babies, what were they? what made life with a little one easier for you?

for the past nine days, Oscar & Dave & i have been home together, just the three of us.  the sitter’s on vacation, as is Dave, and i’m home anyway, so it’s a last gasp at summer for us as a family, and a last chance – knock wood – to do stuff as a threesome.

it’s been a bit on the rainy side, and mindless wandering around the local timewarp that is The Mall is morbidly depressing, so we haven’t necessarily filled our time with as many outings as we’d imagined.  wild ridebut amidst the walks and the swims at the park, we checked out a couple of local attractions and brunched and had tea and took O for his inaugural bumper car ride with Daddy.  big fun.

everywhere we went there were kids’ menus.  and christ in a handbag, no wonder our culture has an epidemic of childhood obesity.

truth is, the amusement park probably hasn’t changed its menu in forty years: hotdog, hamburger, or deep-fried chicken bits, all with a side of fries or onion rings and pop.  not health food, but as an occasional treat, no biggie.  especially if a kid only gets out for a treat a few times in a summer.

but everywhere has menus like this, these days, at least where we are.  and when on holidays, one can be everywhere – eating out – more than a few times in a summer.  i have apparently been living in a bucket, happily oblivious to the contents of these craptastic wonders, because i haven’t had a child old enough to be interested in eating from them until now.  but suddenly Oscar has reached an age where he’s noticing that other kids aren’t eating the yogurt or dish of cottage cheese dragged from mommy’s bag; where pilfering dad’s toast & eggs at the diner is not entirely a sufficient meal unto itself.

and it seems that the rite of passage of having his own plate means he can now choose from a wide array of white-flour-based, deep-fried, nitrate- and preservative-saturated foods.  in quantities that would suffice for most adults. oh, independence.

i’m really not a sprout Nazi, or anything.  my kid likes Elmo crackers, and eats cupcakes now and then.  but for the most part we do try to make sure his diet has more nutrients in it than unpronounceable additives. we just don’t buy white bread or white pasta.  the store-brand organic breakfast cereals around here now cost less than the brand-name non-organic Raisin Bran or Shreddies, and we made fudgesicles this summer out of chocolate soy milk.  if Oscar liked hamburgers – he’s gone off meat, our little Smith’s fan – i’d happily serve them to him.  but seriously?  with fries and pop?  when he’s two?  even when he’s ten, i’d really like him to have a few more alternate options.  healthy choices shouldn’t be something that magically appear with puberty.

to me, when McDonald’s appears to have the healthiest kids’ menu in town – because you can at least get apple slices and juice with your white-bread-wrapped grilled cheese – there’s something kinda weird about that.

i know, first-time parent naiveté.  i do get that a few meals out is not going to destroy my child’s health or digestive tract, and that with some kids, getting them to eat anything at all is a huge success.  we’re lucky that way – O turns up his nose at a lot of things, especially vegetables, but would live on tomatoes and avocadoes if we let him.  that’s just how it turned out.  but he also had his very first non-soy hot dog only last week, so the options he’s been given do have something to do with the tastes he’s developed.  is it just where we happen to live – in one of Canada’s fattest provinces – that circumscribes the kids’ menu options to such blatantly and exclusively unhealthy fare?  is it just me who thinks this kinda sucks?  or do most kids between four and twelve in North America live on a steady diet of processed snacks and sugar and hotdogs?  seriously?

shine the light for me, people.  am i fighting a losing battle on this one?  when you eat out – if you eat out – what do your kids eat?  what’s your philosophy regarding kids and diet?

Oscar after his nap…soft around the edges, little body still bleary and warm.

i love this photo. alas, i did not take this photo. Kate came over for an afternoon a few weeks ago, and the lens she pointed at us offered up faces of my son i’d never seen before. she has a wicked eye. she also has a wicked camera.

i once, in the last days of film, invested a few years training my own eye to frame and capture photojournalistic images of the lines and structures and stories that hid in plain sight in the exotic places i journeyed…i have a photo essay of the sectarian murals of Belfast, one of the rooftops of Busan, South Korea, and one of the cats of Istanbul. but i never did master the details of focus and aperture and lighting enough to get my old warhorse K-1000 to take great shots of people, particularly children…they’re twitchy little creatures.

i’d like to try. Dave & i have been talking, and the truth is there’s not much we plan on buying for this new baby. some kind of nursing rocker, oh yes o aching, withered core muscles, oh yes…but beyond that, we’re into hand-me-downs and intend for O and Bebe to share a room, at least for awhile. so we thought maybe we might spend on this child in the place that second-borns – or second-brought-homes – get notoriously shortchanged: photos. we’re in the market for a good camera.

what we have right now is a little hp Photosmart R817…fine for snapshots, but slow, and the light and focus are never great. i want something i can manually adjust. i want something quick, that can capture a first smile rather than the blur of a turning head three seconds later. it doesn’t have to be top of the line. it doesn’t have to be the deal of the century, either. i want advice.

what’s your camera?  what do you like about it?  what doesn’t it do well?  got any recommendations?

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