Saturday, December 28, 2013

A year of giving - 365 gifts

Anyone who knows me, or who has followed this blog in the past, knows that I'm a bit of a sucker for New Year's challenges. For example, in 2011, I blogged precisely 365 words each day for 365 days.

As another new year approaches, I find myself itching to take on a new project. So, for 2014, I have set the goal of giving something away every single day.

One of the primary motivations for this project is simply that we have a lot of stuff. Too much stuff. Our basement and garage are filled with stuff. We don't need most of it, so it's high time to pass it on.

Sure, I could just organize one big garage sale or dump the lot of it off at Value Village or St. Vincent de Paul, but I want to be more intentional about this. For example, I know that bird sanctuaries will take old towels and baby blankets. My goal is to find people and organizations that could make use of the things we no longer need. I'll do some research, make some phone calls - and post information about what I find out in case there are others reading this blog who also have things that could be put to better use.

But this won't just be about giving away my old junk.

I'll be the first to admit that I am terrible at remembering to give presents. Perfect example, after Miya's last day of JK before the Christmas holidays, her teacher sent out an email to all the parents thanking them for their thoughtful Christmas gifts. The problem is, I forgot to send one. I also forgot to put out a card and tip for my newspaper deliverer.

I don't know how many times I have been at events where other people have lovely little gifts and I stand barehanded. It's not that I mean to be stingy. I just don't think of it until it's too late.

So in the year of giving, I resolve to pay better attention to the many occasions when gifts are expected.

Unlike my previous New Year's projects, this one will be a family affair. I'll be encouraging Miya to give where she can - even simple things like thank you cards or little crafts. We can't afford to buy 365 presents, so many of the things we give this year will be handmade - baking, knitting, etc. Cash donations will count, too.

What won't count is things that are given within the family. I can't pour my husband a cup of coffee and count that as my daily gift. I can't count the clothes and necessities I buy for my children. The exception here will be special occasions - like birthdays or anniversaries.

I won't be blogging each gift - that would be tedious and some may think this project already sounds a little too precious. But for the sake of public accountability, I will tweet each gift - @AnitaGrace11, #365gifts.

Your comments and feedback - and reminders of special occasions - will be welcome!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Science experiments with baby Nisha

I recently interviewed Churchill Alternative School teacher Shauna Pollock, 2013 winner the Prime Minister's Teaching Award for Excellence, and wrote an article about her for our local paper, The Kitchissippi Times.

As usually happens when I'm covering local events, I had my mini-assistant with me, 7-month-old Nisha. During the interview, Nisha crawled around the classroom floor, played with our shoes and tried to eat some books.

I mentioned that I had wanted to involve Nisha in the Roots of Empathy program, which has babies visiting school classrooms several times over the course of a year. Ever looking for new ways to engage and teach her students, Shauna suggested Nisha come back to visit this classroom. A couple days later, Shauna and I used Google Drive to draft a 'science experiment' the kids could do with little Miss N.

Nisha is just at the cusp of understanding object permanence - a fancy way of saying that she'll understand that even if she can't see something, it still exists. Shauna and I created an experiment with which students could test if she has reached this cognitive milestone.

When we came to Class 209, Shauna had the lesson plan projected on the big screen at the front of the room. She asked the kids if they thought baby Nisha is able to form memories. They were invited to write out their hypothesis on their lab sheets.

We explained the idea of object permanence and the experiment we had designed. Students would show Nisha a toy, then cover it with a cloth. Observe how she responds. Does she seem confused? Does she try to look for the toy? Will she lift up the cloth?

The experimenting began and students were eager to engage with Nisha and test their hypotheses. They took turns trying to get her attention with a toy, then covering the toy up.

Students recorded their observations of how she responded - which was generally to look away and almost never to reach for the cloth or search for the hidden toy.

The funniest part of the experiment happened almost accidentally. Nisha had not napped well that morning and after about half an hour, she was getting fussy and restless. She started crawling around the floor, trying to grab students' papers. I suggested we cover up something she was crawling toward and see what happened.

So when Nisha began crawling toward some blocks on the floor, a student quickly threw the cloth over them. Without a pause, Nisha kept crawling right on over. She didn't even notice that what she'd been after had disappeared.

"I had no idea she would be this oblivious!" laughed Shauna.

The class has invited us back in the new year so we can retest for object permanence and see how Nisha's cognitive development is progressing. We'd like to try another experiment then too.

Any suggestions?

Here is a lovely blog entry written by one of Shauna's students.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book: From the Fifteenth District

Mavis Gallant's book From the Fifteenth District is a collection of nine wonderfully written short stories set Europe, in periods of time ranging from before, during, and after World War II.

The characters are vividly drawn and the settings are so artfully portrayed as to almost become additional characters in the story.

I was especially drawn into a story called 'The Moslem Wife' about a British woman who inherits the family hotel in the south of France. Like many of the stories in this collection, this one has several layers. It is about the protagonist's relationship with her lazy, philandering husband, but also about British expatriates during the period leading up the the Second World War, about the war, and about fractured communities.

Mavis Gallant, born in Montreal in 1922, was a journalist in Canada before moving to Paris in 1950 to write. Many of the stories in this collection are about people who inhabit a space without actually belonging to there - a British family who moves to the Riveria so the ailing patriarch can die there, a German former soldier who does not make it back to Berlin until many years after the war has ended, an aging Polish bachelor in Paris who falls for a flighty Canadian girl...

The tension of person and place has a strong role in each story, as much as any dynamic between characters. As someone who has spent many years of my life inhabiting but not belonging to a place, these stories resonated deeply with me. I was also impressed with Gallant's talent as a short story writer such that in with so few words, she is able to create such a rich and complex world of places and people.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Pumpkin Walk in Iona Park

They started coming in the morning. Yesterday's jack o'lanterns. Those pumpkins that had been carefully carved and proudly displayed on porches, front steps and window sills. Normally discarded the day after Hallowe'en, now given one last chance to shine.

Tonight was Ottawa's first pumpkin parade. Through word-of-mouth, social media, and flyers, we'd been inviting people in the Iona Park neighbourhood to bring their Hallowe'en handiwork to the park. At dusk we began putting candles inside them and the jack o'lanterns began to flicker and glow as night fell.

The idea for this parade came from my friend, Allegra Newman. She used to live in Toronto where the Sorauren Park Parade amasses around 2,000 pumpkins each year.
Iona Park's inaugural Pumpkin Walk was a more modest affair. By 8 p.m. there were close to 30 pumpkins lining the northern pathway into the park.

But it was a good beginning. Violet Lowe, who has lived beside the entrance to the park for 56 years, was thrilled to see the decorated pathway. "This is fantastic," she said.

Several young families and local residents braved the blustery winds to come to the park between 6 and 8 p.m. and admire the skill and creativity of carves in the neighbourhood. In addition to grinning pumpkin faces, there was a howling wolf, a man being chased by a dragon, and a lovely snowflake pattern.

The pumpkins will spend the rest of the weekend in the park, where they will be enjoyed by squirrels and admired by children, then picked up on Monday by city waste management.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Packing lunches for kindergarten - why is there not an app for this??

Miya on her first day of school
And so it begins. My little girl is now in kindergarten. A big, new school. New teachers. New kids. A lot to process for a 4-year-old.

For her mother, there's a different sort of process going on - planning and packing daily lunches and snacks. With a ridiculously early school start time of 8:00 a.m., we have to run our mornings with the precision of a military operation in order to get baby, child and mother out the door within 45 minutes. Advance planning is key.

Surely, I thought, when everyone has a smartphone attached to their body at all times, there must be an app to help me. I imagined a drag-and-drop set up where I could list the things Miya likes in her lunch in one column, the things she likes for snack in another, than drag and drop them into a weekly or monthly calendar.

Sadly, such a thing does not seem to exist. If anyone knows of one - or has the smarts to design it - please let me know!

In the meantime, I'm going old-school. I found a pdf file to print. I've created three different weekly menus and plan to rotate through them - not because I'm brimming with lunch ideas, but so it doesn't get too monotonous for my little kindergartener.

Here is an example of one of Miya's weekly menus:

Snacks: apple slices, crackers, berries
Lunch: pasta, sausage, red pepper slices

Snacks: nectarine, muffin, rasins
Lunch: bagel and cream cheese, cucumber strips

Snacks: waffle, apple slices
Lunch: tortilla and hummus roll, red peppers, yogurt

Snacks: crackers, cheese slices, dried fruit
Lunch: chicken fingers, sweet potatoes

Snacks: raisin bread, dried apricots
Lunch: jam sandwich, grape tomatoes, yogurt

If anyone has any suggestions for quick, easy things to add to the menu, please post them in the comment section below. Bonus points for things that can be made and packed up the night before.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wading pool challenge complete

Miya surveying Hampton Park wading pool
With less than a week to spare, Miya has completed the Kitchissippi Wading Pool Challenge of 2013 - she has visited all 13 wading pools and splash pads in our city ward. On a hot, sunny day like today, summer seems far from over - but several outdoor wading pools closed yesterday, and the remaining pools will fill for the last time on Friday.

Asked how she felt about seeing this challenge through, Miya simply said, "good." Frankly the whole concept of a challenge seemed a bit lost on her. But she's been a good sport.
Miya playing around at Woodroffe
Park Pool

And while this challenge may seem like a walk in the park, Miya did not come through without some battle scars. After a chilly dip in the Parkdale Market wading pool one Saturday, her mother wrapped her up tight in a towel to warm up. Foolish mother. The towel was so tightly bound that when Miya tipped forward while sitting on the ground, she had nothing to catch her fall but her face. A fat lip and nasty scrapes around the nose were testament to the ordeal. (Luckily, her daddy happened to bring back some homemade ice cream sandwiches shortly afterward, which magically dried the tears.)

Despite such mishaps, exploring the local wading pools has been a great way to get to know our neighbourhood better. Watching the dog wading hour in Reid Park, joining a community party at Champlain, listening to African drumming at LaRoche, making a bunny craft at Woodroffe, and attending a birthday party at Hintonburg - it's been a more diverse experience then we had anticipated at the start.  Miya was even interviewed about it all by the local community paper.

Map of Kitchissippi splash pads & wading pools.
Miya put a sticker on each one after visiting it.
After 10 pools and 3 splash pads, Miya still counts Iona Park as her favourite pool (it does have home court advantage) but she was impressed with several of those she visited - especially McKellar Park that has penguins painted on the bottom of the pool. All in all, a successful summer mission.

Anyone else visit some good wading pools this summer?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book: The Way of the Stars

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrim trail which leads to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Western Spain. Although pilgrimage may seem like a medieval practice, this Spanish pilgrimage has become increasingly popular in the last 30 years.

Thousands of pilgrims make the journey each year. They may spend days, weeks, or even months along roads which gather like tributaries from across Europe.

Not surprisingly, the increased popularity of the Camino pilgrimage has resulted in several books about it, most of which are guide books or travel memoirs.

Robert Sibley's book, The Way of the Stars, is one of these. Published in 2012, it describes his experiences along the Spanish trails. Written in a clear, descriptive voice which reflects his vocation as journalist and professor, it's narrative touches upon questions of faith, consciousness and quest, but mostly deals with earthly interests of a modern-day agnostic - food, drink, walking conditions and the physical effort of walking every day.

I, too, have walked the Camino de Santiago - twice in fact. I, too, have written a book about it - although mine is yet unpublished. It is because I am renewing my efforts to publish this work that I read Sibley's book. I wanted to see how he relayed the experience, how he wove together the history of the trail with its current condition.

As I read Sibley's book, I not only discovered the Camino through his eyes, but his narrative awoke my own memories of places, people and experiences. I couldn't help wishing I could return to the magical, mystical footpaths he describes and I remember. But for now, I will content myself with returning to my own manuscript, the writing of which is its own arduous journey.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book of Mercy

When Leonard Cohen wrote the Book of Mercy in the early 1980s he described himself as being "unable to speak in any other way" and that he had been "silenced for a long, long time." The book of 50 prose poems is a poignant conversation between himself and "the source of mercy."

It is filled with longing, regret, sorrow and hope. In its pages, the author "falls radiantly toward the light to which he falls" (Book of Mercy, 8)

Published in 1984, this is Cohen's eighth book of poetry. At that time, he had already published two novels and released eight recording albums. Throughout all of these works there are recurring themes of spiritual (and sexual) longing, but more than any other, this book is liturgical, prayer-like. Though influenced by his Buddhist practice and his interest in Christianity, it is very much a tribute to, and participation in, his Jewish faith and traditions.

Book of Mercy is composed of 50 numbered pieces. They are short in length, but deep with imagery and Scriptural references. The language is so carefully crafted that one reading alone does not feel sufficient for grasping everything contained in each poem.

I read this book in one sitting, which is like standing under a waterfall with the weight of words tumbling around me. I know I'll want to return again - but next time to enter slowly. Dip my toes in. Read just one verse and sit with it awhile. This is a book you could take on a desert island and never tire of.

In verse 13, Cohen writes, "Friend, when you speak this carefully I know it is because you don't know what to say." Cohen speaks extremely carefully, but he knows exactly what to say.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kitchissippi Wading Pool Challenge

It's not a challenge for the faint of heart. It takes commitment, tenacity. It also requires a bathing suit, beach towel and sun hat. Pool toys are optional.

The challenge? Visit all 13 splash pads and wading pools in the Kitchissippi area before the end of this summer. Do you have what it takes?

Miya at Parkdale Market Pool
Four-year old Miya is determined to see this challenge through. "I believe I have the fortitude and discipline to rise to the occasion," she said - or something to that effect. (It might also have been something like, "Can't we go to the pool now?")

So armed with a pink bathing suit, flowered hat, sunscreen, and a favourite beach towel, she ventures forth. For a girl still unwilling to submerge her face in water, she is making an admirable conquest of the neighbourhood pools.

Of the 10 wading pools, she has already visited 6. Asked which is her favourite, she chooses Iona Park - the wading pool closest to home in which she has spent many summer hours.

So are you up for the Kitchissippi Wading Pool Challenge of 2013? Leave a comment and let us know how many of the local pools you've visited this summer - and which one is your favourite.

Wading Pools in Kitchissippi:
Ev Tremblay Park: 108 Beech Ave
Reid Park: 40 Reid Ave
Parkdale Market Park: 366 Parkdale Market
Champlain Park: 140 Carleton Ave
Hampton Park: 645 Parkview Rd
Iona Park: 223 Iona St
Lions Park: 294 Elmgrove Ave
Westboro Kiwanis (Dovercourt): 411 Dovercourt Ave
McKellar Park: 539 Wavell Ave
Woodroffe Park: 180 Lockhart Ave

Splash Pads in Kitchissippi:
Hintonburg Park: 1064 Wellington St W
LaRoche Park: 52 Bayview
Roy Duncan Park: 295 Churchill Ave

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book: The Favourite Game

The late Paul Quarrington and I are in disagreement. He wrote the afterword for Leonard Cohen's debut novel, The Favourite Game. The game, he writes, is "marring something unbroken". I believe the game is the making of impressions.

Perhaps we both mean the same thing. You cannot make an impression without marring the surface. But while some might see that the game of the book's protagonist, Lawrence Breavman, as pursuing and marring perfection, I see it as a cultivation of impressions. Impression on body. Impression on spirit and soul.

The Favourite Game was published in 1963 and is viewed as a semi-autobiographical novel since it constructs the portrait of a young Jewish poet from Montreal. Yet while Breavman's vocation as a writer and poet is the underpinning of the book, the stories are about relationships - with women he refers to as 'mistesses' and with his childhood friend, Krantz.

Breavman, or perhaps Cohen as his biographer, is unable to stop being an observer of his own life and of these relationships. For a woman he "was a professional, he knew how to build a lover to court her." After wooing and winning her, and even living with her for a time of acknowledged happiness, Breavman must flee her since the lover "had a life of his own and often left Breavman behind." He knowingly chose loneliness, but he also chose the vantage point from which he could study the impressions which she had made on him, which he had made on her.

When I buy a book, I put my name, date and city of purchase on the inside. This book was bought in Saskatoon in November of 1996. At the time I was doing an undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy and took a course in Canadian Literature in which we read a Canadian novel each week. I read this book quickly, but in true student fashion, I underlined the passages which stood out for me. "A community is an alibi for the failure of individual love." "Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation."

Reading it now, so many years later, is like returning to a familiar city. Some places were vividly remembered, others lost in the folds of memory so as to be new discoveries. But in the years since I read this book, I have become an ardent Leonard Cohen fan - of his music, art, and poetry. In some of the phrases in this book, I heard an echo of a song he would later write. It was a joy to read this book - not just since it is poetic, intelligent and vividly descriptive, but because it is part of the artist I so deeply admire and respect.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Two couches, two worlds
There is a photographer in Ottawa who has been taking a beautiful old couch into neighbourhoods around  where we live. He invites people to sit, stand, lounge, etc on the couch while he takes pictures. Some of the shots are posted on his site.

What a lovely idea, I thought when I saw this, a great way to celebrate the places and people around here that I love so much. Sure, it's gentrified and all, but Westboro is a great place to raise kids. At a recent community event in our neighbourhood park we had over 100 people show up, despite the cool, rainy weather.

The Community Couch project seems like a neat way to capture some of the local vibe. I even pitched a story about it to my editor at Kitchissippi Times before realizing they are already going to be running a story on this next week.

Muzaffar Salam/Reuters
Then I sat down with last Saturday's edition of the Globe and Mail to read an article on the latest turmoil in Egypt and the Arab Spring movement. Opening the paper I was immediately struck by this image from Syria.  The couches are so similar, yet the setting couldn't be more different.

Sometimes it just takes a simple thing like the contrast of two images to remind me how fortunate I am to live where I do.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Public breastfeeding

As I am once again the mother of a young infant, I get to rediscover public breastfeeding. If you're in Ottawa you may find me nursing my daughter at local coffee shops, restaurants, patios, public parks, community centres, etc.

It's not that I'm embarrassed to breastfeed in public. It's generally an accepted practice around here and I've never received dirty or scandalized looks. And I'm all for breastfeeding - for health and bonding reasons as well as the convenience of having a ready made, nutritionally balanced meal on hand (well, on breast) at a moment's notice. Wish meals were as easy to prepare for my pre-schooler!

That said, I don't have a militant, in-your-face approach to sticking my daughter on my boob. Despite often sporting a nursing shirt that has 'SALOON' written across the chest, I try to be discreet. The only person in the coffee shop who needs to see my nipple is my baby - and at 2 months she's already pretty adept at dive bombing it when given the slightest glance.

But as a mom who breastfeeds on demand and also wants to be out and about, my fashion choices are rather limited. While I don't object to flashing a breast, I would rather not have my post-pregnancy midsection hanging out for all to see. So I wear nursing shirts. These are made with easy, discreet access to what baby wants most. They typically have a very tell-tale flap along the chest and in my case often have bits of baby spit up or slobber on the shoulder. Most are designed for utility more than fashion, although the market is improving and Japanese Weekend has some pretty nice tops and dresses that don't advertise to the world that these boobs are ready for milking.

Despite my best efforts though, there are certainly times when my breast is on display a little more than necessary. Like when I open the front door to the UPS guy while nursing and my baby decides it's a good time to pop off and look around. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed.

Funny how I've gone from being someone who doesn't like to show too much cleavage to one so willing to publicly bare my breast. One of the many ways parenting has changed me.

Friday, March 08, 2013

More Jane: Emma & Northanger Abbey

In continuation of my exploration of Jane Austen's work, I recently read Emma (1815) and Northanger Abbey (1817), as well as A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) written by her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh

As Emma was nearing publication, Austen confessed in a letter that she feared "to those readers who have preferred 'Pride and Prejudice' it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred 'Mansfield Park' inferior in good sense". It's true that not a lot really happens in the story - but as with other Austen novels, its appeal lies in the witty dialogue, deft character descriptions and studied description of the life of English gentry at the turn of the 19th century.

Austen supposedly thought that no one besides herself would much care for the character of Emma - a spoiled girl who over-estimates her abilities and talents. But Emma is all the more engaging for her flaws and much of the humor in the book comes at her expense.

Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen's  novels submitted for publication (in 1803) - but the publisher reconsidered after further review of the manuscript and the book languished in a drawer for the next 14 years. After Austen's death in 1817, her brother bought it back from the publisher - who had no idea that the manuscript was written by the author who by then had become fairly well-known for four other novels.

The book was then published, but it is generally considered to be Austen's weakest work since it did not benefit from the extensive revisions and improvements which she made to her other books. Still, it has a liveliness to it that the other more polished books do not. In several places the author directly addresses the reader and offers her opinions on contemporary novels and other subjects. You get a sense of Austen as a budding novelist in this work - and can also see how her style improved with her other works.

Though the Memoir is quite reserved - the family was always very guarded and close-lipped about their famous authoress and almost all of her letters were burnt - it was interesting to learn a bit more about Jane Austen. For example, she felt very attached to her characters, especially her heroines, and they continued to live in her imagination and in the stories she would tell her many nephews and nieces. For example, from their memories, we learn that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax (something mentioned in the novel, but not revealed there) contained the word 'pardon'.

I'm quite enjoying my foray in the world of Jane Austen - and to add to the fun, after finishing each novel I watch at least one its film adaptions. The BBC had a mini-series for each book - and there are other films, including ones like Clueless (loosely based on Emma).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reading Jane Austen

For the last few years I've been choosing an author to focus on. For that year I'll read books both by and about the author - often expanding my selection to the author's contemporaries, friends, etc.

Last year I focused on Margaret Laurence, an author I have long been a fan of. I read her 5 novels and memoir, as well as a biography, letters between her and her life-long friend Adele Wiseman, and Wiseman's novel Crackpot.

This year, after receiving two Jane Austen novels for Christmas, I'm turning to her gentle satire of English gentry in the 1800s.

I started off the year with Sense and Sensibility (1811), which is fitting since it was her first novel published. She published it under the pseudonym 'A Lady' and had to pay the publisher to print it.

The novel is about two sisters. Elinor, the elder, is  full of common sense and is highly conscious of what is respectable and appropriate. Her younger sister Marianne represents romantic sensibilities of impulsiveness and free expression of emotion. Both women are seeking love, but their differences in temperament affect how they go about this - and how well they succeed.

The second novel I read was Persuasion (1818), Austen's last complete novel, published after her death in 1817. Though similar to Sense and Sensibility in its focus on refined society and the pressures on young women to make suitable marriages, this novel is more satirical in tone. Austen is critical of the judgmental and selfish aspects of high society and shows how few options and opportunities women were afforded.

Both novels were very quick and engaging reads. There are few surprises, but the character descriptions and conversations are deftly drawn. The critical observations of society and gender roles are made more effective for being subtly woven into the text.

As a woman novelist, Austen was well ahead of her time. She was likely very aware that her narrative voice was new, and perhaps unwelcome at the time. Near the end of Persuasion, the novel's main character, Anne Elliot, is discussing women's constancy with a male acquaintance.

"I do no think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy" [he says]...
"If you please, no reference to examples in books," [Anne replies]. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing."

Thankfully we have the books of Jane Austen to prove that even in a time when women were restricted by strict social mores, limited in educational and professional opportunities, they were no less witty, intelligent nor capable of greatness.