Sunday, May 30, 2010


Anne Shirley is one of my all-time favourite literary characters. I loved her when I was ten and four decades later, she’s still at the top of my list of heroes.

I think it’s because she never simply accepts the hand she’s dealt. Whether it’s being an orphan or taking the blame for getting her best friend drunk, Anne does whatever she has to to solve the problem. She asks for what she wants and, if nobody hands it to her (they rarely do, of course), she makes it happen herself.

I admire that drive and the pure spirit in which she implements it. She’s ambitious, sure, but for things that I can relate to: love, belonging, education, goodness.

She often fails, or thinks she does, but she keeps trying.

Her efforts aren’t half-hearted, either; she puts her whole heart and soul and mind into every one.

If I’d had a daughter I'd have been very tempted to name her Anne, but it's more direct simply to emulate her myself.

So when the going gets tough I now ask myself, "What would Anne do?"

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I'm not obliged but…

For the past week I’ve been revisiting my work.

In order to claim my share of royalties, I have to add up the word counts for all of my magazine and newspaper articles for each year from 1989 to 2008 and submit them to Access Copyright, the Canadian copyright licensing agency.

I combed through my files – hard copy and computer – and tabulated, year by year, the word count for each article in every publication for which I’ve ever freelanced.

There are stories on public art, reinforcing steel, and high-performance concrete. I wrote about mistletoe, growing Garry oaks from seed, and how to plant a Victoria-style hanging basket. I found essays on being a stepmom, eating Cheezies at the end of a long bike ride, and what makes a place beautiful enough.

Clearly, I’ve always covered a broad range of subjects. I haven’t written much about bridge construction or pipelines lately, but I profiled writer Yasuko Thanh in Torch and her Journey Prize-winning story “Floating Like the Dead” in Canada’s History. I reviewed Deepwater Vee, Melanie Siebert’s debut poetry book, for Canadian Geographic’s June issue. How Kevin Smith and Maureen Gordon have successfully taken their personal values to work at Maple Leaf Adventures gets airtime in the next issue of Harbour Air’s inflight magazine.

What my new stories have in common with the old is that I learn something from all of them. I can question interesting people about their expertise and passions and then I get to sit in a cozy room with a nice cup of tea and drive myself crazy trying to do them justice on paper.

It’s an impossible job. Who, except an occasional genius, can get it exactly right? Who can perfectly capture the essence, humour, generosity, and spirit of another person and, using only abstract symbols, convey it to strangers?

Not me.

I’ve had moments when I’ve come close, I think, and knowing that I’ve shone a little light onto a subject or made a reader laugh or acknowledged someone’s contribution to the greater good – those moments keep me going. I’m not curing cancer, but I can tell you about people who are.

And when once again my reach exceeds my grasp and I consider giving up, I have only to look at the quotation on my computer screen.

The Talmud, via a little yellow sticky note, tells me, “It is not your obligation to complete your work, but you are not at liberty to quit.”

So I make another cup of tea.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Back to the land

I have a new garden!

Last year, I put my name on a waiting list for space in the allotment gardens on the grounds of historic Craigflower Manor and last week, my number came up. I am now the proud tenant of Number 82, a four-by-twelve foot plot of potential.

See the beautifully cleared section in the foreground of the photo? That’s not mine.

Above it, notice the garden with the minty shrub at the left-hand end? Also not mine.

What is mine, for the astonishing price of $24 a year, is the overgrown – and very green, I point out – mess in the middle.

I have plans. Big plans. Ambitious plans that involve beets and chive flowers and kale all winter long.

But first, I weed.

Friday, May 7, 2010


My cousin Tea calls me up every once in a while and says, “Hey, Rach! Wanna go–?“

Choose one: backpack the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, cycle 200 miles in two days on the Seattle to Portland Ride, sit on a beach and drink mai tais.

Only she never offers that beach/mai tai option.

Most recently she said, “Hey, Rach! Wanna do the Tulip Pedal?”

I’ve wanted to check out the Skagit Valley’s famous tulip fields for years, and I was so relieved that Tea’s idea didn’t involve a 30-pound pack or 10,000 other people that I blurted, “Sure!”

She roped in her sister and aunt and we sent off our $25 entry fees to support child safety programs.

We met up in Tsawwassen on a Friday evening in the middle of April with our bikes, passports and all the enthusiasm you could ask for. Tea had come straight from work and hadn’t been to the bank to get any American cash but her sister Pea agreed to cover her so we piled into Bea’s truck and headed south.

Tea, whose partner is a chef and who is something of a foodie herself, recommended dinner at Boundary Bay Brewing Company in Bellingham en route, and with a glass of Washington State merlot and a plate of piping hot enchiladas in front of me, I decided this expedition was one of Tea’s best ideas yet.

On Saturday morning, we picked up our maps and T-shirts in La Conner, threw our legs over our trusty two-wheelers and headed north on the first leg of the 40-mile route. As we left the lovely small town behind us, we excitedly pointed out solid stripes of pink, red and purple across the landscape about a mile to the east.



“Can’t wait to see them up close!”

But the tulips remained where they were and we continued north.

We saw an occasional cluster of yellow or red blooms in a tidy front yard, but otherwise it was all flat green farmland. Pretty, but no tulips. Then we got to Edison and promptly lost interest in flowers.

There was a bakery.

We crowded into the tiny two-table space and eyed the menu as if we hadn’t seen food for days instead of the hour and a half since breakfast. I decided on a latte and the merest sliver of a taste of what the others were having.


Pea’s lemon verbena iced tea and white-and-chocolate cupcake decorated with chocolate chips were delightful. I think I moaned out loud when I sampled Bea’s polenta cake infused with lime. A crumb or two of Tea’s maple scone was not nearly enough.

Some time later, we rolled back to our bikes.

Swinging east on the second, short leg, we saw more beautiful countryside. Turning south, yet more. There was always a new vista: a red-tailed hawk hunting over a field, red-winged blackbirds amongst the bulrushes at the edge of a slough, green fields, ploughed fields, old barns.

The ride organizers had chosen a fantastic route: lots of scenery, only two hills (neither long nor arduous), and very little car traffic.

And also no tulips.

We made a slight detour (thank you, Tea) to Golden Glen farm to buy double-cream cheddar made by the Jensen ladies. They also make a lavender cheese that I think I must try next time.

Finally, when we were well along the southward leg of the route, we spotted a big band of colour.

“Yay!” we said.

With fresh energy, we pedaled closer. At last we’d found tulips!

We’d also found a parking lot and wardens with stop signs to control traffic so the thousands (okay, hundreds) of drivers and their passengers could cross the road to line up at the ticket booth: cash to the left, Visa and MasterCard to the right.

“I don’t want to pay to look at tulips,” I thought.

“I don’t want to pay to look at tulips,” Pea said.

“Me either,” Bea agreed.

Tea said, “I do.”

We had come all this way to see tulips, so she had a point, but we’d also had a beautiful ride and wonderful culinary treats and it seemed silly to ante up even a few dollars each to walk through some muddy fields.

The argument went back and forth, as they tend to do, and then…

“She’s got that look.” Pea said.

We turned as one and headed for the ticket booth.

“Tea still doesn’t have any cash, does she?” I said to Pea as we hauled out our wallets.

She shook her head.

“So not only do we have to go in, but you have to pay her way?”

The tulips were glorious.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Three syllables of happiness

“Listen to this!” my husband exclaimed recently.

My head snapped up from my book. An exclamation from him usually signals something pretty freaking spectacular, like the sun rising in the west or an early start to ski season.

“To be happy, every human being needs love, a purpose, and something to look forward to,” he quoted from the novel in his hands.

It struck us both as one of those universal truths that you recognize right away – as soon as someone else says it.

Of all the people I know, the happiest are those who have all three things. Those with only two are restless, or worse; love alone cannot create happiness.

I know people in their 80s who are happy because they have good friends, they want to finish writing their books, and they’re looking forward to Christmas dinner with their families (or at least to Christmas dinner). I know people much younger who chafe at their lives; they don’t know what they want to do, so they can neither do it nor look forward to doing it.

In the books I read and the movies I watch – and in plays and music, too, for that matter – the stories usually exist because at least one of the three elements is missing.

The movie Revolutionary Road, set in the 1950s, perfectly illustrated for me what can happen when a couple of the puzzle pieces are missing. (Spoiler alert.)

Frank had a suburban life and a job he disliked, but no clear ambition, no dream except to go to Paris some day. His wife April had the love of her husband and children but her life’s goal – to be an actress – was shattered when she discovered on stage that she’s a terrible actor.

With that dream gone, she created a new one: the family would move to Paris, she would get a job to support them, and Frank would be free to discover hispurpose. However, when Frank got a better job, he decided that loving and supporting his family were, in fact, his purpose and what he looked forward to doing. April was bereft again.

Looking at life and stories this way helped clarify a few things for me. Like that hollow feeling when our chicks fly the nest and our purpose as parents changes drastically. The fear with which we face old age, when we’ll be jobless and we’ll think more about sore joints than smoking them.

Sometimes I’m a little shaky on my purpose, but I have wonderful friends and family and even on my most Eeyore-ish days I look forward to something: there will always be another fantastic story to read; popcorn makes every movie better; and my office window faces east, so each morning that I show up for work, there’s a sunrise.