On Living in 2012

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I spent Christmas in Cape Breton with Andrew, his parents, my mother and the sweetest chocolate lab named Meadow. It barely snowed the entire week we were there, and so when we went for walks in the forest with the dog, the moss was still bright green and springy under our feet, but because it was cold it had the most satisfying frozen crunch to it. Days were built around meals and reading books and those walks and the occasional drive to see the ocean or a brackish lake. We returned home to a dumping of snow and, best of all, a new kitty, which Andrew gave me for Christmas. She is tiny and silver with spots and stripes (she’s an Egyptian Mau), and we named her Maya because she has an M-shaped marking on her forehead and it was the only Egyptian name we could agree on. She’s still pretty shy, but she jumps like a ninja.

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Next week we’ll be back at work, and things will get back to normal, but in the meantime there are 2 more days left in 2012, and I wanted to write something about this year.

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What I Read in 2012

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Every year I seem to forget how much I love December, how it’s consistently one of the best months. This December has been especially fun, weekends full of get togethers with friends and family, shopping for the holidays (and myself, let’s be honest), baking cookies, a roadtrip outside the city. Toronto is strangely warm, but the house feels Christmas-y. We won’t be here over the holidays, but there is a little string of lights, a single garland along the fireplace, a few branches clipped from my parents’ yard in a vase for a mini-tree. I also love December because I enjoy looking back at the year that just passed, figuring out the narrative of it. Mostly we bob along, living, forgetting that if you look hard enough you can see progressions or shifts. In some ways 2012 has been a year of revelations, and I want to write about it here, but first I want to record what books I read because that tells its own story too.

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Lately, a numbered list

1) As an addendum to my last post about being a fan, I snuck in a few more IFOA readings, the highlight being Leanne Shapton  reading and  then being interviewed by Seth. I read Swimming Studies this summer, and there was something about it that was so comforting – it demands little of you, it ebbs and flows, it’s all about memory and practice and a quiet kind of ambition. I mean, on top of being about swimming. It’s very zine-y too, meandering and tangential, with accompanying photos and watercolours. And there were other things I related to, like how Shapton is half-Filipino! Also, my childhood best friend swam for the very swim team described in the book, and so even though I wasn’t a swimmer, I knew the rhythms of a competitive swimmer. I remember going with my friend to a swim meet once, and being surprised at what it was like. Surprised and kind of awed. I remember, after she had quit swimming, towards the end of high school, we would go for walks around the neighborhood at night, and on cold nights I would sometimes borrow her swimming parka, the coziest, grizzly bear of a coat. Leanne Shapton describes that same parka in her book, and I hadn’t thought about it since those high school years. So, I was excited to see her read, and then waited patiently at the end of the reading to get my book signed. I was with Samantha, who is also half-Filipino, and we shared a moment of half-Filipino bonding. Is it a silly thing to bond over? It’s an important thing to me, though, this part of my identity. Anyway. That was nice.

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On being a fan.

In my more cynical moments, when considering the artist-creation continuum, I think the thing I’m best at, and that I should stick to, is being a fan. The one who consumes, digests, adores, cheers. Not a creator, not a critic, but simply a fan. Of course when I’m feeling more optimistic I hope I can be all three, that each role informs the other. Every writer I know constantly beats themselves up for not writing enough, for not trying as hard as they should be. We have such high hopes and standards and still, we’re never doing every single thing we could be doing. In fact, I just wrote an email with this closing line: i guess i didn’t write much this weekend :/ Being a fan is sometimes a relief. I know what to do and I’m good at it. I’m a completist, I’m a little obsessive, I like to tell people about the things I like.  These are all good qualities in a fan, and I sometimes wonder if I’ll grow out of my fangirlish tendencies, but I’m firmly ensconced in my thirties, and while I maybe don’t go to the same lengths I used to, that same urge is still there.

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Thanksgiving.

Many Thanksgiving dinners, none of them involving turkeys, other than some turkey shaped cookies given to us by Emily. Bringing chairs in from the backyard so that everyone has a place to sit. Chocolate pumpkin bread pudding, apple pie, pumpkin pie. Cool, crisp, bright autumn air. A walk by the lake. Summer sausage and cheese from the St. Lawrence Market. A paper bag of cranberries, uncooked. Working on writing in the shed. One gym class. Flowers from my parents’ house. An unruly spider plant from a neighbour. Pumpkin on the front porch. NW by Zadie Smith. New season of Downton Abbey. Extra blankets on the bed.

Summer postcards

I can barely believe this summer is wrapping up. There are now things hanging up on the walls of our new home and we’ve had some friends over, but it’s still not quite at the housewarming party stage. In the meantime we’ve figured out where to eat breakfast, to get good, cheap dinners, to buy groceries. I have a library card, and am already borrowing too many books. I joined the gym around the corner, but haven’t been once (ugh) and I know the quickest route to get to work when there’s traffic. I’ve been writing at my desk — I now have my own desk rather than just writing at the kitchen table. I’ve been typing a lot these days, old and new stories, but I’ve also been simply enjoying the summer. I will type even more in the fall and because I feel like I haven’t been doing a good job of keeping in touch, I’ll get better at that too. September resolutions > New Year’s resolutions.

I did a better job of documenting summer times on Instagram; here are a few of them for posterity/scrapbook-y purposes.

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Scenes From a Move

1. You get the keys late in the afternoon, go to the house and walk around, and it looks exactly the same as it did the last time you were there, just a few days ago. But now it’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it. The previous owner has left a letter that says, My kids said they “left happy thoughts around for you to find”, so maybe you will. You decide to stay for dinner, but forgot to bring plates or cutlery, so you go to a nearby cheese store and they give you a wooden plank for the cheese you pick out. It’s just an unfinished piece of wood, but it’s good enough. You stop at a Dollarama, get some knives and two champagne flutes, and then buy a bottle of sparkling wine too.

2. The location for the Uhaul pick-up gets changed at the last minute. You end up driving to an area of the city you’ve never been to before and as you approach the intersection there are police directing traffic. You find out that there has been a power outage on the length of street where you’re supposed to get the truck. Eventually you pull into a parking lot and double check the address because it doesn’t look like a Uhaul location. It looks like a store that sells… saris? There are hundreds of them, shiny and brightly coloured. You go inside and find out that they also rent Uhauls on the side. Because of the power outage, the computers are down and the lights aren’t working, and the store is dark. You go to the back to pick up the furniture pads and use your iPhone to light the darkened closet.

3. You load the truck that night with the help of your friends. When you’re done, exhausted from the day, you  sit around and watch the Olympics. After that, every time you grab a box or run up and down stairs you imagine yourself competing as an athlete in London. This is ridiculous because a) you’re not an athlete and b) you aren’t even carrying that many boxes.

4. There is a heat alert issued for moving day, but you get to the house early and you have friends with you, and with everyone’s help the truck is emptied out quickly. You sit out in the backyard, eat popsicles and drink water, and your fridge is bursting with beer, but it’s barely 11 am, and maybe a little early for it? You send your friends home with bottles because a fridge stocked with that much beer is bound to be dangerous.

5. After everyone has left and the moving truck is returned, you start unpacking. One of you is grasping a glass desktop, carefully carrying it up the stairs so that it can be put in place, while the other person holds the door open. The edge of the desktop catches on the wall. It happens so quickly that you don’t remember it shattering. It’s as if it simply dissolved into thin air, poof, except now the two of you are surrounded in beads of tempered glass and covered in glass dust and, oh, blood? Blood. There is blood springing from tiny cuts on your arms and feet. You go to the bathroom to rinse it off. The new white bath rug is now blood stained. Nap time, you declare. It’s been a long day.

6. There is a Seferis poem you like a lot, a long one (“Thrush”), and you’ve used a portion of it as an epigraph for the book that you’re still working on. You remember this section from the beginning:
I don’t know much about houses
I know they have their own nature, nothing else.
New at first, like babies
who play in gardens with the tassels of the sun,
they embroider coloured shutters and shining doors
over the day.
When the architect’s finished, they change,
they frown or smile or even grow resentful
with those who stayed behind, with those who went away
with others who’d come back if they could
or others who disappeared, now that the world’s become
an endless hotel.
Your house seems happy to see you, and like the previous owner said, there are happy thoughts for you to find.

7. A few days later furniture is assembled, some boxes are unpacked, including the books, which don’t fit into the bookcases. There are too many of them. It’s a beautiful day and you don’t feel like unpacking and figuring out the book problem, so your best friend comes over and the two of you walk to the beach, spread out a blanket and lay in the sun, wade in the water, read. The beach is only 15 minutes away now, which kind of blows your mind because it was never part of the Toronto you used to know. You like this new version of Toronto: a messy, sunny house, a new neighbourhood, a beach. You can get used to this.

On Archer.

Archer

Anyone who knows me in real life or who has followed me on various forms of social media knows that Andrew and I were loving owners of a sometimes grumpy, always adorable Siamese cat named Archer. Actually, I was the interloper in the relationship – Archer was devoted only to Andrew and loved him in the massive way that Siamese cats are known to love their owners. Andrew could turn Archer into a dissolving purring furball by simply looking in his general direction. Archer tolerated me, and recently I had been convinced that he actually liked me. He spent most nights curled up by our heads, trying to inch his way towards Andrew while also benefiting from my body heat. He hogged my pillow a lot.

Here are some things about Archer.

He chatted with us in a gentle, hoarse meow. When he was hungry, he jumped up on the bed beside Andrew and tapped him on the shoulder. I didn’t believe it until Archer did it to me one morning – light, persistent taps until you opened your eyes and saw his furry body sitting beside you, expectant. He would come darting across our place in Montreal if we let him know there was a visiting cat (his “friend”) at the window. Whenever Andrew played guitar, he would sidle up next to him, sit down and listen, his eyes half-closed, purring. In Archer’s slimmer days, Andrew could walk around the apartment with him wrapped around his neck like an awkward, squirmy shawl. He was known to play fetch. We once had to leave him at the vet overnight because he got into Portuguese chicken leftovers and swallowed a bone. He once fought against the vet so violently that he broke his toe, and then limped around the apartment pathetically for a month until it healed. He once caught a bird off the balcony and dragged it inside for us. He liked drinking water straight from the glass. When he was relaxed, he would sleep on his back and stretch his bottom legs out straight, like a human splayed out at the beach. It was the cutest thing. Houseguests tended to be amused by Archer, and more than a few people were greeted with a paw swipe when they leaned over to pat his head, but he mellowed out as he got older and in the past year was downright social.

Basically: he was a cat. He did cat things and these things were endlessly amusing to us and we delighted in them.

He also hid the fact that he was ill from us – gaining weight when he should’ve been losing it, purring on command until almost the very end – and so by the time the illness really made itself known (diabetes – the bane of all privileged fat cats), it was too late, and anything we could’ve done to keep him alive for a little bit longer would’ve been unfair and painful to him.

The sadness of losing a pet is uncomplicated. You loved them; you miss them. There are nuisances that come with being a pet owner, but there are no messy, conflicting emotions, no dramas, just a consistent, steady stream of love. And so the sadness when they’re gone is pure and sharp and stunningly and painfully simple.

We are sad that he’s gone. We’re sad that he’s not going to see our new house, because another thing that happened the week he passed away (yes, it was a big week) was that we put an offer on a house and got it. We’re so happy and excited to live in this house – it’s cozy and bright and in a neighborhood we can’t wait to live in. There’s some carpet in the basement, and when we visited the house and decided that it was our house, we had joked about how Archer would love this basement. So it will be so strange to move into it without him. We move next week.

One street west from our new place is a street that has small, cute houses on one side and a fence running along it on the other side. Pieces of art, mostly naive paintings of cats, are pinned to the fence, and it’s charming and lovely. We can’t bring Archer with us to this neighborhood, but don’t be surprised if later on this summer you’re walking down the street and notice a little painting of a grey-faced grumpy applehead Siamese pinned to the fence.

Baby Archer

He was our best cat.

Scrapbook #11: Dispatch from Toronto

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The first days in a city are always the strangest – the new routines, new scenery, new living spaces. It’s also disorienting to move back to a city you know well, but not at all. Things have changed and not changed and here we are, changed and not changed. But things are starting to feel normal again and I’m now eager to explore and wander.

The Toronto skyline is more jagged with condos than it was 6 years ago, but it’s the skyline of a big city, and it’s beautiful. We’ve been keeping busy. An anniversary barbecue on Centre Island. The Beach Boys at the Molson Ampitheatre on one of the hottest evenings. Catching up with friends over dinner, drinks. Iced coffee and a hot dog at the nearby farmer’s market and then walking home with garlic scapes, Ontario blueberries, new potatoes. It’s nice to be back.

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Right before we moved, all of our books were packed up, including books I was planning to read over the summer. But when you’ve 95% packed your entire home and there are still stray items lounging about, taunting you, you just stuff them into boxes and don’t really think about it. I remember labelling a box “alarm clock, books to read, etc”, but that box is somewhere in the garage right now and who knows when it will be unearthed again. (In other news, anyone in Toronto have a house they want to sell us? Preferably by a subway line, in a neighbourhood-y neighbourhood, and not outrageously priced? Anyone? That’s what I thought.)

Despite the craziness that comes with moving, I had moments where all I wanted to do was curl up and read, so I downloaded “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron on my Kindle. It had the kind of vibe I was after – someone being funny about not so great life situations, with some recipes thrown in. I highlighted this particular section:

“She must be feeling better,” said Ellis. “She’s making jokes.”
“She makes jokes even when she’s feeling terrible,” said Vera. “Don’t let her fool you.”
“Why do you have to make everything into a joke?” asked Diana.
“I don’t have to make everything into a joke,” I said. “I have to make everything into a story. Remember?”

I related to it, and have already started making up new Toronto stories.

(R.I.P Nora Ephron – I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read your books.)

Scrapbook #10: Au revoir.

Cozy(Andrew & I at our first place in Montreal)

Our first apartment in Montreal was a huge, sunny loft just east of de Lorimier and Sherbrooke. It was beautiful and impractical. Our landlord had installed a whirlpool with LED chromotherapy lights in the bathroom because somehow that change of colour was supposed to be good for your body. The whirlpool must have used up his home reno energy because he never got around to putting in a proper bathroom door. Instead there was a curtain. It was heavy, but it was still just a curtain. But it was our first place in Montreal and the rent was cheap compared to Toronto and from our deck we could see the Jacques Cartier Bridge and, in the summer, fireworks at La Ronde. And the light that streamed through the big windows was vivid, amazing. Who needed a bathroom door?

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(Bedroom wall at the new place.)

When Andrew and I came to Montreal almost six years ago, we didn’t think we would stay for very long. Maybe a year? It was just to try something different. But then that year passed, and another, and we left the loft and instead of renting, bought a condo straddling the Plateau and Mile End. It was tiny, but the ceilings were high and the bathroom had a door and the neighbourhood had every single thing you could ever want in a neighbourhood. One of the best parts about the condo was the deck in the back, and if you stood in a certain corner you could just make out the cross at the top of Mount Royal.

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We didn’t have air conditioning, so in the summer we would sleep with all the windows open, and sounds would leak through. Bells from the church at St. Joseph every Sunday morning at 9:15. The thud of dance music from the crappy café across the street that mystifyingly turned into a wedding reception hall on the weekends. Drunken laughter from people coming home after a night at the bar. Neighbours having sex. The occasional person practicing opera arias as they walked home alone in the dark. And these days, at 8 pm, you’ll hear someone, somewhere, banging on casseroles.

Pasta dough(So much cooking.)

I guess I learned about food in Montreal. It was impossible not to. Jean Talon Market is best in the thick of summer when everything is open and busy and fruit and vegetables are sold not just in pints and pounds, but in bushels and flats. I made my first batch of jam after buying an overripe flat of strawberries one Friday night before closing time. I liked Atwater Market for the canal, and one of my favourite mid-week meals was a slice of pizza and a bottle of wine from the market, eaten by the water.

Bushels of tomatoes at Jean Talon market
(Summer at Jean Talon.)

I learned that the best time to go to Schwartz’s was on a weekday evening, say around 8:30, when there aren’t too many tourists. And, anyway, if the lineup is too long, you won’t be disappointed by a sandwich across the street at The Main. I pledged my allegiance to Fairmount bagels over St. Viateur. I had foie gras poutine from Au Pied de Cochon, many roast chickens from Romados, too many butter chicken thalis at Bombay Mahal, lobster truffle ravioli at Holder, meals composed entirely of cheese purchased from La Fromagerie Atwater, many summer ice cream cones from Kem CoBa or Bilboquet. Andrew and I had picnics in almost every park within a 15 minute walking radius from our home. We didn’t get married in Montreal, but we had champagne with our friends at Parc Lafontaine a month later.

Birthday cheese plate

It was excessive, all of it, but it was good.

Another group shot(Caro, Les and me New Year’s Eve a few years ago.)

One reason why moving to Montreal felt so natural and easy was because my best friends were living here. On average, I’ve probably seen Caro and Les once a week since September 2006 and I probably shouldn’t think about how many bottles of wine we’ve shared. I also don’t want to think about what it will be like not having them just a few blocks away. It’s one of the hardest things about moving, leaving these people.

Group shot

I have the sweetest group of friends here, and over the years we would take turns hanging out with just the girls, or with the boys too, mostly congregating around a kitchen table to eat meals that would last hours, multiple conversations happening at once, the occasional French/English debate, and so much laughter.

Polaroid of girls on a sunny Sunday morning in June
(The girls one sunny morning.)

Montreal is too easy to romanticize. It’s the kind of place that calls the hill in the middle of the city a mountain – everything is heightened. Something about the exposed staircases and all those lovely people riding around on bikes and the fact that the depanneurs sell bad bottles of wine. It adds up.

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It makes people wonder how anyone gets any work done here. But work happens, I promise. I started off working at an accounting firm, and then I quit, started a new job, then another, then went back to the one before that. I got used to that particular Quebecois-style type of conversation with my co-workers where they would speak to me in French and I would reply in English. It was just easier to communicate that way.

Montreal launch!(My book launch at Drawn & Quarterly.)

And I made things. My first book, my first novel, some zines. And I watched Andrew build up his photography practice too. I remember darting into a dep to pick up a copy of the Saturday paper to see one of his photos on the cover, I remember spending a freezing cold Nuit Blanche in the Old Port, hanging out at a gallery to watch people’s reactions as they looked at his art projected on a huge screen. I can’t even list off how much ground he’s covered here in Montreal, often with our dear friend Nel, the two of them discovering parts of Montreal I would never think to bother with. I am still in awe of everything he has created while we’ve lived here.

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There is that cliché of an Anglophone moving to Montreal for a few years in their twenties to go to university or grad school. Maybe they’ll hang around for a bit after graduation, using the city as an excuse to stave off impending adulthood. They work on their art, they get their heart broken, they pay the lowest rent they’ll ever pay in their lives, and then they leave and get a real job. Sometimes I feel like I did Montreal a little backwards. I came here long after I had left school, and I didn’t so much stave off adulthood as grow into the kind of adult I want to be with the kind of relationship I want to have with the city I live in. I’m sure I would’ve figured this out if I had stayed in Toronto or if I had moved to a different city, but because I did it in Montreal, I will always associate it with this part of my life, these tentative half-serious, half-silly early adulthood years. They were so much fun.

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As much as I am excited about rediscovering Toronto and starting a new phase in my life with Andrew, I’m sad to leave this magical, beautiful city. There is so much I haven’t done! I never went kayaking in the canal or cross country skiing on Mont Royal or bumped into Leonard Cohen or got over my bike phobia to be one of those girls biking around the city.

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But I did so many other things, and I will always be grateful and nostalgic and sentimental for that. Merci, Montreal. Merci, merci, merci.