Friday, December 31, 2010

a reading list from 2010

I thought I'd list some of the books I read in 2010. When compiling this list I was surprised to see just how much nonfiction I'd read.


Small Beneath the Sky (Lorna Crozier) - This is poet Lorna Crozier's memoir of growing up on the Canadian prairies.

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) - Just one of many books on writing that I read in 2010. Most were okay, some were good, but this one stands out. Lamott, who has written several novels as well as nonfiction books about her faith journey, is really funny and nutty but very insightful about the writing process.

Escaping into the Open (Elizabeth Berg) - Also on writing, by a very popular and prolific novelist. It's been said that there are two kinds of writers: those who love to write and those who hate to write. Berg is definitely in the former group; her joy in writing is the antithesis of Anne Lamott's neurotic angst. I like Berg's novels, which I find similar to Anne Tyler's but a little "lighter." Escaping details how she became a writer and gives lots of good advice and encouragement about writing and publishing.

Hamlet's BlackBerry (William Powers) - This book's thesis is that in our overly connected world we need regular opportunities to disconnect. Powers looks at various writers and thinkers from the past (from Socrates to Shakespeare to Marshall McLuhan) to show how we can incorporate those times of "disconnectedness" into our lives and how they can help us live more deeply and meaningfully.

The First Man in My Life (ed. Sandra Martin) - This is a book of essays by famous and less famous women (Pamela Wallin, Christie Blatchford, and Camilla Gibb are just a few of those included), telling about their relationships with their fathers.

After Tehran: Reclaiming a Life (Marina Nemat) - Nemat, who is now a Canadian citizen, was imprisoned in Iran for two years as a teenager. This book tells of the years after her imprisonment and how writing her first book, Prisoner of Tehran, helped her deal with the past and offered her opportunities to speak out against torture and persecution. (By the way, Nemat also has an essay in the aforementioned The First Man in My Life.)

The Art of Possibility (Benjamin and Rosamund Zander) - This inspiring book encourages us to reframe the situations in our lives so that we see the possibilities in life rather than just the limitations.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Henri Nouwen) - We studied this book in our Bethel Church women's group this fall. In it, Nouwen explores Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son, focusing on the three main characters (younger son, elder son, and father) and how he sees himself as like each of them in certain ways.


The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb) - It's a little difficult to describe this novel in one sentence, but essentially it is about a Columbine High School teacher, Caelum Quirk, who is faced with many crises including the trauma experienced by his wife, a school nurse who is present during the Columbine massacre.

Good to a Fault (Marina Endicott) - This book starts with a car accident between Clara, a middle-aged single woman, and a poor family who are living in their car. When the mother of the family has to be hospitalized, Clara takes the rest of the family in to her home, changing her life forever.

Blue Shoe (Anne Lamott) - The lovable main character, Mattie, deals with divorce, raises her kids, chases someone else's husband, looks after her mom who has dementia, explores her relationship with her father, and periodically checks in with God to make sure He still loves her. (Busy, busy, busy!)

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini) - This beautiful but very tough book by the author of The Kite Runner is about two women in Afghanistan whose lives are brought together through strange circumstances and whose relationship sustains them through the horrors of domestic abuse, political upheaval, and war.

I would recommend any of these books as worthwhile reads.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Birthday cakes are a big deal in our family. Whenever we get together with the Prinsens and someone's birthday is even close to the date, we celebrate with a DQ ice cream cake. For Jonathan, birthdays mean cake, candles, the camera, and that special song.

A couple of days before Christmas, our neighbours Bill & Karen gave us the leftover half of a huge chocolate Christmas cake: they'd bought it for their get-together with their kids and grandkids but couldn't finish it. It was decorated with snowy evergreen trees and topped with a plastic Santa sleigh and reindeer, and had bright red icing piped around the edge.

On Christmas night Rich was working, so Allison and Jonathan and I had our Christmas dinner together. We had leftover turkey and potatoes from our big family meal the day before. And dessert was the chocolate cake -- actually, only about a third of the half-cake we'd been given! Jonathan insisted on candles and led us in the singing of "Happy Birthday to Jesus." And of course we had to take a picture. It was a really delicious cake, and the best part is, there's more in the freezer. Sweet.

We got lots of gifts for Christmas but it occurred to me, did we give Jesus a birthday present? I mean, what do you give a God who has everything (as the song goes)?

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
- from "In the Bleak Mid-Winter" by Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

a Christmas story

For the last two years I've written a Christmas story for the women's group I attend at Bethel Church. This fall we studied a book by Henri Nouwen entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son, so I thought I would try to combine the prodigal theme with the Christmas theme and see what came of it. I hope you enjoy it.

Note: please do not distribute without author permission.

The Two Jewels
Jeannie Prinsen - December 2010

It was almost Christmas, and in the little village on the mountainside, snow had long since covered the ground. The narrow streets were crisscrossed with the footprints of villagers hurrying here and there, busy with their Christmas preparations.

In a small house at the far end of the narrowest street lived the old woman and her daughter. The villagers rarely saw the old woman venture forth from her house, especially these cold winter days. When they did catch a glimpse of her, she always had a gray shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders and head to ward off the gusts of wind and swirling snow. Beneath the shawl her wrinkled red cheeks looked like dried apples, but her blue eyes still had the sparkle of youth. The old woman was snug and comfortable in her little house with her faithful daughter, who went out daily to carry in wood and buy milk and eggs in the market place.

But as most of the villagers knew, the old woman’s life had been hard and sorrowful. Many years ago her husband had died of a terrible fever, leaving her alone with their two young girls. On the night of his death he had told his daughters always to be faithful to their mother, and they had looked at him with tear-filled eyes and promised to do what he had asked.

The elder daughter was serious and steady, but the younger had a restless spirit. And one day, years after the death of their father, she told her mother and sister that she wanted to go to the city at the bottom of the mountain. Her mother had never been to that place and could not understand the young girl’s wish to leave their cosy village, where everyone was a friend and everything one needed was close at hand. But her younger daughter’s desire for freedom was stronger than any yearning for the security of home.

The girl asked her mother for money to make her journey, and her mother replied that she had none to spare. “Come with me,” she said to the two girls, and they followed her into her small bedroom. From a drawer she took a little wooden box and opened it to reveal a gold ring and a pendant necklace, each with a clear, glittering jewel set in it. These had been a gift to her from her husband in his youth and were her only possessions of any material value. She took the ring and gave it to her younger daughter, saying, “This is yours.” The girl’s eyes lit up at the beauty of the jewel; she put the ring on her finger and looked at it admiringly.

Then the mother held up the pendant and said to her elder daughter, “And this is yours.” But the elder daughter was angry at her sister for wanting to leave, and at her mother for not admonishing the younger girl. So she turned her face away, and her mother put the necklace back in the wooden box.

The younger daughter left the village that night, and to the old woman’s great sorrow, she never returned. No one knew for certain what had happened to her. What was known for sure was that the old woman never went down the mountain to seek her daughter in the city, and now it was believed that, at her great age, she never would. Some speculated that the younger daughter had sold the ring to buy passage to a distant land. Others believed she had lost it and died, penniless and proud, on the city streets.

But these were only thoughts, not knowledge. And while thoughts alone can keep a village talking for a long time, as the years went by the younger daughter’s absence passed from the general conversation, and the villagers saw the old woman many times from one end of the year to the other without even thinking of it. Or if they did recall it, they immediately thought, “But she still has her elder daughter, and she is such a comfort to her mother.” So the old woman’s sorrow became a small matter, a trifling grief.

But to the old woman, the longing for her younger daughter’s return remained as fresh and strong as it had been all those years ago. She would still place a third plate on the table and say, “In case she returns today,” or put a vase of fresh flowers in the empty bedroom, “in case she returns today.”

As the elder daughter watched her mother do these things, an anger like bitter frost hardened her heart: anger because her sister had left home for good – breaking her promise to their father – and anger because her mother still longed for the faithless one’s return. So the elder daughter resented both her sister and her mother, yet she never spoke aloud the truth of how she felt. She just said, “She will hardly return now after so many years.” Her mother always replied, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...” and tears made her sparkling eyes glitter all the more brightly.

Each Christmas time, the elder daughter’s bitterness became more stubborn and chill. She watched each year as her mother lit a candle and placed it on the window ledge, so that its soft light radiated out into the night.

“Are you lighting the candle again?” the elder daughter asked.

“Yes, in case she returns this Christmas,” the old woman said.

But each Christmas was the same: the younger daughter never returned, and the old woman removed the candle from its place with a sorrowful look that the elder daughter resented. Each Christmas was the same in another way, too: the old woman would say to her elder daughter, “Remember that necklace I gave you...” But the elder daughter never replied. The necklace with its gleaming jewel reminded her of her sister’s broken promise and their mother’s misplaced love for the wayward girl; and because these things offended her, she refused to wear it. So she pretended not to hear her mother’s words, and she did not notice that this also brought a look of sorrow to the old woman’s face.

This Christmas Eve was cold, and the darkness seemed to close in earlier than usual. The old woman minded the chill especially this night, and her daughter worked harder than ever to warm the kitchen and prepare a good meal for her mother and herself. After supper the old woman took to her bed early, for a cough had come upon her and she appeared weaker and frailer than her daughter had ever seen her. She seemed distressed, so her daughter went to her bedside and took her hand, for she knew that was the right thing to do – even though her heart was not in the hand that pressed her mother’s or in the words she spoke: “What is the matter?”

“I miss my dear girl,” the old woman said.

The elder daughter’s anger rose inside her. It was always the same thing: her mother still yearned for the one who had left, sparing no thought for the one who remained at her side. “She will hardly return now after so many years,” she said, taking familiar pleasure in the words of discouragement.

The old woman hesitated, then said, just as she always did, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...”

Then the elder daughter’s pent-up bitterness flooded forth. “Your heart!” she cried. “Your heart longs only for my sister, who has broken her promise and abandoned you forever. I have stayed with you faithfully all these years, yet you still love her and long to welcome her home with open arms. This should not be!” These words, never before spoken aloud, seemed to hang in the cold air of the bedroom like icicles. Then the elder daughter left her mother’s side before the old woman could speak.

She lay down on her own bed and tried to sleep: at first her churning feelings would not let her, but as the night wore on, at last she drifted into a restless slumber. And as sleep overtook her, she dreamed a dream that was as real as the waking world. In it, her mother came and stood over her and said, “At last truth meets truth! You are my blessing ... my comfort ... my faithful daughter. My every small possession, my very self, is yours. Do not doubt my love.”

Then the vision faded, and the daughter awoke. Immediately she felt an unaccustomed warmth, like a single ember, inside her where icy bitterness and resentment had lodged for so long. She lit a candle and crept to her mother’s bedside, wondering if perhaps she had not dreamed at all – that her mother had really come to her in the night and spoken those words. But the old woman lay asleep, her breathing shallow and interrupted by coughs.

Led by an impulse she could not explain, the elder daughter went to the drawer and took the necklace from the wooden box. Although the room was cold, the chain felt warm in her hand. She fastened the necklace around her neck and let the sparkling jewel lie against her breast.

Instantly the old woman awoke and sat up, and in the dim candlelight her face glowed with rapture. “At last!” she cried. “So many, many times I offered you that necklace and hoped you would take it and wear it and accept it as my gift. But it was always an offense to you.”

“Because I thought you loved her more,” said the elder daughter. “Because I thought your heart was set only on her return.”

“My faithful girl,” her mother said, “you know only half of my heart. My heart is set on both you and your sister. It loves both the far and the near, the one who has gone and the one who stays. Your sister’s leaving was a great sorrow to me, but your remaining is my great joy.” Then the cold anger in the elder daughter’s heart melted away at last. She embraced her mother, and they both wept.

It was now past midnight. Christmas had come. The old woman and her elder daughter went to the window and peered out into the darkness. They placed the candle on the ledge, but immediately it sputtered out. Yet there was still light in the room, for the jewel in the necklace, lying against the elder daughter’s breast, glowed with a warm light of its own.

Then, as they stared out into the night, they thought they saw another small light moving on the mountainside below them. It disappeared from view and they thought it had only been their imagining – until it reappeared moments later, a little brighter, a little closer. The old woman and her elder daughter stood there in hope and disbelief, wondering: could this be the other jewel, at last drawn home by the power of love, and truth, and forgiveness? Finally there was no doubt. The other jewel came home, and with it came its wearer, the younger daughter.

The villagers did not see the reunion of the old woman and her two daughters. They never heard the words of love and regret spoken among the three; they never heard the younger daughter tell of the hardships she had endured or the mysterious longing for home that had come over her that night and guided her footsteps up the mountain. But what they did hear was a voice, clear as a church bell, awakening the sleepy, snow-covered village the next morning. The old woman came outdoors, her face as red as dried apples and her blue eyes radiant with happiness. “Rejoice with me!” she called out to her neighbours. “My great sorrow has ended, and my joy is complete. Rejoice with me, my friends!”

And the celebration in the mountainside village lasted all day and again into the night, and forever.


Monday, December 13, 2010

empty nest??

This past weekend Rich and I had the unusual experience of spending the night alone in our own house! Instead of having a Christmas banquet like last year, Bethel Church organized Christmas potluck meals in people's homes. We decided to sign up for one, but we didn't know where we'd be going or how late we'd be home; so we asked Doug & Caroline (Rich's brother & sister-in-law in Napanee) if the kids could spend the night there. So on Saturday afternoon we took them out there and they had a great time with their aunt and uncle and cousins.

We were invited to the home of a couple we don't know well, Dave and Monica Stewart. Including the hosts there were 12 people for dinner, ranging from a first-year student at Queen's to a man in his 90's. The older gentleman has a talent we didn't know about: he makes pies. AMAZING pies. His contribution to the potluck was in fact four pies: two apple, one cherry, and one pecan. (For twelve people.) And I'm not talking about dumping canned pie filling into premade crusts; you just had to take one look at the pie to know that it was made by an expert baker. So all in all we had a very delicious meal and got acquainted with some people we didn't know. It was a very nice, relaxing evening.

After Rich & I got home we had a glass of wine, watched the end of the hockey game, and went to bed. (Yeah, when the kids are gone we really go nuts, don't we?) But the strangest part was getting up in the morning and going to church without the kids. We went to the gym after the service and drank coffee and actually talked to people -- imagine!

It was great to see the kids when they got home later that morning. They'd had a great visit. It's wonderful to have family in the area and to know that our kids have so many people who love them.

key to the reading room

Jonathan has been working very hard at school this fall, and in the last few weeks has achieved a huge milestone: he is starting to read. Last week his EA, "Mr. O," sent home a list of about 20 words Jonathan can consistently read. It was an amazing moment when I put some of the words into sentences and he read aloud, "I like to play ball. I see the cat and the dog." Then later he picked up a puzzle piece with words on it and named the word "the" (although he can't say his "th" sounds very well, so it came out more like "vuh" -- but he definitely knew it!). It's pretty exciting because while Jonathan's pace of learning is very slow, with time and repetition he does get it. It's like he's found the key to a room he couldn't get into before, and now he can.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Why? Because it's Christmas of course!

OK, that is EXTREMELY red, isn't it? Apologies to those who hate reading white script on dark background -- I might change it back after the festive season if enough people complain. :-)

Today is our first really snowy day here, and I'm spending a quiet morning writing Christmas cards. That may seem kind of passe but it's a tradition I hate to give up. Even if that's the only time we're in contact with someone from one end of the year to the next, I love having that little bit of contact. And of course we love getting cards, so sending them increases the chance of receiving them!

I'm enjoying not feeling the pressure to write 1667 words a day -- that gets to you after a while. Last night I re-read my (ahem) "novel", Paige Turner: Reluctant Writer, and groaned a bit over the inconsistencies, gaps, and long boring passages. But there are many aspects of it that I really like, so I plan to take it apart and try to fix the problems over the next few weeks and months -- just see what comes of it. Basically it is about a 12-year-old girl whose dad is a famous writer and who feels pressured to become a writer too -- but she is reluctant to do so for various reasons. She eventually takes "The Vow of the Blank Paige," refusing to write anything at all. This gets her into some scrapes at school and at home, and she's eventually forced to choose between her vow and what she knows is right.

I really don't know what I will actually do with this piece once I've tried to fix it up. There are thousands of "tween" books out there, as I can attest from the huge piles of books Allison brings home from the library each week -- so I don't know if publication is even a remote possibility. But just the process of writing and editing it and trying to make a character come alive on the page is a worthwhile exercise. And Allison is a great first reader: she remembers details very well and she has a good sense of what is funny and interesting from a kid's perspective.

Speaking of Allison, right now she's studying Romeo & Juliet. One interesting thing the Challenge class does each year is put on a Shakespeare play, and that's the one they'll be performing sometime in the new year. She's learning a lot of interesting new things so it has been a great experience for her to be part of this program. She has to do a project called Challenge for Change in which students (individually or in groups) develop inventions, do community initiatives, or create artistic works that can help make the world a better place. Allison is not really sure what she should do for this project; I suggested she use her excellent writing skills -- perhaps write her own "Choose Your Own Adventure" book about some issue that interests her. Her face lit up at the suggestion so that's a good sign. I hope she takes this route because she is a very good writer.

Friday, November 26, 2010


I finished NaNoWriMo today!

Week 3 was sluggish but week 4 was very productive. I am very happy to have reached the goal and would say that for the most part I enjoyed the process. The best part really is how much affection I have for my young protagonist Paige Turner; she's a neat person and I love listening to her thoughts and observations.

Go ahead, congratulate me!


Saturday, November 20, 2010

keeping on pace

After twenty days, I have 34,468 words, so I'm currently on pace to reach 50,000 words by Nov. 30. I would really like to finish on the 29th so as to have a "day of grace" but I don't know if that's do-able.

Allison wanted to read what I had done by yesterday so I printed off 44 single-spaced pages. She really liked it; she had a big smile on her face as she read. I asked what she liked best and she said "It's very realistic, and the characters are doing the same things I'd be doing in school." (Even though the book is not based on her or on any kids or teachers she actually knows.)

If that isn't good motivation to keep going, I don't know what is!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

half full? half empty? half crazy?

As for my NaNo writing, I'm nearing the halfway point, which is great, because tomorrow is day 15 of 30. I've managed to write every day, and as of now I have 22,721 words. What I'm finding out:
- For an exercise like this, it is great to have a preteen narrator who likes to chat. I can just let her blather and digress while I watch the words pile up.
- I should probably have had a better plan in advance. I made a sketchy outline of plot events but I think I am going to run out of them before I run out of month!
- I need to not forget to exercise because I am spending so much time sitting at the computer.
- I only have 27,000 words to go.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

seven days of NaNoWriMo makes one weak

This is day seven of NaNoWriMo and so far I've written a grand total of 12,365 words. I updated my total on the NaNo website; they measure your progress on a little bar like a thermometer and it is neat to see it almost 1/4 full. But I have to write that amount three times over again. Argh.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I must be crazy ...

Starting on Monday, Nov. 1 I plan to make my second attempt at the annual world-wide phenomenon called National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. What this means is that I am going to try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I tried NaNo for the first time 3 years ago and wrote 21,000 words. This year I am going to try to write a draft of the t/w/een novel simmering in my brain: Paige Turner, Reluctant Writer. It's about a girl named Paige Turner who does everything she can to avoid becoming a writer like her famous dad.

The NaNo experts say that one way to keep you motivated to plod on throughout the month is to tell everyone you know that you are going to try this; that way, you feel so guilty about the prospect of disappointing everyone that you pull all-nighters, overdose on coffee, etc. etc., all in an effort to grind out those 50,000 words. Well, since I can probably count on one hand the people who regularly read this blog, I can take comfort from the fact that if I fail I'll only disappoint five people. :-)

Anyway, I'll give an update every week as to how I'm doing.

Did I mention I must be crazy? ...

Thursday, October 07, 2010


This week we had the sad experience of finding out that someone we know and admire is no longer on this earth. Pastor Sam Vander Schaaf, formerly of Brockville and lately of Cobourg, died suddenly last week at age 75, after a heart problem.
Sam was guest preacher at Westside (our former church) many times when we were between ministers or our minister was away. Because I was often leading worship or making calls to guest ministers in my role as elder, I got to know Sam and his wife Shirley; they were very wise, kind people and we really admired them. Sam also did a stint as interim pastor at First Christian Reformed Church here in Kingston, so we got to see them a little oftener. I remember having them to our house a couple of times for coffee after a Sunday service; and back in 2004 when Rich and I celebrated our 40th birthdays, we hosted a little party, to which we invited the Vander Schaafs. I remember how thrilled I was to look out the window that evening and see them coming up the driveway. We felt so honoured that they came to share this event with us.
It was a shock to read in last Saturday's Toronto Star that Sam had died. I feel so bad about it. When we send a Christmas card in December we will just be sending it to Shirley -- that's hard to believe. I know Sam is with the Lord now but it is still so sad to think that someone you love and look up to is not here any more.
I (unapologetically) "stole" the above picture from Sam's Facebook page. He was just the kind of senior who would have a Facebook page: very tech-savvy. It's nice to have this picture; I know I will look at it often.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

separation anxiety??

Allison is gone on a school camping trip and she won't be back until October!

Oh yeah ... October is tomorrow.

But it's still a pretty big deal because this is the first time Allison has been away from us overnight that she was not staying with relatives. The grade 7 and 8 Challenge students (around 100 in all) left this morning for an overnight trip to RKY Camp, about an hour northwest of Kingston, to return tomorrow afternoon. They'll be sleeping in a lodge and doing various indoor and outdoor activities like hiking and wall climbing. (I think the teachers will likely be the ones climbing the walls, actually.) This kind of excursion is a pretty big stretch for Allison, who is not experienced in camping, but she was quite excited about going.

Allison's first month in Challenge has now passed, and it seems that the early jitters have also smoothed out quite a bit. As the name suggests, it is a very challenging program that involves lots of group work and projects as well as considerable homework. (There are only 50 grade 7 Challenge students, divided into two homerooms.) Also, Calvin Park school is located in the top floor of a high school so they are on the high school schedule, with an 8:20 a.m. morning bell and a 2:35 p.m. dismissal time. They also have lockers, and they move from class to class for different subjects, so it's quite a change from grade six.

The first week of Challenge involved a lot of games and team activities and not much academic work, but week 2 was a different story. On the second day of week 2 Allison came home tearful, saying, "It's so hard to get organized and there's so much to remember!" Her teacher, Mrs. Hymmen, phoned us that afternoon to say that Allison was showing quite a bit of anxiety about transitions between classes, getting used to her locker and the busy hallways. Also, unknown to us, Allison's bus was getting her to school after the bell, which meant she was coming in to find her classmates already settled; even though they were just doing independent reading, Allison was upset about being late and possibly missing something important. The teacher did assure us, though, that most of the kids were feeling overwhelmed by the new routine and the level of expectations, so I think it helped Allison to realize that all of her classmates were in a huge learning curve too.

After that day things seemed much better: Allison seemed more organized and on top of things and there were no more tears. Then just this week we attended the school Open House and got a chance to check up on how things are going. Mrs. Hymmen said that there was a huge improvement since that first week: Allison is much more comfortable with the morning routine, she is able to quickly get over any minor upsets that happen during the day, and she has developed some friendships as well, which for her is a very significant accomplishment.

It was really fun to visit the Challenge classroom and see the place Allison is spending so much of her time. They do many very interesting and innovative things, and they are pushed to think and analyze at a higher level than they've been used to. The teachers have high expectations, but it seems to be a very supportive little community of enthusiastic kids. Allison's teacher also seems very suitable for Allison: very organized and structured, with a cool, unflappable demeanour.

All in all it seems like things are off to a good start. Now if October would only get here ...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

eight on the eighth

Jonathan is eight years old today! He spent his time before school enjoying his brand-new Cars puzzle and mini basketball net and balls.

Here is a nice photo of Jonathan with two of his best buddies from Extend-a-Family summer camp, counsellors Sam and Eric.

Happy Birthday Jonathan!

familiar faces, new routines ....

Yesterday was back-to-school day. Jonathan started Grade 3 at Rideau Public School. Although he has a new teacher and new entry door, he has the same EA, "Mr. O," so that made the transition smooth for him. He had a good day, although he doesn't look particularly enthusiastic in this photo taken before we left home!

Allison had more to adjust to yesterday. She started Grade 7 at a new school, Calvin Park Public School, in their Challenge program. For the first time, she will ride a bus to and from school. Her first day was great until the end, when a glitch with the bus list meant her bus left without her (strange, considering it picked her up in the morning). But this happened to a number of kids so Allison felt better knowing she was not the only one. Today things should go much more smoothly.

Monday, August 30, 2010

short-story contest

Earlier this summer I entered one of my short stories, entitled "Poor Sad Soul," in a story competition in the Christian Courier, a magazine based in St. Catherines. In July I found out I was short-listed, and 2 weeks ago I found out I won. The prize was $100 -- pretty sweet. (Chapters/Indigo, here I come.) I'm still kind of stunned about it! It makes me feel very encouraged about my writing, but I also realize I need to get back to "work" since I've done very little new writing this summer other than the workshops in Fredericton.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Maritime Writers' Workshop

One of the highlights of my summer was attending three days of the Maritime Writers’ Workshop at the University of New Brunswick in July. UNB has a beautiful campus set on a steep hill; walking from place to place gives you a major workout. The Writers’ Workshop sessions were held in McCord Hall (see accompanying photo), a tiny building which you could be forgiven for thinking was a storage shed. In fact it used to be an ice house but is now a building designated specifically for writing classes and workshops.

Monday, July 5

Monday’s session was entitled “Getting Started” and was led by Jo-Anne Elder, a writer and magazine editor. Eight of us participated that day: six women and two men. (The small group size was, for me, one of the highlights of the sessions I attended.) This workshop was designed for people who want to get into writing, who feel stuck with their writing, who want to take their writing to the next level, etc. In general it was just an opportunity to be inspired and try different things.

Jo-Anne led us through many exercises during the day. She started by having us write rapid-fire lists of various things (5 things you shouldn’t have done, 5 things you should have done, 5 things you would never do, etc.) and then asked us which one was of most interest to us and held the most possibilities for writing. We did several 5-minute freewriting sessions using prompts such as “write a poem to an appliance” or “make up a new word and write about what it means.” We each wrote a dialogue between two people buying a piece of furniture; we then read our dialogues aloud with a partner and discussed how dialogue reveals character. We wrote postcard stories: short narratives designed to fit on the back of a postcard. We had a discussion about what we need in order to write and about what we fear most about writing; this was an opportunity to encourage each other and talk about what has or hasn’t worked for us. Jo-Anne also talked to us about online writing communities, NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), contests, and other resources for writing.

I found this first day very helpful and inspiring. Part of that was Jo-Anne’s encouraging leadership; one thing she said that stuck with me was “Write for five minutes a day, and you have a writing life.” Another was “The time spent writing something is never wasted – it’s only wasted if you don’t finish it.” She urged us to carve out time in our life for writing and to plan ahead for projects, large or small, that we want to do.

Tuesday, July 6

This session was called, somewhat grandiosely, “Unleashing the Splendour Within: Life Writing,” and was led by Eve Mills Nash. (There were again eight participants in this workshop – six women and two men – although not all the same people as Monday.) Eve has written a memoir about her life as an abused part-native child and about her healing journey which led her ultimately to a Christian faith. In her view, life writing has to be done from a place of hope and redemptiveness; in the middle of pain is not the time to write a memoir. In light of this view, it made sense that her motto was the Biblical statement “All things work together for good.”

Eve talked a lot about writing as therapy: how healing can occur as we write about our lives, and how there is power in taking what is inside and bringing it outside. She led us through many different exercises that helped us explore our own experiences. In almost every case she asked us to share what we’d written so that we could talk about it; it was actually quite amazing to see the willingness of all of the participants in the group to share openly and make themselves vulnerable. Some people in the group were already involved in life writing, but others weren’t; yet the level of sharing and trust was quite profound.

We first had to write about our name: what it means, how we feel about it, etc. Eve then put several words on a blackboard and asked us to write about a memory that one of those words brings to mind. She then asked us to write a letter to someone with whom we had unfinished business. This exercise probably unleashed the most emotion, as people shared letters to grandparents, former lovers, former spouses, grown children, etc. She also asked us to identify our “petty tyrant,” the voice (whether of a real person, or just internal) that tells us we shouldn’t or can’t write about our life. She then suggested we draw our petty tyrant and write a “power word” across his mouth that symbolized how we would respond to that discouraging voice. This was a very empowering exercise for a lot of people, and in some cases we were even able to suggest a power word for a particular person based on what we saw in him or her.

Eve also reminded us of the long tradition of writers who had studied or taught in the building in which we were meeting – a tradition to which we now belonged – and then asked us to write a letter in which the walls of the room spoke to us about our future as writers. I found this a very encouraging exercise. I felt that the walls were telling me, “Keep on writing about simple, plain things and people ... When you write in these settings, people respond and say it sounds real. Write about children. Write out of your sense of humour. Make people laugh and nod and say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s familiar; that’s real and true.’ ”

Eve also led us through a guided imagery, in which we imagined ourselves taken by a guide to a mountain cave full of treasure, and were given a gift to take back with us. I felt that my gift was a voice: it took the shape of a white dove. When I open my mouth to sing, it flies out; and when I write, it flies out of my pen.

At the end of the day we were to write an affirmation of the person on our left, telling them what they reminded us of and what we thought their gift to the world was. Eve was on my right so she wrote my affirmation, saying that one of my gifts was “refreshing simplicity” and that I would be a writer of children’s books. (In fact, one of the men in the group had said earlier that he thought there was a children’s book inside me waiting to come out.)

All in all, this was a very exhilarating day. Everyone in the group was courageous in letting Eve take us to some deep places and allowing ourselves to feel and share whatever emerged. I’ve never been in a workshop anything like this before, and I learned a great deal from it.

Wednesday, July 7

This session was called “From Creativity to Craft: a First Fiction Workshop” and was led by Carla Gunn, who has written a young adult novel called Amphibian. Eleven people attended this session. This workshop was very different from the other two, where we spent almost the whole day writing; in this one, we wrote very little but spent a great deal of time reading and discussing published excerpts and pieces of group members’ work. Carla covered all the basic aspects of fiction such as point of view, tense, character, plot, dialogue, scene, etc. In advance she had invited members to submit portions of their work, so several of us had done so; and she included them at whatever point in the day seemed most appropriate. A few people in the group are actually working on novels, so it was very interesting to read bits of their work and give feedback and suggestions. Carla had also copied a number of excerpts from published works, which we used to compare dialogue, character, opening paragraphs, etc. Although we didn’t do any new writing on this day, I really learned a lot about fiction writing: e.g. the difference between dialogue that develops plot and dialogue that develops character, about different points of view and their relative merits, etc.

I had an amazing experience during these three days: I gained many new ideas for my own writing and learned a ton about writing in general. I consider going to these workshops, if not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, then a once-in-a-long-while opportunity. Way back in the winter my brother and sister-in-law Errol and Alycia invited us to come and stay with them in Fredericton so that I could attend these workshops. So I feel really privileged to have been able to do this. We had a great time staying with them and their extremely cute mini-Schnauzers Abby and Nola. I’m very grateful for their hospitality and thoughtfulness and for all the great memories I’ll have of this week.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

twelve years old

Allison celebrated her 12th birthday yesterday. She is getting to be a very mature young lady, and we're very proud of her. Here she is at her birthday party with her friends Madison and Anneli ...

... and here she is with her canine "cousins" Abby and Nola in Fredericton this summer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Time flies

Yesterday Rich and I celebrated our 20th anniversary. It's hard to imagine how the simple day-to-day experiences of life can suddenly (it seems) add up to 20 years! I'm thankful to have such a great husband and I look forward to what the next 20 + years will bring.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

hangin' in the school yard

Here's a great shot of Jonathan and his EA, Joe O'Connor (aka "Mr. O"), at the school's Relay for Life event last week.

(photo by Kim Merkley)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Festival of Faith and Writing

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every 2nd year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I went with four other Kingstonians: Irwin (who has gone many times in the past), Lori & Ray (who attended with Irwin in 2008), and Sue. We had a wonderful, inspiring weekend listening to well-known and lesser-known writers share their insights and experiences.

One of the writers Sue and I were particularly eager to hear was Avi, who has written many short stories and novels for kids (e.g. the Poppy series about a feisty mouse, and the Crispin series about an orphan boy in 13th-c. England). The conference started on Thursday, but that was our travelling day and we realized Avi was speaking only on Thursday, so we were quite disappointed. But as we got closer to Grand Rapids we realized that if we didn't register or check in to our hotel until later, we might be able to make Avi's 4:30 p.m. talk -- and that's exactly what happened. At 4:35 p.m. Irwin dropped us off right at the chapel where Avi was speaking, and we heard all but 5 minutes of his address. It was very interesting because Avi is not a religious person in spite of having many overtly religious themes in some of his books; in fact, he considers himself an atheist. Yet he talked about how a writer can always express truth regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof -- and how his child readers never ask about his religious beliefs; only the adults do. He also told us why he goes by "Avi": it's how his sister mispronounced his real name, Edward, when she was a baby.

On Thursday night we attended the plenary address by Wally Lamb, who wrote She's Come Undone, I Know This Much is True, and The Hour I First Believed. I love all of those books so it was great to hear him speak; he talked a lot about his work teaching creative writing to female inmates, and read one of their stories. It was also a pleasure to meet him during his book-signing: Irwin graciously waited around on campus until 10 p.m. so that Sue and I could get our books signed.

We also got to hear Kate di Camillo, who wrote The Tale of Despereaux (about a brave mouse who saves a princess), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Because of Winn-Dixie, among other children's books. Allison and I love Despereaux (in both the book and movie versions) so I was again glad to be able to meet the author at her signing and have her address 2 books to Allison. She is a very modest, humorous speaker and (in my opinion) actually looks a bit like a mouse with her silvery-blonde hair and tiny face.

Another speaker all five of us had on our must-hear list was Parker Palmer, who has written books about finding one's vocation, about education and teaching, etc. (I discovered his little book Let Your Life Speak in the library a few years ago and it became a 'classic' in our book study group.) Palmer is 71 years old and a funny, kind, wise person who has so much experience and wisdom to share. One of the most striking things he said was how the concept of "earthen vessels" includes our religious institutions, and if the vessel starts to hide or corrupt or distort the treasure within, it must be smashed and a new vessel created. He also spoke about the importance of listening to one's inner voice as well as to others, and how that might play out within his own faith tradition, Quakerism.

I also attended a talk by Hugh Cook, a writer and writing teacher from Hamilton who has edited some of both Lori's and my work, and who spoke on the importance of concrete detail in writing. His talk was entitled "All Good Writers are From Missouri" -- the idea being that Missouri is the show-me state and that good writers try to show, not tell.

Another wonderful moment at the Festival was a concert entitled Poetry Spoken and Sung, held in the college chapel. Various people came up and read poems, some of which were also presented in musical form by Capella, one of the Calvin College choirs. The first song was an arrangement of a short poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

The choir stood in a circle around the outside of the chapel, and when the song began they were just whispering the words "silence my soul" so that it was like a soft breeze through leaves. It was incredibly beautiful. I don't always find myself spiritually moved by nature, but the combination of words and musical arrangement was really like a taste of heaven on earth.

Besides all the wonderful things we saw and heard at the Festival itself, it was just a great weekend trip. The five of us had a great time doing things together and separately; we would drive to the college and then go to whatever talks we felt like attending, then rendezvous later for meals or for a presentation all five of us wanted to go to. On the Friday night, Irwin was going out with a friend and Ray & Lori were visiting Ray's sister, so Sue and I went out to dinner and enjoyed a delicious seafood meal, a bottle of wine, and a good conversation.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend. I was glad to get back and see Rich and the kids, but I will treasure the memories of this trip and hope maybe to go to another Festival in the future.

For a look at the some of the quotes and other gems collected by our Kingston group, please go to my new blog, "the lightning bug club" at

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Jonathan's big week of BIG DAYS

This week marks a big step for Jonathan. Since he started school, he's been coming home for lunch every day (except for the very occasional field trip). This routine gave him some down time during the school day and helped ensure that he ate a good lunch; it also meant the school did not have to provide staffing over the lunch hour. But in the last few weeks, everyone seemed to agree that the time had come for him to make the transition to full days. So yesterday he had his first day of staying at school all day. The school has designated a young woman who does schoolyard duty to be Jonathan's assistant; she will help him with his lunch and hang out with him outside during lunch recess. This will be an adjustment for Jonathan but we're confident he'll make the switch easily. Because Allison is at school all day, he will see her at lunchtime, and he will likely become very quickly attached to his aide, Jamie.

It's also a huge change for me and Rich. Every day for nearly 3 years we've arranged our days around Jonathan's lunchtime pickup, ensuring that one of us goes to get him at 11:50 and brings him back at 12:50. So it's a lot more flexible without that big "bump" in the middle of the day.

Just another milestone in the exciting life of Jonathan!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

a brief STOP on the path to reading

Since September Jonathan has been doing a great job learning his letters and the sounds they make. The other day we were walking to the park, and he pointed to a stop sign and said, "S-T-O-P, stop!" After we got home, I got to wondering if he actually knew this word or just associated it with the stop sign symbol. So I wrote the letters on a piece of paper and asked him what it said, and he said "S-T-O-P, stop!"

This probably seems like a very small achievement, but it was the first word (other than his name) that I ever heard Jonathan read.

Here's to many, many more.

Monday, February 15, 2010

this 'n' that

I have not posted since early January and thought it was high time I did so. We've gotten over a bout of sickness -- bad colds and norovirus (i.e. 'stomach flu') -- so it is nice to be feeling well again.

Here is an example of Jonathan's pithy way with words: we didn't know he was feeling unwell the night he got the 'bug'; he was just complaining a bit about "itchy belly" and "kiss belly", because he didn't have the vocabulary to say his stomach felt sick. We had one of his favourite suppers, soup & sandwiches, and he ate heartily. Later we got him ready for bed, and when I squirted his meds into his mouth it came right back out along with everything else he'd eaten. There he was, sitting on the bathroom floor in his pj's, covered with everything he'd just puked up; he looked up and said calmly, "Soup over."

Jonathan had an MRI exam back in January. The pediatric neurologist ordered it because he has never had one and she thought it might yield some information about his seizures and other issues. We don't have any results yet.

Tomorrow I'll take him for his first-ever dental checkup. I've been procrastinating taking him to a dentist because it's always so stressful taking him into waiting rooms; but he's 7 now with lots of big permanent teeth and he needs to have them looked at. We've decided to take him to a hygienist's office first rather than a dentist's: it's a quieter, less threatening atmosphere. I hope he enjoys it and opens wide.

Allison is doing very well at school after a few bumpy post-Christmas weeks. She has started, by her own decision, staying for lunch every day and it has been a good move. She eats lunch with some of her classmates, including her special friend Julia, and plays with them throughout lunch recess, so she is not wandering around alone. I hated the thought of her alone at loose ends for 40 minutes in a school yard of 400 kids. But she is connecting with a few girls and spending time with them, which is such a gift for her. In January the members of her class had to write and present a 4-minute speech; her teacher called Allison's "awesome". Her topic was the waters around PEI; she talked about the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence, the characteristics and history of each. She was one of 4 in her class invited to present their speech at a school-wide assembly; while Allison chose not to present that day, it was still an honour for her to be asked.

Friday, January 08, 2010

holiday highlights

On Monday I took down our Christmas tree and decorations, which always seems to mark the official end of Christmas holidays and the beginning of the new year. Here are a few highlights of what was for us a quiet but enjoyable Christmas.

Walking to church on Christmas Eve.
Bethel had a Christmas Eve service at 5:00 p.m. so we had an early supper and walked to church, pulling Jonathan in the wagon since there was so little snow. It was lovely to look at the Christmas lights and decorations on people's homes and to imagine what everyone was doing to prepare for the special day. Our church service this year focused on letters: a woman who is at home convalescing from a long illness sent a letter about hope; a military man read a letter he had sent to his family about 20 years ago when he was serving in Africa; and another woman read a letter she had written to those who are "too busy". Then the pastor asked us to imagine what we would write in a letter to God and what God is saying to us by sending Jesus.

Watching "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve.
This has become a Christmas Eve tradition for Rich and me: we put the kids to bed and watch our "It's a Wonderful Life" dvd (taking a few breaks here and there to have snacks and open our gifts to each other). I have probably watched this movie ten times, and I still find it very meaningful every time. It's definitely somewhat corny and dated in certain ways, yet its message is timeless. I think many of us can identify with George Bailey's struggle as he sees life passing him by, watches others realizing the dreams he'd hoped to achieve, and wonders if his life has really meant anything significant. When he gets the opportunity to see what might have happened to his family, his friends, and his town if he had never existed, and realizes how many people have been touched by his life, everything changes for him: he can celebrate what he has and let go of his regret and bitterness. My favourite moment is right at the end when his brother Harry arrives in the middle of the party and raises a toast: "To my big brother George -- the richest man in town."

He puzzled and puzzed till his puzzler was sore. [Identify that quotation, you keeners]
Jonathan's love for -- ok, addiction to -- jigsaw puzzles was fed by a whole host of "enablers" this Christmas. (You know who you are.) I believe the official count was fourteen separate puzzles received.

Good books.
I didn't actually get any books for Christmas -- at least not books with words in them. Rich got me two beautiful journals which I suppose I will have to fill with words of my own. But I spent the holidays re-reading the Harry Potter series, since I haven't seen movie #6 and wanted to refamiliarize myself with the plots before eventually renting the movie. This is a truly amazing series: funny and exciting, increasingly suspenseful and complicated, and full of plot twists that are all satisfyingly untangled at the end.

Beautiful music.
One of the best parts of Christmas, for me, is the music: singing carols at church, listening to Christmas CD's at home, etc. Rich and I attended a church Christmas dinner where the soloist sang "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." I love these words from that carol:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor does He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Actually I suppose that's what the Harry Potter series symbolizes for me too: that good will ultimately defeat evil, that love will conquer hate, that life will conquer death. (Interestingly, the final book quotes 2 Bible passages: "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" and "the last enemy to be destroyed is death.") Those words and themes symbolize hope for the new year.