Lesson Learned

It seems that of late, all I can offer is my weekly column:

I have learned a valuable lesson: never judge a book by its blurbs. Case in point: I just finished reading Elaine Liu’s “sort of” (her words) memoir called enigmatically “Listen to the Squawking Chicken.” I loved the book. I could not put it down. Loosely it is about her life and the effect that her mother has on that life. Very loosely. But I will get into more of that later.

On the back of the book, titled Praise for “Listen to the Squawking Chicken”, were these words from the magazine HELLO! Canada: “If you’re a fan of dry wit, self-deprecation and unintentionally touching mother-daughter moments, then this book is for you. I pretty much spit my coffee out laughing through the entire thing. And it makes you want to hug your mother a little bit tighter.” My first bone to pick with this quote is that it used the pronoun “I” yet there was no name attached to the quote—so are we to determine that a magazine can talk? But that is just me being finicky. I also did not find the book funny. Not at all. If I were drinking coffee, I would not have spit it out in laughter.

CBC Books also had a quote that was not attributed to a particular person. And the quote also called the book “A laugh-out-loud, surprisingly sentimental, self-proclaimed ‘sort-of memoir’ that is a loving ode to Lui’s loud, no-nonsense and always-right mother.” I did not laugh-out-loud. I did not find the book funny.

Jan Wong from The Chronicle Herald called it “A funny, new Chinese-Canadian memoir….” Again I did not find the book funny. Perhaps my funny bone is located in a much different place than the reviewers quoted on the back of the book. The Winnipeg Free Press also called it “funny”, and author Kevin Kwan said that the book “had me laughing till I rolled off the bed.” I know this is getting repetitive, but I did not fall off the bed laughing; I did not spit out my coffee laughing; and, I did not find it funny.

What is funny? Perhaps my definition is too narrow. Funny to me is light-hearted. And this book was not all that light-hearted—though in the writing of it, the author, in her truth, did not spare any detail—whether it be unflattering or not.

Now there are a lot of things in the blurbs that I agreed with. Author Jenny Lawson said that she “devoured the book in one sitting…. alternately cheering, laughing, cringing and gasping in horror.” I think she wrapped the book up quite succinctly in her assessment and I agree with all but one of her observations (and I bet you can guess which one). The Winnipeg Free Press, besides finding the book funny, also found it “honest, fearless…..smart, wise and irreverent”. The book was all that and more. The more is explained by Jan Wong in the rest of her quote: “Blending explanations of feng shui and filial piety (family loyalty) with frequent-flying f-bombs, the memoir offers counterintuitive, yet wise, parenting advice. Regardless of cultural background, anyone—parent or adult child—can glean lessons.”

Memoir is such a gentle sounding word. One conjures up memories of everyone sitting happily around the dinner table at Sunday suppers, going to Christmas concerts and applauding the efforts of those on stage, standing on the sidelines at soccer games with orange slices at the ready for snack time, and generally all “the feel good” moments of life. But a true memoir includes all the grit and grimness of everyday life, as well as the good stuff. And this book is a true memoir. It does not hide behind sentimentality, and when it is sentimental—it seems so by accident.

I appreciated this book, and felt the same as Kevin Kwan did at the end. When he composed himself (after falling off the bed laughing) he said that he rearranged his “living room furniture in a panic at 3:00 a.m. to achieve proper feng shui” and called his mother “out of pure guilt.” He said, quite rightly that “The Squawking Chicken (as Lui’s mother is monikered) could eat any Tiger Mom for lunch.”

So my hypothesis at the beginning of this column is flawed. You can judge a book by its blurbs, but keep in mind that what others think is “funny” may not be what you think is funny. This book is entertaining, enlightening, shocking, and makes you think about your own parenting techniques, but it is not funny!

What is your idea of funny?

Published in: on April 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm  Comments (13)  
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Zenku #253

I have been walked by a dog before…………

Zen Kettle

Dog walking man



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Published in: on April 24, 2015 at 12:15 pm  Comments (6)  

T.G.I.F.: It’s been a long week

Has your week been like this—-sometimes invigorating…..sometimes not……

Live & Learn


Source: Paper Ghosts

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Published in: on April 24, 2015 at 12:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Easily Ignored

My newspaper column this week, inspired David Kanigan:

Question: “What is a cloud like?”
Answer: “They’re like God’s dreams,…”

A taxi cab driver asked one of his frequent passengers, who happened to be blind, what the one thing she wished she could see. Her answer was “Clouds”. He was surprised at her answer, so he asked her why—and she said: “Because I cannot imagine them.”

The driver whose name is Ken Nerburn is now an author and he wrote a book called “Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life.” In his book is an essay called, ‘The Gift of Clouds’, and in that essay he attempted to describe clouds. In the end he concluded that they “are like God’s dreams,” and the woman was peacefully satisfied with that intangible but apt description.

He did describe clouds more concretely–not as a climatologist or scientist might—but as a poet, an artist with words. He said:

“What else in this great universe so eludes description, so fills the spirit with wonder? What else floats gossamer and ethereal above our lives, never touching down but always present with us, a reminder of the majesty of an unseen God? As a child we are alive to their magic. We lie on our backs on summer hillsides, make up stories, find giants and dragons in their forms. They are God’s sketchbook, the measure of our capacity to dream. But as we grow, they fall victim to numbing familiarity. Their poetry and majesty, though still alive in our hearts, is easily overlooked, easily ignored.”

His words make you wonder what else we overlook and ignore. What other things that we found so magical when we were children are now just part and parcel of the drudgery of everyday life? As a child I did lay flat on my back in the soft grass in my front yard with my little sister and find all manner of wonderful things in the clouds: happy faces and dogs, magic carpets and fairies, castles and sometimes, sometimes, even God’s face—because when you are a child you think anything is possible.

Recently, I wrote a poem called “The Divine” and with your permission (I must ask because I know you do not have to read it) I will share it with you now. It celebrates some of those everyday things that make a life:

Prosaic poetry
Turns banal into inspiring
Evoking hidden magic
In the baking powder.
A tea canister
Holds warmth and comfort
Loosened by
Boiling water

Crusty French bread
Slathered in real butter
Heaven bursts forth
On the tongue.

Lunch with friends
Or favourite sister ~
Time stands still, waits,
Leaving a crumpled napkin.

Life delights
If you do not think about it too hard.

Nonsense makes sense
If you wait long enough…..

It is the small things that are the big things. The big things melt away revealing the important things that sometimes get left behind as we grow up, grow older, and grow familiar. It is in the familiar that we need to recognize life’s mystical charm.

What are your small things that are really your big things?

Published in: on April 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm  Comments (32)  
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Sunday Morning: Clouds

“They’re like God’s dreams,…..”

Live & Learn


Kent Nerburn, The Gift of Clouds, Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life:

Years ago I used to drive a cab for a living. There was a blind woman I used pick up at one of the local universities. She was taciturn, proper, almost British in her sense of propriety and reserve. And though she seldom talked, we gradually became friends. One day I asked her what one thing she would wish to see if, for only one minute, she could have the gift of sight. She smiled and thought a moment. Then, she said, “Clouds.” The answer surprised me. Of all the choices in the wide breadth of the world, she had chosen one that would never have crossed my mind. “Why clouds?” I asked. “Because I can’t imagine them,” she said. “People have tried to explain them to me. They tell me they are like cotton…

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Published in: on April 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm  Comments (1)  

As The Trees Bud (take off of As The World Turns)

Remember that famous Barbara Walters’ query she is rumoured to have posed to many of the celebrities she interviewed back in the 1980’s? I believe it was: “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?” And we all kind of thought she was wacky? Well it turns out Barbara may have been onto something. Though the real story of the question is a bit different than the lore, the legend lives on. Not to burst your bubble, but according to Cynthia Littleton in Variety, Walters apparently asked Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be, after Hepburn “described herself as feeling like a very strong tree”. Hepburn’s reply was that she would “prefer to be an oak rather than an elm to avoid Dutch elm disease.”

Barbara’s alleged question came to mind this morning after reading something a friend posted on Facebook this morning. It is a response from Ram Dass, the famous American Spiritual teacher and author of “Be Here Now” to a question he received about judgment, self and otherwise. He provided a little parable in reply, which makes up the powerful quote that follows:

“….when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are…”

So, whether Barbara really asked the question or not, she should have. We do accept trees for what they are, whether they be spindly and weak, bent and misshapen, or strong and sturdy. Why don’t we appreciate people for what they are? Or for that matter, ourselves? As Ram Dass says: “You just allow it.” Allow, accept and permit: so easy in theory; so hard in practice.

In her poem, “If I Were A Tree”, Pamela Lutwyche partially answers Barbara’s rumoured question in her first three stanzas:

If I were a tree,
and someone made a swing on me,
I would enjoy their laughter./
I’d be big and strong
and help the day move along,
I would help the people breathe fresh air./
Birds could build their nests in my branches,
my leaves would be green and healthy./
Birds could lay their eggs
and new life would begin.

The poet does not answer the question of what kind of a tree she would be, just that if she were a tree, she would provide laughter, fresh air, a home to new life, and a new beginning. What more could one ask of a tree?

If I were a tree, I would choose to be a tall, strong coniferous, perched proudly on someone’s front lawn. I would be decorated at Christmas but never in danger of being cut down to grace a living room because I would be a crucial part of the landscaping of the homeowner’s property.

No article on trees would be complete without Joyce Kilmer’s 1913 poem called simply enough:

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree./
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;/
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray/
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;/
Upon who bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain/
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

(Poems provided in honour of April: official poetry month)

Okay–you know I am going to ask it: If you were a tree, what tree would you be?

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 2:42 pm  Comments (34)  
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I step quietly from my bed

do not rise frantic and full of concern during the innocence of dawn…..

Live & Learn


I have risen early. Far in the distance, a faint glow paints the horizon. Dawn is coming, gently and full of prayer. I step quietly from my bed, alive to the silences around me. This is the quiet time, the time of innocence and soft thoughts, the childhood of the day. Now is the moment when I must pause and life my heart – now, before the day fragments and my consciousness shatters into a thousand pieces. For this is the moment when the senses are most alive, when a thought, a touch, a piece of music can shape the spirit and color of the day. But if I am not careful – if I rise, frantic, from my bed, full of small concerns- the mystical flow of the imagination at rest will be broken, the past and the future will rush in to claim my mind, and I will be…

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Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 2:34 pm  Comments (2)  

A Haiku in Syllables Only

Someone once told me

Life is a series of losses

I want to find them.

Published in: on April 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm  Comments (14)  

Break in Routine

This may explain my absence of late. It is a column I wrote for the paper I work for–the Kingsville Reporter:

It is in routine that we find sanity. My morning routine varies only in the way, the manner, the order I do things, not in the things I do. I wake up, check my bedside clock, and if it is any time after 5 a.m. I turn on the light that stands guard and dark during the night. I swing my legs out of bed, and now that I am a bit more creaky, I make sure that my right knee is ready for the weight of the day. Depending on how it feels, I hobble or when I am lucky, walk to the bathroom, after donning my housecoat. Minor ablutions done I go back to my room, grab my cell phone (which is a new addition to the routine), turn off my bedroom light and use the flashlight app to go down the stairs, so I will not wake up my son who is asleep in his corner room.

As I open the door to the downstairs, the cat greets me with a high purr—more like a chirp and he swirls around my legs as I make my way to the kitchen. Sometimes on the way, I veer off my path ever so slightly and turn on my laptop so it is ready for me after I finish my other little chores—the first of which is to feed the cat. He waits anxiously as I fill his dish—first with his dry food, then with a dollop of turkey and kidneys, or chicken pate, or beef chunks. Kitty Bob does not eat just dry food—he is really quite a connoisseur.

Only after the cat is happily crunching away do I make the coffee. Some days I have to rinse out the glass carafe, and then empty out the grounds; other days the coffee machine is clean and ready to go. I go with the flow. I fill it up, usually making 8-10 cups, then get out the number 4 filter and crease it so it fits into its magic chamber. Then I count out the spoonfuls of coffee. Sometimes I am thinking of something else and get lost in my counting—so I pour the coffee back into its container and start over. Some mornings I get it right the first time; sometimes it takes me three tries.

Usually as the coffee goes through I check out my email and Facebook and twitter, and now instagram to get an idea of what is going on in the lives of my friends and family. On Monday mornings, if I have not been a good girl and written my column I start to write (this is one of those mornings). When I hear that the coffee has run through and awaiting me—I leave… (this is me leaving)………….

I pour two cups of coffee and navigate my way to the living room—leaving one on the coffee table for my husband and mine on the table beside my red chair. Usually I watch a little CBC and GMA, and read the daily paper, but this morning the paper has not come yet, so I return to my laptop and this column with coffee in hand.

I am thinking of breaking this routine—as watching television news in the morning can be unsettling—but I have not done it yet. My routine though will be broken at the end of the week because of something that happened over the weekend. Something unspeakable. Yet I find I must speak of it. I do not want it to be a footnote to this column, but I am not ready to fully embrace the wholeness of it yet.

My brother John, who lived in our lovely town for almost 30 years, has gone on, for lack of a better term, to a “better” place. I have faith that he has not been lost to the ether, but that he is in that other dimension we, on this earth, are not privy too. I am beyond sad. Grief is such a personal thing—I find it comes in waves—sometimes with a little anger thrown into the mix; sometimes tears. I am trying for the life of me to think of ways that I made his life better—but I can only come up with ways he made mine better—from teaching me how to skate when I was little, to tutoring me in math. To inspiring me to become a writer (admittedly of sorts), and to encouraging me to go to university. All along the way, he was my mentor. We talked books and philosophy and family. He was curious and smart, devilishly clever, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend and a brother—and now again as a son, I imagine him back in the fold with my parents.

I comfort myself in the routine. It is in routine that I find sanity.

Published in: on April 9, 2015 at 10:09 am  Comments (44)