I Was Not a Well-Read Child …

… and I’ve been playing a game of readaholic catch-up ever since.

My parents had the best of intentions when it came to books and reading.

My mother used to say: When you have a book, you have a friend. And she would tell us how she and her younger brother would sit side by side at the dining table, a book laid in front of them, the slow reader on the left, the fast reader on the right, the intervening pages held up vertically in the middle.

And from my father: Knowledge is heavy! This, jokingly, approvingly, as he hefted bags filled with library books into the trunk of the car.

Every other Saturday morning was the same: we’d pile into our VW Beetle and drive downtown. We’d park in the underground parkade and ascend to the library, a huge two-storey structure with the children’s library tucked in a corner of the basement. Because it was the 70s and this practice was de rigueur, my parents would say See you later! and wander off to do their own thing, my mother going to the paperback racks to select a dozen or more detective or romance novels, my father to the magazine section where he’d get his stack of back-issue Popular Mechanics or Popular Photography.

Most Saturday mornings, a gentle hum would greet me as I descended the stairs, and I’d have to skirt around the long vacuum hose that snaked a path behind the janitor as he cleaned the long, carpeted hallway that led to the children’s library. I’d pass through the check-out area where the librarian was busily and quietly working, and I’d enter the silent stacks.

And once there, I would wander … going from shelf to shelf … staring at the spines, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Indecisive about what to choose, and too shy to ask for help, I’d — more often than not — choose the same books, over and over and over again.

There was Charlotte’s Web; The Wizard of Oz; Harriet the Spy; Katie John; What the Witch Left; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great; Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me; Freaky Friday.

I remember hearing at one point, about a girl who’d decided to read every single book in her library. She was going to do it alphabetically, methodically; what an incredibly noble and worthy goal, I thought.

Every summer, I’d look at the race track the librarian had set up for the summer reading program and marvel — be awed, in fact — by the sheer volume of books other children were reading. I wanted to catch up to them; I really did! Oh, to read that many books!

And yet, what would I do?

I’d invariably choose the same books, over and over and over again, I’d go home with my bag stuffed full, sit on my bed and … cross-stitch.

I suppose it’s no wonder I was not a well-read child. (But I was a heckuva grandma, according to my brother’s best friend … ).

It was Rita’s post on purging books that set me to pondering about all of this, specifically her statement:

When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.

This is, I think, the absolute ideal, the magic that flows through stories, the reason so many people LOVE books. And while Rita’s words fit me to a T now, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t have that life-transforming relationship with books while growing up. While it’s clear that I suffered from an appalling lack of gumption as a child, it’s also fair to hazard — without laying blame — that I might have fared better if I had had some help in the book-choosing department. But those two factors aside, I think there was yet something else going on.

Ahem … there’s usually a point in my posts where I falter; either because I’m droning on (check!), or because I’m fast passing into the realm of Hmmm, should I really be admitting to XYZ? —

/ plunging onward regardless /

Here’s what I’m wondering …

What happens when lessons-on-how-to-live morph into something different? What happens when “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” crosses a line and becomes copying? Are any of you, dear readers, nodding your heads in understanding, completely *getting* where I’m going with this … or is what I’m about to say only relevant for those of us who should have been taken to a child psychologist instead of to a library?

It pains me to admit how long it took me to wake up to the stark reality embodied in the proverb, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Here’s the thing: for me, despite the fact that books were held up as friends, reading all-too-often became a double-edged sword. What should have been wonderful escapism or edifying lessons-on-how-to-live became instead angst-filled comparisons.

The sad fact is that, Charlie and James aside, the characters in the contemporary books I was reading led lives which seemed so much more preferable than mine. Some of these girls lived in New York City (my gosh, New York!); most of them were spunky and lively; some of them had fascinating quirks, and all of them seemed to be stubbornly who-they-were, no apologies given. I didn’t want to just imitate these characters in order to learn what to do and how to be; there was a part of me that strongly imagined, fervently hoped, that if I tried hard enough — that if I went around the neighbourhood à la Harriet the Spy, armed with a notebook and a pencil — I could somehow magically become one of these characters; I’d somehow cease to be me, a scrawny and shy and scared girl with parents who fought all the time but who — unlike storybook parents — wouldn’t mercifully divorce. And it’s only now as I stop to consider it, completely recognizing the bizarre overarching wishful wistfulness of it all, that I see this must have been a pretty exhausting way to grow up. Maybe it’s no wonder I stitched my heart out: beauty came flowing out of my hands; it was the only time I felt good about being me.

And then, far too young, I ceased making the trek downstairs. I left the classics — the books from another time and place, the books with characters I would have had enormous difficulty becoming, but whose lessons might possibly have helped me, books like The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women — unread on the shelf. By thirteen or fourteen I was upstairs, perusing the same racks my mother chose from, and escaping into detective novels and bodice ripper romances, feeding my mind on the continual, and rather addictive, metaphorical equivalent of candy and pop.

(I’m sure that last sentence is going to come off as elitist, and frankly, I’m not sure what to do about that. I swear I don’t look down on people whose entire literary diet is made up of V is for Vengeance and Fifty Shades of Grey*; I’m all for a little escapism … BUT … I think, and hope, it’s perfectly okay to admit to wanting to fill my mind with something a little more substantial).

It wasn’t until university that a lightbulb went off: if I was feeling as though I had somehow missed out on something important by not reading Margaret Atwood and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, well then, that was something that was eminently fixable, wasn’t it? All I had to do was to put down the Harlequins and pick up something else.

Ah, if only ALL problems were so easily solved …

So when it came to our children, I made it my mission: I was going to raise well-read kids. My kids weren’t going to wander libraries and bookstores, overwhelmed and indecisive! It seems to me that much of what we do as parents can be labelled pendulum parenting — I was raised this way, so I will do the polar opposite for my own children. Sometimes this can be a disastrous approach: a child raised in a totalitarian home grows up and decides to raise his/her own children with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Fortunately, there are no ill-effects from reading, and when my husband sent me this link a year or so ago, in which the benefits of being a reader were extolled, I admit I allowed myself a rare, Well, I’ve done something right at least.

What I didn’t count on, though, when setting out to raise readers, was how profoundly that process would change me; that when our first-born — our daughter — would spend hours parked on my lap, getting up only to fetch another book from our quickly growing supply, that when I would plant a kiss on her temple with every page turned, that that would not only be good for her, but it would also be good for me. The rhythms, the rhymes, the characters, the plots, the illustrations — all of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, nuances that wash over you as you read a story — together with the speaking-aloud in various voices and the physical contact … for someone who grew up in a turbulent household, this new-found sitting-cuddled-up-together and reading, this immersion into peaceful whiling-away of hours at a time, was pure healing and bliss. (I know. It sounds over-stated. But there it is … ).

It’s also, perhaps — or at least, I’m hoping (really, really, really hoping) — an insulator against troubled times. Our 16 (almost 17) year-old son has been testing us enormously these past few months, pushing pushing pushing at boundaries, and I have to say it’s been somewhat helpful (not enormously, but still … ) that after the hyperbole of you never let me do anything, after I’ve just been accused of shouting (when all I’ve actually done is levelled a counter-argument in a completely measured and non-shouty way), after the door slams, I’m able to bring to mind and hold tight the memory of him as a four year-old: blonde-haired and blue-eyed, cuddled against me, thumb in his mouth, completely engrossed in the encyclopedic DK Dinosaurs And How They Lived.

(Sheesh, where’s the gratitude? It’s not easy for a non-palaeontologist to roll ornithischian and rhamphorhynchus off her tongue).

Oh wait … maybe, one day, I dunno — when he’s 30? — he’ll remember this brief conversation he reportedly had with a boy shortly after moving here:

How’d you get to be so smart? he was asked.

I dunno, he replied. I guess because my mom read to me and she feeds me good food.

* Just for the record, when Fifty Shades of Grey was being passed around the cul-de-sac, when it was being read by ALL the women (and at least one of the men), I took my turn with it too.



Repurposing a Drop-Side Crib

It was “large item pick-up day” a couple of weeks ago in our city, a monthly garbage collection event that never fails to both fascinate me and fill me with dismay. The stuff that gets hauled out of houses and piled on the curb! On this particular day, I ended up stuck behind a garbage truck that was gobbling up a fuchsia leather sofa, a process that took several chompings before the sofa was finally consumed. I sat there and watched, hoping against hope that the sofa was irretrievably broken or ruined, and that it wasn’t out on the curb simply because its owners were re-decorating and didn’t want the bother of calling Habitat for Humanity (or some other such organization) to arrange a pick-up.

Although our city sends out informational leaflets on garbage collection, explicitly encouraging people to donate usable household items such as chairs, tables and shelves, to organizations such as Goodwill, many people clearly can’t or won’t be bothered. This means that our city is a paradise for those people who make their living fixing and/or repurposing furniture items, as well as for those who simply want or need to set up their home as frugally as possible. While there is a certain something in the rescuing and re-imagining and re-making that really speaks to me (I admit to feeling a powerful urge to stop and poke through curbed items, and I did pick up a library cart (!) last year that I will eventually blog about), the minimalist I-hate-clutter side of me has so far prevented me from giving in to the impulse to stuff the garage with potentiality. For now at least, I’m more interested in using what we already have on hand, like our now-illegal drop-side crib, for example.

I blogged about our crib several months ago, sharing a photo of what became of one of the side rails, and confessing to a somewhat over-the-top sentimentality about our children’s “stuff”. It was my intention, early on in the planning stages of this blog, to dole out these finished pieces one by one, but that seems almost coy now; all the pieces have been completed, and are sitting or hanging in their final locations, just awaiting photographing. So, in the interests of contributing to the repository of useful inspiration that the internet so often is, and linking back to the original tutorial we used, I’d like to show you what we did with the other four pieces of the crib.

This piece sits in a corner of our master bedroom (or, putting that sexist term aside, the owner’s or principal suite):

At night, this bench gets piled with the five decorative pillows which sit on our bed during the day. Prior to making this bench, those pillows would simply get piled in the corner, which I have to admit worked just as well.

This next one sits in our mudroom, and in my mind, I refer to it as the if you build it they will come … NOT … bench:

Because things that don’t line up evenly niggle at me, we also had to build the cubby shelf above the bench. We modified an Ana White plan (http://ana-white.com/2011/07/martina-bath-wall-storage-shelf-hooks) and I initially planned on one cubby per person, for mittens and what-not, and even envisioned (momentarily) making fabric baskets to fit inside the cubbies to keep everything neatly organized. Then I remembered my name is Marian, not Martha. Ah well… It’s hard to tell in the photo, but ALL five cubbies are filled with my husband’s cycling gear; considering what he puts up with, I’m perfectly OK with this.

We built this bench hoping it would be a repository for school backpacks, but I failed to account for the fact that, unlike in our previous house, in which the kids arrived home from school via the attached garage, in this house, they enter through the front door. They dump backpacks and shoes upon entry, and because life is too short to be on them everysingleday to walk the backpacks through the house to the mudroom, there they sit. (We also have a ginormous front door shoe problem that I need to tackle; the backpacks are one thing, but the shoes (the SHOES!) are positively driving me up a creek).

When this logistical flaw became apparent, I was a bit miffed; I figured the bench was going to be largely useless. However, because there’s a law pertaining to horizontal spaces (they will get piled with something, sooner or later) we discovered a use for it when our youngest started hockey last year, at the ripe old age of nine.

A rather verbose aside:

We exist in what many might consider to be mutually exclusive state of being: we’re Canadian, and we’re NOT hockey.

Yes, it actually is possible. And, contrary to what one hockey-crazed Minnesotan once insinuated, Canada does not kick you out of the country if you fail to profess an all-encompassing love for the game; they won’t even do it if your meh is perilously close to actual dislike, which is pretty much where we sit on the sliding scale that measures hockey-ness.

Because we’re not only NOT hockey, but are actually closer to UN-hockey, this meant that we were just a bit bewildered when, shortly after moving here, our youngest asked for a stick and a tennis ball and told Dad to take shots on him in the neighbour’s net which sat (communally) in the cul-de-sac. Truthfully, we hoped it was simply a passing phase.

It wasn’t. Soon, street hockey wasn’t enough: he was asking to play the real thing. On ice. And with a team. Stalling, we told him he couldn’t play hockey until he learned to skate, so we enrolled him in lessons. And all during those Friday evening sessions, he kept gazing wistfully at the other end of the ice, where boys in full hockey gear were being schooled in power skating, wielding sticks and juggling pucks. Succumbing, my husband asked around at work: what to do with a nine year-old kid who has never played hockey on actual ice? When most Real Canadian Kids start at four? His co-workers’ advice? Enrol him in a summer hockey camp. So that’s what we did last summer. We got him padded up with second-hand gear, hoping fervently thinking he might not like it, but alas great news! He loved it, and last October began playing house league hockey.

So this means two things:

  1. The bench has a use! It’s where our son’s humungous hockey bag sits, with all his gear strewn out on top, airing out after practices and games. (Because, oh my! the sweat pouring off these kids when they get off the ice!)
  2. I’ve had to become the thing I never imagined myself becoming: a hockey mom. Considering that I felt we had dodged a bullet when our older son showed no interest in the game, this is quite a feat for me 😉 . (Fact: hockey change-rooms have to be some of the least gezellig places on the planet. And sitting in the stands with rabid NHL-dreaming overly-competitive really, really, really excited parents who eatsleepbreathe hockey … ? Um, yes … this doesn’t quite make my list of gezellig-things-to-do-on-a-Saturday-morning … BUT (!) I do have to admit that as the season wore on, I began to see why our son was loving the game … )

Moving on …

The crib spring is, for now, hanging on the wall in our mud room, and is a message centre of sorts:

So yes … I admit this is a bit strange. When our 16 year-old son saw this he said, OMG Mom, really?! Why … ?! Just why would you … ?

Although I’m normally not one for cutesy decor, I have to say there’s something eclectic and industrial to this vignette that really appeals to me, especially when taken in context with the washer and dryer which sit in the same room. Maybe one day, if we move to another house, it’ll become a trellis for peas, but in the meantime, it functions very well in its role of fridge declutterer, holding the calendar, a birthday calendar, and a small blackboard (I rolled chalkboard paint on the glass of a framed embroidery I was no longer fond of) where I jot notes about when I last watered the plants, chores for the children, and library book due dates. It’s also where I clip school notices and field trip forms. (As it was July when I took the photo, it’s rather emptier than it usually is).

My favourite piece, a small shelving unit, sits in a corner of the dining room:

I think perhaps the top left corner is in focus … clearly, I need to work on my photography skills …

The open spots on the top and middle shelves are where framed photos of the kiddos usually sit (I took them down for the picture because I’m still a bit paranoid about the Big Bad Internet). Because my method of design involves at least six hands holding up sticks of wood, this piece took several months of pondering, and at least two false starts. We were a bit hard-pressed to figure out how to construct the shelves and the front supports in order to remain in keeping with the style of the crib, but I think we managed fairly well in the end.

And to keep the fate of the crib in its entirety all together, here again is the first piece I blogged about, the plant bench which sits in our ensuite:


To wind up, I’d just like to provide encouragement to those people who may look at these projects and think, Ah, but we’re not handy enough to make anything ourselves. It’s actually not that difficult to do small woodworking projects, either from scratch, or by repurposing something you already own. Prior to moving into this fixer-upper four+ years ago my husband and I had done very little DIY work (apart from painting), and it was only my anger at a contractor (you want THAT much money for THAT teensy job?!) that set our handy wheels in motion. Home Depot will gladly cut large sheets of wood into strips for those who don’t have access to a table saw, and while we did buy a mitre saw, a mitre box and a hand saw would have worked just as well. For the actual construction of these pieces, we found a Kreg Jig (an inexpensive tool used to drill pocket holes) to be an invaluable tool.