I’m past the midway point of my life (at least I hope the fraction isn’t much bigger than that), and it still happens to me.

I’ll arrive home, get out of my car, head to the door, pull out my keys and, just as I’m sliding the right one into the lock, I’ll feel like I’m nine years old again, and that I’m playing house. I’ll remember how that felt, and how many times I repeated those gestures in play with my mother’s old purses and bits of junk that I collected: old lipstick tubes, random keys that had lost their use and discarded change purses, that created a simulacrum of the trove my mother had stashed in her own hand bag (minus the kleenex!).

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I’ll recall how the adult world seemed like a giant set piece. And in spite of the fact that I’ve been an adult woman for decades, there’s still a part of me that feels that it’s unreal and extraordinary that this is really my life, and not make-believe.

It can happen when I’m driving and I think: Wow! You’re really doing this!, or when I’m cooking and feel, briefly, like I’m aping TV cooks; like I’m playing.

It happened, of course, when I travelled to France and to London, England:  brief moments of stepping outside of myself and observing where I was and how close to fictional it all felt.

The term imposter syndrome comes to mind, but that isn’t right, because I don’t feel any sense of embarrassment or inadequacy. What I feel is closer to genuine delight and astonishment.

Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.
Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.

How do I do this? How do I simultaneously straddle the past and the present without feeling unnerved? What is this all about? It isn’t déjà vu. That’s more confusing. Déjà vu comes with a kind of a psychic whoosh, and a sense that the flow of time has been disturbed in a way that’s slightly jarring and puzzling, like a music track that skips.

I suspect—I hope—that I’m not alone in experiencing these moments.

Princess Penelope. Who else?

I like when they happen. They usually make me smile (at least inwardly). I realize that I’m still that same girl—or at least, that she is still in me. Which feels impossible, because most of the time, I’m rather under the impression that I’m no longer even the person I was at 30, let alone 20 or 10…

This is some kind of paradox, I guess. That I can know that I am changing all the time and that I can never retrieve or return to what was and who I was even a few months ago, while at the same time knowing that I am still that child I remember.


Quantum theorists might have all kinds of ideas about this «phenomenon». Philosophers, metaphysicians or psychologists might approach it from the perspective of the nature of the self, or of consciousness or perhaps even of the soul.

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I was struck by the notion of play, as in play-acting.

Watching my son Christian go through the process of preparing for a production of Macbeth at a small downtown theatre, where he is presently performing, has got me thinking.

Scenes from Macbeth, a Raise the Stakes Theatre production. Here: King Duncan and Lady Macbeth
Malcolm and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Malcolm (Christian) and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Macbeth and Macduff
Macbeth and Macduff

In spite of being a passionate reader and writer, as well as a devoted cinephile and lover of music and the visual arts, I’m steadily coming round to the idea that the greatest of all arts is drama.

The stage.

And not simply because of the glorious, vital, engaging, in-real-time feat of the end result, but much more because of the process of getting there.

Since December, I’ve watched the director and players at Raise the Stakes Theatre produce Macbeth from scratch (well, from the bare bones of Shakespeare’s words—a pretty great starting place).



The planning, the audition process, the casting, the first meetings of cast and director, the first read-throughs, the acquisition of the text by the players, the rehearsals held in spaces rented all over the city, more rehearsals and more rehearsals, moving into the theatre space, the sets, the props, the costume fittings, tech rehearsals, dress rehearsal…opening night. And, blessedly, multiple performances after that, to fine-tune it; to make it better and better. To come as close as possible to an almost perfect work of art.


So many of these steps are repeated again and again and again, some from one dramatic production to the next, some within the same play. Over and over, the actors work. Rehearsing lines that are the same, but are expressed slightly differently each time; felt slightly differently each time; creating new moments and new ground within the familiarity of a process repeating itself.

The traces of each rehearsal superimposing themselves on the previous ones.

And we call them players.

How much of what they learn from their craft do they carry into their private lives? How different is this from what we all transpose from our past to our present, or from our private to public lives?


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I love to think that each moment that I live is simply a rehearsal for what will come next. And so on.

It feels right to think of life this way.




Somnum Interruptum

Not too long ago, I went through a strange period when two of my molars abscessed in quick succession and had to be «devitalized»—an alarming term, but the official dental euphemism for killing a tooth by performing a root canal. It was pretty disturbing. And painful!

I remember the dentist saying that our teeth are peculiar body parts because basically, they’re supposed to do their job unnoticed and we resent anything different.

Mine were clamouring for attention (and payed for it!).

Sleep is like that too. It’s effortless and predictable and restorative…until it isn’t. And then it has our attention.

My granddaughter Penelope, losing her fight to stay awake.
My granddaughter Penelope, losing her fight to stay awake.

My son Jeremy and his wife Anne are in that predicament. Sleep—or the lack of it—is devitalizing them. They’re the parents of two young children.


The block of battery-recharging time they once called sleep has morphed into a hit and miss latticework of nightly «naplets». The golden standard of 8 or 9 hours of peaceful rest hovers out there like a promise and a torment.

But things should eventually sort themselves out. After all, the causes of their sleep deprivation are external. If my grandchildren can just cooperate, their parents will soon rediscover what it means to lay your head down on a pillow, close your eyes and gently drift off for hours and hours…

Oh God.

What do you do when the causes of sleep deprivation are internal?

That’s where I’m at.

I can’t say with precision when things started to go awry. It must have been incremental.

I’m not an insomniac and haven’t yet asked my physician for a sleep aid, though there are times when I feel like banging down his office door in desperation (usually at 2 in the morning).

Poor sleep, like anemia or migraines or bad knees, is something you learn to live with until you can no longer remember what it was like to feel great.

All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. – Plutarch

I wonder if there are as many understandings of sleep as there are people.

My grandson Graeme, napping on me.
My grandson Graeme, napping on me.

For my husband, sleep is escape. He discovered this when he was just a small child, running to his bed and falling asleep under the covers—no matter the time of day— when something had gone wrong or he had misbehaved. And as long as I’ve known him, he’s been able to cat nap several times during a lazy day or even a stressful one, and relishes the thought of bedtime at day’s end, when the comforter (really, that word says it all, doesn’t it?) is like some sort of thick curtain he can pull up over his head to shut out the worrying world.


“Sleep is my lover now, my forgetting, my opiate, my oblivion.”
― Audrey NiffeneggerThe Time Traveler’s Wife


A couple of friends and family members, who are on anti-depressants, have told me that the medication has turned their sleep into an unpredictable ride through a dreamscape that sometimes borrows from Lovecraft, sometimes from Tarantino—or both—with flashes of Lars Von Trier occasionally thrown into the mix. They tell me that everyday life looks great after such hallucinations.

Another day, another nap.
Another day, another nap (in my arms = heaven)

In the writers’ workshop that I belonged to a decade or so ago, I remember a few enthusiasts who had programmed themselves to awaken from their dreams so that they could record them in a special notebook. At the time, it seemed as futile as trying to catch a cloud; today, it seems more like intentional sleep deprivation.

But maybe that’s because I’ve never set much store in dreams. Besides, the only ones I can remember are the bad ones.

Every dream that anyone ever has is theirs alone and they never manage to share it. And they never manage to remember it either. Not truly or accurately. Not as it was. Our memories and our vocabularies aren’t up to the job. ~Alex Garland

I fall asleep easily. It’s staying asleep that’s so difficult. Every now and then, I sleep like I used to, and wake up feeling so good! But my sleep has become crepe paper thin, and every little sound and movement wakes me up me now. On the worst nights, my eyes spring open and stare, in the dark, at the digital display on the alarm clock: 1:15…2:23…3:10…4:07…

It’s a relief when it finally shows 5:00, because it means that I can slip out of bed and into the shower which, God-bless-it, brings me to life. Though I’ll never again take a good night’s sleep for granted, I’ve also made my peace with my interrupted nights.

Gorgeous autmun moon above our house, August 2015
Gorgeous autumn moon above our house, August 2015

I’ve left behind the quickened pulse, agitation and anxious thoughts swirling in the dark. Instead, I’ve learned to lie quietly, breathe deeply and let my thoughts wander beyond the night sweats, to good things. It’s often in the dark of night that writing ideas—like this one—come to me. Sometimes, I replay in my mind moments or events that gave me joy, until I slip back into fragile sleep.


“The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4am knows all my secrets.” 
Poppy Z. Brite



Before sunrise. A beautiful winter dawn, caught last week.
Before sunrise. A beautiful winter dawn, caught last week.

What I’ve discovered most of all is the quiet solitude of early mornings—those few hours before sunrise (especially in winter).  The life I live before dawn is separate from everything that follows. It’s as though the whole house is mine. I go to the dining room table, where I do most of my work, make a cup of tea or coffee and turn on the computer.

It’s a time of gathering my thoughts, and it’s my favourite time to write. Once everyone else gets going, the bubble bursts and daily life comes flooding in. But until then, I live in the space left behind by fleeing sleep.


“Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep.” 
― David AlmondMy Name Is Mina


I’ve read that insomnia is associated with weight gain, depression and a shortened life span; I hope that my subpar 5-6 hour attempts at sleep won’t cost me that much.


There’s a thread that runs through literature which links sleep with death. Edgar Allen Poe lamented: “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”


And in the late 20th century, J.M. Coetzee wrote: « “Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.” 


People who have experienced deep, restful sleep often say I was dead to the world.

 And then there’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet:


“To be, or not to be: that is the question: 
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.


I’ve never perceived sleep this way, but I know, from having experienced it twice, that being put under a general anaesthetic is a rehearsal for death. One moment you are, and the next, you are not. I’ve made my peace with that.

Rather, as most of it is experienced in the dark, our sleep connects us to our most primitive, essential selves. Our cave dwelling ancestors sought the safety of cover, and of each other, before closing their eyes to sleep. Young children, who still rely on this instinct, resist our attempts to leave them alone and isolated in their impeccably decorated bedrooms. I was lucky, I always shared a room with my older sister.

Penelope naps with me on her first day in her new home.
Penelope naps with me on her first day in her new home,  summer 2013.

When all is said and done, at day’s end, laying down to sleep is an act of faith and trust in the world and in each other. When we close our eyes, it’s with the belief that no harm will come to us, and that tomorrow will always be…another day.


 “Sometimes at night I would sleep open-eyed underneath a sky dripping with stars. I was alive then.” 
― Albert Camus

Night owls
Night owls





Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015
Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015

In my last year as a history undergrad at Concordia University, I wrote a paper about Canadian identity, specifically about our «northern-ness», and how the North—more than any other criteria in the «What-makes-Canadians-Canadian» debate—defines us and has shaped our culture.

I think back on those years and smile. Undergrads can churn out essays like nobody’s business. And if memory serves, the ideas were far less important to our professors than how we articulated them (that was a big verb in those years) and structured them.


Even as I handed it in, I remember feeling that it was a purely intellectual exercise. My belief that there is such a thing as a Canadian identity was still far more visceral than rational. And yet, that’s among the papers I remember most clearly.

It’s presently 6:23 on a cold winter morning. The sun won’t be rising for another hour. The walls and windows of the house crack and make subtle banging noises as hot-water heatingIMG_2487 pipes, frames and panes react to contrasting heat and cold. The furnace has been running for hours and hours, on and off but mostly on, because it has been very cold, minus 17 ° Celsius (1 ° F) and this old house just can’t keep in its heat.

It’s pitch black, but it isn’t. And you can’t understand that unless you understand northern winter skies, which are never completely dark. Because the night sky over my house is actually white: dark white, which makes no sense until you see it. But it is. And in spite of the fact that there’s still not a hint of sunlight in it, you can see the clouds that overlay the basic whiteness of the sky. Dark blue whiteness.

Winter sky over my street.
Winter sky over my street.

It’s beautiful.

My IPhone camera just can’t do it justice, which disappoints me.

I wrote about our Christmas Eve weather in a previous blog: about how the temperature climbed up to 17 degrees  (63 ° F). That was crazy weather that’s nevertheless slowly entering our climate-changed collective consciousness here.

Not long after that though, normality returned. A snowstorm blew in and dumped 40 cm of fresh white snow on the ground. It’s gorgeous. Tree branches, rooftops and even roads were covered. White streets are just the prettiest thing.

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People shoveled driveways and front walks. They cleared the snow from their cars. Those who live closer to downtown found their vehicles buried and jammed-in by packed, plowed snow.

Many people in Quebec hire contractors to come clear their driveway in the winter, usually getting together with their neighbours for better service (and a better price!). This didn’t exist when I was growing up, but I like the industriousness of it (a few entrepreneurs understood that you can establish a decent business doing this) and the job creation. But it says something about our changed lifestyle too: no one has the time; everyone is pressed to get to work, to school, to daycare. Or isn’t fit enough to shovel.

Christian in his Northern NInja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm
Christian in his Northern Ninja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm


My wonderful neighbor John revved up his big, heavy, noisy snowblower and cleared his driveway, then his next door neighbour’s, then ours. He kept going till he was too tired to continue. Such kindness is the stuff of angels. Or Frank Capra movies.

Earlier this morning, I heard the voice of Mike Finnerty on CBC radio (he’s fantastically good at his job) explaining that temperatures are now on the rise again, and that by Saturday, we’ll be back to +5° C.



That means that my furnace will get a bit of a break (and my Hydro bill too), but that we’ll lose a lot of the snow that adds beauty to the landscape and provides acoustic peace in a leafless winter world.

It also means a temperature swing of 22 degrees in a few days.

What kind of people live with these kinds of major shifts in the environment they blithely walk around in most of the time?

Canadians do. Well, almost all of us. Except for the folks on the lower West coast, and Torontonians—historically at least (recent meteorological history has destabilized them too).

A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn
A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn


A lot of our culture comes straight from the U.S. Most of it, probably. But not our weather culture. That’s 100% ours. And I’m pretty sure that no one, anywhere else in the world, does weather the way we do.

Weather—or météo, as it’s referred to in Quebec—is one of the most important modules in beginner level French classes for adults. Understanding forecasts is crucial, and newly arrived immigrants need to pick up the skill fast. Being fluent in «weatherese» means knowing which clothes and how many layers you’ll have to put on or take off during the course of the day; what your children need to wear to school (especially in the schoolyard) ; how long your commute will be and how many public transit delays are likely. It also means being able to start a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

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Montreal winters can get so cold that people migrate below ground and work, stroll, shop and socialize in the heated underground city (actually, an indoor city); and Montreal summers can be so hot and humid that the same climate-controlled spaces beckon once again. It’s a wonder there’s anyone in the streets. And yet, outdoor terrasses everywhere are packed and lively.

Many years ago, in late March or early April, I wrote a letter to my younger sister who lives in Coquitlam, BC. It was a year when winter was long and spring’s arrival was incredibly swift. I must have waxed poetic about everything going on outside in « the weather ».

Not long after, I received an email from her, which read like a long sigh, asking me to keep writing to her about these thing, telling me that she missed the changing seasons and longed for those natural rhythms and shifts.

Surely, we’re changed by the climate and the weather we live in.

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A winter gale brings the skin pain and bone-deep shivering of «wind chill», but on a steamy summer day, you can find a shady spot, close your eyes and feel the strong, cooling wind on your skin, hear it hissing in the trees, and feel truly happy.


There are summer days when the scorching sun—that even my South Asian students are distressed to feel burning their skin—is so merciless that the only place to be is at the shopping mall or in the water. But on a frigid winter afternoon, when the sky is the clearest, driest blue imaginable, you can find a sunny spot at home, by the window, and sit there like a happy cat, soaking up the warm rays, your face turned, flower-like, toward the golden light.

With each equinox, our homes become bellows as we shut our windows tight in the fall to keep the chill wind out, trapping the smells of harvest cooking, only to fling them wide open in spring to let in fresh air and birdsong.

Every summer, sitting outside on the lawn and listening to the birds (and a lawnmower or two),  I have a moment when I look around me and think:  I can’t believe that in a few months all of this will be gone and I won’t be able to sit out; there’ll be no leaves on the trees; I’ll be spending my days indoors, and going for a walk will feel like an impossible memory.

And then, in early spring, I’ll look at the trees and I’ll will them to sprout the leaves I love so much, while dreaming of green, green, green;  and I’ll feel like bursting with optimism when the first flock of migrating Canada geese flies over the house.

What have I learned from the weather? Adaptability, I think. Maybe that’s part of my Canadian, northern identity.

An acquired acceptance of change?  The ability to shift my perspective?

I hope so.

To everything there is a season.

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Words for December

1. 2015: The Year of the Refugee


Not wholly this or that,
But wrought
Of alien bloods am I,
A product of the interplay
Of traveled hearts.
Estranged, yet not estranged, I stand
All comprehending;
From my estate
I view earth’s frail dilemma;
Scion of fused strength am I,
All understanding,
Nor this nor that
Contains me.

2. The Montreal Winter that arrived a bit late



-Penelope, my 3 ¾ year-old granddaughter

“All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate…
Snow…unceasing snow”
Hashin, Japanese Haiku

Just around the corner from home.
Just around the corner from home, 29-12-2015

3.  Elizabeth Gilbert, in an interview on CBC Radio One’s program, Q.

« Unused creativity is not benign. »