Insomnia Inspires

In haze between tomorrow and today
When midnight’s passed but morning not quite here
Strange thoughts arrive to find me in the dark
Drifting dreams and imaginings unclear

I lie restless, crowded by the notions
Ideas dancing round like fireflies
In half-awakened stupor I reach out
But fleeting sparks elude my grasping tries

A tangled web of firing synapses
Crafts fractured concepts into something new
A story weaves itself to life unbidden
All while I lay supine, without ado

I but hope that morning will remember
The magnum opus of my sleepless slumber

A Rise and A Fall

Three minutes can be an eternity. Forty-five breaths. One hundred and eighty seconds. Two hundred and ten heartbeats. But when you’re in the final exam in culinary school with one eye on the clock and one eye on that soufflé that just won’t rise, three minutes might not be enough.

There was nothing more to do. It was to be the crowning jewel of my full course meal—a decadent chocolate soufflé that would get me a passing grade to get the hell out of this nightmare and into a kitchen of my own so I could start paying back my student loans and maybe be able to afford a pair of shoes that didn’t look like they’d been run through a blender. It had been four hellish years of hard work, long hours, and unwanted advances from lecherous men. My plates were ready, embellished with a perfect semi-circle of raspberry coulis dots and the most impeccable quenelles of bergamot ice cream I had ever achieved.

As the magnetic timer stuck on the fridge at my station ticked down the seconds until soufflé do or die time, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek around at my classmates.  They were all in motion, hurrying through the final steps of their respective desserts. I was the only one standing still, which gave me a simultaneous burst of relief and anxiety. Wait—what on earth?

Three stations away there was a crash and a thunk. I watched in amusement that quickly turned to horror as Sebastian, the uncouth lothario of the class, collapsed backward, his bowl of whipped cream shattering even as his head ricocheted off the counter behind him. His body lay crumpled on the floor, twitching for a moment, then going ominously still. Several of the other students rushed to his aid and had to be elbowed out of the way by our resident medic.

At the beeping of my timer, I tore my eyes from the grim tableau. Sebastian wouldn’t have wanted my soufflé to be ruined, I convinced myself, as I donned my lucky flowery oven mitts and opened the oven door. It was divine. It was magnificent. It was tall and perfect and smelled like heaven . . . and was going to completely go to waste, I realized when I heard those awful words: “Call 911, quick. He’s not breathing. The EpiPen isn’t working.”

I stood there watching my soufflé and my dreams slowly deflate. By the time the ambulance got there, Sebastian was an eerie shade of grey. We got word that evening that he hadn’t made it—fatal anaphylaxis caused by almond allergy that kicked in far faster than I ever imagined it could. If I didn’t know better, I’d be suspicious that he’d done it out of spite to sabotage my grades.

Back at home in my tiny dingy flat I tucked the bottle of extract back in the cupboard and sat down to start planning the menu for my rescheduled exam.

What’s Important to You?

Time.

Time is a real kicker. It marches on regardless. The minutes and seconds can seem to be an eternity or the hours and days can disappear faster than an open bag of chips. But there’s no stopping it. It will pass, and what makes time meaningful is what we have to show for it after it’s gone.

Now I’m not talking productivity here. No, I’m talking about literally what I have after a period of time has passed. What do I have to show for the time I spent? Have I made a lovely memory that can bring me joy as I recall it again and again? Have I accomplished something tangible, creative, or necessary? Have I rested or recharged my mind and my heart so that I have a sense of peace, tranquility, or well-being? None of this has anything to do with “productivity.”

We only have so many hours. How we spend them or what we fill them with all comes down to one thing. Priorities. Every minute of every hour we make a conscious or subconscious decision about what is more important to us. Housework or Netflix? Workout or takeout? Writing or doomscrolling? Social interaction or social media? Relaxing or vegetating, recharging or couch-potatoing?

“Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.”

Unknown

That quote floats around the internet, unattributed accurately to anyone as far as I can tell, but I love it. It’s about priorities. Make a conscious decision to spend your time on what is important to you. It might be easier right now to turn on a silly sitcom. It might be more appealing to scroll Instagram looking at everyone else’s shiny life. But has that ever left you with the deep-seated satisfaction you get from investing time in something that is truly important to you?

As a writer, I have to constantly fight for time to hone my craft. There always seems to be something more important, more urgent, to do. But if I don’t make my writing a priority, if I don’t label it IMPORTANT, no one else will.

A little trick that Writers’ HQ repeat offenders will know well – if you really can’t find time for 20 minutes of writing, try reframing it. Say to yourself, “I don’t have time for my writing because it’s not important enough for me right now”.

Writer’s HQ

That gem from the Couch to 5K Words Writer’s HQ online course was a light bulb moment for me, let me tell you. Writing is important to me. It’s not my job, it’s not my career, it’s not what pays my bills or even what makes me get out of bed in the morning. It’s certainly not the most important thing in my life, but it is important to me and unless I stamp that label on it and move it up the priority list a few notches above social media and other trivialities (even housework sometimes), it will continue to be just that nebulous wisp of a hobby that flickers just beyond my grasp.

I’ve not been prone to posting ramblings like this here on my blog, but this feels poignant and valuable, like a mission statement almost. And maybe, if you’re an aspiring writer struggling to carve a niche out of your busy life to Be. A. Writer. this can be your light bulb moment.

Your writing is important. Do it.

While Some Throw Rocks at the Object of Their Fear

The girls on the playground all shrieked, scattering like so many frightened birds. Emma knelt, the cool grass, still dewy, tickling her bare knees. A row of maples cast their thick shadow and leant a chill to the air. The little creature lay still.

She watched it for a moment, nearly holding her breath, the squawks and squeals of the flighty girls fading to the background. Emma reached out one tentative finger. At her touch the raspy scales constricted and coiled, tensed into an anxious lowercase e. She gently slid her fingers under until the coil lay in her palm. Her warm skin marvelled against the cool underbelly. A tiny forked tongue flicked in and out, assessing, sensing, wary but not aggressive.

As her heat transferred, the wee serpent twisted on itself and hugged closer to her skin.

“You’re just looking for some warmth, aren’t you little guy?”

She felt the motion before she saw it, the displacement of air as something whizzed past her head, knocking her hand. The little body writhing through the air. The musk of sweat. Grass-stained knees and scuffed shoes. Dirt under fingernails clutching sharp rock. A blow, then two, then three.

A triumphant cry. The limp and lifeless form, discarded in the dust like an old frayed shoelace.

With fists clenched and jaw clenched and eyes clenched harder not to let them spill, Emma stood.

“It wasn’t hurting anyone! Why do you hate them so?”

The Heart Makes a Poor Compass

The cloying scent of lilacs hangs heady in the air as the sun fades to pastel streaks across the sky. Strewn on the grassy bank of Black Duck Creek, a faded plaid blanket lies abandoned.  The last ruby drops in the concave of an overturned wine glass attract an industrious line of ants. They march with military precision, dipping down through the hollow, still just almost warm, where the memory of a solitary body still bows the blades of grass beneath.

Somewhere in the dusk a bird begins its goodnight song, the tune more mournful now, more wistful now. What does he know?

As the creek murmurs a path between weeds and rocks and under lush green lily pads, a flash of white snags on the tendril of a willow tree trailing in the current. Three hopeful lines of cursive start to run like tears.

Downstream, past a pair of muskrats frolicking in the shallows, far beyond where rainbow trout flap tails against the current, laying their progeny by thousands in depressions in the gravel, further still, the gently meandering east fork of Black Duck Creek abruptly unites with its more unruly west branch. Its ripples carry whispers of a lonesome silhouette, a solitary figure sat beneath a willow as the darkness of the night settles with the dew.

Stars wink into sight and the crescent moon begins its slow ascent, while promises of romance die unfulfilled in two defeated hearts. 

I can’t stop thinking about you.

Do you feel the same?

Meet me under the willow on the west fork of the creek.

Baking Snobbery and Banana Oatmeal Muffins

Let’s talk for a minute about the snobbery in the baking world. I’m guilty of it myself, having long worked in professional kitchens and bakeries around Ontario. The message from the pros is: if you don’t scale your ingredients you’re not a good baker. Measuring in cups is for amateurs. Measuring by volume is inaccurate. And—dare I say it?—I do believe that Canadians and Americans are looked down on by our counterparts across the pond as being hacks in the kitchen for the way our recipes are written.

Okay fine. If you’re in a professional/commercial kitchen and you’re baking on a large scale for sale and public consumption, yes. Please weigh your ingredients. But honestly, if you’re at home in your own kitchen baking treats for your family and friends by all means bust out the measuring cups and follow your Great Granny’s recipe if that’s what you’re comfortable with. There is a reason why these age old recipes continue to get passed down through the generations. They work and they’re delicious. And if you follow the techniques and instructions in the recipe carefully, they can and do turn out consistently.

Further, there is a reason that home cooks in North America use recipes written in cups/spoons. Writing and publishing recipes in this format makes them widely accessible and convenient. While I am fascinated by and comfortable with baking ratios, your average home cook doesn’t want to learn the science and math behind a recipe—they just want to make the recipe. Those recipes that get passed down through the generations work because they follow the golden ratios of baking. The science has been done for you, making the recipe accessible to all skill levels. In my eye, that’s a good thing.

My simple go-to recipe for Banana Muffins is a great example of trusting the science of a generations-old recipe. It gets passed on because it works. It works because it fits the 2:2:1:1 ratio for quick breads/muffins. It fits the ratio in small batches no matter whether you measure the ingredients with measuring cups or a kitchen scale set to imperial or metric. For the sake of my geeky side, I’ve included a table that shows how this recipe fits the ratio with imperial and metric conversions side by side.

Banana Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup cooking oil or melted butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 cup (approx. 3) mashed over-ripe bananas

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Make a well in centre.
  2. In a small bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Mix in cooking oil, milk, and bananas.
  3. Pour into well and stir just to moisten. Batter will be lumpy.
  4. Fill lined muffin tins ¾ full.
  5. Bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes. (Don’t even get me started on why in Canada we use Celsius for everything except the dials on our ovens. That’s a whole different topic.)

Makes 12-18. Do not over-bake or they will be dry.

RATIOCUPSIMPERIALMETRIC
2 parts Flour1 c. Flour
1 c. Oats
4.5 oz. Flour
3 oz. Oats
125 g. Flour
85 g. Oats
 ½ c. Sugar4 oz. Sugar113 g. Sugar
1 tsp. Baking Soda + 2 tsp. Baking Powder + ½ tsp. Salt
2 parts Liquid¼ c. Milk
1 c. Mashed Banana
2 oz. Milk
10.5 oz. Mashed Banana
59 mL Milk
300 g. Mashed Banana
Note: The banana is replacing the majority of the liquid as well as half of the butter of the ratio.
1 part Butter¼ c. Oil/Butter2 oz. Oil/Butter57 g. Oil/Butter
1 part Egg2 large Eggs4 oz. Eggs113 g. Eggs

My aim when I share a recipe is to clear away the snobbery and make baking an enjoyable and accessible activity no matter where you live, what your skill set is, or what equipment you have in your kitchen. How you do it is not important; whether you end up with a tasty result is the target. So measure in cups, grams, or ounces, whatever you are comfortable with, and don’t let anyone’s snobbery stop you from baking your heart happy.

Happiness

She arrives unannounced.

She’s wearing her hair shorter now
And seems somewhat subdued
A few more wrinkles ’round the eyes
A little less sparkle.

At first you don’t recognize her; it’s been
So
Long

She perches on the couch, gingerly
Not quite at home
Away for too long now to be part of the family.
At first you look at her, and
She looks back, unspeaking

Where has she been?
Why did she leave?
How long will she stay?
Can she be trusted?

In time you embrace her
Awkward at first.
Stiffly,
But then in time you both relax
And breathe a sigh
And try a smile, even
A laugh.

At first it’s nice and all
And she’s a special guest
At first you tend to her,
Carefully.

But then in time
Too soon it’s easy to forget
What it was like when she was gone,
What you were like without her there.
And soon
When you’re not looking
When but a moment occupied with something else,
You turn to find her and she’s gone.

At first it seems you can’t go on without her,
But then in time you learn
Too soon you numb
And soon you stop
Looking for her face.

Please Don’t Sign the Guestbook

The Airbnb was quaint and quirky and we blew in with the wind, strewing makeup bags and wine coolers across the place like our signature: four best friends, there to whoop it up. None of us noticed that first night that sleep eluded us all. We were pulling an all-nighter anyway—manicures, facials, and midnight confessions of our darkest thoughts.

We rummaged through drawers around dawn looking in vain for a blow-dryer, but all I found was an old guestbook. Every guest that signed had simply written, “Unforgettable.” We’ll do our best to live up to that sentiment, I thought, attributing my sudden coolness to the still-wet hair.

We hit the ski hills hard, then whiled away evening in the hot tub. I didn’t even care that my towel disappeared, just grabbed one from the bathroom cupboard, slamming its door shut against the cold draft that rushed out. The rest of the evening I couldn’t seem to get warm, layering on blankets over fleecy pajamas and woolen socks whilst the girls lolled around in shorts and tees. My goosebumps went unnoticed in a blur of tipsy Truth or Dare and juicy gossip until the last of us succumbed to sleep.

Awoken by a chill in darkest night, I could hear no movement—all was still. Across the shadowed room the wardrobe door stood slightly ajar. I tiptoed across to close it; instead the door swung open and that frigid draft sucked me in. Swallowed by the darkness as the wardrobe slammed around me, something choked out my cries. Locked away, helpless, something that was not me took my place in the bed.

In the morning four girls left. The one that was not me scrawled one line in the guestbook: “Unforgettable.”

In An Instant

He’s going to go through the ice.

Nah, it’s rock solid that close to shore. It’s been plenty cold lately. You worry too much.

It only takes a second.

What does?

It only takes a second for your life to change forever. One weak spot in the ice and –sploosh– it’s all over.

Well that’s an awfully morbid thought.

It’s the truth. Every choice could be the one step towards irreparable damage. That guy’s taking a foolish risk, and for what? He’s probably just doing it for the ’gram.

Okay, first of all, calling it the ’gram actually makes you sound even more geriatric, if that’s even possible. And second, seriously, lighten up. You’re taking years off your life worrying about things that won’t ever happen.

What, now you’re not going to talk to me at all?

You never take anything I say seriously.

You take everything too seriously. It’s a bit of a downer if I’m honest.

Well so-rry for seeing things realistically. Life can change in an instant, you know. Reach over to grab your phone and –blam– an 18-wheeler smears you across the highway.  Or put your password into the wrong site and –tada– some creep in Algiers steals your identity and drains your savings and it takes 7 years to build your credit rating back up. Meanwhile you can’t get a mortgage and you lose your job because your car gets repo’d and your fiancé legs it with his yoga instructor because he’s sick of chauffeuring you around. In an instant, I’m telling you. Everything has repercussions; you have to think things through.

Psh.

You can ‘psh’ me all you like. You know I’m right. Life is full of all these tiny instants that you can’t undo. Any given second can cause life-long consequences.

Must be heavy, having all that gravity weighing on you all the time.

Whatever. Be sarcastic. Live in the moment or whatever. I choose to live deliberately, carefully, for the long term.

That’s all well and good, but what is really scarier—knowing that life can permanently and drastically change at any moment, or feeling like nothing will ever change and this is it?

Well would that really be so bad? What’s wrong with this?

Are you unhappy? You can tell me if you’re unhappy.

Okay fine, don’t talk then.

Oh my God! The ice is cracking! Look—he’s drifting away.

Oh no! See, I told you! Oh this is a disaster. I can’t watch someone die. Oh lord. What do I do? What do I do?

 “This is Felicia Weatherspoon live on location at the shore of Lake Huron where a 21-year-old Toronto man has just been safely rescued from an ice floe that had broken off and drifted nearly a kilometer from shore. I have with me the eyewitness who alerted emergency personnel. Tell me, Ms. Canmore, you’re walking alone along the shore when you see the ice begin to crack—what was going through your mind?”

In Which Cake Becomes a Metaphor

There comes a time when you’re decorating a cake where you have to stand back, put the spatula and piping bag down and your hands up and say, “That’s enough.”

You can smooth and shape and adorn and smooth again, but with every “just one more” swipe of the spatula you chance creating a new groove that needs to be repaired. Every carefully placed rosette or ruffle, sprinkle or swirl runs the risk of being just one too many.

So how do you know when to stop? It could become a game of “chase the flaw,” smoothing over one perceived imperfection just to create another deeper one. It could become a case of “can’t see the cake for the butter cream roses,” embellishing and adorning until the original simple beauty is lost and the flavour is unidentifiable.

There is a trend in the cake world these days: The Naked Cake. A cake where nothing is hidden behind cloying layers of thick frosting or impervious facades of fondant. A cake where the beauty is in the cake itself, exposed and unabashed, adorned by only the most carefully chosen elements that add to, rather than superseding, its flavour and appeal. A cake with depth and a message that it’s not afraid to share. It says, “Here I am, beautiful and bold. Dig in.” With the naked cake, less is more.

That’s not to say that the baker does not agonize over this cake, painstakingly crafting, selecting and discarding, refining. But with this cake, the baker knows when done is done.

Now by this point I have no doubt that my savvy readers have surmised that this cake is a metaphor. To be sure, I am speaking from a place of experience, having decorated hundreds of cakes for all occasions during my tenure as a baker. But the true subject of my musings today is writing, specifically in the form of flash fiction. It is a new passion of mine, and one in which I will be endlessly striving to improve my skills.

I recently took a course in this art, Beginner’s Guide to Flash, created by the brilliant minds over at WritersHQ. One of the outstanding takeaways of this course was that often more can be said by what is not said. Let the blank spaces speak, let the reader find meaning in the white space between the carefully chosen words. Let every word earn its place on the page.

“With every line, ask: is this necessary? Is it doing what I want it to? Or does it just look pretty or sound clever? That imagery may be beautiful but is it actually adding anything? Did I use twelve words when six will do? Be honest now.”

Beginner’s Guide to Flash, WritersHQ

As a chronic over-writer, this advice will become my mantra. As a cake decorator, well, let’s be honest—sometimes I’m still going to go a little overboard with the sprinkles. It is for a party, after all.