Moonchild Mix

June 26 is my birthday! So I’ve made a playlist of 26 songs for you, me and all the moody moonchildren. We’ve got all the Cancerian feels in here; homey, romantic, moody, mutable, nostalgic, soft.

Yes, even a little unforgiving (we moonchildren don’t forget when people hurt us! Grudge much!?) We’ve got a tough and scrappy shell protecting our soft, soft underbelly. These songs have all that…

I even managed to squeeze in Dolly’s giggle — surely one of the best sounds in all of nature. And because I think Cancerians are gigglers, but maybe that’s just me…


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First reads of 2019

Reading more was one of my 2019 resolutions. I've always read a lot. But sometimes I just stop and - during those times - reading becomes a mystery to me, a vague ritual I once followed, like an exercise regime long forgotten. But even when the ritual is forgotten, the feeling is missed and I've loved reclaiming that feeling this year.

One of the things greatly abetting my reading is that I've started using my Kindle a lot more. I initially purchased one for business books, and the like, that I didn't want cluttering my shelves. But I've become a lot more ruthless about what books I want to own a physical copy of, and reading on a Kindle has allowed me to buy books without having to weigh and measure that part of the decision.

I also just read faster and more often with it. I had always hated the idea — yet another screen. But, for now, this is working for me. Here's what I've read so far this year, in order of impact.

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I have the most to say about A Little Life as I just finished it last night and have spent the morning mopping up my feelings about it. A few people told me they felt this book manipulative. At worst, an episode of This Is Us — emotional porn, fetishistic in its desire to layer suffering and elicit wrenching responses. Yes.

But I mostly thought it a book about friendship. The seeming opposites of beauty and suffering, of love and self-hatred commingling, not negating each other but orbiting our lives, rising and setting in turn. Never fully retiring though - always there on the other side.

I thought it too a book about hard work and male friendships and friendship in general (taking centre stage, for once, instead of side-kicking romance). I thought it a book about the beauty all around; in architecture, in math, in painting, in philosophy and law, in food and plants and music and singing. Beauty - and passage describing that beauty - that could almost be cloying if it were not for the ways we all find to punctuate it with pain of varying degrees.

The pages that made me weep were not the pages of abuse*. They were the pages of tenderness. Of constancy found in wavering thoughts and feelings.

If you read this book, don’t gobble it propelled forward by what happened, what will happen. Go slow and savour the present moments of beauty. For me, this is where the book caught my mind and my heart, perhaps changed me even.

*In contrast to Women Talking, I never felt like this book tipped to sensational descriptions of abuse, (disturbing, haunting yes).

2. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall was accurately reviewed as a "short, sharp, shock of a book". I read it breathlessly and turned it over in my mind for days. This is one I'll likely reread. There was something here of early Maggie Nelson (something of Jane, perhaps?) I'm excited about this writer and what she'll go on to do.

3. Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfield

I need a certain amount of escape in my reading. Not from every book, but I need it in the mix. A little magic, the sort of improbable symmetry you get in Dickens and so many of the classics. Once Upon a River: A Novel filled that gap for me. This book was a lovely escape, read at the perfect time.

4. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Ahhh Angel. I loved her pompous obliviousness, her assurance she was destined for better.

Elizabeth Taylor is a dab hand. One moment, she's serving Angel with the biting twinkle of Jane Austen, the next with the deep, cooling empathy of George Eliot. In those latter moments, Angel reminded me of Middlemarch's Causabon — a character I despised in youth but have felt more poignant and sympathetic towards on every reread. I'm glad I read Angel now, at this age.

This book predates any references to Grey Gardens, but there's something of this kind of wonder in it too towards the end. A completely satisfying read.

5. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

I went into Days Without End not expecting to love it. I was craving a voice and style that had more poetry in it and I knew Sebastian Barry would deliver that (maybe too lavishly, as he sometimes does). But the description of the story left me indifferent. I imagine we all feel at times that we have enough "America" in the news. It's not a time I feel drawn to engage with its history.

But perhaps it was Barry's very lyricism that saved this book. Were it plainer, were it less melodic, it would have been brutal to read. Instead it became a staggering read, the heady language carrying the reader aloft, above the gruesomeness, rendering the implausible plausible and the hideous strangely mesmerizing, if not beautiful.

6. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

A book I loved while reading it, Unsheltered was another book I initially didn't have much appetite for. I honestly can't remember what made me decide to start it regardless (maybe a recommendation?) but I'm glad I did. The to and fro, past to present made me think anew about what we're going through, its echoes in time. But, while it was a fast favourite as I finished, the book itself hasn't left much of an echo with me.

7. My Brilliant Friend 

8. The Story of a New Name

9. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay 

10. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Reading Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child) made for a memorable winter, where I was happy to soak in Neapolitan sun.

This was deep immersion in another world that felt consuming at the time. Now, with some distance, the impact has lessened significantly. These are unlikely to be books I'll reread. But I enjoyed occupying their pages and picturing and thinking about the lives within.

(Another bonus of the Kindle: I didn't have to think about these hideous covers!)

11. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

As I was reading Reservoir 13, I thought a lot about Under Milk Wood. The voices were almost audible to me at times and the rhythm of shifting perspectives kept me interested but also a little adrift, bobbing on the ocean of a town I wasn't part of, clasping at identities and back stories. It was finely wrought and a pleasure to the mind.

But there was a humour missing for me too. I weirdly kept transplanting the story to Ireland and imagining the glinting humour it would take on in that setting (an unusual and perhaps unfair way to read a book, but I couldn't stop the thought occurring). And so it left me wanting more warmth, more humour, occasions of a twinkly eye or a suppressed smile. Just wanting more humanity.

12. Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Women Talking felt like the kind of book one ought to read right now. The "Mennonite me too" as it's been called.

While I was recently off work, recovering from a major surgery, I couldn't handle anything too "real". I would turn off the radio when it turned to coverage of war crimes, or rape or abuse (or all three). And I found myself wondering about the importance of bearing witness versus protecting oneself from what you can reasonably handle.

Women Talking was, at times, more than I could reasonably handle. The book, like the topic it covers, is a complex quilt. I questioned constantly why I didn't just abandon it (something I've become more comfortable giving myself permission to do). But by the end, I was glad I didn't.

13. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of finely written stories that I admired while reading but never quite lost myself inside. I never lost the awareness that I was reading and, although it's just occurring to me as I type, that seems a requirement for me to love something.

14. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage was a solid page-turner that I could easily imagine being turned into a Netflix mini-series. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this book, but absolutely nothing that gripped me either.

15. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant played a perfect role for me between two really good books (further up the list) that I needed a buffer between. Sometimes the difficult thing about continuously reading is coming off something that feels massive and wondering where to go next. This gave me something to read without asking anything in return.

16. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I'm always a little wary when there's an effusive pile-on when I start new book. Maybe that's me being a jerk but in the case of Life After Life I just was left scratching my head. The book felt cold, the characters veneer thin; roles rather than people. I kept waiting for the clever temporal hook to sink deeper. For me, it never did. And because of that, it ended up boring me.

17. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Okay we have 3 in a row here that I'm going to say the same thing about in essence: I didn't get it. Conversations with Friends was obviously good. And it's always lovely to be back in Dublin. But I felt too old for it. I felt the way I felt when I tried to watch Girls and instead missed something way more earnest (though, if I'm truthful, also way more dishonest).

That said, there was something more here. I want to keep my eye on Rooney. I'm not sure if/when I'll read Ordinary People. But I'm interested in what her writing will become with more time.

18. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

I will simply say that I did not feel any of the things so many people felt about My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Don't take my word for it, I feel like it just wasn't for me.

19. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I love what Boy, Snow, Bird was setting out to do. Everything points to a book I'll adore. But its execution was just too heavy-handed for me.

P.S. If you want to keep up with what I'm reading right now, Instagram is the best place to follow me (I post in stories what I'm starting and some thoughts when I finish).

2019 Goals

As we close out 2018, I'm both nervous and excited about what 2019 will hold. I know there will be some personal challenges ahead, but I'm also hoping to come out the other side of some difficult things I've been going through.

I always set some intentions for the new year. Personal goals and commitments. I'm not fond of the word "resolution". It conjures too much "reform" for me and I don't feel that way about my life. But I do embrace change and growth each year and try to make those things happen with intention.

Most of these won't begin right away. Indeed, January always feels like the worst month to do anything different. But hopefully throughout the course of 2019 I can make these lovely things happen.

  1. Get through the health stuff I need to get through
  2. Continue training Beau
  3. Get more acupuncture, massage and self-care (use those benefits)
  4. Set new professional goals
  5. Figure out work wardrobe (I’ve been in a rut)
  6. When I can, start running again
  7. Be a better listener
  8. Drink less alcohol (it increasingly bores me to get drunk) 
  9. Visit Ireland
  10. Visit Lake Louise
  11. Travel somewhere new
  12. Continue making my home a home I love
  13. Keep more to myself (I can be too much of an open book)
  14. Make purchases with great purpose 
  15. Save more money
  16. Find new positive ways of understanding self, life, choices; live freely
  17. Read more books & poetry
  18. Spend equal time teaching & learning
  19. Get more facials
  20. Stop TV marathoning (no more than one episode at a time!)
  21. Keep bringing lunch to work
  22. Stop swearing (or at least, swear a lot less)
  23. Cook a new recipe every weekend
  24. Have people over more!
  25. Eat mostly plant-based but don’t be rigid about rules
  26. Don’t let people I dislike cause pain
  27. Wear sunscreen (find a sunscreen I'll wear first)
  28. Switch to natural deodorant
  29. Push work to a higher quality, every day
  30. Watch more new movies and documentaries
  31. Make fewer, better, more meaningful photographs 
  32. Less screen time (esp. Instagram)
  33. Relearn how to single-task
  34. Stop saying "you guys" 

2018 Tree Project

In 2018, I decided to make a monthly photograph inspired by Irish tree mythology. I shared them on Instagram each month throughout the year. But now that the year - and the series - has wrapped, I want to put them all somewhere for memory.

And it occurred to me that I still have this place and it is *my* place, independent of the vagaries and algorithms of social media. It can also exist independent of any self-imposed commitments to post with any frequency or routine.

So I guess I'm reclaiming this little spot a little, without any strategy or design for it. But when I need a place for something of my own, it can live here.

January: Birch

In Ireland, birch is traditionally associated with birth - it was used to make cradles and its purity was considered a deterrent to evil fairies. Birch was also made into brooms for sweeping away the old and purifying the home.

I made this photograph of birch branches with various things I foraged over my Christmas walks. I’m especially drawn to foliage and flowers that are suspended in their flowering state and never fully wither. I added some crocus bulbs, just starting to sprout, to represent the hope of new growth in an impermeable winter.

February: Rowan

For reasons both seasonal and of personal history, February is a sad month for me. The twinkle of Christmas is long gone now and, though it draws closer, Spring feels farther than at any other time. At home, daffodils will be well up by now. But in Toronto, it’s still winter and we need signs of life.

I picked the rowan for February because it’s a tree of energy and protection. It’s alternative name is quicken, refers to its “quickening” or life giving powers. In Irish folklore, rowan in the home was believed to prevent house fires. And a sprig in a milk churn would prevent it from spoiling. It’s a time of year to protect what is dear, and to hold tight to every hopeful sign.

March: Willow

The willow tree might be associated with grief for many of us. But in Irish myth, its symbolism could not be more different. It’s a tree of fertility noted for thriving near flowing water. The willow is also called the sally - and a sally rod is a lucky thing to carry with you.

Even more cheerfully, the sally is also associated with an uncontrollable urge to dance. So it seems like a very light, springlike tree to me. More practically, the willow is often used for weaving and basketmaking. It has me thinking about the strength in pliability; in learning to bend without causing yourself to break.

April: Cherry

Is there anything that says spring more than cherry? It will be no surprise that the cherry symbolizes youthfulness, beauty and love in Irish mythology. But just as the cherry is a fleeting delight, so she also symbolizes the passing of those things too.

I had hoped these branches would be blossoming for this photo but they kept me waiting, just as spring seems to linger on the horizon as a straining hope. I paired the cherry branches with some bulbs and moss. When the tree buds start to form, the earth is moist and moving too. Everything is coming back to life.

May: Maple

The maple is not a native tree of Ireland so has no Irish mythology. But if this project is about trees and their mythology and what they mean to me, the maple very much belongs. And of course the maple tree and maple syrup have deep significance in Canada and to the Algonquin people, who believed maple syrup was a gift from their Creator.

In July it will be 15 years since I moved myself to Canada. But even chosen homes can be hard and I’ve been struggling with Toronto lately. It seems to have become an angry city... A maple tree was downed in yesterday’s fierce winds and I pulled these branches from the felled tree and found this abandoned bird’s nest there too. Contradictory things can come together; sweetness and destruction in one tree.

June: Oak

The oak (dair) is the highest class of tree; a noble of the wood in Irish mythology. It is a symbol of strength, fertility, wisdom and endurance. The oak is also the protector of the forest and its animals. It was a tradition of midsummer to burn and unwanted object with a sense of occasion and purpose. Like the oak, what’s brought in should be solid and enduring… now’s a time to make changes to stand by.

June is my birth month and the oak is at the heart of the Flanagan family crest so I’ve always felt an affinity with it - my favourite tree in the world is an old oak on the grounds of Malahide Castle. June is also the month of roses (the full moon in June is the full rose moon) so I paired my oak branch with my beloved rose as well as other foraged seasonal bits and pieces.

July: Ash

The Ash in Irish mythology is a Tree of Life, springing back wherever it is cut down. Ash was burned to banish the devil and an ash staff protected its bearer against evil. Ash trees also have a strong link to healing, holy wells (as does the Hawthorn, though this tree is much more fearfully regarded — so sinister indeed that I couldn’t bring myself to cut a branch for this series).

The ash tree is covered in bright green foliage right now. The last week in both Ireland and Canada has been searingly hot. I paired the Ash branch with Bells of Ireland, hydrangea and Queen Anne lace, the plants that seem to love this heat. There is a feather from a swan and one from an owl in the mix, both carried carefully from home. Healing, transformation and gathered wisdom are on my mind this month.

August: Hazel

The hazel is a noble of the wood - a tree whose damage is met with the most severe penalty in ancient Irish law.

And for good reason… a well of knowledge surrounded by hazel trees is at the centre of Irish myth. Nine hazel trees are said to have grown at the source of the Shannon or Boyne. The nuts would feed five salmon in the well below and any person who ate such a salmon would acquire a knowledge of all things and poetry - as did the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Part of great wisdom is knowing that there aren’t always easy answers. There are some questions knowledge alone can’t answer. And we must summon something deeper, more ineffable, in the face of such questions and decisions. Remember, though, that’s where you’ll find the poetry too.

September: Apple

This time of year, work is recommencing; back to school, the busy season at work. There’s a touch of melancholy in the air as nights become cool and days are still warm. And the apple tree is bearing fruit now, offering renewal and restorative powers.

In myth, the apple tree is a symbol of the delights of the otherworld. Its fruit can give hope when despair sets in. Now is a good time to register what has been accomplished already, before plunging into the world ahead. It’s a time to breathe, reboot and replenish. To enjoy the remaining sunshine and look up at the trees as they begin to turn.

October: Yew

The yew represents the goddess of land in her dark aspect, protecting both the living and the dead. It’s for this reason that yews are often found in church and graveyards - they were often planted to mark the boundary of consecrated ground in Ireland. With Samhain/Halloween nearly upon us, it is time to think of loved ones who have passed.

While the yew is associated with death and the afterlife, it is also tied to ideas of sanctuary for those feeling a hostile world. Perhaps most appropriate for the last few week’s news, the yew is also associated with war-like women. At this time of year, the yew wears a crop of pink berries, a sign of hope. Let us not lose our hope, women who’ve been through the wars.

November: Pine

Being evergreen, the pine is a symbol of eternal life. It’s a month when many of us can feel on the wane, drawn from dark mornings and shorter evenings, caught in the in-between of autumn and winter before the glimmer of Christmas imbues us again with warmth. So this steady tree can bring us solace.

The scent of pine is considered to have purifying powers against evil influences. There are two pines in this arrangement, a white pine and Scot’s pine. When I stood beneath these trees to pluck a branch, a waft of scent surrounded me and I imagined the shadows around me retreating, if only for a small moment.

December: Holly

A winter champion, the tough little holly is a symbol of strength and ability in the harshest of circumstances. I can’t think of better tree to end this year on.

The holly is also a protective tree and used to adorn houses for this reason. However unlike other protective trees, it’s not associated with fertility. Indeed if planted near a house, it was said to mean the daughters of that house would never wed (fun fact: There used to be a holly in our back garden).

Despite this, the holly also strikes me as a happy tree. Maybe it’s the associations with the holidays, but it feels benign to me. I feel a kinship with this stout little tree, it’s formidableness and cheerfulness combined.