Tag Archives: reading

The Three Rs: Reading, Writing, and Re-charging

This summer, I took the longest sustained pause since completing my PhD. I knew I needed a break, but my time kept getting eroded. I decided a year ago to safeguard this summer to recharge, and also to focus on my non-academic writing. With caring for aging parents, and then launching right into the PhD, life had been taking priority over the creative work for more than a decade. Six manuscripts had been parked that I wanted to get back to. I brought three with me on retreat, knowing that my writing focus tends to change with the weather.

It rained six days out of seven quite consistently, sometimes with violent wind, thunder and lightning; so while not a good summer for painting and outdoor cottage repairs, it proved very productive in terms of one of my writing projects. A poetry manuscript that I’ve been working on for a while, but hadn’t figured out how to bring together, is now nearing completion. And it feels so good! It’s like taking back a vital part of my self that’s been lying fallow for far too long. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, but I find that academic writing just doesn’t allow for the same level of free-thinking creativity; it just doesn’t offer the same buzz. And for me, creative work requires quality time that also supports the energy required.

Doe on the front lawn looks into the cottage to watch me knit

I took my writing retreat at the family cottage, a log cabin in the woods on a lake north of Peterborough. I was there for nearly six weeks, which proved to be an optimal amount of time. It was long enough to get good work done, but by the end, I was ready to come home. I also got some fun reading done; I caught up on almost a year’s worth of National Geographic, and read five novels, four of them YA fare. I knitted most of a sweater, noting my long association of writing with knitting. And in spite of the weather, I got out on the lake in my kayak several times.

Sitting on the front lawn, you can see and hear all kinds of birds: ospreys, blue jays, chickadees, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, herons, loons, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, crows (few things in nature sound as goofy as an adolescent crow), and woodpeckers. The woods are also full of animals: black and red squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, porcupines, groundhogs, fox, and deer. It’s amazing to see them in the wild, but they tend to disappear on weekends when more people are around and the lake gets noisy.

Pileated Woodpecker’s snack

It’s quiet there. So quiet, that I sleep heavily through the night. So quiet, that you can hear insects, and when a Phoebe snatches one from the air, you can hear her beak snapping shut. The air sometimes has sweet undertones. Sunsets provide amazing light shows, and then the night is truly dark and still.

I feel well rested, relaxed, and more like myself than I have for a really long time. As with all holidays, one tries to hang onto that feeling for as long as possible. I’m back in Toronto, with the teaching term starting, but I’ve scheduled regular writing time, hoping to move forward with some other projects that’ve been on hold. I’ll let you know when I get a publisher lined up!


©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved


Reading is a mythic symbolic act in which squiggles are assigned to letters to create words and sentences and paragraphs and meaning. It really is a form of magic. And like many things in this life, it’s possible to overdo it.

Although I could read fine, I didn’t become an engaged reader until my teens, mostly because I was bored with the books I was offered. In grade 8, I discovered S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and never looked back. I devoured books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Johnathan Wydham, and H.G. Wells, before moving onto Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. By university, I was engaging with Philip K. Dick, Mary Shelley, Douglas Adams, Samuel R. Delaney, Delacorta, Italo Calvino, and The Tao Te Ching.

My MA focussed on hard boiled American fiction, mostly from the late 1920s to the 1950s. I was quietly in love with Raymond Chandler, while appreciating Dashiel Hammett’s edge, discovering David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Leo Malet, and others along the way. I read, re-read, and analyzed thousands of pages of fiction and criticism and philosophy over a six-year period. (Is that a record for a Master’s thesis?) Once the dust had cleared, I made the unsettling discovery that I couldn’t read any more. When I picked up even a magazine article, an anxious nausea welled up making me stop. This lasted about a year-and-a half. And then I got into Umberto Eco, James Joyce, H. Rider Haggard, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, Michael Cunningham, and Bruce Wagner.

When I started my PhD, I was unsure and concerned about what the renewed academic work would do to my reading (or writing). Because the research wasn’t literary, I wasn’t required to read fiction, and I think that helped. I did, of course, read reams of academic work, realizing that now I actually read this type of writing much faster than when entering a fictional world I want to savour.

Once the PhD was done, I started reading things with lots of pictures; National Geographic, Eyewitness Travel Guides, and comics (which have opened up a new research area for me). I started catching up on about ten years of missed TV and movies, thanks to the Toronto Public Library’s vast collection of DVDs (old school, but free!). One of the (many) series I discovered was Wire in the Blood, in which a forensic psychologist and a DI unravel and track down serial killers (you may be noticing a recurrent theme by now). Intrigued by the complex plotting, I discovered that the series was based on books by Val McDermid, so now I’m working through them. So thanks to picture books and DVDs, I’m reading books without pictures again, and looking forward to future discoveries.

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

Spring 2007

One of the classic spring activities for Canadians is the traditional opening of the cottage. This usually takes place on the 24th of May weekend (with the traditional closing date being Labour Day). Depending on the cottage, it’s age, how well it’s protected and sealed from the elements and other natural infestations, opening can take more or less time, but one generally hopes to accomplish cottage opening efficiently so the remainder of the weekend can be enjoyed lying in the sun sipping beer or some other (usually alcoholic) beverage.

As our cottage is a log cabin that was erected by my Granddad with assistance from my Mum in 1945, it is neither modern nor terribly well sealed. Consequently, opening can take a little longer.

What exactly is meant by “opening” the cottage? Opening is a series of chores, some simply domestic, like cleaning floors and toilets, etc., while others are more technical, like getting the power on or cajoling the water system into functioning, while still others pertain to outdoor chores like mowing the lawn and removing storm windows.

While this may sound quietly idyllic, relatively simple and fuss-free, one never knows what one is walking into until the door is unlocked. The clean-up may entail the removal of mice and/or other rodents (dead and/or alive), nests of said rodents, their droppings and/or the scattered remnants of meals and/or nesting materials. Best to wear a facemask to prevent the inhalation of fine particles of fecal matter (which may contain Hantavirus and God knows what else). Gloves are also strongly recommended.

On the first day, I was able to get the electricity on with the flick of a switch. Although the water system proved a bit fussier, with the pump requiring numerous primings and much fiddling, it eventually pumped up fine. I also removed the winter storms, just in time to watch mammoth clouds push across the lake and dump a torrent of rain. It was the first test of the newly re-shingled roof, at least the first test to which there was a witness. The roof performed admirably, the only leak occurring around the stovepipe. Glad to have at least some of the outdoor chores accomplished before the storm hit, I turned to the interior.

I vacuumed up mouse droppings and old insulation that had fallen from the attic, I scoured the toilet and sinks, I disinfected the countertops. And then I assembled about a dozen boxes of kitchen articles that had been deposited at the cottage three years ago when my parents left their apartment to move into a retirement home where such items were no longer needed. In the course of unpacking these boxes, I chanced upon a live mouse (not sure who was more startled) who I then reintroduced to the great outdoors through mutual agreement.

The first night I had difficulty sleeping due to persistent rustling sounds emitting from the kitchen where all the remaining boxes were lined up waiting to be unpacked. The following morning, I decided to continue unpacking the boxes on the lawn. I witnessed another mouse leap from a box beside the one I was working on and scurry away into the lily bed. Later, I discovered that one or the other of the mice I had evicted had abandoned its nest, leaving half-a-dozen pink and squirming babies. After a moment of sorrow and regret and having dismissed the feasibility of nursing them myself, I gently picked up the entire nest and carefully moved it to the shelter of the woodpile, telling myself that maybe they’d survive, but know it was highly unlikely. As awful as it felt, the upside was that I’d saved the cottage from yet still another generation of marauding mice.

I completed my cleaning by washing every plate, dish, saucer and glass in the place and carefully stacking them all in the disinfected cupboards. The second night, there was no rustling, no scurried footfalls overhead. Having removed all the live mice, the cottage itself was very quiet, allowing me to focus on the sounds of the surrounding woods and lake. Through the night, a family of Canada Geese honked, occasionally joined by the loons, and crickets ground out their tunes, while chipmunks and squirrels chattered at their territorial boundaries and rustled in the leaves.

In subsequent visits, I’ve cut the grass, restained the garage, filled in some potholes in the road, taken a run to the dump, installed new signs and purchased some new Muskoka chairs. I’ve also seen a fox on the front lawn, seen a few deer and watched various hawks and other birds scouring the property for food. I’ve watched people playing on the lake.

I’ve read books. I’ve sipped blender drinks. I’ve almost gotten too much sun. And mostly, I’ve enjoyed the calm of being in nature, among the trees by a lake, away from the demands of my daily urban life.