Many have written about what they’ve learned during the pandemic, but because I am housebound for the long haul (until the vaccine is readily available), I expect the list to be ongoing. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  • Socializing is a skill. After seven months of not going out, I have lost the skill. Making conversation face to face (at a deck distance) is difficult. My apologies to the friend whose amazing peach crumble I consumed in silence, marvelling (silently) at the contrast of flavours.
  • You can indeed see with hair in your eyes.
  • Sharing the house with a younger person meant hearing music I’d never heard before. It sounds obvious, but music that is completely new can be revitalizing — until it isn’t new anymore.
  • And when that younger person goes back to her life, you will feel again the loss you felt when she left home for university.
  • Open the windows and air the rooms — and feel like you live in a Victorian novel.
  • Your beloved survived Covid but you still have to finish that damned short story.
  • Gardening is an act of hope. Much of the work I have done in the garden in the past weeks is for a spring showing.
  • In the long silences, your brain makes random connections. For example, Pippin in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings serves the same function as Marianne in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: to provide the lesson that one must control oneself lest one bring harm to oneself or to others (Pippin at the well, Pippin with the seeing-stone; Miriam with her open display of love). Anti-maskers take note.


courtyard of Polis Institute

As editor of Canadian Writers Abroad, I tend to leave off longlist credits when an author has several awards to mention. But I don’t have several awards to mention (the Grain Short), so I am telling you here: an essay I wrote this winter made the longlist for the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest at The New Quarterly. Honest! The essay braids together the challenges of learning Hebrew as a not-so-young adult with the pleasures of writing in a secret (as opposed to computer) code.

Congratulations to the winners and notables. Click here for the winning list.

Screenshot of part of the longlist from TNQ website.

Check out my post about some of the difficulties of learning Hebrew: Shock.


I once asked my father, who was deaf, which faculty he would rather lose, and he said sight. Shocked by the notion of not seeing, I asked why. He said that not hearing is isolating, that he couldn’t join in conversations, that he was left out. Maybe he didn’t use the word isolating.
About a year ago I developed problems with my vision; the affected eye, while gradually improving, has good days and bad days. A problem focusing on text means a difficult time for an avid reader, editor and writer. But I am not deaf, and I have been saved by the voices — not only the comforting voices of loved ones, but also the digital voices: podcasts and audio books and online radio.

My favourite podcast is BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, best described as humorous science. In Canada we tend to think of a British accent as one thing: British. After five years in London, I can hear some differences (if I were British I should be able to place the accent right down to a city or in London’s case a part of the city). Co-hosted by Brian Cox and Brian Ince, the panel guests vary from priests to comedians to doctors and scientists. A science show that makes me laugh out loud. The podcast doesn’t come out that often, so in between I listen to CBC podcasts Spark with Nora Young or Bob McDonald’s Quirks and Quarks.

photo: D. MartensI passed two Hebrew courses but I still don’t speak Hebrew. I started listening to Streetwise Hebrew even before I came to Jerusalem, and I still do. The host, Guy Sharett, is a quirky combination of kind and curious. I’m not saying I learn to speak Hebrew by listening, but I do find it a pertinent peek into the culture.

Among the ambitious podcasts, the “I might as well learn something” ones, such as BBC’s Open Book with Mariella Frostrup or The Reith Lectures, or the stories read on The New Yorker: the Writer’s Voice, I regularly listen to only one: Shakespeare Unlimited, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library. The American accent of Barbara Bogaev is not as fun as those above, but she always sounds keen, and the interviews are enlightening.

By now you are saying, She’s lying. She must listen to music, or at least something silly. Indeed I do. I still follow The Archers, a holdover from listening to BBC4 while cooking in London. The show works topical issues into its village stories. It has moved on from last year’s marital abuse to depression and more; as with all series, one has the impression the village might be a statistical anomaly in the number of problems it has. Still, it provides a short quick hit of drama.

Speaking of drama, I haven’t even mentioned audio books. I don’t consider listening to books the same as reading them, but they help me through energy slumps and long rides and the 3 AM collywobbles. I was catching up on some Canadian books on Audible.ca just fine, enjoying Wagamese’s Indian Horse (read by Jason Ryll), Moore’s February (Mary Lewis), Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light (read by several), until I made the mistake of listening to Colin Firth read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. This perfect pairing of voice and story put me off audio books for several weeks — nothing seemed as good. I’ve wandered off into the history aisle lately.

There is one thing I don’t like about these voices that accompany my domestic tasks: if I don’t listen, they crowd my storage. And that’s how podcast subscriptions differ from the radio, when you would tune in at a certain hour to hear a programme or miss it. Tell me, friends, will CBC radio hold my interest in my new old home?




Resistance and the Bunny

Well, you wouldn’t read it if I called it Resistance and the Industry Codes. First, the resistance. By this I don’t mean anything worthwhile, like resisting oil pipelines or industrial water extraction. I am, or so I say, working on a difficult story, and I would do anything other than write it. The word for the feeling of dread as one approaches one’s desk is called resistance, as is leaving that desk several hours later with no progress. I would do almost anything other than write this particular story, including an analysis of a four-page appendix to the Business and Professional Income tax guide, called Industry Codes. Seriously, the list of Industry Codes is interesting. Oh, and if you are wondering, yes, I do my own taxes.

I wish the industry codes, a list of the activities or services by which the self-employed make a living, had existed when I was 24. To have had a list of all the ways to spend my time other than the way that I have chosen!
The codes first appeared in the Business and Professional Income Guide of 1994, and writers were placed under Retail Sales or Services: Other. There we were, along with athletes and janitors and photographers. In 2018’s Guide, we are Entertainment: Independent artists, writers and performers. What would I have written if I had started out knowing that fiction was an entertainment rather than a serious literary endeavour?

In the 24 years since the codes appeared, Entertainment has expanded from 7 codes to 23. While this expansion mainly subdivides existing categories, there are some new entries, such as Internet broadcasting. Oddly enough, video games are not considered Entertainment (listed as Communications: Video game publishers, and again as Business Services: Video game design and development services).

For years I have wondered why writers aren’t considered a profession, as if it were a calling, like the priesthood. Drooling over the list of professions, I notice something creepy: a trend to replace single noun professions with modifiers of services. In 1994 you could be an Architect or a Veterinarian as a profession, but in 2018 you are diminished to Architectural services and Veterinary services. Lawyers have become Offices of lawyers and Offices of notaries and Other legal services. There is one noun that has stayed the same, however — florists (Other Retail Stores: Florist). Even barbers and beauty shops have disappeared into Personal Care Services. And why, oh why, would you change Gambling Operation to Gambling Industries? How is gambling an industry? Gambling, along with escorts and horse racing, are also in the Entertainment category — writers have always kept good company.

Surprises? Yes. Below florists is a new entry: Cannabis stores. The 2018 Guide merges Business codes with Farming and Fishing industry codes, so maybe the next few items are new only to me, but they now include: Cannabis grown under cover, and Cannabis grown in open fields. Puzzlingly, Field Crops also include orange groves and citrus. Where in Canada is it warm enough to grow oranges and lemons? Did you know we also grow rice and cotton?

I hate doing my taxes almost as much as the story that I am not working on, which might be why I am pouring over the industry codes. Straying into Natural Resource Industries, I find a new entry: Water, sewage and other systems. Is this the controversial water extraction for bottling, or does it mean water purification services? Here also we find: Hunting and trapping. But what’s that over there? Farming: Fur-bearing animal and rabbit production. Bunnies! Maybe I shouldn’t do my taxes on Easter weekend.



You might be wondering about the cave that the Nassar family once made home. Let me explain. The underground dwelling is warm and dry in the rainy winter, and cool in the scorching summer. Caves are not unusual in this land of hills carved by dry winds. Unlike European caves, these caves don’t drip moisture nor grow stalagmites and stalactites. The photo above shows caves above the Kidron valley, facing the monastery commonly called Mar Saba. It was founded by Saint Sabbas, who lived many years alone in a cave before attracting followers. In effect, the monastery grew up around his hermit cave. Here it is today:

Photo: D. Martens
Mar Saba

More famous than hermit monks, at least here in Jerusalem, are the caves of Jesus. We consumers of Western art think of the Christmas Eve stable as a wooden structure, when in this part of the world, a stable is often a cave. So were tombs — with a stone rolled over the entrance. Back in the time of Emperor Constantine, a church was built on the cave tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed — now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, that’s right, the church stands on a burial ground of cave tombs. And in Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity stands on the cave where Jesus was born. If you wait in line and go downstairs, you can peek through a hole to see stone.

And then there are the fancy caves, dwellings that have been carved into rock, such as those at Petra in Jordan.

Jordan rock dwellings DSC_1293
Petra, Jordan

Jordan rock d DSC_1333
Petra, Jordan

Then there are the built caves, stone dwellings that seem to be built around a cave or imitate a cave. The hut on the right is basically a summer shack, a shelter for farmers during the olive harvest, which inside is cool and dry in the summer.

Finally, a modern application of a cave: every dog loves a cave.

dogs covet caves

Banff Centre

The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity sits above the Bow River and the town of Banff. Started in the 1930s as a project to give people in the arts some paid work, it is now a lively institution that houses retreats, workshops, concerts, a library, theatres and art galleries. I am here for the Summer Writers Retreat. With temperatures hovering around 14 degrees C it doesn’t feel very summery. While I thought my stay here would be rather monastic, I meet daily with some of the 18 other writers here, either at the cafeteria meals or at workshops. But mostly we work, emerging from our rooms looking slightly dazed.

One arrives and registers at the Professional Development Centre.





Our rooms are in Lloyd Hall:

Lloyd hallDSC_2917

The library and the bar are in this lovely building:

photo: D. Martens

What do you do at the retreat? This question is very similar to What do you do all day? Writers write, which does not make for interesting conversation. What we do at the retreat: Write. And edit and revise and research and write some more. Attend group sessions with the mentors in the afternoon, if one wishes. Some of the craft topics we’ve discussed: what is the difference between a story collection, a linked collection and a novel? How do you create or maintain tension in your fiction? What is a novella? Does an image tell a story? Are agents worth their fee? Persevere. Write some more. And if that doesn’t work, go for a walk to think while looking at the beautiful scenery — just watch out for bears.

photo: D. Martens
Mentors Lori Hahnel and Lee Kvern


Wherever I turn, a mountain in shifting light:



The summer in East Jerusalem is hot and dry. Windows left open, surfaces in the apartment are coated in dust. Yet as I slowly go about daily activities, I see these little beauties blooming. For me they are like bits of joy caught in one’s peripheral vision. And just as I am illiterate in this country of Hebrew and Arabic, I do not know the names of  these flowers — except the bougainvillea and poppies. Identifying comments welcome.


Hebrew Words for Gaza

By Taken from CIA World Factbook website on 15 August. - Gaza Strip from CIA factbook, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=591

This Is Not an Ulpanbased in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, offers Hebrew and Arabic lessons of a different sort than I’ve experienced. The classroom lessons are thematic and sometimes take place as excursions — you go to a cafe to speak the language of cafes. They are committed to engaging with our surroundings. For example, at the beginner level, Eat Ivrit combines cooking and food culture with learning Hebrew. Advanced Hebrew learners can take Human Rights in a Conflicted Society. I approve, and subscribe to their newsletter in the ever optimistic hope that a course will fit my level and schedule. The newsletters are lessons in themselves, such as this one on the situation in Gaza, which offers first a brief explanation of the situation in Gaza now, and second, and this is great, pertinent vocabulary.

With their permission, here is an excerpt from the May 2, 2018 newsletter from This Is Not an Ulpan:

What’s Going On in Gaza?

The March of Return began on March 30th and by the end of the first day, 15 Gazans had been killed and 1,416 wounded. Since March 30th, over 40 Gazans have been killed via sniper fire from Israeli Defense Forces. Not a single Israeli has wounded nor has a single rocket been fired from Gaza.

Left-wing protests have been raising the question of whether or not it is moral to shoot at Gazan protesters: The March of Return is not an act of war, the protesters are not militants nor have they killed or injured a single Israeli soldier, so why does it appear that the IDF is shooting to kill?

Some Background Info

Currently the Gaza Strip is in a state of despair. There is only enough electricity to last a few hours, limited food and clean water supplies, many children without living parents. Due to the Israeli fear that Hamas will continue to smuggle in rockets and weapons, there is blockade on trade and economic opportunities, resulting in an unemployment rate of 63%. In the past, Hamas has misappropriated funding from the UN and other organisations to build tunnels into Israel and develop is military capabilities, giving legitimacy to Israeli fears. The March of Return marks one of the first civilian-led protests from Palestinian-Gazans meant to be nonviolent. It is of popular opinion that as Israel continues to use force against Palestinian protests, tensions will rise and lead the IDF and Hamas into another violent conflict.

Words To Know

Tsalaf – Sniper – צלף

The majority of Gazans have been killed by sniper fire from the IDF located a distance from the fence. Those killed by sniper fire include two reporters who were wearing press jackets, several minors and a man on crutches.

גדר – Gader – Fence

The wall separating Israel and Gaza. The IDF claims that people are being shot because they are a threat to the stability of the fence or are attempting to jump the fence and infiltrate. Tactics employed by Gazans choosing to engage with the IDF and fence include tire burning, Molotov cocktails and most recently a kites with a fire bombs flown over the wall.

Mafgin – Demonstrator – מפגין

All Gazans participating in the March of Return think of themselves as demonstrators against the terrible and inhumane conditions of Gaza as well as the desire to return to their previous homes. 70% of Gazans identify as refugees from the 1948 war, meaning either they or their grandparents were removed from their homes.

מחבל – Mehabel – Terrorist

The Israeli media has been quick to label the Gazans who have been killed by the IDF terrorists, often linking them directly with Hamas.

פרספקטיבה – Perspektiva – Perspective

There are multiple perspectives on The March of Return. In a simplification, Gazans see the protest as a fundamental right to return and humanitarian health issue. Many Israelis see this as a serious security issue and will do everything everything in their power to protect the State of Israel and themselves.

Copyright © *2018 This Is Not An Ulpan*, All rights reserved.

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Sometimes when I look at the view from the various hilltops where I live, I feel disbelief. (Disbelief in the most religious city in the world!) How can this be the view when only weeks ago it was lush gardens, clean parks, red buses, brollies and rain? The most sunny day in London could not match this brightness –the light in this photo is at the end of the day, around 5:00 PM.

Since coming to Jerusalem I’ve thought often of Playmobil dolls, the small plastic dolls that come in themed boxes. The farm-girl doll with her sheep and sheaf of wheat. The racer with his car and wrench. The knight with his horse and armour and spear. Because we lived in a country with castles when our daughter was Playmobil aged, we bought many knights. I think of them now, here, because of the crusades. Did she have crusader knights? Whether we thought they were good guys or bad guys didn’t matter, because she discovered that you could pull off not only their armour and helmets but also their hair. The brown-haired knight would, pop, become the blonde knight. All dolls swapped roles.

That’s how I feel when I look at the view here. Like someone picked me up out of my London theme and dropped me into ancient religious-land theme, and popped the top of my head off en route. Pictured on my box would be the wall (both the wailing one and the one that makes you weep) and the Dome of the Rock and Orthodox Jews and friendly Arab shopkeepers and me holding a pomegranate.

And you thought I was going to write about a car, the expat version of the popemobile.

Here’s another view, of the garbage-mobile:


Look at the King the King the King

How could I resist an exhibition called “In the Valley of David and Goliath”?  The exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem displays artifacts excavated from 2007 to 2013 at a 3,000 year-old site today known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, in the Elah Valley. But maybe, just maybe, it was the city of Sha’arayim, mentioned apparently in the bible story of David and Goliath. Why would it be that city, quite apart from its location between the Philistines and the Judeans (near the battlefield where David slew Goliath and thereby created the infinite Hollywood trope of clever little guy against big bad guy)? Because, the museum display posits, Sha’arayim means two gates in Hebrew, and the archeologists found two gates in the walled city they were excavating, and not many sites from that era have two gates, for security reasons obviously. Therefore…. Does this sound like a logic exercise in a philosophy class?

Despite my discomfort with finding biblical quotations as bonus information to the exhibits, I was fascinated. It is pretty cool that archeologists can gather up a bunch of chewed olive pits and use carbon dating to place the site in time. From the Bible Lands website: “Carbon14 dating, on charred olive pits excavated from the foundation layers of the site have determined that this city existed between the late 11th century BCE and early 10th century BCE, the beginning of the Kingdom of Israel.”

The Kingdom of Israel is also referred to as the Kingdom of David. I mention these kingdoms because I felt like someone was trying too hard to convince me. For example, a hand print on a clay wall could mean A or B, depending on what interpretation you bring to it and its context. This exhibition is presenting the artifacts as support for another city belonging to the Kingdom of David (and therefore Israel), although, to give the museum credit, the interpretation is presented as questions: Could this be etc.?

Item: a piece of pottery with Hebrew writing on it.

Item: three small shrines or houses for idols, one of which apparently resembles the biblical description of King Solomon’s temple and palace but looks like a doll-house to me.

Item: or the lack thereof. Bones were found in the food areas, but no pork bones, and the Philistines ate pork so they couldn’t have been living here.

Item: clay pots with thumb prints on the handles. Taxation? Valuation? These along with the walls of the town suggest an organized state.

Proof that this was the site of a city built at the time of King David or thereabouts? Maybe. Even the book about it by archeologists Yosef Garfinkel, Igor Kreimerman and Peter Zilberg leaves it open to question: Debating Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Fortified City in Judah from the Time of King David (Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

But tell me why do I hear Danny Kaye singing “Look at the king the king the king” as I write this?


First impression, as someone at the handle end of a taut dog leash: walls, fences, and broken glass. The beige stones of the low walls have holes in them, look old, but they still block us from that apparent field of wasteland, from the hidden courtyards, from everything except this glass strewn uneven sidewalk.

Once the dog has found some dry [cedar? pine?] needles on which to relieve herself, I can notice local life. The people standing on the corner are not pub overflow, as in London. They have come to buy the oval bread a woman is selling from a basket. There is also a basket of eggs. Men speak to the dog but we do not understand. Across the street, a man splashes bottled water on the windshield of his parked car, while the wipers flap, removing dust. For there is dust.


Spiders and Art

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

–Richard Conniff, “Menagerie: Useless Creatures,” Opinionator Blog The New York Times, 13  September 2014. Brought to my attention by Alan Mattingly in “No Hurry for the Wandering Mind,” The New York Times International Weekly, Sunday 9 November 2014, p. 1.

Plastic land

From England to Canada, from the land of brick and gardens to the land of concrete. A cheap hotel near the airport for one night shocks me back into Canadian life. Carpet on concrete floors — that smell. Plastic cutlery at the breakfast buffet, styrofoam cups, plastic plates, plastic glasses in the room. Zap zap zap. Oh for the small stuffy mouldy room above the pub, with an English breakfast downstairs with real cutlery and crockery, a hot cuppa and no feeling of having violated the environment to eat cold eggs and tepid tea.


Seen from the bus (not today) on Kensington, a man in a cream kurta (long shirt) with matching cap, white embroidered, cradling in his arm a bundle, the white points of which must be sharp, as he twice tries to rest this end of the bundle in his palm then quickly shifts it up. A bundle of peacock feathers, the dark tips curling up over his shoulder. Peacock blue against his cream shirt. Who will buy?

The peacocks in Holland Park, in full feather, seek sunny splotches of grass on which to fan. Throat-piping to the hens hiding in the shrubbery.

White soda foam of a palm in bloom.

Evergreen hedges showing off their hair cuts with bright green new growth.

A tree unknown to me. Its long soft dark green needles fringe branches that hang like skirts lifted for a curtsy. 


Did you ever wonder how the fairies and lovers could, semi-dressed, spend the night in a woods in the third week of June in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? After three Mays in England, I can explain how June can be mid-summer. Of the four warm sunny days that occur each year, two fall before June 21 and two fall after. No, seriously, it is already summer here.


After sunset, wind rants along the street, kicking newspapers and plastic bags ahead of it, snapping branches down. Into the lamplight hurry suited young men clutching flowers to their chests. Outside a restaurant a man in a car hurls words at a delivery man standing on the sidewalk, “Move your fucking bike, man.”


Tube strike from Tuesday evening through to Friday morning. Water causes natural disasters in areas away from London. The South Downs flooded. A rail line washed away in Dawlish on the south coast of Devon. On Wednesday it rained sideways. Yesterday in the park in the straight downpouring rain, empty of nannies and children, a gardener caught my eye. He said, “‘orrible weather we’re having. ‘orrible.” From under his rain-jacket hood he showed me his crooked teeth. I grinned back agreement, happy that 1) he spoke to me 2) in movie cockney English and 3) that he expressed sentiments I have pushed away all wet week long, for I am the Canadian and am not allowed to be affected by this mild [chill damp] weather. I sauntered on, smiling at pathways narrowed by borders of water.
And today, Friday, a reprieve. The strike is over, the sun comes out. Because I can, because the buses are not overcrowded with displaced tube passengers, I go to the library. Sunny days are so rare that I regret my research.
I have a favourite seat in the upstairs of the number 10 bus, the one with a foot rest. Favoured by others, too, as the window’s smudge of head-level grease shows. As does the food flotsam on the floor. I settle in for the hour-long ride, keeping zipped in the unheated pod rocketing through the city. From up here I can better see the buds on the trees, the Victorian flourishes on buildings, the two-tone brick designs around windows. The traffic chaos of Tottenham Court Road. The empty windows of a building under renovation stalked by a dried-blood red steel frame near Goodge Street Station.
There is a large terrace or court in front of the British library, which I have cursed as the rain swept across it. And the wind. Today it is calm, bright, a place of contemplation away from the traffic on Euston Road.

Street Candy

Ahead of me, a traffic warden in his nasturtium-orange rainwear walks beside a construction worker, his rain pants and vest the colour of an almost ripe lemon. The colours of candy, of a PEZ, of a sweet and sour. Slow in their boots, shoulders touching, they turn out of the rain into the organic coffee shop.


Sounds of Spring in London. The leafblower replaced by the handheld pressurized water cleaner, cleaning slippery green off sidewalks. Birds turning up the volume, showing off. The clop clop of the hooves of the police horses soft under the jackhammering at the construction site. The park gardeners pause in their leaf-gathering to look at the neighbouring construction, frowning over why so much for so long.