Author: Donna Costa

Turning Back Time

Turning Back Time

Spring forward, fall back.

The expression helps us remember to turn our clocks ahead in spring and back in autumn. Port Arthur, Ontario, was the first Canadian city to turn clocks ahead an hour. I did not find mention whether twin city, Fort William, also turned their clocks ahead. (By the way, Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamated in 1970 to become Thunder Bay, my home for 10+ years.)

Generally, though, clock-turning wasn’t implemented in Canada until 1916. Even now in 2023, not all cities or counties change their clocks. In Canada, we used to fall back on the last Sunday in October. Then in 2008, we aligned with the US for the first Sunday in November.

All this, simply to say…I’ve been thinking a lot about time!

I am acutely aware of changing colours highlighting the change in time as we prepare the garden and pond for winter, store the deck furniture, and just generally begin to slow down.

In qi gong philosophy, this is a time for grieving. And for letting go. Releasing what no longer serves you — habits, emotional baggage, relationships, even old books. Also known as refinement, this period allows us to figuratively thin the weeds to provide more space and energy to grow what we truly want in our lives. It’s a time to refine our focus.

Where in your life might you let go? What no longer serves you? What’s holding you back? If you had more time/space, where might you place or increase your focus?

Take your time to ponder these questions over autumn and winter. Soon enough, it will be spring and time for new beginnings.

Alone in the Woods

Alone in the Woods

The writing life is often described as lonely and isolating. It can be, and yet last month, I chose to spend even more time alone – at Rosseau Sanctuary – doing some internal exploration of self. The tarp you see in the picture was my home for four days. While I often walk in the woods here in London, there’s something special about sleeping and eating and…yes, that too…in the woods. Something about connecting with Gaia and all the nature spirits!

Refreshing and healing. Alone, but not lonely.

Back in civilization, I’ve been invited to speak at the Listowel Library on October 19, 6:30 p.m. I’ll be talking about my Mom’s book, Transformation: Autobiography of Beverly J. Vollmer (1937-2022). I will be presenting at the library for twenty minutes, as will Ron Finch, former LDSS principal (about his mystery novels.)

The Listowel Banner also did a fabulous write-up. Mom had once worked as typesetter at the Banner, and it was lovely to see her honoured with that piece.

I continue to search for a publisher for my memoir, If I Could Remember, I Would: Teddy Bears & Brains & Caring for my Mother. Meanwhile, I’ve been requesting blurbs – you know, those quotes you read on the back cover or sometimes there’s a whole page at the front of the book. Here’s the first blurb I received. It’s from Nicole Breit, award-winning poet, essayist and Best American Essays 2017 Notable author:

In her beautifully crafted memoir If I Could Remember, I Would: Teddy Bears & Brains & Caring for my Mother, Donna Costa has accomplished something so rare and noteworthy: an imaginative work of literary distinction that is both a tribute to her mother and a precious gift to her readers. This book belongs on the shelves of doctors, caregivers and family members who have walked alongside a loved one living with Alzheimers.

Nicole’s Spark Your Story writing program was a fun and powerful course I took to learn modern forms for personal essays…different ways to write memoir. Learning these forms – for example, collage essays, diptych essays, hermit crab essays – helped me formulate several stories in my manuscript. It’s also how I was able to get my stories published in literary magazines and how I got shortlisted for two writing contests.

Does it sound like I’m tooting my own horn? (They tell me writers are supposed to get comfortable doing that.) Actually, I want to toot the horn for Nicole’s awesome writing program. It not only gets the creative juices flowing, it teaches you how to channel that into creative form.

I extend much gratitude to Nicole for all she taught me that has helped me grow as a writer.

Remember, if you’re out Listowel way, drop by the library on October 19. I’ll be donating a copy of Transformation to the library and will also have copies for sale if you’d like a personal, signed copy. And if you knew my Mom, I’d love to hear your reminiscences.

Mixing Metaphors

Mixing Metaphors

This weekend, my husband and I made pasta from scratch. Simple ingredients of egg, water, salt and flour – Red Fife being our current favourite. Rather than a rolling pin like his mother used, we had a stainless steel, hand-crank pasta machine that I borrowed from my sister years ago.

After mixing the ingredients, I had a small clump of dough that seemed barely enough to feed the two of us and I wondered how my mother-in-law managed to make homemade pasta for eight children, seven of whom were boys with hearty appetites. I kneaded briefly, then let the dough rest for thirty minutes.

This resting is an important step. It allows the flour to fully absorb the water and egg, which fuses the flavours. Resting also allows the gluten to do its thing – either relaxing the gluten so it doesn’t spring back like bread or strengthening so the dough stretches easily – depending on which explanation one finds online. Either way, the rest is necessary.

While the dough rested, hubby and I got creative and improvised some drying racks – a curtain rod between upper kitchen cabinets, with several plastic hangars strung across the pole.

After the rest period, I separated the dough ball into four smaller pieces and fed them, one at a time, through the pasta machine’s rollers. Using the dial, one is able to manually adjust the thickness of the pasta, the first setting being for the thickest noodles. With each successive pressing, the dial is turned to another setting, reducing the thickness between the rollers and, thus, the thickness of the pasta.

After the first press, I had lasagna-like noodles, which I carefully laid onto parchment paper. Adjusting the dial, each noodle was fed through a second time. The noodles were getting thinner, wider and longer, but also stronger. I needed another sheet of parchment paper, then another, as the pasta quadrupled and I began to understand how mia suocera could feed a large family from such humble beginnings.

Another turn of the crank. Roll the dough. Turn, roll and press. The repetitiveness was calming, almost meditative.

Handmade pasta cannot be hurried!

The first time I tried to make pasta, I thought I could skip all the settings and proceed directly to the thinnest level. Instead of dough that rolled out flat and smooth, it broke apart. Without the passage of time, without being subjected to the kneading and pressure from successive pressings, the dough lacked strength and integrity. It was weak and, literally, full of holes.

Writing a book, like handmade pasta, is a process that can’t be hurried. A story starts with simple ingredients – an idea, a character or two, maybe a theme or some hint of conflict. 

Then, let it rest.

This is where I am – at the resting stage – with my next novel. While the ideas are resting – some might say percolating, but that would be mixing metaphors – I research. For this story, that means World War I, conscription, home children, and all things circa 1918 – medicine, the city of London, Ontario, women’s issues, Spanish flu, clothing, politics.

As I research, the characters start to develop. I hear their voices. They visit my dreams. I feel their emotions fusing into a plot.

Next, I will press pen to paper, fingertips to laptop keys, to roll out the beginnings of a story outline. Perhaps some character development sheets with aims, motivations, backgrounds.

Press again, and the setting unfolds. Street names, a timeline of historical events.

With each pressing, words multiply into scenes, into dialogue, into chapters. Edit. Re‑write. Repeat. Each step is necessary to the final result. Without revision after revision, the story, like hurried pasta, would be weak, lack integrity, and be full of plot holes.

Some time in the future, I will enjoy the repast of a finished manuscript. For now, my plate is filled with homemade tagliatelli, covered with pine nuts, parmesan, and garden-fresh pesto – slow, healthy food brimming with quality and flavour.

Buon appetito!

Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash

River Thoughts

River Thoughts

As I sit on a rock by the river—mist rising on the water, morning sun warming my face—I hear the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker over my shoulder. A Downy woodpecker, no doubt, for they are common in these woods.

Judging from the softness of the tap, he is small, his sound barely audible beneath the squawk of blue jays and cat birds and the hum of traffic in the distance.

I turn and spy him in the tree, under a canopy of green, hidden from hawk predators above. Black feathers with spots of white, the absence of a cap of red indicates he is a juvenile.

He goes about his business, not minding the noise of the attention-grabbing birds.

Not minding that he is not yet marked with a red cap to prove his maturity to others.

Not even minding that he is not a red pileated woodpecker—larger, flashier, louder.

He is simply incapable of being other than what he is and, in that, he is content.

He focuses on finding insects and larvae in the cracks and crannies of the dead wood.

Or perhaps he is drumming to his friends “Come join me” or drumming his joy in being alive on such a glorious morning.

I turn back to the water.

I hear Him with me; his tapping and his presence, they comfort me.

Photo by Jack Bulmer on Unsplash

When Writing is a Pain in the Neck (or Back)

When Writing is a Pain in the Neck (or Back)

 “If you sit at a computer all day,” a wise instructor once told me, “you are telling your body you want a shape to fit a chair…bent and crooked.”

Our bodies are designed for movement, but when we remain still and seated for most of our day, we are instructing our bodies to hold that shape and our body happily complies. Yet when our backs are stiff upon rising, we complain as if it wasn’t our own direction to the body that created the aches and pains.

Margaret Atwood, in her “Top 5 Writing Tips” on YouTube, advises writers “to pay attention to posture because writing/keyboarding is hard on the neck and back.” She suggests doing back stretches, getting enough exercise, and walking around. Frequent breaks, she says, are good for the back and other muscles – and can also help with writer’s block – so get up, take a walk, do some stretches.

As someone who practiced several modalities in holistic health prior to focusing on writing, I would like to expand on Atwood’s suggestions. Here are some ideas.

  • Books (I’m a writer. You knew there was going to be books, right?)

Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment, Kathleen Porter

8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, Esther Gokhale

Both are excellent resources on how to sit, bend, stand and sleep for a healthy back. Also, when you read, prop up the book so you are not bending your neck forward.

  • Franklin Method

Last summer at the Sage Hill Writing School, I had the pleasure of trying the Franklin Method® which combines anatomical imagery with physical movements to create changes in the body and mind. This method is taught around the world, including at schools such as Julliard. It stimulates brain creativity by waking up the body and nervous system through the use of simple movements such as tapping, brushing, sponging, shearing, and shaking. Here are a couple to try:

Neck sponging (Hint: In addition to writing and keyboarding, two causes of head-forward posture are cell phone use and a need for corrective lenses.)

Eye refreshing

  • Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise with slow, graceful movements that provide many benefits – muscle strength, flexibility, balance, cardiovascular health, and improved mood and cognition. There are long, medium, and short forms of Tai Chi, as well as different styles. While it takes time to learn, The Beijing 24 is a simplified form that can be done in 10 minutes – perfect for a writing break, especially on winter days when you may not want to go outside for a walk. There are several Tai Chi academies in London and the city also offers classes through its recreational programs. Once you learn the 24 moves, it is simple to do Tai Chi anywhere.

  • Qigong

Somewhat similar to Tai Chi, active Qigong (versus passive qigong) includes movements – sometimes meditative, sometimes energizing – which are repeated while standing in one spot. Try this favourite for a short break. Or this one describing the basic qigong moves.

In addition to incorporating stretches into your writer breaks, consider adding regular maintenance such as chiropractic treatments, cranial sacral massage, or Bowen therapy (aka Bowtech, Bowenwork.) Full disclosure – I practised Bowen for many years. I’m now retired from practice, but regular Bowen sessions are integral to maintenance of health.

Bowen is a gentle therapy originating in Australia and practiced around the world. It uses small moves on the fascia. Bowen addresses many health issues in addition to back pain. Movements to complement back procedures might include TMJ, pelvic, rhomboids, and psoas (the muscle becomes tight/shortened through sitting.) There is a handful of Bowen practitioners throughout London and surrounding areas.

So there you have it…some resources for writers who want to maintain a healthy neck and back. But don’t just read about it – put it into practice. Add an alarm to your cellphone or laptop, perhaps mid morning and mid afternoon, or whatever fits best into your writing schedule. And don’t ignore the alarm, even if you’re deep in the writing zone. Instead, jot down a few words and begin your break. You will remember the ideas when you return and, who knows, you may even tap into more ideas as you exercise, maybe because you are exercising.


Photo credit: julien Tromeur, Unsplash.

Pantser On File

Pantser On File

Enroute to Peggy’s Cove from Halifax last week, my companion and I spotted flames in the roadside grasses. As tourists, we had not been following the local news. And even though we had driven through several patches of smoke-laden air, we were largely unaware that forest fires were burning in the province. But after seeing those flames and receiving cell phone alerts of emergency evacuations, we began paying attention.

Heading back to our hotel at the end of our day’s sojourn, we noticed a dark cloud in the sky over Halifax. Is it a storm cloud, we pondered. Perhaps an explosion in the industrial area? (Still in denial!)  But, as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This one in the Tantallon and Hammonds Plains areas.

After consulting Google maps, we realized the affected areas were a 30-minute drive from our hotel in downtown Halifax. We were on the major highway at the time and not in serious danger, unlike residents of the subdivisions. Visible on the side roads and off-ramps were cruisers, lights flashing, blocking the roads and preventing traffic into evacuation areas.

I tell this tale not as an OMG-look-what-almost-happened-to-me — although I kind of just did that — but as a segue into this theme of fire currently burning in my life.

On returning to London, Ontario, I participated in a shamanic journey experience called Word Doctoring and working with the goddess Brigid who was a fire goddess. This was scheduled months in advance, but it’s interesting how it converged with my other fire experience.

Goddess Brigid, it is said, was born at sunrise, flames bursting from her forehead reaching to Heaven. She is the goddess of many things, including midwifery, healing and crafts such as writing, poetry and beer, and especially crafts involving fire — metallurgy, forging, glassblowing.

During one shamanic journey — a journey is simply an altered state of consciousness, induced by the rhythm of a hoop drum, somewhat similar to a dream state — I built a fire beside a billabong and invited Brigid to initiate me into Word Doctoring. I was put into and through the fire I had built. (The symbolism in journeying can be exquisite!) My skin did not burn. Instead, a fire was ignited in my heart as my physical heart, hands, and body became warm with the fire of Brigid.

Reflecting this morning about these experiences of fire, a childhood phrase popped in my mind:

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Now, in writing circles, we sometimes refer to two different styles of writing — plotsers and pantsers.

Pantsers are writers who write by the seat of their pants — no outline, no planning, just write what comes. That is how I wrote my first two books, Breathing With Trees and If I Could Remember I Would: Bears & Brains & Caring For My Mother. (Note: After writing by the seat of your pants, you typically will need to edit with thought and planning.)

For my next historical fiction novel, I am abandoning my Pantser style — Pantser on fire — and going full Plotter. My weeks from June to September are carefully plotted out for week-by-week research into the period of 1918 — Spanish Flu, homeopathy, suffrage, military operations, children’s toys and clothing, women’s issues. It’s a time for gathering the kindling-facts for the fire of storytelling.

Next, October to spring is planned for character development — profile sheets, background, aims and motivation, internal conflict — setting outline, plot structure, overriding theme, timeline of events, chapter summary drafts. In short, it is thinking about all the literary devices before writing the story and is the opposite of the method for my other books where I only thought about these things after writing the first Pantser draft.

With Plotser style, the planning and details become sparks to ignite the writing. Plotser is like a controlled burn…intentionally set to manage the ecosystem where fire would naturally occur. It is meant to be a low-intensity natural fire, preventing complete burn-out. Controlled burns of forests help remove sick or diseased trees and prevent the fire spreading to other areas. Similarly, controlled burns help a writer stick to the issues and theme of the story and prevent plot-wandering in a direction away from the central burn. Plotser mimicks a natural fire with the writer controlling where and when an area will burn.

Plotser or Pantser — slow burn vs an out-of-control forest fire? I’m looking forward to the exploration of this new-to-me approach.


As of this writing, the Halifax area fires are 85% contained and not expected to spread. Five active fires continue to burn in other regions of Nova Scotia. The one at Barrington Lake is out of control.

May all be safe.

Photo credit: Landon Parenteau on Unsplash

What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name?

Early in May, award-winning author Terry Fallis spoke here in London, Ontario, at an event organized by the London Writers’ Society, my local writing group. In his book, No Relation, Terry writes about people who share a name similar to someone famous. Earnest Hemingway (versus Ernest Hemingway), James Moriarty, Mario Andretti, Marie Antoinette. What would it be like to share a famous moniker? (I suggest you read Fallis’ book for a humorous tale.)

But it got me thinking about my own name which is the opposite of famous…both my first and last names as common as cheddar cheese. My married surname – Costa – means from the coast in Mediterranean cultures. It’s the equivalent of Smith or Brown in North America.

There are actually three Donna Costas in my family and we all married into the family. (There are also two Linas, two Rosas, three Franks, three Tonys. What can I say…that’s Italian?) 

When I married into my husband’s Italian family almost 46 years ago, I became the second Donna Costa in the family, the other being the wife of my husband’s first cousin. (Hi, Donna!) Then my brother-in-law married – you guessed it – a Donna, different middle name. (Hi, Donna!)

From time to time, I would joke about reverting to my maiden name, but that was usurped after my cousin Wayne married. Forever more, the name meant someone else at family reunions, not me. In The Malahat Review, issue 222, “My Name: A Timeline,” Paul Dhillon writes, “I […] start to think about how a name can both connect us to a community and sever us from our ancestors.” Yeah, I get it.

I recall a time after high school when I worked as a legal secretary, having been hired in part because of a reference given from my friend, Donna – different last name – who worked at the law firm. She insisted she was Donna the first, while I was Donna the second. My suggestion of Donna Old and Donna New was met with stony silence, except for some snickers from Marg Bell aka Dinger. (We were a playful bunch!)

There’ve been times when bank tellers have pulled up records for a Donna Costa at an address unknown to me. Ditto medical records, although that seldom happens anymore with health cards. Imagine discovering someone with the same name, no relation, living on your street. (That happened to my spouse.)

There are enough of us named Donna Costa to start a club. If you know one, ask her to drop me a line. I’d love to hear where she’s from. And whether she’s family or no relation.

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

Spring Sprang Sprung

Spring Sprang Sprung


Yellow daffodils, pink hyacinths. Kids riding bikes.

Mother’s Day.

It’s gotten me thinking a lot about cycles – tricycles and bicycles, sleep cycles, seasonal cycles. And the cycle of life and death.

This will be the first Mother’s Day without my mom. I like to say that Mom watches over me from above – literally – because her picture sits on top of my fridge. I catch her eye when I grab a glass of milk. Sometimes she winks back.

This weekend I will put flowers on the ancestors’ graves. For some, visiting the cemetery is morbid. Or creepy. But it was Mom’s and my spring ritual for years. Together, we would take the 90-minute drive to the graves of her parents, brother, grandparents. I’d weed and plant flowers, while she told me their stories.

Sometimes Mom didn’t remember much, especially about her brother, Donny. She was twelve when he died. He liked Al Jolson and he raised pigeons, she’d say, and grandfather was a circus performer. Donny is buried alongside his grandfather and others near the large pine tree, while my grandparents are together up the path under the maples.

Afterwards, Mom and I would go out to eat. Mom’s preference – a Harvey’s burger.

This year, I’ll visit the cemetery by myself, unless I can convince my daughter to pick up the tradition. (Doubtful.) Or maybe hubby will be my pity-companion. Even if I’m by myself, I won’t be alone – I’ll have their stories and my mother’s voice to keep me company.

And afterwards, a fat juicy burger with hot peppers.

Photo credit: Eilis Garvey on Unsplash


I’ve been busy prepping Mom’s autobiography files to upload into IngramSpark. Enjoy this sneak peek of the cover. I’ll post on my Facebook page when the book is available online, likely towards the end of May or early June.

Childhood Writing Memories

Childhood Writing Memories

For years, I kept a grade one scribbler filled with my earliest attempts at printing. Solid blue lines marked the upper and lower limits for capital letters, while a dotted red line indicated the correct height for lowercase. Even back then, I loved putting marks onto the page, feeling letters form, letting words and thoughts come into being as the pencil slid across the paper. Sometimes a piece of grit in the lead would challenge my chubby 6-year-old fingers to keep the marks steady and true. That writing booklet was dragged through several adult moves, only to be lost somewhere in the stuff of my present abode.

Another item of my memorabilia is a book of poetry – a collection of poems (not my own) for a school project, probably grade 5 or so. There’s a poem about our country, a poem without rhyming words, a religious poem and a humorous one. “The Lost Lagoon”  by E. Pauline Johnson represented a poem by a Canadian poet. Enamoured of Robert Service, several of his lengthy poems fill my project.

Each poem was painstakingly typed on my toy typewriter in red ink. This toy was not a true typewriter for its keys were merely images on plastic. A center dial contained all the numbers, letters and symbols. Every letter of every word required a turn of the dial before pressing the imprint onto the page. Progress was slow and arduous. Many a time I threw out a poem riddled with typing errors – I knew nothing back then about erasing typos.

Still I persisted. While it would have been prudent to select the shortest poems for the assignment, I insisted on using the poems I loved, regardless of word count.

Accompanying each poem were pictures, some clipped from magazines – my mother read Woman’s Day regularly – or some from greeting cards. Often I made my own drawings. I’d obviously been taught something about drawing perspective, evident in renderings of my school and farm house, or in the angles of my mother’s oak rocking chair. I loved birds then too, as I do now, and it was obvious that farm life informed who I was – my values, my love for nature and a simple life.

Many authors say that they kept a writing journal all their lives. This was not so for me, although I do remember once having a diary with a tiny key. I’d written about a crush on a boy, then decided to throw it in the trash bin and burn it. Burning trash was a common occurrence on the farm. Regrettably, two older brothers fished the partially burned diary from the flames and read my secrets. Humiliated and angry, I wouldn’t write in a journal again for another thirty years.

Even now, my journaling is sporadic. I tell myself I should write, then wander off to dig in the garden or muck out the fish pond. Some days, it seems, not even the guilt of not‑writing can erase my hesitancy to put innermost thoughts on the page.

Why do I feel a need to write about this? Why do I remember it? Why now?

On April 17, the winner of gritLit’s Writing Contest will be announced. My story “Mercy Mercy Me” was longlisted two weeks ago, then shortlisted last week. I am incredibly proud of this accomplishment. Yet as I await the announcement, I feel trepidation. My words, my secret thoughts being judged. My stomach flip flips. Excitement. Apprehension.

Through the writing process, I have identified lingering emotions from childhood and am able to soften, to relax more into the not knowing. To let go of being judged and, instead, remember the act of printing words on the page to reconnect to the purity of creation and the joy of writing.



Transition. A time between letting go and grabbing on.

As I stand at the creek’s edge, the water – half frozen, half flowing – reflects my state of between-being. No longer fully this, not yet truly that.

Perched in a tree top to my right, a male cardinal sings his tune. “Yoo hoo, yoo hoo,” the notes seem to say. He, too, is in transition. His goal? To release singledom and couple with a progeny-producing female. I wonder, Does he think about the after? After those thrusts of pleasure, after his seed is embedded, after his offspring breaks its shell and cheeps constantly with hunger, what then? Or does the cardinal exist only in the moment of his present longing?

My gaze returns to the water flowing between ledges of ice that line the shores. In the middle, a narrow coursing current with accumulations of snow and ice, frozen into shapes – two arrowheads and a bald eagle with wings outstretched. A pool of motionless water moistens an icy vulvar opening, while the rushing stream bifurcates at the erect tip, gushing around the frozen marquis to plunge into the black snout of Inari – the trickster fox of Japan – before tumbling onto its vulpine cheek ruffs and carrying on down the river.

To my left, lifting off from the shore is a grey heron – long legs, S‑shaped neck, impressive wingspan. Across the water, he lands on a branch directly in my line of sight. From take‑off, to airborne transition, to landing. Is nature reflecting the repetitive human pattern? How is it that I, an observer, can marvel at its transition, yet not my own?

I study the heron, amused at the incongruity of a shore bird in a tree. This cannot, of course, be his final destiny, his final arriving. Is there ever one final arriving?

At that instant, he stands, takes trial steps on his balance beam branch. With my eye remaining on the feathered wader, I reach for my cell phone. But as I zoom in with the camera, my eyes leave him for a split second. When I look again, he is gone. I’ve missed the beauty of his earthly release and his next exquisite transition. It is his alone to experience.

So I wander on, around the river’s bend. Here, the icy ledges stretch towards each other, almost touching at the center, while cloud-like clumps of snow and ice float lazily down a much narrower stream. Here, the water is more frozen, less flowing. Yet I know tomorrow will bring a thaw and the water will flow fully once again.

For now, the river and I exist in this gray between-being. The transition is but temporary. So I embrace the unknowing and sink into this liminal time of gestation.

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