This fall, I'm so fortunate to have a young, enthusiastic student teacher completing her practicum in my classroom. The other day, the students commented, "Ms. K., now you're like our grandma and the student teacher is like our mom!"
I was surprised by my reaction to this statement. Typically in our culture, we are taught that age is something to fight. Therefore, when we age, I suppose the premise leads us to the conclusion that we've been defeated. It is shameful to look old and youthful looks are cherished. And so, upon being referred as "grandma of the class," I suppose I should have felt hurt, insulted, berated.
Instead and unexpectedly, I felt myself beam with pleasure! Looking at myself through the children's eyes, I rightly or wrongly, viewed myself as someone wise, the experienced one passing her knowledge onto the eager student. The elder, the grandma. I imagined that this transfer of knowledge and experience is what my students had witnessed, and I loved this perception!
In fact, I'd be so honoured to be my students' grandma: to bake with them, to play board games with them, to teach them and to support them in their growth. I'd be honoured to spoil them a little and then send them home to their parents. I want to give them little gifts and to shower them with praise, to gently correct small behaviours that could, later on, get them into bigger trouble. In short, I'd be so happy to be the grandma of the class! From my vantage point, I can't think of a title that holds more honour.
The Blue Jacket Blues
During a trip to the mountain town of Jasper, Alberta a couple of years ago, my auntie and I stopped off in Edson through which the highway runs.
“There’s a good clothing store on the corner here,” Auntie told me and so I swung into a parking space right in front. As soon as we stepped into the shop, I spotted it: a gorgeous blue pleather jacket with earth-tone paisley lining and ruffles at the collar, waist and cuffs. Stunning! I tried it on immediately. Very flattering. The price tag was steeper than I was used to, though, and I would need to think on this purchase. “Maybe I’ll pick it up on our way home,” I told the storekeeper, and off we went to the mountains.
A few days later, I did pick up that blue jacket.
Awhile back now, I was reading about letting go of the notion that we possess objects (or people or property). I considered how possessive I am, how materialistic in some ways. Right then and there, I decided to conduct an experiment. Just the week before, I had sorted through my clothes and put some in a big bag for donation to a thrift store. On top of the too-tight pants, out-of-style tops and worn purses, I laid the beautiful blue jacket.
My intention was just to imagine that I was to give the jacket away. I wanted to taste the feeling of letting go without actually, you know, letting go.
Now, the thing is, I’m a busy lady, and there are many commitments and activities competing for memory space in my brain. Let’s just say, the jacket in the black plastic bag lost out to stronger rivals such as my job, my writing and volunteer work. On our way to the city one day, I hastily tied up the top of that bag, threw it into the car, and dropped it off at a donation centre without even a thought for the fate of the blue jacket.
Some weeks later, when I went to dress up for an evening out, I realized what had happened. I knew that the blue jacket was really – not just in hypothetical terms anymore – no longer mine. A fluttering sense of panic followed by mild self-loathing that brought on a kind of nausea filled my being. What had I done!?
For the longest time after, I felt heartsick upon remembering the blue jacket. I had the blue jacket blues. It took sitting down and looking reality straight in the eye for me to finally see the larger picture. I imagined a woman, down on her luck, kicked around by the worst day ever, walking into a thrift store and hoping to find something decent to wear to her new, low-paying job. There she would see it just as I had seen it: a beautiful blue jacket.
At this image, my heart sang! I understood then that I never owned that jacket anyway, and now it went on to give someone else happiness. I haven’t missed that lovely garment since for what could be better than sending it out into the world to spread joy?
Over those misty mountaintops,
Descending rain at foggy elevations.
Summits obscured, rusty red car train,
Stony ledges whetted down,
Softened edges, muted, slick,
Wrapped in cloud, soft like summer,
Damp like spring.
Fall ushers winter in,
Over those misty mountaintops.
Winter is Here
Here in this rural corner of Alberta, we got the first real snow of winter (if you don't count the real snowfall we received in early September!) and the kids at school were thrilled! The snow brought to them nothing but pure joy. Even frozen fingers and tingling cheeks were things of fascination.
We adults seemed to feel differently. Another winter: treacherous road conditions on which driving becomes riskier than playing slot machines, achy joints, winter colds and winter weight. Can't you almost hear the collective sigh?
Then something changed my perspective. Watching the children tracking merrily through the snow on the playground, I realized, "For these kids, this is only the fourth, fifth or sixth onset of winter that they can recall." For them, it's brand-spankin' new, this miraculous, abrupt change in the seasons. They still see it for what it is: special. Just like that, my heart lifted a little.
On the drive home, the feeling lasted. It may've even expanded a little. The low drear that held itself suspended over the dormant earth seemed not like a menace. Instead, it felt like a friend beckoning me to relax, let go and ease into the stillness winter can bring. I wanted the gauzey grey sky to wrap itself around me and hold me sleepily until the spring. In the most comfortable way, I envied the tiny creatures that slumber in dens below the earth, or in dams, beneath the thinly frozen surface of prairie ponds.
This is what winter can be. It can be a time for comfort, ease and reflection, a welcome friend and not a guest to be dreaded. It all has to do with how I choose to see it and what I choose to do with it.
Trees touching the sky,
The sky reaching down
To touch the trees’,
Low, grey, embracing branches.
Pulling treetops close.
Treetops stretching in closer
For more –
More love to make them grow.
It was 20 degrees below zero Celsius a couple mornings ago. As I took the first few restorative sips of coffee and stared out the kitchen window, I noticed that the backyard birdfeeders were all empty. Right then and there, I made a promise to myself that I would fill at least one of those feeders before I headed off to work.
The birds wouldn't know where the sustenance came from; they couldn't comprehend that someone was rushing to pack their own lunch, get dressed and head out into the cold to pour seed into feeders. Those sparrows, bluejays and the few fat magpies that hang around town wouldn't consider the act of kindness. They would only be aware of the sudden availability of food that day and how it made their lives easier. The wild birds wouldn't know who had provided their good fortune.
As for me, I'm fully able to comprehend my good fortune. I'm just seldom aware of it or those who provided it.
As I sally forth into the subzero temperatures of an early Alberta winter, I don't consider my good health, my ability to work, the women before me who made it allowable for me to work for a good living wage. I don't consider my university education, much more accessible and affordable in those days then now. I don't consider my Canadian birth to two middle class parents, my normally functioning body and brain, my decent DNA, my safety, my full stomach, my comfort.
Yes, there's a lot of good fortune I don't often consider. But when I pause to remember and be grateful, I take a few extra moments and give a little good fortune to other living creatures. It's a small start, but it's a step in the right direction.
A Spider's Lesson
I'm not going to start eating flies or aphids, but there are some spider habits I'd like to foster in myself.
As I spotted this fat spider in her web in my backyard, I considered how she waits for things to come to her. Just waits. Granted, she has a few tricks of her own. A deceptively translucent and sticky web, eight lovely legs and a paralyzing touch of venom.
I think of how patience is her best friend, how running after what she wants will get her nowhere. Instead, she plans. She prepares. She creates and then she waits. I could take a lesson or two from this beauty.
What's with all my rushing around, I wonder as I watch her. Like an artist at her loom she skillfully weaves her magically strong threads to form a most enticing pattern. She works carefully and deliberately, making effective use of her time and talents. Then, as the insects land, she celebrates. Her careful construction and planning pay off.
This magnificent, unharried creature slowly, slowly wraps her supper up, sometimes even saving it for later. What's her hurry? She inhabits a web of relaxation. No need for gluttony or gobbling in this peaceful environment. She will eat when she's ready - not a moment before.
Who knew when I woke up this morning that a spider would teach me so much today?
Tom Jones, Hand Soap and Sunsets
There's no two ways about it, fellow winter-dwellers. January is a tough month. Half way through and I feel twice as old as I did at its beginning. How is that even possible?
I am quite a naturally buoyant, optimistic and reasonably happy person. Usually. These dark days, however, I'm just treading water and my arms and legs are getting tired. I feel pulled down by the weight of winter and dulled by the shades of grey that mute formally beautiful sights.
In dreary January, there have been some saving graces and I am striving to both notice and appreciate these in the hopes that they will keep me afloat.
Tom Jones could very well be my saviour in all of this bleakness. Up until now, the music of Tom Jones has been greatly under appreciated by me. I thought it was over-the-top, 70s sexist auditory melodrama. I still do, but now I love it! Especially the brass section and the super 70s guitar riffs. Oh yeah, and how Tom Jones always wants to die. Poor guy. All those ladies, and still he's yearning for the grave.
I think sometimes people simply acquire a taste for Tom Jones. It's not unusual.
Also in January, I've come to love nicely-scented hand soap in a cute pump. I've always enjoyed this luxury when visiting other people's homes and higher-end restaurants. Now, thanks to a friend, I have my own sweet-scented, pumpable soap to savour.
Then there are the spectacular, short-lived sunsets that flare up late in the afternoon with welcome brightness before the cold night descends. On my short drive home and from my backyard sidewalk, these vibrant colours give my heart a lift.
So is January easy? No, even with Tom Jones, hand soap and the glory of late afternoon sunsets, it is not easy. But if I can focus on those small things, it is survivable and I will come out on the other end of winter. I hope.
The Things I Miss
The things I miss when I choose to stay indoors watching TV on a March Friday evening...
It was my auntie's birthday on Thursday. I was out of town at a convention on that day, but while there, I did find the perfect purse for her. I didn't want anything blindingly blingy, but I didn't want a subdued satchel in shades of blah, either. I landed on faux snake skin, deep red snuggling up to almost purple. Compact, classy, classic. If you're curious, you can go to www.princessflorence.ca.
I arrived home around suppertime on Friday, planning to go visit Auntie and give her the purse on the weekend. I called to let her know I'd made it home safely and discovered during the course of our conversation that she expected to have company on Saturday and Sunday.
Not often spontaneous, I broke loose of my habitual restraints and hopped in the car at 7:30ish in the solid dark and warm wet of the +2 degree Celcius evening - and I'm so glad I did! The full amber moon was low in the sky and seemed close enough to touch as we drove the short distance out to the farm.
While the moon continued to hold us rapt, a belt of slow dancing green moved over the pastures, splotched by half-melted snow, to compete for our attention. When we didn't immediately recognize the green band as northern lights, it brightened up, becoming greener still and a little taller. Now they were unmistakable.
At the farm, we got out of the car and the sparkling jewels in Orion's belt bid us to look up and admire a whole host of constellations not as visible in the village as they were there, in the dark of the countryside. Spectacular!
All these wonders and a great visit with my extended family, too, made me reconsider the amount of time I spend indoors in the evening. I wasn't outside for long, and yet it didn't take long to behold the beauty of the night sky. I'm going to try to remember to step outside during the evenings and during every season just to see and appreciate what awaits me there. After all, that's why remote controls have a pause button, isn't it?
Natural Hot Springs
Although I admired his youth and sense of freedom, I decided to leave some of my own clothes on that afternoon.
"If you want to save some money, there are natural hot springs down by the river's edge. They're beautiful and hardly anyone ever goes down there. Just follow the second logging road in through the trees. You'll find it."
The woman at the tourist information centre made it sound like paradise. Towering cedars, clear water and bubbling hot springs. And all for free. Who could resist? And, really, why would you want to?
She was right. It wasn't hard to find. The logging road was well-used and, although deeply rutted here and there, quite comfortably passable. A little orange sign nailed to a massive tree trunk along the road indicated that this was where we'd get out and start walking.
The first path was wide and with many twists and turns, and it ended up at a large wooden tub that someone had built by hand. A green garden hose ran into the huge vat from an unseen source. It was full to the brim with steaming water. I stuck my finger in, pulled it out and thought, "If I had 4000 potatoes I needed to boil almost instantly, this set up would be perfect!"
From where we stood next to the deathtrap hot tub, I could hear the river moving swiftly over rocks. We followed a narrower path around a bend and for a few metres before the river came into view. There, at its edge, someone had painstakingly constructed a piled-stone wall enclosing a little hot pool area 6 by 8 feet or so. A dirty and tattered blue plastic tarp also helped to dam up the separate pool. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.
Last weekend I was laid very low by a vicious cold/flu combination. As a result the whole world was drearyed by the foggy congestion in my head. The air hurt my skin and the dim daylight scorched my corneas as I walked slowly through the house to the coffee pot.
I filled a big mug with steaming rejuvenation and began the pilgrimage to the living room. When finally I arrived, I pushed back the curtains, wincing at the stiffness in my shoulders, and allowed the watery early morning sun to leak into the shadows of our cozy house and to dampen their edges with a little of its light.
And there he was! Someone to suddenly lift my heart and distract me from the ache in my head and my bones. On the neighbour's lawn across the street stood a very tall snowman! (Well, tall to me, but understand that tall is a relative term.) His top hat had fallen off in the night, I suspect, but the rest of him was still nicely intact. He had a real carrot nose, two button eyes and a scarf, and slender branch arms with three finger twigs at the end of both. I loved him immediately and immensely.
The gift of the snowman filled me with the idea of generosity. To me, that handsome snowman meant a great deal. My world was shades of grey discomfort until it was restored to colour by his stately whiteness. I considered the fact that someone had created him to be shared and to be enjoyed. Of course, there was enjoyment in the creating, as well, but the snowman gave the winter neghbourhood a bit of joy we wouldn't have otherwise experienced.
The snowman made me remember the power that we all possess to give a little joy, a dollop of comfort where there was none before. To light a candle and chase away someone's gloom with a smile or a kind word. Not a big deal to be kind, to perform those tiniest acts of generousity, but what a big difference our small actions can make. Thanks, snowman, for reminding me of the importance of generousity.
Being Human Means Being Afraid
Yesterday, my auntie and I were enjoying a cup of tea and a gingersnap in the late afternoon. She was babysitting a friend's young child. As we sat in her country kitchen and chatted, the boy presented us with a couple plastic worms and bugs in a vain attempt to startle us.
Auntie laughed and told him, "I grew up with brothers. Bugs don't scare me!"
"Yeah," I added, "You want to scare us? Show us illness and old age." At this, the young boy looked perplexed and auntie nodded with understanding.
The things we most fear change throughout our lives. As small children we fear monsters and being separated from our caregivers. As teenagers we are terrified of rejection and scramble to find where we fit in. As young adults we fear failure and it's scary to step out into the world, to stretch ourselves and just see what happens.
And now in middle age, with careers nicely figured out and settled into a comfortable home with a loving spouse, I look ahead and fear that which is inevitable if I'm, lucky to live long enough: old age and illness. Not necessarily in that order.
At every stage of life, there's always something of which to be afraid. There's a way of thinking about fear that tells us to befriend it, sit with it, and get to know it. I've tried this approach deep in the night - last night, actually - when at 3:00 a.m. awakened by fear-filled dreams.
With yet another cup of tea, I sat in the candlelight and looked at my fearful thoughts, and worked toward accepting the fact that being human means sometimes being afraid. Just acknowledging and then accepting that emotion made that feeling shrink and then dissolve entirely. Relaxed and sleepy, I finished my tea and headed back to bed.
Reality is Now
The other morning I was sitting in my car in front of the school admiring the gorgeous sunrise above the little building's roofline and listening to the end of a favourite song. It was a perfect moment just then, wrapped snug in the warmth of the automobile, musical notes tickling my eardrums and brain cells, and the sun flaunting her best dress.
Then, through my bliss, a tiny, stern, corrective voice informed me, "Well, you'd better snap back to reality, get out of your car and get to work." My inner teacher voice. I guess you get what you give sometimes.
In some ways, I couldn't believe that it was me thinking this way. I mean, I consider these sorts of ideas a lot: what's real, what's not, what's present and to be heeded and what's past and to be let go. Probably, I think about this a bit too much. So to hear this voice of betrayal, this taskmaster urging me from the content present into the worry-filled future, was as surprising as it was irritating.
Regardless of how I felt about the directive I'd been given, I turned the key which stilled both the engine and the stereo, opened the car door and stepped into the cold of my workday, muttering bitterly, "Get back to reality? I was in reality until you, old habitual thought patterns, so rudely interrupted me and shoved me toward the future. Thanks. Thanks a whole lot."
Anyway, the day went fine. As usual, my work was satisfying and the day slipped by.
Compassion for a Magpie
As you may or may not know, depending on where you live, a [black-billed] magpie is a black and white bird with long tail feathers which looks a bit like a crow. When the sun shines on the magpie, its dark feathers are iridescent, appearing to be blue, purple and green all at once. The magpie doesn’t have a sweet, musical voice. It screeches and chases songbirds, even eating songbird eggs when opportunity presents itself. It flies behind cats, cawing loudly and snipping at their tails.
Around here, anyway, magpies are not well-liked. We have a few in our yard for a couple of reasons. They enjoy the suet I put out for other birds and they are extremely fond of the eggshells they find in our compost bin. Both are easy sources of protein. There are also quite a few tall trees in our neighbourhood which provide excellent shelter and nesting habitat. And so, for now, the magpies are here to stay.
Just yesterday, one magpie of a mating pair was injured. It lay in the grass struggling to lift its head while the other circled about, cawing and seemingly urging the other to stand, to fly.
I could feel the uninjured bird’s distress at the situation of its mate. The healthy bird was clearly agitated, quite frantic, and I thought “Not so different from us.”
There’s no feeling more frustrating than that feeling of helplessness and useless restlessness in the face of suffering – especially the suffering of someone we love. As I watched the magpies in this difficult circumstance, I recognized and understood their suffering as no different from my own.
I couldn’t watch nature take its course and I don’t know for sure if the injured magpie went on to live or to die. I looked away and closed the curtains in response to the stab of pain in my heart. It was silly, after all, to feel so deeply the pain of another – especially one so despised and at times so despicable. What did I need that for when I already have enough sorrow of my own?
It’s true that we cannot easily take on all the sorrows of the world, nor can we single-handedly cure all the injustices, illnesses and injuries. But the magpies made me consider that perhaps if I could just open my heart a bit wider to see and hold the suffering of others that I may be better equipped to deal with my own. If I can accept the magpies’ suffering – both the injury and the distress – then perhaps I can also better accept my own and that of all living creatures. With a more open heart, perhaps next time I won’t need to look away.
What's Most Important
Since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?
I hate grocery shopping so much. However, I knew I had to do it. There was no way around it anymore. Sometimes life just backs us into a grocery-shopping corner leaving us no way out but to go through it.
I drove into town, did the deed, and in the parking lot with a trunk full of food and supplies, I deliberated. Should I call my friends who live right around the corner and with whom I seldom get to visit, or should I head directly home and tackle all those other distasteful chores that await me?
A pressure on my brain and in my chest directed me to head back down that bare highway toward all the tasks I should do.
Moments later, I was helping my friend Ed fit little green pieces into his gigantic green jigsaw puzzle while Mary told us tales of Mexico. They talked about their grandkids, their community and hobbies, their memories and plans for the future. They fed me corn chowder and a grilled cheese sandwich. Two hours later, I got in my car and pointed it in the direction of home.
When I arrived, I was astounded to see that all those despicable jobs were still there! They hadn't gone anywhere! What had left, though, was the pressure on my brain and in my chest. Vanished. Evaporated. The heavy sense of duty and strain on my time had been replaced with an openness of mind and a lightness of heart.
My friends will die, and so will I. We don't know when, but we know it's going to happen. Today? In a month? Two decades from now? We can't be certain.
What I can be certain of is that I'd rather visit my dear friends over a puzzle, a coffee and a bowl of soup than over a headstone. The work will wait and when measured against love and friendship, it is not the most important thing. Not even close.
Daylight Saving Time: An Opportunity For Learning
Daylight Saving Time provides me with unique experiences I wouldn't otherwise have. For example, I get to explore whether or not the Polident tablet I usually drop into my night guard container will fizz in the same way when plopped into my cup of morning coffee. Also - and related - I get to sample just how tasty a mug of Polident-infused water is. Surprisingly refreshing. And my teeth are whiter now than I ever expected.
Speaking of teeth, eye moisturizer is almost as good as toothpaste, though I do prefer the minty flavour. But perhaps now the look of crows feet on my tongue appear diminished and I know my eyelids are minty fresh.
On most mornings, I fall into a polished routine that barely leaves room for anything new. Not today. Upon preparing my morning smoothie, I tossed the banana into the compost and blended the peel. Now that was a different flavour sensation! White flour is cheaper than vanilla-flavoured whey powder and apparently, nearly as effective.
Who knew that hairspray and body mist could be so easily interchangeable? When traveling, I'll never pack both again. I'll just flip a coin. And the versatility of pants! If there's no fly, you can wear them either way: seams out, seams in. I tried seams out today and the pants worked really well. Also, they provided a topic of conversation for my colleagues and were a source of amusement for my students. In short, my pants brightened everyone's day.
In the past, I loathed Daylight Saving Time. I didn't see the point of disrupting my sleep and waking schedule, and felt mildly resentful of the whole thing. This morning's opportunities for growth and learning have changed my mind. There are many lessons to be gleaned from this time-honoured and time-honouring tradition.
Waiting to Relax
"I can't wait to get home and finally relax!" My agitated mind complained as I worked frantically in my empty classroom preparing the next day's art project.
I perched on my swivel stool (the one on which my students love to spin given half a chance) at the low yellow table at the front of the room. Before me on that tabletop were spread open huge books of wallpaper samples. I was selecting and then cutting free the most colourful and interesting pages onto which we would trace hen and chick patterns. Next, we would cut those shapes out and paste them onto a construction paper farmyard of blue sky and green grass.
At the start, my mind was irritated, unsettled, convinced that it should be onto the next experience by now. This whole art preparation time was moving way too slowly for my impatient mind. Tired of my mind's restlessness, I asked myself, "Where is it that you'd rather be?"
In my chair or on the treadmill or at my home computer. Fair enough. I asked another question. "Won't we be there anyway, when this part of our day is complete?" Yes. Of course.
"Can you concede that there may be something to enjoy right here, right now, in this moment?" Not really.
"Nothing at all? Are you sure?" Well, maybe ...
Just like that, I relaxed a bit and my perspective shifted. It was as if my eyes were suddenly open. I felt the weight of the scissors in my hand and heard the neat snick, snick of their blades as they separated paper from spine.
I noticed the wallpaper's bright and subdued patterns, and appreciated their colours equally. Pale elephants on earth brown made me want to explore India, and the blue and red trains set in ovals made me want to travel that country by rail. My free hand moved over the surfaces of the samples, comparing their textures: rough, smooth, bumpy, and etched vinyl. Some of the paper was thin and durable while some was thick and spongy. One student had remarked about the scraps of wallpaper, "Ms. K., these smell like Canadian Tire." He was right. They did.
As it turned out, I didn't need to go home in order to relax after all. I just needed to pay attention to the pleasant task at hand and to be aware of what it could show me - if only I let it.
"Don't be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones will tend to take care of themselves."
The other day we received one of the heavy spring snowfalls the Canadian prairies are known for. Beneath the heavy snow a centimetre or two of water streamed and the snow on top was almost blue as it softened in above zero temperatures.
When I arrived home in the late afternoon I thought I'd quickly shovel the walks before heading into my cozy house. Once inside at the end of the day, it's hard to get back out again. The day was still warm and bright, a refreshing change from prolonged winter drear, making the prospect of a little outdoor work less daunting.
The wet snow covering the sidewalks was quickly scooped up and tossed onto the lawn area where it would continue to melt with a purpose. It was easy work with the sunshine cheering me on, warming my scalp and shoulders as I scooped.
"Nice to have that done." Then I remembered the concrete pad behind the garage, the one I'd driven over ten minutes before. It was blanketed in solid white before I set my tire tracks into it.
Always glowing with optimism, I thought, "No problem. I'll just shovel it quickly like I did the walks." I pressed the garage door opener button and strode out bravely and naively.
Holy back-breaking work, Batman! This snow in the alley was somehow deeper and wetter than the snow out front, and there was a ton more of it. I wasn't able to lift a full shovel load of this saturated stuff. Instead, I had to move it bit by half shovel bit. Slowly and deliberately. Methodically and patiently.
As I shoveled, I considered how this task was like determining to reach a goal. Any of my so called "big" achievements have really only been a series of very small achievements, beginning with getting up in the morning, drinking that first cup of coffee and dressing up to greet the day. All those small things - including the instructional setbacks - work together to get us where we're headed. Or not. There is no guarantee that the goal will be reached. We're only given the freedom to try.
As it turned out, I'd set out to clear the garage pad of snow and I did. Little by little. Slowly and surely. Half scoop by half scoop. Just like every goal is met.
I'm an Exorcist (In a Way)
Did you know that there used to be ghosts in Denby Jullsen, Hughenden until I got rid of them? Well, most of them. There's still a story that Norward Jullsen tells his brothers when they come by train to visit him in prison. Norward's is a ghost story that is contained, plot-relevant and way too good to leave out.
I loved the other ghosts! I admired their anger, their mystique, their tortured pasts. I knew I loved them too much to be impartial. So, as when we seek relationship advice about a new partner who makes our palms sweat and our hearts flutter, I sought advice from a clear-seeing, clear-reading friend about my beloved ghosts.
Just as I feared she might, she told me gently, "They're interesting, but they don't contribute to the plot." Sad but true.
Those lovely ghosts just haunted the edges of the Jullsens' story, distracting the reader and making noises that stole attention from decent dialogue and carefully described settings. With a tear in my eye and sorrow in my heart, I typed their names into the "find" box under edit, hunted them down and hit delete.
And folks, that's how I became an exorcist. Sort of.
Dolly Parton has always been an inspiration to me. Her work ethic, talent, softness and toughness impress me. Indeed, I am admittedly star struck.
Recently I was listening to Miss Dolly on a BBC Radio interview as she told a story I'd heard her tell before. Elvis Presley had wanted to record "I Will Always Love You" - Dolly Parton's best selling song. That would've been just fine by her, but then the Colonel stepped up and said that Elvis wouldn't record anything that they did not own half the rights to. Dolly told Elvis's manager no.
"The Colonel was just doing good business," she, in essence, told the interviewer. "And so was I." Dolly went on to share that she had always published her own music because she wanted full control.
Not long ago, I began negotiations with the final publisher still owning the rights to one of my books, and recently, I was granted those rights back. The publishers I've worked with have always been good to deal with, respectful and professional. When it comes right down to it, though, no one cares about my work as much as I do. It's not possible.
And so now I own all five of my works. This allows me to do what I want with my books: turn them all into e-books, reprint them, continue sequels into trilogies, sell them online and at events, or nothing at all. But it's my choice.
Am I worried that my efforts will fail? Sure. No one enjoys failure, but everyone has the chance to learn from it. I've got a feeling I've got a lot of this type of learning ahead of me. That's okay. I'm used to it as there's lots behind me, too. But at least I'll fully own responsibility for my failures and possible successes. There'll be no one else to blame. For me, that's a risk worth taking and a road worth paving.
Fortune Cookie Goals
I cracked open the fortune cookie and read: Nothing can keep you from reaching your goals.
Well...almost true. There is, of course, physical trauma. That's probably the one thing that can stop us from reaching our goals.
Oh, and emotional trauma, I suppose. Grief, heartbreak, depression. That sort of thing. It's settled then. The cookie didn't consider trauma, emotional or physical.
Or death. I can have prepared and planned to reach the smallest of goals - let's say, getting to work - and, on the way, my vehicle collides with a heavy truck. So much for getting to work or reaching any other loftier goals. Unless my goal was to collide with a heavy truck then mission accomplished!
Or unrequited love. We set a goal to make someone love us. What bravado! What optimism! Nothing can keep us from making someone love us except that person not loving us. Which brings me to other people.
The fortune cookie didn't think of how other people can keep us from reaching our goals - sometimes even in the happiest ways. You were going to move to another country to teach English, but then you met the love of your life as you were about to leave. You were going to enter a triathlon in the spring, but then in the fall you became pregnant with your first child.
Putting the needs of other people before ours can also topple our self-centered goals. You were going to go off to university to complete that Master's degree. Then your mother was diagnosed with cancer and you moved in to care for her. Your sister and brother-in-law were killed in an accident and you adopted their two children, your niece and nephew.
There are many circumstances in which a change in our goals can keep us from achieving the goals we set prior. So even new goals can keep us from reaching our former goals.
To recap: Nothing can keep you from reaching your goals except emotional and/or physical trauma, death, love, birth, illness, unselfishness and change. But that's all. I think.
Time? Weather? Roadblocks (both literal and metaphorical)?...
Goodbye, Old Friend
On a recent trip to Mexico, I lost my camera. It wasn't an expensive camera. We bought it using accumulated Airmiles points. In this sense, it was almost free. Its focus capabilities were lousy. It was a point and shoot, but I had to point and shoot very patiently as this little gadget consistently took its time in capturing images, often blurring and focusing in on the wrong subjects. To teenagers, the technology of my departed camera would be akin to that of a telegraph machine.
But to me that camera was dear. It came with me everywhere, witnessing weddings and family reunions, books signings and mountain drives. That little camera brought me photos of friends and their children and their pets. It came with us and a taxi driver to a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia where it kept for me images of sad angel monuments framed by branches heavy with hanging Spanish moss. It helped me to remember the beauty of the Arizona desert and the simplicity of spring's first crocuses.
I almost lost my camera a time or two before. Upon exiting the train onto a downtown Seattle LRT platform, a loud shout drew the attention of everyone. "Camera! Camera! Someone forgot a camera!"
Instantly, I thought, "Who is the crazed lunatic and what is he shouting about?" In the firing of a synapse, I realized that he was not a crazed lunatic but instead a helpful train employee, and that it was my camera case he held up above the crowd for all to see.
Thanks to that kind (and somewhat annoyed) train conductor, that camera accompanied us on our 4th of July evening exploration of some of the best watering holes the fine city of Seattle has to offer.
How did I lose my camera, you ask? Well, speaking of watering holes, we had just returned from one in a neighbouring village. There we had each enjoyed a lime margarita the size of my head. We got off the bus at the side of the highway and walked through the jungle, down to the resort. My husband wisely headed to our room for a nap while I made my slightly wobbly way down to the ocean's side where I love to lie and listen to the waves.
There on the beach a server from the bar/restaurant would come by periodically and offer me an additional lime margarita. I accepted a couple of beverages before remembering that I was to meet some friends at the pool. The last pictures my camera took were of the gawky seabirds that strutted their ungainly stuff over the rocks and sand along the shoreline, and the graceful ones that skimmed the ocean's rippled surface.
I still feel sad and sentimental about my old Airmiles camera. I know it won't mean anything to anyone else in this big world. It's probably in a dump now somewhere, discarded and forgotten.
I also feel a tad irresponsible. That camera had served me well, had been a good travel companion. Did it use too many batteries when the flash was needed? You bet. Did I drink too many margaritas and forget it on the beach? Yes, I did.On the way home, we bought a new camera. I've taken two pictures with it. Impressive! It has a stunningly sharp and quick focus, and a million pixels. But it's too soon for me to feel any joy at the wonders of the new camera. I will, I know. After all, it's great.
But how can making a new friend replace the memory of an old one and all the things we did together? It simply can't. Not really. Goodbye, old friend.
Camera Case Expectation
When I was in Mexico in April, I lost both my reliable old camera and its case. Upon returning to Canada I had the opportunity to replace both.
The camera replacement was easy. We simply stopped by the local Costco on the way home and purchased a point and shoot Canon Power Shot with Wi-Fi. It takes great pictures! Fast, almost prescient zoom, but I’ve yet to figure out how Wi-Fi plays into it. I think it has something to do with not needing a cord to connect the Power Shot to my PC. My husband suggested, “Why don’t you read the user’s manual?” He always makes me laugh. That’s why I married him.
Next we visited a Dollarama to see if we could find a similar case to the one left on the beach. We were fortunate enough to buy the first case, now MIA, for $2.00 at such a retail outlet. Sadly, the dollar store only carried tiny Lowepro cases for very tiny cameras – too small to accommodate the zoom lens on my brand-spanking new Canon.
A week following our return to the workaday world, an internet search for a ridiculously cute camera case proved fruitful. And a week following that search, the order arrived.
This cardboard box was something I couldn’t wait to receive in the mail. The case we’d ordered was both nostalgic and practical – like me. The brown leather, slightly distressed – also like me – hugged the camera and accommodated within its shape the zoom lens. Suddenly, that carton lay before me. I grabbed the scissors and ran an extended blade down the centre of the wide tape strip which held the two flaps secure.
I reached in and pulled out a black crushed velvet bag wrapped in plastic. My heart fell with an audible “plop.” This was not what I’d ordered! Why on earth would I order some cheap little drawstring pouch in which to carry my snazzy new camera? Then I felt something within the crushed velvet bag. My heart soared once more. As it turns out, the black velvet pouch was intended to dress up and protect the nostalgic and practical brown leather case that I had ordered.
My reaction to thinking I’d got what I hadn’t ordered made me consider how I react in life when I think I haven’t got what I want or must deserve. Life often presents me with new experiences wrapped in a couple layers. I peel off the first and feel disappointed. Often though, if I keep digging, keep experiencing, I find joy and fulfillment when I fully unwrap the situation. The trick is not to judge the situation too quickly or too soon, but to wait for it to be fully revealed.
This takes patience and time – as does reading the user’s manual!
The Right Side of the Ground
When I ask the old guys around here, “How’re you doing?” they often reply, “Well, I’m on the right side of the ground.” Meaning they’re not under it yet.
Mostly, I dismiss this kind of comment with a chuckle but today I understand their point of view. It’s not just a quip, a clever way of answering a standard query. It’s something more, something important.
Walking out of my workplace into Friday afternoon, I felt it. I noticed the breeze like I’d never experienced it before. I noticed subtle aromas, fuel and the earth thawing and the grasses sprouting. I felt the warmth of sunshine as spring reluctantly approached.
In my middlish age I spend some time looking back and some time counting down the time I might have left. To myself, in my head, I say, “I can’t believe how much time has passed!” and I feel surprised and a little sad. Next I contemplate, I wonder how much time is left?”
But for the last couple of days I’ve felt differently about it all. The bookends that intellectually and chronologically held the chapters of my life seem to be absent or at least way further apart. I feel free of the past, the time passed, and free of the future, how much time is ahead. For the last couple of days I have been right here, right now.
Time continues to move on whether or not I obsess about it, and I guess I’m just tired of thinking about it. Bored, really. For now, I’d rather notice that I’m on the right side of the ground. This mindset is refreshing and open, like rolling down the car window on a summer’s drive and letting in the world beyond that enclosed, insulating compartment.
I want to feel the breeze and the sun’s warmth. I want to smell the cookies baking and the lemon-scented furniture polish. How much time is left to me, this mortal being? I don’t know and I’ve concluded that as long as I’m alive, it doesn’t matter.
I’ll live while I’m alive and die when the time arrives. For now, I am alive, not dead. I can eat and drink and sleep and exercise. I can walk and run and stretch and watch television. I can visit with a neighbor, send an email, take a picture and read a book.
For now, for today, I’m on the right side of the ground.
The River’s Call
The other day I was on my way to a meeting. It was a long drive that took me across miles of countryside that was just breaking out into spring. The temperature was up, Canadian geese were huddled on ponds and all the snow had melted from even the densest brush and darkest shadow.
My documents were packed, my sunglasses were on and my insulated mug was full of green tea nestled beside me in the console. I appreciated the freedom to travel that morning and I was happy to attend my meeting. Until I came to the edge of the river valley, that is.
As my car descended the hill, I noticed that those tiny, fresh leaves had popped out on every tree, a light green halo over the woodland and against the solid blue sky. Suddenly, there was a hard tug on my heart. It took me a moment to recognize it as deep yearning. By that time my car was just crossing the narrow bridge over the narrow river. Its flow called me as I slowed to listen. “Come sit on my banks under these young leaves! What better things do you have to do than be with me? What’s your hurry? Where are you going?”
To my left there was an access road leading to a riverside park. It took all my strength to not make a turn into that park, stop my car and stay.
Of course, the river was right. On that spring morning that would never be exactly the same again, what was more important than stopping, breathing it in, letting it fill my soul and quiet my mind? Nothing. The call of the river was by far and away the most important thing.
I was reminded of a question: Since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is most important? Stacked up against my meeting in a dark room in a concrete building, the river had no competition. Spending time watching her waters and feeling the thawing earth beneath me was by far and away the most important thing.
And yet, I drove on. The reason I was there on that road through the river valley was my work. My wage was also the reason I have the sunglasses, the green tea and the car. Still, my heart aches for nature that always surrounds me here on the prairies and which I seldom experience close up. She’d offered to heal me that day if only I’d paused. I kept on driving and passed up the river’s gift. She’ll keep on flowing and I’ll keep on trudging, waiting to hear her invitation again.
The Best Mine Tour in the World
“Are we going die?” It was a serious question uttered softly by an 8-year-old child. Approximately 40 of us stood in the mine – the group divided in half on either side of our tour guide – while Mr. Bill Roberts regaled us with mining stories and prepared to execute a mining demonstration. The mood was somber, the crowd was quiet and steeling ourselves for the loud stuttering of the rock drill. The little boy picked up on the situation’s heaviness and thought it meant death.
It was quickly and gently explained to him that, no, no one was going to die. We were all just there to see how miners did their work, what tools they used and how. But that didn’t mean the heaviness lifted any. The mining demonstration was fascinating. I’ve been on several mine tours in the United States and Canada but have never seen the operation of mining equipment demonstrated in this way.
Bill Roberts is a gifted orator and storyteller. When he spoke of miners who had died or had been buried alive for a time, I teared up. Feeling a tad self-conscious, I glanced around the spacious, ventilated room where miners could wait for rescue if necessary. I’d be surprised if there was a dry eye in that cool, safe place. Bill told us that he remained in contact with a couple of the 33 Chilean miners who were buried alive in 2010 for 69 days. “They’re not doing so well.”
Mr. Roberts spoke of the unfathomable darkness of a mine and told us that when the lamp on his helmet went out, there was nothing to do but sit in the complete blackness and wait to be found. After listening to him speak and witnessing his skill with words, I was not surprised to discover that Bill Roberts has written a best-selling book: The Best Miners in the World: Stories from Canada’s Sullivan Mine (2004, Hardrock Publishing). The book is a compilation of mining stories as told by miners themselves, in their voices and in their own words. I bought my copy from the Sullivan Mine gift shop.
Besides the best mine tour I’ve ever experienced, Kimberley, British Columbia offered lots of other sights and tastes, comfortable accommodations, great food and local artwork. We stayed at the Kimberley Chateau, the former offices of Teck Cominco, the mining company which owned the Sullivan Mine before its closure in 2001. Our room was spacious with modern, well-kept furniture and a king size bed. Tea, coffee, cookies and tour information were available to all guests and we enjoyed ours while strolling through the 21 room hotel and admiring the local artwork on display there throughout the building.
Chef Bernard’s World Famous Restaurant lured us in off the street with strains of live music coming from its patio. We sampled some expertly prepared PEI mussels in a sweet coconut curry sauce and of course, enjoyed some of the schnitzel that this place is famous for. As we ate, the musician played his guitar and quizzed us on the songs’ composers. I was shy at first, but a couple frothy beverages did much to unveil my knowledge of songwriters. We left the place that evening full and happy.
Kimberley, B.C. is definitely a town worth exploring for a day with its good food, affordable accommodations and colourful mining history.