Lori Knutson

Author

Black Toner Cartridge

I wish I was the black toner cartridge in the office at the school in which I work. Why? Because each time I pick up a document from that printer, the tiny screen divulges, "Black cartridge is close to life."

I want to be close to life! Each time I retrieve a sheet of paper or two from the little printer, I am reminded of the fact that I spend a lot of my time distant from life.

What do I mean? Of course, I am alive. I recognize that, but much of my alive time is spent being distracted from the here and now - the place in which real life exists?

I am removed from life by thoughts, by memories, by fantasies, by worries and fears. My anticipation of the future steals my present. My past regrets rob me of the precious moment, the one right here. My wild mind keeps me away from experiencing that which is truly happening.

There I am on the red couch I love so much, a mug of lemon tea in my hand and a current book of ancient teachings on my coffee table. Outside the open window, sparrows, finches and a pair mourning doves enjoy their chance at the birdseed knocked flying from the feeder by an overly enthusiastic blue jay. High above, against the blue, there's a white streak being drawn across the sky. A plane full of people off to the Caribbean. Down the block, a child is learning to ride a bike and across the alley, a guy is building a huge birdhouse. This is activity. This is life held in the present moment.

There I am, sitting in the middle of this dance of life and I am worried. There's some small problem over which I would like some control and so I fret. Next I fantasize. Here's the solution! I can solve this problem somehow one day if...and in doing this, I miss the birds, the plane, the child on her bike and the industrious birdhouse-building neighbor. My tea grows cold and then, when tasted, is barely noticed. The book lay closed and the softness of the couch, disregarded.

The moment has passed and I move on to some mundane task which I don't appreciate, either, because my mind's not on it, anyway. On and on it goes.

Soon I will ask that black cartridge, "How did you get so close to life?" and perhaps I'll see this answer projected on that tiny screen. "I just stopped and lived."

Remember Vance and Coy?

Remember Vance and Coy? I know - me neither!

But you do remember watching the Dukes of Hazzard each week as a kid or with your kids, right? (Unless you're too young, but that's also good news!) So do I! That's why I was shocked to discover the long-forgotten existence of the on-screen blip that were Vance and Coy, the equally-hunky cousins of Bo and Luke Duke. This dreamboat pair, brunette and blond, replaced their character cousins during an apparent dispute between the stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat, and the TV show itself.

So briefly, very briefly, Vance and Coy made their appearance and then vanished just as quickly from the screen when Bo and Luke Duke returned. Perhaps the network or television producers thought that just any good old beautiful boys would do. But Vance and Coy didn't do. If they had done, I'd remember them. And so would you. But we don't.

As human beings - fickle creatures that we are - we know what we like. We'd all become attached to those young men racing about in that orange Dodge Charger and no one was going to pull the wool over our eyes by replacing them. As if we wouldn't notice!

And yet why did we care? As I've mentioned before, Vance and Coy were fine. Very fine, indeed. Their eyes were as twinkly, their hair just as full and their jeans just as tight. And yet...

I guess were creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We're not always that picky about accuracy. Remember how the General Lee's tires would squeal on those dirt back roads? That was awesome! And impossible. But darn it, we expected to see those two boys outrunning the law every week for our viewing pleasure.

In this life, there aren't many things we can count on remaining the same - and in the long run, there are none. But for that generation, my generation, Bo and Luke Duke were what we counted on - squealing tires and all.

Grave and Rut

The main difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.
- source unknown

On a Sunday evening a few weeks ago, I left the city of Calgary, Alberta later than usual for the long drive home. Usually I prefer to drive in the daylight with the sun's help to illuminate the icy roads and the deer-infested ditches. But there were things to do and people to see, and so the sun had already begun its rapid winter descent as the cityscape shrunk in the rearview mirror.

The Highway II traffic was heavy as expected, but after a few kilometres driven a few kilometres over the posted speed limit, a right turn guided my car off the autobahn to where the fading countryside opened up before me. Spectacular pink streaks, last-minute gifts from a sinking sun, illuminated frost laden branches of trees and bushes along the secondary roads.

And as that sleepy sun made her departure, a stunning ochre moon rose up just above the horizon line and unselfconsciously posed there a long time right where I could admire her finery before she changed her burnt-orange gown into a silver one and climbed higher into the sky.

When she was gone, I missed the company of the rusty orange moon. As if she knew I needed the comfort of distraction, an owl appeared atop the nearest power pole and stared down into the driver side of the car, her yellow eyes flashing. Wow.

All this would've been lost to me had I traveled those familiar rural highways in the familiar light of day. Instead, stepping out of my rut allowed me, for a few hours, to view the world in a whole new way. What a difference a shift in routine and perspective makes!

Runaway Christmas

My auntie called it a "runaway Christmas" and told me that she, too, had enjoyed this kind of getaway at least a few times in her life.

As the Christmas season drew nigh this year, there came with it a feeling of demand and expectation. Let me clarify right quick here that this was not demands or expectations from other people - this was all internal stuff. My own demands from myself, my own expectations of myself.

At first, I felt oppressed, smothered, encumbered. Then I took several deep breaths and stepped back for a wider view of the situation. Once I'd calmed down and gained perspective, it didn't take long to see the truth. I was the creator of this perception and so clearly it was within my power to change this perception, this way of looking at Christmas.

And so hastily we made arrangements to visit family and friends on either side of Christmas day, and then, just as hastily, made hotel reservations in Banff.

It was a winter visit to paradise shared with many others from all over the world. Some were celebrating Christmas while for others, their holy time had passed for the year or was not yet upon them. Others were secular folks, wanting to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, that white wonderland, seeking a mountain slope or a winter hiking trail. Whatever their reasons for being there in that mountain town, everyone seemed happy to be there in that place.

On Christmas Eve, church bells echoed up and down the bustling main street, and we attended a late night candlelight communion service at the Rundle United Church. People were skating and eating and drinking and singing carols all over the townsite. The churches and bars and restaurants were brimming with celebration. It was because I reframed my perception of Christmas that I was a part of the mountain merriment and set free from the expectation that had held my heart down.

Happy New Year!

Quibbling Over a Seed

Today I was watching the birds. (I can hear some of you now: "Not another bird post - kill me now!" Hang in there, though. I make a good point just a little farther on.)

The backyard was full of twittering birds as all three feeders were full of seed - a rare and blissful occurrence for our feathered friends. Closest to the house, two tiny sparrows sat cute and all fluffed-up in the cedar diamonds of the lattice that surrounds the deck. They were looking at each other with an intense expression that I mistook for mutual admiration. "Looks just like a Christmas card..."

Then quick as fluffy, feathered lightning, the sparrows lunged at each other and, mildly horrified, I realized that this was some kind of territorial seed dispute I was witnessing. "Stupid birds, bickering over something as tiny as a seed!"

But then I considered: Isn't that what we humans do all the time? Isn't that the definition of irritation? Someone does some small thing - gives us helpful, unwanted instructions; tells us a story with more details than any breathing person could possibly care about; compares some of their recent successes to our past failures. I'm I the only one whose heart is melting at remembering these special occasions?

But perhaps it's not all about us. It's possible that the Being Alive Kit just includes feeling (and causing!) irritation. Other beings aren't doing irritating things to us; they're simply doing them near us. And, know it or not, we're irritating them, as well.

Being aware of those around us sometimes means we'll want to quibble over a seed and get our feathers ruffled as we ruffle others'. Thankfully, we humans can choose not to quibble over something so small as a seed of irritation, a rock in our shoe, a pain in our posterior. It's easier written than done but every change has to start somewhere, and this old bird post is a good a place as any!

Hot Water Tank

Yesterday I noticed a little moisture around the base of the hot water tank in the basement. I kind of watch for this as I know that these tanks have a short life expectancy in this area of Alberta.

Not long after my discovery and a quick phone call, a polite man in heavy work boots was at the front door, the name of a plumbing company emblazoned on the side of the truck and a large rectangular cardboard box in the back. He was quick and efficient and within a very short time, I lived once again in a household with running hot water. Thanks, Plumbing Guy!

It was then that the real fun began. Apparently, the hot water tank had been leaking out against the wall where I couldn't detect it. The wall against and under which it had been gradually leaking separates the staircase from the mechanical room. Under the staircase were boxes and boxes of treasures that I'd been meaning to sort through for a long time. Now the perfect opportunity was upon me.

So this morning I got up and had some coffee to rev me up in order face the soggy boxes under the stairs. I headed downstairs, unlatched the cubby door and began pulling out its contents.

Wow. What an astonishing array of crap. Astounding, really. Don Williams cassette tapes, Grease on VHS, a Clairol footbath, a toilet plunger (I kept that), empty binders and old sheet music, a wrecked suitcase, and about 300 sealer jars. I wondered if I could special order an extremely localized natural disaster to just sweep through and destroy it all so that I could avoid the decision making process that lay ahead. "Got a mess? Call Tim's Tiny Tornados."

I started my task. It didn't take long to realize that everything but the plunger must go. So long Don - I'll see you on my MP3 player! Farewell binders, saturated notes, and decrepit suitcase. With one telephone call I found a gardening neighbour who was happy for the 300 jars. With each chuck and toss out, I felt my soul become lighter and lighter.

Why do we drag all this stuff along throughout life? What's the point of all this accumulation if many of our possession only become a burdens - and it seems they mostly do. What is it we're trying to hold on to? Is it a sense of identity? Clinging to the long dead past? The notion that we might need those Don Williams tapes one day? Life itself?

Who knows. We're a complicated bunch who just need to a leaky hot water tank once in awhile to remind us that life could be lighter and freer with less stuff in it.

Dying Butterfly

The other day, a child brought me a butterfly. He held out his hands and gently opened them to reveal a very cold butterfly indeed. The boy told me, "Ms. K., I found this butterfly." I could tell that he believed that I would know what to do with this delicate creature suspended somewhere between life and death - as if I know anything about life and death. But there he stood, waiting for an answer and, in a way, I was honoured that he sought it from me.

It was obvious that the butterfly was on its last legs and so I suggested a solution that would provide benefit to as many creatures as possible. "Would you like me to take it back outside and set it somewhere safe? Then the butterfly will fly away or will be food for a hungry bird who needs it." The student thought this was an acceptable idea and off he went to unpack his backpack as I headed out the front doors to find a sheltered spot in which to leave the butterfly.

Who ever knows the best course of action when faced with life's big questions, the ones dealing with life and death. Are there right or wrong answers? I kind of suspect that there aren't. That's why, in this case, I tried to look beyond the limited life span of the tiny, winged creature and into the larger world. If the boy and I had merrily tossed the butterfly to the classroom floor, stomped on it and tossed it into the garbage, what a waste it would have been!

The butterfly is likely dead by now and, I hope, has provided some fuel for a migratory journey. That, surely, is the best outcome. I think. But when it comes to the fact of mortality - every living thing's mortality - I don't feel very certain at all. I suppose all we can do in the face of death - our own and in general - is to accept it and live until we die with the aim of providing the most benefit as possible while we are on the earth.

Student Teacher

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?

Misty Mountains

Over those misty mountaintops,
Descending rain at foggy elevations.
Summits obscured, rusty red car train,
Mountaintops blurred.
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

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 clouds,
More rain,
More love to make them grow.

Empty Birdfeeders

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.

Snowman Surprise

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.

Shoveling Perseverance

"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."
~Dale Carnegie

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.