When you ask almost anybody how life is going, you’ll very often hear, “Oh, busy!” or “Just waiting for things to slow down a bit” or “I don’t know where the time goes!”
As I conduct research for the novel that I will slowly write, I’m reading accounts of the early Prairie pioneers, their struggles and their busyness. I loved this story of the evolution of clothes washing written by Leta Richardson Porter. Mrs. Porter was like the rest of us, hoping for the busyness to let up a bit. It never did.
“When the gas-powered washer came out, advertisements in every periodical showed the lady of the laundry sitting in a rocking chair doing embroidery, while the machine did all the work. The day came when I possessed one of those paragons. Sometimes I’d be near exhaustion from tramping the starter. In winter it might take a half hour to loosen a frozen-down window to accommodate the exhaust hose; it was so noisy that couldn’t hear the phone, nor even the battles among the young fry! It didn’t operate the wringer either. But it WAS a step up from hand-power and did the job more quickly. But somehow I never found time for the rocker – nor the embroidery.”
We’ve always been busy. Only the specific reasons for the busyness have changed, not the busyness itself. It seems that we humans have always been slightly over-occupied. Lots of times, the reason for frantic busyness is survival. Our ancestors worked long hours making enough money to make a living and with any extra, to make a fuller life and we do the same thing.
Our forebears broke land, plowed and sowed crops, raised children and livestock, and fed children and livestock. They chopped wood, stoked fires, prepared meals, baked bread daily, washed and sewed clothes, and hung those clothes to dry, hauled water and kept the house clean. When needed, they delivered babies and tended the sick and dying. They grew gardens, butchered pigs and chickens, gathered eggs and milked cows.
We spend hours fixated on phone and computer screens for both work and leisure. Computer technology, the very thing that in the past was going to free us in the future now absorbs time and energy as efficiently as Mrs. Porter’s gas washing machine. We drive for hours to buy groceries and clothing, and then we shop for hours. Parents shuttle their children ceaselessly between various activities and sip their caffeine-loaded coffee while enjoying some much needed adult time with other chauffeur parents until swimming or dance or hockey or soccer is done.
Time fills up. It always has and I suppose it always will. We fill it up. Human beings, in general, seem to avoid stillness. Not short-time stillness. We love that: a morning cup of coffee on the deck, a warm bath on a cold winter’s night, or quiet time to read and reflect. But soon, we’re back at it. We turn the TV on, check our email and throw in a load of laundry. We do this when the stillness threatens to make us really stop for a bit.
Will we ever be less busy or find that time promised to us by time-saving devices? I don’t know about you, but I own a ton of time-saving devices and yet I’m still pretty shy on time. So where did it go, this time that was saved? I filled it up with other things. Upon closer examination I see that maybe time is not the problem after all. It’s the way I use time, the way I choose to stuff it full to the point of bursting that is problematic. It’s the way that I avoid stillness that’s the problem.
I wish I could offer some sage advice here on how to stop, just stop for a while, how to find some peace in the busyness, how to choose when to say “no” to activity and franticness. But I’m in no position to dispense such advice. I do promise, however, that if I find a great store of that time that has been saved, I’ll let you know and I’ll share that time with you.
Maybe it’s because I have a short memory or perhaps it’s because I tend not to look back a whole lot, but every year I am surprised. By what, you ask? I am surprised by the miracle of placing a seed in the soil and having it become a sunflower, a peapod, a bright red beet. It’s amazing, beautiful and delicious.
All this planting, sprouting and growing makes me consider the odds against which any of this fruition occurs at all. A lot of circumstances had to come into being before anything could grow on this planet of ours. The sun had to be just the right distance from the Earth – not so close as to fry us and not so distant that we wouldn’t benefit from its warmth or light. That, right there, is a very improbable circumstance that unfolded in order that life could flourish here.
Dirt is another one. Rocks and minerals eroding, breaking down, ever so slowly over a time longer than I’m able to wrap my head around, leaving over much of the Earth’s surface rich, dark dirt. For some unfathomable (by me) reason, seeds that fall or are planted in this substance, just grow. They pop up and produce fruit and vegetables and more seeds so that the cycle can continue.
The plants that grow on our little rotating planet produce the oxygen which allows us to live and then use up the carbon dioxide which we produce and can’t use. I know, I know. This is sounding a bit like an elementary school Science lesson, but just because these are facts I’ve known for a long time, doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve my attention occasionally.
Having known these truths for all my life doesn’t make them less wondrous. Knowing of these miracles has just caused me to take them for granted and to leave them unacknowledged most of the time. My “knowing” has often caused me to miss out on the wonder of life. After all, what do I know at all regarding what makes any of this– my life, your life, the life of the planet–possible? As it turns out, the more I discover, the less I know.Then there’s water: oceans and lakes, rivers and streams, fresh water and salty water, both teeming with life and giving us life. How refreshing and arrogant it is to bath or shower in that which grants me survival and fills my tissues and courses through my veins. Water in me and water all around me. I can’t live without it and yet I take it so for granted.
Sun, water, soil– all in my garden and surprising me each August with tiny, orange tomatoes, juicy raspberries and more leaves on the young hazelnut tree. All of life’s mysteries and miracles are there in my garden. I can complain when none of the cucumber seeds I plant germinate or I can rejoice that my garden exists against all odds. How I see this world, this Earth, this life, is completely and finally up to me.
You Can’t Make Old Friends
This past week, I made the long drive on wide highways surrounded by parkland and fields of wheat and canola to where I lived for several years in northern Alberta. My first stop was a little city in which I’d taught school and was a columnist for the local newspaper. Although I moved from that community in 2002, whenever I return, I’m always very warmly welcomed and treated like a long, lost friend, a prodigal daughter.
I was treated to coffee, a relaxing hypnotherapy session, a couple suppers and lunch out in the countryside at a rural community’s old mercantile. I met some people, chatted with a longtime friend and sold some books at the local farmers’ market. That evening, as the descending prairie sun turned summer green fields to gold, I drove another hour further north. When I arrived, I was welcomed with wine, hors d’oeuvres, good conversation and a soft bed.
The next day, a former classmate of mine was hosting a graduation class reunion and I showed up a little early for a satisfying pre-visit with the folks who had stayed over at the host’s acreage the previous night. I heard about children and spouses, about jobs and operations, about those still living and about those who had passed on. We pawed through old yearbooks and shared videos and photographs. The several years that fell between this visit and the last didn’t matter, didn’t even seem to exist. We were together again under that big blue prairie sky.
Another classmate had arranged a school tour for the afternoon, and in the evening we gathered back at the acreage near the end of that long gravel road for drinks and supper. Then, sometime after supper, a boat ride on the river for the following day was offered to me. I gladly accepted the invitation, and the next afternoon, as the boat passed under the Dunvegan Bridge, I thought, “A lot of water has passed under this bridge.”
Same goes with my life. A lot of water has passed under this bridge, too. A lot of people have come and gone, a lot of experiences have arisen and then passed away, a lot of memories have been made and are still cherished.
While in the north country, I went to stay with folks who have known me all my life, my (not legally bound) in loco parentis, my parents in place of parents. They knew my parents, were close with my family and were there as we all changed and grew into who we are now. I’m honoured to remain a part of their lives after all these years, to laugh with them and cry and remember.
Before I left, there was one more visit that I needed to make. There are a few old friends who are no longer traveling this life’s road with me. My mother’s parents, my mother and her sister are all buried yet another hour’s drive north. So I borrowed a broom, picked up some flowers and made that melancholy journey over roads that used to choke me with dust when I was a child but that are now smooth and paved.
On her Blue Smoke album, released in 2013, Dolly Parton included a duet with Kenny Rogers called You Can’t Make Old Friends. I think for this sweet song to hit home, the listeners have to have a few years behind them. A common theme during my visit with everyone last week was the astonishing number of years that have passed and how long we have now known each other. Those years, that connection, added a richness, a deep flavour to present relationships that was pleasantly unexpected. It’s true. You can’t make old friends.
I Am Where I Am
Anyone else out there enjoy home buying and renovating shows on television? I am addicted to these shows and I especially like those series that incorporate the idea of living elsewhere, somewhere exotic, somewhere just plain different; stories of people traveling, falling in love with a place and then taking that big, brave risk to change their lives completely. That’s what I like to watch.
I love to dream about traveling, about being immersed in an unfamiliar culture, about experiencing food and wine I’ve never before tasted. These buying and fixing-up home shows fuel my dreams and give me something to think about during my quiet moments. My mind is filled with visions of the potential future in which I’d like to see myself someday – of me in Italy or Hawaii or Mexico or on Canada’s east coast.
It’s fun to daydream, but there’s a definite downside to all this dreaming: dissatisfaction. The daydreaming breeds discontentment with what is here and now, with my current reality. It’s impossible to want to be somewhere else and want to be where I am at the same time. The more time my mind spends craving another location, the less time it spends noticing and appreciating the present moment, my real life.
In the future, I may look back on the time I’m experiencing right now as “the good old days.” I’ll remember these days as the time when I was younger, healthier, and when many of the people I miss were still alive. In the future, I may wish with all my heart that I could go back to this very time, to talk once more to the people who are gone. I may miss my busy, fulfilling career and having the energy to teach young children. I might miss living in my current home, enjoying my garden and having great neighbours.
I do have a fantastic life here in the present moment. I have lots of friends, a job I enjoy, good health, a nice home and a nice husband. If I live long enough, this is definitely a time in my life that I will look back on fondly. What a waste it is not to savour the good things that I’m experiencing right now. What a waste to squander the precious present by dreaming about a nonexistent state of being.
I can’t promise that I’ll stop watching the home and travel programs that I enjoy so much. I will, however, aim to view them more as entertainment than as goals to be reached. And when I feel that strong pull toward a different life, I’ll move my thoughts back onto the sweet life I’m already living. Because, the truth is, I’m not in Italy or Hawaii or Mexico. I’m not even on Canada’s east coast.
I am where I am, and where I am is pretty darn good.
Today I’m in mourning. I’m mourning the fresh fruit and vegetables, the dewy morning grass, the towering sunflowers. I’m mourning time alone and time spent with friends. I’m mourning sweet, summer wine and long, golden-lit evenings. I’m mourning summer’s loss.
Perhaps it’s the cool, dull weather making my heartache – 9 degrees Celcius and rainy. I’m neither productive nor focused. I’m all over the place, doing a little of this, a little of that, and nothing much of anything. I’ve left and returned to this piece of writing five times now, and writing this still feels like walking through deep mud.
What’s going on with me? Every year summer leaves. That’s just how it goes. It’s a short season in this part of the world. I should know that. I do know that, but today this knowledge isn’t helping me any.
I had a great summer. I suppose if it had been a miserable summer I might not be experiencing this mild agony now, this longing for something not yet departed but on the verge of leaving.
For almost half of this summer I traveled and during those travels I visited in the most satisfying way with friends and family. I saw some old friends and through those experiences, felt like I’d made some new ones. When I wasn’t traveling, I was at home nurturing my garden, nurturing my writing and nurturing myself.
This summer, I think I may’ve become too attached to the season itself, allowed myself to get too used to the colour green spread out beneath cobalt blue. I forgot to build my immunity to falling leaves and falling temperatures. I forgot about the deep, white world that will cover the very spot where the sweetpeas are blooming now and where the raspberries already have had the good sense to start dying. Today, I am remembering all these inevitabilities for which I am sadly ill prepared.
If I can let go, though, and wave a fond farewell to summer, maybe then I’ll remember the sweetness of autumn: the comfort of routine, the orange of pumpkins and of mountain ash leaves, the soft yellow of harvested fields. I may even consider the white wrap of winter surrounding my cozy house, giving me permission to hibernate on a Saturday morning. Slowly, slowly spring will come again and thaw the frozen earth, the same earth into which I’ll drop the sweetpea seeds that soaked overnight in a bowl on the kitchen counter.
But today, in the rain and alone with my thoughts, I don’t want to let go.
Two years ago, I fell in love with a painting. It’s of prairie grain elevators gilded golden with early morning sun. The old wooden structures stand tall in a skiff of new-fallen snow. In the background the town is represented by familiar shadows of black and grey, the shapes of towns from my past.
It’s not just that the painting is beautiful or that it is prairie-themed which made me fall in love with this piece of art, although its beauty and its subject helped to win my heart. It’s the strong sense of memory that this depiction awakes in me that makes it special. I have seen that scene one hundred times; I’ve witnessed that sunrise lighting up the faded rust-red paint of a grain elevator, causing the whole side of the building to glow as if dipped in gold.
Just looking at the painting makes me feel the crunch of the first good snowfall beneath my brand-new-for-the-season winter boots. I can hear the soles of my boots squeak as I walk and feel the bite of the cold on my bare cheeks and on the tip of my nose. My forehead itches from the wool of my toque stretched tight, a little too small for me after being washed last spring. As I continue in the direction of the school, my fingertips are beginning to numb so that I can hardly feel through my bulky mitts the lunch kit handle I’m holding. Those grain elevators bring me back to a scene right out of my childhood.
About two years ago now, we were traveling through the British Columbia community of Fernie. In a downtown art shop, we saw some work by Edwin (Tex) Wiebe and decided to look this artist up online to see what other paintings he’d created. It was there, on Tex’s website, that I first saw the grain elevator painting.
In the two years between then and now, I often went back to the website and admired Tex’s grain elevators, the reds and oranges, the blue of the sky reflected in the blue of the snow. How I yearned for that painting!
Last July, we were driving through Fernie again and decided to stop and visit that little art shop on Fernie’s main street. Tex had lots of new artwork there, paintings of bears and moose and winter forests. Fun and colourful. We struck up a conversation with the proprietor about Tex Wiebe’s paintings.
“These new ones are great,” I told her, “But there’s one I’ve loved forever, the one of the grain elevators on his website.” So we all walked over to the computer in the corner and took a look at that painting. Stephanie, the shop’s owner, emailed Tex directly and told him that we wanted that painting. It needed a little touch up or two, but Tex said we could have it in six weeks or so.
During that first weekend in September, we drove the seven hours from home to Fernie through prairie rain and foothills snow and got that painting that I’ve loved for so long. After a lovely rainy long weekend during which we enjoyed visiting and good restaurants and relaxing hot tubs, we arrived back home. Before we took our suitcase from the trunk, we unwrapped the painting of my dreams and hung it on our living room wall.
Now, each time I look at this painting, I’m taken in an instant and for a moment to a place and a time which no longer exist. But in that moment and for an instant, I remember how lucky I am to have been there at all.
The Stars and the Moon to Gain
On a Sunday evening last week, I stood out on my front lawn with binoculars and my camera watching that beautiful, white moon grow slimmer and slimmer until, instead of fading away, she turned red before my eyes and camera lens. As I stood there shivering from wonder and from the night chill I thought, “Why don’t I look at the night sky more often?”
Then last Friday night a friend and I were enjoying a glass of wine on my front step. As we visited in the cool dark of evening, the stars twinkled above us against their inky purple backdrop. With sky right there and unobscured by ceiling and roof, our conversation grew softer, more intimate. It felt like our words now had the attention of the night sky, and so those syllables better be sweet and worth speaking.
After I bid her farewell, I asked my husband to go for a nighttime walk. Yes, I realized it was cool, but sometimes (rarely) I walk in 20 below temperatures. I reminded him gently that snow is just around the corner and that opportunities like this one are fleeting. The sky was blacker than it had been during my front step visit, and as we walked out of reach of the street lights’ glow, the sky grew darker and larger still.
We stopped for a moment along the railway tracks and under the spreading boughs of a row of old trees. We listened as the breeze moved the dying leaves, making them brush up against one another, to jostle and drift down to the asphalt. Autumn sounds. Halloween sounds, like the slow dance of skeletons. These sounds were precious, ones that I would’ve missed out on during time spent in front of the television.
It seems improbable, I know, but I think until that night when I saw it again, I had completely forgotten about the Milky Way! How sad. It’s worth considering that perhaps I’ve been spending way too many of my evenings in the basement on my elliptical trainer and not nearly enough out walking with the sky looking down on my progress, unhurried and refreshingly aimless. “Where are you going?” the moon might ask. I’d tell her, “Nowhere in particular.” The moon might smile and think, “How nice.”
The vastness of the night sky causes me to feel insignificant in the most comforting way. I’m fortunate to live in a village where there is very little light pollution to keep me from admiring the night sky. And yet, I spend very little time outside at night just enjoying the experience of night, the experience of being so small, a blonde bump on the earth’s surface. From the perspective of the stars, my problems are tiny and short-lived; my life, a breath; my existence, neither here nor there, but just maybe, in a way, everywhere.
Although I’m not one for resolving to act in any certain way, preferring to remain flexible, I think I’ll make a concerted effort to spend a bit more time under the stars and a little less under the glare of the pot lights recessed in my basement ceiling. This effort might just be worth it. After all, I’ve got nothing to lose, and the stars and the moon to gain.
Wow, we live in a noisy world! Even where I live, in the relative peace and quiet of a rural village, there’s enough noise to fill the silence. During the warmer months, there’re lawnmowers, weed whackers, and lawn tractors buzzing away as everyone tries to keep up with the growing grass. The sounds of hammering and circular saws cutting, coyotes yipping and cattle lowing are other summer sounds.
Then the snow falls and the sounds change a little. They get nearer. Where I live, there are always train whistles blowing accompanied by the steady thrum of wheels on rails. During the winter, suddenly it seems as if that train is now running up and down the sidewalk in front of my house. The train’s horn blast carries more easily through the crisp, clear winter air. The sound of trucks out on the highway become closer, as well, and I can almost feel those freighters moving across the foot of my bed in the dawn shadows.
20 years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed these sounds. 20 years ago, I craved a little background sound, some white noise, something to assuage the threat of silence. I used to fall asleep with the radio on. Now I would shoot a radio at close range for playing while I’m trying to sleep. Now that I’m older, instead of warding off quiet, I find myself craving it and seeking it out.
There’s just something so sweet about silence. It’s as if when I’m quiet, when the world’s quiet, I can see everything a little clearer. I can see the solutions to problems or, even better, I can see that there weren’t any problems after all. In the silence, my mind slows and my racing thoughts take a break from their running. The silence refreshes me like nothing else.
Unfortunately, my thoughts don’t always crave the quiet I yearn for. Sometimes when I find a corner of silence and settle down into it, those thoughts start talking louder and faster. It’s habit, I know, from all those years spent in trying to fill up silence with sound, with activity and with thoughts.
I need to sit in the stillness and reassure my thoughts, “Thank you for trying to help me rid myself of quiet. I appreciated your support in years past. Only now, I’ve changed. I actually want the quiet. You can help me out now, just in a different way. You be quiet, too.”
So let the mowers mow and the coyotes yip and the train whistles blow. I love where I live and I enjoy the sounds that make the place what it is. But give me times of silence as well, spaces in which I don’t have to think or decide or judge. Give me times of quiet rest to focus and to consider what really matters and what is just slowing me down. Then, when I return to sound, to the busyness, I will be refreshed and ready to take in all of this rich, noisy life.
Every once in a long while, a random act of love touches us. When this happens, we are thankful.
A long time ago, I was substitute teaching in a rural area of Alberta and had the unique opportunity to often sub in for teachers who served Hutterite colony schools. These school buildings were also the church, the hall and the place where children attended German school.
I enjoyed working on these colonies. Never sequestered to the little schoolhouse, I was asked to join the women for wonderfully nap-inducing lunches in the dining hall. Or if I chose to work through lunch (an age old teacher tradition), an obliging student brought lunch to me from the kitchen. At more than one colony, students and parents invited me to come see chickens, gardens and baby lambs. I felt very welcomed.
The children on Hutterite colonies are refreshingly curious. I think because I was so young then and looked near the same age as some of the older girls, I was asked about my mother. My mom had died three years before this. My grief was something I’d been ignoring. It would cry out for attention and I would smother it with a pillow or lock it in a closet or drown it in a well. But like the cat that came back, my grief consistently found its way home.
A surprised jolt shot through me at the question. Still, I answered simply, “My mother died.”
A little boy with big glasses and a serious face asked me, “How old was she?”
“She was 43. It happens that way sometimes.”
The boy shook his head slowly. “That is very young.”
“Yes, it is. But lots of people die younger than that.” At my feeble explanation of tragedy, he just looked at me sadly. I wonder now if my sorrow was more visible than I’d believed. Perhaps it was like I was wearing one of those tiny plastic Lone Ranger masks, trying to hide my feelings behind it while, directly behind me, lumbered a towering, weeping monster.
The school day went on and finally ended. The students left and I marked some of their assignments, and then packed up my teacher bag. I was retrieving my coat from the entrance and looked up when I heard the exterior door open. There stood my wise young friend with the big glasses. He held out a pie.
“My mother baked this for you because your mother died.”
Driving home from work the other day, I remembered this story and how that woman’s kindness touched me and how it’s stayed with me. That pie came from either the colony kitchen or from that mother’s own oven. I suspect that the dessert was not originally intended for me. I imagine that upon hearing my story brought home by that little old soul in black suspenders, a mother felt compassion for me and sent me their family’s sweet evening treat.
I remain deeply moved by this event, more now that I’m a lot older and a teeny bit wiser. The kind action of that student’s mother was sweet and sympathetic, and for the first time it seems, I felt like it was okay to grieve. I remember this as the moment that I removed the pillow, unlocked the closet, and fished my grief out from the depths of the well.
In the light of this stranger’s kindness, I finally felt that it was acceptable to grieve.
You’ve Got the Tape
We were in a grocery store other day and my husband picked up one of those long, narrow 12 packs of pop from the shelf. Immediately he noticed that the cardboard flaps on one end had come unglued. He slid the carton back on the metal shelf and asked the young man standing beside us, dressed entirely in black clothing, “Do you have any tape?”
The guy looked disinterested and didn’t answer my husband. This can be typical in a few places of commerce so my husband tried again. “Do you have any tape? This box is open at the back.”
Realizing that my husband was speaking to him, the young man looked over and said, “I don’t work here.”
We laughed and the running joke for the rest of the day was, “Do you have any tape?” Even as I write this, I feel laughter bubble up in my stomach.
The truth is that we often want from people what they don’t have to give. This stranger couldn’t help us. He didn’t work at the grocery store and he didn’t have any tape. Sometimes we feel angry or distressed or lonely. We expect someone we love to fix it, to have handy that emotional tape to wrap around our hearts. They don’t have it. We love them and they love us, but sadly they can’t mend what we perceive as broken, they can’t secure what’s become unglued.
We feel disappointed then, let down. But if our loved one tries to help then the disappointment is doubled and that disappointment runs the risk of boiling over into frustration. That’s no good either.
The best anyone can do is to love us and support us in healing ourselves. That “anyone” includes our own selves. The very best we can do is love and support ourselves in looking inward and finding those seeds of strength and understanding. Once located, those seeds need to be fertilized and watered. They have been there all along, but they may be lying on the surface of dusty, dry ground. We need to nurture them along. No one else can.
Only we have the tape.
Government Health Survey
I’d been playing telephone tag with the Canadian Government health survey people for 3 weeks when, finally, one evening they caught me at home and available to talk.
It had been a long day and I was exhausted. I was looking at the big picture of my life and feeling a bit discouraged. In short, I think I was feeling a little sorry for myself: feeling dread at the approach of winter, feeling that I’m aging and feeling that I was in a rut. I was happy for a good excuse to sit in my comfy chair and answer an extensive list of yes and no questions.
The interviewer on the other end of the line was kind, patient and had a pretty good sense of humour. She started off by asking if I suffer from any number of horrific diseases. As she listed them one by one and I replied “no” to each, I started feeling better. Next, she wanted to know about medications I was on. Again, a lengthy list, and again all my answers were “no.” That feeling of wellness just kept on rising.
Then with a very personal line of questioning, she caused me to fondly remember my first foray into physical romance. It’s been so long that I’d almost forgotten. How sweet to be reminded of those long-ago awkward intimacies even if by a complete stranger representing the Canadian Government.
Next, the interviewer asked about my diet and I felt a smug seed of self-satisfaction begin to grow as I answered her questions about my consumption deep-fried foods, red meat, leafy greens and colourful vegetables. That seed continued to swell as she asked about the frequency and duration of my typical weekly exercise. By the end of this segment, I wondered if I should be entering some sort of Iron Man competition. (I shouldn’t. I would die. Slowly and painfully and in front of spectators.)
I was then questioned about my ability to afford health and dental care. Did I ever not have access to medication because I couldn’t afford it? Do I put off visiting the dentist because I don’t have the money? Do I brush and floss regularly? How often do I visit the doctor and the dentist? How is my access to the health services I need? Now I was feeling just plain lucky.
She wanted to know if I ever worried about having enough money to buy food and I felt a tad selfish. There were those times, but they are so far behind me that I’d forgotten to consider all the folks for whom this is a daily concern.
By the time we were through and I’d hung up the phone, I saw the world through new and grateful eyes. Suddenly, I no longer saw myself as boring, old and tired but as healthy and wealthy and virtually exploding with good opportunities to live life well. I guess what they say is true: There’s nothing like a 40 minute Government of Canada telephone survey to give your heart a lift.
Today I’ll remember the sacrifices made by the long-dead and the still-living, those ever changed by the close-up experience of war. For them, it wasn’t a movie or a game. It wasn’t art and it wasn’t entertainment. I’ll try not to let my comfort lull me into forgetting the ravages of conflict and the fate of those who face it head on. Today I’ll remember their sacrifices.
Today I’ll remember the sacrifices of those who came before, my ancestors who made it possible for me to live as I live now. They worked, risked and went without so that I may have the peaceful life that I have now. They raised their kids in cramped quarters. There was no talk of too small a guest room or the utmost importance of stone countertops. Survival was their aim and today I’ll remember their sacrifices.
Today I’ll take some time to remember that in war, mothers lose children no matter where those children happened to be born. War is indiscriminate, unprejudiced. It doesn’t consider skin colour, religion, resources or geography. War doesn’t ponder the things we humans quarrel about. War does not worry about such small matters. But to we humans, pain is pain, sorrow is sorrow, and loss is loss. To the human heart, it all feels the same. It hurts.
Today I’ll remember to respect the fragility of peace, that hard-won state of being and living. I’ll do my best to consider how quickly, in a blink, in a cruel thought, in a sour encounter, peace can disappear. I’ll also remember to equally respect anger and hate as I’d respect a hungry bear entering my campsite. I’ll remind myself to not invite anger and hate in, but to remove myself lest I become consumed.
Today I’ll remember that peace is not easily attained and should not be taken for granted. I’ll try to foster peace within myself so that, in the long run, at least I might have that to give to the world. Peace is hard to grow and I’ve got a ways to go, so I better get going.
Christmas at Grandma's
This is my 10th Christmas season spent living in Grandma’s house. In March of 2005 – 9 years after her passing – I had the opportunity to buy this rundown little bungalow and make it new again.
My grandparents, my dad’s folks, built this place the year after I was born. They moved into town after selling their farm. Grandma lived here 28 years before she died and thanks to the loving people that cared for her, she was able to live here until her brief stay in hospital prior to her death.
I remember Christmases here surrounded by these same walls and by people I loved. On Christmas Eve, the tradition was for us kids to open one specially-selected gift. This gift was always the homemade pajamas that Grandma had spent the autumn sewing in the same basement where I now watch the flat screen TV from the height of my elliptical trainer.
This house isn’t large. It’s only about 900 hundred square feet, but in those days, you could cram a lot of overnight and supper guests into it. We weren’t as worried about impressing, but instead the emphasis was on being together all in one place and under one roof, this roof.
This house remains although some of the people are gone now from us. And like the people who remain, the house is older, a little creakier, but just as familiar. Together this house and I hold the memories of days and people past. As long as this house and I are here, so are they.
I’ve learned that a decade spent in any one place can grant a really clear picture of the impermanence of everything and everyone. Since coming to this community, I’ve grown to love its people and I’ve attended some of their funerals. I’ve shared meals and drinks and photos and chores. I’ve given gifts to new parents and then had the chance to teach those children who didn’t yet exist when I first arrived here.
From Grandma’s house, I’ve watched the years move by more closely, more clearly than I’m sure they would’ve moved by anywhere else. Here, the years are thick with memories, dripping with history and sweet with sentiment. To live on this ever moving continuum for this part of my life has been a gift. This Christmas season and after 10 years, this house in this place and time still feels like this best present I’ve ever received.
Love Them Anyway
This Christmas morning with a fresh skiff of snow on the ground and the temperature hovering right around minus 20 degrees, I’m remembering a picture book that I shared with my students prior to the Christmas break. The book is called Night Tree and it’s written by Eve Bunting. The story opens with a family of four heading out of town in their pickup truck to go find their Christmas tree. The assumption made by the reader upon finishing the first page or two is that the family is going out into the night, away from the town lights, to chop down a tree, put it in the truck box and head back home to decorate it.
The assumption is corrected when the family arrives at the woods on the edge of town and hops out of the pickup’s cab. Dad takes the lead with a flashlight, and as they enter the forest, the son calls out, “It’s still here!” He’s referring to the Night Tree, of course, the tree they’ve visited for years each holiday season. The family doesn’t cut it down to keep for themselves. Instead, they decorate it right where it stands.
They adorn the Night Tree with everything edible: strings of popcorn and dried cranberries; balls of millet and honey; tangerines, oranges and apples on strings. On the ground beneath the tree they scatter shelled nuts and sunflower seeds and dried apricots for enjoyment of the woodland creatures that don’t climb or fly so well. When the decorating’s done, Mom spreads a blanket near the tree and fills everyone’s mug with hot chocolate from the thermos she’s brought. Under the painted yellow moon and dark shadowy boughs, they sing Christmas carols before returning to their truck and driving back to town.
Night Tree is a story about generosity and about how generosity is as much a gift to us as it is to others. This family built a sweet tradition out of their generosity and kindness to the forest animals. Inspired by the story, I’ve been keeping our backyard birdfeeders topped to brimming most days this season. It reminds me that life is more of a struggle for most creatures on this planet than it is for me.
Still, beyond the birdfeeder, I find it difficult to be generous. Well, maybe that’s not it exactly. I find it difficult to know the best ways in which to be generous and I find it hard to sustain generosity. In my quiet moments and at this time of year, this is something I agonize over a bit. I wish the act of generosity was always as straightforward as filling the feeders, but to me generosity often feels darn complicated – especially when dealing with people. This is probably because we are a darn complicated lot.
It doesn’t take much for me to justify not being generous, to justify my selfishness. An unkind word from someone, a jibe, a criticism, or a curt dismissal can harden my heart instantly and make me think, “That person doesn’t deserve my generosity.” And even if my actions seem generous, my thoughts aren’t always. I’ll send a nice gift or card, but won’t show up on anyone’s doorstep, look them in the eye or listen to what they have to say. Or if I do show up and feel forced into social pleasantries, my posture is stiff, my smile is like cardboard and my heart is as hard as a walnut.
This is a difficult admission, but I feel safe making it because I know I’m not alone in this. This is the way we’re socially hardwired, us human beings. We want to protect ourselves and this is a useful and practical feature for survival and for evolution. Unfortunately, this need to armour and to protect can also keep us from healing relationships and loving with our whole hearts. It can keep us from being generous to those closest to us. In withholding that generosity, we’re also denying to ourselves.
I hope you weren’t expecting any answers from me by the end of this piece regarding generosity. I’ve no sage advice to offer, no deep words of wisdom to share. I know, for me, when generosity is easy and when it is very difficult. That’s all I know. I am able, however, to pass on these words from someone who’s walked the walk, Mother Teresa: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.” It’s something to aim for, but this Christmas, on this day, when I look into my own unreasonable, self-centered heart, I know I have a long way to go.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and health, peace and happiness in 2016.
Rocks & Weeds
"When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I came in the house to write this article because I needed a break from a really tedious chore. Now that it's full into springtime, I'm once again resuming the work of attempting to tame this yard once cared for and loved by my grandparents.
Let me share a little secret with you: I'm not half the gardener either of them were. This place will never be the backyard Eden they created with flowering shrubs, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, and consistently trimmed lawn. But it's important to me to try to bring back some of what was, to take it out of their past, out of my future and into the present.
This afternoon while I was supposed to be editing my novel (again) I was distracted. Initially, I was distracted by tea. I really wanted some raspberry tea. In the kitchen and waiting for the kettle to boil, I stood at the kitchen sink and looked out the window into the cloudless day.
There in the garden were flashes of colour that I wanted to capture. Yes, they were beautiful in that moment caught in warmth and sunlight and held there in perfection. But this wasn’t the main reason that I wanted to photograph them. The main reason was my Grandma, Emma Knutson.
I remember so many years ago now visiting her here in this place, then her home, now mine. She had a cane then that she would use when venturing out into her backyard. “Lori, let’s go out and look at my flowerbed,” she invited me.
Outside, Grandma showed me the elephant ear plant that she was nursing along – no more than a couple of wide leaves and a pink bloom. She was so pleased! Across the garden and close enough for us to catch its scent was an ornamental shrub, its slender branches covered in the sweetest smelling, bee-drawing flowers. Together, my dad’s mother and I stood in the sunshine and marveled at what came from the earth given patience and time.
This is my house now and as I write this, both that elephant ear plant and that ornamental shrub are in full flower. Both are big and healthy.
Not a Quitter!
Recently I heard someone exclaim, "I am NOT a quitter!"
I know what they were talking about. Of course, the speaker was referring to how once she began something, she did her very best to see it through. Determination. Stick-to-it-ness. These are excellent traits that enable us to begin a task and see it through to completion. There is success and satisfaction to be found in that, for sure.
But even as the words came from her lips, I thought about balance. We are all unavoidably and necessarily quitters. Sometimes we are tenacious and focused. Other times, we walk away and other times yet, in those precious and rare moments of stillness, we just are.
Each of us, if fortunate, quits being an infant in order to become a child. Then we quit being children and don the cloaks of young adulthood. On into adulthood some of us quit being single and then quit being married. We quit being virgins, we quit being childless, we quit one hobby and pick up a new hobby and then another.
We quit being young whether we like it or not. We quit having the stamina or sharp mind we once possessed and we start accepting all of this. And our acceptance is a good thing because it helps us not to fear the fact that we all quit living.
As humans, we are starters and quitters. Often, as one challenge in life is quit another sprouts freshly. Under certain circumstances, it can be the best course of action to quit: quit hating oneself, quit smoking, quit an abusive relationship. You see my point. Life is both quitting and beginning, and much, much more. What's important is having the wisdom to know when to hold on, when to let go and when to simply accept it all as our human journey.
While on vacation recently we visited the Portland Zoo. It was wildly hot out but the zoo grounds provided many shady locations beneath the spreading boughs of tall, tall trees.
As the asphalt squished beneath my shoes, I heard several zoo patrons comment as they wandered past the animal enclosures, "There're no animals out today. Must be too hot." And on they went to get some raspberry-blueberry shaved ice. Who could blame them? It's delicious!
At first, I shared their assumption. The weather was boiling and the enclosures were large, very wooded, quite shaded and so upon a glance no animal presence was apparent. I mean, the lions didn't slap on top hats, grab their canes and break into a tap dance routine for you. Now that would've been worth the price of admission!
Sometimes, though, I think this kind of show is what we expect. It's what we've become used to in our instant world where entertaining things happen at lightning speed. Arguably, we've begun to expect that they will. Remember when the internet was magical? Now it's routine and if it's slow, it's frustrating. This is not a societal criticism. It's just the way it's always been. The steam locomotive was magic. So were radios, televisions and microwaves. And when these magical inventions weren't functioning properly, frustration ensued.
I'm fortunate that everyday on my way back and forth to work, I get to drive by the cemetery. Every morning and sometimes in the afternoons, too, I try to remember to thank my ancestors that sleep silently there.
I thank those who have passed on for the opportunities I have now because of the risks they took and the work they did then. They immigrated, leaving behind family and friends. They raised big families on little money. They worked at jobs that were difficult. They got together and laughed hard and loved one another, although sometimes that was hard. They shared what they had and it's said that those tiny houses had elastic walls when the extended family gathered in one of them.
When I drive home tired I remember how they would have arrived home tired. How they, too, worked to better their life's circumstances and, by extension, how they bettered my own. I remember how, without their efforts, those long labouring days, I wouldn't be driving home from the good job I have to the comfortable home I own. I remember.
Thanking them also causes me to remember the fact of my own eventual (hopefully very eventual!) death. It sits in the passenger seat, whispering softly, closely, "Live today." I try to listen, to obey, to not get sucked into the past or into the future. I remember and I try.
Everyday on my way back and forth to work, I pass the cemetery, and I am blessed.
Huge Hand Ken
Being manipulated by a man never felt so good.
A little more than a year ago now I threw a 70th birthday party for my dad. For the first time, I'd created a huge power point presentation - more like a movie than a slideshow. As a result of the work I'd done on the computer for days straight prior to the occasion, I was kinda messed up. And stressed up, too, as I was the lady in charge of the event.
On the way to the birthday party, we were passing through a lovely resort town and decided to spend the night there. Noticing my pain and wanting to ease his own by soothing mine, my husband said, "Let me call around and try to book a massage for you."
When we arrived at the massage place, it was pretty much what I'd expected. From behind the counter we were pleasantly greeted by the woman who I immediately assumed would be delivering my massage treatment. She wore natural fibres and Birkenstocks, and smelled faintly of patchouli and recently burned incense. I liked this earth mother type and couldn't wait for her to lay her healing hands on me.
I filled out the requisite paperwork and she slid some slippers and a rather institutional-looking blue robe across the counter to me. She pointed me in the direction of the change room and the massage area, offhandedly telling my retreating back, "Ken will meet you there."
Ken?! Is this what the Earth Mother sometimes called herself? Like I often refer to myself in the third person as Ms. K? I seriously doubted it. Ken isn't even one of those names like Lou or Tracey or Lee that could belong to a man or a woman. Ken is just Ken. Understood in every case to be a man's name.
The Wool Sweater
"If you love a sweater, set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If it doesn't, it never was."
~ Lori Knutson
I have an old wool sweater, soft and warm, that means a lot to me. It came to me through a good friend who has an incredible knack for finding me the best clothes. Because of choices I made in the past, decisions made in haste, I nearly lost that sweater.
In order to simplify my move from Grande Prairie to Calgary, I gave away a lot of stuff I considered unnecessary - including the sweater. It's true that much of it was life's clutter, too many possessions and things I wasn't using. At that time, it made sense to pare down my life and lighten my load and, most of the time, I didn't miss those things I'd left behind.
Of course there’s nobody home and so I pull the mail out of the creaky tin box screwed right on to the trailer. Something from the bank, their phone bill and a fat red envelope from someone he doesn’t know. It says on it: You May Already Be A Winner. Yeah, right.
Roger meets me at the door. His tail quivering and yellow eyes fixed on me. He wants food. “Hey, Rog.” I scratch him behind the ears and he leans into it. Soon as I walk into the kitchen I see he’s crapped on the floor again. It’s what they do when they feel stress. When I feel stress, I drink beer. No one’s gotta clean my shit off the linoleum. Not yet, anyway. It’s hard to know what anyone might do. Never say never.
Bet Stan said “never” a time or two and now look what he’s done. Makes you think.
Lorraine’s family. I have to love her. But what a supreme pain in the ass. I wouldn’t tell this to anyone but Roger, but in a way I’m happy Stan did what he did.
Looking back I shoulda seen it coming. At that New Year’s Eve dance she was sure laying it on thick. Drunk and telling everyone how Stan can’t hold down a job, how she’s got to work full time to support him and her kid. He just drank his rye, staring hard into that plastic cup. She used to make me feel small like that when we were kids. She’s got a gift, alright.
“How you age is a matter of choice.”
The advertisement for a cosmetic laser clinic lays on the desk in front of me.
Along with the above statement, there’s a picture of a young-looking woman, her shoulder-length brown hair wet and slicked back. Across her shoulders lie spaghetti-style straps and the skin on her throat and upper chest is smooth. She may be 30 but I think we’re supposed to believe she’s 50 and just looks 30. Who can know?
She’s beautiful, that’s for sure, but from simply viewing the ad, we can’t know if this is because of her “choices”, because of her above-average genetic code, or because she’s 30 and not yet another wrinkled by time.
Sometimes I wish it were true, that how I age is a matter of choice. And, to some (limited) extent, it is. I exercise regularly, drink blended soy and fruit shakes, stay out of the sun, take vitamin and mineral supplements. These things undeniably slow the aging process, keep me a fit 35. I slather my skin with moisturizer containing an SPF of at least 15, walk almost everyday, and I’m careful to eat a balanced diet.
Still, there’s nothing I can do about the passage of time. Those little boxes on my calendar remind me of the swiftness of its passing. Even if I run my calendar, free from Kraft Canada, through a paper shredder, that next numbered rectangle will arrive in the form of a new day. Then another. No choice there.
For Christmas 2012, my auntie Jeannette gave me an amaryllis to enjoy over the season. Then I read somewhere that, after a cheerful summer spent in the garden, you could bring them inside and force them into dormancy. So I did.
Then, just before last Christmas 2013 I pulled that dried-up amaryllis bulb out of the consistently dark cold room and set it in the sun's rays by a window. 3 weeks later I commented to myself, "Time to throw this thing out - it's never gonna grow let alone bloom again!"
With the backyard compost bin as my intended destination I gripped the pot, ready to dump its contents. Suddenly and just in the nick of time, I spotted the tiniest shoot - a generous term - of green beginning to emerge from the sleepy bulb.
Hey! That amaryllis bulb is just like me! I too spent a cheerful and warm summer in the garden, drenched by the sun and the rain. And then I was forced into nearly complete darkness and cold for weeks. Yes. During those winter months I could've been fairly described as dormant. Anyone to see me might have wondered if I'd ever come to life again.
But as the days grow warmer and the sun woos the earth with longer light, the blood in my northern veins is melting. Like my amaryllis, it turns out that I have some life left in me yet after another long winter. So just bring me out of the dark and cold and prop me up near some natural light. I'll be just fine.
It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God only.
~ William Blake
I didn't expect to see her there that sunny, crisp afternoon, laying in the snow and looking pretty. From the blue-shadowed footprints deep in the even, undisturbed snow I could tell that her creator had way bigger feet than mine. Perhaps the angel-maker was a big teenager or a young-at-heart adult. Hard to tell.
Similarly, I cannot see everything about God in this God-formed world, but I can catch bright glimpses and sparks of the divine, of the creator. I can gain some insight, however small, into the spirit of God. For tiny moments, I appreciate God's creation and take it personally, as if the fall leaves or the sparkling snow or a friendly stray cat are intended as gifts for me.
Before I walked by, someone had taken the trouble and opportunity to lay down in the snow and in moving their arms and legs, make this lovely angel. And they'll probably never know - don't know how they could - that I sure did appreciate her beauty. It, too, felt like a gift left there for me.