On a day like today when the sky is leaden grey and dry snowflakes drift down, I look at my hands on the keyboard and I am grateful.
At the age of thirty-six, a lot younger than I am now, my mom was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called scleroderma. It’s a chronic connective tissue disease that hardens the skin. The symptoms can range from mild to severe. A patient can live well with mild symptoms, but my mom was not so fortunate. The disease killed her.
Although the disease is not thought to be directly inherited, some scientists believe that there could be a slight predisposition to scleroderma in families with a history of rheumatic diseases. Either way, more than one doctor has told me, “Your mother was unlucky and you are lucky.” I feel lucky. Very lucky.
There is no cure for scleroderma and no known cause. That being said, my mom grew up in northern Alberta in the rural area surrounding a hamlet with a population of about one hundred. While Mom was alive and suffering from this illness, two other people from that remote northern community were also diagnosed, one man older than mom and a young woman. The man died within months of his diagnosis. I was a teenager then and I remember that well. I don’t know if the woman is still alive.
Uncommon as it is, Mom developed the disease. Although scleroderma is not considered to be hereditary, Mom’s great-grandmother died young from “something like multiple sclerosis.” That’s how the old folks described it and I wonder at the coincidence. Did my mom’s great-grandma also succumb to this illness? I guess I’ll never know.
What I do know is that I am healthy. My hands are soft and flexible; their skin is not hard or waxy or covered in oozing ulcers. I can walk straight without pain, do forty-five minutes on the elliptical trainer, and I eat like a horse and sleep like a baby.
I haven’t stood before a panel of doctors and medical students while they studied me as if I were something in a petri dish. I don’t have a compromised immune system that granted me the gift of shingles and I’m not on dialysis. Last time they were checked, my internal organs were functioning perfectly, not hardening up like fish left to dry to the hot sun.
On a dreary day like today with winter not yet gone and spring still just a dream, it’s easy to think about the sad things. It’s easy to feel as grey as the sky above and as dead as the grass beneath the snow. But it only takes a moment to step out of my head and to shed my small, bleak thoughts. I remember the difficult lives of those I’ve loved and suddenly, my own life seems full of possibility and promise. With health and enough wealth, the world is mine to explore and experience. Appreciating this fact is the least I can do to honour those who didn’t have this same opportunity to taste and enjoy life.
Let Tears Water Love
Tragedy happens. It’s unavoidable by us fragile humans. Into all our lives, tragedy will come. The exception is when we are victims of tragedy ourselves even before we experience the tragedy of others. That’s how it goes.
So then what do we do with the reality of tragedy? How do we respond in the shocking face of it? Disbelief is where I started.
As I worked on my editing course, the phone on my desk rang. My friend gently told me what had happened. Back to him, I listed the names of the people who had died. I needed to make sure that I’d heard him correctly. He confirmed what I didn’t want to know and yet I didn’t quite believe it. I thanked my friend for personally sharing the events and I hung up the phone.
Next, the tears came. I laid my head down on my notepad and for a long time, I wept. My tears haven’t quite ended yet and I know I’m not alone in this. I share my sorrow with a large grieving community, many much closer and more painfully affected by the loss than me. For these folks, I ache.
But like puddles after the rain, tears eventually dry. Acceptance will set in and life will inexplicably go on. That’s what life does. And when this finally happens, is there a positive way to use tragedy? Can any good come of it? Can anything be salvaged?
I think so.
In the aftermath of tragedy we can vow to love one another more deeply. We can remember how tragedy can strike at any time in the form of a diagnosis, a sudden illness or an accident. We can use this understanding to more fully appreciate life and each other.
In the aftermath of tragedy, I would like to see beyond pettiness. When at a family get together someone makes a cruel joke and my skin prickles, I want to remember that the jokester is prone to tragedy. Our time together is brief. I want to forget the words or to just lighten up a little and share the humour.
Following tragedy, when someone makes a mean remark, I would like to see beyond the smallness of it and into the larger cause of it. I would like to see and understand the speaker’s pain. I would like to understand my own pain that allows such remarks to bug me. When someone aims a poisonous dart, I’d like to be able to comprehend the shortness of life and the vastness of space, and to shrink that weapon down to what it is: nearly nothing.
Bitterness, resentment and grudges can easily fill a heart. What are they when compared with tragedy? They are nothing and as nothing, they shouldn’t stand in the way of love and relationship. Tragedy can teach me this if I let it.
If I let it, tragedy can also teach me to respect and cherish life. Today’s sorrow can remind me to savour those precious moments that compose a life. Like the notes on a sheet of music, each one fits together to write the song never before heard. The truth of tragedy can, after a while and in time, sweeten the reality of life.
I see it already and all around me, the love that springs from tragedy. I see it in the way people have come together. I see it in acts of generosity and in gestures of support. Tragedy cuts us and scars us. Love is the only balm that can heal the wounds left by tragedy and I see that love in action.
Unavoidably, tragedy happens and that’s how it goes. But love remains, and it’s with us and alive in us now. I want tragedy to be the soft rain that waters the seeds of love and makes it grow in our hearts.
Apple Tree Regret
Regrets, I’ve had a few, and I’m going to share this one with you.
When I first bought this house over ten years ago, there was a crabapple tree in the backyard planted in about the centre of the current vegetable garden plot. This tree didn’t bear hard, bitter apples. These crabapples were quite large and very juicy, big and tasty enough for apple pies.
My now-deceased cat knew that those pies were delicious. When she was still young and fat, I switched her over to diet cat food. She lost weight and, as a result, she was able to leap up onto the counter with the ease of a winged feline. One day, I called our neighbours to invite them over for some freshly-baked pie. When I got off the phone, the cat was sitting in that still-warm pie and delicately nibbling the fluted crust that rimmed the pie plate. She nearly died that day.
The tree would bloom beautifully in the spring and then hum steadily for weeks as its sweet blossoms drew bees from far and wide. Then it would leaf out, nearly filling that rear garden spot as we watered and pruned it properly. With a little love, that tree spread out wide, wider than I would’ve imagined possible.
When I first purchased this house, I was devastated to find that most of the trees Grandma and Grandpa had planted in their little yard had succumbed to drought or disease. The mountain ash trees in the front yard survived along with the flourishing crabapple tree in the back. In the beginning, I nurtured that tree, encouraging it to grow and produce fruit. It responded positively to my attention and I was happy…for a while.
I like gardening and in this sheltered backyard, things like growing. Not only apple trees, but shrubs and flowers, vegetables and raspberries all appreciate the concentrated sunshine and consistent watering they receive here. The plants enjoy the soil and the warmth, and I enjoy the plants. As the apple tree grew and I continued to garden, I realized that our goals were conflicting, that pretty tree’s and mine. The crabapple tree branches were shady and full, and they were producing a ton of apples and housing a number of wasps. I wanted less shade and fewer apples on the ground and fewer wasps trying to kill me so that I could garden more successfully.
Finally one summer, I cut that apple tree down. It’s hard even to write this line. It feels like writing “I shot that dog” or “I drowned that kitten.” These are not things I feel good about doing and not things I’d be happy to admit to doing. I never did shoot a dog or drown a kitten, but I did remove that tree and I still feel pretty lousy about it.
I miss that tree. I miss its pink springtime blossoms. I miss the birds and many of the insects it attracted. I miss the shade and the privacy it afforded.
An older friend who lived in this neck of the woods for a long time looked at the empty spot where crabapple tree once stood and shook his head sadly. He told me, “It takes so long to grow a tree in this country.”
I know he’s right. Since then, we’ve planted a couple apples trees (in a different location) and a hazelnut tree. These trees were engineered by the University of Saskatchewan to grow quickly and produce well in this northern climate. In a few years, they will be beautiful.
For now, though, I live with the regret of having been so impetuous. I regret not looking into other solutions and not taking more time to make my decision. Perhaps an arborist could have moved the tree just a few metres. Maybe I could have kept its branches pruned closer and expanded my garden space into the lawn area.
But there’s no point in considering these options now. What’s done is done. The decision was made and the tree is gone. I think I’ve learned something, though, about the process of decision-making. Ideally and when possible, decisions should be made slowly and deliberately. Decisions should be left to blossom and produce their own fruit. They should be allowed to sit dormant for the winter and be revisited again in the longer days of spring. After all, it takes a long while to grow anything in this country and decisions should be allowed to take their time, too.
Here’s another slightly embarrassing story. This one is about not having enough money to pay for purchases at a checkout counter. It didn’t happen because I didn’t have $4.25 in my bank account; it happened because I was ill-prepared and a bit disorganized, but I’m doing what I can to remedy the disorganized part.
One thing I like about working and studying at home is having my own big desk. As a kid who wanted to be a writer, I imagined that an author should have a large work surface with lots of drawers. I imagined a shelf on which to keep my dictionaries, thesauruses and other reference texts.
Now I have a big desk, and I spend an awful lot of time right here learning to be an editor and writing whenever I can. It’s a good life we have, my big desk and me.
The other day, shortly after returning home from Mexico, I went shopping specifically for little plastic baskets to help organize my desk drawers. I’ve always wanted my desk drawers at home as well organized as my teacher desk drawers were in the classroom. “Finally,” I told myself, “I will accomplish this lifelong goal of having organized home office drawers!” (I’m not getting out much these days and the small things in life are quite thrilling.)
I marched confidently into the Dollar Store and right down the correct aisle. I had admired these baskets from afar and for a while, and so I knew exactly where they’d be, sitting there all colourful and ready to be filled on the bottom shelf. There were white ones and blue ones, rectangular ones and square ones. I had my eye on the lime green baskets, the long rectangular ones and the shorter, wider ones. I’d calculated that I would need 2 of each of these sizes and shapes of baskets.
Not being a slow, browsing kind of shopper, I grabbed the baskets and headed on up to the checkout counter. I greeted the clerk who was chatting with the customer in front of me, a woman I thought I recognized as a teacher. While I waited for their transaction to be complete, I opened up my wallet to find 4 American dollar bills, a 50 pesos bill and a handful of quarters from my own homeland.
I glanced at the debit machine hoping not to see the note that was taped to it: $5.00 minimum on debit transactions. No! At this point in the story, some people might have found something else to buy, something small and something they might need someday. Not me. I have a pretty bad allergy to buying things I don’t need and have discovered that the “someday” those things will be needed seldom rolls around.
Another good, sane option would have been to put 2 of the baskets back. They came in pairs and, really, I could’ve gotten quite a nice start in organizing my desk drawers with just 2 baskets. But I’d had my heart set on 4 for so long that I knew exactly what I would put in them. I wanted all 4.
So here’s what I did: I began frantically unloading and counting quarters on the counter. At the sound of quarters falling like light rain, the clerk and customer turned to see what I was doing. Sensing their attention on me, I looked up from my scattered coins. By way of explanation and trying to sound calm and relaxed, I said, “I don’t think I have enough money.”
The clerk rang up my purchase and immediately started counting my change, telling me gratefully, “I could really use these quarters!” I thought about how I hate being trapped in line behind people like me. So annoying.
The clerk shook her head as sadly as she would have if I’d shared news of my pet’s death. “You don’t have enough.”
The customer in line in front of me (Yes, she was still there for some reason.) asked the clerk, “How much is she short?”
“She needs 60 cents.” The woman handed over 2 quarters and a dime. I beamed gratefully and went home to organize my desk with 4 lime green baskets.
Before I dive right into this, I want to speak directly to my male readers. Gentlemen, I appreciate and respect you, and I’m so pleased that you choose to read what I write. I don’t usually write about gender-specific topics as I see most of our human conditions as equally endured or enjoyed by both sexes. That being said, there are some states as decreed by nature experienced only by one or the other gender. This post is about one of these states and—you guessed it—not one experienced by men.
You may read on if you like, my male friends. My literary door is always open to you. I predict your reading could end in one of two ways. You may squirm with embarrassment and blush like a schoolgirl or, potentially, you might emerge from the words at the end of this post thinking, “Well, that was enlightening if nothing else.” I don’t want to be responsible for imparting information you don’t want or, worse, for mentally scarring you for life.
I feel that now I’ve done my fair and right duty, guys. What you choose to do at this point in the post is entirely up to you and I will not judge you either way. If you want out of the boat, now’s the time to jump. (Isn’t that line also included in marriage ceremonies? It sounds familiar…)
For the past couple of years, once a month or so when Mother Nature would make her call, the pain was nearly unbearable, I couldn’t sleep and, for the first time in my life, I felt the urge to kill people. These were all problems. Between the excruciating pain and the insomnia, some days I found it very difficult to go to work and once I arrived there, disheveled and exhausted, I was constantly restraining my socially-unacceptable homicidal tendency.
It always takes me awhile to decide whether or not my suffering is worth bothering a doctor about. I don’t like to seem as though I’m complaining (thanks in part to my northern European heritage) or that I need someone else’s assistance in solving my problems.
I’m consistently surprised when visiting the doctor that he or she has a medical solution that I was completely unaware of. Not because I think I’m smarter but because I don’t easily trust others’ expertise, I never quite expect that they’ll know anything that I don’t. When they do, I’m pleasantly surprised. “What a good idea!” I’ll compliment the physician as his or her face visibly betrays annoyance. Honestly, I’m never trying to be condescending. I’m just genuinely happy that they know of a solution I never considered.
The doctor’s good idea this time was a prescription for a low-dose birth control pill for the monthly discomfort and the drive to commit murder. As for the insomnia, the prescription scrawled on the pad read, “Suck it up, buttercup.” It’s okay. These days before bed, I chug enough lemony Neo Citran to knock out a draft horse and call it a night. It’s over-the-counter self-medicating at its finest, and that’s how this buttercup rolls.
So I took my prescription to the pharmacy, handed it in and browsed around the store while my brand new birth control pills were being packaged up. Ten or so minutes later, I headed back on over to the back counter and told the pharmacist my name.
I was very glad to see that the male pharmacist was young and cute, probably about 26-years-old. (I’m in menopause, folks, not in the ground.) I beamed my brightest smile when he returned with the white paper bag that held my medication. He smiled back nervously, looking at me a bit like a sweet mouse might look at a hungry, albeit charming, cat.
But did he give me the bag? Oh, no he didn’t. I felt some alarm when, instead, he opened it up and showed me the contents. “Here it comes,” I thought. “He feels obligated by his job description to explain the purpose of the medication.”
Sure enough, the young man in the white coat smiled weakly and said, “This is a low-dose birth control pill for…” Right here was the world’s most awkward pause, followed by this: “Birth control…?”
Come on! Really, buddy? Was the question mark at the end of that statement really necessary? Well, that shattered any illusions I’d held about my youthful appearance. In a moment of terrifying clarity, I saw myself as the young pharmacist must have seen me: a very confused middle-aged woman trying to avoid magically or miraculously becoming pregnant. Not a sleek, hungry cat, after all. More like a crazy cat lady.
I glared and he blushed. I snatched the bag out of his unwrinkled hand, turned and walked as proudly as I could to the front counter to pay for the medication used for…birth control?
Anyway, the medication has been great. I’d actually say that it’s been life-changing. I am back to being my comfortable, easy-going self and gone is the strong need-to-murder sensation. I don’t miss it or the pain that held down my body and spirit. This form of mild hormone replacement therapy has been the menopausal ticket for me. It’s really eased my path during this stage of life. In fact, for this effectively-medicated buttercup, it’s been a surprisingly enjoyable stage so far.
One Bag Fits All
For our last trip to Mexico, I packed one small carry-on bag. I felt so light and free. It was fantastic and here’s how I did it just in case, for your next week-long vacation, you want to enjoy that same feeling of freedom from luggage.
First, I visited this informative website: http://www.catsa.gc.ca/complete-item-list. This site told me what is allowed in carry-on luggage and what is not, and how much of each allowed item each traveler can bring. It told me to pack my personal items in a one-litre, clear Ziploc bag and to pull that bag out of my luggage and set it in a tray when going through airport security. This was very useful information because, when I packed my stuff on the afternoon of the flight, I knew to leave my Ziploc bag right on top so I wouldn’t be digging around for it in the line-up at security. I felt so prepared and the security officials didn’t bat an eye at what I’d packed.
The next thing I did was to purchase tiny bottles created for packing in carry-on luggage. Into these I poured body spray, sunscreen, aloe gel and mouthwash. These are other items I bought in the travel section of the drugstore: a 43-gram hairspray, a 14-gram deodorant, and 2 packages of 7 facial cleansing cloths. Of course, I also tucked in one of those sample tubes of toothpaste the dentist always sends home with me.
What did I bring for clothes? Glad you asked! I brought 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts, one sundress, a swimsuit and a swimsuit cover-up which pulled double duty as a nightgown, a T-shirt, 2 tank tops, a foldable sunhat and a pair of sandals. I also brought a down-filled vest that can be rolled up and stuffed into its own small bag. This kept me warm back and forth from the Calgary airport and on the flights to and from Mexico. I also found room for my water-resistant camera and my sunglasses.
To save space in my luggage, I wore on the plane about half of the clothes I’d wear in Mexico. For the flight, I had on my light Skecher walking shoes, pants (Airport officials frown upon pants-less passengers.), a tank top, a T-shirt, a white button-up shirt and my down vest. I was cozy but not uncomfortable.
Everything I needed for a week surprisingly and easily fit into one carry-on bag. By the end of the trip, I realized that I could’ve survived without my red T-shirt, too, except that it kept me warmer on the airplane. I didn’t even bring a purse, just my wallet and passport placed into one of the bag’s exterior pockets for easy retrieval.
I did have lots of time to plan what to pack for this adventure when at other times, I’ve been pretty rushed. But now that I’ve successfully done this once, I’d definitely just pack one carry-on bag again.
spice It Up
If life tastes stale and if it’s possible for you to do it, I highly recommend making a complete career change at mid-life.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a job I really liked. I enjoyed the students and the people I worked with. I loved the creativity that teaching allowed me to express. Somedays, I’d go to school dressed as an old west sheriff and we’d call that Language Arts. Other times, I’d scoop up eggs that had been soaking in vinegar for days and hurl them to the floor. We called this Science class. Other times yet, the principal and I would haul 3 old wooden benches into my room, I’d don a long skirt and frilly blouse, and dig out the slates and chalk. When the students came back in after recess, we were all crammed into a make-believe Peruvian schoolhouse. We called that Social Studies.
I do miss it.
Besides the chances for creativity, I also miss the comfort of the 5-days-a- week routine I’d got so settled into. But there’s a fine line between an efficient routine and a daily grind. I hadn’t quite crossed that line but I knew I was approaching it. The days and years were blending into each other and time was evaporating, and that’s how I knew the time had come to make a change.
Here’s a quote by Ellen Glasgow that I read a while back: “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.” As time went on, it became harder to tell the difference between my created rut and a grave. I was feeling old and tired and depleted as the days flowed by and comfortable routine carved my rut deeper and deeper.
It’s only been weeks since I made the switch from teacher to student. These days, I walk and study and write. I take photographs and clean my house and cook. I feel 10 years younger and while I had all but lost my appetite for life, now I’m hungry for it. The road I’m on seems full of possibilities and opportunities when, not so long ago, my path was narrow and all too familiar. I was blind to chances and experiences, and too busy and stuffed full of tasks to have an appetite. I couldn’t pause to take a quick taste of life let alone savour and appreciate it.
It’s not always easy, this choice I’ve made. New learning with an older brain is hard and humbling. It’s also ridiculously rewarding.
Sitting down at the keyboard and squeezing out words I’ve wanted to write for so long is painful, awkward and slow. It’s as if the words are agoraphobic these days with all this space to fill, all this time in which to be written. They want to stay in my mind, it seems, and are afraid to come out, frightened by the brightness of the sun and the white emptiness of the screen. Still, I’m coaxing them out one by one, rejecting some and welcoming others. One word at a time, that’s how Stephen King does it.
I’m not typically an advice-giver. It’s not how I identify myself. This being said, if there’s something you want to do, something you are yearning to do, please take a chance and do it if you can. Time passes quickly and we all know the final destination whether we like to think about it or not.
My life feels brand new. Leaving my secure, well-paying job to train for a new career was both terrifying and worth the risk or at least it seems so today, in this moment. In this moment, I am satisfied with my decision. Do it if you can. If your life tastes stale, take the risk and spice it up.
Mexico: Land of Headboards, Convertibles & Second Chances
“Cocaine?” It was a soft voice, not quite a whisper coming from directly behind us where we waited at the bus stop. I looked around to see if there was anyone else more suitable at the bus stop to whom this question might be directed. Nope. It was just us, two middle-aged tourists and the question was repeated, “Cocaine?” followed up closely with the assurance, “It’s good cocaine.”
Like nice, law-abiding Canadians, we politely declined, “No gracias” and the vendor quietly slipped back around the corner of the building. Soon the bus pulled up to the curb and on we got.
Was I nervous or scared when offered the chance to purchase cocaine on a Puerto Vallarta cobblestone street? Not at all! The man was not menacing or mean or rude. As far as I could tell, he was pretty much just a guy, albeit a guy trying to move a little cocaine. If anything, I’m a bit flattered that he may have thought that I look edgy enough to live the rock and roll lifestyle. I wish! Probably, though, he just thought I looked like I’d have money to spend.
Let me add, in case this story sheds a bad light on this sparkling ocean-side city, that I’ve never before been approached in Mexico regarding an illegal drug purchase. This was my eighth visit. Usually, the aggressive timeshare salespeople are my concern, but during this vacation, we were never solicited once by vacation property salesman, and we toured around a lot. By the way, I have seen cocaine snorted off a vanity top in a ladies’ room at a bar right here in Canada and, somehow, that was more unnerving.
Our hotel at the Marina, two minutes from the Puerto Vallarta airport, was quaint, clean and very affordable to say the least. I was able to book that place for one week, including flights, for less than I would pay for our flights alone. In the morning, we were awakened from our slumber in our ground level room by a plaintive sound I miss very much: Meow!
We slid open the glass patio doors and there he stood, the furry moocher that made his living going from sliding glass door to sliding glass door requesting a snack. How cute he was, like a caramel-coloured tabby but with spots, also, like a wilder cousin might have. From a Marina convenience store, we bought three cans of tuna. On the day we fed him the last can on the patio, an American fellow from two doors down stepped out and called, “Here, puss, puss!” He saw us and asked, “Have you seen the cat? I’ve got something here for him.” That sweet moocher does all right at that hotel, I think.
Our hotel was great, but it does win a particular distinction. Our room had the gaudiest, strangest plaster headboards I’d ever seen! I think the objects on the decorative headboards were supposed to resemble seashells, but all I saw were winged breasts and feathers. Because of this detail this hotel wins my first ever World’s Ugliest Headboard Contest. I guess it would be difficult to chisel those suckers off the wall in each hotel room, but it would be well worth the effort. Heck, I’d even help during my next vacation there. In fact, I almost got started during this last trip, tempted to chip away like an escaping convict at the horribleness with my nail-clippers and a knife I “borrowed” from the restaurant…
It was a trip of second chances: second chances to visit beaches and towns I never thought I’d see again, chances to visit restaurants I thought I may never dine in again, and chances to meet up with wonderful people I thought I’d never meet again. There’s a vendor that works the beach at Punta de Mita, a young father with a gentle, generous nature. He sells gorgeous wooden carvings and ten years ago, we purchased a large grizzly bear from him. It’s still a piece of artwork I adore, but I’ve often regretted since that time not buying also the small wooden elephant he had for sale.
During our daytrip to Punta de Mita, we were fortunate to meet up with this guy again after so many years. He’s a friend of my uncle and aunt’s, and they had contacted him to see if he’d meet us. Lazaro sat down at our table and set in front of him the few wooden carvings he carried and there it was! My heart gave a leap of joy to see that tiny elephant standing there, all perfect with his trunk in the air. For the journey home, I wrapped him snuggly in my yellow sundress, and now he sits where I can see him right here on my desk.
While touring Bucerias, my uncle and aunt who know the people and the place well, suddenly took a sharp turn off the sidewalk and down into what used to be a modest underground parking lot for the hotel above. Now it’s an automotive restoration shop, hobby or business, I don’t know, but I’m guessing it’s a bit of both. The place smelled of varnish and grease and cigarette smoke. Greeting us from inside was a beer-drinking Canadian car-enthusiast.
He gladly toured us around the shop although I got the impression he didn’t even know my aunt and uncle after all. I was so glad to have ended up there for apparently no good reason. As we took a sharp right, he asked, “Remember that convertible from Grease?” and he gestured to a worn, rusted but definitely salvageable 1946 Ford coupe, his next big project. Today, while researching this piece, I found a great video regarding the abandonment and eventual reclaiming and restoration of the original car, the Greased Lightning convertible. If you love cars, you’ll love this car story available on Youtube at https://youtu.be/vlV_MeYGP_4.
It was a wonderful trip and I’ve got a hundred more stories to tell. I just hope this old typewriter ribbon doesn’t run out of ink before I’m done. ¡Hasta luego!
It seems that all my life I’ve been afraid of something. When I graduated from high school, I was petrified at the thought of going to university, of attending classes and of living in a large city. It turned out all right, though, coming out of the experience with a couple degrees that have served me really well. My English/Philosophy degree was fun to earn and helps me in my work as a writer and in my hobby of thinking about things. My Education degree has provided me with the accreditation I needed to do satisfying, meaningful work for many years. Sometimes getting a good education is the best thing you can do.
As an adult in my 20s and early 30s, I found myself frozen with fear at the idea of leaving very difficult relationships, of taking back my name and leaving my stuff and just walking away. But I did it anyway, once with no money and no place to go. Still, I broke free and ran, and I’m still running today: running my own life, making my own decisions and taking the path that I choose. Sometimes running is the best thing you can do.
I was terrified to move from my secure northern city where I was well-employed as a teacher and newspaper columnist. I was terrified to hand in that resignation letter and to rent that U-Haul truck and to take that leap into the unknown. I was terrified to live alone near the downtown core of an unfamiliar city and terrified to get a job there. Of course, everything worked out just fine when I pushed my own boundaries and challenged my preconceived view of what’s possible in this life. Turns out, there are 1000 adventures waiting if we’re willing to go there. Sometimes moving is the best thing you can do.
My next big fear came with the opportunity to buy Grandma’s house in a village far away. It would mean moving (again!) and finding work and fixing up the wreck her house had become. What if the house was beyond repair or I never made the money needed to make the necessary repairs? Challenges came at me all in one, big bunch, like a charging herd of challenges. But I mowed (scythed) the lawn, painted the walls and installed wood flooring. I got a job substitute teaching and another one as a stand-in preacher every second Sunday. Now this is the happiest home I’ve ever had. Sometimes embracing your past is the best thing you can do.
Right now, I’m in the grips of my newest fear. I’ve left my teaching career (for now) to return to school and (hopefully) establish a new career as an editor. A whole bunch of new things to fear came along with this latest change. I’m afraid to let go of my secure job, a vocation I’ve loved for a long time. I’m afraid to fail, afraid that I can’t successfully complete my coursework or set up a business. But sometimes feeling afraid and acting in spite of the fear is the best thing you can do.
Resolve If You Want To
I don’t bother with New Year’s resolutions. There are so many wonderful and varied ways to set myself up for failure that I don’t need to add New Year’s resolutions to the pile.
Perhaps some have benefited from New Year’s resolutions. Maybe these made-to-self promises have allowed others to set and achieve goals that were otherwise out of reach. I haven’t met these people, however. Instead, I’m acquainted with the circle of folks who are kicking themselves in the butt because we couldn’t adhere to the resolutions we’d made. These are the people I know and to whom I can best relate.
The disillusioned and disappointed are familiar to me. Those who vowed to lose ten pounds and gained five, those who use our exercise equipment as a place to hang and dry laundry, those who stopped drinking after midnight on January first and got back on that old alcohol horse around seven pm on January third. These are the people I understand. These are the ones I call friends.
Not that I’m in any way against those who succeed in making and sticking to New Year’s resolutions. I’m not against them or elves or the Easter Bunny. I’m sure if I met any of these, we’d get along just fine. So far, though, I haven’t had the opportunity to make these acquaintances.
To resolve in this case means to decide firmly on a course of action. This is just dandy except that factors all around us and that affect us are in a constant state of flux. Nothing stays the same, and there’s a whole ton of things we can’t control or predict that alter our direction. We can decide as firmly as we like on a course of action, but we cannot control the winds or the waves. We cannot control the rains or the lightning. We cannot control when illness and accidents will knock on our doors.
To resolve also means to fix or to find a solution to a problem. But as human beings, we aren’t problems to be fixed or solved; we are meant to be. That’s the point of our existence, not some imagined and ethereal state of perfection. We are meant to live, to experience and to discover. We are meant to change, to learn, to grow.
Sure, we can head in a direction, plot a course. Sometimes we’ll get to our destination and sometimes we’ll thank our lucky stars that we didn’t end up where we were headed. Sometimes our road will be paved and other times it’ll be rocky and rough. Sometimes the road will seem impassable and still other times we’ll wonder where the road went. “It was here a minute ago…”
Don’t let me stop you. If making a New Year’s resolution motivates you or lifts your spirits or gives you a little something to look forward to, then go ahead. Before you make a promise to yourself, promise me this: that you will forgive yourself when the winds of change shift your direction and when the road becomes impassable. Promise me that you’ll remember your ever-changing nature and that you’ll try to accept your humanness. Tell me that you won’t let today’s fresh opportunity pass you by because of a rusty old resolution.
Resolve if you want to, but before any resolution for improvement is made, consider that maybe you are just fine the way you are.
Learning to Receive
I don’t know if it’s better to give than to receive, but this Christmas I learned beyond a doubt which one is more difficult.
The thing I enjoy most about the Christmas season is the opportunity to give. I love finding just the right gifts for people, creating photo cards on Shutterfly and writing silly, touching Christmas letters. Giving is awesome! It opens my heart to others, making me feel connected and loved. But I’m not always generous.
This Christmas I acted on the selfish decision to leave my job as an elementary school teacher in order to pursue another career. I want to do what I want to do. I want to grab onto passing opportunities and let them take me somewhere else. By definition, that is selfish. It’s all about this self and doing what is right for her, right now.
By the very nature of my work as a teacher, most of my professional choices affect a lot of people, as certainly this choice did. I am painfully aware of this fact. You know what’s made it the best and hardest experience simultaneously? Upon announcing my self-centered decision this sparkling holiday season, everyone has been so darn kind and generous to me!
Through their many acts of generosity, parents, students, colleagues and co-workers, friends, neighbours and family have taught me that I’m much more comfortable giving than receiving.
I was horrified to discover that following all the work and performance anxiety of our Christmas concert, the school staff wanted to host a party for me at 9:00 at night. It wasn’t just a simple, casual affair, either. There were gifts and creative photo opportunities, games and delicious food. My co-workers had spent a great deal of time and effort to show their appreciation of me – and all at the close of one of our longest, busiest school days.
The Sunday afternoon following my announcement, the front doorbell rang and there stood a mom and daughter with trays of baking, a jar of jelly and a heartfelt card. When they left, I cried. And I cried again when opening the cards and gifts from parents and students, expressions of their encouragement and support and gratitude. People have extended warm invitations for me to come and visit now that I’m finished work. It’s wonderful and difficult to be shown so much love. Indeed, it was (and is still) overwhelming.
I haven’t yet cooked for anyone else this holiday season. There have been all sorts of dinner invitations accompanied by chances to play games, drink wine and eat fine Scandinavian food. I’ve been riding the tide of others’ generosity and feeling pretty uncomfortable with it all.
This Christmas has provided me an excellent opportunity to learn a little more about myself, to discover the boundaries of my comfort zone and to push those boundaries just a bit. While giving opens my heart in a warm, gentle way, receiving has cracked my heart open and pried the pieces apart when my heart resisted. The receiving revealed and then touched that soft spot at my heart’s core, making me cry.
My heart protested all this giving. “I don’t deserve it!” it yelled. “It’s my choice to leave my work and I am fully capable of cooking for family and friends!” My heart tried to close up in response to all the gifts and generous overtures. It tried to convince itself of this being’s unworthiness.
Yes, I don’t know if it’s better to give than to receive, but this holiday season I sure learned which is more difficult for me.
Middle of the Night
I’m up in the middle of the night again. Usually when I’m awakened by the same old fears or sorrows, I’m too physically groggy or mentally foggy to even consider writing. Tonight, though, or this morning, my keystrokes aren’t perfect, but my mind is as sharp as a tack, almost annoyingly so.
What is it with the middle of the night that prods us awake with thoughts that rarely ever show themselves during the light of day? Many times, I’m jolted out of peaceful sleep by concepts that lie dormant in the daylight hours, ideas that stay out of sight of my mind’s eye while I’m fully conscious and going about my life.
Deep self-doubt and unpleasant reminders of my impending mortality crouch down low together behind the mundane items on my daily to-do list. Sharp, small regrets hide under the couch cushions and bitter memories cower at the back of the cupboards where it’s dark all day. They wait in their hiding places for the middle of the night to arrive.
When 3:00 in the morning comes, I wake up and my heartrate speeds up. Then I remember the apple tree I regret cutting down, the friends and family I didn’t stick up for, the people I’ve betrayed. I doubt the decisions I’ve made and the paths I’ve traveled. Poison fills my stomach, and I toss and turn, trying in vain to sleep once more.
What is it about the middle of the night that makes me question everything, that shakes the foundations of my perceived being, that rains fear of death over me like a cold, dark cloud? How much time is left to me? How will I die? When will I die? Have I made the very best use of my time? What have I given and what have I sold?
I think about the risks I haven’t taken, about the people I haven’t loved and about those I could’ve benefited had I tried. I lie so mentally tortured in my bed while visions of missed opportunities dance in my head.
What is it about the middle of the night that absolutely convinces me for moments that dawn will never break, that I’ll be stuck in this anxious purgatory forever? At that time of night what is it that makes me feel caged and frightened? What is it that makes me see the swirling enormity of the cosmos that surrounds me, that makes me realize the tiny, tiny place I hold in it?
Then like sweet medicine in a blush-pink bottle, the light comes into the sky and my full day begins its steady rhythm of too-much-to-do-to-be-thinking. The drug of work sedates my busy mind, eases its pain and causes me to forget the limits of my time and all the other things I could be doing with my life. I stay on this comfortable, unthinking ride throughout the day, rushing about with my uncertainties calmed and my questions silenced. I dash about not considering others or trees or mortality, and I feel somewhat relaxed in this state…until the middle of the night arrives again.
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 with treacherous road conditions that cause 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, winter is brand-spanking 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 didn’t seem 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 gauzy 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 dreaded guest who stays too long. It all has to do with how I choose to see it and what I choose to do with it.
When it comes right down to it, no matter what anyone does to us, we’re in control of our own feelings and mostly in control of our actions. Recently I was reminded of a time several years ago when I allowed someone to treat me horribly and I, in return, did the same. For a long time, I felt angry with myself about this, but now, I discover, I’m done being angry with anyone over that whole disaster.
At the time, I was newly out of a comfortable relationship and living alone. I was planning to leave my teaching position and move to a different city a lot further south. While I looked forward to that adventure, the prospect of it was also terrifying as big life changes often are. I guess I was looking for a distraction from my fear. I found a distraction, all right. It just goes to show that we should always be cautious about what we seek because we might find it.
It was the kind of relationship I’d never had before and not had since because, usually, I’m not bat-crap crazy. Back then and for a bit, I must’ve been because that’s the only explanation for my behaviour. It was an on-again, off-again kind of fiasco, rife with mind games and hurtful words and searing actions. I felt very small, and my own actions were mean and small. It’s embarrassing to think about now, but I think it’s a state most of us have experienced, so I don’t mind sharing. All of this mess happened years ago in another time and in another place.
Being an optimist and a people-lover, it’s hard for me to face the fact that there are always people in certain circumstances who will use others to benefit themselves. It’s even harder to face the fact that I have sometimes been one of those people.
Saints excluded, I think that to a greater or lesser degree, this element of self-preservation exists within most of us human beings. It’s just the way we’re wired and for evolutionary purposes, it’s probably come in really handy, this selfishness. It allowed us to survive and for our lineage to thrive. Fair enough in the jungle and in the caves, and I’d like to believe we can rise above that base instinct now and aim for something kinder, more beneficial to the entire species.
I admit that I was no innocent bystander in this craziness, no halo-draped angel. Nope, I was fully-engaged and I take responsibility for allowing the destructiveness to continue for as long as it did. I could have walked away any time. Finally, I did.
I had the opportunity to re-engage that person from so long ago. While I wish him health and happiness, I’m smarter now. When I saw it approaching, the wisdom I’ve acquired in the years between now and then told me to leap off the tracks and just let that train speed on by.
Wisdom also told me not to place dynamite on the tracks or to throw eggs at the passing cars. There’s no point. What good are they, those little actions that serve only to shrink and harden my heart? After all, it was a small, hard heart that got me into that situation and it’s a bigger, more open heart that’s keeping me out.
I’ve never been so pleased to be a healthy hypochondriac! I just returned from my doctor’s office where she told me, “Your Holter monitor results are normal. The monitor registered a number of irregular beats, strange beats, but they’re not the kind we look for. They’re nothing we worry about.”
So all the blooping and blurping and stuttering that my heart does on a regular basis isn’t disease, it’s personality, a way to stand out from the regularly beating hearts of the world and tell them, “I beat to my own rhythm. I’m bored by a regular heartbeat. I gotta jazz it up. I just gotta be me.”
I feel like I am one big sigh of relief. I had prepared myself for a heart procedure or for the prospect of heart medication for the rest of my life. The idea of either of these outcomes felt like a backpack that I was willing to shoulder. It was okay with me to be on medication or to undergo a procedure. Both of these are pretty typical in my family and so I was ready.
I was ready and now I’m light! I feel strong and relieved and I feel 10 years younger all because someone told me that my heart’s just fine. Nothing’s changed. My little old heart has been beating its strange, healthy beat all this time and it continues. Only now I know that its irregularities are a part of what makes me who I am, what life and genetics have given to me.
My experience today in that doctor’s office made me feel so grateful for my good health. It’s easy to forget as I move through life at an often semi-frantic pace, not stopping to eat or rest, that the ability to walk and move and talk and work is a gift. Good health is not guaranteed and yet I take it so for granted. When I’m tired, I get frustrated and accuse my body of letting me down. “Come on! Hungry? Tired? We’ve still got a ton to do! Keep going!”
This might be a good time for me to pause and consider who’s letting whom down. My good heart which rattles and shakes when I over-pressurize it is merely acting as the flashing warning light on my system’s dashboard. It’s not trying to kill me or slow me down or keep me from achieving my pointless goals. My good heart has been trying to save me all along. It’s been trying to save me from myself.
Heart, you are terrific and resilient. You’ve been broken more than once, abused by illness and stress, you’ve been lonely and grief-filled and, too many times, way too revved up. After all this and after all these years, you are still doing fine. You are a good friend, heart, and I’m going to try to remember that.
All my life I’ve been restless. This persistent feeling has taken me to some very interesting places.
Several years ago I was happily teaching school in the northern Alberta community of Grande Prairie. I was also a newspaper columnist for the local paper there and had a million good friends, my own apartment and a very sweet existence. With all this established and with everything going so well, the restlessness began to stir.
Throughout the years spent in the north, I’d often visit friends in the much more southern city of Calgary. I liked it there, so much, in fact, that I decided to quit my teaching job in June, rent a U-Haul and strike out to make a new life in that southern city so near the Rocky Mountains. “How hard could it be?” I thought. As it turned out, it was pretty hard.
For the first month and while I found a job and my own place to live, I stayed with generous friends. The place I found was a rundown, 4-storey walkup constructed probably in the 1950s but decorated in memory of 1974. It was located on the edge of a city park that overlooked Calgary’s downtown core. Luxurious it wasn’t, but the nighttime view from that park was stunning!
I remember a friend and I climbing up those stairs, covered in green, murky carpet, and him commenting as we slowly made our ascent, the air getting thinner, “Is there an odour?” There was. I’d just grown used to it. The smell was the very least of this place’s problems.
There were no back panels in the lower kitchen cabinets. A good gust of wind could blow the cupboard doors right open from the inside. If pots, pans and appliances were unintentionally pushed too far back, they’d fall off the shelf and tumble down, down, down the 4 stories where they’d land who-knows-where with an audible clatter that echoed throughout the building.
Before I could bring myself to use the bathtub, I glazed it myself to cover the brownish-red stains that could not be scrubbed off.
The large crack in my bedroom window had been expertly repaired with a single strip of silver duct tape and when it rained, the ceiling in the hallway quickly became soggy and finally dripped slowly, forming a spreading puddle on the floor from which the cat would sip.
The cat! That reminds me. There was no screen for the heavy sliding glass door that lead out onto the balcony. It was quite a beautiful spot on that older, well-treed street, just becoming gentrified but not quite there yet, which is why I could afford to live there. The sprawling trees on the apartment building’s front lawn spread their branches to partially shade the spacious concrete balcony. That sturdy balcony was undoubtedly the unit’s best feature.
One oppressively hot August afternoon, I’d left that sliding glass door open to allow for some airflow. Even from way down the long hall and as I wrote that week’s column, I sensed that I was suddenly alone in the apartment. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!” No cat, no answering meow. Nothing.
Suspecting the worst, I pried open a can of tuna, grabbed my keys and ran down those grossly-carpeted stairs and out the front door of the complex. I ran around the side of the building, still calling, “Here, kitty!”
“Meow-ow-ow!” There she was: an indoor cat in the unfamiliar out-of-doors, hunkered down low and close to a little shrub. I scooped her up and examined her tiny, fat body. She was fine! The only evidence of any excitement was a sap-filled bud of some sort that was stuck to the bottom of her foot. To this day, I don’t know how she got down there without sustaining any injury. Maybe she was a rare flying cat and I just never knew.
I shared the alley where I parked my car with a number of homeless people. I’d leave my empty bottles for them by the dumpster. One day as I was coming home from work, a very tall man in orange coveralls gripped the side of the dumpster in which he stood and vaulted gracefully over its side and out. Startled by his sudden appearance and his athleticism, I said, “Hello. How’s it going?”
He smiled, shrugged and said with an east-coast accent, “Not bad.” This was apparently not completely true as he had just lept out of the dumpster behind my apartment building. At the risk of sounding shallow and a little strange, he was a ridiculously good-looking guy, tall with longish wavy hair and dark, dark eyes. In those days, I’d wish we’d met under different circumstances, circumstances not involving dumpster-diving.
Would I do it all again, leave my secure job, move to a large city alone and start a new life? Probably I would not. But at the time, it’s what I wanted to do. I was young and adventurous and felt like I had nothing to lose. I wouldn’t go back and change it if I could.
On the Nazareth Tour Bus
Years ago, I owned a pair of black, shiny pants. Nazareth was coming to the city where I lived at the time and in preparation for the show I put on those black, shiny pants and Nazareth’s albums. Later on that night when the bunch of us arrived, the place was already packed, but somehow we managed to secure a tall table with six stools right close to the stage.
I can’t remember if there was an opening act or not, but I do remember that the speakers sitting on the floor on either side of the stage were taller than me – and that’s pretty tall! (It isn’t, really, but for speakers it was pretty tall.)
Finally, the lights went down and Nazareth was on the stage. I knew every song they played and sang along boisterously. The nice thing about the racket generated by a rock concert is that no one can hear anyone sing except for the people holding the microphones. This means that those of us who cannot carry a tune are at liberty to not carry it as loudly as we like. The band seemed pleased enough with my so-called singing along (or my black, shiny pants) because at one point during the performance, the lead guitarist beckoned to me between songs and handed me his guitar pick. It was fantastic!
The evening seemed to last for mere moments and then the show was done. The band had made their exit, but shortly after, a roadie dressed all in black walked across the floor and right up to me. “The band wants to meet you.”
“Uhhh,” I articulated smoothly. “Can I bring a friend?”
“No. Just you.”
I was invited to Nazareth’s secret club? I hoped they didn’t expect me to know the classified handshake because I didn’t know any rock’n’roll handshakes, none at all.
“C’mon,” he urged me in his Scottish accent. “They just wanna meet you and give you a poster and stuff.” It wasn’t the poster I was worried about. Still, I was very curious and so off I went, following a complete stranger, a little more than rough-around-the-edges roadie, through the backstage doors and out to the bus. As we walked, he asked, “How old are you anyway?”
He seemed mildly disappointed by the fact of my age. Now we were even as I was mildly disappointed by his lack of personal hygiene. He scoffed and told me, “We thought you was @*#%ing eighteen and you’d listened to all your mom’s records.”
“Nope,” I explained, “I’m the Nazareth fan. Not my mom.”
When we got outside to where the tour bus was parked behind the building I was surprised to see fifty or so people clamouring around the bus doors. My gruff escort elbowed his way through the fans, the bus door swung open and in we went.
“Here’s the girl you wanted to meet,” the roadie said flatly. Then he turned and left the bus.
I swallowed hard and tried to look relaxed. From over a huge platter of fruit, cheese and meat, the lead guitarist stuck out his hand to me and warmly said, “You knew all our songs! What would you like to drink?” He handed me a big bottle of water and then the lead singer invited me to sit down with him on the padded bench seat. He let me know, “You know the words to our songs better than I do! Whenever I’d forget the words, I’d just look over at you to see what you were singing.” Funny and flattering.
When I asked exactly where they were from, they told me Glasgow. I remember asking how they brought their tour bus over to North America and I remember being too nervous to hear the answer. I suppose the band members flew over and the bus was transported by cargo ship.
We had a pleasant enough visit although I could tell that I wasn’t the wild child they were hoping for. That’s okay. They weren’t the untamed rock stars I’d thought they might be, either. They were obviously hardworking guys, playing the music that their fans still loved and not getting or feeling any younger as they traveled from venue to venue.
I knew it was time to go when they handed me my signed poster, as promised, shook my hand again, and told me good night. The roadie mysteriously reappeared and was there to lead me through the dwindling crowd of fans and back into the bar. By the time my friends and I departed at the end of our evening, the tour bus was gone. Nazareth was already back on the road.
Heartbreaking and Healing
In November, I’ll have been living in Grandma’s house for 11 years. Where does the time go? It seems like moments ago that I was lying in bed in Calgary at 3:00 a.m. worrying about how I was going to afford the kingly sum of $32,000 I’d just paid for 900 square foot bungalow. I remember reassuring myself with this logic: “People spend more on RVs than you’ve spent on this house.” Still, it seemed like a lot of money at the time and like a big commitment.
Grandma’s house had been empty for nearly 2 years when I found out that it was for sale. It had been repossessed when the owner was arrested and therefore no longer able to pay the mortgage. I should back up and clarify. Grandma wasn’t arrested. By the time her house was up for sale (again), Grandma had already been dead for 9 years. When first she passed away, I wanted to buy the house but there was no way. I lived in northern Alberta then, and I had other obligations and a whole other life. It was impossible, but the idea of living here never completely left my mind.
After coming out to see the house, I put in a bid to GE Mortgage in Toronto, the house’s owner at that time. I’d given up hope of ever hearing from them when, a little over 2 months later, I received a phone call out of the blue. “Do you still want that house? If you’ve got a fax number, I’ll send you the agreement.”
When I initially toured Grandma’s house with the realtor, I asked about the missing carpet. “At first, just a rectangle had been cut out and removed by the RCMP so that they could run forensic tests on it. It looked bad, so we pulled the rest of the carpet out.”
Forensic testing? You read right. Apparently, someone accused the owner of raping them there on Grandma’s living room floor and the carpet fibres were needed as evidence to support that claim in court. Someone was also shot in that house – not killed. When I was prepping the living room walls for painting, I discovered blood splatter down in the corner above the baseboards. It was a new homeowner’s wish come true!
There were shattered beer bottles on the basement’s concrete floor and a basement window had been kicked in. The drugs that someone had cooked up on the electric stove had boiled over, filling the open area beneath the burners with a sticky, gooey substance that I scraped off with a trowel. Whatever it was, it was not water-soluble. I had long hair then and as I worked, some of the stuff got stuck in my tresses. I had to cut the blob out. I never did quite clean all of the chemical goo off Grandma’s stovetop, but it didn’t really matter as the appliance was beyond repair. The old carpets were covered in gross, unidentifiable stains, holes had been punched in a door or two, and the backyard was a heap of weeds and garbage.
Aren’t the messiest jobs often the most satisfying, especially when you’re working for someone you love? Cleaning up this disaster was a dream come true, both heartbreaking and healing. Buying and saving Grandma’s house remains to this day most meaningful thing I’ve done with my life. Now, when I get up in the morning, I walk where she walked, make coffee where she made coffee and sit in the living room where others were raped and shot but now where I watch the shadows of mountain ash leaves flicker on the wall, stenciling it with their graceful, grey pattern. I imagine her with me, as we were years ago, together, in this same place, enjoying each other’s company and the comfort of this cozy house.
To Pet or Not To Pet, That is the Question
About two and a half years ago now, my cat died at the ripe old age of sixteen. She’s buried in the backyard out by the trellis to which the sweet peas cling in the summer, where they grow tall and bloom gloriously in early August.
I got her from a friend who was working at an SPCA in northern Alberta back in the day. “Would you raise this abandoned kitten?” The idea was that I would bottle feed and nurture this sweet little piece of fur. Then, when she was old enough and no longer required two feedings in the dark of the night, every night, I was to return her to the SPCA. Like that was ever going to happen.
For years she lived with me, outlasting a boyfriend and a husband. We moved together several times and she looked out the window at the birds and the squirrels while I wrote novels and newspaper articles.
She wasn’t the easiest feline to get along with. She would routinely hiss and growl at strangers, backing newcomers into a corner with her tiny, menacing stance. For amusement, she would bite the tops of my bare feet as I prepared morning coffee and sink her teeth into my forearm as I watched television. Deep into my writing and lost in a fictional world, she’d bring me back to reality by lying down across the computer keyboard.
Writing about this now, I miss her so much it hurts! She wasn’t a human and she wasn’t even that nice. But love is a funny thing, and grief is grief. And so it goes.
I’ve been considering getting another pet, but there are so many reasons not to. In our household, travel is regular and can be quite spontaneous, and we can be away for long stretches of time sometimes. Also, I love a clean, orderly house. Cats can make maintaining that kind of environment more challenging by what they shed and by what comes out of them. I know they can’t help it, but indoor cats can be a bit gross. (Please try not to take offense, fellow cat lovers. I come in peace and only speak the truth.)
About a week ago now, I met a very handsome, well-mannered cat, the first to make me seriously think, “Hey, I can picture you in my lap and spread out on the kitchen mat in front of the warm air vent on a winter morning.” He was big and friendly and currently has no permanent home. It seems that now I have a decision to make.
Any new cat would have to be a strictly indoor cat. Wandering around the neighbourhood is not an option for any feline under my roof. If the chosen new cat was very restless and really wanted a taste of the outside world, a large, shady kennel would be constructed in the backyard. I’ve already picked the kennel’s location and I have a design plan in my head.
This attractive young cat would have to visit the vet almost immediately upon joining the family and leave a couple parts of himself there. Sorry, fantasy pet. You’ll be happier in the long run, all fat and relaxed, napping on the back of the couch.
I really don’t know what to do. It’s not a big decision, not really. But it is life-changing. If we get another cat, I’ll love it and it will make a mess. It will shed and it will purr in my lap late into the evening. It will need food and water and affection when we’re away. It will steal my heart and I’ll be responsible for its well-being for the next fifteen years – at least!
I’ll think about it awhile longer, but I have to say that now that this blog post is written, my mind’s already made up.
Don't Assume There's A Later
After dying in a car crash, three friends go to Heaven for orientation. They are all asked this question: “When you are in your casket, with friends and family mourning for you, what would you like to hear them say about you?”
The first guy immediately responds, “I would like to hear them say that I was one of the great doctors of my time and a great family man.”
The second guy says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference to our children of tomorrow.”
The last guy thinks for a minute then replies, “I'd like to hear them say 'LOOK, HE’S MOVING!’”
Before beginning this piece I deliberated for a long while because I don’t know if you’ll be interested in reading about this experience or not. Why did I hesitate and why am I still wondering if this will be a suitable topic? As you know, dear reader, I tend to write quite a bit about death and, compared to the other lighter, funny topics I touch on, the death-themed blogs, strangely enough, aren’t as popular. Go figure.
In my experience, people generally don’t like to think about dying. As I’ve expressed before, though, death is one of those big things we all have in common and the greatest fact that makes me appreciate life. I would go so far as to say that death gives my life meaning. Why should I live fully, take chances, eat good food and drink good wine? Because I’m going to die, that’s why. I can’t think of a better reason or a more solid truth than that. Death has given me a deep respect for life. I’m not suggesting that mortality should be the centre of your thoughts; I’m only stating that considering my own mortality has benefited my living.
About ten years ago now, a year or so after purchasing my grandma’s former home in this rural village, I devoured the DVD boxset of the HBO drama Six Feet Under. The five-year-long series told the story of the Fisher family, of their friends and the people they meet along the way, and of their Los Angeles funeral home business. The show’s finale reveals how each main character reaches the end of the line, and by the time I’d finished watching this final episode, I knew what I was going to do.
Within a few months, I had made an appointment with a lawyer to get a will created, purchased a cemetery plot outside of town and wrote the script for my own funeral. Should I get taken out by a semi on the way to work one morning, everything is ready to go in a tidy manila file folder. I’m certain I’m going to die and uncertain about when, so it seemed most considerate to those who will have to deal with my departure that I prepared for it.
More than mere consideration for those left living prompted me to undergo this process. Writing my own funeral, standing atop that tiny prairie plot and discussing my last will and testament made death very real to me. It was no longer an event that was going to happen sometime. It became an event that could happen anytime. This new, sharper perspective brought to my life a kind of gentle urgency that whispers in my ear, “What’s most important? Do it now. Don’t assume there’s a later.”
Do I still go on autopilot several times throughout the day? Do I forget that each moment is unique and precious, never to be experienced again? Do I fail to remember that tomorrow may never come? You bet. But remembering death’s inevitability is the quickest way to swing my intentions back around to what matters most to me right here and right now. That’s the gift death has given me.
Lenses of Perception
I remember lying in bed as a kid praying that my poor eyesight would be made 20/20 and that I could throw my glasses away. Each time I’d take off my heavy glasses, people would exclaim, “You look so good without your glasses!”
“Yes,” I’d think, “But how good do I look walking into walls and tumbling into ravines? I’m sure those buff firefighters would look much better without those fire-retardant suits on when they enter a burning building, as well. Someone should let them know.”
Of course young Lori Knutson never thought these things. Everyone’s words, surprised words meant as compliments, confirmed what she already knew: she wanted to be beautiful but with her big glasses weighing down her nose, she couldn’t be. She would go into her parents’ room and turn that magnifying mirror around so that her reflection was finally clear without the aid of prescription lenses, lenses that grew her eyes to the size of golf balls. Then she’d open her eyes wide and try to look as sullen and as stunning as Olivia Newton-John did on her latest vinyl album cover.
“Have you tried contacts?” No, never crossed my mind Mr. and Ms. Obvious Suggestions. “I’ll run right out and do that.” Most contact lenses don’t correct my vision well enough for me to work and read and write with them in. Unfortunately, the bulk of my waking hours are spent working and reading and writing. So you see the problem. Also, after about 3 hours on my eyeballs, those transparent plastic discs turn the consistency of potato chips in this dry northern climate. Then I’m forced to flake them off my eyes before bed, an uncomfortable, slightly unsafe procedure.
Corrective eye surgery? Out of luck there, too, for now, but this could change. I’ve had a couple of assessments completed to determine whether I’m a suitable candidate for laser eye surgery. The ophthalmologists just looked so sad and genuinely disappointed for me or in me (I couldn’t tell) that I never went back lest I break their hearts again, or mine.
But that was then and this is now. Still, I most often pose without my glasses on for any promotion photos. I get better feedback, more likes, more clicks. I’ll take it! It goes without saying that I can barely see the photographer while my picture’s being taken and my glasses go right back on afterwards so that I can view the tiny little photo on the camera’s tiny little screen.
Am I sad about putting my glasses on these days? Not a bit. Do I still want to be as beautiful as Olivia Newton-John? Regularly. But mostly, these days, I just feel so darn grateful to have the eyesight I have and the wide selection of excellent frames and lenses to choose from. When I was a kid, lenses were very thick. In fact, mine were the Coke bottle bottom glasses used to magnify an otherwise small world. Today, glasses are cute and stylish and affordable. Even some folks who don’t need glasses wear glasses as accessories. It’s awesome!
The lenses I have today are thin(ner) and light-weight. My prescription makes everything sharp and clear and my eyes are never tired. I’ve never been able to see clearer. These days, I’m just so happy to see this old world full of its joys and sorrows. Do people still comment about how I look without glasses? Do they still suggest glasses-free alternatives in an attempt to help? Sure they do. People’s responses to my glasses haven’t changed but how I hear their comments has. Now I laugh and tell my stories about crushed ophthalmologists and flaky contact lenses, and they laugh, too.
These eyes have lasted me for nearly 50 years and I have to say that this Thanksgiving, they are one of the many, many things I feel so thankful for.
I hear some pretty funny things on the playground: “Ms. K! There’s something weird on the equipment! It looks gross. I stuck my finger in it to see if it’s wet. It is, but it tastes like candy.”
“You tasted it? Why did you taste it?”
“Well, I’d rather taste it than step in it.”
You know when you take your car to the garage because it’s been making a strange clunking noise? You pull into the bay and the mechanic takes a listen and detects nothing wrong. The engine’s purring like a kitten. So you both hop in and take the vehicle for a quick spin to see if any symptoms appear. Your car sounds brand new and may be running better than it ever has before.
My heart’s been making a clunking noise for a while now. More accurately, it’s been making a clunking feeling, stuttering and beating too hard, too fast and too deep down. I took it into the doctor’s office. She strapped on the old blood pressure cuff and my circulatory system was purring like a kitten.
I told my doctor about my engine trouble, trouble that’s likely inherited, and she prescribed 48 hours of wearing a Holter monitor. The timing was perfect! My visit to the doc occurred right at the close of summer vacation, a relaxing time during which my heart and mind feel far fewer demands than during the school year. About two weeks later, I was in full gear and standing in front of my class, a tangle of wires running beneath my shirt and next to my skin. The pressure to perform was on!
After work during both the days I wore the monitor, the lawn needed mowing. Now, I love the reel lawn mower, the soft, steady click of its rotating blades neatly snipping the grass. I like it so much better than the unavoidably disruptive roar of a gas engine. While I enjoy using the reel lawn mower, my heart hates it. Consistently, my heart bitterly complains about pushing that contraption around the yard. It pounds, stutters and flutters. So during the two days I spent with the Holter monitor, I mowed the back lawn one evening and the front lawn the next.
I was happy to have the opportunity to wear the Holter monitor and to find out some information about what – if anything – is happening with my heart. After 48 hours were up and after the work day was done, at home I detached the 5 round stickers and their wires, popped the monitor and the paperwork I’d filled out, into the large Ziploc bag to be returned to the hospital. I began to worry right away. What if they don’t find anything? “Good afternoon, Ms. Knutson. We’re just calling to confirm that you have a writer’s imagination and also a very nasty case of hypochondria to go with it. Thank you so much for wasting our valuable time and resources.”
Or worse: “Lori Knutson? Is that you? Oh, thank God you’re still alive! Are you standing? How is that even possible? Sit down immediately and don’t move! The ambulance is on its way…”
I don’t like either of the extreme scenarios that my mind concocted. I would like a more moderate outcome, something middle-of-the-roadish. I guess I’d like to feel both well-informed and justified in being a little concerned. I want to be told that yes, there is a small problem and, great news, it’s easily fixable. I would like to have this situation turn out exactly as I would like it to turn out.
You think that after all these years I would’ve learned that life rarely meets our expectations and that I can’t control most outcomes. With the monitor returned, I’ll have to settle in and wait to find out what happens next. I only hope that if my engine’s making a strange clunking sound that the medical technicians can diagnose it and that they’re able to keep me on the road for a few more years yet.
The Humbling Flu
I was supposed to get up. I was supposed to be able to lift my head off the pillow, but try as I might, dizziness held me down, pushing my throbbing head deeper into the bedding. I could smell the coffee that I’d set to brew for 5:45, all hot and ready to drink. Usually this is enough to bring me out of bed and down the hall. Not this day. The thought of coffee made me ask for a bedside bucket.
There’s nothing like being struck over the head with the flu for a couple of days to nicely shatter any illusion of control I may have been harbouring. These aren’t ordinary days, either, the routine days during which the school year is already set out, plans have been made and are being followed. These aren’t yet the days when things just roll along as they should. These are the crucial start-up days, the time during which yearly activities are decided upon, classrooms are set up, long range plans laid out and new professional development opportunities are introduced. It is not helpful to miss these days.
But the flu strode in, uninvited, and began trashing the place, demolishing my plans and taking control of my appetite and sleep. Being organized is something I take pride in. I like to control the things I can to avoid stress and confusion in daily life. I prefer taking control of the unfolding of my days and making the hours as productive as I’m able. My recent flu unpleasantly reminded me that while I may like to control my time, I can’t always. The illness came in the night and expertly laid me low, adjusting both my expectations and my perspective. This nasty flu caused me to remember all the elements that lie outside of this being’s control.
Ultimately, I can’t control my body. I can feed it healthful foods and exercise it. I can support it in getting enough rest and nurture it when it has aches and pains. But regardless of my care, my body changes, ages and occasionally succumbs to the flu. Eventually and inevitably it will die and decay, and there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.
I can’t control time, the coming and going of the seasons, the rotation of the earth or its orbit around the sun. I had no control over when I was born, where or to whom. And I’ll likely have no control over how or when I die. I can’t control the weather and I can’t control the actions of others or what they believe. I can’t control which people I charm or which I annoy. I can’t control who loves me or who holds me in disdain.
Missing these work days has not been helpful. On the other hand, being reminded of all the things I can’t control is very helpful. How, you ask? It makes me relax a bit to consider that not everything is up to me. Sure, I’ve been in bed for the last 24 hours or so alternately praying for death and praying for healing. Through my short illness I noticed this: the world didn’t stop turning in my absence. While I lay stretched out in the mid-afternoon seeking a bit of coolness from the fan in my warm room, other people went to work, made plans and appointments, cooked supper and then did the dishes. Life went on without me and apparently it did just fine.
It was both humbling and freeing to have the flu at this inconvenient time. While it can be ego-nourishing to believe that I’m the centre of the universe, it’s also somewhat of a relief to realize that I am not.
Just yesterday, I heard a loud persistent peeping under the open living room window. There in the grass was a fledgling robin on the cusp of being old enough to fly. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s able to fly today. The fledgling’s feathers were still a bit fluffy, its red breast was dotted with white and the young bird was nearly the same size as its mother who was plucking earthworms from the lawn and feeding them to her nearly-adult offspring.
Having a life of my own, I went off to live it, but I noticed after a while some louder, more frantic chirping outside the window. I peeked out and the baby robin was still there, but its mother was nowhere to be seen. The mostly adult bird hopped around and finally flew up the short distance to sit between the two big red flowers in the front step planter. The more the fledgling peeped, the more I wanted to interfere, to shelter it, to bring it inside where I knew the little bird would be safe from opportunistic cats.
That’s when I remembered something important: the young robin is not mine. It’s not up to me to manage its survival, its destiny. It’s not my job to teach it to hunt its own food and to fly a bit further than the height of my front step. Outside of actively trying to harm it or its habitat, it’s not even my job to protect it. In nature, living things often eat living things. The robin may survive and it may not and my interference could really mess up its chances instead of improving them despite my best intentions.
Later in the day I received an unexpected phone call from someone I love. It was a courtesy call to let me know of a big decision that he’d made on the spot and that would affect my loved one and his loved ones for the rest of their lives. I wanted so badly to interfere, to question judgment, to counsel against haste and warn of regret.
That’s when I remembered something important: he is loved by me but he is not mine. It’s not up to me to manage his life or decide his destiny. It’s not my job to choose his work or his spouse or to raise his children. Outside of actively trying to harm him or his family, it’s not even my job to protect him. I would, of course, if I could. In life, there are challenges to overcome and joys to experience. My loved one may have a happy life or he may not and my interference could really mess up his chances at happiness instead of improving them despite my best intentions.
It can be awfully easy to confuse love with ownership, to believe that because we love someone they should do what we think is best for them. We may be right about what’s best and we may be wrong. Either way, it’s beside the point. The people we love will do what they’re going to do. If we disapprove, they’ll do it out of our sight. If we disagree, they won’t broach the subject again. In short, we can’t control anyone’s actions or emotions but our own. I don’t know about you, but when I focus in on this one flawed, miraculous human being, I find enough to keep me very busy. When I look closely at myself, suddenly I’m less interested in judging others or in trying to change their behaviour and choices. I have my own life to live. I am granted the ability to choose, to work, to think critically, to create, to feel what I feel and to experience this gift of being alive for this short time in this sprawling cosmos.
It’s not my responsibility to control anyone else because I don’t own anyone else. The great freeing news that comes along with this realization is that no one owns me, either. They can disapprove of my actions and I’ll act elsewhere. They can disagree with my ideas and I’ll stop sharing them, but they won’t change my mind. In short, I can’t control anyone’s actions or feelings but my own. It’s no less of a burden, running my own life instead of trying to run others’, but unlike attempting to alter the direction of the wind, ruling myself can actually lead to positive change in me and maybe, just maybe, that’s how we change the world.
I don’t have writers block. If anything, I’m blocking the characters. They’re ringing the doorbell and, thinking it’s broken, they knock loudly. Some of them are peering into the lower windows and I’m lying on the floor in front of the couch praying they don’t see me. Next, I hear them trying the doorknobs, checking to see whether the house is locked. The backdoor knob turns and Gus, my main character, pokes his head into the porch and calls out, “Hello? Lori? Are you in there? We’re all ready to be written!”
Still, I don’t move. I wait here quietly hiding on the living room floor until, after a bit, I hear their retreating footsteps move down the sidewalk and away from my house. I get up a little stiffly, make myself my hundredth and one cup of tea for this morning and check my email for the billionth time since seven 'o’clock. Good times.
I’ve got a million valid reasons not to be writing: The lawn isn’t going to mow itself and that cookie dough isn’t going to line up in correct formation on a sheet and set its own temperature. There are weeds in the garden and books that need to be read. And God only knows that my social media network would shrivel up and die without my nearly constant attention and input. What can I say? And if I’m not watching music videos on Youtube, who is? I mean, someone’s got to do it.
I’m a desperately busy woman under the pressure of a thousand invented responsibilities.
This would be all well and good except for one thing: My time is running out. Hold on. Before you text someone to let them know I’m dying, please pause and read on. My time to write is running out. The hours and days are evaporating, and even as I write this post (anything to avoid the novel), I feel sick to my stomach at the thought. Soon I’ll be back in the classroom and other duties, real ones, will fill my weeks and months.
There’s an audience I write for. Probably all writers have this, a person we picture to whom we’re speaking as we write. Of course, I write for a wider audience, but when writing, I keep in mind this one person and write as if conversing with them. It works for me. Trouble is, I can’t picture my audience reading this novel because it will take so long for me to create it. And so I’m stuck. It’s easy enough to write blogposts because these are nearly instantly available to my audience, and therefore I can feel that the conversation is just rolling along. There’s some satisfaction in that. But when it comes to the slow unfolding of a very long story, I’m mired.
Will the book get written? I believe it will. The stories are there and the characters are clamouring to be heard and acknowledged. They want to come into existence as badly as I want the book to be born. But between me and that novel are many lonely, desolate hours of research and writing dependent upon an ocean of self-discipline and a truckload of imagination. In short, lots of work with no promise of anything at completion – other than completion, that is. For this writer, completion is enough, though. I could live very happily with these stories out of me and onto paper or onto screen.
And so, working against a ton of distractions and without the company of my audience, I will continue to work bit by bit on telling Gus’s tragic story of deep loyalty repaid with the darkest betrayal. I hope one day, dear readers, you will get to know Gus as well as I do. He’s quite a guy. For now, though, I’m pretty sure there’s something I need to be watching on Youtube.