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.
Unwinding in British Columbia’s Wine Country
July ended with a quick trip to the Creston Valley for a visit with family and a visit to wineries. There are 2 fantastic wineries in Creston, located in southern BC and about 10 minutes from the US border.
In 2003 former fruit farmers Al and Marleen Hoag purchased the land on which they envisioned establishing a winery. Their elegant wine tasting bar and wine shop opened in June of 2007, and so the Skimmerhorn Winery was born in Creston. Just this year, the winery changed its menu from serving full meals to offering an interesting tapas menu featuring upscale snacks created to pair with various Skimmerhorn-produced wines. This establishment’s tree-shaded deck provides views of the mountains and of the Skimmerhorn gardens. It is an ideal place from which to enjoy wine, food and life in the summertime. For details, you can visit Skimmerhorn’s informative website at www.skimmerhorn.ca.
Right next door to the Skimmerhorn, you’ll find the younger and always-improving Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery. Their latest addition is a gorgeous outdoor pergola-covered patio located across the lawn from the wine shop. Since my last visit there a couple years ago, Baillie-Grohman also expanded their shop and wine-tasting facility. Its towering ceilings and 3 wine tasting bars make the building feel open and airy, uncrowded and relaxed. This winery hosts a couple fun events during July and August. Wine Down Fridays allows guests to drink wine and purchase supper from food trucks in the late afternoon. The food vendors are invited on a rotating schedule so that there are different food trucks present on different Fridays.
Baillie-Gorhman also offers a Bus Art Wine Tour. The title says it all. Participants board a bus, see some art, and drink some wine. They’ll pick you up at the Creston Ramada and you’ll tour 6 art studios and 2 wineries, and the tour charge includes wine, snacks and a pizza dinner. You can access more information about this winery’s events and wines at www.bailliegrohman.com.
A month after our Creston visit, late August found us heading over to Kelowna to see more family and to experience more of BC’s world-class wineries. (I know. It was a tough summer for me. I can feel your pity.)
We started at the Arrowleaf Winery, a little jewel of a place, quickly expanding and developing its reputation. Arrowleaf offers, in my opinion, the best outdoor dining from its covered deck overlooking a short expanse of grapevines with astonishing views of Lake Okanagan. I like Arrowleaf’s menu and also its vineyard-side picnic area where guests are welcome to bring their own food and to enjoy Arrowleaf’s wine. During this visit, we let the winery feed us on their patio where we had the Farmhouse Charcuterie, a wooden board laden with mostly locally-produced food which included bread, cheese, meat and apples. Delicious! Almost every winery we visited this summer asked a small fee for tastings which was waived upon purchasing wine. Want to know more? Check out www.arrowleafcellars.com.
An Okanagan wine tour is not complete without a stop at Gray Monk. This well-established winery is busy with tastings, tours and weddings, and their restaurant is very popular among locals and visitors alike. It’s the kind of place that you don’t have to dress-up to visit but most folks do. This winery has a glamour inherent in its architecture and dining that makes me want to wear a dress and heels when touring there.
We stopped by Gray Monk for a post lunch-lunch. We headed downstairs from the tasting room and wine shop to the spacious concourse where food and wine are served. Upon entering, we were asked by the host, “Do you have a reservation?” We did not, but fortune was smiling on us as we got what I’m sure is the best table on the patio. I love it when that happens! Gray Monk is also situated on Lake Okanagan and from our corner table at the front of the patio, we had a perfect view of the vineyards and water in the distance. This winery has a great website including Wine 101 with wine pronunciations at www.graymonk.com. I was corrected during one tasting (not here) regarding my wine name pronunciation. To avoid embarrassment and irritation, you might want to prepare yourself with Gray Monk’s cheat sheet!
We belong to a platinum wine club. 3 times a year, CedarCreek Estate Winery sends us a big old box of wine. The days on which it arrives are the most wonderful times of the year. We’ve visited here before but for the first time this August, we participated in one of CedarCreek’s wine tours where we were guided through the events grounds, vineyards, and wine production area. It was an excellent tour that wrapped up with a complimentary tasting. Tasty and free! What I liked best about the tour was the access we were granted to the wine storage area where oak barrels, manufactured in France and filled with wine, were stacked to the warehouse ceiling. It was a sight to behold. I wept. Feel free to find out more about the food, wine and events offered at CedarCreek by visiting www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.
Family members took us to a unique and trendy Kelowna winery called The Vibrant Vine. When we walked in, we were instructed to don a pair of 3-D glasses and then to look at the artwork hanging on the walls and at the wine labels, some accidentally placed upside down. It was all 3-D and way too fun! This cool little winery also features live music a few times a week, dessert wine served in tiny chocolate cups and a lovely patio on which to enjoy wine.
At lunch during one of our winery stops, our server suggested that we stop by one of her favourite wineries, The Hatch. This is an up-and-coming winery with a very strong hipster vibe, a rustic interior and a Meritage that knocked me over. We bought 2 bottles of it to take home. There’s also a lot of fun merchandise here if you’re looking to purchase wine country souvenirs for your winey friends and relatives.
Besides the wineries I mentioned here in detail, we also visited Tantalus and Quail’s Gate – both well worth including in your Okanagan wine tour.
Typically, we prefer touring a couple wineries at a time, savouring the scenery, the wine and the food. To pack more fun, wine and food into your day without having to worry about where to go or driving there, there are many wine tours by van offered in Kelowna. The hosts of these adventures generally pack up a cooler of cheese and crackers and take you, the wine curious, to several different locations for numerous tastings and probably a vineyard or production facility tour or two. From what I’ve read, you may also enjoy lunch at one of the wineries, but this is not usually included in your wine tour ticket. If I was short on time and only in the area for a little while with no hope of ever returning, I’d hop aboard one of these tours and relax. I think it could be a great option. Some of these tour companies pick you up right at your hotel and drop you off again. All you have to do is fall into bed at the end of your exploration of Okanagan Wine Country.
On the weekend, we gathered at my dad’s house to celebrate his birthday. Some of this celebration involved delicious food.
Before I go any further, I should tell you, so that you’re in the right frame of mind, that not very many little things bother me. Sure, occasionally a little something will get under my skin and annoy for a while, but I’m often able to see it for what it is and let it go. I don’t own very many pet peeves. I’ve owned more in the past but noticed that they take up valuable real estate in my cranium. The older I get, the higher premium I put on headspace.
Now, that being said, I can launch into a story about a pet peeve that apparently did not get sent out to the adoption centre with the others I no longer own. This one hid quivering behind the couch for a long time, living solely on the hope that its opportunity to bug me would swing around. It has.
This past weekend, my pet peeve crept out and showed itself. I tried to chase it away with a broom, but to no avail. It’s running laps around my mind still, taunting me and yipping its irritating little yip. I’m just sitting here helplessly like an exhausted petsitter watching it go.
My brother and his lovely wife graciously purchased Dad’s birthday meal: fried chicken, fries, gravy and salads. Fat-infused tastiness, right? One would think that the group of us would’ve lunged at this meal like a pack of voracious dogs. Looking at us all assembled there, it would be immediately obvious to you, dear reader, that we do, indeed, eat. We’re not weak with hunger or wasting away, and none of us are at risk for slipping down the shower drain in some unfortunate water-related mishap.
So where does this eating happen that has left all of us there around Dad’s kitchen table so robust and healthy? It sure as hell didn’t happen there. If I’d been that fried chicken, I would’ve burst into tears from the pain of rejection and hid myself in the fridge, stinging with shame at my unworthiness. We all ate as if we were vying for some valued prize for who could eat the least, picking away at that crispy and juicy skin as if it were a dead coyote carcass, poking at the macaroni salad as if it may have contained nuclear waste. It was downright depressing. And it still bugs me today, 4 full days after the fact.
People enjoying themselves and good company have a responsibility to eat like they mean it. There should be a law. As a person who enjoys cooking for others, I love it when people eat until they can’t move, who don’t save room for dessert but instead cram it in because they can’t resist. Conversely, I’m dismayed when, folks who obviously like food, barely eat at my table. I understand that sometimes people might want to appear as if they don’t eat much. Really? Come on! Give me a break. We’re North Americans! It’s a continental pastime, the thing we do when there’s nothing else to do and even when there is. We love eating, so don’t sit there and peck like a bird. Tear into it like a lion. I want to be a little shocked and pleased at the carnage.
Listen, if I ever have the chance to cook for you, you’d better eat, dammit. Fast for 3 days prior if you need to, but come to my house ready to eat and ready to drink and ready to damn well enjoy it. Wear your elastic-waste pants and a loose shirt. Be prepared to crash on the couch or in the downstairs guestroom after dinner as the result of temporary food-induced immobility. Recover quick and brace yourself. During dominoes or Yahtzee following the meal and an appropriate rest period, we’re going to keep eating, so buckle-up. And remember, I didn’t cook all day to watch you not eat. My cooking is my gift to you and eating is your gift to me, so just do it. Thank you.
The other day, I was wandering around Costco a little dazed and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff. I rounded a corner to head down a new aisle and gasped. I was traumatized to see, looking down on me from his second shelf perch, a 6 foot tall snowman. He was elegant enough and looked like you could plug him in and cause him to glow on the snow of your front lawn. Just beautiful – in December! This was during the last week of July.
Whenever I shop, I feel like I’m being pushed forward, shoved into the future, prodded onto the next thing when I’m not yet done with this that’s right now. I feel like someone’s waiting ahead at a freshly-dug grave and that the world of work and commerce is driving me steadily toward it, my final reward, that long dirt nap. I feel strongly encouraged to rush toward the cemetery with little regard for the present moment, the only time that actually exists.
Following the seasonally-inappropriate snowman incident, I was shopping more locally. I’ve been invited to an August wedding and wanted to buy a dress for the happy occasion. Mission accomplished. As I went from shop to shop the sales people told me stories of back to school shoppers. Now, it’s not just because I’m a teacher that my heart drops into my stomach when the phrase “back to school” is uttered. But seriously? The sun is still shining late into the evening and the leaves on the trees are still full and green. Flowers are in full bloom and I’m still picking raspberries.
As of today and as I write this, there are still 31 glorious days of August left to enjoy. Do they not count for anything? Should we already be preparing for a time so far away? I like to be organized but not so much that I discard the sunshine, the free days, and the spaciousness of summer life. The price of this kind of preparedness is way too high.
Here’s where I have to admit because I’m almost honest to a fault. I did, in fact, buy a gorgeous pair of boots and a long shirt for when I head back to the classroom in September. But I didn’t do it on purpose or to be organized. Honest. It just happened.
My point is that time will move forward on its own. It’s not necessary to constantly propel ourselves through time, to rev our outboard motors. Time’s current will carry us along whether we sit back in the boat or paddle frantically. The difference will be the quality of the journey. (Time as a river, yet one more unique metaphor from yours truly. You’re welcome.)
While paddling hard, our thoughts tend to be focused on what’s ahead, where we’re going and how fast we can get there. Conversely, gliding along with the motion of the water, we notice the waves lapping against the boat’s hull and the tingle of ginger ale bubbles on our tongues. We see the birds in the trees and the breeze tickling the leaves until they quiver. We feel the sun or the raindrops on our faces. When we relax and let the river carry us, we are right there in the moment and not looking to purchase snowmen in July.
You Can’t Stop the Train – A Review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I think I may’ve read Walden or Life in the Woods in university. It rings a bell. It was a text that I was told I should read. Now, years later, I decided to read Thoreau’s best known nonfiction work for very much the same reason. I thought it was something I should read, something like taking literary vitamins or running on a brain-growing treadmill. Many of the writers I read and listen to these days quote Thoreau, and especially Walden, extensively.
I ordered the book from our interlibrary loan system and it arrived just before I was scheduled to fly off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a little R&R. (I don’t recommend taking library books on vacation. That being said, I do it all the time.) I started reading Walden a little reluctantly. Published in 1854, the language is a bit different than today’s, but I found Thoreau’s style to be unencumbered and clean, easy to read. 10 or so pages in, the reluctance dropped away, and I found it hard to leave the book alone. I’d become invested in Thoreau’s adventure and philosophy.
As I read on the sunny hotel balcony in the shady breeze, I was reminded of a phone conversation I’d had with my dad before leaving for Mexico. He’d said something like, “Things are changing too fast. Cell phone use is destroying us. It’s tearing people apart.”
I’ve heard nearly the same sentiment expressed by many people. Some of them are my older friends and some of them are younger than me. Henry David Thoreau thought something similar. He wasn’t yet concerned about cell phone use, but he did think that new technology, especially the railroad, would change people and society as a whole, irrevocably. He was right.
Here’s what Thoreau has to say about the railroad and how he perceives that it changed life in Concord, Massachusetts:
“Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, were on hand when the bell rang. To do things "railroad fashion" is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.”
The clanging of the bells and the prompt train schedule that Thoreau writes about caused me to consider our bleeping phones and how, to folks like my dad, owners of those phones seem to be quite ruled by the technology they own just as Thoreau thought that people were becoming governed by the railroad. I’ve heard it said that we are talking and thinking faster than ever before, like in Thoreau’s train station, or not talking at all, but typing faster than ever before. Either way, both Dad and Thoreau agree that all this technology is leading to a communication breakdown. And as Thoreau states that we should get off the railway’s track, Dad and others proclaim that we should get off the track of internet-based technology use. But time marches on and things change. For better or for worse, neither Dad nor Thoreau can halt the train of technology.
Talking to my dad and reading the timeless words of Henry David Thoreau, it became evident to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Living in the countryside and quite a distance from larger city centres, I think about my experience of traveling into the city to shop. There’s a general store here, and a bank, a hairdresser, an insurance agency and a daycare centre. It’s pretty quiet, somewhat like Thoreau’s woods. I can’t help but compare my trips into the city to Thoreau’s experience of going into town. He calls it “running the gauntlet of businesses.”
“…so that every traveler had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those [businesses] who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveler could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax. Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller's; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor.”
By this account, the way businesses lure and seduce customers has changed very little since Thoreau’s time. After all these years, businesses provide the same basic type of services and merchandise as they did in the mid-1800s. After spending half a day running from store to store, bombarded visually and auditorially by products and advertising, I feel exactly as if I’ve run a gauntlet. I hear you, Henry David Thoreau, and I share your pain.
One thing I never knew about Thoreau or expected to discover is that he is the king of the backhanded compliment. I mean, I should’ve guessed. In Walden, he doesn’t always come across as a great lover of the human race, and he is obviously a skilled wordsmith. I like how he describes this guy, the ill-fated Colonel Hugh Quoil, a resident of Walden Woods who died shortly after Thoreau began his stint there:
“All I know of him is tragic. He was a man of manners, like one who had seen the world, and was capable of more civil speech than you could well attend to.”
I’ve run into a few folks capable of more civil speech than I could attend to. I’ve sat there bored stupid, praying that God would strike either the speaker or me dead, and past the point of caring which. Just shut-up already! Thoreau says it much more eloquently than I. I am, alas, not the queen of the backhanded compliment. Sadly, I’m both a bit too kind and a touch too straightforward to reign, but I appreciate how Thoreau sits on that throne.
It took about 5 hours to fly home from Puerto Vallarta. Now usually I drug myself into a semi-stupor with a couple Gravol, a strategy I highly recommend to make any flight fly. It’s not the first time an old guy has sat pretty much in my lap for an entire flight, but those other times were due to the closeness of the seats and the girth of the guy. This last flight, with Thoreau in my lap, the journey was smooth and enjoyable.
I didn’t quite finish reading Walden on the plane. When I’m enjoying reading something, I read it slowly, I savour it. I like to give the words time to sink into my brain and often I’ll read certain passages over. There are lots of books I skim. Walden is philosophy and Walden is poetry. These words deserve to be tasted and remembered.
Back at home in my recliner I discovered that, besides being the king of backhanded compliments, Thoreau wins the prize for most anticlimactic ending I’ve ever read. True, it’s not quite the ending, but it’s the ending of the account of his time spent on Walden Pond at the end of the second last chapter called “Spring”:
“Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.”
I can’t say exactly why the understatement of this ending, this big finish, struck me as so funny, but I just howled with laughter. “Similar to it.” That’s a good one. Sure, all my recent years in the same location are similar to one another, as well, but I try to pick out a few unique events from each as story material, a tidbit or 2 to tell about later. Not Thoreau. I guess he was done the book and, after reading the conclusion, so was I.
Paint Me New
During the summer, my time opens up. Suddenly, I’ve got more time to write, to visit, to just sit and do nothing, an activity of which I’m becoming very fond. There’s time to wander around with my camera and wait for the birds to hold still. There’s time to organize and clean, and there’s finally time to paint.
Of all my summertime chores, I really like painting. Not painting prep. I’m not a fan of taping, spackling or laying down drop cloths. I don’t particularly like seeking out flaws and sanding them down, and I don’t love washing walls with TSP. For these reasons, the summertime painting I like best is the painting done outside. No sanding, no taping, no drop cloths. Just brush off the dirt and the spider webs and get painting.
Other summers, I’ve painted baseboards and cupboards and walls and door casings. I’ve painted my old coffee table from the thrift store in Grande Prairie a fresh apple green and my Grandma’s old end table a vibrant cherry red. I’ve painted the siding on the garage and I’ve painted the siding on the house. On warm October days, after the summer was gone and my time was tighter, I’ve touched up exterior window trim and touched up peeling fascia boards. I don’t paint in the winter. Winter’s not a painting time.
Yesterday, after deliberating between spray painting and brush painting, I cracked open a very tiny can of bright white Tremclad rust paint. The day before, my painter’s eye spotted the old metal-framed wire gate that leads from the backyard onto the garage pad and out into the world. As if seeing this gate for the first time, I considered its decoratively entwined wires that were brown with rust, like very old lovers, tired of it but still stuck with each other. I noticed the gate’s metal frame, dull and brooding, not even returning the sun’s smile.
The first coat of paint is on now. To my horror, about 3 hours after I’d finished painting, clouds moved in and over the backyard and burst open. Those few hours of warmth and sunlight must’ve granted the paint just enough time to cure because when I checked the gate this morning, it looked perfectly fine. So relieved!
From my kitchen window this morning, that gate already looks bright and new, and I still intend to give it a couple more coats. What I love about painting is change. I love how quickly and easily colour transforms things, cheers them up and animates them. Once wallflowers, newly-painted objects become the life of the party, dancing on the table and the last ones to leave as the sun’s coming up.
Somedays, I’d like to give my own life a fresh coat of paint, a shade of younger with undertones of something-more-to-look-forward-to. I’m not afraid of colour, of mixing it up, of trying on a more startling shade. It would be nice, though, if I could experiment with some new colours or even a couple different shades of me without having to commit immediately to a new colour for myself.
Unfortunately, life changes aren’t made as easily as paint colour choices, and their implications can last much longer. Still, as I clean my brushes and gently hammer on that little metal lid, I realize this painter is ready for a change.
Beachside Paradise in Puerto Vallarta
For our July vacation, we decided on an all-inclusive resort in Mexico because we were exhausted. An all-inclusive vacation is a great way to rejuvenate and to do as little or as much as you want. Only a week prior to departure, we booked online, choosing the Paradise Crown Golden located right in the city of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific side. It’s an adult only resort and this factor put it first in the running over our other online resort hotel options.
When we arrived following a painless 5 minute coach bus ride from the Vallarta airport, we were given a welcome drink in the lobby and shown to our accommodations. This second floor room wasn’t large, but it had the king size bed we requested, a table and chair, a large closet and a flat screen TV mounted on the wall. On the private balcony were 2 chairs and a small table, and from this balcony you could see the ocean. Very nice. I spent a lot of time out on the balcony just reading and admiring the view.
Part of the reason I stayed on the balcony quite a bit is that my traveling companion likes the hotel room to be cool. The air conditioning unit was very efficient and easy to operate. I would have been fine with just the ceiling fan on as it had 4 variable speeds and ran more quietly than the air conditioner which could be a bit loud, especially when starting up. Still, it was great to have such good temperature control in our little space.
Crawling into bed after traveling was a treat as there was excellent quality bedding at the Crown Paradise Golden. The sheets were cool and smooth and were changed at least 3 times during the course of our 7 day stay. In the bathroom, I was happy to find a Conair blow dryer along with oatmeal soap, honey shampoo and coconut-scented body lotion – and a generous amount of each. Both the bath towels and the pool/beach towels were thick and luxurious.
Around the pool area and on the beach were several “sun beds” – outdoor beds with canopies and curtains to draw in order to shade its occupants. There were pillows and sheets on these beds, also. Each morning, the outdoor sun beds were stripped and each morning, they were made up fresh again. There were many of these beds available – perhaps 20 around the pool and 30 or more on the beach. There were many loungers available, as well, and no shortage of comfortable places from which to enjoy the pool or beachfront.
And what a beach! The hotel beach bar is just like that idyllic beach bar I pictured in my imagination for so long prior to this trip. Sheltered under a huge palapa, the round, granite top bar is set on a paving stone surface as wide as the outer edges of its sturdy palm leaf roof. Along the periphery of the patio and in the shade of the palapa are faux wicker table and chair sets. The beach itself is the most beautiful I’ve seen in the city of Puerto Vallarta. It’s wide and sandy and you can walk in the water until it gets too deep and still you’ll step on no large, sharp rocks.
There are licensed beach venders who walk up and down the sand peddling their wares: clothes, wooden carvings, jewelry, tours and massages. We bought a couple more woven blankets to take home, one featuring turtles (tortugas) and one with fish (pez). I also arranged for a beach massage for 10:00 one morning. The venders met me on the beach a little early and 2 women massaged me for nearly an hour. Fantastic!
I understand that having folks trying to sell things persistently can range from uncomfortable for some to downright annoying to others, but be kind to beach venders. It’s one tough way to make a living. Not interested in purchasing? Make it clear and keep it kind.
1. Decline politely. No, thank you. No, gracias.
2. Say you’re sorry for not buying. Sorry. Lo siento. This goes a long way!
3. Wish the venders luck with their sales. Good luck. Buena suerte.
Now, more about massages. During this trip, I enjoyed 5. Besides the ready availability of beachside massages, there are many spas within a stone’s throw of the hotel. All are great, most are air conditioned and the therapists are trained professionals offering aroma therapy, reflexology and the choice of relaxing or therapeutic massage. Don’t speak much Spanish? Me neither! Don’t let this keep you from enjoying a massage – or 5! The massage therapists know the English words they need to give you what you want and their prices are set, so no haggling is involved. We always tip for services rendered, but that’s up to you.
I can’t believe I’ve written this much without mentioning the food! There is a buffet/á la carte restaurant on the main floor of the hotel, between the lobby and the pool. I had the best enchilada lunch of my life here. I also like that, besides Western favourites, they also serve up traditional Mexicana fare – especially at breakfast. A big part of what I love about Mexico is Mexican food, and I appreciate it when hotels don’t shy away from serving it.
During our stay at the Crown Paradise Golden, we had the choice of 2 á la carte restaurants. Both were excellent. At each, there was a man in charge to keep things running smoothly. These supervisors were called el capitán by their staff and one of them, Nicholas, was so elegantly dressed, intelligent and funny that I fell in love somewhere between the salad and dessert. I didn’t mean to. It just happened.
The dress code for these á la carte restaurants is casual elegant. I wore long sun dresses and my husband wore long khakis (no shorts) and button up, short-sleeved shirts to dinner. Reservations for these restaurants are required but easy to make. The dinners are served as 3 courses and while cocktails are included, as drinks are on resort, there is a wine list from which you may purchase, if you like. Another point I should mention about the alcohol served is that if you would like premium alcohol and know what to order, just ask. My husband prefers añejo tequila to silver or reposado. He asked and he received it, no problem.
There was a fridge in our hotel room which was stocked daily with beer, water and pop. The hotel provides room service for which there is a fee for use. If you want snacks in your room and a little adventure, head up the street to the big supermarket. They sell everything including beer, wine and hard liquor. I bought a cute sundress there and my husband got some beer and a nice quality T-shirt. The supermarket is also where we purchased our bandages, which leads me to another story.
While touring around on the city bus – so much fun! – we got caught in a rain storm. My husband, unable to see the roadway beneath flowing water, tripped and fell during the short walk from the bus stop to the hotel in the pouring rain. He cut his knee and required a few stitches. The hotel people told us of an English-speaking doctor nearby. We hopped in a cab and found him in his humble office fairly near the hotel. The doctor, a surgeon, was able to see us immediately and to give Doug the medical attention he needed right on the spot. He was kind and compassionate and counselled us, “Enjoy the rain. I tell my daughters, don’t rush in the rain. Move slowly and enjoy the rain.”
This little mishap barely slowed us down at all and we’re very grateful for the help we received. I try to remember that if we’re so fortunate to travel, things won’t always go exactly as planned. Before this trip, I didn’t know that it was possible for me to love Mexico and its people more than I already do. But, apparently, it is possible. I recommend the Crown Paradise Golden for its location, its food, its beach and its staff.
The years pass by, but life unfolds in moments.
I’ve been noticing this lately, how we mark time in days, weeks and years, but that anything really monumental – in fact everything – occurs within moments. Early this morning I walked out through my friend Dave’s land. He keeps his horse there, along with some elusive cats and a vegetable garden. This spring, Dave constructed a new birdhouse and mounted by the gate. Inside, some tree swallows have laid their eggs.
Today was windy and I watched four of these birds playing in the breeze, spreading their wings and holding them vertically, so that the wind would push their bodies back and then up into the air where they’d swoop down and let the wind carry them back and up again.
The swallows ignored me, and I was able to stand very near and watch them for a while. As I did, I thought, “This is happening right now. This is my experience and this is theirs.” And then it was done. I fed the horse and the hiding cats and went back home to mow the lawn.
Everything we experience happens in moments. All the big stuff, all the small stuff, none of it takes long. It takes moments to be conceived, moments to be born, and moments to die. Within unfolding moments we say wedding vows and within other moments we sign divorce papers. Arguably, it takes a moment to fall in love. Some can even recall the exact moment in which it happened. And some can tell you the exact moment during which love ended.
I was telling someone about this write-up and they said, “But what about grief and depression? Those can just go on and on.” Yes, yes they can, but grief and depression and even wedded bliss are part of a process which unfolds in moments, each one differing from the other either greatly or slightly. Even the longer stints are comprised of individual moments.
With the dawn of summer and the end of another school year, my life changed remarkably in a matter of moments. Once restricted by a tight schedule and with almost too much to accomplish, suddenly I’m drinking coffee after supper and playing dominoes until 10:30 at night. The lawn is getting mowed in the morning and I’m napping in the afternoon. Life does change quickly. We measure its flight in longer units, but things change fast, in the blink of an eye and imperceptibly when we’re not paying attention.
The best we can do is to try to be present for the unfolding of moments, the happening of life. Easier said than done, I know, with the natural distractions of the mind to contend with. Our minds inevitably want to take us away to the past, to the future, or to a place that doesn’t exist. It’s very difficult to convince the mind to stay with what is, to stay present. But if we can experience even some of life’s precious time as it moves through and around us, we will be more fully living. When it’s all said and done, that might just be the most worthwhile thing we can do.
The Light of Day
There comes a time in everyone’s life when we just need to pull our heads out of our asses, take a deep breath and a close look at the way things really are. This has been my firsthand experience. Right now, following a resounding POP! like a cork being expelled, I’m breathing in deeply the fresh air and seeing the bright light of day.
Before I continue I’ve got to tell you that I cherish my imagination. In my jobs as a teacher and as a writer, my creativity depends upon my active imagination. Imagination keeps my work from becoming stale, from becoming rote. It keeps me both engaging and engaged. So thanks, imagination. I owe you a lot.
That being said, the difficulty with having a good imagination is that the scenarios and perceptions that are cooked up in my brain often distract me from the realities of everyday life. It’s easy to get so tangled up in the stories my mind concocts and in the characters it creates that I begin to believe that these perceptions and people are real. I get caught up in the make believe storylines, and I suffer for and rejoice in the ups and downs of all this fabricated drama. An imaginary emotional rollercoaster is what I ride.
Too much emotional energy is unnecessarily spent in my attempts to avoid the real world. And what’s sadly true is that I’m probably suffering more than I would if I were to examine people and situations as they really are instead of creating this mental escape route of increased misery. It gets me all worked up and out of touch, this vain try at escape. In the end, it gets me nowhere. It’s all for nothing, nothing but heartache.
The clarity of looking my life in the eye is refreshing. The view outside myself is somewhat lighter than it was inside. The daytime sun illuminates what is real. Some of it’s sad, some disappointing, and some of it’s just great. But it’s real, the real stuff of life. It is what it is and I’m finally, in this moment, seeing it as it is, as much as I’m able.
Of course, our perception colours everything. Being human, we can’t help that. But it feels good to remove as much as possible my created storyline and the background I’ve manufactured against which the stories play out.
My ideas feel lighter, less sticky. I feel less like clinging to the thoughts I once held about this person, that scenario, and who’s to blame for what. Who cares anymore? Not me. I don’t have the kind of time or energy it takes to ponder any of this any further. I’m done.
With this new, broader view, possibilities feel more numerous and opportunities, more plentiful. My mind is mercifully less busy now that I’m not employing it fulltime to construct and maintain a pretend world for me. Yes, it feels good to have withdrawn my head and breathed in deep the sweet air of reality. I’ll keep this feeling close so that when I feel myself slipping back in, I can stop and remember to experience what is right in front of me.
The Joy of Generosity
It’s been a generous spring at our school. With two of our staff retiring, there have been many gifts, many kind words and many thoughtful gestures. Generosity makes everyone feel great but, arguably, generosity is often sweetest for the giver. I say this not to belittle a generous act but to speak to how it unexpectedly benefits the giver.
My turn to be generous finally rolled around at the staff supper at our local golf course club house. Now, prior to writing this, I bandied back and forth wondering: Do I admit my generosity, tell you about what I did, or, if I do, does my small deed then seem less generous and more like bragging?
I decided to tell you about my part in the generosity only because it was a long time coming towards to my fellow staff members and also because I intend to tell about the benefit I gained from it, and that’s really the point.
Okay, back to the golf course. We had all had a great meal and were relaxing and telling jokes and presenting musical numbers and, yes, giving more gifts. Such a good time! Then, as I considered all the kindnesses extended to me over the years by the people I work with – the encouragement and support, the gifts, the teaching materials and inspiration – an idea for a surprise act of generosity popped into my head.
I politely excused myself from the circle of merriment, grabbed my purse and wandered nonchalantly up to the bar. I told the young woman there, “I’d like to pay for everyone’s drinks.”
She asked me, “Are you sure?”
Instead of simply telling her “yes”, while she tallied the bill, I regaled her with tales of all the times these folks had given me gifts, supported my work and bought me drinks. Standing there at the bar with my debit card in hand, I felt giddy with excitement. My heart pounded and I feared that one of my co-workers would sidle up beside me and catch me in the act. They didn’t and I casually found my way back to my chair.
As the party was winding down and the first staff member got up to pay her tab, I stood and stretched and said I was heading home. I made a straight line for the door and heard “Lori!” yelled at my back as I shoved open the door and ran.
I was elated! That simple act at an opportune time was the most fun I’d had in a while. My heart had grown so much through generosity that I thought it would burst right out of my chest on the short drive back home. Even though my co-workers appreciated the drink or two that I’d bought them, it was no big deal for any of them to buy their own. It was what they expected to do, and so not having to do it was, I’m sure, a pleasant surprise.
For me, though, it was pure joy! The mere fact that I’d thought of it when I did made me beam with happiness. Usually, I think of these good ideas only after the time to act has passed. Not in this case, though. I was thrilled to finally have had the chance to be generous in this way. That’s why, after my deliberation, I had to tell you about what I received from being generous.
When we left on vacation a week ago or so, I was feeling in a bit of a rut, a little stale, a tad tired of the same old, same old. Everyday routine had grown tedious and I’d felt for some time that I’d been plodding through my days as they blended into one another until they formed a grey soup in which no flavour stood out.
The flight was flawless and the hotel shuttle picked us up in Los Angeles as scheduled. The van driver was cheerful and chatty and, as we drove through a concrete maze, she told us about her life, her love of music and her two jobs.
Watching the traffic move along the freeway, I commented, “I’m glad I don’t have to drive in this.”
“This? This is nothing! On a Saturday like this, the traffic is good. During the week, I drive a semi on these freeways and the traffic then gets real bad. This is easy. This is nothing. My weekend job driving folks to and from the airport is a breeze.” It’s true that I basically have two jobs, as well. I teach and I work as an author, writing and promoting my work. Sitting there in that van directly behind that hardworking woman who could so capably navigate her way along those urban roadways, I thought it best not to blurt out, “Hey! I’ve got two jobs, too!” because it just isn’t the same thing.
How could I even compare our work lives and what each of us has to do in order to survive? Sure, I usually do some writing on the weekends and during my longer vacations away from my teaching job. But this is my choice. I don’t need to write to earn a living. (Good thing, too, or I’d have starved to death a long time ago!) I choose to work hard at honing my craft because I want to and because this work feeds a passion, not my physical hunger.
The shuttle driver gets no time off. She works seven days a week and has likely never had a vacation, certainly not the kind I was embarking on. She could only dream about a privileged life like mine where there is time and money enough to work at a fulfilling job and to be a writer.
Without her even being aware of it, the van driver gave me a very well-timed gift of perspective. She widened my view and I remembered that some folks have to work very hard to meet their very basic needs. I remained cognisant of this while spending time benefiting from the service workers in Anaheim. This broader view caused me to feel more grateful for my own work and to be a more generous tourist.
In the end, as always, I benefited from the people who cross my life’s path with their stories and their lessons to teach me. In her work and with her struggles, the driver taught me to see the reality of my own life and to taste anew all of life’s flavours.
For 2 months I’ve been saying it. “I’m not going to grow a garden this year. I’m too busy.”
Probably this is true. The garden needs to be planted and tended just when I’m preparing report cards and going on field trips. It needs to be harvested when I’m planning for the upcoming school year and getting to know my new students. Late spring and early fall are busy in classrooms and busy in gardens.
But then, yesterday, I went shopping and ended up at a greenhouse. It was then, with the temptation to plant so close and with the plants so plentiful, that I struck a compromise with myself.
“Self,” I said. “Instead of planting seeds this year, why don’t you purchase bedding plants? Vegetables and flowers that have been started will be easier. Put those into the warm earth, water and fertilize them and – poof! – you’ll have an instant garden.”
I bought this argument and bought a wide variety of flowers and vegetables, and planned to fill my garden plot today, Sunday. Today, the weather was sunny and warm. Perfect for planting. So I put on my gardening clothes, including hat and insect repellant, and out I went armed with a hoe, a tiny bottle of potent fertilizer and a metal watering can.
The first half-an-hour was just fine. Then, slowly, a bad, bitter taste began to fill my mouth. I recognized it immediately as sour resentment. The sun was too hot even in the mid-morning and, having not bothered to eat breakfast, I was hungry and thirsty.
I resented the wilting plants who were appreciating the sun’s intensity as much as I was. I resented the little weeds that were popping up here and there in the recently-tilled soil. I resented even the dirt itself and the buzzing bees as they dutifully pollinated the raspberries. I resented the laughter of neighbours and the singing of the birds. In short, I resented putting in a garden when I had told myself that I wouldn’t this year. I relearned a valuable lesson today: Don’t do anything you know you don’t want to do. I suppose that I’m satisfied now that the garden is in, but it took 4 hours to do the work, the same as it does when I plant my garden from seed. Do I resent this time spent? You bet I do! So very much.
As life speeds up and demands compete with one another for my limited time and energy resources, some things need to fall away. Not forever, in a lot of cases, but for now. I’m pretty good at discerning which things can be set aside and which require my focus. I’m pretty adept at prioritizing.
That’s why, when I knew that I didn’t want to plant a garden, I’m surprised that I did it anyway, only to swallow mouthfuls of resentment along with the dust from the dirt I hoed. Today’s gardening experience served as a reminder that the heart knows what it wants and that my heart wasn’t wanting to plant a garden. Next late spring I vow to listen to my heart and steer clear of greenhouses.
We’ve all been consoled with these words: Don’t give up hope.
The idea is that if we keep that feeling of hope, that little seed close to our hearts, we’ll feel better. Sometimes that’s true. We hope for a better future; we hope for the happiness and health of others; we hope for peace in ourselves and in the world. Fair enough. These are excellent things to hope for, and hoping in this way nurtures a positive outlook.
What we’re told less is how very good it can feel, in some circumstances, to just release hope. Letting go of hope for the things we can’t control is really freeing. And there are many things we can’t control.
We can hope for better weather, but we can’t control the weather. We can hope that the people we love make beneficial choices, but we can’t control people. We can hope that illness won’t affect us or other people, but we can’t control all illnesses.
Because there are so many things we can’t control, in these cases, it feels best to let go of hope. It’s most relaxing to not expend our precious energy resources thinking about that over which we have no influence. Not only is letting go of hope relaxing, this letting go also allows us to avoid some of life’s inevitable disappointments.
If we’re not hoping for sun or rain, for wind or calm, then we’re not disappointed by any weather condition. If we’re not hoping our adult child will choose to pursue further education or take the immediate good-paying job, then we won’t be disappointed by either decision. If we’re not hoping that we’ll live forever free from pain and illness, then we’re less likely to be surprised and disappointed when, unavoidably, we experience pain and illness.
To lend some credibility to my argument, I should confess here that I’ve recently let go of a big piece of hope. What I experienced is a huge release, a feeling of spaciousness and possibility that is so refreshing. Upon giving up this bit of hope, things opened up for me, my heart lightened and my perspective broadened.
I won’t stop hoping for positive change in the world, for advances in science and technology that will benefit the entire planet, for peace in the world. What I will continue to strive for is the courage to release that which I can’t control. I will try to give up hope that my hoping will change what I can’t change. I hope I’m successful!
Who knew that our wardrobes have the power to mark the passage of time as it sails by? I suppose it’s not that surprising as fashion is so fleeting. Shoulder pads, big hair and blue eye shadow in still photographs and in older Youtube videos tell the story of time’s steady forward march.
Reviewing some photographs recently, I had the experience of observing my old red jacket mark time for me. The red jacket kept showing up as the years piled up. I began to wonder, had I bought this water-resistant garment sometime just after the dinosaurs became extinct? There I was in one picture, in my cave, striking a couple stones together to make a spark, and wearing that same red jacket.
I started to calculate the time that had accumulated between then and now. 21 years ago I spent, I think, about $150 on that coat from the Mountain Equipment Co-op in Calgary. Probably by now I’ve gotten my $150 worth of wear out of it.
This past weekend in Jasper National Park, I looked at the photos taken the same place and same time a year ago. The image of last year’s me was wearing the same jeans and the same shirt. Seriously? Seriously. Time to update these old clothes that still feel new.
Speaking of old feeling new, my birthday arrives on or right around this long weekend in May. In fact, as I write this from the passenger seat in a car crossing Alberta east to west, I’m celebrating my birthday. As I do the calculations and watch as the years pile up, there’s no denying my aging. That’s just how it goes and as I like to remind myself, “Aging beats decaying.”
Like my red jacket, I do still feel new to me, and I’m a little shocked when I see my birthdate on my driver’s license and passport. Official documents don’t lie and the numbers are what they are. That being said, I hope that, unlike my red jacket, I have some wear in me yet.
I hope that there’s more time to visit the mountains again, that there are more roller coasters to ride, and more orange sunsets to see. I hope there’s more time in which to create and to relax. I know there’s more wine I want to taste and at least 2 more books I’d love to write. It’s been a great life so far and I feel a little greedy for more before I finally meet a fate similar to that of my red jacket and I’m tossed back into that great cosmic recycling bin from whence I came.
“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
I wish all problems were as small and as solvable as gardening problems! Where will I plant the gladioli bulbs? Did the apple trees survive the winter? Are the rain barrels full?
To my way of thinking, these are very sweet concerns. Having gardening problems like this means I don’t have other, larger problems. Is there a cure for this disease? Was the diagnosis correct? Is this the best course of treatment?
Not long ago, I was convinced that gardening was a waste of time. (Not long ago, I believed that anything enjoyable was a waste of time.) My position on this changed when I began to read the work of Vietnamese writer Thich Nhat Hanh. He taught me that working slowly and mindfully was something more important than running about wildly trying to do 50 things simultaneously. Of course, in our time and place, this is sometimes what success looks like and sometimes what is expected of us. I can accept this and can do 49 things at once if I need to.
However, what I really enjoy now is working slowly, taking the time to notice where I am and what I’m doing. When I’m done here at the computer, I’ll return to slowly pulling the rogue stalks of quack grass out from between the close bases of the raspberry canes in my garden. This job cannot be hurried. It requires patience and presence and is one of those gardening problems I’m happy to have.
I’m happy to have it because this chore slows me down, gets me out of my home office and out into the sunshine. There, the birds talk to me and to each other, the blooms on nearby branches waft their scent my way, and the soil under my knees holds the promise of vegetables and flowers not yet born.
It’s such a treat to savour the work I do instead of rushing through it to get on to the next task. What Thich Nhat Hanh said is true. For me to have understood that work done slowly can be pleasurable, I had to abandon my former views about it and open my mind to the pleasantness of gardening problems.
“It’s our difficulties that bring us strength. Passing through them brings you back to your true self.” - Jack Kornfield
I like this idea that the troubles we face make us stronger. In some cases, I’ve seen that it’s true. In other instances, I’ve seen how hard times can devastate people and how even day to day tedium can grind us down like flowing water smooths stones, finally breaking them down completely and then washing them away.
In writing about my experience of difficulties making me stronger, I am not forgetting those who are irrevocably damaged by the tragedies that befall them. This happens. It’s the hard stuff of life and the reality for many. I recognize that so far I’ve been fortunate to have my troubles, my hard times, come to me as teachers.
It’s full-on spring time here, I can look back on the winter now past and see that the difficulties it brought taught me to know myself better. There’s nothing like experiencing a long, drawn-out sorrow and really being there, caught in the midst of it, to ground oneself.
Gone is any old arrogance I had about being stronger than sadness, tougher than aloneness, and an island unto myself. This winter cleared away some of the misconceptions I’d held about myself and helped me to see Lori Knutson clearly. Not so easy to look at but not all bad, either, just a multi-faceted human being trying to do her best. Sound familiar?
With spring here, the greening grass, the singing birds, the croaking frogs and the shining early morning sun, I feel my heart lightening and expanding. Sorrow isn’t gone. Sadness hasn’t vanished. What’s changed is that I’m more comfortable with it now. I’m more accepting of sadness as a part of me, not as an invader or conqueror or cancer.
In this way, difficulties have improved me. I would not have gone inward or self-reflected if I’d won book awards, been praised for a job well done or got a little tipsy at a backyard barbeque. Pleasant experiences somehow don’t hold the same motivation for personal growth that the less pleasant times do. And it seems you can’t have one without the other. Joy and sorrow are conjoined twins impossible to separate without losing both.
I have come through the dark winter feeling stronger and a little lighter but not because I’m without sadness. Now I’m simply strong enough to live with it and for that, I am grateful.
Generally speaking, we tend to perceive time as linear, as running in a straight line out behind us and stretching unbending before us. I suspect that’s not exactly how it works, and many physicists have some interesting theories about the nature of time, how it moves and how it flows. These ideas fascinate me, but right now, I want to write about my personal experience of time, a narrower perspective, a snapshot of time as I see it.
Lately, I see myself as The Little Engine That Could sitting on a short rail line with only a few metres behind me and only a few in front. Gone is the past and there’s no future in sight. I can’t seem to move ahead and I sure can’t go back. And so I sit stalled, and it seems as though time is moving around me, like water around rocks whose dry, untouched tops protrude from the current.
It’s not the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced, not by a long way. It’s just different for someone who likes action, who likes to change, who likes to feel she’s moving along with time. In fact, I find myself enjoying this chance to quietly watch as life moves around my still, stuck form. It’s interesting if a bit disconcerting because, sitting still like this, everything seems so close up as it passes by. I see more detail in all that comes my way.
Of course, I understand that whether I am aware of it or not, time is moving me along. None of us ever stands still. Not really. We are altered and changed moment to moment. Cells die and are regenerated constantly. We all age, babies are born every day and all the time, and every day, people die. I realize that although I feel static, the very existence of time itself forces me to be dynamic until I no longer exist.
And yet for the time being, I feel like more an observer than a participant in all these swirling changes, all this movement. Soon, I know that time will seem to open up again before me with all its perceived possibilities and I’ll roll on down the line. For now, I’ll do my best to stay patiently put while time makes its way around me, coming in close but never quite touching me. It seems I have no other choice while I’m stalled on the tracks.
Lost In Thought
Just the other morning, I was moving through my routine on autopilot, thinking about where I was going, where I had been and where I’d rather be. My mind was lost in thought and lost to fantasy. I didn’t notice the coffee I was drinking or the softness of the work clothes I donned. I paid no attention to the contents of the lunch I packed or to the feel of the wooden floor beneath my feet. Pretty much, I was as asleep as I’d been in my bed an hour earlier. Moving around but still dreaming.
Finally, I put on my coat, stepped into my boots and reached for the door. On the back step, the spring sunlight jolted me awake and for the first time since opening my eyes that morning, I caught sight of the reality outside my head.
The warm air kissed my face and high up in a towering pine tree across the alley, a robin sang the sweetest song. An insect buzzed by and I could smell the earth as it warmed and thawed. Suddenly, after sleepwalking for so long, I sensed everything around me and, in that present moment, the world was beautiful.
This awakening reminded me how much reality I often miss when I’m taken away to non-existent places by my thoughts. My mind takes me to fabricated future work scenarios that leave me feeling stressed and a little frantic. To escape these unpleasant feelings, my mind scoops me up and drops me a long way south of here into a place I’ll likely never visit and into the company of someone I’ll probably never meet. I stay there for a bit, feeling comforted, until I’m distracted by new ideas, dropped into new fantasies and transported somewhere else by my restless mind.
The present moment is precious. It’s the only place in which I really exist at all. Every single new cell in my body generated while I slept last night is here now. The tender shoots of grass that pushed up through the soil yesterday, the blue robin’s eggs in their nest, and the words appearing on this screen as I type are all present and then past as quickly as they arise. Everything new and fresh is held right here, right now and for the briefest time, in this very moment and in this exact place.
All I need to do to experience the brand-new-ness is wake up and open myself to it. It’s the simplest and, simultaneously, the most difficult thing to do.
There’s nothing like a full-day first aid course to make one feel both terribly fragile and wonderfully intact.
An unexpected benefit of taking a first aid course yesterday was the tide of gratitude I felt wash over me each time the class explored yet another horrific way to be injured or to become ill. When we explored heart attacks in all their forms, I thought about my heart. Sometimes it palpitates and falls out of rhythm, and occasionally it beats faster than it should for longer than it should. Mostly, though, my heart has served me very well for nearly half a century now. I found myself thinking, “Thanks, heart. I vow to treat you with more consideration from now on.”
Bone and joint injuries got me thinking about the time in Grade 7 when I’d tripped during a soccer game and suffered a hairline fracture on my ankle. It healed within a couple of weeks. I thanked my skeleton for all the ways it moves me and for the strength of its bones and the flexibility of its joints, the reasons for the mobility I take for granted.
Strokes caused me to consider my circulatory system and how it keeps me going without my thought or interference. I remembered my Grandpa Knutson who suffered a series of debilitating strokes that finally attacked the speech centre in his brain, leaving him frustrated and unable to verbally communicate. I remembered him struggling to express ideas and speaking gibberish instead. I remembered his tears and felt profoundly grateful for the years I’ve lived without experiencing a stroke, and felt thankful for the advances made in the treatment of strokes.
Of course, anything can happen to any one of us at any time, but that’s not usually something I think about. Because I don’t think a lot about the suddenness or randomness of illness and accidents, I’m not afraid to leave my house or to drive or to travel. I’m not afraid to try new foods or new activities. Most of the time, I’m simply not that afraid of being injured or getting sick.
While the first aid course did make me feel a little more skittish about the dangers all around me, at the same time, I felt lucky to have dodged as many bullets as I have this far along the road of life. I have lived a really fit and healthy, safe and fortunate life. By the close of the course, I felt better-equipped to face emergency situations and more aware of my own good health and especially of my own good luck.
Grocery Store Gratitude
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.”
― A. A. Milne
The other day, I was complaining to a friend about a hateful task: grocery shopping. Although I’ve developed a tolerance for it, if I could pay someone to do it for me, I would. Unfortunately, I like eating and cooking, and living very rurally as I do, the availability of restaurants is limited. And so I am trapped into regularly buying food.
On this occasion, however, my perspective shifted a little as I walked through those polished, well-oiled gates of Hell, the automatic sliding doors. The change in thinking happened when, for some reason, I remembered a story I’d heard a long time ago.
After several long months, a man returned from doing relief work in some horribly devastated country. Re-adjusting to the relative abundance of the western world proved to be challenging for this humanitarian worker. He spoke of standing in the produce section of his local Safeway immobilized and weeping at the bins and bins of fresh food. He was completely overwhelmed by the contrast between his recent experience and that of more radishes than you can shake a stick at.
Just then, my attitude towards grocery shopping softened as I considered that abundance and the wealth to procure it are privileges not shared by everyone. My chains fell off and I felt free and light to shop for yoghurt and berries, for nuts and cheese. Unburdened by my bitchiness, the grocery store seemed now like a place of opportunity, a place to wander through and explore. Well, almost. Not like Disneyland but better than it had been for me.
In this season of new life, the relief worker’s tale reminded me that I can resurrect my own gratitude. Thankfulness doesn’t have to lay there dormant beneath the snow and frost. With the encouragement of my sunny outlook warming it, gratitude can sprout up where it’s never grown before – even in the aisles of the dreaded grocery store.