In Real Life
During this most restless week of time off and almost-but-not-quite spring, I got up from my computer and went out into the real world. There are a couple people in my neighbourhood who I know best through social media. Prior to this, I’d seen them around, had brief conversations with them, but mostly I connected with one of them through Facebook and the other through Twitter.
Both live across the alley from me in separate dwellings but on the same block. I extended one invitation (actually, I invited myself over) and received another, a visit in the morning and a visit in the afternoon. How fun and unusual it was to chat with flesh and blood humans! And they gave me stuff, too. I like the kind comments and encouragement I receive on social media, but I REALLY like getting real stuff.
The first neighbour I visited is a creative gal who hand paints small stones, turning them into works of art and then distributing them for people to enjoy. Sometimes she creates them for community events or to commemorate special occasions. Other times, she hides the decorated rocks where she knows local children will find them. She generously gave me some of these unique rocks to keep for myself or to give away. I think I’ll do a little of both.
In the afternoon, I walked down to the other end of the alley to see another IRL neighbour. To encourage conversation, he ground some hazelnut flavoured coffee beans so we could enjoy a cup of rocket fuel – I mean, coffee – with the banana bread I’d brought along. Now, I’m Scandinavian (big surprise) and therefore I like my coffee strong. Really strong. This guy did not disappoint. I was ricocheting off the walls for two hours after I got home, my heart palpitating like the drumbeat in a punk rock song. Fantastic!
I immensely enjoy interacting online. It’s quick, convenient and wonderfully distracting. I’ve met some funny, smart and kind people online. Mostly, these relationships are neat and tidy, but even when they become a little messy, these virtual connections lack the complexity and flavour of IRL interactions.
No one makes me coffee online or gives me hand-painted rocks. I can’t sit in their kitchens or living rooms, meet their kids or their parents, and I can’t walk with them in the woods or drink beer with them on a sunny patio. Sometimes this makes me kind of sad, but that’s reality. Virtual reality.
I won’t give up my online connection to the world. I know that it has too much to offer me through its incredibly wide reach. It’s both fun for me and beneficial to me. At the same time, I won’t forget the value of stepping away from my computer and out into the world to nurture my IRL relationships with all their flavour and complexity.
Forgiveness Changes Everything
Just the other day I discovered that a sweet bit of forgiveness had been extended to me. After some time of feeling heavy-hearted, I finally feel light again. The gift of that gesture changed my whole outlook.
Who knows? Perhaps it seemed like a small act to the forgiver, but to me it was big. When we’ve been hurt, it takes a courageous heart to open a door again. I was touched and, knowing the forgiver, not that surprised.
It’s the trouble with human relationships. We can’t help hurting each other. In connecting with others, some pain is inevitable. Whether it’s in work, in family or in our social circles, it’s how we choose to deal with relationship fallout that matters.
Now me, I do my best a avoid relationship pain the best I can, both giving and receiving it. I don’t relish conflict and I don’t crave drama. We all say and do clumsy things. That’s just the way it sometimes goes.
I understand the folks who say, “The more I get to know people, the more I love my horse.” I get it. Animals don’t disagree with us, criticize us, show up late for meals or snub us at parties. Their love is unconditional, but they couldn’t tell a good dirty joke if their furry lives depended on it. They can’t compliment us or give us that hard advice we don’t want to hear. For me, life without the irritating and interesting colours and textures of people would be lonely and monochromatic.
The thing about forgiveness is that everyone wins. I feel much better now, and I bet the forgiver feels a bit lighter, too. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” I don’t know who originally said this, but the statement is dead-on and captures perfectly that feeling of release that only forgiveness grants.
I know there’s a way of thinking that views forgiveness as weak and powerless to change anything. “Feed your dog sorry and see how fat he gets.” Well, I’m not certain of much, but I am certain that this is wrong. Forgiveness changes everything.
Growing My Brain
The last bit of new learning I engaged in (outside of the ongoing learning required by my employment) was guitar lessons, and that experience was humbling enough. Rhythm. Isn’t that supposed to come naturally? Like breathing or sneezing? Let me put it this way: I haven’t had to spend the last decade practising and improving my breathing and sneezing.
Learning new stuff has taught me something that my family and longtime friends have known for a while: I’m not as smart as I think I am. The unfolding mystery of the en dash and the em dash has left me considering that I’ve been using them both wrong. Repeatedly.
But if you, dear reader, walked in right now, took away my reference books and my computer, and demanded that I explain to you the specific usages of these dashes, maybe, just maybe I could. But probably not. First of all, because I’m not sure and secondly, because I’d be terrified by you storming in, taking my things and yelling at me about punctuation. Terrified and confused. How did you find me and why do you care?
Yet, on I plod, wading through proofreading marks today and feeling like an archeologist unscrambling ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. “These easy-to-understand marks will help you to communicate changes to the final document…”
Help. I’m drowning.
Or is this how it feels to learn to swim? Even though all this new learning is challenging, it feels good to have my brain rewired, to feel it utilizing and forming pathways as I struggle to absorb new information. It’s difficult, but I think I like it. I like the change and I like the subject matter.
As it turns out, new learning is not the problem. The barrier lies in getting over myself and of the image I hold of Lori Knutson as experienced writer and teacher. I want to hold onto that shaky sense of self. I want to establish my place in the ever-changing current of time. I want to cling to who I think I am.
This new learning has caused me to ask: Is it more important to maintain my old self-perception or to grow my brain and shrink my ego? The fact that I’m sitting here considering the proper usage of the en and em dashes at all answers that question.
Change is Here
Not so long ago, I was talking to a friend. He seemed to feel that the moral fabric of the world was coming apart at the seams, that the world was going to Hell in a handbasket. I didn’t disagree with him because sometimes I feel the same way.
Last week, I got an interesting book from the public library. Near the beginning of his narrative, the author writes: “There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity.”
I thought, as I read his words, “True enough. We do seem to live in a particularly insecure time.” I kept on reading.
“In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief.”
This writer was hitting the nail on the head! This was just the kind of thing my friend and I were discussing. All the recent change, the upheaval and the fact that…
“As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true…”
He had it right, this writer. Alan Watts wrote The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety in 1951 – when my dad was 8 years old. I know lots of people who look back on those days through the rosy lens of nostalgia. The good old days, when men were men and women were women; when folks went to church and believed in something; the time before technology took over our lives.
But, apparently, in 1951, people felt pretty much the same about change as we do today. Change was as unsettling to them as it is to us. Hey! That’s something that hasn’t changed…
Change doesn’t stop. Life is fluid, ever-moving, ever-flowing as a river. (Time as a river. An original comparison, I know.) As human beings who want life to be nice and solid, we’re inevitably going to be disappointed or worse when life’s circumstances shift and take us where we don’t want to go.
What’s the solution? I’m not certain. Go with it? Expect and accept change the best we can? It’s coming anyway. No, wait. It’s already here. Perhaps it’s best just to move in and around it, nurture our own fluidity to enable us to swim with life’s current, and to not drown in the struggle against change.
Life should be forced to mirror our own grieving hearts. When we’re aching from loss, no birds should be allowed to sing and the sun should be banned from the sky. Happy songs should be muted and laughing children, shushed. Flower petals should crumple and playful kittens should lie down and sleep. It’s how we feel when a loved one dies.
On a bright August day, at the height of the flowers’ blooming, we held my grandmother’s funeral. Inside the hall, it was easy to forget that life continues. The interior was sad, like the mourners, and there were few windows to let in the sun. It was on that slow walk down the aisle and into the day that the summer weather began to offend me with its cheerfulness. Even the snails-pace drive out to the cemetery for the interment felt far too light, far too airy, and far too sunny. Not quite like we were headed to the lake for a picnic, but close.
At the prairie gravesite, life hummed all around us. The grasshoppers leapt and nibbled and scissored their legs in chorus, “Life goes on, life goes on…” I wanted to step on them. The sparrows in the tall, tall trees twittered and fluttered as they searched for sustenance. I hated them as much as I hated the grasshoppers.
There were quite a number of babies around, too: great grandchildren too small to talk, and yet proclaiming loudly enough, “I’m young, I’m alive, I’m adorable! Be joyful!” I didn’t hate those babies, and I didn’t want to step on them, but I recall less-than-appreciating their fresh presence.
Then, in an instant, I saw the life surrounding me and the other mourners as my dearly-departed might have. Grandma loved birds and babies and wanted to step on grasshoppers. She had loved everyone in that hall and all those who recited the twenty-third Psalm at her graveside. This sunny, August day was for her, after all, and it was perfect. Except for her absence.
Of course, I’m lying a little bit here in this preceding paragraph. It took a while for me to forgive the weather its rudeness, to forgive the birds their singing and the babies their being. It didn’t really happen the day of her funeral or even for weeks after. But it did eventually happen that I began to see that life does go on and that my grandma would love for me to enjoy life for as long as I walk the earth.
Today, though, I’m thinking of you who have recently lost someone dear. I wish for you that soon the sun and the birds will bring comfort, that babies will gurgle, coo and bring joy, and that you’ll have many opportunities, if wanted, to step on grasshoppers. I wish for you that life, with all its sorrows and sweetness, will go on.
Sometimes a moment is held in our memories like a still photograph.
Yesterday afternoon was warm and bright, and we were driving out of the city when the gravel truck traveling ahead of us in the right lane slowed to a stop. We pulled up along the left side of the heavy truck and stopped at the crosswalk to allow a few pedestrians to make their way across the street.
One of the crossers was a young man with Down syndrome, maybe 18 or 19 years old. As he passed in front of the gravel truck, he smiled up, lifted his closed hand and pulled it down shortly through the air to indicate that he wanted the truck driver to honk. The driver did honk, and smiled and waved as the man loped through the crosswalk and over to the concrete walk on the opposite side.
I was deeply touched by this scene. I was touched by the truck driver’s kindness and touched by the young man’s trust that the truck driver would be kind. The Down syndrome man was only a couple of metres away from where I sat in the passenger seat when he motioned to the gravel truck operator. There wasn’t a glimmer of doubt in the young man’s eyes and there was no hesitation in his gait.
When interacting with other humans, I often feel hesitation and doubt. How will my words, my body language, or my tone be interpreted and potentially misread by others? How will they respond to what I’ve said or how I’ve behaved? How will others “take” what I say or what I do?
Human communication is full of wild cards. We can’t know how others will respond to us and so, at a young age, we begin moulding the masks that fit snugly overtop of what we really feel. Arguably necessary, these masks prevent us from fully connecting with one another.
I was deeply moved by the spontaneous connection between the young man in the crosswalk and the gravel truck driver. No masks. No judgements. Only a wave and a honk and a smile.
How refreshing and how sweet an image it was. I wish I could have digitally captured that moment so that I could return to it again and again. I know what I’d call it, too: Masks Off.
Last week I took a 24-hour break from social media. Now for me, this is pretty big. I actively post on three sites and a few others less often.
I dream about posting; I dream about having my Facebook page liked or unliked; I dream about gaining Twitter followers. Surely during the nighttime hours of sleep my mind could occupy itself with sweeter images than these. And yet…
Often I get up from watching a good TV show or reading an excellent book in order to compulsively check my email, look at my notifications and to post something new. I fear I may be a social media addict. That’s why I took a day to dry out.
It was hard. Initially, I felt at loose ends, like I should have something to do, somewhere to go. After a bit, I began to relax into my time off, and my mind became freer and clearer, less cluttered. I thought the virtual world revolved around me but when I checked-in the following morning, I was horrified to discover that I was not missed. Not even a little! The virtual world did not spin off its axis in my absence. I was happy and sad, relieved and dejected.
In a sense, social media is real. The people behind the posts are certainly real and there’s a responsibility to be respectful and kind when online. Hurt feelings are hurt feelings, online or off. Being blocked or banned or having the door slammed in one’s face all feel the same. Losing a friend is losing a friend.
But social media is restricted by the fact that it remains virtual. If I need an egg or a cup of sugar, I go next door or across the street. If I get stuck in the alley after a heavy snowfall, I’m glad that Bob is not my Facebook friend but instead is my real neighbour and will give me a push. I know my 2700 Twitter followers won’t be crammed into the community hall the day of my funeral.
Social media builds bridges. Lots of times I’ll receive kind post comments from neighbours I rarely see or talk to – people who live in a 20 kilometre radius of me. I “like” their comments, but I don’t phone them or invite them over for coffee, tea or something with a bit more of a kick. It’s sad. I crave company, but instead of making an effort and seeking it out I sit in front of this computer screen.
I know, I know. I see the irony, as well. You don’t have to point it out. When I’m done writing this and reading it over a couple times, I’ll post it online for you to see. Without this virtual connection, you would likely never know the things I think about and how I view the world, how life looks through my lens of perception. For this and for the connections I’ve made online, I am grateful to social media.
During the upcoming week I’ll take another day off from social media – probably Tuesday again. Maybe I’ll make a phone call or watch an entire show or venture out for coffee. What I will try not to do is forsake real life for a life lived online. Wish me luck.
Generally, I see myself as a patient person. I try my best to think of life in long terms: the building up and wearing down of mountains, the filling and emptying of seas, the burning and growth of forests. I try to see life as a journey and not one limited to my own experience.
Because of this long-view I attempt to take, I was very humbled the other morning when the internet connection was at first sluggish and then stopped working altogether. Ironically, I’d just finished meditating for half-an-hour and you’d think I’d be pretty chill after that. It was an erroneous assumption, at best.
I reached for my new tablet, thinking, “Hey, I’ll just check my social media sites using this handy little gadget.” I turned it on and started jabbing my novice fingertip at all the colourful icons representing my online connection to the world. When each icon responded either too reluctantly or not at all, I jabbed harder and sort of accusingly, softly muttering under my breath a little something about the blessings of technology...
And then suddenly, I thought my head was going to pop right off all because I couldn’t check my notifications. Who liked my tweets or retweeted my tweets? Who followed me or liked my page? What new and interesting photos of dogs reading newspapers had been posted?
I was suffering! Didn’t the virtual world understand my need for online speed? Didn’t the internet realize that the world revolves around this very small me?
Then I remembered: The world doesn’t revolve around this very small me. In fact, the non-operational internet service had almost nothing to do with me except that I was trying to use it as distraction, as entertainment, and couldn’t. In fact, there were people with way bigger problems than slow internet waking up that morning.
Finally, I laughed at my impatience, shut down my tablet and got ready for real life.
Give Irritability a Chance
The other day I was jabbed by a pin-prick of irritation and I immediately thought: No irritation in the grave.
I do like to write about death, one of the things we all have in common. He’s a friend that I like to keep close by to remind me to appreciate life. Why else does death exist? Just to spoil all the fun of life? I don’t think so. The better reason is that death sweetens life just as exhaustion sweetens sleep and today’s clouds make tomorrow’s sun shine brighter.
It’s true that no matter how we’re feeling, what emotions are passing through and colouring our view, feeling anything at all is reassurance that we’re alive. Sure, it’s not perpetual bliss, but it is life. Country songs tell about this all the time: “I’d rather hurt than feel nothin’ at all.”
No pain in the grave, no rock in our shoe, no sun in our eyes.
An irritated mind, a sore hip, a restless heart are all signs that we are still walking the earth despite everything that could’ve taken us out by now. And in that fact lays opportunity – the opportunity to notice that we’re alive, just now, just in this moment.
It’s a chance that stab of irritation – so annoying and unwelcome – reminded me to take. Chances like this don’t come along every day, and these chances certainly cease after we do. Speak up, irritation. Tell me what it is you want to teach me. I’m listening.
Most of us have done this – sampled something we should have left alone, stood a bit too close to the fire, tested our resolve and watched it crumble.
In the grey of winter and in the dull monotony of everyday life, sometimes something shiny and promising catches our eye:
- a spark in the darkness,
- a lamp in the night,
- a Siren’s call across the water.
It beckons us and our brain says, “Please don’t go there.” But for one moment our deepest yearning overpowers our toughest logic and off we go. Behind us, our logic calls out, “You’re only hurting yourself!” We know and it’s beside the point. We don’t want to hear it.
What is this bejeweled and dazzling object on the beach of shelved dreams and dull stones? Choose your poison – or poisons:
- a buffet binge until it hurts
- a bottle of wine all to oneself
- junk TV that clogs the mind
- fried food that clogs the arteries
- a warm invitation from a kind stranger
- a pack of cigarettes after a decade of none
- the blinking lights of a video lottery terminal
- pain medication when there is no physical pain
Any one of these and a whole host of others have the potential to shoot us to the height of ecstasy and then abruptly drop us on our heads. At this point, our brain is confused and hurting so much that it can’t even utter a triumphant, “Told you so.”
Pleasure and pain, two polar opposites and yet married to one another. Within each of us, they live unsettled, arguing and fighting for control. The best we can do is mediate and not let one or the other run the show for too long.
In these dingy days of nothing-much-to-look-forward-to, I wish you all the best in keeping out of too much pleasure and too much pain and a whole bunch of trouble. I’d be much obliged if, during this long, long winter, you’d do the same for me.
New Year's Eve 2015
It’s funny how time changes our perspective. When I was young(er), New Year’s Eve was typically a bit of a downer. I’d go inward and review all the things that had not happened that year, all the goals I’d set and then left there, dusty and unaccomplished, in a dark corner.
I had not learned to play guitar; I had not yet completed that correspondence course; I hadn’t decided on a suitable career; I hadn’t lost weight or gained popularity; I hadn’t found adventure, love or even much romance. I’d never be a writer and I’d never have a satisfying job. Of these things I was certain, and I couldn’t be dissuaded from following my own miserable mindset.
As the clock struck midnight and being unable to sink any lower into self-pity, I’d unconvincingly bolster myself up. I’d begin grasping frantically at new goals, new ideas and new adventures that I could – no, that I would – make happen.
I would finish that course; I would write a book; I would enroll (again) in university; I’d exercise and eat right; I’d buy a guitar; I’d skydive with my new love; I’d meet people and make a bazillion friends; I’d study to be an astronaut who trains horses and rides the intergalactic rodeo circuit…
By the end of the night and by the time I was done “buoying” myself up, I was left feeling overwhelmed and deflated, a bit dizzy and chronically unsuccessful.
Years have passed and my outlook has changed. Although I still crave the adventure and notoriety of the intergalactic rodeo circuit (who doesn’t?) I’ve learned that there are greater things than goals and accomplishments. That’s not to say that I haven’t done some rewarding things. It’s been great to have those opportunities, but in accomplishing goals I’ve learned that accomplishments aren’t what fill me up. Like salty potato chips, accomplishments leave me wanting more. The satisfaction is short-lived.
It is gratitude and loving others that has finally satisfied me. And so this New Year’s Eve, I think of all that hasn’t happened to me and that I haven’t done. I haven’t undergone any chemotherapy or radiation treatments; I haven’t broken a bone or anyone’s heart; I haven’t been injured in a car crash or lost anyone I love to an accident; I haven’t lost my job or lost a limb or lost a child; I haven’t lost my mind or lost my mobility; I haven’t contracted Hepatitis B, been kidnapped or murdered.
For now, I am safe and sound, and I’m aware that everything changes and that others have not been as fortunate this past year. It’s not enough for me to feel lucky to have dodged a few of life’s inevitable bullets. In order for my gratitude to expand into love, I remember those who did suffer a death, a loss, a diagnosis, a hospital stay, a life sentence, and I wish them well. It’s not resolving for the future or reviewing the past, that will make it a happy New Year for me. Thankfulness for what I have and trying to see beyond my own desires is what will satisfy my heart this New Year’s Eve.
Christmas Card Conundrum
It’s that time of year again when I typically begin writing out Christmas cards to send to some friends and family. I don’t send a whole bunch out, no more than twenty. Sometimes I employ the services of an online retailer that allows me to drag and drop my own photos into cards, to decorate with borders, and to create my own verses, sentimental or silly. This is always a fun option, but I’ve left it too late this year and, besides, it’s what I did last year.
The year before last, I was on sabbatical and had time to compose a Christmas letter about our recent adventures – some true, some falsified. My dad said about it, “That letter was publishable.” Thanks, Dad.
I love paper Christmas cards! They come in such a wide range of colours, styles and textures. Even the freebies received from various charities are gorgeous. I appreciate the relaxation – when I’m not feeling pressured – of sitting in the evening or early morning, filling out cards and addressing them. I like writing with shiny gel pens and applying festive stickers and informative address labels. In short, for me it’s fun.
Social media has done its part in replacing some traditional season’s greetings and, in some ways, has enhanced these greetings. For example, I loved the Thanksgiving greetings this year posted on Facebook with pictures of families, pumpkins and leaves, and verses extending all sorts of good wishes. I really enjoyed Facebook photos of children, adults and whole families dressed up for Halloween. This sharing has definitely enhanced my experience of holidays.
Technology provides us with an avenue for creative, quick communication, and I have fully embraced it. At heart, though, and when it comes to Christmas cards, I crave tradition.I remember the long string strung across the wall of many a living room from which hung suspended all the Christmas cards received that holiday season. The longer and fuller the string, the more loved we felt. Now we look to “likes” and page views to gauge how much we’re loved. (I guess we’ll always seek out tools to measure the immeasurable. It’s just how we humans seem to be wired.)
Even as I write this, sending out Christmas cards looks like a daunting task. But reading over these lines for typos prior to posting, I’m reading that for me, at least, it may be worth the time and effort to connect in this way. In the larger scheme of things, it’s not about the cards. It’s about the time I’ll take to remember those I love and that might just be reason enough.
Content as Bob
Bob is a Jack Russell terrier who likes to sleep here on his cushion. He was a rescue dog three times before he found his permanent home at the Skimmerhorn winery in beautiful Creston, British Columbia. According to the staff at the winery’s bistro, because of young Bob’s extraordinary hyperactivity, others who adopted him ended up returning him to the shelter. Now Bob is old and happy to stretch out on the wooden floor of the restaurant or on its shady deck, the same deck upon which we enjoyed a nice, long lunch.
As it turns out, Bob enjoys pork loin, and so does my husband. While the two of them savoured that dish as the staff politely offered to shoo Bob away, I sank my fork into a huge samosa with a lentil ragout and coconut curry sauce. On the side there was a big yellow beet and a bright orange carrot. From where we sat in the warm breeze beneath spreading boughs, I had a perfect view of the bistro’s kitchen garden where this produce was grown. To me, the meal was delicious, but this vegan delight was somewhat less interesting to Bob.
Wine? Of course we had wine! The Skimmerhorn had a tremendous year at the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition where their white Autumn Tryst won a gold medal. Following our pre-lunch wine tasting (there should always be a pre-lunch wine tasting) this was the wine we chose to have with our late lunch and to buy for my dad.
We didn’t want to leave this wine at the winery and so purchased a few bottles to come back with us to Alberta. Knowing that the Autumn Tryst might miss its friends, we also brought back some of the Ortega and a bottle of Old Koot, a many-layered port with a sweet kick, to keep the Autumn Tryst company in the cool dark of our cold room.
When traveling, I love discovering these local jewels, little bright gems created out of love and sweat, clear vision and long hours. In 2003 former fruit farmers Al and Marleen Hoag purchased the land on which they envisioned establishing a winery. Their beautiful wine tasting bar and wine shop opened in June of 2007 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Because of the fine efforts and inspiration of these Creston B.C. folks, I was able to experience for an hour or two the same kind of contentment that Bob enjoys every day. That lucky dog.
“Do I look wrinkly?” I asked my husband the other morning while preparing for work.
“A little,” he answered.
I was referring to my un-pressed cotton shirt. He was referring to my skin. I frowned and then we laughed.
It’s true now that every morning the lines etched in my face overnight by the fabric of the pillowcase are slower to disappear. The deep parentheses around my mouth make it look like an aside (or something like that). And when I smile, my eyes still sparkle but they also crinkle up.
That’s life. If we’re lucky to live long enough, we wrinkle up a bit. Occasionally, though, I do catch myself feeling sad about this most natural of inevitabilities. Then I remember…
I remember the boy I knew who was killed in a car accident when we were in high school. He’ll never have the chance to get wrinkly and the people who love him will never have the opportunity to see him change and grow and mature.
I remember the young girl, who, in despair, took her own life. There will be no crow’s feet for her, no crinkly, smiling eyes.
I remember my own mother, dying slowly when she was younger than I am now. No wrinkles for her, either. Instead, her body broke down in more significant and painful ways, depriving her of the chance to feel a touch of melancholy at growing older.
Out of respect for those who died before they could wrinkle, I’ll try today to open my heart a little wider and embrace those wrinkles, those changes, and my own healthy, natural aging process. There are worse things – much worse things – than growing older and changing as the years pass. Being granted the opportunity to see time alter and reshape me can be a gift, an unexpected sweetness that arrives with the passing of years. It all depends on how I view my wrinkles.
The Historic Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, Washington – what a tremendous labour of love! This elegant building originally opened in September of 1914, the centre of social and business activity in that rapidly growing, fast-paced city. It was a railway serviced hotel and as long as guests arrived by train, the Davenport Hotel had guests. But times inevitably change and after switching hands several times, the once grand landmark closed in 1985 with threats of demolition hovering low over its stately rooftop. At that time, future Spokane mayor Sheri Barnard served as a councilwoman who organized Friends of the Davenport to ensure that the beautiful old girl would not be knocked off her foundation.
Approximately 10 years ago, I learned about the grand old hotel from a PBS documentary that told its history and eventual restoration. The story stuck with me and when I recently ended up visiting Spokane, I really wanted to find the Davenport Hotel. Not difficult, as it turned out.
From our adventures in Riverfront Park our little group made its way to the nicely air-conditioned mall and the tourist information centre located there.
“Oh. The Historic Davenport?” the tourism representative clarified. Apparently there are 3 or 4 Davenport Hotels in Spokane. No kidding. She handed us a brochure with a drawing of the building featured on its cover and pointed, “It’s just 2 blocks up that way on your right.”
And there it was. I was blown away. The faded images in my mind from that PBS documentary had not prepared me for this kind of architectural splendour. In 2000, Spokane property developer, Walt Worthy, purchased the abandoned Davenport Hotel for 6.5 million dollars and embarked on a 2 year restoration that would end up costing 36 million. This figure’s not surprising when standing in that sweeping lobby, created to resemble a Spanish style patio, or looking down upon it from the mezzanine. To lend perspective to that project’s timeline, it’s taken me about 2 years to clean and organize my garage. These guys did a little more than tidy shelves and sharpen mower blades.
This labour of love inspired me. As the old guys around here say, “They’ll never get their money back out of that.” No, probably not. So what will Mr. Walt Worthy get? He and those who worked to restore the hotel probably received the sense of history having been miraculously resurrected, the daily appreciation of patrons and visitors like me, and that good old fashioned feeling of having contributed to a community. That’s something, I’d say.
Although the 2 efforts can hardly be compared, my writing and Walt Worthy’s restoration of the Davenport Hotel, his vision and willingness to give a lot to a project gives me fuel to keep on writing.
Ever since I finished up Denby Jullsen, Hughenden I’ve wanted to write another novel set in the 1930s and partially based, once again, on historical events. But part of me keeps looking for a shortcut, a way around the work or simply an easier project. That part of me keeps saying, “You’ll never get your time or money back out of that.” No, probably not, but I when I stood there in the Historic Davenport Hotel, I understood that sometimes that simply isn’t the point at all.
For more history about the Davenport Hotel, you can visit: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=7545 Also, when visiting Spokane, consider staying at the Historic Davenport Hotel. Its rates are affordable, its location is beautiful and it will be an experience you’ll not soon forget.
When thunder started booming hard enough to shake the house and lightning crackled across the sky, I turned off my computer.
As the long-awaited rain tumbled from the clouds, I cranked open the window nearest my favourite chair and sat down to listen to those drops falling. In that moment free from virtual distractions, the world suddenly seemed very close up, magnified and solid. I was so moved by this unexpected closeness that I blew the dust off my notepad and began to write this.
The internet’s been my marketing agent and the computer, my best writing tool ever. All this technology allows me to reach and connect with readers whom otherwise may’ve never known my name. But this opportunity-offering virtual world can be a distraction from the natural world of trees and sky, of birds and peanut butter cookies.
Away from my computer I picked today’s crop of ripe raspberries before the forecasted rain. From my garden I heard my neighbours in their backyard and went over to see how they were doing. Their backyard is like a park with beautifully blooming clematis, lilies and the showiest begonias I’ve ever seen. And in two of their trees are little wooden houses bursting with baby birds.
Now, I realize that I can see flowers on the internet and even watch as a mama sparrow feeds its young on You Tube but, darn it, it’s just not the same as experiencing it live. As I visited with my neighbours, the one birdhouse was no more than two and a half metres from where I sat surrounded by all those glorious blooms and lush leaves. It felt good to talk to people near enough to touch and to listen to the birds. I guess sometimes I’d rather hear a tweet than compose one and I’d rather have a conversation than fire off an email.
So here I sit, wrapping this up, with the rain still drumming the grateful ground. Of course, when the electricity stops flashing through the heavens, I’ll turn that computer back on and type this out for you to read. For now, though, I’ll remain a little longer unplugged from technology and plugged in to life.
She sat on an overhead wire tilting in the warm breeze. She watched me carefully as I set my bucket of seed packets down onto the newly-tilled soil of my backyard garden plot. The drip hose had been running on the two rows of raspberry canes for at least an hour and now the soil around their bases was good and wet. That robin knew that where saturated soil was to be found, so were worms coming to the earth’s surface for air.
I began planting beets first and closest to the sweet peas, creating a short shallow ditch with the hoe blade and then dropping seeds as evenly spaced as possible. Every once in a while I glanced up to see if she was still there, watching me. Sometimes, she wasn’t but mostly she was there, flying from wire to wire, occasionally directly above the garden but usually over the back fence and safely across the alley.
I worked slowly and calmly, reminding myself of the time not so long ago when putting in a garden was just another chore to be endured and gotten through so that I could get on to the next, seemingly more important, task. It’s different now. I try to stay in place. When planting the garden, I am planting the garden, feeling the grainy seeds in the palm of my hand, smelling the dirt, listening to the song of the birds and the hum of the bees, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back.
When I’m planting the garden I remind myself that there’s nothing else to do but plant the garden. And the robin watched me as I began to plant the carrots. Now she had moved to a wire above the raspberries. She looked at me working slowly, intentionally and then the robin dropped down about three metres from where I knelt in the dirt and began her search for earthworms. I sat still and watched the bird hopping along and pecking at the wet ground.
This doesn’t happen very often, but in that moment, watching the robin with the sun on my back, time felt suspended. My vision seemed crisper, the humming of the bees seemed nearer. Suddenly within that single moment, everything was peaceful. No thoughts, no judgments, nothing else to do. Just this, and it was enough.
Of course, the moment came and went. When I tore a bean seed packet open, my feathered friend took flight and I resumed my planting. Yet I continued to work feeling grateful for having witnessed a robin and a still perfect moment.
My Best Teaching Moment
“Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Someday it may seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.” – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Last Friday in our June classroom, I read the last few lines of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to my students. Wide-eyed and riveted, they burst into applause and cheers of “Yay!” This was the single best moment of my teaching life.
For the last few months of Grade 3, I’ve been reading the novel to the children at the end of the day, right after handwriting practice. And on those days, every class ended consistently with cries of, “No! Don’t stop reading!” I’ll let you in on a little secret: usually students are more excited about leaving school at the end of the day than what is actually happening in school.
Last August, our schoolboard had a speaker come to this neck of the woods with the purpose of motivating and inspiring. Danny Brassell told us that if we teach Grade 3 that we should try reading Tom Sawyer aloud. “Sure, it’s written at a Grade 8 reading level, but your students will understand it and love it,” Mr. Brassell said in a way I’ve paraphrased here.
As a kid, I savoured The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but I wasn’t growing up in this virtual Minecraft world. I doubted that Mark Twain’s beloved book, published (astonishingly) in 1876, would fly in today’s Smart- Boarded, Chrome-Booked classroom. I was wrong. Very and joyfully wrong.
While on recess supervision, I’d hear the kids yelling as they romped by me, “Ms. K! We’re pirates, we’re robbers! We’re all being Tom Sawyer!” To my amazement, the novel didn’t stay nestled on the shelf. Its words leapt up and embedded themselves in the children’s imaginations, tiny sparks of creative excitement, setting my students’ interactive playtime ablaze. Who knew? Well, Danny Brassell, for one. And I’m glad he told me.
I have a few loves, and two of them very near the top of the list are literature and teaching. The sweetest thing about this jubilant moment of applause and cheering was that it was the result of both these loves coming together. It’s almost difficult to describe the complete satisfaction I felt at the Grade 3s response to Mark Twain’s words and characters. As a teacher and a writer, I felt as though in that moment, if this only happened once in my life that the deliciousness of it would be enough to sustain me and to keep me teaching and writing, and knowing that it had all been worthwhile.
Fuel for Life
I wake up disoriented and disappointed by the day of the week. It’s not, as I’d hoped, the weekend. It is, as I suspected, a workday. My mind immediately begins to seek out a good reason to be optimistic, a good reason to get out of bed, something small to look forward to.
There it is, that smell. Rich and familiar, it drifts down the short hallway from the kitchen. Freshly ground the night before in anticipation of the inevitable morning, placed in the basket of my drip coffeemaker and set to brew at 5:45 am.
My feet reluctantly feel for the floor as I pry my body from the depths of the too-soft mattress and into an upright position. More dead than alive, more zombie than human, I move like a plant towards the sun in the direction of the aroma of energy and goodwill toward humankind.
I take a mug down from the cupboard, barely able to feel the handle through the fog of weariness. I set the cup on the counter and slowly, deliberately fill it with hot coffee. Black as Satan’s soul, strong as lighter fluid, essential as mother’s milk. Rocket fuel. That’s the stuff.
A few sips and the haze lifts. Objects come into sharper focus, and both my mood and my memory start to improve. I remember my name, my vocation, my place of residence. Now I can feel the floor beneath my slippers and the mug clutched in my grateful hands. Within a few minutes, I am completely restored to my old living self.
Lists of what needs to be done form themselves in my head. Powered by caffeine, I can’t wait to commence checking items off. The life that looked dreary from the vantage point of my bed now shines with opportunity when viewed through coffee-enhanced retinas. What a change! What a chance to begin again.
If the world enjoys my participation in it even a bit, most mornings it owes any of its gratitude to coffee without which I wouldn’t make it out of my cocoon. Or maybe I would. It’s just difficult, unpleasant, even, to imagine life without coffee. I’d rather not.
Because I am vertically-challenged, I can't see the very top shelf of my bedroom closet, but I can feel around very competently (years of practice, folks) to find what I'm looking for. Just the other day I was groping around for a sweater when my fingers felt an unfamiliar fabric, out of sight but within my reach. I grasped the corner of the fabric - smooth and new feeling - and pulled it down from the shelf to bring it into view.
"Hey! I'd forgotten all about this!" To my delight, there in my hand was the unique and beautiful skirt I'd purchased for a ridiculously low price at a Mesa, Arizona outlet store about 10 months before. It was the same store at which I'd bought my two spangling rear pocket jeans, both of which I love and wear a lot. They, too, were wildly inexpensive.
But the skirt, now, that was something else completely: black in one wide vertical swath down the centre, front and back, with bold blue tropical flowers down either side. Gorgeous! (And did I mention that it was a steal?) I couldn't believe my good fortune that something so great once discovered, then forgotten, had once again re-entered my life.
But then I thought, "Isn't that often how it goes?" In the darkness of hard times, we forget the beauty of life. Then, as sorrow subsides, we are startled awake by the astonishing beauty of a sudden sunset. Sometimes are hearts grow hard from the blows of betrayal or the venom of a lie. Then, without warning, a smile and a kind word chips the stone, and our hearts break open with love again.
Things that we love and have forgotten - like joy, contentment, and peace - are not lost. Like my skirt, they are waiting for the moment that we find them again. They are waiting for us to welcome them in and to rejoice that what was out of sight is again right in view.
Young Waiter Dream
I had a dream the other night. I was sitting in an elegant restaurant, feeling dressed-up and pretty sheik. A young, attractive server approached my table and I smiled at him in a way I perceived to be enticing. Then, for some reason, he greeted me, saying "You must be close to 50-years-old, ma'am."
He said this warmly, kindly, with no trace of malice. I did not - initially - take it warmly nor kindly and in my dream, his words were dripping with implied malice. That young whipper-snapper! How dare he notice my age? Why, in my day, someone would've gone and cut a switch to repay that kind of sass.
Then suddenly, my subconscious reframed the picture of me and the gorgeous youthful man. I must've been dreaming lucidly and able to "control" what was happening, like I sometimes do on the very edge of waking. Now I smiled at the young server, appreciating his beauty and telling him, "As a matter of fact, I am almost 50. Good guess!"
After he'd taken my order and walked away, I considered how I wished a long life for this young person. I wished for him the adventures I've had, all of my joys and just a tablespoon of my sorrows to further sweeten the happy times. I wished for him opportunities for education, fulfilling work and the kind of love that lasts. I hoped that he would enjoy the world and not be numb or blind to its magic and mystery. I wished for him the breadth and depth of my experience.
I sat back with my chardonnay and a moment before opening my sleepy eyes, raised my glass to both our futures.
Just this afternoon, I was fully present for a beautiful moment. It struck me so suddenly and yet, while it was happening, time moved so slowly, deliberately capturing everything.
It was such a simple thing. I don't know if I can convey the wonder of it in words so that I do the moment justice, but I'll try.
30 below, bright blue sky, tree-lined driveway, little green car. The low snow-laden branches were close to my passing windshield and as I drove my vehicle beneath them, a gust of wind caught a pillow of snow and exploded it into a billion glittering particles before my eyes. In slow motion, the frozen breeze lifted the snow pocket from the bare grey branch and the dazzling grains sifted down for a second before being swept away on the gentle curve of my windshield. It was astonishing and then it was done.
This snow moment was a reminder to me to try to stay aware, to notice the beauty which is unfolding all around us all the time. It's not easy with the distraction of the mundane thoughts swirling around in my skull and trying to convince me that they are more important than life as it happens. Often I am carried away by these thoughts, these distractions, the white noise of my mind. But today, just this afternoon, I was fully present for a beautiful moment.
A Few Days In Paradise
Driving through the park gates of Jasper National Park last weekend, I knew immediately that this getaway would be one of the best yet. Right inside those gates were herds of mountain goats and bighorn sheep the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. There were lots of elk, too. The females grazed together while the young males dined alone on the roadside grasses.
We drove to our accommodations, a one room log cabin surrounded by towering pines and containing a well vented wood burning fireplace. Across the quiet road rushed the wide Athabasca River on whose far bank still sat two feet of mid-May snow. Red squirrels ran chittering up and down the trees around the cabins, fighting or playing. It was hard to tell.
The weather was cool and even a little misty at times. Low clouds hugged the mountaintops and I was glad for the warm clothing I’d brought. I was doubly glad for the opportunity to savour an excellently-prepared Spanish coffee while admiring the mountain views. There was also blueberry-vanilla beer and wood fired pizza to ward off the chill.
I’d often heard the bear warnings when visiting the mountain parks, and so was cognizant that these omnivores could be around looking for food. I did what I could while walking in the woods to ensure that their spring diet would not include me. For years, though, I was disappointed to not see many bears, especially not recently.
Then on a beautiful evening drive during one of the sun’s infrequent appearances, I saw what at first my brain interpreted to be a furry Volkswagon lumbering slowly around some metal corrals set back from the road on the other side of a stand of poplar trees. I’d never seen a grizzly before, and its sheer size left me trembling. The bear was a good safe distance from me and using my zoom lens, I tried to get a steady capture of it. Unfortunately, I was way too excited to hold the camera still enough to do my furry friend’s image justice.
During our next day’s walk along a mountain trail, I was hyper-wary of the presence bears. It’s one thing to be warned that bears might be around and quite another to see bears around. So we talked loudly as we walked and I stayed present, not letting my mind drift off. All I saw were astonishing vistas and brightly blooming wild flowers, and I am grateful for that.
What makes a fire so mesmerizing? Typically, I’m kind of busy. Doing this and doing that, I dart between activities and projects with little space in between. The fire stopped me completely at the stone hearth. My thoughts and heartbeat slowed as I held a mug of cooling green tea and stared into the flames. Occasionally I’d notice the dryness of my eyes and remember to blink. Hours passed without time seeming to move at all.
Finally, the firewood was gone leaving only a few glowing embers as evidence of its existence. It was time to stroll over to the property’s hot pool and watch the water steam around us in the plus five degree Celcius evening. The best time to enjoy an outdoor hot tub or mineral springs is when the weather’s cold. The cool temperatures just improve the enjoyment of the warm water.
If this story has a point at all, it’s just that I am very fortunate to live in this time and this place where all these natural wonders are available to me. I’m grateful for my health that allows me to wander the woods and for my job that allows me to stay in a little log cabin. I’m thankful for my eyes that soak in the sights and thankful for my taste buds that allow me to experience sweet potatoes, beer and coffee.
I’m thankful for the sun and for the rain, for the holidays and for the workdays which make the holidays possible and more delicious. I am surrounded by beauty and opportunity, and that’s the life that I get to live. Wow.
Diamonds in the Snow
A couple mornings ago I glanced out the living room window just before leaving for work as the sun rose, tracing its rosy light along the dark curves of the branches stretching out in front of that brightening sky. It wasn't the sky that was my primary focus, though; it was the billions of sparkling diamonds that lay scattered all over my front lawn that shimmered in the rising sun.
There had been frost the night before and the sky was crystal-clear blue. Upon its departure, a cold fog dropped glittering jewels as it lifted and dissipated. Nothing particularly unusual about that - not in this part of the world where cold is frequent and frost, expected.
What was unusual is the childhood memory the sight evoked in me. I remembered the magic that these frost-bejeweled mornings use to hold for me, those mornings when the most humble grasses and shrubs dawned rhinestone cloaks just for me to behold on my walk to school.
I shivered at the surprising beauty and considered that the magic inherent in the frost and the sunlight was still there after all these years! It hadn't gone anywhere, and the nature of it hadn't changed. I had become used to its glory, took it for granted and forgot to see it.
On that recent, glorious morning, I was reminded that the magic of my childhood wasn't gone. It was only forgotten and is still there if I choose to remember it. That's the power I have over the sudden and wonderful appearance of diamonds in the snow.
Here's an example of how our judgments about everything can and do change quick as lightning - lightning that forms an opinion and then changes it and then changes it back again. And again.
My cat, Otis, died about a year and a half ago after a nice, long, comfortable life. She's buried now out by the sweet peas in the backyard and life goes on, as it does.
But every once in awhile, I want another cat. This happened again recently and with sudden force. I was at someone's house when an adorable cat peeked around the corner at me. "Oh, I wish I had a cat again! I miss mine so much!"
Then, barely moments after this thought flashed through my mind, a sadly familiar stench rose up to greet my nostrils. The cute cat had crapped on the mat! (Sounds like a Dr. Suess title.) "Oh, now I remember what I don't like about having animals in the house. Never again!" I firmly decided.
Scant minutes later, the cat re-entered the room, purring and rubbing up against things, as cats will do. Then he hopped up into my lap, curled into a tight ball, and fell asleep. Stroking his head right between his ears, I made another unalterable pronouncement: "I want another cat so much!"
We hold so tightly to our opinions and judgments as if these fleeting concepts define who we are. In fact, we'd be just as well off to rely on the steadiness of the weather as to rely on our opinions to determine who we are.
As living beings, we change constantly, our minds, our bodies, everything. Not one cell in my body is likely the same as it was 10 years ago. So am I still me? I guess so...whoever "me" is. I kind of like change so I live pretty happily with it. All I know for certain is that sometimes this "me" wants a cat and sometimes she doesn't.
Dig a hole,
Build a house,
Or buy a house.
Big screen TV,
a boat to tow behind.
Fix up the bathroom,
Replace the light fixtures.
And carpets to match.
First garage sale,
then the house sale.
Adult children post accumulation on Kijiji.
Cremation or casket?
Dig a hole.