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.
Black Toner Cartridge
I wish I was the black toner cartridge in the office at the school in which I work. Why? Because each time I pick up a document from that printer, the tiny screen divulges, "Black cartridge is close to life."
I want to be close to life! Each time I retrieve a sheet of paper or two from the little printer, I am reminded of the fact that I spend a lot of my time distant from life.
What do I mean? Of course, I am alive. I recognize that, but much of my alive time is spent being distracted from the here and now - the place in which real life exists?
I am removed from life by thoughts, by memories, by fantasies, by worries and fears. My anticipation of the future steals my present. My past regrets rob me of the precious moment, the one right here. My wild mind keeps me away from experiencing that which is truly happening.
There I am on the red couch I love so much, a mug of lemon tea in my hand and a current book of ancient teachings on my coffee table. Outside the open window, sparrows, finches and a pair mourning doves enjoy their chance at the birdseed knocked flying from the feeder by an overly enthusiastic blue jay. High above, against the blue, there's a white streak being drawn across the sky. A plane full of people off to the Caribbean. Down the block, a child is learning to ride a bike and across the alley, a guy is building a huge birdhouse. This is activity. This is life held in the present moment.
There I am, sitting in the middle of this dance of life and I am worried. There's some small problem over which I would like some control and so I fret. Next I fantasize. Here's the solution! I can solve this problem somehow one day if...and in doing this, I miss the birds, the plane, the child on her bike and the industrious birdhouse-building neighbor. My tea grows cold and then, when tasted, is barely noticed. The book lay closed and the softness of the couch, disregarded.
The moment has passed and I move on to some mundane task which I don't appreciate, either, because my mind's not on it, anyway. On and on it goes.
Soon I will ask that black cartridge, "How did you get so close to life?" and perhaps I'll see this answer projected on that tiny screen. "I just stopped and lived."
Remember Vance and Coy?
Remember Vance and Coy? I know - me neither!
But you do remember watching the Dukes of Hazzard each week as a kid or with your kids, right? (Unless you're too young, but that's also good news!) So do I! That's why I was shocked to discover the long-forgotten existence of the on-screen blip that were Vance and Coy, the equally-hunky cousins of Bo and Luke Duke. This dreamboat pair, brunette and blond, replaced their character cousins during an apparent dispute between the stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat, and the TV show itself.
So briefly, very briefly, Vance and Coy made their appearance and then vanished just as quickly from the screen when Bo and Luke Duke returned. Perhaps the network or television producers thought that just any good old beautiful boys would do. But Vance and Coy didn't do. If they had done, I'd remember them. And so would you. But we don't.
As human beings - fickle creatures that we are - we know what we like. We'd all become attached to those young men racing about in that orange Dodge Charger and no one was going to pull the wool over our eyes by replacing them. As if we wouldn't notice!
And yet why did we care? As I've mentioned before, Vance and Coy were fine. Very fine, indeed. Their eyes were as twinkly, their hair just as full and their jeans just as tight. And yet...
I guess were creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We're not always that picky about accuracy. Remember how the General Lee's tires would squeal on those dirt back roads? That was awesome! And impossible. But darn it, we expected to see those two boys outrunning the law every week for our viewing pleasure.
In this life, there aren't many things we can count on remaining the same - and in the long run, there are none. But for that generation, my generation, Bo and Luke Duke were what we counted on - squealing tires and all.
Grave and Rut
The main difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.
- source unknown
On a Sunday evening a few weeks ago, I left the city of Calgary, Alberta later than usual for the long drive home. Usually I prefer to drive in the daylight with the sun's help to illuminate the icy roads and the deer-infested ditches. But there were things to do and people to see, and so the sun had already begun its rapid winter descent as the cityscape shrunk in the rearview mirror.
The Highway II traffic was heavy as expected, but after a few kilometres driven a few kilometres over the posted speed limit, a right turn guided my car off the autobahn to where the fading countryside opened up before me. Spectacular pink streaks, last-minute gifts from a sinking sun, illuminated frost laden branches of trees and bushes along the secondary roads.
And as that sleepy sun made her departure, a stunning ochre moon rose up just above the horizon line and unselfconsciously posed there a long time right where I could admire her finery before she changed her burnt-orange gown into a silver one and climbed higher into the sky.
When she was gone, I missed the company of the rusty orange moon. As if she knew I needed the comfort of distraction, an owl appeared atop the nearest power pole and stared down into the driver side of the car, her yellow eyes flashing. Wow.
All this would've been lost to me had I traveled those familiar rural highways in the familiar light of day. Instead, stepping out of my rut allowed me, for a few hours, to view the world in a whole new way. What a difference a shift in routine and perspective makes!
My auntie called it a "runaway Christmas" and told me that she, too, had enjoyed this kind of getaway at least a few times in her life.
As the Christmas season drew nigh this year, there came with it a feeling of demand and expectation. Let me clarify right quick here that this was not demands or expectations from other people - this was all internal stuff. My own demands from myself, my own expectations of myself.
At first, I felt oppressed, smothered, encumbered. Then I took several deep breaths and stepped back for a wider view of the situation. Once I'd calmed down and gained perspective, it didn't take long to see the truth. I was the creator of this perception and so clearly it was within my power to change this perception, this way of looking at Christmas.
And so hastily we made arrangements to visit family and friends on either side of Christmas day, and then, just as hastily, made hotel reservations in Banff.
It was a winter visit to paradise shared with many others from all over the world. Some were celebrating Christmas while for others, their holy time had passed for the year or was not yet upon them. Others were secular folks, wanting to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, that white wonderland, seeking a mountain slope or a winter hiking trail. Whatever their reasons for being there in that mountain town, everyone seemed happy to be there in that place.
On Christmas Eve, church bells echoed up and down the bustling main street, and we attended a late night candlelight communion service at the Rundle United Church. People were skating and eating and drinking and singing carols all over the townsite. The churches and bars and restaurants were brimming with celebration. It was because I reframed my perception of Christmas that I was a part of the mountain merriment and set free from the expectation that had held my heart down.
Happy New Year!
Quibbling Over a Seed
Today I was watching the birds. (I can hear some of you now: "Not another bird post - kill me now!" Hang in there, though. I make a good point just a little farther on.)
The backyard was full of twittering birds as all three feeders were full of seed - a rare and blissful occurrence for our feathered friends. Closest to the house, two tiny sparrows sat cute and all fluffed-up in the cedar diamonds of the lattice that surrounds the deck. They were looking at each other with an intense expression that I mistook for mutual admiration. "Looks just like a Christmas card..."
Then quick as fluffy, feathered lightning, the sparrows lunged at each other and, mildly horrified, I realized that this was some kind of territorial seed dispute I was witnessing. "Stupid birds, bickering over something as tiny as a seed!"
But then I considered: Isn't that what we humans do all the time? Isn't that the definition of irritation? Someone does some small thing - gives us helpful, unwanted instructions; tells us a story with more details than any breathing person could possibly care about; compares some of their recent successes to our past failures. I'm I the only one whose heart is melting at remembering these special occasions?
But perhaps it's not all about us. It's possible that the Being Alive Kit just includes feeling (and causing!) irritation. Other beings aren't doing irritating things to us; they're simply doing them near us. And, know it or not, we're irritating them, as well.
Being aware of those around us sometimes means we'll want to quibble over a seed and get our feathers ruffled as we ruffle others'. Thankfully, we humans can choose not to quibble over something so small as a seed of irritation, a rock in our shoe, a pain in our posterior. It's easier written than done but every change has to start somewhere, and this old bird post is a good a place as any!
Hot Water Tank
Yesterday I noticed a little moisture around the base of the hot water tank in the basement. I kind of watch for this as I know that these tanks have a short life expectancy in this area of Alberta.
Not long after my discovery and a quick phone call, a polite man in heavy work boots was at the front door, the name of a plumbing company emblazoned on the side of the truck and a large rectangular cardboard box in the back. He was quick and efficient and within a very short time, I lived once again in a household with running hot water. Thanks, Plumbing Guy!
It was then that the real fun began. Apparently, the hot water tank had been leaking out against the wall where I couldn't detect it. The wall against and under which it had been gradually leaking separates the staircase from the mechanical room. Under the staircase were boxes and boxes of treasures that I'd been meaning to sort through for a long time. Now the perfect opportunity was upon me.
So this morning I got up and had some coffee to rev me up in order face the soggy boxes under the stairs. I headed downstairs, unlatched the cubby door and began pulling out its contents.
Wow. What an astonishing array of crap. Astounding, really. Don Williams cassette tapes, Grease on VHS, a Clairol footbath, a toilet plunger (I kept that), empty binders and old sheet music, a wrecked suitcase, and about 300 sealer jars. I wondered if I could special order an extremely localized natural disaster to just sweep through and destroy it all so that I could avoid the decision making process that lay ahead. "Got a mess? Call Tim's Tiny Tornados."
I started my task. It didn't take long to realize that everything but the plunger must go. So long Don - I'll see you on my MP3 player! Farewell binders, saturated notes, and decrepit suitcase. With one telephone call I found a gardening neighbour who was happy for the 300 jars. With each chuck and toss out, I felt my soul become lighter and lighter.
Why do we drag all this stuff along throughout life? What's the point of all this accumulation if many of our possession only become a burdens - and it seems they mostly do. What is it we're trying to hold on to? Is it a sense of identity? Clinging to the long dead past? The notion that we might need those Don Williams tapes one day? Life itself?
Who knows. We're a complicated bunch who just need to a leaky hot water tank once in awhile to remind us that life could be lighter and freer with less stuff in it.
The other day, a child brought me a butterfly. He held out his hands and gently opened them to reveal a very cold butterfly indeed. The boy told me, "Ms. K., I found this butterfly." I could tell that he believed that I would know what to do with this delicate creature suspended somewhere between life and death - as if I know anything about life and death. But there he stood, waiting for an answer and, in a way, I was honoured that he sought it from me.
It was obvious that the butterfly was on its last legs and so I suggested a solution that would provide benefit to as many creatures as possible. "Would you like me to take it back outside and set it somewhere safe? Then the butterfly will fly away or will be food for a hungry bird who needs it." The student thought this was an acceptable idea and off he went to unpack his backpack as I headed out the front doors to find a sheltered spot in which to leave the butterfly.
Who ever knows the best course of action when faced with life's big questions, the ones dealing with life and death. Are there right or wrong answers? I kind of suspect that there aren't. That's why, in this case, I tried to look beyond the limited life span of the tiny, winged creature and into the larger world. If the boy and I had merrily tossed the butterfly to the classroom floor, stomped on it and tossed it into the garbage, what a waste it would have been!
The butterfly is likely dead by now and, I hope, has provided some fuel for a migratory journey. That, surely, is the best outcome. I think. But when it comes to the fact of mortality - every living thing's mortality - I don't feel very certain at all. I suppose all we can do in the face of death - our own and in general - is to accept it and live until we die with the aim of providing the most benefit as possible while we are on the earth.