January 30, 2010

What More Can I Do for Haiti?

When I was a child I prayed the prayers of a child. I would kneel down in the white, Greek-revival Victorian cathedral in my hometown and think, "God, please help the poor people, especially the children who have no parents to take care of them." In my mind's eye I would picture the swollen bellied children with flies buzzing 'round their heads that I saw in the reel-to-reel films every Wednesday during the season of Lent in my school. These children broke my heart until other prayers took precedence ie; "God please give my parents more money, and please bless my friends. Oh, and I would really like to be a ballet dancer when I grow up..."

When I was getting to the age when my mom thought I could reasonably begin to understand the concept of Christian charity, she began to say many things which would stick with me as I grew up. One of these gems was the phrase, "Offer it up". It took years before I understood the meaning of this mysterious maxim, and until I did understand it, it irritated me to no end.

I could never comprehend what possible use it would be to offer up my miserable little trials to God. What could He want with them? In my literal, immature mind I could see myself throwing my difficulties (like being one of only three in my class NOT invited to Jennifer's party) up in the air where they turned into dust and landed who knows where. To me it was a pointless exercise. I wanted tangible solutions, revenge, gratification, the downfall of my classmates. Most of all I wanted my mom to feel as sorry for me as I did myself.

Mom may have known of my incredulity at the time, or she may have had incredible faith in my powers of perception. Most likely she sent out these three little words knowing with hope that somehow, some way, I and my brothers and sisters, would eventually apprehend their meaning and make use of them in our lives. That a person could use her trials to better the lives of others was a concept I was slow to grasp, but when I finally did the meaning became profound to me. To pull oneself away from one's misery, to take that misery and release it is an incredibly liberating experience. It's not a giving up of a material possession, but of a possission we tend to hold onto, and one that can drag us down. As I grew up I began to see that to offer up my difficulties was a skill worth seeking because it not only had the potential to benefit others, but also benefitted me in the act of giving.

I can think of one example that may serve to illustrate my point, however poorly. About ten years ago, when I had started running again - I say 'again' because I did a fair amount of running in my childhood and teen years - my widowed brother's second marriage was falling apart, and I was taking it very hard. I remember the course I ran was a hilly one and there was one hill in particular which was almost impossible to get to the top of without stopping to walk. I remember telling myself that if I could push myself to make it to the top of the hill without stopping, maybe my brother and his wife could make it over the impasse in their relationship. I suppose I thought my offering, no matter how silly it sounds, might count for something, might help, since there was nothing else I could do to remedy the situation. As it turns out my brother's marriage was beyond repair and he and his wife separated; despite this, however, I never thought of my efforts as pointless, because I had come to believe that no prayer, no offering of the self was ever wasted, especially when it helps us reach the top of whatever hill we are attempting to conquer in our own lives.

So how does this relate to Haiti? My children, my husband and I have given all we can financially afford to give, for now, to the recovery efforts. I cannot go to Haiti to physically lend a hand, nor can I find the energy to do any fundraising when I have an arts project to begin fundraising for this month. What I can do, is to continue living simply - buying and consuming only what I need; I can try my hardest to put all my challenges in the proper perspective, and I can dedicate myself to fully appreciating all the good things, like running, walking, and the ability to give of my time, that I enjoy due to good health and a loving group of family and friends. It puts me in mind of another phrase heard in school: 'living in solidarity', and it is my prayer, my offering, my ongoing act of charity. I owe it to the people of Haiti and to all vulnerable people in this world of ours.

January 27, 2010

A Short Post: Talking to Widows 101

I ran into an elderly aquaintance yesterday who recently lost her husband. After chatting for a few moments about something unrelated, I became still, looked into her eyes and asked, "So how are you doing?"

Her eyes flashed and she shook her head with the utmost impatience. Then she wagged her finger at me and cried in her heavy Dutch accent, "You must not say that!"

I, taken aback, replied sheepishly, "Okay..."

"Every day someone comes up to me and asks me (and with a great imitation of someone mourning, she hunched her shoulders forward and pulled down the corners of her mouth) 'So HOW are you DOING'. It makes me crazy because if they say it like that it will just make me more depressed."

"Okay, so what should we say?" I asked, laughing.

"You should say 'GOOD DAY!' because if you say 'good day' then I might start believing it is so!"

How about that!

January 23, 2010

Not Just Another Night at the Library

"Oh Come on," I say to myself, "you aren't going to win a free book just because you have a feeling you are going to win one."

It is 6:40 p.m. Thursday evening and I am on my way, on foot, in the almost balmy weather we seem to have traded with Northern Arizona, to my local library. The day before I received an email invite to an author's talk, and since this is a rare event in my town and I happen to have a free evening I decide to go.

I am one of the first to arrive and find a seat in the middle of the small room set aside for author readings, children's storytime, workshops, etc. in the library. Up at the front of the room a man leans against the wall. He has fine, dark hair to his shoulders, a graphic t-shirt a little tight in the tummy, and jeans - one of your more casually attired authors, but it seems fitting; he is Mark Leiren-Young who has recently won one of Canada's top literary awards, The Stephen Leacock Medal For Humour.

Just before Leiren-Young begins his presentation, the librarian hands around a few one-page evaluation sheets and pencils and announces that those who complete the sheets will be entered into a draw for one of two books by the author. I put the sheet and pencil under my chair and prepare to enjoy the talk. I am not disappointed. Leiren-Young tells about his nine month stint in 1985 as a rookie reporter in Williams Lake, a place up in the Cariboo that is about as Wild West as a town these days can get, and where he endured enough wild and crazy adventures to fill an extremely entertaining book. Leiren Young tells us stories ad lib, and reads a few chapters from his award-winning book, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen. He also talks about the mockumentary film he made called the Green Chain which is about the demise of the logging industry on the West Coast of British Columbia. He tells us about the international film festival tour he took with the film, and how people believed it was a real documentary until they saw Battlestar Galactica actress Tricia Helfer giving a monologue in her character as a Pamela Anderson-type activist.

Leiren-Young speaks at top speed and packs a lot into his one hour presentation. By the time the Q&A is over my face hurts from laughing, and I notice the two piles of books-for-sale at the front of the room, wondering which one I should buy and if Mark will take a cheque. After the applause dies down, the librarian reminds us about the evaluation sheets and the book prize. I have already handed mine in - it was easy to answer five questions about an event I had enjoyed so much - but have neglected to put my name on it. There goes my chance, I think. The librarian shuffles the papers and hands them to the author to pick from. He averts his eyes, pulls one from the fan of white sheets and hands it to the librarian. After a few quiet seconds she announces, "I'll have to hold it up, and if anyone recognizes their handwriting, they can speak up and win a copy of Never Shoot a Stampede Queen." I can't be sure...it sort of looks like my writing, but it is a bit hard to be sure from back here...the ladies on either side of me say, "Isn't that yours?"...it is. "That's mine!" I call out. I admit, there is a small disconcerting moment when I realize that the librarian is showing everyone what they will know is my evaluation. Fortunately, I have assessed the event favourably and have written only one slight criticism:

"The author spoke too quickly, but I got used to it."

The librarian hands me my prize, I wait in line for Leiren-Young to sign it, chatting with a few people I know, and then step out into the warm night air. I feel strangely connected to my sister-in-law, Lea, as I make my way home. Twenty-seven years ago I attended the wedding of Lea and my brother Francis in Williams Lake, where Lea grew up. As far as I know, Lea was never a Stampede Queen, but she certainly could have written about one, or played a song about one on the piano; she was intelligent, funny, and extremely talented. Four months after my own wedding, Lea died after her transplanted lungs became infected. I think, if she had been with me tonight, she would have had a few stories about Williams Lake of her own to tell Mark Leiren-Young. I am happy to have won the book, but it feels a little 'otherworldly' to have my premonition come true. I guess it was just meant to be.

January 19, 2010

Hail to the Coffee Shop - My Home away from Home

My alter ego, let's call her Stella, owns a coffee shop. She rises in the dark pre-dawn, goes downstairs from her cozy apartment above the shop and mixes up muffins and scones in the small, gleaming kitchen. She brews herself a single shot Americano (espresso and hot water)and sits down to read the paper while she waits for the baking to be done; Stella likes to be up on the topics of the day, and several of her regular customers have come to expect some kind of opinion from her. At 5:45 she grinds the coffee beans and presses the start button for the strong, medium-roasted brews preferred by her 6:00 a.m. regulars. She sets out the thermal urns of cream and milk on the glass-topped antique dresser, refills the sugar boxes and makes sure the counters and tabletops are spotless. At exactly 6:00 she unlocks the door and turns on the front lights to invite the early risers in, greeting each one by name - if she knows it.

Artwork and photographs - no mass produced commercial coffee kitsch here - hang on the walls of Stella's. Instead of local radio, she plays CD's carefully chosen for their background quality, so they are mainly collections of quiet jazz and folk, and some classical guitar and piano. Stella's has a small raised area surrounded by windows with a view of the street, usually set with two small tables for two, and where, once a week she stays open late and invites a musician to give a concert. Stella's is not a big shop. The tables are close together and there is only one area with deep armchairs gathered around a small table set out with newspapers, magazines, and a few large books with titles like Great Russian Architecture - interesting to look at but too heavy and big to 'borrow' - but it is a cozy place and the locals seem to like it.

Two employees, Savannah and Kerry come in at 9 a.m. to help Stella prepare for the lunch rush - her soups and grilled sandwiches are legend. In the afternoons Stella offers a selection of homemade cakes - banana, carrot, deep chocolate, and besides coffee there is a selection of teas, including African Honeybush, a favourite of hers and of several of her female customers. At 4:00 p.m. Stella bids farewell to the last of her clientele, flips the open sign to closed, and locks the door while she and her employees debrief in a friendly way about the day's customers. With Savannah and Kerry's help she cleans the coffee machines, the counters, floors and the kitchen surfaces. Finally, Stella lets her employees out and closes the shop, climbs the stairs to her apartment, lets out a sigh of satisfaction and puts her feet up.


Stella's is sort of a distilled version of all the coffee shops I have frequented over the last 40 years, from the lunch counter at Woolworth's with it's chrome and vinyl stools where I sat drinking juice with my mother, to the Snowdrift Cafe in Kimberley where I took my little boys for hot chocolate and the huge, delicious, soft oatmeal cookies (made by the cafe owners' Italian mother) with the Grappa soaked raisin pressed into the middle.

I have always loved coffee shops. When I was 20 I had a job at Stanley Baker's cafe in my hometown. When I met my husband while attending UBC in Vancouver, we frequented several: The Bread Garden and Benny's Bagels in the Kitsilano area where he lived at the time, Cheesecake etc. downtown, and various authentic Italian places in the East side where I lived with my sister and her husband. When my husband and I moved to Eastern British Columbia I looked for and soon found a place in Cranbrook with good coffee, company and conversation.

When my husband was transferred to Courtenay on Vancouver Island I frequented a place no longer in business called Edible Island, with organic everything and salads paid for by weight.

Where I live now I generally gather once a week to sort out the problems of the world (and to laugh at ourselves in our attempt) with a group of local characters at a converted century old house with a garden and a fish pond by the outdoor patio. The coffee here is not very good, but the selection of teas is excellent and served in large, thin white cups and saucers, and the lemon scones are good...but not quite as good as Stella's.

January 13, 2010

"Don't You Have Something Better to Read?"

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the woods...you can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.

January 7, 2010

(B)logging the Forest for the Trees

My dreams are most often a lot of nonsense - a string of unrelated scenes from my day jumbled up and reassembled like some psychadelic linear puzzle. This morning, however, at the most inconvenient hour of 5 a.m. I awoke suddenly, from one of those crystal clear, bothersome dreams that leave me confused and concerned once awake (and thus, sleepless for the rest of the morning).

I dreamed that a fellow blogger, who will remain nameless, and who started her blog around the same time I did, suddenly had twice as many followers as I did, and it REALLY bothered me. The fact that it really bothered me in my dream, concerned me when awake and got my mind going. What did it mean?

On reflection and after a good breakfast, I think it means I was reading blogs right before I went to bed last night, which is always a bad idea because it gets me in writing mode and then I cannot fall asleep for hours; I think it also means that, not so deep down in my subconscious as I would like to think, I am just a wee bit competitive, non?

I remember when my daughter was in grade two I volunteered at her sports day. My job was to count the number of children from her team that made it through the obstacle course and back to our line. While I was busy counting and cheerleading, my sweet little daughter revealed a side of her nature I had never seen before. She had her eye on everyone from the other teams and would frequently yell things like, "Sam's cheating!" and "Hurry UP!" and when it was her turn to run she exploded into action with all the determination of an Olympian (except that she was dressed in a grass skirt and lei). Well, her dad is pretty competitive in sports, I thought. She must get it from him.

As I type this I am well aware that in my dreams I do not have the advantage of reason. When I am awake and blogging I know that it doesn't really matter if said fellow blogger has more followers than I. On average I spend a couple of hours a week 'marketing' my blog. My way of doing this is simple: I explore the blogrolls of bloggers I like, looking for something that will catch my eye or spark my imagination. If I like what I see I usually leave a comment on the blog, and invite them to visit mine. The blogger will generally return the visit and about 1 in 5 will become a follower of my blog and vice-versa. My method is a far cry from that of another blogger, who shall also remain nameless. He staged a mass marketing campaign, actually soliciting hundreds of followers in an 'I'll follow you if you follow me' fashion, and it worked for him - very well; however, as ambitious as the aforementioned dream might make me seem, that just seems like too much work to me.

As much as I would love to log on one day and see hundreds of followers suddenly appear after I have been declared Blogspot's 'Blog of Note', (who wouldn't?) I believe I need to concentrate most of my energy on the actual writing of the thing if I want it to be worth reading for the fine followers I do have. In the meantime, I am quite content to explore blogs and gain followers much in the same way as I make friends: one at a time and at my own pace. After all, as the ghost in Field of Dreams said, "If you build it, they will come."
The photo is from the David Suzuki Foundation website, and is of genuine Canadian trees.

January 4, 2010

Mastering the Art of Being a Woman

It all started when I did one of those silly online ten-question tests. This one asked "Which Jane Austen character are you?" After anwering the thinly veiled questions as honestly as I could the computer told me I was most like Eleanor Dashwood, the sensible, patiently long-suffering sister in Sense and Sensibility. I laughed. I'm forty and a mother of four. If I hadn't a shred of sense or a good amount of patience after this many years and experiences I might as well throw in the towel now. Twenty years ago my result would likely have been Emma Woodhouse of Emma, who believes she has nothing to learn (until true love teaches her otherwise). As lightly as I took this test result, it did give me cause to wonder if the real differences between women and how they handle their lives' events are merely a matter of where they are in their lives.

My kids rent a lot of movies - even more now that we have gone back to the most basic of cable. I may sit and catch a half hour of the latest comedy, Harry Potter movie, or music documentary with them. Often I even really enjoy the movies they choose, but holidays are the time to catch up on the last few months' releases that truly interest me.

This Christmas holiday I have watched three movies I have rented. One evening, propped up on pillows on my bed I watched The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Besides the stunning 'Alaskan' scenery (not sure it really was Alaska), and a fairly funny scene with Betty White dancing and chanting around a fire in a First Nation button blanket and headress, I thought it was a somewhat forgettable movie about a career obsessed, narcissistic woman who learns there is more to life than her own wants. ( I enjoy Sandra Bullock's 1995 film, While You Were Sleeping, which is a similar getting-married-on-false-pretenses story, but much easier to take when the protagonist is thrown into a situation which originates from her goodness of heart and extends due to her chronic loneliness.)

Much more interesting was Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep was her usual amazing self, acting from the bottom of her soul, as chef Julia Child, and Amy Adams played Julie, the blogging 29 year old who decides to cook (and blog) her way through the entire Julia Child book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What struck me about Julie & Julia was the striking contrast between the two main characters of the movie. Julia Child (in her forties in the film) comes across as a wonderful, warm, stable, steady, giving, kind, open and passionate woman, whereas Julie comes across as somewhat lost, entitled, desperate, emotionally volatile, and self-centered. Hmmmm. Both women are married to supportive men and are childless, so what gives?

The Julia Child story is set in the 1960's and the Julie story is set in the early 2000's. Could that, perhaps, have something to do with it? When we discussed the movie the other morning over the long-distance line, my mom said that many women of Julie's generation and the ones following have been given the impression by over-indulgent parents, that life owes them everything and they wait, and get restless and dissatisfied when it doesn't come, and women of her 'children are meant to be seen and rarely heard from' generation, had to go out and work hard for what mattered to them (my mother just retired from a wonderful, 25 year career as a museum director, curator, and archivist). My older sisters thought I was spoiled, and I think, in a way they were right. I was a child of the educationally experimental '70's, and the cute little youngest of six. It took a long time for me to truly grow up, face my responsibilities, and learn to give without counting the cost. I remember, as a young woman, reading John F. Kennedy's famous quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I was deeply affected by this quote, as if I had never considered such a concept.

It was encouraging to note that the Julie character does grow through her challenge of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In fact, she says Julia Child saved her. Julie's own mother, appearing only as a voice on the phone or a comment on the blog, doesn't offer much support at all until the end when Julie's blog becomes famous. I'm not sure what Julia Child's parents were like, only that her family seemed close.

The third movie, The Visitor, was a quiet, thoughtful little film about a bored, lonely white man, whose life is changed for the better by three illegal immigrants. The mother in the film, who seems about 50, is a stunningly beautiful Syrian woman, gentle, caring, peaceful, and persevering. It did me good every time she came into the picture...like being with my own mother.

So where am I going with all this? I'm going forth into a new decade, both in time and in my own life. As my daughters, now eight and thirteen, come into their own over the next ten years, I hope they will have enough of an example in me as a mother and as a woman to handle whatever comes their way with sense and sensitivity. They certainly have it in their grandmother.

I found out that the baton thingy I was passed has a condition (of course). I am supposed to write the top 5 highlights of 2009. Thanks Tracey for pointing this out to me. Here goes (in no particular order):

1. My 40th birthday celebrations

2. Attending the U2 concert with my sons and husband in Vancouver after wanting to see the band in person since 1984 (I practically lived my teen years over again that night - well, the good parts, anyway)

3. The family reunion/celebration of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary - and all the music that went with it

4. Starting and managing to continue this blog

5. Hearing my sixteen year old son sing for the first time since he was little, and noting all the familiar tones of four generations of singers in his voice.

Sharing the Wealth

I received something called 'The High Five Baton' over the weekend from Kate over at http://calamityandotherstuff.blogspot.com/ . She calls my blog 'peaceful and readable' and I can think of no better compliment. She had been handed the baton from a fellow blogger so I believe it is now my responsibility and pleasure to pass it on to another blogger or two.

Speaking of 'peaceful and readable' I would like to extend the 'High Five Baton' to my blogland friend in Austin, Texas, Barbara of http://dreamfarmgirl.blogspot.com/ , for her creative take on motherhood, marriage and being an artist, and to another American friend, Tracey of http://unodostracey.blogspot.com/ for her irrepressible sense of humour (and because she has yet to receive a well-deserved nod).

Now back to work on today's other post.