December 16, 2012

Into the Light we Go

When something like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happens, I am left reeling with thoughts of sadness for the children robbed of a future, and for all the families affected. As President Obama said in his sensitive speech following the news of so much slaughter of the innocent, "These neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, these children are our children." I could not help but put myself in the place of those parents who have lost their little ones, and all those connected to the adults who were also killed on that day in Newtown Connecticut.

I could say so much more about this senseless act, but I will not. Not today. Today I will focus on the good that I experienced in going for a day trip to Vancouver last weekend to see our son at his workplace and do some Christmas shopping. The fact of how blessed I was to have all my family together and intact has not escaped me, and the knowledge that we will all be together for Christmas is cause for even more happiness and gratitude.

We have had a rainy December at this end of the Fraser Valley. The clouds tend to rest against our high and close mountains and some weeks it feels as though I have been weighted down by a large and somewhat heavily brimmed grey felt hat. My husband, being on holiday for the past couple of weeks, had been checking the weather for a good day to go to Vancouver. Originally, we had wanted to avoid the city on a weekend, but Saturday looked like the best day weather-wise, so we planned out our day carefully and left early.

As we headed west, we drove gradually into the light.

As we approached the newly twinned Port Mann Bridge, her 'sails' rose up into the clear blue sky, reflecting the snowy peaks in the distance. Vancouver enjoys three local ski hills in its North Shore mountains: Grouse Mountain, Cypress Mountain, and Mount Seymour. Our family spent two wonderful winters Nordic skiing at Cypress Mountain, before horses, orchestra rehearsals and soccer took over our lives.

It's challenging to take photos from a moving vehicle.
This was taken while crossing the bridge.

We parked in our usual downtown spot, and walked over to the Vancouver Christmas Market. I've been an admirer of the 'new' Vancouver Public Library since it was built, so I had to take a photo of it gleaming on such a beautiful day.

 And then it was on to the market, where our son Ian is working for the month of December. The market is as authentically German in style as possible for the organizers to make it. It is set up in the lobby and the courtyard of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Vendors occupy decorated pine huts, offering everything from hot fresh pretzels and bratwurst, to spiced apple cider with or without a warming dram of alcohol, wooden toys and decorations. For those of us who are attracted by the woodsy charm of a traditional German/Bavarian Christmas, the market is a purely enjoyable experience.

The market was hopping that day, so good photo ops were few. However, we made the rounds with Ian, who met us a couple of hours before his shift at this hut here, serving traditional Swiss raclette and other delicacies made by our local cheese maker, Debra Amrein-Boyes, who operates the famous Farmhouse Cheese. 

I chose hot coffee over hot apple cider, but we did try it last year, and chose to purchase one of these souvenir mugs, which we put in our youngest's stocking to remind her of the happy day she spent with us at the market.

Of course, no German market would be complete without a hot polka band. This is the only shot I managed to get of the band, who were great and so much fun to listen to.

We all had a grand time at the market, Galen and Emma enjoying it for the first time. The day was clear and mainly sunny, but also cold, and after we'd had enough of the market, we moved on to the shopping malls to thaw and split up into pairs for some gift buying for each other. Then we said goodbye to Ian, happy that we would all be together again soon.

This song seems so fitting for my present state of mind.

Wishing you and yours a safe and joyful Holiday Season.

Peace on Earth. Good will towards men.


December 10, 2012

Musing on Schooling

Sometimes I walk into a situation where someone is having a bad day and speaks before they have a chance to consider the impact of whatever is coming out of their mouth. One day not too long ago, I walked into a shop which I frequent. A mother and her daughter, who was dressed in pyjamas and a fluffy pink robe were purchasing some items at the till. I gave the little girl a knowing smile since my daughter had been similarly dressed that day for 'Pyjama Day' at the local elementary school. Every once in a while, the kids have a fun excuse to dress up in some kind of theme at school, and it had been entertaining to see so many kids and teachers similarly and ridiculously attired that morning.

When the pair had left the store and I was choosing my bunch of cilantro, I heard one of the women at the till ask the other why the girl had been in her pyjamas. The other woman suggested that perhaps the child was home schooled, therefore eliminating the need for proper clothing. The first woman practically shouted, (and remember, she works at this store) "If it were up to me I would BAN home schooling. They don't learn anything!"

I decided to tell the cashiers from my nearby position in the store that it was merely Pyjama Day at the local school. Moments later, the first cashier, looking angry, began to remove the packaging from a case of some product near to where I was choosing a can of black beans. I was this close to giving her a piece of my mind because I home schooled my children for four years. However I quelled my anger and restrained my strong desire to scold the cashier for being so narrow minded; I very rarely do give these people a piece of my mind - I usually go home and write about it instead.

Years ago, when we lived a forty five minute drive down a winding mountain road from any school, it did not make sense to drive my eldest to school for the two and a half hour daily Kindergarten class. The gas money required for the daily commute was deterrent enough and after a family friend suggested I home school, we decided to try it. For four years I taught my first three children and I still believe, to this day, that some of their later success in school could be attributed to the one-on-one they received in learning to read, to compute, to write, recite, and even to draw in their formative years. I also benefited from experiencing in an intimate way, their various styles of learning. Ian would understand a math concept before I had finished explaining it; Galen could memorize anything in record time and rarely forgot it even a month later. Emma I only had for Kindergarten, but she was never one to lag behind her brothers, and learned to read in Kindergarten from a handy book called Alphaphonics. Home schooling is certainly not for everyone, and it would not have been my first choice but for the simple logistical challenge of where we lived when our children were small; it ended up being the best of experiences for our family and brought my children and I much closer.

We made many friends in the town where we did our shopping, some of them home schooling families, some of them not. They all accepted us until one day when I said the children would be moving from the home into the one room school house at the lodge. By the end of my fourth year of teaching my children at home, there were enough school aged children at the lodge to qualify for a district funded teacher three days per week. My home schooling friends were not impressed that I would be handing my children over to the school system, but with a new baby at home, I was ready to move on, and I believe my children were, too. I explained that, while I valued the home schooling experience tremendously, my intention had always been for my children to progress to a school setting. I also knew in my heart that our days at the lodge were numbered, and the one room school option seemed like a great way to bridge the gap between home and wherever their next school would be. It was. My children had to learn to trust another adult with their education - Kim was an excellent teacher - and to accommodate and cooperate with other children in the class, even though they all knew each other like family.

When we moved here in March of 2003, and my children entered the local elementary school, I will admit there was a major adjustment period. Ian punched someone in the nose on his first day because the kid called him a 'motherf***er', and my son, not used to that sort of language in his schoolmates, took offense. (I did not hear about the incident for years, however. The very understanding principal let Ian off with a warning and did not call home.) Galen was completely overwhelmed with the behavior of the other children and begged me to keep him at home for the remainder of his grade three year (which I did most Friday afternoons), and Emma merely said, when asked how school was, "It's pretty much the same, Mommy, just louder." Over time, and with much coaching from their teachers and principal, and from us at home, the kids adjusted and even began to thrive. I will always say that while home schooling can give children an excellent academic education and an enriching family life, public school teaches them to get along with all sorts of characters, even the worst sorts, and find room to be generous to them while setting boundaries socially; both are important for the well-rounded education of the whole person, as long as the child is supported and feels safe in whatever school environment is chosen for them.

All in all, I think what I would like to have said to the cashier, is that the great thing about schooling these days is that there are so many options for learning which were not available when we were children. When I was home schooling my children my mother recalled how unhappy I had been in elementary school. "You would have been the perfect candidate for home schooling, Rebecca," she said. "But such a thing did not really exist back then and never entered my head as a possiblilty." Now, with choices, we can give our children the type of education that suits their style of learning and the life of our families.

December 1, 2012

The Saving Grace of Satire

It began in high school: my friends and I made a habit out of making fun of pretty much everything we could. We would gather at Jenn's house for the annual 'sing along with The Sound of Music' event on New Year's day. We would watch the film, recite the dialogue along with the characters, sing, and then when Maria whips out her guitar on the mountaintop for 'Doe a Deer', we would always say to each other as the orchestral strings of the soundtrack commenced, "And suddenly out of nowhere there appears an orchestra on the mountaintop" and we would laugh and laugh at the idea. We would put Duran Duran records on the 45 rpm setting on the record player, and Jenn and Mike would go on their knees like Duran Duran dwarves and sing and dance along to the sped up tunes. That was hilarious. When we discovered Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, my friends and I would memorize long passages and songs from their films and spend hours reciting them to each other around camp-fires and at parties, or in the back of the car on our college commute. We ate up satire and sketch comedy with the eagerness and voracious energy of youth, and we told funny and embarrassing stories on ourselves and about each other. Laughter took up the greater part of most of our conversations. Almost nothing was sacred. Almost nothing escaped the microscopic lens of our sharp wit and our desire for fun. We made a sport of critical thinking through satirical humour, and I do believe, in many ways, it saved us.

My children have the same approach to life that my friends and I had at their age. I see evidence of the fact every day, and I love it. The ability to laugh at one's self is of great importance to my way of thinking, and the ability to laugh at the world, and what it continually serves up, is vital for the survival of one's individuality and true purpose in the world. My family recently acquired Netflix and we are making our way through ten years of missed Saturday Night Live seasons - my husband and I watched the show all through the '90's but missed the 'naughts (2001-2009)' or, as they are called by some here in North America, 'the Bush years' of the show almost completely. SNL's 'good natured skewering' of everyone from politicians to the head elf in Santa's workshop makes for good TV. Some of my favourite episodes are when an actual politician, be he George Bush Senior or Senator John McCain, appear on the show and are given a chance to retaliate. The result is always a healthy experience for everyone: for the audience who get to see a more human, not to mention humourous, side of the politician, and for the actors and writers on the show, who get a bit of their own back, exhibiting a tremendous sense of fair play on their part. The first Monty Python film I showed my children was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with insulting Frenchmen, anachronisms galore, a wimpy knight named Brave Sir Robin, and King Arthur riding a non-existent horse while his squire knocks two coconuts together to provide the sound of the horse, should one actually have been in existence. My kids, all of them, found the film refreshing, intelligent in its silliness, and downright funny.

We in Canada have always revered satirical comedy in general. With shows like SCTV and The Air Farce, which began on CBC Radio and made its way to television, Codco out of Newfoundland, This Hour has Twenty-two Minutes from Halifax, and The Rick Mercer Report, Canadian politicians, celebrities and Canadian contemporary society are never safe from a good natured ribbing, and I think we are better for it.The U.S. has, of course, Saturday Night Live, but they also enjoy the brilliant political satire of John Stewart in The Daily Show with John Stewart, as well as The Colbert Report with the irrepressible Stephen Colbert. Stewart and Colbert are so well loved and respected in their nation that an overwhelmingly large percentage of the people stay abreast of the political situation chiefly through their shows. I know there exist many shows out of the U.K. which provide that nation, as well as many fans around the world, with countless opportunities to laugh at themselves and the world at large. Comedians such as Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Tracey Ullman, and of course the aforementioned favourite Monty Python, all use their great talents to help make their society truly democratic. As writer and satirist Jonathan Swift said, "As Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature, so Humor is the most agreeable, and where these two enter far into the Composition of any Work, they will render it always acceptable to the World."

I remember reading a satirical essay in my English Literature course in college entitled A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, in which he suggested a way to deal with poverty and hunger, which were rampant in eighteenth century Ireland, was to raise babies for consumption by the upper classes: "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children." The essay was shocking to me for something written in 1729, but it also appealed to me greatly. I am not sure of the effect it had on the social policy of the time, but obviously, the essay swept the nation much like the latest YouTube video does now, and woke many people up to the absurdity of a nation starving its own. A Modest Proposal is not far off the sort of satire produced in the present age. In fact, Swift's essay, and others like it, as well as the political cartoons of the time, most likely inspired it. Every age has employed its satirists, and they are as important to the workings of a healthy society and its institutions - churches, schools, government, etc.- as the institutions themselves. Satirists provide the checks and balances every person and every institution with power over others needs, and they accomplish this feat with the most welcome leaven of humour and the intelligence of wit; I shudder to think what would happen to us if this was not so. Apparently, a school district in Texas tried to shut down classes which taught critical thinking to students for fear that teaching children to think for themselves employing logic and reason would cause problems in the more God-fearing homes of their student body. To that I, whom some would call 'religious', cry foul and laziness - should we not teach our children to think, to question, to form opinions based on the good values we have brought them up in? To my own children I say, "Question everything by all means. Just be prepared to do the work to find the answers." And laugh. A lot.

Here is one of my favourite Rowan Atkinson sketches, satirizing the stereotypical English public school headmaster.

Emma and I have a new post over at Stella's Virtual Cafe. Check it out...please. 

November 23, 2012

What's so Great about Martha Stewart?

I am not American, neither am I rich (well, not in money anyway), I am artsy, but not particularly crafty, so why have I, every November for the past twelve years, bought a copy of the December issue of Martha Stewart Living? What do I see in that magazine that is so enticing for me to spend 6 bucks on it, read it cover to cover, and then keep it enshrined with all the others on a shelf in my dining room to be brought out and pored over every year? I will attempt to answer these questions, for anyone who cares, in the following post.

Martha Stewart is an American icon by now. She seems to be an expert on everything from breeds of fowl to how to keep foxing (those brown age spots in old books) out of your collection of First Editions. She speaks with the alto voiced drawl of the more laughable New York Yuppies depicted in Norah Ephron and Woody Allen films, and her hair is forever blonde. She will hand roll her own wrapping paper in a faux bois pattern and curl ribbon to emulate wood shavings to extend the woodland theme she has chosen for all her Christmas decorations of a particular year even to her packaging of gifts. She will hand make all her Christmas gifts, be they delicious puddings or be they begonias produced from cuttings of her own perfect plants, and present them in re-usable vessels, such as terra cotta pots made locally in her Bedford, New York neighbourhood and stamped with the name of her farm, or specially chosen bowls from her collections, all wrapped exquisitely, of course, as mentioned above, and personalized with a handmade, thematic gift tag. I'm not sure how many of these gifts she gives out to friends and family, but I am willing to bet the number is a high multiple of ten - at the very least. I also hear Martha Stewart, like many powerful people, only sleeps four hours a night. Go figure.

I started my interest in Martha Stewart back in 1995, when I was talking to a friend about cooking my first Turkey for Christmas. My friend gave me an edition of MSL magazine with an article entitled 'Turkey 101'. I followed the directions to the letter and every year I use the same recipe because it makes for delicious results. How can it not, when basted in a bottle of white wine and lashings of butter? Martha Stewart recipes make up a large portion of my special occasion recipes, as well as some of my everyday ones. My mother-in-law heard I was getting into Martha recipes and bought me one of her cookbooks for Christmas in 1996. The best chicken or turkey stock, the best chicken soup (with leeks and fennel) to cure a cold with, the best devilled egg recipe, the best pumpkin pie recipe, the best gingerbread cookie recipe, are all to be found in that falling apart book. My husband bought me a subscription of MSL magazine in 2002 and, while I enjoyed receiving an issue per month, I was a bit overwhelmed with a new baby at the time, and one solid year of fantastic gardening tips for my nonexistent garden and advice on where to find the best bookbinder for one's antique tomes was enough for me. Fortunately, 2002 was a great year for the magazine and I still have all my copies and refer to them often for the best recipes for coconut cake, quesadillas with caramelized onions and zucchini, various cookies and punches, and for a delicious recipe for the chicken and corn empanadas my daughter has requested I make for her birthday party tomorrow. Her birthday cake recipe is also coming from a back issue.

I remember a party we had to which we invited a few friends for quesadillas and margaritas. I made a rich, hot fudge sauce from MSL for the ice cream sundaes I served for dessert. Like all MSL recipes it makes an overly generous amount (I have learned to halve some recipes, particularly for dessert sauces and such), but I made the full recipe thinking I would have leftovers to warm for a future dessert. No such luck. Three of the women at the party proceeded to sit down around the bowl of hot fudge sauce and polish it off. There went a pound of good quality chocolate, but also, there lay the proof of the appeal of MSL recipes. They just taste so darn good.

Martha Stewart Living is about more than recipes and beautiful, artistic photos of food. The magazine contains ideas and instructions for craft projects, features on wonderful American artisans, decorating ideas for houses and apartments, and even occasional articles on how to invest your extra money in a seaside cottage or mountain retreat (which I ignore because I already spent all my money on chocolate). What I like about the magazine is that it sticks to these themes, and it knows what it's about - gracious, good and healthful living, which celebrates the home and family and those who care for them creatively. It's honest about its purpose, too: good taste and quality matter. I also like the fact that much of what is presented in the magazine to be created at home is approachable for 'the rest of us' if we have the time, the desire, and the energy to make some beautiful, delicious things from scratch for our family and friends, and for ourselves. To be completely honest, I'm a busy person and I do not have time or energy to embark on a lot of projects. The times of year that I do make a point of doing so is in preparation for the major holidays, and most of my chosen projects involve creating good things to eat. So, in that way, I am not a thorough devotee of the great Martha. I am not always looking for patterns to make my own dog bed, or ways to stencil my furniture. But for a new cake to make for Easter, or a pretty ornament to make for Christmas gifts? Yes, I'm there, studying the Martha manual along with all the well-to-do housewives of Connecticut.

Martha Stewart Living put out a magazine for kids for a few years. I bought several issues and found them to be full of beautiful ideas to do with my children. We made batches of marshmallow fudge for their teachers, personalized gingerbread people with the neighbourhood kids, lots and lots of cut paper snowflakes after learning the real way to do so, and various other projects. I taught one little boy I looked after to make paper snowflakes and he and my daughter wiled away many hours making them and taping them up in my hallway. One year, my kids and I made little ornaments out of pipe cleaners - little skiing Santas and skating snowmen, wreaths, candy canes, stockings and tiny deer. The project was so much fun and definitely inexpensive. We sent one to everyone on our list with their Christmas card and a mix-tape of seasonal music. The kids made those pipe cleaner ornaments the next year, too, and the year after that.

The other night I bought this year's December issue of Martha Stewart Living. I brought it home with the groceries, which my eldest daughter, Emma, nearly sixteen, helped to put away. After the groceries were in their proper places, my daughter went to bed, but not before she had picked up the new issue of MSL and asked me if I would let her take it to bed with her before I had had a chance to read it. Emma is a baker, beginning to be a good cook, is crafty and like her mother, loves pretty things and good food. The next morning she said she had stayed up late, reading the magazine cover to cover and getting all kinds of ideas for projects to make. For the past two years, Emma has made a beautiful wreath from cuttings of cedar and holly for our front door at Christmastime. Every year she also chooses some kind of special dessert to make for Christmas, and just the other night, she came up with a prototype for our annual Christmas card. It was lovely, so I said, 'go to it!' and she has. I think I will end up being her assistant for that project - if I can keep up.

Years ago, a woman who immersed herself in cooking, baking and decorating would be called a 'little Suzy homemaker,' conjuring up images of a 1950's smiling housewife in a ruffled apron and pearls, but now, she might be called something like 'the next Martha Stewart,' which means something different entirely. I mean, does the owner and brainpower behind Martha Stewart Omnimedia look like a 'little Suzy homemaker' to you?  Heck, she's even done time in the big house.

Photos found online. Happy weekend, friends! 

November 17, 2012

Nostalgia in a Cabinet

Some people might think it's a bit early to be thinking about sending Christmas cards, but believe me, the way the weeks fly by around here it pays to at least try and begin the process, especially if I am going to make them myself. I have always tried to make my own Christmas cards, although some years I end up buying them because I simply run out of time after attending all the seasonal concerts and such that every parent knows are a part of having children in high school band, music lessons or any kind of performing art.I am determined to make cards for my friends and family this year, although the process will be simplified by the help of a pretty, seasonal rubber stamp that I picked up a few weeks ago at the Granville Island post office. The post office there sells a lot of lovely paper products and card making supplies, and is a bit less expensive than the beautiful Granville Island store, Paper-Ya.

Years ago I would draw a sort of 'slice of life' comic of my growing family, photocopy it onto cards, decorate them, insert a copy of our annual Christmas letter, and send them off. Several of our friends and family members looked forward to the cards and they became a tradition for a few years.

The first family comic I ever drew, back in 1995.
It's so old, the paper is yellowed. My husband had just
recovered from a bout of viral meningitis. Crikey!

We were in the middle of packing up to move to Strathcona Park Lodge,
and I was gearing up for a new adventure and lots of changes to come.

Last weekend, we spent a whole day rearranging some furniture in our house. In my quest for a china cabinet to hold our recently inherited china I had daily walked by a cabinet in our own downstairs family room, ignoring it as a possible contender due to a prevailing idea that it would be too small. One day, looking at the cabinet,  my husband said, "how about this?" and I found myself uttering a "we could try it" sort of response. The cabinet had once been home to our dishes but since moving to this house with ample room in the many kitchen cupboards, and for the fact that the glass had broken in the cabinet door, the thing had been demoted to a catch-all for my stuff - cards and letters I couldn't bear to throw away, birthday candles, old experiential learning books my husband no longer needed for his present career, old files of my writing, etc. I cleaned out the cabinet, we brought it upstairs, and it now holds Nana's china and Granny's crystal glasses very nicely indeed - and looks like it has been in our dining room forever. We'll get the door glass cut sometime soon. (We also need a piece cut for the garage door window which, for a long time now, has had a hockey ball shaped hole in it. It's on the to-do list.)

This cabinet has been with us as long as I've
been making Christmas cards

In the cleaning out of the cabinet I came across a file of old annual Christmas letters I had written, and another filled with the original drawings for the many years of cards I had made. I was, frankly, surprised to see that my drawings were not that bad. Not great by any means, but not bad either. I can't remember the last time I sat down to draw something besides a map for directions or a doodled flower while I'm talking on the phone.Today, I sat for a few minutes looking through the file, reading the old letters from when our children were little, and looking through my interpretations of our evolving life as a family over the years. I must say I enjoyed strolling down memory lane, and I was suddenly very glad I had decided to make cards again this year.

The original drawing for the front of my 1999 Christmas card 'Anyday, 1999'

The original drawing for the  inside of my 1999 Christmas card:
 'Holiday (Ahhh!) 1999/2000'

Family scene from inside Cabin 21 at the Lodge. December, 1999

The last family comic I drew for Christmas 2000
The next Christmas we had a little fourth in the picture.

After my 2000 card I stopped drawing a family comic. The year after our fourth child was born, and I became busier than I had ever thought possible, my kids drew little pictures for our annual Christmas card and I put them together in a collage format, made them into cards and sent them out. The kids enjoyed decorating and colouring the cards, but somehow the experience was not quite the same for me. I had enjoyed framing our family in a single comic format over the years.

One day, perhaps, I will pick up a pencil and draw another family comic. If not, I will still have this collection of cards which serves as something of a point-of-view family archive of those early, formative years that played a large part in making us what we are today.

If you click on the photos, it will enlarge them.

November 10, 2012

Of Wind and Lego

This morning as I ran up the hill and across the bridge over the train tracks that carry goods from the Port of Vancouver to the interior of our province and beyond, the cold north wind blew against me. I assumed a head down fighting position and forged on despite the roar in my ears and the sudden slowing of my pace, and the metaphor did not escape me. That north wind felt like my life over the past few weeks. It whirled and swirled and gusted somewhat mercilessly trying to catch me up in its confusion and breathless assault on my senses. Still, I went on, doing what I do, pressing on and trying to make sense of things to figure out just what my role was in the midst of it all. I knew, despite my efforts to keep my chin up, that my struggles were showing because earlier this week my teenage daughter came up to me and said, "You look like you need a hug," and gave me one.

As I ran I wondered at the wisdom of nature: She knows when to end one season and start another, she embraces change because she has no choice; she knows change is a necessary part of life, and yet we humans resist and fight it. Dumb humans. However, to be fair, humans have choices, which makes our lives challenging because we also have human nature; we have pride, fear, and differences in temper to deal with. It is tempting to think during these times of difficulty that the end result will be a massive change in one's life, if only we can get through them. I've learned that is rarely the case. I used to, when I was younger, look for a big dramatic event, such as moving or changing jobs, as a means to escape or make sense of whatever I was going through emotionally. I now know that these periods of stress and internal battle are usually about something less obvious. A choice is often necessary to be made in the end, but it can take a long time to come to it if it is to be made sensibly and thoughtfully and not as an emotional reaction. Sometimes the answer is in doing what one already does, but in a different and better way.

As I gratefully turned off the bridge and rounded the corner onto the protected downward slope the wind had no power there. I left her to rage behind me and took the chance to speed up my pace. I began to feel better and stronger. The road was quiet once again and as I passed the steep track on the right that leads up to the water tower I thought perhaps one day I might attempt to run up it. I would have to be in a bit better shape. It had been weeks since I had been able to run; my sinus cold had prevented me. It was good to have hope of one day running up that track, to know that one day I could rise to that challenge and perhaps even make it to the top. It occurred to me that my life was back on track, too. My mind was much calmer than it had been in weeks, my attitude more positive and my purpose more defined, even though I had yet to know what my choices would be when it came to finally making them.

I knew I was feeling more myself yesterday when I ran into a friend whom I had been meaning to have over for a visit all year - and I invited her, her husband and son for tea today. I'd had an idea to dust off some of my son's Lego to give my friend's son something fun to do at our house. My son, in his later years of Lego collecting, had kept his sets stored separately. I took down the large Medieval castle set from the shelf in my son's closet and began to put it together on the living room floor. Putting it together proved to be slow going and when my youngest daughter had recovered from her day of school she began to help me sort through the hundreds of pieces. I took a break to bake something for the next day and heat up our leftovers for supper. Then our eldest daughter came home from her after-school job at the dental office, ate supper, and then also could not resist the building of the Lego castle. We worked together a bit until my traffic weary husband and second son came home from attending a university open house in Vancouver and I jumped up to help them get their supper, too. They wanted to know why we were building the Lego castle and I told them about our guests and their son due the next day. After they ate our son also joined in the building, and with his help the castle was completed in no time at all. I knew that is how it would be - if you put Lego out, kids cannot resist building it. Sometimes adults, too.

There was something so satisfying about putting all the Lego pieces together to build something I know our little friend will be thrilled with. When life feels complicated, being able to concentrate on something simple that will give someone joy seems to be the balm in my Gilead. My son carefully placed the knights, the king and the dragon and the ghouls around the castle. This morning I will do some more baking with my daughter, and walk downtown to shop for some fruit and cheese for our tea. I will ask my careful son to move the castle up onto the coffee table for little George. If he gets bored of that, we also have a Viking ship and fortress, a minature Ferrari sports car, a Harry Potter train, a deep-sea diving submarine and countless other sets he can build. I am sure someone here will be willing to help him.

There's good soup simmering over at Stella's Virtual Cafe. Just click on the link above the cafe sign on the upper right hand of my blog. 

November 2, 2012

All Souls Day, 2012

There is something unmistakably beautiful and bittersweet about the gradual decline of a year. In this part of the world, we enjoyed summer weather right up until Thanksgiving (the second Monday of October), and then, just like that, the north wind carried a cooler, damper message, and fall began. The trees, their leaves almost dried to a crisp from the seemingly endless stretch of brilliant sunny days, seemed to rust overnight and exclaim, "Wait a minute? Weren't we just yesterday young and green?" 

Our fall colour is at its peak right now, and is often glossy with the rain. Bands of low cloud stretch across the mountainsides and the grass/moss mixture that is our lawn is littered with damp, brown leaves. The ruby red Japanese maples around our town are nature's crowning achievement this year before she lets the winter winds have their way, shedding her old coat until spring.

An interesting new fence separates this house's trees
from the empty lot next door

Ginko trees turn a sunny yellow in the town

A red maple spreads out  its foliage like an umbrella

Today is All Souls Day, a day to remember those who have gone before us, those who have shed the old and heavy coat of this life on earth. Two years ago I was inspired by the glory of the fall colour to write a poem about All Souls Day. I re-posted it last year and today, I will share it again. It still resonates with me. Perhaps when you read it, you will insert the names of your own loved ones and those who have inspired you and are no longer with us.

All Souls Day

Today I am taking some time to remember
 all those souls I have known
who have moved on from this mixed bag of beauty and sorrow: 
Lea, Peter, Nana and Grandad, Granny and Grampa,
 Grampa Warren, Great-Grandad Matthew, Nana Brown,
and schoolmates 
Pat, Laurel, Jason, and Rodi
For whom we now pray.

Also those souls I did not know but think of nonetheless: 
my brother Michael who was born and died long before I came along,
(Would I be here had he lived?)
various ancestors whose DNA I share with my children
 and authors and artists who filled the treasure chest of thought and vision
I look to for inspiration and comfort -
'We read to know we are not alone,' says C.S. Lewis' student in Shadowlands

And then there are those with no one to remember them
in November we look upon the trees
singing their swan song in ruby red dress
Spirits waving in the fields
seem to say 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,' 
'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' 
My heart reaches out to lift them up and set them free
to the place where I hope to go
someday long from now
if only someone will remember me

Empty swings on  the Harrison beach lagoon

Wishing you a good weekend. 

October 26, 2012

Why Bullying?

Bullying. It has been in the news an awful lot as of late, due to the very publicly aired suicide of Amanda Todd of Coquitlam - a city an hour's drive from here. I am not going to re-tell her story. The information is easily found online. Suffice it to say, her story has brought the issue of bullying, both online and in person, to the forefront. A painful subject, bullying is an issue that sparks controversy as well as dialogue among experts and common folk alike. I've read several articles and heard several more interviews on the CBC on the subject over the past few weeks and thought I might as well throw in my two cents along with everyone else.  

Why do some people feel a need to bully others? A bully is 'one who hurts or browbeats those who are weaker,' so I suppose the action has something to do with a desire for power over others. But what makes someone desire power over another, particularly over someone perceived as being 'weaker' than themselves? Perhaps it comes down to an individual misconceived notion of one's worth being caught up in a sense of domination. If the meek are to inherit the earth, it sure seems like the strong hold it hostage an awful lot in the meantime.

My girls, who are still in the public school system, said that everyone at school has been talking about Amanda Todd's suicide. My elder daughter who is nearly sixteen is questioning the validity of her classmates' jumping on the 'Oh that's so SAD, that should NOT have happened. If she were in our school I would NEVER have treated her the way those mean kids did' bandwagon. My daughters reaction? "Oh really? You're sure about that? If this girl who used drugs, drank bleach, and made a misguided decision to expose her breasts to someone on line, leading to the photo going viral, went to our school, you would reach out to her? I don't think so." I added that my daughter and her friends would most likely have thought of her as 'messed up' and avoided getting close to her. It takes a pretty unusual teenager to assess another beyond appearances. Sadly, the truth is, it usually 'takes one to know one' in that sense.

By all accounts, Amanda Todd did not lack support, either at home or by the school system. Her mother said that right before Amanda's death she appeared to be doing better and had told her mother so.  My sense of things is that, for teenagers, their peer group often wins attention over any other source of opinion. Being called 'whore' and 'porn star' repeatedly by her classmates, after every attempt to change schools for a new start, obviously took its toll. What is wrong with people? Why do they have to be so mean to make themselves appear better than others? Where is the charity? Where is the basic human respect? Where is the kindness? I have heard it said often that we need to create a different climate in our schools, one of acceptance of others' differences, of tolerance, of generosity of spirit, and with this change in climate good will come. No doubt. But if that climate only exists in schools and not in the home or the work place or the world at large, how much headway for change can the school make? I leave these questions for the experts to ponder and quantify.

The CBC has a topical call in radio program called Cross Country Checkup. I wasn't planning to tune in that Sunday afternoon two weekends ago, but I was on my way to an arts council meeting and the radio was on in the car. The topic was bullying and suicide, and one caller got my attention before I had to turn the car off and go into my meeting. He suggested that the hero worship of athletes in high schools does its part in promoting bullying. Athletes tend to be revered by teachers and students alike in many cases, but this sort of admiration can often lead to the admirer overlooking other qualities that are less attractive. (I can remember a few of this sort from my own school days.) The caller went on to say that high school sports, and often the sports world at large, promote aggression, domination, competitiveness, and as we've recently seen in the world of cycling, extends to cheating and drug use. And while in other areas of life these qualities would be reprehensible, they are often accepted in sport, and those who question them are labeled 'whiners' and 'weaklings'.  Hm, I thought, as I turned off the car, he may have a point there. Later, I asked my two teenagers what they thought of the caller's idea. They both thought it had some merit. One of them said, "Well, you can be stupid, and a jerk, but if you're good at sports, they all love you. If you are stupid and a jerk and not good at sports, you get no respect at all." The other said, "I think there is something to that. A lot of behaviour gets overlooked if you are an athlete at school." When I asked my husband, who was an athlete in school, but somehow managed to stay aloof from the politics (I think that was in great part due to skipping a lot of classes to go skiing) he said, without hesitation, "Absolutely. Just look at football and hockey. Guys purposefully coached to 'take someone out', intentionally hurt them, take late hits, cheap shots, and often they get away with it. Why should they? Why are acts of intentional injury tolerated in sport?" Of course this got me thinking in an expanded way about the world we live in, and why bullying is such a problem at all levels.

Unfortunately, I didn't come up with any real answers or profound thoughts on the matter. I know that the world of sport, our schools, our workplaces (I recently heard a program on the quite serious problem of bullying among nurses in hospitals), and our society in general is struggling to deal with the issue and making some advancements. Our own elementary school here has a policy of celebrating each child's gifts and strengths, no matter what they are, and I applaud that policy. Still, the domination of the alpha males and females still carries so much weight in our world. Perhaps the reasons for that fact are more primitive than we would like to admit. I suppose it is up to each of us to look hard at ourselves, our children, our spousal relationships and cut off those bullying tendencies at the knees. Bullying takes many forms - it is a curious shape-shifting thing. It  can be as subtle as using persistent and manipulative language to bend the will of another toward our own agenda, and as outward as the big kid pushing the little kid off the swing in the playground. I remember my own mother saying in no uncertain terms to my big brother when his teasing went so far as to hurt or push me to desperation (I once spit on him from the upstairs balcony in retaliation), "Stop being a bully!"

Perhaps the best way to deal with the bullies in our midst is to keep talking about the subject,  to keep bringing it out into the open. I just hope it doesn't take the tragic death of another young girl to bring it up again.

October 18, 2012

Uncharted Territory on Duncan Avenue

Last night, as sleep eluded me, partly due to my husband also tossing and turning beside me (we've ordered a new bed), and partly due to the strong cup of tea I had enjoyed late in the afternoon, I remembered a lullaby I had written long ago for my children, and I believe, for myself. A mother of three under five years old at the time, I had rare bursts of creativity in between the long, sleepless nights with an often sick baby and trips to the Tot Stop where mothers with young children went in search of company and sanity.

We were renting a lovely old house on the leafy end of Duncan Avenue in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The house, added onto over the years, had a strange layout typical of houses of its age, with bedrooms right off the long and somewhat dark living room and the main bathroom off the tiny kitchen, but what it lacked in spacial sense, it made up for in character and homeliness. The wood stove gave lovely, warming heat, and was surrounded by an iron grate to keep it safe from little hands. It was an elegant looking house from the outside, with a peaked roof, and wraparound veranda, cedar shingles and teal blue trim. The yard was perfect for our children with a paved area for hockey and tricycles, a sandbox, and a swing hanging from the large tree near the end of the grassy plot - we even tried our inexperienced hand at growing vegetables.  My husband worked from his home office upstairs, so most mornings I took the children out to give him some peace and quiet. The house was a few short blocks from the main street, which was full of interesting shops to explore on rainy days, all with a 'family friendly' policy - a basket of toys in the corner for the children of shopping parents. No shop was more popular with my kids than Whale's Tale Toys. A large Brio train set was set up in the front of the shop, and children were encouraged to play to their heart's content. We purchased many, many fine birthday presents at Whale's Tale: Lego, Playmobil, sand toys, marble tracks, trains, dinosaur figurines, games, puzzles...

On fine days, we risked the narrow sidewalk and bridge which led to the park with our stroller packed with baby Emma, snacks and essentials. The boys held on to the stroller, one on each side - most of the time. With relief, we entered the large park by the Puntledge river, and the children spilled out from under me, running for the climbing apparatus. On one of these days, I met my friend Barbara, who also had two small boys with a girl soon to follow. We had a great deal in common, and are still friends to this day, I'm happy to say. When it was time for lunch, we packed up our gear and braved the narrow trek home. I still remember how nerve-wracking it was to keep the kids close to me while the traffic whizzed by, cars occasionally honking at us for our audacity in walking by a busy road. I could have driven to the park, and sometimes did, but I have always had a rebellious attitude toward driving a distance easily reached on foot in fresh air. Besides, I needed the exercise. The sidewalks widened once we made a right turn onto Anderton Avenue, and then the boys could let go of their hold on the stroller and skip on ahead a bit. Home again, with Daddy down from his office for lunch, we reported our adventures to him. Afternoons were for quiet time and playing in the garden or with toys inside.

Twice a week I went for a long power walk with a walking group. Sharing parenting stories and tips and talking about our husbands and their work, our work and the challenges of potty-training, and the excitement of our children's 'firsts', we fought the battle of the thickening matronly waistline while we circumnavigated the neighbourhoods of our little world. We took a much needed break from chores, small tugging hands and the urgent high pitched calls of  'mo-o-o-o-m!' We walked by the river, mostly, but sometimes we drove over to Comox and walked down the Dogwood tree-lined hills to the ocean. Often we ended our walks with a visit to a cafe where I usually ordered a newly discovered favourite, steamed milk with a shot of vanilla syrup. My husband was on a Comox soccer team at the time and had many days and evenings out, so I took my turn too.

Still, amid these happy times on Duncan Avenue were interspersed some long spells I like to call 'The Black Hole'. Driven to tears by lack of sleep and a Houdini of a baby in the grocery store, by living far from family, and from riding the waves of a fairly new marriage to an energetic Type A personality husband who I am sure was sometimes baffled, albeit lovingly, by the fits and starts of his elated, exhausted, disorganized partner in life, I spent days on end in mere survival mode. I believe it was when coming out of one of these Black Holes that I wrote the aforementioned lullaby. For years, my children requested this imperfect poem set to music, among many other night-time songs which embedded themselves in the fabric of their beings.

One day, perhaps, these songs will be brought to light again with their own children, just as the songs my parents sang to us were carried down through the years, at first silently hidden and then emerging shining like gems once again with our own voices, exuding warmth, comfort and safety to both the hearer and the singer, lulling them to sleep after a long day of work and play.

Spirit of slumber, come down to me,
Settle my restless mind
Still my body, let my thoughts roll away like a parting sea

Sail on through, sail on through
Ship of slumber
Deliver me to
That uncharted territory,

The photo above is one I took of the house and garden on Duncan Avenue, shortly after we moved in. The three foot evidence of the moving-day snowstorm had obviously melted by the time I took the picture.

Happy Weekend everyone, and sweet dreams!

October 11, 2012

Thoughts of Home

As I look around this 1970's, boxy house with its four bedrooms, three bathrooms, large kitchen and yard, I wonder how long we will need a home of this size. In the not too distant future, with three children grown up, we and our youngest daughter will be rattling around by ourselves wondering what to do with all the space left behind when all of her siblings are out in the world beyond our happy home. But is it wise to downsize? I do not relish the thought of not having room enough for my kids and their friends to stay and be comfortable when they visit, or for grandchildren in the future, if God willing, there are to be some. But is that a good enough reason to hang onto, and look after, a big-ish house with a large yard? I've always dreamed of a three bedroom cottage with a wood stove and just enough room for a few guests around the table. Will there be one of those in our future? (There was one in our past.) Fortunately, I don't have to think seriously about it right now. We have a few years yet.

A cottage in the woods - made of gingerbread by our daughter

Our eldest, Ian came home for the day on Monday. He is able to do that because his home in Vancouver is only one hundred and twenty kilometers west of here and he can very easily hop on a Greyhound bus to make the trip home and back. He came home to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers - turkey sandwiches for lunch with scalloped potatoes on the side and pumpkin pie - and a late birthday supper of barbecued steak and Caesar Salad ( I supposed you've guessed by now that we are not vegetarians, at least not on the holidays). I turned 43 over a week ago, but despite all his good intentions my husband was not able to cook the dinner he'd planned for me that day, due to a flare-up of his herniated disc. However, feeling much better by Monday, my husband rose early with the girls to cook waffles topped with sauteed apples and whipped cream with a side of bacon - might as well go all out- while I drove to the bus depot to pick up Ian and bring him 'home'. In between the feasting our family of six went for a long walk on the farm roads, visited, drank tea in the afternoon while lounging on the living room couches watching episodes of Community on Netflix, and just enjoyed all being together. The day ended all too soon, and after a bit more visiting in the kitchen while we cleaned up, I drove Ian to the bus depot again, knowing it would not be too long before we saw each other again.

We are lucky that our first born and first to leave home lives so close. He is exactly where he wants to be, taking classes at a small college, living with great roommates in an access-to-everything-in-the-city location, working weekends in the guitar section of a music store, and finding inspiration for his life as an artist everywhere. But yet, he can come home or we can go to him quite easily. There is no guarantee the situation will be the same with our second son. He wants to study music and is deciding on which universities to apply to in this huge country of ours. Even though I want him to be close-ish to home like his brother, I know that he will have to go where he needs to go to be in the best music program for him. Not unlike my niece, who is studying ballet in Oregon...I know my sister misses her terribly, while feeling great pride in her daughter for following her dream.

Our third child wants to go to University right after she graduates from high school in 2014. Will she and her brothers come home for the summers? It remains to be seen and depends very much on the housing and employment they can get in their respective cities. And our youngest? Well, at this point she says she is going to live at home and take the theater program at our local university, to which she can bus or drive. She worries about us being lonely without her.

When I went away to University, I lived at home in the summer, working and saving up for the year ahead. My parents have lived in the same house since I was six years old. There is no danger of them 'rattling around' in their house, though. Theirs is not that kind of house, being built in the 1800's when not only furniture, but people were generally smaller. When visitors come they sleep either on the sleeping porch or up in the converted attic sleeping loft. Some of us siblings have even lived with our parents when in between houses and jobs. There has always been enough room somehow.

I am thankful for this open, large roomed, light filled house that has welcomed our family of six so well. We moved in when our eldest was eleven and our youngest was three years old. We've had bands practicing in the garage, ping-pong in the basement, a troupe of girls performing plays in the downstairs family room, twelve or more people around the dinner table, and four of us cooking at once in the kitchen. We've often had violin, piano, and guitar going at the same time in different corners of the house - ack! Baseball and badminton in the back yard and basketball and hockey in the driveway. Christmas trees that looked much smaller in the field and two rooms to store camping gear, skis and a large freezer, as well as a laundry drying rack which is full much of the time. Our house is often messy, but has never felt cramped. The walls are full of artwork and book shelves. I look at all the new row houses (with teeny tiny postage stamp yards) popping up in our town and wonder how we, a family full of energetic, sporty musicians, would have fared living so closely with neighbours as our children grew up.  I'm sure we would have survived, but I am grateful we didn't have to.

I wonder what our future brings as we gradually enter into this new phase of life as so called 'empty nesters'. This house and yard is a lot to look after without four strapping youngsters to help. Will we stay, or will we go? Just as we've always done, we'll do whatever seems right and fitting when the time comes. I have a strong sense of 'home'. I would like my children to have that anchor in their lives, too, but I know that 'home' is where the people you love are, not necessarily the structure they live in.

Still, there's time...there's time.

October 2, 2012

The Enduring Legacy of Terry Fox

The Terry Fox Memorial near Thunder Bay
Photo by Tim Van Horn

For the past few years I have kept up my tradition of running the annual Terry Fox Run with my daughter's elementary school. It's not a very long run, but the whole school participates as well as several parents and occasionally a local constable. Just before eleven a.m. I change into my running gear and walk the three short blocks to the school. The day is usually a bit warm for running by eleven o'clock for me, somewhat of a wilting flower in the heat, but I suck it up and go. The event begins with a noisy school assembly and a slide show meant to motivate the crowd, as well as a student-led warm-up, and then we're off to run the route accompanied by a police escort. The kids push to the front, the athletes maintaining their speed to the end, the others flagging after a few blocks, still others, especially the little ones and their teachers, walking the route from the start. The running adults start off at a measured pace, chatting with each other and encouraging the kids along the way. People honk and wave from their cars, and the kids wave back proudly, most of them. As the runners return to the school, and are cheered by the other runners, the first few times are recorded on a timing sheet for posterity and everyone is given bottled water and a piece of fruit. After that, the kids go inside for lunch and the adults go home or continue running now that they are warmed up.

For the whole week preceding the run the school celebrates and learns about the legacy of Terry Fox. The children are encouraged to bring in coins - a different denomination each day - as a donation to the Terry Fox Foundation which raises money for cancer research. Even in this age of mega-corporate charities, especially in the field of cancer, the Terry Fox Foundation seems to be an honest, humble, but by no means minor organization - a lot like the young man for whom it was named.

I remember watching the television news with my family during Terry's Marathon of Hope in the spring and summer of 1980. I remember marveling at this young man from my own province who, with one prosthetic leg replacing the one he had had amputated due to cancer, ran as best he could - a step, step, hop kind of run - 42 kilometers each day, rain or shine with a support van following close behind. The news ran updates every day as Terry made his way from the East Coast of Canada through Quebec to Ontario. I had never seen anyone, let alone a disabled person, doing what he was doing to raise awareness and donations for a cause very personal to him. I think Canada ran those painstaking miles with him, every step of the way, cheering him on in his determination and his cause. Unfortunately in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he learned that the cancer he hoped he had left behind had made its evil way to his lungs. I remember being angry that his cancer had returned and that he would not be able to make it across Canada. In my youthful indignation I thought perhaps he should not have run a marathon a day if doing so made him so ill. I did not realize at the time that he was working toward something much greater than himself - that he was trying to motivate a nation to care about trying to find a cure for a terrible disease called cancer and he was succeeding. "I believe in miracles...I have to,"  said Terry during an interview with the press. Terry Fox died in June of 1981 just days before his twenty-third birthday, but not before he had received countless honors and awards and his dream to raise a dollar for every Canadian was realized. A pledge from a high level Canadian businessman to begin an annual Terry Fox run in order to carry on what Terry started was made in 1981, and this year on September 16th the 32nd annual Terry Fox run was held in countless towns and cities around the world. In 2005 the first National School Run Day was launched and since then, our local schools have taken part in this annual event celebrating this inspiring young Canadian. (My son Galen was so inspired that, at the age of ten he decided to run the route as Terry had - with a step-step hop, 'because anyone can run, Mom.' I talked him out of it, mostly because I thought he may end up injured.)

The Terry Fox runs are, for me, the right kind of 'run for a cause'. I remember when I subscribed to a running magazine and the pages were full of ads for all the runs one could do to raise funds for various charities: leukemia, breast cancer, arthritis, etc. The catch was, a person had to raise two or more thousand dollars just to be able to take part in many of these events. I don't have enough rich friends to hit up for those kind of dollars, or the time and energy that many others have to embark on such a fundraising campaign. The simplicity of the Terry Fox run appeals to me; I only have to show up with a few dollars if I can afford it - Fox himself said, "If you have given a dollar, then you are part of The Marathon of Hope" - and run. I don't have to travel to the city because the runs happen in my own community and at my daughter's school. I, along with thousands of parents across Canada, get to run with the kids, the teachers, and the principal, continuing the efforts of Terry Fox, and I see it as an honour to be able to do so.


Before we began our run, my daughter's teacher came to the back of the gym with a pile of stickers. She handed them out to we adult runners and supplied a black felt pen. The sticker read "I'm running for_____".
I filled in the space with the name 'Peter,' the father of one of my nieces and fiance of my sister Pauline. Peter died almost twenty years ago after what began as skin cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and then to his brain. I slapped the sticker on my front and headed off to run in the sunshine for Peter and for Terry. I ran with joy and gratitude for my own good health, knowing full well that I was truly blessed to be able to do so.

Terry Fox
photo by Colin Price, Vancouver Province newspaper

A message for my blogger friends: September is a bit of a crazy month for me and I am way behind on the reading of your latest posts. I apologize, and now that it is October, pledge to read, read, read! My other blog, Stella's Virtual Cafe has not been updated with a new post/recipe in nearly a month and I will get on that as well. Thanks for your patience, but most of all, thanks for reading my blog!

September 22, 2012

Material Apathy

I was recently having a conversation with a couple of women I know. One of the women was soon going to be going on a vacation to a tropical destination - something I have never done. While I was making a polite comment about her upcoming trip she suddenly turned to me:

"Does everyone in your family embrace the whole 'Kootenay lifestyle'?"

I must have answered her question with a puzzled expression because she quickly added,

"You know, the 'not caring about material possessions' thing."

I was caught off guard. My instinct was to be insulted, because it seemed like an impertinent question at the time. But I, being me, quickly suppressed any response which might lead to conflict, and I replied, smiling, "Oh, you want to know if they are sort of hippy-ish like me.' I said that yes, we all had a little of the Kootenay way about us, laughing it off like what she said had not bothered me. We all parted soon after that and I rode my bike home across the sun-baked high school field, trying hard to make sense of what had just occurred.

I wondered what would make her ask me that question out of the blue. We had not been talking about anything to do with me and what I do not own; Had she been discussing the subject with other people who know me better than she does? The Kootenays, a beautiful region in the interior of British Columbia chock full of mountains, lakes and rivers, and the place where I had the very good fortune to grow up, do have a reputation for being a haven for alternative lifestyle types. Did I look to her like someone who didn't care about how I appeared? I thought about my outfit that day: cargo shorts, sky blue t-shirt, sandals, glasses, no make-up - which is not unusual for me, hair in need of a cut. As I looked down at my outfit I was reminded of the time when I was twelve and I asked my mother if she thought I looked like a boy, and she answered that I might help my case more if I dressed more like a girl. The fact is I had been riding my bike, doing chores at home and work on the computer. Did I need to wear something fancy for that? No, but I have been know to 'clean up nice.'

I wondered what the woman in question would think if she knew, despite appearances, how I love fine art, rich cashmere sweaters, old style Jaguars, Georgian architecture, Edwardian houses, micro-brewery ales, artisan breads and cheeses, Spode porcelain, Waterford Crystal, VQA wines, and the beautiful idea of going on a Viking River Cruise through Eastern Europe. To say I don't care about material things is an absolute fallacy. Besides owning only one cashmere sweater with an expertly patched elbow, and being able to indulge in the food and drink portion of my list from time to time, I don't actually own or intend to purchase many of those items on my list. However, it doesn't mean I can't admire them. Come to think of it, my husband and I are on the lookout for a china cabinet for the china and crystal we recently inherited, and highly value, from my grandparents.

In this part of the world, a lot of people own large recreational vehicles, power boats and big shiny trucks for hauling their trailers. I'm not interested in 'keeping up with the Joneses' in this regard. Apparently, 'a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into', as are gas-guzzling trucks and recreational vehicles, and we lack the necessary funds for that game. We are busy investing in our children. I was joking with an artist friend that maybe he could make us some life-size cutouts of a boat, trailer and a large truck, and we could trim them with lights and put them in the driveway so we could 'dress up' our house for Halloween.

To be honest, sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me. Why am I not willing to do what it takes to have the bigger material things I might desire? Am I just lazy? Do I lack the necessary 'get up and go'? It's a fair question, because I know some of the other women in my life wonder what it is I do all day. I've come a long way from that teenage girl who tacked up a large collage of high fashion photos from magazines on her wall and once considered a glamorous career in advertising or fashion design - I most definitely had material aspirations back then. How do other women who are also wives and mothers do it, because in this part of the world you need two incomes to support that kind of lifestyle. All I know is, whatever these other women have in the way of ambition, I lack. Maybe I'm just not willing to do what it takes to have all that stuff. I'm not willing to join in the vicious cycle of  'buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car.' * What I really want to do is to be free to write, to think, to read, to cook, to walk and run, to sing, to work at things that interest me and make a difference, whether they pay or not, and to provide a calm and happy home life for my kids and my husband who works too much. Is that so wrong?

Here are The Police playing their song 'Spirits in a Material World.' While I was writing the draft for this post in the car while waiting for my son's violin lesson to be over, it came on the radio. Timely.

* lyrics from Canadian band Metric

September 15, 2012

An Old Friend Passes Away

A view down the lake of our hometown

I was the happy but sometimes bewildered youngest child of six siblings. We were one of Nelson's many big Catholic families. Big families were not at all uncommon back then. Big families tended to bring up a lot of strong characters and my family was no different. It took me a long time to find my footing in the family and in life really, beyond being 'the baby', and I remember well the people who helped me along the way to find out where I fit in.

One of those people was a handsome boy my age, named Rodi. He came from an Italian family that lived up the street and around the bend from us. I had to pass his house every time I walked to Gyro Park where the outdoor pool was. I hadn't gone to elementary school with him, but I knew his family from church. Rodi had dark skin, dark hair, and a beautiful smile. He had time to say hello, and he did every time he saw me go by. He was often outside washing the family car, or mowing the lawn in front of his parents' long, low house which was perched on the top of a cliff and so had a beautiful view down the lake. He had a sweet sister named Deanna, who was friends with one of my older sisters, and his parents were some of the friendliest people in the neighbourhood. When his father spoke it was with a smooth, but strong Italian accent and I would find myself, with my musical ear, answering his questions with a parrotted accent as well. I couldn't help it.

As I grew from a rather tomboyish childhood into girlhood, I was unsure of myself, as I'm sure so many girls of that age are. I was often paired up with the fifth child in my family, my brother Stephen, so I knew about cars and tree forts, how to play gin rummy and be smothered by a pillow. I was flat chested, skinny, with straight, fine hair and almond shaped brown eyes. I didn't feel very much like a girl, but the fact of the matter was, I would have to face it sooner or later.

When I was about twelve, I would walk by Rodi's house, and I would find myself looking for him. He would often call me over and we would just stand there talking as the minutes ticked on. I don't remember what we  talked about, but spending those times with him made me feel good. Just the way he talked to me made me feel, above anything, like a normal girl - a girl who was comfortable talking to a nice, cute boy, and nothing more. But more importantly, nothing less. He didn't tease me like my brothers did (endlessly, but I credit them for giving me a sense of humour), or act stupidly like some of the neighbourhood boys, he just talked to me in an encouraging way. He was a very relaxed person and I just felt completely clear-headed and at ease with him. As I grew up into my teen years, we continued to wave to each other as I walked by - he was often working on his own car by then. One day I stopped to talk to him and teased him about a girl we both knew who was well-endowed. "Actually," he said, giving me a sly grin, "I'm more of a leg man."

When I was in Nelson this summer my mom told me that Rodi had been very ill and in the hospital for a long time. His condition was serious. Yesterday, via that good old fashioned method, Facebook, I found out he had passed away. I had not seen Rodi in years, but I knew that he had been a husband and a father, and I grieved for the whole family.

It is strange when someone you grew up with, someone you were a child with, dies. We have lost several schoolmates over the years. How short this life is, yet when you think about it, how full the years can seem, how thick the memories. I once had a friend named Rodi. I thank him for that.

Rest in Peace, Rodi.

September 12, 2012

Thoughts from a Church Goer

When we lived up at the Lodge on Vancouver Island, we had a neighbour about my age, named John.* John had come from Montreal to take the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training course, and then been hired as a staff member and outdoor leader. He had a girlfriend named Yolanda*, also from Montreal, and they shared the little cabin next to ours. We immediately struck up a friendship with them, and they were very good to our three kids. One day, the kids, my husband and I were piling into the car to head to town, a 40 minute drive down the mountain for mass. The conversation went like this:

"Where are you guys going on a Sunday?" asked John.

"To church," I said.

"Oh yeah? Which church?"

"The Catholic Church, St. Patrick's"


"Why wow?"

"You mean people out here still go to church? In Montreal, nobody goes anymore. I thought it was a thing of the past."

Montreal is, of course, in the primarily Catholic province of Quebec. I wondered if what he said was true. I remember going to mass with my French exchange host in the Atlantic coastal community of Port Cartier, Quebec, and the church being absolutely full. I did believe John in a way. Most younger people in Montreal probably did not attend mass anymore, just like most of the kids I grew up with, and went to Catholic school with in British Columbia who had stopped going. It is definitely true that the Archidiocese of Vancouver is thriving and growing, mainly due to the steady influx of immigrants to our shores from Catholic countries like the Philippines.

I read a quote from the Dalai Lama this morning,

All the world's major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether. 

and it got me thinking about why I carry on with religion. I'm a bit confused by the Dalai Lama's statement and I'm not even sure what he means. How can you go 'beyond religion?' Isn't that place in the 'beyond' still  religion, if it is grounded in a belief in God? Doesn't religion still have validity if it is used, like the Dalai Lama says (to me anyway) as a springboard to something he sees as more beneficial to the world today? I'm just not sure we can have one without the other. Well, I can't anyway. On second thought, perhaps the Dalai Lama is suggesting maybe we need to go beyond our religions as we know them to reach any kind of spiritual or ethical enlightenment.

A friend said to me once, "Did you know that some evangelicals are preaching that the Catholic Church is a dead church?" I don't think that is true, but I do know that the Catholic Church has been going through an identity crisis overall in this ever more secular, digitized world. Many in it think that by gathering a million young people together from all around the world and playing them Christian pop music this will lead to renewal. Others think that modernizing the music played at mass is the ticket. Others think the church should 'get with the times' and modernize overall, relax her moral standards, be more inclusive, etc. etc. In my adult life at least, I have never gone to church for the entertainment value (although I will laugh at a funny joke in a sermon), nor the opportunity to dance in the aisles, nor for the opportunity to see the Pope in person (although of course I would not object to meeting him). I don't judge others for their own motivations, but I know I am not the only one who values the church as a quiet and holy place where one can go and lay their troubles and their joys, their worries and their gratitude at the feet of an all knowing, all wise, and all loving Supreme Being and say, "Here, these are for you. Take them and make something of them as only you can do. Then if you will, give me the strength and grace to carry on in this crazy, beautiful, mixed up world in a way which brings peace, love, and encouragement to my family, my friends and all those I interact with." I suppose it could be argued that this action could be done outside of a church, but there is something comforting and encouraging about gathering with other people, who are all struggling equally, to do so. And, being a Catholic, actually being in the church is an imperative for experiencing Jesus as he comes down to commune with us in the mass. 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,' as the Good Book says.

I recall an episode of the crime drama Rebus. His young Sergeant finds Inspector Rebus, who we learn grew up in a Polish Catholic family, in an empty Catholic church, sitting in a pew by himself. "Do you actually believe this stuff?" she asks. "I try to," he says. "It's a great antidote to police work. There's something very comforting about seeing all these people in one place, trying to be good."

Even in the third book of the violent and graphic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, we see a high level policeman, who is Jewish, going into a Catholic church because it is the one place he knows of where he can experience the quality of silence he desires.

That quality of silence can be hard to find in our churches today, but it is there, lingering in the shadows, waiting for us to put down our i-phones and other distractions. If allowed to be, our churches are an unshakable port in the storm, a shelter from earthly woe, and a gathering place for souls of all colours and walks of life to come in and be comforted and strengthened. (And here I do realize that the Church continues to deal with scandals involving lecherous priests and neglectful bishops -  just for the record I think these guys should be punished to the full extent of the law. Any institution which is run by humans will face issues of human frailty, which is not an excuse, only a reason for more diligence when it comes to these matters.)

There is a sign in my daughter's new classroom: "Of all the things to be in this world, be yourself." I think the church as an institution should take this motto to heart and forget about trying to be anything but authentically itself: a place of beauty, of silence, of a two thousand year old tradition of ritual and service to the poor in body and in spirit. Authenticity is what brings true followers. Everything else is noise. The world will continue to rage against this institution, but then, it always has and always will; no matter what accommodations she makes to the world, I have a feeling they will never be enough to satisfy its restless wanting nature.

*names have been changed