October 28, 2013

A Novel Idea

So, I've gone and done it. I've signed up for NaNoWriMo, which serves as a catchy and much shorter way of saying National Novel Writing Month. For the month of November I must, if I am to achieve my goal of writing 50,000 words, write an average of 1666 words per day. I have registered with the website, written my novel-to-be's summary and provided an excerpt. I have subscribed to the Facebook page and disregarded anything to do with Twitter. I don't do Twitter. This coming Friday, day one, I will take a deep breath, trust in the process, and dive in to a solid month of typing out the story that has been building in my mind for over a year.

I first heard about NaNoWriMo a few years ago at a writing workshop. At the time I had no concrete ideas for a novel and shelved the idea until now. I wrote my first novel years ago after the idea for it was inspired by a painting I had done a few years before. Over a few weeks I wrote the entire thing in long hand when my kids were napping and then typed it out, editing as I went, over the next year. I tried to get it published but gave up after a while when I took to heart a couple of friends' opinion that the novel had a point of view problem. The thing is, when I read the novel again I enjoy it, even though I know it has its faults - a fact which encourages me to try writing another one.

A couple of weeks ago, when I announced my plans to my husband and daughters one of them said, "That's okay, we're used to being ignored." I am shamelessly guilty as charged. I have become quite good at ignoring everything going on around me when I am in the writing zone. For years I have been the butt of many family jokes starting with something like, "Have you ever noticed that when Mom is writing and you ask her a question, that when she finally answers you it's always, 'Mm?' I think, in some ways, I have had to fight for my right to write, mostly with myself. I only started taking myself seriously as a writer a couple of years ago, even though I have been writing since 1996. I finally had to accept the simple fact that 'writers write' and that is that. The more I write, the more seriously I take myself as a writer, and the more seriously my family takes me as one. We all now accept that writing is simply something that I have to do.

If I am already writing regularly, why take part in NaNoWriMo? Because I see it as both an opportunity and a do-able challenge. I have a novel concept ready and waiting, and if I do not make time to work on it and get the basic words down, it will not be a priority. So many other things in my life are vying for priority and notice, but for a time I have chosen to shove these aside for a couple of hours per day. I do not see my participation in the event as really any different than my husband's training for his 100 mile race back in July. We all supported him as he ate, drank and slept everything-to-do-with-cycling in preparation for his event, and in the end he was very successful and happy with his results, finishing somewhere in the front-middle of the pack. I'm hoping to feel the same way at the end of November. I realize that what I end up with may very well be 50,000 words of drivel, but it's a risk I am willing to take. What I am hoping for is what writer Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird affectionately calls 'a shitty first draft,' which may just be enough to work with to make a better second draft...and third draft...

Wish me luck?!

P.S. I'm not sure how the event will effect my blogging for the next month. I'm not making any decisions about that right now. I'll just see how it goes.

October 21, 2013

A Beautiful Time of Friendship

A multitude of platitudes and cliches exist about friendship. Just look in your nearest gift shop where these truths grace everything from coffee mugs to calendars. I happen to like John Lennon's simple words on the subject: "I get by with a little help from my friends." I have been thinking a lot about a particular friend, lately, for whom that quote certainly applied when we were both living in the same small resort community. As my mind turns toward the Holidays, ie., Thanksgiving, now passed here in Canada, and Christmas so does my heart toward those who figure largely in my memories of Seasons past. We shared several Holidays with this dear friend and her family, and as she shopped and planned and cooked and decorated her home for the various feasts she pulled me into her world of Polish-style celebration and hospitality, and I loved every minute of it. Halloween was new to her, but she embraced it in the name of 'something else to get excited about' and never looked back.

Agnieszka came to the Lodge a few years before my family and I did. While I had moved to the lakeside wilderness location from a small city about 90 kilometers down the road on Vancouver Island, she had immigrated there directly from Poland after meeting and marrying her German-Canadian husband. They had met at the home of her husband's brother, for whom she worked as a nanny in Germany. While I was mourning the loss of my convenient town life and feeling quite sorry for myself, she was mourning the loss of her life among family, friends, and familiar surroundings not to mention a familiar language. Agnieszka's husband had built a three storey cabin on a property next to the Lodge with a beautiful view of the lake, a garden in front and back, and fitted it with the basic necessities. Agnieszka set about decorating it with cheerful curtains and pictures. My husband and I, with a little help from our new friends, renovated a rather decrepit cabin on the Lodge site. It also had a lovely view from the deck, and I began to settle in with my three small children.

Agnieszka's English was not well-developed when I first met her, but we could carry on a basic conversation. She mainly spoke German with her husband, Ralf, but she had recently been engaged as a nanny for the first daughter of the Lodge's owners. The first daughter was soon followed by a second, and both of us surrounded by little children day in and day out, Agnieszka and I soon pooled our resources and became fast friends. I made many other good friends at the Lodge, but Nieszi, whom we all called her, became like a sister to me. We knew a kindred spirit when we saw one and saw each other nearly every day. Her English got better and better. I, having been an English as a Second Language tutor in my college days, could not refrain from helping her along by obnoxiously and continuously correcting her grammar and usage.

I love to hear people's stories and I asked Nieszi so many questions about her life in Europe. She missed Poland and Germany very badly, and missed her family very badly, but we, along with other parents at the Lodge formed a good little supportive community. I had begun homeschooling my first-born and we formed a sort of communal pre-school where each parent - and Agnieszka - took a turn providing a story and a creative activity for a morning session each week. We held these sessions in the Lodge library, and when the session was over we would go outside and play in the rain, snow or sunshine depending on the season. Our children enjoyed a healthy lifestyle exploring every pathway and beach, every tree and berry bush in that beautiful place.

Countless days, however, were spent in Nieszi's tiny kitchen, sitting across from her at her table drinking coffee and nibbling European cookies and other delicacies which she was overjoyed to be able to find in the town nearest the Lodge. The children would play happily with her Lego collection, her dolls, and her pail full of Kinder Surprise prizes, and try to climb the fireman's pole which led up from the middle floor to an opening in the floor of the upstairs bedroom. Nieszi was a wonderful nanny. She treated the kids like her own. She loved them and spoiled them, solved their little problems, broke up their quarrels, and handled nearly every situation with humour and tickles. Spending so much time with her made me a better mother, too. I thought that if she could treat those children who were not her own as beautifully as she did, I could surely treat my children with at least as much positivity and care. Many good friends have come into my life over the years, but Nieszi is one of the most generous friends I have ever known - generous materially, but much more importantly, generous in spirit and in love. I was humbled by her friendship and her faith in me and I still am.

Agnieszka and Ralf, after a good pregancy but a very difficult birth, had a son whom they named Jan. Jan was born eight months after my fourth and youngest child came along. Jan became one of the pack, as had a third daughter for the Lodge's owners, and three more children belonging to another family that recently had moved to the Lodge. Before long we had enough school aged children for the school district to assign us a teacher three days per week. My older three along with five of the Lodge children began their studies with Kim, a wonderful teacher. Nieszi and I and our two babies enjoyed some quieter times together. Our friendship deepened with our shared experiences. Her first year as a mother was very hard work, but also full of joy, and I was happy to give back some of the support she had so generously given me.

Sadly, like all good things, my own family's life at the Lodge came to an end. After five years years of significant growth and rich experiences it was time for us to move on. Our children were growing up and my husband was offered another job on the Mainland. We would be closer to our families and be able to enjoy the conveniences of town life once again. I went alone to break the news to Nieszi. She made us some coffee and we sat down to talk it over. It was very hard to leave my beautiful friend, but she and Ralf understood why we needed to go.

Agnieszka, Ralf and Jan came to visit us in our new home a couple of times, and we went back to the Lodge several times and had wonderful visits, my daughter Emma erupting into tears each time we had to say goodbye. We kept in steady contact over the years, sending messages and cards and letters. The need for a nanny at the Lodge gradually waned as the children there grew older and were able to be more independent. Nieszi's life began to revolve around Jan and his soccer and swimming and schooling. Last year, she decided to take Jan back to Europe for an extended stay. For all the years she had been in Canada she had only seen her family for two, maybe three weeks at a time every year or two. I am not sure when I will see her again, but in the meantime I know that we will always have those memories of spending time together in her cozy well-kept home at the Lodge. Of new curtains made just for Christmas-time, of almond cookies and Polish coffee. Of Ralf filling the wood stove and heating the house to be warm enough for bare feet in winter, of Jan sleeping in his swing hung from a beam in the ceiling and the swarm of children heaped on Nieszi's bed watching Tom and Jerry cartoons or parts of The Sound of Music. Of family meals shared and the sparkle of small crystal glasses of sweet Reisling. Of love and sweet friendship and enough laughter to echo down the years.

October 11, 2013

Harnessing Technology

I grew up in the 1970's and '80's when electronic technology was just starting to exit the highly specialized environment and entering the mainstream. I remember when Xerox machines replaced the mimeograph machines that our elementary school's newspaper was copied on, and when VHS machines replaced the reel-to-reel movies we watched during assemblies. I remember the wonder of the cassette tape and how blanks could be purchased and recorded on to make the fabulous custom mixed-tapes of my generation. I had a friend who was lucky enough to own an Atari game system, and I spent many quarters in an effort to perfect my games of Pacman and Donkey Kong down at the mall arcade. Personal computers did not enter my classroom until high school when I took a course in Word Processing. 'Computers have a language that is completely based on logic,' our teacher told us. If memory serves me right I did not do particularly well in that class, computer logic was indeed an uncomprimising new language, but I learned a lot. The '80's were a time of major development in technology, but as we now know, it was just the beginning of a brave new world of gadgetry previously only thought of in Science Fiction.

I heard a story the other day about a dad who decided to ban from his home for a year all devices that were invented after 1985. He claimed that smartphones, ipods and laptops were taking over the life of his family and causing them to lose the ability to communicate. As a result of the ban he said his family now talked to each other, had more fun and got more exercise. He decided to embark on the experiment in order to get his children to appreciate their family more and keep their digital devices in perspective. When my kids were little we participated in a 'no TV for a week' event annually, which was great, but I'm not sure I would want to force my family to go cold turkey on post '85 technology for an entire year. Mind you, none of my kids have had their own computers until they entered their last year of high school or their own cellphones until they were old enough to sign their own contracts. I did ban video game systems from our house until my kids were teenagers. They could play video games on the computer, but the time available to do so was limited due to all six of us sharing one computer for many years. My youngest daughter inherited an ipod Touch last year from her brother and she began to spend a lot of time on it. One day I found her playing a game on it in the bathtub. After lecturing her about how electronics and water do not mix, I took the ipod away, put it in a drawer where we both forgot about it. I found the ipod months later and gave it back to her, but she didn't want it anymore. Perhaps separation did not make the heart grow fonder in her case. I suppose the aforementioned dad is hoping his experiment will achieve similar results.

As I sit here at my desk, writing this piece on my Gateway PC with its beautiful big high definition screen, I am inclined to think rather favourably of the digital age I am living in as an adult. The other night, my husband and I drove to Vancouver to hear our son play in his first concert with the UBC symphony orchestra. The Chan Centre was packed with people, and I am willing to bet several of them had heard about the free concert via social media. I, myself, had spread the word on Facebook and by email and so, beside and behind me sat several Vancouver members of my family. The concert was being recorded and transmitted by livestream audio. Across the province in Nelson, my mother was listening to the first half of the concert on her computer before she went to bed. She would listen to the rest of it the next day. She sent a message to her grandson via Facebook to tell him how proud of him she was and how much she enjoyed the concert. Some day we will take this sort of thing for granted as our children do, but I still marvel at such magical invention.

I am continually amazed at the rapidity with which we humans are changing our world, and I believe it is a good thing, for the most part. Certainly we are experiencing growing pains. When I see all those people with their heads bent over their smartphones I cannot help but think negatively about spending all that time with a device which both connects them to the world and isolates them from their neighbour at the same time. On the other hand, my sister, a journalist, delightedly uses her phone on the job to take photos, type text and send the story instantly to her editor. I have also heard plenty lately about how ipod earphones are hurting the ears of an entire generation, but my husband certainly enjoys listening to his playlist while he rides his bike. Facebook has recently been proven in one study to cause happiness and in another, feelings of isolation and loneliness. Youtube has a lot of garbage on it, but the site is also home to thousands of helpful how-to videos on everything from the various methods of cutting a mango, to the correct way to wrap a sprained ankle. My violinist son learned many techniques from masters on the internet, which aided him immensely in learning a difficult Bach fugue. My own 77 year old dad is beginning work on a series of instructional videos featuring his unique and proven method of teaching music. Filmed in the comfort and convenience of his home studio, he will be able to share his research with anyone who has access to the internet.

I suppose the key to technology is to use it, not let it use us. Perhaps like the dad who has taken his family back to that age of relative technological innocence, we all need to take a step back - okay, maybe not all the way back to the 80's, but you get the idea - and assess our own relationship with technology. Scientists are now questioning the health of our airwaves and the effect on our brains in this Wi-Fi world, but their findings have not lessened sales of the newest $700 smartphones. Thinner gadgets are more difficult to repair and must be thrown away more often. Even the recycling of electronics is not without controversy due to the heavy metals used to create them. And those are just the physical effects. The effect on the psyche can be just as serious. I once had to back off Facebook for a good long while. I was starting to engage in conversations and even arguments (with people I never saw in person) that were making me miserable and taking far more energy than they warranted. I no longer 'go there' on Facebook. I now see Facebook as a 'take it or leave it' sort of thing, and I am much, much happier. I know that if I wanted to make a career out of blogging I would have to spend hours a day networking and whatnot, and I am not, at this stage, prepared to do so. The relationship I have with the world wide web is rewarding and figures largely in my life, but it is not dominating. That being said, as a child of the 70's and 80's I am often tempted to think that I, not to mention my children, spend far too much time looking at a screen as it is. However, as much as I can relate to the motivation behind 'back to the '80's dad' I would much rather embrace the future and make it work for me and for my family if I possibly can.

October 4, 2013

Sisters, Sisters

I have three sisters and two brothers. I am the youngest and my sisters are all older than me by four, five and nine years, respectively. As we grew up I certainly felt like the youngest by far, especially when my sisters were teenagers and I was still a little kid with no fashion sense. I was still wearing baseball shirts and cutoff jeans when my sisters were taking disco dancing lessons and donning sequined tube tops. Until sometime after my eldest sister moved out, I shared a room with my brother, Stephen, who was two years older than I. Steve and I would lie in our beds talking about what we'd do with a million dollars and what we wanted for Christmas. He built model cars from kits at his desk and painted them with toxic smelling high gloss paint. Our room's walls were yellow and the decor was basic and boyish, but I didn't mind at the time. Our mother read to us from Little House on the Prairie while we listened from our bunks, but other than sleeping and preparing to sleep, I spent little time in that bedroom.

And then I moved into the girls' room. The girls' room had blue patterned wallpaper and clothes all over the place. Makeup and mirrors and perfume and pretty pictures on the walls. I slept on the bottom bunk and Pauline slept on the top bunk. Clare had her own twin bed across the room. When my sisters thought I was sleeping they would gossip about the boys in high school. By the time I was thirteen I saw our small-town boys in a whole new light. When I was older and met one of these notorious males I said to him, "Oh yes, I've heard all about you."

"All good I hope," he said, grinning arrogantly.

"Hmmm...not completely good, no," I replied, grinning mischeviously.

Pauline sometimes sang to me before I went to sleep. Often she sang me a few verses from Blondie's song 'Sound Asleep'.

Close your eyes and you will see micro flashing neon lights
Open your eyes and you will see it still looks like the same thing
Lie and wait for sleep and listen to your heart beat too fast for sleep

I remember her voice, quiet and sweet floating down to me from the top bunk, soothing away the 'bad thoughts' I was often plagued with in the silent darkness - terrible imaginings that my mother was going to die or I was going to be kidnapped by a vampire or a dirty pirate. Other times she made me and Clare giggle with her hilarious parodies of popular songs. We Lamb girls were famous for our late night fits of silliness.

My eldest sister, Monica, was out conquering the world, or at least Middle Canada by then. She had moved to Winnipeg with a friend and before long had met her future husband. When Monica got married, all her sisters were bridesmaids. I had begged to be included in the wedding party, although I was only thirteen, and she readily agreed, not wanting me to feel left out. Eventually, Clare moved out to Winnipeg to join Monica, and also met her future husband in the city. Pauline tried Winnipeg, too, enjoyed it and then came back to the mountains of British Columbia. I went for one wonderful summer, but then came home to attend college. Monica and her young family moved back to B.C, and within a year or two all my sisters were back living in our home province. I went away to university and lived with Clare and her husband, who was working on a Master's degree at UBC. We had a great time together, attending aquafit classes at the local swimming pool, cooking and going out on the town on weekends.(I did study a little, and Clare worked full time.) Clare and her husband moved back to Nelson when the year was out, as did I, to take up my summer job once again. I maintained the idea that when I finished my education I would move back to my home town so I could live near my family permanently. That dream was not to be. I met my future husband and after living in Vancouver for a year we moved to a town about 300 kilometers east of Nelson. I was still able to see my sisters often and I fell in love with the Rocky Mountains and the East Kootenays. My life was changing and expanding, but it was good.

The happy close proximity of my family members was not to last. Within two years my husband was transferred to Vancouver Island, Monica's family moved way up to the North Coast town of Prince Rupert, and Clare and her husband moved back to his home province of Manitoba. Pauline stayed with her daughter in Nelson where my parents and eldest brother, Francis still lived with his family. Stephen was in Vancouver and before long would relocate to Calgary with his family. In typical Canadian fashion, we all moved to follow employment in our chosen fields. Nelson would continue to be our meeting point, usually in summer, but it seemed we were destined to live much of our lives apart.

Two years ago, Monica and her family moved closer to us. We can now drive five hours north and visit for a weekend, and vice versa. I am over the moon to be living so much closer to her now. We are nine years apart in age, but the gap closes as the years go by. Facebook and email helps to keep the communication going between all of us in our large extended and ever growing family, and I am grateful for the ability to share photos and stories about our children and our activities. The sister relationship can be a complex one at times, but our shared history and our deep love for each other continues to see us through.

After I had my third child, who was a longed-for girl after two energetic little boys, I needed a bit of a break. After three years or so, however, I began to long for another child. I made a deal with God: I would have another baby if it could be a girl, a sister for Emma. I got my wish and Emma got her sister. At first, Emma, who was almost five years old at the time, was not overly impressed with this 'thing' that usurped her position in the family, but within a short period of time, the girls became very close. Sometimes I wish I had had them closer together, but I know that as they grow older the gap in their ages will cease to matter as it did with my sisters and me. And if they end up living miles apart like my sisters and me, the distance will only make them appreciate their times together all the more.

My girls

My girls like to sing this old song from the musical, White Christmas

The top photo is of my sister Monica (on the left) and me, taken this past weekend at her home.