December 31, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

When my husband and I were first married we moved to Panorama Resort for the summer. My husband was hired to lead groups of tourists down the whitewater rapids in a rubber raft. He acquired a company t-shirt that said, "Go Big or Go Home" and I think, for him, that typifies his approach to life in general. Whatever he does, he gives it his all, whether that is working, playing soccer, cycling, or pestering his children into submission.

A few weeks ago, he and our two girls went out to get a Christmas tree. Several years ago we started going to the Christmas tree farm of some acquaintances, Fred and Betty, who also ran a beautiful bed and breakfast they had built. Fred was dedicated to his trees and we could always find a beautifully trimmed six or seven foot fir, enjoy free hot chocolate and a visit with their two friendly and enthusiastic English Setters. Two years ago, Fred and Betty retired and sold their place. The trees have been pretty much left to fend for themselves, but my husband still goes out there every December to tramp through the once orderly cultured woods and find a tree. I swear - every year our tree gets bigger, and this year was no exception. Our living room ceiling remains only eight feet high, so I'm not quite sure why the trees my husband brings home keep getting bigger. This year he and the girls found a beauty - a 15 foot tall fir, matching its girth with its height. After cutting the top seven feet off of it, they shoved it in the back of our van and brought it home. Of course the girls could not wait to tell me about it the minute they jumped out of the van. "Mom! Just wait till you see the size of our tree. It's HUGE!" Once apon a time I would have reacted in surprise and alarm at the size of the thing, but I have just accepted, over time, that somehow my husband will make the tree fit and it will be a thing of beauty. This year's tree, with it's top half gone and its sides pruned, had lost its con-ical appearance and gained a com-ical one. It was immediately christened 'The Christmas Bush', to the delight of all my children's friends who came to see it. I have to admit, it did look quite wonderful when decorated and showcased our twenty year collection of ornaments like no other tree we have ever had. Unfortunately, several days ago the trunk's cut sealed itself and the tree stopped taking in water. Its bushiness is drooping and its evergreen is fading. I'm afraid it will have to come down on New Year's Day - before it becomes a fire hazard.
The other part of Christmas my husband is equally passionate about is The Food. Every year he manages to make his signature nanaimo bars and coconut slice, but the rest is up to me (and my daughter, if she feels baker-ish) since he is so busy with the Christmas rush at the hotel where he works. Around the end of November, my husband looks at me with hope in his eyes and asks, "Are you making your Christmas cake this year?" My cake is an Australian version made with pounds of tropical nuts and fruit and literally drowned in rum. He also gets excited about the turkey basted with butter and white wine and loves to tell everyone the story about picking up the first turkey we ever ordered: meant to be 9 pounds but ended up being 9 kilograms - to be consumed by only he and I and our two very little boys.

So, in keeping with today's theme of celebrating the Season to its fullest, I will leave this year with my version of The Twelve Days of Christmas:

On the first day of Christmas my true love ate with me, a turkey with extra gravy.
On the second day of Christmas my true love ate with me, two mashed starches....
On the third day of Christmas my true love ate with me, three Aussie fruitcakes...
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love ate with me, four pounds of chocolate...
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love ate with me, five golden tarts....

And on and on it goes;
Where it stops?
Lent, I suppose!
Bring on those New Year's resolutions!
Happy New Year to all my family and friends, and to you in blogland.

December 24, 2009

A Poem for Christmas Eve

I have been inspired by The Dotterel of 'Bringing up Charlie', who yesterday posted some beautiful Seasonal writings by British poet Laurie Lee, to post a favourite Christmas Eve poem by Thomas Hardy. I've heard several people say they are just 'not that into Christmas' this year. I truly hope that somehow, at the eleventh hour something happens to change their minds and bring that particular comfort and joy into their hearts that is Christmas' gift to us all.

The Oxen
CHRISTMAS EVE, the twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might so.
(Now back to the baking, laundry, and gift wrapping. )

December 17, 2009

A Child's Christmas in the Kootenays

Until I was sixteen my family did not own a car (Believe me, in this part of the world, that is a rare thing). In my hometown we could walk everywhere, and when that was out of the question, we could take the bus. My mother took a taxi home every Friday afternoon with the weekly grocery shopping. I know my parents were quite happy to do without the costs of maintaining a vehicle; Mom once told me the choice had been between giving her children music and dance lessons, soccer fees and good shoes, and having a car. For her and Dad, the choice was simple: no car.

Our house was two streets up the hill from downtown. There was a series of staircases which we climbed from downtown to our street. We counted the stairs once, but I can't remember the number. In summer we would run up and down those stairs at least once a day, and in winter, unless someone shoveled them, the stairs would fill with snow and with use, become a treacherous, icy slide. One would have to hold on tightly to the railing and just let the feet go.

I was not particularly athletic, but I was very fit. I remember in grade six and seven I was one of three people in my school to win the excellence award for the Canada Fitness Program. Everyone I knew was suprised, especially me. Looking back now, I can understand how I was so fit. Just north of our house was an extremely steep road called Cedar Street. Occasionally in winter the city would close Cedar Street, and everyone in the neighbourhood would gather to toboggan down it. If we wanted to we could slide all the way down to the main street, two long blocks down, but of course, we would have to hike all the way back up. In summer, my parents would take us hiking up to Pulpit Rock on Elephant Mountain, or up behind the university to pick huckleberries in the heat. I walked to piano lessons, ballet lessons, to school and back, to friends' houses, to church, downtown, to the park, the swimming pool, to babysitting jobs and back home in the dark, in the middle of the road to avoid the shadows and the skunks.

One Christmas when I was just old enough to be included in such an adventure, my mom took all six of us for a walk after supper. With Crazy Carpets in tow, we were heading for the junior high school to go sledding. The snow had fallen all day long and everything was covered in ten inches of soft, muffling powder. The Christmas lights on the houses winked and glowed through the snow and everything was quiet and still. My brothers and sisters and I talked and laughed and sang carols, and sometimes we were just quiet, taking in the beauty surrounding us in its fluffy white blanket; it seemed like we were the only people in the world. Something not very happy had happened earlier at home, maybe an argument, but it didn't matter anymore out in the snow. I don't remember what I got for Christmas that year, but I do know what a gift it was to have a big noisy family to love and to able to share that night with them, out in the deep, deep snow.

When I had our first son, Ian, my mom advised me to go for a walk with him every day, no matter what. Outside the four walls of our apartment, Ian and I would sail along the sidewalks, breathing in the fresh air, and we would both be happier. When I had our second son, Galen, we moved to a small ski town in the East Kootenays of B.C. I would pull the boys in a little sled in winter up the long path to the building where we met with other moms and kids to play and talk. The other moms thought I was a bit crazy, but I loved trudging in the snow up the hill between the skeletons of trees. I always arrived revived and clear headed, and I shed baby pounds in the bargain.

Walking is built into me. It is a compulsion and I cannot go without it for long. I now live in a small town in the flats of the Fraser Valley where I can go for long rambles down farm roads with sweeping views leading the eye across huge fields and up the craggy steel blue faces of the coastal ranges, but my waistline and I sure miss those Kootenay hills.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. I hope you find some time for walking in your respective wonderland during the Holly-days, and for reading (or listening to) Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales; for no one puts it better than he.


P.S. The photo is really of my hometown in winter and is from GothPhil on Flickr.

December 12, 2009

Waiting in (Joyful) Hope

When I was 28 with three little children I wrote a novel. No, it was not the act of a supermom; I actually had the time. The non-profit group that had transferred my husband to Vancouver Island to open a new office had experienced a severe cut to their funding and so, the new office was the first to go and my husband's job with it. He was working from our home, a roomy four bedroom old place with a wraparound veranda (which, sadly we only lived in for one year), spending part of the day on a contract for BC Ferries, and part of the day job-hunting. Every day he would take a two hour lunch with the children and me, and that is how the writing got done.

The idea for the book came from a little painting I had done in the summer between my two years at UBC. The plot and characters had been simmering away on the backburner of my mind for several years and so the first draft seemed to spill effortlessly from my pen (I had no computer at my disposal) and was finished by the time my husband had found a new job with a much shorter lunch hour.

While we lived at the lodge on the North Island I worked away at my manuscript, editing and rewriting after the kids were in bed. When I felt I could do nothing more without an editor, and with the encouragement of a few knowledgeable friends and family members who had read my manuscript I began to consider sending my book to publishers. The first couple of rejections were a massive blow and it would take several months to recover from one enough to try again. Over the years I have received several different kinds of rejections: the impersonal photocopied list of reasons why or why not said publishing house would publish one's book, the signed form letter, and personally written letters from editors who said while the concept was interesting and the plot promising they believed it was not the right sort of book for their publishing house - strangely enough I found those ones rather encouraging.

The manuscript presently sits in a file box by the computer desk. Every once in a while I take it out, dust it off and read a few chapters, especially when I'm wondering if I really am a writer. Recently, I began retyping it in order to save it in a new format because my computer refuses to read the old floppy disc. I am realistic about my novel now. It reads somewhat awkwardly, some of the sentences gangly like a foal trying to find its legs, but I still love it. The characters still live for me, vividly like old friends, and the setting is the stuff of my dreams. Although it remains unpublished and is likely to remain so, my novel acts as the cornerstone of my writing life. As I try to do a quality job of raising my four rapidly growing children, support an overworked husband, work part-time at seasonal jobs to help pay the bills, I plug away at my writing, for now only having the time and brainspace enough to work at this blog.
My dad says it is not the writing that is difficult, but the waiting for the writing. As I struggle through the Advent of my writing life, my novel serves a particularly comforting purpose: it reminds me that I once had it in me to write seventeen chapters in the third person, and gives me hope that some day down the road, I just might be able to do it again.

December 7, 2009

My Own Private Copenhagen

After World War II Dutch people began immigrating to Canada in droves. Like so many European nations ravaged by war, Holland's economy could not support its population and young people sought new lives abroad. Many Dutch immigrants came from farming families and so moved here to this area of British Columbia where the weather is mild and the soil very rich.

Dutch people are still immigrating here. I have a winter job working for a Dutch couple who came in the 1990's and set up an ornamental plant business. Three mornings a week, after I get my kids off to school I head over to the barn, about two kilometers from my house, where I pack rare and unusual roots and tubers with names like Giganteus (a type of bamboo) and Miscanthus (a beautiful ornamental grass), in peatmoss. The crates of roots are overwintered in a climate controlled room until February when they are shipped to or picked up by nursuries which plant them in containers and let them sprout into pretty little plants in greenhouses. They are then sold to garden centers or landscape designers in spring, ready for transplanting. Some of the roots and tubers are so unusual looking I once made a comment that I half expected them to start screaming like Professor Sprout's potted mandrakes in Harry Potter.

Early last week we had a couple of mild days so I rode my bike over to the barn. Halfway through the morning I looked out the window to check the weather, and to my dismay, the wind had picked up and the rain was falling in a slant. I hoped it would die down in time for me to cycle home at noon. Unfortunately, by twelve p.m. the rain and wind was still very much an issue so after my boss, Jake returned from feeding his daughters' horses, and at the insistence of his wife and business partner, Carola, I asked if I could get a ride home with my bike in their truck. They are extremely kind people and Jake almost immediately said, "Yaw, shoor". I say almost immediately because just for a moment I detected something of disapproval in his eyes. Sure enough, when we got in the truck and pulled onto the highway he said, "Obviously, you didn't grow up in Holland. This is nice weather for cycling in Holland!" He then went on to tell me about the high school kids in Holland who regularly cycle 25-30 kms. to school and back, and how when he and Carola first moved to Canada they thought all the high schools were hospitals because of the parking lots full of cars. Apparently, there are no parking lots at the schools in Holland, not even for the teachers. Feeling rather small I listened, awed at the environmental superiority of the Dutch, and thought of my German friend Ralf, who calls Canada 'The Drive-Thru Country".

I have noticed that many of the older Dutch residents of our area ride their bikes around town. It is easy here on the flats of the valley, at least when it isn't too windy. Last Friday, the morning was clear and blue-skied with no wind, so I donned my gore-tex pants and jacket, scarf, gloves, skullcap and then bike helmet and rode over to the barn. When Jake came in he said, "So, I see you brought your bike today. That's good!" I laughed and joked that I wouldn't have dared showing up in a car on such a fine day. I was also able to tell him that I'd grown up in the mountains with parents who refused to own a car until they inherited my grandmother's Chevy Belair after she died, and that I'd daily made my way to school and back in every kind of weather, as do my children. At noon, I bravely rode home in the warm sunshine without even the gore-tex pants, and felt content with myself.

This morning it was -5 degrees Celcius with an icy wind funnelling down the valley. I had the van, so I left the bike at home and drove to work. There are limits, even when one's Canadian pride is at stake. Jake refrained from comment. Besides, it rarely freezes in Holland.

December 2, 2009

Floundering in the Face of Fame

The movie Roxanne (a modern twist on Cyrano deBergerac) was on tv the other night and a couple of us watched the last hour of it. I've seen this movie several times. I saw a lot of it filmed, too.
Steve Martin chose to film Roxanne in my pretty hometown in the mountains and that was quite a big thrill. I was sixteen when the crews rolled in during the summer of 1986. I was working at Triathlete World, (mainly selling kids' bikes and running shoes) which was downtown where most of the action took place. It seemed the sun shone all the time that summer. Most outdoor scenes were shot with a big crowd of onlookers watching; most of us had never witnessed a movie being made. It was truly fascinating.

Our town was inundated with camera crews, lighting experts, stunt doubles, makeup artists and of course, actors. Many of the movie people came into the store that summer. Most of them just wanted to buy running shoes - mainly red Reebok hightops - and rent mountain bikes. Steve Martin's stunt double came in to rent Steve a mountain bike, and the actor who played Darryl Hannah's less than brilliant love interest came in a few times and bugged me about ('aboot') my Canadian accent. He was really friendly, as most of them were. Another actor who I recognized as the janitor in The Breakfast Club, came in and I told him my friends and I often rented The Breakfast Club. He was appreciative and jovial - a nice guy! As the weeks wore on neither Steve Martin nor Darryl Hannah had made an appearance in our store. People said when he wasn't filming, Steve was hiding out in a rented house out on the lake. I never heard where Darryl Hannah was hiding.

One day when my boss, a coworker and I were taking a break at the back of the store I heard someone come in. I was seated around a corner by the shoes (I think I was eating) when I looked up to see Darryl Hannah herself looking at us. Did I exchange friendly banter with her? Did I tell her I thought she was great as a mermaid in Splash ? Did I say, "Welcome to our store, how can I help you?" No! I looked her straight in the eyes and said, "Hi Darryl Hannah!" Ugh. She was extremely quiet (and extremely skinny), gave me a disgusted look and said she wanted to rent a mountain bike. My boss thought it would be a thrill for me to show her how to use the gears so he sent me out with her and two bikes. I'd recovered my composure and started explaining the 18 speeds and how they worked. She gave me another look of disgust and said, "I think I can figure it out." Nice.

Of course reliving that Roxanne summer led to other memories of meeting famous people. When 'Le Chateau' was a great store full of funky clothing and quirky shoes (instead of the collection of cheap looking cocktail dresses and rhinestone encrusted stillettos it sells now) in Vancouver I did some shopping there on a trip with a friend. I was trying on clothes when I ran into the cute actor from a show I liked a lot at the time called Danger Bay, which was about two spunky kids whose dad was a crime-fighting marine biologist. The cute actor was wearing a pastel coloured Miami Vice suit and after I recognized him I said "Aren't you the guy from Danger Bay?" He said 'yes' looking awfully pleased with himself, so to teach him a lesson I retreated into the change room saying only "Oh" in a snotty voice. I guess I paid for my meanness when I met Darryl Hannah a year later.
Ah, Karma.

Note: if you do watch the movie Roxanne look for me as an extra in the crowd scene where the barn catches fire and Steve Martin's firecrew have to rescue the cow. I'm the one behind all the smoke. If you pause the DVD and look really hard...