December 29, 2011

Celebrating with Confidence

A couple of summers ago, I was visiting my parents with the kids and was sitting with my mom in her room. We got to talking about my life, about creativity and work, and suddenly my mom said, "You always had an issue with confidence."

After gaping at her for a second I said, "Yes, that's true! I was always either incredibly overconfident or incredibly underconfident." The truth of her statement hit me like a lightning bolt and the effects have stayed with me ever since. I wonder if the fact had only just occurred to her as well, or if she was just waiting for the right time to tell me.  For some reason, since I turned forty, I have made leaps and bounds in the confidence department. It mostly has to do with not caring so much about what other people think. Of course, I still do care, but I think it is fair to say it no longer rules my life.

Most of my life, I have struggled to stay on track with what I am supposed to be doing. I still find it hard sometimes not to compare myself to other people, not to think those with the better 'things' have the better life.  I have struggled to maintain a steady confidence in my abilities and when I was younger would often be crushed when I didn't succeed to my own ridiculously high standards. I sometimes even thought things were not worth doing unless I could be as good as the best at them. I honestly do not know where I got these notions, but I think my pride was at play a lot of the time. It was years of working on my nearly twenty year marriage, raising four incredible children, and seeing various projects through, both paid and volunteer which finally made the difference for me. I realized, at long last, that any success in life for me would be achieved by a slow and steady climb.

There is a lot to be said for confidence, and confidence in one's purpose in life is the most important kind of confidence. I am not talking about the self assurance that makes one walk around as if one owns the world, I'm talking about that deeper, intuitive knowing inside that I am steadily climbing toward the light in my daily work, whatever the result - which gives me a sense of calm when the going gets tough. I am much less liable to entertain rash decisions now or waste time worrying about things I have no control over, and that feels like an achievement in itself.

2011 was a good year for me. I joined a singing group and I wrote a blog post that got 187 views in two days. I did good work for the arts council and grew a semi-decent crop of garlic. I saw my eldest son off to Europe, and all but conquered my long held fear of winter driving by successfully getting my younger son and myself safely home during a snowstorm. I enjoyed many, many good times with friends and family, and good health overall. There are plenty of things I did not accomplish, but I choose not to think about those right now.

During these times of upheaval in our world, it is becoming more and more important to realize our potential for good, no matter how small the results. To discount, or lose confidence in our contribution simply because it may not bring us fame and fortune or big-bang results is to lose a bit of our humanity. True, life can be hard.  We do have to battle (mainly ourselves), but I believe if we keep at it even our small achievements will be well worth celebrating.

On a PBS station out of Seattle, travel guru Rick Steves made an excellent point during one of the episodes of his popular program Rick Steves' Europe. He said one of the things he noticed about Europeans on his travels was that, in comparison with North Americans, they really knew how to celebrate life. He said most North Americans were so bogged down by work and ambition that they forgot to take the time to celebrate the truly good things in life and the fruits of their labour, like food and family, friendship and love. This Christmas season I decided to think like those Europeans and make more time to celebrate. We worked hard to make our house 'fair as (we were) able, to trim the hearth and set the table' and then invited friends for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and this evening. Our friends seem to feel the same way, for we've had four invites for this weekend.

The following are the closing remarks in an open letter to subscribers from the CEO of, an organization that helps promote up and coming musicians. His words inspired this blog post today.

"In closing, I hope you get to take the time to share a few days with loved ones and tune out from all the stress, hardship, and worry of day-to-day life.  No matter the perfection portrayed in the media, the cold truth is that life is hard for everyone:  rich or poor, fat or skinny, old or young—no one rides this bus for free. We all have to earn it.  So, if you're in the game and still climbing the mountain, you are a winner.  I hope you can take some time in the coming days to relax and celebrate your achievements this year before you dive back into the battle in 2012."

I wish the same for you.

Happy New Year!

December 20, 2011

The Friendly Beasts around Him Stood

I've always felt connected to the land. I am no great gardener, but I am a lover of trees, of the natural world, and of the simple miracle of how a huge sunflower grows from a tiny little black seed planted in soil. Now that I live in farm country, this connection to the land inevitably includes a certain affinity for animals. Growing up in a small city in the mountains I was not used to being up close and personal with any breed larger than a medium-sized dog (Shag) or a cat (Kiko). Through my daughter, however, I have become fairly comfortable around horses, and by embracing my farm country life, I have been introduced to cows, goats, chickens and donkeys. Although, admittedly, I don't think I have what it takes to become a farmer myself, I have great respect for my friends and neighbours who are.

This past Saturday, I took part in a live pageant called 'A Journey to Bethlehem'. This annual event is made possible by some wonderful local people. Farmer extraordinaire George, an ex-pat Yorkshireman and his wife Deborah, a Swiss-trained cheesemaker put their skills to work creating a business which has created award-winning cheeses and continues to draw weekenders from all over the Lower Mainland. Using their outbuildings, their animals, and several of their friends and family members, George and Deborah create a memorable experience which recalls Mary and Joseph's search for a room during the Roman census taking place in Bethlehem. We all know where that room ended up being, in a stable kept warm by the breath and body heat of animals.

Two re-enactments of the Journey to Bethlehem were presented, one in the afternoon to a medium sized crowd of families, and an evening one to a very large crowd. I am one of four in an a-cappella quartet, and we were invited to play the angel chorus for the pageant. I had not worn an angel costume since playing one in a pageant in high school. We were a group of rather puffy looking angels with white robes worn over our vests and scarves. We had four places along the route where we were to appear to have arrived like real angels and sing. Our first location was by the cow barn where Mary and Joseph appeared from around the building, Mary riding a real donkey. I wonder if the real Mary and Joseph's donkey was that stubborn - it took all of Joseph's strength to keep him on task.

We couldn't edit that gleam out of Marilee's eyes.

While Mary and Joseph toured the farm's outbuildings looking for a room, they encountered several people:  a woodcutter with a German accent and a spinning woman with a British one, several inn owners with children shouting 'no room' to the amusement of the crowd. We angels hummed the tune of 'What Child is This' while it became clear that there was indeed no room that night for Mary and Joseph anywhere in Bethlehem. While the crowd was directed to another location by the narrator with a megaphone, we angels sneaked around the back of the building and climbed up a ladder to a hayloft from where we sang to the shepherds keeping watch over their sheep in the fields:

When the shepherds left their field to search for the 'babe lying in a manger' we angels climbed back down the ladder and snuck around the back of the stable where the Clydesdale draft horses live, ducked under a railing and met the shepherds, goats, a calf and three wise men at the manger where Mary and Joseph now resided with the swaddled baby doll Jesus. Gathered behind the Holy Family we sang 'Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine' while crowds of thirty or so people at a time visited the final scene in the pageant. Children scooped up barn kittens and oohed and aahed at the sweet baby goats and the calf which were near enough at hand to pet.

Only three of us angels could make it to the evening performance.
The fourth had to keep watch over a birthday party.

When we had finished singing and the crowds were moving on to the pine huts where vendors served hot chocolate, spiced apple cider and cookies we climbed out of the manger. There were still some people milling around visiting with the animals in the goat barn. While I climbed out, a little dark haired girl looked at me in amazement. "You're wearing BOOTS?" I suppose most angels are able to go without something so earthly as mud-proof footwear.

Every Christmas there is something with a bit of magic in it. The Farmhouse Cheese pageant was one such event, for me at least. In the hustle and bustle of trying to help make Christmas special for my family, and with all the shopping and the baking, the recitals and the concerts, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirwind of the Season. I so enjoyed going back to the simple, beautiful roots of it, beasts and all.

Thanks to my daughter for taking photos that night.

I tried to find Peter, Paul and Mary's version of The Friendly Beasts, but I found this one instead, which will do nicely, I think, and reminds me of Christmas singalongs from my childhood. Have a magical week, all!


December 12, 2011

A Christmas Carol Day

I did not want to go with the school choir on their day tour of senior's care homes. I did not. I was tired and had a list of chores and errands to do before hosting Saturday evening's dinner party. The acappella group I sing with had worked hard for weeks to prepare for our own performance at the previous evening's choral festival. Our performance had gone well, but all during the night, my mind had sung our carol over and over without my permission:

Gaudete! Gaudete Christus est natus
Ex Maria, virgine. Gaudete!

That is always the way after a performance. Nevertheless, I had woken up feeling like something the cat dragged in. Ugh.

I had told my daughter's music teacher that I would come along on the tour only if not enough parents stepped forward, that I was really busy. She phoned me the day before the tour and asked me to come. I couldn't say no. The next day, Katie and I got up a bit earlier than usual, made our lunches for the day, and packed our bags with some activities to do on the bus between care homes. When we arrived at the school's music room we learned there had been a mix-up with the buses so we would have to walk to our first care home. It was a sunny, windless, brilliant day with frost on the rooftops and lawns, so I welcomed the walk of several blocks, and I think it was a good way to start the day for all the children, too.  With one of the parents carrying the keyboard, we paraded down the street in a long, jolly line. The first care home was brand new and quite elegant with chandeliers and Victorian furniture, high ceilings, sweeping staircases and lush carpeting. The choir performed a half hour set for a large group of residents in varying states of awareness and several cheerful and attentive staff members, and then it was time to leave for the next town. A bus had appeared out of thin air, it seemed, and we were off.

We visited three more care homes that day, none as fancy as the first. The children had been informed of the kind of audience they could expect, and were asked, instead of shaking hands with the seniors who were vulnerable to the kind of germs children are bound to carry, to go around and wish them a good day and a Merry Christmas after the set of carols. The choir did their best, but by the third care home the kids were visibly drooping. The rooms were overly warm, the air stuffy and they had sung the same set of songs all morning. The other parents and I made hand signals from the back of the room in an effort to encourage the kids to sing out, and at least cover their mouths when they yawned. Fortunately, the next item on the iternarary was lunch and a runaround in a nearby playground, which was most welcome for all of us.

I was moved several times that day by the reaction of many of the elderly audience members. While most of them merely listened or slept through the performance, there would always be a few singing along, usually quietly, but with sweet enjoyment. Most of the songs the choir sang were fairly typical choral arrangements of songs written for school choirs and not immediately recognizable to most people, but there were a few familiar verses like The First Noel, which the director would invite the seniors to sing. On the bus between care homes, the kids would belt out Santa Clause is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bells, and all those old favourites, but by the third care home their enthusiasm was waning for their prescribed set list. Another mom suggested to me that maybe the choir should mix in some fun carols with their set list. She must have said something to the choir director, too, because that is exactly what they did. The kids were delighted to mix up their last set with some new/old songs, and the seniors loved it, too. I particularly recall two elderly residents, who sang at the top of their voices whenever something familiar was sung by the choir. One was a lady who would sing loudly in between efforts to attract the attention of a rather severe looking care aide who would instruct her to 'sit down!', and the other was a tall gentleman in a reclining wheel chair. With his head dropped down on his chest and his eyes closed, he sang with the voice of someone much younger. Even during the unfamiliar songs he would find a single, repeated word and sing that word out whenever it came up. It was hard not to develop a few tears at such an endearing sight, and I found I was glad I had put aside my relentless to-do list and come.

There was something Dickensian about touring those care homes and singing Christmas carols (the parents sang too) for the elderly and infirm. I sensed a warning to look after myself and my family well, to never forget that I, and my husband too, would eventually grow old and dependant upon others. I thought how important it was to treat others as I wished to be treated, and to always remind my children to be kind, caring, generous, tolerant and considerate of others. I am hardly an Ebenezer Scrooge, but I can learn, as he did, and pledge to "honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

"God Bless Us, Every One!"

The above photo was found at

December 1, 2011

The Food Bank: Friend or Foe?

So, there I was setting up a food bank drive for our church's after-school program, and feeling good about it. I asked the children to each bring an item to add to the basket each week during Advent, and on the last day we would bring the food down to the Community Services office and probably receive a thank-you card in the mail which we would put up on the bulletin board after Christmas as proof of our good deed done. Just a few days before we were to begin the food bank drive I heard on CBC radio a single mother of two special needs boys talk about her use of the food bank to help make ends meet. Tears rolling down my face, I felt deep in my soul the unfairness of her predicament. She was on government disability, she worked four days a week at a part time job. She had only three mouths to feed, and still, she could not make it without help from the food bank. Something was wrong with this picture, but I was determined to help people like her through our small effort at the church.

Then, on Monday, on the way home from shopping, my husband and I listened to the noon-hour call-in show on the radio. CBC Vancouver is gearing up for their full day broadcast of their food bank drive where they have been raising over one million dollars annually for the province's food banks. Interestingly, they had two sides represented for the show: one, a food bank coordinator who was obviously for food banks, the need for which she witnessed on a daily basis, and one against. Against? I thought. Who could possibly be against food banks? They help feed families. They are necessary in our society today....or is that the problem? A social work professor from the University of British Columbia thinks so.

The social work professor raised several key points when he spoke out against food banks. Apparently, food banks in Canada were started during the 1980's recession to help families temporarily. Back then, experts predicted we would only see them for three years, and then they would be gone. Well, obviously they haven't gone anywhere. In fact, the need for them has only increased, exponentially. Every community I know of has a food bank, and every year, around Christmas, we are asked to donate cereals at our elementary school, canned goods at various public events, and non-perishable items at church. Gardeners routinely and increasingly 'grow a row' to feed needy families in their communities, and every time we go shopping, we are given the opportunity to throw a few items in the food bank bin at the exit, or add two dollars to our grocery bill for the food bank. Donating to the food bank has become the norm, and still, the need grows, and grows like P.D. Eastman's goldfish.

So why is giving to the food bank a problem? The professor admitted that there is nothing wrong with the act of giving to the food bank, the gesture of generosity. He said the problem is in the need for food banks at all in a wealthy country like ours, and that food banks take the pressure off government to do something real about the increasing gap between the haves and the have nots. It occurred to me last night that the poor can no longer afford to be poor. Back in the 80's in my hometown, students, artists, single parents and the like could rent a decent apartment for about one third of their income and have the rest to buy necessities like clothing, bus passes, and, of course, food. Low income people could live with relative dignity. They may not own a car, but they didn't have to queue up in a bread line either, taking handouts of foods they did not choose for themselves. These days in my hometown, a young person working in the service industry is lucky to find an apartment for less than seventy-five percent of their income, and I'm not kidding. Sure, there is some low-income housing, but it has waiting lists. The same is true for many communities and cities across Canada. Incomes are staying stable and the cost of living just keeps on rising. Food banks, the professor argued are just a band-aid solution that masks the real problem, and perhaps it is time to rip off the band-aid and expose the wounded society for what it really is.

Am I about to pull the plug on my food bank drive? No, the present need is just too great in our town. However, I have begun to think that perhaps it is time for a different, big picture approach to the problem which food banks try to address. Other people think so too - I heard another professor speak out against the concept of food banks on another CBC broadcast for many of the same reasons as the first. I also think, perhaps selfishly, as a person who chairs the board of an arts organization, that if the volunteer base of our society is increasingly needed to address basic issues such as homelessness, despair, and hunger so shockingly prevalent in our communities, then the chance of gaining volunteers for an organization like ours, which aims to lift a theoretically wealthy society out of its increasingly Philistine pursuits will prove more and more difficult. And where will Canada be then?

November 26, 2011

Fruitcake Redeemed

Fruitcake has a bad reputation, earned in large part, by the traditional Christmas fruitcake which begins to pop up in supermarkets and department store catalogues this time of year. That seasonal brick of bizarre ingredients: gloopy cherries in unlikely shades of day-glo green and lollipop red, gelatinous candied citron peel and ancient nuts (if any) bound together with a syrupy-sweet blend of mysterious ingredients, the traditional Christmas fruitcake can be loved only by World War II survivors for whom anything was a step up from Spam and powdered potatoes. A fan of this type of fruitcake, like everyone else who claims to hate fruitcake, I am not in the least, but I do love what I like to call 'real' fruitcake.

I first discovered 'real' fruitcake at the age of sixteen, when our family friend Catherine, who was trained as a pastry chef, gave my parents a cake as part of a Christmas basket of home-baked treats. The cake was dark, very dark, with a thick layer of marzipan frosting, and it exuded a fragrance so deep, so rich, as could only be achieved by many months' soaking in brandy. No dye-injected maraschino cherries here, only dried fruits and fresh nuts cured to a wondrous flavour which married well with the sweet almond paste - delicious, and meant to be consumed in small quantities.

Many years later, I read an article in Martha Stewart Living about fruitcakes. The article claimed to be able to change virtually every fruitcake hater's mind about this ancient dessert which in its basic form dates from seventh century Persia, and included several recipes with names like 'Chocolate Panforte' full of dried cherries and hazelnuts, 'The Dowager Duchess Fruitcake' spiked with sherry, and the 'Fruit and Stout Cake' doused weekly with 1/4 cup of Guinness (I presume the baker consumes what's left in the bottle?). The food editors' favourite fruitcake was from an Australian family recipe called 'The Backhouse Family Fruitcake.' I decided to try that one. It was delicious, and each November since, around the American Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Advent Season, I have made the Backhouse Family Fruitcake. My husband cannot imagine Christmas without a slice of this fruitcake and a glass of port, and I have come to enjoy the making and then weekly tending of what he likes to call 'the booze cake.'*

I begin by locating my battered copy of Martha Stewart Living, December 2000.

I purchase my ingredients and set aside a morning for baking.

I cut the dried pineapple, apricots, dates, and cherries with scissors, chop the almonds and brazil nuts, and mix them all together in a large bowl.

A rich batter flavoured with vanilla and rum will bind the nuts and fruit together, deliciously I might add.

The cakes are ready for the oven.

They bake for an hour and a half turning golden brown and aromatic.

After the cakes cool, I wrap them in muslin and douse them in rum. Each week I will bathe them in more rum.

As they soak up the alcohol, the nuts and fruit cure to a slice-able state, and later in December, when we are putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, we will test the first cake and enjoy a slice with a glass of port. At least my husband and I will...the kids still won't touch the stuff. "Fruitcake? Hmm... no thanks."
That's alright, all the more for us. I'm willing to bet I could change their mind about fruitcake with some chocolate panforte, which I also plan to make this year.

*My husband borrowed the phrase from our nephew Christopher who used to call Panettone, the Italian Christmas cake, 'booze cake' when he was little. It was a favourite of his.

* * *

In other news...I was thrilled last week to receive, compliments of Lucille from Useful or Beautiful, her giveaway prize of a Nelson Ball Clock. Here, I give her a blogger's extra-large thank-you. The clock is admired by the residents of our house, as well as its visitors. I know we will enjoy passing the time with it for years to come.

Happy Weekend!

November 18, 2011

A Welcome Winterlude

Last week was this particular autumn's swan song. Raging against the cold nights, the leaves on the trees injected themselves with intense colour and the blue, blue sky and the snow-capped peaks made a contrasting backdrop for the sun-fired reds, yellows and oranges as they performed their dramatic finale.

Then came the mighty winds, the famous local blow-down-the-valley-tunnel winds. The leaves gave up their clinging ways and fell to the ground, creating colourful jigsaw carpets on lawns and sidewalks. Out came the rakes, the orange garden bags, and the kids in rubber boots and gloves. Out came the hot chocolate as a reward for their help and as a remedy against freezing wet fingers. Because of course, it had also rained.

Two days ago it tried to snow, but only managed some freezing pellets that melted on contact. Unfazed, Mother Nature dropped the temperature and last night, we had snow. Waking up to an inch of white covering fields, shrubs and rooftops, we all said, 'hurrah!' Snow is bright, snow is quiet, snow is much, much prettier than the shabby, sad grey-ness of cold weather rain.  

Now in the afternoon the sun is out and the streets are shining wet with the melt. Bear Mountain looks eager to shake out her frosted fur, and there is just enough snow left on the lawn for a cat, or a ten-year old daughter, to leave her prints in.

November 10, 2011

One Unforgettable Meal

Maybe it was because I had been reading too many early 19th Century romantic novels (Jane Austen) that I decided, of all the choices on the menu, to order The Quail.The gentlemen in those novels are always going off shooting in the fall, and returning with all sorts of birds for the cook to roast over an open fire. Or, perhaps it was because, several years before, a family friend had arrived for a visit bringing with her a basket of tiny quail eggs which she pan-fried and served, four to a piece of toast, and they were so delicious that I thought the bird might be worth eating as well.

I was sharing an apartment with my sister and her husband, just off the colourful Commercial Drive in Vancouver. I was a student at UBC and living on a tight student loan budget. Eating out was a rare event, but one night my new boyfriend, my sister and her husband who was a masters student at UBC, and I decided to treat ourselves to a decent dinner at one of the Drive's many ethnic eateries. We chose a Mexican place with very plain decor - it looked like an office tacked up with cheap souvenir decorations - but with a reputation from at least one source for good food at reasonable prices.

I had eaten less than usual that day to make room for the Mexican feast and was starving by the time we arrived at the restaurant. Perhaps it was an off night for the cook because, while we all ordered our meals at the same time, we were each served at different times over the next hour and a half, with my boyfriend waiting ninety minutes for his meal. I cannot remember what the others ordered or if they enjoyed their food. Those details are eclipsed by the memory of the appearance of the small platter placed before me when The Quail finally arrived. I am not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps something like this dish described in Julia Child's wonderful book My Life in France

The patron beautifully and swiftly carved off legs, wings, and breast, and served each person an entire bird, including the back, feet, head, and neck (when eating game, you nibble everything). He had placed the breast upon the canape, an oval-shaped slice of white bread browned in clarified butter, topped with the liver - which had been chopped fine with a little fresh bacon - then mixed with drops of port wine and seasonings before a brief run under the broiler. The sauce? A simple deglazing of the roasting juices with a little port and a swirl of butter. Delicious!

There was nothing gourmet about my serving of quail. Spread-eagled, beak up on a single, large piece of green lettuce, my poor little bird was charred to the bone like some kind of burn victim from the apocolypse.  I looked down at my 'meal' and wondered what to do. In an effort to honour what I thought was some sort of Mexican delicacy, I took my fork and knife and attempted to scrape away some of the blackened flesh of which there was very little. I tasted it, and decided not to proceed. Still extremely hungry I picked at the lettuce and finished my beer.

We left the restaurant in a terrible mood, some of us still extremely hungry. I'm sure we went home and made some unromantic but satisfying toast and cheese. It was no accident that I spent the next phase of my life as an almost, very pretty nearly, vegetarian.

The other evening I assisted my pastry chef friend at her table at an annual event for local foodies. While my friend and I manned her table filled with hundreds of tiny blackberry buttercream macaroons and s'mores tarts (little graham cracker cups filled with chocolate ganache and topped with her famous homemade marshmallow which we toasted at some risk to ourselves using a butane blow-torch)  her mother made the rounds to the other chefs' tables and brought us back tastes of everything. Over the course of the evening, we enjoyed chicken liver pate flavoured with brandy on rounds of sourdough baguette, tender rare bison, bocconcini skewers with cherry tomatoes, salmon tartare, various wines and flavoured mead. I was feeling adventurous by then and as I bit into a particularly foreign-looking canape I asked what it was. "Duck Confit with two kinds of duck!", said my friend.

 "Ah", I said, and bravely finished my portion, washing it down with some lovely red wine. I think Julia Child would have approved of the duck confit, but I had to admit after tasting it that while I had made my peace with meat-birds long ago, I would never quite learn to appreciate anything more exotic than a plump, golden chicken or a wine-basted turkey.

Have a wonderful weekend, and if you go out for a meal try something new on the menu...or not.

Thank you Bill Watterson for the great comic from Calvin and Hobbes.

November 2, 2011

All Souls Day

This past week I have revelled in the deep richness of the fall foliage. Today, realizing it is All Souls Day, I remembered this poem I wrote on this day last year. It is a rare event when I write a poem, but sometimes the thoughts and words just seems to organize themselves in verses. On that day the words seemed to fall together as some sort of gift from the muse, just as the leaves are falling to the ground outside my window at this moment, with some help from the intermittent gusts of wind.

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, and Jason
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

October 28, 2011

Family, Revisited

At one time in our lives, four of my five siblings and I lived within a three hour drive of each other, and the fifth lived just a day's drive away from the rest of us. We were all used to frequent visits and family gatherings. Then in 1996 it was like God dropped a stick of dynamite into the center of our happy proximity and blasted us all apart. One sister, Clare moved to Manitoba, where her husband had grown up and had now landed a good job. Our eldest sister Monica moved with her family to Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia, which doesn't sound far but required two solid days of driving to cover the distance, for her husband Matthew's new job with the Forest Service. My own husband was transferred from Kimberley to central Vancouver Island, accessible only by plane or ferry. Our sister Pauline and brother Francis both stayed with their families in the same town as our parents, and Pauline still lives there, while one brother lives in Calgary with his family and my other brother now lives in Vancouver.

My husband and I managed to visit Prince Rupert once with our children when my eldest daughter was a baby, travelling overnight by boat on the Inside Passage - most of us were sea-sick. I plan to make it to Manitoba in the next year or two as I have not yet been to visit Clare in her home; she has come to us once, but we mostly just meet the odd summer at our parents' house. We've been to Calgary, too and had the occasional visit from family when we lived on the Island. While it was not ideal for all of us to be flung about Canada, we have all gained from the experience as our families have grown and each formed their own identity, in part due to the various natural environments in which we have lived. For example, it rains a lot in stormy Prince Rupert, so Monica and her family became resiliant in all weather, came to love the ocean and the wildness of that part of the world. Clare and Stephen and their families live through typically long, cold and snowy winters and enjoy skating, snowshoeing, skiing and sledding and all that good snow fun which they are required to embrace if they don't want to spent the long winters entirely indoors. My husband and I and our family have lived most of our years on the coast, near water, and where the damp invades our bones in winter. What have we gained from the experience? We know that it is imperative for us to dress in layers and that we love Beautiful British Columbia enough to keep us from moving somewhere else more affordable, like Saskatchewan.

Last year, almost to prove that we are never safe from surprises, the Forestry office in Prince Rupert after a steady downsizing, was shut down entirely by the government. My brother-in-law, Matthew got a new job with the Ministry of Envronment in Williams Lake, which is in the Cariboo region of B.C. just a five hour drive north of where I sit typing this blog post, and a nine hour drive to our hometown and my parents and sister, Pauline. The newspaper Monica was reporting for in Rupert was also bought out by a large newspaper chain, but she decided to stay there for one more year with her children, work as a freelance reporter and as an archives assistant at the local museum, while Matthew got used to his new job in the Cariboo and took his time looking for a house for them. The year went by fairly quickly for them with several visits back and forth, and at the end of August, Monica and their two youngest boys, now aged 12 and 15, made the move down to Williams Lake where Matthew had found a rambling, character-full home for them within walking distance of the downtown area and with a view of the water. "When are you coming to visit?" they asked us.

Monica is the eldest in my family of siblings and nine years older than I.  Monica was always a busy, social, energetic sort of person, and I don't remember spending too much time with her when I was little, but the time I did spend was always fun. She used to pay me exhorbitant amounts of money to clean out her sock drawer or give her a neck rub. Monica was a Bee Gees fan in the Seventies and I had seen enough album covers lying around to be familiar with the look of the band. Around the same time, she had a bearded boyfriend who played the bagpipes, and years later I told her I had always thought of him as Barry Gibb in a kilt. She laughed - hard. She organized family games of poker with penny candy for betting chips, but I was too small to play. I was not too young to enjoy the baked treats she brought home every Saturday night after her shift at the bakery of some family friends, and Sunday mornings breakfasts were often composed of oven-warmed danishes and other delectible pastries. My memories of her are somewhat vague from those years, but I know she was kind, honest and generous to all of us.When I was nine she moved out of the house and by the time I was ten or eleven, she had moved with a friend half way across the country. One year, Monica brought Matthew home from Winnipeg for Christmas, and the next summer they were married in our Cathedral with myself as one of the five bridesmaids. I was thirteen and it was all terribly exciting. When I was seventeen and freshly graduated from high school, my mother suggested I travel by train with my bicycle to Winnipeg and spend the summer with Monica and Matthew and their little girl, Anna. It was that summer when our real friendship as sisters began. Our sister Clare was living in Winnipeg, too, newly married and we had a great time touring (and eating our way around) the city, attending the Winnipeg folk festival, and taking weekend trips. Monica and Matthew moved back to B.C. after that summer so Matthew could attend the Forestry program at the college near my hometown and Monica and I began to spend a lot of time together. We had plenty in common and grew very close although I was so much her junior in every way. Already an experienced mother herself, Monica was there for me when I had my first child, and my second, teaching me about feeding routines and the importance of naps, all with her trademark generosity and good humour.

Last weekend we accepted Monica and Matthew's invitation and took the kids for a three-day trip up to the Cariboo. We drove through the misty Fraser Canyon along the old Trans-Canada highway, up along the Fraser River before veering west along the Thompson River.

One of the many tunnels in the Fraser Canyon

A scene repeated throughout our journey through the Lytton area

We drove out of the coastal rain forest into the drier region of the Thompson Platea where the rolling hills and yellow grasses are marked by the old roadhouse numbers from the days of the Cariboo Gold Rush: 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 108 Mile House, 150 Mile House. Old log buildings, some refurbished and some left to the elements, dotted the landscape, and it was not hard to imagine the gold seekers seeking their uncertain fortunes and enduring all kinds of challenges along the way. By the time we reached Lac la Hache the sky was blue and the air markedly chilly compared to what we are used to.

One of the original roadhouses, now a heritage site

Just entering the Williams Lake region

We arrived at the house just after Monica and her older son had returned from his soccer match. Eager for a walk to work out the kinks from five solid hours in the car, my husband and I and a couple of the kids accepted Monica's invitation to walk and meet Matthew on his way home from work. The cousins got re-aquainted quickly. It had been just over two years since we had all been together at our family reunion.

We spent the weekend cooking together, going for long walks in the sunshine, exploring some great shops Monica had discovered, watching my nephew play ice hockey with some team-mates twice his size, my sister and I talking steadily and Matthew and my husband doing the same. We gathered around the table in the mornings, enjoying the view of the lake through the autumn foliage in their front yard, drinking coffee with cream and just, well, celebrating being together with the prospect of being able to do so much more often than we had in a very long time.

I love the elasticity of life. I had long ago accepted the fact that our families would stay connected mainly through writing and Facebook and the telephone, with the physical distances between us all being somewhat forbidding. Now, however, with my own family on the mainland, Monica's just north of us, and the others with children growing to the point of independence, visits are happening with greater regularity. Our family life is a bit like 'old times', but even richer somehow, after living far apart for so long and bringing a diversity of experience to share at the table. I'm looking forward to our next visit already.

Have a wonderful weekend!

October 20, 2011

And....We're Off.

The other night in Pricesmart, in the forefront of the Halloween candy display, I noticed a full shelf of imported cookies in tins and boxes. They weren't decorated in a Christmas theme, but it was pretty clear the store had brought them in as a first hint of the looming, (did I say 'looming'? I meant 'coming') Season. Beside the shelf of cookies was a cardboard stand full of Christmas cards, which I thought was fine for October 9, if someone needed to mail cards to relatives in some far off place like an undiscovered village deep in the Amazon Rainforest or the International Space Station. Last weekend, in the ever-shameless Superstore, we were greeted with a sign declaring: HALLOWEEN COSTUMES 25% OFF, while over in the seasonal display area, the Halloween stuff was already being pushed rudely aside in preparation for the piles of the more lucrative Christmas paraphenalia. I suppose that means the Thanksgiving things were out in July, but I must have wilfully ignored them. (I have also recently observed that the traditional holiday decorations are cross-pollenating: one can now buy Easter tree decorations and Thanksgiving crackers - the kind that go 'bang' when pulled, not the kind you eat). Don't they know that we parents are just trying to deal with one holiday at a time?

I'll admit I felt differently as a child. When I was little the Sears Wish Book would arrive in early fall and my brother, Stephen and I would pore over the pages, make fun of the ultra-serious male models in turtlenecks and satin smoking jackets, and mark all the toys and games we liked. We'd lie in bed at night asking each other what we wanted for Christmas and dream of air hockey, Easy-bake ovens, and velveteen skirt and jacket sets with lace collared blouses (at least in my case). I'm pretty sure it was mid-November when I would break out the 'Radar the Happy Reindeer' record. I'd sit in my dad's big green chair with heater and massage feature, listening on earphones to the story and music (the earphones were considered a great peace-keeping invention in our house.) After all, looking forward to Christmas is half the fun of it, but really, there are limits!

Is it truly necessary for the malls and shops to break out the Christmas decorations before Remembrance Day? It never hurts to be organized with one's shopping and preparations, but can't we do it on the sly instead of being so damned obvious about it?; ie. if I see something I think would make a great gift I will probably buy it and store it away in my hidden cache, but I don't need to be surrounded by tinsel and animated plastic Santas to do it. I mean, by the time Christmas is over I'm sick to death of hearing Elvis' 'Blue Christmas' while I shop for bread, milk and toilet paper. I would be the first to vote for a law against PDC's (Public Displays of Christmas) until December first.

My family and I spent this Thanksgiving with some very good friends at their farm. Since the day promised to be fine, we opted for a mid-day meal followed by a walk in the fields. It was wonderful to spend the morning cooking and the afternoon, after a huge turkey dinner followed by dessert and coffee, out in the fall sunshine. We first walked to the salmon spawning channel where the last of the coho struggled and splashed, next we walked to the second furthest field and spotted a big black bear enjoying the furthest field's grass. We watched the bear for a few minutes until it seemed to notice us, then headed south towards the house. We admired the row of sugar maples, all yellow and glowing against the deep blue of the mountains, we hunted for and dissected owl pellets in the cedar grove, and picked all the pumpkins in the farm's patch and loaded them onto the wagon. Back at the house we did the dishes while the children nibbled on pie and leftover potatoes, and then home we went, our bellies too full for anything resembling supper. And the best part? We didn't think about Christmas even once.

The above is a re-posting of a blog post I wrote two years ago. I hope you enjoyed it (and don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, truly I do!) My kids saw the first 'Holiday' themed TV ad of the year back near the end of August.

October 14, 2011

A Very Canadian Thanksgiving

It seems for the thousands of Wooly Bear caterpillars that risk their lives to cross the roads here in the fall year after year, the grass must truly be greener on the other side. Why would they risk the perilous crossing otherwise, poor things? Squashed, runover caterpillars appear everywhere, and soft hearted people swerve in an attempt to miss the ones still inching their way across the asphalt. Fall is the tragic, but beautiful death of the year. From the smoke from crackling bonfires of fallen leaves and pruned branches and the damp, earthy scents after days of cool rain, to the overripe sweetness of apples and plums fallen to the ground and the water's edge smell of decaying salmon that have completed their epic spawning mission and succomed to their exhaustion, the air is full of it. It is during the middle of this season when we Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. The idea for celebrating it at this time is to enjoy the bounty of the recent harvest and to give thanks for the cycle of life and all its gifts, a practise inherited from our European and British ancestors. The holiday also gives us a day off in October. During the latter part of the 1800's and before World War I, we celebrated Thanksgiving in November. After World War I, which brought the November 11th Remembrance Day holiday, the Canadian government decided to move Thanksgiving back to the second Monday in October. Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving late in November to commemorate the arrival of the first Pilgrims to their shores, and they, being further south enjoy a typically later harvest.

We spent our Thanksgiving Sunday with our friends again on their beautiful farm. Across the road from their house are man-made spawning channels, an extension of the natural slough that surrounds the island on which they live. After a delicious mid-day meal of roasted turkey and all the trimmings, and while their two children and three of ours (our eldest spent the week visiting his grandparents) went canoeing, we adults walked along the shore of the channels, watching the coho and spring salmon fight and splash their way up the stream.

launching the girls' canoe

And the boys are off

A beaver trail leading from the water to some
very fine trees for dam building

rosehips and racing!

Still water reflection

Beautiful fiery sumac on the walk back to the house

Room for rent

After our outdoor adventure, we headed back indoors for dessert, which consisted of pumpkin pie made with maple syrup as the sweetener (you cannot get much more Canadian than that) and delicious blackberry pie with plenty of whipped cream. My husband and I did as many dishes as our hosts would allow us to do, and then we rounded up the kids who were enjoying a rousing battle with 'nerf darts'. We are so thankful for these friends who shared their holiday and their harvest with us. We came home with fresh eggs, potatoes directly from the field, apples and pears from their trees, but more than that, we came home with pictures, in our camera to share with you, and in our minds to keep forever.

October 5, 2011

Opening a Can of Worms...and not for Fishing

There is a family joke about me when I began Kindergarten. My teacher, Mrs. Campbell, who had taught Kindergarten to, I believe, all of my five older siblings, took my mother aside after the first day. "Mrs. Lamb, you did very well with all of your other children in preparing them for Kindergarten. They were independant and capable, but you've missed the boat with this one." Apparently, although I arrived at Kindergarten already knowing how to read, when it was time to go outside I had stood with my coat in one hand and my shoes in the other, waiting for the servants to put them on me. I think my mother was aghast, and I was taught to tie my shoes post-haste, or at least buckle them by myself.

After school, I would meet my mother down at the corner of Ward and Baker streets where the buses were waiting. She often wore her beautiful red coat with the black frog buttons, her long, dark hair pulled back in a barette and I could always spot her from far away. Sometimes we rode the bus home together, and sometimes she took me for a treat at the Woolworth counter. Other times she would take me to visit the nuns up the hill at the convent - they always had good cookies, or to visit one of her interesting artist friends. Sometimes she had her bicycle with her and would 'race' the bus home. I only had to go to school for half the day, but truly, I think it was enough for me. I don't remember making a fuss about going to Kindergarten where we acted out The Three Billy Goats Gruff and spent 'quiet time' on bits of carpet samples, but I treasured the afternoon time alone with my mother too much not to look forward to it. My wonderful, noisy crowd of siblings would be home soon enough, and often my parents were out in the evenings at play rehearsals or choir practise. Those evenings I would be put to bed by one of my sisters or one of the university students who boarded with us in our large rented house by the lakeshore.

These memories came to the surface the other day when I had walked with my youngest daughter, who is turning ten soon, to school. This fall, for the first time in this corner of Canada, five-year olds must go to school for the full day. It is mandatory and legislated by the government. The official reason for all-day Kindergarten is that too many children are arriving at Kindergarten without even the basics of numeracy or literacy, not to mention the social skills necessary to function in a crowd of eighteen children. The unofficial reason seems to me to be an answer to the inconvenience that half days give for working parents, which is fair enough in this day and age, I suppose. Somehow, though, the idea of full day Kindergarten for all these tiny little urchins makes me sad.

My youngest child was the first of my children to go to Kindergarten in a public school. The others were taught by me at home. She went for the mornings, and a couple of days per week, when I picked her up, I brought home her friend Simon with us. Simon's mother is a teacher at our school and his father is a farmer who needed some regular afternoons to get his chores done without a five year old 'helper'. Simon and Katie would eat their lunch at our table and then spend the afternoon playing games together, which often invoved both our collection of small plastic dinosaurs and our doll house, reading with me, and if the weather was fine, going to the park. Simon's parents paid me to look after him, but sometimes I thought I should pay them for supplying Katie with such a fine playmate. That being said, about once a week, Katie would ask, "Mommy, when can we have a you-and-me day?" and then she and I would hatch a plan for an outing or an activity together one afternoon when her brothers and sister were at school and Simon was at home helping his dad with the vacuuming.

I do realize that children are incredibly adaptive creatures. Is full day Kindergarten really the end of the world? Probably not, and some will handle the days packed with prescribed learning outcomes very well, but I can think of two of my own children who would have found the long days very hard. My second son would have come home completly tied in knots after a full day of trying to 'get along well with others', and Katie, who is incredibly sensitive and finds it hard to keep up with the energy of the class even now, would have missed me too much. She and Simon may have been happy enough ignoring me as they played, but they both knew I was there and were content in the knowledge that I would basically leave them be, until they needed a snack or asked for 'book time' as we called it, while they got on with the business of being children.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that children grow up so fast as it is. Perhaps, rather than farming children out into the school system full time in Kindergarten, we should be supporting parents to stay at home, read to them, let them play, take them outside, and build a stronger parent-child bond. The numeracy and literacy will come soon enough if the schools are allowed to do their job properly. If this nineteenth day of the March on Wall Street proves anything, it is that our society needs to do a much better job of prioritizing what really matters in life. This endless drive toward owning and consuming, which then causing a domino effect, creates an economic environment in which it is expected that both parents will work outside the home or that single parents will hold down two or more jobs, leaves the schools to deal with the fallout. My heart goes out to all the people camping on Wall Street, and those who are going to gather at the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 15, as well as in other locations around North America. They say 'enough is enough' and for the sake of our children, I say 'hear hear'.

October 1, 2011

A Blog Challenge...Pass it On

My good friend Alistair from Crivens, jings, and help ma Boab, (a great blog, by the way, which includes several adventures with The Lovely G and a cat named Jess) tagged me in a challenge earlier this week. It was a good thing, for he gave me a blog topic for a week when all my creative energy was being sucked into an onerous vortex of grant and report writing. Workwise, it was a week from, as we say here in Canada, H-E-double-hockey-sticks, but I have begun to surface from beneath an Everest sized pile of papers. The Report was delivered yesterday morning and the grant application, completed with no time to spare, put into the hands of the fine folks at Snail Mail Incorporated (Canada Post) for its journey to the British Columbia Arts Council headquarters in Victoria. A lot of other things happened this week as well, but I won't bore my friends with the details. Instead, I will get on with answering the following questions before I tag five more friends.
 Nominated blogs have to create a list of the following:

What's your most beautiful post.
What's been your most popular post.
What's been your most controversial post.
What's been your most helpful post.
Which posts success has surprised you most.
Which of your posts do you feel didn't get the attention it deserved.
Which post are you proudest of

My most beautiful post? I'd have to say A Week Away because writing it was a beautiful, multi-sensory experience the result of which nearly equalled my vision for the post. That does not happen very often!

My most popular post? Well, this answers the next question as well. My most popular post, according to my stats anyway, was A Trip from Bountiful about two Fundamentalist Mormon young women I went to college with. This post garnered a lot of attention and some heated debate between myself and a friend. I was glad to move on to the next topic after that!

My most helpful post? I would have to say The Turning Point because this post seemed to reassure some parents, and give some others something to think about regarding their own children in a positive way. It also served to help me articulate some of the deeper thoughts I have about parenting children in what can sometimes be a callous world.

Which post's success surprised me the most? One of my earliest posts, "I Had a Farm in Africa", brought comments from people all over the blogosphere and beyond. The post is about my friends who did, and do still, have a farm in Africa, but its title was what initially attracted so many visits and shows how well loved the book and film Out of Africa is around the world. I had never had a post gain so many comments and it was a delightful surprise way back in 2009 when I had only just begun as a blogger.

Which of my posts didn't get the attention it deserved? Gosh, that sounds a bit like sour grapes. However, if I have to pick one, it would be The Dancer who Rattled the Boards, because when I posted it, not many people knew I even had a blog, let alone were following my posts! This post is about a dance I went to once, and a very special dancer who cleared the floor.

Which post am I proudest of? I'm going to go out on a limb (pardon the pun) and say, at least for today, I am proud of my post Tractor Yoga, because it was funny, well received, informative...and I dearly love to be funny if I possibly can.

Now it is my turn to tag five friends for the blogger challenge! (Thanks to Al for the Calvin and Hobbes pic.)

1.  Anita from Beyond the Diapers and Spills because she's always making her readers think by framing every post as a question, and now it's our turn to return the favour!

2.  Lucille from Useful or Beautiful because her blog title says it all. Lucille manages, with a few crafted images, words, borrowed or original, to evoke a life worth living. She takes beauty very seriously, but there is always an underlying whimsey to her posts. And she can be very funny, too! (see her 'Cow Patty Cake' post)

3.  Brian from Waystation One because he has a huge variety of posts to choose from, and I'd like to see what he comes up with as answers to each question...maybe some poems I haven't had the chance to read?

4.  Tracey from Unos dos Tracey because she needs something to challenge her after her recent ten-day Alaskan cruise. And because she has some very, very funny posts!

5.  Vince from Reeds because he is interesting, provoking, thoughtful, and wacky by turns. His blog is like that friend you don't always agree with but can always be counted on to liven things up.

So, I hope these friends take up the challenge. If they can't be bothered then I won't be offended...these tag things are supposed to be fun in any case, not a burden.

Cheers, all! And happy reading.

September 22, 2011

A poem for September (the ninth month of the year)

"September is beautiful, but kind of heavy" says Emily.
Where Emily lives winters are a serious business,
only eight weeks until the snow flies up there.

Down here in the south
The heaviest thing about September are the peaches.
The Red Havens weigh down your hand like a five-pin bowling ball.

The early Gala apples, too
coloured over in a pencil crayon blush of 'rosy red' and 'yellow green',
So loaded with the fullness of autumn they fall to the ground
if you don't catch them first.

"September is beautiful, but kind of heavy" says Emily.
Winter encroaches with melancholy sweetness.
The heaviness lies in the work to be done.

The weight of the harvest requires a sturdy handled basket,
It is always tempting to gather too much.

Plums and apricots, beets and cabbages,
corn and blackberries, peppers and grapes,
Mounds of hearty plumpness heaped on the table,
Some for the freezer -  for months down the road.

The peaches I leave in the bowl for today,
Preferring to save their juicy ripeness as a surprise again for next year.
We eat them standing, leaning over the sink.
Toothsome glory running down our chins.


I discovered a wonderful recipe which uses fresh peaches and plums, or any other seasonal fruit, and had to share it. Enjoy!

Plum-Peach Crisp  (from The Splendid Grain by Rebecca Wood)

4 ripe Italian prune plums
4 ripe peaches
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau) optional
1 Tbsp finely slivered or grated orange zest

1/4 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar or Sucanat
Pinch of sea salt
4 Tbsp cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted

Whipped cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Celcius. Butter a 9 inch pie pan or a deep baking dish.
Scald the plums and peaches in boiling water for about 15 seconds. Pour into a colander, rinse with cold water, and slip off the skins. Cut in half and remove the pits. Place the plums on the bottom of the pie pan. Arrange peach halves over the plums. Combine the maple syrup, 1 Tbsp flour, liqueur, and orange zest in a small bowl. Pour over the fruit.
Mix the oatmeal, flour, Sucanat, and salt in a food processor or bowl. Add the butter pieces. Process or cut the butter with 2 knives until crumbly. Stir in the pecans. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Let cool for 10 minutes to allow the top to become crisp. Serve warm, garnished with dollops of whipped cream, if desired.

September 16, 2011

The Delicate Art of Listening

I have heard it said, that if everyone around were to throw their problems in a big pile with the option of trading for someone else's, most people, after thinking about it, would pull their own problems back out again. I would guess the person from whom this quote came meant that, like a pair of worn-in shoes, our own difficulties and challenges are tailor made for us and best worn by ourselves. I feel that way sometimes, especially after I hear about some of the struggles other people are dealing with.

When we are wrapped up in our own world which, arguably, with the invention of earbuds and smartphones, happens with increasing regularity, it can be tempting to believe so one else suffers like we do, no one else has struggles like ours. During one of my recent visits home, my dad said he had heard some stories lately from people he knew, about what they had been through in their lives, and he wondered how they could carry on. If it is true that we are each only given what we can handle, then I would argue that many people must be far stronger than I. When I stop and think about it, I have it good.

Some days I get a lot of things done, and those are my 'productive' days. On those days, I take care of business, go for a run, cook my family a great meal, get some work done around the house. Other days, I write, go for a walk to clear my head, find a treasure at the thrift shop. Those are good days, too. Other days, I don't know if I'm coming or going. Nothing seems to get accomplished and my ears ache. Those are the days I need to listen to my body and have a nap after lunch, or go to bed early with a good book and try again tomorrow. Some days I spend socially, whether by working with people or by meeting friends for coffee. I have several good friends here and I love to visit with them. Generally, we take turns talking and spend the visit catching up, but sometimes I have to sit and listen because someone just needs my ear.

One of my old friends' mother was a teacher. She frequently told me I would make a good teacher, and when I asked her why, she said it was because I was a good listener. That surprised me because, until then, I had not considered myself a good listener, and I always believed the job of a teacher was to stand up in front of a classroom and lecture. As I later learned, that was a small part of effective teaching. A good teacher listens to the responses of her students and knows how to proceed with the lesson. She must make adjustments for each child, and make allowances for her student's situation in life and temperament. I learned so much from teaching my own children to read, for example. I learned intimately how each of their minds processed information and put different elements together from the give and take of our lessons. When I was a child in school I often lamented how long it took me to 'get' a concept, particularly in science and math, and sometimes I had to read story problems over and over to focus enough to understand them. Reading is a type of listening, and little did I know I was learning the art of listening with every challenging concept.

I don't think everyone is as attached to listening as an artform. I remember driving with my husband, shortly after we were married, up the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse. It was the 50th anniversary of the world- famous highway and the frost heaved asphalt, which was always under construction in summer, was bumper to bumper with recreational vehicles. At one construction road block, we had to wait for quite a long time. We got out of the car to stretch our legs as did the couple in the R.V. in front of us, which was tattooed with stickers from the 50 States. The couple decided to chat with us and began the conversation with a question, which was followed by another question, which was followed by another. The couple never waited for our answer before they asked the next question, merely said "uh huh?" and looked around impatiently before asking another question they didn't really want an answer to. To be a good listener, you have to like the sound of other people's voices almost as much as the sound of your own.

Yesterday afternoon, after spending a good chunk of my day listening to the tearful, very personal struggles of a couple of friends, I had a half hour to myself before my youngest daughter would be home from school. My eldest, home from a trip abroad and searching for his next opportunity in life, was even out with a friend. I made some tea and sat down to enjoy it. I thought how honoured I was to have the trust and friendship of those two women, and even though I had produced little to show for my day - no housework except some sheets washed and piled in a heap on a chair - I felt good. I felt good about myself as a friend - I wasn't always so compassionate - and I felt happy that my own struggles were not weighing me down enough to close my ears to others' troubles. I knew inevitably they would again sometime in the future, and then it would be my turn to talk. I pondered my youngest's recent struggles with adjusting to the back-to-school routine and was glad I was able to listen well to her and respond accordingly. She is settling in nicely now.

I sat back with my tea to enjoy my quiet half hour. After about three minutes of blissful silence, the front door opened and my eldest son leapt up the stairs, two at a time. I felt myself inhale sharply.

"How was your day, Mom?"

 I exhaled slowly and resumed sipping my tea. "Good, how was yours?"

And so it goes.