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?