September 22, 2012

Material Apathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* lyrics from Canadian band Metric

September 15, 2012

An Old Friend Passes Away

A view down the lake of our hometown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in Peace, Rodi.

September 12, 2012

Thoughts from a Church Goer

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

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

"To church," I said.

"Oh yeah? Which church?"

"The Catholic Church, St. Patrick's"


"Why wow?"

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

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

I read a quote from the Dalai Lama this morning,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*names have been changed

September 5, 2012

Confessions of a Stay-at-home-Mom

Time goes, you say? Ah no.
Alas. Time stays. We go.

 Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921)

I came upon the above quotation a few days ago, and it struck me as particularly fitting for our family life as we embark on another school year - another school year in a long line of many, but with a very different feeling about it. I only have my two girls in public school now, one in grade eleven at the high school (her second-to-last year), and one in her last year of elementary school, which means grade six in our system here. The eldest began a term at a college in Vancouver this week and our second eldest, recently graduated from high school will spend this year working part time and taking a number of specialized music theory and history courses, as well as continued violin instruction, to prepare him for his Royal Conservatory examinations. He will remain at home for another year, which makes me happy, and I believe, him too. One child leaving home at a time seems like enough to me. I've never been very good at transition.

Yesterday, as my husband and I were busy in the back yard trimming the shrubs and cutting back the relentless ivy, our older daughter came out on the deck and asked what was for supper. As I pressed the back of my gardening gloved hand against my forehead, I responded that I was thinking of something easy to make, like nachos. She doesn't like the effect of nachos on her skin so she offered to make pizza. That would be the second or third time she has volunteered to make supper this summer, and while I have been very happy to let her do so each time, a small, wistful part of me has sighed because it is just one more sign that she is growing up. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one to be always wishing for small children again - I remember well how much work it was, how physical and demanding it was - I just wish their growing up had not happened quite so seemingly overnight.

These first few weeks with our son Ian living in Vancouver has been a bit strange. I fully admit to him being more than ready to be on his own, and to being somewhat ready for him to move out and move on with his life, but still, the house feels much emptier without him. His old room, now his youngest sister's, used to be crammed and messy with musical instruments and equipment, books and CD's strewn across the floor, posters of bands plastering the walls, and that particular teenage boy smell many of us know all too well - eau de potato chips and wet sock. After we moved him to his new place, we spent a week deep-cleaning his room and the room his sisters used to share, then painting and reorganizing. Now his old room is sparsely furnished with a few pictures, a bed, dresser and book case, some assorted girl things and a basket full of stuffed animals. Our youngest is beyond the toy stage so it remains to be seen what she will fill her new space with. I predict lots of writing paper everywhere, although, so far, she is keeping her new space fairly neat and tidy.

I am so glad I had a fourth child who will remain at home with us for a good number of years yet, so my adaptation to an empty nest will be allowed to happen gradually. She, and her dad and I were up at our favourite lake on Sunday. The other two who still live at home were both working at their summer jobs. As we set up our blankets in front of a log large enough to be a backrest, my husband said, "Just think. In a few years this will be us. All the time." I responded slyly, "You never know, someone may move back home by then," to which he said, "Oh no they won't." While my husband is incredibly proud of our children and their accomplishments, he would be lying if he said he wasn't looking forward to some more time and money to spend on ourselves.

And I? What will I do as my children advance further into independence? While the world and my bank account keep on suggesting I find some regular paid work, rather than temporary short stints sprinkled sparsely throughout the year, I still long to be primarily at home. I need to keep some brain space and some little corner of time to keep up the writing (see previous post for an expansion of this thought). I need to be free to cook properly for my family because that is the best way I know of taking good care of them. I need to regulate my energy so I have enough left over at the end of the day for my kids, for my overworked husband, and for the driving (and the driving instruction) I have to do this coming year. I find it interesting that many people believe that once their children become teenagers they need their parents less. In my experience, teenagers' needs change but they demand more 'presence' from their parents than ever. Emotional presence, especially.

Our household has always worked best with a household manager at the hub, and at this point that person is me. While Ian's move has changed the dynamic in our house noticeably, the need for me to carry on being 'Mom' has not changed. Three children still at home is not that much less than four - and there is one less person around now to help with the dishes. I carry on with my volunteer work, because that is also done from home and I believe I make a contribution there. Flexibility is the key to any commitment I make, though, especially since my husband has a second job as a head coach for our local Football Academy (that's soccer, not American football), which gives him both an integral mental and physical outlet for the stress of working in the hotel industry, but it does add yet another spoke to the household manager's hub.

As my children continue to 'go', as the quotation says, Time and I will stay at the center of our family life, managing everything with our own brand of controlled chaos. Someday, I may 'go' too. Just not yet.

Tree in Autumn by Emily Carr