November 28, 2017

Holiday Preparations

I've had a busy month. I left my job at the cafe and started another at a bakery much closer to home. My brother-in-law accepted a position at the resort where my husband is employed and he's been staying with us on his days off. My sister and their younger daughter will be moving here this week, so I've been assisting with advice and house-finding and moral support and everything I can do from here, three provinces away. I knew, somewhere in the periphery, Christmas was beginning to creep into view in shop windows and in people's windows as well, the ones who put their tree up in mid-November, but I had yet to allow my consciousness any tangible participation in the gradual and intentional takeover of the city scenery. The only Christmas-related things I had been doing were paying attention to the price of Brazil nuts for my Christmas cakes which have to be baked by the end of November each year, and hoping the price would go down (It did not), and practicing carols with the choir I am a member of for our upcoming concerts

For many of us, the Holidays mean family coming home, decorating, baking, cooking, cleaning, list making, shopping for and/or making gifts, in other words, a fair amount of work. Add to the list the fact I must have everything ready to transport up to the resort where we will spend Christmas again this year. I enjoy hosting my family at Christmas and feeding them and all that, but I honestly had not even begun to think about it. Last Saturday, while we were having our usual Saturday afternoon beer together, my brother-in-law, Brent and I chatted as I began to prepare supper. Having him around a couple of days per week has been fun. As my daughter says, 'he is so mellow and easy to talk to'. I lived with him and my sister many years ago when I was in university, and we had always been good friends. Brent was impressed I still had the mixed tape he made me for my birthday in 1988. He sent a photo of the cover with all the songs listed to his older daughter who is away at college, and she made a Spotify playlist of all the songs for herself. Some of those old songs wear well - I still listen to my tape from time to time. Anyway, we were chatting, which can make it hard for me to concentrate on cooking, when he said, out of the blue, "Do you like Dylan Thomas?" I said, of course, A Child's Christmas in Wales is my favourite Christmas story. He clicked a key on his laptop and Dylan Thomas' deep, whiskey-soaked voice filled the room. I smiled as I spoke along with the words,

I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve 
or if it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

I let the author tell the rest of his story alone as I made supper. It was at the moment when Dylan Thomas sang Good King Wenceslas in the hesitant voice of himself as a small boy when I felt the magic and the possibilities of the coming season. I rather suddenly began to look forward to making the Christmas cakes, despite the price of Brazil nuts. As Brent, my daughter and I sat down to eat we talked about our favourite Christmas music and I put Charlie Brown's Christmas on the stereo and said it was the only Christmas album my kids could all agree on. Brent told us about a jazz album his family had bought at their local variety store in the small town in Manitoba they are leaving behind and how it had become their family's trademark Christmas album. We had a festive evening listening to music and chatting away happily about traditions and families and such.

The next day, after Brent had left to go back up to the resort, I gathered up the necessary energy to drive in the pouring November rain to the local Christmas craft market where I started my shopping in earnest. I bought some handcrafted gifts and talked to vendors, some of whom I knew from other annual markets I attend. I entered the door prizes, voted on my favourite Holiday themed flower arrangement and tasted all the free samples I was offered. I missed my husband, who usually shops there with me and helps me navigate the maze of stalls with his keen sense of direction (I am admittedly geographically challenged) but somehow I found my way out of the massive building without him after circling it a few times.

The next evening I took out some Seasonal piano music and played carols and songs for half an hour missing the resonance of our old upright piano we had to give away, but grateful for the digital one our son decided to leave with us. My husband, home for his days off, came over and put his hands on my shoulders. The twenty-five Christmases we had celebrated as a family fell like cascading notes from my memory onto the piano keys. I played those Christmases with the halting style of a musician who rarely practices but enjoys it all the same.

For anyone who would like to be told a wonderful story, here it is, A Child's Christmas in Wales

November 6, 2017

Yes, #metoo

I would be remiss as a mother, an aunt, a sister, a daughter, and most of all a woman, if I did not somehow in this blog address a certain campaign recently on the minds of most people who roam the many halls of the internet. At first, I did not want to join my voice to the others. I have never been one for jumping on a bandwagon, and I honestly thought I owed no one my own stories, but that pesky issue of sexual harassment keeps on rearing its ugly head, even exposing the seedy underbelly of our beloved Hollywood movie mill. Harvey Weinstein, that other director I can't remember the name of, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, even Dustin Hoffmann all have allegations of sexual harassment against them, with some of them accused of even worse. In an interview, actress Emma Thompson said the allegations against Weinstein were 'just the tip of the iceberg' and her words are becoming more painfully true all the time. These men have all created great art and entertainment which most of us have enjoyed some time or other. (If either Kevin Kline or Bill Pullman turns out to be a perpetrator I am going to need a steep hike up the nearest mountain followed by a very strong beverage. Not that there are any rumours at all, I just really like those guys.) The #metoo campaign hatched a few weeks ago was an emotional one for me as I am sure it was for so many others out there. Introduced by someone in response to the first allegations against Weinstein, #metoo was meant to show how widespread the problem of sexual harassment and assault is. Let's face it. It's a systemic problem and the remedy is long in coming.

Certain types of men abusing their power to use or control women is nothing new, but I suppose many of us had thought our stories were not worth mentioning up until the #metoo campaign picked up so much speed. Many of us were raised not to make a big deal out of minor sexual impositions. "Oh, that's just your uncle George being funny" when he pinched your bum, or "Oh, that's just Mick. He's harmless" when we were invited into a neighbour's tool shed and saw the walls plastered with hard core pornographic images of women. I did not have an Uncle George exactly, but I did have a neighbour like Mick. Mick also had a brother - let's call him Fred - who lived up the street. We kids were always looking to make a dollar or two. Fred asked for some help washing his windows and invited a posse of pre-teen neighbourhood girls up to his place. Five of us walked up the steep hill to Fred's one hot summer afternoon. He answered the door in a tube top, except it wasn't covering his top, it was covering his hips and was the only thing he was wearing. I just about turned around and walked out but the others went in the house so I thought I had better follow. Fred showed us the windows he wanted washed and gave us the cleaning supplies. Then he went back up to his roof to suntan in the nude. We washed the windows as quickly as possible. He invited us to stay for a drink of pop or something but I wanted out of there, so I left. I'm not sure who stayed. To this day I hope nothing worse happened to any of the other girls. Also, to this day, I wonder what possessed Fred to think it was okay to behave as he had, answering the door in such a way, leering at us and making us all so uncomfortable. What a jerk. He would be reported now.

Several years after the 'Fred' incident I was at my local club dancing the night away. I had just met a  nice guy who was visiting from the States and was enjoying myself with him and a large group of friends. Most of us danced in a group on the floor, so I was not paired with anyone when the next incident happened. I was really getting into the music and having a great time flailing about when a man, a much older man than I, came up to me and grabbed my crotch. I was so shocked I went into an immediate rage and shoved that man so hard he flew across the room and fell on the floor. I then turned, grabbed my coat (it was the Christmas holidays) and ran the seven blocks home so fast my feet barely touched the ground. The next day, the nice American boy called me. He said he and his friends had seen what had happened, followed me out of the club, jumped in their car and tried to find me, but I was long gone by then. I never reported what I would now call sexual assault, and I decided it was my liberal, energetic quality of dancing that encouraged that man to touch me. I toned down my dancing for a while after that incident so as not to lead men to think I was open for business, but fortunately I was too free-spirited to let the actions of that one complete jerk determine how I was to express myself on the dance floor. These days I tone it down merely to keep from putting my back out.

I have other, more complex stories, but I choose not to share them in this way at this time. Some things are too personal, too painful or weird to talk about, especially when I didn't feel like I 'won' the situations. Luckily, I learned from those experiences and went on to marry a true gentleman.

When I was reading all the reports of the actresses who came forward in the Weinstein case, I was relieved to know how many of them had been able to assert themselves and escape his greasy clutches. Still, their ability to escape does not somehow erase the attempts on their bodies and their dignity. Where did Weinstein and the others like him, get the idea their desires trumped the rights of their victims? Their attitude has to come from somewhere. Did it come from their own fathers? From other authority figures in their lives? From television or film? I remember watching a documentary when I was a teenager called Not a Love Story, about the world of pornography and its impact on society. The documentary was made by a woman with hidden cameras. She and her crew went inside the seediest sex shops and strip clubs to see what was going on. The filmmaker's conclusion, and it made a huge impact on me at the time, was no matter how small and innocent we think our participation is - maybe we've been to a strip club, bought a Playboy magazine - we have contributed to the incredibly lucrative machine that portrays women as objects and excuses men as users of those objects. Some may laugh it all off as 'just a little harmless fun' but I am not laughing anymore and neither are the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women who have come forward in the #metoo campaign to share their stories and speak out against abuse, assault and harassment. And, now some young men are coming forward with stories of being used and abused by more powerful men, as in the Kevin Spacey case, and in some cases women as well.

Where will it stop?

It stops with each of us. It stops when we not make concessions for men simply because they do some great things in the world. It stops when we treat other people with less power than us with respect. It stops when we honour and completely respect each other's personal space and chosen boundaries. It stops when we not allow our own ambition to put us in potentially harmful situations. It stops when we truly listen to warnings from others with more experience than ourselves. It stops when we stand up to bullies, not counting the cost to our reputations. It stops when we dismantle the 'old boys network' and its ideas that make allowances for 'boys being boys'. It stops when we parents pay more attention to the true needs of our children, especially our daughters, and work diligently to form the attitudes of our sons. It stops when we are strong enough to see what needs stopping, and act on it.

And to rephrase that old song, "What the world needs now, is justice, sweet justice." We have all the tools to make the world safer for each other. Let's use them.

November 1, 2017

Sears: The End of an Era

Recently, my coworkers and I were discussing the impact of the demise of Sears Canada when one of them said, "That means no more Wish Book, I guess." A sudden rush of memories hit me. Sears was not only the place where I had, for the past several years, purchased my socks and underwear, it was the stuff of childhood dreams as well. How my brother and I pored over those Christmas Wish Book catalogues, marking the things we wanted and discussing them in detail! Kids all over the country did the same with their own treasured copies of that Wish Book every year. The Wish Book was tradition with a capital T. From the gaudy fruit cakes to the plush monogrammed bath robes, the annual Holiday Barbie to the wood burning kits, gift ideas pored forth from the pages and filled our young heads with 'visions of sugarplums' throughout the dark days of November and December.

If I remember correctly Sears came out with a new catalogue every season. Or maybe there were only two per year plus the Wish Book. Whatever the case, while the Spring and Summer catalogues were not nearly as fun as the Wish Book I still went through them page by page (We only had two television channels at our house). I longed for a white canopy bed with Holly Hobby bedspread and accessories until I was in my teens. Many nights I lay awake wishing hard for the sudden appearance in my closet of a certain black velveteen outfit complete with trousers, button up vest, jacket and skirt. How smart I would look at school, I thought. I replaced all my parents' mismatched living room furniture with turquoise French Provincial sofas and Lazy-boy recliners - in my imagination, at least. The Sears catalogue represented a lifestyle quite foreign to me, where parents bought their children huge Barbie houses and Bugs Bunny bedroom curtains. The minimal exposure I had to daytime soap operas convinced me their characters shopped at Sears. Their living rooms were always perfectly clean, serene and decorated like in the catalogues.

Sears, in my hometown, and many towns like it, was not a brick and mortar store. It was a small counter, if memory serves, at the local Greyhound bus depot, where mail orders were given and picked up after a long awaited phone call. The only other department-type store in our town at the time was Woolworth's, so Sears offered many things we could not shop for in person. My parents ordered their trusty Kenmore appliances with excellent extended warranties from Sears. My older sisters were always ordering new clothes from the latest Sears catalogue, and often, due to them not fitting properly, sending them back. I suppose one could say the Sears catalogue and other catalogues like them were the precursor to today's online shopping, which is ironic since online shopping is being blamed for the demise of Sears. The entire retail landscape is going through a major shift, and I do not think we can blame only one thing for that major shift. Sure, online shopping is often a great source for a better value - my daughter's Otter Box for her iphone purchased recently for half the price of the one available at our local Best Buy, for example. I think globalization, saturated retail markets (and their by-product - discount outlets such as Winners and HomeSense), and brand loyalty are also factors. Here's an example: I like Jockey underwear. They are 100% cotton, well made, and oh, so comfortable. With our city's brick and mortar Sears closing I know of no other place in my city that sells them. I will have a good look in the possible shops, but if I cannot find my Jockeys, I know I will look online. I know my size, my preferred style and price, so purchasing would be easy. Would I buy shoes or other clothing online? Rarely, if never. I have to try them on, and if possible I like to support my local businesses.

I am sad Sears Canada is closing. I shopped there often. They had great sales, good products, and friendly staff. Unfortunately, despite their monumental efforts at rebranding and revamping, they cannot carry on. Like Eatons they are going the way of the dinosaur, taking their beloved Wish Book with them.  I am sorry for their thousands of employees across the country. Where will they go? Sears hired many older people and now their pensions are evaporating along with everything else. The world does not feel like a very merciful place today. Progress, as usual, leaves many casualties in its wake.

For more information on the history of Sears Canada, have a look at this article, which, by the way, I read after I wrote this post.

The last Canadian Sears Wish Book - the end of an era

October 15, 2017

A Slow Burn(out)

Everywhere you look there are young people trying to change the world. They are starting their own businesses while raising young children, achieving advanced degrees, inventing new and improved stuff, working to save the environment, running for office, and renovating crumbling houses (at least on TV). While their energetic output is encouraging and inspiring, and their earnestness is heartwarming it also sets off some alarm bells, at least in me. I used to be one of those people. My goal was to make people in my former small community appreciate and value the role of the arts in their everyday lives, and I worked hard volunteering my time to help make that happen. I also worked from home to make some extra income and volunteered at my church.  I did all this while raising four active children, running to stay fit, and cooking like mad. My thirties were a whirlwind of gratifying, caffeine-fueled community involvement and motherly ambition. My early forties were a slow decline into burnout. Let this post serve as a gentle warning to my young friends.

Burnout is real and, in my experience, happens when you begin to be unable to separate your 'self' from your 'work'. We are so busy in this Western Hemisphere trying to become so many things. Much of this ambition is good. We should aspire to grow, to learn, to strive for a better world, but we also need to simply be ourselves sometimes. We need to protect our peace of mind from too much intrusion, which is difficult in this age of social media and subsequent addiction. Social media nags us continually to DO SOMETHING. Yes, the world has needs, but they are endless. We can all do our bit but none of us can do everything - the treadmill was once a form of punishment for a reason. Gone are the days when simply enjoying oneself was a worthwhile goal, and I am sad about that, for enjoying oneself with the simple pleasures of life can reap great rewards, fend off depression, and spread ripples of good feeling around us. I recently read (for probably the fifth time) Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. My aunt loaned me the DVD of the televised version and I am making my way through the series now. A Year in Provence is a funny, delightful account of Peter and his wife retiring from successful, but high stress careers in London and moving to the South of France where they restore a two-hundred year old stone farmhouse and spend their days eating, drinking, walking their dogs and getting to know the local culture and characters in the Luberon Valley. Not everything is ideal at all times for the couple, but they embrace their new life and Peter continues to write popular books for the great enjoyment of others around the world. His books exude a sense of having time for others without agenda, of experiencing life with all the five senses, of not taking oneself too seriously, and of laughter being, in fact, the best medicine. The point I am trying to make is Peter Mayle is an educated man and a gifted writer but he doesn't produce his beloved stories by beating himself over the head for not 'doing enough' and being miserable. Quite the opposite.

We all have gifts and most of us must work to pay the bills. Fully recognizing how to use those gifts and figuring out what work to do is sometimes a long road. Many of us learn by trial and error. In my own case,  and living in a city with a large homeless population, I recognize my desire to help the less fortunate, especially the homeless. Some days I honestly feel like the homeless are my sole responsibility, but I am wrong and must guard against these feelings because I know they stem from personal guilt that I have a nice place to live and my fellow citizens pushing those laden shopping carts do not. The desire to help others should never come from guilt. It should come from a more positive feeling of wanting to share. Guilt may be the impetus but it should not be the reason. The amazing helpers such as the Union Gospel Mission, Covenant House and others in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are not able to carry on doing what they do simply out of guilt. They do it out of love, and that is what keeps them going. They have a special kind of grace to do the work they do and I would hope their work makes them happy and fulfilled and energized most days, not drained and left feeling perpetually vulnerable and raw. At this stage in my life, guarded against burnout, and recovering from some heavy personal stuff, I give my homeless neighbours spare change, smiles, greetings and hopefully some dignity. For now, that is all the emotional energy I can spare, and recognizing this is no small thing.

I leave this post with one prevailing thought:

October 7, 2017

Not a Thanksgiving Post

A couple of years ago I took the required FoodSafe course for my job. It was offered twice a year at our local recreation facility and the session I took was taught by a former chef who was now semi-retired and touring around the region giving courses and teaching on call for a local university cooking program. The length of the course was, if I remember correctly, six hours long with breaks. With the aid of videos the instructor talked us through all the various chapters of the workbook. The course material was not all that challenging. Much of it was common sense, so between chapters we were treated to several tales from our Swiss-born chef-instructor's years cooking in various places around the world as well as a great deal of lecturing on healthy eating. (North America has it all wrong, did you know?) Many of us engaged in the discussions and at one point I brought up the fact that I make my own granola. Oh no! said he. You don't cook oats! That kills all the good nutrients in them! You soak oats and always eat them raw. He also lectured us on sugar consumption and how none of us needed any sugar not naturally found in fruits and other foods. I, feeling a little bit smaller with my ruined oats, carried on with the course work in between his mini-lectures, and before long, it was time for a break. Most of the students stood up and went outside. I was organizing my bag of snacks and lunch stuff when I happened to glance up and see our instructor cavalierly and within full view peeling the wrapper off none other than a Nature Valley granola bar, chock full of sugar and corn syrup, and yes, BAKED in an oven. Despite my 'shock and horror', we finished the last chapters and took our test. I passed with flying colours and achieved my certificate.

I have often wondered what kind of strange thought pattern allows a person to rage against some particular habit only to turn around (and in the chef's case blatantly) take part in it. Was it Mr. Chef's cheat day? Did he suffer from low blood sugar? Perhaps, but he knew I was staring at his granola bar and yet he offered no explanation. I was left thinking of him as a complete hypocrite.

When I was growing up one phrase I heard often was 'Do what I say, not what I do.' How I was baffled by it when I was young. Did certain people in positions of authority get a pass when it came to hypocritical actions? Perhaps we were only meant we should take the good from what people say and ignore the instances when they, themselves, go against their own direction. I suppose we are all hypocritical sometimes. Tired parents often yell at their kids to stop yelling. Most dental hygienists probably eat sugar at some point in their day (I know this to be true because my daughter worked at a dental office for three years and saw a lot of cake and hot chocolate consumed). Doctors probably don't take their own advice all of the time. Dads are famous for chastising their teenagers for being lazy while they, themselves, sit in front of the football game all afternoon and procrastinate on all the chores to be done around the house.

When celebrities and other famous people prove to be hypocrites we get angry, sometimes rightfully so. The comedian with the great family TV show ends up being a sex predator. The ultra survivor man ends up, against all appearances on his reality TV show, spending each night in a luxury hotel with heat and hot water. America's sweetheart is revealed as a drug addict. The politician campaigns on a promise and gets our votes only to backtrack once in power. And on, and on, and on.

The worst part about being on the receiving end of hypocrisy is the feeling of being robbed. We were led to believe something about a person and built up a level of trust and commitment to them and what they represented, only for that to be yanked away like a ripped off Bandaid leaving pain and even some scarring. I have reached the point where I hold new people I either meet or become interested in due to their work in the public eye with some emotional distance until they prove at least to be relatively constant. Sad, isn't it? But, perhaps safer on the heart. Maybe others do the same with me. I don't make friends as quickly as I used to.

But dammit, I still make granola every week. So there.

September 23, 2017

Let Me Tell You Something

Writing, for me, is an astoundingly personal thing. It is not only thoughts put into words, but my thoughts, my words, borrowed from my experiences and filtered through my fractured lens. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" or something like that. The fact is, I choose to post my thoughts on this blog for two reasons: 1) Writing for a potential audience is a good practice. I like talking to people and this way I can try to organize my thoughts into something cohesive with a beginning, middle and an end. So often, real conversations get interrupted or sidetracked, which is fine and fun most of the time, but can be unsatisfying for someone who likes to finish her stories. 2) I like feedback, even if most of the time it's only from family members and friends who support me as as person. I am not an introvert as so many writers tend to be, only a people person who needs some regular time and space to herself to sort out her thoughts.

As I sit at my desk this Saturday morning, later than I planned due to half an hour waiting for someone to answer my call at the Royal Bank of Canada VISA headquarters, I begin the plunge, yet again, into sharing my thoughts with 'the world'. Yet, I feel shy about sharing those thoughts sometimes, this morning included. Why should anyone care what I think? Really! The world is in constant turmoil and I tend to write about little, everyday matters which feel so inadequate in this current climate of fear and upheaval, not to mention flooding, fires and pestilence. My posts don't solve anything or help anyone in any concrete way - except perhaps, me. The act of typing words strung together as sentences and forming paragraphs is therapeutic and creative. Each time I blog I have built something, a sort of structure which I can add to the others of my building, and that process is, in itself, satisfying. Clicking the 'publish' button is like locking up my building once the windows are in. I know it isn't perfect and there is still much more work to do in my painfully slow progress as a writer, but my structure has at least reached a stage where I can look at it and say, 'There. I made that. I finished that."

I am a person who needs to contribute, but I am struggling to figure out how my contributions will be shaped in the future. For thirteen years I was on the board of the community arts council of my former town. Six of those years I spent as President. Then, I got a paying job. My job is not anything spectacular. It's a humble, three days per week position as kitchen staff at a cafe-bistro, but I enjoy the creative nature of my work making food for people (anyone who knows me should be aware of my passion for food), the tips are good, and it helps pay the bills. We also moved to the mid-sized city where my daughter's busy theater life happens. I had to let the arts council go and now I've stepped away I see what a huge role it played in my life. I maintained a sense of personal value and purpose in my volunteer role with the council, a role which also happened to be a huge amount of work. Stepping away allowed me the time to pick up my blog again after a two year hiatus, and I find some renewed sense of value and purpose in writing my posts. For now, my blog has to be my contribution to my community. I know in comparison to my other roles in life its impact is tiny. I know I am mostly just talking to myself and a few others, (thank you, family and those few friends), but sometimes the things we do for and from ourselves end up creating a positive, albeit diminutive, ripple.

Growing up when women were the product of the 1970's 'You've come a long way, baby' brand of Feminism, I entered motherhood with the sense I may be an anacronism. I had dropped out of university after deciding against becoming a teacher (yes, there is huge regret there) and had no visible career. I wanted to be at home with my beautiful kids and was lucky my husband was ambitious and career minded enough to earn a good living for the both of us. Yet, I craved more. I loved stories and reading, so I tried to write books as a way to glory and meaning within my family and friend circle of strong, capable, well educated women, but my books were failures. My books were failures mainly because they were deeply flawed in structure and I didn't know how to fix them. I survived those failures and learned the truth about myself. Writing is important to me, but it is not my ticket to another portal "outta here". It is the ticket to my inner life, my heart, my often wavering sense of self in this crazy world, and I will keep doing it even if people stop reading it. Honestly, though? I hope they don't stop reading it.

*The photo is a snowshoe hare changing its colours for a new season.

September 9, 2017

A Library Tale

I was on Facebook the other day when I came across yet another news post about the high cost of living in my province of British Columbia. Ever interested in the topic I began to read some of the comments below the article, something I don't often do because some people say such ignorant things on social media platforms. Reading those comments is one sure way to lower my hope for humanity. Anyway, a woman had posted about her family's struggles to make ends meet even with both she and her husband working. In fact, with the overwhelming costs of daycare, food and rent the family was going into debt. She asked for any suggestions on how to make do with less. I attempted to help her by sharing some of my own experiences from my days as a stay-at-home mom of four. Among other cost-saving measures I mentioned how I used the local library a lot, as a place to borrow videos, books and as an outing that did not cost a dime (unless our books were late, of course). I ended the comment by commiserating about the cost of groceries and wished her the very best of luck.

That night I slept poorly. The forest fire smoke hung over our city trapping in humidity and heat, and my back was bothering me. As I lay awake I thought about my comment on Facebook and hoped my suggestions had been friendly and helpful ones. One thought led to another and I began to think gratefully about all the times spent at libraries with my children. When my boys were very little we lived in a lovely little mountain town called Kimberley. I have always been a walker, and I went out with the boys every single day, no matter the weather. If the weather was decent I pushed them in the double stroller to the park down the road. We would play there to run off any potentially cranky energy (pushing the stroller down the hill had already eliminated mine) and then walk/ride back up the hill to the town center to make our usual rounds. The town of Kimberley is incredibly charming. The businesses border a central European-style plaza where a large cuckoo clock yodels the hours - at least it still did on our last visit there several years ago.  One of our stops, at least once a week, was the library. After choosing carefully and reading several, we could check out a large stack of books, which I would put in the undercarriage of the stroller along with everything else I had gathered on our travels that day - groceries for dinner, thrift store finds, interesting pine cones or rocks the boys found, etc. I believe I counted my lucky stars each time I left the library - I walked out of there with over a hundred dollars worth of books and I could keep them all for weeks, provided no one else had requested them. We were usually done with the books after a week and would take our stack back to the library along with any Mighty Machines or Little Bear videos we had borrowed in order to get an entirely new selection - for free! Oh, I know full well we all pay for libraries through our city taxes and such, but for a young family such as ours, I cannot thank The System enough.

When my husband was transferred to Vancouver Island we again sought out the local library. There we discovered more new books and authors to add to our growing list of favourites. I greatly appreciated the way in which the library staff would place a selection of books and videos on display. I have often found a new book or author for myself in these displays as well. With the kids in tow, I did not often have time to search for items for myself but if a cover called to me from the display racks I would throw it (gently) on the pile and take it home. On our annual trips to my hometown to visit family we would visit a favourite bookstore. Our kids would get to pick one book each as a present. The book would often be a shiny new copy of one they had come to love at the library.

When we moved to the Fraser Valley we lucked out completely. The small town, almost village in size, where we were to make our home for the next thirteen and a half years, was the proud owner of a brand new library. Not only was the library beautiful, open and brightly lit with natural light, it was, despite it being on the small side, part of a wonderful regional library system like our Island libraries. Any item in the vast and seemingly endless system was available to we small-towners at the touch of a keyboard. Our three older children were all school age, and our youngest was eighteen months when we moved to the Valley. Within three months of moving I found myself doing daycare for a couple of teachers from our elementary school. My method of child care involved much walking and playing at the park, but it also involved frequent visits to the library for outings, especially for Friday morning Storytime. Storytime at the library was looked forward to by many parents and caregivers in our town. The fifteen minute walk from our house was a good way to work out the ya-yas in my charges before they were to sit and listen to the head librarian entertain them with puppetry, fun stories, and activities. I personally loved our librarian because she spoke my language, so to speak. We both revelled in nonsense and word play, and mildly politically incorrect humour. She and her dry-witted Scottish workmate would also make delicious coffee for the adults and serve cookies for the kids. Those Friday morning cups of coffee, company and stories forever endeared me to those two amazing women.

I have not visited my new library branch much since moving to the city where we now make our home. I am too occupied by trying to make use of all the trading credit I amassed at a local second-hand bookstore when downsizing this past autumn. When I do make another visit to the library here I know I will smile at all the young families making use of the wonderful services there. I also know I will enjoy the immediate sense of community a library offers to all who enter its doors. A library is a rare place of equality. A wealthy person is treated the same as a low-income person, for they can each borrow the same amount regardless of income. Access to computers and internet, newspapers, magazines, audio-books, CD's and DVD's, reference books, not to mention author readings, seminars and workshops allow an extension to everyone's education. We only have to take advantage of them.

Long live the local library, truly one of the very best institutions in the world. I know full well my life as a young mother, and the lives of my children, would have suffered greatly without it.

August 30, 2017

French Women Don't Get Fat - or, I wish I were French

Recently, I was given the book French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, a Franco- American. I was happy to get a copy of this book (even though it may have been a hint) after wanting to read it ever since I saw the author interviewed on Oprah way back in the mid-2000's. I was nearly finished reading a novel called My Brilliant Friend written by Italian author Elena Ferrante and thought perhaps a transition from one European sensibility to another might be natural. I am anything by willy-nilly in my choices of what to read and when. I did find Guiliano's 'non-diet' book easy to get into, but to stay with? That is another matter, and fitting don't you think?

After explaining the French woman's loving relationship with food and pleasure in a delightedly light-handed way Guiliano launches into a series of meal plans and recipes that further illustrate her philosophy. Light, varied but satisfying and delicious meals seem to fill her life, with a glass of wine at supper each and every night. She grew up in France fairly privileged (with a nanny and a gardener) and food preparation and mealtimes were  near-sacred ceremonies, especially lunch, which was the main meal of the day as it is in many countries. Her mother seems to have been a wonderful cook who got the family involved in the harvesting and preserving of the fruits of their orchards and gardens. The main bits of wisdom I take from the book so far are the following: if you are going to have dessert - and dessert is very important - skip the bread at dinner (although bread is also very important, so skip the dessert if that makes you happier), set the table beautifully and present small portions with panache, eat what is in season when it tastes its best, and enjoy a hearty, healthy breakfast containing yogurt because that will start your day off right and prevent over-eating later in the day. Try not to snack, but if you are stuck in the airport waiting for a delayed flight, keep a handful of nuts in your Hermes handbag. Moreover, enjoy every bite of your precious food, simply take fewer. In any case the pleasure of food is tasted only in the first few bites.

Guiliano's way of living and eating is admirable and enviable. There is something beautiful and classic about her approach. To our North American way of thinking the French woman's philosophy may seem elitist. We immediately shout at her, "I can't afford halibut and lamb chops and all that wine and fancy cheese!" In France, however, food and wine ARE the center of everything, and she explains how life works there. Markets exist in every town and shopping is done daily on foot, not by car, so you get some exercise, too. One purchases for ultimate freshness and quality. I think the anecdote which impressed me the most was when she writes about going to the melon seller and him asking when she wanted to eat the melon. When she replies "In two days when my husband arrives from America - these melons are his favourite," the seller carefully chooses a melon that will ripen perfectly by then. Her husband arrives in Paris, enters the apartment and his nostrils are filled with the perfectly ripened aroma from the melon. "Wow!" is all he can say. French people would rather eat an ounce of good, what we would call 'artisan', cheese than a pound of  American cheese from the 'hypermarche'. The difference between North America and France is defined by how the poor eat as well. In North America, she observes, the poor eat low quality carbs and junk food because that is what is immediately available to their budgets. In France, however, their culture has shown them how to buy food in season when it is at its most plentiful and cheapest, and since less is more they fare better than North Americans health-wise. Eating well seems to be written into the French person's DNA. How lucky they are! We seem to live a lifetime learning how and what to eat.

Living in New York half the time, Guiliano has access to year-round European style markets selling everything from asparagus to fresh caught fish and seafood. Most of us are lucky to live in a town with a farmer's market open once per week in the summer months only. The 'hypermarche' is the reality for most of us. We've all heard the advice, "Shop the outside aisles only" because that is where the fresh food is. Everything else in the center aisles is bottled, packaged, and processed. Well, I shop the center aisles, too. Where else can I find pasta, oats, jam, peanut butter, crackers, coffee, tea, those mint Oreos my kid loves, and the juice my husband needs to survive? In France, perhaps, all of this is available freshly produced at the market, apart from the Oreos (but then, who needs Oreos when you have macarons?). I know from experience that my area's local farmers produce oats and even jam, and I can access these by a bit of extra leg work, but I don't always have the time. I do stop at the pepper farm once a week for a bag of bell peppers in season, and visit farm stands often for berries, eggs, and fresh corn, for these are all on my way home from work. I have always made it a priority to feed myself and my family the way I need to for our health and my peace of mind. That being said, I could stand to lose a few pounds.

So, what can I learn from Guiliano's book? I think I can take her principles and apply them realistically to my own life. I do many of the things she suggests - eat a good breakfast, eat what's in season, make most of our food at home, drink a lot of water, move my body, etc. I do not refrain enough from snacking, especially at work where I am surrounded by food. I do not set the table every night with nice dishes and cloth napkins, sipping wine while I chew slowly and thoughtfully. Perhaps that is the ticket. When all my children lived at home and my husband came home every night we sat at the supper table most nights of the week.  Most nights now, I and my youngest kid, the only one still living at home, eat sitting in front of the TV watching an episode or two of our latest favourite show. Our supper hour is a routine for the two of us and we both enjoy it.

The other night I served myself smaller portions of supper, sat as usual in front of the TV for an episode of Father Ted, and took smaller bites, trying to savour them slowly in between hoots of laughter. Life is all about compromise. Oui, oui!

August 20, 2017

The Need for Peace

I am quite certain most of us feel like the world is a scary place these days. I do not have to list the reasons why. We are bombarded daily with new images and descriptions of violent acts and bad news stories, and feeling overwhelmed and powerless to change things in any meaningful and lasting way seems to be the norm for many of us. As if the global situation is not enough of a threat for us, 2017 in my part of the world has proven, thus far, to be a year of climatic events of biblical proportions. Our winter on the West Coast was the fiercest we have seen in a decade or so with one raging snow storm after another (yes, the rest of Canada laughed). The month of April saw only one day without rain, and British Columbia has been locked in a chronic State of Emergency this summer due to the hundreds of forest fires raging across the extremely dry southern half of the province. My own sister was evacuated from her city for two weeks, and another relative was kept from her home for a total of thirty-nine days due to the threat of nearby fires. I cannot help but move toward fall with a slight sense of trepidation, as in, 'What's next?' Still, I am glad to be alive and constantly yearning for a sense of balance and peace on this crazy planet. What else can I do?

Last evening my husband drove me up to the main lookout point at the resort where he works. He wanted to show me the stars without the diluting effect of ambient light. We drove up around nine pm and watched the sky as it darkened and the constellations revealed themselves one by one. The night was windy and quite chilly so we stayed in the truck as long as possible before getting out to gaze up into the night sky. Satellites and airplanes cruised across the starry dome. Shooting stars pierced like arrows and then were gone. The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion's Belt, and the Milky Way shone boldly as monuments to eternity. "We are so tiny down here compared to what's out there," said my husband at one point. "It's amazing to think that some of what we are seeing no longer exists, but we are seeing it now due to the time its light has taken to travel to a point where it becomes visible to us." Then, he told me again about taking groups of people on evening snowshoe treks up at Mount Seymour years ago when he was doing his practicum. He had made a chart with holes pierced in it in the shapes of the various constellations. He would shine a flashlight on the chart and the 'constellations' would appear on the snow. Then, the snowshoers would look at the sky and identify the matching constellations. He wore a little satisfied and delightful smile as he talked about those memories, and I felt so glad he was back doing a job where he could live and work in the outdoors and share the magic of nature with the public, and with us.

Just before ten we climbed back into the truck and drove down the mountain. Earlier he had been describing the look of the resort's wedding tent - the resort hosts a lot of weddings in the summertime - and decided to drive me 'round to see it all lit up. The tent glowed with ropes of white lights and Middle Eastern music filled the air. We could see a crowd of people dancing and hear them laughing and enjoying themselves. Earlier, there had been some tension between the families - one side Iranian, one side Cuacasian - but from what we could see that seemed to have dissipated with the celebrations. Perhaps the wedding had shown them they were all family now and they had better get along. I mean, if the bride and groom didn't mind their cultural differences, why should their families?

Earlier, in the truck, as we were waiting for the growing darkness to reveal the stars fully, I sat quietly. My husband asked me if I was alright. I said I felt sad, not for me, I had a good life, but for some other people. I felt sad for people who hold onto prejudices and grudges. I felt sad for people who refuse to forgive others, and for people who go so far as to foster hatred for people they don't even know, only because they represent some perceived threat to their comfort and security. Mostly, I felt sad for people who didn't know or cherish peace.

This morning as I sit typing in the morning chill with a second
cup of coffee to warm my hands between sentences, I am grateful for everything good. I am glad people are standing up in the thousands to speak for peace and harmony in the world. I am grateful for stars to remind us of our limited time to do some small good on this planet - so, let's do it! I am grateful for the difficult people in my life because they teach me patience and understanding. I am grateful for the ones who by loving me unconditionally keep me afloat. I am also grateful that stars, the ocean, lakes and mountains, trees and wildflowers are free for all to enjoy and to have in common.

I remember a song we used to sing in elementary school. In my mind's eye I see a crowd of kids dressed in corduroy bell-bottoms, crocheted vests and shirts with wide lapels sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the assembly room. They are rocking slowly back and forth while singing:

Peace is flowing like a river,
Flowing out of you and me,
Flowing out into the desert,
Setting all the captives free. 

Let it be so.

August 6, 2017

Smoke and Magic

Sometimes in life we get to take part in something magical. Last night was one of those times, although I have no photos to prove it.

My daughter and I spent the first part of Saturday morning packing up enough food and clothing for the BC Day long weekend which we would spend with my husband at the resort where he works and lives part time. By ten-forty-five we had gassed up and merged our way into the stream of vehicles heading East for holiday time away. The drive is a fairly quick one in good weather so we arrived at the resort by noon. The smoke from the interior forest fires had been heavy all week and we were hoping to drive up, up above the smoke into clear skies. No such luck. We had to content ourselves with the thinness of the smokey layer up in the mountains and make the best of it. We arrived at the main lodge and immediately spotted my husband in the parking lot talking with some very good friends of ours, the kind you want to see when you are escaping your busy life for the weekend. They had come up to the resort to spend the day. That was magic moment number one, come to think of it. We all embraced and made plans to spend the day together. We would meet in an hour and a half at the lake where a barbecue and lantern festival was happening. My daughter was tired from a long and energetic week teaching theater camp and chose a nap and a quiet afternoon in our cool cabin instead.

Things did not go as planned. Somehow our wires got crossed and the friends and I didn't end up meeting. We spent about three hours looking for each other. I circled the beach area twice and then, hot and a bit worried, decided to commence a hike around the lake with a first stop at a favourite little swimming beach from where I could hear people on the path above and be able to intercept my friends should they walk by. I dove into the beautiful, clean, clear water and swam for a quarter of an hour. The physical relief of swimming in a lake after being hot and sweaty is something I have always considered the penultimate in outdoor activities. No sign of our friends, though.  They, too, as it turned out, had hiked around the lake in search of me and had also gone for a swim. Somehow we missed each other but at least we all got a hike and swim in. We also enjoyed a pleasant dinner together. Saturday happened to be Leo's birthday and we toasted his years with a beer for him and wine for us. They left for home at eight and my husband, daughter and I changed into warmer clothing for our evening activity, which was to be volunteering at the lantern festival with other staff.

We had to be at the boathouse at eight-thirty so we could launch all the canoes and kayaks while there was still daylight. Within minutes about twenty staff members were assembled and choosing PFDs (life jackets) and paddles. We chose a canoe and hurried to get in and push off to make room for everyone else to do the same. The lanterns would be launched at nine-thirty from Spruce Bay, which is the beach for the lake's main provincial park campsite, so we had plenty of time for a paddle down the lake. The smokey skies had greatly suppressed the wind in the past few days and we enjoyed a calm surface in which to dip our paddles. As dusk settled bats flew above our heads and the dark outline of duck families floated past. Those with lights on their canoes switched them on. Earlier in the day families had attended a lantern-building workshop on the grassy lawn by the lake. They constructed wooden frames with a holder for a candle and covered the frames in coloured tissue paper. On my last walk around the beach in search of my friends I caught a glimpse of an impressive 3-D maple leaf lantern receiving its finishing touches in red tissue paper.

From the water we could see and hear a large crowd gathering at Spruce Bay. The lanterns would be launched a few at a time and let drift with the current. Our job was to keep them from drifting into shore and also, after they had traveled far enough to gather them up, blow out the candles and place them in our canoes. We would then paddle to the bay and return them to Jo and the other staff members who were standing in the water waiting for us. The families could then retrieve their lanterns and take them home if they wished. Approximately seventy glowing lanterns in all shapes and sizes were launched. The designs ranged from a white Pac Man replica to a tall lighthouse to a beautiful pink whale with pink and purple scales. Two maple leaf lanterns, one with 'Canada 150' emblazoned on it, were set adrift and glowed proudly red for the occasion. Such a beautiful sight! My daughter, ever cheeky, started singing a song from the Disney movie Tangled, which features a lantern festival, and saying, "See, it is Tangled." 

And at last I see the light
And it's like the fog has lifted

Except in this instance it was smoke, not fog.

As the night set in completely, I kept an eagle eye out for other boats and my husband steered us in and around the lanterns. We gathered a boat full and brought them carefully back to shore. The usually boisterous and noisy young staff seemed a little subdued by the ceremonial aspect of our task, as if we were all honoured to be out there on the lake in the dark returning lovingly made creations to their rightful owners. After the last lantern was gathered and the last candle blown out we all turned our canoes and headed back to the boathouse. An orangey-red orb of a nearly full moon was rising up over the hills and accompanying us as we paddled across the blackened lake. Keeping an eye out for the log boom we found the opening and steered through it to the dock, my husband calling out to the other boats, "Watch out for the log boom!" Earlier in the evening I had chuckled after hearing one of the young men on the staff call out jokingly to my husband, "You're not my real dad, you can't tell me what to do." My daughter and I put away our paddles and PFDs while my husband helped with the canoes. I had been warm out on the water, but now with the extra insulation of the life jacket gone, I began to shiver a little. After a short chat about a successful event - no staff members had flipped their canoes or cursed (water would carry sound to the families on shore most effectively) - with Mike, the resort's GM, we drove back to our cabin.

After my active day sprinkled with little bits of magic I fell gratefully into bed and slept until my husband arose for work. As I write this the clock stikes ten, and my daughter is still asleep - she rarely sleeps in late. I suppose she was sprinkled with some magic dust last night as well.

July 29, 2017

The Downside of Take-out

Are we settled in our new home, now that we've been here for a month? If you call having furniture in its (possible) places and four pictures hung out of about twenty, then yes, we are basically settled. We have so far spent pretty much every weekend of this endlessly blue-sky summer up at the resort where my husband works, and the dust is settling in our town condo much more effectively than we are. Every week we organize a few more little things but we know we have all the time in the world now, so we will take it.

Going away for weekends takes quite a bit of organization. I have Wednesdays off work so I spend that day cleaning, planning meals for the weekend and preparing some food in advance for Thursday and Friday. By the time Friday evening comes I am fairly ready to go, and also in need of a good night's sleep. The cafe where I cook is extremely busy in summer, and we are working flat out all day in a hot kitchen. I opted to stay in town for this weekend since my Wednesday this week was a write-off - oh, I had a great day visiting with a friend, but I got nothing on my to-do list accomplished aside from having my car serviced and some chicken cooked. I woke up this morning after a ten hour sleep feeling rested and missing the cool pine-scented air of the mountains, but looking forward to getting some things done here at the condo. My daughter went off to a cherished friend's house for the day. The friend in question is home from her job at a summer camp and has an in-ground pool. Enough said. So! Here I sit at my laptop in our lovely, bright little den, the silence spurring me on to fill it with words.

They say to write what keeps you up at night. Nothing has kept me up at night this week. I have fallen gratefully into bed each evening and slept hard for at least seven hours. That's not to say I haven't had anything on my mind, because I have. In summer our cafe serves hundreds, if not thousands - honestly I lose track - of take-out orders. Each of those take-out orders is placed in a biodegradable box made from cornstarch-based paper, the paper napkins and plastic cutlery placed in small paper bags. Soup is served in paper take-out cups with paper lids. My employers try to make everything as environmentally friendly as they can. We compost and recycle and serve healthy food with as many locally farmed ingredients as possible. For a restaurant, I think we do fairly well, apart from the plastic cutlery. Perhaps one day soon we will find an alternative to plastic for cutlery as well. I know one has been invented, but it is probably quite expensive and not readily available - I know the take-out boxes made from corn are more expensive than the alternatives. We only offer plastic carry bags if the customer asks for them, or if the volume of take-out requires them. The sheer volume of take-out coffee cups, plastic lids, plastic cutlery, plastic straws, and plastic cold drink cups (recyclable though they are, I most often see them thrown in the garbage) which leave our cafe, and the innumerable cafes and restaurants around the globe, on a weekly basis is somewhat staggering, and I cannot stop thinking about that fact.

A few weeks ago my daughter and a friend brought home Mexican take-out. The food (yummy!) and drink (a delicious Mexican guava soda in glass bottles) for the three of us arrived in three large styrofoam boxes and five plastic bags. I was aghast although I said nothing in front of my daughter's friend, who had kindly driven to the restaurant to get the food. My mind immediately leaped to the fact that every order from the restaurant in question would create plastic garbage, and a lot of it. I thought of the take-out Pho I'd ordered in the winter and how it came in large styrofoam containers and plastic bags. At least the wooden chopsticks were reusable. Over the next weeks I began to think about the volume of garbage created by restaurant take-out and wondered what to do about it. We rarely get take-out as a family, and when we do it is usually pizza in a cardboard box - not so bad. What about all the people who get take-out a couple of times per week? What do they do if they want the food without the garbage? Do they bring their own containers? Their own bags to carry it in? Is that even allowed?

I have a sense people are more indifferent about garbage than they were a few years ago. I am sure these things go in cycles. We can only care about so much at one time. Moving twice in the last eight months was quite enough to focus on for me, and I went months without feeling overly guilty about throwing away the occasional plastic bag. Lately, I am trying harder to save them to reuse for produce purchases. (I wash and reuse Ziploc bags, so a box of them can last me two years.) Restaurants cannot reuse plastic bags, just as hospitals cannot re-use certain things for sanitary reasons. Some garbage is unavoidable for commercial and public enterprises. Personal garbage is not. I have a choice each and every day to use less throw-away products. The cafe I work in has made the choice to use mainly sustainable materials, so I know they exist. I don't see many good excuses out there for continuing to use styrofoam take-out containers. If restaurants switch to biodegradable ones, they can simply add the cost to their take-out prices. If the food is good, people will pay a little extra for it. I know that to be true.

My mother used to bring home the plastic cutlery and cups from events she organized, wash and reuse them for our family picnics and parties. I found myself doing just that with plastics used for my kids' birthday parties and lemonade stands. When I was little and asked my mother why she didn't buy plastic wrap she told me that when it was burned in the landfill the chemicals went up into the air and killed the birds. I still can't use it without considering the impact on my bird friends. I was instilled with a checkpoint for environmental impact. Yes, there have been times when I have ignored the checkpoint when other factors took precedent, but the point is I have one. I wish with all my heart everyone did. These days it seems people who care about producing less waste are looked upon as slightly 'precious' by others. How on earth did that happen? This isn't about being trendy or hipster, it's about doing the right thing for the planet we all share and will hand on to the next generations. We all know plastic takes hundreds of years to break down in a landfill. Thankfully, more and more municipalities are seeing the light and mandating improved household waste practices; they are the ones who must deal directly with the landfills and understand the overall impact on the community. Even grocery stores are either eliminating plastic carry bags or charging for them. Perhaps one day soon restaurants will also have to become more accountable for the garbage they produce. Convenience is costly. Or it should be.

June 10, 2017

Where the Heart is

This past eight months my life, and the lives of my husband and youngest daughter, has turned a full 360, then a 180, managed a few cartwheels and even a couple of back handsprings. The changes have mainly been good, and now we are adding a new home to the mix. We take possession June 23rd, and we are counting the days while we box up our belongings. I am an anxious home buyer. The regulations for borrowing money were tightened by the Federal government last fall and the number of documents required has been a bit staggering, but what can you do? You sigh and go back to the bank one more time; they are getting to know us there. I know I won't quite relax until we are actually moving in because I have been swinging from fear of the ball dropping and everything falling apart to elation at each little victory along the way. I felt elation once again this week when I realized we'd done it: we had managed to find a place we liked a lot in an extremely competitive market, for a price we could afford - as well as make a decision in about an hour, which is what had to happen - no small feat and with many thanks to our real estate agent. I also credit my husband for keeping me from completely freaking out at times. He keeps telling me to 'trust the process', which honestly can be difficult for someone who likes her ducks in a neat, disciplined row, doing what they're told.

The other morning, I woke up too early. I could not go back to sleep - always so much to think about, and try not to stress out about, these days - so I got up by six. I went through my usual morning routine - a giant mug of coffee, some reading, some perusing of Facebook. I came across a post by the son of a childhood neighbour of mine, announcing the passing of his dad. Now, I knew this news was coming. Matt had cancer and was in the late stages of his disease, but 'where there is life, there is hope,' right? Death, on the other hand, is final and never comes without some level of shock. I quickly wrote a first reaction comment. I then posted a simple message of love for Matt and for his whole family on my own wall. I sent a message to Matt's sister, Molly, my friend since we were ten when her family moved into the house next door to ours, and to a mutual childhood friend. I wanted to keep writing messages, but I made myself turn off my phone and do some necessary tasks such as prepare supper for my daughter and me since I would be working a later shift that day. I had planned to spend some time writing as well, but now I was unsure I could accomplish anything. The news of Matt's death hit me like a cold wave. I had not seen Matt in a long time. We had not been in contact until last year sometime when he sent me a friend request on Facebook. I was honoured by that gesture because Molly had written to me some time before and told me about her brother's devastating diagnosis. To be included in his circle of love and friendship humbled me because I was not sure I deserved to part of it. I kept an active eye on his page and watched for signs of changes in his condition. What struck me the most was the ongoing, outpouring of affection from his friends, his son and his family. Molly regularly posted about her frequent visits to our hometown to spend time with him and with other family members, as much time as humanly possible. Through her posts I learned more about Matt and his unbridled enthusiasm for life. I learned he had grown up from the quiet, unassuming boy I had known as my vivacious friend's sweet little brother into a shining beacon of light in the lives of his many friends and acquaintances. His life, though shortened by cancer, was lived to the fullest and with a generous heart wide open to the world. How many of us can claim a similar value on this planet?

Matt's exit from this world brought into sharp focus the important things in life. Material victories like buying a new home or vehicle are well and good. Often we need those things to progress, to be safe and comfortable in life, but by themselves they can never be enough to satisfy the needs of our hearts and souls. Perhaps something to temper their shiny glow is also well and good. We need constant reminders of the more important values of human connection, of spiritual connection, and of the work we need to do daily to keep on building the world around us into a more beautiful, joyful, and kind place to inhabit. As writer Anne Lamott says, "We are all just walking each other home."

Rest well, Matthew, and thank you for making this world a better place. This song has been playing in my head since you left us.

May 31, 2017

City Mouse, Mountain Mouse

I was so exhausted after work Friday I forgot the onions and garlic for the Shepherd's Pie I was set to make the next day.  We were gathering up clothing, food and supplies to take up to our place at the mountain resort where my husband is employed, and where our daughter and I would also spend our weekend. I had the recipe in front of me and read it over to make sure I gathered all the ingredients. (I also ended up forgetting the rosemary.) For some stupid reason I had awoken that morning at 4:45 and could not, for the life of me, fall back to sleep. Instead, I had given in, got up, made coffee and taken care of some emails. I never sleep to my 6:20 alarm on my work days, but 4:45 is ridiculous. Fourteen and a half hours later I was pushing through my foggy haze to get organized. Fortunately, my husband had come down to pick us up, and I would not have to drive the hour and ten minutes to the resort. He was also trying to be helpful in a 'let's hurry' sort of way.

Once we were on the road I could relax. A beautiful evening drive was in front of us and a mellow and quiet weekend was something to look very much forward to. The weekend before my husband had come down with the stomach flu and a few days later our daughter got it. I had successfully fought off the flu, but I was truly spent after looking after my family, working, and surviving on the interrupted sleep I seem to get nowadays. As we left the freeway behind and began the gradual winding climb to the resort I felt every cell in my body breathe a sigh of relief. I enjoy my job, I like the convenience of living in a mid-sized city and appreciate all it has to offer my daughter and me by way of cultural and educational opportunities, but I was born and raised in a town perched on a mountainside above a long and lovely lake, and the scent of lake water, evergreens and cottonwood are part of my DNA.

The first thing I do when I arrive at our humble little place in the mountains is fill my lungs with the sweet, fresh, fir and pine scented air. Next, I fill a glass with delicious mountain water and drink it down. The city where I live used to boast some of the best drinking water in Canada, but now it has to be chlorinated. After my ritual of inhaling and water drinking I put my stuff away and my husband made some popcorn. We sat down in front of the laptop and watched some comedy on YouTube. My husband has lately discovered a Brit comedian named Michael McIntyre,who is very funny but also incredibly fast talking. After about forty-five minutes of trying to keep up to Michael McIntyre I gave up and went to bed. I slept the deepest, longest sleep I'd had in ages.

My daughter was up before me the next morning, which almost never happens. I got up about 9 and made coffee, which I am confidently sure I would never forget to bring no matter how foggy I am the night before. My husband doesn't drink coffee, he wakes up ready to go which is a completely foreign concept to me, and doesn't keep it on hand. My daughter was still feeling a bit rough so we kept our ambitions of activity low and wore pyjamas until the afternoon. After lunch we ventured out for a walk on one of the many trails in the park and came across a couple of snowshoe hares, their feet still white but their bodies turning brown for their summer camouflage. They seemed to be chasing around in some sort of mating ritual and kept darting across our path. The air was warm, but not nearly as warm as it would be down in the valley. Still, we stuck to the shade where possible and put our hands in the cold rushing stream dissecting our path. We returned early to our place and I began to prepare our Shepherd's Pie. I soon realized I lacked the required onion and garlic. I wondered if the Resort chef would spare me some, and made my way out the door to walk the ten minutes to my husband's office. I had barely gone fifty meters when I saw our neighbour pull up in his BC Parks truck. I called out, "Do you happen to have an onion?" He said he did, at first thinking I was a tourist before recognizing me despite my lack of winter garb, and we proceeded to chat about Shepherd's Pie and cooking in general. I offered him a piece in exchange for the onion and garlic, and he took me up on it. I had met him and his girlfriend only once before in the winter, but familiarity is quick in somewhat isolated resort communities, I find. I think it has to be.

We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner. The simplest meals seem to taste best in a camping-type environment, where the flavours mingle with fresh air, wood smoke and sunscreen. I remember making Sloppy Joes, which is basically meat sauce on a bun, for my family when we were camping on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and they begged me to make it at home. I made the dish a couple of months later and the kids were disappointed, even though the ingredients were exactly the same as when we were camping. After the dishes were done, my husband made our first campfire of the summer and we sat around it in camp chairs and talked of this, and that, and burned an old insect and mold damaged paperback nearly page by page. My actor daughter and I read selected lines from the pages by way of a eulogy for the book. We let the fire die and went back inside to watch more Michael McIntyre and then we had another long and satisfying sleep.

The next morning I got up before my husband left for work. Our daughter was up early, too, so I suggested we aim to leave the house by 10-ish since we were both feeling a whole lot better than the day before. We packed a simple picnic and drove the four kilometers up to the lakes. The May morning shone on the blue-green of the lake water and the verdant green of the shore. I knew a path circled the lake so we set out upon it. We stopped several times to exclaim at the tree-perfumed scents of the forest in which we hiked, the birds and especially the ground squirrels that so delighted my daughter with their winning/food begging ways, The walk was longer than we anticipated, and very glad we'd brought peanut butter and jam sandwiches and apples we stopped to sit on a log overlooking the water to enjoy our lunch.  Happy people in canoes and kayaks paddled by in front of us and ducks and geese floated and fished. A dog came to visit us and I jumped because I had been bitten just a half hour before by another dog I had been assured would be friendly if I said hello. This particular dog was an adorable puppy and only made a muddy mess of my leg as it raced around us. I was grateful to put my throbbing and bleeding hand in the cold, clean lake water (no motors are allowed on the lakes) before we continued our trek.

We drove back to our place and made tea and ate more food. We decided we had earned a movie and chose Johnny English. Although the hike around the beautiful lake had made me feel blissful and somewhat romantic about life, the dog bite had brought me very much back to reality and I thought a laugh would do me good. It did do me good, as did the antiseptic wipes and the Advil. We made another simple but enjoyable dinner, packed up and drove down the winding descent to the freeway. We arrived home to a very warm apartment and flicked on the air conditioner. Our daughter caught up on the rest of her homework (she had already done plenty on the weekend after missing school for three days), and my husband and I watched an episode of Miss Marple.

I woke up the next morning at 5:30. The traffic had started in earnest on the thoroughfare by our building and the Tim Horton's drive-thru had already been open for an hour and a half. Not quite ready to give into the city's ways I suggested to my husband who was now on days off, that we drive the few minutes to the river and go for a walk before the heat of the day set in. The cottonwoods were shedding their fluff and giving off their heady, honeyed scent. Acres of pink and purple phlox bordered the pathway and the sun shone warmly down. The river swollen from the spring runoff raced along beside us. I was very glad to carry on the nature therapy a little longer so near our city home. I know we are very lucky to live where we live. The cares of the weekdays would come soon enough.

Later that day I went to the second hand book store and bought another copy of the burned novel.

May 17, 2017

The Food of Love

Ask a teenager or a romantic and they will tell you a successful relationship is all about the Grand Gestures: the poetic declarations of love, the surprise tickets to the ballet, the offerings of jewels, flowers, expensive dinners in dimly lit restaurants. I was once both a teenager and a romantic, and I will tell you here and now after twenty-five years of marriage, if I still believed grand gestures to be the food of love I would live a disappointed life. Grand Gestures are well and good but daily small gestures are what nourish and sustain.

My husband is not one for Grand Gestures. True, in our early days of courtship he brought me flowers regularly, but he also proposed to me over a paper bag picnic from the once-lauded Bread Garden while we sat cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom. No diamond ring was presented. I still said yes. After all, we had been dating a solid three weeks.*

My husband is not a composer of sweet nothings. Oh, he can talk, certainly, about any number of things, but when it comes to whispered poetic endearments, they are few and far between. When they come though, they are simply stated, heartfelt and treasured beyond anything. Where this man truly shines is in his rock solid support and care for me, and for our family, and in the way he can, like a well-aimed javelin, hit upon the truth of a situation. No one cuts the crap and gets to the heart of the matter like my husband. Time and time again, I have been more than grateful for this trait of his. When a certain small daughter was resisting her swimming lessons and I was at my wit's end trying to reason, cajole and practically bribe her into going, he took her into his lap and calmly said, "Now what's this really all about?" When a son wanted to quit halfway through university and I was caught up in the emotional turmoil of his situation, his dad got on the phone and calmly said, "Now what's this really all about?" Our son will graduate from university next week and our daughter knows how to swim quite well now. Of course, we've had our share of battles in the family. Doors have been slammed, voices have been raised, harsh words of scorn pronounced from time to time, but somehow cooler heads prevail and we figure it out between us and carry on stronger and better than we were before.

I remember talking with a group of young people at a lodge where we lived and worked as a family. They were curious about marriage, mine in particular. What makes a good partner? they asked. My response was immediate: A good partner helps you become a better person. They chewed on that for a bit and said, 'That's cool'. At the time of the conversation I was going through a lot of personal stuff. Twenty-eight years old with three kids and living in a rustic cabin in a remote location, I was being challenged on a daily basis. Basically, I was faced with myself and my weaknesses and limitations each and every day. I was not the best wife and mother I could be at the time, but my husband was so incredibly patient with me. When I resurfaced from my difficult stage I asked him how he could stand me during that period (It lasted about a year). "I knew you would come out of it, you just had to get through it." Perhaps that was the grandest gesture in the world, him waiting for me on the other side with open arms. "I don't deserve you," I said.

Of course, relationships are about give and take. I have supported my husband through many of his own difficulties and challenges. I have cheered him on at the soccer field, at the sidelines of cycling events, and of course acted as his sounding board and best friend. I am able to do all these things without hesitation for him because we have built a foundation of love and respect between us. Our foundation is built, brick by brick, slowly and steadily with time and care, laughter and music. I still have no fancy jewelry, and I am still waiting to be whisked off to Paris, but if those things never materialize I know the day-to-day gestures - the daily phone calls to see how my day is going, the appreciative thanks for a good meal, the efforts to get to every event of mine or our children's, the commiserating when things get crazy, the hugs when I am stressed - are more than enough to satisfy.

Happy Anniversary, my love, and thank you. Here's to the next twenty-five years.

*Although he proposed after only three weeks and I said yes, shortly after I freaked out and said, "I'm not ready!" It was several months before I said, "Ask me again."

May 1, 2017

Loss and Letting Go

After a car accident about eighteen years ago, I was undergoing massage therapy treatment. At one point in my treatment my therapist must have been frustrated with my lack of progress because she said to me, 'You have a hard time letting things go, don't you?' At the time, I was insulted. How dare she psychoanalyze me? I remember thinking, 'Just give me the massage, lady, and let me go home.' Her statement, for it wasn't really a question, wormed its way into my soul and stayed there, mostly because it was true. I carried a lot of stuff around in my muscle memory, old grudges, past hurts, much self-protection, and the enormous expectations of personal 'success' that came from, well, various sources, including my own rather self-punishing version of perfectionism. Oh yes, I had baggage. Carousels of it. Thankfully, I also had a sort of irrepressible optimism, a cheerfully sarcastic disposition, and a love of laughter to counter the weight of all that baggage. After ten months of therapy, and with youth on my side, I recovered from my injuries and joyfully returned to running, dancing, and living (mostly) without pain. I wish I could say I also started letting things go, but I can't. That process would take many more years.

Loss has featured largely in my life for the past couple of years. I have lost people, ideas of people, ideas of myself. Through loss I have shed several layers of my hard-earned sense of self, and the process has been both painful and freeing. Like the snake that wriggles out of its old, worn skin, a person who struggles through a period of great personal difficulty has the power to emerge shiny and new. I am not yet shiny and new, I am covered in post-rebirth gunk, but I have hope I will fully emerge in smooth and radiant glory, eventually.

I was texting with my niece the other night. She had posted something on Facebook about a young friend who had very recently died. She told me what had happened to him and three of his friends - a serious car accident in which the friend had died on the scene, two were critically injured and one walked away relatively unhurt. My niece said she had gained a newfound appreciation for the preciousness of life. I found myself texting her the words: 'We always, always learn a lot from loss.' When we lose someone or something precious we rage and ask why? why? The loss seems so unfair and so arbitrary. But, somehow the act of losing also gives us, dare I suggest it, an unexpected gift of a deeper appreciation for what is left. We often pledge to live better and more authentic lives.

I suppose that is where I am at now: trying to live a better and more authentic life. I have been saying 'no' more often, which is a challenge for a people-pleasing person such as myself. One of the hardest things for me to let go of is the sense of disappointing others. People pleasers need people to think highly of them, even love them, and they derive a certain amount of pride in achieving that love and approval from others. I have worked on developing something of a new mantra to help me in my aim to say no more often: They'll get over it. I've had to let go of the idea of success and replace it with doing what I love for the joy and satisfaction it gives me. ME. I've had to let go of my children as they grow into independent adults, forging their own divergent paths. I would not say I have been a helicopter parent, but I did exhibit some tendencies in that direction over the years. My youngest said at one point, "Mom, you're like the mother duck who has been leading her ducklings all over the place, and one day she turns around and they're not following her anymore." Ever wise, she said it with a mixture of pity and 'deal with it, Mom'. I have had to let go of my pride, the main thing which has held me back and held me in all these years.

Throwing bag after bag off the carousel of my life leaves me feeling raw and vulnerable but I am okay with this. Left also with a sense of lightness and freedom I can now embrace what is before me. I have little idea of what the years after my youngest graduates from high school will hold, but at least I know they won't have the endless nature of a baggage carousel going round and round carrying the same heavy stuff until someone claims it.



April 24, 2017

Noises Off

Last evening, about nine o'clock, we heard a light tapping on our apartment door. My husband, just having arrived home two hours previously from his new job in the mountains where he lives part time, answered. He stuck his head out the door and kept his body behind it, shielding me from view - I was sitting shirtless with a heating pad on my chronically sore back. I heard a light, female voice asking if we could 'keep it down a bit'. Keep it down? We were watching an Australian murder mystery on Knowledge Network and our fifteen year old was having a bath. I'm not sure how much more 'down' we could keep it. I heard my husband respond with as much, and then the woman's response, "Well, try to keep it down anyway. We don't usually mind, but we have a guest who is very sensitive to noise." My husband closed the door and came over to tell me what I had already heard.

"How old was she?" I asked. He said she looked about twenty-five or so, and that she lived in the apartment below us. My husband was quite angry by the intrusion and the suggestion that we were being loud. I was, true to form, upset and sensitive to the idea we could be bothering the people below us with our day to day activity. I consider us fairly quiet people, especially when most of the time it is my daughter and me alone in the apartment. I would never go upstairs, as much as I would like to some days, and knock on the door of the young couple's apartment above in order to say, "Hi, I was wondering if you could get a new bed. Your very squeaky love-making is keeping me up at night. Also, your singing and terrible keyboard playing in the middle of the night is obnoxious. I love children, so I don't mind your toddler running back and forth across your apartment, but I think maybe you should take him to the park more often." I would think such an action incredibly rude and insulting. Of course, if I had a legitimate problem with the level of noise I would contact the building manager and make a complaint.

We have lived in this apartment building in our mid-sized city for nearly six months now. The general noises of life are to be expected from our neighbours. We all live together in a sense. Why not live and let live? The Shoppers Drug Mart in the plaza next door sells ear plugs. I lived here only a week before I bought myself a couple of sets. I rarely use them now, except in extraordinary situations like when the beeping and scraping of the snowplow would start at 3:00 a.m. in the plaza parking lot over which our windows look out. One gets used to the ambient noises at night. Mind you, I am nearly twice the age of our downstairs neighbour. I have lived in many homes of all types over the years, in a diverse set of environments. Perhaps the benefit of my life's experiences gives me a more tolerant view than I may have possessed at twenty-five.

This morning, I got up and walked softly across the bare floor to our kitchen. I wrapped the coffee grinder in a blanket, as I do when others in the house are sleeping, and ground my morning coffee. I was aware of every step, every move. I know this hyper-sensitivity to my own noise-making will subside. Until then, I will miss the freedom of living life without worrying about the residents below me.



P.S. The photo is of our view of the plaza over which I gaze at the mountains.

P.P.S. I have returned to blogging after a two year hiatus. I suppose I have things to say once again.