Other people’s junk

Today’s Daily Prompt from the WordPress Daily Post is “Junk.”  Coincidently, I’ve been thinking about that very topic…

bottlesThe public stretches of riverbank attract folks with fishing poles and buckets of bait. Frankly the whole idea of fishing in the river makes me kind of squeamish. Lovely as it is to look at, it’s not the cleanest of rivers. And I’m not just talking about the mud.

But what I really mind about the fishers is what they leave behind.

Someone has abandoned two broken lawn chairs in one popular fishing spot. Someone has constructed a makeshift platform out of old plastic milk crates, presumably to provide some footing when the muddy bank is slick. Someone has left behind cups and bottles and cigarette butts.

chairThere’s a garbage can just up the hill by the path.

But hey, it’s up the hill, right? Who’s going to go to all that effort?

It seems like the effort to deal appropriately with junk is way too “uphill” for many people. It’s easier to abandon that worn out couch or mattress behind the dumpster instead of arranging to have it hauled away. It’s easier to pitch that big cardboard box into the dumpster than to take five minutes to break it down into smaller pieces that will fit in the recycling bin.  It’s easier to dump that old TV that no one wants than to carry it to the car and drive it to the e-waste depot.

cratesToday while I was out walking I passed by an empty bottle from some “good for the environment” biodegradable dish soap—lying by the road. Oh, the irony.

I also spied a neatly tied plastic bag—of the kind that come in long rolls that you tuck in your pocket when you walk the dog. Someone had gone to the trouble to clean up after their dog, and then for some reason left the bag and its icky contents sitting under a tree. Nice try folks.

And you really don’t want to get me started on cigarette butts. It was hard to be polite when I finally asked my upstairs neighbour to quit flicking his down onto my patio. Seriously buddy, how would you feel if I started tossing my garbage up onto your balcony?

Some days I’m tempted to take a garbage bag down to the river’s edge and clean  up the mess from the fishers myself. I may yet do it, because if those chairs are still there at freeze-up they will most certainly end up in the river when the ice thaws in the spring.

But it saddens me to think that if I clean it up—if anyone cleans it up—then those who created the mess in the first place will have gotten away with leaving me their junk. And spring will come. And there will be another coffee cup. Another broken chair. Because look, we dumped them here before and everything looks just fine.

I catch myself wondering how often I pick up other people’s junk and spare them the consequence of their own bad behaviour? And it occurs to me: I don’t think I’m talking about coffee cups and cigarette butts any more.




Midmorning on my youngest daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, my office phone rang.

“Mrs. B? This is the Busing Supervisor from the school division transportation office. I’m just phoning to advise you that there was an accident involving your daughter’s bus this morning.”

Long pause. Way too long, although it was probably only a millisecond.

“No one was hurt.”

OK where did this dude learn his phone etiquette? Didn’t he understand that this call should have STARTED with the words “Everyone is fine…?”

Once I managed to dislodge my heart from the back of my throat, I was able to ascertain that the accident had been minor. A compact car had grazed the side of the bus and damaged the safety arm that swings out when the bus is loading. The tiny bus passengers were barely jiggled, but they had a front row seat for the entertainment when the police car arrived. When I picked my daughter up from daycare later that afternoon I asked her how her first day of school had gone. She reported gleefully that the highlight of the day had been when the bus “crashed!”

I’m not a huge worrier. My teenagers have been known to describe me as a “pretty chill mom.” I believe in teaching my children to be independent. To take calculated risks. To live in the world without my constant protection. But there are times when I can’t help playing out in my head how I would react if I got the call.

That call.  The call that every parent dreads, but no parent can truly imagine. The call that shatters the universe.

The call that surpasses in one crashing moment all the awfulness of being a parent. Worse than standing over the crib worrying that she will stop breathing in the night. Worse than waiting for the fever to break or the bone to set. Worse than letting her cross the street on her own the first time. Worse than handing her the car keys for the first time. Worse than waiting up to the wee hours of the night in case you have to be an impromptu designated driver.

My sister’s dear friend got that call today, in a bedroom community just outside of Edmonton. She was not told that everyone is fine. Things will not be fine for her family for a long, long time.

Hug your kids tonight.


red 2    The leaves are changing colour. I used to think it was sad that the beauty of the autumn foliage signaled the end of the leaf’s life, until it occurred to me that the tree is not dying. It’s just shedding some worn out bits, the same way I shed my hair and skin cells. It’s getting ready to rest. To go on leave, as it were. To take a break for a while from its work of photosynthesizing until the snow melts and the sun warms the earth and the new growth emerges.

If I chase that thought of photosynthesis as work, it makes me think differently about the diverse colours of the fall leaves. It makes me think about the green sameness of the foliage when it is hard at work in the spring and summer of its life. Come fall when it stops working—when it goes on leave—is when it shows its true colours.

yellow 1I’m feeling that way these days. I’m on leave, but just for a brief season. Still, I’m feeling like I have finally been able to shake the green sameness of my work day out of my head and spend some time feeling, and being, my true colours. And now I’m wondering what it will be like when my leave is over—when I go back to my photosynthesis factory with all the other green leaves, doing the things that make us blend together.

Now that I’m over the hurdle of the immediate post-surgical period, this part of my leave feels a lot like retirement. I still have lots of exercising to do to build up the muscle around my new hip; but honestly, needing to go for lots and lots of walks hardly constitutes work in my universe. Going for a long walk every day is one of my true colours. So is having lots of open-ended time to listen to the aspens rustle in the wind while I play away at my creative writing and reading. So is having long stretches of solitude.

red 1When the time comes, I’m going back to a desk surrounded by concrete. To reading emails and writing reports. To meetings and more meetings and meetings about the meetings. It’s a good job, and all, but I think I need some different colours to shake up the green sameness of it all.

The seasons change. Spring will come back and the trees will once again be a riot of green. In a few weeks my own leave will be over and I will have to put some of the things I want do on the back burner to focus on the things I need to do, at least until it really is time to leave.

Perhaps in the meantime I could be one of those trees that sports purple leaves all summer long.

Keeping track

Lately I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to tracking, in the sense of “keeping track” of details of my daily activities. This reflection is due in large part to the inspiration of an eloquently written and thought-provoking blog called The Unquantified Self. You should read it.

I’m not a big numbers person myself, which helps explain why the unexpected opportunity to swap long division for a drawing lesson stuck in my memory for more than 4 decades. Consequently, I’m not very motivated to keep track of anything that requires a lot of counting.

As a manager, I drive my financial officers crazy. One made it his practice to stop by my office regularly, sit down across from me with a notepad, and smile sweetly as he asked, “What have we spent this week that you haven’t told me about?”

I had a pedometer but I gave it away. Last week I was inspired by Automattic’s Worldwide WP 5k 2013  to venture onto one of those sites that enables you to record your walking route. I wanted to figure out how far I was actually walking a bit more precisely than “I think I was gone for about forty minutes.” It was an interesting exercise, albeit a frustrating one–at least until I figured out that it would indeed allow me to record that I cut through the parking lot and across the field. But it was just an exercise. I can’t imagine actually sitting down and recording the statistical details of my walks on a regular basis.

I can’t remember the last time I owned a bathroom scale. I had to fill out a form earlier today that asked for my current weight. I guessed. I haven’t a clue, really, but I know my jeans fit looser since I started walking every day.

My favourite recipes are the ones that are so simple I don’t even need to refer to the recipe any more— and I can eyeball most of the quantities.

I’m supposed to do 30 reps of each of my hip therapy exercises. It’s apt to turn into 30ish, because my mind so easily gets distracted by other thoughts and then I suddenly realize I’ve lost count.

All my favourite numbers end with “ish.”

My aversion to tracking isn’t just about numbers, because I’m equally undisciplined when it comes to tracking things in words. I have kept a journal at various points in my life, but it’s not something I can sustain on a daily basis for any great length of time. When I embarked on this blog, I promised myself that I would not attempt the folly of committing to posting according to any sort of schedule. You might hear from me daily for a while. And you might hear from me 2 or 3 times in a month when life is particularly crazy. And that’s just how it is.

trackI am more interested in experiencing life than I am compelled to record every passing detail. I’d rather make tracks than keep track. I sometimes wish I was better at keeping track of details. I do have a great deal of respect for people who have the self-discipline to track their activities consistently, but that will never be me.  I also know that for some there is a dark side to tracking, where the tracking takes over and becomes the activity.

But as I thought through what I wanted to say about tracking, it came to me that there are a couple of things I do track pretty meticulously. I am fanatical about writing things on calendars. (This comes, I suppose, from having double booked myself on more than one occasion. The worst example was the time that I made arrangements to personally host both a work-related event and a bridal shower on the same night.) I am also pretty obsessive about tracking my personal finances (although much of the time it feels like I am just doing this in order to wave goodbye to the dollars as they fly out of my account!) I have one of those accounting programs where you enter all your income and expenditures. And I do enter them. And categorize them. But my favourite part is that I can actually enter the regular items in advance, so I use it not just to determine how much I have, but to project what, in theory,  I ought to have after, say, the next three paydays.

It strikes me that, in both cases, I am recording not the past but the future. I don’t know if it’s correct to even call it “tracking” when it hasn’t happened yet, but I see it as keeping track of my resources of time and money. Because those resources make it possible to do the things I want to do.

And I have no trouble keeping track of what I want to do.

I go walking: West

(Part 4 in a series of reflections on striking out from home in each of the four directions

Walking west takes me away from the river.

Walking west takes me to a strip mall. If I walk far enough to the west, I can cross a main artery and arrive at… another strip mall.

The view that wasn't.
The view that wasn’t.

When we bought our condo, we looked at another unit in the same complex. That one looked out on the back of the strip mall. My daughter pointed out the window at the “view” and summed up her assessment of that location in one word: “No.”

We opted for the view of the aspen trees.

Still, concrete boxes aside, there are times when I choose to walk west. Sometimes it’s convenient to combine my walk with a stop at the mailbox or the ATM. And I like the fact that there are some errands that can be done without getting behind the wheel of my car. From time to time there are things at the strip mall that I need. There are also lots of things I don’t need.

Here are some examples of things I could obtain within a ten-minute westward walk:

MMMM. Concrete...
Mmmm. Concrete…
  • Cheap plastic toys
  • Expensive  plastic toys
  • A $2000 home entertainment system
  • A $2000 parrot
  • A case of cold beer
  • A case of printer paper
  • Automobile insurance
  • Roasted chicken on a flatbread, toasted, with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles and a thin line of honey mustard (and avocado, if I feel like paying extra)
  • New sneakers to go walking in

I could also, armed with those new sneakers, go to the gym, where I would have the privilege of walking on a treadmill while I looked at a tiny TV screen.  Why I would want to do this when I could be walking along the river trails is quite beyond me. Maybe I will feel differently when it is forty below. I doubt it.

I haven’t yet figured out how far I would have to walk to get to a carton of milk and a loaf of bread, which strikes me as problematic. I would like to be able to do more of my errands by walking.

I’ll just have to work on walking farther.

...and yet more concrete.
…and yet more concrete.

I go walking: East

(Part 3 in a series of reflections based on striking out from home in each of the four directions.)

Where I live, as seen looking across from the other side.
Where I live, as seen looking across from the other side.

As my friend T. smartly pointed out to me yesterday, to truly walk eastward I would have to wait for winter and the river to freeze over. So I have to cheat a little.

Ever so slightly to the south the bike paths loop up to the pedestrian walkway on the St. Vital Bridge. The walk across the bridge itself is protected from the freeway traffic by a waist-high concrete barrier, and if I pause halfway I am treated to a spectacular view up the river.

At the eastern end of the bridge I have options. I can keep heading eastward along the Bishop Grandin Greenway. I can head southward down River Road, which follows the curve in the river when it too meanders eastward for a while. Or I can turn northward and follow the riverbank through the cemetery and into St. Vital Park.

I have to confess that I haven’t done a lot of walking on the east side of the river yet. Because it takes a bit of hiking just to get over the bridge, these are longer walks, and I need to build up a bit more endurance first.

Because what I may not have mentioned yet is that I’m walking on a two-month-old artificial hip.

For the past few years my deteriorating hip joint has curtailed my walking, and I realize now how much that impacted my overall well-being. I walk to think and reflect. I walk to de-stress and decompress. I walk to bring order to chaos and make sense out of the nonsense in my life. So when I can’t walk I feel it in more ways than just the stiffness in my legs.

A lifetime of arthritis means I also need to walk for the sake of the stiffness in my legs.

Walking for the sake of walking is a healing force in my life, and I have missed it greatly these past few years. It feels good to be back. I can manage about 40-45 minutes at a stretch now—almost 3km. Each day I try to stretch my walk a little farther. Each time I walk a few steps farther I make a new discovery.

Raspberries with bodyguards

Like when I ventured over the bridge the first time and stumbled on the “Family Memorial” section of the cemetery. That means kids. Row upon row of tiny graves, many of them with only one date on them. It was a shock at first, and then I thought that if I had to visit one of those baby graves, I would be glad that I could walk away for a few paces and look out over the river.

Or like the raspberries I spotted in the park. They were cleverly avoiding harvest by hiding in the protective arms of a mass of thistles along the riverbank.


Or  the time I tried to visit the duck pond and found that, despite the pond having been drained for maintenance, a flock of ducks was stubbornly floating in the residual mud puddle.

And because I am blessed to live in a place with four distinct seasons, the potential discoveries are constantly changing. I have never been bored on a walk, even if it was a path I had walked a thousand times before.

Even less so when I have the chance to venture down a new trail.

I go walking: South

(Part 2 in a series of reflections based on striking out from home in each of the four directions.)

grassland signTo the south lie the paved bike trails of the Bishop Grandin Greenway. The majority of these pathways run east/west, parallel to the freeway, but I hook up with them briefly where they take me from the end of the dike, under the bridge, and towards the university campus.  Along the way, I pass by a stretch of riverbank that has been designated as a “Grassland Naturalization Area.” Like the paved trails, the sign is a reminder that I am able to enjoy my riverbank walks because of some careful and deliberate planning.

It takes me a little over ten minutes to get from my door to the golf course gate. The golf course that isn’t a golf course any more. The University of Manitoba has acquired the land, and is taking a slow, measured approach to developing it. The community has been promised that, for the first few years, the land will be left untouched to be used as a public park. The old golf course buildings stand abandoned, and a maze of trails criss-crosses the space, along the river, through the trees. Some of these trails have been “built” and represent the path that the golfers would have taken around the property, but the trails I like are the more recent ones that have been created by a silent consensus of feet and bicycle tires.

The land is sparsely populated by students using it as a short cut to the campus, walkers like me, birds, squirrels and deer. Yes deer, here in the middle of the city. The deer have held their ground in spite of two years of stadium construction just across the road.

UM signThe university has launched an international design competition for mixed-use development of the space. While there is always an element of controversy around any land development initiative, I have to say I like what I’ve seen so far. In particular, I like that their design objectives include keeping the riverbank as a public space. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on the development initiative, and learned that, in preparing the detailed specifications for the design competition, one of the things the university did was plot the GPS coordinates of all the trees on the property. They will be looking for design concepts that maintain existing mature trees. I like that too.

I’m a little concerned about the deer, however. It’s hard to say at this point if there will be a place for them in the new planned community. But for now they are happy to claim this bit of paradise as home.  The young ones skitter past and duck into the weeds along the bank, but the older ones are apt to stand in the middle of the field and stare you down, as if to say “I don’t mind you here as long as you’re  just passing through, but don’t get any funny ideas…”

once upon a golf course...
once upon a golf course…