I go walking: Day’s end

I have finally touched down after ten days of swirling in a self-imposed tornado of Doing.  Too. Much.

I knew I would overdo it, in the same way I know I will always eat just a bit too much at Christmas Dinner. I have been alternating between volunteering at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and happily gorging on the overwhelming buffet of theatrical treats ranging from lovely to thought-provoking to “well at least I only spent ten dollars on THAT.”

Oh and this was after a full day at the office.

As usual, my sleep deprived immune system has punished me for my excesses by conspiring with a nasty head cold. But I’ll live.

Meanwhile, viral disciplinarians notwithstanding, life is pretty good. Daughter #1 is riding high on a prime new job opportunity, and daughter #2 has been safely dispatched to camp for four weeks. I am even feeling considerably less panicky about my grading deadline now that I am nearly halfway through my virtual “stack” of e-papers. (Funny– as much as I like not having to sacrifice so many trees on the altar of higher learning, I do miss the physical satisfaction of watching the “done” pile rise as the “to be done” pile wanes.)

Most of my walking over the past ten days has been Fringe Festival walking– treading the downtown pavement from my office to my volunteer venue to another venue to see a play to the food vendors gathered in Old Market Square. It’s a different kind of walking: a getting-somewhere walking as opposed to the more contemplative going-for-a-walk kind of walking that fuels my writing.

Tonight, however, I managed a loop around the golf course.

The old concrete sidewalk that formed the path under the bridge has, in the past few weeks, been chewed up and replaced with a pristine strip of asphalt twice the width (the better to accommodate bike traffic to the stadium, methinks.) There are enough little brown rabbits grazing the lawns along the riverbank to populate the entire works of Beatrice Potter. A pelican floated by on the river. I was surprised to see a group of pelicans in a nearby retention pond a few days ago. This summer is the first time I have ever seen them in city limits. Perhaps because there is so much excess water this year?

On my way back, the sky was beginning to redden, and I reflected on how little time it takes to notice the days begin to grow shorter. I was reminded, as I often am at dusk, of the time my youngest astonished her camp counsellor by being the only seven-year-old in the history of Zoo Camp to arrive already knowing how to use the word “crepuscular” in a sentence.

Ok boys and girls, we call owls and bats “nocturnal” because they come out to feed at night. Does anyone know what you call an animal like a deer that comes out to feed at dawn and dusk…?

And then, as if cued by my reminiscence, there were the deer. Two of them–one young and one full-grown.

Sometimes it’s good to slow down.

Blurry -- because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.
Blurry — because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.

 

 

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The Siege

Image source: http://www.modernpest.com/blog/how-to-protect-yourself-from-the-dangers-of-mosquito-bites
Image source: http://www.modernpest.com/blog/how-to-protect-yourself-from-the-dangers-of-mosquito-bites

I got very little sleep that night, thanks to an air assault to rival the Battle of Britain.

At first, I accepted the invasion as the inevitable side effect of reading in bed.  With the rest of the cottage in darkness, it made sense that the mosquitos would be attracted to my little island of light. Besides, the odd nighttime drone of an incoming mosquito is the price you pay for the opportunity to get up close and personal with the natural world. I reasoned that, now that we were done opening doors for the night, there had to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage, and if I sat and read long enough eventually I would have swatted them all.

As the tiny carcasses piled up on my quilt, I began to question my logic.

There did not appear to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage. In fact, they seemed to be regenerating their forces as quickly as I could fend them off.

My theory that I could read until they were all dispatched broke down further as it became increasing difficult to concentrate on reading in between slaps. I decided to give up, hoping that if I turned off the light I would not be quite such an obvious target.

I employed the standard pulling-the-sheet-over-your-head technique independently discovered by generations of mosquito-plagued children. There are, however, two problems with this strategy. One is that, since mosquito attacks never happen in the winter, eventually it gets too hot that far under the covers. The second problem is the need for the occasional infusion of new air. Nonetheless, I did manage to lose consciousness for a while, despite my conviction that if I did sleep I would surely be exsanguinated by morning.

I woke around 3:00 to the high pitched zzzzzzzzzzzzEEEEEEEEEEEEE of my assailants, who appeared to have called in reinforcements while I was dozing. Another hour of frantic swatting later, I got desperate.  In spite of my deep aversion to applying anything to my skin that is specifically designed to KILL something, I found myself spraying insect repellant on my arms in the hope that it would buy me another few nanoseconds of sleep.

It didn’t. They mostly just avoided my arms and attacked my face.  So I read for a while. I balanced my bank account. I played FreeCell until my laptop battery died.  And I continued swatting until 7:00, when it seemed like an acceptable time to get up and make some serious coffee.

Rolling out the welcome mat
Rolling out the welcome mat…

As I leaned across the bed to straighten the covers and brush away the bodies of the slain, an oddly placed beam of light caught my eye. The light was coming from the opening at the base of the screen that resulted from a tiny bend in the metal frame. An opening, directly over my bed, that from the perspective of a mosquito was a clear invitation to enter and feast on the riches within.

I might as well have slept on the dock.

Points of view

I was getting my hair washed. I like getting my hair washed. Note that this is not the same as washing my hair. Washing my hair is a routine, pedestrian chore that goes along with showering and brushing my teeth. Getting my hair washed is something that happens at best every six weeks when I go for a haircut. Getting my hair washed is a bit of luxury — having someone else slowly and expertly massage your scalp is a substantially different experience than hastily scrubbing a bit of shampoo and conditioner over your head as you scramble to prepare for work. But I digress.

top of my headI was getting my hair washed, and a strange thought occurred to me. This young salon assistant, who I know absolutely nothing about, can see a part of my body that I can’t see myself. (Apparently strange things happen inside my head when you rub the outside!) The thought intrigued me, and it got me thinking about all the ways in which other people had views of me to which I had no access without the aid of some form of technology.

There’s a large wall of mirrored glass which reflects me walking to the elevator at work each morning, but I don’t have a clue what that mirror displays when I am walking away from it.

There is an exclusive club of doctors and nurses who have been up close and personal  with parts of my internal workings that are not normally on display.

I never get to see myself sleeping.

Then, because this is how the inside of my head works, I began to think about the less tangible ways in which other people might see aspects of me that are not readily visible from my perspective.

For example, I wrote recently about my “impostor syndrome” dream and all the anxiety that my subconsciously imagined classroom represented. In my real classroom last week, my students painted a very different picture in the feedback they provided.

hairSo which is really me? The partial me I see? Or the view that is visible to everyone else?

Both, together with a third perspective: the parts of me that only I can see. Because you may be able to see the back of my head, but only I can see what’s in it.

Unless, of course I decide to offer you a glimpse. And unless you agree to accept it.

Which is why I write this blog. And why you read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cloud formations and the kindness of strangers

When my youngest daughter was about 5 she pronounced angrily, “I think the weather people just LIE.” I don’t recall the specific incident that prompted her tirade. No doubt some activity she had been anticipating had been unexpectedly rained out. Truthfully, the experience of being misled by a weather forecast is pretty common– common enough to spawn such wry remarks as: “Weather forecasting is only occupation in which you can be wrong 50% of the time and keep your job.”

But personally, I’m impressed that meteorologists get it right as often as they do.

Take Sunday for example. The forecast was for a cool, wet and windy day all around. And yet we walked out the door in the early morning to blazing sun and blue sky. My immediate thought was ,”They got it wrong.” But a second look revealed a small patch of dark clouds on the horizon. I decided to go for my walk first thing, just in case the predicted rain materialized after all.

In the space of half an hour the sky underwent a complete  transformation. There was a point where I could actually stand in one spot and, by adjusting the angle of my shot by less than 180 degrees, capture both skies:

From this...
From this…
...to this.
…to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transition point
Transition

The transformation was swift and dramatic– and nothing I could have predicted from looking at the sky an hour earlier. And yet someone had predicted it hours, even days before.

I know just enough about meteorology to appreciate how very little I know, and so it seems almost magical to me that someone could make such a prediction. And yet it’s not magic. You or I could do the same with the right tools and knowledge.

Just because a change isn’t obvious to the naked eye doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Sometimes the clouds roll in quickly and catch you unawares.

And sometimes they are there in plain sight in all their stormy blackness, and you walk out blindly into them all the same.

I got home from my Sunday walk well in time to dodge the downpour. A few days earlier, I was not so lucky. Or rather, not so smart. I could see that a storm was brewing. I could easily have found a place nearby to grab a coffee and wait it out. I could have gone back to the bus shelter. But instead, I stubbornly decided that I would try to make it home across the park before the storm broke.

If I had really thought about it, I would have been capable of reasoning that the storm was much closer than the half-hour it would take me to walk home. In this case the signs were obvious and I knew how to read them. But I chose to ignore them, and sure enough I was about halfway home and far from any form of shelter when the deluge hit.

Since I really had no one to blame for my predicament but myself, I scarcely deserved what happened next. A small red car appeared out of nowhere and pulled up beside me. Two young women– complete strangers to me — invited me to hop in. I hesitated for barely a second before swallowing my pride and climbing, dripping all the way, into the back seat. They went way out of their way and drove me to my door. I didn’t even get their names.

Rain. At least my plants enjoy it.
Rain. At least my plants enjoy it.

 

 

If you had just one question?

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a specially constructed computer called Deep Thought is asked: “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” The answer given is “42.” The answer is useless to the askers, because nobody thought to ask what was the question. Deep Thought then predicts that there will be an even more powerful computer constructed to come up with the ultimate question. This computer, it turns out, is the Earth.

As delightfully silly as Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series is, there’s an important lesson here. The more important the answer is to you, the more important it is to start out by asking the right question. My nephew understood this concept at a very early age. When his parents told him he could only ask Santa for one thing, he wisely reasoned that the best course of action would be to ask Santa for a fairy godmother who could subsequently grant him endless wishes!

Science fiction and fairy godmothers aside, I do think that when it comes to the things that matter, it is important, and not all that easy, to ask the right question. If my sense of purpose is about finding an answer, there’s a limiting quality to my quest. Because what happens when I find the answer? Achieve the goal? Get the dream job? Does life suddenly cease to have meaning?

But if my purpose is about asking the right question, that opens up endless possibilities. Because if it’s the right kind of question you can ask it over and over again and, like my nephew’s fairy godmother, it will keep giving you answers.

Douglas Adams isn’t the first, and certainly not the last, writer to ask the question about the question. Joan Osborne sings, “What would you ask if you had just one question?”

I don’t even think it matters to whom you are directing the question. Whether you are asking God, the universe, or yourself, if you only had one question, it strikes me that you would want it to be the one that offered up the biggest answer. Or the most answers. Or the answer that opened up the opportunity for asking more questions.

What would I ask if I had just one question? My question has evolved over the years. The progression looks roughly like this:

  • What should I be when I grow up? I like to joke that I’m still working on this one. In truth, I sort of am. Each time I have changed careers it has felt like I finally had my “dream job.” And then time passed and the dream, and eventually the job, changed again. But I have come to recognize that there are several words and phrases that make this question problematic. One is “when I grow up.” Because this question is all about living in the future, which, as I’ve explored elsewhere, is not a terribly hospitable place to inhabit. So over time I began to focus in a little more.
  • What should I be? I have invested a great deal of time and energy on “should” and nowhere near enough on “could” and “will.” Whether you are conscious of it or not,  “should” is almost always rooted in someone else’s expectations, and therefore it has a tendency to breed guilt and feelings of inadequacy.
  • What will I be? Better, but I have come to realize that this whole notion of “be-ing” is kind of fuzzy. I can say I “am” all sorts of lofty things, but it is my words and actions that are going to tell you what I truly am.
  • What will I do? At this point in my life, I have come to the conclusion that the best question is the one that results in action. Asking “What will I do?” always steers me in the direction of realizing what it is that I can do–reminds me, in fact, that there is always something I can do. “What will I do?” is about taking action in the here and now.

Like my nephew, I am going for the loophole. Having just one question doesn’t have to mean you only get to ask it once. If I had just one question, I would want it to be a question that, when asked over and over, would continually generate new and significant answers. The real question would therefore be a little more complicated:

What will I do here and now that will move me authentically in the direction of my purpose.

Poet Mary Oliver asked a slightly different question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I don’t want to spend my whole life planning my life. If I do the right thing today, the rest will take care of itself.

 What would YOU ask if you had just one question?

 

Imposter syndrome

I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do remember them, it’s generally because they are particularly memorable. Or, in the case of my most frequently recurring dream, particularly familiar.

During the 20ish years when I taught school, the back-to-school dream was an annual fixture. It generally happened in late August, just as I was starting to gear up my prep for the new school year. The dream took on different variations from year to year, but there were always predictable elements.

Typically the dream begins with me arriving at a new and unfamiliar school. I don’t know my way around, I’m late, and I can’t find my classroom. When I do eventually make my way to my assigned room, the students are already there and in a state of near riot. By the time I have restored order, I have also discovered that I have been assigned to teach a subject for which I singularly unqualified and thoroughly unprepared. Physics, typically, or some form of highly advanced mathematics.  Either that or it is a language course in a language about which I know absolutely nothing. Greek, perhaps. Or Mandarin Chinese.

Regardless of the specifics, the common element is that I am always inadequately prepared to take command of my class.

It’s a long time since my teaching activities have corresponded with the traditional school year, but I still engage in activities that can trigger the back-to-school dream. I’m coming to the end of a week of teaching an intensive summer course at my neighbourhood university  and, sure enough, the dream resurfaced last week as I was gearing up to start this course.

In this recent incarnation of my back-to-school dream I am team-teaching with a former English professor of mine—a fellow who I remember as being very intelligent, but verbosely full of himself. Although we are supposed to be jointly teaching this class, it appears that we have actually been assigned to teach two different courses simultaneously to the same unfortunate group of students. This time I arrive in good time, ahead of most of the students, and seat myself at one end of a large seminar table. I think to myself that he can sit at the other end, so we will be positioned as equals. When he arrives, however, the room rearranges itself in a manner that only happen in dreams and Harry Potter stories, and I find myself seated with the students in what has morphed into the upper tiers of a vast lecture theatre. My colleague finally arrives. Or rather, he makes an entrance. Dressed like Elvis at the height of the satin and sequins, he launches into a bizarre blend of lecture and concert that goes on forever. One of the students seated near me whispers a question to me about my course outline. Before I can respond, the other professor interrupts his performance just long enough to chastise us for not paying attention. I become acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the scheduled lesson time, and I have still not had an opportunity to even introduce myself. Suddenly, a door bursts open and in rolls a long buffet table decked out in vast quantities of expensive cheese.

That’s where the dream ends, with me feeling flabbergasted and frustrated.

None of this has anything remotely to do with my actual experience in a real-world classroom. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching the course I am engaged with this week. It fascinates me, therefore, that the anxiety and feelings of impostership that are clearly at the root of such dreams are so deep-seated that they still send up shoots at a point in my teaching career when, at a conscious level, I am really quite confident about what I am doing.

What I find especially interesting about the latest incarnation of the dream is the “Elvis” figure hogging the stage and preventing me from doing my thing. Teaching is, in many ways a form of performance. In the dream, I know I am prepared to teach my course, but I am prevented from “stepping on stage.”

No matter how confident and competent I am as a teacher, it seems there will always be that small voice whispering in my ear, “What if I bomb this time? What if they hate me? What if I can’t command their attention?”

And seriously, how come no one ever arrives spontaneously in my classroom with a cheese buffet?

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping

When I was in my twenties, new to a busy teaching career and newly married, I remember having a conversation about housework with an older colleague. The conversation went something like this:

Me:      How do you ever manage to get everything done? By  the time I am finished my marking and course prep I can’t imagine coping with all the laundry and the dishes and the housecleaning…

Her:     Well now, I just don’t go to bed until everything is done.

That was the last time I asked her for advice.

Instead, I opted to adopt the philosophy of housekeeping espoused by my great-aunt Molly.

My grandmother’s sister Molly was a creative woman who spent much of her adult life applying her creativity to managing a farm household with limited resources. Molly’s resourcefulness was of the variety that could turn a scoop of leftover chicken fat into melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. While her culinary creativity may not translate well into the 21st century, I did learn from her other very important lessons that have stood the test of time.

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping consisted of one fundamental principle, which she explained with this scenario:

You are sitting relaxing and you look up and notice a dirt spot on the wall. You have two options.

  1. You can obsess about the fact that you are now going to have to find a pail and fill it with soapy water and thoroughly wash all the walls, which of course will involve moving all the furniture, which will mean that you are going to end up washing the floor as well— and that sounds like way more work than you have the energy for today. Or tomorrow. So you leave the spot on the wall for days (weeks? months even!) during which you will become increasingly oppressed by the knowledge that you are a failure at housekeeping and probably by extension a failure at just about everything else.
  2. OR, you can stand up, grab the damp cloth that is probably already hanging by your kitchen sink, and wipe off the spot. Then you can go back to sitting and relaxing.

Aunt Molly advocated option #2.

Now, don’t assume that to mean that Molly was a lazy housekeeper. I am certain her walls, floors, and everything in between got a thorough scouring on a regular basis.  But there is wisdom in Molly’s spot-cleaning approach to housekeeping that has translated itself into a wealth of life lessons as I have contemplated her words over the years. Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. You are your own worst critic. When you look at the wall, do you see a small and insignificant spot, or do you see the whole world judging you because your entire house is a massive expanse of filth? Chances are someone else doesn’t even see the spot!
  2. There is always something you can do now. When life gets overwhelming, sometimes just exercising control over one tiny piece of it helps me regain a sense of perspective. If you can’t afford that big purchase you desire, can you put aside the first five dollars? If you can’t run the marathon, can you walk around the block?
  3. Solve the immediate problem. Sometimes I get stuck because I am trying to solve the wrong problem. Or too many problems. When that happens, I have learned to reframe the problem into something I do have the resources to address. Is the problem really that my whole house needs cleaning from top to bottom right this minute? Or is the problem that at this particular moment this particular spot is bugging me?
  4. It’s important to know what constitutes “enough.” Having been inclined, in my youth, to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism, I have spent a long time learning that you don’t need to do everything to have done something worthwhile. Don’t load unrealistic expectations on yourself when you should really be patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.
  5. Planning makes the big things more manageable. Eventually you will have to wash the whole wall, but in the meantime a little spot-cleaning can make it bearable. And then you can plan to wash the wall when you have more time. Or energy. Or helpers!
  6. A lot of little things together make a big thing. Does washing a wall mean you need to wash all the walls? Can you do one room today and another one tomorrow?
  7. And perhaps most importantly, it’s better to do the simple thing that’s right in front of you than to just think about doing something grand. Getting out of your chair and going for a walk is more productive than thinking about running a marathon. Writing a two or three blog posts a week may not be writing a best-selling novel, but it is several steps ahead of just thinking about writing a novel.

Of course it’s good to do the grand things too. But you’ll never get to the grand things if you spend too much time worrying about how clean the walls are.