Greening

lazarus-plant.jpgI am not in the habit of naming plants. But this one has earned a banner.

I’m plant-sitting this winter. My sister’s family began the process of putting their house on the market in mid-October just before winter descended, and the plants came to visit as part of the decluttering/ house-staging operation. Since the house sale and subsequent move dragged on into the heart of the Winnipeg winter, the plants are here to stay until spring when Mother Nature finally renders it safe to transport them outside.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing nursemaid to Lazarus, who arrived at my door as one withered leaf dwarfed by an enormous pot. It’s a plant with some sentimental significance to my brother-in-law, and so I was entreated by my sister to see if it could be salvaged.

I would like to be able to say that I performed some clever acts of horticultural wizardry, but the truth is Lazarus was stuck randomly near a nice big window, and watered generously once a week. Maybe it just needed a change of scenery. For what ever reason, it’s back, and growing.

I’m back too, after a blog hiatus of over two years. I have no intention of boring you with a lot of excuses reasons for my long silence. Let’s just say I needed a change of scenery.

I’ve celebrated my return with a new look for the blog. Bear with me, because it’s still a bit of a work in progress.

As am I. Because one of the reasons I will acknowledge for my long hiatus is that the things I want to write about are changing. Maybe not drastically– I’m still me, after all. But just as Lazarus is essentially a whole new plant sprouting from an old root, I’ve been growing some new metaphorical foliage of my own. “Turning over new leaves,” as it were.

Stick around if you want to watch me bloom.

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Unresolved

fireworksI don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions. Well, not officially. To be honest I’m always making resolutions. The only thing special about the New Year’s ones is the timing. The fact is, I am constantly making myself promises I fail to keep. I will eat less cheese and more salad. I will spend more time walking and less time on FaceBook. I will accomplish some great project instead of frittering away the evening watching YouTube.

You know how it goes. Really, the only resolution that I should ever make is to stop making myself unrealistic promises. But that, ironically, would just be an unrealistic promise.

So tonight, as I prepared to flip the calendar page to a new year, I decided it was time to rethink the whole resolution thing. Time to write some resolutions that will last past the first week of February. Time to get real.

So here goes. In 2016:

  1. I will screw up lots. I will make less-than-perfect decisions and do things that annoy my children and my co-workers. It won’t be for want of trying to get it right, but because I’m human. And that’s just fine.
  2. I will want some things I can’t have, get some things I didn’t know I wanted, and in general end up with what I need, even though I don’t always know what that is until I have it.
  3. I will learn new things about myself and work really hard at trying to put those things into the words I need to explain them to those around me.
  4. I will try to wear shoes that make my feet happy.
  5. I will eat too much dark chocolate and not regret it. Because actually, is there such a thing as too much dark chocolate?
  6. I will read great books, and feel like I should read more.
  7. I will visit with great friends, and feel like I should spend more time with them.
  8. I will write, and it will never feel like enough.
  9. I will keep resolving to make changes, both small and large.
  10. I will only succeed at making some of these changes, but I will keep resolving the others over and over nonetheless. And that, too, is because I’m human, and is also just fine.

And life will continue to be all the surprising and astonishing and mostly wonderful things that happen while I am stubbornly and naively making other plans.

Happy New Year!

Packing up

thelake2We are all at the lake for the May long weekend. My mom. My sister Joan and her family. Me. My girls. And my eldest daughter’s new partner, who has bravely taken on “meeting the family” in this rather intense, total immersion setting. This is Sunday dinner on steroids, folks. Three days and two nights of togetherness in a log cabin on a small island in the middle of the Canadian shield.

My family has been coming here since this cabin had no neighbors. Since there was no government dock a handy 5-minute dash away in a motor boat. Since my 80-year old mom was barely toddling. For my children, this place IS summer. For my entire lifetime of summers, “going to the lake” has been the default vacation plan.

And now we’re here to say goodbye, on the very weekend that has traditionally been all about saying hello to the lake after a long winter. This spring the cottage is changing hands. My mom has decided it’s time to divest herself of the responsibility – the expense – the worry every spring about whether the ice has crumpled another dock, or the wind felled another tree across the roof. And, much as we might like to, neither my sisters nor I are in the position to take over ownership, each for our own assortment of reasons. It is some consolation that the buyer is a member of the extended family.

To my delight, the loon eggshell that I found the previous summer is still in the dresser drawer where I had stashed it. I make a mental note to remember to take it home as a memento.

We’ve brought my little city-cat along. Her interaction with the natural world normally happens from one end of a leash, and to date her whole experience of stalking and hunting has involved crumpled wads of paper or the red dot of a laser pointer. Nonetheless, I am woken midway through the first night by the sound of her scrabbling under the empty bed across the room from mine. I am fully conscious just in time to witness her hop backwards with a mouse clamped firmly in her jaws. I discover that, despite its size, a mouse is able to let out a pretty impressive scream. Startled by the mouse’s defiance, the cat drops her catch, which then alternates between playing dead and leading my inept huntress on a frantic chase around the dining room. Just when I begin to think the cat may have finally pinned the mouse once and for all, the mouse makes a break for it and sprints the entire width of the dining room and under the sofa, out of reach.

Joan says, “All we need now is a moose and a broken window.”

We all have our own set of iconic lake memories. For my sister the broken window goes back to her pre-school days—back to a spectacular thunderstorm that knocked out first the power and then the bathroom window, the latter discovered when my mom waded into what turned out to be a carpet of broken glass and hailstones. The sound of the hailstorm on the uninsulated roof that night found its way into my sister’s dreams as a recurring nightmare of “flying cars.”

Although technology crept in over the years, we held fast to no TV.
Although technology crept in over the years, we held fast to no TV.

There have been various moose incidents over the years, but the one that always leaps to mind is the afternoon spent gathered at the window starting at what we were all certain was a moose swimming out in the open lake. Until someone finally observed that the moose appeared to be swimming backwards. Until we finally deduced that the “moose” was actually a floating tree stump.

The lake was a good place for making us laugh at ourselves. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you look at yourself in the mirror right after getting caught in a rain shower while canoeing. Or when wearing that favourite work-shirt that you wouldn’t be caught dead in back in civilization.

Your high school English teacher likely taught you that pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which the weather or other natural conditions echo the emotional state of the characters. For example, something sad happens to a character and it coincidently starts to rain.  Or, say a group of characters have gathered for the weekend to say farewell to a place that has been the source of three generations of summer memories, and on the last day of the last visit they wake up to snowfall.

snow 2My six year old nephew is quite angry with Mother Nature for this obvious screw-up.

Good thing there’s lots of firewood.

My brother-in-law James’s annual birthday apple pie is in the oven the first time the lights flicker out.

“Noooooo!” I yell, and thankfully the power snaps back on. Wind like this is hard on the power lines. The lights flicker briefly once more, but to everyone’s relief the last pie is cooling by the time the full-blown power outage descends.

“Probably a tree down on a line somewhere,” my mom says—unnecessarily, since we all thought it. It’s late afternoon but so overcast that without the benefit of electricity the cottage is dark. I light the first of the oil lamps, reflecting as always on how much better equipped we are for managing without electricity at the cottage than we are in the city. When it becomes apparent that the power is not coming right back on, we slide into problem-solving mode. Do we have enough propane to barbeque the chicken? What else do we have that can be prepared on the barbeque? A lot, it seems. And there’s still plenty of cold lunch meat if we need to resort to that.

Joan volunteers to bring up a pail of water from the lake to start warming by the fire for washing dishes. Without electricity the pump will not bring water from the lake up the hill into the kitchen via the small hot water tank in the bathroom cupboard. We’re channelling my grandmother Alice now, figuring out how to do the day’s chores the way they were done before the power lines reached the island in 1964.

snow 3Barbeque sauce in hand, James heads out into the icy wind storm to start the chicken while I improvise around the green beans with olive oil and aluminum foil. My little nephew, who is very adamant about his food preferences, declares he wants a “baconator.” Not only do we have all the components (his mother having been in charge of groceries) but it turns out you can even barbeque bacon.

It also turns out that drizzling green beans with olive oil and grilling them in foil packets is a menu item worth repeating even when cooking with electricity is an option. We feast on my pies which, like the beans, have also been an improvisation. A lot of things are improvisational at the lake, where it’s a major outing to go get a missing ingredient, if indeed it is something that can be purchased at all at the tiny local shops. This afternoon I’ve improvised 2% milk in place of condensed milk in the pumpkin pie fill and concocted a blend of apples and strawberries when I ran out of apples before the last pie shell was full. Somehow it all seems to work.

Dishes become a communal activity when you feed a crowd without a dishwasher.
Dishes become a communal activity when you feed a crowd without a dishwasher.

The water sitting on the hearth in a big enamel basin is getting surprisingly warm. I stack up the dishes and start by scraping them thoroughly. Realizing that my hot water supply is not going to go far, I splash some cold water from the pail into the kitchen sink and do a preliminary wipe to remove the worst of the barbeque sauce and pie crumbs. For the final wash, Lauren lifts the basin up to the counter and I swirl in a squirt of dish soap and a drop of bleach—just on principle. The twice-wiped dishes are quickly cleaned and Joan has them dried and put away by the time I’m wiping down the counter.

card gameMeanwhile, my niece has organized a multigenerational card game. This, I realize, is the biggest loss. As close as we all are – as involved in one another’s lives – there will never be any amount of coordination and organized city togetherness that can replicate what happens when are all just AT the lake. Not doing anything particular. Just being. Together. In the city we are in and out of each other’s homes all the time. But this place has had a way of being everyone’s home that we won’t get back.

Monday afternoon is the real farewell. As I empty the porta-potty canister down the outhouse hole for the last time, I think to myself that there are some things I won’t miss.

In 53 years of summer vacations at this cottage, this is the first time I have ever had to brush snow off the boat. After the battering of yesterday’s wind the air is still. The snow blanketing the shoreline absorbs what small sounds remain. Even the yodelling loons have fallen silent. I imagine them, huddled at water’s edge, guarding one or two grey-spotted eggs against the unseasonable chill. They won’t be out to say goodbye, but their spirit cries will follow me, along with their images tattooed on my skin.

I surprise myself by not crying when we leave. Once I am back in the city, however, it dawns on me that I have navigated the emotional minefield of the departure by refusing with unnecessary stubbornness to prolong the process with an ice cream stop.

In the end, I have decided not to bring the loon eggshell home. It belongs at the lake. It would be out of its element in the city. I am carrying the memory of it with me, and that is enough.

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Opening gifts

Layers

gift - unwrappedA favourite activity at the various little-girl birthday parties that I hosted when my daughters were young was a game we called “pass the present.” The game required a fair bit of preparation on my part – in fact it often took longer to prepare than it did to play.

The preparation involved selecting a prize – usually something simple, but appealing to the particular age group attending the party. I would then wrap the prize as though preparing to give it as a gift. And then I would wrap it again. And again. And again. The more layers of wrapping, the longer and more exciting the game. I always made sure there were at least as many layers as expected party guests.

When the time came to play, all the participants would sit in a tight circle and pass the gift around while I played music. It worked like a reverse game of “hot potato”—when the music stopped, rather than being out of the game if you were holding the gift, you were instead rewarded with the opportunity to remove one layer of wrapping. As the controller of the music, I always cheated just a little—strategically pausing the music so as to ensure that everyone got at least one turn to peel off a layer.

The game always involved a lot of excited shrieking, as well as much melodramatic slow-motion passing executed in the hope of enhancing one’s odds of being the one to remove the final layer and reveal the treasure within.

Of course the final “unwrapper” would get to keep the prize. But for the most part, it seemed that the fun of the game was in the suspense and anticipation – the sense of possibility – that accompanied each round as the players waited in expectant agitation for the music to stop.

Uncovering

gift - handsA woman I know insists on opening gifts in private. If you give her a gift, she will thank you graciously, but she will politely refuse to unwrap it until she is alone. She explained to me once that she worries that her reaction to a gift might hurt the giver – that, try as she might to always appear grateful, any inadvertent disappointment she might feel regarding  the contents of the gift will be instantly betrayed on her face.

My friend’s anxiety highlights a certain intimacy surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts. Peeling the wrapping off a gift is a disrobing of sorts. In the moment where we first uncover the truth about what lies beneath the decorative exterior, both the giver and the receiver may find themselves revealed—perhaps uncomfortably so.

How will my reaction to this gift impact the giver?”

What does the gift that is chosen for me reveal about the way I am perceived by the giver?

What does the gift I choose to give reveal about me?

A mindfully chosen gift uncovers both the giver and the receiver a little, even if only to reveal a deeper layer of wrapping.

Gratitude

gift - wrappedAnother woman I know likes to tell a funny story at her own expense. She was working her way through opening a small mountain of gifts at a bridal shower held in her honor. With each reveal, she made a point of voicing an effusive “Thank you,” punctuated by the declaration that the object in question was “just what she wanted.”

She got on a roll, caught up in the chaos of the conversation around her and the rhythm of the gifts passing through her hands, until suddenly she heard herself once again enthusiastically declaring, “It’s just what I wanted!”

Except this time she had not yet unwrapped the gift.

She was mortified, certain that her guests would now read all of her expressions of gratitude as insincere because of this slip.

I think there’s another way to look at it. What if her premature outpouring of thanks is evidence that her gratitude was as much for the simple fact of having received a gift as it was for the nature of the gift itself?

Sometimes we don’t get the gift we were hoping for.

gift - openSometimes we get something better.

Blockages

My kitchen sink is acting up again. After a couple of doses of peel-your-flesh-off toxic drain cleaner we had it behaving nicely for quite a while. But the other day it once again started to do that “I’ll finish draining when I get around to it” thing  that is particularly suspense-invoking when it is combined with the dishwasher draining backwards into the sink. Whatever periodically blocks that drain is clearly located downstream from the dishwasher, far out of reach of my best unclogging efforts.

It’s been a week for blockages, apparently. Wednesday afternoon my long-dormant gallstones rose up against me and knocked me flat in a gallbladder attack that came on so suddenly I had to abandon a workshop I was teaching. In thirty years spent at the front of myriad classrooms, I could not recall ever having to walk out on a class like that due to illness. I’ve taught through gastrointestinal complaints and arthritis pain. I staggered through one whole summer session with dreadful morning sickness. Once I even fell off a desk mid-lesson, picked myself up, and kept right on teaching. But this was the first time I stopped suddenly, excused myself from the room and never made it back!

Fortunately I work with people who possess amazing problem-solving skills and a “show must go on” mentality. Within minutes of my distress message to the office, one of my colleagues was by my side calling 911, and another colleague had picked up where I left off with the workshop.

The emergency room was another story, speaking of blockages. It was one of those days in the downtown ER where, if you don’t actually have blood gushing from an arterial knife wound, you’d better bring a good book and some snacks. The movement of patients through the system appeared slower than my sink drain at its most sluggish. Nine hours after my arrival, long after my gallbladder had stopped misbehaving, an enthusiastic medical student and her supervising physician pieced together a diagnosis.

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. I’m not even sure I can explain why. I could say I’ve been busy, but that’s generally a given. I could say there was nothing to write about, but anyone who pays any attention to my life can attest that there’s always something going on that has the makings of a good story.

Maybe too much. Part of my challenge lately has been not knowing where to start. There are certainly things I want to– need to– write about. But they aren’t all ready for this particular audience.

Some of them aren’t ready for any audience, really. And that’s the problem.

I’ve always thought “writer’s block” meant the writer didn’t know what to say. Lately, however, it has struck me that “writer’s block” can also result from the things we are holding back from saying. Like my pesky gallstones, or the mystery glop in my kitchen plumbing: the things we don’t say–won’t say– are afraid to say– block the flow. We  can’t write anything, because the thing we most need to write, but are resisting, is sitting in the way.

Margin Notes

blank notebookFor a writer, a blank piece of paper can be both thrilling and terrifying. The crisp expanse of a new notebook. The open-ended  promise of launching a clean, new Word Document. Anything is possible on a blank page.

There’s such a temptation to treat the new year as a blank page. When we reflect on the changing of the year (and boy, do we ever feel called upon to reflect!) we either enumerate the highlights of the year that is ending or list the ways that the next year will be better.

The ways we will be better.

I think the reason New Year’s resolutions have such a woeful track record is that they are so often made on the assumption that wanting badly enough to change will make it so. When we resolve that the flipping of a calendar page will trigger a transformation, we are acting as though the new year is a blank page– a new notebook without a mark.

There are no blank pages. The notebooks of our lives are dog-eared and full of ink scratches and smudgy bits where we tried, not quite successfully, to erase our mistakes. They are smeared with tea-stains and tear-stains, and some of the pages are irredeemably stuck together with chewing gum and determination. There are pages that look like they have been crumpled and smoothed and crumpled again, and there are pages torn in anger and frustration. The closest we get to a blank page is the day we are born, but even then we are each handed a notebook already marked up with pencil sketches of the circumstances of our birth and a trail of notes on our family of origin.

Imagining that the new year offers a blank page on which to write a new story is folly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t write a new story.

It means that our resolutions for change are always margin notes. We fit them in around the edges and between the lines of what has gone before. We write them up the sides of the page if we have to. Or on the inside cover. As long as there is still a scrap of that notebook yet to be filled, we have the opportunity to rewrite the ending. But we don’t get to throw away the beginning. Or the middle. If we are going to change, we must change from where we are–not by magically transforming, but by taking a step. And another. And another. We only get one notebook, and the parts of the story we don’t like don’t go away. We just turn the page and write a better ending.

Wishing you the courage and creativity to edit your own story with the kind of margin notes that will make 2015 a year to bookmark and highlight.

Ruts and Routines

I live in a city that had ox-cart drivers as its original city planners.

Winnipeg’s main routes emanate out from the centre where the two rivers meet in a pattern that roughly resembles spokes of a wheel. Most of these routes were established along the original ox-cart trails that brought traders from throughout the centre of the continent to the Red River Settlement where the Red and Assiniboine rivers converge. The ox-carts are long gone, but the map of Winnipeg has been forever shaped by the paths they etched into the prairie. Consequently, you will find all manner of odd street configurations here. It is possible for two streets to run roughly parallel for miles, and then mysteriously intersect. You can have a street that cuts a diagonal across a neighbourhood that is otherwise laid out in a fairly standard rectangular grid. There is even a major intersection that has been lovingly nicknamed “Confusion Corner.”

You get used to it. Really.
Confusion Corner. You get used to it. Really.

All the ritual “back to school” activities of the last few weeks have me thinking about ruts and routines. My youngest commented a few days ago that she was looking forward to getting back into a routine with school starting. As much as I love the lazy open-endedness of summer, I must admit I like the routine of the school year too. At the same time, I am a lover of change. I hate the feeling of being in a rut– of  treading the same path over and over until I have worn it into a major thoroughfare– even if it is no longer the best route to where I want to be.

So what is the difference between a rut and a routine? Etymologically, they are both connected to “route”– to the idea of travelling along a path. But the way we typically use these words suggests very different connotations.

Ruts happen when you follow the same path without deviation so many times that you essentially get stuck following the same path. You can get out of a rut, but the more well-worn it is, the more supreme the effort will be to do so. In fact, it’s often so much of an effort that it just seems easier to stay in the rut. Staying, of course, digs the rut deeper and makes it even harder to extract yourself. When Albert Einstein remarked that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” he was talking about ruts in our behaviour. We even get ruts in our thinking– finding it easier to follow old and worn out logic rather than to think about our world in a fresh way.

I’ve never heard anyone say they were “in a rut” who meant it was a thing to be desired.

Routines provide form and structure to our lives, but without entrapping us they way ruts do. The word “routine” brings to mind the notion of a “dance routine.” Dancers assemble a routine through disciplined repetition of a pattern of movements. Often the process of learning the routine involves breaking those movements down into small segments and focusing on those segments until they can be performed without much thought. And that’s when the magic kicks in. The dancer is able to focus on style and expression because the technical steps of the routine have become routine.

Ruts and routines originate the same way: behaviors are repeated and reinforced until those behaviours are second nature. The difference lies in the effect they have on us. Ruts trap us into patterns that we keep repeating long after they have ceased to serve us. Ruts hold us to a narrow path, guarding us from surprises, protecting us from change. Routines, on the other hand, are a place of safety from which we can venture forth into exploration and expression. Routines are the scaffold on which creative people of all stripes stand to exercise their creativity.