Things

Imagine your house is on fire. All of the people and pets are safely out, and you have time to save only one item from your room. What do you take, and why?

I might have been in grade five or six when we were given this writing assignment. Even at the time I thought it was a weird question to ask. If my house was truly on fire I am not certain I would have the presence of mind to think through which of my possessions was most important to me. Maybe that was the point of the assignment—a sort of mental dress rehearsal so that, in the unfortunate event that my house DID burn down, I would know what to grab.

But because I know people who really have lost everything in house fires, there’s something about the writing prompt that makes me uncomfortable. I tried looking around at my stuff today and asking myself “what would I save?” The only thing that came to mind wasn’t even mine—I thought if I really did have to grab something quickly I might go for my daughter’s Envirothon trophy—in part because of what it represents, and in part because I have been entrusted with keeping it safe while she is away at school.

The truth is, the older I get, the less sentimental I am about things. Sure, I have things that are special because of the people and the memories with which they are associated. But it’s ultimately the people and the memories that are important to me—not so much the thing itself.

I’ve been thinking about my attachments to things this week, because I let go the biggest thing I owned—my car.

car
It had more hubcaps when I bought it.

I’ve never been one to anthropomorphize my cars by naming them, but this decision did feel in some ways like saying goodbye to an old friend. I bought the car new in 2003, and, over the 14 ½ years I drove it, accumulated a lot of memories.

That car carried me through a divorce and three house moves. It travelled east as far as Toronto, west as far as Lethbridge and south to Minneapolis. It started up reliably even when parked outside through a Winnipeg deep freeze and negotiated a lot of Friday night highway traffic in pursuit of summer weekends. It hauled tons of holiday groceries down the highway and up the gravel road to the boat landing. It ferried kids to many camps and home from many late-night parties. The back-seat upholstery is deeply infused with banana loaf and goldfish cracker crumbs. And the duct tape anchoring the side mirror to the door has withstood several winters.

I taught both kids to drive in that car—one of the single-parenting accomplishments of which I am most proud. The kids, in turn—both excellent drivers—have subsequently had the opportunity to acquire their own set of memories at the wheel of that car.

It is my eldest, in fact, who will have the dubious honor of remembering the smoking engine.

As I cleared out the crumpled roadmaps and dusty window scrapers in preparation for relinquishing my too-broken car, I found myself conjuring specific car memories. The time the tire blew and I was stranded on the Trans-Canada with my daughter and her friend. The time the garage door narrowly missed falling on the hood of the car. All the times I got stuck in the snow, and all the friends and strangers who helped me out. The cherished opportunities to get to know my children’s friends, because I was the mom who would drive.

The time we loaded it up with everything my youngest needed to embark on her first year in residence. How anxious I was about the prospect of driving it 2,000 km back all alone, and how thrilled I was to have done it. So thrilled that the next summer I drove off in the opposite direction on another solo road trip, just because now I knew I could.

But in the end a car is just a thing—and in this case, a thing no longer worth rescuing from the “fire.” Even my solo summer road trip was important more because of the people that were at the end of the journey than because of the car that took me there. On reflection, all of my most cherished car-memories are really about people—the people I was driving with, or away from, or towards.

 

 

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Fifty (plus) Things of Happy: an exercise in Gratitude for the Longest Night

I owe this post to the inspiration of one of my favourite bloggers, Fish of Gold. The instructions for this challenge are as follows:

If you’d like to join in, here’s how it works: set a timer for 10 minutes; timing this is critical. Once you start the timer, start your list (the timer doesn’t matter for filling in the instructions, intro, etc). The goal is to write 50 things that made you happy in 2015, or 50 thing that you feel grateful for. The idea is to not think too hard; write what comes to mind in the time allotted. When the timer’s done, stop writing. If you haven’t written 50 things, that’s ok. If you have more than 50 things and still have time, keep writing; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! (OK I confess my time may have been a bit off the 10 minutes because I was interrupted in the middle, but you get the idea…)

To join us for this project: 1) Write your post and publish it (please copy and paste the instructions from this post into yours) 2) Click on the blue frog at Tales From The Motherland  3) That will take you to another window, where you can past the URL to your post. 4) Follow the prompts, and your post will be added to the Blog Party List. Please note: the InLinkz will expire on January 15, 2016. After that date, no blogs can be added.

Please note that only blog posts that include a list of 50 (or an attempt to write 50) things that made you feel Happy or 50 things that you are Grateful for, will be included. Please don’t add a link to a post that isn’t part of this exercise; I will remove it. Aside from that one caveat, there is no such thing as too much positivity. Share your happy thoughts, your gratitude; help us flood the blogosphere with both.

In latter years, I have begun to feel the cosmic turning point of the winter solstice as a more fitting start for the “new year” that the arbitrary turning of the calendar page that takes place on January 1st. The solstice is, after all, nature’s new year. The day the days begin to lengthen towards the spring. It has been so unseasonably warm here this fall that it seems a bit odd to think of the days returning when we have scarcely gotten started on winter, but still it is nice to look forward to the day when we don’t both arrive at and depart from work in darkness.

When I came across this challenge on Fish of Gold’s blog this evening, it seemed like a fitting way to mark the turning of the sun towards a new year.

So here I go with my list of things that made me happy in 2015.

  1. helpful catDark chocolate
  2. Raspberries
  3. My kids
  4. My sisters
  5. My mom
  6. All my nieces and nephews.
  7. The rest of my amazing and slightly wacky extended family.
  8. My cat, even if she is evil incarnate.
  9. forestWalking.
  10. Trees
  11. Walking in the trees.
  12. Listening to my sister sing.
  13. Writing—just about anything.
  14. Young adult science fiction. Yes, really.
  15. Anything at all by Margaret Atwood.
  16. school booksTeaching teachers.
  17. Making collages.
  18. Making pie.
  19. Making chocolate chip banana muffins for my niece.
  20. My sister’s Facebook statuses.
  21. My other sister’s impromptu dinner parties.
  22. The call of a loon.
  23. Any body of water larger than a mudpuddle.
  24. Houseplants that don’t ask a lot of me.
  25. Creative coworkers.
  26. A manager who makes things happen so that I can get things done.
  27. Good butter chicken.
  28. Coffee with a good friend.
  29. Lunch with a good friend.
  30. Dinner with a good friend.
  31. Heck, just all the good friends. Old and new.
  32. Brilliant musical theatre.
  33. The sense of accomplishment I felt from driving all the way home from Toronto by myself.
  34. red bootCousins.
  35. Small indulgences.
  36. Red wine with spinach pizza. (see above.)
  37. Anything that involves Feta cheese.
  38. Not having lymphoma (long story!)
  39. My artificial hip.
  40. Jeans that fit.
  41. Red boots.
  42. Shedding my mortgage.
  43. Rocking chairs. Just in general.
  44. Did I mention trees?
  45. And water?
  46. And trees by the water?
  47. My favourite black shirt.
  48. Tattoos.
  49. backClassic videos on YouTube.
  50. Used bookstores.
  51. The full moon on a clear night.

Happy Solstice!

Ker Plunk!

KerPlunk[1]When my kids were little they loved the game “Ker Plunk.” The concept of the game is relatively simple. It’s played with a vertical plastic cylinder that has several small holes poked around the centre. A handful of thin plastic sticks are inserted every which way through the holes, creating a mesh on which you then perch a handful of marbles. The players then take turns extracting the sticks, until eventually the marbles come crashing down into the tray at the bottom of the cylinder.

My experience of the game was somewhat different than my children’s. For one thing, they didn’t have much interest in the scoring of the game. In theory you won or lost based on how many of the marbles fell into “your” section of the tray. In practice, the real joy of the game was that moment when the marbles fell, especially if you weren’t the one to cause the collapse. The kids lived for the crash, but weren’t terribly interested in what they perceived as the somewhat tedious process of setting up the sticks to play again. This meant that the set up tended to fall to me. The kids  would wander back when it was time to start removing sticks again.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve played Ker Plunk with anyone, but the game entered my thoughts the other day because I found myself feeling something equivalent to the moment when one has just started to remove the critical stick. You can feel the marbles shift, but you’re committed to that particular stick now and there’s no turning back. All you can do is keep pulling while you cringe in anticipation of the clatter of marbles on hard plastic. And then, even worse than the anticipation of the crash is the knowledge of what comes next–the long, tedious task of re-inserting the sticks, one by one by one, until the resulting web has enough structural integrity to hold up the marbles again.

Someone asked me recently how I do all the things I do. Well, the truth is, I don’t always. Sometimes I pull out one two many sticks, and sometimes they are pulled out for me– usually by whatever seasonal illness has caught up with me in my run-down, overextended state. Either way, I find myself standing amid a pile of sticks, watching the marbles roll off in every direction, and wondering where I will get the energy to set up the sticks for the next round.

But I always do.

Hot potatoes and Christmas kisses

Grinch_3I started the day channelling my inner Grinch, due in large part to a phenomenon that can be counted on to happen in my workplace immediately before any holiday period. It’s very noticeable just before school breaks for the summer and vacation season starts in earnest. It happens in a small way before long weekends. And, since we’re gearing up to be closed for 2.5 days over Christmas, and since a lot of people are taking additional holidays between Christmas and New Year’s day, the phenomenon was in full force today.

I have dubbed this phenomenon “To-do List Hot Potato.”

Here’s how you play. You decide that, regardless of how far behind you have been for weeks months, it is absolutely imperative that you clear everything off your desk and do SOMETHING about every single item on your to-do list before you walk out the door. And so you send a flurry of hasty emails, leave a cluster of phone messages, and stack up the days immediately after the break with all the meetings you didn’t have time for beforehand. The objective is to relocate all the items onto other people’s to-do lists, and then head for the exit before you have to deal with their responses. By mid afternoon I had caught more than my share of To-do List Hot Potatoes, and had given up and relocated most of my own catch-up list to another spot on my calendar.

The weather has been unseasonably mild, so I was able to shake off some of my grinchiness by walking part of the way home. But the day’s real redemption came with a kiss.

No, not that kind of kiss.

I sat down on the bus next to a small boy. Across from us, his smaller sister in a pink snowsuit played peek-a-boo from her stroller. The boy clutched a green cloth shopping bag in his lap. Before I realized what was happening, he had reached into the bag and pulled out a single chocolate kiss, which he thrust in my direction in his chubby hand. kiss“This is for you.”

“Oh!” I said. “That’s very generous, but you should keep it.”

“It’s for you.”

“But I haven’t had my supper.”

“You can save it and eat if after supper!” He was very persistent. Wouldn’t take no for an answer, in fact. And finally it dawned on me that you have to be willing to receive a gift so that another may give, so I accepted.

“How old are you?” I felt that, having established a relationship, some effort at conversation was in order. My benefactor held up three fingers. “And what’s your name?”

“Cade.”

Another woman got on the bus, and sat across the aisle from us. In the blink of an eye, Cade reached into his bag a second time, fished out a second kiss, and once again reached his hand out to me. His mother grinned from over the little sister’s stroller.

“Could you pass this on to that lady?” “You can put it in your purse,” Cade suggested to her when she gently protested.

“It seems to be very important to him,” I whispered.

In the end, she was just as incapable of saying no as I had been.

The bus’s automated voice signalled my stop approaching. I exchanged a final smile with my new friend.

“You’ve certainly got wonderful Christmas spirit, Cade.”

And by the time I got off the bus, so did I.

Looking for the light

The solstice is making sense to me in a new way this year. I’ve always noted it in passing– always felt some sense of quiet relief that the days would now begin to lengthen. But it’s always been subsumed by the hectic chaos of Christmas.

I’m trying to slow down the season, along with everything else in my life. Trying to be where I am, and see where I am. Trying to pare away some of the clutter of the season and only keep the parts that are truly of value.

Today is, admittedly, one of the hectic days. But it is hectic in the service of a family tradition that is part of the valued core of the season for me.

Today is also winter solstice. The day the earth’s march into darkness stops, and the light begins to return. I’ve been so aware of the darkness this fall. So many things have happened in my inner  circle and in the wider circles of my world that have made me feel the darkness more acutely. I can scarcely stand to listen to the news, not sure that I can listen to another tale of injustice or brutality. I can’t walk past a Christmas display in a shopping mall without wondering about the lives of the sweatshop workers that produced the glitter and tinsel. As I tally and re-tally my carefully budgeted Christmas expenditures, I can’t help but think of those for whom Christmas will be another cold day on the street. I hold in my hands and my heart the family, friends and acquaintances for whom this holiday season is coloured by loss and sadness.

The solstice comes not a moment too soon. We all need the light to return.

Slow Down

slow-down1There was a moment a few weeks ago when I came very close to standing in the middle of the office and yelling “SLOW DOWN!”

I didn’t. Because branch directors aren’t supposed to have temper tantrums.

But you can bet I thought it. I thought it as loud as I could. I thought it in the direction of my staff, and my boss, and her boss, and her bosses’ boss…

Because seriously, people. It’s not all urgent. Some of it may not even be all that important.

Of course, I’m a fine one to talk– the self-confessed queen of the “to do” list. But I’m learning.

Slowly.

(See what I did there?)

It took a few weeks of quietly beating myself up to finally stop feeling guilty for taking an unplanned hiatus from this blog while I was busy teaching a course. But I’m over that now. The guilt, that is. The course has one more class session and a lot of papers to mark.

I’ll be busy for a while. Truthfully, I’ll always be busy. In my family we’re wired for busy. But I’m gradually learning to be more selective about my busy-ness. I’m learning, for example, that I can actually say no to things that other people expect me to do. (And actually, Thanksgiving went very nicely even without me producing a turkey and a gazillion home-made pies.)

I went to a restorative yoga class last week. I haven’t done yoga of any kind for years decades. It was amazing. There was a moment, about an hour into the 90 minute class, when the whirring in my head stilled completely. Then, when the instructor directed us to gradually come out of the pose, a little voice in my head came out of nowhere and silently screamed “NOOOOOOO–I don’t ever want to leave this state of relaxation.” I’m going back to Yoga North today to sign up for more classes.

The first thing I noticed after last week’s yoga session was how much more energy I had. I came home from yoga and launched into a handful of minor home repairs that I had been avoiding for weeks because I was “too busy” to do them. They took mere minutes. In other words, I always did have the time to do them, but my mind was too busy to know that.

Ironically, I’m more productive when I slow down. But the secret is not to slow down with the goal of being more productive, because that won’t stop the brain from spinning. You have to slow down with the goal of slowing down.

If nothing else, try slowing down for just the 19 minutes it takes to listen to Carl Honore’s TED talk.

 

You are here

In my defense, I was just the driver. Someone else was supposed to be navigating. And it was dark. Plus, we were all a little flustered after the kerfuffle at the car rental agency over our botched booking.

But we had finally wrangled a van, complete with the requisite car-seat for my infant nephew, and were all safely buckled in and en route from the airport into the city of Edmonton. At least that was the intention.

It’s a long drive from the Edmonton airport into town. I set out in what appeared to be the right direction, with my middle sister riding shotgun watching for directional signs. My youngest sister, her baby, and my mom sat in back. It seemed like we’d been on the road a long time when a sign loomed out of the darkness informing us we were en route to Lethbridge.

We were heading south instead of north.

As I pulled over to regroup, it dawned on both me and my navigator that we had a GPS function on our phones. I had never used my GPS, and wasn’t even sure if it was properly activated. We both attempted to call up our location. When my sister’s GPS sprang to life, I shoved my phone in my pocket and resumed driving under her new and improved guidance.

We made it to Edmonton in one piece, if somewhat frazzled. A few blocks from our hotel, we stopped to pick up a bottle of wine to celebrate our arrival. I waited in the van while my sister ran into the shop, and while I sat there I remembered my phone. I pulled it out to see if the GPS had ever kicked in. It had, in a manner of speaking.

The screen of my phone was one solid grey mass, in the middle of which was a single red dot labelled helpfully “You are here.”

We laughed at the time, but that image stuck with me, and I have often returned to it as a great metaphor for the times I find myself feeling lost or overwhelmed by a decision. Life can be very grey at times–grey as in dark and gloomy, or grey as in fraught with ambiguity. Sometimes both.

For a long time whenever I thought of that failure of a GPS image, I focused on the baffling expanse of grey. Lately, however, it strikes me that the red dot is really the point. On the one hand, knowing “you are here” is of limited value when there is no context to show where exactly “here” is. On the other hand, you are here– you are somewhere— notwithstanding your lack of information about the details. The emphasis, really, is on the “you” part of the equation. You are here, wherever here happens to be, because you are you. The GPS is always taking as its frame of reference the person holding the device. So even when you are utterly and completely lost, even when you are travelling in the wrong direction, you are the reference point.

When the map of my life seems to be a shapeless, directionless expanse of grey, I focus on the red dot. I am here. I know who I am. I know what I value and what I’m good at and what gets me out of bed in the morning. If I focus on that long enough, somehow the right road always appears.