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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Envirothon: A Mom’s-eye view

My kid knows her fish. She can tell a walleye from a goldeye, and a lake trout from a brook trout. My kid can use the word “riparian” correctly in a sentence. Whereas some families have collections of signed baseballs and hockey pucks, we have a corner of our kitchen freezer dedicated to specimen jars containing a meticulously preserved array of aquatic insects. At seventeen, my kid has a wealth of knowledge about topics as diverse as rangeland management, urban forestry, local food production, and wetland preservation. My kid has a windbreaker that says “Aquatics” on the sleeve and a drawer full of t-shirts festooned with the logo for Manitoba Envirothon. And now she has a new item to add to her collection.

I wrote last year about the incredible learning opportunity that the whole Envirothon experience had been for my daughter and her friends. The team are in their graduating year now, and they have just returned home from Provincials for the last time.

enviro trophyWith the trophy.

“Mom, were you crying?” asked my daughter after the hooting and celebrating had died down. Well, yes… maybe a little. Having watched this team work as hard as they have the past four years, and knowing how very much my daughter wanted this achievement, I can be excused for getting a bit choked up over their victory.

Placing first means that for my daughter’s team, the Envirothon journey is not over. They will now go on to represent Manitoba in the National competition, to be held this summer in Springfield, Missouri.

For my daughter in particular the journey continues even beyond Nationals, as she heads off to university to study the very discipline she fell in love with while combing through her big binder of Envirothon readings, trouping through the field tests, and speaking with confidence and passion before an audience of peers and judges.

I’ve watched my daughter and her teammates learn so much, but the learning that thrills me most as a parent was not found in that big binder and it has little to do with aquatic ecology. Here’s what I think this big wooden trophy on my dining room table really means for my daughter’s education:

You can accomplish anything if you have a clear vision

The first time my daughter’s team competed they were in grade 9, and they were completely blown away by the fact that they advanced to the provincial competition. They made a pact that they were going to make it to Nationals by the time they graduated, and they held fast to that vision until they achieved it.

enviro prov 2015 hIf something matters to you, step up and lead

The teacher who had provided supervision and support to the team in grade 9 was no longer at the school when they started grade 10. In order to register as a school activity, the team needed a teacher supervisor. Not about to let a bureaucratic barrier stand in the way of the goal, my daughter took it upon herself to hike from one end of the school to the other, knocking on every teacher’s door until she found one who would agree to put her name down on the form as supervisor. I watched my daughter assume more and more leadership for the team—even when she didn’t think she had it in her. Today, as they cheered their win, I heard more than one voice acknowledge the role she had played in driving the team forward.

enviro prov 2015 cTeamwork is everything

Envirothon is brilliantly structured so that each team member specializes in one area of knowledge, but in order to put the oral presentation together the team must draw from everyone’s strengths and integrate the pieces into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. There have been some changes in team membership over the past four years, and as we drove home the girls were messaging past teammates—a touching acknowledgement that their contribution still mattered even though they had moved on.

enviro prov 2015 aLose with grace; Win with humility

Last year the team came within inches of reaching their goal, but ended up walking away with third place. It was a hard loss—harder in some ways than if they hadn’t made it to the final round of presentations. But it didn’t defeat them. Instead, I think it made them even more resolute. My daughter confessed that they were far more nervous this year than they had been last year, perhaps because it was their last chance so there was more at stake.

Big decisions show us who we are

My daughter gave up two trips to the Rocky Mountain Music Festival in Banff because the travel itineraries conflicted with Envirothon Regionals. The first year she had to face this conflict, she found the decision agonizing. Both activities were important to her, but in the end her choice came down to the insight that there were several alto saxophone players in the band, but only one of her in Envirothon. The process of making that decision was a learning moment for both of us, as I deliberately stepped back and put the choice entirely in her hands. She learned she could navigate her own way through an impossible dilemma, and I learned that she was ready to make sound, mature choices based on careful consideration of the alternatives.

enviro prov 2015 fHard work pays off

If you haven’t seen Envirothon up close, you may not appreciate that what these young people have opted to do is take on extra academic study as an extracurricular activity. I think there are some schools that have made a credit course out of the competition prep, but for my daughter’s team this all happened on their own time—at lunch hour, after school, and on weekends. They did it because they wanted to do it, not because they had to do it. They did it because they believed it was worth doing. And I’d like to think they did it because they appreciated that good things happen when you work hard on something together with other people who share your passion.

Office Hours

A true story from early in my teaching career. Sometimes, students need things from us that we simply do not have to give.

Names have been changed (except mine).

~   ~    ~   ~    ~   ~    ~   ~    ~   ~    ~

“May I speak with you Mrs. Anna?”

“Yes of course, Adnan. That’s why I have office hours. Come in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Anna. I have some questions about the assignment.”

He stood out from the start. Most of his English-as-a-second-language classmates had come to the university high school on student visas, bent on getting a Canadian diploma to expedite admission to Canadian universities. They hailed mainly from well-heeled families from Malaysia and Hong Kong. Adnan was a thirty-five year old political refugee of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

We spent the hour poring over his paper, talking about thesis statements and the finer points of English grammar. The tutoring session made me feel very teacherly. At twenty-five, I was acutely aware of being younger than many of my students. I deliberately dressed to look older and wore my recently acquired “Mrs.” as a badge of maturity.

“Thank you for your help Mrs. Anna. May I come another time?”

“Of course.  See on my schedule where it says ‘Office Hour’ – those are the times that I will be here to answer your questions.” I headed off to my next class, leaving him squinting earnestly at the timetable taped to my office door, carefully noting my office times in the front of his student handbook.

He started coming regularly. At first I didn’t think much of it. Most of my students were reluctant to ask for help, so there wasn’t exactly a lineup at my office door. And he seemed so keen.

One late October day I called in sick. Propped up in bed with my book and my cold meds, I left the ringing phone to my husband. I could hear his side of the conversation in the next room, but couldn’t make enough sense of it to guess who was at the other end.

“Who the heck is Adnan? And why is he calling to ask why you aren’t at school?”

“Seriously? He’s a student.”

“You give your home phone number out to your students?

“No! I have no idea how he got this number. I’ll ask at the office tomorrow.”

The receptionist looked like she might throw up. All I said was, “Do you have any idea how Adnan might have acquired my personal phone number? Because he called my home yesterday to ask why I wasn’t at school.” The blood drained from her face and she looked down at her desk.

“I’m so sorry Anna. I know I shouldn’t have given him your number, but there was no one else around and he was so threatening I didn’t know what he would do if I refused. He was in the Afghan military, you know. He’s trained in hand-to-hand combat!  I was just so scared.”

Adnan showed up on cue for my next office hour, expressing concern for my state of health. I struggled to convey the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He clearly didn’t understand the nature of the boundaries he had crossed, so I finally just said point-blank that he must not call me at home. Ever. He seemed to be willing to respect a direct command.

My cold lingered, and a few days later I stayed home again. At suppertime, my husband arrived home from his on-campus job and appeared in the bedroom doorway with an expression of wry amusement. “I met Adnan.”

“You what?”

“He figured out I worked on campus and tracked me down at my office. You told him not to phone you at home, but apparently he took that literally and found another way to check up on you.”

“Oh crap. I’ll try talking to him again. This is ridiculous.”

“He does seem kind of… intense.”

I was inclined to agree. The next day I was back at my desk, plodding through a mountain of marking, when he appeared at my door bearing two large Styrofoam cups of cafeteria coffee.  “Hello Mrs. Anna. I thought since you have a cold you would enjoy a hot drink.”

“Uh. Thanks, Adnan, but you really don’t need to buy me coffee. What I mean is, you really shouldn’t buy me coffee. And why did you seek out my husband yesterday? I told you that it wasn’t appropriate for you to be trying to contact me outside of school. And you really shouldn’t be bothering my husband when he’s working! Ever.”

He smiled sheepishly. The coffees sat untouched between us on the corner of my desk. “I am sorry that I have upset you Mrs. Anna. When you are not here it is difficult for me. You are always very helpful.”

“That’s another thing Adnan. I want to talk to you about the amount of time you are spending in my office. You know that I am always willing to answer your questions about the course, but you need to start trying to work more independently. My office hours are for all of my students, and it isn’t fair for one student to monopolize my time.”

“But Mrs. Anna, your other students are not here. Clearly they do not want to talk to you, but I do.” He looked pleased with this ironclad logic.

Sigh. “Adnan, perhaps they are never here because you are always here. Besides, I also need to use some of this time to mark assignments… for all my students.”

The arrival of December mid-term exams meant less time in the classroom and more open-ended office time. I was working my way through grading a set of papers one afternoon when he appeared unannounced with, improbably, a Christmas gift. “Uh… Adnan, we’ve talked before about you not buying things for me.” But he insisted. And so I opened the tiny box to reveal an exquisite pair of silver and mother-of-pearl earrings.

Uh oh.

“Adnan, these are lovely, but it’s a very, um … personal gift.” He looked puzzled. I grasped unsuccessfully for the right words to make him understand my hesitation. He insisted on leaving the earrings with me, wished me a happy holiday, and left me there wondering what on earth I was going to do next.

I still had second term to get through. There was no other class he could be transferred to, and it seemed impossible to make him understand my discomfort with his constant attention.

January came and went and Adnan continued to be my best office hour customer. While his English skills were clearly improving as a result, his grasp of personal boundaries was not. But I could never quite put my finger on what the exactly the relationship meant to him.

Finally, with spring in the air and final exams looming, I mustered the courage to ask. “Adnan I need your help to understand something. You are spending so much time in my office, but I really don’t think you need so much help to do your work. What is it that you really want from me?”

Panic flickered across his face, and then he blurted, “I want you to be my mother.”

“What? Adnan, I am ten years younger than you. What on earth do you mean by that?”

He put his head in his hands and started to shake. Then, composing himself, he whispered hoarsely, “I am a refugee. I can never go home. I will never see my parents again. In my country, parents are very important. There are certain decisions that parents must make. If I want to marry, I must go to my parents and ask them who should I marry. If I want to take a job, I must go to my parents and ask them what is the right job for me. If I want to buy a home, my parents must advise me. I want you to be my mother because my own mother and father can never again do these things for me.”

“Oh, Adnan. This is Canada. Here, when we become adults, we make those decisions for ourselves. You are asking for something I cannot give you.”

“Then, what will I do?” His lip quivered.

“You will need to learn to make your own life decisions. You can’t expect to find someone who will do that for you.”

I watched him visibly shrink. This man who could take down an opponent with his bare hands looked up at me with the fear-filled eyes of a small child who had just been told he was now alone in the world.

He continued to drop in during office hours, even when there were no more assignments to discuss. When my last exam was marked and all my grades submitted, I sat down across from him in the cafeteria and told him firmly that, since I was no longer his teacher, he must not try to contact me any more. Ever.

I saw him on the bus once. He never made eye contact.

 

Yesteryearbooks

yearbookSummer often brings with it the chance to reconnect with old longstanding friends, and in August I was fortunate to make a few such connections. As often happens, these visits inspired me to haul out my high school yearbooks. Once you get past the fact that I am incorrectly identified as “Ann” in my grade eleven yearbook, and that the same yearbook charmingly immortalizes the humiliating moment when my math teacher used his map to scrape pigeon poop off my raincoat on a London street, the yearbooks are quite an interesting anthropological study.

Here are a few of my observations:

  1. Bad hair days weeks months. Did we honestly not KNOW how bad our hair looked in the late seventies? Or did we just not care?
  2. Political correctness– clearly not an issue! A student council fundraiser in the form of a “Public Slave Auction,” the  auctioneer a teacher looking like a Christmas Pageant Wise Man gone rogue in a campy “arab” costume.
  3. And while we’re on the topic of questionable activities. A mock beauty pageant with a bevy of adolescent males parading across a stage in their Speedos. Hmm.
  4. How did we not trip on our pants? I estimate that you could produce two pairs of 2014 skinny jeans out of a single leg of those wide-legged numbers I wore back in the day.
  5. Angsty poety. Doom. Despair. Death. Deeply symbolic trees. Don’t laugh– you wrote it too.
  6. Fuzzy black and white photos. Given how atrocious our hair looked, perhaps a blessing in disguise.
  7. Lame photo captions. Did we actually believe those quotes would stand the test of time?

yearbook2And yet, what I mostly see when I page through these books are the people. Some with whom I’ve long since lost touch. Some with whom, thanks to the magic of social media, I have been able to reconnect. (Some of whom are likely even reading this blog.) I see people who were once a part of my daily life, but whose journeys have taken them to the four corners of the earth, and on to all manner of different adventures that none of us could have imagined back when we were imagining who each of us was “most likely to become…”

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.