I 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:
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.
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.
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.
I will try to wear shoes that make my feet happy.
I will eat too much dark chocolate and not regret it. Because actually, is there such a thing as too much dark chocolate?
I will read great books, and feel like I should read more.
I will visit with great friends, and feel like I should spend more time with them.
I will write, and it will never feel like enough.
I will keep resolving to make changes, both small and large.
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.
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.
All my nieces and nephews.
The rest of my amazing and slightly wacky extended family.
My cat, even if she is evil incarnate.
Walking in the trees.
Listening to my sister sing.
Writing—just about anything.
Young adult science fiction. Yes, really.
Anything at all by Margaret Atwood.
Making chocolate chip banana muffins for my niece.
My sister’s Facebook statuses.
My other sister’s impromptu dinner parties.
The call of a loon.
Any body of water larger than a mudpuddle.
Houseplants that don’t ask a lot of me.
A manager who makes things happen so that I can get things done.
Good butter chicken.
Coffee with a good friend.
Lunch with a good friend.
Dinner with a good friend.
Heck, just all the good friends. Old and new.
Brilliant musical theatre.
The sense of accomplishment I felt from driving all the way home from Toronto by myself.
A few year ago, when the design for Winnipeg’s new airport terminal was in the consultation phase, the citizens of the city spoke fervently about not wanting to lose the iconic escalator where they had greeted their loved ones for decades. The design team took heed, and replicated the escalator in the design for the new terminal. Everyone who arrives on a domestic flight makes a grand entrance at the top of this escalator, and hopes to be met by someone special waiting at the bottom. The escalator is, in many ways, Winnipeg’s official symbol of coming home.
Today it was my daughter coming home—back in town after four months away at school. She was excited to be coming back to reconnect with friends and family over her holiday break. I was equally excited to be meeting her.
I like airports. I like people watching in airports. I like the shiver of anticipation that vibrates through the crowd—the undercurrent of anxious excitement that swirls around those who are coming and going and waiting.
Of course the problem with people is, well, some of them are better company than others. I sat down on a bench to wait and was promptly subjected to overhearing a racist tirade by the middle aged white woman across from me–something about aboriginal Christmas Hamper recipients who “take advantage.”
I wish I was better at delivering snappy comebacks to strangers. As usual, I just felt silently ill.
I’ve been immersed of late in the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—struggling to wrap my head around the appalling manner in which the first residents of this land were treated by a group of newcomers. Wearing my lifelong privilege with increasing discomfort. Finding myself more and more intolerant of intolerance.
Unwilling to remain in earshot of my racist neighbour any longer, I vacated the bench to wander the increasingly crowded waiting area. Evidently someone else of significance was expected at the top of that escalator. By the time the arrival board announced that the plane had landed, the waiting area at the foot of the escalator was filled with TV cameras, reporters with microphones, and people holding up “Welcome to Canada” signs.
My daughter was one of the early ones off the plane and down the escalator, and we watched together as her celebrity travelling companions made their grand entrance—a Syrian refugee family arriving to be greeted by their Manitoba sponsors.
And then, out of the crowd emerged the drummers. I had read earlier that, across Canada, Indigenous people were making plans to extend a special welcome to the newcomers. Still, witnessing it first hand caught me off guard. I fought back tears as the group of women stood at the foot of the escalator and drummed and sang a welcome ceremony, their chants echoing through the massive arrival hall.
We 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.”
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.
My 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.
Barbeque 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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
It was never my intention to stop writing. Life just sort of happened. A lot of life, to be honest. It’s been a summer– and fall– of big transitions. Endings and beginnings. Inner transformations and outward changes, some planned and some from way, way out in left field.
Most of it too big– too life-y– to bundle up into a tidy blog post.
It was, frankly, a chapter in my life where just doing the living took all my energy and attention. It was, therefore, a time that will likely be fodder for a lot of writing–someday.
Mind you, it’s not that I haven’t done any writing these past months. But the kind of writing that helped me negotiate that journey isn’t for this audience. Most of it is, truthfully not for any audience. At least not in its current form.
And then, of course, there’s the hurdle of re-starting. During my years as a counsellor and academic advisor to high school students, I became all too familiar with this phenomenon in its school manifestation. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Or done it. You miss a class or two, perhaps because you weren’t finished an assignment one day. Or maybe you just had too many other things on the go. And then, because you are now even further behind, you miss another class. And so it goes– the more classes you miss the harder it is to go back, until eventually you can scarcely even think of yourself as being connected to that class in any way. At that point there is never going to be a good time to go back. It just comes down to a decision. Go now, or stay gone.
When I started this blog over two years ago, I never made myself any commitments regarding how long or how often I would write here. It started as a glorious experiment in seeking audience, and I was thrilled to discover that people both from the other side of the world and my own backyard were interested in what I had to say. Even though I haven’t posted in months, there are, amazingly, still a handful of hits on this blog most days. Occasionally my readers even tell me they miss it and ask me if I’m planning to post more. (Thanks Marie!)
So here I am back. Sort of. Because I suspect that going forward this blog may not be exactly what it was before I, metaphorically, took a flying leap off one of life’s high diving boards last summer. I don’t know yet exactly what new form it will take. The bigger the jump the longer it can take one to return to the surface, and if I’m truly honest with myself, I’m only just now coming up for air. But I am surfacing. Refreshed, re-engaged, but perhaps still a tiny bit dizzy from the leap.
A 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.
A 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.
Another 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.
The female robin lit on the top of the chain link fence that separates my patio from the parking lot. The bouquet of grass clutched in her beak made it obvious that she was constructing a nest. She sat on the fence for some minutes as Lauren and I stood on the nearby patio chatting. We remarked on the grass the bird was carrying and wondered why she wasn’t moving on. Truthfully, she looked as though she was feigning nonchalance.
“Who me? Just hanging out here on this fence. Grass? What grass? Oh this grass in my beak? Oh that’s nothing , really…”
Then it came to me—she was building her nest in the small tree beside the patio– the one by Lauren’s window that is not really a tree so much as a round bush with a bit of a trunk. The robin, I surmised, was being very careful not to signal the location of the nest to us by carrying her load of grass to its destination while we were watching.
She hopped down off the fence toward the parking lot side, away from the patio. I watched as she walked with stealth between the curb and the neighbour’s car bumper until she was positioned on the far side of the slender tree trunk from where I was standing. Lauren had gone back inside, and I moved to the far end of the patio and deliberately turned away. I glanced back just in time to catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of the robin zipping up into the cover of the leafy branches. As soon as she could see I wasn’t watching she had made a dash for the nest.
Except of course I had seen her, and so had Lauren watching through the window—a vantage point no robin could be expected to account for. She couldn’t know that, despite her best efforts, she had failed to keep her secret safe.
On the other hand, she couldn’t know that we were never really any danger to her in the first place. We have no intention of harming her nest. In fact, now that we know the nest is there, we can take measures to protect it– to ensure that when the cat joins us outside, we will keep her leash anchored in such a way that she can’t reach the tree.
Reflecting on the care with which the robin manoeuvered around the perceived danger to the security of her nest, I wondered how much effort I expend on guarding my own gates against threats that aren’t really threats at all. How often do I misjudge something as malevolent when in fact it is perfectly benign, or even potentially benevolent towards me? What secrets am I guarding that really don’t need to be secrets at all, because I the threat from which I am guarding them is not quite the threat I imagine?
I wanted to be able to tell the robin everything was ok. That she should carry on building her nest. That she would get no trouble from me. But she would not have understood, because I can’t speak to her in robin song.
And how often has the universe tried to tell me not to be afraid in a song I didn’t understand?