Robin Song

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.

nest
Last year’s real estate

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?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.