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.

DSCN0132

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Surfacing

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.

Image source: http://www.languagecorps.com/blog/not-all-who-wander-are-lost/
Image source: http://www.languagecorps.com/blog/not-all-who-wander-are-lost/

Opening gifts

Layers

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

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

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

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

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

Uncovering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude

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

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

Except this time she had not yet unwrapped the gift.

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

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

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

gift - openSometimes we get something better.

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?

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.