Greening

lazarus-plant.jpgI am not in the habit of naming plants. But this one has earned a banner.

I’m plant-sitting this winter. My sister’s family began the process of putting their house on the market in mid-October just before winter descended, and the plants came to visit as part of the decluttering/ house-staging operation. Since the house sale and subsequent move dragged on into the heart of the Winnipeg winter, the plants are here to stay until spring when Mother Nature finally renders it safe to transport them outside.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing nursemaid to Lazarus, who arrived at my door as one withered leaf dwarfed by an enormous pot. It’s a plant with some sentimental significance to my brother-in-law, and so I was entreated by my sister to see if it could be salvaged.

I would like to be able to say that I performed some clever acts of horticultural wizardry, but the truth is Lazarus was stuck randomly near a nice big window, and watered generously once a week. Maybe it just needed a change of scenery. For what ever reason, it’s back, and growing.

I’m back too, after a blog hiatus of over two years. I have no intention of boring you with a lot of excuses reasons for my long silence. Let’s just say I needed a change of scenery.

I’ve celebrated my return with a new look for the blog. Bear with me, because it’s still a bit of a work in progress.

As am I. Because one of the reasons I will acknowledge for my long hiatus is that the things I want to write about are changing. Maybe not drastically– I’m still me, after all. But just as Lazarus is essentially a whole new plant sprouting from an old root, I’ve been growing some new metaphorical foliage of my own. “Turning over new leaves,” as it were.

Stick around if you want to watch me bloom.

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Unresolved

fireworksI 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. I will try to wear shoes that make my feet happy.
  5. I will eat too much dark chocolate and not regret it. Because actually, is there such a thing as too much dark chocolate?
  6. I will read great books, and feel like I should read more.
  7. I will visit with great friends, and feel like I should spend more time with them.
  8. I will write, and it will never feel like enough.
  9. I will keep resolving to make changes, both small and large.
  10. 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.

Happy New Year!

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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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/

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.

Ruts and Routines

I live in a city that had ox-cart drivers as its original city planners.

Winnipeg’s main routes emanate out from the centre where the two rivers meet in a pattern that roughly resembles spokes of a wheel. Most of these routes were established along the original ox-cart trails that brought traders from throughout the centre of the continent to the Red River Settlement where the Red and Assiniboine rivers converge. The ox-carts are long gone, but the map of Winnipeg has been forever shaped by the paths they etched into the prairie. Consequently, you will find all manner of odd street configurations here. It is possible for two streets to run roughly parallel for miles, and then mysteriously intersect. You can have a street that cuts a diagonal across a neighbourhood that is otherwise laid out in a fairly standard rectangular grid. There is even a major intersection that has been lovingly nicknamed “Confusion Corner.”

You get used to it. Really.
Confusion Corner. You get used to it. Really.

All the ritual “back to school” activities of the last few weeks have me thinking about ruts and routines. My youngest commented a few days ago that she was looking forward to getting back into a routine with school starting. As much as I love the lazy open-endedness of summer, I must admit I like the routine of the school year too. At the same time, I am a lover of change. I hate the feeling of being in a rut– of  treading the same path over and over until I have worn it into a major thoroughfare– even if it is no longer the best route to where I want to be.

So what is the difference between a rut and a routine? Etymologically, they are both connected to “route”– to the idea of travelling along a path. But the way we typically use these words suggests very different connotations.

Ruts happen when you follow the same path without deviation so many times that you essentially get stuck following the same path. You can get out of a rut, but the more well-worn it is, the more supreme the effort will be to do so. In fact, it’s often so much of an effort that it just seems easier to stay in the rut. Staying, of course, digs the rut deeper and makes it even harder to extract yourself. When Albert Einstein remarked that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” he was talking about ruts in our behaviour. We even get ruts in our thinking– finding it easier to follow old and worn out logic rather than to think about our world in a fresh way.

I’ve never heard anyone say they were “in a rut” who meant it was a thing to be desired.

Routines provide form and structure to our lives, but without entrapping us they way ruts do. The word “routine” brings to mind the notion of a “dance routine.” Dancers assemble a routine through disciplined repetition of a pattern of movements. Often the process of learning the routine involves breaking those movements down into small segments and focusing on those segments until they can be performed without much thought. And that’s when the magic kicks in. The dancer is able to focus on style and expression because the technical steps of the routine have become routine.

Ruts and routines originate the same way: behaviors are repeated and reinforced until those behaviours are second nature. The difference lies in the effect they have on us. Ruts trap us into patterns that we keep repeating long after they have ceased to serve us. Ruts hold us to a narrow path, guarding us from surprises, protecting us from change. Routines, on the other hand, are a place of safety from which we can venture forth into exploration and expression. Routines are the scaffold on which creative people of all stripes stand to exercise their creativity.

 

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.