Marching on

March 1
Nope, no daffodils here.

I woke to a light dusting of snow this morning, delicately covering the muck and grit and frozen mud-puddles that make my usually straightforward  trek to and from the bus stop an extreme adventure.  The snow was just enough to render the icy patches even more treacherous than usual by virtue of being invisible. It was not enough to render the filthy sand-encrusted snowbanks any more lovely.

 

Yesterday was the vernal equinox. Where I live, however, it’s hard to get excited about that date as the start of spring. Here we are secretly just celebrating the fact that we are getting closer to the end of March.  I am convinced that T.S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month” only because he never spent March in Manitoba.

March 3
To cross or not to cross?

 

The return journey at the end of the day is treacherous in different ways. By then it has warmed up just enough to turn the ice into murky pools, many of which are too large to be legitimately called puddles but not quite large enough to warrant naming as major bodies of water.  As the snow subsides, revealing the roadside litter of car parts leftover from incautious winter drivers, the pavement deteriorates into a minefield of axle-busting potholes and the occasional newsworthy sinkhole.

March 2As you might have guessed, I am not a fan of March. I will take a nice definitive snow storm over this waffle-weather any day. (I should acknowledge that in late March that snow storm is still a very real possibility!) March in my home town is a meteorological guessing game. March does bad things to good shoes and makes getting dressed to leave the house a sort of game show in which you are guaranteed never to choose the right door– or in this case, the right coat.March 4

It doesn’t help that where I work March is also year-end, with all the stress and silliness that always seems to entail. Even when I worked elsewhere, March was always a particularly wearying month. Either I unconsciously gravitate to career options with major March issues, or March itself is the issue.

For me, personally, I know that a big part of my problem with March is that its peculiar weather patterns and filthy sidewalks still evoke somatic memories of the March my father passed away. It has been nearly three decades, but grief etches itself into muscle memory and neural pathways in ways that continue to awe me. Conveniently, March is also when the Canadian Cancer Society holds it’s annual daffodil fundraiser.

In March in Manitoba, you take your spring where you can get it, even if the best you can muster fits in a coffee mug on the corner of your desk.

IMG_0422

Envirothon: “It’s a life thing”

I’ve just spent two hours driving down the Trans Canada highway with four 16-year-old girls. We were on our way home from a province-wide competition in which they (together with a fifth team-mate) placed third, and they spent much of the ride doing some intense debriefing. When they weren’t doing that they were, with equal intensity, already planning their strategy for next year’s competition. And then, as we drew closer to the outskirts of the city, this happened:

“Do you remember that really nice shelterbelt we saw on the way out of the city? I really want to see it again.”

“There?”

“Yes that’s it! Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful?”

Whereupon my carload of city-kids proceeded to enthuse over the characteristics of a well- planted, well-tended shelterbelt until we hit city limits. And all I could think was, “This. This is why I think Envirothon is just about the most amazing thing ever to hit high school.”

What is this is phenomenon that had my suburban crew chatting animatedly about the finer points of agricultural land-use practices? The Manitoba Forestry Association website explains:

For 17 years the Manitoba Forestry Association has offered the Manitoba Envirothon which has provided Manitoba’s high school students a unique and fun way to learn about the environment and current issues. Envirothon is a hands-on learning program which helps students develop important skills such as critical thinking, study skills and team work.

There are two components to the Envirothon competition, a field test and an orals competition. The trail test is a hands on activity, students apply their knowledge to answer questions in the field. The oral competition combines public speaking with the students’ learning experiences to develop and present a solution to a current environmental issue.

I  have twice been fortunate to be able to accompany my daughter’s team to the provincial competition and view first hand the tremendous talent that kids from across the province bring to this activity —  as well as the equally tremendous effort and dedication on the part of the team of organizers and volunteers who toil year-round developing curriculum, designing field tests, and planning multiple events in order to maximize the number of kids who are able to benefit from participation.envirothon

When I talk about my daughter’s experience with Envirothon, I get every bit as excited as my young passengers did about that lovely shelterbelt (which, even without their level of technical knowledge, I could appreciate was quite spectacular.) I’ve watched these kids grow, not only in their knowledge of how to responsibly manage the world they live in, but also in how to strive for a goal, care for your team-mates, and think on your feet. I have witnessed these young women learn together to approach their defeats with perspective and resolve, and their victories with humility and grace. It is, as one of the organizers reflects in this video, “a life thing.”

I go walking: Spring, actually

The numbers have been crunched, the stats tallied. We weren’t just imagining it. It really was the worst winter any of us had ever experienced. When it came to cold, we even managed to outdo the surface of Mars. It’s now the third week of April, and there is still a sizeable pile of snow on my patio.

ice floe 2But the river is opening up, so I’m declaring it spring, even if I do still have to wear gloves on the way to work in the morning. This is the season when I can scrape ice off my car window when I leave for work and turn on the air conditioning on the way home. In one afternoon I will encounter people out walking in shorts, passing people who are still wearing parkas.

geeseSpring has been so late this year that the first wave of geese to arrive turned back south again because we were still in such a deep freeze. They are returning again now — each day there are more and more of them, wading in half-frozen roadside puddles and looking perplexed by the piles of snow still dotting the brown grass.

Some of my walking routes are still such an awful mixture of mud and ice that I am, for the most part, sticking to pavement until the thaw ends. Wandering through residential streets affords me a view of the aftermath of plowing this winter’s exceptional quantity of snow. Huge chunks of curb, snapped off by the force of the plows, sit perched atop snow banks that are studded with the road sand and salt.

broken curb 2Everything is brown. The grass is brown.  The trees are brown. The geese are brown. The river is always sort of brown. Even the snow that remains along the side of the roads is brown.

Except the sky, which, in all its blueness, promises that no matter how seemingly endless this winter has been, eventually things will turn green again.

picnic table 1

 

 

 

 

 

Shirtsleeves and slush

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What do you love most about the city / town / place that you live in?”

It’s been a long winter.

Not that I’m complaining. Winter is a big part of the city that I live in. A big part of the constantly changing cycle of seasons. I like that I live in a place that is characterized by a blend of comfortable pattern and constant change.

One of the reasons that this has been a particularly brutal winter is that it has been too much of the same thing. Too much cold. Too much wind chill. Too much snow. Winter’s OK when the bitter days are broken up with moments of warm sun on your face. This winter has hammered relentlessly at us since late November. But today it finally felt like the worst just might be over.

Today, finally, the temperature crept above the 0°C mark. Today I left my down-filled coat at home, and went out in my fleece jacket. Today I took the garbage out in my shirtsleeves.  Today I turned off the baseboard heaters and opened up the patio door for the afternoon. The patio itself is still buried in a three-foot high snowdrift, but the air coming in felt lovely.

Today felt like spring was waking up.

One of the spring things I had to do today was put more washer fluid in my car to combat the muddy splash from the melting snow. Spring is messy here. Melting snow means slushy, mucky streets with puddles waiting for a bus to come along to splash unsuspecting pedestrians. This year we have a lot of snow, so we can anticipate a lot of slush. Spring is also all the sand that was scattered to provide some traction on icy winter streets, now piled in dirty mounds on boulevards. It’s litter–paper coffee cups and cigarette butts that were hidden under the pristine whiteness of the snow–now emerging as a soggy mess. To the untrained eye, there’s nothing beautiful about March in Winnipeg.

And yet all that muck and mess is a sign of better things to come. You have to pass through the grey slush to get to green grass and flowers. March is messy, because March is change  and change is messy.

March is, admittedly, my least favourite month. I am impatient with March. I want to be through the messy part and into the new growth of April. But I know I need to wait–need to give the snow time to melt and nourish the roots of the aspen trees outside my door and transform the grass along the riverbank into a rich carpet of green. You have to live here to really appreciate what it means to know that the bitter cold of January and muck of March will give way to the lush green of June and the intense heat of July.

I go walking: to work and back

Since my hip healed and my leave ended, I’ve been back at work for five weeks. No more leisurely strolls along the riverbank every morning after breakfast. No more quiet weekday afternoons to sit and write. It didn’t take long to slide back into the vortex of Being Too Busy.

As I expected. November and December are always busy months at my work. They are busy months at home too, with holiday preparations and school and extracurricular commitments. And now that the snow has arrived, it seems to take twice as long to go anywhere. (Put on boots, put on coat, put on mitts, brush snow off windshield, get stuck in traffic behind the over-cautious winter drivers, get stuck in the snow…)

But I’m still managing to walk nearly every day. It helps that the bus ride to work is sandwiched in between two ten-minute hikes. To get from home to the bus I traverse an expansive strip mall parking lot. It’s not a bad walk, so long as the wind is not blowing from the west. Even that is bearable thanks to my toasty new dollar-store earmuffs. There aren’t many cars in the lot in the morning– well, with the exception of last Friday, when the Black Friday shoppers were pushing their overflowing carts out of Toys ‘R Us and past the lineup at Future Shop before 8:00 am.

This is a "yak track." It's like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!
This is a “yak track.” It’s like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!

The sea of concrete has now been replaced with an ocean of ice and packed snow, so I have invested in a pair of “yak-tracks” in recognition of my difficulty staying upright on slippery surfaces. I really do not want to risk a fall on my new hip joint!

The trip downtown is one quick express bus, and then I set out on the second leg of my morning walk. This one zigzags around several blocks of hotels and office buildings. I have been in the habit of taking a shortcut through a downtown shopping mall, but lately I have taken the outdoor route, mainly because walking indoors on a tiled floor wearing chains on your feet is actually more treacherous than walking on ice, and it’s too much of a hassle to be pulling the yak-tracks on and off. Instead, I take outdoor shortcuts down lanes and between buildings. Here there is evidence that, while these routes are fine for rush hour, I would probably want to avoid some of them late at night. I can’t even begin to speculate on the story behind the abandoned pair of Y-fronts in one back lane. Much easier to imagine the story behind the sheltered corner littered with empties from some form of cheap liquor.

For the days when the temperature dips to the “unexposed skin will freeze in minutes” zone– guaranteed to happen at some point in a Winnipeg winter — I have the option of making the trek from bus stop to office though a comprehensive system of skywalks that link up downtown.

The skywalks have been my saving grace when it comes to keeping up some semblance of a walking routine. On the days when I can muster a proper lunch break, I can leave my desk and walk, indoors, far enough to feel as though I have had some actual exercise. I’m not alone on these walks — no contemplative riverbank scenes here. Here it is a river of people– other walkers-for-the-sake-of-walking like me, mixed with walkers who are purposefully en route to something. A meeting. An appointment. A lunch date. It’s not what you’d call peaceful, but the people-watching opportunities offer another form of contemplation.

At this time of year it is dusk by the time I leave the office. The dimming light softens the hard edges of stone and concrete, and the people clustered at the bus stop look weary and impatient to get home. By the time I get off the bus it is dark. If I have an evening commitment to get to, I stride back across the parking lot, which now involves weaving strategically through row upon row of parked cars. But if I’m not in a hurry, I take the long way around, down the street to the far end of the dike. There is just enough light from the streetlights on the bridge to illuminate the frozen surface of the river, framed by the skeleton-trees along the banks.

Sometimes I just stand on the dike and breath in the cold air, the view, and the peace I find in walking by the river–even when my life takes me walking in other directions.

I go walking: in the snow

riverscape 2It’s warm today by Winnipeg winter standards– the overcast sky holds in the earth’s warmth, helping the temperature to hover just below the freezing point. It makes for sloppy roads, but it is perfect for a walk, and warm enough to take off my mitts and take some pictures.

The river is frozen now. Almost. If you look closely you can see dark patches that signify an area where the water is still peeking through a thin layer of ice. The river is most dangerous in times of transition– in the early spring when the ice is breaking up, and in the early winter when it is still not fully frozen. But even in the dead of winter there can be treacherous open spots, especially near bridges and outflow pipes.

Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.
Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.

My cousin fell through just such a patch of thin ice one winter when he was a teenager, taking a short cut across a river to go visit our grandparents. Thankfully the friend he was with was able to pull him out and help him up the bank. By the time Grannie met him at her kitchen door he could barely walk because his pants had frozen solid.

I make my way along my familiar southward trail , observing the way the snow hides some things and highlights others.  I’m pleased to see there is a well-trampled path. I don’t encounter any cyclists now, but the regular walkers are undeterred by the arrival of wintery weather.  Rabbit tracks zigzag around the trees. I watch for deer, but it’s too early in the day. I would be more apt to encounter them at dusk.

Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.
Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.

The fallen tree that I wrote about in early October now lies adorned with a layer of white lacework that brings out the complexity of its structure. Everything that was lush and green a few months back is now either grey and angular, or hidden beneath a blanket of white.

As my boots crunch against the packed snow, I think about how grateful I am that the hours of hip-therapy walking I did to recover from surgery happened in the summer. I love walking in the snow, but it’s more difficult than walking on grass or pavement. Where it is packed down it is slippery, and where it is still fresh my feet sink and twist. At the same time I celebrate the fact that I can go walking in the snow. This time last year I was not walking anywhere but to and from the bus stop, and that was slow and painful and aided by a cane.

No one home to shovel the front step.
No one home to shovel the front step.

High in a tree, something catches my eye. A tiny birdhouse sits, abandoned for the season no doubt, while its inhabitants spend the winter months in more temperate conditions further south. The roof of the house is covered with snow, and there is a tiny mound of snow in front of the entryway.

It strikes me that I have no desire to fly south for the winter. No interest in tropical vacations or white sandy beaches. In spite of the cold, the ice, the inconvenience of snow covered cars and winter boots, I prefer to stay put in this wintery city. Even if it is more effort, I prefer to walk in the snow.

grass

Wading in

River view from UI live in a city named after muddy water. Two slow and silty rivers meander across the Manitoba prairie and meet up in the centre of town. I grew up on the bank of one river, and have recently found myself living on the bank of the other. I knew I missed the water, but I was surprised by the degree to which it felt like my soul had come home.

The water really is muddy. But the riverbank that rises from that mud is full of life and beauty. Full of trees.

Life is pretty muddy too. I am always looking for greater clarity. Trying to wade through the murk and muck to see what’s important. Trying to get somewhere in spite of the meandering. Trying to get somewhere simpler and more authentic than where I started. Hoping, once in a while, to pull something as beautiful as those trees out of my own foundation of silt and clay.

The river and the trees and the prairie sky are my muse. This blog is an attempt to share my musings.

What I hope you find here is a glimpse into what it means to seek clarity when one is a single, working mother, trying to carve out more hours in the day for the things that feed her soul. Like writing. And reading. And long, leisurely walks along the riverbank.