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

Advertisements

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping

When I was in my twenties, new to a busy teaching career and newly married, I remember having a conversation about housework with an older colleague. The conversation went something like this:

Me:      How do you ever manage to get everything done? By  the time I am finished my marking and course prep I can’t imagine coping with all the laundry and the dishes and the housecleaning…

Her:     Well now, I just don’t go to bed until everything is done.

That was the last time I asked her for advice.

Instead, I opted to adopt the philosophy of housekeeping espoused by my great-aunt Molly.

My grandmother’s sister Molly was a creative woman who spent much of her adult life applying her creativity to managing a farm household with limited resources. Molly’s resourcefulness was of the variety that could turn a scoop of leftover chicken fat into melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. While her culinary creativity may not translate well into the 21st century, I did learn from her other very important lessons that have stood the test of time.

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping consisted of one fundamental principle, which she explained with this scenario:

You are sitting relaxing and you look up and notice a dirt spot on the wall. You have two options.

  1. You can obsess about the fact that you are now going to have to find a pail and fill it with soapy water and thoroughly wash all the walls, which of course will involve moving all the furniture, which will mean that you are going to end up washing the floor as well— and that sounds like way more work than you have the energy for today. Or tomorrow. So you leave the spot on the wall for days (weeks? months even!) during which you will become increasingly oppressed by the knowledge that you are a failure at housekeeping and probably by extension a failure at just about everything else.
  2. OR, you can stand up, grab the damp cloth that is probably already hanging by your kitchen sink, and wipe off the spot. Then you can go back to sitting and relaxing.

Aunt Molly advocated option #2.

Now, don’t assume that to mean that Molly was a lazy housekeeper. I am certain her walls, floors, and everything in between got a thorough scouring on a regular basis.  But there is wisdom in Molly’s spot-cleaning approach to housekeeping that has translated itself into a wealth of life lessons as I have contemplated her words over the years. Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. You are your own worst critic. When you look at the wall, do you see a small and insignificant spot, or do you see the whole world judging you because your entire house is a massive expanse of filth? Chances are someone else doesn’t even see the spot!
  2. There is always something you can do now. When life gets overwhelming, sometimes just exercising control over one tiny piece of it helps me regain a sense of perspective. If you can’t afford that big purchase you desire, can you put aside the first five dollars? If you can’t run the marathon, can you walk around the block?
  3. Solve the immediate problem. Sometimes I get stuck because I am trying to solve the wrong problem. Or too many problems. When that happens, I have learned to reframe the problem into something I do have the resources to address. Is the problem really that my whole house needs cleaning from top to bottom right this minute? Or is the problem that at this particular moment this particular spot is bugging me?
  4. It’s important to know what constitutes “enough.” Having been inclined, in my youth, to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism, I have spent a long time learning that you don’t need to do everything to have done something worthwhile. Don’t load unrealistic expectations on yourself when you should really be patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.
  5. Planning makes the big things more manageable. Eventually you will have to wash the whole wall, but in the meantime a little spot-cleaning can make it bearable. And then you can plan to wash the wall when you have more time. Or energy. Or helpers!
  6. A lot of little things together make a big thing. Does washing a wall mean you need to wash all the walls? Can you do one room today and another one tomorrow?
  7. And perhaps most importantly, it’s better to do the simple thing that’s right in front of you than to just think about doing something grand. Getting out of your chair and going for a walk is more productive than thinking about running a marathon. Writing a two or three blog posts a week may not be writing a best-selling novel, but it is several steps ahead of just thinking about writing a novel.

Of course it’s good to do the grand things too. But you’ll never get to the grand things if you spend too much time worrying about how clean the walls are.

Remembering my tomorrows

It starts at the moment of birth–a date on the calendar is claimed as your own, and year after year the anniversary of that date holds a particular significance for you. As time goes by, you collect other anniversaries. First date. Graduation. Wedding. The death of a loved one. Some anniversaries you share with other, but others are more personal.

Tomorrow is one of my personal anniversaries. Fifteen years ago I started feeling sick. What seemed at first like a bad flu turned out to be the start of a downward spiral that would have provided enough medical drama for a whole season of House M.D.

Turns out, sometimes it is Lupus. Or at least some sort of mysterious and difficult to diagnose autoimmune condition that behaves like Lupus.

June 11th is the first of a whole cycle of anniversaries that I walk through every year in memory of my own personal journey to the underworld and back– from the day my kidneys failed and I was moved to Intensive Care, to the day I came home, to the day I finally set foot back at the office.

There are lots of reasons one might want to forget such events. It would be easy to view these anniversaries as a morbid re-playing of the worst experience of my life. But that’s not why I relive these moments.

These anniversaries matter to me. Perhaps my Anglican upbringing instilled in me a keen sense of yearly rituals of remembrance. These anniversaries form my own personal liturgical cycle. Marking these dates represents both a physical and a spiritual reminder that every day is a gift– that I am here today, but very nearly wasn’t– that it is possible to leave the office one afternoon and drop off the face of the earth for months– that life must be lived in the present, because anything can happen.

These anniversaries matter because they are not just about remembering a nasty past. They are about all the tomorrows I can never take for granted.

 

 

Finding my way in

I don’t often remember my dreams, but I recall this one in vivid detail, even though I dreamed it nearly fifteen years ago.

I am walking through my house examining the contents of each room. I am moving from room to room at a slow, easy pace. Kitchen. Living room. Bedroom. I turn a corner in the hallway  and find myself in a room I have never seen. It dawns on me that the hallway doesn’t actually turn a corner there, but there it is, and here I am in this room. It’s a spacious room, furnished ornately with plush sofas and complicated woodwork. The décor is dominated by various shades of green that evoke the sense of being surrounded by woods and grass, even though I am clearly indoors. I walk around  the perimeter of the room and acclimate myself to my surroundings. Reaching the far side, I find myself wandering through another doorway into another room. This room in turn leads to a third. Each room is successively smaller and more cluttered. The third room is a chaotic jumble of crates and boxes. I don’t know what’s in any of them.

I am excited by the discovery of these rooms. I feel an overwhelming sense of potential. I am keen to “move into” these rooms– to integrate them with the rest of my home. I want to open up the boxes and see what’s in them. And I  really want to rearrange the furniture.

Only recently did it occur to me to investigate dream interpretations about the appearance of new rooms in a familiar home. I can’t say that I’ve done exhaustive research, but I like what I’ve found.

Apparently a house in a dream is typically seen as representative of the psyche, and the discovery of new rooms is indicative that the dreamer is becoming conversant with new facets of his or her personality.

I’ve actually dreamed variations on this dream several times throughout my life. I don’t recall the other instances as vividly as the one I’ve described here, nor do I recall what was happening in my life when I dreamed those other dreams. But the “new rooms” dream that I do recall came at a time in my life when I had just come though a  prolonged physical and psychological trauma of life-changing proportions.

So the dream interpretation resonates. When I dreamed these rooms, I was indeed discovering spaces in my psyche of which I had previously been unaware. I was rearranging my mental furniture, and unpacking some mysterious new boxes. Someone who has known me all my life said of me at the time, “It was like she was a different person.”

I remember when I woke up after that dream feeling a deep disappointment to realize that the extra rooms were not real. I really had been looking forward to living in those new spaces.

It took a long time for me to understand that that’s exactly what I did.

*    *    *    *    *

This was a riff on today’s Daily Prompt: “An extra room has magically been added to your home overnight. The catch: if you add more than three items to it, it disappears. Hiow do you use it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recognized, but not that way

The Daily Prompt asks, “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?”

Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.

At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me  and know who I was.

So thirty years later how am I doing?

To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.

Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”

Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood  or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts,  and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.

Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog.  And that matters a great deal to me.

 

 

 

Happiness is… not quite what I expected

happinessIf you are old enough you will likely remember this little book by Charles Shultz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. This simple little book put the phrase “happiness is…” into daily vernacular decades ago.  It was first published in 1962, but since I was an infant at the time, my introduction to the book more likely correlates with its 1970 paperback release. The simple notions of happiness presented in the book by Shultz’s familiar characters would certainly have resonated with a nine-year old.

Or an eight-year old, like the one who threw me for a bit of a loop the other day when she asked me what was the happiest moment of my life.

Normally I would dodge a question like that. I tend to resist the whole notion of choosing a “best” of anything.  I have marvellous friends, but I would not be able to say so-and-so is my best friend. Favourite song? Changes by the minute. Favourite movie? I’ll give you a list. Favourite book? How much time do you have?

But in this instance it suddenly felt very important that I not only come up with an answer, but that it be the right answer. Because I was very conscious that this particular eight-year old was, at that particular moment, experiencing a colossal truck-load of very legitimate unhappiness.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy doing deep personal reflection while your questioner is staring up at you, unblinking, waiting breathlessly for your response.

The first thought that came to mind was the birth of my children. But that didn’t seem quite right because, for one thing, that’s automatically two moments. Furthermore, as soon as I thought about it for a few seconds I began to realize that there were a lot of moments in which  my children have brought me great happiness, and how could I say that the happiness I felt at the moment of their birth was greater than, say, the happiness I feel when they accomplish something wonderful or demonstrate their cleverness or their compassion? I couldn’t think of any source of happiness that I could narrow down to a specific point in time.

The closest I could come was the moment, nearly fifteen years ago, when I knew that I would be leaving the hospital and going home to my family. When I knew that we were finally beating the illness that nearly killed me. When I knew that the next family event would be my daughter’s second birthday and not, as we had all feared, my funeral.

But what surprised me, as I wrapped my mind around this memory and struggled to package it in an answer that would make sense to my young interrogator, was that the root source of that happiness was not about being glad I had survived. It wasn’t about me at all. When I tried to name the moment of my greatest happiness it wasn’t a moment at all, but rather a lifetime of moments, all of which revolved around the particular way my family has of rallying in a crisis.

The thing that makes me happiest, I tried to explain, is knowing that even though bad things will happen, I can always count on my family for support.  That no matter what the bad thing is — how big or how long or how monstrously scary — there are people I know I can always count on to drop everything and organize whatever help needs to be organized.

Happiness is knowing in the midst of the crisis that you are not alone.

Maybe it doesn’t feel like happiness at the time, but in hindsight it is the joy that comes of walking accompanied through the valley that stands out far more than the joy of celebrating on the mountain-top.

I’m not sure that was the answer she was looking for. It felt like the right answer.

 

To my students: Why I won’t be handing out copies of the slides

Someone’s going to ask, so we might as well clear this up right at the outset. No, I won’t be handing out copies of the PowerPoint slides.

I recognize that, in the minds of many of you, that statement is tantamount to academic abuse. That it is evidence of some dreadful mean streak or profound character flaw on my part. That clearly I must have missed Lesson One of Teaching 101.

You are welcome to think whatever you want.

In fact, that’s exactly my point.

Part of my teaching philosophy is that I need to always be able to provide you with a reason for what we are doing in my class and how we are doing it. (You don’t have to like the reason, nor do you have to agree with it. But I have to have one, and I will always give it to you when asked.) So let me explain the rationale for this act of pedagogical treason.

First, if I am using PowerPoint effectively – something I don’t profess to be perfect at, but I do try – then my slides will largely be designed to provide speaking prompts and visual interest. If there is significant, detailed content that I think you really need to have in writing, I will give you a handout or provide you with a link.

Secondly, there is some evidence that writing notes the old fashioned way, by hand on a piece of paper, actually helps you learn. Of course if there is some genuine reason why taking your own notes will disadvantage your learning, I will happily accommodate you. But the vast majority of you will not be harmed by being expected to flex your note-taking muscles.

Besides, if all you are doing is trying to transfer what I am saying onto the page, you aren’t, in my view, taking the kind of notes that are going to be of much value to you when you walk out of my class.

Remember when I said “you are welcome to think what you want”?

That’s what you should be writing notes about. What you think. If this class was just about the information coming out of my mouth, I could type that up and send you a file and it wouldn’t matter whether you showed up or not. But since you did show up (and I’m glad you did!) it’s my job to make sure you get the most out of this course while you’re here. And that won’t happen if I do all the work.

You are here to engage with the content of the course, not just to record it for posterity. If I were to read your notes, I would hope to find that they contained a lot more than what I said. I would hope to see questions. Comments. Musings and ponderings. Angry little rants. Diagrams and arrows and words with circles around them and symbols that mean something to you alone— that mean things like “look up this author” and “possible essay topic!”

I’m far more interested in seeing margin notes that say “yuck” and “wow!” and “why???” than I am in seeing my own words parroted in neatly bulleted lists. I want your notes to say as much about what you were feeling about what you were learning as they say about the curriculum.

So no, I won’t be handing out a copy of the PowerPoint slides. And I won’t be emailing them to you after the class either. You are welcome to complain about this gross injustice on the course evaluation. Be sure to provide a detailed explanation of how your learning suffered due to my failure in this regard.

At least you will be writing about what you think.