I go walking: Day’s end

I have finally touched down after ten days of swirling in a self-imposed tornado of Doing.  Too. Much.

I knew I would overdo it, in the same way I know I will always eat just a bit too much at Christmas Dinner. I have been alternating between volunteering at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and happily gorging on the overwhelming buffet of theatrical treats ranging from lovely to thought-provoking to “well at least I only spent ten dollars on THAT.”

Oh and this was after a full day at the office.

As usual, my sleep deprived immune system has punished me for my excesses by conspiring with a nasty head cold. But I’ll live.

Meanwhile, viral disciplinarians notwithstanding, life is pretty good. Daughter #1 is riding high on a prime new job opportunity, and daughter #2 has been safely dispatched to camp for four weeks. I am even feeling considerably less panicky about my grading deadline now that I am nearly halfway through my virtual “stack” of e-papers. (Funny– as much as I like not having to sacrifice so many trees on the altar of higher learning, I do miss the physical satisfaction of watching the “done” pile rise as the “to be done” pile wanes.)

Most of my walking over the past ten days has been Fringe Festival walking– treading the downtown pavement from my office to my volunteer venue to another venue to see a play to the food vendors gathered in Old Market Square. It’s a different kind of walking: a getting-somewhere walking as opposed to the more contemplative going-for-a-walk kind of walking that fuels my writing.

Tonight, however, I managed a loop around the golf course.

The old concrete sidewalk that formed the path under the bridge has, in the past few weeks, been chewed up and replaced with a pristine strip of asphalt twice the width (the better to accommodate bike traffic to the stadium, methinks.) There are enough little brown rabbits grazing the lawns along the riverbank to populate the entire works of Beatrice Potter. A pelican floated by on the river. I was surprised to see a group of pelicans in a nearby retention pond a few days ago. This summer is the first time I have ever seen them in city limits. Perhaps because there is so much excess water this year?

On my way back, the sky was beginning to redden, and I reflected on how little time it takes to notice the days begin to grow shorter. I was reminded, as I often am at dusk, of the time my youngest astonished her camp counsellor by being the only seven-year-old in the history of Zoo Camp to arrive already knowing how to use the word “crepuscular” in a sentence.

Ok boys and girls, we call owls and bats “nocturnal” because they come out to feed at night. Does anyone know what you call an animal like a deer that comes out to feed at dawn and dusk…?

And then, as if cued by my reminiscence, there were the deer. Two of them–one young and one full-grown.

Sometimes it’s good to slow down.

Blurry -- because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.
Blurry — because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.

 

 

I go walking: Flowing

As predicted, the ice jam came unjammed sometime in the night or early morning. By the time I headed out after breakfast, masses of broken river ice were flowing down the river.iceflow 8When I was a kid growing up on the bank of the Assiniboine River, this flow of ice was a big event. Every spring as the weather warmed we placed twenty-five cent bets on which day the ice would “go out.”  My grandfather generally won. This year the weather has been so erratic that I suspect even grandpa would have been hard pressed to call it.

Standingiceflow 4iceflow 3 on the bank just south of the bridge, I watched the ice crash against the bridge supports that just yesterday were bracing the ice jam. Huge slabs of ice crumbled against the supports which, I noticed for the first time, are shaped much like ships’ prows, no doubt  for exactly this purpose. Fallen trees, carried downriver with the ice, crashed and splintered like giant toothpicks.

As a kid, I always thought of the going out of the ice as a singular event. When I observe the river’s changes now, I see that everything about it is more complex than I once believed. The ice jams, and flows, and jams, and flows again, until eventually the last of it has melted. A lot of things that seem simple when you first look at them reveal themselves to be much more complex on closer examination.

iceflow 2

 

I go walking: Ice Jam

water risingOne of the lessons the river teaches is: Don’t assume that your singular perspective captures the whole story.

There I was, revelling in the view of open water from just outside my door, communing with ducks and geese and watching the spring river inching up the slope of the dike, and I totally failed to notice the ice jam.

Here on the north side of the bridge, the river appears to be wide open. But just a short walk to the other side of the bridge reveals that the southern span marks the edge of a sizeable ice jam.

ice jam 3

I’ve lived with prairie rivers all my life– I should know better than to take a spring river at face value. The ice jam is a reminder not to make assumptions based on the view before me– a reminder that, just around the curve of the river, the world might be quite a different place.

For all I know the ice jam may be gone tomorrow. At some point, the warming air will soften the massive slab of ice that is wedged against the bridge supports and it will break up and move northward, taking along with it the debris of fallen trees and garbage collected along its journey.

The ice jam ends as abruptly as it begins. Another short, southward hike, another curve in the river, and the water opens up again.

ice jam 6

The ice jam is a paradox– both solid and ephemeral. Ice is helpless against the heat of the sun, but it can do tremendous damage. An ice jam is unpredictable and dangerous. And then it’s gone.

geese 3

 

 

I go walking: At Dusk

I don’t have high expectations of Saturday Night.  If there’s an event to go to, I enjoy going out, but I don’t feel a desperate need to find an event if one has not presented itself to me. I’m introverted enough to be quite content at home with a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a good book.  I’m also just as apt to be doing something quite mundane like laundry or, as was the case tonight, marking papers. A party animal I am not.

One benefit to a quiet Saturday night is an evening walk. I love walking at dusk. I love the steady changing of colour in the sky as the sun slips below the horizon. I love the particular shade of deep blue that the sky assumes just before the last light is gone and it is night-dark. I love the way the air feels as it cools down. At this time of year it’s a very solitary time to walk, but in summer twilight brings out lots of walkers who have been waiting for a reprieve from the intense heat of the day.

Things come out at dusk. Tonight it was a lone beaver floating placidly in the icy river where the water is lapping up past the clusters of weedy shoreline trees. All I could think was how cold that water must be, and how relaxed the beaver was in spite of the chill.

I also encountered a pair of mallard ducks paddling near the shore. They were quiet, until a second pair of mallards flew in and, apparently,  landed too close to the nesting spot the first pair was scoping out. Then there was a huge to-do of quacking, which only calmed slightly when the second couple relented and flew upriver a little.  Even so, the first pair of ducks were still trash-talking the second in an indignant tone as I walked back along the dike towards home.

The geese were out too, but in the darkening sky I could only hear them.

The thing about dusk is that it’s ephemeral. Night stays around for a significant time. Day is a commitment. But there is something about dusk that evokes a conscious sense of time passing. You can only enjoy it in the moment. I don’t even try to take pictures, because I know there is something about dusk to which my camera will never do justice. I have to absorb it with my senses, knowing that my time to do so is limited.

When I go back and read that, it occurs to me that it might sound kind of depressing. But that’s not what I feel at all. For me, that ephemeral space between day and night is a magical moment of letting go of the busyness of day and allowing myself to float peacefully on the night like that beaver floating along the river’s edge. Not even caring how cold it is.

riverbank1

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

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Angels

There’s a comfortable predictability to Christmas Eve church.  There will always be a little girl in a red velvet dress running up and down the aisles to remind me of a time when it was my own little girls doing the running. There will be a mountain of poinsettias in front of the altar, ready to be delivered to the parish shut-ins after the Christmas services are over. There will be the crèche, and the candles. There will be lots of people we see exactly once a year, including a lot of tall teenagerish-looking people who look faintly like a bunch of little kids I remember from Christmases not so long ago.

And of course the story is completely familiar. The long journey, the stable, the baby, and a bunch of shepherds who suddenly look up to discover they are surrounded by angels trumpeting the good news. This year it was the part about the angels that struck me the most. Perhaps I had angels on my mind after yesterday’s post. Perhaps it was the preacher’s assertion that if a host of angels showed up and told him to “be not afraid,” he was quite certain that he would be afraid nonetheless. But the shepherds, according to the story, drop everything they are doing and go off to see the baby on the word of the angels.

I think that’s why I am fascinated by the part of the angels in the story this Christmas– because, whatever theological significance they might have, for me right now they represent something about embracing the unexpected. As it turns out, some of the best things about this Christmas have been the unexpected. Daughter #1 was able to spend more of the day with us than anticipated. We had some last minute additions to our Christmas dinner table this evening.  Daughter #2 officially took up the baton as chief turkey cook while I ran an unexpected errand at the critical moment. We had to improvise around a couple of dinner traditions because of items that were inadvertently left behind, but it all fell wonderfully into place.

We even managed to embrace the less “angelic” unexpected events– like a bad skid on an icy road that resulted in me rear-ending another car on the way to my sister’s for brunch. No one was hurt. The other woman’s car didn’t have a scratch. And my front bumper… well, the insurance will cover that, and in the meantime the car is still driveable. It could have been much worse, and I came away feeling more grateful than shaken.

The wind went down while we were at church on Christmas eve. When we came out it felt almost warm in contrast to the -30 Celsius wind chill we have been enduring for a couple of weeks. We stopped on the way home to walk a friend’s little dog that we are looking after while her people are away. It was so lovely out that after we got back from the first walk, the dog insisted on going out a second time.

When we arrived home, daughter #2 and I climbed through the snowbank up onto the dike to look at the river. Along the top of the dike there is still a well-worn path, but the snow on the slope going down towards the river bank was undisturbed. We just stood there and enjoyed being outside without suffering immediate frostbite, and then my daughter turned to me with an impish smile.

“Want to make a snow angel?”

“YES!” (I was, I confess, actually thinking to myself, “I really want to make a snow angel…”)

snow angel 5
The photo is dark because a) it was dark, and b) if you are a 52 year old woman making snow angels in a public park, it is probably better that way!

So we did. And it was great. Doubly great, because it was one more activity that I couldn’t have engaged in with my pre-surgery hip.

And then my daughter stomped MERRY X-MAS in the snow along the riverbank in ten-foot high letters. Probably big enough to be seen from across the river.

For sure big enough to be seen by the angels from their vantage point in the heavens.

snow angel 2

Ripples

The theme of today’s Daily Prompt is “Texture.”

Freezing 4Back in mid-November, when the river was just beginning to freeze along the edges, I stumbled upon a fascinating textural effect along the shoreline. There must have been a wind blowing as the clay along the river’s edge was freezing, because frozen into the ground were distinct ridges capturing in solid form the ephemeral texture of the water lapping against the muddy shore. I was lucky to catch this sight– the conditions must have been just right to create the effect. A day or two earlier the ground was still malleable. A few days later the frozen ripples were hidden by a blanket of snow.

When that snow melts in the spring it will raise the river and saturated the shore, so this particular texture will no longer be present on this surface. The surface itself will be submerged, hidden by real ripples of surging water.

freezing 2Even if I walked the same path every day, the magic of nature is that it continually offers up new gifts. Some of those gifts, like my rippling water frozen both in temperature and time, are ephemeral. If we don’t stop to notice– to accept the gift– we may not be offered a second chance.

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

Flowing

“You cannot step into the same river twice.” — Heraclitus of Ephesus

freezing 3

I can’t keep up with the changes. I managed to snap some photos a few days ago that captured the beginning of ice formation along the edges of the river. But they are already historical artifacts. The ice spreads and thickens daily, and the riverbank is now blanketed in snow.

I wanted to capture the river’s changes as it transitioned into winter, but it seems that the changes march on without waiting for my feeble attempts to record them. It’s dark when I arrive home from work now, and even if there was enough light left for picture taking, it’s difficult to fine-tune a camera focus wearing thick mittens. And you really don’t want to take the mittens off for long.

Under the forming ice, the river continues to flow. In the spring, when the ice breaks up, it will be a different river flowing past my door. It may look the same, but as Heraclitis sagely observed some 2500 years ago, it won’t be the same water, and I won’t be the same observer.

I talk about change a lot. I crave change. I find it energizing and exciting. Without a regular infusion of new challenges, I get restless. I probably use “change” as a tag more often than any other word.

I wonder if my interest in change was nurtured by growing up next to a river. Or  do I find the river soothing because its constant changing resonates with my thought processes?

I don’t suppose it matters. What matters is that the river’s lessons have seeped so thoroughly into my frame of reference that I know exactly what is meant by “you can’t step in the sane river twice.” Because the kind of change that interests me is not a change in what one does. It’s a change in who one is.

freezing 2A fellow blogger got me thinking about transformation this evening–  about the kind of learning that moves you into a place so different from where you began that you can scarcely communicate what the change is all about.

I know I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. The person I was twenty years ago would be surprised by the person I have become. The person I was 30 years ago would scarcely recognize me. In truth, she would probably find me shocking and perhaps a little frightening. Certainly she would be confused by some of the thoughts and things I now hold dear, and baffled by those I have chosen to leave behind.

But, like the continuous flowing of the river, all those versions of me are seamlessly connected. The paradox of the river is that, while it is constantly in a state of change, it is always in the same place. Likewise I am still me, in spite of, or maybe because of, all my transformations.