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.

 

 

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Cloud formations and the kindness of strangers

When my youngest daughter was about 5 she pronounced angrily, “I think the weather people just LIE.” I don’t recall the specific incident that prompted her tirade. No doubt some activity she had been anticipating had been unexpectedly rained out. Truthfully, the experience of being misled by a weather forecast is pretty common– common enough to spawn such wry remarks as: “Weather forecasting is only occupation in which you can be wrong 50% of the time and keep your job.”

But personally, I’m impressed that meteorologists get it right as often as they do.

Take Sunday for example. The forecast was for a cool, wet and windy day all around. And yet we walked out the door in the early morning to blazing sun and blue sky. My immediate thought was ,”They got it wrong.” But a second look revealed a small patch of dark clouds on the horizon. I decided to go for my walk first thing, just in case the predicted rain materialized after all.

In the space of half an hour the sky underwent a complete  transformation. There was a point where I could actually stand in one spot and, by adjusting the angle of my shot by less than 180 degrees, capture both skies:

From this...
From this…
...to this.
…to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transition point
Transition

The transformation was swift and dramatic– and nothing I could have predicted from looking at the sky an hour earlier. And yet someone had predicted it hours, even days before.

I know just enough about meteorology to appreciate how very little I know, and so it seems almost magical to me that someone could make such a prediction. And yet it’s not magic. You or I could do the same with the right tools and knowledge.

Just because a change isn’t obvious to the naked eye doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Sometimes the clouds roll in quickly and catch you unawares.

And sometimes they are there in plain sight in all their stormy blackness, and you walk out blindly into them all the same.

I got home from my Sunday walk well in time to dodge the downpour. A few days earlier, I was not so lucky. Or rather, not so smart. I could see that a storm was brewing. I could easily have found a place nearby to grab a coffee and wait it out. I could have gone back to the bus shelter. But instead, I stubbornly decided that I would try to make it home across the park before the storm broke.

If I had really thought about it, I would have been capable of reasoning that the storm was much closer than the half-hour it would take me to walk home. In this case the signs were obvious and I knew how to read them. But I chose to ignore them, and sure enough I was about halfway home and far from any form of shelter when the deluge hit.

Since I really had no one to blame for my predicament but myself, I scarcely deserved what happened next. A small red car appeared out of nowhere and pulled up beside me. Two young women– complete strangers to me — invited me to hop in. I hesitated for barely a second before swallowing my pride and climbing, dripping all the way, into the back seat. They went way out of their way and drove me to my door. I didn’t even get their names.

Rain. At least my plants enjoy it.
Rain. At least my plants enjoy it.

 

 

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

Gym class not-so-heros

Some days the daily prompt is easy to answer. Today’s question is: Which subject in school did you find impossible to master? Did math give you hives? Did English make you scream? Do tell!

I was that kid. The one who liked school. The one who put up her hand to answer all the questions. The one who obsessed about handing in her homework on time. The one who got teased by the other kids for always having good marks. The one who adored her teachers. Even the sort of scary ones.

But then there was gym.

Since I started school in the mid-1960s, both teacher education and the Physical Education curriculum have evolved a much more appropriate stance towards accommodating the needs of the differently abled. But when I entered school with a full-on case of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, “accommodation,” when it happened at all, typically meant one of the following:

  1.  Sit on the bench and watch. The best that can be said for this option was that it was crushingly boring. It could have been redeemed by modifying it to “sit on the bench and read a book” but I can’t recall that being an option. Presumably by watching I was going absorb some gym-related knowledge vicariously? More likely it just never occurred to my teachers that there might have been more worthwhile ways to spend my time.
  2. Do some benign alternate activity on the sidelines. I spent a great deal of junior high gym class listlessly lobbing a badminton birdie back and forth with my best friend who conveniently had asthma and needed to sit out even more activities than I did. You might be forgiven for expecting that this experience resulted in me becoming a badminton ace, but you would be very wrong. Since, in the mind of the teacher, I was never going to be an athlete, this activity really was just about killing time. Consequently I was never deemed worthy of any coaching or instruction that might have resulted in actual skill development.
  3. Try to participate as much as you can. This was the worst, by far. Because as soon I left my exile of the bench or sidelines, I stepped into the arena where, like it or not, I was up for comparison with everyone else in the class. And compare they did. I was the classic “last kid picked” for every team. And for some reason in that era it never dawned on the teachers that there was anything problematic with ALWAYS letting the most athletic kids (generally boys) select the teams. I was always the slowest runner, when I was enough in remission to run at all. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. To this day I still “throw like a girl.”

Even during the good times when I was fully in remission, which was the case by the time I reached my early teens, gym was unremittingly awful, because in all those years on the bench I had missed out on a lot of basic skill-building. This wouldn’t have been an issue for some activities, but most gym teachers at the time did not seem to possess imaginations capable of stretching beyond the  tried and true triumvirate of volleyball, basketball, and baseball.

I was never wired for team sports, but for most of my gym career they were my only options. Even as an adult, I shy away from any athletic activity where my lack of skill and prowess might impact on another player. In my 40s I enjoyed going to a “master class” in swimming where we mainly did laps. One day the teacher decided to switch things up and teach us a bit of water polo for 5-10 minutes at the end of each workout. I dreaded those minutes so much I stopped going.

Grade 10 meant switching to the high school. It meant, at that time, the last year of mandatory physical education. It also meant the first time that gym would be a graded course, as opposed to something in which I would get a pass just for showing up.

Fortunately, grade 10 also introduced me to a new breed of gym teacher. She was young. She was easygoing. She was a she. And her philosophy was that since this was our last year of gym class we should be exposed to physical activities that we could do when we were no longer in the high school world with its obsession with volleyball and basketball. So we went swimming — which was always the one physical activity at which I was both competent and confident. We went horseback riding–which scared the beejeezus out of me, but had me on a level playing field with all but a handful of my classmates. We went bowling (OK) and cross country skiing (yes!) We did lots of things I sucked at, a few things with which I could sort of cope, and two or three things I actually liked. But nothing we did lasted more than a couple of weeks, and the main thing was you had to try everything. When I brought home my mid-semester report card, my parents and I were elated. I had pulled off a C+.

My gym teacher also happened to be my home-room teacher, so when my parents arrived for the parent-teacher interview, the teacher had seen my report card with not only my gym mark, but also the A’s I had received for all my other courses. When my parents introduced themselves, they could see that the teacher was very nervous. She began talking about my progress in gym class in the most defensive of tones, which confused my parents greatly until they realized that she assumed they were coming to berate her for “only” giving me a C+, when clearly I was a far better student than that. “Oh no,” my mom exclaimed when she finally put two and two together. “We’re absolutely delighted with Anna’s grade in gym. She has had the best experience in your class of any gym class she has ever taken!”

Gymnasiums can still make me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t see myself ever joining an athletic team. Fortunately I got enough “team” training in band and theatre to consider myself a fairly well-rounded adult. In spite of the inadequacies of my physical education, I have found ways of being physically fit and active that work for me. I still love to swim, and you know, dear reader, how much I love to walk.

In fact, it’s time to go for a walk right about now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agley Again

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

— “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns

I swear I am the queen of good intentions. I know how I want to live. More vegetables; fewer donuts. More healthy meals prepared from scratch; fewer drive-by processed calories. More fitness activity; less Facebook. More focused writing; less aimless surfing. More mindful budget decisions; less impulse spending.

More time to do the things I love; less time wasted on things that don’t really add value anywhere.

And yet so often I catch myself sliding into a state of being I call “Surviving the Week.”

Surviving the Week is about having a fridge full of fresh vegetables, but not having the mental energy to assemble them into a salad, so I go to the cafeteria and spend money I don’t need to spend on a lunch entrée in which gravy is the dominant element.

Surviving the Week is about adding more paper to the “miscellaneous” pile on my desk instead of filing it away when I’m done with it.

Surviving the Week is about collapsing on the couch to watch mindless TV, even though I know I would feel better about life if I went for a walk.

Surviving the Week is about trolling old Facebook photos when I really want to be writing, because I didn’t go for that walk, which probably would have unlocked an idea and given me something to write about.

Surviving the Week is about beating myself up for not doing the things I really want to be doing, because I am distracted by things that are easy to do at the end of a tiring day.

I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.
I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.

I don’t want to be Surviving the Week. I want to be living mindfully, creatively, healthfully. And sometimes I do. But other times, like Robbie Burns’ wee Mousie, my best-laid schemes do “gang agley,” and I find myself  slipping into survival mode.`

Often that means I have simply overloaded my circuits by taking on too much. The irony is, that the things I take on that leave me feeling tapped out are typically things I want and like to do.

Like staying up way too late to write this blog post.

Strive to thrive

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “Do you thrive under pressure or crumble at the thought of it? Does your best stuff surface as the deadline approaches or do you need to iterate, day after day to achieve something you’re proud of? Tell us how you work best…. show us PRESSURE.”

Do I thrive under pressure? Frankly, I’m never sure how to respond to this question. Do I handle myself well under pressure? Absolutely. I have a reputation for being able to do good work quickly. I’m good at improvising solutions. In a crisis, I’m the one who copes.

The truth is, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have high expectations. I’m apt to hand things in ahead of the deadline– sometimes just because I worked quickly and got the task done early, and sometimes because I set my own deadline, earlier than the real one, so that I could be absolutely sure I would be done on time.

I was in grade four when I first appreciated the tyranny of my own high standards. I had a big social studies project due: something along the lines of “Everything There Is to Know About Australia That Can Be Derived from Back Issues of National Geographic.” (This was, after all, pre-internet.) I had done a fair bit of work, but I had also done a fair bit of procrastinating. The project was due on Monday morning. Sunday night rolled around and I wasn’t done. I went to bed with my stomach in knots. I had never failed to hand in an assignment on time unless I was sick. I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I could imagine no  consequence more horrifying than Miss Miller’s disapproval.

Morning came, and I got up and got dressed for school with the demeanor of one preparing for execution. By breakfast, I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I was feeling physically ill.

My mom was astute enough to see through the root cause of my ailment. She gently suggested that if I wasn’t feeling well I should probably stay home for the morning, and we would see if I felt better after lunch. I asked her if it would be OK if I worked on my project. She just smiled, nodded sagely, and said that would probably be OK — if I felt up to it.

By lunchtime the project was finished and, miraculously, so was my mysterious stomach ailment. I went off to school for the afternoon, vowing to myself that I would never again put myself in the situation where I was late with an assignment.

There, have, of course, been times since then when I have had to ask for extra time to complete a task. I learned that I could ask for extra time without making myself ill over it. But I still don’t like it if I can’t meet a deadline, no matter how legitimate the reason. The truth is, I think I’ve learned to cope well under pressure by taking control of the pressure — by exerting the lion’s share of the pressure on myself.

Do I thrive under pressure? I’m not sure thrive is the right word. I get a lot done under pressure. I do good work under pressure.  But thrive?

A better path
A better path

When I was on leave recovering from my hip replacement, I had a glimpse of what life would be like without the kind of pressure that has become my norm. I was in better physical shape than usual — in spite of just having had surgery– because I was exercising more  than usual every day. I was more creative — and more creatively productive– than I have been in a long time because I had time to focus, and because the daily walks fuelled my imagination. In short, I experienced something far closer to what I would call thriving than I have ever encountered under even the most exhilarating pressure.

At least now I know what I’m really striving for.

Home, Frozen Home

When I set out for work yesterday morning the wind chill was -50 degrees Celsius. According to the astronomy department at the local museum, it was colder in my city yesterday than it was on the surface of Mars. So take note space entrepreneurs: if you’re thinking to pitch Mars as a tourist destination, Winnipeg is your prime market.

If you travel to Thompson to the north of Winnipeg (yes, there is stuff north of Winnipeg besides polar bears) you will be hard pressed to find a hotel room during the winter months. The population of the town swells in the coldest months of the year with car manufacturing companies on location to cold-test their vehicles. (Random thought: I wonder where the Mars Rover was cold-tested?)

Many years ago, on a tour of the canals of Venice, we learned about the risks and challenges of living on land that had been, rather tenuously, reclaimed from the sea. I commented that it seemed odd that people would opt to make their homes in such an unforgiving place. My partner turned to me with a look of incredulity and said, “Well, we live in Winnipeg.”

But honestly I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Call my crazy.

We’ve had record low temperatures in December. The streets– even the main arteries– are a corrugated mess of deep ice ruts that mean you take your life in your hands every time you change lanes. That is if you can actually figure out where the lanes are. The roads are littered with automotive debris from the unlucky ones. I’m wearing my smooshed-in bumper from my Christmas day mishap like a good-luck charm. I figure I’ve had my turn. Even so, I am white-knuckling my way through the exit ramps and intersections where the buildup is the worst. And in case the snow pack wasn’t enough, water mains keep bursting and turning streets into ersatz skating rinks.

I can’t remember seeing the roads this bad for this long. It seems to have been a perfect storm of heavy, warmish, snowfall followed by a deep freeze that has rendered the packed snow and ice resistant to the scraping of the snow plows.

But we’re still going places. Oh, I suspect that there were a few more people than usual opting for a New Year’s Eve night at home last night, but when I was still on the roads around 8:30 pm I was far from alone. It takes a lot more than ridiculous cold and treacherous driving conditions to keep a Winnipegger from carrying on with life.

Although, I have to admit at -50 I am not taking a lot of leisurely walks along the riverbank. I could, however, safely talk a walk on the river by now–that is if I didn’t mind risking frostbite and hypothermia. I contemplated suiting up and walking up to the road to take some pictures for this post, but since taking pictures requires the removal of my mitts, I decided that wasn’t happening.

Instead, I stumbled across this bit of fun from a Canadian business. This story is from Ontario, but the same spirit of thumbing one’s nose at the worst winter has to offer applies.

Momentum

The remains of the mental muck I was lamely trudging through on Friday night were still clinging to me when I left for work this morning. Even though I wrestled my weekend into some order with my trusty list. Even though I slept late (a rare event) and woke to the smell of fresh cinnamon buns my daughter had made for breakfast. Even though I made a real point of taking it easy on Sunday and actually went to bed at a decent hour.

Sometimes I just lose momentum.

If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain the kind of fatigue that comes with certain forms of chronic illness. In my case, it comes in a package with rheumatoid arthritis. But fatigue is a feature of all sorts of chronic conditions–other forms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, MS, depression.

Everyone gets tired, right? But fatigue is different from tired. Tired is an event. Tired is “I didn’t sleep well last night so I’d better have a nap.”  Tired is “Wow that was quite a workout; I’ll sleep well tonight. “Tired is “I’ve been on my feet too long and I’ve got to sit down for a few minutes.”

Fatigue doesn’t go away if you sit down for a few minutes. Fatigue is waking up from the nap without much more energy than you had before. Fatigue is looking at the dishes on the kitchen counter, knowing that it would take 5 minutes tops to wash them, and not having the energy to do it. Fatigue is staring blankly into a fridge full of fresh ingredients and opting to microwave a frozen dinner to eat on the sofa. Fatigue is staring blankly at the screen and realizing that even stringing together a few coherent sentences is Just Too Much Effort.

Sometimes fatigue is a corollary of chronic pain. Because let me tell you there is nothing quite so exhausting as chronic pain. But even when my joints are not flaring and I am not experiencing significant pain, the fatigue can still wash over me and rob me of my momentum.

It has taken me most of my life to realize that, ironically, the more exercise I get, the less likely I am to be overcome with fatigue. In the weeks following my hip replacement surgery, when I was exercising religiously and walking every day, I had all kinds of energy. I’m still walking when I can, but the reality is that my work involves a lot of sitting. After being back for just two months, I can already feel the reduction in physical activity taking its toll. In spite of my best intentions to the contrary, it’s hard to maintain the momentum of healthy living when there are so many other priorities crowding in and demanding attention.

After my sluggish weekend, I was relieved to find that at some point mid-morning I got my stride back. By mid afternoon I was on a productive roll, and things that looked like huge and daunting tasks on Friday and throughout the weekend were finally getting knocked off my to-do list with ease.

When the fatigue subsides, it’s easy to forget about it. Easy to assume that the momentum will last. Easy to fall into the bad habits that leave me dragging like a old clock that hasn’t been wound. My calendar at work this week is a marathon. I know better, but I let it happen all the same.