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

Silence

clockThe radio was always on at my inlaws’ home. CBC talk radio was the default, or classical music programming on various FM stations. My ex-husband carried this habit into our marriage. We woke to the familiar voices of Information Radio and did the supper dishes to a backdrop of As It Happens. The clock radio by the bed gave way to the radio on top of the fridge as we moved through the house in a primitive sort of surround-sound.

I got used to it. But once in a while, when I had the house to myself, I would go around and turn off all the radios.

Both my children prefer to fall asleep to sound. Sometimes quiet music, but more often than not it’s talk. There were favourite books-on-tape (now on CD), some of which we owned and some of which we repeatedly checked out of the library. Both girls had large portions of the Harry Potter series virtually memorized–they had listened to it so often. Now it’s more likely to be a favourite TV series or YouTube channel set to loop. I often find myself closing a laptop that has been left chattering long after its user has lost consciousness.

There are times I like background sound myself. When I’m driving I typically have the radio or a CD playing. When I’m working on a project around the house I will sometimes put on a CD. But when the CD ends, I often don’t think to start a new one.

The truth is, I like silence. When I go walking, I don’t have myself plugged into an MP3 player– I don’t even own such a thing. I want to be surrounded by enough silence to let me hear the crickets and the frogs peeping along the riverbank. I want the silence of the lakeshore that frames the cry of a loon in the middle of a dark lake.

I want the kind of silence that lets me hear my own thoughts. Judging from the ubiquitous wires snaking down from the ears of other walkers I encounter, I appear to be in the minority.

To be deliberately silent for two minutes–as we do on this day in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in times of war–sounds like it should be easy. But for those of us who live in urban, western environments, silence is a foreign country. There is a massive industry dedicated to making sure that we never have to endure silence of any kind. It is easy fill our lives with an endless soundtrack of media and music.

So when we are asked to observe two minutes of silence in the company of others, there is a strange, uncomfortable intimacy about it. So many people aren’t used to being present to their own thoughts with that degree of focus. Even those of us who feel some degree of comfort with silence are unaccustomed to doing it in public.

I’m glad that two minutes of silence isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy. It should feel like a massive disruption to our normal patterns– a giant step outside our comfort zone. It should feel every bit as uncomfortable as it does. Because there was nothing easy for those for whom we do it.

Falling

Snow is falling.

So far it’s melting right away when it hits the ground. And the car. And my hair. I’m not crazy about this in-between precipitation. The temperature has been hovering just above freezing all day, so everything is wet and oh so slippery.

Slippery is the one thing that can deter me from going out walking. I’m afraid of falling.

And it’s not just because of my newly minted artificial hip, although I can’t imagine taking a serious fall on my recently installed joint would be a great idea. Actually, I’ve always been afraid of falling.

Not heights. I have no issue with heights. I can drive in the mountains. I can look down from tall observation towers. I can walk across a bridge without getting the shakes. But an icy sidewalk… now that’s scary.

In fact any activity that involves even the sensation that I might fall is tough. I didn’t get very far with learning to ice skate. Even sports like broomball and curling where you get to wear boots, but still have to be on an ice surface, have no appeal for me. And you could not possibly pay me enough to convince me to get on a skateboard or a pair of downhill skis.

Once, in my youth, I gave into the pleadings of a good friend and agreed to go on a blind date. It was to be a double-date– my friend and her boyfriend, and me and another friend of theirs. Somehow– and to this day I cannot fathom how I ever agreed to the plan– it was determined that this social outing would take place at the roller rink.

Right.

My experience on roller skates to that point in my life was exactly zero. “No worries,” my friend insisted, “it’s no different from ice skating. You’ll pick it up right away.”

Great. And who exactly was going to pick ME up? I could see where this was going.

And yet I went. Perhaps because I didn’t want to disappoint my friend. Perhaps because I was afraid to admit just how afraid I was of the prospect of strapping wheels to my feet. Perhaps because hey, it was a date.

Dear Reader, I did not “pick it up right away.” The evening went something like this: my friend and her boyfriend skated graceful laps hand in hand, periodically pausing to check in on me and Blind Date boy, who was essentially having to hold me up and drag me slowly around the periphery of the rink. He seemed, to me, to be very pleased to have stumbled into a situation where the young woman he was with had no choice but to cling to him with all her might. I, on the other hand, was mentally counting the minutes until the farce could end and we could all go for coffee and laugh at me for the rest of the evening.

I did not go on another date with that young man. And I did not ever agree to strapping on another pair of roller skates.

And I’m still uber-cautious about stepping out onto an icy sidewalk.

Winter is coming

bare treeThe wind was blowing from the north this afternoon with enough force to raise whitecaps on the river. I opted to walk northward, partly because the river trails to the north are more sheltered than many of my other walking routes, and partly so that I would have the wind at my back on the way home.

Winter is coming. I know it’s a cliché, but you really can feel it in the air. The wind bites through all my layers of clothing. The trees are skeletons of their summer selves. The leaves that made soft shushing sounds when they first began to fall a few weeks ago are now dry and curled, and rattle erratically as the wind sends them tumbling across the pavement.

bag leavesFor a person who likes change, I live in the perfect climate. Four very distinct seasons mean that there is always a transition about to happen. The signs of winter preparation are all around me. Leaves have been raked and bagged. Barbeques and boats have been covered. My patio pots have been harvested. I decide that it’s time to bring in the patio furniture.

On my northward walking route one of the river-side restaurants offers its clientele the option of arriving by boat. Now, though, the dock  has been dismantled and the sections hauled up onto the shore, where they are stacked like building blocks, far enough up the bank, one hopes, to be out of reach of the spring high water level and the crushing force of the ice.

potsRegardless of what the calendar says, around here winter starts when the snow arrives. We’ve already had a few flurries, but those don’t count. Winter is measured by the snow that blankets the ground and stays. And that can happen any day now. Or it can mess with our expectations and hold off until late December. I recall a few years when we waded through snow banks to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. I can also recall the odd year when the snow came so late that we wondered whether we would have a white Christmas.

But it will come. Because as much as the cycle of the seasons is about constant change, it is also about predictability. Fall always turns into winter, which eventually give way to spring, which is guaranteed to be a precursor to summer. And then around we go again.

riverbankThere’s a certain comfort in the cyclical. The river will freeze and thaw, rise and fall. Every spring the weather warms up just as I am growing sick to death of my winter wardrobe. Every fall I thrill to pull out my sweaters because I am so relieved at the arrival of cooler days. Each season has its routines– its rituals and traditions. Before you know it we’ll be clearing away the pumpkins and pulling the Christmas stuff out of storage.

Somehow the slow, familiar rhythm of the seasons provides an anchor for my life. I know where I am in the universe by where I am in the seasonal cycle. “Winter is coming” is not a dire threat of cold and hardship. Rather, it is a promise that the seasons will keep turning on their majestic wheel in spite of the small tragedies and petty dramas that clutter my days.

Happy Hip Day

Today’s Daily Prompt posed the question: You get some incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully fantastic news. What’s the first thing you do?

My “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” news was not a single moment in time. Rather, it unfolded gradually over the past year.  Last October my doctor sent a referral letter to an orthopaedic surgeon. In March I met the surgeon. And three months ago today I traded in my left hip for a newer model.

Unemployed
Unemployed

My cane still sits in the front hall, but I haven’t used it for weeks. The scar from my incision has flattened out, and feels just like a mild bruise if I poke it. I can climb the three flights of stairs to my daughter’s apartment.

I went to hear Margaret Atwood (!) speak at a local mall a couple of days ago. There were no chairs left when I arrived, so I stood. For over an hour. Before the surgery, I might have lasted 15 minutes. On a good day.

Now that I’ve reached the three-month mark, I can officially dispense with the “hip precautions” and work on increasing my range of motion. But already it’s easier to pick things up off the floor. Easier to get in and out of the car. Easier to get things out of the bottom of the fridge.

Everything is a little easier when you are not in constant pain.

It really is incredible.

Me, now. (sort of)
Me, now. (sort of)

Slow Down

Today’s Daily Prompt poses: Your entire community — however you define that; your hometown, your neighborhood, your family, your colleagues — is guaranteed to read your blog tomorrow. Write the post you’d like them all to see.

bank 1Although, as this blogger observes, I thought that’s what I was doing already, this one did give me pause. And here’s why—

This morning I decided to check out another walking venue that I haven’t  seen in many years. South of the city, along the same wiggly Seine River that winds past the old monastery, is a wooded area called La Barrière Park. It’s at least 25 years since I last set foot in this park. Then, I was a young teacher supervising a school picnic, surrounded by noisy teenagers. Today, aside from the maintenance crew and a couple of dog walkers, I pretty much had the place to myself.

But before that I got lost. To get to the park I had to drive through a new development that has been going up in the south end of the city. There are roads that are so new they aren’t on my map. And there are no meaningful landmarks—just acres and acres of huge, beige and grey boxes. At one point I ended up on a brand new stretch of road that ended abruptly in a massive dirt field. I came very close to just giving up and backtracking my way to a more familiar haunt, when suddenly I found myself on what I knew to be the right road, going in the right direction. Phew.

When I finally found my way into the park, I left my car alone in the parking lot and set out along  a rough maintenance road, past the picnic shelters and the baseball diamonds, over a solid footbridge, and into the woods.

pathThe forest was quiet. The sound of fallen leaves crunching softly beneath my shoes was occasionally punctuated by the rustle of a bird or squirrel moving through the branches above. The path was wide and well-maintained, but in such a way that it didn’t feel like a human construction. The only litter on the forest floor was the natural forest litter of fallen trees and broken branches, many of which were thick with moss. In one spot someone had perched a split log atop two adjoining tree stumps to fashion a primitive bench.

Something about the forest felt safe. Safer, I realized, than I felt driving around lost in the new subdivision.

Tomorrow is the last day of my leave. Monday I will be back at work. Back in the “real world” after many days spent walking and thinking and writing. It’s time to go back; the muscles around my new hip feel strong and my leg feels stable. When I step on the bus on Monday morning I won’t be carrying a cane.

forestBut I’m going to miss the slow rhythm of these days. I know I am going to have to fight to maintain the sense of equilibrium that I have found with all this time to squander. I’m going to have to be very intentional about making time to walk in the woods. Time to think. Time to write.

And the thing that bothers me most is that as a community we seem to accept that that will be the case. We accept that life is hectic. We accept that “busy” is the norm.

I want to continue to challenge that notion as my own “busy-ness” ramps up again in the coming weeks. I am determined to keep wandering in the woods, and not to get lost among the boxes.

And I want to challenge you, my community, to slow down. And go for a walk in the woods.

seine 2

Going astray

ruins 1“To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.” — St. Teresa of Avila

Just south of the city’s edge sit the ruins of an old Trappist Monastery. For a change of walking scene I drove down there this morning.

A plaque at the gate neatly sums up the historical facts:

Monsignor Ritchot, parish priest of St. Norbert, and Archbishop Taché of St. Boniface invited five Cistercians of the Trappist Order from the Abbey of Bellefontaine, France, to establish a monastery here in 1892. The community was named Our Lady of the Prairies. The Romanesque Revival church was built in 1903-04 and the connecting monastic wing in 1905. The guesthouse was erected in 1912 on the foundations of the first church building. This self-sufficient monastery included milking barns, stables, a cheesehouse, apiary, sawmill and cannery.

By 1978, the Trappists had moved to a site near Holland, Manitoba, to protect their contemplative life from the effects of urban sprawl. Fire gutted the vacated church and residential wing five years later.

ruins 4The monastic life has always appealed to me. Simplicity. Self-sufficiency. A life free of literal and virtual clutter. The combination of hard, honest work and quiet contemplation. I’ve read the Rule of St. Benedict—it describes the kind of life I would like to live—the kind of person I would like to be. But I’ll never be Catholic enough to fit in with any Order.

I can see why the monks chose this lovely riverbank location. And later, as I drive back into the city, past the endlessly under-construction perimeter overpass and the acres of concrete, I can see why they left.river

Early morning on a cold autumn weekday, there are no tourists. No wedding parties making use of the scenic setting. No crowds gathering for an event at the arts and cultural centre that makes its home in the old monastery guesthouse.   My car is alone in the parking lot, and I have the grounds to myself. My personal take on monasticism: a walk in the woods, alone.

I explore the ruins, and wonder at the beauty of the rough brickwork, and the very European feel of this place of prayer that was constructed beside a sleepy prairie river in what must have felt like paradise to a community seeking to live apart. And then I spot a path off the road and down through a wooded section of the riverbank, and I go astray.

As I make my way along the flattened grass towards the bank, I notice the crumpled remains of a beer case in the weeds. The bright blue of the carton leaps out against the greys and browns and muted greens of the leaf-strewn ground. Distracted by the contrast, I fail to notice the other litter.

trappist trash 3I walk on, weaving through a stand of dying elms, until I suddenly realize that the ground in all directions is strewn with scrap metal.  Old car parts, oil drums, bits of chain link fence. It’s everywhere. I didn’t notice it because the ubiquitous rust blends subtly with the colours of the mud and fallen leaves. A different kind of ruin to the one up the hill.

It’s hard to know what to make of it. Who to blame for the mess. Surely not the monks. And surely not the artists who have adopted the space in recent years.  Aside from the beer boxes, the garbage is not recent. Perhaps it is just a sad indication of the “urban sprawl” the monks were fleeing.

trappist trash 5 trappist trash 4

This post has been entered in the Yeah Write weekly writing challenge. Click the button on the right to read the other entries, and come back Thursday to vote for your five favourites.

Leaves

red 2    The leaves are changing colour. I used to think it was sad that the beauty of the autumn foliage signaled the end of the leaf’s life, until it occurred to me that the tree is not dying. It’s just shedding some worn out bits, the same way I shed my hair and skin cells. It’s getting ready to rest. To go on leave, as it were. To take a break for a while from its work of photosynthesizing until the snow melts and the sun warms the earth and the new growth emerges.

If I chase that thought of photosynthesis as work, it makes me think differently about the diverse colours of the fall leaves. It makes me think about the green sameness of the foliage when it is hard at work in the spring and summer of its life. Come fall when it stops working—when it goes on leave—is when it shows its true colours.

yellow 1I’m feeling that way these days. I’m on leave, but just for a brief season. Still, I’m feeling like I have finally been able to shake the green sameness of my work day out of my head and spend some time feeling, and being, my true colours. And now I’m wondering what it will be like when my leave is over—when I go back to my photosynthesis factory with all the other green leaves, doing the things that make us blend together.

Now that I’m over the hurdle of the immediate post-surgical period, this part of my leave feels a lot like retirement. I still have lots of exercising to do to build up the muscle around my new hip; but honestly, needing to go for lots and lots of walks hardly constitutes work in my universe. Going for a long walk every day is one of my true colours. So is having lots of open-ended time to listen to the aspens rustle in the wind while I play away at my creative writing and reading. So is having long stretches of solitude.

red 1When the time comes, I’m going back to a desk surrounded by concrete. To reading emails and writing reports. To meetings and more meetings and meetings about the meetings. It’s a good job, and all, but I think I need some different colours to shake up the green sameness of it all.

The seasons change. Spring will come back and the trees will once again be a riot of green. In a few weeks my own leave will be over and I will have to put some of the things I want do on the back burner to focus on the things I need to do, at least until it really is time to leave.

Perhaps in the meantime I could be one of those trees that sports purple leaves all summer long.

I go walking: West

(Part 4 in a series of reflections on striking out from home in each of the four directions

Walking west takes me away from the river.

Walking west takes me to a strip mall. If I walk far enough to the west, I can cross a main artery and arrive at… another strip mall.

The view that wasn't.
The view that wasn’t.

When we bought our condo, we looked at another unit in the same complex. That one looked out on the back of the strip mall. My daughter pointed out the window at the “view” and summed up her assessment of that location in one word: “No.”

We opted for the view of the aspen trees.

Still, concrete boxes aside, there are times when I choose to walk west. Sometimes it’s convenient to combine my walk with a stop at the mailbox or the ATM. And I like the fact that there are some errands that can be done without getting behind the wheel of my car. From time to time there are things at the strip mall that I need. There are also lots of things I don’t need.

Here are some examples of things I could obtain within a ten-minute westward walk:

MMMM. Concrete...
Mmmm. Concrete…
  • Cheap plastic toys
  • Expensive  plastic toys
  • A $2000 home entertainment system
  • A $2000 parrot
  • A case of cold beer
  • A case of printer paper
  • Automobile insurance
  • Roasted chicken on a flatbread, toasted, with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles and a thin line of honey mustard (and avocado, if I feel like paying extra)
  • New sneakers to go walking in

I could also, armed with those new sneakers, go to the gym, where I would have the privilege of walking on a treadmill while I looked at a tiny TV screen.  Why I would want to do this when I could be walking along the river trails is quite beyond me. Maybe I will feel differently when it is forty below. I doubt it.

I haven’t yet figured out how far I would have to walk to get to a carton of milk and a loaf of bread, which strikes me as problematic. I would like to be able to do more of my errands by walking.

I’ll just have to work on walking farther.

...and yet more concrete.
…and yet more concrete.