Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Purple Bowl

As I prepare for the first Sunday of Lent – this season of reflection on our lives and our habits, on our temptations and our struggles that comes with the hope we will find redemption in a leap of faith, and in the grace of making changes – I dug out this bowl given to us as a wedding present. I need it for the liturgy we’ll use starting Sunday to mark the season each week until Easter.
The liturgical colour of Lent is purple and I knew I had a purple bowl; what I’d forgotten was the sun-like image on the inside.
And placing the ceramic bowl on the wooden table in the sunlight, shadows and reflections come into play. What are our lives but the movement between places of light and places of dark? What are our lives but the weaving of sparkles and shadows? Joy and grief, celebration and mourning, laughing and crying, holding on and letting go.
While always at the edges, thin yet bright, is love. 

It reminds me of the significance of our rituals, how we do certain things at certain times as a way of making a connection with something or someone – like energy or spirit. By placing this bowl in the sunlight, it becomes infused with the strength of the sun but also the strength of the shadows.
When I first embarked on that long-ago journey of divorce and caregiving, when I felt like I would live in the shadows of brokenness for longer than I could bear, I came across a quote that became a beacon of peace in those difficult years: Ruth Renkel said, “Do not fear shadows. They simply mean there’s a light is shining somewhere nearby.”
Let’s remember to turn our eyes away from the deepest gloom towards the light. It may take some time for our journey to take us close to that light, for that light to strengthen and those shadows shrink, for us to find rebirth and renewal, but it’s important to remember what the shadows mean.

There will be times of struggle, of loss, of lament. There will be times when we are forced to take a hard look at our living and find the courage to make a change. There will be times when our bowl is empty…
…yet even along the edges, there will be sparkles. A glint of hope. A twinkle of joy. A glimmer of something yet to come.

Even if it’s just oranges.

I filled the empty bowl with plump, round oranges and placed it in the centre of the table. On Sunday, the bowl with its sunburst will go to church and be filled with dull sand, and a stick, and later, a stone, then other symbols of our journey. It will begin a ritual marking this season of darkness and deep reflection, of mystery and creativity, a ritual reminding us that even as we sit with the shadows, with the fear, with the uncertainty, there is a light shining nearby, allowing us to journey deeply and honestly into ourselves then find our way home on a path lit sparkles of grace.

Friday, February 21, 2020

This Is Where You Belong

The chores get done in reverse in the evening, usually after supper and after the evening news so it's dark when I bring in the bird feeders and empty the water from the dish in the chicken coop (rather than have to smash out a frozen block of water in the morning).

Last night, in the freezing cold temperatures, as I turned away from the coop after locking the door (and hearing my little mouse friend skittering around inside very close by), I paused to look at my house.
My house. Our house.
Around it, silence. Cold, cracking silence.
Above it, a black sky sprinkled with stars.
And I took a deep breath in and listened to this universe remind me, "This is where you belong."

For all the uncertainty I feel about the future of my writing career, whether that's magazine work or church work or book work, for all that I have no idea what I'll be doing this time next year, I know -- for certain -- that I love where I live. That in this space, on this property, under that vast sky is where I am meant to be.

Perhaps I'm not selling another book because I don't live in Toronto; no one wants an obscure writer from a small market like Nova Scotia. But this is where I live, love and write best, and I don't want to move back to Toronto, I don't want to live in the city. I want the sky -- in the morning and at night -- because it makes me believe in 'infinite possibilities'. As long as I can see the sky, I will believe.

People are complaining about the cold -- it's minus 24 when I get out of bed at six o'clock in the morning -- but these frigid nights are a result of the clear skies. Forget about staying inside under warm covers watching TV. Get outside and LOOK UP! The cold makes the stars glitter. The cold reminds us we are alive, lucky to be alive, "on the right side of the sod" as my husband says. Breathing in that cold air, filling my eyes with that sparkling black sky. Nothing is more life-affirming and more hopeful, nothing makes me more curious about the future. When I look at the cloudless night sky next February, who will I be? I would like to be even more grateful than I am right now.

I can't take the kind of night photos that would adequately illustrate what I experienced last night so I took a photo of the same view early this morning. Really not was awe-inspiring, and reassuring, and breathtaking, but still, my home.

Monday, February 17, 2020

This Is Your Groundhog Speaking

It's going to be an early spring, my friends. It was three degrees at four o'clock yesterday afternoon when Dwayne spotted these from the tractor as he plowed a path for me up the old road.
I love winter, and yesterday was a perfect winter day, but it's not wrong to be excited about an early spring, either.
Because I love daffodils as much as I love pussy willows.

Happy Monday, darlings! Hope your week is fuzzy and hope-filled!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Feeding the Wild Birds

The staging area in the garage where I fill all the bird feeders every morning. 

"You know, birds are tough," my husband said this morning, when it was minus 28, as he watched the wild birds clamouring at the bird feeders I'd just hung in tree branches around our front yard. "They are here all summer and then all winter -- wearing the same feathers the whole time."

I suppose he's thinking of how the cattle he grew up tending thickened their coats every fall in anticipation of winter.
"You'd be amazed at the insulating power of feathers," I told him.
Those little downy feathers close to the body keep the cold from reaching them. In the summer, well, they need cool breezes as much as we do.

We've been feeding the wild birds since our first winter together, in 2007. Every year, the kinds of birds changes. We used to get a lot of evening and pine grosbeaks and blue jays; this winter, we are inundated with finches. Four dozen of them, I'm sure. So many. Plus starlings, and always mourning doves. Chickadees but not as many as in the past. The little ground feeders: juncos. They arrive early in the morning.

Ah, mornings.
My morning routine:
6 am - get up, turn on the kettle and get the fire going in the furnace
6:15 - make chai tea and do yoga
7:00 - feed the cats and make coffee (but don't turn it on yet)
7:20 - fill up all the bird feeders, get dressed and take the feeders outside
7:40 - turn on the coffee, let the dog out, feed the dog
8:00 - drink first cup of coffee and watch the new

My mornings are very busy and keep to a tight schedule. This is why I don't get upstairs to my office until 9 am, or even later.
But having the wild birds around our home is important to us. Why else would we have two huge picture windows and sliding glass doors across the front of our house if we didn't want to see what's outside?!

"Good morning, birdies," I say every morning. I can't always see them but they are there.

Do the birds know me? Do they recognize me in the long black jacket with its faux-furry hood, my blue hat, the hot pink cuff of my heavy polyurethane boots? Do they recognize me because I walk the same worn-down paths in the snow? The route to the maple tree then the birch tree, each with one large bird feeder, then the far lilac with two smaller feeders. The route to the near lilac where four feeders hang. The route to the pine trees down front where the crows and the pheasant feed on cracked corn and peanuts.
In the tops of the trees, the finches chirp. They sing for their breakfast. They tell me I'm late, that they've been waiting.

The birds show up after dawn breaks but before the sun appears over the trees on the far side of the river. And it's getting lighter earlier, but I'm not changing my morning routine. Not getting up at 5 o'clock just to feed the birds!
I do toss out a few cupfuls onto the front and back deck for those early birds, the ground feeders, who like to get there before the big birds show up and take over.

Two early birds (juncos) getting the seeds on the back deck. 
In the evenings, just after the sun sets, the only birds left flitting through the spriggy branches of the near lilac are the chickadees. They are very talkative, using several sounds.
I don't know what they're saying. 'More peanuts', perhaps; 'more sunflower chips, please'. 'Don't take the feeders yet!'
I bring all the bird feeders in every evening, otherwise the raccoons will demolish them as they try to feed. On these very cold winter nights, the raccoons don't venture out; the tracks I see belong to two young foxes. They may be the two siblings who survived last spring's doomed family (the father was shot by our neighbours, one baby I found dead on the side of the road, don't know what happened to Mother).

I'm sure I should be writing about the meditation of my morning, how how I stop to admire the vibrant colours of the morning sky as the sun rises above the river, how I breathe and the birds breathe and our breath mingles, and how their song fills my heart, and how they do know me and sing to me...
...but all I think about when I'm outside trudging my paths, shaking corn on the ground, is that first cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the kitchen...

Friday, February 14, 2020

Saying I Love You

A frozen deer hoof print heart. 

I had just told my best friend Kim that my husband and I were separated. That I would be moving away from Vancouver. And it hurt more to think about leaving her than leaving him.
“Oh, honey,” she said and held out her arms. I took one step towards her and she wrapped her arms around me. This woman started out as a mentor for my career in radio then became my boss and is now a very, very good friend. Kim is the older sister I didn’t have. She is twelve years older than me with long blonde hair and two children. It is because of her that my bellybutton is pierced.
“I love you,” she said.
“I didn’t realize you were so tall,” I replied. Apparently, this was the first time in our two year friendship that we had hugged. “I love you too.” And it was the first time I’d said that to her even though she tells me all the time.

Kim tells everybody that she loves them. At least, the everybody that she does love. Like her kids. Her husband. Her sister. Her friends.  Me. I tell my dog and my husband. If I try and tell my parents, I start to cry.

We are weird that way in my family. All my life, love was shown, not spoken. We expressed our love through eating meals together and taking drives together and by giving two or three cards – at a time, to the same person, for the same occasion – signed always with “Love”. We also gave gifts. Lots and lots of gifts. Not big expensive buy-your-love gifts but little plentiful thinking-about-you gifts. That’s how I knew I was loved without ever being told.

When someone says I love you, it’s very hard to not say it back. It seems rude. It implies you don’t feel the same. To say those words out loud to Kim, “I love you”, while standing in her kitchen wrapped in her arms with my nose pressed to her shoulder, felt very, very good. A little crack appeared in my heart. That crack wasn’t merely letting love in; it was letting love out.
Love can take us to some pretty strange places. Some pretty, some strange but most of the time, entirely unexpected. It’s like love suddenly has to pee really, really badly and jerks the car over to the side of the road then dashes into the woods without leaving any markers to find the way back.
I was quite content to hold my pee until I reached a washroom even if it was nearly impossible to press the gas pedal with my leg bouncing up and down while trying to squeeze all those down-there muscles together. But love has a way of leaking out.

After I said goodbye to Kim and her family, my dog and I drove all the way back across the country to my parents’ home. I thought I was going to hang out at the summer house in Nova Scotia for a few months and figure things out, but shortly after arriving my mother told me that Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This pretty much answered the question that had been dogging me for a couple of thousand miles: “What do I do now?”  I would help care for Dad.

Alzheimer’s changes the way you love someone. Alzheimer’s makes you say things you could never bring yourself to say before. In my father’s case, Alzheimer’s took away his ability to say anything. The plaques and tangles attacked his language and visual-spacial abilities first.  But in the early days, we didn’t see the significance of this. To us, he just needed an extra moment – sometimes a little help – figuring out what he was trying to say. I couldn’t see that this would mean some day he couldn’t talk at all.

One evening during that first summer in Nova Scotia, my father and I were sitting side by side on the couch watching TV and I had this sudden urge to say “I love you, Dad”. It was right there on my tongue; all I had to do was open my mouth and say the words. There was no reason why I shouldn’t tell my father that I loved him, especially since one day he wouldn’t understand the words, but I hesitated, I thought, “I will cry if I say it,” and the words remained unspoken.
That’s the problem with thinking. It takes the place of acting, of speaking. But a disease like dementia has a way of forcing an issue. First, you move your father into a nursing home but that awfulness compels you to tell him that you love him. Once you start, you cannot stop. You tell him over and over because it is what he understands best.

A few months after Dad had become a resident in the secure unit of the nursing home, I arrived after lunch to find him pacing the hallway as was his habit. When he saw me, he put his arms up in greeting and walked towards me. I kissed him on the cheek then walked to his room to lay my coat on a chair. My father followed me in and indicated he wanted me to sit next to him on the bed. He took my forearm and my hand in his and started to tell me something. By this time, he was increasingly unable to speak his thoughts clearly; what was in his brain came out his mouth as gibberish. I could tell by the way he was patting the back of my hand and by the words he was trying to form what he was trying to say and my eyes filled up with tears.
“Dad?”  He looked directly at me when he heard my voice crack.  “Are you trying to tell me that you love me?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” he exclaimed and I laid my forehead against his cheek.
“I love you too,” I squeaked.

Almost two years after we’d moved Dad into the nursing home, shortly after I’d met the man who would become my second husband, I picked up the phone in the kitchen even though my mother was there preparing supper. The conversation was short and then I said, “I love you, too. Bye.”
After I hung up, my mother looked at me and I was embarrassed. I had known Dwayne only a few months yet it was serious; expressing our love for each other had come easily after a few dates and, with a thousand miles between us for the time being, an important part of our conversations. Yet when it came to saying “I love you” in front of my mother, I had hesitated before responding.
“I wish we were a family that said that more,” my mother said to me.

Dwayne and I have been married for 12 and a half years, and my mother has lived with us for almost nine years. I’d like to tell you that I learned my lesson, that I say "I love you" as easily to my mother as I do to Dwayne and the dog and my friends. I'd like to tell you that I say “I love you” to my mother every day – because I do and I should – but I can’t.
I will cry if I say it.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Deep Into the Woods

If I want a long walk, the destination is the top of the hill you see in the distance.
Here's the thing: (Part One)
I'm not an ambitious person, or possessing a single-minded focus. I'm not seeking fame, just a bit of name recognition (in a good way) and the fortune I need is merely financial reliability, but I don't need to win awards and sell books in airports all over the world (those are nice surprises, but not goals, you know?) I know what I like to do, and I work hard, and I love a deadline; that's why radio was a great fit for me - a deadline every fifteen minutes!
That's also why writing is a good fit; I'm good at self-directed work, and with deadlines.

I am a simple person, and my wants are simple: I want to walk and I want to write books (or, because the universe likes us to be specific, write and publish books).
That's what I remembered during my long walk this afternoon.

It didn't start out as a long walk; I just got tired of the dog staring at me so I put down the novel I was reading as part of my Sunday afternoon non-work time, and said, "Okay, let's go for a walk."
I figured it would be a quick one but once I got out there into the cold air, once we reached the beaver brook too soon, I just kept going because I needed to keep moving. The snow isn't deep, just enough to feel the calf muscles engage. I could feel all my muscles engage as we went deeper into the woods (what is left of them, I must add, as always). It felt so good. It felt like physical work, and my body loved the feeling of its heart pumping and the blood flowing.

And as I walked, and looked at deer and partridge and mouse and porcupine tracks criss-crossing the snow, I realized that this is all what I want to do.
Walk and write.
It's that simple. I love walking and I love writing.
This is why I love living in rural Nova Scotia, why I still believe I'm meant to live here.
Which reminded me of what my heart told me in January, early one morning on the yoga mat: Believe in your skills.
That's my mantra, that's what's getting me through these days and weeks and months of uncertainty, of waiting and wondering, of not knowing -- all territories I am profoundly uncomfortable to be walking through. Believe in my skills: writing and editing, speaking and presenting. It's what I do best, and what I enjoy doing. So I'm trying to stay focused on that, since I'm doing it all the time, and letting the future unfold by itself, deep in the woods where I can't see, because, you know, the forest for the trees and all that.

Here's the thing: (Part Two)
SOLVITUR AMBULANDO: It is solved by walking.
I figured something out about myself today, something that's been bugging me since the memory resurfaced 18 months ago. After that supervising teacher told me, during my final teaching practicum, that I shouldn't be a teacher, why didn't I tell anyone? I TOLD NO ONE. Now that I've remembered this, I can't believe I said nothing to anyone - not my mother or father, not my best friend, not even the guy I ended up marrying.

Turns out, that's simply my MODIS OPERANDI. (Thank goodness for Latin, right?!)

There's all this angst and worry in my brain, a constant thrum of anxiety at the back of my mind all the time. But no one knows. I haven't told anyone the true depth of my fear that I will never publish another book, that after June, I will no longer be a writer, that the church work isn't my real work, that teaching isn't my real work either. That I have no idea what I'm going to do if I'm not doing any of that.
Et cetera.
I have friends at church who likely think I'm ignoring them because I don't call, I don't drop in, but I don't want to tell them what's going on because they won't get it; most people won't get how I feel.
Because I act like someone who had her shit together. How else am I supposed to act? I put my head down and I keep working and I keep hoping for the best. Talking about it is the last thing I want to do; I want to be distracted from what's bothering me.
Today, during my walk, I realized this is what I do, have done always: I don't talk about it, and obviously, the deeper it cuts, the less I talk. As in, someone told me I shouldn't be a teacher -- and I never told anyone.
I don't seek advice, and I don't ask for help.

This isn't as bad as that time -- when my entire future was simply smashed into bits -- because there is a different little hum at the back of my mind -- a quiet little hum of hope. I don't fully trust it any more but it's still there. I can hear it; I so desperately want it to turn symphonic,
but then again,
I like things simple
so right now,
a quiet little hum of hope
is enough.