The Retreat

I’m not talking about the kind of retreat where you slowly back out of the room, or head for the hills, screaming for mercy, in the heat of battle – I’m talking about a writer’s retreat, the one I’m going to run, the one I’ve alluded to in another post this summer, which you might have picked up on if you were really paying attention. I digress. Before we can talk about that retreat though, let’s go back to the beginning of my chaotic morning where I finally drop the kids off at the splash pad, with their teenage babysitter, after getting snacks ready, bathing suits packed, water bottles filled, breakfasts eaten, pizza lunch prepped, bathroom trips executed, the dog walked and fed, and sunscreen applied. No problem!

I usher the children out of the van and on their way to splash pad bliss and breathe a huge sigh of relief. Writing time. Writing and running are the two things that I do just for me that also feel productive, if that makes sense. I see both activities as essential to my health, both physical and mental with some overlap in-between (I sometimes do squats while I’m writing – just kidding!)

I take a quick detour to the café on my way to the library where I plan to work, and grab myself a London Fog and an almond croissant, yummy. I’m watching the bespectacled youth prepare my beverage and I’m impressed with her barista skills – the abundance of milky froth. Except – this isn’t my drink. There’s been a mix-up, which I will only discover once the acrid taste of cappuccino hits my tongue, my aversion to coffee remaining as strong as ever. Now, by the time I realize the drink switch, I’ve already lugged my books across the street, trudged down to the library basement where I like to camp out, and arranged my belongings, scattered about, in my favourite spot.

Halton Hills is so saaafe I bleat internally like an innocent lamb, making a judgement call based on split-second bad decision-making that should only be reserved for last resorts. I bail on my laptop and notebooks – just my life’s work, no biggie – and head back across the street, where as fortune would have it, the café ladies are expecting me, and we seamlessly make the switch in one swift motion, exchanging acrid cappuccino for misto sweetness, and I’m back at my desk before you can say, “Wait? You did what …”

There is a funny part to this story, and it isn’t that I risked having my computer stolen for a five dollar drink. When I was back at the café the first time, loaded down with my purse and book bags and holding the scalding hot cappuccino in one hand and trying to finagle a cardboard sleeve onto it with the other hand, the hand that was also holding my croissant, a gentlemen beside me, whom I’d barely perceived in my periphery, reached out his hands and said, “Here, let me help you.” And before I could object, he did. He slid that sleeve right on while I tried to squelch any embarrassment at having needed his help. After all, I’m a grown woman. I am capable! I can do things! I am a mother and look after three children for god’s sake! I may have picked up the wrong drink order, but that’s beside the point.

Having others do things for me is both a strength and a flaw in my personality when it leads to laziness. While I’m repulsed by helplessness, I am all for resourcefulness, and I know that wherever I go I will be able to use my friendliness as a resource to not only make new friends and connections, but also to get help if I need it. This skill, of needing others, is both a blessing and a curse. The classic story, which Dan loves to bring up, took place on our one-year anniversary pre-kids. I have a long standing history of struggling to cut the meat on my plate. I know, I know. This is super embarrassing. Anyway, so here we are on this glamourous European Mediterranean cruise, and I’m privately wrestling my prime rib with my steak knife.

Dan discovered early on in our relationship that cutting meat was a challenge for me. On one of our first dates, I started cutting my steak and flung it onto my lap. No joke. Stop laughing. I was mortified, but he’s still with me, and kindly offers to be the one who cuts our kids’ meat without making me feel like too much of a failure.

Anyway, back on the cruise ship, at the gala dinner with me dressed in a ball gown, I’m wrestling my steak when our waiter comes over to our table and rushes to my side. “Please ma’am,” he says kindly and without a trace of judgement or disgust at my ineptitude, “allow me.” And he proceeds to cut my steak.

I’m just going to say that I’ve had to accept this about myself, that I’m not so great at cutting meat and that most other people are. I’m not going to stop eating steak, so I have to accept that there are better meat cutters than I in the world, and if sometimes they see me struggle and want to help, why should I say no? I have other strengths, and others would be wise to accept my help in those areas. Just don’t ask me to cut your steak.

Generally speaking, I often feel like I am a person others like to assist. I waiver back and forth on whether this is a compliment, or a huge character flaw, but more than likely it just is. Just like how in looking over photos of me, my headshot photographer and some of Dan’s work colleagues called me “cute” instead of say “sexy”, “hot” or “beautiful”, barring the appropriateness of said comments. If cute comes to mind, I’ll take it, but I’m sure most grown women would rather be called something else a bit more alluring, perhaps be taken more seriously than “cute”. Stuffed animals are cute. Baby chicks are cute. Toddlers with curls are…okay, I’m thinking of Penelope and frankly, she’s adorable! Cute doesn’t cut it. Cute has a youthful connotation to it, so I’m going to stick with that and not think of youthful as “child-like”. I am a woman, and I am cute, and I hate cutting steak! There, I said it. I feel much better.

The universe works in mysterious ways. Now the gentlemen working beside me in the library has abandoned his computer station and I’m thinking to myself someone could take that laptop, but they won’t, because I’m going to keep an eye on his stuff for him. He doesn’t know it, but I will. My way of giving back. Good karma.

Speaking of good karma, and giving back, and the fact that while others often feel the need to help me – one of my high school teachers told me I have a barometer face, and that he could look at me and gauge what the rest of the class was feeling about his lessons – maybe I look lost? Regardless, I love to create pieces that are all my own and bring ideas to life through projects, and strive in the direction of my goals. We should tell ourselves every day that I am capable. And also, that we are here to connect with each other. It isn’t so bad to accept help and a privilege to give it in return. So my idea for a writing and wellness retreat was born. I’m not retreating at all! I’m walking toward something.

That guy’s computer has gone to sleep. He’s been gone a while and really should come back soon.

I came up with the notion of running a writing and wellness retreat while vacationing at a beach cottage on Lake Huron. I knew the idea of writing retreats interested me, and I had planned to attend a few this year.  Perhaps I was feeling inspired by the sparse, paired down simplicity of life at the cottage, but something was telling me my retreat didn’t need to be fancy or perfect, just plan it, plan your retreat. I was suffering from what I would describe as “imposter syndrome”. You’re not a writing teacher! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’ve never even been to a retreat! Who do you think you are? Those beauty questions and shame-filled statements haunted me, and while they carry a tad of merit, they also just – don’t. There is nothing productive in those thoughts, nowhere to go with them. I rejected each one, and came up with my own notion of a writer’s retreat. There would be a wellness component: a chef to prepare our dinner using locally-sourced ingredients. There would be yoga. And the thing every writer craves the most: time and space to write. There would be some group discussion and opportunities to share work with an audience. I could afford to give other writers these things and it happens to be one of my strengths to bring people together. I didn’t need to be an expert teacher, I only needed to have the passion and organizational skills to make it happen. Passion I have, in abundance.

I’m pleased to announce my first writing and wellness retreat is well on its way to being born. I have space for ten ladies total. I have a beach house in waiting, a chef prepped to indulge us and a yoga instructor ready to vinyasa on the beach. I have several wonderful women writers and creatives who are ready and willing to come and a few who can’t make it to this one, but who can’t wait to come to the next one.

No matter how cheesy it is, as the retreat comes together, I can’t help but think of the movie, Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner and the famous line that incites him to action, “If you build it, he will come.” Building my retreat has been exactly like that. Like a dream whispered in my ear that is about to come true.

The guy with the laptop never came back. I hope he’s alright. Though my writing time for the day is up, and it’s time for me to head home; I’m not going anywhere. I’m just getting started.

The In-Between

I’m walking to the library, laden with notebooks, my laptop, beverages in each hand (my morning Green Monster smoothie and a London Fog) when it hits me: a gust of cool wind blowing across my bare, short-clad, legs. A chill cuts through me. I’m wearing thong sandals and a neon orange halter top underneath a light-weight black long-sleeved tee that’s open at the back that I thankfully thought to throw overtop. I am dressed for summer, which today the weather has confirmed it is decidedly not – or rather, the summer I once knew is slipping away before my very eyes and bare knees.

Standing in our kitchen early this morning, three-year old Penelope, with her mop of curls, had a far-off look. “It’s time for school now, mommy?” She felt the unmistakable shift in the air, the characteristic and melancholic pull of the final two weeks of August closing off the season.

As if the cool breeze hitting my legs wasn’t enough of an invasion on summer, I crossed paths with a large yellow bus on my drive downtown. You know what that means. And yesterday, in our local café, I ran into two teachers prepping for back to school. I remember those days well; the equal sense of rising panic and elation, prepping for twenty-five new grade one students, still haunts me.

What hits home, personally, is that my summer training is complete. I participated in my second and final triathlon of the season last weekend and that’s it. Finito. No more lake swims to slot in, or forty kilometer bike rides (though I would like to get in more bike rides before we’re blanketed with snow), or back-to-back “brick” workouts of running and biking. I’m in the week after the race, forcing myself to be still, wind down, take a break and admittedly this is hard for me. What’s next? screams my insatiable ego. An ultra race? A half iron man? We’ll see.

Luckily, I’ve had something to fill the space, the gaping hole and sense of loss the end of summer brings, in the form of a round-the-world trip to look forward to. I’m losing my kids to school only to regain them for a second summer in October – and I can’t wait. Ariel and I look at websites together, clasping hands and jumping up and down giddily in anticipation. Of the three, she’s the most fully aware of the adventure that lies ahead. Interestingly, I think it will be the youngest two, who are developing their sense of time, who will be the most present.

A month ago, our travel agent sent us an itinerary for Japan through a reputable company that included hotel stays and some transportation (but not all) for an outrageous sum I refuse to even write here. I will say it was four times more than I was willing to pay. She wasn’t being cruel – Japan is expensive – but I knew I could plan our Japan segment much more wisely and cheaply by booking it myself. The trade-off was time.

Having put off the job for most of the summer, one day this week I finally got up at five in the morning and spent a solid five hours poring over Japanese accommodations. I continued my research for a few more hours the next day. This is my idea of rest after the race. From an affordable Airbnb in downtown Hiroshima and vending machine ramen to a lavish hotel with our own private onsen (hot air bath) overlooking Mount Fuji that includes our meals, we are going to get to experience it all. Our trip has been weighing on my mind and I can breathe now that I’ve got most of our Japan stays booked. Two more days – one in Kyoto, one in Osaka – left to arrange, then we’re off to Thailand and the unknown. I don’t ever want to become a travel agent, but planning your own trips and discovering new countries and cultures is hella-fun. And we haven’t even left home yet.

There are two weekends left in this Canadian summer, really only one to get back-to-school shopping done. I happen to be going to Montreal to visit a childhood friend and her new baby this weekend, so Dan is in charge of back-to-school shopping. He will be the one braving the crowds in the mall with the girls, picking out Velcro running shoes and pencil case supplies, water bottles and lunch containers, maybe a new outfit or two – and for that I am grateful. Both for myself – for not having to do it, and for my husband – for getting the chance to. Organizing the tiny details of our children’s lives is both a great privilege and a weight best evenly distributed. Truth be told, when it comes to shopping, Dan is probably better at that stuff than I am anyway. I usually do it because I’m the one who’s around, but he has a penchant for coordinating outfits I can only aspire to.

While letting summer go is hard, there is an excitement that accompanies back-to-school. The promise of reuniting with friends, new backpacks and shiny shoes, crisp duo-tangs; of kids emptying out of the house and regaining routines. The draining of leaves to reveal their true colours, raking said leaves, the shortening of days, apple picking and pumpkin carving, turkey eating. Fall isn’t half bad. Some, like my husband who continues to wear shorts late into November, might say it’s their favourite season. While the Purdham family is going to miss the tail end of fall – Ariel was surprised to learn we’d be in Japan for Halloween (where apparently they do celebrate) – for now we’re going to try and stay in the present moment, and appreciate this last bit of summer while it lasts.

A Summer’s Day

I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to find the time to write or to work in the summer months – you already know. About cottages and the sun dancing across great lakes like sparkling diamonds; and children, rummaging for the hem of my shirt, lifting it up to press a smudgy face into my belly. I accidentally wrote “life it up” – I’m not convinced that wasn’t my unconscious intention.

You already know about the Sufi mystic Rumi and his love poems, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and reading about, intuiting, the link between meditation and running. Meditation is meditation, running is running and writing is writing. Remember that.

You already know about sandy toes and the outdoor hose used to rinse before traipsing through the beach house, and the dead spider floating in the rusty bowl meant to catch the overflow. You know about wet bathing suits and coming together as a family for a bear hug in the water and jumping over waves, one after the other, all together! And screaming, screaming like banshees, and pulling little faces back out of the waves and laughing, laughing until you’re screaming again.

You already know how it is on vacation, when your outside life keeps banging at the door, demanding to be let back in. “Go away!” you shout, and how vacation isn’t really a vacation until you can let your mind go free.

You already know about afternoon G&Ts, followed by steak and red wine dinners, pulling chopped pieces of wood from the burlap bag you bought for $5 from the guy who lives on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, dragging that bag down the beach with your bare hands and little footprints behind you. About towels caught in the wind, blown to the ground, half buried in sand. The incessant wind. A wind that dries, cools, mends, soothes and breaks. The string that snapped, the kite that drowned. The waves that appear out of nowhere. And how the water can just as suddenly quiet.

You already know about fussy toilets and setting up floor fans to disperse warm air in humid rooms. And the oppressive heat that settles overhead in the middle of the day and beats you right back into submission, sand that burns soles and whiny children needing to be carried back into the house, sleepy and sun stroked in your arms.

Fires at night, with the wood you bought from the guy on the side of the road; many false starts then flames bursting, licking the wood, ravenous; finding that perfect spot for handmade roasting sticks and the one marshmallow that inevitably gets burnt, beyond eating. S’mores and sticky fingers. Chocolate-smeared faces.

A burning, searing sensation on the top of your head, causing your hairline to itch, the nauseous nagging feeling of too much sun and the pull back inside, but the counter-weight of the wind and water, of the glittering shoreline, is greater still. The gasp, “Ahh” as the water line accosts your chest, your soft side, and the chill and thrill of diving under. That refreshing feeling, as the water heaves, breathes you in, of being part of it all. Floating, tethered like a buoy, weightlessness.

About food, again. Gummy bears and a giant chocolate almond bar and pretentious crackers: organic artisan crisps of raisin, rosemary and pumpkin seed made with bulgar, Himalayan pink salt and extra virgin olive oil slathered in cream cheese and red pepper jelly. About stops at the cheese shop for squeaky curds and the local farmer’s market for peas so fresh they make you want to weep. At the fleetingness of time and seasons. And tiny beets. And cleaning out Beans Bistro of all their freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. About letting calories go.

About waking up before everyone else and cracking open a book, or watching the ducks float by, or the sun setting a sub-Saharan Africa red; or throwing on a bathing suit and cutting through the lake one efficient stroke after the other to train, or to throw on a pair of running shoes and run, run, run, feeling the pull of the wind.

About leaving showering behind, letting the children go feral with one eye open and sticking out your tongue at the passage of time with only the shadows of the sun and the rumbling of tummies to remind you that the day is moving on and you probably should too.

About thoughts from the outside world: the upcoming triathlon; planning a writer’s retreat; a trip around the world; writing that next book, and extended family – how goes our family back home? What is everyone up to? Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Of course, the world continues to go on.

And about monkey brain. Do you know about monkey brain? It’s when your mind hops from one thing to the next and lacks the focus to stay entirely on one subject. I am a monkey brain.

But you already know about all that. Our Canadian summer, wild and free. Fleeting. Snippets of life, at the cottage. Carry on.

Elyse’s First Summer Camp Experience

It’s the final ten minutes of “my work day” before pick up and I’m sitting here wondering about Elyse’s first day at gymnastics camp. Did she follow the rules and meet camp expectations? Did she fit in and make some new friends? How did toileting go? Craft time? Transitions? Lunch time? Gymnastics? That’s a lot to worry about in one short day.

But by far the most important question over-riding the others is: did my girl have fun?

Ariel is at camp this week, too. A different camp from her sister. Having her big sis around would have undoubtedly made things easier for Elyse, but they are two different people, individuals with distinct likes and tastes, and so for Ariel, that means art camp (her #1 choice), a choice that doesn’t suit Elyse’s preferences. Elyse chose gymnastics camp. We have built a good rapport with a local gym in town – they know Elyse, they’ve taught her before, and so my hopes heading into pick up are high. Is it selfish of me to want Elyse to be able to go to a local camp and have fun? Somewhat, perhaps. I do feel like I’m a better mother/person when I have respite time from my children, but what I want deep down for Elyse goes beyond my own needs.

One of the greatest gifts a parent can bestow upon any child is to foster their independence. It occurs to me that keeping them safe – a parents’ greatest responsibility – may run counter-intuitive to choices that foster independence. Balancing these two factors, safety and independence, is tough work.

I want to keep bombarding Elyse with the messages you can, you will and YOU ARE! Look at you! You’re doing it! You’re doing it by yourself right now. This is the voice I want her to hear in her head even when I’m not around (when I am, she’d likely roll her eyes and tell me to stop).

YOU’RE doing it! Because if I’m the one always around to help her, then she never will be the one to do it. As her mother, I’m so in tune with her needs and emotions that it’s hard not to intervene. In this way, love can be limiting. Strangers are expectation-less, which can be really good or really bad. Different people also do things in different ways, which forces children to learn flexibility and become adaptable. Essentially, attending summer camp is akin to learning basic survival skills.

I’m amazed at the skills Elyse gains when she’s away from me. In preschool, her friend Gracie showed her how to properly execute a high five. Elyse, with her limp wrist, wasn’t doing it hard enough. “No, no, Elyse! Like THIS!” said Gracie, who then smacked Elyse’s hand with a good whack. Elyse fired a harder high five back, and got a pat on the back from her friend and a nod of approval.

This summer, watching her big sister, she learned to ride the swing in our backyard by herself. She also came home from a trip to grandma’s house having learned her new signature move: the two thumbs up. I’m pretty sure my mom was also the one who sealed the deal with potty training, a few years back when Dan and I were away. And school. At school, Elyse learned a second language and she learned how to play with friends. I’ve now seen videos of her playing at recess with her friends (thanks to a thoughtful educational assistant) and it’s glorious.

The point is, you have to let them go a little if you ever want them to fly away on their own. You just need to get the timing right so they don’t fall head first and break their little necks. Maybe start them off with a parachute and a safety net – or don’t. See what happens.

The moment of truth. I pick Elyse up from camp, and somewhat anxiously await my turn to speak to the head counsellor. Hardly able to contain myself, I blurt out, “So how did it go?”

“Honestly,” she says, “not very good.” She rephrases. “Well, she was a different kid in the afternoon. If Afternoon Elyse could come back again tomorrow that would be great.”

“What happened with Morning Elyse?”

She walked me through the morning’s hardships: not listening to her coach, not staying with her group or following along in group activities, locking herself in the bathroom and screaming, and refusing to do crafts. She then explained, to my great relief, once they figured Elyse out, things went MUCH smoother. They determined Elyse wasn’t listening to her coach because her coach was trying to help her do things she can already do, and wants to be doing independently; that hiding in the bathroom was her way of coping; and that crafts aren’t her thing, as I had mentioned to them beforehand, and they used the strategy of giving her books to read instead. Then she was a completely different kid. She had a fantastic afternoon. She participated fully and listened to her new coach. She had fun playing the group games with the other kids. In other words, once Elyse felt her needs were being met, and that she was being seen, heard and understood, then she felt free to be herself, her best self.

I know her behaviour was challenging, potentially the most challenging of any kid at that camp on that day, maybe that week, maybe of the whole damn summer. But you know what? She’s worth it and so are the other kids. When we choose to include, everyone wins. Every kid deserves a chance, and all it really takes for many children with disabilities is for a few caring and attentive adults to observe, to truly listen, and to see the child in front of them to make the necessary accommodations and small changes that make a BIG difference because they mean everyone can be fully included. There needed to be allowances. Elyse needed appropriate choices, but she also needed boundaries. They matched Elyse with a coach more suited to her temperament. Wouldn’t it be great, and make good sense, if we all had bosses like that? People who brought out the best in us?

Elyse isn’t going to stand for being underestimated. She doesn’t always go about showing it in the right way – Elyse does things HER way to a fault – but her point is valid: guide me, but let me show you what I can do.

Now, to answer the most important question – did Elyse have fun? The rest of the week went like this: arrive at camp in the morning, Elyse shouts, “yeah, gymnastics camp!” She has a fun day; the coaches are happy. I pick her up at the end of the day and ask, “did you have a fun day?” to which, in reply, she never once wavers, “Yes!!!”

A huge thank you to Cartwheels Gymnastics and especially to the camp counsellors for seeing Elyse for her potential and helping her realize all that she can do. The world needs more small businesses like this one doing all that they can to make their space an inclusive one.

Believing is Seeing, by Maggie Edwards

You know that scene at the end of The Polar Express where the main character rings the bell, and he can finally hear it? Or that scene in The Santa Clause where Tim Allen finally sees the reindeer fly in the snow globe? The purpose of these scenes are to show the magic of Christmas and that seeing isn’t believing but believing is seeing. I was reminded of these moments when I picked my son, Oliver, up from daycare the other day. He was only a few weeks into a new home daycare. We previously had him in a Montessori daycare but with the school being closed for the summer Oliver was placed with his sister in a home daycare for the summer months until he starts Junior Kindergarten in September.

The first few weeks were okay. The daycare provider is a lovely, caring, woman who gave reports daily on how they had good days, but yes Oliver tried to run away today while they were at the park, or he was taking toys away from his sister, maybe he is bullying her a bit. But on this particular day, when I went to pick the kids up, she greeted me at the door with a big smile about what a wonderful day they had. As we were leaving, she bent down to Oliver’s level and gave him a big hug. Her whole demeanor had changed. She could finally see Oliver.

Oliver was diagnosed with Trisomy 21 three days post-natal. We had done all the prenatal testing during my pregnancy and received the results 1 in 547 chance of Down syndrome. Not that it mattered, Jeff and I had the conversation about the possibilities before the prenatal test as my sister had had a false positive result with her son and went on to have an amniocentesis which then showed a typical fetus. We only went ahead with the testing as I wanted the extra ultrasound.  I wanted to peek at the boy, as my mom would say. I remember the doctor commenting that my results were a lower chance of chromosomal abnormalities than the standard for my age. Needless to say, a Down syndrome diagnosis was completely off our radar.

I went into labour, five weeks pre-mature, the day we moved into a new house. I had to be transferred from Milton to Oakville Hospital by ambulance, as Milton Hospital was not yet equipped with a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). When Oliver was born he was the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on. So tiny at 5 lbs and so blonde!!! I was in love. It wasn’t until the next day the doctor advised us he wanted to do further testing as he thought “his eyes are a bit far apart….or he could just look like Mommy,” which Jeff and I still joke about…Did he just tell me my eyes are far apart? We didn’t think anything of it. He was so perfect to us!

When we finally got the diagnosis, it didn’t really mean anything. We could already see Oliver…he was Oliver. He was this little boy who somehow brought calm to a room. Having him close put me in a state of calm reserve. Looking back, the diagnosis actually may have saved Oliver’s life as they began checking his heart function at that point and found the atrioventricular septal defect (AVSD) that required surgery five and a half months later. We spent almost eight weeks in the NICU at Oakville Hospital after his birth, and when we were leaving, one of the nurses asked us if she could stop by and visit him sometimes as she lived in the same town. Some may find this inappropriate, but it kind of just rolled off of us….she could see Oliver and the magic within.

When Oliver changed classes at the Montessori school, from the Toddler to Casa room, we had planning meetings with our resource consultant and the Montessori directress who asked a lot of questions. As we left the meeting, I remember mentioning to my husband how nervous the directress seemed to be. She was scared to teach Oliver.
Not long after Oliver moved to the Casa class, I dropped him off one morning and the directress gave him a high five on his way in and then she bent down and he hugged her. There it was again…the sudden shift. She could see him. My sister mentioned it to me the other day as well. She had been kind enough to take our two children so my husband, Jeff, and I could have an evening out for dinner. My sister fed our kids dinner and took them to the park with their cousin. She mentioned to me after, that although Oliver is not yet verbal, she could pick up on his cues and really understood what he wanted….of course she could. She can see him.

I often wonder if there is a way to make it mandatory for doctors who are delivering the prenatal diagnosis to have to spend a certain amount of time with our children. That they have to really be able to see these children before making any recommendations about them. As we make this transition to Kindergarten and the school system, I know it will take some time for Oliver to get into the new routine, and it will take some time for his new supports to get to know Oliver. But I also know it will be ok….once they see him. Because if my Christmas movies are right about anything, it’s that once believing is seeing that’s when the real magic happens!

Maggie Edwards is a Mom to two children, Oliver and Atlee, and a proud member of the Halton Down Syndrome Association. She splits her time between her work in Risk Management and at home with her husband Jeff and the kids.

French River: Pools of Glass

I’m writing this in the car travelling home from French River, a cottage locale situated as far north as Manitoulin Island and almost as far north as Sudbury. On our way up North, Dan and I stopped in Orillia, the birth town of The Group of Seven artist Frank Carmichael. Closer to our final destination, The Lodge at Pine Cove, we stopped at the French River Trading Post, and I picked up a copy of David P. Silcox’s lovely illustrated text The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Through its pages, I learned artist Tom Thomson died tragically by drowning before The Group of Seven was officially formed, but the group insisted he was very much a part of the movement and so he’s remained. This famous Group of Canadian artists defined Canada to the rest of the world through their sketches and paintings portraying Canada “the North” with images of nature, both dense and desolate; landscapes now synonymous with this country. I have at least one thing in common with Frank Carmichael, the Orillia native I mentioned earlier, which I will get to shortly.

On our four and a half hour drive from Peterborough – where we dropped the girls – on our way to French River, we skirted around Georgian Bay, past the Muskokas and along paved highway that cut through pink granite, the rocky face of Ontario’s North, bedrock better known as the Canadian Shield.

“Under the Canadian Shield is where they bury nuclear waste,” Dan informed me at some point during our 4.5 hour long conversation. “They dig deep, way down. It’s one of the safest places to put it.” I hated to think of this beautiful landscape as a dumping ground, but props to Dan for keeping the interesting facts coming on our lengthy drive.

On our way home, we stopped in Parry Sound for a quick Subway bite. My first trip to the area was at twelve years old for a gymnastics competition. I was in awe of the rock lining our passageway and the notion of workers having to blast through it to build the roads. Later, at a friend’s cottage, I slid off rocky slopes into smooth dark waters, and fully appreciated the region’s beauty. There is nothing quite like Northern Ontario.

While the magnitude and scope of the rock is impressive, what I’ve truly fallen in love with are the waterways. The bodies of fresh water.

From the beach of our cottage resort we launched our kayaks and let the river current pull us down stream along the shore line. Not far into our paddle, we came across a tiny inlet, the water level so low we could barely gain access. Our oblong boats glided across a narrow channel of rocks laying just below the surface, when around the bend, the pond came into view.

The pond was a wide, full circle dotted with lily pads and white flowers and lined by an audience of pines like spectators in an arena. As an island of rock blocked off the pond, separating it from the main flowing river, we found ourselves in a quiet, perfectly still sphere, save for the one startled fish who made a jump for it upon our arrival. Dan and I intuitively set down our paddles and floated together in silence, taking in the beauty around us. The pond was smooth as glass, and though I could spot the bottom if I tried, it was the surface reflecting the blue sky and onlooker trees like a mirror that caught my eye. With the sky above and the sky below me, was I in heaven? Yes.

This is where my sights and those of Frank Carmicheal aligned, our imaginations similarly captivated. Before I had a chance to properly read through The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson book I picked up, I titled this post Pools of Glass after the lasting impression of the pond lingering in my mind’s eye. Only later, in leafing through the pages, did I come across Carmichael’s famous painting, Mirror Lake, 1929 that exactly explores the quality of the water I so admired. Mirror Lake is a real place in the Muskokas, but the title of the painting was about more than a place. Carmichael and I each took notice of the northern water as glass reflecting the landscape like a mirror.

Frank Carmichael Mirror Lake 1929

I don’t know if Carmichael felt the same way, but it wasn’t enough for me to look at the water, I needed to experience it.

In the mornings, I set out for my swims. I sliced through the deeper water off the dock, one, two, three, breathe right; one, two, three, breathe left. Swimming in fresh water is an act of meditation.

Dan kindly paced alongside me in his kayak, my protector from potential boats coming through. And snakes. I was weary of water snakes, though I shouldn’t have been.

Before we left on our trip, Dan’s sister lovingly sent us a picture of a three-foot long water snake her friend had just caught in French River. I asked the owner of the Lodge about water snakes upon our arrival, and he just shrugged with a laugh, “No, no. The snakes are my friends.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but I took it as a sign not to be worried. I saw one cute baby snake scurry out of my path while hiking in the woods, but beyond that, nothing but plump loons and the occasional jumping fish in the water, in addition to a few toads and a muskrat while kayaking.

“The dogs on the property help to keep the black bears away,” the owner also informed Dan. Black bears. Who said anything about black bears?

During our stay in French River, our girls’ piano teacher happened to be visiting family in French River as well. She posted on Facebook about a close encounter with a water snake. I’m not crazy about the idea of encountering a snake in the water, but I can tell you last summer when we spent a week in the Bruce Peninsula region of Tobermory, with its crystal clear, frigid turquoise waters, the first thing I did at our cottage was swim across a small cove of water over to a large rock. I climbed up onto that rock, triumphant, saw a large snake, and immediately got back in the water and crossed the cove back to shore. As it turns out, that rock was the snake’s home and we later saw him zig-zagging through the water. Ariel and a friend were the first ones to spot him in the cove, while I was coming back in from a swim out into the depths of Lake Huron. The snake and I crossed paths, but he went the other way. That snake wanted nothing to do with me (the feeling was and is mutual). My point being: I’ve already experienced my first water snake, you’d think I’d be over it.

The first time Dan and I got in the water together at French River, he swam up behind me and playfully grabbed my toes (not funny). I reminded him that snakes usually swim on top of the water, they glide their bellies across it half immersed. Or so I thought. I later found this on the Ontario Nature site, “The northern watersnake eats fish and amphibians, hunting for its prey along the water’s edge or underwater. It is an excellent swimmer and can be found up to three metres below the surface of the water and several kilometres from shore.” Huh.

The idea of snakes gliding across the water’s surface grossed Dan out, as he had imagined the snakes resting at the bottom of the dark murky river, far down below in the fathoms we can’t see, which I think is infinitely worse. In general, I recommend not worrying about snakes when you’re swimming down a river. They’re certainly not worrying about you.

I wish I could pack a northern lake into my back pocket and take it home with me, snakes and all, but alas, I’m but a mere mortal, stranded and surrounded by dry ground. If I could swim in a lake every day, I would. Maybe one day I will.

I hope I come back as a water snake. I can see myself now, gliding serenely through pools of glass.