The Last Time

This is probably the truest thing I can share with you right now. It’s a poem I wrote this morning, reflecting on nature, but also, in a roundabout way, it’s about heading home, the changing seasons and the kids going back to school. Endings and new beginnings. I have such a strong desire to be close to nature and I don’t want to forget all the elements that have left me feeling so inspired this summer. Poems can convey, with brevity, emotions I may not capture in a thousand words of trying to explain the complexity here. Suffice it to say, time is up, in so many respects, and so please allow me to be brief.

The Last Time
When was the last time
you paused
to stare at your breath on a cool morning;
you tilted your head up
and let the sun
cover your face like a warm cloth;
you strolled through the woods
and appreciated each tree,
the curve of its trunk,
a slender pointed branch,
noted the toadstools tucked in
at its feet,
down to the dew drops hanging from pine needles
like runny noses?

When did you last observe the clouds
dance, multiply,
like the dust kicked up of a thousand horses or
drift slowly by, on an airless day
the glaciers of the sky

When was the last time
you let the cool waters of the lake lick at your toes
or took the time to kneel –
crouch right down –
to peer inside the hole of the chipmunk’s lair;
admire the beauty
of the undulating hills towering above
reflected in water below in perfect symmetry;
the cattails tinged yellow, their colour
fading, bend and bow
in the gentle breeze?

You stare breathless
Pause
(hopefully not) for the last time.

Living On A Cloud

I spent the summer after third year university inhabiting une petite village in Quebec as part of a cultural exchange program through Western University. I was joined by students from around the world, but mostly other Canadians like me. The summer was rife with love affairs and love triangles, some that lasted months, others that lasted five weeks (the duration of the program). I meant to leave after five weeks but was having so much fun immersing myself in Quebecois culture, I planned to stay the entire summer break. I spoke in French every waking minute and when my parents came to visit late in the summer, English felt heavy on my tongue, stuck in the back of my throat.

At one point, while visiting a campground where my host family had a trailer, I was riding on the back of a golf cart with a friend. My friend turned to me,

“You know this isn’t real life here, right? We’re living on a cloud.” We laughed; he was right. Our love affairs here didn’t really matter, because this wasn’t real life, right? Real life was where we towed the line, where our decisions impacted our actual reality. Quebec life was…elsewhere.

This summer, once again, I am undoubtedly living on a cloud. Life at the cottage hasn’t been perfect or without its dramas, but it’s been safe, sheltered, illuminating, often peaceful, infused with beauty, nature and life. The proximity to the lake, mere meters, is my greatest joy. I swim every day. Living here has felt more real than my real life.

The realities of school and Covid and returning home to rebuild our past life feel heavy, stuck in the back of my throat. I feel like I’m heading toward a different kind of life on a cloud, a storm cloud, not the kind of cloud you want to be on at all. No love affairs, only the heavy fog of disease that surrounds us. The reality of children being sent back to school, only to be exposed to illness; the slight sign of their humanity, a dripping nose, sending them straight home again anyway. Is there even going to be school for families who have young children, especially families, like mine, with a child who is more susceptible to getting sick? I can’t help but feel the words, “only the strong will survive” like a punch in my gut.

On the storm cloud, it rains every day. It rains down responsibilities, broken promises, false hopes and dashed dreams. While the school system in place isn’t perfect, I feel like I have to try, working parents, parents who are full time students, we feel like we have to try to send our kids back. What’s the alternative? Who’s going to look after them at home? Apple tv? Their iPads? Yup and yup. Technology is both a blessing and a curse. And we’re lucky, LUCKY, to have access to that technology that is both a blessing and a curse. What about those kids who don’t have access? Who aren’t so lucky?

Normally the start of a new school year is like the sight of a rising sun ahead, all blustery blue skies and white fluffy clouds. The sun-man is wearing cool black shades and a big smile with happy sunrays shooting out of his head, a backpack on his smoldering shoulders. I feel like Covid killed the sun-man. I picture my children, their cute faces hidden behind masks, sequestered at their desks all day long, afraid to touch one another, just hoping to be able to attend school because their parents are so tired of looking after them, of trying to be everything to everyone that they can’t keep it together anymore. School is what they desire; that’s what we’ve come to.

Nobody chose this, I know. I also know I will be one among many mothers who are pulling out their magic markers and drawing a squiggly sun-man in their kids’ skies, trying to keep things together, to keep those clouds above looking glossy and bright. I will simultaneously draw a happy face across the squiggly line of my own mouth, because that’s what mothers are expected to do.

But I won’t be happy, and my kids will know that.

I will not be happy to give up my time to write. I will not be happy to put my future on hold. I will not be happy to do half a job. I will not be happy with having people in my workspace. I will not be happy with a disgruntled, stressed out partner. I will not be happy to see my kids at home when they should be at school. I will not be happy if someone in my family gets sick. I will not be happy when there is an outbreak in my community.

My unhappiness is but a drop in the bucket, but I wanted you to know. To the mothers and parents feeling stressed, you’re not alone.

A Summer Affair

I’m listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The clash of classical instruments banging against the soundtrack of my mind creates a space for focus. The music draws something out of me. From where I’m sitting at my desk, the lake looks like a Monet painting. Not quite real. The colour is off. Ripples of slate, blue, grey and white. A cottony clouded sky.

The temperature has taken a turn in Barry’s Bay. In the coffee shop in town, five minutes away, the locals tell me it’s been a nice August compared to usual.

“A few years ago, the third weekend in August,” a woman tells me, “it snowed at my cousin’s wedding.”  Snow – that dirty word.  Who wants to think of such things mid-summer? Certainly not I.

But as I stood at the end of my dock earlier, there’s no mistaking nature’s reversal – yes, reversal – because that’s what this is. Not really a cycle, more of a reverting back. In June, when we arrived, the same temperature, 17 degrees Celsius, felt warm. The cold was being ushered out, the warmth ushered in. Now the heat is quietly making its exit. First July’s humidity dissipated, but the heat remained, warm and friendly. Now warm air is slipping away, I fear we’ve almost reached the encore of this show, and soon she will exit stage left to make way for winter’s frost. I can feel cool air filling the room, permeating, taking her place, chilling my fingers to a pale yellow, numbing, stripping me of summer’s caress.

Summer here is like a searing, passionate fling – it was never meant to last, it never could last. Too hot to hold.

“Blink and you miss it!” the local woman laughed.

Like an affair, summer here is like a best kept secret, a dance between lovers producing heat that fades with time. As quick as it arrived, it’s over. Only that first kiss lingers. I would do anything for that kiss.

I feel like a scorned lover. “But wait!” I cry, “we’re here until the END of August, can’t summer last until then?”

No, it can’t. No more than the relationship that’s fizzled out can be rekindled. Once the fire’s gone, the flame’s extinguished, that’s it. There is no going back to what was, you have to wait to find it again. The reversal of falling in love is falling out of love – the latter seems to happen much more quickly; the way I’ve blinked, and summer is leaving me.

Come August first, the air told fall’s story, a few weeks earlier than I would normally notice back home. What is beautiful about spending so much time outdoors and taking notice are the cues nature sends to make herself clear. She is not a shy lover. The seasonality of the bugs. First they’re here, now they’re mostly gone. Come August, cue the grasshoppers. Where were they all of July?  I’ve not a clue, but my friend the farmer tells me his chickens love to eat them. One hopped into our van, as we left the farm. The most alert and alive and humongous green cricket I’ve ever seen.  He rode shotgun over Dan’s shoulder all the way home. The next morning, when Dan got back in to drive Louie to a trail for a jog, the cricket was still there, like a devoted pet, waiting for another joy ride.

Then there are the dock spiders. No sooner had I announced to a neighbour that the dock spiders left us, then one faced me down. The dock spider, the size of my palm, one of the largest species in Canada, sat in the middle of the ladder I needed to climb up to get out of the water from my swim. I took the long way around.

In the spring, when we arrived, the dock spiders ran amuck, in and out of their crevasses, all over the dock, which had become their kingdom. We sat shyly on our towels, double checked chairs, regarded our shoes and shook out every garment and linen with vigour. As summer progressed, as it did so quickly – too quickly – the dock spiders seemed to cower away from our cries of joy and splashing cannonballs off the dock and visitors trampling down their lane. They left us be, golden sun creatures that we are, preferring the gallows below, I imagine. A reversal of habitat. But come August, if you’ve read the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, you may have an inkling of what the water spider I came face-to-face with on the ladder of our dock intended. A large sac of eggs, soon-to-be spiderlings, now rests itself wedged between ladder and dock and momma spider sits astride it, proud. I am loathe to remove that sac and its spider, even if it means I need to swim the long way around, through the lily pads.

There was a time I would have crushed any and all spiders that crossed my path, such was my right, or so I thought. But through another form of reversal, I feel differently now, quite differently. When I find a spider or rogue moth or ant in the cottage, I mostly fold the creature into a napkin gently and take them back outside, where they would prefer to be anyway. I do what I can to avoid killing, I think it’s gentler on my soul this way.

As the cold floods in, won’t enough creatures die anyway? That spider astride her sac, won’t she perish short of seeing her newborns? Or is that just a story we tell little children?

Dock spiders belong to the family Pisauridae, closely related to wolf spiders. They do not bite. They lay their eggs in a silken egg sac, which can then be carried around by the female until it’s time for the young to hatch. She holds the egg sac in her fangs like a wad of cotton. The female dock spiders, pisaurids, build a silken, tent-like nursery for their spiderlings, and so they are known as ‘nursery-web’ spiders. This glorious tent is what I can see between my ladder and dock. When you start to think of the spider as building a nursery, she becomes harder to kill, does she not?

As they typically start nesting in the spring, this is likely our spider’s third egg sack, her third cycle of spiderlings. Each sac can yield 1,000 spiderlings. I check on those babies every day. Dan thought maybe a fish would come and eat them, nab the sac, but apparently, dock spiders are the ones who will eat minnows, sticking their two front legs in the water, awaiting the right water vibration. The perfect kill. A reversal of expectations.

“I feel like the end of a long day,” says Charlotte the spider, at the end of E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web. And can’t we all relate – especially lately?

A summer passed by too quickly; a pandemic that’s arrived and decided to stay. The leaving of school and the coming back. A reversal of fortunes.

I will embrace the cold the best I can. Pull out my tough jeans and hooded sweatshirts that I’ve had tucked away, tucked away but not forgotten. Instead of dressing down, I will layer up. I will throw a few logs on the fire, the trunks of trees that once grew strong.

I will hit play on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and write my way to the end, with images of Monet’s hayfields and summer days tucked into the back of my mind, for when the heat returns, I will be ready.

Until then, winter is coming.

The Curious Incident of the Frog in the Night

I’m a sentimentalist, it’s true.  I am guilty of romanticizing life at the cottage, both to myself and to others. I tend to focus on the good feelings and not so much on the bad experiences. And there’s merit to this, to being an optimist, to seeing the glass half-full, to finding the positives and looking on the bright side. To letting one’s self get swept up in the moment. But we all know that darkness lurks somewhere in the shadows.  I can’t remain clouded to what is difficult and unseemly to write about or I risk only telling half the story – that which is saccharine, sickly sweet. (See Leslie Jamison’s essay, In Defense of Saccharin(e) from The Empathy Exams for a further examination of this topic).

There’s the fairy tale version of our summer stay and the darker elements – the truth of our existence here lies somewhere in between.

Let me tell you a sinister story, reminiscent of brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a princess named Penelope who loved to pick up frogs and toads. All day long, she caught the frogs, watched the toads and cradled them in her hands. At four years old, the little princess was not the best at washing her hands.

Her parents, the king and queen, were very busy running the cottage kingdom, managing three children during a pandemic and working full time. Life in the palace was not always a bed of roses. They argued over responsibilities and often left the children to their own devices. Princess Penelope spent her days down by the shoreline with her frogs.

Now, if this were brothers Grimm, the little princess would likely drown at this point in the story, but stay with me here.

One night, after the royal family hosted visitors for the weekend, the little princess began to vomit. The queen panicked. Was this the dreaded Covid plague?  Her poor baby! What had they done! How could they have been so foolish as to allow others to enter the protective bubble of their cottage kingdom?

Mysteriously, the next morning, after having vomited all night, the little princess recovered. She seemed absolutely fine – better than fine. Life returned to normal with princess Penelope catching her frogs down by the shore. The king and queen stopped worrying about the little princess and fell back into their work.

A week later, the vomiting happened again. This time, there had been no visitors. Was this some sort of evil spell?  No – poison.

The king happened to remember something he once read in a book of potions about toads excreting toxins.

Little princesses aren’t very good at washing their hands. 

Busy monarchs seldom have the time to enforce proper hand washing after every single held toad.

When a toad is squeezed, they excrete a milky poison from their eyes toxic to their enemies. In addition, many water frogs also have bacteria and can carry salmonella, which can lead to some serious intestinal upset. Through further research, the king and queen also discovered that the substance coating certain frogs and toads can be hallucinogenic.  So the story of the princess kissing the frog who turned into a prince – who knows?  Maybe that’s what she thought she saw, high as a kite.

Furthermore, because a frog’s skin is so porous and takes in its environment so readily, holding it in your hand is akin to having someone hold onto your lung. That cannot feel comfortable, and so, perhaps it is best to leave the frogs and toads be.

Now that the case of the curious night vomiting has been solved, his and her majesty have gently, but firmly, instructed the young princess to limit the number of frogs and toads she holds and to wash her hands after handling every single one. Every single time.

According to latest reports, “I’m holding a toad in my hands!”, not much has changed.

And so this story – and her nausea – may continue unhappily ever after.

But, honestly – what can you do?  She’s a kid. Kids are disgusting. And to those who would judge: if you think your kid hand-washes after doing something as dirty as wiping their own ass, check next time, use a magic mirror or whatever you have to do. And when you watch them walk out, hands dry, wipe their nose and pass you by with a grin, maybe then the frog vomiting won’t seem so bad.

Accompanying every bit of life, every piece of beauty, there’s a darker side.

“Oh, I just love the loons!” I told one neighbour,

“Yes, well, they’re not as great as you might think.”  The loons eat the native ducks’ eggs, effectively almost abolishing them from our lake. And the ducks that do survive, another neighbour informed me,

“The ducklings – the snapping turtles pull them under by the legs, one by one.”  One webbed foot at a time.

Nature is murderous, cruel, relentless, toxic. Leeches that suck your blood, wasps that sting beneath the eye. Toads that poison little princesses like a blood-red apple.

At the end of the summer, I’ll hold a picture in my mind of our sweet four-year in a pink tutu bent over the toad in her hand. All eyelashes and a mop of curls. The remnants of salmonella on her small hands.

I’ll try not to get all sentimental over that picture, over the notion of a tiny girl cuddling with her toads, enjoying her warm summer days, the sparkle of the sun reflected in the water, dazzling, under a bright blue sky, the apple of the frog’s eye.  That kind of romanticizing, especially in writing, is enough to make you sick.

 

Blog Post: On Observing Humans

We learn in a multitude of ways.  Directly, from others.  Directly, from ourselves, from the front row seat of the skins we inhabit, with our bodies, our five senses.

I’m standing at the end of our dock in my underwear.  I have de-clothed after a forty-minute run in an attempt to convince myself I should jump into the lake.  The air feels cool, it’s fifteen degrees Celsius and there’s a breeze.  The lake temp is in the seventies – that’s not bad.  Already, here, up North in the Madawaska Valley, fall is sidling in.  A smattering of trees are painted in hues of warm colours.

My toes hang over the edge of the dock, and I’m wrestling with myself over going in when a large white orb torpedoes by under the water right before my eyes.  My first thought is baby sea turtle!  But of course, there are no sea turtles in our lake.  The creature seems too big and moves too quickly to be a snapping turtle.

I don’t have to guess for long.

The beautiful loon crests a few meters to my right.

Wow, I think, surprised a loon can move that fast under water.  To have read the fact would not have sufficed; experiencing the loon move with such streamlined speed and grace is now forever etched in my mind.

I jump in off the dock and feel the water against my skin, warm and not unpleasant as expected.

Recently, we had my sister-in-law and her family visit us at our cottage.  My brother-in-law is a trained and practising ecologist, an environmental consulting expert.  I ask if he’d like to join me on a grueling hike, in the rain; the ascent goes skyward, but the lookout at the summit is dazzling and worth the exertion.  He agrees.

The hike has become a right of passage, an initiation of sorts, to life at the cottage and an introduction to the stark and startling beauty of the area.  On certain days, the climb involves blazing heat and humidity that leaves your neck and t-shirt soaked and bugs sticking to you like Velcro.  On other days, as was the case when my brother-in-law agreed to hike with me, the rain renders the path muddy, the rocks that protrude slick.  On the way down, my foot gives way beneath me.  I catch myself, elbows in the mud on either side of the rock that would have bruised my spine.

“You okay?” my brother-in-law asks.

“Yep.  Close call.” It’s all part of the climb.

I can tell a lot about a person by the way they make it up the mountain.

I power through the path, half at a run pace, treating the hike as sport, legs strong, hopping off rocks with vigour.  Sometimes I pretend I’m flying, while keeping a solid pace.

Dan, my husband, keeps pace with mine, never pulling ahead of me or falling behind.  He knows I like to take the lead and that I expect him to keep up.  We talk amicably, easily, on the way up and congratulate ourselves for exploring and for breathing heavy when we arrive at the top.

“Good exercise!”  We both agree, cheerily enough.

He empathizes over my attire; I would not have chosen to wear a summer dress had I planned this unexpected detour.  He understands my need to plan.  He takes my picture at the summit when I’m not watching.  He offers me a sip of his water, even though I have my own.  He pets our dog and does most of the caring for him.  He poses in pictures with me, even though I know he doesn’t particularly like to do so.  He kisses me, a quick peck, back at the van.  We’re both sweaty.

My brother, my little brother as I call him, sets off up the trail ahead of me, head down, and at a fast pace.  We take turns chasing one another up the mountain.  I think that we are racing and having fun.  We sweat equally hard.  We discourage the dog from biting at our fast heels, equally.  He really appreciates the view at the top, as do I.  At one point, he worries about the dog being too close to the edge.  I agree and we rein him in.  We are both parents.  He is okay with me snapping a few pictures of us, but even having owned a photography business, he takes few to no pictures himself.  I think it’s because he has owned the photography business.  We talk little on the way up, neither one of us can much breathe, but we engage in friendly chit-chat on the way back down.  Afterwards, we chug back water and he thanks me for taking him there.

My friend, a woman my age, approaches the hill with wonder and excitement.  She asked to do it once I mentioned it.  I feel the urge to check back on her as we make our way up, but she shoos me ahead, insisting she’s fine.  She never complains, though her ankles give her trouble.  She is excited about the view before we even get to the top.  She takes many pictures.  She snaps my picture from behind – an action shot – and I pause to take a few of her, too.  I hold the dog and keep him moving ahead so that he won’t bite at my friend or knock her off the edge of the mountain.  The dog is incredibly strong.  At the top, she orchestrates a photo shoot and I oblige.  She admires the view fondly, fully.  She expresses some regret – guilt? – that her husband is not also enjoying this activity, the climb and the view.  She worries about him.  We pick our way back down the trail slowly.  She tells me I remind her of a spry woman in her sixties she sometimes hikes with who blazes along the path, while she often trails behind.

“I want to be fit like her when I’m that age,” she says.

We talk about fitness, how my friend has lost weight – and she has, noticeably – but that she doesn’t weigh herself.

“That’s just a number,” she says.  She goes by how she feels.  I completely agree, though I know my number, more or less.  I know best by the way I feel, too.

At one point near the end, I spot a harmless house fly against her neon green tank top and calmly reach to flick it off.  My friend’s happy and calm demeanor changes, her face drains.

“Is there a BUG on me?”

“Yah, but it’s just…”

She’s flailing her body, shaking her head and hands.

“A fly.”

The offending beast is gone, close call.  We share a little laugh.

My brother-in-law is happy to tag along behind me up the mountain, and I enjoy looking back over my shoulder at the scientist at work.  He is completely lost studying the local flora and fauna.  The ecologist in him shines.  He reminds me of my toddler, always lagging behind on our family hikes, bent over a branch to examine this leaf, or that blade of grass.  His childish nature is glorious to witness.  Simultaneously, there is a meta-analysis happening: the ecologist observing plants in their natural habitat, the writer observing the ecologist observing the plants; the writer taking a snapshot of the scene in her mind; the ecologist collecting samples, “I’ve never seen this before,” he later exclaims, photographing a generic-looking stem he’s collected.  His very words become the evidence of the writer who is the documenter of human behaviour.

I frequently stop climbing and wait for him to catch up.  His eyes never leave the side of the trail, his hands are busy delicately grazing this or that greenery.  We ascend mostly in silence.  He seems unbothered by any physical discomfort the climb is costing him; he’s too busy observing.

Predictably, I reach the lookout before him.  I double back with the dog to make sure he’s okay.  When he arrives, he exclaims, “I want you to show me where this is on a map so I can take (my wife) and kids.”  Also, so that he may document the plant species he has discovered, single samples of which he grasps like a bouquet.  I admire his passion, understand it, recognize it in myself.

“That was great,” he says when we’re done the hike.

I ask my brother-in-law to identify tree species on my property.  I learn that a hemlock, an evergreen wispy tree with droopy limbs and numerous short needles, is one of my niece’s favourites, and where the forest of red pines is at the top of our drive, and how to tell the difference between the white and the red pine anyway: the white pine needles are long and in bunches of five, whereas the red pine have a reddish trunk and long needles that gather in clusters of two.

My favourite new piece of knowledge from hanging out with my brother-in-law the ecologist pertains to the beech tree.  This is where the writer and the ecologist collide.

“They say the trunks of beech trees look like the feet of elephants,” my brother-in-law tells me.  The feet of elephants.  Somehow this line reminds me of a piece I wrote about the souls of dinosaurs.

I have a look at the beech for myself and I have to agree.

 

The Absence of Something

Do you give yourself time to be creative in the way that you need?

A storm blows in.  I’m sitting beside an open sliding door and there’s the smell and warmth of fresh rain in the summertime wafting in, and the pitter patter of water droplets hitting leaves and branches creating a cascading effect all the way down to the forest floor.  The sound of the waves lapping the shore is overshadowed by booming skies, crackling thunder.

With overcast skies, the lake’s the colour of a silver coin.  The sun wants to push through.

Bright, hot, and sunny this morning, cloudy and thunderous this afternoon; the day’s as undecided as I am.  With the children visiting their grandparents, the pressure to enjoy the absence of something becomes too great.  One minute I tell Dan I’m going to focus on writing, use the time to get some work done, the next we’re packing up the car to take our dog Louie for another hike.  We hiked sixteen kilometers total the day before, but yet, somehow in the absence of something, more was not enough.

So we hike again, then after the hike I plan to visit the dock.  I pack my tote bag full of books, notebooks and pens, silicone earplugs and oversized black sunglasses.  I slide my pink flip flops on then get sidetracked writing a poem.  The poem complete, more or less, I scoop up the handles of my tote just as the rain comes pouring down.

Dan and I spend more time talking about what we’re going to do next then actually doing anything.  We talk some more, and we talk some more beyond that because in the absence of something the space must be filled with everything else.  An onslaught of words and ideas rushes forth.  We could talk for years.

Dan has committed to running a few errands.  He waivers, attempts to tell me one more story about his conversation with a local dog trainer before heading out the door, but my mind is already elsewhere, onto the thing it is I will be doing in the thunderstorm in the absence of something.  I wish to fill the space perfectly, deliberately, with an activity of my choosing – not of necessity.

“Do you want to hear about the dog trainer?”

My husband has caught me tuning out, moving into the space and sphere of my own consciousness.  Did I reply, “not really,” or “how about you tell me later,” or plain “go ahead,” I can’t recall, but what I do remember specifying is my desire for him to be in charge of that project.  I’ll take part, do my duty, but it’s not my show.

A hummingbird suspends itself in front of my window, hovering long enough to have a good look.  Its wings beat so fast I can’t see them, and I think, yes, that is the speed I travel in the presence of everything. I beat my wings fast and hard so that I too may look in on the writer.

I shoo Dan out the door and turn to my pen – or should I type on my laptop?

At Algonquin Park, where we hiked, I picked up two books from the visitor centre.   One titled Braided Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the other a lovely illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.  In lieu of picking up my pen, I sit down on the couch with the latter, open the front cover and notice the author’s name written on the page.  I decide I should follow him on social media and so I sit back down at my desk to pick up my cell phone.

But instead, I reach for my pen and fill my life with the presence of words, the absence of regret.  Time well spent.

I squint looking outside, the day is now bright.

The storm has passed.  The water’s calm and the skies are clear.

I hear a few measly drops, the soft hum of the fridge.  A truck passing by in the distance.

A lone moth flutters by, otherwise the world is still and silent.  Not even the birds sing.

The sun peaks out.

I think I’ll go back down to the dock, but who knows.

A single bird breaks the silence with its melodic trill.

An echo beating in the sky, the sound of base drums, reverberates in the distance.  This isn’t over yet.

Good, Bad, Who’s to Say?

There are two sides to every coin.  Heads or tails?  Well, depending on the side you are rooting for, which way you’re betting, one side is perceived as ‘good’, the other side as ‘bad’.  This narrative of good and bad plays into so many aspects of our lives, but lately I’ve been thinking about it in the context of how we view others.

I came across an engaging well-thought out TED talk by Heather Lanier (thanks Sue Robins for introducing me to her work) about the problematic nature of framing stories as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Lanier explains through the use of an ancient parable that “’Good’ or ‘bad’ are incomplete stories that we tell ourselves.”

The ancient parable of the farmer goes like this:

There once was a man who lived on a farm with his son and his horse.

One day, the barn door was left open and the horse ran away. When the nearby villagers heard about it, they ran to the farm to tell the farmer how sorry they felt for him.

“How will you work your farm without your horse?” they asked.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

A few days later, the farmer’s horse returned, and following it were two more horses. The villagers were so excited for the farmer’s luck, they ran to his farm and told him so.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

The new horses were not broken in, so the farmer’s son worked hard to break them in so they could be used on the farm. While doing so, one of the new horses threw him off and his leg was broken.

The villagers again ran to the farm and expressed their deep sadness about the son’s broken leg. “Now your son can’t help you on the farm,” they said with their heads hung low.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

As the son was healing from his broken leg, a war broke out in the countryside. All the young men were sent to fight. Many died or were seriously injured. However, since the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he was not able to go. The villagers again came to the farm, to say to the farmer how very lucky he was that his son didn’t have to go fight in the war.

Once again, the farmer shrugged his shoulders and stated, “good, bad, who’s to say?”

This parable teaches us to simply be a witness to life’s events.  The idea being that peace is found by observing the events of life and removing all judgement; by sitting back and witnessing without trying to attach labels, and avoiding life’s dramas.

The principle tenant of Buddhism is that craving leads to suffering.  Either craving for something good to last or craving for something bad to end.  One who does not crave, does not suffer – or so the idea goes.  In meditation, the goal is not to judge the thoughts that come into your head, but to let them flow through your mind and watch them from a distance. Thoughts are not labelled as good or bad, nor are they held on to.  They are let go.

Wow.  This all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Letting go of notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; meditating and watching all kinds of thoughts float by without attaching meaning or significance.  As a writer, I often try to do the opposite: I latch on to words, haul them in, examine them to death, then stuff them into a basket full of other used thoughts and ideas.  But perhaps I need to loosen up, disassociate from my body a little bit more.  My body is so needy, temperamental; it’s cloistering to the mind.

I received a rejection note this morning for an essay I wrote.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  Maybe the piece will go on to be accepted in a more reputable journal or will lead me to a connection and long-lasting friendship with an editor – who knows?  Maybe it’s eventually printed at a time when the person who needs to read it, reads it.  I can’t help but yearn toward the positive.  However, maybe the essay never gets published.  I have to be satisfied with the idea that the essay just is.  Pain and pleasure, bad and good.

The other day, out on a drive, I turned right at the last minute onto a path I hadn’t planned to go down.  I discovered a beautiful trail; the kids loved it.  Later that day, I swatted at a bug on my knee, assuming it was a horsefly, and got badly stung by a wasp.  So the story goes.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  The key is to remain open; to abstain from judgement.  This is not the same as being passive.  Even meditation – sitting being, seemingly doing nothing – is an intense exercise of the mind.

When I leave for my run this morning, I will either feel good or bad and I’m going to try to not attach meaning to those feelings.  Today’s run doesn’t necessarily signify that I’m a good runner or a bad runner, that I’m in good shape or bad shape, it is just how I’m feeling today, at this particular moment.

I see the value in letting go, but a part of me needs to rebel against this notion of watching our feelings pass by without judgement.  I’m quite attached to my feelings.  I’m all for letting the feelings that are hurtful and painful pass through me, but I’m not so willing to let go of joy and happiness.  I want to fully inhabit my body in these moments.  But we don’t get to choose.  One minute, joy, a new path; the next minute, pain, a wasp sting.  Life is just like that.

When it comes to people though, I see how this principle need apply.  In my own life, the good/bad story has played out like this: the initial Down syndrome diagnosis – pain, bad; getting to know people with Down syndrome – joy, good.  Over and over, in different contexts, the story repeats itself.  My greatest realization of all, through years of reflection and learning to withhold judgement, is that: Down syndrome just is.  And so the story goes.

 

Hold on Tight to this Earth

The hiss of the tea kettle steaming its siren call rattles me awake.  There’s a small lever on its spout to flick back the lid and once, only once, instead of touching that nubby rubber extremity, I put my finger on the steaming metal.  Only once.  Accidents happen.

Is it a curse/burden or the wild imagination of women, of mothers, to constantly worry/fear/have daymares about the horrible way their loved ones may die or be injured?  Do men have these same fears?

Safety is the illusion, the comfortable narrative we tell ourselves as we hum our way through our days – a hum that can easily turn into a scream.

My brother and his family visit on the weekend.  We go on a day trip to Algonquin park.  Our cottage is situated about forty-five minutes from the east gate.  On our way, as we careen down another steep incline, the speedometer reaching over 100 km/h, I see the sign warning for deer, then I see the sign warning for moose and I can’t help myself, “please slow down.”  I can see the moose appearing from nowhere, hear the crash; I think I’m going to be sick.

On our hike, we spot a stack of boulders with snakes happily coiled up in the sun.  My toddler leans her face in close.  What if a snake were to simply recoil and SNAP.  She isn’t afraid.  She pokes him with a stick, and he slides away.

On the last evening of their stay, my brother and my husband set off to fish in a leaky tin boat at sunset.  Our lake is quite small, but it has pockets of depth, some say up to ninety feet.  Mostly the whole lake is visible, except for a few hidden bends.  As the sun dips further, I walk away from them, turn my back on the water, and walk up the steep incline of our gravel driveway with my dog.  I think, I hope they brought the lifejackets.  We are new to cottage life.  It’s easy to forget your own safety underneath the camouflage of bliss.

I walk back down the driveway with the dog and scan the horizon.  No sign of them.

They had a few beers, I remind myself.  What if they tipped?  The water is calm and secretive.  The lone eerie call of a loon rings out.

Back in my kitchen, as the tea kettle wails, I return a large knife by sliding it into its holster.  What if I missed?  And instead sliced into my hand.  Instead, I am careful, deliberate.  The throaty call of a crow caws out somewhere overhead.

They are around the bend, my brother and my husband, and as the sky fades to black, the stars twinkling overhead, they come back safely to us with fish stories to tell.  The baby fish that ate their worm and caught the monster pike, will someday turn into the monster fish that caught the whale, but there’s no danger in that.

“You don’t have any snapping turtles up here by any chance, do you?”  My sister-in-law tells me a story about the snapping turtle that bit her toe as she dangled on a pool noodle in a lake.  Her turquoise nail polish was to blame, she thinks.  She shows me the scar and I try not to think about it as I swim alone, far from shore, cutting across the lake.  I also try not to think about what if, at this moment, my heart stopped beating.  We do happen to have a lovely snapping turtle, the caretakers of the lake, who likes to visit the fish underneath our dock.

The kids fish and catch fish.  The fish go into a bucket.  The kids and other adults go up for lunch; I am the last one to pull myself from the lake.

“What about these fish?” I call up.

“Leave them, the boys want to eat them.”

I hesitate.  The fish don’t look like they’re doing so well.  One is floating up sideways near the top.  I push aside my instincts.

Over lunch, we ascertain nobody knows how to clean or prepare the fish.  And it seems especially clear that no one is volunteering to kill them or deal with the mess.  Another time.  My brother is the first to head back down to the bucket and the news is grim.

“I think they’re all dead.”  He dumps the bucket of water into the lake in a panic and then realizes he’s just dumped a bucket of dead fish beside the dock.

“No, look!” they’re still breathing, they are just in shock.  Fish swim so that water will pass over their gills.  The bucket provided not enough space, not enough air.  No room to breathe and live.

I am outraged on behalf of the fish.  I can tolerate fishing, but I cannot tolerate cruelty.  That our carelessness has caused the fish distress near death is unacceptable.  Take only what you need.  Still.  One by one they eventually swim away, they live.  Lesson learned.  It’s clear to me who poses the greatest threat and it’s not the snapping turtle.

“How do you keep them safe?” Elyse’s speech therapist is asking me a pointed question, the pointed question, about life at the cottage on the water’s edge.

“Strict rules,” I say.  There’s no going outside without letting an adult know.  No going on the dock period without an adult.  Still.

There’s a sort of marsh on one side of the dock and a beach for swimming on the other side.  The edge of the water is shallow, its deepening slow, only up to four feet by the very end of the dock.  We allow the kids to play at the beach by the marsh.  Still.

One day Dan and I are finishing our dinner.  We sit in the screened in porch with a view of the water and the girls are playing outside.  For one moment, they forget themselves and step onto the edge of the dock.  One peers over the edge into the water, probably looking for minnows, another leans (pushes?) into them and SPLASH!  On one side, our dock is lined with rocks, likely the remnants of an old dock.  Her head avoids the rock by inches.  Dan and I hear the splash, jump to our feet, in time to hear one complaining about being soaking wet, but not hurt.  Not this time.

Louie, our rambunctious pup, weaves through children at warp speed, occasionally deciding to take one out.  We know he does this.  We prepare for this exact scenario.  Keep him on a leash we can grab onto at any time.  Our children, who cling to his neck and pull at his skin and love him dearly, have learned to brace themselves when he gets into this wild state.  Still.

My youngest nephew is but a wisp of a child.  Small for his age of three, which is in itself small; I worried about him the most with Louie.  Sure enough, with our vigilance, which is not vigilance enough, Louie at some point over the weekend, knocked him down two stairs, bulldozed him over in our driveway as we were all saying goodbye, and narrowly missed knocking him off the dock, more than once.  Louie charged full speed right at him on the dock, having escaped an adult grasp, in a frenzy of excitement, and my nephew’s little life flashed before my eyes.  The lake in relief, Louie swerved to the left at the last minute and I scooped my nephew up safely into my arms.

Later, the two of us, just the two of us, took Louie for a walk up the incline.  My nephew didn’t say a word, but held my hand tight, trusting me, as I warded off the dog who wanted sticks thrown for him.  A dog that comes in hot.  I felt like with my hand, I was tethering my nephew’s small soul to the earth.  I daren’t let go.

 

Unable to Perceive the Shape of You

What an odd yet strange and wonderful thing it is to tether oneself to another human being through the act of marriage.  To say, “you’re the one!” with the intention that they’re the one forever.  Until death do you part.  Even after death, we comfort ourselves by imagining our dearly departed waiting for us behind those pearly gates, just on the other side.  Well maybe that’s not exactly how we each envision it; from accounts I’ve read from the other side there are bright lights and an energy, a sort of life force that’s difficult to describe.  A place we go back to from whence we came.  I believe in this energy, in the light that glows within us – ‘our spirit’ – that is extinguished once we’re gone.  It’s a romantic notion, but I have to, I have to believe in living on in some form after death, the way I have to believe in marriage and love.  Both forces are equally dubious yet unmistakeably felt.

I began writing this blog yesterday with the intention of dedicating it to Dan in honour of our upcoming eleven-year wedding anniversary, but the piece took a turn when I remembered a line I heard recently in a reading – a poem, The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry.  Poems apparently have the power to control your thoughts and fingers typing on a keyboard.  Once I began traveling to the country of marriage through my writing, the piece evolved and transformed itself from the lighthearted voice and tone of my blog post writing into a more lyrical, deeply felt, literary piece you would call an essay, which is, as Cynthia Ozick puts it, “A stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”  Pieces of Wendell’s poem became part of the essay and the basis of each scene construction, forming my own ideas about what constitutes a country of marriage.  You can’t just throw a phrase like ‘country of marriage’ out at a writer and not expect them to pounce on it.  I wrote on that idea with a rabid fervour.  Anyway, you’ll have to read about it in my next book.  I promise tears (mine), steam rising, oppressors, ex-boyfriends, rugged terrain, the torn skin of a scalp, the taste of alcohol, knees pressed together, Down syndrome, and a belly (mine) as full as the moon.  We have gone some places, my husband and I, in our country of marriage.

But this post isn’t all lost causes, because today I remembered another line that I happily dedicate to the man who walks alongside me.

Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

~ The Shape of Water, adapted and translated (likely) from 13th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi

When I heard this, I thought it was one of the most romantic notions conceived, unable to perceive the shape of you.  Rumi is, of course, speaking of God.  Love may be the closest facsimile of divinity I’ve encountered in my life, and so I think these lines are just about right.

Eleven years in our country of marriage, unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.  Your presence fills my eyes with your love.  It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

Light

Much of what gets written down in books, talked about; the ideas we exchange during human interaction involve a central question: what’s this got to do with me?

During my MFA residency week, my mentor, Jane Silcott, mentioned a few times that she was fascinated by light.  The way light moves and changes, bends or refracts.  And on the one hand, I thought, light…hm – so what?  And on the other hand, I thought me too, because I love light; I just hadn’t taken the time to properly think about it before and its relevance to my life.

In her book of memoirs, Everything Rustles, which is described on the back cover as “a debut collection of personal essays” in addition to looking at “the moments right now that shimmer and rustle around her,” Silcott explores “love, grief, uncertainty, longing, joy, desire, fury, and fear.  Also wandering bears, marauding llamas, light and laundry rooms.”  There it is again, that fascination with light.  Now, when I read through her book, I wasn’t reading with an eye for light in mind and planning to write about it.  But something about her light caught my eye.  A scene comes to mind, something to the effect of Jane watching the light change from her porch and an annoyance at being disturbed by a family member for disrupting her peace.  I can relate.  I remember another essay, Natty Man, where the light is mentioned, “I’m enjoying the last bit of light sunny air when the natty man appeared.” and yet another, where the absence of light, the dark of night, causes her fear.

Flipping through the pages of Everything Rustles now, I come across, “What is it about morning light, the in-betweenness of it, that space between night and day?” in the essay Thereness.  That question is tucked in there, just past the page in my book with the remnants of a dirty paw swipe left on it.  I remember reading that particular essay sitting on the edge of the dock, listen to the happy cries of children splashing in the water, fending off puppy licks as I read about my mentor losing her father, the page swathed in heavy sunlight.

And so the light gets in, our stories blur and her words begin to take on meaning in my own life.  And so it goes with stories well told.

After talking with Jane and reading her book, the question of light demanded to be answered.

After dinner last night, I found myself sitting by the edge of the dock, supported by my hands, legs crossed out in front of me, during that magical hour of dusk when the sun gets sleepy.  I happened to glance over my shoulder.  There, in the space between the boards of wood, was an illuminated support beam.  And I thought, what a miracle the sun can reach its light all the way under there, while also thinking, this is my life, right now, and that the light could so ground me in it.

We bought a small kayak and I took it out for its first paddle to explore our lake.  In doing so, I found the perfect pink granite rock that I could swim to later on.  Not enshrouded by weeds or clam shells, perfectly inviting, and close by.

First thing the next morning, with goosebumps on my flesh, I suited up, moved my goggles in place, snapped on my flippers and aimed for the rock.  I strive for an even stroke, a calm breath.  One, two, three breathe, one two three breathe, one two three breathe and look where you’re going.  Thirty minutes of swimming without rest is tiring and in a lake, somewhat disorienting, so I am grateful for the rock.  As I swim there and back, there is the greyish blue-green of the water I look down on and the blinding light of the sun as I turn my head to the side quickly to breath.  Darkness, darkness, light; darkness, darkness, light.  I stop to get my bearings, look around.  Scan the horizon for boats.  We live on such a small lake, and I keep mainly to the shoreline, but I think of the cottage we stayed at in Muskoka a few summers ago, and the woman in the neighbouring cottage who paddled out in her kayak to paddle alongside me as I swam back across the land divide because, as she explained, “a woman was killed here by a boat last summer – please, never swim across alone.”  In the bright morning sun, I can see clearly, no boats.  I continue to cut through the water, and there it is – light – beams of it cutting through the dark water in front and below me with ease, diamonds, glittering along the surface.  The light is all around me.  I just need to open my eyes to see it.