Star Sleep

I woke up outside shy of 4:00 a.m., cold and in the dark, to a chorus of wolves yipping, barking and howling far off in the distance.

I decided to rekindle the fire I lit before going to sleep. I pushed back my warm covers to a barrage of cool air hitting my face. I poked at the embers, seasoned their glow with leaves and twigs, then threw on three more logs and breathed life back into the fire that sparked, snarled and snapped back at me. Dan slid off his side of our air mattress to take a leak. Climbing back into bed, I pulled our flannel comforter over my head, peaking out enough to allow a breath of cold air in, and a small window out to see the flames, which roared sideways in my direction like a woman’s fiery orange hair come alive. An owl in the trees nearby who whooed and the loon’s wails echoed, haunting the lake until dawn. When I awoke a few hours later, the birds were chirping, a few Blue Jays squawking, but it was the sound of the busy bees buzzing to and fro, choosing their flower, buzzing off into the trees surrounding me, that filled my ears. I spotted their hive high up in a birch tree.

We were at our cottage, and the night before was calm and serene. I raked out our fire pit to create a flat surface, then laid two logs down parallel, filling the space between them with leaves, twigs and bark, arranging my kindling down across the two logs like a bridge. The fire caught beautifully. Dan fished off the dock with Penelope and Elyse, and I swam with Ariel and a neighbour as the sun sunk into the shadowed hills. By the time the swimming was done and the stars were out, one log laid nestled against the other like a burning work of art. We sat with the girls, working on a crossword together by the fire, roasting oversized maple marshmallows. Finally, bedtime for the kids, but I wasn’t ready to leave the perfect fire and still night, not yet. Dan ushered the girls into their beds, and I sent him a text.

Dan. I’m super excited. Tonight’s the night.

I looked up from the fire to find him standing at the window of our screened-in porch above me.

“I know what you want to do,” he called down, and I saw him roll his eyes, a slight shake of his head with a smile across his lips. Dan has an uncanny ability to read my mind. He knew EXACTLY what I wanted to do that night.

In the few days before, I had one of my BIG Ideas. The last time I had a big idea, we ended up selling our home and traveling around the world as a family. This new big idea revolved around a potential future book project for which I was compiling a list of experiences that intrigued me. Not a bucket list—exactly—more of a loving living life list. One of the experiences was to sleep under the stars.

Once I get an idea in my head, I have a strong desire to carry it out. Dan barely resisted the idea of sleeping outside the cottage all-night, though his initial text reply was: I don’t care to. With the temperature dropping to twelve degrees Celsius overnight, I would need his warmth and feel safer tucked into his side. I was relieved it wasn’t that much work to convince him. The last thing Penelope said to me before falling asleep was, “Don’t get eaten by a bear.”

With our plans for the night in place, we set to work.

“You get the tarp, I’ll blow up the air mattress,” Dan said. We set the air mattress on top of the tarp, and Dan emerged from the cottage with an armful of bedding. We layered up, I added a few more logs to the fire and the two of us laid side by side looking up through a window of trees at a bowl of stars. “Did you see that?” I asked him. We both had. The distinct glow of a shooting star pulsed and then faded across the sky, an astral firework. We kissed goodnight and rolled into each other for warmth, me in my hoodie, socks and flannel PJ bottoms, him in shorts and a long-sleeved tee. Dan’s light snores cast out into the night, while I laid on my side, gazing serenely at the fire until nodding off into an easy sleep.

So how did the night go? Dan slept somewhat fitfully, waking around two, three, and four a.m., while I fell asleep somewhere close to midnight and got up closer to four to mess with the fire, which, I learned, does not provide much warmth unless you nestle up fire-hazard close. While my body didn’t benefit from the fire’s warmth, my face turned toward it did, and I basked in its warm glow.

At one point, at some ungodly hour, the distinct sound of a twig snapped nearby—quite close to us. Dan tensed beside me, waking us both up. I slid down further underneath the comforter while Dan lifted his head. I thought of the mink that lives by the water’s edge in front of our cottage, and the large fisher, a bear-like creature with claws that our neighbour saw passing by the top of his driveway the other day; as well as the porcupines the Madawaska Valley is named after, skunks, racoons and of course, the bears, which I have only seen forty-five minutes away in Algonquin Park. No further sound. Within a few minutes, Dan’s breathing slowed again, and I fell back asleep to the rhythm of his easy snores and the comfort of the fire. The sound was likely a chipmunk scurrying in the rock pile above our heads where they live. In the night, every sound is amplified.

When the sun rose, I assumed I’d wake and slide right into the lake for an early morning dip, but it didn’t happen that way. The stars subsided, giving way to a cyan sky. Dan left the warmth of our nest to go fishing and I pulled the comforter back over my head until way, way after the sun came up. I sank further into daytime sleep. I wanted to hold onto the dream of the wolves howling in the night with my eyes closed a little bit longer, a little bit longer, listening to the bees and the birds, knowing it had all been real.

 

New Beginnings

From every ending comes a new beginning.

This phrase is tired, overused, cliched, but I can’t help but see a red sun sinking deep into the earth, the black of night, the moon a pearl in a quilt of stars; and then as though a God were fishing, the sun hooked and reeled back up into its perch in the sky, dressed in muted yellows and luminescent golds. Something new, ready to begin.

My MFA program has ended. I spent two pandemic years immersed in earning a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing.  “We’re masters now!” my peers and I joked at graduation. Yet every master knows that only a fool would consider themselves to have mastered a subject to a point of completion. The learning has just begun, and will begin again tomorrow, and the next day, if we’re lucky. Still, the intensity of the program, the degree to which we immersed ourselves in that learning, focused in on honing our craft, applied critical thought to ideas, worked to deadlines, received feedback and tried again. And again. And again. To improve and get better. This is worth an oversized piece of paper and a pat on the back. That the learning should and will continue does not diminish the accomplishment. But, maybe, just maybe, if you’re like me, before you dress in that graduation gown and plop the cap askew on your head, tassel waving in your eyes; before you strut across that stage to fanfare and applause, smile plastered across your face; before all of that will sit a question high on your list of priorities to attend to. A big question, the one that’s constantly at my throat, clawing my insides, pushing me further into the deep thick of this life’s offerings: What’s Next?

I really, truly, like to know where I am going. Not everyone does.

From every ending comes a new beginning.

A month or so ago, on a day when I may have been pondering that question of what’s next, an email jumped to my attention on the screen from Alison Wearing whose newsletter I subscribe to. Alison is a writer who runs Memoir Writing Ink (an online memoir course) and facilitates writing retreats around the world in addition to the many other hats she wears. I have read her books which are enthused with life and humour and seen her animated readings. She has a charismatic theatrical personality that only the dullest of person would not find charming. I know others who’ve attended her workshops and retreats and I have long since known I have something to learn from this woman. I just didn’t know when exactly that would be or how. Other paths have bumped into each other peripherally the past few years, with her name poking up for me here and there, and about a year ago, I seriously considered attending her writing retreat in France. I looked through photos, reviewed packages. But the timing was wrong. I already had residencies to attend where I would be engaged and working with other writers, and the MFA was intensive and consuming. France would have to wait.

But the email that came into my inbox from Alison was about two magical spots that had opened up in the France retreat in June. These were truly last-minute spots due to cancellations. An end for someone else meant a possible new beginning for me. Alison was seeking out published writers to fit in with the group, and I could sense this retreat would be a good fit for where I’m currently at in my writing process. I have essays to edit. The timing was right. The exact week of the France retreat, I had planned to be on a self-imposed writing residency with a friend anyway. My writing friend is a world traveller. Literally, she has been to every continent and over a hundred countries. We had planned to meet in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, where my cottage is located to get some work done. “How do you feel about going to a writing retreat with me in the South of France instead?” Reader, there was no hesitation. I reached out and applied to Alison Wearing’s retreat right away, and by some stroke of magic, within hours of receiving the invitation (because that is exactly what that email was, an invitation from the universe) I had a confirmed spot, and my friend too! And we were on our way to France.

What’s next?

You could argue that a trip to France is nothing but an elaborate distraction; that travel, in general, is simply a way to pull yourself away from the responsibilities of real life. But if I’m going to keep writing and moving on to the next thing, I need to recharge, to feel invigorated in my life and have things to look forward to. I need space and time to myself and with other creatives. I need to experience the world outside of my office window. Why not surround myself with beauty and do this in the wide open air countryside of southern France?

What’s next is a writing vacation, the rest of summer, and the business of real life. Trying to find an agent, secure a teaching job as a writing instructor, finish editing my essays, continue writing and running my own retreats and believing in myself. What’s next is more family life and visits and house cleaning and cottage maintenance and the plethora of usual adult responsibilities.

But first, we celebrate.

How many trips across that stage does one get to make? Visiting my in-laws, my brother-in-law asked me, “So when are you going to get your PhD? He was partly joking, goading me on, knowing it’s an avenue I’ve considered. What’s next? I have no plans to pursue another degree as of now, but who knows? What’s next is clearing the space in my mind for future plans. What’s next is being pulled by the tides, not adrift, but not fully in control of my final destination either.

But for this moment, I see myself holding a glass of something red, the sun a slow melt into distant hills, sinking deep into the earth, eventually folding into the black of night; the moon ever a pearl in a quilt of stars.

The Archway

Our covered front porch is accentuated by three brick archways. From the viewpoint of standing on the porch, or arcade, each archway is like looking through a window.

I found a new place to write. Sitting on a blue cushion in a wicker rocking chair on my covered front porch, my red dog at my feet. We’re overlooking the garden and perched where we are in the elbow of the street, we can see the comings and goings of our neighbours. Two squirrels squabble in the tree of my neighbour’s yard; Atlas’ ears perk up, but he doesn’t budge—not yet. We are suspended in this peaceful moment together. Even a six-month-old pup knows a good thing when he’s got it.

A van drives past, the squirrel hunting his nut at the curb lifts his frame, shifting the bulk of his weight back onto his haunches, and high tails it in the other direction. Good decision. The whirl of a helicopter cuts through the peaceful chirps of birds, disrupts the gentle breeze. With the hospital nearby, the helicopter signals emergency. Like a cat stepping onto piano keys, the whoosh of the helicopter compresses my heart, plucks each string; the helicopter a harbinger of tragedy, or rescue—or both. Rescue or tragedy or both. I recall the friend of a friend whose newborn needed new lungs to live. The mom waited for lungs for their newborn to arrive by helicopter. For that baby to live, another had to die. Perhaps a car accident, where the baby doesn’t make it, but the lungs remain intact. And that mom, just waiting, waiting, for the sound of the helicopter chopping at the air. Wondering how much longer her baby will survive without the lungs. Reconciling what it means for the lungs to arrive. Reader, they do arrive. As if such impossible longings could ever be reconciled.

A mama robin has built her nest into the vines on the side of our garage leading to our main entryway. I noticed her this morning after I shut the door and peaked behind me through the door’s glass window. The robin held a juicy worm between her beak, and something about the posture of her body, the way she stood erect, alert, puffed breast, on the sidewalk in front of our house, not far from the nest, said “mama”. And that’s how I noticed the nest. The worm disappeared, and soon she was carrying a mouthful of twigs and dry grass and up she flew, into her nest. Around she twirled making herself cozy on top of her eggs.

I haven’t seen her since—it’s worrisome.

Atlas has decided to explore. He momentarily gets himself locked behind the side gate, after I have to scurry across my driveway after him. But he complained almost instantly at the separation of the gate, so I grab him a hunk of wood to chew on, and now we’re back in our spots, me on the blue cushion of the rocking chair, him lazing on patio stones the pinkish-blue twinge of granite, gnawing on wood.

Two dwarf-sized daffodils in my garden are vibrating in the breeze. And the thought occurs to me how much the backs of flowers are like the backs of people, the backside of a flower. Our faces, flower-like, open or closed. I don’t finish that thought because Atlas catches sight of a silver cat, the bell on its collar tinkling, taunting. I warn him a few times—“Atlas!”—but once he sits up, ears perked, any hope of him paying attention to me is lost. He springs to four paws from his place beside me into a crouch position at the end of the porch, then quickly cuts across the grass and onto my neighbour’s driveway. He makes it to her fence, the cat safely on the other side. The silver feline easily slips away in the time it takes me to get my puppy’s attention, which isn’t too long. He comes back to me now, wagging his puppy hips and tail, like wasn’t that fun mom?

I tuck him inside the house, where he whines for me, confused. I wait a beat then attach him to his leash before heading back outside.

Shortly after, our elderly neighbour walks down the street, slowly, slowly. Atlas yanks my arm off trying to get to him. He loves this man.

I can’t keep up with the action through the archway; my pen unable to hold pace. The silver cat comes back, and slinks across the road just as Thirsty’s Lawn Maintenance parks in front of my neighbour’s house. One gas vehicle after another is unloaded and powered up. So much for a place to write in peace and quiet. The motors scream and Atlas throws me a sorrowful glance. But this is a window onto the season and these sights and sounds of summer I gladly accept.

And in this way, we bend from one season into the next, letting go of longings we cannot reconcile. We lean into new worlds coming alive before our eyes, and live as fully as we can, as observers or participants, inside the window, or out.

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Writer’s Note: This post is inspired by the lovely buddy I’ve been paired with who is heading into the first year of the MFA program at The University of King’s College. They are taking my place as the new intrepid student I was a year ago. In talking to them, as I reflected back over my first year, it occurred to me that some of the information I shared may be useful to others, maybe even entertaining…

Psst. I’ll tell you a secret. Every student, whether they admit it or not, is encumbered by two universal experiences when entering an MFA program: imposture syndrome and the intimidation factor. Imposture syndrome looks like: I don’t belong here, or—my writing isn’t good enough. The intimidation factor is thinking like everyone will be a better writer than me, because they’ve done ‘x’, which derives from the false notion that your writing isn’t good enough. Hopefully, these thoughts come and go so that you aren’t plagued by self-doubt constantly, but I want to reassure you these feelings are normal. Some encounter them more than others. This is a well-documented phenomenon by writers of all stripes. The angsty voice of doubt whispering nasty thoughts in the writer’s ear, clouding their judgement and creativity. Banish that voice, don’t put up with it, shoo it away. You’re in an MFA program now, and—surprise!—that means you are a professional writer with your own form of talent. You got into the program, didn’t you? You are meant to be here. You have earned it, even—especially—if it doesn’t feel that way. You write and you write well. AT LEAST one other person thinks so. We’ll revisit the intimidation factor in a moment.

You’re here—now what? Get writing! Seriously, the cliché, you have no time to waste, is a thing. If you have research to do, start researching. Books to read, get reading. Pages to write—well of course you have pages to write—start getting those ideas down.

The way the University of King’s College MFA program in creative nonfiction is set up, after the summer residency in June, and a few pesky assignments, you have the summer ahead of you to do with as you will. I want to tell you to relax, enjoy the summer—I really do—and you genuinely should take some down time because the fall term is fast-paced, but hear me out: get ahead this summer. Write enough so that when September comes, you know you already have at least a submission or two prepared. Work enough that some of the assignments are off your plate. Look ahead to the assignments you have coming so that ideas filter through your consciousness. As you read good books throughout the summer, those ideas will eventually have somewhere to land. Take notes. Get organized. Write most days. Then relax. By the end of the second term (first year), many of my classmates and I had run out of gas. The work I put in through the summer got me through to the end. I did not for one second think of devoting my summer to writing as “lost time”, I thought of it as a return on my investment. You are spending an enormous amount of energy and resources to get through this two-year period. The MFA program is a once in a lifetime experience. Best to make the most of it.

But if you do have commitments, such as children, ill or aging relatives to look after, your own health, perhaps it’s full or part-time employment, do what you can, when you can. Every bit helps. I make it sound as though I toiled day in and day out, but my reality that first summer was that I spent a significant amount of time looking after my family. Your reality will demand the same of you. Find the blank spaces and fill the page when you can.

And once you do start writing, don’t stop. You will have to go back, edit, and revise when working with your mentor, but keep looking forward, ahead to the next piece, what’s the next section or essay or scene to lay out? Once you build momentum, keep the momentum going.

Remember: this is not a solo venture. The intimidation factor. Ahh, we have arrived. I mention this because you are now a part of an impressive group. In the MFA program you will encounter seasoned journalists, PhDs, MDs, MBAs, professors, editors, publishers of literary journals; writers who’ve headed up newspapers and magazines, whose writing has won prizes, appeared in The New York Times and who maybe have even published a book or two—or more. Maybe you are one of these writers with professional or academic notoriety—or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re like me, and coming from a different field entirely, relatively “new” to the writing game compared to classmates with whole careers behind them. Writers’ backgrounds are as diverse as the books they produce. Our lives inform our writing. Have you lived? I’m guessing you have. Nobody else is better suited to tell your story than you, and nobody can tell it the way that you can. That your MFA colleagues come from rich and varied backgrounds full of experience is wonderful news! Learn from these people. You are now colleagues. And give freely of yourself in return.

Psst. Here’s another secret. A little tip from me to you. Pretend like everyone in the program is your friend. You heard me. Just do it. My husband baulks when I tell him this. “Just because you’ve met somebody, Adelle,” he’ll say, “doesn’t mean they’re your friend.” He’s right and wrong. If you adopt this strategy, everyone in the program will not, decidedly, become your best friend. But doesn’t it make for a better world and friendlier atmosphere if you imagine that they will be? And I guarantee you will make a true friend or two—or twenty in the process. Moreover, some of these folks will be your first readers, your work’s biggest champions. These people are your allies. Who better to understand the ups and downs of the writing life? Who better to commiserate with over assignments and deadlines? The pains and pleasures in the pursuit of publication?
It took a short time for me to realize that every writer in the program was a unique talent, otherwise, as mentioned above, they wouldn’t be here. What I’m getting at is that comparing yourself to others is futile. Wasted energy. You can expect and celebrate that you and your classmates will each become successful writers; what that definition of success looks like varies depending on individual goals. As you move through the program together, one writer’s success does not detract from another writer’s success. While this may be stating the obvious, rejection is part of a career in writing, so if you do feel the need to compete, race against yourself and see how many rejections you can collect (like gaining friends through manifestation—you’re bound to gain some acceptances along the way).

Oh! And you will be graded. The grading part feels weird, almost wrong. You’re going to put a mark on my heart work? The two seem at odds. My advice is just to embrace it, again, you are a student, and this part of the process can feel rewarding. When else do you get a grade for doing your work? It’s helpful to remember that if you complete the work on time, the grade range for MFA students runs from above average to outstanding. We are all above average writers. Say it with me. We are all above average writers. See? Doesn’t that feel good. Better yet, forget about the grades and use this incredibly brilliant group of individuals to your advantage: tap into their knowledge and skill sets. Which reminds me.

Becoming a part of the MFA community inevitably exposes you to the larger literary community. Make those connections too, where and when you can. Industry professionals will come talk to you. Their presence and attention are part of the perks you’ve paid for. Follow these writers, publishing professionals, editors, agents and so on on social media if their ideas interest you, or if they are someone you could learn from. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them on an individual basis, after you’ve heard them speak, and make a personal connection if you have a comment or question and feel compelled to do so. Do it even if you don’t feel compelled to do so, but know you should. What do you have to lose?

You are a literary citizen now. What does this mean? It means that you should support your fellow classmates whenever you can. Their successes are your successes. Something as small as a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is a boost. Many professional writers dedicate time to promoting, celebrating and actively engaging in other writers’ work from reviews to profiles to interviews and attending book launches. The MFA is a good place to get used to this culture of reciprocity, even when the act of writing can feel so singular—it’s not. We’re sewing from the same fabric of the universe, though each patch has its own sheen.

I recall being fourteen years old and openly mocked for the first time. I was a competitive gymnast, peppy and cheerful. The ponytail wagging kind. It may surprise you to find out that not everybody likes peppy and cheerful. I met a wiry looking girl my age who I later found out had a crush on my boyfriend, which may explain what happened next when I introduced myself.

“Hi! I’m Adelle!” I said in my cheeriest tone, extending my hand in greeting.

She did not, I took note, shake my hand.

Instead, she turned her head and said to the group of girls behind her, “Hi! I’m Adelle,” in a snarky mock tone.

While the girl’s reaction says much more about her issues than it does about mine, I share this story to arrive at a point: nobody is going to openly mock you or your work in the MFA program, I promise. There are rules and guidelines around giving feeding, which will come to your attention. Others will be looking to pinpoint what works in your pieces of writing, rather than what doesn’t, because that is helpful information. They will likely have questions too, and that’s okay. Your mentors, professional editors and writers, will gently guide you toward questions that will strengthen your work. Listen with an open heart and you will not be wounded. You are not your narrator, and constructive criticism will pertain to the work.

I could talk to you about deadlines and word count, but I won’t bother, because Dean is there for that.

Perhaps all of what I’m saying doesn’t fully resonate with you, and that’s okay. You get to make this MFA program your own thing. It’s quite likely that you and I are entirely different people. You may be a brood-in-the-dark-corner-of-the-bar-pontificating-and-pondering-life’s-existential-crises, fist-to-forehead, cigarette-dangling-from-your-lips kind of writer, while I’m more of a friendly-run-with-my-dog-ponytail-wagging-mom-of-three-kale-smoothie-drinking-optimist-who-loves-sunshine-and-trails kind of writer. That’s cool. I’d be happy to sit by your side in the dark for the day and learn from you too.

What matters is that we’ve come together from our various corners of the universe, thread in hand. We’re primed to create something, and this is our moment to shine. Raise your needles. On your marks. Get set. SEW!

I hope our seams will butt up against one another’s. I genuinely can’t wait to see what you will make. I know it will be beautiful.

 

Enjoyed this post? Consider subscribing to my author newsletter, The Write Page, for writing, reading and retreats that inspire—many thanks! And writers, please let me know about your author newsletters, I’d love to read them. Reach me through my website adellepurdham.ca. Questions & comments welcome.

Leave

I want to be upfront about something. I love my family; I am grateful for my quality of life and the joy I get from spending my days writing. I love my husband who keeps me particularly happy and understands my humour when I call him “pony” and tell him to “make it rain” a pros pos of nothing, at least not something I could explain out of context (or in context). I love having my kids in school and I feel an extra abundance of affection for their teachers this year who educate them during the day. After Covid, maybe all parents of school-aged children are feeling this way? I’m having these fond feelings while simultaneously repeating a silent mantra in my head. One that keeps popping up. Leave, the voice whispers. Just go.

I’m completely happy in my work life. I love my Master’s program, engaging with other writers, having my work reviewed and receiving feedback and criticism and giving that gift back to others. And attending literary events. I’m mostly new to the scene of book readings, workshops and panels and it’s been such a rich experience. But I’m missing something. Something Covid has taken from me.

Freedom.

The freedom to connect with others in person, to gather over the holidays and, especially, to travel. I miss travelling. I miss traveling the way you miss an old friend, deep in my bones, like a visceral ache, a phantom limb. The world was there to explore, full of enjoyment and novelty, and now it’s not.

The other day, I was in the middle of an online poetry reading session, one that I was truly enjoying, when my eye caught the bottom of the Zoom screen window. The word ‘LEAVE’ stared back at me in bright letters. Leave. LEAVE. Yes! That is exactly what I want to do. That voice inside me screams louder.

I want to go away; I want to leave right now and be gone, away from here. I tell my husband, “My brain is sick of this place.” I am fine, physically, but my mind, my mind is not. I spend most of my day in the same room where I work, sleep and often eat. My mind is craving something new. An adventure. An escape. LEAVE.

I want to plan a trip, NEED to plan a trip. I pull up travel advisories and wow, that’s just a whole lot of red. The world is bleeding.

I’m in the head space where I want a vacation to look forward to, a means of escape to break up the dreary winter months ahead. I regularly feel that pull this time of year, but this time, no amount of planning is going to make any difference. Covid will decide when and if I go anywhere.

And I know, I know, this is a small loss in a sea of loses. Only a drop into the pool of our collective tears. But it’s how I’m feeling. I’m feeling the loss of experiences I would have had. I’m feeling the activities that have been taken from a chunk of my kids’ childhood. I’m feeling like my home has become a box, or so the story goes at bedtime, “The mommy lives inside a box and the walls keep getting smaller and smaller.” Penelope’s eyes grow wide. “Oh no!” she says, “what happened to the mommy inside?” It isn’t good. For one, she feels squished, which makes her want to lash out.

Space. What an interesting construct. Physical, as in measurable dimensions, but more so, mental, parameters of the mind. Having my husband work from homeis wonderful in so many respects, but before, pre-covid, he travelled extensively, and I was used to his absence, to filling that space. Now there is no space to be filled, instead there is overlap. And even when he was around before, he drove on the daily to his office. I had days without children that were to myself, when I had to cater to no one’s needs but my own and the needs of my work. Not so in the days of Covid.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m a bit sick of you too pony,” I tell him, not unlovingly. But it’s more than that. I’ve been a ‘stay-at-home’ mom for the past nine years. Finally, FINALLY, and I have been waiting a few years for this, I was getting to the place where I no longer felt like the mommy-in-a-box, caged in. I chose to be home looking after kids and then chose for that time to end. I was regaining my freedom and autonomy. I signed up for my Masters that included two weeks away, AWAY per year and I was so SO excited about that prospect. A break from my family AND the chance to hang out with writers and just write? With the bulk of my time spent at home with my family? Perfect. I was euphoric to be accepted into the program. The trip out east. The New York City getaway. Both since gone virtual. That low-residency piece was the cherry on top. Covid has eaten the cherry, and some of the cake, too.

This isn’t just about me needing time away for myself, but it is that too. I’m better for my family when my own needs are met. And I care about them receiving the best version of me, a mom and wife in a healthy head space, not the mommy-in-a-box who feels claustrophobic and desperate. At this point, I don’t even know if what I need is to go somewhere else, or if just knowing that I could go somewhere else would be enough. I suspect the latter. Call me spoiled, but I don’t do well with being told I can’t.

Over the last few years, I’ve gone on trips by myself. These might be for a conference or to visit a friend, but they are scheduled time away. That space worked its way into my life because I needed it. We all have different needs. Mine involves space and time to myself and in Covid-era, this has become impractical, unsafe and in many instances, impossible. Even going to the library has become perilous.

I am not oblivious to the rest of the world’s needs, but I am acknowledging this one small loss, because maybe, just maybe, you feel your own version of stuck-in-a-box. Covid has pushed the walls of our world smaller.

While instant gratification is nice, I do seem to have a knack for the long hall. Writing a book. Long trips. Marathon training. My marriage.

Waiting for Covid to go away is my least favourite activity, but in this case, I want to be around for the long haul and so I will hold off on the gratification piece. Other than solitary dog hikes in the forest, I’m mostly staying home. Sometimes sitting on my hands, watching my mouth, pulling at my hair. But I’m staying home to keep my family safe. I’m staying home to keep your family safe. I’m working through my personal frustrations and dissatisfactions because it’s the right thing to do. I’m pushing back against the walls closing me in created within the confines of my mind. I’m especially holding onto memories of past travel, allowing myself to dream about a near future where everyone is vaccinated, the world is safe again, where I could go somewhere if I wanted to and hoping this small grievance and annoyance is all I will have to face.

For the time being, I’m relying much more on a cheaper method of travel. Leave, just go, the voice whispers. And so I pick up a book and fall inside, and that world has never been more appealing.

 

The Real Thing

September’s pace hits you in the belly, takes the breath right out of you. Perhaps the greatest indicator are the sounds coming in through my bedroom window from outside at six in the morning. The squealing breaks of large trucks, engines turning over, wheels pressed against pavement. These are not weekend sounds, rumpled sheets, the hot sizzle of oil in the frying pan or the smell of bacon and maple syrup. Another car drives by this morning. Even the sky is screaming with jet engines. Busy, busy, busy. All going somewhere.

Sometimes I want to turn it all off, make the noise go away. I check my phone and my day begins listening to a video of a friend crying. On a phone call with a friend last night, discussing writing, she reminds me that our brains don’t know the difference between real trauma and trauma we relive through our writing, in terms of the toll trauma takes on our bodies, our wellbeing. We feel trauma at a visceral level when we remember it and we actually reexperience it. Does my brain understand the difference between my friend recording a video of herself crying last night and that my friend is likely sleeping soundly when I watch the video today? Probably not. I feel sad when I watch the video because I see her pain, no longer real, but that once was so and were she to be reminded about it, she might be sad all over again too. But maybe not. Perhaps that was a particularly sensitive moment and she’s moved on. Without being there in person myself, I’ll never know the full context.

Online, even when we aren’t there, we are there. Through video and Zoom, we are everywhere now. I’m not sure if my brain knows the difference: that I am not actually going everywhere, it just feels that way. My body, my mind, have travelled into the city, across the country from one side to the other all in one day, and it’s tiring. We feel exhausted, fatigued. Burnt out.

I do have a remedy for this. My dog is my lifeline. I HAVE to walk him/run him/play with him. He gets me outside. Outside this time of year is the sound of crickets chirping, the hot sun beating on my bare arms, fading colour and fresh air with a whiff of decay. In town, it’s the cries of children in the school yard and the barks of dogs greeting passersby. Out of town, it’s trees and dappled light, stretching shadows, dusty footsteps along a well-trodden path.

My dog, my children, they are in the present moment. They are my real life. There is no such thing as past traumas, only the right-here-right-now of the moment. I am filling in a form for the school before I go back to the email I was in the middle of typing before I had to pick the kids up, before I phone that person back, before I join my next Zoom call, before, before…

“Mommy,” says Penelope, my youngest, “come play hockey with me in the backyard.”

“Okay.” I drop the pen and the form. This time they can wait, my four-year-old can’t. Or rather, she can, but real-life beckons.

While Zoom may take me to far-off places, my children keep me right where I am, right where I am meant to be.

Outside we go and the sun is blazing, the grass needs to be cut. Penelope hacks away at a tennis ball with her plastic stick. I teach her to always keep two hands on your stick, see, like this? the way my dad taught me. She hacks at the ground. Lower, quick, like this – see? She pauses to look at me, her eyes hold me and she smiles, delighted to have her mom all to herself. In the flesh. This connection between us cannot be replicated on any screen, or rather, it can, a scene in a movie perhaps, the mother dropping what she’s doing to make time for her youngest, a heartening scene that evokes emotion. The listener feels something, real emotion, love even, that approximates the real thing. But do not be fooled. My phone doesn’t love me. My computer screen does not love me. Exchanged in that glance was authentic real-life, an in-person exchange that cannot be replicated again. The exchanges of real-life are the fabric of the universe, not what happens on a screen. I’m trying to remember that. To tell my body to slow down, step away, get outside and into the folds of the universe. We pass the tennis ball back and forth between us; she hits it really far and we cheer. Our happy cries ring out and there is no replacing this real thing.

 

The Place We Are In

I’m back at the cottage for a few days. I watched the water current move all summer long almost exclusively to the right, or eastwardly, but now I detect an unmistakeable shift to the left. Fall is here. Something about the current, the way the water is moving, is reminding me of this global pandemic we are in. The water moves swiftly, as temperatures drop lower and lower, until the water temperature becomes untenable, deathly. For the time being, the water is hovering around 60 degrees, and most people wouldn’t go in. I did. With a wetsuit on. But not everybody has a wetsuit, protection. Many people can’t even swim. For many, the simple act of being asked to float would lead to drowning. Right now, people are being asked to float and people are drowning.

I listened to an audio book on the way up to the cottage, Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. What I’ve heard so far is fantastic, but there is one detail she got wrong. She likens depression to drowning, “but at least,” she says, “with drowning there are signs: arms flailing, noisy splashing, cries for help, etc.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the picture. While I appreciate the metaphor and the point is not lost on me, the notion of drowning being loud is incorrect. I was shocked to come across a pamphlet on drowning when I was researching water safety (as mothers are wont to do) when we bought the cottage. Drowning is known, by those who know – by lifeguards and the aqua-savvy – as a silent killer. Most people who drown never make a sound. They slip away, unnoticed. We are in a pandemic, there are people drowning, and they aren’t making a sound.

It’s fall and I’m in a three-season cottage and it’s cold so I’m trying to light a fire. Again, I have resources. I ball up paper and lay down kindling. Put a few bigger logs on top, one or two, not too many. I’ve been educated by those who know in the art of fire building. I asked my local neighbour who lives in the house he grew up in about wood stoves. After I’ve asked my many questions about indoor fire maintenance, he at one point grows quiet and still.

“Please,” he says, “let me know if you need help anytime.”

My question of, “so I leave the door open and then…?” left him feeling anxious.

“I don’t want you to burn down the cottage.”

Step one, pull the lever to open the flu (door at the top to let air out) all the way. Step two, get the fire going, use kindling and a fire starter as needed. Step three, once the fire’s going, close the door and close the flu three-quarters of the way by pushing in the lever, that will keep the fire from burning too hot, which could lead to a chimney fire. Step four, turn on the built-in fan in the back to disperse heat and temper the flame. Be careful what you burn. Always hard wood (maple, oak), not softwood (pine), which burns too hot and fast and can lead to said chimney fire.

Build your fire and watch the flames burn. Revel in the warmth, enjoy.

And I’m trying. I know all the steps, I’m doing the things, but the fire just won’t catch. Smoke pours out of the chimney, inexplicably flowing to the east, but nothing is catching. I’m flickering, flickering and now the flame’s out. I’m cold. Chilled to the bone. I add a layer of protection, but I’m not moving, not going anywhere and so my temperature drops like the lake outside.

And there’s something about being behind the glass and looking out at a lake I can’t touch that unnerves me – a fire I can’t hold. I want to go swimming in the lake everyday like I did before, but everything is different now. I’ve had to readjust my expectations, my way of being. I’m shifting direction from east to west. I’m going a different way now.

The fire, of course, is not for me to hold. But is it not just like me to want the things I can’t have? The very things that will burn me?

A career in writing is like this. Did I mention I’ve received a few rejections lately? I did not win the CBC Creative Nonfiction Contest, I did not place a particular story in the newspaper, I did not land that coveted agent. Burn, burn, burn. In truth, the agent hurt the most, although there I probably had the lowest odds. But here was the thing: this agent gets 10,000 pitches a year and mine was one of the 400 she asked to read further material. I was not one of the ten or so she chose to sign. And that hurt because the first hurdle felt SO monumental, to have made it so far, like getting our cases down so low, only to fail to complete the job. Those outside of the writing industry will say they’re sorry for my luck, and I thank you, really, I’m fine. Those inside of it will nod their heads in understanding and recognition, congratulate me on the rejections. I collect rejections because it means I am getting my work out there, and at some point, there come acceptances too. At some point, this will all be over. But arguably, we’ll be in a different place by then.

I will continue to swim in the lake as long as possible; hold my head and hands up, and warm them by the fire.

The lake by the shore is still now, motionless. As darkness descends, a flash of light and stone, a memory darts into my mind. One last reminder that I am not safe. Taking my dog out this morning, down a trail and beyond where I’d gone before, past the ‘no trespassing’ sign (I know, I know), into the beyond, in the dirt there lay an animal track. Bigger than my hand. My neighbour warned me of the potential for bears, but I just had to see for myself. And there it was, a sign as clear as day. I had been warned. These tracks were fresh. Except, this wasn’t likely to be a bear track, not based on the shape. The shape was more reminiscent of a wolf’s paw. A very large wolf. I followed the tracks, one, two, three, then stopped, came to my senses, and scrambled back through the brambles, back the way I came, thorns tearing at my pants. Turns out that was not the direction I wanted to be headed. I’m still figuring it out, which way to go.

The fire is lit now, burning steady. And I’m thankful for that because the temperature continues to drop with the sun. I’m warm and cozy inside, tucked away from wolves that hunt and the monsters, mostly men, I conjure in my mind. I am finding my way and this is the place I am in.

 

 

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.

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.