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I wrote this years ago for the on-line magazine BreadnMolasses. They are going to run it again, and I thought, why not blog it. So here it is.

For many years the Grinch stole my Christmas right out from under my nose. The theft was insidious, so quiet and sneaky, that only recently with episodes of flashes of silver joy and moments of deep blue peace, did I realize the theft.

Had I called the police to report the theft, I would have to admit that nothing material had been taken: The tree was there in all its glory, hauled up from the cellar, bedecked with silver and banked with presents. The cards still formed chains across the arches in my living room, and the wreaths tossed around on their ribbons on the front door.

No, the theft I experienced was more ominous than missing stuff. My spirit of joy in this season had been stolen and left me uncaring about the peace promised so long ago; worse, thinking it was an illusion.
But, clever as the Grinch was on his getaway, he didn’t realize that bits and pieces of Christmas fell out of his loot bag in a trail behind him. I found Christmas by looking for clues in each present moment and in the past.

As a child, to me, winter was one big Christmas. We started counting down the days right after Halloween. Since the days were so short, time traveled faster, at least that was what I was told. In November, I skated on the ice in the ditches, not easy to avoid the long grass sticking through but that was preferable to skating on the yellow ponds outside the cow barn. My friends and I watched the shell of ice form on the river and waited for adults to test the safety.

In just two days this year, the river froze. The ice grows thicker daily. The sound of blades scraping across the ice and bumping over frozen ripples echoes in my mind.

I can’t wait for snow; the more, the better. This time of year daylight is rationed. Each moment of light is to be treasured. At sunrise, the sun manages to rise to tree top level where it rolls around to sunset. For just minutes, its rays gild the fields and the tall pines on the Shore Road. Imagine this gold light on snow fields; the hard, dark ground softened and lit underfoot. The light we humans so desperately need comes from the brightness of snow.

I have had to ask myself why, if my joy of spirit was missing, why did the absolute stillness of our river, on so many days this December, bring me to quiet gratitude and reverence for such beauty. To see a silver-gray dawn or dusk, the lines of the Centennial Bridge, reflecting as straight and even below as above, could stop my breath. Each starry, starry, night, with the Christmas lights of my community shining like beacons of hope onto the mirror of river and sky brought me to the delight of my childhood when the lit runways of the air base made me believe they were anticipating Santa all year long.

The Grinch doesn’t steal presents, he steals hope and light. And when people suffer tragedy and loss this time of year, it leaves the door open for continual theft. Just now I think of the first Christmas: a woman nine months pregnant, recently married to an honourable man, both on the road, homeless, penniless, and then a lonely labour in a barn. From all appearances not much hope, yet the story of this small family model hope in dark times. No Grinch or darkness can stand against the promise of that light.

For the love of home

Last month a friend of mine asked me to be a guest on her blog: The Blog of Cindy Rule. The phrase she gave me was For the love of… and I thought, “for the love of God what will I write?” Anyway, I wrote about home and how the concept has evolved and is still evolving for me but the foundations will always remain. Here it is.

For the love of…
There are so many ways to finish that phrase and it is difficult for me to pick just one. So, when I mapped all of them out on a page, I discovered that my family, friends, the stars, the trees, the river in all seasons, sunrise and sunset, and my gardens and rocks are all elements of Home, that each plays a part in my sense of home or sanctuary.
Family and friends. My children are grown, and grandchildren fast growing through childhood. They consider my house home even though they’ve never lived here. Even Nick Ma who stayed with us for four months last year tells me he is coming home for Christmas while he studies in Canada. When my friend Cindy comes out for tea and a rave, she is family. I feel the house lean in, listen and laugh. It is probably our Mrs. Loggie, dead but not departed, eavesdropping and wondering, “what in the world are they talking about?” as Nick did when he was learning English. “Do you understand anything we say?” We’d ask. He shook his head, spread his arms and said,” Drama! Lots of Drama!”
The other element that contributes to my sense of home is the unique construction of this old story and a half. George Loggie built this house over 100 years ago. He must have been a short man. Perhaps men of different heights helped him. Judging by the varying height of the doors, I estimate these carpenters to be less than six feet tall and surely toddled around on tiny feet. My son has to duck through the doors and half his foot hangs over each step. He’s always tripping on the short, thirteen-step stairway. There isn’t a right angle or level floor. Depending on the room, the slant slides north, south, east and west. Rule is: don’t leave anything that can roll on a table. If you do and it goes missing, look in the far corner. Or, ask Mrs. Loggie to find it, as we do on a regular basis. She is reliable.
Until I moved into this home, the longest I had lived anywhere was six years. My husband and I owned three homes during the course of our marriage but all in the same area of Waterloo so my children could stay in one school and keep the same friends. This was very important to me. My parents were gypsies, not Rom, but transient. Sometimes we moved several times a year. At final count, I changed schools 22 times. My siblings and I were blessed that we could count on my grandparents to fetch us when health issues and other troubles caught up with my parents. And they did without fail. In foster care in Lachine Quebec, I used to dream of just crossing the street and I would be at my grandmother’s house. That image sustained me when I was on the road with my parents heading to the next Promised Land. My grandmother’s house is still very much part of me. I can smell the wood, the cellar, the air in June and see the moon path on the river. Because of those memories of home, I’ve tried to create a haven for grandchildren.
The legacy of my transient lifestyle is to be restless several times a year. Since I wasn’t changing homes as often, I moved the furniture several times a year. I still do. My house and belongings are in an uproar of a mess but I actually feel comforted by this and as I sort and organize, I feel better. Right now I am in the process of changing rooms and furniture and complaining about the mess, but as I am writing this, I see that this is a way of restructuring and renewing. I should be good until September.
When my husband and I moved here over twenty years ago, I had a difficult time settling in as I always did. The culture, though Canadian, is very different. I mentally had my bags packed for at least 12 of those years because this was not my idea of home.
A wise woman said to me that home is a place we carry inside, not a place on a map. I would say that is partially true, because where and how we live helps grow the sense of home within. I credit my garden, and my circle of rocks and friends to helping me grow a sense of home. Every part matters.
It is in writing about the love of home that I realize that I am in that place. I love driving up the lane after work. Every morning I run down to get my coffee and go back to bed and drink it as daylight comes. It is a sacred time for me. Now, in winter, I see the sunrise at the horizon. In summer I wait until it tops the leafy trees.
In the summer, I plant a garden and hover like a new mother over the seedlings. Just watching carrots grow is a lesson in patience because it takes months. Being in the garden reminds me of a larger sense of belonging, that I have a small place on this earth and here for a long while yet, I hope. But who knows? The main thing is I’m home now.

New Year resolution

I resolve for the coming year, to record my trip to Paris, and my travels down the Rhone River, the discovery of Roman ruins and of course, the wine.

Welcome Hope

Today, as I often do, I marvel at just how quickly 2014 is passing. I repeat this frequently: in past posts, in emails, on Facebook. I am always trying to catch up with myself, reflect on this time as it whizzes by. Again, it’s winter. The solstice has passed and I am watching the sky in the morning to mark the increase in light.

Sullen skies, rain, or snow filled the calendar this month.  School children had five snow days or weather days- snow was not always falling but one day 100 ml. of rain on top of a lot of snow.  Sigh… winter is just beginning, a very strange winter.  The ice formed on the river and broke up three times and ran in the tides.  Not one floe is visible this afternoon.  It could be early spring if I didn’t check the calendar. Usually this time of year, the river is frozen, the smaller rivers in the region safe to skate on.

As for light, I recall only three brief episodes of real sunshine, those occurring only because the clouds hovering on the horizon left a crack for light to shine through. But what light! I captured the pearl glow of dawn one day.  The promise faded with the hours.

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This sunset was quite spectacular when I faced east toward the bay.  I’ve never, ever witnessed colour like this.

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And on Christmas Day, I rushed to the window because the tin roof on the barn in the property next door began to shine and I ran to see the sun. What I also discovered above the roof was the gift of a perfect rainbow and another, rainbow above. When I ran outside to capture it on film, I saw neighbours out as I was in the rain in their slippers, splashing through slush to capture it on their cameras. After months of tragedy filling the news, the insane pace of Christmas preparations, the darkest, gloomiest month so far this year, nature provided an instant healing balm. Say what you will about the science light and refraction, a rainbow always inspires mystery and awe in me, and hope.

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Hope arrives in many ways, often in humble locations; shining in my kitchen window, glowing on the beautiful river. It is always a most welcome visitor.

 

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Harvests

After I planted my garden on the summer solstice, I hovered over it like a new mother checking her baby’s growth.  Few weeds had a chance to establish themselves in the early days because I was on the alert to any invader.  Later, when the plants had grown, a few weeds hid in the midst of the peas but when I discovered them, out they went.

The carrots were slow to start.  I needed a microscope to determine if those feathery little sprouts were actual plants or a weed masquerading as a carrot.  Next year, I will plant actual seeds and not the seed tapes.  Now the crop seems to be gaining strength and the caterpillars find it delicious.  From past experience, I know I can leave the carrots in the ground until late October before the ground freezes. IMG_0073

A fungal blight destroyed all my tomato plants.  And they had showed such promise in the early days of July, seeming to growth inches daily and flowering abundantly   One experienced gardener told me the soil will be tainted for a few seasons.  It will have to be, I’m not using anti-fungals on soil.

Often I began my meal with a fresh salad of sugar snap peas right off the vine. Nothing tastes better than munching a sweet crisp pod full of peas. The sound of the crunch between the teeth, the fresh burst of flavour on the tongue… The same goes for the green beans.  The crop was plentiful, on the menu day after day after day after day but happily they are finished for another year.  Next year, I think I’ll try yellow beans and make some sweet pickles out of them.  Some of the women at work have recipes they swear by.

As part of my job this summer as temporary activity director in a nursing home, one of the resident council’s fundraising initiatives is making and selling pickles and preserves.  To my horror, I was expected to organize and complete this task along with the residents.

Food prep is fun for me.  Chopping veggies is calming. But, when the kitchen staff dragged three giant bags of cucumbers into the auditorium, I couldn’t see the end result.  People are supposed to buy and eat them? How does it get from this cucumber to that jar?

Volunteers are the heart of any nursing home and Lois, the most amazing volunteer, put the heart for this task right into me. ” This is what we are going to do,” she said.  I paid strict attention.  Over the next three hours, Lois, I,  and a group of residents peeled and chopped the cucumbers and onions.  By hand!  We wept of course, from the onions, but we also laughed and carried on like fools.

The conversations around the table, the advice from each of these elders added to my own small knowledge  of how to pickle and preserve, and just smelling the cucumbers, the onions, the vinegar and the cooking reminded me of harvests in my youth.  I loved to help my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in September.

I found my self and sense in Kairos that first day and many times since.  Some of the residents were friends of my grandmother.  Had she lived, she would also be in her late nineties –  just as these gals are.  I remember my grandmother, Grace, being, fun loving, irreverent and saucy-  just as these gals are.   And when talk turned to beets, they all agreed that Grace’s recipe was the best.  It is.  I’m using it on my own beets this year.

IMG_0072IMG_0074This is an eye level shot of my small crop.  They aren’t quite ready since I was later planting but I’ve been able to buy beets from local gardeners at a reasonable price.  Part of this crop will be served hot with butter; the greens stir fried with bacon.  Heart healthy in a spiritual way.

Forget all the ‘thou shalt nots’ on the evils of butter as pontificated by the great medical gods on television.  Did I mention that the oldest woman who helped chop the cucumbers is 99? She can figure out a word puzzle faster than I ever will be able to and the youngest of the group is 95.   These women grew gardens, pickled and preserves and ate their fresh food from the garden, seasoned with butter, laughter, and joy.  99!

I am not so humble that I don’t mind a brag or two with my first efforts at home.

IMG_0078IMG_0080In the process of peeling and slicing. Then, TA DA!

NEVER, EVER, EVER, roast the beets to cook them thinking there will be no mess.  BOIL the hell out of them and then peel, it will save you HOURS of your life. Hours.  There is no more mess than expected.  You still have to clean up.  It’s a given.

PS. Process them in a canning pot for safety sake.

Canning and preserving from gardens seems to be a lost skill.  I for one am going to learn and relearn.  This year I am going to spice and bottle some chicken and beef with a recipe from one of the seniors.   After all the major storms over the last few seasons, the risk of power outages is high.  Freezers don’t work and it just makes sense.

My harvest this summer was not just vegetables.  When work got crazy this summer, as it does when many of the residents have Alzheimer’s, trying to maintain a sense of calm, or pretending to maintain a sense of calm wore the heart and soul right out of me.  Often, I came home feeling as if I was in the first stages of dementia. Spending five minutes in the garden, pulling a weed, examining the shoots, marvelling at how carrots grow, completely restored me, in fact, I was calm and peaceful, a harvest for which I am completely grateful.

With the process of planting a garden, taking care of it, harvesting the crops – whatever this harvest may be –  the more I understand that  “The garden is a proper place of the soul, where concerns of the soul for beauty, contemplation, quiet, and observance take complete precedence over the busier concerns of daily life.”  Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life.

 

 

 

The night before last, I heard the coyotes sing a symphony.  Each needle and leaf of the forest conducted the echoing, haunting, arrhythmic arias high above the trees and over to my window. Wonderful, I thought. Wonderful that the remaining woods still have wild inhabitants.

Yesterday, as my husband and I kayaked down the Black River, my childhood Garden of Eden, the evidence of this wild life was abundant.  A heron escaped to the north shore when it heard our voices- what a wing span it had. Several weeks ago, not knowing the river and channel, we blundered through a shallow section near its nesting grounds, scraping bottom and generally being human nuisances.  Yesterday, it was easy to follow the path of calm water that wound like a satin river through rougher waters and we stayed away from the eel grass nesting grounds and we will respect that from now on.

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The cormorants on the floating dock seemed unconcerned with our presence until we drifted closer on our return visit.  And then, one by one, they ran off the dock and splashed across the surface of the water to take flight.  Seeing the electric blue dragon flies skimming the water around my kayak is always thrilling and I tried my best to catch them on camera.IMG_0056

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often I’ve wondered that trees can grow out of cliffs and cling to life despite obstacles.

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They live.  When they die, they become river art, an object to reflect on its origins and all possibilities around it.

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This morning, late August smells of fall; the fog holds the scents of cedar and river mud until it drips off each leaf and plant in drops – sometimes the rising sun reflects rainbows as they fall. Frost warnings will soon head weather reports. The long winter approaches so I want to experience every moment of warmth and summer and the best place is on my knees in the gardens where I’ve discovered that I can free my mind from worry.

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When I see how quickly a garden regenerates, I stop worrying so much about the earth. I say this because most of the plants that I divided last spring are ready to be divided again.  Weeds spring up overnight and that devil plant spreads in my Joan Garden despite all my efforts.  I’m going to give up on it soon and if this plant was sentient, it would know it.  I often think that if every country in the world gave the earth a few weeks off from industrial waste and all that pollutes, the amount of regeneration in a short time would be staggering.IMG_0067

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, a garden is first for me a place to enjoy at the close of day with the sun slanting onto the plants and the plants reflecting light and life.

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Solstice Garden

Thomas Moore defines a garden as “the meeting of raw nature and human imagination in which both seek the fulfillment of their beauty. Every sign indicates that nature wants us and wishes for collaboration with us, just as we long for nature to be fulfilled in us.”

Yesterday, on the 2014 Solstice, I planted a vegetable garden with snow peas, beans, beets, carrots and tomatoes – August’s salad on the vines. The last time I did this ? Was . . . well, that is how long it has been. This particular garden is the result of deciding to put a stop to my insane schedule designed around the needs of others.  I’ve been too busy trying to be a saint − a thankless effort, I might add − to spend any time weeding and digging in the dirt which brings me close to the earth. These last years, exhausted, burnt out with caretaking, I leaned on heavily on the comfort of the gardens I had planted over the years. I did visit oasis’s of peace when I sat back after a shift and drank in the majesty of the iris, the optimism of my lilies, and the determination of snow-on-the –mountain to invade and occupy all flower beds. I did not intercede.

On some level, I knew I was keeping my love of gardening in unnatural hibernation. I ignored the calls of my soul and the Earth by repeating this litany: I’ll do it as soon as I …” , or once this week is done,” I’ll get around to it.” Last year, when our decrepit old sheds came down, my eyes and ears opened and I answered. We were able to salvage many huge boards from the floors of the sheds, so large they are remarkable in that, sadly, I doubt if there is a tree anywhere on this river that could be sawn into boards this size. Now these beams enclose a very large raised bed, so big, I am a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. However, I have years to decide and play.

As I shovelled dark rich sandy soil into this container, I imagined I was a grave digger. The sound of shovel sliding into moist soil, the soft welcome of soil landing on soil, the burn of muscles, the satisfaction of being part of a cycle of life and death. Gravediggers bury people in a garden. We return to Eden.

Later this summer, I will work on another garden. I will take the field stones and pile them in a circle in a small dell in the trees along the fence strip. This will be Joan’s Garden. Joan was my mother. I do not know where she is buried or if she is buried. I have wasted breath and time bemoaning an unchangeable situation.  I will create a place that I hope will call her spirit to a place that will comfort me, a daughter who loves and remembers her.

Carl Jung viewed the formality and structure of the garden as a form of container or temenos for the many wandering emotions and fantasies of our inner lives. For me, the boards from the past, the plants of the present represent my inner life. I can see and touch this structure, bury my fingers in this place.

Some people say it is too late, that the late August frosts will be on us before anything ripens. Others told me not to plant until the black flies appear because they appear when the ground is warm enough for the seeds. Yet another person said, once the ice has run out to the bay, the east wind will blow cold for forty days, so plant after that. I’m not exactly sure of that date, but I can attest to weeks of cold east wind, yet there was a day perfect for gardening. The sun was hot, the wind cold, so cold I wore in a winter jacket at the end of May, no blackflies. I cleaned the dead plants from the beds. I rested on a small hill in the sun and for one sacred moment, I felt I was being held and comforted by the Earth.

Always, I have wanted to mark the longest day of the year. Yes, the days will shorten, almost imperceptibly, until September and the fall solstice nears. Winter will come not long after. But now it is summer.

After planting the seeds, and the frost bitten tomato plants I rescued from the garden center, I received an answer to my question of hope and where to find it when thinking of what is happening to our earth. Look at a garden. See how fast the weeds grow, how grass can green in two days around piles of snow, how the earth will continue with or without us.