Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Rattling the Windows

For those who haven't -- ahem -- heard, I play the bagpipes. So do my husband and son. In fact, I met my husband at band practice. I was fifteen, playing with a struggling group in the desert of Utah (metaphorically speaking as well as literally), when he appeared out of the blue and joined our band. At the time, Utah was so removed from the piping world, and the Internet and Youtube hadn't been invented yet (yes, I'm that old), so it was an exciting thing to hear someone of that level of ability play the pipes. He came from Canada, where some of the best bands in the world are found, and he'd been trained by some of the best. He kindly and patiently shared that training with us. He also ended up driving my carpool to band practice, and I gradually made my way to the front seat so I could talk to him...and the rest is history. Now here we are, thirty-one years later, still talking and piping together.

He continues to share his patient expertise with beginning students. Almost any night of the week, you will find students of various levels sitting around our dining table, playing the practice chanter (which my father once described as sounding like a goat with a nasal condition). He never charges for lessons, but generously donates hours of his time every week to help others. When the full sets of pipes come out, one dog hides under the bed and the other throws back his head and joyfully sings along. If I go out in the backyard, I can hear him howling louder than the pipes. If I go to the park down the block, I can still hear...

I'm sure my neighbours didn't know what sort of people were moving in next door, or they would have staged a riot. They have been very tolerant, though, and some have even said they enjoy the noises emanating from our house. They are very kind. When you get a few pipers going at once, the windows rattle. If they are half-decent players, it's a pleasing, rich sound. When they are beginners...well, I admit I want to throw back my head and howl along with the dog.

But there is something really cool about a bunch of people of varied backgrounds and ethnicities, drawn together by a love of one particular instrument, sitting around the house and making music together. It's an old-fashioned, cozy sort of way to spend an evening, with no electronic entertainment. It's fun to watch new players gain confidence and skill, and to see the tradition be passed on from instructor to student. It's neat to watch my husband draw abilities out of people that they never knew were hiding within them, that moment of excitement and wonder when they realize "Hey, I can do this! It sounds like music!" It's sort of like watching a sculptor coax a figure out of a block of stone. He can see potential in other people -- not just in the realm of bagpipes -- and is a wonder at pulling that potential into being.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Insights in Hawaii

I was writing to a friend this morning (hi again!) and shared with him a bit of insight that came to me while I was in Hawaii. And then I thought it might be a good thing to share on this blog. The condo I stayed in was 14 storeys above the beach, looking right out on the ocean. From that height I could see sea turtles swimming, amber and smooth, in the water below. Sometimes a turtle would pass within feet of people swimming, but they couldn't see it, because when you're in the water, all you see is the choppy waves at eye level. You have to get higher up out of the waves to see the beautiful big turtles. And it made me think how we can't always see the beauty around us, or the miracles happening right beside us, because we can only see the turbulence in the water, in our lives. We have to see from a higher perspective, with God's eyes, to see what opportunities are gliding right past us, and all we have to do is trust that they're there and reach out our fingertips to touch them.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Armchair Vegetable Gardening

The seeds I ordered arrived this week. I feel like it's Chistmas all over again. I know, it's silly, getting excited over a bunch of little envelopes, but I can hardly wait to get started. My health is a bit better this year, and I am determined to return to gardening full force come spring. (I say with my nose pressed to the frosty window, looking out at the windblown snow.) But my fingers need to be in the dirt again. My soul needs it.

Carrots, green beans, cape gooseberries, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, dry beans, winter squash, lettuce, spinach, radishes, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, onions, peas... my mouth is watering. I know I eat a more healthy diet when I grow my own vegetables. The sad limp things in the grocery store just don't inspire me. When you pick something fresh from your own backyard, you can feel the vitality of it, the energy, still alive in your mouth.

I have spent a lot of time doodling plans for the layout of the garden. Do I go with heaped earth or raised beds? They say a spiral is the most bang for your buck, but that's hard to do in a decidedly rectangular yard. How can I eke out every possible inch of growing space and still have room for paths and wheelbarrow access? Should I bring in more triple mix this year? Till or not till? Do I have enough compost? How can I use more vertical space? What do I do about a watering system? Is the maple tree casting too much shade over the vegetable space?

All of these things swirl around in my mind. There are a lot of decisions to make and plans to plot, so there is enough to keep me occupied until spring, when I can get out in the yard and get started. Other people are planning summer vacations, summer jobs, visits with friends and family. I suppose I'm doing the same, really -- my backyard is my vacation spot, my job, and the garden is an old friend. I wonder if it has missed me.

Thoughts while reading Stephanie Nielson

A friend gave me Stephanie Nielson's book Heaven is Here, which I've been reading lately. It's the story of one woman's triumph over some amazingly difficult challenges. I haven't finished it yet, but you can tell she is going to come through it all still loving, faithful, and optimistic, even though her life has changed forever.

There is more to glean than just the basic message, though. The story has a lot of other smaller stories within it. One of the things she relates really got me to thinking. When she had her first child, she was surrounded by mother, aunts, sisters, and cousins, a network of women who did her laundry, washed her dishes, brought her meals, and nurtured her completely. So her first few days of motherhood were serene.

I have to admit my first reaction, on reading this, was sorrow and a bit of envy. I gave birth to two of my children 3,000 miles away from any family. I had no one to rely on but myself and my husband, who was working and going to university at the same time. I couldn't sleep while others stepped in and magically made everything happen that needed to. I remember, with my last child, lying in the hospital bed knowing I had to go home in a couple of hours and weeping, because I knew all the work and exhaustion that lay ahead of me. For a fleeting moment I didn't want to go home. I wanted someone to step in and say "It's all right, you just lie there and recover and I'll take care of everything." But of course no one did, and so I took my precious new son home, and of course everything turned out okay. I discovered I could get by on three hours of sleep a night, I learned I could juggle a lot of things at once, and...well, I've been doing that pretty much ever since.

My husband was amazing and capable, stepping in to do the work of twenty women, providing meals and cleaning house and making sure I had everything I needed. But he had to leave and go to work and school, and much of the time it was me and three kids, coping. Was it easy? No. Was I the kind of sweet, gentle mother I'd always wanted to be? No. Was I serene? Definitely not. I'm not sure how well I coped, but nobody died, I don't think anyone ended up emotionally scarred, and we're all still on speaking terms, so something must have gone right.

On another occasion, my husband was in quarantine in the hospital because they didn't know what disease he had, and my three little kids and I had a bad stomach flu. To add to the misery, my husband has a ton of allergies and couldn't eat the hospital food, so I had to drag myself out to the car and drive to the hospital to bring him food. This was during the SARS scare, and you weren't supposed to go into the hospital if you had a fever...which I did. I wished so much that my mom could magically appear and take care of me and my pathetic family. I didn't know how we would survive it. The kids and I lay there with "barf bowls" and called to each other, and somehow we all just got through it together. (Though on day three when I was well enough to go back to work in Toronto, I had to just hand my husband a toaster and a bag of bagels and say "Good luck.")

When my older sons were six and eight, my husband was stuck in bed after surgery, and I had to be at work all day. I had to leave in the morning before anyone else was up. My boys got themselves up and dressed, made breakfast for themselves, carried breakfast in to my husband, and got themselves on the bus for school, all without any help. Granted, I'm sure my husband was calling instructions from the bed. But they did it.

Which leads me to what I've learned over the years: I'm tough. I have a deep reservoir of self-reliance and faith within me that I can draw on when I need it. And my kids are tough. We can survive -- and have survived -- just about anything. I'm not sure we would have developed that kind of resilience if we had had family nearby to call on in crises. While I do wish we lived closer to family, I think having to rely on ourselves and each other and God has strengthened us, individually and as our own little family.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Home from Hawaii

I returned yesterday, tired but replete with sunshine, with the sound of waves still washing in my ears. It was a productive week, in spite of the laziness. The manuscript for book eight was completed and turned in, and book number nine is underway. Something about the sea and a stretch of time without a job to go to unlocks the creative juices and pops the cork out of writer's block. It was lovely!

I'm pleased to report my dogs -- and my son -- survived a week without me. Last night I stretched out on the couch (those 20-hour travels wipe me out) and the two dogs vied with eachother over who could lie closest (or on top of) me. I said, "Chill out, guys. I've only been gone a week." But "gone a week" sounds like "go on a walk," apparently, at least to a Shih Tzu's ears. He went into his "freak out" dance he does whenever he thinks a walk is impending. So of course I couldn't disappoint him. They dragged me down the road, skidding on the ice and dodging the broken tree limbs still lying on the snow...and I nearly wept remembering the sand I'd left behind only hours before. Before I left Hawaii I soaked in the sunshine (actively, not passively!) trying to store up the heat in my skin to carry home with me.  Ah well.

The resolutions which formed during my retreat are manifold but basically can be summed up as "Stop wanting so much. Be content. Be grateful." So that is my goal for 2014.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Thinking of Spring

It's -40 outside, a thick layer of ice coats everything outdoors, and frost coats the inside of my windows, so what better time to curl up with Baker Creek's latest seed catalog? Yes, it's the dead of winter in January and I'm already ordering seeds for the garden. Hopeless, I know. Well, actually, I suppose it means I'm hopeful. Someday this wet white stuff will all go away and the soil will be warm and friable again. I'll be able to find my way out to the composters without a probe and ice axe.

I've got a lot of my seeds already, of course, because I harvest my own every fall. But when I want to try something new, I have to add to the seedbank, and rareseeds.com offers a great selection of non-GMO heritage varieties from all over the world. This year's new treats to try: Black Krim tomatoes (the most nutritious in their study), Cantare green beans, Nantes Scarlet carrots, Giant Cape Gooseberries, Patisson Golden Marbre scallop squash, Fordhook Zucchini (usually I grow Black Beauty), and I'm also stocking up on Good Mother Stallard beans (ate them all last year -- oops) and miniature white cucumbers (didn't have a great crop last year so couldn't save seeds). I've also ordered some black and white dianthus for my boss, who is into black and white in her garden.

Baker's Creek has great photographers; you browse through their catalog and want to lick the pages, everything looks so enticing. It's difficult to limit myself. I don't have ten acres to fill up. So I have to be choosy about what to plant. Corn takes up a lot of space and nutrients without a high yield, so it has to go. Broccoli and celery take too much water. Cauliflower never works. And I'm the only one in the family who will eat Brussels sprouts, so I'll just buy a stalk of them at the farmer's market instead of buying an envelope of 250 seeds. Decisions, decisions!

But incredible that there is sooooo much to choose from! God has given us so much variety and abundance. It seems a shame not to try them all!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Round Two

Another foot of snow. Covered by an inch of ice from freezing rain. Now it's snowing again. The broken trees once again bowing under their burden. Here we go again! Water stockpiled. Shovel conveniently placed at the back door (again). Prepared food at the ready. Freezer still empty, so if the power goes out, we're not going to lose anything. They're saying we'll get a flash freeze this morning, dropping from 0 to -32 in a matter of hours. Wrapped my kid up to his eyeballs and sent him off to school with a cheery wave. Now I'm going to curl up and write for a while, the dog asleep on my feet, the pleasant drone of snowplows humming in the background. It's a cozy sort of day. A day for hot chocolate, fuzzy blankets, and Benedict Cumberbatch on the telly. Does it get better than this?

Friday, 3 January 2014

A New Year and Revolutions

So this is the time of year when everyone starts mumbling in embarrassed tones about their New Year's Resolutions and remembering the ones they made last year and promptly forgot about. Everything goes up once again for the annual analysis: Are we fulfilled? Are we skinny? Are we productive? Are we where we want to be? The theory is that out of this self-evaluation, we come up with some goals to focus on over the next year. Sometimes we keep the goals simple (join a pilates class or a book club, finally finish knitting that afghan, learn how to ice skate, buy shelving for the garage). Sometimes we get elaborate and start revamping our entire lives---a bold change in career or marital status, for example. While some people join gyms, others join convents or ashrams. Some give up being CEOs and go off to Cambodia to build schools. Others determine to floss more frequently.

I did much of my soul-searching a couple of years ago, alone on a beach at a time when I was facing some life decisions and a possible cancer diagnosis (which luckily turned out to be a false alarm). After that soul-searing period, I took a year off to just be kind to myself (that was 2012), and then in 2013 I decided to focus on my health. And we see how that went. (Not!)

So now here we are at the dawn of 2014, and next week I am returning to the same beach for another retreat. It's a chance to look at my current challenges and dreams and figure out how to deal with both. I think it's a year for keeping things simple. Get more sleep. Be aware of others' needs. Remember gratitude. Remember to play. Don't eat while reading. (This last is in an effort to be more mindful, but may have the additional effect of making me lose weight, which wouldn't be unwelcome.) These fledgling resolutions may change a bit as the retreat progresses, but we shall see. When contemplating these sorts of things, I think it is best not to pursue them too intently, but to sit still and let them come to you, like pigeons hoping for a handout. We will see what lands on me next week...