Saturday, 31 May 2014

Written after the suicide of a friend

We paddle along the stream's edge,
getting our toes wet but
never venturing further.
We peer into the quiet water,
try to discern below the surface,
float makeshift leaf boats
and maybe even dip our fingers in.
We discourse on the quality of the water
and reassure of what lies beyond it,
but we're in no hurry to try
our own uncertain ability to swim.
So when someone else rushes forward,
plunges in without hesitation,
disappearing in one intake of breath,
we're caught off guard, astonished,
left blinking with disbelief
as the ripples spread and resolve against the bank.
It's difficult to comprehend
how liquid can appear so solid and smooth,
as if nothing happened.

Friday, 30 May 2014

What is in your suitcase?

I have been reading Home Sweet Anywhere by Lynne Martin, which is the story of how she and her husband sold everything and travelled the world in their retirement. They were literally home free, with no home base. And I admit the idea has some appeal. I'm not sure how I'd feel about not having a home base to come back to. I suppose wherever your kids are, that becomes "home." But could I give up everything I owned and reduce my belongings down to a suitcase?

If you think about it, we're going to have to give everything up eventually anyway, when we die. Why not get a head start on it? Not even looking that far ahead, if we end up in nursing homes, we reduce our belongings down to a room-worth too. If I have things I'm hanging onto so that my kids can inherit them one day, wouldn't it make sense to go ahead and give them those things now? That way I could ensure who gets what, and I could enjoy watching them use the stuff. And realistically, things that I treasure probably won't have much meaning for anyone else, because they don't have the memories built up around them that I do. Most of what I own will likely end up in a garage sale someday, after I'm gone. I don't know that I'm ready for that size of a scale-down yet (after all, I still have a child at home, and I'm storing my other kids' stuff in my basement). But it's worth thinking about, and scaling down somewhat now while I have the energy and mind to do it.

So here's the question: if you had to reduce your belongings down to a suitcase, what would you put in it?

I look at my "stuff" and the first thing I gasp over is my books, followed close behind by photos and journals and the little knicknacks and bits of tatting I inherited from great-grandparents. What about the great old horse collar that was my grandfather's? The quilt Mom made for me when I married? Christmas tree ornaments, each with its own special story? A really good set of kitchen knives, and a recipe collection the size of the Library of Congress? Rare heritage-variety seeds? And---here's a thought---would I be able to find gardening opportunities if I were travelling home free?

So here's what I think I would do: I would scan all of my recipes and photos onto memory sticks and pack a good laptop. I would locate all of my favourite books and download e-books of them, or---don't read this, copyright lawyers---scan the hardcopies into my computer. I dislike e-books and prefer holding real, comfortable paper books, but desperation would force me to have to trust electronics. I would go through all my years of journals and pick out the more edifying bits to load onto a website for my kids, and I'd likely burn the rest of the drivelly bits. My entire wardrobe would fit into a small carry-on bag (and has done so), so that's not an issue. Cherished heirlooms would go to family who would want them. But I don't know if I could walk away from that set of kitchen knives. My kitchen and I get along well together; it would be difficult to leave it. What if I don't find those particular knives again?!

So there. My life on a laptop. Kristen in a carry-on. It's an interesting exercise to think through, to discover what you value and just how wrapped up you are in material things. For me it's the memories associated with those things, more than the things themselves, that I cherish. Though odds are, I'm going to lose the memories one day too!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

I am that penguin

Today I was walking Brio and Maple in the park and met a woman I hadn't seen there before. She had a lovely big dog and we stopped to do the sniff-and-greet thing (the dogs, that is, not us). A boy went by on his scooter, and as a precaution I picked up the end of Brio's leash which I had dropped. He has a history of getting aggressive and defensive around skateboards and scooters, though today he behaved admirably.

The lady asked me why I'd done that and I told her. And she---as it turns out---trains dogs. She asked if I had a minute and I said Sure! I'm always open to learning something new whenever I can. So she taught me a few tips on how to correct Brio's undesireable behaviour. Before I knew it, this turned into about an hour-long training session and chat, and I learned a lot of useful things. She agreed with me that Brio is pretty unique, a super-smart animal, highly trainable (he certainly responded to her immediately), and highly energetic. (And beautiful to go along with the brains.) She has a Husky/Border Collie mix, so she knows how that energy thing goes. And she was amazed by some of the stories I told her about this incredible, quirky dog.

Of all the things she taught me and showed me today, one thing in particular stands out. She told me that God had given me---not the dog I had wanted or expected---but the one I needed. That I had him for a reason. And as we chatted and she found out more about me and my family, she exclaimed, "That's why! Of course! You needed this kind of dog because you are adventurous. You can handle this kind of dog!" And she said I had raised my kids to be adventurous too, from the sound of it.

Now I had never thought of myself as adventurous before. I honestly see myself as a bit timid and hesitant and shy and I don't like change or unpredictability. But as she talked, I began to see myself and my family differently, through someone else's eyes. I can especially see it in my kids. I always sorta thought they were just impulsive. But sure enough! they're adventurous. They've taken themselves off to the sub-Arctic, to do jobs they've never been trained to do before. One is talking about travelling to the Philippines, another is saving for a trip to Japan. Even as little kids, they were always keen to try new things to eat (eel and squid, for example, were particular favourites) or try out new activities (ranging from gymnastics to fencing to karate to archery to acrodance). When I told this woman my son has a Husky mix as well, she laughed and said of course he does! He's your kid! He needs an adventurous dog too!

I thought about our conversation all the way home. It was odd to hear someone say they think of me as adventurous. Unusual, maybe. Quirky, probably, like Brio. But I never saw the things in my life as indicators of adventurousness. But maybe I am. I immigrated at the age of 22. We travel. We renovated two houses. I got published at the age of 40. I play the banjo and the bagpipes, for pity's sake. Even the languages I learned are uncommon ones (nothing useful like Spanish, for example!). I live in an oddball house different from all my neighbours' houses. And in my garden you don't find tulips and tomatoes, but oats and wheat and sugar beets and edible lilies. I guess it stands to reason that I'd end up married to a Yiddish-speaking Mormon bagpiper who practises Zen meditation and makes his own sausage. So yeah, maybe this lady was on to something.

Back on January 28, 2013, I wrote a snippit on this blog about penguins, and how every so often you get one adventurous penguin that heads off into the hills on its own to discover new territory, a free-spirited explorer who breaks off from the group. And maybe, a little voice in my head snickers, I am that penguin. Fancy that! I never would have thought it.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Oh dear

At church in the children's primary room, there are "memories" the children have drawn up and posted on the bulletin board. These are drawings with sentences written under them such as "We drove in the car" and "We went to Disneyland." One of the children spelled "We" as "Wii." I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sin and Strawberries

I had some more flashes of insight this weekend while pulling wild strawberries out of the gravel in my Zen garden. In a fit of insanity a few years ago I encouraged the wild berries under my hedge to grow as a groundcover (and it really is very pretty, especially while it's in bloom). But I didn't realize how invasive the stuff is, and it is slowly taking over my garden. And I found, as I worked, that I could identify a lot of parallels between sin and weeds, weeding and repentance.

These are the random thoughts that came to me while weeding:
  • Even things that are right and attractive are wrong if they occur at the wrong time or place. Strawberries themselves are wonderful, but in my gravel garden they become weeds. There are lots of parallels with this - sex before marriage, for example, or eating late at night. The thing itself may be good but it has to be done "in wisdom and order."
  • If you leave a little sin (or strawberry) at the fringes, sooner or later it will invade your life, often before you realize it.
  • You have to get out the whole root and every little bit of the plant, or it will come back. No matter how attractive the sin might be, you have to eradicate it completely in order to get it out of your life. No leaving little pretty bits to look at once in a while.
  • Often when you yank out the big plant, you see little hidden weeds underneath. Sometimes you're so focused on getting rid of the big shiny obvious thing that you miss the more destructive things going on behind the scenes. When I pulled out the big strawberry plants, I often found sheltering beneath them tiny tendrils of the highly more invasive fern I was fighting last year in the garden.
  • It's easier to get something out when it's small, before it has taken root. If you wait until it is bigger, it's a lot more work to get rid of it. Better to repent right away than to let it fester and grow stronger.
These are obvious things, of course, but really came home to me as I sweated under the sun (gravel gardens get hot). From now on I will be more on guard and not let it get so bad. In fact, you could say from now on I will weed more religiously! :)

Friday, 23 May 2014

Finally Really Spring

Tonight I went out after supper and spent a few hours weeding the garden and planting beans. The lettuce, spinach, onions, asparagus, and radishes are thriving. The garlic is over a foot tall. The rhubarb skipped spring altogether and is trying to go to flower. And the potatoes are up. Tomorrow I plant everything else except the tomatoes, which are still hardening off (yes, they finally germinated. But the gooseberries never did). I am hoping to have a lush tangle of green in the garden before long. And right on cue, the peonies are starting to bloom. They are the signal to plant the warm-weather stuff, so we're right on target. A couple of weeks later than last year, but good enough for me!

Of course just as the yard starts getting busy, my deadline for the publisher starts to loom. I'll have to force myself to balance my two favourite activities, gardening while the weather cooperates and the light lasts, then retreating to the computer in the late evenings. This story is proving difficult, because I was stupid enough to choose an actual historical event in a real setting and that means lots of research. Bleh. I much prefer pure fiction, when you don't have to stick to facts. And I admire those writers who can get their characters to cooperate and do what they're told. Mine keep breaking away and running amuck and bringing in plot elements I never intended to address. It's like herding a lapful of bouncy puppies who sulk in the corner if you try to rein them in.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


Travelling since two a.m. and too tired to report on the trip. Will do so tomorrow!  I will say, it actually took longer to bus home from the airport across Mississauga than it did to fly from Salt Lake City to Denver. Something seriously wrong with the local transit system! - K

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Off to Utah!

I am boarding a plane tomorrow for Utah. I'll spend three days with my brother and sister-in-law and then I have a conference in Salt Lake City for work. So I won't be writing for the next week. I hope my followers can muddle along without me (all two of you!).

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Motherhood in Action

Last night my fifteen-year-old son and I babysat for some friends so they could go to the temple. They have five kids under the age of 7 and live far from any family, so I imagine they don't get away together very often.

Bracing ourselves for an exhausting night, armed with books and games, we went to their apartment in the lower levels of a house. We were ushered in and found one child drying ceramic plates while Dad washed, one child sweeping the floor very expertly, and one child kneeling on the kitchen table so she could reach to wipe it. They were cleaning up from dinner. I looked at my son and said, "Boy, you had it easy. This is what I should have done."

Mom handed me the cheerful, squirming nine-month-old while she finished getting dressed and told me --optimistically, I thought-- that she would lay the baby down for the night before she left. The little kids, she said, would get in their pajamas, brush their teeth, say their prayers, and go to bed on command at 7:30 or 8:00. Yeah, right. The sun is still up at that time. We were coming with new things to play with. They would be hyper and too excited to sleep. I envisioned a night of squirming-baby-holding.

As we waited for Mom and Dad to leave, we sat on the squooshy living room couch and I felt an incredible calmness and organization in the home. All the artwork on the walls was family photos. A large picture of Christ was over the fireplace. Books were stacked neatly in cardboard boxes. There was a piano with music ready to play. It felt comfortable and peaceful.

Mom took wide-awake baby from my arms, put him down in his crib, and walked out of the bedroom. And he lay down and stayed there. They told the kids goodnight and put their phone number on the shelf and left. The kids took a vote and decided three would play a marble game we brought (downstairs where it wouldn't wake the baby) and the fourth would watch a DVD with my son. She chose from four available DVDs, a puppet thing about rabbits.

I trekked downstairs to the playroom with the other three and we had a rousing game of run-the-marbles-down-the-track. They shared nicely with the marbles. They laughed delightedly and made a lot of racket. When I suggested we do something quieter after a while, they immediately got up and went upstairs. The two-year-old took herself off to the bathroom and put on her Pull-Ups for the night without a word.

I brought out some books and read to them for a while, and then gave them some new little books as a gift. Immediately the room went dead silent as four little heads bent over their books, absorbed. The ones too young to read looked contentedly at the pictures. Books were politely exchanged, and if one requested a particular book, the swap was made instantly without fuss. Then they brought out a book of their own, On the Shores of Silver Lake, and asked if I'd read a chapter. I told them how much I'd loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, especially Farmer Boy, and they replied, "Oh, Farmer Boy was last week." So we read a chapter, which seemed to me to be well above their comprehension level, but all four listened happily and seemingly understood it.

At eight o'clock I spied some yawns and announced hopefully, "Bedtime." And sure enough, they trooped off to brush their teeth (one having to kneel on the counter to reach the sink). Said their prayers, even the two-year-old. Tucked themselves into bed (the two girls in bunkbeds, each boy in his own bed all tucked into corners of one bedroom). And they went to sleep, not moving, not giggling or talking, just with happy "Good nights!" And no one fussed or got up for a drink or poked their neighbour or anything.

Now I have shared a bedroom with two sisters, and I can attest to the fact that this is really amazing behaviour on the part of these four children. I remember lying awake late into the night telling each other stories, tickling each other, and generally avoiding sleep.

Whatever these parents are teaching these kids, they have it down pat. Obedient but not suppressed, cheerful and polite, helpful and articulate, just a touch of mischief, responsibility, and a strong sense of how to vote to keep things fair...I'd adopt these kids in a heartbeat. Whatever you're doing, Mom and Dad, keep it up! You're doing it right.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Passing of Farley Mowat

I was sad to see the news this morning that Farley Mowat has died, and I feel the need to make some sort of tribute. I first became aware of him through The Dog Who Wouldn't Be and Owls in the Family. Then I got hooked on his Arctic books, the adventures in the high north, the stories of the natives and the fragile climate. It's because of him I have this desire to go dog sledding, to tour the Arctic, to explore Canada. It's because of him I am slogging through this latest manuscript I'm trying to write for Covenant. I think of him as the last of the great northern adventurers. He had a zest for life and wasn't afraid of difficult things. He was that way as a child, too, exploring the rivers and fields of Toronto. It seemed he was always curious about the world and open to experience, willing to stretch and risk. Above all, he was a vivid storyteller, his practical and simple words having a powerful impact on my imagination. They sparked ideas and evoked images that got me thinking.

He once said that the best thing you could do would be to buy a piece of land and then leave it alone. Just take the human element out of the equation, instead of always trying to impose human influence on everything. I feel the same way about nature, and this statement felt right and solid to me. It's what I want to do.

I wish I had discovered him a little sooner, in time to meet him. I wish I could be as confident and curious and energetic as he was. I wish my words were as powerful.

Spring...sort of

There is something inherently wrong about having to mow the lawn in your mittens.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Leaving Home, Going Home

Tomorrow my daughter-in-law and granddaughter head with the U-Haul to northern Ontario, where my son is already waiting for them. I wish them a safe journey and a happy life in their new home. It reminds me inevitably of my own arrival in Ontario, in November 1989, with this same son--then age nine months--and my husband. I had no idea where I was going or what I would find when I got there, but I knew my husband knew, and that was good enough for me. Wherever he was was home. We arrived in a snowstorm at midnight, crossing the border at Sault Ste. Marie. I've always wanted to go back someday and see what the town looks like in sunshine.

My heart goes out to Rowyn's other grandmother, who has to say goodbye to them for now after two years of closeness. I am starting to gain a deeper understanding of what my own mother went through when I disappeared off to Canada. They will be away from both sides of the family now and will have to rely on each other and build the self-reliance and strength as a family that will carry them through the years ahead.

I have found great beauty in Ontario. I never tire of the rolling green fields, the salmon-coloured maple leaves in autumn, the rippled-looking folds of gray granite poking above the soil, the majesty of wild-haired and wind-whipped white pines. It is very different from the sun-baked and sage-scented landscape I grew up in, but I fell in love with it immediately and am content to live here always. I hope my son and his family find love and happiness in their new home.