Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What's in a Name? Baby Names Taking Over Our Lives...

Grandchild due in a few weeks, and baby names have been thrown about the house like Frisbees as the eager parents try to select just the perfect one for their child. It's a big responsibility, finding the right name for a baby. You want something that will age with them as they grow (you don't want to saddle a dignified seventy-year-old with a name like Bubba or Candi), but you don't want something so elderly and antique it sounds as if the newborn will emerge wearing hoop skirts.

Some people name their infants after relatives and friends, on the assumption that the person after whom the baby is named will turn out to be a good person in the end, and the baby's name is meant to honour them. Let's hope Wilfred I doesn't turn out to be a bank robber in his old age, or Wilfred II will be marred for life. I always stayed away from family names, simply because I knew I would not have enough children to cover all bases, and I didn't want any relatives feeling left out. (Last grandchild gets eight names...) There was also the thought that I wanted my children to feel free to be their own people, without having to live up to anyone else's reputation. I needn't have worried; my children definitely ended up their own personalities.

Then there are the trendy popular names, which always seem to end in i. Take any noun, add an i to it, and you have the head cheerleader of 2030. Some people name their children after movie stars or great scientists or politicians. I know one man who named his son Walden because he admired Thoreau. Some people use names of plants (Rose, Willow, Rowan, Myrtle, Poppy, Daisy, Heather, and yes, even Bracken). Some fall back on reliable Bible names, but even these have a hierarchy (Gideon or Matthew okay, Belshazzar and Jezebel, not so much). Parents of twins tend to lean toward rhyming names or alliteration. And some latch onto "foreign"-sounding names because they sound exotic, not realizing what they've placed upon their children (hint: don't name your daughter Bronwen. Trust me on this). In my high school French class there was a girl named Beth Ann, and the French teacher would say her name in a French accent and then giggle... (Think about it. Well, she deserved the name, really. She once asked in class in all sincerity, "What does naïve mean?") But to be fair to her parents, you can't anticipate every situation, and how were they to know she would end up in a French class one day?

My son and daughter-in-law are leaning toward the Nordic (after watching too many episodes of Vikings, I assume) or Celtic (to reflect their Newfie and Irish heritage). And you're kind of stuck when your surname is McKendry. Ideas have ranged from Brynjolf to Ragnar. We will see what wins out.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Ten Things

In the Toronto Star there was an article about mindful living, and it told about the idea of narrowing your belongings down to ten things only. I assume that doesn't include food. Now I've discussed paring down in this blog before, thinking about reducing my material possessions down to a couple of suitcases. But to specify an actual number -- ten -- somehow seems very different. What truly do I need to sustain life and well-being? This is my list today. With more thought, I might come up with a different list, or my list might change depending on how things in my life evolve. But here's a crack at it:
1. Set of kitchen knives  (I'm counting sets as one.)
2. Toothbrush
3. Mixing bowls...or maybe utensils...not sure.
4. Pots and pans
5. Measuring cup and teaspoon
6. Laptop -- I'd put all my photos, genealogy, and writing in electronic format first
7. Books -- goodness, I don't know if I can narrow them down, but if I have to choose one, it's better to choose none and get them all on line with the laptop. If so, then I'd use this spot for the utensils.
8. Clothes, I assume. Winter coat and gear, four tops, two pairs of pants, a skirt, some socks and underwear, and shoes.
9. A bed and bedding
10. Toilet paper

I don't think I can pare down to more basic than that. And the laptop is almost cheating, because it really condenses many items into one. But that's a technicality.

Think how easy it would be to move house if that was all you owned. You could lose everything you own in a fire, and it's still as if you'd lost almost nothing. There's something wildly appealing about that concept.

Now I'm going to go sit on my comfy couch and watch TV with my feet on the coffee table and knit...  In the Ten Things world that would translate into sitting on my bed watching the laptop and doing macramé with my shoelaces...

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Definition of Family

My niece's husband is coming to see us today. We haven't met him yet but we're prepared to love him instantly, simply because he loves my niece. It's not often we get family coming up here to visit us, and I'm excited to have him come.

I have discovered after twenty-five years of living outside of Utah that I define family differently from other people. Especially when it comes to cousins. When people ask me how many cousins I have, I seriously don't know. I know there were about 48 first-cousins on Dad's side, a smaller number on Mom's side...but I also count second and third and fourth cousins as "cousin." I went to high school with my half-third-cousins-once-removed and we simply called each other, affectionately, "cuz." Still do. And thought of each other as siblings more than cousins.

Family are the people you would do anything for and love no matter what. I like the idea that, even with half-third-cousins, I can walk up to their door and they will welcome me in like a long-lost favourite. I remember once when I was a young teen, the doorbell rang and an unfamiliar man stood on the step. I was home alone at the time. The man said, "I've been driving all night and I need a place to sleep for a bit." And then he walked in like he knew the place, went straight to the couch in the basement, and fell asleep. Of course I was nervous and didn't know what to do, so I closed the basement door and sat down to wait for my mother to come home. When she came, I told her a total stranger was sleeping on the couch downstairs. Mom took a peek and then said airily, "Oh, that's your cousin Jerry." Well, he's not technically a cousin. Distant relative, but that's what she called him. And based on that, he felt welcome to drop in for a nap and assume it was fine. And it was, no questions asked. I like that.

Living near Toronto, I bump into people from all over the world. We compare notes when we hear we have a Utah connection, and more often than not we're descended from some common ancestor. And we're instantly friends...but more than that, we're family. We swap stories and contact information. I sometimes bring them home for dinner and talk, and it's a wonderful thing. I once even bumped into a relative when we were in Hawaii. What are the odds of that? Well, when you come from a family the size of mine, I guess it's not that surprising.

I tell my children that they have hundreds of relatives all over the place, and if they ever need help, they can go to one of them for assistance. And it's a great feeling to know that they can. They will never need to feel alone.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Urban Forest and the Loss of Trees

The Emerald Ash Borer is taking out trees all over our city, and Rust is taking out a lot of the evergreens too, including the lovely huge tree we had in front of our house. It makes me heartsick to see these beautiful giants being felled and reduced to wood chips. It seems everywhere I look, there are orange Xs painted on tree trunks. I understand the need for it, and I know that removing them will allow light into the understory, causing new things to grow. It's the natural order of things, for the old to make room for the new. We will all have our successors, after all.

I suppose it's true of all growth, though -- there is always pain first. But rooting out the bad or unhealthy allows the good to flourish. Years ago I saw a counselor who told me something similar. When we are going to plant a garden, first we have to plow up the soil and root out what's there. It's a labour-intensive and painful thing. We may choose to plant the same thing again, or plant something totally different, it's up to us. We can choose what we nourish and cultivate. But there is usually loss and always turmoil before growth.

Monday, 16 March 2015

House for sale

My neighbours across the street are selling their house. I watch the stream of people filing in and out during open houses, and I am torn. I want my neighbours to stay, but I also understand their want to downsize and move north to retire. I want to make a good impression on potential new neighbours -- look, we're decent citizens and keep our yard nice and don't let our dog bark -- and yet part of me feels the urge to be honest and rush outside to warn people: Three bagpipers and two drummers live here! Buyer beware!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Intimations of Mortality

The other day as I was walking to work from the subway station, a man ahead of me slipped on the ice and went down. I knew from the piercing cries that he'd hurt himself, and as soon as I reached him, I could see right away that he'd broken his ankle (possibly his shin bone). It was at an entirely wrong angle, and when he moved, only his upper leg moved and his foot remained limp on the sidewalk. Gack! Another fellow came along with a cell phone and called an ambulance. I didn't know what else to do, but the poor guy was sprawled on the ice and I knew it was cold and wet, so I sat down and rested his head in my lap and tried to cushion and comfort him while we waited for help to arrive. He was in a lot of pain, so I just held his hands and talked to him and took him through some deep breathing to try to distract him from it.

A few other people stopped, including a physician, who took the man's pulse and laid his coat over him. After 10-15 minutes the ambulance arrived and they whisked him away, and I discovered my pants were frozen to the ice. Got up and hobbled into my office, and found I was soaked through pretty thoroughly. A little "freezer burn" on the backside, and I spent some of the morning standing at my desk and flapping around trying to dry off. (Note to self: keep an extra pair of sweat pants in the cubicle!)

As it turns out, one of my colleagues saw it all, and she told me later that I looked like I knew just what to do re: first aid. I was surprised at her perception, because it's been a year since I took First Aid, and I didn't feel I knew anything and was woefully unprepared. I just kicked into "Mom" mode and offered comfort where I could. Holding his head between my gloves, I felt a sincere sympathy and love for this fellow, a feeling of "we're both in the same boat of mortality and thus we see how dependent we all are on each other." When I told my husband about it, he said the man had had a wonderful morning, because he had experienced the goodness and kindness of other people. Well, I dunno. The man may not have felt it was such a wonderful experience. But yeah, I see what my husband was saying.

Since this incident, I've kept hearing that man's cries in my head, arising at odd times but especially at night, and I find I am walking very carefully with an eye open for black ice. I have a sudden sense of how delicate and vulnerable the human body is, so easily snapped. We're just gooey bits held together by a bag of skin, really, and our careful balance is so easily disrupted. I can't help but think of how easily small children fall and get up and fall and get up, seemingly without noticing. When I was younger I could slip on my skates or fall off a bike and not think too much of it other than the sting of the Bactine on my abrasions. I'd throw myself into all kinds of things, climb trees, go sledding, jump a horse over a fence while riding double... When did I become this cautious, elderly-gaited woman?

I think, though, that being aware of our mortality and vulnerability does have its plus side. As my husband pointed out, it makes us aware of how connected we are with each other and how completely we rely on others. Logically, I've always known I can't eat a sandwich or take a hot shower without the contribution of a lot of other people in my community doing their jobs. But I think this experience has also reminded me how we depend on each other emotionally. I'll pick you up when you fall, and you pick me up when I fall, and together we'll somehow get through life. My husband has told me before that the definition of love is to be there to cheer each other on when things go well and to pick up the pieces for each other when things go wrong. Really, it boils down to that.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


I'm sorry this blog seems to have turned into a weather report, but really, the weather impacts so much of life here that I can't help it. It's all anyone talks about. Today it got up to 9 degrees and it was like swimming through melted butter, coming home. I flung my arms wide and soaked up all I could in the brief moment I had between train and bus. And then spent the walk home from the bus dodging the sprays of melted snow thrown up by cars whipping past. It's the season of mud and puddles and pawprints on the white tile floor. It's the season of seed orders showing up in the mail. Even my husband lost his mind and brought home enough vegetable and herb seeds to carpet six acres. Spring!

I know, it's still early days, and I'm sure we haven't seen the last of the snow storms. But it's hopeful, and I can begin to breathe easier, knowing I've made it through another winter.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

St. Jude's Academy Recitation Contest

I realized I never reported on my day judging the recitation contest at St. Jude's Academy. This is a small private school in Mississauga, with just over 200 students from JK to Grade 8 (adding more grades next year). I was warmly welcomed and instantly impressed with the kids, who wore tidy uniforms and approached me without a trace of shyness. The youngest contestant was three years old, charming as a mouse, with her hair piled in a bun on the top of her head. She came up to me before the program started and patted my earrings and told me she liked them. (I was wearing my Hostess Cupcakes.) Flattery will get you everywhere. She climbed up on stage and recited a different version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with great aplomb and came carefully down the stairs again on her bottom.

It only got more charming from there. These kids were articulate, confident, well prepared, and engaging. One ten-year-old did so well, giving a very long essay as if speaking and not reciting, that I knew immediately he would win. His speech was on privilege and entitlement and how we can't act as if we deserve everything. We have to make thoughtful choices and not be swayed by advertising that tells us we are better than others. I asked him to email me his presentation afterward. The other two judges (charming women themselves) and I found ourselves predicting what these children would become in the future. Lawyer. Politician. CEO. And the one with the mischievous twinkle in her eye would probably become a film star. When I talked with this particular child afterward, she confessed she didn't like poetry very much. I said, "Oh, but you probably like acting out stories, don't you?" and she lit up and grinned and cried, "Yeah!" Nailed it. Film star for sure.

Afterward they opened up the floor for the students to ask questions of the judges, and I was kind of surprised by the questions they posed. No one asked where we got our ideas for our writing, or what our favourite books were when we were children. They wanted to know when we started writing, why we started writing, and which book we'd written was our best. I had to think about the answers. I started writing when I was six (I still have the one-paragraph story, banged out on the old Royal typewriter), but I really got into it by age thirteen, when my parents gifted me an electric typewriter. My best? Probably the one that has sold the least. And why I started writing? That's tougher.

I can't imagine not writing. I become ill if I don't write. It's as if a pressure builds up within me and has to escape (this blog acts as a sort of pressure valve so some of it can escape when I don't have time to dive into a full-length book). I am constantly telling myself stories and acting out speeches in my head, and I have done so since I can remember. The worlds in my mind are more real to me than the world outside.

Plus I'm running out of things to read...

Hats off to the excellent job the teachers are doing at St. Jude's and a great round of applause for these brave, confident, intelligent children and their parents. The future is in good hands.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Niagara Falls in Winter

A leisurely drive today to see the frozen falls. Very beautiful! We were bundled up to the eyebrows in fabric, trying to stay warm, but I noticed that all the German and Scandinavian tourists were breezing along with just sweatshirts...

It would be glorious to be there when the ice on the river breaks up this spring.

Then we went into the greenhouse, where we were enveloped in the rich scent of hyacinths. I felt stunned, standing there in sudden warmth and sunshine, with the sound of songbirds all around me. I miss the sound of birds in winter, but I don't realize it until I hear them again. It was like being transported to Hawaii without warning. How is it that this place has been here for decades and I didn't know? The orchids were amazing, the size of plates and frilled like dance hall girls. I wished they had provided benches for us to sit and just soak in the light. But they didn't, so we shuffled out again, filled with new optimism and well-being. We drove home discussing how to transform our backyard garden into a winter oasis. In a place where summer is only three months long, finding a way to extend it is worth thinking about.