Saturday, 26 April 2014

Making it up as you go along

some of the raw material for the workshop

A few weeks ago, I took a quilting workshop called “The Joys of Improvisation.” This class would not give joy to people who want a precise pattern to follow, because improvisation means that you make it up as you go along. No rights, no wrongs...just try something. If you don’t like it, try again.

As I worked on that project, it occurred to me that improvisation has a lot to do with life. There are no road maps, pattern pieces, or life-instruction manuals that cover every possible option as we travel life’s journey.  We're handed the raw material of life (a very precious gift, indeed) but then, very often, we have to make it up as we go along.

There are various ways we can assemble the raw material.
Case in point: years ago, when our kids were in elementary school, I was on the substitute-teacher list. One morning the phone rang at 7 a.m. – I was needed at my children’s school. Getting four kids up and getting us all out the door within the hour meant I was on a tight schedule.

Then it happened: our tender-hearted #3 son was standing beside me, tears in his eyes. “Mom,” he said, “I think there’s something wrong with Chirp.” Chirp was a guinea pig, so named because of his high-pitched squeals of delight when the kids came home from school. Overnight, without causing a fuss, Chirp had gone gently to GP heaven. Is there a book that tells you what to do when your sensitive child loses a pet on the same day that you are in a hurry to get the show on the road? I don’t think so. You have to make it up and hope it works out okay. So after the tears were shed, Chirp was gently wrapped in a velvet shroud and placed on a soft bed of bubble wrap in a shoe box, to await further mourning at the end of the day. RIP, Chirp. (And we did make it to school in time.)

And is there a book that tells you what to do with a dead pet when the ground is frozen three feet down, and throwing him in the garbage is not an option? Nope. Chirp spent the winter in cold storage in our freezer until spring came, whence he was given suitable honours – a funeral service and a popsicle stick graveside marker, inscribed with the words, “Chirp: a very good pet.” You  make it up as you go along.

Some people think that love makes the world go round. Love is good, but practically, I’m a big believer in improvisation, too. It’s what gets us from A to B when nobody is sure what the answer is. Without improvisation –  making it up as we go along – we would surely be stuck in limbo. If we always needed to know exactly what was the right thing to do, we would be paralyzed, frozen in place (as immovable as Chirp) most of the time. So, we put one foot out into the unknown, and we hope we are on the right path.

Sometimes, we aren’t, of course. This happened often when I was making my quilted table-runner, and I’d have to backtrack and try something else. In life, too, sometimes we do what we think is best, and realize later that we’ve walked down a dead-end road. So we have to swallow our pride, turn around, and try again. Thank God, second chances are allowed in life.
It's finished!

Or the unexpected happens – the car dies, so the money saved for holidays disappears. Dreams don’t turn out the way you thought they would. Instead of the cottage with the white-picket fence that you thought was the blueprint for your life, you end up in a downtown high rise. Instead of a career as a successful best-selling novelist, you write a weekly blog read by 13 people!

And sometimes the curves life throws at us are enormous. Accidents, illness, or death turn your life upside down. Making it up as you go along often involves some very difficult and painful realities and can leave deep scars. Still, I don’t think we have any choice: either we improvise, or we stay immobile.

And either we eventually find the joys in this new journey, or we go kicking and screaming into the future.

Life, I've discovered, is a hands-on workshop in improvisation. May you find joy in your journey.

I also like these quotes, which speak to what I've written above: 

"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." -- Joseph Campbell.

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way." -- Virginia Woolf.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The song in my heart

I heard it again the other day: “Do what makes your heart sing.” It’s become a common saying, and the sentiment is good.  But... (there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?) there’s something about the phrase that niggles at me. I’ve been noodling about it this week.

My first memory of a heartsong moment is when I was 4 years old, sitting in church between my parents. When the congregation rose to sing a song I knew, one with a rousing refrain, I sang along with great joy. It was a formative spiritual moment: music sung in a community that enfolded me.

Another heartsong moment occurred when I was 10. On a springtime Saturday morning, I took off on my new bike, all by myself. On the trip I noticed blue flowers growing in the ditch. I knelt in awe beside the beauty. My heart sang in this experience of freedom, beauty and solitude.

I’ve had  many more heartsong moments: cuddling a tiny baby; watching children play alone in all innocence, lost in their own world; walking in the woods, with beauty all around; quiet moments at home with the resident sweetie; working for hours in my studio, writing or quilting. I’m sure you have your own moments that make your heart sing, and it’s an important practice to remember them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could orchestrate heartsong moments and always live in them? We could string them together like pearls on a necklace, and life would glow with beauty. Our lives would be one long Alleluia.   

But ... but ... there’s more. Feeling joyful and safe in church was a highlight when I was four; being in church with grumblers and gripers when I was 14 almost put an end to the song. Biking the backroads and finding beauty in the ditches was lovely; but roads have hard hills, and ditches also sprout garbage. Tiny babies get up in the night and disturb your sleep, and children can only be lost in their own worlds for a little while before deciding to pick a fight with their sisters. The RS and I aren’t always content (I’ll spare you the details; they’re off the record.) There are so many forces at play that try to extinguish the song of our hearts.

Right now, my heartsong is muted. I am working on a project that got me all excited weeks ago when I was learning a new skill. But now the new thing is getting tedious. I need to finish it, but that’s drudgery, and taking way longer than I want it to. What happened to the song? Has the music died?

There is progress on my improvisational quilt, but where to go from here?

 A friend described a mutual acquaintance as a person who had a sense of the song in her heart, and the courage to follow it. Ah, there’s the rub. It’s easy to do the thing that makes your heart sing when the song is loud and clear. It takes courage to follow the song in our hearts, and especially to believe in the song, when the volume is turned down, way down, drowned out by other noises.
Today is Easter Sunday, the day that rings out with songs of joy. Whatever your spiritual persuasion, you can still be stirred by the universal message of the Easter story. It’s all about having a heartsong and the courage to follow it. The Creator had a heartsong and acted on it. We – all God’s creatures, and the creation we live in – are the result of that song. The thing planted within us that makes our heart sing is part of who we are. 

When the song within us was lost, Courage stepped up and in love, did the hard thing to restore the music. The message of Easter is that the song planted within us cannot die. The name of the song is Love, and love is stronger than death.

I did screw up my courage and work on the improvisational quilt project, which came out okay, after all. (More about that next week.) And then I created an Easter crow. Do crows sing, or do they only squawk and make noises? Do squawks and caws sound like wonderful music to crows' ears? I choose to believe that even the crow has a song in her heart, and sings it out to the world. I name this piece Easter Morning Alleluia. Working on it made my heart sing – I hope it makes you happy too.

Check out my friend Joy’s blog Life by the Swake for a story about hope at Easter. Here's the link to her page:

And here’s an Easter morning story, and an Easter morning song, that tells far better than I can what it’s all about:

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Birding by the Seat of My Pants

The Rufous hummingbirds have arrived, and they are hooligans. They zoom through our backyard like an invasion of teenaged boys high on hormones. They dive and swoop and figuratively thump their chests to prove that they are all male and macho. Their women zoom in to take sips of nectar, then retreat quickly back to their nesting sites. The traffic is getting so bad out there that we are wondering how to post road signs and stop lights to keep our bird friends safe. (Sky hooks, maybe?)

We see all this because we have front row seats to the show from our dining room window. We are  back-yard birders who enjoy birding by the seat of our pants. (Some of you will be thinking we should be birding in the woods, getting some exercise and watching birds in their natural habitat. Yes, we do that, too. Backyard birding by the seat of our pants is a bonus!)

A city scene from one of my unfinished projects.
All winter long as we've dined, we have enjoyed the company of a host of juncos, a few towhees, some finches, the occasional flicker, and one well-behaved pair of Anna’s hummingbirds who were attracted to our hummingbird feeder. The resident sweetie freely admits he is somewhat OCD when it comes to birds, and it’s a good thing – he keeps that feeder frost-free all winter long, and replenishes the bird seed and suet regularly.

Now the juncos have left, to be replaced by robins and rufous hummers. Both are snowbirds who spend the winter in warmer climes, then come here for fun and games of the reproductive variety. We’ve noticed that about the time we get out the wine glasses for happy hour, the hummers are also zooming in to their bar for sips of nectar. We're reassured by naturalists that this feeding is only a very small part of their diet -- mostly, they eat insects, often catching them on the wing or picking them out of spider webs. Our feeding them does not create dependence.

Anna's and Rufous Hummingbirds enjoying a rare moment of quiet companionship together. Sharing food can have that effect!

It’s fun to watch it all. We’re speculating that when the time comes that we are mobility impaired (fancy talk for “can’t walk too good”), we’ll get rid of the dining room furniture and replace it with Lazy-boys and TV trays. We’ll be birding from the seat of our Lazy-boy.  Hey, why not? Subsisting on that famous “senior’s fixed income”, we’ll have a cheap show that’s changing all the time.

One bird we’re not seeing in our backyard is the crow. According to friends, the crows have congregated at the east end of town and that’s fine with me. I’m well aware of how they take over their chosen turf, chasing away other birds. Reminds me of humans, actually! We’re pretty good at taking over land and making it our own, fencing it in and guarding against intruders.

Another way of birding by the seat of your pants is through the internet. A few months ago I enrolled for an online webinar conducted by crow expert Kevin McGowan of Cornell’s famed bird lab. I parked my fanny in my computer chair and learned a lot. McGowan says that the huge population of urban crows is a new phenomenon – some cities have seen a 30-fold crow population increase since the 70s. That’s a 3,000 % increase in crows wandering downtown streets, raiding downtown garbage dumpsters, pooping on downtown pedestrians and cars. Why? There’s lots of speculation – they’re being pushed out of their usual territories by increased deforestation, or, they don’t have to worry about guns and hunters in cities, or, they have access to abundant, easily obtained food sources, or, increasing light at night protects them from predators, or...all of the above and more. One expert even pointed out that logging has reduced good nest sites, so that the biggest trees around now are in cemeteries and parks. And crows like big trees.

Research does show that almost all crows enjoy being within easy reach of towns. They have learned
Image credit: Urban crows eating garbage / Crafty Green Poet
that it’s much easier to filch a sandwich out of a garbage pail than it is to forage for worms and grubs in a farmer’s field. With a nestful of babies screaming for food, one dessicated burger will feed the brood much more easily than making multiple trips for worms. (Again, not so different from humans, are they? It’s easier to buy a "happy" meal than to cook for ourselves and our babies.) The unfortunate side-effect is that crow babies that are raised in urban environments are smaller and more likely to die before they head off on their own. Quite a trade-off – an easier, safer life at the expense of your children’s well-being.

Birding by the seat of my pants may, at first glance, appear to be an easy activity. But it's certainly raised a lot of difficult questions. Everything we do -- spreading and multiplying, subduing the earth, increasing our markets and growing our economy -- everything that is often considered progress, (even feeding the birds for our own enjoyment) -- could have a potential ripple effect that touches even the smallest creatures. Our feathered friends may keep me entertained, but they also challenge me to remember that we are all connected in this web of life, and to live with deep respect and care for our beautiful world.

Kevin McGowan is holding another free seminar about crows. It will be on the internet on April 21 at 7 pm. EDT. Sign up for a reminder at

And if you’d like to learn a little more about the interactions between crows and people, and what it all means for our endangered planet, check out this interview by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet (a book I highly recommend)

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Are you purfact?

It’s the season of Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter in the church calendar. Five years ago, my granddaughter, then 6, asked me, “What are you giving up for Lent, Oma?” Karina had decided to give up Big Bunny, a stuffed toy she often slept with. The question got me thinking.  At the time, I was creating a quilt square each week to document the year I was 60. So I set to work that week to think about, and depict, what I would give up for Lent.

Oldest kids are the most responsible, says the literature, and have the strongest need to please. I’m an oldest kid and fit the description (perfectly.) So when the question of giving up something for Lent arose, my responsibility ethic kicked in. I would be more devout. I would volunteer at the food bank, get into better physical shape, be kinder to my family and husband. I would let my little light shine in this big dark world.

I set to work making a quilt square to reflect my good intentions. Visual elements would include Biblical symbols and quotes stamped on fabric with alphabet stamps and ink. Funny thing, though: it was unexpectedly difficult to do so. The Bible looked like a black blob. And the Biblical text I wanted to include? The letters ran downhill instead of marching in a nice and tidy straight line. Then, oh horrors, a spelling mistake! It was a biggie. Instead of “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends”, I’d written “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his FRIEDS.” I grinned at the image this conjured up of Kentucky Fried Friends, dipped in batter, tossed in hot oil till toasty brown. Then I wiped that silly grin off my face. “This is Lent we’re talking about – this is no laughing matter,” I chastized myself.

So I started over. With my rubber alphabet stamps, I carefully began printing, one letter at a time, on the fabric, “What will you give up for Lent?” Unfortunately, I only got as far as “What will you give uq...” UQ?  Aghghg. And yet...those Kentucky fried friends had opened a chink in my Responsibility armour, and this latest mishap  hit me in my funny bone. Clearly, there was a message for me here: loosen up, you uptight broad. So I did. In big bold letters I printed, “What will you give uqp for Lent? PERfecTio n I sm.” I proceeded to add more “misteaks” to the square, giggling giddily at my recklessness.

I’ve thought about that message a lot recently. I’m a slow learner...I only gave up my need to be “better” for a season, then plunged right back into my old ways. How often do we beat ourselves up because we don’t measure up to the “ideal” – the perfect mother, worker, volunteer, friend, wife, daughter, body – you can fill in your own blank. Be a good girl (or boy.) Don't colour outside the lines. You can do better. The messages keep coming. Yet how much joy do we miss while trying to live up to an impossible ideal?

I wander into the woods while thinking this through, and realize here there’s a better message here for me.
The winter storms have been hard on the trees – lots of deadfall litters the forest floor. It’s messy – and beautiful. It's beautiful because I know these fallen logs are part of the earth's process of replenishing nutrients which will nurture new life. Saplings spring up from the rotting log incubators, and wild flowers dance around them in the breeze. The stumps and logs in the stream may not look so pretty, but they provide resting places and shade for the salmon during spawning season. Walking in the woods restores my soul – I see myself as just a little point of sparkling light in the world, joining in with all of creation, and it’s not so important to be perfect anymore.

I am a unique human being, with strengths and weaknesses, who is on a journey to discover how best to live in this world in a way that honours the Creator who made me. That’s about it in a nutshell. Especially now as we prepare for Easter time, it’s not about rules, it’s all about grace.  Laugh and dance and sing and make some mistakes, cry a little and move on – the perfection police have been fired. We’re forgiven and every day is an opportunity to live renewed.

It’s Lent again, five years later. “What are you giving up for Lent, Oma?” “PerFeKtionAsm, Karina!”

Wanna join me?

Yesterday, I took a workshop on improvisational quilting, taught by Pippa Moore.  Improvisational quilting means that you make it up as you go along. There are no quilting police to tell you your points don’t match or you haven’t followed the instructions.As one old-time quilter says, “That’s not a mistake – that’s just a different way of doing it.”  Here's one of Pippa's samples, an improvisational take on trees in the woods: feast your eyes on it. 

 Here’s what I’ve done so far -- these pieces, eventually, will be a table runner to bring spring sunshine to our dining room table when the skies are grey. It's nowhere near perfect, but I am having fun. When it's finished, I'll post a photo.