Saturday, 27 March 2021

The crow looks for beauty

It’s been a while since I’ve posted; that’s because I had nothing to say that didn’t sound like a sermon. But I’ve been through an experience this week, and it gave me pause for reflection.

Last week a quilting friend of mine posted a piece of quilt art, and introduced it with approximately these words: “I’ve been nominated to share a piece of my art on Face Book for 10 days running. No comments, no explanations. I am also nominating someone each day to carry on with this challenge.” She nominated me. This sounds like the chain letters that we used to participate in when were naive 12 year olds, promising all kinds of good luck, or recipes, or even dollar bills. We ended up laboriously making 10 copies (by hand!) and sending them off to 10 friends, and were inevitably disappointed. I’ve grown up since then.

But I was surprised at my reaction: I wanted to do this. Why? Perhaps because I enjoyed seeing the work of others who were participating – their work added a dash of colour to these grey, rainy days that all seem to run together. Maybe by displaying my work, I could do the same for someone else. The friend who nominated me confessed that she was dragging her art out from under the bed where the pieces had been stored for years. I know from experience that there are more artists than there are buyers out there, and only so many pieces you can hang or give away. So there’s a lot of art stored under the beds of the Comox Valley. It was time to bring them out to see the light of day.

 

"Still Marching" -- Self portrait at 70. Still under the bed.
 

Ah, but when you put yourself out there, that’s a big step. I heard a number of voices in my head...in fact, there was a real chattering going on in there. “Hmm. Tooting your own horn, eh? (Fishing for compliments?)” “What makes you think anyone wants to see these?” “You may think your work is fine, but they’re just amateur compared to X, Y, and Z.”

Memories of Newfoundland. I haven't finished this one...still under the bed!

 

What’s with those voices? Do you hear them too when you step out? The voice that suggested I was tooting my own horn had a Dutch accent, belonging to an older gentleman whose family had hired me to write his life story. He was reluctant because he did not want to toot his own horn. The voice that said nobody would be interested belonged to people who, when I showed them my work, said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then changed the subject. And as far as my being an amateur...that was probably my own perfectionist streak, comparing myself to others. Sometimes it’s very hard to believe in yourself. Do I hear an “Amen, sister?” I hope so, because I do not think I am alone with these feelings.


Woods in Spring...not done, still under the bed.

It’s been said that putting your work out there for all to see is like dancing naked in public. You are very vulnerable. All your imperfections are on display. And so I tend to downplay my work ... “oh, it’s just something simple” or “I learned this in a class with so and so, but of course it’s nothing like her work,” or “everyone is creative in their own way.”

Well, I put my work out there. The feedback was amazing and heart-warming, enough to make me blush at times. (If you aren’t my friend on Facebook, you can check out those posts at https://www.facebook.com/jessie.schut.9)

So when I say, “I’ve been through an experience this week” this is what I am talking about. As I reflect on the experience, I’ve learned again that yes, creating is what I love to do. Writing and making art is who I am. I should – as should we all – be happy to name and claim my gifts. And your response has showed me that my gifts can add a splash of beauty to this world. I need to get over myself, ditch the negative voices, and be who I am. Your gifts too can add beauty to this world, and hiding those gifts under the bed does the world no favours.

I reflect on how integral beauty is to our experience of happiness. Psychologists say we are hard-wired to need beauty in our lives. We are drawn to it every time we notice it. Plato thought that merely contemplating beauty caused “the soul to grow wings.” Mmm...I like that idea! “All beauty and art evoke harmonies that transport us to a place where, for only seconds, time stops and we are one with the world. It is the best life has to offer,” says author Andre Aciman.

“Beauty will always have the power to inspire us. It is that enigmatic, unknowable muse that keeps you striving to be better, to do better, to push harder. And by that definition, what we all need most in today’s world is perhaps simply more beauty,” writes designer Lazaro Hernandez.

We all have it in us to contribute beauty to the world, not just works of art, but beauty in doing kind acts, in really listening to someone who is hurting, in allowing children to express their creativity, in exercising hospitality, in playing or singing music, in writing a note to a shut-in or doing errands, in speaking a word of gratitude or encouragement, in treating a customer or client with respect, in handing out smiles ...

It’s all Beauty, eh?


Monday, 18 January 2021

Sweet Memories

I began a writing course at the beginning of January. It’s about writing Creative Non-Fiction – essays, memoirs, biographies, travel stories, etc.  A lot of creative non-fiction relies very much on the author’s memories.

Memory is such an amorphous thing. Somewhere in your brain you store up a picture, or a smell, or a sound. Then, when you experience something in real life, like the soft fur of a kitten, the smell of bread baking or tomato soup simmering on the stove, or  the sound of the wind in the trees or a train whistle in the distance, suddenly you are carried away, over to that part of the brain that has stored that little snippet of colour, touch, smell or sound. And surrounding that snippet is a whole story.

The smell of onions simmering in a pan, for instance, makes me think of hachee, a dish my mom sometimes made at the end of the week, when the roast that began at Sunday dinner was reduced to a few scraps in the bottom of the pan, along with a cupful or so of rich brown gravy. She would slice half a dozen onions very thinly and throw them into the pan, letting them simmer for hours. Half an hour before supper, she peeled a big potful of potatoes and put them on to boil. There would probably be some green beans taken from the freezer cooking in another pan. The whole house was filled with the aroma of simmering onions, and the windows steamed up from the cooking.  Hachee was a winter dish to warm your bones after a trudge from school through the snow and icy cold (uphill both ways, of course!) A steamy kitchen and delicious smells created a warm welcome home. Later, around the supper table, we would ladle those beefy onions over chunks of potato and tell mom she should make this every day... it was so delicious. Mom was smart, though: too much of a good thing doesn’t make it special anymore.

And then there’s the memory that arose last week when I spilled a little bit of strawberry jello powder on the counter. Without even thinking about it, I licked my finger, then stuck it into the little hill of flavoured jello and popped it into my mouth. My brain lit up: it’s Lik-m-Aid all over again. I am 9 years old,  living in a neighbourhood with lots of kids. We travel in packs, seeing what kind of interesting adventures we can get into. Mr. B is working in the garden, and when we show up, he unexpectedly pulls a quarter from his pocket and tells us to go spend it. A quarter is a huge treasure; sometimes parents will let us take an empty little pop bottle to the store and spend the 2 cent refund; on a really good day, we might get a big bottle, which will give us 5 cents, but that usually means you have to share the refund with your sister. But a quarter, a whole quarter, to spend amongst the four of us? Unheard of.

Of course, we head down to the Fat Man on the Corner. (I think his name was Allen, but we all called him -- not to his face -- the fat man, because he was.) He has a tiny convenience store in what should have been the living room of his house, and on the counter by the cash register, are big bottles of candy: jawbreakers in a vast array of colours, jelly beans, suckers, humbugs, wax lips, candy necklaces, double-bubble gum, taffy individually wrapped in wax paper, Twizzlers in black and cherry, and packets of Lik-m-Aid, which was nothing more than flavoured coloured sugar. Unfortunately, I have no photo of that store or the Fat Man, but this scene looks a bit familiar.


The Fat Man pulls out a tiny brown paper bag for each of us while we hem and haw over the choices. He never seems to be impatient, but once we’ve picked something, we can’t change our mind, so it’s important to get it right the first time. Do we get a one-inch jawbreaker for 2 pennies, which will last for a long time – the bonus is that layers of different colours are revealed as you suck on it – or do we get 3 much smaller gumballs for the same amount of money? Lik-m-Aid was a good choice because it could last for a very long time and it was sharable. It was often sold in packets of four flavours, side by side, so 4 friends could buy one packet and each would get a flavour: grape, orange, lime or cherry. 

 

Once you’d argued or traded your way to your favourite flavour, you all ripped open your packet, licked your finger, and stuck it in. Before long, your finger and your lips revealed your choice – green lips and fingertips were pretty spectacular! Later, Lik-m-Aids came in single packets which included a stick to lick. Your fingers stayed flesh-coloured.

Clutching our bags, we’d make our way to a back yard or playground and check out our riches, savouring the goodies one at a time. A trip to the Fat Man on the Corner could keep you out of an adult’s hair for many hours, so there may have been a method to Mr. B’s generosity.

After a jello-inspired trip down memory lane, imagine my delight a few days later when I walked into The Windmill, a store carrying Dutch supplies, and found a box of Cherry flavoured Lik-m-Aid on the counter. “Postdated,” read the sign. “Free. Help Yourself.” I did not need a second invitation, and in my favourite flavour, too. They’ve changed the name and the graphics, but in fine print, it tells you they used to be called Lik-m-Aid. They’re new and improved: now the stick is a candy stick, so after you’re finished licking up all the sugar, you can chow down on the stick. I must confess, I did use my finger for a while, for old times sake!

 One thing I learned in my course is that memory is notoriously unreliable. You are so sure of something that lives in your memory, but it turns out that you have actually created a story around the little snippet stored in your brain and the story may not be true at all.

I’m pretty sure that in the case of Lik-em-Aid, I’m not making it up. I have the red finger to prove it!


PS: I found this photo of my sister and me licking giant suckers gifted to us by visitors. We were living on the top floor of an old mansion that had been converted into apartments. It was steaming hot that summer, and we used to sit out on the fire escape outside our kitchen window, where this photo was taken. Oh, the memories! I'm glad I have the photos to confirm what I think I remember.



Tuesday, 29 December 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: Looking at Normal

The week that follows Christmas and Boxing Day may just be my favourite week of the year. The busy-ness of Christmas preparations, which often flows over into Boxing Day, is finished. On the calendar, there is nothing marked as “to do” – just enjoy each day with the gifts that it brings.

At our home, Al, Danielle and I are doing just that. A giant crossword puzzle with over 300 clues hangs on the wall in the hallway. We pause as we pass it and try to fill in a few more clues. The 1000 piece Christmas jigsaw is laid out on a table; it may get finished by the end of January! I indulged my enjoyment of baking by making cinnamon rolls one day, and Apple Coffee Cake another. We ordered a platter of Greek food for Danielle’s birthday dinner (my baby is 39! Can you believe it?) and there’s leftovers enough for another day. A grab-bag of books from the library keep me reading past midnight in the delicious quiet of a sleeping home. Phone calls and emails remind us that we are blessed with friends and family, and with the wonder of Zoom we are able to connect and see them too, playing games together as we would if they were all here.


Which they aren’t. That’s the hard part of this year, isn’t it? I miss the hugs, the spontaneous laughter, the visits with friends, the family walks through our wonderful forest next door. I miss the freedom of making a spur-of-the-moment decision to eat out, or go to a movie, or go bowling. I miss snuggling up with a little one to share a story book or two or three. But to be honest, not all is sweetness and light at any Christmas, with its attendant busy-ness, or when a big family gathers in an enclosed space for several days...there may be tension, noise, messiness, the disappointment of unrealistic unmet expectations, frustration and utter weariness that leaves one longing to retreat to a place far away, and stay there forever. Those are the trade-offs. I know whereof I speak. I’ll take the trade-offs in a heartbeat, but that’s not possible.

So here we are, at the end of another year, a year like no other in our recent memory. We have had to learn to act together, to take care of each other by masking, distancing, staying put, if we are going to survive. We must be calm, be safe, be kind, as our Dr. Bonnie keeps reminding us.

These rocks were piled together as a tribute to our health care workers.

 

We would like to have everything get back to normal, but, then again.. “Normal led to this,” as Ed Yong wrote in Atlantic in August. Our current model of economic growth, with deforestation, monocultures, rampant materialism and more, has led to lethal viruses moving around the world, jumping from animal hosts to human with ease. In our panic to control the virus, we haven’t thought very carefully about what led to it. We can’t return to business as usual. (https://www.isglobal.org/en/healthisglobal/-/custom-blog-portlet/a-pandemic-year-in-10-quotes/3098670/0)

It’s not over yet. In my optimistic moments, I get excited about the vaccines that will soon help us be safer, that will eradicate the virus once and for all. In my pessimistic moments, I mutter that we’re in it for the long haul, that when this virus is beaten into submission, another will pop up, and like a game of whack-a-mole, we’ll be in a constant state of war against insidious enemies. In a news story posted today, Michael Ryan, a senior W.H.O. official, warned that although the coronavirus pandemic has been “very severe,” it is “not necessarily the big one.” There may be more to come, unless we, as a world, change. Normal led to this.

What it means is that I have to rethink normal. We all do. What will this new normal look like? What do we have to give up, and what can we keep from that old pre-pandemic life? As a society, this will not be easy terrain to navigate. We love our creature comforts, our travel plans, our varied diets, our conveniences (order today, have it tomorrow), and everything else that goes with affluence and a global economy.

But perhaps we are looking at our post-Covid life from the wrong end of the telescope, magnifying what we will have to give up. Perhaps we have to minimize that view, and focus on something else. Maybe we need to put first things first. Instead of asking, “What do we have to give up?” perhaps we need to ask, “What can we keep? What are the givens that we don’t want to part with?” 

I googled “what are the most important things in life?” and found a plethora of results: Health. Purpose. Passion. Wellness. Education. Peace. Goals. Work. Family. Friendship. Love. Compassion. Community. Faith. Hope.... the list goes on. I wonder what’s on your list? I wonder if we could all take a step back instead of rushing ahead to “normal the way it used to be”, and figure out what’s the most important thing as we move on. I wonder what the world would look like if everyone did that.


And I know that “everyone” in the world begins with me.



Wednesday, 9 December 2020

View from the Crow’s Nest: We mark the days.


 

The Advent candle wall hangings are up on the wall again. It's that time of year.


The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming, arrival.” It’s a part of the church year that marks the time until we can celebrate Christmas, Jesus’ birthday. It’s a period of waiting.

And for those of us who are in the midst of the pandemic – which is the whole world, really – the word has a double meaning.

We are also waiting for the arrival of normalcy, when this pandemic is over. We are waiting for the arrival of the vaccine and holding our breath, hoping that Covid will not touch our family and our friends before then. We are waiting to feel the arms of those we love around us once again, when we can hug and kiss freely, when we can rock that newborn grandchild, or hold the hands of our beloved elders. We are waiting.

But until then, how do we pass the time? In the centuries before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were also waiting for the Messiah who had been promised by the prophets. How did they pass the time, marking off the days, weeks, months, years, centuries, and millenia?

From what I can tell, they kept on keeping on. Right foot, left foot, march. Breathe. Repeat. They sowed their crops, harvested the grapes, tended the sheep and goats, pressed the olives. They got married, had children, celebrated feasts, studied and learned at the feet of the teachers. They shared stories and encouraged each other – “just a little longer,” they said. “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice ... just for today... and be glad in it.” They had a life.

And so do we. It may not be the life we would like, but it is the life we have. And so we keep on keeping on  – mask on, mask off, 6 feet of distance, washing hands over and over, staying put and waiting.

There are times that we are tired of it all. We experience the darkest hour of the night, when we cannot see any glimmer of light and promise. We are at the bottom of the covid coaster, and there doesn’t seem to be any way up. 



Ah, but there are other days when we put one foot in front of the other, and all goes well. We finish a project, have a great conversation over Skype with a grandchild, pick up a good book at the library, listen to "The Messiah" curled up on our sofa all afternoon, see a dear friend coming up the sidewalk to have a distanced conversation outside. Now we are riding high on the covid coaster. We experience brightness, a lightness that keeps us going for a while again.

And that, dear ones, is how we will get through this. “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.” And we will encourage each other, make the phone calls that give someone joy, tend our houseplants and scrub our floors (not too often, though!), decorate for Christmas even if nobody is coming. We will remember that in less than two weeks, the longest dark day will be past and we’ll be heading to the light. We will finish half-forgotten projects, share books, send each other funny cartoons on FB, give generously to those who are less fortunate...well, the list goes on. If you are so inclined, please share in the Comments section how you are marking off the days and I will pass on your stories in future blogs.

There are two things I want to share with you, that have helped me mark the days this fall. For years, the Resident Sweetie and I have been involved with a committee that organizes a display of Nativity sets at our church, usually held at the beginning of December. 

 


We tried to make it work again this year, but rising cases of Covid put the kibosh on that. Instead, the church encouraged us to create a YouTube recording of a virtual visit to the display. You can view it here by accessing our church website at www.cvpc.ca You’ll find a link there. Enjoy the photos, music, stories and more. Covid, it turns out, has a silver lining: now we can share this event with an audience that stretches around the world. If you enjoy this virtual visit, please share the link with others who might enjoy it too.

The second project I’ve been working on is a fun one. Our granddaughter Grace turned six in November, and we gave her a Playmobil nativity set as a gift. 

 


(Of course, we would!) But we kept the wise men and the camel back. Now the wise men are making their way to Bethlehem (aka Nanaimo, where Grace lives), and we are photographing their journey every day, and telling a story to go with it. If you wish to follow Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar and Miranda (the camel), check out the FB page Wise Men’s Quest for the Star. (https://www.facebook.com/Wise-Mens-Quest-for-the-Star-105763731375753/?view_public_for=105763731375753)
You’ll have to scroll down all the way to Nov. 29, when I posted for the first time, and then work your way up. If you have grandchildren who might enjoy this story, pass on the link. Grace’s parents share this ongoing story with her and her 2 year old brother Mitchell every second or third day, and Grace often wants to hear the whole story from the very beginning. That makes me smile, and it keeps the covid coaster traveling on the upside.

Blessings to you as you mark the days traveling through advent to the light.  




Monday, 5 October 2020

View From the Crow's Nest: I remember the most important thing

October? Already? Nooooo! It’s going to be a long winter. How will we survive?

My mom and dad were post-war immigrants who survived and thrived even though they were isolated from family and friends. In my previous blog I wrote about how they survived tough times, hoping they could give me some pointers on surviving and thriving in this Pandemic. 

For them, communication – in mom and dad’s case, letters – was key. It reminded them of the people they loved, who supported and encouraged them. I also noted that mom didn’t complain much – instead, she focused on what she did have. She turned trash into treasure. I read a tone of triumph in these letters – hardships would not defeat them. People who have survived tough times have lessons to teach us. 

As I wrote that blog, I felt very close to my parents, especially to mom, as though she were looking over my shoulder. Usually, after I’ve written a blog, I let it sit for a day or two before I posted it, but this time, I felt so good about it that I posted it right away. The RS read it and said it even brought a few tears to his eyes. I was pleased...but I should have known better. 

I was getting ready for bed when I “heard” Mom’s voice. I guess she wasn’t done with me yet. “Jessica!” (It’s not even my real name, but that’s what she called me when she wanted to draw something to my attention.) “You forgot to write about the most important thing.” I could almost see her finger waving in my face. Oh boy, I was in trouble. 

She was right. Mom and dad would have agreed that communication and creativity were keys to their thriving in a new land, but first and foremost, it was always about God. “God has directed our paths,” a frequent phrase in her letters, was a variation of the text they’d chosen for their wedding sermon: “God will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:8.) 

This wedding text, done in calligraphy, came with mom and dad to Canada.  


 
The wedding text hung in the living room of their first home in Smithville, Ontario, and in every home after that. It is in the top right corner of this photo, which must have been taken at Christmas, judging from the sprigs of spruce decorating the room.

Okay, mom, I’m sorry, I’ll change that...later. I was getting ready for bed, and since it was late, I figured I could add God’s role to my blog in the morning. After all, who reads a blog at midnight? The fix would wait till I was ready. 

So I went to bed. Only to wake up several hours later knowing I’d better do it mom’s way if I wanted to get a good night of rest. So 1:30 a.m. found me sitting at my computer, inserting another paragraph – the most important key to their survival. 

I have tried very hard in my 7 years of blogging to not “preach a sermon.” I know my readers range all over the map in terms of spirituality. I respect that. In my own spiritual journey, I also have ranged all over the map. The older I get, the more I know that I don’t know much for sure anymore. It’s such a relief, to tell you the truth, not to have to defend my version of God. I write about God occasionally, because the Creator is real to me, but I know that I also have readers that don’t believe in a Higher Power. You voice and your beliefs are important to me, too; they help me to stretch and grow. For sure, I hope that my musings will stimulate spiritual growth, whatever that means to you. 

And what does spirituality mean, anyway? I did a little research, and found this: “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life." (https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-spirituality

There's also this quote: “...the spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, and strives for answers about the infinite, and comes into focus when the person faces emotional stress, physical illness, or death.” 

Ahhhh! That’s US, isn’t it? All of us in this together, facing emotional stress, possible illness and death. This isn’t just about surviving day to day to day to day to day...we can figure that out – where to get the toilet paper, how to get tested when we feel ill, how to keep ourselves busy. But we need more than that to thrive and find joy. 

To catch a vision of the big picture, to place ourselves inside that picture, and to recognize that we are connected to everything ever created (and, for me, the One who created it), that is what is going to sustain us in the long run. It’s about mystery -- how we human beings originated in stardust, how the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico can impact the weather in Canada, how a network of microscopic roots in soil communicate with each other for the benefit of the plants. 

 

 

It’s about million-year old rocks breaking down into the sand on our favourite beach, about galaxies ever expanding, about people willingly laying down their lives for a belief that's sacred to them.

 

These are unfathomable mysteries, and these mysteries are what propels us in our spiritual search. Looking at the big picture changes our perspective. We are, after all, not the centre of the universe. We belong to each other.

Spirituality, says the aforementioned website, is one of 6 components that contribute to our wellbeing. But for mom and dad, it was the most important thing. (That’s why mom shook her finger in my face: how could I have forgotten that?) It is what got them through tough times. For me, too, it is the foundation from which I view the world. 

I certainly don’t have all the answers, so I take comfort from these words of contemplative priest Thomas Merton: 


 

And so we move into October, one step at a time. 

There are many interesting and helpful resources about spirituality and emotional wellbeing (which are closely connected) on this website: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/

Friday, 18 September 2020

View From the Crow's Nest: I listen to mom

 In my last blog, I wrote about nostalgia. This week, I’m in the throes of it.

I’ve been translating my mom’s letters which she wrote to her family in Holland when they first arrived in Canada in October, 1949. My grandfather saved these letters and returned them to us years later. What a blessing!

I am using these letters to write some family history, as well as telling my own story. Even though I have few memories of the three years we lived in our first home in Canada, I have heard and read the stories so often that they feel real to me.
 

This is the second letter they wrote to Holland, describing how they left the ship and had to make their way through New York to Grand Central Station to catch the train to Canada.

In the third letter she writes, I am 16 months old, and there’s a little sister on the way. We have moved into a drafty old farm house outside Smithville in Ontario. Dad is the hired man for a farmer who has his own dairy. They have only a little money, for sure not enough to buy a car. Their whole family is in Holland, so there’s no loving community to support them, no happy visits on special occasions. Dad’s income is $20 a month, 2 quarts of milk a day, the house in which they live, and as much firewood as they need. Electricity is unreliable, since it is on a line from the barn and dairy which gets first dibs, so brownouts happen often. No TV, radio, or phone. No refrigerator. No cabinets or counter in the kitchen. There are two bedrooms, but one is so cold that in wintertime ice forms on the walls and mold grows there as well,so we end up living in three rooms: the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom, all heated by a wood stove in the kitchen. 

 

The house, probably built in the 1800s, was very drafty.

I try to picture it – a young family with only rudimentary language skills in English, living in the boonies without a vehicle or communication devices and few amenities. It’s a picture of isolation, economic hardship, loneliness, lack of freedom to do what they'd like, community experienced only at a distance.

Does this sound familiar? This week, I once again read and heard in the news about the deprivations imposed on us as a society by the pandemic – isolation, economic hardship, loneliness, lack of freedom to do what we want, community experienced only at a distance. I confess, I whine about this too. And yet, Mom and dad had been through something like this 70 years ago. How did they handle it?

The first clue, which is a phrase I find in more than one of her letters, are the words, "God has directed our paths, and we trust in this." Mom and dad were looking at the big picture, the long story. Their strong faith helped them survive many disappointments and difficulties. It's something I need to remember when I think this pandemic is NEVER going to end. We are living in a small moment in time; this is not the whole story. That change in perspective makes all the difference. Another clue is that Mom wrote letters, faithfully, every week, to her family for many, many years. So many of her letters begin with these words: “It’s Sunday afternoon, and I have a few minutes of peace to begin a letter to you..” and on the heels of that, her expressed thankfulness for the family letters that we received every week. Immigrants were isolated, but letters were a life-line. In it, they could tell the news, good and bad; they could express their worries and anxieties; they could even tell their family about the loneliness they experienced. Mom wrote, “When I got your letter this week with all the news, I confess I really wished I could be there with you for a little while; I felt sad. But then after a while, I recalled all that we have here, and the new life that lies ahead of us.”

It’s all about communication. In our day and age, we have so many lines of communication open to us, with email and social media, telephones and newsletters, even socially distanced coffees on the patio with friends and family. We have so many opportunities to share our stories, our joys and sorrows, to reach out to those who are lonely. I read again those lines of mom: “I felt sad. But then after a while, I recalled all that we have here, and the new life that lies ahead of us.”

The second clue is that I don’t read much complaining about the things Mom did not have. Instead, I read things like this: “There are a lot of apples laying under the tree. I picked them up and made applesauce. Otherwise, they’d just go to waste.” 

“Mrs. P (the minister’s wife) gave me a man’s jacket made of tweed. I took it apart and made a coat and hat for Jelleke (that’s me!). It will keep her warm this winter.” 

this is the little coat mom made for me.

 

And this, in the springtime: “For the first time in my life, I planted a garden! It will be so good to eat the fresh vegetables, like spinach, potatoes and beans, that we grow ourselves.” And this: “The neighbours slaughtered a pig, and were going to throw out the head and the trotters. Imagine that! We got a pail full of those cuts they didn’t want, and we will make head cheese...”

So yes, now I’m in the throes of nostalgia and walking in my mom’s footsteps. It’s one way to cope with the pandemic. My children and grandchildren don’t need warm winter clothing, but they do need masks, and I am their production line.

All these beautiful ladies were off to school this week, suitably dressed!
 

This morning, I brought out the canning kettle and made applesauce, using some of the apples that had fallen on the ground. I took the garlic, onions, zucchini and tomatoes that our garden produced and made tomato sauce. 


The ladle and perhaps the funnel, too, were my mom's.
 

I draw the line at head cheese...but then again, I don’t know of anyone slaughtering a pig!


So, Mom, it’s been so good hanging out with you today, you, looking over my shoulder and reminding me of the important things. I listened, Mom. You’ve taught me well. I recall all that we have here, and all that lies ahead of us, and I am thankful. 

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I take a walk down memory lane.

My mind has been wandering lately, sorting through memories of simpler times.


As the news keeps telling us, “we’ve never been through anything like this before.” It’s a perfect storm of pandemic fears, political squawking, racial unrest, and climate-change emergencies... enough, enough, we cry, our hands held out as a shield.

We want to go back to simpler times.

And so, in our imaginations, we go back. We ask each other, “Remember when...?” and we are off and running down the road called nostalgia, which means, literally, nostos (from the Gk. return home) and algos (pain) – a painful longing to return home – to better times.

Some of it is nostalgia for things we took for granted just 6 months ago: Remember when you could go grocery shopping without a mask? Remember when the libraries were wide open? Remember when you could take a holiday trip that was limited only by the time and money you had? Remember when you could hug a friend?

And some of it may be nostalgia for a time when we were children and could view the world as a great place to explore instead of a source of anxiety. Remember when you hopped on your bike and rode through the neighbourhood alone without worrying about stranger-danger? 


 

Remember swinging back and forth over the water on an old tire at the town swimming hole? 

Or our nostalgia may lead us back to times when our children were younger.

 


or our parents were still alive

 

or we lived in a different home or town. Ah, yes, nostalgia. And how does that make you feel, as you lean back into those memories? Good or bad?

Nostalgia used to be considered a mental disease – it was a topic of serious medical study. People were placed in asylums, and even died of it. In retrospect, academics now believe nostalgia was misdiagnosed: it was a form of PTSD, which affected mostly people forcibly displaced from their homes – soldiers, housemaids, refugees, for instance. The cure was simple: send the sufferers home again. But often that was not possible, just as it is not possible for us to go back to the way it used to be.

These days, nostalgia is again the subject of serious study. “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” reports the New York Times. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories.”

This is because when we travel back in imagination to simpler times, or memorable events shared with others, we end up with a stronger feeling of belonging. We remember cherished experiences, and that reminds us our lives have continuity and meaning. 

In this photo, for instance, I am sitting in the middle of a gathering of four of mom's siblings and spouses at the occasion of their 50th anniversary. We belonged to each other. We still do, even if five of them are no longer with us. I am so grateful for this memory.

The research shows that even if subjects were depressed and sad before they indulged in nostalgia, they felt more connected, happier, and optimistic after they’d spent some time sorting through memories. We begin to have a different perspective on the troubles we are going through. We remember that life has not always been like this, and it won’t always be like this. We have hope that we can return to better times. To quote Charlie Chaplin – the “Little Tramp” – who was perpetually down on his luck: “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.”

Nostalgia: a prescription for sadness, loneliness and anxiety in these tough days. Take a dose several times a week, say the experts, and you will feel better! You can even play it forward by creating good memories today that will provide raw materials for nostalgia in the future. Building “nostalgia-to-be memories”, it’s called.

In this time of pandemic, I’ve noticed more of that going on. I see parents taking evening walks with their children, and families sitting at the beach together. Teenagers are having a great time jumping off rocks at the local swimming hole or tubing down the river. They are building memories. I see a local senior’s group spaced out in the shade of a tree at a local park, sipping from their thermoses while sharing news, gossip, and yes, probably memories of better times. Early this morning, out on my walk, I saw grandparents playing at the playground with a whole passel of grandchildren, including one toddler still in his sleeper, wearing rubber boots. There's always one in the crowd who doesn't want to get dressed. It called up some nostalgic memories for me, and yes, it felt good!

 
We  love this photo, which was recreated several times over the years, only with more clothes on the young fellow in the green chair. And since then, two more grandies take part in the traditional photo.

 
 How about you? Do you have some nostalgic memories that could make your day?