Saturday, 30 July 2016

A Lesson from the Princess

When you get around to shaking the family tree, sooner or later out tumbles a  “character” – the unique family member that makes you laugh out loud or shake your head in despair, someone like Calvin in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, or Rumpole’s wife Hilda whom he called “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Family characters have a way of making you sit up and take notice. You feel more alive, more challenged, more on your toes in their presence.

I have just finished spending 10 days with a little Schut family character. We’ll call her She Who Will Be Heard. As the youngest of three girls in a very busy, focused and vocal family, this six year old has learned to express herself in no uncertain terms. She has strong opinions on food, clothes, and people, and isn’t afraid to voice them. “That’s weird,” she says, looking at a highly-tattooed woman sitting beside me. “Why would someone cover their bodies with tattoos, Oma?” With arms akimbo and eyes flashing, at least once a day, she tells the world, “That’s not fair!” – and often she’s right. It’s just not fair that the bigger kids can run faster and be better at games than she is. If she could rule the world, things would be different. Because not everyone listens when she speaks, she’s gotten into the habit of leaving little notes around the house with messages or questions, such as, “Why do boy rock stars have long hair?” and a list of fat-free foods such as marshmelows, and tree top gumys (I think she was creating a menu for the family!) She Who Will Be Heard suits her exactly, but we’ll call her Princess for short.

She is six-going-on-16 where smarts are concerned, and she has her Oma wrapped around her little finger. Oma knows it, but Oma’s heart is captured, so she’s helpless. Well, you'd be in love with her too if you found this note on your pillow when you woke up from a nap:

Besides, Oma has also learned that if she listens to this little one, she will learn lots.

Seeing the world through a six-year-old’s eyes is a distinct privilege. The basic premise on which my princess  operates goes like this: WOW! This world is exciting! HEY, LOOK! HEY, LISTEN! (But not necessarily to adults who shout commands and warnings.) HEY! LET’S TRY THAT! (Which is why the adults are shouting commands and warnings.)

Last week my princess taught me something I hope I never forget, even when I am ancient and feeble and yes, forgetful. It happened when I took the five grandchildren to the swimming pool all by myself. (The RS doesn’t like swimming pools – “you gotta get wet there.”) Sometimes Omas can drop their grandkids off and sit and read while the lifeguards take over, but if you bring a 6 year old, the rules say you must be within an arm’s length of the child at all times. Oh, well,  I like swimming.

The other four children were totally independent and having a blast. I, however, was figuratively tethered to my princess, who loves pools and swimming almost as much as she loves being heard. I had my job cut out for me – there was even one heart-stopping moment when I lost sight of her as she chased a ball – or was it a tube? Or a flutter-board? Or all three? Sure, why not all three?

Well, we had fun. We tossed the ball, raced on flutter-boards, took rides on the tube, sat in the hot-tub (phew, thanks, I needed the rest), stood under the sprinkler, jumped the waves, and did it all over again. By this time the other four were jumping off the diving board and the starting blocks in the ‘big people pool’, making giant splashes and loud screeches of delight. The princess and I decided to go and watch for a while.

“Would you like to try that too?” I foolishly asked. “If you are there to catch me,” she retorted. So I had to jump into the deep end and be there for her. The jump was successful, but the princess decided jumping into deep water wasn’t her thing. Once was enough. “That’s okay,” I said as we walked back to the hot tub, “we can try it again next year, and maybe you’ll like it better.” She nodded, but was uncharacteristically quiet.

We found a seat in the warm water, and then she turned to me with an “Aha! I get it!” look on her face. “Oma, every year, as you get a little older, you get to try new things,” she said excitedly. “Each year, you get to try something new. Isn’t that great and wonderful?”

Ah, yes, it is. Yes, it is.

Wow! Look! Listen! Experience! Try something new. Get excited. And grow, keep growing until you’ve used up all your time here. And make sure that old people who sometimes forget that – like your Oma – hear the message loud and clear.

Thanks, Princess!

We rented a suite which featured this amazing Jacuzzi tub. I invited the RS to join me, but he said no ("you have to get wet, don't you?) My princess and I had a lovely time together.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Back Home from the Edge

I am doing something I haven't done thus far in all the posts I've posted here: I'm writing this on the fly, no time to reflect or change things. That's because I'm cheating -- I'm giving you a link to a website that is pretty right on for where we are this week.

You see, the kids have come home to celebrate our anniversary (45!) and here we are, back from the edge and at home, and I am writing this with major interruptions: "Oma, oops, sorry, I broke this." "Hey, Mom, I have a rip in my shorts, do you think you can fix it?" "Oma, that doggy quilt I'm using, can I take it home?" "The dishwasher is loaded, which cycle should I use?" A little naked girl, just out of the tub, is trying to be quiet so Oma can work, but it's hard -- so she's talking to herself, a long dramatic monologue which is very interesting, and stops me from being deeply introspective (Okay, I know, that's a good thing -- it's balancing other parts of my life. Besides, there's another discussion going on downstairs that sounds interesting, too, and I should finish this up pronto so I can get my 2 cents worth into the mix.)

We mostly have leftovers for supper, the floors are covered with damp footprints, there are suitcases in the hallway, and the retractable screen door is off its track. The counter is covered with dirty dishes more often than not because the dishwasher seems to be cranky. The garden hasn't had a good work-over for weeks, so the plants badly need a dead-heading and/or are crazily flopping over. Our home, in a word, is scruffy. And that's a good thing, if you read the suggested post. Scruffy hospitality is a good thing. Let's practice more of it.

Here's to life, in all its messy glory.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

More Thoughts from the Edge

I did get a little project done, after all. Here's life on the edge, which became the front facing of grandson Solay's birthday card.

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from my oldest grandgirl. She had an assignment due and wanted to ask me some questions – questions about  wisdom... “because I think you are wise and would know the answers,” she said, then hesitated a beat, before adding, “and you’re old.”

Ha! Okay, my dear, I will cop to being old, but as to wise? Not so much.

Last week’s blog, about the push-pull emotional relationship we feel between relaxation and guilt, was an easy one to write. Guilt, I’m finding, is a story everyone can relate to – a universal experience. Saying thank-you and living joyfully helps us overcome the guilt.

This week, however, it’s a different story. It too is about a universal condition: pain, the pain you feel when people you love go through tough times. Nobody is exempted from that kind of pain unless they’ve opted out of the human race: someone you love is seriously ill, or your children are going through a crisis, or the money is gone and the bills are due, or addiction is destroying a life, a marriage is falling apart  ... well, you can fill in your own blank. We, too, experienced some of that pain this week.  And wisdom fails me.

It would be so nice to just bury the pain, to deny its existence: “Yep, that’s life, take it on the chin and move on. It doesn’t hurt so much if you keep moving.” Or, perhaps, to find a quick and easy answer, a glib cliche or a Bible text that whitewashes the pain: “God doesn’t close a door unless he opens a window. Look around, you will find a hidden opportunity in this situation.” Or, we could get trapped in the pain, until it becomes a way of life: “What else could I have expected? Life’s a bummer and then you die. Suck it up, sweet pea, there’s more coming down the pike.”

The trouble with burying, or glossing over  pain, or getting trapped in it, is that these solutions stifle growth. Unacknowledged pain belittles us, keeps us smaller and tighter and more shrivelled so that we cannot freely become all that we could be. It is a thorn in the side, a piece of grit in our souls, always there, marring the possibilities still waiting in your life.

Unfortunately I have no wise solution to my pain. Fortunately, there are wiser folks around who may help. I open a book by Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, that gives me food for thought. Beuchner has been through his share of pain – a father who committed suicide, a beloved daughter who almost died of anorexia. And he’s much older than I am!

Rather than burying our pain, or glossing it over, or getting trapped in it, Buechner suggests we become stewards of our pain. Originally a steward was someone who was responsible for, took care of, protected, the goods of his master. For instance, he might take care of his master’s money and invest it for profits, or might supervise the running of the farm so that in the master’s absence, it thrived.

In the same way, says Buechner, we are stewards of life, with all its joys and with all its pain.
life on the edge: morning  

life on the edge: evening. Same scene, different colours. Like life.
Life has been handed to us as a gift, and we have the freedom to choose how to use this life. “What do we do with these mixed lives we’ve been given, with these hands that we’ve been unequally dealt?...” asks Buechner. How can we be good stewards of the lives we’ve been given, and in particular, the pain?

As good stewards, Buechner suggests, we might consider the word trade – something a good steward would do when looking after the master’s goods. To trade is “to give what we have, in return for what we need. [In life] what we have is essentially what we are, and what we need is essentially each other.”  We need each other, especially in the painful times.

It’s very easy to trade our joys – joy overflows, and infects others. Not so easy to share our pain, and let others support and help us.  Yet in this act of sharing and trading, we open ourselves up to the possibility of growth.

He writes. “Perhaps more than anything else, the universal experience of pain is what makes us all the brothers and sisters, the parents and children, of each other, and the story of one of us is the story of all of us...We are never more in touch with hope than we are [in pain], if only the hope of another human presence to be with us and for us.”

We share our pain with one or two people, and they listen; they lightly touch your shoulder; their eyes reflect your pain and you know you are not alone. Someone, hesitantly, shares their pain with you, and you have the opportunity to grow in compassion, to grow in your understanding of how we are all linked in this thing called life.

“What is perhaps most precious about pain is that if it doesn’t destroy us, it can confer on us a humanity that needs no words to tell of it, and that can help others become human even as they can help us,” Buechner concludes.

Buechner’s words have given me much to think about. They are, perhaps, not the last words in pain-management, but they are wise words.

I won’t have a lot of time to think, however: this week is the week of much joy, as some of our kids and grandkids hang out with us out here by the sea and we celebrate our 45th anniversary. Pain and joy: life is a mixed bag, for sure...and I hope I will be a good steward of it.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Thoughts from the Edge

So here we are, having hauled out trailer out to the ocean’s edge once again. For the last five years, this has been our favourite go-to spot for summer camping. The kids and grandkids schedule their outings to the island around the dates we booked; they love it here, too, and think of it as their “cottage” experience. It’s lovely and relaxing.

There was nothing relaxing, however, about packing up the trailer. What to take? What to leave behind? Should I take the sewing machine? Yes, of course. Which projects shall I finish out there, to contribute to Project UP (Unclog the Pipes?) How many books should I pack, and which ones? I’ve been studying memoir-writing, so probably those books should come. (The inner debate is truly silly, since our campsite is so close to home, I could go home anytime I want to get what’s missing.)  Still, I want to get it right.

A friend  phones in the middle of our packing, expecting to find me in happy pre-vacation mode. Instead she hears my harried voice on the other end of the line. “What’s got you all in a knot?” she asks. “Oh, I can’t decide what to pack. I just want to take it all, and then some, just in case,” I confess. “Oh, Jessie,” she gently chides. “Therein lies madness.” Yup. Busted.

The truth is, were I to admit it: I think I really don’t deserve a vacation. A vacation is for people who have been working hard and been productive, and that, assuredly, has not been me in the last months. Project UP is in limbo; I got a few unfinished projects done, but the rest are staring me in the face. My latest attempt at a fabric art piece is also stalled, hanging on the design wall, whispering doubts into my ears and my heart. I haven’t even been blogging regularly, for goodness sake.

That’s why I’m packing “projects” to finish up out here – as though if I get something worthwhile done, I’ll deserve our vacation. I’ve been telling myself that being out at the sea will bring me renewed vision and energy for these undone things.

As my friend said, “Therein lies madness.”

It doesn’t happen, of course. We’ve been here for more than a week, and there have been days when we had a schedule. But there have also been days spent totally at the campsite doing nothing “worthwhile.” We’ve slept in, walked, read voraciously, played games, and sat by the side of the sea looking at nothing in particular and everything in general.

No projects completed. Nothing ticked off our list. Nothing that says, “There! You’ve redeemed yourself! Now go and take it easy.”

This message – “You don’t deserve it unless you first do x, y, and z...”  – has been like a ghost child tip-toeing around behind me for much of my life. As the oldest child of an oldest child, I’ve taken on the classic traits of a first-born (as revealed in many studies): responsible, achievement-oriented, conscientious. (So boring!) And as a child of first-generation immigrants, I had the strong values of  hard work and getting ahead bred into my bones. A vacation? A rest? You’d better make sure that the work gets done first.

So here I sit, by the sea. It’s beautiful, even if the weather is cool and cloudy. We’ve seen an otter play, then pull himself out of the water and run into the woods. We’ve seen a pair of loons, a pair of kingfishers, and a pair of pileated woodpeckers. A heron, surrounded by a flotilla of gulls, has stood in the shallows, waiting patiently for supper. A mama deer with her two tiny fawns walked across the neighbour’s campsite. A pair of merlins watched their fledglings go for maiden voyages overhead, screeching encouragement. An eagle dipped for fish before our eyes.

We notice that the trailing blackberries in the roadside ditches are ripening nicely. Our grandchildren roast marshmallows at the campfire. We read aloud to each other, discussing big ideas. I take the time to ponder the question of why I feel guilty when I’m not doing anything productive.

Do I deserve a vacation? Am I entitled? In that way lies madness. We don’t get what we get – good or bad – because we deserve it. This time of rest, reflection, enjoyment, play: it’s  grace, after all, a gift. And I will gratefully take it with open hands and heart, and enjoy.