Monday, 25 December 2017

Disappointment at Christmas?

It’s been a weird few weeks, a Christmas season like we’ve never quite experienced before.

Lately, my facebook feed and e-mails have been full of Christmas wishes from family and friends. I wanted to respond, but things got a little busy, so we decided to post New Year’s wishes instead. Instead, you are getting my first-ever Christmas blog.

The story started last week. We decided to make a 2-day run for the mainland to catch our three grandgirls in their extravaganza Christmas program. Sure, there was the little matter of a cold coming on, but the Tradex had been rented so all the grandmas and grandpas and omas and opas could attend. The youngest was going to sing a duet in front of 1500 people – how could we miss that?

Well, we did. On Monday, we got to Abbotsford, but on Tuesday, the day of the performance, it began to snow. Whiteout conditions prevailed. The performance was postponed and my cold came on like gangbusters – probably a flu bug in a minor strain. So we headed home again. We watched Aerin’s performance on you-tube instead of live. What a disappointment.

We moved on... by Thursday evening, the bug seemed to have disappeared, and there was much to do. We knew that Saturday and Sunday the kids would be dropping by to play games, open stockings, have a nice meal together. On Monday we had invited other guests to come for a Christmas meal while our married sons attended their in-law gatherings. Eight around the Christmas table: nice! Gives you warm fuzzies thinking about it.

Saturday morning, the phone rang. One of our anticipated guests had gone to hospital overnight, and they were cancelling. Fortunately, the condition righted itself quickly in the next few days, so that was a blessing, although a bit disappointing for us that our good friends wouldn’t be able to join us.  However, we still had a house full of family and would have 6 people around the Christmas table on Christmas day.

Ho, ho, ho: the best laid plans, etc. Saturday afternoon, while making dinner for the family, the bug returned with a vengeance, out of the blue: a heat flush, a near faint, and a run for the bathroom. While the family gathered around the table, I lay in bed shivering and feeling bad. What a disappointment! 

When I let our remaining Christmas guests know about the bug at our house, they gracefully bowed out. Can you blame them? We did have a good Christmas eve – the cook was out of commission, but the “show” went on. I watched mostly from the sidelines, my accustomed role abandoned. Not nice.

Disappointment at Christmas: not an unfamiliar theme, I’m thinking. Rarely do holidays meet our built-up expectations, do they? Some people feel so sad because they are missing someone special on this day. Others have broken relationships that make everything less than perfect. You’re alone, and everyone else seems to be having a good time. The Christmas eve service was a noisy shambles instead of a reverent time of reflection. The gift you were hoping for? It was a slow-cooker instead of the spa-date. We overspend, or overcommit, or are overly busy, or overly lonely,  and then, overly exhausted. Major and minor disappointment all around. My short story of disappointment is really nothing compared to many other stories around the world – stories of refugees, hunger, violence, war, broken politics. It’s a mess out there.

What to say about that?

We managed to make it to a Christmas eve service at a church with a balcony, where the Schut clan sat alone, not spreading my germs to the rest of the congregation. It was good to be there, to sing the carols, to watch the children act out the timeless story, to light candles. But especially good to hear the message, which was startlingly appropriate: Christmas is not about nice. God doesn’t need a nice story, decorated with all the trappings we’ve put on Christmas. Christmas is a messy story about homelessness, hopelessness, violence, political brokenness. Whatever we’re dealing with, it was real back then, too.

Instead,  Christmas is about God with us, entering our lives to show what love was all about. It’s about love made flesh with us, in whatever situation we find ourselves: disappointed, sad, alone, anxious, overstimulated, less-than-perfect, sick with the flu. Not just at Christmas, but everyday. Always has been, always will be.

May you experience that Love, the love that came down, in this wonderful season that disappoints and thrills, that is filled with warm fuzzies and cold shoulders, sickness and health, chaos and caring, joy and tears.   

The advent candle wreath: candles of hope, joy, peace and love -- the gifts of  Christmas, surrounding the Christ candle.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Peace in the Valley

As I begin writing this, it is 10:24 in the evening. I am bushed, but happy. There’s been a lot of hustle and bustle here, but now there is peace.

This is the weekend that our church held its 4th annual display of Nativity sets, and the RS and I are deeply involved in that. The logistics are mind-boggling for my little old non-math-oriented brain: 217  nativity scenes, lent by 50-60 lenders, representing more than 3 dozen countries; 500 visitors; 100 + children who are engaged in crafts, dress-up, and treasure hunts; musicians to be scheduled; scores of volunteers to set up the display, then take down and pack up. There’s lots of preparation – our committee has been meeting since the beginning of October. And then,  all in the space of three days, it happens, and it’s over. 

It’s a labour of love, but that doesn’t mean that all is sweetness and light. There are days that I wonder why we do this, and then, when the actual event happens, we know it was worth it. But isn’t that the way it is with life – most meaningful and fulfilling things take some effort? 

Yes, the rewards are many. Here are some photos: they speak louder than words.

There’s the little fellow, who, upon hearing the story of God coming down to earth and being laid in a box of hay in a barn, exclaims, “But that’s not right! He should be born in a beautiful palace!” There’s another little guy whose eyes are filled with wonder as he looks at a simple scene carved from olive wood. I tell him the set comes from the same country Jesus was born in, and he asks, “Is that across the ocean?” When I nod, he says, “Well, that’s my very favourite set. It’s the most real!” There are busloads of seniors who come pushing their walkers; they wouldn’t miss this annual outing for the world. There are first-time visitors who gasp when they see all the sets. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Oh, wow!” There are families who dress up in costumes and pose around the manger for photos: that’s a new wrinkle on the annual picture with Santa! There are people who tell me, “This brings tears to my eyes.” All of them are meeting Jesus in one way or another: through the eyes, the ears, hospitality and laughter, the experience of seeing that old, old story again for the very first time, as expressed through the artistic skills of people around the world.

But now the hullabaloo is over, and at the Schut ranch, all is calm – or it will be when the boxes and crates are sorted and put away for another year. For me,  the icing on the Christmas cake was that my friend Joy posted a meaningful blog that I think you might enjoy reading, one that gives you food for thought as we light the candle of peace in this second week of Advent leading up to Christmas (it even involves quilting.) I wish you peace from our home to yours.

Read Joy's blog about Patchwork Peace at

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Creature of Habit

Habits, schmabits. Hmmphh. For me, the word “habit” is associated with negative emotions.

When the word pops up in conversation, I feel guilt. I have bad habits. I shouldn’t have bad habits. For example, I’m checking my FB and e-mail way too much. It’s wasting time. I need to change this habit. Associated with that,  a sense of doom. I know I need to get rid of my bad habits, but that’s easier said than done. I’m going to fail. I know it. But I decide: from now on, FB and email once in the morning, once at night. And then there’s frustration, because I park myself in front of the computer and before you know it, presto-bingo, there are the FB and email screens open already. Why do I do this? Bad, bad habit. This is the song that never ends – go back to the beginning of this paragraph, my friends, and you will see what I mean.

Then I do some positive self-talk (another one of my habits!) The self-talk goes something like this: “Habits are good for you. (Like cod-liver oil, replies my rebellious self.) Just think of all the good habits you already have in your life. (Right. I brush my teeth every night before I go to bed. I cook supper most nights. I do a Sudoku every morning, first thing, when I get up. Boring. Boring. Boring.) Habits keep people on track; people with good habits get way more done. Try it, you’ll like it. (Reluctantly, I buy this line of thinking. Only reluctantly. But why can’t I get good things done without resorting to a habit?)

I admit it: I have a hang-up about habits. My image of habits is one formed in my younger years. A habit is something you thoughtlessly do time after time, long after it’s no longer meaningful. (You always have tea with your breakfast; you always wear a hat to church; you always wash the kitchen floor on Saturday morning.)  And changing these lifelong habits is like setting off a bomb that rips apart the fabric of your life. Okay, I exaggerate – bad habit. But you get my drift.

I need an attitude change. Along comes a book called Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin, subtitled “Mastering the habits of our everyday lives.”

My impression of Ms. Rubin is that she is one strong woman with a mittful of wonderful habits which she is eager to sell me. There’s no time like right now to begin again to create good habits, she says.  She describes 4 different tendencies in people when it comes to mastering habits: The Upholder, the Obliger, the Questioner and the Rebel. Yup, I’m the questioner with strong shades of rebel. If people tell me that a certain habit is good for me (drink 8 glasses of water every day!) I will say, “Oh, really? Everybody should be doing this? Maybe 6 would be good enough? And can I count coffee and tea as part of that, too? Wine, perhaps?” The rebel part of me mutters under her breath, “Phooey! You’re not the boss of me.”

After showing me who I am (oh, really?), she proceeds to show me that different strokes work for different folks as far as forming good habits or battling bad ones are concerned. An Upholder only needs to be reminded of the good reasons behind a good habit, and she’s off and running. Guess what personality type Ms. Rubin is? The Obliger will do it because she doesn’t want to let anyone down, she wants to make sure everyone is happy. Guess what type of personality many, many women are? And me, the questioner verging on rebel? The questioner is pretty good at meeting inner expectations, but not so good at outer ones. Apparently, I’m the one who needs to dig deep inside myself to figure out her own best techniques. There’s no point in anyone telling me what’s good for me. That dog doesn’t hunt.

This is about as far as I’ve gotten in the book. (And I’ve already renewed it once, which shows you how much I am resisting thinking about this.) I turn the page, and there’s a quiz you can take – you won’t be graded on it, but it might reveal things about yourself that will help you. I like quizzes, especially ones with no right or wrong answers, which I would question, anyway.

The RS and I discuss some of the questions, and WHOA! a light bulb goes on. I’ve been bemoaning the fact that I have hardly written anything or done any fibre art in the last three months. I have plenty of reasons to trot out about why this is so: commitment to other involvements (hello, Obliger, my old friend. Still living here, eh?), lame excuses about needing big blocks of uninterrupted  time for these pursuits, distractions that lead me down dead-end rabbit trails, blah blah blah. Oh, yes, and checking FB and e-mail a dozen times a day might contribute to my lack of productiveness just a teeny weeny bit. You think, maybe?

But now I see the real reason: I have not made a habit of doing the things that give me the most pleasure and have sustained me.

Writing and creating art are the two things that I do to maintain an even keel in life. They are like air for my spirit, water for a thirsty soul.  But instead of supplying myself with a steady dose of necessary things, I have subconsciously thought of them as personal indulgences which I treat myself to when there’s time and opportunity. I used to put these creative pursuits at the top of my list, but  – dare I say it? – I’ve gotten out of the habit.

Thanks, Ms. Rubin. This questioner is on her way to answering her own questions about habits. Writing and making art: making these part of my daily routines will leave less time for the bad habits I would like to eliminate from life.

One last thing, Ms. Rubin: the rebel in me will not call these routines a habit – that word is too mundane for such imporant work. Habit might be a good enough word for brushing your teeth, but not for art and writing. I will call them practices – the things you do to stay in tune with life.

And I’ll follow your advice: I’ll begin NOW.

And I did. First I wrote this blog, and then I pulled out the beginnings of a new piece of work that had been circulating in my imagination for the last weeks, but I was waiting for the right time to begin. NOW is the right time!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remember ... and then what?

Today is Remembrance Day here in Canada. People gather to lay wreaths, they observe a time of silence, they may attend special concerts. We all respond in our own way.

My friend Hennie Aikman decided to make a quilt to honour friends and family who were involved in wars. Depicted in the quilt is a portrait of Andrew Eykelenboom, the son of a friend, who was killed in Afghanistan. War isn't just about Flanders Fields. 

In her artist's statement, Hennie wrote, "For the ultimate sacrifices made on our behalf this innovative wall quilt is a tribute to Canada’s soldiers.  May they rest in peace."Amen, and yes. This response is a visual reminder to us to REMEMBER.
This morning, I woke up thinking: I have to write down dad’s story of the war. That is my response to Remembrance Day. Somehow, I feel that the crow is squawking and has something to say in Dad's voice.

In his autobiography, dad writes vividly about the war years. He was a young man of 22 working on his dad’s farm when war threatened Holland. Every young man who’d done the obligatory army training was called to report for duty in August of 1939.

“Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940,” he wrote. Within four days Holland surrendered. When his company, unscathed, returned to their base, they found out that another company at the base had been heavily involved in fighting, losing almost half of their men. The reality of war hit home. But, he wrote, after the surrender, “The Germans had no better use for the Dutch soldiers, so they let many of us go home ... the farm workers were the first ones to go home, for with the German occupation, the food supply problem was getting precarious.” Farm workers were given special ID papers so they would be spared from Nazi round-ups.

Dad spent the next four years working either at his dad’s farm in Friesland or in the North-East Polder, where work was ongoing to drain the Zuider Zee and reclaim it as farm land. These workers were also considered essential farm workers.

Archival photos taken in the Noord Oost Polder during the war.
That last winter was horrific. The Allies were stalled at Arnhem, but the end was in sight for the Nazis. Dad continues, “Holland was plundered of just about everything the Germans could drag away. Inhuman conditions developed, killing tens of thousands from lack of food and fuel in the big cities. We also got a very scary experience in the polder. On a morning in late November 1944, we (polder workers) found ourselves completely surrounded by the German army, who rounded us up to deport us to Germany. It was their last desperate attempt to stop the Allied armies before entering their homeland. Every able German had to be fighting on the front, and an ‘army’ of forced labour from the occupied countries had to supply them with all their needs. This was a hopeless effort that cost thousands and thousands of lives and caused immense amounts of suffering, especially in the German labour camps where there was a lack of almost everything, resulting in suffering from cold, filth and hunger, causing massive sickness and numerous deaths, all in the closing months of this now completely senseless war.

There was still a huge amount of grain to be threshed and Germany was in dire need of it, so this raid by the Germans was completely senseless. We were caught completely unprepared, and few managed to get away. Most of us were herded into the canteen, but some workers got permits and were left behind to do the essential chores – there were, for instance, about 200 horses to be cared for; these horses were used for farm work because there was no fuel for the tractors.  Most of the young men caught in this raid were deported to Germany, with few coming back. I myself was saved from this in a most miraculous way. Many of the soldiers guarding us in the canteen appeared to be collaborators – our own country men who supported Germany and had joined their army. It was disgusting, but we wisely kept our feeling to ourselves. One of these collaborators, out of curiosity, asked, ‘Are there any Frisians here?’ ... All of a sudden I felt a glimmer of light in this dark situation. I started a friendly conversation with this disgusting man, telling him about the work we did and the 20 horses I usually took care of. In fact, I said, my lunch is still out in the stable. Would it be okay for me to go get it? ‘Sure, go ahead,’ he said (I think he believed his commander’s story that this raid was only for purposes of checking papers.) I entered the horse barn at just the right time. The farmer who owned the horses was talking to the German commander, telling him that these horses needed to be fed and watered.  When he saw me, without a moment of hesitation he turned to me, telling me to take care of the horses. He said it like a matter of routine, something that simply had to be done. And the Commander must have agreed, for he left me in the barn when they went to the canteen. So there I was, all alone in the barn doing chores while all my fellow workers were in the canteen across the road. What to do when the chores were finished? Go back to the canteen? No way! Wait for them to come and get me? Or disappear? That last choice was quite risky in a polder loaded with German soldiers and almost no hiding places. I went up to the top of the hay maw and found a very good hiding place, so my decision was made. The soldier who was sent to get me came in vain. He got no answer to his call. He made a quick check of the barn and left again. I stayed on the maw, keeping an eye on the yard through the window there, in case they sent another search party. Instead, I witnessed something that shook me to no end: I saw all my fellow workers, some thirty in all, marching off in the twilight to ... well, you didn’t need to guess. It was a sight never to forget. Only two of them were allowed to return to the farm the next day. On the following day, two more stumbled into the farm yard – they’d been missed in the raid and been hiding in the fields. The following day we felt free enough to take stock. The Germans had taken almost all our belongings, including our bikes. I found an old broken bike which I fixed up and decided to head for home. My farm papers were still valid, just not in the polder. It would be a dangerous trip, there was nothing sure anymore. And thank God, I made it, though it took me almost a week, moving from one relative to the other. At home it was not so safe either anymore The Nazis were sending farm workers under the age of 40 to Germany. This included my brother and me, and a friend who’d been hiding out on our farm without valid papers.”

There are more stories in Dad’s book, which perhaps I’ll share at another time. But as I read these stories, I sense Dad’s immense sadness at the horror of war: so many lives lost, so much unnecessary hardship experienced, so much anguish and anxiety.

For what? squawks the crow.

In his poem The Question Rudyard Kipling echoes that thought : 

‘If it be found when the battle clears, 
their death has set me free,

Then how shall I live with myself through the years 
which they have bought for me?’

It is essential and honourable to remember and pay tribute to those who gave so much. It is honourable to listen to their stories, and learn from them. But our best response to Remembrance Day is to make sure that these sacrifices were not in vain. Remembrance Day is a call to action. I do not know how to bring peace to the whole wide world. But I know that I need to do what I can. The song that I’ve been singing this morning is this: “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

So this, then, is the message of the squawking crow: Peace! Let it begin now, and let it begin with us.

There a quite a number of versions of this song on the internet. Here's one to listen to today:

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Applesauce Musings

We had the most awesome  weather all during October. We kept pinching ourselves and saying, “Oh, it’s too good to be true. Something’s going to change.”

And it did. Boy, did it ever. From sitting outside in shirtsleeves on a cafĂ© patio one day to hovering around the fireplace at home the next. It’s snowing!

As my neighbour said, “What the hay? I’m going to write to my member of parliament. I didn’t sign up for this!” Neither did we, when we moved to the banana belt of Canada.

It was a good day to be indoors, to fire up the stove, and make applesauce with the pailful of scabby apples that’s been mouldering on our patio, waiting for a good day to make applesauce. And working in the kitchen like that gave me time to think about change.

It seems as though wherever I turn lately, I am confronted by change. Our grandchildren are growing up too quickly.

These are the same sweet girls that are pictured with me at the top of this blog -- just a few years older. And now two of them are taller than I am.
Things that used to be so easy for us 10 years ago take a lot more effort now. A dinner party that used to go on into the wee hours of the morning peters out at 10 o’clock. We are becoming the old codgers we swore we’d never be. We’ve changed.

And there’s more. Our neighbours moved. Our old vehicles are falling apart. Political systems are turned upside down, and lies masquerade as the truth. Even the pope, that bastion of steadfastness, is thinking maybe it would be a good idea if priests could get married. Slow down, world, you’re going too fast.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard business professor, says many – maybe most – people resist change, and for good reason. When change comes, they feel as though they have lost control. They are anxious that the change will challenge them beyond their capabilities. Their perception of the world may be turned topsy turvy, and they’ll have to readjust. We’re creatures of habit – and what’s wrong with that, huh? And don’t you know that one change will lead to others, and where will this merry-go-round stop?

The course that I’ve been taking also deals with change: a change in thinking about spiritual matters. Often, as we grow and experience things, as we think about life and God and all the big questions, we realize that some of things we were so sure about might need to be tweaked. The older I get, the less I know for sure. I don’t like it when that happens, but there’s no turning back once that egg has been cracked. Like Humpty Dumpty, you can’t put it back together again. And really, what good is a raw egg inside its shell? The only way to get through the turmoil is to keep on going, to find a new “true” for you.

These thoughts are swirling through my head as I dig my hands into the pail of apples and begin, chopping out the bad parts and filling a big pot with the chunks that are leftover. I leave the skin and seeds on, and when the pot is full, I add some water and put them on to cook. The lovely aroma fills the kitchen.

When they are cooked, I puree them in a food mill which separates the goodies from the gunk. I get a big bowl full of sweetness, no sugar needed. It’s as though that period of sitting out in sunshine has just increased the sugar content. They were ugly to look at, but the end result is better than good. This winter we’ll open one of those jars and it will taste wonderful with pork chops or chicken.

The thing about change, I begin to realize, is that change carries within it the seeds of the past. In fact, if you ignore the past, the change will almost always fail.  Inside us old codgers are the young folks who danced the night away. (At least, I did – the RS doesn’t dance!) Our grandchildren are still our grandchildren, even if their outward appearance changes. Inside the political turmoil is the memory of how it should be, and the will to fight for that. The questing spirit still grows from the same strong roots. Change doesn’t have to mean that you discard everything and start all over – like the apples, you take the good parts, the parts that are juicy and rich and full of the sunshine, water and minerals that changed them from tiny apple blossom buds to ripe fruits. As they cook, the apples change, but they are still there, golden and lovely within new jars, bringing the best of their life in a new form to add delight to our days. Yea and amen!

Amazing, the things you can learn when you’re making applesauce!

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Twinkle, twinkle...

If you want the short and more visual version of this post, take a look at this link:

Last week’s post ended with the lovely image of us all being beautiful inside, like bright shining diamondy points of light. The quote by Thomas Merton  delighted me; it meshes beautifully with a book study I’ve been following.  The Wisdom Jesus emphasizes not only the vertical relationship that we have with the Creator, but also the horizontal relationship with the people around us. It emphasizes that we are all connected and that our image of our Creator just might be too small and inflexible, too vertical (you think, maybe?)

In this book, there’s an emphasis on sitting meditation and centering prayer as a way of connecting with the divine, which has been difficult for me. I’m too restless. So I practice “walking meditation” – trying to be still and listening as I walk in nature.

However, last week I’d read of another way to practice a walking meditation. Maybe purists would scoff at this bend in tradition, but there are no meditation police to arrest you if you do it wrong. The author suggests that I should identify the question, problem or issue that seems to be topmost on my mind and heart. I should articulate that issue, then release it from my mind, and go walking with a heart that’s open to my surroundings. I shouldn’t worry or noodle on the situation: just let it go and walk and see what happens.

My question was pretty simple: “What’s most important today?” There were many things calling me: making and canning applesauce; cleaning the house (ugh); calling some folks I haven’t talked to for a while; writing a new blog. And those were the easy questions; the big picture question was about my “calling”, about the way to use whatever gifts and talents I had for the greater good. A soul friend had been challenging me, saying, “You can do more.” Was I being called to “more”? And if so, what would that look like?

So I formulated the question and then let it go. In the past, I have occasionally had wonderful inspirations that came when walking, so I was hopeful. (Note the word occasionally; most of the time, it’s just a walk in the woods, refreshing, revitalizing, but nothing amazing happens.) Still, this is a great big Creator, with no boundaries, to whom I’d thrown out the question. Maybe I would get a great big lofty answer.

Well. It started out well. With trusty walking stick in hand, I went down the path, across the bridge, onto the trail. As usual, beauty surrounded me. And then voices, squeals, barks came from two children and their mom walking a dog. The children  wanted to tell me everything that was happening, what they’d seen, what their names were, and would I like to come over and visit them at their house? Delightful of course: children are beautiful. I smiled and chatted and showed them some painted rocks we’d hidden in the woods over Thanksgiving weekend.

The kids were wide-eyed and ready to look for more. This was just a little interruption in my meditative walking, I reasoned.

I continued my walk, but wouldn’t you know it, there were more dogs; more people, more smiles and hellos. Kind of hard to hear the almighty speaking with so many interruptions. And then an older woman approached me, commenting on my walking stick.

I told her the story about buying it from some Mexican illegals on the Texas side of the Rio Grande River. They had waded across the shallow river to sell their artistic creations to tourists so they could support their families who lived in a tiny, isolated village across the river. When a ranger appeared on the horizon, they were gone in a flash, back across the river in order to avoid being deported. Well, that was the beginning of another conversation, not as pleasant as the one with the children, and much more one-sided. This woman was all over the map with her strongly-held opinions; she let me know in no uncertain terms that the earth was the Lord’s and the people thereof, but they’d better come into to our country legally. And it was so sad that little ones went to bed hungry and unsafe. And Canada was a wonderful place to live, but not everyone was welcome. And more and more... My job: listen and nod, not very gracefully. I’m sure she could read my body language.

After that, I gave up the meditative part of my walking. I met fishermen fishing in the river; a whole group of schoolchildren enjoying the playground; a young couple with their newborn baby having a session with a photographer, and a man who also commented on my walking stick: “Now there’s a stick you can depend on – not like those flimsy little plastic balancing rods people are using nowadays.”

As I trundled back to the house, I wondered what I was supposed to do with all these varied experiences. I stopped to take a photo: the sun was shining through the leaves of the Katsura tree so beautifully. The sun, shining like a many-faceted diamond  ...

Oh. Aha.  Right. People shining like diamonds, who'd been put on my walking path so I could be my diamondy self, and we could shine together to light up the world. Interesting people, nervous people, opinionated people, joyful people, some reflecting light so easily, and others hiding their lights inside. And what about me? Where did I fit into that picture?

I’d asked, “What’s most important for today?” and I’d gotten an answer. I think my diamondy self needs a touch-up.

Here’s a lovely tribute to beautiful people ...

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Beauty Quest

This week, I’ve been on a beauty quest.

I ran out of room in last week’s blog  when I asked, “Is there an antidote to despair?” I talked about hope, faith, awe, action and community, but I didn’t mention Beauty. Beauty, I believe, can also be an antidote to despair.

And so this week, I decided to look for beauty wherever I went. I was encouraged in my quest by the words of Goethe: “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

There’s a sense of the beautiful implanted in the human soul! That’s a fine thought, and I think it is true. When I see something beautiful, I feel uplifted, and being uplifted is an antidote to despair.

Finding something beautiful in nature, when I take my walks, is not difficult. Everywhere I turn I see beauty: lime green leaves with sun shining through them;

 a tiny bird flitting through the underbrush; lacy mushroom caps perched on ivory pedestals.

And finding beauty in children isn’t hard, either. At our Thanksgiving feast this week, I watched two-year-old Grace seated between her two adoring grandfathers; they were passing tickles to each other and laughing uproariously. Grace took turns cuddling with one, and then the other, and there was no disguising the great joy she took in knowing she was greatly loved. Delightful and beautiful on many different levels. 

I picked a bouquet of the last flowers in our garden: beautiful!

I stayed up late reading an enthralling novel that ended with hopefulness: there’s beauty in words, too.

A group of homeless folks often gather in front of or inside the library in our town. I watched one bedraggled man limping across the street towards the group, and another man stood up and held out his arms. The welcoming embrace was long and warm. I realized that there is beauty in community and welcome and caring, no matter what it looks like to my middle-class eyes at first glance. And there’s beauty in growing a little bit in my awareness of that. Growth is beautiful.

I went to a concert – loved listening to the music, which transported me to other places in my imagination. It was a beautiful feeling.

Then I came across this...well, beautiful...quote, written by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and a mystic. One day, while standing in a crowd at a busy street corner, he unexpectedly had an inner vision about the people around him:

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts ... the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. ... [The glory of God] is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” (From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

There’s a lot there to think about.  I am beautiful. You are beautiful. WE are beautiful, each one of us.

If we believe it, and treat everyone we meet as a beautiful point of light, immeasurably valuable, wouldn’t that banish despair?

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Giving Thanks in the Dark

How do you write a Thanksgiving blog after a week like we’ve just had, filled with news about the tragedy that is Las Vegas?

How can you be lighthearted and channel your inner child at such a time as this? It raises all the old questions you thought maybe you’d settled long ago; or at least, you’d decided that you could live with not knowing the answers – questions like, What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in all of this? Now, the horror has stirred up those questions again.

And is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and it will be soon in the USA. How do we give thanks in troubled times? Perhaps we want to curl up in a ball and hide in the dark, waiting for the world to end. Perhaps we want to hand in our ID card that says we are members of the human race. The thing is, yielding to despair will never help anyone, including ourselves.  Is there an antidote?

I spent a few days poking at that idea. Surely if I could find the right answer, if I could find the definitive antidote to despair, it would be so helpful. (Don’t you agree? And I’d be rich, too!) Turns out – surprise, surprise! –  I couldn’t ... but, hallelujah, there are glimmers of light shining in that pit of darkness, and those glimmers, I believe, can see us through.

Ann Lamott says it begins with hanging on as hard as you can to any remaining shred of Hope and believing that good will prevail in the end:  “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up ... hope appears if we truly desire to see it.” For Ann and others who share their wisdom and inspiring, uplifting  words, I am thankful.

Look up, says writer/activist Belvie Rooks, who worked with at-risk youth in California. As part of her work, she took her youth groups out to watch the stars.  Rooks observes that "awe and wonder are part of the antidote to despair." By being in nature, we become aware of the immensity of the cosmos, which changes our perspective on what’s happening around us. We are all connected and we belong to each other. For this beautiful world, and the wonders we see around us, and for the people in it, I am so very, very thankful.

BiG starry night sky | by IronRodArt - Royce Bair ("Star Shooter")
For others, action is the answer to despair. Do something! Do anything that will add to the sum of goodness in the world. Give money, or join an organization, or volunteer. If we all do our part, and if we find like-minded people to join us,  we will hold the darkness at bay, both in the world and in our own hearts. And for those many people who actively work for a better world, I am thankful.

photos from a project by an elementary school in Indiana
Robert Emmons, who has written a book about the subject, prescribes Gratitude: “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.” Aha! I am thankful for a reminder that Thanksgiving Day can help us combat despair. (And I am thankful for a friend who posts a gratitude on Facebook every day – cool idea, eh? A good antidote to the despair we see posted too often.)

And then there’s trust. I have come to the space in my own heart where I have to let go of the ego part of me that says, “It’s all up to me.” It’s not easy to let go. We all want to fix the hard parts of life, and fix them  NOW! Fortunately, that’s not up to us. What a burden that would be. Personally, I have come to trust that a higher power is holding this world in loving hands, that the creation is renewing itself even as I write this, and that I’m not sure what the outcome will look like, but it will be good. For that, I am deeply, unutterably thankful.

We need them all: hope, faith, gratitude, action, love, trust, and a relationship with the natural world around us. And we need more than that: we need each other to fight against the nay-sayers, the boo-birds, the doubting voices in our own heads that whisper negatives in the dark. We need to encourage each other and hold each other up when times are tough.

Together we are stronger than the sum total of our individual lives. We will hold hands and we’ll do it together. For that I am most thankful.

photo source:  123RF Cultural Stock photo

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Fill 'er Up

I had a blog ready to go last week. I wrote it on Wednesday, then looked at it again on Friday. I tried tweaking it, but by Saturday evening, I gave up.

“I’m not sending it out, it’s crap,” I told the Resident Sweetie. “I am empty.”

(a New Yorker cartoon which expresses a very common phenomenon)
Scary business, being empty. You have nothing to say if you are empty. Sure, you can put out lots of words, but that’s fake news, and everybody knows it.

If a car runs out of gas, it can’t move until you fill the gas tank. If a battery is flat, it can't power anything. Batteries and cars can’t run on empty. Neither can I. “Inner emptiness comes from a lack of connection with your spiritual source of love,” says psychologist Margaret Paul in an article in the Huffington Post. (You can read the whole thing by clicking on this link:

I noodled on that idea for a while, and realized its truth. I needed a fill-up, and I knew it.  So I went to the tried and true places that fill me up and reconnect me to my spirit and my spiritual source of love.

On Sunday, I went to church. Pulling your eyes away from your belly button and looking up, way up, is a good way to start.

While at church, I saw a poster advertising a book study on The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault. It sounded like a big stretch for my head and my heart, and so I signed up. Nothing like stretching your head and your heart to make room for new ideas, insights, and thoughts to flow in and fill you up.  On Monday, I attended the study. Wow. Yes!

On Tuesday, I took this new book, my journal and  my morning coffee to the dining room table and spent 45 minutes reading, writing, and thinking. Quiet reflection may not fill the tank, but it will show you where the empty pockets of your soul are that need filling.

 Then I put on my walking shoes, grabbed my cell phone/camera, and went down to the woods. How long had it been since I’d visited my sit spot? Too long. Just descending the path into the woods is like entering a temple. A special serenity and light suffuses you, and you are filled with a sense that you are just a small piece of something much bigger than you, something that is incredibly precious and loved by the Creator of it all.

And it was so beautiful down in the woods – the sun was shining through the lime green and gold leaves, the water in the brook was sparkling, and on its surface were little moving circles, created by waterstrider insects. I zoomed in on these almost invisible insects with my camera, and snapped a photo.

The result? Not at all what I’d expected, but beautiful in a new way I’d never seen before.

Now I began looking at the woods and the river with new eyes, and once those eyes were open, I saw things I’d never seen before. These new sights, sounds and smells filled me with delight.

A rotting tree stump became a piece of abstract art.

 The bridge wasn’t just a bridge, it was a home for a spider that had woven a shining web.

Why had I never seen the interplay of light and shadow on the path ahead of me?

And look: an enormous orange fungi right out in the open, and yet I’d never noticed it before in my treks along the well-worn path. Changing one's perspective opens the channels for inspiration and wonder to flow in.

There was more: Wednesday delivered a double dose of nourishment when the TWITS (book club) met – so much to talk about and ideas to explore! – followed by listening to four authors reading at an event. These creative folks sharing their thoughtful and often funny insights, stimulating me even further. And laughter is good medicine for the soul, too.

The week continued with more blessings, some sublime, some mundane: – deep discussions with friends, a successful morning in the kitchen with the RS canning pears, watching a delightful movie on Netflix (A Man Called Ove). When you begin to look at your life with new eyes, you see things that might have passed you by before. All these rich experiences that reconnect you with the spiritual source of Love  were there for the taking -- and yet, I was slowly starving myself.

 It's an old message we seem to need to learn again and again: take the time to stay connected with your spiritual source of love so you'll never be running on empty.

On Sunday, I’ll be working with the children at church. Perhaps I'll teach them an old song that's new again: “Running over, running over, My cup is full and running over.”

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Playing Hide and Seek

A few weeks back, I blogged about getting in touch with my inner child: the one for whom everything is amazing, wonderful, and worth checking out. And nothing is too silly to try out just once.

Then I created a self-portrait  to reflect the inner child at play and to remind myself  not to take life so seriously all the time.

I decided I needed to take this idea a step further. I should let my inner child write the blog. So I invited  her to step up to the computer and take over. “Have at it,” I said. “Say what you want. It will be fun.”

Big problem: it appears I have a recalcitrant inner child. I showed up at the computer every day last week, but she didn’t. Isn’t that just like a child – never wants to perform on demand, especially if the parent is wanting to show her off. 

What do you do when your child won’t come out of hiding? I called my friend Trudy. “Hey, Trudy, my inner child has disappeared. Have you seen her?” “Just a minute,” said Trudy as she laid down the phone. I could hear some rustling in the background, and I could hear her asking her cats Jack and Oliver if they’d seen my inner child. Then she picked up the receiver. “Nope, she isn’t here,” she said. “And now that you mention it, my inner child has disappeared too. I’m thinking they might just be hanging out together, in some dark corner, reading books and ignoring us.”

Well, that makes sense. Our inner children have been kept in the basement for so long while we’ve been busy being grownups, they’ve forgotten the sound of our voices. These poor little things could just shrivel up and die of neglect. This is not a good situation.  “When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names for hell,” says Brian Aldiss. Strong words, indeed! But there’s some truth in them.

looks like a pile of blocks, doesn't it?
I needed to know more about inner kids and play, so I declared a Google Binge Day. I researched what play was, how to encourage it, why we don’t do it more. Adult play, it appears, is serious business. Have you heard about The Strong? Me either. “The Strong® is a highly interactive, collections-based museum devoted to the history and exploration of play. It is one of the largest history museums in the United States...” It’s located in Rochester, New York.

Google will tell you about this museum, about university studies in play, about conferences focusing on adult play, and many more things. Play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming; lack of play is just as important as other factors in predicting criminal behavior among murderers in Texas prisons; playing together helps couples rekindle their relationship; play can even facilitate deep connections between strangers and cultivate healing. Etc. Etc.

What Google does not do is entice your inner child to come out and play. She just wouldn’t write the blog for me. I was stumped.

Just then, the phone rang. My son told us he was taking the beautiful grandchild Grace to swim in the river by our house and invited us to watch. We were in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave, and the invite sounded good. The inner child stirred. “Put on your bathing suit,” she whispered. “Nah,” said the adult, “The water’s cold and there’s too many slippery rocks on the bottom of the river.”  When we got to the river, there they were, having the time of their lives, giggling and jumping and splashing.

“Get in there, for goodness sake,” the inner child urged impatiently, much more loudly this time. “But I’ve got a dress on,” I argued. “So what?” said the inner child. “Get in there. I’m coming in with you.”

So I (and my inner child) splashed into the water. It sure felt good. There were perfectly sane adults on the beach, watching me and wondering who the crazy old lady was, but my inner child ignored them. I even put my face in the water and blew bubbles with Gracie and her mom. My dress got pretty wet and my feet slipped on the rocks and the water was cold, but it was all good. We giggled. We laughed. We had fun, like playing kids do.

It turns out, if you want to meet your inner child, you should just stop trying to be a smart know-it-all adult. You have to keep your ears open and listen. Your inner child is there, but she's playing hide and seek. If you listen carefully, you may hear her whispering your name. Be sure to follow and see where she leads.

And then again, maybe I’m on to something here. Maybe the inner child has morphed into a crazy old lady having fun. Maybe I should let her out more often.

And maybe she’ll write my blog, too.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Unveiling

In my last blog, I said, “Stay tuned!” I was about to launch into the project of creating  a self-portrait at 69 to accompany my series of crow self-portraits, begun when I was 65.

So I began. The goal was to reflect the inner child at play and to create a reminder not to take life so seriously all the time. Of course, there’s lots to be serious about, especially these days. Serious and deep are good things – it shows we’re paying attention and thinking and acting in right ways. But I tend to do that too much, judging by the “MEGO” effect  (“My Eyes Glaze Over”) some of my conversations and blogs have on people. (You’ve been very discrete, but yes, I have noticed.) So I tell myself, at 69, let’s get some balance here: a little more lightness, fun, play and laughter.

A playful crow: easy peasy, right? No. Ironically, this was not a painless, carefree, playful project. I took it terribly seriously – I even had restless nights in which my brain was preoccupied with problems to solve. As it turns out, this project is an illustration of what I’ve just written above: there’s a balance to life. You have to put in the hard work to get it done, but there’s no law against having a giggle while you’re doing it. Let your light heart have its say. As Mary Poppins reminds us, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun....”  And the inner child pumps her fist and says, YES. Some days she runs on with light-hearted abandon, and has a blast. Some days, she plays quietly, and her play involves trial and error until she gets it right. That's what this project turned out to be.

So here she is: Miss June. She still needs some finishing touches – a ladybug, a spider and a frog in the garden, bubbles coming out of the bubble jar, better nailpolish on her toes. But you get the drift. Put your tongue in your cheek and enjoy. That’s the playful thing to do. Then move on – it’s not great or serious art. Miss June is telling you, “Lighten up, eh? Let your inner child out to play.” (She must be Canadian, eh!)

Some of you have asked about the process of creating an art piece like this. If you’re interested, read on. I have photographed and commented on various steps in the process. This is the serious part of the blog.

How to Create a Self-Portrait
1. Start with a concept or inspiration. In my case it was my Calendar Girl moment, and the reflections and thoughts I had afterwards. I decided my self-portrait should portray my inner child.

2. If you are not a great illustrator, check through images on the internet and in books until you find one you like, and work from it. If you are going to copy it exactly, you’ll need written permission from the original author/illustrator. However, if you are using it for inspiration, there’s no copyright on ideas, (although it is polite to acknowledge your source.)

3. Create a pattern. I wanted my wings to bend to hold the hat, so in my pattern I mirror-imaged the bent wing. Much later, I actually went back to the extended wing and used it instead. I also didn’t like the big-beaked face, so changed that as well.

4. Decide on a background setting. Originally, the background edges were going to include a picket fence, an arbor, and a sign over the top of the arbor. That was too much. I also spent a good part of a day trying to find a good background fabric. Nothing seemed right, so I called it a day and decided to work on the crow the next day.

5. What kind of feathers should she have? Yellow is the colour of playfulness, so I looked for fabric with yellow in it. I created lots of feathers, but when I dressed up my crow, she looked like she was wearing a dowdy old-lady dress. Not good.

A couple of other kinds of feathers also didn’t work. Finally I went for my standard crow feathers: black and dark shades of reds, blues and greens.

I stitched the feathers on to the body of the crow by machine. I made wing templates, and stitched feathers to them. Then I stitched  the wings to the body.

I’d spent a second day trying things out, but finally I had a crow -- it would need some work, but it was recognizable.

6. Now it was time to find a background. It came to me fairly easily the second time around: yellow for playfulness, fairly plain so I could fill in little details on a neutral field. I bordered the yellow fabric with a brighter print, the same print I used in my self-portrait at 65.

7. Time for details. My original concept included a hat for her to hold and a jaunty topknot of feathers. Instead, she ended up holding a basket of flowers and wearing a hat. I realized I wanted to add a magic wand, so I created a new wing that extended out to hold it.

I wasn’t sure how to add a subtle reminder of the calendar girl idea, then ended up creating one to hang on the wall. Inside is a tiny photo of me, Miss June, the calendar girl.

I wanted a playground sign, so created one of my own. I needed to add flowers and the fun things that come with flowers, since for me a garden setting always helps me feel relaxed and happy. So I grew some sunflowers up the side, fussy-cut some flowers and leaves out of floral fabric, and top-stitched them to the stems.

Blowing bubbles is playful, so that also made an appearance. I could have also added a ball or a skipping rope or a hula hoop, but the piece was getting pretty busy.

Knowing when to quit and say enough is an art in itself.