Saturday, 22 December 2018

Oh, Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree...

The Christmas tree at our home is up and decorated. Hallelujah!

This is not some little chore – it deserves a fist-bumping Hallelujah, especially when the tree (artificial) and ornaments are stored in the three-foot crawl space under the house, and our knees don’t work as well as they used to. In fact, for a brief moment, following the example of some friends of similar age, we considered leaving it down there this season. But eventually, the RS made the heroic journey and resurrected the tree from its dormant resting place. Now it stands decorated in all its glory in the corner of our living room.

And yes, I know: artificial trees are Bad with a capital B, made out of Plastic with a capital P, which is harms the environment. Someday, it will be tossed into the landfill, there to live for umpteen thousand years without deteriorating. I do know that. But our tree is a rescue tree: we rescued it from the thrift store so it would not suffer the above-mentioned fate. We treat it well. It’s found a good home. We’ll pass it on to someone else when we are done with it, when our knees no longer can make the trip into the crawl space.  (Let’s agree to disagree about the politics of plastic vs. real, shall we? This is the season of peace and goodwill.)

The decorated tree is a tradition associated with the Christmas season, which sets me to wondering: why? I do some digging, and find more than I’ll ever want to know at

The bottom line is that evergreens have always, since the mists of time, had extra meaning at this season of the year. We are in the season of the winter Solstice, when it’s dark, when the ground is hard and cold and it appears that life and light have disappeared forever. The lively needles of the evergreen and the bright decorative lights tell us there is hope and light and a resurrection of life to come. So yes, even if it's just to affirm its significance to us, it’s worth the effort to set up the tree. Hallelujah! The tree is up.

We should really name our Christmas tree the Memory Tree, because most of the decorations call forth big memories. There’s an old, beat up ornament that used to hang on the family tree when I was a child. I have a vivid memory of Christmas Eve, 1955 – a measles epidemic had swept through the town, and my sister and I spent much of December in bed, deathly ill. But we were recovering by Christmas Eve, and so Dad and Mom carried us in their arms into the living room to show us a surprise: a lighted tree sparkling with tinsel in the darkened room. Hallelujah: the tree is up – and so were we. There was a lot of rejoicing that evening.

Another ornament on our tree is a tarnished clip-on golden bird, the first decoration Al and I bought for our first Christmas as a married couple. It has survived all those years, as have these very tacky felt-and-pipe-cleaner angels, made by our kids 35 years ago.

On our tree also hang kids’ ornaments hand-painted by a talented auntie – we’ve tried to give them back so they can use them on their own tree now that they are grown and have their own trees to decorate, but they like seeing them on our tree; so do we.

And now the grandchildren have added their ornaments: salt clay gingerbread people, a beaded wreath, and this year, a digitally-designed, laser-printed nativity. This is not a tree that will ever make an appearance in the Martha Stewart Tree Decorator’s Hall of Fame with its uncoordinated colours and lack of theme. But it’s the most beautiful tree in the world for us.

There are many, many ornaments we have collected on our travels – a luminaria from New Mexico, a scallop shell from the Camino in Spain, a painted egg from Hungary, a lighthouse from Nova Scotia, for instance.

And other ornaments that are gifts from friends, like this scrabble rack from a cousin’s wife with whom I played on-line word games. Hallelujah, the tree is up, calling forth so many wonderful memories to light up this dark time of the year.

But that’s not the end of the story. Here’s an ornament made of traditional Delft pottery, a gift from Mom and Dad who are no longer with us.

Granddaughter Grace, shows me an ornament on her tree, a baby’s face nestled in blankets. “This is for baby Farrah, my sister who died,” she says seriously, and pauses for a moment of silence. It’s given me an idea for next year’s tree (the knees cooperating): finding ornaments to remind ourselves of the people we miss especially at this time of year: a shovel for my dad, who loved gardening, a tractor for my two farming uncles for instance. They are gone, yet live on in the fabric of our lives, and for that we are grateful. Hallelujah, the tree is up, and we can remember those who brought light and love into our lives.

As we enter these last days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we also acknowledge the pain and sadness that is inevitable, mingled with the joy and gladness of the season. We are missing loved ones who can’t share this time with us; we are grieving illnesses and dark times, we are feeling the stress of separation or conflict within our circle of friends and family, we are mourning the millions of people who are perishing every day because of war, famine, and disease. This is reality, too, as real as the delightful memories that warm our hearts. Without the darkness, we would not know how to appreciate the light.

The Christmas tree: a tree of memory, a tree of honouring, a tree to remind us that in the darkest times, there is a promise of new life and light.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Looking for the Light

This past week was the first week of Advent, a season in the church calendar that leads to Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Church...Christians – aye, there’s the rub. Those are not very popular words these days in our culture. Unfortunately, the sins committed by the church and by those who call themselves Christians has too often dimmed the light that should be burning brightly in a dark world. Christ is all about the rule of love; there is no greater thing. Yet Christians have too often been judgmental, cruel, more interested in power than in serving others in love.

Sadly, the darkness casts shadows on all the light that has been given to the world, and cold hearts too often cancel out the warm gifts the church and Christians do offer.

I’ve been a Christian all of my life. When I was young, I had no choice. My family was devout and had deep roots in the soil of Christian beliefs and practices.  “We do not choose to have roots; we accept those that we’ve grown out of,” says Gilles Cusson, SJ, and developmental psychologists agree. Our spiritual life grows out of the seeds planted in childhood. Bible Reading and prayer every day, church twice on Sundays, being generous to others, caring for those who needed it...these were teachings that became the foundation of my life.

When I was older, I needed to make a choice about my spirituality: to accept these roots, or to spread my wings and look elsewhere. I chose to accept. It’s been quite a journey over the last 70 years; the road has had its valleys and hilltops. Sometimes, the road was nothing more than a disappearing track in the darkness, and other times it was a broad highway bathed in sunshine. Sometimes I just stood by and watched others march by, singing their victory songs loudly – they looked so strong and confident, while I was full of doubts. Sometimes I took side trips, exploring other spiritual pathways – and always, those pathways led me back, enriched by what I’d learned. So yes, I call myself a Christian, a doubtful, hesitant, joyful, tearful, searching, wandering, questioning, tip-toeing, stumbling, dancing, backward-glancing, laughing follower of Jesus, who is “love with skin on”, whose birth we wait to celebrate. Advent means something to me.

Normally, on the first Sunday of Advent, which was last week Sunday, I would be in church. I would participate in the liturgy, I would watch as the first candle of the advent wreath was lit, and I would be glad that I was part of a larger family who celebrated Advent with me.

But on the first Sunday of this advent season, we were spending a weekend at a hotel in Vancouver and had plans to attend a concert later in the day. The morning was unscheduled, an unusual freedom. I turned on the cell phone and checked out my email, and found my morning meditation there, written by Richard Rohr. This is how I would begin my first Sunday in Advent.

Rohr, a Franciscan priest, believes Creation is all about God pouring out infinite love into visible form. The vast universe with its planets and stars, the earth and all things in it, is all about God’s love made visible. Christmas, too, is a pouring out of love into visible form, love incarnate, love divine. That love is everywhere around us. “What if we’ve missed the point of who Christ is, what Christ is, and where Christ is?” he wrote. What if Christ is all around us, as part of Creation?

“I believe that a Christian is simply one who has learned to see Christ everywhere,” he wrote. The words tugged at my heart. What would happen if for the rest of the day I acted like Rohr’s kind of Christian, one who chose to see Christ everywhere?

And so I did. When I walked with the resident sweetie in the sunshine along the shores of English Bay, “Christ” was everywhere – jogging, biking, strolling; Christ was a child playing in the sand. Christ was the little old lady in bright yellow sneakers pushing a walker.

Christ was a family of three, walking hand in hand; Christ was in the ducks, paddling in the water, in the crows in the trees, in the flowers still blooming, in the waves lapping up on the shore.

 Later that day, at a glorious concert featuring an orchestra and four choirs (including the children’s choir our grandgirls sing in), I heard the voice of Christ – love made visible – in the harmony of the singers, in the cymbals and the piccolo, in the people leaning forward,  listening in rapt attention. The whole day reminded me of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil...” 

There are days like that, aren’t there? But often we are too busy, too battered, too scattered and cynical to see it all around us.

Of course it’s not so difficult, on a beautiful day full of beautiful things, to imagine that Love surrounds us and permeates every part of Creation. Quite another thing when we are stuck in traffic and arguing about which road will lead to the ferry for which we are already late. (You can fill in that equivalent from your own life!) It’s not so easy to see Love when our life is painful, when the world is in disarray, when we are filled with anger or dismay, when hope feels far away. And there's a lot of that going around.

And yet...and yet...I have to believe in Love, in sparkles of divine love flaming out in the darkness, like shining from shook foil. It’s there, if we but turn our eyes just a little and look for it.

May you, too, see the Light in the darkness in this Advent season.

Saturday, 17 November 2018


People pay a lot of good money to learn the secret of creativity.  There must be a trick to it, they think, a trick that opens the floodgates and sets the muse free to play and create.

I’ll give you my tip for free: take a bath. I have lost count of the numbers of ideas that have come to me when I immerse myself in a lovely hot bath, close my eyes, and relax.

Take today, for instance. I wasn’t going to post a blog today...there was nothing to write about. But an idea floated to the surface (floated...ha ha, get it?). This is the idea: I need to declare an amnesty, a get-out-of-jail-free card, for people who own one of my art works.

Let me explain. Last week, my daughter-in-law asked if she could look through my accumulated art quilts –there’s a very large stack of them! – and see if there were one or two she could co-opt to hang in their new addition. Wow! What a compliment!

As we laid them out on the dining room table, she paused at this one: a half-eaten pear I’d made for a challenge. She liked “the apple” a lot. Apple, pear...oh, what’s the diff? It made her smile, and to me that’s the definition of success.

 I went through many “failures” with that challenge, which was very simple: create a piece that features a pear shape. I made many, many pears out of a variety of fabrics, took photos of bowls of pears, arranged fabric pears on a lot of different backgrounds, but all of the pieces lacked something, a certain “je ne sais quoi”, as the expression goes. (I had not, at that point, discovered the inspirational qualities of nice warm bath, and besides, the bath is only the start of the process. After that, comes the work.)  In desperation, I turned to my good friend Google and scrolled through images of pears. Voila! Apparently, Claes Oldenburger is a well-known sculptor, and this is one of his works. It wasn't a pear, it was an apple, but hey! I can make that work. It made me smile, so I went to town with that idea.

But once the piece was finished, I wondered, what was I to do with all those leftover pears I’d created?

A trip to visit rellies in Ontario was in the offing, so perhaps these pears could be worked into small pieces to give away as hostess gifts. Soon three pieces were ready to go. Flushed with the success of my creative endeavors, I really didn’t know with any certitude that they were any good, but I ignored that and proudly gave them away. Ta da! An original Jessie Schut!

And now for the rest of the story: I have never again seen 2 of these three pieces. One of the recipients admired the piece, then said since it was made of fabric, it would collect dust, and so she was going to have it framed behind glass. Another said, “Oh, how nice. Hmmm. I wonder where it would fit into my decor?” And the third, given to my sister, actually got hung up right then and there in her quilting studio. What a loyal sweetie! I saw the piece there the next time I visited, and thought, “Oh dear!” It’s not nearly as successful as I initially thought. The colours are wrong, it needs way more quilting, the binding is wonky. I wouldn’t have given them away if I’d created them today. But that was then, and this is now.

So here’s where amnesty comes in. You do not have to be chained to my art work forever. If you’ve received one of my art pieces, and you’re not really very fond of it, please! Dump it! Or give it away (thrift shops are full of home-made projects that went awry. It’s okay, my skin is not that thin. Well, maybe just a little, so the only proviso to this amnesty would be, Don’t give it back to me!)

The simple truth is, I make my art because the crow inside me squawks until I give in and get to work. It is my contemplative practice, where I find myself aligned with the Creator, where I lose track of time. It energizes me and makes me smile. The creation of something, good bad or indifferent, is my reward. As a bonus, I often learn something about myself and even work out the answers to some deep questions I have.

Sometimes, my art and your spirit connect. Those are wowwie moments. They don’t happen very often, but often enough that I am encouraged to send out the pieces to the world through this blog, through art shows, through hand-made greeting cards, and occasionally as gifts.

Which reminds me: there are a lot of pieces still in my closet, ready for new homes. Next time you’re in the neighbourhood, you might want to ask if you can take a look at them, and take one home if it makes your heart sing.

But only if it makes your heart sing!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

By the Square Inch

These days, it just seems as though the news swirling around us is a lot more bad than good. What we really, really need right now is a huge bucket of joy to wash away The Uglies. Where is that to be found, I wonder?

I got an inkling of an idea when I read a blog post by a woman named Beth Merrill Neel. Beth is a middle-aged woman who became a wife and mother later in life. She and her husband are both pastors. She is also an artist, who is making some beautiful stuff with paper.

She made this picture using the condolence cards she received after her father died.You can read the whole blog and see her art work at

 Beth often feels despair at the injustices of this world. She wonders where the hope is. “But for the many Graces that surround me, I would give in,” she writes, “and yet we still have good to do and we still have to do good. Maybe everyday I can do something that would fit into a 1 inch square. Maybe most of us can.”

I wonder, have I gotten so focused on the big picture – world peace, NOW! Environmental regulations, NOW! Political good will, nations working together, an end to babies dying of hunger in underdeveloped nations...NOW! – that I have not seen the little things right under my nose? Do I need to have a vision correction?

I am reminded of a recent example of vision correction (literally!) right here in the studio where I’m writing this blog. My studio has been a twilight zone for years. I didn't realize it, however. Then a visitor pointed out to me that the lighting in here is very poor. So yesterday the Resident Sweetie and I hung a new light fixture, one that’s better environmentally than the old one, one with four lights shining into every dark corner. Whoa! Who knew that good light could make such a difference? I had gotten used to looking at things in a certain light, but now I see differently. Can I also change the way I look at issues in life?

The one-square-inch concept challenges me. If I'm looking for joy, perhaps I shouldn't be looking for it by the bucketful. Perhaps just one square inch of joy, one inch at a time, would do the trick. What would happen if I hold up a viewfinder just 1 inch square in front of my mind’s eye? What if I focused on the little things that I find in the little patch where I stand right now?

Last night the goblins and ghosties made their rounds for Halloween, proudly dressed up and showing off. They roam the neighborhood in packs, but not packs of hooligans. Instead, most are  traveling in groups of parents with children, everyone dressed up and having a great time. And not a one of them forgot to say thank you, not even the big guys way taller than I am. That right there is a square inch of joy.

My almost-4-year-old grandchild, the Amazing Grace, asks me if I’d like to see her leap – it’s something she’s learned in dance class. She stands in front of an obstacle which she wants to leap over, a small wagon. “You can do it! You can do it!” she whispers to herself. And she does! The second time she tries, she falls down, then jumps up, dusts herself off, and reassures us, “I’m okay! I’m okay!” With an attitude like that, this little one-square-inch of humanity is going to change the world, no doubt about it. Maybe our hope should be in the littles, maybe they’re showing us the way. Travel in packs, say thank you, believe in yourself, and never give up!

Grace at Halloween. The cartoon character Owlette has a "sharp mind, super planning skills, and is quick to act. She can fly, has super eyesight, and when she flaps her powerful wings, the bad guys are sent airborne." Sounds about right!
Blogger Beth has been making square inch art pieces out of paper. They are very colorful and delightful.

She says, “I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my squares. Maybe a quilt-like thing.

"Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “Joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.” Maybe I'll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo-size but if we all tried to just make one square inch of Joy a day that would be enough.”

Amen, Reverend Beth, amen!

I have too many unfinished projects to get involved with a fabric version of these 1 inch squares (called "inchies"), but there are many examples of them on the internet if you do a google search. For instance: 

Saturday, 20 October 2018

On the one hand...

I am sitting in the dining room, sipping my coffee, and looking out at beauty. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky, the blueberry bush and the dogwood are clad in red leaves, late blooming flowers add their splashes of colour. A walk in the woods stuns all the senses -- just heavenly! All is well with the world.

But honestly? Not really. All is not well in the world. The news I read is full of awful stories, stories that horrify me and make me worry about the future. We are having an election here in the valley, and people are lined up against each other on issues, neighbours and friends on different sides of the table. Closer to home, people I love are struggling with difficult personal issues and I feel helpless.

And the truth is, I'm having a few struggles myself. This carpal tunnel hand thing is bothering me way more than it should. After all, it's just a hand, not a brain tumor, not dementia, not a stroke. Once the hand surgeon has his way with me in a few weeks, I have it on good authority from many people who have gone through this themselves, that this episode will soon just be a bad memory. I'll be able to return to my studio and have the freedom to be creative. This lethargy I feel right now will be banished.

If I am honest with myself – honesty not always being an easy thing -- I am disappointed in myself. Where’s that victorious upbeat mindset that will overcome all obstacles, that positive thinking vibe I’m always wishing other people would adopt?

I'd like my blog to be about the sunshine, the blue skies, beautiful colors in nature, but the words just aren't coming.

I get this far, then reread what I have written. Where on earth are you going with this whining, I ask myself. Sigh. There’s another blog post for the recycle bin, the second one this week. I'm not getting anything right. I’m stuck like a hamster in a revolving wheel, going nowhere fast.

Then I pick up my current reading, a book by Parker Palmer, called “On the Brink of Everything,” subtitled Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.

Right up my alley and just what I need... NOT. In my current mood I'd rather be reading a comic book, something that makes me laugh. But Palmer, a writer I love, has a lot of wisdom to share, and once again, he points me in the right direction. Palmer has had his ups and downs, and he shares them honestly in all his writing. He has gone through several clinical depressions, and for every book he's written, there are thousands of pages on the cutting room floor, and thousands of hours of being stuck. A pacifist Quaker by spiritual persuasion, he finds himself angry and vindictive at times. One of the chapters in this book is called “What's an Angry Quaker to Do?” How do you deal  with these not-so-acceptable feelings?

With his help, I realize that my sense of the beauty and wellness in this world is not incompatible with the feelings of sadness and helplessness. We cannot always be looking to feel good, if that means that we deny our sadness. I believe more and more as I grow older that we do not live in a this-or-that, black-or-white, left-or-right world. Instead, we live in a world that is characterized by “and also.” Joy, and also sadness. Faith and also hope. An uplifting sense of God's nearness, and also at times a despairing sense God's absence. We have a light side AND also a shadow side. When we do not acknowledge and accept this, we are constantly fighting what we cannot change. So much energy that could be used in good ways is squandered in useless battles.

On the one hand... in my case, the good left hand... there's everything we strive for and hope for, that give joy. On the other hand... in my case, the painful right hand... there's everything difficult and frustrating and sad. Accepting this is how we find our way to peace. It is in the darkness that we see the light.

Howard Thurman, author, educator, and civil rights leader, says it this way: “All around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.Such is the growing edge! This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child—life’s most dramatic answer to death—this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”

The fact of the matter is, we go through life with both hands working together. As I’ve learned in the last few months, one doesn’t work nearly as well without the other. Finding the place where you can continue to grow, thrive and bless the world with your gifts depends on saying yes to it all, the whole ball of wax.

And thank God, we find other hands to hold, other hands to support us. We're standing together, as Parker Palmer says, "...on the brink of everything."

Palmer and musician Carrie Newcomer are working together this year in a series of retreats and talks. Find out more at  And listen to this inspiring song inspired by the book at

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Life on the Left

These days, in effect, I've lost half of my digits. The carpal tunnel problem has not gone away, and so my right hand is encased in a rigid splint. This means that I am finding out how to look at life from the left. And I'm not talking politically!

I have learned, that you can do a Sudoku with your left hand. I have learned that you can chop veggies -- slowly it's true – with your left hand. You can use your left hand to turn the car key if you stick your hand through the steering wheel. You can even brush your teeth with your left hand. And I am “writing” this blog with voice recognition software!

This whole experience has left me feeling connected to my grandfather.

What can I say about my grandfather? He was a school teacher and a principal, an elder in his church, a father of 10. But those are just statistics and facts.

I am the oldest grandchild and so perhaps I should have had the most memories of him. But because my parents immigrated to Canada when I was only a year old, I didn't get to meet him till my grandparents came to Canada to visit when I was in 9th grade, in 1962. However, with every birthday, I would get a letter, or at least a few lines of a letter, wishing me God's blessings. He was a deeply faith-filled man, and he shared this with all of his grandchildren, not only in words but also in deeds.

When I was born, my grandmother wanted to be known as Oma, a less formal name than the formal Grootmoeder. Not so my grandfather, who was known to all his grandchildren as Grootvader. It seemed to suit his dignified and quietly-authoritative demeanor. In the same way, he was known around town as “de Meester” – the master.

When Grootvader and Oma came to Canada for a visit in 1962, it was a big event. Grootvader had to get used to a different lifestyle. Life in Canada was much less formal, more casual. I really do wonder what he wrote in his journal about the way his children and grandchildren were living in this rather rugged country.

 One hobby my grandfather had was to make sketches of places where he visited. He had just retired, and was looking forward to spending more time with his hobby. He took a kitchen chair across the road and did a drawing of our home on Russell Street. I was in awe of his skills.

We were eager to show him everything Canada had to offer, so we decided to organize a family picnic at Pinehurst Lake. It was pretty exciting for all of us! Camp stoves to fry up hamburgers, with relish, ketchup and mustard, oh wow! Potato salad! And carrot and celery sticks... Grootvader took one bite of the celery and tossed it over his shoulder. He wasn't going to eat any rabbit food. There were games too. There was a race between two men to see who could diaper a baby doll the quickest. In spite of having 10 children, Grootvader had never once changed a diaper! It was quite the laugh to see him standing the baby on its head while he gamely tried to pin a diaper on it!

We decided to show him camping Canadian Style. Grootvader had always enjoyed camping on the  island of Vlieland with his large family. Mom often talked about these summer vacations, but really the vacation was for Grootvader and not so much for anybody else! Can you imagine bundling up enough provisions, bedding, clothing, tent etc for a large and growing family? Mom said that it was quite an undertaking for Oma and the oldest children. Meanwhile, as soon as he arrived,  Grootvader took his sketching stool and equipment and headed out to engage in his favorite activity.

 My uncle  rented a “trailer.” The trailer was not much more than an aluminum box on wheels. The back wall lifted up and was propped up on sticks to create an awning when we were set up. Inside were double bunk beds. My sister, my cousin and I slept on the top bunk. My grandfather and grandmother slept on the bottom bunk. Of course the back wall came down at night, so that the mosquitoes wouldn't infest our stifling sleeping quarters. My aunt and uncle slept in a tent. Grootvader was not so excited about the sleeping arrangements. He was sure that in the middle of the night that top bunk would fall down on top of him, so he jury-rigged posts to hold the bunk in place. My uncle Rudolph made sure we visited the best fishing holes in Northern Ontario, some of which were pretty remote and off the beaten path. That was not a big problem for my grandfather, he would get out his little stool and his sketch pads and draw what he saw. I'm not sure what my aunt and my grandmother thought about roughing it in the bush.

In 1969, my sister and I made a trip to Holland to meet many aunts and uncles, cousins, my grandfather on my dad's side, and of course Grootvader and Oma.  Grootvader was very excited about us coming, and although we were not due to arrive until after lunch he spent most of the morning sitting on the wall in front of the house, looking out for the car that would bring his precious grandchildren to him.

During that trip, he took us to the cemetery where his first wife and his son were buried. He told us about these events, and expressed his deep faith that he would see them again.

Now you may wonder why my carpal tunnel syndrome makes me feel closer to my grandfather. In 1972, my grandfather had a stroke. It paralyzed his right side, the side he used to do his writing and his sketching. These were such important activities in his life. As often happens after a stroke.,Grootvader  went through a time of depression, wondering what good his life was now. Then one day, a man in the next bed at the hospital asked him if there was anything he could do to help him. So father asked him to read a passage from the Bible. His roommate replied that he never read the Bible himself, but sure, he would read him a passage. At that moment, Grootvader realized that he could still have an impact on other people. He went to rehab, and learned how to use his left hand to type and to create art. Until he died, he sent many letters to his children and grandchildren, and he also made a piece of art for each of them. The piece of art which I have hanging on my wall is a reminder of him.  Setbacks and obstacles are not optional in our lives. Everyone encounters them. But how you deal with them is your choice.

As I laboriously print my numbers in the Sudoku grid, I think about the phrase common in Buddhism called "beginner's mind." According to the Wikipedia, beginner's mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. With a beginner's mind, almost anything is possible. When Grootvader adapted to our life in Canada, and when he  learned how to type and draw with his left hand, he had to adopt a beginner's mind. He had to start all over again. And he did.

It's Thanksgiving weekend, and I am grateful for having role models in my life and in my family that are examples for all of us.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Fun? Not So Much

It’s been my habit to work on a self-portrait each year around the time of my birthday. A few blogs ago, I showed you a screen printed crow who would serve as my model for my self-portrait this year.

I liked this piece of art because it showed a quiet crow, contemplative and tranquil. It’s almost as though she is saying, “Lots to squawk about, but that’s not my job right now. Time to listen.” Maybe she’s telling me, “Just BE!”

Here’s how my tranquil crow, not quite finished, is turning out:

She is basking in the beauty around her, counting her blessings, of which there are many. She’s taking a rest, and learning to “just be”.

But that is easier said than done, Already, she’s probably dreaming about something else she’d like to be doing next. And that’s where the problem lies right now:

I’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome in my right wrist. It started with tingling and numbness in my fingers, which has graduated to a burning pain at unexpected moments in the day and many more moments at night. It’s been getting worse over the last few weeks, to the point where doing the two things I love most, writing and creating art, are only exacerbating the problem.

So this is what “just being” is all about?

And yes, I’ve consulted with lots of medical folks, with more to come. The most common advice is to give the wrist a rest. Just let it “be.” How ironic!

I am very aware that carpal tunnel syndrome is a very tiny fish in the sea of sickness and misery where other diseases swim. But it is my little fish, and right now, to me, it feels big.

I never imagined that “just being” would amount to a new lifestyle.  No chopping vegetables. No gardening. No doing the dozens of things we do thoughtlessly with our leading hand: opening the car door, turning a key, reaching for the coffee pot. We depend on our hands for so much. The resident sweetie has been doing double duty. Apparently I have some big lessons left to learn that “just being” will have to teach me.

I am going to buy some voice recognition software for my computer in the hopes that I will be able to write that way. But until that happens, the crow is going to be sitting in silence.

Before I sign off for a while, however, I wanted to share something. This summer I read a book that challenged and inspired me, Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone was just what I needed to help me move on in my journey, and is helping me now as I adjust to this current state of affairs.

Whenever we are confronted with difficulties, when we feel useless and are looking for a way out, when we are looking for a new path to walk, the first step out into this new reality, says Macy, begins with practicing gratitude.

The practice of gratitude promotes a sense of well-being and trains our minds to notice the upside of things. It opens our eyes to the interconnectedness of all things, and helps us to gain a perspective on our place in the universe. As we list the things for which we are grateful, we develop a more positive view of life.

I've discovered that this week on a date day with Al.

We hiked together in sunshine, watched people enjoying life together, admired beautiful Arbutus trees leaning out over the water, ate great food  -- so much to be thankful for. It opened my eyes again to the good things and moved the focus off myself. 

Yes there's pain and frustration -- in your life as well as mine. We will acknowledge that, but we do so coming from a place of gratitude for all that we do have and experience, and that makes all the difference.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Oma's Still on a Learning Curve

It’s been more than 2 months since I last blogged. Several times I tried to write something, but the crow was definitely not cooperating. The results weren’t what I wanted to say, so they’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

Last week, however, the crow flapped her wings and squawked. I knew I had to get something off my chest.

Here’s the backstory:

We had a wonderful summer, but quite busy. We had our annual campout by the sea, and the family was together again for most of a week.

On one evening, the kids and grandkids hosted a belated birthday party for family and friends, which was delightful.

And at the end of that special week, we were thrilled to welcome a new grandchild, Mitchell Fen, into our family. Seven granchildren...such blessings.

And this is the rest of the story:

For each of the other grandchildren, even for Farrah Hope who lives in heaven, I had made a quilt.

Here's the first baby quilt I made for our oldest grandchild, Karina. She's 14 now, and still loves to cuddle with it.

Now it was time to make one for Mitchell.

If you’ve followed my posts, you know that I have almost entirely given up traditional quilt-making in favour making fibre art.. A beautiful homemade bed quilt is a thing of beauty, involving a lot of planning and precision. Fibre art is a horse of a different colour. I go with the flow and let it happen. I love it! So making a traditional baby quilt is a stretch for me.

Mitchell’s mom helped me pick out the colours, but the rest was up to me. I paged through books and magazines, looking for a design that appealed to me, and that would tell Mitchell how much his Oma loves him. After all, a quilt is a blanket of love. I found something I liked, but the artist in me said, “Yes, but, what if you changed this part of it, and added something here, and ...” I could see this quilt in my head. I was off and runnnng.

You know where this is going, don’t you? This quilt was heading for a train wreck. There was so much unsewing and redoing and tearing out and starting over that at one point I confided to the resident sweetie, “I wonder if I could just ask my quilty friends if anyone has a finished baby quilt I could buy and give to Mitchell.” He frowned. Not a good idea. I confided my frustrations to a few people – nothing like a little venting to let out the steam.

After the vent, on to plan B: grit my teeth and get on with it. Two days before Mitchell’s baby shower, I had most of the quilt top put together. There was supposed to be a train appliqued to the top, so I pinned on a paper facsimile, folded it all into tissue paper, and stuck it in a bag. It wasn’t done, but it was close enough to see what it would become. End of story?

Nope. All that lamenting and venting? It came back to bite me in the butt. When Steve and Andrea were about to open my gift, someone who’d heard my whining said brightly, “Oh, do tell them the story of this quilt, and how hard it was to make.” Suddenly, the room quieted – all 31 folks, even the half dozen kids – after all, everyone likes a story.

There were so many other takes on the story of making this quilt, but I didn’t tell those stories. Instead, I stumbled through most of what you’ve just read, and it wasn’t pretty. I was very thankful that Mitchell was sleeping sweetly and didn’t have to hear my whiny self complaining about making a quilt for him.

And that’s why the crow has been squawking this week. I need to make it right, so here’s the story I wish I’d told, and which his mom and dad can read to him when he is older:

Once there was an Oma who loved her little boy very much, so she wanted to make him a blanket that he could sleep under and carry around with him, a blanket of love.

Oma started right in. She had lots of good ideas, and she had a dream about what the quilt would look like. It would have a train on it, and some railroad tracks. She imagined how her boy could play with his toy train on the quilt.

She worked hard, but sometimes she made some big mistakes. She had to pull out the stitches and start over again. That was not fun. But she remembered who she was doing it for. She kept thinking about how nice it would be when it was all done. He could cuddle under the quilt while his daddy read him the story of the Little Engine that Could out of the same book that his daddy had read to him many years ago.

Oma kept working at it, even when she was tired and cranky (which does happen, even to Omas). But she kept working through the hard part, remembering the story of the Little Engine that could.. She told herself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...” And she did!

Mitchell, my dear little fellow, when you cuddle under this blanket, may you feel the love that your oma stitched into it. May it keep you warm and happy. And may you know that even when something is hard to do, if you love someone you will keep trying. And you will succeed.

Oh, and one other thing to  remember:  whining will come back and bite you in the butt...

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Being in a Doing World

In my last blog, I wrote how my commitments seem to be changing, but I don’t know what direction to take. “Maybe the crow is telling me, just BE!” I commented, and concluded the blog with “[this is] a time of waiting and listening as I look forward to what may come. And in the meantime, just BE!” I also wrote that this would not be easy for me.

I was right. It’s not going so well. I awoke on Monday morning, the first week of being 70, feeling antsy and asking myself, “Ummm, now what? How do I just be?”

Do I sit in a yoga pose meditating day after day, humming  OMMMMM?

Or maybe I should just eat, drink and be merry, paint my toenails and watch the shopping channel, living in the moment and doing whatever pleases me. Does “just being” mean I can now ignore what is happening in the world around me? That seems so airy-fairy, so heavenly bound you’re no earthly good to anyone, least of all yourself. And boring, too.

My inclination, and probably yours too, is “to do”: to set goals for ourselves which we hope to accomplish. I have an idea for a goal: to get involved in a year-long art project to celebrate 70 (but the concrete plans are not gelling at all.) Our culture has long placed great value on the doers, the movers and the shakers, the folks who make the cover of Time Magazine’s person of the year. It does not have a lot of use for contemplatives, or those who don’t produce, or those who are dithering around wondering where to start, like me. They’re slackers, persons of no great worth.

Except that there’s a change in the air. Studies point out that constantly doing can be a source of great stress, and diseases related to stress are on the rise. “You can do it all,” but women who bought the message found that it came at great cost. Folks who climbed the corporate ladder came to realize there was nothing at the top. The glitter of the busy life, with all its material rewards, may be losing its shine.

And so, there’s a lot of noise these days about the benefits of “being.” Websites, books, and conferences that have the word “mindfulness” in the title are promoting the idea of just being rather than always doing.

“Being present in the moment” is the mantra of this movement. Mindfulness, the dictionary tells us, is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”

Oh, really? Am I the only one who thinks this is impossible? Is there something I am missing?

And so I turn to my trusty friend Google once again, to learn more. I find a description and an explanation that is worth noodling on at

First of all, I learn that you can “BE” and DO at the same time. Phew! If I didn’t “do”, there would be no meals on the table, no clean laundry to put away, no lovely gardens to enjoy. I would not be able to make play dates with the grandkids or teach Sunday School or bring a covered dish to the potluck supper. If I did not “do” I would not be able to exercise the gifts the Creator has given me, which in my case is communicating through words and fibre art.

Oh, good! It's okay to be me!
 We “do” to maintain our lives and to be absorbed in the things that bring us pleasure. To do can bring us much joy.

I spent time this week doing work in the garden. It was good!

The problem with “doing” is when it takes over our lives. Doing is not always successful, and we can overfill our lives with tasks. Even in our own eyes, we can become failures, if we set goals for ourselves and then feel frustrated when we can’t meet them. Instead of living our lives with contentment, we are just striving all the time, running on the “doing” hamster wheel, trying to catch up with where we ought to be. The “ought-tos” turn us into driven-doers. The present moment is something we use just to get ahead. And that prevents us from “just being.”

Just being can also bring us great joy. When we wake up to the wonder of just being in this world – well, wow! The key, it seems to me, is to pay attention. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness; often, we do our tasks mindlessly, thinking ahead to the next “to do” on the list. But if we work at our tasks and pay attention, we become aware that we are part of a bigger picture. Our hearts open to gratitude; we begin to understand that we are tiny sparks in the universe creating our own light just where we are, but linked to all the other sparks, just where they are. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, we appreciate where we are, right now, at this moment.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, more or less, as I understand it. True confession time: I’ve got a long way to go on this journey, since at heart I tend to drive myself. But I have had moments in my life when I am stopped in my tracks by an awareness of this magnificent universe in which I dwell, by the amazing gifts with which I am blessed. That is “just being.” I  have had times when I have been cranky and ornery about things I cannot control, when, by grace, I am suddenly aware of my teensy place in the grand scheme of things, and I can let it all go and leave it in the Creator’s hands. That is “just being.” There are moments beyond time, when I am immersed in something beyond myself as I create art, or write, or work in the garden, or read a good book, or hold a baby’s hand, or am surrounded by my dearly beloveds, or just sit by a tree and be still. That is “just being.” I think that’s it, anyway. As I said, I have a ways to go!

I still do not know the answer to my Monday morning question: “Now what?” So again, this week, this is what I will do: just be.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Book of Life

I believe every life is a story. It is a bit like a book, with each chapter a story within the story, woven together with all the other chapters in the book.

If I were to write an index for my personal story book, in chapter one I’d find a story about my early childhood. I might call that chapter Love and Discovery. Skipping a few chapters, I might come to the chapter called Hard Times; that’s the story of my teen years, a story of confusion and loneliness, punctuated with flashes of light. And the chapter on becoming a mother for the first time might be titled Oh Wow! and would read like a confusing tale of frustration, delight, anxiety and joy.

There’s one chapter, not a very long one, that’s titled Searching for God Knows What. It comes right after the one titled Grazing in a Safe but Boring Pasture. I really was looking for some big thing, my next calling, to be revealed, and I was counting on my Creator to reveal it to me.

And boy, did he/she ever deliver! I started my first blog with part of that story (June 30, 2013). It goes like this:

“Once upon a time, there was a woman of a certain age who wondered what she would do with the rest of her life. The call to her career was fading, and nothing was replacing it.

So, on a rainy camping holiday on the West coast, she set out on vision quest, deliberately keeping her heart and mind open. She journaled, she prayed, she read, she listened, she paid attention to her dreams, always hoping to catch a glimpse of the “big thing” that would grab hold of her and guide her into a fulfilling future.”

One of the things that happened on that trip was a visit to the Yaquina Bay Art Gallery in Newport, Oregon. That’s when I saw her: the mermaid with the red hat and big purple butt, her tail swinging out over the ocean.

Watercolour by Cheryl Ruehl

Her back is lumpy with a bit of extra padding and a slight roll around her waist. She is facing away, looking into the distance to see what might be coming next over the horizon. “Oh yes,” she whispers. “You know me!” She continues, "Something is out there for you. I know it. It will come.” I had to have her. So for $12, I got a steal of a deal: a mermaid who sat on a shelf in my studio, becoming my muse, perhaps even my guardian angel, a promise for my future.

More things happened on that trip. There was a hazy glimpse of what the future would look like: I would be writing and quilting about the lives of women of “a certain age”. How I could possibly do that wasn’t at all clear – what platform did I have to speak from, after all? An empty-nest mother and a free-lance writer whose specialty was writing Sunday School Curriculum? (“Do people actually get paid to do that?” asked an incredulous man. Yes, if you’re lucky! But the contracts were drying up.)

Nevertheless, I trusted the glimpse. It accompanied me through all kinds of adventures as we moved to the beautiful Comox Valley to begin a new life. Uprooting and getting repotted into a bigger container can sometimes stimulate new growth, and that’s what happened to me. I grew spiritually, and I learned about fibre art, both developments I would need before I could make my vision come true when Crow Day One was born.

And so it happens that for the past five years, I’ve been living in the chapter titled Looking out from the Crow’s Nest. That chapter started in a breathless voice of wonder: "Can this actually be happening to me? I feel as though I’m doing something that I’ve been waiting all my life to do." My alter ego, the crow, had been nudging me to squawk, and squawk I did.

I squawked through more than 180 posts, and it was a wonderful ride. As #45 would say, “Yuge! It was yuge! The best!”

Lately, though, I’ve noticed something. The crow is so much quieter. It’s almost as though she is saying, “Lots to squawk about, but that’s not your job right now. Time to listen.” And that message seems to be affirmed by the piece of art I came across this spring when once again we visited the same Yaquina Bay Art Gallery in Newport Oregon where my journey started.

silkscreen by Jane Hodgkins

There she is: another muse. She’s sitting quietly looking over her shoulder at me. She’s more of a suggestion of a crow than an in-your-face feathered squawker. What is she waiting for – another major revelation, another vision, another calling to the next big thing? Or maybe not. Maybe she’s telling me, Just BE!

Of course, I bought this crow, and I’m using her as inspiration for my self-portrait at 70. I begin by  thread sketching her on soluble background.

And what about a background? I love the reds and oranges, colours that symbolize creativity to me ...

but something tells me that blue hues may be appropriate for this time in my life: a time of waiting and listening as I look forward to what may come. And in the meantime, just BE!

 This is not going to be an easy thing for me, I must say. But I will trust that it is going to be good.

Who knows what that next chapter will be titled?

PS: I’ll still continue to blog when the crow within squirms and squawks. I’ll still continue to create art which I’d like to share with you. And I have a good idea for a project that will take up most of the coming year. It will all be revealed, bit by bit, in the next chapter, the Lord willing.